Nothing unique—same number of arms and legs, no horns, no claws. The red-haired creature paused and sniffed the air. The demon didn’t recognize this one, but what else was new? They all looked alike to him. Cursing silently, he held perfectly still, becoming one with the shadows as the man followed his nose, obviously searching for the source of the sulfuric scent.
He paused in front of the portal leading to Sedona, the one the demon had just come through. Then he sniffed the air again and scowled. A moment later, he drew his sword, pointed the blade at the gateway, and gave a command.
Blue flame shimmered along the faceted surface and then leapt from the point of the blade. Within seconds, rock began to glow and melt down the walls of the cavern. After a few minutes, the large portal to Sedona was sealed shut entirely.
But why? The man had saved the demon from having to do it himself, but for what reason had the Lemurian chosen to seal this one? Curious, the demon hovered against the ceiling and watched while the Lemurian marched back across the cavern, gave a final glance toward the Lemurian portal and then slipped through the gateway leading to the slopes of Mount Shasta.
No point in leaving that one open. The demon floated down along the wall and focused on closing the portal to Lemuria. He noticed a slight hesitation as he sent a blast of power toward the swirling gateway. He was going to need to replenish his energy soon—closing portals drew more of it than he’d realized.
But there was plenty to finish the job, and within a few moments, that entire dimension was now cut off from access to this one. Bell Rock was closed, Shasta was closed, the small access point from the other vortex, closed.
This should successfully lock at least the two he needed in the tiny town of Evergreen: that curly-haired beast to use as bait, and the ex-demon who wouldn’t be able to ignore her cries of pain, her dire need for a timely rescue.
He did love the way it felt when a plan started coming together. He followed the red-haired Lemurian, crossing through the portal into Earth’s dimension, coasting along behind as just one more shadow amid other shadows.
The wind was perfect, sweeping up the mountain. It would keep the scent of sulfur—the sense of demonkind—away from the Lemurian. Everything was in his favor. He could not fail.
He was close—so very close to success.
Full ownership of a fully functional perfect demonform, his for all eternity, as ruler over all worlds in all dimensions. It just didn’t get any better.
The sun was beginning to set by the time Taron found the rocky trail leading down the snow-covered side of the mountain. It was an unusual yet exhilarating feeling, to be walking in Earth’s dimension with a sense of purpose, the knowledge he was here on a mission.
Of course, it would help if he knew more about the mission, but his sword had been characteristically silent since that one burst of instructions.
He should have expected no less.
His sandal slipped on an icy patch. “Nine hells and then some!” Taron managed to keep his balance, but he watched carefully where he placed his feet. This frozen trail was not designed for sandals, and he wasn’t used to walking on uneven ground, not to mention ice.
Nothing here was familiar at all. Even his clothing felt foreign, and he wondered if he would ever become accustomed to the chafe and pull of denim trousers and the tight stretch of a fitted shirt, rather than his loose and flowing Lemurian robes. Even the silly pants and tunic had been more comfortable than these strange clothes, but at least he wouldn’t stand out.
He hoped Alton wouldn’t mind that he’d borrowed a pair of his faded blue jeans and a red flannel shirt in order to better blend in with humans. He’d worn his own shoes, a sturdy pair of work sandals, though he wondered now if that wasn’t a mistake.
He thought of the boots he’d seen in Alton’s room and wished he’d at least tried them on. His feet were freezing. He’d definitely need warmer shoes if he spent much time here.
His sword rested in its scabbard across his back, hidden by a glamour in case he came across any humans on his way down the mountain. He doubted that would happen—it seemed wild and isolated here on the snowy mountainside, and not the sort of place where one would expect to encounter any others.
He had a vague idea where Evergreen was from conversations with Alton, but he wasn’t entirely certain, so he set out a call for his friend, leaving the contact open to find any others who might be listening.
Hey, Taron. It’s Darius. What are you doing here?
Darius? I’m trying to reach Alton. Where is he? He contacted me and said he’s fighting a new demon invasion. I’m here to help.
No idea. I haven’t seen him or Ginny. Eddy or Dax, either, for that matter. There’ve been no signs of demons here for days. In fact, Mari and I are taking off in a few minutes to spend a couple of nights on the coast. She’s going to show me the ocean!
That’s great, Darius. Really.
But if there were no demons here, why in the hell had he been sent to Evergreen? That made no sense at all, though he was pleased for Darius. He had been born after the great move, after the original continent of Lemuria sank beneath the sea in a horrible cataclysm that they had only recently learned was caused by demonkind. Until he’d come to Evergreen, Darius had never seen the sun, never felt the earth beneath his feet.
And tonight Darius would see the ocean ... Taron stared at the wide-open spaces around him. So, Darius would see the ocean, but that didn’t solve Taron’s problem. Where in the name of all the gods was Alton? He’d specifically told Taron he was headed to this dimension to fight demons. So why wasn’t he answering?
Taron reached out for Darius once again.
I need to find where Eddy Marks lives.
No problem. Tell me where you are, and I’ll direct you to her father’s home.
The instructions seemed simple enough. Eddy’s father would know where to find his daughter and her lover, and they in turn would know how to find Alton ... but why wasn’t Alton answering? He should be close enough and well within contact range.
But then Taron gazed again at the huge sky overhead, at the shadows of mountains in the distance, and realized this dimension was much larger than he’d remembered.
A man could be well away from telepathic range and yet still within the same dimension. Amazing.
At least the portal to Sedona was closed. That small chamber within the vortex had been thick with the stench of demonkind, most likely the demons Isra saw the demon king sending that way just before the invasion of Lemuria. Well, the bastards were stuck there, now. At least they couldn’t come back through the portal and attack anyone in Evergreen or Lemuria.
Alton had described Sedona as a beautiful but desolate place. It had been totally uninhabited the last time Taron had been there, when Mount Shasta had erupted many hundreds of years ago and all of Lemuria had relocated until things supposedly had settled down.
Of course, discovering that it had all been a ploy by the demon-possessed Council of Nine to further erode the well-being of Lemurian citizens was something Taron was still coming to terms over. So many lies—his entire life had been lived within a framework of lies.
That was over and done with. There was no point in worrying about all the crap they couldn’t change, and if he’d just locked a bunch of demons on the wrong side of a portal and left them stuck in the desert, so be it. Better the mostly uninhabited community of Sedona than Evergreen as a good place to lose a few demons.
Taron continued on in the gathering dusk, following a narrow trail down the mountain that finally dropped below the snow line. It was just as Darius had described, and hopefully, now that he was out of the snow, his feet would thaw out. He’d never felt such cold before. His feet were so cold, it was difficult to keep from stumbling.
Then he looked up, and the colors stretching across the immense horizon took his mind entirely off his frozen toes. The sky was an ever-changing canvas of color—hues unimaginable to one who had spent most of his life in an underground world. He felt inexplicably sad, watching the shift from day into night. All of this lost, because of demonkind.
Generations of people who had never experienced a sunrise or sunset, who had never smelled the clean, fresh scent of pine and cedar, who didn’t know what it felt like to hike along a mountain trail while the sky overhead put on a slowly evolving show of unbelievable color.
Maybe someday they’d have the freedom to walk this world openly again, but that wouldn’t happen until the demon threat had been neutralized. And that was exactly why he was here.
Why his crystal sword had sent him to Evergreen in northern California.
He ran his hand over the silver pommel and wondered when his weapon would speak to him again. If it ever
speak again. Taron quickly descended the mountain, carefully sticking to the trail until it ran into a well-traveled road. Lights twinkled in the distance and lit up what appeared to be a small community seat lower on the mountain’s flank. He sat his course for what had to be the town of Evergreen.
His heart rate picked up with each step that took him closer to town. He’d never been this far before, nor spent this much time in Earth’s dimension. Not since his childhood on the island continent of Lemuria. He’d stepped out of the vortex and experienced Earth a time or two, but he’d never strayed far from the portal.
This time, screw the rules. He was following his sword’s directive, and a sentient sword definitely trumped any law as far as he could tell. Besides, with Artigos the Just now in control of Lemuria, the rules were beginning to change.
So much so, that no one really seemed to know what the rules were anymore. Did it matter?
Yes. It does.
He was heading to Evergreen, he was Taron of Libernus, and after many thousands of years by Earth’s calendar, his sword had finally spoken to him.
Had spoken and told him to get his butt in gear and hightail it to Evergreen because the final battle drew nigh.
He paused, midstep.
Final battle? Nine hells!
He’d been so excited to hear his sword’s voice at last, he hadn’t really considered the portent of the message.
Just whose final battle was coming?
The battle against demonkind?
Or was it his own final battle?
“Well, crap, as Alton’s Ginny would say.” Taron gazed overhead at the dark blue sky, staring, almost mesmerized, at the stars beginning to flicker in the heavens as day faded into night. He couldn’t stop grinning at the absurdity of it all.
A lifetime spent waiting, but for what?
For the chance to die in a battle against demonkind? Not if he could help it. Shrugging off the frisson of fear that tickled along his spine, Taron set his steps once more toward the lights in the distance. So be it. His sword had spoken and he was nothing, if not a man who followed orders.
With that thought planted firmly in mind, he picked up his pace and followed the path toward his own, personal destiny.
And maybe, just maybe—if he lived long enough—he’d even discover his gods-be-damned sword’s name.
Bumper slept soundly beneath the big square table where a single N-scale steam engine
chug, chug, chugged
along the track, circling the perfect replica of Mount Shasta that was the centerpiece of Ed Marks’s model train layout. Willow, as usual, was awake inside the snoozing beast, and she knew what an N-scale train was because Ed had patiently explained it to her.
Now Eddy’s father sat on one of the high stools pushed up close to the layout, puttering, as he called it. He could do this for hours, fiddling with the various engines and cars, the toy people and tiny buildings that filled the huge workshop behind his house.
Inside the dog’s brain, Willow paced endlessly.
Yeah, it beat being dead, but life inside Bumper was no picnic for a busy will-o’-the-wisp with places to go, people to see, and things to do.
Right now she should be in Sedona, fighting demons with Dax and Eddy. They were her responsibility, but no, Bumper wanted to be here with Ed, sleeping under the table like ... like a
for crying out loud!
I am a dog, Willow. Relax. It’s almost dinnertime. I wonder what Ed will have for us tonight?
Kibble, Bumper. We get kibble every night. Go back to sleep.
Bumper sighed, content for the moment. Her eyes closed, her curly blond tail thumped once ... and Willow thought seriously about screaming.
A few moments later, she sensed Bumper’s nose twitching. Probably thought she smelled food. No ... it was something else. Willow went on alert as, groaning, Bumper rolled to her feet and stared at the door.
Ed continued futzing around with his model trains. Bumper trotted toward the door. Her tail was wagging, though Willow had no sense at all who or what might be out there.
Couldn’t be a demon. Bumper hated demons, and if the dog didn’t sense them, there weren’t any nearby. But someone was coming. Through Bumper’s sensitive ears, she heard the soft slap of footsteps. Sandals, not boots or running shoes. The sound was distinctive enough that even a will-o’-the-wisp could tell the difference. Whoever it was, he or she was walking around the back of the house toward the workshop.
Someone taking long, sure strides. At least it didn’t sound like anyone was sneaking up on them. That was a good thing, right?
Bumper yipped. Her tail started going ninety miles an hour. Ed raised his head.
Bumper? Who is it?
A friend, a friend, a friend!
Well, that’s not a lot of help. What friend?
Bumper ignored her. She was much too busy bouncing around to answer Willow. Too busy showing Ed what a great watchdog she was. Fickle beast.
“Something out there, girl?” Ed set down the caboose he was working on, got up and headed toward the door. Just as he reached for the handle, someone knocked.
“Wonder who that is?” Ed flashed a quick glance at Bumper and turned the handle. “Demons don’t knock,” he said, pulling the door open.
The tall Lemurian standing in the doorway would have knocked the breath out of Willow if she’d had any of her own to knock out.
Taron? What are you doing here?
He sent a quick grin toward Bumper, but he nodded at Ed. “I’m Alton’s friend, Taron of Libernus. I’ve heard of you, Ed Marks.”
“And I’ve heard of you, Taron.” Smiling in welcome, Ed stepped back. “Come in. Please, come in. What are you doing here in Evergreen?”
Taron was so tall he had to duck his head to walk through the door. He smiled at Ed, but Willow sensed his attention on Bumper. She wondered if he was interested in the dog or in her, and then she was glad she didn’t have a body because she’d be crying about now.
She might have been created by the Edenites to help Dax, but the tall Lemurian with the scarlet braids had caught her attention from the very first moment she saw him in that Lemurian prison cell.
Her crush had been hopeless even then. Now, trapped within Bumper’s body, it was nothing more than a terribly sick joke.
Taron glanced in her direction once more. Then he looked away and spoke to Ed. “I’m here because my sword sent me to Evergreen with warnings of a final battle. I fully expected to find Eddy and the others here.”
Ed shook his head as he offered Taron a seat on one of the tall stools lined up next to the railroad display. “You won’t find them here. I got a quick call from Eddy just a few minutes ago. They’re all down in Sedona, chasing after a huge demon invasion. Ginny’s cousin called, scared half to death, and told them demons were taking over animals again, and ...”
“Sedona? They’re in Sedona? That can’t be.” Taron flopped down on the stool and shook his head, obviously upset about something. “Nine hells. What have I done? I thought only demons were using the portal. I had no idea Dax and Eddy had gone to Sedona.” He let out a huge, frustrated sigh. “I sealed the portal before I hiked down the mountain. It will take hours to open it, but I’m here because my sword told me the battle would be in Evergreen, that I had to be here. How will they get back?”
Ed placed a comforting hand on Taron’s shoulder. “They’ll be fine. There’s another gateway that leads directly to the Council of Nine’s main office. They’ll just use that one and then come back through another portal to Shasta. Let’s go on in the house and I can call. They need to know about your sword’s warning, too. We’ll just let them know what’s happened, and ...”
Bumper leapt to her feet, snarling and growling. Willow felt the dog’s hackles go up and pictured all that blond, curly hair standing on end. Bumper’s entire body quivered. She stared at the door, glanced at Taron and Ed and then concentrated once again on the door. Her growl rumbled low in her chest.
Bumper! What is it?
Bumper snarled and barked, too agitated even to tell Willow what had her so upset.
Willow cast out her thoughts, but she couldn’t sense anything out of place. Bumper’s demon radar was a lot better than hers, though, and the dog obviously sensed something she didn’t like.
Taron leapt to his feet, drew his sword, and spun about, going from frantic Lemurian to powerful warrior in a heartbeat.
He moved closer to the dog, all lethal grace and surging muscle, looking so unbelievably sexy that Willow almost forgot why he’d suddenly gone into warrior mode.
As much as she hated the loss of self when she did this, she synced her thoughts to Bumper’s, drawing herself deep within the dog’s mind. Immediately she sensed demonkind, outside the workshop and moving closer.
She shot a warning to Taron.
I thought so, Willow, and not just any demon. I think I recognize the stench. It’s the demon king.
He grasped his sword in both hands and went into a crouch.
A sense of pressure, of growing evil, swept through the workshop. The door bowed out. Wood creaked against the strain. Everything went deathly quiet for less than a heartbeat.
With an ear-shattering boom, the door exploded. Sharp splinters of wood shot across the room. Ed cursed and ducked behind the table. Willow saw him reach for a fire extinguisher as thick, oily black demonic mist billowed through the opening, spread across the floor, and headed straight for Bumper.
Taron lunged for the demon with a powerful two-handed swing. His sword sliced through the sulfuric mist, leaving a trail of blue fire in its path. While a strike like that would have killed a lesser demon, it had no effect at all on this one. The demonic wraith reformed after the blade passed through, boiling and pulsing up into the air until it almost reached the ceiling, then it shot toward Bumper once again.
Ed pulled the pin on the fire extinguisher and blasted a stream of thick foam at the stinking mist, but the stuff went right through the cloud and spread out across the floor.
Snarling and barking, Bumper lunged at the black cloud but Taron caught her by the collar and pulled the feisty mutt back.
It’s after Bumper!
Willow screamed, but she screamed in anger, not fear. She might be nothing more than consciousness at this point, but she still had her powers. Concentrating on the energy swirling about the room, she pulled in all she could and, using Bumper’s voice as a conduit, threw a tremendous blast at the demon.
Willow watched through Bumper’s eyes as everything appeared to slow to stop-action speed. Bumper howled. Willow’s burst of power shot from between the dog’s powerful jaws—a thick stream of brilliant blue sparkles, propelled in a shimmering torrent of pure energy.
Taron’s blade flashed in the overhead light. He raised his arms and then brought his sword down in a smooth yet deadly arc, slicing neatly through the demonic mist.
His stroke was perfectly timed to Willow’s blast.
Combined that way, their power should have worked. Should have killed the demon king except ... instead of hitting the demon, all that energy collided with the broad side of Taron’s crystal blade. Willow couldn’t believe what she was seeing, the sparkling blast of power slamming into crystal, exploding in such bizarre slow motion that it was like watching a movie, one frame at a time.
It seemed to take minutes, not the fraction of a second that was actually needed for all of that power—the energy of crystal combined with all that Willow had gathered—to glance off the faceted blade and explode in a multicolored shower of stars.
Stars that ricocheted in all directions, with the bulk of them turning back in a mass of energy both light and dark. Turning back and bathing Bumper in a fiery storm of cold, sparkling light.
Light that turned Willow’s world entirely dark.
Taron’s sword passed through the demonic mist, trailing a shower of sparks. Cursing, he raised both arms and swung again, but as his blade completed its powerful arc, an unexpected burst of blue sparkles flew out of Bumper’s mouth as if shot from a cannon.
Blue sparkles—Willow’s unmistakable trademark—bursting forth, slamming into the side of his crystal blade and bouncing off. Taron’s curse was lost in a cacophony of horrific sound—the demon’s banshee screech and Bumper’s single, frantic, high-pitched yelp. A roar of wind as the demon coalesced into a dark cyclonic force, spun into a tiny, tight tornado of demonic mist and shot across the workshop.
Only it wasn’t Ed—it was all demon, a horrible, harsh demonic shriek of frustration and anger, a powerful cry of unimaginable evil.
Taron spun about with his sword held high, searching for the demon. His sandals hit the slippery foam from Ed’s strange weapon and slid out from under him. Flailing his arms, Taron dropped his sword as he fought for his balance. He managed to grab the edge of the worktable and kept from falling on his butt, but he didn’t see the demon anywhere.
He took a deep breath, steadied himself.
Ed’s fist came out of nowhere and the old man landed a roundhouse punch. He slammed into Taron’s jaw with impossible force. Demonic force. The blow lifted Taron off his feet and sent him flying. He sailed over the model train layout, bounced off the wall on the far side of the room, and landed on the floor.
Stars flashed in front of his eyes, almost as if Willow’s blue sparkles had followed him. Before his head had cleared completely, Ed raced around the table and leaned over him, still howling like a banshee. Taron blinked. Black spots and bright stars filled his vision.
He willed himself to remain conscious.
Nine hells and then some ...
Taron blinked again, tried to focus and wondered if what he saw was real or merely the effect of Ed’s tremendous blow. The old man’s thinning hair stood on end. His eyes were wide and staring, an incongruous vision with the banshee shrieks coming from his wide-open mouth—a mouth filled with row after row of impossibly sharp teeth.
Then, between one heartbeat and the next, the ear-splitting shrieks stopped. The sound just cut off. Stopped dead.
Taron heard himself breathing.
Heard Ed’s deep, ragged breaths. The two of them stared at each other, hearts pounding, lungs heaving. Taron’s jaw throbbed. Ed blinked. Then he cackled—a sound of pure evil that segued into another ungodly howl. Shrieking once again, he turned away, jumped entirely over the table with the model train layout and raced out through the splintered door.
In mere seconds, he’d disappeared into the night.
Once again, silence filled the workshop. No sound but the labored rush of Taron’s breaths and a steady
chug, chug, chug
as the model train engine slowly made its way around the track.
Taron lay on the floor, sucking in huge gulps of air. Stars still spun before his eyes—definitely not Willow’s pretty blue sparkles. He stared straight overhead, trying to figure out which way was up, what had just happened. His head slowly cleared, though the demon’s harsh scream still echoed through his skull.
He rolled to his belly and planted both hands on the floor. Slowly he made it to his knees and rocked there a moment before he decided against trying to stand. The floor spun beneath his nose, so he sort of collapsed in a semi-controlled fall to one side that left him sitting on his butt on the workshop floor.