Authors: Elliott Kay
“Michelle, what can I throw at him?” asked Sandra.
“All the knives in the wooden block over there are clean,” Michelle suggested.
“I’m out!” Drew exclaimed. He quickly withdrew from sight.
“It’s no trouble,” said Lorelei. “I’ve hardly done my part.” She gathered up the green bag from the compost container. The whole business about sorting out types of garbage felt silly to her, but Seattle seemed to have taken to it wholeheartedly. “Where does it go?”
“The containers are along the side of the house,” said Michelle.
Lorelei didn’t bother retrieving her coat. Michelle hadn’t been wrong about the weather, but it would take far worse cold than this to cause her discomfort.
The door didn’t close behind her right away. She hadn’t walked out alone. “Hey, Lorelei,” Drew said with a low voice. “Is something up with Alex? He okay?”
“You noticed, too?”
“Yeah. Seems like he’s okay one second, then not. You don’t know what’s goin’ on?”
“No. I assume he didn’t duck into the bathroom for ordinary needs. Rachel went to speak with him. He was nervous about everyone accepting the two of us and our relationship, but that’s natural. Something else must be bothering him.”
“Never got a chance to pull him aside and ask,” said Drew. “He’s normally pretty open about shit that’s botherin’ him. I figured if he didn’t say anything, it’s probably something spooky. Or spooky-related.”
Lorelei smiled. “That’s a nice turn of phrase.” She continued on with her small chore, finding the bins in the side yard where Michelle said they’d be. “Most of our problems are as mundane as anyone else’s. I’m glad to have a moment with you, though.” Closing up the bin once more, Lorelei turned to take Drew’s hand.
“Damn. You’re warm.”
“I wouldn’t want you to get cold while I keep you out here. Drew, I hope you know that you mean a great deal to me. I think the world of you. Not as Alex’s friend, but my own.”
“We’re cool,” Drew assured her. “You’re not just my bro’s girl to me, either.”
“I’m glad. I wanted you to know I’m here for you if you ever need anything. In particular, I know you put off college until now out of financial concerns. I can only imagine how frustrating that has been, and I’m sure things are still tight even if your income has improved over these months. If you would allow it, I would be more than happy to cover your tuition.”
“Oh.” Drew blinked. “I…woah.”
A knowing, amused grin played at her lips. “This isn’t where you thought I was going, is it?”
“Uh…no,” he admitted, smiling at himself though he knew he’d been busted. “No, I thought this was goin’ someplace awkward.”
“I’ve always had the impression you would prefer someone a little more normal and less complicated than myself.”
“It’s true. I mean, damn, I ain’t blind, but yeah.” Then his smile faded. “Feels like it’s all gonna be ‘complicated’ no matter what, though.”
Lorelei noted his tone. “Alex has always said you have no trouble finding interested ladies. I can see why. Yet you seem to almost avoid seeing anyone since Sherri. Was that a heavier break-up than I thought?”
“Nah. That wasn’t a big thing, really.”
“What troubles you?”
Drew shook his head. “Kinda ain’t feelin’ that topic right now. Not when you’re offering to…damn. I don’t know what to say.”
“I don’t really need it. I’ve got this.”
“I know. It’s not a matter of charity or urgency. You will make this work. I offer because I see no reason why things should be hard on you, especially after you’ve worked so hard to come this far. Believe me, I would do the same for our other friends if it made a difference. Wade has the GI Bill. Jason and Taylor have scholarships, and I may yet offer to help them, too.
“This is something I want to do for you, Drew. It is no hardship for me. You’ve never once blinked at the pain or danger our friendship has brought. You’ve never cast suspicion or shame upon me as so many others would, and do. I don’t feel this is something you are owed; it is something I want to give. If I have any family in this world, it includes you. There is no shame in saying yes.”
He couldn’t hold back his slightly embarrassed smile. “That’s good to know, ‘cause I don’t know how I’m ever supposed to say no to you.”
“Good.” She stepped forward with open arms.
Then her eyes widened with alarm. Rather than hugging Drew, Lorelei shoved him to the ground. She followed him down in time to save them both from the long, bony black tails lashing at them from three directions. The tip of one tail thudded into the grass and mud where Drew had stood. Another missed Lorelei and plunged into the hedge to her side. The third curved up into the air, striking nothing at all.
Both of them knew better than to stay still. Lorelei pushed herself up off the ground, getting on her feet in time to catch one of the thin, sinewy demons as it tackled her. Drew rolled to one side and narrowly avoided another stabbing thrust from an enemy’s deadly tail. “Shit!” he yelped as he scrambled upright, dodging further attacks.
Though Lorelei managed to evade her attacker’s claws, the enemy had separated her from her friend. She knew she could not go toe to toe against a stalker for long. Drew enjoyed none of a demon’s powers or defenses. Naturally, a third stalker skittered in along the side of Michelle’s house in an obvious attempt to flank her.
“Sylyd,” the climber hissed back at Drew’s attacker. “Learn what he knows!”
Lorelei blocked one slashing hand with her forearm. The claws of the beast’s other hand tore a gash into the wings that rose over her shoulder, invisible to mortals but viable targets for fellow demons. She swallowed an agonized scream before it could escape her throat. If she cried out, she would draw attention and put those inside at risk. Conversely, if she didn’t call for help, she and Drew would be overwhelmed and the others would still be in danger.
She caught her attacker by one wrist, then the other. Though the stalker was surely stronger than the succubus, she could still force a struggle. Her real problem came when the stalker’s elbows folded entirely the wrong way, turning her strength against her and pulling her closer rather than letting her hold the beast back.
Nearly tripped off her feet by the unexpected shift, Lorelei found herself turned with her back to the house—and to the second stalker on the wall. Still clinging to the house with only its feet, the climber reached out with both long arms. It would have rent the succubus open had it not overlooked a critical trait common to demons in human shapes. Lorelei’s spade-tipped tail, unseen before now, lashed up and caught the stalker by the cheek. The tip of her tail kept going, tearing through the demon’s face like a fishhook until it cut one of her enemy’s eyes in two. The thing flopped to the ground, clutching its face in pain and shock.
“Filth!” her standing opponent howled with an otherworldly voice. Its inhuman flexibility granted the stalker the advantage. Lorelei’s foe rose up on its legs and bent over her, pushing back now rather than pulling. Its tail swung around to trip Lorelei up. In a flash, she was on her back and no longer in control of her enemy’s wrists at all. Its arms bent strangely again and encircled hers until finally it pinned both of her wrists over her head with one large hand.
Unlike its companion, this opponent remained mindful of Lorelei’s abilities. The stalker’s other hand clamped down on her mouth before she could exhale. Its deadly tail darted around to stab her in the side, but she caught it in a tangle with her own—outmatched once more in both strength and reach, yet dexterous enough to keep herself alive a moment longer. “Voxrel,” it hissed to the fallen stalker, “are you—?”
“Fucking deserter,” Voxrel interrupted, clutching its wounded face with one hand while pushing itself off the ground with the other. “I’ll take her eyes as my trophy.”
They’re not here to take me prisoner
, Lorelei realized. Their tactics had already hinted as much, but the declaration confirmed it. Her luck thus far had been exactly that: luck, along with quick thinking. The enemy wasn’t pulling punches. Fighting against the hand that clamped around her jaw and the claws digging at the back of her head, Lorelei managed a glance toward Drew, already fearful of what she might see and cursing herself for letting him die.
Her first thought was that the third demon was toying with him. Then she saw Drew sidestep Sylyd’s slashing tail and block one of its rending claws. With another dodge and a feint to one side, he reminded her of the years of martial arts training that had carried him through their shared struggles.
It shouldn’t have been enough against such a foe. Lorelei had seen stalkers run down and kill mighty warriors like scared children. In that, though, Drew showed his true advantage: he was no longer afraid of monsters.
Sylyd’s multiple weapons didn’t overwhelm him. Drew had trained to fight more than one opponent at once. He could apply those same moves here. The monster enjoyed greater reach. Drew understood his only chance was to get in close. Whatever advantage Sylyd enjoyed by virtue of its terrifying visage crumbled as soon as Drew landed his first jab on the stalker’s jaw, sending it reeling in surprise.
The bones that once held Sylyd’s wings snapped up and then arced downward to run him through. Drew had no time to think. His teachers never trained him for an overhead attack like this. Still, both of his arms came up in a high circular block to sweep the bony tips away—and kept curving until he caught them in his hands like a bundle of branches. It happened in a single instant.
In the next, he plunged the sharp tips of those bones into both sides of Sylyd’s neck.
The demon’s howl of pain didn’t carry far. Its voice wasn’t meant for mortal ears. Yet it caught the attention of its brothers, who looked on with shock as Drew pressed his advantage and pummeled Sylyd’s face like a speed bag at the gym.
“No!” protested Lorelei’s captor. The moment of surprise gave her the opening she needed. Her tail left his alone and instead stabbed straight into the arm that held her jaw. The stalker jerked back its hand by reflex.
Flames shot from Lorelei’s mouth, burning fatally into the other demon’s neck and chest to exact a fatal price for its mistake.
Hurt and shocked by the sudden turn of events, Voxrel looked back and forth through its remaining good eye with sudden indecision. Sylyd was on its back. The other stalker slumped to the ground beside Lorelei, who sprang to her feet with urgent rage. Voxrel knew it could win this fight—
it, as surely as it knew the smell of blood or the taste of flesh—but its brothers had known they could win when it was three against two. Now it was two against one.
Perhaps, it thought in a flash, Baal had known he could triumph, too.
Voxrel’s tail lashed out at Lorelei to knock her to the ground again. The blow connected, but at a cost. Lorelei wrapped her arms around the long tail and held on. Her talons dug into the appendage, painfully ruining Voxrel’s sense of balance. It stumbled face-first onto the grass, and lifted its head in time to see its troubles worsen. Drew had a clear shot at Voxrel along with a couple steps for a running start. His leather shoe landed in Voxrel’s remaining good eye hard enough to knock the demon onto its side.
Lorelei wasted no time. In the blink of an eye, her talons went from Voxrel’s tail to its throat. Her work was done in three strokes. Voxrel’s head rolled free of its shoulders before she landed a fourth. Both pieces of its body promptly began to dissolve away into nothing as she rose.
Lorelei turned to Drew. “You are unhurt?” she huffed.
“I’m straight,” he answered. “Knocked around but I’m okay. You?”
“I’ll manage.” She stepped past him to deal with the remaining stalker. Sylyd writhed on the ground, trying to pull the cracked bones of its wings from its own neck and shoulders. She stepped on Sylyd’s tail, pinning it to the ground.
Drew rushed to the window of the house, peeking inside to confirm everyone was okay. Then he stepped back to look to the street, and then the roof. “Is that all of ‘em? Are more comin’?”
“I suspect not.” She brought her talons to the back of Sylyd’s neck. “Don’t move,” she warned.
The stalker froze.
“Now you know why it is wise to wear a human husk in this world,” Lorelei said to Sylyd, her mouth close to the tiny hole that made up its ear. “Your form may feel limited, but the flesh becomes resilient. The touch of mortal courage does not cause such pain.”
“Glass cannons,” Drew muttered. Lorelei glanced back at him. He shrugged. “Hey, I ain’t as big a geek as Alex or Jason, but I got a little gamer cred.”
“End it, then,” Sylyd sneered as it shook with pain.
“Oh I think we both know I’m not so rash.”
Sylyd whimpered. It had been worth a try.
“Worry not,” she said with feigned comfort. “I have learned kindness in these last few months.” She carefully gripped one set of the bones stuck through Sylyd’s neck and pulled it out, then the other. The cracks along their length suggested they would not be much of a threat now. Sylyd winced and gasped with each removal, but did not move.
“I have only two questions,” said Lorelei.
“I’ll tell you nothing.”
She stroked Sylyd’s jaw with a single finger. “You’re sure?” she breathed into its ear.