Authors: Joshua Ingle
Book One of the Thorn Saga
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright © 2016 Joshua Ingle
Edited by David Gatewood.
Cover art by Clarissa Yeo.
Cover photography by Reid Nicewonder.
Cover modeling by Fedor Steer.
Formatting by Polgarus Studio.
All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced in any form, except for reasonable quotations for the purpose of reviews, without the author’s written permission.
Thorn was dying. Where his followers had gone or why his attacker hadn’t finished him, he didn’t know.
He lay on his back under the heavy rain, which fell around him and through him and pattered on the grass beneath. The suburban house, normally so mundane, had been transformed by the storm into a looming beacon of light, taunting him now with its pretense of safety. White icicle Christmas lights mesmerized him as they swayed back and forth in the wind and rain. Thorn’s fine-tailored suit remained neither wet nor dry—nor corporeal—as did Thorn himself.
The pain was unbearable, and worse, it was unfamiliar. He hadn’t felt such pain in ages. But here he was, the fearsome Thorn, weak, wounded, and shaken.
Maybe his followers had seen who’d done this. They’d likely all fled inside, the snakes. They should have defended him, should be here dying with him, their leader, superior to them all.
Or perhaps they did this themselves.
If that were the case, though, wouldn’t they now be here to gloat? Regardless, Thorn would make the responsible parties suffer for this. Thousands of his other followers
betrayed him, and they’d be livid when they heard that their leader had been attacked by a few deranged cohorts.
Yes, Thorn had to live, for vengeance’s sake. And he had work to do. He had to finish Amy, Madeline, Jed, and the rest. What was he doing, cowering here in the rain like the inner-city vagrants who trembled and hid when he drifted in their midst? He was Thorn, and his dance of darkness would not end on a front lawn in suburbia.
He tried to move and could not. The pain grew steadily worse and the rain kept falling. Whoever had assaulted him had struck him from behind, sending a searing burn across his shoulders and into the stumps where his wings had once been, long ago. The thought of dying so young enraged him; he’d planned to live to the end of time. But despite his fury he failed to rise.
No. This cannot be the end. I refuse to die.
Even now a woman and her boyfriend waited inside for him.
Thorn had been working the murder-suicide for months. Distraction and complacency sufficed for most humans, but these two could be made to do worse. Especially the man, Travis, with his drunken fuming and violent tendencies. Months ago, Thorn had claimed them as his own, certain that their dysfunctional relationship could be manipulated to end in both their deaths, and perhaps the boy’s too.
Just minutes ago, Thorn had scouted the house. The woman had been studying for the GRE in her bedroom, while her son had been snacking on chips under the blinking rainbow of lights on the tree, enchanted by the millionth rerun of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” Headlights off, the boyfriend drove up and parked at the curb. His handgun was ready. “You’re less than nothing to her,” Thorn had whispered to him, trying to prompt him to murder. “This is the only way you’ll ever be important.”
Thorn had planned to goad him the rest of the way inside after a few more of Thorn’s fellow demons had arrived for the murderous festivities. Travis would have chased her around the house, beat her ruthlessly, then killed both her and himself, all at Thorn’s suggestion. The event would have been glorious for Thorn, the highlight of his month. His followers would have lauded his greatness all across Atlanta. Maybe the murder would have made the news. But as Travis marched up the lawn to take his sweetheart’s life, someone had abruptly taken Thorn’s.
Who would dare?
No one Thorn knew. Thorn was not the world’s greatest demon—not yet—but he was well known, respected, and feared. No one in his city could match him in a direct fight, much less defeat him with a single strike… or so he had thought.
Thorn heard the first gunshot. Then the second. The thought that the murder had likely taken place without him amplified his pain.
Where were his followers? One moment a hundred of them had lurked on the sidelines, their eager glares glimmering from rooftops all around; the next, Thorn was on the ground, his spectators departed. Had they gone indoors to cause the deaths themselves in Thorn’s absence? If so, they must have been deranged. No sane demon would knowingly provoke the likes of Thorn by taking credit for one of his kills. Still, if one or a few of them were desperate enough, Thorn wouldn’t put it past them. He himself had stolen these humans from some lesser demons who hadn’t realized the couple’s potential. Thorn loved death above all things, as all demons did, and would obtain it regardless of his competition.
His thoughts ended as darkness took him, then released him. When he tried and failed to rise again, a frenzy of panic took him. “Help!” he called to the wind and the rain. “Help me!”
At last, Thorn saw his followers. Dark specters in the mist, they floated up and away from the house, drifting in all directions toward their various charges around the city. Through the rain and his blackouts, Thorn couldn’t read their expressions. Had the murder happened? Had all his work been for nothing? What fool would dare do this to one as prodigious as Thorn? Would defeat and sorrow be Thorn’s last memories on Earth? Was this how the end came: sudden and senseless?
“You’ve changed,” a gravelly voice said behind and above him. Thorn used all the energy he could muster to strain to see the speaker, who lingered just out of eyesight. “Help me,” Thorn said. “Please.”
After a moment of silence, the voice replied. “Begging doesn’t become you, Rat.”
Rat? No one had presumed to call Thorn by his old pejorative in centuries. Who was this lunatic? Was this who had attacked him? Weakly, Thorn called to the last of his followers leaving the house. “Help me. There is glory for you if you help me. A place at my side.” The demons just floated away, leaving Thorn alone with his assailant.
Well, almost alone.
A squat, scowling spirit emerged from the darkness in front of Thorn, his unreadable face silhouetted against the streetlight. “This is Shenzuul,” Thorn’s attacker said from behind him. “A vicious one. I met him in Kigali. My right-hand man.” Shenzuul grunted.
Thorn tried to sound tough, but his voice wavered. “You must know… the Judge will kill you if I die. The First Rule—”
His attacker interrupted with a humorless laugh. “You won’t die, Rat. At least not tonight. Your injuries are meant to frighten, not kill. I just wanted to let you know I was in town.” He strode around Thorn’s side and into the light, and recognition hit Thorn immediately.
Thorn’s fear must have shown on his face, because Marcus laughed again. “Good to see you too.”
“You’re exiled,” Thorn said as he tried to back away. “Xeres sent you to the Far East.”
“Indeed. When I heard Xeres was dead I cried. Tears of joy.”
Thorn puzzled at the expression; having no bodies, demons of course had no tears. “You stole my murders.”
Thorn detected a frown at the edge of Marcus’s silhouette, where the light brightened a sliver on the side of his face. “It’s a sorry feeling when someone cheats you of your glory, isn’t it?”
Ah. So he’s still mad about that.
Thorn had once lived in constant dread of this confrontation, but since he hadn’t seen Marcus in over a millennium and a half, that apprehension had gradually ebbed to a dull murmur. Thorn held power and prestige now! He retained thousands of followers! He’d been certain that in the event of Marcus’s return, those safeguards would protect him. Yet now, somehow, Thorn was left exposed, defenseless.
Ancient fear of Marcus came rushing back. He fought it, and against all his instincts, held eye contact.
If I want to live through this, I must be firm. Show them I’m in control.
Slowly, barely, he managed to sit up. “You are not welcome here. This is my city.”
Lightning sizzled across the sky above them. As a powerful rumble of thunder shook the ground beneath, the rain began to beat even harder.
Marcus kicked Thorn violently, sending him writhing as a renewed burst of pain swept through his body. “It’s my city now,” said Marcus.
Rain pounded dirt into mud as Thorn haltingly turned from the ground to look up at Marcus again. “Perhaps the law is lenient in Kigali, but here in America, you cannot kill me without also sentencing yourself to death.”
“Oh, I can.” Another burst of lightning lit the hate in his eyes. “And I will.”
The storm still raged outside and Thorn’s wounds still ravaged him when two of his loyal followers carried him before the Judge.
At least I can stand upright now.
When they’d stumbled onto him an hour after Marcus and Shenzuul had left, he’d been half-conscious in the mud. Thorn found himself grateful that demons’ spiritual wounds healed far faster than humans’ physical injuries. He’d be fine in a day… he hoped.
Although the Demon Judge of Atlanta had set himself up in a human courtroom, he was nothing like a human judge. To Thorn he appeared in a polyester V-neck suit, his combed-back hair caked with gel, with stubble on his chin and a self-righteous smirk on his mug. Thorn had always hated him. Aptly, the Demon Judges had once been Angels of Justice, so on Earth, with nothing better to do, many of them had styled themselves after their former roles and proclaimed themselves arbiters of the demon realm. Moderate glory lay in their work, and their position in the caste system was safe, with no infighting and little chance of downfall. And thus, Thorn knew them to be cowards. Worse, they were pompous cowards, as if ruling over anarchy was a great achievement, and enforcing demonkind’s two simple Rules a momentous duty.
As Thorn approached, assisted by his followers, the Judge slipped his feet off the bench where they’d rested, and floated into the air above it. He donned some sunglasses—an immaterial illusion, absurd in the dim courtroom, which had been abandoned by humans at night. “Thorn, baby, what happened?” He drifted down toward him. Surprisingly few demons were gathered for this hearing, so somehow, Marcus must have concealed his mistreatment of Thorn. Nevertheless, Thorn proclaimed his tale as loudly as he could. “I have been attacked!”
The tiny crowd did not burst into fury as he’d expected. They sat idly by, almost as if they were here as captive witnesses rather than willing participants. The Judge’s response came so quickly that it must have been prepared in advance. “My man. You look like you’re in a whole mess of hurt, and I feel you. I feel your pain. But I already questioned everyone who was there.”
“So you know Marcus has returned. He’s back and he wants revenge. He wants me dead. His exile must be reinstated immediately.”
“Nobody’s gonna kill you, dude. Nobody would even try. And exile…” The Judge considered. “Exile’s an outdated concept, all right? Nobody does that anymore. If anyone goes crazy these days we just kill him. I thought you knew that.”
“Then kill Marcus,” Thorn demanded.
“Marcus is a rock star, Thorn. I know he did some awful shit to us all back in the day, but look at Rwanda. Look at the Congo. That was all him, man.”
“He’s successful in the Congo, right. So send him back. Atlanta is my city.” The Judge flinched at this. Thorn was indeed the most reputable demon—and therefore the most powerful demon—in the city, and however much the Judge envied him, the leech knew his place. Thorn stepped forward to assert his dominance.
Although the Judge gradually retreated, his babbling continued to vex Thorn. “Last time I checked, the annual death toll in the Second Congo War was way, way higher than the annual death toll on I-20. Think of what Marcus could do
, in the U.S.”
“He wants my prestige. He wants to supplant me.” Disgrace others and rise, then be disgraced yourself and fall—such was the cycle of power in the demon world, at least among demons of intellect. Thorn had lived that cycle time and time again, but rarely while in fear for his life. “And he has a protégé with him. Some cretin from Central Africa, no better than the street scum here in the States.” Thorn resented how obsessed the boorish masses of demonkind were with violence: beating and raping and death, death, death. Though these pastimes offered fun even for intellectual demons, and destruction of all good things was everyone’s endgame, many demonic leaders were more refined. Demons like Thorn knew that unless all humans could be killed—which was probably impossible—then demonkind had to plan for the long run. It had to undermine the humans’ societies and impede their progress by implanting lies subtly and deeply. If Marcus usurped Thorn’s position and put this Shenzuul character in charge of affairs, not only would Thorn’s reputation be diminished, but years of his work in this city might also be undone. He almost said as much to the Judge, but the Judge interrupted.