If the “play” button above doesn’t work, go here for the direct link.
Also, below is the entire first chapter of The Sweetest Burn. SPOILER WARNING: If you haven’t read book one, The Beautiful Ashes, you will be spoiled for some events, so proceed with caution.
Finally, I know some of you have been waiting a long, long, looooong time for this book, so to celebrate its release, I’m going to post a chapter a week from now until its release on June 27th. That will give you an early look at the first four chapters. Happy reading! 🙂
“Et tu, Brute?” I muttered as I walked along the beach, pulling my cardigan a little tighter against the salt-scented breeze. It would be hot soon, as per usual in Miami, but at this predawn hour, the spring air was a little cool for the knee-length dress I’d thrown on to look for my missing pet.
“Brutus!” I called out, loudly this time. “Where are you?”
I’d been calling him for over fifteen minutes with no response, and I was getting worried. He had never been away from home this close to dawn before. I might not have wanted Brutus when he’d been dumped on me, and he definitely wasn’t anyone’s idea of a normal pet, but over the past couple months, I’d really come to care for him.
Every night for the past two months, he left the house at dusk and was back by 5:00 a.m. at the latest. Before me, Brutus had spent his entire life in darkness, so he didn’t just hate sun; he was afraid of it. That’s why, when he hadn’t shown up by five thirty this morning, I’d gone looking for him. North Shore Open Space Park in Miami was one of his favorite places, and at this hour, the stretch of beach I walked along was deserted.
I scowled at the slowly lightening horizon, my worry increasing. “Brutus!” I yelled again. He’d better not be avoiding me because he’d broken the rules and had eaten someone.
Even if he’d done nothing wrong, if I didn’t find him soon, he’d probably break into someone’s house to avoid the sunlight. If that happened, God help the homeowner if they noticed him and tried to shoo him outside. Talk about an incident that would make the evening news.
“Did you lose something?” an unfamiliar male voice asked from right behind me.
I stiffened. No one else had been on the beach moments ago. Even with the sounds of the surf, my recently upgraded senses should have picked up on someone running straight at me, and he would’ve had to run to cover that much distance in mere seconds.
There was another explanation for how the man behind me had so suddenly and soundlessly appeared, but if that was the case, then one of us wouldn’t be leaving this beach alive.
I couldn’t let on that I knew something might be wrong. I turned around and fixed a false smile on my face.
“You startled me!” I said, hoping I sounded more surprised than scared.
A lock of black hair fell over the stranger’s face as he smiled back at me. “Sorry. I heard you yelling, so I came over to see if you needed any help.”
He looked a few years older than me, putting him in his early to midtwenties. Though he was on the skinny side, he was also cute in a boyish sort of way. If I’d have met him when I was back at college last semester, I would’ve thought the shadows that appeared and disappeared beneath his skin were figments of my imagination. After all, I’d been diagnosed with hallucinations by more than a few doctors. Problem was, now I knew I wasn’t crazy, although some days, I wished I were.
Then, I saw his eyes shine like an animal’s that had caught the light, evidence of the supernatural equivalent of tapetum lucidum. My suspicions had been correct. The guy in front of me might look human to anyone who didn’t have my abilities—which was over 99 percent of the world—but he wasn’t. He was a demon minion.
“I do need a little help,” I said, still smiling although my heart had started to race. “I’m looking for my, ah, dog.”
“Sure,” he said, casually taking my arm. “I think I saw a dog over this way.”
Both of us were lying. Brutus was no dog, and there hadn’t been one anywhere around here. Still, I let him lead me toward the brush that grew along the sea wall. As I walked, I hitched my dress up on the side that he couldn’t see. I’d learned a few things in the past several months since I discovered that minions and demons existed. The most important lesson? Never leave your house unarmed.
Even as I reached for the knife strapped to my thigh, I glanced at the sky. Brutus was over nine feet tall, as wide as two gorillas and had leathery wings that could double as swords, so now would be a really good time for him to show up.
He didn’t, though, and I drew in a deep breath for courage. Okay, so I was alone on a dark, deserted beach with a minion who’d been endowed with superhuman strength from whatever demon he served. Not good, but hysterics wouldn’t help. I knew that from experience.
“You seem nervous,” the minion remarked.
He sounded amused by the prospect, and that was like a shot of adrenaline to my body. Minions and demons had ruined countless lives, not to mention killed my parents, kidnapped my sister and almost killed me more times than I could count. This jerk thought that I was just another human slave to bring back to his demon master’s realm. Well, I had a surprise for him.
I whirled, balancing my weight on my right leg while kicking out with my left. At the same time, I pulled the knife out, smashing it into his face with more force than any human should be able to muster. That, combined with the minion’s downward momentum from suddenly getting his feet kicked out from under him, caused him to drop like a stone. My roommate, Costa, had been training me in hand-to-hand combat, and it had paid off. For the barest second, the minion’s shocked gaze met mine, and I felt a savage thrill at the disbelief in his gaze.
Who’s afraid now? I thought fiercely.
I shouldn’t have taken that brief moment to celebrate. Even with a knife sticking out of his face, he was still deadly. His hands closed over my ankles, yanking hard. I lost my balance and fell backward, twisting away at once to avoid his immediate tackle. He landed on sand instead of me, but then his fists smashed into my lower body. I doubled over, feeling like I’d been hit by a truck. He held on and started to crawl up my body, his grin visible even through the streams of blood coming from where the knife stuck out of his face.
I couldn’t break his grip, so I didn’t try. When he made it up to my thigh, my knee smashed into his face with all the extrahuman strength I had in me. Pain reverberated up my leg, but this time, I didn’t spare a single second before attacking again. I grabbed his head and yanked it to the side as hard as I could. A crack sounded and the minion’s whole body went limp.
I managed to roll away, my knees and ribs throbbing so much that vomiting felt like a good way to celebrate. Still, I was exultant. Looks like those fighting lessons had really paid off! In fact, Costa had trained me so well, my actions had felt more like muscle memory instead of a conscious decision to kill someone. I had killed the minion, though, and he wasn’t the first one, although he was the first one that I’d taken on by myself with only a normal weapon.
Being a killer hadn’t been anywhere on my list of life goals six months ago, when I’d been a junior at WMU. Since then, I’d had to learn how to do that as well as do a lot of other strange, unpleasant things. Thank you, unexpected supernatural lineage. You are the gift that keeps on giving.
With a suddenness that still startled me, the minion’s body dissolved until nothing but ashes remained. They began to blow away in the same ocean breeze that whipped my hair around like dozens of dark brown scarves. The way minions and demons turned to ash after death was the only considerate thing they did.
Even though everything hurt, I heaved myself up from the sand. Bruised and battered or no, I still had to find Brutus.
I was in the process of brushing the sand off me when my surroundings changed in an instant. The sand turned to sheets of ice, the light became pitch darkness and the sounds from the surf ceased with such abruptness that the new silence was ominous. The worst part was the cold. My teeth began to chatter, and the frigid air felt like it scattered razors across my skin.
Just as quickly, the dark, frozen world disappeared, leaving me back on the beach with a warm, salt-scented breeze and mauve-colored shades of dawn starting to the paint the horizon. Still, I felt stiff from more than the cold that seemed to linger on the air. That hazy, alternate version of this area wasn’t a full-on sensory hallucination, although all of my former doctors would’ve sworn otherwise. Instead, it was a glimpse of a realm that hovered right over this one.
Physicists call it M theory—the idea that different dimensional layers existed next to each other. I called it a shitload of trouble, because that sunless, icy world was a demon realm. My lineage gave me the ability to catch glimpses of these deadly realms, but for some reason, I hadn’t spotted this one before. If I’d known that a demon realm existed right on top of this place, I would’ve never walked this beach at all, let alone by myself before the sun was fully up.
Before I could turn around to leave, a large slash suddenly appeared in the air and three people stepped out of it. At once, the supernatural tattoo on my right arm began to burn. I gripped it without looking away, and the part of my brain that wasn’t freaking out figured out what was going on.
The minion I’d killed hadn’t snuck up on me using his supernatural stealth and speed. He’d simply crossed from a demon realm into this one through a gateway that I hadn’t known was there.
I didn’t have time to wonder if the realm was new, or if it had always been there and was now accessible to this world through an ominous crack. The three new minions seemed startled to see me, but then their gazes roved from the blood on my dress and cardigan to the very incriminating pile of minion ashes near my feet. When the palest one stretched out hands that turned into living, writhing snakes, it was all I could do not to scream.
Not three minions. Two minions and an unkillable, shape-shifting demon.
Standing and fighting would be suicide, so I snatched my knife from the pile of minion ashes and began to run. The demon barked out an order in a language I recognized all too well, then the minions gave chase, and they were fast. If I had been a normal human, they would have had me in five seconds flat, but I wasn’t normal, and right now, I was glad about that.
I was also glad I had a mental map of the closest hallowed ground near the North Shore park. In fact, I’d memorized every plot of hallowed ground near my house just in case something like this happened. St Joseph’s Catholic Church was about seven streets away. If I made it, the demon couldn’t touch me because demons couldn’t cross hallowed ground. Minions could, but I’d already killed one today. Why not go for more?
Since sand was harder to run on, I headed toward the sidewalk along the park, needing the flat ground to increase my speed. Behind me, I could hear the minions cursing. They hadn’t expected me to make them work for this. That gave me grim satisfaction as I darted around benches and tables in the deserted picnic area. My knees and ribs still throbbed from my earlier fight, but nothing was as great a painkiller as survival instinct. As I ran, I counted down the wooden street markers in the park for encouragement. Eighty-Third Street. Eighty-Fourth. The church was just after Eighty-Seventh Street. I was going to make it.
Then, even though he was much farther away, I heard the demon yell, “She’s the Davidian!” in a rage-filled roar, and I knew all bets were off. My speed might have been preventing the minions from capturing me, but it also outed me as number one on the demon’s most‑wanted list.
The demon was no longer content to send his minions ahead of him like a bunch of hunting dogs. Several quick glances over my shoulder showed him now tearing after me himself, and he made the minions look as if they’d been moving in slow motion. Benches, tables and other large objects were hurtled my way as he didn’t just chase me, but actively tried to kill me.
I ducked and weaved around as many as I could, but some still found their mark. I cursed when something heavy smacked me in the back, and while it made me stumble, I forced myself not to fall. Instead, I put all of my energy into running, staying within the limits of the park despite its greater dangers of projectiles. Taking the main road, A1A, would give me a straight shot to the church, but even at this hour, cars were on it. I couldn’t risk someone else getting hurt, and demons loved nothing more than collateral damage.
I’d just rounded a corner that brought me briefly back onto the beach when something slammed into my legs, knocking me over. I rolled at once, making sure not to stab myself in the process, and was back up when a loud, trumpeting snarl sounded overhead.
Brutus, my pet gargoyle, flew toward me, the dawn’s rays highlighting his large, beastly form in different shades of pink. I would’ve been relieved to see him, but I was too shocked by the man riding on Brutus’s back.
The minions and demon saw them, too, and at their confused expressions, I remembered that they didn’t see a large man on the back of a hulking, grayish-blue gargoyle. Due to Archon glamour, all they saw was an angrily squawking seagull somehow carrying his muscular male passenger, and from the way they cocked their heads, they didn’t know what to make of the sight.
“Ivy, duck!” the man yelled.
I hit the sand even as I reeled with shock. Only one person in the world could treat the deadly gargoyle like a winged pony, and that was the same person who’d broken my heart months ago, and then disappeared.
Hope you enjoyed the first chapter! You can pre-order your copy of The Sweetest Burn here or at your favorite retailer.