Night’s Darkest Embrace
The sun’s rays slipped further behind the Bed Bath & Beyond sign across the parking lot. Soon it would be dark. All I had to do was not be stupid until dark, less than ten minutes from now.
I wasn’t going to make it.
Shoppers drove in and out of the complex. If they noticed me, they chose to mind their own business instead of asking why I was pacing like a crazy person in the back of the parking lot by a Dumpster. If my father were here, he’d urge me to follow their example and mind my own business, too. But the raspberry shimmer in front of the Dumpster called to me. Even the wafting stench of garbage wasn’t enough to slow my pulse as I stared at it. This had to be the smelliest gateway this side of the Mississippi, but I was looking at the only known entrance into Nocturna.
For a few more minutes, anyway. The gateway was only active between dusk and dark.
The shimmer in front of the Dumpster started to fade even as the lights in the parking lot turned on, signaling the arrival of evening. If I let the gateway disappear, I’d do the same thing I’d done every night for the past month; go back to my apartment and try not to think about what lay on the other side of that fading raspberry veil.
Don’t go back there, Mara. Please.
My father’s plea replayed in my mind, but it wouldn’t sway me this time. There were worse things than danger. Like guilt, or doing nothing and risking more people you loved being picked off.
I backed up several feet before flinging myself toward the Dumpster. Only the faintest haze remained in front of it now. My sneakers thudded on the pavement as I picked up speed, running right at the center of the smelly container, streamlining my body into a dive…
I barreled not into the metal Dumpster but into Nocturna, making it through the gateway before the veil closed into itself. I rolled when I hit the earth, the putrid stench of garbage instantly replaced with a heady, wood-smoke-scented air. Darkness also replaced the previous glow from the parking lot lights. It was always night in Nocturna. A few blinks later and my eyes adjusted, revealing a man on horseback galloping toward me.
“Back again, eh, Mara?” a familiar voice called out when the rider drew near enough for me to see the silver streak in his otherwise dark hair.
I brushed myself off as I stood. My back pack shifted with my movements but I shoved it into place, adjusting the straps until they were straight. Landing on my ass inside another dimension tended to jostle things.
“You’re the best patrolman here, Jack, you know that?” I replied, not bothering to answer his question. Obviously I was back or we wouldn’t be talking. “Most of the others don’t find out if anyone’s crossed over unless the person yells for them to give ‘em a ride.”
“People can pop up anywhere along the barrier, and that runs for miles,” Jack said, still with an undercurrent of amusement. “And you said you weren’t coming back the last time I saw you.”
I didn’t look at him, but continued to brush my jeans as though getting every last bit of dirt from them was extremely important. “Can’t a girl change her mind without getting hassled? I missed this place –”
“Horseshit,” Jack interrupted, even as his mount snorted in what sounded like agreement. “You still think you can find the Pureblood who took Gloria, but you need to let go of that fantasy and get on with your life.”
I stiffened, my head snapping up to meet Jack’s blue gaze. “I am getting on with my life,” I said, biting off every word.
Jack shook his head in a way that reminded me of my father. The two men even looked a little alike, with their lightly lined faces and wiry frames. Plus, Jack had never made a single pass at me, which was why I trusted him enough to stay at his place when I came here.
“Suit yourself,” he grunted. “I’m not your babysitter. You’re too old for one now, anyway. Go on. You can use my cabin to freshen up.”
I thought I heard Jack add, “Like usual,” but I chose to ignore that. Now that I was here, a feeling of peace washed over me. Maybe it was because traveling through dimensions was my birthright as a partial demon. Or because I’d determined to let nothing stop me this trip. That wouldn’t be easy – or safe – but I was old enough now that most of the Purebloods weren’t interested in me. Twenty-two was almost middle aged to them. They only liked children or at most, older teenagers.
Like Gloria had been. And my sister now was.
That, more than the guilt over Gloria that was so familiar as to feel normal, was why I’d had to break my promise and come back. An overheard conversation between my little sister and her friend about Nocturna was enough to convince me that I couldn’t stay away. I was the only living eyewitness. If I never came back to search for the Pureblood who’d taken Gloria, maybe next time, it would be my sister who was doomed to die a horrible death. Damned if I’d let that happen, no matter my father’s fears.
By the time I followed the line of mounted lanterns that took me to Jack’s cabin, I was convinced that I’d made the right decision. I went inside the small lodge, noting Jack had added a few more crossbows to his weapons cache, but aside from that, nothing else had changed. The mirror Jack used for shaving looked like it hadn’t been cleaned since the last time I’d wiped it, and his floor probably hadn’t been swept since then, either. If I didn’t stay here occasionally, the dirt would be up to Jack’s waist.
I pumped some water from the spigot and cleared away the dust from the mirror, frowning a little once I saw my reflection. Dirt smudged my cheek and I had bits of leaves in my hair. That wouldn’t do.
A few more pumps of the spigot and I’d washed off the remaining traces of dirt from my face, using my fingers to comb bits from the forest floor out of my hair. At least, I thought I got it all out; the dried leaves matched the same deep brown color of my hair, so a few stragglers might remain. Then I shrugged out of my backpack, taking off my jeans, tee shirt, and sneakers to put on the long denim skirt, boots, and blouse that I’d folded up inside. The other clothes were more comfortable, but a little glimpse of cleavage or a flash of leg went a long way toward getting reluctant residents of Nocturna to spill information. Once I was finished, I put on my gun belt and then my leather jacket, giving my reflection another critical glance.
Lipstick would help, but I’d forgotten to slip some into my backpack. Lucky for me, my mouth was naturally full and reddish, so that, along with a clean face and somewhat tamed hair, would just have to do.
Multiple lights glowed in the distance as I left the lantern-strewn path and approached Nocturna’s version of a metropolis. When I first came here, I thought it looked like a cross between the Victorian era and the Wild West. Tethered horses and carriages lined the narrow streets instead of cars, with candlelight the only brightness against the perpetual darkness. Music floated out from different bands, merging together to form a profusion of sounds that dulled out the laughter, shouts, and occasional gunshots from the town’s many occupants.
And at the end of the mini-city, set apart from the grid of bars, whorehouses, hotels, or pawn shops, was Bonecrushers. Skulls lit up like jack-o’-lanterns illuminated the front of the bar, a warning that those seeking tamer fun should look elsewhere.
If only Gloria and I had heeded that warning several years ago, but to us, Bonecrushers looked more exciting than frightening. Add that to the “You’re not scared, are you?” challenge from our dates, and nothing would’ve stopped us from walking through those doors.
Nothing would stop me this time, but that wasn’t because of teenage bravado anymore. Bonecrushers was my only link to the Pureblood who took Gloria, so just like the all the previous times I’d come here over the past two years, once again, that’s where I was headed.
I took a deep breath, then strode into the town, not pausing to look at the various people on the sidewalks. My quick pace – plus the guns holstered on my belt – said I wasn’t in a mood to buy something, get laid, or get robbed, which meant I was of no use to most of Nocturna’s residents. Rafael kept a loose form of law, but “accidents” were common. No surprise, considering everyone here was at least part demon, and the day people with demon blood could 100% obey rules was the day things got snowy in hell.
Not that I’d seen hell to know if it snowed there or not. Only Pureblood demons could travel through the gravitational layers separating the first few realms from each other. Beyond that, only the original race of fallen angels could make it all the way through the rest of them to the mythical Sheol.
That was the story, anyhow. No one I knew had ever met a Fallen and lived to tell about it. Pureblood demons fed off the life essence from partial demons like me, but the Fallen fed on Purebloods, leaving the predators in the unfamiliar position of being prey. In my opinion, it was poetic justice.
I jerked my head toward the sound of my name, cursing myself for dropping my attention from my surroundings. In Nocturna, that was a good way to end up hurt – or worse.
“Hiya, Billy,” I said in a casual tone, pretending I’d spotted the brawny Halfie all along. “What’s new?”
Billy grinned, showing sparkling white teeth in contrast to his unkempt appearance and tattered leathers. “I guess what’s new is that you’re not gone for good,” he noted with amusement.
All those farewells would bite me in the ass now. In my defense, I’d meant it at the time. I just hadn’t counted on how heavy my guilt would get if I officially gave up on avenging someone I’d already let down in the worst way.
“Who could live without Bonecrushers’s famous warm beer?” I asked flippantly. “Bars serve it watered down and chilled on the other side. Couldn’t stomach it.”
Billy laughed, his bald head gleaming in the reflection of the lit skulls around him. “Sure. But just in case that’s not the only thing you came for, thought you should know: He’ll be here soon.”
Before I could stop myself, I glanced behind Billy at the open doorway of Bonecrushers. The sensible part of me warned that I could still leave, it wasn’t too late…but my determination slapped that down. One quarter reckless demon in my genetic makeup was enough to overcome three fourths of cautious human any day.
“He who?” I asked, as if I didn’t know.
Billy laughed, his deep voice making it sound like his vocal chords were grinding together. “Right. Come on, Mara. I’ll buy you a brew, since you came all the way through a dimension for it.”
His tone said he wasn’t fooled. For a second I hesitated, despair competing with resolve in me. Billy knew I was here for more than Bonecrusher’s heated, throat-searing beer. But did he also know, as Jack did, that I was drawn back to Nocturna for more reasons than its darkly alluring ruler?
No need to wonder about that waiting out here. I swept out my hand.
“First round’s on you? Lead the way, my friend.”
Billy shouldered past the crowd by the door and I followed him inside. The open fire pit in the middle of the bar, combined with oil lanterns hung in various locations and the close proximity of numerous people, raised the temperature about twenty degrees from Nocturna’s natural chilliness. I took off my leather jacket, tying it around my waist instead of holding it. It had been several months since I’d needed to shoot anyone, but just in case, I wanted both my hands free.
Several sets of male eyes wandered over me as I passed by. I nodded to the people I recognized and gave cool stares to those I didn’t. Acting coy would be like begging for those stares to turn into Bonecrusher’s version of being hit on, which frequently consisted of being tongue-kissed before introductions were even exchanged. Shame to end my no-shooting streak on such a silly thing as an unwary flirter.
“Hank,” Billy called out once he reached the bar. “Two brews.”
The band began playing something that might have been Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit. The music here tended to be at least a decade behind the times, and the band’s look was something from a former era, too. The musicians were pale even by Nocturna’s standards, with dark circles under their eyes and clothes that hung off bony frames. The lead singer had no microphone, electricity seldom working in this realm, but he managed to keep his voice louder than the chatter or the continual smashes of drink glasses into the fire pit.
“Someone should tell those guys that the “heroin chic” look went out in the nineties,” I noted to Billy when I made it next to him at the bar.
He grinned, handing me a beer the bartender thunked on the counter. “Help ‘em out. Bring some new Rolling Stone magazines next time you come over.”
Better to let him think I was indecisive than tip him off to my goal. “Maybe there won’t be a next time. I like sunshine, cars, electric toothbrushes, iPhones…all those things Nocturna will never have.”
Billy’s smile turned sly. “Some people can’t live without those. But you, Mara, you can’t live without your kind.”
“Except for my stepmother, my family’s all part demon.” I took a swallow from my mug and savored the burn regular beer never left. “I’ve also got Partial friends on the other side, so I’m around lots of my kind.”
“That’s not what I meant. You’re caged there, but here,” Billy raised his beer, indicating our general surroundings. “Here we don’t pretend to be so emotionless or controlled. Some Partials can shut that part of themselves off, but you’re not one of them. Neither am I.”
Billy finished his beer in a single gulp and then sent the empty mug sailing into the fire pit. I took another drink, but slower, quietly acknowledging the truth in his words. My part-demon heritage meant I often did feel stifled living in the normal world, but at least there, I didn’t have to worry about Purebloods snatching up younger members of my family.
Or wonder which people around me might be helping them get away with it.
I scanned the faces in the crowd more out of habit than the thought that I could spot a Pureblood demon. Partials, Purebloods…all of us looked the same. Stand us next to humans and you couldn’t spot the supernaturals unless you caught the tiny lights that occasionally appeared in our eyes. Even Fallen were supposed to look normal until their hidden wings made an appearance, but if you saw those, it was already too late to run.
A hand appeared next to my arm, fingers long and masculine, with an ancient knot adorning the index finger and a simple ebony band encircling the thumb. Even if I hadn’t recognized those rings, I’d have known who was behind me for one simple reason – my heart had sped up, like something inside me had known he was close before the rest of me registered it.
“Rafael,” I said, not turning around.
That hand slid along my arm in the lightest of caresses, belying strength that had bested even a Pureblood in a fight. Beside me, Billy inclined his head.
“Rafe,” Billy rumbled. Then he got up and winked at me. “See ya later.”
I didn’t protest at Billy’s departure. Acting flustered would be the same as slapping a sign on my forehead that said Too Damned Interested For My Own Good.
I tipped my mug at the man who slid into Billy’s seat, admiring Rafael out of the corner of my eye. He moved with a beautiful, controlled fluidity, each gesture full of grace and purpose. His long jacket was open, revealing the trademark black leather vest studded with thin knives over a dark blue shirt. Only Rafael could make post-apocalyptic fashions look sexy.
“You’ve been away a long time,” Rafael said, his voice soft compared to the gaze he lasered on me.
I shrugged, glancing back to the scarred wooden bar instead of his vibrant blue eyes. “Technically, with how it’s always the same endless night here, I haven’t been gone at all –”
“Weeks,” he cut me off as his tone hardened. “Tell me I’m wrong.”
I took another swallow of my beer, but not even supernatural liquor could suppress my shiver as I turned to stare fully at Rafael. His golden-red hair and cobalt eyes accentuated high cheekbones and a face that could make angels weep with jealousy. If it wasn’t for his deadliness, Rafael’s ethereal looks might invite constant challenges as ruler. But the three-quarter demon was as ruthless as he was dazzling, enabling Rafael to stay in control of Nocturna for the past two hundred years. He could rule for the next two hundred if he could hold off future challengers. Time froze in Nocturna. Night didn’t turn into day, seasons didn’t change, and even aging stopped – one of the big lures of living in a secondary dimension versus the modernized world.
And I had to stop letting Rafael get to me, especially when I wasn’t sure if he was helping Purebloods shuttle Partials from this realm to the next.
“What, you missed me?” I asked with a softly challenging grunt.
“And if I did?” Rafael caressed his words while tiny lights began to gleam in his eyes. He leaned closer, warm breath falling against my skin with his next words. “Would you like that?”
Truthfully, yes. For many reasons, not least of which was the secret crush I’d had on him since I was fifteen. But Rafael knew more about what happened to Gloria than he’d let on. All the information I’d gathered in the past two years of poking around Nocturna implicated him either directly or indirectly. Plus, he’d never really explained why he’d been there that night, so conveniently close when the Pureblood tried to pull me through the barrier…
“Speechless, Mara?” he asked, a hint of a smile curving his lips.
I took another long sip of my beer – and started to choke as I sucked in a breath instead of swallowing. The bar and its surrounding seats were two steep steps up from the rest of Bonecrushers, giving me an elevated view of its occupants even while seated. And for the briefest moment, my gaze locked with a young man who was just ducking out the front door.
One glance was all I needed to recognize him. After all, his face had been burned on my memory for the past seven years. Ashton.
I vaulted to my feet, still choking, beer leaking out of my mouth and nose as I charged into the crowd after the Pureblood. Rafael tried to grab my arm but I shoved him aside, already pulling out one of my guns. Several large bodies blocked me, giving me annoyed glances as I shouldered past them, still coughing and spewing beer, but even though my eyes watered from the burn in my lungs, I didn’t slow down. I knew one day, he’d come back!
“Mara, wait!” Rafael commanded.
I didn’t look back but continued to plow my way toward the front, barreling into Billy, who lounged by the door. He grabbed me at a shouted word from Rafael, making me curse as I attempted to wrest away. Only our friendship kept me from shooting him on the spot.
“Let me go!” I tried to scream, but it came out in a gasping cough that splattered more beer. Even if Billy understood, he ignored me, holding my arms in a hard grip and nimbly avoiding the kicks I aimed at his legs.
Firm pounding began on my back a moment later, helping me expel the liquid in my lungs all over the front of Billy’s shirt. Through my watering vision, I saw him give a disgusted grimace, but since he wouldn’t budge from his position, I couldn’t see past him to find out which direction Ashton had taken.
A few more measured whacks on my back later and I could breathe enough to talk, but that didn’t make me less furious.
“Let me go or I’ll blast a hole right through you!”
Billy released me at the same time that strong hands grasped my shoulders and spun me around. Rafael backed me out of the door while managing to block the gun I tried to raise at him.
“Cranky when you choke, aren’t you?” he noted without the slightest hint of anger.
“Damn you, he’s getting away,” I snapped, looking over his shoulder and trying to jerk free at the same time.
Rafael frowned, glancing behind me. “Who?”
“The Pureblood who kidnapped Gloria!” I all but roared, so frustrated that I didn’t care who overheard me.
Rafael let me go so abruptly that I stumbled. My gun went off when I instinctively reached out with it to break my fall. For a sickening second, I wasn’t sure if I’d shot someone. Then I jumped to my feet, determining to apologize later, if that was the case, but I had to find Ashton now.
When I glanced around, Rafael was nowhere to be seen. I didn’t pause to wonder where he’d gone, but ran to the back of Bonecrushers. This was where the sneaky Pureblood would go instead of heading into the more well-lit areas of town. Behind the bar was an expanse of dark fields that stretched for miles until they met woods that reached all the way to the end of Nocturna – and the gateway leading to the next realm. But with these high, swaying grasses, I couldn’t see if Ashton was in them, and even at my best run, I couldn’t catch up with him. I needed a horse.
I spun around, hating the necessity of heading in the opposite direction of where I knew Ashton had run, but having no choice. Once in front of Bonecrushers, I grabbed the reins of the first horse I saw, tensing for the blasting pain from a gunshot if its owner saw me. One bullet won’t kill you, I reminded myself as I swung up into the saddle, whirling the horse toward the back of the bar and that cloaking darkness. It would take two shots to be lethal to a Partial like me, though one would do damage, that was for sure.
Luckily for me, no gunshots tore into my back. I spurred the horse into a gallop, one hand on the reins and the other grasping my gun. The horse charged through the tall grass like it knew exactly where we needed to go, to my relief. To stop a Pureblood, I’d need to land at least three good shots, and I needed to be close in order to see Ashton. Let me get him in my sights, I prayed. No way would I miss.
Gloria’s smile flashed in my memory, as bright and mischievous as her personality had been. Mara, this is Drew and Ashton. They’re Partials, too, and guess what – they know how to get into Nocturna!
I remembered the thrill those words had elicited. Our parents had strictly forbidden us from going into any realms and had refused to tell us where the gateways were, so that made Drew and Ashton irresistible. It helped that they’d been hot, too, and since our parents had thought we’d been seeing a double movie, our evening had been wide open. So I’d cheerfully gone with my cousin and her two new friends to the smelly Dumpster at the back of Bed Bath & Beyond without a single protest, thinking this would be the most exciting night ever.
And I’d been the only one to come back through that gateway, hating myself as I told my aunt and uncle they would never see their daughter again. They’d eventually forgiven me, but I hadn’t forgiven myself. How could I? If I’d refused to go with Gloria, or told our parents, or even once tried to stop her, Ashton wouldn’t have taken her where none of us could follow to save her.
And now, just like I’d anticipated, he was back. Probably trolling for more young Partials to snatch away and feed on. What if my sister decided to wander into Nocturna with some friends one night, knowing the dangers, but drawn toward the wild realm like Gloria and I had been? No drinking age and an entire dimension to party in was a powerful lure for a lot of teen Partials, because of course bad things happened to other people, not them. If my sister ran into Ashton, she’d never know what he was until it was too late.
My hand tightened on the gun and I ducked closer to the horse’s neck to urge the animal faster. Where are you?
Even with the rush of wind and pounding hooves, I thought I heard a whoosh above me. Startled, I looked up, but the town’s lights didn’t reach this deep into the field. No moon brightened Nocturna’s sky to provide contrast against the endless darkness, either. The moon didn’t exist on this side of the realm. Only the stars prevented the field from being swallowed up by impenetrable blackness, and somehow, plant life here managed to renew itself in a reverse sort of photosynthesis with starlight versus sunlight.
I snapped my attention back to the barely visible grass in front of me. Did I hear scrambling off to the left? I kneed the horse in that direction, straining my eyes against the breeze and the darkness. It was so hard to see, and being enveloped in blackness with the pounding of the horse’s hooves, wind, and my drumming heartbeat brought back awful memories.
My nose was stuffy from crying, but the duct tape plastered across my mouth meant those clogged inhalations were the only things keeping me alive. Grass blades slashed at my face like whips, burning my cheeks, until we entered the forest. Then the grass was gone, but the trees blocked out most of the starlight. I couldn’t see Gloria anymore. Last I’d glimpsed, she was slung over Ashton’s horse just like I was slung over Drew’s. Neither rider slowed his pace, however. I prayed the horses would stumble, or that something would stop them from taking us deeper into the woods, but nothing happened. The Purebloods must be able to see in the dark.
Purebloods. My nose threatened to close completely with my fresh spurt of tears. Ashton and Drew were Purebloods, and every child of my race knew what would happen if we were ever taken by one of them…
I slowed when the horse’s rapid pace brought me to the end of the field. Once there, I trotted along the edge of the forest instead of entering it. Ashton could still be hiding somewhere in the tall grass. Or maybe he’d outpaced me and made it into the forest; it wasn’t likely, but Purebloods were very fast runners. The barrier had to be where Ashton was heading. He’d seen me, and I didn’t doubt that he’d recognized me, too.
Did I risk getting lost in the forest trying to beat him to the barrier, or should I continue combing the grasses? The forest offered more danger than just further reduced vision. Ashton might not be the only Pureblood in the area. Most residents of Nocturna avoided the forest. They knew that going into it might be the last thing they ever did.
If only batteries didn’t always fry when crossing through the gateway! What I wouldn’t give for a high-powered flashlight right now, or some night-vision goggles. Sure, I had my guns, but without visibility they didn’t do me much good. Ashton could be waiting to ambush me from above in a tree, and I wouldn’t even see him until he knocked me off my horse.
I muttered a curse before swinging the horse around and backtracking through the waist-high grasses. Maybe Ashton was somewhere close, hiding. Waiting to see if I was rash enough to go into the forest and give him the advantage. The other thought was too frustrating to contemplate. Maybe he was already in the forest, running toward the barrier, and I was letting him get away.
I led the horse in a brisk trot down the length of the field parallel to the tree line, cursing the darkness and the high grasses the entire time. Ashton could be fifty yards away, but if he was stealthy, odds were I wouldn’t spot him. This field was large, too. Five miles squared, easily. Ashton had all the time in the world if he chose to wait me out.
Something stirred the grass ahead, about thirty feet in the distance. I didn’t charge right toward it but did a wide circle, not wanting to startle my target into hiding.
Yes. A definite disturbance in the grass. I tightened my grip on my gun until my hand ached. Come out, Ashton, where I can see you.
My heart began to hammer as a tall form stood up where that disturbance was, revealing himself from the concealment of the grass.
Thank you! I sighted down the barrel and -
I jerked the gun up just in time. That silhouette strode toward me, starlight faintly reflecting off golden-crimson hair as he drew near.
Rafael. He’d been out here searching, too.
“Did you see anyone?” I demanded in a low voice, half wondering if he’d tell me the truth if he had.
“I saw no one.”
Something in his tone made me narrow my eyes. “He’s out here,” I said crisply when I diagnosed what that tone was. Doubt. “He might have headed into the woods.”
Rafael turned to consider the tall, foreboding forest ahead of us. “Go on,” he said finally. “I’ll watch out for you.”
I shouldn’t find that reassuring, but for an inexplicable reason, I did. Maybe it was because I hoped I was wrong about Rafael’s involvement with Purebloods, even if the cynical part of me doubted it. Or perhaps it was my frustration at the thought of Ashton skipping through the woods, chortling to himself over how I was too chicken to follow. Caution urged me not to trust Rafael, but desire for revenge had me spurring the horse into the ancient forest with a firm kick.
Just like before, three quarters cautious human was no match for one quarter reckless demon.