Talking business over steak and glasses of bourbon should be straightforward, right? Well, maybe not always but it should be when the client’s one you’re familiar with. My strategy has always been to stroke the client’s ego (those are always bigger than you could imagine), tout my wins then go for the kill—tell him how my law firm can advance his interests.
This meeting with Terry Andrews, the CEO of an insurance conglomerate, should have been smooth sailing. Instead, from my seat by the curved, floor-to-ceiling conservatory windows, I was distracted by three men who made the hairs at the back of my neck stand. Monsters in human skin, they sat casually amid the draped tables, the crystal light fixtures, and the brick walls with paintings of cattle ranches and cowboys.
To the average person, they seemed like any other group of Washington, D.C. power players. However, I saw right through the glamour they projected. They were nothing more than demon spawn and they had me in their sights.
“You’re not one of those animal rights types, are you?” Terry slapped my shoulder with a beefy hand, wrenching my attention back to our conversation. “I’ve got to take you out to Kansas for some whitetail hunting. Best in the world.”
I’d never gone hunting for game in my life and didn’t think I ever would. Telling Terry any of this wouldn’t help so rather than respond, I picked up my copper-bottomed tumbler. The cold seeped into my fingertips as I spun the melting ice cubes to better mix the water with the bourbon.
“Vaughn’s a superb lawyer,” my boss, Kevin Watson, said. “But I don’t think he’d have the stomach to shoot and skin a deer.” He stabbed at his Porterhouse and dragged a steak knife through it, the middle a dark red.
I took a swig from my glass and put it down before pushing away from the cherry-wood table. “You never know, Watson. I could just surprise you.” Standing, I tugged my jacket’s hem. “I’ll be right back.”
Turning from the table, I walked across the room, my steps muffled by the chink of cutlery and the trill of laughter. My own private chuckle sighed from my lips. If only Watson realized what I’d been up to in the last few months. In that time, I’d slain zwarts, with their unimaginable strength, black eyes and pus-leaking sores. Imagens—creatures that can take the form and strength of other monsters—proved no match for me. In fact, I’d sliced and dice through the netherworld community of Washington, D.C.
It took time to adjust to how much demon spawn populated the city. They were everywhere! Yeah, you’d figure the average politician was evil scum but to actually see them for what they truly were? It was crazy! And to think I once believed my fellow mundanes as human beings. I wasn’t that naïve anymore.
Since my introduction to the dark side, hardly anything shocked me. It helped that my uncle kept sending his minions my way. They always showed up at the worst time, the bastards. I suspected they chose their moments to disrupt my life. They aimed to have a maximum impact on me. Fine. My maculae aimed for maximum impact as well and the trail of dead demon spawn behind me paid testimony to that.
Fortunately for Watson, he knew nothing about my ‘extracurricular activities.’ The world was messed up enough without him having to see this part.
Eyes glued on the bathroom door, I didn’t bother checking whether my admirers were following. I’d danced this dance enough times to know today wouldn’t be different. Plus, the weight on the maculae on my spine was all the reassurance I needed.
When I received the maculae, I’d gone through a weird experience. I often thought of it as a download—from the weapon to myself. My hands had wrapped around the glowing object that night and knowledge that would have taken lifetimes to garner suddenly filled my head. Everything from Enochian—the language of the angels, to fighting styles were immediately available.
An older man with a shock of white hair and a rotund midsection walked out of the bathroom as I arrived. Stepping aside, I let him by then slipped inside and unbuttoned my suit jacket, I rolled my shoulders and stood in front of the wide mirror. I spoke the Enochian phrase needed to materialize my weaponry, which I preferred to keep invisible when not in use. Flicking a piece of lint off my lapel, I didn’t adjust my gaze when someone joined me in the room.
A man in a navy pinstripe suit with sandy blond, shoulder-length hair stood behind me. The human image he projected rippled slightly then his eyes turned a jaundiced shade of yellow—the entire orb and not just the irises. I grew up in a run-down orphanage in Baltimore, a city where you saw many incredible things. This creature, however, was one I’d never seen. His corporate clothing vanished as he swelled in width and height, having to tuck his chin to his chest to avoid hitting the ceiling.
Thanks to my download, I recognized my foe as an orc. He was today’s special delivery courtesy of the prince of darkness. How kind of him. I would have preferred an encounter with a Mami Wata. Now those creatures were always stunning women. Until they tried to kill you, that is. Even imagens—the females, anyway—were beautiful, though they morphed into decaying beasts when they got ready to tango.
This orc, on the other hand, stood there with its puke-green skin. He was naked except for the mud-brown leather briefs that covered his sensitive bits. A battle ax materialized into his hulking hand and I let out an impatient sigh.
“Shall we begin? Or, do you need more time to get pretty?” I asked, raising an eyebrow at him through the mirror.
My last word was barely out of my mouth when he lunged at me. I can confess, I wasn’t quite ready but still, he didn’t catch me flat-footed. With a swift step to my left, I avoided the collision. He ran into the porcelain sinks and water burst out in a wide spray from where a faucet used to be.
“Pathetic.” I shook my head.
Roaring in frustration, he raced at me. This time, a copper urinal along the brick wall halted his progress. He stared at the deep dent he left behind then glared at me with his yellow eyes. A low growl filled the room.
“Didn’t Lucifer tell you I wouldn’t make it easy?”
I let him race my way and once he was within reach, I grabbed the rear waistband of his tighty-brownies—Eww—and rammed him into the closest wall on my right. The result was a crack that traveled upward only ceasing when it reached the automatic paper towel dispenser.
“And my uncle didn’t tell you what happened to those who came before you?” I slipped my untainted hand under the back of my suit. Shaking off the impact to his head, the orc shifted his weight to look at me. “He should have. You could have saved yourself so much trouble.”
With a growl, he gathered his hair, pulling it into a low ponytail. “You think you’re invincible?” he said, his tone venomous. “I will destroy you.”
He charged again, his body bent at the waist, his head leading. I didn’t step out of his way this time. Rather, I slid out my maculae from its holster. With a slight twist, I separated the weapon into two amber colored rings, one sputtered with silver specks and the other aglow with a golden, internal flame.
The orc must have sensed what was coming because he lifted his head and stared at the weapons with wide eyes. The laws of physics meant he couldn’t slow down and as I snapped my arms across each other in an arcing X, the circular blades lopped his head off. It hit the black-tiled floor with a thud and rolled a few inches before turning to ash. My eyes returned to the rest of the orc’s body. Inch by inch, it he devolved into dust.
I yanked out a paper towel from the dispenser and wiped what remained of my opponent from my blades. There was a strong temptation to wash them in the steady spray of water where the porcelain sinks used to be. However, I needed to get back to Terry and Watson. This meeting, like so much of the job, was one step toward my aim—to be the youngest and first-ever black partner at Cunningham, Trotter & Severn. I would be the kid who beat the odds and made something of himself.
To do that, this netherworld problem of mine needed to stop. No more demon spawn popping up on me. They were an unnecessary distraction. A distraction spurred by a prophecy that foretold I would be Lucifer’s undoing.
Words spoken to obscure them, the maculae were safely in their holster when the restroom door opened. A gust of air stirred the orc’s remnants, sending it swirling in different directions. Standing at the door was a man with a bulbous nose and a brunette Caesar haircut. Blue eyes the size of globes, he scanned the bathroom and his mouth fell open.
With a relaxed shrug, I said, “For the prices they charge, you’d expect a better restroom, right?”
Caleb raised his gaze from his newspaper when I entered his home office. As usual, he looked distinguished though he didn’t have a suit on today. Seated in his armchair, he wore a charcoal gray cardigan over a black and white plaid button-up shirt. His bottom half hidden under the wide desk. From the flat screen on the wall, a journalist’s monotone droned.
“Please turn that off.” I pointed to the television and sagged into an armchair, my fingers sliding down the cool, decorative brass tacks.
With a tap on his remote control, the volume died.
Sinking into my seat, I told him about my encounter at the restaurant. “It was a waste of billable hours,” I concluded.
“At least you’re okay,” Caleb said, flipping the remote control in his hand. “Keeping up with your training?”
I looked past him to the falling snow just beyond his window. “You know I don’t have time for that.”
“Make the time. The trainers I assigned to you are some of the best in the Legion,” he said, putting down the remote. “They will prepare you physically and mentally to deal with any attacks.”
After the fight with Lucifer at the barn, Caleb assigned two Legionnaires to work with me. I valued their time and had learned a lot, but there weren’t enough hours in the day to squeeze them into my schedule. And, they expected me to train every day.
“There’s a reason they say the law is a jealous mistress.”
A sad smile crossed his features. “I understand how important partnership is to you, but you must train. It’s the only way you’ll stay safe.”
“No, I’ll be safe when I get rid of your brother. If not, he’ll keep coming for me until I end up dead.” I stabbed my index finger into the table’s surface. “I’m tired of being hunted and with the maculae, I can bring that to an end.”
Straightening in his seat, he said, “Many a man has succumbed to the seduction of certainty. Don’t be one of them, son.”
Son. The word rocked me each time I heard it. After twenty-five years as an orphan, adjusting to life with a father had been a challenge. Caleb hadn’t eased into his role either. I took a long breath. I know he thought it was best I train, but I knew I was ready to flip the script on Lucifer. It was time.
“You rather I wait for him or his followers to kill me?” I asked, lifting an eyebrow.
“Of course not,” he replied. “It’s just that you are assuming you can kill him—”
“He just has to be…neutralized.” I walked over to the window and watched the snow cling to everything it touched. “The maculae can make it happen.” My thoughts went to that night at the barn when the maculae had sunk into Caleb’s chest. I’d watched it weaken him—a powerful fallen angel. Thinking of it made my chest twist with guilt. It was torture to watch him like that. I swallowed and reminded myself that some good came from the experience. Now, I knew what effect the maculae would have on his twin.
“How is Antonio?”
I spun from the powdery landscape. “We’re not done talking about Lucifer.”
“I never said we were.” He gave me a patient smile. “Your friend crossed my mind, so I asked before I forgot.”
“He’s avoiding me,” I said with a shrug and returned to my seat. “His phone keeps ringing when I call and he acts busy whenever I peek into his office.”
“Reach out to him, whatever it takes. Lucas’s death has been hard on both of you and you need each other more than ever.” He reached across the table to put a hand on mine. “Keep your family close, son. As much as you can.”
I understood the layers of regret in his voice. Intimately.
“I’ll check on him.” No way would I repeat my father’s mistakes.
With my hands in my coat pockets, I strolled up to Antonio’s row house in the Logan Circle neighborhood. How he’d managed to find this quiet street, remained a mystery but he’d bought a fixer upper and turned it into a swanky bachelor pad.
A freezing wind nipped at my neck, forcing me to pull up my coat’s collar as I crossed the street. The snow no longer fell, but with the sun setting, temperatures promised to drop. I swallowed as I got closer, unsure how my visit would be received.
We last spent time together at Fuji. That was after burying our best friend, Lucas. That evening was spent numbing our sorrow in alcohol. Since then, we’d barely shared a word. With a deep breath, I cast the memories of that sad day aside and climbed up the snow-covered steps. I glanced up just as the red door flew open.
“You’re an asshole!” Sophia grabbed the railing as she barged down the steps. “You’ve never deserved me!”
Here we go. Another day, another breakup between them. At least one thing hadn’t changed.
Scurrying out of her way, I let her march past. She got to the sidewalk, swiveled and narrowed her eyes at me. Her face florid with fury.
“Hey,” I said slowly. I didn’t want to become the subject of her wrath.
“Tell that friend of yours not to call. We are officially done this time.” She spun on her heels, muttering to herself. Snow leaped at her heels.
Closing the door behind me, I called out, “Antonio? It’s me, Vaughn.”
My eyes couldn’t avoid the empty bottles of alcohol scattered everywhere. The wooden coffee table had no room for anything else. One brand of tequila proved to be the favorite. Silver. We’d discovered the beverage during spring break in Cancun, our sophomore year. The last time I had it was on my birthday some months back. Lucas had turned beet red. I swallowed hard, shoving back my sadness.
I shouldn’t have waited so long to come visit. This place was a mess and Antonio was dulling his hurt with alcohol. No wonder Sophia stormed out. Sure, they broke up from time to time, but there was a finality in her statement outside that made me think she’d reached her limit.
“Come on, Ant? Where are you?”
I poked my head in the kitchen, recoiling at the sight of dirty dishes in the sink. Pizza boxes lay across the countertops as did Chinese takeaway boxes. One, its corner soaked in grease, lay the floor, rice spread out around it in disarray.
Moving to the stairs, I took them two at a time. His bedroom door was ajar, a laugh track from a show spilling out.
Stepping inside, I spotted him. Standing at the foot of his bed, he had on a black robe and gray pajama pants. When he turned toward me, I noticed the prominent dark stubble lining his chin and the almost empty bottle of Silver in his hand. He raised it to his lips then wiped his mouth with his sleeve.
“What the fuck do you want?”
His gruff tone forced me to halt and stare. Anger bubbled upward, but I shook it off. “I’m just checking in. You weren’t at work today so—”
“So, what? I’m allowed to take a sick day.”
“Sure, but we haven’t spoken since…” My voice melted to nothing.
“You can’t say it, can you?” His upper lip curled up in disgust. “Lucas’s death. There, I said it for you.” He knocked back some more tequila. “You’ve always been a wimp.”
That last sentence was a slap in the face. Trying not to flinch, I said, “What are you talking about?”
A wicked gleam entered his eyes. “Lucas died and you hid like a baby. You couldn’t handle it, huh? Same way you couldn’t handle your bullies when you were a kid. Lucas and I always had to protect your dumb ass.”
My neck grew hot. Without warning, Caleb’s voice shot through my mind. ‘Keep your family close, son. As much as you can.’ I wasn’t going to let Antonio push me away.
“Dude, we both hurting and we should be able to rely on each other right now,” I said, quietly.
“’Right now?’” He scoffed and drank some more Silver. “Where were you when he died? You were nowhere to be found until the funeral then you acted like you were some sort of superhero.”
“Superhero?” Mentally, I scrambled to figure out what he was talking about. I scratched at my scalp. “Do you mean when I helped you down from the podium? Ant, you were in so much pain, you didn’t realize what you were saying and—”
“Fuck you! Your help wasn’t necessary!”
Harsh insults threatened to spill forth, but I held them at bay. He was right. I had disappeared after Lucas died. That was because Caleb took me into hiding to keep me safe from Lucifer. Antonio didn’t know that but maybe if I explained it to him, he’d understand. I scratched my scalp again. How would he take what I had to say? I’d never revealed the changes I experienced after my twenty-fifth. There’d been no time. From the moment I learned about Lucites and Legion, my life had been go-go-go. Constant attacks had left little time for much else.
I feared he wouldn’t believe me and worse, that telling him would put him in danger. He was the one person in the world who’d known me the longest. I couldn’t afford to lose him the way I lost Lucas. Yet, he deserved to understand what was going on with me. My shoulders sank as I remained conflicted.
“You’re right. I went ghost when Lucas died but it’s because—”
“You think I don’t know about Delphine and you?” He sipped on his drink. “Your brother died, and you ran into her arms instead of being a man. You left me on my own to plan everything.”
“That’s not how it went down.”
“Deny it all you like.” He held on to the bed shuffling my way. “I needed you, but instead you were in between that bitch’s legs fu—”
My right fist connected with his chin and I watched him stumble backward, nursing his chin. Immediately filled with remorse, I said, “I shouldn’t have done that.” Squeezing my eyes together, I let out a deep breath. “I’m sorry.”
When my eyes opened, his face was a mask of rage. I was so focused on it, I missed the bottle. It finally registered as a flash of white arcing toward my temple.
There was an impact right before glass rained down on me. Wincing against the shards, I let out an oopf as he shoved me to the ground, punching. Luckily, I blocked most of his blows and soon, I pushed him off me. Pinning his arms to the carpet, I yelled, “Calm down!”
Though inebriated, Antonio had enough strength to struggle, causing my hands to slip off his robe a few times. He’d always been a stubborn bastard. I resorted to a different tactic.
His lids fluttered closed and a rumbling snore passed through his lips.
Relieved, I collapsed beside him on the floor. Panting, I closed my eyes and listened to the excited voices from a commercial. Despite my good intentions, things hadn’t gone the way I thought they would.
Nonetheless, I couldn’t shake the feeling of guilt that twisted my chest. He blamed my relationship with Delphine but I was the only one to blame. I’d thrown myself into work and killing netherworld creatures. I’d been able to do so because of my relationships with Delphine and my father. Antonio, sadly, didn’t have as much supported as he needed.
Unwilling to continue with the pity party, I sat up and looked at my sleeping friend. “Things will be different from now on, Ant,” I whispered.
I started to make plans. I would drag him to stay with me once he woke up. Once he sobered up, I’d tell him about Legion. It wasn’t the sort of secret I should keep from him. I’d introduce him to my father and have Layla and Bode cast some wards over this place and his office. Maybe I could even convince Caleb to assign a small group of Legionnaire’s to protect him. Antonio would love having his own personal security force. Actually, he’d love it a little too much.
The front door to the house whined as it opened, closing with a slam. It was now pitch-black outside. The only light in the bedroom coming from the television screen.
There was no response. I listened for the tell-tale sound of heels but didn’t hear any. The only sounds I heard was a jingle from the television and Antonio’s snores, which were now slight airy whistles. Leaving him to rest, I stood and made my way into the dark hallway.
“Sophia is that you?”
Something shoved me, and I backpedaled, my feet returning me to the master bedroom. Slamming my opened hand to the wall on my right, I turned on the light switch. The room flooded with a crisp white light and a screech that drilled a painful hole through my ears. I doubled over, hands covering them.
Stalking into the room was a creature I’d never seen before. Still, I recognized it as a drachen. It was uglier than I expected. It prowled on clawed feet, its onyx-hued talons gleaming menacingly. With dull gray scales for skin, the dragon-like creature had sharp-looking bone plates jutting from its body. Its big, black eyes sat above a protruding snout and mouth, which released flames with every step.
LOOK OUT FOR LEGIONMARKED … Coming soon to Amazon and Kindle Unlimited!