This is a Work In Progress. That means everything is subject to change. In fact, this chapter may not even end up in the final version. I’m fairly certain it will be, but hey. I will update this file when or if there are significant changes.
An Alley Near US Grant hotel
San Diego, California
Harsh’s skin crawled long before Giuseppe Infante strolled into the alley. Not a minor reaction. A major one. Hell. And hell again. The only reason, the absolute only reason, he would react to Infante like this was if that bastard mage had gone right back to performing ritual murders. To say he was not a fan of Giuseppe Infante would be the understatement of the century.
The only good demon is a dead demon.
Men like Infante lived by that motto. Dead or enslaved, that is, because the men like Infante were also hypocrites. Harsh didn’t have an issue with the sentiment per se, since, in point of fact, his kind had a similar motto.
The only good mage is a dead mage.
At least his faction mostly agreed the motto was politically incorrect. Mostly. He had to accept, however, that certain parties from both sides wouldn’t be sorry to see the other side annihilated.
Harsh himself had chosen the alley as a meeting place because Infante didn’t play fair. His kind rarely did. At least here, if things went wrong, he’d have an easier time keeping normal, vanilla humans from noticing. Not that he thought he’d have to dispose of any bodies, but he took an unsettling satisfaction in the possibility. He shouldn’t. But he did.
While he waited for the mage to appear, distant music thrummed in the air. Even this early in the evening, humans carried on with their normal lives, unaware they might one day wake up to the consequences of a war between species they didn’t know existed. It was Harsh’s job to make sure that didn’t happen.
His skin rippled again, and a vibration set off in his chest. Infante appeared in the mouth of the alley. He hadn’t come alone. Of course not. Frankly, it would have been suicidal for him to do so. Harsh would have been astonished if he’d shown up without any muscle. But this?
All four of the large men with Infante were a complete nullity to him. They did not register to him as human or demon. That shouldn’t be possible, that Infante had four demon slaves. Four. Not when he’d made sure Infante lost everything; every last mageheld. Every single life the bastard had stolen over the years. Yet here he was, with four new magehelds.
Proof that Infante was still one of the hypocrites.
“Hey,” Infante said. “Fuck you.”
Silence was bound to get a bigger reaction than anything Harsh could say in response, so he stayed where and as he was. Quiet in a way Infante could never be. He got his reaction in short order. Infante shifted his weight between his feet and his smile turned into a sneer. Of course. Five against one probably looked like good odds even if Infante remembered just how badly he’d fared during their last meeting.
If Infante ended up dead this time, he wasn’t going to cry.
For the time being, the magehelds stayed close to the mage, but there was no disguising their cold and helpless desperation, not with the hallmark of buzz-cut hair and that psychic nullity. The look was all too familiar and close to home. As for Infante? That was too familiar as well. His knock-off Italian suit and a self-satisfied grin made Harsh wish he’d killed Infante when he had the chance.
He crossed his arms over his chest and waited. The four enslaved demons spread out. One turned his back to Harsh so he could guard the mouth of the alley. Another stood just behind Infante. The other two moved forward and to either side of the alley.
The mage made a big deal of arranging himself in the middle of the alley, facing the industrial sized Dumpster at Harsh’s back. No doubt he thought he was safe with four bodyguards to one of him. Understandable. Whatever he ordered those four to do, they did. Murder. Robbery, theft, rape. All of the above. The poor fucks had no choice. All that talk from them about 'Human Rights,’ yet mages were willfully blind to the hypocrisy of the slaves they took and the murders they committed in the name of those same rights. They had yet to agree that human deserved an expanded meaning.
Infante gestured, and a soft, greenish glow suffused the immediate surroundings. Harsh didn’t need the extra light, but Infante, despite being a mage, was still human. He had most of their physical limitations, including eyesight that needed time to adjust to changes in ambient illumination.
“What the fuck you doing so far away from home?” Infante said.
The attitude was unchanged; angry, full of himself, spoiling for a fight. He looked younger, though. Not forties anymore, but mid-thirties. For a man who’d lost everything just eighteen months ago, that apparent youth was more worrisome than the four mageheld. That youthful appearance meant he’d killed a lot of demons. In horrific fashion since the ritual involved cutting out a demon’s beating heart and then taking on the demon’s now disembodied magic.
Harsh had a very personal issue with that. That wasn’t a physical death anyone deserved. There was no psychic death. Every single demon Infante had murdered like that lived trapped inside the mage. He met Infante’s gaze. “You’re pretty far from home, too.”
His lip curled. “I’m on vacation.” The light around him flickered. The dark skinned mageheld to Harsh’s left sidled closer to Infante. What the hell was Infante doing with a mageheld who didn’t have that lived-in-America look? No way was he local to North America. No way.
If he’d managed to enslave one of the African demons, that was cause for concern. It meant the African demons and mages were finally taking an interest in the West. Or else this petty, self-important little fuck had gone to Africa and put all their asses on the line. Either way, this was not a welcome development.
Now, the meeting felt like a set up, which ought to be unlikely because Harsh had arranged it. But here was Giuseppe Infante, grinning like he knew something Harsh didn’t, young-looking and healthy and in possession of four new magehelds. The magic that bound them to Infante made it impossible for Harsh to judge their power by anything but their appearance. Size and physical perfection tended to be indications of power. The four were big. The one he thought was African was physically perfect. If this came down to a fight, he could handle Infante and the three smaller of his magehelds. But the one he was almost certain was African? That one would be a challenge.
“You’ve been harassing Addison O’Henry.”
Infante shrugged, but the corner of his lip curled again. “I ain’t doing nothing to her.”
The lie was so monumentally huge, he struggled to maintain his calm. “You need to leave her alone.”
“I don’t have to do anything you say.”
“No. But think of it as advice you would be wise to take.”
“Like I give a rat’s ass about what some hotblood says.” Infante spat to his left. The African shifted again so that he had a straighter line to Harsh.
“She remains under our protection.”
“Fuck that. She’s fair game.” The magekind did not always have the most pleasant personalities, but he’d learned how to navigate the political waters of relations between demonkind and magekind. It wasn’t impossible that Infante would continue in this abrasive manner even if he intended to comply.
“Not only do we protect our own, we enforce our rules.” Impatience crept into his voice. Addison ought to have been safe here. There weren’t many magekind here, and even fewer of the demonkind, most of whom had been killed or enslaved years ago. Since then nearly all the free kin had left for the safer territories of Northern California where the demon warlord Nikodemus held power.
“Bullshit. If you enforced the rules that bitch would be dead.”
“If you had rules, she wouldn’t know we exist.” He curled his hands into fists and made damn sure he had plenty of power on tap. “If you followed your own rules about protecting humans, she’d still have a normal life.”
Infante, being what he was, knew a few buttons to push. “She was in the wrong place at the wrong time. That’s not my fucking fault. If she’d stayed home at night like a good girl, she wouldn’t know any of us exist.”
Harsh forced himself to familiar calm. Getting there was harder than he liked. “There is no justification for what happened to her. None. You know that.”
“Oh, bull. Shit.” He made a sharp gesture and the light around him tracked the movement of his hand. “You think I don’t know what your deal is? She’s just the kind of juicy young thing you hell-freaks like. Why do you think Bejar took her?” Infante leered at him. “I bet you fucked her, too. She as fun in the sack with you as she was with my guy?”
There came a time when manners were of no use. Such as now. He’d learned, over the years, that he had an edge when he appeared to be calmer than he felt. “You have been a pain in my ass from the day we met.”
“Glad to hear it. Let me tell you, this one here”—He cocked his head in the direction of the African mageheld—“he’s going to find out for himself what’s she’s like. How sweet she is. And I’m going to watch every second of it.”
“Leave her alone or you won’t live long enough to regret it.”
“Fuck you. This ain’t Frisco. Nikodemus can’t do shit here, and you don’t have an army of hotbloods to send anywhere.” He jabbed a finger at Harsh. The light followed in an eerie flash of green. “Here’s what’s going to happen. I’m going to finish what I started with that little bitch. She won’t be the only one, either. Tell you another thing. Your Nikodemus is going down. Every one of you hotblood freaks will end up dead or under control. The way it should be. We aren’t safe any other way.”
“To which I am tempted to reply, ‘the only good mage, is a dead mage.’”
“Yeah, fuck you, too.”
“Leave Addison O’Henry alone, and we have no argument.”
“No can do. I’m shorthanded these days.” The curl at the edge of his mouth turned ugly.
He kept his hands loose. He should have known. He should have known better than to think Infante would be anything but an utter asshole. “There’s nothing more to discuss, then.”
“You got that right.” Infante gestured to the mageheld Harsh thought was the African demon, and his bad feeling came back a thousand times worse than before. “Go.”
A smile curved the mageheld’s mouth, and Harsh just had time to think there was something dangerously off about that look before everything went black.