The demons came with the night, sweeping across the hills with fiery swords that tore through darkness and the bodies of the villagers they left in their wake. Gabriel gripped and released the hilt of his broad sword as he watched the flames of Hell envelope hill after hill, each one closer than the last. At seventeen, he was bigger than any other man in his village, and still he feared the fanged creatures.
"Is this all there is?" his father, the village elder, hissed as three more men joined their small army overlooking the valley.
"Aye, 'tis everyone."
Gabriel turned to see the restless shadows that were his family and friends. There were only forty men from their village in any shape to fight, and several more who had not lifted a sword in years. The rest of their village fled for the caves in the cliff, where they hoped the demons would not follow.
"We only need to stay alive long enough for our women to make it to the cliffs," his father said. Several men murmured in agreement. Gabriel's gaze returned to the demons. Fear chilled his insides and adrenaline made him fidget.
"We'll ambush 'em in the valley, then run for the cliffs," his father went on. "Son, you'll stay here."
"No, Papa," Gabriel said. "I'm the biggest man in the village. I'll fight."
"You're no warrior, boy. You'll stay here. Hide yourselves, men!"
The villagers—only a few armed with swords and the rest armed with iron tools or wood—hurried past him to take up their positions hidden in the tall grasses of the valley's sloping walls. He started forward, determined to fight the beasts that threatened his mother and younger brother.
"No, boy," his father said and pulled him back. "Listen to me."
"I swore to your mother you'd come home, even if I didn't. Listen to me, boy."
"I am, Papa!" he said, eyes going to the demons again. His father gripped his chin and forced his attention back to him. The dim light from stars made the creases appear deeper in his father's leathery face, and Gabriel gazed into eyes as dark as his.
"If Death comes for you, you tell her she can't have your spirit. You hear me?"
"Papa, I'm not going to die! I'm going to kill all the demons and go home to mama!"
"Boy, you tell her, she can't have your spirit."
"Papa, enough!" Gabriel snapped. "They're coming!"
His father looked towards the demons, resignation crossing his features before he darted down the hill. Gabriel followed as far as he dared before the first of the demons crested the hill on the other side of the valley.
Their flaming swords were longer than he was tall and clutched by hands with talons the length of his forearm. Moonlight glinted off fangs and the scales that lined their bodies beneath tufts of black fur. Even their horses were twice the size of any horse he'd ever seen with eyes that glowed like the harvest moon. His mouth dropped open and for a long moment, he forgot to breathe.
"Now, men!" his father shouted and charged out of the grass towards the low point in the valley.
A demon launched itself off its horse, snapped his father's arm with one bite of its powerful jaws, and broke his body in half. Horrified, Gabriel watched the demon rip the flesh off his father's bones before tossing the carcass aside. The fiery swords of the demons mowed through his uncles and cousins while several more tackled his friends. Blood soaked the earth.
Paralyzed by fear, he saw the demons ride towards him, but it was as if he watched someone else. He screamed at the youth on the hilltop to raise his sword, to fight for his family, to die with honor, but the fool did not move. He stood there with the sword at his feet and his jaw slack as the demons thundered up the hill to claim his head. As the sword descended, he moved his lips in a scream that echoed into the night.
"You cannot have my spirit!"
Fire, darkness, silence.
Sweet smelling grass tickled his cheeks and rustled in the ocean breeze. Gabriel swatted it out of his face and opened his eyes, squinting at the bright midmorning sun. He rolled onto his back. Smoke billowed into the sky from the direction of his village.
He scrambled to his feet, his stomach turning at the sight of the carnage in the valley. Memories of his father being cut down were fresh in his mind. He remembered the demon charging him as well, the sword descending then…nothing. He ran his hands over his body to make sure all his parts were there and stopped to stare at his palms. They were covered in blood. So was his clothing and the grass around him. It looked as if he'd died last night, yet he was alive.
His thoughts flew to his mother and the caves. His pulse loud in his ears, Gabriel ran down then up the hill separating the village from the valley of death to the hill overlooking the home he'd meant to defend. Everything was burnt to the ground or still burning, from the dwelling he'd shared with his family to the horses in the smithy's corral. His eyes followed the path the demons took, marked by a swath of scorched ground that snaked through the grass from the village towards the cliffs—the same path his mother would have taken.
He ran until he reached the scorched earth then slowed to take in the bodies lining the demons' path. His panicked gaze flew from body to body as he made his way to the cliff's edge. He caught a blur of white from the corner of his eye but dismissed the fleeting image as nothing more than a lucky sheep, until a sweet, sing song voice penetrated his maddened search.
"Come with me, my darling."
He faced the small woman with white robes and hair that shifted in the wind without disturbing the grass. His hands clenched and released, but he'd left his sword on the hill. She knelt beside the lifeless body of a woman, and he drew a sharp breath.
"Mama," he whispered.
The woman in white turned. One moment her eyes were white then black then every color in between. In her hand she held green gems. His gaze went from her to his mother, and he dropped to his knees, tears blurring his vision.
"I fear she's dead-dead," the small woman in white said. "I've harvested her spirit already." She held out the gems and pointed at one. "This one is hers."
He reached for it numbly and held the transparent emerald in his hand.
"She's so small," he said in a choked voice. Tears streamed down his face, and he wiped snot from his nose. His chest was so tight, he thought he'd suffocate.
"Your brother is over there."
He followed her pointing finger with his gaze. His little brother lay spread-eagled on his belly, his back torn open down the middle. Gabriel wiped his face again and went to his brother. He squatted to run his fingers through his brother's hair just as he had done yesterday morning.
"They're never really gone forever," the woman said. She held out a hand to the boy's ear. A tiny whirlwind of green dust swirled free of his brother, danced around her hand like smoke, and crystallized in her palm. She held it out to him.
"Where do they go?" he asked.
"To the underworld, where I keep all the souls. Your family will be together down there. There's no more pain once I take them from their weak mortal bodies," she answered. "One day, I'll teach you."
"Teach me what?" he asked and took his brother's soul. He closed his fist around what remained of his mother and brother, protecting them as he had not been able to the night before.
"How to gather a human soul once one is dead-dead." Her voice was cheerful, as if she plucked daisies in the field and not the spirits of his family.
"What are you?"
"You spoke to me last night, Gabriel."
"You know my name."
"You knocked on my door and refused to come in. I'm not accustomed to that, Gabriel," she chided him gently.
He stared at her and stood, ready to flee the madwoman and take his mother and brother with him. She drew nearer, and he caught her scent, like sunshine and grass. Her rainbow eyes seemed to see right through him. At half his size, she seemed delicate and small, but he felt the warm power that made the air around her shimmer. He'd spoken to no one last night except…
"Death," he said at last, his voice barely a whisper. "My father warned me about you."
"And see where that got you?"
"Yes and no. Because you refused to give me your soul, I had to turn you into an Immortal. I don't like leaving mortals in the shadow world. Nothing good ever comes of that. I can always make you dead-dead…" She raised her eyebrow in inquiry, but he shook his head. "Very well. Come on."
"Where are we going?"
"You're mine now, Gabriel, and we have more souls to gather."
He looked down at the gems in his hand. Pain and loss crippled him, and he doubled over to retch. Death placed a cool hand on the back of his neck. His stomach settled.
"Come, young one," she said, not unkindly. "I have great plans for you."
He watched her walk away and forced himself to his feet. He faced the bodies of his mother and brother one last time. Cold desolation lingered within him like a thick fog.
"I want to bury them," he said.
"We have to gather the souls before nightfall, or the demons will return for them."
Such creatures would kill the innocent then harvest their souls? He never knew such evil existed.
"I will kill them if they come!" he vowed.
"Not this day. I saw you on the hill last night. You did not even lift your sword," Death said, bemused. "You must learn to fight, and you must learn to bury your human emotions. They make you weak, Gabriel, and I cannot have that."
"I cannot help what I am!" he said, his face hot with shame and anger at the reminder that he'd done nothing when the demons attacked.
"You can, and you will. You will be known by many names. Death dealer. Assassin." She stooped to coax another stream of green sand free from a fallen villager. "You will join the others who bring me the souls of mortals and immortals."
"I want to kill demons."
"You will. Come with me, Gabriel. We're going home."
What looked like the mouth of a cave materialized in the air before her, and she stepped into it. He gazed around once more while hot tears burned down his cheeks. He wiped them away and squared his shoulders. His family died because he was too afraid to act.
I will become the strongest and fastest and bravest. I will avenge you mama, papa, I swear it.
His heart pounding, he followed Death to the underworld.
1,000 years later
Gabriel lopped the head off the last demon and stood ready to take on more. The demons, however, were done playing his game, and those remaining disappeared. He stood knee deep in demon body parts and straightened. He'd happened upon the demons on his way to kill those on his list of souls to claim this cold night.
He cleaned his sword methodically and replaced it at his back. While he never passed up a chance to behead a demon, he no longer burned to kill them or felt any sense of satisfaction afterwards. He'd all but lost his human emotions after a millennium, much to Death's delight.
"I'll take your head, assassin!"
He whipped around and saw the small form dart from behind a tree nearby. The sword was larger than the boy bearing it. The boy's first strike came nowhere near him, and the second almost reached him. He stepped away from three more strikes. The boy paused, puffing with effort.
"Wait there, assassin. I must kill you," he ordered. Gabriel watched him run behind a tree. He normally killed witnesses, human or otherwise, but hesitated, reminded of his youngest brother, who was near the same age when he was killed.
Suddenly, the tree behind him exploded into flames. He spun, sword in his hand. Another one exploded then a third. Soon, all the trees nearby crackled with flames. Magic hummed in the air around him.
"Boy, you should leave before the fire gets you," he called.
"I will not!" the boy shouted, poking his head out from behind his tree.
"If you're foolish enough to attack a full-grown assassin, you're foolish enough to burn yourself to death."
"I'm a demon. I can eat a full-grown assassin!"
"I don't know who told you this, but Death has domain over mortals, Immortals, and all the Hell-beasts," he said and approached the child, whose arms were crossed and whose grubby expression was fierce. The boy's eyes were silver like a wolf's. Gabriel knelt in front of him. The raw, wild magic that made the hair on his arms stand on end emanated from the boy. The child was a half-breed demon, though Gabriel hadn't met many full-blooded demons with such raw power.
"Where is your mother?" he asked.
"I have none."
"And your father?"
"I have none."
"What are you doing here? Setting trees on fire?" Gabriel studied him, his curiosity piqued by the little demon boy.
The half-breed hesitated before saying, "I was aiming for you."
"I've killed men for less."
"I've never killed anyone, but I'll keep trying."
"You shouldn't be out here alone," Gabriel said. He rose to leave. "Go home, boy, before I change my mind and take your head."
"I have no home, assassin." Though the words were brave, the tortured look that crossed the demon boy's face bade Gabriel linger. "Do you go to kill someone?"
"I do. I have three on my list," Gabriel replied.
"The list of souls Death has ordered me to take to the underworld."
"I can help you," the demon boy offered. "I can burn their houses down."
Gabriel wasn't sure what to do with the demon boy who was clearly a menace to the mortal world. The more he thought, the more he wondered how the boy had gotten out of the Immortal world in the first place. Demons were known for killing half-breeds or tossing them into one of the bottomless seas in the underworld. He'd never heard of a half-breed being stranded among the humans.
Something about the brave, unkempt boy glaring up at him disturbed him more than he liked. After years of Death's brutal efforts to banish his human weaknesses, he couldn't explain the instinct that urged him to take care of the boy.
"You can come with me," he said at last.
"To hunt souls?"
"Yes, then to the Immortal world, where you belong."
"I came from there," the boy said with a frown. His eyes welled with tears.
"You cannot stay here in the mortal world. They'll kill you."
The boy looked torn. Gabriel sheathed his sword and walked away, puzzled as to why such a young creature with so much power had been abandoned in the human world. Another tree exploded, and he tensed without turning. He remembered his own brother's willful tantrums and refused to respond to the half-breed.
"Wait!" the half breed said, running to catch up to him. "What are you called, assassin?"
"Gabriel, I'm going with you."
"Keep up. I do not have all night to fetch the souls," Gabriel said with a glance down at the boy whose head barely reached above his waist. At close to seven feet tall and wider than most trees, Gabriel was accustomed to seeing most full grown men run when they saw him. Even demons hesitated before attacking. The boy hadn't been intimidated in the least by his size. Occupied by the little demon, he didn't notice his enemies massing in the forest around them.
"What does Death—" The demon boy was interrupted by shouts from the forest and a fiery volley of arrows. Gabriel dropped to the ground, snatched the boy and rolled his small body beneath his. He grunted as arrows pierced his back and legs. He expected the boy to cry out in fear or pain at any moment and heard the half-breed mumbling in agitation.
A sudden shockwave made Gabriel's teeth chatter as a burst of demon power rolled through him. Demons roared, and more arrows fell. Gabriel hunched his shoulders, expecting to feel the demons' swords pierce his body. Quiet fell instead. He waited a long moment then unfolded his body with some difficulty. The number of arrows lodged in his back and legs made it impossible for him to stand. The demon boy rose and surveyed the damage.
"I did it," he breathed, silver eyes glowing like the moon. "Gabriel, I did it!"
Gabriel craned his neck to look around. As far as he could see on either side of the road, the forest had disintegrated. Piles of ashes were all that remained of demons and trees alike. Proud, the half-breed faced him, his smile fading.
"There are so many arrows."
To his surprise, the demon boy carefully gripped the shaft of an arrow in Gabriel's calf and jerked it free. It hurt worse coming out than it had going in, and Gabriel hissed at the pain.
"Be still, assassin," the boy said with a level of self-command beyond his years.
"I thought you wanted me dead-dead," Gabriel grunted. "You prefer to kill me yourself?"
"No, Gabriel," the boy said. "I don't want to kill you now."
Gabriel gritted his teeth as another arrow was pulled free. He didn't understand the demon boy. One minute, he was the enemy. The next, the half breed tried to help him.
"You saved me. No one else cares if I live, Gabriel." The soft words were filled with unshed tears. Gabriel twisted to see the boy, whose face was stormy with emotions. The child met his gaze, and he felt the connection again. For reasons he couldn't explain, he wouldn't leave the demon boy behind.
"Hurry, boy," he said. "We have souls to claim and demons to hunt."
"You won't die-dead?"
"Not this night."
"I'll protect you if they come back."
Gabriel raised an eyebrow as Death did when he said something foolish to her. The half-breed was powerful yet showed no capacity for control. He suspected the boy could kill him accidentally with another of those bursts. The half breed was quiet, concentrating on the arrows. Gabriel bore the pain in silence.
"Done, Gabriel," the half-breed said and sat back, a frown on his face. Gabriel rolled with a grimace. His body worked, but he hurt and was weaker than he preferred.
"What are you called?" he asked as he pushed himself up.
"Rhyn," he echoed. "Is that not demon for flower?"
The boy's eyes narrowed in response. Gabriel snorted and limped onto the road.
"C'mon, boy. We have souls to fetch."
"Do you think we'll be friends for all time?" Rhyn asked and fell into step beside him.
"Eternity's a long time, Rhyn," he said.
"Yes, but there are a lot of souls we can hunt."
"You'll have to learn to fight like I do. Rhyn," he said suddenly and stopped to look down at the demon boy. "You can't come with me to the underworld. Death won't allow that."
Rhyn gazed up at him, hurt in his eyes. The boy belonged in the Immortal world. Gabriel's thoughts went to the Immortals he'd met when they bought death warrants from Death that he carried out. Soon after taking him to the underworld, Death had pushed him into a brutal series of assassinations to harden him against human emotion. He'd wiped out entire cities at her command, and killed children as young as Rhyn when paid by Immortals to do so. He didn't care for most of the Immortals, but there was one who'd gone so far as to thank him for his service and buy him a new dagger.
The air around Rhyn shimmered as his hurt turned to anger. The demon boy gathered his power to strike. Gabriel ruffled his hair as he had his brother's, amused by his companion.
"I might know someone who can help," he said and began walking again. "First, we'll hunt."
Rhyn released the breath he'd been holding. "I trust you, Gabriel."
"You ever take a soul from a human?"
"I'll teach you how."
As they walked in silence down the road, Gabriel had the uncanny sense his fate was now tied to that of the creature he'd saved.
The Rhyn Trilogy by Lizzy Ford
Book One: Katie's Hellion
Book Two: Katie's Hope
Book Three: Rhyn's Redemption, Coming March 2012
Lizzy Ford is the author of the paranormal romance Damian/War of Gods series and the Rhyn Trilogy. She writes to keep the people in her head from killing her.
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M. Edward McNally
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