Once upon a time there was a girl who was a princess. A little girl who didn't know that not everyone could do the things she could do. A little girl who didn't know that her grandmother had made a deal with a demon, and she was the result of that contract.
Once upon a time there was a little girl named Skyla who loved her older siblings, adored her mother and the nice Mr. Wendt who took her out for ice cream every other weekend, and wanted nothing more than to be a demon fighter just like her brother's best friend David Lasisk. A little girl who, when she was six, saved a little boy named Charlie from a demon and forever altered the course of her life. And of her heart.
Though there is a princess, this is not a fairytale. There is no beautiful maiden locked up in a tower waiting to be saved. There is no handsome knight in sparkling armor ready to battle a dragon to save his ladylove. There are demons, physical and metaphorical. There are battles and passionate declarations. Tears. Blood. Faithful friends. Villains. Heroes. But there is no happily-ever-after. There is no neatly wrapped ending.
Life rarely does anything on command.
Skye knocks on the door of the nondescript, vinyl-sided two-story house with one eye on the middle-aged man walking a show-cut white poodle across the street. Either he's watching the house for a specific reason or he always takes his sweet time walking his mutt. Sneaks a cigarette and savors time away from the old lady. She's not ruling out the latter explanation. She freely admits she's paranoid.
Though it's not like she doesn't have plenty of reason to be suspicious of everyone. That's what happens when your father is the iron-fisted ruler of a hellish, war torn dimension and your maternal grandmother tries to kill you on your fourteenth birthday. It's part of the standard vigilante demon-fighting package: mysterious "superhero" name, bruises, nightly fights, absence of a social life, and extreme paranoia.
No one responds to her knock. Even the poodle has started watching her. She rakes a small hand through her short, pale azure-tipped hair. The address matches the one her friend Charlie, the leader of Quince's ragtag group of vigilantes, had given her the previous night. She thumps her closed fist against the door and presses her mouth near the crack. She's exposed and she hates it.
"Yo! N-dub! Open Sesame."
The door creaks opens. NightWalker, the dorky name Charlie chose for himself at the wise age of eight and steadfastly refuses to give up, appears in the vacant space. He's dressed in black jeans and a black turtleneck. His jet-black hair is artfully mussed. She fights the near-automatic eye roll his appearance always garners. He learned a bit too much from his mentor. If Charlie starts hanging out in super-secret bunkers and brooding like it's an Olympic sport, she'll kick his ass. There's only room in the universe for one Deathblade.
"Hey," Charlie greets. It's lame. He's lame. She tells him as much. He just scowls. "Why are we friends again? Oh yeah, that's right. You saved my life and have never let me forget it."
"Told you that I stamped it 'paid in full' years ago, Chuck."
"You know I hate it when you call me that."
"And you know I hate it when you pull that 'you saved my life' crap." She'd hug him , but that's not the sort of relationship they have. Not any more. Not since she spent a year as the prisoner of her father's main rival Gella and he graduated from the Deathblade School of Demon Hunting. They've changed, and going back to the way they were seems impossible.
"It's good to see you, Skye."
"It's good to be seen."
"Thank you for coming."
"Man, you know all you ever have to do is ask." She reaches out to squeeze his hand, the only physical contact that's allowed under their new rules. He flinches because her magic is just a little too close to the surface. Her magic, dark as a moonless sky, burns people like Charlie. There's a shooter bottle of Crown in her pocket. She longs for a quick hit.
"Skyla!" A high, feminine voice calls out from behind Charlie. It is the only warning Skye gets before a blur of carrot red hair, porcelain skin, and pink sweater slams in to her. Lori Kane, one of Charlie's pet vigilantes, embraces Skye.
"Ribs, Lori," Skye manages through gritted teeth. Born and raised a warrior in a dimension marginally less brimstone-y than the one Skye's father rules, Lori possesses a strength many would kill for. That Lori is the sweetest, kindest person Skye has ever met just goes to show that Fate has a sense of humor: the power of a Sherman tank with the soul of Mother Teresa.
"Sorry, Skyla." Lori lifts Skye's small suitcase off the ground, practically yanks Skye's arm out of the socket as she drags the other woman into the dim interior of the house. "I cannot thank you enough for agreeing to assist the team while I am traveling with Red Devil."
"You know I know his name is Uriah, don't you?"
"Yes. He insists on Red Devil, and I'm tired of being corrected."
Skye can't blame him. There are several vigilantes who answer only to the names they created. Some do it to immerse themselves fully in their "other" identity, while some just abhor their birth name. Some do it because after a while it becomes habit and the person you were before just fades away. She chose the name Adrestia because the mythological goddess represents balance and is the daughter of War. Having spent most of her life walking the blurred line between good and evil, she understands a thing or two about balance.
She prefers Skye, though. It is the name her mother gave her. A name her father refuses to speak. There is another name she'll never answer to. One name she'll never share with anyone. Ever.
The rest of Charlie's team is waiting in a living room that bears a startling resemblance to Deathblade's command central. There is a cheerful, red-haired girl she recognizes as Valeria, the youngest, half-breed daughter of one of her father's former rivals; a tall, athletic man who would look more at home in the ring at a wrestling match - Albert "Rage" Cavazos; and a short, slim man who spent his early life as a thief before he was kidnapped by a group of demon-hybrids. In their infrequent phone calls Charlie refers to him Lightning, but she thinks his name is Earl.
Demon hunting isn't a club sport. There aren't membership cards and mixers, but it's a small community. The "superhero" names are protection from ignorant humans and vengeful demons and media stalking. Not from other vigilantes. Only a handful of vigilantes like Deathblade refuse to associate with other hunters and fiercely guard their identity.
Valeria presses a hand to her throat when she catches a glimpse of the crest tattooed on the back of Skye's left hand. "Wencasas," she breathes, her voice a mixture of apprehension and awe. Yeah, Skye gets that reaction a lot when she visits her father and other dimensions. It always makes her want a drink.
Lori stops dragging Skye across the room. As one, they turn to face an ashen Valeria. Out of the shadows, Charlie appears and slides a protective arm around Skye's shoulders. Skye's black-tinged blue eyes, the same blue as the ends of her hair, narrow. Well, if there's going to be name-calling… "Daughter of Respaa."
Valeria's head dips. Twin spots of color appear on her freckled cheeks. "Yes, your highness?"
Silence stretches for a long moment before nervous laughter spills from Charlie's lips. "Okay, princess, that's enough intimidation. Flamegirl needs to leave before she misses her ride."
Skye embraces Lori. She has so few friends that she has to treasure each one. Rare is the person who can accept Skye's heritage. "Be careful. Use Red as a human shield if you need to." She kisses Lori's cheek. "Change your name, for crying out loud."
There are tears and hugs as Lori says goodbye to the rest of her team. The honk of a horn from outside puts an end to the lengthy sobfest between Charlie and Lori. Skye knows why Red refuses to step inside the house. He sticks to the shadows more than Charlie's team of misfits. They don't always see eye-to-eye, and he's taking their golden girl away from them. That he and Charlie were, for a time, rivals for Lori's affection doesn't help, either.
Once Lori is gone, all eyes turn to her. Some are curious. Some are wary. One set is borderline hostile. Given that Lightning was kidnapped and tortured by demons, she can't blame him for his reaction to her presence.
"Where did you meet Flamegirl?
"How long have you been friends?
"Do you have any special abilities?"
"How long have you been fighting demons?"
"Why'd you make Valeria react like that?"
Skye blinks at the barrage of questions. "Six years ago when she and N-dub were visiting Parker Heights. Six years, obviously. I think that third question is a little personal for the first meeting. All my life. That's between Valeria and me."
Charlie clears his throat. "Skyla, Adrestia when we're out in public, can float like Flamegirl. She's an expert energy manipulator. She's a trained fighter. I didn't exactly ask her to bring in a resume. You'll just have to see her in action. She has been my friend for seventeen years. I trust her."
"Thanks for that sterling recommendation, N-dub," Skye drawls.
"Could you not call me that?"
"Would you prefer Ch-?"
"No," he interrupts fiercely, eyes glaring holes into her. Interesting. His team doesn't know his name. How very curious. She wonders if, had their situation been different and she'd met him on the street or joined his merry band, he would have shared that name with her. She considers him her best friend. She's known him since they were children - him an innocent, wide-eyed boy and her a not-so-innocent fledgling demon hunter. She knew Charlie before the inception of NightWalker.
She'd tried to talk him out of demon hunting. Tried to convince him to stick to the relative safety of the light. To remain indoors, happily ignorant of the things that go bump in the night, like the majority of humanity. She'd almost convinced him to leave the nasty business to those born in to it when the truth about his father's nighttime activities came to light. All of her carefully constructed arguments crumbled like a sandcastle at high tide. It was impossible to keep the son of the legendary Deathblade from taking to the streets to make his own name.
It isn't the first time Skye's worked with a team. There's still an adjustment period. N-dub likes rules. Patrol schedules. Training before the sun comes up. After-action debriefing sessions. He creates order in chaos.
It's not the same as working with her old team. She, David, Sam, and Annie came together to take down the big bads and to coordinate their patrols, but they rarely trained together. They didn't all live together. It was more like four lone wolves respecting each other's space.
It's impressive, truly, what Charlie has tried to do with his team. Though it seems a little ill-advised. Hunters are usually loners. Territorial. Suspicious. Cramming five of them together in one house, forcing them to interact daily on a professional and personal level, is dangerous. She hopes the bonds of friendship are as tight as Charlie insists they are, because he's sitting on a powder keg.
She just hopes she's not the spark that ignites the fuse.
Their first assignment comes seventeen hours after she unpacks her paisley suitcase in her new room. When the communicator clipped to her hip buzzes, she slams the lid of her laptop closed and races to the common room. She's the first one there. The others arrive shortly afterward.
They're all in uniform. She recognizes the style. Jackson, Deathblade's long-suffering majordomo, has a talent for designing uniforms that are comfortable and functional. Each uniform is a shade of dark gray with subtle flairs that correspond to each personality and ability. Valeria's even has her father's crest stamped on the breast. She feels out of place in her jeans, purple t-shirt, and silver Venetian mask.
Two out of the four stare at her as if she's a total stranger. Which, she supposes, she sort of is. It doesn't explain their confusion. She glances down at herself, catches the flash of silver on her right hand. She's wearing the ring her godmother gave her. It blurs the fine details of her appearance to those not marked by her magic.
Oops. She uses the tip of the knife strapped to her thigh to prick the pad of her thumb. She grabs Lightning's thumb, pricks his thin skin, and presses their wounds together. He howls and yanks his thumb away, jams the digit in his mouth. His narrowed eyes promise a swift death if she so much as breathes on him.
She performs the same ritual with Rage. It is not necessary for Charlie. He was marked by her magic long before she received the ring. Valeria doesn't need it either. The other demoness's magic is close enough to count as "marked."
Charlie barks out orders. She's hunted with him dozens of times, but always on her turf or neutral ground. Once or twice under his father's watchful eyes. She's' never danced in his territory. It is interesting to note that the laughing, sarcastic, laid-back Charlie she knows disappears without a trace when he's in his role as leader.
Rage taps into the city's CCTV system and pulls up images of two multi-headed Eraths tearing down side streets. Omnivores, Eraths will eat anything that steps into their path - including human flesh. Their heads grow back unless chopped off at the base with a bronze object. Their venom renders predators and prey temporarily paralyzed.
They load up with weapons. Bows and arrows for Charlie who prefers distance over hand-to-hand. Short, stabbing knives for Lightning who can move like the wind. Several guns and a falchion for Rage who doesn't like to limit himself to ranged combat or up close and personal. Valeria takes a moment to gather her magic - the only weapon she needs. Skye's kukri has an interchangeable blade. She swaps cold steel for bronze. Her magic makes her a weapon, but she's afraid one day the magic will fall and she'll be left defenseless.
Without having to be told, Valeria wraps all of them up in her magic and teleports them to the mouth of an alley. It takes everyone, aside from Skye, a moment to recover from the icy touch of Valeria's magic. For Skye, it is like a shot or three of espresso.
She takes off like a shot across the alley. She gathers energy in her left hand until she has a swirling, black ball. She adds a smidge of her purple-tinged magic just to make sure it stings. The energy blast stuns the first Erath. The kukri takes care of two of the five heads.
Her world narrows to the fight with the Erath. Float above snapping teeth. Backflip to avoid a spiked tail. Fire a blast of energy to avoid being snapped in half by a massive jaw.
Caught up in dodging the Erath's flailing tail and sharp teeth, she forgets about the team. Forgets that there are others behind her who could be hit by streams of venom. Forgets about ricocheting magic and collateral damage.
A large, strong hand clamps on her shoulders. Her reaction is automatic. She reaches back and tosses the grabber over her head and onto the floor. Charlie springs to his feet, brushes grime off the back of his pants.
"Skyla!" He forgets himself and blurts out her birth name.
"What?" She shifts, tries to maneuver around him to get a clear shot. He grabs both her wrists before she can gather more energy.
"You nearly took out Lightning's legs with that last blast!"
The battle haze clears from her eyes. She sees Lightning behind the Erath. His pants are torn and the nauseating scent of cooked flesh reaches her. He limps towards them.
Now that he doesn't have to worry about being hit by friendly fire, Rage uses his falchion to chop off the wounded Erath's remaining heads. Charlie shoots her a look of disgust and disappointment before dashing off to help Valeria with the other Erath. She feels about two inches tall and lower than the lowest form of pond scum. Stupid, stupid Skyla.
Her heart is in her throat when Lightning reaches her. She would offer to heal his wound, but is afraid he would recoil at the slightest hint of more magic. "I am so sorry," she says, the words not adequate in light of the pain etched on his handsome face and the burns on his legs. She uses her magic to destroy, to kill, but never to harm her friends. Never.
Lightning perches on the top of an overturned crate. He props his left leg on the lid of a trashcan and examines the wound. It's a second-degree burn. Hopefully he'll let Valeria heal it once they return to HQ. Bent over his leg, his brown hair flops into his eyes. He peers at her though the fringe. "Did you do it on purpose?"
"Of course not!" Her indignation only goes so far. He doesn't know her. Charlie vouched for her, but she doesn't know how much weight that carries with his team. His word means everything to her; a great deal of that is due to the history they share.
"Are you going to do it again?"
"Not if I can help it."
Lightning studies her for a long moment. She fights not to squirm. His pale green eyes soften. He holds out a hand for her to shake. "All right then." Once her hand is in his, he yanks her forward into a quick, tight hug. "It takes a little getting used to. First time out with the team, I stabbed NightWalker in the shoulder because I didn't realize he was in my blind spot."
"I hate it when he does that."
Lightning laughs. He props his other foot on the trash can, pats the space on the crate beside him. She gingerly sits. It feels odd to rest while others battle, but she knows Charlie won't appreciate any attempt to rejoin the fight. She's in… time out. No, that's not a good word for it. She's protecting their injured teammate. Better. Much better.
"That's nothing," Lightning continues. "Valeria accidentally sent Rage to another dimension when she tried to teleport him to the HQ. She wasn't used to transporting someone with no magic at all. He wouldn't speak to her for a week."
She offers up the story of the time her brother tripped and shoved their sister into the path of a rampaging Craga. Annie's head had been coated with Craga snot, and she'd had to cut off all her long, beautiful blonde hair. Annie had insisted that Sam get a buzz cut as a show of solidarity. Skye couldn't remember who had pouted longer: her sister or her brother.
Rage joins them on the crate. He has his own "trouble with teams" story that involves a kilt, a mystical dagger, and three chickens. He is blessed with the gift for storytelling, and by the time he is done Skye is practically in tears from laughing so hard. Her stomach aches in a good way. For the first time since leaving her siblings and David behind, she feels a sense of belonging.