What’s a girl to wear to spend eternity in prison?
Evalle Kincaid would rather fight a pack of demons alone than face the Tribunal at midnight.
Seventy-two minutes from now.
walk free tonight . . . if
the Tribunal took into account that she’d spent the last forty-eight hours protecting humans from an eight-hundred-year-old warlord instead of mounting her defense.
Like it was her fault she’d been born a half-breed Belador? An Alterant. The only one not dead or caged. The others had killed
humans. Taking the Belador oath at eighteen had kept her free of persecution . . . until now.
One thing at a time, like getting dressed. She had to show up in more than a bra and panties.
She pulled out her favorite cotton shirt, a vintage piece, from her antique chest of drawers. Stepping into jeans and boots, she shoved a couple of lug nuts in her pocket and froze.
Her apartment was too silent.
Not a lot of noise reached two levels beneath downtown Atlanta when you lived in the equivalent of a concrete bunker.
But this stillness was a something-must-be-up quiet.
She headed out to investigate and had just reached
the hallway when a harsh blowing noise roared in the kitchen.
It sounded like . . . a giant blowtorch.
Grace be to Macha, no!
She broke into a run and swung through the kitchen doorway as another blast rocked the air. “Feenix!”
Her two-foot-tall pet gargoyle stood facing the open oven with fire shooting from his snout. He stopped blowing flames and cut his big round eyes up at her in a sly “who me?” innocent look. “Ye-eth?”
If she laughed right now he’d never learn that he couldn’t shoot flames in the apartment. But she kept her voice calm and curious. “What are you doing?”
That must have been the right question. He turned to face her and started dancing from side to side on fat little four-toed feet. “Thurrr-prithe!
Peetha. Peetha.” He clapped his pudgy-clawed hands and chortled.
She stepped further into the kitchen and bent down to see one of her frozen pepperoni pizzas charred beyond recognition on one side.
He’d cooked for her.
Her heart climbed into her throat. How was she going to live without him if they locked her away? He was the reason her heart sang every morning when she opened her eyes. She’d find him plopped on the bed next to her with his pet alligator tucked under his arm and a gap-toothed grin on his face.
She closed the oven and smiled at him. “It’s perfect. Thank you for cooking me dinner.”
Feenix flapped his wings, flying up to eye level. Two
little overbite fangs pointed down past his lower lip. She opened her arms and he floated into them, tucking his wings, which were soft as bat skin.
But it was the sweet way he said “Mine” that threatened to fold her at the knees.
She couldn’t let on how hard it was going to be to leave him tonight or he’d fret the entire time she was gone. Fear of losing her might cause him to regress into the fire-breathing little animal who hadn’t even been able to communicate when she’d first brought him home. If she didn’t return after tonight, and he got out, someone would kill him for sure. He deserved better after escaping the crazy sorcerer who’d created, then
tortured, the poor thing.
No way could she lock him away somewhere.
She wouldn’t do to him what others wanted to do to her.
Nothing would stop her from coming back to Feenix . . . except two of the three Tribunal deities ruling against her. Even then, she wouldn’t go down without a fight. She didn’t care if they could smoke her where she stood.
That left her one choice—to gamble on her chances of convincing the Tribunal she would not shift, involuntarily or otherwise, into her Alterant beast form and kill humans.
Vegas would laugh at her odds of winning.
She swallowed the lump threatening to choke her.
Feenix leaned back. “Peetha?”
“You bet, baby.” She hugged him, inhaling his warm, leathery smell, then lowered him to sit on the island counter.
The uncharred half of the pizza tasted better than it looked. And she’d have made all the same ooh
comments even if it had been a mud patty.
“Nutth.” He opened his mouth wide.
She tossed him the two lug nuts from her pocket.
He caught the steel snacks with his tongue and chomped them like M&M peanut candies.
She eyed her watch. Time had a grudge against her.
Delaying the inevitable wouldn’t make walking out that door any easier. And arriving late for a Tribunal meeting would be considered an insult—a guaranteed thumbs-down. She washed her hands. “I have to go out for a while, so don’t cook anything else while I’m gone, okay?”
“Yeth.” He watched her from his roost on the kitchen island, eyes beaming pure happiness.
“You’re the best.” She touched his wide nose with her finger, smiled, and headed for her bedroom.
The sound of Feenix’s wings flapped behind her.
Ten-foot ceilings allowed him to fly over her head in the hallway and reach the bedroom before her. When she strode into the room, he was perched in the center of her bed.
Feenix said, “You come back?”
The million-dollar question, but he asked the same thing every time she left. “As soon as I can.”
“What ith thoon? One, two, five, theven, eight?”
Did he mean minutes or hours? He’d just learned to count to eight. Time was a whole other concept. She was thinking more in terms of years, but rather than stretch the truth any further, she changed the topic. “How’s your counting coming?”
“Count for me.”
He bent his legs and leaned over to count each toe around his potbelly. “One, two . . .”
She picked up her dagger off the nightstand and slid it inside her boot. She didn’t walk the streets unarmed.
When Feenix stopped counting at eight, because he had eight toes, she told him, “Thought we were working on nine and ten this week.”
“What ith nine ten?” He looked up at her with big orange eyes full of curiosity.
“I’ll tell you on the way to the door.” She headed to the door in her living room that opened into the exit tunnels.
Feenix needed a reason to count more than his toes. She told him, “Your horns are nine and ten.”
He grunted unintelligible happy noises as he thumped down the hallway at her heels.
When she reached the door she turned around. “Are you going to practice?”
His eyes rounded as he realized he had new information. “Yeth, dammit.”
“No cursing.” She wanted to blame Quinn, one of her two closest friends, for irritating her to the point she’d said that word in front of Feenix, but the fault was hers.
“Thorry.” He smiled, tongue poking out one side of his mouth.
“That’s okay. I know it was an accident. Promise to be good and practice counting while I’m gone and I’ll get you a hubcap.”
His scaly forehead wrinkled with confusion.
She explained, “A hubcap is like a silver pizza.”
He waddled in a circle, clapping and fluttering his wings, making happy sounds. She’d make sure Tzader, the other person she trusted most in this world, brought Feenix a hubcap if she couldn’t.
She could if the Tribunal cut her some slack tonight and treated her equal to everyone else.
Was that asking too much?
Just one time she’d like to be judged on her own merit and not her tainted blood.
She had to go now or she’d never leave. Bending down, she gave Feenix one tight squeeze and said, “Where’s your gator?”
He looked around and spied his favorite stuffed toy, then flew to his beanbag. After settling into the cushy bag he cuddled his stuffed alligator.
That was the picture she’d take to her grave.
“Bye, baby.” Shutting the door quickly, she hurried through the concrete hallways to her garage area. No point in taking her GSX-R motorcycle out tonight. She had almost an hour to make the twenty-minute walk to Woodruff Park, where she’d get teleported to the meeting.
She hated teleporting almost as much as she disliked Sen, the liaison who would escort her to the Tribunal, but that was life in her world.
Walking across the garage, she used her kinetic power to access the elevator that took her up two floors to street level. She stepped out and scanned the pitch-black area through special sunglasses that protected her ultra-sensitive vision even at night. Similar to looking through
night-vision goggles, she’d been born with vision that perceived the street and surrounding area in shades of blue-gray. Her strange DNA had gifted her with a deadly reaction to sunlight as well.
Sunshine wasn’t an issue this close to midnight, but preternatural creatures could hide in the dark jungle of steel and concrete she’d have to traverse between here and Marietta Street. Quinn owned her building and didn’t like charging her rent, but she insisted. She’d live life on her own terms.
Independence meant something different to everyone.
Unless someone had lived trapped in a basement the first eighteen years in this world, she doubted they could understand what independence meant to her.
She paused. Had she felt energy skimming through the air?
Or was she just jumpy?
Nothing stirred this late on a Thursday night except weeds withering in the August heat. Patchwork concrete and gravel stretched ahead of her, running beneath the street-level parking deck that fronted CNN. Tourists rarely wandered down here, where a ten-foot-high chain-link fence protected parked cars from vandalism.
Prime area for something nasty to wait for prey. Bring it. I’ve got time to wash blood off my boots.
Or at least she’d die doing something for the greater good versus dying because of being born part Belador, part beast.
She swept a suspicious gaze from side to side and kept moving toward the dimly lit area, but not even a roach
crawled in this sweltering weather. Sweat trickled along her cheek. Loose tendrils from her ponytail clung to her neck.
She’d miss Atlanta if she didn’t return, especially being able to ride her motorcycle throughout the winter.
Would the Tribunal send her somewhere hot or . . .
The humid air skimming her arms changed with a prickling of awareness. Her boot heels tapped softly across the rutted pavement. No other sound filled in the gaps.
She opened her empathic senses . . . then wider.
Another presence moved toward her.
Human? She didn’t think so.
If someone or something tangled with her right now it had better have a death wish. Tzader and Quinn would be waiting at the park to see her off, and she wanted to see them.
A male voice close behind said, “You’re hard to find, Miss Kincaid.”
Definitely not human.