Chapter 1 1
THE DEMON APPEARS OUT OF nowhere. Claws and fangs fill my sight, and every instinct screams kill. My blood sings with it, my fists clench, my vision narrows. The vulnerable points on the demon’s body practically flash like neon signs.
“Foul!” Rhys shouts. “No teleportation, Tsip! You know that.” Even while playing, Rhys can’t help but be a Watcher, shouting out both advice and corrections. He’s not wearing his glasses, which makes his face look vague and undefined. Cillian passes him, mussing Rhys’s carefully parted hair into wild curls and laughing at Rhys’s frustration.
I take a deep breath, trying to clear my head of the impulse to kill this demon I invited into our home and swore to protect. “It’s just soccer,” I whisper. “It doesn’t matter. I don’t even like soccer.”
“Football, bloody American,” Cillian sings, neatly stealing the ball from me. His shorts are far shorter than the January afternoon should permit, but he seems impervious to cold. Unlike those of us who are translucently pale at this point in winter, his skin is rich and lovely. He passes to Tsip. Tsip is a vaguely opalescent pink, shimmering in the sunlight. She paints her claws fun colors when we do manicure nights, and I try desperately not to miss Artemis.
I stay rooted to the ground where I’m standing. Tsip caught me off guard, but that shouldn’t matter. I like her. And the fact that I went from trying to score a goal to plotting a dozen ways to kill my opponent in a single heartbeat is frankly terrifying. I can’t get my heart under control, can’t shake the adrenaline screaming through my veins.
“Gotta take over for the Littles. I’m out.” I wave and jog from the field. No one pays me much attention. Jade is lying on the ground in front of the goal, the worst goalkeeper ever. Rhys and Cillian are bodychecking each other in increasingly flirty ways. Tsip keeps shimmering and then resolidifying as she remembers the no-teleportation rule. They’re all happy to keep going without me, unaware of my internal freak-out.
I’ve deliberately kept them unaware. Things here are going so well. I’m in charge. I can’t be the problem. So none of them know how I can’t sleep at night, how my anger is hair-trigger fast, how when I do manage to sleep, my dreams are …
They don’t need to know and I don’t let them. Except for Doug, his bright yellow skin almost nineties Day-Glo levels in the thin winter sun. Annoying emotion-sniffing demon. He watches me from our goal, his nostrils flared. I can’t lie to him the way I can to everyone else. I shake my head preemptively. I don’t want to talk about it. Not with him. Not with anyone. There’s only one person I want to talk to about it, but Leo Silvera’s not exactly available.
I do a quick sweep of the perimeter of the castle. Leo loved me. Check the woods. Leo betrayed me. Check the locks on the outbuildings. Leo saved me. Pause and just listen and look, feeling for anything pushing against my instincts. I let Leo die.
I keep walking. Leo loved me, betrayed us, saved us, and then died, and I can’t be sad without being mad or mad without feeling guilty or guilty without feeling exhausted.
Past the meadow, the tiny purple demons are taking turns pushing each other on the tree swing. That, or they’re trying to push each other off. It’s hard to tell with them. With nothing else needing my attention outside, I end up at the front stairs to the castle.
“Hey, Jessi.” I wave halfheartedly to our resident vengeance demon. She’s leading the Littles through an elaborate game of hopscotch. George Smythe, bundled up and barely able to see under a floppy knit hat, is shouting each letter as he lands on it. “G!”
“What?” Jessi snaps at me.
“I can take over for you.” I find the Littles soothing. They might be three incredibly hyper children constantly needing snacks, entertainment, and education, but at least none of them ever randomly triggers a kill reflex in me.
“No,” Jessi says, her voice as sweet as summer fruit. “G-E-what-comes-next …”
“O!” George course corrects, wobbling on one short leg before jumping to the required O.
“Good! Oh, you’re so clever. Priya, how are your letters coming?” Priya, a tiny moppet with shiny black hair, is crouched over her own chalk work, which looks more like Klingon than any alphabet I’m familiar with. “Very good, darling! You’re really working hard. Hold the chalk with one hand, like we talked about. Thea, love, fingers out of noses, please—that’s a dear.”
And to think, we once considered these children the entire future of the Watchers. I watch as Thea spins until she falls flat on her bottom. Actually, the future of the Watchers is pretty accurately captured here. I pat Jessi on the arm. “So, you can take the afternoon off.”
Everything sweet in Jessi’s voice turns to ice. “I said no. I don’t trust you with these three precious wonders. We have an entire day’s curriculum to get through, and we haven’t even done story time yet or finished our art projects. Are you going to do any of that with them?”
“You were going to turn on a cartoon and read while their fertile minds were filled with weeds.”
Jessi doesn’t have her powers anymore, but I’m pretty certain if she did, I would have been vengeance-demoned right into something oozing and seeping. She’s already turned away from me and back to her three charges. Her whole face is full of gentle warmth and absolute love.
“R!” George declares, hopping emphatically down on it. Jessi claps like he’s cured the common cold.
Thoroughly dismissed, I skulk up the stairs and into the castle. Jessi could at least pretend to be nice. She’s got a lot of enemies out there—vengeance is a nasty cycle—and without her powers she’s vulnerable. We took her in despite her obvious hatred for everyone over the age of ten. There was some debate, given her history, but my mom argued in her favor. It’s a little easier to forgive a vengeance demon who made it her immortal life’s work to avenge children than a vengeance demon who specialized in, say, fantasy league sports rivalries.
But Jessi’s dismissal leaves me with nothing to do. I used to have my medical center and my studies, all my little Watcher duties. Even with so few of us, the castle ran as near to Watcher traditions as we could manage. Which in retrospect was absurd, since we didn’t have a Slayer and weren’t actually doing anything Watchers should.
But now everything has changed. We lost Watchers—Wanda Wyndam-Pryce, sulking off into the sunset, good riddance. Bradford Smythe, murdered. Eve Silvera, secretly a succubus demon and murderer, smushed thanks to my actions. Artemis, off to find herself with her awful girlfriend, the thought of whom makes my jaw ache as I grind my teeth. And Leo, who didn’t warn us what his mother was (and what he was) but fought her to give us enough time to stop her from opening a new hellmouth.
And now we have a Slayer, again some more, thanks to Leo somehow returning the powers his mother stole from me. I don’t know how he did it, and it hurts too much to think about, like everything else. I spend so much of my days trying not to think, and it’s harder than it should be. I used to believe that all Slayers did was act without thinking. I was wrong, but I wish it were true. There’s so little acting and so much thinking these days.
It’s good. It’s all good. It’s good, I remind myself, over and over like a chant. Sanctuary, what we decided to turn our castle into, is just starting out, but it’s exactly what we dreamed it could be. We’ve taken in demons who had nowhere else to go. We’re keeping them safe, and ourselves safe, and we’ll keep looking for those who could benefit from the generations of knowledge and abilities we have. We’re protecting, not attacking or destroying.
Between our new demonic additions and existing Watchers, everyone has tasks and times to do them. It’s more work than anyone anticipated, keeping everyone taken care of and fed, making sure the castle runs like it should. But so far everyone is happy. Everyone is safe.
I sink down against the wall, feeling the cold of the stone radiating outward. The unpellis demon, all four gentle eyes soft and brown and hopeful, snuggles up to my side like a dog. It’s more animal than human in nature, nonverbal, and still recovering from its frequent de-skinning treatment in Sean’s demon-drug manufacturing scheme. I saved Pelly from that cellar.
I didn’t save everyone, though.
I wrap my arms around Pelly and close my eyes. Everything is exactly what we dreamed it could be. Except I feel Leo’s loss everywhere, and I miss my twin, Artemis, with a constant, physical ache.
And, worst of all, with enough time after Tsip surprised me to calm down and remind my body there’s no danger …
I still feel like killing something.