Readers of the Protect Her serial might not realize this, but each part begins and ends from Riley’s POV (point of view). That was a very deliberate decision on my part, because everything about this story started for me with Riley. He was the first character in this alternate reality who came to visit me, and he has a lot to say. 🙂
Riley is a complicated character. When we meet him in Part One, he’s dark and lacks any kind of moral compass- and he is completely okay with that. He is a glorified bounty hunter for both angels and demons when he isn’t using his necromancy skills for questionable purposes. As we start to learn more about him through his interactions with Paige, you find out that Riley wasn’t born to be that kind of guy. He made himself that way after one particularly tragic situation that happened five years ago with the demon official, Bruno Proctor. This is the reason it has been such a pleasure for me as a writer to see Riley blossom into a true hero across the course of his and Paige’s journey.
Riley’s exactly the type of guy you’ll want to snuggle up with as you escape into your next story. He’s still going to make mistakes, and he’s definitely flawed, but he’s finding redemption through his relationship with Paige. He’s well on his way to being one of the ‘good guys’ in a really big way.
And it all starts here…
CHAPTER ONE – RILEY
“You can’t make me tell you anything,” the apparition said to me. Its dark, grainy voice was defiant. “I’m already dead.”
Things had been slow around the office lately, so I kind of got a sick thrill knowing that the apparition was sorely mistaken. That meant that I was going to get to do what I did best.
“You must not have heard of me then,” I said, crossing my arms. “Which surprises me considering the scumbag circles you ran in while you were alive.”
The apparition, a hundred year old Klybor demon, hissed at me. The ghostly mist that resembled his inhuman image hovered about a pile of ashes, the last remnants of his earthly form. Klybor demons were able to appear human in order to stalk their prey, but in death those abilities fell away. They were ugly motherfuckers in their true form. All horns and scales. It was almost hard to look at him.
“You’re lucky that I’m dead. You think you are my equal? You are nothing but a measly mortal man with a life span that is barely more than a fly’s. You aren’t worthy to lick the soles of my boots. I’d enjoy eating your bones for breakfast if I lived,” the beast snarled.
I had no doubt that he would. Klybor demons had a particular affinity for thighbones. I really did love this part of the game. Demons were so cocky and self-assured that they forgot that not every human cowered before them. Especially not humans like me.
I rocked back on my heels, feigning that his empty threat meant something to me. This was where things got fun. I put up my hands in mock defeat. “I think we got off on the wrong foot here. Let’s start with proper introductions. You’re a filthy, scumbag Klybor demon named Jerico Hopper. My name is Riley Stone.”
I enjoyed the shocked look that appeared on the demon’s face. I waited for it to sink in. The only reason he was here was because I called him up from Purgatory. His ass was officially mine. I controlled him, and he knew it. We’d see how tough the beast wanted to play it now. I truly hoped that he was still going to play hard to get.
It wasn’t a question, but a statement. It was common knowledge how to conjure up a spirit from the dead. Anyone with even an echo of magical talent and the right know-how could whip that kind of spell together, although avoiding the consequences of touching that kind of magic was a whole other story. What I did though was entirely different.
I grinned. “So you have heard of me. Excellent. Let’s start back at the beginning then. Why were you poking your nose around Calamata Island? You know its off limits to all demons, so it must have been something pretty important for you to risk it. Benjamin doesn’t tolerate trespassers well.”
Benjamin was the archangel in charge of this region of the country. He wasn’t known to be big in the ‘let bygones be bygones’ sentiment. It amused me that humans automatically assumed angels were benevolent. I had yet to meet one that I considered a true good guy.
“I don’t remember,” the demon said, avoiding my eyes. “I must have forgotten when I died. That happens you know.”
He was going to play the game. That made me happy. It had been awhile since I’d been able to flex my true talents.
I clucked my tongue. “I’ve met a lot of dead demons in my day, so actually I do know better than most what happens when you kick the bucket. Losing your memories is a line of bullshit. Whoever sent you sent you on a suicide mission. You realize that, right? Calamata Island is rife with demon traps. I’m not surprised your dumb ass walked right into one. You just need to tell me who and why. That’s all. And I’ll let you get back to rotting in Purgatory until you get dumped back into Hell.”
“You can’t make me tell you something I don’t remember,” he hissed again.
It was all bluster, and both of us knew it. He would fold. It was just a matter of how painful it would be for him before he did. That was how my talents were different than any sideshow witch. What I did, my prisoners felt even in death.
Working with ashes is a little bit trickier than working with a corpse. Like most necromancers, I needed to be able to physically touch the remains of the person or thing that I’m interacting with in order to make the kind of point I was about to make.
I pulled a small baggie out of my hip pocket and displayed it to the demon. “Does this look familiar to you?” It was a small amount of ash.
His bravado was starting to falter. I’d interrogated enough apparitions to know it. It was the same song and dance and the same routine every time. The only difference was how far they pushed me to push them before they broke. And they always broke.
“It was strictly intel,” he sputtered. “That’s it. I wasn’t doing anything wrong.”
I opened up the baggie and poured a few of the ashes, about the size of a dime, into the palm of my hand. This always encouraged them to keep talking.
“Intel on what?”
“It was stupid. I was supposed to find a human and report back. That’s it.”
I grazed my thumb over the ash pile, and the demon in front of me squealed. “What the hell, man? I’m telling you what you wanted to know.”
“Tell me everything I want to know, and tell me quickly,” I said as I stroked the pile again. The demon screamed this time.
“A dame. I didn’t even know her name. I just had a picture. Eckland told me to do a pass through town because he heard she was supposed to be here, and he’s been looking for her for a while. Report back. That’s it.”
Eckland Rainer was a high level demon who was well-known for his backstabbing, vicious methods of climbing the demon chain of command ladder. It wasn’t any of my concern, but I did pay attention to demon politics just in case it ever interfered with my own self-interests.
“Where’s the picture?” This was going sideways. If the demon didn’t know the name of the person of interest, then I was going to be at a standstill yet again. Eckland wasn’t the only demon official who was looking for a girl on Calamata Island. The Klybor demon was the third demon I had interrogated in the last week, and all three of them were sent by someone different and said the same thing.
There was a picture and instructions to find a woman who was believed to be here. That was all. The level of secrecy was surprising for the demon community. They weren’t known for their tight lips.
“I don’t know. It was in my pocket when I stepped into the demon trap,” the demon replied. “I’m assuming it went up in smoke just like the rest of my body.”
I sighed. He was likely right. This was another dead end. Sheriff Halpren was not going to be pleased.
“Thank you for your time, scumbag. Unfortunately, you had little information of value to me, and I’ve had a long night.” I turned sideways so that he could see the small stack of materials in the corner behind me.
A panicked look crossed his face as he realized what it was. “I told you everything I know. You can’t do this,” he stammered.
I didn’t answer and blocked out his pleading as I shook the ashes from the baggie onto the floor in a straight line from where I stood to the pile of ashes underneath the demon’s feet. He tried to swipe at me, but he was an apparition, and I was corporeal. It made me chuckle. Then I walked over to the corner and picked up the container of consecrated salt and the blowtorch that I brought with me. No matter what happened during my interrogations of demons, they always ended the same way. Leaving them to return to Purgatory was too risky.
“I know that if I just leave you here, your essence will eventually find its way back to Hell and you’ll join all the other scumbag demon essences waiting for a new body. And at some point in the future, some stupid human kid will be getting his or her goth on and think it’s cool to conjure a demon. You’ll be free and have a spankin’ new host to infect for another life cycle. Then maybe you’d think it would be a good idea to track me down. I can’t have that. Besides, the last thing we need is another reincarnated demon wreaking havoc in the world.”
Then I intermingled the salt with the ashes. I watched as the demon’s apparition began to spasm and then a trickle of white foam appeared in the corners of his mouth. I stepped to the end of the trail of ashes and ignited the blowtorch, then set the nozzle on it.
Instantly, the ashes caught fire and in a haze of blue flame the trail burst up into flames and set the apparition on fire. Two seconds later, the fire burned itself out leaving nothing but a smoking patch of black smudge on the floor.
“May you never rest in peace,” I said to the air.
I had just gathered all my equipment back into my bag when I heard a high-pitched scream in the distance. I looked at my watch. It was 3:10 am and I was in the middle of an isolated crypt at the edge of a graveyard. As I heard the shriek of distress again, I detected that it was definitely female.
Grabbing my knife out of the side pocket of my kit, I moved quickly out of the crypt and listened again. A burst of movement off to my left caught my attention. I dashed off in that direction. Demons were crawling all over Calamata Island for the first time in a decade. Somebody had to make sure that the humans didn’t suffer for it.