“Volcanoes spew the devil’s flame in our
heartland. Fire rains from the sky. Sinkholes suck sinners into the
bowels of hell, while rifts vomit a scourge of demons into the streets
of our cities. These are the plagues of our times, the signs of God’s
fury at our wicked—”
The bellow of a reyza accompanied by
the shriek of tearing metal cut off the rest of the protester’s tirade. I
threw myself to the asphalt as the demon whizzed a tank hatch cover in
my direction. It careened off the Stryker Armored Personnel Carrier
behind me and slammed edge first less than a foot from my head into the
Piggly Wiggly parking lot.
“Gillian! Status!” That was the squad leader, Sergeant Debbie Roma.
by five!” I shouted as soon as I found my voice—and after I made sure I
was still in one piece. The red block letters on the quivering metal
hatch seemed to mock me. DIRT—Demonic Incursion Retaliation and Tactics.
Yeah, we were retaliating. Like kids throwing marshmallows at rabid
dogs. “DIRT” was supposed to represent our willingness to fight hard and
dirty, but ten minutes into the skirmish and we’d already lost one
But no people, to my relief. Petrev and Hines had
managed to scramble clear of the tank and take cover behind an abandoned
Toyota. Both Strykers and the Light Armored Vehicle were still intact,
as were all fifteen members of Alpha Squad—though at the moment we were
pinned down while the demon threw chunks of metal and arcane shrapnel at
us. A scant meter in front of me, a two-foot-long, frost-rimmed crevice
rippled with magenta flames. So far, the demon had only flown
reconnaissance passes over the small dimensional rift, but I knew
perfectly well he hadn’t made a trip from the main incursion rift a
quarter mile away just to sightsee.
Demons had been coming
through the rifts ever since the arcane valve explosion at the Beaulac
Police Department two months ago, and I—along with every other DIRT
arcane advisor—still had no flaming clue why. Rifts opened at
unpredictable intervals all over the world, destroying anything or
anyone in the location. An incursion of demons inevitably followed,
during which they harassed and attacked nearby citizens while one or
more of their number made enigmatic adjustments to the rifts. If I could
figure out what their end goal was, humans could develop a counter
In the meantime, we fought back with what tools we had: guns and grit and graphene-composite nets.
demon beat his wings and roared a challenge. He was, hands down, the
biggest reyza I’d ever seen in all my years as a demon summoner. At
least twelve feet tall, with a wingspan four times that—half again as
big as Gestamar or Kehlirik. Needle-sharp black horns thrust from his
head on either side of a thick ridge, and yellowed fangs curved from a
mouth filled with flesh-rending teeth. Broad nostrils flared within a
bestial face, and his thick, sinuous tail thrashed back and forth, a
weapon as deadly as his claws. Scars crisscrossed his skin in patterns
that spoke of claws and teeth and frequent battles—unlike any reyza I’d
known before. And though I’d never heard of a demon wearing jewelry,
there was no mistaking the gold that glinted from a half dozen thick
hoops in his ears or the heavy bands that circled biceps and wrists.
months now since Satan and his demons were hurled to Earth. Time is
running out for you sinners to beg for salvation, lest you be thrown
into the lake of fire with the idolaters, the vile, the unbelievers, the
sports fans, the comic book freaks, the hypocrites.” The protester
ranted on from the “safe” distance of the far side of the highway, his
voice amplified by speakers mounted in the bed of his pickup and
punctuated with random squeals and shrieks from arcane interference.
Half a dozen people mingled near him, carrying enormous signs that said,
in a variety of ways, that everyone was going to burn in hell except
Above the protesters, the morning sky shimmered with
orange and magenta, beautiful and hideous, painted by arcane flames. Two
days ago, the Beaulac Country Club tennis courts had crumbled into the
maw of a fifty-foot-long dimensional rift, the tenth to form in the
area. Small wonder that Beaulac was practically a ghost town now.
Everything within a half-mile radius of the valve blast had been
quarantined and cordoned off, and anyone who could leave Beaulac did.
These days, nowhere was truly safe, but anywhere was safer than here.
rift at the tennis courts was a relatively small one, but it had
disgorged a number of vicious demons over the past forty-eight hours.
Dozens of kzak, savik, and graa, and less than an hour ago this big ass
reyza who was determined to transform the Piggly Wiggly parking lot into
his own demon playground. Not that it would hurt business. A good
two-thirds of the grocery store had been destroyed last week by a
tornado that appeared out of a sunny sky, tracked an arrow-straight line
for a hundred yards, then disappeared. Sadly, that wasn’t the weirdest
disaster to hit the area since the valve explosion. Hell, that didn’t
even make the top five.
The reyza leaped into flight from the top of the tank.
“The skeeter’s aloft!” Roma shouted. “Cover!”
squad members moved, but though I kept my eye on the “skeeter” as he
gained altitude, I stayed put. My arcane skills were still a long way
from their previous full strength—before I was ambushed and my abilities
nearly obliterated—but I’d managed to regain complete use of my
othersight. That allowed me to assess the little rift and the demon’s
arcane tactics, and give my squad a snowball’s chance of winning.
However, there were moments—such as this one—where I felt the loss of my
abilities keenly. Even though we had no way to close the rifts, it was
possible to arcanely “lock” them to prevent them from expanding. A rift
this small would take about ten minutes of uninterrupted focus to lock
it, but unfortunately I couldn’t shape the potency to do so on my own.
Vince Pellini and I usually partnered up to set the locks, but I’d split
off with Alpha Squad to chase the big reyza, and only realized the
beastie had been heading toward this mini-rift when we damn near fell
The reyza swooped past, and I shielded my head
with my hands, expecting the whine of the stinging arcane scattershot
he’d peppered us with a dozen times before. Instead, a heavy thoop thoop
thoop signaled the demon equivalent of an arcane grenade launcher.
time to run for cover. Shiiiiiit. Adrenaline spiking, I tucked into a
tight ball in the hopes of reducing the size of the demon’s target. It
was a solid plan except for one tiny detail: the demon wasn’t aiming for
me. The salvo struck the crevice, sending up flashes of purple and
For a heartbeat, nothing changed, then the asphalt
heaved and buckled. The ring of frost expanded from the now gaping
crevice, raced toward me and past to cover the parking lot. Magenta
flames shot high, and the fissure screamed like a tortured soul.
left me colder than the frosted ground. I pushed up to a crouch and
called out to Roma. “Sarge! He’s widening the rift!” There was ample
room now for demons such as luhrek and immature savik to come through—no
less dangerous despite their smaller size. Not good when our resources
were already strained to the breaking point.
At Roma’s command, Petrev and Wohlreich scrambled to deploy the
lightweight, graphene-enhanced net over the rift and anchor it deep into
the asphalt. DIRT had developed the nets as a counter-incursion measure
since the demons were a helluva lot easier to kill before they emerged.
The nets weren’t a perfect solution, especially for large rifts, but
anything that delayed the demons gave us a bit more advantage.
reyza let out a triumphant bellow as he landed atop a Buick sedan. The
roof buckled under his weight, and the side windows cracked, then burst.
deeply in an effort to settle my racing pulse, I remained crouched as I
studied him. He’d already dodged and deflected everything we’d thrown
at him, but there were a few tricks left in our bag.
reyza beat his wings once, then folded them close. He swiveled his head
toward me and bared his teeth—his personal promise to give me the extra
special painful death—then traced a swooping pattern on his chest with
one claw. Potency the color of old blood flickered. Sigils flared on his
torso and sent a shimmering web over his head, limbs, and wings. I
grimaced. No wonder we hadn’t touched him yet.
duty,” I called out to Roma. Her sharp curse told me her opinion of full
arcane armor on a demon this size. We’d learned the hard way that
aiming center mass on any demon was a waste of ammo, but we also knew
that limbs and wings usually weren’t shielded as well—until this bad
I’d become an expert at adapting tactics in order to
defeat demons, and I had no moral dilemma about killing them. They were
It was the brand new orders, handed down this
morning, that I had qualms about: Capture as many demons as possible,
with reyzas the highest priority targets.
voice carried across the grocery store parking lot to the Stryker on the
far side. “Shimmy that lizard before it finishes getting into its party
I couldn’t help but smile. Force the demon out of
that position before it gets fully armored. Radio comms were useless so
close to a rift, which meant the majority of commands were shouted. But
since the demons could hear every word, human soldiers used idioms and
code phrases that would be tough for any non-native speaker to
understand. It made for a glimmer of humor in an otherwise grim setting.
it!” A woman with messy red curls peeking from beneath her helmet
swiveled the APC’s grenade launcher toward the reyza. I tensed as she
fired two grenades. With inhuman reflexes, the demon swatted the first
in my direction while the other sailed into the vehicle under him. I
scuttled away, but to my relief—and horror—the grenade bounced across
the pavement, danced on the SkeeterCheater, then tumbled through and
into the rift.
The ground shuddered, and a gout of magenta
fire erupted from the rift even as a blast rocked the Buick. Flames
leaped through the windows, and the reyza roared and took flight.
barked orders, and squad members scrambled to new tactical positions. I
took the opportunity to belly crawl behind an upthrust of asphalt then
resumed my search for the demon’s weak spots.
crouched behind a pile of concrete rubble, skimming her gaze over the
area as she checked on her people and considered options. At
fifty-something, she wasn’t quite as fast as the youngsters, but she had
nerves of steel and a serious knack for close quarter tactics. Yet she
and I both knew that, even with the new weapons and materials that had
been developed in the past two months, it would be a stone bitch to take
this demon out, much less capture it.
muttered, which was the kindest thing I could say about DIRT HQ at the
moment. The order to capture demons was perfectly logical, especially
when it came to reyzas. They did the most damage and were the hardest to
kill. HQ and their researchers wanted to find out what made these
creatures tick, what their strengths and vulnerabilities were. I
understood it. I really did.
And I hated it. The demons
were sentient, resourceful beings. I didn’t have to stretch my brain
very hard to come up with how the researchers would find the demons’
weaknesses. It wouldn’t involve a pleasant conversation, that much I
knew. Yet... we were at war. And we sure as hell weren’t winning.
It sucked from every possible direction.
reyza settled in the bed of a big pickup truck near the shopping cart
corral, amber eyes blazing with keen intelligence as it assessed us and
the rift. It spread its wings as if taking a stretch, then threw its
head back and sounded a deep note that shook the air and lifted the hair
on my arms. Across the highway, the protesters’ speakers crackled to
“These demons have been sent to test us and punish
the sinful and the wicked. Fornicators and masturbators, drunks and
“Hey, that’s me!” Scott Glassman—my former coworker—called out with a laugh from the Stryker behind me.
“—you false soldiers defy God’s law and embrace sin by employing evil witches and sorcerers to battle these demons.”
that’s me,” I said with a snort. Yeah, well, the preacher could rant
all he wanted about my evil nature but, as an Arcane Specialist, my
“sorcery” was part of the reason the DIRT forces could mount any defense
Like right now, as my othersight revealed a nasty orange
glow forming on the demon’s clawed left hand.
“—demons to punish the sinners and—”
“Yek ziy!” the demon bellowed. To punish all.
left,” I yelled, scrambling up to dive behind the thick tires of the
Stryker. Hatches clanged shut, and “umbrellas” made of an
arcane-resistant polymer snicked open as the troops without cover
The ground heaved with a concussion that
set my ears ringing, followed an instant later by a blast of heat and
shriek of metal. My pulse slammed in reaction. A reyza cast that? I’d
only ever felt an arcane detonation that powerful from a demonic lord.
seized me. “Oh no...” I surged out from behind the Stryker. The
umbrella shields were arcane resistant, meant to deflect a typical demon
strike—not a blitzkrieg.
My heart dropped to my toes. I
barely registered that the SkeeterCheater lay intact but unanchored over
a widened rift. My focus was locked a dozen yards beyond it, where two
squad members crouched motionless, fatigues seared and smoking while
around them the asphalt popped and boiled. Nothing remained of their
shields but the twisted metal of the frames.
The reyza let out a roar of triumph and sprang into the air with powerful strokes of his wings.