TUESDAY, OCTOBER 21
I woke with the sun’s setting and the ghost of a familiar nightmare echoing in my mind. Even after all this time, I could still smell the smoke choking the air. Feel the blast that shook the house off its foundation. And that scream. That horrible, gut wrenching scream.
My throat tightened as I battled against the tears. I threw the covers off, my fury at the decade-old memory’s resurgence causing them to fly wildly. They landed on the floor in a dishevelled mess. I crossed the room to the sofa. My tattered backpack lay there, the last remnant of my tortured life. I delved into it, removed the notebook that protected my most precious treasure: the photograph of my family.
I stared at the little Polaroid for a while, willing my emotions back into check. I thought I had gotten over this pain. That I had numbed myself to it. Why, then, had I suddenly succumbed to it again? Perhaps it had something to do with what Duncan said earlier; that I’m a demon. That one of my parents was a demon. As I stared down at the happy family, I came to the conclusion that Duncan just made it all up. My parents were—what was the word he used?— cowan. They were normal.
A little voice deep inside told me to stop deluding myself. If my parents really were just vanilla human beings, there’s no way I would have the abilities that I did. I mean, they had to come from somewhere. Right?
A sudden noise at my door made me come crashing back to the present. Curious, I extended my senses in search of the source only to find them blocked at the inside edges of my room. I felt a jab of pain behind my eyes and jerked my senses back with a curse.
The room had been warded.
Wards are a type of security defense system, sans expensive equipment. You would use them to keep energies or beings out of somewhere or, in this case, contained. Some wards are relatively simple to set up; just pour salt across where you don’t want the bad stuff to get in. Across a threshold, for example, or in a circle around you. Graveyard dirt and brick dust will also work, but they’re harder to come by. So why salt, you ask? Aside from the fact that you can buy it from almost anywhere, salt, in it’s natural form, is a rock called halite. Because it’s a rock born of the earth, it has the ability to ground out energies.
And that brings me back to wards.
There are other types, of course. Runes and sigils are common and relatively simple to set up. They can even be used as traps. I heard they pack one hell of a punch if you trigger them, too. The ward around my room didn’t employ any of the methods I mentioned. This was an energy-based one. They are the most complex to use and sustain. I had absolutely no idea how they worked, let alone how to force my way through it with my senses—or if it were even possible. And that meant I had to physically investigate the strange noise I had heard.
I stood up with a sigh and gently placed my photograph atop the desk. I listened at the door a moment. Voices. I couldn’t tell what they were saying or who they belonged to the door muffled them so. I unlocked it, cracked it open. A trio of teenage boys were there, goofing around with a hackysack. That must have been the weird sound I had heard.
I had nearly shut my door when I spotted Zero walking up with two other girls in tow; one a bleach blonde, the other with hair the color of moss. Zero spotted me snooping through the doorway and waved.
“I knew that red would look good on you,” she said with a smirk. “Wasn’t expecting the haircut though. Looks great.”
I managed to force out a thanks, then pulled the door open a little more. “Is there a party going on or something?”
“There’s always a party when I’m around.” She winked. “Actually, we’re heading to Paradox to chill. Wanna come?”
I froze. My mind went completely, horribly blank. No one had ever asked me something like that before. Nor had I ever had the liberty to say yes if I wanted. Do I say yes? Am I supposed to say something else? Do I nod? Shrug? I didn’t know what to do.
“Aw, c’mon!” said a cute, white-haired boy. “The more the merrier.”
“O-okay,” I blurted. “Just give me a couple minutes to throw on some clothes.”
Zero and her group agreed to wait for me. I ducked back into my room, fought the butterflies that had suddenly found a home in my stomach. I quickly donned one of the new outfits Zero helped me piece together; black cargo pants and a red tank top with bedazzled gems along the neckline. Then I stepped into my new sneakers, grabbed a couple bucks from the pocket of my old jeans, and slipped out the door.
We took the elevator to the garage deck and exited over the same suspended platform Quinn had driven up. The guard on duty at the security kiosk reminded us that curfew for diurnal classmen was one o’clock. Zero took the lead from there, guiding everyone through the back alleys and side streets as if she had done it a million times. We were coming up on the building less than thirty minutes later. The moment I laid eyes on it, I came up short. I had to admit, I imagined Paradox to be some sort of night club or restaurant or something. A mom-and-pop comic book and tabletop gaming shop wasn’t anywhere on the list of possibilities.
“I never would have taken you guys for gamers,” I said, bemused.
Most of them laughed.
The white-haired boy spoke up. “Hey, D ’n D is awesome.”
The bleach blonde scoffed. “You are such a dork, Necro.”
“Whoa, now,” he said, feigning offense. “No need for name calling. It’s ‘geek’ not ‘dork’.”
I couldn’t help but grin at him.
Zero fell back to walk with me as I followed the group past the storefront and into the alley. “You haven’t been out much, huh?”
I shrugged a shoulder, watched as Necro stopped mid-stride. He spun on his heel like an experienced dancer, rapped his knuckles against a brick on Paradox’s side of the alley three times. I heard a soft boom, then the wall began to collapse inward on itself brick by brick. Within moments, a purple door appeared in the wall. It creaked as it swung inward as if of its own accord. Soft rock music surged forth from the darkness beyond.
Necro flashed me a cheesy grin before he vanished over the threshold. The others were right on his heels. I hesitated. I’m not entirely sure why. But I didn’t want to look like a coward in front of everyone, so I forced myself onwards. Something strange happened when I crossed the threshold. I’m not sure how to describe it; just that it left me feeling a bit exposed.
I looked around the peculiar, little room I found myself in. To my left, a pair of tinted glass doors that cordoned off a long hallway. To my right, an old time elevator, complete with an operator in a gray suit. Directly across from me a stone staircase that arced downward, presumably to Paradox Proper. A little man with sickly, green skin and greasy, indigo-colored hair stood guard beside it. His beady, black eyes glared as he scowled at me. I tried my best not to stare at him, but his ugliness was remarkably captivating. Long, crooked nose. Warts. Flared ears longer than his face and adorned with multiple gold rings.
Only one word came to mind to accurately describe him: Goblin.
“Evening, Mister Grumbal,” Zero said in a way-too-enthusiastic tone. I hadn’t even noticed she had appeared behind me.
The goblin grumbled something incoherent.
Zero grabbed onto my shoulders, pushed me forward, towards the stairs. “I know! It is lovely weather we’re having.”
He shot her a dirty look.
It took willpower I didn’t know I possessed not to laugh.
“Don’t mind him,” She murmured in my ear. Then she navigated around to walk beside me as we descended the stairs. Keeping her voice low, she continued. “He just has his panties in a bunch over his wife kicking him out of the kitchen.”
A grin tugged at my lips, but it didn’t last long. Midway down the stairs, the stone wall fell away revealing Paradox and I couldn’t help but stop and stare. A huge cavern stretched a couple hundred feet before me. Thirteen rough stone columns placed at random intervals ran from the floor of the cave to the ceiling. Glowing crystals the size of my head clung to their jagged surfaces and illuminated the space with pleasant tones of color. Thirteen stone tables were scattered between the columns. Running under part of the hallway from upstairs was a bar with thirteen wooden stools. Opposite the bar, where a natural rise in the cave floor formed a stage—and I’m not joking here—six skeletons played soft rock. A fairly good sized crowd of beings—both human and not—had gathered before them to dance.
Zero chuckled, and I tore my gaze from the spectacular cavern to look at her. “Welcome,” she said, “to the world of the paranormal.”
I continued gawking as I followed her down the arcing staircase. Then she told me to go on ahead to the table Necro had picked out for us; she had just caught sight of a friend. I watched for a moment as she headed off for the bar, which, as it turned out, didn’t serve alcohol. It said so on the sign behind the bar tenders. Instead, they served a huge variety of coffee and fruit juice mocktails (I wanted to give the Razzeled Vamp a taste).
I practically followed Zero as she wove through the columns and tables. Eventually, my path forked away from hers, and I joined the group at a table between the kitchen doors and another set of stairs. Before I even sat down, the bleach blonde faced me.
“I have been dying to know,” she said, and I got the impression that she was a preppy bitch that I’d normally have nothing to do with. Still, I gave her the courtesy of my attention. “What are you?”
“What am I?” I repeated, bemused. I’d never been asked that before. This new world I had suddenly found myself a part of certainly had its quirks. “Well,” I said, sitting. “I’m psychic.”
She made a disgusted sound that the moss haired girl echoed. “Another lame psychic.”
“And a demon.” I don’t know why I blurted that, but I instantly had the group’s attention.
The blonde looked absolutely horrified, and she stood up so quickly that her chair fell over. She shrieked, “Your kind have no place here!”
I blinked, read the expressions on their faces. Everyone in the group glared at me with such hate that I believed I would spontaneously combust. Everyone, that is, except Necro. The white-haired boy looked at me with sympathy and understanding.
“Get out of here, monster!” the bottle blonde continued to screech. By now, half of the people in the cavern had their attention locked on her.
“Knock it off, Felicity,” growled Necro.
“Not until that,” she jabbed a finger at me “is gone!”
A little person with an impressive beard and clad in an expensive suit rushed up. “Is there a problem here?”
Felicity kept her finger pointed at me as she shrieked, “That thing is a demon!”
A murmur swept through the cavern like wildfire unchecked, and I suddenly found myself under a lot of furious glares. Even the little man had a reserved look locked on me. I didn’t see a point in trying to convince them that I wasn’t a threat. They had already made their minds up about me. I’m a demon, which, I guess, means I’m evil by default.
And I had overstayed my welcome.
I slowly stood. A vision of something hitting me in the head flashed in my mind, and I turned in time to catch it. My fingers burned and tingled with the pain, but I didn’t let it show. Instead, I set the object—a rock about half the size of my palm—gently on the table. Then I looked at the little man in the suit.
“I apologize for the disturbance,” I said, keeping my tone flat despite how hurt and furious I felt. He obviously had no idea how to respond to that, so I merely turned and strode away. I kept my head held high as I made my way through the cavern. I refused to let them see me cry.
I passed Zero and her lanky friend with a tree trunk for an arm, and kept going. Nobody tried to stop me. Nobody uttered a word. But everybody watched me as if I were a mouse among starving hawks. It felt like forever before I reached the curved staircase. My footfalls echoed in the silence as I ascended. At long last, I reached the violet door.
The music started up again as I let myself out.
I stopped well before the mouth of the alley, leaned my battered back against the brick wall. After having spent years burying my emotions, I had gotten pretty good at it. I just settled into the right mindset and took several measured breaths. It took maybe five or six minutes for me to calm down from the hurt and the rage.
“Should have known better, Jinx,” I berated myself. “Idiot.”
“Jinx, huh?” said a vaguely familiar voice.
I shoved myself away from the wall, glared at the icy-eyed demoness lurking at the opposite end of the alley.
Khione’s mulberry lips peeled back in a smirk. “I’ll be sure to remember that.”
I scoffed, turned my back on her. After a moment, I bade her good night and started to leave.
“It’s not safe for you to be alone,” she said at my back.
“It never is.”
“If I found you this easily, how much longer do you think it will take the others?”
I stopped at the mouth of the alley. “Others?”
Hautiness stained her voice as she said, “I am not the only NEST demon in this realm, little one.”
“What are you getting at?”
Her spiked heels clicked against the asphalt as she closed the distance between us. “I am saying, Jinx, that there is a bounty on your head. I’m here to collect.”
I whirled around, slapped her hand away.
She glared at me as if I insulted her.
I repeated myself, this time more forcefully. “Why is there a bounty on me?”
“Because of what you stole.”
The snort escaped me before I could stop it. “And what have I allegedly stolen?”
Doubt flashed in her cat-like eyes. “You do not know?”
I crossed my arms and said nothing. If I were to admit to robbing agilisi’s store and stealing her car, I’d only be digging my own grave. It’s a little something called entrapment. You don’t give a cop—even a demon one—that kind of ammo to use against you. So I snapped at her, “I’m not in the mood for guessing games.”
A mirror? That’s right. She said something about that at the train station. Could it have been me she had been sent to collect? She could have taken me by surprise when the lights went out. So why didn’t she? “Where did you say this mirror was stolen from?”
Her lips drew into a frown. “The Elysium Royal Vaults. It’s the one the Infernas have had in their possession for nigh on a thousand years.”
“Facinating,” I flatly stated. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
She said nothing, but her scrutinizing glare never faltered.
We simply stared at each other for a handful of seconds before I once again turned my back on her and started away.
“Three days,” she muttered at last. “I’ll buy you three days to prove your innocence. If you cannot, your head is mine.”
I glanced over my shoulder. “What time is it?”
“Seventeen minutes after nine.”
I kept walking.
She didn’t follow.
As if I didn’t have enough problems in my life, now I have to prove that I hadn’t stolen some old mirror. Gods! I wish I could be a normal teenager.