Twenty years later: six days until the rising
The first fuck was always the best.
Not that Special Agent Vincent Valtrez ever bedded the same woman twice.
No, twice meant they might misconstrue his intentions. Get involved. Expect something from him.
But he had nothing to give.
Sex was sex. An animal’s primal need. The one he fed willingly.
Unlike the evil bubbling inside him that he fought daily.
The motel room’s bedsprings squeaked as he ripped open the woman’s blouse, and he stared at her breasts spilling over the lace. Heat surged through his loins at the way her nipples puckered, begging for attention. A martini at midnight, and she’d easily become putty in his lust-driven hands.
He straddled her, then released the front clasp of her black bra, his cock twitching as her plump breasts filled his hands. Moaning, she traced a finger along his jaw, then dragged his face toward hers and nibbled at his lips. Their tongues danced together, and she slid her foot along the back of his calf, driving him crazy with desire.
Clouds shifted outside, moonlight streaking the room with shards of light, illuminating her flushed face and the splay of her fingers as she tore open his shirt and stroked his chest.
Vincent had felt the evil pulling at him for years, ever since his parents had disappeared. That night he’d been found on the edges of the Black Forest, bruised and beaten, and so traumatized he’d lost his memory.
Although he feared his father had killed his mother …
The woman’s blood-red fingernails clawed his bare skin. A droplet of blood mingled with the sweat, exciting him, blurring the lines in his mind between himself and the killers he hunted.
For an instant the beast inside him reared its head. He imagined sliding his hands around her slender throat, digging his fingers into her larynx until her eyes bulged, watching the life drain from her.
He hissed a breath between clenched teeth, forced himself to pull away. The dark side, the black holes, tugged at him again, trying to take control …
He couldn’t give in to the darkness. He was an FBI agent. Had sworn to save lives, not take them.
Oblivious to his turmoil, she jerked him back to her, took his hand and slid it between her thighs. She was so hot. Wet. Ready.
Raw need swirled through him. With a groan, he shoved the darkness deep inside, then bent and sucked her budded nipple into his mouth. She purred like a hungry cat, then parted her thighs in invitation, arousing him as she cradled his erection. He cupped her mound, pushing aside the edges of her panties to sink his fingers into her damp flesh. Her sigh of pleasure shattered his resistance, and he tore off her bra and underwear, then shoved her skirt up to her waist. A tight skirt that had drawn his eyes to her ass and made him horny as hell when she’d walked into the bar.
His jeans and boxers fell to the floor, socks into the pile. Then the condom-always the protection. He couldn’t chance continuing the Valtrez name with a child.
Growling in anticipation, he shoved her hands above her head, pinning her beneath him as if she was a prisoner of his desires.
She struggled playfully, but her eyes flashed and smoldered as he rubbed his throbbing length against her heat. She licked her lips, then bit his neck, and he groaned again, then flipped her to her stomach. He didn’t like to look at their faces, didn’t want any emotional connection.
His hands skated over her bare shoulders, slid down to massage her butt; then he lifted her to her knees. She braced herself on her hands and moaned, rocking forward, twitching against him.
“I want you inside me, Vincent,” she whispered raggedly. “Take me now.”
The flames of lust grew hotter as his cock stroked her ass, and the tip of his sex teased her center. Sliding in her moist channel a fraction of an inch, then retreating, then back again, taunting them both.
“God, sugar, please …”
He liked it when they begged.
She spread herself for him, and his control snapped, the vision of her offering setting his body aflame. He thrust inside her, ramming her so hard she cried out his name and dug her hands into the sheets, twisting them between those blood-red fingernails. He gripped her hips and began to pound her, deeper, faster, sweat beading on his body as the blood surged through his penis. Her body tightened around him, squeezing, milking his length, and delicious sensations built inside him. Panting, he increased the tempo, closed his eyes, heard her raspy breathing, his own chest heaving as he fought to hold back his orgasm. Pleasure was not an option, but release was imminent.
Another thrust and he tilted her, pressing her back against his chest as he stroked her nipples between his fingers. That sent her spiraling over the edge, and her body quivered, then spasmed around his. Relentlessly he hammered into her as sweat slid down his brow and the sound of their naked bodies slapping together mingled with the wind.
Vincent never lost control.
Except in the throes of his release, and even then, he held on to his emotions. A guttural groan erupted from deep inside him, and he ground himself deeper, biting back a shout as his orgasm spurted into her.
Outside the moon shifted, slid behind the clouds, vanishing completely. A black emptiness crept over the room, beckoning. The wind suddenly roared, rattling the walls, and he tensed, his senses honed, warning him that the devil had risen again to wreak havoc.
A second later, his cell phone jangled from the nightstand, saving him from the awkwardness after.
He released the woman so abruptly she fell forward, still trembling with the aftermath of her release. He tore off the condom and climbed away from her, hating himself. God, what had happened to him back there? He’d imagined killing her.
She caught his arm and tried to pull him back to her. “Don’t answer the phone.”
He had to leave. It was the only way she’d be safe. “Duty calls.”
Her eyelids fluttered wildly, and she ran a finger over his cock, raking a drop of come off the tip and sucking it into her mouth. “But I want you again already.”
“Tell the criminals to take a night off, then,” he growled.
She sighed, but he firmly ignored the disappointment in her eyes, the needy look suggesting that she wanted more than a lay, that she wanted to cuddle, to talk.
Instead, he reached for the phone, silently relaying what he didn’t want to have to say out loud. She was an okay fuck, but anything else was not in the cards. No use telling a lie. She had simply been a momentary reprieve between cases.
She clamped her teeth over her lips, then offered a disappointed smile and reached for that seductive skirt. Still he didn’t make excuses; he simply couldn’t give what he didn’t have.
The silhouette of the woman’s skeletal remains swung from the Devil’s Tree in Clarissa King’s front yard.
She shuddered, battling the urge to grab an ax and chop it down. She’d tried that before, but the tree was petrified and held some kind of supernatural power. The moment she cut off a branch, it grew back, yet no grass grew beneath it, and in the winter the moment snow touched the branches, it melted. Mindless screams echoed from the limbs, as well, the screams of the dead who’d died there in centuries past.
The screams of Clarissa’s mother as she’d choked on her last breath in the same tree mingled with the others.
Forcing herself away from the window, she hugged her arms around herself to gather her composure. Night had long ago stolen the last strains of sun from the Tennessee sky, painting the jagged peaks and ridges of the Smokies with ominous shadows. Wind whistled through the pines and scattered spiny needles, dried and brittle from the relentless scorching heat that drained the rivers and creeks, leaving dead fish floating to the surface of the pebbled beds, muddy wells, and watering holes.
The grass and trees were starved for water, brown and cracking now with their suffering, and animals roamed and howled, searching for a meal in the desolate miles and miles of secluded forests.
There were some areas she’d never been because the infamous legends had kept her away. The Black Forest was one of them. Stories claimed that in the Black Forest, sounds of inhuman creatures reigned, half animal, half human-mandrills with human heads, shape-shifters, the unknown.
The few who’d ventured near had seen sightings of predators without faces, floating eyeballs that glowed in the dark, creatures that weren’t human. No light existed inside that forest, no color. And any who entered died a horrific, painful death at the hands of the poisonous plants and mutant creatures that fed on humans.
The whispers of the ghosts imprinted in the land chanted and cried from its depths. And nearby lay the Native American burial ground where screams of lost warriors and war drums reverberated in the death-filled air, where the ground tremored from the force of decades-old stampedes and battle cries.
Clarissa shivered and hurried to latch the screen door of her cabin that jutted over the side of the mountain. Useless, probably. The ratty screen and thin wooden door couldn’t protect her should the demons decide to attack.
The year of the eclipse-the year of death-was upon them.
Night and the full moon had brought them, stirring the devil from the ground, the serpents from the hills, the dead from the graves. Granny King-“Crazy Mazie” some had called her, God rest her soul-had taught her to read the signs. The insufferable heat, as if Hades himself had lit a fire beneath the earth, one to honor his kingdom. The blood-red moon that filled the sky and beckoned the predators to roam. The howl of Satan announcing his time for vengeance.
Yes, her once-safe hometown was full of evil, and no one could stop it until the demons fed their hungry souls with the innocents.
Yet the pleas of the women who’d died this week echoed in her head. She’d told the local sheriff her suspicions, that the deaths were connected.
That they were murders.
He’d wanted to know why she thought they were connected, and she’d had to be honest.
The victims had told her.
At least their spirits had when they’d visited.
Thankfully, Sheriff Waller had known her family and hadn’t laughed but had listened. Her grandmother had had the “gift” of communing with the dead, and so had her mother. Granny King used to read the obits daily over her morning herbal tea and confer with the deceased as if they were long-lost buddies. Everyone in town had thought she was touched in the head. But she’d been right on so many occasions that most folks believed her.
The rest were scared to death of her.
Clarissa’s mother had also been a psychic and an empath, only the constant barrage of needy souls had driven her insane. So insane she’d finally chosen to join them in death … instead of living and raising her daughter.
Bitterness swelled inside Clarissa at the loss, eating at her like a virus. She’d been alone, shunned, gossiped about, even called wretched names and cast away from certain families who thought she, too, was evil.
Her mother had visited Clarissa once after her death, ordered Clarissa to suppress her powers. And she had done so most of her life, trying to be normal.
She was anything but normal.
So she’d returned to the one place a few people accepted her. Back to Eerie.
Staying in her granny’s house seemed to have unleashed the spirits, as if they’d lain in waiting all these years for their friend to return, and she could no longer fight their visits.
Outside, the wind howled, a tree branch scraped the windowpane, and ominous storm clouds hovered with shadowy hands that obliterated the light. Even with the ceiling fan twirling, the oppressive summer heat robbed the air, stirring cobwebs and dust that sparkled in the dark interior like white ashes.
Wulf, the German shepherd mix she’d rescued last year after he’d been hurt in a collapsed mine, suddenly growled, low and deep as if he sensed a threat, too, then trotted to the window and looked outside in search of an intruder.
Anxiety needled her as she contemplated the meeting she faced tomorrow.
Vincent Valtrez was coming to town.
She’d thought about him over the years, had wondered what had happened to him. Both outcasts, her because of her gift, him because of his violent father, they’d formed an odd friendship as kids.
But when she’d offered to see if his mother had passed, had suggested she could talk to her from the grave, he’d called her crazy and pushed her out the door. He told her he never wanted to see her again.
She couldn’t believe he was an FBI agent now. He probably wouldn’t be any more open to her psychic powers now than he had been back then.
She had to talk to him anyway. Convince him to listen. She hadn’t asked for this gift, but she couldn’t deny it, either. Not when others’ lives were at stake. Because this killer wasn’t finished. And she didn’t want the women’s lost souls upon her conscience.
Pan, the god of fear, studied the town of Eerie, his plan taking shape in his demonic mind.
Six days until Zion rose from the dead for the coronation. Six days until their new leader assumed control.
The underworld buzzed with excitement and preparations. Legend told that Zion would be the most evil leader they had ever known, that he showed no mercy upon any soul.
Just as he hadn’t toward his wife and son.
In anticipation of his rising, demons met to plot and scheme, desperate to ingratiate themselves into their new master’s graces and raise themselves from their lowly levels to higher realms within the underground. Others forged secret plans, vying to outbid one another to sit at Zion’s right-hand side.
Pan had burrowed from his lowly chamber and accepted the challenge. A mere minion, punished to the fiery blazes of the lowest level, he had to collect enough souls to impress the new leader.
Seven souls and he would win great favor.
Mere days ago, fellow demons had fought the Twilight Guards, the ones who guarded the realm between mortals and the supernatural world, and had opened a portal for the demons. Pan had orbed through the dark planes of time and space, through the portal, and floated above the town of Eerie. There he’d watched the mortals and had chosen the face of one to borrow for his bidding. A face that no one would suspect hid a demon.
Two women had died at his hands so far.
One touch and he knew their greatest fear.
Then he’d used it to kill them.
Laughter bubbled in his parched throat. But killing the women and stealing their souls was a minor part of the larger picture. He’d specifically pinpointed the town where Vincent Valtrez had been raised, because he knew the local sheriff would call him.
And he’d chosen Clarissa King to taunt with the voices of the dead, because she was Valtrez’s Achilles’ heel.
As a boy, Valtrez had protected her from his father. She would be the perfect means to trap Vincent.
Pan had already pressed his hand to her and knew her greatest fear: that the dead she communed with would drive her insane. He would target her friends for his kills, then use their voices to torment her.
He raised his black palm and began to chant, to summon the demons to torture her:
“I call to you, Spirits far and wide, Rise from the dead To the medium’s side. Let your cries Fill her head So she may join You and the dead.”
If Valtrez still had a weakness for the woman, when she broke, he would try to save her.
Then Pan would turn the Dark Lord and bring him to the new master.