Fire gave him power. It was his gift. His method of attack. His best defense.
It had also become his obsession.
Thirteen-year-old Dante Zertlav raised his fist to stare at his reddening fingertips. The urge to throw a fireball ripped through him, evil beckoning.
“Don’t fight your dark side,” Father Gio commanded. “Embrace it and you can rule the world.”
Dante nodded. He’d known this day was coming, the final test for him and his band of demonic brothers. The elements were all here now, Storm and Lightfoot preparing for their own initiation.
So far, Dante had passed the initiation with flying colors. He’d tracked the animals, killed them with his bare hands. Done everything Father Gio had ordered, no matter how vile.
He’d learned long ago that disobeying Father Gio meant harsh punishments. Torture.
Being turned into the hunted instead.
But today, the last and final test would be to kill a human.
A sickening knot gripped his belly.
He didn’t know if he could do it.
A maelstrom of ancient chants and sinister voices surrounded him as the other demons gathered. Smoke curled from the fire pit, and twigs and wood snapped and crackled, shooting flames against the inky sky.
Father Gio gestured through the woods, and Dante spotted a woman and a dark-haired little girl hunched by their own small campfire roasting marshmallows. A smaller blond girl sat swinging her bare feet into the gurgling creek water.
“Your assignment is to kill the youngest one, and offer her to Helzebar.”
Dante stiffened. Although he’d been banned from attending school with mortals, he’d snuck by the schoolyards to watch. One memory struck him hard and had stuck with him.
A bully of a boy had chased a puppy into a storm drain, and this little blond had wriggled inside and rescued the animal. When she’d climbed out, she was filthy, her hair tangled, her knees scraped, but she’d scooped up the pudgy dog and sang to it like an angel.
Until that day, he’d only known demons and violence.
He’d been so enthralled that afternoon that he’d followed her home, had watched her mother laugh at the sight of the puppy. Then the little blond and her sister had played with the dog in a field of wildflowers until they’d both collapsed in a fit of giggles.
He’d envied their laughter. Their innocence.
Their happy family.
They had no idea demons lurked in the woods of Mysteria, Tennessee. No idea the demons had decided to hunt humans in their own backyards.
“Storm will take the oldest girl, Lightfoot, the woman.” Father Gio placed a clawlike hand on Dante’s shoulder, drawing him back to the present. “But yours will be the biggest sacrifice for you are meant for great things.”
Pride mushroomed in his chest. But anxiety tightened his breath at the same time. He had embraced the darkness within him, had enjoyed the hunt, the taste of the animals’ blood, the screech of the kill.
He liked pleasing his master.
But something about taking this young girl’s life felt… wrong, and needled at his conscience.
A conscience he thought he’d buried long ago.
Suddenly a roar of thunder rent the air, the collective hiss of the demons’ war cries erupting, and Storm and Lightfoot charged toward their prey. The dark-haired girl cried out in terror.
“Run!” the mother cried as she shoved her daughters into the woods.
Both girls screamed as they stumbled over broken logs and brush in their haste to escape. But Storm and Lightfoot’s human forms shimmered into monsters as they attacked.
Storm swept the mother up by her hair and flung her across the woods, her body bouncing off a boulder a few feet away. Blood spurted from her forehead as she tried to get up, but her leg was twisted, broken, and she collapsed with a sob as Storm jumped her again. Lightfoot caught the dark-haired girl and swept her up as if she was air itself.
The little blond ducked behind an overhang on the ridge, eyes widening in horror as she stared at the grisly scene.
Indecision ripped through Dante. If he disobeyed, he would be ostracized from the only family he’d ever known.
How would he survive out here all alone? The demons would eat him alive…
Then the little girl spotted him. “Help me. Please help me.”
Pain squeezed his lungs at her haunted whisper. She was so tiny, so young. How could he squash the life out of her?
Tamping down the fire heating his fingers, he ran toward her, threw her over his back, then raced through the woods, adrenaline churning as the demons gave chase.
Behind him, the thunderous roar of the demons cheering Storm and Lightfoot rent the air, then Father Gio’s voice commanding him to bring the girl back.
But the frail girl clung to him, burying her head against his shoulder, and protective instincts surged inside him. The fiery breath of one of the demons stung his back, but he flung fireballs at the demon, warding them off as he raced through the forest.
Finally he reached a clearing and spotted a dingy white church on top of the hill. He’d never been inside a church and wondered if lightning would strike him if he entered. But it was the only safe place for the girl, so he dashed up to the doorway, shoved it open, and slipped inside.
The scent of burning candles filled the air, and a rainbow of vibrant colors illuminated the room from the stained-glass window above the pulpit, a calm peacefulness enveloping the chapel.
The little girl whimpered, and he carried her to the front pew and placed her on it.
“Wh… o are y… ou?” she whispered.
“My name is Dante,” he said softly. “What’s your name?”
Her lip trembled. “Marlena…”
“You’ll be safe here, Marlena. Just stay inside.”
Tears streaked her face as she reached for him. “I’m scared… Don’t leave me.”
The wooden floor creaked, jerking his attention to the pulpit, and a priest wearing a long robe appeared from the back. His intense gaze pinned Dante, as if he could see into his black soul.
Regret and sorrow for all he’d done bled through Dante. But he didn’t belong here, not in this holy place.
He cupped the little girl’s face between his hands to quiet her. “You’ll be all right now,” he said, then lowered his head and pressed a kiss in her blond curls. She smelled of sweetness and innocence, things he’d never known. “The priest will take care of you.”
Her lower lip quivered, tearing at him, but the earth shook and rumbled, the demons roared outside, and he knew he had to leave.
She was safer far away from him.
So he turned and fled through the doorway.
But as he stepped outside, the demons’ angry chants echoed from the forest. He couldn’t go back to Father Gio. He didn’t belong with the demons.
He didn’t want to be evil anymore.
But he wasn’t good either, and he didn’t belong with the humans.
He had to make his own path. Pay penitence for his sins before he lost his soul completely.
TWENTY YEARS LATER
Evil has no rules. It always wins.
That creed had been beaten into Dante as a child. And when the portals from the underground to the Earth had opened on All Hallows’ Eve three months ago, the pull of evil had grown stronger.
The very reason he’d returned to Mysteria. The reason he’d become sheriff.
His penance was to protect the town from his own kind.
And part of that job meant checking the underground tunnels where the demons thrived.
But as he strode through the tunnels, the darkness called to him like a siren begging him to her bed. Hard to resist.
The evil gave him great power in his hands, fueled his firestarter abilities.
It also threatened to turn him into a monster as it had his demon brothers years ago.
The scent of impending death and doom hovered in the dank air. Somewhere in the cavern, he detected a shapeshifter nearby. He heard the hiss of fangs snapping. The cry of an animal drawing its last breath.
Ever since the new lord of the underworld Zion had risen, Dante had noted more widespread chaos and violence across the States.
He’d heard that new demon factions had formed, making plans, honing their powers to please Zion, the most notorious leader of the underworld ever known. Some said Zion was a direct descendant of Satan.
Father Gio was probably working for him now.
Dante’s gut tightened. He’d have to confront him eventually. Destroy him if he returned and began preying on the town.
Dante’s cell phone buzzed, and he glanced at the number, his hand tightening around the phone. His deputy, Hobbs.
A man he didn’t trust. Then again, he didn’t trust anyone.
“Sheriff, that doctor lady named Marlena Bender phoned again to see if there were any leads on those missing blood vials from BloodCore.”
Dante gritted his teeth. He’d seen the file on his desk and had been shocked to learn that she’d moved back to Mysteria.
Just as he had to face Father Gio, he had to face her. But not yet.
“I’ll call her when I get time,” Dante said. After all, a few missing vials of blood could wait.
The demons in the darkness posed a more imminent danger.
Marlena Bender forced herself to walk through the cemetery to her mother and sister’s graves. Gravel and dead leaves crunched beneath her shoes, the shadows of the ancient burial ground eerie in the waning moonlight. Dead flowers and faded plastic arrangements swayed and drooped beneath the elements, and dry parched grass bled between the rows of dirt-covered graves. A fresh mound a few rows over made her chest clench and stirred memories of the last time she’d stood here, burying her own family.
Images of the horrible night they’d died taunted her. Her mother and sister’s screams echoed in her ears and suddenly a shimmering light sparkled in a hazy glow as if their spirits had appeared.
She blinked, shivering at the thought, the winter wind biting through her as it whipped leaves and twigs around her ankles. Moonlight glinted off the granite tombstones highlighting their names and the date their lives had ended.
Beloved mother and sister—gone too soon.
Lost to a horrible fate.
But she had survived. Not for the first time, she’d questioned why she’d been saved.
And the man—the boy—who had rescued her.
Just the thought of seeing Dante Zertlav made her chest clench with anxiety.
Although he’d saved her life, questions plagued her. What had he been doing in those woods? How had he been able to run so fast?
And who had attacked and killed her mother and sister?
Had they been monsters as she remembered, or had her childhood imagination simply played a trick on her mind as the doctors who’d treated her had suggested?
She’d wanted to talk to Dante back then to find out what he’d seen, but she’d been too traumatized, and her grandmother had whisked her out of town as if the devil had been on their tails.
She’d been shocked to learn that he was the sheriff when she’d moved back to Mysteria.
She’d phoned three times this week asking if he had leads on the missing blood vials.
Apparently he wasn’t concerned.
But she was.
The missing vials held blood samples from violent criminals, individuals who professed to have paranormal powers, and the mentally and criminally insane.
One day she hoped to find a genetic abnormality that could be altered to correct deviant behavior and deter violent tendencies.
Recently she’d noted disturbing markers in some samples that made her wonder if the monsters she’d thought she’d seen as a child were real, not figments of her childhood imagination.
That was one of the reasons she’d moved back to Mysteria. Her nightmares had grown more intense lately. She had to confront her past in order to move on.
She bent and spread the rose petals across her mother’s grave, then her sister’s. “I have to know the truth about who killed you.”
And why the police had never found answers.
The ground suddenly felt as if it shifted beneath her, the dirt sucking at her feet as if the earth might literally suck her into the graves below.
She trembled. Mysteria was full of ghost stories, but she was a doctor, a scientist. She’d never believed in the paranormal.
Except for that day as a child…
But she was an adult now and she could face the truth. There had to be a logical explanation.
And what if her family’s killers had remained in Mysteria all these years?
Had there been other unexplained deaths since?
She’d have to check and see…
Thunder began to rumble, thick black clouds swallowing the moon, and a raindrop splattered her cheek, mingling with the tears she didn’t realize had fallen.
With a gloved hand, she swiped at the moisture, then turned and ran toward her car. Footsteps crunched leaves behind her, and she pivoted and scanned the distance, but the graveyard was empty. Twigs snapped on the opposite side and she jerked her head to the right. An ominous shadow floated behind a grave marker, then disappeared into the woods.
Suddenly sensing danger, she threw the car door open and collapsed inside, trembling. The shadow stood beneath the gnarled branches of a live oak, then spread his arms in a wide arc like some winged creature that had risen from the grave to attack.
God, she was seeing things again. It had to be a man. Or maybe some teenager trying to spook her.
Irritated that he’d succeeded, she started the engine and steered her Honda over the graveled drive, but the car suddenly lurched as if someone or something had pushed her forward.
Nerves on edge, she glanced in the rearview mirror, then over her shoulder, but didn’t see a car—or a person. Nothing.
It’s just the wind, she told herself.
But she felt the shove again and she accelerated, taking the curvy mountain road toward her old homestead so fast that her tires squealed and she skimmed the guardrail twice before she turned up her drive.
A tiny sliver of moonlight fought through the storm clouds and painted the turrets and attic in sharp angles as her Victorian homestead came into view, the swaying branch of an oak clawing at the frost-coated windowpane. The wind roared, seeping through her bones as she grabbed her purse and computer bag, then walked up the pebbled drive toward the wrap-around porch.
An animal howled, and she looked up and spotted a lone wolf silhouetted at the top of the ridge. Fear slithered through her like a poison eating at her as she searched the woods. She’d avoided the forest for years.
But the thick trees and dark secrets surrounded her, whispering that evil hid in the shadows, waiting to prey.
For God’s sake, Marlena. You’re a grown woman. You have to get a grip.
Desperate to shake off her anxiety, she scrubbed a hand through her tangled hair, her keys jingling in her trembling hand as she climbed the porch steps.
She would not give in to the fear. She hated the way it had paralyzed her when she was young.
Before that horrible day, she’d been a daredevil, had thought she was invincible.
But her naïveté had been shattered with her family’s brutal murder.
The wind swirled her hair around her face, but a box on the floor in front of the door caught her eye.
A small silver gift box tied with a big red bow.
Surprised, she picked it up and examined it. There was no card, no address, nothing on the outside to indicate whom it was from.
She unlocked the door and stepped inside, grateful for the blast of heat from the furnace. Yet the floors creaked, the windowpanes rattled, and the old pipes groaned like an aging person’s bones popping.
Shivering, she flipped on a light and opened the box. Surprise flared inside her at the sight of a ring lying on top of the crumpled tissue paper.
Then her heart began to pound, and apprehension tightened her shoulder blades.
A tiny pearl was set in an antique white gold setting with two small diamond chips flanking the sides. She recognized the setting—the ring belonged to Jordie McEnroe, a young waitress at the diner.
Her hand trembled.
The ring was soaked in blood.
The phone in the sheriff’s office was ringing as Dante entered. He glanced around the office for his deputy, then realized Hobbs had probably gone home for the night. Good. He wouldn’t have to deal with the man now. Dante didn’t want help, and Hobbs sure as hell didn’t like working for him. He’d wanted the job as sheriff himself.
In three quick strides, he crossed the wooden floor and grabbed the handset. “Sheriff Zertlav.”
A shaky breath rattled over the line. “Hello, who is this?”
A feminine voice finally squeaked out, “M… arlena Bender.”
He scrubbed a hand over the back of his neck. Hell. He’d wanted to stall longer, but her voice had warbled as if something was wrong. “Listen, Dr. Bender, I know you called about that stolen blood and—”
“It’s Marlena, Dante, so don’t act like you don’t know me. And I’m not calling about the blood this time,” she continued, cutting him off. “I need you to come out to my house.”
His gut tightened. Had the demons already found her? “What’s wrong?”
“I just got home,” she said, “and I found a gift… a box… on my doorstep.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You will when you see it,” Marlena said. “It’s a woman’s ring, and it’s covered in blood.”
Dante frowned. “Blood?”
“Yes, and it’s fresh.”
He made a disgusted sound as his mind churned with the possibilities. “Somebody’s idea of a sick joke?”
“Maybe,” Marlena said. “But it belongs to Jordie McEnroe, the young waitress at the diner. I just saw her yesterday and she was wearing it.”
He rapped his knuckles on the desk, contemplating the situation. Why would someone leave Jordie’s ring, covered in blood, on Marlena’s doorstep?
“What if something’s happened to her, Dante?” Worry laced Marlena’s voice. “You have to check on her.”
“I’ll call the diner and see if she’s there, then come to your place and pick up the ring.” He paused. “And don’t touch it. If there has been a crime, I’ll need to dust it for prints.”
“I know.” Marlena sighed. “I just hope Jordie’s all right.”
“I’ll be there soon.”
A tense second passed. “Dante?”
He cleared his throat, tried to ignore the hint of emotion in her voice. “Yeah?”
“Don’t you need my address?”
He couldn’t admit that he already knew where she lived. That he’d followed her home as a child and watched her. That he’d checked out her house the first night he’d driven back into Mysteria.
“Yes, give it to me.”
She quickly recited it, and he disconnected the call, then punched in the number for the diner. A quick glance at the clock told him it was 9:00 p.m. The dinner rush should be over.
Finally a woman answered. “Roadside Diner. Rosy speaking.”
“This is Sheriff Zertlav. Can you tell me if Jordie McEnroe is there?”
“No, she didn’t show up tonight,” Rosy said. “And her mama is having a fit, too. It’s just not like Jordie to blow off her shift.”
An uneasy feeling slid up Dante’s spine. “Give me her address and I’ll check on her.”
“You think something’s wrong?” Rosy asked, suddenly panicked.
Dammit, he had a bad feeling. “No, just offering to ease Mrs. McEnroe’s mind.”
“Awww, Sheriff, you’re a sweetheart. I know she’ll appreciate that.”
A bitter chuckle escaped him as he hung up. If she knew he was part demon, knew the things he’d done, she sure as hell wouldn’t call him a sweetheart.
Dark shadows flickered off the tall, thick trees as he drove from Main Street toward the mountains. The roads grew curvy, more narrow, the shadows thicker, the silence more ominous. Five miles around the mountain, and he spun up the graveled drive toward Marlena’s.
The hundred-year-old blue Victorian house sat atop a hill, the paint slightly weathered, the sharp turrets and angles reminding him of an old haunted house.
Throwing the SUV into park, he climbed out, pulling his bomber jacket around him to battle the brittle wind as he walked up to the porch. The steps creaked as he climbed them, and the sound of a wolf howling from the woods made him twist his head and scan the edge of her property.
The trees shivered, but if there had been one nearby, it had disappeared.
Bracing himself to see Marlena again, and hoping like hell she’d turned into a geeky adult who would hold no temptation for him, he raised his fist and knocked.
But his lungs tightened when she opened the door.
She was even more beautiful than he could have imagined, a radiant full moon against a blinding sea of night.
From her heavy breasts to her narrow waist to hips that flared enticingly, she painted a picture of seduction. But she was the last woman on earth he could think about taking.
Gritting his teeth, he swallowed back guilt. But even as he fought it, the dark side of him emerged, lust heating his body.
Wavy, blond hair that looked like silk shimmered over her shoulders, and her frightened eyes were still the palest, oddest shade of green he’d ever seen.
He’d never forgotten those eyes. They had been luminous and trusting when she was a child. Now that she was a woman, they could suck a man in with their sensuality and promises.
But horror and sadness had filled them the day of the attack.
And that horror and sadness had taunted him day and night, reminding him of what he was.
She’d been made a homeless child because of his demon family. And if she knew the truth, she’d hate him.
He had washed his hands in her blood.
He was obsessed with it now. The thick, sticky crimson as it flowed from open wounds. The coppery metallic scent as it filled the air.
The tiny splatters that looked like artwork on the walls and his shirt.
Blood was the life force of the body. The river that swept a person along.
The heart and soul that gave life and took it away.
He lifted his fingers and stared at them now. Remembered the woman’s body as she’d jerked and screamed and begged him to stop.
She had had to die.
So did the others.
It was the only way to stop them from becoming like him. A monster. A child of the devil.
A killer who stole lives for pure pleasure and worshipped the evil growing inside him. The evil that gave him strength.
Strength and a power he’d never possessed before.
But he’d had to set the woman on fire to throw off the cops. Couldn’t let them know the real reason she’d had to die.
Besides, Zion had given him his orders. Make it look as if a firestarter had killed the girl.
And leave his trophy with the woman Marlena. The one who’d caused Dante to fail his initiation.
The woman who would have to die so Dante could find his way back to his father.