BY: RANDALL J. MORRIS
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are a product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2016 by Randall J. Morris
Cover image used with permission of the artist (Gabriela at http://chimicalstar.deviantart.com/)
Cover by Elizabeth Mackey Graphics
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations in critical articles or book reviews.
Cover by Elizabeth Mackey Graphics
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations in critical articles or book reviews.
Shade was surrounded. Two nephilim circled him, both of them grinning. He spun slowly as they circled, careful to keep his short blades pointed at them. They would occasionally lunge and pretend to attack, but neither of them actually struck. They half-heartedly swung their weapons and it was easy for Shade to evade their attacks. He knew what was happening. They were killing time until the real threat showed up.
“So the two of you are too chicken to take me on? You need to wait for your big brother to come save you?”
Shade’s taunting struck a nerve in one of the nephilim. He took a swing at Shade’s head, actually moving in close enough to mean it this time. Shade side-stepped the attack and elbowed the nephilim hard in the nose. He dropped his sword and clutched his nose with both hands, frantically trying to stop the bleeding. The other nephilim charged Shade, screaming like a banshee. Shade evaded the attack and tripped the nephilim. He went down hard, belly first. When he turned on his back, Shade brought his boot down quickly on the nephilim’s face. He was out cold.
“Picking on my little brothers again, Shade?”
Shade turned and saw Reaper approaching. He sheathed his weapons and shook his head defiantly.
“I wasn’t picking on anyone. I was minding my own business.”
“It doesn’t look like that. It looks like you knocked one out and gave the other one a bloody nose.”
“They attacked me. I was just on my way home from your father’s house when…”
“Practicing again? When will it finally sink in? You can’t do magic. You’re terrible. The worst I’ve ever seen. The rumors about your father summoning ice and all of his other powers are bullshit. You’re a bastard runt of an angel and a demon that didn’t want you.”
Shade drew the longsword from his back and charged. Reaper yawned, then held up his hand and fire shot out. Shade flew backwards in the air and landed hard on the ground. Before he could get up, Reaper was on top of him. He hit him hard three times in the face. Shade held up his arms to block the next blow, but it never came.
Shade tilted his head and looked up through his swollen eyes. Everything was blurry, but he knew who it was. Lucia was radiating light like she always did. Reaper got to his feet.
“Hey, babe. I caught your little buddy picking on my brothers again. I needed teach him another lesson.”
Lucia gave him a skeptical look. Reaper held up his hands in submission.
“I don’t enjoy kicking his ass. He was asking for it.”
Lucia reached down and offered a hand to Shade. He got to his feet without taking it, embarrassed by the entire situation. Lucia looked angrily at Reaper’s younger brothers.
“Fade. Backlash. Get over here now.”
Fade had stopped the blood from pouring out of his nose and helped Backlash to his feet. Backlash was clutching his head, still in pain from being briefly knocked out.
“Did you attack Shade?”
Fade shook his head.
“He attacked us. We weren’t even doing anything to him and we asked him to leave us alone.”
“Don’t lie to me. Backlash?”
Backlash looked at the ground.
“We were just messing around. We weren’t trying to hurt him.”
“You say that every time. It usually doesn’t turn out that way… does it? I don’t want to see any more bruises on Shade courtesy of you two morons.”
Shade couldn’t take it anymore.
“We were just messing around and Reaper misread the situation. It’s fine, Lucia. I don’t need your help.”
“Shade… I just…”
Shade turned and walked away. Lucia felt Reaper’s hand on her cheek and he turned her head to look at him. He was grinning mischievously.
“Am I in trouble?”
Lucia tried hard not to grin.
“You’re not going to get away with it so easily every time. The next time you do that, I’ll think about dumping you.”
“Hey, I should get a pass this time. I really thought that weirdo picked the fight. He was hurting my brothers.”
Lucia rolled her eyes. Reaper figured it was time to change the subject.
“We still on to hunt some angels and demons later on?”
“Sure. I need to sharpen my knives, but I’ll drop by your place after that.”
Lucia kissed Reaper quickly.
“Oh and I’m serious. Leave Shade alone. The next time I see the three of you attacking him, I’ll join in. On his side.”
“Just go get your knives sharpened. I’m sorry about the whole thing. I didn’t know that they started the fight. I’ll straighten my brothers out.”
Lucia grinned at him and walked towards Weapon’s armory. Reaper turned to his younger brothers.
“Since when can Shade beat the two of you up? That was pitiful. Do a better job ambushing him next time.”
Fade and Backlash looked at each other, then up at Reaper.
“We did what you told us to!”
“Yeah! Give us a break! He’s a good fighter!”
Reaper put a hand on his on each of his brothers’ shoulders.
“Our father is the most powerful nephilim sorcerer in the city. Use some fucking magic next time!”
Reaper smacked them each hard in the side of their heads.
As Shade walked away from Lucia, Reaper, and Reaper’s brothers, he felt the inside of his mouth with his tongue. His teeth were all still there but he could taste blood. Shade felt the rest of his face and could tell that his left cheek was slightly bruised. He cursed Reaper and then he cursed magic in general.
As Shade followed the path to Weapon’s house, he got the feeling that he was being followed. He didn’t hear any footsteps, but could still tell that something was coming. There was something unnatural up in the trees. He pulled one of his short swords from its sheath right as he felt a blade press against his neck.
“I got you, Shade. Clean kill.”
“Check your hip.”
Shade pressed his blade slightly inward to emphasize his point. The nephilim removed the blade from his throat and frowned.
“You would have died first.”
“But you would have also died. You would have bled out. It wasn’t a clean kill, Nissa. Maybe next time.”
Nissa placed her sword inside her coat. It disappeared.
“How did you even know I was coming? I was up in the trees.”
“Well I’m still annoyed, but I wasn’t just looking for you to get a clean kill. I got a contract from dad. There’s a minor demon that has been stealing weapons from the armory. Five gold coins a piece if we can take him out.”
“Why doesn’t Weapon just kill him? Why the contract?”
“Do you really care? It’s easy money and good practice for the hunt. I hope you’ve been practicing. I’m not going to carry you through this, Shade. You need to pull your weight if you’re going to become a minor nephilim with me.”
“You just assume I’ll want to work with you? Maybe I found someone better.”
“Very funny, Shade. There is no one better. I’m the greatest nephilim fighter there ever was, is, or will be.”
“Fine. I’ll help you with this job, but I want to see the contract first.”
“Because I found out that you cheated me last time. The contract was for fifteen gold coins and you only gave me five. I was even the one who killed the angel!”
Nissa grinned sheepishly.
“There was an extra fee for having to put up with your bullshit.”
“Then go take the demon out yourself. You don’t even need my help.”
“Stop pouting. I enjoy your company when I’m hunting and killing things. Happy?”
“I will be when you let me see the contract.”
Nissa weighed her options and then handed the contract over to Shade. She exhaled loudly in frustration.
“Why can’t you just trust me?”
“Because you were lying again. The contract is for twenty gold coins. That’s ten a piece.”
“I get twelve, you can have eight, and I’ll pretend I don’t notice when you stare at my ass the entire time. Deal?”
“I’m going home, Nissa. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Shade turned and started walking the other way. Nissa caught his arm.
“Fine. Ten coins each. Dad’s not sure this is a single demon. He thinks there may be a few. I need your help.”
“Ask me nicely.”
“Never mind. Go home then.”
Shade shrugged and started leaving again. Nissa caught his arm a second time.”
“And apologize for lying.”
“Oh come on! Are you serious?”
“No. I’m honestly surprised you even knew the word ‘please.’ Let’s go kill some demons.”
The small group of demons had successfully raided Weapon’s armory three times and turned an enormous profit from the weapons they sold when they made it back to Hell. The demons had scouted the place. They knew Weapon lived in the forest, a considerable distance from the nephilim city of Necropolis. They also rarely spotted him in the armory. Between training nephilim to fight, his duties on the nephilim council, and forging weapons in his blacksmith shop, Weapon only visited the armory to drop off weapons and armor.
The three demons entered the tunnel they built the first time they looted the armory. One of them lifted the circular hole they had cut in the floor and lifted his head inside. He looked around. Weapon wasn’t inside. This would be an easy score, just like the first three times.
The demon signaled to the others and then lifted himself into the armory. He reached for a sword and felt his hand severed at the wrist. His scream was cut short as his head was severed from his body.
“Is Weapon here? I thought he gave the signal?”
“There’s no one here. He did give the signal.”
“Well that’s just rude. I’m someone.”
The demons turned and saw an attractive female nephilim with dark hair, green eyes, and a trench coat. They eyed her hungrily, neither of them seeing her as a threat.
“Weapon’s daughter, huh? Why don’t you take off that trench coat and let us get a good look at what you’ve got underneath?”
“You haven’t earned it.”
“Well then maybe I’ll just remove it myself.”
Shade dropped from the ceiling and planted a sword in the top of each demon’s head. One demon fell forwards and the other fell backwards.
“Not gonna lie. I’m even impressed with how stylish that double kill was.”
“Then why don’t you take off that trench coat and let me get a good look at what you’ve got underneath?”
“Go fuck yourself.”
“Standard contract? We just need to deliver the heads?”
“That and we need to clean up in here. There’s demon blood everywhere. You made a mess.”
“You’re the one that severed a hand. This is mostly your mess.”
“Hey… equal pay for equal partners. That’s what you wanted. That means you do half the cleanup.”
Nissa tossed Shade a mop and a bucket.
“Wanna be my partner for the hunt tomorrow?”
“So you admit you don’t have better options?”
Shade looked like he was about to respond, but Nissa cut him off.
“I don’t need to hear the sarcasm. Yes. I’m in.”
There were four members of the nephilim council: Lilith, Steam, Weapon, and Selene. Lilith called the meeting to order.
“As we all know, the hunt starts tomorrow. Let’s try to keep this meeting short. I’ll only be taking urgent business to King Leech. Does anyone have anything?”
Selene shifted uncomfortably and nodded.
“Angels and demons have been hitting our new outpost hard for a while now. I’ve received reports that our defenses have fallen. Weapon looked into it.”
Weapon placed a piece of parchment on the table.
“I took a small group of nephilim to attempt to retake the outpost after Selene told me the defenses were down. All of our nephilim are dead. There were a few demon corpses mixed in as well. We found the charred remains of Earthquake. They burned him alive and placed this letter in his mouth.”
Weapon slid the parchment across the table. Lilith picked it up and read it. She shook her head.
“We’re sure this is legit? The angels would love to pin something like this on Muan if they can.”
“Weapon brought several demon corpses back with him. They were definitely berserkers. I recognize the spells they were under and the markings on their bodies. It looks like Muan was behind this. It’s no secret the demons don’t want us expanding.”
Lilith crumpled the letter and tossed it back on the table. She turned to Selene.
“Are the defenses of Necropolis in jeopardy? This situation worries me. Should we postpone the hunt?”
Selene shook her head.
“Our defenses here are fine. There’s no need to postpone the hunt. We just need to build out stronger the next time we expand the city. The outpost was too far away and we didn’t use enough magic. I think it would be a good idea to build another outpost closer and fortify it better. I can have walls up quickly enough, but I would like Steam to curse them with his sorcerers this time. We can’t let them get lucky again.”
“All in favor of rebuilding and reinforcing with sorcery?”
Steam, Selene, and Lilith raised their hands.
“I’d like to suggest a more direct way of dealing with the problem.”
“We’re listening, Weapon.”
“I want to take an army, track down Muan and his berserkers, and kill them all.”
Steam looked confused.
“You want to track down a major demon and the entire berserker order and wipe them out? Why on earth do you want to do that?”
“If we kill Muan with his army, berserker demons are no longer a threat. Period. Muan consolidated all of Nightmare’s old berserkers into a single order. We know he’s in the area. Why not wipe them out all at once? We may never get a chance like this again.”
Selene cut in.
“I know I’m only in charge of defense, but do we actually have the forces to do something like this? Without risking the entire city?”
Weapon ignored Selene and looked at Lilith.
“It’s a good idea. Take it to Leech.”
“Answer Selene’s question.”
“I would need about three-fourths of our forces.”
“You’ve gone insane, Weapon. If the angels or demons attack while you have three-fourths of our army out there after Muan, we’re done. That’s the end of our entire race. Why risk that?”
Lilith looked at the crumpled up letter again.
“We’re done for today. I’ll take both proposals to Leech.”
Steam, Selene, and Weapon got up to leave.
“Stick around for a few minutes, Weapon.”
Steam and Selene looked annoyed that they were being excluded, but they left.
“What’s this really about? You don’t normally make suggestions that are tactically ridiculous. What aren’t you telling me?”
Weapon immediately turned defensive.
“So you don’t want to take down Muan when we have the perfect chance? I thought you’d realized that the old alliances are dead, Lilith. We aren’t their friends anymore. They want to kill us. All of us. I’m just looking out for our interests.”
“Steam was right. It’s an insane risk to take three-fourths of our army beyond the protections Steam and Selene have set up for us here in Necropolis. Why do this?”
Weapon thought for a moment.
“Would you trust Muan alone in a room with your daughter?”
Lilith didn’t hesitate.
“Of course not. He’d kill her. I know he isn’t our friend anymore. What does that have to do with…”
“He killed my half-sister.”
“Muan killed your half-sister?”
“Her name was Nissa. She was a middle demon in charge of the berserkers. Muan killed her to become a major demon after Adrenaline died.”
“So that’s where you got your daughter’s name. Weapon we can’t risk our entire race on a personal vendetta like this.”
“Then I’ll deal with it myself. I’ll take Nissa with me.”
“Nissa’s preparing for the hunt. Don’t take that away from her.”
“I can’t let it go anymore, Lilith. I need to take the little pygmy demon out for good.”
“I’ll talk to Leech. Promise me you won’t do anything until after he thinks about it.”
Weapon got up to leave but he nodded before he turned and left.
As Shade entered his house, he heard three loud barks and his three-headed dog, Cerberus, lunged at him. Shade laughed as the dog tried to lick his face.
“I brought something home for you, buddy. Are you hungry?”
Cerberus wagged his tail and barked an affirmative response. Share untied the top of the bag and let the remains of the demons they had killed earlier fall on the floor. Cerberus was munching happily on the demon limbs within seconds. Two of his heads fought over the same piece until Shade pulled it from both of them.
The two heads found new pieces to munch on and Shade threw the piece back on the floor. He started sharpening his swords when he heard a knock at the door. Cerberus looked up briefly, but went back to eating. Shade set his weapons down and answered the door.
“Lucia… I’m fine. Go home.”
“Not why I’m here, numb nuts. I wanted to talk about the hunt and you’re my little brother so just sit down and listen.”
“We’re not related.”
“I’ll burn your house down. I swear, Shade. You can pout all you want but you’re my little brother. Leech and Lilith raised both of us.”
“My father’s a psycho killer… my grandfather’s a psycho killer… my great-grandfather…”
“Sit down and shut up for a while.”
Shade looked like he was going to protest, but Lucia summoned fire in both of her hands and made her way towards the nearest wall. Shade grinned.
“Fine. I’ll go back to sharpening my weapons and you can lecture at me about the hunt. Go for it. I’ll even pretend to listen.”
“Why don’t you actually listen? I’m trying to help you.”
“And I’ve told you my entire life that I don’t need your help. I’m not some abandoned puppy that you need to take care of. I can do just fine on my own.”
“Reaper’s helping his brothers prepare right now. I know for a fact. So if you and Nissa don’t want my help…”
“How’d you know I’m going to partner up with Nissa?”
“You’d be an idiot not to. Are you an idiot, Shade?”
“Directly answering a question. That’s a new one for you.”
“Look… if it’ll give me an edge over Fade and Backlash, I’m all ears. Go for it. Tell me everything you can without getting in trouble.”
“If you keep your mouth shut, I won’t get in trouble no matter what I tell you. You’ll find all of this out tomorrow morning anyways. You can clue Nissa in, too. Just make sure you don’t get caught. I’ll deny that I told you anything. Reaper will vouch for me that I was over at his house all night if you try to get me in trouble.”
“We sort of… have a bet. He’s put twenty-five coins on Fade and Backlash. I’m putting my twenty-five on you and Nissa.”
“I’m gonna lose on purpose now.”
“I should just go over to Nissa’s place and talk to her.”
“I’m kidding. Don’t worry. Your money’s safe and you made a smart bet. Just start at the beginning. I’m not going to rat you out.”
“Alright. Well you know that Dad figured out how to steal angel and demon powers, right? He learned it from watching…”
Lucia almost said “Shadow,” but she caught herself.
“…anyways… Weapon and Steam were able to work with some blueprints that Dad drew up to make nephilim gloves. Once you kill an angel or a demon, you can use the gloves to steal their powers. You’ll get your pair of nephilim gloves tomorrow at the hunt. The few that make minor nephilim from this batch get to keep their gloves. Everyone else hands them back in until the next hunt.”
“I already knew most of that through rumors. What else can you tell me?”
“Every kill is worth a point. The most points wins. You bring back angel wings and demon heads…”
“I know all of that, too. It’s the same thing with the contracts Nissa and I hunt down.”
“Right, but each year Dad or the council picks a certain rule to tweak. This year, there’s a bonus for killing berserker demons. I just found out about it. They’re worth three points each.”
Shade immediately thought of his mother. Sarah visited on rare occasions when she was taking a break from searching for Shadow. The last time she visited, she had given him some small bags of fine powders and told him all about her training as a berserker.
“Would you try to cash in on the bonus? I know you did during your hunt.”
“That was very different. We got a bonus for bringing in angels’ weapons. It wasn’t any extra work really. Reaper and I just killed off a ton of angels.”
“But it’s how you won and that’s when you got your title. Lucia Lightbringer. Oh and by the way… I hope you know that adding a title to your name is really lame.”
“It runs in the family. Dad ran around telling everyone he was Leech the Angel Slayer for years. That was before he became King Leech.”
“So should we go after berserkers or not?”
“Don’t try it. The nephilim stupid enough to take on berserkers are going to get themselves killed. I overheard Mom say that Muan’s entire army is in the area. Just go for sheer numbers of weaker angels and demons. Play to your strengths. I know you and Nissa have a lot of experience bringing in demon heads for contracts and the occasional set of angel’s wings.”
Shade resolved then to hunt berserkers. The challenge excited him and he knew Nissa would feel the same way. He also had a pretty solid feeling that Fade and Backlash would be going straight for the berserkers as well.
“Just in case we run into a berserker, you kill them by taking off their heads, right?”
“That’s right but…”
Shade smiled innocently at Lucia.
“No, Shade. Don’t go after the berserkers.”
“I’m sorry. I’ll have to talk it over with Nissa. We can’t involve you in our hunt strategies. Thank you for the information, though. We’ll make sure you win your bet with your asshole boyfriend.”
“No berserkers, Shade. Promise me.”
“It’s getting late and I need to get some sleep. Big day tomorrow. Good night, Lucia.”
“If you die tomorrow hunting berserkers, I’ll bring you back to life long enough to kill you myself.”
Lucia stood up and left. Shade grinned as he made his way over to his bed. He stepped over Cerberus, who was already snoring loudly, hopped into bed, and fell asleep.
Shade met Nissa and they made their way to the front of the crowd that was waiting to hear King Leech’s opening speech before the hunt. Nissa saw that Shade had brought Cerberus. She leaned down and scratched the ears behind one of his heads. The other two heads got jealous and they growled at her until she scratched their ears as well.
“You think bringing Carebear was a good idea?”
“Don’t call him Carebear. It hurts his ego.”
Nissa raised her eyebrows, still waiting for an answer. Shade looked around and made sure no one was listening to their conversation.
“Yes. We need him if we’re going to track down the berserkers.”
“Your sister visited me last night. She doesn’t think we should go after the berserkers. She wanted me to promise her that we wouldn’t.”
“And I told her thanks for the info, but we can plan out our strategy on our own.”
“That’s why I love you, Nissa.”
Nissa blushed and then bent down to pet Cerberus so Shade wouldn’t see her reaction. She knew he didn’t mean it like she wanted him to, but the words still caught her off guard. Shade removed a small bag from his pocket and showed it to Nissa.
“It’s the chemicals that the berserker demons snort. My mom gave it to me the last time she visited. I figure we can have Cerberus smell it and lead us right to the berserkers. That’s where we cash in. Three points per berserker kill.”
“Sounds like a solid plan. Have you ever killed a berserker before?”
“No. We’ll be fine though. Just remember to take off their heads. That’s the only way to kill them.”
“That’s ideally how we kill everything.”
“So you’re in? Go for the berserkers?”
“Yup. Let’s do it.”
The gathered nephilim fell silent as Leech walked through the crowd and then turned to face them.
“Welcome, new recruits. Normally I love giving long speeches at the beginning of the hunt, but I don’t have time for that this year. You’ll pair off and be ranked according to the angels’ wings and demon heads you bring back. One point for a pair of angel wings and one point for a demon head. This year, we’re adding in an extra bounty on berserker demons. Each berserker demon head is worth three points. If any of you find the major demon Muan, you are to report it immediately. Do not attempt to fight him. You will lose.”
Steam cleared his throat to get Leech’s attention. Leech looked over at him and nodded.
“My daughter will explain everything else. Happy hunting to all of you!”
The nephilim cheered as Leech walked over to Steam and the two of them left. Lucia held up her hands.
“Minor nephlim and middle nephilim will be patrolling the area. You can summon us at any time with your gloves. Each nephilim will get a pair of gloves that can steal powers from dead angels and demons. If you get enough points to become a minor nephilim, you can keep your gloves. They’re also how you summon us if you need help. Clap three times and the nearest minor or middle nephilim will be there in seconds to help you. The top three teams will become minor nephilim, so there are six total openings. Everyone else will turn in their gloves at the end of the hunt and can try again next year.”
Lucia looked around and saw that the nephilim gloves had been handed out.
“I like to have some fun with the start of the hunt… so here’s what we’re going to do. You can all start when I burst into flames.”
Shade rolled his eyes.
“She’s such a show off.”
“3… 2… 1…”
Lucia’s entire body was engulfed in white flames and the nephilim all rushed off beyond the walls of Necropolis. Shade let Cerberus sniff the berserker chemicals.
“Go find it!”
Cerberus sniffed at the air and ran off beyond the walls. Shade and Nissa followed at a jog. It wasn’t long before the two crossed paths with an angel.
“So the nephilim are out in the open today? Good. We have an army in the area. I’ll go get them after I kill the two of you.”
Shade whistled for Cerberus to come back and then charged the angel. The angel swung at Shade and Shade ducked under the blow. He spun and struck the angel’s side with both of his blades. Instead of digging into the angel’s flesh, he felt his blades bounce off of something hard. Shade rolled and backed away a few steps.
“He has some kind of rock defense magic.”
Nissa nodded and started searching her trench coat. The angel lunged at Shade with a spear and Shade jumped out of the way.
“Yes… I just need to find it.”
Shade chopped at the angel’s head with his blade. The sword stuck in the angel’s head and he laughed before he removed it.
“Oh here it is.”
Nissa pulled a small bomb from her trench coat and tossed it at the angel. It stuck to his left hand, beeped three times, and then blew the angel into hundreds of tiny, rocklike pieces. Shade retrieved his blade and used it to cut off the angel’s wings before sheathing both of his swords. Nissa touched the pile of rocks with her nephilim gloves and Shade bent down to do the same.
“Rock defense. I guess it’s a pretty cool power. This guy was pretty lame overall, though.”
“You’re just saying that, because I killed him.”
“Your dad would have killed him a lot faster. Why can’t you fit a rocket launcher in your trench coat?”
“Not really sure. No matter how many times we’ve tried to duplicate Dad’s trench coat, we can’t get it exactly the same. Mine holds a lot less. Still more effective than you, though.”Shade flipped Nissa off and she stuck her tongue out at him before Shade had Cerberus sniff the berserker chemicals again and they were back on the hunt.