Demon Bait

A Children of the Undying Prequel Novella


Digital

November, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-60928-554-8

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Demon Bait

Fifty years after a demon apocalypse devastated the world, summoners still bear the bulk of the blame. Marci lives in secret, hiding the gifts that could cost her a secure spot in one of humanity’s underground cities, and access to their virtual world. After all, her chances of avoiding the genetic-testing lotto are better than her chances of surviving topside.

The bastard son of a terrifying incubus, lust heats Gabe’s blood and sex fuels his magic. Innate charm and charisma help him navigate the cultural gap between the outcast town he calls home and the human settlements he infiltrates for trade. His latest mission nets him an unexpected asset—a summoner strong enough to soothe his darkest needs.

Trust a half demon, especially one who uses a lockdown to trap them together? Not in this lifetime. Yet Marci can’t resist Gabe’s offer to see her safely to a selective outcast settlement where she can live without fear. The journey alone is as dangerous as the way Gabe makes her heart race, but it could be her one hope of a real life.

If only she could be sure Gabe’s telling her the whole truth…

Warning: Contains a virtual world where humans flee to escape the demon-infested earth, a dangerously seductive half demon with sex magic to burn and a network-hacking summoner brave enough to make herself vulnerable to him.

Read an Excerpt


Chapter One

“Did you hear that Lee came up in the last lottery?”

Marci hesitated in her typing and turned her head just a little toward Asha’s soft whisper. The woman knew every rumor that floated through the network, no matter how large or small, but she only passed on the ones she’d been able to confirm. “He’s fine, right?”

“Nothing was uncovered in the research phase, but he still has to take a blood test.” Asha’s fingers never stopped their dance across her keyboard. “Some of the techs are getting nervous. That’s ten of us this month.”

“Ten techs doesn’t mean anything,” Marci said quickly. “It could be a coincidence.” Except nothing ever was, not when it came to the city heads’ determination to cull danger from their midst.

“People are talking.” One of the mill supervisors appeared on the other side of the room, and Asha’s voice dropped again. “Like maybe the trouble with the ADS grid is related.”

It had been tetchy lately, with several close calls and even one system failure, though it lasted a matter of seconds before they managed to bring it back on line. “Keeping the anti-demon signal operational is the most important part of network maintenance. If they thought someone was sabotaging it, they’d launch an investigation, not mess around with the lotteries.”

“Good point.” A rueful smile curved the other woman’s lips. “That was the most reasonable rumor. Some guy tried to tell me last night he had proof they’re using the blood tests to install brainwashing hacks on our chips.”

“At least we won’t know the diff–” Marci’s words cut off with a single indrawn breath. A man had come in with the supervisor, one with dark hair and piercingly blue eyes. She tried to drop her gaze, look away, but she couldn’t.

Asha followed her stare and nearly whistled. “Wow. Those are some eyes.”

Some everything. “I’ve never seen him before.”

“You think he’s from the city center? We’re not due an inspection, are we?”

“I don’t know.” All the committee flunkies Marci had encountered had been suits. This guy was dressed in rough leather and homespun fabrics, with a knife strapped to one hip and a gun on the other.

He looked like an outcast.

Asha resumed typing, then frowned. “No arrivals from Nicollet today. Not on the schedule, anyway.”

Where was he from? The closest settlement was a place called Rochester. Quiet, with a policy of open acceptance but a reputation for a strict code of conduct. She’d done her share of research and carefully considered Rochester as a possible place to settle, should she be forced to leave Nicollet.

The supervisor stopped near the row of servers that powered Gold Mills’ network and waved a hand toward the windows overlooking the main floor. Though the stranger nodded and appeared to be listening, he kept looking away, studying each of the seven workers in the control room.

He reached Asha, but watched her only for a moment before drifting away. Most men stared at Asha, with her dusky skin and effortless beauty. But when the newcomer looked toward them again, his gaze locked on Marci instead.

And stayed there.

The supervisor continued to speak in low tones. After a moment, he tracked the man’s intense stare to Marci and flashed the man a faint frown of confusion that left her bristling. She was used to being casually considered and dismissed, but the bewilderment pissed her off. She might be plain, for fuck’s sake, but she wasn’t hideous.

The stranger’s blue eyes stayed fixed on hers for another few seconds, then he abruptly turned away.

Asha leaned in close. “He’s checking you out. Hard.”

He was, no denying that. The question was why. “Maybe I remind him of someone.”

“Maybe. Or maybe he–”

The lights flickered.

Marci clenched her hands around the edge of the desk until the power stabilized. The building was secure, fortified against any and all unauthorized access. Unfortunately, that meant no ambient light filtered in from outside. A power failure would plunge them into utter darkness.

Christian, another of the technicians, spoke from across the network control area. “I’ve got an alert in sector sixteen-B. Infrastructure failure.”

“Shit.” Asha settled into her seat again and reached for her glasses. “I’m going in to do a diagnostic.”

“No, wait–” Marci grabbed her arm. Silly. Stupid, even–nothing could hurt you, not in the network. “Just…wait for the automated–”

Before she could finish, the spinning red lights above the doors activated, along with the blare of sirens. Lockdown in fifteen minutes, which could only mean–

“We’ve lost ADS,” Christian shouted. “The entire regional grid’s down.”

Asha’s fingers tightened on her VR glasses. “Go, Marci. I’ll be okay.”

As senior tech, Christian had to stay, and it was the other woman’s week to pull emergency call as his backup. “I don’t like it,” Marci muttered. “The whole grid? You two can’t fix that. You should be underground with everyone else. Let the city programmers handle it.”

“We can get our backup ADS running, at least.” Asha gave her one last look and slipped on her glasses. “Fourteen minutes, Marcelle. Go.”

Everyone else had already stampeded for the door, desperate to get to their loved ones before the sirens fell silent. Marci grabbed her bag, ducked out into the hall and ran full-force into a broad chest. “Sorry, excuse–”

It was the outcast, the one with the beautiful eyes.

“The ADS is down.” It wasn’t a question. His hands closed around her arms, firm but not painful. “Where are you going?”

It was stupid to answer, stupid and dangerous. “It’s a lockdown. We’re supposed to grab emergency supplies and head to our quarters.”

He blinked at her once, then nodded. “Which way?”

He said it so matter-of-factly that it took her a moment to stammer out a protest. “No. No, you can’t come with me.”

“No anti-demon signal,” he said roughly. “You shouldn’t be unprotected.”

Marci started walking. If she didn’t hurry, she’d be stuck in the endless, serpentine corridors with the crazy man, no matter what. “I won’t be unprotected. I live underground.”

One of the steel workers rushed past them, slamming into the stranger’s shoulder hard enough to push him back a step. He regained his balance, but his expression had changed. Worry–maybe a hint of fear. “I don’t have anywhere to go.”

Damn it, of course he didn’t. And if he was an outcast, he would be used to being shoved aside, no matter what. “Come on, I know a place. We’ll get you some supplies too.”

Relief suffused his features. “Thank you.”

He had a tiny scar on his left cheek, and Marci wasted precious seconds staring at it. “This way.”

It had taken her a while after her arrival at Gold Mills to memorize the route from the control hub to her quarters. It was a long walk, almost a mile, and by the time they made it to the supply station closest to her wing, the loudspeaker announced only four minutes left until full lockdown.

Marci panted for breath. “Water and rations. We’re supposed to grab enough for three days.”

Extra bags lined one wall. He took down two in silence, handed her one, and began to fill the other. “Looks like a lot of people have been through here already.”

“We don’t have much time.”

“How secure is the lockdown?”

Right now, Marci wished she’d paid more attention to the minute security details. “Everything underground should be sealed off completely. If any demons get past the locks, it’ll mean a total breach.”

The corner of his mouth twitched, as if he took wry amusement from her words. He shoved another bottle of water into the bag, looped the strap over his neck and helped her. “And it lasts three days?”

“Up to.” She let him finish loading her bag because he moved so efficiently, as if he was used to doing this sort of thing every day. “It gives the city time to mobilize defense forces.”

“Mmm.” He slipped the supply bag’s strap over his neck and reached for her shoulder bag. “I can move faster carrying it. We’ve only got a couple minutes left.”

She relinquished it. “There’s a lounge area not far from my place. I’ll take you there first.”

Less than two minutes remained, and a computerized voice began to count down the passage of every fifteen seconds. Marci hurried faster. The stranger kept up, even carrying three bags, and they reached the lounge with a minute to spare.

She didn’t have time for pleasantries, so she snatched one bag and shoved him into the room. “Stay clear of the outer doors. Network connections should still work. I’ll–”

His hands closed on her arms and dragged her inside. “I know what you are.”

He’d grabbed her before, and she’d been oddly calm. Panic surged this time, and not just at his unshakable grip. “Let go of me.”

“I’m sorry.” He took a step back, pulling her with him–deeper into the lounge and away from the door. “You’ve got summoner blood. With the ADS down, you’ll call to them.”

Her secret, the one thing her mother had tried so damn hard to hide, laid bare. “Who are you?”

The voice announced thirty seconds left. His hand slid to her stomach, holding her body tight against his chest. “I’m someone who can keep you safe from demons.”

Marci tightened one hand around the strap of the bag. She’d never make it to her own quarters, not now, but she’d be all right in the hallway. With her supplies, she could survive.

She tensed for a fight, drew back and kicked him hard in the shin.

A curse escaped him. One knee bent, like he hadn’t expected her to fight back, but his grip didn’t waver. “Damn it, woman, I’m not going to hurt you.”

Like he’d tell her if he was. A completely inappropriate laugh bubbled up. “And you might be crazy, but you’re not a liar, right?”

“Oh, I lie all the time.” It seemed like an easy admission. “But I’m not lying when I tell you I could make you stop fighting. I could lean on you and make you think the sky’s pink, honey. Someday I want you to remember that I didn’t.”

“I–” The heavy door to the hallway slammed shut with an odd, echoing clang, leaving her alone, maybe for days, with a man who’d just threatened her. A man who claimed not only to recognize what she was, but to be able to protect her, even from a demon onslaught.

* * *

As soon as the door closed, Gabe released his grip on the woman and hoped she wouldn’t go for his balls.

She made an outraged noise instead, clenched one tiny fist and hit him square in the chest. “You asshole!”

Better than a foot between the legs, but the woman could put surprising force behind a blow. Gabe rubbed at his chest and took a step back, mostly because retreating might make her feel more secure. “I usually go by Gabe.”

“Too bad,” she snapped. “What were you thinking? You can’t just manhandle someone like that.”

That was the whole problem–he hadn’t been thinking. Not from the moment he’d stepped into that dingy, cramped little control room and caught the sweet whisper of magic slicing through the nagging pain from the building’s anti-demon signal.

When the ADS cut out, that whisper had become a roar, and instinct had taken over. She was vulnerable, unmarked, with no bond to protect her. A demon wouldn’t have to lay hands on her to enslave her, but Gabe could keep her safe. Cherish her. Convince her to bind herself to him

A nice thought, if only she didn’t look ready to tear him apart with her bare hands. “I did what I had to do,” he told her, blunt and uncompromising. “You’re in danger out there. A demon would be able to sense you a mile away.”

She stiffened. “So you said. And we both know there’s only one way you could possibly have figured that out.”

Only one way, so maybe he shouldn’t blame her for watching him like he’d grown horns–or wings. “Yup. Daddy was a demon.”

The woman actually cringed. “I would think you’d want me as far away as possible,” she said desperately. “If they can sense me like you say, they’ll come here. That puts you in danger too.”

Her fear had a taste. Metallic, and about as comfortable as chewing on nails. Gabe took a shallow breath and eased his stance. Shoulders lowered, hands open, head tilted just a little. Relaxed and easy, and as nonthreatening a pose as he could manage. “It’s okay. I know how to fight demons.”

“Uh-huh.” She squared her shoulders, still tense and wary. “My name is Marci. Marcelle.”

“Marci.” He loosed his grip on his power, not much, just enough to project a soothing undertone. “You’re a net-tech?”

“I’m a…” Her words trailed off. She blinked, her eyes unfocused, and a gentle flush crept up her neck and cheeks. “Network technician, yes. I used to work mostly with aesthetic programming before I came here.”

He didn’t have a fucking clue what aesthetic programming was. “Sounds like an interesting job.”

The flush deepened. “Avatars. I coded avatars before I put in for transfer to Gold Mills.”

Either she was sensitive to seductive magic, or he’d laid it on thicker than he’d intended. Gabe eased up, letting it simmer down to a quiet murmur. “I thought avatars were just scans.”

“It’s a little more complicated than that.” Her eyes cleared, and she frowned. “What was that?”

Shit. She was sensitive, all right–and about to catch him out. He had a split second to decide between a lie and the truth.

Truth, because she seemed like the type who’d appreciate it. “Legacy from my father. Women liked him, whether they wanted to or not. Some things are genetic, but I can try to keep it under wraps.”

She was so easy to read, he’d have known the moment realization dawned even if she hadn’t squeaked in outrage again. “Is that what you meant? Leaning on me, making me think the sky was pink?”

Again, he had to make a choice–and again he chose the truth. “No. One is seduction, but the other…isn’t. And I shouldn’t have said that to you, because I’m not going to do it. It’s fucking repulsive.”

“Yeah, it is. So keep it in your pants.” She stalked past him and tugged on the door with a curse. “Damn it. Damn it.”

“Can the doors be hacked from the network?”

“No.” Marci groaned and smacked her forehead against the door’s surface. “The lockdown can only be cancelled with a keycode generated on the mainframe in Nicollet.”

Waiting for the humans to free him was out of the question. As a smuggler, they wouldn’t be friendly to him. As a halfblood demon…

Gabe moved to the right side of the lounge, where a round table sat surrounded by chairs, several tipped over in front of half-eaten meals, as if those on break had abandoned their spots when the alarms went off.

He set down the bags and began to unpack bottled water and packaged rations. “So we need to be ready to spend a few days here.”

“I distinctly recall telling you that several times.”

“Let me rephrase. You need to be ready to spend a few days here with me.”

She laughed, but the sound was cut abruptly short as she turned to face him. “You’re half-demon. What kind?”

Humans probably had categories and classifications. It seemed like a human thing to do–name a problem and then avoid it. “We don’t bother much with that. Some of us are lovers. Some are fighters. Warriors and mediators.” He tossed her a smile. “Which do you think I am?”

Marci shivered, a breath escaping her on a soft moan. “Rules. I think we need rules.”

He could play along, if it made her feel better. “What kind of rules?”

Her short, dark hair brushed the pale column of her neck as she glanced around the room. “I don’t spend a lot of time in this lounge, but it has beds, through that door over there. Just a few, mostly for shift workers who live on the other side of the complex but who need to rest between splits.”

“All right.” He concentrated on lining up the water bottles on the table and let her work her way around to whatever she had to say.

“They’re all in one room,” she said evenly, “but there’s no reason we can’t move one out here, yes?”

Gabe scanned the rest of the lounge. Besides the table, it held two beat-up couches, a smattering of chairs, and a screen that looked like an old-fashioned television affixed to the wall.

Posh, all things considered. Probably why people from the city were willing to be posted here in spite of the danger. “I’ll sleep on the couch, if you’re not in the mood to cuddle.”

“Suit yourself.”

Her tone made it clear that she didn’t care what the hell he did, as long as he stayed away from her. She was pissy as fuck, and he liked that a whole lot better than the fear.

Especially since she was hot when she was mad.

Telling himself it wouldn’t be smart to provoke her, Gabe settled on middle ground–and a change of subject. “Is that a real television?”

“What?” She glanced back at him and then at the wall. “Yeah, sure. We get some programming streamed in from the city, but it’s mostly local-server stuff. Old TV shows, movies.”

“Why don’t you just…?” He shrugged and waved a hand in a drunken loop, common enough shorthand among his peers. “You know. Uplink and watch it there?”

Marci frowned as she opened one of the bags and rifled through it. “Why? It’s hardly worth the disorientation for fifteen minutes of downtime.”

“Not something I’ve seen much of, is all.” Not that Zel hadn’t tried to bring back some of the conveniences of the old world, but there was only so much he could do with space at a premium. No room for lounges where only a few people could see a screen, not when their techie could build lavish virtual movie theaters large enough to accommodate half the settlement.

Her quiet voice cut through his thoughts. “You’re from Rochester, aren’t you?”

He supposed it was the only logical conclusion. Since he had every intention of taking her back there with him, he didn’t bother to lie. “Yes.”

“So what are you doing here?”

“Trade.” He smiled, just a smile, no seductive force behind it. “Bribing people for trade.”

From the look on her face–vaguely intrigued, but not surprised–she’d suspected as much. “Do you come here often?”

“From time to time.” He tested her tolerance by taking a few steps toward the couch. “It’s the flour. You’ve got the equipment and resources to make it in bulk. Our settlement can manage a lot, but not that.”

“I see.” She pulled a small plastic package from the bag. Inside was a simple pair of signal-boosting VR glasses, ready to unfold and use. “I need to get in the network and see what’s going on.” The words held an odd note of expectation.

Clearly she had no intention of leaving him in this room with her helpless body. An insult, but not one he didn’t deserve, all things considered. His own glasses were in his pack, which was in a truck stashed a mile away, but one of the other bags he’d grabbed revealed a second disposable pair like the one she’d uncovered. “Will these boost us to the Global?”

She shook her head. “They usually restrict Global access for the first few hours of a lockdown. Local only.”

“Gotcha.” A damn lot of good it would do him. At least with the ADS down, spending time in the network wouldn’t hurt. “Am I going to get in your way in there?”

“No.” She unwrapped her glasses and hesitated. “They’ll restore Global access eventually, and you can get in touch with people back in Rochester. It shouldn’t take long.”

The hesitant concern made him smile. “Are you worried about me, sweetheart?”

She turned away. “Someone will be missing you soon, right?”

“Maybe in a few days.” It wasn’t quite the truth–if he didn’t check in, they might be worried, but no one would raise a panic. If Zel hadn’t trusted him to get the job done, he wouldn’t be here.

Marci slipped on her glasses, sat on one of the couches and crossed her ankles primly. “Do you have a basic avatar loaded on your chip?”

Gabe dropped to one of the other couches–far enough away not to spook her, hopefully. “Hell if I know. I always have one wherever I go, so I guess?”

The corner of her mouth kicked up. “If it sticks you with a generic skin, I might be able to throw together something better. Not like I won’t have plenty of time.”

“Sounds like a plan.” The plastic covering the glasses crinkled between his fingers and tore easily. Nothing fancy about them on the surface–plain black lenses to make it easier to block out the world, with the important part built into the frames. A chip would boost the network wireless and let them both connect, even with a weak signal.

He’d never liked the network. It was jarring, being out of the world and cut off from the magic he’d been born with. Not that he loved living every day in a body that could be beyond his control–but it was his body, demonic curse and all.

No choice now. Nothing mattered more than earning her trust, because when he blew out of this joint, he wasn’t leaving her behind.

The little summoner was already his.