All right, it pisses me off, but I go since he pays me and if I don’t he’ll tell on me again and get me into all kinds of trouble, none of which I want to hear right now. So after I hoof my butt over there to get his sorry ass, what do I find?
Yes, you guessed it. Nothing but a couple of homeless people who think I’ve lost my mind as I search for my “cat” while holding male clothing which I slowly remember won’t do any good since he can’t shift back into a human until after I get him home. That rank bastard and his pranks.
A curse of poxes on his head. Better yet, I hope he gets fleas (I would wish ticks, but then I’d probably get Lyme disease from him). So fleas. Lots and lots of fleas!
I’m sure Catman Moron found some bimbo to shack up with and shag for the day, but damn it all. Couldn’t he have called and told me that? No. So here I am, chugging extra-caffeinated espresso and hoping I stay awake for my test this afternoon. Thanks, boss. Appreciate it. You are the best. Where’s Animal Control when you really need them? Better yet, get me an ax so I can cut off his head, and I don’t mean the one on his shoulders.
Song: “Everything About You”: Ugly Kid Joe
Susan let out a tired breath as she rubbed her brow. Oh, yeah. The girl needed some serious professional help. But what the hell? It wasn’t like she had anything else to do other than go and investigate the Immortal Catman of Pike’s Market.
Susan cringed at the thought. “Now I’m doing it, too… Cheesy headlines are us.” Groaning, she rubbed her eyes. “You know, if my life was a horse, I’d shoot it.”
No matter the location or day, every animal shelter in the United States seemed to always hold the same pungent odor of cleaning antiseptic mixed with wet fur. And even though the shelters were warmed, there was always an odd chill to the air. One that penetrated straight to the bones.
Today was no different. The cat cages were lined along two walls where some of the felines slept while others played, ate, or groomed.
All except one.
That one crouched as if ready to kill and it watched everything around it with the sharp intellect of a vicious predator that belied its smaller size. It wasn’t like the others. Only a fool would make that assumption.
At first glance, it appeared to be a regular Bengal house cat, but if one looked closer, it was obvious that it didn’t hold quite the same facial characteristics that marked the Bengal breed. In fact, it looked just like an Arabian leopard—only it weighed a scant fifteen pounds instead of sixty.
More than that, its eyes were an eerie shade of black… an unnatural color for such a beast. And if one was really paying attention, they would definitely notice that while the other cats wore plain white collars, this one wore one of silver. It was a very special collar that caught the light and flashed with a preternatural gleam.
And what made it so special? Certainly not the thinness of its strap or the fact that it had no buckle on it. No. It was the unseen circuitry that ran along the underside of the silver fabric. Circuitry that had been designed to send out inhibitors that couldn’t be felt by man or beast—unless the creature was both man and beast.
A devilish invention by those who wanted some control over the magick of others, this collar kept this particular cat in its current feline form.
And that seriously pissed the cat off.
Ravyn hissed as a man ventured near his cage. If he could get out of this, he’d tear the bastard’s arms off and beat him with them. But unfortunately, he couldn’t—that would require him to actually have arms of his own, which in his current form he didn’t possess.
And it was all his fault. Damn him and his libido anyway. If he’d simply trotted past the sex goddess in the extremely short skirt at dawn, he’d be happily home by now—well, maybe not happily, since he’d have to listen to Erika bitch, but certainly he’d be home in his own bed and not locked in this damned cage.
What could one little stroking possibly hurt?
He looked at the bars on the cage and hissed at the apparent answer. Yeah. Ash would have a field day with him on this one.
Provided he got out of it. As it stood, he wasn’t so sure he was going to make it this time. So long as he wore the collar, his powers as both a Dark-Hunter and a Were-Hunter were seriously restricted. As an Arcadian Were-Hunter, his natural form was human. To be trapped as a cat during the light of day was both painful and extremely disconcerting. Even with the metriazo collar on that inhibited him from using his paranormal powers, there was only so long he could hold this form before his own magick turned on him and killed him.
It was one frightfully sobering thought.
“How’s he doing?”
Ravyn narrowed his eyes on the tall, blond male veterinarian who was an Apollite. As a rule, most Apollites stayed out of the war that raged between the Daimons and the Dark-Hunters. It wasn’t until Apollites started stealing human souls to elongate their short lives and thereby becoming Daimons that Dark-Hunters bothered with them. After all, that was the whole reason Dark-Hunters had been created. They were the ones who killed the Daimons so that the stolen human souls could be released before the Daimon possession destroyed them.
Obviously this Apollite wanted a head start on being hunted.
The human assistant, who was a short man around the age of thirty with black hair and a shaggy beard, answered. “He’s pissed and glaring. What else?” He cocked his head as he studied Ravyn from a safe distance. “You think he’s Arcadian or Katagari?”
The vet shrugged before he bent down to look into the cage. “I don’t know, but I’m hoping for Arcadian.”
Ravyn bared his teeth at the prick who smiled in response. “‘Cause if he is, the magick that’s holding him in cat form will eventually cause his head to explode. It’ll be painful as hell before he dies.”
The assistant laughed. “And no nine lives to bring him back. Damn shame. But I like it.” He turned to look at the doctor. “What say you neuter him while he’s like this, too?”
“You know, you have a great idea…”
Ravyn snarled as the vet reached for the clipboard that hung outside his cage and made a note. Ravyn hissed at him before he sent out a mental note to the Apollite vet. “You neuter me, you bastard, and I’ll dance in your entrails.”
That bit of spite came back on him tenfold as it caused the collar to constrict and shock him enough to seriously hurt, but not so much that it caused him to change forms.
The vet smirked before he hung the clipboard back on the peg. “I don’t really see how you’re going to do that in your current position. Do you, furball?”
The human assistant high-fived the vet. “I can’t wait for Stryker and Paul to get here and finish him off.” Then laughing, the two of them left Ravyn alone with the rest of the animals.
Ravyn charged the bars of his cage, but all he succeeded in doing was hurting himself. Damn them all. How had they managed to get him trapped like this? How had they known where to find him?
One minute he’d been hiding in the shadows of Pike’s Market, waiting for his Squire, Erika, to come get him, and the next thing he’d known that puta in the red skirt had grabbed him and snapped the collar around his neck before he could fight or sense her intentions. Once the collar was in place, he’d been powerless without his magick.
Keeping a tight grip on him, the woman had wrapped him in her shawl, picked him up, and handed him off to a group of waiting humans who’d paid her fifty dollars for her services. Afterward, the humans had tossed him into the local animal shelter.
And here he would stay until either his head exploded from the inhibitors in the collar or he figured out some way to escape this cage without having either his magick or opposable thumbs.
Yeah. Great odds there… not. His only hope was that Erika would get concerned when he didn’t show up after nightfall—
Wait, he was talking about Erika Thomas here. Erika. The girl who liked to pretend she didn’t have to work for him. The girl who went out of her way to avoid him and her duties. She wouldn’t notice for days that he wasn’t home.
No, the little mutant would throw a party the instant she found out that while she’d ignored his absence, some mad Apollite had gelded his ass and left him impotent. Then, she’d call all her friends and laugh about it.
I am so screwed. …
Susan sighed as she toyed with the small gold medallion that she kept in her purse. Only a hair larger than a silver dollar, it didn’t look like much, but on the night she’d won it, it’d held even more value than a hundred-million-dollar lottery ticket.
She paused to look at it as old memories assailed her. She’d won the Sterling Award for Investigative Reporting for Politics in 2000. She’d been on top of the world that night…
Clenching the award in her hand, she cursed under her breath. “Just sell the damned thing on eBay.”
But she couldn’t and she hated herself for that. It was hard to let go of a glorious past even when all it did was bring her pain. Maybe she shouldn’t have been so cocky back then. Maybe this was her comeuppance.
Bullshit. She didn’t believe in that kind of divine retribution. She was where she was because she’d allowed herself to be deceived and she had been after more glory. There was no one to blame but herself. She’d been stupid and trusting, and she would pay for that one moment of fallacy for the rest of her life.
Her phone rang.
Grateful for the interruption to her morbid ruminations, she picked it up and answered. “Susan Michaels.”
“Hey, Sue, it’s Angie. How you doing?” Her buddy sounded a little less than upbeat, but it was still good to hear a friendly voice.
“Fine,” Susan said as she tucked her award away into her purse. If anyone could make her feel better, it was Angie. A smart-mouthed vegan veterinarian, Angie had a way of cutting through the thick of any matter and pointing out the ludicrous—it was truly a gift Sue appreciated. “What are you up to?”
“Five by five as always.”
Susan rolled her eyes. The statement wasn’t just a reference to the Buffy the Vampire Slayer show Angie loved, it was also the way Angie described herself, since she was round and cuddly.
“I’ll only give you five by three… maybe.”
“Yeah, right. Trust me, I am as wide as I am tall, but that’s not the point of this. You got a minute away from your lunatic boss?”
“‘Cause I’ve got some news that I think you’re going to want to hear.”
In spite of Angie’s dire tone, Susan smiled. “Hugh Jackman has divorced his wife and happened upon my picture in some old article and decided that I’m the woman for him?”
Angie laughed. “Damn, you have been working for that paper for a long time. You’re now starting to believe the rubbish you publish.”
“Har, har. Is there a real point to this conversation?”
“Yes, there is. You know those strange missing-person reports Jimmy’s been talking about that’ve been going on for a while? The ones Jimmy said might be related?”
Susan froze as her old reporter self leaped to the forefront. “How do you mean?”
“I can’t say anything more on the phone, okay? In fact, I’m on a pay phone, and you don’t want to know how hard one of these things is to find nowadays. But I can’t take any chances. Can you come by work in about an hour to look for a cat?”
Screwing her face up, Susan let out a disgusted breath. “Ew! I’m deathly allergic to those things.”
“Trust me, it’ll be worth your wheezing and then some. Just be there.” The phone went dead.
Susan hung up as a thousand scenarios went through her head. She’d heard real panic in Angie’s voice. Real panic, and that wasn’t like her friend. This was a serious situation and Angie was scared.
Susan tapped the phone with her fingernail as her thoughts scattered into a million different directions. But they all came back to one single thing—this odd call just might be her own road back toward salvation and respectability.
In many parts of the world and in many religions, the concept of hell has long been one where the dead were punished for the evils they participated in or perpetrated while living.
In the Atlantean hell realm of Kalosis, there were wicked souls aplenty, but none of them were being punished for what they’d done while alive. Indeed, most of them had led calm, peaceful lives. As Urian—a Spathi Daimon who’d once called Kalosis home—so often said, “We’re not the damned, folks, we’re the categorically fucked.”
And it was true. Those here were all being punished not for their transgressions, but rather for something a long-forgotten queen in Atlantis had done centuries ago to strike back at her former lover. In one fit of anger against the Greek god Apollo, she’d sent her soldiers out to murder his child and mistress. By doing so, she’d damned all of her Apollite people not only to a life spent in darkness but to a life span of only twenty-seven years. A life that would end on their birthday as their body slowly, painfully deteriorated over a twenty-four-hour period until there was nothing left but a faint dust.
It was a cold, callous fate that each man and woman here in Kalosis would have met had their leader Stryker not found the mythical portal that allowed him to descend from the world of man into this realm where he’d met another god. A god whose indignant fury had made a mockery of Apollo’s.
Trapped within the hell realm by her own family who had feared her powers, Apollymi wasn’t one to let Apollo get away with his cruelty. She had embraced Apollo’s cursed son, Stryker, adopting him as her own before she taught him how to harvest and use human souls to elongate his life. It was a lesson Stryker had gladly shared with others of his race as he brought them here to serve not only his own code of vengeance but Apollymi’s as well. Currently he commanded legions of Daimons who used the pathetic humans as cattle.
And even though he owed her so much, Stryker truly hated the goddess who had saved his life and adopted him.
Now, he sat in the banquet hall of her home and watched as his Spathi warriors celebrated their latest victory.
“Death to the humans!” one of his warriors shouted above the din.
“Fuck that,” another replied. “We need them. Death to all Dark-Hunters!”
An echoing cheer rang out through the barren hall. Stryker leaned back in his cushioned throne as he watched the Apollites and Daimons congratulate each other on their most recent success—the capture of Ravyn Kontis. The darkened hall was lit only by candles as they poured Apollite blood—the only thing that could sustain their cursed bodies—from pitchers and spilled it all over themselves.
Like the other Spathis gathered here, Stryker envisioned a better world. A world where his people weren’t condemned to die at the tender age of twenty-seven. A world where they could all walk in the daylight that he’d taken for granted as a child.