Not all roads to Hell are paved with good intentions. Some are just paved, which is good for my tire tread. I jerked the wheel as the van shot up from the Gates of Hell and back to the human world. My stomach wobbled. It would take days to wash the reek of sulfur out of my hair.
The traffic flow of Reno barely registered an EMT van that appeared out of nowhere. I rolled down the window. The stench of burning flesh wafted out into the fresh air. Hell is a disgusting place, which is saying something. I’ve been a soul rescuer for six years and have seen my share of Underworlds. The first time I’d gone down, I’d donated my breakfast burrito right on top of my old partner’s shoes. That probably explained why no one wanted to ride the van with me, except for Rudy. Well, that and the fact that I was a dragon shifter and ate literal human souls.
“Why do Abrahamic religions put their dead in that place?” Rudy asked. He was using first-aid gauze to rub demon blood off his hand blades. We had to break up a nest of devourers, the demons of gluttony, to get to our rescue this morning. Really, we should’ve backed off and called the main office. Except that would’ve meant losing our guy.
I raised an eyebrow at my partner.
“General masochism?” I wiggled my fingers. “Fire and brimstone, watch out!”
Rudy humphed. He looked entirely too at ease in his human skin. Long, muscular legs strained his leather pants and the lines of his face sketched a pretty surfer boy. Wavy blond hair completed the look. I was the one of the only people who could see the skull that gleamed under his skin. Rudy is Reaper royalty. He’s as good with his ulaks as freaking Riddick and tracks souls like they’re deer. Compared to him, I’m a punk ass kid who trips over her own shoes. He’s my lookout while we’re in Hell, Mag Mell, Hades, Duat or whatever Underworld we’re rescuing souls from. Why he’d chosen me for a partner was beyond me, but I don’t look a gift unicorn in the teeth. Plus, the fact that he chose me really pisses off the valkyries. A win’s a win.
And me? I drive the van. Mostly.
One nice thing about our ridiculously overpowered van is the multitude of important first aid features. Like keeping my Red Bulls cold. I pulled the can out of the refrigerated cup holder and took a sip. The headache I’d felt the last few hours finally began to retreat into the depth of my brain. Probably to fester as mental illness.
“I honestly thought you were from there,” I said.
“I’m from Purgatory, like all the Reapers,” he said. “Your ignorance is truly extraordinary, Chrysoberyl.”
I wrinkled my nose at his use of my full name. “Like you know where I’m from.”
He paused before starting on the second blade. “You’re from Vyraj, like all the Slavic demigoddesses.”
“Nope!” I said brightly. “I’m from Tempe, Ari-zow-na.”
Grinning at his scowl, I turned onto North Virginia street. Supernaturals counted their parentage as their true origin and not the place of their physical birth. That was fine. I might’ve been born in a no-name hospital in Arizona twenty-seven years ago, but I grew up in a van. By American standards, I was “from everywhere, you know?” Thank my nomadic mom for that. She was also to thank for naming me Chrysoberyl Green, which I’d shortened it to “Chrys.” At least she didn’t name me “Diamond.” I’d make a terrible stripper.
Casinos rose on either side of us as we followed the road to the Reno Arch: Silver Legacy and Eldorado. The ERS headquarters was located in the center of the city. Out of habit, I read the sign as it rolled over our heads. “Reno, The Biggest Little City in the World.” I turned toward Reno City Hall. The glistening black building housed the Emergency Rescue Services in its underground tunnels. The stone in my bracelet clinked off the steering wheel. It had turned from a blue to a pulsing amber. My dragon wanted out. I gritted my teeth and stepped on the gas pedal.
We burst onto the plaza and the magic of the ERS headquarters made stone and metal part before us. I slowed before the Space Whale statue. It pictured a full-scale mother whale and her cub, and was one of many Burning Man art pieces dotting the city. The festival attracted both the incense-loving nomads like my mom and the crunchy granola folk. The multi-colored glass made the asphalt beneath it radiate with color. Pausing on the glowing platform which can only be seen by ERS operatives, I killed the engine. I tapped my nails on the steering wheel.
“Easy, Green,” Rudy said, his eyes on my bracelet. “You’ve got time.”
I nodded. He’d never really seen me “dragon out”, but telling him about my soul-devouring form had been a sensible precaution. Not that he wouldn’t have heard the rumors. Finally, the platform wobbled and dropped us into the bowels of the city.
The ERS headquarters burrowed into the Reno underground like a monstrous naked mole rat. We were a branch of the Spiral, the inter-dimensional police that managed the supernatural communities. And monsters, there were always monsters. Thanks to its location in the universe, Reno was overrun with them. At least they kept freaks like me employed. Silver linings.
When we finally stopped moving, I slid out of the driver seat and jogged around the back of the van. As the lights blared on at the reception platform, I swung open the barn doors.
Inside was a glowing shape that vaguely resembled a man. He hadn’t been in Hell very long, and the demons had only nibbled on bits of his matter before Rudy and I showed up guns—and ulaks—blazing. Now, he sat in handcuffs that hummed around his wrists with embedded wards. The van’s magical seals buzzed around us like electric fly traps. At the sight of me, he flinched back like I had horns growing out of my head. That was just rude, since I didn’t have horns. At the moment.
I folded my arms over my chest and stared him down.
“Come on, Tony,” I said. “Don’t be shy now.”
I make at least five rescues a week. Six, around full moon. Humans get themselves kidnapped by monsters all the time. Sometimes, it’s their own fault—like using a Ouija board on Samhain. Other times, it’s an accident like stumbling into Faery on a hiking trip. But no one, and I mean, no one deserves being kidnapped more than summoners.
I thought back to his file. Tony Alvarez, 32, a software tester by day, a demon summoner by night. He tried to summon Beelzebub by drawing his seal on the floor of his mother’s basement.
“I’m not going,” he mewed.
“Summoners,” Rudy murmured from behind me. “They’re all dumb as Freud. We should’ve just left him.”
I stopped myself from agreeing with him. Sure, Tony wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer. He was lucky he botched the summoning seal and only attracted devourers. If he’d managed to summon the actual Beelzebub, he’d be nothing but a bloody stain. As it was, the devourers grabbed his soul and dragged him through the Gates of Hell like an unsanctioned power snack. Tony’s mother had found his comatose body and called 911. She was crying over him now, no doubt. Her tear-stricken face was the reason I’d braved the devourers that morning. I knew what it was like to have a mother who had to deal with the aftermath of her child summoning a demon. Of course, I’d been twelve at the time.
“You’ll throw me in the dungeons,” he said. “I know the Spiral’s laws.” So, he knew better and drew that circle anyway. The wards pulsed around him as they responded to his angst. The dragon inside me whined as my bracelet thrashed against my wrist. Demons could fuel themselves for days using human souls. Especially if they were trespassing in the human world. And me? I could slurp this little fool up like a milkshake.
I shuddered. “Better than being soul-dead. Trust me.” I turned to Rudy. “Call the selkies.”
Rudy gave a sharp, low whistle and I heard the sound of footsteps coming from the bowels of the building.
Tony shook his head and tried to make himself small.
“No, no,” he whined. “Please.”
I could see his essence shedding. His soul had been separated from his body for too long. Five more minutes and Tony’s mother would be crying over a corpse.
Closing my eyes, I reached for the dragon within. I could feel my horns pierce the hair at the top of my skull and scales bristle under my ERS uniform. I sang in Old Slav, the language of my father.
“Small goat, little goat, come to my stead. Not where, not there, but here instead.” The song uncoiled inside of me, and I suppressed the dragon. She strained against my skin. “I will groom you, I will feed you, tie you to a stake. Come to me, to my stead, not there but here instead.”
This was a shepherd’s song, one of many I’d heard when visiting the Slavic pantheon. For some reason, they were the ones that had stuck with me. It wasn’t the meaning of the words, but the intent behind them.
His eyes widened as his form began to drift toward me. My dragon was a predator, but housing her had perks. Like being able to summon souls.
A pair of twenty-something brunettes shouldered me out of the way. They had brought a stretcher with them. The selkies, Anne and her brother, Henry, were Heal Hands. The supernatural equivalent of a paramedic. Only with a lot more knowledge on magical poisons. I kept singing as they tied the now-unresisting Tony down.
Henry winked at me. “Alright, Chrys?”
His sister threw him a seething look. I wasn’t popular with the healers, but Henry seemed to be the exception. I was probably my personality and not my sculpted ass. I returned the wink.
“Oh, you know, another day in Hell.”
As they sped them toward the resuscitation wing, I chugged my Red Bull. The sides of the van were still a little sooty after we busted out of the Gates. The ERS symbol looked similar enough to the human EMT’s Star of Life to be overlooked if accidentally glimpsed by mortal eyes. The primary difference is that instead of the staff of Asclepius, the middle of the symbol pictures the Orphic egg. The serpent curling around it is Ananke, the World Eater. Also, it’s gold. A tribute to the Spiral’s golden ammonite.
I crushed the can and cast a nervous glance at my wrist.
“Go,” Rudy said. “I’ll restock and park her.”
I nodded my thanks and wobbled down the hall.
The ERS station lay in one the old tunnels that ran under Reno. It has all the charm you’d expect from a subterranean concrete labyrinth, but at least there was coffee. Itching in my scales, I walked past the bunk beds. A couple of them were occupied—I recognized a witch from day shift and a vampire from the night. The latter gave me a sharp-toothed grin and went back to his pack of fake blood. I nodded and hurried past. Last thing I wanted to do was engage in small talk. With so many kidnappings happening every day, there was little time for gossip around the water cooler. Not that people were usually interested in chatting with me.
My father is Veles, the god of the Slavic Underworld. The Great Dragon that Dwells. His horned visage puts fear and awe into men’s hearts. He is famous for being fierce yet fair. The god of cattle and magic. Unfortunately, that reverence doesn’t extend to his daughter. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have daddy issues. I met Veles when I went to connect with the Slavic pantheon at fifteen. Every demigoddess needs to claim her god power to have full access to that supernatural tap. Usually it was something cool, like power over thunder and lightning, or just the good old super strength. When my power came to me, I got my dragon.
I walked past the lounging area that was dotted with couches and breathed in the sour smell of stale coffee. The lockers and the pool were up ahead. This was my chance to let her out, even for a few minutes.
Kicking off my Doc Martins—great in combat, bad for swimming—I shoved the door open with my shoulder. Inside, the smell of coffee was replaced with chlorine. I began shuffling out of my clothes as I walked toward the glistening water of the Olympic-sized pool.
I pulled my ERS shirt over my head and kicked off my quickly shrinking jeans. I barely made it to the water in time. The dragon bursting out of my skin, I dove beneath the surface.