A Wolf at the Door
A Jesse James Dawson Novel
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Jesse James Dawson was once an ordinary man until he discovered that demons were real, and fighting them meant putting his own soul on the line. His new case is a beauty: Gretchen Keene, a Hollywood starlet who’s become an unwitting catalyst in an all-out demon war. It’s not her soul Jesse needs to protect, but the two-hundred-and-seventy-six others she’s carting around—all the souls sold to spend just one night with the blonde bombshell. That’s a lot of baggage, although it might explain her meteoric rise to fame. And it’s all up for grabs by the demon world.
All Jesse has to do is keep her safe until New Year's. Sounds easy. But darkness is casting a nasty shadow in the California sun—a new unseen enemy is closing in and leaving Jesse to wonder: how do you fight something you can’t see coming?
Four years ago . . .
Once upon a time, this guy stumbled into something big, something way bigger than he could handle, and though he won, he got his ass handed to him in multiple pieces. And while he was recovering from that, this huge white–haired dude with a foreign accent and a black trench coat showed up and said, “Follow the yellow brick road!”
And that’s how I wound up here. Wherever the hell “here” was. It sure as hell wasn’t Kansas anymore, Toto.
Okay, I knew I was somewhere in Eastern Europe, one of those countries that changes its name every other week. Somewhere that seemed uniformly gritty, until I was sure I could feel tiny granules grinding between my teeth, strained out of the air I breathed. Given that my guide was Ukrainian, we’ll say I was in Ukraine. ’Cause I honestly had no idea. You would think for my first trip out of the United States, I would have chosen somewhere less . . . frozen.
I hitched the collar of my coat up higher around my chin, but despite the occasional brutality of Midwestern winters, the leather bomber jacket just wasn’t living up to the Ukrainian temperatures. I jammed my hands in my pockets and did my best to keep up with the long strides of the man in front of me.
His name was Ivan Zelenko. I got that much a few days ago when he showed up on my front porch. Dude had to be at least six four, and his shoulders were broad enough to be two of me. His white hair was cropped in a short military buzz cut, and the lines of many years made his eyes crinkle at the corners.
Most of the time, I’d have told him to stuff whatever he was selling and get off my lawn, but when I opened the door, he was thoughtfully examining the doorjambs, running a finger down the wood like he was testing for dust.
Finally, with an approving nod, he said, “This is to being good work. Excellent wardings. You are to being Jesse James Dawson?”
That one statement brought me up short. Not the knowing my name part, even as creepy as that was. No, it was the recognizing the wards part. Up until that moment, I’d known only one person besides myself capable of sensing the protection spells on my doors, and that was the woman who’d put them there. My wife, Mira. And to tell the truth, up until that point I wasn’t sure she and I weren’t both some level of insane. I mean really. Magic? Demons? If I’d have told anyone else, they’d have put me in a nice white coat with extra–long sleeves and given me a padded room to take my rest in. No sane person believes in demons.
Except that I’d seen two of them now, and the second one was nearly the end of me. The muscles down my left side were still knitting, the scars that marred me from armpit to hip angry red and throbbing when I overexerted. I’d gone from wiry to emaciated in the ICU, and even a month after my liberation from the hospital, I was struggling to put the weight back on. The huge man on my front step served only to make me feel as wasted and frail as I was afraid I looked.
So, this Ivan Zelenko knew magic. After proving that he could walk through my doorway unimpeded, I invited him to sit on my couch. He met my wife. He met my daughter. Despite the fact that he nearly filled the room with his sheer size, and booming gravelly voice, he managed to put both the women in my life at ease almost immediately. And then he did a lot of talking in badly fractured English.
Most of it boiled down to the fact that he knew all about demons, and contracts, and fighting. A champion, he called me. He was one too, or had been in his youth. Unabashedly, he unbuttoned his shirt to show me the scars, some of which looked like the ones I was now carrying, and some of which looked like an alien creature had tried to gnaw out a few vital organs. Nothing natural made marks like that.
“I watch for men like you. To be letting them know that they are not alone in this fighting. The more we are to be knowing, the better chance we are to be having.”
“That’s great, man, really, but I don’t intend to be doing this again. This isn’t a lifestyle choice.” The white–haired man smirked before I could even finish my sentence.
“If you could to be stopping, you would have said no already.” He nodded sagely. “When next someone is to be asking you, you will fight again. I am seeing it in your eyes. A champion.”
While he may have liked what he saw in my eyes, he was not as impressed with the rest of the examination.
He asked to see my weapon, and I produced my katana, which seemed satisfactory. He asked to see my armor. I didn’t have any. That got a deep furrow of his white brows. He asked to see my magic and I laughed in his face.
“I don’t have any magic.”
The big man looked perplexed. “Apologies, I am not to being so good at the language. The spells on your door . . . ?”
“That wasn’t me. That was my wife. She’s tried to show me how, but it just doesn’t click. No juice.” It took me a few more minutes of translation difficulties to get the man to understand that I just wasn’t a magic–user. “What’s the big deal? It can’t be that common or everyone would do it. Don’t you have any of these champions without any magic?”
The answer was a resounding no. Not only was it unheard of, it was also unacceptable, and somehow I found myself on a plane to Ukraine, where Ivan believed I would learn something that would correct all I’d done wrong up to this point.
I was still alive. Personally, I thought I’d done pretty damn good so far.
Though we’d started on the outskirts of a small town, our little walk was rapidly leading us across a sparsely wooded area, mostly really old–growth trees. No brush, no saplings, oddly barren compared to the woods I was used to back in Missouri. It had to be almost midnight, local time, but my internal clock was so fried from crossing time zones, I didn’t know if it was Tuesday or raining out. Without the slight dusting of snow on the ground to reflect the distant moonlight, I’d have been walking into trees left and right.
Ivan’s long strides were outdistancing me, given my still–weakened state.
“Mr. Zelenko? Excuse me?” On he marched, and my chest burned as my newly healed ribs struggled to flex with my breath. “Hey!” Then he stopped, turning to look at me. “You’re gonna have to slow down. I’m not fully functional back here, remember?”
That earned me a soft snort, and he set off again, not slowing one damn bit. Well . . . screw him. I’d take my sweet time. I ducked my head down into my coat, and concentrated on keeping Ivan’s tracks in my view, listening for the soft crunch of his footsteps on the light snow.
I obviously wasn’t listening well enough, because I nearly walked into his broad back when he came to an abrupt stop. I leaned on a tree—oak maybe?—and tried to catch my breath.
“Here. You will to be needing these.” He passed me a pair of binoculars so heavy I almost dropped them. He pointed with one gloved hand. “There.”
Before us, the tree line ended abruptly, the stumps of recently hewn trees dotting a hillside. Under the snow, I could even see the drag marks where the logs had been moved, loaded into some waiting vehicle, I assumed. A logging site. “Really nice stumps you got here.” What the hell was I supposed to be looking for, exactly?
“To be looking farther up the hill. To be watching.” He raised his own binoculars to his eyes, illustrating.
With a sigh, I did the same.
My view of the night suddenly flared in bright greens, outlining everything on that empty hillside in sharp detail. “Oh, cool . . . night vision!” The teenage boy inside me was thrilled to bits with my new toy.
“Near the top of the ridge. What are you to be seeing?”
Obediently, I looked. “There . . . Is that a woman up there?” Dialing in a bit on the binoculars, I could see that it was indeed a woman, standing alone near the top of the naked hill.
“Her name is Svetlana.”
Young. That was my first thought. If she was my age, I’d eat one of my gloves. Y’know, when I got somewhere warmer. Her hair color was impossible to determine, with the greenish night vision, but I could settle on “dark.” It was pulled back into a severe tail. She was dressed in what looked to be white ski gear: a parka, boots, her hood hanging down her back. Her gloves were slim, not bulky like most snow garb, but still white. And was that . . . “A sword?”
“A shashka. A saber once used by the Cossacks.”
It was impossible to see details on the weapon at this distance, but I could tell it had a slight curve, like my katana. It lacked a guard, though, and it was hard to tell where the hilt ended and the scabbard began. If it hadn’t been belted on like it was, I might have assumed it was simply a walking stick.
If the woman knew we were there, watching her, she never once looked down the hill at us. Instead, she stood on one of the wider tree stumps, doing what looked like warm–up stretches. Still being as stiff and sore as I was after my injuries, I kind of envied her flexibility. Her stretching done, she bounced on her toes a little, rolling her head on her shoulders. Obviously, she was waiting for something, and it wasn’t us.
“What exactly are we looking for, here?”
“Quiet. It is to be starting now.”
Okay, I don’t like being shushed like a hyper kid, but before I could object, something stirred on that hillside. I squinted through the binoculars, trying to make out just what was going on.
For a moment, I thought that some small animals had come scampering out of the decimated tree stumps, capering across the ground around the woman’s feet. But it must not have been cute little bunny rabbits and squirrels, because she stepped back up on the tree stump, keeping her boots clear of the darting shadows. They weren’t very big, maybe the size of a football at the most, but she definitely didn’t want them touching her.
In no time at all, there were dozens of them, probably more, just little balls of shadow flitting and flickering over the ground. I lost sight for just a moment when a full body shudder caught me out of nowhere, and I realized how really freakin’ cold I’d become. Beneath the warmest clothes I had, my skin was crawling with goose bumps, and my stomach cramped painfully.
Putting the glasses back up to my eyes, I saw that the little shadows had gained some purpose, clambering over each other, stacking like interlocking blocks. Taller and taller it built, until it loomed over the woman like a thin, teetering tower. Each little segment had a pair of legs now, jointed insectile legs, and they waved and flexed, looking for purchase.
“A centipede . . .” Crap, that’s what it looked like. A humongous centipede, scuttling over the ground as it came together piece by piece. And it wasn’t finished by any means. The darting shadows kept appearing, kept adding on, and the bug–thing kept getting longer, stretching out along the ground to support the length it had raised up in the air. We still hadn’t got to the head yet, and I was suddenly very certain that I didn’t want to see what that would look like. “We have to help her.”
“No.” Ivan’s voice was quiet, calm. “To aid her will to be forfeiting the contract. She must do this alone.”
“What is that thing?”
“A demon. Lesser in strength than some, greater than others. She should to be having no problems.”
It didn’t look like either of the demons I’d fought. The most recent, the one that nearly made my entrails into my ex–trails, had been a monstrous white–furred beast, with ram horns and gleaming silver claws. That one I called the Yeti. The other one, my first one, had been furry too, sort of, but much smaller, lower to the ground. Something between a cheetah and a Komodo dragon, maybe. It had died much easier than the Yeti.
“She’s one of your champions, then?” Of course she was. Ivan was trying to convince me that this was my life’s calling, right? Of course he’d bring me to see one of his best and brightest at work. Standard recruiting tactic.
He made one of those generic man–noises, and I got the idea that my question–and–answer period was over. I focused through the binoculars again, dreading what I’d see, but afraid not to watch.
The centipede–demon was almost fully formed, a few stray segments scuttling their way to latch on to what I assumed was the hind end. It had to be nearly twenty feet long, and the half that was raised into the air was nearly twice as tall as the woman it was menacing.
I had to give her credit. If she was scared, I couldn’t tell it from where I was standing. Her stance was loose, relaxed, and her hand rested on the hilt of her sword lightly. I think she was speaking to the thing, and I saw two sets of mandibles in its . . . well, we’ll call it a face for ease of reference . . . face waggle about with sharp snaps. The terms must have been agreeable, because she drew her weapon—a shashka, Ivan had called it—and sketched a very faint bow.
The demon wasn’t one to stand on formality. It struck almost faster than I could see, and my entire body jerked with the impulse to go tearing up that hill. I didn’t need to worry. The woman, Svetlana, had been ready.
Almost casually, she rolled out of the path of the striking head, coming to her feet and slashing in one fluid movement. I could tell even then that she was good. Damn good.
The sword connected with the demon’s—we’ll call it his back—back, and there was a bright flash of light, dazzling in the night vision lenses. I almost dropped the binoculars, blinking spots from my eyes. “What the hell was that?”
“Hm.” Ivan frowned thoughtfully behind his own binoculars. “Blessed silver in the blade.”
With purple and black dots still dancing in my vision, I turned to watch again. At first, I thought she’d won already. The centipede thing had been cut in half by that flashy strike, the rear end flailing about wildly. The head piece snapped at the woman, and retreated until it could touch its severed half . . . and then they just reattached. One segment shorter, but whole again. Damn. That thing had to be a hundred chunks long, if it was one. Taking it apart one piece at a time was going to take forever.
It didn’t matter how hard you practiced, how good you were with a sword, long fights took a toll. I knew how tired her arms would get, wielding that long blade. She’d get slower, even just by a split second. She’d hesitate a hair too long, or duck a smidgen too short. Then it would have her. It was just a matter of time.
“We gotta go up there and help her.”
“No.” He lowered the glasses long enough to give me an amused smile. “Svetlana is never to be losing, Jesse Dawson. She will be fine.”
Svetlana seemed intent on proving him right. Twice more, her sword flashed brilliantly in the darkness—I learned to avert my eyes at the last second—and the centipede would flop aimlessly for a few heartbeats before reassembling itself again. Was it just me, or were the flashes getting dimmer?
It wasn’t just me. Somewhere around the fifth or sixth clash, there was a sickly flicker and the clang of metal on carapace carried all the way to where I was standing. Whatever she’d had on her sword, it had worn off.
Then the fight began in earnest. Whatever the bug was made of, it was no simple cockroach to be squished. The sword rang like a bell in the snowy night as she parried and struck, retreated and feinted. She wasn’t even pretending to save her strength. Every move was done explosively, with fury. She leaped from stump to stump, throwing in some impressive acrobatics as she avoided her opponent. I’d cut my own leg off if I tried that with a blade in my hand. I caught myself breathing hard, like I was battling right alongside her, and forced myself to stop. God, it was like watching someone try to run a marathon at a dead sprint.
For the demon’s part, it seemed a bit frustrated. It seemed no matter where it bit or clawed, the sword was there. And while the bug wasn’t hurt, it still couldn’t get to her. It wasn’t, however, out of tricks yet.
It reared up again, striking like a cobra, only about a foot before it would have made contact, it just . . . vanished. Well, half of it did. The demon poured itself through some invisible rip in thin air, disappearing segment by segment. Svetlana dropped into a defensive position without hesitation, proving that this was something she’d anticipated.
The night vision lenses caught a faint shimmer in the air behind her, and only sheer astonishment kept me from calling out in warning. She didn’t need it, though. As the front half of the centipede burst out of whatever realm it had retreated to, the woman’s sword was there, meeting the gnashing mandibles with a clang of steel. The back half of the worm writhed through its little portal, spitting the entire length out at its new location, and they kept on.
Christ . . . how do you fight something that can disappear and reappear at will? That had always been my greatest fear during the two fights that I’d had. Fighting something that just wouldn’t stand still and get thumped. I’d negotiated magic out of my fights. Since I wasn’t using any myself, it was a small loss to swear it off. But this woman . . . she was facing the demon’s full arsenal.
The next time it tried to pull the portal trick, the return opened up right under Svetlana’s booted feet. In a spectacular display of acrobatics, she left the ground as the thing came up beneath her, snapping and clacking. She twisted in midair, her landing bringing her sword down full force on the back end of the creature, pinning it to the ground, caught between the two portals. The front half whipped about, the back half struggling to get free, and in the middle, there was just nothing. Dead space. It thrashed there, apparently not having the brainpower to figure out how to find reverse.
A faint buzzing sound reached my ears, and I adjusted the binoculars, trying to get a better look. The night vision made clear details hard to see, but there was a ripple that passed up the back of the centipede, travelling from segment to segment toward the head. The demon–bug’s head suddenly focused on her and spat something thick and steaming through the frigid night air.
She rolled out of the way, taking her sword with her, but the tree stump that took the shot for her started to smoke forlornly, parts of it dissolving as I watched. “Holy shit . . .” Freed, the centipede finished its travel through the portal, coming out whole on the other side again. The portal had become its downfall, though, and it didn’t try that trick again.
The pair came together in a flurry of slashes and snapping fangs, moving so fast, and it was hard to follow what exactly happened. Pretty sure no human should be able to move that fast without some sort of help. I could tell the moment Svetlana started to tire, though. The bug tail–swiped her, knocking her sprawling, and then the buzzing started again, the little waves moving through the thing’s carapace. It loomed up and spewed that toxic gunk at her, and she only had time to pull her hood up over her head, taking the hit square in the back.
The white of her coat vanished as the smoke rolled, and she stripped out of the parka quickly, leaving it to melt into the snow. That left her in what looked like a Kevlar vest, with mail sleeves attached, covering her from shoulder to wrist. A twist and yank produced another blade from somewhere, and she faced the thing with her shashka in one hand and a reversed dagger in the other. When it came at her again, she met it head on, the sword defending her upper body as she lunged in to bury the dagger between the first and second segments.
The worm–demon whipped itself away from her, writhing as it tried to scrape the dagger free. Everywhere it touched, it left a blackness behind, and that smudge on the white snow started to move, oozing together like blobs of black mercury.
I recognized that. It was how demons bled, a wispy black fog that would eventually form another type of portal, a big one, ushering the creature back to Hell. The wounded bug was leaving a lot behind. Whatever she’d done with that dagger had hurt it, badly.
When it was unable to remove the blade, the demon came back, raising itself in the air and slamming its entire body down in an attempt to crush her. She leaped to the side, avoiding the smash, but the tail snapped around and took her feet out from under her again. Her head cracked against a tree stump loud enough that I could hear it, and inside I cringed. This was not going to end well.
She didn’t get up. Christ, she wasn’t getting up! I didn’t even realized I’d taken two steps toward the hill until Ivan’s big hand landed on my shoulder, freezing me in place. “Ni. Watch carefully.”
Despite the fact that every instinct was demanding I dash up that hill and . . . well, probably get my ass kicked again, I raised the lenses to my eyes, spinning the dial until I could focus in on Svetlana’s still form as closely as I could. “Come on . . .”
That close, I could see her chest rising and falling. I could see her hand lying across her waist. I could catch the moment her fingers twitched with purpose, easing something small off a clip on her belt. It was small enough to conceal in her hand and though I couldn’t see what it was, I recognized the distinctive flick of her thumb. A pin. She’d pulled a pin on something.
Oh, shit. Unable to scrape the dagger loose, the demon finally remembered its fallen opponent, and whipped around to face her again. It approached warily, advancing one rattling segment at a time, its mandibles nibbling at the toe of her boot, examining the texture of her pants, feeling its way up her body as she lay there in the snow.
Wait for it . . . I couldn’t risk yelling, couldn’t distract her, but I willed her to hold her ground, to wait for the proper moment.
Reaching her head, the centipede picked at strands of her hair, tasting it. Finally, satisfied that Svetlana was no longer a threat, it raised up a bit to get a decent strike, its mandibles gaping wide. That’s when she struck.
Her eyes snapped open and she thrust her hand into the creature’s mouth, clear up to her elbow. Whatever she had, she was jamming it clear down the bug’s gullet. She was moving so fast, the thing didn’t even have time to bite her arm off before she’d yanked it out and scrambled away, taking shelter behind the biggest stump she could find.
The demon didn’t bother to follow, hacking and choking, trying to dislodge whatever she’d stuffed into its mouth. Its head whipped violently, the venomous rattle starting again as it tried to launch the foreign object out in a burst of toxic goo. For a moment, I thought it was going to succeed. Then it exploded.
The blast echoed forever, and took half the centipede demon with it. Bits of it rained down, drifting like falling white–hot stars in the night vision goggles, burning in the snow until the entire hillside looked like it was covered in fireflies. The parts that weren’t left burning promptly dispersed, wafting and swirling into a shining disk in midair. I lowered the glasses in favor of putting my hands over my ears, but I could still hear the high–pitched whine, a wail I could feel only in the back of my head. It seemed to go with the portal, like for just a moment we could hear the souls in Hell screaming.
And then it was gone.
Ivan put his binoculars away, and nodded. “Holy hand grenade.”
I couldn’t help it. I busted up laughing, choking it off only when I realized that he had no idea why it was funny. The big man gave me an odd look, and I just shook my head. “Never mind.” Not a Monty Python fan, obviously.
The sounds of feet scuffing through the snow made me look up in time to see Svetlana come staggering down the hillside. Her hair was a deep brown, I realized, matted to her head with sweat, but her eyes were a striking pale blue, lighter even than my own. A trickle of blood gleamed wetly down the side of her neck, oozing from the back of her head, if I had to guess, where she’d smacked it on the stump. Still, she was moving damn good. Better than I had after my last fight.
She drew up short to find us in the trees, her glance dismissing me immediately, and fixating on the big Ukrainian.
“Svetlana.” Ivan dipped his head to her in acknowledgement.
Okay, I have no idea what she said, because it was in whatever language Ivan spoke, but trust me, I know the sound of a pissed–off woman, and that was it. She was not happy to see us there. There was more venom in her voice than the demon had spewed all over that hillside. She waved her hands as she talked, and I had to duck a couple of times to keep her sword from taking off an ear.
Ivan never got riled, never got ruffled, just calmly responded to her. Finally, she kicked a pile of pine needles at him and stalked off, muttering to herself as she stumbled her way through the trees.
I raised a brow at Ivan. “That went well?”
He shrugged his massive shoulders. “As well as to be going, with her. She is . . . strongheaded.”
Yeah, I could see that.
“So, what are you to be learning, Jesse Dawson?” He turned and walked off, I guess assuming that I was going to follow him. I did, of course. I mean, what else was I going to do, stay out here and become a lumberjack?
“What did you want me to learn?” That seemed the safest question.
“I wanted you to see what is to being possible, with the proper tools and resources. With her magic, Svetlana is faster, is stronger. Her weapon does more damage, her armor protects longer.”
“Is that why she didn’t break her skull open on that tree?”
“Tak. Yes. Special reinforcements on her person. Coatings on her sword, her dagger. Blessed phosphorous grenade.”
I blinked. “Maybe over here, you can get phosphorous grenades at the local gas station, but where I come from, they’re a bit harder to get ahold of.”
“Tak. But resources will to being at your disposal. Is amazing what we can to be doing when we harness our potential, is it not?”
Resources? What resources? What the hell was I getting myself into? Though he was right, it was amazing. The last demon fight I’d had nearly killed me. Maybe if I’d have had some armor, like Svetlana’s. Maybe if Mira could work a little voodoo on it. Maybe next time would be better.
We were nearly back to the village before I realized that I was thinking in terms of “next time.” Dammit.
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