End Game

Chapter One

I inhaled the heady aroma of new paperbacks and tingles raced down my spine. I once heard that new book smell was from the adhesive binding the books, but even the fact that I basically loved huffing glue didn’t suck the romance out of my favorite scent. It had been a while since I’d been able to step inside a bookstore.

Which was why the repulsive stench of sulfur and rotten meat in my favorite place was even more offensive.

The hair on the back of my neck rose.

I ducked and felt a whoosh of air over my head. The curved claws of the blood-thirsty yeti missed me. I tucked and rolled away before springing to my feet and turning to meet the demon. I pulled out my Ka-Bar Combat Kukri Knife, a gift from Regina. The heavy-duty chopping blade was similar to a machete but curvier, and it was my new weapon of choice. Who said only boys loved their toys?

Seven feet tall and covered in shaggy white hair, the creature’s piercing ice-blue eyes stared out from a demonic face of hate-filled ridges. Calan called it an Ururu. Looked more like Krampus to me.

“What’s up shaggy?” I asked, jumping back from another swipe. “Are you looking for the self-improvement books, or maybe the beauty section?” If he was looking for beauty tips, I had stripped my look down to the basics; a ponytail and form fitting high waisted black yoga pants with matching crop top. Though I went a little extra with the bright pink lip-gloss which I swear gives me the confidence boost to add an extra inch to my high kick. War paint and all that.

Another swipe from the Ururu, and I leaned back, dodging again. I let him come at me a few more times, artfully dodging his claws. He let out a frustrated roar. My sparring sessions with Calan were paying off. This felt more like a dance than a fight.

With a quick glance around, I saw colorful covers and an abundance of man chests. I’d unconsciously led my prey to my homeland—the romance section. It felt like a lifetime ago that I was in this same bookstore, pushing my glasses up, ogling the goods. I’d continue to add to my stack of potential book boyfriends until I could barely hold my paperback skyscraper.

What a difference a few years made.

The Ururu charged, sick of our cat-and-mouse game.  At the last moment, I flattened against the side and brought down my blade. Two claws fell to the ground, spraying red blood onto the new paperbacks.

The Krampus whirled around, his icy eyes now shining, and my gut clenched. Uh oh.

He opened his mouth, and a cold mist seeped out like a dry ice trick. My senses prickled. The demon was preparing to do some dark mojo. This wasn’t covered in the briefing. For all I knew, he could do anything from shoot ice needles from his mouth to releasing a poison gas.

My brain was still computing whether to fight or flee when the tip of a sword broke out through the front of the Ururu’s chest. I clapped my hands over my ears as the Ururu’s cry thundered through the store. The light went out of the demon’s eyes and the mouth mist dissipated.

“Hi honey,” I said, lowering my hands.

Calan pulled his sword out of the creature’s back with a jerk, letting the evil yeti crumple to the ground. My fiancé stood there in all his handsome glory. His dark, curly hair was a sharp contrast to his cobalt blue eyes. Between his square jaw and hard, muscled body, he could have stepped off one of the nearby covers.

Except Calan came from an even less likely place, an ancient secret Order. My sweetie was a Knight of the Light, a Chevalier. The Order of Luxis raised him in a secret Temple where they trained him fight like a ninja warrior, and honed his will into magic powers to blast demonic baddies away.

“Were you toying with the Ururu?” he asked. The teasing tone of his already deep voice made my insides melt like a milk chocolate bar on a warm day.

“Maybe,” I confessed, looking up at him through my lashes.

Wiping his blade against the creature’s hairy body, a line formed between his eyebrows as he became serious. “The Ururu can emit a freeze that numbs the senses and slows down their prey. Best not to dally long with them.”

I tried to cover up my smile at his word choice, dally.

Growing up in near total isolation save for his Masters, who acted like they stepped out of medieval times, Calan possessed old-fashioned sensibilities and missed a lot of social nuances. As a modern woman, I’d taken it upon myself to bring him up to date on all the movies, latest slang, and the fine industry known as fast food cuisine. He was still iffy on that last one, preferring simple, whole foods. With all the health nuts out there, we could get him signed on for his own cookbook. I could see it now, Clean Cooking with the Chevalier: for the busy demon-fighting mom on the go would be an instant bestseller. Especially if he was on the cover.

Before I could get too distracted with visions of Calan’s ripped bod in only an apron and alluring smile, I said, “Got it. Don’t let them breathe on me.”

My eyes traveled back to the shelves. I briefly wondered if the store owners would be willing to pay us in books. Maybe I could adopt the blood-spattered ones, so they wouldn’t think they weren’t loved.

“What is that face you are making?” Calan asked, tilting his head.

“I’m pouting.”

He had to step on the Krampus corpse to get over it to stand next to me. It made a crunching sound under his weight. Gross.

“I got blood on the pretty books,” I said, gesturing forlornly at the new releases. “For a bibliophile, that’s like a hate crime.”

A crackle over the walkie talkie interrupted us, followed by Travis’ voice. “Nighthawk to Rainbow Bright. The northwest quadrant is clear, moving toward the stairs to the second floor now. Over.”

As if on cue, the gurgling growl of an Ururu traveled through the bookstore.

I pulled the walkie off my hip. “One down on our end. We’ll meet you there. Rainbow Bright, over.”

Calan lips thinned, which was the closest he came to an eye roll.

I shrugged. “What? You don’t like our codenames?”

“I’d prefer if mine wasn’t Terminator,” he grumbled as we started toward the center of the store.

It was the ongoing joke between Travis and I since Calan had played the “come with me if you want to live” card when we first met him. Considering he was the only one who could fight off the soul eater chasing us, we lived to see another day.

“Would Superman be better?” I asked. Though as I eyed his hard body protected in the motorcycle turtle jacket, lined with mesh, he looked more like dark Superman. My mouth watered, and I wondered how long it would between now and when I could claw his armor off and climb that body and do bad, bad things to him. Something about our jobs got me all hot and bothered. I’d never been an adrenaline junkie, but after the last few years of intense end-of-the-world battles, I’d learned to appreciate the fight.

Something crunched behind us. Calan and I whipped around, blades up. Instead of an Ururu, Krystan stood there in all her pregnant glory. My best friend had always been rail-thin and had serious model potential. Pregnant, she looked like someone had attached a bowling ball to a matchstick. A snack bag of Cheetos sat on the makeshift shelf that was her stomach. She popped an orange dusted chip into her mouth, crunching loudly again.

“What are you doing in here?” I asked. “Travis is going to kill you if he finds out you left the van.”

Krystan shrugged. “It was too hot and the A/C isn’t strong enough in that old thing.” For a woman officially nine months pregnant, she still managed to look like she was down to party. Black makeup lined her dark eyes. The mesh shirt and dark blue maternity jeans were surprisingly stylish. Her bright red sneakers matched the shade of her lipstick, which contrasted against her otherwise goth rock look.

“It isn’t safe for you here,” Calan said, scanning the store. For seven-foot behemoths, the Ururus sure could play a damn good game of hide and seek.

Krystan crumpled up the Cheeto bag and tossed it on the floor before pulling her nail-riddled bat off the holster on her back. “Don’t sass your boss, young man. Or did you forget whose payroll you’re on?”

I stuck my tongue out at her. Since Calan and I returned from the Stygian, we needed money. Krystan and Travis hired us on to work for their demon slaying business, Whack A Ghoul. Strange as it sounded, having a job and a paycheck gave me a sense of security, even if we were essentially glorified exterminators.

Krystan and Travis tried to hide the fact they were thrilled we were on the payroll because between Calan’s powers and my own unique skill set, Whack A Ghoul had gone from a two star business to four point five stars on Yelp with over two hundred reviews.

“I like your knife, is it new?” Krystan asked, rubbing her stomach.

“Thanks, it’s a present from my future mother in law,” I said, holding up my curvy blade.

Krystan cocked her head to the side. “I feel like it needs a pop of color.”

The blacked out, powder-coated 1095 steel blade weapon was completely devoid of color. “Yeah, it could totally use a splash of hot pink,” I agreed.

“Ooh, do you think we could wrap the handle in fuchsia ribbon?” Krystan asked.

I quirked my lips to the side. “Probably not, Regina made a big deal about the slip-resistant Kraton handle on this model.” To prove a point, I spun the machete a couple times easily catching the hilt in firm grip each time.

Krystan frowned. “Maybe a good can of spray paint would work then.”

Calan broke in, frowning for a different reason. “Ladies, may I remind you we still have frost monsters roaming the store.”

We looked at him.

“Alright,” he said with a sigh. “I see your chatting by the water fountain is more important.”

Krystan raised an eyebrow. “It’s water cooler, but nice try.”

He ignored her correction. “Emma, I’ll leave it to you to protect your friend while I assist Travis.”

Calan stopped to kiss me, sending tingles shooting down my body and back up again. Sniffing books was pleasurable, but they had nothing on that mouth. Krystan and I both watched him walk away.

“Are you staring at my fiancé’s ass?” I asked, not bothering to hide my own leer.

“Yep,” she said, popping the p.

“That’s fair,” I said. After he disappeared, I turned to my best friend with a quick glance at her baby bump. “How are you feeling?”

She rolled her eyes and attempted to push her dark hair back behind her ear. She had been growing out her Betty Page bangs and the awkward phase where they would fall in her eyes was driving her nuts. “Like hell. I feel like a blimp. And the bean must be part kangaroo based on the accurate shots it takes at my bladder.” She’d affectionately named her unborn baby ‘bean.’ She went on. “I wouldn’t be surprised if one of these days, I suddenly pissed myself from one of those kicks. And I thought Travis was annoying.”

Her eyes flicked away and softened as she said the last bit. Krystan and Travis became more than a working team while Calan and I were stuck in a hell dimension. The commitment and affection they had for each other was more than I’d ever hoped for her.

Krystan had spent most of her life yanking Travis’ chain, and vice versa. She still wasn’t quite used to the one eighty their dynamic had taken. So I did what any good friend would do when sensing a vulnerability.

“You loooove him, you want to maaarrry him,” I said while making obnoxious kissy sounds.

She narrowed her dark eyes at me. “It’s enough I’m having the guy’s baby. You’re the one getting married. How are you doing? We’re only a week away. Are you psyched?” She grinned evilly.