The wraith stood motionless beneath the trees, his form indistinguishable from the dark shadows under the thick canopy. His gaze narrowed, intense and piercing as he focused on the woman angling toward the parking lot as she crossed the east edge of the college campus. His fists clenched as an old, vicious rage swept through him. The centuries of torment, the years of searching, the cruelty in the endless chase. Closing his eyes for a moment, he took a deep, quiet breath and willed those bitter memories away. None of that mattered. Not now. At last he had found her and nothing was going to stop him from taking her.
Nora Carter glanced uneasily in the direction of the small grove of oak that marked the end of the campus property. For some reason she felt nervous and unsettled as she stared into the deep shadows. When a voice called out behind her, she jumped in fear, her heart thumping painfully in her chest. Spinning, she aligned her car keys into small, metal weapons that poked out between her fingers.
“Dr. Carter, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to frighten you!” Her research assistant, Ben Jolson, had been running toward her, but one look at her face and defensive stance had brought him to an abrupt halt. Eyes wide, he held up both hands as if she were pointing a gun at his head. “You forgot to give me the encryption code so I can access your manuscript files,” he murmured cautiously.
Taking a relieved gulp of air, Nora dropped her hand and patted the large laptop case that hung off one shoulder. “I decided to take the manuscript with me instead, Ben. I forgot to tell you earlier today.”
“But, how can I proof your research if you have the manuscript?”
The wraith, impatient for the boy to leave, paused for a moment and cocked his head. Was there something...not quite true in the question? His focus shifted from the woman to consider the male.
“Ben,” she said gently, “I’m going to be gone for eight weeks. I’m sure at some point in my vacation I’ll be able to find the time to edit the manuscript myself.” Nora patted his arm and smiled. “Time for a break, to enjoy yourself. There’s more to collegiate life than slaving over a boring old manuscript about ancient rites and rituals.”
“Please, Dr. Carter, I’ve been looking forward to this all term. You know how interested I am in your work.”
“We’ll have plenty of time for final edits next term, Ben. Now go, have a great summer and I'll see you in September.” Nora turned and resumed her walk toward the parking lot, missing the tight fists as Ben stared darkly at her receding back.
The wraith saw his reaction, however, and was edging out of the shadows to have a quick chat with the boy when his senses were overwhelmed by the familiar and unwelcome stench of an abattoir. He stiffened, braced for the confrontation he’d been expecting for days.
Hot, rancid breath curled over his nape and around his throat like a garrote. “You went over my head, dog.” The voice was more a growl of words than actual speaking, though the wraith had no trouble understanding, he’d been listening to it for close to four thousand years.
“You left me no choice, Malphas. We struck a bargain, you and I, which I have fulfilled three times over but you still fail to honor.” He turned and met the red, fiery gaze of the foul creature he’d called master for far too long. Unflinching, he leaned in. “I gave you the one thousand and two hundred years of our pact and did everything you asked of me. My reward for services rendered was her.” Though the wraith jerked his chin toward the parking lot and the woman just unlocking her car door, he never took his eyes off the demon. “Whenever I got close, you killed her and I had to wait for her rebirth, try to find who she was, when she was.” Fury in every word, he hissed, "For over two thousand years you played this game, you bastard.” Straightening, he spared another quick glance for the woman, then faced Malphas again. “Mistreat a dog long enough and eventually he'll go for his master's throat.”
“Unless the master has bigger teeth, Niare.” The chuckle was low and grating, the acrid stink of sulfur burned the back of the wraith’s throat though he refused to acknowledge the demon’s threat.
“Prince Seire, your master, has released your hold over me. He also sent me here, to claim what should have been mine centuries ago.” He turned his back and walked out of the shadows, his eyes fixed on the car just driving out of the parking lot. “We’re done, Malphas. Go find someone else to play fetch.”
The ground trembled, but Niare ignored the demon’s tantrum. Shrugging off the concealing shadows, he began walking toward the boy who was staggering across the sidewalk, a look of shock on his face as the pavement undulated beneath his feet. “What is it?” Ben asked. “An earthquake?” Then he froze as he looked up at the very tall. very large man who had just materialized out of the trees. Long blond hair, the sides braided away from his face at the temples to hang behind his ears; strong jaw, arrogant nose, and eyes the icy blue of a glacier that were currently glaring down at Ben like some kind of Norse god. Ben’s first thought was all the guy needed was Thor's hammer to complete the picture, which caused him to flinch involuntarily when the giant reached for him. His mind went blank before he could form his second thought.
As soon as the kid went still, Niare began to search his mind for the meaning behind the tension he'd noticed just before Malphas appeared. Probing beyond the surprise and unease of the moment, he easily found the reason: Ben had planned to steal the research, selling it to someone willing to pay well for the information in the manuscript. Disgusted at the betrayal, Niare pulled Ben forward and whispered an incantation into his ear, then shoved him away and told him to get out of his sight, watching the traitorous little weasel until he was gone. Then he smiled. The woman’s assistant had just forgotten he’d ever worked for her.
“Dog.” The voice rumbled up through the ground, thick and hot. “Don’t think you’ve won the game. I might not be able to touch you, but no one said anything about her.”
A cold awareness crawled into Niare's belly as his wings snapped sharply, painfully, out of his back. He shot into the dark skies, the sound of hellish laughter chasing him through the night.