20.1 | Demons Before Dawn

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She woke to pain. Always pain.

Her bones rebroke and reformed one by one, reversing the effects of the fall. The bullet wound in her shoulder mended itself, and the unearthly magic flowing through her veins burned the belabane into nothing.

This kind of healing wasn't possible for Daemonstri. But then again, Tatiana wasn't entirely Daemonstri. Once upon a time, centuries ago, she had been. But things had changed. She had changed.

And so she welcomed the pain, for she'd learned that was the only way to survive it.

With a gasp, she sat upright, soaking up the surroundings. Forest, darkness, cloudy skies. The scents of rain and tree sap. And blood.

Her dress was covered in it, and the dull ache in her shoulder proved it was her own.

"What are you?" whispered one of the betas.

Tatiana's head jerked toward the sound of his voice. He stood above her with another beta. She couldn't remember either of their names, and didn't really care to.

She was sitting on the ground, she realized. The very soggy ground.

Hissing, she stood up and brushed off her gown. Idiot mutts. They couldn't have found a tree stump, at least?

"Never mind what she is," said the other beta. He lifted his hand, and the Hekatolith ring gleamed in the faint light. "You're lucky we showed up when we did. You might have lost this."

Tatiana sneered, remembering the encounter at the hedgewitch's shop. "I had the situation under control."

She absently placed a hand on her chest, seeking the familiar feel of her necklace chain. But it wasn't there.

Tatiana stiffened. "Where is it?"

"Where's what?"

"My pendant."

Both betas frowned in confusion. "It wasn't on you when we left. Just forget about it. Alpha's expecting us."

No no no

It was all coming to her now. That pesky little halfblood ripped it off her neck.

"I need to go back," was all Tatiana said.

She turned around, only to realize she had no idea which direction they'd traveled from.

"One of you come with," she demanded.

"Hey, what the hell are you doing?"

The beta yanked on her arm, spinning her around again. Tatiana flashed her fangs and growled. He jumped back with his hands raised.

"I need to find that pendant."

"What's so important about—"

"Shhh," the other beta hissed. "Do you hear that?"

They stood motionless as pillars, listening, but Tatiana could scarcely control the urge to hunt down the Halfblood Bastard and reclaim what she'd taken. Her hands trembled as fear and rage swelled inside her.

Need it back need it back need it back

The betas still had their ears turned to the skies when she said, "I don't have time for this."

She'd taken a mere two strides when she heard it—the clap of great wings and rustle of the wind. Then three shadows passed overhead and she knew what had come.

Inferni.

The demons shot down with a whir, and the impact of their feet rattled Tatiana's bones. The one before her was a glowering female, and her two male companions landed before the betas.

They might have looked like ordinary people, if not for the leathery wings extending from their backs, or their unnaturally tall and muscular physiques.

"What have we here?" said one of the males.

The betas growled threateningly, unsheathing their claws. Tatiana's trembling intensified. Every second they wasted here, was a second Nika Dimitrovich got farther away with Asteroth.

So she said, "Leave us alone."

The female laughed, the sound both cruel and beautiful. "If you aren't in Volkari territory, or human territory, or Ministry territory, then you're fair game."

"But we're in a merciful mood tonight," said one her male companions. "So we'll give you a fighting chance."

With a blurring, animal shake of the head, the Inferni before Tatiana morphed, her luscious hair vanishing as short spines formed down her back. Skin turned ashen like a corpse, ears elongated into curving points.

As she hunched, unfurling those wings, Tatiana's heart raced. She'd never fought an Inferni before. But there was little advantage to this boiling rage if she couldn't use it. And all she had to do was imagine the halfblood standing there, smirking as she carelessly twirled Asteroth around her fingers.

Tatiana pounced.

The demon's mouth unhinged, bearing countless jagged fangs and the tongue of a serpent. Behind her, the males collided in a flurry of snarls, beats, and slices.

A swipe of six-inch talons, then pain lashed through Tatiana's leg. Leaping to a safe position, she glanced down to find three deep and gushing lacerations. Shaking in anger, Tatiana circled her opponent.

The Inferni raised a hand, the blood barely indistinguishable from the obsidian gleam of her talons, and inhaled through scrunched, slitted nostrils. A delighted shudder rippled through her grotesque form.

"Such a unique scent," she said. "Serafi but...not."

One of the betas bellowed in pain. The hair-splitting sound of entrails spilling out.

Tatiana glowered, ignoring the fight behind her. Eyes of blue hellfire, sliced down the center by narrow pupils, stared right back.

"I shall enjoy eating you very much."

"And I shall enjoy killing you," Tatiana said. "Very, very much."

With a hiss and a battle cry, the demon and the demon-witch clashed in a storm of fangs, wings, and ruby-red hair. 

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