There was blood on the stone.
The column loomed so far overhead that its apex disappeared into night. Looping lines marked its surface like ossified muscle on beams of towering bone. The once-bright sigils ringing the base were lifeless.
The gate was one of a dozen silent scions in a dead city. For endless millennia, they slept over the empty streets waiting for… What?
Her bare toes hung over the tip of the world, hair swinging in her face as she craned forward to peer at the water miles below. Tiny stars sparkled in the water, like river stones reflecting moonlight.
The gate hummed at her back. She couldn’t look at it. She wouldn’t. She would prefer to fall into the abyss and shatter on the shore.
There shouldn’t have been anything on the other side of the arch. Nothing should have lived in the city.
Yet there was blood on the stone, and something called her name from the other side, beckoning for her to turn. Invisible fingers clamped on her chin and forced her back from the edge, away from blissful suicide and on toward damnation.
The dry air vibrated. Sinewy stone flushed to life, and a breeze stirred the dead air.
She shut her eyes as she turned. She wouldn’t look. She wouldn’t watch the air darken until it devoured all light, wouldn’t see Him reaching through with white hands…
But something peeled her eyelids back, forcing her to look upon the darkest gate.
And she saw.
The tent collapsed on her head. An electric bolt of consciousness shocked through her.
Something heavy smashed into her face and chest, like a bear rolling over the tent. She couldn’t inhale. Her neck strained as her head was crushed into the ground.
She felt a bare arm against hers—Anthony’s—and elbowed him away.
For a disorienting moment, she was seventeen again, on the run and camping out in whatever bare patch of land she could find. Motels were too expensive and too easy to track. Elise couldn’t remember why she was with Anthony instead of James.
A glistening black fang punctured the canvas by her head and brought cold reality with it. Venom gushed from the tip and splattered on her shoulder.
Knife. Where was her knife?
The body shifted enough for her hand to scrabble at the pillow, where she had tucked a blade before sleeping, but the attacker mashed against her again and she didn’t have space to grab it.
The fang withdrew and punctured again. Elise twisted her face to the side.
“Anthony! Do something!” she shouted.
His hot skin moved away from hers. He fumbled with the tent. The zipper opened, and chilly night air rushed to fill her lungs.
The weight lifted, but before she could sit up, a foot the size of a trash can slammed into her gut.
Her intestines crushed against her spine. Canvas ripped.
Elise’s hand closed on her knife, and she stabbed it into the foot. Something gave an inhuman shriek.
Its weight vanished.
She slashed and stabbed and tore until she could see the stars. Elise scrambled out of the tent’s remains, bare skin flushed with goosebumps. It was dark in the desert, much darker than the city, and she could barely make out sagebrush and hills under the sliver of moon.
Her attacker was a hulking black shape perched on top of the Jeep. Each of its eight legs was braced against the roll cage. Glossy black eyes reflected the starlight and shone with a faint red glow, as though fire burned within its furry carapace. It was a spider the size of a small pony.
Anthony brandished two halves of a snapped tent pole at the demon—like going after a tank with a twig.
The spider lunged. A half-second later, Elise jumped too.
She knocked into her boyfriend an instant before the spider would have. They rolled across the desert as the demon hit sagebrush.
Getting up again took too long. She whirled, bringing the knife to bear, but one of those huge legs struck her in the chest again.
Elise was airborne.
Her back hit the Jeep. Her lungs emptied. Her cheek hit dirt.
Anthony cried out. She got to her feet, gasping and wheezing and empty-handed. She had dropped her knife.
The spider darted at him. It moved at a ridiculous speed given its size, blurring through the night to slash with its fangs. He tried to roll out of the way, but a heavy leg pounded into the rock and blocked him. He kicked its face. The pincers caught his leg.
Elise sucked in a hard breath. “Don’t let it bite you!”
“Thanks for the suggestion,” Anthony grunted, snapping his free foot into its face.
It shrieked and reared. She dived onto its back.
The spider bucked beneath her, and Elise pressed her cheek into its furry carapace and clung tight to its abdomen. When it tried to bite Anthony again, she wrapped a hand around its pincer and yanked.
It ripped free with a wet crunch. Venom sprayed on the dirt.
“Find my knife!”
Anthony squirmed out from beneath them. The spider thrashed. Elise almost went flying again, but she wrapped her fists around its thick black hairs and hung on.
Each of the glistening black eyes rolled around to stare at her.
It flung itself sideways. She lost her grip and rolled across the dirt. The spider pounced, spraying venom and ichor from its open wound, and it stung like sparks of flame where it landed on her skin.
She punched her fist into its clacking mouth as hard as she could. It wasn’t hard enough. The spider reared back to bite again, and Elise grabbed the first thing she could reach—the remains of the tent.
Elise flung the canvas in the spider’s face. Its pincer tangled in the rope.
“I can’t find it!” Anthony shouted.
Her hand fell on a broken piece of tent post.
Elise drove the splintered end into the spider’s body. At first, she thought it wouldn’t be able to pierce the exoskeleton, but then the metal slipped. It buried into the knife wound and kept going.
She silenced its scream by shoving with all her weight. The bar cracked through the other side.
Its legs flailed wildly, and she had to crawl away to avoid getting hit.
Elise picked up the other tent pole and plunged it into the spider’s head. She pushed so hard that the tip sank into the earth and pinned the demon to the ground.
It finally stopped moving after that.
Elise let out a long breath. She was soaked in sweat even though it couldn’t have been more than sixty degrees in the cool desert night, which quickly approached cool desert morning. A sliver of blue glowed over the hills.
“Hell of a wakeup call,” she muttered. The spider’s foreleg twitched once.
Anthony crashed through the sagebrush again and grabbed her arms. “Are you okay? I couldn’t find your knife.”
She gave her body a quick inspection. She was wearing underwear instead of pajamas, so she could see where bruises were developing, which was most of her body. The contact burns from the venom were worse, but none of them were too bad. She would recover quickly.
Anthony handed her a flashlight from the Jeep. “Is this the same as the other ones? It seems a lot bigger.”
She located her knife by its glimmer in the bushes. He had been searching in the wrong place. “Yeah. It’s a daimarachnid. Big fucking spider.” Elise rolled the demon onto its back and knelt by its body, pushing the legs away to examine the branded underbelly.
Most demons were like animals with a temper problem: stupid and directionless. But powerful demons could mark them with brands and control their behavior to some degree. If she could find who “owned” those symbols, she would find out who was responsible, much like a rancher and his cattle.
Elise began slicing along the edge of the brands.
Anthony recoiled. “Jesus! What are you doing?”
She focused on trimming the leathery skin from the shell underneath. It was tough work. She sawed back and forth with the serrated edge of the knife until a strip of flesh two feet long and four inches wide came free.
“Get a plastic bag from the Jeep,” Elise said, studying the strip with the flashlight. Someone had slashed crosses through each of the brands and made them hard to distinguish.
He handed a bag to her. Elise sealed the skin inside.
“What are you going to do with that?”
“I’m going to find out who’s letting their minions loose and have a talk with them.”
“And by ‘talk,’ you mean…”
“I’ll kill them,” Elise said. She put the skin in the cooler where they had kept their food all week. There was nothing left except melted ice and a couple cans of beer. “Still want to keep going hunting with me?”
To his credit, Anthony thought about it for a moment before answering. “Yeah. Camping has been fun.” He grinned. “And, you know. The attack was kind of hot. Watching you fight in your underwear was…” He pushed her back against the Jeep and growled against her neck. She didn’t react. “Aren’t you kind of hot?”
He kissed down her collarbone and traced a finger along the tattoo on her hip. “Are you sure?”
“Getting attacked by demons doesn’t excite me.” She planted a hand on his chest to prevent his kisses from straying lower. “I’m not going to tell you again.” She left the unspoken threat hovering over them.
“Would you stab me? Is that what you’re saying?”
The corner of her mouth quirked up. “Would that turn you on, too?”
“You’re sick,” he murmured into her lips. Elise leaned against the car door with a sigh as he kissed her. His lips traveled to her earlobe. He nipped it lightly with his teeth.
“You think I’m sick?” She stretched her arm back to drop the knife in the Jeep’s backseat, and he traced his hand down her exposed ribcage. His fingers found a path under her bra to graze the curve of her breast. “At least demon attacks don’t get me horny.”
Her cell phone alarmed. She peered over Anthony’s shoulder to see it glowing blue underneath the tent canvas. He ignored it and pushed a knee between her legs. She stiffened, but he caught her wrist and pinned it to her side. “Ignore it.”
Elise shoved him. He stumbled a few steps back. “It’s time to leave,” she said, turning off the alarm. Anthony groaned.
“But we were just—”
“I have a meeting with a potential client this morning and it’s a four-hour drive from here.”
He adjusted the waistband of his sweats. Elise gathered their broken tent and threw it in the back of the Jeep. “I think you like to torture me.”
She planted a kiss on his chin as he passed. “It’s an unintended bonus.”
Anthony tried to glower, but Elise didn’t acknowledge him as she finished packing. His mood lost steam without her attention.
After a week of camping, their clothes were crusty with sweat and dust. Elise gritted her teeth as she pulled on dirty jeans. “What are we going to do with that?” Anthony asked when the only thing remaining in their camp was the body of the demon.
Elise kicked it in the side. It didn’t move. “We’ll let the coyotes have it. I’ve got what I need.”
They got in the Jeep and drove away, leaving the carcass of the demon to rot.