The demon swung his sword at Juliet’s head. She ducked. The blade soared over her, close enough to slice off a hair or two.
From the sheath strapped to her back, she pulled out her own sword and slashed at his midsection. Where the steel should have connected with flesh and muscle, it thudded against a plate of bone. The impact jarred her arm up to her shoulder.
The demon grinned, teeth visible behind a ragged beard. “That the best you’ve got?”
He spoke with a English accent, Londoner unless she missed her guess. From his tattered clothing, he looked as if he’d slept rough for a few decades. In close quarters like these, he smelled like it too. There was something else, something off.
Something she couldn’t stop to think about right now.
“I haven’t even started.” She took a few steps back, taking stock. The presence of bone in his midsection suggested some kind of exoskeleton. Tough, but not invulnerable. He was unlikely to have magic, that was good news.
“What are you?” she asked easily, her head cocked. “Scorpion? Turtle?” She was taunting him, but many demons had short tempers. Anger him and he’d be more likely to make a mistake.
He laughed instead. “I think you mean tortoise. Turtles are the water ones. Also they have a shell on their back, not their front.”
“Thank you, David Attenborough,” she muttered.
“Sir David to you.” His smile widened. “For your information—before I kill you—I’m more like an ant.”
“Ah.” She nodded slowly. “So I should look for a queen then?”
His smile faltered. So she’d found a raw nerve had she?
“What’s wrong,” she pressed, “did someone fumigate?”
He growled and leapt toward her, but she was ready. She jumped aside and turned her upper body. Using her sword like a poker, she jabbed it into his neck, hoping for a gap in the bone. The blade ground against another plate and slid free.
He let out a gurgle of annoyance and shook his head. Greasy hair flew back and forth. He bared his teeth at her. They shimmered, then turned into mandibles, jagged, razor-like blades to either side of pincers.
He snapped at her.
“Can’t talk like that huh?” she teased. “What a shame, I was enjoying our repartee.”
The rest of the demon started to change as well. His already torn clothing ripped further and fell away.
Although his appearance wasn’t exactly that of a giant ant, there was a similarity, including the stinger in his tail. Rather than six legs, he had only two and a pair of muscular arms. In place of hair, he bore a pair of antennae. His eyes were rounded pools of black. If she recalled her high school biology right, he’d have dozens of lenses in his eyes, all working together.
“You’re uglier like that,” she remarked. “Shame I forgot to bring bug spray.” Regular pesticides wouldn’t work on a demon anyway, even one like this.
He swung his tail at her. The smooth, sudden motion came within half a fingertip of slashing across her leg. She brought her sword down in an arc and across the base of the stinger. This time, it slid through like cracking ice and severed the stinger from his body.
He let out a howl of rage and slashed his sword at her. Back and forth, he swept without thought for technique or restraint.
She parried several potential blows and danced aside to avoid the rest. He was starting to tire, or he was playing with her. Assuming the latter, but hoping for the former, she took her time, waited for just the right moment.
Slash. Jump. Slash. Parry.
Time stood still.
Her movements and responses became slower, as she too started to tire.
Pain seared her arm as the point of his sword connected.
It was her turn to falter. The wound was nothing more than a nick, but it rattled her certainty that she’d walk away from this fight alive.
Some day, she wouldn’t.
Juliet shoved the thought aside and went on the attack. She kept her sword low. He responded in kind.
His breath rasped.
Hers was ragged.
Their eyes locked.
She feinted with a low parry, which he blocked. He let out a hiss of laughter. It died as she brought her blade up to her shoulder and swung it toward his neck. With a grunt, she removed his head from his shoulders.
Again, time slowed.
His head went one way, his body another. His face shifted back to that of a human, a look of horrified shock on his features. His body remained that of an ant-demon for a matter of several seconds after it landed on the damp street.
Juliet could have pulled out her phone and taken pictures for social media, if she bothered with things like that.
Most people would believe it anyway. That was for the best.
Finally, the body shifted back into human form, filthy and naked, exoskeleton barely visible under a layer of body hair and fat.
“Yuck.” She poked at it with her foot and put her sword back in it sheath. “If this was a TV show, you’d turn into dust.”
Juliet Mackenzie had been hunting demons long enough to know that wasn’t what happened. Rather, she’d have to sort out a clean up crew before the sun rose. In this part of Sydney, a headless corpse wouldn’t go unnoticed for long.
Up and down the street, the tarmac shone, wet from rainfall an hour or so ago. Several streetlights were out, or more likely smashed, but enough light remained to show she was alone.
Unease settled on her. She tried to shake it off, but it lingered, then grew. Demons often operated in clans. Nothing suggested this one was any different.
Except, of course, that ants lived in nests of hundreds.
A whisper of sound, barely audible over the hum of cars on adjacent roads, might be a cat or a stray dog. Instinct told her otherwise. That instinct had kept her alive for a quarter of a century, she wasn’t going to ignore it now. She couldn’t pull a sword without drawing attention to herself, but she surreptitiously slid out a knife she kept at her hip.
Fuck, I should have kept my sword out until I was sure I was alone. She should be past making rookie mistakes like that.
She kept her posture loose and relaxed, as she’d been trained to do. Appearing tense would warn whoever—or whatever it was, that she was aware of them.
Another sound, just to her right. Casual and slow, she scanned the street. Her eyes searched, head only turned slightly as she moved away from the corpse.
There, the sound came again. It was following her. She took a few more steps, then twirled around.
A shape drew back into the shadows, leaving only two red pinpricks of light, both focused on her. They went black and flared again.
The demon had blinked.
“Crap.” Glowing eyes often meant bad news. Judging by the height, this was no child either. Rather, it stood half a metre taller than her.
“I know what you are.” The voice was a soft hiss, a feminine contralto, deep, almost hypnotic.
“Well whoopie-doo.” Juliet’s voice sounded loud in comparison. “Are you going to enlighten me? It would save us both some time.”
The demon moved out of the shadows, but the darkness followed. Even the glow from the streetlights didn’t penetrate.
Fuck, a shade. These guys were notoriously hard to kill. They were nothing like the ant-demon, who was little more than a street thug. Shades were more like pieces of night, and smart to boot. The fact she’d heard it at all suggested one thing; it had wanted her to know it was there.
“Demon Hunter,” the shade hissed.
“Give the shade a gold star,” Juliet replied. “What do you want?” She put her knife away. That would be no use here.
“What do any of us want?” the shade asked. “Survival, procreation, power.”
“No offence, but you’ve come to the wrong person,” Juliet said. “I have no desire to help you with any of those things.”
“What you want does not matter.”
“On the contrary. It matters very much to me.”
“Fascinating,” the shade continued, “I could end your life before your heart beat again, but you show no sign of fear.”
“You said it yourself, I’m a Demon Hunter. I’ve killed enough of your kind not to be scared of them any longer. For me it’s like… Stepping on ants.” She gestured back toward the corpse.
“He is of no consequence,” the shade said dismissively, “but his kind too will rise up and feast on the bodies of humankind. If you’re lucky, you’ll already be dead.”
Juliet feigned a yawn. “If I had fifty cents for every time I’d heard that crap spouted off, I could retire.”
The shade went on as if it hadn’t heard. “The order of things, it speaks, and it says the time for human extinction is upon us.”
“Spare me.” Juliet crossed her arms over her chest. “I know, humans aren’t perfect, but at least we don’t feast on each other. Mostly.”
“The greater species rises above the lesser to conquer the Earth,” the shade said, as if reciting some sort of prophesy.
It drew a snort from Juliet. “That’s why humans outnumber demons, and we’ll—”
“Are you certain of that?” the shade asked.
Juliet hesitated, then shrugged. “Either way, I’m not buying your crap.”
“I came to you with a warning.” The shade moved back toward the shadows. “For yourself and all the other Demon Hunters.”
“I’m touched. Maybe text me next time.” Juliet’s curiosity was piqued, however, so she added, “Well, what is it? Come on, I haven’t got all night.”
“The warning is this.” The shade paused. “Do not stand in our way. We will conquer the night, then the light of day.”
“Oh yeah? How will you do that?” Did shades smoke weed? This one sounded as though she had.
“By taking away the one thing which keeps humans safe. Fear.”
The words hung in the air while Juliet frowned. “Shouldn’t you be doing the opposite? Isn’t the point of demons that you instil fear in people? Wait, is this some weird reverse psychology shit? If so, I think you need to rethink it. As plans go, it kinda sucks. Actually never mind, it’ll make it easier to beat.”
“You cannot beat us,” the shade said. “Humans will destroy themselves faster than you can possibly imagine.” Then, as if feeling magnanimous , the shade added, “I will not kill you.”
“Am I supposed to say thank you for that?”
“No. It is your kind who will suffer the most. You will watch the downfall of humankind and be powerless to stop it. The world will tear apart, and we will bind it back together and feast on your bones.”
“Mmm, well that’s something to look forward to.” Juliet lowered her arms in surprise. The glowing red eyes were gone. The streetlight now penetrated the corner which had previously been shrouded in darkness. The shade was probably full of crap, but the uneasy sensation remained. Whatever they were up to, this was going to get ugly.
She took a deep breath, laced with city pollution and hurried down the road toward her motorbike. She wanted to be away from here before the sun rose.