Scarlett edged further down the roof on her belly, dark blue cloak drawn over her head. The police circled the body like buzzards with fresh carrion. Scarlett felt sick to her stomach. She had been so close this time. A glimpse of a dark cape, clawed hands, strange four-toed footprints. She’d only lost the trail for fifteen minutes, and the beast had managed to take its first of the night.
The young blond looked fifteen. Fragile chest split open, the rib cage cracked apart and stark white under the invasive streamlights. Heart surgeons needed saws and braces to get to the beating organ beneath the breastplate. This monster needed only hands and teeth. It was eating them, she was sure of it. Two a night for the past week.
At first, she’d thought it was a witch, eating hearts for sustained youth. But there were no hex bags in the victims’ homes. No incense or chalked pentagrams at the crime scenes. Not a werewolf. It would have eaten more than the heart. Not a vampire. They weren’t so messy. Incubus? There’d been no reports in the papers of sexual assault. Trolls, goblins, ghosts, all eliminated. A demon perhaps? Scarlett grew cold at the thought. She’d never encountered one before, but she’d heard stories. Most hunters didn’t come out of that fight alive.
Techno music reverberated off the tin roof. Scarlett shoved back from the edge as the police looked for the sound. She slapped at her pockets and utility belt, searching for her phone as she slid down the other side of the roof. She took off into the next yard, silencing her phone, and looked at the caller ID. Mom. Her legs took her onto the next street, boots splashing in puddles. She answered.
“Where in the world are you?” Renee Ford’s voice chirped, not bothering with a greeting. “We’re due at the Masons’ in an hour. How on earth are you going to get ready, young lady?”
“Don’t worry, Mom, I’ll be there.” Scarlett rolled her eyes.
“Where are you?”
“At the library,” said Scarlett, taking out her tracking goggles and circling back toward the crime scene. “This senior thesis for English is no joke. I turned off my phone, lost track of time. They just kicked me out. I’m in the parking lot.”
“You’re never home any more, Scarlett.” Renee’s voice had taken on that pitiful tone that caused both irritation and horrible guilt. “This isn’t about a boy, is it?”
“Mom, I was studying.” Scarlett paused, leaning against a house. “Geez! If you think I’m running around with some guy, why did you set me up on a date tonight?”
“Well, this other boy clearly isn’t a good influence.”
“There is no other boy!”
Scarlett jogged on, slipping the goggles beneath her hood.
“Wesley Dupree is a lovely boy.”
“Goodie. Exactly what every woman’s looking for in a man: loveliness.”
Renee’s voice grew hard and clipped. “Be nice to him. And get your butt home, missy! You may be eighteen, but you’re not an adult yet.”
“I’m pretty sure the law says otherwise,” Scarlett mumbled.
“What was that?”
“Nothing. Be home soon.”
Scarlett tucked the phone away and crept closer to the crime scene.
“It’s not possible,” one of the cops said as Scarlett army-crawled through the fat bushes on the opposite side of the house. “I was two minutes away when the call came in. How does a person do this much damage that fast?”
Scarlett poked her head around the front of the house. She flicked a switch on the goggles and the blue interface blinked to life, zeroing in on any abnormalities. A gathering of footprints in the yard lit up in blue. In the top right of the screen, ticker tape scrolled, Human. Three subjects. Male. Shoe Sizes 10, 10, 12. Nothing. She crawled toward the back of the house and peered around. The backyard fed into the woods. A large patch of bent grass near the tree line lit up. Indentation. Substances found. Unidentifiable at this distance.
She would have to loop back through the neighborhood and enter the woods away from the roving eyes of the police. She looked at the time and cringed.
A few minutes and a few bramble scratches later, she crept toward the edge of the lawn. The patch of grass flashed blue. Indentation. Scraping. Substances found: 1) human blood, Type AB. 2) Lotion, ingredients: aloe vera, glycerin… Scarlett kicked a tree. Lotion? She’d done all this for lotion?
An object lit up among the underbrush. She dove for it. A watch. Real gold. Onyx face. Expensive. The goggles estimated $2,000. It didn’t belong to the victim. This was a poor part of town, and it was a man’s watch. Her mystery monster accessorized?
She looked at the grass again and tapped her nails on her biceps, waiting for the lotion ingredient list to scroll by. 3) Skin cells. Inhuman. Human. Inhuman … Recalculating. Error. Unidentifiable.
Odd. That was the second time tonight she’d come across a sample not found in the Order of Perseus database—a first in her two years on the job. The four-toed footprints had given an “Unidentifiable” reading.
Techno music. Scarlett groaned.
“The library is ten minutes away. Where are you?” said Renee.
“Look, Mom, can you bring my dress to the party? I’ll change there. I’ve had car trouble.” The lies came too easily these days.
“I told your father that mustang was a piece of—”
“A librarian is helping me jump it, but I’ll have to drive straight to the Masons’.”
“What about your hair?! Your—”
“It’ll be fine.” She hung up and started toward her car.
A tree trunk lit up. Skin cells that prompted an error message. She changed course. Another batch on the ground. A bloody handprint on a tree. A four-toed print. She ran, cloak splayed behind her like wings, sheathed blades thumping against her thighs.
She emerged on the south side of the woods, hamstrings hot. She got her bearings. Mill Creek Landing. No way. She was staring at her own backyard. The party was two streets over. She scanned the ground for traces. Prints glowed blue, but they were all human. Teens on their way to make out in the woods probably.
The last time a monster had come this close to her house, she’d lost her older brother, Freddy. He’d been sick for weeks, growing paler and weaker. She’d opened his door carrying soup… and dropped it in shock. She could still see the succubus leaning over him as he lay in a tangle of sheets. See the long, red spiked tail looping around to tickle his neck. See the plump mouth widen into a maw of teeth that enclosed around Freddy’s mouth as she sucked out the last crumbs of his life force, and then licked her lips like she’d just finished a cupcake and gotten frosting everywhere. An alien rage comingled with the terror inside her as the succubus turned and laughed. She’d run it through with Freddy’s Lord of the Rings collectors sword. An Order of Perseus representative had cleaned things up, adjusted her parents’ memories, and offered to train her as a hunter. Six years ago tomorrow.
Scarlett jogged toward the Mason house, careful to stay out of motion-sensitive security lights, goggles still scanning. Nothing the whole way to the Masons’ back door. She’d lost it again.
Uneasy, she released the cloak tie at her throat. She folded it into her backpack and crammed the weapons belt in after. She used her phone to apply red lipstick. She released her strawberry blond hair from the tight French braid and jostled it until the waves fell loose around her shoulders. She laughed at the phone image of red lips beneath thick goggles. She reached to pull them off. The back doorknob lit up. Handprint. Substance found: lotion. Ingredients: aloe vera… She yanked the goggles off, shocked. It was inside.
Her mother was in there!
Scarlett tried the door. Locked. She could pick it, but she had an invite. She ran around front and pounded the doorbell. Claire Mason opened the door in a sleek black cocktail dress, looking peeved. She appraised Scarlett’s mulch and grass-stained clothes with a scowl that creased her makeup.
“Scarlett, I’m so glad you’re here,” she said through a tight smile.
“Thanks for having me,” said Scarlett, racing into the house.
Her boots tracked mud on the white runner rug in the entry hall. She skidded to a halt in the dining room doorway and searched the mingling party guests for her mother. Renee stood by the window in a blue and white A-Line sweetheart dress, a petite four cake in two fingers, a champagne glass in the other hand, chatting to another woman. Renee nodded and laughed, and then her eyes found Scarlett. The smile widened into a gape of horror. Her heels click-clicked on the hardwood as she power-walked across the room.
“Scarlett, my God,” she hissed, ushering Scarlett roughly from the room. “What have you been doing? Did a forest spring up in the middle of the library? You’ve got hitchhikers on your jeans!”
Scarlett looked down at the prickly round seeds clinging to her clothes as her mother led her into a back den.
“What on earth are those hideous things?” asked Renee.
Scarlett hid the goggles behind her back. “Nothing, they’re for a history project.” She stuffed them in her bag.
“Scarlett,” said Renee, taking both of Scarlett’s shoulders in her hands, “tell me the truth. What is going on?”
“The car broke down again on the way here. I had to walk, so I took a shortcut through the woods.”
Renee stared into Scarlett’s eyes, and her mouth drooped. “You know, I’m really sick of your excuses. You’re lying to me.” She turned away, her voice low and defeated.
“Put this on.” Renee thrust a zipped garment bag at her and ripped her backpack off her shoulder. “If Claire doesn’t throw us out, I’ll introduce you to Wesley.”
In the bathroom, Scarlett slipped into the green mermaid dress. Great. There was a monster somewhere and her legs were basically immobilized from hips to calves by unyielding fabric. The shoes Renee had selected were strappy silver kitten heels. Even better. For the monster, at least.
She shuffled into the living room. No wonder the monster had come here. Every girl in the neighborhood was here. Renee swooped in from nowhere.
“Scarlett, this is Wesley.”
A slender boy with slicked blond hair and a long nose offered his hand.
“Nice to meet you, Scarlett.” He shot Scarlett a sympathetic, raised eyebrow look that clearly said, “Mothers, right?”
She grinned despite herself and took his hand, which was exceptionally soft. “I think I’ve seen you at school.”
“I think we had biology together sophomore year. Funny how you only know most people by their faces.”
“Super weird,” she said as she pulled her hand from his.
Her fingers felt greasy, like they’d slid through butter. He looked down at his hand, embarrassed.
Scarlett’s eyes flicked to the massive crystal chandelier in the vaulted ceiling. It was swinging slightly, as if someone, or something, was thumping around upstairs. Party guests were supposed to stick to the main living space; it was etiquette unspoken but deeply ingrained.
“I promised I’d help Claire in the kitchen,” said Renee. “I’ll leave you two to it.”
“To what exactly?” Scarlett called after her, but Renee pretended not to hear.
“So, Scarlett,” said Wesley. “Do you want to grab some hors d’oeuvres and find somewhere to sit?”
“Um, sure,” said Scarlett, eyeing the staircase in the foyer. She gave him a sheepish grin. “But I gotta pee. I’ll be right back. Okay?”
“I’ll meet you in the dining room.”
“Great.” She spared him a smile and then shuffled as fast as her dress would allow, down the hall and into the den to grab her backpack.
She made her way back and peered through the stairwell’s iron railing into the dining room. No Wesley. She sped up the steps, hearing a seam pop at her calf. The fabric of her train slithered across the wood, the sound making her feel as if a gorgon was at her back. Mrs. Mason might turn into a gorgon if she caught her.
The master bedroom was above the living room. The king-sized four poster was covered by a crimson canopy. Scarlett pulled two Sai knives from her bag. She looped her fingers around the prongs, so the long blades stuck out between her middle and ring fingers. One blade poised to strike, she used the flat side of the other to open the canopy. A fat pile of pillows. An expensive duvet.
Footsteps on the stairs. She concealed the blades in the bag. Wesley grinned in at her.
“Snooping, huh? Why didn’t you tell me?” he said.
She forced a laugh. “I didn’t realize you’d be interested.”
“Totally. There’s something off about the Masons. My bet’s on drug dealers.”
That got a genuine laugh. “Oh really?”
“Oh yeah,” he said, leaning on one of the bedposts. “Don’t you think Mrs. Mason is a little…” He whistled the “cuckoo” sound, earning another laugh.
“I always thought it was Mr. Mason who was a little off,” said Scarlett.
“Really? Do tell.” Wesley leaned in conspiratorially.
“One time—” A smell hit Scarlett’s nostrils, and her smile faltered. Aloe. “Uh, at my mother’s Christmas party, he had too much eggnog…”
Scarlett struggled for words as she slipped a hand in her bag.
“Ah, eggnog. Ruiner of Christmas parties everywhere.” Wesley took a step toward her.
She jerked back; something thumped on the carpet. The gold watch. Wesley looked down at it, and when his head came up, he wore a sneer.
“The jig is up, eh, hunter?” he said.
She scrambled back and almost tripped on her dress. Wesley sidestepped to block the door.
“What are you?” she asked, fingertips brushing the hilt of a Sai.
“I’m one of a kind.”
His skin split down the center of his long nose.
The face folded under his chin and became the fur collar of a black cape, revealing a hooked nose, sickly green skin flecked with dark spots, and fangs that hugged his bottom lip. A Mohawk of thick black hair trailed down to his back like a hyena. The suit and the skin beneath bubbled like hot oil, and then his chest was bare beneath the cloak. His fingers were long, knobby, and clawed. He had black, furry legs shaped like a satyr, but four-toed feet instead of hooves. A spiked tail slithered out of the cape.
Her surprise made her aim unsteady, and the Sai blade she threw embedded in the wall.
He laughed and wiggled the tail at her. “Just like mother’s.”
Scarlett couldn’t think. Freddy’s face flashed before her eyes.
“You look like your mother, too,” he said. “And I’m going to take her from you, as you took mine.”
The threat clanged in Scarlett’s head like pans falling on tile. Renee was all she had left. Fury began to restore her focus.
“What are you?”
“Spawn of succubus and the illusive shapeshifter. A new breed.” He raised his arms like a warlock summoning a demon from the earth. “I can change into any form at will, and yet I have a true form, unlike my father. When I lost mother, I needed caretakers, so I killed the Dupree boy and assumed his shape. But I can mimic more than just what I see. If I can imagine it, I can become it. I do not need to drain life forces through base acts to survive, like my mother.”
“Then what’s with the hearts?” said Scarlett, rummaging again.
He pointed to the spots on his face. “Puberty,” he said with a shrug.
His eyes found her creeping hand.
“Enough chatting,” he snarled.
His arms bubbled and became swords. He sprang at her, slashing down with both blades. She pulled her cloak free and fanned it out like a shield. The blades scraped down the blue material, sparks flying. The cloak was left unscathed, and Wesley growled. Scarlett whipped the cloak around her body. She ducked his sword arm, flipping up her hood just as his tail spike zoomed toward her neck from the side. The spike tip broke against the armor, and Wesley cried out.
Scarlett looked toward the door, kicking off her shoes. No one coming. Music and loud chatter from downstairs. She pulled the second Sai from her bag, slit the dress to her thigh, and then hurled the knife. The blade struck him in the stomach, and he bent at the waist, hands on the hilt. She leaped, vaulted off his bent head, and landed like a cat. She yanked the first Sai from the wall and spun to find him back in human form, holding up his hands, the bloody Sai at his feet, white shirt stained scarlet.
“Wait,” he said. “You can’t kill me in this form. Put down the knife or I’ll scream for help, and they’ll only see Wesley Dupree.”
“Let’s call a truce,” he said. “I heal quickly. I’ll look good as new in a few minutes. We’ll walk down together. Arm in arm.”
“That’s what your mother wants, isn’t it?” he said with a twisted grin. “We’re on a date, aren’t we?”
She saw the jagged tail spike just in time. She blocked with the cloak draped on her arm and rammed her blade into his chest. His eyes grew wide.
“We wouldn’t work out,” she said with a grin. “It’s not you, it’s me.”
He crumpled, smooth skin peeling and bubbling away to the green-hued, hairy monstrosity underneath.
“Scarlett!” Renee was in the doorway, turning paler by the second. “What is that?!”
“Uh… Mom, don’t panic. I can explain.”
Read the next episode in the Order of Perseus series: Caged Lightning