Personal Demons - Chapter 1


Wind whistled through gaps in the rusted siding of the defunct train car. Metal groaned as Mira stepped inside and the old car settled under her weight. She squinted into the dark corners, searching for any indication of the creature who’d left a string of mutilated corpses across Atlanta. Her magically enhanced vision drifted over the graffiti that covered every inch of the interior space, colors muted in the last glint of fading twilight.

<Pretty paintings.> The voice could almost have been an effect of the whispering wind, except that it spoke within Mira’s own head, and only Mira could hear it.

She traced her fingers over the chaotic spray-paint designs, picking up a layer of dust. The jumble of overlapping images would certainly speak to the aesthetic tastes of a demon—even a demon as unusual as the one who shared her body. She rubbed the dust between her fingertips. “No one’s been in here for a while.”

She brushed her hand against the dark fabric of her jeans and turned toward the entrance.

A metallic clang echoed through the night, faint except that Mira had used magic to amplify her senses.

She froze halfway out of the train car and scanned the decaying buildings and vehicles of the abandoned rail yard. She and Ty—the Paranatural Task Force agent she’d recently agreed to work with on the sly—had come here based on reports of mangled bodies found in and around the area. The reports also mentioned an elderly man with strange marks like cracks in his skin. “Puppet lines,” as Mira called them, were a manifestation of the strain a demon put on its physical host and a sure indication they were dealing with a rifter. Unlike Mira, most rifters wrought a month or two of chaos and death before burning themselves up. This one had to be nearing its expiration date, but it could still do plenty of harm before it popped.

Mira squinted toward a large building on the far side of the yard. More graffiti coated the dark bricks and the lower-level windows. “It came from over there.”

<That’s Ty’s side. Maybe it was him?> The demon’s tone matched Mira’s skepticism that Mr. Just-So would be clumsy enough to knock over a broom while searching for something that could easily kill him if he lost the element of surprise.

“I still can’t believe we’re working with a PTF agent,” Mira muttered to the night.

<Seeing as how most would collar or kill you as soon as shake your hand, yeah, I wouldn’t have bet on that either. But Ty’s all right.>

“At least he doesn’t seem inclined to report me,” she agreed. “But his methods are gonna take some getting used to.”

Before coming to the train yard, Ty had insisted on marking out a grid over a map of the area and assigning each of them a search pattern to ensure nothing got overlooked. Mira had been all for sniffing around until she found a track worth following, as she always had, but she’d agreed to give this partnership thing an honest try.

She stepped down onto the weed-covered dirt. She was trying, but the way Ty seemed to need to control every aspect of an operation, to control her, chafed. She’d been on her own since she was eleven . . . if you didn’t count her demon. Human relationships had gone out the window after her possession. Too messy. Too many difficult, dangerous questions in a world that barely tolerated the fae and treated human practitioners as tools. Someone like her . . . well, there weren’t any others like her. Once Mira and her demon had come to an understanding about whose body and life they were sharing, Mira had grown used to calling the day-to-day shots, doing things her own way. With Ty in the mix, it felt like everything was in flux again.

<You knew we’d have to compromise when you agreed to this arrangement.>

“Whose side are you on?”


Mira nodded, lips pursed, still staring at the distant building. A gust of wind stirred her hair and tickled her nose with dust, rust, and the smell of old oil. “Let’s check it out.”

The demon shrugged, lifting Mira’s shoulders.

Mira crouched low and jogged across the open space in the direction the noise had come from, carefully avoiding the rusted steel beams of broken tracks that littered the ground. She crossed the invisible line that marked the boundary of her search area and entered Ty’s.

Let’s just hope he doesn’t shoot me by mistake.

The doors to the central hub had been reinforced with plywood, chained, and padlocked against trespassers. Mira frowned and ran her hand over the metal links. If the rifter was inside, he hadn’t come through here.

She looked along the sides of the building in either direction. She could circle around, find another door or a broken window maybe. She sighed. We could be chasing a stray cat for all we know.

<Do you want to go back, finish our assigned search pattern?>

Mira bristled. She couldn’t tell if the mocking she heard in the comment came from the demon or her own imagination.

She gripped the steel chain in both hands and called on her magic. The demon stirred as Mira pulled energy out of the Rift—the incorporeal plane of energy that overlapped the mortal world and all the realms connected to it. Demons lived in the Rift, when not hitchhiking in human meat puppets. They were made of the same chaotic energy human practitioners used to cast magic. In that way, Mira supposed, humans did as much damage to demons as demons did to humans.

Mira exhaled and focused the swirling eddies of energy into shape, giving them order and purpose. The metal between her hands turned red, then yellow, then white. The center link melted, dripping a handful of steaming impact craters into the dirt. Mira waited until the glowing ends of the chain faded to gray, then gently slid the links through the door handle and set them on the ground without so much as a rustle.

She flexed her fingers and shook her tingling hands, then eased open the door. The hinges scraped. She froze, straining her senses. Nothing moved. The only sound was the wind and the distant traffic of the city. A wisp of cloud passed in front of the swollen moon. The world flickered as the shadows took over for a moment, then they were chased back by the silver glow.

Mira exhaled. She wrapped a thread of magic around the hinges to dampen the sound and widened the gap enough to slip through.

Moonlight streamed in from the building’s skylights, casting long shadows from the crisscross of scaffolding onto the concrete floor. Several large bay doors that would once have allowed trains to pull in were boarded over, each sporting the tag of a local artist. Steel tracks set flush to the floor created a ladder effect across the pitted, dirt-crusted surface.

A figure crept along the far edge of the building. Long, matted, white hair draped their shoulders and obscured their face save for the profile of a beak-like nose. Pale, wiry limbs moved amid tattered strips of soiled fabric, fingers nearly scraping the floor as the hunched form slunk from shadow to shadow between patches of moonlight. One bony hand clutched something. Mira squinted, then nearly gagged as she realized the man—he had to be the rifter—was dragging an extra appendage. A dark smear snaked across the pale-gray floor in his wake.

<Looks like dinner.>

Mira scowled, but since the demon was inside her, the expression didn’t have much effect. Not that the demon tended to care about Mira’s disapproval in any case.

There but for the grace of God. . . . She sent a silent, grateful prayer for the miracle that had allowed her to strike a balance with her possessor all those years ago and saved her from becoming one of the creatures she now hunted.

The rifter shuffled from pillar to pillar, dragging its gory meal toward a break in the south wall—a section of empty window frame partially covered by a loosely propped piece of plywood. At the pace he was moving, she had maybe a minute before he reached the opening.

She glanced around the rest of the interior. Plenty of open space, good solid supports, no one nearby . . . couldn’t really ask for a better space to fight in.

<Are you going to call Ty?>

She fingered the cell phone clipped to her belt. Carrying the device—basically a tiny tracker—made her uncomfortable, but she had eventually given in to the practicality of being able to quickly communicate with Ty. Yet another concession to this whole partnership thing. The plan had been to locate the rifter, text the location, then trail it at a discrete distance until they could take it down together. It had seemed logical enough when she’d agreed to it. Now, watching her target move slowly away, she wasn’t so sure.

She worried her lower lip between her teeth, then shifted her hand to the sheathed kukri knife also attached to her belt. By the time Ty gets here, the rifter will have moved on, and the next place we catch up to it might not be so accommodating. She slid the long, curved blade free. We can handle this ourselves.

Mira felt the demon grin. <Just like the old days.>

Her lips twitched up to match. The “old days” were barely two weeks gone, hardly any time at all, but Mira couldn’t deny the thrill of acting without the need for debate or consent. The single hunt she’d worked with Ty—not including the unofficial case on which they’d met—had gone smoothly enough, but she’d chafed at his slow pace and meticulous planning. Right now there was a rifter in front of her, and she was going to kill it. Simple.

She stalked forward, keeping to the shadows, relying on her experience, rather than her magic, to keep her hidden. At this distance, the moment she drew any significant amount of energy from the Rift, the demon in that rifter would know.

She scooted around the edge of the building opposite the rifter, darting from pillar to pillar and shadow to shadow, just as it was. But she was moving faster, closing the distance. She’d reach the opening first.

The rifter scurried through a patch of moonlight. Puppet lines ran like frozen arcs of black lightning across the skin around the old man’s eyes. Beyond those charred lines, his wrinkled, mottled flesh sagged like cellophane off his bones. He gripped his prize with fingers turned black and rotting from long exposure to the Rift. The pale glow of the moon glinted wetly off the red end of the severed limb he carried. His victim’s skin had been a shade darker than his own, and male, judging by the amount of hair and the thickness of the lifeless fingers.

<This guy looks almost gone,> said Mira’s demon.

Mira nodded and continued to creep toward the broken window. Demons rode their hosts hard. In all the years since she’d been inducted into this shadowy existence, Mira had only met one other rifter who’d been able to balance the power between demon and host as she had. Now they, too, were gone.

Mira crouched behind the final pillar before the opening. She inhaled, tightened her grip on the forward-heavy blade in her hand, and waited for the rifter to take the last few steps that would bring him into range.


She opened herself up to the energy of the Rift, wrapped it around herself, and charged the startled rifter.



Ty’s flashlight beam drifted over the mess in the corner. He gagged and covered his nose and mouth to block the smell. It didn’t work. He was inside a long, narrow building that had once been used to store and maintain engines and passenger cars. One such relic sat on rusted rails like a steel Twinkie layered in dust, rot, and multicolored spray paint. Several of the bay doors were missing, so the chill breeze of the spring night had followed him inside. Unfortunately, the wind did more to stir up rather than dissipate the smells of decay and mildew wafting off the pile of shredded cloth, glistening bones, and chunky globs of what looked like chili con carne he’d discovered in the corner.

This must be the rifter’s nest. He backed up a step, sweeping his flashlight side to side and peering into the deeper shadows of the long room, searching for the slightest sign of movement. He reached for the cell phone clipped to his waist. If this was its nest, the rifter would be back. He and Mira could set an ambush. That would be safer than stumbling around in the dark.

As his fingers closed on the hard plastic of his phone case, a crash like a train wreck shattered the silence of the night.

In one smooth motion, he dropped to a crouch and drew his sidearm, aiming down the center of his beam as it swung across the room. It took a second for him to register that the noise had come from farther away than he’d initially thought, near the center of the train yard. A moment more and his pulse returned to normal as the sudden burst of adrenaline faded.

He straightened and turned toward the source of the sound, straining. Fainter noises drifted from that direction.

Mira. Panic and dread surged through him, squeezing his chest like a vise. His palms started to sweat. She wasn’t supposed to engage until I was there to back her up!

He clicked off his flashlight and holstered his sidearm. It had been instinct rather than thought that made him draw the weapon, since a regular bullet would do little against a rifter. He’d learned that the hard way, when the first one he’d fought had walked away after taking four to the chest and doing a swan dive off a high-rise. Instead he pulled the short-barrel shotgun, loaded with rock salt rounds that Mira had given him, from the holster strapped across his back.

He took a deep breath and waited another moment for his eyes to adjust to the darkness, reminding himself that charging in would likely get them both killed.

I won’t lose another one.

He licked his lips and slipped outside, stalking through the shadows toward the source of the sounds. The sun had set before they’d even started their search, and the last strips of twilight were fading in the west. Lamp posts were spaced around the lot, but piles of broken glass at their bases were all that remained of the bulbs. He squinted, wishing he could see as well in darkness as Mira seemed to.

Another loud crash and a flash of light drew him to one of the large central depot buildings. He frowned. That building is in my section of the search grid. What was Mira even doing there?

The flash of light had illuminated a broken-out window nearby. The back of his jacket snagged on rough bricks as he slid along the side of the building and peeked inside.

Dust drifted out through the hole. He stifled a cough. Several small fires burned around the room—mostly ignited trash and debris, though one flame danced on the dark surface of what looked like an old oil stain.

Mira was climbing to her feet on Ty’s right. She dusted off her dark jeans and leather jacket. She coughed and waved a hand to clear the air in front of her face. Her shoulder-length hair—mostly brown except for a wide swath of snowy white near her left temple—hung loose, framing her hungry expression. Mira’s right eye was nearly invisible in the flickering shadows of the firelight; her left eye was a golden beacon shining through the darkness.

Ty followed her gaze across the room. The rifter was also climbing to his feet. Apparently, the flash Ty had seen had knocked them both sprawling.

Ty barely recognized the man from his driver’s license photo. Tufts of unruly white hair and a jaw of pale stubble surrounded a sharply hooked nose and high cheekbones draped with papery, age-spotted skin. Jagged lines of darkness seemed to ooze from deeply recessed eyes that shone with a metallic tint similar to the gold in Mira’s. His fingertips were blackened as though he’d held them in a fire. He hunched, moving more like an orangutan than a man, his arms swinging low as he lumbered toward Mira.

Mira raised her arms. The hairs on Ty’s neck and arms stood to attention. The air filled with the sound of crackling. Electricity snapped and arced over Mira’s body, then shot from her fingers in a cascade of blue-tinged lightning that reminded Ty of the evil emperor from Star Wars.

The rifter knocked the lightning aside with apelike movements. Arcs of energy shot in every direction, singeing metal and concrete, shattering glass, and igniting wood.

Ty cringed and ducked as a stray bolt ricocheted in his direction and blew off the sheet of plywood that had half covered his hiding place. Ozone and ash tickled Ty’s nose.

He opened his eyes and cautiously peered over the lip of the windowsill.

The rifter had closed the distance to Mira and was now swinging a piece of rusted steel rail as long as Ty’s leg. Mira dodged and circled, knife in hand, but wasn’t able to get inside the guard of the longer weapon. She was losing ground, drawing the fight deeper into the building.

Ty took a steadying breath. His shotgun didn’t have the range or accuracy to risk a shot from that distance. Not with Mira standing so close. He climbed through the open window, scraping his broad shoulders on the frame, and stepped onto the battlefield . . . only to trip over something under the window. He stumbled, froze, and glanced down.

Is that a— Ty lifted his gaze away from the severed limb he’d stepped on and swallowed the bile threatening at the back of his throat.

The rifter’s weapon swung toward Mira as she reversed direction from the previous attack. She didn’t have time to dodge. She raised both arms and tucked her chin. Steel connected with flesh and bone. Mira grunted and flew off her feet. She slammed into one of the steel pillars supporting the room. The metal dented. More dust sifted down from the beams above. Mira collapsed to the concrete. The rifter raised his weapon.

Ty watched the scene unfold in slow motion. The image of a young man with dark-brown skin and buzzed hair flickered over Mira for a moment.


Ty’s previous partner looked at him, eyes accusing.

I won’t lose another.

Ty charged forward, shouting a battle cry of rage, grief, and guilt.

The rifter jerked and spun. Its eyes were dark pits flecked with copper.

Ty planted his feet, raised his shotgun, and pulled the trigger.

The rifter swung its hand as it had to deflect Mira’s lightning, but the rock salt spread wide. The rifter couldn’t track the tiny particles. It howled as the salt burrowed dozens of stinging craters in its flesh. Mira had made it clear when giving Ty the gun that salt alone wasn’t going to stop a demon, or even slow it down by much, but it would hurt like hell and make it flinch.

The rifter flailed.

Mira, halfway to her feet, shouted and slid across the room.

Something invisible slammed into Ty’s side and sent him tumbling. He felt ribs crack. The shotgun dropped from his fingers. The invisible force vanished as the other side of him made all-too-real contact with a pile of half-rotted wooden crates stacked near a wall. Splintered wood cascaded around him.

Ty coughed and winced. Maybe not broken but definitely bruised.

He tried to shift, but debris covered him, pinning him down. His breath came faster, making him cough again.

No. He shook his head and reminded himself it was only wood, only boxes, but the feeling of concrete and steel beams, of several tons of collapsed building, weighed down on him, choking off his air and crushing his will to move. Blood pounded in his ears and sparks danced in his vision. He squeezed his eyes closed, but a thin layer of flesh was no protection from the images of the past that swarmed him. The scars on his waist and leg ached with remembered pain.

Old scars, he reminded himself. Focus on the present.

He thrust one hand into the pocket of his pants and clenched his fingers around the familiar shape of a smooth stone with one groove scratched in the side just wide enough to fit his thumbnail into.

Focus on the present. His breathing slowed. He could feel splinters of wood digging into his side, smell the oil soaked into the train yard floor, taste the dust at the back of his throat. A noise filtered through the muffling wood. His thoughts jumped to Mira and a vision of her being knocked clear across the wide room by the rifter.

Again her features were overlaid with the ghost of Ty’s childhood friend, the partner he’d failed to save, but as Mira went sprawling, Jamal stood up and walked over to Ty in the cinema of his mind. He crouched down and rested one hand on Ty’s shoulder.

The strong should protect the weak.

Ty almost laughed, but the twinge in his ribs made him think better of it. “Mira isn’t weak.”

Jamal squeezed. The sensation seemed as real as if he were flesh and blood.

But this monster’s victims were.

The severed limb he’d tripped over near the window floated in his imagination, and he gagged anew. The strong should protect the weak. Mira and me . . . together, we’re strong.

That was why he’d agreed to this partnership in the first place, despite his misgivings. He wasn’t strong enough to fight these kinds of monsters on his own. Maybe she was—she’d been doing it for years, after all—but from what he’d seen, she could use someone to watch her back . . . and sometimes to keep her in check. Together they could protect the weak, if they could just get their shit together.

Fingers gripped Ty’s ankle and pulled him out of his thoughts in a clatter of broken boxes. He scrabbled at the concrete, but continued to slide, then to lift, until he was dangling upside down. His jacket bunched up around his shoulders. The tips of his buzzed, black hair skimmed the ground as his fingers struggled for purchase. He looked toward his trapped foot. The arm that held him looked thin enough to snap. Lines of sinew stood out beneath the rifter’s eerily translucent skin. Copper shone from the dark pits of its eyes as it looked him over. Pale lips pulled back in a growl that exposed black gums and gray, decaying teeth. A strand of yellowish drool leaked from the corner of its mouth. Ty cringed. From this close, the rifter smelled almost as bad as the rotting remains Ty had found in its lair.

The rifter raised its free hand, fingers curled like claws.

Ty kicked out with his loose foot and flailed with his hands. He wasn’t a practitioner; he couldn’t see magic until it took shape in some corporeal form, but he got the feeling he’d be done for if that prepped hand hit him.

The rifter tensed to strike, then it jerked straight. The inky caverns of its eyes went wide.

The vise on Ty’s ankle released, and he crumpled to the floor, curling at the last moment to protect his neck and roll away. He came up to his hands and knees on the dusty ground and stared at the stiff rifter.

Mira stood behind it, the wide belly of her blade buried in the rifter’s back. Her other hand was on the rifter’s neck, fingers digging into flesh. She stood barely as tall as the rifter’s shoulder, but a shell of white steam flecked with darker patches and golden sparks swirled around her, encasing her, making her look nearly twice her actual size. Black mist rose off the rifter like toxic gas. The wisps drifted toward Mira and spiraled up her arms. A face began to form in the mist, overlaying the old man. The demon was being drawn out.

Ty exhaled and bit his lower lip. This was part of the deal of their partnership, this was how Mira exterminated demons. She devoured them, absorbing their energy to make her own demon stronger and to stave off the physical deterioration that would otherwise kill her. He fought the urge to look away. What she was doing was important. As far as he knew, she was the only one who could end a demon. Others could kill a host and send a demon back to the Rift, sure, but actually end it? He shook his head. He would keep her safe, no matter what.

The rifter began to thrash and scream as thicker streams of the dark mist were drawn out of him and pulled toward Mira. Her tiny body was obscured by the swirling cloud encasing her, but Ty could see the white patch in her hair had spread, and her eyes—one gold and one brown when she and her demon were in balance—were both a molten yellow. A second set of features formed in the mist over the soft curves of Mira’s face.

Ty winced. Even knowing full well what she was, knowing she used her paranatural abilities to protect the helpless humans of the mortal realm, he found it difficult to look at the truth of her. He usually found it easy to forget that there was a demon riding around inside Mira’s body. But now? He could barely see the small woman with wavy hair, soft brown skin, and a sharp tongue he’d come to admire, or even the powerful practitioner he’d chosen to partner with. She was not just a woman, not just a partner. She was a rifter, and the demon was taking over.