“It is better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles. Then the victory is yours. It cannot be taken from you, not by angels or by demons, heaven or hell.”
Late October, 2018
Riley Blackthorne compared her seat number to the row numbers above the seats. Confused, she shot a look behind her, toward the area of the airplane designated for Coach Class. She should be back there, right?
There has to be a mistake.
But it appeared there wasn’t, so she kept working her way forward in the section located between steerage and Business Class. Apparently Grand Master Stewart had upgraded her seat to something called World Traveler Plus.
How cool is that?
When the woman behind her delivered a not so subtle nudge with her purse, Riley shuffled forward, continuing to check numbers against the boarding pass clutched tightly in her hand. There was another nudge to her left kidney.
“Look, if you’re in a hurry, go around me, okay?” Riley said. It’s not like you’re going to leave any earlier.
The statuesque woman narrowed her eyes and did just that, ensuring that her wheeled suitcase rolled over Riley’s shoe, leaving a black mark on the leather.
Sighing, Riley dropped into her assigned seat, which was definitely more comfortable than she’d expected. Knowing that clutching her backpack to her chest made her look like a dork, she stuffed it under the seat in front of her. After chucking off her coat, she gave a quick look at her seatmate, a graying, middle-aged businessman whose computer screen displayed a multi-colored graph as he tapped away on the keyboard.
“Hi,” she said, unsure of seatmate etiquette. It was only the third time she’d flown and the earlier trips had been when she was really young.
The guy gave a nod in her direction and went back to his work.
At least he’s not going to talk me to death.
After wetting a tissue with spit and cleaning off her shoe, she checked out the other passengers as they settled in for the flight. Most appeared to be business people. An exception was the young couple who sat across from her, all laughter and smiles. Riley couldn’t help but notice the woman’s sparkly ring.
“Pretty ring,” Riley said politely.
“We just got engaged,” the woman replied, her voice light and airy.
Maybe that’ll be me on the way home. At least, that was her greatest wish.
Riley had been waiting for this trip ever since her Demon Trapper boyfriend had left Atlanta right after Labor Day. Now that Denver Beck was halfway through his grand master training in Scotland, it was time for a visit. Their mentor, Grand Master Angus Stewart, had arranged it all. He’d even paid for the plane ticket, because there would have been no way Riley could have afforded this trip. But, like all things with Stewart, she suspected he had other reasons for her to go to Edinburgh besides seeing Beck and celebrating her birthday. No doubt, she’d figure those out once she got there.
In fact, Stewart was supposed to be traveling with her, but he’d acquired a bad case of pneumonia, which had kept him in his bed. In the year she’d known him, the older man had never gotten sick. Despite his grumbling and complaining — in between coughing fits — he knew better than to travel no matter how eager he was to visit his homeland once again.
Riley’s nerves kicked in and she found it hard not to fidget. Even if she was only a few days short of turning eighteen, this was her first overseas trip. Luckily Beck would be waiting for her. She checked her watch – eight hours and twenty-seven minutes from now she’d be in his arms.
The memory of their last kiss surfaced now, along with how she’d cried when they’d said goodbye. How he’d looked like he’d wanted to as well, but had held it together. Riley twisted the ring on her right hand, the one he’d given her last spring. It was his grandmother’s wedding ring, an old silver band with an ivy pattern carved into it. On a sudden impulse, she pulled it off and slid it on her left ring finger and then smiled because the ring looked good, like it belonged there. Worrying someone might have seen that strange maneuver, she moved it back and then nestled her hands together in her lap.
I miss you so much.
The couple near her was laughing again, reminding her of the good times she’d missed, how much Beck had woven himself into her life and her heart. Over the two months he’d been gone they’d talked once a week, and she’d sent him care packages and pictures of his rabbit so he’d wouldn’t feel like she and Rennie had forgotten him.
Like we ever could.
In a candid moment, Beck had admitted the grand master training was difficult. “Damned hard” was the way he’d put it. A native of South Georgia, he’d had a rough childhood and his reading skills weren’t the strongest, so that had made the studying difficult. Still, he’d been doing okay. As he’d put it, “They haven’t tossed my ass to the curb yet.”
So far Beck had beaten the odds. To become a grand master was a rarity in itself; he’d killed a Fallen angel – no mean feat — and survived what might have been a one-way trip to Hell. Now he was learning how to balance good and evil in this world. It was a life-changing responsibility, but she knew he’d do fine. Still, a part of her was worried. How would she fit into his new life? Would things still be good between them like they had been before he’d left? Or would he find he no longer needed her?
Riley’s cell phone pinged and she welcomed the distraction. It was a text from her best friend Peter, who was majorly jealous she was headed to Scotland without him.
HAVE FUN! WATCH OUT FOR THOSE HAGGIS. THEY BITE.
Riley chuckled to herself. Ever since she’d told him she was going to Edinburgh, there’d been a steady stream of haggis jokes. He’d claimed all sorts of outlandish things about the Scottish food, including that it was actually a hairy beast that ran wild in the Highlands.
They traded texts for a time and then she sent a message to Beck knowing he wouldn’t reply — it was well after two in the morning over there.
Right before it came time to power down the phone she received a reply.
LOVE U, PRINCESS. SEE U SOON.
You are awake. Which meant he really was looking forward to seeing her.
LOVE YOU TOO.
On impulse, Riley kissed the phone, then noted her seatmate’s bemused expression.
“Really fond of your cell phone?” he asked in an American accent.
“No, really fond of my boyfriend,” she said. “He’s meeting me in Edinburgh.”
“Is he Scottish?” the man asked.
“No, he’s from Atlanta. He’s . . . studying there.”
“What is he studying?”
Which really wasn’t a lie except that all that history related to the endless war between Heaven and Hell.
The citizens of Atlanta certainly knew about demons — they’d had their fill of Hellspawn-related catastrophes earlier in the year and the body count that went with each of those encounters. They knew about Holy Water and how it was used and that there were different kinds of demon trappers, ranging from the apprentices to journeymen and onto the master trappers. However, most folks did not know about the grand masters of the International Demon Trappers Guild, and she didn’t feel at liberty to explain exactly what Beck was up to.
After powering down her phone, Riley kept her eyes closed during takeoff, her fingers gripping the seat tightly. Her ears popped repeatedly but once the plane was in the air, she heaved a sigh of relief.
After supper, Riley retrieved the book she’d bought in the terminal bookshop, hoping the hours would pass quickly. Fortunately, the novel sucked her right in, an inventive story about a young woman named Kate who wielded magic and kicked some major monster butt in a totally screwed-up 2040’s Atlanta. To Riley’s amusement, the hero, a shape shifter lion dude, sounded like a total hunk.
Just like Beck.
Riley woke up in time for breakfast, her neck stiff. Apparently she’d been more tired than she’d imagined, but that wasn’t surprising as the last six months had been hectic: her early graduation from high school, the steady stream of new apprentices to train, study time for the single college class she attended, plus taking care of Beck’s house and bunny since he’d left for Scotland. Being busy was good — if she had more time to think she would have missed him so much more.
During the few lull times Stewart had her studying for the Master Demon Trapper’s exam. She was already a journeyman and master was the next step. He’d warned her it was unlikely that the National Demon Trappers Guild would let her take the exam in the next year or so, but eventually their skittishness about Paul Blackthorne and his daughter would fade. Skittishness that was righteous in many ways.
She’d already killed an Archfiend, one of the requirements to take the next step to master level. The rest should be just paperwork, but she and Stewart knew it wouldn’t be that easy. In many ways, Riley had followed in her father’s footsteps since he’d sold his soul to Hell to keep her safe. After she’d taken a Fallen angel as her first lover, she’d given up her soul to prevent Atlanta from being destroyed.
Then there were her meetings with Lucifer and the Vatican’s Demon Hunters. Even though she had regained her soul from Hell – just like her dad — all of that drama meant the trapper dudes at the national level regarded Blackthornes with frank suspicion, if not disgust.
In all honesty, Riley couldn’t blame them. She just had too much baggage, and a lot of it wasn’t road worthy.
It doesn’t matter how long it takes, I’ll be a master someday.
It was the only way she could repay her dad’s sacrifice.
Immigration and customs in Edinburgh went quickly and, after a trip to the restroom to tidy up so she could look her best for Beck, Riley found her way to the International Arrivals Hall. The instant she turned on her phone it pinged, which meant the international dialing plan Stewart had arranged was working just fine.
Unfortunately, the message was from Beck and it was bad news, an unwelcome change of plans.
WAS SICK THIS AM. BETTER NOW. DAVID BRENNAN PICKING U UP.
The text was an hour old, but that didn’t blunt Riley’s muttered swear word.
What is it with the guys getting sick? Beck only got ill if a demon scratched him up.
A second message quickly followed the first.
SEE U @ 9 @ HOTEL. LOVE U.
Maybe this was for the best; she could check in, get a quick shower and a nap. That way she’d be in good shape for when Beck arrived. Or least that’s the lie she told herself to cover her supreme disappointment. Sighing with deep regret, Riley walked further into the Arrivals area. After some searching around she spied a man holding a sign with her name on it. Beck hadn’t given her a description, but who else would know she was arriving this afternoon?
Brennan was in his early thirties, with a thin build and dark hair and eyes. From what Beck had told her, he was sort of an all-purpose gopher for the grand masters. Since it was more than a four and half hour roundtrip from the master’s headquarters to Edinburgh and back, Brennan had pretty much blown the day picking up Beck’s girlfriend.
Wonder what he thinks of that.
Something made her hesitate, then Riley shook off her nerves. Walking up to the man, she cleared her throat. “Hi. Are you David Brennan?”
He blinked, studying her. “Ah, yes I am.” His accent was upper crust English, which she hadn’t expected.
“Oh good. I’m Riley. Is Beck okay now? He said he’d been sick.”
“Ah…yes, he’s better. Some sort of food poisoning.” Brennan took hold of her suitcase and waved her forward. “Come along.”
Adjusting her backpack, she followed him. She’d expected a bit more friendliness, but maybe the guy was tired or something. It didn’t matter anyway — in a few hours Beck would meet her at the hotel and it’d all be good. Right now, nothing else mattered.
It was just before dusk when they exited the terminal. Riley took her first long inhalation of Scottish air and found it more crisp and clean than in Atlanta. Fall had definitely taken hold here, and in response she buttoned up her coat.
Brennan wove them through the parking lot, past various vehicles until he stopped at a red sedan where he popped the trunk lid and put her single piece of luggage inside. There was a large canvas bag in there as well, and a folded piece of steel-gray cloth. As he slammed the trunk lid, the driver’s side door opened and a woman stepped out wearing a thick blue sweater and a pair of jeans. Her pale blond hair was pulled back in a messy bun. She looked in her late thirties and her makeup certainly wasn’t concealing the dark circles under her eyes.
Beck hadn’t mentioned Brennan would have anyone with him.
“Hi. I’m Riley,” she said.
“Bess,” the woman replied.
Riley didn’t reply, caution ruling her curiosity. There was no guarantee this person knew a thing about the grand masters or Beck.
Brennan stepped in. “Bess is… a friend of mine. After we leave you at the hotel, we’re going for dinner.”
Which meant Riley wasn’t quite as much a burden as she’d thought.
“Oh, that sounds good. Glad to meet you, Bess.”
When Brennan insisted Riley take the passenger seat, she buckled herself in. “This is my first time in Scotland,” she announced, still astounded she was now in a different country.
“I’m sure it will be an interesting visit,” Bess replied, as she slipped back into the driver’s seat. At Riley’s puzzled look, she explained, “I live in Edinburgh. I know my way around better.”
That made sense.
Brennan climbed in the back and checked his mobile phone, his brows furrowed in concentration as he typed out a text message.
Riley turned her attention to the scenery as it went from airport to countryside. Though it was growing darker, in the headlights she caught a road sign that said A8. All the while her mind screamed that they were driving on the wrong side of the road and likely to die at any moment. As they looped through a roundabout, she finally relaxed.
She thought of asking her babysitters a few questions, but they didn’t appear to be in the mood to chat. That was okay, in a few short hours she could put all those questions to Beck.
He had the itinerary all drawn up; after a few days of sightseeing in Edinburgh, he was taking her to the Highlands and the manor house where the grand masters had their headquarters. Apparently, it was quite the place, since Beck wasn’t easily impressed.
Her cell phone pinged and she pulled it out of her coat pocket. It was Beck and that generated an instant smile.
BRENNAN RUNNING LATE. BE THERE IN 30 MIN. STAY PUT.
She shook her head because this text had to be old.
NO SWEAT. IN THE CAR & HEADED TO THE HOTEL.
“Who is that?” Brennan asked from the back seat.
His rude question jarred her. “Huh? Just Beck telling me you were going to be late.”
Her phone rang and she wasn’t surprised to see it was her guy, probably just wanting to hear her voice. “That’s him now.”
Brennan swore. “Too soon.”
“What?” Riley asked as she went to answer the call.
A second later she was pulled back against the headrest, Brennan’s muscular arm encircling her throat. As Riley clawed to free herself, her phone went flying. The sting of magic pricked her skin as he began to chant a spell.
Unable to cry out, the magic tunneled her vision, and then the world went dark.
(c) 2013 Jana Oliver
All Rights Reserved