Clutch Wars, Book 1
[ Urban Fantasy Romance, MM ]
Salutael is on the run. Like his demonic brethren, he possesses a strong gift, but his is the ability to counteract the diseases and poisons his fellow demons can inflict upon their draconic adversaries. Now Sal is fleeing for his life, and right into the arms of the enemy.
Bass pounded up from the floor and through Sal’s legs to finally settle in his balls. From his perch on the railing overhead, he watched the throng of bodies below, gyrating, rubbing, dancing — everything short of actually fucking on the dance floor.
He smirked and tipped back his drink. The alcohol burned its way down his throat, and though he couldn’t get drunk, the absinthe did manage to soothe him in ways nothing ever could. Despite being in plain view up here on the catwalk, he doubted anyone noticed him. Most of the patrons were too busy getting it on with their partners for the evening. Even the cute bartender — Daniel, if Sal remembered correctly — seemed to be content to flirt with a hybrid at the end of the bar.
Sal wondered how many of these people could tell that their bartender was going home with a vamp-wolf mix breed. Probably not many, but then again it was only one of Sal’s “talents.” His other was why he currently stayed out of sight. He hadn’t seen any others of his kind here, but that didn’t mean they wouldn’t find him.
He polished off his drink and started down the narrow metal steps. A few hands tried to grab him as he made his way through the crowd on the dance floor, but he sidestepped them. Getting involved — especially right now — would just be another notch on his list of bad ideas. He tossed his plastic cup into a garbage can and slipped out the front door.
Outside, the line waiting to get into the bar stretched down the cracked sidewalk and around another building. Sal headed in the other direction. The fewer people who remembered his face, the better. The fact that he’d yet to run into any of his kind made him uneasy. Demons were notorious for their ruthlessness, especially when it came to hunting their own. Sal knew he could only run for so long before they caught up with him.
The moment he found an empty alley, he stepped into the shadows. He had to get out of town, and soon. Normally his pursuers found him long before now. He was getting antsy.
Casting a quick glance around to ensure no one spotted him, Sal unfurled his leathery wings and vaulted into the air. He stayed low to the tops of the buildings and as far into the shadows of the surrounding forest as possible. He had no clue where he was going to go. This city was the last place of any significant population before the mountains swallowed up the land. Maybe he could find a cave somewhere. Maybe then he could actually sleep without fear of death.
He flew for what felt like hours before he spotted a tall mountain looming in the distance. A road wound up the side like a thin ribbon, but Sal didn’t see any other sign of life. He dropped down a few feet, then wove through the trees. The road continued upward in a zigzag pattern, so Sal took the other direction and scouted the mountainside. When he spotted a small cave entrance, he landed and waited behind the conjoined trunks of a tree. No animals and no demons. That was a start. He didn’t know who or what resided at the top of the mountain, but he figured if he kept out of sight, no one would ever detect his presence.
Moisture hung in the air, a welcome relief to the dry heat of home. Sal ventured into the mouth of the cave and looked around. It went farther back than he’d first expected. The front space widened out just inside the mouth, the cavern big enough to live in without risking exposure to the elements — or worse. Sal studied the brush near the opening and found a few large branches broken off from nearby trees. He stacked them to hide the entrance as best he could, then he turned to the yawning tunnel toward the back.
If he was lucky, the cave system didn’t lead into the tunnels his own kind took on a regular basis. Those tunnels spanned the entire continent of North America, and there were similar systems on various other continents.
He grabbed a small branch from the pile at the front and exhaled on it. Green flames licked along the tip of the wood, illuminating the rock walls surrounding Sal. At one time in his existence, he would’ve felt claustrophobic, but not anymore. Being out in the open made him nervous. It made him much more comfortable to have solid rock around him.
Sal shook off the trepidation and started making his way down the sloping tunnel. Bears, wolves, vampires or any number of such creatures he could handle. Demons — and dragons — were a different story entirely. Sal had never been one for staying on the front lines. He preferred a more covert form of battle. He also didn’t possess the abilities of disease and poison his brethren did. No, he’d been stuck with the ability to heal those very same afflictions. His fellow demons hadn’t liked the idea — which was why he now descended alone into the bowels of the earth.
* * *
“We have no idea how far these tunnels go.” Regan York glanced from the broken stone wall to his friend and commander, Loren Cole. “I’m not comfortable bricking this back up until we know.”
Loren stepped closer and peered into the darkness below. “Bryn said the same thing. I don’t like leaving it open, but I can’t argue with either of you.”
“What about Tia?”
Loren snorted. “It’s taking all manner of coercion on my and Bryn’s parts to keep her from exploring the caves.”
“Didn’t Bryn promise to let her explore if she took a guard?”
“Yes, but, Regan, we don’t know what’s down there past my uncle’s former hideout. One guard isn’t much protection — especially if that bastard summoned more than the one demon who tried to kill Tia.”
Regan couldn’t blame his friend for being so overprotective. Tia was their queen, and despite her insatiable need for adventure, she was also carrying the first young to be born since a traitor had destroyed the others. “What if I go with her?”
Loren glared at him. “And risk losing both of you? Are you out of your mind?”
“Just hear me out,” Regan said, lifting a hand to stave off any further protests. “We won’t go far beyond your uncle’s cavern. I’ll take my crossbow, and you know as well as I do that, even pregnant, Tia is a force to be reckoned with. Hell, I’d say more so now that she’s going to be a mother.”
Loren didn’t look particularly thrilled with the idea. “If you get even the slightest notion that something isn’t right –”
“We’ll come right back and get help,” Regan interrupted. “I promise.”
Sighing, Loren nodded. “All right. I’ll tell Tia to get ready.” He shook his head as he started for the door leading out of the dungeon. “She’s not going to believe I’m agreeing to this.”
Regan chuckled. He honestly couldn’t believe it either. Loren took the duty of being the clan’s captain of the guard very seriously — sometimes too seriously. Tia’s presence helped to loosen the man up, though. She also kept them all on their toes. Regan had never met anyone so antsy to explore.
He picked up his crossbow from where it leaned against the wall and double-checked his bolts. When the dungeon door opened, he grinned at Tia. “Ready?”
“Are you kidding?” She practically bounced, though he had the feeling she’d kick his ass if he said so. “Let’s go!”
Regan helped her through the opening and waited until she touched the bottom before handing her the crossbow. He jumped down after her, and Tia pulled a small flashlight out of her back pocket. When he raised an eyebrow, she just shrugged.
“No point in wasting energy lighting a torch unless we absolutely need it,” she said.
He let Tia lead the way, the flashlight illuminating the tunnel before them. They’d been down here once, when Loren’s insane uncle tried to kill Tia. Regan and his men had found another entrance on the mountainside and managed to reach the cavern just in time. The bastard was dead now, though, and Regan prayed the one demon Moraawn had summoned was the only one.
* * *
“So why do you use a crossbow anyway?” Tia asked after they’d been walking for several minutes.
“I grew up using one,” Regan said. “I love the way it feels in my hands, the strength behind it.”
Tia nodded. “I can understand that. Right before I left Marcus’ place, we had a new family member join us: a wolf-vamp hybrid. He used swords.”
“Hybrid? How did that go?” Regan asked her. He’d seen a few results of such matings, and the offspring rarely lived long. Most of them died at the hands of members of either parent species. Hybrids were despised.
Tia laughed. “Once Eric and Daniel dealt with the vampires who attacked Eric as a pup, we thought it was all over. One of our wolves disagreed. Vaughn finally came around, but it took a nasty fight to make him get over his prejudice.”
Regan recalled his own experiences and grimaced. Dragon clans weren’t much better overall.
“So what’s your story? Loren said you’re a prince.”
“I was. My father exiled me three hundred years ago.”
Tia blinked over at him. “Wow. Why?”
Regan sighed and stared straight ahead, shifting his crossbow on his shoulder. “I got involved with a member of a rival clan. We kept it quiet as long as possible, but someone found out and told our fathers. Mine exiled me.”
“What about your lover?” Tia asked, her soft voice quiet, almost sorrowful.
Regan swallowed as he thought about Liam for the first time in over three centuries. “His father murdered him.”
“Oh, my God. Regan, I’m…” Tia shook her head. “I’m so sorry.”
“Thank you. It’s in the past. I came to this mountain for safety and was perfectly content with solitude until Bryn came along.”
“Welcome to the family, eh?”
He laughed. “Exactly.”
They continued along the tunnel, following the slope of the ground, for what felt like an hour, though Regan doubted it had been that long. When the cave opened up into the place Moraawn had lived, Tia slowed.
“Yeah,” she muttered. “Just…” She rested a hand protectively over her growing belly. “Bad memories, you know?”
She blew out a breath. “I’m fine.”
Regan circled around the depression in the center, noticing how much of a wide berth Tia gave it. She’d nearly met her end thanks to Loren’s uncle and a poisoned spear in this room. Regan had been the one to kill Moraawn and the bastard’s demon. A dark spot of residual ash was the only evidence that a demon had been here. Bryn and Loren had burned Moraawn’s body later on.
Aside from the opening leading out to the cave Regan and his men had found, the only other tunnel led farther into the earth. Regan gestured for Tia to wait and he positioned his crossbow before approaching the tunnel. He didn’t hear or see anything, but demons also had the ability to mask their presence. Regan switched off the safety on his crossbow and stepped into darkness.
He stood still and listened. Nothing moved or made even the slightest sound. Just as he turned to tell Tia it was safe, however, a rustle startled him. Regan spun around, bolt tip pointed dead-center at a man’s throat.
“Who are you?” Regan demanded.
Though he was mostly shadowed, the man raised his arms slowly but didn’t move any more than that. “My name is Sal.”
Energy tingled up Regan’s spine, a signature all dragons knew from the moment they hatched. “You’re a fucking demon. What are you doing here?”
“Step out into the light,” Regan ordered him. “Slowly.”
Regan backed up, and the man stepped into the room. Regan nearly dropped his crossbow. Brilliant green eyes stared into his own blue ones from beneath a swatch of pitch-black hair. The man wore nothing but a tight T-shirt and equally tight jeans but dark green wings rested against his back. Black horns curled out from his hair and bare feet morphed into hooves. Regan had seen demons before, but none of them like Sal.
“Fuck, he’s hot.”
Regan bit his tongue for a second, then said, “Tia, run back and get a set of chains from the dungeon.”
“Oh! Right. Be right back.”
Regan didn’t dare take his eyes off of Sal, even if he wanted to. Which he didn’t. Out of all the demons in the world, why the hell did one this gorgeous have to wander into their territory?
Gesturing toward the floor, Regan steeled himself against thoughts he knew damn well not to entertain. “Kneel, hands behind your back.”
Much to Regan’s surprise, Sal did as instructed without so much as a single protest. Regan didn’t know if that was a good thing or not. Sal never looked away from him either, which didn’t help matters in the least. Demons came in all forms — no two were alike. For all Regan knew, Sal was a damn incubus.
“I’m not, you know.”
Regan narrowed his gaze. “You’re a mind reader.” Fucking lovely.
Sal smiled the slightest bit. The expression twisted Regan into knots. “No, but I know that look. It’s not the first time someone’s wondered if I’m an incubus.”
Careful not to let his relief show, Regan studied the demon kneeling before him. Sal was… God, the man — the demon — was utterly beautiful. The wings, the hooves, the horns. They all accented a body built for sin. Regan had the distinct feeling he’d be jerking off later. He needed to lock Sal in the dungeon — for both their sakes.
“You said you were hiding. Why?”
“My brethren,” Sal answered. “You know we have the ability to poison your kind.” Regan nodded. “I do not.”
“What do you mean? All demons can do it.”
Sal smirked. It shouldn’t have been hot as hell, but it was. Regan cursed his neglected libido. Again.
“I can’t. My fellow demons are hunting me for what I can do: heal those same afflictions,” Sal said. When Regan didn’t respond, the demon sighed. “They consider me a threat — a spy should I ever turn on them.”
“And have you?”
Sal met Regan’s gaze, those verdant eyes staring straight into Regan’s soul. “Not yet.”
Footsteps echoed in the cavernous room, snapping Regan out of the demon’s spell. Sal might not be an incubus, but the demon possessed an unnerving talent for mesmerizing anyone who dared to look into his eyes.
Tia hurried over, chains in hand. She stayed clear of Sal and set the chains on the ground. Then she kicked them over to the demon. “Gorgeous or no, you’re still a demon. I’m not touching you.”
Regan nodded at the chains. “Put them on and lock the manacles.”
Sal finally looked at something other than Regan. The demon picked up the chains and secured both wrists behind his back. Regan didn’t know what to make of the fact that the demon seemed to have no trouble doing so. Were demons really that ruthless that they regularly imprisoned their own?
Once restrained, Sal lifted his head again. “I am at your mercy.”
“How can I trust your word that you can’t poison me?”
“How can I trust you to not leave me here, trussed up nice and tight for one of the hunters to find me?”
Regan figured that made sense. Many demons had pores on their skin that excreted poison or any number of things that could disease a dragon. Despite Sal’s reassurance, Regan wasn’t about to take any chances. He went around, gripped the chain between the manacles and helped Sal stand up.
“Follow her,” Regan said, waving toward Tia. “Try anything, and you’ll get a bolt through your skull.”
Tia turned and started back out of the room. Sal fell into step behind her, and Regan followed their captive. Sal hadn’t bothered to hide his true form from them, and the ends of his wings brushed just below the round firmness of his denim-covered ass. He took each step carefully, as if he feared the sparks the hooves would make on the stone. Unlike many demons, though, he didn’t have a tail. Regan thought all demons had one.