My Demon Hunter by Aurora Ascher

Prologue

Two months ago…

The demon howled in terror as it was dragged by crumpled wings down the dark passage. Its claws scratched futilely at the cold floor, seeking purchase on the cracks between stones. Occasionally, it would succeed, finding something to grasp, but its strength was no match for the one who held it.

Mishetsumephtai gritted his teeth and tightened his claws around the leathery appendages as he stalked steadily onward. He felt no sympathy for his prey. This was what happened when the rules were broken. This was the consequence of insubordination. If the demon had wished to avoid this fate, then it shouldn’t have disobeyed.

A memory surfaced. He perched atop a wind-beaten tree, the briny ocean scent stinging his nose, and peered through a window into the house below. A demon entered the kitchen and wrapped his arms around a small human female—

With a jerk of his head, Mist shoved the image away and returned his focus to the shrieking traitor on his way to face punishment. This is what happens when the rules are broken, he repeated like a mantra. This is the consequence of insubordination.

The tall double doors swung open as he approached the throne room, indicating that his mistress was already aware of his arrival. Of course she was. Nothing went on in her lair without her knowledge.

Paimon, Queen of Hell, lounged upon her throne in all her dark glory, great wings draped over the sides, skeletal hands linked atop her leather-clad knee. Beside her, legs tucked neatly under his sand-colored body, her camel steed, Shaheen, surveyed the room with a glowing red gaze. The beast was her constant companion and often spat at or bit anyone who showed the slightest disrespect to his mistress.

Approaching her throne, Mist tossed his blubbering prey at her feet and then melted back against the stone wall to await orders. She showed no surprise at his successful return, not that he expected her to. He was the Hunter. He was always successful.

Except for one time. But he would never tell a soul about that.

“So you thought to escape me,” Paimon said to the demon at her feet. When her thin lips parted, four fangs were visible on her upper jaw, another four on the lower. Neither feminine nor masculine, Paimon’s features were striking, but she had never been famed for her looks. She was known instead for her viciousness and unswerving loyalty to Lucifer.

“N-never, Mistress, I was o-only—”

“Silence.”

Instant quiet fell upon the hall at the word uttered with the Queen of Hell’s great power.

“We had a deal.”

The trapped demon trembled beneath her stare. Her voice was so devoid of warmth, icicles formed on the cavernous roof and edges of the throne and pillars. The only light in the black stone castle came from the flickering candles of the chandelier high above, suspended by thick chains.

“You swore to serve me.”

Despite his diligent self-reminders of the futility of rule breaking, Mist couldn’t blame the wretch for trying to escape. ‘Serving’ Paimon was not something he would wish on his worst enemy. Even he, as her most esteemed and powerful servant, lived a pitiful existence in a dank cave when he was not out hunting.

Consequently, he lived to hunt. It consumed him. He salivated at the chance to leave his cave and stalk and corner his prey. It mattered not to him who they were or what they had done. He only wanted the opportunity to be untethered for a while, for the mad dog to be unleashed, tasting the only form of freedom he had ever known.

“And I m-meant it, of course, Mistress,” the demon whimpered. “I w-was only—”

Paimon talked over him as if he hadn’t spoken. “And yet you thought to run from me? You thought you could lie to me? Trick me?”

“N-never, Mistress—”

“Silence!”

This time, the silence that fell was accompanied by the soft whimpering of the damned, now prostrated at the Queen’s feet.

“I had such plans for you.” Paimon shook her head.

Her braided hair was adorned by a black jeweled crown that fit between her two sets of horns. The front set curved down, framing her face, the sharp points angled forward. The second jutted straight back from her head like lethal spikes.

“But now that you’ve betrayed me, you’re useless for anything except gorath meat.”

Mist winced inwardly. Unfortunately for the miscreant, being eaten by a gorath would not actually kill him. A demon could only be killed by a ritualistic beheading and total incineration of the remains via hellfire. If even one piece survived, he would regenerate. Slowly and painfully.

This traitor would be eaten by the monsters, only to regenerate inside their stomachs or in their feces, and, as soon as the beasts scented his regrown flesh, be consumed once more. It would be a never-ending cycle of agonizing death, for as long as it kept Paimon entertained. And he shuddered to think what she’d come up with when she got bored of that.

“Mistress, I b-beg of you—”

She flicked her clawed fingers in dismissal. “Throw him in the Pit, Mishetsu.”

Mist pushed off the wall and approached the groveling demon. He told himself he felt nothing as he grabbed the creature by his shredded wings once more and dragged him kicking and screaming out of the hall. He was numb, encased in a metaphorical ice that was his only way to remain sane.

And yet, deep within, a part of him that shouldn’t exist felt things no demon should feel. In order to survive, he worked hard to bury it where no one, not even he, could find it. The battle grew more difficult every day.

And he had already failed once.

Against his will, the memory resurfaced again. A radiant smile adorned the woman’s face, her hands busy chopping vegetables while the demon rested his chin atop her head and smiled with contentment. She leaned back and said something that Mist couldn’t hear over the roar of the ocean. Whatever it was caused the demon to throw back his head and laugh. He scooped up his tiny human and spun her around while she shrieked with delight.

It was the first time Mist had ever heard such a scream. A scream of happiness, not of pain or terror. What could such intense joy feel like? How was it possible to be so consumed by happiness as to want to shout from it?

His steps faltered, and he stumbled slightly on the uneven floor, drawing him back to the present. He shook his head to dislodge the memory and realized he had reached the end of the long, dark tunnel. The shadows flickered from the torches on the wall. Ahead of him was an iron gate.

Through those interlocking bars, the goraths waited.

Their eerie screeches and the squelching sounds they made when moving filled the air as they caught the scent of approaching meat. Crushing the demon’s wings in a vice-grip with one hand, Mist turned the crank on the wall to raise the barrier with the other.

Without pause, without allowing himself to feel anything, he hurled the demon inside, hearing his screams increase in volume as he caught sight of the monsters. More shrieking came from the goraths as their plethora of eyes latched onto their prey.

Mist lowered the gate and turned away, walking back to the throne room without waiting to hear more.

Paimon turned a satisfied smile on him as he entered. “Always so loyal, my Hunter.”

“Mistress.” He bowed to her as he had been trained to do. Deep within, that broken part of him filled with loathing, but he kept it buried. There was no space for regret in his life. Obedience meant everything.

“I have another job for you,” she said when he straightened. “An important one. Possibly the most important you have ever been sent on. Lucifer himself has ordered this mission.”

Mist gave no outward reaction, but he was immediately wary. Anything concerning Lucifer was something to be concerned about. To survive in Hell, it was best to stay far away from its High King.

“Four powerful demons have gone rogue.”

Again?he thought, immediately recalling Eligos once more. This time, he slammed the door on the memory before it could arise. Even thinking of his failure in front of Paimon was too great a risk.

“You are to track them down on Earth. Take whatever measures are necessary to subdue them. It is understood there might be collateral damage.”

“Should I destroy them if they refuse to cooperate?”

Paimon shook her head. “Lucifer wants them alive. If they are together and you risk being overpowered, return to me to report their location. Legions will be sent to secure them instead.”

Legions?Just who were these demons? He frowned slightly, the only outward display he allowed of his apprehension. He could not allow anyone to realize the turmoil that spiraled within.

He… felt things. And it terrified him.

“Who are they?” he asked in his flattest voice.

“Asmodeus, Raum, Mephistopheles, and…” Paimon’s lip curled off her fangs. “Belial.”