Telling a girl she has to stay in the car and study while her brother and his bestie hunt down a swindling frog demon is like expecting a four-year-old to eat her broccoli while you eat a giant slice of chocolate cake.
Don't be surprised when she lunges across the table and snatches it from your lips.
Just as Damian shouldn't have been when I flew out the car at first sight of the demon ribbiting out the back door of the bustling demon-run casino.
Being lookout was only one part of the job my brother had given me. The other was to stay in the car and finish my essay. Oh, and under no circumstance leave said car and chase after the deadly demon.
I took the time to thumb send the prewritten text letting my brother know Mr. Demon Frog was making his getaway.
The biting winds of February cut my cheeks and brought tears to my eyes, blurring my vision. I only had an insulated parka for protection. I needed to remember to put on a hat, mittens, and scarf next time I wanted to chase a bad guy in the middle of a Minnesotan winter.
The stench of swamp and mold hit my nose. It was times like these I hated my enhanced sense of smell. I gagged. Even if I were a blind and deaf, I'd be able to follow this guy just from the stench.
My sneakers slipped on the black ice patches coating the parking lot. I thanked my demons reflexes I remained on my feet and didn't land on my ass.
They should have put down more salt. Wouldn't want a pesky lawsuit or something. Demons were notoriously spiteful.
Details about the mark became clearer as I got closer. He wore a tattered jacket that looked like it belonged on a homeless guy and baggy pants to hide his huge frog-like legs. His arms hung down to his knees, and his feet were so wide it looked like he wore clown shoes.
He glanced over his shoulder, beady black eyes bugging out at how much I'd gained in just a few seconds. His breath misted before him in gentle white puffs.
With a quick running crouch, his powerful legs launched him high into the air. He landed farther with each leap as his feet hit snow, hopping straight for the tree-line in the distance.
Probably hoped he’d lose me in the dense thicket. It was hard to see through even with the leaves gone.
I smiled. If it wasn’t for the fact I could smell him from 30 feet away, might have.
I pushed my legs to go faster, calves burning and arms pumping. A five-mile run every morning did wonders for my long-term stamina but did nothing to give me the burst of speed I needed to catch the fat frog.
You had to do sprints for that. I hated sprints.
He broke the tree-line, and the impenetrable darkness swallowed him. My job had just got a hell of a lot more dangerous.
He could only be going to the portal leading to the demon domain, Sheol. If he made it there before I stopped him, he'd be gone. I wasn't dumb enough to follow into hell.
I liked living.
My pace slowed as I followed him into the foreboding forest.
Snow crunched under my boots as I stalked into the woods following his rather pungent scent. The cool air filled my lungs, exhilarating even though it hurt to breathe. The snow was packed tighter here, with a narrow path the demons used to get from the waypoint to the casino.
There were too many tracks to know which belonged to the mad frog. But where each step sank deeper into the snow, his scent was more pronounced from the other demons, and the stride was farther apart like someone had leaped with powerful fervor.
My eyes adjusted to the lack of light. I didn’t have enhanced sight, so I depended on the minimal shafts of moonlight penetrating the canopy.
I couldn’t see very far in front of me, but I didn’t need to in order to follow his footsteps.
The trail of his hops swerved into the thicker woods where the snow was fresh and untouched except for his imprints.
Stupid, stupid frog.
I clamored through the snow into a ten-by-ten clearing and stopped. Moonlight illuminated the empty clearing. There were no more footprints to follow. I took a second to put the pieces together.
Stupid, stupid Lex.
I smelled him before he smashed into my back from above, knocking me flat on my face. He bounced off with another lurch of his power thighs, landing in front of me and crouched down.
"Xyls fylu svwib?" he croaked, speech slurring.
I was pretty sure most of that was gibberish.
I spat globs of snow from my bleeding mouth and pulled myself to standing. "Sorry, I don't speak frog."
I must have offended him because he roared and charged toward me. Have you ever heard a frog roar? It's unsettling.
This time I was ready for him. I stepped to the side once he got close and planted my boot on his back with a precise side-kick.
It was his turn to eat snow.
He wasn't down for long though. He pushed himself up with wart-covered hands. Not toad like warts, but rather humanish, the kind indicating you had skin cancer.
My advantage was quickly diminishing, I squashed the back of his neck with a devastating stomp, hoping to break it and paralyze the asshole.
No such luck. Demons are tough sons of bitches.
I tried to strike again, but he twisted and caught my ankle. He gripped it and flung me headfirst into a tree.
I flew and landed awkwardly on my shoulder. Thank the gods his aim was shit, or he would’ve cracked my skull. Pain raced down my arm. It wasn't broken, thank the gods. I was hardier than a human but not as strong as Kermit.
It was time to take the kid gloves off.
I launched myself back onto my feet before he squished me like a bug.
He smiled wide, black pus oozing from his lips.
I needed to be careful. This guy had more poison running through his veins than a junkie.
He roared as he charged like a rhino-amphibian hybrid. It would have been comical if I wasn't in imminent danger of being crushed.
I dodged to the right. He missed and took several steps before stopping to course-correct. I danced away from his next charge.
He was fast, but I had conditioned my body to react, requiring no thinking to play the defense.
And defense was my only option. I had no weapons on me unless you counted the fancy pen in my pocket. Who needed weapons when ordered to stay in the car?
My job wasn't to win, though, just to survive long enough for my brother and his partner to find us. While I didn't know the details of the case—Damian never deigned to inform me—he had been adamant they needed the asshole alive.
Otherwise, no payday. And we really needed a payday. It was a bad financial move to put another month of groceries on a credit card we could barely afford to pay the minimum.
But a girl and her brother needed to eat. If I kept the demon distracted long enough, and away from the damn portal, maybe Damian would take us out for a nice steak dinner.
And ice cream.
Kermit kept charging me, coming from different angles. Thankfully, the snow wasn’t deep and didn’t hinder my movements. I continued to spin out of the way, changing the directions to keep from getting bored.
It wasn't taxing. I could keep doing it all night if I had to. Clearly, he wasn't someone who learned from his mistakes.
He halted, snarling at me like he was rabid.
Guess I'd spoken too soon.
I dropped into a front stance, ready to unleash some powerful kicks. Playing defense was boring anyhow.
We stared at each other for what felt like hours. Thinking I could provoke him back into his reckless charge, I taunted him.
"What would your friends think seeing you get your ass kicked by a half-breed?" I asked with a sardonic grin.
Faster than I could take a second breath, his slimy tongue shot from his mouth and extended the ten feet between us. It wrapped around my throat.
Cool saliva rolled down my neck, seeping down by parka and settling between my breasts. I would have gagged had I not had a noose around my neck.
His tongue flexed, tightening around my throat and cutting off my air supply. I had to admit; it was impressive. I had not seen that coming.
I clawed at the meaty tongue. My fingers stuck to the damn thing. My heartbeat pounded in my ears like a racehorse, and my eyes burned as black spots floated in and out of my vision.
This felt like the end. I would be choked to death by a tongue.
I hoped they wouldn't put that on my tombstone.
Where the hell was my brother? Was his phone on silent or something?
The demon jerked his head, and I was airborne. As I flew, he withdrew his tongue. I crashed onto my side, the same one as before. The bone in my arm crackled like a firecracker. Agony raced through my body. My pain receptors fired the message dumbass to my brain. My shrill blood-curdling scream pierced the dead air.
Damian had probably heard that all the way back at the casino.
At least I hoped he had.
I struggled to regain footing, but my legs refused to cooperate. My arm wasn't the only thing I'd injured in my botched landing.
Kermit stalked over. His lips curled back to reveal dandelion-colored razor-sharp teeth. The better to eat me with. If I didn't already want to throw up from the pain, the smell would have done it.
I scurried backward, a failed one-armed and leg crab walk. He stood over me and straddled my body. I propelled my leg upward between his legs with all my strength.
His hand caught it before I crushed his balls. He raised me by the ankle high enough that the tips of my long red hair barely brushed the ground. His punch to my stomach made my broken arm feel like a mosquito bite.
Another punch. Blood poured from my mouth, and I didn't know if it was from his blows or the fall I had taken.
He dropped me. I thanked whatever divine power kept me from breaking my neck in the fall. The world spun around me. I curled into a fetal ball of pain and misery as tears clouded my eyes.
Next time I was staying in the damn car.
Thunder rocked me to the core, and I glanced up.
My brother's partner, Wes, fired another shot from his gun at the demon.
Kermit the Demented Frog stumbled back a step but didn't go down. Two holes in his chest gushed black liquid, pulsing in time with his heartbeat.
My hero had come to rescue me. It was a tad embarrassing that I’d needed it. He wasn't the type to let me forget about it, either.
No one liked being a damsel in distress.
Before Wes got off another shot, the demon turned his focus to the bigger threat and charged. Wes didn't move fast enough to avoid the three-hundred-pound demon's tackle.
His pained grunt burned my ears. I tried and failed to get back on my feet, back to the fight.
I crawled toward the two males. Now was my chance to save my prince. No surge of heroism or renewed strength fueled my body. Instead, bile rose in my throat, mixing with the metallic blood in my mouth.
A sickening crunch filled the air as the demon's fist pummeled Wes' delicate face.
If I didn't do something, and soon, the demon would cave in Wes' face.
And it'd be all my fault.
Wes struggled to fight back and push off the massive amphibian. It was not very effective.
His gun laid within reach, but I ignored it. Wes' earlier love bites hadn't phased the demon, and I doubt I’d have any better luck.
The pair were within reach. The demon extended his tongue and lapped at the pooling blood on Wes' cheek.
It spurred Wes to fight harder, and he reached his left hand up to gouge out an eye. The demon swatted it away.
I slowly rose to my feet. I could control my legs a little better despite how shaky they were. Kermit was so focused on Wes he didn't notice me.
I pulled out the fancy fountain pen I'd gotten from Wes for my birthday. He probably hadn't expected it to save his life.
"Hey, ass-butt," I said, trying to draw the demon's attention. "You forgot about me."
I drove the tip of the pen as hard as I could through the back of his neck before he turned around.
The writing instrument pierced through his throat. Foul, inky blood soaked my fingers.
He screeched and knocked his arm back. It connected with my chest and sent me flying for the third time in ten minutes.
I landed hard on my back, but this time nothing broke, just bruised.
The good news was I had diverted attention from Wes.
I don't have to tell you the bad news.
He was on me in seconds, launching himself up with his powerful hind legs. It felt like his boots caved in my chest as he landed, driving the air from my lungs.
He jumped again, this time straight up, and landed on my chest a second time. Ribs cracked.
He stopped his gleeful hopping and straddled my waist. He wrapped his hand in my hair and pulled my head back. His tongue—I was getting real sick of it—left a slime trail on my throat.
He leaned down like a conspiratorial lover and whispered, "Bet you'll fetch a pretty penny."
His scratchy voice sent a wave of revulsion through my stomach. Plus, his breath stunk.
He was playing with me. He’d have killed me already if he wanted to.
No, he was one of those assholes who played with his food until he grew bored. Then he snuck the unappealing food to the family dog.
In this case, the dog was the slave traders in Sheol.
I preferred death.
"What? Not demon enough to finish the job yourself?" I spit in his face.
He tsked, not rising to my bait. "Credits trump thrill of the kill every time."
Not surprising. He was, after all, a swindler.
In the blink of an eye, his head disappeared. One second, asshat was leering at me, and the next, headless.
The pressure lifted from my chest as his body tumbled off.
I looked and met the stormy blue eyes of my half-brother.
He turned and walked away. I tried to prop myself up to see where he went, but the pain was too much. Giving up, I stared at the stars until he came back.
I hadn't realized how cold I was before. My pulse slowed in my ears, and the nights cold burrowed deep.
He returned. He looked grim, his face creased in worry.
"Wes?" I asked through chattering teeth, fearing the worst.
My body protested as he scooped me into his arms and walked back to the car.
"He'll live. Will have to use his other assets to charm the ladies for a little while though."
He had that "not angry, just disappointed" sound in his voice.
I breathed a sigh of relief. Alive and ugly was preferable to dead and sexy.
I swiveled my head around, looking for the man I owed my life. He laid on his side in a crumpled heap, surrounded by red snow, not moving or even looking alive.
Had Damian lied?
"We can't leave him," I said.
Damian ignored my plea. "I'm very disappointed in you."
"Put me down. I can walk."
I wasn't sure I could, but Wes looked ten times worse.
"I'll come back for him."
Would there be anything to return to if we left him?
"Damian," I shouted, struggling to get out of his grasp. I screamed as agony played with my organs.
He stopped, looking down at me, anger and worry warring in his eyes.
"Where are you hurt?" His tone contained a dangerous ferociousness, like a mama bear with her cub.
He growled in response. "I can't lose you, Niblet."
He held me tighter against his chest. His heart pounded against my cheek. He'd let nothing hurt me.
Too bad I had a habit of getting myself hurt, anyway.
His heat flowed through me. I hadn't realized he'd covered me in his coat until we were halfway to the car.
The farther we got from Wes, the heavier the weight on my chest. "Stop. You can come back for me. Don't leave Wes."
He didn't stop walking. "He isn't my priority, Niblet."
"If he dies--"
"Then maybe you'll learn not to rush headlong into situations you can't handle. Besides, he wouldn't have let me take him first."
The cruel words stung, but he was right. I would learn but at too great a cost. And if I were honest with myself, it wouldn't stop me from bum rushing the next dangerous thing.
I remained silent as he continued the trek. As we came out of the forest, the world around me came to life, aglow with an unnatural light. Golden colored flames—my brother’s signature magic—licked the sky from the roof of the demon casino.
"Why is the casino on fire?"
A ghost of a smile appeared on his lips, but he said nothing.
Apparently, recklessness ran in the family.