Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Book Spotlight~ Demon's Daughter

The Demon's Daughter by Paula Altenburg
Demon Outlaws series, Book One
Entangled Publishing
Paranormal, Demons

After demons leave the world in ruins, the Demon Slayer, Hunter, is the only man capable of protecting it. But when he’s hired to bring a thief to justice, Hunter gets more than he’d bargained for.
Raised in an abandoned temple as a priestess’s daughter, Airie is unaware that she is the half-breed spawn of a demon…and a goddess. In a time when half-breeds are despised by mortal and immortal alike, Airie’s ignorance of her true bloodlines is the only thing keeping her safe. Especially since spending her days wrestling the required sacrifices from visitors of the Goddesses’ mountain where she grew up doesn’t make her many allies.
But everything changes when Hunter tracks her down and discovers who she really is. With a demon attack forcing them to flee the mountain, Airie must place her trust in a man who believes she should never have been born. And with a demon uprising threatening the lives only he can save, Hunter must make a choice: abandon Airie to an uncertain fate, or slay his own personal demons and love her for who she truly is.
Teaser excerpt:
Year 352 PD
Inside Demon Territory
Hunter slapped the length of his toe-grazing leather duster, sending a shower of fine red silt into the air around him. It was a habit learned from his mother a long time ago in another life, and one he had never seen the need to break—removing the desert dirt before entering an establishment.
Even an establishment in a place like Freetown, where niceties weren’t the rule of the day.
Dusk was settling in, and the saloon would soon prepare to close. No honest man stayed out after dark. If they weren’t afraid of thieves, they were terrified of demons. Hunter wanted this meeting over with so he, too, could be on his way.
With his hat dangling by its straps between his shoulder blades, Hunter pushed open the swinging door. The dim interior of the saloon meant anyone framed in the doorway was backlit by the setting sun and virtually blinded. Sidestepping to the right, he brushed back his duster, keeping his hand close to the six-shooter at his hip. The short sword strapped to his back came in handy for those times when a gunshot might attract too much unwanted attention, but in a saloon, loud weapons made the better deterrents. And faster, cleaner kills.
A sword, however, worked best against demons if a man was willing to fight them up close. And Hunter wasn’t known as the Demon Slayer for nothing.
The smells of ale-soaked pine, smoked meats, and stale tobacco thickened the air. He remained with his back to the raw wooden wall while his eyes adjusted to the change in the light. When they did, he nodded to Blade, the tall, stone-faced man behind the bar.
Blade, polishing the glass in his hand with a pristine white cloth, acknowledged Hunter with the slightest drop of his chin. Hunter let his gaze drift around the near-empty room, searching for the one he’d been summoned to meet.
A man with a long, ugly red scar down the side of an even uglier face slouched on a stool at the bar. Hunter noted and dismissed him. The women who worked in the saloon had already retired to the second floor. A few stragglers sat at well-spaced tables, showing signs of imminent departure. Once the front door was locked, it was locked for the night. Blade did not encourage overnight business, and anyone who wanted it paid a significant price.
A lone woman sat in the single booth in one shadowed corner of the room. Twisted and misshapen, dressed in a man’s greatcoat and coarse woolen trousers, she hunched in her seat, unbothered by the other patrons. It wasn’t her appearance that kept her from harassment. Being a priestess protected her far better than simple ugliness ever could, for priestesses served as the only law this side of the Godseekers’ mountains. They were all that stood between the people and the demons, and in their own way, they were far more ruthless than the basest of cutthroats.
This one was the worst of the lot, and the client Hunter had come here to meet. Mamna was her name, and he didn’t like her. He didn’t like that she had made a deal with the Demon Lord, one that put her in her current position of power. He didn’t like that laws were being written by a woman who had no use for other women.
And he did not like being summoned.
The nails in his boot heels echoed on the whitewashed floor as he walked to the priestess’s table. He didn’t miss the sneer of disgust twisting Scarface’s lips as Hunter passed him. Men knew better than to show open contempt for the priestess, but anyone who dealt with her was another matter.
Hunter committed Scarface to memory. It was good to have an idea of who might try to plant a knife in his back. Or die trying.
He slid onto the bench across the battered table from the priestess. The amulet around his neck grew warm, but Hunter ignored it. It indicated the priestess had been in recent contact with a demon, a fact that did not surprise him as much as it left him with a bad taste in his mouth.
Hunter knew why Mamna wanted to meet with him in a public place. She wanted everyone in Freetown to know that she was conducting business with the Demon Slayer, and that there were certain laws in the land even the Slayer could be made to respect.
That was why Hunter had kept this meeting to a time when as few people as possible were likely to see them. He respected the law, such as it was. But he hated demons and all who associated with them, and Mamna knew it.
With watery, pale-blue eyes lodged in an aging face withered and burned from a hard life in a harsh desert, the priestess examined Scarface at the bar before acknowledging Hunter.
“If he takes offense at your speaking with a priestess, try not to kill him,” she said. “But go ahead and hurt him a little.”
Hunter allowed his own eyes to turn to ice. “I never kill unless I have to.” It was a less-than-subtle reminder that, while Hunter might be persuaded to take a contract from the priestess, he would do so on his own terms. He rested one palm on the table, keeping his other hand out of her line of vision. “Why have you summoned me here?”
Scarface continued to watch him, but Blade, Hunter knew, would be watching Scarface on his behalf.
It paid to have good friends.
“There is a thief at large on the goddesses’ mountain,” Mamna said.
Hunter shrugged. “There are thieves everywhere. It was bound to happen sooner or later. Besides, the goddesses are long gone and their temple is abandoned. What difference will one thief make to anyone?”
Another subtle jab on Hunter’s part. The priestesses—Mamna in particular—didn’t like to be reminded of the goddesses’ departure. It represented betrayal.
“The mountain is forbidden,” Mamna said. She rubbed a gnarled hand over her shaven head.
“Then this thief does your work for you. If he’s successful at his chosen profession, people will learn to leave the mountain alone, and he will have to move on.”
“The thief is a woman.”
Hunter laughed out loud. “More power to her.” At the bar, Scarface tightened his grip on his drink and Hunter lowered his voice. “If she thieves on the mountain, she is more than likely one of your own.”
“She is not a priestess.”
Mamna sounded definite about that, and Hunter had to admit he was growing intrigued. A woman on the mountain who stole from trespassers? What kind of woman would she be?
A hideous one, no doubt. Probably bitter as the priestesses about it, too. Women judged themselves far harder than men, although from what he’d seen, beauty didn’t get them much in this world.
Mamna pulled a small pouch from a pocket in her greatcoat and slid it to Hunter. He lifted the pouch. It was heavier than it looked, meaning it contained mostly, if not all, gold coins.
Which also meant he was being overpaid.
“There’s more to this story,” Hunter said flatly.
Mamna had the nerve to feign righteousness. “She is ambushing innocents, most likely supplicants to the temple. All you have to do is capture her and bring her here to face justice.”
That did not explain the coins. Hunter disliked that Mamna might think his reluctance to accept this task sprang from not wanting to bring a woman to so-called justice. It would give her a weakness to use against him in future negotiations. He tossed the pouch in the palm of his hand. The coins clinked dully.
Gold. Definitely gold.
“This is a great deal of money for bringing in one woman.” Hunter waited for an answer he believed, or at least one he was willing to accept.
At the bar Blade made a production of putting glasses away. “Closing time,” he said to Scarface.
Scarface grunted. “There are two others still here.”
“Those two have no need to fear demons.” The shutters on the windows rattled to emphasize Blade’s point. Everyone knew that when the wind blew from the west, demons rode with it, calling a challenge to mortals very few could resist. “I require a great deal of cash up front if you want to spend the entire night here. A great deal. So my next question is, how much do you need to fear them?”
Scarface tossed a few coins on the bar, hitched up the back of his dust-crusted trousers, and left through the swinging doors.
Mamna cleared her throat, drawing Hunter’s attention back to her. For the first time, she appeared uneasy. “This is no ordinary woman.”
Hunter regarded her for a long moment. “Rule number one—no surprises.”
“There will not be any,” she reassured him, which didn’t reassure him at all.
He dropped the pouch on the table. It landed with a heavy thud. He pushed it toward the priestess with his fingertips. “Rule number two—don’t lie to me.”
Mamna ignored the pouch. She met his eyes. “It is claimed she has demon blood. If that’s true, she must be turned over to the Demon Lord, as per my agreement with him.”
Only a great deal of discipline kept Hunter from allowing the revulsion that shivered up his spine to show on his face. Men hated demons, and demons hated men, but spawn, who carried the blood of both, were hated by all. They belonged to no world. Even Hunter had no problem with the Demon Lord claiming one because a demon would not allow it to live either.
But the claim that the thief was spawn had to be true, and Hunter did not believe it was.
“Impossible,” he said. “She’s a woman.”
Mamna’s wrinkled face smoothed as her eyebrows lifted. “Is it impossible?” she asked. “Can you know this for certain?”
All Hunter knew for certain was that Mamna hated women more than anyone hated spawn, and for whatever reason, she wanted this woman dead. He did not believe her, and he should not take this job.
But if he didn’t, someone else would. And to think of an innocent woman being handed over to demons was more than his stomach could handle.
Was Mamna testing him somehow? Could he afford for her to suspect a weakness about him that she would, in all likelihood, use against him in the future?
He scanned his memory for anything he might have given away in the past. He had left behind everything he’d ever valued years ago so that he would have no such weaknesses to betray. Only Blade could be considered a true friend, and Hunter had no concerns for him or his safety.
He also had no concerns over Blade’s loyalty. Hunter had found him in the desert some years ago, fighting a losing battle with a demon driven wild by the taste of his blood. Hunter had killed the demon and saved Blade’s life, although not before the demon had bitten a large chunk of flesh from Blade’s right leg. While no longer as agile as he’d once been, Blade was still quite capable of taking care of himself, and a close ally.
No, Mamna had no hold on Hunter. He intended to keep it that way.
He reclaimed the money pouch and slipped it into an inside pocket. He rose to his feet, wanting this meeting to be over and done with so he could think.
“How much time do I have?” he asked her.
“As long as necessary.” She shrugged. “No longer.”
Which meant not much time beyond what she thought it would take him to travel, two or three weeks at most, but Hunter wasn’t concerned about that. He’d take whatever time he deemed necessary, then a little more. It never paid to seem too cooperative.
Mamna hopped from her seat without a word of good-bye and shuffled from the saloon, the hem of her ill-fitting greatcoat dragging on the floor.
Blade closed the heavier exterior doors behind her. He then dropped an iron bar into place, barricading them in.
“Thirsty?” he asked Hunter.
The wind picked up, and Hunter hoped the townspeople had gotten themselves locked up in time. On nights like this demons sought pleasure in their demon forms, and pleasure, to them, meant killing men and violating women.
While Blade slung a kettle on a hook inside the large fireplace to heat water, Hunter went around the room and latched all the shutters in place.
“Do the women have their windows closed?” he asked Blade. Three whores called the saloon home. They worked when they wanted, and with whom they pleased. Blade offered them protection and a roof, and in return, they helped with the cooking and cleaning.
“Of course.”
The kettle hissed and soon began to steam.
“One of these days,” Blade said, “that ugly little priestess will pay someone to plant a knife in your back.”
Hunter grabbed a broom from behind the bar to sweep the floor. “Dying of old age is overrated.”
“Perhaps. But you seem to have forgotten that living to an old age is not.” Blade dropped a metal ball filled with fragrant loose tea into the hot water, then lifted the kettle from the fire with a long hook. He carried it to the bar. “What did the evil little troll want from you?”
Hunter told him, and he frowned.
“She’s made it no secret that she no longer serves the goddesses. She has no reason to do demon work either. Neither do you. She’s lying to you for some purpose of her own. You know how she feels about women. You shouldn’t take her work.”
Hunter had learned long ago to trust Blade’s instincts. He’d also learned to work around them. He leaned on the broom and faced his friend. “If I don’t take it someone else will, and they might not care whether or not this woman truly is spawn. What would you have me do—abandon those who are still innocent in this goddessforsaken world?”
Blade produced two sturdy mugs and set them on the bar. “I wouldn’t have you abandon anyone. But how do you determine who is worth saving and who is not? That kind of choice does something to your soul.” Blade took a cloth and wiped the varnished surface. “Sometimes I wonder if you’ve also forgotten what true justice really is.”
Hunter often wondered the same thing himself. He had grown hard over the years, to the point where he did not always recognize the man who looked back at him from the shaving mirror.
Speaking of shaving…
He scratched at the scruff on his jaw.
“People are asking questions about you,” Blade continued, interrupting Hunter’s thoughts.
“That’s nothing new.” He was the Demon Slayer. That inspired questions. There was always someone trying to take his place.
Some days, he’d gladly let them.
“These questions are new. They have to do with your family.”
Hunter went still. He tried to think if he had ever let anything slip, and could not come up with a single instance. He had never visited his sisters, nor spoken of them. Not in all the years since he had fled from the Borderlands. Not even to Blade.
He tried to dismiss his unease. “Forget about it. Everyone comes from somewhere. People wonder if I have anyone I might want to protect. If I have a weakness. They won’t find any.”
When he finished sweeping the saloon floor, he took a seat near his friend at the bar.
Blade passed him a steaming mug of fragrant tea brewed from desert lavender. Hunter blew on it, watching the ripples crease its mud-brown surface, then took a slow sip to savor the taste. Neither he nor Blade touched alcohol. In their businesses, men who drank did not live long.
“I have something for you,” Hunter said.
He reached in his pocket and withdrew a thick chunk of plastic, an artifact that predated the demons to a time when the world was filled with large cities and millions of people. While the wind had buried most of the ruins, it often turned up little things such as this, and these items were worth money to the right traders. Whenever Hunter found any in the desert, he brought them to Blade, who in turn sold the artifacts and split the profits among Hunter, himself, and the women.
Blade took the artifact from him, rolled it around in his long fingers, then dropped it into a box hidden behind the counter. He continued to stand, taking a sip from his own mug of tea, his dark eyes brooding as he returned to the original topic of conversation. “I’ll try and get to the bottom of whoever’s asking questions about you.”
Hunter felt himself relax. If there were anything for him to worry about, Blade would find out.
“Anything new since the last time I was in town?” he asked, wanting to change the subject.
“A few murders. Some changes in wealth. More migrants from the border regions, seeking their fortunes on this side of the mountains. Overall, no.”
Weariness crept over Hunter. Not much ever changed in Freetown in that respect. The rich got richer, and the poor served the rich. Migrants came to Freetown seeking quick fortunes and often found servitude instead, assuming they survived the trek across the desert. One would have thought the priestesses, who’d once served the goddesses, would have a greater sense of philanthropy, or even basic kindness. Yet any gold they parted with came at a rate of exchange even desperate people should shudder to pay.
The coins weighed heavily in his pocket and on his conscience. That Mamna could so easily turn any woman over to the demons bothered him. How awful would this thief have to be in order for Hunter to look the other way?
She would have to be spawn. In which case, let the demons take care of a problem they had created.
He finished his tea. “I should go.”
Blade cocked his head, listening to the howling wind. Driven sand rang like raindrops against the exterior walls and shutters.
“It’s going to be a rough night,” he said. “You’re welcome to stay.” He frowned, and Hunter knew he was still thinking of those questions about his past, and who might be behind them. “In fact, I recommend you do. The women won’t mind. You might even be able to talk them into letting you use their bath.”
“They would waste water on me?” Hunter’s amazement was only partly feigned. Even in Freetown, built on an oasis, water usage was tightly controlled. By Mamna.
Blade’s eyebrow shot up. “It has a lot to do with your smell. They prefer their men clean.”
Hunter spent most of his days in the desert alone so he was used to his own smell, but a bath would be welcome. It was hard to turn one down. But he was more uneasy about those questions regarding his past than he cared to admit, and while Blade could look out for himself, Hunter didn’t like the idea of bringing any danger to the women. He was already too fond of them.
That last thought alone was enough to make him refuse to stay. “Thanks, but I’d better go.”
Blade unbarred the door and Hunter slipped like a shadow into the dark and deserted street beyond.
Mamna and her priestesses founded Freetown not far from the ruins of a buried city rumored to have contained close to two million inhabitants in the time before demons. The ruins stretched across several miles of desert, and although they undoubtedly contained many treasures, no one entered them to find out—the shifting sands had left them unstable and riddled with deadly sinkholes.
But that was when demons numbered in the tens of thousands. Whoever the inhabitants of that lost city were, they had done their part against the invaders before falling.
Sand stung Hunter’s cheeks, and he pulled a heavy cotton kerchief over his mouth and nose. He settled his hat back on his head, tugging the wide brim low to shield his eyes.
Even in the dark of a storm, the streets of Freetown weren’t difficult for Hunter to navigate. He knew them well. A market served as the town center. Radiating from there, like the spokes of a wagon’s wheel, spread the other main areas—the wealthy, the not-so-wealthy, the poor, and the various trade shops that serviced them all. Blade’s saloon sat at the outer tip of one spoke, near the high wall surrounding the city. The wall was not meant to keep demons out. That was impossible. Rather, it allowed Mamna to be selective in the people who came and went.
Most people. Not Hunter. He had set up a shelter of sorts in a natural, rock-faced corral not too far out in the desert. He came and went as he pleased.
He headed for a hidden tunnel that burrowed beneath the outer city wall, more distracted than was probably wise, but the storm should have kept even the bravest of lowlifes indoors. He felt safe in letting his thoughts wander.
His mind kept going back to those questions Blade had spoken of. Hunter had not thought of his sisters in a long time. It was pointless to do so. When he’d left he had gotten as far away from them as he could, covering his tracks, and he’d never looked back. Only they knew why he had killed that first demon. No one else cared as long as he continued to kill them. Few men were brave enough to try. Fewer still survived a first attempt.
He caught a slight movement from the corner of his eye, an unnatural shift of shadow off to his left. Someone was following him.
He stopped, not bothering to pretend he wasn’t aware. He unholstered his six-shooter, wondering if his stalker was alone, then pressed himself against the false front of a nearby shanty in an attempt to keep the wind-whipped sand from blinding him completely. He disliked using a gun, but tonight, the storm would drown out any sounds of a gunfight.
The attack, although expected, nevertheless took him by surprise, more because of its professionalism and choice of weapon than its ferocity. He sucked in his stomach as the knife in his assailant’s hand slashed a six-inch gap in his shirt. He brought his gun up and fired, and was rewarded with the hiss of an indrawn breath. He drew his short sword from the sheath on his back with his left hand. He did not want to kill his assailant just yet. Dead men didn’t talk.
Lightning-quick, the man came at Hunter again, but Hunter was better prepared this time. He slid to the side to avoid the thrust of the knife, and from behind his back he shot his sword’s blade through the other man’s extended arm.
Rather than pull away, the assailant fell forward. A heavy knife handle protruded from between his shoulder blades.
Hunter holstered his gun, reached down to jerk the blade free, and wiped it clean on the assailant’s ruined shirt.
“Thank you,” he said. He handed the knife hilt-first to its owner.
“You’re welcome.” The knife disappeared into the sheath Blade always wore strapped to his mangled leg.
“Not that I wasn’t managing just fine on my own,” Hunter added.
“You were doing okay.” Blade rolled the dead man onto his back with the toe of his boot. Enough light remained for them to identify him as Scarface. “But increasing the odds in your favor never hurts.” Blade’s eyes met Hunter’s. “Why would anyone risk angering Mamna by killing someone she’s just hired?”
“That’s what I was hoping to ask him.”
Blade riffled through the man’s pockets and came up empty-handed. “Nothing. The man’s a professional.”
“Maybe he’s poor,” Hunter guessed, without any real hope.
“Even poor people keep things in their pockets.” Blade patted down the man’s arms and legs and came up with an assortment of weapons. He held them out. “See anything here you want?”
Hunter waved him off. “You killed him. It’s all yours.”
The weapons disappeared into Blade’s clothing.
“How did you know he’d follow me?” Hunter asked.
Blade shielded his face from the stinging sand with the crook of an elbow. “His hands were too clean.”
That made sense, and was something Blade would notice right away. An assassin’s hands were his greatest asset, and Blade took pride in his own despite the fact that he no longer worked for hire.
“Why didn’t you warn me?”
“Because I didn’t want to be wrong about what he was. And it was something you should have noticed yourself.” Demon howls carried on the wind now, still far off in the distance, and Blade checked nervously over his shoulder. “Fresh blood is going to draw them here. Sure you don’t want to come back to my place for the night?”
“I’m sure.” Hunter grinned at him. “Scared?”
“Stiff,” Blade admitted without shame. “While I don’t mind getting killed, the being eaten alive part continues to bother me. I’m heading for home. I’d search this guy for markings if I were you, but I doubt you’ll find anything. He’s your problem now.”
Blade left, and Hunter took a few extra minutes to search for any tattoos or markings that might give some indication of where the would-be assassin was from. He found nothing, but that could have been because of the poor light and blowing sand. Or it could have been because Blade was right. The man had no markings on him because he was a professional.
Then, because Hunter didn’t feel like confronting blood-frenzied demons either, he headed for shelter.

About the Author

I’d like to be able to say I always wanted to be a writer, but the truth is I thought it looked like a lot of hard work. Life, however, sometimes leads us down paths we never intended to take.
From the very beginning, my parents encouraged my love of books. When a Grade One teacher suggested I wrote too many “thrillers,” my mother, an English teacher, said I could write – and read – whatever I wanted. My high school English teachers later backed her up on that. In university, I received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Social Anthropology. At the time it was a whim, but it’s amazing how much that little piece of paper has benefited me over the years.Researching the history of civilizations has led to many intriguing worldbuilding possibilities.
When my children were babies and money was tight, my mother, grandmother, and husband bought me an electric typewriter for my birthday because they knew I was bored and wanted me to be happy. My mother became my very first critique partner, willingly reading pages and pages of manuscripts no one should ever have to suffer through. She researched markets for me, and introduced me to a journalist friend, who in turn introduced me to the Writers Federation of Nova Scotia. My brother and my brother-in-law introduced me to Thieves’ World, David Eddings, and Piers Anthony. Mysister gave me my first computer.
My grandmothers believed if something’s too hard, you aren’t working hard enough. My brother and sisters have all successfully followed their dreams, and my husband and two sons offer me proof every day that hard work is something to be embraced, not avoided. With these people behind me, how could I possibly stray from a path on which life seems to have planted them as guardrails?

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