[SNEAK PEEK] Demons & Battleskirts, Volume 1: Chapter 2

Demons & Battleskirts Volume 1

Chapter 2

It was worse than bad. It was its own blood-soaked hell.

Double lockers lined either side of the girls’ narrow locker room. The small metal boxes had once been stacked in neat rows, one atop the other, and while the paint on their navy-blue fronts had been chipped and scratched from decades of hard use, and the dark wooden benches down the centre were old and worn, they’d been neat. Sturdy. Efficient. 

Now, the locker were doors crumpled and scored, entire sections pulled from the walls – bits of concrete still attached to the heavy, metal bolts that had secured them to the off-white concrete. Of the banks that remained upright, most bore scorch marks, the heat of whatever magic had been unleashed causing the navy paint to bubble. A few were torn, the metal ripped, edges melted like butter.

Benches were little more than kindling; the old, glossy wood crunched under Byrne’s boots, splinters skidding from under her heels. Most had shattered under impact – a fist, a sword, a body – but some smouldered, the wooden planks scorched black either by lightning or fire, she couldn’t tell which. It filled the air with the bitter taste of ash, mixing with the damp, musty scent of old sweat and water.

The floor had fared little better. The small grey tiles smashed, the grout between them – in so many varying shades of brown and black, no one had ever really been able to tell what colour it had started out as – pulverised. The blackboard beside the archway leading to the showers still stood though, the flyers covering its surface only slightly charred.

For all the violence done to metal and concrete, it was the blood that chilled Byrne’s spine. The thick red trail started at the end of the room, just a few short strides from the arch that lead to the showers. It shouldn’t have been as visible as it was, mixed in amongst the detritus, should have been just another wet shadow in the valley of destruction, and yet… And yet it screamed at her, riveted her gaze and made her feet leaden, made her heart beat hard and heavy in her chest.

Della was already there, standing in the arch, pain and sorrow still creasing her brow and tugging at her lips. The other girl didn’t say anything, but the weight in her gaze, the way she waited – patient yet expecting – drew Byrne forward, one heavy step at a time.

Beyond the archway, it was… normal. No shattered tiles, no stench of ash or burned metal. Six shower cubicles stood straight and unmolested, thin plastic curtains pulled neatly to the side, the beige privacy screens separating them unmarked by violence. Only the blood gave lie to normalcy; that, and Fion waiting like a silent mourner at the other end of the aisle.

Fion, the Executioner, stood at the end farthest from the door, arms crossed over her chest, the long blonde tail of her intricately braided mohawk blackened by the same blood crusting Byrne’s legs. The other girl looked up in a slow, jerky motion, like the effort to tear her gaze from whatever lay in the last cubicle hurt. Perhaps it did. Tears had made tracks down her face, long black lines of mascara running through the grime, and she had her thumb between her teeth, ripping into the nail until it bled.

Walking down that aisle was like walking towards a grave.

But was it Nova’s funeral she attended, or her own?

The thought skittered through Byrne’s mind as the hard soles of her boots echoed in the small, musty-smelling space, and deep in her being, under the thin membrane that kept her other self down, Az snarled defiance.

Not this time, Az said.

Byrne ignored her.

Fion stepped back, pressing into the tiled wall, almost sucking in her gut to let Byrne pass. There was fear in the movement, a tiny thrilling spike that sped Byrne’s pulse even as it sank into her heart.

As she passed, Byrne was aware of Fion reaching out, of Della wrapping the other girl in her arms, but most of her attention was on the bloody tangle of limbs slumped under the shower.

Suun knelt beside their sister, her long midnight hair a river down her back, barely a strand out of place despite the soot that marked the pale beige of her cheeks and the blood that stained the intricate, lacy armour across her shoulders. The leaves of her knee-length skirts parted around her on the tiles, soaking up their sister’s blood. She held glowing hands over Nova’s chest, expression tight with strain as she fought to keep Nova alive. How much longer Suun could, Byrne didn’t know. Their sister was… mangled.

Nova’s legs were stretched out before her. One boot was gone, exposing the talon marks ripping her leg from calf to thigh, bone gleaming a stark white amidst bloody flesh, while her other leg… Byrne swallowed.

The lower half bent the wrong way, as if someone had taken a sledgehammer to her sister’s shin, snapping it in the middle.

The damage continued the farther up Byrne dragged her gaze. Nova’s golden battleskirt and the skin-tight nano-mail armour underneath were shredded, the bloody marks in her sister’s skin too neat to have been made by claws. One shoulder hung awkwardly and there were bones where her hand should have been, her forearm ending in a cauterised stump.

‘How long?’ Byrne’s words came out confident, smooth, betraying none of the turmoil building in her chest. The fear, the horror. The anger.

So much anger rising not just in the hot wave from her own gut but seeping through the membrane that separated her from the other. So much anger, and not all of it aimed at the man who’d butchered her sister, because she knew what came next, what had to come next, even as every bit of her railed against it.

Inside, Az snarled, raking talons against the barrier, her fury cold and dark as the shadows in which she roiled. I won’t do it again, she said.

What, Byrne didn’t ask, because deep down, in the place beyond Az, amongst the nightmares that lived in the cold-dark that forced her screaming from sleep, she knew. And she agreed.

She agreed, and that thought, more than her sister’s broken and bloodied body, was terrifying.

She wouldn’t do it again.

Suun didn’t look up. ‘I can keep her alive long enough for the paramedics to get here. Maybe to get her to Emergency.’ She tore her focus from her work and pinned Byrne with large, dark-hickory eyes. Fear lurked in the downturned depths and pinched the smooth skin between ebony brows, before Suun wiped the emotion from her face. She turned her attention back to Nova.  ‘Not much longer than that.’

‘Long enough,’ Nova said. Her sister’s head lolled, but she straightened it, gazing at Byrne with eyes that had once blazed like the sun but were now a dull brown. Blood bubbled at her mouth, the froth trickling down her chin to drip onto her chest and pool around the shattered remnants of the golden medallion that should have protected her.

There was only one way to break a medallion, only one way to get through the magic protecting it, and the knowledge burned.

‘I told you. I told you not to trust him.’ The words left Byrne’s mouth, ripe with the resentment and pain writhing in her chest, acidic as demon blood. ‘When will you listen?’

Nova smiled, revealing the gaping holes where her front teeth should have been. ‘In another lifetime, sister.’

Resentment flared to anger and Byrne darted forward, boots splashing in the mix of water and her sister’s blood as she crouched at Nova’s side. ‘This is another lifetime.’

‘Then I will listen in the next.’

In the next. The words shivered in Byrne’s bones, made the darkness writhe and twist. 

Deep inside, Az snarled.

‘No,’ she said, and wasn’t sure if it was just her or Az rising through the membrane that kept them apart. Byrne shook her head. ‘No, not again. I won’t let you.’

‘You can’t stop me, sister.’ Nova coughed, her blood splattering over Byrne’s face. She drew a ragged breath. ‘It’s my right, and you swore an oath.’

Nova looked past her, and Byrne knew, without turning, that Della was there, arms raised, her staff coalescing out of nothing, the azure tattoos on her face and arms blazing with the power gathering around her. 

The force of it stirred the dark fall of hair down Byrne’s back, lifted the charred strands around her face. Even Suun’s hair lifted and flapped, the bloodstained ends of Nova’s waist-length locks joining them – the three of them so much alike and yet so different. Soon, Della’s spell would join them all into one, would whip hair and skirts into a tornado, and the maelstrom of the High Priestess’s power would be unstoppable.

Byrne gripped Nova’s uninjured shoulder. ‘I don’t want this. Stop the ritual. Please.’

Nova looked at her. There was pain in her gold eyes, weariness and sympathy mixed with a bone-deep sorrow that sunk hooks into Byrne’s heart, but determination hardened her gaze. ‘I know,’ she said. ‘And no.’

No. No, no, no.

The denial echoed. Its grim, steely resolve reverberated inside Byrne’s skull, her chest. Her soul.


Inside, the darkness surged, and she didn’t stop it, didn’t press back and down on the thin membrane between her and it, between her and Az. The dark rose, a tidal wave with Az at its crest, bursting through the barrier, wrapping around her heart, flowing through her bones, taking over her eyes.

Blood and water froze around her boots.

There was no blood left in Nova’s face, but her eyes widened until white ringed the faded gold. ‘Byrne?’

‘I won’t go back there,’ she said, or maybe Az said it, their voices melding, impossible to tell one from the other. She wasn’t sure if she was talking to herself or to Nova, didn’t know if the light bathing her face was the magic in Suun’s hands or something else, the power in her own core, the destruction she worked so hard to keep contained. The violence, the rage. It didn’t matter. All that mattered was the wind at her back, was the knife she could feel in Fion’s grip. Was the blood spurting from Nova’s severed hand. Was the darkness.

Was the bone-destroying cold.

‘Not again.’ The words lifted Byrne to her feet. ‘Not ever.’

Ahriman was there, forming out of nothingness, the comforting weight of it, the gleam of the crescent blade. She was spinning, knocking back Fion’s rush, the golden knife spinning from the other girl’s hand. And then there was her best friend, shining with power, the brilliant marks of the High Priestess burning under her skin, azure against brown.

The darkness screeched, the azure eating at Byrne’s insides, but the pain was nothing, nothing to what waited beyond the ritual.

Nova was screaming, her desperation trying to pull at Byrne’s muscles, to hold Ahriman back, but the weapon had its own weight.

Surprise widened Della’s eyes.

Ahriman found Della’s gut.

Did Byrne really stab her best friend?! Get the book to find out.