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       Voodoo Kiss, p.3

           Jayde Scott
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  "I'm just tired, that's all." I leaned against his shoulder and wrapped my arm around his waist. He didn't react. "Sorry, I didn't notice. It's not you, it's me."

  "Just don't let it affect us, okay?" His tone was harsh.

  I nodded in spite of my anger flaring up. I didn't like anyone telling me what to do, but he had a point. I couldn't let my personal problems destroy my friendship with Gael. I should've said 'relationship', but I knew that one had no future. For a second, I felt jealous at how well he handled the loss of his brother.

  Gael pulled me closer and planted a kiss on my forehead. "Good. Now let's focus on what we came for. I promised you a special time and that's exactly what you're getting."

  "What did you have in mind?" I raised my brows at the secretive grin on his face.

  "Just trust me."

  A few minutes later, the car stopped in front of a restaurant and we stepped out. A black shadow scooped over my head and perched on a nearby drainpipe. I raised my gaze against the glaring sun and peered at the large crow. The light caught in its beady eyes, making them shine like a mirror. My heartbeat sped up even though I wasn't really surprised to see the bird. It couldn't be the same and yet I knew it was, just as much as I had somehow known all along it'd be following me all the way to Brazil. Inclining my head lightly, I nodded at it, feeling instantly stupid. The bird let out a caw and flew away.

  "I don't know about you, but I'm starving," Gael said, pulling me through the open door.

  "Yeah, me too." My stomach growled in agreement. We sat at the table near the window overlooking the busy street outside. As we ordered, the crow returned and settled on the roof of the opposite building. Something told me it was there to watch. The uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach returned as my appetite dissipated.

  Chapter 3 - Thrain

  Under the hot Brazilian sun, I crouched down to the ground and touched the cracking earth, which wasn't so different from the one in Hell. Lucifer's instructions had been clear enough: find the girl, get her to obey Cassandra's command and save Dallas from sure death, and then get the hell out of there without getting involved in the events that were about to unfold. And that's exactly what I planned to do because I had a career to think of. Any sort of distraction wasn't an option.

  Only a few days ago, Lucifer's daughter, Cassandra, had been the usual fallen angel: immortal and carefree, though she had yet to turn eighteen and receive her full powers. After sneaking her mortal boyfriend, Dallas, into Hell and trying to trick him into marrying her to escape her curse, he was killed by a vampire. Dallas's death sealed Cassandra's fate. Having changed into a creature of the night now, half fallen angel half reaper, she sought pain and death to escape her own suffering.

  With Dallas's physical death, she had changed. She had become more focused, more determined to reunite her lover's body with his wandering, lost soul, more demanding that I do as she said. Her wish was my command. As a demon of the highest order, I kept my promise to serve the dark princess. But I had to hurry. She lived and breathed danger since she was only a few weeks away from turning into a full blooded reaper, a being that could rip one's throat to shreds with a flick of her claws. Obviously, I was more than eager to suck up to the future boss and not risk Lucifer's wrath by failing my mission and letting his only daughter turn into a creature roaming the threshold between life and death forever. So this mission might just seal my own fate.

  On the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, I picked up Sofia's scent fairly quickly. It was the kind no tracker would miss, and certainly not someone like me. Cassandra stood a few steps away with her back leaned against the dirty wall of a newspaper kiosk, giving me space but still close enough to make the odd remark. I nodded to signal we were ready to leave. She inched closer but remained silent. The pain was written in the deep frown lines across her usually smooth forehead. Dark strands colored her otherwise red hair. I moistened my lips and looked away, feeling sorry for the agony she must be going through, for the emptiness she must feel at being separated from the man she loved.

  "You don't need to do this," I whispered even though she could read my mind. "I'll find her and bring her to you."

  She shook her head. "No, mate. This is my mission. I don't want you to do it for me."

  "As you say, boss." I shrugged and turned away, squinting against the glaring sun as I focused on the multifaceted residues from Sofia's aura. She had been here not long ago. The trail stopped abruptly so she must've left in a car, but that didn't faze me. Now that I had caught her scent, I would walk up and down this street until I found the next clue.

  Half an hour later, I was drenched in sweat and we were still searching.

  "Do you have a cold?" Cass asked, smirking.

  I shook my head. "That's not it. Something's wrong. I should've picked up her whereabouts by now."

  "Are you sure it's not just—" she waved her hand in the air. Her long, black nails that could morph into claws any second caught my attention "—that you're losing your touch?"

  The softest hint of her earthy smell wafted past. Cass opened her mouth to speak again when I held up a finger to stop her, then pointed to our right. "This way."

  "Looking to live forever? Because that is how long it's taking," she mumbled. I smiled and grabbed her hand, barely touching her ice-cold skin. It felt smooth like marble and thick as ice. She would turn soon—a fate I wouldn't wish upon my worst enemy, but at least I would get to be alone for a few hours without Lucifer's daughter watching over my shoulder. I couldn't quite focus with her around because her pain affected me. I didn't like my friends to suffer.

  Maybe the solitude would help me do my job, because right now I was at my wit's end as to why I hadn't yet found Sofia.

  Chapter 4

  After a brief lunch, I was keen to return to the solitude of our hotel rooms to catch some sleep, but Gael seemed to have other plans.

  "Where are we going?" I asked for the umpteenth time.

  "You'll see." His eyes twinkled mischievously. I smiled, pretending to be excited, and commented on the beauty of the town. Truth was, I didn't feel excited in the least. I actually feared secrets because they made me feel like I was opening Pandora's box. I appreciated Gael's efforts and I knew he meant well, but as much as I tried, I felt so disconnected from him. Since the airport, my mind seemed preoccupied and distant, and I couldn’t help myself.

  The vehicle raced through the busy streets, past crowds of people gathered in front of dilapidated taverns. Eventually, the vehicle took another right turn onto unpaved terrain, leaving the city behind.

  Looking out of the window, I saw people, dressed in barely more than rags, their faces worn out and tired. The houses we passed by were huts made of what looked like cardboard boxes. In front of them, children played and laughed the way only children can. My throat tightened as I watched all these people struggling with poverty, mothers holding their babies in their arms in sanitary conditions not fit for a newborn, children with no future. A sense of hopelessness crept over me. The children reminded me of my own childhood far away from the luxury of Western civilization. Life had been hard for my family, but we made the most of it. We appreciated the simple things: our family, our friends, and that we had so much to be thankful for. I remembered how we used to snuggle together under a thin sheet when the Russian winter covered the vast lands in a white blanket that could freeze a grown man to death within a few hours. And every spring we were grateful to have survived.

  The driver stopped to ask for directions and motioned a kid to come closer. The child obeyed and approached us, unaware of the danger that might be lurking in a stranger's vehicle. At the boy's sight, barely older than ten with dark curls and torn shorts, something broke inside me. I wiped a tear from the corner of my eye, hoping Gael wouldn't notice, and reached into my purse for money.

  "What are you doing?" Gael hissed.

  I ignored him as I rolled down the window and handed the kid a few banknotes, watching his eyes widen for a mome
nt before his hand clasped around the money. He said something, which I interpreted as a thank you.

  Gael grabbed my arm tightly that it hurt a little, forcing me to face him. "What's wrong with you? Don't do that ever again. You can't just walk in here and advertise how rich you are, unless you don't mind a bullet through your head."

  I pulled my arm away, irritated, anger rising inside me. He was right, of course, and yet deep in my heart I couldn't care less. Gael knew nothing about poverty, but I had experienced it first hand, so he could just shut up.

  The car sped off again.

  "Look, I'm sorry," Gael whispered in my ear. It's all about your safety. I couldn't live with myself if something happened to you."

  "I'm old enough to know what I should or shouldn't do."

  He nodded, and a glint appeared again in his eyes, flickering like a candle flame and disappearing a second later. We drove in silence for another five minutes, up what looked like a tiny hill with wilted grass and garbage to either side. The car stopped again, this time in front of a hut larger than the ones we had passed. Even though there were other houses around, the area looked less crowded with front yards and tiny fences barely reaching my knees. A stray chicken jumped on top of the front car hood, not minding us as we got out. I could hear pigs squealing and a horse neighing, and figured this must be some sort of ranch.

  My sandals sank into a hard layer of dirt as I looked around. In spite of all the dust and the garbage lining the street, the yard looked clean with a stony path leading to a cottage with whitewashed walls and dried herbs hanging from the windowsills. Colorful ribbons hanging from the branches of a thin tree swayed in a soft breeze. Gael grabbed my hand and pulled me behind him as he whispered, "Come on."

  I followed even though uneasiness settled in the pit of my stomach, making me gasp for air. As we took slow steps down the path, sweat gathered on my forehead and poured down my back. I raised my hand to wipe my brows when I noticed a crow circling the sky and landing on one of the branches. Slowly, the crow was starting to creep me out, not least because I knew it was one and the same bird. But how could a crow follow me from New York to Rio? It didn't make any sense. I stopped in mid-stride and peered up at its magnificent black wings and beady eyes. The animal's beak opened as though to speak to me.

  "We don't have time for admiring the wildlife," Gael said, tugging at my arm. I nodded and let him drag me away and through the door into the hut.

  From inside, the room seemed quite spacious with fur covering the bare ground. The air smelled of dried herbs and incense. To the right was a stone lined hearth with a large cooking pan and a mattress set up in front of it. To the left, an old woman, clad in a white summer dress reaching down to her ankles, sat at a kitchen table, bowed over a large bucket, cutting string beans. She stood as she saw us and wiped her hands on her dress. Her skinny body moved with surprising agility and grace. Her eyes, framed by countless wrinkles, met mine, and for a moment I forgot to breathe. Her piercing gaze bore into mine, reaching deep inside my soul like claws. I stumbled backward, fighting the invading sensation of something searching through the layers of my emotions, laying bare the secrets I had been trying to hide from both myself and those around me.

  "Madame Estevaz," Gael said, reaching out his hand. She ignored it as she continued to stare at me. The feeling of uneasiness inside my stomach intensified.

  "This is the girl?" she asked in broken English.

  "Yes," Gael said.

  "Hm." She drew closer and placed a hand on my forehead, then pointed to the mattress. I glanced at Gael. When he nodded reassuringly, I followed Madame Estevaz to the hearth. After some resistance, I gave in to Gael's persistent request and lay down on the mattress.

  "Wait outside," Madame Estevaz said to Gael.

  He shook his head. "I need to be present. Surely you understand."

  The old woman's mouth pressed into a tight line, but she kept quiet as she grabbed a brown pot with what looked like dried bones, and started spreading them around me. I eyed them, disgusted.

  "What's this about?" I asked. What did Gael have in mind? I trusted him, but the whole situation was too macabre for my taste. In my head, I recalled all the reasons why I hated surprises.

  "She's about to find out your future," Gael said.

  I raised my chin defiantly, ready to jump up and make a run for the nearest exit. "I don't want anyone to tell me my future."

  "We came all the way for this. I thought you'd appreciate it," Gael said. The glint from before returned, and for a brief second I thought I saw something dark in his eyes, just like that afternoon when he startled me. My temper flared. I shook my head, wondering what was wrong with me. First the hallucinations, now my inability to control myself. I lay on my back and nodded at Madame Estevaz, ignoring the nagging voice at the back of my mind.

  "Close your eyes and relax. Don't fight it," Gael said softly.

  My heart started to hammer against my ribcage as I closed my eyes, letting the darkness, which had been beckoning to me for a while, engulf me. Madame Estevaz called out in her native tongue. A second later, loud drumming echoed through the air. I opened my eyes when something soft covered my face. It was a black scarf that barely filtered the daylight. I was glad to find I could see through the thin material.

  Madame Estevaz began to hum next to me. Her soft murmur grew louder and seemed to accompany the tiny drum in her hand. Her words were sharp, hurting my ears even though I had no idea what they meant. The mattress began to shift to the left and right like a boat floating on water. Something moved across my skin; cold iron fingers grabbed hold of my arms and clasped tightly. Fear rose inside me. This didn't feel right. I scanned the air frantically, but I couldn’t see anything that might have touched me.

  Gael. My mouth opened, but no sound found its way out of my throat. I peered down at my naked arms where the skin looked pushed in as though invisible fingers were pressing down on my limbs. Coldness climbed up my chest and built a shield around my heart.

  And then the pain began, cutting through me like an arrow. Long pangs of it that made breathing impossible. The voice in my head screamed louder than Madame Estevaz's incantations. Another rush of pain rushed through me, and my body went into spasms. I felt my eyes roll back in their sockets. Something emerged beside me, and I knew instantly it was no mortal, nothing I had ever seen. Please. My mind was barely able to form the words, imploring the creature to go away and leave me alone, but I knew if it could hear me it wouldn't listen. The cold sensation around my heart grew stronger, reminding me of thousands of ice picks piercing my skin. I was so cold and yet my body was burning. A thin sheen of sweat covered me, soaking my skimpy clothes. Panic rose inside me. I had never been so scared in my life.

  Outside, the crow cawed, warning me. When the pain hit again, I clenched my teeth, ready to wait it out. But this time it didn't stop. For a long time, all I could feel were coldness and a horrible agony that wouldn't ebb.

  Chapter 5 - Thrain

  After Cass disappeared I spent hours looking around Rio. For some inexplicable reason, my abilities wouldn't pick up Sofia's trail, even though I couldn't think of anything else. Ever since catching a glimpse of her at the airport, her face kept popping up in my mind, making focusing on anything else impossible. I attributed it to the immense pressure on me. Not only would I lose my rank and would never be able to return to my Origin. If I failed, I had no idea what Lucifer would do to me, and I certainly had no intention to find out.

  The hospital was a large building with paint peeling from the yellow walls. There were a total of five stories with the emergency department situated on the ground floor. As I walked in, I knew exactly where I'd find Cass.

  "Olá. Posso ajudá- lo?" the receptionist, a dark-haired woman in her late thirties, asked with a smile.

  Even though I understood her Portuguese perfectly well, I shook my head and muttered in a fake French accent, "Não falo português." I shot her an apologetic smile and walked past,
knowing all too well she wouldn't follow me and make a fuss. It would be too much of a hassle arguing with a huge guy like me. In a few long strides, I reached the double doors leading to the emergency department and walked into what I assumed to be the busiest area of the building.

  Drama and suffering was palpable in the air. Doctors and nurses in blood stained uniforms hurried up and down the narrow corridor, paying me no attention. I strolled down the hall, hoping to blend in so I wouldn't need to use my shape shifting abilities. A young nurse shot me an interested look, but she didn't stop me as I walked past.

  I followed Cass's trail—a thin thread of black fog that characterized all reapers—to one of the ER rooms where two patients lay on their hospital beds, hooked up to various whirring machines that wouldn't keep them alive for much longer. I knew where to find Cass because a reaper like her would always hover around a person that was more dead than alive.

  She stood near one of the beds, back pressed against the white wall, her still emerald green eyes shining unnaturally as they soaked up the pain wafting from the dying mortals. In this stadium, Cass’s body had left the physical realm and relocated into one of the Otherworld dimensions where no mortal eyes could see her. But some could feel her presence.

  "Cass?" I touched her shoulder. She barely raised her gaze from one of the two humans. For a moment, I saw her shoulders slump in defeat, her expression haunted by grief and sadness, and then her ecstasy returned. Soaking up the pain of others relieved her own, only to come back full force within a few hours, turning her more and more into this thing that couldn't stay away from death. I shuddered. Having known Cass for a long time, I knew she never wanted any of this. I felt pity for her.

  "Cass, I know you can hear me." I shook her arm lightly. Her skin, black as coal, felt colder than before and her green gaze darkened. In this in-between state of the physical and spiritual realm, where her body morphed into a reaper, her skin couldn't keep warm. She raised her chin a notch, black eyes glinting unnaturally. Her lips peeled back, revealing a string of white teeth. I didn't know whether she was laughing or in pain, but it sure creeped me out.

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