THE REVEREND IGNORED THE BODIES.
“Who else have you told?” He leaned into his cane, pinning the security guard with a look. “Purgatory? City security?”
“No one, Holiness.” The guard hastened back when I approached, his eyes widening as they locked on me.
I was out of uniform, weapons were concealed, and I didn’t have the word “Templar” tattooed on my face, but Reverend Greaves hadn’t received such a reaction. That earned the guard a harder look.
He had the thick, ropy muscles of a laborer and the thicker gut of a drinker. His weathered face was pale in the harsh light. His arms crossed over his body, instead of hanging loose and ready to act. And he couldn’t keep still. Nervous twitches, like a hand darting up to scratch his chin or the subtle, rhythmic swaying of his weight on and off his heels, made it look like he was barely fighting back the urge to bolt. His eyes flicked into the apartment, where a fresh splash of vomit pooled by the door.
It was fear. This might be his first real taste of death.
I dismissed him again, slid past them, and turned my attention to the dead.
A filthy window provided most of the light inside the small apartment. It lined up with gaps between the buildings, giving a narrow view of the city of Ash, gray at midday with tones of neon green and blue reflected off the glass. The place had been stripped for reconstruction, leaving one wall as bare metal and another just a frame. The floor looked like old cement, dusty where it wasn’t stained brown with filth.
I grimaced involuntarily. The air reeked of vomit and shit, with an unpleasant undertone of blood, but there was no hint of decay. Not yet.
“Has anyone been in here?” the Reverend was saying.
“The guys on this project ain’t been paid in three weeks.” The guard’s voice sounded strained.
“It’s been empty that long?”
“I check in every day. Make sure the doors are locked and everything’s where they left it.”
It wasn’t locked this time.
A teenage boy in faded, ill-fitting clothes had died bound to a chair with the same black tape that sealed his mouth. Bloody lacerations covered much of his torso, but the dark, gaping line across his throat had likely finished him.
My eyes glazed a little as I walked past him, and I shook my head to clear it.
“Who has keys?” the Reverend said. “Apart from yourself.”
Shattered pieces of a chair lay strewn across the room, starting by the dead youth’s feet. Ripped tape clung to its limbs along a trail to the dead girl who had broken out of it. The single, brown stab-wound on her chest had probably killed her, delivered by the older woman that now sprawled by her side.
The dead woman slouched against the wall beneath the window. She looked older than the other two. No color broke the solid black of her tailored suit, but brown stains marred the white handkerchief spilling from her pocket. A knife lay on the floor by her side, its blade wiped clean.
Her cause of death was less obvious than the others. Short brown hair brushed her shoulders, disheveled and crusty. Blood smeared her neck, but I couldn’t see the wound that had produced it, even when I drew closer and the shape of fingers became clear. A messy handprint on otherwise unmarked skin.
I stepped around the woman for a better view, but without moving her body I couldn’t see more. My gloved hands wouldn’t make prints, but any disruption of the scene might leave traces for city security to find. The footprints I might add to those left by absent workers were risky enough.
I leaned closer. Blood matted her hair, but the room was too dark to make out the source.
“Your message wasn’t clear,” the Reverend said. “What made you contact the church? City security deals with crime, and Purgatory handles the dead.” And the church was not welcome in the Edge.
“The girl’s hands.” A tremor shook the guard’s voice. “Don’t y’all deal with the monsters?”
I crouched beside the girl’s outstretched arm. A shock of pain lanced down my back, and I froze. But it quickly faded to a dull ache.
Her hands were open, making the unnaturally long joints obvious once I knew to look. I reached for them but stopped short of touching. The subtle stretch of her fingers turned into lengthened nails, curving at the tips into short, skeletal claws. A few dark strands of hair were tangled in the dry blood that stained them.
“Give us a few minutes.” The Reverend ushered the guard out. “After we leave, call Purgatory like you normally would.”
After the door closed, I triggered the scanning systems implanted in my head to watch the next room. If the guard called or messaged anyone, or even just muttered to himself, I’d hear it. The precaution probably wasn’t worth the headache it might cause, but we could never be too careful in the Edge.
I dug into my coat pocket for the tablet the Reverend had provided. A few clicks, and the camera opened. I started a scan for their ID chips, snapped a picture of the dead woman’s face and connected to the church database to run it.
“These people didn’t die days apart,” I said.
The old man’s shoes scuffed a heavy, irregular rhythm behind me. “What about her hands?”
I glanced up. My body was blocking his view, so I stood and stepped back. “Looks like a revenant.” I snapped pictures of the other two faces and ran them.
“What do you see here?”
The cuts to the boy’s body were sloppy, mostly shallow, and his attacker hadn’t focused on any sensitive areas. They had meant to make a bloody mess more than to cause that insufferable kind of fear and pain that would break anyone. Eventually.
I needed to focus.
“The teens were her prisoners,” I guessed. “Maybe they owed someone, or she thought they knew something.” I pulled my eyes away from the boy and gestured at the dead woman, though the tale was better told by the lacerations that marred his body when the girl’s only injury was the death blow. “She tortured him to control the girl. Got what she wanted, or decided she wasn’t going to, so she cut the kid’s throat and stabbed the girl.”
“Then the girl’s body stood up and killed her,” he finished for me.
I waved at the blade on the floor. “She had time to clean the knife but not to use it again. The revenant got to her too fast, but it didn’t eat or rampage. It killed her and dropped. Like the rest.” Gooseflesh rose under my sleeves.
“Get more data,” he said.
My jaw clenched, but I didn’t respond. Playing investigator wasn’t my area of expertise, but the last few weeks had brought enough variations of this scenario that I knew what data he meant. I used the tablet to record the temperatures of the bodies, and to take more pictures for the church’s investigators. It was better than getting sidelined while my back healed, but a new and intrusive awareness of the Reverend’s cane never ceased prodding me. The old Chanter hadn’t chosen when to retire from the Templar Order.
The tablet beeped at the return of the first search results, and I pushed the thought aside as I read them. “We’ve been watching her. The older one.”
“Suspected tag?” the Reverend said.
“No.” Fire crept through my chest. “She worked for Vicks.”
The file listed other infernals too. Most were known associates or sons of Emil Vicks, and many were dead, but one name overshadowed them all.
Vicks had killed the man, his own son, shortly after I’d learned his name. Objectively, his death was a good thing, but it was a disappointing conclusion to over six years of searching. I’d never stop resenting the fact that someone else had ended that rapist piece of shit.
“That’s three.” The Reverend’s voice dragged me back.
“Looks like a pattern.” I cleared my throat, but the fire didn’t fade. “She was suspected of moving here, into the Edge, after Vicks died.”
“Working for Carmen?”
“Unclear.” I kept my voice neutral. “A few deep ID scans caught her in the area. We have facial recognition history, but it was flagged as limited.” Another notification popped up on the screen. “Nothing on the teens, and they’re chipless.” Born outside the system. They would’ve had no chance in life, even if it hadn’t ended so early.
The Reverend rubbed his chin and said something.
“Talk to the Inquisitor,” I interrupted whatever it was. “Hawthorn needs to be confined to the tower until we figure this out.” I gestured at the girl’s hands.
I thought I caught a hint of curiosity on his face until I looked him in the eye. His expression smoothed. “For what reason?”
“Three people connected to Emil Vicks are dead. She could be number four.” It wasn’t my job to care anymore, but Gwyn Hawthorn was still valuable to the Order.
“You need to do better than that. The other three worked for him, but Gwyn was abducted.”
I didn’t need to be reminded. “Any connection justifies caution.”
“He had you shot. You itching for a vacation already?”
My back tensed, and the dull ache sharpened. “That was incidental.”
“You assume. Either way, it’s a connection.” His expression was unreadable. “I need more than that, unless you want to be confined to the tower indefinitely too?”
I turned off the tablet and pocketed it.
“Don’t give me that look,” said the old man.
“The rules are changing.” I schooled my expression. “Or we’re wrong about what they are. We need to be careful.”
“Agreed. How does that relate to Gwyn, specifically?”
“She refuses to learn what ‘careful’ means.”
That time he gave me the look, but he turned toward the door without a response. His cane scraped the floor as he said, “We’re done. This guy needs to call Purgatory before another revenant rises.”
The walls and flooring on the way to the stairs were stripped down and incomplete, and the ceiling was stained and dusty, but once we stepped into the stairwell, the only signs of construction were stacks of materials and equipment left on the landings in between floors.
As we neared the bottom of the steps, I fished the sunglasses out of my coat. The Reverend opened the door after I put them on. He didn’t say anything about it, and we stepped out into the shadow of the building and the gray light of a hazy day.
Our sedan waited near the end of the alley. Settling into the driver’s seat brought another minor flash of pain and provoked a few profane thoughts. I kept them to myself as I stared at the Edge’s relatively open view of the sky, and a feeling like exposure, like vulnerability, crept through me. The rest of Ash, its soaring towers and sheltering skyways, was out of view.
“Everything okay?” said the old man.
I tapped through a few menus on the vehicle’s dash, and all the windows darkened. “Of course.” The motor started in near silence, with a rush of damp air and the wan glow of dashboard lights. “I just can’t stand this side of town.”
I HAD TO ROLL UP my sleeves so they wouldn’t swallow my gloved hands, and my pants sagged over the tops of my boots, but the Inquisitor had insisted I wear the uniform. For my protection, of course. The reinforced and insulated fabric would reduce my risk of burning alive if things got “exciting.” The armored plates would stop most rounds if an impossibly strong infernal – who could drain the life out of me with a thought – pulled out a gun instead.
It was standard Templar armor, except the white ouroboros of the church was missing from my back. A lot of people would have objected to me wearing that symbol, myself included. I had met too many Templars to feel otherwise.
I glanced at the woman in front of me. Some of them were alright though.
“What’d this guy do?” I tried to tighten the armor’s side straps and fumbled around the seat belt. Squirming into ill-fitting body armor in the back of a van was not how I had planned to spend my afternoon. Neither was sober.
“Murder,” Hanley said.
“That’s a relief?”
Mariela Hanley sat across from me. The Templar’s glossy hair was bound up in a short, thick braid, and her near-black eyes were set under long, thick lashes that looked like she spent a small fortune on mascara, even though she wasn’t wearing any. Bulky armor obscured her slender, athletic build, but I’d seen her carry a grown-ass man on her shoulders during training. Plus, she could get stuff down from high places without a stool, which was a useful feature in a potential friend.
She leaned forward, pulled the seatbelt aside, and yanked one of the straps on my armor into place, easing the pressure it had put on my shoulder blade. “I’ll fix it for you when we stop.”
“Thanks. Did the Inquisitor say why this is so fucking urgent? I’d just opened a bottle.”
Hanley tilted her head. “A bottle?”
“I was thirsty.”
“It’s barely three o’clock.”
“I slept in. It’s never too late to get started though.”
It was supposed to be a joke, but she didn’t even fake amusement. She just did that bunched-up-eyebrow frown people do when they’re afraid calling out your shit will make it worse. “Are you ready for this?”
I didn’t answer. “Yes” would be a lie, and “no” might get me executed.
“Gwyn?” she pressed.
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
Well, fifteen days and eight hours, give or take how long I’d resisted getting out of bed. That was how much time had passed since I suffered the last vestiges of the seemingly insatiable hunger.
Sixty-five days since I learned it wasn’t burritos my body craved.
Okay. Not only burritos.
A little over nine weeks had passed since I was forced to kill a woman I’d called my friend. That same morning, I had found out I was an infernal, just like her. But I’d been taught, without my knowledge, how to survive without feeding on other people’s lives.
I had been ignorant, but now I knew. And knowing changed everything as far as my heart was concerned.
It changed nothing about my situation though. I was a weapon, trained by the church to kill infernals and sentenced to die if I ever disobeyed, tried to escape, or let on that I knew what I was. Up until now, I had only ever executed murderers, but my orders weren’t coming from the same place anymore.
I scooted in my seat but couldn’t get comfortable, so I tugged down one side of the crooked armor. Didn’t help. “How did he kill them?” I said.
Hanley grimaced. “Coroner reports weren’t in my orders.”
“I mean was it just ‘slurp—they’re dead’? Or does he play with his food?”
She leaned against the wall of the van. “Does it matter?”
The vehicle lurched over a speed bump. Her shoulders shook as the van rocked, but she didn’t take her eyes off mine as she waited for my answer.
It did matter, but I couldn’t explain why.
Once it was clear I didn’t mean to respond, she unhooked her belt and turned across the gap between us to fall into the seat beside me. “Let me fix your hair.”
“This mess isn’t my fault,” I said. “I barely had time to put on pants.”
“You were drinking and pantsless at three in the afternoon?”
“I barely had time to put on these pants. Would you be drinkin’ in these pants?” They were actually very comfortable. “Wait. Templar. You probably would.”
She fixed me with a look that was simultaneously stern and pitying. “Your ponytail would be uncomfortable in that helmet.” She nudged my shoulder until I turned sideways, then slipped the tie off my hair. Her fingers ran through it, tugging it straighter and picking out tangles before she separated sections for a braid.
The helmet she was talking about sat beside a small bag on my seat, looking glossy, black, and intimidating in its soulless anonymity.
I unzipped the bag while Hanley worked on my hair. My khukuri sat on top of my clothes, its wide, forward-curving blade hidden in a plain black sheath. Without pulling it out, I wrapped my fingers around the weapon’s handle. Touch-sensitive pads in my gloves perfectly mimicked the feel of the nonslip grip.
I’d practiced with that blade for years, almost daily, but my grip felt weak. My armored gloves were designed to preserve flexibility and strength, but the weapon didn’t feel like it fit my hand anymore.
I released it with a sharp exhalation and dropped the bag by my thigh. My fist opened. Then closed. Then I ran my fingers down my armored forearm, over the ache that marked the fresh scar from a shard of broken glass.
Hanley tied the braid. “Your arm’s barely out of that cast.”
“It feels like new.” I clenched a fist, then opened it. The feeling of weakness didn’t fade, but if conviction wouldn’t give me strength, fear could be motivational too.
“If I scrub the mission, it won’t count as disobedience,” she said. “If you’re not ready, tell me now.”
“No.” I glanced over my shoulder at her worried expression, reflected on the tinted window. “I’m ready.”
Daylight passed into patchwork fluorescence as the van descended into an underground parking garage. We were on the wrong side of downtown, and the lights were broken or burnt out as often as not, leaving everything washed in the neon glow of the much better maintained ads. Trash on the pavement glimmered pink and green and purple under rust and carbon stains on the weathered walls.
The first couple levels were filled with cars, but we descended to the fourth, which was nearly empty, and the Templar driver parked near a stairwell. When I didn’t immediately move, Hanley undid my belt buckle and opened the door.
“Get your head where it belongs,” she said. “Don’t want to lose it.”
Her tone was soft, but her point stung because I didn’t think she was warning me against the tag. She was one of the few people who knew about my death sentence—she’d been asked to carry it out, but declined the order. She never spoke to me about her reasoning, and I never asked. If she knew why I’d been sentenced to die, or why my execution was delayed, nothing she’d said or done revealed it.
She nudged me out of the van, followed after, and gave me no time to orient myself before she started yanking at straps and rearranging my armor.
“You’ll get through this.” She gave the last strap a tug, then slapped my shoulder.
I leaned back into the van, snatched the bag off the seat, and pulled out my khukuri so she could help me attach the sheath to my back. They’d included a stun gun with my gear, and I hooked it to my belt, but if I got desperate enough to use it, I’d probably already failed. I’d seen an infernal recover from one of those in a matter of seconds.
It hadn’t saved him in the end though.
The memory made me pause, but only for a moment. I had a lot of practice shoving such thoughts aside for later, and I figured crying didn’t count if no one saw you do it.
I picked up the helmet. More compact than my bicycle helmet, it was vented to release the warmth of the electronics inside. It was standard issue Templar equipment. But I wasn’t a Templar, and my job had always required looking like I wasn’t dangerous to anyone, so I’d never worn anything like it.
I put it on, and the visor slid down over my face with a hissing snap. It smelled like soap and upholstery and fit wildly better than the rest of the uniform.
“Move fast,” Quin’s voice filled my ears. “They’re already talking.”
Quin was a church tech, and one of the few friends I had left. He always made sure I had access to the newest games and the best equipment to play them on, no matter how few cents I had to my name. And he’d walked me in and out of a dozen life or death situations without getting me killed, so bonus points for that.
“How do I talk to you?” I said.
Hanley gave me a wry look, but a hint of concern drew up her brows. Maybe realizing how unprepared I really was for this job.
“We’ll be behind you,” she said. “But if you’re exposed, don’t listen to the Inquisitor. Just run.”
Good advice, but I’d probably die before I got the chance to flee if I flashed my ass at another infernal. Or I’d survive when I shouldn’t, revealing what I was to an Inquisitor who didn’t have any reason to refrain from killing me for it. Neither option appealed, so I’d just have to not get exposed.
The door to the stairwell creaked when I opened it. At the top of the steps, a man and woman leaned against the wall, legs entwined and arms around each other. They paid no attention to me as they whispered, but I got enough of a look at the woman’s face to recognize a Templar I’d seen around the tower. The man’s button-up shirt left little room for a hidden weapon, but her long coat was bulky enough to arm them both.
There was only a flight and a half of stairs between me and the bottom, but my heart was already racing by the time I reached it. I put my hand on the doorknob but didn’t turn it. Instead, I closed my eyes and drew into myself, forcing my breath to slow and stopping the parade of fears and what-ifs.“Kill him.”
I STILL DIDN’T WANT TO KILL Lucas Alexander, but it was starting to look like I had no choice.