“No one, Holiness.” The guard hastened back when I approached, his wide eyes locked on me.
My uniform was at home, weapons were concealed, and I didn’t have the word “Templar” tattooed on my forehead, but Reverend Greaves hadn’t received such a reaction. I gave the guard a harder look.
He had the thick, ropy muscles of a laborer and the thicker gut of a drinker. His weathered face looked pale in the harsh light, and his eyes flicked into the room, where a splash of vomit by the door looked fresh. His arms were crossed over his body, instead of loose and ready to act, and he couldn’t keep still. Nervous twitches, like a hand darting up to scratch his chin or the slight but rhythmic swaying of his weight on and off his heels, made it look like he was barely fighting back the urge to bolt.
Fear. This might be his first real taste of death.
I dismissed him again, slid past them into the room, and turned my attention to the dead.
A filthy window provided most of the light inside the 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 shook slightly.
“It’s been empty that long?” the Reverend said.
“I check in every few days. Make sure the doors are locked and everything’s where they left it.”
It wasn’t locked this time.
A teenage boy in ragged, faded clothes had died bound to a chair with the same black tape that sealed his mouth. Bloody lacerations covered much of his body, but the dark, gaping line across his throat had likely finished him. Recently.
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 beside her.
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. It looked 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.
The Reverend continued his questions while I looked deeper at the bodies, the way only a Chanter could. It wasn’t sight, precisely. It was an awareness of emptiness where there should be fullness, or darkness where there should be light. I sensed nothing. In all of them.
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. Any footprints I might add to those left by the absent workers were risky enough.
I leaned closer. There was dried blood in her hair, but the room was too dark to make out the source.
“Your message wasn’t clear. What made you contact the church?” the Reverend said. “City Security deals with crime. 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 now that I was looking. 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 stained brown. A few dark strands of hair were tangled in the dry blood.
“Give us a few minutes.” The Reverend ushered the guard out. “After we leave, call Purgatory and City Security 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 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.”
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?” he asked.
My eyes shot back to the boy. The tape that bound him to the chair would have easily held a much larger man, and the cuts to his body were sloppy, mostly shallow. Meant to make a bloody mess more than to cause that insufferable kind of pain that would break anyone. Eventually.
Focus. “The teens were her prisoners. Maybe they owed her something, 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. “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.”
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 we’d gone through enough variations on this scenario over the last few weeks that I knew what data he meant. I used the tablet to record the corpses’ temperatures and take more pictures for the church’s investigators to scrutinize. This 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 an unsatisfying conclusion to over six years of searching. And 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 into the room, and onto the current problem.
“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.”
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’ve run out of variations on that request.”
He didn’t have to make it a request, but of course he’d refuse. “Go over her head then.”
“I have.” The Reverend’s voice deepened.
“Three people connected to Emil Vicks are dead. She could be number four.” It wasn’t my job to care anymore, but she was still valuable to the Order.
“You need to do better than that. The other three worked for him. Gwyn was abducted.”
I didn’t need to be reminded. “Any connection justifies caution.”
“He had you shot. Looking to take 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, “Come on. 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 waited to open the door until I put them on, and he didn’t say anything about it when we stepped out into the shadow of buildings and the gray light of a hazy day.
Our sedan waited near the end of the alley, and I took the driver’s seat when we reached it. Sitting 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. 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 until 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 fabric would reduce my risk of burning alive if things got “exciting.” The armored plates would stop most rounds, just in case an impossibly strong infernal who could drain the life out of me with a thought decided to use a gun for some reason.
It was standard Templar armor, but thankfully the white ouroboros of the church was missing from the back. Some would object to me wearing that sign, myself included – I had met too many Templars to feel otherwise.
I glanced up. Some of them were alright though.
“What did he 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 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. Her glossy hair was bound up in a short, thick braid. Bulky armor obscured her 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.”
“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 looked concerned as she said, “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 was craving.
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 found out I was an infernal, just like her. But unlike her, 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 like myself. Up until now, I had only ever executed murderers, but my orders weren’t coming from the same place anymore.
And as a bonus, I’d been sentenced to die if I ever disobeyed those orders, tried to escape, or let on that I knew what I was.
I scooted in my seat but couldn’t get comfortable. I tugged down one side of the crooked armor. “How did he kill them?”
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.”
“Three in the afternoon, and you were drinking and pantsless?”
“I barely had time to put on these pants. Would you be drinkin’ in these pants?” They were actually pretty comfortable, for what they were. “Wait, you’re a 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 straight and picking out tangles before she separated sections for a braid.
The helmet sat on my seat beside a small bag. It looked glossy, black, and intimidating in its soulless anonymity. While Hanley tugged my hair, I unzipped the bag. My khukuri sat on top of my clothes, its wide, forward-curving blade hidden in a black sheath. Without pulling it out, I wrapped my fingers around the weapon’s handle. Touch-sensitive pads in my gloves almost perfectly mimicked the feel of the non-slip 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. Her reflection in the tinted window looked as worried as she sounded. “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, where the lights were broken or burnt out as often as not. And trash on the pavement and stains on the weathered walls didn’t do much for the ambience.
The first couple levels were filled with cars, but we descended to the fourth, which was nearly empty, before the Templar driver parked near a stairwell. He left the engine idling.
When I didn’t immediately leave the van, 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, but only because she had been asked to carry it out. She’d declined the order, but she never spoke to me about her reasoning, and I never asked. Whether she knew why I was sentenced to die or why my execution had been delayed indefinitely remained unknown to me.
She nudged me out of the van, followed after, and gave me no time to orient myself before she started tugging at straps and rearranging my armor while I avoided meeting her eyes. “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 I had a lot of practice shoving such thoughts to the back of my head for later. I always figured crying didn’t count, if no one saw you do it.
The helmet felt cramped and oppressive. More compact than my bicycle helmet, it was glossy black and 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 involved 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 new clothes and fit wildly better than the rest of the uniform.
I jumped a little when Quin’s voice filled my ears.
“They’re already talking,” he added.
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 far.
“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 kind of job.
“We see what you see and hear what you hear,” Quin said. “You should be chanting anyway. The Templars with you don’t officially know what you’re here for, but they’re not idiots. Get moving.” He started giving more specific directions, but I looked to Hanley.
“We’ll be behind you,” she said. “But if you’re exposed, don’t listen to the Inquisitor. Just run.”
I had every intention of following that advice, but I’d probably die before I got the chance to flee if I flashed my ass at an infernal.
The door to the stairwell creaked, and I walked through. At the top of the steps, a man and woman leaned against the wall, legs entwined and arms around each other. They paid me no attention 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 coat was long and bulky enough to arm them both.
I trotted down. The walls looked clear of security cameras, but the church had access to plenty of models that were small enough to hide.
Jogging down a flight and a half of stairs couldn’t explain my racing heart, and it wasn’t the reason I was breathing hard by the time I reached the correct floor. 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.
“What’s the tag’s name?” I said. Knowing would make this harder, but killing should be hard. The fact he was an infernal didn’t make it easier anymore.
“Lucas Alexander,” Quin said.
I opened my eyes, relaxed, and let myself see.
They were far enough away that it took a moment to pick their spirits out from the background noise. The door blurred details, but with my spirit eye I could see through it and the concrete wall beyond. A figure of white light, and one of red, stood together on a level that looked to be nearly devoid of cars and empty of other people. Other stairwells provided access to the area, and Templars guarded those too.
I wondered if the infernal could see them. Or if he’d even looked. He might have seen me already, and I didn’t know what would happen if he was watching when I started to chant.
The ethereal syllables of the chant flowed off my tongue, turning to ice that crept over my skin until it made my toes curl when it repeated at the fourth beat. The chill was the same whether I was half-naked or, as I was then, covered head to toe in heat. Neither of the distant figures appeared to react, though the red one shouldn’t have. The color of her light marked her as human. And as far as I knew, I was the only person in Ash who looked human but could see like an infernal.
And heal like one.
And break steel handcuffs like one.
I could probably do other more terrible things too, but I refused to think about that.
A few weeks of practice had made it easier to balance my spirit eye with the physical world, but it was still distracting and often confusing, so I let it go before I turned the knob. I braced myself to stop if the door creaked like the one upstairs, but it didn’t. At the same time, I softened my chant until it was barely loud enough to call a whisper. I had seen what Lucas Alexander was – the chant would work on him, and the only other person around would be the Inquisitor – but caution never hurt.
The door closed behind me in near silence.
The lowest floor of the parking garage didn’t look to have seen regular use for a while. There were no cars, but empty bottles, abandoned fast food containers, and cigarette butts collected near corners and along walls pitted with holes. As I moved away from the door, I passed a small field of shell casings. So at least someone had a use for the area.
I broke into a light jog, as fast as my boots could stay quiet on the pavement. I’d been told they were designed for stealth, but with my life on the line I wasn’t banking on what anyone told me. The chant would hide me from the infernal’s eyes, but as far as I knew, the only sound it obscured was its own unearthly tone.
I slowed to a walk at the edge of a partition wall that hid me from their view. Lucas Alexander wouldn’t see me while I maintained the chant, but there was still a form to the confirmation. Trotting right out in front of him, even knowing he wouldn’t see a thing, seemed thoughtless. So, I stepped out slowly, giving him time to notice me and myself time to study the man I’d probably have to kill.
Once I saw him, I knew I didn’t want to.
Ash blond hair hung disheveled around his gaunt, earnest face. A worn trench coat draped from his bony shoulders, hanging limp over a rumpled shirt and loose slacks. His lined skin made him look well into his fifties. A man on the humble side of ordinary. Nothing about his doleful gray eyes screamed cold-blooded killer, and I wondered how mine would look to him.
He said, “Are you an idealist, Miss Preston? Or merely an opportunist?”
“Isn’t realist an option?” Inquisitor Gianna Burris said. I couldn’t see her face, but everything about her stance embodied poise and confidence.
The Inquisitor had replaced Reverend Martin Greaves as my liaison to the church’s High Council, and she did not have the Reverend’s soft touch. But as much as I resented her, it was hard not to be impressed by her nerve in that moment. The longer Lucas failed to react to my presence, the more certain his inhuman nature would be to her.
“Make a scene, Hawthorn.” A man’s voice sounded crisp on the speaker in my ear. I had trouble focusing on his words while I softly murmured my own, and I didn’t recognize his voice. “Show us he can’t see you.”
Lucas wasn’t facing me directly, but I was in his line of sight. He would have reacted already if he was going to.
I held up my hand, palm out, and pulled in three fingers to give the camera in my helmet an awkward one fingered salute.
Quin snickered on the comm but went quickly silent.
“Save it for the tag,” the man said in my ear.
The gesture would be wasted on Lucas, but if I stopped chanting to point that out, it would cease to be true. I lowered my arm, shaking my wrist to work out the weird tension that had tightened the back of my hand with that move.
“Can you get what I want?” Lucas said.
Gianna’s head tipped down as she gave his weathered clothes a disdainful look. “Did you bring the down payment?”
I approached them, still chanting, watching my step to avoid the occasional piece of trash or broken glass that might give me away.
Lucas leaned forward as he reached into his coat. I went for the khukuri, but before I could safely draw it, he held out a thick envelope. He didn’t move toward her, and Gianna had to step in to reach for it. I circled around them. If I had to do this, I didn’t want to see his face.
I opened my spirit eye, studying the white light that seeped from his skin as I examined the man himself. It had been weeks since I looked at an infernal from such close range, but he seemed fainter than any of them. Dimmer than even Cobie had been when I killed her, and I suspected she was newly changed at the time.
I pushed aside the swell of sickness, fury, and guilt that rose at the thought of her. Cobie hadn’t been my friend. She only acted like it.
Gianna didn’t react when I moved into her field of view. She opened the envelope and made a show of flipping through its contents.
“Trusting. Aren’t you afraid I’ll take it and run?” She couldn’t have outrun a sloth in those heels, but I doubted she was speaking literally.
“Not at all.”
I checked the area around us as I half-listened. We were beneath a massive tower and four floors of parking, yet through the walls, indistinct disruptions in the darkness looked like rooms or hallways. My eyes flicked down, catching the outline of a narrow service tunnel underneath my feet.
“The rest comes when I have proof,” Lucas said.
A man leaned against the wall of the tunnel below. His light was dull and red, human, like Gianna. Through the stone, cement, soil, and steel that separated us, I couldn’t see much more detail than a slight dimming of his light, outlining the sleek shadow of his gun.
“Proof,” he repeated. “Not just names.”
“You’ll have it.”
All of the Templars I’d seen lurking around us were paired up, and I wasn’t enough of an optimist to think the lone man in the tunnel had nothing to do with us, so I looked past him. My spirit eye couldn’t see far through solid matter, but if he had other friends, I needed to know. I stepped forward.
“Not yet,” the man said in my ear.
I paused. Even if I could have spoken without betraying myself, I couldn’t explain my sudden interest in the floor. No one knew what I could see except for me.
“This city needs to know the truth about the vipers in its nest,” Lucas said.
I looked up. Vipers? I didn’t know what he was trying to buy. I didn’t even know if he thought the Inquisitor was from the church. He had called her by a fake name.
“Spare me the sermon,” she said.
“Opportunist then.” He sounded a little disappointed.
Motion below drew my eyes back down, but I held my head up so the helmet camera wouldn’t show where I was looking. I took another step.
“Don’t expect—” Lucas let out a pained shout, then doubled over and clutched his ear.
Gianna withdrew as he backed away from her, toward me.
What the fuck? I reached for the khukuri and clumsily freed the blade from its sheath.
“What the fuck?” Quin echoed my thoughts.
Without warning, the infernal swung at the air behind him. His face twisted in a snarl of pain as his fist swept through empty space. In the tunnel below, the waiting human shot upright. He started to move at the same time Gianna threw up her hands, and I stepped hastily back. Lucas didn’t have to hit me directly. If he grazed me with full infernal strength, it could shatter my ribs or crush my skull, helmet or not. And the Inquisitor didn’t have even that much protection.
“Kill him,” commanded the unfamiliar voice.
I still didn’t want to do it, but I couldn’t let him hurt her either.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” Gianna held character as she backed into the wall. I sprinted around him, giving a wide berth but putting myself between the Inquisitor and the infernal.
Lucas ripped something out of his ear, and the pain drained from his face. The tinny, piercing shriek that came from his earbud cut off as he tightened his fist with a crunch. His eyes shot to the side, toward an unlabeled door.
He couldn’t see me, but he knew I was there. The crushed remains of the earbud fell from his hand, and I got the sick feeling I knew how.
He bolted for the door.
“Lawson, move in,” said the Templar on the comm.
I drew a stun gun from the holster at my hip and took desperate aim as I chased him. If the Templars flanked him, the day would get a lot bloodier than it needed to. I fired. The visor shielded my eyes from a streak of blinding light that seared past him as he threw himself sideways into the door, deforming the metal as the latch ripped through the frame.
Firing the stunner confirmed my presence and gave away my position, but Lucas didn’t turn toward the bait. He barreled into a room full of boxes and construction material, and I followed right behind. In the solid walls, where my eyes saw zero doors, my spirit eye spotted one.
Lucas grabbed a metal tool case off a shelf as he passed and pitched it over my head with so much force that it exploded when it hit the wall behind me. Nails and tools showered the floor, but I was already past them. Sometimes it helps to be small.
“Stop him,” came another command.
At the same time Quin said, “That’s a dead end.”
Lucas knocked the hidden door open, and I chased him down cement steps into a tunnel.
“Shit,” Quin corrected himself.
Recessed lights traced along the ceiling, but no power flowed to them there. The tunnel would have faded to pitch if not for the dark vision sensor that lit up the inside of my visor in shades of green. The combination of night vision and my spirit eye made the world look a surreal drug-addled mess, but the important details were still clear. The infernal ahead of me. The shape of the tunnels around us. The debris in my path that I couldn’t afford to trip over.
“...losing,” said a crackly voice in my ear. “...can’t see—”
Lucas was fast. Fast enough that it was almost inevitable I’d lose him. My only advantage was that he couldn’t see me while I maintained the chant, but I could see him as long as he didn’t get too far ahead.
Then the tunnel took a turn toward his human backup, and I guessed he didn’t mean to run far.
“—ley, go!” crackled the fading voice on the comm.
More unwanted backup would make a bigger mess if I didn’t reach him first.
The ephemeral red light of the human’s spirit sprinted toward us. He stopped behind a closed door up ahead, lurking where it wouldn’t hit him.
Lucas blew through the door. It bounced hard and started to slam shut. I rebounded off it as I passed and redirected my momentum toward the waiting man.
He looked younger than Lucas. Bare cheeked. Maybe my age, with a visor covering his eyes, probably so he could see in the dark. His gun was up.
I moved under it.
He shouted, “Stop or—”
My khukuri ripped through his side. His weapon fired so close that the streak of light would have blinded me if not for the helmet’s visor.
He went down with a visceral cry. His weapon hit the ground, and I kicked it back down the tunnel.
A stun gun.
I turned toward the infernal. He’d stopped running and started swinging. Blind to my exact location, he inferred a lot from how I hit his trap.
He missed and struck again.
There was desperation behind his attack, but also a powerful hesitation.
I ducked under another blow and brought the khukuri around. The human grabbed my leg and pulled my attack up short. His grip was solid, despite his strength bleeding out, and he only needed to slow me down for a second.
I looked up, still chanting. Lucas looked down, right through me.
He held up his hands, looking over my head and a bit to the right. “My quarrel isn’t with you, ‘angel.’” His calm expression and wary pose seemed sincere. Far more so than the way he pronounced the word. ‘Angel.’
Sorry if my skepticism seems like malice.
I focused the energy I didn’t need for the chant on my leg and kicked. The human shouted as his grip broke, and the infernal’s expression collapsed back into hard lines and grim focus.
Momentum carried me out of the way as he struck where I’d been. Rubble and rocks and the curve of a spray-painted letter exploded from the impact where his fist hit the wall. His blood streaked the broken cement as he withdrew his fist. He wasn’t taking chances anymore either.
“Run.” The human tried to climb to his knees. “Run. I’ll catch you.” He pressed his arm against his bloody side.
I doubted it. The Templars would find him first.
But Lucas Alexander ran.
I trailed him down the tunnel with my stun gun in one hand and the khukuri in the other. He was straight ahead and in range, but I needed to be close to take the shot. Close enough to strike immediately if it hit, and even faster if it missed.
He slammed another door behind himself and stopped on the other side. I stopped too. Through the aged steel and chipped paint, his glowing white form waited for me to follow. A form with no detail. I could see where he was, but could no longer see his face.
I inched toward the wall. If he struck the door down, it might still hit me there, but he didn’t. I shouldn’t have known he was waiting for me. I’d followed him through a half dozen doors without hesitating, and I couldn’t help but wonder if he would stop and think about that.
The secret had been burning me up because learning it taught me something I wished I didn’t know about myself. But I had never fed on anyone. I’d never drained the spirit out of another living being, so I didn’t know what that side of the scale felt like. Even nine weeks after learning that I was an infernal, it still didn’t feel real.
But it was.
Lucas couldn’t see me because of the chant. He wouldn’t see the truth of what I was even if he could. I looked wrong to other infernals, nearly human. He wouldn’t know I wasn’t.
But I could see him through the door the same way he should have seen me, and if he thought about it, maybe he would guess.
The motion of his legs and the narrowing of his chest when he turned revealed that he’d taken a step back. Then another. He stopped, and I thought he wasn’t looking at me, but I wasn’t certain enough to move forward. I followed the direction his gaze might have gone, and through the earth I saw Templars. They were closing in from the side, and they were ahead of him.
Lucas Alexander’s colorless glow shifted wildly as he turned and sprinted away. If the flanking Templars got to him first, he’d either rip the lives out of their bodies or they’d risk burning us all alive to kill him. It would be my failure if that happened, but I had to wait until he was too far ahead to turn back before I opened the door.
He didn’t slow when the hinges squealed.
I tapped into the energy that fed my chant and drew a little more. My stride lengthened, my feet pushed a little harder, and I ran faster. Hunger gnawed at my stomach from using that inhuman energy, but it was mild. It wasn’t dangerous yet, and I started gaining ground instead of losing it.
Lucas tore through a doorway and stopped.
Still chanting, I flattened myself against the wall to avoid whatever he meant to throw at me.
“I meant what I said.” He only flung words, as he backed away. “Hope you’re listening, because I might not want your blood on my hands. If you follow me here, you’ll die too fast to regret it.”
I lurched forward, still chanting. Still hidden from his eyes.
His head swiveled toward the Templars. They were nearly upon us, racing down an intersecting tunnel. He slammed the door and took off.
An electric blue nexus lit up part of the door frame. A security system or lock on the far side that he must have set up in advance. The whole meet with Gianna must have been planned after all, but not by the church.
I was still running when the Templars burst into the tunnel ahead, their flashlights driving back the darkness.
The man in front reached for the door.
Lucas’s words filtered through all the fears fighting for my attention as I stared the electronic light he’d triggered.
It wasn’t a lock.
I broke my chant. “Wait!” I tried to stop. My boots scraped the concrete floor.
Thunder smashed the tunnel, and my back hit the wall.
The blunt impact of debris beat my ribs, and the chant’s abrupt end burned its chill from my skin. Like I’d been slammed into a vat of hot water. Then I was sliding. Falling. Voices shouted. Static crackled. I barely heard either through the ringing in my ears.
I saw blurry cement and clouds of dust. I sat up, and the room spun a few degrees before righting itself. Acid burned my throat, and bile bit into the taste of copper in my mouth. I’d lost control of my spirit eye, and so the Templars’ auras were gone. The display inside my visor buzzed. Static colors blazed from damage to the screen over my left eye. It flashed once. Twice. After the third blinding flare, I unstrapped it with shaking fingers and pulled the helmet off.
I was blind. My hands were empty, but I didn’t remember releasing the helmet.
I was out of the comm loop, but I didn’t care. Even if a message came through, I probably couldn’t hear it.
“Lawson?” It was the only name they’d said while my comm still worked. My slurred voice sounded like it came from five feet away and a cavern inside my skull at the same time. I levered myself onto my knees.
Dim light filtered through the dust and smoke. Debris fell away from me as I crawled toward the Templars, shock giving way to sick fear of what I’d find. My muddled brain reminded me that I could see through the haze if I used my spirit eye.
I didn’t want to look, but I needed to know.
The ephemeral light appeared, as if a curtain had been drawn back. My chest shook as my mouth filled with a new rush of bitter fire. I swallowed.
Four living bodies sprawled in the tunnel, but there was dead flesh with them, and it wasn’t all in one piece. One Templar’s red light dimmed. Fading. Dying.
I found my khukuri lying on the ground and picked it up as I caught sight of Lucas Alexander’s white light. Debris cluttered the tunnel, but the way after him wasn’t blocked. Still, he’d gained too much distance and was quickly fading from view.
Son of a bitch.
Now I wanted to kill him.
I tried to remember how many Templars I’d seen. Six? Seven? I couldn’t tell one from the other in the darkness. Their spirits blurred together so much that I couldn’t even count them. How many died because I was too slow to catch him? And too slow to warn them.
Of the thing I shouldn’t be able to see.
I had failed, and so there would be no explanations demanded about how I’d known, no unbelievable lies told.
No immediate execution.
Shame filled me, warring with my relief.
Footsteps beat the concrete behind me. I turned too quickly, and the hallway quirked sideways then righted itself as I swayed and nearly fell.
The dim red auras of Templars approached along the path I’d taken. Their leader’s flashlight snapped to me.
“Where is he?” Her shout barely penetrated the foamy ringing in my ears, but I recognized Hanley’s voice.
I swallowed. “Gone.”
Her light flicked over my head. Her steps faltered, and the figures behind her slowed too. I recognized them from the stairwell. Both were armed now.
“Lawson! Sir, are you hurt?” Hanley said.
A pistol rose past the right side of my face, clutched in a Templar’s bloody armored fist. I couldn’t see him, standing behind me as he aimed down the tunnel at Hanley and her team. The barrel quivered, and his finger curled across the trigger. I shoved his arm with a wordless cry as the shot stabbed my ears.
Fingers dug into my scalp and tangled with my hair. My scream drowned out Hanley’s shouting as dark purple locks slid out of my braid and into my eyes. The pain spiked as he forced me to face him and dragged me to my feet.
To my spirit eye, white radiance surrounded the Templar, but it didn’t seep through his flesh as it should. It hovered around him and bulged from his skin. Discordant light arched over his head and flickered from his back like the wings of a giant bird.
He dropped the pistol and seized my head between his hands, forcing me to face him. I looked into his glassy eyes, visible through his broken helmet. Brother Lawson’s eyes. His pupils weren’t lined up, much less directed at me. His jaw hung slack.
I aimed a desperate kick at his groin. His armor would have absorbed some of the blow, but his vacant expression didn’t change.
I raised the khukuri, pulled on the strength I was supposed to hide, and brought the blade down on Lawson’s forearm. Flesh sheared, and bone crunched. His hand released and fell away from his arm, but his flat expression didn’t change. Blood didn’t spurt from the wound as it would if his heart still beat. It splattered, warm, across my face. Then dribbled and dripped, with no living heart to pump it.
He jerked me forward, off my feet, then threw me to the ground. My knees struck cement, sending spikes of pain up my thighs.
Revenants took days to rise, not seconds. And their light was dim and colorless, not brilliant white and winged. But both revenants and infernals had the strength to crush my head like an egg. Which one he was wouldn’t matter in a moment.
His eyes cleared and focused on me. I brought the khukuri up as white light shifted and shot toward me along Lawson’s arm, like an infernal starting to feed.
Instead of the rush of weakness and agony that I expected, a dozen hammers came down on my skull. My body froze. The splitting pain tore a shriek from my throat as the khukuri slipped from my fingers. Darkness buried me, and I never heard my weapon hit the ground.
I rode my mother’s motorcycle alone for the first time – three weeks before she’d died and the hospital took it, along with everything else, to cover the expense of not saving her. The panel across the handlebars lit up, and a call tone played in my ears.
My heart jumped. Mom couldn’t have found out I’d bypassed the fingerprint lock. Not that soon.
Pressure surrounded my head and vibrated through my ears.
Sitting at a bus stop, I picked mold off the bread of a dumpster sandwich. A girl in designer jeans and gaudy shoes sat beside me and asked if there was a safe place to crash nearby. “Why the fuck would I know?” I snapped, bitter because I did. She said to call her Trinity.
I tried to blink, but I had no eyelids.
“We can’t squat up here forever,” Jack said.
I pulled his arms around me and rested the back of my head on his chest. “But I want to.” The clouds took on hues of pink and gold as dawn approached. “If you do.”
His chin settled onto my shoulder, and his cheek pressed against mine. “I’ll make it happen.”
It was a lie, but I smiled anyway. Frigid morning wind whispered across the rooftop, but I was warm, for the moment. As the sun crested the mountains that ringed the city of Ash, I closed my eyes against its light.
I tried to push back, but I had no hands.
I lay on my side, face pressed into carpet sticky with blood. I couldn’t move.
Chilly air touched my bare skin everywhere. Couldn’t shiver.
But despite the cold, everything burned. I couldn’t cry.
For hours I stared at Jack’s lifeless, bloodless face, and I couldn’t even blink.
If I could have moved enough to close my eyes, I would have tried to gouge them out instead.
My throat clenched tight, and my lungs burned.
I woke up in a hospital bed, alone and confused. I panicked and looked for the door.
My knees gave out when my feet hit the floor, and I tangled with the sheets as I tried to stop my fall.
A young man caught me. He came from nowhere, but I forgot to wonder how when I saw his black armor and the sword sheathed at his side.
A feeble scream escaped my lips, but he only helped me rise.
“You’re safe.” His voice soothed me to silence as he withdrew.
I sat on the bed, looked up, and was paralyzed by the pity in his blue eyes.
My lips parted, but words froze in my throat and tears ran down my cheeks before I remembered why. Then fragments of memory stabbed vicious little claws into my head.
Heartbreak wrenched his face as I crumbled.
I vibrated with the visions. I was the vibrations.
I stood in front of the first infernal I ever killed. My heart strained to escape as I murmured the chant and confirmed that it hid me from her eyes.
I drew the khukuri from its sheath and took comfort from its silence.
The chant was darkness, and it frosted my lips with ice.
I was small and getting smaller. Contracting. Crushed.
The pressure shook around me. I tried to scream, but I had no lungs.
The gag filled my mouth with fiber, bitterness, and blood.
A handsome man with gray sprinkled hair grabbed my throat.
Emil Vicks said, “Sing for me, angel.” His hand covered my lips, and his fire burned with the light he stole from my veins.
The pressure released.
I pulled air into my burning lungs.
Light hovered over Brother Lawson as his body slumped. His head lolled oddly where my khukuri was still buried halfway through his neck, severing the spine. He let go of my hair as Hanley released the weapon’s hilt and shoved the corpse away.
I stared at the dead man. Twice dead. “What?” My legs gave out, and I sat on my heels. My stomach tried to escape through my mouth, but I swallowed it.
“Hawthorn?” Hanley sounded like she was yards away when she touched my head. “Are you okay? Gwyn?” Blood covered her sleeve.
She reached for my shoulder. “Are you bleeding?”
I had no idea. “What the fuck?”
The other Templars closed in.
The light thing shivered in the air above their heads. Its wings flared, stretching across the tunnel and into concrete. Three pulses of pressure assaulted my head, and at the fourth it vanished.