My Immortal Soul Book One

My Immortal Soul Book One

 

Chapter 1

The hunt was on.

I threw myself down the city street, arms pumping at my sides, legs just a flash of jeans and heels against the dappled pavement.

My long black hair bounced around the stiff fabric of my jacket, shifting rhythmically from shoulder to shoulder as I continued to throw myself forward with all the unstoppable force of a marathon runner.

I wasn’t out of breath. And I wouldn’t become out of breath. You could ask me to chase after a cheetah, and I’d run that damn thing down without breaking a sweat.

I was in full attack mode, and until I grasped the necklace that always hung around my throat and switched the dial to the right, I would be practically unbeatable. With important emphasis on the word practically.

I suddenly skidded to a stop, my five-inch black heels dragging hard across the pavement, the force and strength of my move scratching two lines through it as if someone had dragged blades over the asphalt.

My hair buffeted around me as a slice of wind made it down the twisted laneway. It didn’t stop me from pressing my eyes open wide, a few knotted strands beating back and forth over my face like a flag caught in a gale.

I tilted my head back, my neck muscles straining, becoming taut like ropes. They would be framed by the dim moonlight making it in from the night sky above. Every spring-like muscle would be touched with that silver glow – the only illumination feeding the city tonight.

You see, there was a citywide blackout. They were common in these parts. The ordinary human population blamed it on the wind and an unreliable power grid.

I knew better.

Demons.

Evil spirits that could possess weak human minds and use their hands to eke out the will of the Devil himself.

That was why I, Celeste Ming, was here. It was the very reason I’d turned the dial on my soul necklace, despite the consequences it always brought.

I sniffed, my nostrils spreading wide, pumping like bellows as they drew oxygen deep into my lungs.

There, I could taste it. Laced along the wind, it was like dragging my tongue through a toxic mix of crude oil, paint thinner, and orange spice.

I jerked my head back down.

I could sense an enemy close by, and as I swept my head to the left and right, I picked something up in the building to my side.

A flicker of black lace-like wings. Just at the edge of my awareness – always at the edge of my awareness. Even in full attack mode, I would only ever be able to see demons when I either injured them sufficiently or if they chose to allow me to view them.

They only ever did the former when they had a message from their General. And that bastard was never dumb enough to contact me these days – he knew better than to waste my time and attempt to pluck at my sense of loyalty.

There was nothing left for him. Nothing but hatred, that was.

I used a burst of that anger now to fuel me, to push me forward as if I was a car that had just injected NOS into its engine. Blue flame didn’t spit out behind me, and I didn’t roar or anything. But it was in the sheer power and speed of my form as my heels clicked like a whole forest grating in the wind.

I threw myself around another turn in the laneway, the move so abrupt, I had to plant my heel into the wall and shove off. I got some air time, the move so damn powerful, I flipped up, landed with a thwack, my hair bouncing around me, then pushed off again.

Timing was everything when you were hunting demons. They didn’t quite exist in the same world that man did. The Church might tell you that Hell is below and Heaven is above, but that is an overly simplistic, childish view. If you kept digging, you wouldn’t reach the Devil himself and his legions of demons – you’d reach the core of the Earth. And if you kept reaching up through the sky, you’d punch out of the atmosphere – you wouldn’t find the gilded halls of Heaven.

Instead the realms of light and dark existed beside the human dimension. Think of them like two hands pressing into reality from both sides – like pincers that ensured the realm of man could not spill out but instead had to travel in a straight line.

That was the point, see? Of both Heaven and Hell. They existed to control human destinies.

Me? Once upon a time, I’d had a grand destiny of my own. Now my sole purpose was to mop up both the dark and light. When they strayed too far into the realm of man, I was there to push them back.

That neither made me good nor bad – it made me exactly in the middle.

I threw myself forward so quickly, I was starting to wear down the heels of my shoes. No matter, I could replace them. I lived on a shoestring budget, only capable of accepting donations from people who knew my worth. But at the very least, if I was lucky, I could find some discarded footwear next to a dumpster.

I had standards, but not about those kinds of things. Shoes with suspicious stains that smelt like week-old garbage were fine by me as long as they were cute. The good and dark leaching into man’s mind and controlling the actions of humanity?

I couldn’t allow that.

There. Right ahead of me. I picked it up again. As I jerked my head wildly to the side, I picked up a glimpse of demon wings in the left of my peripheral vision. It moved so quickly. It was really nothing more than a spark. A single flash of black. If you didn’t know what you were looking for, you would dismiss it as something pressing on your eyeballs momentarily, or nothing more than an afterimage from staring at a blinking light.

Problem was, I knew exactly what I was looking for.

I shoved forward again, swinging my head to the side, tracking the demon through the building.

It was some kind of clothing store, and fortunately, being the dead of the night, it was closed.

If it hadn’t been closed, the hapless humans of this city wouldn’t have been treated to the view of the demon rushing through their midst. Instead, they would have felt it. For every single person the demon would’ve rushed through, would have grown sick or inexplicably violent, or some mix of the two.

I’m not saying that every single case of the sniffles or assault is caused by demons. Humans don’t get off that lightly. Neither the dark nor light can make it into people’s minds without their permission. They create a hole, fixate on some concept, and end up getting possessed.

Still, find an invisible demon running through you, and your body will react. Maybe with the flu, maybe with a head cold, maybe, if you’re really susceptible, with a sudden and fatal heart attack.

But fortunately it was night.

I couldn’t dally, though. Take too long in mopping this guy up, and he would find out.

And who was he? Thanatos, the colossal mega bastard who was the Devil’s main emissary in Soullake City. I might not hate him as much as I hated the General, but it was close.

Thanatos Jones technically had a real job. He was an investment banker, a broker for not just money, but opportunity. You make the right deal with Thanatos, he’ll give you what you desire.

You might not like what you have to pay ultimately, though.

Thanatos was matched on the side of good by Father Butler. And as you could probably already guess, I hated that guy just as much as Thanatos.

I had no preference for Heaven over Hell. I understood that both simply used humanity and controlled their destinies.

But right now, it was time to mop up the demon.

And I was close.

But the jerk was faster than me. He knew I was chasing him, even though I was outside. As I kept a lock on him in my peripheral vision, practically making my head spin from the stress of staring out of the corner of my eyes, I appreciated he kept whipping his tail and wings toward me.

He put on a burst of speed.

I heard a crash from the front of the store, and seconds later, as I burst through the laneway and skidded to a halt, I saw shards of glass and metal covering the pavement.

The shop’s alarm started to blare, and got all of about two notes into its warning song before it was switched off.

While demons could choose to be insubstantial, and could easily pass through any man-made material, it was up to them when they became solid.

“Fine. You want to play? Then we play.” I had the time to spit out just as I watched the demon clutch up a long flat section of metal.

The demon moved so quickly, I could barely track it.

As it was, I kept my gaze locked to the left, only just picking up the swipe of its claws as it swung that metal toward me.

I had several options, but this had been a shit night, and it was time to brute force my way forward.

So I shoved toward the metal pole. I brought my arm up and I collected that pole right on my elbow.

Pain had a fraction of a second to pulse through me. The pain of broken bones, torn flesh, of a human arm ripped to shreds by metal moving at the speed of sound.

But the pain didn’t last. It couldn’t. Not when I was in full action mode.

The injury?

That would be a technicality. As soon as it appeared, it disappeared.

I would have to deal with it later.

For now, I twisted my wrist to the side, clamping my fingers around the steel pole and yanking just before the demon could swing at me again.

It screeched, the pitch of its voice so loud, it blew out two more windows of the shop beside us. Glass hailed inward, covering a display, knocking over several mannequins, and shredding their clothes.

The security footage of this incident would make no sense. To human eyes, at least. They would see the door of the store blasting outward, and a minute later windows shattering, seemingly of their own accord.

But there wouldn’t be any footage. Just as the demon had already turned off the security alarm, it would’ve been smart enough to turn off the security cameras, too. Thanatos was an exacting master, and he ensured every single demon that came to work for him knew the rules of his game.

The demon screeched again, the sound blasting out, this time so loudly that it shattered windows on the opposite side of the street.

There would be a hell of a cleanup bill. Fortunately, I wouldn’t be paying it.

My services began and ended with keeping a wall between the light, the dark, and humanity.

The demon attempted to wrench the metal pole from my grip, flying forward and fastening both of its clawed forelegs around the length of steel.

It revealed its two massive wings – their span as long as a car. It flapped them back, using its power to try to pull its weapon free from me.

“Screw this,” I spat. I kept one hand fastened on the steel pole. With the other, I clutched my soul amulet.

It had modes. It was linked to my soul, though technically it was more accurate to say that it was my soul. I too had made a deal with the Devil, but that had been a long time ago. The deal had delivered me this amulet. By twisting its dial, I could access the raw power of my soul, using it to give me all the skills required to take out angels and demons.

When I didn’t require that power, I would simply turn the dial to the right, and I would return to my human form.

But not yet.

Turning the dial all the way to the left, I felt power flood me.

It was unstoppable. The brightest damn thing in the universe. The most powerful force ever to exist. It was my soul, on fast forward, turned to full capacity, raging like a star.

I watched realization pulse through the demon’s black pupils, the skin around his eyes stretching like plastic wrap.

He had time to jerk his gelatinous lips open, revealing six rows of broken, folded in, tusk-like yellow teeth. “Mercy,” he tried. “Thanatos—”

I didn’t wait around for him to finish his sentence, even though I knew exactly what he was going to say.

I attacked. Wait around to listen to what he was about to blabber, and I’d lose all legal rights to attack him. And this guy deserved only one thing – to be sent back to his maker.

With the full power of my soul blazing around me like an impenetrable white shield, I let a scream split from my lips. It shook down the street, as powerful as a bellow from a giant. I struck the demon, right in the center of its chest, giving the blow everything my suddenly super powerful form could manage.

The demon didn’t have a chance to finish its sentence. I delivered a blow powerful enough to split it right down the middle. Instantly the scent of rotting flesh struck the air. It was like smelling a pit of corpses. It was fetid, overpowering, almost impossible to put up with. But to dispel demons and hold the line, I’d learned to hold my stomach too.

Just before the fiend flickered away in a dance of black light, it locked its eyes on me. It tried to move its lips.

A thrill of fear passed through me. But before it could finish its plea, it disappeared, its body incapable of sustaining its warped soul any longer. I stood there and watched as wisps of black smoke circled around the spot where the demon had been, almost like bees who could no longer remember where their hive had gone.

I didn’t shift until every single last wisp of smoke had pressed through cracks in the pavement, returning from whence they’d come.

Then I swung that steel beam over my shoulder and pressed it against the crook of my neck. I drummed my fingers on it, the rat-a-tat filling the air as I heard sirens far off in the distance. The police would take their sweet time. They always did in this city. Though the human population had no idea of the demons and angels vying for control of Soullake, they knew exactly how dangerous the streets were at night.

I considered the mess of glass and broken metal, shoving a clump of plaster with the toe of my heel as I tutted. “Messy bastard, weren’t you?” I muttered under my breath as I discarded the steel pole, jettisoning it off my shoulder and not caring as it struck the remaining flimsy section of the door, pulling it right off its hinges and making it thump hard against the store floor. Several mannequins shook and fell over, scattering their hats and summer wear over the already trashed shop.

I shoved my hands into the pockets of my jacket and strode away. Another night in Soullake; another fight.

The city sat over a double gate to Heaven and Hell. It was hotly contested territory in the never-ending battle between both realms. It was the city – if you were to believe my warped destiny that I’d left behind when I’d started up my business – that I was foretold to destroy.

But it was the city, instead, that I would protect.

Chapter 2

I sat on the couch in my house, tears trailing down my cheeks, soft sobs parting my lips as I dabbed at the wound on my elbow again.

It wouldn’t last. It would heal up in minutes, though I would have to put up with the residual pain for the rest of the day. For now, I watched blood fill the hot flannel I’d gotten from the bathroom sink. It was covered in a unique tincture of purslane and mandrake root. The purslane was to heal both my physical and spiritual bodies, and the mandrake was to anchor my spirit back into my body. As I sat there on the couch, an old patchwork blanket I’d picked up off the side of the street draped around my shoulders, I closed my eyes and breathed in the scent of vervain on the wind. It was all through my house and planted all around the perimeter of my property. You want spiritual protection, you can’t go past vervain. It will protect you from spells, unwanted visitors, and everything that goes bump in the night.

The tears didn’t stem, even as I breathed in the scent lacing the air. It didn’t matter how deeply I drew it into my lungs, these tears had to be cried. It was the same after every single fight. There was a cost for fueling every fight with the light of my soul. And it was a cost I would have to pay in tears and blood as soon as the fight was over.

I rocked back and forth on my couch, drawing my knees up and pressing them close to my chest, the old, ragged patchwork blanket trembling around me as the tears came thicker and faster.

When I was in full attack mode, using the power of my soul, emotions barely affected me. As soon as I stopped, there was little that could calm me down, save for time.

As another pang of pain spread through my elbow and up into my shoulder, I forced my crooked, weary body to shift forward, every joint creaking like an old house being assailed by the wind.

There was a copper bucket in front of me. It was one of the few things in my house I’d had to buy, not scrounge. I’d had to go to an actual blacksmith to get it smelted, and that had taken me far out of town.

The cost had been worth it. As I pushed my flannel back into the hot water and wrung it out with one hand, it cleansed the cloth at the deepest level. Copper has unique properties that allow it to take on the emotional resonance of an object. And right now, it was resonating with the powerful elixir I’d poured into it. Two tablespoons of ground-up mandrake root, a handful of purslane, and half a cup of sand from a north-facing beach.

As soon as I wrung out the flannel and placed it over my elbow once more, I began to feel relief. I tried to sink into it, but the tears wouldn’t stop. Not yet. You see, someone had to cry over a tragedy. That’s a lesson I’ve learned over the years, though it’s taken a long time to learn it.

Back when I worked for him, that bastard, the General, he taught me ways to stem the tears of the soul. He taught me to fight without consequences.

But it had cost. The soul is made to shine, but it is also made to cry. You prevent it from doing the former, you will descend. And I would never push back into Hell again.

It took about an hour for the pain to ebb sufficiently for me to turn on the TV.

It was a piece of junk – but again, it was the best I could afford. I sunk back into the couch, dabbing my flannel less frequently over my injured elbow as I allowed the news to distract me.

“A shock result in yesterday’s mayoral election. Jennifer Rogers has defeated the incumbent, Mayor Milo North, in one of the most convincing victories in years. Though Jennifer has never held office at any level of government, her campaign won the hearts and minds of voters.”

I snorted as footage of Jennifer came up on screen. “You shouldn’t make deals with the Devil, Jennifer,” I said as I clucked my tongue, my gaze sweeping over the crowd behind Jennifer.

Sure enough, I saw the man I knew would be there. He was standing on the steps outside of City Hall, and despite the fact the footage was cut off at his head, I didn’t need to see Thanatos’ brilliant blue eyes and sandy blond, shoulder-length hair to recognize him. The gold and blood-red ruby signet rings adorning both of his pinky fingers were more than enough.

I leaned forward, suddenly interested, incapable of tearing my gaze off him.

Though I wasn’t in action mode at the moment, that didn’t stop my teeth from clenching. I was decidedly meeker when my soul dial was turned to the right, but there were exceptions when it came to Thanatos.

I didn’t listen to a damn word of Jennifer’s acceptance speech, and rather locked my full attention on Thanatos. I could only see his right hand, as he was at the corner of the footage, but I fixated on it like a targeting system searching for an enemy.

He slowly drew his hand out of his pocket, and as the sun glinted off his ruby ring, my stomach twisted.

I’d been close to that ruby ring. I’d had that very same hand brush down the side of my face and lock passionately onto my shoulder.

But that had been a long damn time ago. Back when I’d believed the temptations of Hell. Back when I’d worked for him, the General.

I clenched my right hand into a fist, squeezing the flannel so tightly, the precious potion I’d made splashed uselessly against the already stained carpet.

My mornings were always for healing. I had to allow the time to deal with the night’s previous wounds before heading back out into the city to continue my tireless job of holding back the realms of light and dark.

If I was smart, I’d simply clutch up the remote and turn the damn TV off.

I wasn’t smart right now. Hatred filled me.

Thanatos was the epitome of everything I hated about Hell. He wasn’t just some foolish demon. He was far too self-aware for that. The kind of self-aware where someone knows exactly what they want and how to get it. And that summed up Thanatos completely. It was why the Devil had chosen him to fight over this most crucial city in the war between Heaven and Hell. Thanatos understood how to get things done.

I just stopped myself from throwing the flannel at the screen.

I hadn’t had the time to look into the election. A mistake. The last mayor had been in the pockets of Heaven. Now it seemed the city was swinging toward the dark.

“Bastard,” I spat viciously as I finally forced myself to sit back, my shoulders brushing against the broken springs of my couch. They twanged uselessly behind me as I rounded a fist and punched it hard against the cushioned fabric. I did it again, and again, ignoring the pain that radiated down my shoulder and into my elbow.

It didn’t matter. I did it once more until I finally let my fist rest uselessly in my lap.

I grabbed up the remote, my thumb hovering over the off button. I managed to squeeze my eyes closed for several seconds, but that didn’t stop them from winking open. I fixed my full attention on that glimpse of Thanatos until the news cut back to the anchor.

I stabbed my thumb against the off button, settling into the silence as I blinked my eyes feverishly, trying to empty my brain of the image of that evil shit.

It took a few more minutes, then I went back to healing myself.

Time was everything when it came to remedying the ills of the soul.

As I brought up a hand and clutched at my soul amulet, I felt time itself beating softly against my palm.

Chapter 3

I walked down the road, hands in my pockets, shoulders hunched.

It was noon, and the sun was out in all its fury. I had dark shades on and a thick brimmed hat, but even then, I found myself trying to shrug underneath the shadow of the brim.

I still hated the sun. Especially when it was this bright. Blame it on my history with the dark or the fact I had a corking headache from my fight last night.

I was heading to work. Yes, work. I had a legitimate front. Hell, I even had an employee. I owned a private eye service. There were plenty of other private detective services in town. But unlike the rest of them, I didn’t specialize in cheating husbands and wives. I found lost souls. No – I didn’t offer a mystical service to the residents of Soullake – they had no idea Heaven and Hell existed, remember?

I specialized in tracking people down. Be they kidnap victims; be they those who had been taken by a mania. It didn’t matter. At Lost Souls Detective Agency, if you were lost, I would find you.

“Boo!”

I jumped. I didn’t need to. Nothing in the human realm surprised me. But my employee, Cheryl Walters, liked to play games. So I didn’t begrudge her, and I jumped as she swept in from my side, placing a tender hand on my shoulder.

I’d tracked her halfway down the street, smelled her as she’d paused behind me.

“You always fall for that,” she chided as a warm smile spread her lips.

Cheryl was in her early twenties, and with her ski-jump nose, red and brown dappled freckles, and curly black hair, she was as cute as a button. She was as jovial as they came, and lit up the damn street every single time she smiled.

She was also extremely good at getting coffee.

“You need this. Here,” she said as she shoved a cardboard carrier with three cups of coffee and two doughnuts in front of me.

I chuckled. “You deserve a raise.”

“That’s pretty funny considering this is a volunteer job.”

“Well at least let me pay for the coffee,” I said as I patted my jacket, looking for my wallet.

Cheryl gave me a knowing look. “There’s a reason I work for you for free. My job at the coffee shop pays my rent,” she said as she shrugged toward the coffee, “and I get enough free treats that bringing your sorry ass coffee every single day doesn’t cost me a dime. Consider it charity work.” She chuckled as she smiled. “Just another extension of the good deeds of Lost Souls Detective Agency.”

I opened my mouth to tell her she was a truly decent person. I didn’t get the chance.

I watched a car pull up to the side of the street. A few things were wrong with the car. It was jet black, it was a limousine, and despite the fact it had nowhere to park on this cramped street, it still managed it. It swept in right beside me, the two SUVs that had taken up the spot beside me shifting impossibly to the side as if they were merely curtains that had been unfurled with a tug.

Nobody on the street screamed. Cheryl didn’t clamp a hand over her mouth and gasp in horror. To the ordinary humans, they would never have seen the two SUVs that had really been parked. Call it momentary forgetfulness. Or call it magic – you choose.

But while Cheryl hadn’t seen the other two cars, she sure as shit picked up the limousine. Her cheeks paled. “Oh my God, isn’t that Thanatos Jones?”

Yes, it fucking was.

Though I could assume he was here to grab a noon coffee from the excellent establishment to my side, I wasn’t an idiot.

The passenger door beside me swung open. The hinges didn’t creak or protest. They didn’t make a damn sound, and that just reminded me of the soundless flap of a demon’s wings.

Thanatos was seated on the other side of the car. Though I was a short ass, even I couldn’t see his face. All I could see was his hands clasped in his lap, his two signet rings somehow glinting, despite the fact very little sun could make it in through his heavily tinted windows.

“Get in,” he growled.

“Go fuck—”

“Before you finish your sentence, don’t bother. We both know I have far more attractive options than to pleasure myself.”

I made a face. “You crude bastard.”

“Yes. I’m the crude one. Let yourself believe that, Celeste,” he said, saying my name in the exact same way he always did – with a delicate shift of his tongue, almost as if he was attempting to lick the syllables right out of the air, “believe what you need to. But get in the car,” he growled.

All the while as we stood there and argued, Cheryl didn’t move from my side.

She looked interested at the fact Thanatos had rocked up beside us, but from the blank look in her eyes, it was clear she couldn’t hear a word. When I finally got the prick to drive off, she likely wouldn’t remember a thing, not unless Thanatos wanted her to, and he was such a secretive shit that that never happened. There were some practitioners of the Devil that liked to make their work known. They thrived in chaos. Thanatos was not one of them. He fought in the shadows while playing in the light for everyone to see.

“I’m going to tell you once more to get into my car.”

“And I’m going to tell you that you have no way to control me anymore,” I spat as I clutched hold of his door, my fingers conforming to the metal. All it would have taken was a quick twist of my soul dial, and I would’ve wrenched the damn door from its hinges.

“That may be true,” he let out a low chuckle, “but the Dictates of the realm of man still do control you. And it is those Dictates that we must discuss. You broke the law last night, Celeste.”

I stiffened. Before my cheeks could pale, however, I shook my head hard, my dead straight black hair bouncing around and framing the move. “I intercepted a demon and sent it back to Hell. That’s not breaking anything.”

“It pled to see me.” Thanatos finally made himself seen, ducking his head down until I caught sight of his practically luminescent pupils.

… I knew it was a trick of the light, or at least of the dark. But there had always been something… leading about Thanatos’ eyes. If I was some idiotic lovestruck human, I might stupidly point out that you could easily get lost in Thanatos’ eyes. But it wasn’t about getting lost – it was about getting trapped. And I’d been there, done that, and would never do it again.

I tightened my fingers around the door. “That demon didn’t plead for his life.”

“No, because you killed him before he could finish,” Thanatos said, his lips moving sharp and hard around the move, almost as if his mouth was a door. But I knew better. Thanatos’ mouth was no door – it was a furnace. Allow those hot lips to lock on you, and you will wonder just how much you will burn until he’s done with you.

His hands were still locked in his lap, his body held at what, to a human at least, would be an uncomfortable angle. For Thanatos, it didn’t matter. Because his wings could hold him aloft in any position.

Though no one else on the street would be able to see them, I could catch just a glimpse of them. Lock my eyes to the left, and I could pick up their burning, blazing power hanging out of the side of the car.

“It seems you are forgetting every rule today, Celeste,” he said, his tongue doing it again, carving my name out of the air with two soft flicks. “It is rude and improper to stare at a demon’s wings. We might have once had that kind of relationship,” he pointed out, his gaze sliding down my form—

“But now we’re enemies,” I spat. “I don’t need to be reminded of that, you asshole.”

His lips ticked into a thin smile. “But you do need to be reminded of the Dictates. You illegally killed that demon last night.”

“I didn’t illegally kill anything. I justifiably,” my voice punched out on that word, “sent a demon back to Hell. You might try to claim that he attempted to plead to see you, but I didn’t hear anything.”

I smiled. It was all teeth, all threat.

Thanatos didn’t replicate the move. He simply tapped his hands rhythmically in his lap, his two signet rings grating against each other. As soon as they touched, they sounded like massive door knockers being beaten against each other. Because that’s what they were – they were Thanatos’ means to open portals back into Hell.

Deprive the bastard of them, and it would be the equivalent of clipping his wings. I had every intention of doing it one day, but there was no way I was powerful enough yet. Plus, remove Thanatos from this equation, and Father Butler would simply rear his ugly head and take over the city. For now, no matter how much I hated it, I had to maintain the status quo.

“I know I’ve said this before, but she certainly is a cute one,” Thanatos said as he suddenly changed topic, flicking his demon eyes toward Cheryl.

I stiffened, pressing closer to the door, using my back to block his view of her. “Just as I have said before, if you lay one finger on her, I will rip your damn wings from your back.”

Thanatos moved, shifting forward with a jerk. He grabbed hold of my wrist and pulled.

I wasn’t expecting it, and I thumped down face-first onto the plush leather of the back seat, my cheek pressing hard against his thigh.

I shoved a hand under my torso, clasped my soul dial, and twisted it to the left.

I didn’t need to speak any incantation. I didn’t have to wait, either. Immediately I was filled with the full power and fury of my soul.

Thanatos chuckled. “Watch your legs,” he said snidely as he used a pulse of magic to close the car door. It shoved my short legs forward, crumpling me fully into the back seat.

I jerked up, hair swaying around my face, and I let out an animalistic growl.

This just made Thanatos’ eyes widen as a truly enigmatic smile spread his lips. “I love it when you lose control.” His voice was like a drill, one that knew how to push past everything and reach far, far down.

I instantly reacted to his tone, my lips jerking back in a snarl. I was now pressed up against the far door, and fortunately this limousine was large enough that that put a good half a meter between us.

After pulling me suddenly into the limousine, Thanatos had shifted back into his seat, his hands back in his lap. He started to play with the ring on his left hand, securing it between his fingers and sliding it up and down, up and down.

This was no attempt at a lude reference. This was a threat. If Thanatos took off that ring, a port would open up down to Hell, taking me and the car with it.

There was nothing I could do to stop my wide, fear-filled gaze from locking on it.

This predictably made Thanatos’ lips curl into a devilish smile, which was appropriate for the demon. “He’d love to see you, you know,” he said, his voice purring down low on the word love. “You two would have so much to catch up on.”

“You open up an unjustified gate to Hell, and the Dictates will make you pay,” I growled defensively.

Thanatos chuckled. It was a deep, shaking move, the demon actually causing the car to shudder back and forth. “Who said it would be unjustified?” He stopped abruptly as he brought his face closer several centimeters, his eyes fixing on me again. “Now let’s return to the main reason I brought you here, Celeste.”

I didn’t dare let my gaze lock on his lips as he said my name. I stared back defiantly, my body still pulsing with the power of my soul, its full force albeit held back for now.

For now. If or when Thanatos tried something, I’d be there. And though technically I would be no match for the senior demon on paper, the soul can do funny things when it’s desperate. When you really want something – when you want it with all your soul, in fact – you can find power you never knew you had. And I really, really wanted to kill Thanatos one of these days.

Shifting his face a few centimeters closer to mine, and a few centimeters again until his body was hunched over, he allowed his suddenly white lips to part. “Do it again, and I won’t hesitate to open a gate down into Hell and deliver you back to the General.”

My breath was caught in my chest, my shirt practically popping its buttons. “I didn’t break the Dictates.”

“Not technically.” His tongue whipped around his mouth on the word technically, shifting just as fast and violently as I knew his tail could. “But remember this. I always have someone watching you, Celeste. And if you make a mistake, I will take advantage of that.”

“Always have someone watching me, ha? Except for in my house or in my office or in churches or in sanctified graveyards or—”

“You do not need to make an exhaustive list of the places we demons cannot go. All you need to do is understand,” his teeth clenched hard, the enamel clamping like vices, “that I will not sit by and watch you do as you please.”

“You done? Because unless you open this door, I’m going to kick it down. And good luck hiding the fact your limousine has a hole in it from the people outside. Because you’ve got to remember,” it was my turn to shift forward, my gaze becoming hooded with shadow, “that there are limits even to your magic.”

He shifted forward, placing a hand on the leather seat between us, the fabric creaking softly, the sound matching that of his wings as they shifted behind him. “Do not start a war with me, Celeste. Despite our history,” his tongue tasted the air on the word history, “I won’t be kind.”

The day I let myself fall for this idiot was the stupidest day of my life. No, scratch that, the stupidest day of my life was the day I’d fatefully made a deal with the Devil.

“This isn’t a war. And I haven’t broken the Dictates. Evidenced by the fact you’re too much of a coward to take that ring off,” I goaded him as I let my gaze flick toward it.

“Do not try me,” he growled.

It was my turn to snort derisively. “I have tried you, remember? And I didn’t like it. Now,” I shifted around and placed a hand on the passenger handle, “let me out before I do permanent and unnecessary damage to this excessively expensive vehicle.”

The lock unclicked. Not the physical lock – this one sure as hell wasn’t made out of metal. The magical lock Thanatos had put in place the second he pulled me in here, however, turned off with a fizzle.

“You play a stupid game,” he growled just before I could open the door.

“Who said I’m playing? I gave up playing when I left you and Hell far behind.”

This brought a soft chuckle to his lips. It was neither mirthful nor mirthless. It was simply a routine, automatic move. But the look he followed it up with was neither. His eyes blazed as he darted them toward me, and that was no overemphasis. I could see the eternal flame flickering deep in his pupils as he opened his eyes even wider as if he wanted to swallow me with them. “With your past,” his lips jerked hard around that word, “and importantly,” his eyes somehow widened even further, his voice dropping to a whisper as he said, “your future, you cannot afford to ignore the law. You haven’t forgotten your destiny, have you, Celeste?”

Though I knew I shouldn’t react, and all he was doing was pulling my strings, I couldn’t stop my stomach from tightening.

Thanatos’ expression changed, his gaze filling with sadness – one I was sure was faked. “Destinies can only be held back with the full light of one’s soul, Celeste. But you lack the capacity to even try. Your sad destiny is too strong, and your control of your soul too weak. If you keep breaching the rules, you will destroy this city. And when you destroy this city,” he leaned all the way forward, pressing himself as close to me as he could without the skin of our cheeks touching, “I will be forced to kill you, lest you help the Divine. And when that happens, Celeste, no one will shed a tear.”

I tried to swallow my emotion, but it was there, obvious as a lump in my throat, one I couldn’t swallow past, no matter how hard I tried. “I thought you just told me that my destiny saddened you?”

It wasn’t a legitimate question. I didn’t want Thanatos to feel anything for me other than hatred. But demons do so hate it when you point out their inconsistencies.

Thanatos? He just smiled and sat back down in his seat, the leather creaking until it stilled. “We both know I’m a complicated man.”

With that, the passenger door opened.

I wasn’t expecting it, and as I was leaning against it, there was little I could do to stop myself from tumbling out and striking the pavement.

I was in full attack mode, so I hardly broke a bone, let alone a nail.

I bounced back up just in time to watch the door creak shut. It paused, offering me just a glimpse of his curled, satisfied smile. “Good luck with your case today, Celeste – I’ve heard it will be a hard one.”

I bristled. “What the hell does that mean?” I went to jerk forward, latch a hand on his door, and stop it from closing, but the car turned on silently and swung into traffic before I could try.

Though there had been two taxicabs right alongside the limousine, that didn’t matter, and the traffic simply shifted around, allowing Thanatos’ limousine to pass through it with ease.

As I stood there, breathing hard, my hands clenched into fists, I watched the two SUVs shift back into their original positions.

Space wobbled. It would be the last warning I would get. The spell Thanatos had cast on this street to stop people from recognizing what was happening to the traffic and from hearing a word of our secret conversation was about to crack.

In that time, I needed to turn off my soul spell. Just at the last moment, I did it. I brought up a hand, twisted my dial to the right, and breathed.

Though it wasn’t as if Cheryl and the other pedestrians on the street had been paused before, no one had been saying anything or doing anything. They’d simply been standing there, staring out like mannequins.

As Cheryl returned to the land of the living, she frowned briefly, shook her head, and glanced at me.

I staggered a little – the consequence of turning off my soul amulet, despite the fact I hadn’t used any strength during my altercation with Thanatos.

“Whoa there,” Cheryl said as she immediately darted forward and wrapped a hand around the crook of my elbow. “Did you have another rough night?”

Yes. And by the sounds of Thanatos’ threat, it would be rougher still tonight.

Cheryl blinked, then stared down at my feet. The three coffees and two doughnuts she’d selflessly bought for me were a mess over the pavement. “Oh no, you dropped your breakfast. I think I have time to head back to the store and grab some more.” She shifted to jog back to her coffee shop, but I immediately grabbed her wrist to stop her.

Thanatos’ limousine had looped around the street and was doing a drive-by.

I could just make out the dark outline of his face through his excessively tinted windows. It was directed at Cheryl.

“It’s all good. I don’t need any coffee this morning. Let’s head to work. And, Cheryl?”

“Yeah?” she said after a significant pause, her voice shaking with confusion.

The confusion came from me as I looped a hand over my soul dial and twisted it ever so slightly to the left. “I’ve told you this before, but you need to listen this time,” on the word listen, magic pulsed through my voice, giving it a mesmerizing quality, “never have anything to do with Thanatos Jones. If you see him, head to the closest church. If he knocks on your door at home, don’t open the door. And if you see him on the street,” I had to grit my teeth for this bit, but eventually I pushed the words out, “you pray to God. You got that?”

“I… I have that,” she said, every word automatic as her wide, sightless eyes stared over my shoulder.

“Good,” I muttered as I turned my dial back to the right.

This time I gritted my teeth and stopped myself from stumbling. I patted Cheryl fondly on the arm, releasing her wrist as I nodded forward. “We should head to the office. I have a feeling,” I swung my gaze back in the direction where Thanatos had driven, “that an important case is going to be waiting for us.”

Chapter 4

I wasn’t wrong. The moment I walked into my old office, was the moment my gaze ticked toward my equally old answering machine. Yeah, I still had an answering machine – and it used tapes, actual mechanical tapes. There was a reason behind that other than frugality. It wasn’t just that I’d picked up this answering machine from the local thrift store with a whole box of unused tapes that would last me for years. It was that I could scribe spells on the magnetic tape once I’d used a round, cleansing them of the energies they’d been forced to listen to.

It was much easier to cleanse physical, tangible objects than it was messages held in the cloud.

The old machine had a single red diode light, and it was blinking feverishly as I walked up to my desk and dumped my keys on it.

I planted my hands either side of the machine, pretending I was a little weak as Cheryl walked behind me and patted me tenderly on the shoulder. “Sure you don’t want to nap?”

“Just catching my breath. Like I said—”

“You can’t shake the feeling that this is going to be a busy day. If it were anyone else, I’d say that was bullshit, but you seem to have the best intuition in town.”

I smiled at that as Cheryl quickly walked over to the tiny kitchenette on the opposite side of the room and dutifully set about making me coffee.

It wasn’t intuition. Humans had intuition because they didn’t understand the forces involved in their lives.

What I had was experience.

And that experience warned me that there were distinct negative energies wafting off the answering machine.

It was enough that I quickly yanked open the drawer underneath it, rummaged around, and plucked up a spray bottle filled with atomized vervain and lavender.

As Cheryl kept her back to me, I sprayed two spritzes of the concoction onto my palms, concentrating on my forefinger, really letting the tincture sink in until I gathered the courage to hit play.

Instantly I heard emotional breathing. Distraught, deep, broken. “My… my name is Hillary White. I… I’ve tried everybody else in town. I got your name from an ad in the paper. It said… it said you specialized in finding lost souls.”

As I listened to the woman’s broken speech, I closed my eyes, steadying my body as I gripped the bench with both hands.

I pushed my mind into every single sound making it off the magnetic tape.

That was the other advantage of using tapes over digital storage. If you spelled them the right way, you could attune them to pick up certain classes of sounds.

From the almost indiscernible flap of an angel’s wings, to the ever spine-tingling scratch of demon claws.

… I heard neither now. Just the continued desperate breaths of Hillary as she tried not to cry over the receiver. “Your… your ad in the paper claimed that you’ve never failed a case. That you can find anything and anyone. I need you… I need you to find my missing child.”

On the word missing, my heart sank.

I still had human feelings. The amulet hanging around my neck – the amulet that would not be able to be removed until the day I died – did not prevent me from crying. Not anymore. The day I’d left the Devil was the day I’d welcomed true emotion back into my life, and I called on it now, a single tear leaking down my cheek.

“I… the police are still holding out hope, but it’s been a month,” the woman admitted, her tone crushed.

I breathed deeply, my breath shaking as I took on this woman’s emotion. I couldn’t help but do it. Not in this mode, anyway. If I grasped up my soul dial and turned it to the left, I’d be able to rely on my anger to wash away the depths of this woman’s misery. But I no longer hid from my feelings. I let them in as deep as they wanted to go as I continued to listen to the woman’s garbled words.

I heard the tinkle of a spoon tapping against the rim of a cup from behind me.

“Another spoon of sugar, if you wouldn’t mind,” I said, controlling my tone.

“Right you are, boss.” Cheryl turned around, thankfully walking away before she could hear any more of the message.

Though Cheryl was as cheery as the summer’s sun and appeared to bounce back from anything, she didn’t need to listen to this.

I bent down again, practically doubling over the answering machine, my back creaking from the stress of the move.

“They think her condition made her wander off. They think she’s just hiding somewhere. I know that’s not the case. She just… she wasn’t in her right mind the day she left.”

“Older kid, then,” I muttered to myself as I unhooked one of my stiff hands from the corner of the bench, grabbed up a legal pad from the in-tray beside the answering machine, and started to scribble my notes. Possible mental health issue, too.

“I don’t know what you need from me. I don’t know how much this will cost. I don’t care. Just find her. Please. My… my address is 22 Grange Avenue. I’m here all day. You can call me—”

I tuned out, not even bothering to write down her number. There was no way I was going to call her. There was so much potent emotion coming from this woman’s message, I’d have to burn cinnamon candles around my answering machine for a week.

I might pride myself on the fact that I now let my emotions in, but I’m not a fool – they can be just as dangerous as they can be constructive. Emotions, after all, are how the light and dark do their work. From devotional fanaticism to fear and hatred – they are the doors by which people allow themselves to be possessed and controlled.

Though I doubted this woman was possessed, there was so much chaos flooding around her that unsuspecting people could easily be affected by it.

I scribbled her address down on the paper, then grabbed it and the five sheets beneath, tore them off the pad, and shoved them into my pocket.

I ran a practiced hand down the pad, trying to sense any imperceptible indents from my writing. When I picked some up, I grabbed up another five sheets until I could no longer detect the remnants of the pressure I’d used to write.

I shoved all of them into my pocket. I would have to burn them in my fireplace at home later.

“How many times have I told you not to waste paper?” Cheryl muttered from behind me, sighing deeply as she shifted around the two desks in the office, my coffee held in one hand.

“You know I always like to keep a few sheets of paper with me when I go out on a case.”

“Here’s a coffee.”

I took it from her and gulped it down.

“Whoa, it’s piping hot.”

“So it is,” I said thoughtlessly as I reached for an old glass of water on the bench and downed it too. My mouth wasn’t burning. Even in my ordinary state, I had some of the advantages of my immortal soul.

When I turned around and it became apparent that I hadn’t burnt the lining of my throat, Cheryl simply ticked her head in irritation. “You’re something else, Celeste.” Her rebuke didn’t last. Her gaze quickly ticked toward the answering machine, a frown marking her plump lips. “I caught a few words of what that woman said. Are we going to head over there? She sounds like she’s desperate.”

“She is desperate,” I acknowledged softly. “But I can manage this one on my own. Hold the fort. And, Cheryl?” I brought up a hand and subtly switched my dial to the left.

Cheryl’s suddenly vacant gaze locked on me. “Yes?” Her word was slow and slurred.

“If Thanatos comes to this office, you will never open the door. He can’t come in without my permission, and I will never give it. While I’m gone, you’re going to get the urge to light some candles. Five, to be precise.”

“… I think I want some candlelight in this room,” she muttered as if to herself.

“Yes, yes you do. Now have a good afternoon. This might take me all day.” With that, I shoved toward my desk, grabbed up my keys, and walked out.

By the time I realized my mug was still in my hand, I’d already locked Cheryl in. I didn’t usually lock her in – I wasn’t that controlling. I just hated the way Thanatos had stared at her this morning. Though I doubted he would actually do something, I couldn’t get his damn smile out of my head, nor his words.

They echoed in my skull as I leaned down and placed my empty cup by the door.

Good luck with your case today, Celeste. I repeated his words in my head.

I shoved my hands into my pockets and stared forward. I wouldn’t rely on luck. If it came to it, I would rely on the light of my soul. No matter what it would take, I would solve this case.

Chapter 5

I didn’t like to drive. It wasn’t that I didn’t know how to drive or that I wasn’t good at it – it was that I always felt that, ultimately, the car was in control and it was only ever taking me along for the ride.

And I’m sure you could appreciate by now that I hated being taken along for a ride.

Did my mind tick back to Thanatos and his hot lips at that thought? You betcha it did, but I didn’t give it the time to sink in.

While I hated to be behind the wheel, I didn’t mind taking the subway that much, nor did I begrudge a bus every now and then.

Mostly, however, I liked to walk. I liked life to be slow and manageable during the day. It could be fast and out of this world at night, but during the day, when my dial was twisted all the way to the right, I needed to take things carefully. But this case didn’t want to be taken carefully. Despite the fact I was very good at pushing people’s emotions from my mind, as I strode down Grange Avenue, I could feel it from here.

Hillary White’s desperation, fear, angst – every dark emotion you could imagine.

It almost made me stop at the mouth of the street, my teeth grating together as I firmly pushed my tongue onto the roof of my mouth. I incanted a certain charm over and over again in my mind, sure to enunciate every single syllable, despite the fact I wasn’t saying it out loud.

It was a mishmash charm – that wasn’t its name, just an acknowledgment of the fact that it came from a range of cultures and times. Some of the words were ancient Egyptian, some of them modern slang. You see, the ancient world doesn’t have the mystical, magical, powerful market cornered. Force can be created in any era. You just have to know what you’re doing.

And the creators of this particular enchantment had known their stuff, because as I crammed the tip of my tongue right up against my palate as if I wanted to push through to my brain, the chill down my back ebbed. It no longer felt as if tiny prickling claws were climbing my back, as if I’d been stuck in a pit of centipedes and honey.

But there would be a time when I would have to remove my tongue and enter this hellish nightmare for real.

That time presented itself as I stopped outside of 22 Grange Avenue.

I’m never one for believing that places are cursed. Wait up – I believe in curses. Hello, I used to work for Hell, remember? I used to cast curses every day. But it’s very rarely places themselves that hold onto curses – it’s the people who live there. It takes a trauma of almost monumental size to imprint an actual location with negative energies. Trees and plants very rarely take on death and suffering. They’re too rooted in the circle of life and death. As for the dirt, that’s even less likely to become embedded with energies than the plant world. Dirt, after all, is that from which we come and that to which we return. Don’t get me wrong, it’s got some pretty powerful energies and uses, but it rarely takes on other people’s baggage.

Human objects are different. Cars and fences, front porches and roofs. Windows and drapes – you name it. If it’s something humans have created, have control over, and especially if it’s something they return to for sanctuary, then it can become embedded with energies. Be they dark or be they good, it was always the same for me – they ultimately didn’t belong, and I was here to disperse them.

I held onto that thought as I reached out, plucking a hand from my pocket, dropping the crystal-clear quartz I’d been clutching since I’d neared the street, letting it fall back against the little mesh bag I always carried around with me.

I always carried two things in my pockets – that quartz stone in one and a vial of rosemary in the other. Both had their purposes, and I would never leave the house without them.

I unlocked the fence latch, noting how much it protested, despite the fact it looked new.

It was in staring at it that I saw the scratch marks. They didn’t belong to some tool that had been used to lay the lock. Nope.

Pivoting on my shoe, ensuring no one was watching me from the house, I ran the tip of my pinky finger down the scratch marks. “Nails. Human nails,” I muttered.

They belonged to the hand of a tortured mind. I didn’t mention that bit out loud. This house was already dark enough as it was without me adding to its baggage by vocalizing its troubles.

My conclusion wasn’t wrong, though.

I could feel the twisted energies of this place concentrated on this fence latch, almost as if someone had focused all of their energies on it.

“Escape,” I muttered to myself. “Somebody here wanted to escape.” I didn’t let my words carry. They were just faint whispers, held onto by my breath, there for me and me alone.

It wasn’t that I was worried that Hillary White would poke her head out the door and listen to me. It was that I could remember Thanatos’ clipped warning while I’d been in his car. He always had someone watching me. He’d already shown interest in this case, so I wasn’t about to give anything away.

I reached the porch steps, and before I took them, I let my gaze slice along the bottom of the porch.

It, like the gate, was new. Or rather, bits of it were new. It was made out of weatherboards, and while those at the top were old, keeping in time with the age of the house, the ones right at the bottom were fresh, covered in paint that couldn’t be more than a month old.

I frowned, one of those truly marking frowns that feels as if it’s going to gouge a hole in your lips, keep going, and carve you in half.

I couldn’t forget the woman’s words on the phone. Her kid hadn’t been missing for a few days – no, it had been weeks.

Coincidence?

I hoped so. I really hated it when families turned on each other.

Pushing that thought away, I finally made it to the front door. Pressing my tongue against the roof of my mouth once more, I let out one last prayer, then knocked.

The sound was hollow. It didn’t have any reason to be hollow. It reminded me of empty coffins, of freshly dug graves, of darkened tunnels.

Was I allowing my imagination to get the better of me? Did I really need to remind you where I’d come from? I’d been to Hell, I’d lived there – this wasn’t me imagining the worst, this was me allowing the situation to give me impressions.

I held onto every last one of them, cataloging them for later as I heard footsteps from behind the door. They were heavy and uneven, suggesting an unsteady gait.

Something crawled up my skin, and I got the weirdest image of someone dragging a heavy chain.

There was a breath, heavy and long, then the door opened.

I expected to see Hillary. I didn’t. I saw a kid of about 10. He was in a long dressing robe, and it was tied haphazardly at the hip. I now appreciated why his gait was unsteady, and it had nothing to do with a lack of balance. The kid was only wearing one shoe, his other foot in a brightly colored red sock.

He frowned at me instantly, his hazel eyes narrowing. “Who are you?”

“I’m here to see your mother.”

“That isn’t a satisfactory answer to my question.”

The kid was 10. He sounded like he was 50 and he had a law degree under his belt.

Still, if I could manage demons, I could manage precocious children. I did not place my hands on my knees, bend in half to account for our height difference, and try to smile this one out.

Instead, I gave the kid exactly what he was seeking – cold efficiency. I clamped my arms around my middle, tilted my head back, and shot him a steely look. “Your mother left a message on my answering machine. I’m from the Lost Souls Detective Agency. She has a case for me.”

I watched the kid as I spoke. Like I’d said before, I really hated it when families turned on one another, but I had to be prepared for the possibility that this case wasn’t straightforward. Hell, none of my cases were ever straightforward, and that was because they most often had something to do with Hell itself.

But this case?

While the kid walked away without another word, either to get his mother, or because he was done with the conversation, I let my gaze tick around the hallway.

Religious memorabilia covered everything. There were Christs on crucifixes every few meters, and there was even a Bible draped with a golden cloth sitting on the hall table.

You could question why I hadn’t felt this much sheer Christianity wafting off the place when I’d walked up the porch steps – the answer was simple. Energies sometimes didn’t discriminate between the light and dark when things were chaotic. That, there, was a lesson on the true nature of reality, but one we couldn’t go into now.

I stopped myself from pursing my lips and whistling just as I heard hurried footsteps.

I recognized Hillary the second she darted around the corner. It was the lost stare. All glassy-eyed, all broken.

She tried to fix her hair, tried to neaten her pink floral blouse, but you could get a team of stylists in, and they would never be able to fix the true problem with her appearance – she was as empty as that aforementioned coffin.

Though I’d done this 100 times, that didn’t stop me from swallowing. I wouldn’t exactly call it nerves, but something was climbing my stomach. “Hello, my name is Celeste Ming. You left a message on my answering machine.”

“I thought you’d call,” Hillary said, flustered enough to fish her cross out from underneath her blouse and clutch it in a white-knuckled hand.

The cross wasn’t gold. It was wooden. This house, apart from the unnecessary religious symbology, was actually pretty nice. It was in an expensive section of town, too. And from the car I’d seen parked out front, it was clear that the Whites weren’t shy of a penny or two. It was just as clear that Hillary could, if she’d wanted to, afford a golden cross, or anything nicer than a chunk of carved wood.

Which meant the ornament had to be important somehow.

I stared at it obviously, frowning. “That’s an interesting necklace, Mrs. White.”

Tears collected at the corners of her eyes. “She carved it for me.” Her voice wavered up and down on the word she.

I still didn’t know the name of the kid who’d gone missing, but I could put two and two together. “What was the name of your child? And how old was she?”

“She was an old soul,” Hillary chose to answer.

I controlled myself. I didn’t clutch my hands into tight fists, and I didn’t swear. I was damn close, though. It was in the exact power and confidence the woman had used when she’d said her child had been an old soul. It’s a common concept, or at least among humans who believe in souls. You hear parents who have children with advanced emotional skills claiming that their pipsqueaks have old souls, and that’s why they’re so advanced for their years. Don’t count on it. Old souls are extremely dangerous things. There’s a reason you never remember your previous lives. That reason is your sanity. Old souls on the other hand, had often taken steps in their previous lives to ensure that they did not lose their memories. Such steps did things to one’s eternal fire. Unkind things.

I tried to dismiss the woman’s words, but they haunted me as she clutched the carving even tighter. “Sarah, my little one is Sarah, and she was 10.”

“Was she a twin?” I frowned and gestured in the direction her son had disappeared in.

“Yes.”

“What were the circumstances of her disappearance?”

“Sarah… was gifted.”

Way to go to not answer my question. I stopped myself from frowning. “How do you mean?”

“Father Butler said she had a unique connection with the divine,” Hillary said proudly as she thumbed the wooden cross, her nail audibly grating over the roughly carved wood.

Shit. Awesome. This was just awesome. I spent a hell of a lot of time screaming about Thanatos because of my checkered history with him. I might not have slept with Father Butler, but I hated him just as much. He was everything Thanatos was, but technically on the side of good.

And if his sticky fingers were all over this case, it was best for me to back out now.

As that thought settled in and I subconsciously shifted closer to the door, I watched a single tear trickle down the woman’s cheek.

It was honest. You might think tears can’t be honest. After all, they’re hardly statements of fact. They’re simply the body’s way to show emotion.

But there was something that couldn’t be faked about Hillary’s grief. Something that managed to pull at my heartstrings. Before you try to claim that a bitch like me who worked for Hell couldn’t have heartstrings, think again. That was one of the consequences of leaving the Devil and the General behind. I’d had to regrow my sense of empathy. And that empathy held me to the spot.

I let out a breath. “I need you to be honest with me, Hillary. Did Sarah have some kind of intellectual disability?”

“She could see things that we couldn’t.” The woman became instantly defensive, her hand clutching the cross so tightly, her fingers looked as if they would fall off. “That’s not a disability,” she spat that word as if she was removing poison from her mouth. “It’s an ability.”

I paused carefully, judging if I could push. “I don’t doubt that, but I still need to know the extent of her… ability. You say that she could see things. What did she see?”

I just managed to salvage the situation, and Hillary didn’t kick me out the door. Instead, a confused but proud smile spread her lips. “Angels. Everywhere. Protecting her, protecting the city. Doing God’s work.”

I contained my expression. Sure, I had to build the mental equivalent of a high-security prison around it, but I didn’t let my cynicism show. “You said before that the police were confident that she could still be found. What do you think makes them think that?”

“She said she was leaving to do God’s work. That’s what she told Father Butler.”

I frowned. “She spoke to Butler before she disappeared?” Even though I really wanted to, I could not stop the suspicion from arcing through my voice. Father Butler was a man who would do anything to ensure this city didn’t fall to the dark. And men who are prepared to do anything are terrifying indeed.

“She wrote him a letter.”

“Can I see that letter?”

“I can take you to Father Butler – he has it.”

On the offer that she could take me to Father Butler, I tried not to look like I would rather be taken to have my legs sawed off. “Perhaps you could arrange for Father Butler to send a scanned copy through?” This wasn’t perfect. The original would be a lot more powerful than a copy. But If I had to brave Butler’s stupid ass to get it, a copy would do.

Thanatos’ frigging warning droned in my head, bouncing up and down in my cerebellum as if it were a drill trying to split my skull.

He promised me this would be a hard case. He wasn’t half wrong.

I stayed for another five minutes, Hillary telling me what she could. Was she holding back? You betcha, but at the same time, I could tell she wanted me to find her kid with all her heart.

By the time I walked out of her house, I was in a bit of a daze, thoughts lost in the tragedy.

It took me several steps along the street until I saw a specific car out of the corner of my eye.

“Oh shit,” I muttered under my breath as I rolled my eyes.

The very last person I wanted to see rocked up in a beaten-up cop car, swerving into the pavement so quickly and inexpertly, he clipped his front wheel.

Detective Marco Santini jumped out of his car, slammed the door, and instantly flicked his gaze my way. “What the hell are you doing here?”

I tried not to snarl at him as I shoved my hands into my pockets and tutted. “I thought you were an ex-priest, Detective? What are you doing swearing?”

“Answer the question. What are you doing sniffing around this case?”

Detective Marco Santini was an interesting character. And when I said interesting, I meant irritating. He was an ex-priest, and he’d studied under Butler. Then he became a detective. He had all the righteousness of a priest combined with the arrogance of a police officer. In other words, a god-awful combination, if you’d pardon the pun.

Though he was an acolyte of Father Butler, as far as I could tell, Marco had absolutely no idea about magic. Maybe he suspected angels and demons existed, but he certainly didn’t think they drove next to him on the street and sat by him at restaurants.

“I think why I’m here should be obvious. I’ve been hired, Detective,” I emphasized the word hired with a harsh breath of air. “Mrs. White decided to call on my skills because she wasn’t getting anywhere with the police.”

Marco curled his lips into a snarl at my pointed insult. He stopped right in front of me. That was something about Marco – he had no sense of personal space. Or if he did have one, he had no sense of my personal space. “Been preying on the vulnerable again, have you?”

“If by responding to customer inquiries you mean preying on the vulnerable, then I suppose I’m guilty as charged. Now, if you’re done ineffectively insulting me, I have a case to work on.” I let my lips purse around the word case.

“This is an active inquiry, Celeste,” Marco said informally, his voice a growl. “If you find anything, you are legally bound to share it with the police.”

I arched an eyebrow. “Suddenly think I’m effective, do we? Think I’m more likely to solve this case than you are? You’re one hundred percent right.”

He snapped his lips open, anger pulsing through his gaze.

I lifted a hand out of my pocket in a dismissive motion. “Before you can warn me yet again that I’m legally bound to share any evidence I find with the police – of course I know that. And of course I will.”

This didn’t take any of the wind out of Marco’s sails. Though it seemed clear that Father Butler hadn’t taught Marco anything about the true esoteric nature of reality, he sure as hell had passed on his fire.

If you think fire is incompatible with the priesthood, think again. Fire is damn close to fervor, and fervor is the emotional fuel on which the light runs.

Marco snarled at me. I guess no one ever told him such a move marked his otherwise handsome features. And I sure as hell wasn’t about to point that out as I walked around him, shoving my hands back into my pockets nonchalantly. “Now we’ve made a scene on a public street, have a good day, Detective.”

“Wait up,” he snapped, because Marco seemed incapable of simply saying anything. I would hate to see him read a bedtime story. He’d traumatize any kid with his boisterous, strident voice.

“What is it?” I didn’t keep the exasperation from my tone. “Some of us have real work to do.”

“Where are you going?”

I really doubted he was suddenly asking me out. I shot him a pointed look. “Did you drink last night, Detective? Did someone hit you on the head?” I asked in a tone that suggested I wouldn’t mind trying the same. “Have you forgotten our conversation of several seconds ago? I’m off to investigate this case. Now good day.”

He got in front of me, wise enough not to try to grab my wrist. Sure, I was a hell of a lot smaller than him, but Hell could account for any difference in size.

“I don’t care if this woman has hired you to find her child. You’re not going to step on this case.”

“Why are you suddenly so interested? Hillary said she hadn’t heard from you guys for a week.”

His face stiffened.

Marco had exactly the kind of obvious expressions that would make him terrible as a spy.

I narrowed my eyes. “There’s been another kidnapping, hasn’t there?”

He bristled, then he took a sharp step toward me. “How do you know that?”

I flattened a hand in front of myself in a stopping motion. “Before you go accusing me of things, Detective,” I growled, “I simply put two and two together. You wouldn’t be asking me to share information on this case if you’d solved it. But judging by the fact you practically popped a tire to get here and you’ve been threatening me to high heaven, the case must’ve escalated.”

Marco didn’t look pleased with himself that he’d let so much show. He also didn’t correct me, proving my theory right.

I frowned obviously. “Why are you so sure it’s connected to this case?”

“Do you really think I’m going to discuss details of an ongoing case with a scummy private eye?”

I made a face on the term scummy. I looked myself up and down. I might have a hard life, but I always dressed to impress. I was in jet-black pencil-leg pants, a very attractive white blouse, and some terribly chic blue heels. “I think we can agree that I’m a lot of things, but scummy is going too far.”

“If you spent less money on your appearance and more on your office, I might agree with you on that one.”

I shot him a technically placid smile. It had all the correct proportions of a placid smile – with just the right curl at the corner of my lips – without any of the actual placidity. Anyone would be able to tell that I was on the edge of turning this into a proper fight. “If you’re done insulting me, maybe you can inadvertently answer another one of my questions.” I looked him up and down, mostly to rile him up, not to catch a glimpse of his admirably muscled figure under his cheap clothes. “How is that child connected to this one? I assume they’re connected, otherwise you wouldn’t be here. Did they know each other? Go to school with each other? No, I doubt that – though I didn’t get it out of Hillary, it didn’t sound as if Sarah ever left the house unless to go to church.” I suddenly clicked my fingers. “That’s it, isn’t it? They went to the same church. I guess that’s where I’ll head next.”

I had no intention whatsoever of rocking up to Father Butler’s Cathedral. Marco didn’t know that. All I was doing was pointing out that Marco was an idiot and I was very much the one in control.

Sure enough, he practically looked as if he was going to explode. “You will not head to Mortimer’s Cathedral.”

I’d been about to walk away, but I stopped, sliding my gaze over to him. “Current investigation underway? Don’t want me shoving my nose in and disturbing it? Well, if that’s the case, you’re going to have to tell me more. I can keep questioning you until you ineffectively spill the beans anyway.” I chuckled harshly.

“Fine,” he could barely speak, his teeth were that clenched. “We have a current investigation underway, though it has nothing to do with this case, and if you go anywhere near Mortimer’s Cathedral, I’m going to book you,” he said with some satisfaction.

“To book me, you’re going to have to have a reason. What are you up to, anyway?” I let my piercing gaze rove over the detective, not once appreciating his nicely framed jaw as it nonetheless stuck out with the stubbornness of a bull.

“Like I said, all you need to know is that a current investigation is underway there.”

I rolled my eyes. “Marco, please. If you don’t want me stepping on your current investigation, fine, but I’m going to need to know more than that.”

I knew it wasn’t my tone, but Marco finally saw reason. His shoulders dropped with a tight sigh. “Fine, I’ll tell you what’s going on with this case. Three kidnaps. Almost identical. All of them associated with the same orphanage, and all of the kids left notes before they disappeared proclaiming they’d been called to do God’s work.”

I frowned. “And you’re sure they didn’t just run away?”

I knew the kid that I was investigating hadn’t run away – I could tell that from the sheer energies involved in the situation. But my question was pointed. Again I was reading Marco like an open book. And like any quick page-turner, he didn’t disappoint as his lips stiffened, the flesh whitening around the corners of his mouth. “We think there might be more to it.”

“If all three kids came from the same orphanage, maybe this was some kind of… pact. Maybe they all decided to head off on their own at the age of 10. According to what I managed to get out of Hillary, Sarah disappeared on her tenth birthday. What about the other kids?”

Maybe Marco had softened up a little, or maybe he’d appreciated that it was safer to tell me what he wanted to, as opposed to letting me drag the truth out of him with my wily ways. He sighed, brought up a hand, and clamped it over his mouth. “The rest of them all disappeared on their birthdays.”

I shrugged. “So why are you so sure that there’s something more to this? According to Hillary,” I gestured a shoulder in the direction of her fence, “the police told her her kid likely ran away.”

“Christ, Celeste, can you stop pushing? You know I’m legally not allowed to tell you everything. In fact, I’ve already said too much.”

I arched an eyebrow but decided not to point out that he’d just taken his own Lord’s name in vain. Marco was softening up, and that was good enough for me.

“Look,” he spoke through his fingers as they anchored around his face, “I’ve told you enough. Three kids. Three notes. Three disappearances. Same orphanage.”

I nodded. “Name of the orphanage?”

“Come on—”

I turned to walk back to Hillary’s gate. “I’ll just find out on my own, then.”

“Alright, fine. Saint Mary’s. Get in the car.”

I arched an eyebrow. “I got that out of you fair and square. This is no bookable offense, Detective.”

Marco rolled his eyes, and he gestured to his beaten-up car with his thumb. The damn thing had no hubcaps. I imagined the Force had stopped bothering to replace them. Marco was the worst driver in Soullake. “You’re headed there anyway, I might as well give you a lift.”

I frowned at him.

“I’m going to St. Mary’s Orphanage.” He spoke each word slowly, obviously assuming I’d been too stupid to appreciate what he was on about.

“I get that, what I don’t get is why you would offer me a lift. You hate me, remember?”

He snorted. “I’ll never forget. But you’re safer off in my car than out of it.”

There were so many jokes I could make. Too many that I was like a cat in a room full of mice figuring out which one to chase.

Again Marco mistook my silence as a failure to figure out what he was speaking about. “You’re trouble, Celeste. And this case is important. So get in the car.”

Though the last thing I wanted to do was travel in a vehicle with Marco, if we got into an accident, I could always turn my dial and rely on my immortal soul.

I didn’t even bother to thank him as I strode up to his car.

“You’re welcome,” he said as he did something funny. He darted in front of me and opened the car door.

I stared at him suspiciously. “This car is covered with dents,” I said the word covered as loudly as I could, “and you’re worried I’m gonna scratch up the paintwork with my nails?”

“Nope. I was just taught that this is how you behaved around a lady.”

I either wanted to snort or slap him. One, I wasn’t a lady, and two, he hated me.

But at the prospect of a lift and, more importantly, the ability to shoehorn Marco into telling me more facts about the case, I managed to control myself as I sat down, crossed my arms, and tapped my heel.

Maybe this case wouldn’t prove to be too hard after all.

Chapter 6

“Wow, nice place. Great vibe,” I quipped as I shoved my hands as far into my pockets as they would go. I fished out my quartz crystal from my mesh bag and clutched it as hard as I could.

“It’s an orphanage. Not a disco club. Nobody cares about its vibe.”

I pressed my lips together and shook my head. Disco club? Marco sounded like he was 50 years old.

I hadn’t picked up as much from him in the car as I’d wanted to. He’d snapped at me every single time I’d asked a question.

Still, at least he hadn’t struck any cars, trees, buildings, or other immovable objects.

I guess that was where my luck was going to run out, though.

We got up to the steps of the orphanage, and I stopped.

It was an old building, probably from the 40s sometime. It gave a nod to the Art Deco era, but on a budget. The old sandstone hadn’t been cleaned in what looked like decades, and it was black and gray from the smog that always clogged this city.

It was a four-story place, and even though it wasn’t a tower or anything, it still had gargoyles. Four to be precise.

“Hmmmm,” I grumbled under my breath as I tilted my head back and considered them.

“Scared of concrete gargoyles?” Marco chuckled to himself as he strode up the stoop, yanked out his hand, and hammered on the chipped paint of the once red door like he was driving nails into a coffin.

I didn’t use that image by accident – it flashed in front of my eyes, coming from my soul connection.

When I didn’t answer Marco, he turned to me while he was waiting. “You know they’re good luck, right? Protect buildings from evil spirits.”

“Hmmm,” I agreed noncommittally as I finally tugged my head away from them.

Gargoyles were completely ineffectual when it came to protecting buildings from evil spirits. Demons loved perching on the damn things. I tell you what was pretty effective, though. Angels.

There were none on the building. For now. By God could I see where they’d been, though. They’d left claw marks in the damn gargoyles’ wings.

I didn’t like this.

Just like demons, angels had to be careful when they operated in the real world not to break the Dictates.

So what the hell – or heaven – had they been doing here?

“You freaked out by a bit of concrete? That’s good to know. I can give you a chunk for your birthday present.”

“Firstly,” I said, heels clicking as I walked up the stoop and stopped beside him, “you don’t know when my birthday is. Secondly, you’re extremely bad at making jokes. About as bad as you are at driving.”

This got to him, and he snarled. “The customary response to receiving a lift is thank you, not to insult the driver.”

“It’s not an insult. It’s an observation. You need help.”

“And you know what you need—” he began, his snide, angry voice blasting out wide.

The door behind him chose that exact moment to creak open. A dour looking nun glared out from behind her habit. “Young man, this is a place of protection. We are not accustomed to people shouting on our doorstep. Good day.”

“He’s so sorry, Sister. I’m afraid some people these days lack the proper respect for religious authority.” There wasn’t a snide quality to my tone. Instead, there was something everyone in this town would confuse for genuine concern – everyone but Thanatos.

It worked on the Sister, and she accepted my hand as I reached out to her.

She shook it warmly, then switched her irritated gaze to Marco.

He was standing as stiff as a beanpole, and he cleared his throat properly. “I apologize, Sister. You simply walked in on something.”

“You knocked on my door, sir,” she said snidely. “Now, why are you here?”

Marco was obviously smart enough to appreciate when he’d lost. He stopped trying to smooth things over and reached for his badge instead. “I’m from the police. We’re here to investigate a series of suspicious disappearances.”

The Sister crossed her arms. “And who is she?”

Damn, this lady was sharp. She’d picked up on the fact Marco had said he was the cop, ha?

I cleared my throat and took a purposeful step forward. “I appreciate the job you’re doing here, Sister. I understand how hard it must be to run an orphanage in a city like this. Can we come in?”

I hardly had the ability to manipulate people like Thanatos – okay, not when I was in right-mode – but I could put on the schmaltz. Which is exactly what I did now as I shot her a winning smile.

It worked, and she opened the door. It creaked as if it hadn’t been oiled ever.

I guess maintenance wasn’t that big a deal when you were doing the work of the Lord, ha?

I wasn’t making that up – it was written on the damn wall. As I strode past, I saw a crocheted hanging framed with wood that had been spray-painted gold.

It read, ‘All that truly matters is the work of the Lord.’

Hmm, had to disagree with that one. All that truly mattered was the work of humans. The light and dark would try to take credit for everything, but ultimately, humans had the real power.

Though a part of me wanted to petulantly knock that crocheted lie down from the wall as I walked past, I crammed my hands back into my pockets.

I had to be careful here. From the claw marks I’d seen on the gargoyles outside, there was every possibility I could accidentally run into one of those winged goodie two shoes, so I had to keep my wits about me. Marco might have no idea who I really was, but every angel in town had been clued up about me.

I pushed forward quicker, my heels clicking over the rickety bare floorboards.

Heck, the floorboards weren’t just rickety – one of them was broken. I picked it up before I shoved my pointed heel into it. Marco wasn’t so lucky.

“Watch out,” the Sister said a fraction too late.

Marco’s heel shunted down as the floorboard gave way. He just managed to save his balance as he pumped his appreciable muscles and flapped his arms. “This place is a health hazard,” he muttered under his breath.

Years of managing unruly orphans had obviously sharpened the Sister’s hearing so she could pick up even the most whispered of mutters. “This orphanage has been passed as fit for purpose, Officer. We rely on donations now that the government cut us off. As such, we daren’t waste a penny on any frivolous expenses.”

Though I wanted to hear everything the Sister had to say, at the same time, I couldn’t ignore that twitch in the pit of my stomach. It roared at me that the light was close by, and it was not playing by the rules.

Standing at the mouth of the Sister’s open door, I tried not to clutch my hand into a fist.

Marco had already walked past me, and he turned on his foot, the soles of his cheap shoes squeaking. “Coming in?”

“Actually, I really need to use the bathroom. If you wouldn’t mind?” I asked the Sister.

Further cementing the fact that she preferred me over Marco, she shot me a charming smile. “I’m afraid you have to go one level up. They’re not in the best of repair. There’s a sign on the door.”

I nodded. “I’ll try not to get lost.”

“Sorry, dear, this is an old power building, and it’s a bit of a warren. I’m sure we’ll be done by the time you’re back. Probably best to just meet us at the front door.” With that, the Sister turned her less than pleased gaze on Marco.

As I closed the door behind me, I fixed my attention on Marco’s pressed-lip frown. For a man of the cloth like him, getting on the wrong side of a saintly Sister who selflessly managed an orphanage would be like taking the Lord’s name in vain. But hey, he’d already done that today, so here was to hoping he’d break even more rules by nightfall.

As soon as the door was closed and I was on my own, I let my eyes practically roll into the back of my head and brought my fingers out of my pockets. I placed them beside me and slowly twiddled them back and forth, the edges of my usually short nails scraping over the fabric of my pants.

I wasn’t twiddling my fingers back and forth because I was trying to pick up the ever-persistent, percussive beat of the bad plumbing in this place. Though the Sister had been vague in letting me know where the bathroom was, anyone with a functioning set of ears would be able to track it. Someone had obviously just gone, and at the effort of pumping water through the building, it sounded like every pipe was about to burst.

Every single time I twiddled my fingers in and out, I was grabbing invisible strings. No, I hadn’t just turned mad. I was attempting to assess the energies of this place.

As I twisted my fingers in and out, I disturbed them. It was the equivalent of trying to scratch and sniff.

“There you are,” I muttered under my breath as I pushed off, my eyes still partially closed. Fortunately either the kids were out for an excursion or all of them were at school – because I couldn’t pick up their voices.

It didn’t take long to find the stairs. They stuck out like a sore thumb just past the narrow hall that led to the front door.

I frowned as I remembered that the Sister had called this place an old electricity substation. That didn’t make much sense. Such buildings were usually quite open affairs. Which made you question why an architect had swept in here and closed the place off with walls and rooms. It was the equivalent of taking an open hand and closing it tightly.

“Maze trap,” I muttered to myself under my breath, repeating a very well-known line of magical fact. Though the Sister had admitted that this building was like a virtual warren, I could appreciate the difference between a place with walls, ceilings, and importantly, obvious doors, compared to an actual maze. Not the point. Sometimes energies could get trapped. Confuse them with enough objects, and you can find things concentrating.

As I took to the stairs, I dipped down onto one knee, swept a hand forward, and picked up several chunks of fluff from the carpet. I wasn’t a neat freak. By any stretch of the imagination.

Sure, I kept my cards and crystals and herbs and oils neat out of decency, but you should see my sink and my closet. Both were overgrown with dishes and clothes that were in desperate need of a wash.

As I trailed that chunk of carpet through my fingers, I felt it. Half closing my eyes, I got the very clear and distinct image of an angel walking on this very carpet only several hours ago. I saw the wings, I saw the strong, svelte build, the tapered shoulders, the sharp features. Though angels, like demons, could pass for humans during the day – if they had their disguises on – angels stuck out more. It was their sharp features, the piercing quality to their gazes, the fact they looked like elongated models.

I get it, believe Christian fiction, and angels are meant to be these heavenly, beautiful creatures wafting around in excessive mounds of white fabric with halos adorning their bouncing locks. Real angels are a heck of a lot sharper. Because real angels are warriors.

As I saw a flash of this particular angel, I appreciated I didn’t recognize him. Which was fair enough. Unlike Thanatos and some of his demon brethren in town, the angels were switched out more regularly. Father Butler’s angelic army came and went as he saw fit.

The creep who’d walked these halls a mere two and a half hours ago, if I was any judge, was larger than most angels, broader in the chest, longer in the face, and importantly, sharper in the gaze. Angels are glorified predators, their every sense directed at the task of finding holes in people’s heads and exploiting them for the work of the divine. With sharp gazes and strong noses, you could easily confuse them with bad guys out of Disney films.

I finally reached the top of the stairs. I had to come to a decision, didn’t I? If I came across an angel doing work it shouldn’t under the Dictates, I had every right to go after him, even in an orphanage. Sure, Father Butler would complain just as much as Thanatos had this morning – though without the sexual innuendo – but there’d be nothing he’d be able to do to me.

On the other hand, Marco was downstairs. I couldn’t afford to get into a lengthy battle, or a loud one.

As I rounded a corner, stopping next to the bathroom I didn’t need to use, my mind was made up for me.

I saw the back of an angel. He was dressed in a black trench coat, the fabric skimming along his long, powerful legs.

Though I couldn’t see his face from here, at the end of the corridor was a large window that looked down into a side street. It was reflective, and I caught a glimpse of the bastard’s eyes.

“Harbinger,” he hissed.

I hated that term. As he used it, a mix of fear and loathing slammed down my back and struck my stomach as if the scumbag had punched me from afar. That’s what the light called me, see. Harbinger of doom. They, just like the Devil, believed that one day I would bring destruction to the city, and then, the world.

“Yeah, well, you can tell me whatever you want. Just as I can tell you to stop. You’ve got no right to be messing in the lives of these children, angel,” I spat.

“You are a disappointment, Harbinger,” every time he said that word, his tongue became sharper, practically making it sound as if he was whipping the word out of the air. “The light has offered you to join it many times. And it will be your only redemption. Seek it now, not later. For later, it will be—”

“Too late? It’s already too late for you,” I said as I took a step forward, rounded a hand into a fist, and tapped it against my palm. If anyone had been paying attention with a sharp ear, they would be able to tell that particular thwack echoed out in more than one realm.

So far the man had been having a conversation with me with his back turned. Now, slowly, the move grating as if his neck was made out of some stiff, immovable substance, he turned.

He was wearing glasses. They were dark wraparound shades that made him look as if he were some extremely important celebrity who couldn’t afford to be seen in this shit-house orphanage. In reality, they’d be hiding his eyes.

Just like Thanatos, angels – especially as big and powerful as this guy – had problems controlling the illumination behind their vision. It was just plain easier to hide their eyes behind Ray Bands than it was to spell every single human they passed to ensure no one saw them for what they truly were.

“Now, are you going to answer what you’re doing here and tell me what you have to do with those disappearances? Or are you gonna run?”

I got my answer when the shit put on a burst of speed and sailed right through the window in front of him. There was no halo of glass. Just like demons, angels could choose what level of reality they interacted with. And thankfully this bastard was smart enough to appreciate that crashing through a window in an orphanage during the middle of the day would raise eyebrows on the street outside.

“Great,” I muttered to myself as I picked up the equivalent of my skirts and ran for it. I got two steps before I turned the dial halfway to the left. Not all the way. Yeah, sure, this guy was a big angel, but I assumed he wouldn’t fight, just run.

My assumptions would be wrong.

Chapter 7

I was not a demon or an angel – not anymore, anyway. I couldn’t choose what matter I interacted with. You know what I could do? Jimmy open a window.

The floor-to-ceiling window the angel had pushed himself through was not the kind you could open. Though this orphanage had some of the worst maintenance I’d ever seen, the Sister had proudly proclaimed that it had successfully passed its safety inspection. Meaning the window was locked closed. But with a single twist of my immortal grip, the lock shattered in my hand, I heaved the window open, and I jumped through.

Angels and demons could become invisible, should they choose to.

It was trickier with me.

I wouldn’t exactly call it becoming invisible – but I could become see-through, if you will.

No, I didn’t suddenly strip back my skin cells and muscle and bone and walk around like a picture on an x-ray. Let’s call it being invisible save for the direct glimpse of a knowing gaze. Confused? Don’t be. Some people are vaguely aware that more realms exist than that of humans. I’m not talking about your average kooky mystic. I’m talking about people who’ve seen things, who’ve experienced the unexplainable. Maybe they had a near-death experience – maybe they’re travelers in their dreams. It doesn’t really matter where it comes from, the point is they’re less inclined to believe that angels and demons can’t exist.

It’s these people you’ve gotta watch out for. If I ran in front of one of those, my body sparking with the light of my soul, they’d be able to see.

Your average everyday citizen, on the other hand, would probably blink once, then twice, then dismiss it as a trick of the light.

Fortunately, this orphanage backed off into a seriously cramped laneway that couldn’t be called anything more than breathing space between two buildings.

Though there were some other windows that looked down at it from the orphanage, as I’d already said, no one was home.

So there was no one to see as I slammed down onto the asphalt, my heels protesting with two thwacks as I cracked the bitumen with hairline fissures.

I shook my head, my hair flaring over my shoulder. Fortunately, either this angel was slow, or had a death wish, as he hadn’t managed to run the distance between the buildings and out onto the main road beyond.

It gave me all the chance I needed.

I jerked my foot to the side, collecting a loose stone that had fallen from the orphanage. Yet more evidence that this place really needed an injection of cash. Still, it was convenient for me, and as I kicked that chunk of stone, it sailed forward, my expert blow smashing the angel right across the back of his head.

The move would have felled an ordinary person. The rock broke apart and shattered, sending dust out everywhere in a halo.

The angel stopped, grabbed the corners of his jacket, pulled them, and neatened them with a pat.

He turned slowly. His glasses slipped an inch down his nose, and I caught sight of his damn powerful eyes. I mean, shit were they bright. They looked like two little supernovas.

“This won’t end well for you if you don’t play along, Celeste Ming, Harbinger,” he said again, his voice bottoming out low, really shaking until the rest of the street joined in with him. I’m serious, the pavement beneath me shuddered as if there’d been a small tremor after an earthquake.

I arched an eyebrow and patted down the fabric of my jacket. “Nice little trick you’ve got there. Great way to emphasize an otherwise shit point. You can threaten me all you want, but the person who it’s not going to end well for is you.” I might not be able to make the very earth shudder every time I spoke, but I could let my voice descend in a punching growl, which is precisely what I did. I curled my hands into fists, allowing the power of my soul to encase me in a blazing cascade of light that looked as if I’d wrapped myself up with the very sun. “By being here during the day, you have broken the Dictates,” I began, reading this guy the equivalent of his magical rights.

This just brought a snide smile spreading the bastard’s lips. I mean, I get it, okay, he was a big fella, but I had a history around this town, and everybody knew my power.

So no more games.

I threw myself forward, my heels just a continuous click over the pavement.

By now I was pretty confident that the angel would’ve done his magical thing to stop people in the street outside from seeing us. After all, it was far more important for his kind to hide their tracks than it was for me. It would be pretty awkward to wind up on the news, sure, but if somebody found out about my magic, it would be nowhere near as critical as if they found out about Heaven and Hell.

The angel backed off into the safety of the laneway, bringing up a hand and blocking my kick with ease.

My heel dashed against the fabric of his jacket, ripping out a chunk – that’s how hard I kicked him and how much of my soul magic blasted over me.

I landed, pivoted low, and struck my leg right on his kneecaps.

There was an echoing click as I tank rolled to the side then followed the move up with a devastating kick across the back of the guy’s knees.

It didn’t fell him. Seriously, it was the equivalent of trying to flick a megalithic tree over with nothing more than a press of your fingertip.

I had half of my soul magic blasting around me, so I didn’t have to catch my breath.

My attack just elicited a chuckle from the angel.

So far, he hadn’t attacked, just defended. That all changed as he pivoted on his foot and kicked me square across the jaw.

It was a vicious blow, and I felt my bone cracking. Though immediately my soul magic hid the injury, I knew it would take a heck of a lot of poultices to heal this one. I was forced back, and I pushed into a roll to absorb the extra momentum of the move. This time when I rose, I did so warily, pressing my knuckles into the bitumen as I stared at him with a fresh eye. “Strong bastard, aren’t you?”

This drew a flashing-eyed chuckle from him. “In time, you will be taught to hold that devilish tongue of yours. Such language is inappropriate for the Harbinger.”

“You want inappropriate language, you—”

The next thing I knew, he closed the distance between us and hauled me up by the neck. It was a violent move, and my teeth shuddered in my skull.

So far during the fight, I’d only been fighting on half soul capacity, and I hadn’t had a chance to twist my dial all the way to the left yet. I didn’t get that chance as he squeezed. His grip became unholy – or, considering he was an angel, as holy as it could be as it locked around my tracheae with the force of several tones. Even though I was relying on the force of my soul, I could still hear a crunch of bone and flesh.

The guy didn’t squeeze until my head conveniently plopped off. What he did was far creepier. He yanked me forward, and the next thing I knew, he sniffed. While demons relied a heckuva lot on their sense of smell, angels were different. They relied more on their eyesight, their ability to discern patterns in the light and dark.

Well this guy was an exception, because as he smelled me, it was damn animalistic. It wasn’t just the way his long nose shifted and jerked, the nostrils opening as wide as two hands as they drew in my scent. It was in the stiffness of his cheeks, in the look in his eyes and the way he tasted the air once, twice, then a third time, drawing his face up and pressing it against mine.

I didn’t have the breath to ask this idiot what he was doing. I had to focus on getting out of his way first, because, with a single squeeze, I’d be dead.

He didn’t kill me. Instead he allowed his eyes to jerk back into his head as if he was having an ecclesiastical experience. “There we go, that unique scent. Now be a good girl and play along. This story hasn’t even begun to unfold yet.”

With that creepy, cryptic message, he threw me to the side. I slammed into the wall, my heavy body gouging out several chunks. By the time I managed to jerk my weary head up, the scumbag was gone, with nothing more than a flick of his thick coattails as he disappeared down the main street beyond.

You got creepy in my line of work a lot. Of course you got creepy. I spent my time with things that go bump, thump, and squeal in the night. Creepy was my very bread-and-butter, but in all my long years since I’d left the Devil, I’d never had an experience like that. The strength that guy had used against me, even if I hadn’t been using my full soul force, was closer to a Seraphim than an ordinary angel, more akin to Thanatos than the angelic idiots I usually fought.

I picked myself up, cleaned off my clothes, and groaned as I manipulated my jaw.

What the hell did this have to do with me.

What the hell was going on in my city, and more importantly, what the hell did it have to do with Heaven?

Chapter 8

By the time I picked myself up and made it around to the front of the orphanage, predictably, Marco was being escorted out of the building by a stiff-lipped, petulant looking Sister.

I really liked this woman, even if she had something to do with the light. Anyone who could accurately pick Marco as an idiot had a fan in me.

I’d already dusted off my jacket, smoothed down the crumples in my blouse and pants, and tried to clean my shoes. I couldn’t get them looking sparkling clean, though. They were gouged with dirt and stone, and dust fell from the indents in the heels with every step or so.

Marco frowned as he turned to me. “How did you—”

“I headed outside after the bathroom to do some recon on the building.”

“What happened to your shoes?”

“Fell over in the alleyway. Full of dust and stone and trash,” I muttered under my breath, not pointing out uselessly that this orphanage needed repairs again, not in earshot of the Sister, at least.

Marco obviously had too much on his plate to be interested in what I’d really been up to, or he bought my lie hook line and sinker.

As Marco mumbled his goodbyes to the Sister, I surreptitiously brought up a hand and let my fingers eke out the tension in my jaw.

I’d already turned my dial back to the center, though it was slightly to the left, not enough that it would give me any powers, but enough that it would delay the onset of the injury to my jaw.

I’d have to deal with it tomorrow morning, along with whatever the hell I would pick up tonight.

Sometimes I wondered why I had such a cursed life, then I remembered.

I was the Harbinger, right?

I gritted my teeth against that conclusion, pushing it away with all my might. After all, it was in pushing away that destiny that I’d finally broken free of the Devil and started my own life in Soullake City.

That was the thing that religion doesn’t tell you, that fairy tales leave out. We have a culture that instantaneously believes in free will and yet destiny, but the two can’t coexist. A destiny means a path laid out for you from birth, one that, no matter what you do, you won’t be able to push away. My path was that of the Harbinger. Ender of the world, destroyer of the city, all that jazz, yadda yadda.

But there was a way out of that destiny. There’s a way out of every destiny, no matter how dire. Call it your will. If you have a strong enough control of your desire and you know how to direct it, you can chart your own path.

The trick is never to let go.

I inadvertently brought up a hand, subconsciously clutching my fingers around my soul dial.

To anyone else, it looked like nothing more than a strange, intricate gold and silver filigree clockwork necklace. It wasn’t huge – I wasn’t sporting some Public Enemy style timepiece or anything. It was about the size of a large coin.

I never took it off. I couldn’t take it off. That was the deal I’d made with the Devil.

The Sister shot me a friendly wave as she closed the door. “Please come back if you have any more questions.”

Marco opened his mouth, erroneously thinking she was talking to him.

I smiled, took a step forward, and gave a wave. “Will do. Thank you so much for your hospitality. I’ll remember your kindness.”

The Sister nodded low then closed the door.

Marco turned around and fixed me with a wary, suspicious gaze, his eyes once more ticking toward my dirty heels.

I tried to wipe them on my pants, then realized that my pants were expensive, and there was no point in ruining them when I’d just have to chuck the heels out when I got home.

“What exactly did you find?”

“Think I’m a better cop than you? Want to make a bet that I solve this case before you do?”

“Firstly,” he snorted derisively, “we have already ascertained on numerous occasions that you are not a police officer. Secondly, I don’t think you’re better at anything. I think you fall ass-backward into most of your cases. But you’re on. Dinner says I solve this case long before you even have a clue about what’s going on.”

I pressed my lips together. There were so many jokes I could make about that, but again I held myself back.

Maybe Marco noted that, because he shot me a suspicious glance, pausing for a few seconds until again he shrugged his shoulder in the direction of the laneway. “Is it important?” he asked blankly.

I started to pick up the urgency in his tone, and it was my turn to frown. “What did the Sister tell you?”

“Unlike you, I’m under no legal obligation to share the facts of this case with you.”

I went to roll my eyes but stopped. “You’ve got a lead, haven’t you?”

“Call it something like that. Now, you have to make your way home from here. Have fun walking in those heels,” he chuckled snidely to himself as he walked up to the car.

I was closer, and I opened the passenger door just as he unlocked it, scooting my butt in and doing up my seatbelt well before he could splutter in complaint.

“Hey, I just told you you were walking. You’re not coming along with me for the next bit.”

“Let’s accept one thing, Detective. I’m a better investigator than you. People like me better, too,” I said as I circled a finger in the air until I pointed at the orphanage. “Now, you can take me to the next lead, or I can just walk back in there, complain to the Sister that you’re a bully, and get even more information out of her than you managed to. What will it be?”

Marco had made it around to the front of his vehicle, and he opened his car door. I watched as his fingers tightened on the metal, his knuckles popping white against his gloriously tanned skin. “God, you’re the Devil.”

I didn’t let him see my expression as he sat down roughly, the entire car shaking as his muscular body bounced in the car seat.

“That is a particularly unkind thing to say. I’m going to ignore it. Now, where are we going?”

“I can’t believe I’m actually sharing this with you. I could lose my job for this.”

“And you could get a commendation if I help you solve the case. Which, as long as I can find Hillary’s child, is precisely what I will do,” I said as I patted myself on the chest and smiled at him selflessly. “Now—”

“Thanatos Jones,” Marco said out of the blue.

Excuse me if those two words were like a match that could light the powder keg of rage that always sat just beneath my surface.

I’d managed to control my expression when Marco had called me a devil – this was different. My cheeks slackened, my eyes widened, and my gaze sharpened like two knives getting ready for the kill.

There wasn’t anything in the world that would hide my expression from Marco. Sure enough he frowned as he turned on the ignition and pulled out, yanking the car right in front of a taxi.

The driver leaned out of his car and gave Marco the two-fingered salute.

Marco didn’t shift his attention from me.

“Can you pay attention to the road, please? I’d really like not to get any more injuries today.”

He frowned at that. “Cut yourself cooking dinner? You look like the kind.”

“What, to cook dinner, or to be bad with knives? I assure you, neither is the case. I might not have that much money, but boy can I cook.” I didn’t point out that my skills with knives were even better than my culinary ones. I was just glad to change the subject.

Marco, however, had a one-track mind. “What’s your problem with Thanatos?”

“He’s a rich, lying, evil jerk,” I said flatly.

Marco dipped his head back and laughed. “I thought you’d be in love with him like all the other women in Soullake City.”

I slowly tilted my head to the side and shot Marco a very pointed look. “I’m not nearly as shallow as you think I am. Plus, I have a history with Thanatos.”

“Irritate him like you do the rest of this city?”

“Something like that. Now, are you going to fill me in on why exactly we’re going to waste the rest of our day talking to that bastard?”

“Damn, I can’t believe I’m telling you this again.”

“Get over your conscience already and just spill the beans.”

“He funds the orphanage. Stepped in when the government stepped out. It’s the only reason that place is still running.”

At the revelation that Thanatos was funding an orphanage that was run by a Sister and frequented by angels, I didn’t suddenly lose my shit.

It made perfect damn sense to someone in Thanatos’ position to spread his seed, as it were. Having a controlling share in an orphanage of God was like forcing open a door to Heaven.

You could justifiably question why Father Butler would allow such a thing to happen. With the money his church had squirreled away, he could fund any number of orphanages. He was a pragmatic man, though, the kind who would gladly accept Thanatos’ donation if it meant he didn’t have to spend his own funds. Plus, Father Butler had fewer concerns for the so-called true work of the Church – like running charity foundations and orphanages – and far more for the actual work of the Church, which was winning the hearts and minds of its parishioners and turning them against the Devil.

“He’s mentioned in all three letters. And all three kids came from this orphanage.”

“Why didn’t you tell me this before? That Thanatos was mentioned in all three letters?”

Marco snorted. “Because I was trying to be a good cop and not share every last detail of this case if I didn’t have to.”

I brought up a hand and scratched my neck, allowing the tips of my fingers to brush along my jaw. If I concentrated, I could just feel the injury sitting under the surface.

That angel had gotten me good, I mean really good. That punch had been fiendishly strong.

I’d underestimated him.

The question was, why had he been there, and why had he left the fight?

He could have killed me. Could have captured me. And yet, he’d just chosen to give me a warning.

“You paying attention?” Marco chided. “I’m really not going to repeat this.”

“Sorry, yeah. So they mentioned Thanatos. Anything else?”

“All the kids were the same age, all disappeared on their birthdays, and all claimed to be doing the work of God. The English in their disappearance letters was broken, apart from the lines about Thanatos.”

“So you think that means someone told them to say it?” I frowned.

“Basically, yeah.”

I immediately opened my mouth to say that Thanatos was not that stupid. Then I remembered I was about to defend the guy, and I zipped my lips closed.

I’d already seen Thanatos this morning, and I really didn’t want to visit the bastard again, but one thing was for sure – if he did fund this orphanage, he would know more about what was going on here.

So I would just have to put up with my ex-lover once more.

Great.

His warning about today echoed in my mind.

You know what was worse than having to see Thanatos’ ridiculously handsome, arrogant face twice in a day? Him being right.

I’d need luck to make it through this case. And that luck, for some reason, felt as if it was rapidly running out.

Chapter 9

I hated going into Thanatos’ tower. It wasn’t just that it was one of the biggest new buildings downtown and looked like the modern equivalent of a castle. It was that it stank of him. Remember before how I said that it was sometimes hard to detect the difference between light and dark when you entered a new place with chaotic energies?

With Thanatos, I always knew where the jerk had been.

If you wanted to know what he smelt like, it was like some insanely intoxicating mix of coffee grinds, orange spice, and a dash of sweat.

Disgusting?

Not as much as it was attractive.

I always got the urge to bring a peg with me and shove it over my nostrils every time I was forced to come here. Which was thankfully rare. When Thanatos wanted to discuss something with me, he usually met me out on the city street. We had this unspoken rule not to go on each other’s turf. Okay, mine was less of a rule – Thanatos couldn’t physically enter either my office or my house. I had enough charms to ensure that nothing could unless I explicitly invited it in.

With Thanatos, it was different, because this tower was open to the public. And the public included me.

He wouldn’t be pleased, though.

“You’re acting kind of edgy,” Marco said as he slid his gaze toward me, thumbing the button to the elevator in front of us.

I tried not to dance back and forth on my heels. I tried not to chew on my lip. I couldn’t stop my hand from clutching around the quartz crystal in my pocket, though. It was about the only thing keeping me sane at the moment. “I wouldn’t call it edgy – I call it intuition.”

Marco couldn’t contain his snort. It was so damn loud, I’m sure everybody two levels up heard it.

I pressed my lips together, rolled my tongue around my mouth, and slowly shifted my head toward him. “Got a problem?”

“Yeah, you don’t look like the kind to rely on intuition. You look like an atheist, if anything, someone who subscribes wholeheartedly to science and thinks that will keep them warm on the coldest of nights.”

I knew things far more effective at keeping me warm on a cold night, and Marco was barking up entirely the wrong tree.

“What, not going to bite back? I’m right, aren’t I?”

“Call me an agnostic,” I muttered.

“Agnostics are cowards.”

“Technically, agnosticism is the only rational view.”

“But you aren’t a rational person. What do you believe?” He put me on the spot as the elevator arrived.

Thankfully it was empty and no other poor soul would have to put up with Marco’s ridiculous line of questioning.

What did I believe?

I repeated that question. You see, it was a question I’d repeated a lot during my life. Belief had unimaginable power. I knew the Devil and God existed; I knew of Heaven and Hell. But belief?

Belief guided your actions. It wasn’t always based on fact, if it ever was. Belief was far more an effect of the soul, not of the rational mind.

“My beliefs are far too complex for a simple mind like you to understand,” I managed as he pushed into the elevator, swiveled on his shoe, and stabbed his finger into the penthouse button.

This elicited precisely the reaction I knew it would. “I have a degree in theology. As far as I’m aware, you don’t have a degree in anything. So stop playing the high and mighty. If you don’t want to get into a conversation like this with an ex-priest, then don’t. But you’ll regret it.”

I snorted loudly.

It was a hell of a lot more refined than the rattling, bull-like eruptions Marco was capable of. “Is that a warning?”

“For your immortal soul,” he commented.

I practically crushed the quartz crystal in my pocket, my wrist twitching with such force, I could’ve punched through a wall.

It was just a turn of phrase, wasn’t it? That hadn’t been a pointed, well-placed comment about the deal I’d made with the Devil. Marco was just using the vernacular common to every priest.

His gaze slid across my face. “I picked you for somebody who, though they have a rough exterior, has a conscience buried somewhere deep, deep underneath your snarling veneer.”

“Trust me,” I said as the lift thankfully arrived and opened to a bustling hallway, “there is nothing at my depths you would want to see.”

With that, I turned and walked forward.

It took Marco several seconds to catch up with me.

I could feel his curious gaze on the side of my face.

“Why are you so put out by coming here? You’re not your usual self.”

No, I wasn’t my usual self, because I was nursing half a broken jaw from an angel punch.

“I have a history with Thanatos, okay?” I spat snidely. “A… close history.”

Marco looked me up and down and then snorted. “You talk a lot of shit, Celeste, but do you actually expect me to believe that the most eligible bachelor in town would ever lay a finger on you?”

I curled my lips, ready to snap at Marco that for a man of the cloth, he was a total shit.

I didn’t have to.

Somebody cleared their throat from behind us, and the exact thrill of recognition that danced down into my stomach promised me it was only one man.

I turned my head to watch Thanatos stride across the room. “Detective, I can assure you I laid a lot more than a finger on her. Now, to what can I owe this pleasure?” Thanatos said as he switched his full attention to me.

Marco spluttered.

Me? I resisted the urge to turn my dial to the left and punch Thanatos with all my strength. My finger did twitch up to it, though.

He obviously saw that urge flashing in my gaze, because he smiled. Right at the edge of my sight, I swore I picked up a glimmer of black lace wings. After all, he too could play, couldn’t he?

Marco appeared to take several seconds to pull himself together. He seemed exceedingly put out by the concept that Thanatos had all but admitted to having a relationship with me.

I could feel Marco’s questioning gaze drilling into the back of my neck.

He finally pulled himself together. “I’m here to ask a few questions.”

Thanatos still wouldn’t take his eyes off me. “Unless Ms. Ming has had a sudden change of career, that doesn’t seem to be a good reason for a detective of the law to be working with a mere private eye.”

When Thanatos said the word mere, he did so with total derision.

I really had to try hard to control my urge to punch the bastard now.

Marco still seemed to be unusually put out either by the way Thanatos and I were interacting, or at the admission we’d once been together. The usually stalwart detective was taking a long time to remember why he was really here. He cleared his throat. “She’s still a private eye. And I’m still a detective.” Marco tapped a hand onto the badge hanging off his belt, as if to remind Thanatos of who was in charge.

“So why is she here? Did you need a new excuse to see me? Getting lonely—” he began.

“Screw this,” I commented as I shoved my hands into my pockets and strode up to him. “We can do this in public or private. You get to pick.”

Wrong question. Thanatos’ lips curled into a smile.

Before he could tell me that I already knew which one he preferred, Marco finally took hold.

He took a drumbeat of a step forward, the kind of move that would signal to anyone that he was now in full control. “Ms. Ming here is helping us with our inquiries.” As far as answers went, it wasn’t one.

Before the ever-litigious Thanatos could point that out, Marco made a stiff motion with his head toward Thanatos’ door.

There was enough staff hanging around the atrium that we were making a scene. Though I knew for a fact that Thanatos had the ability to wipe any human’s mind, he obviously decided it would be better to take this conversation somewhere private.

I turned on my foot and headed to his door. Or at least, one of his doors. There were two. They were laid over each other, technically occupying the same space while being distinct at the same time. Despite the fact I’d spent my life knowing about magic and the light and dark, sights like this always made me queasy. I liked to know precisely what I was dealing with. But with Thanatos, as ever, the ground beneath you was always changing.

It took me a second to realize I’d paused, hand hovering over the handle. That second was all it took for Thanatos to walk up beside me. He shifted past me, his arm brushing just along my forearm, the fabric of his jacket doing nothing to hold back his inherent, prickling heat. “You do know how to open a door, don’t you, Ms. Ming?”

I didn’t bother to tell him he could go get fucked – I knew exactly how he would reply to that particular insult. Instead, I swallowed my anger and strode in behind him.

Fortunately when Thanatos had opened the door, he’d only opened it onto one of his offices. Now the room was standing still, the queasy feeling climbing my stomach abated.

I walked up to one of the plush chairs sitting in front of his desk. When I locked a hand on it, he cleared his throat.

“It is customary to be invited to sit first,” he pointed out.

I yanked the chair out, not caring as I dragged it harshly over the carpet. I sat in it roughly and plopped my hands in my lap. I brought one leg up and crossed it over the other. The toe of my messy, dust splattered heel tapped against the side of his pristine desk. I arched my head over just in time to see his eyes narrowing with disgust.

I could bet that Marco was regretting taking me along. He shot me the kind of look that told me if I did any damage to Thanatos’ priceless possessions, I’d be paying for it myself.

When Thanatos didn’t growl at Marco, he sat down in a seat beside me.

Thanatos walked around, pulled out his chair, and folded himself into it. The move was graceful, and if Marco had been paying the right amount of attention, he would’ve appreciated that it was too graceful. Thanatos appeared to hover in the air for several seconds. Once more I caught a glimpse of his lace-like wings, and I could appreciate it was another warning.

Again Thanatos was reminding me who was in charge.

Marco cleared his throat. “We are currently investigating the suspicious disappearances of several children. Our sources have led us to believe that one of your orphanages may be involved.”

“I don’t own any orphanages,” Thanatos said clearly, his tone clipped and professional. “If you however mean the orphanages I fund because this city has cut their income, then continue.”

I could tell Marco was pissed off at being corrected, but at least he was a good enough policeman not to let it show. “One orphanage in particular, St. Mary’s, has had a connection with all three of the disappearances.”

“And what precisely do you think this has to do with me?”

“All three children mentioned you in their disappearance notes.”

Thanatos looked unmoved. “In what context? And what precisely is a disappearance note?”

“That’s a detail of the case I don’t need to share at this point in time. What I will require you to do,” Marco’s voice punched out hard on the word require, “is explain where you were at approximately noon today.”

Thanatos appeared to think for a moment, then shot me a specific smile. “I was sharing the back seat of my limousine with Ms. Ming.”

This flawed Marco, and he swiveled his surprised gaze to me.

When I shrunk back in my seat and tapped my nails on my pants, but didn’t call Thanatos a liar, Marco took a stiff breath.

“You were only with me for like two minutes,” I finally found my voice.

Marco arched an eyebrow.

“All three kids said in their disappearance letters that they would never be able to repay you. The exact same words. Some of the rest of their English was broken and badly spelled, but these phrases were perfect. That ain’t a coincidence.” Marco growled.

“Show me these letters,” Thanatos demanded.

“Tell me everything you know,” Marco replied.

“Show me the letters.” Thanatos folded his hands together and folded himself forward. The bulk of his appreciably large form might technically be held back by his desk, but he looked like a lion stretching before the kill.

“He’s going to get his lawyer in any way,” I snarled. “And considering these letters are integral to your questions, there’s no point dancing around them.”

“Fine,” Marco conceded. “I’ll have someone forward copies. For now, answer the question.”

“No. You will answer mine. What other similarities were in these letters?” Thanatos said as he stared right at me. There was a controlled, fixed quality to his gaze.

If I wasn’t so distracted, maybe I would appreciate it appeared as if Thanatos was trying to tell me something.

“You don’t need to know that. You simply need to account for your movements at noon.”

“My phone can account for my movements. As can the GPS in my car. Both will tell you that I was driving around the city to various appointments,” his lips moved around that word, tasting the air as he stared at me.

Marco shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “That doesn’t mean a great deal.”

“I’m afraid you are incorrect, Detective – it means I cannot be one of your suspects. Now, I have answered your questions – please leave.”

“I have more questions,” Marco said bluntly.

“And I have no more patience. This line of questioning is ridiculous.”

“Three children have gone missing in the space of a month,” Marco said as he brought up a hand, three fingers punching out from his palm as if they’d been held back by springs.

The detective was steadily growing irritated. Sorry, irritated was the wrong word. For a man of the cloth, he had a short, damn sharp temper. It was boiling to the fore now as Thanatos stared at him coldly and uncooperatively.

“If you know something about this case,” he began.

“The only thing I know about this case is that it appears to be incompetently run.”

Marco stood abruptly. “If you want me to book you for not cooperating, continue what you’re doing.”

“If you’d like a message from my lawyer for bullying, you can also continue.”

Really?

I mean I understood Thanatos. He was a demon, and he got off on chaos. Marco, however, should know better.

As much as I would love to see this descend into a fight, I really needed to find out what Thanatos knew.

I still didn’t think he was at the heart of this case. It stank of the light, but Thanatos had his ear to the ground, and he would definitely know something.

If only I could get him on his own.

Maybe there was something about the look I shot him, because Thanatos placed a hand on his desk. He rose. He wasn’t looking at Marco. He let his wings spread. The irate Marco suddenly calmed down. He went from standing there, berating Thanatos, to staring at the desk as if the leather insert held all the secrets of reality.

I jerked my head over to Marco, then back to Thanatos. “What the hell are you doing?”

“You wanted to have a conversation in private? I saw it in your eyes. This is us having a conversation in private,” his voice purred on the word private. He bent forward over the desk. Then the bastard crawled on top of it. Though technically crawled was the wrong word. He always had his wings, you see, and they kept him aloft, no matter what he was doing.

My stomach twisted into insane knots as Thanatos crawled right over the desk, swung his legs over the side, then leaned in front of me. He brought up a knee, pressed the base of his foot against the desk, then rested his elbow on his thigh. He didn’t look casual. He looked like a damn demon looming over you and getting ready to strike.

Problem was, my twitching stomach momentarily told me falling to Thanatos wouldn’t be such a bad thing after all.

“Is this private enough for you, Celeste?”

“Don’t do that,” I spluttered.

“What?”

“Say my name like that.”

This brought a chuckle to his lips. “How would you prefer for me to say your name?” He looked me up and down. “With less familiarity? Why, Celeste, how could one forget you? The foolish little girl who’s meant to end the world.”

My teeth stiffened. “Destinies only exist for the weak-willed. Which we both know I’m not,” my voice drilled out low as I sat back in my seat. It wasn’t in an effort to get away from him – okay, it was most definitely in an effort to get away from him. It wasn’t obvious, though. I crossed my arms and snarled.

This just made him chuckle all the louder. “You know, next time you want to see me alone,” his tongue slipped out of his mouth on the word alone, “you can leave your toy at home.” Thanatos gestured dismissively at Marco.

Marco wasn’t moving. He blinked occasionally, but that was it. Thanatos and I could get into a full fight, and the annoying detective would never know. He’d also be incapable of lending a hand.

“He’s not my toy,” I corrected with a growl. “Toys are a lot easier to control.”

“The upstanding detective giving you trouble?” His eyes darted toward Marco, a very specific look on the demon’s face.

“Nothing I need your particular brand of help with,” I growled. “What you can do, however, is follow the Dictates.” I spat out the word Dictates, really using my full force, the word shaking through the room like a clap of thunder.

It had a predictable effect on Thanatos. There wasn’t much this side of Hell that could control him, but the Dictates could.

They were the same thing that controlled me, and ultimately, the same laws that controlled the Church, too.

The Dictates weren’t a pact between Heaven and Hell – you should know by now that neither the dark nor the light would negotiate with one another. The Dictates were a human invention. I’m not the only person to ever try to hold back Heaven and Hell. Humans had been doing it for eons, ever since the ancient powers had been revealed. The Dictates were… I guess you could call them a sanctified status quo. They ensured that neither Heaven nor Hell could burst into full-on war. They also kept their interference in human affairs to a minimum.

Who’d created the Dictates, I didn’t know, but they were burned into reality. They were a consequence of practicing magic in the human realm. Back when Heaven and Hell had vied for the world, some smart human magical practitioner had found a way to write these very rules into the fabric of magic.

That wasn’t to say that the second someone broke the Dictates, reality twisted on them and gobbled them up.

Heck no, whoever had invented them had been a heck of a lot smarter than that. The Dictates were an odds system. The more Heaven or Hell broke them, the weaker their overall magic became. If neither Heaven nor Hell interfered with humans, then both realms could keep their full power. But the more they interfered and broke the Dictates, the weaker their entire systems became. When some jackass demon illegally hunted souls and broke the Dictates, his own magic didn’t just take a hit – all of Hell’s magic did. It was the same for Heaven.

It was the perfect system, really. It made it saner for Hell and Heaven to interfere as little as they could, lest they lose most of their magic before the big fight. But if they both decided to throw caution to the wind and interfere as much as possible, they’d only end up severely depleting their overall magic so there wouldn’t be a fight.

The Dictates didn’t stop Heaven and Hell from protecting themselves. They could have as many mini-wars as they wanted, as long as they didn’t spill into the human realm. The Dictates also didn’t stop the two realms from vying for devotees. They could fill their ranks all they wanted with humans as long as the humans were willing and hadn’t been manipulated in any way.

Did Heaven and Hell break the Dictates? All the damn time, but only when they had to.

Did I break the Dictates? That was a trickier one. Technically an ordinary human couldn’t break them – only an agent of Heaven or Hell could. And that, why that boiled down to what you defined as an agent. Any magical being who acted in a way to benefit either realm was considered an agent. If I started handing out magic-infused leaflets to humans espousing the good of the Lord, that would be breaking the Dictates. Or, more realistically, if I only targeted demons and ignored all the angels, that too would be breaking the Dictates.

For me, the consequences were less clear. Yes, over time, if I kept breaking them, I’d lose my magic, but not in the same way Heaven and Hell would. Still, if I lost even a little magic, that would make me a soft target for my numerous enemies out there. That didn’t stop me from doing my job. Unaligned magical practitioners like me – and there were more – acted as free radicals, if you will. We held up the Dictates, handing out judgments where we knew a violation had been made. And where we did hand out a judgment (or, let’s be honest, a can of whoop-ass), as long as it was justified, Heaven and Hell couldn’t do anything.

This morning, Thanatos had gone on about me breaking the Dictates by not allowing his demon friend the time to plead for mercy. Technically, I should have given the bugger a chance to explain his actions through his master – that was allowed under the Dictates, see.

But bah-humbug, that demon had clearly been up to no good, and I knew for a fact that Thanatos could weasel his way out of anything.

I get that all this talk about magical zero-sum games is probably doing your head in. All you really need to understand is the Dictates stop scumbags like Thanatos from doing whatever he wants and enable people like me to do our bit to mop up the scum in this town. As long as you live by the Dictates, you don’t die by them.

Thanatos chuckled, the move long and harsh. “Ironic of you to remind me of the Dictates when you yourself broke them flagrantly last night.” He spoke around bared teeth.

“We’ve gone over this. I didn’t breach them. Your demon never asked for a chance to plead his case.”

Thanatos didn’t bother to point out yet again that the reason the demon hadn’t pleaded was that I hadn’t given him time.

“You know, Celeste, it has been a pleasure to watch you grow.”

I could deal with a lot of shit from Thanatos, but sudden changes in topic like this confused the hell out of me. I arched an eyebrow. “What the hell does that mean?”

“You used to hate taking risks. Now look at you. Not only are you playing dangerously close to the edge of the law, but you’re even working hand-in-hand with an agent of the light. What next, Celeste?”

I snorted. “I am not working hand-in-hand with Marco, and he is not an agent of the light.”

“A priest, practically an acolyte of Father Butler turned detective. What exactly would you term Marco?”

“A cop,” I said bluntly. “And we’re not working hand-in-hand,” I growled again. “He dragged me along here.”

“And you only allowed yourself to be dragged because you sensed an opportunity,” Thanatos concluded. “Or did you just want to see me again?”

I shook my head to the side. “I’ve got a question? Does all that trash talk ever work?”

“It worked on you.”

I really snorted loudly now. “You were a distraction, Thanatos. We both know that. An ineffective salve for an ineffective, scared woman who, at the time, hadn’t known how to outgrow her destiny. But I grew up.” I slapped a hand on my chest, not caring that it drew attention to my bust.

For all Thanatos’ attempts at being a sleaze, it was an act. As I’d told you many times before, Thanatos was an effective man, not a fool.

It took him a few seconds to react to my barb. And in that time, his expression went blank. He opened his mouth to say something, and from the look in his eyes, I had no idea what it would be.

His phone rang.

Thanatos sighed. “I have to pick this up.”

“But Marco is still paused. If you pick up your phone and converse to somebody outside of this room, you have to reintroduce the flow of time.”

Thanatos gave me a trying look. “Thank you, but I do not need a lesson on the intricacies of magic from you.” He went to answer his phone, plunging a hand into his pocket.

I jolted forward, realizing my opportunity to talk to him in private was about to end. “Wait, you haven’t told me what you know.”

“I have no obligation to. Unlike Marco here, you can’t get a warrant, and this falls well beyond the Dictates.”

I hated showing desperation, especially in front of Thanatos. It was like blood in a shark tank.

I needed this case solved, though, before I ran out of time. Fortunately, I had a degree in manipulating this idiot. “Is that your final answer? You know the light has overstepped itself.” I growled on the word light.

Thanatos paused, his phone close to his ear, his thumb hovering over the answer button. “There’s no evidence of that. Yet. Plus, it’s your job to find that out, anyway.”

“Come on, I know you know something. That’s why you warned me in the car this morning, right?”

He snorted. “That wasn’t me warning you; that was me taunting you. I would hope you would be smart enough to know the difference. To warn someone is to show some concern for their welfare. To taunt them is to show the exact opposite.”

“Yeah, I get it,” my lips ticked up into a snarl, “you hate my sorry ass. Not the point. I can sense this case is big. Sarah was being used.”

Thanatos paused.

His phone was about to ring out, but he still didn’t answer it.

His gaze ticked over me. His penetrating gaze. I swore I saw something in his eyes, something deeper than the usually shallow demon would allow for.

“Fine. The question you need to ask is not what the kid is being used for, but what you are being used for.” With that, Thanatos flipped over his desk, sat in his chair smoothly, flicked his hand toward Marco, and answered his phone.

Marco predictably took several seconds to shake his head and catch back up with reality.

“I’m sorry, this is urgent,” Thanatos said as he placed a hand on the receiver.

“We’ll wait,” Marco growled. But at that exact moment, his own phone rang, the droning call tone sounding extra shrill for some reason as it echoed through the room.

And maybe the reason it sounded extra shrill was that I sat there, as cold as the grave.

… What the hell did Thanatos mean?

I was being used?

It would be easy to assume Thanatos was just playing a game, but something told me he wasn’t.

If there was one thing I hated more than anything else, especially considering my history, it was being used.

So if there was one thing more than anything else I would stop – it was people using me.

And that was a promise.

Chapter 10

I walked in the front door of Lost Souls Detective Agency, strode right over to my desk, hooked my chair out with my leg, and sat, instantly burying my face in my hands.

“You didn’t get anywhere, ha?” Cheryl said kindly as she stood up from her desk and immediately walked over to the kitchenette to prepare me a cup of coffee.

“Nope. Worse. I went backward,” I said.

“Don’t beat yourself up. It’s still early days. You’ve never lost a case, and I know you won’t lose this one.”

Thanatos’ words reverberated in my head. I was playing into somebody’s hands. But who?

It had to do with that angel I’d seen at the orphanage.

“It’s getting late – do you want to catch some dinner before you head home? This case is already a month old; I’m sure if you sleep on it, it won’t matter. In fact, it will give you a fresh perspective for the morning.”

My stomach treacherously rumbled. I brought a hand off my face and clutched it over my belly, trying to tell my damn digestive system to calm the hell down.

Though all I wanted right now was a massive steak, chips, and a double burger, I didn’t have the time.

“I have to go back to the orphanage, don’t I?”

“Sorry?” Cheryl asked as I heard her turn on the kettle.

“No, sorry – thanks for the offer, but I have to work.”

“You shouldn’t do this to yourself. Even you need a holiday. I get that this case is important, but if you’re not getting anywhere now, why do you think you will at night? Everything important will be closed down. Even the police have to rest.”

But you know who doesn’t have to rest? Heaven and Hell. And they loved the night.

One of the benefits of having access to my immortal soul was that I barely slept. Just a few hours here and there, and it was mostly a spiritual healing practice where I could attune to my dreams and use them to practice my skills.

Even then, I doubted that I’d have the chance tonight.

My intuition was playing up, crawling over my back, feeling, appropriately, like claws. Demon claws or angel claws, I couldn’t quite tell yet.

“What did you find out today, anyway?” Cheryl turned her head over her shoulder as she put several sugars into my tea.

I ate like a pig. Not always. Sometimes, I only ate specific herbs. It would depend on my mood, and most importantly, the condition of my soul.

I didn’t have a fully human body. As such, I could get away with eating junk, and I really didn’t recommend any ordinary human tried my diet at home. What mattered more to me was not what I put into my body, but what I took out. It was how I used my soul that counted.

That’s a lesson all people learn in life, though some get it quicker than others.

It’s what you can give, more than what you can take, that truly feeds the soul. It’s creating peace and harmony where your immortal side truly thrives. Now, if you think that’s an excuse to go run off and join the Church, think again. The light and dark vie for the power of people’s immortal existences precisely because they are the most powerful source of force in all of the universe. To truly and nobly use one’s soul is to help pull humanity up by its bootstraps and better the world. The real physical world, not Heaven, not Hell, the actual ground upon which you stand.

I was aware of the floor beneath me now as I tapped my heel back and forth. The heel was wobbly, only a few well-placed kicks from falling off.

Several seconds later, Cheryl finished making my coffee, and she brought it over to me. She placed it down on the desk, turning the mug around until the handle was directed my way. “I put a little cold water in it,” she said knowingly as I shifted forward and drank the entire thing in one gulp.

“Thanks,” I muttered, using the back of my hand to push away several droplets that trickled down my lips.

“You know, you’ve really got to look after yourself. What happened to you today, anyway? Or at least, what happened to your shoes?”

“I had a little run-in with a wall.”

“Ouch. Sounds painful. You want me to get your runners out of the closet?”

I made a face. For all my protestations about using my soul for good, I really did have a thing for shoes. I liked to look my best, and runners, while sensible, weren’t gorgeous.

But then I drummed my fingers on the desk, remembering my half-fractured jaw. If I ran into that angel again tonight – and I could practically guarantee that I would – it would be better to be fighting fit.

I nodded. “That would be great.”

“Easy.” She turned, left the main room for the storage room, rummaged around for a minute, then brought back my runners. They were clean. She always cleaned them. I might live like a pig, but Cheryl did her best.

Tucked under her other arm was a microwave dinner she’d fished out of the chest freezer.

I made a face at it.

She made a face back. “You’re not going to eat tonight unless I force you to. It’s hardly as good as Demetri’s pizza down the road, but if it’s the only food I can force into you, then I’m going to force it into you. Plus, it’s the best of a bad lot.”

I could appreciate that. I think I’d tried all the microwave dinners in every supermarket in the city, and some of them didn’t deserve to be called dinner – they were torment for the stomach.

Cheryl busied herself with microwaving my food, and I got back to tapping my fingers and staring uselessly into space.

Though I was headstrong and loved to rush into danger, I wasn’t so sure rushing in was the smart thing to do this time.

I half closed my eyes. I got a glimpse of that angel’s face once more. His cold irises, his sharp pupils, his knowing look.

It wasn’t a surprise to me that he called me the Harbinger – most agents of the light did.

This guy had seemed fixated on it, though.

“What the hell am I wandering into?” I muttered under my breath, sure this time that Cheryl couldn’t pick me up.

There was a ping as my microwave dinner finished heating up, and she carried it over, wafts of steam buffeting around her face.

“Eat up. And contact me when you’re done. I don’t care if it’s the middle of the night – message me when you’re home.”

I made eye contact and put effort into smiling. “I’m lucky to have you.”

“And the city is lucky to have you.” She patted me on the hand tenderly, walked over to her chair, hooked her jacket over her shoulder, waved, and walked out.

I waited until she was gone until I took a forkful of my food. I couldn’t taste it, could barely feel it going down my gullet as I finished the whole thing in under two minutes. When I was done, I pushed it off my desk, watching it tumble into the wastepaper basket beside me. Then I reached for my shoes.

Screw this. I was not an over-thinker. That was my main advantage.

I get it, rushing headfirst into danger was never a great idea, but rushing gave you an advantage over a slower enemy. And Heaven was always slow. They didn’t think in hours – they thought in eons. If I could get to the orphanage, stake it out, and find my man, maybe I’d get to him before he had a chance to think of what to do next.

Or maybe he’d already figured out precisely what he would do with me.

Chapter 11

Night always set quickly in Soullake City. It didn’t really matter what the season was – dusk was a quick affair. Though I doubted humans noticed it, the dark and light did, for it was the dark and light that ensured night was long and unforgiving.

You can get so much more done when the ordinary citizens are at home in their houses and not flocking along the city streets.

I’d made my quick way to St. Mary’s Orphanage.

My phone was in my pocket. It was off. It wasn’t because I feared some government agency would be tracking me – it was because I knew that developed angels had the senses to sniff out the rare metals used in all modern mobile devices. Even if they didn’t have that exquisite ability, they’d be able to detect the minute radiation.

It was only in my pocket because… what? I thought I’d need it if things went south?

Apart from Cheryl and her wonderful company, I didn’t have any backup.

So why the hell had I brought my phone?

Because just before I’d dumped it on my desk and left my office, I’d thought of Thanatos.

No. I did not consider him a friend. And double no, I had never called him in an emergency before.

But….

He knew something about this situation he wasn’t telling me, and at the end of the day, if the light were getting out of hand, there was a ready way to stop them. It was to start a mini-war between Hell and Heaven.

If Thanatos found Heaven overstepping its bounds, he would act. He would be well within his rights to do so under the Dictates.

“This is crazy. You’re crazy. And this is so a trap.” Nobody heard my voice as I muttered under my breath, making my quiet way toward the laneway where I’d had that fight this afternoon.

As soon as I reached it, my back itched with nerves.

I saw a flashback of the fight, remembering just how quick that scumbag had been.

Pressing my fingers against my jaw, feeling a hint of the injury beneath my soul magic, I wondered if the guy had been waiting for me specifically.

“Just do your damn job,” I hissed.

I staked out the laneway for several minutes, waiting for that angel to return. When he didn’t, I figured it was time to do some real work.

Standing on a dumpster that looked as if it hadn’t been emptied in weeks, I tried not to gag as I jumped for a low window.

My soul dial was turned several notches to the left, so despite the fact the window in question was 10 meters up, I managed to jump to it easily. I hooked my fingers over the concrete lintel, hauling myself up as I pressed the toes of my runners into the marked, black weathered wall.

I pulled myself up, a few faint crackles of magic sparking over my fingers, and I darted my gaze through the window.

I’d already obtained the blueprint of this mazelike building. And I’d staked it out from one of the roofs down the street. I was certain this room was empty. Nothing more than a storage room.

Sure enough, as I stared through the warped glass, I confirmed my assumption.

Hooking my fingers under the windowpane, I lifted it, the move strong enough that it broke the clasp on the inside.

A little part of me felt guilty for breaking so much shit in this orphanage. Then again, Thanatos could just foot the bill. If I was feeling really cheeky, I could send him an invoice for two window latches and one chunk out of the wall.

That thought amused me enough that a smile marked my lips as I hooked my leg over the window and stood on the dusty floor below.

It wasn’t just dusty – it looked as if this entire room existed to farm the stuff.

It caked everything, from the floor, to the window seal, to the objects covered in drop sheets.

I wafted a hand in front of my face uselessly, as it wasn’t like I could have an asthmatic attack while I was imbued with soul magic.

I walked over to the nearest piece of furniture, peering under the drop sheet.

Okay.

That was an antique. Even in the dark, I could see the cherry wood, marble top, and intricate gold leaf details.

If this place was so strapped for cash, you could sell this gargantuan buffet and at least make enough money to fix the plumbing.

Still curious, I checked out the rest of the room, and it was filled with other equally impressive antiques.

By the time I reached the far door, I had a sinking feeling in my stomach.

I had liked the Sister from this afternoon, but maybe the old bat had just been playing a game. Maybe this was some kind of tax gig, and the reason they couldn’t spend any of Thanatos’ money on fixing the building was that they were sinking it into antiques and offshore bank accounts.

As I placed a hand on the door handle, paused, then opened it, I flicked my fingers to the side.

I didn’t have that many intricate spells, but there were a few things that were pretty easy to do. Removing my footprints from the dusty floor was one of them. There was a silent breath of air that traveled through the room, and it returned the dust to whence it had been. A death trap, to be precise. If someone with a lung condition walked in here, they would not be walking out.

I strode into the darkened corridor, thankful that the soft, rubber soles of my runners didn’t make a sound.

The bedrooms for the kids were upstairs, but as I inched toward a door several meters away, I appreciated slow breathing was emanating from it.

I reached the door, hesitated, and opened it, quiet enough that no one would be woken by the noise.

There was a bed. No, that was a generous term. What there was was a slab of concrete. And on top of it was a sleeping child.

The only other things in the room were candles. And there were a lot of them. About 100 by my count.

They were alight, flickering softly, illuminating the sleeping kid.

I’d seen a lot of creepy things before – I’d already told you that – but at this sight, my back crawled.

The State would not be happy with such sleeping arrangements for an orphaned child.

If the aforementioned safety bureau that had passed this orphanage had seen this, everybody in charge would’ve been put in prison.

I remained in the doorway, fingers clutching the door, gaze darting from left to right as I picked up the particular methodical flicker of the candles.

There were no windows in this room. Its outer wall shared that of the building outside, so there could have been windows, but they’d been boarded up.

The kid – a little boy – was soundly asleep, his rhythmic breathing filling the room.

I hesitated. All I wanted to do was rush over, sweep him up, and get him the hell out of here.

I didn’t feel anything off him – no great emanations of light or dark. He was just a child, for God’s sake.

I knew I’d come here to figure out what I could about the disappearances, but I couldn’t fight my better conscience, and my better conscience told me to blow the whistle on whatever the hell this was.

I opened the door just another crack, but that’s when I heard hurried voices coming down the corridor.

They were quick, they were desperate, and they were sharp.

I closed the door as quickly as I could, turned on my foot, and ran back to the room I’d arrived in. I managed to open the door, throw myself inside, and close it until it was only partially ajar by the time the voices made it down the corridor.

I recognized one of them. The Sister. The other thankfully was not the angel.

“This won’t do, Father. We have to stop. It’s not good for the children.”

“What is not good for the children on Earth is right for them in Heaven. If we stop now, they will lose their immortal souls. The Devil will sweep in, and we will never stop hearing their screams.”

Creepy.

Bullshit, too.

The Devil didn’t soak up excess souls like some out-of-control Hoover.

You had to offer, and he had to see worth in your immortality.

But from the shaking quality of this man’s voice, to the emotional timbre of the Sister’s every breath, it was clear they both believed what they were talking about.

I pressed closer to the door, ensuring it was only just ajar and that someone would have to walk all the way up to it to see that it was open a fraction.

“He’ll be cold. Just let me get a blanket and a mattress.”

“The flesh must be in contact with the sanctifying stone. It’s the only way to protect him. Understand that, Sister, for it is our understanding and action that will ultimately save his soul.”

“Hmmm,” she muttered under her breath.

I heard them pause in front of the door, and the Sister took such an emotional breath, I was worried she was about to burst into tears.

“Prepare your soul. Pray to God, for God can help us endure everything. Now open the door. We must see if it has worked and the soul has arisen.”

I frowned.

What the hell were they talking about?

“I don’t think Billy ever had that much of a connection to it,” the Sister said sharply. “Just mutters here and there. He wasn’t like the other three.”

Bingo. Though she could be talking about any three children, the kick of adrenaline that bounced up my spine and rocketed around my head told me she was talking about my case.

My fingers tightened even further around the handle. With one more pulse, I could pulverize it.

Though all of me wanted to burst forth, grab that kid, and put a stop to this, the rest of me understood that I had to find out what was going on here.

“Mutters is all it takes. You said he spoke in the language of the Romans and the Greeks. That is enough. It is an indication that the soul has taken root in his mind, that his weak, young body isn’t enough to fight it off.”

Something clicked into place.

Old soul.

Those two words echoed in my mind, taking on the particular pitch Hillary had used when she’d spoken of her kid.

At the time, I’d already gone on a mental tirade about how wrong people were when they referred to their children as old souls.

Wise, sure. Emotionally mature, absolutely.

Old souls?

Like I’d said, old souls were particularly dangerous things. They were the remnants of a human who hadn’t wanted to die and who’d done every single conceivable thing to their mind and body to ensure that their memories had remained beyond death.

There was one haunting this building, wasn’t there?

It was attempting to possess the orphans.

Maybe it had found a way to possess all three of the adopted kids, and maybe that was why they’d disappeared?

The father started to chant under his breath, his words low and punching. It took the Sister a moment, then she joined in, her words more shaking and delicate.

I imagined they were both clutching their crosses, rubbing their thumbs over the crucifixes in the hope that wherever the Lord was, he was smiling down on them.

But nothing would protect them if they were stupid enough to deal with old souls. It wouldn’t just break the Dictates – it would leave them vulnerable to whatever twisted old mind they were trying to court.

“What the hell are you jerks after?” I muttered.

Here’s the thing, old souls have their uses. If you can push past the fact they’ll try to possess you and use your body to feed their desires. Old souls, especially if they’re ancient, have years of knowledge. Arcane knowledge. If somebody found the ability to ensure their memories were immortal, it meant they had an insane knowledge of magical practices – knowledge the modern world would salivate over.

That’s what this idiotic Father wanted, ha? He wanted the old soul in question to possess the kid and hand over some juicy magical facts.

“Bastard, you are a bastard,” I spat under my breath, directing my vehemence at the idiotic Father.

I fought the urge to rush out and end this. The only thing that stopped me was Thanatos’ warning.

I was playing right into somebody’s hands.

I might have said back in my office that I was the kind to rush in and think through things later, but I still had a forebrain, and I chose to use it now.

What the hell would they want me for?

I couldn’t be possessed. And with my soul dial, I could fight an old soul where others couldn’t. But these guys wouldn’t want me to dispatch that creature.

So—

“Heard enough?” I picked up a whisper right by my ear.

Fear elongated my back, making it feel as if my spine would punch out of the crown of my head and bottom out of my butt.

Adrenaline pulsed through me, like a damn bomb in the center of my chest.

It was him. I’d hardly heard him speak this afternoon, but I still remembered his reverberating tone.

How he’d creeped up right behind me, I didn’t know.

My soul dial was pressed several notches to the left, and though I wasn’t completely glowing with power, come on, it still gave me senses greater than any human.

“Wondering what we’re up to?” he muttered. “Why don’t you find out?”

I tried to think of what to do. Fight the guy or run?

I imagined if I got far enough away to make a call on my phone, by the time the police got here, all the evidence would have been wrapped up.

That was if this guy would let me go anywhere.

Time to make a distraction, then.

I screamed.

I wasn’t above calling for help. And though technically it was a bother when I brought humans into my problems, right now, I could see no other way.

It was clear that wasn’t what the angel expected me to do, and it took him several seconds to react, looping in and cramming a hand over my mouth.

It was too late. My echoing vocal blasts had already punched through most of the orphanage.

I heard the Sister splutter in surprise outside in the corridor. I even heard several kids wake up upstairs.

“Damn you,” the angel hissed in my ear as he began to drag me backward.

Again I didn’t have the ability to twist my soul dial all the way to the left.

I took another gamble as he dragged me toward the window. My foot was close enough to that aforementioned antique buffer. I kicked it with all my might, and it was a more than strong enough move to see the buffet tumble over and slam against the floor with an echoing thump that would travel through the entire building.

If there was any confusion about where that scream had come from, there wouldn’t be now.

I heard racing footsteps.

The angel hesitated.

If the Sister and whatever idiotic Father was with her knew about this angel’s presence – if they were working for him – he would stay.

If they didn’t know?

I got my answer as he wrenched his hand from my mouth. I heard the scatter of claws, the flap of wings, and the next thing I knew, he disappeared.

It was just in time for a silver-haired father to thrust open the door and turn on the light.

I blinked up at the powerful illumination. Though this orphanage obviously didn’t maintain anything, their lighting was another matter. Powerful, expensive halogen lights blasted down on me, and I instantly felt as if I’d been dragged in front of the Inquisition.

I heard the Sister gasp as she drew alongside the Father. She took a double take. “What are you doing here?”

I pushed myself up from where the angel had dumped me.

Okay. I’d stopped myself from being carried away by the light. Now I had to stop myself from being carried away by the law.

I watched the Father stiffen and reach a hand into his pocket. I could already see the outline of a phone.

I brought my hands up and spread them wide. And I took a gamble. “I was tracking one of the missing kids,” I said. “Sarah. She came here. I didn’t want to call the police. She seemed…” I trailed off, and I deliberately tried to look as frightened and unsettled as I could.

It seemed to work on the Sister. She stood as tall as her diminutive form would allow, her cheeks paling as silver as a birch tree.

That wasn’t to speak of the Father’s expression. While the Sister seemed to fear for Sarah, it was damn clear the Father feared for himself. “Who are you?”

“She’s helping to investigate the disappearance of our children,” the Sister said quietly. “You saw Sarah?” She took a jerked step into the room, fear filling her gaze.

There, that’s all I needed to see. Genuine emotion. It tugged at my heartstrings and told me that my misgivings were wrong. Despite whatever the hell the Sister was doing with that kid in that room, in her heart, she was good.

I nodded.

“Sister Marigold, what is going on here? Do you know this woman?”

I hadn’t learned her name until now. Marigold matched her. Her old, wizened face and motherly compassion wouldn’t have matched a more modern name.

This was a gamble. I shouldn’t need to tell you that I hadn’t followed Sarah here. Just as I shouldn’t need to tell you that I still had absolutely no idea where Sarah was. But the gamble was paying off, which meant one incredibly important thing – Marigold had no idea where Sarah was, but wherever she was, there was the distinct possibility that she would return here.

I resisted the urge to clamp a hand on my shoulder where that angel had fastened his fingers. Jesus Christ, he had one nasty grip. I’d seriously underestimated this guy. It wasn’t just the fact that he’d managed to creep up behind me without me having a clue. It was everything.

I shouldn’t need to tell you that once more Thanatos’ warning echoed in my ear. I was walking right into somebody’s hands, and it was by now obvious that those hands belonged to that angel.

“I’m calling the police,” the Father said as he pulled out his phone.

Immediately, Sister Marigold reached out and placed a hand on his arm. Though technically the move was soft, I could see the tension in her old fingers. I imagined, if she had to, she would yank that phone right out of his hand. “Sarah is our priority. Where did you see her? Is she still in the building?”

Time for another gamble. I took a breath, an emotional one. This wasn’t me faking it. It was this damn case getting to me. Why is it that I led such a stressful life? Oh, yeah, I remember, because I was paying penance for all the years I’d wasted with the Devil.

Anyhow, time for another gamble. “It was the strangest thing, Sister,” I said, letting my voice shake with emotion.

I watched her old face pale. “… Did you see the child do something… unusual?”

I looked up at her sharply. I nodded, pretending I was so overcome that I simply couldn’t find the words to describe what I’d seen.

The Sister pressed her lips together and swallowed, the move grating as if she were attempting to breathe past a mouthful of sawdust. Though the Father still looked as if he wanted to call the cops and be done with this situation, at least he was keeping a watchful eye on Marigold.

If I played my cards very carefully, I could learn more about this situation from these two than I’d be able to track down in a week. And hey, if I didn’t play my cards carefully, they’d call the cops. Or worse, Father Butler. Then again, I doubted they wanted to see the boys in blue, not considering what they were doing to that kid two doors down.

I hadn’t forgotten about him. He was front and center in my mind. If I could have run the risk of allowing these two to see my glowing soul, I would’ve twisted my dial all the way to the left just so I could use the extended senses it gave me to try to pick up the kid’s breathing.

I brought a hand up, placed it on my sweaty brow, and shook my head. “I still have no idea how she got in the building. She went from being down there in the laneway to somehow getting up here…” I trailed off. I watched Marigold the entire time, and when she didn’t make a face at my wild suggestion, but rather winced, I knew I was onto something.

So the kids were possessed? If you’re possessed by an errant spirit, let alone an old soul, the possession can release energy from your body. Note how I’m not saying it could give you energy. It will scrounge it from your cells and muscles, breaking down what it can to get the skills it needs. Allow a possession to run too long, and it can end up killing the host by breaking down their damn heart muscle.

Sister Marigold shot the Father a pressed-lipped look of concern. “She could be in the building. We have to do something.”

“The only thing we have to do is get this woman out of here.”

I focused my attention on Marigold. “What’s going on here?” I asked, ensuring my voice still shook like a metronome. “That kid, she had skills I’ve never seen before. How—”

The father took a quick step away from Marigold and reached me. He looked like he wanted to settle a hand on my arm and yank me around like some wretched doll. Fortunately he stopped himself just in time, and settled for looming over me instead. “We will not call the police, this time. Trespass again, and you will be dealt with.”

I looked right into his eyes as he said that. And boy did he mean it. Some people are particularly good at giving threats without, you know, actually intending to go through with them. I was one such person; I would threaten my faulty TV set at home all the time, telling it I’d throw it out the window if it stuffed up on me again.

Then there’s another class of people. Those who have every single intention of harming you in any way they can. I got the sudden impression that this guy fell into that category.

I took a shrinking step back. “What,” I began.

Marigold shifted in, quickly looping an arm through mine and dragging me out of the door. “Come on, dear. Just go home. We’ll find Sarah. Don’t you worry about that.”

This was where, if I was actually tracking Sarah, I would point out that it wasn’t up to Marigold and the suspicious Father to find Sarah; it was up to me and the police. But as this was a well-placed farce on my part, I let it go as Marigold led me through the building, never unlooping her arm from mine.

It was a testament to how terrified these two were that they didn’t pause to ask one key question – how had I gotten up into that room? Hell, how had I gotten into the building in the first place?

The shifty Father watched us from the top of the stairs as Marigold pulled me down them. It wasn’t until we reached the front door that she let go.

She hesitated, taking a step back from me as she opened the door. Just before she ushered me out into the cold, dark night, she opened her mouth. From the trembling quality to her lips, I could tell she wanted to share something with me.

Considering there was a lot of weird shit going on, there’d be a lot to share.

Before she could spill the beans, I heard that wretched Father barking at her from further up the stairwell.

She darted in close, the door in hand as she pushed me lightly down onto the stoop. She made flashing eye contact. “Just leave this to me. Let it go. We’ll find her and return her to her mother. I can guarantee that. But don’t… don’t interfere. For any who interfere will be marked.”

With that, she slammed the door closed in my face.

I stood there and stared at it as one little word reverberated through my skull.

Marked.

It could mean a lot of things. You marked a piece of paper when you took to it with a pen. You marked your clothing when you were careless and stained it.

You also, however, marked your acolytes.

Magical marking was a soulless practice, and I use that term with utmost care, considering I’m the girl who made a pact with the Devil.

Not all acolytes choose to follow those they end up serving. In fact, a good chunk of them are usually shanghaied. The prospect of serving mad, evil, or plain fanatic masters isn’t always a great one. There’s no dental, you often end up dead, and no one will miss you.

But there’s a way to get your acolytes without having to change your unfriendly employment practices. Find them, mark them, and make them yours. To do that, you need to have a hell of a lot of magic, and it needs to be strong. Oh yeah, and you need to be brazen enough to break the Dictates.

Marking all comes down to the power of your soul. If it’s strong enough – and importantly, you have a strong enough control of it – you can use it to twist the destinies of others toward you. Think of it like a huge river flowing down a hill, grasping smaller tributaries and turning them into its own path.

That’s what the Sister was warning me of, ha?

Which meant two things.

The situation was even darker than I’d once assumed, and she knew more about it than she’d let on.

I lost the opportunity to question her when she locked the door. I heard at least three padlocks being pulled into place.

I imagined she’d now be running around the orphanage, locking every single window and door she could find. Which of course meant she would probably find the broken latch in the window I’d climbed through upstairs. And hey, maybe the broken latch in the window I’d climbed out of this afternoon.

No problem.

This case would be over by tomorrow morning.

Mark my words.

I wasn’t giving up on these kids. And I wasn’t giving up on her.

Time to pay my least favorite Father a visit.

Chapter 12

Father Butler never slept. It wasn’t that he was a workaholic – though of course he was a workaholic. It was that he wasn’t entirely human. Just like Thanatos, he had a lot on his plate, and napping wasn’t an option when he was attempting to procure this city for the divine.

So I knew that even rocking up at 1 AM in the morning wouldn’t be a problem.

He was the head priest of the Mortimer’s Cathedral in town. It was huge, old, and gilded to the hilt. Walking in, you appreciated instantly what the Church had done with all those tithes over the years. They’d used them, like any other smart investor, to buy gold, property, and art.

The atrium was stunning. There was a mural on the ceiling, delicately repainted each year so the colors shone just as brightly as any divine vision, and wood veneered walls.

There were plinths with vases and statues, and a huge devotional box right in front of the main door where parishioners could relinquish themselves of cash so the Church could instead sully their hands with such dirty money.

Suffice to say, I didn’t relinquish myself of anything. I also put on a burst of magic to walk through the door so I wouldn’t be spotted. I hadn’t forgotten Marco’s warning from this afternoon. Mortimer’s was being watched. Not in relation to the current case, but for another one.

I shoved my hands further into my pockets. I didn’t bother clutching hold of the quartz crystal – I let my thumb methodically trail over my bracelet as it fell down into my palm. It was made of malachite beads.

Malachite was one of the strongest stones out there. An unusual green patterned hard rock, it had unparalleled abilities to protect you from unwanted attention.

I walked up to the devotional box, gaze ticking over it as I wondered just how much cash this little moneymaker made Butler. Despite the fact religion was waning in most major countries in the world, in Soullake, it was always on the rise. Think of it like any other turf war. While Thanatos and his demon buddies were out there trying to garner up support, so was Butler. Unlike the Church in most other modern countries, Butler wasn’t satisfied in letting religiosity wane and die. He was out there in the community every single day drawing people to his cause.

“That is a devotional box,” I heard a snide remark from behind me.

I knew the voice. I knew the tone.

And I knew the sanctimonious face both issued from.

I turned on my foot, bringing a hand out of my pocket and tapping my fingers on my chin. “Gosh, thank you so much for letting me know that. I was confused by the sign that read devotional box in big capital letters. How are you doing, Father Williams?”

Father Butler never greeted me. Hell, he never saw me if he could get away with it. Williams was his go-between. And I hated the sanctimonious prick. He thought I was little more than an ill-reformed Devil worker, and I knew he was little more than a boy dressing up in a dog collar.

I flicked my gaze up and down him, enjoying it as he cringed, his thin lips pulling back from his white teeth.

For somebody who wasn’t meant to be interested in the facts of the body, I knew he spent hundreds a year getting them professionally whitened from the dentist down the road.

“What are you doing here at this time of night?” Williams spat.

“I came to see your lovely smiling face.”

This elicited even more of a snarl from Williams. I wondered how far I could push until his lips fell off his face and his head exploded from indignation.

“Father Butler does not have time to put up with your—”

I brought up a finger. The move was slow, and as I lengthened the finger and pointed to the ceiling, I made sure I had Williams’ full attention. “Father Butler is obliged to see me under the Dictates. I have a suspicion that somebody under his charge has broken them, and he will talk to me.”

I very rarely cracked out my authoritarian voice when I didn’t have to. But I did so love to see Williams squirm. And squirm he did. He looked as if his anger was an animal trying to break out of his face. His eyes bulged, and the skin of his cheeks wobbled back and forth like someone poking precariously at plastic wrap that had come out of the microwave.

“How dare you entail—”

I kept that finger pointed up, and it was pointed up, and not down, for a reason. Men like Father Williams often had to be reminded that there were forces far greater than those they purported to serve. And this force was the Dictates.

“I’m not entailing anything. This is a valid line of questioning. Now Father Butler can choose to see me, or—”

I didn’t need to finish my threat.

I heard footsteps. Droning, hard, and always methodical. I swore Father Butler measured every single step he took, as if he had a slide rule between his legs. And before you think that’s a ridiculous image, let me paint a full picture of the entire man for you.

Methodical didn’t do Father Butler justice. He was an anorak in every single way. He kept great big ledgers in his office behind the Cathedral, ledgers of every single slight he’d ever witnessed. Every sin, every wrongdoing, every damn crime on the books in Soullake City. All of it. He kept track of miracles, too – or at least what he termed miracles.

All of it was meant to be this great big ledger that justified his work in Soullake. It gave him targets, see. If he witnessed some poor, hapless soul stealing a handbag down at the city markets, he’d take a note of it and send one of his parishioners out to find them later. If he deemed them to be malleable enough, he’d try to bend them to the will of the Lord. If not?

I’m not saying that Father Butler would ever actually off anyone. He wasn’t a mob boss. He was damn close though. And if he and his cronies decided a soul was lost for good, they would take measures to ensure that soul did not end up in the hands of the Devil, Dictates be damned.

Even though I knew he was behind me, I didn’t bother to turn until he stopped a meter away and cleared his throat.

The move had suitable gravitas for somebody who was meant to be the right-hand man of God. It shook in just the right way, was just deep enough, and for some reason reminded you of somebody unsheathing a sword right by your jugular.

“Father Butler, I have this,” Williams said as he nodded in deference, allowing his gaze to drop to the ground.

“He really doesn’t. I need to see you,” I said as I finally turned, pivoting on my heel.

Father Butler looked exactly the same as he always did. He seemed to be paused in time. And I knew that wasn’t just an accident. For all the years I’d known Butler, he looked as if he’d been stuck in his late forties. He had silver hair flecked here and there with black. Enough to make him distinguished while at the same time hinting that he was young enough to run you down if needed.

He was tall, lithe, and I knew he worked out, though you couldn’t instantly tell that under his black and white robes.

He wore a crucifix. Come on, of course he wore a crucifix – he was the primary priest of the major cathedral in town.

His crucifix, however, was magical. Father Butler wasn’t a demon, not like Thanatos, and it wasn’t like he could flap his invisible wings to flex is magical muscle. Instead, that crucifix acted almost exactly like my soul amulet. If he clutched it and said the right prayer, he’d be able to practice all forms of magic.

That’s why it became rather worrying when he brought up a hand and tapped it distractedly. He didn’t suddenly mutter some spell, lock me to the spot, and call his angels to carry me away. It was nothing more than a reminder that he, just like me, knew how to fight.

“I have this, Father Williams. Please go and prepare Miss Ming some tea.”

I don’t know how many times I’d told Father Butler not to call me Miss – that I preferred the term Ms. – but he never complied. To Father Butler, if you were an unmarried woman of my age, you were an aberration.

Then again, with a surreptitious grin I hid from him, I reminded myself that I quite liked being an aberration.

“Please be sure not to spit in it,” I said to Williams as I waved at him.

Williams, predictably, looked as if he was going to pop again. Father Butler simply shot me a patient look, turned, and flicked me forward with a dismissive move of his hand.

Though it would’ve been tempting to lean in, grab his fingers, and snap them, I didn’t.

The fact that he’d come out to see me was important. The fact he was ordering Williams to make me a cup of tea was even more important. It implied that this conversation would take more than several seconds.

I’ve been to the Cathedral many times. A couple of times, I’d even snuck in.

So I knew every twist and turn. And there were a lot. I wasn’t just talking about the real Cathedral – I was talking about the mystical Cathedral that sat on top of it. With enough magic, you can make a maze out of any building. Sometimes all it takes is a trick of the mind, but if you’ve got the money, you can trick the building, too.

And the Church certainly had enough magic when it came to Soullake City.

The Cathedral was essentially a small city. Sure, it only took up its allotted space on the street outside, but from within, there were countless rooms and corridors. They looked almost exactly alike, and it would take someone truly familiar with them to be able to navigate. That was the point. It was yet another of Father Butler’s extensive security precautions against Thanatos and his men.

“You obviously know what I want to talk to you about, then?” I muttered, Father Butler not having said a word to me yet as he continued to stride forward, his hands loose beside him.

He chose to draw up a hand and tap his crucifix.

I snorted. “We gonna play that game, then, are we?”

“I assure you, Miss Ming, this is not a game,” he said, his voice as low as I’d ever heard it.

Though I was versed in the fact that Father Butler had the ability to emotionally manipulate you with his voice – as all good religious practitioners did – I wasn’t prepared for this.

There was so much force behind his words. He flicked his gaze over his shoulder as he stared at me.

I didn’t want to react. I couldn’t stop myself.

I frowned. “What the hell is going on here?”

On the term hell, he hissed, stopping abruptly, turning, his robes flaring around his legs. “How dare you use that word in here.”

I rolled my eyes. “It’s not the first time Hell has been mentioned in these halls, and it won’t be the last. Why don’t we just get this conversation out of the way here? You know what I’m investigating, don’t you? Your cronies would’ve told you by now. Where are the kids? Who marked them,” I said, emotion infiltrating my tone as I remembered Sister Marigold’s fear.

I watched Father Butler’s face twitch.

He was surprised that I’d figured that out, ha?

I took a step closer to him, really shoving my hands into my pockets, using the move to accentuate the hard line of my shoulders. I tipped my head down, allowing shadows to pool under my eyes.

I was thoroughly done with this day. I was done with this case, too. I wanted to go home, grab a kebab from whatever sorry store was still open this early in the morning, and start dealing with my injuries.

The last thing I wanted to do was have a cup of tea that Williams had no doubt cursed while listening to Father Butler talk about how much of a lost soul I was.

“You talk of games, Miss Ming, but your game is the most dangerous of all.”

“Oh great, here we go,” I muttered as I brought up a hand, planted it on my face, and let my crooked fingers drag down my brow. “I’m not here to get another lecture from you.”

“But I will nevertheless continue to give you lectures until you finally understand. You are in a perilous position, Miss Ming, the most perilous of all lost souls I have ever come across. You have a destiny unparalleled. It is foretold that you will destroy this city, and that this city’s destruction will be the first volley in the final battle between the good and dark. And it is you,” he said as he took a step toward me, the lights above flickering, either because he’d been too cheap to pay the electricity bill, or because the jerk was using a little atmospheric magic to drive home his point, “who will decide the winners of that final war. You will choose light.” His voice was so forceful on the word will.

I closed my eyes, grinding my thumb back and forth against them.

I hadn’t told you that bit yet, ha?

Because I hated this bit.

I didn’t just have a destiny that said I would ultimately be responsible for the destruction of Soullake City. Nope. Apparently, I’d get to decide who would win in that final battle between the good and dark. If I picked the dark, they’d trounce the light; if I picked the light, there’d be no more dark.

They were both wrong. I would control my soul, and I would tread another path, because I understood the importance of balance over victory. I would not pick either side. I would hold the status quo until the day I died and my destiny died with me.

As I let my hand drop, I saw that Father Butler was staring at me with fiery eyes. He was damn good at fiery eyes – of course he was. He could control fire with nothing more than a stroke of his crucifix.

This was different. This was fervor. The same fervor that allowed him to command his army of angels, to kill, to destroy, all with a smile on his face and a prayer to God in his heart.

“You will choose the Church. And in time, you will understand why. Now, your question.”

When he paused, I appreciated he wanted me to ask it, and he wasn’t about to launch into a full explanation of how much he knew about this entire dodgy, awful situation.

So I took a slow breath and repeated, “Which creep is running around marking kids and making them acolytes?”

There we go, another twitch. “That is not the question you want to ask.”

“Yeah, well, it’s the question I asked, and considering you’re bound by the Dictates, you should answer it, buddy. Because, from where I’m standing, the Church has got its dirty paws all over this. All those kids came from the same orphanage, and that orphanage….” I clenched my teeth, drawing up an image of that kid on that cold stone slab.

He narrowed his eyes. “There are forces at work here that I do not control.”

I opened my mouth, then I reminded myself of what he’d just said. “… Sorry?”

“There are forces at play here that I do not control,” he repeated simply.

The Father Butler I knew would never admit to having rogues of the light in his city.

Rogues happened. Of course they happened. It was the same with Thanatos. Demons and dark practitioners would come to Soullake because of its extraordinary energies and proximity to the gates to Heaven and Hell. They would try to set up camp, and they would start to do things that endangered the balance. Thanatos… yeah, I shouldn’t have to tell you what Thanatos did to those sorry bastards. Suffice to say, they would never get far in their plans.

It was very rare, however, for practitioners on the side of light to go against their ultimate leader.

I watched as Father Butler tapped his fingers on his thigh. I could tell from the stress climbing his wrist and knuckles that what he really wanted to do was clench that same hand into a tight fist. One not just capable of cutting off his blood circulation, but one more than capable of punching through all resistance.

… What the hell was happening here?

“I saw the kid,” I suddenly volunteered, even though it could have been the stupidest move I’d ever made.

“What kid?”

“The one locked up in that room on that stone slab with the damn candles flickering around him. I heard their conversation, Butler. They were waiting for an old soul to possess a child,” I spat every single word with emotional force, wanting him to know how disgusting that was.

His cheeks twitched. “What are you talking about?”

Father Butler lied. Practitioners of the good were not meant to lie. Lying was a force the Devil relied on.

But lying, when everything is at stake, is a force that everyone relies on.

Just as Father Butler wasn’t above killing his enemies, he sure as hell wasn’t above subterfuge.

Now I frowned and really paid attention to his face as I wondered if he was engaging in a little subterfuge now or if he had no idea what I was talking about.

I brought up a hand and scratched my temple. “He is yours, though, right?”

“Are you talking about the child in question here? Please explain the situation to me. I have no idea what you’re on about.”

“Of course you know. It’s what connects all the kids that are missing. They must have vulnerable minds. They must’ve been possessed by that old soul. And the old soul is marking them, right? Now what does that have to do with the frigging angel that’s been attacking me? That asshole almost broke my jaw.” My sentences degenerated as I just spilled fact after fact of what had happened to me.

I waited for some kind of emotional cue that Butler was following me.

He simply stared back in confusion, that same confusion that marked my own face.

“All I know is that you broke into one of our orphanages today.”

“If you know that, then you know what’s been going on in that orphanage. Now let’s cut to the chase. I want to know that angel’s name. When he comes after me again, I will be forced to kill him,” I said blankly.

Father Butler got an odd look in his eyes. It wasn’t the look of a man protecting the truth. It was the look of a man suddenly floored by it. “What angel?” he asked flatly, his voice reverberating out loud.

I thrust my hands out. “I told you, don’t play this game. Every single angel in Soullake City works for you. So you know this guy.”

“Madam, I have no idea what you’re talking about. If you are wasting my time—”

“Fine.” I grabbed my soul dial and turned it all the way to the right, knowing that in doing so, I would rob myself of the little soul energy holding back my injuries.

Sure enough, I felt it ebb, and in its place, the half-broken jaw I’d been nursing all day showed itself. I could feel the fracture, feel the sticky blood covering my mouth, feel the massive black bruise that spread all the way up my face and down my trachea.

Though it was hard to talk, let alone move, I stabbed a finger at my face. “Your angel did this. Now I want to know who he is and where he came from and what the hell he was doing at that orphanage.” It was hard to talk around my injury, and when I’d figured that Butler had seen enough, I finally latched hold of my soul dial and twisted it just enough that the injury ebbed once more.

A little of the pain remained, and I slapped my face until it too disappeared. For now. God, the morning would be torture.

Like I’d said so many times, I knew Father Butler. And in knowing him, I’d assumed I’d seen the gamut of his emotional reactions.

This one was new.

There was a distinct haunted look playing in his eyes, and his gaze seemed to be stuck on my face from where I’d revealed my injury.

He took a breath, and there was an unusual stuttering quality to it.

It drew me in, and for the first time since this conversation began, a stab of something damn close to fear ricocheted through my stomach. It forced me to take just the smallest step toward him. “The guy wasn’t working for you?”

Butler just continued to stare at me, his gaze as concerned as I’d ever seen it.

“He was about six foot five, wore a long black jacket, had cold damn blue eyes, and had some of the sharpest features I’ve ever seen. He was strong. Damn, was he strong. Strongest angel I’ve come across in a long time. So he has to be working for you, right?” Though I wanted the last bit to be an accusation, it wasn’t. That freaked out look in his eyes was starting to get to me, so my voice shook like crazy.

Father Butler brought up a hand, clamped it over his mouth, and dragged his fingers back and forth across his lips. “I want a full description,” he said, his words barely making it out of clenched teeth.

A little bit of my world started to break down.

I faced a lot of shit in Soullake City. It came with the territory. But I’d never faced a situation that could freak out both Thanatos and Butler. You might think that Thanatos hadn’t been freaked out back in his office block, but he never, ever warned me. So the fact that he had meant… what exactly?

“Come with me,” Butler said strictly as he turned on his foot, his robe furling around him.

“This conversation isn’t done yet.”

“No, it is just starting. Now, you will come with me, and we will heal that injury.”

I snorted, the move rattling, upsetting a little of the pain that had just started to wash away. “I know what to do with my own injuries.”

“I want evidence, Miss Ming,” he spat. “Forensic evidence. Presumably, because you have not yet healed that injury, remnants of the angel’s magic will remain.”

I blinked as I appreciated what he was saying. Just like in the human world, if you had the correct forensic techniques, you could track down the culprits in the magical world too. You weren’t looking for DNA, fingerprints, hair particles, or skin, or any of that jazz. You were looking for… let’s call it unique vibrational frequencies.

Little factors unique to every single magical practitioner. Gather enough of them, and it was just as good, if not better, than DNA evidence in court.

I teetered on the spot. A part of me wanted to turn around, end this conversation, head home, and heal my own injuries. The rest of me knew that Butler had information I needed. The rest of me also appreciated that he had healing techniques that would get rid of this broken jaw in a matter of minutes, not hours. And I wouldn’t have to go through the emotional tumult of the injury, either.

I shifted back and forth on my heels.

Though I knew it was ultimately better to rely on myself, at the same time, I had to appreciate something really big was going on here, and I needed to be fighting fit.

“Come,” Father Butler bellowed.

I rolled my eyes, finally submitting to his snapped words.

I pushed forward.

Like I’d said before, I’d been to this cathedral many times, sometimes when I hadn’t technically been invited. I thought I knew every twist and turn, but as Butler opened the door and ushered me down yet another corridor, I realized I hadn’t been to this part.

It was… older, and I instantly got the impression that this wasn’t a section where he took his ordinary staff.

This would be an area where only his most senior and trusted people could go.

And hey, now I was getting to view it.

It wasn’t something to be proud of, though. It was something to be rather worried of.

I wasn’t usually one to fear. Sell your soul to the Devil and spend several years in his employ, and you’ll find that fear is put in perspective.

Now I felt that wretched fear climbing my back, digging into each vertebra, springing up me with all the alacrity of Jacob forcing his way to Heaven.

Butler twisted around another turn in the corridor and finally came to a stone door.

Stone doors were rare. Stone doorways weren’t that rare, but actual doors carved out of rock? Yeah, you don’t get them that much, because rock is damn heavy.

Which had to be the point of this door, because Butler had to catch hold of his crucifix, fold his fingers around it, and grunt as he shoved his shoulder into the stone.

Magic cascaded around his body, sinking into the rock and parting it from its frame. He managed to shove it with a particularly hefty grunt that reminded me once more he had all the power of Thanatos.

Once the door was open, he ushered me into a room that smelt of lavender, juniper, and honey blossom.

There were candles softly burning in massive wrought iron, gem-encrusted holders, and, most importantly, there was a blue, crystal-clear healing pool sunk into the floor.

It had a mosaic and looked a little bit like a Turkish bath, but the mosaic wasn’t fun geometric patterns – it was horrifying depictions of Hell.

“Cheery,” I muttered to myself.

“Put yourself into the pool. The water will heal you. At the same time, it will pull all evidence from your injury.”

I was starting to regret this. This made me feel as if I’d be indebted to Butler, and that was a place I didn’t want to be.

No doubt he would take every single opportunity to lecture me further about the fact I would ultimately choose the Church or die.

I’d come here, though, and I couldn’t shake that burning impression that I had to get rid of this injury, because in its place, more would flood.

If Butler was being honest, and it seemed as if he was, then there was a rogue angel out there. A seriously powerful rogue angel.

Though my cynical side wanted to tell me this was all a game, as I flicked my gaze over to Butler a few times, I could see how disturbed he looked. He was clutching his crucifix, but this time it was for comfort, not force.

He had a truly distracted quality to his gaze as his open eyes contemplated the flickering candlelight.

I walked over to the pool. I was about to take off my jacket, but then thought to hell with it, and jumped in.

I jumped from a fair distance and used a fair amount of force, but that didn’t matter – the water did not spill over the edges of the pool. It didn’t even accommodate for my volume. For this wasn’t real water.

It was the holiest of the holy waters. Presumably this had been prayed over for years.

It was viscous. And even though a devil girl like me really shouldn’t be able to appreciate this, it was the warmest, most divine thing I’d ever felt.

The way it hugged me, the way it embraced me like a long-lost lover. The way it promised me that all I had to do was release into it, and I would never feel pain again.

“Be sure to sink down into the water and allow it to cover your jaw,” Butler said distractedly from my side.

Though now was a great time for a petulant comment, I could appreciate Butler wouldn’t rise to the bait.

I sank down, complying with his order, and didn’t regret it one bit.

This water was heaven.

Which was appropriate – because it no doubt came from Heaven. But I meant more than that.

It felt….

Butler ticked his gaze toward me, his eyes narrowing. “This is the power you have been denying yourself, Miss Ming,” he said out of the blue.

I frowned, or at least I did under the water. All he would be able to see was my brows knotting together. Though I doubted this water would flood into my mouth and drown me, I was enjoying the moment too much to allow my lips to lift over the surface so I could snap back at him.

“This is the power of Heaven,” he said as he gestured wide with his hands, indicating the pool. “This is the light-giving glory of the divine.”

Why was it that men like Father Butler always had a gift for colorful language? Light-giving gift of the divine? Why couldn’t they just call it magic water?

… Because it felt like more, my treacherous brain suddenly filled in the answer to that question.

This… I dunno, it was reaching into a place nothing had reached into for a very long time.

It took all of two minutes, and Father Butler snapped at me to get out. “Your time is up. The injury would have been healed by now, and we have all of the forensic evidence we need. Remove yourself from that pool and stop sullying its presence.”

How nice. He’d gone from telling me to open myself up to the healing properties of this divine substance, to snapping at me to get out as if I’d peed in his pool.

It took me several seconds to push myself up. I just wanted to stay here forever. In this pool, it seemed like everything was easy. Out there, I knew everything was hard.

“Miss Ming,” he growled.

I finally complied, pushing up. Not a droplet of water stayed on my clothes. It remained in the pool. And as I walked out of it, I didn’t splash any onto the floor.

It, apparently, knew where it had to stay.

Me? I didn’t feel as if I knew anything anymore.

Butler still had that haunted look in his eyes, albeit now with a tinge of anger. “You should’ve come to me sooner. The second you saw that rogue angel this afternoon.”

I shrugged. “I thought he was one of yours. Why isn’t he one of yours?” I demanded, finally shaking off the loving embrace of that water and returning my sharpened mind to what it loved to do most – cut through the light and dark.

“Not all things are instantly understandable,” he said.

What a beautifully cryptic response that answered nothing whatsoever. “Save your breath if you’re going to say shit like that. I don’t know what’s going on, but it’s clear from your reaction that this is serious. If we have a super powerful rogue angel in the city, we need to act.”

“Do not tell me what I need to do. I am already dealing with it.”

Though I hadn’t seen Father Butler walk out while I was in the pool to give a message to anyone, that didn’t mean anything. With a hold on his crucifix and a few muttered words in his mind, he could no doubt send his thoughts just as easily as someone could send a text on their mobile.

I frowned deeply. “And if they don’t find him?”

“That will not be an option. The situation will be dealt with. You will return to what it is that you do, and you will leave this one up to us.”

“Tempting, but no. I was employed to find one of those kids, so I will find them. All of them,” I added. “And I will blast apart whatever the hell is going on at that orphanage.”

“Hell, in this circumstance, is the operative word. It has nothing to do with my Church. They are operating their own rogue spells, and they will be dealt with.”

I frowned at that, instantly remembering Sister Marigold’s kindness. “I think it’s more complicated than that.”

“I don’t need your estimation. Now, return home. Immediately.”

“Why? Want me off your city streets? Want me out of your Cathedral?”

“No, though I’m sure it is hard for you to believe, Miss Ming, I want you somewhere safe.”

“That is hard to believe,” I managed through a bellowing chuckle.

“It is clear that this angel,” he said that term very carefully, as if his lips didn’t want to carve it out of the air, as if doing so would somehow make it more real, “has locked onto you. I assume that you have maintained your protective charms at your locale? I assume that not even a Category Eight angel will be able to push through?”

I latched onto the wrong part of that sentence. My cheeks paled, my eyes opening wide in total fright. “I’m sorry,” I could barely pick up my own voice, it was that high-pitched, “Category Eight angel? That jerk was a Category Eight angel?”

“I ask that you do not swear in God’s presence.”

“He isn’t here, but we are. Now answer the damn question. That guy was a Category Eight?”

It was clear Father Butler had revealed too much. He pressed his lips closed as if they were just as strong and hard to open as that stone door had been to get in here.

I wasn’t about to let up. I took another step toward him, my body robbed of its balance and strength at the prospect that there was a Category Eight out there, and that he was after me.

Butler soon appreciated that I wasn’t about to drop this. He rolled his eyes. “The evidence seems to suggest that, yes.”

“Why on earth would a Category Eight go rogue?”

Butler’s lips were sealed.

“What does he want with me?”

Butler’s focus narrowed. It happened in a second, a sharp second, one where I swear reality forced me to focus on him, pushing away every other distraction until it was just me and his eyes.

“You know the answer to that. It is because you are the Harbinger. Perhaps this rogue is taking steps to ensure you choose the right side.”

That statement flabbergasted me, and despite my quick wit, I couldn’t find a single thing to say as I stood there, reeling.

Perhaps Father Butler erroneously saw an opportunity, because he whet his lips. His eyes darted from left to right as he appeared to take me in all at once, or, more likely, looked for a way in. “The time will come, Celeste, where you will have to pick a side. The time will come when your destiny will catch up to you.”

It took a while, an agonizingly long while, but I finally found the muscular strength to shake my head. It was my turn to bring up a hand and hold my soul amulet. It wasn’t a deathly white grip. I wasn’t about to turn the dial, either. It was a reminder of who I was and what I could do. I shook my head once. “That ain’t going to happen. I don’t want that destiny, so I’m not going to go down that path.”

“An admirable sentiment, but one that is nothing more than a foolish wish. Now, return home. Be quick. Close your door, and do not open it to anyone.”

I wanted to laugh in Butler’s face, dismissing the fact that he of all people was giving me advice to protect myself.

I reminded myself of that haunted quality in his gaze. It hadn’t left him during the conversation. It wasn’t faked. I could appreciate that now. The way it hung in the skin around his eyes; the way it drew down his lips; the way it put years on his apparent age.

“We will deal with this. Drop this case.”

I opened my mouth once more to say that wasn’t going to happen, then I just gave up.

It was now abundantly clear that I’d wandered into a situation that I could not control, and that the smartest thing to do would be to wander right back out.

Though I could justifiably believe that Butler wouldn’t do as good a job solving this case as I would, at the same time, I could tell that he’d been horrified by what I’d revealed was happening to the orphanage.

I closed my eyes.

“Go home. I will give you an escort.”

I snorted, my lips snapping open wide to tell Butler to shove his escort.

I heard Butler take a quick step to my side, the sound of his shoes squeaking against the polished marble floor. “Accept the escort. It will be preferable to this Category Eight rogue hunting you down.”

I winked an eye open. I clenched my teeth. “Just don’t make it Williams.”

Butler nodded once.

He led me out of the room.

Just before he could close the door, I shot that heavenly pool one last glance.

I wanted to pretend that it hadn’t had a deep effect on me, but it had.

It had called to something far down in my soul, and for a girl like me, that was important indeed.

But right now, I had bigger fish to fry. Because if I didn’t fry them, they’d fry me.

Chapter 13

I was home.

Butler had been true to his word; he’d given me an escort.

A terrifying escort.

Two of his strongest practitioners.

That scared me on every level, because it told me Butler was taking this seriously enough to use two of his best men.

I strode ahead of them, not wanting them to flank me like bodyguards in case word got out that I was working for the Church.

Still, they hadn’t left me until I’d opened my front door, walked in, and locked it.

Even then, they stayed around for five minutes until they wandered off into the shadows of the night.

I peered at them through my curtains until they were out of sight, and I sighed, yanked the curtains closed, pivoted on my foot, and threw myself headfirst onto the couch. My jaw slammed against a threadbare cushion, but I didn’t feel any pain.

Just a warm, light, tingly feeling.

I managed to push my hand underneath my body, ferreting it up until my fingers clasped my jaw.

I stroked it, for a full minute, my prying nails trying to dig any evidence of that injury out. It wouldn’t come.

Because it had been completely healed in less than two minutes.

That shouldn’t surprise me. Come on, I knew the power of the divine. I’d been fighting it for years.

I also knew the cost.

If I’d come home and had to deal with that injury myself, I would’ve been forced to go through the emotional force of it. The trauma. I would’ve had to live it, cry it, shake it out.

This…. With that water, it had been taken from me with no further cost.

That was the promise of both the divine and the Devil. Act without feeling. Act without consequence. Be protected, never have to think, never have to fight.

Eventually I let my hand drop, and I smooshed my face further into the cushion.

I’d told myself that I would solve this case by the end of the night. And hey, maybe I technically had by handing it over to Butler, but as soon as I thought that, I groaned.

“Have I done the right thing?” I muttered harshly.

I paused, as if I was waiting for someone else to answer.

“Of course you haven’t done the right thing. You remember Hillary’s emotion, you remember Sister Marigold’s, too. You can’t hand this one over to Butler.”

My words were hollow, empty. Because I was hollow and empty. At the thought of going out there and braving that rogue angel, I just grabbed the cushion closer to my chest.

Sometimes I got tired, despite the fact I barely slept. It wasn’t body weariness, though; it was mind weariness, a deep fatigue of the soul.

See enough trauma, see enough hate, fervor, and misplaced passion, and there’s only so much your soul can take until it needs to withdraw inward.

But therein lies a bad temptation.

Withdraw in too much, pull yourself from the world, and you’ll stop making a difference.

“And the day you stop making a difference, is the day you lose control,” I repeated my personal mantra. The singular mantra that had seen me break free of the Devil and clutch hold of my destiny.

I dropped the pillow, sat abruptly, then threw it at the wall.

I watched it tumble down and strike the threadbare carpet.

I shoved a hand into my pocket, pulling out my phone. At the same time, I yanked out the pages I’d pulled from that legal pad in my office.

I splayed them on my lap, gaze ticking over the various facts of the case.

I leaned over to my coffee table, plucked up a pen, shoved it into my mouth, and pulled off the cap with a strong bite.

I started to write. Every single thing I’d learned. Every suspicion, every possibility. They all had their own columns, neatly categorized from fact to supposition.

When I was done, I’d filled every spare page, and then some from the telephone pad I kept by the sink in the kitchen.

I strode around my lounge room, tapping the pen against my lips, drawing every thought out of me as if they were precious deposits of ore and my pen was a mining pick.

By the time I was done, I placed every single page carefully on my coffee table, dragged the thing until it was in front of the couch, and sat there, staring at it with my hands on my face and my elbows in my lap.

My gaze kept ticking back to the fact that all this had to do with some old soul. And my memory kept ticking back to the emotional timbre of Sister Marigold’s warning.

All who investigated this case would be marked.

It had to have something to do with that angel. But why would a Category Eight be so interested in an old soul?

“Depends how old that old soul is,” I answered my own question. “If it’s old enough, it might have information the angel’s interested in.” As that thought left my mouth, I stiffened, sitting straighter. “Shit, that’s it, isn’t it? This old soul obviously has something that angel wants. Maybe a spell, maybe something else. Enough to go rogue over,” I commented excitedly.

“I’ve just got to figure out who the hell this old soul is.” I almost burst up from the couch, but I stopped myself.

I could figure out a lot about this case, and tease out a lot of previously unrecognized connections, but I could not solve it from my couch. And I sure as hell couldn’t find out the identity of that old soul from inside the four walls of my house. But leave those four walls, and that damn angel would probably come knocking.

“Damn this to Hell. I need protection,” I muttered, mind treacherously ticking back to the two powerful priests who’d taken me home.

That was stupid, though. Butler had clearly told me not to leave the house. If I called and pretty please asked for some of his most powerful practitioners to help me track down this old soul, he would probably slap me through the phone.

There was someone else, wasn’t there?

That treacherous thought had a second to snake into my skull before I pushed it away and frowned so hard, I found new muscles in my face I’d never known were there. “You cannot allow yourself to rely on Thanatos. He’ll give, but he’ll take more,” I said, voice shaking with experience. “But at the same time, you have to solve this case,” I replied.

My intuition was going crazy.

I couldn’t shake the feeling that the Category Eight was out there causing trouble as I sat here hiding from him.

“Come on, there’s gotta be something you can do from here. Information is the greatest weapon of all.”

Okay, that was a quaint saying; the pen wasn’t always mightier than the sword, though. Take a pacer to a fight with a broadsword, and you will lose.

But in games of intrigue like this, knowing the facts was always what gave you the best advantage.

I found myself pacing back toward my couch, and that’s when my gaze ticked down to the notes I’d taken from Hillary’s house.

The scratch marks by the lock at the front gate, the new weatherboards underneath the porch.

Yeah, sure, I could probably explain them by the fact that Sarah had obviously had some kind of disability.

What if it was more?

“Holy shit, what about her brother?” I said out of the blue, eyes opening wide as the memory of that snarky kid slammed back into my head.

The one with the red sock, the methodical footsteps, the cold efficiency.

If anyone could be termed an old soul, it was him.

“No. That’s idiotic. Don’t you dare go down that path,” I muttered to myself as I ticked my head back and forth, shaking it even though there was no one to see my defiance but me.

And I didn’t buy my defiance. My shoulders started to cave, and the next thing I knew, I flopped down onto the couch. I brought up a hand and clamped it over my mouth. “He’s meant to be a twin, right? There’s every possibility that if she had a weak mind, so does he.”

I shook my head once more, the move rising up from my soul, a little tingle escaping through my amulet.

That little tingle anchored me to the spot, my eyes widening.

“What if he is the old soul?”

I couldn’t shake my head, even though I tried.

I closed my eyes, really squeezing them shut as I tried to remind myself of everything he’d said and done. The quality of his tone, the force of his movements.

It all went back to the way he’d approached the door. Before I’d realized it was a kid, I’d been drawn in by those footsteps. They’d been so deliberate, so forceful. Uneven, sure, but at the time, it had sounded like someone was dragging something.

I clasped a hand over my mouth and gasped.

Souls are heavy.

Take it from somebody who had one hanging around her throat.

People often think it’s consciences that are heavy, but they’re wrong. It’s the souls that those consciences lead back to. The soul must be heavy enough to anchor the body, to anchor the mind in place, to connect the two, and to drive one forward.

It’s not heavy in the same way an ordinary object is heavy – like a brick, or a boulder, or a truck. It’s heavy in a way one cannot push away, and yet, one must pull with them their entire life.

“This is insane,” I muttered to myself.

What if the kids could be found tonight?

What if I’d technically already found them? What if my first impression upon heading to 22 Grange Avenue had been correct?

What if there was a reason the weatherboards had been changed under the porch?

I stood, feeling cold all over.

My gaze ticked toward my jacket hanging over the chair next to the TV.

I began to shake my head, reminding myself of that Category Eight, but that would be when my phone rang.

It happened abruptly, and though it was the same ring as usual, there was something about it that droned out my every thought.

Something about it that warned me of tragedy.

I forced myself over to it, knees banging against the coffee table as I swept the cell up.

I answered without bothering to glance at who was calling.

“As you keep your house so well protected, I’m afraid this is the only way to get to you. Sorry for disturbing you on this cold night.” The smooth, always memorable voice of Thanatos rang down the line.

I made a face, getting ready to throw the phone at the wall to rid my ear of that asshole’s powerful tone. “What’s going on? What happened?”

He chuckled. “It’s good to see that you haven’t lost all of your senses. I suppose you can taste the chaos in the air, too?”

“Chaos?” My voice shook.

“The danger. The impression that Soullake and all of its citizens are standing on a precipice.”

“Can you just get to the point already?”

“You should’ve solved this case today while you had the chance.”

My mind wanted to tell me it was a threat, but my heart stopped me. His voice didn’t drop down far enough, and it was too quick. I swallowed hard, not even bothering to hide it as it echoed over the receiver. “What are you talking about?”

“Angels like him don’t wait around.”

I fell onto the couch. My legs just gave way. They were like saplings somebody had felled with an ax. “What are you talking about?”

“That Category Eight angel that has been tracking you down all day, the same angel I tried to warn you of, but the same angel you were too stupid to hide from. I told you, you should’ve solved this case while you had the chance.”

“Thanatos, for the love of God, just tell me what you’re talking about.”

He hissed. “No need to insult me like that. You know I don’t love creatures who don’t deserve it.”

I stopped myself from pointing out that Thanatos didn’t love at all. I knew that would just lead this conversation astray.

I clenched one hand into a fist and allowed the other to press over the mobile until I was sure I was just a few grams of pressure away from cracking the screen. “What has he done?”

“That cute employee of yours never made it home. Men like Ravar do not dally.”

My world crashed down around me. “Cheryl? Who’s Ravar? What’s going on?”

“You have your name. You know what’s going on. Now, Celeste, I suggest you go out there and hold up the Dictates. Keep yourself safe, though. It would be a shame to see you marked this early on in the game.” With that, he hung up.

He left me there, shivering. I kept the phone pressed against my ear, despite the fact he’d hung up. I….

I pushed up. I turned. I headed for the door.

My shivering hands grabbed up my jacket and hauled it over my shoulders. I pulled out my long hair, allowing it to taper down my back as I shoved my phone into my pocket.

I zipped up my jacket, I paused at the door, I closed my eyes, and I walked out into the night.

Chapter 14

Sometimes you don’t have a choice in things. That’s coming from someone who knows that if you have full control of your soul, you always have a choice in everything.

But on occasion, situations can conspire to force you one way or another.

You must be careful when you face such situations.

It is very rare in life that you will only be given two options. Options exist everywhere. From every step you take, to every breath you make, to every word that leaves your lips – every single one of them is an opportunity to change your situation, to defuse an argument, to bring peace to an otherwise tattered relationship.

But sometimes, sometimes the entire world fills with so much chaos, the only thing you can do is fight or not fight.

I had to fight.

As I ran down the street, my sandshoes clicking against the pavement, I half closed my eyes and remembered the day that Cheryl had come to work for me.

I’d found her sister. She’d been on a bender, a drug-infused trip that had taken her from her family home right across the city.

Cheryl’s sister saw demons.

Actual demons. That’s why it had been easy enough to find her. And when I’d exorcised the demons in question that had been haunting her, she’d finally found the peace to get off her hard drugs and get a life.

Cheryl had been so damn impressed that she’d come to work for me, even though I hadn’t been able to pay her a cent.

In my head, I’d told myself it would never end well. There was a reason I had to work alone. One person meant only one liability, and I knew how to look after myself.

“You goddamn idiot. You piece of trash. You let her into this world, and now that bastard’s got her. You’re responsible for this, Celeste, and you will never clean this stain from your soul.” That last bit dug deep. It was designed to. For anyone who understood the true power of the soul knew how critical it was never to allow it to be marked.

I shook my head, my hair trailing around my face, whipping over my back as I fought against the wind and threw myself down the street as fast as I could.

Though Thanatos hadn’t told me where to go, there was only one place that made sense.

Back to 22 Grange Avenue.

You might think that was a mistake. The two times I’d seen that angel were at the orphanage, and that was probably where he was now.

But I wasn’t an idiot. Despite the fact my heart was shuddering with the need to find Cheryl and save her, I knew how to play this game. It didn’t matter how twisted it’d become, didn’t matter how vile I felt – if I wanted to save Cheryl, I had to blast open this case, rob the angel of his might, and pry her from his dead grip.

To do that, I needed to find the old soul he was after.

As I ran, I didn’t do so on my own steam; my soul dial was turned halfway toward the left, giving me just enough power to run like a cheetah without my body glowing and lighting up the dark night sky.

I’d already told you that the nights in Soullake were thicker than most. It wasn’t just that there was very little starlight and moonlight to push back that veil of blackness. It was that it was stickier, smarter, too. The dark seemed to know exactly where it should hang around, what alleyways it should hide in, where it should pool, what it should do.

And right now, it was around me, enshrouding me, cutting down my visibility, even with my immortal soul making my senses acuter.

I finally reached the mouth to Grange Avenue.

I felt it from here. The power. Neither light nor dark, just chaotic.

It flowed out of the street like poison from a wound.

I wanted to shudder, grab my hand around my malachite bracelet, back away, and chant every single protective charm I knew.

I could do neither.

Time was running out.

So I pushed forward, rounded my hands into fists, and slowly walked down the street.

There were only two streetlights working on the avenue, despite the fact I’d already ascertained this house was in the well-to-do section of town.

They flickered at both mouths to the street, leaving a long section of road darkened with no illumination to push back the thick shadows that hung from every eaves, that pooled in the canopy of every tree, and that darkened every single porch until they looked like closed mouths.

I didn’t run anymore. Do that, and I’d draw too much attention to myself. Not that there were any people out tonight. Hell, there wasn’t a single light on at all. Which was weird. Yeah, okay, it was the middle of the night, but people work different hours. Sometimes people just have to get up in the night to pee. It was very rare that an entire street wouldn’t have a single light on in any of its houses.

Rare, and suspicious.

I made it up to 22 Grange Avenue and stopped just before the fence. My eyes ticked toward the carport. The expensive Mercedes I’d seen earlier today was gone.

Though maybe that just meant that Mrs. White’s husband was out of town, for some reason I got the impression it meant the both of them weren’t home.

Did that mean the house was empty? That their 10-year-old son had gone with them?

No, no it did not.

Because as I stopped in front of the house, I appreciated that of all the houses in this dim, darkened street, it was the only one with a light.

A single candle flickering in a window on the top floor.

“Dammit to hell. I hope this doesn’t kill me,” I muttered under my breath.

I didn’t bother to open the fence latch. I just put on a burst of speed, locked a hand on the post, and jumped right over it. My heels squelched in the wet grass beyond, but I managed to dampen most of the sound by hunching my back forward and spreading my load.

I had no idea why the grass was wet. Hello, I’d been out most of today, so I would have remembered if it’d rained, let alone showered a little.

It had been dry. Windy and bitingly cold, sure, but dry as a bone.

And yet, the grass felt as if it had been watered for hours.

I didn’t bother to mutter under my breath again. No point.

I could feel the energies coalescing on the house, drawing me forward.

My nostrils rattled as I breathed in, pulling more than air into my lungs.

I started to pick up little scents here and there. Sulfur, candles burnt down to their wicks. Fingernails and hair heated over a fire.

Melted plastic.

I had no idea what I was going to find, but I could bet it wouldn’t be pretty.

I made it up to the front door, skulking low, using the power of my soul to ensure my senses were primed in case anybody in the house picked me up.

I couldn’t hear anyone. That didn’t mean anything.

I was damn certain someone was home.

Because as soon as I made it up to the front door, I saw it again. Back when I’d paid a visit to Mrs. White this morning, as soon as I’d knocked on the door, I’d gotten the impression of hollow coffins, of paths leading nowhere, of pits in the ground.

More than anything, I’d gotten that clear image of someone dragging something when the kid had answered the door.

I wasn’t about to knock. Hello, I was investigating things here, not—

The door swung open, the hinges creaking, a sudden flash of crypts and freshly dug graves spewing into my mind as if somebody had cut a vein, forced my mouth open, and made me drink.

Out walked the kid. He was wearing precisely the same clothes he’d been in this morning. Same pajamas, same dressing gown, same tie around the middle, and most importantly, same damn expression. He even had one shoe off and a bright red sock on the other foot.

“I’ve been waiting for you. You’ve taken too long. You’re incompetent. A disappointment,” he added.

I opened my mouth, my jaw practically unhinging. Then I reminded myself that, his well-placed insults aside, I’d just been sprung. I brought my hands up and backed off. “Don’t mind me, I was just doing a little recon. I’ll be leaving you now.”

He snorted. The move didn’t match his face – it was too loud, too rattling, and had the deep quality of someone who’d not just gone through puberty, but who had the base voice of Pavarotti. “Get in, already. You’re making a fool of yourself.” He pushed the door open further, the hinges creaking for everyone to hear. If there was anyone out here apart from me and this super creepy kid, that was.

My hands were still up, but I slowly allowed the fingers to curl in. They dropped. “Who exactly are you?”

“I know who you are,” he commented as he folded his arms comfortably and leaned against the doorway. “You’re the Harbinger, the prophesied end of the world. The one creature who will get to decide who wins the final battle between Hell and Heaven.”

Yep. I’d been sprung. Completely.

When I’d come here, I’d suspected this kid was being possessed by the very old soul at the center of this case.

He continued to lean against the door. “I guess you want to know what’s going on. Another disappointment – you should know already. If you were worth half of what I need you to be, I wouldn’t have to explain a thing.”

I brought up a hand and scratched the back of my neck. “I’m just going to admit I’m an idiot – what’s going on? And who exactly is possessing you?”

He snorted. “No one is possessing me. I’m an old soul.” He brought up a hand and tapped his chest twice.

I just picked up the sound of a chain rattling. It was far enough off and yet distinct enough that I didn’t doubt my senses.

I narrowed my eyes.

He rolled his. “Before you pick me as the hapless soul at the center of this case, understand one thing – it’s not about me; it’s about you.” The kid’s eyes widened at that admission, and damn if the look he shot me wasn’t terrifying.

The wind was still out and was beating down the city street, whistling around parked cars, shaking the trees, rattling at fences. It caught my hair, sending it scattering over my shoulder, framing my frown as it just cut harder down my cheeks. “What are you talking about?”

He made a movement as if he wanted to smash his palm against the center of his forehead but lost interest halfway through. He pivoted on his foot and flicked a dismissive hand forward, indicating that I should follow him into the house.

Should I?

This kid was turning out to be way more than I could handle. Technically I’d come here on the premise of getting back the kids so I could have currency when facing that angel, but now….

“Hurry, girl, we don’t have all day. Your friend has been kidnapped by the Angel Ravar. If you want to get her back in one piece, I suggest you follow. And listen.” He spat that word as if he’d been forced to say it for a lifetime. Problem was, this kid’s lifetime – especially the part where he’d had any command of the English language – hadn’t been all that long.

Yet he spoke as if he was a teacher. A browbeaten one.

“Who are you?”

“A scholar of ancient repute who has now been reborn in modern times. Just in time,” he said as he shot me his steely, flashing gaze, “to save you, and henceforth, the rest of humanity. Now close the door. There’s an awful chilly breeze making it through.”

I finally gave in. If this kid was acting, and the second I locked the door, he would try to kill me, I would just turn my soul dial and throw myself into the fight.

As soon as I closed the door, I noticed that the howl of the wind was kept back by more than the weatherboards. I frowned.

As he walked past the hall table, he knocked the wall with his knuckles. “Infused this house with the best spells I know. It’ll hold back the night, don’t you worry.”

“I’m not sure about that,” I muttered.

“And I am, and considering I am a good deal smarter than you, I wouldn’t go trusting that dumb little brain on your shoulders.”

“When I came to this house this morning—” I began.

“It was covered in chaotic energies that would suggest a devilish crime was going on here. I know. I constructed those energies.”

“What?”

“You’re really not keeping up, are you? I,” he reached a door, shoved it open, and tapped two knuckles on his chest, “am the only thing that is going to stop you,” he gestured to me, “from succumbing to temptation and destroying the world.”

This situation had gone way beyond strange. My head was reeling.

Did I turn around, run the hell out of here, and call this one a day?

Nope. I followed the kid claiming to be an ancient scholar into his lounge room.

The TV was on, and some kind of game was paused. There were comic books, candy, and a few half-eaten bags of chips.

The kid must’ve caught where I was glancing, and he tutted his tongue. “Before you conclude from this distracting mess that I’m just a child who’s acting, think again. This is all part of what I must do to maintain my mother’s ignorance.” A distracted look flickered in his gaze at that.

Me, I frowned, hard and fast. “Where is she? The car was gone. Your mother’s distracted by your sister’s disappearance, but I doubt she’s forgotten she has a son.”

“On that you are wrong. She has forgotten. I made her forget. Just for a few days. Enough to get her and dad out of town so they don’t have to face what comes next.”

An electric thrill chased up my back at that. “Sorry? What will come next?”

“The Angel Ravar will come after you, mark you, and try to draw you toward the Forbidden Sect, making you an agent of the light and, ultimately, she who will destroy the Earth and time itself.”

I shook my head hard. “What—”

He brought up a finger, such a stiff regality to the move that it made me conclude without a doubt that this kid wasn’t acting. There really was an old soul kicking around his consciousness, one that knew just how to be arrogant and domineering. He turned that finger down, gesturing toward a chair next to the couch. “Sit and be patient as I reveal all.”

If this were Thanatos, I’d swear at him, but technically this kid was still 10 on the outside, so I held my tongue as I sat like a dutiful dog.

It took him several seconds of sitting there and staring at the wall until he turned his attention to me. His hands were rested in his lap, and he drummed his fingers back and forth. “The children are safe. They’re here.”

My lips parted, the skin white. “They’re in the house, aren’t they?”

“Good girl. Not useless after all. Noted the fresh coat of paint?”

I nodded. “And the scratch marks on the fence. What kind of spell were they under?”

“None. It was just the cat. Jumps up the fence sometimes. You know animals.”

I didn’t lose my suspicion, nor did I let my frown lift. “You’re telling me the kids are here, under the house?” My voice shook. I tilted my head down, and though I wasn’t an expert on the construction of buildings, I could guess this house wouldn’t have that much space beneath the first floor and its foundations.

“They are nominally under the house. They are in a section of space I have created for them with my exceedingly competent magical skills. There is a doorway under the house that, if you have the correct permission, will allow you to get to them,” he explained, his tone patient but terse with the quality of somebody who was just sick of explaining himself to imbeciles.

I found myself swallowing, even though there was no need to swallow in front of a 10-year-old kid with delusions of grandeur.

He scratched his chin as if there should be a beard there. “They’ll be safe while you track down the Angel Ravar.”

I frowned. “I’m not tracking that asshole down now.” My rule of not swearing in front of a kid – even if he was an old soul – went out the window at the mere mention of that possibility. “I know when to call it quits. I thought you were at the center of this case. But now you’re not, I have to be realistic. He’s a Category Eight, and he obviously wants me for some nefarious purpose. I need… damn, as hard as this is to admit, I have to leave this to Father Butler.”

“But if you don’t track him down, your friend will be… unfortunately dealt with.”

I saw Cheryl’s face. Her particular smile. Her energy. That damn energy was so bright that sometimes it would wash away the darkness I would have to endure every night.

I tilted my head back, stared at the ceiling, and jerked my jaw from side to side. “Fine, say I track him down. I didn’t have a chance against him before. Even if I turn my soul dial all the way to the left, I don’t think I’ll have the strength to fight a Category Eight. Especially not if he’s got some twisted plan for me.”

“You’re forgetting something. Me. I’m here to help you now.”

I frowned. “You’re a 10-year-old kid.”

“I think you’ll find I’m an 800-year-old soul. And I trained – every single day of my life – for this moment.”

I looked around the room petulantly. “For playing video games and eating chips?”

He leaned forward, and there was gravitas to the move, an effect that shouldn’t be there if he were just a kid. It looked as if he’d spent his life saying serious, emotionally poignant statements and controlling the drama of life and death. “For helping you choose the right path.”

I straightened and paled. I went to push up.

He held his hand out. “By that I do not mean the light or dark – I mean the sometimes invisible path in between. The path you’re already walking.”

I made it to my feet, but I stopped, head turned over my shoulder as I stared at him. I assessed him with every single skill I had. I might not have the magic of Thanatos or Butler, but I had a nose on me for bullshit, and right now, this kid only smelt of chips and candy.

I took a breath and waited to see what happened. You may not understand that statement, but understand this: sometimes the body can know more than the mind. Sometimes, when you have no idea what to do or who to trust, your body can answer that question for you. With a sigh, with a shrug, with drooping shoulders. If your tension wants to leave, let it.

And mine ebbed away.

I teetered on the spot and sat again. “You can promise me that the three kids are fine? What happened to them, anyway? I thought you were possessing them?”

He snorted in derisive laughter. “I think not. I don’t need to possess anyone. Such an ignorant, wretched practice anyway.”

“So what happened to them?”

“They were marked by the Forbidden Sect.”

That was the second time he’d mentioned them, and my body was starting to react, even though I still didn’t know what this sect was. My skin itched, and my heartbeat quickened. I leaned forward, fingers clutching at the armrests. “So who is this sect?”

“They are a fractured, mysterious group inexorably linked to you and your destiny. Now you have started to rise, they arise with you, intending to take you, mark you, turn you into one of their own, and control you until time runs out.”

I stopped myself from shivering. “I’m not an ordinary human – I can’t be marked. I’ve got enough defenses,” I sat back and tapped my amulet with my nail, “that they can try, but they’ll fail.”

“Unless you decide to help them. Unless, say, they put you in a situation where you can’t refuse.”

Things caught up with me. “That’s why they took Cheryl? Those bastards. If they think that,” this was hard for me to say, but I ground my lips together and forced the words out, “I would join their sect, even if they threatened her, they’re mad.”

“Correct, they are mad, but they aren’t stupid. They have ways, Miss Ming, and trust me when I say they will use them. So it is time to go out, hunt the Angel Ravar down, and deal the first blow in this silent war.”

I brought up a hand and spread it wide. “Wait up, you’re still an old soul.”

He looked to the left, then to the right, then at me. “You really are stupid, aren’t you? I thought we’d established that at least 10 times already.”

“They’re after you. Or at least I think they are. When I was at the orphanage, I saw a kid on a concrete slab,” I shivered, not bothering to hide my disgust, “surrounded by candles. I overheard a conversation between Sister Marigold and some Father. They said the kid was muttering, showing signs that he was being possessed. If it wasn’t by you, then—”

“It is not just old souls who can possess. I think you’ll find half-Seraphim can do so as well, which is precisely what the Angel Ravar is.”

I paled. “What the hell would an angel do possessing a child?”

“The work of God.” He didn’t blink once as he told me that, the word God rolling off his lips just like thunder rolling down a hill at the outset of a storm. “I became aware of what was happening at that orphanage long before I was adopted by my mother and father and long before my sister came with me.”

“Sister Marigold didn’t seem—”

“Like she knew what was going on? She didn’t. Though I’m sure that by now she has been marked too. And as you are no doubt fully aware, there is only so long even a good soul like her can resist a mark. She will be turned into an acolyte of the Sect, sooner rather than later. And anybody who has anything to do with this case will be marked, if the Sect can manage it. They must keep this secret hidden, or their own Church will turn against them for breaking the Dictates.”

“Back up. I’m still not following. If you knew this was going on before you were adopted, why didn’t you do something about it?” On the face of it, it might seem like an unfair question. Mrs. White had already told me that she’d had her kids for five years, which meant this guy could only have been five when he’d been at the orphanage. But he was an old soul, remember?

Come to mention it, it was time to stop referring to him as just kid. “What’s your name, anyway?”

“You have a distracted mind. Ask only one question at a time. As for my name, my current name is Sydney. My previous name was Chanterousleraux.”

“Mouthful. All right, Sydney – because I’m going to call you that or I’m going to end up tying my tongue in a knot – answer the question. Why didn’t you do something?”

“Because I did not become aware of it until later. It wasn’t until my sister started talking in tongues and I saw the evidence of possession that I could act.”

“So what did you do? Gather up all the kids, write their disappearance notes, and take them out of the equation?”

“Essentially, yes. I took them on the days of their tenth birthdays, knowing full well that on the day after such an important birthday, their spirits will become open for full possession.”

“Sorry for pointing this out, but if you are this powerful, why don’t you just take on the Angel Ravar yourself?”

“Because currently he doesn’t know I exist. He suspects it, but both he and the Sect are ignorant that I have been reborn and I will do my best to fight their horrendous desires.”

I wasn’t sure if I bought that. But I was getting confused. This case felt like a headache. “Fine. Why did you write such confusing disappearance notes, then? What about that bit about Thanatos?” I was surprised and proud when I managed to spit his name out without actually spitting.

“I assumed it would lead you to him, and I assumed he would lead you to me. He, after all, would suspect what is going on here.”

I really had to clench my teeth now. It was that or show just how emotional that statement made me. Because it suggested something, didn’t it? That Thanatos would care enough about me to try to save me in the first place.

But he hadn’t. He’d given me clues, sure, but he hadn’t led me to this kid’s doorstep. “It didn’t work. He sent me on a merry-go-round. He just warned me I was playing into someone else’s hands.”

“Well, I guess that’s what you get when you trust a devil. Now, we must plan to take down the Angel Ravar. With your current abilities, or shall we say lack of abilities,” he said as he rose and gave me a crumpled-nose look, “this will be no easy task.”

“Wait up, there’s more I don’t understand about this case. You sure those kids are fine?”

“Positive. Though we must act now in case the Sect find more vulnerable children at the orphanage that they can possess.”

“Why are they going to this much trouble? Why doesn’t this angel just rock up to me on the street and kidnap me?”

“They play a mysterious game of give-and-take. Now they have taken – they have your friend. And that is all that matters for the time being. Don’t worry, I will reveal more to you about your wretched destiny in time.” He gestured to the door.

I shook my head as I patted down my pants. “Sounds like you’re planning to teach me everything you know,” I chuckled to myself.

He shot me a sharp look. “Definitely not – I would never teach someone like you everything I know. But I will certainly teach you enough to keep you safe. For now, and for as long as I can remain hidden, I will guide you on the middle path.”

My jaw practically dropped open. I’d seen enough movies where the main character went on a hero’s journey to appreciate that guardians were always older. Never younger. And never 10.

But this kid’s technical age was absolutely nothing compared to the knowing look he shot me. “You have a tendency to remain in your head. For the next few hours, you must remain in your body, allowing the power of your soul to fill you up. Let it guide you, but control it,” he said, his voice reverberating on the word control. He brought up a hand and grasped it, grabbing nothing more than the air, and yet looking as if he was grabbing the world somehow. There was that much power behind the move.

It locked my attention and reminded me that this kid had once been – and currently still was judging by the spells on this house – an extremely competent magical practitioner.

“Come,” he said flatly once more.

“I thought you said that you can’t allow them to figure out who you are? You’re not coming, are you? Come to think of it, what if they were following me here?”

“They did not follow. Trust me, no one could follow you along the street even if they wanted to. It is dark out there,” he said, bringing up a finger and making a point in saying the word dark with a twitch of his lips. Specifically, the point he made was that he could control the lights, because suddenly the TV turned off, the lights dimmed, and outside, I swore the tiny scrap of light making it in from the moon above was switched off with all the ease of someone tapping a button.

It didn’t last, and with another perfunctory tick of his finger, all the electronics came back on and the moon shone down on humanity once more.

I swallowed a little.

“If that mere display of magic is enough to still you, then I shudder to think what will happen when you come into your full powers.”

“Sorry, full powers? What are you talking about?”

“Though it does not seem apparent now, especially considering your grating personality and ignorance, at some point, your powers will increase. They must. How would a woman of your inept skill destroy this city and be the decider in the final war?”

I opened my mouth, but my lips wouldn’t go anywhere as my thoughts ground to a stop in my skull.

He had a rather worrying point. A point I’d never really thought of. I’d spent so much time denying my destiny that I hadn’t stopped to think if it was even feasible at this stage.

But he had a point, didn’t he? How could a woman of my hardly-incredible skill destroy the city and be the deciding factor in the final war?

“I see I have stopped you. Consider it food for thought for a later time. For now, pay attention to every word I say. For the Angel Ravar is a fiend indeed. Not only does he have the ability to possess the young and infirm of mind, but as a half Seraphim, there is nothing he won’t do and no Dictate he won’t break. Now come. It’s time to return to my orphanage. Before you show concern for my safety and the security of my secret, please don’t. I shan’t be taking you the full way. The rest will be up to you. I will have to trust,” he flicked his gaze up and down me, “that you are strong enough to fight off your destiny, after all.”

Trust wouldn’t come into it.

Because I was strong enough.

I’d spent my life telling myself that. It was time to prove it to the world. For if I could not prove it, I would be marked and the end would come for all.

Chapter 15

I was back at the orphanage.

Sydney had been true to his word, and he’d taken me halfway.

Now I was half a block away from the orphanage, repeating a certain spell under my breath, my tongue crammed against the palate of my mouth, my pinky fingers curled in until they dug against a specific point in my palm.

Both that position and the words I was uttering had been taught to me by Sydney.

They were powerful. Yet further indication that Sydney was right: he was an old soul, and despite the fact he didn’t have the wherewithal to put both shoes on at once, he would protect me.

This spell might be stopping Ravar from finding me, but as I skulked around the back of a building, fingers pressed up against the mottled brick, I picked up a shudder in the air.

Distinct and powerful.

Magic of the soul.

My amulet glowed a little, and it wasn’t until I brought up a hand, reluctantly dropped my fingers from that specific symbol Sydney had taught me, and tapped my amulet that it stopped giving me away.

I wasn’t going to turn my amulet all the way to the left until I had to.

It was my Hail Mary.

It was also a seriously risky plan. Sydney wanted me to fight Ravar – a Category Eight, half-Seraphim who was so twisted he possessed kids – using only 25 percent of my power. He wanted to keep the rest in reserve for when I injured Ravar sufficiently to take him out.

But that presupposed one fact – that I would even be able to lay a finger on him at that level of power.

“This is mad, and I’m going to get killed,” I managed to mutter before I went right back to chanting that spell.

Fortunately Ravar didn’t take the opportunity to break through my defensive spell, find me, and squirrel me away for the End of Days.

I continued to press through the laneways and tiny gaps between buildings.

Every step I took, my mind attuned to the horror.

I saw more of those flashes – little impressions I’d always get when I came face-to-face with strong magic.

This time they were a hell of a lot grander than usual. A stone cathedral, a sweeping hall, high arched ceilings, and hundreds upon hundreds of pews all lined up. It was as if someone had built a massive church but had forgotten about parishioners.

Or, far more worryingly, they’d built a church then set about to find people to fill it.

Stabbing impressions that thundered into my skull with all the power of cars speeding down a highway.

I saw that angel marking people, making them acolytes, turning them from their own chosen lives into the hands of a broken God.

“You’re going to pay,” I muttered to myself as I finally closed the distance to the back of the orphanage.

No more muttered words to comfort myself. I centered my breath and continued to chant Sydney’s spell as I climbed the back wall, made it to a window, and yanked it open.

I knew the angel was aware of me the second my feet thumped onto the floor.

But as I curled my hands into fists, I damn well got prepared to pay him the kind of visit he deserved – a violent one.

Chapter 16

I didn’t make it out of the room before I heard the flap of wings. It was accompanied by the rather distressing sound of laughter. The laughter of children. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not some kind of mean-spirited old hag who doesn’t want kids to have fun or anything. But this laughter was unhinged.

I couldn’t forget that I was here for two reasons. Okay, three reasons. I had to save Cheryl, save the kids, and get rid of that damn angel.

While I could track where the kids were based on their laughter, I still had no idea where Cheryl was.

Until I heard her laughter.

Shit.

It was the same joyous, bright chuckles that always lit up my day.

Now, just like that of the children, every giggle was unhinged.

“Damn you to hell. Damn you to hell. You got that? I will send you to Hell.”

I stopped playing around.

I kicked down the door.

Yep, just another act of vandalism to add to the three I’d already perpetrated on this property.

It wouldn’t be the worst sin I would commit tonight.

Though the laughter had sounded as if it had been right outside of this room, it wasn’t.

Now it sounded like it was down the corridor. And once I’d made it down the corridor, it sounded like it was a floor up.

The prick was leading me into a trap.

I didn’t have the opportunity to turn around.

I followed.

Right up until I reached a door.

This door certainly was not part of the original building. I could tell that for two reasons. One, it didn’t look like it needed maintenance, and for another, it looked as if it belonged in some grand cathedral. It had goldleaf on it, and more to the point, it was inscribed with very particular prayers.

As I approached, I wasn’t at all surprised as it seemed to react to the power of my soul amulet.

It creaked in, and I entered a room.

One filled with the children of the orphanage, Cheryl, and one particularly sanctimonious angel.

Right. Time to play.

I rounded my hands into fists and walked in. Though all my hands wanted to do was tick my dial all the way to the left, I managed my desire by grating my teeth together. “I’m here. Time to pay for your sins. You broke the Dictates,” I began.

He turned. There was a smile on his lips. A damn fervor-filled, bright-eyed, crazy smile. And as soon as it spread over his face, it spread over the faces of the kids and Cheryl, too.

It made my spine itch.

I wouldn’t look at Cheryl. If I did that, I’d lose it. Instead, I locked my angry, burning attention on him. “Where’s Sister Marigold?”

“Turning back the clock to do the work of the Sect. She is irrelevant. All that matters—”

“I want to cut you off there. Before you can tell me that all that matters is that I’m here and I’m about to be marked, and then I’ll save the damn world and deliver it to God or something – just don’t bother.”

He turned, clasped his hands together, and shook his head.

The kids and Cheryl repeated that move, disappointed looks crumpling their pale features. No matter how he controlled them, he couldn’t control their eyes. It looked as if they were fast asleep albeit with wide-open eyelids.

“I’m here—” I began, about to read him his magical rights again.

He took one thunderous step forward. It wasn’t only a step, but once more, just like outside, he managed to shake the floor. I swear the whole building fluttered like a leaf in a hurricane. And then it fluttered once more as he took yet another step toward me. He spread his hands out.

I got the sudden impression of doors opening to Heaven.

“You are here to embrace your destiny. Now come.”

“The only place I’m going with you is to your funeral,” I quipped. “There’s no way—”

I didn’t get to finish that sentence.

I heard the pattering of feet.

Next thing I knew, the children and Cheryl were surrounding me.

It was one thing facing off against some devious angel – but it was another talking tough and bandying around threats as dead-eyed children surrounded you.

Sydney had said I could do this. Sydney was a jerk for even thinking I could try.

I should never have left the house.

Chapter 17

I backed off. But there was nowhere to back off to. My shoulders struck the wall beside me, and as they shook, that shake reached right down into my soul.

Everything I had told me to clutch at my amulet and turn my power all the way to the right.

But Sydney’s warning rang in my ear. The only way to defeat Ravar would be to do so with the element of surprise.

I half wondered if what Sydney really wanted was for me to become desperate. As I’d already said, desperation can feed the soul, unleashing power no other emotion can.

But there’s a thin line between wanting me to become desperate, and me being stupid enough to walk right into a trap.

A thin line that snapped as Ravar closed the distance between us. He didn’t walk. He didn’t technically fly. He went from being on the opposite side of the room to right in front of me. The next thing I knew, he pinned my shoulders against the wall, driving me right up it, my back like a washboard as every single vertebra hammered against the stone.

He pinned me, his arms extended above his head, his gleaming eyes wide, the whites rimming the luminescent pupils. “You will submit. You will be marked. And you will help us bring about salvation for all.”

“You mean salvation for yourself, you twisted jerk. Have you looked in the mirror recently? You’re an abomination.”

“The only true mirror is that of your devotion to God. Reality is reflected in every prayer, in every moment of self-flagellation, in every devotional act of suffering. And,” he brought me back then slammed me against the wall until my skull banged harshly into the rock, “in every sacrifice. Submit to being marked.”

“Never. I don’t care what you’ve got. I don’t care what you’ll do. I—”

He extended a hand behind him, and the next thing I knew, the possessed children and Cheryl stopped standing there, their sightless gazes locked on nothing. They began to walk, not toward me, but toward the door.

“What the hell are you doing?” I asked breathlessly.

“Giving you a reason,” he hissed.

The kid closest to me plucked up one of the candles flickering in the room. Another kid near the door rummaged up handfuls of books.

They were going to light a fire.

“Understand, if you do not submit to being marked, the children and your friend will pay the ultimate price, and they will burn in the fire of your sins.”

“You bastard!” I shrieked, voice rattling off the walls. I tried to force myself against his grip, but I couldn’t do it.

This had been a mistake. I had no hope of injuring Ravar. I had no hope of pushing past his grip on my shoulders to grab my amulet.

I was screwed.

Tears streaked down my cheeks as I watched the kids and Cheryl start to set fire to the building. They piled the books underneath the furniture in the room and lit them with the candles.

Technically this place was made of a lot of stone, but as Ravar flicked his finger to the side, that didn’t appear to matter, because the damn ceiling caught alight with little provocation.

The sightless children walked into the center of the room. They didn’t run.

Ravar wouldn’t let them.

I began to fight him with all my damn force. I kicked, slamming my sandshoe against his face, trying to push him off. The only thing I did was tug at his skin. It elongated around his perfect white teeth, showing how clenched they were as he snarled at me like a lion. “Their lives will be on your ledger, Harbinger. They will burn in your sins. Only you can stop this. Submit.” He slammed me against the wall again.

He did so with such force, a ringing erupted through my skull.

No.

I couldn’t let these kids die. Not for me.

This was so unfair.

This was so—

Unfair shouldn’t be in my vocabulary.

When I’d been pressed under the Devil’s thumb, that had been the first lesson he’d taught me. The word fair is nothing more than a game to keep you trapped. You look at the world and carve it up into what’s fair and what isn’t fair, and you’ll miss the main point. Things don’t happen to you – the only things that matter are those that you create.

No matter where you are, no matter what situation you’re in, there’s always something you can do.

Because if there’s nothing you can do, then you’re dead.

I wasn’t dead yet.

I got another flash, a sudden image of that empty hall. It was filling with parishioners.

And right in the middle was me. I was glowing like a damn flare.

“That’s it, that’s it, submit,” Ravar roared in my ear, his nostrils expanding wider.

He was smelling me again like some undignified demon.

Though I’d already said that scent wasn’t usually a strong sense for an angel, I’d also already ascertained Ravar was no ordinary angel.

If he were a demon, this would be where I would shove an incense stick up his nose and drive him insane.

I didn’t have incense. But you know what I did have? A little vial of rosemary.

It was still in my pocket.

Rosemary protected you from pretty much everything from unwanted spirit visitations to indigestion.

Usually rosemary did its magic on evil spirits, but I think we’d pretty much ascertained from the fact Ravar was happy to burn children to death that he wasn’t a good boy.

As Ravar brought me up and slammed me against the wall once more, I shifted my hip, pivoting, using what little muscular strength I had to twist.

And that was all it took. As Ravar slammed me against the wall again, he crushed that vial of rosemary.

He instantly jerked his head to the side, getting that specific kind of look cats always do when they encounter strong smells.

It was enough that his grip on my shoulders weakened.

I didn’t bother to break his grip. Instead, in a swiping motion, I brought my hand past my pocket, picking up the rosemary oil on my fingers, and I crammed it into his nose. Yeah, that meant I had to push my fingers right up this guy’s nostrils, but it was that or be killed.

The rosemary took over his olfactory senses and drove him insane. He shook his head hard to the side.

Though I could bet that if he’d had warning, he would’ve been able to protect himself with magic, I hadn’t given him the heads up.

As he twisted his head to the side, I rounded my hand into a fist and struck it against his jaw.

It wasn’t much of an injury, but I heard a click. And that was my signal.

Just as rafters started to fall down around us, I threw myself forward, clamping my hand on my soul dial and twisting it all the way to the left.

The power of my soul filled me. It blazed over me, as bright as the most powerful fire in existence – for it was the very essence of creation.

Ravar twisted to the side, throwing his arm out, but I kicked. This time, as my sandshoe slammed into the side of his face, the move did more than rumple his skin.

His head jerked hard, and there was an echoing bang that rang through the room.

No words. No breath. No grunts. No nothing. Just the fight. I threw myself forward, and we grappled.

He was strong, but for now, I was stronger.

The desperation of the fight had allowed me to access a new level of power, and though it was ebbing with every single move, I held onto it long enough to make the difference I needed.

“You’ve broken the Dictates, Angel Ravar, and I’m going to send you straight to Hell.”

I punched him right between his eyes. It was a measured, precise move – one designed to break his connection to the children and Cheryl.

Sure enough, there was a snap, and the next thing I knew, the kids started to scream.

“You will get out of here. You will dodge every burning beam. You will make it to the city street outside. You will survive,” I commanded, the light of my soul blazing in every word.

The kids and Cheryl ran.

They didn’t look back.

I turned on Ravar.

I struck him once more, and he rolled back, body pushing through the fire that now covered the floor.

I managed to get those kids out just in time – this place was literally falling down around our ears.

Ravar paused, grabbing at his face, his clothes now burning off him. “You will give yourself freely or—”

“There isn’t an or,” I said as I flipped in front of him and loomed above the angel. “I will decide what I do. This is my destiny, and it’s mine to break, not yours to make.” With that, I put all my force into a punch, and I slammed it right across his jaw.

At the same time, the burning beam fell down from above. I jumped back, punching him into the path of it, until the next thing I knew, the beam pinned him to the ground.

He started to scream, his holy body breaking apart.

I wasn’t idle. I pressed my thumbs together, pushed my pinkies into alignment, and chanted a spell under my breath.

It was one Sydney had taught me. One that, according to him at least, would banish Ravar should he be sufficiently injured.

And as that burning beam pinned the angel in place, his flesh bubbling from his mortal form, I guess he was pretty damn injured.

The spell did the rest.

The bastard would be banished back to Heaven.

And me?

It was time to get out of here.

I’d saved the day. This day, at least. Tomorrow? God, tomorrow the greater mystery at the heart of this case would continue.

The Sect would still be out there, Thanatos would still be leading me around by the nose, and I would still technically be the Harbinger.

But for now, I ran out of that burning building with a smile on my face.

Chapter 18

As soon as I hit the street outside, I saw the cop cars pulling up.

They were dealing with the children, taking them away and giving them blankets as, in the distance, I heard the drone of sirens.

I ticked my head to the side just in time to see a certain beaten up cop car pull into the pavement.

A certain pale-faced detective jumped out of it.

And a certain smile spread my lips.

“Celeste, Celeste, you all right?” Marco asked, actual concern marking his features as he rushed forward, clasped me by the arm, and held me up.

I continued to cough, soot blasting out at every move.

I must look like hell – I felt like it.

But that would be when Hell rocked up in a car.

I’m not kidding you. Thanatos came to a stop on the opposite side of the street. He didn’t roll down his window, push open his passenger door, and motion me forward. He jumped right out and walked across the street.

“What the hell is he doing here?” I said as I pushed a shaking hand toward him.

Thanatos came to a stop a meter away from me, and he got a look in his eyes. A really strange one. The kind of look that told me he wanted to reach out and clasp my hand. The kind of look that told me buried somewhere deep in that dark, black pit of a heart, was someone or something that momentarily cared for me.

Marco looked over his shoulder, glancing Thanatos’ way. “He tipped us off.”

“What do you mean?”

“He looked at his books, tabled up how much money he’d been giving the orphanage, and figured out something was wrong.”

“I had one of my accountants do an audit,” Thanatos summarized smoothly. “As soon as they let me know that something awry was afoot, I called the men in blue.”

Accountants my ass. He must’ve had some of his lower level demons watching this place.

… Had Thanatos saved my life? Or at least, tried to?

I gave him a look – the same look I’d given him back in his office. This time he didn’t use his magic to pause time and converse with me privately.

He shot me a smile. One that curled just the edges of his lips, never making it to his cheeks her eyes, and flitting away like a pair of wings in the night. “It’s good to see you’re all right,” he said as he shot me a quick look up and down. His gaze focused on my right arm. I knew very well that Thanatos had the ability to stare through me, no matter what state my soul was at. If I was injured, he could pick it up. He focused on that arm, but when he didn’t pick up a mark, that smile crept a little higher. “You did a good job today.”

I opened my mouth to spit that I didn’t work for him, but I held my tongue instead. I turned to Marco. “It’s a mess in there. You’ll have your work cut out for you.”

“Don’t you damn well worry. We’ll drag these bastards through the mud. This is a damn orphanage,” he spat.

“My men will assist you in any way they can.” Thanatos looked right at me.

I kept shooting him that look, begging him to pause time so we could talk.

We had a lot to damn well talk about, after all.

He’d known about this sect, but he hadn’t warned me. Now he was here shooting me knowing looks and enjoying every second of it.

I took an edgy step toward him. I opened my mouth, but I didn’t know what to say. Not with Marco standing there.

“We’ll get you to the station. We’ll need your testimony. And you’ll also have to buy me dinner,” Marco added as an afterthought.

I was looking at Thanatos, so I saw his reaction and not Marco’s expression.

And Thanatos, the Devil’s main man in Soullake and my most hated ex-lover, stiffened.

Was that… no, it couldn’t be…. Was that jealousy playing in his deep blue gaze?

When I didn’t say a thing, Marco cleared his throat. “You know, because you lost the bet? We found those three kids. Or they found us. They showed up at the police station. The case is closed.”

That didn’t surprise me. Wherever Sydney was, he’d obviously kept his hand on the pulse of this battle, and had released the children in his care. I imagined he’d either wiped their memories, or explained everything sufficiently well that they wouldn’t tell.

It took me a few seconds, then I tore my gaze off Thanatos and locked it on Marco. “Technically, you lost the bet, too. The police didn’t find the kids – they found you.”

Marco made a face. “I suppose you’re right. Come on, get in the car. You look like hell.”

I’d rather be getting in Thanatos’s car, I thought to myself.

When I shot him a hopeful look, practically begging him with my eyes to stop time, he just smiled once more.

I sighed, walked over, and got in the car.

Marco didn’t open the door for me. He was obviously in too much of a hurry.

Someone else did. I heard just the rustle of wings and saw just a flicker of black magic in the corner of my vision.

Marco paused, his vacant gaze locked on his steering wheel, his fingers clutching his keys.

Thanatos leaned forward, opened the door, and gestured to the seat.

I turned sharply.

He was close enough that the distance between us seemed like more of a figment of my imagination than a fact of reality.

For some damn reason, my breath caught in my throat.

“You wanted to say something to me?”

“Yes, I damn well want to say something to you. You knew about the Sect, didn’t you? You knew about everything. Why did you warn me? And why did you call the police? What the hell is going on here?”

On the term hell, his lips widened into a smile. “Come find me in the morning.”

“No, you tell me now.”

“It’s been a busy day. I’m tired. Plus, I do enjoy our visits.”

“Thanatos,” I roared.

He unfurled his wings, and time went back to being time.

“Hurry up and get in the car, already. You’re letting in a fiendish breeze. Damn it’s cold.”

I sighed, eyes on Thanatos as he walked back to his car, his hands in his pockets, his back always to me.

I hated that bastard. And yet, somehow over the course of today, I’d started to hate him a little less.

I sat down heavily, closed the door with a rough tug, and slowly did my seatbelt up.

“Buck up. You might have technically lost your case, but you saved all those kids.”

I turned to Marco slowly. “Are you, Marco Santini, actually trying to make me, Celeste Ming, feel better about myself and my shitty life?”

Marco scratched his nose. “It won’t last. I’ll go back to being an asshole in the morning. That’s a promise.”

I chuckled. “I’ll hold onto that,” I muttered. Because I needed things to hold onto right now. Whether it be Marco and his angry wit, or the precocious Sydney with his ancient wisdom, or Thanatos with his soulful gaze and black wings.

I clasped my hands in my lap, driving my fingers in hard. Then I tilted my head up, and I looked at the sky.

Dawn was splitting. It was a new day.

And just like yesterday, it would bring a new adventure.

The end of My Immortal Soul Book One. Complete the adventure now from your favorite ebook retailer with My Immortal Soul Book Two and My Immortal Soul Book Three.

 


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