I gunned the engine, driving right at the violent gang blocking the street. I could take them – I could take anything, including death.
Gritting my teeth, I let magic bleed out of me and blast into my motorbike. It gave it the last bolt of power it needed. I mounted a car in front of me, shot over the top, and lunged into the air. Around me, shots blazed.
This big, beefy guy in a leather jacket that looked as if it had been made from a whole cow yanked something out of his pocket. I had a chance to see a blast of light and magic exploding everywhere, then he threw it at me.
I hauled the bike to the side, skidding around the object. It whipped past my long ponytail. I could smell the scent of nails, sulfur, and wax.
Sure enough, as it smashed into the street beside me, it gouged a meter-wide chunk of bitumen out and sent it spinning into the air like flaming kisses from the devil himself. My blood boiled from the aftereffects of the hex.
Fortunately, my blood didn’t actually boil. My heart wasn’t burned to a crisp, and my skin wasn’t seared off me. But within me, my energy recognized the magic of Hell.
Spinning the tires, I shoved the bike to the left. There was another car. Fortunately, it was a low sedan. Expensive. Luxury even, if my short glimpse was anything to go by. Well, it was about to get a bonus set of tire tracks up the hood.
Sneering again, I rammed the bike up and got plenty of airtime, my ponytail slicing over my shoulder like a whip.
The gang continued to attack, firing every spell they had in their inventories, but it wasn’t enough.
I landed again, my tires skidding. Fumes wafted everywhere. This great toxic cloud now blocked us off from the shops lining the street. Nobody was outside staring at us. There weren’t any intrepid kids on their phones catching this crazy footage for the Internet. If there had been anyone on the street when I’d arrived, they’d run for cover long ago. Nobody got involved when a Hell gang was out to make someone pay.
Well, no one got involved except for me.
The massive guy chucked his head back and yelled at me. Considering his sheer aggression and size, he had to be the leader.
Jerking back, he locked his hands on his knees, and he bellowed, spittle flying around his lips. The cry pierced through the air. I wasn’t making that up – nor was I going for dramatic overemphasis. This guy had to be a voice magician. Because with one simple, rumbling cry, he carved a doorway out of the air with nothing more than his frigging words.
Shit. Reinforcements were on their way now. As the door was carved right out of the very fabric of space-time, I saw a bony white hand stretch through. The skin glistened. It was wet and hung off the corpse like melted plastic wrap.
Feeders. I hated feeders. Their singular purpose was in their name. They fed off anything and everything in sight. That could be lampposts, chunks of the street, little old ladies, or entire school buses. If they got big – because as they grew their appetite matched their size – you ran.
I hated them more than any other hell creature – and that was saying something.
Twisting to the side, using my body to force the bike into a tight turn, I reached the big guy in a leather jacket. It was my turn to shove a hand into my pocket. I wasn’t about to hex him. I had something a whole lot more powerful. I grabbed a simple white card. Engraved on it was a mandala of power. One I’d been working on for the past two weeks. I’d painstakingly crafted it, going through every line with not just my magic, but my pinpoint concentration. It now had the power to release pure elemental force, which was exactly what happened now.
I threw the card. It spun into the air about a meter away from me. Then the paper burned off. As it singed to a crisp and flew away in the clipping breeze, it released the magical lines. They hovered there in the air until they untwined themselves like a spider web being woven in reverse.
The guy tried to jerk back, but he was way too late. This blast of light pierced through the scene. It was brighter than a thousand flares. It made every single member of the gang jerk back and hide behind their beefy arms. As for me, it was my spell, so I could look right into the heart of it and not blink once.
Fire suddenly burned out in every direction. It blasted in this random, impossible-to-predict pattern. It caught two of the gang members. It also slammed right into the chest of the leader. It sent him barreling back. He smashed into another gang member, forcing him to topple off his own motorbike. The air became thick with the particular stench of leather heating up – and skin too as my fire spell continued to burn wildly.
Realizing I had no chance to gloat, I spun the bike around. I paused on the street and revved. That Hell door was now half open. The hand of the feeder had stretched all the way through until I could see its bony little elbow. The guy was small. That did not put my mind at ease. Judging by the sheer size of the etheric energy cloaking him, he had the capacity to grow as large as a frigging truck. He’d be able to take out half the city. Not that the Demon Boys would let him, but that was another story.
I could not and would not rely on them.
I sneered again. I revved the bike once more. Then I shot forward. I didn’t bother to rely on another mandala card in my pocket. I closed my eyes.
So this was it, then? I would have to use that power.
When I’d woken up this morning, I’d gotten the distinct feeling that today would be one of those days.
I finally shot toward the feeder, the bike thrusting forward so quickly, it would’ve looked like a strike of blazing light.
I got airtime again, leaping a good meter into the air until I slammed back down onto the street in a cloud of exhaust. I reached the Hell door. I grabbed the ring on my right index finger, twisting it to the left. A blade appeared in my hand. As I leaped off the bike and it skidded to the side, immediately catching alight, I thrust the sword right through the feeder’s hand, pinning it back against the hell door. Energy discharged everywhere, leaping high in great clouds that would’ve made a supernova blush.
The feeder screamed. I could hear its voice reverberating through that Hell door. Soon other voices joined it, and they collected together – this cacophonous wail of the damned.
More energy built up through the Hell door. I might’ve downed the guy in charge, but he’d already cast his spell.
The door began to buckle. I could see the feeder’s face now. That ghastly apparition was pressed right up against the door. It wasn’t a door an ordinary human would be used to. It was more like this wall of wavering energy. It was as if someone had picked up water, condensed it into this thin line, and stretched it across space. Well, if water could be equivalent to the sheer burning firepower of Hell.
The feeder’s face pressed against the doorway as it tried to force itself forward and through into the real world. The crackling force field pushed toward me as the feeder’s mouth opened wide, its lips parting back as it tried to swallow me whole.
“Not today, buddy.” I shoved my sword further in, pinning the hellish creature’s hand against the door. I let power blast out of me. I dug deep, all the way. As this keening shriek kicked up from the doorway, blasting over the street like the trumpets of damnation, I groaned one last time. Then I damn well screamed. I used all the magic I possibly had. I wrenched the sword out of the door. Then I twisted it around. I thrust through the doorway, and I stabbed the feeder right through its heart.
Energy cascaded around me. The shockwave catapulted across the street. There were several parked cars. At least there had been. They were obliterated. The metal carcasses were ripped apart as if some kind of massive monster had descended on the city, Godzilla style.
The feeder shrieked. All the while, I shook, these great big burns blasting over my skin. They reached my face. I could feel my flesh being singed from my body.
But I had to hold on. If I didn’t kill the feeder, it would kill me and everyone else out here.
I still didn’t know what this Hell gang was after, but with this much muscle, they weren’t here for a picnic, if you know what I mean.
My hands were way past shaking now. They were starting to disintegrate. Right in front of me, they were just burning off as if someone had stupidly thrown a plastic doll into a live volcano.
Come on, I thought to myself. You can do this. There’s no one else.
I’ll let you in on a little secret – there’s never anyone else. It has always just been me. One woman hell-bent on one task – to hold Hell back for as long as I damn well can.
I let out another scream. Destruction was marching up my body now. It reached my chest. It was pushing in toward my heart. While the rest of my body was warm – as hot as the center of the frigging sun – my heart was frigid. It knew what I would have to do next.
I screamed once more. I pushed the blade all the way into the feeder’s body. That meant my face was pressed right up against the Hell doorway.
Nobody can survive coming face-to-face with the power of the damned, no matter how good they are with magic.
My face began to disintegrate. This pernicious, destructive force marched up my throat. I lost my mouth, my nose, my other cheek. The only thing that remained was one of my eyes.
I used it to stare at the leader just as he got to his feet. He yanked a small dagger out of his pocket, furled it to the side, and forced it to grow into this bolt of blistering magic. Then he thrust it right through my chest. It skewered me, slicing right through my heart in a blast of deadly power.
I held on for just one more second. As my hands finally broke away, turning to dust, I transferred the last scrap of my power into the feeder.
It exploded, and it took the Hell door with it. There were no more screams of the damned. There was nothing but an ugly popping sound like someone shooting a balloon with a military-grade rifle.
“Dammit,” the leader roared.
“Sorry, boys.” I didn’t even know how I managed to say that. I no longer had a mouth. For now.
I fell. I disintegrated long before my knees struck the ground.
As soon as I died, I felt the process being initiated.
Resurrection on fast forward.
Every one of the particles that had constituted my form had drifted away, but suddenly some force grabbed hold of them and dragged them back. It was like the greedy hands of God grabbing up puzzle pieces someone else had carelessly thrown away.
The process, as always, was beyond painful. It was this agony that reached, not just into one’s body, but beyond it. This wasn’t the first time I’d died. I hadn’t died only a handful of times, either. I’d lost count, but it was somewhere in the thousands.
Yeah, that’s right. I’d died more times than most people had gone out for dinner.
I screamed. It wasn’t with my throat – I didn’t have one yet. But as I was dragged back together, the resurrection acting like a violent hand scrunching me back into one piece, my soul begged for mercy. Not that I was going to get it. Not anytime soon, anyway.
Light blasted through the street. I started to take form. I was floating in the air, just above where I’d been dispatched. As my head formed, it jerked back. My arms appeared beside me. They were stretched to the side as if I was spread out on some cross. But I sure as hell wasn’t a savior.
More light coiled around me like a snake. It blasted out. It would’ve blinded anyone stupid enough to be staring right at me.
There was a thump, and I landed down on one knee. I slowly placed my trembling hand on the pavement. It was cracked through with light – the last vestige of the resurrection process. It soon turned into wispy smoke that coiled around my leather jacket as I thrust to my feet.
I was back. It would be business as usual from now on.
My sword reformed in my hand.
The leader of the gang was right there. Right in front of me.
He had been one of those aforementioned stupid people who’d looked right at my light.
He didn’t have eyes anymore. They’d become glazed over like glossy white skin stolen from a corpse.
He would know what was going on, though. He dragged himself backward, scuttling like a confused crab. He banged up against the burning remains of my bike.
I took a step forward, swinging my hips, my sword still over my shoulder. “That’s right – I’m back.”
“You’re… you’re her,” he hissed.
I stopped in front of him. My sword still over my shoulder, I leaned down, placing one hand on my knee as I got right up into his face. “Yeah, I’m her.”
“You’re the one God damned,” he hissed. For a so-called bad guy, he now looked like nothing more than a frightened little boy.
I remained right there in front of him. “I don’t know who cursed me. Maybe it was God – maybe it was a devil. I don’t really care. There’s only one thing I want to do.”
He couldn’t push himself backward – there was nowhere to go. He inclined his shaking, sweaty head back. He stared at me, his sightless eyes wide like open hands.
“If you are going to plead for your life, don’t bother. You didn’t show mercy to any of the people whose lives you’ve taken since you crawled up from Hell. Which is, incidentally,” I pulled my sword off my shoulder, and it blazed brightly, “where I’m going to send you back to.”
I wasted no more time gas-bagging. I sent magic surging into the blade until it burned like a bright slice of lightning.
I stabbed him right through the chest.
The blade came out the other side. His torso thrust forward, his eyes opening wide one last time.
He disintegrated, just like I had moments before.
The rest of his gang had already run off. Some of them had inadvertently been destroyed when they’d gotten too close to my resurrection wave.
As for the rest of them, I’d hunt them down.
For now, I settled my sword back over my shoulder. I turned. I looked at the patch of broken street where the Hell gate had been. I tilted my head up. I glanced at the sky. It was sunny. There wasn’t a cloud in sight. The weather had the temerity to be good when, moments before, Hell had been about to spill over the streets of Vagrant City until I’d stopped it.
Did that mean I’d saved anyone?
It was hard to say. It really depended on what I was. A monster from Hell? A gift from God? Or somewhere in between?
I’d been waiting my entire life to find out.
I sat on the balcony. It was literally rotting out from underneath me. As I grabbed my beer, drank half of it in one smooth gulp, and settled it down a little too roughly beside me, one chunk of the railing actually fell off.
I waved at it as it sailed down the side of the castle, clanged against a broken flagstone, and crumbled to dust. “I hope you have a better rebirth than me,” I muttered at it churlishly as I grabbed my beer again and finished it.
Without bothering to head down to the fridge, I waved my hand, wrote a mandala in the air, and waited for a beer to fly up through the guts of this broken castle.
Because yeah, I lived in a castle. Technically.
If anyone found this place, they sure as heck would not refer to it as a palace. It was ruined. It was crumbling down around my ears. New chunks fell off every damn day. It was being held together by spit, glue, and a prayer. And a little magic, of course.
I finished my second beer. I shoved my legs through the broken railings, dangled them out in the air, and lay back. I locked my hands behind my head, and I stared up. Clouds flew on by, darting across the night sky like scared birds. A wolf call split through the air.
“Happy hunting,” I muttered at it.
This castle was situated… okay, there was no point in talking about where this building was situated. To say that would assume first that it occupied real space. The castle itself came from France. The forest came from Bavaria. And the beer and half-finished pizza beside me? They were from New York.
In other words, this place and everything in it was smashed together from various locations all around the world. It had taken me a long time to master this spell.
You would think, considering how much effort I’d put into it, that I would’ve picked a location a lot nicer than a run-down castle. Yeah, technically it had 50 rooms, and yeah, it even had a bona fide ballroom. But no, it was not a nice place to live unless you considered mold, broken plaster, and mushrooms in the bathroom to be living it up. But I didn’t deserve better. Whenever I tried to rise above, my enemies always pulled me back down. And I had a lot of damn enemies. Heck, I had no idea exactly how many people I’d pissed off in this great big world. The list of scumbags who wanted me dead would fill the Sistine Chapel.
I couldn’t be bothered keeping track of them, anyway. There was only one group that mattered in the end.
They were the Generals of the Damned. And they were here to drag me back down to Hell. That gang I’d fought today had probably belonged to one of them.
“Not that you boys frigging won,” I said as I picked up my empty bottle, balanced the mouth on the tip of my finger, then tossed it right off the side of the castle. It sailed down and smashed against the same cracked flagstone that had dealt with the dearly departed chunk of railing.
I slowly uncoiled my body and sat, staring at the moon. This castle was located right on the edge of a craggy cliff. On one side was a thick, wolf-infested forest – on the other was a deep valley leading up to a tall mountain range.
I turned my face up to the silvery light of the moon.
Then with a swallow, I pulled my hands up and I stared at my palms. And right there, emblazoned on the flesh, were two symbols. To most humans, they would mean nothing. To people who understood magic, they would be curiosities. But to anyone who’d been touched by Hell, they would be a warning like no other.
“The resurrection curse,” I muttered to myself as I distractedly rubbed them. They didn’t glow. They looked like nothing but scrawls of black ink. Even when I was lit up with resurrection magic, they were not illuminated. They would remain on my hands – dark, shadowy reminders of what I was.
“Don’t think too much,” I muttered to myself quietly. I finally stopped rubbing them, shoved up, and walked into my bedroom. It was the only room in all the castle that I bothered to keep in good condition.
The walls were dotted with crumbling plaster – the baby blue ceiling having rotted away long ago to reveal the warped beams beneath. There was a fourposter bed in the middle. It, unlike the rest of this place, was perfect. It looked as if it had been snatched from Louis the XIVth’s own boudoir. It was covered in an expensive red and gold blanket. There were embroidered peacock pillows on top.
Around it were several dressing tables and wardrobes. They were filled with my gear – both mundane and magical.
As for the rest of the large room, it, like the rest of the castle, was fighting the ravages of time. There was even a hole down to the library in one of the corners.
I walked out of my room, my bare feet slapping against the marked floorboards as I locked a hand around the open doorway – considering the door itself had rotted long ago – and walked quickly down the corridor.
I reached a stately set of stairs that led down to the lower levels of the castle. Above it was a convex stained-glass window. It had broken long ago, and ivy had poked in through the shattered glass and steel to march relentlessly down the pockmarked walls.
It left this attractive pattern winding through the blistered plaster.
I continued down the steps in my bare feet. You would think it would be suicidal to trundle down a set of such disheveled stairs with no protection. I knew exactly where the rusted nails were, and I avoided them without looking down once.
I finally reached the bottom floor. I stretched my shoulders, my simple blouse edging up over my knobbly, tattooed hips.
I faced the door. While everything else in this castle was rotting away, this door was state-of-the-art. By that, I didn’t simply mean that it had been refurbished back to what it had looked like in its heyday. This door belonged inside some high-powered vault. It was massive – three meters high and three meters wide. To open it, you needed to use this huge metal wheel. It had to be turned 10 times to the left, then three to the right. To even touch the wheel, you had to have the right hands – mine.
There was a small hall table to the side, and above it a massive hole in the wall that let in the whistling breeze. You would think, considering the hole – and all the other easy entry points into the castle – that there would’ve been no point in spending so much money and magic on a door like this. But you’d be wrong. The door was a form of force field. It was a representation of the full protection of this castle. No one would be able to poke their head through the moldering plaster – or a weapon. They’d have to breach the castle’s full defenses – and the door – first.
I grabbed something from an ornate bowl sitting on top of the hall table. It was a handful of gleaming white knuckles. They were bone – I knew that much, though I had no clue exactly whose bones they’d been. They could’ve been human. Heck, they could’ve come from a small troll. Or perhaps they were from the very hand of a demon. All I cared about was that they were effective in telling the future. They were the greatest clairvoyant runes I had ever acquired. And if there was one thing I always needed, it was to tell the future before it happened and tried to strangle me.
I shoved them into my pocket, opened the door, grunting as I turned the wheel, and walked out.
Sitting on a cracked section of balcony that led down to a huge set of stairs was a wolf. It looked up at me. I nodded at it. It went back to cleaning its paw. Over the years, I’d achieved a begrudging peace with the wolves that littered the forest around my castle. And when I said begrudging, the most salient point was grudges. The wolves knew I was not someone to mess with.
Playing with the knuckles, I leaped down the steps and headed out through the garden. Though garden was an overly generous term. Back where this castle had been plucked from, once upon a time, there might’ve been a stunning rose patch and a hedge maze, but that was certainly no longer the case. The remnants of this garden had to vie with the wilderness beyond, and what is wild will always win over what is tamed if given enough time.
I headed through the forest, ignoring a pack of wolves feasting on the ripped apart remains of a deer. I saluted them, seeing in them something I’d always seen in myself – a gritty survivor who would fight, tooth-and-nail, until the end.
I made it to a clearing. It was my favorite place in all the castle and grounds. It looked out onto the valley and the mountain ranges beyond. The view was stunning. As was the drop. Right in front of me was a precipitous fall of about 300 meters. The jagged rocks on the way down would kill you long before you had a chance to gurgle out your last breath. Unless you were me, of course.
Shoving to the side, I plucked up an old camping chair ensconced under a set of trees. Though I’d only been here last week, ambitious grasses and vines had already wound around the rusted legs. I ripped the greenery off, opened the chair, and sat down. I pressed it right against the edge of the cliff until my legs dangled over the edge.
Sighing, I shoved a hand into my pocket and pulled out the knuckles. I set them down on my lap. They gleamed in the moonlight. They caught it – and by that, I did not mean that they happened to glow under the intense illumination. I literally meant that they grabbed the moonlight and pulled it into themselves.
Soon symbols appeared over their drab white surfaces. They glowed this bright neon blue.
I thumbed them. Then I threw them into the air. As soon as they reached the zenith of the throw, they drew in more moonlight until they looked like burning stars thrown into the air.
I caught them. By the time I did, they were steaming, magic blasting out everywhere. I settled them on my lap. I had to push magic down through my legs to protect my leather pants, lest I get knuckle-shaped indents burned into my thighs.
I closed my eyes once, then stared at them. I let them tell me the future.
Immediately, my gut kicked. I hunched forward, drawing my face close, even though that meant the tip of my nose started to singe. “You’re kidding me, right?” I asked in a trembling breath that would’ve sounded like chains tied around my throat. “There’s no way. That bastard can’t be coming back.” My voice cracked harder. I squeezed my eyes closed.
He promised me he’d come back for me one day. And who was he?
Sonos, the most powerful general of Hell. He’d been there the day I’d been cursed with this resurrection hex. And he’d always promised me that he would be there the day he lifted it and killed me for good.
I woke the next morning, bleary-eyed. I’d had one hell of a night – hell being the operative word.
“Bastard,” I muttered under my breath.
Sonos, The Seventh General of the Damned, had been in my head all night long. And I hadn’t liked what he’d done.
Rolling out of bed, I kicked my peacock embroidered pillows onto the ground. Feeling guilty as they instantly got covered with dust, I plucked them up, patted them off, and placed them on my bed. Walking over to my wardrobe, I grabbed it open, pressed my tongue against the back of my teeth, and decided what to wear.
“You always do this,” I admonished myself quickly under my breath. I selected what was essentially my uniform. A leather jacket, a thick gray top, sturdy black jeans, and black heels to match. Occasionally I tarted up, adding different accessories like rings, bracelets, hats, and so on if the day called for it. And very occasionally, I could be seen wearing a gold cross.
I put my clothes on and stood there, patting down my leather jacket.
I wouldn’t go with a cross today – suffice to say, I was not feeling lucky or blessed.
I turned, but then the light caught the necklace as it glimmered on a hook behind my wardrobe door.
I pressed my lips over my teeth. Closing my eyes, I reminded myself of what I’d learned last night with the clairvoyant runes.
I really did screw my eyes all the way shut now. “He’s coming,” I said out of trembling lips. I shoved my hand forward, and before I knew what I was doing, I snatched up the cross. I wound it around my neck. I hooked up the clasp and flattened the pendant against my chest bone. I patted it twice. Then I turned.
Rather than head out the door, I used the far more direct approach. I walked over to the left corner of my room. I got down on my knees and leaped through the hole in the floor down to the library. I landed softly. Everything had to be done softly with this old castle. If I was ever stupid enough to slam a door – not that I had too many that hadn’t rotted off the hinges – I could potentially lose whole rooms.
Sniffing, I thumbed my nose, headed over to my lounge chair, and sat in it roughly. There was a wall of bookshelves beside it. I scooted the chair backward. It wasn’t on wheels per se, but it had the magical equivalent thereof. “Let’s go do some light shopping,” I muttered to myself. My chair stopped in front of the geography section of the library. Without even having to look to the side, I selected the correct blue book, and I pulled it out. I settled it on my lap. It was a corker of a tome. The kind of thing that you could easily use to clock someone over the head with or hold up a coffee table. It sat in my lap lightly. In comparison to the resurrection curse that always hung around my neck, all other weights were like feathers.
I thumbed to the correct page quickly. My index finger tapped over an intricate map of the streets of Tokyo. “Here we go,” I muttered. I let magic build in the center of my palm. Light escaped out, but as always, it couldn’t make it through the dull black marks of my resurrection curse. It wended its way around them instead. It bled into the page. Crackles escaped over the parchment. Then they sunk into the lines signifying the crisscrossing streets of Tokyo.
My chair started to move. It didn’t suddenly whiz up, shoot out of the window, and fly me to Japan as fast as it could. It began to spin softly. Something picked up under my feet – and something else fell away. The floorboards simply disintegrated. They would return once the portal spell I was casting was complete, but they would still be as shabby and disheveled as ever.
More magic bled through the room. It swirled around me. It traced concentric circles over the floor until a mandala appeared and lit up the ceiling. Finally, the spell took hold. It yanked me out of my chair, dragged me through portal space, and spat me out at my intended destination.
I arrived down on my hands and knees in a cloud of magic dust. Right in front of me was a nondescript stairway on an otherwise busy street. The stairs looked as if they belonged to some kind of regal mansion. There were carved banisters and an over-the-top red and blue carpet. The stairway was seemingly stuck between a ramen joint and a newsagent resplendent with colorful plastic toys out the front. As the neon lights of both stores bled through the night, they barely illuminated the opening of the stairway. Still, anyone with a functioning set of eyes would have been able to see it. The late-night commuters and revelers of Tokyo walked on by as if there was nothing there at all. Because to them, there wasn’t.
I tugged at my jacket, stood straight, turned over my shoulder in case anyone had noticed me – not that anyone would unless they were magical – then headed down the stairway.
By the time I reached a door at the bottom, I’d already patted the last few sparks off my jacket. I fixed my hair. Then I shoved my hand into my jeans pocket to ensure my wallet chip was still there. Sure enough, it was exactly where I’d left it. I did not leave the house – let alone head to Sato’s Emporium – without my wallet chip. Nothing good could come without money – both in the real world and the magical.
I knocked on the door three times. I waited.
A happy neon sign suddenly appeared over the doorway, despite the fact there’d been nothing but a drab concrete wall there previously. It blinked on in Japanese first, then translated itself into English as the diodes that made up the sign rearranged like marching ants. “Welcome to Sato’s,” it read. It changed once more. “Prove yourself.”
I rolled my eyes. I shoved my hand further into my pocket and wrapped it around my wallet chip. “You know who I am, Sato – just let me in.”
“Prove yourself,” the sign still read, glowing more brightly as if in reply to my snide comment.
I rolled my eyes.
The sign changed again. To articulate how it wanted me to prove myself, the little diodes moved around until they showed a stick figure fighting with a magical sword. The little animation looked as if it had been lifted right from some arcade game.
I rolled my eyes again.
“I don’t know why I have to do this every single time. You know who I am – so does the rest of the entire magical world.” Scratching at my neck, I dropped my hand, yanked up my right index finger, settled my nails around the ring I always wore, and turned it to the right. My magical sword appeared in my grip. It crackled – it never stopped. This wasn’t the kind of blade a mundane would confuse for some kind of prop. This thing bled with the light of my resurrection curse.
I gestured to the side with it, opening my arms and making a sarcastic face as I pressed my lips together tightly. “Is that good enough for you?”
The sign replied by showing the stick figure fighting something.
“For the love of God, Sato – you know who I am.”
“Prove yourself,” the sign read once more.
“Seriously?” I spat.
The sign morphed. Bits fell off it. It didn’t lose its light, though – instead, it changed. It started to weave itself through the air until, right behind me, a stick figure appeared. It was holding a sword.
“This is bullshit,” I muttered.
The stick figure came at me. It looked simultaneously as if it had been drawn on reality, and yet as if it was somehow more real than the stores and commuters up on the packed street above. There was a sharpness to it – which, appropriately enough, transferred to its sword. The stick figure sliced at me.
I dodged, my hair trailing around my shoulders as I moved as quickly as a gymnast on speed. The sword sliced into the door, embedding halfway through the thick wood. I took the opportunity to jerk my knee up. I kicked the stick figure in the linear equivalent of its elbow. It dropped the sword.
It didn’t have a mouth, but it brought its perfectly circular face close. I imagined that right now it was trying to scream at me. So I did it the honor of screaming right back. Then I chopped off its stick figure head. It didn’t spurt lines of blood. The round 2D shape simply rolled through the air and bounced off the door with a comical boing noise. Then it disintegrated into little pixels that marched back up into the sign above the door. “You have proven yourself. Welcome to Sato’s Fantastic Emporium.”
I shoved my sword over my shoulder. I squeezed my lips into a thin, pissed-off line. “Since when did you add fantastic?” I muttered as the door opened.
I walked in.
I was not met by the sight of a fantastic emporium, as promised. What I saw instead were the Tokyo flood tunnels.
I’d been expecting them. I knew exactly where Sato’s store was located. To some newbie magical idiot who’d just found out about the place, this well-placed portal spell would have blown their socks off.
I strode through, my heels splashing puddles over the expansive concrete floor. With every damn movement I made, echoes reverberated out. The flood tunnels were huge – they had to be to deal with the tsunamis that struck Tokyo on a regular basis.
When they weren’t filled with churning floodwater, they were spectacular. An engineering marvel, they were a massive space held up by a set of huge concrete pillars. Either by design or on purpose, it gave the room an almost religious feel.
Sato’s was not the only Emporium to make use of this space. As I strode through, my identity confirmed, the tunnels shifted. I started to see little stalls ensconced between the concrete pillars. There was a woman with a standard broom sweeping away a murky, dirt-filled puddle from the front of her table. An embroidered sash fluttering across the front read Satan’s Sickly Scented Candles.
As soon as the store holder caught my eye, she grinned. She swept a hand toward her table. “Care to call the Devil, my sweet? Would you like a night of unrivaled passion? Do you want a demon’s hot hands all over you? Would you—”
My sword was still over my shoulder. I didn’t bring it around and press it against her neck, hissing that the last thing I ever wanted was to spend the night with a demon. I just opened my free hand. I ensured it was wide enough that she saw the symbol on my palm.
She jolted back, falling against her table hard. Her little red heels scrabbled in the water she’d been pushing away from her stall. Droplets splashed up and stained the ragged hems of her Gypsy dress. Immediately, she turned, dumped her broom, raced around to the back of her stall, and shut up shop. With the press of one discreet button, shutters appeared from nowhere, enclosing her, her chair, and the table. Then everything retracted from space with a pop.
I laughed at her. “Not quite the response I was expecting from someone selling Satan’s sickly scented candles,” I giggled at the alliterative title.
I continued through the stalls. Some of the stallholders had the same reaction as the lady had. They shut up shop and disappeared, despite the fact other customers were now picking their way through the massive expanse.
I ignored everyone and headed straight for Sato’s. His was the biggest joint by far. It wasn’t just a couple of tables set up with some curious magical goods atop – it was a bar.
As I neared, I saw two bouncers, dressed from head to foot in black, including black ties and jet-black watches that had no differentiation of the clock face or the handles. The only thing that was different about the men was that they had white sunglasses on. The lenses were opaque. That meant nothing. It allowed them to see by the light in the dark – in other words, to witness both the good and bad in people. Both of them turned toward me as I approached, scanning me from head to foot. “Sato is expecting you. Come through, Cursed One.”
I scrunched my nose up. “Why don’t you just call me Eve? It’s better than Cursed One.”
“Sato’s rules,” one of them grunted back. “You have been cursed – by the Devil or God – by one you don’t know. Therefore, you are the Cursed One.”
I didn’t point out that didn’t make any sense. I grinned at them, winking at this young, fresh-faced guy trying to get in behind me.
“You’re her?” he stammered.
I went to sashay past the bouncers, but one shoved his hand up. He nodded pointedly at my sword.
I shrugged. “Sato was the one who made me prove myself.”
“Put it away,” the guy growled.
Sighing, without checking over my shoulder once, I threw it. The guy behind me squeaked and bolted for cover. My sword did not impale him through the middle. It created its own magical pocket and disappeared with the sound of a single raindrop hitting glass.
Now the bouncers unfurled in front of me like dying petals from a rose, and I walked through. There was a set of stairs. I took them quickly. I ignored the posters on either side. They were celebrating Sato’s recent achievements. He’d been celebrated by the Magical Council of Tokyo with the most outstanding small business award. He’d also acquired a whole new set of rare, cursed jade from ancient China. I snorted at both. Small business? Sato had pop-up shops around the entire world. He kept them nominally separated for tax purposes. As for the so-called new shipment of cursed jade from China? It was the same old shit he’d been shoveling for 200 years now. If anyone bothered to look into the exact curse, they would find out that it was a boomerang hex. If any poor soul bought that cursed jade, hoping to use it in devil magic, the spell would quickly turn against them, ruin them, and force them to resell the jade back to Sato at basement bottom prices.
Profit all the way – that was Sato’s motto.
I couldn’t blame him. It was better than my motto – survive until the day I finally died.
I reached the bar. It was pumping, as always. The bar itself was set along one long wall and was made from antiques cobbled together in a hodgepodge of styles. There was colonial, Art Deco, and Regency – you name it. Chunks of the bar had been taken from other famous establishments throughout history. The top of the bar would shift from polished copper, to chunks of malachite, to old, chipped veneer.
As for the room itself, it was dotted with tables – some large, some tiny. It was cut on several levels – all of them magical. The primary floor was where people came for a drink, to hang out, and to swap stories. The level above it was for business transactions, and the level above that was Sato’s actual store.
I made a beeline for the bar. Barney, the barman, a massive ex-mercenary from Swaziland, grinned at me, the move breaking across his face like a wave coming to shore. Without a word, he reached under the bar and plucked out a special bottle. You could tell it was special, see, because it glowed this neon green that should not exist outside of nuclear explosions. He reached behind him, plucked a glass from somewhere, then rolled it down his shoulder and into his hand. He thumbed open the cork on the bottle and poured the contents slowly and carefully into the glass. He swirled the liquid around two times, then handed it over. “Sato’s waiting.”
“What’s he got for me?”
“Depends what you’ve got for him.” Barney leaned forward and locked an arm on the polished slab of malachite that accounted for the counter beneath him. This guy had just shifted in to get closer to a lady he was chatting up, but at the sight of the tattoo emblazoned along Barney’s arm, he actually shrieked and jerked away.
Like I said, Barney had been a prolific magical mercenary. The exact symbol on his rippling bicep would tell any fool not to mess with him. He’d been one of the best magical bounty hunters out there until he started working for Sato. He still dabbled in a little headhunting when he had to.
I downed half my drink. There was a woman staring at me from across the bar. She paled, looking as if she was about to throw up her expensive tapas and vodka.
Yeah, your average fool – or genius – would not drink this straight. Because this liquor took years off your life. One sip could wile away several minutes. A whole glass? If you were lucky, it would only take several years off your lifespan. If you were unlucky, it could halve it.
I chucked back the rest of the liquid, letting the unique, biting taste spread through my mouth until I swallowed. I slammed the glass down.
“Feel like another?” Barney grinned.
I shrugged. “I’ve probably got two more in me until it kills me.”
“That doesn’t mean a lot to you.” He took his own initiative and poured me another one. “You know, you’re the only person foolish enough to drink this.”
“Define foolish?” I leaned forward, pressing down into my heels as I nursed the drink, my hair tumbling over my shoulder and hissing as soon as it struck a few stray droplets on the bar. “Nothing much can kill me these days.” I downed the glass in one gulp.
Anyone near the bar who didn’t know me was staring at me, shocked.
“Make it a third?” Barney asked as he gestured with the bottle.
I looked at it. I rolled my tongue around my mouth, then shook my head. “I don’t really want to die today. I’ll die tomorrow instead.” I scooted the glass back to him.
He caught it carefully, ensuring he wrapped his beefy hand around the base of the tumbler and didn’t let a single drop of that fatal liquid splash onto his fingers. He carefully threw the glass behind him. It struck the wall and seamlessly shifted through it as it traveled through to the kitchen beyond. Barney inclined his head up. I went to walk away. He cleared his throat. I twisted back, locked an arm on the gleaming malachite bench, and frowned. “What?”
“There’s a high-level bounty, if you want it. Sato wants you on the job.”
“I’m sure he does. But I don’t really do that work anymore, do I? Unless there’s something in it for me.”
“He’s also got information.”
Was it just me, or did Barney’s voice become tighter?
I frowned. “We’ve all got information. Every single one of us here,” I gestured to the bar with a flick of my hand, “probably knows something that someone else needs to know. It’s how much we need to know it that counts.”
Barney locked his blazing gaze on me. He opened his mouth. “Sonos,” he mouthed.
My act just fell away. I’d said that if I had one more glass of that terminal alcohol I’d die, but maybe I’d overestimated that. Because right now I felt like my life was being whittled away from underneath me.
Barney didn’t dare to say that bastard’s name out loud. If he did, at least half of the patrons here would up and leave. The other half would gather around him, cooing, begging for information on the Devil’s chosen right-hand man.
Barney inclined his head up toward the set of stairs lodged into the wall beside the bar.
I didn’t bother to say goodbye. I nodded briefly, turned, wiped my suddenly sweaty hands on my pants, and headed up the stairs. I’d said the stairs were lodged in the wall, because they were. They were kind of entombed in it. They only pulled themselves out and created a real staircase when you approached. One by one, they sliced out of the wall, sliding underneath my feet. They created a spiral staircase. I became sicker and sicker as I climbed it. It wasn’t the lethal alcohol.
Sonos was coming back. He’d promised me – the day I’d damn well been cursed – that he would come back, and he would….
“Be the one to wrap his hands around my throat and end this for good.” I shivered.
I walked straight past the business transaction lounge. I glanced to the side once, noting that there were several characters I would not have let in here. I didn’t exactly have great standards. Though I dealt with Hell gangs and I took on contracts for suspicious characters all the time, there were still levels even I would not stoop to. Sato had an open-door policy. As long as you could prove you were magical and you didn’t start trouble in the bar, you could come in.
Still, I was sure to shoot daggers into the head of one particular guy. I’d fought one of his Hell gangs recently. They’d killed me – twice within 20 minutes.
The guy had his back to me, so he didn’t see me doing the ocular equivalent of chopping his head off.
I had to place my hand on the banister to drag myself up to Sato’s level. Every step was murder.
If he had information about Sonos, I needed it. To get it, I’d have to do one of Sato’s frigging headhunting missions.
I finally reached the top floor. Here was the emporium. And it was everything you should’ve come to expect. It was utter chaos – every color, every object, every form, and every damn sound you could think of. There was a table of toys to my side. They were these spinning tops that kept perpetually turning no matter what happened. There was a sign underneath them reading perpetual motion machines for toddlers – not physicists.
I walked past it. To my left was a hanging wall of Christmas ornaments. Some of them were legitimately jolly – the kind of baubles and knickknacks you’d actually see on a normal person’s tree. The rest… were for people with different kinds of tastes. One was an exploding Santa. Every time he combusted, little elves would march out, rebuild him, nail his head on again until blood trailed down his neck, then shove dynamite up his ass.
I strode past, rolling my eyes. Sato had one of the wildest senses of humor I’d ever come across, and considering I had spent my entire life dealing with the twisted minds of Hell on Earth, that was saying something.
I finally reached the magical area. There was everything you could think of. There was a spinning rack of mandalas. There were weapons arrayed on the wall. There were even trapdoors. They were littered throughout the emporium. They had minimal signing warning a customer that if they were stupid enough to fall into one, they would have to buy the trapdoor before they were let out.
I strode on through, intending to get this done. I had to be careful where I stepped. There were spiders – everywhere. They ran the joint. I saw a whole team of them – maybe 100 – carrying a curious looking wicker chair. One scuttled in front of me. I went to step on it, but it brought up a flag. It had a tiny little warning written in Japanese. When I scrunched my nose and made it clear that I couldn’t read it, the spider flicked the sign around. In English, it read, “Warning, heavy load.”
I went to walk around it, but two more spiders came out. They flicked their Japanese signs over. They now read, “Road blocked.”
I had to stand there waiting until the team of tiny spiders had shifted the wicker chair out of sight. Finally one of the spiders blew the itty-bittiest little whistle, and I was allowed to go past.
I sighed. Every time I visited Sato’s crazy Emporium, it did my head in.
I finally made it to the back of the store. Before I walked down into a small room to see Sato, I frowned. There was a wooden table with a singular object on top. I shouldn’t have to tell you considering the chaos I’d just described how unusual that was. Sato’s mode of decoration was the same as someone filling a shotgun with glitter and splattering it onto the wall. He didn’t go in for minimalism. But this object caught my eye precisely because it didn’t abide by Sato’s crazy tastes.
I frowned at it. I didn’t pick it up. Sato had a strict policy. If you broke it – or it broke you – you bought it.
It was a snow globe. It was a big one. It also had a little crank on the side suggesting it doubled as a music box.
There were two figurines inside who were in some kind of broken ballroom. One was a strapping demon in a ripped white shirt and black pants. He had the stubs of two broken black wings poking out of his back. Dancing with him, hand-in-hand, in a loving, close embrace, was a little figurine of a woman in a splendid blue ball gown. I couldn’t see her face, no matter what angle I stared at her from.
It took me a moment, then I shoved up and shook my head. “Junk,” I muttered under my breath. “Everything here is junk.”
I didn’t know why I was being so defensive, nor why my hands had suddenly become sweaty. I wiped them on my pants as I trotted down a few small steps into a large sitting area.
This room was… okay, it was actually tasteful. It was decorated in a fusion of Japanese and old English. There were beautiful paper dividing walls, Japanese screens, and precious little gold painted lamps interspersed with richly upholstered Edwardian chairs and a carved cherry wood table. Sitting on one of the chairs, his legs crossed, his black button vest at a jaunty angle was Sato himself. He leaned forward as he saw me, smiled, and pushed his glasses up his nose. He spread a hand to the side. One of the chairs kicked its legs out as if it was stretching them, then marched up to me.
“I can pull out my own damn chair,” I muttered as I sat in it. It scooted me back toward Sato.
He leaned back. He had a cigar in his hand. Well – the magical equivalent of a cigar. Rather than burn through his lungs, give him cancer, and otherwise make him smell and taste of shit, it allowed magic to coil out of the blazing tip and into his body. The smoke took on different shapes, and each shape came with different attributes. As he drew in a lungful, I could see a twisting, blazing red dragon. He sucked it into his mouth, sat back, and sighed. “Have you ever tried one? I just got a whole shipment from Havana. Best magical cigars I’ve ever tasted.”
“You and I both know I can’t afford them.”
He clicked his fingers. He pointed to my left hip pocket, which was exactly where my credit chip was. “Ah yes, money. Makes the world go around, even for we special ones. Are you… what’s the word? As poor as a dog? Skint? One of the great unwashed? Scum? A hobo?”
I leaned all the way back, the plush upholstery behind me squeaking at the force of my move. It wasn’t nearly as forceful as the frown that tugged hard down my lips. “You done? Why am I here?”
He frowned at me. “Because you came here – presumably to shop.”
I rolled my eyes. I was acting defensively. I was trying to hide it, but Sato was a keen student of psychology. He would tell that my lips were too stiff, that my cheeks wouldn’t slacken up, and that there were too many fine lines around my eyes.
“I have information. However,” he spread his hand expressively, several fragments of ash falling from his cigar, alighting onto the carpet, and letting out tiny little wafts of dragon-like smoke, “it will be expensive.”
I’d already come to peace with the fact that Sato was going to bribe me into a mission. I shrugged. “What do you want?”
“Ah, Eve Marigold, always my finest employee. You cut to the chase. There’s something that can be said for that.”
My lips twitched. This was where I wanted to scream at him that I was not his employee and never would be. But he clearly had information I needed. And though you might think that a man with his questionable morals could be lying, he wouldn’t be. He’d know the consequences that would come with shafting me.
… Which meant he had real, important information on Sonos. Information I would need.
I crunched forward, my leather jacket squeaking over the polished armrests of the distinguished recliner. “Just tell me what you’ve got and tell me what you want.”
“Information. Information that could change the whole world.” He squeezed his fingers together. Something started to appear between them. It was a folded-up piece of parchment. On top of it was a seal. It was thick, and it had been embossed with a cursive S. It was no mere piece of wax, however. It was a proper magical lock. It was encrypted – not by some fancy computer system, but by reality itself. Sato was the only one who had the key. If I wanted to know what was written on that paper, he’d have to give it to me.
Though I couldn’t drag my eyes off it, at least I controlled the rest of my expression. “If you want me to do something, I need to know what kind of information is in there.”
“It’s important,” he got straight to the point as he whispered those words. He waved the letter. A few little sparks chased around underneath the seal.
I focused on them. It wasn’t like I would be able to glimpse what was written on the parchment despite the fact it gave one the impression that with enough directed light, you’d be able to see through. I focused on it, because my intuition started to play up. It promised me that, just as Sato had already said, this would be important, all right.
“Potentially life-changing,” he added as he looked right at me, leaned back, and took another puff of his cigar. This time a great koi fish rose up out of his mouth, coiled around his chest, took a turn around the room, then was drawn back into his lips as he breathed in.
My gut sank. Sato wasn’t lying. What was on the parchment really was going to be life changing to me.
I gave up. I no longer controlled my expression or my posture. I flopped back in the seat. I dropped my hand and started to tap my fingers lightly against the armrest. Slowly, I curled my hand into a weak fist. I tapped it down once. “What do you want me to do?”
“The thing you are best at.”
“Dying,” I snorted.
“The second thing you are best at.”
“Hunting,” we both said at once.
Sato was amused by that, and he coughed through a laugh, several small wisps of dragon smoke escaping his lips before crawling back into his mouth with a pop of yellow light. “Yes, hunting.” Finally he decided to cut to the chase. Shoving a hand into his pocket, he pulled out another piece of parchment. He ran his thumb down it and concentrated, his eyes staring off into the middle distance as his mind unencrypted reality. The seal on the parchment broke apart, and the paper floated in front of my face.
I snatched it, leaned back, and stared at the image.
I squeezed my eyes shut, my lips becoming as hard as concrete.
“You’re the only one who can do it.”
“Do you have any clue who this is?” I brandished the paper at him.
“I am unlikely to make a contract with you for valuable information if I didn’t know who I was sending you after.”
He had a point. But so did I. I leaned forward, shunting the paper right in front of his face. With a white knuckle and a stiff finger, I pointed at it. “That’s Bishop Hilliker. He is one of the most powerful white practitioners Italy has ever seen. Why the hell would you want me to go after him? How the hell would you expect me to go after him? Last I heard, the monastery where he lives is one of the most protected joints this side of the freaking Vatican.”
“You do not need to know why, you just—”
I rose. I locked one hand on my hip. I wrapped my fingers right around it until the leather scrunched. A few charges of magic burned from my stiff fingers into my pants. I didn’t make them singe – but I did make them glow. As did the rest of me. It was not a happy-go-lucky glow, let me tell you that. I would’ve looked like a bomb getting ready to explode.
Sato sighed. He opened his hands in a surrender position. “If you take out Hilliker, it can help us both.”
“Why? I have no beef with that man. I’m not that stupid.”
Sato’s eyes flashed. “Trust me, you have a beef with him.” He took another puff of his cigar and settled back. I didn’t like the look playing behind his eyes – it was mysterious and leading. And considering the kind of mind he had, I certainly did not want to be led into a single one of Sato’s innumerable crazy mysteries.
But I didn’t have a choice, did I? I sighed, rolling my eyes to the side and crossing my arms before I turned to face him again. I would’ve looked like some truculent child refusing to do their homework. “Why do you think it would benefit me to take down one of the most protected priests in the world?”
“Because he has information that’s relevant to you. And that will be relevant to your coming situation.” He gestured at the floating piece of encrypted parchment – the very same letter that held information on Sonos.
I stared at it. I rolled my lips through my teeth. I swore violently. But my shoulders sagged as I gave up. “Why do you want him dead, anyway?”
Sato pressed his fingers together. “Dead or alive is negotiable. Trapped is preferable.”
I arched an eyebrow. “What?”
“My client wishes to extract information from him.”
I made a suitable face on the word extract. That would be literal. There’d be no questions – there’d be no quaint human torture. If you were magical enough – and devious enough – then you could literally pull facts out of someone’s brain. It was painful – and exceptionally damaging to said brain – but it was possible.
I looked Sato up and down. “If I do this, I’m gonna create a lot of bad blood with the church.”
“They already hate you. They call you child of the damned.”
“And Hell calls me child of God,” I spread my hands and said that sarcastically. “Not my point, though. The church tolerates me. I really don’t want to go stepping on any toes.”
Sato looked at me. That mysterious little glint was back behind his eyes. “Yes, you do.”
“I need some real information—”
“Hilliker knows why you are cursed and who cursed you,” Sato said flatly.
I ground to a halt. It would’ve looked like the equivalent of a speeding train that had paused in space or a bullet suddenly dropping out of the air.
My lips wobbled open. “What?” The skin around my eyes became slack, this dread descending through me and tightening every muscle until I was the equivalent of a coiled spring. “What?” I asked louder.
Sato nodded at the parchment. “Hilliker knows who cursed you and why. I’m taking it that you want that information.”
I didn’t reply – nor did I need to. My body language was reply enough. You wouldn’t need to be a student of psychology to understand what my slack shoulders, open mouth, and fixed gaze meant.
I took a sudden, jerked step up to him, my heels indenting the plush carpet. I squeezed my hands into fists. I had to be careful. If I accidentally ran my thumb over my ring, my sword would appear. I also had to remind myself that I downed two fatal drinks stupidly. The damaging liquid was kicking around my system. If I kept giving myself shocks like this – the emotional equivalent of digesting bombs – I might accidentally kill myself.
Which would be a real shame, because, for the first time ever, I finally had a lead.
My whole life, I’d been looking for one. I always strove to understand what I was. A curse or a gift? Or something freaking in between.
I now curled both hands into such tight fists, I could’ve rammed my fingers right through my palms. They would’ve kept going until they burst through the walls, shot out into the street, and grabbed Hilliker by the throat.
Sato leaned forward. His gaze shifted back and forth, left and right as he stared at both of my eyes. “Is this enough to get you to go after Hilliker without further question?”
I opened my mouth to say yes. Something stopped me. “Who’s your client?”
“We both know I’m not going to tell you that.”
“I need a little more information. Are they powerful?”
Sato simply nodded. The rapidity and the fact that he hadn’t paused told me that his client wasn’t just powerful – they were mega-powerful.
I shoved my bottom lip in between my teeth, and I dragged my incisors over it until they left white streaks in the otherwise plump flesh.
Sato looked up at me. He finished his cigar. Rather than flick the end into an ashtray, he popped it in his mouth. Magic exploded down his chin, played around his beard, jerked over his chest, then disappeared into the air in discharges shaped like tiny little dragons. “Is that it?” he asked through a magical belch.
“I want an assurance—”
He opened his arms in an endlessly accommodating way. “Anything.”
“That this isn’t gonna get me in trouble.”
He made a face. “As you already pointed out, you will be going after one of the most protected bishops in the world. There will be a little bit of trouble. But that’s only if you let yourself be found out.”
My lips twitched. Did he honestly think that I would be able to sneak into a heavily fortified monastery and kidnap Hilliker without causing any trouble? This was not going to be a walk in the park. This wasn’t some snatch and grab of some low life magical fiend. The place would be packed with church security. I had no chance of doing this quietly – so I would cop flak, guaranteed. The question was how much. “I want to know just how much trouble I’m likely to get into – and if it’s going to be too much to handle.”
“You know I can’t give you that assurance. That depends on how professional you are.”
“That’s not what I’m asking, then.”
“Then what are you asking?”
“Just what the church will try to do to me.”
He shrugged. He clearly had no intention of answering that question, so he just settled further back in his plush recliner.
I glanced to the side. I wanted to keep pushing Sato, but I knew for a fact that he wasn’t going to spill the beans. He couldn’t, anyway. Whoever contracted him would expect privacy.
… I just had to accept the contract. Sato would not be lying – as I’d already said, he wouldn’t risk it with someone like me. So… Hilliker had what I needed to know. The rest didn’t matter, right?
My gut immediately clenched, telling me that the rest mattered – of course it did. But I was in a bind.
I distracted myself by looking around the room. Sato didn’t push me.
Finally I reached out, snatched the paper with Hilliker’s photo, and scrunched it into a ball. I proceeded to shove it deep down into my pocket.
Sato clapped. Then he clicked his fingers. A pen and floating parchment appeared in front of me. “Sign on the dotted line.”
Scowling, I grabbed up the pen, paused, then signed my life away.
Magic circled around the paper, making it glow brighter and brighter until suddenly it disappeared in a puff of light.
Sato patted his pocket. The document would’ve transported in there.
Begrudgingly, I handed him back the pen.
He clapped his hands together. “Due to the… shall we say significance of this mission? I will allow you free rein when it comes to stocking yourself up.”
I arched an eyebrow. That was a particularly generous offer. It was one I would not turn down. “A blank check, ha?” I grabbed my collar and pulled it out. I flattened my hand on my chest and neatened my rumpled blouse. I usually didn’t give a crap about my appearance, and now was no different. My hands simply needed something to do as my mind told me I’d just signed the worst deal of my life.
He nodded. “A complete blank check. Take as many weapons and potions as you can carry. You can also take any ornaments.” He leaned forward, his eyes growing wide with excitement. “Did you see that exploding Santa? I made that myself.” He patted his chest proudly.
I frowned at him. “Why would I need an exploding Santa for a headhunting mission?”
He shrugged. “You’ve always been very creative.”
I rolled my eyes and went to walk out. I stopped when he cleared his throat.
“You have done the right thing. This mission will change your life.”
My cheeks twitched. I’d already shoved my hands into the pockets of my leather jacket, which was a good thing, because it meant he couldn’t tell how hard I scraped my nails down my palms.
“We’ll find out what you are – I can promise you that.” Sato smiled, and it was all teeth.
Without another word, I walked out.
I’d find out who I was? He could promise me that?
Why did I get the impression that my destiny was finally catching up to me? And when it caught me, it would wrap its fat hands around my throat and squeeze.
I was in Italy. Why waste any time? I hadn’t even bothered to go home.
I wanted to get this mission done, find out what the hell Hilliker knew, then get back to my ordinary life.
“You’re lying to yourself,” I muttered under my breath, my hands in my pockets as I made my way down the winding streets of an equally winding town. Why was it that Italian cities were such a hodgepodge? I mean, I knew the answer – they were old, and they’d been rebuilt over each other until the streets were more like knotted strands of hair than efficient thoroughfares. But I always got the impression that Italians built their cities like they built their lives – wild and carefree.
Speaking of which, a canoodling couple suddenly burst out of the door beside me, locked in a passionate embrace.
The guy had his hand right up the woman’s skirt, showing a flash of the top of her thigh.
I didn’t care – until I saw the hint of a certain red tattoo.
I didn’t immediately jolt forward, grab the kissing couple, pull them apart, and waggle my finger at the succubus. I just shrugged, shoved my hands in my pockets, and went to walk away. But that would be when the succubus started doing her work. She shoved the guy down onto a metal chair outside of a café. The move was so rough, the legs gouged holes in the old cobbled street. The guy looked up at her, his eyes wide with amorous attention, not surprise at how strong she was. He didn’t even twig to the fact something was wrong when she started to remove, not just his clothes, but his assets. She ripped open his shirt – then she started on his watch and wallet. She snatched off his Seiko in one clean, practiced move and chucked it to the side. It clattered onto the cobbles beside me. Then came his wallet. That was close enough that I caught it inadvertently.
I had no problem with succubi. They were not man-hating witches looking for their next poor victim. They were hunters, just like me. Succubi specifically went after crappie assholes who deserved it. The kind of shits who usually flew under the legal radar or had enough friends and enough power to do whatever they wanted to women with no consequences.
The succubus was aware of me, and she sliced her gaze over to me when I caught the guy’s wallet. I went to put it back down on the pavement, but it flicked open. And right there, staring me in the face was a picture of Fellini Monastery. The guy was a security guard there. But do you know what was better? His security pass was right there, tucked behind his license.
I rolled my tongue around my teeth. Then I promptly plucked out the security pass and shoved it into my pocket.
The succubus unlocked her lips from his and looked at me pointedly.
I just waved. Specifically, I opened my hand all the way, letting my twiddling fingers frame my resurrection mark.
Like I’d said, she would’ve been aware of me – she might have even guessed I was magical – but she’d have no clue of exactly who I was.
She paled slightly. I pointed out the security card in my pocket and mouthed, “I’m gonna take this.”
She shrugged accommodatingly at me. All the while, she kept her firm red-nail grip on the guy’s tie, locking him in place underneath her.
I saluted, dumped the wallet on the ground, shoved the security pass further into my pocket, then wandered off.
Damn, maybe I’d actually be able to do this. I’d showed up in the town beside the monastery in the hopes that I’d be able to find some useful information to help me get inside. Now I had a security pass and I’d barely lifted a finger.
Chuckling to myself, I continued down the street. There were the usual revelers you would expect at this time in the night. Some of them were right off their faces – others only seemed to be so. They were the dangerous ones. I saw three pickpockets pretending to be innocently drunk, one mugger, and a guy I was certain was half magical, half pure drugs – his eyes were that wide and out of focus.
I continued on my merry way. I had a plan to get me a blueprint of the monastery. That would be the first thing I would need to mount a mission inside. If I approached the place without the correct information on how to get within, I would be a ready target for the magical sharpshooters who were protecting it. And yeah, before you ask, of course the church employed magical sharpshooters. When you had an asset as significant as Fellini Monastery – let alone Bishop Hilliker – you splurged. You got the best security there was, even if the little old ladies that made up your local parish would curl their toes at the sight of a hardened magical warrior.
“Here’s the place,” I muttered to myself as I stopped in front of a large, wrought-iron metal gate that was seemingly lodged in the middle of some random wall. To one side was an old antique shop – to the other a bookstore. And right before me was, “An invitation down to Hell,” I finished my thought. “Little Hell,” I added as I pushed my fingers together then broke them apart with a pop.
I shoved forward. I locked my hand on one of the wrought iron bars and closed my eyes with a flutter. Concentrating, I immediately picked up the flows of magic. They sliced around me, driving an erratic path through the air. You know those movies where heroes have to twist their bodies to and fro through lines of lasers in order to get to some treasure? Think of it like that, except these lasers were packed together. I wouldn’t be able to gyrate my butt at odd angles and stick my legs out like a dead cat in order to shimmy past them. They were so close, barely a molecule would be able to squeeze on by. But if you had the right magic, you could do anything with it. Focusing once more, not bothering to tell myself I could do this considering I knew full well that I could, I concentrated on the lock.
It was sophisticated, but it was nowhere near anything someone like Sato could create. Speaking of Sato, I shoved a hand into my pocket. When he’d given me a blank check to take any gear from his emporium that I might need, I’d cashed in that check in the extreme. There was so much stuff in my ethereal pocket, I could start my own store. As I shoved a hand behind me, opened my fingers in a specific motion, and concentrated on my inventory, I plucked out a sophisticated lock driver. It settled in my hand with a zing and a wisp of smoke that coiled around my wrist. With one eye half open and the other tightly closed, I concentrated on that lattice of laserlike magic. Then I shoved the lock driver in. It clasped around one of the bars and started to methodically search for a way through the lock. It was the magical equivalent of some fancy hacking device. All I had to do was hold it in place and let it feed off my magic for a bit – then in under two minutes, there was a click.
I was in.
A satisfied smile spread across my lips. I got the distinct feeling that I needed to enjoy every victory while they lasted, because as soon as I made it to the monastery, they sure as hell were going to stop – violently.
The metal bars grated as I snatched up the lock driver, threw it behind me, and walked down the dusty, worn steps. The scent was… it was the exact same scent you got in all underground places all around the world. It didn’t matter if you were in a well-appointed basement, or a rock cave, or if you’d headed down into a tunnel carved out of pure dirt. The underground always had this specific musty scent that reminded you of one thing – the promise of death. Or maybe that was just me, considering I always had death on my mind in some fashion.
Reaching a hand out, I trailed one jagged nail over the wall as I continued down the stairs.
It didn’t take long until I reached a T-intersection.
“Left or right?” I muttered under my breath. Dragging my teeth over my lip, I settled my finger forward and used it somewhat like a dowsing rod. With a lurch, it twisted to the right. I shrugged. “Here we go.”
I was about to walk into the den of some mob. Not just any mob – but a magical one. One that had been controlling this part of Italy for the best part of 350 years. They had their fingers in everything from the lemon trade – and you heard that right, the lemon trade – to drugs, to trafficking, to fast cars, to, of course, magic in all its forms.
If I weren’t here on a different task, maybe I’d pay them a visit and rattle them up. A mob like that with that much power would have committed so many heinous crimes that a girl like me would be justified in kicking their teeth in and slapping them silly.
Like I’d said before, I wasn’t exactly a good girl, but nor was I a bad girl. But when it came to plying my trade, I tended to do what was right, not what was wrong – unless there was a lot of money in it for me. Even then, I always picked my targets wisely.
“Because whatever you do,” I muttered under my breath, ensuring there was no force in my voice whatsoever, “you must never inadvertently wander into his hands again.”
I shouldn’t need to tell you who I was talking about. It was patently obvious.
The only reason I was doing this was because of the Seventh General of the Damned. Hell, the only reason I did anything was because of him.
I closed my eyes and inadvertently brought up a clear memory of his smiling face.
The word handsome didn’t do Sonos justice – because his face was completely crafted. It also could manipulate the specific viewer who stared at him. If somebody’s idea of hot was shoulder-length blond hair, a six-pack you could wash clothes on, and a smile right out of a toothpaste commercial, then that’s what he could become. If instead you preferred swarthy good looks, a rugged, unshaven, carved chin, and eyes you could melt in, then that’s what you saw.
For me… I didn’t really know anymore. For me Sonos’s features were knives that carved holes right through my brain and better reason – from his piercing gaze, to his wicked smile, to the faint outline of black spider web wings that were never far from his form even when he was nominally acting like a human.
I opened my eyes again. I ground to a halt. When I’d closed my eyes, I’d assumed I’d only imagined Sonos because I was in a flighty mood.
There was another reason.
There was a frigging magical holographic picture of him up on the wall. It was in a sweet little frame – the kind of gilded affair you might get in a nonna’s house around a picture of Jesus above the fireplace.
I froze. I would’ve looked like someone had just injected me with setting concrete.
I heard something. I was facing a sharp corner, and to my left the corridor continued. Based on the airflow, it went down another set of stairs. I could hear footfall.
I had to… I had to pull myself away.
Though at the sight of a gilded, holographic picture of Sonos, you would be correct in assuming it was time for me to run, I didn’t have that option. I had to get the blueprint, or I’d have no hope of breaking into the monastery.
I wiped my sweaty hands on my pants. Then I continued down to the left.
I heard more footfall. I had an option – sneak in or break my way in, the equivalent of my magical guns blazing.
No, I didn’t have an option. Not anymore.
There was footfall behind me.
I turned over my shoulder quickly to see an old, rotund man in a three-piece suit. He was on his phone. As he turned around the corner and saw me, I smiled, jerked up a hand, and twiddled my fingers in a polite sort of way.
He snatched his phone away from his ear. “Intruder,” he screamed loudly in lilting Italian.
I rolled my eyes. “The direct approach, then?” I commented sharply under my breath as I turned, my hair whirling around my face like a fan.
Obviously this little operation wasn’t run by idiots. Within two seconds, three besuited bouncers were running down the corridor toward me. Two of them had ordinary guns – the third had guns – in so far as exceptional biceps could be referred to as armaments. These specific biceps suddenly glowed with this dense, pulsing, red-black energy that kind of reminded me of a pit of damnation fire getting all stirred up.
“Here we go.” I shoved my hands up. At first I just made fists, but when the magical goon came at me, and that red energy wrapped around him, forming a picture of a snake that twirled around his body then sat proudly with its head raised above his left shoulder, I realized I wasn’t going to fisticuffs my way out of here. This guy was no joke. He could have made that Hell gang from yesterday whimper and cry for mama.
“All right then,” I said quickly as I shoved to the side, dodged one of his epic punches, and came up with my fingers locked around my ring. I twisted it to the side, and my resurrection sword flopped into my grip. I shouldn’t say flopped – it wasn’t like it was a wet fish. Whenever it came to my hand… I glimpsed death and life all wrapped up into one. The power in its hilt and blade was always unlike anything else. As soon as it fully appeared, I locked my fingers around it as tightly as I could. I swung it to the side just as the portly older gentlemen behind me spat instructions in Italian.
Obviously the guy was smart enough that he recognized my sword without catching a glimpse of the symbols on my hands.
I didn’t have the time to quip at him that yeah, that was right, I was in town. I had far too much to handle right now.
Those two ordinary bouncers kept shooting. There was no real point. I had basic magical defenses in place permanently. As the bullets zipped past me, they pinged into an invisible force field. It would stop almost every single human weapon from working on me. As for the snake charmer here, he was a completely different kettle of fish. He sneered, spittle flying from his teeth as he lurched forward. I caught a glimpse of his scrunched-up fist. While there was a massive snake curling around his body, there were little ones wrapped around his knuckles.
There were different forms of magic in this great wide world. Of course there were. I’d already encountered a voice magician yesterday. This guy was a body freak. He could take on the power and spiritual characteristics of any animal or human by channeling the specific power of their form.
There were very few complete body freaks. Usually you specialized early in life – picking a totem animal or person that you would mimic. True body freaks – who could take on the characteristics of anyone or anything they met – weren’t just exceptionally rare, but freakishly dangerous. They were the kind of fiends that if I came across one, I would run screaming.
As this guy shoved his fist toward me, I just managed to dodge. I jerked my head to the side, and his fist sailed into the wall beside me. It smashed through a massive chunk of stone, obliterating it, causing dust and rock chunks to churn out everywhere and spew over the side of my jacket. They were electrified with magic. And so was he. As he jerked up, he followed the move up with a lethal kick. This one I couldn’t dodge. It smashed into my side. Immediately, his body freak magic locked onto me and sunk its teeth in. One of the snakes coiled around and bit my thigh. Horrifying pain exploded through me. It was the kind that, if I were anyone else and I wasn’t so used to mortal peril, I would give the hell up and run away. As it was, I concentrated on stemming the damage. I sent magic pulsing into my thigh. I also swung at him with my sword.
The guy was quicker – a true fighter. He leaped to the side. Though you wouldn’t be able to guess it from his beefy form, he had all the grace and speed of a ballerina. He twisted back.
The portly Italian gentleman had already run past, heading further into the tunnels. I could hear a commotion from further in. It sounded like every single goon in here was grabbing his gun and getting ready to come pay me a visit.
I had imagined that this would go down differently and that it would go down quickly. But the body freak I was fighting was soon joined by 10 other magicians.
The odds were not on my side. I’d hoped not to die so early in the piece, but it was looking as if this was going to be a fatal mission. As I sliced my gaze to the side, I saw two more body freaks, a voice magician, and a bunch of guys who were glowing with so much magic, it was hard to tell why. I really doubted they’d caught the magical equivalent of the flu and they were running fevers. Heck, one of them looked like he was getting ready to explode. I really couldn’t discount that possibility, because the guy’s eyes glowed a menacing red. There was every chance he wasn’t a human at all, and he was just a golem carved to look like one.
“Don’t let her get past,” I heard that older gentleman scream from further down into the basement. “Our benefactor won’t forgive us if we’re breached.”
I should have just ignored that. I doubted the portly gentleman in the three-piece suit was the head of this operation. The heads of operations never came to places like this. They were too busy being ensconced playing golf, sipping champagne, and cooking up new ways to make the world a worse place. But there was something about the word benefactor that rang in my mind like a frigging bell. A violent one. My mind jerked back to the image I’d seen of Sonos. What if he was somehow associated with this gang? There were other reasons for this mob to have a photo of him. Maybe they just really liked the Seventh Demon of the Damned and treated him like their patron saint. Still, I got the unshakable impression that Sonos was more than a distant hero for these people.
What if he controlled them?
“Then I can’t frigging back out now,” I muttered just as that body freak came at me with several vicious punches. They sliced past my face, the snakes coiling around his knuckles and moving so frigging quickly, I couldn’t dodge them all. One of them bit me on the cheek. As its fangs sliced through my soft, relatively unprotected flesh, I felt poison seep through. It was already affecting me from the vicious leg bite I’d received earlier, but this was worse. As it seeped in through my skin, it started to crack it. That was one god-awful unpleasant sensation. The fissure lines marched toward my mouth as my face became numb.
I tried to scream again, but moving my lips was a very bad idea, because it just encouraged those cracks to grow faster. Soon enough they reached the other side of my mouth. If they kept going like this, the next time I was stupid enough to make a sound or move my mouth too quickly, my head would halve itself.
Several more body freaks came at me. One of them had tigers swirling around his form. As he sliced in close, rather than try to punch me, he frigging bit me. He wrapped his arm around my bicep, and he sank his teeth in greedily. I screamed as his body magic changed his ordinary human canines into those of a vicious tiger. As they sunk further into my arm, blood spurted out everywhere.
I was a bleeding, cracked mess, but I wasn’t about to give up yet.
Yeah, I had the added advantage that I couldn’t actually die here, but even if I was resurrected in this exact same position, I could easily be overcome. And there was nothing to stop these bastards from capturing me. The leader had already recognized me, so he would know that there was no point in continuously trying to kill me. The last thing I wanted was to be captured, especially by a gang that had suspected direct links with Sonos.
That meant I had to use whatever little momentum I had to strangle these bastards in one go.
Speaking of strangling, I marched right up the wall, using my momentum and extreme agility to flip right over the heads of those body magicians. I came down beside them. Rather than slice my sword through the closest one, I wrapped my arm around his neck, pushed him in front of me, and used him as a human shield. His friend, the snake charmer, inadvertently punched him right in the gut. Sparks exploded out everywhere in a wave of magic as both of their body-freak powers met, mid-air. I had no clue who would win – the snake or tiger – and I sure as hell didn’t wait around to find out. Ducking to the side, I rolled, pushed up, and kept going. Momentum. That was the only word I allowed myself to think of. Unstoppable freaking blazing, endless momentum. I channeled it through every frigging pore.
I climbed up the wall again just as a voice magician screamed. A Hell gate began to open beside me. As I sliced my gaze over to it, my heart sank. Not every schmo could create one of those doors. You had to have a direct connection to Hell, for one. If you didn’t, and you were stupid enough to call on the damned, it would make you pay by swallowing your soul – and your assets – for life.
This was yet more direct evidence of the fact that Sonos had to be more than a hero to these guys.
As that fact struck me, sinking in like a punch to the gut, I reached the voice magician. I smacked him across the back of the head with the hilt of my blade. Though it would’ve been satisfying to cut him right through, he was not a Hell being. Killing people indiscriminately – even if they were trying to kill me back – was not my style. It went back to that age-old problem of mine. Who exactly was I? A child of God or the Devil? If there was a slim chance that I didn’t belong to Satan, I couldn’t ruin my chances of salvation by killing anyone I pleased.
There was a satisfying crunch as my hilt smashed against the guy’s noggin and knocked him out clean. It had been a clinical blow – he wouldn’t get brain-damage, just a very painful headache.
As magic spewed out, it counteracted the Hell gate. It hadn’t completely opened yet. I sailed on by. I twisted my blade around and slashed it through the growing middle of the crackling door. There were a few spluttering sparks as if it was an engine backfiring – then one almighty explosion. I was long past it before it detonated. It caught two beefy goons, smashed them against the floor, and pinned them there as energetic discharges spluttered and popped, crackling like water thrown on hot coals.
I flipped again, getting past several goons as they thrust up a set of dark stairs.
Though the last thing I wanted to do was go further into this basement considering the reception I’d received thus far, I didn’t have any option. “Momentum,” I hissed to myself, focusing on the task of finding the blueprints and getting the hell out of here.
I tried to promise myself one thing as I skidded under the stocky legs of another goon. Sonos would not be here personally. Sure, he might technically be the head of this gang, but he was a busy, busy man. He didn’t hang around in places like this, either.
I couldn’t really give actual reasons as to why he wouldn’t be here and as to why he didn’t hang around in places like this. This was more of a wish than an articulated argument. A wish I held onto dearly, grabbing onto it as tightly as I could as I ran down those stairs and entered into an open room.
It was beautiful – but it was frigging filled with mobsters, which somewhat detracted from the decor.
The ceiling was tall and vaulted. In the middle of the carved floor was this epically long table. It was the kind of table where you could accommodate every single mobster in the city to have a chinwag and some grappa.
There was one very nice chair right at the front. The kind of chair no ordinary schmo would be allowed to sit on. The kind of chair that was made for the mobster equivalent of royalty – or perhaps the demon equivalent thereof.
I hadn’t been lying before when I’d said this place was completely filled with mobsters. Obviously the senior gentleman from earlier had raised the alarm, and every goon within range had mustered up for the fight.
There was so much magic on display, light was playing across the vaulted ceiling, illuminating every single crack in the old stone. If this had occurred outside, revelers would’ve mistaken it for a meteor shower.
“Here we go.” I thumbed my nose. I pushed forward.
So much for doing this discreetly. In my head, I’d imagined that this would be a quick in-and-out mission – the kind that would cost me very little energy, hardly any time, and no lives. But that last bit was quickly becoming less and less likely. Though I tried to dodge, I couldn’t dodge everything. One particularly nasty body freak who took on the magic of a lion raced in close and grabbed me around the side of my shoulder. Long before I could slice him with my sword and shove him back, he wrenched a chunk of my flesh clean off. Blood splattered out everywhere, and pain owned me.
I didn’t even have a chance to groan. More magicians of every single type shot toward me, their vicious intentions clear.
As I’d already said, these scumbags would know who I was and what I was capable of. If I died, I’d just come back. But presumably, when I died, they’d be ready to use the few seconds it took me to resurrect to initiate a trap. I thought I could see some suspicious mobsters scuttling around at the back of the room. Who knew what they had planned? There were many, many ways to trap someone like me. And trust me, a lot of them had been used on me in the past. I hadn’t always been as competent as I was now. When it came to the criminal magical assholes of the world, an asset like me could not be underestimated.
Theoretically, I could complete any mission. I was like a kid playing a game. I had infinite lives. I just had to use my magic to find a way to push through obstacles. But if you knew my weaknesses, you could keep me trapped indefinitely.
I had not come to Italy for this.
I clutched my bleeding shoulder. I tried to send a few charges of magic into it, hoping that they would seal the wound, but it was becoming increasingly harder. There was now a gash along my brow. As blood trickled down, I couldn’t see past it anymore. I was also having trouble breathing. That’s when I saw that, through the thick crowd of mobsters, there was an elemental white magician. The guy wasn’t dressed in pitch black. He was wearing a white embroidered robe that matched his long white nails and his fleshy white eyes.
“Shit,” I had a chance to scream before I immediately clutched a hand over my mouth and tried to stop breathing in. The air was becoming thick with this choking magic.
It was designed to knock out anyone who wasn’t coded to it. And considering I was the only enemy in the room, that would be me.
I wheezed through another breath. I started to see stars.
These guys obviously knew what they were doing. If I was resurrected right now, I would come back into a room that was chunked full of smoke that had been directly programmed to affect only me. I was screwed.
The stars started to flash brighter over my vision. I became wobbly, too. But I sure as shit did not give up.
An ambitious body freak got a little too close to me. I screamed right in his ear, jerked my shoulder backward, shunted my fist forward, and sent magic hurtling into him. My desperation was starting to get the better of me. That was both good and bad. Desperation could make one’s magic peak. But it could also make one stupid. It, like fear in general, had a talent for narrowing your field of view until you only saw immediate solutions to your problems. A situation like this, on the other hand, needed foresight and a freaking plan.
I screamed again as one of the guys next to me punched a hand out. He caught the side of my shoulder. At first he did nothing, but just as I tried to jerk him off, he became sticky and hot like melting tar. He’d grabbed the shoulder that was injured. I’d slightly stemmed the bleeding, though there was nothing I could do for the actual wound. Now as the guy melted before me like a plastic figurine left out in the unrelenting sun, the noxious tar buried deep into my open shoulder, taking me to a level of pain I’d very rarely felt. There was no point in screaming. All I could do was open my mouth wide in a gasp of horror.
“Move in,” I heard someone say. It was that same old gentleman from earlier. If I ever came face-to-face with him and he didn’t have a whole horde of goons to protect him, I’d show him my displeasure with a fist right up in his round face.
I managed to lurch to the side. I kicked off the guy who’d turned to tar. As soon as he was away from me, his spell broke, and he looked normal again – well, as normal as a guy sneering with the promise of impending death can. It was an expression that was picked up and repeated by every single mobster in the room.
That gas was still being pumped out everywhere. Those stars I’d mentioned before were now spinning as if the entire universe was about to be sucked into the gaping mouth of a greedy black hole. This heady pressure built up in my skull. It was like someone had inserted a drill inside my mind and was about to use it to carve off ever greater chunks of my brain.
I finally fell down to one knee. There was nothing left inside me. I blinked up blearily as I saw a huge, troll-like guy with a massive sword. The sea of goons parted to let him through.
This was it, ha? I was about to die, and I hadn’t even reached the monastery. These goons would hold me, and if they were worth my time – which considering the show they’d put on, they were – they would know what I meant to Sonos. He would be called, and… it would be over.
The Seventh General of the Damned had repeatedly promised me both verbally and in my dreams – which he frequented far too often – that he would be the one to finally kill me. I’d always thought I had more time than this.
That troll-like guy reached me. I stared up at him blearily. He went to chop my head off. I could see the light of his sword as more magic blasted into it, sailing around the blade with this lethal red glow.
I almost opened my mouth and laughed at the ridiculousness of the fact I’d just walked in here without a plan. Right at the last moment, I remembered something. I’d taken a lot from Sato’s Emporium. One item was a random weapon generator. Yeah, I got it, it sounded bizarre and ultimately useless. The thing about weapons is they are precision tools. When you wanted a gun to reach a faraway enemy, a bat would be useless. If you were in close quarters and you needed something to save you as some guy wrapped his hands around your throat, a sniper rifle would be next to useless. But the thing about a random weapon generator was that it also meant that your enemies weren’t prepared for your attack, either. You could get lucky – or very, very unlucky. Considering my day, I suspected it would be the last option.
Flopping to the side, now incapable of holding myself up, I selected my ring and turned it right around to the left.
“Here we go,” I whispered under my dying breath.
Something appeared right in front of me. For a few seconds, it floated in the air, indiscernible as magic discharged around it. Then I finally saw what it was.
It was that frigging snow globe from earlier.
I hadn’t selected it. When Sato had given me a blank check, I’d only used it on real weapons. I sure as heck hadn’t taken him up on his offer to avail myself of his comical Christmas ornaments.
I’d taken a gamble – and it was about to be shoved down my throat. The troll guy had been surprised at the sight of the snow globe, but he shrugged it off with a dark, truly mean chuckle. He went to slice that sword right across my throat.
The snow globe shifted. Somehow, the little crank around the side began to turn. Music drifted through the room that was otherwise filled with the cries of the goons.
I felt myself being lifted up. It was like I’d been turned into a doll. The next thing I knew, I was transported away. No, I was sucked down. I was pulled into a portal that was right in the middle of the snow globe.
I was aware of the clang as the snow globe struck the ground. Then I was… I was dancing.
I felt this dress appear around my hips. It furled around me in a gentle wave of magic. Then, equally as gently, someone picked up my hands. The next thing I knew, I was twirling around on the spot as the tinny but still beautiful tones of the music box filled the room.
“What the hell? What the hell is happening?” I spat, my heart still thundering. According to it, I was right on the edge of death. I had a broken, bleeding, fatally wounded shoulder that was full of magical tar. But in this realm, wherever the heck it was, I was fine.
At first, I could only feel a man’s hands around mine, but soon he started to resolve. I wanted to see his face. I couldn’t really discern it. That’s when I realized he looked like nothing more than a plastic figurine that had been blown up to man-size. There was something about his slightly melted features that was memorable, but I couldn’t place it.
“What the hell is happening?” I stammered again, my voice becoming tighter and higher.
There was no one to answer me. If this plastic guy could speak, he’d have to do it out of a melted together mouth.
We were dancing on the spot. At first, I couldn’t see the rest of the room, but soon enough it appeared around me. It, like the guy, was familiar somehow.
We took another turn, shifting this way and that. Our dance was hardly innovative. We simply twisted on the spot as you’d expect of any figurine from a music box.
My heart was still pounding, but it was slowing down. Despite what I’d been through, I was no longer on the edge of death. I would do anything to rip my hand back from the guy’s gentle embrace and check on my shoulder, but I couldn’t move that way. There seemed to be only a set number of movements I could make in this realm, wherever the hell it was.
The music continued to play around us, and despite the fact it was hardly the best quality, it began to soothe my nerves. Don’t get me wrong, I was still completely freaked out, but I was no longer terrified.
The one thing I could be comforted by was the fact that I had not left my real body back in that fight. I had been transported here. I distinctly remembered the pop as my body had been pulled into the music box.
That meant that right now those goons weren’t busy trapping me.
I had to quickly update that thought. If I was inside the music box, all they had to do was trap that. But I… for whatever reason, I couldn’t feel too terrified here. Maybe it was the fact that this world seemed oddly two-dimensional. I didn’t mean by that that I was made out of lines like that stick figure I’d fought at Sato’s. It was just that there wasn’t that much that was possible in this realm.
I kept dancing. And I kept holding that man’s hands, of course.
His grip was overly warm considering his hands were made out of badly molded chunks of plastic. Despite the fact his eyes had no detail apart from a slapdash coat of blue for his irises and a pinprick of black for his pupils, I got the impression that his gaze was endless, nonetheless.
As my body started to calm down and I realized I was now far away from the embrace of death, I looked at the scene with a far more critical eye.
I had not selected this object from Sato’s, so it meant that he’d thrown it in my inventory for me. This music box had been on a table just outside of Sato’s sitting room. That was where he kept his best, most expensive gear. It had also been on its own. That meant it was rare and exceptionally valuable.
Could this be some kind of… I didn’t know, realm one could rest in in times of need? There were many different realms, not just the human world and Hell. There were all sorts of pocket spaces. My castle was a good example of one. Technically though it was in the real world, you would never be able to find it by taking a day tour around Bavaria. It was a location that had been created by strong magic and thus could only be accessed by it. This place was likely the same. I knew, right now, I was likely actually inside the snow globe. If one of the goons got close enough and peered in, they’d be able to see my wide-open, surprised eyes and the last few hints of blood disappearing from my healing shoulder.
I continued to dance.
The music soothed me. Fortunately I didn’t have to learn any moves other than twirling on the spot. Out of the corner of my eye – considering I couldn’t move my head much – I saw my dress. It was this beautiful blue ball gown. It glinted in this glorious light as the shimmering beads embroidered on it acted like trapped fire.
I paid attention to the guy now. He was wearing black pants and a ripped white shirt. I caught a glimpse over his shoulder. The shirt was tattered around his back. I couldn’t tell why, but maybe it was to accommodate his wings. I could only see stubs of them, but they were very much there. That meant this guy was a demon.
A frigging demon, I reminded myself. It was time to stop being lulled by this world and to wake up to the fact I was trapped and had no clue what this place was nor how to get out. Yeah, it had been useful. It had offered me a pause in the fight to catch my breath, but—
Suddenly the guy let go of my hands. He bowed. From nowhere, a voiceover whispered through the ballroom, “And then the music stops.”
There was a pop. Suddenly I was back in the hall.
There was chaos. People had clearly been searching for me everywhere. The guy who’d been casting that gas spell hadn’t bothered to maintain it.
As I appeared, I immediately clutched my shoulder out of habit, but it was fine. My injuries… they hadn’t completely disappeared, but had gone a long way to healing.
I appeared right in front of the guy who’d tried to chop my head off. He had a chance to open his eyes wide. I had no clue what was going on, but I wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth. With a grunt, I shoved forward.
The guy was a troll. I was certain of that. Now I was up close and personal, I could see the telltale dark light in his penetrating gaze.
Trolls were denizens of Hell.
So gloves off, then. I shunted forward and stabbed him right through the middle. Lines of light blasted out from my resurrection sword, cracking through his sternum as easily as an ice pick through a frozen lake. He stammered in shock, fell back, and then disintegrated. If I’d bothered to look closely – though I’d seen it many times before – I would’ve watched as the particles that had once constituted his form were sucked back into invisible holes in the ground. They would be back on their way to Hell where he belonged.
Now he was down, and I’d made enough commotion, everyone knew I was back.
I didn’t have a chance to check to see where that snow globe had gone. I couldn’t see it out of the corner of my eye, and I sure as hell didn’t have the chance to turn around and search through the legs of all the beefy goons. They were coming at me with everything they had at once. Far off in the middle of the hall, I could hear that white magician chanting. Once more, the air became laced with this noxious gas designed specifically to affect me and only me.
I couldn’t afford to waste time. I was possessed with a strange clarity that I didn’t usually have after I was resurrected – not that I’d died. The point was, whatever that realm had been, and however it had helped me to heal my injuries, it hadn’t cost me any concentration or energy. I was back, and I was better than ever.
I launched into the air. Magic charged around me. The guys closest to me screamed. Perhaps they could tell that I was not here to play anymore. I landed down, smashed my sword hard into the floor, and sent fissure lines cracking everywhere. The pricks closest to me didn’t get a chance to jerk back. As cracks formed underneath their feet, they were pulled right down to whatever the heck was underneath this room. Maybe it was another basement – maybe it was Hell itself. I sure didn’t hang around to find out.
Grunting, I bolted forward once more. That white magician was still casting his noxious magic. Though he was seated and his hands were held before him in a patient position, his eyes were darting around behind the closed lids. I could tell he was desperately trying to keep track of the fight. If he opened his eyes, he would lose hold of his concentration, and his spell would be affected. So all I had to do was make him scared enough to take a look, then.
With a roar, I flipped right over the top of him. I would’ve looked like one hell of a spectacular, if vengeful gymnast. As I landed on the opposite side, I reached the table. Rather than go for the guy as several goons folded in around him, I went after the table. There was something about it. There always was with the tables of mobs like this. Objects like this were sacred to magical gangs. These kinds of tables tended to be hundreds of years old. They also tended to have sucked up the collective import of the gang like a sponge. If you thought about it, all the most important deals, murders, and mergers would have occurred around it. That meant it was impregnated with important magic. It also meant that if some intrepid fool – just like me – took the equivalent of an ax to it, it would be one hell of a blow to the mob.
So I wasted no time. With a fair amount of satisfaction and glee glinting through my eyes, I smashed my sword right down into the middle of the table. There was a crack, and it was followed by a collective scream. You would think I would have just chopped all their toes off considering how much of a commotion they were making.
I turned around in time to see that white magician finally snapping his eyes open. Terror made them widen as far as they would go. Based on just how obvious and strong his reaction was, it told me that this table was somehow connected to him – either via his magic or his life. So it was time to do a little redecorating. I ran along the massive table. I hadn’t been lying before when I said that it was epic. It was probably a good 30 meters in length. It appeared to be made from one single tree, too. It’d probably grown deep in the heart of some magical mountain somewhere. Then one day these pricks would have come along, chopped it down, and made it into a table. I imagined the wood would want revenge. So as I sunk my sword into it again, cracking the table further, I gave it an open invite. I let my magic course through my veins, blast into the sword, and sink into the wood. And I let it be filled with the promise of revenge.
“Stop her,” that white magician hissed.
I saw another two trolls appear in the room. Maybe they’d been there from the start, but it was hard to keep track. There were at least 50 goons in here.
The two trolls leaped onto the table, but almost immediately that white magician shrieked as if they’d smashed him over the head with a broken bottle. “No. You can’t damage it more. We’ll crack.”
I had a chance to frown at that. Sorry, who would crack?
Yeah, some of these guys were legitimately Hell creatures, but the rest were technically humans who just knew a lot of magic. There should be no cracking.
But as I dodged past those trolls and smashed my sword down into the wood once more, promising it salvation from its gritty life, one of the trolls closest to me cracked. It happened all of a sudden. He reached a hand out, but that hand quickly became as limp as a wilted flower.
He jolted to the side once, then twice, then just crumbled as if someone had made him out of ash stuck together with glue.
“What the…?” I managed.
“No, stop her, at any cost,” that white magician shrieked, his voice getting louder as terror gripped him.
They tried to stop me, all right, but now I knew I was onto a good thing, I kept going. As I smashed up the table, I would’ve looked like a very intrepid, very frantic woodpecker. Goons leaped up to get me, but I always dodged back just in time.
That other troll who’d jumped on the table cracked, too. He had a chance to stretch his hand out – then he jolted back, shuddered several times, and simply fell away.
I glanced at him as he disintegrated. There was a particular pattern to the destruction. It was one that finally let me know what was going on here.
This was one great big body spell.
I’d already made the connection that the wood in this table would rather be somewhere else doing something else other than offering a prop to the pens and swords of mobsters, but it had been more than just a guess, apparently. Just as body freaks could learn to channel the spirits of certain animals, seriously strong practitioners could do something similar but on a large, environmental scale. That was what was occurring here. This mob was intrinsically linked to the power of this table. It was such a strong and powerful link, they’d incorporated it into their own bodies and magic. While destroying this table would only crack apart the physical forms of Hell creatures, it would still register a significant blow to all humans, too. That was a point I proved as I slammed my sword right down into the middle of the table and a massive fissure line shot out in both directions. Thus far, I’d only been able to carve up chunks of it. As I did some significant damage, several of the goons closest to me fell back. They looked like swooning princesses. Their cheeks became pale, their eyes rolled into the backs of their heads, and their limp bodies fell backward into the arms of whoever was behind them.
“No,” that white magician shrieked. His voice became ever more insistent.
Two other trolls entered the room, but they sure as hell didn’t get the chance to leave. They cracked apart, the dust disintegrating and disappearing into invisible holes in the floor.
Now I was onto a good thing, I stayed focused right down to the end.
I destroyed the table. That white magician tried to get involved, but he was too busy shaking on the spot like a shuddering leaf. The more damage I did to the table, the more I did to his magic. Though he was technically human, he was obviously so incorporated into the table spell that as it broke apart, he plain couldn’t move. He fell down to his knees as if someone had cut them. No – as if he was a tree and some monster had felled him for no reason.
I kept that image in my head as I smashed my blade down one final time. There were only chunks of the table left. I was determined to destroy the entire thing. These pricks would’ve done incalculable damage to an incalculable number of people over the years. If I allowed even a scrap of the table to remain, it would mean that the mob would be able to regrow.
I hadn’t come to Italy to clean up the streets – but I wasn’t about to pass up that opportunity.
I slashed my sword right through the last chunk of the table.
There was now no one else standing in the room. All the human mobsters were just a pile of jittering, slobbering limbs on the floor. Anyone who was incorporated with Hell had disappeared.
I finally jumped down from the last chunk of wood. As I walked away from it, I twisted my sword around and sliced right through. I paused. I pressed my hands together, and I offered the wood a quick prayer. Whatever it became next when it was offered rebirth, I hoped it would have a better existence.
I had to carefully pick my way over the floor. It was so chunked full of bad guys, they were like daisies in a field.
Running my teeth over my lip, I finally let out a smile. “That didn’t exactly go down as I planned,” I admitted with a shrug, “but I’ll take what I’m given.”
My smile quickly ended as I walked back to the point where I’d almost been killed but the snow globe had appeared to save me.
My frown only became more pronounced.
The snow globe wasn’t on the floor. Now I had a chance to actually think without someone trying to impale me through the middle, I could feel it in my inventory.
“What the hell was that thing?” I asked with a shudder. “Who the hell was that plastic demon?” I brought my hand up and stared at it. Locking my gaze on the marks in my palm, it didn’t take me long to furl my fingers in and out, nor to close my eyes and try to remember the exact feel of his grip. While ostensibly his hand had only been plastic, the feel of his fingers was somehow indented in my mind, nonetheless.
With a sigh, I opened my eyes. I did not have the luxury of just hanging out here wondering what had happened. I needed that blueprint, and I had to get out of here before reinforcements arrived. Because they would. A mob like that with a table like that had roots as deep as a forest. They would have crews all over the city. And they would’ve found out what I was doing.
I turned around and went to walk away, but once more I took the opportunity to stare at the position where the snow globe had appeared.
I sighed, bit my lip, turned around, and walked backward for a few steps before finally wrenching my gaze off that point.
I closed my eyes and strode away. I tried to ignore the feel of that plastic demon’s hands, but they were embedded in my fingers. They were trapped in my palm. And if I’d had the presence of mind to look down, I would’ve noticed something that should not be possible. A few little lines of light were busy tracing their way around my resurrection marks. It was impossible for them to glow. But they were. Because before too long, the impossible would become real as my life was rewritten right in front of my eyes.
I quickly found what I was looking for. There were several rooms that came off this large hall. Some of them were filled with weapons – okay, most of them were filled with weapons – but there was treasure, too. There was everything you could think of, from gold bullion, to an actual gold loo. There was also cash and other resources. Right at the back of the main vault room, I found what I was looking for. On the wall was a framed picture of the blueprint of the Fellini Monastery.
As soon as I saw it, I let out a deep, echoing gasp. It spoke of all the frigging torment I’d had to go through to get this far.
I shoved a hand into my pocket. Though I could’ve just grabbed up the frame, broken it, rolled up the parchment, and stuck it in my ethereal pocket, it was easier to just take a photo – and yeah, I had a phone. What self-respecting individual didn’t in this day and age?
I took a picture from every angle. Then I got right up close and personal. I sniffed. Frames – especially pictures behind glass – did not have a specific scent. And I did not have some kind of weird fetish. What I was searching for was any evidence that there was a magical trace in this blueprint – something other than the image. I quickly ascertained that there wasn’t – so there was no point in taking it with me.
“Here we go, then.” I shoved my phone back in my pocket, saluted the picture, winked, and went to walk out. I stopped.
There was an old leather-bound book beside me. It was massive. It looked like a ledger. As I got closer, I realized that it really was a ledger. For it to be out here, where the most expensive and important objects of the mob were held, it could only be one thing.
“It would be a list of all of this mob’s crimes, then,” I muttered to myself. I did not have the time to let curiosity get the better of me. So much for doing this quietly. All of Italy would know I was here. Hopefully the Fellini Monastery wouldn’t have any clue that I was going after it, but that was not the point. Any kind of attention was still a bad thing. The monastery would likely increase their security by default. And that would make everything harder.
I needed to take this opportunity, get out there, and get everything done. I quickly forgot that mantra as I frowned and started flicking through the ledger.
I had to find out one thing. “Who’s your benefactor then, boys? Is it Sonos?” I asked. Though my voice started out strong, it sure as hell didn’t end that way. When it came time to saying his name, I lost all my vocal force as if I was a ballistic missile someone had plucked right out of the sky.
I kept flicking through the ledger until I stopped.
There was a list of the gang’s recent crimes. Most of it was just ordinary criminal activity – the kind you would expect from a large institutional operation like this. One wasn’t. One was a theft from an old orphanage. The reason it caught my attention was that it was the very same orphanage I’d grown up in.
“What the…” I began. I trailed off as my voice fell out from underneath me. So did my knees. I didn’t know why I was being so dramatic. The orphanage I’d been to – Saint Fredericks – was a popular one. It was also large. There were branches of it in several countries. But as my gaze skipped to the exact address, I realized the crime had gone down in the very one I’d grown up in.
Trembling, I stared at the ledger in my lap.
Sometimes I got like this – rarely, but it did occur. It only ever happened when my intuition started to flare, started to blare in my frigging ears that something was so important that it would change my life for good.
I hadn’t had an episode like this in a while. This one was so strong, I wasn’t ready for it.
I pressed my trembling fingers against my lips. I tried to breathe, tried to focus, but it was getting increasingly harder.
I began to shake all over as unpleasant memories shook me to the core.
I hadn’t always been like this. As I hadn’t always been cursed. I’d once been a happy-go-lucky kid. Then my sixteenth birthday had happened.
That day, the orphanage had been attacked. The perpetrator had been none other than Sonos. I still remembered the burning rooms, the screams, and the flick of a shadowy demon tail.
I almost couldn’t read. Heck, I almost couldn’t function. I was shutting down so much that I was forgetting why I was in Italy and why it was so very important for me to leave this instant.
My fingers still trembled. So I just set them harder over my teeth as I stared at the explanation of what had been taken. It had been birth records. In the column next to it, written in neat handwriting was a name of whose details they’d taken. It was my name – Eve Marigold.
I remained there for a few more seconds – freaking out on every level.
What… what the hell was going on here? Why had this mob gone after my birth records?
It took me a long time to pull myself together. I started to hear sirens up on the street outside. I really doubted the mob had called the police. They wouldn’t be that desperate. Maybe too many fleeing, screaming mobsters had disrupted traffic. The point was, I had to get out of here now.
I dragged myself up. I went to leave, but I thought better of it. I grabbed the ledger and threw it into my etheric pocket.
Why had these goons gone after my details? Were they more than slightly connected to Sonos? Was this his own personal gang or something?
Had I walked into a trap? Had Sato set this up? All those thoughts swirled around me. If I’d had an ounce of reason, I would’ve pointed out that Sato hadn’t sent me to this place. I’d done my own research, found out that these guys had a blueprint of the monastery, and come here all on my own volition. But I couldn’t think straight right now. Hell, I wondered if I’d ever be able to think again. This loud ringing picked up between my ears.
I went to leave the exact way I’d come. That was a hell of a stupid plan. It was the direction where the sirens were coming from. Plus, presumably by now backup had arrived, and more mobsters would be spilling across the street. I needed to remind myself that places like this always had back doors. Mobs were a lot like rabbits. When they built their warrens, they did so with escaping at the forefront of their minds.
Slowly, sluggishly, I checked through the vault until finally I found what I was looking for. It was a trap door. If I had to guess, it was one of the best ones you could buy from Sato’s. As I’d already said, Sato wasn’t exactly discriminating about who he sold to. All he cared about someone was whether they had the cash to pay. Someone else could collect on the sum of their sins later.
It didn’t take me long to figure out how to open the trap door. I staggered through. As it closed behind me, I fell back against it. I curled a hand into a fist. I let it pause in the air, and I banged it back down. I closed my eyes. All I could do was think of Sato’s warning. He’d told me with some glee in his voice that after this mission, everything would change. Including my life.
I took another breath. I opened my eyes. I ensured they blazed. I could not forget why I was here. It was time to pay Bishop Hilliker a visit. I would not be stopping for tea and biscuits.
I made it out of the tunnel system easily. It spat me up somewhere in the middle of town. By that stage, I had my arms wrapped tightly around my middle. Though I didn’t really want to admit this, I was still freaking out. No matter how much I tried to rationalize it, I couldn’t. Too many things appeared to be coincidences, and the thing about coincidences is they aren’t coincidental if someone’s behind them. And considering what I’d seen today, I couldn’t shake the impression that there wasn’t just a certain unknown person behind this, but the Seventh General of the Damned himself.
I wanted to back out of this mission. I couldn’t. Even if I turned around right now and decided that none of this was worth it, I couldn’t change the fact that I’d agreed to go on this mission for Sato. I’d signed a frigging contract. I had to do this. If I didn’t, there would be real-world consequences.
So I just sucked it up. I secured my arms harder around my middle. I felt like I was holding my gut in. It felt like, at any moment, everything would just spill out of me, including my heart.
I needed to pull myself together if I had any hope of reaching the monastery, let alone breaching it. Finally I did. I made it out of town. The monastery was right up on a hill behind it. It had been there for hundreds of years. It was the backbone around which the town had been built. It stood stark on the horizon line – this sprawling monstrosity of interconnected stone buildings. There was an attractive garden around it, a large vegetable patch, and a winding road that led up through a massive, reinforced, seriously sophisticated security gate.
Outside of the gate were guards. The kind that held machine guns.
During the day, they probably hid their guns behind convenient etheric pockets. At night they didn’t bother to. Innocent little tourists were unlikely to visit at 2 AM unless they had a message from Satan himself.
“Here we go,” I muttered to myself. I knew I said that an awful lot, but it seemed appropriate. With every new step on this wild journey, I was asked to dig deeper. I didn’t know why I was saying we, though. It wasn’t like there was anyone here to help me with this mess.
I had two things going for me – that security pass and the blueprint. I also had that snow globe. I’d tried to put it out of my mind, but I couldn’t anymore. I wondered if it would work again or if it had just been a one-off. And if it did work again… I wondered what it would feel like the second time around. Though I was reluctant to admit this, I wanted to try it out again. Badly. I’d always been a girl who followed her curiosity, but there was something different about this urge.
If I was stupid enough to bring up my hand and run my thumb over my palm, it would reignite the touch of that plastic demon’s hand. Every time I did it, the recollection only became more intense. I swear it was as if he was right here, holding my hand this very moment.
“Focus,” I told myself in a pissed off breath. So I frigging focused. I was not about to march up to the front gates, smile, point to the resurrection scars on my palms, and demand entry. According to the blueprints, there was an unsophisticated drainage system not far from here.
I kept low, kept quiet, and kept an ear out. The guards at the front gates were only some of the spectacular protection systems this place had. All I needed to do was half close my eyes and tune into the energy around me to appreciate that there was a shield in place around the perimeter. There were also booby-traps. And there were snipers. They were up on the roof of the main building. They might work for the apparently ever-forgiving church, but if they saw a rustle in the bushes that shouldn’t be there, they would shoot first and never ask questions.
I made my way around the perimeter. I had countless spells cast around my body to protect me from inadvertently activating any booby-traps. I also had my wits about me. It wasn’t impossible that I would come across hidden guards ensconced in the bushes. After all, news of what I’d done would’ve spread, and as I’d said, despite the fact the monastery wouldn’t be expecting an attack, they’d still be prepared for one, nonetheless.
I finally made my way over to where the drains were. They were this large, old set of stone mouths that were barred off with small, apparently flimsy looking metal gates. Upon first inspection, anyone with a crowbar and a gram of strength would be able to blast through them. On second inspection, I could see the lethal charges of electricity and magic slithering through them like snakes.
“Not messing around then, are we?” I whispered as I trundled up to them. My hands were in my pockets. I wasn’t being casual. I was trying to let as little of my magic leak out as I could. Sophisticated systems like this had magical sensors. You could trip them just by existing and breathing. And for someone with as much magic as me, that was a distinct possibility. So I had to concentrate, really pushing my mind into the task as I forced my magic to circle around me and never further.
I sensed the drains from every angle. The blueprints hadn’t given me a handy set of instructions on how to get through here. Plus, every defensive system on the grounds like this was unique. They were usually upgraded and updated frequently. And unless that magical mob had kept tabs on the monastery, updating their information weekly, any specific data about this particular gate would be wildly out of date.
“Here we go,” I muttered to myself again. I stopped before I could shove a hand forward and test the lock personally. I frowned at myself. “Here you go,” I muttered. “It’s not like you have anyone to watch your back.”
I shivered slightly at that promise. I’d always been alone. Even back at the orphanage no one had hung out with me. Before the age of 16, I’d always thought that was cruel. After the resurrection curse had befallen me, I’d understood. I was nothing but a liability. I was not someone you were friends with. Sato and Barney were polite and chummy – but they sure as hell would not go out on a limb for me. There was no point for a cursed object like me.
I wiped my hands on my pants, and though I didn’t appreciate this, unconsciously I was trying to remove the last vestige of that plastic figurine’s heat.
Tilting my head to the side, I finally got a feel for those locks. I thrust out a hand. I grabbed a metal bar. Charges of electricity pounded into me – magic hot on its tail. I shuddered slightly, but I sure as hell didn’t jerk back, fall to my knees, and die right here and now. I could withstand this. Yeah, it was doing me damage, but it was nothing my magic wouldn’t be able to fix.
I opened my eyes, jerked my hand back, and shoved my tongue between my teeth. “Tricky, but I can do it.” I squared off in front of the bars, gritted my teeth, then shoved both hands out. I held on for dear life as energy sailed through me with all the lethality of someone swallowing a thousand stars. My hair started to stand on end. Magic blasted around and around me, forming this vortex of death.
My skin became crispy. Burns marched up my arms. But did I let go? Of course I frigging didn’t.
I clenched my teeth harder. I didn’t let myself scream or make any noise. I just concentrated until finally my magic found a way through. With a slight, “ha,” I forced my magic in against the lock mechanism. I finally found a weakness, and I exploited it like locusts to a crop. There was a pop, a fizzle, and a crack. You would think after that epic fight that there would be an explosion that could tear down half the city, but fortunately it was discreet.
I staggered back. My jacket was smoking. There was a small fire under my shoes, and my hands were as crispy as a burned steak ripped off a barbecue just before it had combusted.
I patted out the fire on my jacket before it could spread. Then I winced and stared at my hands.
I concentrated. I sent healing magic to my injuries, but I couldn’t get rid of them completely.
“This was never going to be easy, was it?” I muttered to myself as I kicked the gate and pushed on through.
The drains smelled.
Drains, after all, by definition, are not there to be uplifting, clean, bucolic places. They aren’t rose gardens, to put it another way.
I pulled my sleeve over my nose, gagged slightly, reminded myself that I was right now walking through priest shit, and continued on. There were a few other little booby-traps, but I recognized them and dealt with them quickly.
The rest was just trundling through crap.
As I moved, I kept going over the plan – not that I’d had a particularly good one until a few minutes ago.
I’d go straight to Hilliker’s main room. I’d find the bastard, I’d overcome him, and I’d get out of there.
Even as I repeated that plan for the second time, I couldn’t keep the grimace off my face. “Hilliker is one of the strongest white practitioners in the world. There’s no one who can beat him in Italy. You’re good, kid, but you’re not that good,” I said through another wince.
If you thought this was where I had to turn around, come up with another plan, and otherwise pause this suicidal mission, you’d be wrong. I had a limited amount of time to get this done.
At the back of my head, I couldn’t forget what I’d found out at the mob. If they were somehow associated with Sonos…. If there was even the slimmest possibility that he was on his way, then I needed to get out of here. I wouldn’t get a chance to come back. Sato would make me pay if I came home empty-handed.
“Why did you agree to this mission again?” I admonished myself, whispering but not nearly as quietly as I had outside. That particular lockset had not just been expensive, but amazing. It was the kind of lock you used when you wanted to be assured that a particular place would never be breached. It would allow you to focus your attention on other more vulnerable locations. Which simply meant that I would not be disturbed here. Guards wouldn’t come by, and there wouldn’t be any fancy snipers. I’d be on my own until I finally reached the monastery.
“It really smells down here,” I commented to myself as I wafted a hand in front of my face. I trotted on and on until the drains opened up. They became a suitably large expanse. They were like a whole sewer system for a massive city.
I tried not to walk in the shit. I kept magic around me so it didn’t stain my clothes, anyway. But as the drain system opened out, I was finally provided a walkway to clamber up on.
With my hands in my pockets, I sauntered on. I could feel the history in this place. I could smell it, too. And no, I wasn’t talking about crap. It was that sense I’d talked about earlier. When you were underground – no matter where you were – the scent and promise of death was never too far away. It would always call to everything it touched – a fatal, eternal promise of what was always to come. No matter who you were, no matter how powerful you were, and no matter who you had to watch your back, you would return to the dust from whence you’d come. That was the only promise reality ever gave anyone.
I was no different. Yeah, I was cursed to constantly be resurrected, but that curse would one day be lifted. And I would become just like that which was all around me. I closed my eyes briefly. I took a breath. I let that promise of death settle – then I opened my eyes quickly like someone cracking a whip.
I paused, grabbed my phone out, and flicked to the image of the blueprint.
“It’s coming up right around here,” I muttered to myself, suddenly pointing to the left. There was a nondescript section of some crumbled down pillar pressed right up against the wall. On the face of it, it looked like nothing more than some old architecture that had been swallowed by the drain system – a vestige of what had once been here hundreds of years ago but now had been long forgotten.
On closer inspection, I realized that the exact way the pillar had crumbled looked far too organized. And if I got right up against the pillar and ran a hand down it, I concluded it was illusion magic.
I dragged my bottom lip through my teeth. I opened my mouth to say here we go, but I thought better of it. I launched up the pillar. Despite the fact it was illusion magic, it was still solid, and it didn’t force me back. As soon as I jumped on top of it, I saw there was a little electronic box. I didn’t suddenly start jamming my fingers into the keys randomly. I reached behind me, selected something from my inventory, and pulled it out. It was the equivalent of talcum powder. I was about to dust for prints. I sprayed the sticky magical substance all over the box. Dark energy crackled out. While fingerprints could tell you what someone had touched, this could tell you exactly the order someone had touched something in. If an action had been repeated frequently in a specific place, it left an imprint in the energy fields around it. That’s exactly what this magic was designed to pull out. Sure enough, with a few more sprays, I started to see a pattern of numbers emerging. Digits wafted up around me. I reached back into my etheric pocket, pulled out a simple pad and pen, and wrote them down.
I didn’t crunch forward and immediately enter them into the input panel. Do that, and I would likely trip an alarm. I’d received 25 digits. I very much doubted that the security code was that long. As I’d already pointed out, the security team wouldn’t have bothered to secure this section of the drains carefully, considering the state-of-the-art locking system at the mouth of the drain. But they would still utilize basic security protocols. Any key systems like this one would have their passwords rotated weekly.
While it was easy enough to get a history of what had been typed into the panel, I couldn’t necessarily tell what had been typed in recently. Using my pad and pen, I tried to nut it out, using every trick in the book I knew to focus on the task. I finally came up with my answer. With a little shiver in my belly, I went to type the code in, but I paused. Something didn’t make sense, did it? If this drain system was so infrequently used, then why would this pad have been inputted so many times that there was an imprint in it and its energetic field?
My back arched with tension. I looked over my shoulder. I reassessed everything. The imprint on this pad was so strong that someone had been using it frequently – multiple times a day, if I was any judge. Biting my lip harder, I tuned in to my senses, waiting to hear the click of a magical gun behind me or a swearword as a guard thrust toward me, magic in hand.
There was nothing.
“Stuff it,” I hissed. Wincing, I put the code in anyway. There was a little click, and it unlocked. The pillar disappeared. That was problematic, considering I was on top of it, but I managed to flip and land on my feet, anyway. Dusting off my pants, I stood. The pillar had given way to a door. There was no fancy lock – just a handle. With my stomach churning, telling me this was a frigging trap and I had to wake up to that fact already, I nonetheless grabbed the handle, turned it, and opened the door. I strode through into an ordinary hallway. I wasn’t in the basement of this building. The drain system was well under the monastery, and I’d exited without climbing up a set of steps, but judging by the night light streaming into this hallway, I was now on the first or second floor.
I winced and waited for security to come, but nothing happened.
My luck was holding out. But here’s the thing – I’d always had a love-hate relationship with luck. I loved it whenever it graced me, but that was as rare as a unicorn pig. I was, fundamentally, a cursed woman. I was not someone the world was meant to smile on.
I reminded myself of that as the word trap kept reverberating in my head.
I walked slowly and carefully down the hall, expecting countless security guards to appear and start firing at every second. They didn’t come, but nothing could put my mind at ease.
I finally arrived at a door. I frowned at it, settled my hand on it, then went to open it, but I heard a conversation occurring inside. The deep, resonant voices sent little vibrations shifting through the metal handle. I jerked back.
I went to turn away, but there was nowhere else to go. This corridor led in a straight line right to this door then back to the door that entered down into the drains.
I had not come this far only to backtrack on myself. It would be dangerous, anyway.
I remained there, my fingers on the handle. I tried to press my face against the wall to pick up the vibrations of the voices within, but it didn’t matter. Hands, after all, are exquisitely sensitive magical objects. They are where you do most of your casting from. The only other organs that are stronger when magic is concerned are tongues and eyes, but I certainly had no intention of licking the door or literally eyeballing it.
I couldn’t hear the voices. But judging by the vibrations, they weren’t happy. These pitching rumbles trembled into my fingers, suggesting whoever was within was arguing.
Suddenly the argument stopped.
There had to be two doors into that room, but that didn’t stop someone from immediately angling my way.
Terrified, I bolted back. My eyes were wide, and I tried to search for a place to go, but there was nowhere. It was just this door and the one back into the drain system.
As the door began to creak open, I let my body do what it had to. I leaped up. There was a strong lintel above the door. It was carved out of stone as it had to support the epically heavy wall above it.
Using my unparalleled gymnastic skills, I leaped up there and did a handstand on top of it, my body flush with the rest of the wall.
The door opened, and a priest walked through. Before I could jump for joy and think it was the bishop, I realized he wasn’t wearing purple. He was in long white robes that were trimmed with silver around the cuffs. He slammed the door behind him. Though it sent vibrations up into the wall and the lintel, I managed to hold my position. I’d done a handstand with my butt to the wall. That wasn’t the safest move, ergonomically speaking. I had a big butt – and I was proud of it. But it overbalanced me. I couldn’t use magic to hold my position. If that priest was worth his silver cuffs – as they told me he was a strong practitioner – then he would be able to sniff power like mine a mile off. I just had to use my own muscles and gumption to remain there. He started stalking off toward that door to the drains. He paused when his phone rang.
Not now, I begged in my head. Just keep going, asshole. I can’t hold this position forever.
The guy, suffice to say, was not a mind reader. He answered. “What is it—” he began, but he changed his tone quickly. “Your Holiness,” he whispered, his voice constricted.
… Was that… was that the Pope he was talking to? It was hard to say. Holiness was not only a term that was used on the highest-ranking member of the church. It was also a term used for exceptionally strong practitioners.
There was a possibility that he could even be talking to Hilliker.
I really peeled my hearing in the hope that I’d be able to pick up the other side of the conversation, but the guy had the phone locked so hard against his ear, it would take a crowbar and a strongman to wrench it back.
The guy took a hissed, shaking breath. “Of course. Straight away. I’ll have her brought to you straight away.”
There was something about the way he said her that made me concentrate – like a frigging targeting laser. My heart beat harder. The damn thing rammed around so hard in my chest, it was a surprise it didn’t bounce me right off this lintel. They couldn’t be talking about me, could they?
… No, I quickly told myself. Because if they were – and they knew I was here – every single alarm in this place would be blaring. So what the hell was going on here?
The guy rushed forward. “No, she’s still contained. She will be no trouble. I promise you that. I’ll bring her now, Bishop.” With that, the guy hung up the phone.
Only one word repeated in my head. Bishop. It had to be Hilliker. But the other contents of the conversation played on my mind all too soon.
I replayed them over and over again until finally the priest opened the door into the drain and left. Slowly but surely, leaving several seconds to ensure that he didn’t return, I leaped down from my position. I landed with grace and ease. Then I stared over at the door behind me. I placed a hand on the handle. Closing my eyes, I concentrated. I didn’t detect any more vibrations, so I slowly turned the handle. I peered into the room, and when I confirmed it was empty, I walked in. It was some kind of office. There was a large ornate desk, and there were floor-to-ceiling bookcases that were absolutely packed with ancient tomes. On the desk was nothing more than a single piece of paper and a fancy ballpoint pen.
“What the hell are you bastards up to? Who have you trapped here?”
I glanced down at the paper. It was blank. I went to walk away. There was a door on the other side of the room. Presumably it would lead to the rest of the monastery. I went to take it, but I paused. I spun back around, my hair moving so fast, it whipped around my face. I walked over to the paper and ran a hand down it. It was not blank – it had been spelled to look that way. Any practitioner who was lesser than me wouldn’t have been able to detect the difference.
I pushed in close, snatched up the apparently blank piece of paper, and stared at it. Narrowing my eyes, I tried to use a basic charge of magic to get it to reveal its contents, but even as a few crackles sparked around my irises, jumped onto my eyelids, and fizzled across my lashes, nothing happened.
Grunting, I shoved the paper back down, pinned it with two stiff thumbs, rolled my tongue around my teeth, and started to really concentrate. I drew up magic within me and let it dance through my bloodstream. It blasted into my fingers as I slammed them down on the paper. I allowed my eyes to flutter closed. When I blinked them open, I could see just a few faint outlines of a pen nib. It was the imprint of where it had scratched across the page – but I still couldn’t actually see the ink.
Whoever had cast an invisibility spell on this piece of parchment knew what they were doing. They had not been messing around. Which just made me more determined to find out what they’d written. The words of what that priest had said reverberated in my skull. Some innocent woman was about to be taken before the bishop. I wanted to know why, and I got the impression that whatever was on this piece of paper, it would be important somehow.
Grunting one last time, I let magic burn within me as if I was the human equivalent of a candle until finally enough seeped into the page that shadowy lines appeared. They scrawled across it, right in front of my eyes.
There were two words. Though technically, I guess there was only one. The other was a signature. As soon as I saw that particular scrawled name, my whole world came crashing down. I jerked back, lurching so hard, I almost sent the chair behind me clattering into the wall of bookshelves. I caught it with my foot just in time before I could knock the entire thing down and create such a cacophony, I would call every cop in Italy to this room.
As my heart beat hard through my chest, I pushed forward. My fingers froze above that signature. “Sonos.”
My gaze flicked up to the only other word on the page. It was simple. It just said begin.
I knew I was pale – as white as a corpse. As I locked my hand on my mouth, letting my fingers drag hard across my lips until I could’ve ripped them from my face, I opened my mouth to whisper his name, but I quickly thought better of it.
What the hell was a letter from Sonos doing inside Fellini Monastery? This was one of the most sacred places not just in Italy, but the world. Hence the fact that Bishop Hilliker was here.
But I could not deny what was in front of my face. Before I could simply conclude that this was just some kind of forgery, I recognized Sonos’s power through his signature. It sang to me – in the kind of tones designed to strangle me.
I even locked a hand on my throat in case his shadowy fingers had appeared from nowhere to wrap around me.
I knew I couldn’t stay here staring at this parchment. I had to get out. I had to find Hilliker and finish this mission. But this was the second time today I’d inadvertently found something from Sonos. “This better not be a trap,” I hissed to myself, my voice so desperate, it sounded as if I was shooting it from my lips with a flare gun.
Cramming a hand on my belly, clutching hold of a great chunk of my T-shirt, I ground my nails in until I could’ve cut the fabric. I finally released it. Squeezing my eyes closed one last time, I turned. I went to leave, but I realized I’d shifted the chair and the parchment. I had a pretty good memory. I returned both to exactly where they should be. That meant touching the parchment again. I was perfectly careful never to bring my fingers too close to Sonos’s signature. I could feel the power wafting off it from here. It was like a noxious cloud designed to kill an entire country.
By the time I finally staggered to the opposite door, I was ready to give in. This mission, despite its reward, was not worth it.
I settled a hand on the door handle. Concentrating, I soon realized that no one was on the other side.
“Just let this be okay. Let this mission be a success,” I whispered. I did it with my eyes half closed and my other hand curled into a fist. My fingers were hardly clasped in a praying position, but considering the sheer effort I put into that wish it was similar, nonetheless. And yeah, before you ask, I had prayed before. When my life went to hell – which it did every single day – sometimes at the height of the pain and anger, I’d shed a tear and offer a whispered prayer to whoever would listen. I didn’t direct it to God, per se. My experience over the years had proven that whoever God was, they sure as heck weren’t listening. I simply prayed to the universe. I wanted a reprieve – a new life, preferably one that wasn’t cursed. And while I was there, I wanted Sonos off my tail. Permanently. But no amount of wishing would change the fact that he’d locked onto me the day I’d turned 16, and he would never let go.
I knew my thoughts were a jumbled mess. I tried to sort them out – tried to straighten them like my sword, but they kept slipping behind, trying to trip me up.
I pushed into the corridor. There was no one around. For now. That smart, wise, battle-hardened part of my brain knew I needed to take the opportunity to rush through this monastery, find Hilliker, and get out of here. The rest of me wasn’t coordinated enough to try. Everything I’d learned was shaking me up. My knees were jittery, and my hands kept slicking with sweat. I dried them on my shirt only for it to cling against my defined stomach.
I walked down another hall. Finally I saw security. The monastery was huge. It was also magical. The details you got of it online did not match the reality. Because as I walked through another corridor, it opened out into a massive courtyard. It was stunning. It was also far larger than it should be. There were several fountains, a small rose garden, innumerable benches, and several interconnected open buildings that spilled out onto terraces.
The design didn’t harken from the same time as the rest of the monastery. It was almost Ottoman. I could see tiled walls, their blue, orange, gold and red patterns illuminated, even in the dark night. There were large terra-cotta pots filled with blooms that spilled out the sides and caught the eye. The stonework, from the cobbled floor, to the sides of the buildings, to the open terraces was perfect. There wasn’t a defiant blade of grass or a patch of lichen insight. It looked as if someone manicured this place every damn day.
While it was beautiful, I sure as heck couldn’t be distracted by it. The courtyard was full of security. Teeming was the correct word – the same word you would use for a massive school of fish. The thing about huge schools of fish is you can’t exactly insert yourself between them and hope not to be seen.
I could detect at least 20 security guards. They were walking around in a coordinated pattern that meant that none of them ever had their backs to each other.
“Dammit,” I mouthed, never letting a single sound push out of my lips.
If there was one thing that could distract me from the sight of Sonos’s signature, it was this.
I was good – really good – I’d proven that many times before. But these were not ordinary security guards. I couldn’t throw a stone, wait for them to gather around, then clock them on their heads from behind. These were magical mercenaries. Though they all wore perfect little pressed blue and black uniforms with smart flat hats on top of their heads, I could also see their tats. And they had a lot of them. Some of them climbed right up the sides of the guys’ necks. They were the same kind of tats that Barney had. They were tats, in other words, that screamed, “don’t mess with me. I know how to kill, and I will.”
I rolled my tongue around my teeth. I had to reassess this. If I went back the way I’d come, I wouldn’t exactly have better options. I’d kept track of every door I’d passed. I’d paused a couple of times and tried to sense my way into them. There were no other handy windows or doors that would take me to other parts of the monastery that would be easier to infiltrate than this. I had to cross this courtyard.
As I stood, ensuring I was fully obscured by a large section of tiled wall, I tilted my head up and stared through the courtyard. There, past one of the more squat buildings, was a large tower. Though on paper it wasn’t a clock tower, up this close, you could see the mechanism within. It had clock faces on every single side of the four walls of the building. And they glowed this ominous red-yellow. Perhaps the church didn’t think it would be that creepy, and maybe it was just the mood I was in, but there was something about the magic that made my skin crawl.
There was also something about my chances that made my stomach fall right out of my abdomen, take a tour around my ankles, and keep going through the bottom of the earth.
“I’m screwed,” I muttered to myself as I clenched a hand into a tight fist and tapped it against my pants.
According to the blueprints, that clock tower was where Bishop Hilliker’s office and living room were.
I tilted my head further up. That’s when I heard a noise. A guard was sweeping down the opposite side of the wall I was leaning against. My eyes opened wide. My breath became caught in my chest. I assessed my possibilities, my mind working at a million miles an hour.
I could sense the guy’s magic from here. I was keeping a lock on my own magic at all times, never letting it push out of me. Still, he paused, right at the edge of the wall. All he had to do was take one more step and turn around, and boom, he’d see me.
Had he just sensed me? Was he right now reaching for his radio to call for backup?
As my heart pounded, I flattened my sweaty hands against the wall behind me. I got ready for a fight, and a fight sure did come. He paused once more, then sounded as if he was walking away, but at the last moment, he darted behind the wall.
I watched his eyes widen. It wasn’t with surprise nor fear. It was with that kind of glee you can only get with a competent security officer who realizes it’s time for him to ply his trade. He went for his gun first, not his radio.
I jerked my knee up, sinking it into his stomach, but he was a real good fighter. While he let me force the move in, he grabbed my knee at the last moment, pushed his chest down into it, and twisted. I was wrenched to the side.
With a groan, I fell against the wall. He rounded in behind me and punched me in the kidneys. Pain blasted over my side. He hadn’t even used an ounce of magic yet. That changed. He reached for something in his belt. At first glance, it looked like nothing more than a baton. It was the kind of thing no one would take to a proper magical fight – but I already had enough evidence to conclude that this guy was very much not an idiot. As he flicked the baton to the side, it extended. It was not made out of metal. It was made out of crackling energy. It looked as if he’d trapped a strike of lightning in the hilt.
He sneered then came at me. I saw a flash of his arm tats. They were even more prominent than Barney’s, which meant that this guy had seen more active duty time. He showed his true colors as, with two clean strikes, he hit me in the side of the hip and the side of the opposite knee. It meant I immediately overbalanced.
I tilted toward him. He brought the base of his free hand up. His palm crackled with a lethal charge of red magic. He would shove that right through my chin and knock me out. Or, if he miscalculated, he’d plain kill me. I really doubted he’d care.
As time narrowed and I realized this was it, I managed to jerk to the side. It was my turn to go on the offensive. I grabbed the hilt of his baton as he tried to twist it closer to me, and I kicked his free hand before he could shunt it into my chin. I followed it up by grunting, thrusting him to the side, and forcing him up against the wall.
I had not called on my sword yet. I didn’t need to. As a flicker of anger rushed through me, I realized I’d faced far worse than him tonight. I’d taken on an entire magical mob. One security guard – no matter his mercenary history – would be a piece of cake.
I repeated that to myself as I rounded a hand into a fist and punched him hard in the gut. The guy didn’t even let out a grunt. He did, however, open his mouth to scream.
Before he could let his warning shrieks split the air and call his buddies to his side, I shot forward. I let a specific charge of magic build in my fingers, and I slapped them across his face. As they moved over his lips, they sealed them shut. That right there was a very tricky spell – the kind a newbie wouldn’t be able to cast in their wildest dreams. It was also not something most people would be able to cast in the middle of a fight. You needed time and concentration – or a handy mandala already loaded with the spell.
The guy’s eyes opened wide. He jerked a hand up to rip my spell off, but it had already sunk into his flesh. He would be gagged until I decided he’d be able to speak again. And I wasn’t about to be that generous.
Realizing he wasn’t going to scream his way out of trouble, he went on the offensive. He was still holding his baton. He whipped it to the side and collected me on my hip. As pain shot through me, I gritted my teeth, ignored it, and yanked my knee up. I sunk it into his stomach. I could see his lips bulge and his mouth open wide as he tried to cough, but his lips were still soldered shut.
As he was distracted by that uncomfortable sensation, I smashed my magic-laced fist into his stomach once more. I could call on my sword – and maybe I should. But the resulting magic would be easy to scan for. It was better to keep to fists and knees.
Maybe the guy could see the writing on the wall, because as he tried to punch me but I dodged once more, his eyes lit up with the knowledge that he wasn’t going to win this. So that would be when he shoved a hand into his pocket. There was a frigging magical grenade there. These guys worked for the church, for God’s sake, but they were armed to the teeth as if they were out defending some war-torn outpost in the middle of hell.
Before he could release that grenade, I shoved into him, pinned him with my shoulder, snatched the grenade, and threw it into my inventory. It happened before I could really think it through. The very last thing I wanted was a live grenade in my subspace pocket. At any point, it could explode, ripping through my pocket and depositing my weapons and paraphernalia around me in a tidal wave of crap. But if the only alternative was to be blown up, I knew which I would prefer.
The guy’s eyes really did pulse wide now. He had no time – and no hope.
I punched him in the face. I used my full force, and I let my magic crackle out. It knocked him out long before the actual punch could knock him unconscious.
He slumped against the wall. Keeping him pinned, I guided him right down to the floor. I locked a hand on his shoulder, got down on my haunches, and breathed. Sweat slicked my brow, trailed down my cheeks, and left a salty taste all over my lips. Shoving the back of my hand across my mouth, I finally rose. My body creaked. Fair enough – it had gone through a hell of a lot today, and I hadn’t been resurrected yet.
I shook out my tired limbs. I began to pat the security guard down. I still had the security pass I’d stolen from that other guy. This guy didn’t even have one on him. Which was curious. He did have a couple of weapons, though. I confiscated them, chucking them in my ethereal pocket. I winced every time I did, expecting an explosion, but maybe I’d managed to throw the grenade in there before it had reached its detonation sequence. If that was the case, then, when I was somewhere nice and quiet and I wanted a thrill, I’d pluck it out and throw it as fast as I could. Until then, it could stay there.
Wiping my hands on my pants one final time, I shrugged my shoulders, cracked my neck, and walked away from the guy. Though you would probably think it would be better for me to drag him back into some quiet room, I knew I didn’t have the time. I imagined someone would have detected something – or at least heard our muffled commotion.
Sure enough as I darted quickly to another wall, I saw a suspicious looking security guard frowning. He was marching my way, his torch in his hand. Even from here I could see the way his beefy knuckles wrapped around it. There was real tension in his face, too. But the majority of his muscular contractions occurred in his left hand as they settled over his gun. And that was no ordinary gun. This wasn’t some crappy chunk of metal and plastic that would fire equally crappy rounds of compressed lead. This was a magical weapon. I saw a flash of its name along the side, and I cringed. If he started firing that at close range, it wouldn’t just hurt me – it would likely kill me. And I’d have to be resurrected yet again.
I rolled my tongue around my teeth, pushed back around the wall I was pinning myself against, closed my eyes, and tried to think.
I couldn’t let that guy discover his friend. He’d just raise the alarm. So I waited until he swept in close beside my wall.
I darted out, grabbed him, twisted him to the side as if we were locked in a deadly dance, and smashed him down on the floor. Immediately, I clamped my hand over his mouth, sinking a gag spell into his lips. With my other hand, I grabbed out his gun and pointed it right against his head.
As I’d already said, I was not the kind to kill – humans, at least. You couldn’t really kill Hell beings. They weren’t technically alive. If the Devil or one of the Generals of the Damned favored them, they would simply gather the dust of their corpse, reignite it, and send them back to Earth.
Still, this guy had absolutely no clue that I wasn’t about to press the trigger.
His eyes widened.
I kept my hand on his lips until I knew for certain that my gag spell had sunk all the way in. Then I finally pulled it back. Immediately, he tried to punch me. There was magic laced along his fist. If I was any judge, it was some kind of temporal spell – either a freezing hex or a slowing down one. If I allowed him to hit me with it, I’d be a sitting duck.
I dodged back at the last moment, grabbed his wrist, twisted it to the side in a practiced move, and then pinned it against his chest.
“Sorry, I don’t have time to play with you,” I hissed. Then I head-butted him. I used enough magic that I knocked him out clean.
Now I had taken down two guards. How many did that leave? Eighteen? Right. I had to look for another way through here.
I stole the guy’s gun and any other relevant weapons he had. He also didn’t have a security pass. That made my heart flutter a little as hope danced through me. What if only the highest level security guards had those? And what if I’d lucked my way to one right at the beginning of this mission without doing a thing?
“Then maybe luck really does exist and the great lady is smiling on me again.”
Watching the security guards, I finally saw my chance, darted out, and looked for a way to get out of here. I soon saw a practically unscalable wall. Why it caught my attention, I didn’t know. But as I ducked past a sweeping torch beam, a tingle escaped through my mouth, telling me it was time to get up and out of this courtyard before more security guards twigged that something was wrong.
Practically unscalable walls weren’t that much of an issue when you had as much magic as me. But they were still fantastic places to get found out. All it would require was one intrepid security guard to slice his beam across it, and the entire mission would fail.
I darted my head up, calculating quickly how long it would take me to scale that thing. At my top speed, considering its height, it would still take about two minutes.
“This is suicide,” I mouthed. I threw myself at it.
I started scaling the wall. I froze as a torch beam suddenly sliced several meters above me. The one thing I could be thankful for was the night was very dark. That meant anything that wasn’t illuminated by the slicing torch beams was shrouded in shadow. I still froze, my heart feeling like it was about to pop. When the torch beam didn’t slice down and lock on me, I waited for it to disappear. Then I thrust up. I kept climbing. I was almost found out twice, but my luck prevailed. For now. I got the impression that it was going to leave me really goddamn soon.
I pulled myself over the top of the wall and landed on a flat roof. I pushed my back against the railing behind me, closed my eyes, planted a hand on my heart, and reminded myself that I was still alive.
I ducked forward, locked my fingers on the floor, and started to crawl. I wasn’t about to stand – there were other roofs taller than this, and I couldn’t forget there were magical snipers out there.
I didn’t need to refer to the blueprint again to realize that I was on a building that was close to the clock tower. There was a much smaller building between me and it. Theoretically I could jump down to the lower building, couldn’t I?
“Not unless you want to get killed,” I muttered at myself as I crept around the side of the roof and saw a hunched body in front of me.
It was one of the aforementioned snipers. His gun was directed right toward the lower roof I’d just spoken of. The guy hadn’t detected me yet. A second later, he stiffened.
I had no option. Scuttling forward, I threw myself on him. I locked an arm around his neck and tried to yank him to the side, but the guy was strong. He also knew exactly how to fight. He used his greater weight and strength to roll me over and pin me. At the same time, he grabbed up a dagger. I saw it flash in the barely existent night light. Before he could sink it into my chest, I brought up my knee, shoved it into his sternum, and pushed him to the side. I grabbed his wrist, forcing the knife away from my throat. I tried to pin him, but he just rolled me over once more.
I caught sight of a tattoo. It was emblazoned across his throat and right up the side of his cheek. It was no mere mark, however. It started to glow, and as it vibrated, it rose slightly off his flesh.
He opened his mouth, and the lines of the tattoo picked up off his skin, shot forward, and locked around my throat. All it took was one prolonged exhalation from him.
I had to yank my hands up to try to pull those glowing lines away from my neck. That gave him all the time he needed to bring his knife down. Before he could sink it through my heart, I pivoted from my hip, yanked my legs up, wrapped them around his neck, and threw him to the side.
The gun clattered out of his grip. I was still being strangled, though. Let me tell you, those little lines of light were just as effective as a chain around my throat. I spluttered, my eyes bulging, my face turning red.
I tried to shove my fingers harder underneath the lines of light, but they were flush with my skin. They were thin, too. It was like trying to pluck back a garrotting wire.
The guy fought me. I still had him squeezed between my thighs, but I was losing energy. He grabbed hold of my knees, and he yanked them back.
He went for his knife.
Screw this. I didn’t want to die here. The only option was to use my sword. I thought of that, but I quickly realized I had something far more appropriate. With my last strength, I jerked a hand into my etheric pocket, plucked out the gun I’d stolen from that guard, and fired.
The gun had multiple settings. It could stun someone – or be used to outright kill them. I just stunned the guy.
Or at least, I tried to. I shot him twice, and while he jerked back, he didn’t fall. That’s when I realized he had sophisticated body armor on. It discharged most of the force of the blasts but not all of it. His left arm stopped working. It jerked down to the side and fell limply beside him as if someone had deboned it.
Surprisingly, a little of the lethal grip around my throat lessened. I couldn’t see the lines pressing in against my neck, but even as my head became woozy, I realized what was happening. I’d just disabled his arm on the side where his tattoo was. Obviously it had a unique body connection with his form. If the muscle control and blood underneath it were reduced, so too would be the power of his spell.
Knowing exactly what I needed to do now, I fired right at his neck. While his body armor could probably withstand any number of stun shots from the gun – if I upped the setting to maximum, I’d disintegrate him.
If I didn’t have to kill, I wouldn’t. And fortunately for me, I didn’t. After two shots to his neck, the discharging magic shattered his tattoo. The last marks of it broke away from his flesh, fizzled like sparks thrown in water, and disappeared. Finally the grip on my neck released. I could breathe.
I fell forward onto my hands and knees as I gasped for air. At the same time, he teetered. His eyes rolled into the back of his head, and he pounded onto the roof beside me like a fallen redwood.
With one hand locked on my throat, I used the other to check his vital signs. He was still breathing, but he’d be down and out for a while now.
“Far out,” I whispered. I almost got to my feet, then I reminded myself that there would be plenty of other snipers out there. I continued to crawl. I took the guy’s rifle from him, though. While I was relatively certain that he would be unconscious for a while now, I wasn’t about to take any chances.
As for that other gun, I kept it firmly locked in my grip.
It’d been a risk to use it, but it had paid off.
While my sword would be easily detected, presumably the weapons the guards held would be blocked off from the scanners, otherwise they would keep showing up as false readings.
I reached a door. It led down into the building. I took it.
Though it would’ve been tempting to jump onto the lower roof and try to get this done quickly, there had to be no more tempting. I was trying to take shortcuts, and it was getting me in ever-increasing trouble.
Still gasping and locking a hand on my neck, I broke through the relatively rudimentary lock and entered the building.
Half fluttering my eyes closed, I remembered from the blueprint that this was one of the teaching buildings of the monastery.
I expected that it would be dead. It was the middle of the night. But as soon as I walked in through the door, I heard chanting. It filled the air.
“Dammit,” I whispered.
I kept going.
I reached a set of stairs. They were old. The carved banister looked as if it hadn’t just seen better years, but better centuries.
I winced as I carefully placed my foot down. The stairs creaked. I’d shifted my weight as lightly as a feather, but that didn’t matter.
Sometimes the simplest security measures are the best. As soon as the stairs creaked, the chanting from further down into the building stopped. You would’ve thought, based on how quickly that occurred, that I’d just tooted on a blaring horn.
I froze as fear bolted through me. My fingers became stiff by my sides. I remained exactly where I was until, reluctantly, the chanting started up again.
I rolled my eyes in relief. Then I looked down the stairs. There were at least 100 of them. 100 stairs made for 100 creaks.
As I turned my head over my shoulder, I wondered if going back onto the roof was a better idea.
“Why did I agree to this mission again?” I whispered.
I got an image of Sato’s smiling face. Presumably wherever he was right now, he was sipping on champagne, chucking down some magical cigar butt, and smiling his goddamn ass off.
The stairs were old. If I wanted them to withstand my weight without a creak, I had to update them. It would be the only way to move without making a sound. But it would take a fair chunk of magic.
I fluttered my eyes closed. I rounded my hand into a fist but stopped short of smashing it down onto the banister lest the entire thing fall apart in a cascade of dust, old nails, and impending death.
I opened my hand with a deep breath and settled it on the banister. I shifted my other hand behind my shoulder, opened my inventory, and quickly plucked out a mandala card. It was expensive. It’d taken an entire year to afford this thing. I’d been keeping it for my castle. I still needed more power to use it on such a large building, but that wasn’t the point. I really didn’t want to waste good gear on this frigging mission. But I had no choice. Because now this was a matter of survival.
I winced again. I pulled the mandala out. I settled it before me in the air. With a flick of my fingers, it started to float. Then it began to twirl. As the paper it was on disintegrated, returning back to nothingness, the lines of light blazed out. They unwound themselves and started to settle into my hand. “Repair that which has been broken. Return it to its younger days. Flow through me and take what you require.”
That last bit was murder – almost literally. Because as the mandala activated and lines of light pulsed into me and out into the banister and staircase, I felt my life being whittled away. Spells like this required the energy of the living. They were a little like that poisonous alcohol I’d had at Sato’s. They could shave off years of your life – sometimes decades depending on what you were trying to fix.
Yeah, I could just get resurrected again, but until I did, I’d be immeasurably weaker. But I had no frigging option.
Before me, the stairs began to repair themselves. The old wood became new. The carpet that had been so threadbare, I hadn’t even noticed it – thinking it was just patches of mold – rewound itself. Soon enough, the staircase was brand spanking new. And I was not. I leaned against the banister, using it for support. I didn’t want my eyes to roll into the back of my head, but they almost did. At the last moment, I shored up my position, stood straighter, clenched my teeth, and finally pushed away from the banister.
I walked down the stairs.
You might think it was a waste of magic to have used both life force and an expensive mandala to fix these stairs. Surely there was another way to get down here?
The guys from this monastery knew exactly how to keep riffraff like me out.
I walked down the stairs without a care, though I was a little wobbly. The chanting had continued. There wasn’t even a pause as I reached the last step and lightly jumped off.
There was an old oak door in front of me. I was not about to update that. I was fresh out of repair mandalas, anyway.
I frowned at it. It sounded as if the chanting was coming from just beyond the door. Which meant that, if I opened it, I would come face-to-face with the students of this monastery.
So why had I repaired the stairs again if there was no hope of getting through this building?
“Because there’s always hope.” Crunching forward, I settled down on my knees and peered through the keyhole of the door.
I could see an open chamber. There were about 20 priests gathered around. They were in a circle, and in the middle was a gleaming cross. It glowed brighter as the chanting became louder. They were hand-in-hand. They had long, dark robes on that obscured their faces. I could only see their fingers poking through their sleeves. They were glowing red.
“That’s not a spell the church should be casting,” I muttered to myself, quickly realizing this was the opportunity I needed.
That right there was a containment hex. The church, I’m sure you appreciate, should not cast hexes.
There were two rough divisions in magic – the good and the bad. White magic and black magic. Those who wanted to keep the faith of God could not practice dark magic for any reason. At least on paper. The church, of course, had to protect itself. And when you were in an arms race with a far more powerful force, sometimes you had to stoop to their level.
Sorry, did I say sometimes? When the church was involved, it was often. They might talk big about dark magic being bad, but they dabbled in it whenever they could.
I concentrated on the priests casting a containment hex. They were doing one hell of a good job. Whoever the priests were, they weren’t just competent – they were experienced. Which told me they’d cast one of these many times before.
I opened the door. Was I suicidal? Heck no. They were just distracted. The thing about a containment hex was it worked on those who were casting it, too. It narrowed their focus, absorbing all their attention until they had none left. That meant I could walk right up to them, do a song and dance, take off my clothes, slap my ass, and tell jokes about their mothers, and they wouldn’t even blink.
I closed the door. I’d already ascertained that there was no one else in the room. I walked right up to the priests, shoved a hand in my pocket, and stared over the shoulder of one of them. The gleaming cross was still in between them.
I frowned. “Is that what you’re trying to contain? That doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
I walked around them. This was very much where I had to get out of here and take advantage of the fact that these idiots were casting a spell that meant they were oblivious to me.
My curiosity got the better of me, though.
I walked all the way around the circle. The view didn’t change. There was just that cross in the middle and nothing more. I went to turn away, but at the last moment I heard their voices rising in this cacophonous wail. The chanting of priests was usually monotonous and controlled. It had to be. White magic does not like blasts of energy. It requires continuous power. It’s dark forces that are explosive. But as the tone changed, skipping up an entire octave and sounding as if the collective voices of these priests were getting ready to explode, I turned. The hair on the back of my neck stood on end as a wave of nerves pounded into my gut.
I started to see something appear just underneath the cross. It was mounted on a plinth made out of malachite. That meant something. Malachite was a protection stone. It could be coded, too – if you were the owner of the malachite and you said the correct spells over it, it would protect you at the expense of others. It was telling that the cross was mounted atop it. It meant that it was being protected from what was at its feet.
And what was at its feet was a woman. She was dressed in a long, nondescript gray robe that covered everything but the tips of her toes. I couldn’t see her hands. They were behind her. Her face was obscured by a shock of long blond hair.
Immediately my mind went back to the conversation I’d overheard. That priest I’d first come across had said that he would bring some woman. That she was contained. I kind of thought that she’d been knocked out or something – maybe tied up. But not contained like this. There were 20 priests here. There were enough to contain a demon.
I had to get out. Who knew when the chanting would stop? I did not want to be behind these priests, conveniently within range of their frigging spell. It wouldn’t take them much to expand the containment hex and trap me inside. As a blast of nerves surged through me, promising me that was a real possibility, I dragged myself back.
I stared at the woman one last time. I turned around. I reached the door out of here. Pausing, I realized there was no one behind it, and I threw myself through.
I closed the door, my breath pounding through my chest. I pressed the back of my palm against my head. My reaction was over the top. I couldn’t ignore my shaking heart, though. Nor could I deny that this tight, constricted feeling was picking up in my chest and gut. If it was my intuition, it was telling me that whatever the hell was happening back there, it was horrifying in the extreme.
I was leaning against the door I’d just closed. I softly banged my fist into it then pushed myself forward.
That’s when I started to hear pounding footfall heading my way.
Dammit, dammit, dammit. I’d wasted too much time. I quickly searched around for a place to hide. Fortunately there was a large plinth to my side with a statue on top. It was huge – this marble affair that looked as if it had been stolen from the Acropolis. I scooted around it, pressing my hot cheeks up against the cool marble as my sweaty fingers clutched around the edge of the plinth.
I waited to be discovered, but that pounding footfall didn’t stop.
“Open the door,” someone said in an officious tone.
There was a creak, and the door was opened. That loud, cacophonous chanting filled the air.
The officious guy took a sigh. “Is she fully contained?”
“Yes. She will not wake. Not for 100 years unless you want her to.”
“100 years will be far too soon,” the first man said begrudgingly. He sighed once more. But then there was a buzz as his phone rang. He paused to answer it. “What is it?”
I couldn’t hear the person on the other end, but I could feel them. This dense, dark energy picked up through the room. It spoke to something deep inside of me – something that had been activated on my sixteenth birthday and that had run through me, blazing like an eternal flame ever since.
Demon. This guy was talking to a demon. A strong one, if I was an expert.
“She is contained. She will be safe. You have my word on that. Nothing will happen. Now, do you have what I need?” The guy’s tone changed completely. If someone’s voice could sound like a groping hand, then this guy managed it. And it was the kind of groping hand that would grasp up absolutely everything it could reach. And if you wouldn’t release what it wanted? It would break you.
The demon on the other end of the line spoke again.
I tried to hear what was being said – with all my might – but I knew I couldn’t use strong magic in case I was found out.
“Bishop,” one of the attendants said, “the spell is almost complete. Please, this way.” There was a creak as the door was thrust open further.
… Bishop? Hilliker? He was finally here. He was… he was right there. But I sure as hell couldn’t kidnap him. Unless I wanted to go up against 20 exceptionally powerful priests who knew dark magic.
My heart pounded harder.
Hilliker ignored his attendant. “I’m going to ask you once more – do you have what I need?” He breathed hard down his phone. “There will be no deals unless you bring that resurrection bitch to me. Now.”
My world came crashing down. It didn’t happen all at once but with a splutter. I was more like a car coming to a stop right on the edge of a cliff. I could see what was before me and I knew what was about to happen, but I wasn’t dead yet.
Slowly, my lips parted. “Resurrection…” I mouthed before trailing off.
I didn’t need to fill in the last bit. I knew who he was talking about.
This… had this been a trap?
I’d thought that before, but now that fear surged. Sato had promised me that the bishop had information on me that I needed. He’d promised me that taking Hilliker out would benefit us both.
… So maybe this wasn’t a trap after all, and Sato just had very good intel.
If the plan had been to deliver me to Hilliker, there would’ve been easier ways.
Sure enough, a massive neon arrow didn’t suddenly point me out. Hilliker had no clue I was here. He turned off the phone in an angry huff, shoved it into his robe with a rustle, then strode through the doors. They closed with a creak.
I was left there, pinned up against the plinth, cold but getting hotter by the second. Anger started to rise through me. What beef did Hilliker have with me? Okay, after today, he would’ve had a legitimate reason to hate me. But the point was, I’d always flown under his radar. I’d never done anything to piss him off. Why call me the resurrection bitch? What’s more, why make a deal with a demon for me?
These thoughts and more ran wildly through my mind. Remaining where I was, I waited until the last of Hilliker’s attendees opened the door and walked through. Only when there was a long silence of about two minutes did I bother to push away.
Then I stood there, unsure of what to do next. Something devious was going down in that room. But it wasn’t like I could stop it. And considering Hilliker wanted me, if I walked in and tried to bust up their party, I’d just be handing myself over as an impromptu gift.
With my hands held in stiff but shaking fists, I decided running was the better option.
I reached the end of the wide corridor. I heard several security guards. Rather than take them on, I hid.
Making my way through the building, I finally came across two sets of doors. One would lead out into the courtyard – the other to the back of the monastery.
I had every reason to run. Something was going on here – something I hadn’t agreed to when I’d accepted this mission. If it would be enough to break my contract with Sato, I didn’t know. But deep in my gut I knew it was a bad idea to continue. And yet deep in my heart I disagreed. My whole life I’d been looking for information on what I was. I’d searched everywhere. I’d been to every library, every crypt, every archive office. You name it – I’d done it. But I hadn’t found a thing. Now, for the first time in my life, information was aligning. I just had to reach for it. Maybe I’d get a few scuffed elbows – maybe I’d even break my bones. Heck, maybe I’d even die a few times. But the point was, I now had an opportunity I’d never had before.
Wincing, even though I wanted to take the back door out of here, I turned.
I knew where Hilliker was now. Which presumably meant that his office was empty.
Yeah, I could get information from him by wrapping my hands around his neck and shaking it out of him. But I could also just search through his stuff.
Realizing that was a far better plan, I finally gathered the gumption to head to the left. I settled a hand on the door, checked that there was no one immediately outside, then walked through.
I arrived in a far more secluded part of the courtyard. Fortunately there were no security guards in sight. It meant, keeping low and crouched, I could crawl my way around the side of the building.
Just directly to my left was the clock tower. There was a door that led into it, but at one glance, I realized there was no way I would ever be able to get through it. It had the kind of sophisticated magical lock that made the vault door that led into my castle blush.
Jerking my head up, I saw there was another way. A railing ran right around the outside of the clock tower. I’d be able to climb it.
But I’d have to keep my wits about me. As I allowed my gaze to trace over it, I appreciated it was absolutely chock-a-block with booby-traps. Though I couldn’t really tell from here, I thought I could see a few bones lodged into little cracks in the wall. They would be skeleton guards. If I disturbed one of the booby-traps, the bones would come to life and the skeleton guards would drag me down to hell.
In other words, this was no laughing matter. But I was now more determined than ever. Wasting no time, realizing I had an opportunity as the torch beams of the security guards focused on another building, I started to clamber up the clock tower. The railing I was talking about was really more of a lip. It was this stone ledge that ran around the building and climbed it clockwise. It was no wider than my hand.
I had to shimmy across it, no matter how much I wanted to break into a run.
I could try to scale the wall, but there were bones lodged all the way through it. If I touched one, a skeleton guard would appear.
I didn’t think I had ever been in a trickier situation. I had been running missions for most of my life. As I’d already said, I’d died thousands of times. But I had never done something like this.
Sweat dripped down my brow. I had to continuously clean it against my wrist lest a single drop sail down and inadvertently touch one of those bones. If anything alighted on one – from my hand, to my foot, to a single strand of hair – a skeleton guard would be activated.
I focused on the task. At one point I almost tripped. I had to slam my hand back against the wall to hold myself steady. My finger came perilously close to one of those polished bones. It was so close, there was a hair’s breadth between us. As my heart leaped into my throat, I stared down at it.
I closed my eyes, swallowed, and continued forward. Luck, Providence, God, or some other ethereal being was on my side. I managed to make it up the clock tower without the guards spotting me or without a booby-trap tripping me up.
Finally I made it to one of the clock faces.
I’d already pointed out down on the ground that so much light was bleeding out of them that they set my teeth on edge. Because the exact quality of that illumination creeped me right out. It wasn’t just the fact that it was the color of blood. Hello, I didn’t care. I was a big girl. I’d also seen so much of my blood over the years, I could paint the entire town with it. What bothered me was the light…. It got to me. It was hard to say why.
Making my way in through the clock face was not easy. I had to jimmy off one of the panes of glass. And I had to do that in between dodging torch beams.
After this mission, I was gonna rest – for a year.
With my tongue between my teeth, I managed to rip off the panel with one of the tools from my inventory. And I threw the same panel into my inventory to get it out of the way.
Wincing, I pushed my hand in through the hole. That light played across my skin. It was unpleasant. It felt like someone was scraping long nails down the back of my neck. As I gave a full-bodied shiver, I pulled myself in.
The clock mechanism was massive. These giant clogs ran it. As they clunked into place, another second ticking past, I stared at the dust caking everything. Cobwebs were thick around the floor and the corners of the room. As for the light, it glowed from the central mechanism. Within, I caught a glimpse of a single bead of light. It looked like a drop of blood.
I didn’t have time to wonder what the heck it was – nor why this light was giving me the heebie-jeebies. Who knew how long Hilliker would stay in the other building? It was time to make hay while the sun shines.
I reached a set of stairs, climbed down, then found a door. I opened it. I was immediately on a landing. It was posh. The kind of posh that lets you know that one of the most important people in the entire world decided to frequent this place regularly.
I didn’t need to search for which door belonged to Hilliker. It was the one that looked as if it had been snatched right out of the Baroque period. It was so gilded, I wondered if an entire country’s gold supply had been pilfered just to tart this thing up.
Swallowing, I settled a hand above the handle and not on it.
It had defenses – but not very many. The entire monastery was defended specifically so this door would never be reached.
Running my tongue over my lips, I saw a keypad by the door. I hadn’t forgotten the security pass I’d nicked. I snatched it out of my wallet and pushed it against the lock.
It frigging worked. The door opened.
I walked in. And that would be when I saw a man sitting at the desk, his feet up on a pile of papers, his hands behind his head, his eyes locked on me. His endless, endless damn eyes that I would be able to recognize even if I was long dead and my body had rotted away.
I went to slam the door, but Sonos ticked one of his fingers to the side without bothering to pull his hands back from his head. He smiled at me and sliced his finger up. Suddenly, a spell charged around my feet. I was dragged forward on the tips of my toes as my body tilted back.
He dipped his finger to the side, and the door closed in a puff of magic that shot around the room, ruffling any paper that wasn’t pinned down.
Terror gripped me. “Sonos—”
He pressed his finger against his lips. With his free hand, he waggled at me to stay quiet. Then he pushed up.
I went to scream, but he waggled his finger at me again. He looked around the office. He pulled up a book, then a lamp, and finally found what he was after. He grabbed this big fat, glistening, black worm. It had been sitting under a massive heavy lamp. At first glance, you would have thought that the creature should have been squashed flat. At second glance – if you had any magic onboard – you would’ve realized it was a bug. The magical equivalent of a listening device, in fact.
Sonos looked at the bug, then flicked it over his shoulder. A Hell gate opened behind him. This circular ring of flame burned itself right into the middle of reality. The bug gave a terrified squeak as it flew through.
Sonos cleaned his hands with several pats, then smiled at me. “You can speak now – or scream. Whichever you prefer.”
Screaming was no longer an option. I couldn’t breathe. I’d… I’d walk right into a trap. This was it. No more waiting. Sonos would—
“Don’t look so terrified, Eve. I’m not here to kill you. Today, at least.” He walked back to the table, plucked up a letter opener, and started to play with it. He pressed his finger right into the tip. No matter how far he forced his flesh down, it would not be cut. Hell, as he really shoved his index finger into it, the metal simply bent with a squeak.
He smiled slowly at me. “I’ve been watching you. You’re quite accomplished these days. I especially liked that fight with the sniper.” He jammed his thumb over his shoulder in the direction of the correct building. “You know you could’ve shot him to begin with, right? Why is it that you always choose to do things the hard way?”
I was still up on my tippy toes. It was overbalancing me. I was teetering backward, my arms flailing to the sides. My hair was jerking behind me. But my eyes were wide and fixed. “You can try your worst, Sonos. No matter—”
He ticked his finger to the side again. He sat on the edge of the desk, crumpling his arms around his middle. “Don’t give any absolutes, Eve. There’s really no point. You can’t tell people what to do or what not to do if you have no clue what you’re doing yourself.” He settled his piercing gaze on me, and a small smile crept across his lips.
My heart pounded harder. “I’m not—”
He looked at me even sharper. “What? A child of the Devil? A child of God? Or something in between?” He took a lot of pleasure in adding that last bit.
I had never shared that thought with anyone else. It was part of my internal monologue. But he had not come across that phrase by chance.
He grabbed his cheeks and trailed his large, stiff fingers down them. “You look sallow, Eve. Buck up. Like I said, I’m not going to kill you today.”
“What the hell do you want? How the heck did you get Sato to send me into a trap?”
He made a face. “Sato? He was working for me. I was the one who contracted him.”
Everything suddenly slipped into place. There was no way in hell Sato would ever have given anyone a blank check for his Emporium. Unless someone else had been paying.
I’d been had.
Sonos smiled. That smile always did things to me. Things I’d never wanted to explain. Things I only wanted to control – things I wanted to grab, strangle, and throw out the goddamn door. But things I could not stop now as they rocked through me, hot and hard at his ever-growing smile.
He stood. He knocked several things onto the floor. One was an expensive statue of a praying priest. It cracked. It broke completely in half, however, when he stepped right on it. He twisted his foot to the side, crushing it further. Then he walked up to me. He stopped half a meter from me. He looked me up and down. “Hard to keep yourself straight when you have nothing to stand on, ha?”
“Shut up. I’m not—”
He shook his finger in my face again. “You can’t tell me what you’re not if you don’t know what you are.”
“I know what you’re doing.”
“And what’s that?”
“You’re the demon,” I hissed that through clenched teeth. The words could’ve ruptured my frigging lips they were so stiff.
He frowned. “The demon? Which demon? There are thousands of us.”
“I heard Hilliker speaking to a demon on the phone. He made a deal for me. You—”
Sonos’s expression changed. He darted his head to the side quickly as if he was far more interested in staring out the window. But I could see that there was real tension playing around his jaw. It made it twitch as if he was getting ready to swallow steel. “And when did dear Hilliker have this conversation?”
“Don’t pretend not to know.”
“It’s a question, Eve. So just answer it.” He locked his pointed, blazing gaze on me.
“You’re playing games with me. I’m not—”
He spread his arms wide, “Here to play? You never are. Ever since you were a child, you were always so serious.”
I had no blood left in my face now. I was squeezing my fists so tightly, I could’ve made myself pop. “That happens when some asshole breaks into your orphanage, murders everyone, and—”
“I’m not really interested in listening to your version of events. Tell me exactly what you heard and when you heard it.” He tilted his head to the side, trying to get down on my level. I might’ve been floating on the tips of my toes, but he was still much taller than me. “When did Hilliker have this conversation?” There was real need in his voice. And anger, of course.
I finally caved. I was trapped. Though it was nice to piss Sonos off – this was likely an act, anyway. I was running out of energy. I’d given too much today. “Just earlier.”
“How earlier?” His lips moved hard around the word how.
He crossed his arms again. He was wearing a three-piece suit, though his jacket was over Hilliker’s chair. His vest was trim, highlighting and showing off his equally trim, muscular form. There was a golden fob watch peeping out of his pocket. He grabbed it now, wrenched it out, and pointed to the clock face. “Tell me exactly when.”
I just stared at him. I didn’t understand. It had been him—
“About 13 and a half minutes ago.” I didn’t need to check my own watch to confirm that. I always had a firm grasp of time.
Sonos walked away. With a sigh, he shoved his fob watch back in his pocket. “What did you overhear?” he asked, his tone far more casual as he went back to the chair, kicked it out, and flopped down onto it.
“Why would you—”
“Eve,” he said in a trying tone.
“Hilliker had made a deal. There were 20 priests chanting some kind of containment spell – practicing dark magic. And they were damn good at it. Then this… this woman in gray appeared. She had long blonde hair.”
Sonos’s eyes sharpened. I didn’t mean his gaze – I actually meant his eyes. Because the look behind them became a sword ready to slice down anyone in its way. He might’ve been seated casually, but casual ended quickly as he crunched forward, locked a stiff arm on the desk, and looked right at me. “What else?”
I had no clue what was going on. In my head, the day that Sonos found me, he would kill me. He would not have a weird conversation with me as he flopped around in some bishop’s office.
“The demon Hilliker was on the phone to you,” I said pointedly for good measure, “and you wanted that girl in gray. In return, Hilliker wanted me. All this—”
He sighed. He got up from the chair again. From what I remembered of him, he was a lot more contained than this. Every single movement he made was one that was full of intimidation – practiced and perfect. He was the seventh damn general of Hell, for God’s sake. He knew his job.
But now he looked like a different man.
He stopped in front of the window. He drummed his fingers on the sill.
He turned to me again. He looked me up and down. “Why did you come here?”
“Because you made a deal with Sato,” I said through hissing syllables.
He pointed to the floor, clearly indicating the office.
“Why do you care?”
“When you found out Hilliker is after you, why didn’t you run?”
I had no clue what was going on. I stared at him, my mouth open slightly, my heart still beating, but in this confused way where I wasn’t certain if I needed to run, scream, or just flop down in a puddle of misunderstanding.
“Because I thought it would be a good chance to find out what Hilliker knows about me. Sato—”
He leaned against the desk. He locked his blazing gaze on me. “Sato promised you that Hilliker knows what you are, ha?”
“You told Sato that to get me to do this mission.”
He shrugged. “Hilliker does know who you are. That’s why he wants you.” That line was delivered so bluntly, it was like a punch to my gut.
He looked at me for a few seconds. There was something behind his gaze. Something I wanted to grab, examine, record, and obsess over. But whatever it was, it disappeared quickly. He walked over to the door. He tapped the handle. Locking his fingers on it, he let his grip literally melt in against the metal.
“What are you doing?” I demanded.
“Locking the door. Hilliker is on his way.”
I stiffened. “You’re about to hand me over—”
He turned and looked at me quickly. “I would never hand you over to him, even if Hell froze over. Even if the Devil himself was deposed. Even if I,” he pressed a hand against his chest and actually bowed, “were to lose my life.”
I just… I couldn’t understand what was going on. At the back of my head, my better reason told me that he was just messing with me. That’s what demons did. But—
Something suddenly slammed into the door. It was loud enough and insistent enough that I squeaked.
This was where Sonos should make something of that and laugh in my face. Instead, he actually tensed up. He took several steps back. He clicked his fingers. His jacket shot off the back of Hilliker’s chair, furled around his shoulders, and did itself up. He shoved a hand into his pocket. He pulled out a ring of all things.
He turned to me quickly. Clicking his fingers, I was released from the spell. I fell down onto my knees. Immediately I grabbed my ring, intending to call my sword. That’s when Sonos dumped the ring he’d just pulled from his pocket on the floor beside me. “Put it on.”
“Put it on, Eve. It’s the only way to get out of here.”
“There’s no way I’m going to put on a booby trap—”
“It’s not a booby trap.”
“Then what is it?”
“An engagement ring.” He delivered that line with a straight face – though his expression was still tense as he stared at the shaking door.
I stood there. I called on my sword. As it released into my grip, I grabbed it hard.
He sliced his gaze over to me. “Put on the engagement ring, Eve.”
“I don’t know what the hell you’re doing—”
He plucked up the ring. He did it in a smooth move I could barely track. Demons – especially those as powerful as him – could move far faster than some lowly human like me. The next thing I knew, he straightened my finger and rammed it right on. It didn’t hurt, but it did tingle – as did his grip. If I’d been paying attention, I would’ve realized it was memorable. I was not paying attention – because the Seventh General of the Damned had just shoved an engagement ring on my finger.
The massive diamond glimmered with its own trapped light.
“What the hell?” I spluttered as I tried to jerk back.
He just held my hand tighter. “Don’t take it off.”
I immediately grabbed it and tried to wrench it off, but it was locked there with a spell. I sneered at him. “What game are you playing?”
He looked back at the door as it shuddered hard. “The same game someone else has been playing for thousands of years now.”
He snorted. “Doesn’t actually have anything to do with this one. Believe it or not, this has come from the minds of people far more devious than him.”
No, I did not believe that – because it did not make any sense.
I concentrated on trying to rip the ring off my finger once more, but I couldn’t. I gave up and sneered at him. “You’ll use this to strangle me – to finally kill me—”
He looked at me sharply. “I told you I wasn’t going to kill you today.”
“So when are you going to kill me?” I spat back.
He looked away from me. “When all else fails.”
The door shuddered so hard, the wood started to crack.
Sonos clicked his fingers. “Time to get out of here.” He settled a hand on my shoulder. He looked at me. I waited for his hands to march up around my throat, but they didn’t. The only thing he did was lock his gaze on me. It was the kind of enduring stare that would never crack, nor waver, nor disappear, even as it was ravaged by time.
Despite the fact I knew better, it drew me in.
“Sato will be in touch. Now, find what you need to and get out of here. You’ve got two minutes until that door cracks.” He reached behind him, clicked his fingers, and called into place a Hell gate. It was massive. This was not the kind of simple doorway a voice magician could create. This was the Rolls-Royce version. So much damnation flame spurted around it, you would have been able to burn an entire city to dust.
He took a step back into it. The flame licked around his suit but didn’t once dare singe the expensive fabric.
“What the hell are you playing at, Sonos?”
He snorted with laughter – but it was subdued. “Believe it or not, this time it’s not Hell who’s playing.”
“Sato will be in touch.” He bowed.
“Sonos,” I roared.
He brought up his fingers. He waved two at me. “Two minutes. Find what you need and get out of here.”
He walked through the Hell gate, and it broke around him.
As the last few specks of light disappeared, I was left there, standing, breathing, shaking, and not nearly as terrified as I should be. The thing I’d been dreading since I was 16 had finally occurred. But… I was still fine. I patted my throat once to check that. But then the door shook again. I started to hear angry voices. Based on their pitch, when they got in here, they would kill me.
Despite the fact I wanted to ignore everything Sonos had said, his warning reverberated in my mind. I had to get what I needed and get out of here.
I wasted another 20 seconds just standing there, trying to think through what occurred, but when the door shook so violently, the hinges started to buckle, I kicked myself right up the ass. I stared at the office. There was nothing in here I needed. This entire mission had been nothing but a glorified trap. When I met Sato next, I’d kick him in the teeth.
I staggered back. I had to get out of here.
Though I didn’t want to follow Sonos’s words, I had come to Hilliker’s office to find something. But now I only had a minute.
Freaking out, I jerked toward his desk, reasoning that would be where he would keep his most important information, but just as I did, I caught sight of something out of the corner of my eye. I turned around. It was the symbol of the orphanage I’d been to. “Saint Fredericks,” I whispered.
The door was now shuddering so badly, it looked like it wouldn’t just break, but it would shatter and explode.
I jerked forward. The symbol was on the side of a box. I plucked it up and secured it under my arm. I had no clue what was inside, but this was the best I could do in my rapidly dwindling window of opportunity.
I headed for the window. What was I planning on doing? Jumping out of it, sailing down the side of the tower, and facing off against a horde of guards?
There was a crackle in the middle of the room. It was what was left of Sonos’s Hell gate. While the door itself had closed, the magic that had been used to create the portal was still there.
I took a wary step toward it. If I was clever and I had enough magic, I could use the remaining energetic field to create a portal out of here. I usually couldn’t do that unless I encountered proper gates – like the one that led to the stairs down into Sato’s Emporium. There were gates in my mansion, too.
The door splintered. I saw a beefy hand shoved through the hole. It locked on the handle.
I had five seconds. No chance to think this through. Pulsing forward, I opened my hand wide. It just so happened to be the one where Sonos had shoved his engagement ring on. Something within the diamond glimmered, and the gate opened. I barely had to use any energy. Before I could freak out that it was a doorway straight down to Hell, I realized I was in full control of it.
I thrust through. It was just in time as a hail of magical bullets splattered onto the carpet where I’d been standing.
I squeezed my eyes shut as I traveled through the portal. I expected at any moment to be snatched away by Sonos, but I wasn’t. I arrived back in front of my main door.
Terrified, I fell down to my knees and shook. I stared at the portal behind me as it pinched closed. There was a pop then a crackle.
I still didn’t move. My hand was on the ring that contained my sword. At any moment, if I saw even the faintest glimmer of Sonos’s hand reaching for me, I would call for it.
But it didn’t happen.
A wolf cried out further into the forest. Though I woke up to them every day, I still jerked forward, terrified. I reached the front door. I locked my hands on it, waited for the wheel to appear through the metal, and turned it. I pushed through, closed the door, then just crumpled.
I was still holding onto that box. I was hugging it, pinning it against my body and cradling it like a teddy bear. I couldn’t tell you how long I remained there. I was freaked out… and yet I wasn’t nearly as terrified as I should be.
“Sonos is back,” I kept reminding myself forcefully, pointing out that if I wasn’t screaming for my life, I damn well should be.
But that would be when I caught a glimpse of the ring. It sure as hell did glimmer. It was no ordinary diamond – that was clear. Not only was it humongous and would’ve broken any millionaire’s bank account, but it had no weight whatsoever. When he’d put it on my finger, it had felt like nothing more than a breath traveling past my skin.
Settling the box down by my feet, I locked my hand on the ring and tried to pull it off. I concentrated, using every single spell I knew, but it wouldn’t work. It resisted everything.
“Why the hell did you shove this thing on my finger? Is this some kind of tracking beacon? It is, isn’t it? You’re trying to locate my mansion, aren’t you?” I continued to converse with Sonos, despite the fact he was not here.
I finally pushed up. I began to pace in front of my door. I kept my hand locked on my ring as if it would give up and I’d be able to wrench it off with ease. “I don’t believe you – not for a second, Sonos. You were just playing a game,” I spat, my voice getting faster and faster, whirring up and down like an engine getting ready to explode. “I know you were the one who had that conversation with Hilliker. Because I saw your signature on that piece of paper. It was a contract with that monastery. I know it was you. I felt you.” Balling up a hand, I banged it hard against my thigh.
I paused, as if I was actually expecting Sonos to reply. With wild eyes, I searched my mansion. He could be here, right? He most definitely had the power to break-in.
… But I couldn’t feel him.
I pressed a hand against my forehead, pushing my hair back behind my ears. No matter how hard I tried to neaten it, it refused to pay attention to me. All I did was smear my sweat around and make the tangled strands more knotty. I soon fell flat back on my ass again. My eyes glanced over at the box.
“What the heck is in here, anyway?” I settled it in my lap and tried to open it, but it, just like my ring, resisted. It had a visible containment spell on it. As I sank my fingers in, gritted my teeth, and tried to wrench the lid off, it sparked. The first one was a warning. As I tried to push through, it sparked far brighter, and my arms began to shake. I dropped the box before it could explode.
Great, I now had two mysteries.
I kept shaking my finger. I wasn’t trying to dislodge the ring. What I wanted to remove was the faint tingle and heat. It reminded me of the plastic hands of that little figurine from the snow globe. Which was yet another mystery.
“You bastard, Sonos,” I hissed under my breath. I almost turned around, shoved through my door, and headed straight to Japan, but I quickly thought better of it. If Sato was in Sonos’s pocket, then I couldn’t trust him. I would just… what? Stay here in the hope that Sonos wouldn’t find me?
I shoved up again. Warily, I plucked up the box. When it didn’t threaten to explode, I carried it under my arm and headed back to my room. There I settled it down on my chest of drawers and flopped face-first on my bed. The embroidery of the peacock pillow scratched my cheeks. I didn’t care.
I was surprised when a tear or two touched my eyes. They stained the silk. I still didn’t care. Rolling onto my side, I grabbed up the pillow and hugged it tightly, squeezing it until I could’ve ripped its head off – if it’d had one, of course.
“Why the hell didn’t you kill me, Sonos?” I hissed. “Are you waiting? You’ve been in my dreams. You promised that the day you found me, you’d kill me. So why didn’t you kill me when you got the chance?”
Again, there was no one to answer me. I went back and forth, hissing my questions, waiting for nonexistent answers until I couldn’t take it anymore. With a scream, I threw my pillow at the glass door that led out to my balcony. It was a mistake. Despite the pillow’s light weight, it cracked right through.
Groaning, I got up, walked over, plucked up the pillow, cleaned off the glass, and threw it back on my bed.
Warily, I walked out onto my balcony. Technically, anywhere in my castle was protected as long as the front door was closed. It didn’t matter if I hung out of the window and waved right in a bad guy’s face. They wouldn’t be able to grab me until and unless I opened the door and the force field protecting this place broke.
I sat down. My clothes were a right mess. I needed to change them. And God knows I needed to wash and brush my hair. Instead I sat there, staring glumly over the forest.
There were a few more wolf calls. I closed my eyes. When I opened them again, I stared at the ring. I no longer tried to wrench it off. I thought I could see a hint of writing curling up from the inside edge. I tried to push my flesh down to get a better look, but it wasn’t accommodating.
I thrust my hands back, tilted my head up, and let my hair trail over my shoulder as the wind took it lightly. “What are you playing at, Sonos? What do you want from me?”
Closing my eyes, a memory struck me. It was that woman. Though I hadn’t appreciated it at the time, she’d seemed memorable – though I couldn’t tell why.
“I’ve seen you somewhere before, haven’t I? Was it at the orphanage?”
I concentrated. I had very few memories from my childhood. The orphanage was mostly a blur – a particularly unhappy one. Everyone had hated me, and I’d hated everything. Then… then Sonos had come along and destroyed it all.
The way he treated me today had been completely different from the Sonos I remembered from when I was 16. That man had been a beast – a demon incarnate. He’d whipped his tail over his shoulder as he’d sauntered through the orphanage, burning and killing everything in his way.
As long as I lived, I would never forget that.
As I opened my eyes, that image firmly front and center in my mind, I told myself that whatever Sonos had been doing today, he had been trying to get to me, and I had foolishly allowed him to.
There was another wolf cry. It had a real edge to it.
As I’d already said, I had a begrudging relationship with my wolf pack. I didn’t bother them, and they didn’t bother me. But I wondered as another eerie cry split the air whether they were trying to communicate with me.
I stiffened. I sniffed the air. There was another cry. This one was closer. Was there someone out there? That was not impossible. No – it was highly likely. Because as one more cry split the air, my back elongated with nerves and my intuition ran wild.
I opened my hand, twisted my fingers to the side, and called a weapon to me. It popped out of my inventory and settled in my grip. It was the gun I’d stolen from the monastery.
Suddenly, the alarm I’d built around the castle started to blare. I clenched my teeth. “Really? I have to fight again? Don’t I even get to have five minutes to rest?”
There was one more wolf howl. It was close to the base of the castle. I got the impression that it meant my enemy was close, too. I gritted my teeth, pushed over the balcony, and tried to see if I could find anything. I angled the gun down.
Then I heard a throaty chuckle. “That you, Eve? I didn’t know you had tame wolves. If there’s anyone out there who can tame the untamable, it’s you.”
“Barney?” My voice shot up. My grip relaxed on the gun, but only slightly. I hadn’t forgotten that Sato was in the dog house. “Why are you here?”
“Did you just re-grip your weapon? Don’t shoot me. You’re my favorite customer.”
“Is your boss with you?”
“No, he sent me in his stead. He wants to talk.”
“He can go to hell.”
He chuckled. “He’s already been there plenty of times.”
“He sold me out.”
“Don’t know if that’s true. Do you? Are you in the shit right now? Are you locked up in the church’s clutches? Are they experimenting on you?”
I didn’t bother to answer. I growled at him.
“I’m going to take that as a no. You’re fine. You got out of that situation alive. So are you going to let me in for a chat?”
“Then how about we chat out here?”
Technically I couldn’t stop him. I couldn’t see him, which meant I couldn’t attack him. He could yammer at me all he wanted.
“I was going to offer you a drink. I bought a bottle you’ll love. But I guess I’ll have to settle for just talking to you like this. Now, I suppose you have questions.”
I snorted, but I didn’t let it echo out. Yeah, I had questions. I also had grudges. “Where’s Sato?”
“He figured that you would be… less than pleased to see him. So he sent me.”
“Then you can go right back and tell him he’s a coward. Next time I see him, I’m going to wrap my hands around his throat and show my displeasure.”
“After everything he did for you?”
“You know what he did for me? He sent me on a wild goose chase that pushed me right into the hands of my greatest enemy.”
“Right into his hands, ha? Sonos with you, then? Got his hands all over you, does he?”
My cheeks reddened, but it wasn’t with a blush. “Not my point. Sato trapped me.”
“But if it was a trap, why are you free?”
I hated it when people pointed out I was wrong. I settled for gritting my teeth hard. “Just piss off, Barney.”
“No can do. The boss is still contracted. His mission isn’t over. And neither is yours.”
I laughed. It was so high-pitched, it could’ve broken a glass ceiling. “Trust me, the contract is broken.”
“Nope, I can’t trust you on that.” There was a rustle of paper. “The contract is still alive. You know there are real-world consequences for breaking a contract with Sato, right? The kind of consequences that don’t set you in good stead,” Barney said, dodging around the rather unpleasant details we both already knew.
“Just get out of here. I signed that contract under frigging duress. I didn’t know what it was really about.”
“No one forced you to sign it, Eve. And while you didn’t know exactly who had contracted Sato, it all worked out in the end, didn’t it? You have what you want.”
“I have what I want?” I slowed down each word. “I assure you, I do not. I am no closer to finding out who I am.”
There was a lengthy pause. “You sure about that?”
“Before you tell me to get out of here or you turn your wolf pack against me, have you opened the box yet?”
I ground to a halt as he mentioned the box. Had he been spying on me?
“Before you freak the hell out, I’m assuming it was you who took it. News has already spread that it was stolen. Hilliker is going nuts. The church has been warned.”
Barney could be making this up. I had to appreciate that everybody in a position of power could and probably would be lying to me. But my stomach kicked. I looked over at the box on the dresser beside my bed.
“Keep it safe. Have you opened it yet?”
“No, Barney, I haven’t opened it,” I admitted stupidly.
“That’s good. Keep it for a while. You probably want to be powerful before you get around to opening it.”
“And why is that?”
“You’re not gonna like what’s inside.”
I laughed. It was so high-pitched, it would’ve sounded like I’d gone off the deep end. “What is it? A bomb? Is it meant to kill me? Wow, how terrifying,” I said sarcastically.
“It’s a kind of bomb, Eve – it’s a real memory.”
My face really scrunched now. It would’ve looked like someone had twisted and compressed it as if they were trying to crush it into a diamond. “A true memory?” I didn’t need to ask what one of those was – any magician worth their sparkles knew. A true memory was an actual recording of an event. It didn’t just show footage. It showed everything – including the contents of people’s minds if it was detailed enough.
“Like I said, you’re gonna want to be powerful when you open it. Don’t get too hasty.”
“I can’t open it at all,” I admitted, giving way too much information away.
“For now. It won’t last – you’ll be able to do it soon.”
I stared back at the box. “Barney, stop lying to me,” I said flatly. “And piss off already.”
He sounded like he brought his hands up. Though I was scanning along the side of the building and I thought I had a vocal lock on him, I still couldn’t see him.
“Sato has a question for you.”
“Is it exactly how hard I’m going to punch him when I see him next?”
Barney sniggered. “I think he already knows that. You’re not gonna hold back. That’s why he sent me.”
“So what’s the question?”
“He wants to know if you liked his present.”
I didn’t need to ask what he was talking about. “Just what the hell was that music box?”
“Another chance,” Barney said, and his tone changed. His voice elongated somehow, lengthening almost like a hand stretching out to me.
My stomach kicked. “Exactly what is it, what does it depict, and what kind of magic does it use?”
“I don’t know. But if you use it when you’re on the edge of death, you won’t have to be resurrected.”
I would have gasped at that had I not quickly reminded myself that Barney was no longer my friend and was likely lying. “As if. It’s just another trap, isn’t it?”
“Did it trap you last time?”
I jammed my thumbnail in my mouth. I still kept a steady grip on the gun, my sweaty fingers sliding close to the trigger as I angled it down into the bushes below.
“Did it trap you last time, Eve?” He pushed when I didn’t snap out my answer.
“No, it did not. But I know how devious minds work. I won’t fall for it again.”
“You should have a good think about that. You hate being resurrected, don’t you?”
It would not take a genius to realize that resurrection curses were painful. Barney had seen me die once, anyway – and the ensuing screams had probably given him a headache.
“You go into that music box, and like I said, it’ll stop you from being resurrected. You’ll be able to stay long enough for it to heal your injuries and give you a chance. Worth a shot, ain’t it?”
“You’re worth a shot,” I snarled.
“Not today. Now, I’ve got one more message from Sato.”
“What the hell is it? Don’t tell me, it’s another gift? An exploding Santa.”
He chuckled. “He doesn’t love you that much to give you one of those for free.”
“You’ve got to track down Hilliker. Your contract isn’t over.”
“I told you—”
There was another rustle of paper. I smelled magic. My contract with Sato suddenly wafted up in the air. It stopped just beyond the balcony. It would be incapable of shifting past my force field.
I frowned at the parchment. Judging by the fact it was still alight, it meant it was still active.
“This contract is live. You’ve gotta go after Hilliker. You’ve gotta trap him.”
“Or what? You’re gonna kill me?”
“No. Sato will hand you over to the church.”
I laughed. “I’m not entirely sure I understand. Sato is trying to help me out by giving me information on the church so I’m not kidnapped, but if I don’t use it, he’s going to hand me over, anyway?”
“We both know he’s a complicated man. The only simple thing in his life is—”
“Money,” I growled. “I thought Sonos didn’t want me handed over to the church?” I really didn’t know why I added that bit. Did I trust Sonos? Could I swim to the moon? No on both accounts. And yet I still said it.
“Are you starting to mellow to him, Eve? It’s a good thing. He’s not what you think.”
I laughed riotously. “He’s the Seventh General of the Damned. He is one of the greatest demons there has ever been. He is—”
“Isn’t he your fiancé now?” Barney delivered that line with exactly no passion.
I, on the other hand, spluttered. “How the hell did you find out about the engagement ring? Was that part of Sato’s plan?”
“Nope. I wouldn’t take it off if I were you, by the way.”
“Why not?” I put the ring in my mouth and tried to pull it off, even though I knew I was simply being petulant and there was still no way for me to get rid of it.
“It’s the only thing keeping you safe.”
“I think you’ll find that I’m pretty good at keeping myself safe.”
“Not anymore, Eve, not anymore,” he added, his voice becoming quieter.
“And why is that?”
“Because it’s finally happening.”
I hated the way he said that.
It took me a while to force my lips together as I hissed through them, “And what exactly is it?”
“I guess you could call it a prophecy. That’s what you’d call it if you’re not in control. But if you do have all the control, what do you call it? A plan.”
“You’ve completely lost me, Barney.”
“The church wants you for something, and it ain’t pretty. So keep that ring on.”
“Why exactly is the church going to be scared off by an engagement ring?”
There was a long pause. “You haven’t really thought it through yet, have you?”
I opened my mouth to tell him to stop being opaque. But then I actually started thinking, as he advised, and my mouth dropped open. All of my muscles became slack. I only barely held the gun up.
No, I hadn’t thought it through. If I had, I would’ve realized just what this engagement ring meant. “That, that bastard,” I hissed. It was time to hyperventilate. Usually, I knew exactly how to control myself and my breath, but now it came out in quick, desperate pants.
I thought I was controlling the volume of it, but clearly I wasn’t, because Barney gave a little chuckle. “Finally figuring it out, aren’t you? You’re a demon bride now. That comes along with a whole lot of baggage. The church can’t touch you – not unless they want to practice serious dark magic. Which is a good thing. It means Hilliker will have to find another way to grab you, or he’ll have to start practicing real dark magic. That will pit him directly against Sonos, and Sonos will have the home advantage.”
“This is insane. I did not agree to this. This cannot be happening.” I tried to wrench the ring off one last time, but I failed.
My whole life, I’d been questioning whether I was good or bad. I’d just become very, very bad. Demon brides gave themselves, body and soul, to their demon lover. The most important word there by far was soul.
You couldn’t feel your soul. It wasn’t like you could pick it up, palpate it, and check if it was still alive. So how could I be certain that I still had one?
My breathing became so fast and irregular, I started to see stars.
Barney just chuckled. “You’re not the kind to freak out, Eve. You’ve been living for years with the resurrection curse, and it hasn’t made you blink once. Just calm down. It is not that bad.”
“Not that bad?” I stammered, still breathing way too quickly. “That bastard has joined me with Hell. I didn’t agree to this. This happened without my permission or knowledge. There was no free giving of my soul,” I added with a shriek.
Barney just chuckled again. I didn’t know why me freaking out like this was amusing him so much, but it sounded as if this was a comedy show to him.
“Honestly, Eve, it will not be that bad. And it’s a lot,” he said darkly, “lot better than the alternative.”
“And what precisely is the alternative?” I wheezed through a breath. “Living a peaceful life without making a forbidden contract with the damned?”
There was a long pause. It was decidedly edgy, though the casual and easy Barney was never usually one to be overdramatic. “No. You’ll find out soon enough, anyway. Now get some rest. In the morning, you’re going after Hilliker. You’ll be sent instructions on where he’s gone.”
I wanted to scream that there was absolutely no way in hell I was gonna go after Hilliker again. Not only did the guy obviously want me for some shady purpose, but I was completely done with this mess.
Barney just let out one last chuckle. “I’ll be in contact. Now, do you want that drink I brought you?”
“It’s just a trap,” I snarled.
“No, it’s one of our finest ports. It just came in. It was found in a wizard monastery right next to an old seeping tub of magical waste. It’s given it a unique flavor and near-lethal properties. It’s exactly what you like.”
I rolled my eyes.
“I’ll just leave it out here. Don’t let the wolves get it. They might morph into monsters.”
With that, I heard a clatter as something was left on the broken cobblestones, then footfall as Barney left. No matter how far I craned my neck, I couldn’t see him walking away from the castle.
It took me a long time before I was happy enough to go outside. Sure enough, there was a bottle of some seriously strong port sitting on the steps. I plucked it up and frowned. Staring at it, it didn’t take me long for my gaze to slice back to my engagement ring. I could no longer deny what it meant. As I turned my head up to the sky, I could no longer deny what was waiting for me, either.
Ever since my life went to pot and I was cursed to be resurrected forever, I’d always known this day would come – the day where my destiny would catch up to me. The day when there’d be no more running. And soon after that, if Sonos had his way, there’d be no more dying, either.
Sure enough, the next morning, bright and early, Barney sent his message. It was by carrier pigeon. As soon as I saw the little bird flying across the sky in an erratic path, I recognized two things. It was motorized – or at least had mechanical assistance, and it was drunk. That meant it could only come from one twisted salesman alone.
I waited until it landed before I walked outside. I did a thorough magical scan of it. There was no way I was going to walk into another trap.
The bird, sure enough, had bleary, glazed-over eyes. As I approached it, it even hiccupped.
“Who imbibes birds?” I muttered as I approached.
“We won’t work unless we’re fortified,” the little pigeon snapped in a voice so deep and rumbling, it sounded as if it belonged to a London dockyard worker.
I hadn’t expected that the bird would be intelligent – or semi-intelligent enough to speak.
It glowered at me. “Take the damn message.” Lifting up one of his legs, he proffered the message tube attached to it. “I haven’t got all day, lady.”
I didn’t snap at him to be more polite. Crunching down onto my knees, I grabbed the message out of the tube.
The bird hiccuped in my face, releasing a barrage of alcohol fumes that could have set the forest alight. Waving a hand, I muttered, “Very polite,” before the bird took flight, belched once more, wobbled a bit, and flew away.
I didn’t bother to open the message until I was inside and my door was locked behind me. Leaning back against it, hooking one foot over the other, I frowned as I carefully parted the parchment in my hand. A little magical seal appeared over it. “You are about to access a private message. It is intended for the demon bride, Eve Marigold. If you are not Ms. Marigold, this message will explode in your face.”
Sorry, what? Demon bride? That bastard. I was not and never would be a freaking demon bride. I had not agreed to anything. I repeated that argument even as the parchment didn’t explode in my face. It unraveled, and soon enough writing wrote itself across it. I stared down at Sato’s erratic scrawl. “The contract is still valid. You must go after Hilliker – for everyone’s sake. If you do not, there will be real-world consequences.”
I pulled the parchment back and snarled at it. “Stop threatening me, you little shit. When I find you, I’m going to wrap my hands around your damn throat,” I spat that out loud, despite the fact Sato was safely at home, all the way across the world.
The parchment, however, reacted. Lines of light raced across the paper. “I heard that, Eve. It’s particularly unkind considering everything I’ve done for you.”
My eyes widened slightly before they contracted like clenched fists. “So this is a live message, is it?” I snarled. I started to grab the paper harder. I didn’t tear it, but I locked my fingers around it in the exact same way I wanted to grab Sato’s neck.
“Eve,” writing appeared on the parchment, “calm down. You don’t have time for this. Hilliker is on the move. You need to catch him.”
“Because if you don’t, he’s going to use you as a sacrifice like no other.”
“A sacrifice like no other? Have you forgotten one very important fact, Sato? I can’t die.”
I never usually took pleasure in that fact. Today, I let a smile slip across my face. It was one that ended as there was a suspicious pause. Soon enough, writing appeared again. “You’ve never had a detailed imagination. Let me help you fill in the gaps. Those afflicted with resurrection curses are sacrifices like no other, because they are permanent sacrifices. They can be killed, over and over again, for eternity.”
I almost dropped the paper. I couldn’t breathe.
“You have become silent. I take that to mean that you now understand fully the severity of this situation. Now, cooperate unless you want Hilliker to murder you forever.”
It took me a while, but I finally found my voice. “What the hell are you talking about? Why would a man of the church—” I stopped abruptly. I didn’t need to try particularly hard to call up an image of Hilliker. Nor of that woman in gray. Whatever Hilliker was, he sure as hell was not a man cut from the true cloth of God.
“I’m sure you just realized the absurdity of what you were about to say. Now, leave – time is running out. Hilliker is on the move,” the parchment repeated. “He’s heading to one of the forbidden crypts in the Czech Republic. You must go there, find him, kidnap him, and bring him to me. Attached to this letter is a permanent portal key. You will be able to initiate it – with the use of your engagement ring – wherever you are in the world at any time. Do not forget your snow globe, either. If things get bad, don’t wait until you’re resurrected – use the snow globe to recharge yourself. It is very important that from now on you do not allow yourself to die unnecessarily.”
“Do you think I’m going to do anything you say? This is all some trap—”
“It’s up to you what you want to believe. But if you don’t follow my advice, you’ll have Hilliker waiting for you. And then, eternal hell. If it was the Devil, he’d be much kinder to you. But with a priest who intends to sacrifice you—”
“For eternity, I’m doomed,” I finished off the statement. I stared at the parchment. The key was starting to draw itself across the page. As it became more detailed, it also became solid. Soon enough, I plucked it up. Settling it into my fingers, I instantly felt both its weight and its power. I even closed my eyes and pressed my tongue against my teeth as I tasted its energy.
“You must go now, Eve. You can find your own way to the Czech Republic. But as soon as you find Hilliker—”
I rolled my eyes. I couldn’t believe what I was about to say, but I said it anyway. “I’ll use the key to bring him to you. But, Sato, I have questions – the kind—”
“You want to strangle me with. I understand. You can ask them another time. Now do this quickly. The longer Hilliker is free, the more damage he will try to do to you.”
I really made a face at that. “What do you mean the more damage he’ll try to do to me?”
“You are fully aware that there are many ways to hunt someone. One such way is to gather important objects and memories from their past, draw them together, and utilize the energy to attract the victim like a moth to flame.”
I really made a face now. “That’s dark magic—”
“And you now have more than enough evidence to conclude that there is no low Hilliker will not stoop to to get to you. Now, Child of Resurrection, I suggest you go, do as you’re told, and save yourself before it’s too late. When you’re back in Japan next, I will show you my latest Christmas ornaments. Tis the season to be jolly, after all.”
With that, the parchment and its message fizzled up. I was left there, cold and angry, buzzing with adrenaline but fatigue at the same time. I hadn’t even started fighting yet, and my body already felt as if I’d been running a marathon for weeks.
Pressing my palm against my eyes, I reluctantly walked over to the hole in my floor that led down to the library. “Am I really going to do this?” I hissed to myself. I waited for an emphatic no to blast from my lips, but it couldn’t happen, because yes, I really was going to do this. I had no other frigging option.
“Damn it all to hell,” I breathed hard, pumped my fist against my leg again, then reached the hole in the floor. Before I dropped down it, I cast a cursory glance toward the box I’d stolen from Hilliker’s office. It was right there, begging me to open it. But I remembered Barney’s warning. I couldn’t open it until I was ready.
Sighing again as if someone had just punctured both my lungs, I jumped down into my library. I headed over to my chair. Scooting it back, magic encasing the recliner, I grabbed the correct atlas. I settled it open on Prague. Then I closed my eyes. “Begin,” I hissed.
As soon as I said it, I reminded myself of the letter I’d found with Sonos’s signature. I was not over thinking this was a trap. I still had absolutely no clue what was going on, but there was no way in hell I would ever trust that demon bastard, even if I was currently technically engaged to him.
I ignored the tingles of magic that blasted around my skin as I was tipped back into a portal. The next thing I knew, I arrived in Prague. It was late afternoon. The first few rays of dusk were starting to settle on the horizon. It was chilly, but I just pushed further into my leather jacket. I’d been to Prague many times before. With all its churches and underground crypts, it was a very popular place to hunt for the damned.
There was a lot of energy in this city. Enough that any burgeoning white or black practitioner would be able to ply their trade when, in most other cities, they wouldn’t be able to get their feet in the door.
If you knew where to look, you could find anything in Prague. I knew exactly where to look. Shoving my hands further into my pockets, I hooked a left down a main street, then a right into an alley. I kept going until I found myself at the foot of a massive magical supply store. Verven’s had come right out of Germany in the fifteenth century. It was renowned across the world for having some of the best engineered mandalas on the face of the planet. Their mandalas could last for centuries and often did. They demanded premium prices at auctions, and they were almost never seen on the black market.
Having a blank check to Sato’s Emporium was kind of like having a certificate that said you could eat out at some dive for the rest of your life. Sure, it was food, and it would help you live and all, but it wasn’t the truly fancy stuff.
I usually did not have the money to shop at Verven’s. You could tell that by the fact that as soon as I approached the front door, a concierge trotted outside, lifted a single eyebrow, stared me up and down, and just jerked his finger to the side. He dismissed me without even a word.
But I remained on the doorstep, my hands in my pockets. Reluctantly, I pulled them open, revealing my resurrection marks.
That made him pause. It also made his eyes narrow. “And what exactly is the cursed one wanting to purchase from Verven’s today?”
I smiled at him. I might have a go at Sato’s bouncers for calling me the cursed one, but I sure as heck bit my tongue now. “Information.”
“On what or whom or when or how?”
A lot of what he’d just said didn’t make sense, but I didn’t point that out. I smiled. It would’ve been a little too edgy. It made the guy narrow his gaze even more suspiciously.
Shoving my hands further into my pockets, I shrugged. “I want information on any class X protection mandalas that have been bought recently.”
The guy took one look at me, chucked his head back, and laughed so hard, he could’ve swallowed his tonsils, kept going, and gobble down his frigging lungs while he was there. “We do not share that kind of information, and certainly not with someone like you.”
What he’d said was contradictory. They either didn’t share the information, or they did. And if they did, they wouldn’t share it with the likes of me.
So I read between the lines and smiled. “I’ve got solid information to share in return. I know who stole from Bishop Hilliker yesterday.”
The guy just looked at me. Judging by the exact way he tried to control his expression, he wanted that information. So I smiled.
Shrugging, I tried to look trustworthy. “It’s a fair trade. You’ll be able to sell that information to the church – or anyone else who’s interested – for a lot of money. So what do you say?”
He looked me up and down, obviously trying to see if I was trustworthy. He shrugged his shoulders. Turning around, his velvet overcoat and bellboy style hat glinting in the dusk light, he gestured to the door with a flick of his hand.
There was a ring on his finger. It lit up, and soon enough this complicated mechanism within the door unlocked itself, rewound, and allowed the doors to open before me without a single creak. This was Verven’s, after all. They didn’t just do exceptional mandalas. Anything they built was built to last.
“This way,” the guy muttered, twisting his finger in a circle to tell me to hurry up.
I could tell why. We walked into a lounge. Behind it were several doors that were open. They led to the showrooms of the store. Exceptionally well dressed, rich and powerful people of both sides of magic were seated in the lounge. They all turned their heads up and looked at me – their stares hardly welcoming.
“Hurry,” the guy said again, obviously not wanting me to hang around in case my mere presence upset all these well-to-do folks.
Though I wanted to piss this guy off, considering how impolite he was being, I still tucked in close behind him and didn’t look up once until we made it through one of the doors to a stock floor. This room looked as if it housed a lot of the gear that, shall we say, the less open-minded customers would balk at. And by that, I meant the dark stuff.
As soon as I walked in, the feel of the place made me shudder. There was a stench in the air, and if I was an expert, it was the specific smell of fear, burned skulls, and shredded wills. And before you question whether such esoteric things can have smells – you clearly don’t know dark magic well enough. Anything could have a smell – because anything could be burned with enough damnation fire.
“Just this way,” the concierge said again as we walked through the rows upon rows of neatly stacked goods.
There was absolutely everything you would require for any dark practice. There was one shelf stacked completely with skulls – and some of them were human. Some of them were seriously old, too. I looked at one, and judging by how brown it was, I imagined it had come from thousands of years ago. It was only being kept together with magic and discreet glue.
“Please do not touch anything,” the concierge said officiously as I reached out to trail my finger over a candle shaped like a coffin. “And I really wouldn’t touch that specifically.” He snatched it off me and threw it into an etheric pocket behind him.
“Why not? Don’t you want my dirty little fingers smudging up your stock?”
“That is an active coffin curse. Unless you want to be trapped inside it for eternity, I would put your hands in your pockets and stay still.”
As soon as he said active coffin curse, I freaked out and went right back to what Sato had told me about Hilliker’s plan. Should I believe it…? It was getting harder and harder to know the answer to that. It was damn clear that my enemies were everywhere. But as Barney had pointed out yesterday, I was still here. Sonos, for whatever reason, hadn’t captured me when he’d had the chance.
I stared down at my ring. I was discreet enough not to show the guy. He already didn’t like me being here. If I advertised the fact I had a demon engagement ring on my finger, he would probably scream, call security, and get me kicked out of the damn country.
We reached a back door. It was pretty unimpressive, considering everything else I’d seen. That was until he got down, prostrated himself, and bowed in front of it three times.
The door changed. There was no sound. There was barely any movement. It went from looking like the kind of thing you’d have in an old rundown house to possibly the most impressive door I had ever seen. It was huge. It looked like an airlock from a space station.
I arched an eyebrow at it. “What exactly are you keeping back here?”
I balked. Yeah, I’d come here knowing that I needed to actually speak to somebody in order to share my information, but I sure as hell hadn’t thought it would be the boss.
The mistress of this particular establishment had been alive for over 1000 years. She’d been plying her trade all that time, too. And while technically she hadn’t aged a day visibly, the surrounding air had.
There were certain spells you could cast that would allow you to shift what was occurring to your body into the space around it instead. That could put off aging by displacing it.
But it meant one thing. If you touched somebody like that, got close enough to breathe the air around them, or otherwise interacted directly with them, you could inadvertently absorb all of that age and turn to dust on the spot. I’d heard tale that the boss of Verven’s hadn’t been seen in public for the past 500 years.
As I walked into a sitting room, I saw her on a massive recliner. In front was a huge magical shield.
The chair she was sitting on looked as if it had been plucked out of ancient Egypt. It groaned under her weight.
She reached forward, snatched up a cup of tea in front of her, and had to catch the liquid quickly before the cup disintegrated in her grip. A few droplets fell onto her wrist and fingers, but she brushed them off with a neat pat.
She looked over at me. She leaned back in her chair – which caused the entire thing to groan as if it was about to collapse – and nodded at the attendant. She swiped a hand to the side.
The guy left, but not before shooting me the kind of look that said that I had to behave or he would personally deal with me.
I waited until he was gone. Then I looked around.
I shouldn’t have to tell you that this place was impressive. It was massive. It was also chock full of very expensive stuff. And dust. Lots of it. It caked everything. Presumably everything the woman interacted with throughout the day would have to be replaced frequently as it rotted away in her hands. Hell, I imagined the very air around her turned to dust, too.
As for the smell in the room, despite the fact that there were state-of-the-art filters going hell for leather and a massive vent system right above me, it still smelled as if I’d just walked into an undisturbed grave.
“You are the cursed one,” she said as she crossed her arms further around her middle. Maybe once upon a time she’d been wearing a nice expensive gown, but right now chunks of it fell off her. She moved a little more to the left, and more beadwork disintegrated and formed dust on her knees. She patted it off before turning her glowering gaze on me. “I was told you had information on who stole from Hilliker last night. Give it to me.” She leaned forward. By her tone and her posture, this was not a negotiation anymore.
I rolled my tongue around my teeth. “Yeah, I’ve got information, but it depends on what you can give me in return.”
Her eyes flashed. She crossed her arms harder. “What exactly is it you want?”
“I want intel on Hilliker.”
She arched an eyebrow. “And what information would that be?”
“I know he’s in the city,” I said quickly. I didn’t have a lot of time to waste. I imagined that by now information would have spread. People would know that I’d come here. It wouldn’t take that long for it to get back to the church.
She arched an eyebrow, neither confirming nor denying what I’d said.
“I know he’s also gathering goods for an attraction spell. I want to know the exact make and weaknesses of what he’s bought.”
She slowly tilted her head back. I thought as she did and her muscles protested, that I finally saw just a glimpse of her real age. The perfect coiffed hair, plump lips, bright eyes, and fat cheeks everyone else could see were just an act. There was a walking corpse within her held back by magic. I caught a flash of its viciousness.
“Now why would I give you that? I would have to break customer confidentiality—”
“So he bought them here, then?” I asked with an equally sharp gaze.
She slowly smiled. She leaned back in her chair. It was a mistake – the chair couldn’t take it anymore, and it broke. As the legs fell, they turned to dust, but she didn’t thump onto the ground. She used several charges of magic to keep herself aloft, and she twisted her finger to the side. A chair shot out from a cupboard to my left. I had to shift slightly so it didn’t catch me. It worked its way through the magical force field and scooted underneath her.
As she sat again, she smoothed down her dress. Another mistake – she inadvertently tore several holes in it. Rather than grab another dress from one of the cupboards behind me, she just sat still. “You will give me your information, and I’ll see if it’s worth my time.”
“Is that how bargaining works these days?”
“It is when it comes to you.”
I had a feeling she already knew exactly what I did. It wasn’t impossible that Hilliker had figured out that I’d been in his office yesterday. Which meant that this negotiation could never go anywhere and it was a fat waste of my time.
But I could still bargain as if I knew something valuable. Rolling my tongue around my teeth, I looked at the whole room. “It must be lonely in here. Have you ever thought of just packing it in?”
She arched an eyebrow. She did not reply.
“I have. I mean, we’re kind of similar, aren’t we? I haven’t been alive for as long as you have, but we’ve both come up against the same problem – death. When it’s my time, and I’m sure it will be eventually, I will be happy to die. Never-ending life, after all, comes with unintended consequences.”
“Thank you for the lesson – however, it is unnecessary. Now, share your information.” She leaned forward. This chair was better, but it started to creak too. Right before my eyes, the wood turned old. Cracks appeared, breaking along the back and fracturing down the legs.
I had to get this negotiation back on track. If dangling information in front of her wasn’t enough, it was time to play hardball. “I thought Verven’s were famously unaffiliated?”
“We are. We stock both gear for the dark and the light. We do not care who we sell to as long as they can afford what they buy.”
“Sure. But there’d be consequences if you were found out to be connected, say, to the church.”
“I assure you, we have kept up our merchant license. It dictates that we are not affiliated with any one institution or brand of magic. I can show you the license if you’d like.” There was a snarl in her voice.
“I’m sure you can. And while you’re there, you can show me the illegal contract you signed with Hilliker. The one preventing you from selling the level X protection mandalas you sold to him to anyone else. A practice that is not just banned by the Merchant Council, but cracked down on heavily.”
There was total silence. I was going out on a limb here – a really long one.
I was basing this assumption wholly on what I knew about Hilliker and what I’d seen at the monastery. If they were so deep into the dark arts that they would cast containment spells like that, they would have to try hard to keep what they were doing secret. There would be repercussions – both from further up in the church and from the larger magical community.
Whatever Hilliker was about to cast on me was epic and would require gear Hilliker would not want to be associated with. So he would have made contracts to hide his purchases, no matter how illegal they were.
She shifted forward. The chair creaked again. She obviously didn’t care. She locked her menacing gaze on me as she drummed her ruby red nails on her knee. “Do you have evidence—”
“Your statement is evidence enough. Only guilty people speak like that. But to answer your question, I don’t have evidence right now. However, it won’t take much to petition the Merchant Council. Valid suspicions are all they require. It would be pretty easy for them to sweep in here and find out what they need. All they would require is someone like me to pick up the phone and let them know.”
I shoved a hand into my pocket, pulled out my phone, and scratched my nail up and down the silver case.
She jolted back. She laughed. There was frustration, anger, power, and defeat all wrapped up into it. The chair broke again. She did not bother to fix it. She sat there, wafting on a cloud of dark, dangerous magic. She stretched her fingers to the side. “You’re a smart one, aren’t you?”
“I’ve had to survive – it comes with the territory.”
She looked me up and down on the word survive. The exact way she did it made my back arch. It also made suspicion flow through my veins just as readily as blood. Maybe she knew what Sato had warned me of – that Hilliker was planning to use me as an eternal sacrifice. Judging by the exact glint in her eye, she’d be rather fond of that idea.
I took a step up to her. It was neither angry nor friendly – it was somewhere solidly in between where she would have no way to guess my intentions and what I was going to do next.
Her eyes fluttered wider.
“This is what you’re going to do for me, and this is what I’m going to do for you. I am not going to call the Council. And you are going to tell me the exact make and weaknesses of the mandalas Hilliker bought.” I stood my ground.
“And aren’t you going to tell me who broke into his office?”
I laughed. “I did. But you already knew that, didn’t you?”
“I suspected as much.” She sat back as if she’d won the argument.
So I plucked up my phone and started dialing.
She opened her hand. I ended the call.
“They were Santinis. 300-year-old mandalas. They have been ripening in our vault. They have no weaknesses.”
My gut clenched on the word Santini. They made the best mandalas and always had. She was right, they had no weaknesses.
“There’s got to be something,” I said, controlling my voice, even though I knew the futility of my statement.
“I thought you were smart – you would understand that they have no weaknesses,” she said flatly.
Mandalas got stronger with time. They were like a good wine. As you aged them correctly, their flavors could really mature. In this case, the flavors were the strands of magic that were bound together in the core of the spell. They could become so damn strong, nothing would be able to break them.
But I really needed a chance here. If – or when – I went up against Hilliker, I had to have an edge.
“You look desperate – you are trying to hide it badly.” She chuckled.
Petulantly, I grabbed up my phone again and started dialing.
She spread her hand wide. “I suppose you could say that Santinis have one weakness.”
“And what’s that?”
I really doubted she wanted to help me. But she would be desperate. Her life was dependent on her business. Who knew how much magic it took to keep someone like her alive? This vault room didn’t come cheap. If Verven’s took a hit – which it would if it was deregistered by the Council – she would die.
“Are you offering to give me a rival charm?” I crossed my arms.
“If you can keep this quiet.”
“Don’t worry. I won’t let Hilliker speak a word about this.” I smiled prettily.
“Then I can give you a rival charm. Only one, however. Because he bought up most of my stock.”
I made a real big face at that. Most of her Santini stock? Not only would that mean that he would’ve spent enough cash to buy a small country, but it meant that he was seriously, seriously overpowered – all to get to me. That hammered home just how serious this situation was.
“What’s the charm that’s left over?” I asked.
“A clock charm. You’ll be able to slow time down. A minute will feel like an hour. It isn’t much, but in the correct hands, it will be sufficient.”
No, it wouldn’t. If she’d sold all of her Santini charms to him, then I was screwed. She just wanted me off her back.
But she was right… it would give me a chance. A very, very small one. The rest would be up to me.
Sighing, realizing I wasn’t gonna get anything more out of her, I nodded.
She clapped her hands. The door opened, and an attendant walked in. The Santini charm was already in his grip. After all, Verven’s ran a splendidly efficient operation.
The guy handed it over.
I turned to walk away.
“I trust we have a deal, Miss Marigold.” A contract appeared in front of me as she clicked her fingers.
I signed it without even looking. “Yes, we have a deal. I’ll shut Hilliker up for good.”
As I strode out, I thought I heard her whisper, “Or he’ll shut you up for eternity.”
Here I was. I had a Santini charm – the one and only I would ever touch in my entire life. It was on a chain around my neck, safely under my top. No one would be able to see it or scan for it. I’d spent a good hour coding it to my body. You could pat me down and trail your fingers over my breastbone for half an hour, but you would never be able to detect it.
I stood in front of the steps that led down to one of the most important crypts in Prague. You would not find it on any tourist maps. It was not spoken about at the museum. And the Council sure as hell didn’t collect rates.
It was a magical pocket that had been created 500 years ago. It took one right back to the days of the medieval city.
The energy within was absolutely perfectly calibrated for dark magic.
I’d visited it a couple of times. And by visit, I meant kicked the door down, found my bounty, pulled them out, and left as quick as I damn well could.
Crypts like this were specifically designed to creep you out. Because the more they creeped you out, the more fear magic you exuded, and the more powerful they became.
Today I was a whole different kind of afraid. As I jammed my hands into my pockets, curling them into fists, I took to the first step lightly. My high heels crunched against old chunks of rock and dust. They crumbled underneath my feet. You’d think that, considering how many people frequented this place, the steps would be swept clean. You’d be wrong. The amount of dark fear magic around here made this place perpetually on the edge of collapse.
I soon reached a metal gate. To open it, it required a blood sacrifice. I thought nothing of jamming my finger between my teeth, biting off a little flesh, and flicking my blood forward. There was a hiss, and the door opened.
“Here we—” I began. I stopped myself. I looked at my ring. The diamond glinted in the light. “Here we go,” I muttered again. I had not just given in to the fact that I was engaged to Sonos. Nor did I believe that he was really on my side. The only helping hand he would ever offer was when he shoved me into my coffin.
I was just….
I tapped my chest, detecting the faint hint of the Santini charm.
Then I walked into the crypt.
Immediately I was met by the smell. It struck me like a thousand bats to the face. I almost jolted back as my nose started trickling the slightest trail of blood.
I wiped it off on my sleeve and shook my head. Judging by how much sheer power had just struck me, Hilliker was down here, and he’d already started the process.
This place was usually pumping. Every little dark arts magician worth their while would be down here, feasting off the energies. Now there was no one in sight.
I jammed my nail into my mouth and started chewing on it until I reminded myself I was a big girl.
I dropped my hand to my side and continued down the short stone corridor. It soon opened out into a small room. There were seven doors. Each was painted jet black. It was the kind of color that could not exist in nature unless you were unlucky enough to find yourself face first in front of a black hole. It didn’t just absorb the light – it seemed to absorb hope, too.
Back when I’d first come here, I’d thought these doors were kind of neat. Now my stomach churned. I couldn’t afford to waste time. I needed to figure out exactly which sub-crypt Hilliker had gone to.
I walked up to the first door, flattened a hand on it, ignored the terrible tingle that escaped through my flesh, and tried to figure out if anyone had used it recently. I moved onto the second door, then the third. I stopped at the forth. My hand clenched.
This was it. I could feel the distinct movement of energy. Something was picking up from within.
I sighed. Was I really about to just walk in on Hilliker? No. But did I have a plan? Kind of.
Rather than open the fourth door, I moved over to the fifth. I detected that no one had used it in a long time, and I wrenched it open with another blood sacrifice. As the few red drops sunk into the black void, there was a shake, and the door creaked open. I shouldn’t need to tell you that it sounded like arthritic hands.
Wiping my fingers on my pants, I walked through.
There was an old set of steps. Every single one I took felt like they would crumble out from underneath me. But they held on, and so did I.
Soon enough, I reached another door. I opened it and walked into a crypt. It was lined with skulls. They were on these shelves on either side. Occasionally they were interspersed with bones. There were piles of them as if someone had been sorting them out to make new human bodies from. And that was not a remote possibility. These crypts were renowned for their necromancy magic.
I wanted to cork my nose. The stench here was almost unbearable.
I walked through. It was lucky for me that I’d been to these crypts frequently enough that I knew some of them were interconnected.
I made my way through this one, ignoring the stench of necromancy. I even saw a half-assembled corpse. If I didn’t have other problems to worry about, I would disassemble it, scatter the ashes, find the necromancer, pin them against the wall, and headbutt them. But now I had much bigger fish to fry.
Wiping my hands on my pants again, I came to the correct door that connected back to the fourth crypt.
I settled my hand against it, and I concentrated.
Beyond, I could hear chanting.
If I was any judge, it came from the throats of at least 50 priests. The way it shook through the door could not be mistaken.
… 50 priests? And Santini charms? And Hilliker himself? What was I doing here again? Offering myself up to him?
There was another thing I could not forget. He was casting magic specifically to draw me to his side. I was not under that charm yet. I would know. I would become compelled, and there’d be no way for me to stop my body. The point was, I was giving him what he wanted, anyway. Unless I could pull off the exceptionally unlikely and kidnap him before the real fun began.
“Just do it,” I muttered to myself quietly.
If I opened the door and walked in on the ceremony, I’d be captured.
There was another way.
Frowning, I turned back to that pile of partially assembled bones.
I was not about to stoop so low that I would use necromancy magic. But there was something I could do with it.
I ran back over to it. I checked the bones. Everything was in place apart from the skull.
You couldn’t cast necromancy magic without a head. Otherwise all you really created were skeletal automatons. In other words, what I was trying to rationalize to myself was that if I gave this half skeleton a spark of life, I wouldn’t be doing an act that would send me straight to Hell.… Forgetting the fact I was a demon bride now, of course.
Gathering up the skeleton, I spread it before my feet. Then I leaned down in front of it. I started to chant. I didn’t keep an eye on the door into the fourth crypt in case it opened. I doubted it would. The priests within would be far too concentrated on their task. And if they expected an attack, they wouldn’t think it would come from this direction.
I comforted myself with that thought. Though I wasn’t entirely sure why. At the back of my head, I reminded myself that Hilliker was so desperate to capture me that he had wasted hundreds of millions of dollars. If that were the case, surely he would’ve checked the crypt right next to the one he was practicing in?
I tried to silence that thought.
I got back to my magic as it started to flow through me into the half skeleton. Soon enough, the bones began to jitter. They shook on the spot, vibrating like atoms until they lifted into the air. Magic circled around it, spread the skeleton’s arms wide, then deposited it on the ground. It creaked as it stood.
I made a face. My stomach kicked with regret, but I quickly reminded myself that this was not full necromancy, dammit. It was just… dabbling in the lighter side of the dark.
There was no point in speaking to the skeleton – it didn’t have ears. Instead, I picked up its hand and pointed it in the direction of where I wanted it to go. Then I shook its hands up as if I was transferring a concept into its body. Chaos.
The skeleton needed no more direction. It turned around and began to wander off. Before it could, I reached into my inventory, plucked out a simple sword, and handed it over. The skeleton dragged the sword over the broken floor, reached the door, opened it, and thrust through.
I kept myself hidden.
The screaming started.
It wouldn’t take long for the priests to blast through the skeleton, but at least it would give the distraction I required.
I pushed forward, ready to sneak in behind the skeleton to see what I could find, but that would be when something clutched my shoulder. I tried to move, but it just held on harder.
I turned around, thinking that I’d inadvertently snagged my jacket on a jagged piece of stone. That’s when I saw that a skeletal hand had wrapped around my collar.
I didn’t immediately freak out. I just assumed I’d disturbed some necromancy experiment.
“Get off,” I said, my tone pissed off. I shoved the skeleton hard, but it sure as heck didn’t let go.
It gripped me harder, and now magic started to blast around its arm. It went around and around its elbow, over its ulnar and radial bones, then sank into its legs. It soon blasted through my jacket.
This was no little necromancy spell. This was a time spell. It locked onto me, holding me to the spot. I immediately tried to jerk my hand down to call on my sword, but I could move no faster than a sloth.
Something opened from behind me. It was a coffin that the skeleton was on top of. The shelves in the wall behind me didn’t have a massive gap between them. But as this coffin opened, its lid smashed up into the shelf above it and just tore it into chunks.
The coffin was glossy and new. And so was the vampire skeleton within it. As that other necromancy skeleton held me – now nothing more than a hand considering the rest of the skeleton had been turned to dust when the coffin had opened – I watched as this gleaming vampire guard pulled itself out of the coffin. It had no flesh, yet strangely it wore clothes that clung to its rib cage, fell into its abdominal cavity, and were twisted through its leg bones. The only thing that mattered, however, was its mouth as it opened and I saw its long, pointed, swordlike teeth.
With a scream, it jolted forward. There was nothing I could do – I was trapped in a time spell. It sunk its teeth into my throat and started to drink.
Vampires did not exist in the flesh. Modern culture got that wrong. Vampires were created by a combination of necromancy, genes, and shared dark will. You had to combine the teeth of a vampire bat, with sabertooth tiger tasks, with a strong pump, with as much dark magic as you could pack into one skeleton.
I became woozy as my blood was stolen from me. This heady pressure built within me. I started to flop back, but I couldn’t lose my balance completely, considering I was still stuck in the time spell.
… I’d walked into a trap.
You know that part at the back of my head that had told me that Hilliker wouldn’t be so stupid as to not defend the fifth crypt? I should’ve listened to that part. Instead, I’d wandered in with barely a plan and barely a hope.
Now I would pay.
I heard footsteps. The vampire guard kept me in its lethal embrace. It was now drinking so much, I could barely function. As my vision closed in around me, becoming a black funnel that was threatening to pull me straight down to Hell, I saw the hem of a purple robe. It took a long time to pull my head up to stare at Hilliker’s face.
He smiled. “Always predictable, Cursed One. I needn’t have bothered spending so much on Santini charms. Why bother when all I had to do was wait?”
I tried to speak, but I couldn’t. My body… I was shutting down.
He smiled. He clicked his fingers. The chanting in the other room stopped. I started to hear footfall.
Shit… this was it.
I was a goner.
Hilliker pointed right at the vampire guard. “Kill her. Keep a hold of her, though. Keep killing her until we are ready.”
My world came crashing down. I tried to struggle. There was nothing… there was nothing I could do. I couldn’t even call on the Santini charm around my throat. I had to use a hand to activate that.
Just as everything started to pull away from me, crumbling down, sinking into nothingness as I realized this was over and my life was about to turn into one of eternal damnation, a single thought crossed my mind. A melody echoed through my psyche, too.
The snow globe.
I didn’t need to reach a hand back to activate my subspace pocket. I could do it automatically. I could also select anything at the same time.
If I wanted to activate the snow globe, I’d have to hold it, however.
That’s when my mind chanced upon another memory. I hadn’t had the time to pull that live grenade from my inventory.
I concentrated with all my mind, even as my mind started to shut down. I was right on the edge of death. I could feel resurrection magic picking up through me, getting ready to revive me once more.
I screamed as I thrust my mind into my inventory. I found the snow globe and the grenade.
I pulled them both out.
The grenade would kill me. There was no doubting that. The question was whether I would be dead before I could fall into the snow globe first.
I saw Hilliker turn. I caught sight of his face before he did. Victory played across his old, gnarled features. It was the kind of victory that would come at any cost – no matter how much pain it caused someone or how much destruction it wrought.
Just as he turned away, I pulled the grenade out.
It was caught in the same time spell that had captured me, but it had been on the verge of detonating, anyway. It exploded just as the snow globe fell in front of me.
I was pushed down as a chunk of my back was ripped off. Only the tiniest fragment of my mind operated as my arm was pulled from my side and my leg was blasted off at the knee. I fell against the snow globe, my hands clasping around it as my blood splattered out in a great arc.
The snow globe initiated. I was pulled in. Just as resurrection magic picked up around me, getting ready to reknit my life once more, the snow globe’s magic prevailed.
I was pulled right back into that broken ballroom, right back into the embrace of that plastic figurine.
This time I screamed. The shriek blasted from my throat, even as I felt myself settling down into this unbroken body.
I was still on the edge of death in my mind – I could still feel my blood emptying out of me like someone who’d popped a balloon.
“You’re alive,” the plastic figurine said, his mouth still incapable of moving. “Listen to the music and let it soothe you.”
The music cranked up. Its keening notes shifted through the ballroom. We started to dance.
I could feel that beautiful ball gown swirling around my legs. And yes – I had two whole legs – two whole arms, too. I also had a functioning back.
The damage I had just received had simply been erased like someone who’d drawn a mangled picture only to draw one of a healthy human right over the top.
“There’s no need to ask how, Eve.”
I stared at the figurine. He still had no features. He looked as rough as the first time I clapped eyes on him. But….
As his plastic hands held mine, they moved slightly. I was still wearing my engagement ring. It glinted in the light. It alone looked perfectly real. Everything else in this strange realm had an air of simplicity to it as if I’d walked into the second dimension. But the ring glowed brighter than it ever had before.
As it fixed my attention, I tore my gaze off and stared at the man. Something slipped into place. I finally saw those plastic features for what they were. “Sonos?” I asked through a choked breath. I tried to jerk away, but I simply wasn’t permitted to in this realm. I could only dance, hand-in-hand with him. I could move my lips, but that was it.
“What the hell is this place – a trap?” I wheezed.
“Then what are you doing?”
“Giving you another chance.”
“What are you talking about, Sonos? You always promised me you’d be the one to kill me.”
“No, I promised that I would be the one to remove your resurrection curse.”
“It’s the same damn thing.”
“I assure you, it’s not.”
“Because I can’t let you die.”
“Because you’re mine.” He leaned in, and his face became all too real.
The end of Better off Dead Book One. This series is complete. There are four books in total and all of them are currently available.