Liam Niall has led the Chicago league of immortal warriors and their repentant demons for longer than he cares to remember. Four months ago, everything he thought he understood about the war against the Darkness was blown apart. Now, with the shocking appearance of a fiery new female talya, the world he’s supposed to save is about to change again. . . .
Liam, meet your newest recruit.
FORGED OF SHADOWS
Marked Souls #2
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Gray dust clogged the frigid air. Filthy snow lay all around, streaked with ash and blood and some odd fibrous gelatinous mess.
He put his hand to his aching head. Bone pulped under the tentative touch and he winced. His fingers came away slimed with crimson and gray matter.
That couldn’t be good.
Stones rained around him, and he choked on the acrid stink of demon-realm winds. Dimly, he remembered. He’d been trapped there, his soul bound into the Veil by that bitch talya and her lover.
But here he was, back in the human realm. His pores beaded with sulfur as his demon ascended, struggling to protect his all-too-human flesh from the stoning.
It coiled through him, the demon, and tightened its grasp.
He’d fleetingly—so fleetingly—hoped to be freed from it after all the long centuries of slavery. Now a slave again.
He tried to weep, but the acid sting of birnenston tears only burned furrows in his cheeks.
He wanted to succumb to the pounding stones, be buried forever. But the demon yanked him upright, shedding dust and ice and blood like some terrible birth cowl. He clenched his teeth, resisting the demon’s intangible grip, but his head ached all the worse and he could summon neither wit nor will. The demon awkwardly coordinated his limbs into a shambling gait.
Worse than a slave.
As the demon rode him like a dumb animal away from the collapsing building—the site of his desperate bid to free the world from the chains of helpless good and hopeless evil that bound it—Corvus Valerius could not decide whom he hated more. The malevolent djinni that had brought him back from the dead, or the bastard league of the teshuva who had the chance to kill him once and for all and failed.
Four months later
What would Jackie Chan do?
Not for the first time, Jilly Chan wished she’d been born with the ass-kicking aptitude of her Hong Kong movie-hero namesake. Lau-lau always said denying her heritage would get her in trouble. She just hadn’t realized trouble meant dead. Duh. How many times did the universe need to hit her in the head with a brick before she learned to duck as quick as Jackie Chan?
“Dee, Iz, don’t move.” She edged in front of the two kids. As if her five-two self could hide them. Maybe the darkness of the Chicago alley at night would work in their favor.
“What is that?” Iz’s teen voice cracked, which lately made him swear. But he obviously realized they had bigger problems than his impending manhood. Like their aforementioned impending deaths.
“Did it escape from the zoo?” Dee clutched Jilly’s shoulder.
Jilly elbowed them both back. She hated retreating, but the thing at the mouth of the alley had them blocked. “I don’t know what it is. But it isn’t friendly.”
“You can tell by the way its drools,” Dee agreed. “Eesh. Is it burning holes in the pavement?”
“Nothing that big has mandibles,” Iz squeaked, stuck on panicked puberty. “Only insects have mandibles like that.”
“Tell that to Supersize-Me drool-boy over there,” Dee said. “I bet it eats know-it-all nerds for its midnight snack. Which would be, oh, right about now.”
“Fly vomit could, in sufficient volume, theoretically dissolve concrete.”
“Oh, gross, Iz-kid.”
“Quiet.” Jilly took another step back, shooing the kids along behind her.
The creature didn’t move, but a flash of orange eyeshine gave her the sinking feeling it could see in the dark. And it was looking right at her.
A chill that had nothing to do with the rude March wind traced her spine and wrapped around her chest. “Dee,” she said softly. “My cell is in my right pocket.”
With her gaze locked on the thing, she never felt the teen’s nimble fingers in the puffy material of her coat. Hmm, she’d better have another talk with the girl, make sure she wasn’t keeping up her old skills. Assuming a not-worst-case-scenario outcome to tonight’s adventure, of course.
“No sudden moves. No loud noises,” Jilly said. “It doesn’t seem ready to attack.”
“Yet.” Iz’s voice dropped an octave.
Behind her, Dee muttered, “Hello? Why won’t this thing— Help? Jilly, I think the battery—”
A hideous screech blared through the alley, and they all flinched. But it was only the cell phone, feeding back. The signal spit and gibbered, far too loud for the tiny speaker.
The thing in their path took a shambling step forward. It paused in the narrow cone of light cast by the neon sign on the corner of the building.
“Turn the phone off,” Jilly and Iz hissed in unison.
Jilly claimed no particular knowledge of entomology. She knew two kinds of city bugs: the fast ones and the ones she scraped off the bottom of her Wescos. But Iz was right: The thing coming toward them had the basic look of something caught between her treads.
“I bet this is what got Andre.” Iz’s voice broke higher. “Now do you believe me something weird’s been going on? Now you see why we had to come out here?”
“Iz-kid, I’m seeing it, and I still don’t believe it.” Jilly stretched her arms out. At least she could make herself wider if not taller. “I want you two to make a run for it the second I yell go, okay?”
“Run for it?” Dee asked. “You’re kidding me.”
It wasn’t interested in the kids, Jilly told herself. It had never once looked away from her. How flattering. “I’ll scare it. You guys get clear of the interference and call 911.”
“Scare it?” Iz sounded even more doubtful than Dee. “How?”
Dee squeezed Jilly’s arm. “Just say go.”
For once, Jilly was grateful for the years on the street that had sharpened the teen’s self-preservation instincts. “Dee,” she warned. “Take Iz too.”
“As long as he’s fast.”
“Andre could outrun any cop in the precinct,” Iz said gloomily. “Bet it didn’t help him none.”
“Ready?” Jilly stiffened, preparing to . . . She hadn’t quite worked that part out yet, but it had something to do with kung fu. Or maybe tai chi. Whichever. “One. Two . . .”
And before she could say “three-go,” two more of the humanoid insect things loped into the mouth of the alley.
“Uh, Jilly?” Iz tugged her sleeve. “I don’t think you’re going to be able to scare them now.”
She could distract one with the half-assed assault she had in mind. Three, no way. “Change of plans. Head to the back of the alley, to the fire escape. There’ll be an access door on the roof into the building.”
“It’ll be locked,” Dee said. “We’ll be stuck on the roof.”
“Iz has his picks. Don’t you, Iz-kid?”
“What? And violate my parole?”
“We’ll discuss your punishment later.” And there would be a later. “Keep trying the cell.”
“We’re going,” Dee said over Iz’s plaintive, “But what about you, Jilly? You can’t run.”
True. She knew better than to stress her lung. Good thing she preferred to stand her ground.
She kept her ear cocked to the scuffle of the teens’ retreating footsteps. At the mouth of the alley, the hungry eyeshine of the monstrosities never flickered.
Monstrosity? She meant monster. Unease roughened her breath to sandstone in her throat.
She winced at the rumble of a Dumpster across the concrete behind her. Apparently the kids hadn’t been able to reach the fire escape without a makeshift ladder. Despite the commotion, the trio ahead of her didn’t twitch.
Okay, a plan. She couldn’t ward them off forever with her don’t-fuck-with-me stare. Jackie Chan routinely took on dozens of opponents. Of course, he had a more optimistic soundtrack than the “Ride of Valkyries” doom-tune going through her head.
She cut a quick glance right and left. Damn, where was a ditched murder weapon when she needed one? There wasn’t even a loose bag of trash, just a pile of recyclables. Could she guilt them to death with packing peanuts?
Behind her, the rattle of the kids on the fire escape grew fainter. They must be near the top, out of the fray.
In her calmest, pre-saloon-brawl voice, she said, “I don’t want any trouble.”
Didn’t want, yet always seemed to find. The three monsters took a step in unison toward her.
Yeah, that line never worked in the movies either.
She should be terrified, considering what had happened the last time she faced a monster like these. Well, not quite like these. Rico had been a plain old human monster with one gold tooth, not mandibles. Somehow, these actually seemed less scary. Her heartbeat ramped up, not with fear—or not only with fear—but with a savage glee so that the catch in her compromised breathing sounded like eagerness. How sick was that?
She couldn’t hear the kids at all now. She was alone. Her pulse went semiautomatic fire in her ears, and her muscles burned like a dozen police flares had been struck in her joints.
“Okay, then. Red rover, red rover, let Jilly come over.” She took three steps forward. Her bootheels rang hard on the pavement.
Then a fourth figure appeared, not so hulking broad as the first three, but every bit as tall.
The newcomer’s wings flared low—no, not wings, a duster. The monster Jilly’s eyes had conjured became just a man.
He paused there, bareheaded against the gusting wind that ran eager fingers through his shoulder-length dark hair. Some glint of neon caught in his eye, flaring violet as he turned toward them.
The newcomer twitched open his duster and withdrew a—a what-the-hell hammer. The haft extended almost too long to be hidden under his coat, even as tall as he was. The blunt business end was as big as her head.
“Now, that’s the murder weapon I was looking for,” she muttered. Too bad it was going to be used to murder her.
The man whirled the hammer in a broad arc. Above the hollow whistle, he shouted, “Jilly, get out of here.”
As the monster trio whirled to face him, he lowered his head and charged.
For a heartbeat, she froze. How had he known her name? Did she know him? She almost recognized the feral grace of him, as if the old comic books she’d once devoured had come to life. Thanks to the crappy alley light, he was cast in black and white and shades of gray—but he was every bit as strong and fearless and take-charge as the heroes of her fantasies.
Right, like she was going to rely on anyone else to fight her battles ever again.
She dodged to one side of the alley. She’d seen a glint beside the neatly stacked boxes—right there. Yes! Someone had forgotten a box cutter.
She scrabbled at the cardboard, fingers closing around the narrow metal, sliding the tiny razor tooth out in the same motion. She spun back to the fight.
Despite her speedy weapons procurement, Thor already stood, legs braced, over one carcass. With another swing of his hammer, he dispatched the second creature. He knocked its mandibled head right off its shoulders like a meaty croquet ball. Jilly’s stomach heaved at the wet thud of the head thwacking into the brick wall.
The last monster—obviously smarter than Jilly herself—ran.
The man whirled, every line of his body poised to pursue. Jilly’s breath caught hard, this time in pure pleasure at the taut, precise flow of his moves. He seemed so familiar, like something she’d dreamed. Maybe as she’d fallen asleep in the middle of one of those gawd-awful CGed action movies.
The monster-head stump oozed a black scum, and she swallowed hard at the blunt reminder; this hammer-wielding superhero was no faker.
Since when had she forgotten she wasn’t impressed by superheroes anymore? They were all fakers, by their nature. She scoffed to herself. As if he’d heard her, the man wheeled back around. The heavy oiled-canvas hem of the duster swirled above the pull straps of his boots. Her bravado withered at the stark expression that drew down the otherwise sensuous lines of his full mouth.
“Just what the hell were you going to do with that little thing?”
The lilt of his Irish accent captivated her for a moment, so she didn’t pay attention to the words. Then she was insulted. She wasn’t that short.
Finally she noted his focus on the box cutter in her hand. “Defend your honor?”
The grim set of his mouth softened, just barely. “Defend me?” He let the hammer swing down into a slow, mesmerizing ticktock. “Did I look like I needed defending?”
The hint of amused arrogance in his voice made her lift her chin in defiance. “Maybe a little. It’s a very small knife anyway.” She clutched it tight as he strode toward her.
Her gaze locked on the bold tattoo that rayed across his left temple to brush the corner of his blue eye. God, that must’ve hurt, needles nicking that rugged cheekbone for hours.
She snapped upright. “Now I remember. You were at that homeless outreach we did in the park last weekend.” She stiffened even more as realization crept over her. “You know my name. You’ve been following me.”
The final tock of the hammer pointed at the headless corpse. “Good thing, huh?”
She didn’t want to think about it. “I have to make sure Iz and Dee are okay.”
“They made it to the roof. I’ll have someone escort them down.”
Jilly narrowed her eyes. “Someone, who?”
“One of my people.”
“Your people, who? Never mind. Dee was supposed to call 911.”
“The call couldn’t get through the interference. That’s typical with these attacks lately. Besides, what are you going to tell the authorities?”
Yeah, she knew how the authorities dealt with monstrosities, even the purely human kind. “I want to see the kids.”
“My people will take them back to the halfway house. They’ll be fine without you.” His voice dropped, the brogue cadences waxing again. “They’ll have to be from now on.”
Jilly gripped the box cutter. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You know, don’t you, that it’s too late?”
“Too late for what?”
“I didn’t understand the restlessness, or I didn’t want to listen. It’s too late to give you a chance.”
Her voice rose with annoyance. And the first touch of unadulterated fear. “Too late for what?”
“To say no to the demon.”
Liam Niall had regrets. Many regrets. Any 180-year-old man could expect to fuck up now and then. An immortal man could expect to survive the fuckups with the burden of guilt weighing ever heavier.
As the word “demon” reverberated between them, he contemplated the incredulous woman before him. His delay finding Jilly Chan, his failure to warn her she’d been chosen by an unbound demon that would possess her soul and doom her to an eternity fighting the endless battle between good and evil . . . yeah, this particular fuckup was going to haunt him for a very long time.
But as the leader of the Chicago league of talyan—soul-damaged warriors possessed by repentant demons called teshuva seeking salvation—he’d long ago stopped listening to the little voice inside that warned of danger and destruction and doom. Damn it, he was possessed by a demon hell-bent on obliterating every lesser demonic emanation from the other-realm that had the bad luck to cross his path. The little voice inside him was always freaking out.
And so he had squelched the restlessness that had kept him wandering the streets long after the rest of the league retreated for the day to sleep off their wounds. But as the nights passed, the little voice had gone from a whisper to a scream, until he was frantic with the need to silence it. Roaming the neighborhoods, he’d felt like he was missing something, and the sensation had been unnerving.
As the league’s leader, missing something was tantamount to betrayal. He’d looked for a ferales’ lair or malice flock, or another potentially disastrous tear in the Veil like the one that had nearly spelled their end just a few months ago. Even a disturbance in the other-realm ethers could mean yet more peril for his possessed fighters.
And then he’d found it.
Trailing her unbound demon like a silk scarf, the pixie with the triple-X-rated curves had instantly caught his eye, as both a demon slayer and a male. Her black hair, spiked with propane-flame blue, matched the titanium loop piercing the nostril of her flat-bridged nose. Both affectations faded beside the golden honey and cinnamon of her eyes.
That exotic regard had passed over him without interest, focused as she was on handing out socks and sandwiches to the homeless who’d gathered in the park that day. But even that glancing heat had turned his watery bones to steam.
It shamed him now—without changing his belief that he’d do exactly the same again—that he’d run back to the familiar cold comforts of the league.
But one of his best fighters, Ferris Archer, had looked him over and said, “You found her.”
For the first time in a long time, Liam rejected necessity and played blissfully ignorant. “Found who?”
“You can’t just blow off the mated-talyan bond. I should know.” Archer lifted one eyebrow in a self-deprecating gesture. Winning that recent battle to save the city had proved easier than winning Sera, the first female talya in living history, though in the end, she’d only asked Archer to give up his death wish, his bloody arrogance, and his heart.
“We don’t know anything about joined talyan,” Liam objected. “Thanks to Bookie absconding with the only extant reference.” He peered at Archer. “Unless Sera has found something you haven’t told the rest of us bachelors.”
Archer schooled his expression, but a glint of sinful pleasure—and a touch of that arrogance—brightened his eyes. “She’s been working her way through the archives, trying to find any references to female talyan, the mated bond, soulless armies, and all the other crazy shit we’ve been facing lately. But there’s a lot to go through, especially with no trained Bookkeeper.”
“Then if you don’t know anything—”
“I know that even with demon-amped strength, you can’t run from this.”
“Since when do you believe in destiny?”
“Who said anything about destiny? I mean you can’t run from this fight.”
Bowing to the inevitable, Liam had sent the league’s best tracker to find the new female possessed. Haji had learned that Jilly Chan spent more time on the street than at her desk for her job with Reach Out, a halfway house for homeless teens, but she’d been absent from her usual haunts, no doubt subliminally unsettled by the other-realm forces focused on her. The tracker had chased the intermittent energies of the unbound demon with no luck. They’d missed picking her up before she got to her apartment one night, and then a surge in demonic activity had distracted them.
Finally, following the relentless echo in his chest, like an indefinable hunger determined to assuage itself, Liam had found the source of his unease facing down not one but three ferales, with their demonic emanations clothed in menacing corporeal husks.
The recent pack behavior of the previously solitary ferales was worrisome enough; to think that they’d had Jilly cornered, her demon’s powers latent and inaccessible until the final ascension, made his blood curdle.
Now, staring at the pint-sized woman with the hot-toddy eyes, he wondered which lucky bastard would help escort her through the terrifying new life that awaited . For the merest heartbeat, he wished . . . But no, overseeing the league itself and the eternal mission of the repentant teshuva to atone, that was his calling.
He glanced down at her shit-kicker boots. He didn’t necessarily envy the man chosen to guide her next steps.
She narrowed those heated eyes at him. “Demon?”
He stifled a sigh. If the league kept adding new fighters at the current rate, he’d have to come up with a welcome kit, a handbook, and probably name tags. Since when had fighting evil included management issues?
“This sounds insane, of course,” he started.
“Yeah, why stop the reality thrill ride now?”
“These . . .” He toed the butchered feralis. “These are lesser demons, drawn to the demon that has possessed you.”
She straightened, though the extra inches barely lifted the blue spikes of her hair up to his chin. “Is my head coming off next?”
Ignoring the ichor staining the hammer, he slipped the weapon back into the sheath in his coat. The move didn’t seem to particularly reassure her. He couldn’t blame her. “The teshuva demon in you is repentant, seeking to atone for its sins. Like the one in me.”
She stared at him. “You’re possessed. By a demon.”
“You’re finding it hard to believe, I know. But soon your demon will make its virgin ascension. Its influence will spread completely through you. Then you’ll understand what I’m saying. For now, I just need you to believe that you could’ve been killed tonight by these monsters. And more of these will be drawn to you until you’ve fully integrated the teshuva. So you’ll take the guard I give you.”
Her glare struck him like a match head.
He shrugged. “Think you can stop me?”
She looked down at the tiny blade in her hand and echoed his shrug.
“I’m not crazy,” he said. “And you’re not crazy, seeing these entities or listening to me. I know you’ve gone through some rough times lately, that you’ve been feeling isolated and alone, as if you’ve drifted away from your life.”
“I suppose you stalkers prefer isolated victims.” She flicked the blade in the box cutter another notch longer. “I should warn you, lonely or not, I won’t go easy.”
“No doubt.” He refrained from explaining that a demon-ridden warrior who went easy wouldn’t be much use in the never-ending battle against evil. “I’m just telling you what we know of possession. The other-realm entities that possess humans always mark people already trapped between hammer and anvil, with fire all around.”
“That doesn’t seem particularly fair.”
“Resisting temptation is easy when you’re feeling strong.”
The restless flick of the box cutter in her hands stilled, and a shadow darkened her eyes. “What do you know about temptation?”
A curl of awareness made him stiffen against his teshuva’s sudden predatory interest. “I can tell, based on the trailing ethers around you, that the demon came to you—what?—last night? Or maybe the night before.” Guilt pricked him. “I had people looking, but they couldn’t find you.”
“Until too late,” she murmured, echoing him. “Nothing like these things . . . these demons came for me before tonight.” She pinned him with a needle-sharp gaze. “Before you.” Then her eyes widened.
“What?” He stared into the black rounds of her shock-expanded pupils, seeking that first hint of violet.
“Before you,” she said again to herself. “I thought it was a dream.” Her gaze tripped over him, and his skin prickled as if she’d physically swept her hand across his body. She lingered on the mark at his temple, avoiding his eyes. “Never mind. This is crazy. I have to go.”
He didn’t want to let her go. Because, he convinced himself, the league needed all the fighters that came its way. Not to mention, the world didn’t need any rogue talyan, confused by their demons, wandering the streets without purpose. At least the battle between good and evil offered job security.
“Take the escort I’m giving you,” he urged. “For the kids’ sake, if not for your own.”
That brought her gaze back to him. “Don’t try to manipulate me.” Despite the exotic cast of her features, her tone was raw icy Chicago street. “Especially not with the kids.”
After a moment, she blew out a breath. “Fine, somebody can walk me to the halfway house. And don’t bother telling me not to go.”
He stepped back, out into the street, giving her room to come out of the alley. She kept the box cutter in hand.
She skirted the carcasses warily, her lip curled in disgust. “I don’t want one of those inside me.”
“You’ve been possessed by a teshuva, a repentant demon,” he reminded her. “These are ferales. Lesser emanations from the tenebraeternum—the demon realm—that merge and mutate human-realm matter into corporeal husks like these.”
She eyed him with only somewhat less disgust. “Maybe I don’t want a . . . a teshuva in me either.”
If only his advance team had had more time to build up a dossier on Jilly Chan. Maybe some of her secrets would give him an insight to her personality, a clue, a weakness that would bring her around more easily. Though he had a sneaking suspicion that her weaknesses were even better guarded than the rest of her.
“It chose you for a reason,” he said. “Something made you vulnerable. You let it in, and if you reject it now, it will tear open that vulnerability on its way out. You’d never be whole again, in body, mind, or spirit.”
She flattened one hand against her ribs, under her breast, as if she had a stitch in her side. “If there’s something inside me, then I’m not whole anyway, am I?”
“Better than the alternatives.”
“Death and damnation now.”
“Death and damnation later.”
She huffed back something that sounded like laughter. “As a killer, you’re pretty impressive. As a welcoming committee, you suck.”
“Thank you,” he said drily. He glanced across the street, signaled with two fingers to the alley, then another finger pointing out the path the third feralis had taken. He gave the roundup sign to have the talyan finish sweeping the area and fell into step beside Jilly.
She watched him. “What was that?”
“Giving the crew their orders.”
“The crew. Of other demon-possessed killers.”
He ignored the incredulity laced with mockery in her voice.
“So you’re their boss?”
He lifted one shoulder in a reluctant shrug. It felt as if the weight of the world pressed down on him there, but that was just the heft of the hammer.
She kept the width of the empty sidewalk between them. “How many demons are there?”
“Not as many repentant teshuva as quite unrepentant tenebrae. You’ll meet the rest of our league eventually.”
He watched her study the night, eyes narrowed and nostrils flared so that the ring piercing winked. She couldn’t know it, but the demon was already changing the way she looked into the shadows. Although something about her told him she’d always faced the darkness with defiance.
Who would make a good partner for her, with her prickly punk attitude? Haji was too quiet. Jonah was too straitlaced. Maybe Ecco, with his crude humor. No, she’d eviscerate even that powerful fighter and ask no quarter.
The final stages of possession could get ugly as the human and demonic elements struggled to find a new balance. Archer and Sera had been reluctant to explain the details of how they’d gotten through that last dangerous night. He’d have to bully past their shared silence so he could make the right choice for Jilly.
God knew, possession was hard enough already.
To distract himself from the memories that threatened, he asked, “What were you doing poking around this part of town so late?”
“It’s part of my job, keeping an eye on the kids.”
“Wouldn’t it be safer to keep an eye on them at the halfway house instead of roaming crap neighborhoods after midnight?”
Her lips twisted in wry agreement. “Iz got it into his head to investigate the disappearance of a friend of his.”
“What do the police—” Liam stopped himself. “I suppose the authorities don’t have a lot of time to spend on a missing street kid.”
Her lifted eyebrow implied he’d get no cookie for that brilliant deduction. “Luckily, Dee ratted him out and brought me here. And if you hadn’t come . . .” Her smile upended and vanished.
He didn’t try to reassure her. Better that she was frightened.
After a moment, she composed herself. “The kids have been talking strange lately, and Iz blamed Andre’s disappearance on things I couldn’t believe. I tried to tell him Andre had been getting into some nasty stuff. Not strange, just nasty, like dealing solvo.”
Dismay stiffened Liam’s spine. “Solvo and strange are more closely linked than you know. If Andre was using, you should write him off.”
One hard shake of her head rattled her blue spikes. “I don’t write anyone off.”
“You don’t get a choice with solvo addicts.”
“There’s a way back from everything—”
“Not from being soulless.”
“Soulless? But that’s crazy. . . .” She fell silent.
“Solvo is the chemical distillation of a demon weapon called desolator numinis. The soul cleaver.” He let her walk most of a block without speaking. “You’re thinking about what you’ve seen tonight, and that maybe it’s not so crazy after all.”
“No,” she said softly. “It’s still crazy.”
She hesitated. “It would explain some things.”
He put his hand on her arm to stop her. At the feel of her, the shock that went through him had nothing to do with demons and everything to do with temptation. God, when was the last time he had touched a woman? The lack of a ready answer halted him in his tracks.
When she faced him, her widened eyes exposed the darker ring around her golden irises.
He shook off the potent jolt. If it didn’t rouse his demon’s warning, then it didn’t matter. Never mind what else might rouse in him.
“Look over there, by the fast-food place,” he told her.
After a long moment, she dragged her startled gaze off him and followed his directions. “What am I—Jesus, what is that?”
The substance oozing around the entrance looked vaguely like a ghostly rat covered in burned fryer oil gone bad. Gone very, very bad. “It’s a malice. Another sort of lesser tenebrae, but it stays incorporeal, unlike the ferales in the alley. They skulk around in small flocks, drawn to chaotic negative emotions.” He glanced at her. “Like yours.”
She recoiled. “It’s coming this way.”
“There are more coming. So get a grip.”
Her fingers tightened whitely on the box cutter.
“Control your emotions,” he clarified.
“How am I supposed to do that?”
“Like me.” He turned her away from the malice, to face him again. He stared into her eyes. “You can’t let it get to you.”
He made it sound so easy, he almost convinced himself.
“You said it already got to me, or something like it.” Her chest heaved with an uneven breath.
He tightened his grip on her arm to draw her back from the edge of bolting. Would she be fleeing the malice? Or him? “Now you have to control it, dominate it.”
“The demon . . .”
She scowled as the word tripped a visible switch in her from dread to annoyance. “I’ve faced worse than monster blobs.” She narrowed her eyes, cutting him off. “Worse than you.”
“Undoubtedly.” Why else would a demon choose her? “You have new weapons now.”
She drew in a slow breath that caught in her throat once as if it hurt. When she let it out, the tension drained from her face. She pocketed the box cutter and let her arms fall loose and ready at her sides. Those hot eyes still glinted at him, half-veiled behind short black lashes. “I don’t want a hammer. Doesn’t accessorize well with my ass-kicking boots.”
He let her go. Guessing by the hard curl to her lips, he’d lay odds she’d mentally lined up his ass for that kicking too.
Jilly had years of experience with people making up shit. The kids were masters at reinterpreting reality to suit their unmet needs. And the many “uncles” her mother had brought home had all sorts of explanations for why they couldn’t work, couldn’t cook, couldn’t help themselves.
But nobody had faced her with wilder stories than this guy with his whack-a-demon hammer and his antisocial tattoo.
Except maybe the comic books she’d once loved, but those never drooled holes in concrete like that dead monster had. Though there might have been a bit of preteen panting over a man in a mask. . . .
She strode down the street, forcing him to keep up with each strike of her bootheels. She told herself she wasn’t running away. Good thing, since he had no trouble keeping up. Those long legs moved so smooth beneath his duster he practically floated beside her.
Compared with his steely grace, she felt grubby, not to mention shorter than usual. “You know my name. You even know what I dreamed about last night.” Speaking of panting, thank God he didn’t know the details. Did he? “But you haven’t bothered to tell me your name.” She almost winced at the aggrieved tone—not to mention fairly irrelevant nature—of the question. It had been a bad night.
Plus, apparently, now she was possessed by evil spirits. Certainly that excused a reasonable amount of bitching.
“Liam,” he said. “Liam Niall.”
She mouthed it to herself, and the name danced over her tongue. “I thought Irish people had red hair.”
“And here I thought only old people had blue hair.”
She wrinkled her nose at him, just in case he hadn’t noticed the ring through her nostril. “I’ve never been to Ireland. I’ve never been outside the burbs.”
“And I haven’t been back in ages.” His lips quirked without much humor. “Literally, ages. So we have something else in common.”
“No, really, we don’t.”
“Our demons, then.”
She shot him a look intended to make him acknowledge how ridiculous that sounded.
He continued. “Your breathing is better. As the demon settles deeper, it erases evidence of your past life. On the plus side, that means your old aches and pains are healed.”
She slammed on the brakes. His long strides carried him a few steps past before he turned to face her.
She forced the words out past gritted teeth. “What do you know about that?”
“You were injured somehow. That is always part of the vulnerability the demon marks in you.”
He might have been able to guess at her old injury from the way her breath rattled, and maybe he’d noticed that she hadn’t been able to move too fast for too long. But he couldn’t have known when it stopped bothering her. Because she hadn’t noticed herself until he mentioned it.
She took a breath, deep, all the way to the bottom of her lung, past the gnarl of scar tissue she’d seen in X-rays. Nothing. No wheeze, no rasp. She huffed out the breath. “What is happening to me?”
“Damn it. Stop saying that!”
“Will not saying it make it less true?”
She pushed by him—skin prickling with the awareness that he could stop her without even pulling out that hammer. He was so tall, but he’d moved like a dancer. A murderous dancer, sure. He was rangy too, the duster hanging from his broad shoulders as if he didn’t eat quite enough. Lau-lau would tell her to make him sweet dumplings with duck and plum sauce. If the way to a man’s heart was through his stomach, then he’d apparently closed off his heart a long time ago.
She yanked up her hood and kept walking, faster now. Because she could. And because, maybe, she was running away a little. She hadn’t wanted to explain the strange dreams that had haunted her for most of a week now. Or she’d thought they were dreams—vague, edgy desires ignited by the briefest glimpse of a hot guy in the park while she’d been distracted with her job.
She knew better than to hook up with big, tough-looking males with the smell of iron and concrete and danger clinging close about them. Thanks to her family life, she’d learned how stupid that was before she was half Dee’s age. Which didn’t mean she hadn’t indulged the occasional ridiculously trashy fantasy.
Who knew fantasies could come so violently to life? But now after what she’d seen, what she was feeling, to continue to deny that something was strange would be even crazier.
Ten minutes of silence brought them to the halfway house. A wire-caged porch light blazed above the front step of the narrow apartment building. Tonight, though, the bright lamp glowed with an odd nimbus, as if some oily smoke hung in the air. She sniffed suspiciously. But the lingering stench wasn’t pot or even cigarettes.
“Sulfur,” Liam said. “Leftover stains from the malice that have been hanging around here.”
She recoiled. “More demons? Here?”
He held up one hand, meaning to be reassuring, she knew. But the gesture revealed the haft of the hammer under his coat. “Your unbound demon has been trailing etheric energies that attract them. But don’t feel too guilty. Some of them were probably already regulars. The kids might as well be tagged ‘Malice eat for free.’ I can feel the negative emotions leaking out of the bricks.”
She bristled. “I’m surprised you feel anything through that superiority complex.”
He gazed over the top of her head, unruffled. “Don’t snarl at me. It’s just the truth.”
“How are they supposed to feel? Some of them have been abused or neglected. The ones that lie about it are just confused, trying to get their feet under them, trying to spread their wings. They don’t need people like you judging them.”
His calm expression smoothed into utter nothingness. “I only care about the consequences. And all these roiling emotions are prime breeding and feeding ground for the tenebraeternum—the eternal darkness. Doesn’t matter if you don’t want to hear it.”
Jilly ground her teeth together. While she never thought she could keep the kids safe from every threat that faced them, she’d always believed she at least knew what the threats were. Gangs and drugs. Homelessness, lack of education, and early parenthood. Missed opportunities and bad choices.
How could she protect them from demons? Real demons, not the metaphorical kind. Apparently, she hadn’t even been able to protect herself.
She flexed her chilled fingers, wanting to reach into her pocket for the box cutter, knowing it was pointless. She glared up at the man beside her. “Okay, what do I do? How do I kill the . . . the malice? How do you knock the head off an incorporeal being?”
That brought his aloof gaze back down to her. His lips twitched, finally giving his chiseled features a sign of life. “You can’t. But don’t worry about the house tonight. That whiff you’re catching is the smell of drained malice. My people have been keeping the block clean since we started looking for you. All that’s left is the stink.”
She nodded once stiffly. “Well, thanks, then.”
He cocked his head. “That’s hard for you to say, isn’t it? I thought that’s one of the first things you should teach a kid, how to say ‘thank you.’ And ‘please.’”
The way his tone dropped half an octave sent a flush through her. She glowered. Dee would have pegged that as a come-on. But come-on or criticism, she wasn’t interested. Never mind the eerie sense of familiarity that kept her measuring his body against hers.
She cared only about the kids. If Andre had faced those real demons, they needed her more than ever. “Will the monsters come back here?” She bit at her lip. “Will they follow me?”
“Maybe. If they do, we’ll take care of it. There’s a device we can install—an energy sink—that will lessen the negative vibes in the future.”
She nodded, didn’t even bother saying thanks again. He didn’t seem influenced by her gratitude or lack thereof. He didn’t seem affected by much of anything—a real tough guy. Remote and composed. The worry nibbled at her that she was going to owe him. Big-time.
She studied the building a moment, the front facade a checkerboard of small windows, some of them lit even this late. Or early, depending on which side of sleep she considered herself. Teens kept strange hours.
“You said your people brought Dee and Iz back here safely?”
She spun on her heel and stalked away.
After a few steps, he caught up with her. “You’re not going in? You’re just going to believe me?”
She grinned at the note of shock in his voice, glad to have thrown him off at least half a step. “Dee’s room light is on. She’s fanatical about her privacy, so I’m going to assume it’s her and that Iz made it back with her.” She cut a glance his way. “Unless I should think you’re lying to me.”
“We try not to lie. We have enough dings against our souls.”
She stuffed her hands in her pockets. “Then there’s nothing more I can do for them tonight. Except maybe bring down more monsters. I’m going home.”
“It’s a long walk. I’ll call a ride.”
She rocked to a halt. “You know where I live?”
“I did save you from certain death,” he reminded her. As if that was an excuse for stalking.
Her indignation soon bled away. She supposed it was a damn good excuse.
She said nothing as he called from his cell. Within a minute, a dark sedan pulled up. Not a cab. “Your people again?”
He nodded and held open the door for her. She hesitated, but what was the point? She felt wrung out by the night’s oddities and the sneaking realization that there were more dangers facing her than climbing into such a carefully nondescript car with such a strange man.
“You could have murdered me already, right, and left my body in the alley? I mean, if you’d wanted to. No one could have stopped you.”
“Yes, I’m an unholy powerful fighter. No, I wouldn’t have left your body anywhere. I’m unholy powerful but also surprisingly tidy.”
She noticed he didn’t disavow the murder part. She huffed out a long sigh and climbed into the backseat.
Liam settled beside Jilly, conscious of her heat near him in the closed space. And her scent. No perfume for the punkette pixie, just the wet leather of her boots and the waft of some fruity hair gel when she pushed back her hood. And the faintest hint of something else, something wild. Something just her.
Too bad his teshuva protected him against even the simplest head cold. He didn’t need to be distracted by sniffing after a temptation he knew he couldn’t indulge.
He kept his knees tucked in, careful not to brush against her as he reached into his back pocket for his wallet. He pulled out a business card and handed it to her.
She looked down at the simple black card with its two lines of white text: a phone number and the symbol @1. “At one?”
“Atone,” he corrected, running the implied letters into a single word. “Possessed humor.”
“Dial the devil at 666-6666?”
He started to correct her because the number on the card was quite ordinary. Then he realized she was joking. As if he’d forgotten where he put it, he dredged up his sense of humor. “That phone number was taken already. I guess evil has a better business manager and marketing department than repentance.”
Her piercing winked at him when she snorted.
On the quiet early-morning streets, the ride to her apartment didn’t take long. They idled, double-parked in front of her building. He wished they could circle the block, keep her beside him. To keep her safe, he told himself.
“What does Andre look like?” he asked abruptly when she reached for the door handle.
She paused. “He’s sixteen. About five-eight, one seventy. Black-Latino. Shaved head. Homemade tattoo of a skull on his left calf. Last seen in a dark blue hoodie and jeans. I can get you a recent photo.”
He wondered if she kept an updated description of every kid in her charge so close to the tip of her tongue. How many did she lose? And how could she be willing to suffer the heartache of not saving them? “If I promise to have my people keep an eye out for him, will you not go looking again?”
She considered long enough that he figured she was going to tell him the truth. “Not tonight.”
“Fair enough.” The demon would ascend soon and she’d be too busy to worry about one missing teen.
Soon she’d be lost herself.
He studied her. “You know we’re not likely to find anything good.”
“If you find anything at all, at least we’ll know. Which is more than we often get.” Her expression was shuttered as she stared out the window at her door.
“You’re already getting better at controlling your emotions.” He tried to sound approving. “You’ll need it.”
She slanted a glance at him, so full of rage his breath caught. A hint of violet flickered in her eyes, as if the aurora borealis had drifted too far south. The demon, coming out to play. “Yay, me.”
“I’ll let you know what we learn.” He added, knowing she wouldn’t, “And if you need anything, anything at all, call that number.”
She crumpled the business card in her fist. “Sure.” She jolted out of the car and stomped to the door.
Liam watched her go. “She couldn’t be sweet and easy, like Sera?”
Archer slung his arm over the front seat. “You must be talking about a different Sera.”
They both winced as Jilly let herself inside and slammed the door, never looking back.
“I suppose it’s unreasonable to expect a demon to possess a nice person,” Archer continued. “Even angelic forces aren’t really interested in nice people.”
“The battle between good and evil does seem to call for a certain fortitude of spirit,” Liam agreed.
They waited in silence a moment.
“Did Ecco get surveillance set up in her apartment?” Liam asked.
“Energy sink. ESF recorder. Audio. He wanted video. Sera nixed it. Said the bad ol’ boys’ club would have to rent their porn just like regular nonpossessed assholes.”
Liam sighed. “Why do I get the feeling that adding another female possessed is like peeking through the underwater view port on the Titanic?”
“Ice is all you’ll be peeking at.” Archer smirked at him. “So you’re ready to acknowledge that you want her?”
Want. That one word zinged through Liam like a bullet off bone, leaving a jagged wake. “What does want have to do with being talyan?” His voice sounded harsher than he intended. The teshuva couldn’t risk wanting, not when wanting dovetailed so closely with sin. With an effort that tightened his throat, he modulated his tone. “She’s another fighter. We need those. Desperately. I’ll find someone to help her through possession.”
He believed in all his men, valued each of them for their unique abilities. But this job . . . He folded his hands together, interlaced fingers over taut-strung tendons. “You could do it.”
Archer recoiled. “No. I found the other half that fits my broken pieces. And she’d break me into dust if I let anything come between us.”
“For the good of the league—”
Archer’s eyes flashed violet and his voice thrummed with the double-octave lows of demon harmonics. “Not for the world itself.”
“Ah, right. How could I forget?” Liam subsided. His grip eased. “I’ll find someone.”
“Idiot,” Archer muttered.
Liam let himself out of the car. The instinctive violence of Archer’s reaction just went to show why the league’s leader couldn’t get so involved. A leader had to keep perspective, which would be impossible if he got too close. Too close to anything, or anyone.
“Where are you going?” Archer rolled down the window and leaned out. “I thought you’d stay through the night, pining hopelessly outside her window, too self-sacrificing to make your move, too entangled to walk away.”
Liam shot him a withering glance. “It’s not a romance, jackass. It’s death and damnation and doom, remember?”
Archer slapped the flat of his hand on the steering wheel. “Exactly.”
They stared at each other for a minute.
“I’m going to find a feralis and tear it apart,” Liam offered conversationally.
“Have a lovely evening.” Archer settled back in his seat. “Bring me a nice cup of tea when you can’t stay away any longer.”
Liam stalked away, neck stiff to stop his gaze from lingering where Jilly had gone. There was no one he trusted more than Archer to keep anything dangerous from making its way through her door.
Anything dangerous. Like Liam himself.
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