Marked Souls #4
The war between good and evil has raged for millennia,
and as a powerful new enemy ascends, the Marked Souls
are pushed to the ragged edge…
Sidney Westerbrook has always studied darkness and damnation from a sensible distance. Now, to earn his place as a league Bookkeeper, he must discover why Chicago is such a battleground of soul-linked warriors. But the research becomes personal when he finds himself over his head and under attack — and at the mercy of a waif with demon-lit eyes and a deep yearning in her heart.
Alyce Carver has been alone longer than she can remember, battered by the living nightmares that haunt her city. Cornered by yet another gang of demons, she unwittingly joins forces with a handsome scholar who can salvage her past, and she in turn may be the key to his investigations. But she won’t let him go until he shows her everything she’s been missing.
What begins as an experiment in possession becomes a trial by desire so powerful it threatens both their lives, even as it binds their souls.
“[A] fish-out-of-water story that keeps a rapid pace, delivering a strong plot, enjoyable characters and a stunning world.”
–RT Book Reviews, 4 Stars
“Slade’s plot packs plenty of action…in a group of forceful personalities.”
— Publishers Weekly
To human senses, the Chicago night was dark and quiet—at least as dark and quiet as a big city could be. But Sidney Westerbrook knew, somewhere beyond the stark neon and the shouts with the flattened vowels that grated on his merely human eyes and ears, the streets seethed with demonic fury.
And after coming nearly four thousand miles, he wasn’t getting the chance to experience any of it.
Sid stuffed his hands to the bottom of his trouser pockets, as if he might find a last kilojoule of warmth down there. His father had warned him London’s fog had nothing on Chicago’s wind.
Then again, his father had warned him of quite a lot, only some of which had seemed relevant. Sid hunched his shoulders, and his gusty sigh bounced off the upturned collar of his tweed jacket, fogging his spectacles.
Who would’ve guessed the Chicago talyan would be such contrary blighters? All his Bookkeeper studies had prepared him for the same old, same old: immortal, menacing warriors with preternatural fighting skills and tortured demon-possessed souls, et cetera. But these upstart Yanks—from one of the secondary leagues, no less—had blown apart the theories of generations of Bookkeepers before him. Yet despite their obvious need for objective guidance, they wouldn’t give him, their emergency Bookkeeper, even the time of day.
No way in hell were they giving him their nights.
Though Sid didn’t have a talya’s enhanced vision, the flow of demonic ethers was clearly unsettled in Chicago. He’d hypothesized as much from the sharply refracted energy in every talya iris—purplish glints even an unschooled human would notice. The borderline morbid array of close-quarters weaponry had been another hint. But Liam Niall, the leader of the Chicago league, had refused to let Sid accompany them on patrol.
“It’s your first night in town,” he’d said. “Kick the jet lag. Then we’ll show you . . . everything, as London requested.”
Sid hadn’t needed enhanced hearing either, to pick up that disdainful pause. Most of the world’s major cities had @1 leagues since demonic activity tied into population density and the sorts of upheavals that regularly made the evening news. All the leagues were distinctly autonomous and fighting to hold their burden of darkness at bay. But London, having inherited the position from Rome in the days of expanding empires, held perhaps a “first among equals” distinction, though the other leagues might not readily concede. Probably didn’t help matters that Niall had been a victim of the Irish potato famine, which had its rotting roots in British agrarian politics.
That quarrel, in case anyone wanted to consult a calendar, had been dead and buried for a century and a half. Although obviously dead meant something different to immortals.
Sid crushed his fists down hard enough to turn pocket lint to felt. Just what he needed; another old man unwilling to let him in.
He dodged across the street, avoiding a cab that had run the red. He responded to the unwarranted honk with an appropriate American gesture. In some ways, cities were all the same. Certainly he could find common ground with these big, taciturn talya males and their three smaller but equally unnerving females. London might have loaned him to Chicago while his last journeyman Bookkeeper thesis was under review, but if he wanted to prove his mastery—if he wanted all the sacrifices to mean anything—exposing, exploring, and explaining some heretofore unknown talya secret would certainly do the trick.
And the Chicago league had secrets to burn.
He passed an iron stanchion supporting the elevated train, turned the next corner, and came face-to-face with . . . fangs.
A squeak of surprise squeezed from his chest.
When his thinking forebrain caught up with his hindbrain, he winced at his instinctive reaction. The rubber monster mask in the shop window wasn’t coming for his jugular.
He let out a slow breath, calming the rush of his pulse. He straightened his spectacles and leaned closer to the window. The molded tusks were coated in frightfully realistic gore as if they’d just emerged from someone’s thorax. He’d forgotten All Hallows’ Eve was less than a fortnight away. Not that the demonic tenebrae scheduled holidays.
He walked on, suddenly thankful he was alone tonight. If the talyan had witnessed that squeak, he’d never earn their respect.
But there was no one around.
No one at all.
His heel scuffed the pavement as his steps slowed. The soft scrape repeated down the throat of the dank alley off to his right. He swallowed in disgust at the stench of stewed trash. Really, that costume shop should try bottling the stink for a gag gift—emphasis on gag.
He peered back toward the intersection where the cab had almost sideswiped him. The red flash of brakes and illuminated crosswalk signs blinked with ordinary, reassuring liveliness, but in that moment, bustling humanity seemed strangely far away.
Distance was good. Distance put things in perspective; letting Niall’s snub provoke him had been stupid. Well, he’d blame the jet lag and be his own composed Bookkeeper self on the morrow.
Before he could take another step, a disfigured shadow charged out of the alley toward him in a blur of grizzled fur and scabrous gray skin.
Pinched together on a ratlike head, the feralis’s bulbous eyes raged with an unholy orange flame. Its tapered jaws gaped wide to expose finger-length incisors. Curiously, the fangs looked sharper on the rubber version. . . .
Sid stumbled back. Adrenaline soaked through him in a hot wash like thin, bitter coffee.
Told you so, said his hindbrain.
He turned to run, but the feralis sprang at him, fiendishly quick on its clawed feet. Its jaws sank into his left shoulder. The shock was literal as well as academic when the teeth sliced through the heavy wool tweed of his coat, into muscle, and—judging by the unpleasant grinding noise—all the way through to bone.
“Bloody hell!” Agony spiked above the adrenaline—the archives never footnoted how much a feralis bite hurt!—and his vision narrowed to brick and blood and darkness.
The feralis shook him once, twice, snapping his head back as if he were nothing more than a chew toy. His spectacles flew off—now the brick, blood, and darkness were blurry—and his spine twisted with a searing streak of pain.
He flailed with his free arm, and something damp crumpled under his fist. Had he smacked its rotting gums? Or its eyeball? His stomach heaved. The talyan never reported squeamishness. Was that a result of indifference or pride?
The rest of him heaved too as the feralis tossed him toward the alley. He hit the pavement and bounced. The brutal blow to his shoulder jolted the breath from him and condensed his vision to a single bloody point.
The red dot winked out. And reappeared. And multiplied to a hundred tiny glittering points. Malice eyes split the darkness like crimson open wounds, not fuzzy at all, despite his nearsightedness. The smoldering, oily smoke of a salambe threaded past the crimson like an evil party streamer.
There were certain times when being a bit on the dim side would be preferable.
Night air leached through the hole in his coat, but he wasn’t cold. Between the alarming slick of blood matting the tweed and the singe of the feralis’s poisoned bite, he was feeling almost stuffy.
Of course, Bookkeepers were often accused of being stuffy. His father had countered, saying a Bookkeeper was duty-bound to replace nonsensical emotions with the quest for understanding.
As if understanding the inevitability made it any easier to die.
The feralis snapped at a second tenebrae crowding in. Two more of the tenebrae skittered behind them on spidery legs. The mutant quartet shuffled closer, and the air between the brick walls thickened with the stench of decay until Sid’s eyes watered.
Bloody marvelous. Now the talyan would find his mangled corpse with tears on his cheeks. Maybe sheer mortification at their comparative weakness was why Bookkeepers were tutored past emotion.
The pain in his shoulder spread in paralyzing waves, but his right hand still worked. He scrabbled along the asphalt for a loose brick, an empty bottle, maybe a rocket launcher. But only pebbles and bits of glass rolled under his desperate fingertips. Not even a dustbin to shelter behind. What sort of evil city kept its alleys so tidy?
“Don’t fight, lads,” he choked out. How many times had his father chided him with those words? “Run along now.”
“They must fight.”
The voice—barely a whisper behind him—jerked him around with the force of sharper teeth sunk into his flesh.
From the deepest pool of shadows, a girl, clothed in nothing more than a once-white shift, coalesced like a mist in front of his straining eyes. Her thin arms were bare, and she held herself so tightly, her fingers chased the last of the blood from her skin.
Her hair fell in loose waves over her face and past her shoulders. Between the dark strands, her gaze—eerily pale—was hazy, and a distracted frown arrowed in one line between her arched brows. She took a limping step forward.
What was she doing in the empty alley? Doing drugs or a john? If her moral compass was as unsteady as her steps, she’d be an easy target for the tenebrae evil. He tried to pull himself toward her, and his fingers closed over the smooth frames of his spectacles.
He jerked them on, crookedly. At least now he could see his oncoming demise.
“Get out of here,” he hissed. He wouldn’t let another innocent die because once again he’d been in the wrong place at a bad time. Whatever or whoever she’d been doing, she didn’t deserve this. “Go. Now!”
For a heartbeat, her eyes cleared, but it was like winter clouds clearing the night sky to reveal a moon icy, distant, and dead. “Go where?”
“Away.” Fear for her congealed in his throat until he could barely push out the words. “Just go.”
Her pale gaze lifted to the ferales. “They have to fight. I have to fight too.”
If the feralis attack had been a blur, the girl was a lightning bolt.
One moment she was far enough down the alley that he thought she had a chance to escape. In his next breath, she was amidst the ferales. Her skirt fluttered behind her as she ducked between the two spidery tenebrae, avoiding the stabs of their spearlike legs with artless grace despite her limp.
Shrieking, the salambe shot up in a tight spiral out of the alley. All the malice swarmed after it, like incorporeal rats in the wake of a sinking ship.
That couldn’t be a good sign.
God, she wasn’t even half their size, and she was so thin, the ferales would snap through her in one unsatisfying bite. She could have gained an inch or two if she had at least been wearing shoes.
He surged upright, determined to throw himself into the fray beside her.
With a roundhouse kick, she slammed her foot into his head and knocked him to the ground again. This might have ticked him off, except his spectacles stayed on this time, so he had a clear view of the feralis that launched over her and landed right where he would have been, had he still been standing.
From his sprawl, he slammed his trainers at the feralis. At least he wasn’t wearing tasseled loafers, which his father claimed awarded Bookkeepers a proper visual distinction from the booted talyan.
The feralis hopped sideways with a hiss. From its jaws, slaver dripped, backlit yellow from the streetlights. Those fangs were looking sharper by the second.
The girl grabbed the creature by its fleshy tail and hauled it backward. The lean muscles in her bare arms quivered as the feralis bawled, spraying sulfurous drool. If Sid hadn’t known better, he would have said the tenebrae was . . . afraid. Its claws peeled up curls of asphalt, but it could not resist her relentless force. Her irises gleamed violet.
Sid sucked in a shocked breath. She wasn’t human either.
What astounding luck! His first night in Chicago, and he’d found a female talya. She wasn’t associated with the league, or Niall would have mentioned her. She must be newly possessed—and unconstrained by the knowledge and rules of the league culture. A tabula rasa, ready for imprinting.
Exhilaration made his head spin. Or maybe that was blood loss.
He winced as she gained traction and heaved the feralis over her shoulder into the remaining trio. Her vice grip tore the tail loose in an arc of ichor. The tenebrae screamed, and the warbling cry hit an octave that iced Sid’s spine.
Immortal and inhumanly strong the girl might be, compelled by her repentant demon to fight evil, but she could still be killed. Four marauding ferales—well, three marauding and one that seemed a little shaken—were deadly foes.
He pulled himself upright. He couldn’t lose her, not when a journeyman Bookkeeper could write his ticket to London mastery on such a find.
She shoved him back again, and he stumbled into the wall. “Enough!” he shouted, pushing off the bricks. “I want to help you.”
She ignored him and lashed out with the tail in her hand. The fleshy whip snaked though the air to drive the ferales back.
Chunks of rot crumbled from the makeshift weapon. Decaying feralis husks never held up well. Sid knew the corrosive ichor congealed within the husks must be burning through the girl’s hands, but she never hesitated. With her demon ascendant, she’d feel nothing—not pain, not fear, not loss.
How simple the world must look through the violet eyes of possession. For the merest incomplete contraction of his cardiac musculature—not even a full heartbeat—he wished she could share that simplicity with him.
She cracked the putrid whip again, and one of the ferales shrieked as its limb sheared off. Without the animating etheric energy, the husk fragment putrefied. In minutes it would be only a noxious puddle.
Sid had never quite appreciated just how poorly animated corpses performed under pressure in the field. It was a subject worthy of a paper or two, no doubt.
The wet thud of the feralis’s head hitting the asphalt made his gut clench. He realized he wasn’t exactly performing up to snuff himself.
The two partially dismembered ferales fled around the corner. The decapitated one tried to follow but kept blundering into the alley wall. In another moment, it would stumble out, and Sid could just imagine its headless-chicken dance down Michigan Avenue.
The girl kicked aside the fourth motionless husk—he hadn’t even noticed her destroying that one; what kind of Bookkeeper was he?—and advanced on the hapless feralis.
Her limp was more noticeable, though she hadn’t taken a single hit. Had she been wounded earlier in the night, perhaps, and not yet healed despite her demon’s power? She was a devoted talya, for which he had reason to be extremely grateful.
The stump where the feralis’s ratlike skull had been now spewed ichor and a discomfiting mewl, like an infant’s cry. Sid wished it would stop.
The girl jammed both her fists through its sternum and wrenched it asunder in a black gush. The mewling stopped.
His gorge rose up in his throat, choking him. Just as well he’d left the @1 warehouse in a snit and without converting any currency for his supper; otherwise he’d be spewing right about now.
Like some murderous, post-apocalyptic librarian spinster, the girl knelt between the decommissioned ferales, her bare toes tucked under the raggedy hem of her old-fashioned gown. How would the talyan, who demonstrated a regrettable morphology tending toward thick-necked gigantism, look in this new dress-for-success? Sid held back a snort.
With a hand on each husk, the girl lowered her head. Her dark hair spread around her shoulders and curtained her face. The orange light in the feralis’s protruding eyestalks faded to white, like a sullen ember smothering in ash, as she drained the animating ether. The energy she took would refresh the demon within her and then . . .
She turned her head just enough to meet his gaze. Violet. So Bookkeeper archives described the glint of nocturnal predator, but that did no justice to the wavelengths of light bending beyond his human perception. He sagged against the bricks as if his marrow had turned to ice water.
She wasn’t newly possessed and awkwardly delving into her untested powers.
She was rogue.
He eased back against the wall, letting the bricks support him when his suddenly wobbly knees didn’t seem up to the task.
She blinked, and the violet faded to the previous pale haze. “Pardon me.” Her voice barely carried across the alley. “No one should have seen that.”
The odd cadence of her voice snagged his attention. It sounded like something he’d find on Oxford Street—almost familiar but strangely awry. He realized he was leaning forward to hear her, his muscles canting in her direction, even as the more primitive part of his brain urged him to edge away slowly.
“But you’ll forget, won’t you?” She tilted her head, and the dark waves of her hair slid to one side, revealing the slender column of her throat. Just above her high collar, a thin black tracery marred her white skin: the mark of her demon. “’Twould be for the best, to forget.”
He wondered if “forget” was a euphemism for nipping off his head as she’d done to the feralis. Not much he could do about it, of course. “No doubt most people you save scream more than they say thank you, but . . . thank you.”
A violet gleam surfaced in her eye, spun once, and vanished again. “They all scream.”
His ever-so-keen powers of observation were starting to tell him his newfound talya had gone a bit off. Not that she seemed handicapped in the butchery department, where a talya truly needed to shine.
He let out a long, nonthreatening sigh. His shoulder was throbbing in earnest, now that the danger seemed to have passed—mostly.
He studied her empty hands where tenebrae gore left scorch marks on her skin. “You have an . . . interesting technique for dispatching ferales. Most talyan use long-handled weapons to keep clear of the ichor.”
She didn’t move, but something about her stillness became even more still. Apparently the danger hadn’t gone very far away at all. “What are these words you use?”
“Ferales.” He pointed first at the husks and shifted to the black spill. “Ichor. Talya.” He pointed at her.
She shifted onto her haunches, fingers steepled over the asphalt.
“Don’t run,” he said softly. He hoped she wouldn’t leap on him either and rip his heart out, as seemed perfectly possible when he considered her taut white hands. “It’s okay.”
“Okay? What is okay?”
He pointed to himself.
And then he passed out.
Alyce flattened her palms over the tear in the man’s coat. She dared not touch him directly with her filthy hands, but the wound was clotting, and her anxious heartbeat slowed along with his blood loss.
As if in reply, the restless spirits overhead that had lit her way here finally ceased their frantic whirling. Since the luminescent whorls above lacked teeth or claws, she focused on the man. Marshaling her thoughts was like catching clouds; it had been so long since she’d concentrated on anything besides the hunt. Gentling her touch was harder yet. Her fingers trembled with the effort.
The devils had never attacked another person in her presence before—or none she had been able to save. Always, when she appeared, the devils tried to run, and always, the overpowering impulse in her ensured they did not go far. After the first time, when she’d realized the devils didn’t leave witnesses, she’d never gone back to sift through their ghastly handiwork.
She had frights enough.
But this man had not screamed when she appeared. The devils had surrounded him, and he had mocked them. He had met her gaze, and he had not run.
Perhaps because he’d swooned. But before his eyes—nice brown eyes, without a flicker of unholy flames—had rolled back in his head, he had stared at evil and not backed down. He mustn’t die now, not after he’d chipped a hole in the ice that had frozen her off from the world.
She couldn’t take him to a hospital. Once, she had tried to explain to the men in white coats; she had tried to show them. . . . She hadn’t tried again. The darkness inside her shifted at the memory.
This man knew everything already. He had no need to come at her with needles and shocks. She removed his eyeglasses and tucked them into his pocket. Determination stiffened her spine, and she lifted the man more gently than she’d dealt with the—what had he called them?—the ferales.
Fresh blood pooled in the tear of his coat and spattered over her. She had to save him. He could tell her what she was; he could tell her why the most horrific monsters in the city cried out and fled from her.
A peculiar warmth trickled through her. Not the pathway of his blood—she was familiar enough with that sensation. This was different and long forgotten.
She was not alone.
A passing vehicle blared at her as she darted across the street, the man an unwieldy weight across her shoulders. Fortunately, the people of the city would notice only that she was small and her burden was large, and they would not imagine she could carry a full-grown man. They would remember, perhaps, a woman carrying a sack of laundry.
Delusions were so lovely.
She had roamed far tonight from her usual haunts. Now she knew why. God had finally taken pity on her and led her to this man who did not scream at monsters—monsters like her.
Fortitude carried her, and she carried the man, although his sliding weight tugged her collar tight until she choked and her limp turned to a stagger by the time she crept down the stairs to her basement hideaway.
She maintained a careful disguise of withered leaves and soft moss on the concrete steps—not so mussed that anyone felt obliged to come down and sweep, but not so tidy that they might think the area in use. The rust on the old lock resisted even a determined tug, but it yielded to her hand. She tugged it into place behind them.
When she faced the room, though, her remaining strength drained away. It was a pit, a cold grave lacking even the comforts of a proper casket. The mattress had been disgusting long before she salvaged it. She couldn’t lay him there, but the cracked floor was worse.
Perhaps he would have preferred to bleed to death in the alley.
But since he was insensible, he had no say. With quick, cautious hands, she eased him out of his coat and shirt. His breath caught once, when she slipped the sleeve off his bitten arm, but he did not rouse.
So much blood. In the dark hours of winter, when memories rose chill as hoarfrost out of nothing, she sometimes remembered long-ago sermons on the blandishments of the devil. They’d neglected to mention the piercing teeth.
She ripped the lower panel of her skirt and used the thin fabric to clean him. After she drained the last of the jug of water she’d stolen from an unwatchful delivery man, the wounds were open and, she saw at last, not fatal. Though painful and messy, they were not fatal.
The thick pad of muscle had protected him. He was not as tall as most men seemed to be these days, which was just as well considering how far she had carried him. But the calculated breadth of his shoulders told her he had considered the shortcoming and compensated.
She realized she’d let her hands linger on those shoulders and forced herself to move on.
With the last unbloodied corner of her shift, she brushed away a thick russet lock of his hair and swabbed his forehead. Her dirty heel had left a smear when she’d kicked him. She wished she’d thought that through first, but the devils—the ferales—had been there, and she hadn’t wanted him in the way.
At least she’d made sure to temper the kick so she hadn’t lashed his head off his shoulders, which happened sometimes with the ferales. If he complained of a headache, she’d have to tell him that.
She contemplated the man’s face. He had labored to make his body hard, but even the slight crookedness of his nose—a natural flaw, she decided; he had never been hit—couldn’t disguise his boyish handsomeness. Though tightened with pain, the lines of his mouth arched in a way that beckoned her to touch.
She slowed the stroke of the rag, almost giving in. He wouldn’t know. One quick brush of her fingertip across his lower lip to discover if his lips were as soft and giving as she imagined.
She reached for him, though not with her finger. Instead, she leaned down so her mouth hovered above his. The scent of his bared skin—something both turbulent and steadfast, like the place where the wind over the lake lashed the steel seawalls—roused her senses, and she shivered as if caught in that wild, breathtaking storm.
All night she’d been irresistibly drawn to the alley—to him—and the compulsion ached within her still. So long, so long since she had touched or been touched. One kiss was all she needed; one sweet memory and maybe she would forget the screams, for this night at least. She tilted her head and touched her lips to his.
Just as he opened his eyes.