Jack stared at Kaye, working it over in his mind. In the old days, the mages had required a difficult initiation in order for postulants to join their Councils. Only the most powerful joined that table. And hadn’t Grey mentioned some kind of trial at the coffeehouse? Times had changed, but the practice obviously hadn’t. What better test than to make Kaye face her demons?
Jack’s throat constricted with the awful realization that this was no simple information-gathering mission, and for Kaye, it had probably never been. “What have I gotten you into?”
He should have paid attention to his reservations, found another way. He should have gotten her away from this, in spite of The Order’s need.
“Open the door.” Kaye’s hands were ablaze now. “And don’t forget you’re playing human, or we’re both dead.”
A woman’s scream—
—brought Tom Peterman from his sofa to his feet, the newspaper sliding from his lap to the floor. He’d heard his daughter scream in fear as a child, but never as a grown woman.
Heart in his throat, he strode to his town house door. While he unlocked the dead bolt, another woman’s scream ripped through him—Marianne, his wife. After thirty-two years of marriage, he was absolutely certain to whom that voice belonged.
He flung open the door. Descended the short flight of stairs that led to the street. Searched left and right for any sign of them. “Marianne!” he called. “Jodi?!”
They’d gone shopping. A girl’s night out while Jodi was on a rare break from her residency. Said they were going to spend his money on something extravagant. And he’d asked, “Why
money?” His wife made more
Which was a point of family pride—Marianne’s recent promotion to partner. Everything they’d worked for was finally coming through.
He saw two slight figures and started running toward them. Oh, God, his girls. He moved to collect them in his arms. “What’s go—”
Another figure, a man, appeared behind them, moving fast. He was half a block away, but Tom could see his elongating teeth. The man opened his mouth nightmare-wide and let out a monster shriek.
“Inside,” Tom said, dragging Marianne and Jodi.
He’d seen news reports and screen captures of creatures like this, but not here. Not in his neighborhood. Not after his family.
What was happening to the world? The explanations on the news were all bad, all unbelievable, all terrifying. But were they true?
The three of them tripped up the steps to the house. Slammed themselves inside. Marianne and Jodi babbled through tears and broken breaths. “... came out of nowhere... almost got Mom ... mace did nothing ...”
Tom was shaking too. Monsters in the night, coming after his girls.
Not his girls.
He went for his shotgun.
Kaye braced as Bastian flung open the door. She watched as he shifted his weight to the side and kicked the wraith ascending the front steps. He’d have to work on the human thing; that kind of force took something more. The creature fell backward, Bastian’s foot gripped at its chest. They hit the brick steps together with a dull
On instinct, Kaye leaped on the sprawling limbs to free Bastian.
He hollered at her touch. Fire. She’d apologize later.
The wraith shrieked, its dagger teeth bared, but it was pinned just long enough for Kaye to lay her hands on its yellow skin and make the monster—a woman, by the looks of it—burn. The sound in the creature’s throat went wraith falsetto as the flames caught. But it was the stench of the decay that made Kaye lose her fire. The wraith burned before her, its silhouette a human engulfed in Shadow flame.
“You should run,” Bastian was saying. “You didn’t sign up for
Kaye laughed out loud.
Now he told her.
She watched two more wraiths glide down the street toward the town house. Sirens wailed a block over. Help coming, as if they could do anything. As if law enforcement wouldn’t shoot the woman wielding fire too.
“There’s nowhere to run,” Kaye said, recovering her equilibrium. She should know; she was the expert. “There’s no way out of this ... but
And I really need to be through with it.”
“The host can be here in five minutes.”
“And then Grey would know I was lying.” Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted another wraith spider-walking down the side of the building. “And he’d have to come after me.”
“Then we’re going to fight?” His gaze flicked around the scene.
Kaye snorted yes.
“Don’t try to protect me this time,” Bastian said.
A wraith dropped behind Kaye. Jack grabbed the thing by its throat and used his weight to push the creature off balance. The wraith’s stringy hair went flying, and its noxious smell smeared through the air. In the lurch of movement, the wraith brought two clasped hands down on Jack’s arm—the bone cracked as it broke, but the real pain came from Kaye’s accidental faefire burn, roaring on the underside of his forearm. The bone would heal quickly, the scorched skin, never.
Kaye grasped the matted hair of the wraith, and the creature ignited, screaming agony into the frigid night as the wick took and the wraith’s candle flesh stretched into a fiery plume.
... Assistance is on its way....
The thought, angelic in origin, wafted through the air.
... No ...
Jack pushed back.
This has to be just us ... but delay the police.
... We could pick off the rear wraiths....
... No ...
Jack insisted. Not if this really was some sort of test. He could handle it. He knew battles against creatures of Shadow. Every thrust, kick, strike was recorded in his muscle and bone. That’s why he’d been called for yet another tour of duty on Earth.
... Goddamn motherfuckers ...
This time a human source.
... going after my girls ...
The blast of a shotgun abruptly brought Jack’s attention down the row of houses where a man had emerged to fight. A wraith tottered, half its face missing.
A ratchet sounded as the man cocked the shotgun. Another swift aim.
... stink like yesterday’s garbage ...
A shivering wight, a wraith beyond all humanity, darted from the sky toward Kaye, blurring with speed. Jack flung his good arm out, got the monster in the neck, but the wight still sent Kaye tumbling to the sidewalk. She snarled and threw fire.
Jack dodged her bad aim. One burn was quite enough.
“Get inside!” he called to the man, the neighborhood’s wraith vigilante.
“I have to do something!” the stranger yelled back. Ratchet. Blast.
A good effort, but a wasted one. Nothing mortal could kill a wraith, just slow it temporarily. If the wraiths weren’t bent on Kaye, the man would be dead by now. And the man was in danger from more than wraiths, too; he was a witness.
The wight had collected the floating debris of its body, made itself as whole as possible. Though it had mass, it lacked solidity. It lunged again, and Jack ducked, putting a little nonhuman force into a strike that planted it face forward in the street, its dusty tissue again coughing into the air. Unclean things.
This fight was too familiar—the smell, the sounds of fear. He’d battled these creatures a hundred times before, but never alongside a mage woman. Jack wished his damn bone would heal so he could have the use of both arms. The pain of the burn put an edge on his mood.
He looked over his shoulder to see Kaye scramble up.
“What do you want to do?” he demanded. He didn’t think she wanted to kill the wraiths one by one, though he’d be willing to set them up for her if she’d burn them each into oblivion.
“Fire,” she said. She was glowing again, but not illuminated from the inside like the white-bright of a soul. No, Kaye was a flame, the fire itself, just trapped in the shape of an incomparable woman.
She lifted her hand to the gloomy street and lit the night.
If Jack needed proof that Shadow had seeped into every nook and cranny of mortality, Kaye’s show of power confirmed it. Darkness coursed from every void, swirling and eddying into spinning devils of magic. They churned together, rushing, sparking, and taking on molten hues of color in a river of faery flame. It carried the scent of Twilight, dark and intoxicating, soul seducing, even to an angel. Certainly to this angel.
The fire flooded the length of the street, tumbling waves fed by ready magic. Two wraiths were caught immediately by the tide. The fire climbed their bodies and clawed them down into death, their screams strangled by the deluge. Another two had yet to finish regenerating from gunshots and were swallowed in a silent final reckoning.
From Jack’s place on the steps, he forced the thrashing wight into the flow. It went down with an almost human keen of fear.
The man with the shotgun had attempted to scale another townhome via the decorative iron railings covering the lower windows and now clutched the exterior like a child afraid to come out of a tree. He was terrified, but the names of two women were foremost in his mind.
The fire licked at the pavement, and then flickered and sparked back into darkness. Heaps of wraith flesh remained wrapped in the burnt remnants of their soiled clothing.
A police car finally turned down the street, trolling slowly, its strobe wheeling. Too late, yet just in time.
Jack almost forced the vigilante down from his perch, almost altered his memory to forget what Kaye had done. Almost, but no. Grey might need a witness to believe what happened here. A single witness, hardly problematic to magekind, to make the lack of public exposure plausible. The rest of the neighbors had been smart enough to hide deep in their homes.
Kaye’s clothing was falling to pieces of char and dust, revealing the dip of her waist, the swell of her bare breast, her exposed thigh. Smudges of black marked her smooth skin. She passed him by on her way back to the town house. Faltered.
Jack swept her up into his arms.
“I don’t want to talk to anyone,” she mumbled.
The vigilante scrambled down to meet the police officers, pointing toward Jack, his mind full of images of fire, his words tripping to describe it. The officers looked over, but Jack mentally rebuffed their interest, recasting the vigilante’s words as the ravings of a madman. No matter what the man said, they would not bother Kaye. Besides, the officers had a wraith mess to clean up; he nudged them toward that duty. Reports of tonight’s events would be convoluted at best.
Jack carried Kaye inside. Locked the door, though he knew it wouldn’t do any good. What was one bolt against Shadow? Nothing. Against wraiths? Little more than nothing. Against mages? She was completely vulnerable.
Which was why mages lived in warded Houses.
An angel’s tour on Earth regularly brought him into danger. And with darkness encroaching, the dangers were compounded infinitely. Fae, wraiths, wights, and mages— they were only the beginning of Other creatures that imperiled humankind. The Order was stretched thin, and would be more so as this new age deepened.
But this was not what Jack had expected during his work with Kaye. Though he’d anticipated some tight moments, he had never intended to make her the object of a direct attack.
Wasn’t supposed to be like this.
Had never been like this.
He laid her down on the sofa, and she curled into herself, spent. She seemed numb to her nakedness. Numb to the world. Her skin was ashy, with dark circles under her sunken eyes. Her lush lips had paled and dried. Her breath was shallow, expression slack. He’d never seen her so vulnerable. He’d done this to her, just as much as Ferro Grey had.
He knelt at her side. “Kaye?” And cursed himself. He checked her pulse, wondering if it would become habit, and released a breath of relief when he found it.