Contents

  1. Title Page
  2. Dedication
  3. Chapter One
  4. Chapter Two
  5. Chapter Three
  6. Chapter Four
  7. Chapter Five
  8. Chapter Six
  9. Chapter Seven
  10. Chapter Eight
  11. Chapter Nine
  12. Chapter Ten
  13. Chapter Eleven
  14. Chapter Twelve
  15. Chapter Thirteen
  16. Chapter Fourteen
  17. Chapter Fifteen
  18. Chapter Sixteen
  19. Chapter Seventeen
  20. Chapter Eighteen
  21. Chapter Nineteen
  22. Chapter Twenty
  23. Chapter Twenty-One
  24. Acknowledgments
  25. Imprint

 

For Adam & Madeleine

 

ONE

 

There are some people you know you shouldn’t anger because it isn’t right. Like your mom – if she’s the nice sort.

There are other people you know you shouldn’t anger because they have the authority to punish you. Police officers, politicians, insane asylum wardens, your mom – if she’s the bad sort.

But there are some people you shouldn’t anger that you don’t know about, because no one ever survived to warn you.

I’m the third kind.

I eat souls. The packaging can be tricky, but fortunately I am blessed with special skills to pry my meals from their pesky shells. My teeth rip skin; my jaws snap bones. I am fast, lightning-fast, snuff – oh-was-that-your-life? – fast. I try to stick to bad souls, in the memory of my own mom (the nice sort). There were other reasons, reasons I used to understand, but they are reasons for a good person. I am not that.

That might be why I feel so at home here.

Small rooms, thick walls. Hushed whispers and ear-grating wails. A symphony of misery set to the beat of beatings.

The Mulligan Residential Mental Health Facility – an insane asylum, but with better promotional materials – prison of the cracked and grey.

Cracked windows, cracked walls, cracked minds. Don’t make them angry or there will be cracked skulls.

Grey-painted walls, grey-tiled floors. Once-white nightgowns, now grey. The skin of the inmates. Grey. The metal-framed bed. The bedding. Grey, grey, grey. The bars on the window…

Black.

Imagery ruined.

Correction – prison of the cracked, grey and black.

The sound of a slamming door vibrates down the darkened hall and I draw up to my elbows. As the loud bang fades, dead silence takes its place. It’s the middle of the night, maybe even early morning, and nothing else stirs. My ears ache as I listen, waiting. When they start, the heavy tap of boots on linoleum is loud, like drumbeats.

Someone’s coming. My hands tighten on the faded coverlet. I hope it’s him.

Two nurses work the night shift, so there’s a fifty-fifty chance it’s only Gideon, the other one. Samson’s the one I’m after, the reason I’m here. The ghost-girl, Callie, pointed him out to me. I wasn’t in the mood to help her at first, but she insisted. Then she insisted again and again, until I wanted to kill her. They’re like that, ghosts, once they realize I can hear them. Demanding – and impossible to kill.

I turn, finding Callie’s translucent form in the shadows. She stands rigid, her semi-transparent head bent away from me, staring through the wall at something I can’t see. Something that wears large, linoleum-tapping boots. She twists the strap of her pack in her hands, and, as the boots tap closer, she takes a step backwards, then another. The cell is tiny so it’s only a few steps until she bumps against the wall. Well, bumps through the wall, actually.

One look at her pulls me upright, electric excitement shooting along my veins. The nurse coming down the hall is Samson. Her murderer.

I could have snatched the naughty nurse from his house, lurked in the parking lot by his car, called him claiming to want his Craigs-listed couch. I didn’t need to have myself committed to the asylum like I did. But there’s something poetic about recreating the scene the nurse played out with his own victim, only this time, with a very different ending.

Callie doesn’t approve. She wanted me to take care of him weeks ago. She’s spent most of our time here drifting around the room, running her silvery fingers along the dingy grey walls and giving me impatient glares. But if she doesn’t like my plan, she can find another ghost-seeing, soul-eating monster – I haven’t come across one in seventeen years, but she’s welcome to try. As Mom always said, there’s an easy way to do something, and the right way.

Then again, she also said I shouldn’t play with my food.

I wouldn’t say Callie and I are friends. More to the point, she wouldn’t say we’re friends – even if she could speak, instead of just bombarding me with memories. She was committed to the asylum because she couldn’t deal with the horribleness of the world. I am the horribleness of the world.

It doesn’t give us a whole lot in common.

But right now, I’m all she has and as her murderer tromps down the hall she looks to me for comfort.

I give it a shot. “Relax,” I whisper. “You’re already dead.”

Her eyes fill with tears and I roll mine. Ghosts.

My hall-mates are silent, barely breathing, and I imagine I can hear their broken minds screaming, “Not me, not me.” The boots pause somewhere down the hallway. I imagine the short, bullish Samson peering through a mesh-enforced window and terrifying the room’s occupant. There’s a soft, deliberate knocking – he wants to make sure he has the inhabitant’s attention. At the sound, Callie cringes and then, forcing courage, sticks up her chin, her eyes as fierce as a scared little dead girl can manage. But then the steps start again and she shrinks into the wall. Her eyes dart back to me.

I can take a hint. I hop off the bed and prance into position, in perfect line of sight from the door, then, with a little spin, drop down so I’m curled against the wall with my head on my knees – a delicious little dish of déjà vu. When he came for her, Callie was curled up just like this, crying into her knees. Broken-hearted, until he was done. Then she was just broken.

The linoleum is icy through the thin material of my institute-issued nightgown, but the heat swelling under my skin more than makes up for it. The Hunger has been very patient, waiting quietly for weeks while I laid my trap, but now it yawns and stretches, tingling out to my fingers and gnawing on my soul.

Samson’s tapping feet come closer, but again he pauses and knocks on a door. I don’t mind. The pauses make it better. They make me wonder whether he’s going to come to me, like the anticipation before a kiss. Will he or won’t he?

But this is not a love story.

The boots begin to tap again, coming closer, and a little thrill runs down my spine. The ghost girl sinks further into the wall and slides as far away as possible, into the corner.

Shadows block the crack under my door and a river of fire washes over me, staining the world red. I have a guest.

Delightful.

I don’t dare look up. Not yet. I feel his eyes creep across my skin. I know what he sees. Small, thin, pointy, frail. Curled on the floor. My dark hair is shorn into raggedy tufts on one side, left long on the other. I did that to myself. As with all the best places, they don’t just let anyone in. This is an exclusive little hellhole. He sees a human teenager – which is half right. I am a teenager but, as for the other, no. Whatever I am, it is not that.

My eyes I don’t let him see. They say the eyes are the windows to the soul and I wouldn’t want to give myself away. There’s a sharp knock on the glass – he wants my attention. He has it, but I don’t let him see. He knocks again, more insistent. It’s not very often he doesn’t get what he wants, but if he wants my attention, he must come and take it. The shadows of his boots stay paused at the door and the crouching darkness in my soul shifts and flutters, unable to hold still under the agony of aching anticipation.

I hold my breath but it escapes when I hear the jangling of keys. The Hunger howls and I bite back a giggle. The lock opens with a metallic thunk and he steps into the room. He pauses. His bully-bright rational side tells him I am nothing to fear, but his animalistic side knows better.

Danger! his instincts scream.

Nonsense, his rationality remarks.

I am big! his bully side brags.

In the silence, I hear him swallow; then the door clicks closed behind him. I quiver and he sees a tremble. Finally he takes a step, then two more, until he is at my side.

He waits and I wait, both excited but for very different reasons. The moment draws thin and long and sweet, like pulled sugar, savored by us both. The Hunger pulses in the silence and, though he’s just a garden-variety monster, not special like me, I know he feels it too.

Then the sugar snaps and he grips me by the hair, jerking my face up. His florid face is just as it was in Callie’s memories: middle-aged, with large pores and sagging jowls. Only now his eyes don’t have the delighted gleam they had then. Instead the bushy brows are lifted in surprise.

I suspect I’m the first victim to ever smile at him.

I’m positive I’m the first to ever leap up and slam him into the wall by his throat. He tries to scream but I squeeze his neck until the noise dies with a wheezy gurgle. Confusion and shock riot in his eyes. He doesn’t understand how my small, weak arms are strong enough. He doesn’t understand a lot of things.

I can’t wait to enlighten him.

I shove, sliding him up the wall until his feet leave the ground. His eyes are wide and panicked, and I pause to enjoy that perfect moment when the hunter realizes he’s become the hunted, when he tries to reconcile what he knows to be true with what just happened.

When he makes the horrified face reserved for the bitter taste of just desserts.

I turn and see that Callie’s enjoying it too. Her hands are clasped before her and her little face is lit up at the justice of the moment.

Samson’s ineffectual clawing at my hand draws my attention back. He’s taller than I am, and he manages to touch his foot to the ground, just his toe, but it’s enough to take some pressure off his throat. I allow it.

“Whaa–?” he gasps out.

“You like to hurt people, Samson.” I say it calmly but I’m on fire. The Hunger has burst into a conflagration.

“Nnnn–”

I squeeze. He pulls at my wrist and his feet swing and kick.

“Shhhhh, it’s OK,” I say softly, sweetly, as if I care. Then I drop down to a whisper. “I like to hurt people, too.” I squeeze harder and he shoves off with that toe, trying to get away, to get air. My own foot snaps out and smashes it.

I let go and he falls screaming to the floor. He scrambles away, gasping and coughing. I shift to cut off the path to the door and he scurries backwards into the corner.

“Wha–?” he wheezes, then grabs his mangled throat. I step forward and he back-pedals madly, uselessly shoving with his heels, trying to wedge his bulk further into the corner. I can hear his heart race. It’s pounding wildly and yet no blood reaches his face. It’s deathly pale.

A preview.

“Wha–what are you?” he finally gasps through his damaged throat.

I just shake my head. Even if I knew, I wouldn’t tell him. That’s not what I’m here for. I take a few slithery steps forward.

“Please, no!” he screams and holds out a hand, as if to keep me away. I consider ripping it off. “I’ve never hurt you! I’ve never hurt anyone!”

“Don’t lie to me.”

He draws back. “Please…” his jaw works, his jowls trembling as he searches desperately for something to say. Then the words come bubbling out, tripping over themselves in his haste. “There must be a mistake.”

I shake my head slowly and with purpose.

“Please… I don’t even know you!”

I squat down so we’re eye to eye and he shrinks away. I cock my head and my words slide out silkily. “No. But you know Callie.” I glance in her direction. She no longer looks excited. Instead, her eyes are wide and her hand covers her mouth. “Or rather, knew Callie.”

Genuine confusion flashes across his face. His mouth moves as he tries to place the name.

“Callie Bellemore,” I snarl.

Realization dawns on his face.

“It was an accident.”

“What did I say about lying?” My hand snaps out and slashes his face, drawing four red lines across his cheek. The sharp scent of blood fills the room. I dance a little, in my squat, and my lips curve into a smile.

He becomes very still at that smile. The false innocence is replaced by calculation. “You’re enjoying this.”

My smile spreads wider. I know somewhere my mother hides her face in shame.

“You love killing as much as I do.” He straightens as if he thinks he’s talking to an equal. “Not, not just the killing, the…” He gropes for a word to describe it.

“Power,” I supply.

His face lights up at my participation. “I don’t know what you are, but I know we’re alike.” He puts his hands up and hurries, as if he’s afraid he insulted me. “I’m not… special like you, but the kill…” His eyes drift off and a creepy smile turns up the edges of his mouth.

A smile not unlike my own. I swallow the shame and let it be eaten by the Hunger.

He continues dreamily. “I couldn’t help it, she just…” He shivers, then his attention switches back to me. “I couldn’t stop even if I wanted to.” His hands open and close, turning from claw to fist and back again. “It’s too strong.” He looks to me for understanding.

And I do understand. I understand better than he could ever possibly imagine. Because, for me, it’s more than power. I eat souls. Without them, I die.

Of course, that doesn’t explain why I so love to collect them. I run a finger down Samson’s cheek and he squeaks. Mom never understood the monstrous darkness that craves the kill. She wanted my need to eat souls to be like my need to eat vegetables. Necessary, but not desirable.

Samson, this foul piece of slime, understands me better than she ever did. But unlike him, at least I’m ashamed of my wickedness – when I’m not reveling in it. Like a dog wallowing in a mud pool, I love the glop and splash of ick. It’s not until after, when the stink dries stiff and itchy that I regret it. Other wicked things, like Samson, don’t feel the guilt. They don’t have a memory-mom tsking and shaking her head.

Instead, they have me.

I suspect they never really feel guilt, but I make sure they drown in regret. Red, sticky regret.

So Samson’s right, I am like him. But unfortunately for him, hypocrisy is the least of my many sins. He thinks our shared trait will make me like him, but it only makes me hate myself.

I lean in until mere inches separate us and close my eyes. I feel him tremble and inhale the intoxicating cocktail of fear and blood and I’m flooded with a hot joy. He moves and my eyes snap open, freezing him in place. “You’re right. I am like you.” I breathe, then shake my head very slowly, holding his eyes. “But that doesn’t help you any.”

His eyes widen and his mouth opens and closes wordlessly. I let him have one more moment of life, spent in panicked realization.

Then the Hunger howls through my veins, sweeping everything up in its frenzied tide. I jerk him from the corner, popping him free like a hermit crab from its shell, and he comes apart in my hands. So easily. Imagine a child at their first birthday.

He is the cake.

I hear myself laughing, screeching, cackling. The world is red hot and pulsing. On fire.

His soul erupts from his carcass, a roiling grey gas, like a thundercloud. The Hunger roars and I dive for the soul. It pours through me, sparkling and beautiful, filling me, stretching me, until it feels as though my skin can’t contain it. I arch my back, my arms wide. I am a canyon surrounding a river of beauty.

The water recedes and I am left a bubbling mess of contentment, burbling with victory.

As I stand among the wreckage, frothing with delight, drunk on a sweet soul, I catch a flicker out of the corner of my eye – the horrified face of the ghost girl as she slips away through the wall.

Her eyes, once again, filled with tears.

 

I leave behind a mess, the walls painted in a style reminiscent of Jackson Pollock. Red, grey, black, brown.

Mostly red.

I prefer a more neo-Impressionistic style myself – Seurat, Signac! – but my medium has its limitations. Usually I try to be a little tidier – mustn’t see my face on the news (especially with this haircut). But this is not a place that wants an investigation and I like the message only a rearranged corpse can deliver (Picasso!). Well, a corpse and a message written in blood – just in case I was too subtle:

 

I am watching.

 

Underneath it, I prop a little love note to the administration letting them know I know where the bodies are buried – in at least one case, literally. They won’t be calling anyone.

I’m soul-drunk. The world’s too bright; I feel too strong. A soul doesn’t sit heavy in the gut, but bubbles through the veins like champagne, tingling the nerve endings. For at least an hour it cocoons my brain in cotton, protecting it from the talons of shame and worry. Later they’ll dive back down and dig in their beaks, but for now they can only circle uselessly above. I laugh and sneer, able to forget for now that they’ll have their revenge.

I stroll down the corridor and the flickering fluorescents celebrate my passing, humming in praise. I spin, bow and hum along. Bloody footprints trail; bloody fingers smear the walls. I reach the door to the stairwell and spin, heading back the way I’d come. I’m in no hurry, because Gideon won’t be. He’s a good wingman and wouldn’t want to interrupt Samson’s fun.

Which is exactly what I want to discuss.

I reach a locked doorknob and I snap it off, then the next. Most of the inhabitants won’t run far – they were sent to an insane asylum for a reason, after all. But they have the opportunity and, if they get far enough away, they might end up at a different facility, one with a different philosophy.

Some I leave in their cages. Even an animal rights activist wouldn’t loose a tiger.

I’m swollen with the sweetness of Samson’s dark soul, filled with it. Strong with it. It has been too long since I fed the Hunger. Like anyone on a diet, I’ve found that complete abstention never works – it just leads to poor decision-making later. Of course, my binges don’t result in weight gain, but rather indiscriminate homicide. I’d say the stakes are higher, but then a Twinkie would no doubt disagree.

Hinges creak behind me; then I hear the pitter-pat of bare feet as someone flees, away from me – their savior.

Come back, we can be friends! 

A door slams. Guess not. Ah, well, Spider-Man didn’t have any friends either.

Creak-creak, pitter-pat. Another escape.

Come now, Gideon, investigate! 

I prance, I dance on the gritty floor. Vengeance is sweet, sweet music. I spin, arms outstretched. The walls pass by in a blur of grey-white-grey-white-grey.

Then, suddenly, a spot of black enters my spinning vision – a figure at the door. The nurse has arrived! I stop and hiss.

Not Gideon – times three. Three strangers stand at the end of the hall.

And they are hissing back.

 

TWO

 

Humans don’t hiss. Well, except trashy girls fighting over equally trashy men. But grown men, respectable in black suits, do not hiss at their enemies. I blink and shake my head, trying to clear the fuzzy soul-drunk and, when I open my eyes the strangers are still there, though there’s no hissing. Maybe it was a disapproving hiss, a what-are-you-doing-out-of-your-cage? hiss. Maybe I imagined it, the soul-drunk playing with my mind to turn this into a fight. It’s a violent thing, the soul-drunk.

The three men stand at the end of the long hallway, in front of the stairs leading down to the ground floor. Respectable-looking men in neat suits with tidily trimmed hair – modern, urban men, incongruous in this dark and dirty dwelling for the insane. The one on the left is short with puffy, soft-dough cheeks, while the one on the right is tall and hawkish. The one in the center has the pitted face of an acne survivor, but is otherwise middle-aged unmemorable. The grey expanse of the narrow hallway separates their skin from my claws and my feet from the exit.

“What are you doing here?” asks the man in the middle. He straightens and tugs his suit smooth.

Yes – I, the girl with the ridiculous haircut and blood-splashed nightgown – am the one who doesn’t belong in the insane asylum.

“Have you been reassigned?” he continues. “Why wasn’t I made aware of this?”

Um. I straighten out of my own crouch.

“Did zi-Ben send you?” Hawkish asks.

Who?

“Is this some kind of joke?” demands Puffy.

That zi-Ben – he’s such a kidder.

“And what on earth have you been doing?” demands the one in the middle.

Better not answer that, though they’ll probably notice soon enough. No way to hide it. I eye the three of them, considering. They’ll need a lesson in discretion before I go. Not a lethal lesson. Mom wouldn’t like that.

But, if there’s a fight… accidents happen. The Hunger hums.

The leader’s still ranting. “I don’t know where you’ve come from, but we’re near the Templars here. You tripped every alarm we set – if they have any of their own…”

Right, the Templars… who? Not that it matters.

“I told zi-Ben we could handle it,” he continues, shaking his head. “Even while helping in The Search… I mean we have Skype – this isn’t the dark ages any more. The asylum practically runs itself, anyway. We don’t need some junior associate in here screwing things up!” He waves at me.

Do I look corporate? Maybe they belong here more than I thought.

Puffy swipes a finger through a blood smear I left on the wall and licks it.

Holy crap. Maybe they do belong here.

At the taste of the blood, a shocked look comes over his face – mirroring the shock on mine no doubt. But I’m trying to hide my confusion, so maybe he doesn’t notice. He’s been largely quiet, but now he explodes.

“This is… this is – did you eat Samson?” Puffy ends in a bellow. “I’ve been working on him for months. I almost had his soul, I was this friggin’ close!” Pinched fingers, red face. “All these easy vics around and you eat Samson! Unbelievable! Not to mention, who am I going to get to work the damn midnight shift?”

I’ve never been caught “eating” people before, but somehow I imagined a different reaction. For the barest moment the world sharpens and something tingles in my mind, a worry trying to work its way through the cotton.

But worries are for people who can’t pull grown men apart with their bare hands.

Puffy storms forward and I drop back down and hiss again. He draws up short and they share meaningful glances.

“What did you say your name was?” The leader again, his eyes narrowed.

Should I lie? But what would be the point? Even if I leave them alive (I will, Mom, really!), they would be foolish to follow me once they know what I can do.

“Meda,” I say and they exchange glances again.

“Zi-Meda or hal-Meda?” the middle one asks slowly.

Hmmm… fifty-fifty chance to get this one right. “Zi,” I say. Judging by the way they all just bared their teeth, that was the wrong answer. I’m pretty sure they just figured out zi-Ben didn’t send me. It looks like we are going to fight after all. Sorry, Mom, I tried.

Did you? Her voice drifts across my mind.

Yes! I can almost see her arms cross and hear her foot begin to tap. I can’t see her expression. Time has washed it away. Fine, no. 

I really wish she was still alive. I can’t lie to a memory.

“Zi-Ben didn’t send you, did he?” Suspicion confirmed. “Who did you say you are?”

Your death, strange human. I mean, your injury. No murder, just a little maiming. So I can leave. Maiming’s not so bad.

They crouch themselves, mimicking my stance, spreading out across the narrow hallway. They creep forward in smooth, slithery steps. That’s fine, I like my food delivered – especially when I don’t need to tip the driver.

Not food, foe. I’m not going to kill them. Really.

Here piggy, piggy, piggy.

They come closer. I could attack them from here, but they can’t reach me yet. Not with little human leaps, not from there. Closer they come, their footsteps so quiet I almost can’t hear them over the growl in my throat. Come in, come in, closer. I will leap over. Maybe a leap and a few swipes. Just a few! Just to mess up those suits, that hair. Let them know what was here, what they escaped. It’s rather humanitarian of me, helping them to count their blessings. Appreciate what they have – like their heads. Too many people take them for granted.

I crouch even lower as they approach, while rising on the balls of my feet. Ready to leap, ready to dive over. Ready to show these fools that they do not control me. I am not some weak little human. I am unique, special. Powerful in a way they could never anticipate. In fact, I’ve never felt more powerful. Samson’s fresh soul must have been extra strong.

They move in. Twelve feet, ten feet, eight. Their teeth show through snarls and the narrow hallway vibrates with the sound of our enmity. Their fingers curve like claws, just like mine. Do they mock me? I hope so. Deflated arrogance fits beautifully on a plate of defeat.

They’re close.

Six feet. I leap, perfectly measured, towards the gap between their heads and the drop ceiling. In the dance of death I am a ballerina, a leaping lady. I want to see the widening eyes, the shock, the awe. I look down and instead see a fist and an explosion of red.

I hear a crunch, a chorus of cackles.

I fly backwards and slam into the wall, then collapse, face first, to the floor, gasping. I can’t catch my breath. I push myself on to my back, blinking the confused clouds from my eyes.

How…? My boggled mind clings to the word with a death grip. How? I’m one of a kind. Mom said I was special. But evidence to the contrary stands over me, burbling with wicked giggles, erupting with maniacal cackles.

My prey doesn’t cackle, I cackle.

Instead, I lie in a pool of my own deflated arrogance and a horrible sneaking suspicion dawns.

They are like me. Like me.

“What was that? Did you just try to jump over us?” The leader’s jeering voice cuts into my confusion, and I focus on his face. “And you’re only a halfling? ‘Zi’, my ass.” He howls with laughter.

They’re also assholes. I leap to my feet with a growl, but unfortunately my knees are a little wobbly and I stagger, setting off another round of loud guffaws.

Puffy bends over, trying to catch his breath but Hawkish catches his eye and makes like he’s going to dive, giving a girlish little jump, and Puffy loses it again.

My eyes narrow.

“Oooooh, don’t make her mad!” the leader gasps around his laughter.

Rage replaces thought, carried to my brain in an effervescent stream, and I dive at his fat mouth. Quick as lightning, he side-steps and slams me into the wall, without even the slightest pause in his laughter. Hawkish claps him on the back, holding his stomach as the mirth bubbles forth.

You. Will. Stop. Laughing.

I whip around and make a motion like I’m going to dive at him again, but, at the last possible second, I jump at his unsuspecting companion instead, punching Hawkish hard in the face. My thumbnail slides across his cheek, and a red line wells. I land, and grin.

Then realize I’m an idiot. A soul-drunk idiot.

What was I thinking? I finally get the opportunity for some answers and what do I do? I punch it in the face.

Dammit.

They stop laughing and, as the crouching and snarling resume, I realize that failing to get answers is now the least of my problems. They outnumber me, they’re stronger than me and they’re pissed.

Shit.

As they leap, I cut sharp and run, bent low, my feet flying. Snarls and stomps follow behind me. I hit the stairs and leap down to the first landing, then turn and leap to the bottom. They race right behind me. I blast through the door and it explodes out of its frame at the contact. It slows me, only a half-second, but it’s enough. I’m tackled from behind. A blur of brightly patterned furniture and warm orange wall paint flashes across my vision as we crash and skid across the floor. The lobby is the only inviting room in the asylum and, not coincidentally, the only room visitors are allowed to see. I find it sadly ironic that I’m going to die in the only room worth living in.

I twist so I’m facing my captor – the man I clawed, Hawkish. He slams me into the wall, and the stud gives under my back.

It hurts.

He wraps his hand around my throat. Blood dribbles down his face.

“You think you can attack me, halfling?” Hawkish leans in, his beaky nose nearly touching mine.

I’m a halfling. Half-something. Half of whatever they are. He slowly strokes my cheek in the same place where I cut him, pulling the skin with each pass. I open my mouth to apologize, to ask the questions I’ve been dying to know the answers to my whole life.

But his question beats mine out of my mouth, his black eyes hard on my face. “Think you can cut me, halfling?” His thumb presses into my cheek and the nail bites into the skin. The sting becomes a burn as he pushes harder. As the blood begins to crawl down my cheek, the questions of “who” and “what” shrivel and die on my tongue. He’s going to kill me.

As if to prove my point, he jerks his thumb across my face. My steel skin parts like silk. I squeal and scramble, fighting his hold. He leans forward, menace radiating from him. Was this what my victims felt like? Powerless? Sweaty? Heart pounding?

“Hal-Karim, we aren’t supposed to kill our own,” the leader says, stepping into the lobby.

Yes, you can’t kill your own! Own what is suddenly an unimportant detail.

“But accidents do happen,” my captor snarls.

My heart stops.

“She’s only a halfling. We’ll say she’s a traitor. That she flipped sides,” Puffy offers. Apparently he’s still pissed about Samson.

“That might even be true,” Hawkish says and strokes the other side of my face, his nails rasping against my skin. I squirm to get away. “Why else would she pick Samson?”

Flip from what side? I have no idea but it’s my only chance. “I didn’t flip sides! I just couldn’t resist! He attacked me first!”

He isn’t buying and I recognize the look in his eye. Bloodlust. I often see it in the mirror. It’s too late. How ironic I learn I’m not alone as I die.

When Mom told me I was special and unique, I thought she literally meant I was special and unique. After all, I never met any other children who could lift cars or chew on steel bolts.

Turns out I’m only ‘mom-special’. Special like a snowflake is special. Special like a school kid on honor roll.

There are others like me. And they want to kill me.

That would have been good to know, Mom! 

“Please…” I won’t give up. “It’s the truth. I didn’t flip–”

“Shhhh.” The hungry eyes gobble mine. “The truth doesn’t matter when you look so… delicious.” He leans in, breathing deep. His tongue snakes out and slithers wetly across my cheek, licking the blood trickling down my face. He sneers, he smiles. Then he freezes. His eyes widen and his tongue darts out to lick me again.

Those wide, wicked eyes meet mine. “Are you…?”

A loud bang echoes through the room and we all turn to face the entrance. The front door has been kicked open.

Someone else has come to join the party.

 

THREE

 

As parties go, the food is good but the hosts are complete assholes.

The new attendee, a man, crouches in the doorway. Well, not really a man, a human teenager. One of God’s most misbegotten creatures – big like grown-ups and yet dumb like children. Selfish, moody, reckless, with a tendency to sleep too much and complain too often. I’m a teenager too, but I take exception to the human part.

He’s around eighteen. Grungy jeans, faded black hoodie under a leather sleeveless jacket. Blond, shoulder-length hair. An attempt at a beard (fail).

The million-dollar question – whose side is he on? Unlikely to be mine, as I’ve never really been much of a team player.

“Crusader!” hisses one of my attackers.

The words have no sooner slithered from his lips than the boy lobs a brown, grapefruit-sized ball into the room. As it arches over us, he raises a gun and shoots it. The ball explodes and liquid showers down. I duck behind Hawkish, but some still finds my exposed shoulder and it burns. My captor screams and collapses on the floor writhing – he took the brunt of the flying liquid. I don’t see the other two – they must have taken cover in the stairwell or one of the several hallways feeding off the main room.

“Do you want to be demon-chow? Come on!” the boy shouts to me.

Demon-chow? But that’s a thought for another moment. I need no further encouragement and race towards the entryway. Towards my savior.

It’s an unusual feeling.

The clip of shoes behind me alerts me that one of the “demons” is chasing me. His claws brush my back and I dive past the boy, out of the lobby and into the entryway, bringing my savior and the demon into a collision course. They crash with a meaty thud. I jump to my feet and back away from where they grapple. The boy shoves the demon back into the lobby and they go rolling. I creep back towards the door to keep an eye on the action.

The leader kneels by his fallen comrade, who still writhes on the floor. The leader half-rises, but Hawkish clutches at his neck and whispers in his ear. With a shocked look at his friend, then a final snarl at me, he chalks something on the linoleum and, with a crack like thunder, the two of them disappear.

Poof. Just like that.

A crashing noise drags my attention to where the newcomer and Puffy face off. A rust-colored couch is tipped on its back and the combatants roll around on the remains of what was once a coffee table. The boy scrambles free of Puffy and jumps to his feet. He pulls a wicked-looking knife, long and curved, from his belt. I creep back into the lobby, but keep my distance while I debate my options. I pull the door to the entryway closed. No matter what I decide, I don’t want any additional audience members.

Desire for revenge pulses in my veins. I want to punish the demon. Crush! Kill! And above all – cackle! They claim revenge is a dish best served cold, but I’ve found it to be equally delicious hot – not unlike fried chicken. Two-on-one, the boy and I could probably take him. If nothing else, the boy can serve as a distraction as the demon tears him to shreds.

But a strong dose of self-preservation holds me back. I’ve already learnt the hard way that the demons are stronger than me – or at least a lot more accustomed to fighting people who can fight back.

So I stand. Indecisive.

The demon looks similarly indecisive, his eyes shooting between the two of us, then back to where his friends disappeared. The boy steps in his way, obviously blocking him off.

“You’re not thinking of running, are you?” the boy taunts, blue eyes narrow as he passes the blade back and forth between his hands. “I’m not even a full Crusader, just a kid. You’re not afraid of a kid, are you?”

The snarling leap seems to indicate “no”. In a move too fast to be merely human, the boy jumps to the side as the demon streaks by. With a smooth motion, the boy rolls back to his feet and dives at the demon’s back, slashing hard across its spine. The demon shrieks to shatter glass, his back arching as if someone had pulled his bowstring. The boy pins the demon face down as it flails and puts his hands on its bare neck. Inky black smoke billows out of the demon where the boy makes contact with its skin. The smoke then disappears into the boy’s fingertips, like he’s some demon-smoke-sucking sponge. Once all the smoke is absorbed, the boy releases the now-limp demon and stands. He’s a little wobbly and he puts a bracing hand on the wall. Then he tips back his head and exhales a long stream of light grey fog that I instantly recognize. I recognize it because I routinely eat it.

It is the essence of a human soul.

I sit down. Hard.

The boy pushes himself off the wall and his forehead scrunches with concern. Concern’s good. Concern means he’s not going to turn on me now that the others are out of the way. “Are you OK?” he asks.

OK? I’ve gone from thinking I’m Superwoman (OK, so maybe her evil twin) to having my ass handed to me. I learnt my beloved mom was one big, fat liar and now here’s a boy exhaling souls who might try to kill me any minute. It’s been one hell of a day.

But, it occurs to me he’s probably asking about all the blood and not my emotional turmoil.

I nod, then hold out my gown. “It’s not mine. Another man was attacked.” The boy makes to take off for the stairs – can’t have that! “Don’t leave me!” He pauses and I shake my head. “He’s dead. He was… torn apart.” The Hunger flares at the memory, and I look down to hide my exhilaration.

“I’m sorry,” he says, and I sneak a peek at him. “That must have been hard.”

I try not to snort.

I examine the boy from beneath a ragged curtain of hair. He still doesn’t look as if he suspects anything and an idea takes root. Despite his grungy appearance, the eyes are guileless and the face open. Giddiness sweeps through me. A second chance for some answers stands in front of me, wrapped in a simple-minded package.

I’ll need to tread carefully. Just because he’s against my enemies doesn’t mean he’s for me. In fact, had he shown up half an hour earlier, I suspect this would have been a very different conversation. If he senses I’m more than some hapless victim, this could still go sideways.

But the opportunity for some answers…

My… specialness was one of those we’ll-talk-about-it-when-you’re-older topics. Turns out, it wasn’t my getting older that became the issue, but my mom’s. Unfortunately there aren’t any equivalent books to How Babies Are Made to cover these particular gaps in my education. I know Mom didn’t plan to get murdered, but I still curse her lack of foresight. Never more so than today.

This boy might have the answers; I just have to take them from him. I consider the many tools at my disposal, eyeing his large blood-splattered frame, and settle on my weapon of choice – one so infrequently used I need to dust it off first.

My eyes fill with tears. “Wha–” I swallow hard “– what were those things?”

“Demons.” Thanks, Einstein. I got that part. “Turns out spiritual warfare is a lot less theoretical than you probably think.”

How many times had he practiced that line? I wouldn’t make judgments on what I think, silly boy. I let a tear trickle over.

He hurries to reassure me. “Don’t cry – I’ll protect you.”

Humiliating. Absolutely humiliating.

“What do they want?” I ask. The boy sits down on the floor next to me and pats my bruised back reassuringly. I try not to wince and look up at him like he’s my hero – which is equally painful.

“To destroy the world,” he says. Apparently wannabe monster-hunters tend towards the dramatic. I turn my attention to the body lying across from us to hide my irritation.

“Destroy the world?” I push. The boy sees where I’m looking and stands. He walks to where it lies and pulls a rustic-looking, clay globe from his belt. I recognize it as the same kind he had lobbed into the room; the kind that burned my shoulder. He pops a cork and pours liquid all over the corpse. The body starts to smoke and bubble. He turns back to me, holds the ball to his lips and takes a swig. I gasp.

“Don’t worry! It’s just water! Well, holy water. But it only hurts demons.”

I discreetly tug my nightgown’s neckline to more completely cover the burns on my shoulder.

He offers the ball to me. “Thirsty?”

I try not to look appalled.

“So, how do they try to destroy the world?” I ask again. He’s starting to make me consider the other tools in my arsenal. Speak, boy! 

He squats next to me and tucks his hair behind his ear with his free hand. We both watch the body dissolve. “By taking it over. Outnumbering the good guys till there aren’t any left. Most demons were once regular people who were convinced to sell their souls. Then, when they died, they became demons and started convincing others.”

Finally, some helpful information. I didn’t sell my soul – but maybe that doesn’t count for halflings. I feel as though the definition of that’s pretty self-explanatory. And colossal fibber though Mom’s turning out to be, I’m pretty sure she wasn’t a demon. “And the rest? How are the other demons made?”

“Some demons just are. I don’t really know the specifics, though there are a bunch of theories. Angels that sided with Lucifer during the fall, minions created by Satan the way God made Adam.” He shrugs. “I don’t really worry too much about theories – just enough so I know who to kill.” He grins toothily.

Under different circumstances, maybe we could have been friends.

He continues. “There are halflings, too – they’re born. Succubae and incubi trying to inflate the ranks ‘naturally’.”

Ding-ding-ding! I try to dial down the curiosity in my expression from tell-me-now-before-I-rip-your-head-off-and-try-to-suck-the-truth-out-of-it to “Please, do go on.” It must have worked because he keeps talking instead of trying to run.

“Demons also feed on souls, good people that they couldn’t turn – gives ‘em kind of a high. They especially try to murder Beacons – people who are particularly good or who will have a positive impact on the world. Da Vinci, Gandhi, Betty White and Mother Teresa are the classic examples, but there’s a bunch of other, much less well-known ones.” He gives me a meaningful glance and I freeze. He can’t know I eat souls. There’s no way. All he saw was the demons trying to kill me. Oh my God, he must mean…

Bahahahahahaha. He thinks I’m a Beacon. I look down to hide my twinkling eyes. Bad day or not, that’s hilarious.

“It’s OK. You don’t have to be scared, I’ll protect you.”

Big brawny man, protect this damsel! I try to look angelic and helpless – Beacon-ish. The haircut and the blood can’t be helping. Fortunately he seems particularly thick. “And wh– what are you, exactly?” My voice is sweet. Timid. Awed.

“Malachi Dupaynes, but you can call me Chi.”

I said what, not who. Funny, though, that his nickname rhymes with “die”. A sign, I wonder? We shake and our hands stick a little, because of all the blood.

“I’m a Crusader. Or at least I will be, once I graduate.” His chest puffs in that way of young men.

“But you’re so strong.” I fawn, I flutter. “Strong enough to fight that monster… you can’t be just a normal student.” I saw how he moved – he isn’t just a human.

“No, that’s in the blood. My ancestors have been fighting demons for centuries. We’ve been given certain… gifts… to help us.”

Crap. That doesn’t sound good. “How did you know I needed help?”

“I can sense demons – that’s part of it too.” Double crap. That doesn’t sound good at all. If this “demon-sensing” thing kicks in, I’m screwed. “I knew they were here so I came to rescue you.” His chest inflates. “It’s what Crusaders do.”

As he crouches biting distance away from this half-demon, I can’t help but think he has a startlingly short and unimpressive career ahead of him. Because, although he just saved my life, he makes a career out of hunting my kind. Not that I feel the teeniest bit of loyalty towards my “kind”, but it is going to be a problem once he senses what I am. There’s no choice really.

I’m going to have to kill him.

 

FOUR

 

Mom wouldn’t have liked it, but I find my near-death encounter has left me a little peeved with Mom at the moment. The killer part (ha, other than me) is it’s my second opportunity to learn who I am. I’ve been wandering aimlessly around North Carolina for almost two months without a single break and now I’ve had the opportunity to learn the truth twice in two hours.

And for the second time in two hours, I’m going to punch that opportunity in the face.

If my shoulder didn’t smart so bad, I’d reach up and pull my hair out.

But I don’t really have a choice. He managed three demons on his own – three demons who handily whooped my ass. Answers don’t mean a whole lot to a dead girl.

Even with Mom on mute, I still feel a little guilty about killing my rescuer. But what can I say? I’ve been known to bite the hand that feeds me. And anyway, he wouldn’t have saved me if he had known the truth. My savior would quickly try to become my murderer if he did.

I’ll compromise and make it quick. Having experienced the whole fear-and-pain thing, it’s the least I can do. I just need him to turn his back and it’ll be over before he knows it’s happening. I cast around for a distraction – and my eye lands on the most obvious in the room.