Waking was painful.
My head felt like it was full of roaches trying to claw their way out, and my body was on fire. Sweat poured from my forehead and down my spine, and the T‑shirt I wore under my jacket was soaked.
But none of that mattered. Understanding the situation did. And that meant concentrating every bit of awareness on my surroundings and what was going on.
I guess the most obvious fact was that I still lived, which surprised me. Given everyone’s reactions, I’d expected the opposite.
I lay sprawled against cold metal, and the air was not only heated and still, but also ripe with the scent of urine and rubbish. There was no one close—no one I could smell or hear, anyway. I was fully clothed, and—despite the ache in my head and the fire in my body—unhurt. But the weight of my weapons was gone; no surprise there, especially if they’d believed Penny—and the question of how she’d known my true name let alone even suspect I was déchet was a point I could worry about once I’d escaped. If I escaped.
I opened my eyes, only to be greeted by a light so harsh I blinked back tears. Vampire lights. They were using vampire lights on me. I would have laughed had I not felt so shitty.
While I couldn’t actually become light—as I could become shadow—I could certainly make it appear as if I had. It was a skill that had allowed me to get out of situations like this in the past. If a cell appeared empty—if it appeared the prisoner had already escaped—there was little reason to lock said cell back up.
Of course, it wasn’t a skill that all déchet had, just those of us designed to be lures and assassins—and we’d been few enough in number.
Little fingers patted my face. It was a reassuring touch, but both Cat and Bear were confused and angry, and their emotions stung the air. I opened my hand and briefly wrapped my fingers around the energy of theirs.
“It’ll be okay,” I said softly. “We’ll be okay.”
They hummed, happy that I was awake but not really reassured. I pushed upright, but far too fast. Pain hit like a sledgehammer, so sharp it felt like my head was about to split apart. I hissed and hugged my knees to my chest, breathing slowly and deeply until the sensation faded. Once it did, I studied my surroundings. The room was little more than a ten-feet-square metal box—which was huge in a place where space was at a premium—and had obviously been, at one point in its life, a storage container, as there were no windows and the walls were pockmarked with welded-over drill holes that must have once held shelving in place. Silver mesh covered all four walls and the ceiling. This was a room designed to hold shifters and vampires, meaning Nuri’s place was more than just a bar. And though this prison should have set off my fear of enclosed spaces, it didn’t. Maybe it was the light. Or maybe the fear of not knowing what these people wanted or intended was drowning out everything else.
I glanced at the door. It, too, was silver-coated and made of thickened steel, with only a minute space between the bottom of the door and the floor. Even so, I might be able to get out that way, but not until the weakness that assailed my body eased. Shadowing in light was extremely hard and not always successful; to have any hope of escaping that way, I needed full strength.
I studied the ceiling again, squinting against the harshness of the lights. I couldn’t see anything to indicate I was being monitored, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t.
Bear, I thought. Explore.
He hummed with pleasure and whipped through me, connecting us on a level far deeper than what we’d achieved in the park, because this time, the connection lingered once he pulled free.
I closed my eyes and saw through his.
There was a dark lane little more than a foot and a half wide just beyond my cell, and the air stirred sluggishly, suggesting there was a vent of some sort nearby. Bear spun around, but there were no other buildings behind my cell—nothing but a glimpse of stained silver that was Central’s curtain wall. Unbidden, he turned again and moved down the little lane, checking the small rooms to the left and right, finding nothing but wet, musty darkness. But as he drifted toward a short flight of stairs, voices began to edge across the silence—thick, angry voices. Bear followed the sound into a room slightly larger than mine. A half dozen chairs that had seen better days encircled a small electric stove on which several blackened pots sat. One held little more than water, and the other some sort of meat and vegetable mix.
The voices were coming from the next room. Bear whisked through the wooden door, then stopped. We were back in the bar. One of the shifters—a female—leaned against the bar while Nuri stood in the middle of the room, her hands on her hips as she glared at the second of the shifters. He was a thickset man with a mass of golden hair and yellow eyes. Lion, I thought, as Bear drifted closer.
“Fuck it to hell, Branna,” Nuri all but exploded. “Did you have to use the Iruakandji on her?”
Iruakandji. No wonder it felt like I was knocking on death’s door. That particular drug had been developed in the latter part of war by the HDP, but rarely used. While it did kill shifters with great alacrity, it had proven unviable as a weapon not only because it was extremely costly to make, but because it was just as deadly to déchet, no matter how little shifter blood they had in them.
What was even more interesting, though, was the fact this lot not only had access to it, but kept it close enough to use.
“If there’s even the slightest possibility she’s a fucking déchet,” Branna said, flinging his arms out wide to emphasize his point, “then what does it matter? They’re supposed to be dead, and now she is.”
“Most of us are supposed to be dead, Branna. Does that mean you’re going to use the poison on Jonas? Or Ela?”
“He’d better not try,” the brown-haired woman said without looking up, “or he’ll find his balls shoved in the back of his fucking throat.”
Branna grimaced. “Look, that’s totally different, and you know it.”
“What I know,” Nuri said, “is that the déchet were designed to kill all shifters on sight. And yet this woman—if she was a déchet, and we have no real proof that she was—saved not only Penny, but a ranger. I wanted to know why.”
“Well, it’s one of life’s little questions that’s going to have to remain a mystery, isn’t it, because I can’t fucking undo what I did.”
And he didn’t want to, if his expression was anything to go by. Although if they were expecting me to be dead, then they were going to be pretty disappointed. When the HDP made those who were destined to become lures, they’d ensured we were immune to all known toxins and poisons. They had to, because that’s generally how lures killed when tasked to do so. Which didn’t mean we suffered no ill effects—we did. We just didn’t die from them—though I’d certainly prayed to Rhea to swiftly take both the little ones and me when they’d filled our bunker with Draccid.
But then, Draccid was a particularly insidious gas that entered the body through breath or via exposed flesh, and melted you from the inside out. It was a hideous way to die—something I knew because I’d come very close to death myself. In fact, the strong psychic connection I had with Cat and Bear was undoubtedly due to the fact that they’d not only died in my arms, but that some of our DNA had mingled on that dreadful day.
But being immune didn’t make me immortal. Far from it. Any regular weapon that would kill a vampire could kill me, with the exception of light.
“I just wish you’d fucking think before you react for a change!” Nuri swung around and headed for the door. “I dreamed of her coming for a reason, Branna, and—”
She stopped abruptly and stared at the empty space where Bear hovered. And given the slight narrowing of her gaze, I had no doubt she was aware not only of him, but of my link with him.
“Well, well, well,” she added. “Maybe all is not as lost as we thought. Branna, go see if Jonas is awake and aware, and get him to meet me down in the cell if he is.”
He muttered something under his breath, but turned on his heel and disappeared through another doorway.
Nuri took a step in our direction. “So, little ghost—”
Bear turned and fled before she could finish, and I can’t say I blamed him. He wasn’t used to confronting someone like her—hell, I wasn’t used to confronting someone like her, but obviously, I soon would be.
Bear whisked into the cell, and I held out my hand. He came to rest on my palm, and I flooded our connection with soothing energy. After a while, he calmed down enough to sever the link, then drift upward, hovering near the ceiling. Cat remained near my left shoulder, her energy dancing across my skin like tiny fireflies.
I took a deep breath and released it slowly, but it didn’t do much to ease the tension that ripped through my burning limbs. Damn it, I needed to get out of here! I might often hunger for company that was solid rather than ghostly, but I’d rather spend another hundred years alone with my ghosts than endure five minutes in the company of people like these.
The big question was, though, would I even last long enough to escape?
Nuri might want to question me, but she’d made no mention of actually keeping me alive after that.
I flexed my fingers. I had to stop worrying over things I could do nothing about. It was time to focus on the things I could—like the storm of poison ripping through my body.
I crossed my legs and closed my eyes, focusing on my breathing, on every intake of air as it washed through my nostrils and down into my lungs, until a sense of calm began to descend. It was in this state that my body had been designed to fast-track healing, and, after a few heartbeats, the fire in my flesh began to ease, as did the ache in my head.
The cell door retracted. I didn’t open my eyes, concentrating on the repair, desperate to get as close to full working order as was possible. Even so, I knew the first person to step into the room was Nuri. Interestingly, she didn’t have any particular scent, although the smell of ale, soap, and water clung to her clothes. It wasn’t her,though.
She didn’t say anything, didn’t do anything. She just stood there, studying me. After several moments, I realized she was waiting for Jonas. He eventually arrived and filled the air with the scent of cat, wind, and evening rain—an odd but interesting combination. But there was also a darkness to his scent that had the hairs along the back of my neck rising. There was anger and barely controlled violence in that darkness, and it reminded me forcibly that whatever else this man was, he belonged to a breed of soldier that had single-mindedly mutilated and killed my kind.
Nuri finally walked around me, her steps light despite her large frame. My skin twitched at her closeness, crawled with the sense of her power.
The ghosts crowded closer, their little bodies pressed against mine, their fear and anger clawing at my inside. Calm, just stay calm, I whispered internally, not entirely certain who I was trying to reassure—them or me.
As Nuri’s fiery presence retreated toward the doorway, I finally opened my eyes.
Only to meet Jonas’s gaze.
Something within me tightened; it wasn’t fear, but something far more base. I’d been specifically designed to be like honey to a bee when it came to shifters, but a side effect was that I was inordinately attracted to them. And even though there was far more to me than the task for which I’d been bred, I couldn’t entirely deny my nature. Not even now, in a situation as uncertain as this.
If he felt even an inkling of attraction, it certainly wasn’t showing—not in his scent, and not in his expression or body language. In fact, not even the darkness I sensed within him showed in those vivid, cat-green depths. Indeed, given the casual way he leaned a shoulder against the door frame, it would have been easy to believe he wasn’t particularly interested in either me or whatever was about to happen.
At least he appeared to be over whatever it was that had assailed him—even if his sun-browned skin still seemed pale and his cheeks held a slight gauntness that made his sharp nose look even more aristocratic. Even with that nose—or maybe because of it—he could definitely be called handsome. But not classically so—there was a roughness to his features that made them far more interesting than beautiful.
“Why did you attack me?” My words came out stronger than I expected, and for that I was grateful. If I was to have any hope of convincing them I wasn’t déchet, then I couldn’t give any indication that the drug they’d administered had had any effect.
“Penny said you were déchet.” The back of Nuri’s skirts swished like some gigantic black curtain as she stopped near the doorway. “And she’s not a child inclined to untruths.”
“Penny also said that she’d never met you,” I replied evenly. “And that is patently untrue.”
“No, it isn’t, simply because we haven’t met in person. I know of her only through the dreams.”
“Meaning what? That you’re some kind of witch?”
“Some kind.” She crossed her arms and leaned against the wall. Obviously I’d been right in guessing she was full human, because the silver curtain had no effect on the unprotected areas of her skin.
“So you take the word of a child you’ve never actually met, and attack the stranger responsible for saving both her and one of your own? Nice. Real nice.”
“Perhaps not, but our reaction is understandable if you are what Penny says you are.”
“I’m not. You should be able to see that just by looking at me.”
“Unlikely,” Jonas growled. His voice was deep, rich, and oddly melodious, despite the anger within it. I doubted he’d originated from anywhere around here, as those from both Central and Chaos seemed to have a more guttural edge. “There were many rumors during the war about déchet who bore neither the marks nor the scent of their kind.”
I raised an eyebrow. “And there were just as many rumors stating they could fly and walk through walls. Neither of those were true, from what I’ve read. Besides, didn’t your lot ensure all remaining déchet were obliterated after the war?”
“And yet you apparently live in the remains of one of their major bases,” Nuri noted. “And wear the military uniform of the déchet.”
“I live in a couple of rooms, one of which is a storeroom containing—among other things—tons of uniforms,” I corrected. “Last I heard, that wasn’t a crime.”
“It is when you’re carrying weapons not seen since the war,” Jonas growled. “And you’re using tunnels that were supposed to be blocked.”
“The main entrances are blocked,” I replied, with a calm I certainly wasn’t feeling. Despite his nonchalance, it was obvious he wanted to fight—wanted to attack—and the strength of that desire was so strong it rolled across my skin like a heated caress. And there was a tiny, insane part of me that wished—longed—for that caress to be real rather than mere emotion. “As I said, there are only a couple of usable areas.”
“Not according to Penny,” he said.
“Penny’s a child. I wouldn’t take everything she says as gospel.”
“Penny’s not what—”
“Jonas, enough,” Nuri cut in softly, making me wonder just what the shifter had been about to reveal.
I shifted my gaze to her. “I’m not a déchet, but whether you choose to believe that is entirely up to you.”
“Perhaps,” she said. “Wipe your cheek.”
I raised an eyebrow. “You could have checked my cheek when I was unconscious.”
“We tried.” Levity briefly touched her voice. “But I’m afraid your ghosts were rather reluctant to let us close to you.”
Then how in hell had they gotten me into the cell? Magic? I eyed Nuri for a moment, suspecting that might well be possible.
Thank you for trying, little ones, I said, then scraped the end of my sleeve across my cheek as ordered. There was no identifying bar code hidden by face paint, nothing inked into my skin or under it. Our creators had been well aware that their seducers and assassins needed to be totally unidentifiable by normal déchet means.
Nuri frowned. “Nothing. And yet—”
“Nothing obvious,” the shifter cut in, “but that doesn’t prove anything. Penny isn’t often wrong.”
He uncrossed his arms and revealed a small silver cylinder. I couldn’t help a mental snort. It seemed I wasn’t the only one who had access to wartime technology. That cylinder produced a spectrum of light similar to ultraviolet, and it was the only light that could reveal the tattoo inked into the cheekbones of soldier déchet.
He flicked it on. The light hit my cheek, caressing my skin with its cold heat. Had I possessed any more vampire than I did, it would have burned.
Something flickered in the shifter’s eyes—disappointment mixed with frustration, perhaps.
“So,” Nuri said, snapping my attention away from Jonas. “It would seem you aren’t a déchet.”
“As I believe I’ve already said,” I replied. “But I’m guessing the revelation of that fact doesn’t mean you’ll actually let me go.”
Amusement briefly crinkled the corners of her eyes. “Well, not yet, but only because I believe you might be able to help us.”
“I’ve helped you already, and look where it’s gotten me.” My gaze flicked back to Jonas. “I should have let the vampires tear you apart, shifter.”
His expression hardened, and I hadn’t thought that was possible. “So why didn’t you?”
“Because I promised Penny I wouldn’t.”
“As you so aptly pointed out not so long ago, Penny’s a child. You could have easily taken her and left me to die.”
“No, I couldn’t—”
“Because of that promise,” Nuri said softly, “and because you could not bear to see another child die.”
A chill went through me. I glanced sharply at her, but her gaze was unfocused, distant. Mind reader, I thought. Or, perhaps, a mind seeker. Unlike telepaths, seekers couldn’t directly read thoughts. Instead, they picked up a mix of emotion and mental images, and made judgments from those. In some ways, I was a seeker myself. Catching the emotive output of our targets was part of the reason why lures had been such successful spies. Either way, it meant I’d have to watch what I thought and imagined around her.
“My reasons for rescuing them are really not important.” I said it louder than necessary in an effort to snap the other woman from her dream. “So why don’t we get back to discussing whatever it is you actually want from me?”
Nuri blinked and her gaze refocused. But something decidedly dangerous glimmered briefly in her eyes. It oddly reminded me of the darkness I’d seen stirring in Penny’s, and it made me uneasy. Something was going on with these people. Something more than just kidnapping a stranger who’d rescued two of their own.
The ghosts stirred, and their energy stung the air, a gentle reminder of the hell they could release if I gave the word.
But I couldn’t do that yet. The simple fact was, even if I could get past these two, there were still the woman and the lion shifter. And if I managed to overpower them, the rest of Chaos stood between us and the safety of our bunker.
If it became clear they intended to kill me, however, then I’d unleash hell and take my chances. I wouldn’t go down without a fight. Not ever again.
Nuri said, “As I said, all we really want is your help.”
I laughed, and it was a bitter sound. “So instead of merely asking, you attempt to poison me and then you lock me up. Great way to gain my trust, I must say.”
“Why in hell would you expect trust, given Penny’s declaration?” Jonas retorted. “You’re a trained killer—”
“If I were a déchet, then yeah, your reaction might have been understandable,” I snapped back. “But I’m not. The mere fact I’m sitting here talking to you after being injected with Iruakandji proves that.”
“The Iruakandji also proves you are not full shifter, or else you would be far sicker,” Nuri commented, with another warning look at Jonas. “So what are you, precisely?”
“I’m the result of a shifter-and-human pairing.” The lie was automatic, and the only real way I could explain the fact I’d basically escaped the major effects of the drug. Humans were—for reasons I didn’t understand—immune to it. My gaze flicked to Jonas’s as I added, “And we all know what shifters feel about half-human bastards, even in this day and age, don’t we?”
He snorted. “There’s no human in you. I would smell it if there were.”
I raised an eyebrow. “So you’re saying my mother—may Rhea be gentle with her soul—was lying?”
“Either she was, or you are.”
“Jonas, enough.” Nuri’s gaze was again intense, and her expression somewhat distracted. I kept still, both in body and thought. After a moment, she grunted and added, “What we need from you is simply your anonymity.”
My eyebrows rose. “Meaning what?”
“Meaning, we’ve done a quick record search, and there’s no one in Central’s system who matches your description. That will be a bonus when it comes to investigating what has happened to Penny.”
“I never said I was from Central.” And if they could access Central’s records, they were far more than mere mercenaries. So what were they doing here in Chaos?
“No, you did not.” Nuri hesitated. “According to Penny, you had no trouble seeing at night, and that might also be of benefit.”
My confusion deepened. “Why?”
“Because even before the war, all of us who live in the cities—both human and shifter—had grown too used to the lights. As a result, we are all but night blind.” Nuri studied me for a moment, then added, “As you would know if you grew up in this place. Or any other major city, in fact.”
I ignored the intent behind that statement, my gaze roaming from her to Jonas and back again. “You live in Chaos, not Central. This place is nothing but shadows.”
“Shadows are not night. There is a difference, trust me.”
I contemplated them. It certainly explained the light both in the bar and here. It also explained why the upper reaches of Chaos had a greater percentage of light per dwelling than the lower. More money meant more access, and more access meant greater safety.
And it meant that if I did get out of this room, I could very easily get free. I was at home in the darkness; they were not.
If they were telling the truth, that is.
“So every child born today suffers this problem?”
“Not all, certainly. There are always a few genetic throwbacks born in every generation. But Jonas is the only one in our unit who isn’t night blind.”
A chill went through me. Unit was an altogether too military-sounding word for my liking. And yet there was nothing about Nuri herself that spoke of military experience.
Her expression wasn’t giving anything away, and I couldn’t feel anything along the emotive lines. “Why are you investigating what happened to Penny and her parents? Why isn’t the corps doing so?” My gaze flickered to the ranger. “Or is this where you come into the story?”
“I’m not corps.” It was bluntly said, but there was an edge to his voice that hinted at anger. I briefly wondered if there was ever a time when he actually felt something other than anger.
“But you were.” My gaze went to the three slashes stretching down from his right temple. “Otherwise you would not bear their markings.”
“I was,” he agreed. “But I now work with Nuri.”
“As a mercenary?” It was, I believed, what they wanted everyone to think, but something about this whole situation—and them—didn’t sit right.
She nodded. “We are all mercenaries, of one sort or another.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Meaning you sell your seeker skills to those who can afford you?”
“Interesting that you noticed my ability in that area,” she drawled. “There are few enough these days who have even heard of seekers, let alone are able to tell if they’re being read.”
“There are few about these days who can see ghosts,” I replied evenly. “But you and I can.”
“Suggesting you are also something of a reader.”
“Something,” I agreed, in much the same manner as she had earlier.
She smiled and tilted her head a little. “I like you.”
I raised my eyebrows again. “Which doesn’t mean you won’t set your dogs on me if it suits your purpose.”
She laughed, a startling, huge sound in the confined space of the cell. “It doesn’t indeed. Although they’re mostly cats rather than dogs.” She shifted her weight from one foot to the other. “But to answer your question, yes, I do sell my skills, and there are plenty willing to pay. Central might hold itself up as a great and worthy city, but for many it has lost its shine.”
Meaning what, exactly? I had no idea, but I guessed that was no surprise given the only contact I had with Central was either raids for supplies or quests to ease more basic needs.
“So why aren’t the corps investigating the attack?” My gaze flicked to Jonas again. “And why were you two in the old park if Penny was attacked in Central?”
“Because Penny wasn’t in Central when I rescued her,” Jonas replied.
“And Central’s councillors are investigating the attack,” Nuri added. “But they can’t use the corps. They can’t afford to.”
I frowned. “Why not?”
“Because this attack is not the first, and they do not want the general population becoming aware that incursions by the wraiths are increasing in frequency.”
“How many are we talking about?”
“Fourteen over the past two years.”
Fourteen. By Rhea . . . “All from Central?”
“Ten from Central, four from Chaos. Ours were blamed on vampires, but the remainder were not.”
“Then what is the council doing to stop them? And how are they even getting into the city?”
“No one knows.” Nuri’s voice held a grim edge. “No rifts have appeared within Central, and the lights should have killed any wraith that breached the walls.”
Then how in the hell could the wraiths be snatching these children? They couldn’t. Someone—or something—else had to be at the heart of all this.
“So you two got involved when Penny’s family was attacked?” I paused, remembering Nuri’s comment. “Or are you the nonofficial investigators?”
If they were, I could not get mixed up in the situation. Not even if there were other children involved. I might be able to fool Nuri and Jonas, but the government had access to records and equipment these two would never have.
“We were not involved until Penny went missing.”
Which didn’t mean they weren’t on the government payroll now. “How long ago did the attack happen?”
“Four months ago. She was the fourteenth child taken.”
Fourteenth child. I closed my eyes again, fighting back the fury. I couldn’t get involved. I really couldn’t. But that didn’t stop my asking, “Why would wraiths kill the parents and snatch the children? That’s not the way they usually operate.”
“If we knew what they were up to,” Jonas said, his voice dark, “we might actually have some chance of stopping them.”
“Meaning the other missing children weren’t with Penny?”
“No. She somehow escaped wherever she was being held,” Nuri said heavily. “And contacted me via dreams only two days ago.”
If Penny was also a seeker—and the fact she’d contacted Nuri via dreams suggested that was very much the case—then it certainly explained how she’d known my name and what I was. She’d simply plucked the information from the emotive swirl of my thoughts. Or maybe even from the ghosts—after all, as a seeker she could both see and communicate with them, and the younger children might not have been aware of the dangers in telling her.
“And she can’t tell you anything about where she was kept or what they were doing?”
“Nothing. She has no memory of that time, beyond what she has already told you.”
“So what is it, exactly, you want me to do?”
Nuri contemplated me for a moment, and unease swept through me. I didn’t like that look. Didn’t like the sharpening of anger radiating from the shifter.
“There’s one thing Penny probably didn’t tell you,” she said eventually. “Her parents weren’t killed at night, but rather the middle of the day.”
“Impossible,” I said immediately. If there were two truths in this world, it was that neither vampire nor Other could stand the touch of the sun.
“So we’d all thought,” she agreed. “But the truth cannot be denied. We are dealing with a new breed of wraith. One that has gained full immunity to the sun.”