Damian Nettoyer is the Empire’s go-to gun. He kills whoever they want him to kill. In exchange, he and his rag-tag gang of crooks get to live, and Damian’s psychokinetic partner and lover, Aris, isn’t issued a one-way ticket to an Empire-sanctioned lobotomy.
Then Damian’s latest mark, a suave revolutionary named Raeyn, kicks his ass and demands his help. The first item on the new agenda: take out Damian’s old boss—or Raeyn will take out Damian’s crew.
To protect his friends and save his own skin, Damian teams up with Raeyn to make his revolution work. As Aris slips away from Damian and his control over his powers crumbles, the Watch catches on. Damian gets way too close to Raeyn, torn between the need to shoot him one minute and kiss him the next.
With the Empire, Damian had two policies: shoot first and don’t ask questions. But to save the guy he loves, he’ll set the world on fire.
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Shootings with a Chance of Explosions
FUNNY HOW I always had to be the guy who ended up with a gun to his head.
"I thought you said this was going to be easy," Aris said somewhere to my right. His voice was thick, the words choked out past the gun shoved underneath his jaw. The two Reds who kept us pinned were all broad shoulders and raw muscle. Huge white guys. Buzz cuts. Built like fucking tanks. In the low light of a fading sunset spilling into the empty warehouse, their leather coats gleamed like congealing blood.
The run had started out simple enough: get in, dump the cargo — a couple dozen barrels of diesel and some tech we'd snatched off a derailed train — and get the hell out. The place'd been abandoned for years, just another slouching ruin on the outskirts of Low Side. The perfect hiding spot to stash away things you didn't want the Watch to find, while waiting for the highest bidder to jump the gun. A surefire way to some quick and easy cash and still get to my real job for the night.
Standing there with my face mashed against the crumbling brick wall, a gun barrel against my skull, it looked more like a surefire way straight to a cell in the Finger of Light.
If we were lucky.
The guy above me seemed happy to put a bullet into my brainpan and chalk both Aris and me up as "casualties, resisting arrest." The Watch, safeguards of the Empire, the Consolidated Nations at their best. To protect and serve. Right.
I couldn't just tell our dear upstanding Reds to go ahead and stick their guns and handcuffs up their asses because we kind of were on the same team. I might be running the Empire's off-the-books hits for extra cash, but officially, I didn't exist. Blurting out I was on their boss's payroll wouldn't get me anything but a bullet to the head and my body dumped into the East River. Talk about employment perks.
That's what I got for double-booking myself. Fucking Murphy's Law.
And worse, I'd dragged Aris into it.
"Guess Jay was sugarcoating it a little when she said there might be slight complications."
Someone ratted us out. No way the Watch had just shown up here, far from their usual patrol routes, without any reason. The whole thing'd been a sting from the get-go, and once I found out who'd set us up —
My fingers twitched for my Colt. My Colt that lay cold and useless five feet away from me. Slim chance I'd be able to shoot both Reds before one of them got to either Aris or me, but I might get lucky and get the drop on one of them. Especially if I could piss him off enough he got stupid. At the very least I could distract them from Aris.
"You know, I kind of need to be somewhere. And I'd appreciate a little more leg room here," I said and squirmed under the Red's grip.
Honestly, by now I probably should've memorized some of the regulars' names or something. To me, they all looked the same. All fists ready to punch and guns ready to fire; neatly wrapped in black uniforms and their trademark red coats. Not like this was the first time either. By now, the Watch should issue us a punch card for frequent visits, maybe something with a rewards program.
The Red jerked me around and slammed my head into the murky stained-glass window to my right. Point taken. A distant rushing filled my ears. Spots started to slow-dance in front of my vision. I went down hard, twisting away from the Red's reach and blindly fumbling for my Colt. I'd barely moved before his boot came down on my fingers with a dry crunch. I bit back a grunt that came out more like a breathless scream.
"Next time it'll be your head," the Red — I mentally tagged him as Captain Crunch — said, towering above me, gun aimed at my forehead. If he shot me from that angle, there wouldn't be enough of my head left for Aris to scrape out of the wall cracks behind me.
Here was hoping he had more fun beating the shit out of me than making shooting me look like it'd been his only option.
The Red didn't shoot me. Instead, his knee dug into the small of my back, his free hand going for a pair of handcuffs. "In the name of the Empire of Light, I hereby place you under arrest for —"
"Oh, I don't think so," Aris said.
He'd been standing perfectly still, his head slightly bowed, a model of the "hands above your head and don't make a move" arrestee. The unthreatening kind. The kind who came quietly and wouldn't even think to make any trouble for our dear upstanding officers of the Watch who only did their job.
When he straightened, brushing away a few errant blond curls that'd slipped out of his loose ponytail, a slow smile curved his lips. A dangerous smile, turning positively radiant until it teetered on the edge of manic as he glanced from the guy above me to the one holding him.
"In fact, I'd suggest you two start running. This is going to get messy."
His eyes flicked to me. "Damian, stay down. And get out."
And like that, all color drained out of his eyes until they were a stark, milky white.
The Red pinning me tensed. He slapped his hand on his right ear to call out for reinforcements. His headset shorted out with a buzz and the burned-copper smell of fried electronics. The guy holding Aris cursed and flinched away, as if he'd been zapped by a high-voltage fence.
Aris didn't move. His expression wiped completely blank, like someone'd snuffed out the lights behind his eyes, now fixed on some point far above me.
Then he blinked.
I felt the zing of the Voyance crack through the air like a power surge. The window wall at my back blew up in a shower of broken glass and toppling bricks.
Sacred, bleeding fuck!
I managed to duck and roll away before half the wall collapsed on top of me. I flattened myself onto the ground and then scrambled to my feet, cursing and coughing through a cloud of red-brick dust settling on the crumbling remains scattered all over the cement floor and the cracked pavement outside.
The explosion hit the Red above me completely by surprise. I only spared him a quick glance to make sure his hunched form wasn't moving, and he wasn't faking being unconscious. Or dead. A slow trickle of blood ran down his temple where one of the flying bricks must've hit him. People died from less. I didn't push my luck.
I grabbed my Colt, its weight solid and familiar against my stiff, throbbing fingers.
"Over here." His voice was a thin thread, fraying at the edges. "Told you to get out."
I ignored that last bit. Aris stood only a few feet away from me, his back pressed against the remnants of the wall. His face was gray, and he was trembling badly; he probably would've fallen over if not for the second Red who kept him pinned.
"Fucking Voyant," the Red snarled, gun shoved against Aris's temple, ready to put him down. As if Aris was nothing but a rabid animal.
Aris stood perfectly still, blood running out his nose — a steady drip down the collar of his shirt. Looking at him, knowing how easily I could lose him, hurt worse than all the bruises and broken bones any Red could ever give me.
The Red's finger tightened around the trigger. I shot him in the head. His body sagged sideways and hit the ground with a meaty thud, his gun slipping uselessly from his fingers.
"Just to be clear," I said to the body at my feet. "He's my fucking Voyant, so back the fuck off."CHAPTER 2
Magic is not a Good Thing
"HEY." I REACHED out to Aris. "You okay?"
"Fine." Aris looked pale and shaky, eyes darting from me down to the dead Red and back. He swallowed and took a wobbly step toward me, but halfway through, his legs gave out and he slid into a crouch, his head resting against the remnants of the wall.
I dropped to my knees in front of him. "Hey, easy there. Easy. Shit, since when can you blow things up with your brain?"
"Since about five minutes ago?" Aris's breathing was shallow, his skin clammy and gray against my warm brown hand on his throat, his pulse beating a fluttering staccato.
"I'm fine," he said again, lips curved in the beginning of a smile, but his eyes weren't with it. At least they'd turned back to their usual hazel. Definitely a step up from his creepy-ass white Voyant eyes. "Liked my escape plan?"
"Escape plan. That what you call this?" I waved at the giant hole in the wall along with the mess of jagged glass and bricks around us.
Aris winced. "I guess it might need a little refining as far as accuracy is concerned."
"Well, it worked."
"Yeah and almost got you killed." I continued to check him over. Aris looked like shit. Worse than I'd ever seen him after he used the Voyance. 'Course, he'd never done anything even close to this. How long until he'd use too much? Till he wouldn't get up again?
It'd kill him eventually. The Voyance was like a virus that took no prisoners. It'd use him up, body and mind. And if he was very, very lucky, it'd do it in that order.
I swallowed and ran a hand through my loose curls. "Damn, Aris. What were you thinking, blasting about with the Voyance? He almost fucking shot you!"
Aris shrugged. He dodged my eyes. "That's what I keep you around for, remember?"
"To do the dirty work and save your ass?"
"Well, yeah. Only I saved your ass first. I mean, I blew up a wall. That has got to count for something in the dirty-work department." He grinned, a glimmer of mischief in his eyes. He slumped against me. "Gods, I'm glad that worked."
He reached out for my face, dabbing at something on the side of my cheek with his sleeve. It left a dark stain on the black fabric of his shirt. Blood. On the scale of gross things likely to splatter you during a casual shootout, it could've been worse.
Aris didn't pull away. His hands warm and searching against my face as if he had to make sure I was really here. That made two of us. "Damn, that was close." Aris leaned in.
"Yeah." I wouldn't let myself think about just how close.
I didn't do public touchy-feely stuff. But right then, with his face only inches from mine and his lips slightly parted, I was pretty sure I could make an exception. Just for a second.
I didn't get much further than feeling my mouth brush against his before the rustle of feet scampering across scattered rubble jerked me out of my Aris-induced stupor. I spotted the tapered coils of Jay's hair poke through the hole Aris'd blasted into the warehouse front.
"You know, I don't want to interrupt you guys sucking face — ew by the way! — but the cavalry is down the road, so I suggest you move it," Jay said and squeezed all of her five-foot-nothing frame through the opening. At seventeen, Jay might've been the runt of the gang, but she was brilliant. She'd managed to hack into the Empire's mainframe at fifteen. Iltis knew what she was doing when she'd snatched Jay up.
"Yo! One of them's still moving!" Jay jumped back from the groggily stirring Red but got in a well-aimed kick to the bastard's temple, and he sagged forward again. "Looks like someone didn't finish his job." She eyed me as I got up and drew Aris to his feet. He managed to only lean on me a little.
I glared right back at Jay. "That coming from the one who said that according to her intel, this run was going to be a piece of cake. Forgot the part about how a patrol of Reds was likely to show up in your calculations, Grasshopper?"
Jay held up her hands. "Oh, come on. There were only two of them. Used to be two Reds didn't even qualify as a warm-up for you. Getting a bit rusty in your old age?"
She turned to Aris. "Love the redecorating, by the way. Genius how you opened up the space."
"You're pushing it, kiddo."
I kicked aside some debris as Aris and I made it out of the half- collapsed building, biting off a comment about how at twenty-nine, I was a long way from "old age." 'Course, the way life went in Low Side, she might actually not be that far off. There was a reason you barely saw any old guys around there.
Also, fuck numbers, Reds could be sneaky bastards.
Something moved in the corner of my eye. I tightened my grip on Aris and turned, poised to shield him, Colt in hand and ready to fire.
Only all I was pointing it at was a heap of bricks and broken glass.
"What?" Jay said, her eyes following mine.
I lowered my Colt, but kept a hand on it, and walked over to the pile of rubble. I could've sworn I'd seen something. A shadow. A guy in a long coat with a hat ...
"Nothing," I said after a moment. "It's nothing."
I peered back into the bowels of the warehouse, just to make sure. Empty except for the two Reds — one unconscious, and one very dead. Jumping at shadows. Great. I rubbed my eyes and tucked my Colt away.
Guess that's what I got for trying to run two jobs in one night: One with the crew, another one I'd finish later, a hit in the making for weeks now, with my boss breathing down my neck to make a move. Only that my "boss" in this case happened to be the commander of the Watch, the biggest and baddest Red in town, Faelle Valyr herself. You didn't keep her waiting. I may be a free agent, but Valyr took deadlines a tad literally.
I sighed. "Let's get out of this dump." And let's hope this near-miss wasn't some fucked-up omen about how the rest of the night was going to go. I couldn't afford any more.
"Best idea you've had all night." Jay skipped a step and hopped over a wide crack in the pavement.
"You got the goods stashed away in time?" I asked as we walked down the road, out of the jagged shadows of Helos's warehouse district.
Jay nodded. "Ditched the hover at the Shadow. I clearly can't leave Bonnie with you lot, the kind of trouble you get in."
I made a face. "You know it's weird to name things, right? It's a godsdamned hover, Jay."
"She's my hover and she's earned her name. Do you have any idea how hard it was to find a working transducer to make her run again?" Jay pursed her lips. "Anyway, stash's safe."
I sighed and rubbed my temples. Good thing Jay'd gotten out when she did, never mind her griping how she never got in on the action. At least we had something to show for getting our asses handed to us by the Reds.
Still, the whole idea'd been to avoid attracting attention by keeping business away from the Shadow. No way we'd have potential buyers of all colors of the moral gray-zone rainbow that was Low Side amble into the place where we lived. Iltis would have a fucking coronary. Right after she'd kick our asses to the other side of the moon.
We'd have to take care of that later. For now, everything sat as safe as it'd get and we needed to clear as much ground as possible before the Reds came picking up after themselves.
I probably should've saved us some trouble and put a bullet into the head of Captain Crunch, who was still conked out in La La Land, but unlike the Reds, I had standards. Which included not shooting a guy who was already down. At least I tried not to make a habit out of it.
'Sides, keeping the Reds off our backs was what good old-fashioned bribery was for.
Here in the dregs of Helos — New York before the Consolidation Wars of 2090 turned most of this world into a crater a little more than thirty years ago — money bought you everything. Life. Liberty. Protection. That kind of thing.
With the Watch, it bought you what they liked to call benign indulgence. Long as you paid up on time and didn't fuck up too big, they'd turn their backs on crookery, the occasional heist, maybe even a knifing or two. Kind of a mutual business arrangement that kept the black markets of Low Side afloat and petty crooks like us flush while lining the Reds' pockets with plenty of cash. The only catch was sometimes they'd start to ask for something other than money. That's when you knew you were in deep shit.
"I've got to go," Aris said as we turned down the Rue Lumineuse toward the Place du Marché.
"You're not serious." I caught his arm, grabbing him tight enough to bruise. "You're not going to go to Laras tonight. Not after —"
I broke off at the look Aris gave me. His stubborn we're-so-not- having-this-discussion kind of look cut right through his tiredness. He sighed, closed his free hand around mine, and something else, a desperate exhaustion he'd tried so hard to mask earlier carved into the hollows of his face. "Damian, please. I need —"
I nodded. Squeezed his hand. "You need me to leave and let Laras fuck you."
Aris bit his lip, guilt so obviously warring with relief, it tightened my throat. "Yes. Please."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Empire of Light"
Copyright © 2019 Alex Harrow.
Excerpted by permission of NineStar Press, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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