Imprisoned from childhood. Forced to hunt his own kind.Taught by the Sanctum from a young age that his uncanny powers were a mark of the demon inside of him, Two was given a choice: submit to the will of Alpha, become a Seeker, and earn his redemption by hunting others like him... or refuse, and die.
Introduction (Read for OPTIONAL context)
Remember Smirks the Seeker from Shadows of Divinity?
(It's totally fine if you don't. You can still read the following story as a standalone.)
Man, that guy was a beardsplitter. Especially in the early drafts.
But, as I'm wont to do, the more I toyed with the story (and there was a LOT of toying), the more I found myself leaning into the idea of giving him a redemption of sorts towards the end (I won't say more, for fear that that's already kind of a spoiler).
The only problem?
Smirks was still too much of a dick for that redemption business to even make sense.
Lisa, as she so often does, keyed straight in on this and was basically like, "I know you probably know in your head what this guy is thinking and why, but it's totally not coming across on the page."
(Joke was on her, by the way. I had NO IDEA what that smirk-happy Seeker was thinking. Not beyond my naive little belief that bad )
So, like a good little author boy, I went back to the drawing board to hash out a little character sketch that would help me understand how Smirks (AKA Garrett, for those of you who recall) could possibly have taken the path he did. I retooled the relevant scenes in Shadows of Divinity. I started to realize their was more to the story than that--details that would be pertinent not just through Book One but through the rest of the Enochian War trilogy.
So I started writing.
I knew not what I was doing.
And, long story short, we've now got ourselves a shiny new novel!
It begins about 2 years before the events of Shadows of Divinity and—SPOILER ALERT—ends up overlapping to show Garrett's side of things at key points throughout the story.
Spoiler alert #2: I think it's a pretty fun time.
... You know, in like, the dark-and-brooding kind of way.
Anyway, I'm planning on releasing a few more chapters every two weeks, so bookmark this page and stay tuned!
Now, let me tell you a story.
P.S. I happened to notice there are a few erratic spacing issues--I think from copying and pasting the story from the source over to the site here. Sorry about those, but I'm gonna go ahead and keep working on new stories rather than spend extra hours hunting them down. All should be right in the final version!
Chapter 1 - Natural Born
“We’ve got ‘em,” crackled a gruff voice in Two’s earpiece.
He perked up, downing the rest of his watery caffa and chuckingthe cheap cup. “I might need a location with that spot of sunshine, Ordo…” Whatwas it, again? Ordo Franklin? Ordo Fenner? Scud if he could remember.
“They’re holed up in the back docks, sir,” came Ordo Whatever’sreply. There was the muffled sound of movement in the background. “Sending navnow.”
Two straightened the fingers of his left hand, and his palmlightmap sprang to life a second before the red blip appeared at the southeasternedge of Divinity, right alongside the Red River. “Got it. Perimeter?”
“Moving into position now, sir.”
A bitter smirk pulled across Two’s mouth at the tone of the Ordo’svoice. The one good part about working with legionnaires: they didn’t askquestions. This guy didn’t have a clue who the scud Two actually was, and itdidn’t matter. The orders came down from above, and Ordo Whatever hopped toTwo’s command like a happy hound, tail-a-thumping.
“Great work, Ordo. You just sit tight until I get there.” Theamusement drained. “These two aren’t your everyday apostates.”
Two killed the connection and raised his palmlight to hail anautoskimmer.
Fifteen minutes later, he was soaring over the lower industrial area, skirting past the head docks straight for the dilapidated mass of rotted wood and blighted permacrete that was the back docks. The place was like a rodent’s nest of walkways, winding their twisted paths between the hundreds of tiny scuddy huts where poorer-than-dirt fishermen and scavengers squatted between their measly attempts at producing something of value. It was exactly the kind of place Two hated—not because of the dirt and the squalor, but because there were just too damn many winding paths and hidey holes to complicate his life.
Then again, he decided as he climbed out of the autoskimmer to thewaiting reception of three ragged homeless men, he didn’t love the dirt and thesqualor all that much either. They watched with a kind of stern expectation,brows furrowed and hands outstretched, their fingertips blackened and reekingof fish and sweet tar.
It was his fault he was here at all. There was no getting aroundthat. He should’ve nabbed the apostates back in the slums, but one of them hadspooked far too quickly. Which meant she—or maybe he, but his gut said she—waswell-attuned. And when a demon actually knew enough to catch Two’s probing andslip capture once…
Maybe he should’ve called for backup.
But grop that. He didn’t need Three—or,Alpha be cursed, One—stepping in here and trying to control his every move. No.He was perfectly capable of handling a couple rogue demons on his own. And ifnot… well, maybe today would be the day.
With that cheery thought in mind, he stepped forward—only to havehis three waiting tarheads shuffle in a little closer, walling him in, frownsdarkening. Half-beggars. Half-robbers. Even more charming.
He half-thought about reaching for his power and scaring themproperly, but he quelled the idea as soon as it surfaced. That was the road tolosing control—to letting the demon take over for good. So instead, he calmlypulled his jacket open and showed them the sidearm holstered under his leftarm. Frowns turned to dark scowls, and the tarheads scattered with a few choicecurses.
Two opened his palmlight map and set off with his own internalcurse, wishing he could dismiss the men as savages. It was easy enough, lettingthe blind hatred roll in. Justifying it was a bit harder. Condemning beggarsand drug addicts for their flaws when he was the one carrying anhonest-to-Alpha demon astride his blackened spirit?
“Shut up,” he muttered to no one in particular. He shook his head,trying to clear it. He was close. They might’ve even felt him already.
Time to let the demon out.
He was reaching for his palmlight to reestablish contact with histail-thumping Ordo when the gruff voice crackled in his earpiece.
“Sir, we’re picking up movement. The apostates appear to be—scud!”
Before Two could ask what in demons’ depths was happening, thereport of a gunshot split the fishy air. Even in the relative quiet of thepre-dawn hours, it was faint. A rifle, he thought, but maybe suppressed. Asniper? That probably wasn’t good.
“Ordo, I need you to—”
Another gunshot, followed by the Ordo’s barked orders—somethingabout contain that specialist and I said cease fire.
Two barely registered the Ordo’s words.
Adrenaline spiking through his veins, he took off at a sprint, mindracing, wobbly walkway creaking underfoot.
This was why he hated working with clueless squads. He needed a team that understood what they were up against. But Seekers didn’t get teams. Didn’t get friends. And as he rounded a corner and caught sight of the cramped muddy yard outside the target fishing shanty, he decided he wouldn’t want these softsteel sippers as teammates anyway.
They were already moving in.
He registered that fact just in time to watch the legionnaire onpoint turn around and open fire on his own squad.
Two took off with a curse, vaulting one last rickety railing and crossing the path to the muddy lot at a run, unable to look away from the perverse spectacle. A pair of legionnaires fell to the friendly fire almost immediately. The rest reacted as trained soldiers should and disarmed their maddened teammate, pinning him and dragging him roughly down the steps to where he wouldn’t be obstructing the squad’s avenue of ingress. Over it all, Two was vaguely aware of Ordo Whatever’s steady stream of barked, curse-heavy commands, telling the squad to move in, telling others to properly restrain their apparently mad point man.
Except it wasn’t the legionnaire who’d pulled that trigger. Norwould he be the last. Two knew it, just as he knew he was the only one here whocould do anything about it. So he braced himself, closing his eyes, pushingdown the sick feeling in his gut.
And he let the demon out.
The world exploded out around him. Rotting wood and cold mud, dampair baking a degree more fishy in the first beams of the morning sun, theflicker of a dozen legionnaire minds scrambling for order—all of it cascadingthrough his senses in the bare instant before he directed his focus toward theinexplicably trigger-happy point man. His brotos were slapping the restraintson him now. Two reached for the real problem.
He could feel it there, like a black serpent coiled around theman’s very spirit—the influence of a wild demon, freed of its chains by one ofthe pair inside who was either too desperate, too ignorant, or too stupid tounderstand what manner of evil they were playing with. And given the strengthwith which the demon resisted Two’s initial attempt to pry it from the pointman, he was guessing desperation had something to do with it.
He wasn’t going to win the fight for the legionnaire’s mind. Notdirectly. He could feel that much. So, Two turned to attacking the demon at itssource instead. He traced the long tail of that black serpent in his extendedsenses, up the steps and into the crumbling fishing shanty. The cramped space wasdark inside. There was an aura there, a sinister cloud of wild rage and blackhatred. Two pushed past it, fixing onto the source of the demon in his senses.A woman—he was sure of it now.
And she could feel him too.
Her demon crashed into his with the unerring speed of a strikingviper. No warning. No mercy. Anger flared deep in Two’s chest—a primal ragethat swelled just as surely as if she’d gone and sucker punched him right inthe mouth. The bitch.
He flexed his defenses tighter, the world of his physical body andthe muddy yard outside shrinking from mind as he sank deeper into the one thatbelonged to his demon. Sometimes, he almost felt for these tragic abominations.Today, he had a feeling, would not be one of those days—if for no other reasonthan that he didn’t have the capacity left to worry about anything other thansurviving.
Her demon was strong. Stronger than he’d ever felt from a wildone. Maybe as strong as One’s. Definitely as strong as his own. It was nearlyoverwhelming at first, the panic at finding himself equally matched. Therealization slipped its icy fingers through his mind—numbing his thoughts,tripping up his reactions. Her demon didn’t miss the opening.
The fighting was tight and violently rapid. Her demon dartingcircles around him, striking from seemingly all directions at once. Himtwisting to keep pace, balance faltering another sliver with each attack.
Then the onslaught abruptly ended. Two had all of an instant tocatch his figurative breath before realizing what that meant.
He leaned back into his physical body just in time to find OrdoWhatever leveling his sidearm right at Two’s face. The man most certainlydidn’t have that thumping-tail look anymore. Or any look, for that matter. Hewas vacant. Possessed.
Two caught the ordo’s wrist and shoved the weapon aside just asthe first shot roared, nearly deafening his left ear.
No time for tact. He grabbed the possessed ordo’s throat with hisfree hand and let his demon ride the contact in. It was forbidden. It wasdespicable. But in that moment, he didn’t know what the scud else to do. Hethrew his demon forward and pushed the ordo down into a deep sleep likeflipping a switch. The ordo hit the mud with a squishing thump. Two looked backto the shanty, where the legionnaires were already moving back in. Or had been.Half of them had stopped.
And they were pointing their rifles right at him.
For a second, Two couldn’t help but marvel at the power of a demonthat could take the minds of half a dozen soldiers at once. Then it dawned onhim that they might be acting of their own accord—that they were probablysimply turning their weapons on the stranger who’d just dropped their ordo likea bag of softsteel.
Alpha be damned.
“Wait!” he cried. Or tried to, before her demon found him again.
He fell to his knees with the ferocity of the attack, clingingonto control by the barest edges of his fingertips. The worst of it, though,passed surprisingly quickly as something else vied for the apostate’sattention. The legionnaires, Two realized. One fireteam was moving toward himnow, coming to apprehend him, by the looks of it. But the rest of the squad hadfinished ascending the rickety stairs and were stacking up on the shanty doorabove, preparing to breach.
Good. If he could just keep that Alpha-cursed apostate and herdemon under control for another few moments…
He sank back into their stalling contest, taking advantage of herdistraction to spring a far more concentrated attack. She gave ground. Too muchground. He could feel the tenuous hint of her breaking point—was mere momentsfrom claiming her mind and bringing a halt to this madness.
Then something yanked him away from their battle—away from herdark shanty and back to his physical body, right into a quickly soaking frontside and a face full of cold mud. The legionnaires, driving him to the ground.Working restraints onto his wrists. Telling him to take it easy, buddy, anddon’t try anything funny.
Two pulled his defenses tighter and tried to gather enough controlto tell the four goat-groppers where they could shove their funny business.Before he could, though, the shanty door exploded outward with a splinteringboom, taking two legionnaires down with it.
After that, things degraded quickly.
Soldiers barked orders at one another, regaining their wits and pressing forward only to be tripped up or smacked aside by some invisible hand. When the first legionnaire inexplicably went flying over the walkway railing and plummeted to the mud below, the fireteam of barking hounds sitting on Two’s back finally decided maybe he wasn’t the real threat here. They stormed off to help their allies, all but the one who kept his bulk pinned on Two via a knee to the shoulder blade, looking around like a frightened pup.
“Let me go, you idiot,” Two growled.
Curiously, the legionnaire’s decision only pended as long as ittook the demon to telekinetically hurl another of his squad mates from thewalkway above. Two pushed to his feet, his entire front sopping wet and heavywith mud. But that hardly mattered.
“That’s it,” he muttered. Then he threw his demon at hers like aferal hound to a bloody steak.
Alpha damn her blackened spirit, she somehow managed to catch hisattack, even extended as she was. But she certainly gave ground. Enough thatthe telekinetic maelstrom above ceased completely—so abruptly that thelegionnaires almost seemed too surprised to act.
“Shoot her!” he cried.
Three of the less doltish legionnaires sprang to action at hiswords, sweeping into the dark shanty, weapons at the ready. The apostate waspositively wild now, her demon bucking against his like a force of nature. Twoheld on with grim determination, strengthened by the knowledge that it wasalready over at this point.
A rifle cracked twice above, and made it so.
One of the shots must’ve found her head, judging by howimmediately she disappeared. One moment, a raging storm of bitter fury anddemonic presence. The next, nothing but… screaming.
Alpha’s blessed body, he’d forgotten about the kid—had been toowrapped in their mental wrestling match to remember there was a second apostateup there. In his defense, the kid’s demon had barely picked up when Two hadsniffed them out earlier that night. The fact that the kid hadn’t helped hispartner seemed to confirm that his demon was still too young to be a seriousthreat. Except now…
There were several crashes within the shanty. Shouted curses.Gunshots. Above it all, the screaming continued.
“Son of a bitch,” Two muttered, right before what few windowsthere were in the shanty exploded outward in a demonic gale of howling wind.
He took the stairs three at a time, ignoring the wide-eyed looksthe legionnaires shot him, and the wind whipping at his mud-caked jacket.Inside, three legionnaires were down in addition to the apostate woman they’dkilled, all four of them sprawled throughout the room in kind with the rest ofthe overturned furniture.
The kid had found one of the legionnaires’ sidearms. Hethrust it at Two’s chest, his hands visibly shaking with fear or rage. Probablyboth, Two decided as the storm began dying around them—replaced in the air bycold murder. Two reached out and calmly ripped the gun away with telekinesis.The look on the kid’s face as the weapon left his hands was almost too much tobear—the wide-eyed, slack-jawed epiphany, two parts panic, one part hopeless,morbid fascination.
It was the look of someone truly realizing they were about to die, and now he’d seen it one too many times.
“Restrain him,” he said, bending to pick up the gun. He probablyshould’ve neutralized the kid’s demon before doing anything else, but he waspretty sure the thing had already lashed out with everything it had. He’d heardtell that it happened sometimes, these untrained outbursts, but they were categoricallybrief and usually out of the young apostate’s control.
For now, the kid was probably harmless.
In the splintered doorway behind, the legionnaires werehesitating. Two was about to snap at them when they found their wrinklies andswept in. After that, they had the kid restrained and on his knees in the blinkof an eye. Two checked over the sidearm, making sure it was loaded, the safetydisengaged.
Alpha, he was tired. Straight to the bones.
Probably, he should’ve just skipped the next part. But he couldn’t.For the will of Alpha, and for his own sanity, he had to check.
The kid’s mental defenses were like soggy bread next to those ofhis fallen partner—or master, rather, Two saw as he broke into the youngerapostate’s mind and began rifling through his life’s memories. She’d found himon the streets a few seasons after he’d escaped the father whose need for thebottle had been increasingly rivaled by the man’s enthusiasm for offloading thepain to his son, physically and otherwise. She’d protected him. Taught him.Loved him.
It was unmistakable. But Two swept over the kid’s mind again, justto be sure, ignoring the legionnaires’ looks of growing discomfort with the oddsilence. He didn’t blame the kid for having fallen prey to a demon while livingthrough the kind of abuse he’d so clearly experienced. If the Sanctum had foundhim sooner, maybe… but they hadn’t. And there it was, nestled at the core ofhim like a dark ink stain on his very spirit, undeniable.
Too old to be trained as a Seeker. Too dangerous to be left alive.
“Why are you doing this?”
The kid’s voice was shaky with fear in Two’s mind. It almost madehim flinch.
He didn’t answer. Just finished his inspection as best he could.He’d tried before to explain himself to his marks. But there was no use. Itmade no difference in the end.
“I’m going to kill you.” This time, the kid spoke out loud, hisvoice brimming with a heartbreaking attempt to pass off fear as anger. “I’mgoing to gropping kill you!”
This was going to be one of those days, it turned out. One of thedays when Two would lie awake questioning himself and his place in ending thesetragic abominations. But Enochia was counting on him, whether they knew it ornot. His own brothers and sisters, too.
Alpha was counting on him.
So he stepped forward, raising the gun.
“Alpha grant you peace, fallen.”
He pulled the trigger before the legionnaires could finish askingwhat the scud he was doing. And like that, it was over.
Two tossed the gun and turned to leave, mindful of the incredulous stares piercing him from all sides. They thought he was a monster. And they weren’t wrong. But they didn’t know the whole story. Didn’t know that there’d been nothing else to be done for the kid. That he’d been corrupted by a demon, and that there wasn’t a single brig on Enochia that could’ve held him once he learned to control his curse.
But Two couldn’t exactly tell that to the two legionnaires whostepped in to bar his exit from the wrecked shanty. They glanced at each other,neither one sure what to say, only sure that they couldn’t simply let thismonster walk away. The entitled bastards.
“Check your orders,” Two growled, wanting nothing more than to beout of this shanty, and alone. “You’ll find I’m to be excused for my actionshere. That I was never here at all, in fact.”
Another uncertain glance between them, then a look back to one oftheir squad mates outside, who looked up from his palmlight and gave a hesitantnod.
“As much fun as this has been,” Two said, shouldering his waybetween the legionnaires, who stiffly shifted just enough to let him past, “Ihope no one will take offense when I say I genuinely hope I never see youassholes again.”
There was a curse and a rustle of movement from behind. Twoglanced back in time to see one of the doorway legionnaires catching hispartner before he could throw himself at Two.
Two shot the snarling man a smirking salute and turned for thestairs.
Only once he was well out of their sight and alone in a dark alleydid he allow his hand to drift to the thin black collar at his neck, as italways did after a kill. Only then did he remind himself that it wasn’t justfor the good of Enochia and for the will of Alpha—that he’d also lose his ownhead if he refused.
But that didn’t really change the fact that he’d pulled thetrigger again. That his hand hadn’t even shook this time.
So maybe Alpha willed it. So maybe it was all a little less blackand white than those legionnaires would imagine when they talked about thisover their ale tonight. But either way, it was getting hard to deny.
He was a natural born killer.
Chapter 2 - Changes
The whip snapped tight, raking the familiar lance of searing pain across Two’s back.
One for the woman. He didn’t know her name. Never bothered with the names. They made the fallen seem too human—too redeemable—which was a dangerous line of thought in his area of work. Hence the whip. Hence the fact that he’d not resisted when they’d taken his own name and left him with nothing but a roster slot.
Two. That was all the name he needed anymore. Because at the end of the day, fighting the good fight or not, he was fallen too, wasn’t he?
He took a breath and swung the whip over his shoulder again. The second blossoming line of fire was for the boy—or, rather, for Two’s own transgression of violence against another living person, demon or no. It wasn’t easy, being Alpha’s first and only line of defense against the demons. Especially when he was harboring a demon of his own inside. Things got confusing. Hence the third and fourth strikes, slashing across his back in dedication and reverence to Alpha—two small pleas for the strength to hold the demons, both within and without, at bay.
He stayed on his knees for a while after that, as he usually did, taking some small comfort from the coolness of the permacrete beneath him, and the quiet of his humble little quarters. He breathed carefully—slow, shallow breaths, designed to not exacerbate the lines of fire howling across his back. There was no escaping the pain, but nor did he really want to. He greeted it like an old friend. A grumpy old scud of a friend, maybe, but a friend no less. One who took him by the inflating ego, yanked him back to the ground, and told him the truth about what he was, and what that meant.
Pain was a good friend.
So for a while, he kneeled there, taking in their little chat, relishing the slow tickle of warm blood tracing down his bare back. For a while, he was at peace. Then the door hissed open, and a cold, female voice shattered it.
“Word around the Tower is you bagged two for one today.”
Two forced on his best smirk before turning to face her. “Jealousy doesn’t suit you, you know.”
The form-fitting training skin he found her wearing, on the other hand, most certainly did. But all it took was one look at those frosty blue eyes to cure his weaker bits of any notion that this was a woman to be desired. Judging by the sneer that curled her lip, though, his attention hadn’t gone unnoticed.
One prowled into his room, decidedly uninvited—never mind the fact that visiting another Seeker’s quarters was forbidden, or at least strongly frowned upon, to start with. Two thought to rise but hesitated a second too long. Her hand settled on his bare shoulder before he could. Cold and calloused as it was, it still felt surprisingly good. But that was probably just on account of it being the first non-violent human contact he’d had in cycles. Fire flickered across his back as she shifted more weight to the hand, leaning down to inspect his work.
“Oh dear, those are good ones. You never hold back, do you?”
“I like it hard and fast, what can I say?”
He hated himself for the pathetic quip as soon as it left his mouth. But that was all he and One seemed capable of. Never had a sincere word been spoken betwixt them.
“Maybe you say you’re ready to let me take care of you,” she murmured, her lips nearly brushing his ear now, her breath deliciously warm against his skin. “Maybe something for the pain.”
Case and point on the sincerity thing.
Her proposal was expressly forbidden, on both accounts. And also almost certainly insincere. But somehow, neither that fact nor the pain in his back managed to keep the blood from rushing below. For a second, he couldn’t stop the thoughts flashing through his mind. Her hard, lithe figure pressed beneath him, pale blue eyes locked on his, full of some pulse-pounding mixture of lust and hatred. He couldn’t help thinking about turning her around, grabbing a handful of her short dark hair, and—
Pain exploded across his back.
He clenched his teeth and barely managed to wrestle his yelp down into a growl. She’d slapped him, he realized dazedly. Taken advantage of his distraction and slapped him in some twisted parody of a caring pat on his bloodied back. He cursed himself for falling for her touch and her suggestive words. Or maybe she’d even pushed those thoughts his way telepathically, just to butter him up. Maybe. It was always hard to tell where swiving was concerned.
“What do you want, you miserable bitch?” he growled, rising carefully to his feet, his back pulsing with the aftershock of her slap.
She touched a hand to her chest as if his words had actually affronted her. The look didn’t come close to reaching her cold eyes. “I just wanted to swing by and pay my compliments to a dear friend.”
Whatever hatred flickered across his face put a cold smile on hers. It was the most sincere thing that had passed between them yet.
“Don’t worry,” she cooed, her smile turning absolutely derisive. “I also came to say goodbye. Six’s replacement is getting shipped up from the minors today. Looks like you’re holding the fort with the children.”
Well there was a piece of decent news, at least.
Just in case their years of training and the ever-present explosive collars weren’t enough to encourage them to keep their demons under control, their Sanctum handlers also thought it wise to ensure there were never more than three Seekers together at a time. The rule of three. Safeguards on safeguards. Two might’ve found it more exasperating if he wasn’t so intimately familiar with just how much damage a rogue demon was capable of inflicting.
Plus, if they meant One getting shipped out on long assignment, the rules couldn’t be so bad, right?
“Best news I’ve heard all season,” he said, not having to force the smirk this time.
She narrowed her eyes at him.
He just shrugged and moved to return his whip to its customary hook on the plain wall. “Speaking of news, have you heard anything about the High Cleric?”
The look that came over her face at that question made his stomach dip. The High Cleric had been out of commission with some undisclosed ailment for over a cycle now. Well long enough to worry—especially when people started making strange faces. But on second thought, One’s expression didn’t read bad news so much as it was just… odd.
Quick as it had come, though, the expression slid from her face, leaving only a cold, blank slate.
“He’s back,” she said simply. “Better than ever.”
And with that, she turned to go.
Something was off about the entire interaction.
“Always hate to see you go,” Two said in a last-ditch attempt to kick something loose.
When she glanced back at him over her shoulder, though, her mask of frosty amusement was firmly back in place.
“But you just love to watch me leave, don’t you?”
He couldn’t prove it, but he could’ve sworn she tilted her hips just a degree or two as she said it, popping the already lovely curve of her forbidden backside out that much more for his viewing pleasure.
It was a trap. The most dangerous swell on Enochia. He knew that. But she also wasn’t wrong. He had to admit that much. And yes, there was the threat of death for consorting with fellow demons to consider. Technically, they weren’t even really supposed to be talking outside of the field, but no one went out of their way to reinforce that rule since they did indeed operate together out there sometimes.
But these things were all extraneous.
It was the look in her eyes. That was all he needed to ground himself to the facts that really mattered. All he needed to remember that One was every bit the monster he was—probably more so. It was all he needed to remember that, no matter what manner of twisted sexual tension might’ve crept in between them over the years, she hated what he was at his core. Just like he hated her.
One would just as soon kill him as grop him. Of that, he had no doubt.
She turned to leave, then paused.
“I hear the new girl’s pretty,” she said, turning back to shoot him the strangest look yet. “Don’t go forgetting about your number One while I’m gone.”
Back still aflame, brow furrowed in confusion, Two watched her go, trying to fathom what in demons’ depths was going on in that cold, dark head of hers.
Kill him just as soon as grop him. No doubts. None at all.
Sleep didn’t come that night. It happened sometimes, afterwards. Or had happened sometimes in the first few years of Two’s career as an arcane killer. He’d thought he’d gotten over it. The past few marks had gone down easily enough, and with nary a bad dream after the fact. It had actually bothered him a bit, how easy it had started to feel, ending lives—even if those lives were plagued by demons.
But this one had been different.
Lying awake in the darkness of his cramped utilitarian quarters, Two couldn’t shake the thoughts of the boy and his… what, his teacher? Guardian? Friend? Two didn’t want to think about it. He’d glimpsed enough of the kid’s story when he’d broken his mind. Maybe that’s what was bothering him so much. The kid had been his youngest yet. But it was more than that, wasn’t it?
Maybe it had bothered him, seeing two demons so clearly care for one another. Or maybe it was just that the wild bitch of a master had damn near broken his defenses. She’d been strong—the strongest he’d ever hunted. Alpha knew what might’ve happened if she’d won their mental wrestling match. And the panic he’d felt in those first moments of her attack…
Was he rattled? Did he get rattled?
Maybe. Maybe not. All he really knew for sure was that today had been too close a call, and that the whole ordeal had left a seeping uneasiness in his gut.
Why are you doing this? the kid’s frightened voice drifted to him in the darkness.
Always the question.
Who was he? Why was he doing this? Why couldn’t he leave them be?
Like they couldn’t understand that they were dangerous. That all of them, Two included, were walking time bombs—the most dangerous bombs on Enochia. Never mind that half of them could barely lift a pebble with telekinesis when Two or one of his teammates found them. The Seekers were simply staying ahead of the curve. Because eventually, no matter what, the demon always won.
He blew out a long breath and readjusted his bedding, trying in futility to find a position that would alleviate the fire from his whipped back.
Halfway there. He was halfway there, give or take. Another four years, maybe. Six or seven if he was… well, lucky wasn’t the right word. Either way, whether it happened in the field or by the High Cleric’s orders, Seekers rarely made it more than a year or two past twenty-five, and certainly not beyond thirty. Past that, things got too dangerous. There was only so long one could expect to reign in the demon—especially once they’d gone through the training and fully awoken the thing.
That was the price they paid.
Some days, the thought still filled Two’s gut with cold dread. But the point remained. A few more years, and he could finally rest. For good this time.
He held on to that thought, and the peace it brought him. Felt the tension began to drain from his body, sleep coming to carry him away from his heavy thoughts. He was just on the verge of nodding off when the voice came to him.
“Well hi there, neighbor. Can’t sleep either?”
Alpha be damned.
Female. Unfamiliar. The new Six?
“I was about to,” he sent back, not bothering to mask his irritation, “before you interrupted me.”
“Hey, you called me, scudboots, whether you meant to or not.”
That gave him pause—mostly because it could’ve well been true. Their demons had a way of wandering off into the outside world during sleep, exploring, or scheming, or whatever the scud it was they did. It creeped Two out to no end, but at least the bastards didn’t seem to be capable of doing any heavy lifting without their fallen’s waking cooperation. Linking that fallen’s mind to another’s, though…
“Whatever,” he sent. “I didn’t mean to. And I’m trying to sleep, so grop off.”
“Well, I was trying to before a certain grumpy scudboots came knocking on my door, so to speak. Was almost there, too. Imagine my shock.”
“I…” Was she messing with him? Who just freely admitted something like that? He swallowed, heat spreading to his cheeks—among other places—and tried not to think too hard about it. “Well carry on, sweet cheeks,” he sent, trying to affect an indifferent mental tone. “I’m going to sleep.”
“Yeah, so says your lips. Alpha’s mighty beardsplitter, I can feel you stirring from here. What did that cot ever do to you?”
“Would you just—” He took a deep breath, willing the frustration down. He needed to disengage.
“Hey, no need to be embarrassed,” she sent, and he could feel the amusement bubbling at the surface of her mind. “It’s no small wonder, really. This whole celibacy business is way gropped up. But we’re all friends here, right?”
“We’re… Look, we’re really not. We aren’t even supposed to talk like this. If the clerics found out—”
“I know, I know. Off with our heads. I think I saw that one listed right beside the whole ‘no fun’ rule.”
“This isn’t a joke, kid. There is no fun for us. Not out there. Not in here.”
“Yeah, not with that attitude, there isn’t. You let your demon out for work, right? Maybe you just need to let him out to play a little.”
Let his demon out to play? How the scud had this girl passed training?
Probably the same way he had, he realized. Because he hadn’t really been all that different when he’d been bumped up to the rank of Seeker four years ago, had he? Maybe not.
Alpha, it was irritating.
“The demon’s play is the work, kid. Give it a few years and you’ll understand. Provided you make it that long.”
She was silent long enough that he might’ve thought she’d given up had he not felt her there, lingering at the edge of his mind.
“You’re the one who took down two fallen today?”
“I did my job, same as any other day. So what?”
Another pause. “You’re hurting.”
He was about to ask what she meant, and how she could even tell, when the warmth began to creep in. He barely noticed it at first, like a soft trickle of sunlight on a cool Harvest day. But then it deepened and grew, lapping in on gentle waves.
“What are you… Stop that.”
“It doesn’t feel good?”
Another wave of warmth rocked in, this one more substantial, enfolding him. Teasing him.
“That’s not the…” His breath was getting ragged, light tingles arcing through his body, pulsing in his groin. “It feels fine. We just can’t…” Another wave hit him, and suddenly he was so hard that it hurt—some wild voice in his head demanding he leap from the cot and start knocking down walls until he found this woman. It was like lightning in his veins, crackling through an ocean of pure bliss. It was—
“Stop it. Now.”
He was almost surprised he managed the words at all. Once they were out, he almost wished he hadn’t. It felt so Alpha-damned good. For a long moment, he teetered there on the edge, conscious of her hesitation—his brain demanding that she stop while his body screamed for her to push him over. He couldn’t move, conflicting desires holding him rapt at her mercy. Couldn’t breathe.
Then the sensations began to recede, lapping away as gently as they’d drifted in, lowering him from a crackling cloud of bliss to his dark quarters, where he was panting to catch his breath, a light sweat on his brow and back, residual tingles shivering up and down his aching body.
“I was just trying to help.”
He took a few more breaths to compose himself and tighten his mental defenses before answering.
“I’m not sure who that was supposed to help, but I need to make one thing clear. You can’t pull that scud here. They’ll kill you. Scud, I’ll kill you. Our demons aren’t Alpha-damned toys, girl. Don’t try that again.”
He felt the faintest overtones of the reaction rolling through her. Anger, maybe. Or indignation. He’d never been great at the empathetic side of telepathy—or the empathetic side of anything, really. When she finally replied, all he could say about her mental tone was that it was short.
“Fine. Okay. Got it.”
He debated saying more, though he wasn’t really sure what there was to be said. He almost felt bad for coming down on her. Did feel bad. Why the scud did he feel bad? Shutting down this bullscud from the start was the only move here, for both their sakes. But even so, he found himself needing to say something more.
“Get some sleep, Six. They’ll probably put you on your first mark as soon as possible.”
And hopefully they’d send Seven to oversee the operation instead of him. Let her deal with reining in this overeager rookie.
“Sure,” she sent back. “Sounds as good as any of my other choices.”
It was a bitter joke, of course. Choices were not something Seekers got to make, outside of things like what to eat from the fab and which weapon they’d use to expire their marks. But that wasn’t about to change anytime soon, and no good would come of commiserating over it, so Two decided to leave it at that and try to take his own advice to find sleep.
It took a while, wired as he still was from whatever the scud she’d tried to do to him. He’d never felt anything like it. By comparison, Six’s sensuous aura made One’s suggestive imagery from earlier that day seem like a boring slight-of-hand trick—all flash and no substance.
In a word, it was dangerous.
He didn’t need any more assurance of that than the fact that he now found himself wondering what she looked like. What she smelled like.
Stop that, he chided himself.
Those thoughts were more dangerous than Six’s uncanny ability. Because at the end of the day, she was one of the fallen. Her demon was every bit as vile as the rest of them—every bit the equal to the ugly beasts that he and One carried inside. It hadn’t even truly been her pushing that telepathic temptation on him just then, he reminded himself. It had been the demon.
The thought made him feel even more unclean.
He held onto that feeling, prodding at it like an open wound, categorizing its nauseating depths to be used later, in case of hormone-induced stupidity. It didn’t matter how sweet she might seem. She was a monster, just like him. And one way or another, this fanciful nature of hers would pass. It was a small miracle that wild spark of hers had even survived through the training at all. But she was a Seeker of the White Tower now.
This place would beat it out of her quickly enough.
How gropped up was his life that that was the comforting thought that finally settled his mind enough to start drifting toward sleep?
Whatever. He didn’t fight it. Just welcomed the alluring promise of a break—however long—from what had been one flaming scudbucket of a long day. Finally, sleep came for him, carried in on the wings of one last quiet whisper.
“Nice meeting you, Two.”
Chapter 3 - Shiver
Two woke from a dream that made his spirit feel even more tainted than it already was—the kind of dream he would’ve laid there recounting for a while with a blushing afterglow and a strong inward chiding had he been alone.
But he wasn’t.
He didn’t have to turn his head to feel Cleric Verner standing there, watching him like a crusty old hawk.
“Sure, come on in,” Two muttered, not quite under his breath, moving to push himself up from the cot and then quickly relenting at the fire the movement raked across his aching back. He groaned and tried again more slowly.
“You were dreaming,” Verner said, his tone flat. He was staring down his long nose at Two without a detectable hint of any emotion, outside of general disapproval. No worry or sympathy for Two’s clear pain. And certainly not a shred of respect for his privacy.
Two couldn’t count the number of times Verner and his fellow handlers had marched into his meager room at whatever hours of the night or morning suited them—sometimes to deliver an assignment, sometimes just to remind him that they could.
“You were dreaming,” the cleric repeated, as if it should mean something.
Two hoped to Alpha’s immortal light it didn’t.
“Yeah, that tends to happen from time to time.” He thought about asking if he’d said or done something odd, but given what he’d been dreaming about, it seemed unwise. Consorting with demons. That would’ve been putting the dream’s content lightly.
Definitely best they move on.
“Do you need something, Cleric?”
Verner turned his disapproving stare around the room, to the bare permacrete walls and the single chair at the plain desk. “There is little I need, fallen, but for the light of Alpha. Least of all do I need reason to check on my fallen charges.”
And Two would do well to remember it. Right.
He bowed his head, a familiar mix of fear, resentment, and deference swirling through his gut. “Of course, your holiness. I only meant to ask if there is some service I might provide this morning.”
When he finally deemed it acceptable to look back up, Verner’s expression was still mostly stony, but the cleric gave a fractional nod of approval. “There is, child. Six’s replacement arrived yesterday evening and is in need of acclimation. You are to show her to the relevant facilities and see to it she understands her boundaries here.”
Something about the way Verner said the word, acclimation, made Two’s stomach wriggle. But maybe that was just the post-dream guilt talking. Or, more likely, it was the sinking suspicion that the fates and Alpha above were set on pushing him straight toward what could only be bad news.
“Your holiness, with respect, I think Seven might be better suited for mentoring a new fallen who’s…”
He was about to say so impetuous when he caught himself. He couldn’t know that she was impetuous and severely boundary-deficient. They weren’t supposed to have even met yet.
“… well, the females seem to do better with female guidance, yes?”
It was a bullscud cover-up. The only Seeker who might’ve hated One more than he did was Seven. And she and Eight weren’t exactly friendly, either. Verner didn’t say as much, but Two saw the edge of suspicion in his hawk-eyed stare.
“Forgive me, your holiness, it’s just that I’ve never been the one to bring on a new member. I’m sure Seven would—”
“Seven departed this morning on assignment,” Verner said, each word biting and slow. “And you will do as you’re told, fallen.”
Two swallowed. “Yes, your holiness. Of course.”
He kept his head bowed, silently hating the rush of fear that still clawed at his gut whenever a cleric—especially Verner—took that tone.
Their handlers weren’t bad people. He knew that on a rational level. They’d merely been tasked with the impossible. How could anyone—even a cleric—be expected to hold anything but disdain and contempt for someone like him, a broken spirit who’d fallen straight to demons’ depths and back?
It was for this same reason that most of the Seekers despised each other—which was, in twisted turn, exactly why Two understood how Verner and the other handlers felt. What else could you feel for a monster? Pity, maybe. And Two was pretty sure their handlers did pity them, just as he pitied his own Seeker brethren. But, holy or not, there was no room for men like Verner to treat them with affection. It was simply too dangerous.
“If you require food or the privy,” Verner said, “I will wait.”
So maybe there was room for the smallest of kindnesses, at least. Two couldn’t quite decide if the gratitude that swelled in his chest at Verner’s offer was well-earned, or merely proof of just how perverse their arrangement here was.
Life got complicated, living with a demon on board.
He considered the fab in the corner of his small room and decided food could wait. Much as he appreciated the option, he hated eating with an audience, and despite his offer, Verner was clearly ready to complete his task and wash his hands of demons for the day. So instead, Two rose from his cot, ignoring the protests of his swollen back, and went to hurriedly splash some water on his face and pull on fresh clothes.
In the hallway outside, Verner’s four-man detail of Sanctum Guard greeted him with their eerie stares, their opaque golden faceplates perfectly concealing the wary looks with which they no doubt regarded him. Two resisted the urge to point out that he didn’t need help finding Six’s room—that, if he were to extend his senses and focus carefully enough, he could’ve told Verner not only where she was in the White Tower, but also what she was doing. Alpha, he could’ve told him what she was wearing.
And just like that, the dreams came back to him, sending the first excited trill through his chest. He set his jaw and did his best to look his normal apathetic self as he marched along at the center of their procession for the nearest mag lifts. Outwardly, he was pretty sure it even worked. Inwardly, though…
No matter how much he wanted to be pissed about it, he couldn’t totally drown out the foolish, drooling corner of his man brain that was excited to see the girl who’d nearly made him stain his linens last night. The fallen girl, he reminded himself, shuffling into the service lift beside Verner and the guards. It made him sick.
“I’m sure I don’t need to remind you the transition can be disorienting for new Seekers,” Verner said as one of his men tapped the lift controls. He fixed Two with a grave look. “Just as I need not remind you that you are not to be her friend, but merely a guiding hand.”
“Yes, holiness,” Two replied, with a deferential nod.
Disorienting was probably an understatement. To say the Seeker candidate training facility was a warm or nurturing place would’ve been an equally gross overstatement, but in the years between being conscripted to serve and either failing out—terminally, of course—or passing on to become Seekers, the place had at least been a source of some stability. Never mind that that stability had been painful more often than not. They’d been taught the true extent of the evil lurking inside each and every one of them, and given the tools to bring their demons under control. The whips, wielded always by their own hands. The explosive collars, fashioned from an elastic polymer so that they could grow as their young wearers did.
No, it had been far from a warm and fuzzy family estate. But to the kids who’d survived the horrible accidents, the abuse, and whatever else in their pasts that had primed them to join the ranks of the fallen, in a twisted way, that training facility had almost felt like a home.
Two still remembered the day he was told he was to graduate his training and become a true Seeker. He’d thought he’d been ready, thought he’d understood the job. On that day, he’d burned with pride. But then he’d gone to sleep that night and simply woken up in the White Tower. They didn’t get to be conscious for the move—Two guessed because the clerics didn’t trust their demons not to try to reverse engineer the location of the training facility, which was a carefully-kept secret none of the Seekers were privy to.
Either way, he’d woken scared and alone. Then Cleric Verner had come to him with the rumor of a man who’d been luring women into dark alleys and leaving them with even darker memories and strange reports of having been mentally present but unable to control their own bodies. Almost like a demon had crawled in and forced them into submission.
Find him, Verner had said, and see to it Alpha’s will is done.
It hadn’t been a clean job. Two hadn’t been remotely ready. For any of it. Which was why he knew that, wise as the clerics might be in the ways of Alpha’s Enochia, Verner had no idea what he was talking about when it came to what Six was going through. Then again, after last night, Two wasn’t positive he did either. Six hadn’t exactly seemed a frightened pup—indeed seemed to be taking the change in stride.
But hadn’t he put on that same external appearance when he’d first arrived? Calmly sarcastic on the outside, a trembling fountain of loose scud on the inside?
Whatever. It didn’t matter, Two decided as they filed out of the service lift. Because Verner was right. She wasn’t his friend, and he wasn’t hers. He’d show her around, answer a few questions, and make sure she understood that. Then it’d be done. Simple as that.
Still, as they proceeded down the hall toward the room he already knew was Six’s, he couldn’t help but think he should reach out and give her a telepathic heads-up before Verner burst straight in like Two was sure he would. It was nothing more than common courtesy, right? Maybe. But he’d also be doing her no favors to blunt an important lesson that they were never really secure here.
Always alone, but never in private.
It turned out to be a lesson she was on top of. Verner was reaching to palm the access panel when the door hissed open in its tracks. And there she was.
Two had all of a second to process golden waves of hair and the outline of a pleasing figure beneath the roughspun trainee garb before her eyes flicked past Verner and caught him straight by the spirit.
A shiver ran through him. Or was it through his demon? He didn’t know. Couldn’t tell. His brain was too numb, those soft brown eyes too alluring.
“Two,” Verner’s voice snapped him back to his senses like a lash to the back, “meet the new Six.”
Her lip quirked, presumably at his dumb stare, but she pulled it under control quickly enough and gave him a perfectly neutral wave.
Good. She wasn’t stupid enough to tease him in front of a cleric. Two, on the other hand…
He composed himself, returning her dispassionate wave and turning to Verner. The cleric was watching him with that look that gave little away, outside of the general suggestion of judgment. He held Two’s gaze for a second before turning back to Six.
“Two will be showing you to the relevant facilities today, as well as answering whatever questions he deems prudent to answer.” He turned back to Two. “See to it she makes it to Kada by the tenth bell.”
Two nodded wordlessly, not having to dig far to recover his demeanor of general displeasure at being here. Verner watched him for a second too long—or maybe that was just Two’s paranoia setting in—then bid farewell to both of them, spoke a few quiet orders to the Sanctum Guard, and departed down the hallway post-haste, his cream and gold robes swirling gently in his wake.
“So, where to first, goodfellow?” asked a warm, sultry voice behind him.
It nearly sent another shiver through him.
Alpha, what was it with this woman that every facet of her seemed to call to his blood? It felt almost preternatural—enough so that he wondered for the second time if it wasn’t something to do with her demon calling to his. It didn’t seem impossible. He’d heard of some fallen forming exceptionally tight bonds out there in the wild. But he’d never had this kind of reaction to a fallen before. Not even with those whose lives might’ve been prolonged or even saved by managing to twist his mind with lust or sympathy.
He did his best to drop the thought and emulate Verner’s dispassionate mask as he turned back to her, careful not to actually meet her eyes.
“We’ll start with breaking fast down in the messes, if that suits you.”
She gave a slight shrug—Alpha, even the way she shrugged was alluring—but said nothing, her gaze flicking to the four Sanctum Guard at his back before returning to him, waiting to see if he’d add more. He was about to ask if she’d like to change before remembering that he was probably supposed to bring her to Kada because she didn’t have anything to change into.
“If you’d like to clean up, or…” He waved a helpless hand, unsure where he was going with this train of thought, or why.
She glanced down the front of her roughspun tunic and back to him. “Sarentus’ mercy, am I in need of cleaning, Seeker?”
“No. I was merely being… Never mind. Let’s go.”
She didn’t argue, just gave another one of those delicious little shrugs and stepped out into the hallway. Didn’t even bother to close the door behind her.
Alpha, it was going to be a long morning.
Chapter 4 - Three Lessons
“Your quarters are… adequate?” Two asked as he palmed Six’s door closed and turned for the lifts.
It was a pointless question. Her quarters were a carbon copy of his humble lodgings, just like all the Seekers’. No one found them adequate, aside from maybe Four, whose brooding spirit seemed meant for bare permacrete walls, and Eight, who, as far as Two could tell, didn’t really take enjoyment in much of anything aside from honor and duty.
“It’s a cot and four walls,” she said, her tone perfectly demon-may-care.
It was a facade he recognized all too well. Or at least he thought it was. But it wasn’t like he was going to tell her she could cut the bullscud and tell him how she was really feeling. Not with four Sanctum Guard wordlessly trailing behind them—here not so much to keep them in line, Two knew, as to observe and report to Cleric Verner on any concerning behaviors.
So he said nothing at all until they sat across from one another at one of the white polymer tables of one of the smaller, more private White Tower mess halls, picking at eggs and grains in what felt like some kind of unspoken competition to out-casual one another while their four watch hounds sat at the next table over with their helmets removed so they could join the game and pick at their own plates of food.
“Typically, you’ll take your meals alone from the fab in your room,” Two said, when he judged everyone to be sufficiently settled.
Six returned from some distant thought and considered him, taking her time to finish her bite before replying. “Sounds isolating.”
“That’s kinda the point,” Two said, watching the closest Sanctum Guard out of the corner of his eye. “Lesson number one: you are not a part of this community. You know you exist on the fringes to keep the monsters at bay. I know too. But to them”—he waved his fork in a small but all-encompassing circle—“you have to be nothing. You are not an acolyte. Not even an acolyte’s boot licker. You don’t exist.”
Six wasn’t chewing now, or even picking at her plate. “Shouldn’t be a problem,” she finally said. In his mind, she added, “Aren’t you supposed to be comforting me or something?”
“No, I’m really not.”
“Good,” he added out loud, for the benefit of their silent watchers. “Then finish your food, and we can move on to lesson two.”
He had to suppress a satisfied smirk as the Sanctum Guard at the edge of his vision relaxed, his wary suspicion temporarily assuaged by the seeming pause in their little exchange.
“But speaking of things we’re supposed to be doing,” he sent while pointedly shoveling the last of his eggs down, “what the scud was that back there at your door?”
Her brow started to wrinkle in confusion, but she managed to cover the slip-up by leaning in and inspecting some imaginary oddity on her plate. “What the scud was what?” she sent back. “Are you always this tense?”
“Only when naive little recruits think it’s funny to play their head games in front of the Alpha-damned head of our handlers. I told you not to try that scud again.”
Something flashed in her eyes—something that looked like amusement until she lurched forward, coughing up eggs into her hand linen.
That got the attention of the Sanctum Guard right quick. Not that they moved to help. Just perked up, listening more attentively.
“Sorry,” she groaned after a couple smaller coughs. “I’m just… wrong pipe.” She touched a delicate hand to her abdomen. “My stomach doesn’t seem to be handling all this change well.”
“I didn’t do scud back there, Two,” she added.
Maybe it was the grimace on her face, or the way the placement of her hand conveniently seemed to draw the eye straight to the generous swell of her chest, but their guards seemed more or less appeased by her explanation.
“You’ll get over it,” he said, gathering his plate and rising from the bench. “Come on.”
“These people will kill you, Six,” he sent as they went to deposit their dishes in the mess’ wash receptacle. “And they’ll kill me too if you keep dragging me into these games.”
“Look, I don’t know what you think I did up there, but I feel the need to point out that you’re the one gropping cots in the midnight hour. Maybe you just think I’m cute, man.”
He pulled open the receptacle’s cover. “I think you’re trouble.”
“I think you have serious issues with women,” she sent, scooting in and sliding her plate and cup down the shoot.
“I think I should tell Verner to throw you back and find a new Six.”
She paused in turning away from the shoot, searching his face. He didn’t mean to meet her eyes. Had been deliberately avoiding it. But suddenly there they were, studying one another, and even here, in plain sight of four Sanctum Guard and another couple dozen acolytes and citizens, his head buzzed with the closeness of her.
“Then why don’t you?” she sent softly.
He turned without a word, barely caring at this point whether she was quick enough to keep their crumbling act together for the benefit of their observers.
This was not good.
His heart picked up at the sight of one of the Sanctum Guard holding his palmlight to his ear before glancing in Two’s direction and giving a slight nod, as if he’d just received some communication and was confirming… confirming what? That they were finishing up in the mess hall? That Two was off the rails and needed to be put down immediately?
The guard slid his helmet back on, his golden faceplate hiding all thought and emotion from sight. A tingling itch crept across Two’s neck, right at the line of his collar. His hands clenched, resisting the urge to reach for the damn thing. Was this it? He felt like he was going to explode. Maybe was going to explode.
Then something soft and perfectly languid crept through him, like a warm cloud settling at his center.
“You definitely have issues with women,” came Six’s voice. He turned to find her watching him expectantly, like she was waiting to see where they were supposed to go next. “And you’re really not a very good tour guide, either.”
Across the room, the other Sanctum Guard were all pulling on their helmets while the one Two had been sure was the herald of his doom gathered their dishes and went to drop them in the wash receptacle.
He almost could’ve laughed. Had he really been imagining the whole thing?
Before he could finish chiding himself for being a panicky fool, some of the warmth crept out of him. Too much.
He looked back at Six. “Did you just…?”
She shrugged. “You kinda looked like you might explode just now. I can’t imagine that would’ve ended well for me.”
Two started to open his mouth, clenched his jaw instead. Never mind that it was the truest thing she’d said all morning and that he should’ve been relieved to find she wasn’t utterly clueless about how dangerous this place was. She’d worked her abilities on his mind again. And worse, it seemed his baseline defenses weren’t worth a damn against her special brand of telepathic manipulation.
“Come on,” he said. “We’re leaving.”
He caught the eye—or general faceless attention, rather—of one of the Sanctum Guard and tilted his head toward the door. The Guard nodded. They could’ve talked, of course. Eventually, anyone who spent long enough in the mini-city of the White Tower started to catch on anyway that there was a small group of nondescript no-names who shared an unusual relationship with the Sanctum Guard—occasionally almost seeming to be their commanders, but most of the time looking more like their prisoners. Luckily, the faithful servants of the Sanctum asked as few questions as the loyal hounds of the Legion. Even so, Sanctum Guard and Seekers tended to only speak when necessary—mostly because neither was particularly fond of the other.
And right now, Two wasn’t particularly fond of anyone. Least of all the blonde time bomb hurrying to keep pace on his flank.
“Look, I don’t know what you want me to say,” she sent, her thoughts steeped in exasperation.
He’d show her the necessary stops, he’d get her to Kada, and that would be it. She’d be someone else’s problem—all set to deconstruct what little life she had left here as a Seeker without dragging him into it. That thought even let him conjure up a polymer smile as she shuffled into the lift next to him, their four guards on her tail.
“Fine,” she sent. “You want me to admit I’m all scared and lonely? I am. Does that help you pull your manhood back in one piece?”
Two punched the command for the Great Hall, all the way up—the pinnacle of the White Tower. The jewel of the Sanctum. The place where the good people went to be closest to Alpha, and the apostates went to meet his justice.
It seemed an appropriate place to start.
“No?” she sent. “Scared lonely girl not doing it for you?”
He consciously refrained from clenching his fists and resisted the impulse to look at her. “You have an interesting choice of nocturnal activities for a scared lonely girl.”
“See, I think it’s interesting that you think that’s interesting.”
“What I think is that you’re not ready for this job.”
“Come on, you’re telling me you don’t like to punish the wicked when you’re lonely?”
“The fact that you’d even think about calling it that tells me you’re definitely not ready for this job.”
“Well Alpha be sweet, then. Guess I’d better march on over to Verner and let him know. I’m sure the lecherous old bastard would think of something to do with me, don’t you?”
His reaction this time was only masked by the slowing of the mag lift and the chime announcing they’d arrived at their destination.
“That’s a cleric you’re talking about, fallen.”
The bite in his mental tone took him by surprise. Why did this girl’s every word make him so angry? Probably because half of the things that left her mouth were pure blasphemy. But it wasn’t like the same couldn’t have been said about him when he’d first arrived here at the Tower. And maybe therein lay the root of his irritation.
“That’s also a human I’m talking about,” she sent as they stepped out of the lift, her tone more subdued now. “A man, too. And lest my feminine intuition deceive me, a man who takes… a certain pleasure in that which he deems heretical.”
“You’re full of scud.”
“I sure hope so,” she said slowly, staring at their surroundings in awe, “the way this is all going. Sweet Alpha.”
He didn’t bother responding. Just let her drink in the illustrious majesty of the antechamber they’d arrived in. Rich ivory tiles, veined with gold. Intricate darkwood etchings working their way up the abundant open wall space, all the way up to the angled duraglass ceiling high above. The room was enormous. Even after being here as many times as he had, it was hard to believe a place of such splendor could even be in the same building as his hundred and fifty square foot permacrete prison.
And this was only the antechamber.
The wonder on Six’s face as she took it all in sparked the first glimmer of hope in Two’s chest. Maybe he could still bring this whole thing under control. Maybe all she’d needed was the right perspective—a reminder of the Sanctum’s power, and where they stood in the eyes of Alpha.
“Come on,” he said, starting for the mouth of the dark stone path that led through two towering rows of mighty columns to the Great Hall beyond. “It’s time for lesson number two.”
“You must never forget who it is you serve.”
Six didn’t reply, only followed quietly along, her lips parted in perpetual awe, her eyes tracing every inch of the expansive decor. It was the first time their trailing Sanctum Guard actually seemed somewhat at ease, as if they had no fear any evil could befall them in this place. Two almost began to relax himself, save for the glowing ember of unease that he always felt in any worship hall—the guilty weight of the knowledge he was tainting a holy place. He reached the opening between the two massive column lines, and that perverse swirl of guilt and satisfaction only deepened.
He hadn’t been sure if the gallows would still be there. The ceremony had only been last night, but usually they were quick about removing the unsightly relic, especially on those occasions when it was actively used in the ceremony. Last night, though, its function had been only symbolic—a reminder of the justice that had been served on Alpha’s behalf. But there it was in the distance, on the second plateau of the massive four-tier head of the Great Hall, in the process of being prepped for storage by half a dozen acolytes.
Two felt the subtle shift in the weight of the room behind him as Six caught sight of the barbaric device in the distance. She didn’t say anything at first, and he was content to let her soak it in as they proceeded down the dark stone path to the Great Hall proper, dwarfed between the great stone columns. When they finally cleared the column line and the full extent of the Great Hall exploded out around them with its vast expanse of stonework and its towering duraglass windows, Six stopped walking, a trace of fear mixing with the reverence on her face.
“I… understand why you brought me here,” she sent finally.
The meekness in her tone felt odd after the rest of their exchanges. But that was exactly what he’d wanted, right?
“I know life at the training facility was no joke, but you need to understand stepping up to this place… just because you have more freedom doesn’t mean you’re any more free than you were back there.” He looked around, his gaze settling on the gallows at the head of the hall, and the point felt almost too well-made. “The only difference here is that they willingly give us enough rope to hang ourselves with.”
Her gaze followed his. “Yeah, that’s… graphic. But I get it.” She turned back to him, searching his face with those lovely brown eyes. “So help a girl out, huh? What are friends for?”
With a significant force of will, he pulled his eyes away from hers and realized they’d been doing a scud job of maintaining their charade of conversing out loud for their guard detail. The four Sanctum Guard, though, hadn’t seemed to notice their silent interaction. Their faithful attention was directed to the activity at the head of the Great Hall. When Two looked, a couple of them were tracing Alpha’s sigil over their breasts.
“I’ve been trying,” he sent back. “You’re just bad at listening.”
“Hey, maybe you’re bad at teaching,” she snapped back, with a trace of her earlier spunk.
Two bristled, but her face was already falling.
“I didn’t mean—I’m just… being difficult, I know. I’m sorry.” She looked back up at him. “So what’s next? What’s lesson number three?”
Two gazed around the enormous hall, looking for what exactly, he couldn’t have said. A sense of righteousness, maybe, or even just simple purpose. But as he looked around, he couldn’t seem to find anything but the blunt, inescapable reminder that, after having stood four long years ago almost exactly where Six was now, he was every bit as trapped as she was. More so. And the part of him that had once longed for that freedom he spoke of? That was the worst part.
He couldn’t seem to find it anywhere.
And there was Six, watching him, waiting like some scolded pup for him to give her a pat on the head and tell her in soothing tones that it was all right and that he hadn’t meant to be so rough—that if she was good she could soon play to her little heart’s content. Waiting for lesson three. Like he knew what the scud he was talking about. Like four years’ worth of fallen blood on his hands made him someone to be listened to. It was sickening. Infuriating. He couldn’t stand that look on her face.
“I’m glad you asked, Six, because lesson three is really quite an important one.”
He held her eyes, not bothering to try to hide the depths of misery roiling in his tainted spirit.
“Lesson three: I am not your gropping friend.”
Chapter 5 - The Job
The rest of the morning passed by incident-free, if not exactly pleasantly. Lesson Three in the Great Hall decisively marked the end of their clandestine telepathic conversation. From there, Two showed Six to the armory, introduced her to the few analysts she might have cause to occasionally work with in operations, and lastly took her to see the skimmer bay where they kept their own small fleet for Seeker use.
Part of him wanted to apologize for lashing out earlier. Most of him wanted to see that mischievous grin return to her lips. But it hadn’t been for random maliciousness that he’d said what he’d said. They really couldn’t be friends. Not if they wanted to live. And so, when the time came to deliver Six to Kada, she arrived fully intact but lacking any comforting words from him and noticeably depleted of all apparent spunk. By all means, holy and otherwise, that should’ve been that.
She didn’t bother him as he lay in his cot that night. Only in his dreams.
Still, the next day he woke with a kind of burgeoning lightness in his chest. Or at least the closest thing to lightness he was used to feeling. For now, it seemed, he was in the clear, all set to keep his head for another few years. Not that that was purely happy news, but it was at least reassuring. He felt stability returning like an old, disinterested spouse—in it for the long haul, just please don’t interrupt my storyvids, thank you very much. After a cold shower and a bowl of thick breakfast grains from the fab, he was actually starting to feel kind of good.
Then his palmlight buzzed and rectified that bullscud right quick.
A message from operations—which, he knew, almost certainly meant a message from Verner, whether directly or not.
<ASSIGNMENT: First mark support for Six.>
What followed was a list of what little information they’d gathered on the mark, a preternaturally lucky dice roller who’d apparently set up shop right in the slums of their very own Divinity. Not a good move on his part. The report was little more than rumors and speculation, but there was a decent chance they were on to something. It’d be easy enough for Six to figure out once she was on site. It was what she’d have to do about this dice roller if the rumors panned out that was the real problem. Which was exactly why Verner had opted to send Two for support, of course.
Because how the scud else could this situation with Six get any more confusing for him?
The first mark was never easy. Not even for a sadistic psychopath like One. Which was why there was always a second Seeker present for the first kill. For insurance in case of weak stomachs—and, more often than not, for a few words of comfort after the fact. No amount of logic and faith that you’d done a good thing—that you’d eliminated a demon from the world—could completely override the tiny fact that there’d been a human life lost in the balance. If ever there was a time that one Seeker was meant to be a friend to another…
“Scud,” he growled softly at the remnants of breakfast grains in his bowl.
The grains didn’t have much to say on the matter, so he swept the bowl to the sink, pulled on his jacket, and left the room, heading for the service lifts, and one of the smaller, more private worship halls after that. The briefing they’d sent him had indicated they wouldn’t depart on this operation until nightfall, when their lucky dice roller was rumored to be active.
Normally, Two would’ve saved his ritual worship hall visit until closer to mission time, but somehow, he was more nervous about this job than he had been about any of his own in years. Killing people was never going to be easy, but pulling the trigger on demons had certainly grown a lot simpler after he’d gotten over the initial hump. Babysitting someone else through their first kill, though?
His stomach was churning just thinking about it.
He thought about reaching out to Six to see how she was handling the news of her first mark arriving so quickly. But that was a bad idea. For one, they might’ve told him before they’d told her. For another, he needed her to believe what he’d said yesterday. If Verner was going to push him into being her support, he’d give her the right word or two when it was time. Just enough. Nothing more.
Then he’d get back to despising his own miserable life on his own—just the way he liked it.
Luckily, the cleric on duty in Two’s habitual worship hall—more an alcove than an actual hall—was one of the many who didn’t know what Two was. Not that the odds had been against him or anything. Very few of the clerics—probably less than one in a hundred across Enochia—were even aware that true demons actually walked among them, much less that they were able to do far more than just tempt and corrupt. If they’d known that fallen like him were real, and that they could literally bend the shape of reality and the minds of men as readily as soft clay…
That knowledge alone probably would’ve had the clerics rousing the public into a zealous and no doubt poorly-executed demon hunt across Enochia. The knowledge that the Sanctum kept a dozen such demons in their service, on the other hand?
There was a reason very few were privy to that information. Only a few handfuls of living clerics at a time, as far as Two could guess. It didn’t matter that the Seekers were serving Alpha as best they could—that they existed only to hunt that which couldn’t feasibly be hunted by any other. If knowledge of the Seeker core ever hit public circulation, Two didn’t want to imagine what manner of scudstorm would erupt. From a certain point of view, it might’ve even seemed funny, to think how much power the Sanctum had inadvertently placed in the Seekers’ laps. Not that Two or any of the other twelve would ever dare attempt to apply that leverage.
Their spirits were already stained enough as it was.
Two nearly jumped when the cleric of the small hall appeared in front of him. He hadn’t heard the slender man coming—had barely even noticed himself taking a seat on one the benches toward the back, lost as he had been in his own thoughts.
“Holiness,” Two murmured, bowing his head.
The cleric—Two couldn’t remember this particular one’s name—laid a gentle hand on his bowed head. “Something troubles your spirit today, child?”
Despite everything, Two couldn’t help but share a bitter grin with the rich, cream-colored carpet at that. “Your holiness… You have no idea.”
The remainder of the day passed uneventfully—albeit slowly, thanks to the incessant churning in his gut—and by the time the tenth bell of the evening rang, Two had yet to hear from Six. He got ready to head out, dreading what was coming but also eager to get the whole thing over with—provided it was still on, of course. Verner almost certainly would’ve had operations tell him, had plans changed, but he’d still started to wonder when he’d sat down for a light supper still having not heard so much as a telepathic peep.
Maybe she was too nervous to ask for consolation. Probably, she was just too bitter or proud to come to him at all after his harsh words yesterday. Scud, maybe she was sitting there cool as a kukra melon, having convinced herself she was actually ready for this. He doubted that last one, but either way, it wasn’t going to do anyone any good, him sitting around pontificating about it. So he set off for the lifts, heading for Six’s room first.
She wasn’t there—or didn’t answer his knock at least.
He reached out with his senses to make sure, then moved on to the armory to grab a sidearm—a step that never ceased to feel ludicrously pointless to him. Because if his demon ever actually managed to slip his control and take the reins, it was hardly going to need a sidearm to wreak destruction, and even if it wanted one, it wasn’t like the couple Sanctum Guard on armory duty were going to be able to stop it. But for whatever brain-touched reason, the protocol was one in the very long list of precautions that made the handlers feel better. Two suspected this particular protocol was much more about the reminder of what the Seekers were and who they belonged to than it was about the actual act of restricting their weapons access.
Still, it was hardly the worst of his troubles, he decided once he’d procured a weapon and was on his way to their skimmer bay, where this morning’s missive had instructed they should meet their detail of Sanctum Guard—yet another bitter wrinkle in tonight’s scud fest. Not that having Sanctum Guard along was all bad. He preferred hunting alone, and often times was allowed to these days, but if he had to have backup, he’d take Sanctum Guard over legionnaires or anyone else nine times out of ten.
But tonight was definitely that tenth time.
Keeping a new Seeker safe and stable through her first job would’ve been bad enough. But doing it under the watchful eye of Verner’s hand-picked rat squad?
Alpha help them if anything went sideways.
He arrived at the skimmer bay fifteen minutes before their designated meeting time. Whether out of nerves or some unexpected respect for punctuality, Six was already there. Probably the nerves, Two guessed, judging by the way she was sitting on a skimmer hood, eyes distant and hands clasped in her lap. Her gaze snapped to him as he stepped into the bay, and something flickered across her brow as she took him in. Was it irritation? Disdain? He couldn’t quite figure it out before she disengaged and pointedly returned to staring at the far permacrete wall. Then he took in what she was wearing, and for a few seconds, it was all he could do not to deteriorate into a gaping, slack-jawed swell hound.
He stared with a tight jaw instead.
Cleavage. Merciful Alpha with the cleavage. It wasn’t even that the forest green blouse Six had chosen for tonight’s mission was particularly low cut. It was just that her swells seemed to leap out anyway, throwing the tendrils of their curvaceous presence straight across the room, sure as any demon, and snagging him straight by some spot deep in his core, below the viscera. The bare skin of her legs didn’t help matters either, where it lay exposed between the tops of her dark boots and the frilly hem of her…
“You, uh…” He shook his head, trying to clear it—trying to stop tracing the soft curves of her bared flesh and extrapolating the tantalizing image of what lay beneath. He couldn’t believe Kada would’ve fashioned these garbs, or, more importantly, that Verner would have approved of them—out loud, at least.
Six, for her part, had seemed content to continue staring at the plain gray wall as if he didn’t exist—a probable sign, some corner of his brain suggested, that she was still angry with him about yesterday—but at his stuttered start, she shot a frown his way. “What?”
He tore his gaze away from her lovely legs. “You’re wearing a skirt.”
Her eyes widened, jaw slackening in a look of surprise his swell-muddled brain didn’t quite register as mocking until she pointedly gaped down at said skirt and back to him.
So they were back to the childish games already?
Two resisted the urge to rise to her baiting and roll his eyes. Instead, he glanced over her once more. It wasn’t exactly like the outfit would put her in harlot territory out on the streets of Divinity. With the chic brown leather jacket and the way she’d arranged her golden hair, she’d probably fit right in actually—would probably in fact have half the bachelors in Divinity sniffing after her. But that was the problem, wasn’t it? She was going to draw attention, looking like that. Especially in the slums, where many of the so-called bachelors left more than a bit to be desired in the realm of manners and impulse control.
“It seems ill-advised,” he finally said, “walking into a potential combat situation in a skirt.”
“I wasn’t planning on getting into any fights.”
“You might not want a fight. I get that. But you always plan for one.”
She shot him a sweet acid smile that did strange things to his insides. “Is that lesson number four?”
“That’s just the job, kid.”
It felt kind of perverse and more than a little impotent, calling her kid while he was just shy of pulling a muscle trying to keep from staring at her tits. She seemed to notice, too, because that smile of hers only sharpened as she leaned back on the skimmer hood and reached back to support herself on her hands in a way that only put the generous curves of her breasts on display that much more. He did his best not to squirm under her silent stare.
“So what’s your plan, then?” he asked, waving a hand at the spectacle. “You’re just gonna flit around, catch this dangerous criminal’s eye, and…” He waved his hand some more, unsure how to finish the thought.
She just gave a salacious little shrug, her smile sweetening. “Pretty much, yeah.”
“Forgive me if I fail to see how the scud that’s actually a plan at all.”
“Well, we’re supposed to play to our strengths, right?”
“Well I’m not that great with telekinesis, Two. Not particularly strong, either. And I’m certainly no master at arms.” She gave him a pointed look. “What I’m good at is driving telepaths wild.” Her lips twitched, and for the first time, the bitter edge in her expression gave ground to real amusement. “What I’m good at is making big strong Seekers explode on their linens with a thought and a wink.”
His cheeks burned at her casual amusement, but he forced himself to hold her stare. “That’s a far cry from killing a man.”
She dropped his gaze, but the small hint of victory that swelled in his chest quickly staled at the way her smile brittled, so clearly surface-deep at this point. All traces of amusement gone, she pulled a slender flask from an inside coat pocket. “That’s what this is for.”
He frowned at the flask. Poison? Probably. The thought made him uneasy, as did the deeper implications of what she was saying.
Verner had trained a venom-fanged seductress. Or had signed off on one being trained, at least.
It felt wrong.
Using the Seekers’ demons to fight fire with fire was already bad enough. Using them to ensnare the fallen, though? To twist their minds and desires and lure them in like slobbering bulls only to slip them poison… somehow, it seemed worse. Out of the twelve, Eleven was the only one who’d occasionally employed poison in the past, and that had always been markedly different. This…
This was just going to have to happen, he realized, as the sound of boot steps at the doorway announced the arrival of their Guard detail. But not just their Guard, he saw with a flicker of surprise.
Verner himself had come to see them off.
And was it just Two’s imagination, or had the good cleric been stealing a peep at Six’s forest-green-bound cleavage when Two turned?
“Holiness,” Two murmured, dipping his head as Six echoed the greeting behind him.
“You are ready for this, child?” came Verner’s voice.
Two looked up to confirm Verner’s words had been addressed to Six. She all but wilted under his attention, eyes falling, shoulders rounding, hands returning to clasp one another in the fold of her lap. It was some combination of impressive and heartbreaking, how quickly the presence of a cleric flipped her modesty switch.
Two understood completely.
“Of course, your holiness,” she said softly.
“Good,” Verner said, looking satisfied. Very satisfied indeed, Two couldn’t help but notice, as the cleric studied her a few seconds longer. “Very good.” He turned to Two for the first time. “You will confirm the mark’s affliction before any action is taken. Outside of that, you will assist only if it becomes absolutely necessary.”
Two had already known his duties running support on a first mark, of course. He’d thought he’d made peace with them. But now his insides churned at the thought of watching Six lure some grizzled fallen off into a dark corner, barely able to contain himself, ready to fall to his knees—to do anything—to please her. Watching her reel him in, her hand casually finding its way to his chest, right over the man’s bounding heart. Would she smile as she offered him a drink? Would she offer more? A kiss? How far would it go before—
“Do you understand, fallen?”
Verner was watching him with that same suspicious look he’d worn when Two had first officially met Six the day before. Two did his best to keep his face empty as he nodded, trying not to betray his guilty thoughts by wilting as Six had.
“Of course, your holiness.”
Verner surveyed them both for another few seconds before giving himself one last satisfied nod. “On with it, then. Alpha be with you both.”
Not for the first time, Two sincerely hoped that the cleric’s blessing carried more than the weight of its words alone.
Chapter 6 - The Hardest Part
The smell of chronic body odor and ill-contained human waste was like a living thing trying to crawl its way from the cloying Divinity air right into Two’s tightly-closed mouth. Next to him, he felt Six readily match his increased stride, hastening them past the patchwork doors of the particularly pungent vagrant den and down the filthy alleyway.
“Oh how sweet, to be home again,” Six sent.
He ignored the comment. Unpleasant as it was, the smell was hardly the worst he’d ever experienced, having spent his fair share of time on the streets throughout his shattered childhood. Given Six’s comment about being home again, not to mention the fact that pretty much every Seeker trainee was gathered from the streets, he imagined Six had experienced plenty worse too. Still, he felt her relief almost as clearly as his own when a strong whiff of smoke swept down the alley, helping to wash some of the human stench from their nostrils. Not that whatever was burning ahead smelled especially wonderful either. But that was the slums for you, right?
He started to open his mouth, then glanced back over his shoulder, to where he could feel the Sanctum Guard following by his prickling neck hairs alone. Would Verner be listening in? Was he watching right now? He’d certainly seemed interested enough in this mission. Or in Six, at least. Two pushed that thought down as quickly as it rose, right along with the confusing mess of… whatever it was that the thought stirred up in his chest.
“You sure you’re ready for this?” he sent as they drew close to the mouth of the narrow alleyway, the voices and bustle of the gathering ahead washing over them now like a stinking wave of alcohol and greed.
“What does it matter?” she sent back, pausing beside him. “Not like I have a choice. Or a friendly ear to hear my woes.”
He stopped, turning to face her in the dim, flickering light. She was staring through the gathering ahead with a distant look, her jaw tight.
“Nervous?” he asked.
She stiffened, like his words had startled her. “Of course I’m nervous, you ass.”
“Well why didn’t you say so sooner?”
She fixed him with an incredulous stare.
“Lesson number three,” she sent, her mental tone pure acid. “Remember, scudhead?”
He bristled, anger roiling through his chest, priming his tongue to spit out half a dozen different shots about maybe if she hadn’t acted like an impulsive child from the very start, and did she really gropping think he had even the slightest desire to be out here right now? Laying his neck on the line beside the girl who’d worn a gropping skirt to come slay a demon?
But he was here now. His neck was on the line. And she was afraid. He could see it in her eyes.
“Okay,” he sent softly. “Okay, just, never mind that for now. We’re going to get you through this thing tonight, and then we can worry about the rest later. Deal?”
She chewed her lip for several seconds and didn’t quite nod, but didn’t outright tell him to grop himself, either.
“Let’s confirm we actually have a fallen on our hands before we get too carried away, yeah?”
This time she did nod, meeting his eyes with renewed focus, and he felt a sliver of the tension in his chest give way to something else. She started toward the mouth of their dim alleyway and the raucous slum square gathering beyond, but he reached out and caught her by the elbow to stop her. She didn’t pull away, just looked from his hand on her elbow up to his face, a question in her eyes.
He let go quickly, hoping none of their Sanctum watchers had seen the contact. “Better to sweep for him from here. Not that this is exactly a dinner party at the High Praetors, but even these people might notice if you go vacant in the middle of the party.”
Another nod. “Good point. You’ll keep watch here?”
He nodded, and her eyes slid closed. Somewhere at the edge of his senses, he vaguely felt her start to reach out, but with her attention so completely focused elsewhere, he was too ensnared in the soft curves of her cheeks and the fullness of her lips to notice much else. He watched as those lips drew tight in concentration, her brow lightly creasing. It was the first time he’d been able to really look at her without feeling like he’d have to do battle with her stubborn wit over it. It almost felt wrong, staring so openly. But also exhilarating. The seconds ticked by, her breath rising and falling, and he couldn’t look away. He wanted to reach out and touch her—was all but paralyzed by the irrational desire, his heart thundering at the perverse impurity of his feelings for this demon-ridden girl.
Then her eyes slid back open.
He swallowed, trying to pull himself together, hoping he wasn’t actually salivating. She searched his face for a silent moment, her brow crinkled ever-so-slightly.
“Anything?” he sent, desperate to deflect any impending questions.
“Something. I’m pretty sure he’s out there. To the left from the alleyway, two fires down, right in the middle of the big game.”
She was still watching him with an odd look. But maybe that was just his own confused conscience talking. It didn’t matter. They had work to do.
Briefly, Two closed his eyes and confirmed her findings. She hadn’t been exaggerating when she’d said the mark was right in the middle of a big game. Two’s stomach sank. The bastard must’ve been surrounded by fifty people out there. One of them clapped the guy on the back while Two was feeling the scene out. Two drew his senses back to the alleyway, not wanting to set off the mark’s inner alarm. Or his demon’s alarm, at least. The mark himself seemed more than a little preoccupied—slightly drunk, by the feel of it, and shouting and taunting with the best of them as he prepared for another roll.
When Two came back to his physical senses in the alleyway, Six was still watching him, but his misgivings at what he’d felt out there killed any of those ludicrous flutters from taking off in his stomach. Crowds were never good news, and especially not crowds of which your mark was the life of the Alpha-damned party. Give him a reclusive nomad any day—the ones who drifted from hideout to hideout, always alone, always in quiet places. Made things a scudload easier. Looking at Six, though, he decided that maybe this was exactly the kind of job she was suited for. A crowd might not be such a problem when you could probably get most men to follow you straight off a sheer cliff.
“What are you thinking?” came her voice in the middle of his thoughts.
“I’m thinking it’s way too busy out there. Can you get him alone?”
The faintest grin tugged at those sensuous lips of hers. He felt her confidence building now—felt it somewhere right below his stomach and above his thighs.
“Wouldn’t you follow me into a dark alley?” she sent.
He suppressed the urge to swallow. “Technically, I already did.”
She tilted her head. “Fair point. So are we doing this?”
“You’re doing this. Verner wants to see that you have what it takes to do it alone. I’ll be close, though. Watching the whole time.”
The news didn’t seem to throw her newfound confidence. If anything, it just added a few degrees to the sultry heat of her grin.
“Well, I hope you enjoy what you see, Two.”
His head buzzed with the intensity of her eyes on his. Was that just him, or was she already turning on the demonic charm in preparation for her debut? Impossible to tell. But one thing was certain. As she turned from him and strode out of the alleyway, skirted hips swaying with each mesmerizing step, he couldn’t deny it.
He enjoyed the scud out of what he saw.
An hour later, Two was enjoying what he saw a whole scudload less. Not because things were going poorly. Quite the opposite.
Six was clearly a natural in these kinds of situations, as evidenced by her current place at the roaring heart of the dice crowd, with that sleazy bastard’s dirty arm draped around her waist. Two watched from the dirt-caked window of a depressingly small and abandoned apartment as the fallen raised his dice to Six’s lips with a wide, scud-eating grin beneath his mangy beard. Six obliged all too willingly with yet another blow on the dice. Grin widening, the fallen threw yet another roll. Yet another win.
He celebrated with a nice firm handful of Six’s skirted ass.
Two’s hands, already in fists, clenched tighter. Six just shot her fallen vagrant a mischievous grin, and ground her hip into his. Was that actual enjoyment on her face? Or was she just that good at her role? He couldn’t tell.
By and large, killing fallen was something Two did out of methodical necessity. It was a job. An important job, but one that he never took any particular pleasure in.
With this guy, though, he might actually enjoy it.
Except it wasn’t his kill to make this time, was it? It was Six’s.
He found himself almost wishing she’d trip up, just so he could have the satisfaction of ending that ever-grinning, dice-tossing, ass-grabbing scudbucket. But that wouldn’t do. If Six failed here tonight, it wouldn’t necessarily mean the end of her run as a Seeker, but it most certainly wouldn’t land her on firm ground, either. Still, he had a feeling it was a moot point. Thus far, Six had worked her way into the dice-roller’s circle like an Alpha-damned natural. Every man down there wanted her, and probably half the women too—the ones who weren’t too busy shooting her dirty glares, at least.
Scud, the way some of the men were eyeing her, Two thought they might be contemplating killing the dice-roller themselves just to get their own shot with her. Those ones made him nervous. Because as easily as she’d worked her way into the crowd, he still wasn’t sure she’d be ready if the scud hit the turbines.
She was wearing a skirt, for Alpha’s sake.
So he watched with a steady tension, ready to leap in if need be, and ever wary that the Sanctum Guard were doing the same—two from the rooftop of his building, and two more from the building across the fire-lit square this flock of vagrants, low-lives, and common criminals had gathered in for their night of drinking and gambling and Alpha knew what else. Several times, he thought about reaching out to Six and making sure she was okay, that everything was going according to plan, and that the mark’s dice-stroking fingers weren’t getting too adventurous for her liking. The desire grew even stronger when he noticed that she was glancing up to his window every few minutes, but he refrained by sheer force of will.
This was her job. She’d call if she needed help. And he wasn’t her gropping friend, right?
The seconds crawled by, scraping their scuddy way into minutes and, eventually, another half hour—Six grinding against her mark all the while, laughing at his scuddy jokes, whispering Alpha knew what into his ear. The guy had to realize by now that she was like him. Fallen. Or gifted, as the less educated amongst their unlucky kind tended to call themselves.
Two could only imagine what manner of indulgent bullscud Six had shoveled the man to put him at ease. Probably, she’d told him that she’d felt his power from afar. That she’d needed to come and be with someone like her, someone who could take care of her in a way no normal man could.
Two had heard more than a few rumors about the magnitude of bliss two fallen might share if they were depraved enough to let their demons bond during a swive—pleasure beyond what any mere human could ever dream of attaining. He couldn’t have said, himself. He’d never had that particular human experience, with a fallen or otherwise. But watching the two of them now, Six’s face lighting up with yet another laugh—a fake one, if Alpha was merciful—the thought made him sick on multiple levels.
Finally, for the love of Alpha, the dice roller gave into the growing insistence of Six’s affections and disengaged himself from the game. That the scuddy bastard had taken as long as he had made Two want to punch him all the more. The fallen wasn’t exactly ugly underneath that mangy beard, but Two was a toe-dancing haga beast if the bastard was even within five leagues of Six’s beauty, and…
And why the scud was he even thinking about this?
They were on a job, dammit. And the mark was moving.
Two cursed himself for the distraction and watched them disentangle from the dice crowd. Once he was reasonably sure he knew which way they were headed, he turned for the door and took off at an easy run. He was pretty sure Six had it in the bag at this point, but this was also the moment it’d be easiest for her to let a bad case of empathy and nerves blow a sure thing. Better he be within striking distance to see the deed safely through. He just hoped he didn’t have to see more than that.
Back on street level, he reduced his speed down to a brisk walk as he cut through the fire-lit gamblers’ square. No reason to draw undue attention. He seemed to draw enough as it was anyway—maybe because even his battered street clothes were a touch upscale for the locale, or maybe just because half the men there were the kind of macho degenerates who were chronically compelled to mark their territory with challenging glares and confrontational body language. It was a small miracle Six and the dice roller had made it out of this place without one of these charming goodfellows attempting to assert himself between them, like a haga beast challenging another alpha for mating rights with his females.
Two couldn’t help but smirk at the cheeky morons as he strode past, feeling that familiar itch, almost like he wanted them to make trouble, to try to hurt him. You could break them, his demon whispered to him. You could tear them apart.
And Alpha, would it feel good.
He pushed on, suppressing a shudder, and cleared the far end of the gathering without incident. He couldn’t see Six or the dice roller as he reached the dark alleyway, but a quick sweep revealed they were quite close to one another ahead, tucked into a quiet little alcove around the corner a little ways down.
He felt the dice roller’s hands on her body, tracing toward the hem of her skirt. Felt a ripple of amusement from Six. And was that her breathy laugh he heard as well? Sometimes it was hard to separate his senses and the demon’s when he was scanning over distance like this. Either way, she seemed to be at least giving off the appearance of having fun—enough to shoot another pulse of nausea through him and convince him he’d rather not make direct line of sight quite yet.
Why she’d even dragged it out this long, he wasn’t sure. He couldn’t imagine she’d have much trouble getting a man to drink from her flask, so to speak. She probably could’ve made her move as soon as they’d made it to the alley. Allowing it to go on like this felt cruel. Did she actually enjoy this game? Or was she just too nervous to end it?
Maybe he should just stroll right over there and force her hand.
He was halfway ready to do just that when he felt a jolt of alarm from Six… and from the dice roller too? Scanning further down their quiet little side alley, Two understood why.
Five men were approaching them from the far side of the alley.
And something told him they weren’t there to wish Six and her scud-eating mark good fortune and a happy swive…
Chapter 7 - Contact
Two started down the dark alleyway with a muttered curse, checking his sidearm and leaving the holster strap unclipped so he’d be ready to go if it became necessary. Judging by the tone of the voices as he drew up to the cool permacrete corner and paused to listen, though, it was sounding more like a when than an if.
“—fair and square, goodfellows,” someone was saying.
“Not today, Joda,” growled a gruff voice. “You’ve shipped your scud downstream for the last time. Now you’re gonna pay up.”
A shakedown. Wonderful. Of course whatever scudstorm of retribution this dice-rolling idiot had coming would strike right when Six was in the middle of quietly taking him out.
“What do I do?” Six’s whispered in Two’s mind, her voice tight with fear. “He already drank the stuff.”
More than in the middle of taking him out, then.
“It’s gambling, man,” the first voice—Joda the dice roller—was saying. “Sometimes the dice don’t fall your way. That’s the game. I don’t know what you want me to do abou—Hey!”
Two heard Joda’s cry of alarm just as he felt one of the burly newcomers yank the man away from Six and drive a strong fist into his gut.
“Get out of there,” Two sent. “Tell them it’s none of your business, that you don’t want anything to do with the cheating bastard. Let the poison run its course, just get out.”
There were a few moments of Joda’s wheezing and more threatening demands for him to pay up. Two was about to step in when he felt Six slowly start moving. For some reason, no one seemed to notice. Not until…
“Hey, what the scud?”
“The pretty bitch. She disappeared!”
“She didn’t disappear.”
“I watched her disappear!”
“Find her,” the gruff voice growled.
He felt the men scattering through the alleyway; felt Six trying to maneuver between them, apparently unseen. Then one stepped too close. There was a grunt of pain from the first one, a few curses from the others, and then one caught her from behind.
“Agh! What the scud?” the first one was crying. “She came outta nowhere!”
“She got one of those shrouds or somethin?”
“You tryna hide from us, honey?” asked the one who had her pinned to his chest. “What else you hidin in there?”
“Sorry, boys,” came Six’s admirably level voice. “Looks like I wandered into the wrong party. Don’t let me stop you, though. I just met this guy tonight, so whatever you gotta do, I’ll leave you to i—”
He felt her alarm and her sharp intake of breath as the towering brute who seemed to be the leader of this merry band of assholes seized her by the throat and leaned in close.
“You’re right where you oughta be, sweet thing. I can’t think of anything sweeter Joda here coulda brought us.”
“Part of the payment plan,” another voice added. “Right, Joda?”
A thunk and a cry of pain.
“He asked you a question, scud bucket.”
Two tried to think, but couldn’t focus on anything but the feeling of Six struggling against the two men.
“Just relax, sweet thing,” said the guy holding her from behind. “Just let it—Gah!”
Two felt the impact as Six stomped a booted heel down on the guy’s toes hard enough to break bones. She whirled to catch him in the ribs with an elbow, but their tree of a leader proved unsurprisingly accustomed to dirty fighting. He was already yanking her off balance by one wrist, swinging with his other hand. He caught her with a heavy smack that put her on the ground, groaning in a disoriented wash of pain and grimy alley water. Around her, the assembled goon squad guffawed.
That was it.
Two had stepped around the corner before he knew it, striding straight toward the moronic pack, his demon whispering dark encouragement in his ears, begging him to let it take over completely. He wanted to let it. Before, he’d been trying to think of a way to extract Six and himself from the situation—to let events run their course. But now…
“Hey!” one of the dead men snapped, catching sight of Two and pointing out his arrival for the others. The rest turned to face Two, their oak tree of a leader stepping in to head him off. Big tough guy.
Big tough dead guy, sneering at the demon.
“Who the grop are you supposed to—”
Two caved in the big man’s knees from behind with a slap of telekinetic force, then grabbed his big scudspouting head and drove his right knee into the man’s face before he could sputter so much as a surprised curse.
The big guy hit the ground beside Six like a falling tree, unconscious or close to it. Two stalked forward, relishing the looks of shocked fear flashing across their faces—his demon latching onto that fear like it was the only nourishment on the planet. The one man who drew a gun quickly found his weapon ripped from his grip by the invisible hand of telekinesis. The other two hesitated at the sinister winds suddenly gusting through the alleyway. Two hadn’t even meant to conjure them. He did, however, mean to grab the next of the dead men with telekinesis and slam his head into the hard permacrete of the alley wall. And slam he did.
He reached for the next one. Something smashed into the back of his head before he could, and his world exploded into a dancing light show. Bizarrely, it barely even hurt as Two whirled around, preparing to unleash the demon on the bastard he’d somehow passed by without noticing. But the blow had left his head spinning, and no amount of righteous anger could seem to pull his focus back in place. Not before the scudbucket tackled him into the wall, at least.
They hit hard enough to drive the air from Two’s lungs and snap his head back for a smack on the permacrete that left his vision dancing. He was surprised to find he’d kept his feet at all, but he didn’t linger on the discovery. Not when the guy threw a hard punch into his gut. Not when he saw his attacker’s friends approaching, two of them holding knives, and the third going for the gun Two had ripped away a moment earlier.
Two let loose, then, handing the reins to the anger; not pausing to think. He absorbed the next punch and drove a knee into the man’s groin. Followed up with a kick that shoved him back into the wall and sent his attacker sprawling across the alley. He ripped his sidearm free from the holster just in time to put a softsteel slug into the right thigh of the first man who came to stab him. The second hesitated at the thunderous gunshot. Two grabbed the man’s knife with telekinesis, ripped it from his hand, and launched it at their third as the thug bent to scoop up his own gun. The knife buried itself up to the handle in the back of the man’s shoulder, and he stumbled to the ground, screaming.
Two raised his own gun, ready to kill every last one of the bastards, but they’d had enough. The two who were still in any condition to walk were snatching up their wounded friends, dragging them away from him. Two nearly jumped when he caught motion to his right, but it was just Six, laying a hand on his shoulder, her lips moving with something that only seemed to come to him as buzzing tones.
He must’ve hit his head harder than he’d thought.
The left side of Six’s face was red and puffy where she’d been struck. And she was holding a gun, he realized—the same gun he’d torn from that thug’s hand. The thought yanked his disjointed attention back toward the far end of the alley, where the four men were hastily retreating. They didn’t seem to notice they’d left their tree of a boss in an unconscious heap on the grimy alley floor.
“Gropping freaks!” one of the cried, just before they disappeared around the corner.
In the silence that followed, the pain in Two’s ribs and the spinning ache in his head only intensified. Six was saying something. He tried to straighten, tried to stand off the wall, but his legs went weak and he found himself leaning against it more heavily than ever, sliding down the permacrete until he was sitting on the alley floor. It was only then that he noticed the other body.
Joda lay dead on the ground not far from the unconscious thug, blank eyes staring up at the sliver of night sky above the alleyway.
“How about this?” a warm, wonderful voice interrupted his humming thoughts. “Are you with me, Two? Sweet Alpha, say you’re with me.”
“—mmm withya,” he heard himself mumble, more by the vibrations in his skull than anything else, as if he were talking with his ears plugged.
“Sweet Alpha,” Six breathed. She was kneeling beside him now. “That was… That was…”
Two stirred, his senses pulling back into something like coherent focus, the pain in his ribs and skull sharpening by the second. “Another job well done,” he said, gesturing toward Joda’s lifeless form. “Congratulations, Seeker.”
She blew out a disbelieving huff. “But I didn’t… That wasn’t…” She touched a hand to her chest. “Alpha, my heart won’t stop.”
“I sure as scud hope not,” Two groaned, pushing himself up straighter. “Not after all that.”
He leaned closer to inspect her bruising face, lightly brushed a thumb across her cheek before he could think better of it. The contact rippled through him in a way that had little to do with what his fingers were feeling. Reflexively, he started to withdraw, but she wordlessly caught his hand in hers and pressed it to her soft cheek, her eyes searching his.
“Are you okay?” he managed through his parched mouth.
“I…” She dropped his gaze and lightly shook her head, squeezing his hand tighter to her. “You were right. I was stupid. I didn’t think they’d—that we’d…”
“Hey…” Somehow, his other hand found its way to her cheek, his hands framing her face, forcing her eyes to his. “Hey, I was stupid, too. When he hit you, I… I mean, when it looked like you were in trouble, I…”
He could kiss her right now. With her soft eyes mere inches from his, the thought came as naturally as her sweet breath filling his senses, and with all the stomach-tugging gravity of a high-altitude skimmer dive. He withdrew his hands from her cheeks, cursing himself for the momentary weakness.
“I was reckless,” he said, turning his gaze away from her and down the dim alleyway. “I shouldn’t have let that goat-gropper get behind me.”
“You saved my life, Two,” she said quietly. Then, before he could stop her, she leaned in and planted a kiss on his cheek, her lips warm and wonderfully tender.
He needed to pull away. Couldn’t seem to move. Couldn’t seem to drown out the part of him that burned to turn and kiss her back. It sent tingles down the back of his neck. Tingles like… like…
Like someone was watching.
Cold dread in his stomach, he pulled away from Six, already looking up, already knowing it was too late. And there they were. Two dark silhouettes looking down from the opposite rooftop, their compatriots no doubt lurking nearby on ground level.
“I just wanted to say thank y—”
“Shut up,” he snapped at her mind.
She recoiled, anger flashing across her features. He didn’t care. She’d figure it out as soon as she looked up. He’d gropped up. He’d let his defenses down, allowed himself to forget what she was, what he was.
And the Sanctum Guard had seen everything.
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