When a routine hunt goes wrong, an illegal magic-practitioner possessed by a snarky demon has to team up with the cop tasked with bringing her in to prevent the citizens of Baltimore from becoming meat puppets for the denizens of the Rift.
Mira shifted to keep her legs from going numb and scratched the head of a white cat who’d come to investigate her hiding spot in the bushes at the edge of the construction site. There was a chunk missing from the cat’s ear, and one of its front paws was black up to the elbow, as though it had stepped in ink.
<The night’s half over. Are you sure this is the right target?> The tinny voice filled Mira’s head like an off-key echo of her own.
“It’s hit two soup kitchens, a homeless shelter, and a women’s rescue.” Mira’s words drifted into the cold night on a cloud of condensed breath. “This is the next closest place that fits the bill.”
Mira rubbed her eyes, blinked, and shifted her tired focus back to the area in front of the homeless shelter—although homeless resort might have been a better description. Cafeteria, business center, gym . . . she’d never seen a shelter with so many luxuries. Certainly not in any of the places she’d slept.
<It could’ve hit that soup kitchen over on Oliver. That was about the same distance from the last attack.>
“And hosted in a church. Most demons avoid those like the plague.”
The voice made a soft chuffing sound. <Most demons are idiots. Holy ground is no different than anywhere else on the corporeal plane, and priests are just men with titles.>
The cat suddenly went stiff under Mira’s hand. It crouched until its belly brushed bare dirt, looked at the area framed by the shelter and the pink insulation board walls of the unfinished building next door, and hissed.
The crescent moon cast only a weak silver light, but Mira had no difficulty spotting the man shuffling along the road toward the shelter with a heavy, uneven gait. He passed beneath the glow of a streetlamp. Mira smiled. Unlike other paranaturals, demons dwelled in the Rift—the chaotic energy that connected all the Realms. They couldn’t manifest without a physical body to anchor them. That’s where rifters—demon-possessed humans—came in. But such unions usually took quite a toll on the host, and the marks weren’t easy to hide.
<Sunglasses at night? Could he be any more obvious?>
He could not wear the glasses. Mira responded in the privacy of her thoughts to keep her voice from carrying.
<Well, yeah. I guess there’s that.>
The presence inside Mira coiled with anticipation as the rifter moved closer to their ambush point.
Mira shifted her weight to the balls of her feet and checked to make sure none of her muscles had stiffened during her long wait crouched in the shadows. Damp dirt clung to her dark jeans.
She gave the cat one last pat on the head and whispered, “You wait here. This could get messy.”
<Pfft. He doesn’t look like much. That body’s nearly done for.>
Don’t let your guard down.
The man continued his single-minded march toward the shelter.
Mira took a deep breath. The moment she started drawing energy for her magic, the demon riding that body would know.
The man stepped into the road, preparing to cross. Then he paused. His gaze swept away from the homeless shelter toward her hiding spot.
The rifter’s gaze continued past Mira’s patch of shadows to the building on her other side. When he started walking again, his destination had changed.
Grinding her teeth, Mira crept along the wall of the shelter until she could see the front of the unfinished building. A man in faded jeans, a blue plaid shirt, and a bright-orange vest stood in the wood-framed hole destined to become the building’s front door. Silvery gray hair ringed the bottom of a hard hat that matched the orange vest. A Santa-worthy beard covered the bottom half of his face.
“Ay, coño,” Mira hissed. The whole point of this ambush was to avoid casualties.
<Wrong place, wrong time. Sucks to be him, but there’s nothing we can do about it now.>
The construction worker turned and vanished through the doorway.
Mira frowned. What’s he even doing here so late?
<Other than totally screwing up our plan?>
The rifter followed his new target into the building.
Mira darted across the open space between the buildings and crouched under a glassless window opening. Voices drifted out.
“. . . area is claimed. You’re drawing too much attention.”
“There’s plenty to go around.”
They’re . . . talking?
Mira rolled her eyes. Or rather, the demon riding shotgun in her soul did.
<We can speak, you know. Well . . . most of us.>
Since when do rifters stop to chat with their victims? Besides, it seems like that old guy is leading the conversation. Mira peeked over the lip of the wooden frame. The construction worker had his arms crossed over his Day-Glo vest. His face was twisted into an unhappy scowl that created deep creases in the skin around his eyes, but his flesh seemed intact—no signs of puppet strain, as Mira called the marks usually created by demon possession. Could he be a rifter, too?
<If he is, he’s hiding deep.>
<Don’t get your hopes up. What we have is not normal.>
But not impossible. She bit her lip. If there’s another pairing like ours . . .
“This is your only warning.” The construction worker uncrossed his arms and widened his stance, planting his feet. “We won’t let you upset our plans. Find somewhere else to gorge and die.”
This guy definitely knows what he’s facing. And did he say “we”?
The rifter sneered, his upper lip rising just enough to reveal grayish teeth and black gums. “Make me.”
The rifter Mira had come to kill launched forward, striking the construction worker in the chest. The second man took the impact, leaning forward slightly to keep his feet as they slid a few inches across sawdust-covered plywood.
<Definitely not human.>
Whatever he is, I want to talk to him. Mira vaulted the window frame, calling her magic. She landed in a crouch, one knee touching down in sawdust. Both men turned to look at her. Energy swirled through her, pulled from the air and focused, with the help of her hitchhiker, into a glowing ball on her palm. Tendrils of blue static cracked around a white center. The presence that was always with her but not quite a part of her swelled.
Picturing the result she wanted, Mira flicked her wrist and exerted her will. An arc of pale lightning connected her to the rifter she’d tracked, resting for a moment against his chest before he was blown off his feet. Two-by-fours splintered as he made a new opening in the skeletal frame of an interior wall.
Mira didn’t rise from her crouch but pivoted to face the second man. Maybe another rifter. Maybe a practitioner. Maybe someone like her. . . . “Who are you?”
The man’s gaze shifted between Mira and the broken wall. He pursed his lips. Then he stepped through the doorway behind him that led deeper into the building.
The downed rifter sat up amid snapped beams and a cloud of dust.
She’d come to end him—she needed to end him—but what she’d overheard from the mysterious construction worker had raised more than a few questions, and Mira wanted answers.
Racing past the stunned rifter, she darted after the second man.
He was on the far side of the room, passing into the next.
Mira charged up another bolt of energy as she ran—strong enough to knock him down but not enough to permanently injure him if he turned out to be mortal.
“Wait,” she shouted. “I want to talk to you.”
She launched herself through the next doorway, hand raised to throw her charged bolt.
The construction worker was only halfway across the room this time, facing her. His gaze met hers, and the metallic bronze of his eyes sent a shiver down her spine. A dark shape clung to the man’s body, draping him like a liquid shadow.
Before she could release her energy, an invisible wall slammed into her, throwing her back through the opening. She connected with something that offered a moment of resistance, then hit the ground in a tangle of limbs as she and the recovered rifter rolled together across the floor.
She kicked away, but the rifter grabbed her arms and pulled her down. His glasses had come off during their tumble. Jagged fissures radiated from his eyes, cracking his skin like dirt in a desert, and in the depths of those wounds flowed lines of radiant darkness like the cooling trails of a lava flow. The hands that clutched at her bore a similar texture—skin flaking around the fingernails, inky veins snaking just beneath the surface.
Mira elbowed the rifter in the teeth, knocking him back hard enough to crack his head against the floor. She twisted to follow up with a cross jab, but the rifter’s foot found her gut with a painful shove.
Mira grunted as she rolled backward, but the shot had given her enough distance to glance into the other room.
The construction worker was gone.
Mira clenched her fists. She wanted to go after him, but he had magic and a head start. Her chances of catching up to him at this point were next to nothing, and she still had her original target to deal with. If she didn’t finish this rifter, more people would die before she tracked him down again. She didn’t need any more deaths on her conscience.
Growling like an angry bear, Mira opened herself fully to the flow of energy around her. A pale glow coated her skin, encasing her like a suit of ethereal armor. The constant presence in her mind swelled along with the energy, growing stronger, more dominant. A gnawing hunger filled her.
I want to question him, she warned.
<Then let’s get him in a talking mood.>
Power surged through Mira’s body as she closed on the rifter. The first punch she landed cracked his jaw.
The rifter’s response was a roundhouse aimed at the side of her head.
She managed to block, but the impact sent knives of pain through her arm. She wasn’t the only one with a demon amplifying her strength.
The rifter’s tongue slithered along his upper lip, licking at the new split Mira had put in his skin. “I’m gonna eat you up.”
Mira had seen the crime-scene photos of this freak’s handiwork. He liked tearing people apart, but those victims had been human. Mira hadn’t been human for a very long time. She planted her feet and waited for him to come at her.
She didn’t have to wait long.
He snatched at the collar of her black leather jacket. She knocked his hand aside and snapped a quick jab at his nose. The two exchanged a flurry of blows, neither doing significant damage. Mira took an elbow in the face and a knee to her ribs. She returned an uppercut to the gut that lifted the rifter’s feet off the floor. As they fought, the dark film clinging to the rifter grew thicker, more opaque, just as the swirling energy around Mira grew stronger.
Mira grabbed for the rifter’s throat but was knocked aside. The rifter snatched at her wrist. Mira twisted free.
<Enough of this,> the demon snarled.
Heat poured into Mira’s fists. Tendrils of flame licked over her fingers.
Are you crazy? Panic flared through Mira, along with the memory of her mother’s eyes, wide and accusing. She flapped her hands until the flames vanished. You’ll burn this whole building down.
The rifter’s fist connected with Mira’s cheek while her guard was down, and she stumbled back into the metal frame of a scaffold. A hammer clattered to the plywood floor. There was a familiar hiss. The white cat who’d found her in the bushes earlier was crouched beneath the scaffolding, hair raised like the bristles of a toilet brush.
The rifter grabbed one side of the scaffold. His arms strained. The frame tipped. The materials on top shifted and started to slide.
Mira tensed, preparing to jump clear of the collapse, but the cat was still crouched, eyes wide, fur up, claws dug into the plywood subfloor at the base of the scaffold.
With a noise somewhere between a grunt and a curse, Mira changed directions.
She dropped over the cat like a net and stiffened the energy above her into a hardened dome.
The poles of the scaffold bucked and bent. Boards snapped. Sheets of drywall waiting to be hung crushed and crumbled around her. Beneath her, the cat clawed and slashed in a panic to get away, but Mira held on tight, wincing as burning cuts opened on her face and arms. Protecting the fierce little maniac was like hugging a blender.
As soon as the scaffold and its contents settled, Mira sat up with a gasp, shaking debris off her back. Freed, the cat sprang to the nearest windowsill and vanished.
Mira pushed to her feet.
“Ungrateful little—” The splintered end of a two-by-four slammed into her upper arm, smashing her into the wall. She bounced with the impact, cratering a piece of freshly mounted drywall. The two-by-four swung back for a second strike, but this time she got her arm up to block.
She took the impact and grabbed the board with her left hand, holding it in place. With her right hand, she created a gravity sink that brought a section of ceiling down on the rifter’s head. Beams split. Planks splintered. Drywall dust sifted down like powdered sugar, turning the room into a snow globe of suffocating particles.
<I thought we were trying not to bring the building down.> The demon’s voice rolled through her with a chuckle.
Ignoring the gibe, Mira stepped toward the rifter. His lower half was trapped beneath the collapsed ceiling.
He twisted and pushed, but Mira had her fingers around his throat before he could wiggle free.
“Who was that man you were talking to?”
“Go to hell.” He spat a glob of blackish goop into her face.
She wiped it on her forearm and tightened her grip. At the same time, she sent a trickle of magic into her fingers. The skin on the rifter’s neck began to blister.
“What plan was he—”
<We’re out of time.>
Mira tipped her head to the side, finally processing the noises at the edge of her awareness. Sirens blared in the distance. Closer, voices argued. People had taken notice of the commotion, called the cops. Would they work up the nerve to investigate before the police arrived?
Mira clenched her jaw. The last thing she needed was some curious rubbernecker taking her picture.
She shook her head. Finish it.
The energy in her swelled once more, and Mira felt herself shrinking, settling into the passenger seat as hunger and instinct took the place of thought and reason. The cuts the cat had given her sealed. The aches in her body subsided. She took a deep breath and felt as if she’d just woken from a long and pleasant nap.
Ribbons of white, black, and gold surged around Mira’s body like a whirlpool. The inky darkness clinging to the rifter shrank back, but there was nowhere to hide now. The rifter screamed as threads of the demon possessing him were siphoned off, pulled into the vortex. Most of the darkness was drawn up to the point where Mira’s fingers were wrapped around the man’s throat, but some wisps of shadow snapped and faded to nothing.
A face, stretched and strained, emerged in that darkness to overshadow the man’s features.
“Traitor.” The voice sounded like a million clawed feet scrabbling against stone.
Then the face was caught in the current and became just another black ribbon coiling around Mira’s arm.
The man’s skin sank and shriveled as the possessing demon’s tendrils drew every drop of energy from the shell of its mortal host as it was ripped free. For a split second, the rifter’s copper gaze cleared to reveal the murky green of pure, terrified, human eyes. A choked gurgle bubbled past Mira’s grip as the man—no longer a rifter—died.
She opened her hand and let the corpse fall.
Have a little care, Mira snapped. She wished she could feel sick or sad about the man at her feet whose leathery skin now clung to his bones like an excavated mummy’s, but the familiar rush of power and pleasure that followed a feeding had already taken root.
She straightened, stretched, and smiled.
We need to get out of here.
“Right, right,” the demon spoke aloud with a purr Mira was certain wasn’t present in her normal speech.
“Should we take the body?”
Mira glanced down, but she wasn’t sure if that had been her impulse or her demon’s. Their usual routine was to find a secluded area to dispose of their victims by magical means, but the sirens were closer now and there were definitely more voices.
She shrugged and sauntered toward the empty window frame where the cat had disappeared. Shapes moved in the darkness of the night, mostly crowded near the front end of the homeless shelter.
Wiggling her fingers Mira grabbed hold of a shadow and pulled it around her like a cape. Then she slipped out the back door through which the construction worker had fled and walked away from the scene of her latest crime.