Chapter 1 from NIGHT AWAKENS, Soul Forge Series Book One
PORTLAND, OREGON, stretched and yawned, awakening around me in the hour before dawn. I shivered as the November chill bit through the black fleece of my hoodie, and a wicked wind gusted from the west, spiraling the fine drops of mist in the air. The traffic light at the corner flipped from red to green, the hum of engines and the slick of tires on wet concrete a comfort to my wired nerves.
I stood beneath the dripping overhang in front of Justice Gym, go-cup of black coffee in hand. I listened and scanned the neighborhood for anything out of the ordinary. My life depended on it.
Twenty yards to the right, around the corner at the neighborhood stop-n-shop on Burnside, a car door slammed. Sleepy voices wafted my way. People stopping for smokes or snacks. Harmless.
To my left, the street curved and forked, parallel-parked cars huddled inches apart for warmth at the curbs. Out of the dark, the Orange Warrior materialized in his neon-orange rain suit, bike tires splashing through the puddled light of the street lamps. He caught sight of me and flashed the peace sign and called out, “Hey! Morning!”
I gave him a thumbs-up. Then he whizzed past on his way to work, the headlamp on the front of his helmet beaming like a search light, the red light on the back of his bike blinking fast enough to give somebody a seizure.
The golden halo around his body—the manifestation of the life force that moved through him—lit him up like a firework to my magical sight.
Across the street, the Stump Town Diner spoke the language of my belly, the rich aromas of dark-roasted coffee, salty, crisp bacon, and fresh-baked bread streaming from inside each time the door opened. Blond Bagel Girl, wrapped in her hooded purple raincoat, slipped inside for her usual breakfast to go. She shone with the same gold as the cyclist, though more muted, melancholy.
It was beautiful. Normal.
Normals in my neighborhood, going about their normal lives like clockwork. I’d never be one of them. I’d look over my shoulder until the day I died.
I turned the key in the lock of the gym door, same as every other day for the last three months since I’d moved to town. That my boss, Red Jennings, trusted a woman so secretive and new to the city with his life’s work said a lot about him. A woman without much money and a teenage kid in tow, no less. Most people would call him a fool, but I chose to believe he was an uncommonly good judge of character. One who backed up his judgment with thorough background checks.
He hadn’t batted an eye when I’d asked to be paid in cash, though; my existence kept off his books. When he asked the occasional personal question, I talked around it rather than answering directly, and he didn’t give me any crap about it. He’d run a check on me and found it unremarkable. Of course, it was an unremarkable lie that I’d built through illegal channels and paid for with blood money, but all Red knew was that I wasn’t a criminal, that he and I shared a hometown in Houston, Texas, and we shared a soft spot for troubled kids.
I pushed my way into the narrow front room of the gym, the electronic bell above the door chiming. I flipped the light switches with the flat of one hand and inhaled the perfume of rubber, bleach wipes, and sweat as the overhead fluorescents buzzed to life. The lights threw the entry into sharp relief: the interlocked, black rubber mats that covered the concrete floor, the triple-stacked row of black plastic cubbies and lockers that covered the long wall in front of me, and the donated, brown suede sofa on the right, its seats so deep I sometimes wondered whether it ate people as well as car keys and loose change. I keyed the code into the alarm, hung a right and then a left, bouncing down the short staircase onto the gym floor.
It shared the dimension of a good-sized basketball court. The walls had been painted white once upon a time, but had been scuffed and scratched to head-height. All the essential equipment hugged the walls: long barbells pegged into metal stands, kettlebells, weight racks, and benches for presses. Pull-up bars, medicine balls, wooden boxes for jumping. The back wall of the gym consisted of garage doors that could be opened in the summer for air flow. Two climbing ropes hung suspended from the ceiling. Also in back, a dozen rowing machines stood on end beside the water fountain, bathrooms, and small table that held the sound system.
It felt like home. First one I’d ever truly had. I had chosen it, and it had chosen me.
The first class started in thirty minutes, at 6:00 a.m. The usual suspects would file in: kids whose parents dropped them here before school trying to buy peace of mind—a little activity to help keep their progeny calm, quiet, and cooperative during a long day of sitting, obedience, and memorization. The usual suspects were anything but normal.
They didn’t seem to belong anywhere, or to anyone except each other. They had halos that spoke of magic, all of it benign. They’d adopted my kid into their group as soon as they laid eyes on her, for which I felt profoundly grateful. Like Red had with me, they trusted her right away, even knowing nothing about her. For instance, the fact that she wasn’t my daughter. She was no relation at all.
The first time I’d seen her, she’d been ten, close to the age I’d been when magic had marked me. I’d broken in to her house with orders to kill her family. To kill her. I hadn’t been able to do it.
Faith Torres, her name had been then, before we’d gone into hiding with new identities, new lives, and nightmares that plagued our dreams. Ten years old then, now fifteen. Now she was Faith Sanchez, with dark chocolate hair that swung to the middle of her back, gangly arms and legs she hadn’t quite grown into yet, and a hard-to-say-no-to million-watt smile. She also had a big, geeky love for badass super-heroines and a growing rebellious streak.
She’d sneaked out last night. First time ever, sometime between midnight and 2:00 a.m. When I’d made my nightly security round at 3:30, glass of tap water in hand, I found pillows under the down comforter and a window open just a crack, sucking in the cold. The water I’d downed on the way into the room flash-froze inside my belly at the sight.
I fought to shake ice-cold panic that told me the people we’d run from had located us and taken Faith, that there was no safe place and would never be, that the death I’d saved Faith from waited for her just around the corner, or maybe had already been dealt.
The Order of the Blood Moon’s magical assassins were relentless. No one left the Order. They didn’t forgive, and they didn’t forget.
I shook off the panic. I calmed myself like the pro I’d been. Like the pro I still could be.
The Order had taken me in during a time I’d been desperate and vulnerable. They’d stripped me of my name, my identity, and the last shards of my childhood innocence. They helped me to marshal my magic, training me to gather information, conceal myself, kill, and elude capture. I’d given them my heart and soul because I’d had no one and nothing else to give it to. I’d allowed them to turn me into a stone cold killer. I’d done more than that—I’d embraced it. Our association had lasted fifteen years, until two months after my twenty-seventh birthday, the night I met Faith.
Looking at her empty bed, breathing through my fear, I let my training take over. I searched for a sign someone had taken her, but found no trace of foul play. After that, I’d pinged the GPS on her cell and located her at Ben’s house. He was one of her new friends. His single father traveled on business too much and left him home alone.
Ben, who would never hurt Faith.
Still, I hadn’t slept a wink the rest of the night. My girl hadn’t climbed back through the window before time for me to head out for work—and I’d had no choice but to leave—so I’d put a note on her pillow. When she came home, she’d get the message and get her ass to the gym before school to explain herself. She’d show, too. No avoiding me, because that would be dumb. No one could ever accuse her of stupidity.
I made my way toward the back of the gym, setting down my go-cup on the shelf beside the sound system, then striking up my favorite classic rock playlist. I shrugged out of my hoodie and ran my fingers through my long, black hair, tying it up into a ponytail. I could fit in a warm-up and a few rope climbs myself while I waited for the door to open, getting myself in order before working the same movement with the kids. It’d take my mind off waiting for Faith as well.
The electronic bell over the front door chimed. I turned toward the whisper of denim and the squelch of wet shoes on rubber, expecting to find Faith walking in, a cranky apology on her lips and a sheepish expression on her face.
Time slowed. I blinked, the movement seeming to take minutes rather than seconds. The air felt thick—almost too thick to breathe.
Before I even laid eyes on my visitor, the cadence of the walk struck me wrong, the footsteps belonging to someone heavier and with finer motor control of their body than my fifteen-year-old. I breathed in deep and tasted a hint of amber and vanilla in the air. None of the moms or stepmoms or girlfriends I’d met wore that scent. I’d studied each of them, remembered every quirky detail. I knew them. I couldn’t afford not to.
I knew my visitor, too. I’d just never counted on seeing her again, because I’d never counted on seeing any of my colleagues from the Order again. Especially not this one.
The woman who’d walked through the door stopped ten feet from me, a signal she intended to talk rather than attack. Really, it was unnecessary. If she’d meant to harm me, I’d never have seen or heard her coming.
She pushed back the hood of her black rain slicker. Her blond curls had grown all the way to her shoulders since the last time I’d run my fingers through them. The only makeup she wore on her porcelain face was a pale pink flush of lipstick; her dark blue eyes were sharp on me. She unzipped her jacket, letting it fall open. A black brocade vest accented her long-sleeved black T-shirt. The ensemble hugged the curves of her breasts, skimming the line of her waist. Water soaked the hems of her black jeans. She wore steel-toe black boots with rubber soles.
Sunday Sloan. Once upon a time, my salvation.
The halo around her body held a tint of rose red, life force flavored with a strong, blinding passion that she harnessed in everything she did, including her kills. One look in the eyes of her victims, and she could literally blind them if she chose. She had a touch of the traditional psychic as well, not enough to actually see the future, but enough to guess what might happen that would affect her most and allow her to act accordingly.
The same magical gifts infiltrated her personal relationships. Her faults became hard to see. And once she made up her mind about a cause or a person, she gave them her unconditional, undying—blind—loyalty. I’d been on the receiving end of that loyalty. I’d thrown it away when I’d left without saying goodbye.
Sunday Sloan was the Order’s MVP. Or MVO—most valuable operative.
If she was here, I was in deep trouble. I’d missed something important. Had I been wrong last night—had Sunday or someone who traveled with her taken Faith? Had they used their talents to make me believe Faith was safe at Ben’s? Was Faith already dead?
How had Sunday found me? My passive magic—reading halos—couldn’t be tracked by anyone. My active magic, on the other hand—using my power to influence others—could be. I’d been careful. I’d only used that active power on myself since I’d left the Order. It was the best way to unlock the secrets hidden in my own mind. And to stay sharp in case a day like this ever dawned.
I cleared my throat. “I didn’t hide well enough?”
Sunday’s voice had a liquid quality to it, like water flowing over river rocks. “You did. It’s just that I know you better than the ones who’re hunting you.”
She’d just implied she wasn’t hunting me, but that others were. If the Order had sent someone, Sunday would be it.
“I’m out, Night,” she said. “Just like you.”
She called me by my new alias rather than the name the Order had given me. It felt disorienting to hear it roll off her tongue.
“How did you get out?” I asked.
“I killed the Ghost,” she said.
The Ghost. Brown hair, middling height, average weight. No distinguishing physical characteristics. He could pass you on the street and your eyes would skip over him. It wouldn’t fool experienced bodyguards for more than a few minutes, but by the time they saw him, they’d be dead.
His mentor had named him appropriately.
He’d been our friend. One of the few people inside the Order I’d let in.
“He threaten you?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “But he was in the way. He could tell something was off with me. He wouldn’t let it go.”
I closed my eyes for a second. A bit of my old life flashed forward from memory: lying in the fine, white sand of a Mexican beach with this woman before she’d been my lover, listening to the rhythm of the waves crashing, one after the other, on the shore, watching the cloudless blue sky with a clear conscience. The memory felt a thousand years old.
The Ghost had traveled with us on that trip, teasing us about our chemistry together. Sunday had killed him. She’d killed to get out of the Order. Or so she claimed.
“We were on the job in Lima,” she said. “I waited until we took care of the target and phoned it in. We weren’t supposed to be back at HQ for another week. I didn’t think I’d get a better chance.”
I studied her. The strong lines of her body, the softness of her face, and those eyes. I knew her tells. I saw none of them. Then again, she could’ve changed since the time we’d been close. She could’ve become an entirely different person. Looking at her now, I had to choose: act as if I believed her, or not.
She hadn’t said a word yet about Faith. If she knew about me, how could she not know about Faith? She had to know.
“You want me to congratulate you on your newfound freedom?” I asked.
“I want you to say you’re glad to see me,” she said.
“Your coming here, making contact with me—you presence here blows my cover. If you still cared about me at all, you’d have stayed away.”
“Night, the Order has no idea where you are. They don’t know where I am. We’re clear.”
“I wish I could believe that,” I said. “I’ve stayed alive this long by being more careful.”
“Running and hiding,” she said. “That’s not living.”
As if I didn’t understand that. But running and hiding were all I had left. I had a responsibility to Faith, to keep her safe, to keep her alive. To make things possible for her that I’d never had. Would never have. Before Faith, I’d done what I had to do to stay alive. Survival had been my only concern. Now, Faith was my reason for living.
“Don’t you want to know why?” Sunday asked.
“Why everything,” she said.
“I do.” But only because it would help me to camouflage Faith and me better in yet another new city. God, I didn’t want to leave Portland. Not when I’d finally felt as if I could stay somewhere.
“I couldn’t live without you,” Sunday said.
I raised a skeptical brow.
The corners of her mouth curved, but the smile didn’t show in her eyes. “I wanted out of the Order because I was tired of the easy stuff. I wanted bigger challenges. I wanted to pick my own targets.”
“That, I believe.”
I understood that in the context and with the logic of my old self, my old life. My new ears listened to her words with dawning horror. She wanted to keep on killing. Not to stay alive or to have a place to belong, but for kicks. Or so she said.
She cocked her head. “Are we still friends?”
We’d shared every intimacy when we’d worked together. Now—if she told the truth—we shared a different kind of mortal danger. We’d been hunters, and now we were the hunted. And Sunday had embraced the monster inside of her. I felt cold all over.
“Why are you here?” I asked.
Heat filled her voice, rising with every syllable. “There’s something magical rising in this town, something big and bad. I came to learn about it. To understand it. I came to fight it. I came to kill it.”
I stared at her.
“I know you want in,” she said. “We never got the chance to go up against a target like this one. It’s the ultimate.”
The ultimate? Whatever that meant. “No, thanks.”
“The old you would’ve said yes in a heartbeat.”
“I’m not her anymore.”
My words seemed to sink in. She studied my face. “Just listen, then. Even if you won’t fight with me, you should know what’s here.”
Faith and I wouldn’t be here long enough for it to matter, but knowledge was always power. “Tell me.”
“There’s a Horseman of the Apocalypse in town,” she said.
I blinked at her. “A what?”
“A Horseman. Like from Revelation.”
I knew the Bible. My parents had been very religious. In fact, their religion had nearly killed me.
My magical knowledge base extended mostly to methods of intelligence gathering, concealment, killing, and escape. I’d come across other types of magic in my education and travels, but not as much about what Sunday suggested—that the Horsemen weren’t fictional, and they weren’t far-future creatures, but real in the here and now. “The apocalypse?”
She nodded again.
The actual end of the world. Not the ramblings of cult leaders who promised their followers deliverance but ended up delivering only death. Not the fervor of those who prayed for the end times in hopes of salvation, damn the torpedoes and damn the rest of humanity so long as their asses—excuse me, souls—were saved. The actual end, breathing down our necks.
“How do you know this?” I asked.
“The signs started about a year ago. At first, I thought my imagination had gone wild, lacing together clues from unrelated occurrences. But then six months ago, a city went dark. A big city.”
“Which one?” I asked.
“I can’t believe you didn’t notice,” she said. “Houston.”
Not just a big city, but the fourth largest in the country. How could I have missed that, even busy trying to stay alive and under the radar? Because I avoided everything about the place. I couldn’t remember the last thing—the worst thing—that had happened to me there. The very thought of trying brought on a razor-sharp terror that started at the base of my spine and clawed its way up into my heart.
“The city going dark—the magic that caused it—was it shielded?” I asked. “Someone wanted to keep outsiders from noticing?”
If it had been, then only someone with the magical ability to see it would’ve caught on. Everyone else would’ve skipped right over it for a few days as if a city that big disappearing from the proverbial radar was perfectly normal, not worth remarking on or even having a suspicious feeling about. And once the city came back online, they’d forget that for a time it might as well have not existed.
“Yeah, it was shielded,” Sunday said. “The magic that shielded it was ancient, older than anything I’ve ever experienced. I got lucky, noticing.”
There was no such thing as luck. With Sunday, it was talent, plain and simple. And she’d followed the signs here, to a Horseman.
“Which Horseman’s in town?” I asked.
Her eyes twinkled. “I’m ninety-nine percent sure that it’s Death.”
La Muerte? “Jesus,” I said, as much in reaction to Sunday’s excitement as to the identity of the big bad.
“It’s like fate,” she said. “Or destiny. What we are—it’s like we’re related to him. We’re his children.”
I shook my head. “What you are, maybe. I told you, I’m not who I used to be anymore.”
“It’s impossible to wash that much blood off your hands, Night.”
“At least I’m trying.”
“You let me know how that works out,” she said.
I had no intention of letting her catch up with me again. “Any idea what Death looks like so I’ll know if I run into him?”
“He could look like anyone at all. Anyone.”
“Great,” I said.
“Your sarcasm is appreciated. You have no idea how much I’ve missed it.” She crossed her heart with her index finger for emphasis. “He’s Death, Night. He could be an old lady or a teenage boy for all I know—anyone who’s been touched by death closely.”
“So, what kind of magic are we talking about here? Shapeshifting? Possession?”
She shrugged. “Does it matter?”
“Technically, yes,” I said. “If he’s shapeshifting, then he’s contained in his own body and can look like anyone he wants to. If he’s possessing people, then he’s a free agent, so to speak, and the people he’s possessing could end up messed up at best and dead at worst. It matters because given all that, if you’re looking to take him out, how will you even know it’s him? And are you gonna be taking out an innocent person while you’re at it?”
“The old you wouldn’t have cared.”
“Like I keep telling you.”
She sighed. “I’m not sure one innocent life outweighs a dead Horseman of the Apocalypse.”
“I’m sure the innocent and their family and friends would beg to differ.”
“If you’re so concerned,” Sunday said, “then come with me. I wasn’t kidding, Night. I need you on this.”
I dodged the invitation. I’d said no once, and I wouldn’t say it again. What I wanted now was more information, whatever Sunday could give me that would help Faith and me survive. “Can something that old and strong even be killed?”
“I don’t know, but I have to try. Night, he’s Death. Is there anyone else I could take out that would even come close? If anyone could do it, it’s me.”
I agreed. Sunday killed better than anyone I’d ever seen. I’d been good at it, but Sunday was out of my league. She had courage—and bravado—that captivated as much as the rest of her, an I-don’t-care-whether-I-die attitude that drew me like a moth to the flame. I hadn’t cared either, once upon a time. We’d been kindred spirits. Soulmates.
She’d killed a lot of people. It didn’t matter whether the people she’d killed considered themselves evil or good. It only mattered that they were dead.
I knew that better than anyone else. Sunday could lecture me about the blood on my own hands all she wanted; I knew it would drip from my fingertips until the day I died and probably flood my grave. If there was a hell separate from the ones we created for ourselves and each other in this world, I’d be sent straight there, do not pass GO. It was where I belonged.
A fucking Horseman of the Apocalypse.
I knew from my time in the Order that there had been other apocalyptic close calls—the world had almost ended half a dozen times according to the Order’s records. But none of those times had involved a Horseman.
If the end of the world was really nigh this time, taking Faith and running again might not work. If something happened to her, I’d never forgive myself. If something happened to me, what would happen to Faith?
“How do you intend to find Death?” I asked.
“You don’t want to help me, I don’t need to tell you.” She dropped her gaze from my face to the scoop neck of my T-shirt, where the pendant she’d given me hung on its delicate silver chain. “You still have it.”
The silver hourglass, a symbol of what I’d been and what I’d become. I had been death itself, and I had died to that life. Now, I had a second chance that I’d sworn never to waste. A new beginning. “I’ve never taken it off.”
She met my gaze. “Even if you won’t help me, do you really want me to stay away?”
I looked into her eyes, and at her mouth. I dreamed about the shape of her mouth sometimes, the way it celebrated all her moods. Part of me wanted to kiss her and taste the fire of the life inside her and the espresso I knew she’d have sipped on waking. Part of me wanted to drown in her, for things to be like they’d been before.
“It’s probably better if you do,” I said.
“C’mon, Night. Reconsider.”
“Thanks, but no thanks,” I said with more determination than I felt.
“I hear so much as a whisper about any of the Order in town,” she said, “you’ll be the first to know. Same if things get out of hand with the Horseman of Death.”
“Thanks,” I said again.
Faith and I would have to start the motions of getting the hell out of Dodge and be gone by day after tomorrow, tops. If I could get us gone by tomorrow morning, that wouldn’t be soon enough for me. But my girl wasn’t ten anymore. She didn’t do what I told her just because I said so. She would need a reason. I didn’t want to have to tell her that I’d somehow screwed up and our cover was blown here.
“Thanks for not killing me,” Sunday said.
My lips twitched into a half-smile. “You, too.”
She took a hesitant step toward me, then crossed the distance in a couple of quick strides. She wrapped her arms around me and hugged me tight. Her body felt familiar, like second skin. Her strength, the amber scent in her hair, the brush of her breasts against mine. She pulled back just enough to plant a kiss on my forehead, and then one full on my lips, soft and mesmerizing.
I tasted the espresso and felt the line of the scar that ran across her bottom lip, the one that lipstick camouflaged so well. My heartbeat quickened. My arms wanted to move of their own accord, to draw her closer. I did not.
She pulled away, a question in her eyes that she asked a moment later. “Did you meet someone else? New woman? New man?”
I shook my head. “No time for love.”
How could I find anything real when I had to hide my past? When I had to hide my real name? Like Faith, I’d taken a new one—Night, because I’d gone dark, inside and out. Whoever I’d been before my parents had given me to the Order, whoever I’d become under the life-or-death training the Order had given me—that girl, that woman, were dead and buried.
I’d never be able to stop running.
Sunday studied my face. Whatever she read there, she kept to herself. “Take care, Night. I’m glad you’re safe,” she said.
She turned away and walked out of the gym, the electronic chime announcing her departure. My heart thumped hard in my chest as she turned left into the neighborhood, disappearing from view, as the last traces of her perfume faded.
I breathed deep, making my exhales longer than my inhales, slowing my heart and recalibrating my nervous system until I felt absolutely calm, until I could think more clearly. Sunday hadn’t used her magic on me, but I still felt as if I’d been run over by a forest fire.
Ten minutes until I had charge of half-awake kids here to learn how strong they could be.
Faith should’ve shown by now. We should’ve already been through the show. Her apologizing, me telling her what she could or couldn’t do, her throwing back in my face that I wasn’t her mother and couldn’t order her around. She’d had a mother, and just because the woman had died bloody and I’d taken Faith in didn’t mean I owned her. I’d heard the speech a hundred times.
Thank God Faith hadn’t walked in while Sunday was here. On the heels of that thought, another.
Armageddon: coming to my backyard. As much as I couldn’t take a word Sunday said as gospel, who would lie about something like that?
I stared at the door, wondering who would walk in next. The Order? The Horseman of Death?
I didn’t trust Sunday as far as I could throw her.
And where in the name of everything holy was Faith?