Three minutes after I left the Order’s chapter, I realized I had picked up a tail. To be fair, the tail was almost painfully obvious, so it wasn’t that much of an achievement.
I shifted in the saddle, turning my head slightly. The female knight who had escorted me to Nick’s office was following me on foot, making no effort to hide herself. She must’ve decided that even if I knew she was there, I couldn’t do much about it.
I let her follow me down Magnum, across the post-Shift bridge that spanned the railroad tracks, and down the narrow Packard street. Normally I would’ve just ignored her and let her merrily tail me wherever, but I was going to the murder scene, and I had a feeling there were things there I didn’t want her to see.
Packard brought me to Ted Turner, lined with reclamation shops and construction offices. Turner ran next to the ruined Downtown. Scavenging the ruins for metal and other usable materials was a big business. The traffic went from nonexistent to heavy, as the street channeled carts with supplies, craftsmen, and laborers. Both of my birth parents used to work here.
I should’ve turned south, to the right. Instead I turned north. The buildings at the intersection blocked me from the knight’s view. I nudged Tulip into a trot. She picked up the pace, nimbly dodging the crowds. A collapsed building loomed on the left, pure white, its four remaining floors rising from the rubble. We reached it, I dismounted, and tapped Tulip’s neck. “Around the block.”
She took off down the street.
I ducked into the hole in the building. From the outside it looked like the interior had completely collapsed there, but there was a narrow gap on the right, if you knew where to look. I squeezed through it, into the gloomy interior, jogged a dozen feet to the inner wall and jumped up. My hands caught the familiar handholds on pure muscle memory, and I scrambled up, all the way to the exposed third floor. I padded to the half-wrecked wall and glanced out of gap, keeping myself hidden.
The female knight jogged out of the traffic and halted below. If she was tracking me by magic, she would have no problem finding me. If she tracked by scent, she would likely follow Tulip. The horse scent was stronger and easier to track than the rider’s.
She looked left. She looked right. She looked confused.
The knight turned in a slow circle, scanning the streets, and went right, down Trinity Avenue. Neither magic, nor scent then, just plain old eyesight. She lost me, and she correctly figured out that I would be going to the crime scene, so instead of wasting time on finding me, she decided to go to the crime scene as well and wait.
On paper, Trinity Avenue would be a good way to get to Pastor Haywood’s church. But Trinity Avenue ran into Wolf Bridge, which spanned the rubble and crossed over I 85. This time a day the reclamation teams would be bringing the first loads of salvage from Downtown. At the same time, the teamsters would be transferring this morning’s freight from the North leyline to the West. Wolf Bridge would be packed hoof to bumper. It would cost her at least half an hour, forty-five minutes, if it was a busy shipping day. She was likely a capable knight. Nick didn’t tolerate incompetency. But she spoke with a touch of Upper Midwest, and I’d been running away from monsters on these streets as soon as I could walk. Atlanta was my city.
I climbed down and whistled. A few seconds later Tulip came trotting from around the corner. I mounted and headed south on Turner.
Twenty-five minutes later I dismounted in front of Garden Lane Chapel. If there were gardens here, no trace of them remained. The street bordered the Warren, a patchwork of ruined houses and crumbling apartments that had been hit by magic so many times, everyone who could afford to move had. The neighborhood looked bleak; abandoned buildings staring at the world with black hole windows, ugly grey lichens on the walls that seemed to suck the color out of the paint and stucco, and the black trees. The trees were the worst, their bark coal black and slightly fuzzy. Even their leaves had turned dark and narrow, sharp enough to cut.
Against this backdrop, the chapel all but glowed. White and freshly painted, with a bright red door, it perched on the corner like a beacon of safety. A young cop stood by the door, a gladius on one hip, and a service revolver on the other. The revolvers tended to misfire less than semi-automatics. Traces of magic sometimes lingered during the tech waves. Simpler design with less moving parts meant less for the magic to mess with.
Personally, I preferred blades. They always worked.
The cop tilted his head, presenting me with a flat expression. In his mid-twenties, tan and fit, with blue black hair, he wasn’t a rookie or a veteran putting in time till retirement. He was in the prime of his copness, and the way he stood told me he enjoyed every minute of it.
He took in the tattered cloak that hid most of me, the worn saddle bag on Tulip, and the bow protruding from the scabbard attached to her saddle and classified me as “move along.” I clearly had no business on this street.
I pushed back my hood. He blinked. The flat expression slid off his face. Suddenly he was alert and professional. This was his polite badass persona.
The face strikes again.
Like many teenage girls, I had gone through the stage when I thought I was the ugliest thing on Earth, but by eighteen, I had realized that I was pretty. I used to have one of those pixie faces that could look beautiful or mousy. My old face was like a simple black dress. I could dress it up or dress it down.
That was no longer an option. My new face made an impact no matter what I did to it. Dirty, clean, make up, no make up, didn’t matter. The magic I had absorbed reshaped me. Nobody even remembered my old face except me.
“Can I help you, ma’am?” The cop asked.
I pulled out my freshly minted metal shield and Order ID and presented it to him. “I’m here to take this murder off your hands.”
“I haven’t seen you before. I would have remembered if we met.” His face moved a little. He had considered hitting me with his “smooth smile” but decided that the professional colleague angle might work better.
“I just transferred.”
He gave me an understanding look. “New guys get all the shit jobs.”
“Isn’t that the truth?” I smiled at him.
He raised his eyebrows slightly. I waited, but nothing came out of his mouth.
“I would like to see the crime scene, Officer …” I let it hang.
“Officer Fleming. This way.”
He opened the red door and walked through. I followed.
The inside of the church was clean and bright. Sunshine flooded the inside through the windows and the round skylight right above where the pulpit would have been, so the pastor standing at it would have been bathed in light during the sermon. The pulpit was nowhere to be found.
Fleming strode down the aisle between the pews. “You’re not from around here.”
“No,” I lied.
“So where is home?”
“Small town out West.”
He nodded. “Okay, Small Town. Forensics have been through the scene but try not to alter anything. Until your boss signs all the paperwork, this is still our baby, which means it’s my head if you screw it up.”
He thought I was fresh off the farm. Bless his heart. Even if I had just walked out of the Order’s Academy, I would still be better educated and prepared than he was.
“I’ll give you some background. This area was hammered by magic. You saw the black trees?”
“It gets worse as you go deeper in. Everyone who could afford to move did. The church used to thrive, but after the first couple of flares, they closed it down, because everyone had taken off. It sat abandoned for a while, then Pastor Haywood asked if he could have it to minister to whoever was left in the Warren. They gave it to him. He lived here too, in a little apartment in the back. The church door was never locked and if you rang the bell on the door in the back, he would come to talk to you, day or night.”
“You knew him.”
“Yes. Most people around here knew him. You see all sorts of shit in Atlanta. Most of it makes sense. Someone needs something, food, drugs, wood for the winter, so they steal. Someone gets mad, hurts somebody else. It’s bad but it makes sense. This, this makes no sense. It’s evil.”
He halted. The raised platform where the pulpit should have been stood empty, littered with broken glass. Blood stained the pine floorboards, dried to a dark crust. The light streaming through the shattered skylight painted a bright circle in the gore, and the crushed glass glittered, like diamonds on burgundy velvet.
I glanced around. A heap of broken wooden shards lay crumpled against the left wall – the pulpit. Something had come through the skylight and batted it aside. It flew into the wall and splintered into shards.
“First time in Atlanta?” Fleming asked.
“It’s a rough city.”
You should see LA. It will turn your hair white overnight. “So I gather.”
“It can be tough to get your bearings.”
“I can see that.” Please, crusty veteran, enlighten this humble rookie.
“Have you found a place to stay yet?” Fleming said. “I can recommend a few safer areas.”
The last thing I needed is him trying to find out where I was staying. I needed to shut this down flat. “The Order likes to keep an eye on us. I’ll be in the barracks for a bit.”
“Let me know when they let you out for recess and I’ll show you around.”
Oh you snide thing, you. “I might take you up on that generous offer.”
He grinned at me. “Happy to help.”
I blinked, bringing my magic into focus. Translucent swipes of color appeared. Bright blueish silver, the color of human magic infused with divinity. Pastor Haywood. The flecks and smudges of silver were everywhere, but the bloody platform glowed with it. The twisted cascade of feathery magic stretched from the skylight all the way down, as if someone had taken a radiant spider web, woven of pure light, crumpled it together, and dumped it from the skylight onto the floor.
A bright trail of green, a familiar shade, led to the platform. Shapeshifters, too recent to have been involved in the murder. I crouched, getting a closer look. One particular ribbon of grass green stood out. Ugh.
“Have any shapeshifters been here recently?”
Right. They didn’t come through the skylight. The trail started at the door. Someone let them in, which meant either the cops owed them a favor, or some money had exchanged hands. Probably both.
I moved closer, into the space between the front row of pews and the platform. A second shapeshifter trail. These guys did come through the skylight and left only a couple of hours ago. Strange. Two separate crews? Why?
A single thread of green in that second trail caught the light, glowing with magic. It was a most beautiful mint green, translucent and pure. The other shapeshifter trails, grass green or hunter, had degraded slightly, fading a little into the environment. But that mint green stayed, still bright and vibrant. If other traces were watercolor, this was a metallic acrylic. It drew the eye. I had never seen anything like it.
As beautiful and strange as it was, the thread was too recent to be connected to the murder.
I stepped onto the platform and knelt down, trying to parse the explosion of silver. So much power expended so quickly. Death wasn’t instant. Pastor Haywood had come face to face with his attacker and he fought back. The struggle hadn’t lasted long, but it was savage and brutal.
Too dense. I needed a better point of view.
I lay down on my back and looked up into the funnel of silver stretching to the ceiling.
“Are you okay?” Fleming asked.
Some of the silver was tinted with gold. It spiraled down, feathery and gossamer, mixing with Father Haywood’s silver blue. Yellow usually meant animal magic, but not always. When Nick went undercover with my grandfather’s people, they had forced his body to absorb an alien power, which is why his signature had a yellow streak to it. Still, such light gold… A divine beast?
“Remember how I said not to mess with the scene? I don’t know how to break this to you, but you’re contaminating things all over the place.”
“Since Pastor Haywood died, seventeen people have been at this scene. The walked all around the church and a couple of them tasted the blood over there. If you’re worried about contamination, that cat is out of the bag.”
I crossed the platform to the right, taking care to avoid the blood. There it was, in the corner, a sigil burned into the wooden floorboards. A distorted stick figure with a circle where the head would be and a crescent moon instead of feet. Its left arm formed an H, its right trailed off. I had caught it in one of the newspaper photos. This is what made me return to Atlanta.
The sigil glowed with intense, electric lilac. Active.
I couldn’t leave it here. The risk was too great. There was no telling who else might notice it and it would kill the unwary.
A familiar rage stirred inside me. They didn’t kill the pastor, but they defiled his sanctuary. This was his holy place, a refuge where he ministered, and they desecrated it.
The female knight would be here any minute. Anything she witnessed would be reported to Nick, and I wasn’t ready to answer the kind of questions it would raise. I could try to come back tonight, but if it killed someone before then, I’d never forgive myself. If I was going to break the seal, it had to be now.
Getting rid of Officer Ladies Man would be a problem.
“Can you give me some privacy, Officer Fleming?”
Crap. “I need you to step back, please.”
Fleming took two deliberate steps back. His face told me that was as far as he was willing to go. Doing anything too flashy with him here was out of the question. Fine.
“I’ll be right back.”
I walked past him to the outside. On the left some bricks had come loose from a flower bed. That would do. I picked one up and headed back into the church.
Fleming was exactly where I had left him. He eyed the paver brick. “Don’t break any windows, Small Town.”
I walked up to the sigil, put the brick on the floor, reached into my cloak and found the handle of my knife. It was a simple knife, reminiscent of a Bowie with a nine-inch tool steel blade, full tang, and a stackedleather handle, so my hand didn’t slip.
I yanked my cloak off and dragged my foot across the sigil. A man-sized clump of darkness tore out of it, like a ghost in a mantle of smoke. Its hands ended in three-inch-long black claws, their tips glowing with red-hot fire. The phantom racked at me. I shied out of the way, letting the claws rend the air a hair from my throat, and stabbed the knife into the phantom’s chest, hammering a spike of my magic through it.
The knife sank into flesh. I jerked it free. Fire bled through the smoke.
The phantom screeched and spat a torrent of flames. I dodged and slashed again, slicing at the creature’s protective cloak, left to right and up. The smoke tore like an old tarp, betraying a glimpse of a charred body wrapped in flames.
The phantom flailed, trying to shred me with its claws. Fast, but not fast enough. I spun to the left, around it, bringing my arm in an arch from inside out and buried my blade in its back.
The creature shrieked.
I gripped the knife, feeding magic into it, and dragged it down, carving through gristle and bone, slicing through the sigils branded on its flesh, until I reached the main one in the small of its back. My blade bit into it. The sigil broke and vanished in a flash of lilac.
The smoke disappeared, like a length of black chiffon jerked out of sight. Fire burst out of the creature. For an instant, the phantom was engulfed in flames, a dark thing flailing within an inferno, like a blasphemous demonic candle. It burned and howled.
I swiped the brick from the floor.
The fire faltered, leaving behind a humanoid shape, desiccated, charred, bald, with its face covered in a metal mask. I kicked the creature’s spine. It went down with a dry crack. I flipped it on its back and smashed the brick into its face. The mask clanged.
I hit it again, again, and again, with controlled, methodical savagery. The mask cracked. Another hit. The metal split. Chunks of the mask fell apart, revealing a nightmarish face. Its lips were gone, the teeth bared in a grotesque grin. Its nose was a hole in the leathery flesh of its skull. It should have been dead, but somehow it was alive, an abomination wrapped in foul magic. It stared at me with wide eyes and its irises were full of fire.
A lesser priest. They had come here after Pastor Haywood’s death and they wanted something from it, so they left a watcher, a spy meant to follow or kill.
A raspy sound broke through the priest’s teeth, a half groan, half snarl, so weak I had to strain to hear it. “Glory to the King of Fire…”
“Your god isn’t here,” I told him quietly. “He doesn’t care. He won’t save you.”
“He’ll come for you. You belong to him. The world belongs to him.”
“The world belongs to me and my kind.”
I plunged the knife into its chest and twisted. The phantom convulsed, agony twisting its limbs.
“Tell me why you are here, and your death will be quick.”
It rasped again. “Mercy…”
“You serve the god who feeds on the burned alive children. There is no mercy in the world for you.”
I twisted the knife again. Its shriek lashed my ear drums.
“The priest’s killer,” it whispered. “He wants it.”
The fiery eyes stared past me at the piece of the sky through the ruined skylight. The magic that gave it its perverse unlife was bleeding out. It was done.
Words on an ancient prayer in a language dead for thousands of years hissed out of the creature’s mouth. “The Great Moloch, God among kings, I come to you…”
No. I leaned close, so close I could feel the dying heat rising from the priest, and whispered into his ear in the same tongue as his prayer. “There will be no death rites for you. Die and become nothing.”
I rose, set the brick on the creature’s face, and stomped down on it.
The phantom detonated.
The fiery blast wave tore out of the corpse, roaring like an enraged animal. Every window in the church exploded.
The building shook once, and all was quiet. Smoke rose from the front pews, scorched by the explosion.
The body melted into nothing. Only my knife and the brick remained, stained with soot and lilac magic. That was the problem with killing flameborn. When one Moloch’s assassin-priests died, its magic sullied the weapon that killed it, and worse, others of their kind could track it the way bloodhounds followed a scent.
I glanced at the lilac splashed on my hands and concentrated. Thin red vapor slid out of me, invisible to the naked eye, cleansing the skin. Didn’t work on the weapons or clothes, unfortunately. I’d tried.
A small noise made me turn to the right. Something moved between the pews. Slowly, gingerly Fleming stood up. Two wide eyes stared at me from the face smudged with soot.
A door burst open and the female knight tore into the church.
“You missed it” I swiped the cloak off the floor, slipped it on, and walked off the platform.
I walked past Fleming. “Sorry about the windows, Big Town.”
He gaped at me. I winked at him and headed to the door.