“You can’t save the world. You can’t save everyone, and I am not letting you use this totally justified but momentary lapse in your anger management to ruin your night. Come on.” She gave my hand a tug, and we were back on trajectory toward the dance floor.
Boogie sounded good, and my favorite track started playing. It was fate. It was time to jiggle and twerk, or whatever the move of the year was, and let the anger go.
I was about to dive in when I saw him.
The reaper with the long dark hair was in the club. Peiter … Yes, that was his name. He wove his way between bodies like silk over skin. He was a head taller than everyone, and his powerful frame made an impact, except no one looked at him. No one seemed to see him.
His head swiveled slightly from side to side. He was scoping out the place.
“Melanie?” Cora called out.
I took my eyes off the reaper for a second to see Cora rushing up to a slim brunette in ripped jeans and a T-shirt. Melanie Travis, sixteen when she died, thirty years on this earth. An employee of Soul Savers. The two ghosts embraced, but my attention was back on reaper dude. He was with another man now. This guy had wavy dark hair that was long enough to curl at the collar. He wasn’t as tall as the reaper dude, though. Peiter leaned in to say something, and the dark-haired guy turned his head slightly as if offering his ear. I caught sight of his face—strong jaw, hooked nose, thick, dark, angry brows. A chill skimmed over my body. A foreboding that pebbled my skin in gooseflesh and chased away some of the warm buzz of the alcohol.
And then the reaper dude was leaving with the guy.
This was wrong.
Before I could stop myself, I was following them, diving into the worst of the crowd. Strobe lights cut across my vision, music filled my head, but the cold fist of dread remained ensconced in my stomach like a beacon. The crowd was thick, making keeping track of Peiter nearly impossible. I stumbled out of the worst of the crush by one of the emergency exits.
No sign of reaper dude.
What was I doing?
Reaper business wasn’t my business. I was here to party. Except the party buzz was gone, and my brain registered the throb of my pleading feet in the five-inch heels that threatened to destroy my arches. My head throbbed dully.
I needed my slippers and a cup of cocoa.
Oh, God, maybe I was getting old.
I scanned the dance floor, searching for Cora, but there was no sign of her. She’d realize I wasn’t here and find her way home. She always did.
Grabbing my clutch and coat from the cloakroom, I headed out into the cold night. The streets were busy. It was prime time on a Friday night, after all. This was central Necro, and central Necro didn’t sleep till pre-dawn. I cut across the square, past a fountain that looked like it was spurting rainbows as the multicolored lights set into the stone lit up the water, arching out of it.
Did I want to grab a kebab?
My stomach growled a hungry yes.
I adjusted my trajectory toward the street lined with fast food places, but a phantom hand gripped the back of my head and turned it to face the other way. There was reaper dude, and he wasn’t alone. He was surrounded by hooded figures.
The fist of dread was back.
The hooded figures herded him toward the mouth of an alley, and no one seemed to care.
No one except me.
What was wrong with people? They walked past the scene, arm in arm. Some were dressed for a night out, others more casual, wrapped in coats and scarves, but no one spared a glance toward the reaper as he unfurled his wings, ready to take flight. He didn’t get very far. A silver net appeared over him, and then he was gone, shoved into the alley and out of view by his mysterious assailants.
I was running toward the alley before I’d had time to consider what the fuck I was doing.
Part of my brain was screaming at me to stop. Alley bad. Well-lit, busy street—good. But the bigger part, the part that gave a shit, kept going.
“Hey! Hey, stop!” I fumbled in my bag for my phone as I reached the mouth of the alley. “I’m calling the police!”
My fingers grazed the device just as a shadowy form grabbed my arms and pulled me into the dark alley. The smell of rotting rubbish hit me.
“Let go of me.” I struggled against the hands holding me.
See? the voice of self-preservation said. Should have stayed back, should have called the police from the safety of the well-lit street.
Fuck you, give-a-shit voice retorted. What the fuck could the police do about reaper business?
My head hurt.
There was a guy on each side of me. Both hooded. They held me too tightly. The reaper, Peiter, was up ahead, pressed to the wall, while another hooded figure crowded him. The reaper’s wings were pinned to his body with silver, glowing netting, his face contorted in pain.
The netting was hurting him. I had to do something. “Let him go.”
Was that my voice?
Two more figures appeared carrying baseball bats, and then the battering began. My cries were muted by the sound of wood on bone. Oh, God. No. They were killing him.
“Stop. Stop, fucking hell, stop!”
They weren’t listening, and no matter how much I strained and fought to be free, I was trapped.
Finally, they obliged, and the crunch of bone was replaced by my hiccupping sobs. The reaper was hurt, bleeding, using the wall to stay on his feet. He cradled his torso as if holding himself together.
Three against one. Not fair. Anger unfurled inside me, potent and dangerous. “You bastards, leave him alone!”
The hooded figure facing Peiter laughed, a raspy icky sound. “Oh, we will.”
He drew something from beneath his cloak. It glinted in an errant shaft of moonlight. A dagger with a wicked-looking blade. The dread that soaked my skin pooled in an icy mass in the pit of my belly.
“Leave the human.” Peiter’s voice cracked with pain. “It’s me you want. You have me. Let her go.”
“We don’t give a damn about you,” the raspy voice said. “Your time is over.”
He plunged the dagger into Peiter’s chest, and my scream covered the reaper’s cry of pain.
This couldn’t be happening. This wasn’t real. I was dreaming, passed out on too many margaritas somewhere. This wasn’t happening.
The hooded figure yanked the dagger out of Peiter, and the reaper slumped to the ground. My sobs caught in my throat, and then pressure tightened my abdomen.
My assailants released me in a rush of air, and then they were gone.
But something was wrong.
I looked down and saw a knife sticking out of my abdomen. Blood seeped into my brand-new silver camisole top. How the fuck would I get the stain out? Where was the pain? Surely, it should hurt. I reached for the hilt. Had to pull it out because, nope, foreign objects did not belong in my body, not unless they vibrated and came with a five-year guarantee.
“Don’t,” Pieter said. “You’ll bleed out.”
How could he be alive? I’d just watched the nasty dudes beat the shit out of him with baseball bats. The crunch of bone still echoed in my head. The image of the plunge of a big-ass dagger right in his chest was etched into my mind.
He should be dead, just like I was about to be dead.
My knees buckled, and I hit the ground, tearing a hole in my favorite jeans. All those hours at the gym for nothing. I should have had an extra sugar-frosted donut with the cream filling at work yesterday. Fuck, I should have gone for the chocolate éclair instead and made it count.
Warm numbness spread through me, and my breath came out fast and shallow. Was this it? The end? Oh, God, I was going to die in a dirty, manky alley, all because of too many margaritas and a misplaced hero complex.
Fuck you, alcohol.
I couldn’t even call for help. My clutch bag containing my phone was somewhere at the foot of the alley. I’d dropped it when the hooded figures had grabbed me.
The man groaned. “Closer, please. Come …”
He shifted, so a shaft of moonlight illuminated his face. Dark tendrils of hair had fallen across his forehead and into his cocoa eyes. He was too pale. Deathly pale. I had to get to the mouth of the alley and get help.
“No. Too late,” he said. “I need you to come here. Please.”
He was a reaper; if it was too late, he’d know. If it was too late, then there was no help.
I crawled toward him, knife still stuck in my numb body, and then grazed his outstretched fingers with mine. His hand wrapped around mine with surprising force.
“Will it hurt?” My voice trembled. “Will it?”
His face contorted in a snarl, and he lunged, fangs aimed at my throat.
His teeth were in my jugular before I could scream, and then my mind short-circuited on an overload of pain. He shoved me away, gagging and spluttering as if he’d ingested crap, and glared at me with a mouth coated in my blood.
“Oh, God. It can’t be.” He held up his hand, which began to glow softly. “I’m not ready. Please.” He looked … afraid.
I grabbed at my neck to staunch the blood, staring as something materialized in his hand. A pole tipped with a wicked blade. A scythe.
He was one of the four. One of the Dominus.
The scythe glowed, beckoning me, calling me.
“You have to take it,” he rasped. “Take it, damn you.” There was devastation and sorrow etched onto his face, and then his head jerked up. “No.” He grabbed my arm and hauled me to him. “They’re still here. They…” He groaned in pain. “You have to take it and run.”
And then he shoved the staff end of the scythe into my hand. A jolt of energy shot through me, all the way to the tips of my hair. My tongue vibrated in my mouth, and my teeth hummed. The knife stuck in my chest clattered to the ground.
The scythe was mine.
What the fuck?
It glowed so bright it hurt my eyes.
“Run, woman. Now.”
Peiter shoved me, and my body reacted on instinct, thighs bunching to launch myself off the ground and into a sprint toward the mouth of the alley. Shadows materialized in front of me, cutting off my route.