This is a sneak preview of the unedited draft of A Spark of Madness. Some changes may be made after editing is complete.
When the leaves fall, the dead are listening.
So say the Western Europeans as they celebrate the triduum of Allhallowtide, known in ages past as Samhain and Calan Gaeaf. The Aztecs marked the ninth month of their calendar instead, Miccailhuitontli, feasting in honor of loved ones beyond their reach. The Incas had Ayamarca, the Chinese Buddhists their Hungry Ghost festival, and after ancient Egypt’s New Year—celebrated in the thick of summer—there was Wag.
Hundreds of millions of people have adapted these practices over the centuries, spinning antiquity’s more unwieldy epithets into pithier evolutions. Halloween. El Día de Muertos.
Spurred by this knowledge, a rider painted in blood and ash seeks to pierce the Veil.
The night is clear. A north wind nips at his horse’s heels, spurring both beast and master through a forest of shadows. His knuckles are white and bloody, raw around the reins. The horse expels bursts of breath that congeal like ectoplasm in the frigid air, careening skyward where auroral ribbons warp the starless black. Lather soaks its tresses.
The rider notes the eerie shine of the polar lights with a hiss. It is the fluorescent hue of eldritch fire, a color he has not seen in an age, maybe more than one, yet tonight it rises from the void, drowning the North Star in its radioactive tide.
It’s hard not to take it as an insult.
His saddlebag writhes, its cargo malicious, grasping for anything its magic can corrupt. It’s staining the leather with shiny ichor, reminiscent of the sheen atop an oil slick. Swallowing bile, the rider leans forward in the saddle, presenting even less of himself to the wind. Less of a target. Small, in the face of the storm.
A black hole is opening up within him. Its edges flutter inward, consuming. Growing wider. Wide like a pair of brown eyes he’ll never stare into again. Wide like the gulf which now separates him from his salvation. Fathomless and uncrossable.
No. He can’t think about what just happened. He doesn’t have time. His destination lies a few more gasps ahead:
The oldest crossroads on the island.
An innocuous meeting of paths, but beneath, the leylines have begun to warble. Soon, they’ll sing great, sweeping arias. It’ll be the best time to lay this monstrosity to rest.
He yanks on the reins more sharply than he intended. The poor horse skews sideways. She breaks off into a canter, calming her aching limbs. Her rider clucks at her in sympathy, taking a wide circle back around to where he halts her, and dismounts a few feet from the exact center of where the two roads meet.
His hand flies to his purse, a sturdy leather one given to him by—
Someone on another shore. One he cannot yet set foot on.
The rider shakes his head to dispel the grief crawling up his throat like wasps in search of a place to nest. He cannot cry out, cannot let himself vocalize this ripping, rending pain eating him alive from the inside out. The stipulations of the ritual are clear: He must remain silent, else the contract is broken. The tentative invitation the Veil grants mortals on this night will be rescinded, and he will find himself expelled into a world where all has been for naught.
So he must bite back on his rage. It is the only option which will allow this seed of vengeance to grow and bear fruit. All his tools are right where he needs them, his feet already ferrying him.
Even as he bleakly thinks that half his heart is being ferried too, right about now.
He drops to his knees, palms flat in the dirt. Even through his thick riding gloves, he feels power amassing in shades of opal, the colors that bloom behind eyelids rubbed too hard. This is a space between, neither here nor there, and the perfect prison for this thing which has already robbed its erstwhile warden of too much.
This is where it ends.
He digs the hole with his bare hands, barely feeling the way the rocks and roots tear his flesh to the bone. Only mildly aware that he is staining the gray soil with crimson, merely a portion of the price he will pay for this gambit.
This kind of magic requires so much more blood.
He sits back on his heels. Wipes sweat from his brow and streaks his face with dirt. It’s unfair. Hasn’t there been enough loss, enough pain? Hasn’t all of this simply been enough?
But this act demands sacrifice. The gods always demand sacrifice.
He looks up at his horse. At her wide, trusting eyes. She believes she is safe with him, just as so many others have. She doesn’t even blink when he pulls his hunting knife from his belt, doesn’t balk when he approaches.
He makes it quick. Trades her life for the promise of eternal torment, the least this parasite deserves.
The stillness shatters around a confused, panicked gurgle, then a heavy collapse. The northern lights paint the fallen mare in a sickly cast.
His hand trembles so hard he drops the knife into the dirt. Before now, riding made him feel alive, a waking dream in which he could fly, and beside him—always beside him—there was the man he’s come to avenge. A man who, like this poor horse, deserved so much better in the end.
As the rapids of fresh blood sink into the soil, the rider tears open the saddlebag and wrests from it the monster that lies within. It is a bulky thing, requiring the use of all his strength and both his hands to hold aloft—to keep it from infesting anyone, or anything else tonight.
This should feel like a victory. It should feel like closure. It should feel like he has, at long last, put to rest an ancient enemy, and in a fashion its final victim would be proud of. But it doesn’t. These violent delights bring the rider no satisfaction, no pleasure. Not even as he hurls the squirming abomination into its freshly dug grave.
He tugs open his pouch next, and like a priest absolving a murderer of his sins, he sprinkles its contents into the earthly prison.
But this is no absolution. This is damnation, a binding ritual which will seal this bastard’s fate and ensure nothing and nobody ever finds it again.
When his task is done and the open earth is filled again, he clings to but one small relief.
All the bloodshed, all the carnage—it’s over. All of it except the heartache. That, he knows, he will carry with him forever.
Along with the nagging certainty that someday, this will all come back to haunt him.
Off the coast, never far away, rain threatens.
The team has assembled some ways away from their target, all of them gruff in their collars. It’s cold, and even if they weren’t standing on the edge of a marsh, it’s about to get damp anyway. The old distillery looms like a thunderhead come down to Earth, its belly lit by intermittent bolts of electric blue.
An arc flash thrashes against the twilight like a live wire, but nobody moves. Not even to stand closer together for the sake of safety in numbers. They never work together. Unless it’s something huge.
Now, Hunter Janesville isn’t overjoyed to be working with anyone, either. But he’s been around long enough to know going solo ain’t always an option. There are limits he has to set for himself in order to survive. One of them is pretending he plays well with others. Another is pretending he’s human at all.
But it wouldn’t do for the last living dragon to go around waving a sign that proclaimed as much. There’s too much danger in that. Dragon pieces turn a hell of a profit in the goblin markets. Whole dragons? Not so much.
At least, not without their fire.
In the waning light, his sight flares with even more colors, heat signatures and lack thereof, and the general energy of the area. Those gathered are torches in the murk. One of them is phosphorus incarnate. He squints, glancing away.
An afterimage stubbornly follows his gaze, a second sun against the navy blue of his car’s hood. Annoyed, he switches from dragonsight to a more mundane view, letting the ‘72 Dodge Dart coast to a stop beside a familiar truck. It’s not often he sees someone too well. ‘Bout to ruin his night vision.
He parks and gets out, stretching, as Dan Castor stumps up to him. Today, Dan’s trucker cap reads Happy Camper. The sheepskin collar on his jacket still has a dark smear of blood on it from a job they ran together twelve years ago.
“Janesville, glad you made it.” In the gloom, only half of him is clearly visible. That half doesn’t look pleased.
“Yeah, of course.” Hunter glances around. “This everybody?”
Danny’s moue is practically carved into his face. “Yeah. Usually, everybody is enough. Didn’t want to have to tap anybody who didn’t want to be tapped.”
“I appreciate it.” Comforting to know Danny didn’t call him in to a group job needlessly. The man knows his reasons for preferring solitude. In fact, he’s the only person alive who does.
“Well, we’re doing this soon as it’s dark, which shouldn’t be a problem for you,” Danny tells him. He’s a few inches shorter than Hunter, but it’s never slowed him down. They head together over to where the others are. “You know the drill. Gonna box ‘em in, make sure they got nowhere to run. You I trust, so you head up the back.”
The distillery—just barely visible on the other end of the marsh, abandoned since the fifties—is a slumping monument to a bygone era. An eyesore. Its roof has long since caved in, its clapboard walls bowed to nature’s will, and what looks like the entire back half is trying to drown itself in the fen.
Hunter swallows his sigh.
He glances at the others. There’s a baby-faced man in an ill-fitting black suit, standing off to the edge of the group while he argues sotto voce with a short, dark, and clearly perturbed woman; beyond them are two indistinguishable forms with chains wrapped around their fists that Hunter can only assume are the Magnificent Markovs, Ylena and Pietr, Russian acrobats who specialize in unarmed takedowns. He’s only ever heard of them, or come across their aftermath.
“All right,” Dan says, commanding everyone’s attention even when he’s speaking low. “This is a touchy one. We have three points of ingress; I need ‘em all covered. Those of y’all who have never taken down little blue pill before—” He doesn’t say who, but Hunter’s money is on the suit. “—it’s important that we take it down before its master. We don’t need a djinn runnin’ amok.”
As he goes on to detail positions, Hunter lets his mind wander, his eyes dragging back along the marsh to the flickering distillery. Sometimes the arcane light is blue, but other times it’s a blinding white, ultraviolet, even malevolent burgundy. Serious magic is being worked in there.
Any other time, Hunter would probably scoff at the display. But now, it only concerns him. Splash like that means a rookie, a powerful one—and an amateur with that kind of unbridled power can only be dangerous to themselves and to those around them. In this case, it seems like the whole of Avalon, and next the contiguous States, are his intended victims.
The string of disappearances that led Dan to this discovery were so random, he almost missed the connection. That’s enough to put anybody in a foul mood. By the time he called Hunter, he was unable to hold the conversation in anything more personable than a growl.
It all becomes even more connected when the man finishes his speech, and as everyone breaks off, wanders by Hunter to murmur, “Watch that fuckin’ spook.”
“What?” Hunter turns to catch him. “Why me?”
Dan stops and rolls his eyes so hard they threaten to come bouncing out of his head. “C’mon, Hunter. Check your privilege. When it comes to seein’ shit the way it really is, you’ve got the advantage over us mere mortals.”
Hunter snorts, but can’t disagree. He juts his chin at the spook in question. “The hell’s he doing here, anyway?”
Dan groans, wheels back around, and kicks at the dirt. “Fucker’s from an organization on the mainland that deals with all things supernatural. Tryin’ to bring magic up to date with technology, or some shit. Whatever, I don’t know the company line. Anyway, they didn’t take too kindly to this asshole—” He gestures vaguely to the distillery. “—leavin’ bodies in their backyard, so now I’ve gotta babysit a whole second asshole ‘cause they wanna try out one of their prototypes.”
Hunter stares. “And you’re okay with this?”
Dan blinks back at him with bloodshot eyes. “Do I look okay with this?” He aggressively adjusts his cap. The sentiment embroidered on it gets funnier every minute. “Guy’s got a bottler.”
“And that means?”
“Some kinda tech. Their precious prototype.” Another vague gesture, this time in the suit’s direction. “Looks like a sonic screwdriver, but it’s got a little canister you can load like a bullet. That’s where the djinn goes. Apparently.”
Hunter looks. Though the shadows are thick and growing thicker by the minute, a glint catches his eye. The spook is holding a metal wand covered in glyphs and tipped with a raw hunk of amethyst caged in copper prongs.
He tilts his head. Some of those symbols look familiar, but he can’t place them until Dan says, “Guy says it’s made out of King Solomon’s ring. The actual Seal of Solomon.”
This draws Hunter up short. “They found Solomon’s tomb?” And they kept quiet about it? he adds inwardly. “What’d you say this guy’s name was?”
Dan sighs. “Zarathustra. Agent Zarathustra.”
“You’re not serious.”
“As the fuckin’ grave,” he replies with a grimace. “Which is where he’s about to end up, by the looks of it.”
Hunter makes a casual turn which allows his gaze to slide back to the man in black and his reluctant companion. He doesn’t quite catch what the former says, but short, dark, and angry bares her teeth before replying:
“Que et folli un peix, cabró.”
If her body burned hot to his dragonsight, Hunter can only imagine the heat of her words would blind him now. He waits until she’s out of earshot to snort.
Zarathustra hears him, though. He turns to Hunter with a shrug. His blazer bunches at each shoulder in an upward ripple, like rats ascending his fleshy ladder.
“She’s a spitfire,” he says. “But I think she’ll come around.”
“She just told you she hopes you get fucked by a fish, asshole.” Hunter shakes his head. “But I guess hope springs eternal.”
Zarathustra fiddles with the—what’d Dan call it? The bottler. “She really called me an asshole?”
Hunter shrugs. “This your first time out in the field?” he deflects, noting the bulge of a gun at Zarathustra’s waist.
“Oh—I mean… Well, yeah,” the agent settles on at last, glancing down at his gun too. “Just got promoted last week.”
“And,” he continues, preening, “I’m a pretty good shot.”
Hunter gives the agent one last appraising look. Dude can’t be past his twenties and is clearly so wet behind the ears it’s a wonder he doesn’t squeak when he walks. And somebody thought to give him a gun. None of this bodes well for the night ahead.
“Please, do not fuck this up, okay?” Hunter implores at a groan. The last thing any of them needs is some young buck living out his Lone Ranger fantasies, or whatever the kids are into these days. “I know it’s hard. But try.”
As he leaves Zarathustra, he points to the agent’s holster. “And don’t go usin’ that if you don’t have to. I don’t give two shits what you scored in target practice. Djinn ain’t made of paper, and when you’re dealing with magic, bullets tend to make everything worse.”
“Got it,” Zarathustra says, though Hunter has no confidence that he does. “I’m solid. I’ve read all the training manuals. I’m not gonna fuck up.”
Hunter squints at him. “Uh-huh.”
The gang splits up, will-’o-the-wisps flitting over the bog. Hunter catches some of that faerie light illuminating the Catalan woman’s cheekbones as she stands, waiting, by the front door. There’s a look of longing in her eyes, a distance and a haze that disappears only when her gaze slides down him like the burn of a fine whiskey. She snaps her fingers like castanets at her sides, the sound muffled by her gloves.
“You know who that is?” Dan asks sudden enough to startle him.
“Uh,” Hunter replies as the girl drops her gaze and fades into shadow. “No.”
But I want to.
Dan adjusts his cap and chuckles in the smug cat-who-caught-the-canary way he so often does. “You’re gonna like her. You two’ve got a lot in common. She’s the biggest pain in my ass, next to you.”
He pats Hunter’s shoulder. “No touching, you got that?”
Dan doesn’t wait for an answer. Which is good, because the only one Hunter had for him was, No promises.
He slides back into the mindset of the job like an old pair of jeans. It’s easy to see why this place was abandoned: It was built far too close to the marsh. The owners had to board the place up about seventy years ago, and the back half slid its stately way into the water ever since.
Hunter takes that way in, treading up a thick wooden support now planted, sloping, in the muck. It’s coated with lichen and inland barnacles. Every step is precarious, but he keeps a steady pace. His boots make no sound. He’s been doing this long enough.
The erstwhile balance beam lets him into a second-floor corridor. He has to step even more carefully here. Dank salt air is already sinking into his lungs, chilly and persistent, and he resists the urge to cough. Discomfort is part of the job.
He can see movement through places where the wooden walls have worn thin, but the limited range of human eyesight is even more irritating here. Switching over to dragonsight, Hunter has to blink as his world expands.
The members of his team are spread out in his periphery, ghosts of walls fuzzing their edges like lights through frosted glass. Nearest, within the next room, flickers an unstable current. The djinn’s master. Its pattern matches that of the overflowing magics he’s working, except when it suddenly fades—and it takes Hunter too long for his liking to realize that must be the djinn, pacing the room.
He watches long enough to work out its pattern. While it’s further away from him, he should try to move further in. Carefully, he lifts one booted foot from its position on the floor. Just one. He has no idea what might creak, or worse, break under his weight.
But his heel has only just begun to court solid ground when a shot rings out.
A body, previously a man in a Ramones t-shirt and ratty jeans, goes flying past the hole. Hunter swears. He’s no longer concerned with making noise, because that was the djinn’s master, which means—
He’s in a heap of trouble.
Pietr Markov roars something in Russian. His sister takes up the cry, but it’s lost in a rush of power and pulverized wood. The whole place lights up blue. Hunter is already moving north, up the hallway. He knows whoever fired the shot—his money is on that suit—is being devoured by now.
Not in the literal sense, of course. A djinn won’t kill you right away. But permanent enough.
He’s keeping track of the blue as it splashes across the wood, flickering phosphorus and eerie through the tattered space. As the djinn moves, Hunter moves, two hands at opposite ends of the clock.
Problem is, he’s watching the shifts of power so intently, he fails to see where they overlap.
And when something heavy slams into him from the opposite direction, pile-driving him through a wall and nearly out into open air, it occurs to Hunter he never expected there to be more than one.
The djinn has an iron grip on his face. It holds him aloft, the toes of his boots barely scraping the floor. He can feel the chill marsh breeze, scant as it is, on his back. Its eyes, unnervingly solemn, track his as its power flows into his skin. His eyelids begin to flutter against his will.
He’s trying to will his arms to move, but they refuse.
A scream like the song of Saturn’s rings shoots him full of just enough adrenaline to stay awake, hauling him away from the edge of unreality the djinn threatened to send him to. What Hunter sees before him now is a horror show. From out the djinn’s stomach, a hand reaches, flames licking along candlewick fingers in shades of atomic tangerine. It’s hot enough to make the silvery blood on them sizzle and pop.
The stink of blackening flesh curls in his nose. It’s not exactly smelling salts, but it’ll do.
He stumbles back into the wall as the djinn lets go, wracked by spasms, and as he catches his breath, the hand impaling the creature twists, withdraws into the cavity it’s created, then angles up.
Its wail cuts short. With a squelching wrench, the hand pulls free of the djinn’s body altogether. It falls, collapsing into stardust.
The woman stands in its wake, ablaze from the tips of her fingers to halfway up her forearms. Clutching the djinn heart, she wreaths it too in flame.
“Wait,” Hunter says, but the damage is already done. The heart flakes to ash in her embrace, preventing it from forming into the gemstone that would house the djinn’s spirit, and ensuring the djinn is well and truly gone.
Along with its very valuable gemstone which, if treated with care, could’ve done a lot of people a lot of good.
But the woman only says, “You’re welcome.” A low, crystalline hum fades at the same instant the flames coating her arms do.
She offers a hand, sans glove, to help him away from the wall.
He finds himself taking it on impulse.
She pulls, damn near bringing his body flush with hers, their palms clasped between them like they’re swearing some kind of oath. Despite the damp fall night, she’s wearing only a loose, sleeveless tunic over her jeans—and yet heat pours off her frame.
Suddenly, Hunter longs for a fire in his belly and humid currents beneath his wings. He’s had neither since he lost his dragonfire, and his brethren too But standing this close to her over the remnants of a djinn, it seems somehow… possible.
She says, “You can let go now.”
Weakly, he replies, “All this time, and I’m still not sure I know how.”
With a sideways look, she disentangles and steps back. “Are you okay? It didn’t get… in you, did it?”
Hunter shakes his head, clearing both the djinn-induced cobwebs and the echo of unbidden memories. “Uh, no. All clear, thanks to you.”
More shots fired. Yelling—mostly Dan’s.
“Well, bless your whole heart! If you were any dumber, I’d have to water you twice a day, wouldn’t I?!”
He must be talking to Zarathustra. Hunter hopes it’s the last thing that idiot hears.
“You should go,” the woman says. “Help them get out.”
He frowns. “What about you?”
She flexes her hands, cracking each knuckle one at a time with her thumbs. “There’s something I have to do.”
He tries not to watch her go. The urge to follow her is strong—not to make sure she’s okay, clearly she’s got that in the bag—but now curiosity is rearing its itchy head.
But something tells him he should just leave her be, and regroup with the others.
A glance out the hole in the wall behind him shows no safe way to climb down that wouldn’t end with an impromptu bath. There’s probably debris beneath the water. It wouldn’t do for him to have to explain how he planned to survive a two-by-four through the sternum.
So he slides up to the doorway, and glances out. Nothing. Weakened breezes play with the cobwebs, a false serenity.
It plays up his spine.
He kicks into a jog, heading away from where he entered, hoping the stairs are still intact. They are, barely. His boots thud on the bottom step when he lands a five-plank leap.
Dan emerges from a darkened doorway, Ylena Markov’s arm slung across his shoulders. She’s still conscious, but barely. Blood drips down her opposite arm. Her braid is barely recognizable as blonde with all the ichor running through it.
“Janesville! We gotta split,” Dan calls. He’s hustling toward the door. “Pronto.”
Hunter glances behind them. “Pietr?”
Dan shakes his head. Ylena bites back on a sob.
In mid-stride, Hunter stops. Dan is still hauling Ylena toward the capsized door, both of them cursing when her boot snags a twisted piece of debris on the way.
Hunter listens, scanning the top floor, trying to see past the decrepit railing.
A pair of eyes like Plutonian sinkholes meet his gaze from the pit of a doorway. Hunter has never seen cold, vacuumous rage like that. Its weight is titanic, displacing the debris around it, the blood it’s tracked with it dripping up. Its fury is reversing gravity.
“Hunter!” Dan calls over his shoulder, arresting him before he can move. The man and his burden are already clear, snatches of his voice stolen by the expanse outside. “Zed’s got this, let’s go!"
He hesitates. “Who?”
“The one-woman Fire Nation you’ve been eye-fucking! Now let’s go!”
Hunter glances back upstairs. There’s nothing in the doorway anymore. Something’s prickling at the back of his neck, hairs standing on end. Like the air itself is charging with electricity, the tightly coiled essence of something big about to happen.
Must and dimly lit particles give way to clean night air just as the world behind him explodes.
They’re thrown forward by the force of the blast. The heels of Hunter’s hands plow into cold dirt when he catches himself, face inches from the ground. Beside him, Dan is already checking Ylena’s injuries. His cap has been knocked askew.
Hopping up, Hunter starts back toward the conflagration that used to be the distillery, but he’s immediately driven back by a plume of flame. The booze leftover in the ancient vats is blowing up.
“She’s still in there!” he yells, trying to see, but driven back each time by another explosion.
“Zed’s fine,” Dan barks back. He’s pulling his belt tight around Ylena’s leg, and maybe he can’t feel the torrential heat on his back, but Hunter can see it. Nothing in there is left unscathed.
He grimaces. Damn it.
Shoving anything to do with her down deep inside, where he can forget it exists, Hunter turns from the incendiary ruin of the doorway.
“Wait,” Dan says. He still hasn’t turned around. Sitting back on his heels, he glances up at Hunter. “You’re gonna wanna stick around for this.”
Brow furrowing, Hunter looks back at the distillery. What’s left of the roof is falling in, nail and tar-paper rain. The entire inside of the place looks like a furnace. There’s nothing to see—
Until like some volcanic siren, Zed emerges.
Her skin glistens. Her clothes are unscathed. Hunter gapes, checking her over instinctively for some kind of damage, anything. All he can find is some dust.
“You—” He sputters as she draws nearer, gloved fingers rubbing at themselves, a challenge in her eyes. Behind her, a rafter crashes down. “How?”
“Some people drink and know things,” she quips. “Others drink and burn.”
She kneels beside Dan, speaking in a low tone. Hunter knows when to take his cue and turns back to the fire once more. It’s a damn conclusive blaze. There’ll be nothing left of the distillery by the time it’s out.
Hunter remembers the excitement in the eyes of the owners the day they bought the place, still heady with the idea that Prohibition was over, and they really could make their own booze. They both died over a decade ago. Their brand still circulates.
Never does he feel like more of a relic than when confronted with his past. Especially when it’s crumbling, or burning, away.
“Janesville!” Dan snaps him out of his reverie. “Give her a ride, will ya? I gotta get Ms. Markov into triage.”
Ylena struggles up on her elbows, just visible around his bulk.
“No hospitals,” she insists in her thick Slavic accent. She falls back, exhausted.
Dan pats her good arm. “Don’t worry,” he says. “We’re gonna go see the doc.” Hauling himself to his feet, he glances from Zed to Hunter. “You kids be good, now.”
“Do you need help?” Hunter asks him as Dan loads Ylena into the backseat of his truck.
“No,” Dan says, pulling himself up into the cab. “I need a fuckin’ drink.”
It’s not until his truck is bouncing back along the unpaved road that Hunter dares to look at Zed again.
She’s not looking at him.
From somewhere, she’s pulled an antique flask. As she guzzles its contents, slender throat working, she watches her handiwork fall to pieces. Hunter marvels, as inconspicuous as he can manage, at the fact that not a single piece of her is singed. Her hair isn’t even frizzy.
He knows a thing or two about fire. He’s seen what it does to human bodies; heard it, smelled it, sometimes wakes up with the reek of it still caked inside his nostrils.
This woman shouldn’t look like she just walked into a bar instead of out of….
With a resounding crash, the entire building caves.
Of course, Hunter hasn’t forgotten that she saved his ass. Nor that she stuck her hand through a djinn’s fucking chest cavity and removed its heart with said hand. It’s a little at odds with how peacefully she’s standing beside him, drinking whatever her poison may be. But Dan trusts her. More than trusts her, he seems to rely on her.
That’s good enough.
“Hey,” he says, startling even himself, the roar of the flames having died more than he thought. “I’m, uh. Hunter.”
“I’m a hunter too,” she deadpans.
He has to laugh. “It’s my name.” Ironic that the first person he has to explain it to in months is probably the least likely to laugh at the tautology.
The look she shoots him then is inscrutable. “It doesn’t fit you.”
It’s a hand-me-down, he thinks.
“How about you? Dan said Zed. That short for anything?”
“Zedekiah,” she says, punctuating with another vicious draught.
“You’re a pyromancer?”
She shakes her head. “Pyrokinetic. I ignite due to a flammable compound in my sweat and an excess of bioelectrical currents.”
Hunter thinks, Well, that’s new, but what he says is, “So fire’s in your blood.”
For a moment, Zed drums her fingers on her flask. “Yes. I suppose it is.” She doesn’t even spare the burning building a glance when she adds, “We should go. The fire department will be here soon.”
Hunter opens his mouth to offer her a ride, since the only source of heat out here is the blaze and her clothes are basically beachwear. She’s even starting to shiver—
Then he shuts it again. Footsteps are crashing toward them through the brackish undergrowth.
The shoes sound expensive.
By the time Agent Zarathustra is visible by firelight, Hunter’s ire has reached his face, a glare chiseled into his muscles. Zed’s is radiating from her entire body.
Zarathustra doesn’t have the good sense to stop before he’s within reach of her. He says, “Hey, uh. I know things didn’t go as planned, but if you need a lift…”
With her back to him, Hunter can see the sprawling sacred geometry tattooed there. As Zarathustra trails off, he can also see it start to move, and he all at once realizes that was the sound he heard back in the distillery—a chorus of otherworldly chimes coming from just beneath her skin.
Sweat beads like mercury on her arms. But when she snaps her fingers, it mists too soon, the ensuing static flashes failing to ignite.
So Hunter steps in.
“What did I tell you, huh?” Before the guy can look at him properly, let alone say a word in his own defense, Hunter snarls, “Didn’t I tell you not to fuck it up with that goddamn gun?”
Zarathustra stops. Feebly, he glances at the singed tube of copper and amethyst in his hand. “The bottler didn’t work.”
“Yeah, I can see that!” Hunter says, doing his best to keep the dragon out of his tone. He takes a dominating step forward. “Bet Pietr Markov’s real impressed too.”
Zarathustra’s earthy skin pales. “Pietr. Yeah. That was… tragic.”
Behind him now, Zed is snapping furiously. She’s also wheezing. Hunter, unthinking, reaches back for her, awkwardly swatting at her shoulder. “Hey, hey. Stop that. You’re gonna hurt yourself.”
“Hurt him,” she pants, the words slithering through her teeth. “I’m gonna hurt him.”
Zarathustra slips the bottler into his inside jacket pocket. “Look, I get it. You guys are upset. But I can make it up to you. Zedekiah—Zed—”
He sighs through his nose, pulls a piece of paper out of another pocket, and unfolds it. “I’m not good at this, but they sent me with this script, and…” He’s reading off the page now. “I believe there’s much my agency can offer in terms of recompense.”
Another hiss from Zed snaps Hunter’s self-restraint like a too-tight rubber band. He grabs Zarathustra by his lapels and walks him backward until the dumbass loses his footing and topples, eating a chunk of marsh.
“Leave her. The fuck. Alone,” he grits, hanging over the agent like a pendulum about to swing. “Do you understand? Are you sure? Or do you need me to write you a goddamn script?”
The agent has the good sense to look terrified and keep his mouth shut.
“Now, what are you gonna do?”
“Leave her alone,” Zarathustra repeats in a very thin voice.
“Yeah, and then what?”
“And then get the fuck out of here. I’m tired of lookin’ at you.”
Hunter sees red. “I swear to all the gods—”
“Look, I’m not the one who started the fire!”
And just like that, it’s silent. Zed has stopped snapping. Stopped breathing, even. Hunter realizes he’s staring when his eyes begin to burn.
Zarathustra wets his lips. “I just… I just mean I didn’t… you know… kill your friend.”
Very quietly, almost at a whisper, Zed says, “You shot the djinn’s master. What did you think would happen next?”
“He moved on me—”
“So,” Hunter says, the sibilant slithering through his bared teeth, “you got scared, you got trigger-happy, and you blew the whole fucking operation. Is that how your ‘organization’ operates? You just start shooting?”
Stupidly, Zarathustra begins to say something else. Hunter puts a stop to it once again by crouching down over him and speaking real soft, real low.
“Your fancy tech didn’t do shit. Your goddamn gun made things worse. Zed cleaned up your mess—so you’re not gonna lie there and whine like a bitch about how it’s all somebody else’s fault. You’re gonna swallow what’s left of your pride, and get the fuck outta here before I hand the lady a match. ‘Cause I gotta tell you, dude: I am this. Fucking. Close.”
The agent swallows so hard Hunter hears the click. His pulse hammers through the fine flesh of his throat at a hummingbird’s pace. His eyes shift just once more over Hunter’s shoulder, latching onto Zed.
“Can I give her my card?”
Hunter punches him.
Zarathustra crumples to the sucking earth. He doesn’t get back up.
Grimacing down at him, Hunter turns to face Zed. Her eyes are so glassy they reflect his image.
“Don’t listen to him,” he says, gentling his tone. “Guys like that’ll do anything to pass the blame. Pietr wasn’t your fault.”
She clenches her hands, head so low her chin nearly meets her chest. “Tell that to Ylena.”
No touching, Dan had said when Hunter first asked him about this girl. No touching, you got that?
But now he forgets, and closes the distance between them to take Zed by the shoulders. They fit so easily in his hands.
“Zedekiah. Look at me.”
She tosses her head when she does, defiant even as she obeys. Tears brim in her eyes but do not spill over. Her jaw is clamped so tight the muscles in her cheeks spasm.
Freckles he didn’t have time to notice before scatter across her nose bridge like a long-lost constellation. In the firelight, they almost seem to twinkle. He reaches up and brushes a lock of hair behind her ear.
“It’s not on you,” he says.
A long breath shudders through her nose. “You know what they call me, Hunter? All of them—even Dan? They call me The Cleaner. Because that’s what I do. I tidy things up. I destroy. I leave no trace. They think fire cleanses, but they’re wrong. Fire doesn’t cleanse. It obliterates…”
Her voice cracks. She tries to look away again, but Hunter cups her cheek to stop her. “You’re not a monster,” he tells her. It’s the only thing he can think of to say.
The disbelief in her eyes breaks his heart. So does that dim shine of hope.
“C’mon,” he says. “My car’s right over there.”
Halfway to it, she surprises him again by taking his hand, and suddenly the night’s not so chilly anymore—even if she’s put her gloves back on.
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