It was almost midnight on a cold, snowy evening, and Gary Zettel was patrolling the Union warehouse’s perimeter. Leather gloves and a black scarf protected him from the chilly wind, and his gun, vest, and slacks blended in with the darkness of the night. Only the white, six-inch letters stamped on his chest in reflective tape caught any light.
He shifted his grip on the gun to keep his fingers limber as he headed down the south side of the fence. The dirt had been packed down and laced with pressure-sensitive wire that could pinpoint the position of an intruding mouse, but beyond the barbed wire was nothing but wild, unguarded desert. Sagebrush and sparse trees made formless shadows that Zettel could imagine as a hundred hostile beings—a mob of angry human survivors, possessed demons, or some other foe they had yet to face.
But the night was quiet. An icy breeze whispered through the sagebrush. His footsteps crunched on the dirt, and his leather gloves creaked as he checked his gun’s safety yet again.
Zettel reached the corner of the fence, swiveled, and headed in the other direction.
His aspis, Allyson Whatley, hurried out of the building. She was bundled in a heavy jacket zipped to her chin. He felt her approach an instant before he saw her; he always knew where she was, even when they were in different states.
Her square face was triumphant. “I did it.” She faced the cold desert as she spoke, and she barely moved her lips. “I finally did it.”
Zettel turned off his earpiece. “Let me see.”
She removed a scrap of cloth from her pocket. A complex symbol was embroidered in the center of the white linen square and stained by a bloody thumbprint. From her other pocket, she took out a folded piece of paper on which she had drawn the same symbol.
“Watch,” she said, and she flicked the paper in the air.
It burst into flame and turned to ash in her hand. The paper was gone so quickly that Zettel almost didn’t believe that he had seen it.
Allyson had finally replicated written magic.
“Does this mean you can make the wedge?” he asked, pulse speeding.
“I’ve already started.”
Zettel struggled to suppress his excitement, but the implications of this were dizzying. He punched his fist in the air. “Yes,” he hissed. It was the only moment of celebration he would allow himself.
“I’m going to finish it,” she said. “You can contact HQ when you’re ready. But…quietly.”
He nodded. Yes, quietly. Nobody could know what they had found. Not yet. And especially not his commander.
“I have two hours left on my shift,” he said. “Do you think you’ll be done by then?” She hesitated, and then nodded. “Good. Great. I’ll see you in two hours.”
“We’re so close,” Allyson whispered.
He nodded stiffly as she stuffed the cloth back into her jacket again. It took all of his strength not to follow her as she spun on her heel and returned to the building. Instead, he stared at the flakes of ash settling on the tightly packed earth and felt his stomach flip-flop. Not with nerves—Zettel didn’t get nervous—but with anticipation.
But not for a few more hours.
He flicked his earpiece back on. Composed his features. Resumed walking the perimeter of the fence.
Zettel was so distracted by the heady, dizzying sense of impending victory that he didn’t feel the tingle at the back of his neck until it was almost too late.
A pale flash caught the corner of his eye—too far to the south to be a guard at the nearest watchtower.
He froze, watching for another hint of motion.
The night was still.
Scanning the compound’s exterior, he took inventory of everything that was meant to be there: spotlights focused on the outside of the warehouse, a man patrolling the opposite fence in the same black uniform he wore, the waiting SUV that had been left with the driver’s side door open.
All quiet. Unremarkable.
Unease crawled over him. Zettel wasn’t skittish, and he didn’t imagine things. Especially not people that weren’t there.
He picked up his pace and headed toward the SUV, putting two fingers to the bluetooth headset in his ear. His excitement was suppressed by a rising sensation of something gone awry. “Mack? Anything registering on the pressure sensors?”
A buzz, and then, “Just you and Mason.”
There were shadows on the ground on the other side of the SUV—two dark shapes that looked like feet.
“What’s Mason’s position?” he asked, lowering his voice to a whisper.
Another buzz. “Northeast corner.”
Nowhere near the SUV.
Zettel lifted his gun. “Suspected intruder by the garage. I’m going to engage. Verify reinforcements.”
“Negative, Gary. There’s nothing with you.”
Then who was standing on the other side of the SUV?
He stood by the hood for a moment, taking measured breaths and preparing to engage. His pulse thudded in his throat and temples.
Zettel leapt around the vehicle and brought his weapon to bear.
Nobody was there.
The ground was empty, and the door stood open. There was no sign of what had caused the shadows. The earpiece was buzzing again, and he put his fingers to it to hear the transmission. “I repeat, Gary: do not engage. There’s nothing there.”
He pushed the talk button. “Roger.”
Zettel scanned the door into the garage, the open land, the total absence of unusual shadows. He wasn’t the kind of person who imagined things, but maybe the stress of surviving the apocalypse was starting to get to him. Just a little bit.
Lowering his sidearm, he put a hand on the SUV’s driver’s side door to shut it.
A blinking blue light caught his eye. Whoever had driven the vehicle last had removed their earpiece and forgotten it in the cup holder. That was the kind of laziness that their new commander, Malcolm, was letting the unit get away with. When Zettel had been in charge of the unit, he would have brought swift, harsh retribution upon whoever was stupid enough to lose their equipment.
But Zettel wasn’t in charge anymore—for the time being.
Muttering a few choice swear words, he leaned in to grab the earpiece.
Black eyes stared at him from the backseat.
Adrenaline rushed through him, slowing time to a crawl and making his vision sharpen. Zettel took a step back. Reached for his gun.
He couldn’t move fast enough.
A white flash rushed through the air and connected with his chest. They both hit the ground. His head bounced, blurring his vision and making his ears ring.
The sensitive wiring in the ground should have registered someone sitting on top of him and made his earpiece blow up with chatter. He could see her—pale face, black eyes, black hair, lips peeled back in a grimace. He could certainly feel her, with her hands digging into his vest and knees pressing against his gut.
But there were no alarms. His earpiece remained silent.
She ripped the gun from his hands and flung it across the ground. And then she vanished into midair, scattering into shadow like a flock of ravens.
A buzz. “We’re registering unusual activity in your sector. Did you fall over?” The tiny voice had a hint of laughter to it. The dick in the control booth was laughing at him. Nobody fucking laughed at him when he had been commander. When the Union put him in charge again, Mack was going to be the first on latrine duty.
He tried to punch the button his earpiece and missed. He hit it on the second try.
“I just got attacked,” Zettel said, scrambling to his feet and grabbing his gun. “There is an intruder, and it’s not registering on the sensors.”
But control was cut off by jangling alarms. They shattered the air, echoed over the plains, and made his eardrums vibrate. The spotlights on the building turned red and began to flash.
A dozen voices began speaking in his earpiece simultaneously.
“Something just entered the garage level—”
“—registering a bogey, moving fast—”
“What did you see? What is it?”
Zettel felt a surge of satisfaction that was almost as strong as his confusion. He pressed the talk button as he ran toward the door, but he didn’t know what to tell them he had seen. The pale skin, dark hair, and how it had vanished into the shadows—those things always meant a demon of some flavor, like a nightmare or a succubus.
But what he had seen couldn’t have been a demon. It couldn’t.
Mason rushed to meet him at the side door, which stood ajar. The lights inside were on alarm, too, and black shapes rushed through the halls as sleeping kopides began to awake and mobilize.
“Jesus, what was it?” Mason asked.
I think it was a ghost.
That would have sounded insane, so all Zettel said was, “I’m going after the bogey. Drag Malcolm’s drunken ass out of bed and have him find me.”
And then he slammed through the door and entered total chaos.
The screeching alarms were worse inside the warehouse. They rattled and bounced off of the walls, and the pitch made his eardrums tremble. The alarm lights were red, so it took no time for his eyes to adjust after the darkness outside.
He was surrounded by shipping trucks and the crates they had been carrying, each turned to black cubes by the strobes.
Nobody was working in the garage that late at night. The only active personnel should have been patrolling, just like Zettel had been outside. But as far as he could see, the room was empty.
Footsteps banged on the metal walkway above. He whirled to follow the sound, raising his gun.
The runner vanished before he could target.
Swearing under his breath, he launched himself up the ladder and onto the walkway. The shadow had already reappeared on the opposite catwalk, shoved open the swinging doors into the hallway, and passed through.
Ragged breaths tore through his throat as he chased the disappearing and reappearing shadow. The chatter on his earpiece fuzzed in and out of static.
The shadow swept through the halls ahead of him, darkening a few feet at a time, like a black hand was moving over the lights one by one. Doors slammed around him, opening and closing of their own volition.
Occasionally, he saw a flash of a hand, a slender throat, a face glancing over a shoulder—like he was chasing a beautiful ghost through a forest of fluttering darkness.
He was never going to catch up.
“Issue a quarantine protocol on my level!” he shouted into the earpiece.
Mack moved fast. The fire shields began to slide over the hallway doors.
Zettel slid under the nearest one just in time to see the shadow pass around the next corner, near the armory. He could cut it off if he reached the next level first.
He leaped up the stairs, taking them two at a time. His shoulder bumped into a kopis as he passed his quarters. He recognized the cry of protest, even under the blaring alarms—Malcolm.
Then the shadow swept over them.
For an instant, it was utterly black. Something cold washed down Zettel’s spine. The back of his neck itched and crawled.
It was gone an instant later.
“The hell?” Malcolm asked. He slept naked, like he was still a bachelor at university, but he had his clothes bundled under one arm and a gun in the other hand. What a goddamn pig.
Zettel hit the button on his earpiece. “This level also needs to be closed, control. I think the bogey must be going for artifact storage.”
The commander tried to follow him down the hall, bouncing on one leg to pull on his pants. “Oi! Gary! What bogey?”
Between control’s shouts on the earpiece and the blasting alarms, the rest of the units in the warehouse were mobilizing, but it was too late. Men stepped into the hall seconds after Malcolm had already run past them, and the shadow was already long gone.
That meant that the lift would be too slow, too. Zettel launched himself up the stairwell, Malcolm just a few steps behind with his trousers around his knees.
He got out on the fourth floor. Went two halls down.
There was nobody in sight, and the door into artifact storage was still closed. Totally silent. No shadows, no ghosts, no intruders.
Uttering a silent thanks, Zettel punched his access code into the panel to check the logs. Text scrolled past on the screen, but he wasn’t sure what he expected to find. If the door was locked, then even a shadowy bogey wasn’t going to be able to break through three inches of heavy steel without leaving some traces.
No attempts at opening the door showed on the log for six hours. He had beaten the bogey there.
He squinted through the reinforced glass. There were no alarm lights inside the secure storage room, so he could barely make out the shelves of crates and containers inside as the strobes behind him flashed.
A strobe momentarily illuminated the aisle between the shelves. A woman stood at the end, wearing the shadows like armor.
Cold shock washed over him. For a moment, all he could do was stand with his mouth agape, face pressed to the glass. The intruder glanced up at him as she pulled a box off of the shelves. It was the size of a suitcase, and marked with the Union insignia.
How had she gotten inside?
Zettel inputted his access code, but it took a few seconds for the whirring locks to disengage. He slammed his fist into the door, as if that could make it go faster.
“You bitch!” he yelled, spit flecking on the door.
The woman saluted him with two fingers to her temple.
Click. The locks released. Zettel flung the door open.
Everything went black.
The heavy hand of darkness pressed against his mouth and nose, squeezing into his throat, down his chest, and gripping his lungs. The rattle of alarms filled his skull. An impact rocked through his spine.
And then the darkness was gone—and so was the bogey, the box, and any sign of her shadow.
Zettel had somehow ended up sprawled out on his back, and he wasn’t sure how or when it had happened. Maybe that had been the pain he’d felt. The bitch must have pushed him.
Before he could get up, Malcolm ran out of the stairwell, one hand hanging onto the pants around his thighs and the other holding a 9mm. He jerked his trousers over his hips and belted them. He was still shirtless and barefoot. He must have abandoned the rest of his clothing somewhere in the stairwell.
“Did you see her?” Zettel asked, scrambling onto his hands and knees.
“Her who?” Malcolm grimaced and pressed a hand to his temple. “God, that shrieking—someone turn that shit off. Hear me?” When the alarms continued, he put a hand to his earpiece. “Come on, you bastards, turn off the bells!”
Silence flooded the hall. Control was still chattering away, the useless fucks. Zettel turned the volume down on his earpiece.
“We’ve got a problem, sir,” he said, getting to his feet.
“We’d better have a problem, if people are waking me at midnight when I was having a good dream. What in the seven burning hells is going on, Gary?” His Irish accent was even harder to understand when he had been woken up from a drunken stupor.
“Intruder. Thief. We’re under attack.”
“What?” He blinked stupidly as the red spotlights cut out and turned white again. “What kind of intruder? Nightmare? Succubus?” He gave a low chuckle. “A succubus would definitely explain the dream.”
Zettel took a deep breath. Let it out. “She was on me for a second. I only saw a glimpse, but I think I recognized her. And considering what she took…”
“Hang on. Back up a few steps. Who is ‘she?’”
He braced himself for the ridiculous, impossible truth.
“It was Elise Kavanagh.”
Malcolm only stared at him, as if waiting for the punch line to a joke. It never came. “Elise Kavanagh’s body is in cold storage,” the commander said.
“She’s been dead for weeks. You were there when we picked up her body.”
Zettel nodded. “I know.” That day was permanently emblazoned on his memory—the first sunrise that touched Reno after days of darkness, the swirling snow and ash, the decimated buildings. Elise had gone down after killing Yatai, the mother of all demons.
She had already been cold by the time they’d found her. And what sweet satisfaction that had been. It was Elise’s fault that Zettel had been demoted.
He had watched the video of the autopsy with great pleasure. Had seen the mortician weighing her organs. Had read the report on her unusually low body fat and blood volume, her missing reproductive organs, her severed arm.
Elise was definitely dead. But she was also, almost as certainly, the thing that had attacked him.
Malcolm strode for the stairs and hit the button on his earpiece. “Control, I need you to get in touch with Union HQ and have someone check the refrigerators. See if there are any missing bodies.”
A buzz, and the response piped over Zettel’s earpiece, as well. “Roger that.” They jogged down the stairs to the garage, and it didn’t take long for control to respond—nobody ever slept at Union HQ. “Everything is intact, sir.”
“Shit,” Malcolm said. He jumped in the first SUV they came across and waved to Zettel. “You’re coming with me, Gary. Let’s get the bitch that stole Elise’s face.”