Lex De Mortuis | Chapter One

Author’s Note: This is chapter one of the second book in the Division Zero series. It contains a spoiler for a major plot element in book one. If you have not yet read book one, please do so before continuing if you at all care about spoilers.

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Ominous shadows hung in the windows of a freestanding house, squares of infinity amid flashing chaos. A vibrating nimbus of red and blue glowed upon the building’s white face. Two Division 1 patrol craft and a MedVan sat at the edge of a cul-de-sac, invading the lawn in a district full of suburban houses that offered a glimpse of the pre-war world.

Kirsten steered in to land near the cluster of vehicles. The cobalt blue of her patrol craft’s bar lights added to the veneer of color on the house, tinting it purple in snap flashes. A creaking groan came from the wheels absorbing the armored patrol craft’s weight. She shoved the gull wing door up, allowing a blast of freezing air inside. As soon as she emerged from the car, a wave of oppressive dark energy coming from the house stunned her motionless, her breath frosting in small clouds.

Oh, shit. Something bad is in there.

Her Division 0 blacks didn’t provide enough protection from the cold this near the northeastern edge of the sector map. Though the elevated city surface stopped twenty miles south, the political boundary of West City kept going for another ten sectors.

She glanced at her left armband display: thirty degrees Fahrenheit. Merely looking at the two innocuous digits made the wind on her thighs feel colder. She let go of the door, which sank closed, and took a step toward the house while surveying the scene.

Dorian coalesced at her side.

Normally, only the wealthy could afford to live in homes built upon the natural ground, but the paranoia of the Badlands made this area an exception. People who dwelled here expected the occasional bioengineered horror or rogue cyborg to wander in. However, what had befallen this house, few even believed real.

At least with the ever-present danger of Badlands wanderers, no street gangs came around here. Humanity’s need for violence channeled itself into local militias, non-governmental groups who patrolled the border against whatever might wander in.

“Funny how that works,” said Dorian.

Kirsten glanced at him.

“Out in the Badlands, armed people guard the walls with guns. We’re not as far removed as we think. Civilization is an illusion.”

She exhaled into her hands, trying to warm sensation back into her fingers. “Nice houses here, though—except for that one. Practically mansions.”

“These would’ve been considered ‘middle class’ before the war. Normal homes are expensive because we now cram a hundred people into the same space. One little house takes up the same amount of land as a slice of high-rise.”

The panicky wails of a small child came from the MedVan, mingling with the continuous soft howl of distant wind. Kirsten glared at the house, but the windows darkened as if something didn’t want her to see inside.

For a moment, it seemed as if the house itself stared at her

One patrol officer stood near the front door beside a glowing apparition of a headless woman missing her arms below the elbows and her legs below the knees. Kirsten drew a breath to gasp, but didn’t sense any paranormal energy from her. She blinked, took a step closer, and realized the officer spoke to a living woman in a plain white sleep suit that only appeared to glow in the glare from all the police vehicles colored lights. In contrast to the pure white fabric, her brown skin blended into the night. Kirsten exhaled in relief that the woman hadn’t died.

A woman in a white medtech jumpsuit hurried over. Small flashlights mounted to her shoulders illuminated the woman’s upper body, revealing jagged scratches on her cheek and small, bloody handprints on the shoulders of the sleep suit. The medtech pulled a silver wand-like device from her belt and held it to the scratches, sealing them one by one.

Kirsten approached with one hand on her stunrod to keep it from tapping her thigh. The woman pleaded in Spanish: with the police, with God, with nothing in particular, for an explanation of why her daughter went crazy. The patrol officer’s confidence shrank as soon as he saw Kirsten’s black uniform.

“What’s the situation?” Kirsten asked the officer before switching to Spanish. “Calm down, ma’am. I am here to help.”

“Got a juvenile female, age six, in the MedVan. The techs are checking her out now. Unprovoked psychotic episode. The girl went crazy and did a number on her mother’s face.”

“It wasn’t unprovoked.” Kirsten eyed the house.

The woman gathered herself, answering in English. “Something’s gotten into my daughter, Maia. I don’t think the police can help us. Are you a priest?”

Kirsten stifled her urge to roll her eyes. “Priests can’t help. Can you tell me what happened?”

“We moved here a few weeks ago to get away from the city. Maia right away started fussing. Whenever we were inside the house, she was quiet, moody, and later, angry. Outside, she seemed happy, like she normally is. The bad dreams started the first night. These past weeks, she’s become worse every night. Tonight, she woke screaming and ran out of the house.” The woman pointed out of the cul-de-sac at the road. “She went down the street. I found her in a neighbor’s yard. When I tried to take her inside, the crazy took her.”

“Kid went ballistic, kicking and slapping. She scratched her mother’s face bloody to get away. She did not want to go back in that house.” The officer gestured with his head toward the MedVan. “The kid seems calm now. The medtechs were ready to sedate her, but as soon as they carried her away from the house she became completely docile. All the brain scans came back clean. Kid just keeps yelling ‘El diablo está ahí.’ That’s why we called you in.”

Once she finished repairing the scratches on the woman’s cheek, the medtech squeezed the handle of the toothbrush-sized wand and the green light at the narrow end went dark. She twirled it over her finger and stuffed it in its belt compartment. “That should do it, ma’am. Does anything else hurt?”

“No.” The woman dabbed at her cheek with a small cloth, wiping away blood. “Thank you.”

With a nod, the medtech walked off toward the MedVan.

“Officer, stay with her, don’t let anyone go inside,” said Kirsten. “I’m going to see what the child remembers.”

She jogged after the medtech, rubbing her hands up and down her arms in a futile effort to warm up. The rear doors of the hover ambulance hung open, the interior awash with blinding white light so intense the mass of flashing red ones on the outside seemed dim.

Inside, another Division 1 officer and a medtech stood on either side of a thin girl seated on the edge of a stretcher, her legs dangling. Streaks of blood, grass, and dirt stained her pink nightgown. One bare shoulder peeked out from where the garment had ripped during her struggle to flee her mother’s grasp. She swayed her feet idly while the medtech tended to her left hand.

The little girl glanced over as Kirsten climbed in, all innocence. Thick brown hair, long enough to touch the gurney, slipped off her shoulder. A rubberized thimble engulfed one of the girl’s fingers, connected by thin tubes to a device mounted in the wall.

Kirsten stepped into the opening between the officer and the tech, standing right in front of the child. “Agent Wren, Division 0. Is she okay?”

Maia looked down, sniffling and trembling. Being stuck between a wall and three adults seemed to frighten her. The medtech, a short, stocky woman with a touch of grey in her hair, smiled as she continued to remove bits of skin and blood from under the child’s fingernails.

“This lady will make the bad spirit go away. She’s a special kind of cop.” The tech spoke in soothing Spanish as she removed the finger shroud to examine a shiny new nail.

“Was she hurt?” Kirsten reached over and tugged the blanket tighter around the child.

“She detached two fingernails and broke a toe. Nothing I can’t fix,” said the tech, winking.

Dorian came out of the wall behind Kirsten. “There is definitely an entity in that house. As soon as I went in there, this external anger started making me want to kill someone.”

She turned. “Think you can hold it together, or should I go in alone?”

“Well, if it’s what I think it is, it turns inner darkness outward. I don’t think it will do a damn thing to you.” Dorian winked. “You’re packed full of fluffy white bunnies.”

Kirsten rolled her eyes.

“All you Zeroes talk to yourselves?” The Division 1 officer waved a hand over Kirsten’s face.

“My partner’s right there.”

The patrolman chuckled. “Sure.”

Kirsten squatted in front of the girl and took her hand, mimicking the medic’s calming Spanish. “Hello, Maia. I’m Kirsten. I am going to get the bad thing out of your house. No one will make you go back inside until it’s gone. Can you tell me what you saw?”

The child’s shoulder slipped out as she shrugged it up to the side of her head. Her caramel-hued face hid behind a waterfall of black hair. When she figured the kid wasn’t in a mood to talk, Kirsten adjusted the blanket snug once more and peeked into her surface thoughts. Maia feared how angry her mother would be with her so much that she couldn’t talk.

“Honey, your mommy is worried about you. She is not angry.”

Shivering, Maia looked up and whimpered in English. “I don’t wanna ’member it.”

The girl’s thoughts leapt straight to what she tried to forget. She’d been lying in bed, head turned toward the left. Vaporous blackness exuded from under the door of a pink bedroom, gliding up along the wall and collecting at the corner of the ceiling. Malice, pure and hateful, rained down from the mass at a half-awake girl. Maia had lost control of herself to panic, certain the ‘demon’ wanted to kill her.

“Maia?” Kirsten patted her on the hand. “Do you see a man standing next to me, wearing the same black uniform?”

The patrol officer looked where Kirsten gestured, and crept backward.

“Umm.” Maia scrunched her eyebrows together, calling Kirsten crazy with a stare.

Kirsten grinned. “Have you ever seen a ghost before?”

Maia shook her head back and forth in an exaggerated gesture, tossing her long hair around. “No, just the one in my room. He’s mean.”

Dorian waved a hand in front of the girl, eliciting no reaction. “The kid isn’t seeing me. Whatever’s in the house is visible to normal people, or at least showed itself to the girl.”

Kirsten sighed. “Crap. It’s a damn wraith.”

Clank. The patrol officer knocked something off a table. “What, you Zeroes have categories for this bullshit?”

Sensing the look on Dorian’s face, Kirsten shook her head. “Don’t.” Her gaze switched to the man in blue armor. “Yeah, we do. There’s simple haunts, latent apparitions, lost souls, poltergeists, phantoms, phantasms, standard ghosts, and about two dozen more. Please tell me no one went inside?”

“So, what’s a wraith then?” asked the medtech, one eyebrow up. Her expression gave off genuine curiosity instead of mockery.

“Short answer? Pure malice. Usually, they’re what happens when someone truly evil dies and winds up lingering. They radiate animosity and they hate anything noble or innocent,” said Kirsten.

“It’s going to love you.” Dorian winked.

The Division 1 officer scratched his head. “Martinez and Long did a walk-through about ten minutes before you got here. They didn’t find anything in there at all. Came out in the middle of a wicked argument about Gee-ball though… Looked like they were gonna get into a fistfight.”

“They probably would have had they stayed inside that place much longer.” Kirsten ruffled the girl’s hair. “Give me a little while and I’ll make the bad ghost go away. Can you be brave for a bit?”

The kid’s flat affect didn’t change.

“Aww. That usually gets me a smile.”

Maia looked down at her lap, shivering.

“She’s terrified,” said Dorian. “If they try to take her back inside, she’ll flip out again. She knows it wants to kill her.”

Kirsten patted the girl’s clasped hands, then stood facing the officer. “I don’t want anyone attempting to take this girl inside until I declare the site clear. Maia can sense it. She will know when it’s gone. I’ll be the one to go back inside with her when it is safe.”

Dorian flashed a crooked grin. “Wraiths often cause extreme terror in the minds of the innocent. Are you sure you want to go in there?”

“Very funny.” She stepped to the rear doors and beckoned the mother over with a wave. “I already told you I’m not as innocent as I look.” Kirsten helped the woman up into the MedVan. “Maia is worried you’re angry with her. Please stay here with her while I handle this.”

“All right.”

Maia initially cringed from her mother’s approach, but as soon as the woman scooped her into a hug and started crying, the girl burst into tears as well, clinging and apologizing.

Kirsten hopped out and nudged the doors closed so the girl and her mother didn’t freeze, then fixed the house with a determined stare.

Okay. Time for you to go away.

The walls appeared to expand and contract as if the building breathed. She steeled her mind, raising a psionic defense against astral influence, and the illusion stopped.

“Going to take a little more than that to scare me off.”

Kirsten frowned and held her left forearm guard up. Shimmering holographic light formed a square panel in midair above it. She accessed the police network, pulling up all records associated with this address. Over the past hundred years, the property had been involved with a large number of domestic violence calls and noise complaints, but surprisingly, no major crimes. Kirsten switched to municipal records and found the property had been listed for sale roughly every two years. Despite having a price well below market, it had gone long stints unoccupied.

“Wow,” muttered Kirsten. “That woman bought this entire house for less than I pay in rent for eight months.”

“You don’t have Badlands combat mutants ringing your doorbell twice a month either,” said Dorian.

“No.” Kirsten smirked. “Just Theodore dropping by unannounced. Not sure which is more inconvenient.”

He chuckled.

“This wraith is old. Possibly prewar. This house has only been here for about sixty years, but a residence had been here going back longer than our records.”

Dorian rubbed a finger over his mouth. “If no major crimes happened here, either this thing is migratory or one bad dude died before the Corporate War.”

“Ugh. That would make him almost four hun”―she shivered―“I don’t want to think about it.”

“It concerns me the mother didn’t notice.” Dorian advanced toward the door.

Kirsten let her arm fall. the holo-panel folded in on itself and vanished. “It may want her here, hoping to get into her head and make her…” She coughed, having choked up.

“You don’t have to say it.” Dorian patted her on the back.

With the image of Maia’s delicate face and sad eyes fixed in her mind, Kirsten shoved the door aside. Black flames seethed at the walls in the living room, lapping at the ceiling and making the space feel many times colder. A powerful sense of evil soaked through the drywall, as obvious as water after a flood. Whispers came from beneath the floor, dread from above.

Dorian crossed the dining room area to the kitchen. Kirsten followed. Ethereal vapor spewed from spectral holes in the walls. She brushed her fingers over one, finding smooth wall.

She teased at the threads of vapor. “Bullets hit the wall here, after killing someone. But not in this house. In what stood here before.”

He pointed at a flimsy white door past the fridge. “Sounds like they’re still down there.”

“Damn. I hate basements.” She clasped the doorknob, gasping at the unexpected iciness in the metal, and yanked the door open. Wooden stairs led into darkness wavering with ghostly light from an unseen source.

“This house is old. Well, at least I know why they listed it so cheap.”

“Yeah.” Dorian touched the wall. “Paranormal discount. Her neighbors likely paid ten times the amount. And, if they extended the wall this far north, all this would become a playground for the super-rich.”

Kirsten concentrated on her desire to see into the Astral realm, and her eyes lit up with white energy. Color drained out of the world, replaced by a shifting sepia-toned environment. Spectral copies of surfaces and objects wavered and flowed over reality. Division 0 called it Darksight. By opening her perception to the spirit realm, an astral sensitive could perceive the world’s ethereal shadow. Mostly, it came in handy to ‘see in the dark,’ but it also revealed areas charged with spectral energy—like the bloody smears and handprints along the bare cinder block walls on either side of the stairwell.

Kirsten descended into the damp, musty confines of a frozen basement. A massive pool of blood covered the floor at the bottom, barely a patch or two of unpainted concrete left exposed. A man in a black windbreaker, emblazoned with DEA in large yellow letters, stood at the bottom of the stairs with his back to her. A two-inch wide hole straight through him cut out most of the E. He shook his head at a dozen Hispanic men writhing on the ground by the far wall. All had their hands bound behind their backs with plastic zip-ties, and a bullet wound in the head.

In various degrees of coherence, the men protested in Spanish about not being informants for the ‘feds.’

“Well, I can take a guess what our wraith did for a living.” Dorian chuckled.

Kirsten muttered, “Great. It’s a four-hundred-year-old killer.”

The DEA man turned, giving Kirsten a view of the entry wound responsible for the hole in his back. Blood, long ago gushed from his nose, blackened his mouth and chin. When Kirsten made eye contact, he jumped back.

“I’m sorry.” She held a hand up.

“Sorry, toots. Restricted area. Crime scene,” said the man.

She frowned. “My name isn’t toots. It’s Agent Wren. I’m with the National Police Force, Division 0.”

“Huh…” He shrugged. “Never heard of it. I’m DEA Agent Fowler.” He shook her hand. “Got these dozen Mexicans rounded up, but I’m not sure where Gonsalves got off to. Slippery son of a bitch. Stupid bastards think we’re focusing on Mexico so much they can truck the junk in from Canada.” He looked her up and down, raising an eyebrow at her clingy uniform. “Oh, wait a minute… Little early for the guys to send me a stripper. They could have waited for the after-party. The cop costume is cute, though.” He winked, making a clicking noise.

Dorian turned, covering his face to hide his laughter.

“I’m not a stripper.”

Agent Fowler appraised her again, brown caterpillar eyebrows creeping together. “Except for the boots, that getup of yours looks painted on. I don’t recognize your insignia, and the blinking thing on your hip looks like a prop from Star Trek.”

“I hate to break it to you, Agent Fowler, but you’re not in command of this operation any more. You’re dead.” She pointed at his wound.

Dorian’s eye appeared at the back of the tunnel in the man’s chest.

Kirsten flinched away with a gasp. “Dammit, Dorian.”

He chuckled. “That guy had some heavy artillery, maybe a .50 cal.”

“Dead?” DEA Agent Fowler stuck a finger into his chest. “I can’t be dead, I’m still here.”

“Trust me, pal. You’re as dead as I am,” said Dorian, wandering around front. “Fowler, was this Gonsalves guy known to use a large weapon?”

“Yeah, the tool had a Desert Eagle. He loves his action movies. Thing’s all nickeled up with mother-of-pearl grips, too, real pimp.”

“Huh?” Kirsten tilted her head. “What does a gaudy handgun have to do with pimps?”

Fowler blinked at her. “Are you for real?”

Dorian chuckled. “If memory serves, that’s a .50 caliber. Firearms used to have brass casings holding propellant, and physical triggers. They don’t even manufacture those types of weapons anymore.”

“What year do you think it is?” asked Kirsten.

“2022,” said Fowler.

“You’ve been dead 396 years.” Kirsten waved her arm through him. “See? It’s 2418 now.”

Fowler stumbled to the side, falling seated on the steps with a look of utter disappointment. He remained quiet for a minute or two, then deflated. “I guess that’s why backup hasn’t shown up. It did kind of feel like they were taking their damn sweet time.”

“What happened here?” Dorian paced the line of executed men.

“We got a tip the cartels were using this house as a relay point to ship product into the States. Eduardo Gonsalves, a real piece of work. He went by the street name of El Santo de Sangre. We’d been giving them a big headache down south, so they tried to do an end run on moose back.”

Kirsten glanced at the bloody walls. “Guess he lived up to his name. Fowler, you don’t have to stay here. There’s nothing else you can do.”

“He won’t let us leave,” one of the executed men wailed, in Spanish.

Kirsten went over to them, switching to Spanish as well. “Who won’t?”

A few seemed shocked she could see them.

“The Blood Saint. He thinks we ratted him,” said another man.

The nearest spirit rasped, “It was his daughter, Dominique. He couldn’t believe it, so he killed all of us trying to find the traitor.”

“Yeah. Local police got a tip from a little girl.” Fowler wandered over, speaking English, despite being apparently able to understand them. “The kid said her daddy did bad things and she was scared because people would hurt her.” He laughed. “Who said DARE never did any good, huh? Kid heard drugs are bad in school, so she turned her old man in. We came in on a joint operation with the local PD, found a few million worth of coke down here.”

Dorian and Kirsten exchanged a look.

“That’s a lot of soda.” Kirsten shook her head.

Fowler blinked at her. “Guess it’s true what they say about blondes, eh?” He elbowed Dorian with a conspiratorial wink. “Cocaine, not soda.”

“The hell is cocaine?” asked Kirsten.

“It was a plant derivative narcotic. Closest modern equivalent would be Zone4.” Dorian gestured at the executed men. “The wraith is drawing power from them. I can feel him trying to snare me, too.”

Kirsten closed her eyes and called out.

“You’re wasting your time,” said Dorian. “They can’t get in here. Gonsalves, or what’s left of him, is too strong. Why do you think these poor idiots are still stuck here? The Harbingers would have been all over cartel soldiers within minutes of their death. Something’s keeping them out, and this doesn’t strike me as holy ground.”

“Holy ground?” She sighed. “Really? So if the wraith is blocking the Harbingers, we drag these men outside?”

Dorian eyed the row of dead men. “Gonsalves is binding them here, somehow. It almost feels as though he has some sort of connection to them. I doubt we’d be able to move them from where they’re stuck.”

A sudden sense of pervasive dread fell over the room. The executed ghosts all stopped muttering. Fowler gazed up at the ceiling, seeming paler. Every spirit in the basement turned to look at the same casement window an instant before a shadow crept by outside.

Dorian took a step back, closer to Kirsten. “Guess they’re still listening to you.”

She exhaled. “Yeah…”

“What was that thing?” Fowler pointed at the window.

“You were DEA?” Dorian asked with a wry half smile. “Someone who wants to have a word with you.”

Fowler quirked an eyebrow at him. “What?”

Kirsten bit her lip. “Right, so, if we can’t drag them outside…” Damn, he’s gonna be strong.

“The focus of a wraith’s dark deeds makes them more powerful.” Dorian folded his arms. “You could destroy them to weaken the wraith, but…”

“They’re not threatening anyone at the moment, and I’m no executioner.”

She headed for the stairs.

“Hey wait,” said Fowler. “What’s that thing outside want with the DEA?”

“I know you too well.” Dorian chuckled at her before he pointed at Fowler. “You stay here, don’t do anything. You’ve been exposed to the wraith’s energy for too long. He could drain you to boost himself. And that DEA thing was a joke, forget it.”

Fowler set his hands on his hips and grumbled. “You can’t take him on without backup. Aren’t you at least going to call it in?”

Kirsten paused on the second step. “I’m the only one on the West Coast who can deal with this… at least that we know of.”

Might as well start in that kid’s room.

She rushed up to the kitchen, across the house, and to the second story, but stopped short at the top of the steps. The residual manifestations of long-ago screams, gunshots, and explosions broke the silence, sounding as though a small war went on in the back yard—though she hadn’t heard any of it until entering the upstairs corridor. Billowy darkness shrouded the walls and ceiling. Dire energy charged the air, resisting her presence. Orange-pink light leaked from an open door catty-corner to the master bedroom. Kirsten focused her psionic energy against the gelatinous feeling in the air, pushing it aside and out of her way. The smoke clinging to the walls receded from her advance, as if afraid.

“Sounds like a damn war is going on out there.”

Dorian chuckled. “Imprints from the DEA raid, I bet.”

Kirsten leaned against the wall, edging up to the first door. “What is DEA?”

“Was. Special branch of law enforcement tasked with combatting illegal drugs.” Dorian took a position in front of the door, as if to rush in the instant she opened it.

She scrunched her face. “Really? They actually cared enough about people getting high to have special cops specifically for drugs? Old government had too much money, I guess.”

“Well, we still go after Lace labs.”

“Good point, but that stuff is more poison than recreation.”

She nudged the bedroom door open. Maia’s bed lay open and abandoned, stuffed animals and datapads scattered about the floor. Dorian advanced to the outside window, squinting at the glare of emergency lights outside. Inspired by the child’s memory, Kirsten started toward the closet, but a sudden roaring, like a waterfall, erupted behind her. She whirled around, raising her arm in defense.

Thick black vapor from the hallway billowed into the room and migrated to the corner near the ceiling on the left. The door slammed itself with a loud bang. Kirsten backpedaled, gaze locked on the cloud of darkness. Inky wisps of vapor built and rolled in on themselves, darkening into a thick mass from which extended a pair of phantasmal arms. Wisps of shadow burst from the ends, traced in the shape of claws. A flash of ice like a frozen hand clutching her heart, stabbed her in the chest. The closet door flew open; inside, her mother’s visage appeared. The apparition screeched and flew at her, expanding, wailing. Kirsten tripped over a plush rabbit and landed seated on the bed. Dorian stooped forward, both hands clamped to the sides of his head. He glared at Kirsten with a look that said he wanted to harm her, but trembled from his effort to fight off the wraith.

Kirsten screamed like a terrified child, crossing her arms over her face as the huge, vaporous head of her dead mother washed over her. The woman passed through her, intangible.

A male voice rasped from the darkness within the closet. “Hey, kiddo, you still hungry?”

Heavy vapors tumbled from the closet, lapping at the rug like a lake of malice. A disheveled man in clothing made from pre-war scraps sewn together leaned out of the black, waving a dented octagonal can at her as if teasing a hungry dog. He flicked at the pull tab on the lid.

“Come on, sweetie. I know you want more. You can pay for it the same way you did the last time.” He flashed a sinister smile.

Kirsten clutched at her chest, struggling to overpower the icy claw trying to freeze her heart. She remembered his face, she remembered his stink, and she remembered him being much larger. He didn’t scare her. The sight of him brought only anger. She tapped that anger for strength, latching onto the sense of paranormal energy reaching inside her, and shoved it away. The cloud of darkness in the corner shrank in on itself, quivering. She rubbed the numb spot over her sternum, recognizing the piercing cold. Two ghosts had tried that trick on her in the past, attempting to scare her literally to death. Those, she’d blown off with ease.

Damn, he’s strong.

Dorian fell to one knee, shaking his head while screaming. He looked as if he could kill someone without a care. Tendrils of shadow rose up from the floor like a mass of serpents, weaving back and forth before seeping into him. He lurched to his feet, incoherent rage boiling out in a howl as he plunged his hands into the side of a wardrobe cabinet, wrenched it into the air, and hurled it at Kirsten. An instant before his hands released it, a part of his true self came back to the surface. He twisted, pushing the flying cabinet enough that it missed her by inches. Kirsten rolled off the comforgel pad, skidding to the floor amid a rain of child’s clothing. The cabinet smacked into the wall leaving a gouge.

With a tortured moan, Dorian fell against the wall where the dresser had been, punching at it, but his hand passed through without damaging it. “Get out of my head…”

Faint violet spots appeared at the top of the floating shadow like eyes. Kirsten stood, pulling a tiny dress off her head and flinging it to the side. Scintillating white light formed around her hand and unfurled into her Astral Lash. The wraith surged left but didn’t move fast enough. Kirsten leapt after it, rounding the energy whip and plunging it into the center of the inky cloud. Her psionic weapon flickered with a brilliant glow that made Dorian cringe back, shielding his eyes.

The holo-terminal on the desk exploded. Both lights in the ceiling sputtered and died.

Dorian lurched up, his expression once again normal—albeit furious. Kirsten coiled the lash around for a second swipe, but the wraith dashed into the wall beside the closet before she could attack again. Dorian ran and dove after it. She scowled at the spot of wall for a half second, then sprinted out the door and rushed toward the sound of a fight in the adjacent bedroom.

Police hand-to-hand combat techniques went only so far when employed against an amorphous mass of hatred. Whenever Dorian tried to pin the wraith, it flowed and stretched out of his grasp. Kirsten ran in the door, lash poised, but the two spirits had locked together so closely, she couldn’t attack without hurting Dorian as well. The wraith emitted a low, growling snarl, threading around Dorian like a snake. It flowed behind him and raked wispy claws down his back. Dorian let off a loud groan. Faint white vapor spurted from the spectral wounds like blood.

Kirsten snapped the lash high on purpose intending to miss both of them. Her hope that the wraith would flee from the energy paid off. It detached itself from Dorian and fled across the room in a shadowy blur. Kirsten leapt through Dorian, swinging the astral whip down on top of the racing cloud. The energy tendril divided the mass like a blade, creating two smaller clouds that hung in space for a few seconds before combining. She swung sideways, but the creature dipped under the white cord and zipped toward the hallway.

A flying tackle from Dorian slowed stalled it at the door. The wraith clawed at the floor, its spectral talons finding no purchase. Dorian dragged the struggling wraith backward, closer to Kirsten. The wraith stretched and spun about, spearing one clawed hand through Dorian’s chest and grabbing his neck from behind.

“Dorian, no!” she wailed.

Color drained from his apparition. He diminished into a transparent black-and-white image, then an indistinct blur of light in the general shape of a human. The wraith thickened and grew darker. Desperation surged down her arm; she coiled the lash around and spun it over her head.

Blue-white radiance flickered on the walls as she struck out, screaming, “Dorian!”

The luminous tendril seared the dark mass it in half once more. Loud static erupted from her earbud, and her armband terminal powered down on its own.

Dorian’s amorphous light-cloud body quivered as if reacting to the hit. His moan came from somewhere far away. A second later, the luminous mist coalesced back into his usual ghostly self. He collapsed limp on the floor.

The wraith gathered itself into an orb no larger than a skull. The sight of Dorian so weak brought tears of rage. In anger, Kirsten attacked with reckless abandon. The wraith swam around the Lash and pounced on her chest, raking and shredding. A sensation like a rain of razor-sharp icicles tearing at her skin paralyzed her. Her concentration shattered, the energy whip faded out.

Her lungs stopped reacting; her heart pounded in her head. She fell over backward under the weight of ten men crushing her into the floor. Ice gnawed at her breasts, face, and gut. The wraith paused to glance over its shoulder, raising a shadowy clawed hand at something she could not see.

Dorian must be okay.

Exploiting the brief distraction, Kirsten infused her body with astral energy, making it solid to ghosts. Threads of frigid ice where its talons gripped her became sharp blades. Warm blood trickled over her ribs. She growled and wrapped her hands around the closest thing it had to a throat, her legs around its body, and called the lash.

It had nowhere to go.

With her hand pressed against its ‘neck,’ all ten feet of the Astral Lash unfurled inside it. She pictured the terrified little girl outside and tapped her emotional need to protect that child. A weak moan from Dorian added grief. That it had dared use Mother against her added rage.

Kirsten let out a primal scream and poured all her emotion into the attack.

The wraith exploded in a torrent of black slime that coated the entire room. Where once had been a creature of torment and darkness lay a drained and weary Hispanic man in his later thirties. She ignored the pain in her side and tackled the disoriented spirit to the ground. With one arm across his neck and a knee in his back, she held him down.

“Don’t give me an excuse, pendejo.”

In seconds, a familiar eerie feeling came over her from behind. She wrenched the spirit’s body around to face the Harbinger hanging in the room, one of the shadows circling the house since she first wanted them to appear. The billowing mass of blackness with piercing, silver eyes drew nearer, reaching toward the Blood Saint. Six more Harbingers drifted in through the floor and walls, coming together into a curtain of night that engulfed her. She knew why they had come, but fear gripped her anyway. Cold unlike anything she had ever known washed over her. She closed her eyes, clenched her jaw, and held as still as possible.

The dead man’s scream fell silent.

When light returned, El Santo de Sangre was gone.

Kirsten flopped on her side, shivering. Compared to a swarm of Harbingers running me over, it feels like summer outside. Her chest burned; blood seeped into the undamaged black cloth of her uniform and stained the rug. Wincing, she propped herself up to check on her partner. One remaining Harbinger hovered by Dorian’s inert figure. He hadn’t moved since he fell. She crawled toward him, gathering his motionless body into her lap. A Harbinger checking him out didn’t bode well.

“Please, no.” Kirsten cradled Dorian tight. Tears streamed down her cheeks. She sniffled and peered up at sparkling silver eyes. “Please… not him.”

Chapter Two

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