On Bourbon Street, nightfall had brought music and drunken laughter. A block away, Giovanna stalked her prey. She’d followed the man for over an hour, waiting for the opportunity to judge and, perhaps, to kill.
“Where are you?” Gia whispered.
Mortals always had an aura. Immortal members of the Order of the Sinistra Dei could tell the evil ones by the black streaks in the otherworldly glow. This one had more darkness than most, making him the perfect target.
“I’m right here.” A man stepped into the dim light. Shadows deepened his gaunt features, accentuating the hollows of his cheeks.
“You selling?” She feigned a nervous catch in her voice.
“Naw, but I’m buying.”
Gia caught the gleam of metal in his hand. Even from six feet away, the sour scent of chemicals, mingled with sweat and liquor and stale cigarettes competed with the heap of garbage at the mouth of the alley. The man before her was dangerous—by human standards.
Gia took a step in the addict’s direction. As expected, he lunged for her. Also expected, she sidestepped his advance and shoved his head into the wall. She’d practiced the choreography so many times her muscles moved without thought.
The smell of human blood assaulted her. She covered her nose and pressed a hand to her churning stomach.
Torben leapt from the rooftop and landed a foot to her right. Her hunting partner still looked every bit the part of a tenth century Norseman—dark blond hair, blue eyes, well-muscled, and a scruffy, pointed beard. He could’ve stepped off the cover of some cheesy Viking romance novel. Even his name added to his allure. Torben, the Bear of Thor.
He hoisted the human from the ground and held him at arm’s length while the little bastard flailed in midair. Torben’s height gave him the advantage. The mortal struggled, kicking and stabbing to no avail.
“Drop it.” Gia laced her words with compulsion.
The addict renewed his effort to break free when the knife clattered to the ground.
Torben wrapped an arm around the man’s midsection. “Be still.”
He stopped moving. “I got money. You want cash? Take it. Got drugs, too.”
Gia would have preferred more of a challenge, a chase to get the blood pumping, anything to stave off the boredom. “I miss the old days when we had wars to fight. Hell, I wouldn’t even mind an assassination order. At least I could have some fun, get creative, you know?”
“Peace never lasts.” Torben adjusted his grip on the human.
“Ever the optimist.”
If Torben caught the sarcasm in her voice, he ignored it. “Do you want to read him, or shall I?”
“I will.” Gia stepped in front of her would-be assailant. She pressed her fingertips to the exposed flesh of his wrist and closed her eyes.
Her mind exploded with images of the human’s life, memories, emotions, and regrets—evidence of past sins laid out for her judgment. He preferred the intimacy of killing with knives and took trophies from the bodies; a finger from one, a pretty blue eye from another. She counted four female victims.
Gia detected no remorse. If he regretted his sins, she could choose to release him unharmed, or perhaps release him with the knowledge of the pain he’d brought to others in hopes that he would choose a different path for the future. The monster in Torben’s arms laughed as he relived the worst of his crimes.
There would be no mercy.
Torben met her gaze. “Verdict?”
“Death. He had only pride in his skill. He was nostalgic for his kills.”
“I’m not surprised.”
Without a word, Gia rose to her tiptoes and wrapped her hand around the man’s neck. She opened a link between herself and the human, feeding from his energy, his prana. As she fed, her pale skin illuminated. Gia dipped her chin to hide the light with her hair.
“I love it when you glow.” Torben chuckled and began to feed.
“It’s fun in private, but it draws too much attention on the streets.”
“I remember how fun it was in private.”
Gia narrowed her eyes. “What has gotten into you? Are you flirting with me? Again?”
“What if I am?”
“It’s been a century or so since you have.”
“Have I told you lately how beautiful your eyes are? Like icy blue jewels.” His grin brought out his dimples.
“Have I told you lately that you’re a class-A pain in the ass?” She cut off the energy flow from the human but maintained the mental connection.
“What are you doing?” He took a step back.
“I want to read his thoughts as he dies.”
Torben’s eyes widened. “That’s rather morbid.”
“It’s fascinating. Sometimes I can see a light. It reminds me there’s more to this world than we can see.”
“You need to read a human to believe there’s more than the physical world?”
Gia ignored him. The connection between herself and the dying man flared to life. She not only witnessed, but felt his terror as the ghosts of the women he’d murdered crowded the alley. Through the killer’s eyes, Gia watched the spirit of a young blonde smile at her and Torben. That glimpse of gratitude eased Gia’s conscious. Killing was a sin, but serving justice offered atonement.
The murderer gasped for breath as some of his victims cried for justice while others simply observed. Even his mother came—not to comfort, but to condemn. He struggled to escape as they pulled at him with cold, dead hands. The man’s heart convulsed, and he clutched his chest. The women called for his soul as he died.
Gia broke the link, dazed. No longer in his head, she couldn’t see the spirits. “I wonder if the ghosts are still here.”
“They’re manifestations of his mind. There are no such things as ghosts.” Torben eased the body to the ground.
“How can you be certain?”
“I can’t.” Torben slid his arm around her and led her out of the alley. The farther they walked, the more his shoulders tensed.
“We need to talk.” He nodded to the knot of people ahead. “Alone.”
As usual, the crowd from the piano bar had spilled onto the sidewalk. Gia stopped walking and stepped out from under Torben’s arm. “I’ve noticed you seem more attentive toward me. But we can’t cross that line.”
“This is far more serious than our relationship, or lack thereof.”
“That sounds ominous.”
Torben met her gaze. “It’s Lochlain. He’s—”
“He’s worried about Marin. It’s been a long time since he imbued a human. He’s fine.” The look in his eyes and tone of his voice tightened Gia’s throat.
“He’s not fine. The day is coming when I’ll be forced to take control of the clutch.”
She’d suspected as much for nearly two decades, but the repercussions were too much to consider. “You’re wrong, and that’s treason. Lochlain won’t let you take the clutch.”
“He may have no choice.” Torben took her chin between his forefinger and thumb, forcing her to look at him. “I’m worried about your safety, Giovanna. Lochlain isn’t in his right mind. He’s losing himself to the darkness. You of all people have to know this.”
Having heard enough, she pulled away. “I need to get back to work.”
“I’ll go with you.” Torben fell in beside her as they walked to the bar on Bourbon Street.
Gia lost herself in her thoughts. What will become of the clutch if Torben forces Lochlain to step down? Can we survive it?
She stopped outside the entrance of the bar, not caring if the humans overheard. “Torben, you’ve been by Lochlain’s side since you joined the Order. What? A thousand years ago?”
He glanced at those within earshot and lowered his voice. “Something like that.”
“If what you say is true, you need to help Lochlain. You two are like yin and yang. The clutch will fall apart without that balance.”
“I know you love him, but it may be too late.” He spoke as if the words tasted foul.
She ran her hands up his chest, flirting partially to get her way and partially because she needed to touch Torben to anchor herself. He was the one steady thing in her world. “Lochlain has a quick temper and loves the sound of his own voice, but that doesn’t mean he’s evil.”
“There’s more to it than that.” Torben put his hands over hers and removed them from his chest, though he didn’t release them.
“You’re scaring me. Not many of us remain in the world. Letting even one slip into darkness, or be put to death by the Order—”
Torben released her hands and folded his arms. “I’ll do what I can for Lochlain.”
“Thank you.” She believed him, and prayed it would be enough.