Catwoman soulstealer, p.10
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       Catwoman: Soulstealer, p.10
 

           Sarah J. Maas
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  “I answer to no one.”

  Ivy hummed in approval. “Why’d you come to Gotham?”

  “Curiosity.”

  “Doesn’t that sort of thing usually not end well for your kind?”

  Selina huffed a laugh, the sound devoured by her mask. Not much time. Every second delayed was a risk, a potential disaster. Yet she said, “Things have been quiet—and the money is easy picking.”

  Ivy yielded her spot to the left of the painting and approached Selina’s side to face the painting directly.

  Selina unsheathed the claws on the hand she had tucked behind her, monitoring Ivy’s every breath. Ivy said, “You sound like a cyborg with that helmet.”

  Selina bit her lip to keep from laughing again.

  Ivy pointed with a green-wrapped finger to the painting. “Here’s the deal. We split it fifty-fifty.”

  “Ninety-ten. Be grateful you get a million out of capitalizing on my hard work.”

  Ivy shook her head, red hair catching in the moonlight, some of those blossoms opening once more. “Sixty-forty.”

  “Eighty-five, fifteen, and stop wasting my time.”

  Ivy opened her mouth. And then the shouting began.

  Selina’s Death Mask offered an analysis of how long it’d take the museum guards to approach: one minute.

  “I thought you disabled the alarms,” Ivy hissed, the vines along her hands now roving up her arms.

  Selina scowled beneath the helmet, shifting her bullwhip to her right hand. “I did.”

  Someone had been waiting, then. Anticipating this robbery. Her mouth dried out, though something like lightning shot through her veins.

  “Seventy-five, twenty-five, and that’s it,” Selina said, tossing the whip over her shoulder and lunging for the painting. Alarms screamed as she hauled the small frame off the wall, yanking out a piece of canvas from the folded satchel tucked into her utility belt to carefully wrap around the century-old painting. No point in stealing the damn thing if she destroyed it on her way out.

  Selina tucked the painting into her satchel, nestling it amid a cocoon of padding. Another reason why she’d picked this painting: it was small enough to be easily transported. Her lenses picked up a flurry of movement. Not from the hallways beyond but from Ivy in front of her. Selina lifted her head in time to duck—

  Unnecessarily.

  Ivy snickered as she lobbed a gold-rimmed purple flower to the nearest archway, the blossom the size of a softball. Pale green smoke rippled out from its center.

  “Fancy,” Selina told her.

  Ivy’s grin was a slash of white. “Better hope that mask has a gas-filtration system.”

  It did. Selina only pointed to the small staff door tucked into the corner—unlocked, no doubt thanks to Ivy’s own entrance. “If you run like your mouth, we’ll get out of here in one piece.”

  Ivy didn’t bother to reply as she turned toward the staff-only door and bolted.

  Selina sprinted after her, satchel bobbing at her side, the bullwhip in one hand while she glanced back. Right as the guards came barreling through the spores leaking from that flower, coughing—

  She lingered at the door for a heartbeat. Just in time for them to get a glimpse of her, the suit, and the empty spot where the painting had been. Just in time for Selina to sketch a bow—right as the guards inhaled that green smoke, likely custom-made by Ivy in her lab from whatever combination of plants, and collapsed onto the parquet floor.

  Fancy and effective, Selina admitted as she shoved through the door and charged after Ivy into the labyrinth of staff passages.

  Nyssa and Talia would approve.

  * * *

  —

  Sirens cleaved the night, but Selina’s suit fed her the intel she needed: heading toward the museum, not after them as they escaped into the nearby quiet, posh neighborhood, full of embassies and old-money residences. The last place any sane criminal would flee to, considering the security cameras mounted on every building, the guards posted at every other entrance.

  Which was why they kept to the rooftops.

  Ivy had no issue scaling the building behind the museum using the fire escape—and apparently, no problems with cardio or heights as she kept pace with Selina, leaping without hesitation over the distances between buildings.

  They made it three blocks before a particularly large gap appeared. Large enough to merit careful consideration on how to take the jump. Selina slowed, panting lightly—lungs barely needing to push themselves. Ivy’s breathing was heavier, her eyes bright.

  Selina studied the gap, the cop cars that had just arrived at the museum illuminating the night sky behind them in flickers of blue and red. The lights cast Ivy’s hair in varying hues of deep crimson and purple, the silky strands ruffling past her face in the cool night breeze. No sign of the little flowers, as if they’d ducked into the safety of her hair. “Too far,” Ivy observed around gasps for air, studying the gap. “Take the drainpipe down.”

  That would take too long and take them too far from where she needed them to be. So Selina shook her head, flicking her wrists to free the claws in her suit.

  Ivy flinched, backing away a step. Her left hand went to a pocket in her bodysuit with curling pink petals poking out of it. Selina didn’t care to find out exactly what that flower could do.

  She gestured with her claws to the gap. “For climbing,” she said, and wriggled her fingertips.

  Strange, to have to explain herself, her methods. Strange, Selina realized, to have become something, someone, who required explaining.

  A wraith—a ghūl. She’d given up everything to wear that title, that skin. She hadn’t realized just how far it might separate her from others. That she might become other herself.

  But Ivy blinked, hand lowering from the botanical surprise she kept in her pocket. “You can’t make that jump.”

  “I’ve cleared worse.” Not a lie. Selina backed up on the roof, calculating the distance, the speed she’d need to clear the gap and land safely.

  She’d never considered that those long, all-out runs she’d done for the vault in gymnastics might be a training of another sort. Not until the League.

  Selina stopped at the farthest edge of the roof and glanced to Ivy. “You want in, then you’d better learn to keep up.”

  Then she was sprinting toward the roof edge, body falling back into muscle memory, into the training she’d had pounded into her bones, her breath.

  “Show-off,” Ivy groused as Selina sprinted past.

  Arms in formation, legs eating up the distance, body bracing for the leap—

  Clear the ravine.

  A cold, unruffled order.

  Selina had glanced between Nyssa al Ghūl and the ravine that cleaved the two granite mountains. All around them, the unforgiving towers of the Dolomites watched as unfeelingly as her teacher. The five other acolytes, mercifully, seemed to hesitate.

  Nyssa only lifted a tanned, scar-flecked hand and pointed to the narrow ledge—and a path—across the ravine. “The way home lies over there. The path behind you is closed.” A hard, brutal smile. The opposite of the sleek, coy smirks of her elder sister, Talia. “Clear the ravine, or live here.”

  Or die at the bottom far below.

  Selina’s palms turned sweaty, her breakfast churning in her stomach. The other acolytes, all of them in the League’s black battle-suits, began sizing up the gap, the angle. The wind.

  She’d learned as much about the other girls as she could: their movements, their reflexes, their height and weight and favored weapons.

  The real details, the ones that mattered…None of them shared that information: where they came from, what life they’d led that had brought Talia al Ghūl to come knocking.

  All Selina knew was that they hailed from all over the world. The boys, apparently, wer
e trained elsewhere. And Anaya, the acolyte standing beside her, had come from India. She spoke even less than Selina, though she had been here for two months before Selina arrived at the sprawling, luxurious compound deep in the mountains.

  If Selina had anything close to an ally here, it was Anaya. She was the only one who ever sat beside Selina at the mess hall or paired with her in classes. Never through any voiced request or invitation, but just a silent, steady presence. That often made other acolytes think twice before pushing either of them.

  “When the sun sets,” Nyssa went on in English, her accent lilting, “the temperature will drop below freezing. I have no plans to be here when it does.” But you will be, she didn’t need to add.

  Then Nyssa launched into a sprint, her slim body eating up the rocky ground, black hair tied back in a tight braid from her face. Not a pretty face, not like Talia’s. Where Talia’s was marble-hewn in its perfection, Nyssa’s had been carved from granite.

  And like the granite peaks around them, Nyssa’s stride never faltered, never showed any sign of emotion beyond that cool brutality. It was set in the same expression as she hurtled for the ravine ledge—and leapt.

  No ropes, no equipment. Nothing beyond icy will.

  The acolyte from Eastern Europe swore in some Slavic language. Serbian, perhaps. Recognizing the languages of the world: another course of instruction.

  Nyssa soared over the gap, body arcing perfectly. The only bit of beauty the al Ghūl half sister would ever have, in the precision of her movements.

  She made it look easy. Landed with a crunch of rock and a smooth roll that flowed into a standing position.

  Selina couldn’t help the half smile that curved her mouth as Nyssa leaned against a boulder, crossed her arms—her battle-suit dusty from the landing—and waited.

  Selina didn’t look at the other opponents, didn’t engage in the silent battle of who would go first, of whether it would be foolish to do so or if it would earn them a kernel of Nyssa’s respect. Or if the one who went last would be deemed cowardly or smart to study the others’ mistakes and learn from them.

  Selina turned, stalking back to the exact point from which Nyssa had launched herself into that run. Gave herself a few more feet beyond it. She studied the faint path of footprints Nyssa had taken. The angle of the jump. Beside her, Anaya did the same.

  And her sort-of ally murmured, too softly for the other girls to hear, “They might try to spook us when we run.”

  She was right. Likely by shouting, maybe even stepping into their path. And no one would punish them for it. No, Nyssa would likely reward them. Another bit of training—not to lower your guard, Nyssa would say. They were all merely instruments to carry out the League’s mission. Better to weed out defective ones before sending them into the field.

  Survival of the fittest. Biology had been one of her favorite classes. It seemed the League took Darwinism to another level.

  Nyssa still waited, arms crossed over her chest. Someone had to make a move.

  Even from the distance, Selina could have sworn the woman’s eyes met hers. Full of challenge. And invitation.

  She’d jumped and run across rooftops with the Leopards, hauling TV sets and other stolen goods. Then, the drop had been thirty feet, not three hundred. But no less lethal.

  And perhaps it was the thought of those Leopards she’d left behind a month ago, but Selina murmured to Anaya, “Go. Now. I’ll block for you.”

  Warning flared in Anaya’s rich brown eyes, her long black hair fluttering in the fierce wind roaring through the peaks. A test of trust.

  Selina only held the other girl’s gaze, steady and calm. “Now,” she repeated as the four acolytes began to approach, smiling faintly.

  Yeah, they’d try to spook them. Trip them.

  With a shallow nod, Anaya sucked in a breath and launched into a sprint.

  A blond acolyte moved first. Scooped up a small rock to throw, discreet and tiny enough to go unseen as her arm cocked back—

  Selina grabbed another stone, slinging it out. Slamming right into the blonde’s arm. Forcing her fingers to splay and drop the rock that had been aimed for Anaya.

  Anaya hurtled down that narrow path. The acolyte from Serbia moved next. Lunging toward Anaya’s path, to force her to dodge sideways, to lose traction.

  Selina was on her before Anaya could register the movement.

  The Serbian acolyte let out a grunt of pain as Selina stomped down on her foot. The acolyte’s body arced downward, as if she’d grab her own foot, right into Selina’s awaiting elbow.

  She’d done the move a thousand times in the fighting rings. Always followed by her next move: locking the Serbian acolyte’s arm and hurling her toward the other two approaching acolytes, as if they were no more than the ropes of the ring. Sending the three of them staggering back.

  Selina didn’t wait. Didn’t give them a moment to recover as she whirled and ran.

  Anaya soared through the mountain air, the breeze shoving her to the right—

  But she landed, barely, and scrabbled her way onto the ledge, where Nyssa didn’t so much as look at her.

  No, because Nyssa was watching Selina as she thundered down the narrow path toward the ravine as the acolytes recovered enough to realize her plan and look for retaliation.

  She didn’t have as much space as Anaya had to make that jump. With the attack, she’d yielded twenty feet.

  But Selina raced onward, the ledge nearing, the drop beyond beckoning.

  Pain flared on the side of her head, a starburst of agony. She stumbled a step but kept going, kept going as more hurled rocks landed behind her. She didn’t care where the other acolytes had come from, but she knew where she’d been born. Where she’d been raised.

  She wondered if the others knew, if Nyssa knew, that the pain was secondary. The pain was an old friend. Introduced long before those fights, before the Leopards. Introduced courtesy of her mother.

  So the blow to the head did not stop her. It had never stopped her, that kind of pain.

  And as Selina cleared the ledge and leapt, throwing herself a bit farther left to account for the gusting of the wind, she only heard the screaming air and the roughness of her breathing, only felt the bitter cold and the warmth of the blood trickling down the side of her face.

  The opposite ledge was too far. Still too far.

  Every nerve in her body came screaming awake as she slammed into the edge of the cliff, half on, half off. Gravity hauling her down—

  Anaya lunged for her, but Nyssa held out an arm. Blocking her path.

  Selina’s nails broke and screamed in agony as she dug them into the rock.

  But where Nyssa had refused to help, Nature threw her a bone.

  A rise in the stone with enough of a jutting lip that her hands latched on. And held.

  And held.

  Nyssa made no move to help Selina as she hauled herself up, arms trembling, head pounding.

  And when Selina at last had solid ground beneath her, when her temple was dripping blood onto the gray stone as she crawled, panting, from the ledge toward Nyssa, she looked up at her instructor.

  Nyssa glanced between her and Anaya.

  And Selina could do nothing as Nyssa shoved Anaya over the cliff edge.

  Anaya did not scream. There was only silence. And then a thud that echoed over the granite peaks.

  Selina couldn’t move. Couldn’t do anything other than stare at Nyssa, her dark eyes so cold.

  Nyssa offered no explanation.

  None.

  Selina cleared the leap between buildings, claws finding purchase in the stone. Metal shrieked and sparked in their wake.

  But she didn’t hear the thud of her body on the metal roof. She heard that thump and crack of Anaya on the ravine floor. And the police sirens were little more than
the howling wind through the Dolomites.

  She uncurled to her feet and looked back toward where Ivy watched, head angled. “Not bad for a cat,” Ivy called.

  Selina just blew the dust off her claws.

  She’d added them to her gloves after she’d returned to the League compound and had the blow to her head cleared by the physician. She’d gone right down to the lab, head still throbbing, insides still utterly numb and quiet, and helped herself to the assortment of blades and metals in the room. Left there for acolytes to tinker with.

  Selina had selected the hardest steel she could find, and began to work.

  Selina gestured to Ivy, reining in the thrill coursing through her. “Head down, limbs in as tight as you can get—”

  But Ivy backed away a step, surprise and fear lighting her face. Selina whirled, hand going to her bullwhip.

  Leaning against the roof doorway behind her, cloaked in shadows…

  Selina smiled beneath her mask.

  Ivy called from across the way, “Keep the painting.” She pointed to the man waiting behind Selina. “Good luck dealing with him…cat-woman.”

  Then Ivy was gone. Running for the door that would lead her down through the building.

  Selina’s Death Mask sized up the male before her.

  Six-three. Jacked. Or at least his bluish-gray metal suit was.

  And glowing across his broad chest, an emblem in the darkness…

  A bat.

  Selina inclined her head in greeting. “I was wondering when you’d show up, Batwing.”

  Luke observed the woman standing before him.

  Head-to-toe black suit, made from some high-tech material. Confident, athletic, skilled.

  And with the helmet on…

  Cat-woman was a good way to describe her. The ears on the dark helmet, the oversized lenses, the claws that she’d just retracted after that spectacular jump…Even her steps toward him oozed feline grace.

  The bullwhip, however, promised pain.

  She was highly trained. He’d realized it from that jump, from what he’d seen when she escaped the museum guards with Poison Ivy. That was a pairing that made him wince. This stranger before him was bold. Fearless. Utterly unruffled by his appearance as he pushed off the wall and they stopped perhaps ten feet from each other.

 
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