Catwoman soulstealer, p.13
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       Catwoman: Soulstealer, p.13

           Sarah J. Maas
 
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  But a wraith.

  A ghūl.

  Sent from the dark heart of the League of Assassins to kill her.

  Shrike.

  Selina had not seen the assassin in months. Nyssa and Talia had dispatched Shrike to Tokyo for an assignment, and Selina had deemed it a small mercy.

  As the small-boned, beautiful woman prowled out of the shadows, clad in black and her own Death Mask, Selina remembered why.

  She wasn’t holding guns—no, that wasn’t Shrike’s preferred way to kill. Shrike enjoyed causing pain. Savored it. A sadist with a dagger in each hand.

  That was how one of Nyssa’s most notorious assassins liked to end her targets. Slow, deep cutting. Carving you up.

  Selina had been granted the pleasure of being Shrike’s target practice more than once. Of being cornered in a shadowed hallway of the compound and feeling that knife in the assassin’s right hand press into her throat as Shrike had purred in her ear, Where are your claws now, kitten?

  Shrike paused about twenty feet away. Selina flicked her wrists, claws sliding free, trying and failing to master her thundering heart. Knowing Shrike could detect every frantic beat.

  Shrike’s battle-suit had been modified to fit an assortment of daggers. Her Death Mask helmet was painted with strokes of bone white, which looked like nothing up close, but from where Selina stood…they formed the face of a skull.

  Selina calmed her breathing. Took in every bit of the alley: the brick walls, the dumpster to her right, the trash piles, the doors and lights.

  She waited for some explanation for why Shrike was here.

  Why those knives were out.

  Shrike offered nothing.

  Absolutely nothing as she hurled one of her daggers right at Selina.

  Selina ducked, rolling to the side, already avoiding Shrike’s countermove: the second knife that the assassin sent her way, anticipating Selina’s dive to the right. But Shrike didn’t foresee the dumpster that Selina slid behind. The dagger clanked against its side, burying itself deep.

  Selina had three heartbeats to unsheathe the twin short swords artfully hidden in the back of her suit. Standard for all League suits. The bullwhip would do nothing against someone with Shrike’s training—not unless Selina wanted it chopped into pieces.

  Sucking in a breath, Selina whirled from behind the dumpster just in time to catch the glint of a third dagger. A swing of one of her blades had the dagger skittering to the side, the reverberations biting through her skin, even with her gloves.

  Then Shrike was there, two longer daggers in hand. Slashing low and high.

  Selina parried one, met the other.

  A twist of Shrike’s foot and it was hooked behind Selina’s knee. Selina spun out of the way, using the momentum of her fall to avoid being gutted by Shrike’s left dagger.

  Not fast enough.

  Metal screamed, and Selina yanked her head back, narrowly missing Shrike’s blade as it instead carved a line down her helmet. Glass splintered in her left lens. Another strike and it’d go right through.

  Selina swept with her blade for Shrike’s back, but the assassin turned with her, fast as an asp.

  Calm. Fear will get you killed. Calm your breathing, your heart.

  Nyssa’s lessons whispered through her mind. But there was no way to catch her breath as Shrike unleashed herself upon Selina, landing blow after blow onto her swords.

  Forced to retreat, Selina knew she was being herded to wherever Shrike wanted her, had assessed for herself what would be the prime place to end her.

  Her helmet’s left lens was cracked enough that the vision in that eye was worthless. She might as well be fighting with the eye closed.

  Shrike used that weakness to her advantage. Kept her blows coming from the left, in Selina’s blind spot, then switching to the right, knowing her concentration lingered on the opposite side.

  They danced through the alley, steel striking. The longer it went on, the less likely her chance of walking out of this. And Selina had come home, she’d come to this city to do something, and if she failed—

  Shrike got past her guard.

  A shallow swipe of a dagger to her thigh had Selina going down.

  She swallowed her scream, knowing it would draw the wrong attention. But as she hit the filthy asphalt, warm blood leaking through where even the suit’s protective material hadn’t held up to those daggers, Shrike began her death blow.

  One dagger, poised to slam right through that broken eye piece and into Selina’s skull beneath.

  A crack boomed through the alley.

  It was near deafening with her audio receptors turned high. Louder than thunder.

  One moment, Shrike was lunging for her face.

  The next moment, Shrike was on the ground.

  That skull helmet shattered. Blood splattered on the shards.

  A large ax lay on the ground nearby. A perfect throw.

  And as pieces of the helmet fell away, revealing the pale-skinned, dark-haired Russian woman beneath…Shrike’s face was the portrait of surprise.

  Selina wiped the blood off the lenses of her helmet as she looked up to the building flanking the alley.

  A ghostly white, platinum-blond woman peered down at her, leaning against another enormous ax, a braid sliding over the shoulder of her two-tone motorcycle jacket.

  Ivy appeared at her side and cringed at the carnage.

  “Catfight?” was all Harley Quinn said as she grinned at Selina.

  * * *

  —

  In this hellhole part of town, the loud thunk of Harley’s ax against metal wouldn’t trigger any calls to the cops—or anyone snooping around. Which was partially why Selina had picked this place to meet, but now, with Shrike’s cooling corpse leaking blood into the pavement, they needed a change of plans.

  Through the one good lens of her helmet, Selina monitored Ivy and Harley’s approach. The former was in her usual green bodysuit, the top buttons of her collar open to reveal green whorls and swirls of some tattoo beneath.

  Harley strode up with hair in twin braids down to her chest, one side’s tip dyed blue-black, the other cherry-red. Matching her motorcycle jacket. The ax was strapped across her back, shifting with each step, its clacking against the bandolier of knives across her chest barely audible over the thud of Harley’s black combat boots. A throwing knife was strapped to her muscled thigh, over worn black jeans, and a third was definitely holstered beneath her jacket, judging by the way the fabric bunched.

  “Friend of yours?” Harley asked with a raised brow as she and Ivy halted a few feet away. She studied Shrike, the face forever etched in shock.

  No. Never.

  “Good throw” was all Selina said, grateful for the voice-modifier of the mask. The way it hid the slight tremor as she saw, over and over, Shrike’s head crack apart like a melon.

  Selina pushed the image down, shoved it into a box.

  Harley didn’t pick up the discarded ax lying nearby. Instead, she sized her up, and Selina pretended to do the same. She’d learned enough about Harley to know who she was dealing with. That her aim just now hadn’t been accidental, and she’d likely walk out of this alley utterly unfazed by Shrike’s demise.

  “My girl Ivy said you requested my services?” Though Harley’s voice was sweet, almost childlike, the gleam in her sapphire eyes…anything but.

  Another one of the girls who this city had made grow up too fast, too hard. Only Harley hadn’t found the Leopards. No, she’d found the Joker and his merry band of psychopaths.

  Selina leaned against the wall, ignoring the blood on it, and crossed her arms. “I heard you were a free agent now. We need a third to fill out our little group.”

  Harley glanced between Ivy and Selina, the former still grimacing at Shrike’s body. “To do what?”<
br />
  Selina ticked the items off on a gloved hand. “Robbery, mayhem, notoriety…What else could a girl want?”

  Harley tossed the black-tipped braid over her shoulder. “Ivy said you could get the Joker out of Arkham.”

  The thought of that man being loose made her want to puke, but Selina shrugged. “What about it?”

  Harley took two stalking steps closer, Ivy on her heels, wide eyes darting between them. Fear for Harley’s safety or fear of this little cadre falling apart? “How are you going to get him out?” Harley’s makeup was too light for her skin tone, her eyeliner too heavy. It made her look ill—macabre.

  Selina pushed off the wall. She’d dealt with enough questioning these past few years. Her entire life. She certainly wasn’t going to let Harley Quinn start doing it. “Are you in, or out?”

  “How are you going to get him out?”

  As she stepped over Shrike’s body, Selina was grateful for the helmet covering her face. “When the time is right, Quinn, I’ll tell you.”

  A hiss. “You think I’m just going to say okay based on that?”

  Ivy cut in. “I’ve seen her in action, Harley. If she says she can, she can.” She again glanced to Shrike.

  A slight tremor shook Ivy’s hands as she brushed her red hair back.

  She’d stood there beside Harley just now. Watched Harley hurl that ax with deadly accuracy.

  Ivy asked, her voice thick, “Who was she?”

  Selina glanced over a shoulder at Shrike and cringed at the pool of blood that was slowly spreading. “I don’t know,” she half lied. She knew who Shrike was, but the things that mattered, the vital things…Selina didn’t know them. Only Talia and Nyssa did.

  They locked up the secrets and truths about their cabal of assassins as if they were jewels. More valuable than jewels.

  Selina faced them once more, bracing her hands on her hips, and asked Harley with as much cool bravado as she could muster, “Don’t you want your own mountain of cash to sit on when your sweet ex-boyfriend gets out? To know you don’t have to answer to him—to anyone?”

  Harley’s eyes flashed. “You got something to say about my ex?”

  Selina rolled her eyes beneath her helmet. “It never hurts to have financial independence. Surely you got into this lifestyle because you wanted something similar.”

  “I got into this lifestyle, kitty, because it was freedom from everything.”

  “Is that what they’re calling anarchy these days?”

  Ivy casually stepped between them. “It’ll be fun, Harley,” she said with a charming grin. “I need the cash, even if you don’t. Think of all the rain forests I could save.”

  Some edge in Harley’s eyes soothed at Ivy’s teasing words. An answering smile tugged on Harley’s mouth, but she turned to Selina. “You drag me along, you back out of your promises, and I’ll make what I did to her”—a nod toward Shrike’s body—“seem like heaven compared to the hell I unleash on you.”

  Yeah, yeah, yeah. Selina snorted. “Fine.” She turned, walking toward the alley exit.

  “That’s it?” Harley demanded. “You haul us here for that?”

  “Yes,” Selina said without looking back. “I’ll provide our targets and meeting spots the morning of.” She waved a hand over her shoulder. “Come dressed to impress.”

  Harley let out a low growl. “Who does she think she is, coming to my town—”

  “You are exactly where I was a few nights ago,” Ivy said with a low laugh as Selina continued out of the alley. “Trust me: the feeling passes.”

  “You said that the last time we got dollar tacos.”

  Selina bit down on her laugh as she kept walking away, though Ivy didn’t. “I’ll never live that down, will I?”

  “Never. Not even when we’re little old ladies knitting on a porch.”

  By the time Selina reached the alley exit, their voices had dropped to murmuring. Gentle, sweet words passing between them.

  Loving words.

  Tiny, pale flowers bloomed in Ivy’s hair like fallen stars.

  Tucking that tidbit aside, Selina vanished into the shadows.

  * * *

  —

  There was no sign of her. Two hours out here, and there was no sign of her.

  Luke couldn’t tell if that was a good or bad thing. He racked his brain for any sort of alternative for where she might be, but with a city this big…she could be anywhere.

  His night had been nice enough before now. He’d gone to dinner with Elise and Mark, who bickered with each other the entire time, when they weren’t asking him about his work at Wayne Industries. He’d even managed to get to his boxing gym for a few hours before that, to spar with an up-and-coming middleweight who needed some seasoning.

  He loved the gym, especially its outreach to at-risk teens in this city. His mom oversaw the charity that funded it, and she sometimes even jumped into the ring herself for a few practice sessions.

  He often wondered if the joy in her eyes when she did it was the same in his own. Whether she might have held her own in the ring if she’d been given the right training when she was young. His temper, his focus, that driving thrum in his blood that pushed and pushed him…all of that came from her.

  There were other vets at the training hall. One was an Army captain who attended his group therapy session. Luke never mentioned therapy at training, and she never really talked to him beyond a quick hello and a nod, but it was nice to see familiar faces from the other parts of his life. Beyond the prep schools and galas. The military had been full of people from all backgrounds and walks of life. He was still getting reacclimated to how little variety existed in the upper echelons of Gotham City.

  Overseas, they’d been too busy fulfilling commands and working their asses off to protect this country to bother with caring about where someone came from. What had mattered was whether the person next to you had your back when it counted. He’d only met a few people in this city of whom he could say the same.

  He and his mom had been talking for months now about doing an outreach program for vets at the gym. She was already taking meetings with therapists, vets, and boxing pros about how to make it work. And taking meetings with investors and government officials for how to get funding. Of course, his family could fund it indefinitely, but his mom savored this: wrangling companies that made ungodly profits to do something in turn for the community. Getting people involved and caring.

  Standing atop a three-story building at the edge of the dark, glittering band of the Gotham River, dawn still hours away, Luke rotated his shoulders, keeping loose, limber. He was about to turn away from the water, the glowing city around him, when motion caught his eye.

  Not who he was looking for, but…Luke smiled.

  * * *

  —

  “Dumping a body in the river. Real original.”

  The three men whirled as Luke sauntered up behind them, the body landing with a splash off the rotting docks.

  His suit had a video camera, and he made sure it was recording, marking their faces, the van that they had just driven up, even the body now bobbing in the river.

  “Should have weighed that package down,” Luke supplied, stalking closer.

  Two of the men pulled guns and fired.

  The sound ripped at him, trying to haul him back into his memories, but Luke focused on his breathing, the shift of his body as he rolled to the side, the docks groaning beneath him.

  Clumsy, panicked shots. They fired and fired, and Luke’s suit whirred and then pulsed. A wave of ear-ringing sound rippled out.

  The sonic pulse stopped the bullets dead. The men fired again, though their bullets fell to the wood, pinging and thudding against the force of the sonic waves. They emptied their clips within seconds.

  Then silence.

  The thir
d man—the one who hadn’t fired—leapt into the river. Trying to swim away.

  Luke smirked as he got to his feet. Surveyed the two men now clicking away on the triggers of their Glocks. The bat-symbol on his suit flared, primed and ready to unleash more surprises.

  “This really isn’t going to be your night” was all Luke told them.

  * * *

  —

  Twenty minutes later, Luke lurked at the edge of the pedestrian overpass, watching as Gordon and his men hauled away the three low-level cronies, including the soaked one.

  He’d had them tied up in five minutes.

  Less than five minutes. He’d waited longer than that for GCPD to arrive, making sure the murderers didn’t escape their bonds.

  As soon as Gordon shoved the last of them into the police van, slamming shut the door, Luke loosed a long sigh and turned.

  And found the so-called Catwoman leaning against the opposite railing of the bridge.

  Her figure cut a dark shadow against the railroad tracks illuminated below.

  His helmet’s night vision told a different story. A cracked lens now marred the left side of her helmet. And blood. Even with her suit’s stealth keeping him from any further readouts, there was no mistaking the organic material splattered over her helmet, her chest and shoulders.

  Yet she appeared steady. Unfazed.

  “Are you responsible for the body they were dumping?” His words were low—rough. He sized up the weapons on her: two blades sheathed down her back, built right into her suit. That bullwhip at her left hip. Nothing else.

  She let out a quiet laugh. “No. Whose men are those?”

  None of her business. “Why are you here?”

  “I thought you might be bored, so I came to say hello.”

  Luke couldn’t help but make the analogy: a cat playing with its dinner.

  “Why is there blood on your suit?”

  “Want a DNA sample?”

 
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