Catwoman soulstealer, p.14
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       Catwoman: Soulstealer, p.14

           Sarah J. Maas
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Yes. He hadn’t gotten a call from GCPD that anything was amiss, that anyone was down. “You came to brag about it?”

  “I came to give you a little warning.”

  Luke kept his arms at his sides, in easy reach of his weapons, even though he had the urge to cross them. “About what?” he ground out.

  She was so still. It was an animal’s stillness. Even Bruce, trained and lethal, never stood with that sort of stillness. Like she might blend into a shadow and never emerge.

  “Far bigger players are coming to Gotham.”

  A chill skittered down his spine. “Is that who landed a punch tonight?” As he said it, his suit zoomed in on the damaged helmet, lighting it up. A long, wicked-looking scratch sliced down one side of it, straight through the cracked glass. That had to have been made by one hell of a blade. And a shallow wound sliced across her thigh, the blood caked on too thick to get a glimpse at the skin color beneath.

  She gave a little nod. “More are coming.”

  “At your invitation?”

  A pause. “More are coming,” she repeated. “Worse than any of the criminal factions here. More powerful—and with a deadlier agenda. Keep your eyes open.”

  “Why warn me?” he demanded.

  That stillness settled over her again. “Because this city won’t survive them.”

  “And that’s not what you want?”

  She looked him over. Or he thought she did. “There are good people in Gotham. Protect them.”

  It surprised him enough that Luke couldn’t think of a reply. Didn’t need to.

  Because one of the cop cars still parked at the docks below exploded, the boom and fire and shouting filling the world.

  And then he wasn’t in his body, wasn’t on that footbridge anymore.

  He was in sand and sun and blood; he was on the side of a road. He was cut up, body screaming, but not as loud as his men, his friends—

  He had the dim sense of slamming to the ground. Of being unable to breathe, of his suit going haywire and sending a frantic feed of internal assessments: heart rate too fast, breathing rapid, blood pressure spiking—

  Not here. Not here and now.

  “That asshole,” he heard someone—heard her—hiss. In another world, in another life.

  He had to move, had to get up, had to get air into his lungs—

  “You’re not hurt.” A quiet observation.

  He reached for the overpass railing to pull himself up. Tried and failed, his hands shaking so hard that even his suit couldn’t stabilize them.

  He hadn’t had a reaction like this in months, and the last time, Bruce had been there to help get him away, but now—

  A different matte-black helmet filled his vision. Lifted his head for him.

  It wasn’t a real face. Wasn’t human. As inhuman as the people who’d set that roadside bomb—

  The lenses slid upward into her helmet, revealing a pair of shadowed emerald eyes. Bright. Steady. Human.

  “A car exploded,” she explained calmly. “A device set off by Harley Quinn.”

  He knew that name. In his other life, new life, beyond the desert, he knew that name.

  “It was a message—to me. The car was empty; the cops aren’t hurt.”

  Cops. Harley.

  She scanned his face, the helmet he himself wore. Cunning and calm. “PTSD,” she murmured.

  He refused to acknowledge it. She’d tell the others. This sort of information would be worth a ton of money.

  Grab her. He had to grab her now and bring her in before she sold him out.

  She let go of his face and backed away to the opposite railing, limping slightly. A horn wailed through the night.

  Move. He had to move, had to apprehend her.

  His body refused to obey. Refused to uncurl, refused to stand.

  She climbed onto the railing, graceful despite the injury on her thigh. As if she had been born balancing on a few inches of steel. And while she stood on the rail, flicking her broken lenses back down over her eyes, she said, “It does me no good if you’re dead. Your secret is safe.”

  Before Luke could find a way to get his body to cooperate, to get a full breath into his lungs, she leapt.

  His heart stopped. Until the train swept past, barreling toward the tunnel beyond.

  He spotted her atop it, a lone, dark figure. Looking back, as if to watch him, the light from the burning police car dancing on the silver train.

  As the train neared the tunnel, she smoothly slid onto her back and vanished into the underground.

  A queen returning to her underworld.

  * * *


  Shadow and light flashed and eddied overhead, the train car beneath her a rumbling, thunderous rocket shooting beneath the earth.

  Selina lay on her back, hands tucked behind her head, watching the tunnel pass by.

  She’d meant what she said to Batwing. His secret was safe with her.

  If League assassins were converging on Gotham City, he was perhaps the only other person who might stand a chance against them. Keep them occupied until she’d finished her mission.

  She knew precisely what they were after—why they thought they could come to claim what was hers.

  Nyssa and Talia often set their assassins against each other, gave them the same, competing missions. To keep them on their toes. To see who might survive. This was no different.

  Selina wondered who Shrike had pissed off to warrant being dispatched here. If Talia and Nyssa had bet on who would walk away from their fight. They often did.

  But Batwing’s PTSD was interesting. Terrible for him, but an interesting piece of the puzzle.

  Taking on Gotham City’s underworld would no doubt inflict some serious internal scars, but to have his reaction be so debilitating…

  Whatever he’d witnessed, it must have been…Selina tried not to imagine it. Even if he was her opponent.

  Harley had no clue—Selina was certain—that her little pyrotechnics would trigger that reaction in him.

  No, the explosion had been a giant middle finger to Selina. She’d probably tracked Selina here, seen the cops, and blown up the car as a warning to Selina not to double-cross her and Ivy. A little indication of what Harley was capable of if provoked.

  A loose cannon. But one Selina would manage. Somehow.

  Yet seeing Batwing on the ground like that, shaking…For a moment, she hadn’t been on that footbridge. For a moment, she’d been in a marble-and-gold bathroom, hurling her guts up, a waltz trickling up through the shining floor below. Because what she’d done minutes earlier…

  “It is a simple movement,” Talia had purred in her ear, resting her head on Selina’s shoulder as they peered at the aging, overweight man paralyzed on the plush bed.

  His eyes, however, were wide with terror as he watched the young woman he’d led up here, to his bedroom, while his masquerade party went on below.

  “You know what he likes to do,” Talia said, her ice-cold hand wrapping around Selina’s wrist. The dagger held there. “Make him pay for it.”

  Selina had given him a choice. At least, in her head she had. A secret, silent choice: to be a better man than his file suggested and not invite her up here. To avoid this moment, to let her find some way to get out of it, to spare his life and convince Talia that it was too risky to kill him. She’d piled up a list of plausible excuses, had been prepared to sneak into a bathroom and trigger the sprinklers, but then he’d invited her here.

  And when he’d shut the bedroom door, when she’d pretended to study the art on the walls and had used the mounted antique mirror to watch him dump the contents of a tiny vial into the glass of champagne before he handed it to her, he’d chosen his fate.

  A kiss—a kiss that had nearly made her gag—had transferred her own drug to the man’
s lips. Into his system when he’d licked his mouth afterward. By the time it had entered his bloodstream, he’d been on the bed, unable to move.

  Talia had slipped in a moment later, her ivory mask concealing her face. Selina’s own half-mask remained in place, black as night.

  A level below, Venice’s wealthiest glittered and danced, the Carnevale revelry soaring toward its peak. This masquerade ball was an annual tradition. Hosted here, by this man.

  She’d read his file on the drive down here from the mountains and as she dressed tonight, preparing her body the way Talia had shown her, adopting the speech and mannerisms. Gone was the clawing backstreet girl. Gone was the sullen, stone-faced fighter.

  Talia moved Selina’s wrist upward, holding the blade for them both. Dim light danced on the steel. No guns—not for this first mission.

  This rite.

  The first kill must always be a blade. Nyssa had told her before she left. So she could feel it when she ended someone’s life. Guns were too impersonal, too distant. With a knife…she had to mean it. Had to be close.

  “You have practiced,” Talia whispered in her ear, pantomiming the movement with Selina. “Now show me what you learned.”

  The man’s private guards would not interfere. They had been trained to ignore any shouts of pain from this room. To stay away.

  She knew Talia had picked this target specifically for that. For the victims who Selina had seen, one photo after another. A corrupted lesion on society, Talia had said. One that had to be excised to cleanse the ruling order. Men who were shielded by their power, their money.

  Talia let go of Selina’s hand.

  The blade remained upright.

  And Selina reminded herself of those victims. Of their faces, their corpses. He likely wouldn’t have killed her, not when she oozed money and class tonight, but he’d have given her that drugged champagne, taken what he wanted, and predicted that she would be too ashamed and afraid to speak out about it. The others…they hadn’t been given the armor of privilege. Lost, forgotten souls that no one would miss or fight for.

  A cold, rippling sort of rage settled her. Spread through her, crackling like hoarfrost.

  The system is broken, Talia had said. We are its cure.

  The dagger did not tremble as Selina brought it slicing home.

  She made it out of the room, down the hall, slipping past the unaware guards, Talia on her heels. She made it to another hallway, near the back exit of the palatial home, and then stumbled into the nearest bathroom.

  The small window was open to the night air, the canal a glittering thread, the revelry across the city blending with the music playing below.

  Blending with the sounds of her retching as she fell to her knees and hurled up the contents of her stomach.

  Talia strode in behind her, silently shutting the door. Watching as Selina vomited again and again into the toilet.

  Talia handed her a pile of paper napkins. “Wipe away any trace and flush. There’s bleach in the cabinet below the sink.”

  Hollow and numb, Selina obeyed.

  She didn’t speak to Talia as she cleaned. As she wiped away any trace of herself.

  As the last of who she’d been swirled down that toilet and out into the Laguna Veneta.

  Selina blinked, the train beneath her slowing as it headed into a station.

  Time to go.

  She felt distant, far from her body once more, as she slid off the car and to the murky tunnel floor below, her aching thigh protesting.

  She wondered if Batwing would sleep as poorly as her tonight.

  Standing atop the shadowed roof of the twelve-story Hotel Devon two nights later, her Death Mask repaired and the shallow wound to her thigh healed enough that walking was no longer painful, Selina surveyed Ivy and Harley from head to toe.

  They grinned back at her.

  Pacing a few steps, Selina said quietly, “Where are all the weapons?”

  They said nothing, their grins faltering.

  “Where,” Selina repeated, “are the weapons I told you to bring?”

  They glared at her. Selina glared right back. Even if they couldn’t see it through the helmet.

  Nyssa and Talia would have a collective heart attack if any of the League assassins came so unprepared to a job. And then peel the skin from their bones.

  Selina had seen the punishments doled out for disobedience. Done not by Talia, who never dirtied her immaculate hands, or even Nyssa, who relished such things, but by the League assassins themselves. So they realized what, exactly, would be done to them if they similarly failed. Precisely the sort of lesson the sisters loved to give.

  Leaning against the metal door that led to the hotel below where the Save the Gotham City Landmarks Gala was well under way, Harley patted the holster at her waist, the twin colorful orbs hanging there. Strapped across her chest, intersecting her baseball tee that read Gotham City Sluggers, a bandolier of smaller ones, no larger than Christmas ornaments, hung as well. She cocked her head, pigtails bobbing with the movement, almost in time with the band playing ten levels below. “Isn’t this enough?”

  Selina pointed with the coiled-up bullwhip clenched in her hand—clenched hard, to keep from throttling them. “I told you to bring weapons. Not toys.”

  Harley took a step forward, her bright-red-and-black boy shorts catching the dim light over the roof door. Her fishnets did nothing to hide the tattoos inked on her thighs, flowing right into her calf-high combat boots. Animals, ranging from a roaring lion to a monarch butterfly, covered her skin. She thumbed free one of those orbs. “Just wait and see what fun these toys will bring to the boys and girls down there,” she said, a wicked smile on her mouth.

  They were bombs strapped on her. Small, and likely not enough to bring down any major structure, but disruptive enough to cause some chaos.

  To make a statement.

  Selina smirked, irritation fading away. “I stand corrected.” She turned to Ivy. A utility belt hung at the waist of her emerald bodysuit, those vines again covering her hands. A larger vine of blooming orchids snaked across her middle, as if it were the sash on a beauty queen.

  Selina lifted a brow beneath her mask. “No magic flowers tonight?”

  Ivy ran a hand over the vine down her chest. “I thought I’d display them this time.”

  Clever. A bandolier of the weapons, the botanical twin to Harley’s own ammo.

  Selina hummed. “You got anything else to fight with?”

  Ivy’s answering grin was the definition of wicked. “Maybe.”

  “I don’t operate on maybe.”

  Ivy muttered to Harley, “I feel like I’m being scolded by the principal.”

  Harley snickered. Selina gritted her teeth, even if they couldn’t see it.

  “Wouldn’t this whole plan be easier if I just gassed them?” Ivy asked, patting the vine across her torso.

  “No.” Selina surveyed the pouch at Ivy’s hip. That seemed to move. “We want them to know who’s doing this.”

  “Who is ‘them’?” Harley demanded.

  “Everyone.” Selina stalked up to Ivy’s side. “What’s that?”

  Ivy winked at her. “A little experiment.”

  Harley grinned. “Killer vines.”

  Selina lifted a brow. “For real?”

  Ivy flipped open the pouch, revealing a swirling mass of green inside. Twining about itself like a snake. “Plants can remember—feel things.”

  Ivy would know better than anyone, Selina supposed. Indeed, a touch of sadness seemed to soften Harley’s eyes. As if she realized it, too.

  It faded as Ivy dipped her hand into the pouch and a tendril of green hemp-like vine wrapped around her forearm. Almost lovingly.

  Holy crap.

  “I raised this one from seedling to what it is now,”
Ivy said, stroking a hand down the vine that curled up her forearm like some living bangle. “It works like that whip of yours.” A nod toward the bullwhip still gripped in Selina’s hand. “Except it likes to squeeze. Tightly.”

  Harley stroked a finger down the vine, tracing its curls. Selina could have sworn both plant and Ivy shuddered—in pleasure.

  What Nyssa and Talia would give for a weapon like that.

  “Right,” Selina said, surveying the roof door. “You remember the plan?”

  “Yes, Mom,” Harley quipped.

  Selina ignored her. “Bags ready?”

  Harley and Ivy held up matching duffels.

  “All set?”

  The flowers on Ivy’s bandolier seemed to shimmer in confirmation. But Harley reached into her duffel and pulled out two ribbons, one red, one black. With deft fingers she tied one to each braid.

  “You matched the ribbons to the underwear?” Selina blurted.

  “You’ve got the cat costume,” Harley drawled, adjusting the bows. “I’ve got my colors.”

  Ivy chuckled. “Micromanage much, kitty?”

  Selina chose to ignore that, too, and slung the whip over a shoulder. “Go for the watches over wallets. Jewels over purses.” Selina opened the roof door, rotating her wrist to limber it up.

  Harley’s smile was a crooked slash of white beneath her red lipstick. “Talks like a lady, acts like a thug.”

  She didn’t know the half of it.

  * * *


  Luke was about to fall asleep midconversation. The Landmarks Gala was the worst so far, the music and people and floral arrangements bleeding into all the other parties he’d been dragged to these past few weeks. He’d already searched the faces of every woman here for any hint of an injury, but nothing. No jewelry reported missing, no woman in a battle-suit.

  He’d danced with all the young women who’d approached him, including his neighbor Holly, who’d been just as vapid as he remembered. Full of idle snobbery. But denying her a dance for a second time—not an option. She lived across the hall from him. He didn’t want to spend years of peeking into the hallway to make sure she wasn’t there before leaving. Not worth it.

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