Catwoman soulstealer, p.26
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       Catwoman: Soulstealer, p.26
 

           Sarah J. Maas
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  Selina blocked it out. She had suffered worse. Here in the enormous, vaulted space of the female-only east wing, she could watch. And listen.

  Hour after hour.

  Counting down the seconds, rallying her strength, her mind.

  Because the moment Gordon had removed that helmet, baring her face to the world, Nyssa had begun to make her final move.

  Selina slept. And ate. And braced herself.

  It was nearing dawn when that final move came.

  Selina knew within a few heartbeats of the shouting and chaos that exploded in the asylum that Nyssa hadn’t dispatched one or two of her best assassins to finish the job.

  Nyssa had sent a small army of them.

  The attack unfolded with textbook precision, exactly the way Selina had been taught to do it.

  First the outer walls blew up. Or Selina felt they did, the enormous, U-shaped building shuddering, debris raining. Sending the guards running toward the explosions.

  Right into the arms of assassins who executed them. All of them. Every leering, corrupt piece of shit who had rattled the bars on her cell these hours, ogling her, whispering the sorts of things that left no shred of pity in her heart as their screams went silent down the smoke-filled hallways.

  Silent enough that Selina could clearly hear the click that filled the cellblock.

  The doors to the cells swung open. An invitation and a challenge.

  She had no doubt that in the west wing, the doors to the male prisoners’ cells were doing the same.

  Selina let the blanket drop to the floor behind her as she stepped into the hallway, smoke starting to fill the corridor. The escaped prisoners didn’t look twice at her as they bolted in either direction, vanishing into the smoke.

  They didn’t glance at what Selina now approached, the item left hanging from one of the ceiling lights, near a disabled security camera.

  Her suit.

  No helmet. No gloves. No utility belt or bullwhip. Only her boots, set against the wall a few feet away.

  Nyssa wanted her to fight this final battle as herself. No Death Mask. No additional tech.

  Selina plucked the suit from its hanging place as the last of the prisoners in her cellblock vanished.

  Quietly, she pulled off the white jumpsuit and slid into battle-black.

  Her hair—her stupid dyed hair—she left unbound. No hair ties to be found.

  Selina leaned against the wall of the hallway, watching the smoke-filled corridor that led out of the east wing.

  The League arrived within seconds, wraiths in the smoke.

  No individual markings. They were all in identical black, helmets on, their swords the same.

  One unit, one avenging force of death. The League’s brutal fist of justice embodied.

  With the smoke, she couldn’t count how many went past the ten filling the corridor entryway.

  Selina pushed off the stark white wall, arms hanging loosely at her sides.

  “You have betrayed your fellow living dead,” the one at the front of the group said, accent placing the woman from somewhere in Australia. “And as such, we shall put you back in the ground.”

  Selina smiled. “Took you long enough to get here.”

  The assassin before her said, “You stand charged of theft and high treason. Do you deny this?”

  “I do not.”

  The assassin to the leader’s left tensed, as if yanking at the leash. The leader went on, “Return what you stole, what you have come here to sell to these godless fools, and the League will make your death swift.”

  The threat was clear: if she did not…oh, this death would last a long, long time.

  Selina laughed quietly. “And what did I steal, exactly?” Beyond time. She’d stolen that. Too much of it.

  “You will not delay this with foolish questions,” the leader snapped, drawing a blade sheathed down her back, twin to the ones that had been removed from Selina’s own suit. “You know what you stole.”

  Selina lifted a brow. “You can’t mean to tell me that Nyssa doesn’t remember her little formula?”

  Silence.

  Selina snorted. “Perhaps she should have paid attention to those scientists she kidnapped—and not had us execute them when they were done.”

  Selina had snapped one of their necks amid the gunfire of the other assassins.

  A moment after he’d whispered to her, begged her not to. Explained what Nyssa had made him work on in secret for ten years, never seeing sunlight, never seeing his family. Knowing that if he disobeyed, she’d kill them. So he’d worked beneath the compound. Had done her bidding.

  He and the two other scientists had found a way for the compound’s Lazarus Pit to become self-regenerating. A formula to create one from scratch—and for the Pit to be used over and over again. The ability to grant immortality to the highest bidder. To bring back people from the dead.

  The most valuable weapon on earth.

  He had told Selina where the data was stored, his password. Begged her to help him get free. To keep Nyssa from unleashing this thing upon the world. Selling it to the worst of mankind.

  Nyssa had entered the blood-splattered room a moment later, demanding to know why Selina hadn’t finished the job.

  Selina had broken the scientist’s neck before Nyssa finished speaking.

  And now, standing before the assassins who had trained her, tormented her, made her into this thing she’d become…Selina lifted her chin.

  The leader snarled, “Give us the formula. Now.”

  Selina smiled again. “It’s too late.”

  The assassins began to advance, moving as one down the smoky cellblock hallway.

  Selina went on, “Do you know that in the weeks I’ve been here, my crime spree has gleaned some very interested buyers? People willing to do anything not to die.”

  The approaching assassins halted.

  Not at her words, but at the figure emerging from the smoke behind her.

  The person she’d been brokering that formula to. He’d made it up from the sublevel. And right on time.

  The Joker let out a hoarse laugh, his white jumpsuit baggy on his slim form as he stepped up to Selina’s side and drawled, “Thank you for confirming the formula’s existence.” He sketched a mockery of a bow, the smoke obscuring his face, his body, as he said to Selina, “We have a bargain.”

  Then he clicked his tongue.

  Even the League assassins seemed to recoil in surprise as the Joker’s army of vicious criminals exploded from behind them and charged down the hall.

  She had insisted Ivy bring Harley into their circle for this. All of it, every step—for this.

  This moment, this gamble. This alliance with the Joker.

  To have his army, her army now, fight for her when Nyssa’s legion came to claim her head.

  If the League assassins were cold precision, the Joker’s people were scalding chaos. No rules, no lines.

  In the madness, the Joker extended a slim hand to her. “The formula, if you will.”

  His reedy, light voice made her skin crawl.

  Selina inclined her head. “Give me an hour, and meet me at the Statue of Saint Nicholas.” Right before the city proper, if they followed the long road from the outskirts where Arkham lay, he would easily find the marble statue for the patron saint of repentant thieves.

  She turned to go, but the Joker gripped her arm, his long, thin fingers digging in hard enough to hurt. “If you aren’t there”—a breathy laugh—“you can imagine what I’ll do to you and yours.”

  She peered down at the hand holding her, then up into the pale, angular face just barely visible through the smoke. “Don’t ever touch me again,” she said.

  The Joker’s dark eyes swirled with cruelty—and madness. “We’re going to have fun,
you and I,” he promised.

  The words skittered over her, raking talons along her spine. She shook off his arm. “Don’t be late.”

  Down the hall, the shouting on both sides was rising. The assassins had the skill, but the Joker’s men had the numbers on their side. And the wild desperation.

  Just as gunfire started breaking out, the noise deafening in the tiny space, Selina prowled down the empty hall behind them. Turned right and then stepped through the hole blown open in the outer wall of the brick facade, revealing a sunny fall day, the dried-out lawn beyond. The gaping holes in the Gothic-style fences.

  Sirens wailed in the distance. Inmates still poured out, shoving past each other to get through the spiked iron fences, sprinting for the long road that would take them down the hill on which Arkham was perched. And into the city itself.

  She knew some weren’t heading toward Gotham City to escape.

  Some were heading there to have fun.

  Selina opened a panel in the arm of her suit and dialed a number she hadn’t called in years.

  She spoke as she walked out of Arkham, the towering Gothic building looming above her, and then ran down that burnt-out lawn, through the skeletal trees.

  Time.

  She had been living on borrowed time.

  And it was about to run out.

  * * *

  —

  All hell was breaking loose.

  Luke got the alert midway through dissecting what and who Holly had been.

  A lie. It was a lie, all of it.

  But as he beheld the explosions at Arkham, as he beheld the inmates pouring down the bleak road, past the weather-worn Statue of Saint Nicholas, and into the city…He had a second suit at the offices. Changed into it and was out within minutes, soaring between the buildings. A veritable army of cop cars flew down the streets.

  Faster. He had to be faster. Lives depended on it.

  Luke caught a sharp wind, rising high, spearing for where smoke stained the horizon, gunfire already ringing out along the hill on which Arkham squatted, a hulking Gothic beast.

  Chaos. Utter chaos.

  And every criminal in the city would be heading there, to get their people out, to engage in what seemed to be all-out war—

  She’d orchestrated this. Somehow he knew that “Holly” had gone into Arkham so that this melee could happen.

  Weaving between buildings, he spotted Gordon’s car and a small circle of police vans and armored trucks a few blocks from the road that would take them to the foothills—to Arkham. Luke soared for them, pushing his wings to the limit.

  Gordon seemed to sag in relief as he landed. Startled, some of the other cops went for the guns at their hips. The commissioner motioned them to lower their weapons and pointed to the arc of video screens before him, the live feeds off of several city cameras. “Shut that road down now!” he barked into the walkie-talkie in his hand. Someone on the other end asked how to do it. “Barricades!” Gordon roared.

  Luke scanned the screen, the feeds from the road. Too late. Too many of Arkham’s worst had made it into the city. Into the streets. People were fleeing—into shops, into apartment buildings, going anywhere to escape their path.

  “The hospital,” Luke breathed, pointing to the building just a few blocks into the Coventry district, right in the path of the road. “Get them to the hospital—”

  He braced himself to take off, suit humming.

  But Gordon swore.

  And Luke looked at the feed of the security cameras right outside the hospital.

  They stalked around corners. Down the streets. Armed with baseball bats, brass knuckles, lead pipes. Anything they could get their hands on. Their claws on.

  Luke’s heart stopped as the Leopard girl gang prowled for the vulnerable, unguarded doors to the hospital.

  “I need backup at GC Medical Hospital immediately!” Gordon roared into the walkie-talkie.

  Luke stopped him with a hand on the shoulder.

  Because the Leopards…

  That was Mika Ikedo. Alpha of the Leopard Pack.

  Taking up a defensive, guarding position at the hospital doors.

  Flanked by Ani Hernandez, her Second.

  Tiffany McBride, her Third.

  And at every door, in front of every low-hanging window…Leopards stood watch.

  Leopards held the line.

  “These people are unbelievable,” Gordon hissed. “They’re guarding the drugs at the hospital for Falcone’s men.” He reached for his walkie-talkie again.

  “No, they’re not,” Luke said softly as those girls, some as young as fourteen and some as old as twenty-eight, faced ahead, unafraid and unbowed as the chaos of Arkham barreled for them down the streets. “They’re answering a call for aid.”

  Gordon blinked at him, walkie-talkie lowering. “Catwoman.”

  Luke nodded.

  “Why?” Gordon scanned the screen for any sign of her. “Why not go to Arkham to get her?”

  Luke didn’t answer as Gordon began ordering his men into positions across the city.

  A nickname, she’d said of her getup. The cat thing had come from a nickname the other assassins had given her.

  Leopards inked their victories on their skin. If anything had led to a cat-based nickname…

  He’d never seen Holly’s arms. Even in the heat of early fall, she’d worn long sleeves. Every outfit.

  To hide the tattoos.

  The leopard spots inked there.

  “I need your computer,” Luke breathed, not asking for permission as he yanked the nearest laptop to him and had himself in the GCPD database in a few clicks. Had a web browser pulled up beside it.

  A state science fair. She’d won a statewide competition.

  A veritable glass slipper.

  Articles scrolled past. Winners of every science fair, their photos—

  And there she was.

  Not Holly Vanderhees, socialite and heiress.

  Selina Kyle, inner-city kid and gang member.

  Fourteen years old, dark-haired and unsmiling as she held her statewide science fair trophy. More clippings of various gymnastics competitions. Victories. The dates matched, and the face…It was her. Fierce and focused.

  He typed the name into the GCPD database. Selina Kyle. Her record had been scrubbed clean. Luke used a few backdoor hacking codes, and it reappeared.

  Born and raised in the most dangerous, underprivileged part of Gotham City. Druggie mother, absent father. The mother who had beat her. That part of her story had rung true, at least. Currently serving a life term in prison for attempted kidnapping and murder, among other things.

  But Holly—Selina…top of her class. Top percentile of all exams. Smartest kid in her school district. In every district. Skilled gymnast. And known member of the Leopards.

  Theft. Aggravated assault. The charges went on and on.

  Undefeated fighter in Carmine Falcone’s underground ring. Vanished two years ago, at age seventeen, after a third strike to her record.

  The reason behind the final, damning crime…

  Luke’s stomach dropped as he looked back at the hospital, the Leopards who had answered their former member’s desperate plea. To guard not just those who could not defend themselves, but also to protect…

  To protect…

  Luke took Gordon’s laptop with him and launched skyward.

  * * *

  —

  Selina ran for the hospital.

  Past the frantic, rioting inmates, past the cops who weren’t dumb enough to stop her, past the panicking people of the city, Selina ran all the way from Arkham, her breath a sharp blade in her chest.

  Mika and Ani were already there. Waiting at the doors.

  They said nothing as they looked her over—the battle
-suit and blond hair.

  A new scar marred Ani’s face, but they both seemed the same. They seemed the same, while Selina…She was a stranger in this body, these clothes. A stranger to herself.

  Mika inclined her head, stepping aside from the glass doors.

  Her old Alpha had picked up on the second ring. Had not asked any questions when Selina explained. When Selina had begged. Called in a favor as their undefeated fighter, who had never refused an order, who had done everything Mika had ever asked.

  And so Mika had answered. Brought every Leopard she could.

  Selina gave her former Alpha a nod of thanks, and one to Ani, too, before she stalked through the glass doors of the hospital and broke into a flat-out sprint.

  It had been two years since she’d last seen Maggie.

  The young woman on the hospital bed before her was a husk. A shell of what her sister had been.

  Machines hummed and chirped softly, the room dim and quiet. In the two chairs against the wall slept a pair of fortysomething men. Maggie’s adoptive parents.

  Camped here, with their daughter.

  In her final days. Her final hours.

  Maggie’s skin stretched too tight over her delicate bones. Her beautiful curly hair lay limp and thin.

  Selina’s hand drifted to her chest, as if it could contain the cracking she now felt within. The feeling of the floor sliding out from beneath her as she stared and stared at her sister.

  The cystic fibrosis had wrecked her.

  The tubes and machines flanked her bedside, the IVs and monitors standing like sentinels around her unconscious sister. So much technology. None of it could keep her alive.

  Incurable.

  And the two men sleeping at their daughter’s bedside…They had known when they adopted Maggie that she was sick. Would not have long. That it would be expensive and hard and sad.

  They’d welcomed her into their home anyway.

  For two years, they’d fought for her sister. Every day. With every dollar they had.

 
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