Catwoman soulstealer, p.28
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       Catwoman: Soulstealer, p.28
 

           Sarah J. Maas
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  Now 130…140…150.

  The quieter roads opened up, flat and steady. Selina pulled around cars in her way, dodging oncoming traffic, using the shoulder as a lane where she needed to.

  Red lights, stop signs…She blew through them.

  At last, the ruined, grassy plain opened up, the solitary road winding through it. Ten miles ahead lay the factory.

  Time slowed and sped, warping and bending during those miles. Until she was pulling right up to the concrete barrier. Fifty feet of cracked asphalt pathway lay between the barrier and front door to the factory.

  She didn’t have the strength to swear, to beat the steering wheel into a pulp. Could hardly turn her head to look at Maggie.

  Her sister’s chest rose—slightly. As if she fought for every breath.

  Not yet. Not now.

  Selina could barely make it out of the car and walk the two steps to the back door.

  Maggie was utterly limp on the seat.

  A hundred steps. A hundred steps from salvation.

  Selina rallied herself, trying to shove down the agony in her shoulder.

  But the lightness in her head, the blurry vision…

  She knew about the dangers of blood loss. Knew that the amount she’d spilled on the ride over here…

  She was on borrowed time now, too.

  And the Lazarus Pit she’d made only had enough in it for one use. One person.

  It didn’t frighten her. Not as much as Maggie’s labored breathing. Nothing had ever scared her as much as that. Nothing ever would.

  Fifty feet. A hundred steps.

  Selina braced herself. Allowed herself three steadying breaths, the movement sending pain rippling from her shoulder, all the way down her body.

  A hundred steps.

  She reached for Maggie. Bit down on her scream as she hauled her sister’s weight up and over her good shoulder.

  One step. Another. Another.

  Down that cracked path, the sky open, stars watching above them.

  Any minute now, Nyssa’s assassins would arrive. They’d probably stitched a tracking unit into the suit before handing it over at Arkham. She hadn’t dared waste a moment to find something to change into.

  Ninety steps.

  Selina’s blood dripped onto the brown dirt beneath her.

  Eighty.

  Maggie was still—so still.

  Every impact and footfall sent sparks bursting behind Selina’s eyes.

  Seventy. Sixty. Fifty.

  Everything she had stolen, all of it, had been for this.

  It is now about making Maggie as comfortable as possible.

  She refused to accept that. Forty steps.

  Selina picked up the pace. If she could make it there and turn on the machine…she could finish before the League arrived. Give Maggie the Mercedes keys and tell her to run.

  Thirty steps left. Twenty.

  The derelict factory loomed, its entry point leading down a long, narrow corridor that ended in another door—which opened to the factory floor beyond. To the space she’d converted into the Pit, the hollowed-out floor now filled with the chemicals and water she’d hauled in on those off-nights. The equipment she’d set up using machines she’d bought, forklifts and clever contraptions. No workers. She wouldn’t risk their speaking about it.

  Ten steps.

  She slowed, her body starting to shake, strength seeping out of her like the blood now streaming from her shoulder.

  Five.

  She lifted her hand for the twisted metal handle of the heavy door.

  Maggie’s breath in her ear…Had it stopped?

  Her own breathing halted in response.

  The brink of death. Just at its doorway.

  The Pit could draw her back from that threshold. It would bring her back. Even if—

  Maggie’s chest rose and fell. Slow and shallow.

  Relief shuddered through Selina, threatening to buckle her knees.

  Her trembling fingers closed around the handle. Right as the door opened—from within.

  She found herself staring up at Batwing.

  Staring up at Luke Fox, helmeted and the bat-symbol blazing on his chest, blocking her path into the factory.

  * * *

  —

  He’d been too late to the hospital to catch her.

  To do what, he didn’t know. But she’d grabbed her younger sister, Maggie Kyle, and vanished. Maggie’s adoptive parents were frantic. The girl wouldn’t survive an hour without the various machines she’d been hooked up to.

  The couple didn’t know who had taken their daughter. They’d been asleep.

  Luke opened Gordon’s laptop and began hunting.

  Hospital security footage showed Selina leaving the building, Maggie over a shoulder, ten minutes earlier. Then street camera footage of Selina in a Mercedes, speeding through a red light. But going where—

  He’d found it, then. The deed of ownership. Of this factory, purchased by Selina Kyle over a month ago. Cash offer, but because of the factory’s chemical history, the owner had to be listed should any environmental issues arise.

  He’d soared here. Beat her here by twenty minutes.

  Long enough to see the Lazarus Pit inside. He and Bruce had looked into them once, as a potential project for Wayne Industries’ medical division. They’d both deemed them little more than myth, and likely impossible to ever create. Yet here one lay, exactly as the legends and rumors described.

  She’d used a large, round vat the size of a swimming pool—once used for mixing some compound here. On a raised concrete platform above it, various machines had been gathered, cords draped and snaking along them.

  And along the edge of the pool, dangling from pulleys anchored into the high, domed metal ceiling, a metal grate—a bed—swayed slightly. To be lowered into the dark, faintly iridescent liquid within. Liquid so dark that even the light leaking in through the grimy windows set high above didn’t pierce it.

  The Pit could change everything. Especially for wounded soldiers, both overseas and at home.

  The implications for the larger world were enormous. It was why he and Bruce had even considered investigating whether they could be made.

  But in the wrong hands…

  Luke had heard a car pull in and finished inspecting the machinery.

  And when he hauled open the door, every word eddied out of his head. Every demanding question, every curse.

  Her face was white as death. Blood covered her suit. A stab wound in her back, piercing through the shoulder. Still bleeding out.

  Yet she still held her sister over a shoulder. Fingers white-knuckled as they clenched her.

  She’d been stabbed, and yet Selina had carried her sister here.

  Tears began sliding down her face. Her mouth trembled.

  And the look in her eyes as those tears brimmed and slipped free—exhausted. Despairing.

  She thought he was going to stop her from saving her sister.

  Terminally ill. Incurable.

  She’d built the Pit to save her sister. Had discovered and taken the chemicals to make it and the money to buy everything she required, including the chaos in Gotham City. She’d rallied the allies she needed to fight the army of League assassins who would come for it—what she’d stolen. What she’d pretended to broker to gain those allies: the formula for the Lazarus Pit.

  “Please,” Selina whispered.

  One word. Just one, as those tears rolled down her face, through the dirt and blood.

  Please.

  Luke’s chest cracked.

  In the distance, a plume of dirt flowed down the road. And before it, barreling toward them…a black SUV.

  * * *

  —

  Selina saw that car. The du
st and the speed.

  She was out of time.

  “Who—” Luke asked, hand going to some weapon at his suit’s side.

  “League assassins. At least two.” Her words were a broken rasp. “Nyssa’s best.”

  He turned toward her and removed his helmet. Showed her the face beneath. The one she knew so well—the one she’d known was beneath that night on the balcony, when his PTSD had seized him.

  “They’ll kill you,” Luke said.

  Selina let out a low laugh. “I’m already dead.”

  And as if the words were a promise, her knees gave out. She felt Maggie’s fragile form tumbling from her, tried to stop it—

  Luke was there in an instant. Grabbing Maggie from her in one swift motion, before her little sister could hit the ground.

  Selina’s knees slammed into the dirt, the world spinning, pain clawing at her.

  Luke straightened with Maggie limp in his arms, her curls a tumble over the metal plates of his suit. On her knees before him, Selina watched Maggie’s chest rise—just a bit. Heard that car nearing.

  For a heartbeat, Luke held her stare. Scanned her face.

  And then he pivoted, Maggie in his arms, and headed into the factory. To the Pit.

  She managed to claw her way upright. To stand again. Managed to put one foot in front of the other and follow Luke into the factory. Down the narrow hall. Through the heavy door that led onto the factory floor.

  Getting every bit of equipment into place had been hell. But the factory had enough working parts that she’d been able to modify what was there. The raising and lowering platform, once used to dip objects into whatever chemicals had filled the enormous vat in the center of the room, was one of them.

  Selina braced a hand on the doorway as Luke gently laid Maggie upon the grated bench of the platform, right where it hovered at the edge of the pool.

  He turned toward her, the machines along the pool edge shiny and new. Built by Selina herself. “Tell me—”

  Gravel crunched outside. A car engine rumbled and shut off.

  They were here.

  Luke was at Selina’s side instantly, assessing the outer door down the hall. The car they could just barely glimpse through the tiny window in the metal slab.

  Not now.

  Luke whirled to her. Scanned her face, his brown eyes bright.

  He kissed her.

  Just once, swift and fast. A promise—and a farewell, she realized as he said, “I’ll buy you whatever time I can.”

  Before she could say anything, he was gone. Shutting the factory door between them, throwing the heavy outer lock over it. Barricading her inside.

  Luke chose his battlefield carefully.

  Donning his helmet again, he felt it whir to life, giving him a read of every advantage and pitfall in the narrow hallway. Not many of the former. Too many of the latter.

  Right as three League assassins strode in through that outer door, sunlight leaking in with them. A ray of brightness, blinding him, before dark settled in again.

  Luke marked their faces, his gut churning. Two women and one man.

  Nyssa al Ghūl hadn’t just sent some of her best. She’d sent her three top ghūls to execute Selina and get the Pit formula back.

  Cheshire. Onyx. Rictus.

  Cheshire—for that wild, wide grin that never faltered, even when the dark-haired assassin made her gruesome kills. And left similar smiles carved into her victims.

  Onyx and Rictus, the two notorious killers identified by the intricate matching tattoos banded around their necks. And by the way the man and woman stood with utter stillness as they stared calmly at Luke. Living ghosts—that’s what Onyx and Rictus were. Their list of victims too long for even Luke’s brain to memorize.

  He didn’t have to fight for long. Just long enough.

  Luke braced his feet apart, angling his head at the three assassins, all wearing Selina’s black battle-suit. None bothering with helmets. They wanted Selina to see their faces when they executed her. Wanted her to know who it was that ended her.

  From Cheshire’s wide grin, Luke knew precisely what she’d do to Selina’s body afterward. His own. Maybe even Maggie’s.

  The thought was enough to focus him. Steady him.

  Three against one. He’d faced worse odds, but his opponents had not been lethal killers. His opponents had not been built to take lives.

  Luke calmed his breathing. Readied himself as the assassins noticed the trail of blood down the hallway, leading to the door behind him, the door he’d go down swinging to defend. They exchanged knowing glances and gave him cold, clever smiles.

  When the first attack came, he was ready.

  * * *

  —

  Every breath was an effort.

  Every movement of her hands on the three various machines, each step between them, required the entirety of her focus.

  Selina recited the process, telling herself what to do as she worked.

  Activate the ley lines first. She moved to the machine on the far left, flicking on three switches. One to charge the machine. One to draw up the energy from the lines. One to direct it to the pool.

  She staggered toward the second machine. Green button starts the chemicals mixing. Red stops it.

  Maggie lay so still on that grated platform. So still as the liquid just beyond her began to eddy and churn, deepest green and darkest black swirling and blending, faint flickers of light darting among it like minnows.

  Selina stumbled for the third and final machine, the toggle stick. Swing the platform outward. Lower it into the pool. Activate full charge of ley lines. Chemicals will drain as they are absorbed.

  Selina’s fingers could barely clench the maneuvering stick as she pushed it to the left. Machines groaned, metal clanking. But the grated platform, Maggie unconscious atop it, slowly moved out over the center of the pool, the swirling liquid ten feet beneath.

  From the locked door, the hallway beyond, shouts and thuds sounded. Brutal—the fighting had to be brutal. Something deep in her, buried in her chest, began to ache. Luke wouldn’t last long.

  Neither would she. But she wasn’t the one who needed to survive.

  Maggie reached the center of the pool, and Selina jammed the stick downward.

  Slowly, so slowly, Maggie descended into the pool.

  The dark water swallowed her up with barely a ripple.

  Breathing became difficult. Impossible.

  Her knees buckled, and Selina let them, sliding to the ground, still clenching the toggle stick.

  It didn’t matter. It didn’t matter, none of it.

  She was not afraid. Not as darkness crept into the edges of her vision. Not as she slid her hand from the toggle stick to the keyboard hovering right above her head. Punched in the final commands.

  A low hum sounded through the room. Light flared within the water.

  All of it, for this. All of it, for Maggie.

  For Maggie.

  Selina managed to push the toggle stick upward. Pushed with the tips of her shaking fingers.

  The platform began to rise out of the Pit. Maggie’s soaked hospital gown clung to her body—

  A body that was not frail.

  Not thin.

  A body that was healed.

  And a chest that rose and fell, deeply, evenly.

  * * *

  —

  Luke knew he was screwed.

  He’d taken out Cheshire on a lucky, quick shot of his electrified Batarang. The woman had dropped like a stone.

  No twisted smile lingered on her unconscious face after that. He doubted one would return after the GCPD picked her up.

  Focus. Breathe. He went through his therapist’s instructions, even as he snatched up Cheshire’s fallen dagger and raised it against the other
two.

  Onyx and Rictus had only laughed—and attacked.

  And were now kicking his ass. Where he lunged for one of them, the other attacked. Where they darted away, the other was striking. Partners, equals in fighting style, too.

  Their knives chipped away at his suit. His blood mingled with theirs.

  They remained standing. Herding him back toward that door. They were toying with him, and they all knew it.

  Luke feinted a jab at Onyx, lunging instead right for Rictus. They saw Luke’s move, easily countered it. A left hook from Rictus to the ribs that had him yielding a step, a slash of Onyx’s dagger that had him yielding another. Rictus let out a low chuckle.

  A sound that ended quickly as light flashed over Luke’s shoulder, flickering through the tiny window in the door.

  The assassins’ faces tightened, all amusement fading.

  The Pit was in use.

  He caught the look exchanged between Onyx and Rictus. Playtime was over.

  As one, they freed twin short swords from across their backs. The same blades Selina bore.

  As one, they assessed him.

  He just needed to stall them long enough for her to finish and get her sister out of here. It didn’t seem like a bad way to go.

  To do right by his city, do right by those he cared about…It was all he’d wanted from the start.

  So this did not seem like a bad way to go at all.

  The assassins took a step, peeling apart.

  They’d try to make it swift. To get to the door behind him as fast as possible.

  He’d keep it going for as long as he could. Light died behind him.

  As long as he could.

  Luke managed to stand upright.

  “Let’s get it over with,” he panted.

  Rictus and Onyx smiled. Not one word. They hadn’t uttered one word since they arrived.

  Those blades angled, mirror images to each other.

  Luke surveyed the injuries on each. Taking out one assassin would mean being exposed to the other, but maybe if there was just one for Selina to face—

 
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