Catwoman soulstealer, p.5
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       Catwoman: Soulstealer, p.5
 

           Sarah J. Maas

  Luke snorted, imagining some of the usual suspects opting to seek out an air-conditioned movie theater instead of terrorizing the streets.

  At least he still had his sense of humor. Sort of.

  Bruce Wayne didn’t have one. Or hadn’t revealed one in the months Luke had been training with him.

  It had been his dad’s idea. Right after the family’s annual Fourth of July fireworks barbecue at the beach house last summer. After the Incident.

  Luke had been standing among the crowd gathered on the back lawn, beer in hand, when the fireworks had exploded over their private beach, as they’d done every summer that he could remember. But unlike all those summers before, as those initial fireworks bloomed and boomed in the dark sky, his body had gone absolutely haywire, as if it had been programmed like one of his gadgets. He’d been unable to get a breath down, to control the undiluted terror that swept through him. Pushed in on him, as if the ground were about to swallow him up, as if he were again in that blood-soaked desert, and his nightmare was all playing out again.

  His first full-blown panic attack. In the middle of his family’s annual party.

  Bruce had been standing next to him when it happened. And had instantly noticed the symptoms and gotten Luke’s father to help discreetly escort his son back into the house.

  When he’d finally been able to breathe, when the world had crept back in and the desert had faded away once more, it had all come spilling out: he hadn’t been able to save them. His team. He told them he had no idea if he’d made a difference that day, or any day in his life. His father and Bruce had sat with him, just listening. Like they had nowhere else to be.

  The subsequent diagnosis: post-traumatic stress disorder, triggered that particular night by the crackle and boom of the fireworks, by the flashing lights.

  And then the treatment: group therapy once a week and private sessions every three days. That was fine—that was good. Necessary. Vital.

  But his dad’s suggested treatment had been just between him and Bruce and Luke. A visit to Wayne Manor a week later. To a secret chamber beneath it. If Luke wanted to make a difference, Bruce had said, perhaps there was something he could do about it.

  Luke had learned a lot in the thirteen months since. About himself, about what haunted him, and about the man who lived in Wayne Manor.

  Giving up on sleep, Luke swung his legs out of the bed and padded onto the balcony. Even at four in the morning, the air hung hot and sticky against his skin. He again scanned the city, listening for sirens. Anything to call him out of bed, out of his penthouse apartment. Anything to do in these final few hours before dawn when he knew sleep would no longer come.

  Nothing. Only muggy heat and silence. Even the stars seemed small and faded, the constellations he recognized as well as family members blurred under the blanket of heat. Their names rattled through his head, more instinct than intentional thought: Lyra, Sagittarius, Hercules…

  Luke rubbed a hand over his short hair. He’d let the sides grow in a bit but still kept it military-short.

  Movement to his left caught his eye.

  Every sense went on alert as his body slipped into a loose fighting stance.

  Being thirty floors up wouldn’t keep the more creative criminals from finding their way here to loot the troves of one of Gotham City’s richest.

  A flash of gold at the corner of his balcony.

  No, not his balcony, but the edge of the balcony for the penthouse that shared this top floor, the corner of which was just barely visible from where he stood. Along with the source of that gold: long blond hair, slightly curled at the ends.

  There were only two apartments up here; the other had been sitting empty for months. Until yesterday, he remembered. The apartment had been leased by some socialite—old money, the gossip sites said when he’d checked them in the evening for any hint of trouble ahead. Holly Vanderhees.

  Luke peered over the rail, craning his neck to see more of the owner of that luxurious blond hair he could just barely make out.

  A neighbor was an inconvenience.

  He should have bought the apartment next door just to keep it empty.

  A stupid mistake. A rookie mistake.

  He’d have to be careful now, coming in and out of the apartment. Might have to account for his odd hours if she was a snoop. Especially if she was a gossip. Most socialites were. He’d developed a healthy respect for them. He’d seen socialites take each other down with words and rumors far more efficiently than insurgents had with bullets and IEDs.

  His new neighbor vanished along the wraparound balcony. As if she’d been pacing it.

  First night in a new city. Perhaps she hadn’t been able to sleep, either.

  For a heartbeat, he debated crossing the small hallway they shared and knocking on her door. Introducing himself.

  But he couldn’t afford another mistake. Building bonds invited questions. And if Holly Vanderhees had no idea who she was living next to, if she never saw or heard from him, so much the better. Easier to be unaccounted for.

  He didn’t know how Bruce did it: juggling the man the world believed they knew with the vigilante who fought to keep Gotham City safe. Luke had asked him throughout their training, but Bruce hadn’t been forthcoming.

  It was one of the few things Bruce hadn’t taught him.

  Luke had known plenty about fighting, about building clever, useful things, before they’d begun. Even before enlisting in the Marines, he’d been as keen on honing his body as he was on sharpening his mind.

  A rare combination, his mom often said, beaming at him. Brains and beauty. Luke always laughed at her, waving her off. Even if the brains part was officially true. He’d been declared a genius before finishing high school. A lot of good that had done him overseas.

  He certainly wasn’t doing much with it these days as the millionaire playboy the world believed him to be—son of Lucius Fox, the CEO of Wayne Industries, granted a cushy job in Applied Sciences at the company.

  What the job actually did was allow Luke to roll into Wayne Tower, go down to the restricted sublevel seven, and mess around with his suit, his gear, his various gadgets that helped him round up Gotham City’s worst. Luke sometimes even modified Bruce’s gear, since his colleague was always game for a new upgrade. They’d bonded over it—their interest in tech.

  Watery gray light began to bleed into the eastern horizon. He had another boxing match tonight. He’d make sure not to mention it to his mother at brunch in a few hours.

  You shave years off my life with every match, she complained to him and his dad.

  It’s only semiprofessional, his dad often said, coming to his defense. Knowing that the boxing, which Luke had done for years before he shipped out, had always steadied him. Settled his mind. And in the year since he’d returned, he’d picked it up again. As part of his ongoing, endless recovery.

  But only semipro, as his dad said. As was befitting a socialite of Gotham City.

  Even if he didn’t lose. Ever.

  Not a single fight.

  What his mom didn’t know, what she couldn’t know despite how much he wanted to tell her, was that he and his dad had decided the fights would not only balance him but help explain away any injuries that might arise during his nocturnal activities. His real job.

  Batwing.

  He’d come up with the name himself, in part to honor the training he’d done with Bruce, but mostly as a nod to his favorite part of the suit. The part he’d worked the hardest on, and got one hell of a kick out of surprising lowlifes with. Nothing like a pair of retractable wings, capable of gliding over long distances, to make criminals wet themselves.

  And to land easily on the roof before slipping back inside the building. A task that would now be infinitely harder with his new neighbor.

  Luke frowned toward Holly’s balcony
before turning back inside and sealing the door shut, the AC instantly icy against his skin.

  He’d figure out some way to make sure she thought he was as boring as possible.

  Luke headed into his closet, lights flickering on automatically. He glanced to the wood panel that held a full-length mirror. A hidden touch pad would reveal the extra closet concealed behind it, chock-full of his various mechanized suits, weapons, and gear.

  But he opted for gym shorts and an old Marines tee, sliding on his worn sneakers before striding from the room. A full-service gym was open 24-7 a level below. It’d be empty at this time of the night. Day. Whatever four-thirty a.m. was classified as.

  Luke caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror as he left. His skin was still shiny with sweat, his cheeks a bit hollowed out. His mom would worry at brunch—she was too damn smart not to note everything. Especially if he didn’t get rid of the empty, glazed look in his eyes.

  A year, and it was still there.

  A year of trying to adjust to civilian life and managing his PTSD so that he could finally do something of value to keep this city from falling into ruin. To honor the good men and women who hadn’t returned home—at least not outside of a pine box—and the families they’d left behind.

  Luke shouldered his way through the gym door, the fluorescent lights a clang to his senses, all the TV screens above the machines set to various news channels. Even they were full of nothing, filler stories because the truth of the world—that didn’t sell ad space. And Americans watching didn’t really want to have their oversized houses and wasteful lifestyles called into question when faced with the poverty most of the planet lived in. The despair, the ugliness of it.

  Hell, they couldn’t even stand to look too long at the East End in their own damn city.

  His mom knew that. Fought against that every day. He supposed his mom’s ball gowns and well-tailored suits were another kind of armor—that she, too, had masks she used to fight against the injustices of the world, especially as a black woman in the upper echelon of society. He wished he could tell her that. Wished he could explain that he was honored to follow in her footsteps, even if the fighting they did each night was different. Hers took place at galas and in boardrooms, winning over Gotham City’s richest to contribute to her charities with that charm and wit of hers. His fights, beyond those in the ring, were in places few dared to venture.

  Luke picked a treadmill that enabled him to see anyone who entered the gym—another lesson from Bruce: always be on guard—and climbed on, punching in his preferred speed and incline. His body was a tool. A weapon. The same as any he’d fought with overseas.

  And even as Luke launched into a run, even as sweat again slid down his body and his lungs burned in his broad chest…he still couldn’t feel it.

  Himself.

  As if his skin, his bones, were as distant as the high-tech suit he donned every night.

  The sun began to rise over Gotham City, the wall of windows offering an unparalleled view of the city skyline.

  Another day.

  He’d make it count. For the friends who hadn’t made it home, for the people living in this city…He’d make it count.

  Silence lay heavy throughout the Museum of Antiquities.

  In the darkest hours of the night, the quiet that permeated the marble chambers was as tangible as the muggy heat outside the sprawling complex. Only the occasional whisper of the air conditioner or the jingle of a drowsy guard’s keys provided any interruption.

  Certainly not Selina. Her black boots didn’t so much as scuff against the white floors as she crept through the wings and halls of the behemoth building, her helmet providing a steady read of the tangle of alarm sensors.

  It was a puzzle—and not a particularly clever one.

  Her helmet’s scanner gave her a constant stream of information, tailored to her specifics. The helmet’s ears, the overly large eyes…She’d taken one of the standard helmets—Death Masks, they called them—that the League of Assassins gave to all their acolytes, and modified it.

  Kitten, they’d taunted her. Kitty-cat. Acolytes and assassins alike whispered and hissed and growled it during training sessions, in the eating hall, down the walkways. One look at the spots inked on her arms, and the taunts had begun. Her fists had done the talking at first—though all it had earned her was Nyssa’s disdain. Control is vital. Control is everything.

  So Selina had taken control. Of the taunts, the hated nickname.

  All while improving her Death Mask. Tinkering through the quietest hours of the night, deep in the science labs of the Sanctuary. She’d shocked herself a few times, sliced up her fingers while cutting the wires, but in the end Nyssa had given her a rare smile of approval when Selina had come to training one day wearing her modified helmet. The audio receptors shaped like cat ears. The large eyes. And the dagger-sharp claws at the tips of her black climbing gloves.

  The taunting had stopped after that.

  Especially when she’d ripped open the side of Tigris, one of Nyssa and Talia’s fiercest assassins and trainers, and settled things between them.

  And that was before Nyssa had started letting her officially train with the bullwhip.

  Head to toe in black, her breathing barely elevated, Selina paused before the entrance to the famed Egyptian Wing and surveyed the labyrinth of shimmering lasers.

  It was outright cliché: the web of lasers nearly invisible to the naked eye.

  Without the helmet, she might have resorted to an aerosol to reveal them. Even more cliché.

  Yet despite the helmet’s map of the various pitfalls and suggested routes, Selina found herself studying the lasers. Gauging the angles, the landing space, the possible disasters.

  The relic was displayed only fifty feet away. A straight shot down the arched marble corridor. Even at night, the small bronze cat statue was lit up in stunning relief, tribute to Bastet, the feline-headed goddess of warriors. Protector of children and cats.

  No larger than a bottle of shampoo, the thirty-two-hundred-year-old statue was in flawless condition. That, along with the gems embedded in its collar, made it nearly priceless.

  Nearly priceless. Someone had, in fact, slapped a price on it.

  A price that made Selina smile beneath her helmet and begin.

  Setting her weight onto her left leg, she lifted her right and eased it through the largest gap between the shimmering sensors.

  Balance was key. The beam had been her best and favorite event in gymnastics. She had no idea why. Most of her teammates had dreaded it, feared it. She’d sometimes wondered if that fear had been a poison, making their balance worse.

  Selina eased the rest of her body through the initial gap between the sensors, landing in a small island of open air. She’d tucked her bullwhip in tightly for this heist—had triple-checked that it wouldn’t fall loose from its place at her left hip while she moved.

  The guards didn’t rotate into this wing for another ten minutes. It was all the time she needed. Especially when she’d taken the liberty of jamming the camera signals with a simple Computer Error: Contact Provider message. One with a fake phone number that would keep the guards on hold for a good fifteen minutes.

  Arching smoothly into a bridge over the next sensor beam, the world tilted upside down for a heartbeat as her gloved hands met the marble floor. A push of her legs and pull of her abdominal muscles had her feet rising up and over, her landing as smooth as silk.

  A dance. These movements felt like a dance. One she’d learned to enjoy.

  Just as she’d enjoyed taking that diamond from the Gotham Museum three days ago. And that trove of jewels from a shop five days before that. Little dances—little tests.

  Tonight would be another step. A bigger one.

  Considering those two burglaries had proved…disappointing.

  Sure,
she’d made off with what she needed. But no one had even put up a fight. A challenge. And no one had come looking for her afterward.

  Selina slid to the marble floor, slipping beneath a low-hanging beam.

  She’d make sure tonight was different.

  A larger expanse of space opened before her, leading to a more intricate web of sensors. The last stretch before the statue’s glass display case in the center of the hallway.

  She could make it with a few careful dips and ducks.

  But where was the fun in that?

  She’d been devoid of fun for most of her life. Had found it only in rare moments. And even then it had been overshadowed with fear and dread. But tonight…

  She’d learned to take the things she wanted. Including her own amusement.

  Sucking in a breath, again checking that the bullwhip was secure, Selina launched herself forward.

  The motions were muscle memory, the calculations sharp and precise. Glorious.

  Front handspring into a twisting backflip, followed by a high-soaring tuck, right into a somersault that sent her into a neat tumble over the final alarm sensor. And right up to the glass of the case.

  Breathing loud beneath her helmet, Selina grinned at the Bastet statue.

  She could have sworn that ancient bit of bronze seemed to smile back. Seemed to say, Go on. Take it.

  So Selina did.

  A claw of reinforced steel slid free from her black glove. Perfectly honed. Perfectly ready to slice a circle through the thick glass.

  Selina caught the panel of glass in one palm as her other hand slid into the case and wrapped around the figure.

  And just as she’d planned, the alarms began blaring.

  * * *

  —

  Selina was gone before GCPD arrived.

  But she was not done.

  The Bastet statue tucked into a satchel at her side, Selina knelt at the edge of a high-rise rooftop and adjusted the focus on the scope of her rifle.

 
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