“Come on.” Sam wrapped an arm around Stacey’s shoulders, steering her toward the trash can. “Layla would’ve been done eating by now if you hadn’t talked to her the entire time.”
“Oh, blame it on me.” Stacey dumped her trash, sending me a wave as they headed out.
I set the burger back down, watching Lady Poser impatiently. Pieces of bun and meat fell out of her mouth, splattering on the brown tray. My appetite was effectively slaughtered within seconds. Not that it really mattered. Food only eased the ache gnawing at my insides, never stopping it.
Lady Poser finally completed her feast of fatness, and I grabbed my bag as she ambled out the door. She plowed straight into an elderly man, knocking him right over as he tried to come in. Wow. This one was a real gem.
Her cackle could be heard inside the noisy restaurant, sounding as thin as paper. Luckily, some dude helped the man up as he shook his fist at the retreating demon.
Sighing, I dumped my food and followed her out into the late-September breeze.
Different shades of souls were everywhere, humming around bodies like an electrical field. Traces of pale pink and robin’s-egg blue trailed behind a couple walking hand in hand. They had innocent souls—but not pure.
All humans had a soul—an essence—good or bad, but demons weren’t rocking any such thing. Since most demons topside looked human at first glance, the lack of soul around them made my job of finding and tagging them easy. Besides the soulless factor, the only difference between them and humans was the odd way their eyes reflected light like a cat’s.
Lady Poser shuffled down the street, limping slightly. Out in the natural light, she didn’t look well. She’d probably already bit a few humans, which meant she needed to be tagged and dealt with ASAP.
A flyer on a green lamppost caught my attention. A fierce scowl and sense of protectiveness filled me as I read the thing. Warning. Wardens Aren’t God’s Children. Repent Now. The End Is Nigh.
Underneath the words was a crudely drawn picture of what I assumed was a rabid coyote mixed with a chupacabra.
“Sponsored by the Church of God’s Children,” I muttered, rolling my eyes.
Nice. I hated fanatics.
A diner down the block had the flyers plastered across its windows and a sign proclaiming they refused to serve Wardens.
Anger spread through me like an out-of-control wildfire. These idiots had no idea of all that the Wardens sacrificed for them. I drew in a deep breath, letting it out slowly. I needed to focus on my Poser instead of silently stomping my mental feet on my pretend soapbox.
Lady Poser turned a corner and glanced over her shoulder, her glassy eyes drifting over me, dismissing me outright. The demon in her didn’t sense anything abnormal about me.
The demon inside of me was in a hurry to get this over with.
Especially after my cell went off, vibrating against my thigh. Probably Stacey wondering where in the Hell I was. I just wanted to be done with this and go back to being normal for the rest of the evening. Without thinking, I reached up and pulled on the chain around my neck. The old ring dangling off the silver rope felt hot and heavy in my hand.
As I passed a group of kids around my age, their gazes moved over me, stopped and then swung right back. Of course they stared. Everyone did.
My hair was long. Big deal there, but it was such a pale blond that it looked nearly white. I hated when people stared. It made me feel like an albino. But it was my eyes that really caught people’s attention. They were a light gray, almost leached of color.
Zayne said I looked like the long-lost sister of the elf in Lord of the Rings. That was a huge confidence booster. Sigh.
Dusk had begun to settle in the nation’s capital as I rounded Rhode Island Avenue and came to a complete stop. Everything and everyone around me disappeared in an instant. There, in the soft flicker of the street lamps, I saw the soul.
It looked as if someone had dipped a brush into red paint and then flicked it over a soft black canvas. This guy had a bad soul. He wasn’t under the influence of a demon, but was just plain old evil all on his own. The dull ache in my gut flared to life. People pushed past me, casting annoyed looks in my direction. A few even muttered. I didn’t care. I didn’t even care about their soft pink souls, a color I usually found so pretty.
I finally focused on the figure behind the soul—an older man dressed in a generic business suit and tie, briefcase handle clutched in a meaty hand. Nothing to run from, nothing to be frightened of, but I knew different.
He’d sinned big-time.
My legs moved forward even as my brain screamed at me to stop, to turn around, even to call Zayne. Just hearing his voice would make me stop. Would stop me from doing what every cell in my body demanded I do—doing what was almost natural to me.
The man turned slightly, his eyes drifting over my face, down my body. His soul swirled crazy fast, becoming more red than black. He was old enough to be my father and that was gross, really gross.
He smiled at me, smiled in a way that should’ve sent me running in the other direction. I needed to go in that direction, too, because no matter how rotten this man was—no matter how many girls out there would hand me a gold medal for taking him out—Abbot had raised me to deny the demon inside. He’d raised me to be a Warden, to act like a Warden.
But Abbot wasn’t here.
I met the man’s stare, held it and felt my lips curve into a smile. My heart raced, my skin tingled and flushed. I wanted his soul—so bad my skin wanted to peel itself off my bones. It felt like waiting for a kiss, when your lips were moments away from joining, those breathless seconds of anticipation. But I’d never been kissed before.
All I had was this.
This man’s soul called to me like a siren’s song. It sickened me to be so tempted by the evil in his spirit, but a dark soul was as good as a pure one.
He smiled as he eyed me, his knuckles blanching around the handle of the briefcase. And that smile made me think of all the horrible things he could have done to earn the swirling void around him.
An elbow dug into my lower back. The tiny speck of pain was nothing compared to the exquisite anticipation. Just a few more steps and his soul would be so close—right there. I knew the first taste would spark the sweetest fire imaginable—a high for which there was no equivalent. It wouldn’t last very long, but the brief moments of pure ecstasy lingered as a potent allure.
His lips wouldn’t even need to touch mine. Just an inch or so, and I’d taste his soul—never take it all. Taking his soul would kill him and that was evil, and I wasn’t—
This was evil.
I jerked back, breaking eye contact. Pain exploded in my stomach, shooting through my limbs. Turning away from the man was like denying my lungs of oxygen. My skin burned and my throat felt raw as I forced one leg in front of the other. It was a struggle to keep walking, to not think about the man and to find the Poser again, but when I finally spotted her, I let out the breath I was holding. Focusing on the demon at least served as a distraction.
I followed her into a narrow alley between a dollar store and a check-cashing place. All I needed to do was touch her, which I should’ve done back in McDonald’s. I stopped halfway, looked around and then cursed.
The alley was empty.
Black garbage bags lined mold-covered brick walls. Dumpsters overflowed with more trash and creatures scurried along the gravel. I shuddered, eyeing the bags warily. Most likely rats, but other things hid in shadows—things that were worse than rats.