Sneak Peek: Zealot, Chapter One

We are just ONE WEEK away from the release of Zealot, you guys. Eunomia’s story arc ends with a bang, and I cannot wait to share it with you.  To get us ready, here’s chapter one of Zealot!

 

Zealot, Hidden: Soulhunter Book Three

Chapter One

The air hung heavy and damp around me, the glowing streetlights along the narrow street haloed in a misty glow. My footsteps were silent, my breath slow. I followed a trail few others could see or feel.

This would, barring any nonsense, be my forty-eighth soul in one day.

In one neighborhood of one city.

And I knew why they were dying at such a rate. Everyone knew it, now. Just as I could feel the fresh signature of the newly-dead, I felt the presence of the reason the young woman had died.

Undead.

They swarmed across the earth, leaving death in their wake. Multiplying.

My eight New Guardians and I weren’t enough. We had known it for weeks now. There was no way nine of us, most of them very new to this life, could thwart the unstoppable tide of undead that had been released upon the innocent mortals. Thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, had died in the past month as the number of undead grew, as they devoured the bodies of the living in their endless, limitless hunger.

They grew stronger. They were learning, and their learning was a nightmare.

The first few undead had been aided, coaxed, fed the hearts of the living. Created as tools to unhinge my Queen, the Goddess of Death. But now, with so many of them around, they were watching one another and learning. And, as more humans died, many of them became undead, refusing to give in to death.

Refusing to go to my Queen for their final judgment.

We were losing.

And, still, I hunt. It is the only thing I know how to do.

I tracked the energy signatures to a dark alley. The new soul, who I knew to be Marilyn Smith, had been murdered by the very undead who now struggled with her. Marilyn wasn’t going down without a fight, even in death, and that was something I could appreciate. She hit the undead hard in the face, stomped his foot. The undead, now sated with Marilyn’s flesh, just wanted to get away. It had not counted on Marilyn’s rage. This was not the first such scene I had witnessed, and I had a feeling it would not be the last. People were angry. Some of them were angry enough to try to fight back. If only intentions and emotion were enough.

As they struggled, I crept up behind the undead and plunged one of my Netherblades into its back. It howled, screeched, flailed, and did everything it could to reach the blade. When it failed to manage that, it lunged for me, its breath stinking of decay and death.

This one was partially-corporeal. Two hearts eaten. It sickened me that I knew these things now the same way I know my own name or the tapestry of scars across my flesh. I punched the undead in the face, satisfied by the crunching, squishing sound its face made when met with my fist. It slumped, and I quickly pulled the large black sword out of the scabbard I carried it in and removed its head with one swift motion.

At least Mollis would not have to deal with this one. Its soul, anything that was left of it, had long since been destroyed in its lust for flesh, for a living body of its own. There would be no soul to judge.

But it was still a soul that Mollis would miss, knowing that a being had died and she had been unable to punish it. It was one of many things making life worse for the Goddess of Death of late.

I turned to the soul of  Marilyn Smith.

“Will you come quietly?”

She nodded and held her hands out.

“I am sorry you ended the way you did,” I told her as I fastened a gleaming black chain around her wrists. The words came automatically now. Too many of them had expired this way, murdered by the mindless beasts Mollis Eth-Hades’ enemies had created. I was numb. At a certain point, death becomes routine. The Black Plague, the second World War had both been like that for me, since Europe had always been considered my domain.

This… this was worse than that. This would never end, not the way it was going.

I shook my head. Such thoughts did not do anyone any good. All we could do was keep fighting, keep hunting.

Keep hoping my Queen managed to keep her sanity long enough to bring her enemies to justice for the devastation they’d caused.

I shoved that thought away as well as I glanced at the body of the undead I’d destroyed. It was already in the advanced stages of decay. The only good thing I could say about the undead is that at least we did not have to deal with the bodies after we killed them; they just sort of melted away like filth being hosed into a gutter. I put my hand on Marilyn Smith’s shoulder, then focused on rematerializing us to the Netherwoods, where she would face her final judgment.

Before, first working for Hades and then later for his daughter and heir, Mollis, we would simply bring the souls and be done with it. Now, with such a ridiculous number of souls needing to be judged, and only Mollis capable of doing the judging and sentencing them to their punishment, there were long lines of them waiting even to be admitted to the area where they would await their judgment. Each of the rooms of Mollis’s palace, other than her personal quarters, had become holding areas for the souls of the dead. Demons guarded each room, swords and axes in hand, their glowing red eyes constantly surveying their charges, watching out for trouble.

“Guardian, do you ever sleep?” One of the demons said when I walked into the least-full admitting room.

“Do you?” I asked him, and he shook his head tiredly.

“If I do, it’s likely happening when I’m on my feet,” he said, and I nodded.

“How are things moving along?” I asked, glancing around the room.

“Our Lady has been working tirelessly. We’re now grouping the souls in terms of how much evil they caused, and she’s sentencing them in groups.”

“Efficient,” I said.

“She hates it. You know she likes to give each soul her personal attention,” the demon guard told me, and I nodded.

“Let me guess: this method was her husband’s idea.”

The demon guard nodded.

“I thought so,” I said. Mollis’s husband, the demon Nain, was in charge of her army of demon guards, and it was easy to see his hand in the way the demons behaved. They were disciplined, but ruthless.

“So where do I put this one?” I asked, nodding toward the soul I’d just brought in.

“The room down the hall, last on the left, is for those we believe are low risk,” the demon said in its low, growly voice. “Still very well guarded, so don’t try anything,” he said to Marilyn Smith.

“I-I won’t,” she said, giving a small shiver beside me.

“I will take her down there now.” He gave me a nod, and I led the soul away. We made our way down the wide stone corridor, black stone beneath our feet, stone walls rising on either side of us. Elaborate iron chandeliers were spaced at even intervals along the ceiling, lighting our way.

In the distance, I could hear screams echoing off the stone; evidence that Mollis and the Furies were working.

I found the room the demon had directed me toward, and handed her off to one demon as another walked toward me.

This one, I knew. Unlike the others, he wore his human skin, even here where his demon form would have been totally acceptable.

“E,” Nain said as he stalked toward me. “Answer your fucking phone.”

“Hello to you, too,” I said, raising my eyebrow.

“Yeah, hi. Answer your fucking phone,” he repeated.

“My phone hasn’t rung in days,” I said, pulling it out of my jacket pocket to show him. It was only then that I saw that it had been punctured, a nasty-looking hole going from the screen out the back of the phone.

“I wonder why,” Nain said drily.

I tried to remember when that had happened. I remembered fighting an undead who’d had a spear-type weapon.

“Was Mollis trying to call me?” I asked him, tossing the useless phone into a nearby trash can.

“Not Molly. Brennan.”

I blew out a breath.

“When’s the last time you even talked to him, E?” Nain asked. I was about to answer when he stopped, stalked over to a soul, said a few low words, then came back.

“What was that about?”

“That one was trying to incite bullshit earlier. That was his second warning.”

“And when his third warning becomes necessary?” I asked.

“He’ll spend a little time with Megaera. She’s always good for helping to keep them in line.”

I nodded.

“So. Brennan? Call your husband, E.”

“He knows I am fine.”

“When’s the last time you talked to him?”

I rolled my eyes.

“I know how long it’s been. Do you?” Nain asked.

“I have a few things going on right now,” I snapped.

“Yeah, no shit. Call him anyway. Or, better yet, go home and get some sleep. You look like shit and if Molls saw you looking like this she’d want to kick your ass.”

“You do know that the flood of souls isn’t slowing, yes?”

“And you and your New Guardians are doing more than anyone ever thought you could do in terms of bringing them in. Every single one of you looks like a fucking zombie or something, which is saying something since you all have that Nether pallor going anyway.”

I gave him a dirty look.

“Quinn fell asleep while I was talking to him. Erin and Catherine both got injured because they were so tired they—“

“Are they all right?” I asked.

“Yeah. They’re okay.”

“Why didn’t anyone tell me? They know how to contact me,” I said. Quinn was going to hear about this.

“Because they’re just as busy as you are, and unless one of you has a limb cut off, you seem incapable of stopping.”

“It’s what we were made for,” I said with a shrug. “And she needs us to be doing this,” I said, nodding my head toward the rear of the palace, where I knew Mollis was working.

“She needs you. But even she rests sometimes.”

“Only because you insist on it.”

“And because seeing our kids helps her with all of the sick shit she has to see. Go home, E. Take a few hours to get some rest. All the undead fuckers will still be there when you go back out.”

“Except that there will be more of them,” I argued.

He sighed, and then he rubbed his hands over his face. “I know. But all of us running ourselves ragged isn’t working. There has to be something else. This isn’t doing it.”

I have rarely heard despair from the demon Mollis married. Only once, when we’d believed her dead. But I heard it now, and I well understood why: he was watching her slowly but surely lose her mind. She was losing herself in the constant evil she was faced with, with the mounting numbers of souls that were slipping away from us.

“I need to help her,” I said.

“You need to go home for a while. A few hours isn’t going to make or break any of this shit,” he said tiredly. And then he turned and walked away, taking a corridor that I knew would lead him to where Mollis was.

***

I glanced around, then rematerialized myself back to London, back where I’d collected Marilyn’s soul. I would make one more circuit of the neighborhood, and then I would take the demon’s advice and check in with Brennan.

I hadn’t even given it a thought, that he might have been trying to contact me. Hadn’t even glanced at my phone, expecting that it would ring if he really needed me for something. A wave of guilt crashed over me. I knew how he worried. And, more, I knew that he missed me when I was not there.

I was a few streets over from where we were staying, our little flat in Whitechapel, when I felt an immortal nearby.

I spun around, looking in all directions, trying to decipher where the power source was. It was not overly strong, the way Mollis or one of the other gods’ powers would feel. This was weaker, lighter, like one of the lesser gods.

Like my own power, I suppose.

I felt other energy signatures nearby as well, and I headed toward where all three were, cold rage already coursing through me. The last time I’d found a lesser god with the undead, it had been because my sisters were working with the undead, working to undermine Mollis.

Working to throw the world, apparently, into chaos. I did not understand it, but seeing the effect their actions had set into motion made me more angry than I’ve ever been.

I sped up. My sisters, other than my two missing Guardian sisters, Amalia and Zara, were all dead. If this was one of them, with the undead…

Well. Then at least I would know that my instincts had been correct, that if they were truly innocent of any wrongdoing, Amalia and Zara would have come forward to help Mollis.

As I got closer, I knew it wasn’t either of them. This wasn’t a Guardian or even a New Guardian power I was feeling. I ran around a corner, hearing the scuffling of feet, followed by a weak moan. Straight ahead of me, I saw four undead surrounding a lesser god I knew well: Lethe, the goddess of memory. She was fighting them back, but Lethe was never a warrior god. Most gods aren’t, especially not the emotion or nature gods; Poseidon and his family are the exceptions there.

I ran toward the group and started stabbing out at the undead, quickly taking two out as the other two started to run away.

That, in and of itself, was unnerving. That much immortal blood and flesh should have made them stay. It was usually irresistible to the undead. But just as they seemed to have learned, over time, how to gain a corporeal form, they seemed to have learned something else as well:

Fear of me.

I was about to chase them down when I saw Lethe stumble, then fall, a pale shadow glinting in the dark recesses of the quiet street. I ran over to her, noting with disgust the bite marks on her, the sickly pallor of her usually luminescent skin. Her eyelids were closed over her silvery eyes and her breathing was shallow. I gently picked her up and started to focus, attempting to rematerialize with her. She would need healing.

I had just started to feel the sense of coming apart that precedes rematerialization when I felt something hard strike the side of my face. My concentration broke, and we remained in the alley where we were. I looked around and spotted one of the undead who had run away with its arms raised, a large chunk of rock in its hand. I ducked away just as it sent the rock flying toward me. I set Lethe down, feeling momentarily guilty that I was using her as bait. It was too much temptation for the undead. It threw another rock at me and I leaned lazily to the side as it whizzed past me. It hurled another one, and I took a few steps away, quickly grabbing my Netherblades from under my jacket. The undead kept one eye on me, but was so hunger-crazed that even its unease about my presence there wasn’t enough to dissuade it from scuttling over to where Lethe still lay unconscious. It had gotten over its fear rather quickly, yet more evidence that the undead are less than animals, ruled by hunger. They could learn, but in the end, their desire for flesh would alway overrule sense. And immortal flesh was something none of them would ever be able to resist.

As far too many immortals had learned in the past few months, I thought as fresh rage coursed through me.

The undead, as I predicted, completely forgot that I was there, focused on Lethe’s still form. It had just started leaning over her prone body when I whipped one dagger at it. The dagger hit home, sticking out of the side of its neck, and it flailed and screamed and ripped the dagger from its flesh. It had just removed the dagger when I sent another one that embedded itself into the undead’s stomach. Another screech, and it dropped the first dagger to scrabble furiously at its stomach. It was nothing at all for me to walk up behind it, draw my sword, and remove its head.

When it fell, I pulled my dagger from its stomach, grabbed the other one where it had fallen, and wiped the blades of all three weapons off on the undead’s tattered shirt. At this point, I could not tell whether this one had been male or female just by glancing at it, and I surely did not care enough to try to investigate further. I looked at the undead again as I re-sheathed my blades, then went back to where I’d left Lethe. I heaved her body up once more, took a breath, and focused.

It was time to go home.

Moments later, we were standing in the living room of the small flat Brennan and I had moved into upon relocating to London. It was late, and the loft was silent. I settled Lethe on the brown leather sofa and tossed a soft maroon throw over her. There was still a lamp on in the living room, and my heart gave a little squeeze. I knew he left the light on for me, hoping, undoubtedly, that I would manage to make my way home to him this night, even though I had failed to do so so many nights before.

The wood floors gleamed, and the apartment was neat and organized. One thing Brennan and I had found after moving in together was that we had no arguments at all about the style in which we preferred to keep our home. My style could be considered “simple.” His could only be called spartan. The only extraneous items in the main living area were photos of Brennan’s son, Sean, either alone or with either Brennan or Brennan’s grandmother, Artemis. In the center of the cluster of framed photos adorning one wall, there was a photo of the two of us, Brennan and I, in an unguarded moment when we were both relaxed and smiling.

It had been taken the day we’d moved to London, and there had been far too few moments like it since that day.

I heard the floorboards creak, and a moment later, Brennan stepped out of the hallway that led back to the bedrooms in our flat. He was dressed only in a pair of loose pajama bottoms, and the sight of his muscled arms, wide shoulders, the golden hair sprinkled across his chest, was enough to nearly make me forget myself and everything going on around us. On his left hand, a silver band glinted. It matched the band I wore on my left hand, and it symbolized everything I never thought I’d have. All I wanted to do was touch him.

Instead, I stayed frozen where I was, standing beside the sofa.

Brennan’s gaze met mine for a moment, and I was relieved to see warmth there. Not anger. Not irritation. Certainly not rejection. So often already, I’d expected him to tire of the way our life was. I’d expected him to realize that the life he was sharing with me was not the one he desired. I knew this was not how he’d ever envisioned his life. He deserved more, but I was and continue to be too selfish to let him go.

We had promised one another that we would fight side by side. And we had, until it had become impossible to keep up with all of the souls that the undead were creating. Every supernatural being who could, including Brennan, spent most of their waking hours dealing with the chaos the undead were causing. Shifter packs and vampire families were on edge, and the humans were beyond terrified. My husband was already finding himself in the same position he’d left in Detroit; the de-facto leader of London’s shifter community, based on the fact that, like any wild being, shifters respect power above anything else. As the grandson of the goddess Artemis, Brennan had more than his fair share of power, and that plus his ability to work with and organize people earned him plenty of respect as well. We both hunted. It had just become impossible to hunt together, because I was forced to go wherever I felt a soul appearing, and he was needed in London, where the undead horde had begun and still continued to grow.

It all made me hate the undead and those who had brought them into being a bit more.

“Nice to see you, Tink,” he said in a quiet voice, and just the sound of it sent pleasant shivers down my spine.

“It is nice to see you as well, Cub,” I said. We held one another’s gaze for a few moments, and then I looked down. “I need to have Asclepius come here,” I said, gesturing to Lethe.

Brennan stepped toward me and looked down at the goddess. “What happened to her?”

“I am not entirely sure. I know these most recent injuries are due to the undead. I found four of them attacking her not far from here. But she seems weaker than she should be.”

“What’s she doing here in London?” he asked quietly, picking the phone up from the end table.

I shook my head. “I have no idea. It would have been safer for her where she was.”

He nodded, and a moment later he was speaking, to Asclepius, I realized. I bent down and gently brushed Lethe’s silvery hair back from her face. Not only was she pale, but her cheeks had that hollow look that comes when people have been sick for too long. That, and the deep, dark shadows beneath her eyes suggested that she had been through some things.

“He’s coming,” Brennan said a moment later.

“Thank you for calling him.”

Brennan didn’t answer. I stood up straight and looked at him. As near as he was, I could smell his warm, comforting scent, a hint of the soap he used when he showered. I looked up into his blue eyes, eyes that never failed to remind me of sky and sea, and raised my hand, gently running my fingertips through his flaxen beard. He leaned his face into my touch and closed his eyes, reminding me for just a moment of the giant cat he was when he shifted.

“I am sorry my love. I’ve been gone too long. And I should have called, if nothing else,” I said softly.

He took my wrist in his hand and brought it to his mouth, gently kissed the sensitive place where my pulse throbbed in my wrist. Then he held my hand against his chest. I could feel his heart beating strongly, and I stepped closer.

“You don’t need to apologize to me, Eunomia,” he said softly, his gaze capturing mine again. “I never want you to feel guilty for being who you are.”

“This was not what you signed up for when we pledged ourselves to one another, I think,” I whispered. He gave me a lopsided grin, one that still had the power to make me swoon, and more than a little.

“I signed up for eternity with you. This is what that looks like at the moment. I’m not complaining.”

“You have not seen me in, what? Days? Weeks?” I asked him. “It was inconsiderate of me not to at least call to tell you I was all right.”

“Nain would have let me know if you’d gone more than a few hours without turning in a soul. Based on how often they see you, I know you’re working your ass off. Stop beating yourself up for doing what you need to do.”

“I feel guilty. I am never here,” I said.

He gave a low laugh. “Imagine how guilty you’d feel if you were just sitting around with me all the time and letting the undead run rampant.”

I shook my head, and he pulled me into his arms.

“You’re exhausted, though, and that isn’t something I’m okay with. I’ll sit up with Lethe and see what Asclepius says. Take a shower and get some sleep.”

“Bossy,” I told him, standing up on my tiptoes to press a kiss to his lips. He kissed me back, and I sighed contentedly against his lips, just as he sighed against mine.  His big, warm hands immediately made their way under my leather jacket and t-shirt, and I shivered at the sensation of his strong hands touching the bare flesh at the base of my spine. Just that single touch was enough to make me feel more at ease than I had felt in days. “You are perfect,” I murmured before pulling away.

“Not even close. But I’m glad you think so,” he said with a grin. I kissed him again, and he pressed my body closer to his, his hands still resting at my lower back, and he gently trailed his fingers up my spine. He pressed a warm kiss to the side of my neck and slowly released me, tilting his head toward the bedrooms. I shook my head and started tiredly down the hall. I glanced back at him.

“You will wake me if I am needed?”

He nodded.

“And you will come to bed with me as soon as Lethe is settled?”

He smiled. “Obviously.”

I smiled, and it was the first time I had done so in quite a while.

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