Winter Halo – Keri Arthur

There were ghosts in this place. Most kept their distance, simply watching as I made my way through the broken remnants of their tombstones. One or two of the braver ones brushed my arms with ethereal fingers—a caress that reached past the layers of jacket and shirt to chill my skin. But these ghosts meant me no harm. It was simple curiosity, or maybe even an attempt to feel again the heat and life that had once been theirs. And while I knew from experience that ghosts could be dangerous, I was not here to disturb or challenge the dead. I simply was here to follow—and maybe even kill—the living. Because the person I was tracking had come from the ruined city of Carleen that lay behind us. It was the very last city destroyed in a war that might have lasted only five years but had altered the very fabric of our world forever. One hundred and three years had passed since the war’s end, but Carleen had never been rebuilt. No one lived there. No one dared. Given that the figure had come from that city, it could only mean one of two things: Either he or she was a human or shifter up to no good, or it was one of the two people responsible for kidnapping fourteen children from Central City—the only major city in this region. No one else had any reason to be out here, in the middle of nowhere, at night. Especially when the night was friend to no one but the vampires.

Of course, vampires weren’t the only evil to roam the night or the shadows these days. The bombs the shifters had unleashed to end the war against humans had resulted in the rifts—bands of energy and magic that roamed the landscape and mauled the essence of anything and anyone unlucky enough to be caught in their path. But that was not the worst of it, because many rifts were also doorways into this world from another time or dimension. Maybe even from hell itself. And the creatures that came through them—which were collectively called the Others but had been nicknamed demons, wraiths, or death spirits, depending on their form—had all found a new and easy hunting ground. These rifts were the reason Carleen had never been rebuilt. There were a dozen of them drifting through the city’s ruins, and there was no way of predicting their movements. Neither wind nor gravitational pull had any influence on them, and they could just as easily move against a gale-force wind as they could leap upward to consume whatever might be taking flight that day—be it birds, aircraft, or even clouds. Once upon a time I’d believed that being caught in a rift meant death, but I now knew otherwise. Because the people responsible for kidnapping those children were living proof that rifts were survivable—although by calling them “people” I was granting them a humanity they did not deserve.

Anyone who could experiment on young children for any reason was nothing short of a monster. That anyone was doing so in an effort to discover a means by which vampires could become immune to light just made them more abominable. But it wasn’t as if they could actually claim humanity in the first place. I might be a déchet—a labdesigned humanoid created by humans, before the war had begun, as a means to combat the superior strength and speed of the shifters—but every bit of my DNA was of this world. The same could not be said of those responsible for the missing children. I’d managed to rescue five of the children but I had no idea how they were or if they’d recovered from the horrific injuries inflicted on them. Those who could tell me were no longer my allies; they’d tried to kill me. Twice. They were not getting a third chance. I continued to slip quietly through the night, following the teasing drift of footsteps.

Whoever— whatever—was up ahead certainly wasn’t adept at walking quietly. Which suggested it wasn’t a vampire, or even a shifter. The former rarely traveled alone, despite the fact that they had very little to fear at night, and the latter were night-blind. Or so Nuri—who was one of my former allies, and a powerful human witch—had said. I tended to believe her—at least on that point. Even before the war, both shifters and humans had lived in either cities or campsites that were lit by powerful light towers twenty-four/seven. Vampires had always been a problem—the war had just kept them well fed and increased their numbers. It made sense that after generations of living in never-ending daylight, the need for night sight would be filtered out of the DNA of all but a few throwbacks. No, it was Nuri’s promise that no harm would befall the ghosts living in the old military bunker— one of the three in which they’d all been created, trained, and killed more than one hundred years ago —if I helped her group find the remaining children that I wasn’t so sure about. While she might not hold any prejudices against déchet, the others were all shifters and, from what they’d said, had all lost kin to déchet soldiers during the war.

While I wasn’t by design a soldier, I could fight, and I’d certainly been responsible for more than a few shifter deaths. Only my kills hadn’t happened in open fields or battered forests, but rather in the bedroom. I was a lure—a déchet specifically created to infiltrate shifter camps and seduce those in charge. Once I was firmly established in their beds, it had been my duty to gain and pass on all information relating to the war and their plans. And then, when my task was completed, I killed. I’d been a very successful lure. And I still was, I thought bleakly. Images of Sal—and the brutal way I’d killed him—rose, but I pushed them away. Sal might have been the only friend and confidant I’d really had during the war, but he’d also been part of the group responsible for kidnapping the children. And when I’d realized that, I’d had little choice but to take action.

There were many things in this world I could ignore— many things I had no desire to be a part of—but I could not idly stand by and watch children suffer. Not again. Not if I could help it. It was thanks to Sal—to the information I’d forced out of him before he died—that those five kids were now free. Six, if you included Penny, the child I’d rescued from the vampires who’d been tracking her in the park beyond the military bunker in which I still lived. But that meant they still held eight. And while I had no intention of helping Nuri and her crew, I also had no intention of abandoning those children to their fates. Which was why I’d been in Carleen tonight. Sal and his two partners had created what the ghosts there called “false rifts”: balls of dirty energy that resembled regular rifts but were—as far as I could tell—nothing more than a means of quick transport from one location to another. I’d gone there tonight to investigate one of them.

Cat and Bear —the two little ghosts who normally accompanied me on such journeys—were back home in our bunker. We’d learned the hard way that ghosts could not enter the rifts, and I wasn’t about to place them in any sort of danger if I could avoid it. They might be déchet, or they might be ghosts, but they were also only children. The graveyard gave way to a long slope that was filled with rock debris and the broken, decaying remnants of trees. Halfway down the hill lay a gigantic crater, its rim strewn with rocks, building rubble, and twisted, sick-looking plants. Weirdly, even though I was standing above it, I couldn’t see into the crater itself. I frowned, my gaze narrowing. It might be the middle of the night, but the vampire DNA in my body had gifted me with—among other things—a vampire’s ability to see as clearly in darkness as I could during the day. But the shadows that clustered just below the crater’s rim were thick and impenetrable and emitted an energy that was dark and dirty. Rift, an inner voice whispered, even as my skin crawled at the thought of getting any closer.

But the figure I was tracking had disappeared, and there was no place he or she could have gone other than the crater. If I wanted to uncover whether that person was one of my targets, then I had to keep following. I started down the hill. Small stones and fragmented metal scooted out from underfoot with every step, the latter chiming softly as the pieces hit the larger rocks in my path. The graveyard ghosts danced lightly to the tune, seemingly unconcerned about either leaving the tombs or approaching the rift. Which in itself suggested that whatever that darkness was, it wasn’t dangerous. Either that or it was one of the few stationary rifts and, as such, posed no immediate threat to either them or me. I wished I could talk to them. Maybe they could have told me whether my target came here regularly, or even who he or she might be. But these ghosts, like those in Carleen, were human, and that meant I couldn’t converse with them, as I could with shifter or déchet ghosts.

Not without help, anyway. The scientists who’d designed us had made damn sure those destined to become lures could not use their seeker skills to read either their thoughts or their emotions. They might have created us to be their frontline soldiers against the shifters, but they’d also feared us. Mind reading wasn’t the only restriction placed on us when it came to humans—killing them was also out-of-bounds. Not that I’d ever tested that particular restriction—it had never occurred to me to do so during the war, and there’d been no need in the 103 years after it. Energy began to burn across my skin as I drew closer to the crater. The ghosts finally hesitated, then retreated. Part of me wished I could do the same. I stopped at the crater’s rim and stared down into it. The darkness was thick, almost gelatinous, and lapped at the tips of my boots in gentle waves.

It was unlike anything I’d ever come across before. Even the shadows that had covered the other false rifts had not felt this foul, this . alien. This wasn’t magic. Or, if it was, it wasn’t the sort of magic that had originated from this world. It just didn’t have the right feel. So did that mean it had come from the Others? From wherever they’d come from? Were they even capable of magic? I really had no idea. I doubted there was anyone alive who did know, simply because anyone who’d ever come across one of them didn’t live to tell the tale. Except, I thought with a chill, Sal and his partners. They’d not only survived, but—thanks to the rift that had hit them just as a wraith was emerging—Sal’s partners now had its DNA running through their bodies.

I stared down at my boots, at the oily, glistening substance that stained the tips of them. Revulsion stirred, and the urge to retreat hit so strongly I actually took a step back. But that wouldn’t give me the answers I needed. Wouldn’t help find the missing children. And it was that desire, more than anything, that got me moving in the right direction. One step; two. No stones slid from under my feet this time. Or, if they did, they made no sound. It was still and hushed in this small part of the world—almost as if the night held its breath in expectation. Or horror.

The darkness slid over my feet and ankles, and oddly felt like water. Thick, foul water that was colder than ice. It pressed my combat pants against my skin as it rose up my legs, and the weapons clipped to my thighs gained an odd, frosty sheen. I crossed mental fingers and hoped like hell this stuff didn’t damage them. I didn’t want to face whatever—whoever—might be waiting at the bottom of this crater without any means of protection. The farther I moved down the slope—the deeper I got into the darkness—the harder every step became. Sweat trickled down my spine, but its cause wasn’t just the effort of moving forward. This stuff, whatever it was, scared me. I reached back and pulled free one of the two slender machine rifles that were strapped to my back. I’d adapted them ages ago to fire small wooden stakes rather than bullets, simply because wood was deadlier than metal when it came to vampires—at least for shots to the body, which were generally easier.

Stakes would poison them if they didn’t immediately kill; metal would not. But you had to hit them first for either weapon to cause any sort of damage, and that wasn’t always easy, given their shadowing ability. Of course, there was a very big chance none of my weapons would work after this muck touched them, but I still felt better with the rifle’s weight in my hand. The darkness washed up my stomach, over my breasts, then up to my neck. I raised my face in an effort to avoid becoming fully immersed for as long as possible. Which was stupid. It was just darkness, not water, no matter how much it felt otherwise. I wouldn’t drown in this stuff. But could I breathe? I took one final, deep breath, just in case, and then pushed on. The ink washed up my face and then over my head, and it suddenly felt like there was a ton of weight pressing down on me.

Every step became an extreme effort; all too soon my leg muscles were quivering and it took every ounce of determination I had to keep upright, to keep moving. I pressed on, but I really had no idea if I was heading in the right direction. Not only did the darkness envelop me, but it also stole all sense of time and direction. God, what if this was a trap? What if all along they’d intended nothing more than to lure me down here to get rid of me? Sal’s partners had to be aware of his death by now, just as they had to be aware that I was the one who’d found and rescued the five kids—after all, those kids had been nothing more than bait in an attempt to trap and kill me. That it hadn’t gone exactly as they’d hoped was due to good luck on my part rather than bad planning on their part. Or, rather, good luck and a whole lot of help from the adult déchet who haunted my bunker. And while Sal’s partners might have no idea what I truly looked like—and therefore couldn’t stop me from entering their businesses in Central, or hunt me down—they were well aware that I lived in the old underground military bunker outside that city. And they’d undoubtedly realized I would not abandon the rest of those children. I had been expecting some sort of retaliatory attack, but against our bunker rather than out here in the middle of nowhere. If this was a trap, then it was one I’d very stupidly walked right into.

But there was nothing I could do about that now. I just had to keep moving. But the deeper I got, the more crushing the weight of the darkness became. My legs were beginning to bow under the pressure, my spine ached, and my shoulders were hunched forward. It felt as if I could topple over at any minute, and it took every ounce of concentration and strength to remain upright. May the goddess Rhea help me if I met anything coming up out of the crater, because I doubted I’d even have the energy to pull the rifle’s trigger. Then, with little warning, the weight lifted and I was catapulted into fresh air and the regular night. I took a deep, shuddering breath and became aware of something else. Or rather, someone else. Because I was no longer alone.

I slowly turned around. At the very bottom of the crater, maybe a dozen or so yards away from where I stood, there was a rift. A real rift, not a false one. It shimmered and sparked against the cover of night, and while the energy it emitted was foul, it nevertheless felt a whole lot cleaner than the thick muck I’d just traversed. Standing in front of it were four figures—three with their backs to the rift, one standing facing it. The solo person was the dark-cloaked, hooded figure I’d been following. The other three .


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