Friday, 5:56 a.m.
Deep red bled into the predawn sky above the defunct Olsmill Nature Preserve, and I didn’t want to be around when the sun fully rose above the mountain treetops. Once sunlight hit the plethora of vampire and Halfie bodies strewn around the sea of pavement that surrounded the preserve’s Visitors’ Center, it was game over. I’d smelled burning vampire bodies—acrid and heavy, like scorched rubber. More than forty corpses littered the ground, victims of last night’s semi-epic battle.
They’d smell it in the city all day.
I wandered away from the grisly mess, back toward the line of Jeeps that created a barrier between the carnage and the dense forest, past the human Hunters collecting goblin corpses for the bonfire. I wanted out before they lit that, too. Even dead and rotting as they were, just the sight of the hunched, oily-skinned goblin warriors set my skin crawling.
Voices on the forest side of the Jeep trickled over.
“. . . you see how she got them inside the Visitors’ Center?”
“People can’t teleport. That’s impossible.”
“Can’t come back from the dead, either, but she did.”
“Like a friggin’ zombie or something.”
“She moves too fast to be a zombie.”
I was being discussed. Not surprising. How often did a Dreg Bounty Hunter get brought back from the dead, lead an attack on a possessed elf, discover she could teleport, and continually heal from wounds that would kill any regular human being? We lived in a city where magic existed, where teenagers were recruited to kill the beasts of nightmares, and the only way those guys could understand my existence was to go Romero on me?
The two gossipers shuffled to my side of the Jeep, carrying a goblin corpse between them. They froze when they saw me. I knew their faces but not their names. Each Triad unit consisted of three Hunters, with each unit working independently of one another and overseen by a trained Handler. Handlers kept in contact with other Handlers, but anonymity among Hunters protected us from attack by our enemies.
Today’s mass battle in the mountains north of the city was the first time I’d seen more than three Triads in one place, ever.
I narrowed my eyes at the pair and lowered my voice to a guttural growl. “Mmm, brains.”
The taller of the two grunted, his thickly lashed eyes going wide. His companion, shorter by several inches and with skin the color of strong coffee, snorted. He seemed the most familiar, and it finally struck me where I’d seen him before—Burger Palace. He belonged to a Handler named Rhys Willemy and had helped arrest my own Handler two days ago.
They continued carrying their burden toward the bonfire pit to add more organic fuel to what was sure to be a disgusting fire. As they wandered off to collect the next corpse, I was glad I wasn’t required to help with cleanup.
Probably my reward for, you know, stopping the bad guy and keeping a demon from running amok.
I turned my attention back to the sprawl of dead things in front of me. My target hadn’t been collected. Kelsa’s broken body had shriveled from blood loss. The fuchsia liquid gelled on the blacktop around the goblin Queen to create a kind of paste. It squelched around my sneakers, which were already stained with blood and dirt. I breathed through my mouth, but it didn’t help. The cloying seawater stench was thick enough to taste.
The goblins would be furious when they learned of her death. I knew little about the specific hierarchy within hidden goblin society, but Kelsa was a rare and revered female. She’d led a horde of warriors. She had orchestrated the goblins’ end of Tovin’s plan to summon a demon. She had power within the goblin ranks. And I had killed her—payback for killing me last week. It was only a matter of time before they regrouped and came after me.
I did a careful one-eighty in the puddle of blood. Wyatt Truman—my Handler and the man who’d almost become a demon suit—walked across the pavement toward me, and I nearly tackled him with another hug. Nearly. One sleeve of his shirt was stained red, darkening as it dried—a constant reminder of how I’d felt an hour ago when he’d been shot with an anticoagulant bullet and had died in my arms. A constant reminder, also, of the power of the gnome healing magic that had brought him back to me.
“How’re those?” he asked, pointing at my stomach.
My hand went to the torn, soaked fabric of my T-shirt. Below it, scabbed slash marks were slowly healing—gifts from my throw-down with Kelsa. An inch deeper and she would have gutted me, and I doubted my healing ability could have saved me from having my intestines stomped all over the blacktop. An ability I seemed to have retained, even though my three days were up. The bite on my ankle, the cuts on my cheek, and other gashes across my torso and legs were also healing, creating an itchy sensation not unlike rolling in dry grass.
“I’ve had worse,” I replied. “You ready to get out of here? Sun’ll be up soon.”
“Yeah, there was just one thing I wanted to do first.”
Another pair of Hunters strode past us. One walked with his shoulders slumped, head turned away. Wyatt reached out and tapped him on the shoulder. The kid stopped and looked up. I saw his swollen lip an instant before Wyatt’s fist slammed into his nose. The kid squealed and stumbled backward, hands covering his face. Blood streamed between his fingers and down his chin.
“Wyatt,” I said. He glared at me and I glared right back. Like I cared if he punched that little shit in the nose. “I already did that.”
Wyatt shrugged. “Hey, you got to kill the bitch who killed you. Give me something here.”
“You have a good, if somewhat morbid, point.”
“You broke my nose,” the kid who’d fired that fatal anticoagulant shot said. Though muffled beneath his hands, it sounded closer to “You bruk by doze.”
“Hey, Truman! Ease up, will you?” Adrian Baylor’s question was barked from a brief distance. The burly Handler strode toward us from the other end of the Jeep line, bristling like an angry dog. “The kid’s a week out of Boot Camp, and it was an accident.”
“The kid,” Wyatt said, “is too skittish to be using live rounds. Who the hell’d he pay to graduate?”
“The kid has a fucking name,” snarled the kid in question. Color flamed both cheeks. He’d dropped his hands, allowing his broken nose to bleed freely. Half a foot shorter than Wyatt, he stood up like the class nerd facing down the playground bully. For a rookie, he had brass ones.
Wyatt crossed his arms over his chest. “Which is?”
“Okay, then.” Wyatt tilted his head toward Baylor. “Paul Ryan is too skittish to be in the field with live ammo.”
Paul’s entire face turned beet red.
Baylor growled low in his throat—a challenge. “Yeah, I’m sure I’ll be taking training advice from a guy who got his whole team killed.”
Wyatt flinched. I tensed, expecting more punches. Or at the very least, a couple of choice insults. When nothing happened, I got pissed. For Wyatt and for me, being one of the three dead people referenced in Baylor’s snarky comment.
I was across the blood puddle and in Baylor’s face before anyone could stop me. I balled my fist in the front of his black turtleneck and leaned in until we were nose to nose. I’d just crossed an unspoken line of code among Hunters and Handlers, but I didn’t much care. It’s not like I worked for them anymore.
“Our deaths were not Wyatt’s goddamn fault, understand? You fucking asshole.” I let him go, and he stumbled back a step.
“Evy, stop,” Wyatt said.
I rounded on him, my hands clenched. His shoulders had slumped. He didn’t seem angry anymore, only sad, but that just fueled my anger. “Why, Wyatt? Our deaths were not your fault.”
“Yeah.” His tone said otherwise, but it wasn’t a fight I was prepared to relive in front of the others. Maybe not again until I’d had a few days’ sleep. I thought he’d accepted the fact that Jesse and Ash, my late Triad partners, had been killed as part of a larger plan. Their deaths—and, ultimately, mine as well—were orchestrated, unpreventable. Not his fault. Not my fault, either.
Yeah, not my fault. Maybe if I said that a few more times, I’d even believe it.
Excerpted from As Lie the Dead by Kelly Meding. Copyright © 2010 by Kelly Meding. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.