Page 48

“Mother trucker biscuit fucker,” I whispered, yanking the wheel sharply enough to screech the tires. I clipped the back of the school bus and a half rotted face tumbled into one of the windows. Thankfully, I couldn’t see it smashed up against the glass from my vantage point.

I hurried out and around and helped Bria unload the bus. She was no longer smiling.

“Valens isn’t fucking around,” she said in an uncharacteristically somber tone. “Did you see all those trucks up there?”

“Yeah.” I wracked my brain for something supportive to say. The battle was lost if fear had won. “The Six were closer than us, though. They must’ve gotten there in time to protect Kieran.”

“And how the hell are we going to get them back out?”

I gestured at the rotting corpses.

“Are you serious? Look at these things. They’re—”

One disappeared, then re-appeared ten feet behind me. Mia, obviously. “They’re the stuff of nightmares, and they pack a helluva wallop. You said so yourself. Plus, you’ve got me. Ripping souls out is gross, but I bet I can get a few of their important people working for us. We got this.”

She nodded as she organized the corpses. Her expression hardened into a determined look. She patted me on the back. “Thanks. I needed that. A punch in the face would’ve been quicker, but your softer approach won’t shake a tooth loose, so that’s cool.” She unslung her backpack, reached in, and extracted a furry critter.

“What? No! Not the rats. What do we need with rats when we have the bodies?”

She set it down and took out a second, already animated.

“They are good scouts. If we need eyes on the ground, we got ’em.”

“How about eyes in the sky? That would probably serve us better.”

“That’s on my list of to-tries. One day.” She turned and motioned everyone on. “Here we go, everyone. This is where it gets real. Remember, you can’t die again. But I can. Once I’m gone, your play day’s over. So keep me alive.”

“Does that work?”

“Hasn’t yet—they usually don’t give a crap about me—but I’m always hopeful.”

I took the lead, my fists clenched and nothing on my person but my clothes. Around the bend up ahead, I knew orderly lines of men and woman were filing toward the beach. There was no way they’d miss us coming, and while I could cut several people down at a time, I couldn’t withstand a magical attack. We’d be sitting ducks.

“We need another plan,” I said, stopping dead. Bria ran a few paces past me before curling back. The line of corpses shuddered to a stop. “We need some cover. I should’ve saved that damn Light Bender. I could’ve used him.”

“Now you’re thinking. Too bad it came too late.”

A grizzly hand nudged me, and my instinctive response was to grimace and move away. The corpse chosen by Chad, the guy I’d summoned with the locket, nodded jerkily. A long groan came from his throat.

“That is…off-putting,” I said softly.

“What is?” Bria asked.

The currently trapped spirit was trying to communicate, but we didn’t have time for charades.

I snapped his prong and yanked him from the body. The body fell into a heap next to his bewildered spirit. He blinked at me a few times, clearly dazed.

“What?” I barked. “We don’t have much time.”

“Run the bus through them,” Chad said, his voice clearing. “Those lines are filled with grunts. They aren’t trained to think for themselves. When they see danger, they’ll freeze and wait for a command. That command will come quickly—Valens’s people are highly organized—but we should have thirty seconds or so before they start retaliating. That’s enough time to get the bus into the middle of their crew. When you do, make sure the doors are open. We can file out and get to work. We’ll create chaos and hopefully they’ll start accidentally killing each other in their haste to kill us. You can slip out through the crowd and hit the beach. Make a path for us and we’ll follow. We can reassess after we rendezvous with Valens’s son and his men.”

For one full beat, I did nothing but stare at him. Where the hell had Kieran found this guy?

“That’s a good plan,” I finally said. “A very good plan. You make it sound easy.”

“It is easy.”

“Right.” I turned to tell Bria what he’d said, then started to jog back to the bus.

“Hey, aren’t you forgetting something?” Chad called out.

“Oh yeah.” I stopped and stuffed him back in the body, latching him in with the rickety prong. The limbs jerked to life.

“Chad, huh?” Bria said as we got everyone back into the bus. “Does his spirit look like a Ken doll?”

“What?” I shook my head in annoyed confusion as one of our crew tried to break free and run. I yanked him in the right direction and pushed him up the steps.

“Chad. That’s such an eighties name. It reminds me of Ken, from Ken and Barbie?”

“Except Ken’s name is…Ken.”

“Right, yeah. It should’ve been Chad.” She slipped in behind the wheel. “Behold,” she yelled. “I have never, in my life, driven a children’s school bus filled with cadavers into an enemy crowd in an epic magical battle.” Judging from her smile and sparkling eyes, the thought pleased her as much as the prospect of a shopping spree would have pleased me. “This is going to be awesome!” She cranked the wheel. “Buckle up, everyone, we’re headed for a wild ride!”

35

Alexis

The roar of the engine and shaking of the old vehicle competed with my flip-flopping stomach and adrenaline-fueled anticipation. The cadavers crowded near both doors and some hung out of the windows, cocooning me in the grossest way possible. The John corpse waited by my side, not touching, thankfully, but hovering in what seemed like a protective way. I wondered if he’d assigned himself as my bodyguard.

“Yep, we’re coming right for you,” I heard Bria yell, laughter lacing her words. She was enjoying this entirely too much. “Ten seconds until impact!”

I grabbed onto the seats next to me. Yelling filtered in from outside. Shouts, then a scream.

“Boom, fuckers!” Bria shouted.

The bus jolted forward before bumping wildly. My vision jiggled as the frame shook. More screams, much closer now, some anguished. Hands came up to slap the windows. Glass shattered somewhere beyond the cluster of bodies to my right. Through the gaps between the bodies on my left, I saw glimpses of the crowd outside. They had showed up in dizzying numbers.

“Go, go, go, go!” Bria’s voice rose over the din. “We’re surrounded. Take ’em down!”

The throng of corpses began to move around me. Sparkles shone in through the window. The view suddenly changed, and I saw vivid blue waters and white sand that stretched for miles. It sure as shit wasn’t Ocean Beach.

“They have an Illusionist,” Bria yelled. “A damn strong one, too. Alexis, you gotta take ’em down.”

The bus melted around me, the metal dripping down until it fell away. No heat kissed my skin, though. The drops of molten metal didn’t splatter on my head. I was left standing on that beautiful, idyllic beach.

“Alexis,” Bria shouted again.

Noise assaulted me from all sides. Yelling and screaming. Shouts and commands. A roar sailed past the right side of the bus, but I saw only limitless ocean. A blast shook the soft sand I stood on.

Corpses grabbed me, and suddenly Chad was by my side, groaning again. Trying to tell me something. He hustled me forward and gravity pulled at my feet. I felt a jolt and fell onto the hard, unforgiving…sand.

That Illusionist was messing with my head.

“Alexis!” Bria yelled again, closer now. She was barreling toward me. “You gotta get to work, girl. We need eyes.”

“Okay,” I said softly, stilling myself in the moment.

The hands around me fell away. Bria’s voice quieted. The shouts and screams around me faded into the background. Spirit rushed in to cover the world, washing away the illusion that had blanketed it.

Bodies surrounded us in a circle, keeping us put as they waited for the command to action, just like Chad had said they’d do. There were so many of them, their souls throbbing merrily in their middles. Outlines flickered within the corpses around me, showing me the spirits in their temporary homes.

“Valens has a lifetime of wrongdoing to atone for,” Chad said. The words were garbled within his decrepit body, but with all the spirit coursing around us, I understood them anyway, as though they’d been spoken directly into my head. Chad must’ve led people, because he’d noticed my hesitation. “His people have tortured and killed without concern. Innocents have died by the thousands under his rule.”

The Mia corpse appeared on the other side of me. She was proof that Chad’s situation wasn’t an anomaly.

“If you do not act, they will take you as a prize,” he continued. “You wear the son’s mark, do you not? Valens will make you pay for that. He will make all of you pay. Only the dead are safe.”

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