City of Ghosts

Unholy Ghosts
Unholy Magic
Sacrificial Magic
Chasing Magic

City of GhostsAvailable in Mass Market Paperback, eBook, and Audiobook

Del Rey (July 27, 2010)
ISBN-10: 0345515595
ISBN-13: 978-0345515599

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Chess Putnam has a lot on her plate. Mangled human corpses have started to show up on the streets of Downside, and Chess’s bosses at the Church of Real Truth have ordered her to team up with the ultra-powerful Black Squad agency to crack the grisly case.

Chess is under a binding spell that threatens death if she talks about the investigation, but the city’s most notorious crime boss—and Chess’s drug dealer—gets wind of her new assignment and insists on being kept informed. If that isn’t bad enough, a sinister street vendor appears to have information Chess needs. Only he’s not telling what he knows, or what it all has to do with the vast underground City of Eternity.

Now Chess will have to navigate killer wraiths, First Elders, and a lot of seriously nasty magic—all while coping with some not-so-small issues of her own. And the only man Chess can trust to help her through it all has every reason to want her dead.

Foreign Releases

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City of Ghosts - UK Release
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Note: This excerpt is taken from the pre-copyedited version of the manuscript, and may differ slightly from the final version

“Not all of your duties will be pleasant. But that is the sacrifice you make, for as a Church employee you must always remember that you are privileged above all others.”
— The Example is You, the guidebook for Church employees

Chapter One

The guillotine waited for them, its blackened wood dark and threatening against the naked cement walls of the Execution Room.

Chess limped past it, trying not to look. Trying not to remember that she deserved to kneel before it, to place her neck on the age-smoothed rest and wait for the blade to fall. She’d killed a psychopomp. Hell, she’d killed people.

Only the death of the hawk meant automatic execution.

But nobody knew about that. At least, nobody with the authority to order her death knew about that. She was safe for the moment.

Too bad she didn’t feel safe. Didn’t feel the way she should have felt. The dull ache in her thigh with every step she took in her low-heeled Church pumps reminded her of the almost-healed gunshot wound; her limp reminded everyone else, drew attention to her at a time when she wanted it even less than usual.

Elder Griffin’s hand was warm at her elbow. “You may sit while the sentence is read and carried out, Cesaria.”

“Oh, no, really, I’m—”

He shook his head, his eyes serious. What was that about? Granted, an execution wasn’t exactly a party-it-up event; very few Church events were. But Elder Griffin looked even more solemn than usual, more troubled.
He didn’t know, did he? Had Oliver Fletcher told him about the psychopomp, about what she’d done? If that bast—no. No, she was being stupid and paranoid. Oliver wouldn’t have told him. When would he have? As far as she knew the two men had only shared one conversation since that night, the night she’d killed the psychopomp, the night Terrible had been—

Her breath rasped in her chest. Right. This wasn’t the time, or the place. This was an execution, and she had testimony to give, and she needed to calm the fuck down and give it.

So she sat on the hard, straight-backed wooden chair, breathing the disinfectant stink heavy in the room, and watched the others file in after her. Elder Murray, the rings painted around his eyes as black as his hair, almost disappearing against the rich darkness of his skin. Dana Wright, the other Debunker who’d been at the bust at Madame Lupita’s, her light hair curling around her face.

For Lupita herself, no one came. Anyone who might have cared about her, who might have wanted to be there for her in the last moments of her physical life, had either already been executed themselves or were locked in their cells in the prison building.

Last—last before the condemned woman herself—came the executioner, his face obscured by a heavy black hood. On his open right palm rested a dog’s skull; his psychopomp, ready to take Madame Lupita down to the spirit prisons. Clenched in his left fist was a chain, and at the end of that chain was Madame Lupita, her legs and wrists shackled together with iron bands.

The door thunked shut behind them, the lock popped; it would not open for half an hour. Time enough for the execution to take place and the spirit to be taken to the City of Eternity. The timelocks had been instituted in the early days of the Church, when a series of mishaps had led to a ghost opening the door and escaping. Like everything the Church did, the timelocks made sense, but Chess couldn’t help the tiny thrill of panic that ran up her spine. Trapped. Something she never wanted to be.

The executioner fastened the chain-end he held to the guillotine, and began setting up the skull at the base of the permanent altar in the corner. Smoke poured from his censer and overpowered the scent of bleach and ammonia; the thick, acrid odor of melidia to send Lupita’s soul to the spirit prisons, ajenjible and asafetida, burning yew chips to sting Chess’s nose. The energy in the room changed, power slithering up her legs and lifting the hair on the back of her neck, that little rush that always made her want to smile.

She didn’t, though. Not today. Instead she pressed her teeth together and looked at the condemned woman.
Lupita had changed since Chess saw her last, in that miserable, hot little basement that stunk of terror and burned herbs and poison. Her big body seemed to have shrunk. Instead of the ridiculous silver turban Chess remembered, Lupita wore only her own close-shorn hair; instead of the silly sideshow caftan her bulk was hidden beneath the plain black robe of those sentenced to die.

But her eyes had not changed. They searched the little crowd, found Chess, and glared, hatred burning from their depths so hard Chess almost felt it sear her skin.

She forced herself not to look away. That woman had almost killed her, slipping poison into her drink; had almost killed a roomful of innocent people, summoning a rampaging, violent ghost. Fuck her. She was going to die, and Chess was going to watch.

Something slithered behind Lupita’s eyes.

Chess’ breath froze in her chest. Had she seen that? That flash of silver? That flash, which meant Lupita was Hosting a spirit in her body?

Her eyes widened; she stared at Lupita now, focusing. Waiting. It shouldn’t be possible. Lupita hadn’t been Hosting when she was arrested—they would have caught that immediately when she was brought in—and there was no way in hell she would have been able to pick up and bond with a spirit in the Church prisons. It simply wasn’t possible.

The flash didn’t reappear. No. She was imagining things. All the stress, the tension of her personal life—what there was of it—and the overbearing sympathy of the Elders and the other Debunkers, crushing her beneath their concern for her leg and their good intentions. Add to that a few extra Cepts and a Panda, and half a Nip to keep her awake… No wonder she was seeing things. What was next, pink elephants?

Elder Griffin stood before the guillotine, cleared his throat.

“Irene Lowe, also known as Madame Lupita, thou has been found guilty by the Church of the crime of summoning spirits to earth. Further, thou has been found guilty of the attempted murder of Church Debunker Cesaria Putnam. Cesaria, is this woman responsible for those crimes?”

Chess stood up, despite the protests of her right thigh and Elder Griffin’s slight frown. “Yes, Elder.”

“Thou testifies this based on what?”

“I saw this woman commit those crimes, Elder.”

“And thou swears thy word to be Fact, and Truth?”

“Yes, Elder. I do.”

Elder Griffin gave her a curt nod, turned next to Dana Wright while Chess sank back onto her chair. A woman was about to die, based on her word. When her word—the word of a junkie and a liar, the word of someone who’d betrayed her only real friend in the world—wasn’t worth shit.

He was never going to speak to her again. She’d given up calling the week before. She’d given up hoping she might see him out at Trickster’s or Chuck’s, given up hanging around the Market in the cold waiting to see if he turned up. He was still out there, of course. People had seen him.

People who weren’t her. She’d never known anyone could avoid another person so thoroughly. It was like he could sense her coming.

Shifting movement in the standing crowd drew her attention back to the proceedings; the execution itself was about to happen.

The room thrummed with power now, beating like a heart around them, steady and slow and thick. No need for a circle; the room itself was a circle, an impregnable fortress with iron sandwiched into the cement walls.

Elder Griffin started pounding the drum, letting his hand stay in the air for so long between hits Chess felt herself waiting, breathless, unable to move or allow her lungs to fill until the next heavy thump. The room’s magic slid into her, finding those empty spaces and filling them, making her something more than she was. It felt good. So good she wanted to close her eyes and give herself to it completely, to forget everything and everyone and do nothing but exist in the energy.

She couldn’t, of course. She knew she couldn’t. So instead she watched as the executioner’s psychopomp formed, the dog growing out of the skull, flowing like a river from a mountain peak to become legs, a tail, hair sprouting glossy and black over the bare skin and bones.

The drum beat faster. Drums…there had been drums at Lupita’s séance, that night, played by a duo of speedfreaks with eyes like ball bearings. Now the drums again, keeping monotonous dragging time under Elder Murray’s voice.

“Irene Lowe, thou are found guilty and sentenced to die by a tribunal of Church Elders, and this sentence shall now be carried out. If thou has any last words to speak, speak them now.”

Lupita shook her head, staring at the floor. Chess reached out a little with her own power, trying to get some sense of something from the woman. Some fear, some anger. Anything. Lupita was too quiet. Too calm. This didn’t feel right.

The executioner helped Lupita to her knees, placed her neck on the divot. The drum beat harder, louder even than Chess’s blood in her veins or the thick sweet magic air rasping in her lungs. Louder than her own thoughts.
She reached out further, letting her power caress Lupita’s skin, trying to find something—

Oh fuck!

Her leg gave when she threw herself to her feet, almost falling over. “No! No, don’t—”

Too late. The blade fell, its metallic shnik slicing the air as cleanly as Irene’s neck, thudding into place like the slamming of a prison door.

Irene’s head tumbled into the basket. Blood erupted from the stump of her neck, poured over her head, over the dull cement floor.

Her spirit rose; her spirit, the spirit that had been Madame Lupita. The dog lunged for it, ready to drag it below the earth, into the prisons outside the City of Eternity.

The other spirit rose as well. The spirit Lupita’d been Hosting. The one there was no psychopomp to take care of, no graveyard dust to subdue. The one an entire roomful of Church employees were helpless against in that room with its iron walls and locked door.

Chess’ scream finally escaped, bursting into the air. It was drowned out by the others, the shouts of surprise and fear.

Elder Griffin dropped the drum. The dog grabbed Lupita’s spirit—she had a passport on her arm, she was the one he’d been summoned to retrieve—and dove into the patch of wavering air behind the wall. The last thing Chess saw of Lupita was her mouth stretched into a horrible grin as she left them all to die.

The ghost hovered in the air before the guillotine. A man, his hair slicked back from his forehead, his eyes blank, his face twisted with savage joy. Elder Murray shouted something, she couldn’t be sure what; her skin tingled and itched and threatened to crawl away from her body entirely. A powerful ghost, too powerful. What the fuck was he, how the fuck had she—

“I command you to be still!” Elder Griffin’s voice rang out, echoed off the walls, speared through Chess’ body. “By my power I command it!”

It wouldn’t work. She knew without even looking that it wouldn’t. But the executioner…did he have another skull? Some graveyard dirt?

Dana screamed. Chess glanced over and saw the ghost fighting with Elder Murray, its mouth open in a ghastly smile, its eyes narrow with effort. The ghost held the ritual blade in its hand, the one the executioner had used to summon his psychopomp.

No time to watch. No time to look at them, and it wouldn’t do any good anyway. The room was filled with noise and energy and heat, a confusing mishmash of images her brain couldn’t process. She focused on the smoking censor, the stang in the corner, the black bag beside it. The executioner dug through it frantically, pulling things out—

Someone fell into her; she tumbled to the hard floor with a thud.

More screams, more shouts. Something clattered to the floor. The energy was unbearable. It wasn’t a rush anymore, wasn’t a high. It was an invasion, shoving her around, distorting her thoughts and her vision and infecting her with everyone else’s panic.

She had to calm down. Her hands refused to obey her; her tattoos prickled and burned, as they were designed to do. The ghost’s presence set them off, an early warning system she was usually grateful for but would gladly have done without at that moment. Chaos reigned in the execution room, and it carried her along on a wild riptide of blood.

Okay. Deep breath. Pause. She closed her eyes, dug down deep to the emptiness in her soul. The place where things like love and happiness and warmth should be; the place that was an almost-empty room for her, the place where only two people lived, and one of them hated her.

But it was enough. It was enough to have that moment of silence, to tune out the terror and noise around her and find her own strength.

She opened her eyes. Her limbs obeyed her. She sprang to her feet, ignoring the pain, and almost lost her hard-fought calm.

Elder Murray was dead. His body lay stretched across the floor, flat-out like a corpse ready for cremation; a gaping bloody wound leered at her from his throat.

Behind him the executioner slumped against the wall, his robe soaked with blood. She barely saw him through the ghost, blazing white, bloated with the energy he’d stolen. Chess groaned. A ghost with that much power was like an ex-con on Cloud-laced speed; unstoppable, without feelings, without logic. A killing machine who wouldn’t stop until he was forced to.

And they were locked in with it.

Oh shit, they were locked in with them. The iron walls kept the spirits of Elder Murray and the executioner locked in just as surely as the rest of them; Chess saw them out of the corner of her eye, faint shapes struggling to come into being.

There was a chance they wouldn’t be hungry, that they wouldn’t become murderous, but the odds were about as good as the odds that she’d be able to fall asleep that night without a handful of her pills. In other words, not fucking good at all. In a minute or so the ghosts would find their shapes, find their powers, and things would go from worse to totally fucking awful.

Blood spattered the walls, dripped off the shiny blade of the guillotine and ran in thick streams along the cement. It dripped from the ceiling where it had sprayed from Elder Murray’s neck; it formed a glistening pool around the body, outlined footprints in a dizzying pattern, and smeared around the broken remains of the dog’s skull. Fuck. No psychopomp. Did he have another?

Elder Griffin was covered with blood. Dana too, her eyes wide. But Chess wasn’t the only one who’d rallied. Dana’s eyes were dark and fierce with determination; Elder Griffin fairly glowed with power and strength.

Chess caught Dana’s eye, jerked her head toward the bag. Dana nodded and took a step forward.

“By my power I command you to be still,” she said, each word loud and clear. “I command you to go back to your place of silence.”

The ghost turned to look at her, and Dana edged back, drawing it away. Chess inched to the left, trying not to catch the ghost’s attention. She had to get to that bag. Had to get to the bag or they would all die. Maybe they’d die anyway, but she was damned if she wasn’t going to at least try to save them. Life might be a pool of shit but the City was worse—for her anyway—and she had no intention of going there. Not that day.

Her feet in their stiff shoes slipped in thick blood; the scent of it filled the air, a coppery tang beneath the herbs. How long would those burn, and was there more?

The ghost moved toward Dana, who kept talking, words of power flowing from her mouth. He clutched the knife in one semi-solid hand, blood dripping down the blade and covering his spectral skin. Viewed through him it looked black, like ink.

She glanced at the ghosts of Murray and the executioner again. They were almost fully formed now, slowly squirming into being like maggots erupting from a slab of rotting steak. She—they—didn’t have much time.
Dana screamed. The ghost jumped at her. Elder Griffin leapt to the side, joining the struggle, as the ghost attempted to slice Dana’s throat.

Chess dove for the bag. More herbs, first—she grabbed the little baggies, dumped them on the dying fire in the censor. The smoke thickened. Another psychopomp, please let him have a spare…she threw things from his bag, not watching where they landed, the hair on the back of her neck practically trying to pull itself out of her skin. She couldn’t hear much, what was happening? Were Dana and Elder Griffin dead? Oh, shit—

Her hand found something solid, and her body flooded with relief. Another skull. Thank the gods who didn’t exist, he had a spare. She yanked it out, tore at the inert silk wrapping it, barely glanced at it as she set it down.

A roar behind her; the ghost had spotted her. Dana and Elder Griffin tried to hold it but it made itself transparent and sprang at her, through the guillotine. She ducked out of the way. “I call on the escorts of the City of the Dead,” she managed, stumbling, trying to keep within reach of the skull but away from the ghost’s grabbing hand. “By my power I call you!”

The skull rattled. Chess pushed more power out, as much as she could, not an easy task when trying to keep from being turned into an energy snack for a rampaging dead man.

Another problem faced her as well. No passport. The spirit hadn’t been accounted for, didn’t have a marking on his body; there was a chance the dog wouldn’t know which spirit to grab, when it came. It had happened to Chess once before, a few months previously, and the dog had gone after her. She would never forget that feeling, the horrible sensation of her soul being pulled from her body like a banana from its peel…

Not to mention the additional spirits forming not five feet away, the executioner and Elder Murray.

“No passport,” she managed to say, and Dana’s eyes widened. She glanced at the knife in her hand, raised her eyebrows, and Chess nodded because she had no choice.

Dana tossed the knife. The ghost spun around when it clattered to the floor, leapt for it. Chess grabbed the executioner’s ectoplasmarker and popped the cap, held it ready in her fist, and shouted.

Just as she’d thought, the ghost wheeled back around and came after her with the knife. Dana and Elder Griffin moved, Chess didn’t see where. She was too busy watching the ghost, seeing his solid hand raise over her head, grabbing his wrist with her left hand and bringing the marker up with her right.

He didn’t have a passport; they hadn’t expected him, hadn’t designed one. Oh fucking well. The blade hovered above her eye, its point tacky with coagulating blood, while she scrawled a series of X’s on the spectral skin. The ghost’s face twisted with rage.

Now for the worst part. With every bit of strength she had left she pushed herself to the side, to the skull, and, dropping the marker, brought her right hand to the blade’s point.

She hadn’t expected it to hurt instantly but it did. Ow, it really fucking did, and her blood poured from the wound onto the skull, and she shoved all of that pain and all of her power into her next words.

“I offer the escorts an appeasement for their aid. Escorts come now! Take this man to the place of silence, by my power and by my blood I command it!”

The dog roared into being, huge and shaggy. Its jaws bared; this wasn’t just a dog it was a wolf, what the fuck was the executioner doing with an unauthorized psychopomp—

The ghost’s eyes widened. His mouth opened in a silent scream as he tried to jump away, all thoughts of killing forgotten. The dog—the wolf—went after him, its body moving low and fast like the predator it was.

The ghosts of the executioner and Elder Murray were fully formed now, huddled in the corner. Chess could practically see the last vestiges of sanity, of who they were in life, draining away, could see them trying to hold on.

It didn’t matter. The wolf howled. A hole ripped open in the thin veil between her world and the spirit one; the wolf snatched the original ghost in its massive jaw. Ectoplasm burst from the ghost’s body under the wolf’s teeth. The ghost screamed, an act somehow more horrible because of its silence.
The wolf turned, aimed at Elder Murray and the executioner. They huddled together, trying so hard; tears sprang to Chess’s eyes. She’d never known Elder Murray well, never dealt much with him, but his last act was to struggle to retain some humanity, and she couldn’t help the surge of affectionate sadness, of pride, that threatened to overwhelm her.

Dana and Elder Griffin were beside her, Dana squeezing her hand. The wolf leapt, still clutching their unwelcome visitor in its teeth, and caught Elder Murray and the executioner in a bizarre sort of bear hug; he carried them through the wavering hole and it snapped shut behind them, leaving the three still alive to stare open-mouthed at where it had been.