Slashback (Cal Leandros, #8)(7)

People: can’t live with them. Can’t destroy them with the power of your mind.

Oh wait. I could.

“Heaven says you should pray.” His breath was what I expected and forevermore would the word “heaven” be linked to the rank stench of tooth decay in my mind. Joy. His knife was out now and swinging toward my throat. I took it from him with a simple block and twist, slammed it into his chest, punching through the bony crunch of sternum into his heart, and used his momentum to flip him over my shoulder. It’s an amazing world when a dead man can fly. I’d given him an out, and he’d chosen it. Too bad it was the wrong one. That left seven knives slashing at me and seven more foul-smelling huffs of exhaled air carrying the same word and then more of them.

“Last chance for the rest of you.” I looked around the circle. “I am both ethically and morally challenged at the best of times. And you annoying me with your festive little homicidal ways doesn’t come under the category of best of times.”

“Child of God, on your knees and pray.”

“Pray for deliverance.”

“Pray for mercy.”

“Pray.” “Pray.” “Pray.” “Pray.”

I was praying all right. Praying for a round of breath mints. Jesus Christ.

“I should pray, huh? Hate to tell you *s, you should’ve prayed for better directions. This is not a part of town for a good churching up.” I grinned, sharp and gleeful. “Not a steeple in sight.”

Seven men, young but malnourished. No problem. Seven knives out and slashing if not with trained efficiency, then with wild enthusiasm. More of a problem, but it could be handled. Seven sets of eyes burning with the fire of the martyr. Seven psychos willing to die for something, who the hell knew what, willing to die like their buddy if they could take me with them. Seven knives against two guns and more rounds stashed on me than World War II would’ve needed. It was doable. Even as close as I’d let them get, to see—you know—just to see what could happen. Did that make me a bad boy? Yes, it did. But all in all, the entire situation still very doable. But eight bodies to clean up, and they were too close to me to be anything but bodies now, that was different.

Fun was in the execution of some easily justifiable violence. Fun was not in the cleanup. Not that I should think that. I shouldn’t.

Really, really shouldn’t.

I could leave. I could go—in the way the Auphe did—and leave them behind, but, entertainment aside, I needed to do more than exercise my skills. I needed to stretch them. I had someone after me who could do the same as I could, only better, quicker, years ahead of me in experience. If I was going to survive him, I needed to level the playing field. I had to catch up. I needed the practice. Practice made perfect. But did I need to use seven men . . . homicidal, but still men . . . as an exercise? Was that right?

Playtime. Playtime, playtime, playtime.

What the hell.

I sent them away. All of them.

Nice and tidy.

As I said—skills.

The world screamed, my attackers screamed along with it. Reality ripped as my gate opened, and the night itself came alive as ravenous gray light ate them. Eight hungry mouths made of lightning and death tore through the shadows turning them the purple of coagulated blood and took the men to where they could pray to their hearts’ content. Not that it would do them any good and not that they would last long, depending on how much time had passed in that particular hell and how much radiation lingered there. Then the mouths closed and the night was only the night again.

Well, shit.

Chances were you were supposed to be worried about identity crises, not embrace them. If I were the hugging type, I’d say I’d just given my slow and gradual defection to the monster side a big one.

I couldn’t say I hadn’t meant to do it. I didn’t know what I’d meant to do, but I had planned on thinking about it for at least another fraction of a second. Debating the right and wrong of it, the thousand shades of gray, the thousand hues of justification, as there was a chance . . . a small one . . . that I was wrong.

I sighed and brought them back.

It had only been a second, but they looked as if they’d been gone a while. Time ran oddly in the Auphe world. A day here could be two years there—I knew that all too well. The seven of them appeared a little thinner and were curled up in moaning, whimpering fetal balls on the street. I knew that feeling too. Tumulus wasn’t Hell—no, it was Hell’s big brother. Not a pleasant place to be. My best guess was they’d been there a few days in Tumulus time.

That was enough that I didn’t think they’d be attacking anyone else anytime soon. Someone official would eventually come scoop them up and stick them in the real world’s version of Arkham Asylum. After what they’d seen on the other side, they’d be lucky to regain enough coherence to use a spoon again, much less a butcher knife, in the next few months.

Now, though, it was time to get on with what I was doing before a bizarre street cult thought I didn’t look holy enough, that I needed to pray more. That was New York for you. Not many Jehovah’s Witnesses jumping you on the street, but Jehovah’s pseudo-ninjas willing to kill you to save your soul, those we had. Pretty presumptuous ones too. How did they know what I did or didn’t do? I could pray. I could be holy. They didn’t know.

My grin widened despite my uncertain conscience. It felt like a tangle of razor wire decorating my face. Yeah, I guess maybe they did know. Apparently my ability to blend in with your average, harmless humans wasn’t all it’d once been. Of course I wasn’t all I’d once been. I was more or I was less, depending on your point of view.

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