Read Harsh Gods Online

Authors: Michelle Belanger

Harsh Gods

Contents

Cover

Also by Michelle Belanger

Title Page

Copyright

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Epilogue

Acknowledgments

About the Author

Also Available from Titan Books

ALSO AVAILABLE FROM MICHELLE BELANGER AND TITAN BOOKS

Conspiracy of Angels
The Resurrection Game
(August 2017)

HARSH GODS
Print edition ISBN: 9781783299546
E-book edition ISBN: 9781783299553

Published by Titan Books
A division of Titan Publishing Group Ltd
144 Southwark Street, London SE1 0UP

First edition: August 2016

2 4 6 8 10 9 7 5 3 1

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2016 Michelle Belanger.
All Rights Reserved.

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library.

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In memory of Michael Wiggins (1965–2016).

You asked to see an early draft of this story, but I thought you had more time. We all did. Journey well, old friend.

1

Three more steps for the perfect kill shot. I checked the ammo on the crossbow to be sure I had the right poison applied to the tip. This had to be quick and neat. I was tired of getting clobbered by the city guard.

The chair squeaked as I hunched closer to the computer screen. A muscle cramped in my neck. I ignored it, shifting my wings. Two hours I’d been at this, and I still didn’t have the damned achievement. Fighting the tension in my fingers, I advanced my character by slow inches.

Flawless victory would be worth the pain.

Across from my character’s position, the target paced a restless circuit on a high balcony at the back of his manor house. The corrupt nobleman paused every six seconds to lean on the railing and peer at a hideously ornate fountain that squatted in the middle of his garden. Fat cherubs erupted like boils from the fountain’s central spire, water cascading around their stunted wings. If I angled the shot just right, I’d be able to pass the crossbow bolt through a small space between a curtain of water and one ugly cherub’s head.

That had to be the way to get this achievement—I couldn’t see any other clear shots that allowed my character to remain hidden, and I’d skulked through every corner of this damned map.

I brought up the targeting reticle, holding down the mouse button till the icon went from gray to red. The nobleman took out a snuff box, dosing both nostrils, then rested a hand on the railing, just like he had every other time I’d fucked up this stage of the assignment. I had approximately three seconds before he started moving again. I took a breath, feeling a tremor in my pointer finger.

Someone pounded on the door to my apartment.

My mouse hand jerked. The crossbow bolt smashed into the head of the cherub, alerting the manor guards. Uniformed non-player characters dashed in from every corner, quickly swarming me. My computer screen filled with splashes of vivid red.

“Fuck me running,” I snarled. Cursing the nobleman, the game designers, and whoever thought it was a good idea to come knocking at nearly eleven o’clock at night, I slammed my fist on the desk.

I almost had that shot!

The four terracotta demon jars sitting at the base of the computer tower jumped with the impact. Anakesiel’s jar toppled right over, rolling dangerously close to the edge. The game forgotten, I snatched up the jar before it crashed to the floor. Breaking it shouldn’t release the spirit, but I didn’t want to chance it.

The person at the door knocked again, louder this time. Briefly, I debated relocating to the apartment’s single bedroom, grabbing a paperback, and ignoring them till they got bored and went away. There weren’t a whole lot of people I wanted to see who might come to my door at this hour of night, not even on a Friday.

The few who leapt to mind didn’t actually qualify as people.

Whoever it was, they were stubborn. The knocking settled into a nerve-shattering pattern of dogged persistence.

“Hang on!” I said loudly. My voice came out all gravel and phlegm. The only talking I’d been doing over the past couple of weeks involved swearing at the computer and ringing up restaurants for deliveries.

Closing out of the computer game, I scooped up the rest of the demon jars from where they rested on my notes. Yanking open the bottom drawer of the desk, I stowed the four spirit-prisons inside. I slammed the drawer, feeling the neat regiment of wards lock into place.

My computer desk was hardly the most secure location for the stolen artifacts, but I’d warded it as best I could until I could come up with a more permanent solution. The demon jars—and the spirits trapped inside them—posed an awkward responsibility. I didn’t like the idea of babysitting them indefinitely, but I couldn’t trust them to anyone else.

Setting them free wasn’t really an option, not with what I knew. Despite the names of the vessels, the spirits imprisoned in them weren’t demons, but angels. That didn’t mean they were nice guys though. They were family—and my family was fucking terrifying.

Scowling, I scrubbed at my face like I could wipe away all my concerns with that simple gesture. As if. A week’s worth of stubble rasped beneath my palm. Normally clean-shaven, somewhere between the insomnia and the nightmares that galloped madly along after it, I’d stopped giving a damn. One sick day had turned into seven, and now I was burning vacation days fast.

The apartment looked like hell, too.

My unwanted visitor continued to knock.

“This had better be good,” I grumbled. Murmuring the phrase that obscured all the important items on the desk, I pushed out of the computer chair and headed for the door.

There were wards there, too, and they glimmered faintly in the wan light of the living room lamp. They kept the door from being a point of open access over on the Shadowside. Without them, anything wandering that non-physical echo of the flesh-and-blood world could just saunter into my apartment however it pleased.

I’d used the trick often enough myself.

The floor creaked as I approached the door—at six foot three, I wasn’t exactly light on my feet. The knocking slowed, and I paused with my hand above the doorknob. I had a lot of enemies in the world—certainly more enemies than friends. The door to my apartment had the standard fish-eye peephole, but I’d learned not to trust what could be seen.

So I closed my eyes.

Unclenching the imaginary fist I kept tightly wrapped, I let my psychic senses spill forth. Like a belling hound barely broken to the leash, my awareness surged into the hall, spreading to the apartment across the way, then rushing eagerly down the stairwell to the floor beneath. Dizzying and wild, the perceptions threatened to expand beyond my ability to contain them. I’d lost my finesse, and struggled to rein it all in.

“Focus,” I breathed, and I did.

Disjointed impressions drifted in from beyond the door, most of them the dregs left in the wake of mortal lives—worn scraps of emotions, echoes of intent, the sense of ceaseless motion from one space to the next. The instant I recognized anything from a neighbor, I cast that information aside. What remained was a tenuous perception—nothing so clear as a picture. One person.

Slight in build. Human. Nervous. Rushed.

If not for the door, I could have reached out and touched her.

Female. That was another piece.

Young—not a child, though. A young adult. There was more information fluttering at the edges, and I probably could have picked it out, had I pushed, but I had more than enough.

With an effort that felt like sucking a hurricane into a knapsack, I reined my senses back in, shoving them to their regimented corner of my mind. My eyes snapped open, and my fingers still hovered above the handle to the door. A scant few seconds had ticked away.

Satisfied that my visitor offered no threat, I flipped the deadbolt and pulled open the door. The young woman outside blinked up at me with unusually dark eyes, peering through glasses with hipster-black frames. Her puffy winter coat was snow-bunny pink with faux fur trim that hoped some day to meet a real rabbit. Long, glossy black hair spilled out from under a knitted cap with a little pompom on the top. Despite the heavy coat and ridiculous hat, her arms were wrapped tightly across her midsection, as if she was struggling not to shiver.

When she saw me looming in the door, her cinnamon-colored skin went several shades lighter. The hair and whiskers probably made me look like a crazy man, but I hadn’t expected that kind of reaction.

I must have looked worse than I felt.

“You’re Professor Zachary Westland?” she asked. She didn’t sound too sure about it. Leaning a shoulder against the doorframe, I slouched a little in the hope of putting her at ease. I was nearly a foot taller than her, and that height bothered some people.

An anxious little voice in the back of my head whispered that she’d noticed something else about me—my hidden nature. I told the little voice to shut the hell up.

“Just Zack,” I answered. “I haven’t taught at Case for nearly two years.”

She chewed her lower lip and fussed with her car keys. She couldn’t have been much more than twenty. Not old enough to be one of my graduate students, not young enough to be selling Girl Scout cookies—which was a shame. Some thin mints would have seriously improved my mood.

“What can I do for you?” I asked to break the silence. My voice still carried a jagged edge. I cleared my throat, trying to remember how to talk like a normal person. My words could channel a lot of power—literal magic—and this girl didn’t deserve to get hammered just because I’d been cooped up too long.

“Father Frank sent me,” she replied, flashing a nervous smile.

She said it like I should know the name. I didn’t. Then again, it might have been one of the things that had been taken from me. I didn’t want to explain my mutilated memory, and I
really
didn’t want to hear any well-intentioned platitudes from a complete stranger. Those would just drive me to slam the door in her face. So I played it off.

“What did Father Frank want, exactly?” I asked.

She brightened a little, saying, “He needs your help with a case. He told me to tell you that he understands you don’t want to be bothered right now, but it’s really important. And she lives close—I can take you there tonight.” She held up the car keys like they were some kind of talisman.

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