I crouched, tense, in the derelict remains of a high school gymnasium, one of the last buildings still standing in the town of Ashland, which had been mostly burned to the ground during the demonic uprising more than a century before. Though standing might be giving the gymnasium too much credit. The walls were upright. The floor was buckled, but intact, and dotted with rotting insulation that had fallen through the ceiling long before I was born. A few weak beams of daylight shone through small holes in the roof, highlighting dust motes in the air, and as I turned slowly, I marveled at how still and quiet the huge room felt.
A footstep whispered behind me and the sound of my pulse swelled in my ears. I spun and drove my heel into my attacker’s solar plexus. He flew backward with a breathless “Oof!” and landed hard on the warped wooden floor, scraping the last flakes of paint from what had once been standard basketball court markings. Or maybe a cartoonish depiction of the school mascot, like the one still clinging to the gray brick wall.
The assailant tried to get up, but I dropped onto him, straddling his hips, and shoved my left palm down on his chest. My right fist was pulled back, ready to punch him in the face, just in case.
Maddock held both hands palms-out between us, his hazel eyes wide as they stared up at me. “Nina, I give!”
I laughed as I climbed off him, wiping sweat from my forehead in spite of the cool spring morning.
“You’re getting good at this.” He pushed himself to his feet for the sixth time in ten minutes, rubbing his flat stomach where my boot had connected with it. “You’re almost ready to take on Devi.”
I turned my back so he couldn’t see me roll my eyes. “I’ll try to contain my joy.”
We’d been sparring for nearly an hour, burning energy we had no way to replenish in order to hone skills we couldn’t survive without on our own in the badlands.
Growing up under the tyrannical thumb of the Unified Church had been no picnic, even before we’d discovered that we were actually being governed by demons, raising human citizens like cattle for the slaughter. But at least food had been easy to swipe from the corner store less than a mile from my house.
Outside the Church’s walled-in cities, survival required much stricter planning. And vigorous self-defense. After five months in the badlands, we were all lean and ragged from the meager diet and frequent exposure to the elements, yet I was faster and stronger than I’d ever been in my life.
Maddock used the short sleeve of a sun-bleached blue T‑shirt to wipe sweat from his forehead. “Maybe we should take a break,” he said, in the quiet way he had of making a suggestion sound like an imperative. I’d been impressed by that ability from the moment I’d met him. Devi could shout and make demands, and, truth be told, she probably could have taken him in a fair fight if she weren’t until-death-rends-me-from-your-side in love with him. But she could not lead Anathema because we would not follow her.
Devi did, however, get credit for naming our motley band of outlaws. When the Church had declared us anathema—cast us out, claiming we’d been possessed—Devi had insisted we make the label ours. We’d been wearing it like a medal ever since.
Finn stepped out of the shadows behind a crumbling set of bleachers, the sun shining on his short-cropped dark curls. My pulse spiked when he pulled me into an embrace in spite of the layer of sweat and grime coating my training clothes. “If he’s too tired to take you to the ground, I’d be happy to step in,” he whispered into my ear, and warmth glowed beneath my skin at the scandalous subtext. My connection with Finn had grown bolder with every mile that stretched between Anathema and the authority of the Church, until daily, unchaperoned conversation with boys no longer made me glance fearfully over my shoulder.
Yet the novelty of that easy contact lingered, intensifying the excitement of my first serious relationship. As it turned out, indecency was terribly exhilarating. Devi had been right about that all along.
“Sounds like fun,” I whispered in return, and Finn’s embrace tightened. “If I weren’t afraid of hurting you, I would have been sparring with you in the first place.” But when his arms tensed around me, I recognized my mistake.
“I hate this fragile body,” he growled against the upper curve of my ear, and I felt his frustration like a gulf opening between us, widening with every reminder that unlike my own, the flesh he wore was borrowed, and limited by ordinary human abilities. He’d been in the body of a gate guard named Carter since the day we’d escaped New Temperance five months before, and though the guard was strong and fast, and tall enough that I could comfortably rest my chin on his shoulder, his body was no match for an exorcist’s speed or strength.
“I like this body,” I whispered, sliding my arms around his neck as I stared up into green eyes that looked even greener against the smooth, dark skin of his appropriated face. “And I like you in it. Strength and speed aren’t every-thing.” And even a weak “civilian” body was better than no body at all, which was Finn’s natural state. At least this way I could see him and talk to him and kiss him . . . when we weren’t surrounded by our fellow outlaws.
“We should save our energy for the raid anyway,” Maddy added with a sympathetic glance at his best friend. “Assuming there’s anything to raid.”
But there had to be. “If Reese and Devi don’t find a supply truck today, we’re screwed,” Finn said, and neither of us argued. “The disadvantage of having a body full-time is that it’s hungry all the time.”
We’d taken everything both vehicles could hold during our most recent heist, but a month later we were running on empty again. As were both cars. Most of us could go a couple of days without food, but Melanie . . .
My little sister and her unborn child had to eat every day. Several times a day. They needed good food—protein and vitamins we just didn’t know how to find in the badlands on our own, especially during the winter months, when there’d been little edible vegetation growing in the largely abandoned national landscape.
Now that spring had come we had hopes for foraging, but we were new to the art, and the learning curve was steep.
Yet Mellie and her baby faced an even greater challenge than hunger, and it was that need that kept me awake most nights. . . .
“Here. Hydrate.” Finn pressed a bottle of water into my hand and I gulped half of it. Fortunately, Ashland had several creeks, and they all ran clear and cold. The world’s water supply was probably cleaner than it had been before the war, now that humanity had stopped poisoning the planet.
The demon apocalypse had been good for the environment, if nothing else.
I pulled Finn closer and inhaled deeply, letting the feel of his arms around me and the scent of his hair—pilfered shampoo and fresh river water—push entrenched fears to the back of my mind. He’d been my anchor during our chaotic life on the run, and I’d grown comfortable with the arms that held me, even if they weren’t really his.
But the guilt from having stolen an innocent man’s body wore on Finn constantly. Unfortunately, we couldn’t let the guard go in the middle of the badlands. Within hours he’d be torn to pieces by degenerates—deranged demons trapped in mutated human bodies, roaming what was left of the United States in search of a fresh soul to devour.
I’d just finished my water when the growl of an approaching engine put all three of us on alert. Maddy raced for the exit and squeezed through a set of doors immobilized in the ajar position by the warped floor. Finn and I were right behind him, dust motes swirling around us.
We got to the sidewalk just as the black SUV slid to a halt on fractured pavement, inches from the bumper of the car we’d fled New Temperance in, which still bore the bullet hole and spiderwebbed glass from our escape. Dust puffed beneath the tires and settled onto our worn boots as Reese emerged from the passenger side. Maddy, Finn, and I practically strained our necks looking up at him.
Reese Cardwell was six and a half feet and two hundred thirty pounds of solid muscle, even after months of our paltry badlands diet.
“Maddy. Heads up,” Devi called as she climbed out of the driver’s seat and pushed her long, dark braid over her shoulder. She tossed a crowbar to him over the hood of the SUV. “Church caravan, ten minutes out. Two supply trucks and an escort vehicle. They’ve stepped up the security in response to our raids.”
That was inevitable. We’d hit three supply trucks in the past five months. The Church was evil, not stupid.
“We can’t handle a security escort,” Maddock insisted, testing the heft of the crowbar. “There aren’t enough of us.”
I propped my hands on my hips. “But we’re out-numbered by degenerates all the time.”
“Exorcising degenerates is easy,” Maddock said, though I had a knot on my head and a bandaged gash on my left arm that would argue otherwise. “Disabling innocent people without killing them—that’s the hard part. If the security detail’s all human, this’ll get complicated.”
“We don’t have any choice.” Reese grabbed a set of binoculars from the passenger-side dashboard. “They’ve posted guards at the gasoline depot”—a prewar relic kept functional by the Church to fuel their deliveries—“and they probably won’t be shipping provisions one truck at a time anymore. We need a haul big enough to let us lie low for a while, and we’ll have to siphon all three tanks to get us five hundred miles south.”
“South?” When had that been decided?
“We’ve worn out our welcome here.” Finn shrugged borrowed shoulders, but the green eyes that watched me were all his own, no matter whose body he wore. “The cities down south won’t be expecting us, so raids will be easier until they catch on.”
“Okay. So how many people are in this caravan?” I asked as Maddock counted the empty gas canisters lined up in the back of the battered black vehicle.
“About eight. Maybe more.” Devi tossed Reese the keys to the SUV. “All armed. Not sure how many are possessed. We’ll need Finn.”
And the assault rifle that had come with the gate guard’s body.
Devi slid behind the wheel of the smaller car and adjusted the mirrors. Maddock got in next to her and stuck the key into the ignition while Finn and I climbed into the backseat. Reese got into the SUV behind us, and as we took off across the badlands, Finn pulled the semi-automatic rifle from the floorboard and checked to make sure it was loaded.
“What’s the setup?” I asked, staring into the rearview mirror at the front of the decrepit school library, where my sister waited with the other two civilian members of our group, in the safest location we could find for them. Mellie was easily persuaded to stay out of the action if she had something to read.
“Roadblock on the main drag of Palmersville.” Devi took a turn too fast on the splintered pavement and the tires squealed beneath us as I slid across the backseat into Finn. “They’ll have to go right through on their way to the gas depot, and the road’s narrow enough that Reese can block it with just the SUV. When the trucks stop, Finn will shoot out the tires of the rear vehicle to block their retreat. Then we melee.”
“That’s the best way to fight.” Maddock twisted in his seat to shoot a gleeful grin at us. “Trap them, then force them to brawl hand-to-hand. Because chaos—”
“—favors the militia,” I finished for him. “I know.” Obviously, we were the militia.
I’d never been in a fight in my life until the week of my seventeenth birthday, five months earlier, when I’d discovered I was an exorcist by frying a demon from my mother’s body. Naturally, she’d died in the process, and the Church had accused me of matricide, to cover up the fact that their army of “exorcists” was full of fakes. I’d gone from high school senior to the country’s most wanted fugitive in a single instant.
Since then, Melanie and I had been on the run with the rest of Anathema, armed with the dangerous knowledge that the all-powerful Unified Church, which claimed to have “saved” humanity from the invading demon horde a century before, actually was the demon horde, disguised with human faces and authorial robes.
Minutes after piling into the car, we raced down the main drag of what was once a tiny town called Palmersville, which boasted a grand total of four mostly paved streets. Devi turned right onto one of them, and behind us Reese parked the SUV sideways across the entire two-lane road.
Finn got out of the car with his rifle and took a quick look around the derelict town. He pointed at a crumbling storefront across the street. “I’ll be in there. Center window, bottom floor.”
“Be careful.” I pulled him close for an adrenaline-fueled kiss, and when we let the moment linger, Devi grabbed the tail of my shirt and hauled me backward.
“Priorities,” she snapped as Finn grinned at me, then turned to jog across the street.
“We’ll take out the escort vehicle first.” Reese towered over the rest of us, in a group too varied in height to form a true huddle. “Then Nina and I will take the first supply truck and you two take the second one.”
Maddock and Devi nodded, then headed into an alley across the way while Reese and I hid behind an industrial trash bin half-eaten with rust on our side of the street.
Seconds later we heard engines.
Our haphazardly parked SUV was dusty and dented enough to pass for abandoned, and I knew for certain that the ploy had worked when the caravan’s escort vehicle, a police car, stopped ten feet away. The police car bore the stylized emblem of the Unified Church—four intertwined columns of flames—and the men who got out of it wore the long navy cassocks of police officers.
Even from a distance I could see the white embroidery on their full, bell-shaped sleeves. They were both consecrated Church leaders.
Which meant they were possessed.