Eli popped an extra-strength Advil and downed it with a mouthful of lukewarm coffee. She hoped that would stop the ache in her chest, although it would do nothing for the rattling cough that kept her awake at night. Bronchioles turning to thorns and spiderwebs were hell on a body. Eventually she would turn back into the parts the witch had used to make her — a girl stitched together out of beetle shells and hawthorn berries and a witch’s greed.
Eli took another sip of coffee and flicked her eyes to a corner of the café. The ghost had taken the form of a middle-aged man in Clark Kent glasses — he must have been watching old films to think those were still in style — and was fumbling with a MacBook. He hadn’t touched his coffee, which was a dead giveaway. Caffeine short-circuited a ghost’s nervous system.
She drew a dagger of glass, enchanted to be invisible to human eyes. Pasted on a nervous smile, the one she saw often on teenagers in the human world. Then she stood up.
It was time.
Eli wasn’t just a teenage girl with heavy bangs falling over round glasses, fighting with her mother and writing bad poetry in her journal (although she did some of that, too). Eli was an assassin.
She bumped into Clark Kent’s table as she walked past, spilling his coffee.
“Shit!” He grabbed his computer and jumped up, but not before some of the liquid had spilled onto his crisp tan pants. He hissed in pain.
“Oh my god, I’m so sorry!” Eli did her best squeal. “I’ll get you some napkins!” She lightly pressed the flat of the blade against the back of his neck, reflecting the magic inward. Trapping the ghost inside.
Eli ran back to the counter to grab some napkins. “I’m sooo clumsy,” she told the barista, who smiled sympathetically.
The blade had rendered the man docile. The body looked sick and confused. She’d never seen one so weak. Unless it was a trick.
Coffee dripped onto the floor — a lulling, rhythmic soundtrack to everyday murder.
Eli picked up the laptop, wiped down the table, and then carefully placed it down again. She eyed him warily, looking for evidence of the ghost. Sometimes they came out of the ears like steam and tried to escape, even when she used the glass knife. Hunting down a cloud of steam was a pain in the ass. This one seemed safely neutralized.
“You should go wash up,” she told him. He nodded slowly. The man stood up, unsteadily, and walked to the bathroom at the back of the café. She followed him.
“I’m so sorry,” she repeated, trying to remind herself to walk noisily, clumsily, like a human would. Her blades swung in a gentle, familiar rhythm at her hips.
Through the door, into a room with flickering fluorescent lights and dirty linoleum. The glaring afternoon sun pouring in through a window. A mirror reflecting their images back at them: a girl and a man. Hunter and prey.
Usually the ghosts resisted, and the trick was to keep them in the human body by magic and force. But this one seemed tired and ready to die. Eli wondered for a moment if she found that thought comforting — that she was helping him find peace. Exorcising the demon. Putting the body to rest. Then she shook her head.
She was made to kill.
She was created to derive pleasure in a job well done. And she was close to completing another assignment. She pulled out a different knife, cloudy, its color shifting and changing between greys, blacks, and pearl-toned whites. The man’s eyes widened. “What — “”
Eli drove it into his skull. It went through easily, and she rooted around inside for a few moments trying to catch the sleeping ghost. Trying to drag the magic out of its human shell.
Blood poured from the shattered skull, shimmering across her face like a red galaxy as she pressed deeper into his brain. The body collapsed on the floor in a heavy, meaty pile.
Eli stepped back, heart racing. That wasn’t supposed to happen.
Once she knifed a ghost, its body transformed back into what it was made from — a dog bone or an old biscuit.
This body remained stubbornly human. Eli heard footsteps outside the bathroom door and she was standing in blood, in the blood of the man she had just murdered — a human — and if someone saw her they would call the cops, they would track her down. Human bullets would hurt her as surely as they puncture holes in trees, and she would bleed, too. Even if she survived, her handlers would come for her and finish the job.
A thought jarred her out of panic: this man was the mark. She wasn’t mistaken. Which meant someone else had fucked up and put her here.
Fear and fury burned through Eli’s body, making her cough violently as stone turned to ash in her lungs. (She had been warned about strong emotions.) Her hand tightened on the knife and she made the split-second decision to live. She was, after all, made to possess strong survival instincts.
As for the anger? That was entirely her own.
As the bathroom door opened, Eli threw herself at the window, cracking it with her elbow. She fell into the back alley behind the café. Taking a breath, she checked that her glamour was still in place — brown eyes, blonde hair, mouth heavy with lipstick — and that her blades were still shielded from human eyes. Then she forced herself to walk slowly into the bustling downtown, into the heart of the City of Ghosts.
Above the city, invisible to the human eye, darkening to a deep blue speckled with stars, hung the monstrous and magical City of Eyes.