Finder (The Watchers Book 6)Lilith Saintcrow
Table of Contents
Praise for Lilith Saintcrow
Books by Lilith Saintcrow
Let Me Help You
Greet the Dawn, Night
A Serious One
To a Fault
Time to Shine
A Circus Animal
A Bad Habit
Worth His While
Lie to My Witch
To Be Kind
The Only Lie
No Good Reason
Circle for a Reason
In Search of a Ferret
Half a Chance
A Real Winner
Without the Story
Clever Little Girl
Awake at Last
Watchers at Work
Light, Strong and Sure
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Praise for Lilith Saintcrow
“Darkly compelling, fascinatingly unique. Lilith Saintcrow offers a breathtaking, fantastic ride.”
—NYT bestselling author Gena Showalter
“In the Watchers series, Saintcrow writes stories that are almost always nonstop action from beginning to end. Her women are kick-ass strong, her men ruggedly handsome and dedicated to the women they serve. It isn’t a bad combination at all.”
“I read Dark Watcher with growing delight. As chapter followed chapter, I never quite knew what was around the corner.”
“…a one-of-a-kind author.”
—Romantic Times magazine on To Hell and Back
“The story will keep you on the edge of your seat . . .”
—KD Did It Edits on The Demon’s Librarian
Of Dante Valentine . . .
“Dark fantasy has a new heroine . . .”
“Saintcrow snares readers with an amazing alternate reality that is gritty, hip and dangerously mesmerizing.”
—Romantic Times magazine
“She’s a brave, charismatic protagonist with a smart mouth and a suicidal streak. What’s not to love?”
“This mind-blowing series remains a must-read for all urban fantasy lovers.”
Books by Lilith Saintcrow
The Society Series
The Demon’s Librarian
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons (living or dead), events or locations is entirely coincidental.
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Ebook ISBN: 978-1-61026-146-3
Print ISBN: 978-1-61194-990-2
ImaJinn Books is an Imprint of BelleBooks, Inc.
Copyright © 2020 by Lilith Saintcrow
Published in the United States of America.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review.
ImaJinn Books was founded by Linda Kichline.
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Cover design: Debra Dixon
Interior design: Hank Smith
Male figure (manipulated) © Mast3r | Dreamstime.com
To Kassandra Appel and Brenda Chin, with thanks.
Let Me Help You
A SHARP FILTHY blade sliding under flesh, crimson blood-ribbons streaming. Muffled sounds made it through the tiny victim’s gag; the man gasped heavily, breathing damp black contagion as dim light faded at outside edges, a camera shutter closing.
The scene turned fuzzy with mental static; still, the dreaming woman’s trained consciousness remained steady. All Finding was a matter of two things—first, knowing the object was lost; and second, perceiving the difference between its location and hers. To Find a thing, she had to know how its place was unlike her own faraway, breathing body. Whatever was lost in this place cried out, a tongueless imperative rustling like wings.
Where? Show me where you are, give me a clue. A dream-state wasn’t the best for Finding. It was too imprecise, the borders of slumber’s country running like oil on water, no solidity to push against, no thread to follow.
The scene re-formed, a different angle and dappled light against a high, crumbling ceiling. Wet concrete, dripping water, a deep rushing sound. The reek of copper and sharp pungent chlorine drew choking-close. A mattress lay in a forgotten corner, forlorn and violated, its striped cotton surface blotted with crawling darkness the dreamer did not dare gaze too deeply into. It pulsed, and its waves of sick satisfaction spilled along the floor like ground fog.
There was no window, no distinguishing marks, no sense of direction or draw like a lodestone against the dreamer’s bones. There was only the smell, the wet dripping, the mattress.
And the dolls.
Two long shelves held tiny forms both brown and white, slim and round, their glass eyes silent-screaming with terrible knowledge. Their clothes were clumsily sewn with large stitches, scraps of once-bright cloth bearing rusty dry stains.
The dolls drew the dreamer in, mute mouths sewn tight with black thread. Each had a tuft of clotted hair, and each tuft pulsed like an umbilicus, snaky weeds reaching like soft choking fingers. Those tangles would wrap around the dreamer, dragging living breath and beating heart down into fabric bellies and stitched-shut mouths.
Where? She pleaded, mutely, trying to find the path, the thread, the source. Show me where, so I can help you. Let me help you.
e was no answer, just the deadly swaying. She had alerted some dozing evil presence, she realized, and the dream took on a different flavor, a familiar tang.
A blast of sharpsick white light smashed through the cavern. The dreamer fled like a blue-winged bird, heart pounding as feathers exploded, seeking escape. Each time it was the same, the dolls regarding her with passive pleading, vibrating inside their sackcloth skins, and the nuclear explosion of bright hatred behind her.
She burst into the night sky, winging hard, oily terror thick in her mouth. Behind her there was a cheated howl—the prowling beast who made the dolls, his sticky, cloying reek spreading. Feathers shed in her haste melted as soon as they dropped, leaving nothing behind. Each flight was the same, streaking through dreaming skies, as the thing behind her scream-snarled its lust for death.
Greet the Dawn, Night
JORIE CAMDEN sat straight up, gasping, heart pounding, greasy night sweat coating her skin. Her pulse was a hummingbird’s wings, fluttering, and her hair stuck in damp strings to her forehead.
“Jorie,” Rust said softly from the door, not stepping into the room because her aura flared with gold at the edges, its brilliant core pulsing. The light would hurt a Watcher, salt rubbed into an open wound; the tanak was, after all, a Dark creature, and violently allergic to a witch’s glow. “You’re safe. You’re at home.”
“Mouths,” she managed, teeth chattering with cold though her skin was flush with fever. “Mouths and eyes both closed. They’re so little, the little dolls.” Her voice was a dreamer’s hopeless slur heard from another room, and she returned to full consciousness with a jolt.
“You’re at home.” Rust repeated the same words every Watcher used in the middle of her nightmares, chapter and verse, re-orienting a frightened Lightbringer. Every six months, there was a new, big-shouldered man in her spare bedroom, driving her car, roaming her neighborhood at night looking for invisible or quasi-visible predators. “You’re safe. It’s all right.”
Safe. What a word. “Gods . . .” Jorie exhaled hard; her entire body shivered, throwing aside the cold of whatever place she visited to bring back dream-glimpses of the utterly lost. Or, who knew, it could even be a simple nightmare; the gods knew she had no shortage of fuel for those. “I’m awake.” She couldn’t even convince herself, and stared at the door and the familiar redblack swirl of disciplined, hurtful power, drawn close and contained.
“Do you need paper?” Rust’s eyes were dark, but they glimmered with the peculiar intensity of a Watcher’s gaze. Often the tanak crouching in their bones bleached the irises and gave them a piercing stare.
The vision swirled at the edge of her consciousness, finally receding. A drawing pad and set of pencils were on her nightstand; she could have reached over and touched them. Sketching sometimes brought everything into clearer focus, but her fingers weren’t itching with need. “N-no.” Her teeth chopped the word in half, and he took another cautious step into the room despite her glow. “It’s the s-same thing. I c-can’t get a location. Damn it.” She shivered, pulled at the blankets. Thank goodness she’d just about trained him out of tucking her in, just in time for the end of his rotation. “Tea, I suppose. With lemon. Please.”
Most Watchers were uncomfortable with please or thank you, preferring direct orders instead. But still, Jorie couldn’t help it. The least you could do for a man who wanted to put his body between you and the Dark was a little common politeness.
Rust nodded, his hair flopping a bit over his forehead. He needed a trim. “If you need me, call.”
And how many times had she heard that from a Watcher? “I will.” Jorie pulled her knees up under the blankets, hugged them.
The tanak showed briefly, crimson-black swelling in his aura as Rust turned. The edge of his long dark leather coat swung, and she let out a soft sigh as his shadow fled the door. The fever portion of terror drained away; the chill remained, soaking through her skin.
The shields on her house resonated as Rust checked them. It was comforting to feel a Watcher’s attention to the wards, even as breathing night pressed against her walls. The house groaned and creaked, ticking the way every building of a certain age did after dark. Each noise was familiar, expected, but still scraped her raw nerves.
By the time he brought chamomile tea up in the big sunflower-yellow mug, her breathing and pulse had both evened out. She took the tea gratefully, careful not to brush his skin with hers; he retreated as soon as she had her fingers firmly around the cup.
The light hurt them, and direct contact made it worse.
“Better?” Rust sounded concerned.
It was hard on Watchers when the witch they were detailed to guard woke up screaming seven nights out of ten. Rust was, however, a little less grim than some of the others she’d had.
He smiled at least once a week and occasionally even laughed. She could count that an unqualified success, considering that he was with her to be treated for despair.
“Much better.” She sipped, scorching her tongue and grimacing. Served her right. “Thank you.”
“Do you want the light on?” Now he hovered, uncertainly. He was a big man, wide-shouldered, and had a shambling efficiency rare among Watchers. Most of them were quick and supple, but Rust always seemed a little gawky. It was endearing, especially when you knew how lethal he was.
Just last week there had been a kalak in the vicinity, its attention scraping like a serrated blade under an apple’s peel as it hunted for a nice, tasty, defenseless snack. Often, they didn’t want to tangle with Watchers.
But sometimes, they got hungry enough.
Jorie shivered. Don’t think about that, or you’ll never get back to sleep. “No, it’s all right.” She blew across the tea to cool it. Any witch could drain off a few excess therms; it was a simple conversion—but it was best to let most things handle themselves naturally. “I’m sorry. I know we’re due at the safehouse early tomorrow.”
He shrugged, a half-seen movement in dim light from the hall. Leather creaked slightly, and small gleams—knife hilts, the guns low on his hips, the sword hilt—were a reminder she never needed of the danger she’d been born into. “They’re getting worse, aren’t they.” It wasn’t a question.
It was the end of his six months’ worth of guard duty. Tomorrow he would rest at the safehouse for a night before going on patrol or being sent to hover over some other Lightfall witch. By this time tomorrow there would be a new Watcher in her spare bedroom, and Jorie would be cooking for and looking after another man. She’d been hoping Rust wouldn’t notice the sudden increase in her visions; it was one more worry for a man who had plenty.
Now he would probably report it in debriefing, and Sarah would be concerned. The other Seers would be, too.
They’ll ask me if I want to move into the safehouse, and I’m going to have to say no. Then there will be that silence, the one that says I’m hurting their feelings and being stubborn. Though of course, they’ll be too polite to say anything.
There really wasn’t an answer that wouldn’t take them over old territory, so she decided to change the subject. “I’m going to miss you.” The heat was welcome, and her shudders eased. The peppermint in the tea helped too. “You’re a good Watcher.”
Of course, he didn’t press. No Watcher would. “Thank you.” He stood by the door, shoulders slumped, the long coat blurring his outline. The sword hilt rising over his left shoulder—he was one of those rarities, a left-handed Watcher—shifted slightly as he leaned against the wall. “I’ll miss your cooking, if they put me on patrol again.”
It was an attempt at humor, and she welcomed it. When he’d arrived, gaunt from the strain of the death, destruction, and mayhem Watchers were forced to face on a near-daily basis, he’d been almost nonverbal. It didn’t hel
p that he’d signed up for it, that he’d been willing. No man entered Circle Lightfall’s combat arm unless he outright begged for the job.
But even willingness didn’t help when you saw what the Dark was capable of. Some creatures were just hungry, but others . . . well, they liked causing pain.
It made everything taste better.
She suppressed a shudder. Maybe she could get some more sleep tonight, if she stopped brooding. Her shoulders relaxed, her heart easing into a steadier rhythm. “It’s good to have an appreciative audience.” She took another sip, found the tea had cooled enough to only scald her halfway instead of instantly. Small mercies. “We’ll trim your hair tomorrow too, before we go.”
He nodded. “Thanks, Jorie.” Quietly, softly, as if he wasn’t the one carrying the guns and knives. Living with a Watcher was like being in a warm safe blanket—except when violence erupted or the Dark came too close. “I’m going to check the neighborhood. Unless you need me.”
I wish I didn’t need a Watcher. But I’m glad you’re here. “No, I’m all right. Thanks for the tea.”
“No problem. I’ll be back in a bit.” He straightened. The rectangle of glow in the bedroom door waned as he slid through, and she felt him on the stairs, his aura tightly controlled and contained as he tested the wards on the house yet again. Each Watcher got a little nervous near the end of a six-month stint, checking and rechecking her neighborhood for signs of Dark contamination that could rear up and cause problems for the next fellow on guard duty.
And, not so incidentally, treating her like spun glass, bolstering the protections on her little house, and just generally acting jumpy. Statistically, it was the most dangerous time for a witch under guard; any change in routine was hazardous. Six-month shifts were just long enough for the Watchers to get comfortable, long enough to treat all but the most stubborn cases of despair—and short enough that a number of Watchers got a chance to meet and possibly bond with a witch.