David Mack, NEW YORK TIMES Bestselling Author

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THE CALLING

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Chapter 1

Jung Lee didn't hear the bullet till it passed through his head.

Hot powder shot up from its ricochet off a concrete skylight housing. The dust stung Jung's eyes. The slim young Korean man winced against the pain, blinked his eyes clear, then turned to see who had ambushed him.

Backlit by the distant Manhattan nightscape were three figures, spread across the expansive terrain of the Brooklyn high school's roof.

Farthest away, perched above the roof's access door, was a pale-skinned man with close-cropped dark hair and not an ounce of extra fat. Loose shirt and pants. Hard muscles and hard eyes. He jumped down, landed on bare feet and stole forward with the supple grace of a predator.

Flanking the barefoot man was a fragile-looking young woman with short red hair, a retro-punk sense of fashion, and half a dozen facial piercings.

On the right was a large bearded man dressed in a motorcyclist's riding leathers festooned with gang insignia. The biker aimed his handgun at Jung and fired three more shots, which tore holes through Jung's T-shirt and both sides of his hoodie — but left the Sentinel unharmed.

"So it's true," said the barefoot man. He flashed a malevolent smile. "You really are immune to metal."

Jung had never seen any of them before, but as they moved toward him, he knew who they were. There was no point in answering them. They hadn't come to talk — the Scorned never did. Jung reached behind his back and drew a pair of nunchaku. The two halves of the wooden flail were linked by a short length of coarse rope, making it a very quiet weapon as he swung it in a defensive figure-eight pattern and sidestepped away from the edge of the high rooftop.

The biker became a watery, almost transparent blur — and then he was three blurs, splitting up and charging at Jung.

The Sentinel dodged left and swung his nunchaku in a blinding pattern of arcs and snaps. The weapon passed through one blur, then another — and then a kick swept Jung's legs out from under him. He fell backward and rolled with the change. Arching his back, he absorbed the momentum of his fall and then sprang forward, back to his feet, narrowly avoiding the biker's clumsy stomp at his neck.

A snap-strike of Jung's nunchaku caught the biker in the side of the head. The leather-clad brute staggered backward. Wary of the red-haired woman and the barefoot man, who were moving to either side of him, Jung backed off, turning his nunchaku once more in a steady figure eight.

Bolts of electricity leapt from a cluster of cell-phone antennae on the roof's nearest corner. The high-voltage barrage enveloped Jung. Spasms rocked his body, and his tongue suddenly tasted like copper. The nunchaku tumbled from his hand. As the lightning ceased, Jung saw crackles of electricity dancing across the red-haired woman's fingertips.

The biker blurred and divided again, and all three blurs advanced on Jung.

Crushing blows pummeled Jung's gut and face. The biker reappeared from his blur disguise and locked one arm around the Sentinel's throat.

A stabbing pain flared hot and sharp in Jung's back, followed by another. His howl of pain came up empty; at a loss for breath, he knew one of his lungs had collapsed.

"Ceramic knife," the biker taunted him. "Ain't that a bitch?"

The redhead stepped in front of Jung and placed her hand over his chest. Each crackle of electricity between her fingertips made his heart skip a beat.

Behind her, the barefoot man observed with dispassionate calm. "You know you can't win," he said to Jung. "But you can decide how you'll die. Quickly … or slowly." To the redhead, he said simply, "Fiona."

She jolted Jung's chest for a split second. A sound like the ocean roared in his ears. His skull felt as if it had ballooned to twice its size. His vision turned purple, and then he struggled to see through a swarm of slow-moving violet spots.

"That's the quick way," said the barefoot man. He nodded to the biker, who gave the knife in Jung's back a tiny but excruciating twist. A cry of agony lay trapped in Jung's aching chest. "That's the slow way." The trio's leader took a pack of cigarettes and a lighter from his back pants pocket. Fished out one cigarette and lit it. "So … if you'd like to end this right now, all you have to do … is tell me if the Called gave the girl any other Sentinels."

Struggling for air, Jung gasped, "I don't know."

The questioner lowered his square chin and narrowed his eyes. "Don't lie to me, Jung. We know who you're guarding — the one who can see the Bridge." Fiona stepped aside, and the barefoot man stepped forward.

Jung looked up and met his feral stare.

The punch hit Jung's face like a burning sledgehammer.

His cheek prickled with heat where the blow had fallen. The stench of his burnt goatee was sharp in the cool fall air.

"Let's try again." The barefoot man wiped Jung's blood from his knuckles by dragging them across the front of Jung's hoodie. "Are you her only Sentinel?"

Heroism would bring Jung neither glory nor a reward, but cowardice would inflict untold suffering on more souls than he could imagine. His survival was no longer important. Defending his charge was all that mattered now.

He twisted and pushed himself back onto the knife that was still stuck between his ribs. The biker lost his balance for a fraction of a second — long enough for Jung to get his hand on the man's holstered pistol and pull the trigger.

The shot cracked like thunder underfoot, and the biker let go of Jung's neck. The knife slid free of Jung's ribs and the pistol cleared its holster as the biker stumbled backward with a bullet in his foot. Jung snapped off a shot at the redhead, just as she lit him up with a burst of blue forked lightning from her hand.

His vision whited out with pain and shock. Clarity returned in a blink. He was on his knees with a smoking scar on his chest and a painful ringing in his ears. The redhead lay slain by the gruesome gunshot wound in her throat.

Three blurs raced toward Jung. He'd have time to shoot only one. A calm, quiet voice in his heart told him where to aim. He fired at the center target.

The blurs vanished. All that remained was the biker, staggering backward, hands pawing helplessly at his bloodied chest. His lifeless eyes were still wide with shock as he collapsed on the gravel-covered rooftop.

A hand snared Jung's left wrist in a searing, viselike grip.

Under the sleeve of his hoodie, the hairs on Jung's forearm crisped and shriveled, and his flesh cooked on the bone.

The pistol tumbled from Jung's grasp. The barefoot man kicked it away across the shadowy rooftop as he tightened his grip on Jung's arm.

The Sentinel bit down on his cry of agony, shifted his weight, and tried to throw his attacker. Instead, the enemy Seeker let go of Jung's arm, changed his stance, and caught Jung with a jumping kick to the head.

Jung fell semiconscious on the gravel. Where the kick had caught his face, a vicious burn began to blister. He shook his head and fought against the pain as he wobbled to his feet. Barely able to breathe and beginning to slip into shock, Jung knew he had little chance of stopping a Seeker whose touch could burn flesh.

"You're not the one I came for," the barefoot man said, circling him. There was a mocking quality to his voice as he added, "You could run. I'd let you go."

Jung wiped blood from his mouth, then said, "You know better than that." He was a Sentinel of the Called, the only defender standing between the enemy and an innocent. He wouldn't run.

The enemy Seeker came at him, jabbing him with kicks and punches. Jung tried to block and hit back, but his scorched left arm was a soft target, and his right arm soon was peppered with blisters from deflecting the Seeker's infernally hot hands and feet. Then both his arms were snared —

He heard bones break. Sharp cracks split the night air.

Sickening jolts of pain shot through his elbows and shoulders. It would have sunk him into shock if the horrific burning in his torso hadn't already done so.

The Seeker dropped Jung in a smoking, twitching heap on the roof.

Jung lay still, shivering despite the heat that radiated from his brutalized body. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched as the barefoot man laid hands on his slain comrades and reduced their corpses to charred skeletons.

Then the enemy Seeker stood above him, holding the ceramic knife. The man fished a disposable cell phone from his pants pocket. Tapped in a number. Waited for someone to answer.

"It's Tanager," he said. "I got him. Looks like he was working solo." He listened a moment, then replied, "Yeah, you're good to go. Grab the girl. Good luck." He hung up and tucked the phone away.

Squatting over the stunned Jung, Tanager stabbed the ceramic blade an inch into the fallen Sentinel's left pectoral muscle, slashed diagonally across Jung's chest to the middle of his right side, made a horizontal gash back to the left, then cut another diagonal wound to the man's right hip. Eyeing the crude, vaguely S-shaped lightning-bolt graffito — the mark of the Scorned — Tanager flashed a sinister smile, then locked his left hand around Jung's throat.

A rush of all-consuming fire and a crimson haze of pain filled Jung's body and mind. He silently begged God to forgive him for his failure.

"Ashes to ashes," Tanager said as he cremated a Sentinel of the Called with his bare hands. "Dust to dust."

 


 

Phaedra Doyle was fighting for her life, and she was losing.

Her attacker had struck from the shadows. The gangly eleven-year-old had heard the stranger's steps only seconds before he'd grabbed her from behind.

He'd said nothing as he clamped his hand over her mouth and nose, muffling her cries with a damp, medicinal-smelling rag. She'd seen enough movies to guess that the cloth being mashed into her face was drugged, so she struggled to hold her breath.

On coltish legs she'd been moving in quick strides through the John Jay High School parking lot, which tonight had beckoned as a handy shortcut between the Park Slope block where her friend Nora lived and her own tree-lined Brooklyn street. The lot's Fifth Street gate was always chained shut, but a few weeks earlier, vandals had detached part of the chain-link fence next to it.

Most of the time, Phaedra knew to stick to the sidewalks, but tonight a gruesome car accident at Seventh Avenue and Fifth Street had cut off her usual route home. She also wanted to avoid the men in hard hats working at the corner of Eighth Avenue and Fourth Street because the road crew had a habit of saying crude things to her, sexual things that made her afraid of them.

After slipping through the open Fourth Street gate, she'd been distracted as she strolled across the lot toward the gap in its fence — lulled by the brisk autumn evening, by the speed with which night had fallen now that daylight savings time had ended, by the new music blaring through her earbuds.

She'd paid no attention to the lone SUV parked against the lot's tall concrete western wall, just shy of the flood lamp's soft circle of orange-hued light.

Then had come the crush of a callused, thick-fingered hand on her face and a burly arm locked around her throat.

She thrashed in his grip, twisted back and forth. His hold tightened. Her awkward back kick at his instep missed, and she slumped, weighted down by her book bag and unable to regain her balance. He dragged her out of the light and into the shadows.

Help was so close, only a panicked shout away, but she couldn't pry his hand from her face. Desperate for air but afraid to breathe, she felt herself getting dizzy. Her strength was fading. Inhaling was risky — who knew what was on that rag? — but a cry for help was her only chance. If she was lucky, if anyone was close enough to hear, if someone in the apartment buildings whose sides faced the back of the school had a window open, then maybe she still had a chance to escape.

She sucked in a breath. Pulled through the rag, it was heavy with a cool perfume that smelled like a poison. The drug left a bitter metallic taste in the back of her mouth. Her vision softened and dimmed as she tried to scream.

Then her attacker's arm stiffened into a vise on her throat, and no matter how hard she pushed from her chest, no sound passed her lips. Without warning, her legs turned rubbery and failed her.

Collapsed in his grasp, Phaedra felt consciousness fading. He let go of her head, and it lolled backward. She stared at a blue-black sky streaked with clouds the color of cotton candy dragged through the gutter. As he lifted her through the open rear hatch of the SUV, her head pitched forward, hiding her face behind a fall of long, straight brown hair. She landed hard and lay dazed as the liftgate thumped shut.

The SUV's carpet had an oily smell, and it was rough and gritty with dried mud beneath her cheek. She heard one of the vehicle's side doors open. With a labored shuffling and huffing, the man climbed inside and clambered over the back of the rear seat into the cargo area with her. Insulated from the ambient roar of the city outside the SUV, Phaedra heard the sound of a zipper being undone. She couldn't get her eyes to focus through the drug-induced haze, but she felt the man lift the hem of her pleated skirt. Shame and terror welled up inside her.

A sharp jab in her thigh dispelled the druggy fog and cleared her senses for a moment. She looked down and saw a hypodermic needle in the man's hand. The needle's tip was stuck in her left thigh. He slowly pushed down on the plunger and injected half a syringeful of golden liquid into her body.

Then she got her first real look at him. Dark suit, white shirt, gray tie, black shoes — a generic New Yorker. What held her attention was his black gas mask, with its large insectlike lenses, through which she saw his unsympathetic eyes. It had a protruding round speaker that made her think of a pig's snout. Attached to the speaker's side was a large round filter.

"Don't fight it," he said, his voice muffled behind the mask's rubber face while a hollow echo of his words squawked from its speaker. The syringe emptied, and he pulled the needle from her leg and covered it with a plastic cap.

A dark circle of shadow pressed in on her, like the cold walls of a well into which she was sinking.

Her limbs felt heavy at first, then her sense of herself evaporated, as if she were made of mist and memories. Her field of vision shrank until all that she could see was that grotesque mask looming above her.

Then, as everything else dimmed, something new appeared: a terrifying shape, a black figure made of smoke and fear. It wrapped around the man as if it were a cloak. Its form churned and changed as her focus softened — it grew wings, horrible and batlike, and they enfolded her in their demonic embrace.

The last glimmer of light faded from Phaedra's sight, and she realized with a sick, cold horror that this might be the end of her life.

As the man and his living shadow smothered her, she took refuge in a terrified, silent prayer: Please, God … don't let them kill me.

READ CHAPTER 2

 
 
 
 
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