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Richelle Mead

THORN QUEEN

For Jen and Chad, who understand the value of a good monster

Chapter One

Sad fact: lots of kids know how to use knives and guns.

I’d been one of them, but instead of pursuing a life of crime, I’d trained to be a shamanic mercenary. This meant that while my friends were at dances and football games, I’d been out banishing spirits and wrestling down monsters with my stepfather. On the upside, I grew up never fearing muggers or any other assailants. On the downside, an adolescence like that really screws with your social development.

It meant I’d never really been like other kids. I’d had some friends, but compared to their world, mine had been terribly stark and terribly deadly. Their dramas and concerns had seemed so petty next to mine, and I could never fully relate. As an adult now, I still couldn’t really connect to kids because I had no shared experiences to draw on.

Which made my job today that much more difficult.

“Go ahead, Polly,” crooned the girl’s mother, smiling with overplump lips. Too much collagen, I suspected. “Tell her about the ghost.”

Polly Hall was thirteen but wore enough makeup to rival a forty-year-old whore. She sat slouched against the back of a couch in her family’s perfectly decorated house, chewing gum loudly, looking everywhere but at us. The more I studied her, the more I decided she probably did have problems. I suspected they had less to do with supernatural influences and more with having a mother who had named her Polly and let her wear thongs. It was an unfortunate side effect of Polly’s low-cut jeans that I could see the aforementioned thong.

After a minute of silence, Mrs. Hall sighed loudly. “Polly, dear, we’ve been over this. If you aren’t going to help us, we can’t help you.”

Smiling, I knelt down in front of the couch so I could look the girl in the eyes. “It’s all right,” I told her, hoping I sounded sincere and not like an after-school special. “I’ll believe whatever you tell me. We’ll get it taken care of.”

Polly sighed just as loudly as her mother had a moment ago and still refused to look at me. She reminded me of my unstable teenage half sister who was currently MIA and wanted to conquer the world. “Mom,” she said, “can I go to my room now?”

“Not until you’ve talked to this nice lady.” Glancing back to me, Mrs. Hall explained. “We hear strange noises all night: bangs, cracks, bumps. Things fall over for no reason. I’ve even…” She hesitated. “I’ve even seen things fly around the room. But it’s always when Polly’s around. Whatever this ghost is, it seems to like her…or be obsessed with her.”

I turned my attention back to Polly, again taking in the sullen mood and thinly veiled frustration. “You got a lot on your mind, Polly?” I asked gently. “Problems at school or something? Problems around here?”

Her blue eyes flicked to me ever so briefly.

“What about any electrical issues?” This I directed to her mother. “Things shorting out? Stereos or appliances not working right?”

Mrs. Hall blinked. “How’d you know that?”

I stood up and stretched the kinks out of my body. I’d fought a wraith last night, and he hadn’t been gentle.

“You don’t have a ghost. You have a poltergeist.”

Both of them stared at me.

“Isn’t that a ghost?” asked Mrs. Hall.

“Not really. It’s a manifestation of telekinetic powers, often brought on by rage and other strong emotions during teenage years.” I’d evaded after-school special mode, only to slip into infomercial mode.

“I…wait. Are you saying Polly’s causing this?”

“Not consciously, but yeah. In cases like this, the subject-Polly-lashes out without realizing it, venting her emotions in physical ways. She probably won’t stay telekinetic. It’ll fade as she gets older and settles down a bit.”

Her mother still looked skeptical. “It sure seems like a ghost.”

I shrugged. “Trust me. I’ve seen this lots of times.”

“So…isn’t there anything you can do? Anything we can do?”

“Therapy,” I suggested. “Maybe get a psychic to come out.”

I gave Mrs. Hall the contact information for a psychic I trusted. Waiving my banishing fee, I simply charged her for the house call. Once I’d double-checked the cash she gave me-I never took checks-I stashed it away and made moves toward the living-room door.

“Sorry I couldn’t be of more help.”

“No, I mean, I guess this helps. It’s just so strange.” She eyed her daughter with perplexity. “Are you sure it’s not a ghost?”

“Positive. These are classic symp-”

An invisible force slammed into me, pushing me into the wall. I yelped, threw out a hand to keep my balance, and shot daggers at that little bitch Polly. Eyes wide, she looked just as astonished as I felt.

“Polly!” exclaimed Mrs. Hall. “You are grounded, young lady. No phone, no IM, no…” Her mouth dropped open as she stared at something across the room. “What’s that?”

I followed her gaze to the large, pale blue shape materializing before us.

“Um, well,” I said, “that’s a ghost.”

It swooped toward me, mouth open in a terrible screech. I yelled for the others to get down and jerked a silver-bladed athame out of my belt. A knife might seem useless against spirits, but they needed to take on a substantial form to inflict any real damage. Once solid, they were susceptible to silver.

This spirit bore a female shape-a very young female shape, actually. Long pale hair trailed in her wake like a cloak, and her eyes were large and empty. Whether it was a lack of experience or simply some inherent trait of hers, her attack proved floundering and uncoordinated. Even as she screamed at the first bites of the athame, I had my crystal-studded wand out in my other hand.

Now that I’d regained my bearings, I could do a banishing like this in my sleep. Speaking the usual words, I drew from my internal strength and sent my own spirit beyond the boundaries of this world. Touching the gates of the Underworld, I ensnared the female spirit and sent her over. Monsters and gentry I tended to send back to the Otherworld, the limbo they lived in. A ghost like this needed to move on to the land of death. She disappeared.

Mrs. Hall and Polly stared at me. Suddenly, in her first show of emotion, the girl leapt up and glared at me.

“You just killed my best friend!”

I opened my mouth to respond and decided nothing I had to say would be adequate.

“Good heavens, what are you talking about?” exclaimed her mother.

Polly’s face twisted with anger, her eyes bright with tears. “Trixie. She was my best friend. We told each other everything.”

“Trixie?” Mrs. Hall and I asked in unison.

“I can’t believe you did that. She was so cool.” Polly’s voice turned a little wistful. “I just wish we could have gone shopping together, but she couldn’t leave the house. So I just had to bring her Vogue and Glamour.”

I turned to Mrs. Hall. “My original advice still stands. Therapy. Lots of it.”

I headed home after that, wondering for the hundredth time why I’d chosen this mercenary shaman profession. Surely there were other jobs that were a lot less trouble than interacting with evil supernatural beings.

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