Prologue

Lost in the forest, the man fell. The earth had been ravaged by fire not long ago, and he had wandered through the skeletal remains enough to know that only charred stumps remained. Still, leave it to him to find, and subsequently trip upon, the only root that had survived. His face planted into the sweet-smelling earth and he instinctively inhaled, taking in a mouthful of dirt and singed pine needles, damp and sharp against his tongue.

Even in the darkness, he felt the shape upon him, lingering as it took in the sight of a man who had gambled with everything and suddenly found himself without any chips. Anton Korikov had taken to running away, as if it would somehow protect him from the ghosts. It wouldn’t. Still, he considered, as fear swelled in his veins, he trusted her enough to finish what had been started. He couldn’t worry about it anymore; his impending death was far more important.

“Where?” The Hollow Man’s voice was raspy from age and cheap cigarettes. “Tell me.”

“N-No.” Anton wanted to sound brave, but the shaking in his voice was obvious. His pants were wet at the crotch.

You’ll die having pissed yourself. Bravo.

“Give it to me.”

“It’s gone now. Long gone. They will be safe.”

Something silver flashed in the darkness above him, and a cool blade pressed into his stomach. The Russian felt the pain, but was unable to react, as if the movement itself had paralyzed him.

“You…killed me?”

“I’ve done much more.” The Hollow Man eased down and pressed his fingers into the pockets of the Russian’s jacket. When it was clear he wouldn’t find what he was looking for, he spoke again. “Where?”

“Too late.” Anton managed to bark out a laugh, flecked with foam and blood that dribbled down his chin. “She has it.”

“Who?”

He smiled as the light broke above his head and he felt a gentle tugging at his shoulders, drawing him upwards. As an angel entered his sight, he felt the words slip from his lips. “…The Golden Lady.”