Are you ready for KICKING IT? Featuring stories by SHANNON K. BUTCHER * RACHEL CAINE * LUCIENNE DIVER * CHRIS MARIE GREEN * CHRISTINA HENRY * FAITH HUNTER * CHLOE NEILL * KALAYNA PRICE * ROB THURMAN
The Maddy and Beezle story, RED ISN’T REALLY MY COLOR, takes place between the events of BLACK NIGHT and BLACK HOWL. Maddy gets an assignment from her least favorite relative (guess who?) and has to track down a pair of mythical red shoes said to force the wearer to dance until they die. Will Maddy succeed? And given that the assignment is from Lucifer and involves a magical object that tortures people, does she even want to?
“You have to get out of the house—now,” J.B. said.
“Why?” I asked.
I faced the front window, the portable phone tucked under my ear. A strange black shadow slid across the surface of the glass, like an oil slick.
“Sokolov has sent the Retrievers after you,” J.B. said. “You have to go. You have to go now.”
The side window in the living room was drenched in the same shadow. So were the ones in the dining room. I ran through the house, looking for an escape, but there was none. The things looked like nothing more than black liquid, but I could feel their hate. They wanted me, and they would not leave without me.
“It’s too late,” I said, backing into the dining room. I felt Nathaniel’s arms close around me.
“They’re already here.”
We watched in silence as the black fluid oozed over each of the windows.
J.B.’s voice was in my ear. I realized I was still holding the phone to my ear and he was still talking.
“Don’t try to fight them,” J.B. said. I’d never heard that tone in his voice before. He was pleading. “It will be much, much worse for you if you do.”
“I’m not afraid of them,” I said.
But my bravado was false. I was afraid. The apartment had been sealed shut by darkness. The Retrievers would not leave an opening for me to escape.
Someone was pounding on the door at the bottom of the stairs. J.B. was still talking, telling me not to be dumb, telling me if I fought the Retrievers, then I would be returned to Beezle in a thousand bloody pieces.
“Beezle’s gone,” I said.
The pounding repeated. I looked at Nathaniel. He shook his head from side to side.
“Good-bye, J.B.,” I said.
I clicked off before he could say anything else.
“J.B. says not to fight,” I said. “What do you think?”
“He knows more of the Retrievers than I,” Nathaniel said. “Perhaps you should heed his advice.”
“They’re not taking me,” I said. “On the off chance that they leave me alive, they would surely take—or kill—my baby as soon as it’s born. And I am not spending the rest of my life in some Agency prison.”
There was the sound of splintering wood below. The Retrievers were breaking in.
“Surely Lord Lucifer will not permit this to happen,” Nathaniel said. “Call for his assistance.”
“Lucifer’s a little busy right now with Alerian,” I said.
“He owes you more than this,” Nathaniel said angrily. “You would not be in this predicament were it not for him. He forced you to cross into the realm of the dead and retrieve Evangeline’s soul.”
“If you haven’t noticed, Lucifer’s not real big on helping out those in need,” I said.
“Run,” Nathaniel said. “I will stay here and hold them off, distract them.”
“Run where?” I asked. “They’ve got the house surrounded.”
Nathaniel murmured something, and a portal opened up in the middle of the living room. I stared into its swirling depths.
“Where does it go?”
“Someplace safe,” Nathaniel said. “Run. I will close the portal behind you and ensure the Retrievers do not follow.”
Heavy footsteps sounded on the stairs.
“But . . . how will I be able to get home again?”
Nathaniel grabbed my shoulders, gave me a fierce, hard kiss, then shoved me toward the portal. “I will speak to Lord Lucifer. We will find you. Go.”
The door to the apartment splintered as the thing outside slammed into it.
“Go!” Nathaniel shouted.
He turned toward the door as it slammed to the ground and something awful came through. I caught a glimpse of darkness, terrible darkness, as I dove into the portal, a shadow reaching for Nathaniel even as I fell. I called his name once, but I was already gone.
The portal pressed in on me, making my head squeeze in agony. I had no time to wonder where Nathaniel had sent me. Before I knew it, I was falling out of the portal, crashing into soft moss below. I stood up, brushed off my clothes, gathered my dignity up, and looked around.
Wherever Nathaniel had sent me appeared pretty primeval. I was in a lush forest, surrounded by ferns and moss and broad-leafed trees. Candy-colored flowers bloomed everywhere I looked. A little waterfall trickled over rocks and into a slender stream to my left. It was a completely alien world, as far from my urban jungle as I was likely to get.
My legs felt suddenly shaky, the aftereffects of the appearance of the Retrievers hitting my system. I sat down on the moss and took stock.
I was alone in a strange world with no food or water. I had my sword and the clothes on my back. And my last friend in the world might be slaughtered by the Agency’s bogeyman for helping me escape.
No. I couldn’t think that way. Nathaniel was powerful, even more so now that he had come into his legacy from Puck. I had to believe that he would be able to defend himself. I had to believe, too, that the Retrievers would ultimately leave him alone.
Everything I knew about the Retrievers said that they were like attack dogs that went after a specific target. Kind of like the Hound of the Hunt, I thought. So chances were very good that Nathaniel would be ignored since they weren’t after him. But if he picked a fight with them, put himself in their way . . .
Every instinct I had told me to open another portal, go back home, and fight until the Retrievers were destroyed. I am not a runner. It is not in my nature to leave a fight. But J.B. didn’t seem to think I would have a chance against the Retrievers, and J.B. understood pretty well what I could do.
Did that mean that the Retrievers were more powerful than Lucifer? Than Puck or Alerian? And speaking of Alerian, what were his intentions now that he had risen from his long sleep?
I rubbed my forehead. There were too many problems. I could solve none of them from here. Wherever here was.
The first thing I needed to do was find some food and a safe place to sleep for a while. I’d had no rest except for a catnap in the backyard after I’d fetched Evangeline from the dead world for Lucifer.
I couldn’t remember the last time I ate. Nathaniel and I were on our way to make pancakes when the Retrievers had arrived. Pancakes. I could go for a giant stack of them right now. Too bad there wasn’t a handy pancake tree. I was going to have to forage for food.
If Beezle were with me, he would laugh his little gargoyle butt off at the idea of me foraging. When I was young I’d tried camping in the backyard once. I found an old tent in the basement and got an idea in my head that I would have an adventure.
Of course, I’d thought that backyard tenting experience would be a stepping-stone to an adulthood where I would travel the world with nothing but a backpack, sleeping on the ground in the Andes and the Pyrenees and wherever else my feet would take me.
I didn’t even last the night. The rats scurrying through the yard from the alley kept me up for hours. In the darkness, my mind magnified the rodents to dog size. Around midnight I gave up and trudged inside the house.
Beezle was snoring on the banister when I entered. He opened his eyes just long enough to say, “I told you so,” before closing them again. And that was the end of my camping adventure.
I felt a little pang, thinking of Beezle, and resolutely put it aside. Beezle had always been the constant in my life. But he had chosen to leave. Dwelling on it now wouldn’t help me survive.
So I stood up for a second time. I pulled my sword out and glanced around the sky. The sun was hidden by a canopy of leaves. There was no guarantee that the sun here moved the same way as the sun did at home, in any case. I wasn’t sure where I was, but it didn’t feel like I was in my own solar system. Or even my own galaxy, for that matter.
I started walking in the direction I faced, following the meandering path of the stream. As I walked I made a small hash mark on every third tree or so, thinking it would make it easier to tell if I got lost and started walking in circles.
Insects buzzed in the trees and grass, keeping up a continuous cicada-like noise. Some of the insects flew from tree to tree, or flower to flower. They were disconcertingly large. I saw a beetle-type bug with an iridescent green shell that was the size of my hand. Butterflies as big as Chicago pigeons flapped around my head. I didn’t see any mammals.
As I walked along, the stream broadened and I saw some fat amphibians hopping from rocks into the water. The occasional silver flash of a fish darted under the surface. I wondered if I dared drink some of the water from the stream. There was a risk that it was contaminated with alien bacteria that could kill me. I didn’t have any purifying tablets handy. Starting a fire wasn’t a problem, but I wasn’t carrying a container in which to boil the water.
I was thirsty, but I wasn’t at a point of desperation. Yet. I kept my eyes peeled for anything that looked like it might stand in for a camp pot. Melonlike fruits dangled from the high branches of a tree. I flew up to a branch and yanked one off, inspecting it. The shell didn’t seem sturdy enough to withstand the heat of a fire, but the fruit inside might be edible. And if it was, I could probably take care of my hunger and my thirst in one shot.
I flew back to the ground, placing the heavy fruit on a flat rock covered in moss. I lifted the sword high and split open the fruit. The halves separated easily, revealing glistening yellow-orange flesh. Grabbing fruit by the handful and shoving it in my mouth would be stupid. The melons could be poisonous. I cut a tiny, mouse-sized bite off and put it in my mouth.
My intention was to eat it, wait a couple of hours, and then see whether it upset my stomach. But I didn’t get that far. As soon as the fruit hit my tongue, I spit it out. It tasted like diesel fuel.
“Well, that’s not going to work,” I said, looking longingly at the stream again. I wanted to get the foul taste of the fruit out of my mouth. I would probably be safe if I just rinsed and spit the water. As long as I didn’t swallow it, I would probably be okay. Probably.
I approached the water, knelt beside the stream. It was clear in the way water is when it’s been untouched by man and pollution. I was sure I’d never seen water this perfect, this silver and crisp. I dipped my cupped hand in the stream and lifted it to my lips.
Sweetness exploded on my tongue, and it tasted so delicious that I swallowed involuntarily. The cool liquid slipped down my parched throat, and it felt so good that I couldn’t help myself. I took another drink, and another, and another, until I was lapping at the stream like a dog. I wanted to take all my clothes off and crawl inside.
My hands were at the hem of my shirt before I realized what I was doing.
Wait. Think. This is not the way you would normally act, no matter how thirsty you are.
The thought was like a bolt of lightning, and it seemed to help me shake off the drunken haze caused by the water. I stood up and backed away, wiping the liquid from my mouth with the back of my hand. I’d been so worried about germs I hadn’t even considered the possibility that the stream might be enchanted. Now, too late, I realized how foolish I’d been.
Little spots of light danced before my eyes. The trees and flowers and ferns suddenly seemed dusted with gold. All around me everything shimmered in the sunlight. Deep inside my belly, my son fluttered his wings faster and faster.
Was it too late to reverse the effects? The first sip hit my bloodstream, making me stagger. I shoved my finger in my throat, trying to make myself gag. Bile rose, but the enchantment fought back, resisting me. I coughed, choked, but I was unable to bring up the water I’d drunk.
I felt it coursing through me, freezing the fire in my blood. The world tilted to one side, and there was suddenly moss and dirt under my cheek. I pushed up to my hands and knees, shaking. The sun disappeared behind a cloud, or maybe my vision was just darkening. It was hard to tell.
Sweat broke out on my forehead. My baby beat his little wings, a frantic hummingbird inside me. I sat back on my haunches, wiped the sweat out of my eyes. I tried deep breathing but the extra oxygen only seemed to make the effects of the enchantment worse. I squinted into the trees. Shadows moved there, just out of the reach of the light.
The surface of the stream shifted, and figures rose from the water. They were humanoid in shape, but carved from liquid instead of flesh and bone. I struggled to my feet as their arms reached for me. One watery hand enclosed my wrist. I tried to shake it off, but it clamped around me with surprising force.
“Get off,” I slurred, and swatted at the thing’s hand.
The water creature seemed to smile at me. At least, the topographical shape of its face changed. It was difficult to distinguish actual features. It was difficult to think.
The other creatures moved toward me. I had a sudden vision of being overwhelmed by these things and drawn down into the water.
“No,” I said.
I put my free hand over the creature’s, the one that was holding me tight, and blasted it with nightfire. The fire was swallowed immediately by the water.
Of course it was. I wasn’t thinking clearly. In a battle between fire and water, fire loses. I suspected that the other tools in my arsenal—electricity, big giant sunbursts—wouldn’t do me much good against a being made of water. So I fell back on my old standby—my sword.
I reached for it as the creature drew me closer. Its other arm went around my waist, wrapping me in its embrace. My fingers scrabbled at my back, feeling for a sword that wasn’t there.
I looked around wildly. The metal gleamed dully in the dirt where I had dropped it on the side of the stream. The creature pulled its arms tighter, like a straitjacket around my body. Its face was pressed very close to mine. I turned my head to one side and tried to draw up my magic. Nothing.
The water I had drunk seemed to have slowly dampened my abilities, which were born of the sun. It would have been handy to have some of my uncle Alerian’s power at that moment.
My wings beat against my back in desperation. My feet rose an inch or two off the ground. The creature’s grip on me loosened a little, as if it were surprised.
I took advantage, wrenching my arms out and beating my wings harder. As I lifted off the ground, the creature and its fellows threw their arms around my legs, hissing. Fangs formed in their gelatinous faces.
Hoping for a miracle, or at least a successful Jedi mind trick, I held my hand out toward Lucifer’s sword. Nothing happened. I couldn’t be so lucky.
The weight of the water creature was pulling me down again. My legs felt like they were about to separate from my torso. I had no sword, no magic, only the force of my own will.
I would not be killed by a bunch of water demons. I would not die alone in this unknown place. My wings flapped. I pounded on the heads of the creatures with my fists. And then suddenly I was free, soaring above the stream.
The creatures spat and shook their fists at me. I went up just high enough to be safely out of reach. I still felt the effects of the water and didn’t think it was a good idea to go flying all over the place at the moment. It seemed too likely that I would get tired or dizzy and come tumbling out of the sky. And there was no one here to catch me.
Plus, I wasn’t going anywhere without my sword. I flew to a nearby tree and settled into the crook of a branch, my back pressed against the rough bark. The water creatures twisted and writhed on the surface of the stream like a mass of snakes. I heard them hissing their frustration. They obviously couldn’t leave the water, so I was safe enough in the tree. For the moment.
I’d already had enough of running from the Retrievers. As soon as I could, I was going to hop out of the tree, grab the sword and make a portal to bring me back home. It seemed ridiculous for me to run around on an alien world encountering new things that wanted to kill me instead of just dealing with the thing that wanted to kill me in my own home.
I relaxed against the tree, ready to wait for the creatures to give up and disappear under the water again. I blinked, and it was night.
My body felt as through it had frozen in position. My eyes were gritty. I realized I had fallen asleep in the tree. I was lucky nothing had come along to eat me while I snoozed. I shifted on the branch, my legs dangling on either side of it, and waited for my eyes to adjust to the darkness.
You never fully realize how dark the night is when you live in a city. In Chicago there was always light coming from somewhere—a streetlamp, a traffic signal, the headlights of passing cars. There are patches of deep night in a city, but there is always relief somewhere nearby. In a forest, away from the artificial glow, there is no such relief. The sky had more stars in it than I could have imagined.
I was slowly able to distinguish the shapes of things in shadow. Here a tree, there a rock, there the glistening water of the stream reflecting the starlight. I flexed my fingers. The sleep had restored my magic as the enchantment had dissipated.
My stomach rumbled and I felt a powerful urge to pee. I was pregnant, and I had biological needs that had to be met. But I didn’t want to jump down and potentially attract the water creatures’ attention. If they woke up before I managed to get the sword back, I’d have to wait them out again, and who knew how long that would take?
I peered into the darkness, trying to catch a glimpse of the sword on the ground. I thought I saw a flash of the hilt, but I couldn’t be sure it wasn’t my imagination. The sword was on the far side of the stream. I’d been able to see it from my perch in the tree when the sun was up.
But the landscape seemed to have shifted in the dark. I wasn’t sure exactly where the sword was now. There was nothing for it. I was going to have to get closer and hunt around. At least I would be able to fly above the surface. The water creatures would not have another opportunity to grab me.
I was about to lift off the branch when I heard something large moving through the brush. Something very large. It snorted, and I realized it was only a few feet from me. I froze. I couldn’t tell what direction the sound came from.
The night was a place of deception, a place where predators thrived. It didn’t seem like a very good idea to fly around attracting attention, especially as it wasn’t safe to assume whatever was nearby didn’t have wings. I’d been chased by plenty of monsters that flew.
And even if it didn’t fly, it could have giant tentacles to snatch me out of the air. No, it was best just to stay still and wait. And hope that the creature passed by me in the dark without noticing my presence.
The battle is ON at Paranormal Cravings Character Battle 2013! Maddy made it to the quarterfinals – let’s get her to the semis!
Please buy a book today.
It doesn’t have to be my book. It doesn’t have to be an expensive book. It doesn’t even have to be a traditional book made out of paper, purchased at a bookstore. It could be an e-book. But please buy a book.
You see, most authors don’t make the bestseller lists. We don’t count our sales in the thousands, or even the hundreds. We count our sales by tens, and sometimes by ones – one more copy sold here, one more copy sold there. If not enough copies are sold, we don’t get the chance to have our work published again.
Publishing is a business, and publishers look at numbers. An author might have a very devoted, passionate fanbase, but if the sales aren’t there then that author may not be able to continue writing professionally.
Most writers do not make six-figure royalties. We are lucky if we make enough to feed our kids. Every writer I know has either a day job or an extremely supportive partner or both, because you just can’t live off what you make writing.
And the truth is, authors don’t write to make tons of money. We write because we love it. All we want is to sell enough books so that we can keep doing what we love.
I know that the economy has changed, and bookstores have closed, and people just don’t have extra money in their pockets the way they used to. I know that the library is a wonderful place to discover new books for free.
And I know that it can be very tempting to get a free download online, and to justify it to yourself by saying that authors make lots of money and it doesn’t matter if one person gets a book for free. The trouble is, it’s not usually one person, or even a dozen. It might be a hundred, or five hundred, or a thousand. And those copies that went unsold might mean that the author who wrote the book that you got for free doesn’t get another contract.
Writers want to write. We love to write, and we love to have readers reading what we wrote. We’re not trying to get rich. We’re trying to live, just like you.
So please – if you love books, if you love to read, go out and buy a book today. Thank you.
I’ll be appearing at C2E2 on Sunday, April 28th, along with some other fantastic writers. Please join us there!
Title: FOES, FANGS & FUR: A Look Inside Urban Fantasy Novels
Time: 1:30pm – 2:30pm
Speakers: Christina Henry, Anne Bishop, Amber Benson, Kerry Schafer
Description: Vampires have staked their claim on readers and werewolves have certainly taken a bite out of pop-fiction. But these paranormal creatures aren’t the only ones that run havoc in the pages of urban fantasy novels. Authors discuss the villains, vixens, magic, and mayhem in their novels —from witches to gargoyles to zombies and beyond!
Autographing: 3:00PM – 4:00PM
For further details, please check out C2E2′s website at http://www.c2e2.com/
JUDE, SAMIEL AND NATHANIEL STOOD IN FRONT OF the TV, their eyes grave. They cleared a space for me so I could see.
At first I wasn’t sure what I was looking at. A reporter’s voice came intermittently over the images, but the camera kept jiggling everywhere, and it was hard to see exactly what was going on. People were screaming and running, but I couldn’t see what they were screaming at and running from.
Then the camera finally stabilized, and I realized what I was looking at. It was live footage from Daley Plaza, and the camera was shooting the action just in front of the Picasso statue.
There were vampires everywhere, and the sun blazed down on the plaza.
“Gods above and below,” I whispered. “Azazel’s formula worked.”
The angle of the camera shifted and tipped to one side. Blood splattered over the lens. The reporter stopped speaking. The animal growls of vampires and the sickening squelch of flesh being eaten broadcast far too clearly.
“We have to do something,” I said.
“You can’t fly anymore,” Beezle pointed out. “No wings. And you’re wearing your pajamas.”
A woman’s high-pitched wail broke through the sound of feasting.
“I can carry you,” Nathaniel said, and I ran for my things.
Jude had already changed into a wolf, discarded his clothes, ran to the door.
I grabbed my sword, pulled my boots over my pajama pants, yanked on my coat and followed Jude. Nathaniel was right behind me, Samiel close on his heels.
Beezle launched from the mantel to my shoulder as I opened the front door. Jude darted down the stairs in front of me.
“Why can’t you stay home where I know you’ll be safe?” I said to Beezle as he crawled inside my coat.
“Like I would miss this,” he said, his voice muffled. “And besides, somebody needs to make sure you don’t go dark side.”
I ignored his jibe. I’d made some questionable choices lately, to be sure, but when I looked back over them I wasn’t sure I could have made different ones. And there were far more important things to worry about right now than my shades of gray.
Jude burst through each of the front doors and bounded onto the porch, my apartment door slamming against the wall as he went through with a burst of speed.
By the time Nathaniel, Samiel and I had clattered down the front steps, Jude was already gone.
Nathaniel scooped me up, carrying me like a child, and opened his wings. Samiel lifted off a moment later. As we rose above the treetops I realized that neither of them was under a cloak of magic.
“That was a little conspicuous,” I said. “I wonder what the neighbors will make of two angels taking off from my front lawn.”
“Given all the weird shit that occurs in the nexus in and around our house, they probably won’t be surprised in the least,” Beezle said. “Besides, vampires are eating up all the nice little commuters in the middle of the day. I don’t think the regular rules are going to apply from now on.”
As we sped downtown as fast as Nathaniel and Samiel could fly, I knew Beezle was right. In a single instant everything had changed. The world that had been hidden from normal people, a world of creatures they’d seen only in their dreams and nightmares, had been split wide-open. Nothing would ever be the same again.
The news report had come from Daley Plaza, the distinctive figure of the Picasso statue looming in the background of the shot. Nathaniel angled a little west from the lake and headed toward the plaza.
As we got closer I could see traffic snarled on the surrounding streets, buses and taxis at a standstill, drivers abandoning their vehicles to run. People crammed on the stairwell to the El, pushing, shoving, stepping on anyone who tripped and fell. The vampires were monsters to be feared, but people didn’t exactly show the best face of humanity at times like this.
Then we were over the plaza, and it was worse, far worse, than I’d imagined.
I’d thought that Azazel’s potion had to be limited, that there couldn’t possibly be that many vamps colluding with him. And even if there were, I’d assumed his death would have cut off the production of the serum that allowed the vamps to walk in sunlight without turning to flames.
After all, Jude, Nathaniel and I had fought several perfectly ordinary vampires at Azazel’s mansion only a couple of weeks before.
But there were hundreds, maybe thousands, of vampires on the streets below. They poured from the blue line subway station, emerged from the sewers through manhole covers, an endless seething mass of bloodthirsty insects falling upon any human they could find.
I’ve never liked vampires, even when they’ve kept a low profile. I’d always suspected their veneer of civility was just that, and I’ve never bought into the notion that it’s romantic to have your blood drained by a vamp.
This was one occasion when I would have been happy to be proven wrong. It was pretty clear from the carnage going on below us that vampires didn’t entertain any romantic notions about humans. To them, we were nothing more than walking, talking bags of meat.
Beezle poked his head out of the lapel of my coat and looked down. “Gods above and below. Where do you even start?” For once there was no sarcasm in his voice.
“We just have to do what we can,” I said, and tried to sound confident. “Let’s go, Nathaniel.”
He brought us down to the platform that the Picasso statue rested upon, which gave us a slightly elevated view of the plaza. On any given day you can see a few brave kids climbing the tilted platform and sliding, whooping and hollering, to the ground below.
Today it was covered with the spattered blood of dozens of victims.
I leapt from the top, swinging my sword to slice the head from the nearest vampire I could find. When that one was dust, I moved to the next one. I was vaguely aware of Nathaniel and Samiel fighting around me, and of Jude joining the fray, snarling and barking as he tore the vamps’ throats out.
I don’t know how long we fought. I punched, kicked, hacked, slashed and watched heads roll away, disintegrating into dust as they went. And I kept doing it, over and over and over again.
Still the vampires came.
Still more of them poured from the ground like cicadas emerging from hibernation. And nobody showed up to help us.
The Agency was a short walk from where we fought the tide. I imagined large numbers of Agents were engaged with trying to keep up with the souls pouring from the bodies of the dead, but why not send the rest of the Agents to fight the vampires? The Agency’s willfully blind attitude about not getting involved in the actions of other supernatural courts surely couldn’t extend to ignoring a massacre under their noses.
Or maybe it could, since the cavalry never arrived. After several hours of killing vampires, I slipped. I was tired, hungry and pregnant, and I wasn’t completely on my game after a week spent fighting battle after battle.
My boot heel skidded in a pool of blood, and so I was just a little shy of complete decapitation on the vamp I battled. I landed backward, banged the back of my head against the sidewalk, and saw stars for a moment.
My field of vision was filled with the slavering jaws of the vampire I hadn’t quite killed, ready to eat my face off. There was no time to think, no time to perform a spell.
Then the vampire was gone, and Nathaniel picked me up from the ground and carried me away.
“What are you doing?” I screamed. “We can’t leave. We can’t leave those people down there alone.”
“We cannot do any more,” Nathaniel said grimly. “There are four of us, and thousands of them.”
“We can’t leave,” I said again. I’d never run from a fight in my life.
Nathaniel landed on a nearby roof. Samiel was beside us holding Jude, still in wolf form, in his arms.
“Look,” Nathaniel said angrily, holding me by the shoulders so I could see what was below. “The city is overrun. We can’t do anything else.”
I stared down. It was so much worse from up here, where you could see the pouring mass of vampires undulating through the city streets, into the buildings and buses, leaving empty husks of humanity behind them.
It seemed that the more people who were killed, the more ferocious the vamps became.
“It’s a feeding frenzy,” I said, sickened. “How can we leave them down there, without anyone to defend them?”
“The police are fighting back,” Beezle said, his head popping out of my jacket.
From our vantage point on the roof we could see the teams moving in, hastily mounting barricades. The percussion of gunfire was added to the chorus of screams that echoed in the canyons of the city. My city, overrun by vampires.
“No,” I said angrily. “We have to go back. We have to help.”
Nathaniel’s hands rested on my shoulders and he spun me around to face him. His face was twisted in anger and, to my surprise, fear.
“Just what is it that you think you can do?” he said, giving me a little shake. “Do you not value your life at all?”
I saw Samiel move out of the corner of my eye, obviously intending to defend me from Nathaniel, but I slapped my ex-fiancé’s hands away before Samiel could.
“I value my life as much as you do yours,” I said. “But I don’t value it more than any of them do.” I pointed toward the terrified mass of humanity below.
“So you would kill yourself to save one of them?” Nathaniel said.
“I don’t think I’m superior to them the way you do,” I said coldly.
Nathaniel threw his hands in the air. “Gods above and below, you are the most thickheaded woman I have ever met. Do you really think this is about superiority? Think about your baby. Think about the people who love you. Don’t throw yourself away on the impossible.”
I stared at him, startled to realize that the fear in his eyes had been for me. He correctly interpreted the look on my face and sighed. “I do not know why you cannot credit me with human emotions, even after all we have been through.”
I didn’t have anything to say to that. There would always be a part of me—although that part was shrinking almost daily—that would be suspicious of Nathaniel, that didn’t trust his veracity.
Samiel tapped me on the shoulder. This really isn’t the time for a heart-to-heart.
“Yeah,” Beezle agreed. “We need to get out of here before the police start firing on us just because we look weird.”
“The gargoyle is right,” Nathaniel said, lifting me up again. I felt a magical veil settle over us, hiding our appearance from human eyes. “The humans are in a state of panic, unable to distinguish friend from foe.”
“That, and Maddy’s covered in blood and carrying a sword,” Beezle added.
As we flew away I turned my head from the carnage below. I knew Nathaniel was right. I knew that continuing a battle we couldn’t win was foolish and pointless. We’d barely made a dent in the endless stream of vampires. But I’d never run away before, and leaving felt less like good sense than defeat.
We continued north toward my house. Sturdier barricades were being assembled by the police farther away from the epicenter of the attack. It looked like the authorities were trying to contain the vampires to the Loop.
The sad truth was the density of commuters and residents downtown would probably keep the vampires busy there for a while. There was no need for the vamps to leave that area as long as there was food, and there was plenty of food to be found.
I could feel the pent-up tension in Nathaniel’s arms as he held me, and knew that he longed to have another go at me over my hardheadedness. He held back likely due to the presence of an audience. Of course, if he was waiting for an opportunity to get me alone, he would be waiting forever. There was always someone hanging around my house these days, and Beezle had completely lost all sense of personal boundaries.
We landed on the front lawn, Samiel and Jude beside us. In silent concordance we all trooped back upstairs to my apartment. The television was still on. Jude returned to human form, pulling on his discarded clothing.
I stopped in front of the TV, staring. Nathaniel took my coat from my shoulders. Beezle flew out of the pocket and went straight to his brooding spot on the mantel.
A sober-voiced anchor spoke over footage shot from a helicopter. I guess they weren’t stupid enough to send another cameraman into Daley Plaza.
“We are trying to identify the nature of this threat; however, as unbelievable as it may seem, eyewitness reports have indicated that these creatures are attacking anything in sight, biting and, it seems, feeding on the victims. They are like . . . like some kind of vampires. All we know for certain is that there are hundreds of them, as you can see from our aerial footage of the Loop. The police are attempting to halt the creatures’ progress as best they can. A spokesperson for the mayor’s office has said that the mayor has contacted the National Guard and that he will be making a statement to the press in approximately thirty minutes. The mayor and his staff have been airlifted out of the danger zone . . .”
“What about everyone else?” I murmured. I’d been there, fighting all morning, and it looked so much worse on TV. The news camera was far enough away that detail was blessedly lost, but the black horde seemed to swell even as I watched, a pulsing, cancerous growth engulfing the heart of Chicago.
I saw dark spots before my eyes. The picture on the screen went blank. A few moments later I opened my eyes to see four anxious faces above me.
“What happened?” I said. Somehow I’d ended up prone on the couch.
“You fainted,” Beezle said.
“I did not,” I said. I don’t know why, but I was embarrassed.
“You did,” Beezle said.
“And no wonder, since you have been exerting yourself and have not eaten since yesterday,” Nathaniel said.
“You look thinner,” Jude added.
“I can’t have lost weight since yesterday just because I didn’t eat breakfast,” I scoffed.
“Who knows what this baby is doing to you?” Beezle said ominously.
I really didn’t enjoy it when Beezle implied that Gabriel’s baby was trying to kill me from the inside out, so I waved the lot of them away without replying and sat up. Mistake. Everything went wobbly again.
“For the sake of the Morningstar, just rest for a moment,” Nathaniel said, pushing me back down.
“Quit manhandling her,” Jude growled.
“I will do what I must to get her to take care of herself,” Nathaniel snapped.
“You didn’t show such a touching concern for Maddy’s health when you were trying to kill her in Azazel’s mansion during the rebellion,” Jude said.
Nathaniel stood to face Jude, his hands curled into fists. “I do not have to explain myself to you, wolf.”
“Not this again,” I muttered, then louder: “Enough, both of you. I don’t need you talking about me like I’m not here. If you want to be helpful, you’ll go and get me something to eat.”
“I wouldn’t mind a little something myself,” Beezle said.
“You don’t need it,” everyone in the room replied, including Samiel, who signed the words.
“If you’re going to be that way about it,” Beezle grumped. “We are,” I said. Samiel went into the kitchen. Nathaniel and Jude continued bristling at each other.
“Why is my life filled with men?” I said to no one in particular.
“Beats me,” Beezle said. “It’s not your charming personality—that’s for sure.”
I gave him a sour look.
“I don’t even have to try,” Beezle said. “The punch line was right there.”
“Stand down,” I said to Nathaniel and Jude.
They both turned to look at me, and it was only then that it really registered that they were both covered in blood. And so was I. I was abruptly aware of the gore drying on my face, of my red-stained hands. It was a sad commentary on my life that I was so frequently covered in blood that I wouldn’t notice its presence even when I was soaked in it.
Samiel reentered the living room carrying a sandwich. The thought of eating it while covered in the ichor of doz- ens of vampires made my stomach turn.
“Help me up,” I said.
Nathaniel rushed to help me but I gave him a pointed look. “I asked for Samiel.”
My brother-in-law put the sandwich on the coffee table as Nathaniel backed away with a frozen look. I knew there was a reckoning coming with Nathaniel. Sooner or later I’d have to decide whether he was an ally or an enemy. I couldn’t keep him floating in the netherworld between forever.
Don’t touch that sandwich, Samiel signed to Beezle. “I know how to get my own food,” Beezle said loftily. Don’t touch that sandwich, Samiel repeated. He came around to take my arm as I stood. Now that the adrenaline of the fight had worn off, my legs had turned to mush.
“Bathroom,” I said, and Samiel helped me limp along while the other three silently watched us go.
Samiel helped me as far as the tub, then looked at me expectantly, his face red.
“Yes, you do need to help me get my clothes off,” I said. “I’m sorry. Chloe would be better for something like this.” Samiel’s face went tight at the mention of Chloe. The Agents we saved from Azazel were taken to Northwestern.
I overheard Sokolov’s goons talking about it.
Sokolov. The lapdog of the Agency administration who seemed to have devoted his life to making mine miserable. Just thinking about him made my fists curl.
I knew what Samiel was worried about. Northwestern Memorial Hospital was downtown, just off Michigan Avenue. But it was several blocks north and west of Daley Plaza.
“Don’t worry,” I said, and I was glad Samiel could only read lips. I didn’t sound very convincing. “The barriers were being set up south of the river. The hospital is well north of there.”
You know and I know that if the vamps get inside the hospital, it will be a bloodbath, Samiel signed.
“Chloe’s tough,” I said.
She’s also recovering from major trauma.
“All right. All right. We’ll go get her,” I said. “Just let me clean up first.”
Thank you, Samiel signed, his face relieved.
We managed to get me through the bathing process with a minimum of embarrassment on both sides, and Samiel helped me dress. As I pulled a tank top over my head he touched the long scabs on my back where my wings used to be.
Do you miss them? he signed.
I put a sweater over the tank top and nodded. “I never thought about how much I relied on them before they were gone.”
I wonder if you’ll ever get them back.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “They were part of my Agent’s powers, and I’m never going back to the Agency.”
But you’re Lucifer’s granddaughter.
“Much diluted by thousands of intervening generations.”
Samiel shrugged. You’ve had other latent powers appear.
“I suppose,” I said doubtfully, looking at the missing two fingers of my left hand. Lucifer had assured me some time ago that the digits would grow back, and they never had. So I wasn’t putting a lot of stock in the idea that I might regrow my wings.
Samiel left the room for a few minutes. When he returned I’d managed to get my socks on. He carried a plate with a sandwich.
“That doesn’t look like the same sandwich,” I observed.
Can you guess what happened to the other one? Samiel signed. Now, eat up. I swear you are looking thinner by the minute.
I’d thought they were all exaggerating about my appearance, but I’d noticed my jeans were looser than they were yesterday. This was probably a worrisome development, but given all the other worrisome developments in my life, losing a little weight ranked low on the priority list.
I stuffed the sandwich in my mouth. I didn’t realize just how ravenous I was until I took the first bite.
“There’s one thing I want to do before we go to the hospital,” I said after chewing the last bit of sandwich. “Call J.B.”
He won’t be able to help us, Samiel signed. He’s on thin ice with the Agency as it is.
I had a flash of J.B. spread-eagled on a table, tortured by Sokolov and his goons. “Yeah, you could say that. But he’ll be able to confirm the location of the hospitalized Agents for us.”
I’ll get your phone, Samiel said, and went out again.
I could hear raised voices coming from the living room, but I didn’t have the energy or inclination to intervene in yet another argument. Jude and Nathaniel probably needed to have it out once and for all anyway. I just hoped they didn’t destroy the living room in the process. My house had been trashed enough in the last month or so.
Samiel returned and handed me the phone. I saw that there were four missed calls, all from J.B.
I dialed his number and waited for him to pick up. There was barely half a ring before he barked into the receiver. “What’s the point of having a phone if you never pick it up?”
“So sorry. I was busy battling the vampire menace taking over the city,” I said dryly.
“I know where you were,” J.B. said. “I saw you, and so did everyone else in Chicago with a television set. You and Jude and Nathaniel and Samiel.”
“We were on the news,” I said, dread filling me. This was not good.
“Goddamn right you were on the news. And you’d better be more careful from now on. Half the reporters have decided you’ve been sent from heaven to save humanity from the plague of vampires, and the other half have declared you should be shot in the street with all the other monsters,” J.B. said. “I’ve got to go. It’s total chaos here. The whole Agency is in lockdown mode.”
“Wait,” I said. “Can you tell me if Chloe and the other Agents we saved from Azazel are still at Northwestern?”
“Yeah, the Agency hasn’t had time to move them with everything else going on. We can’t even come close to keeping up with the new souls. The board is diverting Agents from other regions to help. Wait—why do you want to know about Chloe?” J.B. asked warily.
“Samiel wants her with us,” I said shortly. “Why doesn’t the Agency put together an army to fight the vamps instead of struggling to clean up the mess?”
“You know the answer to that,” J.B. said.
“If the Agency doesn’t get off their ass and do something, there won’t be any souls left to collect in this city.”
“You don’t have to tell me that,” he said. “But I’m not exactly a trustworthy figure around here anymore. No one in upper management is going to listen to me.”
“You spend too much time with me.”
“That’s the way I like it,” he said. “I’ll call you later. My mother is outside the window doing her best banshee impression.”
“I thought you had devised some spell to keep Amarantha away from you,” I said.
J.B.’s mother had been a faerie queen of her own court before I’d killed her. Unlike most creatures, she had chosen not the Door but an existence as a ghost. I think she did it just to piss off me and J.B.
“The spell will keep her out of the Agency and out of my home, but it won’t stop her from hanging around outside and driving me crazy. Try not to burn down the hospital.”
He hung up before I could respond.
“Why does everyone think I’m going to destroy a building as soon as I walk into it?” I asked Samiel.
Your track record speaks for itself.
“But those were accidents,” I protested.
Most people don’t have those kinds of accidents more than once.
“Most people don’t have supernatural enemies trying to kill them every second of the day, either,” I said, standing up cautiously.
The shower and the food had gone a long way toward making me feel human. I felt better equipped to fight another horde of vampires, although with any luck I wouldn’t have to.
The barricades were north of the bridges that crossed the Chicago River. I didn’t know how long city authorities would be able to contain the vamps in that area once the monsters ran through their food supply.
Of course, they would likely be evacuating most of the Loop and Michigan Avenue soon. And if they moved the patients at the hospital, we would have a lot of trouble finding Chloe.
“She’s probably safer away from me, anyway,” I muttered. The sad fact of my life was that the low mortality rate of my companions was more luck than anything else. Since Gabriel had died I’d been braced for impact, waiting for the next, inevitable loss.
What was that? Samiel signed. You have to look at me when you’re talking or else I can’t read your lips.
“Nothing,” I said. “Let’s go get Chloe.”
I’ll be signing copies of BLACK CITY and answering your questions at this event at the wonderful CHALLENGERS Comics and Conversation. Mark your calendars and join me there!
Friday March 1st, 7pm-9pm
CHALLENGERS Comics and Conversation
1845 N. Western Avenue, Chicago
For further details and directions, check out this link.
Check out the new interview with me at Talechasing: http://www.talechasing.com/2012/12/episode-44-interview-with-christina-henry/