Jun 162015
 

CHAPTER ONE

If she moved her head all the way up against the wall and tilted it to the left she could just see the edge of the moon through the bars. Just a silver sliver, almost close enough to eat. A sliver of cheese, a sliver of cake, a cup of tea to be polite. Someone had given her a cup of tea once, someone with blue-green eyes and long ears. Funny how she couldn’t remember his face, though. All that part was hazy, her memory of him wrapped in smoke but for the eyes and ears. And the ears were long and furry.

When they found her all she would say was, “The Rabbit. The Rabbit. The Rabbit.” Over and over. When she acted like that they said she was mad. Alice knew she wasn’t mad. Maybe. Not deep down. But the powders they gave her made the world all muzzy and sideways and sometimes she felt mad.

Everything had happened just as she said, when she could say something besides Rabbit. She and Dor went into the old City for Dor’s birthday. 16th birthday. 16 candles on your cake, a sliver of cake and a cup of tea for you, my dear. They both went in, but only Alice came out. Two weeks later came Alice, covered in blood, babbling about tea and a rabbit, wearing a dress that wasn’t hers. Red running down the inside of her legs and blue marks on her thighs where fingers had been.

Her hand went without thought to her left cheek, touched the long thick scar that followed the line of bone from her hairline to the top of her lip. Her face had been flayed open when they found her, and she couldn’t say how or why. It had been open for a long while, the blood oozing from it gone black and brackish, the skin around it tattered at the edges. The doctors told her parents they had done their best, but she would never be beautiful again.

Her sister said it was her own fault. If she had stayed out of the Old City as she was supposed to this never would have happened. There was a reason why they lived in the New City, the ring of shiny new buildings that kept the Old City at bay. The Old City wasn’t for people like them. It was for the filth you throw away. All children were warned about the dangers of straying to the Old City. Alice didn’t belong there.

The hospital where Alice had lived for the last ten years was in the Old City, so her sister was wrong. Alice did belong there.

Sometimes her parents came to visit, doing their duty; their noses wrinkled like she was something that smelled bad, even though the attendants always dragged her out and gave her a bath first. She hated the baths. They were icy cold and rough with scrubbing, and she was never permitted to clean herself. If she struggled or cried out they would hit her with the bath brush or pinch hard enough to leave a mark, always somewhere that couldn’t be seen, the side of her breast or the soft part of her belly, with a promise of ‘more where that came from’ unless she behaved.

Her parents didn’t visit so much anymore. Alice couldn’t really remember the last time, but she knew it was a long time. The days all ran together in her room, no books to read, no things to do. Hatcher said she should exercise so she would be fit when she got out, but somewhere in her heart Alice knew she would never get out. She was a broken thing, and the New City did not like broken things. They liked the new and the whole. Alice hardly recalled when she was new and whole. That girl seemed like someone else she’d known once, long ago and far away.

“Alice?” A voice through the mouse-hole.

Many years before a mouse had gotten into the wall and chewed through the batting between her cell and Hatcher’s. She didn’t know what had happened to the mouse. Probably caught in a trap in the kitchens, or went out on the river side and drowned. But the mouse had led her to Hatcher, a rough voice coming through the wall. She had really thought she’d gone round the bend at first, hearing voices coming from nowhere.

“Hey you,” the voice had said.

She’d looked around wildly, afraid, and scuttled into a corner on the far side of the window, opposite the door.

“Hey, you. Down here,” the voice said.

She resolutely put her fingers in her ears. Everyone knew hearing voices was a sign of madness, and she’d promised to herself she would not be mad no matter what they said, no matter how she felt. After several moments of happy silence she released her fingers and looked around the room in relief.

A great sigh exhaled from the walls. “The mouse hole, you nit.”

Alice stared in alarm at the small opening in the corner opposite. Somehow a talking mouse was worse than voices in her head. If mice were talking then there really were men with blue-green eyes and long furry ears. And while she didn’t remember his face she did remember she’d been afraid. She stared at the mouse hole like something horrible might suddenly emerge from it, like the Rabbit might unfold himself from that space and finish whatever he had started.

Another sign, this one shorter and much more impatient. “You’re not hearing bloody voices and a mouse is not speaking to you. I’m in the room next to yours and I can see you through the hole. You’re not crazy and there’s no magic, so will you please come here and speak with me before I go madder than I already have?”

“If you’re not in my head and you’re not magic, then how do you know what I’m thinking?” Alice asked, her voice suspicious. She was beginning to wonder if this wasn’t some trick of the doctors, some way to draw her into a trap.

The attendants gave her a powder with her breakfast and dinner, to “keep her calm”, they said. But she knew that those powders still allowed her some freedom to be Alice, to think and dream and try to remember the lost bits of her life. When they took her out of her room for a bath or a visit she sometimes saw other patients, people standing still with dead eyes and drool on their chins, people who were alive and didn’t know it. Those people were “difficult to deal with”. They got injections instead of powders. Alice didn’t want injections, so she wasn’t going to say or do anything that would alarm the doctors. Doctors who might be trying to trick her with voices in the wall.

“I know what you’re thinking, because that’s what I’d be thinking if I were you,” the voice said. “We’re in the loony bin, aren’t we? Now come over and have a look through the hole and you’ll see.”

She stood cautiously; still unsure it was not a trick, whether of her mind or the doctors. She crossed under the window and crouched by the mouse hole.

“All I can see are your knees,” the voice complained. “Come all the way down, won’t you?”

Alice lowered to her stomach, keeping her head well away from the opening. She had a vague fear that a needle might flash through the hole and plunge into her eye.

Once her cheek was on the ground she could see through the small, tight opening. On the other side was an iron gray eye and part of a nose. There was a bulge just where the rest of the nose disappeared from view, like it might have been broken once. It didn’t look like any doctor she knew, but Alice wasn’t taking any chances. “Let me see your whole face,” she said.

“Good,” the gray eye said. “You’re thinking. That’s good. Not just a pretty face, then.”

Alice’s hand moved automatically to cover her scar, then she remembered she was lying on that side of her face and he couldn’t really see it anyway. Let him think she was pretty if he wanted. It would be nice to be pretty to someone even with her fair hair all snarled and nothing to wear but a woolen shift. She heard the swish-swish of wool on batting as the gray eye moved away from the hole and became two gray eyes, a long broken nose and a bushy black beard with flecks of white in it.

“All right, then?” the voice asked. “I’m Hatcher.”

And that was how they met. Hatcher was ten years older than Alice, and nobody ever came to see him.

“Why are you here?” she asked one day, long after they were friends, or at least friends who never really saw one another.

“I killed a lot of people with an axe,” he said. “That’s how I got my name. Hatcher.”

“What was your name before?” Alice asked. She was surprisingly undisturbed by the knowledge that her new friend was an axe-murderer. It seemed unrelated to who he was now, the rough voice and gray eyes through the hole in the wall.

“I don’t remember,” he said. “I don’t remember anything from before, really. They found me with a bloodied axe in my hand and five people dead around me all slashed to pieces. I tried to do the same for the police when they came for me, so I must have killed those people.”

“Why did you do it?”

“Don’t remember,” he said, and his voice change a little, became hard. “It’s like there’s this haze over my eyes, black smoke filling everything up. I remember the weight of the axe in my hand, and the hot blood on my face, in my mouth. I remember the sound of the blade in soft flesh.”

“I remember that too,” Alice said, although she didn’t know why she said that. For a moment it had been true, though. She could hear the sound of a knife piercing skin, that sliding slicing noise, and someone screaming.

“Did you kill a lot of people too?” Hatcher asked.

“I don’t know,” Alice said. “I might have.”

“It’s all right if you did,” Hatcher said. “I would understand.”

“I really don’t know,” Alice said. “I remember before and I remember after, but that fortnight is gone, save for a few flashes.”

“The man with the long

“Yes,” Alice said. The man who hunted her, faceless, through her nightmares.

“When we get out we’ll find him, and then you’ll know what happened to you,” Hatcher said.

That had been eight years before, and they were both still there, rooms side-by-side in a hospital that had no intention of ever letting them go.

“Alice?” Hatcher said again. “I can’t sleep.”

She blinked away the memory, brought on by the moon and the sound of his voice.

“I can’t sleep either, Hatch,” she said, crawling along the floor to the mouse-hole. It was much darker down here. There was no light in their rooms save that of the silver moon through the bars, and the occasional passage of a lamp by the attendant walking the halls. She could not see the color of his eyes, only the wet gleam of them.

“The Jabberwock’s awake, Alice,” Hatcher said.

It was then she noticed his voice was thin and reedy. Hatcher wasn’t often afraid. Mostly he seemed strong, almost relentlessly so. All day long she heard him in his room, grunting with effort as she went through his exercises. When the attendants came to take Hatcher to his bath there was always a lot of noise, punching and kicking and yelling. More than once Alice heard the crunch of bone, the angry curse of an attendant.

She asked once how come he didn’t get injections like all the other troublemakers. He’d grinned, his gray eyes crinkling at the corners, and said the injection had made him wild, wilder than before, so after that they left him alone. He didn’t even get powders in his food.

Hatcher was never scared, except when he talked about the Jabberwock.

“There’s no Jabberwock, Hatch,” Alice said, her voice low and soothing. She heard tales of the monster before. Not often, although lately it seemed to be on his mind more.

“I know you don’t believe in him. But he’s here, Alice. They keep him downstairs, in the basement. And when he’s awake I can feel him,” Hatcher said.

There was a pleading note under the fear, and Alice relented. After all, she believed in a man with rabbit-ears, and Hatcher accepted that without question.

“What can you feel?” she asked.

“I feel the night crawling up all around, blotting out the moon. I feel blood running down the walls, rivers of it in the streets below. And I feel his teeth closing around me. That’s what he’ll do, Alice, if he’s ever set free. He’s been imprisoned here a long time, longer than you or me.”

“How could anyone trap such a beast?” Alice wondered.

Hatcher shifted restlessly on the floor. She could hear him moving around. “I don’t know for sure,” he said, and his voice was quieter now, so that she had to strain to hear him. “I think a Magician must have done it.”

“A Magician?” Alice asked. This was more farfetched that anything Hatcher had said before. “All the Magicians are gone. They were driven out or killed centuries ago, during the purge. This place is not that old. How could a Magician have capture the Jabberwock and imprisoned it here?”

“Only a Magician would have the skill,” Hatcher insisted. “No ordinary man would survive the encounter.”

Alice was willing to indulge his fantasy of a monster in the basement, but she couldn’t countenance this myth about a magician. It didn’t seem wise to argue, though. Hatcher took no powders and had no injections, and sometimes he could get agitated. If he got agitated he might howl for hours, or beat his hands against the wall until they were bloody despite the padding.

So she said nothing, only listened to his shallow breath, and the cried of the other inmates echoing through the building.

“I wish I could hold your hand,” Hatcher said. “I’ve never seen you all together, you know. Just bits through the hole. I try to put all the bits together in my head so I can see all of you, but it doesn’t look quite right.”

“In my head you’re just gray eyes and a beard,” Alice said.

Hatcher laughed softly, but there was no mirth in it. “Like the Rabbit, just eyes and fur. What would have happened if we met on the street, Alice? Would we have said hello?”

She hesitated for a moment. She didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but neither did she want to lie. Her parents lied. They said things like, “You’re looking well” and “We’re sure you’ll be home soon,” things Alice knew were not true.

“Alice?” Hatcher asked again, and brought her back to him.

“I don’t know if we would have seen each other to say hello,” she said carefully. “I lived in the New City and, I think…you seem like you were from the Old City.”

“Well, la-dee-dah,” Hatcher said, and his voice was hard. “Fancy girl wouldn’t soil her dainty hem in the Old City. Except you did. You got good and soiled. And now you’re here, just like me.”

His words were like knotted fists to her gut, and all the breath seemed to leave her for a moment. But they were true words, and she would not pretend otherwise. The truth was all she had left. The truth, and Hatcher.

“Yes,” she said. “We are both here.”

There was a long silence between them. Alice waited in the darkness, the moonlight shifting on the floor. Hatcher seemed to be walking the knife’s edge tonight, and she would not be the one to knock him off.

“I am sorry, Alice,” he said finally, and he sounded more like the Hatch she knew.

“Don’t,” she started, but he cut her off.

“I should not say such things,” he said. “You’re my only light, Alice. Without you I would have succumbed to this place long ago. But the Jabberwock is awake, and he makes me think of things I should not.”

“The sound of a blade in flesh,” she said, echoing the memory of his words.

“And warm blood on my hands,” Hatcher said, “I feel most like myself when I think those thoughts. As if that is who I really am.”

“At least you have some idea,” Alice said. “I never had the chance to find out. I lost my way first.”

She heard him shifting again on the floor.

“I feel like I’ve got bugs inside my skin,” he said. “Sing me a song.”

“I don’t know any songs,” she said, surprised by this request.

“Yes, you do,” he said. “You sing it all day long, and when you’re not singing it you’re humming. Something about a butterfly.”

“A butterfly?” she asked, but as soon as she said this it came back to her, and she heard her mother’s voice in head. This sound was so painful, piercing her heart, this remembrance of love that was lost to her forever. She began to sing aloud, to cover the memory with her own voice.

“Sleep little butterfly

Sleep little butterfly

Now the day has gone

Sleep little butterfly

Sleep little butterfly

Soon the morning will come

Close your eyes and let the night go ‘round you

He’ll keep you safe and warm

Sleep little butterfly

Sleep little butterfly

Soon the morning will come.”

Her voice trailed off, her throat full of love and loss and pain. Hatcher said nothing, but she heard his breath go deep and even, and she let her eyes fall shut. She matched her breath to his, and it was almost like holding his hand as the night closed in.

Alice dreamed of blood. Blood on her hands and under her feet, blood in her mouth and pouring from her eyes. The room was filled with it. Outside the door Hatcher stood hand in hand with something dark and hideous, a thing crafted of shadow with flashing silver teeth.

“Don’t take him from me,” she said, or tried to say, but she could not speak through the blood in her mouth, choking her. Her eyes were covered with smoke then, and she couldn’t see Hatch or the monster anymore. Heat enfolded her body, and then there was nothing but fire.

Fire. Fire.

“Alice, wake up! The hospital is on fire.”

Alice opened her eyes. Hatcher’s gray one was pressed to the mouse-hole, and it was wild with fear and anticipation.

“At last!” he said. “Stay low, away from the smoke, and get near the door but not in front of it.”

Alice blinked as he disappeared. The dream still clung to her brain, and her mouth was dry. Her shift clung to her body, and her face was wet with sweat. The odor of smoke finally permeated her nostrils and her fuzzy head, and there was another smell, too – like cooking meat. She didn’t want to think what that might be.

Alice turned so she was flat on her back, and saw a thick blanket of smoke just a few inches from her face. The heat beneath made the floor an agony to lie upon, but there was no way to escape it.

The sounds filtered in then. The crack of flame, of heavy objects crashing to the ground. Horrible, horrible screams. And close by, the repeated grunts and pounding of someone slamming his body into the wall. Hatch was trying to break the door down in his room.

The noise was terrible. Alice did not think it was possible. The walls might be soft, but the doors were iron. He would kill himself.

“Hatcher, no!” she cried, but he could not hear her.

There was a sound of something crunching, but Hatcher did not cry out, and then there was no more noise.

“Hatcher,” she said, and her voice was soft and sad. Two tears leaked from the corner of each eye. There was no point in getting up then, if Hatcher was gone. The smoke and the noise told Alice that the fire was well underway. The attendants and the doctors would not bother to free the patients, especially when most families would be thrilled to be free of the burden of their mad relatives. So they would all burn.

Alice found she was not as distressed about this as she ought to be. Perhaps it was the powder in last night’s dinner, or the smoke that filled her lungs in place of air. She felt very calm. She would just lie there and wait until the fire came.

Her eyes closed again, and she drifted away, away to a place she had never been in real life, a silver lake tucked in a green valley, wildflowers dotting the shore. There was no smell of medicine there, or harsh burning soap. There was no smoke and no pain, no heartache and no blood. It was the place she always went, the place where her mind hid when the doctors asked questions she did not want to answer, or her parents sighed in disappointment.

Something grabbed her around the shoulders, and her eyes flew open in shock. It had been years since anyone touched her except to drag her to the bath. Hatcher’s face was close to hers, twisted in anger, and blood ran from a cut on the side of his head.

“I told you to get near the door, you silly nit,” he said, dragging her up to sitting and then immediately pushing her down to her belly.

“Follow me,” he said, crawling toward the door.

The open door.

She followed automatically, keeping his filthy bare heels in sight. She wanted to ask how he had gotten out, how he wasn’t battered and dead. But he was moving along with surprising quickness into the hall. He paused after a few moments so she could catch up to him. There was no one except the two of them, and the frantic pounding of other patients still trapped in their boxes.

It was then she noticed his right arm hung at an odd angle and he was using only his left to pull his body along. “Hatch, what happened?” she asked. She was out of breath from just that short period of exertion.

“It came out when I broke the door frame,” he said. “I’ll fix it later. We have to go. The floor is getting hotter, and he’s almost out.”

“Who?” Alice asked.

He started along again. “The Jabberwock.”

“Hatch,” she said, trying to keep up with him. Her lungs and throat were burning. “We’re going the wrong way. The stairs are behind us.”

“The stairs are on fire,” Hatch said. “I’ve already checked. We’ve got to go out this way.”

“But, Hatch,” Alice said, shaking her head from side to side to clear it. The smoke was getting to her. “We’re on the third floor.”

“We’ll go out the back to the river. Just keep up, Alice.”

“The river?” she said, and a faint alarm sounded in her head. There was something about the river, but she couldn’t recall exactly what it was.

Just then they passed the door of a patient who was repeatedly throwing himself against the iron and screaming. The cloud of smoke above them blocked the small viewing window, so Alice was fairly certain the man could not see them escaping. She felt a tinge of guilt all the same as they went by.

“What about the others?” Alice asked. “Shouldn’t we let them out?”

“There is no time,” Hatcher said. “And they would only be millstones in any case. They’ve no sense. We’d have to lead them from here like children. And then what? Would we take them with us? No, Alice, it’s best to leave them as they are. We must get away before he’s free.”

It was a cold thing he said, but true. Not the bit about the Jabberwock getting free, but the other part. They would not be able to safely lead them to freedom without endangering their own lives.

Hatcher reached the end of the hallway before Alice did. He came to his knees, and she noticed he held a small ring of keys in his left hand.

“Where did you get those?” she asked.

“From the attendant at the top of the stairs. How do you think I opened your door?” he asked as he methodically fitted first one key, then another, then another.

“There was nobody in the corridor when we came out,” she said.

“I took his keys and threw him down the stairs. That’s how I knew the steps were on fire,” he said.

The fifth key clicked, and Hatcher pushed the door open, waving her inside the room.

A cloud of smoke followed them in before Hatcher was able to close the door behind them, but it dissipated quickly as the far window was open. The heavy seething air of the city, hardly fresh, poured into the room. Still, it had been years since Alice had smelled anything but the rank asylum – unwashed bodies, laudanum, chloroform, vomit and blood and burning soap over it all. By contrast the soot and refuse outside seemed like a burst of clean country breeze.

Suddenly a head appeared in the window from outside. It was one of the attendants, a ginger-haired man with only half a nose. His eyes widened when he saw Hatcher and Alice in the room, and he started to climb back inside.

Before the man could get any farther than throwing one leg over the sill Hatcher was upon him. He punched the man in the face hard with his left hand, twice, three times. Then he kicked the man in the side so hard Alice heard ribs break. Finally he pushed the now unconscious attendant out the window, looking out after the falling man to follow his progress to the river below.

He nodded in satisfaction before turning back to Alice. “I was the one who bit half his nose off. He was coming back to make sure we couldn’t get out, do you see? He would never have let us leave.”

CHAPTER TWO

 

Alice nodded. She did see. The smoke must have gone up in her brain because everything seemed soft at the edges.

“There’s a ledge out here,” Hatcher said.

He went to the wall next to the window, grabbed his right wrist with his left hand, pushed his hanging right arm against the wall, and did some kind of maneuver while Alice watched. When he turned back to her his right arm appeared normal again. He flexed his fingers as if to ensure they were still functional. Throughout all of this he never made a sound, not even a hint that the process was painful, though Alice was certain it must have been. He held his hand out so she could join him by the window.

She approached him, and gasped in shock when his hand closed around hers. It seemed like an electric current ran from their joined hands up into her heart, which hammered in her chest. His gray eyes sparked, and he squeezed her hand tighter for a moment. When you are in an asylum no one ever touches you in kindness, and Alice knew the shock was as great for him.

He said nothing as he released her. He climbed through the window on to the ledge, and Alice followed him, because that was what she was supposed to do.

She swung her left leg over the sill. Her shift rode up, exposing her skin to the morning chill, and she shivered. She supposed it wasn’t so terribly cold out, but after the furnace of the burning hospital the outdoors seemed frigid.

Alice ducked her head under the sash and saw the ledge Hatcher wanted her to reach. Below it, too far below for comfort, was the river, gray and putrid. Now that she saw it she remembered what she had forgotten before.

Hatcher moved on the ledge behind her, and his hands were at her waist, guiding her out until they stood side by side, their backs pasted against the brick exterior of the hospital. The ledge was barely wide enough to admit the length of Alice’s feet. Hatcher’s toes curled around the edge as if that grip could save him from falling.

His expression was fierce and exultant. “We’re outside, Alice. We’re out.

“Yes,” she said, and her thrill at this prospect was much tempered by the sight of the river. Now that she was away from the smoke her mind was clearer, and this plan seemed more risky than trying to climb down a set of burning stairs. The stench of the water reached her then, and she gagged.

Hatcher grabbed her hand to keep her from stumbling forward into the empty air. “We jump into the river,” he said, “and swim across to the opposite bank. We can disappear into the Old City after that. No one will look for us in there. They will think we’re dead.”

“Yes,” she agreed again. “But we’re not supposed to go into the river. It will kill us. All the factories dump their waste there. I remember Father speaking of it. He said it was an outrage.”

“Neither can we stay here,” Hatcher said. “If the fire does not consume us then they will catch is in their nets and put us back in our cages. I cannot go back, Alice. I cannot spend the remainder of my life as a moth beating its wings against a jar. I would rather perish in the mouth of the Jabberwock than that.”

Alice saw the truth of this, and felt it in her heart as well. She did not want to go back inside the box they had made for her. But the river was so far below, churning with poison. What if their skin was seared from their bodies? What if they swallowed the river water and died writhing on the shore as the foul substance coursed in their blood?

As these thoughts occurred a burst of flame caused a nearby window to explode outward, startling a huddle of soot-coated pigeons that had taken foolish refuge on the same ledge Alice and Hatcher perched on. The birds took flight, squawking in protest, and Alice looked at Hatcher, knowing he saw the fear in her eyes.

“Now we must fly,” he said. “Trust me.”

She did. She always had, though she didn’t know why. He squeezed her hand, and the next thing Alice knew she was falling, falling away into a rabbit’s hole.

“Don’t let go,” Hatcher shouted just before they hit the water.

His grip on her fingers tightened painfully, and she cried out, but he didn’t let go. Which was a very good thing, because as soon as the horrible muck coated her head she reflexively loosed her hold, and if Hatcher hadn’t been holding her that way, she would have drowned.

He yanked her, coughing and gagging, to the surface, scooped an arm under her ribs and began paddling toward the shore. “Kick your feet.”

She fluttered her ankles weakly in the water. It felt thick and strange, with none of the fluid slipperiness water was supposed to possess. It moved sluggishly, the current hardly enough to push them a few inches off course. A noxious vapor rose from the surface, making her eyes and nose burn.

Because of the way Hatcher held her she couldn’t see his face or the opposite shore that the approached. His breath was smooth and even, like he was unaffected by the miasma floating above the surface of the river. He pulled them both along with smooth, sure strokes as Alice floundered in the water, trying not to cause them both to go under.

She saw the asylum burning behind them, as tongues of flame emerged from newly opened windows. The distance and roar of the fire drowned out the sound of the inmates screaming. There were people running around the sides of the building, trying to stop the spread to the adjacent structures. She had never given much thought to the places around the hospital before.

On one side was a long, low building crouched against the bank of the river like a squat turtle. That must have been on the side that Alice’s room had been, else she wouldn’t have been able to see the moon. The edifice on the opposite side was huge, much bigger than the hospital, and the smoke belching from its chimneys seemed as thick and dangerous as that pouring from her former home.

“Put your feet down,” Hatcher said suddenly, and Alice realized he was walking now, not swimming.

Her toes sank into the muck, and the water was still up to her neck, but they were nearly there. A small knot of people were gathered a little ways down the bank on a jetty, pointing and exclaiming over the collapsing asylum.

“I see them,” Hatcher said in a low voice. “Over here.”

He guided her toward a place where the shadows lay thick despite the rising sun, away from the flickering exposure of the gas lamps set at intervals to alleviate the fog from the river and the factories. Alice fell to her hands and knees just out of the water, taking great gasps of air. Even a few feet from the river the air was noticeably cleaner, though hardly what one would call clean, she thought.

Everywhere was the stench of the water, the reek of smoke and flame, the chemical burn of factory exhaust. Underneath it all was the smell of the morning’s cooking coming from the warren of flats just before them.

Hatcher had done much more than Alice to get them out of the burning hospital and through the disgusting river, yet he had not collapsed like she had when they emerged from the water. He stood beside her, still and calm. Alice rolled to her seat and looked up at him. He stared, transfixed, at the fiery structure across the water. He stood so still that she began to worry, and she struggled to her feet.

“Hatcher?” she asked, and touched his arm.

His hair and clothes were steaming now that they were on shore, and he was coated in the filth they had just crossed. His gray eyes glowed in the reflection of the fire, like the coals of hell, and when he turned those eyes on her she felt, for the first time, a little afraid of him. This was not Hatch, her constant companion through the mouse-hole. Nor was this the man who had methodically rescued her from a burning building. This was Hatcher, the murderer with the axe, the man who had been found covered in blood and surrounded by bodies.

But he would never hurt you, Alice told herself. He’s still Hatch, somewhere in there. He’s just lost himself for a moment.

She put her hands on his shoulders, tentatively, and said his name again, for he stared at her but did not seem to see. Then his hands were at her wrists, his grip bruising the thin skin, and his iron eyes were wild.

“He’s out, he’s out, he’s out,” he chanted. “Now the world will break and burn and bleed, everyone will bleed.”

“The Jabberwock?” Alice said.

“His mouth will open wide and we will all fall in, fall in and be devoured,” Hatcher said. “We must get away, away before he finds me. He knows I can hear him. He knows that I know what evil he will do.”

Suddenly there was a tremendous noise from the asylum, a sound like the very heart of the building crashing in on itself. Alice and Hatcher turned to watch, and all the walls collapsed like a melting sandcastle. There seemed to be nothing but fire now, and the fire shot impossibly upward into the sky, well past the point where there was anything to burn. It filled the horizon, the wings of a monster outstretched.

Behind the flame was a darkness, a gigantic shadow that spread, as if something that was trapped was now free, reaching its arms toward the sun.

“Is that…him?” Alice asked. She’d never believed in the Jabberwock, not really. And perhaps there was no shadow at all. She was exhausted, and had spent some time breathing smoke and poison. Her brain might tell her there was a shadow when in fact there was none. That was the trouble with not being right in the head. You couldn’t always tell if your eyes were telling the truth.

Hatcher did not reply to her question. He stared for a moment at the tower of flame, and then grabbed Alice’s right wrist, tugging her up the bank. The mud inhibited fast progress, but they finally managed to clamber on to the narrow cobbled path that ran around and between the warrens of tilting structures stacked crazily against one another.

The Old City seemed to have no beginning and no end, a circling maze of stairways and narrow alleys connecting buildings that had been patched and rebuilt on top of crumbling ruins for centuries. There was nothing gleaming and new there, not even the children, who seemed to be birthed with haunted eyes.

Hatcher ducked into the nearest alley, pulling Alice after him. The rough stones scraped her bare feet, but she understood the need to disappear quickly. Aside from the question of the Jabberwock, Alice had recognized the distinctive brass-buttoned gleam of a copper’s uniform. Never mind if the asylum was naught but a cinder now. If they were caught out in their hospital whites the police would drag them away. And Alice had a feeling Hatcher would not go quietly.

So they dipped and darted beneath the girls with their customers pressed up against the alley walls, or old men gathered in clusters around a shell game or a cockfight. Hatcher led them deeper into the Old City, to a place where the rising sun was blocked by the closeness of the buildings and the air was blanketed in fog from the factories. Mist rose from the cobblestones, hiding approaching figures until they were nearly upon you.

Which is how the men surrounded them.

Hatcher paused for a moment, seeing Alice out of breath and suffering. He did not pat or comfort her, but waited. In that moment that they were still an enormous ogre loomed out of the darkness and swung a club at Hatcher. Alice opened her mouth to scream, but a filthy hand covered it and another hand latched on her breast, squeezing it so hard tears sprang to her eyes.

“What have we here?” a rough voice cooed in her ear. “A little lost lamb?”

She kicked out, tried to slip out of his clutch as Hatcher and the ogre- whom she now saw was a man, the largest man she had ever seen – disappeared into the fog. Her struggles were useless against her captor’s strength as he dragged her away.

His free hand moved from her breast to the hem of shift, pulling it to her waist, his fingers on her thighs, and she went wild then, biting down on the hand that covered her mouth because she remembered, remembered a man over her in the flickering light, pushing between her legs and it hurt, she screamed because it hurt, but he kept at it until she bled.

The man who held her now swore as he felt her teeth but he did not let go. “Little hellion,” he snarled, and slammed her forehead against the brick wall.

She went limp and dazed then for a moment, and something wet and sticky covered her eyes. Then she was on the ground on her belly, her bare thighs scraping against the stones, and his hands were on her bottom, pulling her legs apart.

Just go away, she thought. You’re not here, you’re in a green field in a valley, and the sun is shining down, and here comes someone smiling at you, someone who loves you.

Then the hands on her were gone and she heard the sound of flesh meeting flesh. She rolled to one side, her shift still up around her waist, and wiped the stickiness from her eyes.

Hatcher was pounding her attacker repeatedly with his fists. He had pushed the man’s back against the wall and was methodically reducing the man’s face to an unrecognizable blob of jelly. After several moments Hatcher released the man, who fell limp to the ground. He did not appear to be breathing.

Hatcher turned to Alice, his chest heaving. He was covered in blood, his hands and his chest and his face. His eyes went from the cut on her head to her bare waist, and lingered there for a moment. Then he said, “Cover yourself” and turned away to search the man’s pockets.

Alice pulled the shift down to her knees again and used the wall to help her stand. She leaned there for a moment and her body began to shake all over. When Hatcher turned back her teeth were chattering. He held a small pouch in one hand.

“Full of gold,” he said, nudging the limp body with his toe. “Probably a slave trader. He would have used you and then sold you.”

“I th-th-think I w-w-was sold before,” she said. She had a memory of money changing hands, of seeing a smaller hand being filled with gold from a larger one.

“By the man with the long ears, or to him?” Hatcher asked.

She shook her head. There had only been that flash of terror, of memory best forgotten. There had been a man, but she couldn’t remember his face. Then her mind reasserted itself, keeping her safe.

He paused in front of her, a savage splattered with the blood of her attacker, and there was something about his face that was oddly vulnerable.

“May I…?”he asked, and he mimed putting his arm around her shoulder.

Everything inside her clenched and cried no. Then the moment passed, and she remembered how he had stared at her bare legs but turned away instead of falling on her like a ravening wolf. She nodded, and saw relief on his face.

His arm went around and pulled her tight to his body for a moment, so she could feel the coiled strength in him. Then he loosened enough so she could walk, but did not let go. They returned to the place where the ogre had attacked. Alice saw the body of the larger man there. He still breathed shallowly through the broken mess where his teeth used to be. Near by on the ground was the club he had used on Hatcher. It was actually just a thick rod of wood with a slightly oversized end. It was broken in two pieces.

“We must get inside somewhere,” Hatcher said.

“Where can we go that’s safe?” Alice asked. “Does this place seem familiar to you?”

“It does,” he admitted. “Though I don’t know why. From the moment we stepped inside the Old City my feet have been leading us someplace.”

“Someplace safe?” she asked. The cold was in her bones now, making her tremble all over despite the warmth of Hatcher holding her close. She was hungry and tired and more scared than she could ever remember being. For a brief moment she longed for the certainty of the hospital, the security of four walls around her.

“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s been many years since I’ve been here. Some places look the same. More the same than you’d think. And others seem much different, though I can’t put my finger on why.”

“I don’t think your memory is as gone as you think it is,” Alice said. “You remember things like the time of Magicians. And that men like that sell girls like me. And you know the city. You’ve only forgotten who you are.”

“No,” Hatcher said. “I know who I am now. I’ve forgotten who I was before. Probably for the best. You might not like who I was then. I might not, either.”

Alice remembered who she was before. She just couldn’t recall what happened to that girl to make her this girl. And given the flashes she’d just seen that was probably for the best. Hatcher was right. Maybe not remembering was better.

She shook under his arm. He rubbed his shoulder with his hand, fruitlessly trying to impart heat.

“I can’t get warm,” she said.

“We’re nearly there.”

“Nearly where?”

“I don’t know. It’s where my feet are leading us. It’s someplace safe.”

Alice noticed they’d emerged from the maze of alleys into a thoroughfare. It wasn’t packed, but there were plenty of people going about their morning’s business. Women with their heads wrapped in scarves against the chill, carrying baskets of eggs and cabbage and fish wrapped in paper. Men leading donkeys laden with coal or firewood, or making quiet trades on the sly. Boys in ragged caps and bare feet pinching apples from carts when the proprietor wasn’t looking.

Everyone who saw Alice and Hatcher averted their eyes and veered away, but the two of them did not seem to cause sufficient alarm that the police were called, for which Alice was grateful. None of these folk would want the authorities sniffing around, for she was certain that more than fruit and coal was being sold off those carts. Every person made it clear that no help was to be found there, but no hindrance, either.

“When we arrive,” Hatcher said. “There will be an old woman, and she will know me, and she will let us in.”

Alice wondered who this old woman was, and why Hatcher was so sure she would help. She wanted to ask, but Hatcher probably would not know the answer, anyway. And her stomach was starting to churn, even though there was nothing in it. If they’d still been in their rooms the morning porridge would have come hours ago. Alice coughed, and tasted something foul in the back of her throat.

“I feel sick,” she moaned.

“Nearly there,” Hatcher said, steering her around the corner of a storefront selling healing potions and down another alley.

“I won’t make it,” Alice said, and broken away from Hatcher to heave against the wall.

Her stomach wrenched upward, her throat burning but all that came out were a few thin drools of bile. Alice leaned her aching forehead against the cool brick and winced when the rough surface scraped against the scabbed knot given her by the man who would have raped her. The nausea had not passed. Instead the outburst had only made her feel worse.

“Just a little farther,” Hatcher said, tugging at her hand, her shoulder. “It’s the powder making you sick.”

“I haven’t had my powder today,” Alice said.

“Precisely,” Hatcher said. “How many years have you had a powder with breakfast and supper?”

“Ever since I went to hospital,” Alice said.

It was a terrible struggle to put one foot in front of the other. She could barely lift her leg from the ground. Her toes curled under and scraped along the stone, the skin there peeling away and leaving it raw.

Hatcher badgered and dragged her the last few feet. When finally they reached the plain wooden door tucked in a notch halfway down the alley Alice was on the verge of collapse.

Hatcher pounded on the door with his fist, his other arm keeping Alice from folding up in a heap on the ground. The door opened and a very small woman, knotted and ancient, appeared in the opening. She wore a blue dress covered by a faded red shawl. Her hair was white, and her eyes were as gray as Hatcher’s. She took one long look at him, and Alice thought she heard a little sigh.

Then the woman said, “Nicholas. I’ve been waiting for you for three days.”

 

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Apr 162015
 

If she moved her head all the way up against the wall and tilted it to the left she could just see the edge of the moon through the bars. Just a silver sliver, almost close enough to eat. A sliver of cheese, a sliver of cake, a cup of tea to be polite. Someone had given her a cup of tea once, someone with blue-green eyes and long ears. Funny how she couldn’t remember his face, though. All that part was hazy, her memory of him wrapped in smoke but for the eyes and ears. And the ears were long and furry.

When they found her all she would say was, “The Rabbit. The Rabbit. The Rabbit.” Over and over. When she acted like that they said she was mad. Alice knew she wasn’t mad. Maybe. Not deep down. But the powders they gave her made the world all muzzy and sideways and sometimes she felt mad.

Everything had happened just as she said, when she could say something besides “Rabbit.” She and Dor went into the Old City for Dor’s birthday. Sixteenth birthday. Sixteen candles on your cake, a sliver of cake and a cup of tea for you, my dear. They both went in, but only Alice came out. Two weeks later came Alice, covered in blood, babbling about tea and a rabbit, wearing a dress that wasn’t hers. Red running down the insides of her legs and blue marks on her thighs were fingers had been.

Her hand went without thought to her left cheek, touched the long thick scar that followed the line of bone from her hairline to the top of her lip. Her face had been flayed open when they found her, and she couldn’t say how or why. It had been open for a long while, the blood oozing from it gone black and brackish, the skin around it tattered at the edges. The doctors told her parents they had done their best, but she would never be beautiful again.

Her sister said it was her own fault. If she had stayed out of the Old City as she was supposed to, this never would have happened. There was a reason why they lived in the New City, the ring of shiny new buildings that kept the Old City at bay. The Old City wasn’t for people like them. It was for the filth you threw away. All children were warned about the dangers of straying to the Old City. Alice didn’t belong there.

The hospital where Alice had lived for the last ten years was in the Old City, so her sister was wrong. Alice did belong there.

Sometimes her parents came to visit, doing their duty; their noses wrinkled like she was something that smelled bad, even though the attendants always dragged her out and gave her a bath first. She hated the baths. They were icy cold and rough with scrubbing, and she was never permitted to clean herself. If she struggled or cried out they would hit her with the bath brush or pinch hard enough to leave a mark, always somewhere that couldn’t be seen, the side of her breast or the soft part of her belly, with a promise of “more where that came from” unless she behaved.

Her parents didn’t visit so much anymore. Alice couldn’t really remember the last time, but she knew it had been a long time. The days all ran together in her room, no books to read, no things to do. Hatcher said she should exercise so she would be fit when she got out, but somewhere in her heart Alice knew she would never get out. She was a broken thing, and the New City did not like broken things. They liked the new and the whole. Alice hardly recalled when she was new and whole. That girl seemed like someone else she’d known once, long ago and far away.

“Alice?” A voice through the mouse hole.

Many years before, a mouse had gotten into the wall and chewed through the batting between her cell and Hatcher’s. Alice didn’t know what had happened to the mouse. Probably caught in a trap in the kitchens, or went out on the riverside and drowned. But the mouse had led her to Hatcher, a rough voice coming through the wall. She had really thought she’d gone round the bend at first, hearing voices coming from nowhere.

“Hey, you,” the voice had said.

She’d looked around wildly, afraid, and scuttled into a corner on the far side of the window, opposite the door.

“Hey, you. Down here,” the voice said.

Alice had resolutely put her fingers in her ears. Everyone knew hearing voices was a sign of madness, and she’d promised herself she would not be mad no matter what they said, no matter how she felt. After several moments of happy silence she released her fingers and looked around the room in relief.

A great sigh exhaled from the walls. “The mouse hole, you nit.”

Alice stared in alarm at the small opening in the corner opposite. Somehow a talking mouse was worse than voices in her head. If mice were talking, then there really were men with blue-green eyes and long furry ears. And while she didn’t remember his face, she did remember she’d been afraid. She stared at the mouse hole like something horrible might suddenly emerge from it, like the Rabbit might unfold himself from that space and finish whatever he had started.

Another, this one shorter and much more impatient. “You’re not hearing bloody voices and a mouse is not speaking to you. I’m in the room next to yours and I can see you through the hole. You’re not crazy and there’s no magic, so will you please come here and speak with me before I go madder than I already have?”

“If you’re not in my head and you’re not magic, then how do you know what I’m thinking?” Alice asked, her voice suspicious. She was beginning to wonder whether this wasn’t some trick of the doctors, some way to draw her into a trap.

The attendants gave her a powder with her breakfast and dinner, to “keep her calm,” they said. But she knew that those powders still allowed her some freedom to be Alice, to think and dream and try to remember the lost bits of her life. When they took her out of her room for a bath or a visit, she sometimes saw other patients, people standing still with dead eyes and drool on their chins, people who were alive and didn’t know it. Those people were “difficult to deal with.” They got injections instead of powders. Alice didn’t want injections, so she wasn’t going to say or do anything that would alarm the doctors. Doctors who might be trying to trick her with voices in the wall.

“I know what you’re thinking, because that’s what I’d be thinking if I were you,” the voice said. “We’re in the loony bin, aren’t we? Now, come over and have a look through the hole and you’ll see.”

She stood cautiously, still unsure it was not a trick, whether of her mind or the doctors. She crossed under the window and crouched by the mouse hole.

“All I can see are your knees,” the voice complained. “Come all the way down, won’t you?”

Alice lowered to her stomach, keeping her head well away from the opening. She had a vague fear that a needle might flash through the hole and plunge into her eye.

Once her cheek was on the ground she could see through the small, tight opening. On the other side was an iron grey eye and part of a nose. There was a bulge just where the rest of the nose disappeared from view, like it might have been broken once. It didn’t look like any doctor she knew, but Alice wasn’t taking any chances. “Let me see your whole face,” she said.

“Good,” the grey eye said. “You’re thinking. That’s good. Not just a pretty face, then.”

Alice’s hand moved automatically to cover her scar; then she remembered she was lying on that side of her face and he couldn’t really see it anyway. Let him think she was pretty if he wanted. It would be nice to be pretty to someone even with her fair hair all snarled and nothing to wear but a woolen shift. She heard the swish-swish of wool on batting as the grey eye moved away from the hole and became two grey eyes, a long broken nose and a bushy black beard with flecks of white in it.

“All right, then?” the voice asked. “I’m Hatcher.”

And that was how they met. Hatcher was ten years older than Alice, and nobody ever came to see him.

“Why are you here?” she asked one day, long after they were friends, or at least friends who never really saw each other.

“I killed a lot of people with an ,” he said. “That’s how I got my name. Hatcher.”

“What was your name before?” Alice asked. She was surprisingly undisturbed by the knowledge that her new friend was an axe murderer. It seemed unrelated to who he was now, the rough voice and grey eyes through the hole in the wall.

“I don’t remember,” he said. “I don’t remember anything from before, really. They found me with a bloodied axe in my hand and five people dead around me all slashed to pieces. I tried to do the same for the police when they came for me, so I must have killed those people.”

“Why did you do it?”

“Don’t remember,” he said, and his voice change a little, became hard. “It’s like there’s this haze over my eyes, black smoke filling everything up. I remember the weight of the axe in my hand, and the hot blood on my face, in my mouth. I remember the sound of the blade in soft flesh.”

“I remember that too,” Alice said, although she didn’t know why she said that. For a moment it had been true, though. She could hear the sound of a knife piercing skin, that sliding slicing noise, and someone screaming.

“Did you kill a lot of people too?” Hatcher asked.

“I don’t know,” Alice said. “I might have.”

“It’s all right if you did,” Hatcher said. “I would understand.”

“I really don’t know,” Alice said. “I remember before and I remember after, but that fortnight is gone, save for a few flashes.”

“The man with the long ears.”

“Yes,” Alice said. The man who hunted her, faceless, through her nightmares.

“When we get out we’ll find him, and then you’ll know what happened to you,” Hatcher said.

That had been eight years before, and they were both still there, rooms side by side in a hospital that had no intention of ever letting them go.

From ALICE, Ace trade release August 4, 2015. Preorder here:

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Nov 032014
 

Several people have asked if BLACK SPRING is really the last BLACK WINGS book. Yes, it really is. There were a lot of reasons for this, but a couple of reasons were 1) it felt like a natural stopping point for Maddy’s character, and 2) I don’t want to overstay my welcome. I am always disappointed in series that seem to go on and on with no direction. I’ve always had a general plan for Maddy’s story and while I could have written two or three more books it seemed like this was the place to wrap things up. Plus, I have tons and tons of ideas for other books and I’d like to try my hand at writing something different.


I want to thank everyone who has come along on Maddy’s journey with me. I hope that you will try ALICE, the first in a 2-part book series, which will be released next August. It is very different from the BLACK WINGS series but I am extremely excited about this new direction for my writing.

Sep 172014
 

It’s called ALICE, and it will be released in August of 2015. Here’s a little teaser I wrote up:

Some time in the past, or maybe some time in the future…

The City is a warren of crumbling buildings, desperate people, thieves, murderers, con men and whores. The wealthy live in a gated ring around the teeming darkness of the City, keeping the undesirables contained. Sometimes people go in, but no one ever comes out.

An asylum stands deep in the heart of the City. A girl named Alice is held there. She was found wandering the streets in a torn and bloodied dress, repeating two words over and over, “The Rabbit. The Rabbit. The Rabbit.” She had a friend named Dor, and now Dor is gone. There is a hole in Alice’s memory where her life used to be, and all she can see is the looming face of the Rabbit, promising death and despair.

In the cell next to hers is a man called Hatcher, and he is one of the few who knows what is in the basement of the asylum. He calls it the Jabberwocky, and even the lunatics think he is mad.

But then one day there is a fire at the asylum, and Alice and Hatcher find a way out. Alice must find the lost bits of herself, and to do that she must find a creature no one believes exists – the Rabbit.

And the Jabberwocky now stalks the streets of the City…

Sep 042014
 

Chapter 1

I woke to the sound of dogs barking. My eyes drifted open halfway, just enough to register the sun streaming through the open blinds. Nathaniel’s arm was thrown around my waist, his body snuggled into my back. The child inside my belly shifted under his hand. The scent of bacon cooking drifted from the kitchen.
My three dogs, Lock, Stock and Barrel, nosed inside the bedroom door, their nails clicking across the hardwood floor. They came around to my side of the bed, their doggy faces set in mute appeal, tongues lolling.
It seemed like a pretty typical domestic scene, except that there is nothing typical about my life. The dogs weren’t dogs at all, but Retrievers—powerful magical creatures who’d given me their allegiance when I’d freed them from slavery to the Agency.
The man in bed with me wasn’t a man, but the son of an angel and a . . . Well, I wasn’t sure exactly what Puck was, but he was definitely something old and powerful. Besides his lack of humanity, Nathaniel also wasn’t the father of my child. He wasn’t even my lover, or my boyfriend. I didn’t know how to define our relationship status as any other way except “complicated.”
The person cooking the bacon in the kitchen was my many-greats-uncle Daharan, brother of Lucifer, dragon shapeshifter, creature of fire and something older than the Earth itself.
As for me, I was the daughter of a fallen angel and an Agent of Death. Lucifer was my grandfather. My baby had the blood of a half nephilim inside his veins, a legacy from his dead father. I had more enemies than I could count. I’d spent the last several months trying to stay alive while those enemies tried to kill me and my very ancient family members plotted around me.
We were definitely not going to win any awards for normality in this family.
The dogs needed walking, but everyone pretended not to notice because no one could control them except me.
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” I grumbled, sliding out from beneath Nathaniel’s arm.
This was harder than it sounded. I was only three months pregnant, but it appeared that I was twice that. I’d never fully appreciated the ease and elasticity with which I’d rolled out of bed before I took on the aspect of a hippo.
“Do you want me to come with you?” Nathaniel murmured.
“No one is going to mess with me while I’m walking these three,” I said. “Besides, it’s been a quiet couple of weeks.”
And it had been, I reflected as I got dressed. Since I’d killed Titania, the faerie queen. Since Nathaniel’s half brother—and heir to the court of Titania and Oberon— Bendith had been killed by his biological father, Puck. Since Puck had tricked me into freeing him from his bondage to Titania.
Since I’d had an adventure in another space and time, and discovered the darker places in my heart, the black menace at the core of my magic. I’d worked hard to force that dark- ness to recede, to let my natural personality reassert itself. But it seemed that since I’d tapped into that power, it floated closer to the surface, shadows seeping into my edges.
Like so many things that I’d discovered since becoming aware of my ancestry, my new magical abilities were impossible to undo. And my darling grandfather Lucifer definitely preferred it that way. All the better to tempt you with, my dear.
Lucifer cherished a long-held hope that I would give up my life and become heir to his kingdom. I’d rather eat nails for breakfast than manacle myself to the first of the fallen. Besides, Lucifer’s crazy lover Evangeline was pregnant with his child, and I knew very well that she was angling to put that kid on the throne. If I expressed even the smallest iota of interest in taking Lucifer’s offer, she would set a thousand assassins upon me, regardless of what Lucifer might want.
No, embroiling myself further in Lucifer’s machinations was definitely not at the top of my to-do list. I pulled on a pair of jeans I couldn’t button. The taut roundness of my lower belly protruded over the fly. I pushed a rubber band through the buttonhole, looped it and wrapped the other end around the button to keep the pants from sliding down. A long, baggy Cubs sweatshirt completed this uber-stylish look. I shoved my slippers on and padded out of the room.
In the kitchen, my uncle Daharan was making pancakes and bacon in large quantities and placing them on covered platters I didn’t even know I owned. He’s not your garden-variety uncle. He’s an ancient being, one of Lucifer’s three brothers, and he spends at least part of his time in dragon form. For the moment he was living in the apartment downstairs.
Locks didn’t keep him out, and he came and went freely between my place and his. Somehow I couldn’t be irritated about this. There was some quality about Daharan that made me trust him, trust that he would do me no harm. Beezle wasn’t so sure, as he tended not to trust anyone so closely related to Lucifer, but as I entered the kitchen I noticed his mistrust of Daharan did not extend to disdain of his cooking. Beezle was perched on the counter next to the platters filching as much bacon as he could while Daharan’s back was turned.
The dogs trotted ahead of me, down the hall, and stopped before the front door while I paused in the kitchen.
“That’s a whole lot of breakfast for three people and a gargoyle,” I remarked.
“You’re eating for two,” Beezle said before Daharan could answer.
“And you’re eating for five,” I said.
Daharan ignored the byplay. “We will be having guests this morning.”
“What guests?” I asked warily.
The last thing I wanted was for one of Daharan’s brothers to show up. Alerian terrified me. Lucifer infuriated me.
And Puck . . . Well, when I thought of the way Puck had manipulated me into destroying one of the oldest creatures in the universe for his own personal gain, those shadows on my heart threatened to overtake me. I truly thought I could beat Puck bloody with a crowbar and it wouldn’t bother me in the least. Of course, when I had thoughts like that I knew that the darkness was spreading inside me like a cancer. I wasn’t sure if there was anything I could do to stop it.
“You will see when they arrive,” Daharan said.
I’d almost forgotten I’d asked a question, so caught up was I in thoughts of vengeance on Puck.
“Did you invite someone?” I asked.
“No,” Daharan said mildly, but with a finality that let me know he wasn’t going to tell me anything more.
Lucifer and all of his brothers could see aspects of the future. Daharan was able to see with the most clarity. So someone was coming. Someone whose arrival Daharan had foreseen, but he didn’t want to share with me for some reason.
I shrugged and went to the waiting dogs, who panted in anticipation. As soon as I opened the front door they crowded out in a rush, jumping all over one another in their eagerness to leave. They thundered down the steps ahead of me, whining when they reached the closed door at the bottom of the stairs.
I trudged slowly after them. I might be imbued with some of the strongest magic in the universe, but I was an ungainly waddler just like every other pregnant woman there ever was. I finally made it to the bottom and opened the door.
The dogs created another bottleneck in the foyer, where a final door, this one clear glass, made the first threshold between me and mine and anything nasty that might come knocking. I managed to herd the dogs to one side so I could get the door open. They ran down the front porch steps and out to the sidewalk, terrifying a nanny walking a couple of babies in a double stroller.
The former Retrievers looked like oversized black mastiffs, and while I was pretty sure they wouldn’t attack an innocent human being, they definitely looked intimidating. She gave me a look like she wanted to chastise me for defying Chicago’s leash law, but then gave the dogs a second glance and obviously thought better of it. She hurried down the street with the kids, eager to get away.
I’d tried to keep Lock, Stock and Barrel on leashes. But they would weave in and out and get tangled up, and finally I threw up my hands. They would do what I said—mostly— so why bother with leashes?
The dogs ran in three different directions to do their business. They each had a preferred spot staked out. I monitored them from the sidewalk in front of my house, wondering idly why supernatural creatures made of darkness and bearing the power to destroy souls needed to crap on the neighbor’s lawn in the first place. Was it because I expected dogs to do such things? The Retrievers had become more doglike as I considered them so. They were connected to me in a way I didn’t fully understand. I could feel their presence always in the back of my mind. It wasn’t as disturbing as it should have been. It was comforting. It kept me secure in the knowledge that they would come to my defense if I needed it. More important, they would come to the defense of my baby.
I placed my hand over my protruding belly, secure in the knowledge that my son was safe inside me. I hardly allowed myself to consider what might happen after he was born. At night I was plagued by dreams of him being rent from my arms, stolen and kept by one of my enemies—or worse.
My own family might try to take him from me. Lucifer had made no secret of his interest in the child. Did I have the strength—and the allies—to keep Lucifer from my son? Maybe. But I didn’t want to be forced to find out. I was thinking all these things, lost in my own worries, when the growling of the Retrievers brought me back to the present. 3N
They crowded around me in a protective circle, making horrible noises low in their throats, just waiting for me to give the signal so they could leap, rip, tear.

A figure approached cautiously, the object of the Retrievers’ suspicion. The person was dressed like a college student, a slouchy gray T-shirt over loose-fitting jeans and beat-up sneakers. But the baggy clothes could not disguise the obvious strength in his body, or hide the muscles flexing in his arms. Nor did the grimy Cubs cap completely cover the gold- blond of his hair or shade the brilliance of his green eyes.
He’d veiled his wings, and his eyes were unsure as he stopped a few feet from me. The Retrievers growled more intensely, but I put my hand on Stock’s neck, and they quieted instantly. They were obviously still on their guard, though.
The man before me stood silently, waiting to see what I would do.
“Samiel,” I said.
Everything was knotted up inside me. I wasn’t sure how to feel. There was happiness, and pain, and lots and lots of anger. Samiel was my brother-in-law, and seeing him again reminded me of happier days, when Gabriel was alive. But I was also reminded that he had left me, left me when I was in need of help, left me after I’d taken him in and sheltered him. He’d left even though I’d risked my life to save him from the court of the Grigori. He’d left knowing I carried his brother’s child, blood of his blood, and knowing that child needed protection.
As I thought these things the anger and the darkness rose up inside me, and he took a step back, like he could feel the pulse of dark magic. The Retrievers crouched, ready to strike.
“What do you want?” I asked, and my voice did not sound like my own. The effect was lost entirely on Samiel, who was deaf. But he could see my face, and read my lips, and know he was not welcome.
His hands moved tentatively, signing out the words,
Maddy, I’m sorry.
He meant it. I could see it in his eyes, in the pleading lines of his face. He was sorry.
Part of me wanted to unbend immediately, to take the apology that was freely given, to return back to the way things were before.
The other part of me knew that we could never return to who we were before, and that part wanted to hold on to the anger and the hurt, to rage in pain and make Samiel suffer, make him hurt as I had when I thought everyone had abandoned me.
An image of Samiel bent and broken, blood seeping from many wounds, flashed across my brain.
That shocked me out of my anger, made me realize it was wrong, all out of proportion to his crime.
The Retrievers would take him down if I gave the words. They were attuned to my feelings, had sensed the building inferno inside me. I willed that anger away, fought to remember who I was.
“Stand down,” I told Lock, Stock and Barrel. They immediately sat back on their haunches and let their tongues loll out. I sensed their watchfulness despite their easy posture. “He’s a friend.”
Some of the tension seeped out of Samiel’s body, but not all of it. Am I? he signed.
“Are you?” I asked, raising my eyebrow. “Or have you come to try and eliminate me before I give birth to this baby, who just might be a monster unleashed on the world?”
Samiel looked shocked. I could never hurt Gabriel’s child. And why would you think your own baby is a monster?
It was a thought I allowed myself only rarely and briefly. Mostly because I was sure I would still love and protect him, no matter what he was.
“It’s always been a possibility, hasn’t it?” I said. “Gabriel was Ramuell’s son, and Ramuell was most definitely a monster.”
But Gabriel wasn’t. And neither are you.
“Are you sure about that?” I asked, thinking of all the things I had done, the dark compulsion that was becoming more difficult to control.
Samiel shook his head. I know who you are, in your heart. I nearly killed you twice. I cut off two of your fingers. And yet you saw how my mother had twisted my love for her. You forgave me. You made me a part of your family.
“And you left me,” I said. There was no anger now, only hurt and sadness. “I trusted you. And you left.”
I was confused, he signed. It’s not an excuse. I just wasn’t sure what would happen after everyone in the world saw you on television destroying those vampires. And Chloe . . .
Here he stopped signing and frowned.
“I know,” I said. “You wanted to protect her from the hordes you thought would be breaking down my door at any moment. She’s your girl. I get it.”
No, he signed, then backtracked. I mean, yes, I did want to protect her. But she’s not my girl. At least, not anymore.
“She kicked you out and now you’re here looking for a roof over your head?” I asked, getting annoyed again.
No, Samiel signed, shaking his head. It’s not like that. We broke up because I wanted to come here, to make amends.
“Let me guess,” I said. “Chloe didn’t agree.”
You could say that, Samiel said, grinning.
I could imagine how that argument went. Chloe has an extremely strong personality. And once she’s decided something, no force in the universe could make her change her mind.
“What’s the heaviest thing she threw at your head?” I asked.
A cast-iron frying pan.
“Seriously? A little cliché, that,” I said.
She had just finished cooking breakfast, he signed. I thought it would be a safe time to raise the subject since her stomach was full.
“According to Beezle her stomach is never full,” I said.
Beezle should talk.
And just like that, it was all right. I didn’t want to be angry at Samiel. I had enough legitimate enemies without spurning an apologetic friend just to soothe my pride. I stepped forward and he put his arms around me. I felt safe and warm there. He leaned back, his hands on my shoulders for a moment, and looked me up and down, shaking his head.
“Don’t say anything about my weight,” I warned. “Don’t say it looks like I swallowed a basketball, or that it looks like I’m about to pop, or ask me if I’m having twins.”
Samiel shook his head. I was just going to say you look tired.
“And don’t say that either,” I said. “When speaking to a pregnant woman, only compliments should flow from your lips. ‘You look great’ is an excellent fallback.”
Even if it’s not true?
“Especially if it’s not true. I already feel like a whale on two legs. I don’t need anybody to tell me I look like one.” I sighed. “I have to clean up after the dogs. Why don’t you stay here for a minute and get to know them?”
Samiel crouched warily before the three Retrievers, holding his hand out for them to sniff. I went away to collect the dogs’ leavings, confident that Samiel would make friends with them. Everyone loved Samiel.
And if for some reason the dogs didn’t like him . . . well, at least Samiel could fly if necessary.
I went down the gangway between my house and the next to drop the plastic bag in the garbage can in the alley just outside the back fence. When I reentered the backyard I noticed someone standing there, his back to me.
“No wonder Daharan made so many pancakes,” I said. “Apparently it’s my day for a family reunion.”
Jude turned around, his shaggy red beard and piercing blue eyes as familiar and welcome as Samiel had been. He looked like he couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
“They told me you were dead,” he said hoarsely, taking a step toward me.
“I could say that thing about death and rumors and exaggeration, but you probably wouldn’t get it,” I said. Jude was very old, and very serious, and very literal-minded.
“I thought you were dead,” he repeated.
I realized I’d been a little thoughtless. Jude remembered the “B” in B.C. He also had lived through the “A” in A.D., long ago, when he was called Judas Iscariot and his name became infamous. He’d lost someone he’d pledged his life to, and for more than two thousand years he hadn’t made a pledge like that again. Until me. And he’d thought I died.
“Jude, I . . .” I began.
Several things happened at once. The back door flew open. Beezle, Nathaniel and Daharan streamed out onto the porch, all looking frantic.
The Retrievers came howling down the side of the house, chased by Samiel, who also appeared panicked.
Jude spun to face the new arrivals just as Beezle cried out, “Maddy, get away from him!”
And then a huge red-and-gray wolf leapt over the neighbor’s fence, into my yard, and tackled Jude to the ground.
Jude transformed into a matching red-and-gray wolf. The two canids tangled with each other, biting and clawing while I—and everyone else—stood frozen in surprise. Beezle flew to my shoulder.
“That’s not Jude,” he said.
“I figured that out,” I said. “But is the other one Jude?” “Yes,” Beezle said, squinting at the two snarling wolves.
I knew he was looking through all the layers of reality to see the creatures’ true essence. “It’s a good thing he showed up when he did. You looked like you were about to hug the fake Jude.”
“I was,” I admitted. “So who’s the fake?”
Beezle’s answer never came, for one of the wolves suddenly yelped and then bounded over the side fence into my neighbors’ yard. The other wolf growled and made to follow it.
“Wait!” I called, then glanced at Beezle. “I’m assuming that’s the real Jude there?”
Beezle nodded.
“Jude, wait,” I said.
He turned toward me, his muzzle streaked with blood, and growled low in his throat. He didn’t want to let his quarry escape. But I hadn’t seen Jude since before I destroyed the vampires infesting Chicago. He’d gone away to attend to some pack business, and he’d never come back. Until that moment, I hadn’t realized just how much I’d missed him.
“Jude, stay,” I said, and fell to my knees. Beezle fluttered away.
Jude took a half step toward me, then looked back in the direction of the imposter.
“We’ll find him,” I promised. Tears sprung to my eyes.
I wiped them away with the heel of my hand. “Only— don’t leave. I can’t bear any more leavings.”
Everyone in the yard was silent, watching. The last time I’d fallen to my knees in this place I’d covered Gabriel’s bleeding body in the snow. Jude had helped me stand again, pulled me away from the snow and the cold and blood. It was spring now, and Gabriel was gone forever, but Gabriel’s heart lived on inside me, in the beating heart of his child.
The tears fell fast and thick now, and I could hardly see in front of me. Jude’s cold nose pressed against my cheek, and then I buried my face in the thick ruff of fur at his neck. He whined softly in his throat.
The spell was broken by Nathaniel, who abruptly took to the air, flying into the thick leaves of the catalpa tree that grew in the corner of my yard.
I heard someone familiar say, “Ow! You can’t do that!”
I came to my feet and spun toward the tree. Nathaniel emerged grim-faced, holding Jack Dabrowski by the collar of his jacket like a truculent child. He landed in front of me with Jack wriggling under his grasp like a worm on a hook. Nathaniel held a video camera in his free hand.
Daharan moved up to my left side, Samiel to my right. Beezle returned to his perch on my shoulder. The dogs crowded around our ankles, treating Jude like he was part of their pack.
Nathaniel looked at me, then at the camera.
“Break it,” I said.
“Naw, you can’t—Oh, man!” Jack said as Nathaniel looked at the camera and it burst into flame. A second later nothing was left but ash, which Nathaniel dumped in the grass.
“I told you to leave me alone,” I said to Jack.
“And I told you that I wasn’t going to stop,” Jack said, his feet dangling above the ground. “Hey, can you get your goon to let me down? It’s kind of hard to breathe when I’m in this position.”
“It’s kind of hard to breathe when angry supernatural creatures decide to punish you for not leaving well enough alone,” I said, but I nodded at Nathaniel to release Jack.
He did so, but made sure to stand close by and loom over the blogger. Nathaniel looms well. His height—well over six feet—helps with that.
Jude gave Jack a pointed look and growled. Jack gave Jude a nervous glance and backed away a few inches, which naturally caused him to bump into Nathaniel. He glanced up at Nathaniel’s cold, hard face, muttered, “Sorry,” and tried to find a position far from both Jude and Nathaniel.
Since we were all crowded around him in our best menacing fashion, this necessitated a lot of uncertain shuffling on his part. I watched him with a mixture of amusement and frustration. He was so far out of his depth, but he refused to be scared away.
Jack had waited his whole life to discover that all the things he believed in were real. He’d blogged about supernatural happenings in Chicago before anyone had realized there actually were supernatural happenings. And now that normal folk had become aware of things like vampires and angels, Jack Dabrowski had become something of a high priest among the faithful and the true believers.
Unfortunately Jack’s hobby conflicted with my own personal preference to stay under the radar as much as possible. He’d decided that I needed to be an intermediary between the magical world and the regular world. I didn’t want this job for numerous reasons, starting with I had enough trouble and ending with I am not a people person. 3N
“You need to leave me alone, Jack,” I said. “Every time you meet me I break something that belongs to you. So far it’s only been your electronics.”
I let the threat hang in the air, hoping it would have some kind of effect.
Jack made a dismissive gesture. “You can’t fool me. I’ve been asking around about you since the last time you threatened me. I know you don’t hurt innocents.”
“Not on purpose, anyway,” Beezle mumbled. “But if you’re in her path when the avalanche starts rolling, watch out.”
I ignored Beezle. My heart had gone cold at Jack’s words. “Who have you been asking about me?”
He shrugged. “Around online. You know, you have quite the reputation. Did you really kill the High Queen of Faerie?”
“Gods above and below, you’re not even supposed to know that there is a High Queen of Faerie, much less that I killed her,” I said. “I don’t know how you found out about that, but you need to stop talking about me, especially online. You don’t know who you’re conversing with.”
My mind seethed with possibilities, all of them bad news for Jack. Leaving aside all the creatures that hated my guts and could potentially use Jack to get to me, he might draw the attention of Lucifer. And if Lucifer decided that Jack’s pursuit of me was attracting too much notice to his court, he would squash Jack like a bug.
“Like I don’t know how to trace people online?” Jack scoffed. “Believe me, I’ve verified the identity of every source I’ve ever had.”
“Are you crazy?” I shouted. “Do you want to be killed? Do you know how insanely dangerous it is to track down powerful beings who use the Internet for its anonymity?”
“Didn’t I say he was too stupid to live the first time we met?” Beezle said.
This was even worse than I thought. He was actively seeking out dangerous people in the name of research. Sooner or later he would stumble into a situation that would get him killed. And I would be responsible, because I couldn’t stop him.
Nathaniel looked at me. He understood a fair bit of what passed inside my mind without my saying a word. Ever since I’d released his magical legacy from Puck, there had been a powerful connection between us.
“You’ve warned him,” Nathaniel said. “His fate is in his own hands.”
Daharan nodded. “You cannot save everyone, Madeline.”
Their solemnity penetrated Jack’s bravado in a way my anger had not.
“Nothing’s going to happen to me,” he said defiantly.
“Oh, yes, it is,” I said softly. I could almost see it happening—his capture, his torture, his death. A cloak of darkness seemed to settle over him, the resolute hand of the Reaper on his shoulder. We all felt it. We were attending Jack Dabrowski’s funeral.
“I’m not going to die!” he said angrily, desperately, backing away from me.
Nathaniel moved aside so Jack could free himself from our circle, from the relentless certainty of his death.
He held his hands palms up in front of him, to plead, to defend. “I’m not going to die.”
Jack backed into the fence, fumbled with the gate, stepped into the alley.
“I won’t,” he said before the gate slammed shut and we heard his footsteps running away.
“You will,” I said softly behind him. “Everything dies.”

BLACK SPRING will be released on October 28, 2014.

Nov 072013
 

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?

Sep 252013
 

Chapter One

“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.


Feb 052013
 

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.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oct 222012
 

Chapter Two

“Madeline!” Nathaniel cried.

I slammed the foyer door behind me and unlocked the door to my apartment. Beezle and Samiel hadn’t followed me in. I wondered what they were doing.

I wondered what Lucifer had planned now.

I hung up my coat, took off my boots and realized I’d left the groceries out in the snow. A second later Samiel and Beezle came in. Samiel carried the grocery bags into the kitchen, patting me on the shoulder as he went by.

I looked at Beezle. “What’s Lucifer up to?”

Beezle shrugged. “It is not for me to comprehend the ways of the Morningstar.”

“He had to know that I wouldn’t accept Nathaniel,” I said. “Why send him here?”

“Lucifer has to be thinking of the child,” Beezle said. “He wants the baby protected.”

I looked at Beezle incredulously. “And you think that Lucifer thought Nathaniel was the best choice to protect a child he will no doubt despise because of its parentage?”

Beezle shook his head slowly as the smells of something cooking came from the kitchen. Samiel was getting pretty good at turning a small amount of ingredients into something delicious.

“No. I think that Lucifer presented an unappealing option that he knows you’ll refuse out of hand so that he can then send you the person that he really wants here.”

I nodded. It made sense. It was exactly the way Lucifer operated.

“And his leniency toward Nathaniel is no doubt dependent on Nathaniel’s ability to get me to cooperate,” I said.

“Which is why Nathaniel is still on the porch,” Beezle said. “He said he’ll sleep there if he has to.”

I thought about calling the cops to remove him, but Nathaniel would just return over and over again until he got what he wanted. I didn’t believe that he cared about me one whit. I knew for sure that he cared about keeping all his body parts in their proper places, and that meant that he would go to any lengths to please Lucifer.

Fine. He could stay on the porch if he wanted. I hoped he froze to death.

“Maybe you should think about accepting Nathaniel,” Beezle said thoughtfully.

I stared at him. “That’s the second insane thing you’ve told me to do tonight. First I’m to make a pact with Lucifer; now I’m supposed to accept Nathaniel?”

“Think about it,” Beezle said urgently. “You’d have leverage with Nathaniel. You could use him to find out what Lucifer is up to. Plus, you’d definitely throw the Morningstar a loop if you accept a bodyguard he was certain you’d reject.”

“Nathaniel is a killer,” I said heatedly.

“So are you.”

“I didn’t kill innocents. And I don’t try to justify anything I did saying I was under orders from someone else.”

“Nathaniel can’t help that,” Beezle said, shaking his head. “It’s something you never understood about Gabriel either. You’ve never submitted to anyone’s authority in your life—not your mother, not me, not your Agency supervisors, not your teachers at school. You were born contrary.”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing. I’m an independent thinker.”

“Or, depending on one’s perspective, you’re a stubborn mule, but that’s not the point. The point is that you’ve never understood why angels don’t contradict their master, why they follow orders that would seem unreasonable to you. It’s because they’ve had respect for the hierarchy drilled into them from birth. They’ve been taught to be unquestioning, to do what they’re told even if it’s something a human would consider morally wrong.”

“So they’ve been brainwashed?” I said skeptically.

Beezle sighed. “No. Think of them as soldiers in an army. A soldier might doubt the validity of a commander’s order, but that soldier would still do as his commander said. Because that’s the way he’s made. That’s the way he’s been taught to behave, because an army is not made up of one person. Its strength comes from the sum of its parts.”

“So all the angels are taught to do as they’re told because it’s so important for each court to preserve its base of power.”

“Yes,” Beezle replied. “It’s also why rebellion is never initiated from the bottom. Most of the lower hierarchy could never conceive of going against Lucifer. But Azazel and Focalor are both Grigori. They have their own courts. They are used to answering only to Lucifer, and in recent years it seems he has given them more leeway.”

“But why?” I asked. “You told me once that Lucifer would do anything to maintain his base of power. And Gabriel once said that he thought Lucifer had enough power to have dominion over all things.”

“I’m pretty sure he does,” Beezle replied.

“Then why loosen his grip?” I wondered.

“To see what would happen,” Beezle said. “To see who is truly loyal to him.”

I scowled. I really disliked the idea that Lucifer would allow a rebellion to fester just so he could watch the game play out. I was also disturbed by the idea that Nathaniel might not be entirely at fault for his part in the memory-selling enterprise. He wasn’t completely blameless, not by a long shot, but it seemed it would have been difficult for Nathaniel to refuse Azazel.

He had tried to kill me in Azazel’s court. But he had also helped us save Wade’s cubs.

I shook my head. I didn’t know what to do about Nathaniel right now. It seemed too complicated to sort out what was right and what was wrong, and that worried me. Those shades of gray were Lucifer’s provenance.

Samiel came into the dining room carrying a tray full of food. He set three bowls on the table.

“Yum, chili!” Beezle said, diving toward his portion.

“Use a spoon,” I said before he went headfirst into the bowl. “You’re not a pig at the trough.”

Beezle muttered crossly to himself, but he perched on the edge of the bowl with a spoon held in his fist. He scooped chili into his beak with the rapidity and care of a toddler just beginning to use utensils. Food dribbled from his mouth to his stomach.

Don’t look at him, Samiel signed. You’ll lose your appetite.

I try not to look at him generally, I replied.

Samiel went back into the kitchen and returned with a plate of corn bread  and three glasses of milk. He indicated I should sit down across from him, looking inordinately pleased with himself.

“This looks great,” I said.

I wondered where he had found all the ingredients in my very bare kitchen. I was pretty certain I hadn’t bought all of this stuff with Beezle, so I asked Samiel.

I had most of the stuff downstairs, he signed, pausing between bites.

His bowl was almost empty already, and I’d had only a small taste. Samiel eats like a teenage boy who’s not sure where his next meal is going to come from.

“But where did you get the money for the groceries?” I wondered aloud.

Lucifer gave it to me.

I raised my eyebrow at that.

He knows that I don’t work, and he was worried about you because he knows you depend on the rent from the apartment.

“Yeah, I’ll just bet he was worried,” I muttered into my chili so that Samiel couldn’t read my lips.

Everywhere I looked Lucifer was there, entangling me in his spider’s web. I knew Samiel was loyal to me, but I also knew that Lucifer was very good at making simple things look confusing.

If Samiel continued to accept an allowance from Lucifer, then one day in the future the Morningstar might come to Samiel asking for a favor. And Samiel might think that one little favor was small repayment to the angel who had given him so much. Then Lucifer would ask for one more thing, and another, and another, until Samiel was well and truly trapped.

“Aren’t you eating?” Beezle asked, breaking my reverie.

I glanced over at him and wished I hadn’t. He was covered in chili from horn to claw and was presently stuffing corn bread in his beak. The bread crumbs sprayed everywhere as he chewed. I covered my eyes.

“I don’t know why, but I seem to have lost my appetite,” I said loudly.

“More for me,” Beezle said gleefully.

Samiel pried my hands from my face so I could look at him.

You have to eat, he signed.

Do you know about the baby, too?

He nodded, looking rueful. Beezle told me.

Listen, Samiel, I signed. Do you want to work?

He looked uncertain. Yes, but Lucifer said I wouldn’t be able to get a regular job, because I can’t hide my wings like you can.

“It’s nice that he’s thought of everything,” I mumbled to myself, then looked at Samiel and spoke. “You could work at the Agency. There are a lot of supernatural creatures working for us that aren’t Agents.”

But I thought you didn’t get paid?

“I don’t. Agents don’t because collecting souls is a ‘sacred duty,’” I said, making air quotes with my fingers. “But the support staff and the management collect regular paychecks. Don’t ask me where the Agency gets its funding from, though. That’s apparently need-to-know only.”

Do you really think I could work there? Samiel looked doubtful.

“Sure. I’ll talk to J.B. about it.” As I said this, it occurred to me that I hadn’t picked up any souls for a couple of days, and I wondered if I had been neglecting my sacred duty while wandering around in a depressed fog.

“Before you start panicking,” Beezle said, reading my thoughts, “you should know that J.B. called a few days ago and said he was reassigning all of your pickups for the next week.”

“Do you think you could actually deliver my messages in a timely manner?” I said. “Or, better yet, don’t pick up the phone at all and let the answering machine fulfill the purpose for which it was created.”

“What?” Beezle said. “You’re getting the message now.”

“That’s not the point,” I began, and trailed off. The snake tattoo on my right palm tingled. I stood up. I’d learned not to ignore Lucifer’s mark.

What’s wrong? Samiel signed.

“Danger approaching. Stay in the house,” I said to Beezle.