“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.