Zero Sum - B. Justin Shier

Second book of the Zero Sight series
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Zero Sum (Zero Sight Series, Book 2) by B. Justin Shier Kindle Edition v.1 Zero Sum (Zero Sight Series, Book 2) ( Copyright © 2011 by Brian Justin Shier ( Kindle Edition v.1 ISBN 978-0-9835000-2-5 Editing by Jon Steller Cover photography by Brian Justin Shier and Jon Steller Cover design by Jordan Kimura ( Elliot College map by Jared Shier This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this ebook with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person you share it with. If you are reading this ebook and did not purchase it, please purchase your own legal copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author. This is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locales, or organizations is entirely coincidental. All rights are reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the author. To James Cherry, Who taught me to question the world. To Kenn Kucan, Who taught me to laugh at the world. And to Gary Handley, Who taught me to care for it. Part I THE UNBEARABLE ENNUI OF CLOSE COMBAT TRAINING Chapter 1 PIECE IT BACK TOGETHER Six years ago… “Where is he?” “Flannigans.” “I heard it the first time, mister. I’m asking where.” “By the tower. Main and Ogden. And he’s clogging up the damn gutter. Get over here before he drowns.” I looked up at the clock. It was only 2 AM. He was still supposed to be at work. “Shit. Okay, just roll him on his belly. I don’t want him to—” “Kid, I’m not touchin’ that psycho with anything short of a cattle prod. Do it yourself.” “But—” A click killed the line. “Well then…” I muttered. I was sitting up in my bed, listening to the desert winds roaring outside. The plywood and plaster groaned as another rough gust tried their seams. The roof let out a rattle, and the house leaned back with a sigh. I heaved out one of my own. I was dog-tired, but there was no use in waiting. I pulled a baggy sweater over my PJs and forced my toes to the floor. The hall was pitch dark. I fumbled for the light. It sparked once before burning out. Cursing, I used my bare toes to feel out the carpet as I went. My father worked the graveyard shift—or was supposed to, at least—so blackout curtains were blotting out all the light from the Strip. The curtains were designed to help him sleep during the day. They also made the place about as homey as the hideout from the Night of the Living Dead. (Although with the amount of ammo and beef jerky my dad had stashed around the house, we’d probably fair better.) Drops of rain slapped against the pavement as I laced up my shoes. The steamy musk of wet sage filled my nostrils. Compared to the raging wind, the lame smattering of moisture seemed like a lazy afterthought. But the drizzle worried me more. Las Vegas is one giant funnel. Rainwater gathers pace as it races down the rocky mountainsides that surround the shallow desert valley. By the time the runoff reaches the city, it’s worked itself into a foaming freight train. The flash floods are strong enough to toss a truck around. That’s why anyone with half a brain gets to higher ground. Unfortunately, tonight I had to do it backwards. I was headed right to the center of the valley. Right to the base of that giant tower. The Over the Top. The economy was tanking, but that beast was still growing taller. The scale of the tower was staggering. It looked like it was going to reach up into the sky and poke the moon in the eye. Truckloads of fresh gravel roared past our home to feed it. Half the construction workers in Vegas queued up outside its gates hoping for a shot at a day’s work. No one cared where all the money was coming from. No one asked if it was ever going to last. Folks said the Over the Top was gonna save our jobs. Folks said it was going to kill off the Slump. Folks were morons. No one wanted to come to Vegas because no one could afford the gas. That’s why I was going to get the heck out of this town. I was going to go to college. I was going to make a name for myself, and I was going to live in a place where they had real grass. But to do that, I needed to ace everything from grade six to twelve. The competition for the Ivies was steep. You had to be on the top of your game from the start. I grabbed the keys to my dad’s old Ford quad cab. Late night forays downtown to pick up drunken fathers didn’t tend to help an aspiring overachiever’s cumulative GPA, but neither did starving to death from wont of a breadwinner. My dad’s old junker turned over on the third try. The sudden roar caught me off guard, and I dropped the clutch too hard. Gears shredded. The old work truck leapt off the driveway and dove into the cul-de-sac. I did my best to swerve, but caught our tin trashcan head-on. A heavy gust did the rest—a week’s worth of paper waste ended up in the trees. I let out a curse. The pickup’s lone headlight revealed only some of the Suburbageddon going down around me. Lawn furniture was sliding across the sidewalk. Mrs. Perry’s flock of neon pink flamingos had departed for warmer waters. My own handiwork had already populating the sagebrush three doors down. I huffed. More work for me in the morning—and I had a math test in five hours. I decided to multitask as I drove. The square root of four is two. The square root of sixteen is four. The square root of two-fifty-six is sixteen. The square root of Dieter’s life is… I rested my head on the steering wheel. That one was easy. Zero. So far, sixth grade had been a major let down. My new school was bigger, but it had even fewer teachers. And there was all this online crud. They had these computer programs that were supposta teach us, but only ten of the seventy computers were approved under last year’s budget. They told us that we should share. Can you imagine a bunch of sixth graders sharing anything? I spent most of my time in the library. There were still a few old textbooks left in the stacks...and most of them agreed with me that Pluto was still a planet. The only thing that our school wasn’t in short supply of was bangers. A big recruitment drive was going on. (There were flyers out and everything.) The dealers loved pre-teens. They could only be jailed for a few months, and they got free training on the inside. All my friends were joining up. They worked as lookouts and hawkers. An eight ball was the most they were ever trusted with, but that’s still good for about thirty lines. Curious about the whole thing, I picked up a copy of the DEA’s Controlled Substances Handbook that was conveniently located in aisle nine of my library hideout. The handbook said that the United States consumes about eighty-five million eight balls per year. That works out to about twenty lines per person. I shook my head at that factoid. I was lucky enough to get twenty servings of protein per year. Left turn. Right turn. An old man fighting with a drag queen. Left turn. Right turn. A small chapel pumping out quickie marriages. Left turn. Right turn. Green light. Stop light. Strip club. Billy club. Left turn. Right turn. Straight through the stop sign next to the burned out cop car. Left turn. Right turn. Stop. Stall. Cursing. Grinding. One mile straightaway. Main and Ogden, ahoy. Not bad for my third time behind the wheel. I leaned back and wiped the sweat from my brow. Flannigans was where the man promised, and I spotted my dad’s brown Lincoln Town Car on the corner. One tire was flat. The front window was bashed in. And there was my only adult supervision, hair sopping up the gutter juice. One hand held a tire iron. The other, some Old Crow whiskey. Classy. I crash-parked our truck into the curb and hopped out of the cab. A man stood smoking a cigarette by the door to the bar. He was wearing all black, stood six-foot-six, and was stuck outside a shitty bar on a shittier November evening…he’d be a bad man to run into if you weren’t wearing Peter Parker’s uniform. Trying to stand tall, I adjusted the lie of my Spiderman PJs. I motioned from the giant lump of a man in the gutter to the diesel spewing quad cab that I had just driven illegally across all of North Las Vegas to pick up this bastard of a father that liked to drag his son out of bed at 2 AM on a school night, because rather than working hard like a decent human being, he preferred to pass out at bars that reeked of piss and belly squeezings. “A little help?” I squeaked. (Puberty blows.) The big man crossed his bulging black arms. Not a syllable left his lips. Not a big fan of the Queen’s English… I waved twenty bucks. With a smirk, the old bruiser snuffed his smoke. Se habla dinero, though. Grabbing my dad by the heels, we dragged him out of the muck. I tried to ignore the unspeakable foulness that was permeating my dad’s jacket. Some of it looked homemade. Others aspects appeared to be donations. “He get jumped?” I asked. “Hell no. Some bikers rolled in while he was takin’ a piss. One of ‘em sat on his stool…” “Oh.” “Cleared ‘em all out. Left on his own accord afterwards. But then he beat his own car to death…” The man’s brow settled into a puzzled frown. “Why’d he go and do that, you figure?” “Maybe it looked at him funny…what finally got him?” “Tripped his own damn self on the slick. Cracked his head good.” I nodded. Whenever it rains in Vegas, a years worth of the black muck rises like a horde of slippery zombies from the earth. It’s the black ice of the desert. With all the oil on the ground, the two of us were slipping around a bit too. Getting under both my dad’s shoulders, we managed to get him into the back of the quad cab. The man is built like a sack of boulders. We had to bend up his thick legs before we could get the door shut. Finished, I planted this week’s lunch money in the bouncer’s palm and slammed the door shut. The bouncer gave the twenty a loving rub between his fingers before adding it to his slender bill roll. “Your old man brawl in the way back when?” “No idea,” My dad never talked about the past. Heck, my dad didn’t like to talk about much of anything other than high taxes and scum government. I had no trouble picturing him as a boxer, but I doubted he’d ever show up for practice. My dad’s stink made me wish that the power windows still worked, but at least he wasn’t yelling. The ride out of the valley proved to be uneventful, and I started to plan my exit as the light poles slid by. Ideally, I would leave the drunk bastard in the driveway and sneak up to my room. I didn’t want to be around for his sobering. I’d make do with some toast for lunch. Now wasn’t the time to ask him for a refund on my allowance. I rubbed at that part of the face where one’s jaw meets one’s skull. Yep, a nice thick wall between him and me would do just fine… “Damn whore.” My stomach turned upside down at those words. They declared that Kurtz Resnick, my father, my caretaker, and my sole male role model, had awoken. I turned up the radio. John Denver. John Denver might soothe him. “Left me to raise this freak.” Or not. “You’re one to talk,” I grumbled. I was so tired that the thought of sleep made my mouth water. Kurtz gave my seat a sharp kick. The blow knocked me forward, and we almost landed in a ditch. I corrected course just in time and managed to keep the truck on the pavement. “Dude, this ‘freak’ is driving your drunk ass home. Would you mind sitting still for the ride?” “Home?” He fired off a bitter laugh. “There’s no home for the likes of us.” My hands tightened on the wheel. “There sure as hell won’t be if you keep this up.” “What?” He tried to sit up, but only managed to slump over on to his side. “We’re gonna lose the house if you get fired. We’ll be out on the streets. Is that what you want? Do you want us to starve to death?” The road darkened at the turn. Our housing development had seen better days. The HOA couldn’t afford to keep the streetlights on, and half the homes were deserted, long ago stripped of their copper. My dad would never be able to sell the place…but it was a roof over our heads and that mattered. I turned around to glare at him, but he was already back to snoring. “You’re so worthless. No wonder she left you.” My words were met by silence. Tiny red and yellow sparkles filled the perimeter of my vision. Shit. A thick lump grew in the back of my throat. I’d been an idiot. I’d been a colossal idiot. “Dad?” Silence. Shit. Shit. Shit. I tired to deny it but the flashes of red sparks were getting stronger. Don’t bait bears. Don’t ever bait bears. He wouldn’t do anything until we stopped. He’d wait until he could drag me inside. I didn’t give him the chance. Scared out of my mind, I swung the wheel and we hopped the curb. I didn’t even wait for the truck to stop rolling. I popped out of the truck like a bottle rocket. No use running to the neighbors. They’d shuttered their blinds the last time I’d tried that. I could only hope that the drink would get the better of him. That he might trip and fall before he caught me. The sound of his heels matched mine on the driveway, and the shimmers of light transitioned to a firm red beam as I struggled to open our front door. That meant his thoughts had changed to actions. My key found the lock in time, and I dodged the first blow, bursting through the door and down into a forward roll. I felt his hand catch my canvas jacket. I arched my shoulders and let him have it. Knocking over an old floor lamp, I took the living room couch on the fly. I heard him get tangled up in the cord behind me. He let out a curse as he fell. I didn’t dare gloat. I ran for the stairs at a full gallop. I wouldn’t have made it without the aid of my Sight. I didn’t know what the lights were; I only knew that they could help me. My Sight only seemed to show up when I really needed it. I had no idea how to turn it on or control it, but I sure was thankful when it decided to fire up. The lights told me where the punches would come from. They told me when I should dodge. I’d discovered the skill a few years earlier, in the middle of one of my father’s constant beatings. But my Sight could only get me so far... My father’s enormous gait made up for his stumble. He made a second grab for me as I reached the stairs. I extended my lunge to avoid his fingers—and missed the landing by an inch. My chin slammed into the wood instead. The sweet tang of blood filled my mouth. I went to scoot forward, but he had me by the heel. “Curse you, Thetis,” I groaned. I didn’t try to fight anymore. There was nothing I could do to stop him. Always magnanimous in victory, he let my chin catch every stair. I was enjoying the ride across the carpet until the door to the den clocked me in the head. (He always preferred to do this business in the den. Why was one of life’s many mysteries.) The muscles of my back grew taught with anticipation. The colors of my Sight were swirling like little birdies…and I fought off the urge to laugh. I once thought the lights were angels, sent from Heaven to protect me. But there were no angels for Dieter Resnick. I once hoped a hero would come and save me. But heroes live in stories. I once sent a letter to Santa asking for my mother back. But nothing ever came down our chimney. I once walked the ten miles to church and spent the whole day in prayer. But when he finally found me he just hurt me worse. I listened as my father slid off his belt. Listened as he doubled it over. This was my life. This was my reality. There was no running from his savagery. No hiding from the pain. But I didn’t have to let it break me. I didn’t have to let it chain me. I was smart. Really smart. The teachers all knew it. The students all knew it. Even my bastard father knew it. And that gave me hope. I could become the greatest student this town had ever heard of. I could claw out of here with my bare will. And as I listened to the leather tighten, I decided that was exactly what I would do. Nothing and no one would ever stop me. Giving up had been struck from the menu. I looked up at the worn brown leather and smiled. I was getting the fuck out of here—and there wasn’t a damn thing he could do to stop me. “Anything to say for yourself?” he growled, phlegm rustling about in his throat. It occurred to me that this was nothing but a chore for him. Like paying taxes. Like mowing the lawn. And so it could be with me…nothing but another chore. The clarity of that thought struck me dumb. It was like I’d been handed a loaded gun. “Wait,” I whispered. My throat felt cold and dry. “You plan on apologizing for your tongue, boy?” An apology made the whipping half as bad. That usually meant the pain wouldn’t keep me up through the night. The air was chill. The house was quiet. He was waiting for my answer. I looked him straight in his dank grey eyes and slipped off my sweater and shirt. “Na. I just wanted to make it easier on you. Last time you hit like a girl.” One squared is one. Two squared is four. Three squared is nine. Four squared is blurry. Five squared is— “Jeez, Dieter. You always look so constipated when you’re sleeping?” I jolted awake. A warm hand patted my head. “Easy there, white boy. I’m not here for reparations.” I opened my eyes against the sun. I was resting on a soft quilted blanket. Birds were chirping. Kids were laughing. Elliot. I was at Elliot College. Mount Sleeping Giant was sitting off in the distance. Las Vegas was thousands of miles away…and Monique Rice was standing above me, her chocolate brown arms resting on her hips. A big smile was planted on her face. She looked thoroughly amused. I took a moment to admire her lengthy braids. They always reminded me of sun chimes. Behind her, Jay Dante let out a yawn. I felt for him. It had been a long time since any of us had some rest. “What’s up, captain?” I asked. “What’s up?” she asked. “What’s up is that I told you not to nap here. You’ve already got a sunburn.” Like most everyone else, Monique was still wearing her gym clothes. Most of us had lost everything when the dorms were bombed last evening. The school’s supply of gym clothes was about all we had. I wrinkled my sun-toasted nose. She had a point. I was burning. But I decided to be difficult anyway. “Are you my mother?” Monique rolled her eyes at me. “I don’t know, Dieter. Do you need one?” “Actually…” Roster snorted awake beside me. Jolting up, he knocked me over. “Where the ladies at?” he asked. “Oh, Jesus,” Monique groaned. Roster was training to be a cataphract knight. I wasn’t totally clear on what that was, but apparently it required every one of his abs to be able wage war independently. He ran a hand over the top of his shaved dome and gestured to the wrecked dorms in the distance. “They clear us to go in, yet?” “That’s why I came over to wake you two love birds up,” Monique said. “Let’s get a move on. They’re only giving us two hours. They want to start bulldozing ΙΚΛΜ by sundown.” “Freakin’-A,” Roster grumbled. “Freakin’-A,” I agreed. “Am I going to have to bust out the jar?” Monique threatened. “The two of you with the cursing…I mean, seriously!” + We spent the afternoon combing through our wrecked dorm. The guys’ side was nearest to the blast, and all I managed to salvage were a pair of socks, my indestructible, Japanese designed, vacuumsealed thermos, and a single melted flip-flop. The Emperor Palpatine poster survived too. We all marveled at that one for a while. In another stroke of luck, Dante found Sadie Thompson’s bunny mug. When he brought it over to her, she started crying again. Turned out, it was a gift from her dad. She spent the rest of the afternoon cradling it on our ruined couch. Jules sat and talked with her while the rest of us finished up. I was really worried about Sadie. The strain of not knowing whether her parents had survived the assault on Portland must have been a terrible. And now she was being asked to get into that fight herself…it didn’t seem fair. After scrounging what little we could from our own room, Dante and I went over to give Sheila a hand. A large beam from the roof had split Sheila and Monique’s room in two. Sheila was digging through the scrap heap that was once her bed. “It’s under here somewhere,” she said, her feet straight in the air. “Wow,” Dante muttered. He spent a moment taking in the sight. “Don’t worry, Sheila,” I said. “We’ll dig whatever you need out from under there.” Shaking his head clear, Dante nodded and agreed. Rummaging through the debris was a welcomed change of pace. It was straightforward work. All I had to do was lift and toss. There was no magic or explosions. No men dying. Just a big pile of junk to move. The task reminded me of cleaning dishes at Newmar’s Restaurant. I let myself fall into the task. As we were getting near the bottom, Monique yelled at us from the ground floor. “Alright guys, let’s finish up. We only have an hour of daylight left. I’ve got some boxes and dollies. Let’s start moving our stuff to Central.” “Right on, capt’n,” Dante replied. “Just give us a minute and we’ll be right over.” With his one good arm Dante tossed off another piece of plaster. My own shoulder was protesting vigorously, so his broken collarbone must have been plain screaming. Every now and then he let loose a wince, but other than that, you’d never have known. I noted his behavior with a grunt. Dante grew up on a farm. That’s how they rolled. A few minutes later, we reached the mattress and yanked it off, revealing a tightly packed duffle bag and a long cylindrical black case. My dad had a similar one, a remnant of his fish-master phase. “Geez, Sheila,” I said noting the case, “I didn’t know you fished. You should teach us sometime.” I reached down to heave up the bag and nearly yanked my shoulder back out its socket. “Hey! This thing weighs a ton. What’s in here, rocks?” “Na, bud. Steel,” Dante explained. “They make steel fly rods?” “It’s not a fly-rod, Dieter. It’s just you can’t go walking around town with something like Caladbolg. It’s either this or an instrument case.” “Caladbolg?” I had no freaking clue what Dante was talking about. “Sheila’s last name is Mordred, remember?” “Yea. What’s your point?” “My point is—” “Let’s go boys and girls,” Monique shouted. “Thanks for the help,” Sheila said. Reaching through the crack, she yanked out the long cylinder with ease. “No problem,” Dante said happily. “Anytime you need me, we’ll come running, right Dieter?” “Sure.” I couldn’t think of a time when Sheila needed a hand with anything. “Let me get that for you,” Dante said, grabbing the duffle. He hefted it over his shoulder like a heavy bag of salt. I stepped off the pile, dusted myself off, and ran over to grab my belongings. I counted my blessings. You never knew whom you’d get as a roommate. Dante sure was a nice guy. + I sniffed at the chill cavern air. It still smelled like sour wine. I hadn’t been back in Central’s enormous basement since the grape juice incident. Jules hated the place. She claimed magic went funky this close to a leyline. And nobody liked the cold. The administration had supplied some cots, which we set up next to the elevator. We even had use of the locker room for showers and the like, but it didn’t feel like home. Dante and I made busy making beds while Monique, Roster, and Sheila went to ‘scare off the bats.’ I made a mental note not to stray too far from the lights. “Oi! Yanks!” Jules shouted. She was stumbling down the stairs with our laundry. “Did the plaster come out?” Dante asked as he took the hamper from her. “That it did. But I lost every single dress my grams sent me.” “They were getting a bit long in the tooth, Jules.” There was this dull green one that actually had ruffles…I shuttered to think who had been buried in it last. “Why, thank ya, Dieter,” Jules said with a frown. “Guess I’ve been saved from fashion purgatory. Slight problem, though. I’m broke. Maybe ya’d be happy to buy me a fresh new wardrobe?” “Sorry, milady, but I’m broker still. All I have is this set of sweats and the jeans I left drying at Rei’s.” Jules and Dante both gave me suspicious looks. “Well, I was covered in blood.” “Might as well be covered in soy sauce,” Dante replied. Jules shook her finger at me. “Ya keep this up and I’m gonna be wrapping’ ya in garlic before I let ya leave the dorm. And I hope ya at least had better luck with the jeans. I tried ta wash yer robe…” She tossed it on the nearest cot. “But it still be a total fockin’ mess. Stained everything’ else in the load, it did too.” Our Elliot robes aren’t really robes; they’re duffle coats. You know, those big comfy wool pea coat things with the big fat wooden toggles that cinch the front? The coats stretch down past the knee and come with oversized hoods on top. The original Elliot robes were indeed actually robes. But robes went out of style around the time of the Civil War. There have been many new versions since then. Only two things have remained constant: Elliot robes are always charcoal grey—and always flame retardant. But my robe wasn’t grey anymore. It had taken on a dark reddish hue. “What the…” Dante picked up my coat and frowned. “I thought these couldn’t stain.” “Did ya cast on it last night?” Jules asked. “I washed it twice, but the red won’t come out.” “Nothing fancy. Just an anti-kinetic fortification.” And good thing I had. That spell had stopped a bullet. Even still, there was a black and blue welt growing across my belly. “Weird,” Dante said. “It looks like an alizarin crimson dye. I know that color from class…isn’t that Mars ruled?” Dante’s eyes went all squinty as he searched the old memory banks. “The quality of Mars rule is opening. The secondary is bind and strengthen, right?” “That it is,” Jules said with an approving nod. “Good job, Dante. That’s the Culpeper definition ta a tee. But I already tried probing’ it for charms. I couldn’t find any at all.” “Wait, the charms are down?” Dante looked confused. I signaled for a time-out. “Sorry, clueless initiate here. Why do you care about my robe?” “Because students have been trying to crack those charms for ages—you know, to trick them out. Your robe wasn’t this color before I…uh…jumped out of that window. Did anything else happen to it?” “Nope. Rei and I got up on the roof and tossed the bomb. The only reason I ditched it in the first place was because Rei puked all over it.” “Gross!” they both screamed in unison. “Drainer puke!” Jules said scurrying off to wash her hands. “Fockin-A, Dieter, tell me that first!” “Sorry, bud, but that’s just nasty.” He started to laugh. “That’s not a hack. Her gastric juices set the blood like a dye. Probably burned straight through all the charms too. You should get a new one. That one isn’t safe anymore.” “As long as it keeps me warm, who cares?” I rubbed the welt on my abdomen. This robe had taken a bullet for me. I wasn’t about to throw it away over a stupid stain. And I’d take a lucky robe over a charmed one any day. I threw it over my shoulders. + Dante and I had finished setting up the cots when Monique and company returned from scaring off the wildlife. Then Maria, Lambda’s unofficial supply queen, came down with some rather good news: We were getting reimbursed for the property we lost in the blasts. The Department was giving everyone $750 to buy new clothes. Better still, we were all granted permission to go into town this Saturday to get it done. None of us had been allowed off campus since the first attack over the summer, and the chance to go into New Haven for a shopping spree was a serious morale booster. The whole squad—and I guess that’s what we were now—headed up to the cafeteria to celebrate. Roster was standing on top of the table in no time. He did his best impression of Dante jumping out of the window. The school accepted Roster like air. His theatrics were greeted by the usual hoots and hollers. Roster could say or do anything, and people couldn’t help but love him. Right now, he was in his element. Dante sat scratching his head with his good arm. He took it all like a good sport…especially after Sheila patted him on the back. But try as I might, I couldn’t let loose. I couldn’t relax. They were serving lasagna tonight, and as I looked at my platter, a sour metallic stench crawled up my nose. Jules nudged my shoulder. “I can’t eat mine, either. Doesn’t it remind ya of…?” “Yea,” I replied. I pushed the dish away. “Hey now. You did what ya had ta do.” I sighed. I’d already gone over this a thousand times in my head. “I know, Jules. And I would do it again if I had to.” I paused to look at the rest of Lambda. Roster was stomping up and down flapping his arms as Dante chased him around the table. “I guess that’s the problem. It was too easy…like they weren’t even people. I didn’t once wonder why they were doing what they were doing. All I cared about was stopping them.” “We saw a threat, Dieter. We thought our friends were in danger. And we were right.” She placed a hand atop my own. “Dieter, yer one of us Conscious now. We don’t get ta call the cops. We don’t get to complain ta Parliament. The government doesn’t come by ta make it all better. We—” “We are the law,” I said grimly. “Absolutely not! We adhere ta the Tenets for that very reason. But, Dieter, ya haven’t lived in our community for very long. Ya don’t know what it’s like outside these walls. Weakness ain’t tolerated by the supers. If we shirk our duties, innocent folk do the dyin’. There be nary a sole behind us, Dieter. We’re the one and only line. It ain’t pretty, but that’s the way it’s always been, and that’s the way it’ll always be.” “You’re probably right, Jules,” I said, patting her back. “I’m gonna go for a walk. I need to work some of this out with my feet.” “Want me ta go witya?” she asked, her green eyes twinkling. I stood and looked at the door. “Nah, that’s okay, Jules. But thanks.” Jules looked hurt, but she didn’t say anything as I left. I knew that I was being selfish. I knew that I wasn’t the only one feeling like shit. But I wasn’t in any shape to bear company. I tightened my stained robe and stepped out into the cold October night. I headed off campus straightaway. I wanted to return to that quiet place I’d found working through the rubble, but my body was tired, my shoulder was swollen, and my temple throbbed with every heartbeat. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d slept. One day? Two? It felt like ages. I looked up at the starless sky. The world wasn’t the same place anymore. Professor Simons was going to be buried with a hole in his head. He would never give another boring Polimag lecture. Gone from the world. Erased as easy as chalk. I shut out the whining coming from my muscles and stretched out my stride. Somewhere ahead was Mt. Sleeping Giant. Dante said it took an hour-long hike to reach the top. It seemed as good a destination as any. I let my body settle into a steady rhythm. Twenty minutes later, I was deep in the pitch-dark forest without a clue to north. The weather was shifting. Cold gusts whipped through the trees, and thunder grumbled a warning. I didn’t care. I crashed on through the brush even as the rain began to patter down. The tiny slashes chilled my skin. All the better, I thought. The cold was yet another distraction. My enemies had names now. Talmax. Diego Carrera. DOMA Mexico. Their motive? Probably the usual world domination and the like. Motives are rarely complicated. It’s the explanations that tend to get tortuous. I mean, really. Why do we fight wars? For glory and honor? Please. It’s always for money and power. Everything else is just smoke and mirrors, jingoisms to get fools into uniforms and packaged off to the battlefields. My situation was simple. Talmax wanted my friends and me dead. If we wanted to survive, we would have to be better at the killing game than they were. Their motive didn’t matter. They just needed to stop breathing. I nodded to myself. It was like Fukimura said: The path was clear. Killers needed to be put down. So when do we plan to put her down, my child? I froze. It was that damn voice again. The one I heard on the train. The one I heard as I nearly drowned in the circle. I clenched my fists. “That’s different,” I said aloud. The voice gave me the willies, but I wasn’t about to start hiding from my own head… Then is it as you suggested to the Druid? Are we the Law of this world? Can we bend these ‘Tenets’ for the shadow dancer? “That’s not it,” I said. “It’s not her fault. It’s her design. It’s what she is. What she needs to do to survive.” Silly child, the fanged one doesn’t have to do anything. She has free will, does she not? You are the one who is mistaken. You want her to be a creature she is not. She is an amoral beast. We know better than anyone else how much she loves it when they— “Shut up!” I smashed a branch with my fist, but the cursed voice wasn’t done. We know what excites her, my child. She loves to hear them whimper. She loves to tear into their flesh. We can feel it, can’t we? She only feels alive when she— “Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” I was running now, my lungs burning back in protest. Pain was what I needed. Pain to strangle these thoughts rising up inside me. Pain to drown the guilt and bludgeon the doubt. My child, this effort is meaningless. You cannot flee from me. I could hardly see my hands in front of me. A low-lying branch smacked into my face, drawing blood. The wet crack. It sounded just like the neck of the gunman I threw down the stairwell… “No, that’s not right. He landed on his arm. He was knocked out. That’s why I tied him up.” Do the rabble go limp when you break their limbs? I stopped running. This voice. It wasn’t my conscience. It didn’t feel like me at all. “Who the fuck are you?” I demanded. “Why are you in my head?” I am part of you, of course. “Bullshit,” I said. I looked left and right. Where was it coming from? Was this some form of psychspell? The rain beat like a dull drum roll against the leaves. Fog draped the trees. I could hardly see my hand ahead of me. I opened up my Sight in a fury. A squirrel scampered under the brush. A steady stream of ants rushed back to their nest. An owl huddled against a tree. You found me, my child. You dug me out and loosened my chains. You asked me for help. You begged for my services. An unusual feat, yes, but you do what you need to survive, no matter what the taste, no matter what the cost. You are like her in that way, aren’t you, my child? “Stop,” I pleaded. And isn’t it wonderful when we prevail? Isn’t it so—exciting? I gagged and bowled over onto my knees. The mage in black was sliding across the slick grass, inching towards the vibrating gate. I saw the terror etched in his face. Saw how he struggled to just survive. Saw when he noticed me hiding in the leaves. Saw how he pleaded for mercy with his eyes. And I remembered, I remembered how I had laughed at him. And the despair on his face as that last tuft gave way…the sight of his flesh converted to bloody mulch…the screams…the satisfaction… Of a good day’s work. That is exactly what I am talking about, my child. I felt sick. Stars above, Rei and I had laughed about it. We had even called him Mr. Pudding. I bowled over into the dirt and puked ‘til there was nothing left. My eyes felt like they were coming out, but I kept on heaving until I couldn’t breathe. Forced to gasp for air, I slammed my hands into the ground again and again. “Damn it! Damn it! Damn it!” I screamed. “How the fuck did I get into this mess? I didn’t want to kill Tyrone. I didn’t want to fight the tall man. I didn’t want to do any of those things last night. I just wanted to go to college, find a job, and be left in peace.” Please, my child, we picked the fight with Tyrone. We chose to attack the tall magus. And last night…why did we not use a smokescreen? Why not that fruit juice trick? You say you didn’t want to? Your behavior argues otherwise. “I’m not like that coldhearted bitch. I feel. She doesn’t. I care. She doesn’t. Fuck that shit! This is a side effect of the partnering. I’m a human being. I’m not some fucking monster!” I stumbled to my feet and pressed on. Funny, but I thought we formed the weft-link after we slaughtered that pig, Tyrone. I apologize, my child, time flows somewhat differently for me. Perhaps I am mistaken… Wave after wave of emotion crashed over me. Guilt. Shame. Disgust. I couldn’t bear it anymore. The rain was coating my eyes, soaking my clothes, and chilling me to the core, but it wasn’t enough to block it all out. I could still feel. It still hurt. “No more,” I rasped. “No more.” Pitiful, the voice grumbled. I ran with reckless speed. I couldn’t see more than a foot ahead of myself. Branches slashed me. The brush tore at my robe. I didn’t care. I pressed forward. Urged my muscles to pump harder. I ignored the fuzzy whiteness filling my vision—and I finally ran out of luck. I struck the waiting rock at full-speed. I didn’t even see it coming. It cracked hard into my shin and sent my body forward over the waiting ledge, down into the darkened pit of a ravine. And then everything stopped. I was floating free, cheating gravity and time. In that moment of overwhelming terror, all the guilt, all the confusion, all the doubts, all the shame, they all washed away in one brilliant flashflood of dread. Control was gone. Responsibility was gone. Only the nothingness of the cold moment remained. My child, what are you doing? Wind rushed past my ears. Rain plastered my body. Wake up! My Sight erupted in silver radiance. A cold stabbing chill raked across my flesh. I ignored it. I ignored “us.” Why deal with something so complicated, when I could focus on something so clear and uncompromising: I was about to die. All the pain was about to stop. “Dieter!” a voice echoed through the rain. I wanted to stay there, floating in mid-air, free from reality. Alone. Quiet. This way was better. “Dieter!” I reached out to the silver embrace of the void—and the mother of all impacts crumpled my right side. My body hurtled in a new trajectory, and the jagged embrace of death melted away from my Sight. I landed with a thud, the air already out of my lungs. Continuing the roll, my ear cracked into something hard. Stars filled my vision. A burst of pain overwhelmed my senses. As I rolled to a stop on my back, the images came rushing back. The guilt. The shame. The despair. I clutched my face and screamed. “No, more,” I pleaded. “Make it stop! Please, just make it go away.” I slammed my fists into the turf. Tore my palms to pieces against the streambed’s jagged rocks. It didn’t matter. I wanted the pain. I needed the pain. My Sight registered the blow before it came—a beautiful crimson brushstroke that would erupt across my skull. It was sharp and without restraint. A molar snapped from its root. Blood spattered out my mouth. My senses scrambled, I gasped and choked and wretched. And now I was getting lifted by the collar of my shirt. Getting dragged across the ground. My eyes didn’t work. The world was spinning like crazy. My back slammed into something rough, and the hand on my collar pressed into me. The air was crushed out of my chest. I spat blood and whimpered. I’d been running at full-sprint. Now I was suffocating. I needed to breathe, but the hand pressing in against me was like an iron vice. The seconds pressed on, and the raw fear overtook me. I wanted air. I wanted air more than anything. That simple urge trumped all the rest. I clenched my battered fists, summoned what little reserves I had, and struck back blindly. The first punch missed short, brushing past nostrils. I corrected with my right and connected square with the temple. I followed with another left. A right. Another left. The sick wet impacts confirmed my aim, but the air continued to flow out of me. I got more desperate. I reached out my fingers wide and clawed at the throat. I tore into the flesh like an animal. My left hand found shoulder. I held it for leverage and smacked the face again and again. I felt the nose give way, felt the blood spray, and with the last of my air, I screamed. It was guttural. Not even human sounding. My hand brushed some hair. I would tear it out. I would tear it out until it screamed too. I would tear it out until its pain matched my own. I would tear every last strand of this long, smooth… I froze, my hand still clenching a clump of it. I opened my eyes, and my body slumped. An unrecognizable slab of meat stood before me. The skin was pulverized. The nose was crushed. The scalp was bleeding, a flap of skin hung from its torn open throat, and bluish blood oozed from the scratches in its neck. In the middle of all that hell sat two pale blue eyes. What was left of its mouth spit a tablespoon of blood. “Dieter, it has been my experience that those who truly wish for all the pain to go away put up much less of a fight.” With her free hand, Rei Acerba Bathory reset her broken nose. She relaxed the pressure crushing my sternum, and my lungs began to work. Minutes passed with the rain falling steadily. I hung from Rei’s arm like a rag doll, and the life began to crawl back into me. With it came the haunting memories of those I’d killed, the terrible images that had driven me into the woods. I let the pain wash over me, let the guilt drown me, and through it all, I felt her hand holding me, felt her blue eyes appraising me. When I could finally bear it, I looked up at her. Rei’s face had fast-forwarded many hours. Black and blue bruises coated her skin, but the many wounds had already closed. Seemingly satisfied, she released me and walked off. I struggled to stand under my own power. “Let’s go back,” she said hoarsely. I nodded, and we began the slow walk back to campus. Rei walked ahead, head down, hands shoved into her sopping grey robe. Thirty minutes must have passed, and she never said a word. “Rei!” I shouted. Her body stilled ahead of me. “I was about to impale myself, wasn’t I?” Her sopping body stayed as still as stone. “I sensed it coming. It was like a million tiny blades raking across my body. I felt them on me when I fell…and I…I didn’t care.” I bit my lip. “If you hadn’t…If you hadn’t…” My voice trailed off as the waves of shame rolled over me. Rei didn’t respond. She just made a gesture towards campus. I didn’t try talking again. It hurt too bad to even think about it. I focused on my footing. The storm had turned the ground into a sloppy mess, and I followed in the path of Rei’s footsteps, trusting her sense of direction. An hour later we broke through the tree line. The dim lights of Elliot burned ahead of us. Rei stopped walking and stared up into the heavy sheets of rain. Her black hair rested behind her like a cape. A tuft of it was missing above her ear. The sight of it stabbed at me again. A reminder of what I’d nearly done. “Can you make it back from here?” she asked. Her voice still sounded hoarse. “I…still have bruises. They will think that we mixed blood. And we aren’t to be near, besides.” Reality crashed down on me like a sack of bricks. For Rei to have been there when I fell… “Rei…” My mouth was as dry as a bone. “How much did you hear?” She refused to even look at me. Stars above. Monster, I’d called Rei a monster. “I saw you heading across the field,” she whispered. “I tried to catch up. I wished to apologize for last night. To explain why I…why…” She stopped to clear her throat, the same throat she’d let me tear to pieces in my panic. “Your words were sharp, Dieter—but they were correct. I am nothing but —” Her lips were as cold as the rain. The small of her back quivered from my touch, and a wave of warmth rushed through me as she stiffened. I opened my eyes to find hers. They were wide with surprise—and glowing with tears. I held her as she sank into my arms. Held her as her lashes pinched off the last of those bitter, salty drops. Held her as her sweet breath tickled my nose. Held her—until I realized she was sucking the blood straight from my mouth. Then I tripped backwards and fell on my ass. Rei bit her finger and look down at me sheepishly. “Sorry,” she managed. I stood up and brushed myself off. “Well, I’ll take it as a compliment.” Rei, her petite fangs gleaming, let loose a melodic laugh. I looked up at the sky and sighed. The clouds were parting, revealing the pale moon above. I looked back down to see Rei still smiling. “You didn’t jump,” she observed. “I get stupider by the day.” “Indeed,” she said, glancing up at the moon. “Ms. Bathory, you’re holding my last pair of jeans hostage. I plan to claim them.” “An ambitious fool to boot…” She took my hand in her clumsy fingers. “Allow me to guide you to your quarry.” The two of us set off in the direction of her cabin, enjoying the crunch of the gravel beneath our feet. Chapter 2 BREAKING UP IS HARD TO DO Cumo eyed me suspiciously. The shaggy white dog gave the obligatory sniff before squeezing between us. I let go of Rei’s hand to give the giant soggy mess a pet. “Your hand is unbelievably warm,” Rei said, feeling her empty palm. “Hadn’t noticed,” I said, teeth clattering. Rei looked at me in outrage. “Dieter Resnick! Why did you say nothing? You could develop hypothermia!” I smiled back at her. Rei was probably a little hazy on the concept of shivering. “Don’t worry about it.” Kneeling down, I drew some mana from the ley. “Check this out. I’ve been working on a new spell. It’s like the combustion one, but with much less starting mana.” “No!” Rei yelped, slapping my hand away from the dirt. I guess Rei wasn’t too keen on my combustion spell. The first time I used it, the spell had killed someone and blown apart half a building. “Do not worry yourself, Dieter. I have a fireplace, which I never use. Let us light some wood. That will be most enjoyable!” I kicked some gravel. “Rei, I really am getting better. Jules has been helping me with the control. That napalm spell took three simultaneous transmutations.” I looked up to find Rei wasn’t there anymore. That sneak. Grumbling to myself, I stepped inside her cabin, slipped off my muddy boots, and hung up my sopping robe. I guess Rei was right. Compared to everyone else on campus, my grasp of magic was pathetic. I watched as a puddle collected beneath me. I could have done that cast… Rei stepped out of her bathroom with a leaning-tower-of-towel wrapped around her head. “Dried clothes await you in the bathroom. Get changed before you become ill. I shall start the fire.” Dejected, I shuffled to the bathroom. This wasn’t the way I wanted the night to go. I wanted to… well actually, come to think of it, I didn’t know what I wanted. A date? I mean, come on. Rei and I weren’t exactly a matching pair… Actually, we were a pair of sorts, a weft-pair. But dating material? Not so much. And now I’d gone and kissed her. Stars above. That was my first real kiss…and the first time anyone ever drank my blood…and… I stared at my swollen head in the mirror. What a weird combo. I slid out of my sopping wet clothes and noted the two towels hanging on the rack. There’d only been one this morning…a wave of embarrassment rushed over me. I’d forgotten to wash it out after I’d used it. Now she probably thought I was a slob. “Great moves, Dieter. Great moves,” I mumbled. “Soil the fanged lady’s linens.” Another bout of the shivers kept me from moping. I took a quick, searing hot shower to wash off the blood and mud. Drying off, I slid into my last set of clothes. The fresh pair of jeans felt like heaven. Then I took a moment to inspect the damage. My jaw throbbed where Rei had cracked me, and I could feel the gap where a molar once resided. The tooth was long gone. A squirrel had probably made off with it. The loss of a tooth was kinda a bummer, but as I stared into the mirror, I decided I might be better for it. The gap would be a permanent reminder of the selfish ass I’d been tonight. When I left the bathroom, I found Rei working the bellows with a cross expression planted on her face. The moist timber she’d selected was obliging her efforts by filling the room with smoke. “Um, Rei?” “One moment, Dieter, I am igniting the tinder.” “But, Rei…” “Patience, Dieter.” “Rei, you need to open the flue first.” Rei paused her pumping. Her frown deepened. “And how do I do that?” I reached into the fireplace and undid the latch. Intrigued, Rei peered up into chimney pipe. “Ah! I see. This hatch must be opened to vent the fumes. Thank you, Dieter. This is my first attempt.” She returned to aggressively pumping the bellows. “You’ve never used a fireplace before?” “The need never arose. I do not get cold easily, and back home there are servants to do such tasks for me.” “Home? You mean in Chicago?” “Indeed.” I waited for her to elaborate, but her neutral expression indicated that no further details would be forthcoming. “May I?” I asked. Rei nodded, and handed me the bellows. As I worked the stubborn embers, her eyes widened. “You are talented at this task. Were you retained as a chimney sweep as a child?” “No,” I said with a laugh. “I worked in a restaurant growing up, but I used to go camping with my dad. He called it ‘desert survival training.’ Anyway, every night we would make a fire to cook on. Otherwise, it was just jerky and cold beans for dinner.” I gave Mr. Bellows two more pumps, and with a rush, the temperature hit critical. The smoldering wood ignited, and a satisfying crackling replaced the quiet. I set down the bellows and switched to the poker. Rei went to heat some water on the stove. “Your father and mother—do they live in Las Vegas?” I finished laying out our boots and socks in front of the flames and sat down. “My father does—if you want to call what he does living.” Rei filled the kettle to the brim and set it on the burner. “I do not understand this. Is your father of the undead?” “They exist?” “In a sense,” Rei replied. “Good to know.” Rei cocked her head. I picked at a thumbnail. Scratched my head. Sighed. “What I meant is that my father’s an alcoholic. He works late and drinks later. He’s got a bad temper too. Always getting into fights. You see my mother left us when I was young, and I don’t think my father ever got over it. For a while the two of us got on okay, but then the economy collapsed. First came the pay cuts, then he got caught drinking on the job, and then he lost his position as pit boss. He got demoted to dealer. Now he works for guys that he used to manage. All-and-all, it’s pretty humiliating.” “And your mother?” “She left us when I was a baby. I have no idea why, and if my father does, he sure as hell won’t say. If you bring my mom up, he’ll say she was a ‘lying whore’ and punch something—usually me.” “Did you not wish to find her?” Rei asked. “Did you not wonder about her? Wish to sneak a glance?” It was my turn to look confused. Rei frowned. “Why did you not just track her scent and… Oh, pardon me, Dieter. I had forgotten. Your nose is too dull…” I waved the apology away. “Even if I could, I don’t know if I would. Besides, Rei, I don’t even know if she’s alive.” I frowned. The words sounded funny. It occurred to me that I had never once spoken that thought out loud. I’d opened my mouth to ask Rei why she was so interested when the kettle whistled and boiling water splashed all over the stove. Rei had overfilled it. The sizzling flames nearly drowned under the deluge. “The tea water is ready,” Rei said, definitively. She fished out two packets of Celestial Seasoning’s chamomile blend. “Some things remain the same,” I mused. “Sorry?” she asked, bringing over the two warm mugs. “Chamomile is Jules’ favorite too.” Rei stiffened at my tutor’s name. “Then that Druid has good taste.” I raised an eyebrow. “You don’t like Jules?” “I see nothing wrong with her. Magus Nelson is a competent witch. And she has trained you well. You could only kill one person at a time prior to her tutelage. Now you are up to four.” I put down my mug. “Four?” Rei shifted uncomfortably in her chair. “Three is more precise. The DEA agents finished off the last one after interrogation proved unprofitable. Now, that is not counting the man in the stairwell. I consider that a separate incident. It should not be included in an assessment of your mass effect spells.” Satisfied she’d remedied her error, Rei took another sip of tea. I felt for the gap in my teeth. The sharp pain helped dull the panic, but it was time for a change in subject. “Rei, you said that at home you have people to light fires for you. Is your family really wealthy?” “My family business is not to be discussed with the Magi,” she said curtly. I frowned. So we were still playing this game? “Fine, no questions about your family, but I assume you can talk about yourself, right?” Rei opened her mouth to speak, but turned to glare at the cracking fire instead. “Listen, I only know what I’ve picked up over the past few months: The student body is scared of you, the faculty doesn’t trust you, yet here you are, the only vampire I’ve ever met, living out here in some sort of pseudo-exile, taking abuse, attending classes, and following all the crazy orders from the folks at DOMA.” Rei glared at me. “Is there a question in this speech?” “Yea, a simple one. Why? Why are you here? Why do you put up with all this crap? Unlike me, you don’t have to be here. You’re rich. You could probably buy your own university.” I bit my lip. The last of that had come out much harsher than I’d expected. “What makes it your business why I choose to study here? Perhaps you peons amuse me. Perhaps I like the scenery. Why must I justify myself to you?” I stood up in frustration. Pacing to the other side of the room, I counted to ten. There were two sides to Rei Bathory—the friendly girl who wasn’t above buying a guy a Danish and the ice princess who wasn’t below punching you in the gut—you never knew which one was coming out to play. “You don’t get it, do you?” “Get what?” she asked, her voice rising. “You don’t understand why I would want to know.” She opened her mouth to speak, but stopped herself. Her face twisted up in frustration. “Why do you wish to know these things? I do not understand this. They do not affect your interests in the slightest.” “My interests?” I walked back to my chair and sat down. “Rei, who do you trust?” “Trust?” She rolled the question over in her head. “I trust my senses. They help me separate fact from fiction. I trust Cumo. He is faithful, obedient, and constantly vigilant.” “What about people, Rei? Which people do you trust?” “Why none, of course. Nostophoros or beater, they all lie, cheat, and steal.” A bitter grin formed on Rei’s face. “They even abandon their own offspring.” I hadn’t expected the jab…but I deserved it. I was going about this like Rei was a child. Rei was many things, but she was certainly not a child. “You’re right, people can betray you. It’s their prerogative. But…but that’s why you’re so fascinated with them, isn’t it? The way they can choose their own path. Just like you have chosen.” Rei stiffened. “Mi a kurvak faszat…” “What the heck language was that?” “It is none of your concern. Now be still.” “Why?” I asked. Rei closed her eyes, and I could feel as the air around us compressed. In throbbing bursts, Rei sent out waves of mana that probed the space around her. It was a technique I was totally unfamiliar with, but I could sense the waves brushing against me as they passed. “I do not understand this. The link was dead. How did you rekindle it?” “You mean the weft-link?” “Yes, Dieter. The link you established in the warehouse. I felt it extinguish this afternoon. It should be dead. You should be free of my influence. Yet you still—” “What do you mean by dead?” “Really, Dieter, you should study your conduit science more carefully. A link established between two individuals is unstable at first. It is like a new web of neurons. Without additional stimulation, it will atrophy and die. This was our goal, was it not?” “Whoa, Rei, you said the link would fade. You didn’t say anything about atrophy and death. Are you talking permanently?” “Of course.” She looked at me as if I were an idiot who didn’t recognize gold when I saw it. “Then we will no longer experience these…instabilities.” My mind raced. Instabilities? What kind of…oh. “You’re talking about the indifference I felt when I killed those men.” Rei rolled her eyes. “Indifference, he says? Bator’s bones, Dieter. It was hardly indifference we were experiencing. Indifference does not feel good.” “So the flood of emotions I felt tonight were—” “Those were your true feelings about the killings. Your sense of guilt. I told you on the train, did I not? It was during our conversation about your unfortunate incident with that boy named Tyrone. I explained that it was not you who was enjoying the description of his death.” I frowned. But that wasn’t true, was it? Part of me had enjoyed it. That’s what disgusted me the most. And if the weft-link failed this afternoon, who or what was I talking to in the forest? My head was spinning. Whose emotions were who’s exactly? This was a bloody nightmare. Oblivious to my inner turmoil, Rei continued talking, “Yes, I was affected as well. The waxing and waning of emotions. The giddiness after I purged that scum from the faculty lodge. I even felt a bit of your guilt after making that last kill.” She chuckled at the thought of it. “Imagine a Nostophoros having to live with guilt over those she’d slain. How could she function?” I frowned. No, that wasn’t right, either. I thought back to that vision of the dollhouse. Rei had been feeling guilt long before I showed up on the scene. I tried to think it through. Was Rei confused? Could she not recognize her own feelings? I bit my lip. No, there was a far better explanation—one Rei herself had pointed to only a short moment ago—she could be lying to me. She could be trying to push me away. Rei didn’t know that I had witnessed the death of her caretaker. She didn’t know that I’d watched her cry herself mad. I was beginning to understand this game. Rei had played it before. It was like some sort of defense mechanism. She wanted me to be disgusted. She wanted me to storm out. She wanted me to tell her I never wanted to see her again. I was to find her repulsive and steer clear of her. Rei was scared of something. Was she worried about her influence on me? Killing had been fun. Passing that monster off onto me must have been unconscionable. But what Rei didn’t consider was that maybe it didn’t even matter. Maybe I already had that monster inside me. That part of me that enjoyed killing just as much as she did. I leaned back in my chair. Rei was trying to help me. She was trying to keep me out of trouble, but I found myself growing angry. Rei had never bothered to ask my opinion. She was up to the same go-italone crap she always was. That grated. Did my wants hold no value to her? She had trusted me to keep quiet, and I had never betrayed that trust. She’d earned my loyalty. She’d saved my life twice now. I was in her debt. She knew that to be true. But when I asked her whom she trusted, she responded by lashing out. She trampled on our bond like it was nothing. That disrespect was why I wanted to storm out. But I held back. I held back because I believed I knew why. “Did you expect that to work?” I asked. I stood, grabbed another log, and threw it into the fire. “Was the boy supposed to get all mad, huff, puff, and storm out into the night?” Rei shifted away from the rising flames. “A nice clean break? Was that what you were aiming for? He could tell himself that she didn’t have a heart to begin with, that she was just a bloodthirsty freak?” “How dare you speak to me like that,” she hissed. “Do not forget what I am, Dieter Resnick.” “You don’t have to worry about that, Rei—despite tonight’s performance.” She flinched. “What are you talking about?” “You said that the weft-link wasn’t working. That it failed this afternoon.” “Yes. Do I need to draw a diagram for you? Perhaps I could get a chalkboard and—” “Then what the hell were you doing in the woods tonight?” She paused—and blanched. “I…” “Was experiencing waxing and waning emotions?” “No,” she answered firmly. “I had an obligation. I merely wished to apologize for my unprofessional behavior. Toying with those soldiers was unacceptable behavior. I made an absolute fool of myself.” Lies. More lies. I could sense them easily now. I rested my hand on the mantle. I needed to be right. More than anything, at this moment, I needed to be right. I closed my eyes. The new wood popped in protest. An ember bounced off my pant leg. I drew in one slow, steady breath. I was. I believed it to the core of my being. For once, I had no doubts. In one a rapid motion, I knocked the resting pair of sunglasses across the room. My heart skipped a beat from the thrill of it, and then the huge knot of tension melted away. “Rei, I agree with one thing you said tonight—our eyes don’t lie.” “Oh, fuck you, Dieter,” she said from her new position in the corner. She sat in a heap, cradling the pathetic pair of sunglasses in her hands. Ruffled hair hid her face. Her slender arms were full of shivers. “Why can’t you just give up?” “Don’t know. Don’t care.” I dragged my sore body over and slumped down beside her. “Link or not, I’m in your debt. I’m not abandoning you.” “I don’t…I don’t like this.” She whimpered quietly. “Associating with me will get you killed.” I scratched my stubble. “Um, actually, associating with you kinda kept me alive twice now.” “Do not jest. You will die. Everyone around me always dies.” “Um, technically, I already met that requirement. Remember the warehouse? My heart stopped beating. I died looking at you.” I wiped the wet clumps of hair from her face, and the scent of lavender rose into the air. “It wasn’t so bad. I just remember wishing that you didn’t have to die too— and that you packed a bigger blade.” Rei’s sniffles turned into sobs. Shaking, she buried her head under my chin. I didn’t flinch. It felt right. I wrapped my arm around her. “So, partner,” I asked. “Why isn’t the weft-link failing like you thought it would?” “I don’t know. The conduit should only have taken a month to fail. It is well documented, Dieter. An unstimulated link should not continue to operate like this—and, Dieter, for the love of heparin, stop calling me your partner.” “Sure thing, compadre. Should we go get some advice? If you want to get rid of the link so badly, maybe someone can help us.” “You still don’t know?” Rei peered up at me and laughed. “That is why I told you to remain silent in the first place. If the Magi or the Clans became aware of such an egregious breach of protocol, we would both be killed.” “Oh. Peachy.” I got a real nice sinking feeling in my stomach. “Who are the Clans?” “My kin, Dieter. Have you not read a paper, examined a history textbook, or looked at a map since you got here?” “If I had a nickel…Sorry, no. Just training. Jules is a cruel master.” “Six clans govern the Fiefs. In addition to my studies, I am here as an emissary of the Bathory Clan.” I scratched my head. “So neither your ‘clan’ nor the Department of Mana Affairs would approve of us swapping mana?” “Correct. My clan would just kill you—but the Department would attempt to kill us both.” “Yikes…Um, Rei?” “Yes, Dieter?” “Thanks for trying to kill the link.” “My pleasure…kumpadre.” “It’s pronounced com-pa-dre.” “Kum-pah-dre.” “Com-pa-dre.” “Kum-pah-dre.” “You got it perfect that time,” I said with a shudder. “Of course I did, Dieter. I am most skilled at language acquisition.” Rei was back to her usual humble self; she must have been feeling better. “Indeed,” I replied. I was too tired to engage in phonetic combat. I turned my attention to the crackling fireplace instead. We must have sat there for a long time before my eyes started to sag. There was so much to deal with, so much I wanted to discuss, but the body has its limits. I faded off into sleep, and for the first night in long, long time, I wasn’t alone. Chapter 3 TEAMWORK, PEOPLE I jolted awake. My watch still worked. Despite the best efforts of the blackout curtains, its irritating beeps had shaken me awake. I straightened my kinked-up neck. My trusty timepiece was making the outrageous claim that it was 11AM. Training began at 12PM. If I wanted any breakfast, I needed to get moving. But there was a slight wrinkle: I was still sitting on the floor, Rei was still asleep in my arms, and she was…stiff. I’m not talking well snuggled here. I’m talking rigor freakin’ mortis. I calmly reached down and checked her pulse. Ten seconds later, I sighed with relief. 24 beats-a-minute normally constituted a medical emergency, but for Rei, half-speed sounded about right. A few pushes and pulls later and I’d pried myself free. Lifting her wasn’t nearly as hard. Her light frame made it a breeze. As I carried her rigid torso over to her bed, Rei kept mumbling about “Mr. Snuggles and the dog food,” but she was way too zonked out to make any sort of sense. I was puzzling out the riddle when I heard the sounds of paws pounding on the front door. I opened it to find Cumo’s expectant eyes (I think). Cumo’s shaggy head swiveled towards the kitchen. I put two and two together. Cumo’s bowl and an enormous bag of “Mr. Snuggles Organic Puppy Chow for Extra-Large Breeds” were waiting for me under the sink. After giving Cumo his morning shovelful, I shuffled into Rei’s bathroom and turned on the light. I nearly screamed at the monster staring back at me. One side of my face was swollen to double its normal size. A black and blue rainbow spread from my temple down to below my oversized jaw. My eyes were bloodshot, and my hair, a veritable hay-splosion. Add the scratches from my frolic through the woods and my swollen right shoulder and it looked like I’d just escaped from a Parisian bell tower. I checked my wounded shoulder’s motion. It was painful from the swelling, but I figured I could make do with some ibuprofen. Not so bad for being recently dislocated. Better still, I was finally wearing clothes that hadn’t been soaked in rain or hosed in blood. I snuck back out into the living room and slid on my fire-warmed boots. Cumo lay in a satisfied heap next to his empty bowl. Confident he had the situation under control, I decided to follow the dog’s good example and get some food in my belly. I scribbled Rei a note about where Lambda was meeting, put on my crimson-tinged robe, and headed out into the cold morning air in search of pancakes. + I hustled down the road beating my arms against the cold. The fog had a way of cutting right through my clothes. I took a shortcut to the cafeteria across the frosty grass fields. I hoped they had restocked on flour. I intended to do some damage. As I blew through the cafeteria’s double doors, my amazing physique demanded the attention of the entire late-morning breakfast crowd. Perhaps it was my massive, toned biceps, or my dashing good looks, or simply my debonair flair, but the slack-jawed locals couldn’t help but stare. Having to contend with auraception this early in the morning was really annoying, but I was on a mission. I flipped up the hood of my robe and beehived to the counter. Queuing past the wary eyes of the lunch lady, I built myself a leaning tower of blueberry pancakes and drenched them mercilessly with syrup. I grabbed a cup of coffee and sat at a table by myself. Carving out a delicious biteful, I opened my mouth and—ouch. All I could see was red. I whined quietly. Last night’s dental work was to blame. My jaw wasn’t cooperating. Fortunately, I’m an innovator first, second, and third. I poured coffee all over them and kept right on chugging’. I was halfway through my pan-mush when a tray slammed down in front of me. I winced at the noise and looked up. A blond, green-eyed fury was glaring down at me. “Dieter Resnick. What in the name of Awen happened ta yer face?” “Oh. Hey, Jules,” I replied. My mouth sounded like it was full of marbles. I tried to smile but it hurt too much. “Nice jeans. They designer label?” “Who knows, they’re Sadie’s—and they don’t fit. They’re too damn tight.” I looked Jules up and down. I repeated the process. Her jeans weren’t too damn tight. They were just tight enough. I blinked. It appeared Jules had…curves. “Jules, I’m no expert, but I think that during the past few decades, the youth of this fair nation have been testing the Authorities’ patience with these scandalously tight denim numbers. Apparently, it’s done on purpose. They call it cool. They beg their parents for the money to buy them. Trade them with their friends. Now, Jules, I don’t want to get ahead of myself, and I don’t want to make you freak out, but you may have accidently stumbled into something stylish.” It occurred to me that stylish wasn’t quite the right word. The jeans were fine and all, but it was the rather attractive figure that had donned them that was doing it for me at the moment. Feeling a little warm, I returned my eyes to my pan-mush. I’d never seen Jules in jeans and a t-shirt before. Heck, I’d never seen Jules in anything that couldn’t be featured next to dowdy in the dictionary. But minus the furrowed brow, Jules was looking rather like a hottie this morning. This confused me greatly. Oblivious, Jules pushed a handful of curls behind her ear, huffed once, and plopped down across from me. As I worked through my pan-mush, I couldn’t help but notice her oatmeal remained untouched. Jules was hiding behind a copy of The Daily Manangler, but her eyes kept darting over the top of it. I was about to point out that crushing a newspaper with your fists didn’t enhance its readability when I caught the headline splashed across the front. It read: “ATTACKED!!!” I put down my fork. Below the giant headline was a photo labeled: “Initiate Dieter Resnick of Nevada carries Emissary Rei Acerba Bathory of Cahokia away from the carnage of Elliot’s faculty lodge”. Rei’s head was slumped over my shoulder. She looked like she’d been through a bad night at the disco. My robe and jeans were covered in blood-puke. I wasn’t sure if I was smiling or wincing (maybe both), but I certainly didn’t look charming. I frowned. Did I always squint like that with my left eye? And, man, I really needed a haircut… The Daily Manangler was really salting my pancakes. Jules let out an audible sigh. I rolled my eyes. “Look, I’m terribly sorry your photo didn’t make it above the fold, but I had nothing to do with that.” Jules crumpled up the newspaper and tossed it behind her. Then she thought better of it, picked it up, and put it in the recycling bin. She plopped back down and frowned. “Like I care about shite like that, ya focker.” She stabbed her oatmeal. The spoon near chipped the bowl. I slid my break-feast to the side and exchanged it for my cup of coffee. I leaned forward on my elbows—and winced. I shifted to just my left elbow and cupped my cheek—and winced. I settled on modified cowboy posture, left elbow forward, right hand on cup. “Well, miss, then what’s troublin’ your cute little breeches?” Jules continued to impale her oatmeal. Time passed. Painfully. “Where were ya last night?” she asked at last. “In the woods…mostly.” Jules raised her green eyes from her savaged oats. Her spectacles stayed low. I swallowed. She was acting like the time I accidentally torched her textbooks. She’d threatened me with eternal warts. “Mostly, ya say?” Shit. I shuffled in my seat. You couldn’t straight up lie to a high-caliber witch. You had to be creative. “Well as you know, I went for a walk to clear my head. I headed up toward Mt. Sleeping Giant. Then I sorta got lost. Fortunately, Rei ran smack into me, and—” Jules delivered a vicious thrust that shook bowl and table. “In the middle of the woods?” she exclaimed. “Rei Acerba ran into ya in the middle of the woods?” The breakfast crowd quieted. I looked around. Every last pair of eyes were on us. (We go to a school in the sticks; gossip is life.) I laughed nervously. It goes without saying that pissing off a high-caliber witch is also unwise—and Jules was a neutron bomb caliber witch. “Um, yea, funny thing, that. Anyway, it started to rain, and I sorta got soaked, and since her place was close, I swung over to Rei’s to dry my—” Jules leaned forward and pounced. “Central Hall is closer.” “Oh. Oh, yea,” I said, scrambling. “I guess you’re right. But Rei’s cabin has a fireplace.” Jules’ cheeks went ruby-red. “So-so-what, ya two just laid down and warmed up in front of a fireplace?” “Nice!” Roger from Iota shouted from halfway across the cafeteria. I noticed a hastily drawn chalk circle on Iota’s table. An eavesdropping spell. Wonderful. Roger gave me two thumbs up. Susan Collins smacked him in the back of the head—but didn’t erase the circle. “Dieter,” Jules roared. “This has ta stop. This has ta stop, it does! I am not gonna spend my time training’ ya if ya…if ya…” Jules scowled. “Awen’s Ghost, Dieter. She’s a vampire.” “She’s my friend first.” I leaned forward and frowned at Jules. “And judging people by their race is beneath the Jules I know.” Jules leaned back with a huff. I bit my tongue. That sort of bigoted anti-Nostophoros comment usually set me off. I’d handled it much better this time. Pleased with myself, I took a sip of coffee. Jules frowned and looked deep into her oatmeal. “Dieter?” she asked quietly. “You two didn’t…” I sprayed coffee all over the table. “Stars above, no!” I said gasping. “Crikeys, Jules!” A collective sigh of disappointment rose from the girls sitting at the table next to us. I shot them an angry glare, and they rediscovered their pastries. “Oh,” Jules said, fumbling with her spoon. “Oh.” She took off her spectacles and polished them on her shirt. The green t-shirt must have been another loaner from Sadie. It was one size too small. “Well, we better get goin’. It be almost twelve.” “Huh?” I asked dreamily. “Training, Dieter.” I checked my watch. “Oh, right.” We needed to hustle. Albright wanted us back for training at noon. Returning our trays, we headed over to Central’s basement. “Dieter…one last question. What happened to yer face?” I felt the spot right above my gut where I’d nearly been impaled. “I slipped in the rain.” “Awen’s Ghost, Dieter. Please be a more careful. I’m not putting’ all this time in ta training’ a pupil only to have him…” I put my hand on her shoulder. “Don’t worry, boss. It won’t happen again.” And I meant it. + Jules ran down the stairs like a speeding bullet. She wasn’t one to be tardy. I hobbled behind her, pain shooting through my shoulder with every step. “Curse you, Irish!” I roared. She giggled. “Hurry up, Yank!” she shouted back at me. I rubbed my stubble sagely. Jules’ mood had certainly improved. But girls are funny that way. One moment they’re angry, the next moment they’re bubbly. The female beast is a fickle one. It’s best to approach them carefully bearing plenty of snacks…preferably chocolaty ones. We reached the bottom of the stairwell panting and hustled through the heavy double doors. The rest of Lambda was already robed up and ready to go. Jules tossed me a bottle of pills. I popped two of the ibuprofen and kept the rest for later. As I limped over to the rest of Lambda, a heavily accented voice boomed from across the room. “I love this one. He beats himself up ahead of time.” Gastone Spinoza? I raised an eyebrow. Clipboard in hand, the short knot of a man paced over to us. The alguacil had exchanged his black fatigues for a thick leather coat, flannel shirt, and heavy brown riding boots. He tapped his pencil against his clipboard and let loose a labored sigh. “So this is Lambda Squad. Norté America’s finest, no?” He paced off toward the center of the massive room, his leather coat flapping about behind him. Reaching the center of one of the padded circles, he gifted us with an unpleasant smile. “Welcome to hell, kiddies.” “Fucking hunters,” Monique grumbled. “Seriously,” Sadie said with a nod. “These ICE bastards can suck my—” “Yo, Mr. Alguacil,” Roster asked. “What’s the deal? What are you doing here?” “Teaching, of course. But I am off duty, so today, Alguacil Spinoza I am not. Today, I am but a lowly, private contractor. You may call me Uncle Gastone. Now form about me, children, ten meters off, half-circle formation, your capitán at center.” We arranged ourselves around Monique. She crossed her arms and frowned. She looked none to pleased to deal with Spinoza. What she had against the alguacil, I had no idea. “Now pollitos, I teach you to survive.” He glanced at his clipboard. “Ms. Rice, yes? You are the capitán?” She nodded. “Bueno. Capitán Rice, let’s pretend I am a bad man. Let’s pretend I have killed many peoples.” He smiled. “That shouldn’t be so hard, no? Order a subordinate to attack and subdue me.” Monique stiffened. “Sir?” “Cluck-cluck-cluck, Capitán Rice. I teach you to survive. Time to survive. I am a threat. Crush the threat.” “Then I’ll do it my—” “No. No. No,” Spinoza tisked. “Capitán Pollitos, the brain does the thinking, the fists do the fighting. Choose a subordinate.” Monique’s eyes darted around. Sweat beaded on her brow. I wondered what the deal was. This was just training. Why was Monique so worried? Her jaw tensed and she looked down at the floor. “Sheila, go,” she ordered. Sheila didn’t seem bothered. “Full contact?” she asked Spinoza. “Of course. We fight to incapacitate. You must call your offensive shots, but there are no other rules. Everyone else, get the hell out of our circle.” I backed up. This was a first. I’d never seen a duel before. Jules never let me go watch the sparing sessions. (Said it would give me bad ideas.) Sure, I’d read up on the dueling tradition, but books can’t really capture this sort of thing. I knew that distance mattered. Classic mages liked to cast from far away. It gave them the time they needed to focus. A minority preferred close contact casting. Those mages were called cataphracts. Still others used exotic techniques like fortifications and golems. There was one constant, though: all the books agreed that casting speed was paramount. If you were too slow on your casts, you were toast before you started. Spinoza and Sheila stood ten meters apart on the naked cement. Spinoza held his clipboard in his left hand and slid his pencil behind his ear. He paced laterally as Sheila began a chain of rapid fortifications. I recognized the anti-kinetic charm she placed on her robe, but the rest of her series went too fast for me to track. I swallowed. If I were fighting Sheila, that wouldn’t be good. You need to read your opponents casts to counter them. “Don’t mind the mages, Dieter,” Jules said quietly. “Mind the mana.” I nodded. Jules was right. I had an asset I wasn’t using. I primed my Sight and observed their auras. In a blur, Sheila was off. Not as fast as Rei, but quick enough to leave my eyes in the dust. One of the casts must have been for a spell called Burst. It enhanced your speed but cost you some agility. Sheila moved diagonal to Spinoza forcing him to exert effort and pivot. I watched as the air around Sheila’s hands compressed. With a jolt, she shifted, cutting towards him with a second Burst, and called out, “Vento!” My ears popped as the air rushed forward. Sheila thrust both her palms forward. The motion unleashed a surge of wind at Spinoza’s core. The alguacil shifted one foot back and extended his clipboard edge first. “Cortada,” he called, and the incoming gust split in two. With his free hand, Spinoza grasped onto his flapping coat. In the midst of the gale, he called out, “Ocultada,” and shifted his feet wide. My eyes locked onto Spinoza’s fluttering coat. How could he cast anything while he was holding onto it? Was he going to fortify it or something? I frowned. I’d lost sight of his aura too. It was almost as though he’d… “Dodge!” I screamed, but it was far too late. The coat was already fluttering to the ground. A voice announced, “Martillo,” from high above. A dummy! I flinched upwards to see Spinoza, foot extended, completing his flip. He brought the heel of his boot down on top of Sheila’s left tennis shoe. Bones crunched. Sheila yelped as Spinoza followed through with a sweeping kick to her uninjured right ankle. Her balance shattered, Sheila toppled. Spinoza shifted upward, palmed Sheila’s head, and accelerated her fall. Roster let out a gasp as Sheila’s head met the padded cement. My jaw dropped. Sheila’s head…bounced. “Jesus Christ!” Sadie screamed. “What the fuck!” Sheila twitched once and went still. Unaffected, Spinoza walked over and picked up his jacket. The long garment’s interior was lined with a silvery mesh. Chainmail, I realized. Redoing the top two buttons, he turned in the direction of the double doors and whistled. Two men in DEA sweats came jogging over with a stretcher. “Be sure to check for a hematoma, yes?” Spinoza said to the men. The two of them carried her away. “What the hell was that?” Monique roared. Her hands trembled as she spoke. “That, Capitán Rice, was a failure. What have we learned, pollitos?” No one answered. We all were looking at Monique. Spinoza shrugged his shoulders. “I tell you then: 1) attacks must always be faster than counters, 2) you mustn’t become distracted from your objective, 3) you can never assume your fortifications are sufficient, and 4) for the love of the Padre, pollitos, stay on your feet! Next choice, capitán.” “This is insane,” Monique stuttered. “This is insane.” “And life is not?” Spinoza asked. “I’ll go,” Roster said, striding forward. “Good man. Come as you wish.” Roster called, “Burst!” and shot forward. I blinked. His body flashed from stride to stride like a series of still images. He covered twice the distance that he should have. Each step was like a shotgun blast. At half the distance, Roster shifted low, called, “Amass!” and a molten metal coating enveloped both of his hands. Two steps from his target, Roster pivoted to strike. “Wow,” I whispered to Jules. I’d no idea Roster was so strong. Jules shook her head. “Too linear.” Spinoza stood at the ready. His eyes were focused on Roster’s fists. Extending one hand, Spinoza repeated Roster’s cast. “Amass.” Roster’s momentum shifted. He stumbled forward. “What’s the…?” I asked. “Nothin’ is easier than amplifying a cast,” Jules explained. “He shoulda waited till he was closer.” “Oh.” Spinoza had simply doubled the weight of the metal. He’d turned Roster’s weapons into a pair of shackles. The Alguacil strode over to Roster as the big man struggled to stand back up. “Martillo,” he announced. Monique screamed as Spinoza brought the point of his elbow down on Roster’s shoulder blade. Another sharp crack sounded, and Roster grunted in muffled anguish. “My God!” Spinoza said picking up his clipboard. “No wonder you lose this silly war.” He leaned over Roster who was writhing on the ground. “Idiot boy. If you can cast with nothing but your hands, do not cast a spell that confines your hands.” He smacked Roster on the back of his head and turned to Monique. “And you. Do you know anything of tactics?” Monique was in tears. She covered her mouth as Roster curled up in pain. Spinoza slammed his clipboard on the ground. “Do you?” he shouted. “Yes,” Monique managed. “Then why did you send cataphracts to do the work of artillerymen?” Monique looked at Spinoza in confusion. “What am I?” he asked. “A…a hunter.” “And?” “I…” Monique wiped the tears from her eyes. “I don’t know what you mean.” I’d never seen Monique act this way before. Even after Lucas’ death, she’d been like a rock. Now her entire body was shaking. Spinoza didn’t sympathize. He was going red with fury instead. “Ichijo Fukimura,” he shouted. “For the love of the Padre, demonstrate proper form.” Fukimura was sitting quietly off to the side. “Hai.” The waif-like exchange student had a way of fading into the background. He rose, bowed, and walked toward Spinoza. He bowed again. And again. And— “Enough,” Spinoza ordered. “Begin.” “Bounce,” Fukimura called. With a rush, he catapulted twenty feet into the air flipping backwards. On his descent he called out, “Mato,” and flicked his right hand at Spinoza. “Burst!” Spinoza shouted, shifting into a dead sprint. “Burst, burst, burst!” In mid-air, Fukimura extended one hand, fingers up. “Wana,” he called. Spinoza flinched at the word but kept on chugging forward. Fukimura landed gingerly, still tracking Spinoza’s dash with his half-clenched hand. He closed his eyes and flicked his wrist downward. “Teiryuu,” he announced. Apparently unaffected by the cast, Spinoza continued running—and then smacked into nothing. He bounced backwards as if he had struck a springy wall. Rubbing his nose, he smiled, crossed his arms, and plopped down on his ass. “Goodness, gracious, great balls of fire, Mr. Fukimura. You’ve gotten faster.” He turned to Lambda’s captain. “Now do you see Ms. Rice?” His hand still extended, Fukimura tilted his head. “With respect, Mr. Spinoza, I must keep you in there until you reverse that.” Spinoza’s smile broadened. He waved his hand and multiple invisible compressions of matter appeared before him. I looked on in amazement. Spinoza had somehow prepped a batch of projectiles without me even noticing. With another flick of his hand he dissolved them into nothingness. “Hey, Spinoza, that’s cheap,” yelled Sadie. “You didn’t call that attack.” “No, Sadie,” Fukimura replied. “He called Burst many times. Burst is a word with many meanings. It can mean to increase speed, yes? But in older English it meant to barrage an opponent with a weapon.” “Now if we could get on with things…” Spinoza interjected. He was still sitting Indian style on the floor. “Hai.” Fukimura waved his hand and released Spinoza from confinement. Spinoza waved his hand as well. Fukimura’s head snapped backwards, firecracker shards dancing this way and that. He’d been hiding another primed spell. Within a flutter of robes, Fukimura collapsed to the ground. Spinoza stood, shaking his head in disappointment. “Fukimura, I said fight to incapacitate. In combat, this has only one meaning.” “But he told you to dispel them,” Monique objected. “And Spinoza did,” Jules replied. “He hit Ichi with the ‘balls-o-fire’ cast.” The two men from the DEA had just finished delivering Roster to a cot. They huffed back over and picked up Fukimura’s limp frame. They certainly were getting their exercise. I clenched my fists. I let my fingernails dig deep into the scar tissue. Standing on the sidelines sucked—and this guy was really starting to piss me off. Better late then never, I decided. I went to step forward—only to find resistance coming from the back of my shirt. Jules was pinning me in place. I turned to glare at her, but she didn’t flinch. “You’re outa yer depth, Dieter.” I put my hands up in surrender. Dante had no such governess. He was boiling in place. But with his arm still locked in a sling, he was even more useless than I was. I felt really bad for him. Spinoza examined his clipboard. “Sadie Thompson. Talented in defense against hexes, et cetera and so forth. Useless in an assault. Maria Espinosa. Still likes to talk to ponies, I see. He looked left and right. No ponies here. Monique Rice. The best PsyOps prospect of her class—and more than useless. Ms. Rice, you couldn’t lead lemmings to a cliff. Jay Dante. Where is Jay—” Dante flashed into being behind Spinoza. He was already directing an elbow to the back of Spinoza’s neck. He connected clean. Spinoza doubled over. His pencil skittered across the floor. Dante said, “No offensive magic. No call.” I raised an eyebrow. Oh snap. Dante pressed his advantage, lunging forward to deliver another blow. Spinoza tossed his clipboard behind him, forcing Dante to dodge. He grasped one side of his coat and flung it upwards, blocking Dante’s line of sight. In the single second that motion bought him, Spinoza cupped his free hand and uttered, “Vento.” He delivered the blast straight through his armored coat, directly into Dante’s midsection. Dante was catapulted into the air. He came crashing down on his wounded right shoulder and cried out in pain. The fresh fracture completely overwhelmed him. He looked like he was going to gag. “That does it,” I growled. “Bring it, Spinoza.” I leaned forward to storm towards him, and found my shoes glued to the ground. My lower body was frozen in place. I looked down at my feet. Three circles. Three hastily drawn circles…I glared at Jules. She was hiding her chalk stained hands in her pockets and staring absently at the ceiling. “Now that is what I call an incapacitation,” Spinoza said. “Excellent work, Ms. Nelson.” Spinoza put his jacket back on and headed to the stairwell. “That’s enough for today. Have a wonderful weekend, and I’ll see you all bright and early on Monday morning. Tata, pollitos.” He paused. “Oh, and Ms. Rice? Consider resigning.” Spinoza walked out the door. His foot steps up the stairs mixed with the groans of my friends. Monique walked off toward the other end of the cavern. Sadie and Maria rushed over to help Dante. He still looked like he was going to pass out, but he did his best to bear it. Jules headed over to check on the other three members of Lambda that were now on injured reserve. I went to follow her. “Hey! Um, Jules, could you break this binding, please?” “Figure it out yerself, ya focker.” I tugged at me feet. “Um, Jules?” I squeaked. Jules kept on walking. Not good. After all those coffee-pancakes, I really needed to pee. Chapter 4 HE DID WHAT? “Yea, right there,” I said. The DEA medic nodded and secured the ice to my shoulder with layer after layer of plastic film. “You said this happened less than two days ago?” “Yup. She tugged it right out. Vampire strong. Dieter weak. So it goes.” “Normally, I’d immobilize it, but this doesn’t look so bad,” the medic replied. “No heavy lifting. Keep up the ice and ibuprofen, and you’ll be fine.” He cut the last of the wrap and taped it in place. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have another bone to fuse.” He stood and rolled his neck. “Fucking hunters…” Roster and Dante were in pretty bad shape. Roster’s scapula was shattered and Dante had re-fractured his clavicle. As the medic walked off, Jules pounced. “Can I help?” she asked him. “No, Ms. Nelson.” She pinned her hands behind her back and leaned forward. “Come now, give a girl a chance.” She batted her eyes. “Pleeease?” “No,” the medic replied firmly. I would have said yes. The “Magically Delicious” label on her tshirt was getting stretched for all it was worth. Jules stomped her foot. “Oh, bloody hell. Come on!” The medic sighed. “Fine, Ms. Nelson, but you only get to observe. I don’t want you ossifying any muscle.” Jules gave me thumbs up and skipped off behind him. I looked around the room. Sheila and Fukimura were lying in cots, their heads bandaged. Dante and Roster were comatose. Monique was sitting at the edge of the training space, her legs dangling off the cement, with a big fat “Leave Me Alone” sign stapled to the back of her head. Jules’ adventures in the field of medicine aside, there was bad humor to be had all around. At least Maria was off grabbing us some food… My jaw was throbbing again, so I grabbed a bottle of water and popped another round of pain pills. Then I went over to watch as Jules and the medics wrote a series of strange markings all over Dante’s left shoulder. (Apparently, she’d already overcome the “only observe” rule.) “Hey Jules, where’s Sadie?” “Obstacle course,” she said, not looking up from the procedure. I wasn’t doing any good here, so I carefully hung my robe over the monstrous ice pack and hobbled over to the other side of the room. The obstacle course was a collection of modular false walls, foam pits, springboard floors, and rope courses designed to put the magic in motion. The park occupied almost half of the cavern’s space, and right now, flashes and sparks were rising from its center. Curious, I climbed up onto the metal observation deck welded into the wall and hung my legs off the gangway. I had watched Roster run the course a few months back blasting cardboard cutouts to smithereens. The design was simple, a standard sweep-and-clear. The objective was to move roomto-room pinging bad guys while trying to avoid innocent babies and the like. I spotted Sadie right away. She must have just finished a round and was walking back to the start point. Sweat coursing off her brow, she looked like she was in her own world. I took the moment to open up my Sight. (I hadn’t quite decided if it was rude to use my Sight like this. The Committee on Dieter Ethics had run for the hills around the time I deployed napalm on the enemy.) I was surprised with what I found. A bubbling caldron of black gunk was sloshing around inside her. It was a nasty mix of anger, fear, regret, and wrath. I shuddered. For Talmax’s sake, I really hoped that Sadie’s parents were still alive. Sadie slammed the reset button, and a random assortment of targets popped up across the course. Some doors opened. Others shut. Sadie knelt down and drew up mana from the leyline. Then she sucked in some more. The seconds ticked by, and growing uneasy, I grasped the safety railing. Sadie was drawing in way too much mana. My volume control issues had made me an expert on the subject. I knew full well that taking in excess mana was a reckless thing to do. Sucking up too much mana could white you out and leave an un-moderated bolus of magic free to do as it pleased. I nearly cried out—but Sadie finished her draw. The absurd bundle of energy still enveloping her, she steadied herself and stood. Her was breathing heavy. Her hold on it, tenuous. I leaned forward against the metal railing. She was focusing on compressing the oversized bundle of energy into a tighter and tighter circle. This style was way different than my own. Sure, Sadie was self-conduiting like I did, but she hadn’t set up a transmutation first. If I used myself as a conduit, I found it much easier to establish my transmutation before taking in the mana. That was mostly because I couldn’t store mana effectively, but also because having a bunch of free mana bouncing around inside you can prove to be incredibly distracting. Sadie slowly extended her right arm and used her left hand to lock her elbow. The air in front of her palm began to swirl. I squinted. The air was compressing into a tight red ball. What was the point of that? Why focus air? As the seconds ticked by, Sadie’s circle continued to shrink. The bundle of air inside was squeezed tighter and tighter. The space around Sadie’s hand blurred like a mirage. But what was the—my jaw dropped to the ground. Sadie was superheating the air. Superheating it to the point where the electrons were shorn free of their nuclei. She was creating the hottest, most volatile form of matter known to man. Sadie Thompson was forming plasma in her palm. I gripped the metal rail. What the hell was she thinking? To achieve plasma fusion at one atmosphere you needed a temperature of around, oh, one hundred million degrees. (Hey, some people memorize baseball stats, I memorize physics facts.) How the hell was she holding something that hot so close to her hand? Her skin should have melted off by now—check that—the ten meters around Sadie should have melted to slag by now. But Sadie wasn’t melting, she was charging straight forward… Her arm still locked into place, Sadie burst through the first door, rolled to her right, aimed, and fired. A paper-thin stream of superheated particles spat across the room with imperceptible speed. It struck the first target clean, and the entire model burst into flames. Then, like sweeping a laser pointer, Sadie swung her arm across the room. Every remaining target was sliced in two. As Sadie collapsed panting onto one knee, I finally figured out the trick. Like Jules, Sadie was a circle worker, but unlike Jules, Sadie favored circles that trapped or deflected forces. Sadie was a containment specialist. It wasn’t her forte to transmute mana into plasma. That left only one viable explanation: Sadie had just built herself an ion drive. I wasn’t familiar with all of the details, but the concept of an ion drive is simple. You build yourself a circular magnetic field and increase the charge of that field to insane proportions by running an equally insane amount of electric current through the metal coils wrapped around it. The gas inside the field will compress, compress to the point that atoms shed their electrons. When that happens you get something called plasma. (You know, the stuff stars are made of.) The plasma can’t escape, either. The magnetic field that created it also keeps it confined…that is until you poke the tiniest of holes in its perimeter. Then all that pent up energy surges out of the containment field like a shaken up can of soda pop. Only you don’t get bubbles of cola bursting out, you get a beam of superheated ionized particles ready to tear through anything in their path. I had to hand it to her. The scheme was freakin’ brilliant. The yield was insane, but the spell was mana-cheap. You see, creating new matter takes more mana than anything, but Sadie had discovered a workaround. She simply superheated the air around her—and that air was free. A cast like that would use only a fraction of the mana required to make plasma from scratch, and by keeping her circle small, she further increase the cast’s efficiency. The only mystery was how she managed to breach the sphere’s containment at only one tiny pinhole. I thought back to how I’d crossed the threshold of Sadie’s other circle to save us from the grape juice. My understanding of magic circles was that breaches were always catastrophic. Once a circle is penetrated, the entire thing should collapse. Then again, my understanding of circles was rather limited. I only saw one problem with Sadie’s new weapon—it cut everything, civilians and all. The attack sprayed like a hose. It required a sweeping motion to hit all the targets, and anything caught in its path was toast. Sadie replaced the targets and left the room to repeat the drill. Leaning against the gangway post, I watched her run the course again. “Who put the fangs in that one?” a silky voice asked me from behind. I jumped with a start and nearly fell off the gangplank. Rei snatched the hood of my robe and pulled me back up. “Stars above, would you please stop doing that?” I pleaded. “My most bloated blood bag, I fail to see the fun in that.” “Okay, missy, ixnay on the snarky alliterations. I am wounded, not bloated. And you were the one doing the wounding.” “It was medicinal.” Rei grabbed the handrail and slid down to dangle her legs beside me. We watched Sadie finish lopping the heads off three men with AK’s, a mother, her small child, and a puppy. Rei huffed at the sight. “Perhaps the young boy was concealing an Uzi, but I fail to see what threat the puppy posed.” “Rabies. Didn’t you notice the crazed glint in his adorable little eyes?” Rei frowned. “Not humorous, pin-cushion.” I raised an eyebrow. Rabies, not funny? Since when? “Anywho, Sadie’s been having a rough day. Her parents went missing during Talmax’s raid on Portland. Let’s permit her a few cardboard puppies.” “Raid? There was a raid on Portland?” I had forgotten. Rei hadn’t been at the meeting (daylight and all). I brought her up to speed. “So Albright desires us to obtain a sample of this material? That is all?” I frowned. “Yea, we just have to waltz into Vegas, poke around until we find the enemy’s lair, order up some ACT from the drive-thru window, and make a run for it. Yea, that’s all, Rei.” “Perhaps I can just ask around. I can be quite persuasive.” “Stars above, Rei,” I said, rubbing the shiners on both ends of my face, “your glamour isn’t what I’d call subtle.” “Dieter, you are rather unique, persuasion is usually much less difficult.” I scratched my head. That reminded me. “Rei, I have a question. I think it’s related, but if you don’t want to answer it, no problem. Just don’t get all ‘grrr’ on me, okay?” Rei’s easy posture stiffened, but she acquiesced with a nod. “There’s one thing I don’t get about this whole brouhaha. When we were briefed, the DEA guys showed us a map of North America. The East Coast belonged to us. Talmax was contesting us for the West Coast. But the Midwest didn’t make any sense. All the states on the Mississippi were blacked out. The bottom of Florida was blacked out too.” “Blacked out, you say? How ominous.” Rei swept the errant strands of hair from her face and turned to me with a smile. “Really, Dieter, despite the many blatant falsehoods, you should consider taking History of World Magic. You are like an empty jar.” “An empty jar that can do partial differential equations,” I said with a dash of the bitters. “And you assume I cannot?” Rei asked with an easy smile. “My bad. The Laplace equation’s applications in the field of fluid drainage would be of interest to you, wouldn’t they.” Rei’s smile cooled. “Blood flow cannot be predicted by Laplace alone. Blood’s viscosity is three to four times that of water, and both the pressure applied on the system and its volume are variable. Even the emotional state of the container must be considered.” My jaw dropped. “Okay. Wow. You just gave me a nerd boner.” “Whatever that is, I hope it is quite painful.” She sighed. “But your initial query was about the nature of the Fiefs, yes?” “No, my question was about the Mississippi River States. Why were they all painted black?” “Black demarks the North American Fiefdoms.” Rei frowned. “The homogeneity is quite frustrating, really. As if a Bathory could be confused with a low Dartan, or a Drekker mistaken for a de Rais, but the Magi seem incapable of seeing anything beyond our fangs.” I cocked my head so far sideways it nearly snapped off. “Be patient, my empty jar, and I shall explain. I am what you recognize as a vampire, yes?” I nodded vigorously. Rei definitely had fangs. “Vampire is a term for the Imperiti, Dieter. It is nonspecific. Imprecise. My kind is more properly called the Nostophoros.” I scratched my head. “That would be Phoros, meaning to carry, and Noso, meaning disease. Nosophoros. The carriers of the disease.” I was impressed I actually remembered that. I was patting myself on my back, when I noticed Rei bristle. The steel guardrail squealed under her hand. Rage flashed behind her eyes, and I cringed as my Sight filled with a full-on ice storm. “What’s wrong?” “Dieter…” Rei closed her eyes and forced herself to calm down. I could tell it wasn’t easy. “If you ever meet another member of the Nostophoros, do not utter that word. It is Nosto-phoros, not Nosophoros.” I frowned. “Nostos? I remember that from somewhere…” “Of course you do, you dolt. What parallel courses did Bloom and Stephen follow returning?” “Oh, duh!” I near smacked myself in the forehead. “Joyce called the last two chapters of Ulysses ‘the Nostos.’ That’s the Greek word for a homecoming. But, Rei, that doesn’t make any—” An explosion shook the entire cavern. Sadie yelped in pain, and her right arm burst into scarlet flames. “Sadie!” I shouted. I struggle to extricate myself from underneath the guardrail. “Fasz kivan,” Rei grumbled. She slid off the gangplank and took the two-story fall feet first. By the time she’d kicked down the first false wall, she’d already removed her robe. Using the fire-retarding garment as a shield, she tackled Sadie to the ground and smothered the burn. I sprinted down the stairs to find Sadie’s smoldering body lying limp on the ground. Rei was kneeling over her. “Dieter, these are third-degree burns. Fetch the medical team.” I turned to go but paused. “Rei…can’t you, um…” I made a cutting action with my hand. Rei’s eyes turned fearful. “That would be most unwise.” I nodded. I didn’t understand, but I figured Rei knew best. Still, as I ran off to get help, I found myself rubbing at the scars on my palms. There was another reason I didn’t want to push the issue. I really didn’t want to know. It only took me a minute to get the medics back to the scene, but Sadie had already taken a turn for the worst. The explosion had done something to her insides. Her whole body was spasming. And the burns to her right arm were horrific. The entire thing was covered in char. Monique came running up as the medics loaded Sadie onto a gurney. “What the hell happened here?” she demanded. Rei looked off to the distance and shrugged. “Damn it, Bathory. What the hell did you do?” I backed away from Monique. Her pent up frustration was frothing over—and bad vibes were more than just an inconvenience around here. Monique was a top-tier witch. You didn’t want to piss someone like her off. What we needed to do was— “Pardon me?” Rei asked. My posture sagged. Rei was glaring right back at Monique, and something told me she didn’t plan on backing down. Cursing, I wondered how the heck I managed to end up between the two of them. A disconcerting wave of psychic energy swept past me. I recognized the sensation. Was Monique out of her freaking mind? “Captain, did you just attempt to compel me?” Rei asked coolly. “I will not be compelled.” “You’re one to talk,” I muttered under my breath. “And if I were to be—it would most certainly not be by the likes of you.” “What do you mean by that, Bathory?” Monique growled. “I mean,” Rei said, gesturing around her, “that when I entered this disgusting, bat dung-encrusted cavern, over half our squad was disabled. I asked the pint-sized Druid in the atrocious t-shirt what had happened. She informed me that you allowed a single hunter to disable our colleagues one-byone.” “And?” Monique asked. She was seething. I could sense her Ki gathering for a strike. “Um, ladies? Can we perhaps—” “And?” The color had drained from Rei’s face. She stood, her hands clenched at her sides. “You are standing here uninjured, captain. That is the ‘and’. You are a disgrace. If Lucas were still alive, he would have—” “Don’t you dare speak that name, you…beast.” Rei smiled. “I know quite well what I am, captain. But what are you?” She cocked her head and took a step forward. “You certainly talk a great deal. Perhaps you are a performer of sorts. We have a lovely black woman in Chicago who has made quite the living—” I sensed the rush of mana fast enough to hit the deck. I grimaced as my shoulder struck the concrete, but I didn’t regret the pain in the slightest. An unrefined black cloud of purple energy blasted over my head. It caught Rei square in the chest. She flew backwards, crashing through one, two—check that— three false walls. A twinge of pain danced across my chest. It felt like all my ribs had been tickled. The weft-link appeared to be working. Rei stood and dusted herself off. When she glanced up, her blue eyes had faded to a sliver grey. “Oh, fuck,” I muttered, and tried to scramble away. “That was not very polite, captain. If I have read the rule book correctly, I am not allowed to strike a ‘superior’ officer—even if she strikes me unprovoked.” Still painted to the floor, I pleaded, “Um, ladies, can we chill out a bit? We need to go check on Sadie, and Roster, and Sheila, and—” “Shut it, Dieter,” Monique snarled. “Permission granted, Bathory. Bring it.” Rei smiled, and that fuzzy whiteness danced across her flesh. “Right, then,” she hissed. Grabbing a large section of collapsed wall, she flung it at Monique. I scrambled out of the way as Monique screamed, “Divertus!” and smashed the 8-foot tall chunk of plaster to bits. A haze of particulate spread through the air. “Captain, I fail to see the point of doing that,” said Rei’s voice from a new point in the cloud. “Now you can’t even see me.” Monique twisted in the direction of Rei’s voice and called out, “Ventos!” blasting another section of the course to bits. Rei’s reply came in the form of another giant slab of plaster that came careening out of the sky. I scrambled away. Rei wasn’t attempting to tear Monique’s head off, so I assumed it wasn’t that serious. I’d let the divas dance if they wanted to. There wasn’t much I could do to stop them anyway. Stumbling out of the debris cloud, I ran smack into Jules. “What the hell did ya do?” she asked in exasperation. “I mean, I only left ya alone for thirty minutes and—” “Not me, boss!” I gasped, coughing up some drywall. “Monique. Rei. Schoolhouse-rumble.” “Oi,” Jules said, face-palming. “For the love of the spirit, what for?” I dusted myself off. “Street cred, yo. Street cred.” Another barrage of explosions and dust erupted from what was left from the course. In the distance, Monique screamed, “Bitch!” and crashed through a wall. “More importantly, did you see Sadie?” “That I did. They’re rushin’ her to the infirmary. She’s stable, but those burns were serious. What the heck happened?” “She was playing with plasma.” Exasperated, Jules plopped down on a cot and buried her head in her hands. I joined her. His head in a bun, Ichijo Fukimura sat down next to us. “Hey, Ichijo,” we said simultaneously. He nodded and gestured toward the dust cloud. “Monique and Rei?” “Yup,” we said. “Dieter,” Ichijo mused, “do you know the two types of fights?” “Sure, Ichijo—fights to protect your hide and fights to protect your pride.” “This one, what type of fight is it?” Jules and I looked at one another. “Pride.” He nodded. “I guessed the same. Bathory-hime has not torn the captain’s head off yet.” We nodded. “Coffee?” I asked. They nodded. We headed over to the stairs, but for some inexplicable reason, I sensed I needed to wait. Rei burst out of the dust cloud seconds later. She was covered from head-to-toe in white plaster. “Sup, kumpadre?” I asked. “Black, one sugar, please,” she requested. I nodded. “Bitch!” Monique screamed from inside the dust cloud. “Where are you, bitch?!” Rei cupped her hands and yelled back, “Behind you, you fille de joie!” Giggling, she darted off. The three of us resumed our walk to the elevator. “Jules, what’s a fille de joie?” “It be French for whore, Dieter.” “Nice. How do you say that in Gaelic?” Jules sighed. “That does it. I want a new apprentice.” Chapter 5 SHOP TILL YOU DROP “Dieter, wake up.” “No.” “Come on, Dieter. It’s Saturday.” “Wake me up Sunday.” “But it’s time ta shop till we drop.” “Can we skip to the ‘drop’ part?” “No. No we cannot. Awaken, I command thee!” The witch had come prepared. Icy water surged down my back. I fell off my cot trying to get away. “Curse you, wench. Don’t shake the apprentice’s cage.” I fumbled for my toothbrush. “What time is it?” “Shopping time! Oh, ya mean the actual time? It be nine in the morning. Stores open at ten.” Grumbling, I went to find the restroom. The lights were still out, so I banged into two cots on the way. Dante growled at me. I considered retreating, but Jules threatened me with the curse-of-athousand-tickles if I went back to sleep. “Stupid bat cave.” I muttered. One squeaked above my head. Disgruntled, I hopped in the shower and washed up. I even went so far as to shave. Looking at my body in the mirror, I was happy to see it looked like I’d only been in a street fight (rather than locked in mortal combat with a bear). Strange. Just yesterday I was a limping mess. Now the cuts to my hands and face were barely visible. I touched the black and blue bruise on my cheek. It didn’t even hurt. The medic was right. I was healing kinda fast. Not that I wanted to know why… Leaving the bathroom, I followed the wall till I found the elevator. They’d finally fixed it last night. I leaned back against the wall and enjoyed the Kenny G jam session. Going shopping was probably a good idea. One pair of jeans, one shirt, and twelve pairs of socks could only get you so far. The elevator dinged, the doors slid open, and a burst of morning sunlight greeted me. A wave of nausea took me. The swelling might be getting better, but last night’s skull-check had given me an artificial hangover. Rubbing my eyes, I stumbled out into the lobby. “Ready to go?” Jules asked. “Yea.” Actually, I was kinda ready to puke. “Just give my eyes a second to…” Looking up, I blinked twice. She was wearing a dark-blue pleated skirt with a matching blue scarf. A pair of rockin’ white knee-highs finished off the bottom. I squinted through the cursed rays. Who was this person? “Jules?” “Yup?” “Um…” Where’d her glasses go? “Where’s everyone else?” “Ichijo said he'd already ordered his clothes online. He’s goin’ ta hike Sleeping Giant instead. And Maria’s mom is in New York for the weekend. Albright gave her permission ta visit her.” She shrugged. “Everyone else is bajanxed.” “But what about Monique? It was only some hair.” “Only?” Jules caressed her own recently brushed curls. “Dieter, Rei scalped her.” “Technically, Rei shaved her. Scalping involves removing—” “Monique doesn’t want ta go, Dieter. She says it’s too embarrassin’.” Women. “Alright, then it’s just the two of us, I guess.” Jules smiled. “Yep!” + As we passed by Rei’s cabin, Cumo gave us a token bark. I waved back, but he just curled up into a ball and went back to sleep. “Stupid cotton ball already forgot the hand that fed him,” I grumbled. “You’re feeding Rei’s sheepdog now, are ya?” “Na, just that time I spent the night.” I smiled. “He was…” Jules stomped off ahead. “Yo, slow down,” I said, hustling after her. Jules huffed. “Hey, would it be possible to just enjoy our one free day outside this penitentiary?” “Fine. But I’ve had my fill of Ms. Fangtastic. We’ll be leavin’ that topic behind as well.” Rei was probably stiff as a board. I doubted she’d mind. “Fine, no Rei talk.” I stabbed my fist into the air. “From the wreckage of Lambda we thunder on. Jules and Dieter, onward, ho!” I managed to draw a smirk out of her, but not much else. I scratched my head. Man, everyone was so uptight. And it was so irrational too. A multinational conglomerate was trying to snuff us out, and Jules was more worried about Rei sinking her fangs into me. I shook my head. This school really needed a class in threat assessment. At the gate, we handed our day passes to the men from the DEA. Reminding us of the 11PM curfew, they gave us the usual ‘watch out for the homicidal maniacs’ spiel, and sent us on our way. I shook my head. Other than the cool trench coats, I didn’t get why anyone would want to join the DEA. On the train, Jules described her plan: 1) Take train into New Haven. 2) Walk to Chapel Street. 3) Shop. 4) The End. I agreed to the shopping—but managed to negotiate a stop at Patricia’s for breakfast. The New Haven is Heaven brochure I snagged at the train station claimed that they had the best pancakes in town. “I swear, Dieter, you are comprised of 80% pancakes and 20% coffee.” “So what? Is there something wrong with those percentages, cabbage brains?” “At least cabbage has vitamins.” “Fine, I’ll get blueberry and banana pancakes this time. Happy now?” Jules looked at me with sudden interested. “They have those sorta cakes?” “Aye. This is America, Jules. We have everything.” Jules delivered a direct hit to my wounded kidney. I rubbed my side. The girls of Elliot were a tad abusive. + An hour later, we stumbled out of Patricia’s Restaurant. “Can’t breathe. Too fat,” Jules said, clutching her belly. “Congratulations! You’re finally speaking American.” I patted my own oversized gut. The weather was good for the end of October. The sun was out, and none of the usual icy wind was blowing. I pulled out my copy of New Haven is Heaven and looked for my next objective. I looked up to find Jules leaning against a lamppost. “Hey, it’s nice out today, and there’s a cool park nearby. Let’s go visit. You can lay down and digest before the shop-fest.” Jules nodded and wobbled after me. Following the map’s directions, I headed up York Street. It was hard to miss. “Tada.” I said. “Here we are!” Jules frowned. “Dieter, this is not a park. This is a cemetery.” I raised a finger. “Not just any cemetery, Jules. This here is the oldest chartered cemetery in the whole U. S. of A.” “The oldest ‘chartered’ cemetery? What does that mean, exactly?” “No idea. Let’s check it out.” “Unbelievable. Yer carrying all the bags, Dieter, all of them.” We wandered in past a guard who merely nodded as we passed. Family plots of all shapes and sizes stretched out before us. Some of the markers were monstrous, others more humble. Massive trees canopied the grass, each with plenty of space to spread their arms. “Okay, I’m gonna have ta issue a retraction, Dieter. Nice find.” Folks from all walks of life wandered up and down the lanes. It was trippy to see non-magically inclined people again. They were doing all sorts of non-magical business too: taking photos, walking dogs, reading novels, painting landscapes, playing tag. We passed a couple snuggled under a blanket. The man snoozed. The woman enjoyed a book. I envied them. They looked happy—and happy they should be. They weren’t being hunted by magical hitmen from Mexico. I traced the path to the very center of the cemetery, Jules trailing lazily behind me. The tombstones were older here. They looked like droopy ice cream cones melting in the sun. One particular tree caught my eye. “Wow,” I said pointing, “let’s sit under that one.” The leaves on the tree were fire engine red. Its huge arms reached out over the rows of tombstones like a mother cradling her children. I had never seen a tree like it. (Granted, my tree knowledge was rather limited.) Taking a spot on the grass, we took in the scene. “I can’t get over seeing real people again.” Jules pushed a wayward lock behind her ear. It shimmered like gold in the late morning rays. “You mean the Imperiti?” I nodded. “Not that I don’t enjoy your company.” “Dieter…what’s it like ta be one of ‘em?” “What do you mean?” “I grew up amongst practitioners. The Imperiti have always been a ‘they’ ta me.” “Wait, let me get this straight, you want to know what it’s like to be normal?” She nodded, and her eyes carried an uneasiness with which I couldn’t quite relate. I leaned back against the tree’s massive trunk to think. Jules might have only been a year older than me, but she was my teacher. She was the taskmaster waiting outside after class. The little blond terror that ordered me about. The person who set my goalposts and reproached my mistakes. She was Jules Nelson, Adept Magus, the youngest student granted that title in a generation. It had never occurred to me that she might have questions. But everything felt different today. The way she dressed. The way she talked. Most importantly, the way she carried herself…Jules wasn’t a mage today. I mussed my hair in frustration. “Gosh, Jules, I don’t think I can give you a good comparison. Besides, I don’t think my childhood was what you would call normal.” A warm smile stretched across her rosy cheeks. “That’s fine, Dieter. Tell me anyway.” And I wanted to. “My life was real simple. It was one big fat bundle of fear. Fear that my dad would drink himself to death. Fear that I wouldn’t have enough money to pay the bills. Fear that I would end up in a fight or get jumped after school. Fear that I would fail a test. Fear that I wouldn’t get into college. The whole thing was fear. I had one selfish dream—and a million ways to lose it. I spent so much time worrying that I didn’t have time for anything else.” I shook my head. “And now everything I worked for is totally irrelevant. I spend my nights in the forest meditating on black spheres. My learning objective for the week is to stick a rose back together. I set people on fire for extra credit. Not a single person has asked me what I got on my SATs. Not a single person cares that I was valedictorian. It’s like—” “Yer entire life feels like one big, fat, inside joke,” Jules finished. I raised an eyebrow. “Yea.” Jules arched her back and looked up at the tree. “Dieter, do ya know what kind of tree this is?” “Not cactus.” Jules ran a hand through her curls. “In yer tongue it’s called a great oak, in mine, it’s called a Daur.” “Daur?” “Aye. Daur means the ‘door ta the other side.’ For us Dru, the great oak represents the gateway ta the places beyond. For centuries, my kin, my blood, has probed into the Daur ta pierce beyond the present.” I scratched my head. I had always considered Jules a bright girl, but this was crazy talk. I tried to put it as gently as I could. “With respect, Jules, that’s impossible. I can accept that magic exists, but we’re still bound by the flow of time.” “Yer misunderstandin’, Dieter. Look at this tree. Above her trunk stretch a thousand branches. Below her trunk sleep a thousand roots. It’s her form that matters; she’s analogous ta the flow of time. Do you understand what I mean?” “Maybe…” I tried to parse her words. “Are you saying that the here-and-now is derived from one of many possible pasts, that the present is only possible because certain criteria where met, and so the future, our particular future, will form based on the same principles? In other words, our future will be one possible future out of many many thousands?” Jules smiled. “Keep chuggin’,” she urged. “Okay…if you follow that theory to its conclusion, in some respects we are bound by fate, because fate limits our choices to the ones at hand; but in other respects, we have tremendous free will, because each and every day we make countless choices which will impact on our future.” “Fabulous. Right ya are, Dieter. That’s exactly what I meant. Now let’s hold on ta that train of thought and look at this here tombstone. ‘Capt. Richard R. Crawford, died Battle of Gettysburg, 1863.’ Let’s play suppose for a moment.” “Okay,” I said, leaning back on my elbows. “Suppose that on one morning in July of 1863, instead of wakin’ up, shavin’, donnin’ his uniform, and walkin’ out onto the battlefield, a certain confederate rifleman gets ill and starts pukin’ his guts out.” “Supposing that, then maybe Captain Crawford doesn’t get a bullet between the eyes. Maybe he lives a long and healthy life, mows the lawn, has some kids. The future is altered.” “That it is, but in the grand-ole-scheme a things, it’s altered only slightly. Now suppose a certain Yankee politician becomes ill during a particularly contentious national election.” “Lincoln?” I asked. She nodded. “Supposing that, then maybe the South doesn’t secede, maybe slavery continues for a few more decades, maybe Capt. Crawford lives a long and healthy life, mows the lawn, has some kids.” “Same condition—one man becomes ill—but a major difference in its impact.” Jules gestured to the red leaved oak. “Thick branch versus thin branch. For centuries, my family has made their livin’ picking thick branches from between the thin. That’s the deal with scrying. There’s nothin’ more to it.” Scrying…I had heard about the technique. Some students in Alpha focused on it. You stared into a pool of water; the ripples told you stuff. Scrying was like the derivatives market of the magical world. “Sounds cool…can you do me?” Jules chuckled. She took of her spectacles and buffed them on her shirt. “Dieter, my entire life feels like one big inside joke too. I was born barren.” I gulped—Jules had referenced her lady parts—that was unexpected. She caught my expression and rolled her eyes. “Not like that, ya moron. Thank ya very much, but me uterus be workin’ just fine. What I cannot do is scry. The gift plain passed me by.” Her jaw tensed. “I spent my entire childhood preparin’ for a future that didn’t exist…and yes, Dieter, I be quite aware of irony, so please don’t make another one of yer—” “I’m so sorry.” How could I work with someone day in day out, and not know such an important thing about them? “Maybe the future needed you elsewhere,” I offered. Lame, yes, but what the hell was I supposed to say? “That’s obvious ta me now. Obviously, my destiny be ta keep ya from destroyin’ the world.” I laughed. Jules rubbed her brow. “It’s funny, but that’s the first time I’ve mentioned scryin’ since comin’ here.” Jules leaned her head back and rested it against the oak. To want something for so long and not get it, I could understand that. Maybe that’s why she had told me. “Let me give this scrying a try,” I said placing my debit card on my forehead. I screwed my eyes up in mock strain. “I sense a new pair of shoes in your future.” “You’re doing it wrong,” Jules said, placing her own card on her forehead. “I sense three pairs of shoes in my future.” I smiled. “Shall we get to it?” “There be money ta be wasted, Dieter.” Jules hopped up and dusted off the red leaves. “Let me show ya how ta do it proper.” + Jules was a pro. Chapel Street didn’t know what hit it. Two pairs of dress pants, five button downs, three pairs of jeans, and ten t-shirts later, I still had $300 bucks to spend. Now she was leading me down Church Street at a fair clip. “By the gods, Jules,” I said gasping, “you’re some sort of shopping demon. The clerk at the last store looked like she was gonna cry.” Jules shrugged her shoulders. “So what? It’s not my fault her clothing was mispriced.” I struggled to keep up while carrying all the bags. Jules was setting a brutal pace. “One question. Why are we wearing these t-shirts inside out? People are staring.” “It’s a new style. Now hurry, we’re almost out of time.” “Time?” Jules was a pretty bad liar, but she swung into a vintage clothing store before I could follow-up. Like she had been doing all morning, she beehived to one particular rack like she’d sniffed out the sale from a mile away. I caught up to her as she dove in headfirst and began to root about. “A-ha!” She announced from deep within the cottony mass. “Jules,” I whispered, “you’re not supposed to cackle. Cackling is a dead giveaway.” “Oh shush, Dieter. Take these,” she said, tossing back one jacket after another. I was about to protest, when I took a look at them. The women’s jacket was made of hardened white leather, the high-end type designed for riding motorcycles. The leather was soft to the touch but thick enough to take a beating. I used to drool over this stuff at the dirt bike store. It must have been worth something like eight hundred bucks. And the other? It was a badass beat-down copy of those jackets pilots wore during World War I. I sighed. We only had a few hundred bucks left. There was no way we could swing—“Most sacred of craps, Jules!” I exclaimed. “This white one’s only two hundred dollars—and the brown one’s only one fifty!” I looked around for sales clerk. “There’s gotta be some sort of—” “Shh!” Jules hissed. “Just give me yer card and shut yer pie hole.” Not wanting to anger the Apostle of cheap, I handed over my card. “But, Jules, shouldn’t we try them on?” I asked, as she rushed us to the counter. “No need, silly.” The woman at the register did a double take as she rang the jackets up. After a judgmental stare, she walked over to her manager. Jules laughed. “Yes! Yes, I know!” she said to herself. “Um, Jules?” I felt like I was missing out on the joke. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but there was something fishy going on. I’d started to warm up my Sight, when Jules elbowed me in the kidney. “Mind your biz,” she hissed liked a viper. I coddled my thrice-wounded organ. “Why does it always have to be the kidney?” “Oh yea of little faith,” she said, wagging her finger at me. The manager checked the computer, shook his head, and shrugged. The cashier looked crestfallen. “I could have sworn I stocked these,” she moaned. She looked at the motorcycle jacket with forlorn eyes. “Man, this white one is totally awesome. If I had known the price, I would have bought it myself…Hey, why are you two wearing your t-shirts inside out?” “New style,” we said in unison. The deal struck, Jules exited the store in a hurry. “Move your ‘arse, Dieter. We need ta find a pastry shop pronto.” I brightened. “Oh, thank you! Thank you, thank you, thank you! Did you know it’s already one o’clock? I need some sugar, and I need it bad.” “It’s not for you, ya dodo.” Jules broke into a jog, asking for directions as she went. Spotting a viable coffee shop, she burst in and scoured their selection of pastries. “I’ll take one cinnamon roll, two Danishes, and a large frap please…Wait what?…Oh, sure…Extra butter and honey, please.” Still huffing, I said, “Jeeze, Jules, you might be teeny, but your arteries need some love too.” “They’re not for me,” she said slapping down a twenty. “Get me a toasted bagel and meet me over in that alley.” “Whaaa?” I asked. Hands full of death-pastries, Jules rushed out of the coffee shop, crossed the street, and darted into said alley. Trying to take my colleague’s mental collapse in stride, I ordered an espresso and two plain bagels with cream cheese. Ringing up my order, the girl behind the counter gave me a sad smile. “I used to be the same way. Just try and support her through it. She’s only gonna get help when she realizes she needs it. When she does, don’t judge, just be there for her, okay?” “Thanks for the advice,” I said, my cheeks flushing. “I’ve got a feeling the spell’s gonna wear off pretty soon.” The check out girl nodded knowingly. Fuming, I stormed across the street. Jules was crouching at the back of the alley. The casual passerby probably saw just another dumpster diver fishing for recyclables. Me, I saw it for what it was: payment. Fairies. They were in last week’s Elliot Bulletin under “Things not to Dabble With.” So that was why Jules asked the waitress at Patricia’s for those saltine crackers… “Un-freaking-believable,” I muttered to myself. Jules stepped backwards to stand beside me. With the faintest of rustles, a pair of tiny wings fluttered to the ground. The little person attached to them skipped over to the cinnamon roll clapping his hands and giggling with glee. Perhaps it was rude, but I flat-out stared. The creature had pointy ears and clothes that sparkled like morning dew. It was like Walt Disney’s brain had spilled out across the street. It dove head first into the buttery mound. My hand shaking, I downed the espresso and wiped the sweat forming on my brow. “So…” I said uneasily. “They’re real too.” “Shhh,” Jules whispered. “No talkin’ ta the fae. They’re sneaky and you’re stupid. You still have the crackers in yer pocket, dontcha?” I nodded. Satisfied, Jules turned to face her tiny opponent. “Is the contract fulfilled?” Head covered in icing, the live doll bowed slightly and fluttered its wings like a deck of cards. “Then pinky swear it,” Jules said firmly. There was a power in her voice, like when Rei had demanded that coffee on the train. She extended her right pinky, slipped it into her mouth, and flicked it out to the side. The fae tilted its head to the side and snickered. After a moment of hesitation, it mirrored Jules’ motions. I really didn’t like it when that thing giggled—it stroked up and down my spine. “Come on, Dieter. Let’s go,” Jules urged. “‘Kay.” I turned to leave…but couldn’t quite manage it. I mean, the small thingy had freakin’ wings attached to its torso. They were a multicolored dance of paints stirred into water. I couldn’t help but stare. The fae looked back at me with interest. Holding the sweet roll like a bag of laundry, it examined my shoes, sneered at my inverted t-shirt, and then took a gander at my unruly hair. That’s when the creature’s easy expression faltered. A quiver shot through its body, and the tiny fae dropped the sweet roll to the ground. Oh, fuck. I took a step backward. The fae took a step forward. I swallowed. It fluttered into the air. Not fair, I thought. I hadn’t said a word. The fae didn’t come straight for my neck, but instead came to roost atop of the frappuccino, straddling it like a foamy bathtub. “Are ya her childe, then?” it asked in a sweet, fluty voice. “Her?” My knees felt weak. “Her, who?” “But what a strange stink ya bear, little one. Whom be yer sire?” My mother? Had this strange little thing just mentioned my mother? How did it know? I wanted to kneel down and talk to it. I needed to. Maybe the fae could tell me something…something about my mom…something about my past. But I wasn’t moving forward. I was moving backward. Jules had me by the collar. Her feet dug into the asphalt, she was dragging me away with all her might. Out of the alley. Back onto the sidewalk. Beyond the little beastie’s line of sight. “Whoa, Dieter,” Jules said, panting. “I thought you were near immune ta that kinda shite. The little bastard had ya twangled up good, didn’t he?” “Hold the phone,” I said. “First, he? Seriously? And why did you drag me out? The fae said something about my mother. I need to ask him if—” “No, Dieter, the fae said what you wanted ta hear, nothin’ more.” “But, Jules…” I stifled a shiver. It was sunny out. Why was I was shivering? “It’s what they do, Dieter. Capital-A-assholes, they are.” She gently pried the crumpled coffee cup from my hand. “Come on now, I’ll explain.” I nodded, but I still wasn’t right side up. I had to take Jules shoulder for support. It felt like I’d been squeezed like a lime. Jules helped me over to a park bench and promptly tore into her bagel. My own appetite had vanished. “What did you have that little guy doing for you?” “Personal shopper,” Jules said, still chomping. I glared at her. “Let me get this straight. You used a freaking fairy to bargain hunt? Jules, I’ve read the Brothers Grimm. Aren’t the fae supposed to be super freaking dangerous?” “Seriously, Dieter, you really need ta take History of Magic and Bestiary. The Brothers Grimm had ta purify their tales ta get them past the Church’s censors.” “I know, I know, I’m a horribly miss-informed ex-Imperiti. So explain this shit, oh in-the-knowmagus. Birth light into my hazy eyes.” “Well, basically I made a deal,” Jules said, dusting off her bagel. “With a fae? For shoes?” “It’s not as bad as it sounds, Dieter. As long as you fulfill the parameters of the agreement, ya don’t have ta worry about a thing.” “But aren’t they devious?” “Oh, they most certainly are. They’ll steal both kidneys right out from under yer ribs if ya let ‘em. But nowadays we have Polimag, Dieter. We’ve out litigated them.” “Out…” I started massaging my throbbing temples. “Huh?” Jules pulled out a small pocket reference guide: Professor Alfred Simons’ Fae Contracts for Dummies For entertainment purposes only My eyes widened. “Isn’t it dangerous walking around with a book like that? What if it like fell into Imperiti hands or something?” “Honestly, Dieter, do ya think any of the Imperiti would take it seriously?” She giggled. “Professor Simons—Awen claim his soul—made a tidy sum sellin’ these things all across the States. Gag shops love ‘em.” “Hidden in plain sight…you guys seem to love that. So, what was that fae doing for you exactly?” “Us. Doin’ for us. He’s a minor Unseelie fae. There are two general types of fae. The Seelie and the Unseelie. The Seelie are bearable, but the Unseelie are the dredges. They adore disorder. The more harm they cause, the more it shakes their rocks. So I exploited his Unseelie nature, Dieter. I asked him ta find the most egregiously mislabeled merchandise on Chapel Street. He got ta enjoy the frustration of all those shopkeepers; we found the bargains. Still, I had ta be careful. I gifted him snacks so he couldn’t boomerang it.” “Huh?” “The Unseelie are a sneaky lot. Sure, they won’t quit till they fulfill an agreement, but it’s in their nature ta exploit any loopholes in a bargain. When dealin’ with the Unseelie, the best defense is always good offense. Give ‘em somethin’ more important ta worry about. Then they’ll usually leave ya be.” “A frappuccino?” I asked, outraged. “Yup. They love fresh-n-sugary snacks. You know, the usual stuff: warm baked goods, cream, butter, babies. Also, ya want ta keep them from touchin’ yer person. They hate anything stale. They also don’t like clothes worn inside out. Both are like fae kryptonite.” Jules undid the top two buttons of her blouse to reveal a large iron locket. “So is iron.” “Um, I can’t see that too well, could you—” Blushing, Jules leaned forward and smacked me upside the head. “Wanker,” she growled. “Honestly, you complain about me being reckless, but contracts with the fae? Don’t they have a reputation of enslaving talented, handsome, young men like myself? You risked your charge, Julesy.” “Well then, Mr. Cautious, I’ll just return this authentic WWI flight jacket—” “It’s real?” Visions of the Red Baron danced through my head. I clutched back my prize greedily. “Fine, you’re forgiven.” Jules started cackling again. (Frankly, she did it a little too well.) I checked my watch. Our fae-driven high-speed shopping session had saved a ton of time. “Hey Jules, I’ve got about one-fifty left on my card. I still need to pick up PJ’s and undies, but we have till 11PM, right? What do you say we grab dinner and a movie with the rest? I owe you big time, after all.” Jules beamed. “Hey, Dieter, boxer or briefs?” “Quiet, wench, that’s a trade secret.” Laughing, we went looking for a department store. + “Are you serious,” I asked. “Yeppers!” I kicked my shoe into the ground a few more times, sighed, and went up to the ticket counter. “Two for Harry Potter, please.” The pimpled teenager behind the counter squinted at me. “Are you sure, sir? It is rated PG-13.” I had just enough mana to…“Ha-ha-ha. Good one. It’s for my little sister over there. She’s not all that well in the head.” I leaned forward and whispered, “She thinks she’s a witch.” The attendant passed me the two tickets. “Sorry, man,” he managed. Two hours later we stumbled out into the night. “Awen’s Ghost, that Bill Weasley is so hot. I would love ta ride his broomstick all night—” “Jules!” I yelled, sheltering my virgin ears. “Oops!” She smirked. “Double-entendre, huh?” “And then some. Thanks for the image. By-the-way, can we actually do that?” “Broomsticks?” Jules strummed her chin. “In theory, yea…but do you have any idea how cold it would get? Yer eyeballs would probably freeze straight through.” Jules frowned. “I don’t think it would be a good idea ta mention this concept in front of Roster.” I shuddered at the thought. “Don’t worry, I hate heights. Let’s go get dinner.” “Heck, yea,” Jules said pumping her fist. “It’s apizza time!” I shook my head. “You mean it’s pizza time. I swear, Jules, sometimes we don’t speak the same English.” “No, apizza be a New Haven tradition. Come hither, neophyte.” Jules grabbed my hand and led me to a nearby parlor. She ordered something called a “white clam pie,” and we sat down outside to test out the new jackets. “Clams, Jules? I don’t know how they do things over on the Isles, but where I’m from, we don’t put clams on our pizza.” I crossed my arms in disgust. She had spent our last forty-five bucks on that abomination. “Yea, ya probably settle for dirt and prickles on a slab of sandstone. Don’t be barkin’ at what ya haven’t bitten.” The portly chef brought the steaming hot pie out himself. It smelled vaguely of heaven. “Jules, darling,” he said. “Haven’t seen you in months. We were worried you defected to Pepe’s!” “Oi!” Jules looked suitably aghast. “I’d never, Sal! It’s the bloody workload. Haven’t had the time ta swing into town, I’m a’fraid.” “Well study hard, dear—and you there,” he said, threatening me with his oversized spatula, “you make sure you take care of this one, you hear?” “Yes, sir,” I said, awkwardly. “Best tutor I ever had.” The chef winked at me as he shuffled back inside. When I went to ask Jules what that was all about, I found that she was already chomping down on her first slice. There was no hope of talking after that. Best cheese and crust I’d ever had. Ten minutes later, I came back up for air. “Good call, Jules.” “See, I told ya it was the best. Why ya ever doubt my wisdom baffles my—” As Jules’s eyes widened, I already knew it was too late. I couldn’t sense anything dangerous with my Sight, but I was already kicking myself. There was a war on, people were dying left and right, and here we were goofing off in the middle of New Haven. Stars above, how reckless could we be? If Rei had seen what I was up to, she would have punched me in the gut again—and I would have deserved it. In the few seconds I had, I struggled to build up my will. I tried to work out the angles. How could I best shield Jules? Maybe I could tip over the table. That way I could shelter her from the first volley…My jaw tightened. Like a table would stop whatever was about to be thrown at us. “Oh. My. Gods.” Jules stammered. “Is that, is that Rei?” Huh? I eased the pent up mana back into the ground, leaving singed concrete behind. Satisfied I wasn’t going to blow up my new favorite pizza parlor, I turned to look over my shoulder. It was Rei. She was walking down the cat—sidewalk in five-inch black heels. Her long black dress clung tight enough to give just the right hints. A group of tourists decided they were better off safe rather than sorry. They held up their oversized cameras and fired off a few shots. Rei’s sunglasses slapped back the flashes, and she flicked her hair dismissively. The sidewalk devolved into slow-motion chaos. Folks just stopped what they were doing to stare. I shook my head. They should have been wondering why such a tall, thin girl could wear nothing more than a satin dress on such a cold autumn evening, but they were too busy going gaga. Rei appeared indifferent to it all. She checked her watch and gestured to the two men following her. “She has an entourage?” I asked. There had to be a dozen bags from all the places the wealthy went to incinerate money. “Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me,” Jules muttered. Taking note of us, Rei paused her procession and walked over. I did my best to keep my eyes from straying—but that black dress was like a handful of flares to the face. “Dieter. Druid,” she said, bowing slightly. “So this is where the two of you ran off to.” “Out shopping I see,” Jules replied tersely. Her eyes were locked on the bag labeled “Prada”. “Indeed. However, I fear the pickings were poor. I do find these boutiques lacking, but my request to travel to New York was denied.” Did that mean Rei could afford to take a train ride on a whim? Stars above… “We just finished up our debit cards,” I said stupidly. “I too. I bought this respectable pair of heels. Do you like them?” “Humph,” Jules said, inspecting her nails. “Well, I guess ya can’t expect all of us ta manage our money properly. I bought everything you see with my card.” “Indeed,” Rei said. She covered her mouth and yawned. “It shows.” Jules turned the same shade of red my dad did the time I dumped his stash of bourbon down the drain. “And I see we are stretchin’ the Tenets to their limits as usual,” she growled. The two men carrying her bags stared at Rei dreamily. Their shoulders were a bit too slack. Their attention a bit too focused. “Nonsense,” Rei retorted. “I merely asked these gentlemen for some assistance. Believe it or not, Druid, men actually enjoy assisting certain women in their labors. But you would be unfamiliar with such customs, wouldn’t you, Ms. Twigs-and-Berries?” I laughed uneasily at Rei’s Brillo pad-esk comedic stylings. Worse, passersbys weren’t passing by anymore. About a dozen people had stopped to watch this little tiff play out. Recalling the portion of the rulebook covering corporeal punishment for Public Displays of Magic, I said, “Ladies, ladies, ixnay on the ireworks-fay in front of the Imperiti-way.” The two of them ignored me. They seemed intent on staring one another into the ground. Two construction workers started hollering for the requisite catfight. Visions of beer commercials were probably flashing through their heads. The men hadn’t factored in the part where the two little ladies flatten the entire block. I moved quickly around the railing to the sidewalk. As crazy as it might sound, I felt way more confident I could drag Rei off Jules than Jules off Rei. My eyes pleading, I whispered in her ear, “I’ll carry the damn bags. Let’s just get the hell out of here.” Rei stumbled backwards like I’d just slapped her in the face. “Mi a kurvak faszat!” she screeched, and let loose a hacking cough. I stood frozen in place, utterly baffled. “Nice one, Dieter,” Jules said with a laugh. Gasping, Rei hobbled backwards on her brand new heels and toppled into the gutter. “What?” I asked, raising my hands into the air. “What did I do?” “Todd,” one of the bagmen asked, “how the heck did we end up here?” The other man shook his head clear. “No idea.” He checked his fine Swiss watch. “Look how late…who’s manning the shop?” “Oh God!” the other screamed. Dropping Rei’s bags, the two of them sprinted down the street. All the while, Rei continued to stumble around like a buffoon. “What did I do?” I asked again. Rei pointed a shaky finger at me. “You consumed one of those accursed pizzas, didn’t you?” “What? Yea, I ate a clam one with Jules. So what?” Rei fumbled for something in her purse, while Jules continued to cackle her head off. I frowned at her. Rei looked like she was having an asthma attack. I didn’t get what could possibly be funny about that. Still laughing, Jules walked over and whispered, “Arlic-gay, Dieter.” “Garlic!” I exclaimed. “Wait, that’s real too?” “Yes, you imbecile,” Rei croaked. She pulled out a big black marker from her bag and yanked the cap off with her teeth. This motion exposed the mother of all needles. I swallowed. I hated needles. I really, really, hated needles. Gritting her teeth, Rei jabbed her EpiPen straight through her pricy dress. Grimacing, she held the needle in her thigh as the epinephrine dumped into her bloodstream. “Anaphylactic shock? You’re that allergic to garlic?” Rei nodded as she crunched four Benadryl tablets with her teeth. I covered my face and mumbled ten to twenty curses into the palm of my hand. Thankfully, Jules had finally noticed the crowd. “Wonderful,” she muttered. “Dieter, grab her bags. I’ll go pay the bill.” I nodded grimly. + We walked back to the train station single-file, Rei a distant third. “Sorry,” I mumbled for about the fifteenth time. Clunking along ahead of us, Rei itched at her swollen ear. “Rejected,” she replied coolly. On the train, she sat in the adjoining car from where she lobbed the occasional wet cat glare. “I feel like an asshole,” I said to Jules as we sped out of New Haven. “Why do ya care so much? It’s not like it was gonna kill her. You can hit a drainer with a bus. A few garlic flakes aren’t gonna do the deed. And besides, she’s always messin’ with people.” Jules fidgeted in her seat. “Serves her right for shavin’ Monique’s hair last night.” I sighed. “Monique wanted to get her ass kicked last night.” Jules scrunched up her face. “What are ya talkin’ about?” “Come on. Monique was feeling terrible. She ordered Sheila out, and Sheila got her ass handed to her. Then she froze up and Roster got cracked. Rei was only—” “Why, Dieter? Why do ya always defend her?” “Jules, I don’t always defend her. It’s just that—” “It’s because ya like her, isn’t it?” “We’re…” Jules had caught me off guard, but explaining that our souls were kinda stuck together didn’t sound like a good idea. For a few seconds I didn’t know how to respond. “New York was… hard. Rei and I…she was there in a big way for me. I’ll never forget that. But we’re just friends, Jules.” Anything beyond that was craziness. “Nope. I’ve seen it before. She has ya under her spell. Folks get all silly in the head around them.” Jules shook her head in disgust. “Dieter Resnick, you’re a thicko, ya know that? She’s all polite and charmin’ on the outside, but that’s the outside. One time, my gran and I…” Jules bit her lip. “You haven’t seen what I’ve seen. You have no idea what those animals are capable of. None.” I ran a thumb over the thick scar tissue on my palm. “Yes I do,” I said grimly. “And so far, it hasn’t been any worse than what I’ve done. You said it yourself, Jules, we do whatever it takes to survive. They’re no different.” “That’s not what I meant. Ya don’t know what it’s like in the Fiefs. Dieter, they treat the Imperiti there like cattle. They’re nothin’ but leeches. They’d be better off gone.” “And who are you to make that call?” I asked, my voice rising. “From what I can tell, every race in this perverted little sideshow called the Conscious is nearing extinction, but all anybody ever talks about is wiping one another out.” I threw up my hands. “You people are freaking crazy.” “Ya don’t get it,” Jules said stubbornly. “You’re absolutely right, Jules—and it’s something I never want to get.” Chapter 6 WRIGHT THE SHIP I planned to spend Sunday sitting under a tree. Yea, it was freakin’ freezing outside—but that was kinda the idea. Cold meant alone, and alone sounded awesome. I threw on my new coat and robe, requisitioned a space heater from the outdoors club, grabbed an interesting looking book from the library, and headed out onto Elliot lawn. Last night had gone splendid. Rei didn’t want to talk to me, Jules hadn’t stopped yelling at me, and the rest of Lambda was in a funk. While we had gone shopping, the rest of the squad had spent all Saturday annoying the shit out of each other in the basement. By the time we got back, they were ornery as hell. On the positive side, Roster was up and walking again. On the negative side, Roster was up and talking again. Sadie’s case was graver. She was spending this chilly Sunday morning getting a second batch of skin grafts. After brushing a table clear of leaves, I fired up the heater and sat down to read. The random book of the day was Dalton’s Elements of Mass Effect Spells, a charming discourse on big-bang magic. It was kick-butt stuff: human sacrifices, plagues, and a great deal of smiting thine enemies with molten debris. (Did you know that for the low cost of twenty thousand souls you could be the proud owner of a Kraken?) I was an hour into mastering the dark arts when I heard the crunch of footsteps on the frozen grass behind me. It was Dean Albright. He was trudging over with his own book in hand. “Hello, Mr. Resnick.” Dean Albright was dressed in his usual finery. He wore a trim black suit and matching overcoat. He’d ditched the tie, though—a modest concession to the weekend. My head still buried in Dalton’s, I said, “You shall answer me three questions first, or we shall not chat.” “Okay…?” he said, scratching his wavy black hair. “First question: are you sane?” “Um, yes,” he answered. “Second question: are you allergic to garlic?” “Nope, only penicillin.” “Third question: do you come bearing gifts?” Albright grinned and pulled a thermos out of his heavy overcoat. “Access granted. Feel free to have a seat.” I closed my book and placed it on the table. The lamentation of the women and children would have to wait. “What’s up, doc?” “Nothing new. I’m just checking in. How’s Spinoza been treating you?” “Well he hasn’t killed anyone yet—but Friday was only his first day. I’m sure that if you just give him a bit more time he’ll deliver a body bag or two.” Albright poured out some coffee. “That tough, huh?” “Nah, he just smashed Sheila’s head into the cement, broke some of Roster bones, sucker punched Ichijo, rearranged Dante’s shoulder, and made Monique cry. He’s a featherweight, really.” “Good,” Albright said with a nod. I raised my eyes from my cup. “You approve?” I asked. “Of course, son. I designed the program.” I set down my coffee. “Mind enlightening me?” “Let me ask you a question.” Albright slid closer to the heater, cupped his hands, and soaked up the warmth. It was the first time I ever noticed them. They were both covered in scars. It looked like Albright had stuck them into a weed whacker a few years back. “You have survived two engagements thus far. Why do you think that is?” I didn’t even need to think. “Luck. I had no idea what I was doing. I was just flying by the seat of my pants.” Albright shook his head. “I disagree. In both instances, the enemy should have easily overpowered you. Luck might have saved you once, but not twice. And, son, we’re not even considering the original incident.” I shrugged and buried my head in my cup. Albright waited patiently for me to finish. “What can I tell you?” I said, finally. “Seat of my pants. I didn’t have any skills. I still don’t. I just tried to hit people when they weren’t looking.” “Exactly, son. You’re unpredictable. Would you ever try to go blow for blow with Roster? No. Would you ever try to force your way past one of Sadie’s fortifications? No. In every one of your fights, you have never once gone toe-to-toe with your enemy. You have zero faith that you can overcome an adversary through brute force, so you try something else.” “I’m sorry, but are you calling me a coward?” “Of course not,” Dean Albright said with a laugh. “Cowards run away—something you should consider doing more often, actually. No, son. I’m calling you a tactical fighter. You understand something fundamental about combat: full-frontal assaults only work if your opponent is both weak and stupid. Combat is not playtime. If you fail, you do not merely merit a failing mark. Your comrades are overrun. The people you care about die. In real combat, failure means you are left with a burden you cannot bear. And you don’t get to go cry in a corner. There isn’t going to be a corner left for you.” I shifted uneasily. “Son, a real battlefield lacks dignity and honor. When lives are being spent—actual human lives— those high-minded concepts lose their meaning. All that matters is victory. If you have blades, you’ll use blades. If you have rocks, you’ll use rocks. If there’s nothing but sand, you’ll throw the damn sand. A true war is only waged when men don’t want to live to see what failure looks like. You do what it takes to win. You go wherever necessity takes you.” I sat in stunned silence as he spoke. This wasn’t the Joseph Albright I knew. This wasn’t the affable dean of student affairs. This was an Albright from another time and place. He spoke of blades. When exactly was the last time blades were used in combat? “As a counterpoint, consider the arrogance Ms. Bathory displayed in New York,” he offered. I bristled. “Sir, she saved my life in New York.” “No, Dieter. You saved hers.” “W-what?” I stammered. “Tell me, son. Why did Ms. Bathory challenge them in hand-to-hand combat in a well-lit warehouse? Why did she erase every single advantage she has at her disposal?” “She…” I frowned. “Okay, good point.” “Heightened senses. Stealth. Speed. Training since childhood in all manners of combat. You have no conception of the technical proficiency Theodus expects from his broodlings. She was memorizing battle formations while you were still in diapers. So why did Ms. Bathory select a battlefield that erased every last one of her strengths?” “I think…” I examined the crisp brown leaves above my head. They didn’t offer much insight. I bit my lip. Was it all right to even say this? “For the thrill of it?” Albright nodded. “It is good to see that your respect for Ms. Bathory has not clouded your judgment. Pride and arrogance—their race is full of it. Their confidence is both their greatest strength and their greatest weakness. The princess must master hers if she is to thrive.” Princess. That’s what Dante kept calling her… Albright seemed to know the answers Rei refused to give, he could probably tell me all about her, but I needed a change of subject even more. Any talk of New York risked exposing our accidental partnering. In fact, it almost felt like Albright was playing on that curiosity, baiting me forward into a trap. I passed on the chance and went for the dodge. “So, Friday’s lesson…the purpose of that smack-down was what, exactly?” Albright ran his worn fingers through the steam rising off his cup. “A wake-up call. Like Ms. Bathory, most of your Lambda squadmates rely on main force to carry them through their duels. Don’t get me wrong, son. They are all extremely talented—but therein lies the rub. Power breeds arrogance, and arrogance breeds complacency. There is a counter to every punch, no matter how potent and well crafted that punch may be. Those in need of such a lesson were broken and humiliated. At the same time, the most tentative members of the squad—the ones that Monique never even considered calling on—were forced to watch as their comrades were injured. They learned the true cost of weakness. Weakness forces you to stand by as those around you are harmed. It is a bitter lesson. One some responded quite well to.” “Dante and Sadie?” I asked. Albright nodded. “How about Ichijo? Did you think he’s too benevolent?” “Something like that.” “And Monique?” “For Monique, the lesson was a simple one: if she wants to lead, she cannot look at her subordinates as people. Subordinates are tools. Tools to complete one’s objective with.” Albright swept some of the snow off the table and set down his book. “If they must be spent, they must be spent.” “That’s harsh.” “Like when you told Jules to set off the fire alarm. What if your diversion had been insufficient?” “Hey, I didn’t…” I felt like I was going to be ill. “I didn’t think Jules would get hurt.” “Nor did you consider it. It didn’t even enter into your mental calculus, did it? You were monofocused on your objective. You decided the priority was to alert the dorms before your colleagues were killed. Collateral damage? Risk to yourself or your teammate? You didn’t consider those factors. You chose the path you thought had the maximum probability of success, compartmentalized your feelings, executed your plan, and dealt with the emotional baggage later. As in New York, every action you took was hard to predict. But you also learned from your errors. This time, every strike you chose was overwhelming.” Albright chuckled to himself. “You traded in your pipe for a pipe bomb. No wonder you fascinate her. You two are like the opposite sides of the same coin.” I stared across this table. This man…he’d talked to me jovially over dozens of cups of coffee. Discussions of biology and chemistry. Debates about the feasibility of the Death Star. I had felt so comfortable around him. Thought of him as a kindly academic. This was a bit too much to swallow. “Sir, I’m sorry, but if that’s all…” Albright raised his hands in surrender. “Of course, of course. I interrupted your studies. All I wanted to do was stop by and say hello.” He stood up and fluffed up his coat. “It’s gonna be a cold one this year.” “How can you tell?” “When you get to see two hundred of them, you’ll be able to see it in the trees.” And just like that, dean of student affairs headed back across the lawn. I stood. Damn it, I couldn’t help but bite. “Dean Albright,” I shouted. “What about Jules and Maria? You didn’t test either of them.” He turned around and smiled. “Sure I did. The only one I didn’t get around to was you.” He gave his sides a rub. “Now cold is cold. I’m heading inside for some chili. Adios, compadre.” “What the fuck,” I muttered. “Did I not ask that bastard if he was sane or not?” And what kind of East Coast liberal eats chili, anyway? I plopped back down on the picnic bench. Wanting to get Albright out of my head as soon as possible, I took up my book and turned back to page forty. The words were all in Spanish. Confused, I checked the binding: Lágrimas de Montezuma, by Diego C. Escutia “What the heck?” I whined. “Where’d my book of mass death go?” This one was old and moth eaten. It smelled of mushrooms and soot. I flipped to the publishing info at the front: Mexico City, 1850 “Wow,” I muttered. Escutia’s book was the oldest book I’d ever held. And it had a dedication too. In an elegant, looping script, the following words were written: Kit, May your hands never wash clean. Escutia I stared at the little green book and frowned. This couldn’t have been an accident. Albright must have switched them on purpose. I placed the thin volume into one of my robe’s ample outer pockets and gathered up my things. Whatever his motive, Albright had pricked my interest. I needed a Spanish-English dictionary and some reference books on the Mexican-American War. “To the library!” I shouted (to no one in particular) and headed towards the giant bronze doors. + One of the benefits of kitchen work is you’re bound to pick up some Spanish. Unfortunately, kitchen banter and nerd speak rarely overlap. Phrases like “it is my contention” and “thus altering the course of human history” were a bit beyond me. It took me a few hours of translating before I settled into a rhythm. Lágrimas de Montezuma was a historical account of a particularly nasty battle that occurred during the Mexican-American War. The engagement was a brutal hand-to-hand affair on the outskirts of Mexico City near the end of the final great war for the West. On September 13, 1847, 13,000 Americans faced off against 4,000 Mexican regulars under the command of General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. During the previous week, the Mexican forces had received a crushing blow at Molino del Rey, leaving the approach to Chapultepec Castle open to attack. Chapultepec Castle was crucial to the Mexican defense. If it were taken, the nation’s capital would be open to bombardment by artillery. To this day, the Battle of Chapultepec has special meaning for the armed forces of both the United States and Mexico. The first line in the American Marine Corps' hymn, “From the Halls of Montezuma,” is a reference to Chapultepec Castle. There’s good reason for the Marines to remember it: 90% of their men died in combat that day. That factoid made my next discovery all the more interesting: Chapultepec Castle was Mexico’s military academy. Mexico’s forces were in dire straits. Mexico City was about to be overrun, and the defending armies were scattered across the countryside. Pressed for time, General Santa Anna was forced to scramble. He ordered the 200 or so cadets training at the academy into the fight. And perhaps the term “cadet” is a bit misleading. These weren’t college students; their average age was sixteen. I flipped through the pages of Diego Escutia’s book in amazement. The American roster read like a greatest hits album of the American Civil War: Robert E. Lee helped plan the assault; George Pickett’s squad was assigned the task of breaching the castle’s walls; and a lieutenant by the name of Ulysses S. Grant single-handedly climbed a freaking bell tower, captured the enemy’s howitzer, and rained hell down upon its defenders. I shook my head in disbelief. I had no idea Rambo served a term as president. But Lágrimas de Montezuma was really the story of the 200 cadets. As the assault began, the cadets were ordered to defend the castle along with the rest of the regular army. They fought bravely, and—to the surprise of many—they repulsed the initial advance. But it was not destined to be their day. The Americans were well-trained veterans, and they retained a particularly tenacious group of combat engineers. It was during the quiet after the first wave that things went all to hell. Heavy smoke blotted out the sun, and in a daring move, George Pickett’s engineers snuck within range and overcame the walls. As the first shots were fired, chaos erupted in the Mexican ranks. A mixture of inexperience and wretched leadership allowed the battle lines to fall into total disarray. The fight descended into handto-hand, room-to-room slaughter. Some of the regulars fell back. Others found themselves cornered and surrendered. Sensing the battle was lost, the commander of the fortess ordered all the cadets to withdraw. Most of the cadets disobeyed him, choosing to stand and fight. Among them were six of the youngest. They believed they had a higher responsibility, and they headed for the stairs. The rest was a cascade of human tragedy. According to Escutia’s account, the boys fell one after another as they struggled to press further and further into the overrun structure. Only the last two survived to the stairs. Exhausted—and with an American squad right on their heels—the two raced to the roof. Why was everyone charging to the top of the structure? Why were the American forces bothering to chase children through an already captured castle? To me, the answer was remarkable: They were fighting over a piece of cloth. Escutia collected the rest of the story from American soldiers’ first hand accounts: Reaching the rooftop, the officer in charge ordered the cadets to surrender. The last two boys, a Francisco Márquez, age 13, and a Juan Escutia, age 16, again refused to yield. Márquez was seen to nod at Escutia. Escutia then nodded at Márquez, and using his own body as a shield, lunged into the Americans’ waiting bayonets. The soldiers were so stunned by the act that one of them ended up shot by his own gun. But Márquez’s sacrifice wasn’t for that purpose. It was merely to buy Juan Escutia time. Time to pull the Mexican colors from the flag poll. Time to wrap the tattered cloth about his body. Time to leap off the side of the building. Looking down from the high tower, the Americans soldiers found Escutia’s crumpled body in the jagged rocks below, still wrapped in the Mexican colors. What had led to this madness? Why had these young boys decided to throw away their lives? It was simple really. Since they were very little, these six boys had been taught that battles could be won or lost, but a brave man—a heroic man— never surrendered the colors. The battle itself ended in a rout. The Americans were mortaring Mexico City proper by the evening. By February of the next year, all of Mexico had capitulated. They lost 55% of their territory (aka: Wyoming, California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico), and in return, Mexico was given a token payment of 18 million dollars. The records did not state whether the Mexican leadership was forced to pick the banknotes up off the floor, but later in life, Ulysses S. Grant, the hero of the Battle of Chapultepec, stated that in his opinion the Mexican-American War was “one of the most unjust wars ever waged on a weaker nation by a stronger one.” It’s also why my native tongue is English rather than Spanish. I was mulling that strange thought over in my head when I reached the last page of Escutia’s book. There he had written the following dedication: Dedicada a Juan Carrera Escutia, mi hermano valiente. Volar libre. My blood ran cold. Juan Carrera Escutia. I closed the book with a shudder. Juan Carrera Escutia, the boy who leapt to his death, was Diego Carrera’s brother. Diego Carrera was the head of Talmax…how on earth had Albright managed to dig this up? And more importantly, how on earth was Carrera still alive? I counted the numbers on my fingers. To have written this book, Carrera had to be nearly 200 years old now. Wow. And who the hell was this Kit? There was no mention of any Kit in this book. Why had Carrera given him a copy? My watch beeped signaling 11PM. The last fourteen hours had gone by in a blur. Albright had given me Carrera’s motive, but I had no idea what to do with the lovely little info-nugget. Bleary eyed, I flipped off the desk light and stumbled out of the library. Any more probing would have to wait. I had promised to meet Dante for dinner. He was having lady trouble. + I found Dante in the cafeteria. He looked to be on the mend, but Sundays were Salisbury steak night, and I expressed my deep concern that such poison might make him sicker. Dante didn’t seem worried. He was devouring them like pancakes. “The medics say I’ll need one more week in the brace. Jules is actually pretty talented. It’s thanks to her that it’s healing faster.” “That’s good to hear.” My stomach groaned. “Stars above, Dante, I think the steak’s mounting a counterattack.” Dante smiled. “I guess I’m used to it. The Slump hit Kentucky pretty hard. You wouldn’t believe the stuff my family had to fry up. This is heaven compared to home.” I grabbed my belly and groaned. “Well it sure might send you to heaven. I’m switchin’ to spuds.” Dante chuckled. “So how’d the date go?” he asked. Taters shot out my nose. “Oh, lordy, I love doing that,” he said, laughing. “Date?” I gasped. “What date?” Dante rolled his eyes. “Are you dense? The dinner and the movie with Jules.” He shook his head sadly. “And here I thought I was gonna get up the nerve to ask Sheila out first.” “It wasn’t a date,” I said hurriedly. “We had to go shopping, Dante. I didn’t even have a spare pair of underwear. It’s just that at the end of the day I had some extra cash, and—” “And so you said, ‘Hey there little lady, would you like to go out for supper and a movie?’” I frowned. “Did I get it about right?” “No. Well, yes. But it wasn’t like that. We went to see Harry Potter: Auror Squad 4.” It was Dante’s turn to spit food. “‘Arry? ‘Arry Potter?” He started laughing. I shrugged. “She likes the books.” “Then you must like her a whole lot more. To sit through that? Oh, bud, you are sunk.” “Seriously, Dante,” I said, waving my arms and laughing, “I don’t like Rei that way! We’re just friends…but I will say one thing. The food at Hogwarts sure looked better than this slop.” I noticed Dante was looking at me kinda funny. “What?” I asked. “Dieter, who was talking about Rei?” “No one was. We were talking about Jules.” He shook his head. “Bud, you just said, and I shall repeat: ‘I don’t like Rei that way.’” “Oh.” Freud me. My ears felt hot. Why had I mixed up their names? It must have been all that translating. I really needed to rest my eyes. Dante leaned forward, squinting. “No way.” His eyes widened. “No freakin’ way!” An evil grin grew across his face. “You can’t be serious. Bud, you are aware she’s a vampire, correct?” I buried my head in my hands. “Yea, I figured that part out. And yea, I know what you mean, they make real bad kissers.” “What!” Dante exclaimed. Heads around the cafeteria snapped in our direction. There was gossip afoot, and woe to the Elliotite that missed it. I mimed for Dante to be quiet. He leaned forward and whispered, “You did what?” “Nothing. Nothing at all. Comment withdrawn.” He raised an eyebrow. “Bud, you better spill, or I’ll hide your precious new underwear somewhere you’ll never find them.” I frowned. I was really attached to my underwear—they were hole free. “Fine. But I swear, Dante, if you tell anyone, I’m not the only one who’s getting killed.” “Bud, I come from a border state, a fanger will probably get my goose anyway. Now spill.” “It was the day after the raid. I went for a walk after the briefing. Stuff happened. I wasn’t thinking clearly, and I um…I kissed her.” “Well?” Dante asked, leaning even closer. “How was it?” I shrugged. “It sucked.” Dante gave both sides of my neck a casual glance. “Un-freaking believable. I can’t even manage a date and here you are with two on the line. Next you’re gonna tell me you’ve got a Were on the side.” He frowned and cradled his head, then squinted and pointed at me accusingly. “If Rei ghouls you, you better not eat my guts.” I blinked. “Hold the phone. Ghouls are real too?” “Honestly, Dieter, you really oughta consider taking History of Magic, and maybe Bestiary too.” “So I’m told…but seriously?” “Well, you are unfailingly loyal…” Noting that my face was going ivory, Dante added, “But a ghoul is a carrion eater. They’re powered by pounding down rotten flesh—not pancakes. Plus, if you were Rei’s ghoul, there’d be no way you could have disobeyed one of her compulsions. Remember your “Adrian!” moment? If a ghoul was given an order like that, it’d just sit there like a puppy. Oh, and your frank and beans would have fallen off too.” I double-checked. All was well on the southern front. “Ghouls and Weres…” I shook my head. “Never would have believed it. Speaking of which, when are you gonna ask Sheila out?” Dante shrank down. “I don’t know, man. It’s freakin’ hard. I kinda freeze up when I’m with her. Plus, I can’t decide where to take her. What kind of date would Sheila Mordred want to go on exactly?” I scratched my head. What would Sheila like to do? A romantic incursion into a goblin lair came to mind. “Does she have any hobbies?” “Well, she’s the captain of the fencing team, a member of the trebuchet club, and—” “How about a movie?” “Yea,” Dante said, nodding. “Yea, a movie, that sounds…safe.” “Dante, my friend, we are surrounded on all sides by dangerous women.” “Tell me about it.” + I rubbed my stomach. Salisbury steak night had not been kind. Spinoza paced back-and-forth with his clipboard. His long riding coat flapped around behind him. It was like a pseudo-cape. I had always hoped capes would make a comeback. This guy was giving me hope. “Forty-five days. We have forty-five days.” I looked at the remnants of Lambda Squad. Sadie was picking at the enormous wrap around her right arm. Roster was slouching on his cot. Sheila and Dante were re-adjusting one another’s ice packs…how romantic. “Ms. Rice,” Spinoza growled. “Can you please tell me what happens in forty-five days?” “We go active, sir. We travel to Las Vegas. We investigate Carrera’s organization. We find evidence of ACT, and we deliver that evidence to an ICE representative. That would be you, I presume?” “Correct. And how do you intend to achieve that objective?” “Sir?” Monique asked. “You have just over a month to prepare for this mission. You are in command, Ms. Rice. I am but a consultant. What is your plan?” Monique frowned. Spinoza threw his pencil against the ground. “Never mind. Mr. Resnick, what would you do?” I jumped at the question. I was sitting next to Jules on one of the cots. It was ten in the morning, and I was still struggling to wake up. Spinoza’s question caught me off guard. “Sir?” I asked. “What would you do, Mr. Resnick? The people in this room are your resources. Tell me how you would achieve this objective.” I was about to tell Spinoza to shove it when Jules elbowed me in the kidney (again). “Ouch! Well, sir, um, judging by that DEA slideshow, if we confronted Talmax head-on, we’d probably all get killed.” “Are you suggesting a covert action?” “I guess so…” Covert sounded better than Custer’s last charge. “But something’s been nagging me about Talmax. Both times we’ve fought them, we’ve only had to face a single mage. The rest of the men looked like hired guns. I think that makes Talmax vulnerable.” “How so,” Spinoza asked. “Well…” “I get what he means,” Monique said. “Dieter is saying that Talmax is an organization with a small, loyal coven and lots of hired help. They aren’t going to work for free. Carrera has to pay them. But Carrera can only trust his coven to do the paying. That means the mages are the ones using ACT devices and handling the cash. If we want to find ACT devices, all we have to do is track the flow of drug money back to its source.” “Good,” Spinoza said. “Now develop your plan, Ms. Rice.” “We want a small footprint on the ground so we don’t attract attention. That means we should divide the squad up into smaller teams: an insertion team to go undercover and gather information, a tactical team ready on standby, a containment team to recover a device, and…” Monique frowned. “Darn it. We need some way of getting the team out fast. We can use surprise to catch them off guard, but it would be only a matter of time before they ran us down.” Spinoza turned to Maria. “Mija…” “Don’t call me mija,” she retorted. “Spinoza’s her father?” I asked Jules. Jules nodded. “Bad divorce.” I smirked. Espinoza was like ex-Spinoza. It was stupid—but it probably drove daddy crazy. Spinoza cleared his throat. “Fine. Maria, what is your current range with a two meter aperture?” “Five hundred meters.” “Whoa. Awesome,” I interjected. Find me a nerd who doesn’t want to teleport, and I’ll give you a million dollars. Maria blushed. “But I need line of sight…unless you want to end up like that Talmax squad did in Colorado.” Roster coughed, “Paella.” “That was six thousand kilometers,” Maria shot back. “And you don’t get to keep bringing that up anymore, Mr. Faceplant.” “Ah, I remember your mother’s paella,” Spinoza said wistfully. “And I remember catching you with your secretary.” What could I say? The girl was on a roll. “Maria, you said you needed a direct line of sight. Is there any way around that?” “Linked circles,” Jules replied. “You set up one circle at the origin and chalk down another at the target. That provides a focus point.” Maria nodded. “Then we’d only be limited by my mana reserves. If Jules or Sadie did the other circle, I could do ten kilometers, no problem.” “Very good,” Spinoza said, “Give me your assignments, Ms. Rice. We shall form training plans accordingly.” “Okay. Dieter, you’re from Las Vegas. I’m putting you, Dante, Rei and Jules on the insertion team; Roster, Sheila and myself will be on tactical; Ichijo and Sadie will handle the ACT; and Maria, you’re in charge of getting us in and out of this mess. “Hold on,” Sadie said standing up, “I want to be on the strike team.” I raised an eyebrow. She’d said it with such a focused determination in her voice. Burning all the skin off her right arm didn’t seem to have phased Sadie one bit. Spinoza frowned. “Ms. Thompson, my condolences, but I will remind you that this mission is not about obtaining vengeance. It is about obtaining evidence. If you get me that evidence—I assure you —I will be your very own St. Michael.” Sadie didn’t flinch. “Sir, Ichijo doesn’t need my help with containment, and no one on the strike team can do mid-range casts.” “Ms. Thompson, your involvement would be unwise,” Spinoza said shaking his head. I thought back to my conversation with Rei on the train. About the importance of mages keeping their opponents at a distance. We couldn’t just throw Roster and Sheila at them like pawns. Not if we hoped to get everyone out the door in the end. “Sir, I think Sadie’s right. We need something like a machine gun, something to lay down cover. If we don’t have that, we’re gonna get chewed up at the exit.” Sheila shifted her icepack. “Dieter is correct. A portal is exactly like a landing zone. Without suppressing fire, we would be extremely vulnerable during entry and exit. Sadie’s new technique is perfect for that…as long as she doesn’t cut Roster and me down from behind.” “I won’t,” Sadie said with confidence. “I swear on my parents’ names I’ll be ready.” Spinoza shrugged. “If Dregs and Mordred are fine with having that blowtorch at their backs, I don’t give a damn.” He tapped his clipboard. “Bueno. Let us begin. Mr. Resnick, how’s the shoulder?” I moved it around in its socket. It actually felt pretty good. Hard to believe Rei had pulled it out of its socket only three days ago. “Stiff, sir. But it moves.” Spinoza smiled. I bit my lip. The correct response was ‘Terrible.’ “Ms. Nelson, is he stable enough?” Jules looked at me with a dour expression. “If and when he focuses, yes.” “Good.” Spinoza turned to Sheila. “Ms. Mordred, how about some target practice?” “Sir?” I whined. Even Polimag was sounding good right now. Chapter 7 SHARPENED STICKS Sheila cleared her throat. “Distance training, sir? I don’t think I’m the best choice for that.” Spinoza tossed Sheila a simple wooden staff. He didn’t appear to be listening. “Diablillo, answer me this: How does a mage kill?” “Kill?” Murder wasn’t exactly part of the Elliot curriculum. “Um, can’t we just suck the life out of them or something?” Spinoza’s jaw tensed. “We Magi are not vampires, diablillo. To kill, we must bend the elements.” “Huh?” “We cannot touch life, Dieter,” Sheila explained. “But life requires four elements to exist. Air feeds the breath. Water feeds the gullet. Earth builds the vessel. And fire warms the hearth.” “Correct, Magus Mordred. A mage cannot touch another’s Ki.” I scratched my head. “Then how come you can die if you cast beyond your limits?” “Magus Mordred.” Sheila nodded. “Cities are almost always built on leynodes because life naturally gathers around great sources of mana. You see, Dieter, while life attracts mana, mana also attracts the life. The two need each other to survive.” “So you’re saying that if I expend all the mana swirling around my Ki…” “Then your Ki will go looking for mana elsewhere. We call this process corrosion. Fragments of one’s Ki are stripped off and drawn to the nearest pool of mana. A healthy Ki can survive quite a bit of corrosion, but if enough of it flakes away…” “Your life will wilt like a flower in the midday heat,” Spinoza concluded. “This is the danger of casting beyond the limits of your own mana.” “But what if you were to spend all your mana really fast. Would your Ki just sit there and take it?” Spinoza turned to Sheila and smiled. “This is why I like this one…he thinks dangerously, yes?” Sheila didn’t look as pleased. “Diablillo, if one were to spend all of one’s mana quickly enough, another phenomenon occurs. The energy housed inside the Ki—the very life of the person—bursts outward in one sudden wave.” “Would it cause an explosion?” I swallowed. That sounds just like what happened to Tyrone… “If unsculpted. But there are ways of guiding the release.” Sheila looked like she’d had enough. “Sir, you’re talking about death curses. Those are illegal.” “Yet rarely prosecuted,” Spinoza said with a smirk. “But we are getting off topic. What is crucial —what you must never forget—is that a mage cannot kill a man with mana alone. Mana must be transmuted into an element to do any proper damage. But here we encounter an interesting quandary. There are four major elements: air, fire, earth, and water. Air is wet but hot, fire is hot but dry, earth is dry but cold, and water is cold but wet. Each mage has a strong preference for one element, a weak preference for a second, is neutral to a third, and is opposed by a fourth.” “That sounds like Pokémon.” “Of course it does,” Sheila said. “The Japanese Shintoists were in complete agreement with the European alchemists, as were the Greeks, and the Babylonians, and the Buddhists, and the Hindus. Where do you think Pokémon got the idea from?” “So we’ve just gotta catch them all?” Spinoza smiled. “Exactly, Diablillo. Magus Mordred, cast air, fire, earth, and water spells in succession. Magus Resnick, counter everything Sheila throws at you.” “I officially hate you,” I grumbled. “But I’m training to be a cataphract,” Sheila said. “I’m not very good at long distance—” “I’m well aware of your deficits, Magus Mordred. That is why I handed you a staff. Now get to it.” “Yes, sir,” she said, her broad shoulders sagging. Looking rather displeased, Sheila pointed the tip of her staff at my torso. “Why does the knight get to use a stick?” I asked. “To aim.” “To aim? You mean a staff makes it easier?” I frowned. “Jules never let me use a stick. Why didn’t Jules let me use a stick?” “Because ya suck bad enough, ya focker!” Jules shouted from the cots. “Firing!” Sheila announced. My Sight flared, and a gust of wind surged toward my midsection. Without even thinking, I threw up a hasty extraction field and discharged the mana I recovered into the ground. “Wow,” I said gasping. “That was really fast, Sheila. I barely had time to get my hand up.” Spinoza was giving me the oddest look. “Diablillo, I asked you to counter Magus Mordred’s cast. Why did you extract the mana from it instead?” “Because extractions are easier.” Duh. “Easier?” Spinoza extended his hand. “Try this.” What looked like a glob of molten lead formed in Spinoza’s hand. “Penetrus!” The lead glob surged toward me at an incredible pace, but I had my hand out and at the ready. I caught the slug in another extraction field and it slowed down to a crawl. “Fascinating…” Spinoza headed off across the flat cement slab, Sheila and I trailing after him. He led us past a quizzical looking Jules and Dante, straight into the men’s bathroom. “Get under the spigot.” “Sir?” I asked. He’d only turned on the cold water. “Don’t think. Just get under the flow and extract it.” Despite the chill, I forced myself under the ice-cold water and threw up another field. My first attempt failed, so I turned to my Sight. There was energy there—I could Sight it just fine—but I couldn’t sort out the extraction. It was like trying to gather up packing peanuts while wearing thick winter gloves. “I can’t,” I said finally. Spinoza switched the water to hot. “Now try again,” he ordered. Grateful for the warmth, I fired up my Sight again. The change was like night and day. I opened my field and sucked in the warmth. Mana surged into me—but the water kept coming. And now the water was cold as ice. I’d only managed to take the heat out of it. Spinoza turned off the water and tossed me a towel. “Theories, Magus Mordred?” Sheila spun her staff like a top on the cold grey tiles. “Dieter has the best extraction ability I’ve ever seen, but the talent is still limited to three elements.” Catching the staff as it fell, she pointed it at my face and gave me a warm gust of air. “Thanks,” I said, teeth chattering. “But what does that mean?” “That we just discovered your opposing element. Like Alguacil Spinoza said before, each mage has a strong, weak, neutral, and opposing element. We can both attack and defend using our strong element, defend with our weak, repel our neutral, but are overcome by our opposing.” “So I should avoid ice cubes at all costs?” “Exactly.” “Hey, Shiela, so that makes me like a fire mage, right? Is that super rare and awesome?” Sheila shook her head. “Fire is the most common.” “Oh.” “Common does not mean bad, diablillo. A fire-wind preference is ideal for combat…and forest fires.” “Hey, that wasn’t on purpose.” “One wonders,” Spinoza replied. “So, Mordred, what is the best way to kill this boy?” “He blocked your slug. That means he must be neutral to earth. But he was purely opposed by water. He couldn’t even deflect the flow.” Sheila strummed her chin in thought. “Neutral to earth and opposed by water…thus, Dieter’s defense would be weakest to an attack with ice.” “Correct,” Spinoza replied. “Ice is the fusion of strong water with weak earth. It is also the least common offensive style. I don’t even know who we could use to train him.” “So I’ve got this thing the bag?” I headed towards the door. “If you need me, I’ll be on my cot.” “No, diablillo, your reliance on extraction fields is almost as unacceptable as Ms. Mordred’s refusal to integrate her weak element into her air spells.” “But—“ Sheila began. “Yes, yes, you wish to become a cataphract, you have no need for offensive spells, you need but some hard forged steel and armor…but what has this attitude gotten you? Nothing but a firm crack on the head. The two of you have trained the opposite ends of the same strengths. Now you will mend one another.” “Wait, so what you’re saying is you want me to teach Sheila how to set me on fire?” Spinoza grinned. “Exactly, Diablillo.” Chapter 8 KING LEER Time passes quickly when a six-foot tall cataphract in training is firebombing the hell out of you. By the time I limped out of Central’s basement, the sun had already slid over the horizon. I had six more weeks of this to look forward to…and then we had to start fighting for real. Stars above, what a mess. I brushed out a few singed hairs. At least Sheila’s terrible aim had saved me a haircut. Exiting Central’s big double doors, I found the entire campus abuzz. Since the dorms had been destroyed, students had been sleeping anywhere they could find heat. Classrooms, hallways, and broom closets were all fair game. The faculty didn’t dare let them off campus. With Talmax thugs roving the countryside, they’d decided it was time to hit the mattresses. The students had made the most of it. They were building mattress forts everywhere. Outside of Central, dump trucks were carting off the remains of the dorms. The process was going to take weeks. Rebuilding the dorms, perhaps a year or more. Floodlights blared down on the workers assembling large white tents on Elliot’s lawn. They’d serve as semi-temporary replacements. Watching all the action was fun, but a full five hours of drills had left me starving. I headed over to the cafeteria for a hot meal and some coffee. At Elliot, we eat lunch in the late afternoon and dinner around 10:30. Magic doesn’t mix well with daylight, so our entire schedule is shifted nightward. I got to the cafeteria a little early, so they only had out the cold stuff. (Not that I was complaining. Free food was free food.) I slapped together some PB and J’s, grabbed two cups of pudding, and poured myself a cup of the crappy cafeteria coffee. Then, dodging all the sleeping bags strewn across floor, I made my way to one of the burgundy booths by the window. I didn’t eat in the cafeteria that often. Jules had me on a strict training schedule. We usually grabbed dinner on the go and ate it as we walked into the woods. But since visiting New Haven, Jules had been giving me the cold shoulder. She hadn’t even watched Sheila and I train. She just sat over there on the cots reading magic crud. What made this spat so special was beyond me. We were basically arguing all the time. I was still mulling that over when two large shadows fell over my booth. “Mind if we join you?” I looked up from pudding #1 (a fine tapioca-light) to find Susan Collins, daughter of Section Chief Ralph Collins, staring down at me with a smirk. Susan Collins wasn’t much to look at. She was built like a long distance runner and wore her cardboard brown hair cropped short and tight. You’d never notice her in a crowd if it weren’t for that mismatched pair of arms. The ebony left had been grafted onto her torso a few months back. She’d lost the original in our first fight with Talmax. Aside from Rei and I, Susan was the only other student to survive. She’d done it all alone too. She didn’t have some uber-vampire backing her. But as I was saying, Susan wasn’t much to look at. It was her two huge buddies that were blotting out the sun. I knew them only by their nicknames, ‘Tank’ and ‘Truck’. And no, they weren’t professional quilters. “Do you know the five S’s of pudding?” I asked. Susan’s eyebrow quirked. “The five S’s?” “Yea. See it. Swirl it. Sniff it. Taste it. Savor it. To truly appreciate the partially hydrogenated oils arranged in one of these tiny plastic cups, you’ve gotta be sure to do each and every one.” Susan frowned. “But ‘taste’ doesn’t start with an S.” “And the ‘seeing’ part doesn’t work without light.” I gestured to the two lugs. Susan rolled her eyes and told her muscle to get lost. The two cataphracts gave me looks of great constipation, but headed over to the crowded student lounge. “I’m still not sure which one is Tank and which one was Truck.” “Tank is the one with the tattoo of a tank on his shoulder. Truck is the one with the rose.” “Oh.” I blinked a few times. “You’re the captain of Iota, right?” “And you’re Dieter Resnick.” She extended her white right hand. “I don’t think we’ve officially met.” Because Susan had interrupted me in the middle of pudding time, I decided to be a prick. I extended my left hand instead. Frowning slightly, Susan switched. The replacement felt clumsy in my fingers—but worked well enough to form a death grip. She traced the scars lining my palm as she pulled away. “Wow. Electrical burn?” I raised an eyebrow. That was one hell of a guess. “Compliments of New York.” Any additional detail would be nothing but trouble. I didn’t care to explain how Rei mended it (swapping blood with a vampire was generally frowned upon), and glanced over at the lounge instead. The group of cataphracts arranged around the TV looked like they could be playing in the football game they were watching. One glared at me before muttering something to his friends. “Those guys always so protective?” Susan shrugged. “Only when they think I’m doing something stupid.” Honesty won her a chair. I gestured for her to sit. Susan unbuttoned her Elliot robe and slid in opposite me. My eyes lingered on her low cut v-neck for only a second. (Okay, maybe Susan wasn’t totally forgettable.) “Why the concern?” I asked. “I think you know.” Filching pudding #2, Iota’s captain peeled off the wrapper and stuck it on my plate. It was a chocolate vanilla marble. The delicate dance between light and dark was intended to contrast with the airy levity of the tapioca-light. But that dream was lost now. I fidgeted with my spoon. “Enlighten me, captain. What have I done to arouse them?” “Well, Initiate Resnick, word is you’re that hell spawn’s pincushion.” My jaw tightened. So Susan was a straightforward gal. I could do straightforward. “And word is you’re a fame-seeking missile.” The burgundy false-leather bench squeaked under Susan’s spine. But that’s the funny thing about America. You’re expected to achieve great things, but heaven forbid you look like you’re trying hard to achieve them. That’s the kiss of death. The veritable scarlet letter of doom. And it was a wellknown fact that Iota’s captain was obsessed with achieving many great things in her life. Right now, she wanted to be considered the big witch on campus. In the future, it was pretty obvious she was gunning for the DEA Council. I didn’t really give a shit about all of that. I didn’t care about people with goals that didn’t concern me. But Susan looked none too pleased with that assertion, and even less happy that she was showing it. I took a deep breath and sighed. She’d dumped her bodyguards and absorbed quite a bit of my snark. Even I could see I was being an asshole. “Listen, all I’m saying is that some rumors are—as the Druid would say—utter bollocks. The hell spawn and I are just friends. No one is swapping any blood.” Susan’s eyes narrowed. “Then why did you look so angry, Resnick?” Did I look angry? I wasn’t too certain. “Because you stole my pudding,” I managed. I started scooting out of the booth. “And it was nice to meet you.” If I was going to survive Spinoza’s daily drubbings, I needed to avoid any extracurricular ones. Next time I’d get my food to go. I was a terrible liar. Conversations like this could only lead to trouble. I’d nearly escaped when Susan grabbed my arm. It was hard to describe, but the room suddenly felt warm. The magic oozing off Susan…I was nearly certain that we favored the same elements…and I was nearly certain that she was the stronger. “Resnick, she’s going to betray us.” “Excuse me?” I tried to pull away. “Sit.” I sat. “‘We’re all the same on the inside.’ I know that’s what you Imperiti children learn. But, Resnick, those words are intended for mankind.” Egads. “What the hell are you talking about?” “That a hug means one thing to you and another thing to a snake.” Susan looked at me with pitying eyes. “That creature you’ve befriended is not a mage, Resnick. She’s not even a human. And no matter how pretty you boys think she is, no matter how enamored you become, you’d all do well to remember that.” “Enamored…I’m not…I mean, we’re not…” “Don’t play dumb, Resnick. I caught Roger with another copy of that photo just last week.” That comment threw me. “What photo?” Now it was Susan’s turn to look surprised. “You didn’t hear?” “Captain, I’m being trained by a Druid. If you want to know where the squirrels are hiding their nuts, I’m your man. Otherwise, I’m in the dark.” “Oh, man…” Susan got the pre-gossip glow. “It happened last year. Theodus’ little princess had just gotten here, and she decided to go for a dip in the pond.” Susan chuckled. “Get this. She thought it was for swimming. Claimed it looked like her ‘swimming pond’ back home.” “They have those?” “Who knows.” Susan shrugged. “Anyways, some idiots started taking photos. She caught one and punched him in the nose.” “Sounds reasonable.” “She fractured his skull, Resnick.” “Oh.” Okay, not great. “And then she tried to drowned him. Lucas had to drag her off him.” “Oh.” Okay, somewhat psycho. “Lucas was always getting her out of trouble—and look what he got for his efforts!” “Hold on, what do you mean by that?” Lucas was the previous captain of Lambda. He’d died during the attacks over the summer. “Lucas was supposed to pick you up, but that other initiate’s parents threw a fit about Rei Acerba escorting him to campus.” Susan shook her head. “If the two of you had been together…” “You think I…” Okay, wow. “Captain Collins, I only managed to get myself electrocuted in New York. Rei saved me.” Susan granted me a genuine look of approval. “You’re being modest, Resnick. We both know that the attack happened in the middle of the day.” “What does that…” I shook my head. Rei could tolerate sunlight; it just made her act like a drunken sailor on Valium. “Listen, I never knew Lucas, but if he watched out for Rei, he was doing a damn good thing. Rei is the only reason the faculty is still breathing. Dante and I couldn’t have stopped those bombers alone.” “Or the only reason they were in trouble in the first place.” Susan looked at the workers assembling the giant tents. “You’ve considered it, haven’t you?” I clenched my fists. No wonder Jules never bothered with the social scene. “No, I most definitely have not.” “Think about it, you idiot.” “I don’t need to, captain. I was there.” “Someone let those Talmax thugs in!” she shouted. In the lounge, the cataphract posse quieted. She’d managed to get the attention of every student in the place. Susan looked down at her replacement arm and sighed. “The new arm…it’s not the same…it’s not right.” She turned to look out the darkened window. “I wake up every morning thinking I’m captured again. I have to check. I have to check my arms and legs to make sure I’m not chained to my freakin’ bedposts. Can you believe that? Then I remember I’m back at Elliot. Safe old Elliot. But then someone lets them in, Resnick. Someone lets them into my bloody dorm!” Susan was right, of course. Without an ID card or an escort, you’d be turned around by the wards or toasted by Elliot’s defenses. But Talmax had managed to get men in past the wards. And that meant someone had been a very naughty mage. Even Albright thought so. But fingering Rei? I rubbed at the scars burnt into my palms. There was a reason I wasn’t afraid at night. Susan had it all wrong. “You need to stop staring at the fangy object, captain. Subterfuge isn’t Rei’s thing. If she wanted us dead, she’d sink a blade straight into our chest. I’m pretty sure there would be bugles and a cavalry charge first.” For an instant, Susan’s calm veneer faltered. “You can’t be…” “Sure I can. Rei might be a killer, but she’s not a sneak. She’d probably call you out in the middle of the quad, slap you with a glove, and demand to see your second. And don’t start acting all high and mighty about killing. You can’t tell me your hands are still clean. I’m pretty sure Talmax didn’t give you a day pass out of detention.” “Talmax?” Susan raised an eyebrow. I tried to ignore the beads of sweat running down my back. “What is your squad doing in Central’s basement?” “Ours is not to reason what, captain.” Susan rolled her eyes. “Resnick, no one’s spelling it out, but we all know that there is a war on. Iota, Kappa, and Mu are on the football field training every single day. Even some of the students from the non-combat squads were drawn up. What I want to know is why your squad was excluded. You’ve got a few good people. They should be getting ready too.” Because your dad said so? Because we’ve been tasked with a secret mission? Because our enemy was a master of glamour? “You’ll have to ask Captain Rice or Dean Albright about that.“ “As if those two hacks…“ Susan shook her head. “What’s going on, Resnick? What are you up to?” I slid out of the booth. This was a bridge too far. “Excuse me, captain, but I’ve gotta take a dump.” “Wait,” Susan said. “What now?” I groaned. “You should join my squad.” “Excuse me?” “Albright is a walking disaster. That man…there’s a reason they locked him up out here. And I’ve got plans, Resnick. When I graduate, I’m going to work for Cerberus. They actually get it over there. They know what we’re up against. And they can get you out of that DEA contract. They can buy you right out of it. Switch squads, Resnick. You don’t have to live under that man’s thumb.” I might have been new to this magic stuff, but the smell of rotten fish was universal. “Lady, a few months ago I was scrapping leftover hamburgers into my lunchbox. Now I’ve got room, board, a free education, and money to send home to my father. Dean Albright’s been treating me just fine. Now if you’ll excuse me, the porcelain goddess awaits.” “Resnick!” I dashed out of the cafeteria and across the lawn. The suspicion of Rei was nothing new. I’d discovered that the day I got here. But that stuff about Albright…I’d never heard that before. “You handled that pretty well,” Dante said from behind me. “No explosions. No floods of juice. Not even a bloody knuckle.” “Jerk. You were there the whole time?” I punched him in the arm. “Yea, I use a shroud whenever I go in there solo, but I totally had your back, bud.” “Gee, thanks, Dante,” I grumbled. “What do you make of that last thing Susan said? Albright’s locked up here?” “Never heard of anything like that before—but what would I know? I’ve only been here a semester longer than you.” “And how about what Susan said about Rei?” Dante shrugged. I stopped walking towards Central and crossed my arms. “No, Dante. Out with it.” Dante scratched his head and sighed. “Listen, Rei’s cool and all, but…it’s just, well, Susan’s got a point.” “Dante, you were there!” “Easy, bud. I’m not talking about the attack. Rei save our butt, no doubt. But I’m thinking more long term. You see, this whole Talmax thing could put us at odds with the Fiefs.” “With the Fiefs?” I frowned. “What do the Fiefs have to do with Talmax?” “Borders, bud. The Department signed a treaty with the Nostophoros back in the 1850’s. We protect their borders. They stay out of our jugulars.” He gave a meek smile. “It’s a pretty good deal.” In my head, a scenario shifted into place. “If the Department of Mana Affairs were to surrender the West Coast…” “Right. We wouldn’t be defending their borders anymore. Then the vamps might decide to… renegotiate.” I hadn’t considered how the Nostophoros might respond to Talmax’s attack…which was sloppy now that I thought about it. “Dante, are Rei’s people strong enough to push the Department around?” “Normally, no. But, bud, you heard the same casualty figures I did. The DEA is running short on manpower. And we don’t just have to worry about the Nostophoros taking advantage. There are other players that would love to fill a vacuum. The Weres for one. The Department is in a serious bind, man. That’s why our mission is so important.” Dante let out a sigh. “And speaking of binds…” “What?” “I could really use an escort.” He handed me a large manila envelope. It was addressed to one Rei Acerba Bathory. I flipped threw the pages and frowned. “You need my help to deliver battle plans?” “And I need to get Rei’s photo.” He pulled a beat-up camera out of his Elliot robe. “Why?” “For her new papers. I need a photo of you too, actually. We’re going in under fake names.” “And you need me to hold your hand?” I rolled my eyes. “Come on, Dante. I want to go take a nap.” It occurred to me that we were already crunching through the thin sheet of snow leading to Rei’s cabin. The sneaky bastard… Dante thumbed his camera. Digitals weren’t allowed on campus. It was one of the old ones that used film. “It’s just that she doesn’t like to have her photo taken.” “Yea, Susan mentioned that.” Dante cleared his throat. “We could…trade.” I raised an eyebrow. So Dante was in on it too. “Was she wearing a one piece or a two?” Dante gave me a nervous smile. “That’s kinda what’s so interesting about it…” I facepalmed. “They’re nudes? You idiots tried to take nude pictures of a vampire?” “We didn’t just try, bud.” He nudged me in the side. “We got the goods.” “Stars above, Dante. How many copies are left?” “Well, Susan confiscated Roger’s last week. That just leaves Roster’s and mine. But Jasper totally owes me. I was the one who shrouded his sorry butt out of there. I can get you a fresh print from his negative.” I put my arm around Dante. “Naw, bud, here’s the deal. You’re gonna make yourself another shroud, you’re gonna collect every last copy plus the negative, and then you’re gonna put them all into another one of these nice manila envelopes.” “Come on,” Dante groaned. “Bros before—“ “Or I can tell Rei who has them. I’m sure she’d be more than happy to do the footwork herself.” Dante blanched. “Good. I’m glad we could do business together.” + Dante poked at the sign hanging from Rei’s door. “Out to lunch?” “Sheila has been encouraging her to immerse herself in our culture.” “But you could see how I might interpret this as a threat, right?” “Definitely. But don’t tell Rei that. She gets really frustrated when she makes one of those faux pas.” “Frustrated?” Dante shivered. “Good to know. So she’s not here?” “I doubt Rei would put that sign out if she was.” “Well then where is she?” “Class?” “Na, second year classes are done for the night. It’s open time for their apprenticing.” I nodded. Most Elliot students apprenticed with an upperclassmen until their third year. Then it was their turn to teach. It was a pretty good system. Teaching underclassmen helped cement the basics. “Maybe she really is out to lunch. Let’s check out back. That’s were she keeps the sheep.” “Na, it’s cool.” Dante took a step towards the road. “I’ll try later. Like midday.” Which meant he wouldn’t have to get the photos… “Not so fast. We had a deal. I’m not letting you skirt this.” “Jesus, bud, give me a break.” “Speaking of breaks…“ “Okay!” Dante stammered. “You win. Fine. Whatever.” I started to laugh but thought better of it. There was real sweat running down Dante’s brow. Leading Dante around back, I managed to find the enclosure. Rei’s sheep weren’t around, and there was no sign of Cumo. That left me with absolutely no clue where to look next. Rei wasn’t exactly open and honest about her nightly activities. “Bud, she isn’t here. I promise I’ll take care of the photos. Just…just leave my name out of it, okay?” I ignored Dante’s knocking knees. I focused on the cool breeze churning through the blanket of November leaves. “I didn’t even take the photos.” I felt the hairs on the back of my neck rise in unison. It was there if I focused. Lavender. I could smell lavender. “I guess it was stupid. No, it was stupid. But, I mean, Dieter, they were nudes, and none of Theodus’ daughters have ever been photo…why are you staring at the trees like that?” There was another scent. It was dry and smoky. Something in it made my eyes burn. It reminded me of my father’s coat when he came back from shooting rifles… “Do we have a gun range?” “Of course. There’s one east of campus near the equestrian park.” “That’s where Rei is.” Dante hustled after me. “Then why’d we walk over here?” “I forgot.” I shook off a shiver. The weft-link was acting up again. Why, I had no idea. “But the range is outside of the wards. All students have to stay on campus. We can’t go past the gates.” “All of them?” I smiled. “I read that bulletin too, Lieutenant Dante. I do believe student officers on official business were exempted. And we’re on official business, aren’t we?” “Did you just pull my rank?” Dante shook his head. “I want a new roommate. I’m trading you in for Roster.” Elliot College was divided up into four sections with Central Hall at the center of the bullseye. The main gate and the adjacent train station marked the west side of campus. To the north of Central were the dorms, the woods where Jules liked to train, and—in the far distance—a town called Charity. To the south were the faculty lodge and a number of private homes. The east side of campus featured various buildings dedicated to specific magical specialties. Jules had occupied so much of my time with studying and practice that I’d never even considered going on a grand tour. But now that I had a captive, I began peppering him with questions. “Those are Gamma and Delta’s research facilities,” he said pointing to the south side of Elliot pond. “Delta mages do the herbal stuff and Gamma mages make potions, right?” “Yea, but you can hardly tell the two squads apart—except during their annual lager competition.” He gave me a smile. “The rest of the students get to judge.” As we walked past the east edge of the great lawn, I spotted a white marble box of a building tucked behind a grove of evergreens. The building had no windows or doors. Heck, it wasn’t even lit. “That’s the Epsilon’s building,” Dante explained. I knew of Epsilon mages by reputation only. They were considered the most exclusive study group on campus. “I’m guessing the enchanters don’t do tours?” “Fat chance. Did you hear those jerks raised their prices again? Hole-proof socks cost a month’s stipend now.” “Dang, I really wanted a pair of those.” Enchanting is both complicated and time intensive. The craft requires years of tedious groundwork to learn, and only a few of the initial crop of enchanters will demonstrate enough promise to earn an apprenticeship. But while their training is a painful struggle, their goods are coveted by the Conscious. A talented enchanter can compress years of spellwork into a single item, and little-to-no skill is required to wield it. Imagine: Weapons that never dull. Rings that can shelter you from storms. Clothing that’ll make you look like Elvis. But that’s not the end of it. Enchanting isn’t the same as charming. Charms wear off. Enchantments never do. Enchantments aren’t temporary coatings. They change the fundamental nature of the object. Of course, that kind of awesome ain’t free. The cost of enchanted bling is astronomical. Even our well-designed Elliot robes are only charmed. We change them out each year. After passing a few more buildings dedicated to graduate level research, we reached Elliot’s eastern gate. The perimeter of Elliot College isn’t much to the eye. Only a short, two-foot wall of rock surrounds the campus. You need to think in terms of magical circles to understand what you’re actually dealing with. Dante handed our IDs to the lone DEA man guarding the gate. He was bundled up in giant parka. “We need to pick up some more extension cords from the field shed,” Dante explained. The guy readjusted his glasses and let out a sneeze. His spittle stream caught me right in the face. “Sorry,” he said through his stuffy nose. “Can’t seem to shake this flu.” “Don’t worry about it. Immune system strong like bull.” “How nice.” He let out another sneeze. “Sign here.” “Anybody else come through here?” Dante asked. “Just Albright’s pet.” The agent shook his head in disgust. “I’m more than happy to let her out. It’s the letting her in part that bugs me.” “Don’t be too long,” the old guy grumbled. “I don’t want to have to go hunting after you two.” The wind in our faces, we cinched up the toggles on our robes. The crack of a rifle shot echoed past us. Dante gave me a surprised look but didn’t say anything. “How far?” I asked. “About a half-mile.” So we trudged. It was cold, it was dark, and I couldn’t see for shit. “I can’t see for shit, Dieter,” Dante said from somewhere behind me. “We’re walking straight into dead space, Dieter.” “Dead space?” I asked. “What manner of Magi lingo is this?” “Seriously?” I gave him my usual confused puppy look. “Monsters love chomping on Ki, and we Magi have the juiciest ones. They look at us and see giant walking Reeses Pieces.” “I thought you were gonna say, like giant grilled squirrels.” “Ass—at least I didn’t grow up eating cactuses.” “Cacti. The plural of cactus is cacti. And prickly pears are delicious.” “Anyways, monsters want our gut parts, but they can’t just barge into our homes. We magic folk are darn good at defense. We have our wards. We have our leylines. We’ll mess you up good if you come straight at us.” “But we can get clobbered if our pants are down.” I nodded. “Basically, if we don’t have wards and leylines backing us up, we’re just normal humans, soft tissue and all.” “Right. Plus, some places are just…skewed.” I didn’t get what Dante meant at first, but then it hit me. “You mean like the place Jules and I train in the forest. She calls it the Woodworks. Healing spells are just…easier there.” “Sort of. That place you and Jules train at is an example of a hallowed ground. Certain crafts are enhanced by the nature of that place’s character. But there are other places that are downright dangerous. Dark alleys, deep caves, creepy houses, they’re the kind of places that give off that nasty vibe even the Imperiti are aware of. You know, like a knife is being dragged across your spine? Those we call fouled grounds. A normal human might not even trigger the nasties—but if a mage wanders into a fouled place? Bud, the creeps all come pouring out. I stumbled into one as a kid. Makes me want to piss myself just thinking about it.” “Dante, stop being such a drama queen. We’re right outside of the wards. The only thing foul out here is your breath.” “Dieter, you ever notice how lions follow herds?” “What are you…oh, sucks to be us.” “That’s what I keep telling you.” The air shook as another shot echoed through the forest. Bits of snow filtered out of the trees. “This is close enough,” Dante whispered. “Huh?” “Just watch.” Dante scraped five crosses into the snow. Then he broke off a tree branch and forced some mana into it. He bit off a piece of the branch and gestured for me to do it too. I obliged. (It tasted barky, but I can swallow a bit of wood if necessary.) Finished with that, Dante tied one end of his scarf around my neck and the second end around his own. Then he started mumbling yokel nonsense. I could never make heads or tails of Dante’s craft. All I knew was that it worked. After a minute of focus, he let loose a spell into the scarf. The colors of the world drained away. Only Dante was left fully visible. That was one of the side effects of shrouding. No one outside the shroud could see us, but we had to give up seeing colors. “The bark is part of a new spell,” he whispered. “It should hide our scent from Ms. Fangtastic. But you have to be quiet. I can’t mask sounds—yet.” I smiled. Dante could be timid, but when it came to his spellcraft, he was one ambitious little fuck. We picked our way through the bramble as carefully as we could. I began to hear a strange pinging noise as we got closer. It reminded me of the metronome they used to use in orchestra. When we found the treeline, the two of us knelt down in the snow. “Whoa, nice digs,” I whispered. Elliot’s gun range was posh. I was accustomed to the range my father visited in Vegas. It was a large swath of untended BLM land far out in the desert. You had to drive for forty minutes on dirt roads to get there. Rusted out cars decorated the field, and a wash embankment served as a natural backstop for the bullets. Elliot’s rifle range was another story. It occupied a half-mile of low cut pasture and had covered shooting stands with heaters. There was overhead lighting and a set of bleachers, even a giant scoreboard to the side. A series of 10’s sat next to the initials RAB. A layer of mist had settled in the sunken field. A single shooter lay still in the snow. “Wow,” I whispered. Rei was cradling a rifle large enough to splinter tanks. The rhythmic pinging of a metronome was playing on the range’s speakers. Rei’s left finger tapped along to the beat. “It looks like a modified Remington 700,” Dante whispered. Two legs extended from the rifle’s giant barrel. I guess you couldn’t hold it up without some help. “It’s even got a box magazine.” “Yea, but what’s up with the metronome?” Dante shrugged as a single ping sounded one octave higher. Rei’s finger tensed, and the snow in front of her rifle caved in and scattered. A few moments later, the harsh crack of her shot reached us. The scoreboard reported a nine, meaning the shot was a fraction outside of the bullseye. Rei shifted the bolt and kicked out the cartridge. The huge spent tube sizzled as it met the snow. “Okay. Wow. The vampire is shooting magnums.” “Magnums?” I asked. “A normal Remington 700 fires NATO 7.62 rounds. Those can reach about 800 yards. Firing magnum rounds about doubles the distance, but you’ve gotta modify just about everything for that.” Dante shook his head. “And she has it rigged southpaw. Do you have any idea how much a customorder like that costs?” “One m-i-l-l-i-o-n dollars?” I asked with just a bit more snark than necessary. “Fascinating stuff, Dante, but don’t rifles usually have scopes?” “Oh, shit. She’s not using a scope.” “See, she saved money there.” “Truth,” Dante whispered. “And might I add that shooting a rifle bareback is totally hot. I just wish she’d stop wearing those baggy black fatigues all the time. Can’t you picture her in one of those nice American flag—” I elbowed Dante in the ribs, the metronome shifted pitch again, and Rei let loose another shot. Another nine clicked up onto the scoreboard, and Rei slammed her fist against her shooting mat. “Fasz kivan!” she shouted. “So vampires come in Type A too,” Dante noted. Ignoring the pings, Rei finished out the rest of her ten shot set in a hurry. A seven, a nine, and five appeared on the scoreboard. Finished, Rei set down her rifle, stood, and kicked a shell casing across the field. Minor freak-out complete, Rei ditched her earplugs and walked over to the covered stands. A match lit up the night as she did. A man was sitting on a bench. He lit a gas lantern and turned up the flame. “Hey, that’s Albright,” Dante said. Our dean was wearing an understated tweed jacket under and a heavy brown overcoat. In one hand he held a small set of binoculars, in the other, what looked like a newspaper. He said something to Rei, and she gestured emphatically at the scoreboard. “I’ll amp it,” Dante said. He took out a blank sheet of paper and wrote a series of sigils on it. Folding it into a tube, he pointed in the direction of the Bath-meister. Dante pushed some of his mana into the paper, and Albright’s voice erupted right next to us. “…lies ahead, Rei Acerba. Mistakes lie behind. You can only aim at one at a time.” Rei shoved her hands into her pockets. “I understand this, tisztelt tanár, but why must I wait for this silly tone?” “Dieter, what does tisztelt tanár mean?” Dante asked. “Dude, do I look like I speak Vulcan?” Albright leaned forward and warmed his hands next to the heater. “Come here, Rei Acerba.” Letting out a giant sigh, Rei plopped down in front of him. “This task is pointless. Find me another one.” I smirked. I could sense Rei’s displeasure from across the field. “Hold your horses, Rei Acerba. Subjects might listen, but you cannot command your way through life. This training is about letting go. You must surrender your body to this task.” “Tanár!” Rei said in a breathless whisper. “Think better what you say. Surrender is sacrilege.” “No, Rei Acerba. Submitting to an opponent is sacrilege; relinquishing control is the essence of faith.” “And now you are being unclear,” Rei said with a huff. “Explain this better.” “Think of dancing.” “Dancing?” “What does dancing require above all else?” “Coordination, of course.” “No, Rei Acerba. Above all else, dancing requires trust. You must trust in the pacing of the musicians. You must trust in the lead of your partner. If you doubt either, you’ll tangle your feet and tumble.” Albright pulled Rei to her feet. Switching the metronome back on, he led Rei through a simple box step. “Find the rhythm, Rei Acerba. Wait for your partner’s tug, and then put everything into the motion.” Albright’s feet were sure. I’d taken AP dance in high school, so I could tell that Albright was well practiced. Rei, on the other hand…Rei sucked. Her steps were clunky, and she kept trying to lead the motions. Seemingly flustered, she pushed him away and crossed her arms. “This is foolishness! Why must I do such a silly thing?” Albright let loose a laugh, and my face suddenly felt very warm. “So Rei’s hot for teacher,” Dante said with a snicker. “Because working with mana is the same, my little shadow dancer. Mana is a partner, not a slave. We build images to guide the mana’s path, but when mana moves through our bodies, we must be the passive ones. In magic, second thoughts breed disasters. They distort the image and disturb the flows. Our craft lies in the opposite direction. We must trust in the singular vision we’ve created. We must surrender our very being to our casts.” Dante and I found ourselves nodding. The dean was right. Channeling mana did require a sort of surrender. It wasn’t the cowardly variant Rei was thinking about. It was that absolute commitment to an idea, that kooky confidence that the forces surging through your body were going to do exactly what you hoped. Thinking too much during a cast was a no-no. That was why Jules had spent the first few months training me in meditation. You had to give yourself fully to the process—doubts and distractions guaranteed disaster—but Albright’s words only soured Rei’s mood further. “I have completed the readings for both the first and second year curriculums, I have bested all but one peer on every single test, and yet you have me sitting here doing these menial tasks every single evening. Tisztelt tanár, I do not understand this, I do not like this, and I fail to see the point of dabbling in this…surrender.” “You will, child of Alastice. And the same technique will keep you sane during your first manifestation.” My body tensed. An avalanche of primal fear through me. “I would never dream to!” Rei balled her fists. “Tisztelt tanár, my father’s wishes are quite clear on this topic. And besides, you are nothing but a mage! What could you possibly know of this topic?” “What’s a manifestation?” I asked Dante. “Weird Nosto religious crap.” “Of manifestations?” Albright asked with a chuckle. “I know enough to stay out of the way.” “No fucking way,” Dante whispered. “That’s supposed to be a myth.” Rei looked flummoxed. She walked over to Albright’s bench and plopped down in front of him. “Explain.” “Things were not always as they are, Rei Acerba.” “You speak of the time before the Treaty. Those times are gone, tanár.” “Are they?” Albright looked off into space. “This appears to be a discussion for another time, Rei Acerba. Simply know that a wise woman once told me that working with mana and working with the blood are not such different tasks.” “What woman?” Rei looked up at him. “Tanár, you couldn’t mean…” “The messenger is not important, Rei Acerba. The message is. To generate a cast, a mage must create an image. To generate a form, a Nostophoros must do the same.” Albright picked up the walking stick resting beside him and drew a circle in the snow. “But before you do either, you must loosen your grip.” “I fail to see what—“ “Rei Acerba, you will only see the ‘what’ when you pull that enormous head of yours out of the clouds.” “Again with this drill?” Rei grumbled. But her voice didn’t sound as defeated as before. “As many times as it takes,” Albright replied. “Don’t worry. I have a few decades left.” Cursing under her breath, Rei knelt next to the circle and extended her right hand. Satisfied, Albright picked up a walking stick and went to stretch his legs. “Reach for what?” I asked Dante. “What were they talking about?” “Mana, I think.” Dante frowned. “Dieter, I’m not sure, but I think Rei can’t—” Albright’s staff made a nice crack as it came down on Dante’s bruised shoulder. I had no idea where the dean had come from. He wasn’t there and then he was. Distracted, Dante lost control of his spells. The shroud surrounding us faded, and the color returned to the world. Albright gave my ear a good wack for good measure. “Mr. Resnick. Mr. Dante.” He knelt down to greet us. “What might the two of you be doing outside of the wards?” I rubbed my ear. It was ringing off the hook. “Delivery.” “Of?” I handed Albright Rei’s documents, and he began flipping through the pages one at a time. I snuck a nervous glance at Rei. If she caught us sneaking up on her… “Relax, Mr. Resnick. She cannot see or hear us while we are within my sphere.” “We’re under another shroud?” I asked. Dante’s eyes were wide. “You mean you can keep the colors? Did you tweak the second refraction or the—” “Lieutenant, I’ll be in a better humor to answer that question after the two of you finish cleaning out all the bathrooms on campus…all the ones that are not currently rubble, of course.” “Crud,” Dante groaned. “Drusilla Sponges?” Albright held up Rei’s blank driver’s license and frowned. “Mr. Dante?” “Dude, you watch too much TV,” I said, shaking my head. “What’s mine?” “Tom Cullen,” Dante said with a grin. Albright sighed. “I guess I should just be happy that you actually read The Stand, Mr. Dante.” He plucked the camera from his duffle coat. “I’ll deliver these documents and take care of the photo. You boys get busy shining my porcelain.” “Yes, sir,” we grumbled. Dante started humming after we signed back in at the gate. “Why are you so happy?” I asked. “Bud, we just got permission to go into all the girls’ bathrooms. Lady Luck is already handing out the love.” I shook my head. “Dante, we need to get you a girlfriend.” Part II DANTE’S GIRLFRIEND, AND/OR OTHER TRAVAILS OF WAYWARD MAGI Chapter 9 CHARIOTS ON FIRE An ancient Ford wagon rumbled up the road. “Awen’s ghost,” Jules whispered. “We shoulda gone shoppin’ with him.” A lazy set of brakes brought the white monster to a halt. The wood panels were peeling off the sides. Dante had been crooning about the damn thing all week. Vintage, he had called it. I knelt down to check the drivetrain. The sun and salt had done on number on the undercarriage, and a deep gash stretched the length of the driver’s side. The pregnant rear tire didn’t exactly instill confidence, either. Nor did the cloud of smoke billowing out the back. “Tell me there’s a spell to fix this.” We were supposed to be a couple of high school dropouts off to try our luck in Vegas. That meant our ride had to be crappy—not deadly. “That there isn’t, Dieter. That there isn’t.” Smiling, Dante went to open the driver door. It jammed halfway. Giving up, he slid across the front seat and out the passenger side. “Dante, this was the best you could do?” I asked. “Bud, the engine is solid. She just needs a bit more oil than the average car.” Jules’ giant sized Happy Planet Guide to the Big 50 by Road slipped right out of her hands. “He’s callin’ it a she, Dieter. Why’s he callin’ it she?” “Because he’s lonely, Jules.” I patted her on the back. “Because he’s very very lonely. But let’s not freak. We just need to get this deathtrap all the way across the United States, snatch up some ACT devices from North America’s most deadly cartel, and hand them over to the ICE without getting magic-cancer in the process. We’ve got this mission on lockdown, milady.” Jules thumbed her glasses back into place and frowned. “I thought I told ya ta get a haircut.” “I’m working on a mullet. They’re big in Vegas.” “Mages don’t wear mullets, Dieter.” “Whoa, now, Jules. That wasn’t stipulated in Albright’s contract.” Still jazzed about his new ride, Dante opened the back hatch and started tossing in luggage. He was just about finished when Rei trudged down the path. She was wearing her go-to ensemble of black camo pants plus hoodie, but on top of her head was a black baseball cap that read, The American Red Cross: Save A Life Today. Spotting the sorry excuse for a station wagon, Rei cocked her head to the side. “Lieutenant, why are you loading baggage into that…jalopy?” “Because it be our ride,” Jules replied. She didn’t look too pleased with the state of the car or the company. Gesturing to the enormous red cooler in Rei’s hands, she asked, “And what be in there, a year’s supply of Jell-O?” “I acquired food items for our road tripping. This is a human custom, yes?” Intrigued, Dante asked, “How did you know what to buy?” “I bartered.” “Sorry?” “A young boy was perusing the morning grains aisle. I asked for his assistance in exchange for a pittance.” Rei set down the cooler and popped the top. Inside was the most impressive arsenal of candy ever assembled by a human being. Gobstoppers, Skittles, and chocolate bars were stacked ten high. An entire box of lollipops sat proudly in the corner. Four different types of kids’ breakfast cereal. Rei pointed to one of the boxes and smiled. “This one has a leprechaun on the front. I assume it is your feed, Druid?” Jules looked ill. “I’m not eating that. Dieter, tell her I’m not eatin’ that.” Rei leaned forward and gave Jules’ belly a poke. “Indeed…perhaps you do not require additional calories.” Jules flushed. “That’s not what I—” “What’s up with all the grapefruit juice?” I asked quickly. There had to be three gallons of it. “I detest water.” “You just brought fruit juice?” Frankly, I was a bit disappointed. “Don’t you need, like, blood?” Rei smiled. “Isn’t that what the passengers are for?” Jules muttered something unrepeatable in Gaelic. Dante pulled me aside. “Jesus, Dieter. Let her gulp all the grapefruit she wants. If it keeps her away from my throat, I’ll buy her a freakin’ juicer!” Rei cleared her throat and frowned. “Lieutenant, whispering behind someone’s back is rude.” Walking over to the car, she tossed Dante the cooler. “Load this.” He took it in the chest and was bowled straight over. Ignoring the ensuing dust cloud, she tossed her backpack in the trunk, and slipped on a pair of latex gloves. Looking like she’d done this a few times, she began smearing a mixture of black shoe polish and grime all over the station wagon’s windows. “Fantastic,” Jules grumbled. “There goes the view.” I was helping Dante fit the cooler in the trunk when the rest of Lambda came running down the road from campus. Dante and I looked at one another. Monique’s team wasn’t supposed to leave until tomorrow, but they were carrying packs full of clothing and equipment. “You guys need to get out of here,” Monique urged. “What’s wrong?” Dante asked. “Talmax is on the move. I just spoke with Agent Collins. DEA Command wants all hands on deck. They’ve ordered all the IKΛM squads to ship to Salt Lake this afternoon. We’ve gotta get scarce before those orders come in.” “But aren’t we working for the DEA?” I asked. “It’s more complicated than that. We’re working for Agent Collins. Collins agreed with Albright’s assessment and made the decision to send us in. But Agent Collins is only a section chief, Dieter. The DEA Command Council can overrule him. In fact, they did overrule him—but we don’t know about that.” Monique gave me a mischievous grin. “Hey, it’s not our fault if we weren’t here when the orders came in.” I shook my head. That meant we had to steer clear of DEA agents now too? Fantastic. “What about Spinoza?” “Spinoza is in on the plan, but he’s an ICE agent, Dieter. He can’t get involved with a regional dispute. We either give him proof that this ACT stuff is illegal, or he and his buddies are gonna be left sitting on the sidelines.” A black van roared down the gravel road. Red anarchy signs were spray-painted across the sides. Giant horns were sticking out of the hood. Roster was at the helm. He skidded the van to a stop beside us. “Oh, this one is nice. May we take it instead?” “Of course we cannot take it,” Jules replied. “We’re pretendin’ ta be poor migrant workers, not rockers. Cannot ya keep that straight, Rei Acerba?” “Ah, yes. Migrant workers.” Rei gave Jules an icy stare. “How fortunate for you, Druid. You must merely act natural.” Not wanting any part of that fun, Dante and I went over to help Roster load the van. Our team was to head south through St. Louis, while Monique’s team was to head north through Canada. For a reason that was unclear to me, Monique and company were pretending to be a death metal band named Saber Rattle. Sheila, Roster, and Maria were dressed in the requisite leather. Monique had added little skulls and crossbones to her dreads, and Ichijo had gone for a rat-tail. Sadie had…well Sadie looked like she normally did. Her spiked hair and piercings didn’t need too many adjustments. “Remember to set your wards every night,” Monique chided. “And, Dante, I don’t want you messing around in the Fiefs. You make one stop in St. Louis, that’s it.” Rei looked up from her work blackening windows. “Captain, the Treaty clearly stipulates that—“ “The Treaty guarantees right of transit, Bathory. It doesn’t say anything about xenia.” The prospect of crossing the Fiefs had left Monique on edge. Her aura was a yellow swirl of tension and anxiety. The reports coming from the front weren’t good. Our Phoenix garrison may or may not have fallen last week. There were quite a few rumors flying around that the DEA had been forced to fall back to Santa Fe. And as far as I could tell, the Department was in full panic mode. The IKΛM call up was just another sign of that. “These three are my companions. My kin will not harm them.” “And what of the others your kind harbors? There’s a war on, Bathory, and all the supernatural creeps know it. Attacks are up all over the West. Dante, you stop at the embassy or you don’t stop at all.” Monique took a step towards Rei. “And I’ll have you swear to that generous offer of xenia you just made.” Xenia was the Greek word for hospitality. The old myths said that Zeus and Apollo used to cruise around as travelers to enforce it. What this had to do with Rei, I had no idea. All I knew for certain was that Rei took her oaths very seriously. In fact, her very first piece of advice to me was to never make one. “You’d demand an oath of me?” “You said they would be fine, Bathory.” Monique crossed her arms. “Is there something to be concerned about?” “Captain…” Ichijo whispered. He actually looked concerned. Rei bared every last inch of ivory. Monique didn’t budge. “Bitch, you will back that shit down or I will shove it further up your bony white ass.” Rei let out some sort of hiss (which made things just plain awkward). Maria squeaked and hid behind Sheila. Dante looked like he was about to bolt. Monique simply shook her head. “Rei Acerba, you’re sitting this one out.” “Fine!” Rei shouted. When she spoke again, her voice was pure venom. “I shall not let a single one of your sheep slip into the dark. Not a single one of their hairs shall be harmed. Now may we be off before I incinerate?” Monique nodded. Rei jammed on her sunglasses, and without another word, she got in the station wagon and slammed the door. The whole car shook back and forth on its springs. Roster let loose a nervous laugh. Sadie made busy staring at the dirt. The whole exchange made our goodbyes awkward. It felt like the whole adventure was on shaky ground. “It’s scary, isn’t it?” Jules whispered. “We might not see everyone again.” “You shouldn’t say stuff like that.” Irked, I headed over to the car. Jules might be right, but I didn’t like dwelling on it. By the time I sat down next to her in the back, Rei had pulled down her hood, wrapped her arms around her legs, and capped her ears with a giant pair of noise canceling headphones. I went to pat her on the shoulder, but she knocked my arm away. “Does she stay like that all day?” Jules asked from the front seat. “Well, as long as you don’t poke her,“ I started. “I shall not bite anything off,” Rei finished. “I do love mornings,” Jules said cheerily. “And this one looks like it’ll be so bright and sunny. Not a cloud in the sky.” As Rei muttered a curse, Dante slammed his head against the horn. “Come on, guys. We have a long trip ahead of us. Let’s start thinking positive—I’d like to thank our supply officer for providing us with fine vittles to munch on, and our music officer for getting us such a big supply of…Jules, what are they called?” “Tracks of eight. The dean gave me a whole box of ‘em.” She lifted up a gigantic block of plastic. “He said we should start with this one. It is called, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here Come the Sex Pistols.” Jules giggled. “Sounds naughty.” “Alright, there are only two rules on board this vessel: no fighting and no listening to National Public Radio. Dieter is in charge of passing me skittles. Jules is in charge of the map. Rei will take over driving duty at night. If we keep rolling, we can do this in three days. Now, onward to adventure!” “Would you stop prattling?” Rei pleaded. “Looks like someone is having a bad case of the mornings.” With a shrug, Dante throttled up the engine and threw it into gear. The car gave a lurch and a towering puff of smoke shot out the back. “She’ll hold together,” he said giving the dash a loving pat. Jules turned to me, her eyes full of concern. “Dieter, he’s doing it again.” + Finding the highway, Dante drove us straight down the coast. We past a bunch of old towns named after ports and forts, and I got to watch the sun rise over the ocean. Then we swung inland to catch Interstate 70, and the view got ugly fast. Pipes spewing coal dust turned the skies a disheartening yellow. The scent of ammonia became so strong that we had to roll up the windows. The smell was the byproduct of coal gasification. With so little petroleum reaching our shores, we had turned to making liquid fuel from our vast stores of solid coal. The process turned everything around it to poison. Our first stop was in Newark for some of that very fuel. That was when Dante discovered the bluegrass 8-tracks. As we drove west across Pennsylvania, Dante gave Jules and I a music seminar. There was a lot of talk about chords and progressions, and frankly, he kinda lost me. Jules and Dante spent the next few hours talking about mixing different kinds of folk music. (At some point they even declared they’d start a band.) I twiddled my thumbs in the back, and Rei went stiff as a board somewhere around Pittsburgh. I spent my time wondering about the biology behind it. Her frozen posture gave a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘morning wood’. It was already past lunchtime when we stopped in Columbus. Big White was burning through petrol faster than a pothead through Cheetos, so I decided to check under the hood just to make sure she wasn’t leaking. St. Louis was gonna take another six hours, so Dante ran across the street to get us some fried chicken to go. Snow was coming down in lazy swirls, but the road was still clear for driving. Coming out from under the car, I adjusted the laces on my work boots. I was wearing a t-shirt, two wool sweaters, and the bomber jacket Jules had picked out for me, but I was still freakin’ freezing. Jules…well, Jules looked like the bargain hunter she was. She was wearing that beautiful white motorcycle jacket over a baggy teal dress that might have been cut from a set of drapes. Unfazed, she had decided to tie the outfit together with an enormous white scarf featuring puppies leaping through rainbows. “Gosh, Dieter, I wish we could do a wee bit more tourin’.” Jules let out a sigh that fogged her glasses. “It says here that Columbus has a park full of impressionist paintings come ta life.” I took a peek at her giant guidebook. “Hey, the Chemical Abstracts Service is based here too. I’d totally love to see that.” “Who are the Chemical Abstractors?” “No, the Chemical Abstracts Service. It’s a division of the American Chemical Society.” Jules gave me a blank stare. “They manage something called the CAS Registry. The Registry is a huge database covering millions of different chemical compounds. Not only that, but it’s collated, cross-linked, and free for use by all. It might not sound sexy, but it’s like the bedrock of all science.” “Oh!” Jules brightened. “Ya mean it’s like Culpeper’s Color Herbal.” I fought the urge to rage. “If Culpeper’s was also a hundred million pages long, that comparison might be close to valid.” “Don’t get all riled, Dieter. I’ve worked with plenty a’ chemicals. I usta mix bakin’ soda and vinegar with me gran and everythin’. It’s not like ya got some sorta monopoly on the sciences.” “Baking soda and vinegar?” I sank onto the hood in despair. “I cannot believe you and Robert Boyle were born on the same rock.” “Me neither. Boyle sucked major balls. Now Sir Isaac? That man could transmute gold by the bucketful. Hate ta compliment a Sassenach, but he was a great one. Pity they banned the practice.” I pretended that I hadn’t heard that. An alternate world full of magic, I could handle. A world where my childhood heroes dabbled in alchemy, not so much. “Guys! Real fried food!” Dante shouted. He was running back across the street with a steaming bucket of arterial destruction. “Oh man, expense accounts are the best!” Jules looked into the bucket and shivered. She looked like she’d rather eat gravel. As Dante and I devoured the chicken tenders, she snuck around to the back of the car and opened up the trunk. After a few moments of digging, she came back with the box of Lucky Charms. Mouths full of chicken, Dante and I stared at her in disbelief. “Not a word about this ta the fanger,” she ordered. We broke out laughing. After the refill at the Slurp-n-Go, Dante guided Big White deeper into the countryside. Mile markers ticked by like clockwork. Dried husks of the past harvest were the only scenery. Satisfied with Dante’s driving, I decided to take a nap. I must have slept for hours, because it was dark out when Rei roused me. “Ouch!” I yelped. “Why did you poke me in the eye?” I rubbed it out. It really smarted. “Because it was closed when it should have been open.” Rei’s face was mere inches from my own. She tucked a wayward strand of her long black hair behind her ear and gave me a pouty face. “Dieter, we are in the heart of Nostophoros territory. What if a ravenous vampire had snuck into this vehicle?” I yawned. “Then I would have died well rested.” Rei smirked. “My most stubborn associate, do you ever yield an inch?” I blinked. The way her lips worked. The way her neck tilted. The way the midnight hair cascaded across the firm line of her shoulders…it was too much to take in at once, yet all I wanted was more. I didn’t pull away. I couldn’t pull away. And so I shifted closer. Her tiny smile vanished. I could feel the tremble of her breath on my lips. Springsteen was on the radio. The Boss was groaning on and on about some mad desire. His voice rolled out flat and hollow. The wagon’s speakers couldn’t quite manage him…but the good ones don’t even need a beat. They hit you somewhere that’s beyond the sound. A century seemed to pass, us dangling from little strings. The Boss growled through the low notes until I found the will to breath. “Why would I retreat?” I whispered. To be this close to Rei, to hold every iota of her attention, it was enough for me. But for Rei, it must have been different. I watched as her cool blue eyes shifted to that empty grey. I watched as the girl I trusted drifted away in the waves. What was left took in a slippery breath, rolling my scent around as it did. Mutual appreciation time was over. This was officially becoming dangerous. There was a tightness in my lungs, and chill tendrils traipsed their way down my back. I went to pull away, but her hands had already found my shoulders. It surprised me. How could such a lithe female press down on me like a ton of bricks? I redoubled my efforts, and Rei’s face lit up with a different kind of smile. When she spoke again, her voice sounded like slithering death. “You would sweeten the pot with fear?” Rei rested her cool forehead on my own, and her hair descended around us like a veil. “You are such a little tease…I would have you know something. It is a most delicate secret. Would you hear it?” Yea…that didn’t sound like such a good idea. I bit my tongue. “Again you lash at me.” Rei nuzzled against my cheek. “Pleeease?” I gasped. It felt like I was being smothered. “Oh, I can bear it no more.” She drew her cool lips to my ear and spoke in a delicate whisper. “Any but I, Dieter Resnick. Any but I would have feasted on you by now.” “Not. Funny,” I managed. Rei let out a clicking purr. “Not meant to be.” Freaked, I tried to push her off me. Rei kept me pinned for a mere second. Just long enough to remind the both of us who was really in control. Just long enough to piss me off. “You don’t have to be a prick, Rei.” Rei looked up at me from behind her pitch-dark veil. “No, my most delectable blood bag, that is where you continue to error.” “Then sue me for putting my faith in you,” I hissed. I turned to look out the window, hoping to hide how shaken up I was. I didn’t understand why she was toying with me. I didn’t understand what she got from it. With a huff, she hopped off me, and planted her keister on the opposite side of the Ford. “You are not amusing this evening,” she grumbled. Once my heart finally settled, I dared a glance her way. One of those lifeless plastic smiles was planted on her face. The girl was as unreadable as the snow swirling outside the window. In front of me, Jules let out a snort and muttered something in Gaelic. She’d balled up her puppy scarf like a pillow. I didn’t recognize the words she was speaking, but I was pretty certain they had nothing to do with making a meal out of me. Dante shifted next to her. He’d been oblivious to all the action in the backseat for a reason, because he was busy driving us straight into a blizzard. I caught site of some red flares in the distance. We swept past a group of semi trucks parked on the side of the highway. One had flipped over into a ditch. “Dante, where are we?” I asked. “Almost to the St. Louis.” He didn’t dare take his eyes off the road as he spoke. His knuckles were as white as his shirt. “If you do not crash,” Rei commented. “You should permit me to drive.” “I can see fine, Rei. And we’re almost there.” “This is why I woke you,” Rei explained. “Convince him for me.” Dante shook his head. “Monique said no stopping till St. Louis. We’re almost there.” Both Rei and Dante looked at me for support. It was an easy choice. “If Dante says he can do it, he can do it.” Rei glared at me. “Are you boys always so thickheaded?” Rei leaned over Dante’s seat. “Tell me what that sign says.” “Hey!” Dante looked like a pit viper had just dropped into his lap. “Dang it, Bathory. Get back in your seat!” “I will not. That exit says St. Louis…and now you have passed it! You could not see it, and now you have passed it. Lieutenant, this is evidence you cannot deny. Pull over and let me drive this instant.” Dante turned to yell at her, the car lurched, Jules mumbled something about carrots attacking broccoli, I ducked one of Rei’s boots. Dante cursed. “Rei, there are lots of St. Louis exits. That one wasn’t the right one. Now get back in your darn seat. I know what the freak I’m doin’.” Ignoring him, Rei pulled out a small black volume and thumbed through its pages. She was still stretched out like superwoman, and she didn’t look ready to give in. I shook my head. My dad would have beaten the crap out of me if I pulled that sort of stunt. She must have had super lenient parents. “Rei, you should be wearing a seatbelt.” “Silence, Dieter. I am investigating his claim.” Her frown grew. “Oh. Oh, I see. So we take the third of these exits named ‘St. Louis’?” “No. We take the fourth. Are you girls always so bad at directions?” “Nice, Dante,” I said, clapping my hands. “Thank you, Dieter,” Dante replied with a nod. “Nonsense. This guidebook must be defective. I can see far better than—cat!” Rei made an awkward grab for the wheel. “Cat! Look out for the cat, lieutenant!” What appeared to be an overweight tabby was engaged in a leisurely stroll across the highway. As Rei grabbed the wheel, Dante hollered, the car lurched right, and I had enough time to shout three choice expletives before the back end of the car lost traction. The beat up old wagon spun once, twice, three times in a circle. Papers went flying. Luggage slammed around in the back. Still out of her seatbelt, Rei came flying in my direction. I caught her with my face. I got two boobs in the eyes and two canines in the skull. Apparently, her fangs were as sharp as razors. I felt them sink right through the bone. The station wagon ended its spin in the rightmost lane of the freeway. We were facing the right way and everything. It was though Dante had meant to park it. Not wasting an instant, Rei grabbed me by the hair and extracted her teeth from my scalp. She had to push so hard that she banged her head on the roof. “You just fanged my brains,” I stammered. “I did no such thing,” she said rubbing out her noggin. I felt my scalp. “There are holes!” I shouted. “What are you, a zombie-vampire?” Rei’s shock transitioned to outrage. “You’d dare to call me a—“ “What in the fockin’ hell just happened?” Jules asked. (She’d finally woken up.) “A cat,” Dante managed. “Ms. Eagle Eyes back there decided to prioritize a cat.” “Fair enough, but are the broccoli okay?” I guess Jules preferred to believe she was still sleeping. “This is not fair,” Rei protested. “If only the lieutenant permitted me to—oh dear.“ Rei was referring to the blaring horn of the semi truck bearing down on us at 70 miles an hour. Dante screamed and jammed his foot through the floor. His old gal whinnied, and she managed to find enough traction in her worn footpads to skip off the road before we got kicked like a can. After that, the humans went real quiet. Rei appeared to have other concerns. “It didn’t count,” she whispered. I looked at her blankly. “Did you just use the ‘I did not inhale’ defense?” “Do not jest.” She reached into her backpack and retrieved a small black vial. Cracking it in two, she took a huff and poured the sooty goop onto a piece of gauze. Her eyes puffing red from the odor, but she was dead set on applying pressure to the tiny wounds. I yelped. The strange concoction reeked of medicines and burned like hell. “Are ya two alright?” Jules asked. “Just bumped my head,” I replied. I snatched the gauze packing from Rei’s hand. “Can we go to the embassy now? I need to change my shorts.” Dante got our battered white station wagon back on the asphalt and down the nearest exit ramp. The snow let up as we rolled into the center of the city, and it earned us a better view of St. Louis’ downtown. Enormous skyscrapers stretched above us. It couldn’t have been past eight o'clock, but few had lit windows. Cars were sparse. Only the occasional white and black cruised on by. That didn’t mean there weren’t any people, though. There were crowds of homeless everywhere, and the scent of burning rubber hung in the air. Small towns within the city had sprung up. The women huddled together for warmth, while the children played around the ragged lean-tos. Most of the street signs had been stripped for scrap, and Dante was forced to stop and ask the way. After two offers of rather fantastical sexual services, a man in a costume of rags came over to offer to help us. He was overcome by a bout of coughing in the middle of giving directions. “Get the window up, Dante,” Jules urged. Dante gave the man a curt thanks and hit the gas. “DIT. Shoulda known.” “DIT?” Rei asked. “Was that man a member of an opposing faction?” “Seriously?” Jules asked. “My most vapid vampiress, DIT kills more people than heart disease, surely you’ve heard of it.” Rei wavered between remaining dignified and socking me in the jaw. “You speak of Mycobacterium tuberculosis.” Rei leaned towards me and smiled. “That I might drink, Dieter, and leave the world unseen, and with thee fade away into the forest dim. Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget; what thou among the leaves hast never known; the weariness, the fever, and the fret.” Leaning backwards, Rei fawned as though she might faint. “Here! Here where men sit and hear each other groan; where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs; where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies; where but to think is to be full of sorrow; and leaden-eyed despairs; where beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes, or new Love pine at them beyond tomorrow!” Jules started clapping. “What just happened?” That had all been rather weird. “Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale,” Jules explained. “He composed it while dyin’ a tuberculosis.” “And?” “Rei just went Romantic,” Dante explained. “You can’t win anymore.” “Is this some sort of liberal arts bullshit?” The three of them nodded. “And of course I know the cause of scrofula. It’s just you people and your diseases…first you labeled them in Latin, then you named them after doctors, and now you have replaced even those most dubious placards of narcissism with even stranger acronyms…do you hope to eliminate these pathogens through obfuscation?” She shook her head at it. “I pity your students of medicine.” Drug-Immune Tuberculosis…after the Great Slump wasted our economy, folks skimped on the little stuff. A cough. A cold. Why not try and wait them out? It gave the bugs a little room to move. Some old illnesses went on comeback tours. Drug-Immune Tuberculosis was the worst of them. Sleeping in the cold made it worse. So did poor nutrition. And there wasn’t a thing the docs could do to cure it. No medicines seemed to work. The old version of tuberculosis whittled its victims down nice and slow, but this new version was a merciless killer. For some reason, DIT escaped the lung rather quickly. You could spot the sufferers by the bumps on their necks. That was the ‘scrofula’ that Rei had mentioned. “Hey, can mages get DIT?” I asked. “Of course we can,” Jules replied. “We’re human, remember? And we can’t cure it either. The little buggers live inside yer cells. There’s no way of takin’ them out without wreckin’ the patient.” I nodded. Healing magic worked by creating the conditions for vitality and growth. A wound could be healed. A fever, tempered. But if your own cells were the problem? Jules’ mentors had no cure for cancer. “So the good ole’ three foot rule it is.” “And ya best be washin’ yer hands too, Dieter. I’m not havin’ me first pupil die of consumption.” Rei shifted in her seat. She had been eyeing the people on the sidewalks for some time now. “Do you refuse them shelter to hasten their demise?” “Excuse me?” Jules looked at Rei like she was crazy. “Do not froth so, Druid. It was merely an observation. Warmth slows the disease, yes?” “Of course.” “And most of these buildings are unoccupied. These pitiful creatures could live inside. But you choose to let them freeze. The intent is clear, is it not?” “Banks own the buildings,” Dante explained. Rei paused to think. “But are not these banks run by your fellows? Why would they not grant these people temporary license to dwell in them?” “Banks aren’t charities,” Dante said. “They answer to their shareholders.” Rei started laughing. “What’s so funny?” he asked. “We take what we need, and you call us monsters. You starve your own kind, and you call yourselves shareholders.” + The Department’s embassy was located inside a hotel called the Buckingham. The ancient limestone building sat at the end of an enormous park, and lorded over the Ohio Buckeyes across the street. The park served as the site of the 1904 World’s Fair, and the Buckingham had been built to house the many visitors. Its sturdy walls managed to reach up a good ten stories, and Christmas lights lit all the bulging balconies. An enormous tree sat at the center of its garden. We admired it as we drove up the U-shaped entrance. “Wow,” Dante said. “Guess the cat’s out of the bag.” Dozens of cars were cued up ahead of us, and a bustling wall of people greeted us at the door. The valets looked overwhelmed, rushing to collect keys and write up tickets. I’d have guessed there was a conference in town, but none of the other details fit. Parents struggled to pacify cranky children. Cars were packed to the rafters. I peaked inside a SUV and noted the stacks of photo albums mixed in with clothes still on their hangers. The whole operation screamed haste. I turned to Dante and whispered, “I’m guessing these folks aren’t on their way to Disneyworld.” “Refugees,” Dante replied. “Looks like a bunch of sparks.” I nodded. I knew that slang. Sparks were mages ranked Tier 2 or lower. I’d heard a few of the Elliot staffers were only ranked Tier 3, but I’d never met a spark before. (Well, that wasn’t exactly true. Rei had said that the tall man we faced in New York was a Tier 2, but he’d been powered-up with an ACT device.) I was going to ask Dante what the difference was when I caught a whiff of something foul. “Why does this place smell like a six month-old grease trap?” Jules and Dante started laughing. “It be one of the wards, Dieter. Keeps the Imperiti from knocking.” She scrunched her face up. “Oh! Can’t ya just picture the bedbugs?” I shivered…I could. Jules patted me on the back. “Just ignore the doom and gloom until we can get some matches.” “Matches?” I asked. Dante and the doorman’s argument distracted us. The guy was refusing to park it. Rei planted a hundred dollars in his palm. That shut him up. “No one respects the classics,” Dante grumbled. “Eccentricities require capital, captain. One must validate one’s tastes.” “And if ya can’t bribe yer way, ya can always glam ‘em to oblivion,” Jules added. “Nonsense. One does not glamour the help. It is considered most distasteful…like dancing nude in front of foliage.” Dante choked off a laugh. I looked at Jules. The Christmas tree. Back at Jules. “Wait, you mean witches’ Sabbaths are real too?” Jules’ cheeks flushed. “They’re not watcha think!” Jules jabbed an accusatory finger at Rei. “Stop fillin’ his head with such nonsense.” “Druid, did you not intend to invite him to the spring festival?” “I…I…” Jules stammered. “Ya saucy twat!” “One must use it or lose it, Druid.” Ears going ruby, Jules stormed over to the front desk. Rei covered her mouth to smile. “I am becoming most excellent with beater humor, am I not?” “You mean all the teasing?” “Indeed,” Rei replied, “I only recently discovered how the two can be achieved by the same verse.” Dante rubbed out his temples. “I can’t wait for Talmax to kill me.” Jules returned with the matches before I could go over the rules of preschool playtime with Rei. The grumpy Irishwoman handed one matchbook to Dante and the other one to me. “Strike a match and take in the fumes,” she instructed. The matches produced a purple flame that smelled a lot like apricots. Rei cleared her throat. She still had her hand out. “Oh, yer still here?” Jules asked. “I thought ya’d be out suckin’ somethin’ dry by now.” “Do not trouble yourself. I’m sure Dieter would be happy to share.” Taking me by the hands, she took in a deep draught of the fumes. “Delicious,” she cooed. “Dieter!” Jules blurted. “Those were for you!” I rubbed at my burning eyes. I’d always hated apricots. “Can we all grow up, please?” “Wouldn’t that be lovely,” Jules shot back. “I’m goin’ ta the loo.” “And I’m going to get us some rooms,” Dante said. “I’m guessing we’ll be needing three to four of them?” “They are both quite testy,” Rei observed. The lobby looked quite different after inhaling all that sugary smoke. No more moldy wallpaper. No more sewage stench. Heavy iron lamps connected by polished copper pipes adorned the lobby’s walls. They were only decorative now, but they’d probably once been used to light the room. An enormous mural occupied the space above the fireplace. It featured Lewis and Clark departing on their expedition. Next to it stood another handsome pine. This Christmas tree was wrapped round and round with glinting garland. Red and green balls the size of my head hung from the branches. A dozen children were playing hide-and-seek between the fake presents beneath it. Growing up in Las Vegas, I’d learned a lot about hotels. Each one caters to a particular segment of society. They’re built from the ground up to serve that single purpose. Back in the railroad days, the Buckingham was probably a pit stop for the powerful. I could imagine the robber barons of old cutting deals in a smoke-tinged drawing room or sipping bourbon with the buxom broads at the bar. Tonight, children in hand-me-downs ran this way and that. Grandparents rested their weary bones on the sofas. Lawyers commiserated with grease monkeys at the bar. Their shoulders were hunched, and their eyes were on their glasses. The booze was meant to numb tonight. This was the long tail of a retreat. “Just how bad is this war going?” I asked…only to realize Rei was no longer there. I found her standing in front of a boy seated in a chair. He was wearing a black visor and waving at the air in front of him. She was waving back. “Dieter,” she whispered. “What is wrong with this child…is he damaged?” “Na, that’s a Fuji-Optrix. It’s a portable video game system. Full virtual reality immersion.” “Like the AH-64E’s IHADSS? Can it do 360 degree targeting as well?” My brain nearly ‘sploded. “Huh?” Still it the middle of his game, the kid let out a sigh. “That’s an attack helicopter, dork.” “Indeed. Impressive for a child.” “Hey, I’m not a child.” “Oh?” Rei asked. Ready for a fight, the boy yanked off his Fuji-Optrix goggles. He had to be around fourteen. Unprepared for the sight of a supermodel in a tank top, he did a great impression of a carp. “Holy—um, Alex.” He blinked. “That’s my name.” “I gathered,” Rei said with a smirk. “My name is Drusilla. I am a witch of humble background.” “Of humble what?” Alex asked. I facepalmed. “My family lacked capital,“ Rei explained. “I dwelt in some sort of hovel.” Alex frowned. “That must have sucked.” Rei smirked. Not happy with the direction of this conversation, I decided to intervene. “Where’s everyone coming from?” “Arizona mostly.” “Is it that bad out there?” Alex frowned.” I don’t know, mister, is hell hot?” “Wanna find out?” Okay. Yes. I was arguing with a fourteen year old…but I didn’t like how the pimply bastard kept staring at Rei’s tank top. “And so you fled?” Rei asked. “You abandoned your city to marauders?” Alex looked at the ground. “We barely got out. The wards were never that good to begin with. They didn’t hold for long. And the Weres were everywhere. I mean everywhere. They’re pullin’ people out of their cars on I-40. It’s not like the newspapers say.” Alex gestured for us to come closer. “I even saw a vamp.” “A Nostophoros in Phoenix?” Rei chuckled. “Really, child. Are you certain you were not wearing this fantasy toy at the time?” Alex stiffened. “I know a vamp when I see one.” He patted at a lump in his jacket. “We do drills and everything.” I groaned. Alex was packing wood. “You do drills?” Rei leaned forward and introduced him to the major leagues. It really wasn’t really fair. Rei wasn’t even wearing a bra. “Tell me, have these drills prepared you to face a real one?” Alex gulped. The poor kid was going down in the flames of puberty. I glanced around the room. None of the hundred or so mages were paying us much heed…but that could all change in an instant. “Rei, take it easy. We don’t need to hash this out right now.” “Hush, Dieter. The boy claims to be more than a child. Let him speak for himself.” “I don’t want no fights with the vamps,” he replied. “That would be stupid.” “It most certainly would.” Rei tilted her head in the direction of a blond girl playing with a dozen toy ducklings. She looked six years old at the most. “But what if that little one was in their clutches? Would you abandon her as you did your city?” Alex stiffened. “That’s my sister. I’d kill anything that touched her.” Rei bared her fangs in a broad smile. Alex didn’t scream. Alex didn’t struggle. He froze like a pane of glass. Not a single muscle budged. Tilting her head to the side, Rei ran a hand through his tangled hair. “Such a reasonable little boy…it would be a pity to lose such a rarity. Let me add this important lesson to your training: do try and avoid the eyes.” Alex’s barely managed a nod. “I do wish to continue our conversation—but is it not past your bedding time?” “Yea,” Alex agreed. “Yea, it is past my bedding time.” “And should you not be nodding off to sleep, young Alex?” “Yea, I should be noddin’ off to sleep.” “Good, boy.” Rei drew his scent to her nostrils and let out a little sigh. “May you dream of many triumphs.” The boy slumped back into his chair. His lids had already closed. “Dieter, were you ever this pleasant?” “Huh?” I was still looking at Alex. I had no idea glamour could be that effective. Rei had just shut the kid off with a single thought. I found myself agreeing with Albright. Placing Rei in a squad of glamour resistant mages was the least he could have done. Stars above, she was dangerous. “That was so wrong,” Jules chided. Her arms were crossed, and she was wearing her schoolmarm frown. “Seriously, Rei. An armchair is no place for a wet dream.” “But I did not compel him to wet…” Rei frowned. “Dieter, are you employing a euphemism?” “Guys, bad news,” Dante said. “They’re booked solid. “Darn,” I replied. “Now what?” “Well, we could…hey are those Fuji-Optrix goggles?” Jules rolled her eyes. “How about the alumni club? We all qualify, right?” “The alumni club?” Dante snapped out of his nerd drooling session. “Oh, yea. That’s what I was going to suggest.” He gestured at a quiet corner of the lobby where an antique mirror hung from a wall. “The front desk said the alumni club had a few more rooms…but we’d have to use our real IDs.” Jules shrugged. “Should be fine. All we need ta do is keep ta ourselves. There’s no way that—“ “There is a safer installment nearby,” Rei offered. “Not a chance. I’m not sleepin’ in some drainer crypt.” Jules adjusted her puppies-and-rainbows scarf and stormed off toward the mirror. “That was racist. Was that not racist?” Rei huffed. “May I kill her just a little?” I scratched my head. “Rei, I don’t think you can do just a little of that.” “Oh, you’d be surprised. For instance, a colleague of mine once—” “Alumni club it is,” Dante said. By the time Rei tried to object, Dante was already halfway there. The giant pane of glass was as tall as two men. A green copper frame surrounded it, and a golden pyramid was etched into the top. I recognized the symbol immediately. It was the same creepy eyeball pyramid that was on the back of US dollar bills. Rei arched her head and frowned. “How does this function?” “Well, it be a pepper ghost,” Jules explained. “And that is?” I asked. “A hidden opening to an adjacent room,” Dante answered. “Watch and learn.” He placed his palm on the mirror and pushed in a bit of mana. The pyramid’s eye gave out a green glow in reply. At first I thought nothing was happening, but then I noticed some subtle changes. In the reflection, the wall lanterns were lit with gas. The boring carpet was now an expensive silk rug. Ladies lounged in oversized chairs. Two played chess in the corner. The bar inside was made of glowing yellow onyx, and there was an enormous appetizer buffet right beside it. My mouth started to water. Dante walked through the mirror as if it was made of air. As he crossed the threshold, our drab reflections returned. “Did ya see them cookies?” Jules asked. “Chocolate and oatmeal.” “Ya missed the sugars. I saw three different colors of sugars. Oh, and Dieter, there’s no spell ta be cast. All ya have ta do is push in a wee bit of mana.” Jules released some of her own into the mirror. The cookies reappeared. “Exclusive magic cookies…” I muttered. “Must eat exclusive magic cookies…” “Not before me ya don’t.” Giant guidebook in hand, Jules hopped through the ghost. Rei crossed her arms and frowned. “Why you beaters bake is beyond me. Doesn’t burning your foodstuffs like that destroy the flavor?” “Cookies aren’t burnt, they’re browned.” “They smell like a fireplace.” “Really?” I raised an eyebrow. “They don’t smell burnt to me.” I shrugged. “But I don’t have super nose powers either.” “Indeed. We are never granted more than one.” Rei gestured to the peppers ghost. “Well, go enjoy some of your vittles then. I shall rejoin the three of you later.” “What, you’re not coming?” “I have matters to attend to.” I frowned. She was lying. “Are you not allowed inside?” “It is a public establishment, Dieter.” “So what’s the hang up?” Rei’s jaw tightened. “I simply do not wish to visit such an insipid place.” I frowned. That had felt like a lie. And besides, the alumni club had cookies, and little crackers with cheese, and piles of cold cuts on crusty bread, and mounds of delicious stuffed things. It didn’t look insipid at all. It looked exciting. And there were mages to talk to. Lots of mages. I had about a million and one questions to ask, and then there were the books I’d spotted lining all the walls…but none of that excited me anymore. “I saw another place across the street,” I offered. “We could get a room over there.” Rei blinked. “My most aggressive counterpart, are you offering to spend the night with me?” “Sofa.” I near choked on the word. “You take the bed. I’ll sleep on the sofa.” “But it’s the middle of the night…and I rarely take my meals to bed.” I blanched. “Relax, my buta fiú. My clan has a townhouse just across the park. Go spend some time with your fellows. I shall pay respects to my own. We can rejoin later.” Rei covered her mouth and yawned. “Besides, while your skull’s marrow was most delicious, I do require a proper meal. I’ve hardly dined properly since our little soiree in October.” “You mean you’re going to…” “Subsist on more than air?” Rei laughed it off as if it were another joke. “Yes, Dieter, as long as it does not upset your fine sensibilities, I do wish to keep living.” She went to straighten my collar. “Now tuck this shirt in at its bottom. You remind me of Dwight Frye.” Rei’s cool fingers were oh-so gentle, but all I could think about was the next poor sap who was about to make their acquaintance. Would he get the same treatment? “Rei, what is a proper meal?” Rei’s hand paused on the button. She didn’t raise her head. “I am curious, Dieter. What do you think it means?” I took in an unsteady breath. I’d been dancing around this one a bit. “I think that we’ve gotten past the guessing stage. I think that you should spell it out.” Rei glanced at our reflections in the mirror. “I fail to see what purpose that would serve.” “Isn’t it obvious?” Rei pushed off me and turned her head to the side. She looked so small standing there alone on the cold marble floor. More delicate than I’d allowed her to be. More breakable. “Dieter,” she asked, “do I disgust you?” I stood there in silence for what felt like a long time. The truth was that Rei had a way of making my skin crawl. The truth was that she was a murderer. But the way she was looking at me…it made me want to ignore all that. It made me want to keep her safe. It made me want to do all the hurting so that she wouldn’t have to. And so I decided to do something much stupider. I decided to lie to a vampire. “Stars above, Rei. Of course not.” The pain crackled across her features. Her very presence seemed to fade away. I felt the wrenching in my guts. I could sense the harm I’d done. When she looked up, she looked straight past me. It was the cruelest thing she’d ever done. “I can understand disgust. I can understand contempt. But lying to me is another matter. Another matter entirely.” “Can we just let this go?” “That you find my very existence revolting?” Rei’s jaw went taught with rage. Her anger struck me like a hammer. “Tell me, Dieter. How does one let such a thing go?” “You could start by being grateful.” I could hardly believe I’d said it…but I found I was getting angry too. Unreasonably so. The way she had looked past me. I didn’t want to forgive her for that. I wasn’t the one in the wrong here. I wasn’t the one crushing windpipes. “This whole murdering people for sustenance thing is a little hard to handle. You know, them being people and all.” Rei clenched her fists, and her voice slid out on a lethal whisper. “Dieter, only a fool judges what he does not understand. And you are being quite foolish right now.” “Foolish?” I laughed right in her condescending face. “But isn’t foolish the way you like me?” “Excuse me?” she snarled. “You know exactly what I mean.” Rei was always hiding the truth, always yelling at me for not knowing, but I was starting to pick up on a pattern. Whether it was with me, or with Jules, or with Monique, or even with that poor kid Alex, Rei plain loved rubbing someone’s nostrils in their errors. Power and control, that was what it was all about. Rei relished her own dominance, and yet she had the gall to scold me on my manners? I wasn’t the one snacking on people nightly…or was it more than nightly? I’d never really pondered it. Exactly how many people did it take to keep a full-grown Nostophoros humming? One man a week…two…enough to fill a morgue? Did the pretentious bitch crack open a kid or two for starters and then kick back on the couch with a nice virgin? And speaking of which, I was still technically a virgin. So could Rei maybe like smell that? Rei had sniffed her hand after rubbing Alex’s hair…may she got off on that virgin mojo…old Liz Bathory sure seemed to, and apples didn’t tend to fall to far from the— “Fascinating,” Rei whispered. “Huh?” I was still kinda caught up in my internal tirade. “So this is what I am to you.” It occurred to me that I’d been staring into Rei’s eyes this entire time. It occurred to me that’s how the weft-link worked best. It occurred to me that Rei was standing like a brittle piece of ice. It occurred to me that she might be crying. “Rei, I’m—“ “Do you have any idea the concessions I make? The struggles I must endure?” She took a step towards me, pure murder in her eyes. “And feeding off your young…this is all your feeble mind could dredge up?” Rei’s face tightened, and I found myself against the wall. My Sight had flared—but after she had moved. “I’m not like her, you feckless pig. I shall never be like her. I am my own will to command. I live by my own rules, my own wishes, and I shall not stand to have you smear excrement all over what you know nothing about!” The lobby was still a chaotic mess, but a petite young female pinning a man to a wall by his neck managed to catch everyone’s attention. I didn’t think a bunch of mages on hair triggers would take kindly to a raving vampire in their midst. Fighting to regain my breath, I said, “Stars above, Rei, you’re making a scene.” Rei dropped me like a bad habit. I coughed my brains out as she kicked me. “A scene?” She almost started to laugh before she was overtaken by fury. “A scene is what concerns you?” My Sight flared with a shattering blast of pain and hurt and anger. She was going to slap me, and for the first time since I’d met her, I realized I had enough time to dodge. Stars rained across my vision as the sound of the strike echoed off the walls. I hadn’t moved an inch. I’d totally deserved it. “Get fucked,” she screamed. “Get fucked thousands of ways. Get fucked with pokers, and barbs, and…and…other sharp things.” Two kids that had been running around the Christmas tree stopped in their tracks to giggle. Turning red, I rubbed out my wounded jaw. “I thought you wanted honesty.” Rei wiped off her hand like it was dirty. “Indeed. And now I want something better than you.” I’d never been hit that hard before. I stood there like a dope as she marched straight out of the lobby, men and women clearing out of her way as she passed. I was left a giant knot of pain and confusion. Why had I become so angry? Why had I said such stupid things? I felt dumb. Really dumb. And then I started feeling mad again… So my imagination had run wild. What the hell did Rei expect? She never told me anything. And she didn’t have any business poking around in my brain, either. When I’d slipped into Rei’s mind, it’d been totally on accident. But we both knew that staring into one another’s eyes held that risk now. She only had herself to blame…right? Steaming, I scooped up some mana from the leyline and threw it at the giant mirror. What did I care if Rei wanted to be a brat? I had mages to meet and cookies to eat. I nodded to myself. I wasn’t going to let Rei get to me. Tonight was going to be awesome despite her. That’s about when I noticed that the air around me was growing warm. In front of me, the mirror let loose a squeal like a teakettle. Exactly how much mana had I…I glanced up to find molten metal and grimaced. ”Aw, shit…” Before I even knew it, I was flying across the alumni club lobby. Chapter 10 CHECK, PLEASE When I came to, the first thing I processed was a bartender setting a bottle of gin down on the ceiling. The man’s upside-down beard was the size of a small hedge, and his biceps looked ready to shred his shirt. I’d seen both the insides and the outsides of two “minor” trolls in New York City, so I considered myself something of a troll expert. This guy fit the bill. Seated at the bar were four nicely dressed gentlefolk. At first, I thought they were all smiling at me, but then I realized I was the one that was upside down. I looked up at my feet. Broken bottles were emptying their high-octane contents down my pants. I must have flown clear across the room and into the back of the bar. I tried shifting my weight, but a piece of broken glass tried to carve an entrance into my shoulder. I decided not to move anymore. “Whatcha having, lad?” the bartender asked. His voice was tuba deep, and his jaw shifted about like a piece of marble. (Oh, and he didn’t seem fazed by my entrance in the slightest.) “Whatever is least painful.” “Bah! Done worse with a trip and fall.” He waved the thought away with his hand and caused a small breeze. “I meant to drink, lad. Whatcha having?” I examined all the broken bottles all around me. I bit my lip. I tried to stay strong—and caved. “Do you have any coffee?” “Coffee? Of course.” He let out a barrel-chested laugh. “Where do you think you be, Cahokia? This is the Buck, lad. We’ve got coffee by the sack-full. All the more just to spite him.” The giant barkeep grabbed my jacket with one hand and my jeans with the other. Without even a grunt, he hoisted me out of the broken glass. He gave me a good mid-air shake, and then set me down on one of the barstools with a chuckle. “You’re too thin, lad. We’ve got to be getting some beef into ya tonight.” Food sounded good…but I couldn’t keep my eyes off his massive hands. I’d watched a minor troll beat Rei to a pulp. This guy could pop me like a pimple. “Sorry about the damage, mister.” My hand shaking, I handed him my entire wallet. The giant barkeep pulled out a single twenty and tossed the sopping leather mess back. “A cup of Joe only be fifteen dollars.” He gave me a wink. “But thanks for the tip.” “Sure,” I said with a nod. It was the best five dollars I’d ever spent. Once the coast was clear, Jules crept up next to me. Her face held an expression somewhere between horror and awe. She was holding the gigantic US road map like a shield, and a snack plate like a sword. “Dieter, I said a wee bit of mana.” She pointed a shaky finger at the other side of the room. The frame of the walk-through mirror was still glowing crimson, and the fine silk wallpaper was smoldering. A bellman clutching a fire extinguisher was eyeing the whole setup with a look of deep concern. “Dieter, that was not wee.” I went to nod and my neck let loose a heinous crack. “Ya break somethin’?” Looking hopeful, Jules poked my ribs. “A femur, perhaps?” “Only my pride.” “That crash shoulda put ya in traction.” Jules shook her head at it. “Guess all the bourbon broke yer fall…” The man seated next to me scowled at her. (Must have been his bourbon I murdered.) But he wasn’t the only one. There were thirty or so men and women in the alumni club. None of them looked all too pleased with my awesome entrance. I just wished they’d all stop staring for a bit. My poor Sight was howling. It had a way of overloading when I held a lot of folks’ attention. Despite the rising headache, I tried to make an inventory of the room. The Buckingham’s alumni club looked to be at least a hundred years older than the lobby. Everything was lit by gaslight, and the edges of the dark wood paneling were painted with a thin coat of gold. The strange mix of gold fleck and flame gave the room a shifty yellow glow. Edges blurred, and the richer hues sprung out at you. The men in the room all wore suits and ties. The women were a collage of flashy gowns. It didn’t take a fashionista to figure out these people had a ton of money. My father hadn’t been able to afford a simple suit for his own mother’s funeral, and these ones probably cost several times as much. The old woman seated nearest me had to be the biggest fish. A diamond tiara was resting on her forehead, and she wore a flowing red dress sewn together with thin gold thread. The fringes of the gown danced between the oranges and yellows of a sunset, and each of the eight or so hues was given it’s own special layer. I thought it was a shame to waste it on such an old fart. Rei would have imploded space and time in a dress like that…I shook my head clear. I needed to stop fantasizing about an apex predator that liked to throw me into walls without a second notice. Fortunately, something else caught my attention. There was a threesome seated next to the roaring fireplace on the opposite wall. Trench coats were hanging off the backs of their chairs. One of the men had his face wrapped in bandages. His hand busy with a pipe, which he nursed to life with a gentle puff. He was chatting with serrated black hair. Deep acne wounds marked the entirety of the second’s face. A woman was snoozing in the chair next to him. A broadsword was resting between her knees. I shook my head at the scene. What was this—the set of fucking Highlander? “DEA, ahoy,” I whispered to Jules. “That they be…but nuttin’ ta worry about, Dieter. The authorities have merely identified ya as the village idiot.” I snatched one of her cookies. “Hey, Jules, remind me which idiot beat last year’s high score in biochemistry?” “I had the flu that week.” “Sure you did.” “Focker.” Jules jabbed me with her elbow. The old lady wearing the tiara chuckled. She’d been observing the two of us this whole time, and now the shrewdest little smile was planted on her wrinkled face. The woman seated across from the old woman reached across the coffee table to pour her a cup of tea. The rich aroma of black licorice met my nose as she did. I couldn’t help but gawk at the younger of the two. Her sharp ebony features were frozen in neutral, but her eyes burned like amber coals, almost as though they were lit from within. The ancient woman and the super model made for an odd couple, but I didn’t get a sense that we were troubling them. Couldn’t say the same for the rest of the guests. They were still glaring at me like a rat in the pudding. “What happened to Bathory?” Jules asked. “Did she get sucked into a parallel universe, never ta return?” “Na. Got a case of the midnight munchies.” Blanching, Jules put down her plate and faked a gag. “I just wantcha to know that we are not sharin’ a room.” “Bottoms up, lad,” the bartender said as he returned with my fifteen-dollar coffee. He gestured to the adjacent hall, where the Buckingham’s staffers were preparing the table for the evening meal. “Boss is steamin’. I’d hurry if I was you.” The man supervising the dinner prep did look a little irritated. I watched his thin black mustache twitch up and down a few times. It was sorta mesmerizing… Realizing my time was short, I snatched up Jules’ last cookie and dunked it in the coffee. “Oi!” Jules exclaimed. “Ya already stole one. Get yer own, ya focker.” “I need the calories more. I’m getting the boot.” “Ya think?” Jules rolled her brilliant green eyes. “Don’t worry, Dante’ll just shroud ya back in later.” “Speaking of Dante, where the heck is he?” “Hiding by the front desk.” I let out a sigh. What a freaking night. Rei was pissed at me, these VIP mages were pissed at me, I hadn’t gotten dinner yet, and my pants were a soppy mess…where was the bloody reset button? I finished off the commandeered cookie just as the pencil-mustached boss man started his march over to the bar. The guy had a peculiar way of walking that suggested a curtain rod had been lodged up his ass. Three feet away, the wafer of a man paused to deliver an overly dramatic frown. I drained the last of my coffee as the man let out a gust of wind that was far too ambitious for his narrow nose. “Excuse me, sir, but do you have a reservation?” The nameplate read Ambassador Balcon, and his voice sounded high and reedy. I tried not to chuckle. He must have been pummeled on the playground. “No, but I can pay ahead in cash if you—” “Cash? How quaint. We only accept bullion. And the Translocation Society of America is having a function this evening. I’m afraid that the Buckingham is booked solid.” “Oh. That’s too bad.” Bullshit. There were still quite a few keys hanging behind the front desk. “But I’d be happy to arrange for some other form of lodging.” His eyes lingered over my liquorsoaked jeans. “Perhaps a nearby motel?” Ass. “Sure thing, Mr. Balcon. Sorry for the, um, mess.” There was no use in fighting it. The guy was a prick, but it was his place after all. I stood and a few more shards of glass tumbled to the ground. “Still kinda new at this,” I said with a chuckle. “Later gater,” Jules said with a twiddle of her fingers. I stuck my tongue out at her. Jules was enjoying my unceremonious eviction a bit too much. “You too, madam,” Balcon said with another twitch of his whiskers. “Me? Why me?” Jules stammered. “He’s the idiot. What’d I do wrong?“ Balcon gave Jules a slow look up and down, then turned to the crowd with a smile. “Other than dressing yourself in a throw rug?” A few of the guests chuckled. Jules tried to not give them the pleasure, but her ears were going red. “Now if you two would come with me.” Pencil-stash took Jules by the arm—which I considered a bad call. “Don’t ya be touchin’ me.” Jules went to push Balcon away, but he managed to hold onto her by the puppy scarf. “Do I need to involve the authorities?” he hissed. The sight of Pencil-stash tugging on Jules’ neck like a doggy was enough to get me angry. “Chill, man,” I said squeezing between the two of them. “We’ll go, but I need you to take your hands off blondie.” “Blondie!” Jules socked me in the side, and I stumbled away. “I’m not goin’ anywhere. I have rights, I do. Ya cannot just be evictin’ me for no cause and such. The Tenets clearly state—” “Johansen, get me security.” The barkeep gave his bald head a rub. “Boss, isn’t it a bit late to be tossing—” “Johansen, I’m not paying you for your timekeeping.” He gave Jules’ scarf a tug towards the door. “Give me a hand or you’re following them.” Jules was sending off another choked off, “Oi!” when the entire club cracked with a massive boom. The old woman seated next to us had rapped her cane against the ground. The marble beneath it had shattered. The old lady looked none too pleased. Her bushy white brows rose to an impossible height. “Bacon, this is unheard of. You’d send them outside at night?” The ambassador let go of Jules and adjusted the lay of his suit. “Madam Fremont, as I have told you before, my name is Balcon, not Bacon, and I—“ “Listen here, Bacon,” the tiara lady interrupted. “I won’t stand for…for…” Madam Fremont faltered as wave of violent coughs shook her tiny chest. Her frail body rocked from each and every spasm. Her ebony companion brought the black licorice scented tea to her lips, and Madam Fremont took a grateful sip. “Thank you, Ayaan dear,” she whispered. The concoction seemed to be helping, because she was back on the attack in no time. “Now hear now, Bacon, these children will stay in my suite tonight. You know full well that the evacuations have sewn all sorts of chaos. I won’t have three young mages sucked dry in some gutter by dawn.” “Young mages?” Balcon’s mustache gave another irritated twitch. “I would encourage you to reinspect these ‘young mages’. Certainly, a lady such as yourself would not want to be associated with such a filthy pair of sparks.” “Bacon, the only one certain about what I am certain about, is the only one certainly speaking out of my mouth. Now I declared these children under the protection of my circle. This discussion is at a close. Why don’t you busy yourself with your talents, and go and check on the roast.” Balcon gave his suit jacket another tug. “Your circle? You mean all two of you?” That comment drew a few laughs, which definitely put some more wind in Balcon’s sails. “I’ve had enough of these miscreants scampering about the embassy grounds. This is a club for university-trained mages, not some hackish trinket peddlers that managed to hex their way through a pepper ghost. I am the duly appointed DOMA representative here, and I will not have you keeping strays on the premises.” The man seated nearest to me leaned over and poked me in the chest. “Here, here, Balcon. Toss these rancid bums out!” I near gagged on the compost pile masquerading as his breath. It reeked of Fruity Pebble diarrhea. The drunken bastard near toppled off his stool before Johansen righted him, but most of the crowd was on his side. One went so far as to applaud. I hadn’t been aware that the Magi took their tier system so seriously. My classmates at Elliot had worked hard to avoid the topic entirely. Elliot only admitted about thirty mages a year. (I’m told that’s how many Tier 4 plus mages North America produces.) But early on, I’d learned that talking tiers was almost as uncool as comparing SAT scores. I guess that was a good thing, because I had no idea what my own rank was. I looked over at the DEA mages for support. The bandaged guy was still busy loading more tobacco into his pipe, and the pockmarked man was picking away at his fingernails with a knife. The orange-haired woman let out a snort, shifted in her chair, and went back to snoozing. I guessed that meant we were on our own… Before I could figure out what to do, Ambassador Balcon had Jules and me by the collar again. Madam Fremont shouted something. Jules lost her footing and fell. Her giant guidebook flew up into the air. Her feet went out from under her. I caught her right before she hit her head on the bar top. That’s also about when shit got real…the entire room echoed with a thunderous boom. All the glassware shattered. Decades of dust shook off the walls. And a crushing aura crashed into me. I’d never felt the sensation before. The enormous oscillations were tossing my Ki back and forth like a dingy. “May Zeus strike you down,” she shouted. “Bacon, you are both a pissant and a fool.” “Excuse me?” Balcon’s attention was occupied by the grievous harm she had just wrought on his glassware. He seemed oblivious to the violent stew of power churning all around him. “What is this?” I asked Jules. “A mana storm,” she answered, gripping my arm for support. “It’s like flexin’ yer muscles.” My eyes bulged. “Wait, so this is all her own mana?” “Aye…some of it.” “I said you are a fool, Bacon. A pissant and a fool. Can you not see the tapestry that has been laid out in front of you?” “What in the devil are you talking about?” Ambassador Balcon asked. Madam Fremont pointed her gnarled cane at Dante, who was still hiding out at the front desk. “A Kentuckian wearing a fine-spun Eastern cardigan. A somersaulting lad with socks monogrammed EC. And a charming young lass with a long reed woven in simple circles around her waist. One does not have to be Angela Lansbury to reason this out.” Some in the crowd let out gasps. A woman in the back pointed at Jules. “That one’s a druid?” She covered her face in embarrassment. Madam Fremont gestured to the Christmas tree in the corner. “Apologies for the sacrilege, dear. Some of the Magi forget their roots.” “No worries, ma’am,” Jules said with a slight bow. “What’s the deal, Jules?” I whispered. “Are you magic Elvis?” “Don’t be such a fockin’ thicko, Dieter. Druids are just a bit…rare.” “You mean precious, dear,” Madam Fremont corrected. Ambassador Balcon cleared his throat. “Terribly sorry for the mix-up, priestess. If there’ is anything I can—“ “Ayaan, please show these young ones to my suite.” I frowned. Madam Fremont was looking dreadfully pale. “See to it that the party from Elliot receives all the xenia that…that they…deserve.” Now Madam Fremont’s whole body was sagging. A look of concern flashed across Ayaan’s face. She was at Madam Fremont’s side in a heartbeat. “I’m fine, my love,” Fremont said waving her off. “I could just do for a supper. Students, the young ambassador’s manners may be woefully lacking, but his kitchen is quite capable. Call upon us in an hour. I would be quite honored if you sit with me at the head of the table.” “Nice landing,” Dante whispered—he’d snuck up behind us in the confusion. “Nice back up,” I said. “Bud, I was monitoring the situation.” “And now you’re here to bask in Jules’ glory?” “It’s so nice and warm,” Dante said with a grin. I laughed. Jules growled. “Fockers, both of ye,” she grumbled. + Ayaan led us up the alumni club’s double staircase and into a well-appointed suite on the third story of the hotel. It had two full bedrooms and an enormous living room. A dark-hued piano sat primly on the white marble. All the fixtures were gold. Five travel chests took up most of the open space near the entryway. I counted stickers from over twenty different countries. Some of the places I’d never even heard of. Still not uttering a word, Ayaan knelt down to the nearest one and flipped open the clasps. Out came gown after fantastic gown. Jules eyes widened as Ayaan piled the vibrant hues one atop the next on the couch. “Wow,” Dante said. “There’s money—and then there’s money.” Jules let out a little gasp as a gold one was tossed by the wayside. “Ms. Ayaan, this really isn’t necessary.” With a look of disgust, Ayaan tossed the matching gold and yellow parasol across the room. “We’d do fine with some sandwiches and showers,” Jules said, ducking the mayhem, “ya don’t have to go through all this trouble.” Dante and I nodded vigorously. Dinner parties were scary. Pizza parties were safe. Ayaan gave Jules a placating pat on the head but then shook her head no. Acknowledging defeat, Jules plopped down on the couch and sighed. “I don’t even have me brush. I’m gonna look ridiculous.” “Wait, you own a brush?” Jules glared at me over her wire-rimmed glasses. Ayaan rooted around for another five minutes before letting loose a guttural purr. Pulling out a sparkling emerald ball gown, she rushed over to hold it against Jules. “Oi, Ms. Ayaan, that be too pricy!” Ignoring her pleas, Ayaan pulled the young witch off the couch and dragged her into the master bedroom. “So what are we supposed to do?” I asked as Jules cries became muffled. “Order room service, of course. There’s no way I’m going down there.” Dante plopped onto the couch. “Hey, you think this place has a Fujistation 4?” Popping her head out of the bedroom, Ayaan hit Dante in the head with a bar of soap. She gestured to the other bedroom and let out an hiss. “So I guess we’re going too…” “This is exactly why I was hiding. You people are cursed.” + Exiting the shower, I parted my hair to check on Rei’s pokey holes. I drew in a breath at the sight. Rei’s fang marks were gone. I don’t mean faded; I mean totally gone. A little shiver ran down to my toes. How could I have healed so fast? I mushed my hair back in place. The finer points of Vampirosporin™ could wait for later. Right now I had to do something about my rather ragged appearance. Now, I don’t think I’m a bad looking guy. I’m tall, I’ve got some strong German cheekbones, and my teeth are in tidy rows. I run whenever I can. I do pushups each and every morning. I don’t have a heavy build, but I’m not a wet noodle either. My image issues really start and end with my hair. The brown mop grows like a weed on steroids. No sooner do I cut it then it’s springing up on end. It didn’t help that I hadn’t been shaving recently. I looked like I’d spent the past few months in a log cabin training for a fight against Ivan Drago. To be honest, I hadn’t even been bothering with mirrors recently. My job was to cast spells and not melt anyone’s face off. But no matter how much I didn’t want to admit it, Ambassador Balcon’s comments were kinda bugging me. It was as though he thought I wasn’t even capable of looking decent. I lathered up my face and started working through the scruff. Dante didn’t share my concerns. He was in our suite’s giant bathtub making bubbles. “How old are you?” I asked. “Eighteen—but I plan on turnin’ seven next year.” He grinned and squirted water at me. “Besides, this may be the last time I get to play in a tub.” With the assignment we’d been gifted, Dante’s was a fair point. “Hey, did you see those DEA agents by the fireplace? Should we be worried?” Dante was building a pile of soap bubbles on his head. He plopped another lump on top. “Maybe. The bandaged guy is probably on leave. Doubt he cares for shit. But the other two? They’re definitely not from Collins’ division. The one with the pockmarks all over his face is named Jasper Tools. Francesca Reckling was the tall woman with the orange hair sleeping next to him. Agent Tools is a hard ass. If he figures out who we are, he’ll probably drag us with him to the front. We’d be stuck defending Salt Lake or Phoenix.” Dante frowned. “Wait…maybe we should let Agent Tools catch us. The frontline sounds safer.” “How the heck did you figure out their names?” I asked. “Did you skim the registry?” “Na.” Dante chuckled. “All the known weft-pairs are famous, bud.” “Weft-pairs?” I paused mid-shave. “Sorry, what?” Dante shrugged and his leaning tower of suds toppled. “I collected their trading cards growing up. I bet the binder is still hiding under my parent’s couch.” “Weft-pairs have trading cards?” “Yea, the cards list their stats and stuff: Tier rankings. Favored elements. Known kills. You know, the usual.” “Right. The usual.” Weft-pair trading cards? My mind was racing. Could pairs somehow sense other pairs? Could Jasper and Francesca figure out that Rei and I had weft? “Hey, Dante, wouldn’t it be better if they kept that sort of stuff a secret?” “Sure, that is why I said all the known weft-pairs. Like Collins and Masterson.” “Collins and Masterson are a pair…wait, are you serious?” “Yea, of course. They’re two of the DEA’s finest. But to answer your other question, some weftpairs do prefer to work in secret. But there can’t be too many like that. I mean, don’t you think it would be kinda obvious? You know, like those idiots at Elliot that think they’re keeping their relationships a secret?” I knicked my neck with the razor. “Careful there, bud. Don’t want Rei busting in here for a lick.” “Funny, Dante. But you’re telling me that there’s no way to tell two people have wefted?” “You’d have to see them casting. Weft-pairs use different tactics than lone mages.” I let out a giant sigh of relief. So I just needed to avoid casting around Rei. That was simple enough. She wouldn’t let me do that anyway. “So Jasper and Francesca are a big deal?” “Yea. Total badasses. They got real famous after taking out a circle of poser necromancers ten years ago. But, bud, could you imagine living like that?” “Living like what?” I was still trying to process the ‘poser necromancers’ part. “I mean, yea, pairs are badass, but they hear each others’ thoughts and shit. Sadie’s parents—God rest ‘em—they took us all out to eat last year. Dieter, her dad knew exactly when to pass the potatoes to her mom. She didn’t even have to ask. Not a word. Wouldn’t that freak you out?” I frowned. “What, passing the potatoes? Isn’t that the foundation of all relationships?” Dante threw some suds at me. “No, man, I mean the freaking mind reading.” I nodded. My own damn weft had just afforded me a public slapping. “Yea, that can be kinda annoying.” “How would you know?” Dante let out a laugh. “You weft up with Rei or something?” I froze. I flat out froze. “Dieter?” Dante’s voice sounded miles away. Kill him, my child. I felt like I was falling into an enormous pit. Kill him before it’s too late. I looked down to find my left hand creeping towards him. “No,” I coughed out. I pinned lefty with my right. “What?” Dante asked. “Auraception,” I near shouted. “A weft-link must be like auraception.” My child, this stratagem is faulty. Dante turned off the bathtub jets. “How so?” “See?” I muttered. Ah, so he is a simpleton… “Shut it,” I hissed. The cooky voice in my head could take a suck. I had a chance to steer this the right way. “Dante, when I Sighted you two minutes ago, I saw you were of two minds.” “Two minds?” he asked. “The aqua blue sparks I saw matched your pleasure with the bubbles—but the burbling brown shadows behind them indicated that you really needed to take a dump.” This was of course total nonsense. I knew Dante needed to take a dump because we’d been stuck in a car since four o’clock this morning. Dante’s normal deuce arrived at ten AM sharp. I knew this because his foul brand required all Lambda members to perform a daily tactical withdrawal. But Dante’s natural rhythm had been disturbed by our road trip. There had to be a fifteen-car pileup in his oversized colon. The guess wasn’t even a gamble, but Dante looked shocked. “Jesus! You’re telling me that a distinct emotion is attached to the urge to poop?” “Totally unique. And now you understand my point. Auraception is probably a lot like wefting. Did I want this knowledge? Of course not. Am I subjected to it anyway? Hell yes.” Again, total nonsense. “Wow,” Dante said. “It feels like I just stumbled onto another frame. Did you name it?” “Name it…yea…um…I did. I call it…let’s see…I call it…” Poop-lust? Deuceness? The Southern glow? There were too many to choose from. “Bowely! I call it bowely.” “Bowely?” Dante repeated. “Huh. You’re right, I do feel a bit bowely right now.” “And that’s my cue to get out of here. Happy baby-making.” “Dieter, bud, I’m gonna name it after you.” “Gross.” I shut the bathroom door behind me and sank down to the floor of our bedroom. Wiping off the sweat with my towel, I let out a heavy sigh. That had been too close. Unless I wanted to get both Rei and myself killed, I had to be more careful with my tongue. In front of me, someone let out a tiny gasp. Confused, I looked up to find Jules, freshly painted toenails and all. Her blonde curls were done up into an ornate bun, and the elaborate forest green evening gown was now hanging off her shoulders. My eyes widened at the sight of it. It was one ambitious piece of cloth. Layer after layer of shimmering green satin descended from just above her hips. They mimicked the pedals of a flower, and fluttered with the slightest flinch of the skin. Jules had one of her petite arms above her head like a ballerina. The other was filching my deodorant. “That’s mine,” I said. “Aye, it is isn’t it…oh, this? Left mine in the car, I did.” Jules’ brilliant green eyes were surrounded by a splash of smoky violet eyeliner. I blinked. She knew how to wear eyeliner? “I thought you hated contacts.” “Dieter,” she whispered, “it be outdoors.” “What?” “Oh. Oh! Me contacts, yes. Me contacts only bug me when I’m outdoors.” Only trouble with the gown was it was a bit small around the center. Every time Jules took a breath…wow, there they went again. “They’re so nice and round,” I muttered. “Nice and round?” “Your eyes,” I stammered. “You can’t appreciate their roundness when you wear glasses.” I must have really pissed Jules off…I’d never seen her go purple before. “Dieter…” “Jules, I’m so sorry.” “Oh! Oh, it be fine, Dieter. No worries at all. We both be adults and such.” She smirked. Looked dizzy. Grasped the dresser. “It’s just…I be wonderin’…is it true that they get a lot bigger when they get excited?” For the first time, I took note of the towel I was holding. The one I’d taken off to wipe off my face. The one that wasn’t around my waist. My heart started beating against my ears. This wasn’t happening. This absolutely, positively, wasn’t happening. I couldn’t be giving my magic tutor the full frontal. I absolutely could not. Not in the nightmares inside my nightmares was that possible…so my brain just sorta went on autopilot and answered her absolutely insane question. “As a general rule, Jules? Yea.” “Great glorious Awen.” Jules took in a deep breath. “And here I thought Maria was razzin’ me.” Putting down my deodorant, she walked straight out the door. “Shitballs,” I said, burying my head in my hands. Maybe I should apologize. Say something like: “Sorry for displayin’ me dongle.” No. “I know it’s rude to point.” No. “Now you know where I store all that mana.” Double no. I decided to just sit there in shock. A few minutes later, Dante came out of the bathroom whistling. “Hey, Dieter! I don’t feel bowely anymore.” “That’s great, Dante,” I said, rubbing out my temples. “Bud, it got real emotional in there. I’d give that porcelain goddess some time to breath.” I cinched my towel tighter. The list of tonight’s disasters just seemed to keep growing. + Why Madam Fremont’s wardrobe contained suits that fit the both of us was beyond me. Mine was jet black. Dante’s was a dark blue. We picked out some ties, and Ayaan helped us cinch them. Our turnaround had taken under an hour, but I figured we were running late. As I slipped on a pair of shoes, Ayaan was already pointing to her watch with a frown. “You ready, Jules?” I asked. “Ready?” Jules had near shouted. “Oh. Oh, yes.” She went to nudge her glasses, realized they weren’t there, and made busy picking at the stitch line of her white dinner gloves. As Ayaan opened the door and ushered us into the hall, I was feeling pretty nervous. I didn’t know much about fine dining. I’d spent most of my time in the frozen foods aisle. Sure, I’d helped cater a few events, but I only knew how to fill up the water glasses. I’d taken dancing lessons once, but I’d never bothered to learn all that etiquette stuff. Now it was coming back to bite me in the ass. When we reached the stairs, I could already hear the silverware clanking. I took a deep breath. This was going to be bad. “Dieter,” Dante said, “protocol states that seniors are to be escorted by their apprentices.” “Do I get to carry a sword?” “Na, bud, you get to hold an arm.” Dante gave Jules a nudge. “Oi, Dante, watch it!” she scolded. I caught her before she took a nosedive down the stairs. “You okay?” She had shivered a bit when I touched her shoulder. “That I be,” she said to my chest. “Just no practice in heels.” “And I’ve no practice in twenty pieces of freaking silverware.” Jules’ body felt so warm, and her shoulder fit under my arm, and I could smell my own antiperspirant on her skin, and I was starting have that feeling you get when you sit in one of those massage chairs at the mall… “I’ll teach ya proper manners if ya don’t let me fall down the stairs,” she offered. Dante winked at me. He had his arm intertwined with Ayaan’s. (Apparently, everything was going according to his master plan.) Getting down the stairs took a lot of time. In such a daring gown, Jules was forced to guess at where here feet were…and Jules was never very good at movement. Still, that didn’t keep her from bossing me about. “First lesson is ta get yer hands out of yer pockets and stop hunching like that Egor character.” I frowned. “That’s funny. Rei just—” “Second lesson is ta pay attention to yer date. And stop starin’ at the floor. Yer not a pauper huntin’ for change.” “But I’m helping you with your—” “Not important. Let me fall. Dieter, ya’ve gotta keep yer shoulders back and yer chin high. Look these sorts straight in the nose. Don’t be given ‘em no quarter.” “I’m guessing the eyes are a no-no?” “Aye. Some’ll have a talent with the mind.” As we reached the final landing, Jules tugged at the lines of her gown. “Our announcement comes first. Get yer smile on, ya focker.” “Our announcement?” That part kinda echoed across the dining room. The dinner party had already started, but all the action had halted when our party reached the landing. Seemed like we were a curiosity of sorts. Ayaan descended the last bank of stairs and handed a card to the tuxedo-wearing man waiting below. “That’s the maître d’,” Jules explained. “When I curtsey, you bow.” “Right.” I tried to blink away the headache. This dinner party was huge. At least thirty people were seated at the table. All that attention was like a stampede of cymbals to my Sight. “May I announce Mr. Dieter Resnick, Mr. Jay Dante, and Ms. Jules Nelson of Elliot College. Ms. Ayaan of the Fremont Circle accompanying.” Guess that’s what we got for using our real names…I wanted to curl up in a ball, but Jules’ nails were already dragging me into a bow. Light applause followed, and the maître d' guy led us over to the far end of the table. Madam Fremont had pride of place at the end of it, and Ayaan took up position behind her. “Bravo, young lady,” Madam Fremont said to Jules. Leaning forward, Madam Fremont frowned at the gown. “Wasn’t thirty years enough? Wake up, Jasmine.” Jules gave a start as the many satin folds of her gown spread wide like a proud peacock. A few gasps escaped the guests at the table. “An apotropaic,” Dante whispered. Jasmine the Animated Gown seemed to take that as a compliment. She shook herself from top to bottom like a cat. “She wants to be twirled, dear,” Madam Fremont said with a chuckle. The gown followed Jules’ motions like the tail of tropical fish. Flecks of purple and blue shimmered at the ends. The men started clapping—but the scene drew some of the women into low murmurs. “So gaudy,” one of them whispered. (I didn’t need my Sight to sense the envy rolling off that tongue.) “Good to see that old feather duster getting some use,” Madam Fremont said. “You’re my height, it seems.” “Yes, ma’am,” Jules said. “A bit bigger in the bust though!” Madam Fremont said with a cackling laugh. I had enough sense to pull out Jules’ chair. The gown parted ways as she sat, and as Jules removed her dinner gloves, the satin folds of her dress settled around her like a contented cat. I chose the chair between Jules and Madam Fremont, and Dante sat across from us. Denied Ayaan’s company, he sat to the left of a woman with a hawkish nose. She introduced herself as Dolores Fink. I recognized her as the one who had laughed at us just a few moments ago. Now Fink was all smiles. Apparently, being an Elliot student had upgraded Dante from table scraps to a full course meal. The bandaged DEA man sat next to Fink. He looked more interested in his scabs. A soup course was served as soon as we took up our napkins, and a small band struck up some easy jazz. Looking down at the soup, I gestured to the spoon above the plate. Jules shook her head no and pointed to the one next to the three knives on the right. Armed properly, I went to take a sip of the soup and drew back. It smelled of vinegar and… “I’m sorry, but isn’t this blood?” “It is called melas zomos, the black soup of Sparta,” Madam Fremont explained. This version features pork blood, pork meat, and vinegar base to halt the clotting.” Jules was turning as green as her evergreen dress. None of the old folks had lifted a spoon. They were all just sitting there staring at their bowls. “They actually ate this stuff?” I asked. “Well, the original Spartan soup had only one ingredient.” “Only one…you mean…” “Yes, dear. They fell at daybreak on the third day, remember? Father said it was quite moving. They kept fighting as they burned.” “Oh.” I needed to get a better history book, STAT. “This version is an old embassy tradition. A reminder of what lies beyond these doors. You aren’t expected to eat it, just ponder it.” I didn’t need to ponder anything. “We shouldn’t be wasting food.” “I’d hardly call it food, dear.” Fremont’s eyes widened as I dipped my spoon in the thick red muck. “Bit salty,” Dante offered. He was already halfway through his. “Here, here,” the bandaged guy said when I finished. “Name’s Stetson. What section are you attached to?” “Umm…” I started. Good question… “We were dispatched by Section Chief Collins, sir,” Dante answered. “Good man, Collins. Never afraid to hand out a challenging task…I’m on leave from Salt Lake, myself. Off to visit the dog and wife.” Agent Tools leaned in from next to Jules. He wasn’t a pretty man. His hair was a jagged chop of black, and his face looked like it had been carpet bombed by acne. He sat only an inch taller than Jules, and didn’t look to have much muscle on him. “I assume you’ve been assigned to the Lake. We’ll caravan together.” Before Dante could offer an answer, those disgusting soups were replaced by much more palatable looking salads. I mimed Jules and picked up the outer fork. Dante took the hint and did the same. “You’ll want to stay south, Jasper,” Agent Stetson said between bites. “Take I-70. I-80 is too risky.” Agent Tools put down his fork. “But that’ll add hours.” He was right…but that route would keep us headed towards Vegas until we got well into the Rockies. “It’ll save a few heads.” Agent Stetson replied. He was balancing a cucumber on his fork as he spoke. “Pay Command no mind. I-80 is owned by the packs. Weres are snagging sparks along the entire stretch.” “Awen’s ghost,” Jules said, “the whole highway is like that?” Madam Fremont nodded. “You’d do well to stay south, Jasper. Ayaan and I were harried near the Green River.” “You. Harried?” Agent Tools looked ready to laugh. “Well, they did manage to scratch the paint,” Madam Fremont said with a not-so-demure shrug. “It’s obvious, isn’t it?” Agent Tools thrust a fork through his salad. “If the infestation is as bad as you say, we should bust every last den on our way.” “With a bunch of wet noses in tow?” Agent Stetson asked. “You can’t be serious, Jasper.” Francesca, Agent Tools’ partner, had not said a single word during the entire conversation, but now Jasper turned to look at her and frowned. The orange-haired mage shook her head. Agent Tools let out a grunt. “Seems I’m out numbered. Very well. We’ll take the southern route. But the weather is shifting. I don’t want to get caught in another storm. We’ll depart early in the morning. Be sure to have your things ready by dawn.” Madam Fremont sighed. “I understand your haste, Jasper. We are thin on both men and time. If this conflict cannot be drawn to a quick close, others may seek to push their advantage. We could risk losing more than just the West Coast…” “You cannot possibly be serious,” Ms. Fink interjected. The hawk-nosed woman shook her head in disgust. “But it is a reasonable assessment,” Stetson answered. “The Treaty promises them secure borders…and the Nostophoros are quite particular about their bargains.” “Nonsense. The Nosferatu are like well-beaten hounds. They wouldn’t dare bare their fangs at us.” At the other end of the table, Ambassador Balcon rapped his fork against his plate. “Dolores, dear, this is a diplomatic mission. I’d ask that you to refrain from using that term.” “Why we tolerate them at all is beyond me.” Ms. Fink dabbed her lip with a napkin. “These rivergoing savages let this marvelous leyline go to waste.” As if to underline her point, Ms. Fink made a lazy gesture that drew a plume of mana up from the ground below. She spun the mana around her like a scarf. Rosy tendrils curled this way and that. I tried my Sight on her. Ms. Fink’s aura was clear as day. She was serious. The thought of wiping the Nostophoros from the map was sending waves of pleasure up and down her spine. It took a moment to notice that Jules was patting me on the hand. I looked down to discover that all my knuckles had gone white. “Dieter, just let it go,” Jules whispered. “Do you think it would be that easy?” I asked. My voice had exceeded ‘dinner table’ volume, but Ms. Fink looked quite pleased with the question. “You tell me, boy.” A coil of liquid flame grew from the center of her palm. I watched in awe as the length of flame sprouted eyes and a snout. More animal than spell, the snake-like creature wrapped around Ms. Fink three times like a shawl. Then, with the mere snap of a finger, she sent the creature crawling across the table towards me. The linens blackened at its touch, and the bouquet of flowers between us burst into flames. Hovering above my salad, the flaming snake let out a searing hiss. I sat there stunned as my tasty greens wilted. I guess I should have been engaged in some cowering, but that’s not what was on my mind. The control such a spell must have taken…I couldn’t even fathom it. I wanted to take the whole spell apart and figure out how it worked. There were one or two strategies I thought might be best to create one. Both relied on keeping the heat— “Awen’s Ghost, Dieter. Stop yer gapin’. Yer fockin’ tie be on fire.” I screamed like a little girl, while Jules leaned forward and poked the molten snake monster in the eye. A shudder ran down the length of its body, and the creature’s flaming scales transformed into row after row of brilliant red rose petals. With a puff of breath, Jules scattered them across the room. As the vibrant petals settled on the floor, Jules plucked up a glass of water and gave my smoldering tie a dunk. “Fockin’ chancer,” she grumbled. Polite applause broke out at the display. Ms. Fink’s face drew into the Mona Lisa of rage. “Bella riposte, Ms. Nelson,” Agent Stetson said with a smile. “But that’s exactly my point,” Ms. Fink argued. “With powers like these, what have we to fear from silly beasts?” “Aye, Ms. Fink,” Jules said with a frown. “Why be lookin’ elsewhere? There’s plenty ta fear at this table.” Ms. Fink looked ready dive across said table, blue satin gown and all. Madam Fremont saved the night with a well-placed clearing of the throat. “Mr. Dante. Do tell us about your classes. Is Petrus Morris still teaching augury?” Dante responded with something about PETA, a rash of lawsuits, and curriculum reforms during the 1970’s. Anyone not lost to a coma by the end of it started talking football. Me, I focused on the food. First, the hotel served these many-legged critters fried in batter. Jules said they were calamari—as in those tiny creatures that lived in the depths of the sea. I didn’t expect to like them, but the little monsters tasted great. It was like a cross between chicken and clams. As soon as I was finished, the plate was swept away. Then it was time for a main course of beer-basted roast chicken with sides of bacon relish, broiled green beans and a heaping mound of broiled potatoes. The chef had stuck a twig in the taters and dribbled truffle oil on top. The combination reminded me of butter mixed with mushrooms, but when I told Jules I wanted to buy a gallon of the stuff, she said I’d be better off hiring a hog. Dante was more interested in the wine. He’d downed five glasses before I’d even started on my chicken. Then again, the poor guy needed Dionysus’ aid. Dolores Fink was going in for the kill. “And have you played guitar long?” she asked, as Dante tried desperately to build a fortress of potatoes. “Since I was five, ma’am. My dad hoped I’d take to the banjo, but I kept reaching for the sixstring.” He took another sip of wine. She batted her lashes. He swallowed. “Just called out to me, I guess.” “And one should heed such calls…” Dolores ran one of her long fingernails up his arm. “I’d love a private session.” Now, Ms. Fink wasn’t an ugly woman. Not by a long shot. She had the look of the classic trophy wife: salon baked hair, lips as full as plums, upgraded front bumpers…but she was also the human equivalent of a Brillo pad, with a nasally voice that could shred granite. But I decided what bugged me the most were her enormous black lashes. They were fluttering about like horseflies in heat. “I feel like I’m watching Ta Catch a Predator,” Jules whispered. A sip of water shot out of my nose. Dolores glared at us from across the table. “Is something funny?” “Nope,” Jules said through a way-too-guilty smile. “Choked on a bean is all.” She took a dainty sip of her white wine, flashing her lashes as she did. “Ah, it soothes the pain, doesn’t it, Dante?” Dante swallowed. I nearly lost it. I’d never seen Jules act like a brat before…it was totally endearing. Dolores deposited her silverware on her plate. “Ms. Nelson, I’ve been meaning to ask, what drew one of the venerable Dru to our humble continent…did Europe run out of trees?” Jules looked none too pleased with that one. She deposited her cutlery as well. I decided it was best to defuse this dust up with a bit of light humor… “Severe cabbage allergy,” I offered. Jules’ heel found my toe. “Why, Ms. Fink, I’ve always admired the United States. The natural beauty of this land is unparalleled, as is the industry of her people. As a young girl, I was enchanted by your movies; as a young woman, your many scholars. When Dean Albright contacted me about attending Elliot, I became most excited. A chance to live in America and study at such a fine institution—one would be foolish to let pass such an opportunity, would they not?” I looked at Dante in surprise. Where’d Jules learn to talk all high-society? She’d dropped her accent like a bad habit. “But why not study in Vienna?” Ms. Fink inquired. “The Rudolphina is the prima donna of the art.” I frowned. I had a feeling that not knowing about the Rudolphina was probably like not knowing the difference between a loo and the Louvre. “Because the Old World is too tangled up in itself. Two thousand years of grudges. You can never seem to get free of them. It’s not like that in America. Here there’s this magnetism, this unique urge to renew. You can feel it on the streets. You can sense it in every classroom.” The royal greens of Jules gown glittered as she spoke. “The economy might be dragging them down, but the people here haven’t even thought of giving up. They try to build new businesses. They go back and get new degrees. A tireless churn of new ideas arrive with every single newspaper. New theories. New debates. New hopes. New dreams.” Jules leaned back and let out a sigh. “If I had stayed in Europe, I would have become what was expected of me…but here…here I get to choose my own path.” Madam Fremont applauded. “Tish-tosh.” Dolores said with a wave. “That’s all nonsensical fluff. You and I both know that the Continental Model is far superior. And the libraries. They are marvels to behold. Grimoires of every shape and size. Scrolls dating back to the dark ages. And the Lode of Alexandria! Why would anyone abandon such resources?” She looked at Jules with some concern. “Surely your marks were adequate?” Dante dropped his glass. The world ceased its orbit. Stars above. Had Dolores Fink just questioned Jules Nelson’s GPA? Better to burn down Guinness’ headquarters. Better to take away all potatoes. “Ms. Fink, my marks were sufficient to earn me Elliot’s lone Dean’s Scholarship.” A tiny artery was pulsating on Jules’ temple. The throb-of-doom…I’d witnessed it only once before, when an errant fireball incinerated one of her three-ring binders. Few men had survived the night. You either plugged that sort of monster with chocolate or faced unholy hell. “I still cannot fathom your interest,” Fink said with a flick of the hair. “Everything in the New World is so…new.” “Oh, I don’t know, Ms. Fink, I see some old wrinkly things here and there.” Ms. Fink’s lips went thin and white. “Goodness,” Madam Fremont said with a flutter of her fan, “I do hope they hurry the dessert.” “Any chance it’s chocolate cake?” I asked. I gave the waiter next to me a desperate look. “We could all really use some chocolate cake right now.” “Nelson…” Ms. Fink continued. “I do believe I’ve heard that name before. Doesn’t the Nelson Circle of Old Ennis produce the Witches Almanac?” The other guests’ conversations had quieted long ago, but now the tenor of their attention shifted. At the far end of the table, Ambassador Balcon cleared his throat. “Young lady, you wouldn’t happen to be related to Molly Nelson?” “Um…” Jules began. Her fingers were fumbling with the edge of the tablecloth. She’d gone all shy, but I wasn’t about to pass up a way out of this freaking death spiral… “Hey, Jules, isn’t Molly the name on all your care packages? She’s your grandmother, right?” To my surprise, instead of blushing, Jules gave me a look of utter despair. “What’s wrong?” I whispered. “Goodness!” A woman shouted from across the table. “You can scry!” Tossing decorum to the wind, she kicked back her chair. “Oh, please do mine. We’ve been trying to conceive, you see.” She turned to the nearest waiter. “A bowl. Fetch us a bowl!” A twisted smile crept across Ms. Fink’s face. “Elise, what a marvelous idea. We should all have our fortunes read.” The words sent the whole party out of their seats. “Everyone, please,” Ambassador Balcon said above the growing ruckus. “There should be some order to this. Perhaps we could set up in the card room?” The portly bourbon fiend applauded. “Good show, Balcon. Perhaps we should draw straws?” My heart sank. Ms. Fink had merely intended to ruin Jules’ evening with a flood of unwanted clientele, but she couldn’t have aimed better. I went to take Jules’ hand, but a knock from the side sent me out of my chair. “Dieter?” Jules looked left and right. She looked like she was going to freak. “I can’t…” Five men and women jostled for her attention, as an overzealous waiter rushed a water basin to her chair. It had to be a living nightmare for her, like arriving at school naked with the American flag burning in the background (okay, my living nightmare, never mind). I did the only thing I could think of. I picked myself up off the floor, dug into my pocket, and rushed over to the band. The singer was enjoying a smoke break during the chaos. He looked up at me as I ran over. “Sup, Mr. Elliot?” he asked. “I assume you guys can do stuff other than elevator music, right?” He smirked. “Perchance, sonny. Perchance.” “And you’re mages too?” “We’re playin’ here, ain’t we?” I split the wad of cash Albright had given me in half and planted a mound of Benjamins in his palm. “If you guys can be more interesting than a scrying session, you get the other half.” “You want us to top a squint spinnin’ a bowl of water?” The man dropped his smoke and snuffed it out with his shoe. “Son, for that much money I can be more interesting than His Holiness fuckin’ a chicken in the Sistine Chapel.” “Um…great?” That image was kinda hard to shake. “Save the innocent maiden, please.” “Hold on, sonny. These wheels don’t haul by their lonesome. You’ve gotta give us some traction.” “Traction?” The plump drummer leaned forward. “What my man is sayin’ is that the fair lady must be extricated from her current precarious predicament.” He gestured to Jules, who appeared to have commenced hyperventilating. “What do you say, college boy, can you manipulate a petite blonde around a dance floor?” My mind raced. “I don’t know any of that waltz stuff, but I worked at this place called Newmar’s. They used to have this thing called Swing Night. The strippers, they—” “Strippers?” all five of them asked at once. “Never mind the strippers. Can you guys do that—swing dancing, I mean?” The five of them started laughing. “Did this kid just ask us if we could play swing?” The drummer gave me an empty-toothed smile. “Son, we invented the damn thing.” I frowned. I wasn’t an idiot. “Listen, I know African Americans developed the style. It’s just I don’t like going around prejudging people. Not all Asians are ninjas. You know what I mean?“ The drummer guy near fell off his stool. “No, sonny,” the singer explained, “I mean we invented it. Back in 1928. Georgy over there got hammered and started lilting his notes. Folks loved it. Rest is history. Now get that sweet little thing out on the dance floor. We’ll take care of the rest.” “Oh.” Celebrities. Cool. I blanched. “Okay.” My heart pounding, I pushed through the crowd. I tried to remember the steps as I flipped Jules, giant gown and all, over my trusty right shoulder. The crowd was surprised by my gallant maneuver and largely allowed it. Screaming, Jules kicked her feet in a futile attempt to defeat me, but she settled down when I deposited her on the dance floor. Green eyeliner streaking, she shouted, “What now, ya traitor? Are ya feedin’ me ta a dragon?” “Not quite…” The band kicked out the first six count. “I’ve bargained your sentence down to dancing.” “Oh.” She looked down at my feet. “Wait…ya know dancin’ and stuff?” “Well, I’m not nearly as good as the strippers.” “Strippers! What kind of dancin’—” “Swing.” Jules looked pleased. “Ya know, Dieter, we Irish invented—“ “No you didn’t. Those guys did.” “Oh.” “We’re gonna do a four beat starter. You go right. I go left. You make the lines. I’ll stay out of your way.” “That isn’t proper, Dieter.” Jules shook her head. “We really should discuss the handoffs before we —“ The band finally delivered. The sound felt like it was coming from inside me. I could feel the base guitar from my head down to my toes. But that wasn’t all. Each note churned out color. Brilliant violets streamers shot into the air above us. Ribbons of blue swirled across the floor. “Holy Shit!” I shouted. “This is like Fantasia!” “I think we’re supposta start dancing now!” Jules yelled back. Fighting off my surprise, I pushed Jules into the first cycle. She was no slouch. Three times through and she had all the steps down. (No surprise, really. Jules was freaky good at memorizing things.) Getting more confident, I decided to split the time and speed up on the fourth. Our feet met a few times, but then we caught the rhythm. I looked up to see her smiling. Not at the music. Not at the scene. But at me. Only me. I think other people started dancing. I think I caught Dolores curled up around Dante. But I didn’t bother keeping track. I never sensed anyone else with my Sight. I never hear their voices. It was just Jules. Her hands. Her aura. Her smile…Jules and I had been dancing for months now. Night after night, we’d pulled off spell after synchronized spell. Jules and I didn’t have any trouble reading each other’s gestures. We’d come to know how to predict one another’s movements. But tonight, there were no crazy dangers to worry about, no brain crushing mana stream reading to burst across the horizon. To just be responsible for our feet…it was liberating. And the rest of the world was more than happy to move out of our way. I don’t know how many songs had gone by when the band finally shifted to slower numbers. I’d lost track of everything but her motions. “Ready to run?” she asked, breathless but still amused. Smiling, the lead singer flipped me the bird and told me to get lost. The change in pace dragged out the old folks. The larger crowd gave us a chance to slip away. Jules gave my hand a tug, and we fled through the flock of penguins. Free of them all, Jules and I scampered up the stairwell. Once we reached the safety of the second landing, we took a breather. “Jules, you were really good!” The way she could pick up steps was unbelievable. “Dieter, that wasn’t normal.” Jules swept the matted curls from her forehead. “I didn’t even have ta guess at yer moves…we might make a good pair.” I smirked. “I don’t do dance competitions, Jules. That was a one time event.” “That’s not what I…never mind, ya thicko. Thanks for bailin’ me out.” Jules looked down at her shimmering emerald shoes and flushed. “And thanks for makin’ me feel like a princess tonight.” I took off the sweat-soaked jacket and leaned back against the wall. Jules was the best student in her class. She was widely respected around campus. Half a dozen cataphract trainees had her tutoring to thank for their passing marks. Yet it struck me that outside of the classroom, Jules Nelson didn’t think much of herself. “What do you feel like normally?” She leaned her head against my shirt. “An old hag.” I patted her curls. “There, there, Jules. You don’t look that old at all.” “Ya get a pass on the snark tonight, Sir Galahad.” Pushing off me, she kicked off her heels and scampered up the stairs. “I don’t want to be Galahad. That dude never got laid.” Above me, Jules leaned against the banister. “And what have I told you about such tales?” “That they all be whitewashed bollocks.” “Correct.” I recovered Jules’ discarded footwear and followed her up the stairs. “So how does the real story go?” Jules smiled. “Looks like I’ll be givin’ ya one more lesson then.” Swiping the keycard, she opened the door to Madam Fremont’s suite. “And what lesson would that be?” Rei asked from her perch on the couch. Chapter 11 BITCH, IF YOU WOULDN’T MIND “What are ya doin’ in our room?” Jules stammered. Rei was stretched out across the couch wearing nothing but a tank top and track shorts. She had a can of carrot juice in one hand and a TV remote in the other. Her porcelain skin shone in the moonlight. Behind her, the balcony’s French doors sat wide open. The red curtains fluttered. A cold breeze played through her hair. Rei cocked her head and frowned. “Our room?” “Yes, Rei Acerba, as in where we plan ta sleep, and where I won’t stand ta have ya lurkin’.” “Lurking?” Rei twirled the remote control on the tip of her index finger. “Far from it. I am loafing.” Leaning back on a pillow, she gave us both a predatory smile. Jules wrapped her hands around her waist. She tried to look stern, but all the shivering wasn’t helping. “Don’t ya bare yer fangs at me. And ya do need ta be leavin’. Out the window witya.” Rei glared at her. “I will not. This is my television. Find your own diversion.” Jules smirked. “I’m not interested in your television.” Her eyes dancing between us, Rei frowned. “Both of you are sweating.” She caught sight of the pair of heels dangling from my fingers. “Was your dinner as hard to catch as mine?” “You killed someone?” I stammered. Rei shrugged. “I am a bloodthirsty beast, am I not?” “Seriously, Rei. Did you kill someone?” “My most incessant dunderhead, ‘someone’ implies the singular.” Her grin shifted towards the creepy. “Perchance, this evening I started with a young lad, as fresh as a mountain spring. Perchance, he sated me for a time, but then I grew bored. Perchance, I traipsed over to the nearby nursery.” Rei ran a hand through her lush black hair. “Delicious, the little ones. The Turned call them popcorned shrimps, did you know this? But one must go through so many of them to get one’s fill…and all the extra peeling is quite a nuisance.” Jules’ aura cracked across the room like a thunderbolt. “Easy now, Druid,” Rei cooed. “I did not hog them all.” “Get out!” she screamed. Rei enjoyed another sip of her carrot juice. “Why don’t you make me, you kurva whore.” “Gladly,” Jules replied. Her hand shifted to her waist. The surge of mana was growing. Her hair was rising up on end. Her eyes were surging green. She looked like a wild thing. I took a step away from her. “I’ve so missed your temper.” Rei set down her beverage. Her eyes had gone cold and grey. “I’d worried you might have misplaced it.” “Ladies, I would ask that you remain civil.” Nudging me aside, Madam Fremont hobbled into her suite. “This evening has gone on long enough.” Madam Fremont collapsed onto a lounger with a huff. Silent as always, Ayaan shifted over to her side. Settled, Madam Fremont looked up at Rei. “And who might you be, shadow dancer?” To my surprise, Rei had shot straight up into attention. “Madam, my name is Rei Acerba Bathory, daughter of Theodus Nadasdy Bathory, granddaughter of —“ Fremont gave Rei a dismissive wave. “No need to give me your pedigree back to Bator. Name and clan will suffice. Now explain this lapse in protocol.” Fremont spoke in a measured tone, but she was turning her cane against the marble. The sound of a fingernail on chalkboard scratched across the suite. “Madam,” Rei said bowing deeply, “I apologize for breaching your domain. I was unaware that a member of the Council—” Fremont’s wrapped her cane against the white marble. “You were unaware because I wished it. Now stop dallying, creature. Answer my query. What drew you into my abode?” Rei looked perplexed. “The Kentuckian’s excrement. It is quite pungent and easy to—“ “No, damn it,” Madam Fremont barked. “What is your reason for being in my blasted room?” Rei’s eyes narrowed. “My purpose is to ensure the safety of my compatriots. I have made an oath.” Fremont shattered another piece of the hotel’s marble with her cane. I jumped straight into the air. Rei didn’t budge. “I did not ask for your purpose of being, creature. I asked why your filthy posterior was soiling my sofa.” Rei frowned. “My posterior is immaculate.” Fremont’s knuckles went white. If her feathers hadn’t already been ruffled, that did it. “Daughter of Bator, You have breached my threshold without clear cause. You have desecrated my domain. Now you attempt to mock me?” Rei rolled her big blue eyes. “Madam, I only wished to protect—” “Lies. You could have safeguarded these souls from the stoop. You will explain why you required entrance into my quarters, and you will do it now.” Rei bit her lip. “The reason is of no consequence.” “You dare instruct me on what is consequential?” Fremont slid her fingers down the length of her gnarled cane and tilted the tip of her cane toward Rei. “Perhaps you require further education in decorum.” “Yer inside Madam Fremont’s bloody threshold,” Jules said with a sigh. “Ya best tell her what she wishes.” I’d only learned the basics of thresholds. They used a building’s foundation as their anchor, and provided their residents with home field advantage. Madam Fremont was packin’ some pretty big guns to begin with. That show of strength in the lobby had been no joke. “I did not know that a councilwoman resided here. I did not know because you did not tell me.” It didn’t seem to be a good setup for a Bathory win…and that’s kinda what worried me. Shity odds got Rei all hot and bothered. “I did tell ya ta get the fock outa here, didn’t I?” Jules argued. “I’ll have my answer, creature,” Madam Fremont said. She flicked her finger and called out, “Claudico!” Rei went to move her feet, but found them glued to the floor. With another thrust of her cane, Fremont sent a blue stream of flame across the marble. The fire encircled Rei’s feet and then soared up to the ceiling. Fremont’s flames burned cold, like the inside of a blast freezer. I shouted at her to stop. Setting people ablaze was my freakin’ job. “Stay out of this, Dieter,” Rei replied in a calm voice. “I shall depart if she desires, but I owe this decrepit witch nothing more.” Despite the toasting Fremont was delivering, Rei managed to cross her arms and scowl. “If you are quite done, I would like to get back to my diversions.” Fremont rocked forward. “Still feeling fresh…can I double it, then?” Rei raised a smoldering eyebrow. “I do not know this. Can you?” Aw heck, this was getting out of hand. “Or we could stop setting people on fire, sit down, and discuss this over a nice pot of tea. I’ll order up some chamomile—“ “Nonsense,” Rei growled. “I am a child of the Vita Paciscor. I shall not share libations with this scum.” She turned to scowl at Fremont. “I am not undead, you Nekyia filth. Your craft is useless against me.” “You think I am Nekyia?” Madam Fremont chuckled. “Little broodling, I was just evaluating your pedigree.” “Excuse me?” Rei growled. Arching her fingers, Madam Fremont twisted the blue flames black. A wave of spasms jarred Rei’s thighs, and she let out a tiny gasp. My own head spun. I sensed a surge of energy, but I couldn’t feel any mana flowing. Grabbing my shoulder, Jules took a step backwards. “What the hell is that?” I asked. “Your druid knows,” Madam Fremont said. She spoke as though she were discussing the color schemes for a wedding. “Desicco,” Jules replied. She looked shocked. “But I thought the Vita Paciscor…” I lost the rest of Jules’ words in Rei’s bloodcurdling scream. Flakes of her flesh were peeling off like paint. It was like her entire body was coming apart at the seams. I thought she might tumble, but a tensing of her muscles bought her a few more seconds on her feet…and Rei’s mouth was closed. She was standing in silence meeting Fremont glare for glare. The screaming was coming from inside my head. The weft burned like a fire. Rei’s thoughts and emotions struck me like anvils. Surprise. Shock. Confusion. Fear. It felt like my very soul was being yanked out. Rei’s thoughts opened to me next. I listened to rumors she had heard. That this one was held to be a Nekyia. That this one was a bane on her kind. But this was no Nekyia’s spell. This spell did not twist death. Rei had miscalculated, and miscalculated badly… Madam Fremont leaned back in her chair. “What do you think, creature, shall I double it?” Without waiting for an answer, Fremont swept her hand high into the air. Rei did her best impression of a roach on Raid. Her body contorted into a knot. Her fingers bent and flexed. Every last muscle clenched down harder and harder…and the old lady didn’t display an ounce of sympathy. It was as though Rei was unworthy of any care. My instincts told me what that could mean, and the thought of what might come next sent me into a panic. “I could not see it…” Rei croaked. Her back arched up as she spoke. Fremont had emptied her lungs of air. “Yes?” Easing off on the spell, Fremont leaned forward. “What could you not see, shadow dancer?” Still writhing, Rei forced her spasming jaw into order. Her flesh was red and raw. Her lips bled onto the carpet. “Audrey,” she whispered. “Who is this Audrey?” Fremont demanded. “An accomplice?” She turned to Ayaan. “Check the rooms!” Taking in a breath, Rei shook her head. “No, you twit. Audrey Hepburn. There is a marathon, and it could not be enjoyed from your pathetic stoop.” Madam Fremont’s aura roared. She raised both of her hands high into the air. Rei shook from the force of it. Fremont’s magic had already sandblasted Rei’s skin to oblivion, and blue-tinged blood spat out onto the carpet. It was like Fremont was wringing Rei out like a towel. I didn’t need a calculator to figure out what would happen—and I didn’t give a fuck what kind of spell this was. All I cared about was shutting it down. I felt Jules tugging at me, but I was past listening. With Rei about to get roasted, I was kinda on a tight schedule. I reached out my hand and focused on Fremont’s cast. I didn’t want to overcomplicate things. I only focused on finding a handhold. My Sight guided me past the strange flames. They felt like nothing more than a mirage, a distracter Fremont had thrown up to steal away one’s focus. Finding my way around the blacked-out edges, I reached for the real bugger dipping into Rei’s Ki. It was dragging something out of her like a straw. I snatched at the conduit. Fremont fought me, but breaking up a spell is always easier than holding one together…a wave of strange energy crashed into me as the conduit broke. It felt hot and sticky, not like mana at all. But it wasn’t kinetic energy, either. It was unlike anything I’d ever tangled with before. Unsure if it would hurt me, I formed an extraction field at my feet. I didn’t want that crap touching my Ki. The field forced it straight into the floorboards. I fell back on my butt as the old plumbing below us bent and creaked. Lights dimmed and popped. Plaster fell from the ceiling. Gasping, I struggled to my feet. I nearly fell back over, but Jules rushed to steady me. She said something, but it sounded garbled. Despite not letting it touch me, every circuit in my head felt fried. A heavy thump confirmed the surging bulk of energy had found the bedrock. The force of the impact shook the entire building. The light bulbs that had survived flickered back on as it left us. I stood with my feet spread wide. The sweet taste of cherry Jell-O lingered in my mouth. “Explain yourself,” Madam Fremont demanded. I tensed. That extraction had taken only a second, but it felt like I’d run a marathon. If Madam Fremont struck at me with that spell, I doubted I would have time enough to counter. And while Rei was now free of the spell, there was nothing keeping Fremont from re-casting it. “Easy now,” Jules whispered. “Ya should be using yer brain more than yer muscle. Think about her offer of xenia, Dieter.” I brightened. I’d forgotten about the offer Fremont made in the lobby. Everyone in this screwy little word took oaths seriously. I assumed Fremont was no different. “She can’t harm Rei.” Jules nodded. I turned to Fremont. “Rei attends Elliot. She’s also a member of our party. You extended her an offer of xenia.” “Irrelevant,” Madam Fremont replied. “She is not a mage.” Jules crossed her arms and frowned. “No. Me pupil be right. Downstairs ya promised ta make sure that ‘the party’ from Elliot got all the xenia they deserved. Rei be a member of our party.” Jules went to nudge her glasses. They weren’t there, but her enthusiasm remained undiminished. “Ya wouldn’t be backin’ down now, would ya?” Ayaan placed her hand on Fremont’s shoulder. She shook her head slightly. Madam Fremont’s jaw tightened. “Very well, I shall recognize your claim…but if a guest deceives her host, an oath of xenia can be withdrawn. Ayaan, check the television.” Aw, crap. Plucking the remote from the couch, Ayaan flipped on the TV. The room filled with song. Chunks of dead skin were sloughing off Rei like monster dandruff. It made the glare she gave me all the more terrifying. I tried very hard not to laugh. “Creature, what manner of insanity inspired you to slip into a retired councilor’s suite to watch My Fair Lady?” Rei leaned back against the couch. She gave an easy shrug. “I most enjoy the part when she learns to speak properly.” A few skin chips crumbled off her chin. Madam Fremont let out a sigh. “Perhaps you should have heeded the lessons on manners.” “Perhaps ya both should have,” Jules said with a scowl. “Young lady, I do believe that you were the most vocal advocate of her departure.” Jules looked like she was about to swallow a toad. “Children…” Madam Fremont rubbed her temples. “So I am honor bound to shelter a Nostophoros this evening? Very well. If she keeps her fangs zipped, I shall offer her no further quarrel.” She forced herself to her feet. “You have my oath of xenia, creature. Order whatever you want to drink from room service—but leave the attendant be.” She motioned at me with her cane. “Young man, help me to my room. It appears like I have lost my second.” I turned to find Ayaan perched on the couch clutching a pillow. She was staring wide-eyed at the screen, her head bopping to the melody. Ignoring the enormous folds of her gown, Jules plopped down on the couch next to her. Rei rolled her eyes. She was busy picking patches of burnt skin off her arms. Content that WWIII had been averted, I helped Madam Fremont to her room. She settled down at the makeup table, and I shut the door behind us. My ears gave a slight pop as I did. The old mage must have warded the room against sound. I watched from my seat on her bed as she removed her many jewels and placed them into velvet pouches. Tiara. Earrings. Necklace. Bracelet. All diamonds. All enormous. She saved her wedding band for last, kissing it once before placing it in a tiny blue one. “Can you work the Midden yet, boy?” Whispering a quiet word, she swept the air with her finger. My eyes widened as the space peeled open like a torn piece of wallpaper. One by one, she whispered to the pouches and tossed them inside. “I don’t know what that is.” “Few from your generation do.” She gestured to the blank space she’d produced out of thin air. “The Midden is limbo—the space between walls. The name I whispered acts as tether. It helps my mind find the spot again.” My brain nearly exploded with questions. “Can people travel in the Midden?” Fremont stroked her chin. “That question presumes that there are distances to travel in the Midden.” “You’re saying that the distances are zero? But all locations are defined by an X, Y, and Z coordinate.” She gestured to the air in front of her. “Who said I moved those objects anywhere?” “Like a dipole,” I muttered. “Elaborate.” “If you could create conditions that are the polar opposite of the item you want to store, they would vanish from sight. But the dipole would have to be a perfect reflection of every property, though. Noise-canceling headphones try to do that, but they cheat. They listen to the incoming frequencies and produce inverted frequencies. To do what you just did, you couldn’t just react to the incoming frequencies; you’d have to anticipate them, mimic them perfectly, and then invert all the frequencies.” “A well thought out conclusion, and also the key to your question. Inert stones are quite predictable. Inverting their resonance is quite simple. But living creatures? They are in a constant state of flux. Storing life in the Midden would be near impossible, a challenge worthy of quite the mage.” Madam Fremont gave me a vague smile and then attended to her makeup. I’d never seen a woman go through the process. It looked almost as complicated as quantum physics. She had plied the rouge off her cheeks before she spoke again. “The name Resnick is unknown to me. Whom are your parents?” I shrugged. “My father doesn’t do magic and stuff.” “You mean he is of the Imperiti…interesting. What is his first name?” “Kurtz. Kurtz Resnick.” “Kurtz?” Fremont paused to examine her nails. “A harsh name. German. And your mother?” I looked down at the shoes she’d leant me. They’d gotten all scuffed up during the dancing. “Do you have any polish? I should fix these up for you.” “You do not know her name?” I crossed my arms. “Nope. Can we get back to the quantum magic stuff?” “Can you recall her face?” “Not a freckle to cling to.” “How about the color of her hair?” “Not a single strand in the memory banks.” “What about her eyes?” “All signs point to the same color as her hair.” “No need for snark, boy. What can you recall? A scent? A laugh? A wink?” “She used to sing,” I answered. I frowned. I’d never recalled that before. “And do you remember what she sang?” “A lullaby. I remember a lullaby.” “The words?” I shook my head. “Not English…European maybe.” “Was it happy?” “No.” I roughed up my hair. My head hurt thinking about it. Like I was pulling up a heavy anchor with nothing but my pinkies. “I think it was sad.” “Enough,” Fremont said, raising her hand. “Your father…he speaks of her not?” I nodded. “Is he prone to violence?” Some questions, your body wants to answer for you. The wrist he’d shattered in that one summer. The belted forearms I’d hidden in the middle of the summer. The ear he’d cupped again and again. They all throbbed with answers, but my lips never spread apart. “The spell of mine you pulled apart, what can you tell me about it?” I sighed. “Nothing. It was hard to get a hold of, but easy to pull apart.” “You leave me puzzled.” She began working a thick lotion into the dark pools beneath her eyes. “I can guess at what Albright has tasked you with, but your little band’s roster puzzles me. A princess, a priestess, a thief, and a merchant…” She shook her head. “John’s pupil was always too clever for his own good. It’s always been plans within plans with him. So many that he risks tripping on his own feet. But what business is this of mine?” “Aren’t we all in this together?” Fremont had said it herself: Carrera and his Talmax buddies were bearing down on us like a hurricane. “Why aren’t you worried?” “Simple. Because I’m dying.” Bloodshot eyes, wrinkles as deep as drainage ditches, grey hair in lonely clumps… “But you look great.” I cringed right after saying it. Madam Fremont managed a grand smile. “And you look like a liar.” Madam Fremont waved a hand, and for the briefest of moments, I saw another woman. One with lush cascading curls and broad olive cheeks. Her smile weakened my knees. Her rack nearly bowled me over. She was the kind of woman that men would have gone to war over. Yea, that’s right, we’re talking a Helen-class babe. And then all that beauty was gone, replaced by the pathetic withered shell that I was familiar with. The effort must have taken a lot out of her. She sagged back into her chair and sighed. “I’m afraid that the last of the Old Guard fades. I go across the ocean to mix my ashes with the rest.” I’d heard of Old Orders before. They were groups like the Hospitallers, Teutonics, and Templars. Comprised of cataphract knights, they held huge influence in Europe before the Church turned their membership to ash. But the Old Guard…that was a name I’d never heard. “How old you are?” “Old enough to forget my tenth name, young enough to remember my first dance, and wise enough to cherish it all.” I swallowed. That was some rather heavy shit…but if she was that old, perhaps Fremont could shed some light on the one question that had been nagging me most. “Do you know why Diego Carrera is fighting this war?” The old woman chuckled. “To the heart of it you wish to go?” The old woman considered me for three long breaths. “Justice. He fights for justice.” “But that would imply…” “That you and your comrades are villains? No, dear, you too are fighting for justice.” “Then why are we fighting each other?” “Because scarcity breeds injustice.” “Can you Cliff Notes this shit?” “No. Unfortunately for us both, I am bound by many oaths…but I fear all will become clear for you in time.” I looked up at her in shock. “Was that supposed to ease my mind?” “No, dear. It was supposed to placate you.” With great effort, Madam Fremont lifted herself out of her chair and hobbled over to one of her many suitcases. She dug through a vast supply of sweaters and pulled out a small black egg. “I need you to take this with you in your travels. I offer it to you as a gift. When the path grows dim, call out to the one who protects travelers, miscreants, and old crones alike.” “You mean Herm—“ “Tish tosh. I said speak the name when you need it. Now fetch me Ayaan. She’ll have eons to enjoy Ms. Hepburn’s charms. I want my worth in the meantime.” Pocketing the strange egg, I went back into the living room, where Ms. Hepburn was making her grand entrance into the ball. Ayaan looked at me with death eyes when I told her Fremont needed her, but she left soon enough. Rei was still sitting on the floor in a pile of skin flakes. She looked more concerned with her heroine’s fate. “You look cute in pink,” I said. “Like a baby’s bottom,” Jules chimed in. Rei tucked her legs up in front of her. “Get bitten.” So it was like that…I plopped down on the couch next to Jules. “Where’s Dante?” I asked. “Ayaan says he went up with Ms. Fink.” Jules faked a gag. My eyes bulged. “Wait…Ayaan talks?” I blinked. “And Dante’s bangin’ Ms. Fink?” Jules patted the camera around her neck. “And I plan ta be documentin’ the walk of shame for posterity.” “Who cares?” Rei growled. “The proper speaking moment is beginning, and I have lost far to much skin to have you ruin it. Please do not add your own track of sound.” Jules and I shut up. Ms. Hepburn was speaking now. Chapter 12 PRETTY LITTLE SNOWFLAKES “Yea, that’s right, crank those abs!” I cracked open my lids. The TV was still humming. Platinum blonds and muscle heads bent and gyrated on the screen. A throw pillow had crawled under my spine to die. I yanked it out and tossed it on the floor. Last night, a movie called Roman Holiday had followed My Fair Lady. Madam Fremont and her aid had retired, so we’d been left with nothing to do but wait for Dante to return. I’d fallen asleep watching the scooter tour through Rome. Jules was still snoring next to me. She looked like a big fluffy turtle with her chin sunk down into her polka-dot PJ’s. Her hands were still clutching the Polaroid. She was hoping to catch Dante mid walk-of-shame. The motion of a single naked toe caught my eye. Rei had been balancing so still I’d hardly noticed. She was only wearing a pair of black tights and a sports bra, and her bare toes were pointing straight at the ceiling. A one-armed handstand. I tried very hard not to breathe. She held the pose like a statue. Not a single muscle struggled. Not a motion issued from her limbs. She balanced there like she was meant to, her long hair draped into a pile around her left hand. Then in one smooth stroke, she lowered her left leg until it was parallel to the ground. She held the impossible angle for another minute, five fingers holding all her weight. Then Rei sank down to touch her forehead to the ground. She held the bend for three seconds before tensing her bone-white arm. Her entire body vaulted upwards, and she traded the weight to her right. “Vampire yoga,” I whispered. That shit looked hard. Rei let out a sigh. Still upside down, she used her free left to switch channels to the 5AM news. The weatherman explained that the Gulf Stream was shifting. Heavy snow was expected all across the Rockies tomorrow. Some of the freeways might close. Not good. It was going to be a struggle to clear those mountains in twenty-four hours. “Dante’s not back yet?” I asked. An image of my roommate intertwined in Ms. Fink’s wrinkled arms crept into my head…I pushed it back out with brute force. Rei lowered her feet to the ground and went into full lotus. She managed to the whole motion without losing sight of the picture tube. A slight shrug of her ballet-ready shoulders was the only response I got. I let out a sigh. What I really wanted to do was find the nearest King-sized bed and commence an extensive coma. Instead, I was being forced to watch a peppy weatherman point at perky clouds shitting out snowflakes while Vladimira the Grouch gave me the silent treatment. Oh ye, and I sortakinda had to come up with a way to shake off our new hall monitors, creep across the DEA-Talmax battle lines, and ask nice old Mr. Carrera for a few scoops of his secret weapon…gosh, my guidance counselor wasn’t joking. They sure did try and cram a lot of material into a single semester. The Great Bathory-Resnick stand-off continued through last night’s baseball bat double-murder, a meth explosion that burned down a block of abandoned houses in Kansas City, and a real heartwarmer about puppies that could smell out eye cancer. I kept my eyes firmly planted on the screen. I wondered if I too had a brewing case of the eye cancer, and I wondered if there was a way to order up one of those sniffings, and I wondered how much it would cost to get my eyes sniffed, and I wondered if, in that case, there were perhaps eye cancer sniffing coupons, or better yet, mutt puppies that could offer equivalent cancer detection services for much less than the inflated costs of purebreds…and then I wondered if the vampiress was reading my mind, thinking it was kinda weird that Dieter was trying to cut a deal on his eye cancer evaluation (because eye cancer was something to be taken seriously, not skimped on like a cheap pair of undies), and then I realized that I had just gotten crazier. This made me sad. Snapping, I grabbed the phone and dialed the operator. “Dolores Fink’s room, please.” I waited for the third ring before hanging up the phone. I gritted my teeth. I was still worried about that bloody eye cancer. Jules let out a snort. Was that a sign of eye cancer? Did Jules have… “Oh.” I flicked away the curl that was irritating her nose. She shifted her head onto my shoulder. I smiled. Girls smelled nice. “You disappoint me,” Rei said out of the blue. Her voice was cold. Her stare was colder. I flushed. This was getting ridiculous. “Will you please get out of my head?” “Why would I venture into such a prosaic place?” Rei gestured to the camera wrapped around Jules neck. “I speak of this scheme of yours. It is vile, is it not?” I rolled my eyes. “So we’re being considerate now?” Rei let lose a snarl and turned her back to me. She undid her bun and worked her hair into a ponytail, her fingers moved so fast I could hardly track them. “You have a problem with us capturing Dante’s walk-of-shame?” “What the lieutenant does during his evenings is none of your concern. This tradition of shaming one another with candid imagery…” Rei examined one of her nails. “The lieutenant is far too weak to weather such a trial…it will hamper his concentration.” “His concentration?” “Yes.” She shot me a look that could have melted iron. “Greatly.” I let out a sigh. Now I felt like the jerk…and maybe I deserved it. I’d waited way to long to deal with this whole mess. I’d sat on the photos for most of November, because I figured saying, “Hey baby, I collected all those nude photos of you,” to the girl that had singlehandedly dismantled two of Talmax’s assault teams seemed like a fast train to a bloody end. “I guess I owe you an apology,” I muttered. “Oh?” Rei raised an eyebrow. “Allow me to don my boots. I wish to wear them as you lick them.” “Sorry. S&M isn’t on the menu.” I fortified Jules’ position with pillows and walked over to my pack. I pulled out the sleeve of photos, and tossed them in her lap. “Merry Christmas.” Rei rolled her eyes as she undid the rubber band. “I doubt you could afford anything that would…“ Rei’s face went as blank as a sheet of paper. She swept a strand of hair behind her ear and flipped to the next one. Her jaw grew taught. A full minute passed before she cleared her throat. She gestured at ten dark brown strips attached by a paperclip. “Are these what you call negatives?” I nodded. “They are used to make more, yes?” “Correct. You always need to get the negatives back too if you don’t want more copies made.” “Yes. I have watched North by Northwest as well.” The tension in Rei’s shoulders eased. “Did you examine them?” “Heck no,” I managed. It was like swallowing an apple backwards. “Excuse me?” Rei frowned and flipped through the photos once again. “Not even once?” I shook my head no. (In a futile attempt at self-preservation, my throat had gone as dry as a desert.) Rei thumbed her chin. “This one captures my essence.” She pulled one of the slender pieces of celluloid from the stack. The photo was of her, buck-naked, about to introduce the camera lens to her fist. “You may retain this as your reward.” Rei’s eyes narrowed. “But no duplications.” Shit like this was not allowed to happen. I shook my head like she’d offered me lima beans. Rei looked taken aback. She cocked her head sideways. “Dieter, are you a gay?” I bit my lip. It was a fair question. Rei wasn’t like a lot of pretty girls. She knew exactly where she stood. (On the top of the heap, her left heel digging into the pummeled mush that was Womankind.) And she managed her looks with the shrewd acumen of an accountant. They were her products, her wares, and she had no doubt they would sell. I took a deep breath. It was enough to make a male terrified. It was also a major turnoff. “Stars above, Rei, this is kinda awkward.” “Awkward does not concern me.” Rei gave my words a dismissive wave. “Be less of a coward with your thoughts.” Okay. Fine. You can be one hell of a bitch, I kinda want to stake you, and… “You’re the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen.” Not that Rei would care. It was like saying that water was wet, the sky trended blue, and the sun rose in the East every morning. Rei blinked. “But if you lust for me, why do you not desire this photo?” She glanced down at it, turned it upside down, and frowned. “This confuses me. Is the focus poor?” She shoved it in my face. “The focus is fine!” I near shouted. I crossed my arms and looked away. “It’s more complicated than that.” Back in Vegas, there were guys who could get girls to do anything—and I mean anything. A bit of food. Another hit. That’s all it took for most of them. But some were even worse. They took what they wanted by force. They took what they wanted because they could. It creeped me out. It was worse than treating a girl like a thing, and frankly, it soiled the whole affair. I’d only get satisfaction from the embers. “I tire of waiting, Dieter. I have made you a gracious offer. Why do you insist on refusing it?” “Isn’t it obvious?” I stammered. “I want something real.” Rei’s haughty expression vanished. It looked like she’d been struck. “Oh.” Her lips pressed tight, she gave me a strained smile. “What’s wrong?” “Nothing.” Rei’s hands found the ground, and she rolled up onto her toes. She extracted her favorite hoodie from her backpack and tugged it on. A familiar looking box cutter tumbled from the front pouch. She snatched it up and replaced it. “I shall recompense you with a proper purse. How many hours did this foray consume?” I frowned. I was missing something. “But I didn’t ask for money.” “And I didn’t ask for charity.” I watched as Rei rooted around in her bag for her purse. I’d upset her somehow. Perhaps refusing a gift was considered taboo? “I want something else.” Rei turned her entire backpack upside down. A dozen bizarre trinkets topped out. “What more is there than funds? I fail to see what else I can offer.” “A story.” Rei turned and glared at me. “I’m serious. I want a story. A childhood one would be best.” I smiled. “And it’s gotta be something you’ve never told anyone before.” “You wish for intelligence…” Rei gave me a predatory smile. She looked both hurt and pleased. “A wise request, Dieter. But my family’s secrets are not mine to sell.” “Stars above, woman, I didn’t ask for theirs.” “This is idiocy.” Cradling her empty backpack, Rei plopped down on the carpet in a huff. “You could always give me back the photos,” I said with a grin. “One story and I am free of this?” “Yep.” “But it shall be a most boring story.” With all the hair covering her face, I couldn’t see much other than her pout. “This is the part where you start telling it.” Rei examined the ceiling. Rei examined the floor. Rei stuck her hands in her hoodie. Rei shifted from side to side. “Cold feet?” I asked. “The temperature of my feet has nothing to do with this. I shall tell something, but be prepared to be most un-entertained. I put my chin on my hands. “Preparations complete.” Rei let loose a tiny growl. “Bator’s Ghost, I hate you—but I fulfill my oaths. When I was but a child, I discovered that there were rabbits lurking in the bushes near the northern pastures. I began to covet these rabbits greatly. I imagined that their fur was soft. I imagined that their muzzles were wet and tickly. But these rabbits fled when I approached, and no manner of wooing would win them.” Scowling, Rei looked off into the distance. “What?” “This story is stupid.” “It is not stupid. Stop wussing out.” Rei gave me a look that indicated a strong desire to rest my head on a curbside and stomp on it. Through gritted fangs she continued. “Outmaneuvered by these rabbits, I devised a contraption to ensnare them. The mechanism involved ten meters of twine, appropriated from the kitchens, attached to a tree branch bent under twenty five pounds of tension.” “Twenty five pounds of tension?” Visions of catapulting bunnies danced through my head. “Did it work?” “Of course it worked, you twit. I followed Field Manual 66-67 to the letter. On the second day, the twine noose cinched around a female cottontail’s forepaws and restrained her for retrieval later that evening.” “Please tell me you named her Snuggles.” “Naming her was unnecessary. When I returned to the snare site that evening, I found a long-eared owl feasting on her innards.” “Oh.” I near choked. “Sorry, Rei. That’s terrible.” Rei was plucking at the seam of her tights. She gave a shrug and continued. “That the rabbit died did not trouble me so. Predation is the way of things. This rabbit was given a fair challenge and she failed it.” Rei yanked out an offending thread and flicked it away. “What unsettled me was that this creature was filled with milk. I noted it on the owl’s beak as it devoured her.” It took a few moments for me to process that. “You mean the rabbit was raising babies when she died?” “Kittens, Dieter. Young rabbits are referred to as kittens. And, yes, this is what I assumed as well.” “What did you do?” “I was uncomfortable with the idea of letting this she-rabbit’s young starve. It felt…wasteful. So after the owl had his fill, I approached the rabbit’s carcass and fixed her scent with my nares.” Rei rolled another piece of thread between her fingertips. She pondered it before flicking it away. “While father had forbid me to purchase pets, he had spoken nary a word on the topic of adoption. Thus, the concept of raising the rabbit’s young became quite tempting. I planned to trace her scent back to her nest and then claim them as my own.” I scratched my chin. I was growing more and more confident that this was the origin story of Bunnicula. “I was most talented at tracking, Dieter. I believed the task would be easy. But this rabbit was most cunning. She masked her route by performing a series of overlapping circles, which dove in and out of a heavy patch of sharp bramble. Rei chuckled. “The tracks crossed so many times I became dizzy.” “That’s one well-designed rabbit.” “It was not by some design.” “Sure it was. It was hard-coded into her brain. Obsessive compulsive disorder isn’t there by accident.” Rei shook her head. “I have witnessed a doe starve for her fawn. I have seen a tribe of otters fall for one. I have sat in a hunting blind as a pack of wolves mourned ten nights over the corpse of their omega. Design would have erased such things. What I am telling you of is the defeat of instinct.” I frowned. “Huh?” “Love.” She whispered the word like a tightly held secret. Smiling, she plucked another black thread, lifted it above her head, and let it flutter back to the ground. “I am aware that humans believe they are the sole owners of this curse, but all creatures love, Dieter. Love is our one shared madness, our one shared burden. All creatures are driven against sense by it, and even the lowest ant will die madly for her queen. Imagine the precious calories that went into this pathetic rabbit’s tedious little efforts. She hadn’t a need for flimsy words. She showed her love with paw prints.” I couldn’t think of what to say. Rei had never spoken like this before. Her eyes still on me, she plucked out another thread. A hole opened in the seam. She didn’t seem to notice. “I discovered her nest on the fourth night, and only one of the kittens was left alive. It was a male. The runt. The rest had huddled about him. Their own deaths had preserved him.” The sole survivor of a litter…creepy. “Did you raise him?” “In a sense.” A cold glaze danced over Rei’s eyes. She looked as alien as the moon. “I lifted him to my cheek. I’d been correct in my assumptions: his fur was soft and warm, his muzzle was wet and tickly, but his body also shook from a terrible fever. He probably only had a few hours left to live.” Rei wrapped her arms around her legs. “I’d seen such a scenario on an excellent television show, Lassie, so I rushed him to the nearest fire. On Lassie, the added heat revived the child, but this kitten’s heart began to whisper bad things. His limbs only grew colder as I rubbed them.” Rei glanced out the window. Flakes of snow were melting to form a glaze against the glass. Only the tick of a clock dared to fill the empty time. “His mind contained no knowledge. He knew nothing of his fate. Even as he swirled toward his end, he looked most pleased with my nuzzling.” “What did you do?” Rei gave me a rosy smile. “I showed him my love.” I blinked. “You what?” Rei gestured to the door. “The lieutenant is stumbling down the hall.” “Hold the phone, Rei!” “Hush. I have told a most excellent story—and this is my favorite part of this program.” The infomercial had taken a turn for the worst. A tribe of muscle heads was demonstrating some weird elliptical trainer with rubber bands that attached to their thighs. “Can you believe how juicy those hamstrings are?” “They’re full of artificial flavorings—and you can’t leave me hanging like this, Bathory. That’s not how stories work!” “Organically grown Americans are quite rare. Almost as rare as Americans that can enjoy a journey without the promise of a carefully orchestrated, yet wholly artificial terminus crafted to strike their likings. Not all of life is about mountain climbing, Dieter.” “But—” “You were riveted, were you not?” “I demand closure.” “Then next time I shall drag you up upon the tallest of peaks…but you had best not complain of sore knees on the way down.” Next time? “Oh, shove it, Rei.” I nudged Jules awake. “Blackmail time, paparazzo.” Jules knocked off her blanket. “About fockin’ time!” (I couldn’t help but think that Jules had shrugged off all that sleep a wee-bit too quick.) Indifferent, Rei gestured to the TV. “I am wondering: why do so many of these extended commercials proffer exercise equipment so early in the morning? Would not pillows and blankets sell better?” “Haven’t a clue,” Jules said powering up the camera’s strobe, “I don’t bother with TV.” Rei looked thunderstruck. “But, Druid, it is most entertaining! You should sample the comedies in which families sit on couches. Oh, and the fat people shows!” She smiled. “The fat people shows are most excellent.” Jules adjusted her spectacles. “Bathory, if I thought every channel was the Food Network, I’d probably agree with ya.” “There are gardening shows on the PBS. You can observe tomatoes and other growing things too.” Before Jules could unload hell’s fury on Rei, the front door clicked open. In a daze, Dante stumbled into the room. Lipstick stained both his cheeks. Tiny nibbles festooned his earlobes. A tie was dangling from his jacket like spilled entrails. Rei started laughing uncontrollably, while Jules firing off her first volley of photos. “Lieutenant,” Rei said between gasps for air, “were you attacked by a set of gums?” “I—” Jules hit him with another flashbulb. Dante gave her a bleary-eyed look. His head went sideways, and both his cheeks bulged. “Toilet!” Jules ordered. Dante went sprinting into our room. The sound of retching soon followed. I waited a few minute before checking on him. The scene was grim. Our hero looked doomed. “We leave in an hour,” I whispered. Dante let out a groan before making another offering to his porcelain goddess. Shutting the door behind him, I traded my loaner suit for a black t-shirt and some blue jeans. I decided to postpone washing up. (The shenanigans going on in that bathroom couldn’t be unseen.) When I returned to the living room, Jules and Rei were back to arguing. “But why must you insist on labeling her a predator?” Rei asked with an artful wave of her toothbrush. “It is a symbiotic relationship, Druid. The boy gains experience. The woman, an enjoyable evening.” “It still be gross and amoral,” Jules said with a stomp of her red Converse sneakers. “But it ‘still be’ consensual, Druid.” “Consent doesn’t count when the wee head is doin’ the signin’.” “It is harmless,” Rei said with a sigh. Jules crossed her arms and scowled. Her PJs somewhat diminished the effect. “Preyin’ on a boy that doesn’t know better? Oh, I see plenty of harm in that, Rei Acerba.” Her eyes narrowed. “Plenty.” A knock at the door interrupted their debate. I opened it to find Agent Stetson. He had on a fresh set of bandages. “Hello, Mr. Resnick, is Madam Fremont in?” A towel still around her head, Madam Fremont poked her head out of her room. “That she is—and quite awake thanks to all the ruckus. Your report, Stetson?” “Preparations are complete, ma’am. We’re set up by the river.” Nodding, the old woman hobbled across the room and deposited herself at the table. “Students, your mission takes priority over the defense of Salt Lake. Your party is to travel with Agent Tools as he wished. To avoid the risks I outlined during dinner, your party will take Interstate 70 into the mountains where you will pass through the city of Denver. Your two paths will diverge in a town called Green River. The stretch between Salinas and Green River is the longest in the entire interstate system without a gas station. It is an isolated place, rife for a few young sots looking to make mischief. That’s where you’ll make your move.” Jules was busying simultaneously tugging on a sweater and lacing up her high-tops. “But how are we supposta shake Jasper and Francesca?” Madam Fremont tented her fingers. “The two are quite keen. They would sniff out a well-formed plot in an instant…but they are also creatures of duty. Know only that a sudden bout of car trouble near the town’s eastern border would do much to further your cause.” Rei whispered into my ear, “Dieter, why should we trust her?” I nearly jumped out of my skin. She’d snuck up on me again. “She seems nice.” “Nice?” Rei bristled. “She attempted to murder me.” In the other room, Dante started puking again. Madam Fremont looked up at Jules. “Would you give the poor boy an antiemetic already? I do believe he’s learned his lesson.” “But dontcha think the lesson aught ta be an extra-sticky one?” Fremont answered with a scowl. Defeated, Jules dug into her giant hemp purse. She took out a bag of herbs and mixed them with the boiling water Ayaan had prepared for tea. The concoction smelled like peanut butter mixed with sawdust. As Jules went off to repair Dante, Agent Stetson took tea and toast with Fremont and Ayaan. Figuring we were going to be leaving soon, I went about picking up Dante’s things. Rei withdrew to the nearest dark corner. That didn’t sit well with Madam Fremont. “Do sit, shadow dancer. I’m not the one that bites.” “I am fine,” Rei replied. (It sounded more like “I would prefer to disembowel you” to my ears.) Ayaan poured out a cup of tea in front of the empty chair. “Would you refuse my hospitality?” Rei’s jaw tensed. “Of course not, reaper filth.” She gave a stiff bow and sat. “How fares your father?” Madam Fremont asked. “I would not know.” Rei gave the tea a sniff before taking a cautious sip. “Does the councilor know him?” “Oh yes…such an interesting relic.” Madam Fremont turned her eyes to the frosted window. The morning light had begun to melt the frost. “I’ve failed to kill him several times.” Rei sloshed her tea. Madam Fremont tutted. “Do mind the linens, shadow dancer. Fine cotton is far harder to replace than kings.” Before Rei could stab the old lady with her pastry fork, another knock came at the door. I opened it to find Jasper Tools. Various scrapes and burns marked the heavy wool trench coat. A sawed-off Remington rested against his left hip. A large combat knife graced his right thigh. The short man’s dark hair looked slept on, and his expression was as sour as a lemon. “Let’s go,” he said without a preamble. “Right now?” I hinted to my bare toes. “Of course, right now.” Agent Tools looked down at my jeans and scowled. “Where’s your robe?” “In my bag. We were going for the undercover look…you know, Talmax agents trying to kill us and all.” “Go for the official look.” Rei set down her cup of tea with a not-so-subtle clack. “Dieter, who is this fool, and why would he paint targets on our backs?” “Excuse me?” Agent Tools didn’t seem to notice the not-so-subtle Hungaro-Chicagoanian accent. He was too busy giving Rei’s body a once over. “I don’t recall requisitioning a cheerleader.” “And I recall no such cheering.” Jasper took a step inside the foyer. All pretense of humor had vanished. “Have I seen you somewhere before?” “Basing on your most thorough appraisal, I doubt you would have difficulty in the recollection.” Rei granted Jasper a serene smile. “My name is Drusilla. I am a witch of humble background.” “Councilwoman, may I inquire into the young lady’s whereabouts last evening?” “The poor dear suffers from anemia. She collapsed from overexertion in this very room.” Jasper crossed his arms. “Are you certain you can make this journey, young lady?” Rei set down her teacup and stood. “I am not a young anything—I am nearly two decades old—and I would worry more for our lieutenant. He was the one cougared last night.” Stetson nearly chocked on his crumpet. Jasper’s jaw dropped. “Fink again?” “What can I say” Agent Stetson replied. “The woman’s a menace.” “Wait…she’s done this before?” I asked. “Aye, lad,” Stetson replied. “Some call her the Florist.” He chuckled. “If you asked me, the woman missed her calling. She should have been born a vampire.” I cringed for the ensuing violence, but Rei merely raised a thoughtful finger. “That is a most regrettable association. Bloodletting does not require sexual dealings of any sort. True, a mingling of the two urges offers a more satisfactory experience, but that does not mean a Nostophoros cannot both feed broadly and save herself for that perfect…” Rei looked left and right. Her finger drooped. “Or so I am told.” Agent Tools smirked. “A girl with that much left-wing nonsense in her head couldn’t be anything other than an Elliot student. I’ll have your vehicle brought around front. Be in the main lobby in fifteen.” With a flourish of coat, Agent Tools headed down the hall. I shut the door behind him. Dante poked his head out of the bedroom. “Did I miss anything?” “Aye, savin’ it for the right girl.” Jules tossed him his robe. “Get yerself ready. We’re headin’ out soon.” Rei stood and gave Madam Fremont a quick bow. “Madam, thank you for your hospitality and may your impending death be both long and protracted.” Not waiting for a response, Rei opened the double doors to the balcony and hopped on top of the icy railing. She slid on her sunglasses with flash and panache. “Dieter, fetch my bag,” she commanded before leaping straight off the building. Jules cupped an ear. “What are you doing?” I asked. “Hoping for a kersplat,” she replied. Dante ran back into the bathroom. I smirked. “There’s your kersplat.” After Dante finished his second round at the toilet, Madam Fremont showed us to the door. She looked a little weary with our antics, but was gracious with her well wishes. Thanking Fremont for hosting us, we headed down the stairs with our luggage. The Alumni Club was deserted. Only a bored bellhop was there to greet us. He looked pissed that we didn’t call him to carry our bags. (There went his one and only tip for the morning.) I grabbed a few of the free red apples sitting on the bar top. They’d serve us well if we had to skip lunch. “Dieter!” Jules scolded. “What?” I shoved them in my bag. “They’re complimentary.” Jules tapped her foot. “There be degrees of complimentary, Dieter.” I tossed her an apple (which she bumbled). “You have a set of rules for check-out fruit?” “The rules be clear. We’re post-checkout. Ya can’t be munchin on them post checkout.” “Dante, you want an apple?” I asked. Dante looked as green as the Granny Smith apple in my hand. He shook his head and hurried through the mirror. I nearly tripped over a family of four while making my exit. The amount of refugees must have doubled. Folks were sleeping on every available flat space, and some of the newcomers looked wounded. Rei was standing with her back to the front desk. She was holding a carrier loaded with four coffees—and was engaged in a staring contest with an eight-year old. “Why won’t you admit it?” the little girl asked. “Because your accusations are false.” “Are not!” The little girl replied. She crossed her arms and glowered. “I can tell. You’ve slept in a coffin.” I raised an eyebrow. Rei flushed. “I have slept not in a glass coffin. And I know no dwarves…and such poisons would have no effect on me.” The little girl squatted down to inspect Rei’s naked toes. “Arentcha supposta only lose one glass slipper? Hows he gonna find you?” Rei flicked her hair. “Impudent child, that is not even the same story.” “She forgot them when she jumped off the balcony,” I explained. I went for a cup of coffee, but Rei stiff-armed my forehead. She lifted the four delicious rolls of cardboard out of my reach. “These are mine. Fetch your own.” “That’s not nice,” the little girl chided. “Even princesses should share.” I started to laugh. Rei went beet red. “Do not call me that!” “Thanks for the help, Dieter.” Jules, who had been navigating her enormous bag through the maze of sleeping limbs, arrived on the scene with a huff. “And why do ya need four cups of coffee?” Rei pointed to the sunglasses. “Because I am driving.” Dante shook his head. “Heck no. I’m the designated—“ “Puker,” Jules said. “And the tea I gave ya sedates. Dieter’ll drive this mornin’. I’ll take over this evenin’.” “But Dieter doesn’t have a license,” Dante said. “And the Druid cannot see over the dash,” Rei added with some glee. “Go stiff, Bathory.” “Swallow a splinter, Druid.” The little girl hopped up and down. “Can I go to Las Vegas too?” The four of us went dead silent. “How did you…” I started. “Easy.” She gestured at Rei. “Her mind is really loud.” Before I could figure that one out, a harried-looking woman hustled over to the little girl’s side. “I’m sorry, Janice loves to babble. Come on now, dear. It’s time to go to Aunt Paola’s.” Taking her hand, she led the little girl out to the car. “Mama,” the little girl asked as her mother led her away, “what is a misbegotten hair?” A group of four women in trench coats came through the door as the mother and daughter left. They were carrying a man on a stretcher. His skin was an unhealthy grey. DOMA medics. You could recognize them by the bulky satchels full of herbs. The lead woman wore a bloody bandage over her eye. The rest were covered in dust and grime. “Dang,” Dante whispered. “If the rear guard looks that bad, can you imagine how bad the front is?” I didn’t have a chance to answer. The woman with the bandaged eye caught her foot on the rug and tumbled forward. A small glass vial slipped from a coat pocket and exploded on the ground with a huge puff. As the green cloud cleared, ten identical copies of the medic dashed screaming this way and that. It was a classic distraction potion dispensed to all our fighting forces. The whole illusion was harmless, but in a lobby full of traumatized refugees, it was like lighting a match in a coalmine. Someone screamed bloody murder. Half-asleep folks shot to their feet. No one bothered to ask questions. Nerves were already frayed. A surge of people rushed towards the door. “Idiots!” Jules roared. “It’s not a bloody attack!” I grabbed Jules and lifted her over the front desk. No one was in the mood to listen. Folks thought their families were in danger, and they were consumed with saving their skins. Random bursts of magic blasted off the ceiling. Someone fired off a handgun. The Christmas tree toppled over. The valet’s station was raided. Men and women jammed into random cars. A blast from Agent Tools shotgun was all that kept him from being dragged from his SUV. Someone shattered the white wagon’s passenger side window. A man and a woman jumped inside. We watch helplessly as our ride hopped the curb, churned up some sod, and headed to parts unknown. Thirty seconds later, the lobby was a mess of writhing bodies, and Madam Fremont’s plan was in tatters. “Well shit,” Dante said. “Now what?” I grabbed another complimentary apple. This time, Jules took one too. Chapter 13 STUCK IN THE MIDDLE WITH YOU There was little talk as we slipped onto the flat plains of Kansas. Wispy cirrus clouds stretched across the horizon. Spent husks of harvested wheat swirled across the road. An errant gust of wind was the drive’s only punctuation. I tried but failed to move the seat buckle that was digging into my left cheek. The majority of the SUV’s cabin space was dedicated to overstuffed crates of medicinal herbs. That left the four of us sharing a single row. Dante was snoring off his hangover to the right of me. Rei had gone board stiff to the left of me. We were doing a really good impression of magical sardines. I’d given up hope of ever feeling my feet again. Ignoring the tingles in my toes, I returned my attention to Carrera’s book. I was still no closer to piecing together Albright’s message. Why had he handed me this strange book on history? What did the Battle of Chapultepec have to do with our current predicament? Madam Fremont’s words had only made the case more confusing. Diego Carrera couldn’t be planning to win back the Western States for Mexico. That would require an illegal foray into Imperiti politics. The ICE would intervene, and if they were anything like Gastone Spinoza, the alguacils would mop the streets with Talmax’s entrails. In my mind, that left the revenge. Carrera and company could just be busting into the United States to cause as much carnage as possible. It was a reasonable possibility. I knew a lot of folks that would do worse to the people that killed their brother and hacked their country in half. But Madam Fremont’s words had shaken me. She claimed Carrera was fighting for justice, and justice is not the same as revenge. Both can employ violence. Both can right a wrong. But revenge is personal. Justice is impartial. Fremont was careful with her words, and I was certain she was well aware of the distinction…so how could a bloody path of conquest achieve justice for anyone? I looked over at Jules. The eternally studious witch had a pink highlighter clenched between her teeth like a pirate’s dagger. She was busy flipping through a slim volume with fresh glossy pages: Advances in Tactical Magic: The Hewn Path of the Flaming Sword I raised an eyebrow. “Jules, are you studying for war?” She gave me a cursory glance. I’d tried for snarky, but it had come out all needy. “Is it any good?” I asked. Jules flipped the page. I bit my lip. “Well?” She flipped another page. “Quite.” I leaned across Dante’s corpse (which still reeked of booze). The new page featured an engraving of a man wielding the ‘Lance of Loki’. Flames were shooting out of the top of it. Flames were shooting out of the sides of it. An entire citadel was engulfed behind him. “Can I have a look?” Jules’ jaw went taught. “Absa-fockin-lutely not.” She slammed the manual shut. “Would you two be quiet,” Jasper grumbled. “The radio is hard enough to hear without your racket.” Not wanting to tick him off, the two of us turned back to our books. Jasper had been in a foul mood for the whole drive. The medics’ report had been downright depressing. The casualty figures coming out of Arizona were staggering, and Talmax had managed to slip some men behind our lines to blow one of I-80’s tunnels in Wyoming. The ley network was pretty thin through the Rockies to begin with. Now, with I-80 down, retreating Magi were forced to travel on mana-bare roads. Squads of DEA mages had to divert from Salt Lake to cover the civilian retreat, further thinning our lines on the front. Jasper had cursed for fifteen minutes straight when he’d gotten the news. The setbacks were bad enough, but the risk of exposure was worse. The mainstream press was reporting a mobile meth lab had exploded, but Talmax had—yet again—drawn major media attention to our little magic conflict. More than anything, Jasper was worried this fight would get blown out into the open. Visions of future witch-hunts must have been dancing through his head. Francesca remained nonplussed. The fire-haired cataphract spent the idle time rewrapping the grips on her daggers. From time to time, Francesca would pause to look up at the romstone resting on the SUV’s black faux-leather dash. Romstones were semi-transparent crystals I’d seen a few times at Elliot. The product of eons of dead plankton fused together into a single stone, romstones were found hiding in dank caves and sheer limestone cliffs. The Magi valued romstones because when a large amount of mana changed position, they gave off a red ethereal glow. The natural effect was quite subtle, but pushing a bit of mana into the crystal boosted the brightness substantially. Leyline surveyors tied the little crystals to the end of their dowsing rods. They could be used to trace out the paths of even the tiniest trickle of a leyline. Francesca was using her romstone for a different purpose. She had it set up like a radar detector. Magical creatures toted around a lot of mana too. So if a powerful super approached a romstone, it would cause the crystal to light up as well. The whole radar detector thing was a good idea in theory…but it wasn’t working out too well for us in practice. The problem is that romstones aren’t choosy. They light up if lightning strikes, or if you pass by a big box store, or if an angel farts in Australia. It just gets worse if you pump them full of mana— and that’s exactly what Francesca had done. The constant false alarms didn’t seem to trouble her, but they were turning Jasper into a stress case. I forced myself to sleep until we passed through Denver. There was no point in trying to make a run for it right now. The gruff cataphract appeared to be a tireless, methodical creature…not an ideal guard to sneak away from. It was better to save up our strength for whatever Fremont had planned in Green River. Ill-tempered gusts hampered our progress through the mountains, but Jasper insisted on maintaining an intense pace. Every time we’d come close to oblivion, Jasper would mutter a spell to make the tires better grip the asphalt. I said a silent thanks when the terrain flattened out. Magical traction control or not, I really hated heights. Dante and Rei woke up as we reached Grand Junction, Colorado, the final stop prior to the long crawl to Green River, Utah. Jasper tried to gas up, but all the petrol had been slurped dry. The local coal gasification plant had broken down last evening, and they wouldn’t be able to import any fuel until after the storm. Not a single motel had a vacancy, and a haggard-looking highway patrolman advised us against proceeding. Truckers played cards in the local coffee house, praying a new fuel shipment arrived before they went bankrupt. Benevolent locals took stranded bus passengers into their homes. Jasper was undeterred. He offered another driver a thousand dollars for the contents of his tank. That netted us ten gallons, enough to make the long, winding stretch. As we struck out across the dry cracked earth, ours was just about the only vehicle on the road. Storm clouds began to crest on the horizon. It was looking to be one of those rare winter thunderstorms. Monstrous anvils stretched high into the sky. Lightning bolts lit up the stratosphere. The romstone went into frenzy. I passed the time counting the seconds between lightning strikes and crystalline sparks. Mana traveled slower than light but much faster than sound. What that meant I had no idea. I jotted down a few equations to try and account for it. By the time the first snowflakes started to fall, we hadn’t seen another car for an hour, and I really needed to get my hands on a calculator. Francesca was still checking the mirrors after each and every flash, but I didn’t really see the point. People were taking the weather advisories seriously. Our biggest enemy tonight was going to be the icy road. Agent Tools let out a sigh. “Francesca, would you put that damn stone away? It’s worth shit in a storm.” Francesca turned and stared at him. Some unheard conversation danced between them. Francesca smirked. “Two thousand,” she whispered. Beside me, Dante quivered. Someone had taken a red-hot brand to Francesca’s vocal cords. Her voice could only manage one pitch, and it issued out of her like the hard grit of sandpaper. Rei leaned forward. She examined Francesca with new interest. “Here?” Jasper asked aloud. “Now?” Francesca nodded. Jasper considered it. “Fine. Two thousand. But if I win, I’m tossing it out the window.” Placing the romstone back on the dash, Francesca returned her attention to her daggers. I watched as she crafted strange symbols into the sides of the blades. They looked vaguely like claws, but I had no idea what they meant. Jules turned to Dante. She’d been a bundle of nervous energy ever since we’d left Salinas in the dust. “So what be the plan?” “We wait,” Dante replied. Heavy bags burdened his eyes. He looked even worse than this morning. “And why must we?” Rei’s hands rested in her oversized hoodie’s pocket. I had no doubt what she was thumbing. The three of us gave her the visual veto. There would be no stabbing DEA agents in the neck with box-cutters. “But this is so dull.” Rei crossed her arms and glared at me. “And I am still not believing that you have lost all the snacks.” “Again with that?” I asked. “Who cares about a stupid cooler? I lost my thermos. Some dirtyfingered bastard is probably filling it full of Mountain Dew right now.” “Sloth ricochets, Dieter. You were the fool that lost us our most dear possessions.” “The cooler was freakin’ heavy. Why the hell would I carry it all the way up the stairs?” “Because it was a gift, and because I was trusting you to do so.” Rei jammed on her sunglasses and stared out into the empty expanses of Eastern Utah. I scowled. Rei’s foul mood was leaking across the weft. At least I was getting the hang of recognizing the phenomenon. I bit my lip before I ended up shouting something back at her. Francesca flipped through the static on the radio. A lone AM station was all she could get. An angry man was railing against something-or-other. You could just picture his fat jowls slapping his throat as he spoke: “Why should our taxes be paying these scumbags? We don’t need ten layers of bureaucrats telling us what to teach. That’s how we got into this mess in the first place, listening to these world order drones. Open a freaking book. Read the freaking book. That’s what education is all about. We don’t need computers in our classrooms. We don’t need Madam President packing our children’s lunches. Lesson plans don’t need people’s committees. We don’t need help doing our jobs—and we don’t need help raising our kids. These Washington scumbags: they hang out in their fancy dinner clubs. They eat steak and lobster on our dime. And now they want to adopt international educational standards? What about American educational standards, remember those? My friends. My dear, dear friends. If we don’t kill the Department of Education, they’re going to drain every last drop of blood from our throats.” I blinked. Wait a minute… “Drusilla?” Jules started. A bad thought was brewing in her skull. Heck, the same bad thought was brewing in mine. “What is it, Druid? If you are wishing to speak, it is best to actually do so.” “Was there anythin’ else in that cooler?” Rei tucked her hair into her cap and impregnated a pause. “Of course not.” Stars above, she was an atrocious liar. “Awen’s ghost, how much did ya lose?” “How much are you thinking? My backpack lacks a freezer section, Druid.” I looked left and right. “Just to be clear on this, we’re not talking about handles of vodka, right?” Dante looked ill again. “We most certainly are not,” Jules replied. “I am perfectly fine,” Rei insisted. I frowned. I didn’t know much about Nostophoros metabolism but… “Didn’t, like, all your skin burn off last night?” She turned back to her window watching. “That was nothing.” Her stomach let out a borborygmic moan. The three of us slid to the right. Refusing to look back at us, Rei let out a huff. “I most appreciate this voting of confidence. It is good to know in which trajectory your assholes face.” Agent Tools peeled his bloodshot eyes from the road. “What are you four going on about back there?” I wasn’t going to pass up on the chance. “We’re talking about stopping for food in Green River.” “Yea,” Dante agreed. “It’s about to turn into the Donner Party back here.” Rei may or may not have growled. “You have your MREs,” Jasper replied. “There’s a jug of H2O in the back.” I examined the packet of green sludge that claimed to be food for our soldiers. It smelled like a mixture of pickles and beer. If I were a grunt, I’d throw it at my enemies. The need to escape aside, things were getting desperate back here. Jasper had kept us on absolute lockdown since leaving St. Louis. We weren’t even allowed out for coffee. Jules had managed to earn a pee break in Kansas, but her cop-a-squat in an open field was the furthest any of us had gotten away from them. “Please, sir?” I pleaded. Jasper shook his head no. “When we get into Green River, we’re stopping for gas and gas only. Everyone is to stay in the vehicle. I don’t want you to be spreading your scent around for the Weres.” Rei chuckled. I failed to see what was so funny. “But I have ta wee again,” Jules whined. “Jesus H. Christ. You’re like an Irish spring.” A sign for Jim’s Diner announced that we were only thirty miles away from Green River. Despite the haze of the falling snow, I could make out some of the first houses in the distance. If we blew this chance, Jasper wouldn’t have to stop again until we reached Salt Lake. We’d have to overcome them in the car—which simply wasn’t going to happen. We could barely move as it was. The romstone flickered. “Not again,” Jasper grumbled. I squinted. “Funny. No lightning that time.” Rei perked up next to me. She slid her hand between our legs. I perked up. She undid her seatbelt. I perked down. The romstone went full crimson. My shoulders slacked. Figured. “I win,” Francesca rasped. She already had her Glock out of its holster. Jules shrank away at the sight of the meaty firearm. Francesca exchanged clips, jamming in one labeled S&S. “What’s S&S?” I whispered. “Silver and Splinters,” Rei answered. “It appears the cataphract is splitting the difference.” Ten cell-cycles shot past us on a gust of wind. There was no roar. No growl. They lacked the cylinders needed to make such sounds. I stared wide-eyed at the bikes. Cell-cycles were the fastest rides money could buy. Their engines were formed out of complex matrix of nanotubes. You needed a PhD just to change the freakin’ tires. Some Chinese company had patented the entire design, and the United States had promptly banned them. The swarm of pearl white next-gen motorcycles formed up in front of our SUV in ordered rows. Their brake lights burned a creepy neon green, and all the riders wore matching white leather jackets with a gold cheetahs etched on their back. Not a single bike had their headlights turned on. It occurred to me that they had chased us down at over one hundred miles an hour in the dark. Rei was already halfway to the front seat. “What are those things?” she asked. “Can they be purchased in black?” “You don’t want one,” Dante replied. “They’re like baby Hindenburgs.” Rei shuddered and sank back into her seat. “Oh. Then I am not wanting one.” I let out a sigh. “Come on, Dante. Not even a bullet could crack the fuel casings. We passed that law because the Chinese refused to build their factory over here. It’s a classic case of—” Jasper’s swerved into the middle of the two-lane highway. Two overbuilt 4x4s were churning the pavement behind us. The move had kept one of them from coming up beside us. Sighted, the two gasguzzlers flipped on their huge floodlights. Grabbing hold of the door handle, Rei threw an arm across my unrestrained chest. Then things started moving fast. One of the Jeeps struck our bumper, sending everything in the truck flying. The second Jeep tried to exploit the confusion by sweeping up on our left side. “They are flanking us now,” Rei commented. The two Jeeps were trying to expose our back wheel. Ramming us there would send us into a spin. Fortunately, Jasper had brought his A-game. Shifting left, he gave the breaks a tap. Our hefty GMC had mass on its side. The collision took a chunk out the left Jeep’s bumper, and the smaller truck nearly swerved off the road. “Nice!” Dante shouted. “A minor victory,” Rei replied. “They still control both fore and aft.” In front of us, one of the riders removed her helmet, revealing a woman with long blond hair. Letting go of her bike’s handlebars, she hopped up on the butt end her cycle. It was an impossible feat. No human being could have ever done that. The blaze of our headlights reflected off her crimson eyes. She crouched on the bike’s seat like a cat ready to pounce. “Those eyes…” I said. “Are they Nostophoros?” “Weres,” Rei corrected. “Only mongrels such as these hunt in packs.” “Aye,” Jules replied. “Besides, Dieter, no Nostophoros ego would ever fit into one of those helmets.” Still staring at Jasper, the blond rider tossed her helmet into the air. Jasper didn’t panic. He kept his line like a pro. The helmet came crashing into our front window, leaving a huge divot in the glass. Spanking her ass, the rider plopped back down on her saddle. She made a single motion, and the entire gang burst off into the distance. The taillights blinked out in mere seconds. The cell-cycles must have cleared 200mph. The six of us sat in silence as the spider web of cracks spread across the front window. “Why’d they leave?” I asked. “Spike strip?” Jasper asked. “I would wager five miles on,” Francesca answered. “They probably possess a chop shop on the outskirts of town.” Jasper had opened his mouth to say something less than nice when another jolt came from the back of the car. The Jeep behind us wasn’t going to let us slow down. They wanted us to keep moving. I was about to ask what the heck was going on, when out in the cold distance, a flash of light ballooned high into the sky. The giant plume lit up the clouds with a brilliant orange glow. “And what the fock was that?” Jules asked. “The gas station,” Rei replied. She leaned forward. “I am wondering, sirs, will you attempt to surrender and beg for our lives? Perhaps they will spare a few limbs.” Agent Tools glanced at Francesca. She gave him a subtle nod. My Sight flared right as we were hit by a blast of magic, and the four of us were plastered back against our seats. A weight pressed against my chest, and a slight twinge of pain pricked my neck. I glanced down to find one of Francesca’s daggers against my throat. Jules let out a gasp as a warm trickle rolled down my neck. My heart began to pound. Francesca’s blade was so sharp that I hadn’t felt it slide in. “This was the most dangerous moment of our journey. The time we could least afford detection.” Francesca examined the four of us. She didn’t seem angry. She didn’t look rushed. “The town we approach is isolated. Dwindling fuel denies us any retreat. Yet now is when a pack of predators decide to nip at our heels. Predators outfitted far too well. Predators that have tracked us with far too much ease.” She examined each and every one of us. “A teaching point has been arrived at. What say you, Elliot’s finest?” “That you should drop that knife,” Dante answered. “You have no right to do that.” Francesca lowered her blade an inch. Blood rushed down my collar in a stream. “Better,” she asked, “or a bit lower still?” My Sight roared a warning. Rei was taking a keen interest in my neck. I tried very hard not to swallow. I tried very hard not to piss my pants. “I’ve spent years working with a romstone. The pack was tracking us since St. Louis. Before I only had questions. Now I have a rear bumper to repair. I will ask each question one time, and a wrong answer will cost this one a major vessel.” Rei let out a strangled gulp, and my Sight roared with the Niagara Falls of bloodlust. My own heartbeat was being played back to me. I could hardly focus on the conversation. Francesca glanced at Rei. “Thirsty?” My heart stopped. Francesca smiled. “Such a sweet little treat…and after such a long ride in the sun. Must be terribly tempting. But biting a member of the Magi? Goodness, I’d hate to hand out a death penalty.” The trembling in Rei’s thigh told me all I needed to know. She was mere seconds away from biting me. “I thought you Purebloods were special. To think Theodus’ youngest would engage in such a grave —” A sickening little crack interrupted her. Dante let out a little gasp, and for the first time Francesca looked a bit uncertain. Whatever she had just seen unnerved her. On the plus side, Rei’s bloodlust vanished. Whatever she’d managed to do had worked. Rei’s voiced grated the words like cheese. Fury laced every syllable. “Stupid, cataphract. Is that all your eyes can see? Your own precious Councilwoman drove the knife in.” Francesca’s brow furrowed. “What are you talking about, blood-bather?” “To a minion of Zeus, the Laws of Xenia are quite strict. One must offer the guest food. One must offer the guest drink. A fine bath must be heated. The master’s clothes must be tendered. Even her courtesans should be shared. She must guard her guest like family, and she mustn’t dare to ask a question until all the guest’s needs have been sated…were they sated, Dieter? Did you eat your fill?” “Yea,” I managed. “Wait…is that why Dante got laid?” Rei began to chuckle. It sounded like a razor on glass. “Dante was laid upon by that viper because he is a tempting little lamb—now do focus, Dieter. This is the portion of the tale in which you confirmed your foolery. On parting, the host must offer her guest a xenion, a gift meant to honor the gods. Which god the host chooses to honor is irrelevant to the Laws—but it is of critical interest to the one doing the accepting.” My shoulders sank. “Oh.” Rei let loose a shiver. “And now I am once again becoming most distracted by all the gushiness, so if you would please finish this tale while I occupy my fangs.” Another tiny crack interrupted us, but with Francesca’s blade still in my neck, I couldn’t turn to find out what was going on. “Fine,” I managed. “I did accept a gift, but Madam Fremont hinted at Hermes. Hermes protects travelers. I think we’re barking up the wrong tree here.” Jules groaned. “Fockin’ A, Dieter. Hermes only protected humans on their path ta Hades. His only concern was for their souls.” “Huh?” I managed. “Honestly, if we survive this disaster, I’m enrollin’ ya in World History of Magic meself. Hermes led the souls of the departed ta Hades—and he was also the god of dirty tricks.” “Oh, man,” Dante said, “Fremont gave us the kiss of death, and she picked Dieter ‘cause he doesn’t know any better.” “Guys, all she gave me was this stupid egg.” I reached into my robe and pulled out Fremont’s tiny black present. “What’s it gonna do, summon the Easter Bunny?” This time, the entire group let out a groan. “What?” I shouted. “What’s wrong with the nice black egg?” “A Lidérc egg in this age?” Francesca shook her head at it. “Dispose of it, priestess.” “Gladly,” Jules replied. “Just as soon as ya stop damagin’ me protégé.” “Agreed.” Francesca lowered her blade. “Thank you kindly,” Jules said with a nod. She took the egg out of my hand, tied a piece of twine around it three times, completed a complicated set of knots, pushed some mana into twine, said a sutra of some sort, and tossed the demon egg out the window. “We’ll be needin’ fifty kilometers of clearance by mornin’” Jules advised. “Fifty kilometers?” I asked. “What the heck is a Lidérc egg, a thermonuclear bomb?” “Na, Dieter. Ya’d be lucky if it were. A Lidérc egg hatches into a six-armed rape monster that’ll perform all manners of violations on yer person until ya die from the pain or shame.” I blinked. “That’s a thing?” “A thing it be. And a Lidérc egg is also known ta provide the poor fool that carries it quite the misfortunes. There be no curse, mind. Just a stench. Ya see, Dieter, a Lidérc egg carries the scent of chamber lye. It be scentless ta even a Nostophoros, but it’ll draw a Were from miles away.” Jules let out a sigh. “I really cannot believe that nice old lady focked us like that…goes to show, I guess.” A not-so-subtle bump jolted us all forward. The Weres were still trying to knock us off the road in order to gnaw on our bones. Jasper struggled to control the skid. He cursed like a sailor as he did. “At least we can all be friends now,” Dante said with a meek smile. “It’s good to be on the same side again.” “Not at all.” Francesca turned her blade on Rei. “This Nostophoros knew.” I turned to look at her. Her eyes were fixed on my neck—and she was currently biting through her own forearm. I realized what the previous snaps had been. She was biting through her own bones. Rei unstuck her fangs from her ulna and frowned. “Of course I knew this. That is why I am telling you. I examined the pockets of his pants last night.” “What were ya doin’ in Dieter’s pants?” Jules raged. “There was a most curious bulge!” I had no retort. The image of Rei perusing the contents of my pants had overwhelmed my mental bandwidth. “But why did you wait?” Dante asked. “That monster was gonna rape Dieter and stuff.” “Because the three of you lost my cooler,” she shot back. “That’s a reason?” I asked. Rei cocked her head in confusion. “Of course it is a reason. Delivery does not order itself.” And then Rei did something I would never forget. She opened the door and jumped straight out. I gaped as her body went horizontal. Her serene blue eyes sparkled in the headlights’ glare. She looked entirely indifferent to the peril. And the entire motion was effortless. I thought she might even take to flight—until her left shoulder connected with a windshield. Glass went flying everywhere. The tricked out Wrangler skidded off to the left. It looked ready to jump the median, only to overcorrect back to the right. Rei had managed to get her hand on the wheel. She was the one doing the turning. Spitting out a cloud of rubber, the Jeep caught the second in the rear wheel. Rei’s Jeep managed to stay upright. It took a leap off the shoulder into the wide-open desert. “Jesus Christ!” Dante shouted. As if in slow motion, the second Jeep began to fishtail. We watched in awe as the truck tripped over it’s own wheels and disintegrated into a million pieces. The poor bastards inside never stood a chance. Their tricked-out coffin was traveling at over a 100mph. Two men were tossed out like rag dolls. I never saw what became of them. “That one has a certain flair,” Francesca noted with a nod. “Why aren’t we turning around?” I could see flashes of gunfire going off inside the cabin of the surviving jeep. “Why aren’t we helping her?” Francesca reached into her pocket and pulled out a slender cancer stick. “Because the moon is new, there were a maximum of four, and I do believe she was pocketing a box-cutter.” Francesca lowered her window and blew out a puff. “Gentlemen, be some good little grubs and hand me what is in the crate marked ‘foodstuffs’.” “How did you know?“ Jasper asked. “Because you asked my father for ideas. I love the man to pieces, but his lips tend to come undone.” Jasper cleared his throat. “So…” “Grubs, a bit faster if you would please. We are just about in range.” Moving our bags out of the way, Dante and I opened the crate. It contained a strange looking tube about two feet long. The whole thing weighed about twenty pounds, and there was a diamond ring taped to the viewfinder. Francesca took the dangerous-looking thing, flipped a few switches, and nodded. A capacitor charged up inside. A steady beep began to sound. She slung the strange machine onto her shoulder and stuck her entire torso out the window. A mile ahead, ten headlights shone. The Weres were waiting for their dinner. “Gotta love pack animals,” Jasper said. “They even bunched up for us.” The beep began to pace upwards until it formed a monotone. “Um, is that a—” I started. The whole truck shook with a thunderous bang. My head rattled. The whole SUV shook from the jolt. I tracked the blazing red streamer upwards, straight overhead of its target. Then, like the crack of a whip, the missile arched straight down. I instantly understood the logic. It was a missile designed to attack a tank’s soft topside armor. The speed of projectile reached insanity, and it connected with the top of blondie’s head. I said a bullet couldn’t crack a hydrogen fuel tank. I never said anything about an anti-tank missile. The boom was too loud to hear, and the wave of rippling asphalt tossed our ride straight up into the air. All the SUV’s windows shattered. Shrapnel shot in every direction. As our front wheels found pavement, unidentifiable chunks of flesh rained down on the hood. Jasper let off the gas and let out a low whistle. Whimpering, Jules shook the glass out of her curls. “That didn’t even seem fair,” I said. “Fair is for enemies that don’t regenerate,” Jasper said. “Did they get the spike strip out?” Francesca shook her head no. “I’ll take the one on the right. He looks the most intact.” With the smoke clearing, a horror scene played out in front of us. Human cinders walked among the wreckage. They shouldn’t have been alive. Jasper aimed for the one that still had both arms. Jules let out a scream as he caught the poor smoldering bastard with our grill. Jamming on the breaks, he put the steaming truck into park. Francesca had already peeled off the diamond ring from the missile launcher and slid it onto her finger. “Pretty,” she said. “Happy anniversary,” Jasper said with a smile. The toaster strudel we had struck began to convulse. Francesca was out of the car in an instant. She drew the long sword in a slow and steady motion and took the man’s head off with a single swing. Spinal cord severed, all his limbs went still. “You can have your pee break now.” Jasper turned off the SUV and pocketed the keys. “Mr. Dante, keep your people by the car.” The three of us hopped out of the car behind him and struggled to find our bearings. Melted puddles of nanotubes burnt like bonfires. The air smelled like sour barbeque. Behind us, humanoid things crawled about on their remaining limbs. None of their bodies looked salvageable, yet for some unexplained reason they continued to function. “What is the deal with these people?” I asked. “The moon is in the wane, Dieter. They won’t regenerate limbs until it be full again.” “They can recover missing limbs?” I asked. Healing a wound was one thing. Regenerating body parts was another. “Aye, Dieter. They’re one of the few creatures that can even regenerate a spine. They live short mad lives. They never leave their teen years—and they’ve always gotta be eatin’.” “The Department hunted them out of existence on the East and West Coast years ago,” Dante explained. “There are some big packs left in Canada and Mexico, but they never dared to trespass until this war started. The Nostophoros keep some tame ones. Rumor is Nosto blood can keep them alive much longer.” “Can they transform and stuff?” I asked. “Fourteen days outta twenty-eight.” “I won’t be allowing them the luxury,” Jasper said. He knelt to the ground, and a surge of mana echoed out of him. Everything walking collapsed. He’d dragged them to the ground without breaking a sweat. “An earth-mage?” I whispered. He’d sent his cast straight into the bedrock. Jules nodded. “A rare bird he be.” Francesca was unfazed by the change in gravity around her. That was one of the benefits of wefting. Jasper could exclude her from the cast with ease. She dragged her broadsword behind her like a plough. It sparked as it raked across the pavement. Some of the riders tried to crawl away, but they were no match for Jasper’s willpower. Francesca had a short conversation with each one. If they couldn’t talk, she took their head. If they could talk, she tortured them until they couldn’t. She got very little from all her efforts. A nice old lady had given them some cool toys and a target, and they hadn’t asked much beyond, “What flavor?” Francesca stomped out her cigarette when she was finished. Then she began the slower process of looting their corpses. No ID’s to speak of. No paperwork either. She gave Jasper a tired shrug. “This makes about as much sense as shit-flavored toothpaste.” Dusting off his hands, Jasper rose to face us. “Why the hell is John Fremont’s widow trying to kill you?” “John Fremont?” I opened up Carrera’s book and flipped to the fourth chapter. “As in John C. Fremont, the explorer who helped start the Mexican-American War. The father of the Republican Party. The guy who nearly beat Abraham Lincoln out for the nomination?” Jasper nodded “He had to bow out of the running. Hera’s servant dragged him back to Greece.” “Jasper, that’s just a rumor,” Francesca replied. “Explain that thing that was accompanying her then,” Jasper shot back. Francesca said nothing. She turned her head and looked away. “It isn’t every day that a councilor takes a swing at a pair of DEA agents.” Jasper eyed Dante. “The shit is deep on this one, lads. I’m figuring you have something to tell us.” Dante tried to look cool. “Sir, I don’t know anything.” “Let me clarify. Spill the beans and we might help you. Bite your lips and we’ll saw them open. Then we’ll stake the she-devil, bind the lot of you, and pull teeth till we get to Salt Lake.” Dante looked at Jules and I. Neither of us knew what to tell him. There was no way in hell we could fight it out with a pair team. He let out a sigh and spilled. At the end of it, Jasper shook his head and laughed. “So Albright is still clinging to that theory?” “But if he’s right?” I asked. “If Talmax is really breaking international law with their ACT devices…?” Jasper glared at me. “If he’s right, and by some miracle you can get a hold of a sample, and by some other miracle you manage to survive long enough to show an ICE team what you found, then yea, that would just be peaches. The ICE would come down on Talmax like God’s will on earth. This war would be over in minutes.” “So…” I started. “So you’re chasing a pipe dream, kid. There’s no proof these ACT devices are anything but earthbound minerals. How can you risk the lives of your friends on a gamble like that?” “It should be our choice, sir. I trust Albright. He wouldn’t be sending us on a wild goose chase.” “Is this what this war has come to? We’re sacrificing kids now?” “And what are you going to use us for in Salt Lake, sir? Concessions?” Jasper stormed off in a fury. He kicked a vacant motorcycle seat across the road. I turned to Francesca. “Talk to him,” I begged. The redheaded warrior looked straight into me. “Child, my path is simple. I am cataphract. I am a blade. I go where my mage points. I crush what he wills. One of the few pleasures of this life is leaving the scheming up to you Magi—convince him yourself.” Jules let out a sigh and approached Jasper. “Ya know we must, sir.” “I know nothing,” he shouted back at her. “That be a lie. Of all people, ya know the most. Ya have the touch of the cold earth on ya. Ya know of flesh unbound. This gamble be worth it on those terms.” Jaspers fingers slacked. “How do you…?” “Because none has eyes as cold as yers that hasn’t seen death undone. Ya know there be dangers far beyond this war. Ya know why and for what we must risk it.” The sound of an engine rose in the distance. A Jeep was rumbling down the road. A crimson flag flapped proudly on the antennae. It appeared to have once been a man’s shirt. Rei pulled up next to us and poked her head out. “I am full. Can we go now?” Jasper looked off into the distance. His hands tightened into fists. “Cadet Lieutenant Dante,” he said. “Sir?” “Agent Reckling and I need to find some additional fuel for our vehicle. It’s going to take the remainder of the night. Your services are not required here. Take the Jeep and continue towards your objective.” Dante broke out into a grin. “Yes, sir. Right away, sir.” The three of us didn’t waste any time. We grabbed our duffels and tossed them in the Jeep. + Our bags tucked away, Rei kicked the Jeep into gear. The cold was nearly unbearable in the front seat of the jeep. I’d buttoned my robe tight, and stuffed newspapers under my sweaters, but the harsh weather didn’t seem to care. I looked back at Dante and Jules. Bundled up under a warm burlap blanket, they were already out like a light. They’d take over in the morning. Until then I was left eating snowflakes. Rei let loose another burp. “Gross,” I replied. “You manage ten liters and talk.” I shuddered. “We’re burning this Jeep as soon as we get to Vegas.” “Of course, Dieter. One must always hide the evidence.” I tried focusing on the radio. The storm clouds had melted over the desert. The sliver of a moon set off to the right. I glanced over at Rei in the dim light. Dried blood coated most of her features, a reminder that she’d just taken four lives like a butcher. But her eyes still held that pleasant sparkle, and she mouthed the words to the ancient song like a happy child. There was just so much I didn’t get. How was I supposed to act after one of these spree killings? What was I supposed to do? “Thank you for not biting me,” I offered. Rei shot me a nervous glance. This territory was rocky for the both of us. “You are welcome.” I frowned. Where to go with this… “Does your own blood taste good?” “I did not expect this.” She chuckled. “Does your own spit taste good?” “Um…sorta?” “Exactly.” She flexed her well-healed forearm. “The real pudding is the pain.” “That’s deep.” “Indeed. But what is troubling you…we’ve had a good night’s hunting, have we not?” “The why,” I replied. She cocked her head. “You wonder why a nice old woman would attempt to rape and kill you?” “Well…basically.” “Do not take it so personally, kumpadre. Councilwoman Fremont seemed to like you and the Druid a great deal.” “But she tried to kill us.” “Dieter, Roald Amundsen loved his sled dogs very much, but he would have ended up like Robert Scott if he did not slaughter them for their meat.” “Did you just reference the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration to explain why Madam Fremont attempted to deploy a rape-monster on me?” “Indeed—but should you not be asking why I have no need to puzzle?” I looked at her with suspicion. This was a trap. “Okay, Rei. Why have you no need to puzzle?” Rei granted me a full-fang smile. “Because all will be answered after I separate Diego Carrera from his skin.” I grimaced. “You are so not getting a Christmas present this year.” I tried to ignore the way my heart thudded her words. I tried to ignore the blood beneath her nails. The road had been winding. My fate was still unknown to me. But Rei was right in some freakish way. We were getting closer to answers, whether we wanted them or not. I thought about my old house. I thought about my old haunts. I could still feel the warming fondness that only the familiar brings. I was headed home to Las Vegas—headed back to my father—and this time I was bringing company. Part III THE VALLEY KEEPS HER SECRETS Chapter 14 COMING IN HOT “Still, I fail to see the point of these ridiculous costumes.” “Oh, come on, Rei, it’s like we’re secret agents.” Jules formed her fingers into a gun and struck a pose. “The name’s Bond, Jules Bond. Capow!” “Charming, Druid,” Rei replied. She turned to me. “I feel every draft. Your culture is corrupt.” “Hey, I didn’t make the world, I just live in it,” I said, struggling with my bow tie. “It’s just a uniform. Thousands of cocktail waitresses wear them every day. And besides, I think you make a good Bunnicula.” Rei’s eyes narrowed. “Let me assist you with that bow tie.” I sprung away from her grasp. “Back-off the neck, woman. Dante, you figure yours out yet?” Dante was mumbling something about over, up, around, and through. He shook his head in the negative. “Maybe I should shroud around instead of delivering room service.” “No, Dante. We need to talk to as many—” Rei caught me by the neck. I yelped. She was a wee bit too good at that… “Stand still,” she commanded. She centered my collar and did something mysterious to the bow. After giving me a wry smile, she gestured at the mirror. “Wow,” I said. “It’s perfect.” “Me next,” Dante begged. “Normally, I just undo them, but reverse engineering the process is quite simple,” Rei commented. Dante went as pale as his starched white shirt. “Thanks,” he croaked. It was December 17th. Dante, Rei, Jules, and I had arrived in Las Vegas four days ago. We rented a small apartment under the guise of two couples moving to the valley for work. The building was right next to the Strip. Aside from the sweet smell of trash and the nightly gunfire, it was a charming part of town. Monique and the rest of the crew were camped out in a DEA safe house across the valley in Henderson. They planned to keep their heads low until we could dredge up something useful. Finally suited up for work, the four of us sat down at the kitchen table for our daily meeting. “Let’s go over everything from the top,” Dante said. “Dieter.” “Roger dodger. Seven months ago, Talmax purchased the Over the Top Resort and Casino. The reason for the buy is pretty obvious. Owning a casino is one of the best possible ways to launder money. You take your illicit earnings, mix them in with the cash that the gamblers use to buy chips, and walk out the back door with a nearly untraceable stream of income. Normally, this would never be allowed to happen. The state wouldn’t issue a gaming license to a group like Talmax, and the Feds would nail them right quick if they tried washing money—but things aren’t normal. The Slump has the state gaming commission willing to look the other way if Talmax’s investment means an influx of cash and jobs, and every local DEA agent is on permanent exhibition in the morgue. But this development isn’t all bad news. If Carrera and his crew are cocky enough to buy a freakin’ casino, it tells us something important: they’re getting sloppy.” Dante nodded. “And if Talmax is getting sloppy, they’re probably getting loose-lipped too.” “So Rei and I get to spend the next few days liquorin’ up gangsters and squeezin’ ‘em for info.” Jules giggled. “This is gonna be fun!” “I do not require alcohol to extract information out of these men,” Rei said grumpily. Her giant bunny ears flopped around as she spoke. “Dieter,” Dante said, “the plan’s all well and good, but I still don’t get why you signed us up to work room service.” “Simple. Room service attendants get access to every room in a hotel. Plus, we’ll know who’s ordering the champagne.” “Like a Kristal Ball,” Jules said. Rei stifled a chuckle and tried to revert to grouch mode. “Fine,” Dante said. “Jules and I will head out first. We’ve got that reconnaissance Maria wants done.” + The Over the Top. If there ever was a symbol of Las Vegas hubris, the OTT was it. A modern day tower of Babel—located conveniently off the I-15 freeway—the OTT stretched over 350 meters above the desert floor. The enormous three-legged monster was topped by a flying saucer skewered by the Washington Monument. And if that wasn’t crazy enough, the blinking metal obelisk at the top had a ride that tossed riders up and down its whole length, flaunting the absurd height. Construction of the monstrous tower had taken half my childhood. Heralded as a marvel of modern engineering, the mayor pronounced the OTT as the figurehead of a new Las Vegas renaissance. No one (including the resort’s investors) was aware of the cost overruns OTT Corp. had incurred during the tower’s construction. The whole operation went bankrupt in a month. The CEO fled the country. I think he moved to Belize. Our apartment was only a few blocks away from the tower. The neighborhood was a sad mix of the broken and the hopeless. Buildings were a haphazard collection of crumbling concrete and balsa wood tied together with chicken wire. Rent was cheap. Life was cheaper. The homeless had set up the usual shanties on the sidewalks. Drug-Immune Tuberculosis was rampant, and the hacking coughs of the infirm competed with the chirping of crickets throughout the night. This was what the working class had been reduced to. Walking sacs of rags that begged losers like us for change. Every few hours an ambulance would swing by to pick up another drunk or diabetic. I didn’t know why they bothered. It wasn’t like the local hospital could afford to care for them. It sucked, but that’s how it was for most folks seeking a new start in Vegas. You showed up from some shithole in the Midwest where times were even worse, moved into one of these monthlies, and tried to find a job. The goal was to save up some money, and maybe buy a house. Most never escaped. The vices cut both ways. Scores of the new employees ended up as degenerate gamblers or druggies themselves. My own father was Exhibit 1-A. After giving Dante and Jules a thirty-minute head start, Rei and I headed down Las Vegas Boulevard. The night was cold and windy, but the foul weather gave me an excuse to wear my new jacket. Rei was wearing a long overcoat she’d picked up last night. Obviously, the coat wasn’t for the cold, and I didn’t think she was wearing it out of a sense of modesty either. (Rei didn’t really seem to have a sense of modesty.) I figured being seen as one of the “help” bothered Rei much more than a silly bunny tail. That kinda irked me. I decided a few days in the slums might be exactly what Rei needed. I looked at the massive resorts rising up around us. Pirates. Italian villas. Laser light shows. Twenty story tall digital displays flashing images of all the legal deadly sins one after another. Promises of sex, wealth, and respect dangled in front of the tourists’ noses. It was all one giant inside joke—one the pudgy visitors seemed oblivious to. They still came decade after decade to rub dice and drop coins. Depression be damned, luck could still love. But in this town, luck was no lady. She was probably the one thing more vicious than the girl walking next to me. I caught Rei staring up into the bright neon lights. “Truly,” she asked, “you grew up here?” A group of bachelorettes stumbled out of a shiny white limo. The last girl out lost her lunch in the gutter. “Yep,” I replied. “I was born on the sidewalk right over there.” Rei rolled her eyes. “No. Really. That’s the casino my father works at. My mom was coming to visit him. She went into labor on the curb. I popped out right there.” The wind blew Rei’s long black hair into her face. She stopped walking and tucked it into her jacket. “Fascinating.” She made a slow circle, smiling as thousands of blinking lights danced across her face. “So this was Dieter Resnick’s first sight.” I scratched my head. I had never considered that before. “Don’t remember it,” I said with a shrug. Rei stuffed her hands into her overcoat. “Dieter, I am wondering about something: we have been in your homeland for four days now. In that time, you have not visited your father. I do not understand this. In my culture, that sort of an affront would be grounds for punishment.” My jaw tightened. Wrong topic, Rei. “I don’t have anything to say to him,” I said, walking away. “But I would like to see him.” That stopped me cold. “Rei…” I began, but she raised her hand to stay my voice. “I did not say I wished to meet him, Dieter, just that I would like to see him. He works there, yes? Take me.” I frowned. Rei batted her eyes. “Please?” It was a pathetic display, which—for some reason—made it even harder to say no. “Fine,” I grumbled. “But let’s make this quick. We only have thirty minutes till we have to punch in.” Timing the traffic, we rushed across the street. Jaywalking Las Vegas Boulevard is a Las Vegas tradition, but halfway across the road, some jerk decided to speed up to make a point. Faster than I could think, Rei grabbed my hand and yanked me onto the sidewalk. I turned to flip the guy off. “Asshole!” I screamed. “And California plates! Fucking tourists.” Rei grabbed her belly and laughed. “Dieter, despite the inherent symmetry, I do not wish you to die on the same street on which you were birthed.” I was still hot under the collar. It was everything I could do not to run after the bastard. “Kumpadre, I expect you to use your superior vision and intellect to get the license plate number next time.” Rei’s smile cooled. “Who says I didn’t?” I frowned at her. “There will be absolutely no biting. This city needs that fool’s money more than you need his blood.” Rei sighed. “Dieter, biting is so inaccurate. It is more like incising.” “Huh?” “They’re serrated.” “Huh?” “My teeth, Dieter.” “Oh.” Note to self: no French kissing vampires. We made our way around the rows of clanging slot machines to the table games in the back. I motioned to a bench by the cashier. It was only then that I realized my hand was still wrapped around hers. It was funny. They’d fit so well that I didn’t even notice. “Do you see him?” Rei asked. “He’s not on right now. The dealers alternate every thirty minutes to stay fresh. The flip will happen soon.” As we waited, I spent my time watching Rei out of the corner of my eye. Her head kept darting around. The clanking of coin, the flashing of lights, the roars from the tables when someone had a strong roll; a busy casino floor is an assault on the senses. For a being with heightened perception, this place must have been like standing under a waterfall. The flip came ten minutes later. My father came with it. I gritted my teeth. I really didn’t want to be seen here. We were using fake names. This seemed like a great way to blow our cover. Dressed in a crisp white uniform and carrying a bundle of fresh cards under his arm, my father strode over to a table and replaced the other dealer. I did a double take. Less than six months had passed since we last saw each other face to face, but it looked like he had aged years. His usual bulk had shriveled noticeably. He looked tired, and his shoulders were slouched. Thick pillows rested under both of his eyes. I pointed him out to Rei. She nodded and watched him quietly. Being underage, I had never got to see my father work. Tonight’s game was blackjack. My father already had three customers at his table, so he began the first hand promptly. He dealt fast, with crisp clean strokes. His motions were precise and methodical, but he made time to greet a patron’s small talk with a smile. The tips rolled in. A few minutes later, the table was full. I bit my lip. A smile. I thought back to the few that had ever been directed at me, so few that I knew each and every one of them. And yet here he passed them out as easily as the cards. Like they were a cheap. Like he couldn’t get rid off them fast enough. It burned me up inside. “Dieter…” Rei ran a hand through her hair. “What did you say your father’s name was?” “I didn’t. It’s Kurtz.” “Fasz kivan,” Rei muttered. “Sorry?” I asked. “Nothing.” Rei looked at her watch and frowned. “I believe it is almost time for our…shift. We should depart, Dieter.” I couldn’t stand up fast enough. This whole scene was freaking me out. What if my father saw us? What would I say? What would he say? Who would punch whom first? I headed to the nearest row of slots and made a beeline for the exit. I was so consumed with daddy issues that I forgot to wait up for Rei. I turned around to apologize—and the bottom fell out of my stomach. My father’s smile was gone. He’d locked eyes with Rei—and she was meeting his gaze. My throat tightened. I drew in a labored breath. It lasted only a second, but I saw it clear as day. Then Rei bowed her head slightly, and my father returned the gesture. Gross…my dad was sizing her up. That was clearly not allowed. I turned and kept walking. I didn’t need that image festering in my brain. + Scrape, scrape, scrape. Wipe. Scrape, scrape, scrape. Man-o-man, I had forgotten how much real work sucked. I glanced up from my service cart’s ketchup-congealed wheel. The sous-chef was on the phone with a supplier. He was yelling about a shipment of rotten onions we’d just received. The fat-faced bastard was trying his best to include every single expletive in his diatribe. Dante looked at me mournfully from across the kitchen. He was receiving his own lecture on the cost of breaking plates. So far, my first night on the job had turned up absolutely nothing. Well, almost nothing. A cougar on the 14th floor had slipped me a twenty and her phone number, so I had that going for me. I was only certain of one thing: This place was bizarro land. Working at Newmar’s Restaurant, I’d always served locals. Sure, some of them took their clothes off for a living, but these tourists were an entirely different can of worms. As soon as they hit the runway tarmac it was like the crazy light switched on. I had just helped two other servers fill some Arab sheik’s bathtub with heavy cream. What was the cream for? Let’s just say that the maids had better get one hell of a tip come morning. I pried the last bit of red gunk out of the wheel. Stars above, it was amazing the trouble a mixture of hair and condiments could cause. After washing my hands (thoroughly), I picked up my next orders. Two stops on the 20th floor. Room 2017 had requested two bottles of something called Lindisfarne Mead, a pair of roast ducks, and a bottle of anti-acids. Then, Room 2021 wanted three cream cheese and jelly sandwiches and five bottles of sparking water. I shook my head. Who were these people? What planet were they from? Why did they decide to come bother me in the middle of a desert? Why? I’ll tell you why: No one else would take ‘em. At least I was learning a bit more about the Over the Top. Talmax had refurbished the entire facility. We’re talking some serious dinero. From new restaurants to new carpet, the place had been lavished with cash. Talking to my fellow servers, I’d learned that the money dump had really turned the place around. The newly renovated hotel was attracting more than its fair share of wealthy clientele. That meant much fatter tips. Employee moral was through the roof. The hotel itself was only twenty something stories tall. That wasn’t big by Vegas standards, but at the center of the resort stood that monstrous tower. It dwarfed everything in the valley, and cast shade on the entire Strip. But while the tower was tall, it had some major flaws: It was so massive that its three giant legs were dedicated to supporting its weight, and the space up top was pathetic considering the expense of building a tower that tall. Besides the observation deck on the roof, there was only room for a few guest suites and a restaurant. The previous owners had made a bit of money charging people to visit the observatory, but considering the expense of building it, the whole thing was a loser. The real earner was the casino underneath the tower’s legs. It had the usual array of slot machines and table games, plus one brand new gimmick: the entire roof was a clear plexiglass dome. It allowed the gamblers to look up at the tower from below. But for some reason, the management kept “home of the most expensive up-skirt view in the history of the world” off the brochures. The elevator dinged, and I rolled my cart into the hall. Room 2017 first, I decided. I rang the bell, and a booming Nordic voice asked, “Who is it?” “Room Service,” I announced. “Your, uh, mead and meat, sir.” I heard heavy footsteps approach the door. The man filled the entire doorframe. I arched my neck backwards. “Hello, sir.” He must have been nearly seven feet tall. His nose was the size of a teacup, and his ears, the size of saucers. I bet myself I could fit a bottle cork up one of his nostrils (not that I would try). “Would you like me to set up your food on the table?” The giant grunted and clomped back over to his bed. I took that for a yes and entered his room. He waited patiently and watched as I laid out his food. “Are you enjoying your stay, sir?” I asked at last. “So-so,” he rumbled. “Bit warm for me blood.” “If you don’t mind me asking, why Vegas then?” “Ah, not for pleasure. Work. Olaph’s firm was hired for a job.” The flatware clattered as he spoke. “Personally hate to travel, but Norwegian taxes…” He shook his head. “By the Gods. Six piece out of ten. Will bankrupt Olaph and Company right quick if we’re not crafty.” I couldn’t resist a chance to promote my hometown. “Maybe you should consider moving your business here. We don’t have a state income tax in Nevada.” Mr. Olaph laughed heartily. I finished up the food preparation, but the two large ducks looked woefully inadequate. Mr. Olaph seemed satisfied, though. He reached over and slid the table towards the bed. It was a good decision. The chairs had no hope of bearing his weight. I un-corked the mead stuff and served it to him. The smell reminded me of honey. “What’s your trade, Mr. Olaph?” “Security. And call me Per or take a dare.” He handed me his card. Per Olaph President, Olaph Security, a division of Olaph Industries Olaph…I remembered that name from somewhere…“Say, Mr. Olaph, er, Per, didn’t Olaph Industries design those Quick Passage devices? You know, the ones that let cars go full speed through toll stations?” Mr. Olaph smiled. “Yeps. That’s pa’s invention. Different division, though.” “Very cool.” I handed him the bill. “Well have a good evening, sir.” “You too, young lad.” He signed the bill and handed it back to me, but as I reached for it, he took my whole forearm in his enormous hand. I didn’t dare pull away. I had the feeling he could pluck off my head like a dandelion. Mr. Olaph leaned forward and examined my palm. “Strange history,” he muttered. He took in a deep wheezy breath. “Tom,” he said calling me by the name on my nametag, “tough choices lie ahead.” I nodded quietly and he released me. Rolling my cart out the door, I couldn’t quite shake it. Why’d Mr. Olaph stare at my hands…? Must have been some Norwegian thing. I knocked on room 2021 next. “Room service,” I announced. “One sec,” a woman’s voice announced over the sound of a hairdryer. Locks shifted and the door cracked open. Propping the door open with her bare foot, she said, “I’m finishing up in the bathroom. Be a dear and set up the food on the table.” “Yes, ma’am,” I said, taking the door from her foot. If the well-manicured toes were any hint…I shook my head. Job. I had a job to do. I waited for the bathroom door to shut and then rolled my cart in. The place looked like a suitcase exploded. Clothing hung from every available surface. The bed was dedicated to not one, not two, but three different cameras. Those really expensive lenses you saw at sporting events were strewn around like confetti. Her table was completely covered in newspapers. I shifted an open laptop to the side and set up her dinner. The hairdryer shut off just as I finished lining up the sandwiches on the plate. I’d formed a doubledecker triad (Princess Zelda would have been proud). I hadn’t read a normal people paper in like four months, so with a few moments to spare, I glanced at one of the articles she’d circled with a marker. Apparently, a nasty drug war was developing between a major Mexican cartel and some upstarts from Canada. I caught the name of the reporter: Lauren Curray. Wow. Lauren Curray was the woman who had tried to interview me at the hospital. She actually wrote for one of the big national papers? No wonder she was so sharp. “You need me to sign for that, right?” “Yes, ma’am,” I said, turning to hand her the bill. “Why hello…Tom.” The lanky woman with the auburn hair broke into a toothy grin. “Or should I say, Dieter Resnick?” My smile melted. Shitsticks. Chapter 15 NO COMMENT “I’m terribly sorry, ma’am. I didn’t mean to intrude while you were changing.” Ms. Curray was unfazed. Cinching her bathrobe, she backed up and kicked the front door shut. “Well, if it isn’t Dieter Resnick, science fair winner, full-merit scholarship awardee, survivalist— and now, a lowly busboy named Tom?” Her arms crossed, she leaned back against the door. Her bare foot tapped idly on the ground. I took a deep breath to keep my nerves in check. “Actually, they call us room service attendants. We hold the same rank as waiters.” I tried to remember which execution method the Tenets prescribed for press leaks. I was pretty sure it was burned at the stake, but it might be rectal impalement. This wasn’t good. I was going to fail Polimag if I wasn’t careful. Never mind, Polimag was cancelled. My Polimag professor was dead, shot in the head. “Perrier, ma’am?” “Why yes,” she replied. “Pour one for yourself too.” I looked at the door wistfully. If I ran really fast… Ms. Curray’s smile dropped. “Sit or I start screaming.” I sat. “You know,” I grumbled, “when women make false accusations, it threatens the safety—” “Oh, be quiet,” she said, grabbing the second chair. She was careful to keep herself between the door and me. Darn it. I played with the idea of jumping out the window. Splattered like pea soup on the concrete seemed like an improvement over the current situation. If I could only fly on a broom… “I thought you were in college now, Dieter. But here you are working at the Over the Top.” One thing I had learned from our last meeting was to never lie. Ms. Curray could read right through it. “I am going to college,” I replied. “I’m on winter break right now.” Ms. Curray ate another cream cheese and jelly sandwich. Finishing it, she leaned back and smiled. “Goodness, I should compliment your boss.” “I’m sorry?” “Why, for allowing you such a short term of employment. It’s quite commendable.” She was right. No sane manager would train up a staffer that was only willing to work for a month. We had lied about that (among other things) on our applications. I gulped. If Ms. Curray figured out that I was bullshitting, it would be just a hop skip and a jump before she found out three other people got hired on the exact same day and shared the exact same address. The entire operation would be blown. I was grateful Rei wasn’t sitting next to me. I didn’t like to think of her solution to this problem. “Look, you’re right,” I conceded. “I wasn’t exactly truthful on the application—but do you know how hard it is to get short-term work around here? With the tips I get at this job, I’ll be able to buy all my books for this year.” I left out the part about delivering divine vengeance upon my foes. Ms. Curray leaned forward on her elbows and took another slow sip of Perrier. The view was… distracting. “So, boy, you’re telling me that it’s just a coincidence that the kid who nearly died along with a high school drug dealer is now working under a false name at a hotel freshly purchased by a drug cartel?” “Wait. What?” I asked, feigning confusion. “How could a drug cartel buy a casino? The gaming commission wouldn’t allow that sort of thing.” Ms. Curray looked at me dubiously. She knew I was holding back, but she didn’t know about what. “Come on, Dieter, there’s a depression on. Money talks. I’ve got it on good authority that they’ve even bought the mayor. And I’m sure you know that the violence didn’t die off when you left town last summer.” Her face darkened. “Just last week, the photographer I worked with…” She shook her head. “The point is, the violence has only gotten worse.” I flipped on my Sight and executed a quick read. Her aura was a haze of shivering blue light. Under that calm, cool exterior Lauren Curray was alone and vulnerable. Something had happened to shatter her confidence—and that was where I had to hit her. Was Sighting her a dirty trick? An invasion of her privacy? You betcha. Was it necessary? Hell yes. I placed my glass back down on the table. “Stars above, I’m sorry. What happened?” She frowned, but just as I’d sensed, she wanted to get it out. “There were rumors that people were being kept against their will in the tower suites. Forced prostitution, that sort of thing. My colleague, Jason, I told him not to go, but he snuck up there. They say he was on the observation deck when he was…” “Electrocuted?” My jaw tensed. More death. More pain. More collateral damage from this ridiculous war. I turned to look at the second bed with the three lonely cameras. Ms. Curray had no idea what she was sticking her nose in. And it wasn’t because she was being careless. She had no ability to comprehend the danger. That rankled me. These Conscious pricks were messing around with innocent people’s lives. They were exploiting their gifts and crushing the weak. At least Lambda knew the score. We knew what we were getting into. We knew the risks. To not even have that—I shook my head in disgust. Ms. Curray’s posture stiffened. “How did you know that? The cause of death hasn’t even been made public. The coroner is suppressing the findings. The tower’s grand opening is coming up, and the tourist bureau is doing its best to keep a lid on it. They don’t want another flop on their hands.” “Easy guess,” I said quickly. “You were the one that showed me all those pictures, remember?” “Dieter…do you know something?” She was so desperate. All I needed to do was give her a little nudge. “I’ve heard stuff…but what can any of us do? There’s no proof.” I stood as to leave. “I’m terribly sorry for your loss, Ms. Curray, but I need to go. If you want to get me fired, that’s your prerogative, but if I don’t check back in with my boss, this job is done.” I tried to slide past her, but Ms. Curray grabbed my arm. She gave me a look that cut through me like butter. I felt like she was looking into my very soul. “The data stick,” she said, finally. “They took the data stick from his camera, but Jason switched them before that. He slipped it into a mail slot. The photos show some sort of meeting, a group of men gathered in a circle. It was bizarre. All the men were wearing strange pendants, like they were in some sort of secret society. One of them was a known narcotrafficer, a man by the name of Diego Carrera.” A rush of excitement ran through me. “How many men?” I asked. “Twelve in all.” “Only a dozen?” I couldn’t wait to get up there. I couldn’t wait to finally meet them. Three faculty members dead. Sadie’s parents dead. Over two dozen innocent Elliot students captured or killed. Hundreds of others murdered. And that wasn’t even counting their drug business. I ground my teeth back and forth. The thought of finally getting the drop on them… “Ms. Curray, I sympathize, I really do, but you need to steer clear of this.” I needed to get out of here. I needed to prepare. “Wait,” she said standing. She grabbed my shoulder and turned me around. I responded with a glare that would make Rei proud. I had no time for this. All I could think of was what I planned to do to those assholes. “It’ll be taken care of. Now let go of me.” Ms. Curray recoiled as if I’d burned her. I turned, took my cart, and wheeled it slowly out the door. I left her shaking in her bathrobe. The rattling of the cart hid my own shivers. They weren’t from fear. Chapter 16 ROLZ “All I’m sayin’ is it ain’t necessary. It attracts too much attention. And besides, yer country is in the middle of a depression. It’s unseemly.” “I don’t know, Jules,” Dante said from the front seat, “I think it’s pretty sweet. This thing has more buttons than a laptop.” “Which you will not press,” Rei interjected. “Lieutenant, I will remind you that while we are onboard this vessel, I am in command.” “Sovereign Bathory territory, eh?” Dante said with a mock salute. “Aye-aye, captain.” Spending a week in the same apartment as Rei had sure loosened Dante up. Conversation came easy now. He’d even forgiven her for juggling with explosives. Dante’s change of heart made Elliot’s decision to keep Rei out of the dorms appear all the more stupid. A friendly Hungarian voice directed Rei to turn off onto a gravel road. (At least I assume that’s what the car said, because that’s what Rei did.) “Rei, this is a Mercedes, right?” Dante asked. Rei sighed. “Why, yes, lieutenant—in the same way that an M1 Abrams Main Battle Tank is a Chrysler.” I sensed Rei preferred the old, terrified Dante. Dante felt the smooth leather armrests and cooed. “Team, I just want ya’ll to know that I am very happy right now,” he said, beaming. “Too extravagant,” Jules protested. “We are supposta be workin’ for a living.” Jules eyes narrowed. “This could blow our cover.” “I thought, my dull Irish compatriot, that we are supposta be secret agents. I thought that we are supposta dress as giant bunnies—and subject ourselves to the trials and tribulations of common serfs —in order to get closer to our marks.” “That we do,” Jules protested. Rei looked up into the rearview mirror and grinned. “Well then, Druid, we should truly play the part. Open the compartment in front of you. As they say in M. A. D. Magazine, knock yourself out.” Jules frowned. She examined the shiny black compartment and turned to me for advice. I shrugged. I was busy puzzling over the cabinet full of liquor. Why did rich people put their hard alcohol into crystal glassware? They weren’t even labeled. How could they tell what was inside? Jules sighed, leaned forward, leaned back, leaned forward again, hesitated, and then flipped the compartment open. “Ohmygods!” she yelped. “Rei Bathory, those are illegal.” “No, Druid,” Rei corrected. “Those are all quite legal. I am informed that the laws regarding firearms are quite lax in this state.” I nodded in agreement. “The ones under your seat, however…” Jules yelped and lifted herself into the air. I caught Rei grinning in the rear view mirror. I frowned back at her. Rei liked teasing Jules just a little too much. “Jules, you trained me for three months,” I offered. “I can guarantee that whatever is below our seats is not nearly as dangerous as me.” “Correct,” Rei added. “That is why I store you in the back along with the rest of the high-yield—” In a blur of motion, Rei slapped Dante’s hand away from the center console. “Lieutenant, that one would give you another lesson in flight.” “Awesome,” Dante cooed. “Pofátlan,” Rei grumbled. Jules was still dangling from the handle above the door like spider monkey. I leaned forward and examined the guns in the compartment. I ignored the two Glocks and took out a Walther PPK. I raised an eyebrow. It was much heavier than I expected. “Jules,” I said, cradling the finely machined handgun. “Do you know what this is?” “I think so…” Frowning, she released her death grip. “It’s the Bond gun, isn’t it?” “You know you want to.” “Kinda…” She took it from my hands like a baby bird. “Jeepers, it’s much heavier than I thought it’d be.” “Most insightful, Druid,” Rei replied. “That is because of the depleted uranium munitions.” Jules turned a shade whiter and placed the gun back in the compartment. I scowled at Rei. “Was that really necessary?” “It was not false,” Rei snipped. “Are you two decades old or two years old?” I turned to Dante. “We should be close now, right?” “Yep,” Dante replied, indifferent to his team’s internal strife, “I can see their car now.” “Good,” Jules said. “Maybe they can give us a ride home.” Ah, home…where Jules and Rei took pot shots at one another from the comfort of their Serta loungers. This was only their most recent argument. We’d run into a snag getting over to our meeting with Monique’s team. The meet was set for the desert between Las Vegas and Henderson. With our stolen Were-Jeep still smoldering in the desert, we decided to rent a car. Then we ran into another problem—none of our fakes said we were over 25. Not a single agency would rent to us. Rei had told us that she had a solution. Fifteen minutes later, she returned to our apartment driving this land-yacht. The darn car cost more than the apartment building. It’d caused quite the stir in the neighborhood. I still didn’t know what it was called. “An armored Maybach!” Sheila shouted as we got out of the car. She approached Rei’s vehicle like a zombie drawn to brains. Rei tossed her the keys, and all six feet of female squealed with delight. “Sheila,” Rei urged, “do not push the button for the—” “Flamethrower. Yea, I know.” “Nah, it ain’t so good,” Roster said, patting the hood of an old Cadillac Escalade. “The measure of a vehicle is what it can run over.” Rei eyed him. “Mine can absorb a landmine—yours?” Roster put his hands in the air and laughed. “Touché, baby, touché.” “Come on guys,” Monique said. She turned to Ichijo who was walking back from the perimeter. “Ready?” “Mana is very scarce in this town,” he said shaking his head. Ichijo had scraped a circle into the dirt around us. He focused for a moment and delivered a burst of energy into it. I was impressed. He was using the same cast that Albright had used during Eikhorn’s meeting, and he was doing it with only his own mana reserves as fuel. I looked over at Sadie. “Can you hear me, 99?” She only managed a weak smile. That was the norm nowadays. Frankly, I was worried about her. Her aura was a convoluted mess—anger, indecision, and anxiety all vied for attention. “If we can get to business,” Monique asked. “It’s Christmas Eve, and I want to open my presents early. What do you have for me?” “Dieter goes first,” Dante said. “Okay, I got this from an anonymous source: A photographer from one of the major papers heard rumors of forced prostitution and snuck up to the private section of the tower to take photos. He snapped some of twelve men in dark clothes wearing pendants. The description I got matched that of the ACT devices I’ve seen. Better still, one of the men in the photo was Diego Carrera, himself.” “You talked to this photographer?” Monique asked. “The photographer is dead, captain. He was struck by a bolt of lightning while walking on the observation deck.” Monique rolled her eyes. “And it rains so much here…” “Exactly.” Dante pulled out a copy of the hotel’s plans. “Security for the tower is super-tight. Barely anyone has been allowed up top since the renovation. We were getting pretty frustrated, but then we got lucky. Jules found out there’s going to be a New Year’s Eve party on the rooftop. It’s for invited guests only, but I managed to manipulate some records. I got Dieter, Jules, and myself onto the team catering the event.” Jules said, “One of Carrera’s men, a fella by the name of Carlos Rojas, mentioned that a number of his associates are goin’ ta be at the party. He’s plannin’ ta head out of town after the first of the year. This may be our only chance to nab ‘em.” “What about Rei?” Monique asked. “Why isn’t she on the list?” “I was unable to get a position on the catering team.” Rei shifted awkwardly. “My performance reviews have been…poor.” Imitating their boss, Jules furrowed her brow. “Ms. Drusilla, you need to smile more often. Ms. Drusilla, you’re making the customers nervous. Ms. Drusilla, you’re skin and bones, why don’t you eat something?” Rei rolled her eyes. “No matter, I obtained a date for the event. He is a dimwitted oaf named Julio Sanchez. The bore believes he has impressed me with his negligible wealth.” “Good enough,” Monique said. “Now our end. Sadie, go.” Sadie pulled out a map and laid it on top of the foldout table. I frowned. Sadie must have lost another five pounds since I’d last seen her. A pair of black gloves covered both her tiny hands. Jules told me that Sadie’s burns had been so bad that the grafts didn’t take. She’d lost all feeling in the right. I rubbed at my scarred palms, uncertain if I should be feeling guilty. Rei looked over at me and frowned. She got edgy when I even thought about the topic. Despite the mana-dry desert, the weft-link was still acting up. Living in the same apartment seemed to have made it worse. Bad vibes and intense emotions dance with ease between us. The worst was when Jules insisted on vacuuming during the day. I tried to think happy thoughts: puppies, shoe boutiques, blood popsicles. Rei smirked. Pointing to the map, Sadie cleared her throat. “Reports out of Salt Lake aren’t good. Small-scale castouts are breaking out all over town. Our WIP teams are barely keeping up. The DEA had to contract out to Cerberus. Most of the Talmax combatants seem to be just sparks with toys, but it’s only a matter of time before someone slips up and an incident ends up in a paper.” A “spark” was a derogatory term for a Tier 1 or 2 mage. They were one trick ponies. Maybe they could do some charms or some tracking, but they were limited to spells within one weak skill set. It had to suck. You knew all about magic, but you could do so little with it. Maybe that’s why so many of them were signing up with Talmax. The ACT made them feel like giants. “And the ICE hasn’t intervened?” Dante asked. “Secrecy is the most important tenet.” “Talmax is contracting out. They’re using any dregs that’ve got a bone to pick with the law. They’re even using schizos. They hand the sparks an ACT device, wipe them clean, and let them run wild. Our agents take them down, but the devices self-destruct before we can get our hands on them. And if the ACT device doesn’t blow their head off, they have no idea who they are, let alone who they’re working for. Command thinks Talmax’s goal is to run our teams ragged.” “Fascinating,” Rei commented. “A most excellent tactic. How many weft-pairs remain in action?” I cringed. Sadie’s parents had been a pair. Monique walked between Sadie and Rei and scowled. “That number is classified. All you need to know is that our pairs have been shifted back East.” She turned to the rest of us. “And I think we can all guess what that means. DEA Command doesn’t think they can hold Salt Lake. They’re preparing to abandon the West Coast.” “Is partnering rare?” I asked absently. “Few wish to bear such a burden,” Ichijo replied. “Dietos, imagine having some other dude in your skull,” Roster added. “Screw that shit.” “I think it’s a beautiful thing,” Jules said quietly. Rei coughed. “Captain, you do realize that if the DEA withdraws, it will void the pact. The West will be contestable.” Monique glared at Rei. “Stow the threats, Bathory. We won’t let your graziers out of their holes.” Rei stuck her hands in her overcoat and smiled benignly. “Captain, you misunderstand me. I am merely pointing out that we must succeed if you still desire the status quo.” I facepalmed. “Okay, that was all tremendously vague and ominous—thank you both for that—but I think we can all agree that kicking Carrera’s teeth in is the action item for the evening?” “I’ll second that shit,” Roster said, nodding vigorously. “Great. Then I have different question. Carrera and his mates are supposed to be going head-tohead with the DEA in a matter of days, right? So what the hell are they still doing here?” I gestured to the valley. “Is someone getting married?” It had been nagging me since we got to Vegas. What did Las Vegas offer him? I turned to look down into the valley. Las Vegas resides in a near perfect bowl surrounded by mountains. When the Spaniards arrived, they found water at the bottom of the valley. That’s why they named it Las Vegas. It means “The Meadows” in Spanish. Carrera’s giant spire loomed above the skyscrapers. It sat right at the center of the bowl. I looked up at the night sky. You couldn’t see many stars (too much light pollution for that), but the moon was visible tonight. It dangled like a fat melon over the valley. The moon…I didn’t know much about the moon. I’d been reading about moon rituals right before Albright switched books with me…and that bugged me too. What trick had Albright used? I hadn’t felt any magic. I scratched my head. I guess you didn’t really need magic to trick someone, though. Albright only needed to distract me. Maybe when he served the coffee? I nodded to myself. I had been so focused on the cup that I probably missed his slight of hand. Like three-card monte…I looked up at the moon, and then down at Carrera’s tower. A slight of hand. A chill ran through me. It was so freaking obvious. “Albright, you son of a bitch.” “Dieter, we’re under some time pressure here,” Monique said. “If we could get back to discussing the plan…” “Wait,” Jules objected. “What is it, Dieter?” I grinned. “Full-frontal assaults only work if your opponent is both weak and stupid.” Rei perked up. “That is one of Albright’s favorite sayings.” “So why would Carrera commit to that exact scenario? Why would he risk everything assaulting a well-guarded leynode?” “Perhaps Mr. Carrera is attempting to demonstrate his dominance,” Ichijo offered. Roster crossed his massive arms and frowned. “Then what’s up with all the hit-and-run bullshit? If you want to show strength, you bring it straight on. Carrera’s hiding in the shadows.” “Exactly,” I said, racing over to Sadie’s map. “Carrera’s got everyone waiting for his next move. He’s yanking our chain in Salt Lake, but he hasn’t committed his forces to an attack. I mean, his mages are all chillin’ on the pool deck. Does that sound like pre-game to you?” I looked at the spread of forces and mussed up my hair. I had half the puzzle done, but I was missing too many pieces. “Look, I haven’t been doing this stuff for too long, so help me out here. If I wanted to do something epic—I mean truly epic—what would I need?” “You mean a grand spell?” Ichijo asked. “Exactly.” “Grand spells are no different than any other ambitious endeavor. You need the requisite skill, sufficient supplies, time to prepare, a means to focus power, and highly auspicious conditions. It is a matter of careful planning more than anything else.” I paced back and forth through the gritty dirt, working through the requirements in my head. “Okay, I want to make some assumptions. First, Carrera doesn’t care about Salt Lake. He only cares about buying time. Second, Carrera knows his mass effect spells. He did that Parisot cloud thingy, right? He’s shown us that when push comes to shove, he turns to big-bang magic for a solution. And third— and this is just a guess—but we may be staring straight at a means to focus power." Gesturing toward the tower, I turned back to our resident expert. “Fukimura, let’s talk conditions.” “The best conditions for a potent spell? The witching hours are best—midnight to three in the morning. The sun creates too much interference.” “How about the moon?” I asked. “The moon is an asset. Mana is a creature of life. Life becomes lively during full moons, so all magic crafts are heightened as well. Your English word ‘lunacy’ comes from this observation. However…” Ichijo glanced up into the sky and went pale as a ghost. “Resnick…what a fascinating observation.” Jules scrounged around in her jacket and pulled out her Witches Almanac. “Un-fockin’believable,” she exclaimed. “There’s gonna be a full moon in six days. That’s New Years Eve! The night of the party!” “Okay, let’s talk supplies.” “That’s your no-go,” Dante said. “You need a kick-ass leynode like the one they had at Rhodes. Don’t get me wrong, bud, it’s a cool theory, but like Ichijo said, the mana around here is stale. There isn’t enough juice. This is the last place in the world you’d want to try casting a grand spell. I think that’s why Carrera is holed up here in the first place. We can’t go at him full force with such a terrible mana supply. He can just hide behind his hired goons and bide his time. I bet that’s why he’s hiding his ACT here too. It makes it harder for us to get hold of a sample.” I shook my head. “Dante, you’re thinking like a modern mage. Before Albright swiped it, I was reading this book called Dalton’s Elements of Mass Effect Spells, and—” “Hold tha’phone,” Jules interjected. “Where the heck did ya get that nasty little volume?” I shrugged. “The library’s light reading section. It kinda just caught my attention…” I frowned. Was that more of Albright’s trickery? “Fockin’ aye, Dieter.” Jules rubbed her temples. “That’s a restricted volume. I’ve gotta talk to the librarian. You start readin’ stuff like that, and I’m gonna be getting nightmares.” I smirked. “Temper your fury, boss. I’m getting to the good stuff.” I decided to think about why that particular book had called my name later. “Chapter one talked about the ancient predecessors of modern day grand spells. There was a bunch of weird and nasty stuff I didn’t understand, but there was a common theme—the oldest spells didn’t rely on mana as a power source.” Jules blanched. “Dieter. Let’s not—” “Ichijo, you said that mana’s a creature of life, right?” “Yes, Resnick, but I fail to understand your meaning.” Rei began to politely clap. For the first time since I shredded Mr. Pudding, she looked genuinely pleased with me. “Dieter, you would have fit in nicely at Fontbonne. I hope mother didn’t do the wrong thing by intervening…” She walked off to the right, pulled out a cell phone, and dialed a number. Monique was about to say something, but Rei held up her finger. “Be calm, captain. We’ve just slipped ahead of the timetable.” “Whaaat?” we all said at once. I could hear a garbled reply as someone answered. “Yes, dean. I apologize for waking you so late, but your theory is out of the bag…Yes, sir…Yes, the grub did…Very well, sir.” Rei turned to us with a smile. She seemed to be enjoying herself immensely. “Allow me to explain. Albright already raised these concerns with DEA Command, but the bloated fools are preoccupied with preserving their territory. They prefer a defensive strategy. They hope to draw Carrera out in Salt Lake. They foolishly believe that this wait-and-see nonsense will get the job done.” “What is Albright’s theory, then?” Monique asked. Rei showed some fang. “Why, a reaping of course.” “N-n-nonsense,” Monique stuttered. “A reaping? That would require—” I cleared my throat. “About two hundred thousand people compressed into a space less than three square kilometers.” I’d already done the calculations. “Awen save me,” Jules moaned. “He’s already doin’ the calculations…” “Dieter, this is Las Vegas,” Monique protested. “Population density only comes close to that in New York City. And even there it wouldn’t work. You need line of sight during such a cast. Reapings were only achieved in ancient times. Back then, you could gather your unsuspecting accolades in front of a mound or temple, and they would just sit still and pray while you sucked the life out of them. This is modern day America. Festivals like that don’t…” Monique looked down at the valley. “Oh. Oh, dear.” “No backup?” Sadie asked nervously. “Dean Albright is barred from travel. Your DEA Command is committed to their strategy.” Rei paused to crack her fingers. She looked at Sadie appraisingly. “Apprentice Thompson, it will be as you wished it. You shall be able to savor your revenge.” “But why us?” Dante asked. “Your kind never tires of that question, does it?” Rei rolled her eyes. “The usual, lieutenant. Your squad is capable, available, and expendable.” “And why are you here, exactly,” Monique asked. As the wind danced through Rei’s hair, her features grew cold. “Because Joseph Albright asked me to.” I sensed no murkiness in her reply. Why she obeyed him, I had no idea, but Rei’s desire to follow Albright was absolute. And what about my own? Alone against Talmax…the odds looked long. But if we didn’t act? I wasn’t about to let my town get roasted. I kicked a rock down the hill. This was my dirt. No one fucked with my dirt. “I’m in. What do you say, boss?” Monique sighed. “If you’re right, Carrera has a tight window to pull off his reaping. The crowd will only be dense enough near midnight. Our current strategy fits the parameters of either scenario. We can focus on finding samples of ACT like we planned, and if Carrera’s prepping for a reaping, we’ll be there to deal with that too. I’ll put Ichijo, Sadie, and Maria on the task of reverse engineering possible spell combinations.” Monique stared off at the tower. “That leaves just one thing.” Sheila nodded. “There are too many lives at risk. We need a fail-safe. If we cannot stop the ritual, I can think of only one sure way to terminate his cast.” “You want to blow the fucker?” Roster asked. He looked uncharacteristically sober. “If we do that, everyone inside the Over the Top kisses the pavement. We’ll be killing thousands of people.” “It’s simple math, Roster,” Sheila argued. “Kill a few thousand or let a few hundred thousand die.” Maria looked from one person to the next. “Guys, I can’t do a translocation from a moving object. If you blow the tower, I can’t get you out.” “We’re out of time, captain,” Ichijo whispered. Lines of strain were etched across his face. His mana reserves were running low. “Before we separate, please take these.” Ichijo handed each of us a tiny piece of plastic. “This is my family’s newest design. They are encrypted 2-ways.” I held the tiny gadget between my fingers. This pea-sized device was a walkie-talkie? Rad. “All right folks,” Monique said. “The operation is a go. We’ll go live on the radios at 9PM. My team will come up with a fail-safe. You guys focus on the ACT. Once you find a sample, Jules will draw a translocation circle for Maria, and Maria will send in the strike team. We’ll keep the plan fluid. We’ve trained for this. We’re ready. Now let’s get ‘em Lambda.” As the circle failed, we shook hands and exchanged hugs. No one said anything, but we knew it might be for the last time. Chapter 17 STRIP ME TO THE BONE The four of us drove back to the Strip in silence. Our opportunistic snatch and grab operation was looking more and more like a clusterfuck waiting to happen. The prospect of a direct confrontation with Talmax’s bigwigs was putting a big fat dampener on moral. Dante and Jules had early shifts at the Over the Top, so Rei dropped them off at the apartment so they could get some rest. I went with Rei to return the land-yacht to the “condo.” Rei wasn’t all that pleased when I insisted on coming, but I made it awkward enough in front of Dante and Jules that she finally gave in. All that talk of treaties and pacts between the Department and the Fiefdoms had been the icing on the cake. I wanted a better idea of what vampire-land was all about. I was linked to one, after all. An azure spire of light and glass stretched thirty stories above us. Peeling off the main drag, Rei drove into the enormous condo complex. She guided the car past the waiting valet and down into a cavernous underground parking structure. Down and down we went. Dull fluorescent lights washed out the reds and yellows and left a gloomy world of blues and greys behind. Five stories down, Rei turned into a numbered spot. I looked left and right. We were idling next to a red Lamborghini roadster and a Bentley Continental GT. If I worked at Newmar’s Restaurant full-time for ten years—if I didn’t eat, sleep, or pay taxes—I still wouldn’t be able to afford either of those cars. I sank down into my seat. That sort of wealth had a way of making you feel naked. How could one man obtain more in one lifetime than hundreds if not thousands of his fellows? What struggles were necessary? What sacrifices? The Maybach’s harsh lights reflected back off the cinderblock wall. No answers there. Rei looked like she was mired in her own problems. Her hands were wrapped tightly around the steering wheel, and she was staring straight into the blaze of white light. Her skin looked like bone china. “Dieter,” she said. “I do not understand. Why did you insist on coming?” “And leave a vulnerable young female to walk home alone after dark? What about my standing as a gentleman?” I tried to smile, but the bright xenon bulbs were bugging my eyes. Rei didn’t smile either. “I need to go upstairs.” “You mean…” I joined her in examining the cinderblocks ahead of us. I had been wondering. It wasn’t like Rei was keeping blood in our fridge. Her hands tightened around the wheel. “You are making this…me…uncomfortable.” “How long has it been?” I ran my fingers over the soft black leather. This single piece of cowhide was probably worth more than my entire wardrobe. “Seven days,” she replied. The discomfort in her voice was palatable. She tucked a wayward strand of hair behind her ear and returned her hands to the wheel. “Seven days…?” I tried to imagine not eating for seven days. “What is it like to not, um, drink for that long?” “I know not how to compare it.” Rei’s face was unreadable. Her skin was going all fuzzy-white. I struggled to focus, but my vision blurred. “I read a poem once. It was written by a Turned. She compared it to walking in a desert, clutching the handle of an empty jug.” I swallowed. “Rei…when you look at me…what do you see?” Rei shifted, but her hands remained locked on the wheel. “As time passes, the importance of you as an individual wanes.” “And why do you never talk about it?” She shrugged. “Why should I?” She unlatched her belt and stepped out of the car. “How could that knowledge serve you?” “Hey!” Rei stood motionless as I got out of the car. With Dante and Jules gone, she had let down her guard. She looked tired now. Ragged. “Wait here, Dieter…please.” I shook my head. I was determined this time. I wouldn’t let her get away. “Negative, kumpadre. I’m with you tonight.” “And without your brain. Your kind does not belong on consulate grounds. Your laws do not apply. Your morals do not apply. Try to understand, Dieter, mine is a different world.” Having her tell me that I didn’t belong…why did it feel like a blade twisting in my gut? “And where do I belong?” I shouted. “With the Magi? Me? Do you seriously believe that?” “Dieter…” Rei said, her eyes widening. “And for that matter, what’s your deal, Rei? Why are you working for the Department? What are you getting out of all of this?” She looked past me and crossed her arms. I gritted my teeth. This had to be the worst friendship ever. “Feel free to let me know whenever it’s convenient, Rei. I don’t mean to rush you or anything, it’s just, you know, being adhered to your ass and whatnot, I would like to know at some point what the fuck is going on.” I put on a bright plastic smile. “Now then, if I recall, we need to make a stop.” + The elevator was a cell of buffed stainless steel. A light piano medley ricocheted off the hard metal walls. Even the floor was polished. No elevator had any business being this clean. I felt like I needed to stand on my tiptoes. And a retinal scan. It came with a freakin’ retinal scan? I scratched my head. Who installed those exactly? Did you just call up Retinal-Scans-R-Us? Rei’s hand found my own. My silly heart stuttered at her touch. “This hand is nice and warm,” she said evenly. “I would prefer for it to remain so.” “Ditto,” I offered. “You will follow my rules to the letter. You are a visitor and nothing more. Do not flinch or become jumpy. Do not expose the sides of your neck. Do not raise your arms. Do not show your wrists. Avoid all unnecessary eye contact. Avoid rapid breathing. Do not smile. Do not frown. Do not hunch. Do not limp. And if you are forced to greet someone, do not shake their hands. Instead, while remaining silent and keeping your eyes on their torso, bow deeply. The language may be a bit strange to your ear—the sights certainly will be. You will see things that you are morally opposed to. You may even see some things that you wish to stop.” Rei squeezed my hand until it hurt. “Whatever you do, you shall not intervene. By accompanying me into this lair, you have become a member of my party. The consequences of your actions fall on me, and me alone.” I watched the elevator count up from 21 to 22. My heart was fluttering about like a terrified gerbil. I swallowed. “I get it, Rei.” “No, you fool, you most certainly do not.” Rei squeezed my hand harder, hard enough to shift my bones, hard enough to make me wince. “So I shall worry enough for the both of us.” My Sight exploded. If I hadn’t seen it before I might have screamed. It was Rei’s aura, that enormous grey cloak, that monstrous thing that flowed out and surrounded her body. It stretched wide, enveloping my entire body. And that wasn’t all. Rei’s killing intent…I could feel it radiating off her like an icy burn. But the malice wasn’t directed at me. It was pointed dead ahead. That’s when I realized the source of all this suffocating fear. Rei was scared. The shiny metal coffin halted with a ding. A velvet-covered hallway stretched out ahead of us. The thick black carpet muffled every sound. There wasn’t a soul around, and very little light. As we approached the door at the end, my straining Sight faltered. We were high above a mana-poor valley. All I had to draw upon were my meager mana reserves. No leylines to call on…it finally occurred to me how very vulnerable I was. “So you have grown a brain,” Rei said smiling. She wasn’t bothering to conceal her fangs. “My most impetuous colleague, I’m afraid it is a bit too late for that.” “Stupid link,” I muttered. + So these were vampires…fact and fiction are bedfellows, but, like all lovers, their accounts can vary wildly. If nothing else, it was good to lay some misconceptions to rest. They managed to dress well, I was willing to give them that. But they were pale, gaunt, and held themselves all wrong. Hands twittered. Eyes lazed. They lacked Rei’s grace, her firm control. In her stupor, Rei had said that she wasn’t “mausoleum trash.” I puzzled over that statement, and grew more certain by the second. These wafer-thin figures…these poor bastards were the Turned. And the hunger…it was the big, bloodied elephant in this overcrowded room. They couldn’t hope to hide it. It was on their lips and in their eyes. They were starving hyenas. Circling raptors. Their every action was colored by a desperate need to feed. Even with my Sight clamped down, I could still sense how badly the hunger burned at them. They only needed one cue—an exposed vessel, an idle falter, or a silly drunken slur —and they would be upon their victim in an instant. Worse still was the emptiness in their eyes. It was a place beyond sadness. A place beyond hope. One other emotion stood out. It was an emotion that I found hard to define. It reminded me of when I was fourteen years old. A girl had asked me out to a concert with her friends. Some stupid boy band was playing, but she was cute, so whatever. I remembered back to that bizarre wave of emotion that shot through the crowd as the lead singer waltzed onstage. The cheers. The moans. One girl passed out right in front of me. My date lost her voice screaming. (I went to the bathroom and never came back.) And these vampires looked like they were about to be overcome by that very same emotion. It beat back their boundless hunger and competed evenly for their attention. “Le enfant mosaique,” a petite female muttered. Shaking, she clutched at the golden broach on her chest and dropped straight to the ground. “Je suis votre humble serviteur,” she said kneeling. I glanced at Rei’s flushing cheeks. Reverence. This emotion was reverence. Reverence for the girl clamping down on my hand like a vice. I looked back at the crowd. What the hell was Rei to them? The Turned seemed content to stand and stare. We passed through their foyer undisturbed. But as we approached a thick steel door at the end of the hall, I was given another start. There were two enormous men curled up like balls. They were entirely bald, entirely naked—and their bodies were stiff as logs. Rei paused our procession and waited. My eyes widened as the veil of rigor lifted. Under their transparent skin, rigid manflesh flexed, and both men lifted their heads off the ground. I really wish they hadn’t. It was like raw slabs of steak had just come alive inside them. Their nostrils flared, and their dry crackling lungs sucked in air with wheezy protest. Rei seemed unperturbed as one of them nuzzled against her wrist. I looked at one man and then the other. Creamy white eyes. No pupils at all. Gross. The naked fellas seemed to like Rei’s…aroma. They nodded to one another and slunk back to the ground. Rei placed her hand on the doorknob but hesitated before opening it. Drawing her fingers to her nostrils, she blanched. “Fasz kivan,” she hissed. “That pofátlan just had to be here.” And then things got weird. Rei popped out a compact, checked her makeup, and gave her blouse a tug. Ignoring the whispers rising behind us, she turned to me and adjusted my collar. “At least the Dru purchased you some passable clothing. You no longer look like an extra from one of Mr. Wayne’s features.” Her eyes flicked to a camera perched in the corner of the hall. “Magus Resnick, please remember what I told you. If a member of the Court greets you, respond with civil grace. Keep your replies short”—her eyes narrowed—“and no jokes.” Magus Resnick. I got the hint. Formality mattered. But no jokes? Seriously? Rei eyed at me dubiously, considered the knob—sighed—and then opened the door. The metallic fragrance hit me immediately, but it was so damn dark that that I could hardly see my feet. I let Rei’s hand guide my movements—and my feet knew right where to go. Okay…this is odd. Rei’s breathing picked up slightly. With a new urgency, she dragged me forward into the den. I was still marveling at how easy it was to follow her lead…when my eyes adjusted to the dark. Then I kinda went dumb. Watching a dozen men and women slowly dying before your eyes can do that. They were in varying stages of undress. Some mid-coitus, their limbs pressed close. The men and women embraced their deaths, seemingly oblivious to the dark sap leaking from their veins. Their killers moved in languid strokes, their eyes coated with a chill sheen of pleasure. They slid easily over the exposed flesh, shifting from wound to wound, lapping at the flows. The scene was almost peaceful, but there was no doubt how this lazy dance would end. One girl stood out. She was arched over a red velvet bench, her long brown hair thrown sloppily to the side. Two fed upon her breasts, nibbling on her tattered nipples. Another rose from his work between her thighs, only to return again for more. I couldn’t escape the girl’s vacant eyes. She must have been my age—and she was absolutely dead-to-rights. I saw it in her aura. It was a shriveled black haze. As I looked on in horror, faint recognition flirted with her features. It was like she was looking straight inside me. Her eyes brightened, and she moved her mouth to speak. I dragged my eyes away from her and clamped down on my Sight. I couldn’t keep looking. I wouldn’t be able to control myself if I did. Something dangerous was building inside me. It was a primal rage unrestrained by doubt. My people were dying. My kind was calling out for aid. Maybe I wanted to redecorate this room in flames. I wanted to purify every single sight and smell. I wanted to wash it all away. And deep down, despite the lack of mana, despite the impossible odds, I truly believed I could do it. My soul called upon me to fight, but I told it firmly, no. Rei would bear responsibility if I faltered. I’d promised here…I’d… “Remember, Dieter,” she whispered. “Be polite when you greet my sister. She is my elder.” I looked at Rei and then back at the carnival of horrors. For a second, I let myself wonder how she could be so unfazed—and then I dropped my head in shame. How willfully ignorant could I be? Jules was right. I was Rei’s apologist. Rei’s rules weren’t mine, and they never ever could be. It wasn’t like she was hiding it from me. Heck, she’d skinned a man right in front of me. But since I’d met Rei, I’d been contending with two of her. There was the Rei who threw her body in front of me again and again, the one who let her own bones get crushed to protect my hide. And then there was the other one, the one who had to eat. My jaw tightened. Could I truly remain her ally? Could I continue to stand by and watch? Could I compromise my principles to accommodate her needs? And even if I could…would I? I was no fool. I knew full well what sacrificing your principles got you. It was a one-way ticket to psycho-land. I had already tasted Mount Crazy once. Running through the forest, my mind had nearly come apart. If I kept going down this path, I was going to end up back there again. And yet, Rei and I fit so well together. It was like we were designed for one another. Even at this very moment, as we walked through this haze of suffering and death, I couldn’t think of anywhere else I wanted to be. I knew it was crazy, I knew it was wrong, but I also knew the odds. My chances of surviving the upcoming battle were slim. And even if I survived the next week, there was still an entire war left to fight. I was probably going to die. Heck, I was probably going to die horribly. Prospects like that have a way of cutting through the fat. They have a way of driving us to our basest needs. And I realized all I wanted—truly, all I wanted—was to not have to face it all alone. I had been left alone for eighteen years. I didn’t want to go back to that. That simple need outweighed my sense of justice —even my love for my own kind. And so I forced myself to keep moving forward. I kept one foot moving past the other, Rei opened the next door, and we left the carnal noises behind. + Still numb, I squinted through the bright light. This room was entirely different. Massive, it stretched out on a single slab of polished concrete. It took a moment for me to regain my bearings. Row after row of LEDs beamed down on us from above. They sharpened edges and scrubbed away any warmth. At the far end of the room, frameless floor-to-ceiling windows offered an uninterrupted view of the entire Las Vegas Strip. It was a jaw-dropping sight. I could see past all the way to the darkened ring of mountains. Two people lounged on the enormous couch in front of us. A third was walking back from the kitchen. He was carrying a giant box of Cheerios, and he looked like he needed every last bite. I couldn’t spot an ounce of fat on him. “This part’s badass,” he said pointing at the giant television screen. “Yep, she’s about to lose it!” the small blond on the sofa replied. He leaned forward and smiled. “I love this part.” My attention was drawn to the woman seated next to him. Her glossy black hair was an even sheet of silk. I watched her as she stretched and yawned. She was sporting a tiny set of fangs. “Shut up,” she whined. “You’re ruining it.” I turned to watch the television. An animated teenage Japanese girl, who looked like she was having a very bad day, unsheathed a ludicrously large sword and screamed. I tilted my head sideways. This was the same cartoon that Ichijo and Dante were always watching. It was called Fury Yoko. Dante had the poster. The tagline went: “They took everything but her rage. Fury-forth! Furyforth, Yoko!” “Wait for it…” the tall scruffy one said as he plopped down on the couch. “Wait for it…” the small blonde replied. The three of them raised their hands in the air. “No. Now you’re open for business,” they shouted along with Yoko. In a series of flashes, Yoko started splitting open yakuza like tomatos. “Nice,” the blond cooed. “The downward slash-of-wrath attack. That’s a game ender.” “Such nonsense.” Rei released my hand and flicked back her hair in a sign of distaste. “A sword of that size would be totally unbalanced.” The female tilted her head over the back of the couch. Her two very pronounced breasts rose into view. She had the same cool blue eyes as Rei. The same pale skin. The same dentist. “Honestly, Rei. It is called suspension of disbelief. Do they not teach you such concepts at magic camp?” Rei stiffened. “Anna, I am nearly two decades old now. And it is a college, not a camp.” Anna sighed. “Those were the decades…” She arched her back further, lifted her feet into the air, and flipped over the couch like it was a pommel horse. Her bare white toes landed on the cement without a sound. I swallowed. What the hell… “Magus, one moment please.” Rei walked over to Anna. She was at least three inches taller than her older sister, but the second Bathory’s astonishing curves made up the difference. Anna knew how to use them too. They had a way of snagging your eyes. Anna nodded, and Rei knelt to the ground to kiss her hand. I was taken aback. That was old school. Way old school. Her head bowed, Rei said, “Szervusz humillimus, Anna.” “Szervusz, Rei.” Anna ran her fingers through Rei’s hair. It looked like a loving gesture, but for some reason, I felt the sudden urge to lay Anna flat. The elder Bathory turned her attention to me. “Now, introduce me to your new beater.” I felt a wrenching sensation deep inside my chest, as though a blade had grazed my heart. It’s steady pitter-patter faltered. I fought for breath. An unseen force was tripping up the rhythm of my body. I didn’t understand it, but it terrified me. A cold bead of sweat rolled it’s way down my neck. I was standing in a bare-naked room with no mana to call to. Five paces away stood Rei’s elder. Behind me lay a den of nightmares. The windows offered a thirty-story drop to the valley floor. I felt alone. Small. Vulnerable. I thought about how Rei had waited out those last moments on the faculty lodge’s roof, waiting for the gunman’s ammunition to run dry, waiting for that last cry of despair. Anna gave me a soft and easy smile. Yea, this was just peachy. Rei stood and gestured in my direction. “Anna, this is my colleague, Magus Resnick. We are in town for a field trip.” Anna’s face twitched slightly. “Resnick?” she said walking over to me. “Anna.” Rei’s shifted her foot ever so slightly. “Magus Resnick is a new DEA recruit.” “A new recruit?” Anna’s smile wrinkled. She offered me the back of her hand. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Young Master Resnick. My name is Anna Bathory, Duchess of Peoria.” Duchess? “Charmed,” I replied. I took Anna’s hand and shook it. There was no freaking way I was kissing anything in this place. Rei shot me daggers. Anna just laughed. “You Americans and your incessant need for personal space.” Anna wrapped her chill arm around me. “Come, Young Master Resnick of the DEA. It appears my baby sister has been on yet another one of her crash diets. If she doesn’t get something to drink soon, I fear she might blow away in the breeze. Let me introduce you to my…Oh, what do you call them now days?” “Starts with motley,” the lanky one offered. “A form of rowing,” the blond one added. “Ah, yes! Thank you, boys. My crew. Dieter, let me introduce you to my crew.” “Okay…” I managed. As Anna guided me over to the couch, one of her breasts nestled itself behind my shoulder and made itself comfortable. I looked back to see Rei busy digging in the fridge. Either everything was cool—or Rei was too thirsty to worry about me right now. “Dieter,” Anna said, snatching back my attention. “I would like you to meet Trey Easton and Hans Johansen.” Trey leaned over and shook my hand. It was as warm as an oven. “Nice to meetcha, bub,” he said between crunches of cereal. Hans didn’t go for a shake. He stood and bowed. Remembering Rei’s instructions, I kept my eyes on his waist and returned the gesture. “Rockin’!” Hans said with a sharp grin. “You know protocol. So you go to school with Baby Rays? That means you’re a bona fide magus, right?” I raised an eyebrow. Baby Rays? If I made it out of here alive, that little nugget was going to provide endless entertainment. “I guess so,” I replied. “At least that’s what the paperwork says.” The youthful looking vampire drew close, so close that I could smell his pungent breath. No eye contact, I repeated to myself. Maintain your posture. Finished with his inspection, Hans turned to Anna and frowned. “He looks like a normal beater to me. Cute—but normal.” “How about a demonstration then?” Anna asked with smile. “I do love magic tricks before dinner.” Anna seemed to have a lot of different smiles. This one made me feel like a honey-baked ham. “I would advise against that, sister dearest,” Rei replied. Big-gulp in hand, she hopped over the couch and kicked up her feet. “The clean-up can be expensive.” “Oh come on, Rei. That was a long time ago.” “You are forgetting the napalm incident.” I flushed. “That was a controlled explosion.” “You set yourself on fire, did you not?” “At least I didn’t puke blood!” Trey reached over and flipped off the TV. “More entertaining,” he said, gesturing to us. At some point, Rei and I had ended up standing and pointing at one another. Red in the face, I sat back down. “Insolent, twit,” Rei grumbled. She bit into her bendy straw and sipped furiously. I did my best to ignore the pint of oh-so-not-tomato-juice sloshing around in her cup. Taking advantage of Rei’s absence, Anna plopped down beside me. “So, what brings you two to town?” I looked over at Rei. She shot me a warning glance. “Fireworks. We’re here to study fireworks. Magus Resnick is something of an expert.” “Fireworks?” Anna looked at me quizzically. “Is that so, Dieter?” I felt the push that accompanied her words. It pressed in against me like a wave of velvet. Anna’s glamour wasn’t at all like Rei’s. This was smoother, more practiced, and totally engrossing. Before I even knew it, I was sitting in a pleasant park with my mother. She was cutting slices of watermelon and asking me how my day was. The sun was warm. A fine breeze was blowing through my hair. I smiled benignly—and imagined a bucket of ice water toppling onto her lovely head. The fantasy shattered. Anna flinched backwards, recoiling from the shock. “Yep, I absolutely love fireworks. And I understand Las Vegas is the place to be this year.” Still flummoxed, Anna flicked back her hair. She looked about as happy as a cat in a tub. That’s the problem with mind magic. Prodding someone else’s noggin’ requires exposing your own. Back-flows are the sucks. “Is something wrong, Anna?” Rei asked. Her glee was poorly masked. Anna gave Rei a look that would have wilted a mere mortal. (I was getting the sense that the two of them didn’t like one another much.) “Of course not, but unlike some carefree debutants, I have work to attend to before I retire.” She rose and motioned to Trey and Hans. “Young Master Resnick, it was so refreshing to meet you. I hope you enjoy an exceptionally close view of the fireworks. They shall be truly spectacular this year.” Remembering my manners, I struggled to my feet. Fending off Anna’s probe hadn’t taken much energy, but—being a moron—I’d gone ahead and counterattacked. Big mistake. “Duchess,” I said, bowing ever so slightly. I nearly teetered over as I did. “Bye-bye, Magus Resnick!” Hans said with a wink. “Let’s do lunch sometime.” I collapsed back onto the couch as soon as Anna and friends exited. “Well that was fun,” I grumbled. Rei hushed me and motioned toward the ceiling. I looked up nervously. I’d never been in a bugged room before. Rei finished the last of her blood slurpie and returned to the kitchen. “I’m getting take-out.” I struggled to my feet and followed her. People food, first aid supplies, and equipment for transfusions lined the kitchen’s shelves. This condo wasn’t so much a residence as a way station. Vampire hostels…I wondered how many of these places they had set up across the country, and why, if the Magi hated the Nostophoros so much, the Department ever allowed it. Rei grabbed a soft cooler out of a cabinet, added some ice packs, and filled it full of those large aluminum pouches I’d first spotted on our bus ride. I picked one up. The bag read: “Red Cross.” It came packaged with a straw. Rei snatched the bag from me and dropped it in her cooler. “Excellent, this shall last me the rest of our trip. Are you ready?” I looked at the door. “Ready enough.” Rei cocked her head. “You are a member of my party. None of my kind will harm you.” My jaw tightened. Rei didn’t have a clue. Somehow, that made it even worse. “I’m fine. Let’s go.” I had prayed that the passage would be easier the second time, but knowing what was coming didn’t make it any easier. Rei’s cold hand around my own, I dared another glance at the girl lying on the velvet bench. She still lay prostrate on her back. Her glazed eyes hung loose in their sockets, and her arms sagged limply at her sides. The vampires had moved on. The poor girl wouldn’t be able to offer anything to anyone anymore. She had been drained dry. But what truly galled to me was that she hadn’t been like that when I came through the first time. She had passed the point of no return while I sat comfortably on a couch engaged in a casual conversation with her killers. I nearly gagged at the thought of it. This was someone’s child. Someone’s pride and joy. A little girl who had learned her ABC’s, laughed with her friends, made plans for her future, and set out into the world. Her everything had been taken from her—and these monsters had tossed her aside like an empty can of Coke. I ground my teeth. They haven’t even bothered to move her body. I don’t believe in an afterlife. To me, death is final and absolute. Our bodies birth our minds. When death claims our bodies, so too must it claim our minds. Life is a precarious gambit. A rapidly shrinking tether suspends us from nothingness. Once that line snaps, it’s all over. There’s no pause. There’s no rewind. You can only look forward and never look back. Its fragility is what makes life so precious. There’s no putting a life back together once it’s broken, no recovering a soul once it is lost, and they haven’t even bothered to move her body… Rei tugged at my arm. My legs had stopped moving. She could probably sense the cogs turning. A desperate urge trickled through the link. Concern, confusion, and dread washed over me. “Leave it,” she snipped. “You promised.” I placed my free hand on Rei’s forearm. “It? That is a human being, not an it.” “I…” Rei frowned. She took a deep breath, and transition occurred in her features. It was like she grew two inches taller. “Be quick about it. I don’t want my ice pack to melt.” The ten feeding vampires jerked to attention the instant Rei released my hand. Their killing intent smacked into me like a ton of bricks—but I couldn’t just leave the girl. Ignoring them, I knelt down in front of her. I swallowed. Stars above, what a mess…Her breath came slow and ragged. Her vision was unfocused. Razor-like cuts covered her body. Her nipples were shorn off completely, and her genitals were a dried mess of blood. I counted over two-dozen wounds. The girl wasn’t bleeding from any of them; she no longer had any blood left to bleed. Behind me, I could hear whispers rising. Be they gangs of people or animals, no one likes it when you fuck around in their lair. I just didn’t give a shit. I lifted up the girl’s cold, naked body and laid her down properly. Her skin felt clammy; her body was shutting down. I collected the wayward sheets and draped them over her. It was a pathetic attempt at modesty, but it was all I could manage. Finished, I cradled her head in my hands. She’d wanted to tell me something, and it’d been gnawing at me ever since. I wondered if her voice would even come. I stared into her dim eyes and pushed. A glimmer of awareness answered. Nasty things flooded into my Sight, things you never wanted anyone to see or feel, things you wouldn’t even wish on your worst enemies. I cut out my emotions, bound them up, and stowed them. I’d left this girl to die. This wasn’t my time to feel. This wasn’t my time to cry. “Can you hear me?” I asked. She tried to nod—failed. “You know you’re dying?” A single tear beaded up in her left eye. All her body could spare… It was unbearable. I wanted to run away screaming. I wanted to jump off this cursed building and die. I bit deep into my cheek and pressed on. “I can take your last request.” “My sister…” she whispered. “…the tower.” A shiver ran through my body. I glanced over at Rei. She looked as surprised as I was. My concentration broken, the girl sagged in my arms. She was slipping away. Slipping away before she could explain. I looked around in desperation. What had she meant by that? There had to be a way to buy a few seconds. I couldn’t let her die. I couldn’t just let her fade away. Her hand flinched—a dying muscle’s last salute. I opened up my Sight again. It was so frustrating. Yes, her aura was in tatters, but there was still that faint quiver of life at her core And we can use it, my child… I swallowed. It would work. It was just like with Jules’ circles. That stupid screw-up I kept committing over and over again—I could turn it to my advantage and buy the time I needed. I took the girl’s left arm in my hand and placed my right palm on her mangled breast. “What is he doing?” a male Nostophoros asked from behind me. An icy voice crackled back at him. “It is not your concern. Be silent or I shall dash you like glass.” There was no time to wonder what the hell was going on behind me. I formed one of the transmutations Jules taught me. It was the most basic spell in the healing canon. I would have to use myself as the conduit. That meant the product would be sloppy—but that didn’t matter. I didn’t need to save this girl’s life. I just needed to extend it. I drew out the images for the spell: memories of the vitality of summer, the fatigue of fall, the rotting of winter, and the new budding of spring. The transmutation ready, I opened up my extraction field. Under my left hand, the girl’s arm withered away in the cold. Meager pickings…but enough… Her spent life coursed through me like morning sunshine. I shunned the urge to cling to it, and pushed the jolt of energy straight into her chest. With a gasp, the girl’s eyes shot open. I’d done it. It had worked. I felt that familiar heady rush—it was like when I created a new strain of yeast—but this success was a mirage. Dizzy and exhausted, I gave the girl a sad smile. She was merely the woken dead. “Your words,” I whispered. “We have only a moment.” Her eyes told me that she understood. That killed off the last of my pleasure. “My sister…they still have my sister,” she rasped through her bone-dry throat. “Her name is Angela Hawthorn. She vanished on the way to school. She was the first of our line to qualify. I used our blood. I traced her… traced her to the tower. You’re an agent, aren’t you? You have to save her!” The girl’s eyes bulged. Her hand shot up and snatched a tuft of my hair. “She’s still—” A violent seizure shook her from head to toe. Foam surged from her mouth. Blood trickled from her nose. Her hand fell away, taking a tuft of my hair with it. A few twitches later, her body shuddered still. Her heart hadn’t just seized…it had blown to pieces. Shocked, I stared at my own shaking hands. What a monstrous end. I had turned the craft Jules taught me into an obscenity. If she ever learned what I had done, she would probably never speak to me again. If this wasn’t blasphemy, I didn’t know what was. I closed the poor girl’s eyes and covered her savaged corpse. But her words…she had to have been referring to an initiate. What the hell was Carrera up to? The strange noises rising up behind me broke my focus. I would have time to run through possibilities later. Right now, I had more immediate problems. Rei looked a bit preoccupied. Arms spread wide, she was hissing at ten pairs of angry eyes. She looked ready to claw right through them. A short male pointed at her. “A Dealer?” he growled. “You brought a Dealer here?” I struggled to maintain my feet. I should have never self-conduited that spell. It had left a trail of debris behind. That was one of the many reasons why Jules preferred circles. Now my psyche was an unstable mess. I needed a few minutes to center myself, and those were minutes I probably didn’t have. Rei slid her foot forward and snarled. “Yield, yeoman.” Some of the Nostophoros scurried back, but the vocal one didn’t budge. “With all due respect, Lady Rei Acerba—we are not yours to command. Theodus’ orders are clear. We must guard this house from that filth.” I looked at the butchery around me. Filth? Me? Seriously? The human pincushions that could still walk gathered up their clothing and hustled out of the room. Despite being drained of vital fluids, they could still smell trouble. I re-checked my balance. I couldn’t do much more than wobble, and no matter how strong Rei was, she couldn’t possibly take down ten of her peers. We were totally going to get jumped…Then a spark went off in my head. I looked at the vampires in front of us. If there was one thing I understood, it was gangs. Rei and I were outnumbered, but the vampires hadn’t attacked us yet. I could only think of one possible reason why: they were uncertain. But why? They probably could gage Rei’s strength—but what about my own? They had mistaken me for something called a Dealer. I had no idea what a Dealer was, but apparently they considered that creature both formidable and distasteful. My presence was making the vamps angry, but it was also making them hesitate. My mind raced. Back at Elliot, Rei had referred to her home territories as “the Fiefs.” From what I had gathered in the last fifteen minutes, Rei’s people were organized into some sort of rigid hierarchy. These vamps viewed me as outside of that hierarchy. That wasn’t good. It probably made me fair game. It would only take them a few probing strikes to discover I had no mana, speed, or hidden bazookas in my trousers. Once they realized that I wasn’t much of a threat, I was screwed. But what if they thought I was inside their hierarchy? The yeoman had called Rei a “lady.” That gave me something to work with. Back in the olden days, lords and ladies owned their subjects like lawnmowers and dishrags. And because their subjects were viewed as property, they were considered a part of said royal entity. An attack on a subject was considered an attack on their lordship. I wasn’t a vampire—but neither was that Trey guy. Trey was still serving Anna, despite his lack of fangs. I nodded to myself. If Anna had humans serving her, so could Rei. She was a lady, right? Ladies needed staff. Crouching, Rei growled back at the other vamps (which was kinda cute when it wasn’t directed at you). I killed my smirk before it gave me away. I needed to demonstrate respect—a foreign concept, I’ll admit. Keeping my pace smooth and steady, I strode forward. Did you know a growl can transition into a “huh?” Me neither. Rising, Rei looked as surprised as everyone else. I walked right past her and stood off to her right. Forcing my posture loose, I focused my attention on the yeoman and let some of my mana leak out onto the floor. The tall man had given me some good pointers on the Art of Badass. I presumed the vamps weren’t stupid. I presumed they knew there were only two reasons for an opponent to waste firepower like that: Option A: The opponent is unskilled and/or stupid. Option B: The opponent doesn’t give a shit. The opponent has plenty of mana to spare. The opponent spends mana like billionaires spend Benjamins. Predators like sure bets. My little display had raised the ante. I was suggesting that I was no limping fawn. I was suggesting that I was a Tyrannosaurus rex on steroids. Now the question posed to the vampires was whether or not they wanted to risk their semi-immortal asses calling my bluff. And I wasn’t done just yet. I turned to Rei and pulled something straight out of Sir Dirty Harry. “Are they troubling you, milady? Shall I destroy them?” An awkward moment ensued in which Rei tried very hard not to laugh. The vamps looked at one another in confusion. I nearly shat my pants. “Tempting,” Rei answered coolly. “However, I would prefer to leave this consulate intact.” She’d picked up on my strategy with frightening speed. Now they had protocol to worry about. “But, milady, we’re on the top floor. The collateral damage would be minim—” “Silence,” she barked. I hoped I was the only one detecting the amusement in her voice. The dark-haired yeoman cocked his head. He was still eyeing me like a snack. “Lady Rei Acerba, if the Dealer is truly yours, why did he mourn the sac’s demise?” Sac? I near burst a vein. If I had enough mana… But, my child, why limit yourself to mana? My jaw tensed. That thing was back in my head. In your head? Please. We are more like…what is the term you humans use nowadays? Ah, yes, roomies. I brushed the extremely creepy voice aside. Killing these bastards hadn’t been that girl’s last wish. She’d wanted me to save her sister. Lives were at stake. My whole freakin’ city was at stake. This was no time for a pissing match. “Mourned?” I looked at the yeoman with disdain. “Since when did mourning involve draining a sac of life? I merely extracted the information milady required. It was your lack of control that left me so little to work with.” “And what information was that?” the yeoman asked. The mousy looking bastard looked angry, but the others looked a bit more uncertain. It struck me that gaining immortality must be a bit like hitting the lottery. Once you obtain it, you probably spend all your time worrying about losing it. “None of your concern,” Rei answered sharply. “Come, magus.” I bowed and fell into step beside her. + “Well, my minion, that certainly was reckless.” “Sorry, milady.” “I could grow accustomed to that,” Rei said with a smile. The three pints of blood in her belly seemed to have left her more chipper. She slung the cooler back and forth as we walked down the web of sidewalks leading back to our apartment. I wasn’t in such a great mood. I was wondering what that girl’s name was. I’d forgotten to ask her. Rei paused to look at me. She cocked her head and frowned. “Why are you so troubled?” I grimaced. “Rei, to see that sort of thing…” Made me want to scream. Kill stuff. Hunt every last one of your kin down and burn them to cinders. “It hurt, Rei.” “It…hurt?” Rei looked as though I had spoken in a foreign. “But the chattel were imported. You didn’t even know them.” I’d never really thought about why I sympathized with people I didn’t know. It just came…naturally. “They weren’t my kin, but I saw pieces of my friends and family in them.” Rei nodded, but I recognized that glassy-eyed expression. It was the look kids gave me when I tutored them in calculus. “I don’t get it, Rei. I’ve seen you help people before. You helped the fencing team win nationals. You helped Monique work through her anger. You even gave me that heads-up before we got to Elliot —but sympathy? I’m not sure I’ve ever seen you display it. Do you have difficulty feeling pity?” Rei stiffened. “I have read books. I have observed how beaters interact. I have watched how they comfort one another. How they mourn. I understand the concept.” “But the actual feeling? Have you ever felt it?” Rei shifted the cooler of human blood from one shoulder to the other. “I have felt the loss of those I know. I have felt their absence when they are gone. I care about my family. They are a part of me. We have relationships born of blood. I care for my acquaintances. Their existence enriches my life, and interacting with them gives me great pleasure. But, Dieter, I have never felt the need to wallow in another’s grief. What value could one find in that?” She smirked. “Besides, I suffer enough grief tending to your whims.” I was taken aback. Rei thought feeling bad was voluntary? “I don’t get it. How can that be? How can you not care?” “How can I not care?” Rei shook her head and chuckled. “Dieter, in the past minute—for reasons as varied as heart attacks and Were-maulings—one hundred humans have died across the globe. During the past day, 140,000 people have perished. So far this year, well over 50 million men and women have ceased to exist. These are statistical facts. They cannot be contested. So, my most sensitive companion, I ask you this: Have you mourned them? Has their collective agony driven you even once to tears?” I bit my lip. “No. But I still feel bad they died.” Rei cocked her head. “Do you truly feel bad for them—or are you merely parroting a concept? I do not mean to demean you, Dieter, but perhaps you are simply quicker at accepting others as your own.” Rei had me totally flummoxed. I stood there looking stupid. What was I supposed to say to that? A car whizzed by full of out-of-town revelers. A dog started barking behind the cinderblock wall. I wasn’t good at this. I never understood those books on philosophy. “So why bother?” I asked. “If you can compartmentalize your feelings so well, why bother reaching out to anyone?” Rei shrugged. She placed her hand against the cold cement and the angry dog settled. “Because I can?” She turned her face into the wind blowing in from the West. When she spoke again, her voice was small. “Dieter, must we be who we were born to be?” Her dark hair cast about behind her, and the faint scent of lavender wafted past me. I leaned against the wall and stared. Why would something so perfect want to change? “Of course not, but since we’ve been partnered…Rei, I’ve wanted to see things break. I’ve wanted to be the one doing the breaking. How can you work against that?” Rei leaned back against the wall. Her eyes had softened. “You cannot. You can only try and project those desires against something that deserves them.” “And if you can’t find a worthy target?” “Then you avoid anything you might hurt.” “That’s why you tried to break the link. You believe you’ll harm anyone who gets too close to you.” “I do not believe, Dieter. I know.” And so did I. That vision from the train… I looked at the tower looming above us. There was less than a week left. “Are you talking about Nana?” I asked in tense whisper. Rei’s head snapped towards me. “What did you just say?” “I asked you about Nana. Is that who you are talking about?” “Don’t say that name.” She took a step back. Her voice had become ragged. Her posture, sunken. “Where did you hear that—” “When did she—” I Saw the blow before it came. It was half-assed and underpowered. I ducked away easily and skipped out of her reach. Rei was staring off into the distance, her eyes transfixed. I prepared a transmutation while she was distracted. I had no intention of hitting Rei, but pushing this topic was bound to get me bruised. “How old were you?” I asked. “Shut up,” she hissed. “No. Tell me who—” “Shut up, shut up, shut up!” she screamed. I offered her my hand, but she lashed out at me instead. That was fine. I just needed to know head or belly. My Sight flared, signaling it was headed for my gut. The punch was slow and sloppy. I could see the boiling panic in her eyes. I waited for it, caught the blow with my palm, and used the prepped transmutation Sheila had taught me to redirect the energy into a blast of air. Rei was extremely strong, but she was also extremely light. Her slight frame lurched backwards in the gale, and she tumbled head-over-heels. Her hair a tangled mess, she looked up at me from the ground. “How old were you?” I asked again. I shiver shook through her. “Eight. I was eight.” Satisfied she wasn’t going to maul me, I grabbed Rei’s shoulder and pulled her up. Considering she could probably reach in and tear my heart out, it was amazing how light she was. I cleared the black mop from her face and gestured to the East. “Sun’s coming up soon. Let’s keep walking.” “You’re the worst minion imaginable,” she grumbled. “I’m not your minion. I’m your friend.” I hugged her. “Now don’t change the subject. How did it happen?” “Why do you care?” She broke out of my grasp and picked up her cooler. “Because it bothers you.” “What kind of reason is that?” I crossed my arms. When she saw I wasn’t budging, Rei sighed. “Nana was my caretaker. She was a beater—although at the time, I didn’t know what that meant—and she was the youngest person I knew. She was the only one who would ever play with me…or touch me.” “What about your parents?” I was surprised. Rei seemed to care for them deeply. “Dieter, my kind are not good at affection. Nana was different. She was so warm and kind. She would listen when I talked. She would tell me stories. She could even make me laugh. The others…I never liked it when they laughed. But Nana’s laugh? I loved it. There was no sadness in it. No spite. No bitterness. Even though she was being held against her will, even though she knew what I was, Nana trusted me.” Rei’s jaw tensed. In a rough motion, she ran her fingers across her fangs and splattered her own blood across the ground. “Even though she knew these were growing in—she still trusted me.” I reached out to her, but she shook her head and pulled away. “Dieter, when we are young, things are different. We don’t have the same urges.” “The bloodlust develops with age?” “Indeed. That is why we use beaters to care for our young.” “You mean…” I swallowed. “Stars above, Rei.” “One day, as Nana and I were playing tag, I experienced a desire I had never felt before. I acted on it.” I felt a surge of pity, disgust, and wrath. How could any culture do that to their children? Rei’s first kill had been her best friend… “Rei, you were too young to understand the consequences.” “I understood that it would hurt. I understood…but I still found it appealing.” “But, Rei—” “Dieter, why can’t you understand this? I wanted to cause her pain.” I shook my head. “We’ve all wanted to cause one another pain—especially those we care about the most. I meant the consequences. You didn’t grasp the consequences.” “That is true…” Rei frowned. “Dieter, how could you possibly know that?” “Because I watched the aftermath.” I looked down at the cracked cement. It was my turn to feel guilty. Rei was silent for a long time. I felt like my heart was going to beat out of my chest. “How?” she finally asked. “You were not present. I do not understand this.” “On the train, Rei.” She thought for a moment. “You mean that strange sensation? I thought you had glimpsed my aura. I thought you were merely frightened. A Nostophoros’ aura can be…difficult.” “Na, I’d already seen your aura. I was straining my Sight to feel out your intentions. Somehow, I tripped and fell inside.” I looked up into Rei’s moist eyes. “I watched Nana die, Rei. I watched you try and save her. Then someone came in. You got angry, and the vision sorta popped. It was the shock of returning that knocked my socks off. It was like an ice bomb went off in my brain.” I scratched my stubble. I’d never seen a spell like that before. “You must have had a whiteout,” I offered. “Oh, and speaking of auras, thanks for wrapping yours around me today. That was a really cool spell. Did Dante teach you that? Was it some sort of shroud?” Rei cocked her head. “What are you talking about? I cannot conduit mana.” “Of course you can. You go to Elliot. You’re a mage.” Rei rolled her eyes. “Like any Nostophoros, I can use the lives of others to enhance my abilities, fortify my body, and heal my injuries—but I continue to fail at even the most basic spells.” “Huh?” I managed. I just presumed Rei liked to practice by herself. She wasn’t much of a team player. “Each Nostophoros is born with a unique set of talents. Some can manipulate an element, some can erase their presence from view, but one with the capacity to become a magus is extraordinarily rare. Albright claims that I have that potential. However, considering my position…Some nights I wonder if he is simply trying to flatter my father by allowing me to attend.” “That’s quite emo, Rei. Maybe you should start a moan rock band. Now explain why all the vamps failed to notice me until I let go of your hand.” “Because…” Rei placed her hands on her hips and frowned. “Fascinating…I do not know the answer to that question. Magi are quite noticeable to my kind.” “It was because you were moving mana around with your Ki. I Saw you do it.” “You mean my aura…you observed it?” “Of course.” I stuck my thumbs in my belt loops and puffed out my chest “I’m an auraceptor.” “What does it look like? Is it terrifying?” “Wait, you can’t see auras? I thought all Nostophoros could.” Rei laughed. “What books have you been reading? A Nostophoros’ auraception is a form of smell, not sight. But I am curious, Dieter, what do they look like?“ “They look like fuzzy clouds, and they’re always centered around the chest.” “They issue from the Ki, yes?” “Right. And I find an aura is easier to sense if the person is experiencing strong emotions. If they are directed at me, I can actually feel the aura’s touch.” Rei nodded. “The same is true for me.” “The first time I felt yours was when I was stretching outside of the bus. You were hungry, right?” Rei blushed. “I was groggy. I had a case of the…what do you call them?” “The munchies?” “Ah, yes. Those things. I had those things.” I shivered. “Anyway, most auras are amorphous blobs, but some have unique shapes. Cumo’s looks like a giant cotton ball.” Rei smiled. “He smells like vanilla and cinnamon.” “And all auras have colors. It’s kinda weird, but if you stare at one for a while, you just know what the emotion is.” “It is the same with their scent. Sour for jealousy. You?” “Lima-bean green.” “So that old adage is true.” Rei giggled and took my hand. “Sulfur for deceit.” “Deceit? A gross mustard-yellow, but it’s hard to Sight unless they’re straight-up lying.” “Indeed. And my aura? You said it had a shape?” “Yea, it’s like this oversized cloak. The ends are shredded, and it looks like it’s been outside for too long.” “An old haggard cloak?” Rei kicked at the cement in disappointment. “Is that supposed to be a complement? That doesn’t sound terrifying at all.” Oh, so she wanted it to be terrifying. Typical. “It’s plenty creepy.” Rei raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean?” “Most auras are just fuzzy circles, but when we were holding hands, yours wrapped around me like a warm blanket. I’ve never seen another aura do that.” Rei was busy strumming her chin when she stiffened. “Daybreak,” she grumbled. She flipped up the collar of her coat. “And I have forgotten your sunglasses.” I watched the sun lumber over the valley’s red crust. Rei stretched her arms and yawned. “Minion, if we survive the next week, I should like to conduct more handholding experiments. Perhaps I can convince my most flexible aura to strangle you to death.” I grinned. “Sure thing, kumpadre. But that’s a big if.” Chapter 18 ONE MORE MOUNTAIN “Yep, we’re as ready as we’re gonna be…You too, Monique. Talk to you later.” Dante hung up the phone. “They’re set up two blocks away from the Over the Top. Maria has line-of-site on the south side of the building. Monique, Roster, Sheila, and Ichijo are waiting on our signal. We have until midnight to locate some of this artificial conduit material and either shut down Carrera’s spell or get the heck off the tower. Sadie’s gonna insert separately. If she doesn’t hear otherwise, she’s gonna bring the whole place down.” “And the tower? She’ll make it fall away from the Strip, right?” Dante nodded. “Awen’s Ghost,” Jules said, her teacup shaking. “I cannot believe we’re doin’ this.” Exhausted from pacing back and forth, I plunked down in the chair next to her and put my hand on her shoulder. I didn’t want to go up on the tower either—I hated heights. “Our best shot is to find this artificial conduit material early on,” Dante said. “An ICE team is on standby. If we can steal some of the ACT stuff fast enough, we can show it to the ICE and they’ll be able to intervene before midnight—that is, if this stuff is what Albright thinks it is.” “And what about Albright?” I asked. “Isn’t it about time he showed up?” Dante shook his head. “He was given a direct order not to intervene. Forces are on the move, Dieter. The Department wants every last man defending the Salt Lake’s leynode. They think Talmax is massing for a strike.” I groaned. “In the history of war, how many times has sit-back-and-wait worked?” I shook my head in frustration. “Bud, I hear ya, but—wow.” I turned my head and gaped. Rei was clonking out of the bathroom in towering heels. Her hair was one perfect glossy sheet, and she was wearing a fresh coat of lipstick in a dark cherry hue. The lowcut chiffon dress gave little hints with every motion—but hid just enough to be totally unfair. Dante shook his head. “If looks could kill…” “Then I wouldn’t need fangs. Speaking of which, are they obvious?” Rei gave us the half-smile she’d been practicing. Jules put her glasses back on. “Not at a glance. They’re teeny pokies anyway. No one will notice unless they’re lookin’ for them.” “Excellent,” Rei said. “Then, Druid, gentlemen, I am off.” “Hold it, Queen of Darkness.” Jules, Dante and I looked at each other. “Break a neck!” “Naturally,” Rei replied. I couldn’t help ogling her long bare calves as they strutted out the door. I had no idea how girls managed to walk in high heels, but I sure could understand why. I checked my watch. Still fifteen minutes before we shipped out. “There’s one thing still bothering me,” I said. “I know,” Jules said. “That poor girl. What she told ya before she…” Frowning, Jules checked to make sure Rei was out of earshot. “Do ya see now, Dieter? You can’t be a denyin’ it anymore. Rei can be nice and all, but drainers are butchers, plain and simple.” I crossed my arms. “I’m not arguing otherwise. But the Nostophoros’ human rights record isn’t this week’s big concern—that would be the homicidal mages trying to sacrifice a few hundred thousand people.” I didn’t care to rehash the same argument we’d been having for months. I made it known with an obstinate look. “So why on earth do ya think they’re holdin’ those initiates?” “You got me,” Dante said. “It’s not like they’re gonna be short of bodies. The Over the Top announced they’re handing out free drinks for the grand reopening. There are gonna be tons of people cued up for booze. Why they would need six initiates on top of that is beyond me.” Jules rubbed her temples. “I went over the literature—again. Mages differ from other humans in three big ways: we have the ability ta sense and conduit mana, we have larger mana reserves, and we live longer than the average man. Why we can conduit mana has somethin’ ta do with the nature of our Kis. Our Ki are also bigger than yer average human’s. That explains why we attract more mana. Why we live longer isn’t so clear. My best guess is that it has somethin’ ta do with conduitin’ lots of mana. After all, the most powerful mages seem ta live the longest, and mages who abandon their craft seem to age like regular humans. But take those differences away, and we’re basically the same as your average Joe Soap. It’s not like we’re chock full a’ power crystals. I don’t see how capturin’ a bunch of grubs could help Carrera with his cast. Grand spells always come down to the fine control of massive amounts of power. Grubs are awful at that.” “Bud, it’s like you were saying: We’re stuck on the why. There are hundreds of different magic styles and zillions of different spells. Without knowing exactly why Carrera is massing power, we can’t narrow down the possibilities.” Carrera’s motive…My posture sagged. Despite skimming every history book in the local library, I still had no idea who “Kit” was or what Las Vegas had to do with the Mexican-American War. “All we know is that Carrera’s got a bone to pick with the US Government. But the men he fought against are dead and gone. Everyone that was involved in the Mexican-American War is dust, and Carrera sure as hell can’t recapture New Spain. Conquering territory is a direct breach of the Tenets. DOMAs can’t intervene in the affairs of foreign Imperiti governments. Heck, just kicking the DEA’s teeth in has already caught the ICE’s attention. If they tried annexing territory, it’d be the end for them.” “Yea,” Dante agreed, “world conquest just doesn’t fly as a motive.” “Worse still, even after reading his book three times through, I still have no idea what type of guy Carrera is.” “Secretive,” Jules offered. “A capable mind mage. Patient. Organized. That’s about all I’d dare ta venture. I don’t like it either. Even if we have surprise on our side, we have no idea what we’re surprisin’. That be flat dangerous.” “We can only stay focused on our objectives,” Dante said. “Let’s find some evidence and let the ICE sort out the rest. Those are our orders. We get it done, and we go home.” I leaned back in my chair. I was relieved that Dante was in command. I felt entirely out of my depth. The phone rang again, and Dante answered it. As Dante listened to the line, his face filled with concern. By the time he turned to us, Jules and I had nearly tripped over the table. “Monique just got word from DEA Command. Talmax just launched an attack on our leynode in Salt Lake.” He swallowed. “Our forces are outnumbered. They don’t think they can last the night.” + Monique clicked in over the line: “Okay, sound check.” We chimed in one-by-one. When it was my turn, I pressed my ear gently. That pressure activated the microphone. “Dieter here, loud and clear.” Jules and Dante did the same and we headed into the Over the Top. It was a good thing we didn’t bring any weapons. The security was absurd. They even confiscated Jules’ chapstick. (The nerve of some people.) After getting screened, Jules, Dante, and I rode up in the service elevator with nine other servers. My ears popped three times on the way up. The elevator gave up at one-hundred-andsomething stories. Stars above, I hated heights. The door slid open to reveal three men in cheap tuxedos. They were mages. The magic just hummed off of them. Carrera’s WIP team, I presumed. I glanced over at Dante and Jules. They looked relaxed. Getting Jedi mind probed was old hat for them. I took a deep breath. There are three basic principles to resisting a wipe: 1) Be aware—if you know the whammy is coming, it’s much easier to it fend off. 2) Consider your beliefs—a wipe is designed to edit your memories, but it’s harder to overwrite data if it’s being actively used. You need to remind yourself of who you are, what you believe in, and why it’s important. (Oh ye of little faith? Sorry, you’re fucked.) 3) Be born resistant. I felt the pressure of the wipe as soon as the man in front demanded that we line up against the wall. It wasn’t too hard to resist his effort. Lucky for me, I was pretty darn resistant. I frowned. On second thought, if I weren’t resistant, I wouldn’t have been given this horrid assignment in the first place. I fought the urge to crawl into the nearest corner and cry. Instead, I pretended I was back in Polimag and stared dumbly ahead. There was a light push each time the man spoke. He ordered us to serve efficiently, find nothing unusual, depart when instructed, and remember nothing. When I compared it to the strength of Rei’s compulsions, the mage’s attempts seemed laughable. Finished, Carrera’s WIP team moved on to the next elevator and waited for the rest of the kitchen staff. After they left, I took a look at the other nine servers. You couldn’t really tell anything was wrong. They looked psyched to be here and ready to do a good job—which wasn’t too far from where they were before the wipe. My fellow servers expected to see famous people, score some major tips, and watch the fireworks from the best vantage point in the city. Who wouldn’t be excited? You’re more vulnerable when you’re told what you want to believe. Their giddiness made the wipe extra powerful. Jules and Dante turned to me. We gave one another a brains-are-safe-and-sound thumbs up and headed to our serving stations. As nervous as I was, I was grateful to settle into the old familiar rhythm of waiting tables. This was a job I knew cold. I prepped the ice, checked the beverage stock, prepped some napkins, and peed in the soup. As I was staging the appetizers, Dante clicked in over the radio. “Wow, ya’ll, this place is swank.” “I really want to try that ride at the top,” Jules replied. “Stupid Talmax. If only they weren’t tryin’ to take over the world.” “Cut the chatter you two,” Monique snipped. “Focus on your objective.” The OTT had three levels: On top was an observation deck open to the night air. That was where the obelisk with that crazy ride was mounted. (I couldn’t believe Jules would actually want to ride that thing. The thought of it made me want to barf.) On the second floor, a revolving restaurant and lounge occupied most of the space. And the OTT’s exclusive VIP suites occupied the bottom level. Two large spiral staircases connected all three, but a number of rather large men stood guarding those stairwells. They had the elevators covered too. The crazy level of security left the three of us with no clear options. As servers, we had explicit orders to stay in the restaurant, and guests weren’t allowed on the observation deck until right before midnight. We decided to wait for the guests to arrive before we tried something crafty. Carrera’s people trickled in slowly. The dinner party was about a hundred strong. I spotted a few celebrities, even a state senator or two. The language of choice was Spanish, and the drink orders were coming in by the dozen. As I picked up another batch, Dante walked up next to me. “Bud, I can’t understand a word anyone’s saying. I can translate Elvish, but I’m freakin’ worthless with Spanish.” “Don’t worry about it. Both Rei and I speak a passable amount. More importantly, we need to sweep those VIP rooms downstairs.” Dante nodded. “I can handle that. I’ve got enough mana for a few shrouds.” Mana was going to be our biggest problem. We only had our own reserves to work with. I glanced at the staircase. “I’ll cover your tables. Go make yourself scarce.” Dante snickered and went behind the bar. He winked before vanishing into thin air. “Give me a second and I’ll distract the guard.” I walked over to the big man by the staircase. He looked ridiculous in a tuxedo, like a boulder dressed up as a penguin. “Pardon me, sir.” I said. The giant leered down at me, his knobby nose flaring. “Didn’t you play in the NFL?” “No,” he boomed. My skull kinda vibrated as he spoke. “But I could have sworn I saw you—” “Scram, little thing. You have a job, do you not? Go serve your mead.” I felt a breeze brush by me. Dante was through. I bowed slightly. “Sorry, sir. Have a nice evening.” With Dante off to the races, I walked back across the room and checked our tables. We were serving chicken, salmon, and venison (whatever that was), and while our guests enjoyed their main courses, I went about filling glasses. It gave me the opportunity to check on Rei. There were four men and three women seated with her. Her date, Julio Sanchez, was talking loudly into his cell phone. He was projecting a decent amount of that venison stuff halfway across the table. Rei was doing her best to compress her salad into lettuce pudding. I didn’t need the link to tell me that she would rather be applying that sort of pressure on Julio’s oversized head. “Ma’am,” I asked. “May I get you anything else? Something to drink perhaps?” Rei looked up at me dourly. “Perhaps later. I am finished with these leaves. Remove them. And, servant, take this napkin as well. It is soiled.” My eye twitched slightly. “Yes, ma’am.” Rei looked at me with unvarnished glee. Typical. Back at the bar, I carefully unfolded the napkin: Carrera sits across from me. Plans speech at 22:30. Dibs on kill. — ^,..,^ I smiled. Fangtastic! Our target had been sighted. I glanced back over at the table to size up the DEA’s arch-nemesis—and did a double take. I rechecked the napkin. Either Rei was joking, or Diego Carrera was a balding middle-aged man rising to 5’3’’ tops. He was talking jovially with the rest of the guests. He looked like he was at a…well…at a New Year’s Eve party. I scratched my head. This was the man who deceived the Magi of Mexico, commandeered their department of mana affairs, conquered the cartels, and liquidated all of the DEA agents west of the Mississippi? This was the man who was in the middle of a battle for control of Salt Lake’s leynode at this very moment? My shoulders sagged. Where was the Master Warlock of Doom? After all the build-up, I’d expected a towering cyborg with laser eyes, elbow-length rubber gloves, and a massive codpiece. Jeez, this was rather disappointing. After relaying Rei’s info to Monique, I checked my watch again. Fifteen minutes had passed since Dante started searching the VIP suites, and he hadn’t contacted us once. Those massive guards looked just like the trolls Rei and I had faced in New York. If he had to face one of them head-on, I didn’t like Dante’s odds. As the partygoers began milling about during the break between main course and deserts, I caught Jules’ eyes from across the room. She signaled me over. “Bloody hell, Dieter,” she whispered. “I’m freakin’ shakin’ so bad that I can hardly pour water. I don’t think I’m cut out for this stuff.” I smirked. “And I am? I’m scared shitless too. We all are. Well, except Rei. Rei looks kinda bored.” Jules giggled. “Have you been able to find any spell circles?” “No, but I’m sure as salt that there’s somethin’ happenin’ on the deck above us.” “How do you figure?” “Ariadne’s thread.” “Ariadne? You mean that chick from Crete who got screwed by Theseus?” “Yep.” Jules looked up at me. “And I think there was a lesson in there for the wayward young males of the world—whatever did happen to Theseus, Dieter?” “Well, Theseus killed the minotaur, and then—” “He was lured by Persephone’s wiles into the depths of the Underworld ta spend eternity trapped on the Throne of Lethe.” She clenched her tiny fist for emphasis. I scratched my head. “Actually, I think Theseus was rescued by—” “Eternity. Eternity with Hades.” “But—” “I’ll have ya remember, Dieter, that we Irish preserved those myths.” I shrugged. “Well I guess I’ll have to defer to Ms. Myth Preserver then.” Jules puffed. “Damned straight, barbarian.” “So…about that thread of yours?” “Aye. Use yer auraception on me bosom.” I blushed. “Um, the last time I did that you slapped me across—” “Oh shut up, ya useless apprentice. The probation is lifted.” I closed off my senses and opened my Sight fully. As the people melted away, a world of light and motion replaced them. I ignored the many dancing waves and focused on Jules alone. Her Ki was as striking as I remembered: an entire galaxy swirling with vibrant colors. But at the center of her Ki, there was something new. A tiny trickle of mana was leaking out. The strand spread out like a fine string of sparkles across the length of the entire room. It was arching upward and inward toward the core of the building. “Wowzers,” I muttered. “Like ants to sugar.” “That’s me student. And yes, it’s what ya think it is.” Jules motioned above us. “Carrera must have built an array up there. I can’t tell you what the array is for lest I see it, but I can tell you this much: It’s some sort of magnet for mana. I think Carrera wants to draw in mana from somewhere far off in the distance, but I don’t get how he’s doin’ it. There’s nothin’ besides Ki that can draw mana.” That wasn’t true. I’d seen an exception to that rule. “Jules, when you were hiding in the woods that night Talmax attacked, what did you see?” “Not much. I ran for it when the mage’s spell malfunctioned.” “So you don’t know what happened after that?” “Don’t know if ya noticed, Dieter, but you’ve been kinda dodgy about that topic. I figured ta let it be.” “The mage.” I swallowed. “The mage was pulled into his own gate. He was dragged in by the neck. His ACT device just kept conduiting mana from the leyline until it contacted the gate and burned out. His ACT device…it acted just like a magnet.” “Awen’s Ghost,” Jules said. “So that’s what this crap really is! Dieter, if you had only told me sooner!” I glared at her. Jules needed to keep her voice down. But she was having none of it. She activated her radio and started talking rapid fire. “Listen up everyone. We’ve been lookin’ at this the wrong way. We’ve been treatin’ this ACT stuff like it’s some sorta magic amplifier—but that’s not what ACT is. It doesn’t enhance Ki. It is Ki. Ichi, can ya hear me? This tower is a mana harness.” Ichijo crackled over the radio: “Jules, are you suggesting the tower will act like an enormous coven?” “That I am, Ichi.” “What do you mean?” I asked. “A mage’s Ki works just like an electric magnet. To attract mana, you spin your own mana reserve around your Ki. It’s like electrifyin’ a magnet. The force of mana attraction goes off the charts. That’s how ya snag mana from the ley—but ya can go further than that. Ya can get a group of mages together in a circle and swirl mana around the lot of ya. It’s the basis of a witches’ sabbat. The coven acts like one giant Ki center; that’s why they’re so powerful. Carrera must be usin’ a huge chunk of ACT ta mimic a large coven of mages all castin’ a spell at once. The array isn’t even on yet, and the ACT is suckin’ up mana like mad. I’m gonna guess that all Carrera needs ta do is spin a good amount of starter-mana around a chunk of this ACT stuff, and he’ll be able ta attract oodles of mana from miles off in the distance.” “Jules,” Monique asked, “how do we use this info?” “It’ll help us find the ACT. If I was gonna build such an array, I’d place a column of ACT at the center of me array. That means that the location of the ACT stores should be near the center of the—” “Found it,” Dante chimed in over the radio. “Repeat that,” Monique asked. I could hear Roster in the background clapping and yelling something about go-time. It made me all warm and fuzzy to know the crazy bastard was on our side. “I found our mark. It’s at the core of the building. It’s a column of dark-red crystal that matches Dieter’s description. And, ya’ll, it looks like we’re gonna need a bigger boat.” “How much is there?” “More than we can carry. It goes all the way up through the ceiling. Looks like the remodeling included more than just new curtains. Ichi, we’ll have to chip off a sample. Make sure you bring the tools. Jules, I’ll need your help setting up a translocation circle. I’m coming back to get you.” As I listened to the conversation on the radio, I swept the room from left to right. (A habit of Rei’s that I had dutifully acquired.) The men and women of Talmax were socializing with the cream of the Las Vegas crust. You could taste the giddiness in the air; they were about to pull off something epic. I was growing irritated when I noticed the tall, lanky woman standing next to Carrera. She was wearing a sparkling yellow dress that shimmered in the light. My jaw tightened. That was certainly a kink. I was trying to think of some way to deal with her when another stunner caught my eye. This one wore a white hourglass dress that fit her curves like a glove. In her shadow, stood two lazily-dressed men. One was short and blond. The other dark and unshaven. My stomach dropped to the floor. This evening had just gotten a whole lot more complicated. Finding my voice, I asked, “Jules, can you handle the rest?” “That I can. Dante and I’ll shroud together just like we practiced. I’ll chalk the circle and bring in the troops.” “Good. I need to make myself scarce.” Jules looked up at me doubtfully. “Is somethin’ the matter?” “Women trouble.” Jules’ green eyes narrowed. “Plural?” I gestured to the two sources of trouble. “By Awen, Dieter, you know them both?” “What can I say. I’m a local.” Jules re-examined the lady in white and scrunched up her nose. “You know, Dieter, that woman looks a lot like Rei.” “What a crazy coincidence,” I muttered. “Point is, I don’t think our fortunes are going good places if either catches sight of me.” Jules sighed. “Fine, Mr. Popular, do what you have ta. But Dieter, there’s one last thing I need ta give ya before ya go.” “Fine,” I said, eyeing the vampiress about to end my life, “just make it quick.” “Sure.” Jules grabbed my suit jacket and lifted herself up on her toes. Grasping me firm, she stared right into my eyes. “It’ll just take a sec.” I stood motionless as she pressed her lips against mine. My heart fluttered. The scent of evergreen tickled my nose. My pulse bounded in my ears. A second passed. Another. Jules sank down and hugged me tightly. “Dieter, don’t ya do anythin’ foolish. We get our evidence, and we get out. Let the ICE take care of Talmax. That be their job, not ours.” I glanced over at Anna Bathory. Something told me tonight wouldn’t be that simple. Jules smacked me in the face. “Listen here, Dieter. The goal of tonight’s lesson is ta stay alive. Anything less and ya fail. You got that, ya chancer?” Still shaken, I nodded. The scent of pine was still curling about my nose as Jules melted into the crowd. Reaching up, I touched my mouth. Jules Nelson had just kissed me. This required some consideration—but the Duchess of Peoria was fifty feet away and closing, Monique was yelling orders over the open line, and Dante was prepping another shroud for Jules. I started moving my feet in the opposite direction while trying to work it all out in my head. Had Jules Nelson, Adept Magus, Druid extraordinaire, just kissed me on the freakin’ lips? I touched them again. They’d been so…warm. The conversation going on in my left ear didn’t help my nerves. Monique was going on and on about high explosives and containment strategies. I frowned. Why didn’t I get to talk high explosives? That was my bag. This just wasn’t fair. I grabbed a tray loaded with champagne and headed over to avert potential disaster number one: My reporter friend, Ms. Curray, was talking to the short, balding, middle-aged man who was about to conquer the entire Western Seaboard of the United States. Someone forgot to tell her you can’t make your deadline form inside a pine box. I tried my best to ignore the tectonic shift that had just shaken my love life and ran smack into Ms. Curray’s behind. “Oh, darn it!” I exclaimed as the glasses of champagne tumbled to the carpet. “I’m so sorry, ma’am!” Soaked and furious, Lauren Curray turned on me. I motioned to the bar. Ms. Curray’s face made a rapid transition from shock to calm. “Don’t worry about it,” she said, shaking the champagne off her arms. “Been there. Done that. Do you have any soda water behind the bar?” Good call. “Yes, ma’am. I’m terribly sorry. Please allow me to assist you.” Keeping my eyes on the carpet, I turned with Ms. Curray to walk away. “Young man,” a voice said from behind me. “A moment please.” Crap. He looked like someone’s jolly-old uncle—except for the eyes. Those were an entirely different can of worms. They housed two centuries worth of daggers ready to pierce through my defenses and contort my will. But Monique had warned me. It was a rather obvious point, but one deserving of repetition: Resistant or not, it is highly unadvisable to meet the eyes of a renowned mind mage. I didn’t dare. I focused on the large mole rising from his forehead instead. “It would serve you to be more careful in the future.” “Yes, sir.” I took a deep breath. “I’m sorry, sir. I’m fresh out of training. I’m just so excited to be here that I…I guess I became careless. Please excuse my clumsiness, sir. I just want to do the best job possible.” Carrera gave a slight nod. “Very well. Be sure to assist the lady in whatever she needs.” He could take that request to the bank. Ms. Curray needed to get off this tower as soon as possible, and that was exactly what I intended to tell her. I led her past the bar and into the back storeroom. Even being near Carrera was taxing. I felt like I’d been studying for hours. Safe from prying eyes, I sagged. Amongst the chatter in my ear, I picked up that Jules and Dante had gotten back to the building core and she was setting up the circle. I checked my watch. Dessert service was starting soon. We were running short on time. I shook my head clear. First things first. I clicked on my radio. “Ms. B, that relative is here.” There was no way in hell I was saying anyone’s name in front of Ms. Curray. The reporter was too damn sharp. “Dieter,” Rei whispered. “Hide your scent. Use anything. I will handle her when I can get away from this useless oaf.” “You plan on telling me what’s going on now?” Ms. Curray asked angrily. “I’ve got champagnesoaked panties thanks to you.” “Some people call that foreplay—now hand over that breath spray.” Ms. Curray crossed her arms and frowned. “Resnick, that may be the worst come-on in the history of world.” I smirked. “Seriously, hand it over.” Ms. Curray blanched. “How did you know I have breath spray? Can you people…” She pointed to her skull. My eyes grew wide. You people? Oh, fuck me. Visions of DEA penal colonies danced through my head. I took a deep breath. “No, ‘we’ saw you spritz before striking up a conversation with the most dangerous man in a hundred miles. Now hand the damn thing over.” Ms. Curray looked doubtful but dug out the spray. I took the breath freshener from her hands and started fumigating myself. It was like those body spray commercials—except the objective was to keep the sexy ladies as far away from my throat as possible. Ms. Curray watched my ritual in utter bafflement. After I was done, I dug out some soda water and towels and turned to watch the door. “Do you have any idea how much danger you’re in?” I asked. “Says the teenager to the career professional.” “Says the person who knows what the hell he’s talking about to the intrepid reporter who’s about to get herself killed.” The clinging of fork against glass signaled the start of dessert. I hoped the other servers could manage with Jules, Dante, and I out of commission. “What would you have me do? Did you know there were four more electrocution-related deaths outside of Salt Lake City this weekend alone?” Ms. Curray’s dress splattered to the ground. I listened as she washed it out in the sink. My throat knotted in tension—a mixture of fear for what might come through the door mingled with the intense desire to sneak a peak at what was going on behind me. “He’s picking off cops, Resnick. He’s picking off DEA agents, reporters, and anyone else that gets in his way. There are even rumors that the senator from California didn’t die from a heart attack.” A dead senator? I hadn’t heard that one yet, but it fit the profile. Carrera had picked off the politicians that opposed him in Mexico. He was probably following the same pattern up here. I checked my watch. Carrera would be taking the stage shortly. “Listen, I would love to explain everything, but I can’t. Even if I—” My Sight flared. I had just enough time to step to the side before the champagne bottle came crashing down. Ms. Curray lost her balance and tumbled to the ground. She stood back up with a satisfied grin on her face. She didn’t notice the tight grasp my right hand had on my left. I swallowed. I’d nearly set her on fire. “How did you know that was coming?” she asked. “Reflection off the silverware.” “Bullshit. There are rumors, Resnick, rumors that the DEA is more than meets the eye. It’s a twobillion dollar agency with less congressional oversight than the CIA. They’ve got dozens of overseas offices, helicopters, and even their own jails. And now DEA agents are popping up dead all over the place. If a couple dozen FBI agents got murdered, the media would be having a field day, but every article I submit…” Ms. Curray balled her fists. “It’s like the government is waging some sort of shadow war…I didn’t turn you in, Resnick, but I did check out your documents. Those fakes were perfect. Too perfect. They’re Government Issue, aren’t they?” So she already figured me for DEA. I didn’t even figure myself for DEA, but Ms. Curray was the more right—I was working for them after all. I bit my lip. Maybe if I gave her a piece of the truth… “You’re right, Ms. Curray. There’s a war on. It’s a war over an illegal substance, just not one you’d know about. But that’s not important right now. Right now, you need to get off this tower as fast as you can.” Ms. Curray’s frown deepened. “Cut the crap and tell me what’s going on.” It was like déjà vu. Hadn’t I said the exact same thing to Rei? Ms. Curray was where I was six months ago: clueless and exposed, trying to rationalize things that didn’t make sense, and questioning her own sanity as the clues led her further and further down the rabbit hole. I could let her know she wasn’t going crazy, couldn’t I? Ms. Curray’s info had helped us find where Carrera was hiding his ACT. If we didn’t screw it up, she might have inadvertently saved countless lives. I owed her for that. I bit my lip. I hated owing people. I balanced that desire with the prospect of being burnt at the stake. (I had looked it up. It was the human torch for claiming magic existed. Impalement was reserved for enslaving Imperiti.) I took a deep breath. “I’ll show you what I can without getting myself killed. But you have to be doing this because you want to know. No one else will believe it, and if you try, you’re as good as dead.” I could tell she couldn’t understand. She nodded anyway. The law said I couldn’t tell her what I was—that I couldn’t willfully disclose my nature—but there was no rule against her catching me in act. That’s why DOMA employed WIP teams in the first place. Plus, I was on official business in the middle of a desperate war. That gave me more latitude for Public Displays of Magic. It couldn’t be helped if a single Imperiti caught me casting tonight. I prepared a transmutation in my head. Rei’s distrust of my fire spells had served as ample motivation to get them under control. I could do this one in my sleep. I didn’t even need to mouth the words. “Alright, Ms. Curray, throw that bottle at me as hard as you can. Don’t ask why. Don’t think. Just do it.” She seemed to like the suggestion. Gripping the bottle tightly, she flung it at my chest. I opened up my entrapment field and captured the kinetic energy rushing towards me. The bottle slowed to a crawl and then dropped uselessly to the ground. Transmuting the energy of the throw, I redirected the newly created heat at Ms. Curray’s small purse. The purse—along with the tape recorder hiding inside— burst into amber flames. Outside, the crowd burst into applause. Carrera was taking the stage. “Thank you. Thank you very much,” I said, taking a bow. I walked over and doused the smoldering purse with some water. “What did you—” “Ms. Curray, get off this tower as fast as you can. Stay off the Strip tonight. If we mess up, you’ll have your story in the morning.” I’d given Ms. Curray her hint. That made us even-steven. Now, I had desserts to serve. I turned and headed out of the storeroom—and then the lights shut off. Monique’s voice crackled over the radio: “Rei! Dieter! Get off the tower. We can’t wait. Ichijo’s been shot. He’s bleeding bad. We’re cut off. We have to extract. We have evidence. We have…” I heard gunfire crackle in the background. “…and…adie…be…ful…still—” The audio transitioned to a high-pitched squeal. I cursed and struggled to get the little siren out of my ear. Ms. Curray looked back and forth between me clawing at the phantom voices in my ear and her smoldering purse. All in all, she was doing pretty well. “Are you okay?” she asked tentatively. Finally getting the headset out, I glared at the little bastard in my hand. My ear was ringing like after a rock concert. Finest Japanese engineering my ass, I wasn’t getting those nerves back. “Oh, just peachy,” I grumbled. Peaking out the door, I checked the situation. Guards had come out of the woodworks. They were bearing stub-nosed machine guns and very negative dispositions. The only illumination was from the dim emergency lights. Men in tuxedos were dashing about yelling into radios. I assumed those were Carrera’s coven-mates. They were herding the guests into two groups. I ducked back into the storeroom and looked around. We needed a place to hide—and fast. “What’s going on?” Ms. Curray asked. “They’re sorting the guests.” “Oh. Wonderful. And why are they doing that?” “Separating perps from victims? Getting ready for a rousing game of dodge ball? How the hell am I supposed to know?” There was a large cabinet in the corner. I opened it up and started moving the boxes out of it. Ms. Curray caught my drift and gave me a hand. That done, we crammed inside and shut the doors. It was a tight squeeze. We ended up jammed against each other with our heads on one another’s shoulders. “Resnick,” she whispered. “Why are we crammed into a cabinet hiding from men with guns?” She shifted her right foot out from under my butt. The inside of her thigh rubbed against my own. I prayed I wasn’t about to do something inappropriate. “Carrera…” What did it matter? We were fucked anyway. “Carrera is about to attempt a reaping. We’re trying to stop him.” “A what?” “A reaping is a mass effect spell that uses people as fuel.” “So, what you’re saying is, I’m trapped in a cabinet with a lunatic. Sorry, but could you let me off at the next stop?” I smiled. “Excellent reaction. And if anyone else asks, that’s the right answer. Here’s the game. I’m a mage—sort of a trainee, actually—but I’m part of a group of mages that was tasked by a shadowy organization—which is sort of part U.S. government—to find evidence that the Talmax Corporation is illegally importing contraband from beyond our dimension.” I frowned. “At least I think the contraband is from beyond our dimension. I’m not so clear on that part. Anyway, the majority of my team was snooping around on the floor below us. The stuff we were looking for was built into the core of the building during the renovation. My team was collecting specimens when they were discovered.” “The gunshots?” she asked. “You mean they are cornered?” “No, I mean they were cornered. Captain R said they were extracting.” “How? There’s no way to get off this damn tower unless you use the elevators. I wrote a story about it when the tower first opened. It’s a fire code disaster.” “Ms. S opened a translocation circle.” “A what?” “A means of teleportation. Sorta like on Star Trek. Again, I don’t understand the details.” “Is that how you’re getting out? Are you going to…to…beam out?” “Not possible. Neither Ms. B nor I can set up the circle without some guidance—and I just lost radio contact.” Footsteps sounded outside our cramped closet. Ms. Curray tensed. “Easy,” I whispered. “These guys are brainwashed idiots. Just sit still.” I readied a transmutation just in case, but didn’t dare spend any mana on it. Only the slightest bit of light leaked into the cabinet, so I relied on my ears instead. The guard crept into the room, did a single sweep, found nothing of interest, and left. That was the downside of wiping people into submission. Creative thinking went out the window. Ms. Curray let out the breath she’d been holding for the past minute. “Who’s Ms. B?” “My vampire sidekick. We’re the only one’s left that can keep the building from coming down.” “I’m sorry, but did you just say vampire?” “Yep. fangs and all—but they’re tiny. You can hardly tell. It’s not like she’s got giant snaggleteeth.” “Jesus Christ.” “She doesn’t think so. He resurrected at daybreak and didn’t kill everything in sight. Ms. B thinks he must have been something else.” Ms. Curry blinked hard, twice. I think a little bit of brain oozed out of her ear. “What was that other part? The part about the building?” “Oh. Right. Yea, a petite, elfish-looking girl who’s parents were murdered by Carrera is going to bring the whole thing down.” “When?” “Five minutes after midnight. We’ve gotta make sure the revelers down on the Strip don’t get culled. The greater good and whatnot.” “Aren’t you being a bit glib about all this?” I opened my mouth. Closed it. Frowned. Ms. Curray was right. I was excited—giddy. It occurred to me that there might be a very good explanation why. “Sorry,” I managed. “Nervous energy.” Crouching low, we snuck out and hid behind the bar. The people were in two distinct groups now. The wait staff, some very confused dignitaries, and the Talmax goons’ dates (did they really think it was proper to invite a date to a massacre?) were all huddled together. I recognized one of my senators among them. In the middle of it all was Rei. She was on her knees, hair scattered across her face. Her make-up was running, and she looked and sounded petrified. Three women were huddled around Rei, trying to calm her. I smirked. It was pretty good cover. No one ever pays attention to the hysterical chick. Carrera stood in conference with eight other men in tuxedoes. His mages, I presumed. He was tapping his foot impatiently when two more men came running up from downstairs. “Report,” Carrera demanded in Spanish. “Some sort of raiding party, general. We caught them chipping away at the core. They translocated before we could capture them.” “ICE?” he asked. “No, sir. It was the strangest thing. They all looked…young.” Carrera rubbed his brow. “Was anything damaged?” “The core was hit by some gunfire, but it remains intact. It will function as intended.” Carrera turned to another mage. “Carlos, how goes Salt Lake?” Carlos was the one Jules had talked to. We were pretty sure he was Carrera’s lieutenant. He smiled and put down his cell phone. “Wonderfully, general. We’re still sending waves of mercenaries at them. The defenders have barricaded themselves in the temple. We are still decoding the messages, but it appears the Nortes’ hierarchy is preparing to evacuate.” I tensed. Did Carlos just say they were decoding our messages? Shit. Shit. Shit. Applause erupted from one of the observatory windows. Anna rose from her perch on the windowsill. Crud. She was just like Rei. I hadn’t even sensed her presence. “Fabulous work, general,” Anna said. “Congratulations to you all. The Treaty is nearing its end.” “This was not done for your benefit, sucia.” Carrera didn’t bother to mask his disgust. “It is to right a wrong, to correct an abomination in our shared history. I don’t give a damn about the treaty you signed with the Nortes. It wasn’t their territory to begin with. Now, I’ve permitted you to observe, but you shall stand aside and remain silent.” Anna grinned. “But of course, general. I wouldn’t dream of it.” Carrera checked his watch. “Let’s move to the deck. We need to get started.” He turned to the two from before. “And I don’t want any more interruptions. Tell Olaph to close the stairs.” Ms. Curray and I watched silently as Carrera’s men headed up the stairwell to the deck above. Anna paused. She walked over to the group of hostages. I tensed. If Rei’s cover was blown, I was in no position to stop them. “That one,” Anna cooed. She pointed to a woman standing on the fringe of the group. The woman let out a scream, but Hans snatched her by the hair. I flinched. Despite being so small, Hans handled the woman with ease. I watched as he dragged her up the stairs. Rei was safe—she was busy crying into the arms of my councilwoman—but what about the other hostage? Before I could make up my mind, the spiral staircases began to move. With the humming sound of hidden machinery, the metal structures folded up on themselves. They were like airplane landing gear. A metallic clunking sound replaced the hum, and I watched in amazement as giant steel disks swiveled to cover the openings. The disks clinked into place like bank vault doors. I looked around desperately. It wasn’t much of a stretch to assume that the rest of the roof was similarly armored. Now, the only access point was the single bay of elevators at the building’s core, and I was willing to bet that there was some serious firepower waiting for anyone who decided to take a ride up. I shook my head. How much did a system like that cost? “Okay,” Ms. Curray whispered, “your story is sounding a bit more plausible now.” “What do you say I get you and those hostages down an elevator?” She looked at me skeptically. “You can call the cops once you get down.” She rolled her eyes. “Uh…you can call your editor?” “Fine. I can’t file a story if I’m stuck in a tin can, anyways. But how are you going to manage that?” “A diversion, of course. Just sit tight, okay?” She nodded. There were two men armed with snub-nosed machine guns guarding the thirty or so people left in the restaurant. I looked at the gunmen. They stood stiffly, and all their attention was focused on the hostages. So they’d been wiped too…wipes guaranteed their loyalty but cramped their initiative. I thought back to that stunt-double I created at Elliot. It was a majorly lame trick, but the gunman had been so focused on terminating his target (me) that he’d failed to consider subterfuge. I bit my thumbnail. Maybe I could exploit that same weakness now. If I became their target, they probably wouldn’t notice Rei’s movements. The only question was whether I could last long enough. My father and his gun-nut friends used to debate the merits of the submachine guns those guys were toting. My dad said they lacked stopping power. A single round might not even bring a man down. That’s why my father and his friends preferred something in the .40 caliber range. A .40 caliber bullet would punch a fist-sized hole in you. In comparison, submachine gun bullets were relatively weak. Fortifying my clothing could probably shield the first few rounds—but Rei would have to act fast. Submachine guns made up for their lack of power by throwing out rounds by the dozen. Given enough time, those two would shred me like Parmesan cheese. I peered around the corner of the bar. Rei had already maneuvered closer to the guards. Behind all the smeared mascara were two not-so-despondent eyes. I felt a tug at my core. The weft-link was calling out to me. I could sense the speeding pace of Rei’s heart, the tension rising up the length of her forearms, the need to hack and slash. She knew I was out there. She was just waiting for a sign. We were on the tip of a wave. Violence and death were tugging. The thoughtless Zen that came with them beckoned. I shook my head. Stupid. I reminded myself of the hostages. I needed to stay focused. Ms. Curray and I were far from the windows. We were in the darkest part of the room. The goons were minding their prisoners, their backs turned to the bar. It was the perfect time to get Rei’s attention. I wiggled my hand in the air. Rei caught the motion in an instant. She grinned through her faux tears. I didn’t even need to explain what I had planned. She just sorta knew. I had to admit that—bloodlust aside—the link was kinda cool. I took a deep breath. You’d think getting shot at once would toughen you up for the next time. Nope. Ignorance is bliss. This time was worse. Still, I couldn’t think of any other way. I told myself I had Rei. I told myself that I could trust her to be fast enough. And I casted an anti-kinetic fortification before my nerves got the best of me. From behind the bar, I grabbed a tray, put a bottle of seltzer on top, and snagged the bartender’s Walkman. I stuck the headphones in my ears, took a deep breath, and pumped up the volume. A Beetles tune blasted into my ears. I smirked. If God did exist, he had a sense of humor. Clearing my throat, I set off to deliver some drinks. “Help,” I sang, “I need somebody.” The guards swung towards me. “Help—not just anybody.” The first round zipped by my forehead. “Help—you know I need someone.” People started screaming. “Help me get my feet back on the ground.” The seltzer bottle exploded in my face. Fizz sprayed everywhere. “Rei, hurry the fuck up!” I screamed, my eyes agog. Two flashes of heat cut into my side. The bullets were finding their marks. My fortification took the brunt of it, but the spell was already crumbling. Abandoning my tray, I dove to the ground. “Rei!” I screamed. A slashing burn ripped below my left ear. My flesh screamed in protest. Belatedly, I recalled that the fortification only worked on my clothes—my head was fair game. All pretenses of dignity gone, I curled up into a ball and pointed my butt at my foes. I went to scream, but my chest had constricted in fear. Two more rounds thudded into my rear. All I could do was shelter my skull as the carpet around me turned to confetti. I thought I was gonna void my bladder. The barrage of gunfire was interrupted by two loud snaps. “Dieter,” Rei said, “these days you are not so self-assured. It is most disappointing.” She cocked her head and peered at my upright ass. “Then again, your abject terror does have its…perks.” I would have given Rei credit for her much-improved snark, but she was holding two men like rag dolls. Their heads were resting on their shoulders. My councilwoman started screaming. Rei turned to look at her. “Come now, Maurine. These,” she shook the limp bodies, “are evildoers.” The hostages were not encouraged by the mascara-smeared demon’s lecture. They scrambled away from Rei as fast as they could. Rei sighed and dropped the corpses to the ground. “Well, I appreciate you being around,” I said, nursing the growing welts on my keister. “Although you could have done it a few bullets sooner.” “Apologies, I broke a heel.” I looked at my watch. We were running short on time. Pressing the elevator call button, I cupped my mouth: “Anyone who doesn’t want to be in the same room as the psychopath—this way now!” The hostages scrambled over top of one another to reach the elevator. Rei gave me a brutal look before turning her attention to the guards’ possessions. Ms. Curray walked over to me in her soggy dress. She looked a bit pale, but was staring at Rei in fascination. She leaned over and whispered into my ear, “I can’t believe it. They do exist.” “And they do have feelings,” Rei grumbled. She didn’t bother looking up. She was busy counting grenades. Ms. Curray looked at me surprise. “How on earth did she hear me?” “You ain’t getting any more quotes out of me, lady. Now skedaddle. And please set off some fire alarms on your way out. We don’t want anyone left below the tower after midnight.” “No problem. But, Resnick, don’t you go dying on me. I expect an interview later.” I sighed. Ms. Curray was going to get me torched. “Resnick…” Ms. Curray scrunched up her nose in thought. “You’re not…undead, are you?” I rolled my eyes. She smiled. “Just wanted to make sure.” She leaned over and gave me a peck on the cheek. “Good luck, Resnick.” “Ma’am,” I said, blushing. Rei stomped her foot as the fleeing humans pushed onto the elevator. “Excuse me! What about me? I have silenced the bad men, have I not?” Someone coughed. “Hello?” The elevator door shut on their very wide eyes. “Rei, you’re just not a people person,” I said walking over to her. “And they’re gonna be wiped anyway, right?” I knelt down next to her and helped strip the ammo vest off one of the dead dudes. “Dieter,” she said uneasily. “Could you back away, please?” “Relax,” I said with a chuckle. “I’m not gonna pull a pin or anything.” I tugged at the straps. “Dang, this bandoleer is tangled. Haven’t these guys ever heard of Velcro?” Out of the corner of my eye I saw Rei clench her fists. I looked up at her. Her whole body was shaking. “Your neck,” she managed. A wave of prickles danced down my spine. I felt below my ear. It was soaked with blood from the gunshot. Rei swallowed. Her pupils had blown as wide as saucepans. “Right. Sure. No problem,” I said abandoning my effort. “I’ll go clean up.” I hustled off to the restroom and didn’t dare look back. Rei didn’t wait. She bit into the first corpse as I rushed away. More like an incision my ass. + I washed out my wound in the sink. It was just a graze—the bullet’s friction had done a decent job of sealing it—but I made extra certain to remove all the dried blood. (No point in being a tease.) I looked up at my reflection and let out a puff of air. We had evacuated the innocents. We had gotten our proof. But one question remained: Should we go after the six initiates or just let Sadie blow the tower? Part of me wanted to bolt. What were Rei and I gonna do against a coven full of mages with mercenaries and trolls backing them up? Our job was to get our proof and get out. We were supposed to leave the rest to the ICE. We had met and exceeded our objectives, but a dying girl had begged me to storm up there and save her sister. I frowned. I didn’t even know if her sister was still alive. This wasn’t a call I could make alone. Rei and I needed to talk this over. She was finishing up when I arrived. Puddles of red had soaked through the carpet. “Feeling better?” I asked tentatively. She stood up and shook out her hair. When she looked at me, her eyes were grey but lazy. “You have no conception.” She wiped her mouth off on the back of her hand. “Cool,” I managed. Rei was a sight. Mussed up makeup and a face-full of blood. I didn’t even bother to look at her snacks. How you extracted blood out of dead men was beyond me; Rei must have gotten inventive. I walked straight past them and looked out the window. Thousands of tiny dots mingled about below. Revelers were getting warmed up for this night’s festivities down the entire length of the strip. A bout of vertigo took me, and I was forced to look away. “So what do we do now?” I asked. “Pardon?” Rei asked, covering a burp. She looked confused. “I mean, do we go after Carrera or just let Sadie blow the thing? I promised that girl I would find her sister—but you didn’t, Rei. I’ll understand if you want to call it a night. You did everything Albright asked. Your job is done.” “Have you not been listening to the radio? Sadie Thompson is not reporting in. We are all that is left.” “What?” I exclaimed. “My radio started screeching when the lights went out.” “Indeed, mine as well.” Rei pulled off one of the men’s jackets and wiped off her face. “It was rather annoying.” My jaw dropped. “The speaker was screaming in your ear this whole time?” “The noise ceased when Carrera and his men ascended above us.” She tossed the used jacket on its owner’s head and shrugged. “I have recovered.” “Is Ichijo okay? Is the ICE going to intervene?” Rei’s lips drew into taught lines. “Fukimura-san was shot in the gut. The Druid managed to stop the bleeding, but his condition remains grave. Lieutenant Dante delivered our evidence to the ICE reps. They confirmed that the ACT is indeed contraband from beyond the frame, but Monique fears they will arrive too late to avert the reaping.” “What the hell, I thought there was a team ready to go?” “The assault on the Salt Lake leynode has the international community in an uproar. There are running street battles in downtown Salt Lake. The ICE is more concerned about information control.” “Stars above,” I groaned. “Indeed.” I fished the radio out of my pants and stuck the device back in my ear. “Thank God,” Monique said over the comm. “We were listening to the shuffling of your pants for the past fifteen minutes.” I swallowed. Thank goodness that was all they heard. If they had heard what I told Ms. Curray… “Um, sorry about that. What do you want us to do, captain?” The question was met with silence. I shook my head. “Monique is freezing up again, isn’t she?” “I believe the captain is past that, Dieter.” Rei reloaded the two submachine guns. She went through the motions with the same fluid creepiness as my dad. “Did hurling plaster at Monique grant you some sort of insight?” Rei shrugged. “We bonded.” “No, you shaved her head.” Rei rolled her eyes. “Would you prefer we do one another’s nails while watching mind-numbing romantic comedies?” She handed me a gun. “You have thirty rounds. I’ve set the weapon to fire three rounds with every trigger pull. Aim low. The muzzle kicks upwards as the rounds fire.” She frowned. “You are holding it too far out. Nestle the stock in the pocket of your shoulder.” “I’ve never used one.” Rei looked surprised. “So Picasso’s son cannot paint…” She smiled. “Very well. If you survive, I shall give you private lessons.” Monique clicked in: “Dieter, Rei, I’m sorry, but I need you to get up to the observation deck and set up a translocation circle. We still can’t raise Sadie on the radio. We can’t count on her to blow the tower. An ICE assault team is en-route, but they’re cutting it tight. We have to buy time. Lambda is going to have to conduct an assault.” Rei mimed an I-told-you-so. I stuck out my tongue. She motioned to bite it. “Captain,” I asked, “did you just order us to kick ass and chew bubble gum?” “Hell yea, baby,” Roster replied. “I finally get to see your bitch ass in motion. Last one to five thugs has to score us some beer.” “Deal. We’ll radio when we are in position to set up the circle.” I took a deep breath. “Okay,” I said to myself. “We can do this.” I looked up at the ceiling. “Hold the phone, kumpadre. How the heck do we get through a foot of concrete?” Rei smiled. “Through? Dieter, you are thinking too linear. We go around it.” “What?” “Be honored. I’m going to give you a piggy-back ride.” I glanced out the window and put two and two together. “No way,” I said backing up. “Dieter, phobias are to be overcome. Hop on my back.” “You can lift both of us?” She crossed her arms and cocked her head. “I know, I know. This is the part where you say: ‘Dieter, my most misinformed compatriot, do not doubt my power. I am not some lowly catacomb cat. I am a Pure. Tremble at my potency.’” Rei nodded in agreement. Cursing the day I was born, I strapped my new death stick onto my back. “Let’s get this over with.” Tapping a finger against her chin, Rei nodded to herself. “Roster was correct. I do see the resemblance. However, you are a bit taller—and you have more hair—and you are still wearing shoes.” “Huh?” “My sisters and I loved the part where he ran across the broken glass.” Rei touched a finger to her lips. “And that scene in the bathroom was most—” “Stow the Bruce Willis fantasy session, will you? And speaking of your sister, what the hell is the Duchess of Whatever doing here anyway?” “Meddling.” I opened my mouth, but Rei gave me the don’t-you-dare-ask-me-about-internal-Bathory-affairs glare. I put my hands up. “I get it, family business and whatnot, but Rei, if Anna tears my head off, I’m holding you personally responsible.” The air popped, and the color drained from Rei’s eyes. “She shall not touch you.” I took a step backward. Rei’s voice was as cold as ice. “You aren’t hers.” The greed couched in her tone…This was not the girl I knew. This was an entirely different person, pleonexic to the core. But the moment passed, the tension in the air released, and her features returned to normal. “Now stop stalling,” she cooed. It was like she’d come out of a trance. “It’s piggyback time. Hop on Aunty Rei’s back.” + Rei bashed the window with a chair until it shattered. I watched the shards began their thirtysecond journey back to planet Earth and yelped like a schoolgirl as the pressure change caused air to gust out into the night. Rei grabbed me by the collar before I could flee. I had every reason to run. The whole damn thing slanted outwards. Who the hell slants windows that are three-hundred-and-fifty meters above the Earth’s surface? “Take all the blood you want!” I pleaded. “Maybe later.” She patted her back. “Hop on.” “I want Albright to tear up that damn contract right now!” “My most acrophobic sidekick, you are immune to wipes. The Department would have to puddle your diminutive brain before they released you…which is equivalent to the worst outcome of this adventure.” I frowned. She had a point. “Did you just call me the sidekick? I’m not the sidekick. You’re the sidekick.” I jumped on her back and clung like a baby koala. “Advance, my minion.” “Goodness, you are fat,” she lamented. I had second thoughts, but before I could bolt, Rei leapt out the window and snatched hold of the window frame with a single hand. We swung out in a gut-wrenching arch. The metal groaned, but Rei’s grip held firm. I started shivering uncontrollably, but I had to admit it was amazing. We were hanging off a building, dangling from a 45-degree ledge, gust after gust was knocking into us, but Rei wasn’t even breaking a sweat. I frowned. I wasn’t sure if Rei could sweat. Hand-over-hand, she began a slow climb up the thin windowsill. Each grip change left bent metal in its wake. “Holy crap,” I muttered. I reminded myself to never declare a thumb war. “Do not pee on the dress, sidekick,” Rei ordered. “It is a Gar Vanderlik original.” “Yes, ma’am,” I managed. We made good progress in the next five minutes. Rei was breathing hard, but her pace wasn’t slowing. The steady pace of her hands buoyed my confidence. It looked like a kersplatting wasn’t in the cards. Relieved, I started to perk up. Then I did something extraordinarily stupid: I looked down. A swirl of bright lights greeted my vision. The massive hotels glimmered like tiny models. The merrymakers milled about like ants. My head spun. My vision whirled. I didn’t dare say anything, but I was teetering on the edge of a full-blown panic attack. I imagined the gun dangling from my back slipping off and plummeting to the ground. I imagined the hard metal shattering into a million pieces on the asphalt below. I saw my own grip falter. Felt my own body do the same. My heart racing, I gripped Rei more tightly and buried my face in her hair. The familiar smell of lavender helped stave off the freak out. Rei stopped climbing. “Dieter!” She gasped. “You’re squeezing my…” I ignored her. The scent of lavender was comforting. So was the perfect, hand-sized pillow my left hand was holding. It was soft and tender on the outside, but nice and firm at the center. I felt a tiny pebble growing inside my palm. “Dieter!” she squealed. “Stop it! That really hurts!” Blood rushed to my head. Boob. I was holding onto Rei’s boob… “Sorry!” Rei was going to kill me. I released my grip, and my Sight sparked to life. It actually took a few moments before I realized I was falling. I was grabbing at the air for about the third time when the ocean of silver shrapnel greeted me. Death. It was all around me. Impatient for its prize, it overloaded my Sight. The blades raked against my skin, caressed my hair, and whispered with delight. I could hardly believe it; this was all happening so fast. I didn’t want to be eaten. I didn’t want to be swallowed. But my body was already on its final trajectory. There was nothing more I could do. And it all felt so wrong. There was so much to see. Questions I never asked. Feelings I never explored. I didn’t want to fall. I didn’t want to lose her hand. And so you won’t, my child. I would find out later that the thing had been waiting for my call. It guided my hand upward. I reached out into the void for the hand that fit mine all too well. The silver blades screamed in fury, and the world popped once again. And then I heard her voice... No…not like this. Not after finally finding him: Someone who sees me. Someone who needs me. A person that’s so warm. A person that fills the emptiness. A person that asks for nothing but me in return. That soft hand. That easy walk. That sad smile…I want this one. He shall not fall. I shall not allow it… Rei’s voice and a strange world of white… I’ll slaughter the whole world before I… Nothing but white… Pain. Bátor’s Ghost, there’s so much pain… The rush of wind against my face… But I feel his weight… Her hand, satin smooth… I have to climb… The brush of silk against my skin… Almost there. Almost there… Gentle…so soft… I must. The top. The top. The top. Not alone. Not again. But the world is so white… Just like when I… Just like when Dieter…when he… The link…Rei’s using the… Oh, fasz kivan! + A full moon filled the sky over my head. I wasn’t falling anymore. I felt my body to make sure it was still there. This wasn’t supposed to be. I should’ve been dead, but there hadn’t been any splatter. No sayonara, Dieter Resnick. Instead, I was lying on a slab of concrete, my feet dangling below me. I urged my body up and looked down. I was sitting on a 350-meter tall bench. Terrified, I dragged myself away from the ledge of the building until I ran smack into a wall. My senses returning, I spotted Rei. She was lying near me. Unconscious. Everything below her waist was dangling off the side. A surge of adrenaline got me moving. I scrambled over and pulled her away from the edge. Satisfied she was safe, I wiped dried blood from my nose. I felt spent. Exhausted. I leaned against the wall and took stock. We were on the wrong side of a safety barrier, a good four feet below the main deck. This was the very edge of the tower. Nothing but a thin ledge with a bunch of mechanical equipment. A/C units and the like. I counted my blessings. This ledge was probably only accessed for maintenance. The lighting was poor, and there was excellent cover. As quietly as I could, I grabbed hold of the top of the wall and pulled myself up. There was a ton of activity up on the observation deck. Talmax mages were milling about, working at the perimeter of an array. It was monstrous. The darn thing had pentagrams inside its pentagrams. I spotted Carrera at the middle of it. He was on top of the platform that housed the crazy drop tower ride. He was directing the efforts of the other mages. I counted ten of them in all, plus about twenty others: a dozen or so gunmen; Anna and her henchmen; a group of seven men that looked exactly like the two Rei had faced in New York; and in the center of it all—being led towards the large obelisk— were six of my fellow Elliot initiatives. The strain of holding myself up was getting to be too much. I let myself back down and checked my watch. We only had half an hour left till midnight, and Rei was out cold. She looked paler than a ghost. Not even her lips bore any color. And Rei’s beautiful dress was in absolute mess; I must have torn the back of it when I fell. I cursed. My stupid phobia had almost gotten us both killed. Thank goodness Rei had somehow managed to catch me. I shook my head at it. What incredible strength it must have taken to manage that climb with only one free hand—and she had already been straining to lift the two of us. There was a moment back there were my Sight told me I was going to die. Then there was that blinding whiteness and that odd sensation of warmth. I couldn’t explain any of it, but whatever Rei had done, she had managed to save my life yet again. I took off my suit jacket and wrapped it around her. Buttoning the front, I chuckled. A smirk was plastered across Rei’s face. Typical. I’d worry about piecing together what happened later. We had a reaping to avert. I checked my pants pocket. It was cracked, but the chalk was still there. I clicked on my earpiece and reported in: “Captain, we’ve reached the observation deck. Rei’s out cold, but I’m okay. Talmax has got about thirty people up here. I count Carrera plus his ten mages, about a dozen guards, and seven of those big guys we encountered in New York—oh, and there are a few Nostophoros playing for the opposing team.” Monique let out a curse. “Roger. What about those kidnapped students?” “Guarded at gunpoint. And, captain, they’re being…” I peered over the barrier again. “Captain, you’re not going to believe this. Carrera is strapping them into that ride.” “Excuse me?” “That drop tower thingy. The one that goes up and down the obelisk. Those Talmax guys are locking them into the harnesses. I count six total.” I re-examined the perimeter. “Carrera’s covenmates are working on a mondo array. I can’t make heads-or-tails of it. The symbols are way too complicated.” “The big ones always are,” Jules chimed in. I let out a sigh. It was good to hear Jules’ voice. “Dieter. Carrera may be plannin’ on usin’ the initiates as some sort of catalyst. Remember how I said that ACT acts as a Ki center?” “Yea.” “To attract mana using a Ki, ya need ta spin some starter mana around it. He might be usin’ the grubs as catalysts to set off his reapin’. Dieter, we absolutely cannot allow Carrera ta start the cast. Once that array fires up, I think the initiates are done for.” Human catalysts? Stars above…“Got it,” I replied. “Okay then, Dieter. I’m goin’ ta walk ya through some sketches, okay?” “Roger, Jules. Lecture away.” It was time to call in the cavalry and end this shit. + “So, like an ‘S’ but more boxy?” I asked. “That it is. And be sure to notch those edges—otherwise you’re gonna invert the spectrum and spray us all over the desert.” My eye twitched involuntarily. “Okay, got it,” I said, chalking out the last part of the translocation circle. This particular circle was way above my pay grade, but I had an above-average tutor talking me through it. Finished, I pushed in the slightest bit of mana to form the seal. Volume control wasn’t an issue. I barely had enough mana to get the job done. “Alright. It’s set,” I said wiping my brow. Even spending that little bit was physically taxing. “Good work, me apprentice. Ya get an A if we arrive with all our pieces prim and proper.” I scratched my head. “About that. If you guys just gate in—” Monique clicked in: “It’ll cause too much of a ruckus and we’ll just get chewed up by gunfire. Can you manage one of your diversions?” I looked around. We were on the westernmost edge of the tower. If I stayed on the dark perimeter ledge, I could probably make it to the southern side of the tower unnoticed. I told Lambda to wait for my signal and got ready move out, but then I realized I had another problem. Rei’s body was still as limp as a ragdoll. She was snoring peacefully, but I couldn’t just leave her here. If the rest of Lambda gated in, Rei would be snoring in the line of fire. After hemming and hawing, I decided I would have to take her with me. I hefted her onto my back and got my arms under her legs. With a huff, I started treading around the perimeter. I could hear the music, shouts, and the cheers echoing up from below. The booze must have been really flowing. No surprise, really. Las Vegas had made New Year’s Eve the event. They gave you all the drinking, partying, dancing, and gambling you could ever want compressed into the span of a few crazy nights. Big gamblers flew in from around the world to be lavished with amazing year-end dinners. Half of California drove in to party through the weekend. Famous entertainers sang. World-class chefs diced, sliced, and broiled. Extra strippers flew in from the East Coast. New Years Eve was the busiest night of the year—and it was about to become infamous. No one below knew about the other clock ticking away. No one knew about Carrera’s plan. I wondered if Ms. Curray had managed to get away. I hoped she had. I wasn’t so sure we could stop it. Reaching the South side of the building, I found a large AC unit humming away. I looked at Rei’s sleeping face. She looked peaceful. Content. Rei looked almost human when she slept. Maybe it was because she was so vulnerable. My jaw tightened. There was no way I was leaving Rei out in the open, but there was no way I could get her off the tower, either. So I did the best thing I could think of. I set her down and dragged her underneath. Stowing Rei under an AC unit wasn’t glamorous, but it was the safest place I could think of. I looked out across the valley. If Carrera won—if we all died tonight—no one would find her. She’d be protected from the sun in the morning. I felt relieved by that thought, like a boulder of worry had been lifted off my shoulders. Rei safely hidden, I continued around the tower. I ran to the east-most point—the spot directly opposite to the first circle I drew—and knelt down to prepare another. It was time to catch some attention, and I knew just how to do it. I sketched out the three circles of a trefoil and began the process of sending mana into them. Pushing in the mana was incredibly hard. By the time I had started on the third, I was sweating heavily and spots were forming on my vision. It was like the finish of a hard run. I had to push myself through it. Circles charged, I prepared the transmutations. I was on the second when I sensed someone was approaching. My heart sped. They were coming around the perimeter from the northern side. I fumbled for the gun strapped to my back and pointed it into the darkness. I checked the safety and repeated Rei’s instructions: Three shot bursts. Aim low. It will kick up as you shoot. I cursed my nerves. My hands were shaking badly. “Dieter?” a female voice whispered. “It’s me, Dieter. Don’t shoot.” I strained my eyes. “Is that you, Sadie?” I asked. “Yeppers,” she answered. I could see her creeping towards me. “I got separated during the extraction. Lost my radio too. Freakin’ crapper of a night, man. Thank God I found you.” The tension went out of my shoulders. Damn, it was a relief to see her. “How the heck did you get up here?” “Same way you did. Up the side. Freaky as hell.” A gust of wind buffeted our bodies. Reflexively, I grabbed hold of a support beam. Sadie wasn’t as shaky. She swept the hair from her face with her gloved right hand. The fingers of the hand remained motionless, the result of that terrible burn. I was recalling the terrible smell of her scorched flesh when my nose pricked—the air stunk of sulfur. “So what’s the plan?” she asked. “Are we still gonna blow this bitch?” She looked around. “Where’s Rei? Didn’t she make it?” “Rei?” I muttered. Sulfur. What had Rei said about sulfur? As if by instinct, a firm metal shutter latched shut inside me. “I don’t know. I lost track of Rei.” I looked up at Sadie. Her robe was in perfect shape. There wasn’t a scratch on her. She looked as good as new…except for that paralyzed right hand. “Sadie,” I asked, my shoulders tensing, “how’d you manage to climb up here?” She smiled. “Why Hans helped me, of course.” I turned right into the punch. Chapter 19 IT’S A TRAP I spit out the blood filling my mouth and shook my head clear. “You hit like a girl, Hans.” He did actually (well, one girl in particular). “Oh, hush, magus. We’ve just started our relationship and you’re already hurting my feelings.” Hans was dragging me across the deck by the collar of my shirt. I struggled to free my hands but found they were bound tightly behind me. Felt like Zip-ties. “Like we would allow you to cast freely after our yeoman’s report. A Dealer…what a rare and delicious treat.” Hans was smiling like a kid in a candy shop. Unfortunately for me, I was the candy. “We’ve been looking for one of you for so long—and here you were right under our nose. No warts on you, either! Do you have any idea your value?” Sadie was following us. She was sporting a green cloak I’d never seen before. I spit out another mouthful of blood and glared at her. “Why? Why the fuck are you doing this? Stars above, Sadie, they killed your parents!” Sadie smiled and shook her head. “Incorrecto, Dieto. The fam is right over there.” She gestured to her right. A man and woman in matching green cloaks stood off to the side in conference with Carrera. They were Sadie’s parents, all right. I recognized them from her dorm room pictures—but Sadie’s dad had always worn a beard. I blinked twice. No wonder. Sadie’s dad had scars on both his cheeks, two enormous brands, actually. Both were in the shape of the letter D. “D-shaped brands,” I muttered. Everything in my over-libraried brain fell into place. I had made a classic Imperiti mistake: My time scale was off. I looked back at Sadie. “Stars above. Those brands…your father was a member of the Batallón San Patricio?” Sadie looked surprised. “Spot on, Dieter.” A slight smile crept across her face. “That’s my star pupil for ya. Thompson is my mother’s name. My pa’s name is Riley. Albright must have had you doing some extra reading. You know who John Riley is, dontcha?” I looked up at the moon-drenched sky. John Riley? I knew all about John Riley. His story was a huge chunk of Carrera’s book. John Riley was the leader of the Batallón San Patricio, a group of Irish immigrants forced into service by the U.S. Government during the Mexican-American War. Being Catholics, they were treated terribly by their Protestant superiors. They got fed up and decided to desert and join their fellow Catholics on the Mexican side. By all accounts, they fought valiantly throughout the war, but during the same battle that Carrera had lost his brother to, the Batallón San Patricio’s positions were overrun. As Mexico City fell, every last one of John Riley’s men was hung in front of him. But the U.S. generals didn’t kill John Riley. They branded both of his cheeks with D’s for desertion, lashed him for a full day in front of his dangling men, and then handed him back to Mexico. Not our most shining moment. “Stars above,” I managed. “Rights, Dieto. And might I just say you’ve been one serious pain in the ass. I spend a whole year cracking Elliot’s defenses only to have you screw the whole operation at the last second. Do you have any idea how long it took to learn how to do a frameshift? It was a freakin’ perfect one too. I was about to toast the entire faculty before they could launch a single cast—and Kit was about to get the TNT-kiss he so royally deserved—but you had to stumble in and wreck everything.” She kicked my boot and tsk-tsked me. “And after my ma and pa did such an awesome job leveling Portland’s academy. Do you have any idea how embarrassing that was?” Sadie itched her hands through her gloves. “I even lost my temper.” Not paying much heed to Sadie’s tirade, Hans flung me into a lawn chair and checked the state of my Zip-ties. A thorough one, this Hans. I glared at Sadie. Her spiky black hair was its usual frosted perfection—but her smile was all wrong. Something was bothering her. “Are you out of your mind? How many innocent people have you and your family killed?” “Sorry, Dieter, but I’m afraid the body count is slanted a bit in the direction of the US of A. We’re just evening the score a bit.” “A bit?” I spat. “A bit? What about the drugs? How many people are dead because of the drugs?” “Really, Dieter?” Sadie shook her head. “You children of privilege are all the same. Carrera ain’t forcing them down anyone’s throat. He merely offers. Your people buy. Letting America destroy itself? That seems pretty fair to me.” “Fair?” I looked over at the glowing array. “You’re about to sacrifice thousands of innocent people! What’s fair about that?” “That’s not my fault!” she boomed. For a single second, I caught a whiff of doubt. “There’s no other —” “You are mistaken, Young Master Resnick,” a silken voice interrupted. “This reaping is the epitome of fair. I do believe it’s nearly the same amount of natives Fremont spent in order to seal the Great Western Flow in the first place. And your dear Kit did nothing to stop him. Or should I say, your dear Albright.” My head was spinning. Kit? As in Kit Carson? In the early 1840’s, Kit Carson and John Fremont mapped trails to the Pacific Ocean for the U.S. Government. Two streets in Las Vegas were named after them. They had passed right through here on their way to the ocean. I thought for a moment. The book! The book Albright had given me was addressed to Kit. Stars above, was that what Albright was trying to tell me? Were the restraints the Department placed on him somehow related to this? A whimper distracted me. I looked across the table to find Anna Bathory sitting with a meal in her lap. It was the woman Hans had snatched. Blood dripped from the nape of her neck. She looked at me in desperation. Trey stood to Anna’s right. He was gnawing on a candy bar. He looked totally indifferent to the woman’s pleas. I guess it was just another day in the office. Sadie knelt down in front of me and wiped the matted hair off my face. She looked…tired. “Dieter, when Fremont dammed the flow of mana coursing into Mexico, it crippled my country. Countless thousands have died. Destroying the Flow threw off the mojo of the entire region. Commerce faltered. Social cohesion broke down.” She gave me a sad smile. “Thanks to Fremont and Carson, my childhood was a living hell. Dieter, do you have any idea what its like to be a magus without access to a leyline?” “Sure.” I’d grown up without a leyline too. “It wasn’t so bad.” “You barely have any mana to call your own. The rest of us? We’re tasty treats.” “And nutritious!” Hans replied. “South of the border, every last thing that goes bump in the night is hunting us. My baby brother is dead, Dieter. Dead because I couldn’t muster a simple hex. In the States I could have roasted that Were with my eyes closed.” Trey chuckled. “And it’s all because Fremont decided to intervene in the Imperiti world. Everyone knows it’s true. He dammed the flow and doomed us all. But tonight we’re gonna finally set things right.” Sadie paused to listen to the conversation going on in her ear. I grimaced. She was still monitoring our radios. “Duty Calls, Dieter. I have to set up for Lambda. I’ll be leaving you with the Duchess.” I flexed against the plastic ties, but they only cut further into my flesh. Seething, I grunted and tried harder. How many people had Sadie killed? And her parents, they had liquidated an entire DOMA campus. Men, women, and children—all dead. Two hundred years worth of injustice or not, these crazies had to be stopped. How many of my friends from High School were down on the Strip right now, waiting tables, serving drinks, or sweeping up. What had they done to deserve this? What had they ever done but try and scrape by? “Sadie!” I shouted. “You’ll pay for this. Do you hear me? I will make you pay.” “Doubtful, Dieter,” she said walking away. “Enjoy the overhaul. I’m sure you’ll see the world differently in the morning.” “Sadie!” I screamed. I wanted to tear out her throat with my bare hands. “Shhhh,” Anna said, placing a finger over her bloodied lips. The once trembling woman was nestling in Anna’s lap. Blood rushed in surges out of her opened neck. “Now, now, my little magus, you’re an interesting one. Do you have any idea how rare you are? My sister should have claimed you on sight—but then again, wide-eyed idiocy is her most endearing trait.” The woman in Anna’s lap began to shiver as more and more blood rushed out of her. Anna smiled and ran her fingers through her hair. I recognized the motion. She’d done the same to Rei. “Oh well, little sister’s loss is my gain. With you, I’ll be able to accelerate my plans by months. He’ll be a fine pet, don’t you agree, Hans?” I had no idea what Anna was talking about. I didn’t really care. My only concern was Lambda. On the other side of the building, gunmen were setting up. Their heavy weapons were pointed at the chalk circle I’d carefully drawn and primed. I didn’t dare look left and give away Rei’s position. She was still hidden under huge AC unit, but I couldn’t sense her through the link. She was probably still unconscious. I sagged into the yellow lawn chair. We were all fucked. “Can I turn him now, Anna?” Hans inquired. “Can you smell the rage in him? This little one makes me quiver.” Anna reclined in her seat and turned her attention to Carrera’s efforts. “Do it,” she said. Not cool, man. I strained against the plastic wrapped around my wrists, gnashed my teeth and forced past the pain. Blood trickled through my fingers as the plastic cut straight to the bone. They wouldn’t yield. In desperation, I tried summoning forth mana, but my tank was empty. Setting up those circles had spent the last of it. “Damn it,” I growled. Dante had grown up near vampire territory. Based on the creepy shit he’d told me in the evenings, if Anna or one of her brood ‘turned’ me, she would have me in her thrall. No matter how resistant to mental control I was, I would be beholden to her will. It would be the end of me. Dieter Resnick would cease to exist. The product would be unidentifiable. Yes, the new creature would have my skills and memories, but it would have an entirely new agenda. I thought back to those monsters feeding in the condo and nearly gagged. I would be hers. My will would be stolen. I would turn on my own kind—even turn on my friends. A terrible image flashed into my mind: Jules lay under my weight, screaming as I tore into her neck. I would drain her dry. I wouldn’t even care. My heart raced as Hans approached. His serrated canines gleamed in the moonlight, and I roared in frustration. He merely smiled—and tore open his own palm. I shivered. So that’s how it was done. I had to ingest it. Hans leaned over me. “Say, ah,” he ordered. I jammed my mouth shut and twisted away from the blue-tinged blood pattering onto my cheeks. Hans merely grabbed hold of my jaw, arched my head, and forced my mouth back open. I spit out what I could, but with each gasp I took, the delicious poison spread further and further into my system. And it was delicious. It was the greatest thing I’d ever tasted. Hans firmed his grip, forcing more down my throat. His blood filled my gut with warmth. I could feel it forcing its way through me, but all my body did was clamor for more of it. As the warmth stretched passed my elbows, I gave into despair. My friends were going to die. My city was going to die. My soul was lost. They would turn me and use me. I had failed utterly. My thoughts turned ever darker. I told myself that if only I had more power, if only I had the strength to resist the change, I would turn them all to ash. I would level the entire tower. I would make this unjust world cry out for mercy. I made absurd promise after absurd promise, closed my eyes, and wished them so. I wished with every ounce of my being—and yet again, something inside me tore. Despair not, my child. “It’s you again,” I grumbled. It wasn’t a whisper anymore. It was a full-blooded voice. Everything is fine, my child. Drink the shadow dancer’s blood. “Are you nuts? I don’t want to become one of them. I am I. I want to remain whole.” Hush. This cannot intrude on our relationship. Everything will be fine. Drink. “Rei?” I asked the darkness. But I already knew the answer. This wasn’t Rei. This wasn’t the weftlink. This was something closer. This was the hand that had always enveloped my heart. No, my child, I am not she. But we like her, don’t we? You admire the heart. I admire the teeth. We sensed it. She feels like us. That is why the pairing called to us. That is why we admitted her into our circle. To say I had no idea what the fuck this voice was talking about was the understatement of the decade. “Who are you?” I am yours. You are mine. We are we. But your kind craves names, yes? If what I am requires a name, you shall already know it. And I did. “Hara. Your name is Hara.” If that is my name, so I am named. “What are you?” My child, plumb the depths of your soul later, now is the time for focus. Let me guide your hand as I have done in the past. Trust me. Feel—through me—the flows. Awaken her. She has already repaved the path. Awaken that which was born with her. I was out of options. I could accept Hara’s guidance or surrender to Anna’s will. It was an easy choice. I handed over the controls—and we bit down savagely on Hans’ foolishly placed hand. It was so obvious now. Why had I not thought of it before? We dug our teeth in and swallowed. Again and again we swallowed. We forced the sweet filth down our throat like the marvelous nectar it was. We forced past the revulsion and drank like a ravenous beast. Hans grimaced. He tore his hand away, leaving a piece of his palm behind. We spat the chunk of flesh at him and laughed. “Svarte magus,” Hans cursed. He turned to Anna. “The cute little bastard bit me. A bit early for that, dontcha think?” I was past rage, past reason. My friends were about to walk straight into an ambush. Jules. Dante. Roster. Sheila. Ichijo. Maria. Monique. They would all die if I failed. And in that instant, I finally understood Albright’s words. In a real battle, defeat is unbearable. I was prepared to sacrifice anything to avoid it. I focused on the most horrid outcome—the very one I loathed to face—and it fueled me. It erased the pain. It wiped clear the doubt. It purified my focus. No matter the costs to my body, no matter the pain, no matter what horrors awaited me—I would succeed at this cast. I prepared the transmutation in a state of liquid fury. Anna stood up and dropped the limp girl to the ground. “Impossible,” she muttered. “He should be pliable by now. Check his blood.” I ignored her. Hara had pointed the way. I could feel the weft-link’s conduit like a highway stretching out before me. It was ready, waiting for a flow of mana to ignite it. Hans bit into my neck. The pain was profound, but it merely refocused my rage. I wanted them to burn. I wanted to turn them both to ash. “A dhampir?” Hans exclaimed. “And he’s been marked!” Anna’s eyes danced between Hans and I. “She lied to me. That muddy-blooded twit…” Anna’s lips drew into thin, tight lines. “There isn’t time to fix this. Find me Rei Acerba.” Hans’ bite had done damage. Blood was coursing out of my neck in pulses. I could feel it soaking my pants. I ignored it. I focused even more of my will on the cast. Creating mana from life—I’d never even considered it. And inside my own body? It was the work of a lunatic. Good thing I’d just about gone crazy. I pressed my palms flush against my spine. Gritting my teeth, I released the extraction field straight into my gut. The surge of power ruptured my stomach like a bombshell. I screamed in anguish as vicious spasms of pain wrenched through my muscles. My bowels boiled. Delirium shook my mind. But the transmutation was already prepared, the conduit already established, and the target already set. I didn’t need to stay awake to make it work. Heck, I didn’t even need to stay alive. “Hey, Hans,” I managed. “Thanks for the fuel.” I looked up into the heavens and let the mana fly. The volatile ball tore forward as though tethered to a set of rails. It was tracing the route of the weft-link, the invisible conduit between Rei and myself. The night sky burned as it tore across the cement leaving a streak of molten glass in its wake. Two Talmax mages were in the way—and then they weren’t. With a roar of heat and wind, the bulge of power vanished off the side. Hans reached into his pocket and fetched a cigarillo. “Well, that was…flashy.” I sagged in my lawn chair. The cast had unsorted me badly. My Ki was a garbled mess. Talmax agents looked at one another in stunned silence. Two of their number had just vanished before their eyes. A troll scratched at the back of his overgrown head. An assistant dropped a bundle of herbs. He scrambled to fetch them before the wind pitched them over the edge. “Right, then,” Hans said, taking a draw from his smoke, “time to find cousin.” A strange creak broke the peace. It was followed by a deafening metallic boom. The AC unit Rei tossed must have weight a few tons. I watched it float into the air like an overgrown marshmallow before it plummeted back to earth. A bitter sense of satisfaction spread over me. I hadn’t just sent mana to Rei. I’d sent her my feelings. She was replying in turn. I remember the first scream vividly. I remember the feeling of contentment that came with it. Peace settled over me as the automatic weapons roared. Metal clanged against metal. Flesh yielded. Fluids spilled. Around the perimeter the violence went, a merry-go-round of horrors. She was drawing closer every second, leaving a magnificent parade of pain and suffering in her wake. Anna cursed in three separate languages before skewering me with a glare. “You are a most annoying brat,” she growled. “But she shall fatigue soon enough. Trey, go and buy some time.” Trey nodded, unbuttoned his shirt, kicked off his flip-flops, and dropped his drawers. Moving forward, his whole body shimmered. Bones crackled. Flesh tore and shuffled. Trey was a Were, and a monstrous one at that. The giant beast cracked his furry knuckles and yawned. His torso would have reached my shoulders. His footpads were the size of my thighs. Grey fur bristling, he stood between Anna and the perimeter. Carrera’s lieutenant, Carlos, shouted out new orders. Many of the gunmen who had been guarding Lambda’s translocation circle, along with all the mages that could be spared, ran over to bolster the line. Rei’s progress had benefited from the all the confusion. Anna’s simple adjustment had shifted the balance. Now she would have to face a concentrated force in the open. Not the ideal terrain for one lone Nostophoros. I was starting to worry when Rei made her reply known to them. A decapitated head came flying out of the sky. It landed next to me with a thwap. Troll by the look of it. His eyes had been gouged out. “That’s plain nasty,” Hans commented. He lit another cigarillo and laughed. A bloody claw grasped the edge of the deck. The tips of the fingers looked as sharp as blades. Carrera’s lieutenant, Carlos Rojas, took a step back. “My God,” he muttered. “That’s a Nostophora Despierta. Containment circles. Now!” The mages scrambled into a strange formation. It looked like a tortoise shell made of hands. The Imperiti gunmen could only look at one another in confusion. “Nonsense,” Anna shot back. “It’s just a naughty little girl.” Trey stepped forward. Rei was already lifting herself into view. Hans dropped his smoke. I gaped. Rei wore the remains of my jacket like a bloody cape. Her fangs had grown long, and fine membranous scales covered her flesh. They reflected light like delicate sheets of foil. Rei’s muscles flexed and quivered. She took air in quick shallow gasps. The air around me grew electric. Spells were charging. Carrera’s goons weren’t taking chances. They would surround her and pummel her. “Don’t you dare,” Anna snapped back at them. “She’s a royal.” Catching my eye, Rei tried for a smile. Giant fangs don’t lend themselves to pleasantries. It looked like a snarl. “Bravo,” Hans cheered. “You almost pulled one off, Baby Rays! Mazal tov!” Anna, her hands knotted at her sides, gave Hans a withering glare. “Sister,” Rei said in a fluid hiss. “Give me the magus.” Anna didn’t reply. She stood ramrod still, her face unreadable. The two Bathorys passed the next ten seconds in utter silence. Vast oceans of killing intent tickled across my skin. I forgot to breath. I forgot to blink. “Please?” Rei offered at last. “What do you think you are doing?” Anna spoke quietly, but any fool could sense the rage burbling below. “Rei Acerba, this is a breach of our laws. The king has granted you no such allowance. In fact, you were explicitly ordered never to attempt a manifestation.” Her eyes blazing, Anna jabbed a finger in Rei’s direction. “You’re not fit to manifest, you muddy-blooded freak. Even Theodus acknowledges it.” Rei cocked her head and the air grew cold. “Give. Me. The. Magus.” Anna snarled, and her aura spread across the observation deck like a red-hot blast furnace. The air grew heavy. I struggled to breath. It felt like pound after pound of unforgiving mass was being piled directly on top of my chest. Rei stood firm, but she was like an ant fighting against a thumb. “You will not embarrass us again,” Anna roared. “You shall answer to Theodus himself. Sir Easton, place Dame Rei Acerba under arrest.” Trey nodded. “With pleasure, duchess.” Trey had been itching. He burst forth, claws wide. The ground thudded under the weight of his legs, and he accelerated to a surprising speed. Rei seemed to let him close. Her hefty grey aura was blowing calmly in the breeze. But then I looked closer. Rei’s aura was shifting. It was quivering at the tips. At the last possible second, her whole aura flashed, her body shifted right, and she drew a hidden blade. The short sword was about two feet long and as transparent as a sheet of glass. In one fluid motion, Rei swept the white-hilted blade in front of her. An airy note sounded, and in the breathless silence that followed, there came a mournful refrain. Trey Easton continued off the tower. He was in two pieces. Setting her eyes on her elder sister, Rei sheathed her blade and smiled. “You lost to Sheila?” I interjected. Her eyes still locked on Anna, Rei shrugged. “It is much more difficult when your opponent has a brain.” Enraged, Anna snatched me by the collar. “You little shit. You drew her a blade from the Midden? Who the hell are you?” “The name’s Bond,” I replied. “James—” Anna shook me like a Polaroid picture. My brain had started rattling pretty good (okay, I deserved it) when the temperature dropped below freezing. Rei snarled, and Anna froze in her tracks. I raised an eyebrow. Maybe she was right to. The air kinda smelled like magic. “No more games,” Rei snapped. “Hand him to me now.” My own hands still bound, I felt like a rack of ribs stuck between the jaws of two hungry dogs. The men from Talmax looked from Rei to Anna, not quite sure if they wanted a piece of this. Anna’s eyes strayed back to Carrera’s array. Her teeth clenched tight, she let out an angry hiss. “Fine, sister,” she said with a vicious sneer. “Catch.” Anna threw me right off the side of the building (which wasn’t very nice). I had time to get a nice view of the Strip, think about soiling my underpants, and make all sorts of promises to my new best friend, Jesus. Fortunately, Rei was up to the task. She caught me by the ankle and yanked me back to safety. “Gotcha,” she exclaimed. I winced as her razor sharp digits cut into my flesh. Ignoring my howls, Rei tossed me over her shoulder and leapt down onto the lower perimeter ledge. A flurry of bullets flew past us. They were mere seconds from their mark. Hidden behind the barrier, Rei activated her wireless. “The board is clear, captain. Begin your sortie,” she lisped. Tossing a grenade over the wall, she urged me forward. We ran for at least a hundred yards. There, safe behind some machinery, she cut my restraints with a flick of a finger and gave me a gleeful smile. “An excellent diversion, no?” “You sound like Cobra Commander.” My voice was strained. Rei looked even weirder up close. The huge fangs were scary as hell, and her fine, membranous scales were like nothing I’d ever seen before. Half of me wanted to touch them. The other half wanted to jump off the side of the building screaming “cooties!” Rei noticed my attention and examined her arms. She shrugged. “I had hoped for black—but at least I did not get pink. Marie Antoinette was pink. It is considered a bad omen. Silver is fine, I guess. And I appear to have remained sane.” She looked at me, oblong pupils blown wide. “Am I still sane?” I thought back to the decapitated troll head. “In that you have not eaten my face, yes.” “And might I say, that was a most excellent mana-shift, Dieter. You are a natural at wefting. And the same blade you procured for me in the warehouse. Thank you, kindly. It cut all my problems down to size.” Rei broke out into the giggles. So I had giddy Rei on my hands…wonderful. I gestured at her new bodywork. “Is this normal?” Rei stiffened. “I am not allowed to talk about it.” I looked at her blandly. “Dudette. Seriously. You cannot go all scaly and say ‘no comment.’ Spill.” Rei sighed. “Fine. To heck with protocol, we have already fucked the dog most severely.” “More like chopped him in half.” “Indeed…” Rei did a sweep of the area and knelt back down. “Dieter, we Nostophoros are not what you think.” “Wait, you’re not children of darkness? How disappointing.” “Actually, that’s close to the mark, but in modern parlance, we Nostophoros would be considered weapon systems.” “Huh?” “We were designed, Dieter. Manufactured. We are one of the products of foremutation, the last of the banned crafts. Recall Chancellor Eikhorn’s tale, Dieter. The legends tell of an enemy that outmatched humanity in every conceivable way. As a means of matching their power, a group of magi performed a series of foremutations on—” Rei turned her attention to her earpiece. “We need to move, Dieter. Strike Team A has arrived.” Rei took my hand (carefully this time), and we headed around the perimeter to the North side of the building. My legs were shaky, but absolute terror is a great motivator. “And me?” I asked, gasping for breath. “Hans just tried to turn me into a sanguinarian. Why didn’t it work?” “Goodness, you are out of the loop. No one will be turning you, Dieter. You are of dhampir stock. Only a quarter, yes, but a dhampir nonetheless.” “Jigga what? “I guessed at your nature when I sampled your blood on the bus. That was why I risked healing your wounds at the warehouse. I confirmed your lineage when I met your father. I knew that man by sight. Kurtz is a dhampir. He is the progeny of a human and a Nostophoros. He is quite infamous.” “I’m pretty sure he’s just a drunk.” “One moment, Dieter.” Rei released my hand and shot forward like a cannonball. The unsuspecting troll was flying off the tower before he even knew what hit him. He gave a sad yowl as he plummeted to his end. Finished with her chore, Rei skipped back and grabbed my hand. “I do so dislike trolls,” she commented. “Agreed. But Rei, you should stop sending things off buildings. Didn’t your parents ever tell you to not toss pennies off skyscrapers?” Rei looked surprised. “How did you know this? Father scolded me quite severely.” “A wild guess. But back to what I was saying, I’ll give you that my father is on a liquid diet, but blood ain’t his poison.” “Transference is a common way to address the addiction. Your father doesn’t work nights for fun, and he certainly doesn’t get beaten up in taverns. To think of Kurtz the Butcher trading punches with a bunch of inebriated Imperiti…” Rei patted me on the head. “There wouldn’t be anything left of them. You are quite clueless, Dieter. But perhaps it is best to have your father explain when he arrives. Out of respect for you, I’ll even promise not to kill him.” “Um, thanks?” Rei stopped at the northernmost point of the building. My chest was heaving, and I was grateful for the break. Explosions and weapons fire were erupting from the other side of the building. Lambda must have landed. Looking back at Rei, I did a double take. Her skin was back to normal. “Do the…modifications, like, wear off?” “Indeed. A manifestation requires a great deal of energy. It is as we discussed on the train, Dieter. Nothing is free. The weft-link merely permits us to share what mana we have.” “So the link is back.” Rei shook her head. She looked a tad unwell. “I restored it by accident.” “You restored the link? You told me you couldn’t cast magic.” “It was an accident. I reached out instinctively,” Rei tossed the white-hilted blade up into the air and caught it with her left hand, “and it just happened.” My mouth dropped open. “You’re left-handed!” “Indeed. It’s silly really, but I never even considered trying to cast backwards.” And no one would. You extract mana with your left hand. You never cast spells with it. Right-handed casting is dogma. I didn’t know a single mage that could cast with their left. “Well, this could be good news. Link from Zelda is left-handed. He kicks some serious ass.” “I can wield magic…” Rei said it as though she was trying out the idea with her mouth. She looked so relieved. “Thank you for nearly dying, Dieter.” “No worries. I do it all the time. But what about the weft-link? Didn’t you want to snuff it out?” “I did, but that may be impossible now. The weft-link has been used thrice: once by you in the warehouse, once by me as we dangled, and once again by you to cause my manifestation. The saying, third time’s a charm, exists for a reason. The weft-link is probably permanent now.” Rei took a deep breath and sighed. “But let us deal with the weft-link later. Right now we must attend to our duties.” I nodded, not quite sure what to make of the news. I liked Rei, but to be weft to her permanently… “The rest of Lambda has arrived,” Rei said. “The weft-pair of Collins and Masterson is with them. We have new orders. Monique and Lambda have established one front. We are to open a second behind the enemy. Can you sketch another translocation circle?” “Sure thing. Who else is comin’ to the party?” Rei grinned through her shrinking fangs. “A team from the ICE.” Relief washed over me. Amateur night was over. I pulled out my chalk and repeated the design Jules taught me. I finished it, tried to charge it, and frowned. I didn’t have any mana left. I’d sent Rei everything I had. Maybe one of the Talmax guys could spare me a light? I turned to Rei. She was passing the time picking troll guts from her fingernails. “Can you do it?” Eyes still on her fingertips, Rei smiled. “Oh, dear. Impotence in the face of adversity, Dieter? How unbecoming.” I crossed my arms. “I give you razor fingers for Christmas and this is the thanks I get?” Rei chuckled. “Very well. I shall attempt it.” She sheathed her blade and crawled over. Furrowing her brow, she pointed her left hand at my circle. The seconds ticked away. My nerves grew frayed. Grass grew. Paint dried. I considered screaming. Then Rei gasped. A tiny burst of mana squirted out of her palm. The bead of yellow gold crawled toward the sphere like a tiny balloon lost in the wind. I watched nervously as the mana teetered between priming the circle and going to mana heaven. A subtle pop indicated success. I turned to Rei and whispered, “That was seriously lame.” She stuck up her nose. “My most explosive ally, that was a work of finesse—a concept you are wholly unfamiliar with.” “Says the girl who just eye-gouged a troll.” “He looked at me queerly.” Rei and I scurried away from the circle and gave Maria the okay. “Remember, Dieter. As far as anyone else is concerned, we are not partners.” “Relax, kumpadre. I like my skin right-side out too.” Rei perked. “You looked up the punishment as well? It is one of my personal favorites.” “No doubt,” I muttered. “You still have that boxcutter?” “No,” Rei said with a frown. “Security seized it.” With a blue flash, a gate peeled opened before us. Out walked Gaston Spinoza in his black alguacil fatigues. He grinned as he tossed us our robes. “I knew I would like this one. Like father, like son.” Behind Spinoza came said father figure. My father, Kurtz Resnick, was dressed like Spinoza—and was packing a shotgun the size of a small car. He acknowledged me with a stiff nod. “Son, I need to—” His eyes flashed to the wound on my neck. A fire I had never seen erupted in his eyes. “Lad,” he said gruffly. “I want you to walk over here real slow.” He leveled his hand-cannon at Rei. “This’ll all be over right quick. I’ll get you home safe and sound.” Then things happened rather fast. Rei snarled. My Sight flared. Spinoza shouted. I dove. And my father fired. I took the blast right in the gut. My ears ringing, the world slowed. Spinoza jumped in front of my father. I watched as he wrestled the gun from his hands. Rei collapsed into a heap. She might have been screaming. I wasn’t sure. I curled up in a ball from the pain. It was funny, really. I had never considered jumping into a wave of light before. But I had done it without hesitation. No regrets, either. Rei was safe. That was good enough. Still…a gut shot? What a way to go. “She’s not to be harmed!” Spinoza roared. “I gave Albright my word, damn it!” My father rolled his eyes. Rei crawled toward me. She was mumbling nonsense in a tongue I didn’t understand. Funny, I thought. Death smelled a lot like a garlic lover’s pizza. My eyes widened. “Stay back!” I screamed. “I’ve been seasoned!” Rei sniffed the air and froze. “Oh, a garlic round.” She scurried backwards. “Thank you for the warning, my most odiferous companion.” I examined the welts the garlic pellets had left on my stomach. They hurt like a bitch, but I’d recover after a shower. Now if these had hit Rei…I got to my feet and went for my father. Patricide had a great ring to it. Spinoza jumped between us. “Enough, you two. We’ll deal with this later. Avert a major reaping now, yes?” “Fuck that!” I screamed. “I can’t trust this bastard.” “Dieter, we must attend to Lambda,” Rei urged. “The Thompson Pair is outflanking them to the north.” I was still glaring at my father, but the fight had dropped out of me. I took a step back. “Fine, but Rei and I will strike out north. Spinoza, you take this jackass and head south. I don’t want to see his face.” My father didn’t say a word. I couldn’t tell what was going on inside his head, and I didn’t care. I tore off my ruined shirt and tossed it off the side of the building. Replacing it with my robe, I turned to Rei. “Let’s move,” I growled. I could sense Rei was biting her tongue as we hustled away. “What is it?” I asked. “How can you speak to your kin like that?” “He just tried to shoot you. He’s an asshole.” “If I uttered such words against my parents, I would be gutted, staked, and left to roast in the sun.” “Yikes.” “Then, on the fourth day—” “I get the picture. Remind me to never vacation in Chicago.” “Don’t be silly. You would most certainly enjoy Chicago. Sailing on the lake is most refreshing, and the beaters do rave about the cuisine. I cannot speak from my own experience of course, but it certainly plumps them up nicely.” Pushing Rei’s culinary insights to the side, I checked my bearings. “Access to the upper deck should be right around here.” “Very well. Let’s disable the forces here and then move to interfere with the cast.” I gave Rei a boost over the ledge, and she lifted me up. We hid behind a nearby hot dog cart and checked out the scene. “So that’s a castout?” I said. “Okay. Wow.” “Indeed,” Rei said. She was similarly in awe. The observation deck was a bona fide battlefield. From down on the Strip, it must have looked like the fireworks had started early. Lambda had carved out some turf behind what was left of the gift shop, but they were under heavy fire from half a dozen gunmen. Roster and Sheila were pressed back-to-back fending off four trolls. I watched as Sheila, her giant broadsword gleaming, amputated one of the trolls at the knee. A shower of light shot across the sky, and the downed monster howled in pain. “She always gets me with that move,” Rei said in passing. She clicked on her radio and updated our location. Monique was tossing off heavy spells, trying to break through Talmax’s suppressive fire. Jules and Dante were working defense. Closer to us, agents Masterson and Collins were squaring off against the Rileys. Both pairs’ mana reserves must have been massive; they were casting like there was no tomorrow. Looping around from the South, Spinoza screamed, “ICE. Yield or die!” at Carrera’s eight remaining colleagues. The Talmax mages responded with a veritable firestorm. Judging by the bits my father turned the nearest spellcaster into, he’d switched to regular rounds. One thing bothered me. “I don’t see Anna or Hans.” Rei nodded. “Sister is not one to lead a charge. And Dieter, whatever her crimes, you mustn’t touch her. You represent the DEA. You can’t comprehend the implications of an assault on her person. I will manage her when she shows. Her actions are in defiance of the Treaty. I will bring her home for justice. Promise me that you will leave her to me.” I nodded. Yea, like I wanted to pick a fight with a super-vampire right now. “Then I guess I’ll handle Sadie.” Rei looked at me uneasily. “Hey, if Sadie can fling it, I can entrap it.” I tried to sound confident, but capturing a plasma flow with my palm seemed like a bit of a stretch. “Dieter, our link is stronger now. Your attempts at subterfuge are doomed to failure. And besides, you were always a horrendous liar.” I sighed. “Then I guess I can’t hide the fact that you have wicked blood-breath right now.” Rei stared at me, mortified, “Good hunting, kumpadre.” I struck out low and fast toward the back of the enemy line. Glancing back, I caught Rei breathing into her hand. That ego of hers…it was fantastic. + As I ran along, I took a peek at my stomach. Stars above. The welts had totally healed. The same went for the spot where Hans had punched me. My innards felt fine too. I felt my neck—not even a scab. The vampire blood hadn’t turned me, but it was certainly acting on me. I wiped the sweat off my brow. If I didn’t kill him first, my father and I needed to have a talk. A defensive arch had been set up around Lambda. I recognized Jules’ signature in the fortification. Anti-personnel by the look of it. It gave Lambda a fighting chance at holding off Talmax’s superior numbers. But it wasn’t perfect. It had gaps. I spotted Sadie making her way to one of them. I kept low and shadowed her movements. Halfway there, my Sight flared. I dropped flat on my belly, and a brilliant ball of energy flew straight past me. I watched as it soar off the side of the building. Streaming out into the night, it exploded into a brilliant red fireball. A chorus of cheers erupted from below. Maybe I should have tried to catch it. I was running on zero mana and there was no way I could pull off any spells. Fortunately, a dead gunman was in my way. I took his assault rifle and shoved a few of those flash grenades into the pockets of my robe. Halfway through the task, I looked down at my hands. The gun was coated in the man’s blood. Concerned about my future passions, I gave the blood a probative sniff. Yuck. Rapid healing or not, human blood still smelled like shit. Much more at ease, I pulled the dongle connected to the gun’s bolt. I was pretty sure that motion chambered a round. Checking that the safety was off, I crept forward. I was about to go toe-to-toe with a good friend, and I didn’t like the prospects of it. Sadie had knelt down to work on a circle. My guess was she planned to blast away at Jules’ fortification using one of her counters. That would leave Lambda exposed to whatever the rest of Talmax wanted to throw at them. Lucky for me, the complicated counter-cast left Sadie distracted. I pointed the heavy rifle at her back, swallowed, and lowered the muzzle. Aiming a gun at a girl… it just felt wrong. Reconsidering, I dug out a flash grenade. I pulled the pin and gave it a toss. The fat tube rolled right up next to her. Sadie let out a yelp as the nonlethal grenade burst two feet from her toes. Even my ears were ringing from the intense flash of light and noise. She’d be knocked out cold. Three cheers for modern weaponry. I walked over to claim my trophy, but as the smoke cleared I froze. Sadie had vanished. “Conflagerous!” she screamed form my right. A red flash splashed across my Sight. I had enough time prepare a hasty extraction, but Sadie’s cast was a broad one. We had trained together for months. Sadie knew my style. She had anticipated that I would attempt to extract the mana from her cast. A wide-angle spell made that near impossible. The intense heat singed my brows, but my head somehow found the hood of my robe. My robe took the brunt of it, but I still wasn’t out of the woods. I sidestepped left and dove behind a concrete bench. My feet felt like molasses. I looked down to discover my boots were ruined. Sadie’s cast had melted them down to nubs. I checked the rest of my body. I was singed but fine. Only one thing was weird—my robe was glowing crimson. “Nice dodge, Dieter,” Sadie shouted. “Now how about I show you how one of these actually works?” I glanced over the bench. There was a ruby red pendant around Sadie’s neck. “Wonderful,” I grumbled. I was facing an upper-tier mage with an ACT device. With unnerving speed, Sadie spun the air around her into the palm of her hand. I braced myself. A plasma stream would bore through the concrete bench in seconds. I had always wanted to play with the stuff when I got to college—but this wasn’t exactly what I had in mind. “Oi, Dieter,” Jules shouted. “I do recall tellin’ ya not to go off and die tonight—and here I was gonna give ya an A for your gatework.” Jules kicked some rubble out of her way as she emerged from the wreckage of the gift shop. She was covered head to toe in bruises, burns, and scratches. Half her robe was cooked off. On top of it all was a dried matting of blood. There was too much of it to be her own. Her glasses were gone, and her blond curls flapped this way and that in the wind. Her flaming green eyes shot daggers at Sadie. “Ichi is dyin’ because of your treachery, ya clatty bitch. Time ta pay the piper. Get a move on, apprentice. You’ve other matters ta attend.” She walked right past me, dragging a thin brown reed behind her. “I’ll be managin’ this embarrassment.” “You’re the embarrassment,” Sadie shot back. “Defending these pigs? They betrayed the likes of us long ago. Remember your history before you start throwing claims about.” “And what history would that be? The history where Catholics slaughtered me kin till we clung ta just a few rocks off in the coast—or the history where yer parents jumped ship when the times got rough?” Personally, I thought the Great Potato Famine was a great reason to emigrate from Ireland, but I didn’t think now was the time to raise that point. The energy rising between the two of them was sparking through the air like arc lightning. Sadie’s jaw tightened. “Obviously, we missed one too many of you treehumpers.” She stretched her brewing spell to its limit, yelled, “Solrak!” and unleashed a stream of fire from the sizzling ball of energy atop her palm. I yelled at Jules to dodge, but she was having none of it. She swept a long reed in a circle, trilling, “Pinus palustris!” as she went. The cast was some sort of barrier spell—but the sphere she conjured moved with her. My jaw dropped. A moving circle? I didn’t even understand how that was possible. Sadie’s beam of plasma rushed forth and smacked into Jules’ transparent defense. The entire sky flashed white, and the force of the blast knocked me back. I opened my eyes to find Sadie’s strike glancing off into space. The blast soared out across the night sky trailing a brilliant stream of light. Far below, the crowds gasped in awe at the amazing pyrotechnics. Dragging her thin reed behind her, Jules kept pressing forward. She never broke her focus. Never lost Sadie’s eyes. “Get a move on, Dieter. I’ll manage this wee cur. She needs a lesson in humility, dontcha think?” I was about to protest, when all across the valley, fireworks launched into evening sky. It was midnight. Carrera was about to start his cast. I was the only person not pinned down. I had to go. “The hell you will,” Sadie yelled. She clutched her pendant, called out, “Penetrus!” and catapulted a bolt of energy straight towards me. It was of the same style as the one Spinoza had used against Ichijo—and its speed was beyond what I could dodge. Jules slid between us. Whipping her reed in front of her, she trilled, “Piratinera!” The tremendous force of Sadie’s cast impacted her thin reed with a thwack. Like a batter connecting with a fastball, Jules rebounded the strike back at Sadie. The Penetrus returned twice as fast, catching Sadie square in the gut. “Stars above,” I muttered. Diverting a strike was hard enough—but actually reflecting a cast? I’d never seen it done. “Get a move on, Dieter,” Jules said, closing in on Sadie. I smirked. “You’re the boss.” Jules was coping rather well. I turned and ran for the stairs. Chapter 20 STRATOFEAR Rushing across the observation deck, I found Sadie’s parents still locked in battle with Collins and Masterson. Masterson had received a deep gash across his face, but Glory Thompson was guarding her arm. Both pairs circled one another warily. The colorful opening volleys had ended. Unable to replenish their mana, they had to be cautious now. That was probably just peachy for the Thompsons. They only needed to buy time for Carrera to finish his cast. Spinoza and my father had managed to scatter the eight remaining Talmax mages. A number of them were lying dead or wounded. Sheila and Roster held the same position as before. They had dropped three trolls, but were pinned down by rifle fire. Monique and Dante were covering the other flank. It looked like the four of them would be able to hold out, but they were pinned down for the time being. Jules was right—I was the only one who could get to the stairs. I sprinted across the open ground, dodging the occasional spell. The stairs were made of grated metal and girders. That meant they were exposed on all sides. Carrera had shown himself to be a cautious man. I knew there was no way I could climb up them unchallenged—but every second I wasted drew us all closer to oblivion. I took a deep breath. I could sense Rei was close, but I couldn’t pick her out. My Sight open, I broke into an open sprint—and boy was I glad I did. Halfway to the top, my Sight filled with a rush of light. It was Hans. He was dropping from above, intent on collapsing my spinal column with his heel. Using my momentum, I lunged forward out of the way. Hans came crashing down behind me. The metal groaned and gave way. He didn’t dally—and, wow, was he quick. His second caught me square on the cheek. I went headfirst into the wall. Dazed, I could only watch as he lunged at me again—but another blur stopped him. Rei had tackled him. The two of them grappled, flinging punches faster than I could see. Then Rei caught both his feet with a sweep, and the two tumbled down to the base of the stairs. I shook my head clear. Their whole exchange had lasted mere seconds. “Go!” Rei ordered. She stabbed deep into Hans’ shoulder with a razor sharp combat knife. The blond Nostophoros roared as Rei twisted the blade up and out. “There’s no time, Dieter. You must stop the cast!” She bashed Hans’ temple with the hilt of the blade, flipped it, and drove the blade deep into his other armpit. Adrenaline surging, I hesitated. I wanted to help Rei. Fireworks crackled above us. I shook my head clear. We didn’t have anymore time. Rei would have to handle Hans on her own. I turned and ran. Overhead, bright green and red sparkles shimmered in the air. The strange hues of light added a carnival flair to the battle raging around me. Gasping from the effort, I reached the summit and swept the space. Carrera was nowhere to be found. At the center of the intricate magical array sat six of Elliot’s freshman class. They were chained into the drop tower ride that launched you up and down the tower’s obelisk. One of the Elliot initiates spotted me. “Hey!” he shouted. “This is like so not cool. Get us down, man!” “I hear you,” I shouted back. “Just hold tight.” I took a careful look at the heavily modified ride. The old amusement park standard had been converted into a device that resembled a giant magnetic coil. The initiates could be raised up and down the length of the obelisk while being spun around in circles. Ugh. All that spinning. The thought of it made me want to vomit. The male initiate looked to be the only one still conscious. His dirty blond hair was unkempt, and he was nothing but skin and bones. My jaw tightened. They were starving them… “Where’s the big man?” I asked. “Carrera? He set up the array and left.” The initiate looked around nervously. “I don’t think he wanted to be here when this thing went off.” “Neither do I,” I muttered. Maybe it was only safe to activate such a dangerous spell from a distance. I bit my lip. If Jules’ theory was correct, Carrera needed the initiates to start the reaping. They were the primer for the reaction. If I could remove the initiates from the equation, we would be off to the nearest pub to compare war stories. All I had to do was jam up the ride’s gears. I could figure out how to get the initiates out of the ride later. I swept the space with my Sight once more. The coast was clear. I took a deep breath and charged to the rescue. My ears popped halfway. A spell? Shocked, I looked at the initiate. The boy slumped in his seat. And the initiate next to him…a layer of duct tape covered her mouth. Her strained expression told me all I needed to know. A wipe. The boy had been used as a lure. Carrera applauded as he walked out from under his shroud. Shitsticks. “A fine performance, young man—but I’m afraid I must put your gallantry to an end.” Outmaneuvered, exposed, and devoid of mana, all I could do was glare back at him. Diego Carrera walked over to the ride’s control console and pressed a button. With a creak, the ride began ascending into the air. The one girl still conscious stared down at me, her light brown hair flapping in the breeze. The wipe must have failed on her. She looked at me like I was her last hope— and I’d seen those eyes before. I did the only thing I could think of. I charged. Carrera flicked his hand. My feet locked in place. A binding spell—it was exactly like the crap Jules loved to pull. I went to counter but no mana came to my aid. Carrera gestured to the perimeter. “Young man, you are in my circle. As soon as you crossed that threshold, my craft became dominant. Still, I must again commend your efforts. It is most impressive that you have made it this far. To have outwitted one so aged as the Duchess of Peoria…” He chuckled. “Quite the achievement. But I digress. Please, young man, stand with me awhile and listen. I have a proposition to make.” The short tyrant looked untouched by the battle raging around us. His tuxedo was still well pressed. His hair, impeccable. And though his face was creased with wrinkles, his eyes still burned proud and bright. Over two hundred years of experience, and a body still fit enough to use it. And me? I was— yet again—totally fucked. I balled my fists. “Bite me, Carrera.” I should have checked the perimeter more closely. How many lives had my sloppiness cost? “Just get this shit over with.” Carrera chuckled. “It is rare to see such machismo from one of your generation. Too much TV. Too much mothering. But stay your blade, young man. I’m about to offer you exactly what you want.” I shifted in my shoes, uncertain how to react. A conversation could buy time—and maybe someone else could use it—but Carrera was a mind mage. Could I win out if he tried to compel me? I took a moment to examine the circle. The perimeter threshold shot straight up into the sky. My Sight couldn’t penetrate it. All light and energy reflected back off its walls like foil. Almost like we were dislocated from the rest of the world. Almost like… My heart sank. We were inside a frameshift. The craft was like the one Sadie had employed to trap the faculty. We were locked off from the world. There would be no aid. No backup. Everything inside this circle was staying put. Everything outside was staying out. Carrera could deal with me at his leisure. I sagged. On top of everything else, the secrecy, the diversionary attack on Salt Lake, the intense security, and the lockdown of the top floor. Carrera had planned for even this contingency. The shift would last well beyond midnight, and inside this circle—his circle—any magic I conjured would be of little use. We had been bested, utterly bested. So why was Carrera bothering with me? Carrera had waited decades for this moment. Why was he dallying? I bit my lip. He’d captured my interest all right. “You’re gonna give me exactly what I want? You’re going to cancel the reaping, let my people go, and head back to Margaritaville?” I shook my head. “Unlikely.” “Actually, young man,”—he raised his arms wide—“that is precisely what I am offering. My desires are simple. I wish to restore the Great Western Flow, return to Mexico that which was taken from her, and—at long last—honor my brother’s sacrifice. That is all. The rest is open to bargain.” He walked over to the obelisk and placed his hand on its smooth surface. “You are Dieter Resnick, son of Kurtz the Butcher?” The Butcher? Better than the Baker, I guess. “So I’ve been told.” “Young man, you misunderstand me. I do not covet bloodshed. I do not seek power for power’s sake. Nor will I lie to you. I need the teaming mass of humanity gathered below us on the desert’s floor—I need to spend their lives—but it was Fremont and Carson who set these events in motion, not I.” I rubbed my temples. “Here we go again…” “Just over two hundred years have passed since John Charles Fremont sacrificed thousands of Native American lives to shatter the Great Western Flow. In doing so, he broke one of our sacred Tenets. He interfered with the course of Imperiti history. His heinous crime ruined my nation—and his protégé, Kit Carson, stood by and did nothing. Magus Resnick, if not for Fremont’s deeds, we may very well have been countrymen under the same flag. All three nations of Northern America would have been equals. Canada, the United States, and Mexico would have been in balance with one another. In harmony.” Carrera stormed about as he talked. I wished my legs weren’t locked at the knees. It looked like this was gonna be a long one… “For twenty years, I fought our case in the courts of the International Council on Evocation. Their final ruling: no evidence, no crime…” “Been there,” I grumbled. “For eighty more years, I tried to heal my nation. But we’d lost our only major leyline. Every manner of foul beast—every last ghoul and goblin that haunts the dreams of Conscious children— came knocking on our doors. Vampires, Weres, and the worst dregs from the open frames swarmed in upon us like locusts. “For a time, our faith sustained us. For a time, our thresholds held. But the fiends made inroads in our country’s politics. They circumvented us and cut our funding. We could no longer afford mercenaries, and our pool of battlemages dwindled. They rooted us out of our hiding places. They consumed our children in their beds. All that remain of our young are battle-ravaged survivors. You know Sadie Thompson-Riley. Have you not used your auraception on her soul?” I flinched. That he knew I could auracept unnerved me. “Do you have siblings?” I shook my head. “Then it will be difficult for you to understand what it is like to watch your kin be eviscerated by a Were. I have looked into her mind, young man. The boy’s screams never stop ringing in her ears.” Carrera willed my eyes into his own. He forced me back into that cauldron of nastiness. That black burbling soup, I had mistaken it for grief over her parents. But it was worse than that. So much worse. Her little brother had died—died as she watched. Carrera repaired the shards of her memories. Reassembled that moment in time. I felt the very heat of the blood as it rushed out of the boy’s body. The tears. The gasps. The pleading. I saw it all. I felt it all. I knew how Sadie’s mind broke. Tears flooded down my cheeks. Try as I might, my mind kept returning to that boiling cauldron of pain. Carrera had done something to me. He was forcing me to soak in her pain. And then—freedom. “You know what I have shown you is true.” The initiates had reached the peak of the obelisk while I’d lost myself. Carrera walked over to the control console and turned a knob. The chairs began to twirl in a slow but steady circle. “No, I only know that she’s suffering.” My answer sounded feeble to my ears. “And it doesn’t make this right.” “My dear young man…” Carrera’s eyes softened. “We play a zero-sum game, you and I. Mana is strength. Magi control a leyline or die. The Templars, the Druids, even your Massachusetts covens have learned this. As have I. Through the blood of my people I have learned this.” “And so you’ve decided to return the favor?” I shook my head. “That’s one hell of a lesson, Carrera.” “I’ve decided to balance the books!” he roared. “I’ve decided to act before action is meaningless!” “Through murder?” I sputtered. “How can you correct anything through murder? Why is everyone so dense on this? I’m no Bible thumper, Carrera, but that book got one point dead right: ‘Thou shall not kill.’ No matter how righteous and just your cause, if you run around killing people you’ll only generate new hatreds, new animosities, new”—I gestured to the initiates whirling around above us —“Sadies.” Carrera nodded. “I am not oblivious to this fact.” He adjusted another knob on the display. “That is why I attempted to capture you in the first place.” My jaw slacked. “Excuse me?” “You are my providence,” Carrera said with a grin. “You first came to my attention when you killed one of our low-rung suppliers. That you managed to cast such a spell in a mana dry desert intrigued me—but I couldn’t capture you outright. I knew Kit would guess at your talents as well. You see, Kit knew my aim—but not my means. If I had kidnapped you, it would have telegraphed the nature of my cast. I couldn’t give Kit the time to think of a counter. I couldn’t risk discovery. So I first attempted to lure you to the Nostophoros’ institute in St. Louis. But Kit intervened. He feared the Nostophoros were aware of your talents as well. He had an acquaintance manipulate your financial aid package to divert you.” I swallowed. Rei mentioned her mother had intervened… The aging mage adjusted the buttons of his tuxedo jacket and walked over to me. “When that effort failed, I tried to intercept you in transit. I must admit, I underestimated that muddy-blooded filth. I thought employing two trolls and a mage was a tad overkill—but apparently not. I would have tried again—but then Sadie informed me that the DEA was delivering you to us on a silver platter. The duchess was to manage you,” Carrera glanced at my neck, “but obviously that plan failed as well. I had all but given up hope when you stumbled up here on your own.” Carrera smiled. “You must indeed be my providence, Magus Resnick.” I looked down at the complicated array. Silver etchings swept out and arched around in a thousand different directions. Even the nature of the magic exceeded my comprehension. “I’m sorry, but what the hell are you talking about? I have six months of experience and no mana. Why the hell do you care about me?” “Because I am but a mage.” “Excuse me?” “I draw circles. Build conduits. Direct mana. I can craft majestic tapestries of light and sound, but mana is my one and only fuel. That is the basis of the paradox Fremont left behind. A magus would need a tremendous amount of mana to undo Fremont’s work, but by destroying our one and only leyline, he denied us that very mana. It took me seventy years of unending toil to finally uncover a solution…” Carrera engaged another button and the thin ceramic coating crumbled off the massive obelisk. My mouth stood agape as the shards shattered on the ground. The bland grey exterior was nothing but a shell. Hidden underneath it was a mammoth, ruby-red crystal. ”ACT,” I said with a shudder. “The entire obelisk is made of ACT…but Albright said that stuff is poisonous.” “Kit said that?” Carrera chuckled. “No, this substance is not poisonous. At least, not in the classical sense. See for yourself. Employ your auraception.” I examined at the massive red obelisk with my second set of eyes. Wisps of the initiates’ auras were being drawn into the column. Carrera wasn’t immune, either. The column was sucking in his mana too. Then I looked closer—and gasped. “Stars above. That stuff isn’t just drawing in mana. It’s stripping away your Ki. Your…life.” “As I said, young man, I am but a mage. Mana is all I can command. But after seventy years of unending toil, I discovered a way to bridge the gap between mana and life. It was a struggle that took me back to the very dawn of history. During those faded ages, there were creatures far darker and more terrifying than any we face today—and they commanded magiks that relied not just on mana. Most of the scrolls were lost, destroyed by time or those wise enough to burn them, but I managed to piece a few of their techniques together.” Carrera gestured to the silver etching on the floor. “This is my Sistine Chapel. It is an array that can reset the flows, an array that can rescue my country from oblivion.” I swallowed. “You’ve built an array that spends human lives.” I felt dirty just standing on it. “Correct. As you have observed, this obelisk can attract life just as a magus attracts mana. The powerful Ki of the young magi above us will merely enhance the obelisk’s drawing power. When the obelisk’s strength is at its zenith, I will cull the lives of every last man, woman, and child celebrating below us. Their life energy will rise up to the tower, inexorably drawn to the attractive power of the obelisk. But before that energy can reach the obelisk, it must pass through the magical array at our feet.” “Like a drift net catching fish…” “Exactly! The obelisk will never taste a drop of their lives. Every last soul will get caught in my array.” I shook my head at the genius of it. Carrera’s Ki couldn’t work with life energy, so he’d designed a machine to do it for him. The initiates would power the obelisk. The obelisk would draw in life energy. The array would trap that energy. And the many nested spells etched into the cement would somehow repair the damage Fremont had caused, restoring the flow of mana to Mexico. And it’d do it all for the low, low cost of a few hundred thousand lives. I sucked in a breath and shuddered. “You’re a monster.” “A monster?” Carrera glanced at my neck. “Then we have something in common. But this monster is giving you a choice.” Carrera walked up to the ruby red obelisk and touched it. I watched as tiny pieces of him were torn off and sucked into the column. Every cell in his body was losing a bit of what made it tick. “Do you know the true name of this substance? I cannot imagine that Kit or Madam Eikhorn would dare trust anyone with such knowledge—especially not a being such as you.” I shook my head. An uneasy sensation was rising in my stomach. I didn’t like were this conversation was going. “Then I will give you some remedial coursework. First, a question: Name for me the land of Hammurabi and Nebuchadnezzar.” My first thought was Go-fuck-yourself-istan, but I bit my tongue. The real answer was in the first few pages of any world history textbook. “Babylon. They were kings of Babylon in Ancient Mesopotamia.” Ham and Neb sorta invented the concept of civilization. “And what was the name of the Babylonians’ greatest building?” Another easy one. “The Tower of Babel. The Bible says the tower was torn asunder by the Hand of God. Apparently the inhabitants got a bit cocky and dared to transcend the heavens. Sorta like someone else I know.” Carrera laughed. “Correct, but you are repeating a common mistranslation. The Babylonians did use the word ‘anu’ to describe the heavens, but that is not the word’s only meaning. The Imperiti translators dismissed the other as nonsensical, but an ‘anu’ also means ‘frame.’” I scratched my head. I was a bit hazy on the concept of frames. “And there is another error in modern Christian texts. The Babylonians were not torn asunder by the Hand of God. They were torn asunder by the hands of men. Men and women of a particular race. The tribe has had many names throughout history. These days, we Magi refer to them as the Vita Paciscor.” I swallowed. “The Life Dealers.” Now I really had a bad feeling about this. “And now you are ready for the story behind this stone.” Carrera strode over to the edge of his array and stared into the silvery sheen of the frameshift. “The Babylonians were followers of the Draco, an order of beings from beyond our frame. The Babylonians were the first to encounter the Draco. The first to master their tongue. The first to strike a deal with them. The Babylonians agreed to provide the Draco with certain resources, and the Draco agreed to provide the Babylonians with certain powers.” “What kind of powers?” Carrera turned to me and smiled. “The unimaginable kind, of course.” I frowned. Why did I even bother to ask? “This reddish crystal is called draconite. It is the raw material for all ACT. It was one of the many gifts granted to the Babylonians by the Draco. It eases the strain of spellcasting, deepens one’s mana reserves, and makes for far quicker casts. My organization has only scratched the surface of draconite’s potential, but it has allowed our inferior force to fight your Department toe-to-toe. And so it was in ancient times. Thanks to tools like draconite, the Babylonians became the dominant culture on the planet.” “And these ‘resources’ that the Draco wanted…they demanded our entire supply of Chunky Monkey ice cream, didn’t they?” “Children. The Draco coveted children.” I nodded. “I guess ice cream wasn’t invented yet.” “The Babylonians harvested the lives of their adversaries to feed the Draco. Those outside their kingdom faced the very real possibility of extinction.” “But we’re here talking Mexican vengeance, not baby belly futures. I presume someone opened a can of whoop ass?” “Mercifully, yes. In the 16th Century BC, the unfathomable occurred. Despite the insurmountable odds, a small band of Vita Paciscor managed to convince one of the few remaining armies of men to mount a frontal assault on the city of Babylon. The force moved swiftly. They abandoned chariots, employing a new breed of horse that permitted mounted cavalry. And they wielded strange weapons forged of an element called iron. The brazen assault caught the Babylonians off guard. Before the enemy’s main armies could even be raised, the Vita Paciscor had breached the Tower of Babel, penetrated to its core, and laid their hands on the draconite stores inside.” “Yay humanity?” Carrera grew quiet. He walked back across the array and gazed into the ruby-red glow of the obelisk. “Long ago, Mesopotamia was a flowering river valley. Now it bears a striking resemblance to this land—barren and dead. Your distant ancestors were responsible for that change.” “Um…” I fidgeted in place. “Sorry?” “They unwrought it. The Vita Paciscor unwrought the draconite with their bare hands.” I wasn’t clear if that was good or bad, but Carrera certainly looked excited. “Young man, mana is attracted to life. Draconite captures life energy, and thus attracts mana artificially. But the Vita Paciscor didn’t use the draconite to aid in their casts. They accessed the life energy stored in the draconite directly.” “Wait a second.” I looked up at the five stories worth of draconite rising above me. “Are you telling me—” “Yes. To restore the Great Western Flow, I require a carefully designed array, an obelisk of draconite, six-or-so Tier 4 magi serving as primers, and at least two hundred thousand human sacrifices. It took me seventy years to gain the proficiency needed to complete the array. Seventy years and hundreds of millions of dollars. The same task would require fifteen minutes of your time— and require nothing but the palms of your hands.” “Excuse me?” I couldn’t decide whether to laugh or cry. Carrera was cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs. “I am but a mage, young man—but you are not. You are Vita Paciscor.” He touched the obelisk again, and more of his life dumped into it. His hair was greying before my eyes. “For the obelisk to have grown to this size there must already be enough life energy inside to execute this cast. It is power that you can extract without harming a single human life. You can circumvent the sacrifices, bypass the need for murder, and drive the life energy of the obelisk directly into the array. You may— my young Vita Paciscor—meet both my needs and yours.” I gritted my teeth. This was utter bullshit. I could barely cast straight, and Carrera wanted me to rearrange the layout of mana on the planet? Why not ask me to move the Pacific Ocean while he was at it? This guy was bonkers, and he was going to bring us all down with him. “Carrera, I believe I told you to bite me.” Carrera met my glare with a weary set of eyes. Raising his hand, he slapped me across the face. “You are a Life Dealer, Dieter Resnick. I watched you transmute blood to mana with my own eyes. I give you this simple choice: You can stand by and watch or stand up and act. Have no doubt, young man, I will claim the lives around us. I will do it with great sadness—but zero hesitation. My country is dying. It is the only path left for me. I will succeed at this cast or die trying. But you hold another option. You could put your left hand on that blasted stone. You could extract the energy inside the draconite, draw it within you, spin it about your Ki, and discharge it into the array below us. In Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Salt Lake and Mexico City, my associates have prepared partner circles for the cast. The circles are charged. The broken strands of the Great Western Flow are harnessed. All sits ready, awaiting our call. The only question remaining is which call they will receive. My call, or yours.” “But…” In moronic desperation, I looked left and right for help. But there was no Rei, or Jules, or Albright to come and help me. I was alone. I was absolutely and totally alone. “Young man, our time is short. I will give you thirty seconds to decide.” + What do you do when you don’t know the right answer? Where do you turn? I was trapped inside Carrera’s circle. I was within his sphere of influence. He had me dead to rights. Was his proposal a trap? Was I missing a crucial detail? The not knowing, it bore a hole straight through me. What did I know for certain? Carrera didn’t need me to complete this cast. If Jules was confident that Carrera could pull off a grand spell, then so was I. Yet if I were to believe Carrera’s words, the six initiates above me, my friends fighting outside the frameshift, and the countless thousands below us all needed me to act. But I was dealing with a mind mage. Could I trust that I wasn’t being deceived? Rei had tried and failed to glamour me, Anna had bumbled it, and fighting off Carrera’s WIP team had been a cinch. That was why the DEA had selected us Lambdas in the first place. We were all near immune. And there was the duct-taped initiate above us. Carrera’s glamour failed on her. I turned to the last trick up my sleeve. I closed down my other senses, opened my Sight fully, and directed it at Carrera. Maybe he was lying…My jaw tightened. Carrera’s aura was a firm, unmoving grey. I knew that sight. It was utter conviction—the same color I’d observed while watching the devout in prayer. My head spun. I saw no trap, no attempt at deception, just a man willing to thin the costs of his actions. Carrera was committed to succeeding at his task, but seemed willing to do it with the lowest number of casualties as possible. I hated to admit it, but Carrera’s position almost sounded reasonable. Mexico had gotten the royal shaft. How many lives had been twisted or snuffed because of Fremont’s actions? How many futures ruined? The Magi of the South deserved to have their own leyline, their own fortifications, and their own defenses. What right did we Americans have to deny them that? The only thing I couldn’t agree with were Carrera’s methods—and here he was giving me an opportunity to correct them. The six initiates spun helplessly above. The conscious one had closed her eyes in a grimace. I reexamined the impenetrable barrier surrounding us, bit my lip, and let out a sigh. There was no way around it. I bore responsibility either way. My inaction guaranteed mass-murder. Acting as Carrera’s proxy risked what, exactly? My own life? True, taking in such a large amount of energy might kill me, but in tonight’s heinous equation, did a single life even register? I rounded back on the Big Bad. Not acting guaranteed the deaths of almost everyone I knew. Actor or spectator. Risk the unknown or stand aside and watch. As usual, I just couldn’t help myself. It was like Jules was always telling me: I was a chancer to the core. “Alright,” I heard myself say. Carrera smiled. I twisted inside. Carrera knew he’d won—and that set off a fire inside me. I searched for my voice, and when I found it, it sounded a bit fuzzy to my ear. “We’ll do it,” I whispered. “We’ll cast your damn spell. But let us be crystal clear—if you’re bullshitting us, if so much as one person dies because of what you’re asking us to do, we’re going to suck the life from your limbs until they’re nothing but nubs. Then we’re going to drop you in a hole for safekeeping and take a little trip. We’re going to kill every last one of your line, collecting their heads as we go. When our bag is nice and full, we’re going to come back for another visit. We’re going to make a soup of your bones and drench the rancid sludge with lye. Do you hear us, Diego Escutia Carrera? If you fuck with us, we shall take away your everything. We will make it as though you never existed.” Carrera took a step backwards. “Do you understand me?” I growled. His smile had cooled. “Mr. Resnick…you remind me of another. Very well. I acknowledge your terms.” He waved a hand, and I was suddenly free to move. “Approach the obelisk. Your body will know what to do.” I eyed the giant humming column. Uncertain, I took a few cautious steps forward. The deep hum of the draconite grew louder. The sound was both familiar and foreign to my ear. It pushed away the sights and sounds around me. Entranced by it, I reached out to touch the stone—and my hand passed straight through it. The stone’s song changed timber, and for the first time in perhaps eons, the massive chunk of draconite shuddered alive. What are you doing, my child? Hara’s voiced boomed from inside my noggin. “Oh. Hey, Hara. Nothin’ much. Just tapping into this giant stone-o-death and re-arranging the world’s manaflows with my body. How about yourself? Anything new?” Child, I am doing the same as you. I am merely wondering as to your aim. As I said before— “Yeah, yeah. I know. ‘You and I are one.’ But I figure that’s about to change. I figure you and I are about to become a billion and one itsy-bitsy pieces.” I am merely concerned for your welfare. Our body can manage the forces, but the mind is still lacking. All will go white. Consciousness will slip, and the flows will run wild. The mind requires more training before it can withstand such formidable flows. Perhaps, after another hundred years of— “Hara, the mind needs to grin and bear it. I have to do this cast, and I have to do it now.” The voice in my head was silent—which was a strange experience—I wasn’t accustomed to waiting for myself to answer. “Hara?” If that is your wish, then so it must be. I smirked. “So it must be” or not, Hara sounded grumpy. The conduit must be fully established before the whiteness takes hold. If you fail to form a clear conduit before the whiteness takes you, the energy will go wild and our body will be lost. You must start driving the stone’s energy into the array before the whiteness overruns thought. If you succeed at this, our body will continue to conduit even after you have fainted. Choose the images for your transmutation carefully. They must encapsulate the three crucial elements of such a cast: extraction, attraction, and anchorage. “Pick good images and jack into the array quickly. Got it.” But, my child, I do not understand. Why not let the other magus risk this cast? He is willing, is he not? “Um…how about the hundreds of thousands of people below us?” Hundreds of thousands of people…Ah, I see! We could use some followers. They could bathe our feet…feed us figs…worship our image…Mmm, yes. Good thinking, my child. “Right…” I scratched my head nervously. “Thanks for the input, Hara. This has been…great. Really great.” Why couldn’t I be normal crazy? Shaking my head, I turned my attention back to the stone. Carrera was right. I recognized the sensation. It was a faint memory that didn’t feel quite like my own. Touching the draconite was like touching the essence of life itself, and—to my surprise—my own life’s energy wasn’t flowing into the obelisk. The life energy was flowing backwards. It was flowing into me. And I could draw upon it easily. It was even easier than drawing mana from a leyline. All it took was the slightest force of will. And boy did it feel refreshing…like a cool shower after a hot day. The pains and bruises of the past few hours washed away. Draconite…what exactly was this stuff? The word ambrosia came to mind (see: the nectar of the gods; the soda pop of life; Zeus-juice). This strange ruby-red rock…I sensed it could give me more power than I could ever use. I pulled my hand out of it and shuddered. Was this what blood was to Rei? Was stealing it this…tempting? Nothing this potent could be healthy. I needed to get done with this spell quickly. Developing a new image for the extraction wasn’t necessary. The strange energy came when I called it. Containing it was going to be the problem. I needed to snare all the energy as it poured out of the stone—and I needed to snare a lot of it. To do that, I had to spin every last drop of it around my Ki. Then I needed to jam all that newly harnessed energy into the magical array below my feet. I didn’t understand how Carrera’s array worked, but I didn’t need to. All I was expected to do was deliver the power from the stone. The carefully arranged symbols would do the hard work of repairing the leyline. I took a step back and bit my lip. I understood what Hara meant now. Doing each part of the spell in sequence wouldn’t work. I had passed out channeling a much smaller amount of energy when I made all that grape juice. If I wanted this spell to work, my mind would need to be like a focused crystal. I couldn’t rely on a collage of past experiences to form this cast. I needed a single memory, an ironclad anchor that I could cling to throughout the storm. A single memory that encapsulated extraction, attraction, and anchorage… Looking over at Carrera, I nodded. “I’m ready. After I extract the energy from the draconite, you want me to spin it around my Ki and deliver it into the array?” “Correct, magus. The array will do the spellwork for you. But young man, you mustn’t falter. If for even a second I sense that your cast is failing, I will intervene. I will use the six twirling above us to finish this cast on my own. Understand me well, magus. If you fail, their lives and the lives below us are forfeit.” I rolled my eyes. “Gee, thanks, Carrera. You should go into coaching.” I looked at the obelisk. It was back to humming its glum tune into the midnight air. “Sorry, Jules,” I said quietly. “It looks like I have to do something stupid again.” There was no use in dallying. I took a deep breath and extended my hand. Closing my eyes, I did exactly what Jules had trained me to do. I abandoned every stray thought and emotion by focusing on my spinning black ball. Then, when my mind felt empty, I thought of the bright memory Jules had gifted me… It was like vaporizing a dam. For an instant, the oppressive wall of energy hung on my fingertips, astonished at my rash request. For an instant, we stood across from one another—raw energy and man. And then time and space imploded. The rush was stupefying. It completely overwhelmed my senses. Every last nerve trafficking pain, heat, and cold fired off in unison. I’m not sure if I screamed. The instant all that energy struck my Ki, I went deaf and blind. I thought that the core of my very being would wash away. I was certain the flood would wipe me clean off the Earth…but instead my Ki cut the surge like a knife. It split the thundering flow right in two. Nor did any of the energy escape my grasp. The rush bent back upon itself, braiding into giant figure eights, and began swirling about in chaotic orbits around my core. I couldn’t see the energies, but I could sense them swirling about me. That sixth sense was the only thing not in chaos. It told me I was harnessing the flows. But how was that even possible? Because of the image I chose, of course. We are all bound by fate. Fate limits our choices to the ones at hand. Of late, fate had been a serious dick. It had left me with but one either/or decision to make. I could have accepted Carrera’s offer or declined it. But despite the tight boundaries fate had crammed me into, I was still left with thousands of different ways to fulfill the task. Some choices might have killed me. Others might have turned out to be duds. Some might have even blown up the freakin’ tower. But I picked wisely. I picked—tree. “Jules!” I screamed into the roar that had shattered my ears. “Above her trunk, thousands of branches stretch—below her trunk, thousands of roots sleep—in her heart, a constellation of stars tranquil and pure—Daur, I name thee—Daur, I call to thee. With your leaves, drink from the stone. With your trunk, draw forth the flows. With your roots, anchor and bind them!” Blind, deaf, and dumb, I unleashed my image upon the world. The space around me warped. Mana and life surged. I could sense the shift despite my blindness. The ball was rolling, the cast was up and running, but my body was in shambles. I dropped to a knee and thrust my hand into the array. I had to send in the energy before I lost consciousness. I had to or all would be lost. The giant red obelisk quaked in protest. It was melting like a Popsicle in the heat of the summer sun. My robe kicked up and swirled about me, and far off in the distance, at the fringes of my flickering Sight, I spied six dancing avalanches of golden mana charging forward to my call. And then the pace of the spell quickened. The forces roared, and I could feel nothing, hear nothing, nor make sense of any of my thoughts. But I clung fast to Jules’ tree. I held tight and refused to let the image go. And at long last—as my head filled to the brim with white—an ancient river, dry and parched from over two centuries of poverty, started to fill with mana once more. I let the whiteness take me. My image of Jules would hold. + I opened my eyes with a jolt. For a second, I thought I was suffocating. I’d fallen on my side, my soft Elliot robe lumped on top of my head. Knocking off the hood, I struggled onto my unsteady feet. It was quiet now. I was still inside the circle, but some time must have passed. The initiates still hung from the scaffolding above me, but the ride was off. The obelisk had vanished. Only the smooth surface of the platform remained. A strange glow caught my eye. I looked down at my feet and squinted in confusion. The complex silver etchings had vanished. Now every inch of the floor was glowing with amber characters. And their shapes…I swallowed. They were cuneiform figures, the wedged-shaped symbols used in Ancient Mesopotamia. I turned to find Carrera standing quietly behind me. His expression was blank. His eyes were dead. “Stars above,” I whispered. The absolute conviction I’d read in his aura…hadn’t Spinoza warned us? Hadn’t Albright? Never rely on your strengths. Your enemy knows your strengths. There was another explanation for absolute conviction—an utter lack of free will. I wiped the sweat forming on my brow. My hands wouldn’t stop shaking. “What have I done?” I rasped. “Why, a marvelous job, of course.” I wheeled around, but found no one. “And this was so much more satisfying than merely turning you. Don’t you agree, generalissimo?” Carrera nodded eagerly. “Of course, milady.” Anna came into view as the veil of her shroud scattered. It was the very same shroud that Carrera had been hiding under. My Sight had already failed to penetrate it then, but I’d assumed that Carrera was alone. I bit my lip. Assumed. I’d never even considered what Anna was up to, never factored her actions into my logic. Cold beads of sweat ran down my back. Her footsteps were silent. Her smile, utterly serene. We both knew the odds. I wasn’t coming out of this alive. “Anna,” I asked, my throat parched and dry. “What have you done?” “Done? Why, dear child, that is a most dangerous accusation. As I told you before, I am merely here to observe. Anything more would breach our precious treaty. I’ve done nothing but stand and watch all night. This is all yours and Mr. Carrera’s doing.” Anna walked over to Carrera, and the old man knelt before her. The most potent mage of Mexico was acting like her puppy. She stroked his hair. He looked up at her lovingly. “You ghouled him.” “Another horrible accusation? I see no proof of that. In fact, we’ve had our squabbles in the past. The generalissimo was all too happy to accept the supply of draconite I provided him. He was all too happy to restore the flow of mana to his homeland. But the old soul got a tad squeamish when I requested he break a certain seal. All I wished for was fair compensation—but we had terrible arguments on the topic.” Anna pouted. “The tension was most distressing.” Her eyes still locked on mine, Anna ground her thumbnail across Carrera’s brow. Carrera knelt patiently as a thick stream of blood ran down into his eyes. He didn’t so much as flinch. “I’m happy to report our squabbles have ended. Mr. Carrera and I have had a meeting of the minds.” She graced the old man with a smile. He shuddered with delight. “Compromise, magus—it is the genius of this nation.” “What seal are you talking about?” My voice squeaked out like a drowning mouse. “Oh, it is nothing special.” She turned back to Carrera. “Thank you, dear. Now climb to the top of the scaffolding and jump off for me.” Blood still coursing down his face, Carrera nodded, walked over to the ride’s metal lattice, and began to climb. “Anna…” I was starting to feel hot. I found it hard to focus. “Be sure to land head first, dear,” she shouted up to Carrera. “I want to hear spine!” It didn’t occur to me to intervene. Spending the remainder of your existence eating rotten flesh while under the thrall of a Bathory didn’t sound too thrilling. I focused on the Duchess of Peoria instead. This business with a seal had me worried. “Anna, breaking a seal was not part of the bargain. I want you to stop this spell.” “But I don’t wanna.” She stomped her foot and pouted. “Anna. Rei asked me not to fight you—but I will break that pledge if you break yours.” “Chirps the chick to the eagle.” Anna’s mood darkened. “Fool boy, I made no such bargain.” As she paced towards me, an intense pressure compressed my chest. I suddenly found it very hard to breath. “I have lived years like you have lived days. Your soul may be temporarily unattainable, but your neck is still mine. Anytime. Anywhere.” I glared back at her. This was better. Cocky was good. Cocky meant sloppy. If I could just get close enough to touch her… As if reading my logic, Anna veered away. The shade of her aura shifted. “Do not fret, young magus. I have not come for your head.” She executed a lazy pirouette and bowed forward gracefully. There was no denying her beauty. No denying her poise. She was the epitome of womanhood. Flushed cheeks. Tender curves. Pleasant fantasies tugged at me…promises of tender moments…promises of safety… “Did you know that I failed to obtain you four times?” I shook my head. “I obtained for you admission at Fontbonne Academy, but Albright interceded. I made certain your name was on Carrera’s list of initiates, but Rei Acerba was assigned your escort. Once you were in Elliot’s confines, I dared not make further motions. I had turned my attentions elsewhere when you came waltzing into my condo.” My eyes widened. “Rei only gave you my last name. You knew my first.” Anna arched her brow. “Good catch, darling. Knowing the first name makes glamour much easier.” A cold shiver ran down my spine. “What are you—” “I had to be certain you could do it.” “Do it?” I swallowed. “You mean the spell I cast was—” “Your resistance is remarkable. Direct commands would never work. But inserting a concept? Inflaming your passions? Hustling the nature of the beast along?” Her fangs glinted silver in the light. “Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.” “No.” But it was true. Where had that crazy insight come from? Sapping the life from a person’s arm? Infusing it into their chest? Why would I ever consider such a cast? “Then you evaded my guards with that ridiculous charade.” The way she’d convulsed at the end…I wanted to throw up. “And you foiled me a fourth time this very evening! I will have you know that I got up early to purchase those chairs at the Pottery Barn. How infuriating it was! You, the only malleable instrument I could find, and yet so unbearably unobtainable.” Anna twirled, her dark hair spreading like a curtain of night. “Unobtainable! Outside of the realm of handbags, I had nearly forgotten the concept.” She gave me a toothy smile. “Thank you for reminding me of its flavor, my pet.” My temper flared. “Get used to it,” I growled. “You’re not getting me to do your bidding.” Her smile darkened and her fangs extended “Oh, but magus—you already have.” I balled up my fists. My temples throbbed. “And to twist your will by wit alone…” She touched the tips of her breasts and quivered. “Oh, magus, what a fantastic gift it was. What a wondrous prize. You have replaced Shakespeare at the top of my trophy chest. How could I end your life now? How could I pass up on the anguish to follow?” Behind me, Carrera’s head splattered open like a cantaloupe. His body twitched once and went still. “It is as my mother used to say: ‘Wine and pain, both improve with age.’” Carrera dead, the initiates roused. Two of the girls screamed out in horror, but the gagged one still looked down at me with steady eyes. She must have heard everything—but her eyes surprised me. There was confidence in them, as though she were willing strength into me, as though she still believed I could save them, as though she expected it. I matched her stare and nodded. I could still do good here. I could still make something right. I turned back to Anna and found I wasn’t shaking. I had decided to bear the consequences when I started the cast, but being bested like this hurt terribly. Anna had played me like a fiddle. Now she was standing there gloating. I wanted to make her hurt. I needed to make her hurt. And in that rage I found the strength I needed to keep charging forward. “I’ll ask you one more time, Anna. Stop this spell.” “I don’t feel like it,” she said with a flourish. “Why don’t you try your luck?” “My pleasure.” I didn’t need to be asked twice. I nurtured the acrid hatred inside me and built my paltry mana into a tempest of flame. I planned two volleys. The first would get her moving. I’d use my Sight to guide the second. Rei was going to have my head for this, but I had to do something. Concentrating on my Sight, I unleashed the first volley—and the entire array exploded. I stood there dumbly as the cuneiform symbols burst into brilliant red strobes. They shot straight into the sky. I arched my head back and watched the rays soar into the heavens. Crossing the distance in seconds, they etched themselves into the moon. The air above me warped, curling itself into a haze of reds and oranges. The sky looked like it was on fire. Like it was melting. And I finally understood. That mural in the Rei’s home, the one with the horrific battle in the sky, the burning of the very air, it was a gate to another frame. I could hardly contain my rage. My cast had just broken the seal. Anna hadn’t lifted a finger. Just as she’d promised, she’d done nothing but watch. As the circle around us faltered, I lunged at her in fury. She dodged easily and smacked the side of my skull with her elbow. I skidded a good twenty yards. A smattering of stars danced across my vision. I tried to find my feet, but she’d done some serious damage. I spotted three Annas standing on the edge of the platform. All of them were laughing. “Goodbye, magus,” she shouted. “It was a blast—but I believe you still have a last wish to grant.” Anna withdrew a small device from her purse. I froze—she meant the initiates. At the press of the button, two of the ride’s legs exploded. The drop tower’s struts gave way, and the entire structure bent at its remaining joints. In the same instant, the frameshift ended. A stunned Dante and Sheila dove out of the way of a crumbling structure that—to them—was invisible only a moment ago. The ride struck the ground with a reverberating roar. The entire building shuddered. A chorus of screams followed. The initiates, still strapped into their chairs, were hanging off the side of the building. Only two twisted legs stood between them and an express trip to the parking lot. In the confusion that followed, Hans headbutted Rei. The strike shattered her cute nose, and I flinched in reaction. Hans squirmed away to join his master. Anna tossed Hans one of two backpacks, and with nary a word, the two of them jumped right off the side of the building. I struggled to my feet (yet again). The initiates dangling off the ride were screaming for help, but there were scenes of death and dying all around me. Spinoza hung limp from my father’s arm. Eight Talmax mages lay dead before them. All the trolls were dead or dying, hacked to bits by Roster and Sheila. Glory Riley was limp and pale. Sadie sat cradling her body. John Riley lay bound next to them, drool running from his open mouth. Collins was busy tending to Masterson’s face. The two DEA agents were battered and bruised, but both were still in one piece. But the biggest change to the scenery was on the west side of the building. Where the gift shop once stood, only dust and melted glass remained. I looked over at Rei and nodded at her unspoken question. Looking up at the sky, I could see no sign of an impending apocalypse. The full moon hung innocently above. The smell of sulfur and brimstone had vanished. But I had unlocked something. What I’d freed, I didn’t know—but I could enjoy a nice soak in the guilt tub later. Right now there was still work to be done. Right now I could fulfill a promise. I dragged my frazzled body over to the scaffolding and began to climb out towards the initiates. Ignoring the wind, ignoring my fear, I pressed outward. If I was going to have to suffer the cost of that cast, I sure as hell was going to collect my reward. “Careful, bud,” Dante yelled up from below. “That thing ain’t stable.” As if agreeing with him, the metal struts groaned in protest. “Thanks for the helpful advice, roomie.” I kept crawling. “It is sound advice, my most moronic anti-hero.” Rei was already beside me. “Please do not fall. You are quite fat, and I do not want to pull my back out again.” “Yes, ma’am,” I said, reaching the first segment beyond the building. I looked down. Vomited. Groaned. “Charming,” Rei muttered. “I am attached to this for eternity?” I mouthed a brief apology to the poor saps below and continued onward. Then again, I’d saved their sorry asses, the least they could do was wear my vomit. A clanging noise came from behind. I looked back to see Roster and Sheila fortifying the wounded structure’s legs. “Don’t want no Lambda-patties,” shouted Roster. “Dynamic-duo, send them back one at a time so it doesn’t strain too much.” I nodded and turned my attention to the first terrified girl. She kept repeating the same prayer over and over again. I bit my lip and resisted the urge to tell her to instead thank the structural engineering class Roster was taking. “Easy there,” I said instead. “Focus on your handholds. Keep moving till you reach the end.” She nodded and headed off in the direction of the building. I was a little concerned she wouldn’t make it. Her arms were as thin as her wrists. After releasing the third, Rei turned to me. “Dieter…my sister…what did she do to you? You smell like cornered prey.” I looked past her. “Sorry.” “Oh! No, no, no,” Rei said, shaking her head. “The scent is quite alluring. I am just wondering as to the cause.” “I think Anna might have gotten me to do something very bad, Rei.” Rei sobered. “It is a specialty of hers. If sister could descend lower on my inventory of shit, she just would have.” I snickered. “It’s a shit list, Rei. And bad people go up your shit list, not down.” “Curses,” she grumbled. The fourth initiate we freed saw Rei, screamed, and nearly plummeted to her death. Thankfully, my terrifying vampire assistant’s reflexes were much faster than the tug of gravity. But even after that, the girl didn’t even bother to say thank you. As the stupid twit scrambled away, I looked back at the tower. Jules had set up a circle around Spinoza to manage his wounds. He grimaced in pain as Jules re-set his arm. “Some victory,” I grumbled. “Is the enemy not crushed?” Rei asked. She was dangling by her ankles, tugging at a set of belts. “Stop moping and assist me.” She tore apart the fifth set of restraints and grabbed the boy by the collar as he fell. “Wow,” the red head said as she lifted him into the air. Rei waited patiently, ready for the usual outburst. “Aren’t you Rei Bathory?” He stared back at her in disbelief. “Do you really go to Elliot?” “Indeed,” she replied, handing him off to me like a dirty napkin. “Awesome,” he said, looking star struck. “Well, if you wouldn’t mind, um, Your Highness…could I get your autograph?” “Her what? Why would—” “Indeed,” Rei said, talking over me. “Track me down after orientation. I would be happy to go out for a bite.” “Sure thing!” he said, crawling past me. “Hey, is she still single?” he whispered. “I mean, it said so in Circling the Drain, but you can’t really trust the tabloids.” I grasped the metal struts tightly as another gust of wind blew my robe in my face. “Grub, we are 350 meters above asphalt. Can you please crawl to safety so only your heart gets broken?” Rei turned back to me and smiled. “Out for a bite. That was a most successful pun, was it not?” She chuckled. “My studies of M. A. D. Magazine are beginning to pay dividends, Dieter.” I rolled my eyes and gestured to the last initiate. The poor thing had spent the last few minutes staring straight down at the Strip. I didn’t even want to think about what the view was like from that vantage as the ride collapsed. It made me want to go eat some more food just so I could throw it all up. She was so far down that I had to work on her restraints while Rei held my ankles. “So fat,” she lamented from above. I removed the duct tape covering the girl’s mouth as gently as I could, but it still took some skin. I sighed. I couldn’t seem to do anything without fucking up something else. Working out her tender jaw, the girl watched me as I undid her restraints. “I saw what happened,” she said quietly. My hand rested over the final buckle. For a single, dirty second, I thought about covering my tracks. “What you did…well, I just want to say that I know what your intentions were. And…and I think you made the right choice. You saved so many lives.” She looked at me squarely. “Mine included.” I nodded, feeling a rush of guilt. “You know, to be hung out like this and still able to talk, I’m impressed. You’ve got some serious guts.” “I have to be strong. My family is counting on me. I’m the first of my line to qualify.” My throat tightened. It was like I thought. She had the same brown hair, the same sad eyes. “What’s your name?” I asked. “Angela. My name’s Angela Hawthorn.” “Hawthorn,” I repeated quietly. “Do you by chance have a sister, Angela?” “Yep,” she replied with a smile. “Two bossy big brothers and one bossy big sister. Do you know her? She goes to school at Boulder.” I turned to Rei. “Pull us up.” “Pull us up, please,” she lectured. “Are you okay?” Angela asked. “Yea. Fine. Just a little banged up.” “It’s just that it looks like you’re—” “I’m fine,” I said stiffly. “I’m just allergic to heights.” “Your name’s Resnick, right?” Angela asked. “That’s what that poor man kept calling you.” Angela knew when to change the subject. I liked her already. “Yea. Dieter Resnick. And this here is my partn—” I yelped as Rei dug into my ankles. “My squadmate and benevolent overlord, Rei Bathory.” Safe on top of the scaffolding, Angela turned to Rei. “Nice to meet you, Magus Bathory. My name is Angela Hawthorn.” Angela extended her hand but Rei drew backwards. She bowed curtly instead. Angela seemed to take it in stride, and the three of us made our way back. Angela and I crawled like caterpillars. Rei waltzed. To add to the chaos, my robe refused to behave. It was flopping around manically. Still, with Rei leading our procession, I had a pretty great view. I decided that torn dresses were way better than regular dresses. “What’s your squad’s letter?” Angela asked over the creaking of the metal. “Grubs should not ask so many questions,” Rei shot back. She seemed quite grumpy, though I didn’t know why. “Rei’s right, Angela. You should never ask questions. Questions are dangerous. You might even discover you’re related to someone. That could be rather disturbing.” Rei put her hands on her hips and frowned. “We are not related, Dieter Resnick. Your kin are Germanic. My kin are Hungarian. And you are quarter blooded at most. Inbreeding is not a concern in our case.” “Our case?” I asked slyly. Rei replied with a sly kick to my face. “Such innuendo is of your own design, Dieter, son of Kurtz. I merely corrected the facts.” Angela giggled. “Your ears are red.” Rei huffed. “Your vision is faulty.” Safely on the ground, Roster and Sheila led the initiates across the burned-out array. There was little left of the intricate designs that had lit up the sky. I had to give Anna at least some credit—the bitch covered her tracks well. I tracked down Jules next. She was still working on Spinoza. His wounds were severe. His breath came in sickly gasps. I knelt beside him. “Sir, we completed our mission, but it was a mess. And, sir, I didn’t heed one of your most basic lessons.” “You aren’t the only one, diablillo.” He gestured to his cracked ribs. “But the job is done. We go home. We drink beer. We laugh. This is good, no?” I nodded. Being the government’s bitch had some benefits. At least we had great fakes. “Yes, sir, but you’re buying. I’m dead broke.” Spinoza grinned. “Like father, like son.” My father had taken a position off to the side. He didn’t look in the mood to talk—and for that I was grateful. But it wasn’t just my father who was quiet. Dante was eyeing the ground, and Sheila had made busy cleaning that impressive broadsword of hers. Funny…the blade looked plenty clean to my eye. Off to the side, I caught Roster kneeling in prayer. That was odd too. He usually saved that stuff for Sunday. I turned to Jules. She was still hovering over Spinoza even though he was good and bandaged. “Okay,” I said. “I assume we don’t want to still be chillin’ up here when the cops arrive. Shouldn’t we get this show on the road?” No one replied, but someone needed to start giving orders. “Where’s the captain?” I asked. “Ladies room?” My question was met by further silence. Dante shook his head and sighed. “Bud—we lost her. She fell defending the flank.” My legs didn’t feel quite right. I took a seat on the ground. Monique was graduating this year. Top of her class. Off to Cerberus in the summer. Rei flinched. She took a seat next to me and huddled into a ball. “So this is what…” She stared off into the distance. “Dieter, I do not like this.” “Alright,” Dante said, standing. “Dieter’s right. We have to evacuate and care for our wounded. We’ll have time to mourn later. Jules, I need another translocation circle, please.” Jules nodded, dug into her robe, and pulled out a crumbled piece of chalk. She picked out the biggest chunk, and with her usual speed, she sketched out the complex pattern for another portal. Dante clicked his receiver and had Maria open it. Collins and Masterson led Sadie and John Riley out first, and the freed initiates followed. Roster, Sheila, and Dante helped my father carry out Spinoza. My father and I didn’t speak a single word. It was better that way, I decided. As Rei followed them out, I tugged on Jules’ dress. “We’ll meet up with them later. I need to show you something.” Jules looked confused, but she did as I asked. I led her up onto the platform and showed her the array. I didn’t go into details. I just told her what had gone off at the end of the cast. She jotted down some of the shapes in her notebook as she went, muttered to herself the whole time. It must have interested her, because she kept scratching her head and twirling her pencil. The day’s events had taken a toll on my body. I plopped down and examined the folds of my robe. The crimson-grey garment had survived tonight’s exploits without a hint of damage. What had Dante said? Crimson was ‘Mars ruled’ or something? Maybe Jules and Dante had been wrong. Maybe my robe actually was enchanted. I looked down at my ruined boots and shrugged. My profession continued to destroy clothes faster than I could replace them. An indestructible robe could save me some serious change. A few minutes later, Jules returned from examining the array. I looked up at her worn face. Between the burn marks and dried blood, she looked as bad as I felt. Her dress was in tatters, and she was covered in countless tiny wounds. Wordless, she sat down next to me and looked up at the moon. “Did I void the Earth’s warranty?” Jules shook her head. “It’s mighty bajanxed, Dieter. I don’t know enough ta say for sure, but it looks like a mix between a summonin’ circle, a counter-hex, and some sorta gate. And I mean a frame gate, not just some translocation spell.” I filled her in, leaving out the part about the voice in my head. “She claims yer a Dealer?” “Yea, a Vita Paciscor,” I replied. “I have no idea what that is, but it must have something to do with my mother. In other words, the non-vampire side of the family tree.” Jules nodded, and her expression grew grave. “No more talkin’ about these topics, Dieter. Not to anyone. Now flip up yer hood and hold yer breath. This be a hard one. I need me focus.” Jules grew quiet and drew in long and steady breath. I took a step back as her magic crackled through the air. She raised her hands to the heavens. “Aqua fortis.” She spoke the words through clenched teeth, as though even saying the words was painful. A dark cloud rose up into the air. It twisted and crackled like an angry snake. “Hold yer breath!” she shouted. A noxious yellow poison rained down on us. It ate into the cement, destroying the remains of the array. As the mixture of acid and concrete hissed and sizzled, Jules leaned into me and sagged. She placed her weary head on my shoulder, and I held her until the merciful gusts of wind carried away the fumes. Jules’ robe was a tattered mess of holes. I frowned. Aqua fortis, that was the old name for nitric acid. Jules had cast the equivalent of acid rain. For a Druid to perform such a spell…I was pretty sure it was against their religion. “Jules.” My throat felt like a giant scab. “Don’t you ever—” Jules covered my mouth with her hand. “Dieter, we Conscious are all haunted by the past.” She spoke into my collar. The warmth of her breath caressed my neck. “Awen willing, a witch’ll live a life of centuries. That’s plenty of time for folly. We shouldn’t have ta carry our parents’ as well.” She lifted her head and struggled to regain her feet. “Now come off it. We were promised a pint, and old Irish legend says yer goin’ ta hell right quick if ya start refusin’ such offers.” “You know what, Jules?” “What’s that, Dieter?” “Screw James Bond. I’ll take Jules with her stick any day of the year.” She gave me a thousand-watt grin. “Of course ya will, me pupil.” She brushed off the yellow crust that had formed on her tattered robe. “The British may be better at lookin’ pretty, but when it comes time for a real throw down…” “Irish all the way.” Jules’ emerald eyes sparkled through all the grime. “No doubt, Dieter.” “No doubt, Jules.” I looked out upon my city, and for the first time this whole wretched night, I found myself thinking about tomorrow. Chapter 21 PENULTIMULOGUE After our return to Elliot, we learned that the other three IKΛM squads had gone active as well. Iota, Kappa, and Mu had been sent as part of a much larger force secretly inserted into Salt Lake City days before New Year’s Eve. While we had slugged it out in Vegas, Iota, Kappa, and Mu had fought in the battle to defend Salt Lake City. Fortunately, despite the heavy fighting, none of the other squads had suffered a casualty. The newspapers were calling the entire mess “The Battle for the Lake.” Talmax’s forces had been routed, and the victory was all thanks to Iota’s captain, Susan Collins. It had been the big question of last term: How had Talmax intercepted our initiates en route to campus? How had they known where the initiates would be, whom they would meet, and when? The Magi had many enemies. Transit information was always kept hush-hush. So how had such information been made public? It turned out that early last year, Talmax got a hold of all of the Department of Mana Affair’s encryption standards. They were able to exploit every transmission the Department sent out. The ambushes, the successful hits, the way Talmax predicted DEA battle plans—they were reading us like an open book. How Talmax got a hold of the codes was less clear. The running theory was that the Thompson-Rileys were responsible, but that theory had a problem: The Thompson-Rileys were a respected weft-pair, but they lacked the clearance necessary to obtain DOMA decoder manuals. If the Thompson-Rileys weren’t responsible, it meant that someone else had been mega sloppy… or complicit in the leak. But in the end, it was all guesswork. With Carrera and his coven dead, we would probably never know the truth. What mattered was that by the time of the Battle for the Lake, DEA Command was fully aware of the breach. The reason why was Susan Collins. When Susan arrived at her pick-up point last August, her initiate was already under attack. She took a good knock to the kisser and found herself in detention. Lucky for Susan, the wiped Talmax goons couldn’t figure out which one of the young mages was their target. As her captors tried to trace their identities, Susan escaped with all the documents she could carry. How she escaped was the interesting part. The Talmax goons had chained her to a pole. To gain her freedom, Susan decided to cut off her own arm. (Even Rei was impressed by that one.) Susan arrived at Elliot a few hours after we did. She was bleeding profusely, but managed to warn the faculty of the breach. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of the mess. The news put DEA Command in a difficult position. If they changed their codes, they could again mask their communications. That would put an end to the ambushes, but their forces were already devastated. If combat continued for much longer, the DEA was set to lose the war by attrition. There was another option, though. If the DEA continued business as usual—if they continued to transmit orders as though they were oblivious to the breach—then perhaps they could use the knowledge to deliver a crushing blow. The trick would only work once, so they would have to make it count. To make matters worse, while DEA Command estimated that they only had enough able-bodied mages for one last offensive strike, combat was raging in two cities: Phoenix and Salt Lake. In Phoenix, the manaflow was weak. This accentuated Talmax’s advantages. In Salt Lake, a sturdy leynode offered the DEA a chance to exploit their magical firepower to its fullest. Pressed into a corner, they had to make a difficult choice. DEA Command decided to go for broke. They didn’t inform their field agents of the breach, and they left their Phoenix battalion to the wolves. It was a harsh call. To the man, the DEA agents in Phoenix fell on their swords. But the sacrifice served a greater purpose. Talmax was left with every indication that the DEA remained totally clueless to the leaks. It made Talmax cocky, and it gave the DEA home court advantage for their final strike. The DEA bided its time throughout the fall. They surrendered Phoenix and then the entire American Southwest. They let their own academies be attacked. They pulled back to Salt Lake and showed every indication they were weakening. And then—in the midst of the Battle for the Lake— the DEA sent out an encrypted message. It was an order for all forces to retreat to the Temple for extraction. Talmax decoded the message within minutes. Thinking that their opponent’s forces were in disarray, the Talmax strike force charged the Temple hoping to maximize the damage. There was only one problem—the message was a fake. All the remaining DEA pair teams, along with a massive contingent of agents on loan from the East Coast, were waiting on the flanks. The Talmax forces had charged straight between a hammer and an anvil. Few of their mages survived the initial barrage. And DEA Command didn’t stop there. Using Talmax’s own translocation circles, they began a rapid counter assault. They regained control of the West Coast in a matter of hours. On January 2nd, the entire story hit the Conscious presses. There was an outcry over the extensive cover-up that the Department had engaged in during the battles leading up to December 31st, but reports of the DEA’s dashing victories helped oil the squeaky wheels. (It’s tough to complain when your team is kicking ass.) On January 3rd, DEA Command called a press conference that put the icing on the cake. They announced that—until recently—the extent of the DEA’s losses had been concealed from DEA Command. They claimed this unforgiveable deception was the work of West Coast Regional Head John Thompson, and his weft-partner, Glory Thompson. The DEA alleged that the couple had engaged in a cover-up to hide their mismanagement of the war effort. Command went on to say that on December 31st, arrest warrants were served on the two traitors. They reported that Glory Thompson resisted arrest and was killed on the spot, while John Thompson was captured, convicted of high treason by a battlefield commission, and hung until dead. With their own necks out of the noose, DEA Command turned their attention to buttoning lips. While every morning brought new (and glorious) details about the Battle for the Lake, the Conscious community was kept in the dark about “Operation ACT”. As far as anyone knew, Adept Ichijo Fukimura was injured and Adept Monique Rice was killed during a botched translocation exercise in the Mojave Desert. The strange lights and ensuing explosions atop the recently renovated Over the Top Casino and Resort were attributed to a fireworks disaster—a tragedy that killed the Chairman and CEO of the renowned Talmax Corporation, Diego Carrera, along with a number of high-ranking Talmax executives. (The Over the Top was up for sale, yet again.) Five of the initiates we rescued from the Over the Top were forcibly wiped, but the sixth, a Ms. Angela Hawthorn, proved too resistant. Angela hadn’t signed her Elliot contract, but she knew way too much to let go. This placed her in risk of an ‘accident’. Things were looking rather grim until a rather abrasive ICE agent intervened. A compromise was struck. The ICE wouldn’t leak their involvement if the DEA decided to play nice. After agreeing to a retroactive confidentiality agreement, Ms. Hawthorn was permitted to return to her family and grieve her sister’s passing. She’d be attending Elliot in the spring. Under penalty of head detachment, the surviving members of Lambda Squad were ordered to never disclose their involvement in Operation ACT. Nor were we permitted to talk about the intervention of the International Council on Evocation on sovereign US territory. I had the joyful experience of two full days of debriefs in which the theme was: what did Rei Acerba Bathory know, and when did she know it? Questions about what went on in Carrera’s circle were few and far between. I didn’t know what the higher-ups gleaned from the initiates before they wiped them, but my interrogators seemed happy with: “Carrera dead. Reaping averted.” I guess the DEA didn’t have much to go on. I’d cast the spell inside a frameshift and used up all the draconium in the process. Plus, Jules had obliterated the array. There wasn’t even any evidence left of the spell’s nature. To the agents, I was just a lowly ex-Imperiti who didn’t have a clue (yay, stereotypes). That suited me just fine. I was pretty sure what Anna had gotten me to do was illegal, and I liked my head attached to my shoulders. I didn’t share a word more than I had to. After we evacuated Las Vegas, my father rushed Spinoza off to get medical care, Collins and Masterson delivered John and Sadie to DEA Command, and Anna and Hans vanished from our radar. Whatever the Duchess of Peoria was planning, I didn’t have a clue. With the exception of Ichijo, not a soul inside DOMA knew that Rei and I had formed a weft-link, and after we both memorized the cuneiform designs, Jules destroyed her notebook and we shelved our analysis for later. We couldn’t have rushed it if we wanted to. Jules said we wouldn’t get anywhere unless we visited the Old Country. America wasn’t known for it’s magical libraries, and neither of us could afford the tickets. Still…at least one effect of the spell was obvious. Four days ago, all of America woke up to the news that an 8.0 earthquake had struck the sparsely populated expanses of Northern Nevada. The Conscious heard news of a different sort. Reports were streaming in that a new leyline had surged to life across the Southwest. They were calling it the Great Western Flow. Magic theorists were fascinated by the mystifying event. One camp postulated that we had at long last seen proof that mana was generated through the action of plate tectonics. A second camp disagreed. They argued that the earthquake was clear evidence for Mana Pooling Theory (which proposed that manalogical formations can generate incredible geological pressures over time). The only thing both sides could agree on was that these surprising developments highlighted the need for additional leyline research funding. Two days ago came news of a different sort. DOMA Mexico announced that a small band of battlemages had defeated the largest Were pack in Mexico City. It was their first victory against the Weres in over fifty years. To the bafflement of Wall Street, silver prices plummeted. I guess I should have taken solace in the Mexican Magi’s resurgence. I didn’t. I felt…numb. I didn’t dare bring it up with the others, but despite everything she had done, I felt terrible about Sadie. There had to have been something I could have done. If I’d noticed the signs…if I’d listened more carefully…I missed her stupid pink bunny slippers. I missed getting poked in the nose. I kept expecting her to stumble out of her dorm room, mumble, “Hey, Dieter,” and fumble her coffee mug with sleepy hands. I wondered what the DEA had done to her. I didn’t expect it was very nice. And Monique? I couldn’t even go there. None of us could… Chapter 22 THE FIRST CUT IS THE DEEPEST My new steel-toed boots squeaked across the linoleum. I rubbed my tired eyes. Visiting this Elliot’s infirmary was becoming a bad habit. The varnished white walls. The not so subtle chemical smell. Too much light. Too little life. Why anyone would ever want to work here was beyond me. They really needed to consider a few ferns. My crimson and charcoal robe flapping behind me, I rounded the corner and said hello to the night nurse. She gave me a mechanical nod and waved me on through. I was what they liked to call a “frequent-flyer.” (The staff even kept my favorite flavor of Jell-O chilled and waiting.) I felt the familiar relief as I approached the door. I pushed it open quietly and slid inside. “Anything new?” Rei folded up her new issue of M.A.D. Magazine and slid it into her robe. “Fukimura-san still slumbers.” I noted the big dreadlock lump curled up around Rei’s feet. “Is he even allowed in here?” Rei shrugged. “He arrived through the window. Let the nurses order him out if they wish.” Cumo’s one hundred and twenty pounds let out a heavy sigh. I walked over to Ichijo. It’d been seven days since they pulled the bullets from his gut. The blood loss had been severe. Jules had managed to stem the flow in the field, but he’d never regained consciousness. I’d heard the DOMA medics whispering in the hallway. They thought his brain was damaged. Since our arrival back at Elliot, the members of Lambda had been taking turns watching over him. It gave the seven of us something to do other than worry. Jules finished her shift at midnight. Rei covered the witching hours. I was her replacement for daybreak. I liked my shift. The world was quiet in the wee hours of the morning. It gave me time to think, and thinking beat running around killing things. I was grateful for the peace. Rei leaned over and sniffed the air pensively. Perhaps I misspoke. The peace came after the sun rose. I felt the slight push as she felt out my mind through the link. “Hey, no cheating.” Rei frowned. She squinted her eyes and strained her will. “Kenyan?” “Whoa,” I said, my eyes widening. “You almost got it that time. Shade-grown Ethiopian.” “Curses,” she replied, shaking her fists. “Sorry, kumpadre, but a bet’s a bet. The next pound is on the Bathmeister.” Grumbling, Rei reached into her pocket and handed me two twenties. I poured out two cups of coffee and grabbed a chair. We watched Ichijo’s chest rise up and down as the setting moon began to peer through the window. He looked peaceful, but his features were pale. I examined his aura. It’d shrunken even smaller since last time. I’d never witnessed such a thing before, but I figured it meant Ichijo was dying. That was a tough pill to swallow. Ichijo had been shot because Sadie leaked their location. If Maria hadn’t been lightning fast on the translocation, the entire team might have gotten killed. I shifted in my seat. To set us up like that…I still couldn’t fathom Sadie doing it. And we still didn’t know what happened to her. Collins and Masterson had carted her off along with her father. The DEA representatives were all tight-lipped about it. The silence. I was having trouble getting used to it. Grunts like us were treated like mushrooms. We were kept in the dark and fed bull—well, you get the idea. Such was life in the Wild World of Magery. I turned to the coffee cup in my hand. “What do you think, Rei, is Ichijo going to wake up again?” Rei took a sip from her cup. “Yes. Tonight.” I looked over at Rei. She could smell auras as easily as I could see them. She must have known he was dying. Why would she say otherwise? “My most-endearing sidekick, all is not as it seems.” She gestured to the window. “I have been waiting for the kitsune for several nights. It arrived at midnight. I believe it plans to wait until I depart.” Rei drew a packet of fried tofu from her robe and examined it. “I am curious, Dieter, do these congealed bean curds taste good?” I shrugged. Despite my on again, off again flirtations with a vegetarian lifestyle, I could never seem to get behind the idea of tofu. “Kinda bland. Are you thinking of going vegan?” Rei smirked. “Goodness no. This is bait.” I loved it when Rei smirked. I wished she had a smirk button. That there were smirk sales. That I could buy them by the dozen. She unwrapped the thick wad of tofu and tossed it on the floor. “Hey, that’s good food!” I stood to pick it up. My kitchen instincts were flaring up again. Rei snagged me by the robe and deposited me in the chair “Sit, watch, and learn. Cumo, védelmez Dieter.” I didn’t know what the command meant, but the big dog lifted his weight off Rei’s toes, sauntered over, and planted his haunches next to mine. Looking up, he gave me an ill-tempered huff. A gust of wind was playing with the thin white drapes dressing the windowsill. Cumo looked out into the darkness, his ears twitching. “You’re not even trying. Focus on listening, Dieter,” Rei urged. Rei kept insisting I try and hone my senses. She said all I had to do was focus. I did as I was told. The cold January air was stirring, and I leaned forward and strained my ears. My vision dimmed as I did. It was faint—but I could hear the jingle of a tiny bell. “Tada,” she said. I glanced over at Rei. She crossed her legs and took another sip of coffee. Smiling, she gestured back at the window. I jumped at the sight. Showered by moonlight, a strawberry-blond fox stood with all four paws on the windowsill. Its enormous bushy tail flicked about, and the fox’s dark eyes gazed into my own. I felt a subtle tickle playing across my Sight. I was being…assessed. The creature tilted its fury head and sniffed. I had never seen a real fox before. The creature was built as though every ounce counted. The fox’s nose pricked, and with a light, floating motion, it leapt from the sill to the fried tofu. I looked back over at Rei. She was busy donning thin satin gloves. I checked my watch. It was still well over two hours till daybreak. Why was she gloving up? That didn’t make any sense. I pressed out through the link. “One can never be too cautious,” she replied. “The kitsune are a cunning breed—and I fear this one has taken a liking to you. I already have one inner demon to deal with. I do not need another.” I didn’t quite grasp what Rei meant. “You’re worried about that little thing?” Cumo leaned forward, and a rolling growl channeled out of him like thunder. His response seemed a tad overkill. Cumo’s forepaw was the size of the fox’s entire head. I didn’t get why he was so angry. To me, the fox looked…cute. Indifferent to Cumo’s protests, the little canine ate through the block of tofu. Its perfect fur coat glistening as it moved. I wondered what its fur felt like…probably incredibly soft. The tiny fox glanced up and caught my eye. “Back off, bitch,” Rei snarled. The air around us popped. “Not again,” I muttered. I dusted the frost from my eyebrows. I looked into my coffee mug and found a dark-brown ice cube instead. It turned out that mana control issues weren’t limited to my craft alone. My problems revolved around stopping a cast once it started. Rei’s revolved around controlling the initial discharge. (Basically, the chick was on a hair trigger.) With a sigh, I resigned myself to a caffeine-free morning. Backing away toward the bed, the little fox whimpered. A thin layer of snow covered its nose. But misfire or not, Rei wasn’t letting up for an instant. She’d gone so far as to bare her fangs. I felt bad for the little thing. The Rei and Cumo tag team scaring the heck out of it. “Seriously, Rei, take it easy. That fox must only weigh twenty pounds.” The fox yelped and stomped its forepaws. I raised an eyebrow. “Um…fifteen pounds?” It gave me a cheerful bark and sat down on its haunches. Okay…that was a bit odd. Curious, I stood up to get a better look. Apparently, that was a mistake. Rei roared, “Cumo! Fegyelmezi magát, stupid Dieter,” and I was on my belly under gallons of fur before I even knew what hit me. A big wet tongue scored a direct hit on my ear. “Cumo,” I gasped. “You bastard. What about the dried chicken strips I bought you for Christmas?” Cumo fired off a defiant bark. Rei shook her head. “Honestly, Dieter, did you really think that you could bribe a dog of such caliber?” Cumo barked in agreement. “And my dear susceptible dullard, come next term, I insist you take a course in basic bestiary. Have I not already told you that the term ‘vampire’ is a broad one? You will do well to not permit a kitsune a sip from your life force—it spoils the blood.” The little fox hopped up onto Ichijo’s bed and flicked one of its three tails in disdain. I blinked thrice. “I’m sorry, but does that little guy have three tails?” “Indeed. And the bitch is a she, not he.” Rei turned to the petite canine. “Vermin, I believe you have a task. Do you dare waste your master’s time?” The red fox’s eyes narrowed. A growl to match Cumo’s rumbled from inside her. Then the she-fox turned her attention to me. “My sweet,” she bayed, “give me a whistle when you tire of this dull hikakibo.” My jaw dropped. A fox had just talked. She flicked of one of her many tails, and a tiny stream of flame arched its way through the air. It landed in my cup and the scent of fresh brewed coffee returned. I looked down. The coffee was warm again. The kitsune had melted the ice. I looked over at Rei—and I thought I caught her blushing. When I turned back to thank the fox, the bushy little creature was gone. “Finally,” Rei said. “Cumo, release Dieter. Dieter, obstruct the door with the cabinet. Then pin Fukimura-san’s legs.” Rei slid Ichijo’s bed away from the wall. She started tearing out IV lines and shutting off machines. “Whoa, Rei!” I exclaimed. “I think Ichijo needs those for like life and stuff.” “Now is not the time to argue. Stop thinking and do what I say.” She turned to Cumo. “Cumo, fegyelmezi magát Fukimura-san.” With a huff, the big dog scrambled up on top of Ichijo’s bed and sat square on his chest. “Stars above, Rei,” I said, jamming a supply cabinet against the door. “I’m cool with you trying some herbal remedies, but Cumo weighs like nine hundred pounds. Do you want to kill him?” “No, Dieter. Far from it.” Grasping both of Ichijo’s hands with her own, Rei pinned them over his head, and put all her weight down on top of them. “I do not desire Fukimura-san’s death; however, I do not wish to meet my own end, either. Now get up on this bed and place all of your fat upon his knees—and do keep clear of his toes.” Rei seemed to know what she was doing, so I did as I was told. I lifted my 6’1’ frame up onto the bed and sat down on Ichijo’s knees. Cumo glanced back at me, panting happily. (He was in his element.) “It’s coming,” Rei hissed. Her skin fuzzed out as her muscles tensed. I raised an eyebrow. Rei was going all out. Just when I was about to ask her why, my Sight flashed to life. Waves of light shot off in every direction. Without that forewarning, the first kick would have launched me straight into the air. My Sight had bought me enough time to grasp the bed railings and resisted it. “Hold firm,” Rei shouted. “Until Fukimura-san regains consciousness, we cannot let his body loose.” Ichijo let loose a series of growls and snarls. The bed jerked, and Rei winced in pain. I looked up to see Ichijo’s fingers digging into both of her forearms. Hissing with rage, she pinned Ichijo’s wrists with one hand and snatched his IV pole with the other. Blue-tinged blood splashed across the walls. Her wounds looked grievous, but Rei was undeterred. She bent the metal pole around Ichijo’s arms, binding him to the bed. Ichijo’s arms secured, Rei turned to tending to her wounds. A lavender scent had overpowered the entire room. I watched in utter fascination as she put pressure on the deep gashes. “Unbelievable,” she growled. “The kurva bitch nearly bled me.” “Do you need help?” I asked. Another of Ichijo’s kicks launched me into the air, but I barely even noticed. Rei glanced up at me and her eyes narrowed. “No. Be useful. Keep your weight and his legs.” “You sure?” I didn’t know why, but the sight of Rei’s— “Dieter! Snap out of it,” she said icily. “I need you to focus.” I shook my head clear. She was right. I needed to hold Ichijo down. I tightened my grip on the bed. Rei rushed over to the supply cabinet and dug out a gallon of bleach and a bedpan. As I bucked and bounced on Ichijo’s legs, she went over to the sink and mixed bleach and water in the pan. Back and forth she went, splashing every single surface in the room. The fragrant lavender was replaced by an irritating chlorine stench. “What the hell is going on?” I yelled above Ichijo’s growls and snarls. “This is a tsukimono-suji in the throws of kitsune-tsuki.” I looked at Rei in confusion. “English please, sensei.” “Fukimura-san is a fox employer. He was charged at birth with the duty of restraining this demon bitch…but trouble arose. Ichijo fled his kitsune. Through distance and spells he managed to restrain her. But those magiks failed when he lost consciousness. Now, as is their nature, his kitsune has traveled across land and sea to reclaim him. He is in the throws of her possession. The process is very dangerous…” Rei smiled. “But it is also restorative.” People started banging on the door. (Presumably the nursing staff in utter panic over the flatline on Ichijo’s monitor.) I looked around the blood-spattered room. This was gonna be kinda hard to explain… Ichijo launched Cumo and me into the air again. “This Exorcist moment is restorative?” “Yes, my most hefty confederate. As my blood is to a dhampir, a kitsune’s spirit is to tsukimonosuji. But unlike me”—Rei grinned—“this bitch is a dark and malevolent creature who cannot be trusted.” “Hikakibo whore!” Ichijo shouted in his new high-pitched voice. Rei rolled her eyes. “She is quite charming, is she not?” “What’s a hikakibo?” “A pointy wrought iron device. The Japanese use them to stoke fires.” “Huh?” “A fire-poker, Dieter. It is derogatory.” “Oh,” I said. “So there are Japanese Nostophoros too?” Who knew? Rei picked her wristwatch off the floor. Ichijo’s claws had slashed clean through the strap. She checked the time and sighed in relief. “Thank heparin.” She reached into the pocket of her robe and palmed some white rice. “No!” Ichijo screamed. “You hikakibo bitch! You slurping whore! I shall find you! I shall—” “Shut up,” Rei said, tossing the dried rice at Ichijo’s face. The room flashed. Cumo yowled. I was launched clean off the bed. The strawberry-blond fox leapt out of Ichijo’s chest, onto the windowsill, and off into the darkness. Cumo looked from Rei to the window desperately. Rei grinned. “Cumo, üldöz.” Cumo bayed, scrambled off Ichijo, and burst out the window taking one of the white curtains with him. “Wow,” I said, wiping the sweat from my brow, “restorative is right.” Ichijo’s once-scarred abdomen looked like new. “But is Cumo going to be okay? A kitsune is some sort of demon, right?” Rei crossed her arms. “Do not doubt my dog, Dieter. Cumo warms up on wolves. He will keep the bitch occupied until Ichijo can restore his wards.” Rei looked at me levelly. “And, Dieter, not a word of this to anyone. Fukimura-san values my discretion—and we most definitely require his.” I swallowed. So it was as I thought. Ichijo knew about our weft-link. In fact, he seemed to have sensed it the moment we arrived at Elliot. That made more sense now. Being tsukimono-suji, Ichijo probably knew just what to look for. I nodded and removed the cabinet from in front of the door. The medics and nurses stormed past us, only to drop their jaws. Ichijo had woken from his coma. A confused Roster came in after them. He was carrying a bulging bag of grease. “You’re early,” I commented. “Couldn’t sleep. Went into the Haven instead.” He took a look at the thrashed room, noted the semilucid Ichijo foaming at the mouth, watched the medics struggle to unwrap Rei’s improvised restraints, and nodded at the blood spattered walls. After inspecting Rei’s bandaged wrists, Roster returned his attention to his jelly donut. “So whatcha two up to?” he asked. “Nothing much,” I replied. “Just raising the dead ‘n such. You got sprinkles?” “Hell yes. Nothing but the best for my man Willis.” Rei crossed her bloodied arms in disapproval. “Magus Resnick. Magus Dregs. I have researched these fried dough products you have begun consuming at regular intervals, and I have uncovered that they contain no nutritional value. Your bellies will grow large, your performance in combat will suffer, and you will break out into something called ‘acne.’ I have conferenced with both the Druid and Mordred on this matter. Starting tomorrow, you will consume a meal of boiled oats and raisins in the morning, a meal comprised of leafy green vegetables at mid-day, and—” “They just don’t understand,” Roster said shaking his head. “Demons. All of them,” I muttered. In defiance, I grabbed one donut in each hand and went to town on both of them. Rei’s eyes narrowed. “You shall not prevail.” In the middle of our breakfast ritual, Roster gestured at Rei. “Oh, I forgot. There’s two pasty lookin’ guys in the lobby. Said they were from the AVH. They looked dick. Want me to tell them to go bite a brick?” The smile faded from Rei’s face. “So soon…?” She ran an unsteady hand through her hair. “Thank you for the thought, Magus Dregs, but that will be unnecessary. Would you two excuse me for a moment?” Rei walked over to Ichijo’s bed. I frowned. Roster’s comment had really set Rei off; my delicious donut with pink sprinkles tasted like sour milk. “What gives?” Roster asked. “The mysteries of the fanged-ones are beyond our grasp, Detective Murtaugh.” “Dietos, I do not look like Danny Glover.” Rei knelt down next to Ichijo. “Fukimura-san, I apologize for the haste, but I require your mind.” Ichijo looked grim. He put his hand on hers, and the two of them sat staring at one another for several minutes before Ichijo leaned back with a sigh. “You have my word, Bathory-hime,” he said gravely. “I will manage it.” Rei stood, bowed deeply, and turned to me. “Dieter, I require a moment with you as well.” She gestured to the window. “Roster, you mind?” I asked. Roster waved me away. “Don’t sweat it. I’ll keep an eye on Ichi. Go do what you gotta do.” I nodded, grabbed my flight jacket and robe, and followed Rei out the window. + We walked across the mixture of snow and frozen slush that claimed to be Elliot’s lawn. It was an hour till dawn on one of the coldest days of the year. The campus was empty. Classes didn’t start for another two weeks, and the students from the IKΛM squads were all that was left of the normally bustling campus. I shivered despite my many layers. No matter how much crud I piled on, the cold Connecticut air managed to cut through all my clothes like butter. I shook my head. I’d had no idea what a real winter was like. I marveled at Rei. Her only protection was a long sleeve shirt and an unbuttoned robe. I pulled my beanie down further and beat my arms against my sides—drainers had all the luck. Rei led me across the Elliot field toward the snowy crests of Sleeping Giant. She stopped when we reached the tree line. I recognized the spot. If you looked hard enough, you could still see the mark my ass made in the turf. We’d never spoken of that night, and I wondered what had prompted Rei to bring me here. She arched her back and looked up at the countless crystalline spheres above us. “Cold is the night when the stars shine bright…Dieter, do you know this phrase?” “No, but it makes sense. Cold air holds less water vapor. That makes the stars easier to see.” “My father often recites this maxim. He insists it means different.” I looked up at the sky. A million tiny lights flickered back at me. Starlight is amazing. Most of the stars that shed those rays are already dead. They sent those lonely shimmers off eons ago, bright messages that streamed out tirelessly into the night. The lonely travelers had swept past any number of fantastic sights. Planets birthing. Planets dying. Novas. Pulsars. Black holes and white dwarfs. Meteors and comets. Neutron stars spinning. Dark matter lurking. Crazy names for crazier things. I think that’s why starlight is amazing. Those tiny flecks of light travelled through hell and high water to reach us. We relish them for a second, and then they’re gone. It would have taken just one tiny speck of dust, a single indifferent bend of gravity, and those rays would have been lost to us forever. A voyage that lasted a billion years…what fantastic odds. Unbelievable. Magical. So I wondered, was it with relief or sorrow that one such shimmer of dying light smashed headlong into that lonesome tear? Was the end of its voyage a horror? A mercy? The link whispered, and my world cracked. Two things were instantly certain. That ray of light’s voyage was over—and so was our own. “No,” I said with a shudder. Rei looked past me. “I must, Dieter.” “But why?” “Because it is our way. We discussed this already. If Anna chose to press charges, I would have to answer for my crimes.” “But you saved thousands of lives.” Rei scowled. “Absolutely irrelevant. I manifested in public. I slew an officer of my sister’s court. I assaulted another member of the aristocracy. And…” Rei bit her lip. She wouldn’t speak it, but it hung in the air. “And she knows it will hurt me?” “Knowingly or not, Dieter, you thwarted her efforts.” “But—” “You excite her, Dieter. You tease her blood. Anna has lived so very long. Live long enough, and such a diversion becomes as rare and precious as a July snow. She could never ignore it. She could never let it be. She covets you now—and my eldest sister does not dole out hugs. She will aim to feast upon your anguish. She wants to know how far you will bend until you break.” Rei clenched her fists, and I could hear the brooding fury as she spoke. “She will do so slowly…perhaps over many years.” “Rei,” I said, shaking my head, “I appreciate your concern, but this is ridiculous. Why would Anna waste her time on me?” Rei flushed, and a glimmer of the dark thing danced behind her eyes. “This is most certainly not ridiculous. You know the defects of our nature. We lust for a challenge. We were built for the chase. Anna wants to listen as you beat your empty fists against the ground. She wants to hear your cries. She wants to smell your despair.” Rei ran an uneasy hand through her hair. “She is just like her mother. Two doses of the madness were too much.” “Her mother?” I asked in confusion. “You mean…” Rei nodded. “Yes. Anna and I share only our father, Theodus Nadasdy Bathory, The Black Hero of Szigetvar, King of Cahokia.” I couldn’t even pronounce Szigetvar, so I tried for “Ca-ho-ki-a” instead. “Yes, Cahokia is my fiefdom. It includes the modern states of Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan—plus a small portion of Wisconsin.” “Oh,” I said, feeling a bit dizzy at the scale. “And Anna’s mother?” “You know of her. We have discussed her in the past.” I swallowed. “Erzsébet? Are you telling me Anna’s mother is the Erzsébet Bathory? The Bloody Countess? The Lady of Cachtice?” “Yes, Dieter. None other.” Erzsébet Bathory. Perhaps the most prolific serial killer of all time—well over six-hundred women tortured and killed by her own hand—all while successfully guarding the roads to Continental Europe from marauding Turks. A brilliant strategist and a maniac, she invented the concept of a bloodbath. (Apparently it did wonders for the skin.) In the end, the Hungarian aristocracy cemented her into a room and ran for the hills. “And your mother?” “Alastice de Rais, Queen of the Acadians. That is Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama to your ear.” “Oh.” That didn’t sound so bad. They had chicory coffee and Mardis Gras down there (I’d seen the informative TV advertisements with the wild ladies). “Alastice’s father was Gilles de Rais,” Rei added sourly. “Oh.” Gilles de Rais. He was a compatriot of Joan of Arc, a famous soldier, and a more famous child murderer. I made a mental note to keep Rei away from any and all small children. Rei scuffed her boot. “I warned you at the start.” “And I ignored you.” I forced a smile. No wonder Rei freaked people out. “So, why does Anna hate you so much?” “The union of the two monarchs was unforeseen. To some in the aristocracy, it was unforgivable. The royal lines were not to be crossed. The ancient scrolls cautioned that such hybridizations were… unstable. It is told that in the distant past, the Vita Paciscor personally extinguished such abominations.” She gave me a meek smile. “Further, since there is no precedence for a daughter of two monarchs, I lack clear station in my people’s hierarchy. This is why some have taken to calling me a—” “A princess?” I tried to picture Rei wearing a tiara…it wasn’t happening. Rei frowned. “The term alone is dangerous. It risks elevating the standing of a younger sibling over that of the elders of the same brood.” This, at least, I could understand. I could see why Anna (at least five hundred years Rei’s senior) might get a tad peeved by some upstart cutting in the line for the throne. “My very being has riled the traditionalists. But still more ridiculous is the reaction of some of the Turned. They look at me with…” She shrugged. “Oh, Dieter, I have no idea what to even call it.” “The word you’re looking for is reverence. I sensed as much in the condo. It was like they expected you to sprout wings and shoot sparkles.” “The Turned are fools.” Rei swept the air in anger. “It is nonsense, all of it. If anything, I am a dud of a Pure. I’ve embarrassed father countless times, I’m an absolute disaster at politics—and you can forget ballroom dancing. I can’t even balance in heels.” Her ramrod posture gave way, and Rei leaned against a tree. “I’m not even worth jabbing a stick at.” “Oh come on, Rei. I’m sure there are plenty of people who would love to drive a piece of bark into your insides. My dad tried pretty hard.” “Don’t jest. How could a person like you ever understand? You haven’t any idea what it is like.” “Sorry.” I put my hands in my pockets and sighed. I guess Rei was right. I’d never owned a bike— let alone an entire kingdom. “That’s not what I mean.” Rei’s eyes softened and she looked down at the ground. “I mean that if anyone’s special, it is you.” I looked at Rei in utter bafflement. I looked left and right. “Me?” Rei shook her head and sighed. “Where to start…Your life is a clean slate. You have no handlers telling what you must do. You have no titles. No duties. No proposals to avoid. You have power and brains enough to choose your own fate. You’re both a Dealer and a dhampir. You’re a clumsy oaf now, Dieter, but with some polishing, no one would be able to tell you what to do.” “Rei,” I said flushing, “I barely have any mana.” “Nonsense. Think of the tower. How on earth did you manage such a spell? That cast involved at least three different effects—wefting, middencraft, and manifestation—and you used the blood of a Nostophoros to power it. I don’t think that’s ever been attempted before. It takes all my focus just to move a bit of mana. For you, it is just a matter of setting your mind to it.” She looked over to me, her blurry eyes pleading. “And there is something else, something I cannot even begin to place my finger on. It has troubled me since the day I met you. There is this otherness to you.” A cold shiver ran down my spine. Hara. Rei was talking about Hara. “And your blood, Dieter. My God, do you have any conception of how it…” Rei covered her mouth and turned away from me. Her tears were flowing heavy now, but I didn’t know what to do. Was Rei angry with me? Did she hold me responsible? I didn’t understand where she was coming from. I didn’t understand the challenges she faced. I couldn’t fix this. I was the wrong tool for the job. She drew in a tense breath and looked out across the field. “They are coming,” she said quietly. “I mustn’t be seen with you. It is time for me to leave.” “For how long?” I asked—but I already knew. I was acting the fool. The stupid jokes. The useless conversation. I was avoiding reality at any cost. “I have been withdrawn, Dieter. My time at Elliot has come to an end.” Wiping the tears from her eyes, Rei flung her Elliot robe to the ground. A piece of chalk fell out of the duffle coat’s pocket and settled in the snow. “Rei…” I took a step forward. “It doesn’t have to be this way.” “Yes, it does.” She raised her shoulders and firmed her features. “I am Bathory. I shall return to face my father. I will confess my wrongdoings and bear the punishment for my actions. This is my duty. I will fulfill it.” She looked at me with the same ragged determination I’d seen in the warehouse. “This is goodbye, Dieter.” “For good?” I croaked. “But, Rei…I thought we were partners. I thought…” I knew my words sounded pathetic, but a crack inside me was growing. I could hear the thuds of my heart against my chest. I could feel the pressure building behind my ears. It was stupid, really. I couldn’t be with Rei, but the thought of letting her go… “Dieter. I must.” Rei looked resigned. Like she was quitting. “Fine. Then I’ll follow you. I’ll testify on your behalf. I’ll convince them that you acted in the best interest of—” Rei answered my words with a bitter laugh. “Convince them? I have committed treason, and you, Dieter Resnick, the son of the most notorious alguacil of the modern era, intend to act as my sole character witness? Are you mad? Have you any idea how many of my kind your father has killed? Tortured?” Rei laughed again, but it sounded more like she was being strangled. “The gods love comedy, do they not?” I felt sick. “You’re saying that my being there—” “Would worsen my fate tenfold. Did you think that Anna had not thought of that? Do not act a child, Dieter. Anna is the daughter of Erzsébet. She would not have acted against me if she thought her scheme could be foiled.” It hit me like a bat—Rei was slipping away from me. There was only one last thing I could try. Desperate, I went to mouth the three words. But I couldn’t speak them. As they reached my tongue, they fell away like stones. I couldn’t will them into being. They were easy words. Simple words. Words you hear every day. They’re sung in near every song. They’re thrown about like spare change at the movies. But they can be the hardest words, the hardest words in any tongue, when saying them is what really matters. I wanted to shout them to the heavens. I wanted to scream them at the top of my lungs. Instead, what I said was, “Rei, I don’t want to feel that hole again.” I heard the words come out but couldn’t believe I was speaking them. “The way the link grates…I don’t think I can bear it.” I wanted to tell her to run. I wanted to say I’d stay with her always. “The books say we could go mad.” I felt like I was dying inside. I wanted to tell her I’d get her free of them. I wanted to swear it on my soul. “Don’t go, Rei. You have…friends here.” And I found myself a coward. Rei placed a solitary finger over the tips of my lips. “What did I tell you about making oaths?” Had she heard me? Did she know? Her eyes pleaded silence, begged me to stop. I realized then that Rei was stronger than me. She could leverage her will against the pain. “Grub. Listen, and listen well. You do not understand this game or its rules. You do not know what is after you or how it can get at you. You are outclassed, underpowered, and inept—and you are the bravest fool I’ve ever met.” Rei’s cheeks flushed red, and every muscle in my body tensed. “And you are my friend.” She cupped her hands around my cheeks. “And you are my partner. Forever.” With a hint of salt and a rush of lavender, her frozen lips met my own. And then Rei was gone. And I stood in a field alone. And I crumpled into the snow. And I screamed at the dark, empty sky. I clutched at Rei’s empty robe with my shivering hands. Groped for the warmth that wasn’t there. And I cried. Stars above, I cried. I cried, and I cried, and I cried. The tears came from a place that my memories could barely reach, from a time of such profound sadness that it lived only in the deepest mists of my mind. The time of her last touch. The time she walked away. I fell into a deep vat of dreadful muck. It crushed me, suffocated me. And that reminded me of Anna. Reminded me that she had done this. Ripples of her cruel laughter wafted over me. A final gift she’d slipped into my mind. And that’s what drove me mad. Roster found me at daybreak. He didn’t speak a single word. He just propped me and helped me home. I recall someone warming up water to treat my frostbitten toes, but my mind was in utter shambles. I hadn’t realized what a weft-link really was until ours had broken. I understood now what John Riley felt as he stared into the dead eyes of his partner. It felt as though I might dissolve—as though my mind might give way and crumble. With only madness waiting inside, I turned my attention outward. I focused on Jules’ humming, Roster’s laughter, and Dante’s strumming. The waves of withdrawal came and went, but my friends were always beside me. Ichijo’s words helped me steady my breathing. Jules’ old teachings helped me find my center. The pain didn’t lessen, but over time it became more familiar. I accepted the gut twisting emptiness as my new normal, and I reminded myself that she was facing it too. I reminded myself that she had no friends to guide her, but that she too was still fighting. Her bravery steeled me. It became my footing as I pieced what was left of me together. “Forever,” she had said. “Forever,” from a creature that could say such a crazy thing and mean it. Her last word made me feel warm. It calmed and soothed me. It gave me a sense of determination I’d never known before. If I was outclassed, I’d train harder. If I was underpowered, I’d get stronger. If I was inept, I’d study longer. Forever. Forever was something I’d never had before. Forever was a fountain of hope. We would meet again. We had all the time in the world. That belief…it made me want to stand. It filled my limbs with fight. END OF BOOK 2 Acknowledgments The surgeon slid the thin piece of steel into the patient’s skin for the last time. The line of sutures was perfect. The patient would have to squint to see the scar. The surgeon gave me a nod, and I extended my shaky fingers. Snip went my scissors, leaving two stubs of 3-0 vicryl behind. “Nice close,” I said through my sweat-soaked mask. “Mmm,” she muttered. Even during the trauma cases, I’d never seen her raise an eyebrow. I went to remove my gown. After sixteen hours in the OR, all I wanted was a date with a urinal. “One last question, Mr. Shier.” I froze. Not again. This surgeon had been pelting me with questions through the entire bloody surgery. I’d known the abdominal vessels front and backwards, and she’d still managed to stump me. “Yes, ma’am?” The nurses paused in their work, eager to watch the medical student squirm. The surgeon removed her mask, and her steely eyes met mine. Perfusion to the stomach is provided by the left and right gastric arteries, the left and right gastroomental arteries, and the short gastric artery. The left gastric comes directly off the celiac trunk, but the others… “When’s the next book coming out?” I blinked. “Sorry?” “The sequel. I just finished the first one on my Kindle.” “Oh.” I gulped. “Um…soon?” “Oh, great. I really liked Rei.” Her brow furrowed. “Don’t you dare kill her off.” I shivered. “Yes, ma’am. I’ll try not to.” I write because I love the rush of unwrapping a story in my mind. It’s my way of decompressing. The way I deal with the hard realities of my job. But I also write for readers. Readers who are waiting for the next volume. Readers who are invested in my characters. That knowledge weighs heavy on me. I don’t want to let them down. But I should be grateful for the added stress. It’s forcing me to become a better writer, just like all those tough questions in the operating room help build the next batch of doctors. Much of the good in this book can be attributed to my dear friend and editor, Jon Steller. We might both be in medical school, but we still spend our nights dreaming of dragons. Jon is not afraid to tell me when something I write sucks, and he’s big enough to ‘encourage’ me to change it. There are no good books without good editors (that’s a dirty little secret that every author knows), but it is also true that editors can only fix so much. Jon did his best. Any remaining crud I must own. I’m in Jordan Kimura’s debt for her hard work on Zero Sum’s cover. Countless readers have taken a chance on my writing because of her engaging designs. I’m confident this brand new cover will deliver bushels more. I want to send out a big I’m-not-worthy to my beta readers: Sheela Damle, Karen Shier, Nicole Steller, Rombod Rahimian, Trevor Pelton, Stephanie Lago, Stephanie Kong, and Stefanie Mooney. Next time, I’ll try to remember the difference between ‘breath’ and ‘breathe’. Finally, to Mrs. Meera Shier: Dear boss, thank you for tolerating all my hijinx. And, yes, you did inspire a certain character…although you have a much better sense of fashion. About the Author Brian Justin Shier was born in the New Jersey and spent his childhood in Las Vegas, Nevada. He went to college at Washington University in St. Louis, where he studied psychology and marketing. Degree in hand, he moved to Los Angeles to seek his fortune. There, he worked in business for a few years before deciding he needed a career change. He is currently pursuing his MD somewhere in Southern California. For news about the author or the Zero Sight Series, check out ( There he blathers on about random things and occasionally announces new novels. If you enjoyed the trip, please let other folks know about this guy’s novels. Indie authors sink or swim by your advocacy. It’s up to you to tell us what you like.