41) More Foreplay


“You must be fucking joking,” I said to Damian as he ran up to us. He shot a desperate look past Leonard and I at Grace, Irish, and Tyler, but there wasn’t much help to be found there. “Nothing crawls of the abyss. It’s a void. A vacuum!”

“I couldn’t hit him with anything,” he said to Leonard, ignoring me. “That hole – it just sucked all the spells down. Everything just washed right over him like he wasn’t even there!”

“That does seem to be the running theme with him,” Leonard mused, also ignoring me, which was probably calculated to annoy me. It was working, too.

“Bullshit,” I muttered. I reached up my sleeve and pulled out the machete hidden there. The sudden appearance of two and a half feet of sharpened rune-engraved steel in my hand made Damian flinch back a step. “Fucking impossible,” I grumbled, starting towards the hall.

“Alice?” Grace called after me.

“Busy.” I waved a hand at her. “If Irish comes to feeling stabbity, send him down to help.”

“What are you doing?” Leonard came after me, grabbing my arm.

“Hey, some of us clean up our own messes, Leonard.” Well, that wasn’t strictly true. Usually I had Gene handle that bit, but he wasn’t handy at the moment. I jerked out of his grip and strode back down the hall.

The light I’d mistaken for Damian’s spellcasting was growing brighter, spilling around the corner and down the hall. It oozed into the broken ticket windows, painting the debris and trash there, and in my head, the shadow had gone silent, quivering, drawing her influence back from that light. That gave me a moment’s pause, but I heard footsteps coming up behind me, Damian and Leonard, and didn’t want to balk in front of them. I squared my shoulders and turned the corner into the light.

It was like walking into the desert. As my hair whipped around my face, pulled toward the rift by the rushing wind, heat and light blasted back at me. It was almost too hot to breathe and way too bright to see. The painful glare left burning afterimages on my retinas even with my eyes closed. The shadow sent up a tedious, reedy whine of solid terror, and I slapped at her. Feed, I told her, turning her loose. She cowered, whimpering, from that light and I all but threw her at it. I could feel my skin tingling and blistering as I started to sunburn, and I knew it wouldn’t take much more to start crisping and cooking me like a piece of bacon.

A sense of self-preservation managed to goad the shadow into action. My skin felt cool again, as a layer of shadow flowed down over my body. Darkness welled up over my eyes, too, filtering out most of the light like a set of tinted contact lenses. I looked over my shoulder at Damian, who was still sheltered behind the corner of the hallway. It must have looked to him like I had stepped into the open maw of a blast furnace, and yet there I stood, looking like I was standing in the cool shade. The empty black pits where my eyes should be were an unfortunate side-effect of the contact lens trick, but what they lacked in subtlety they made up for in sheer creepy.

Damian swallowed and made a deliberate effort to square his shoulders and stand a little taller. I could almost hear him reminding himself that he was a goddam Knight, and that he wasn’t about to spend the whole night cringing while other people did all the heavy lifting. He started murmuring and preparing his own defenses as I walked deeper into the storm.

Approaching the epicenter was easy. The jagged edges of the rift were the only bits of darkness to be seen in the terrible glare, and the howling wind was pulling at me, drawing me closer with increasing force every step I took. The hole was bigger than it should have been, and really it should have closed by itself by now. It was possible the shadows on the other side were fighting to get out, using the energy they’d taken from the rubies to claw and tear the edges of the rift. It was also possible that I’d screwed up somehow when I’d made the bullet. Duds happened. So did overloads. I chewed on my lip and wondered at the wisdom of making the damned things in the first place. It had seemed like such a good idea at the time, though…

I lost my footing when a floor tile suddenly came loose from under me and went flying toward the rift. Snarling the activation Words, I triggered the gravity tweak worked into my boots and fell into a crouch skidding to a halt a few feet closer to the rift. It was a pretty clever enchantment, really. Effectively, it let me walk on walls or ceilings, and the boots protected me from the more unpleasant side effects in the meantime. To pull off the effect I was basically focusing and redirecting gravity – and lots of it. There was the regular background stuff to deal with, too, and in my first attempt I’d felt like I weighed six or seven hundred pounds. I’d spent twenty minutes pinned to my workshop wall, barely able to breathe, much less walk, until the charm ran down. Not my proudest moment, that. These boots were the seventh attempt to get it right, and worked a lot better. There was still the problem with the way I sometimes fell through the drywall into the next room, though… not a concern here, thankfully. I stood up, and though I heard tile crunching under my feet at my immense weight, I didn’t feel any different. I slashed my machete through the air, and it didn’t feel any heavier in my hand. It’d do.

I stomped closer to the rift, and harangued my shadow until she thickened the layer of shadow over my eyes. The glare faded, and I could make out some detail at last. What I saw made me draw up short. There he was. Tanner was clawing his way out of the hole in reality, all right. His bloody hands dug into the floor, dragging him forward. The edges of the rift shifted and flowed, making him lose his grip and fight to hold onto every inch of progress he made. His eyes were impossibly wide and bloodshot, his teeth bared as he fought for life.

At first, I’d assumed all the blinding light was coming from him, but I had been mistaken. I blinked in horror, part mine and part my shadows, at the things that had followed him back out of the abyss. Little darting lights, tiny and fishy-looking in the way they schooled and moved and swarmed around him, hordes of them. My blood ran cold. Tanner shone hot and bright, like his bones were on fire, but it was the school of predators that were really blazing away. They moved in hypnotic patterns, and when they dipped close to him they singed and burned his clothes, but left no marks on his skin. It was like they were encouraging him. Goading him on.

Tanner’s skin shined marred only by the freshets of blood seeping from his eyes, gushing from his nose, drooling over his lips, black against the light of his skin. As I watched, he heaved himself forward, getting a knee up over the edge of the hole.

“What’s going on?” Damian’s voice, strained. I glanced his way. He and Leonard were several yards behind me, sheltering behind a disk of that wispy silvery light Damian pulled out of his glowballs. They weren’t burning up, and they weren’t being pulled too badly by the hurricane winds, but they couldn’t see shit. I rolled my eyes. Coming in blind? Yeah, that was clever.

“Nothing good,” I shouted back to them.

“Magic won’t work,” he warned. “Not close to the rift!”

“Maybe not yours,” I said, mild, flipping the machete back and forth so it cut the whistling wind flying towards the hole. “Remember who made that hole, boys.” It was my spell that maintained the opening. It was designed to run down and collapse in a minute or two, but closing was the easy part. Opening the damn thing in the first place was the hard part – two separate universes were fighting to close it even now. If I could get close, I could collapse it with a touch and a thought. Hell, I could do that if I just sent a tendril of shadow close. Touch it through my connection with the shadow, and it’d amount to me touching it myself.

The predators posed a problem, though.

I didn’t mention the lights because really, what in the hell were Damian or Leonard going to do about those? I didn’t want them getting too close, in case the things decided to make for cover inside one or both of them. The last thing I needed to deal with tonight was two more hollowmen. Besides, they couldn’t live very long out here. I was stunned they’d even try it, unless there was something about Tanner egging them on.

Was there something about Tanner egging them on? They swarmed around him, a whole, I don’t know, school? hive? flock? of them, and the shadow trembled as she recognized what I was seeing. Her fear was like shards of ice in my blood, scraping along as my heart slammed in my chest.

He got his other knee out of the hole, and I stepped forward as the shadow sent up a shuddering whistle of raw terror in my head. If I could just get close enough to hit him with the machete, I thought, I could force him back into the hole and close it. I forced myself another step, the shadow sobbing and fighting me, the suction from the black hole whipping my hair and pulling at my clothes. Tanner looked up suddenly, and his eyes were full of blood, crystal blue pupils in seas of red and vividly, horribly aware.

He gestured at me and the little fishies darted around him in a flickering swirl and came at me. “Fuck!” I shouted, and they were on me. Some were tiny, little burning dust motes, others were the size of ants or small goldfish. They engulfed me in a cloud of hungry fire and I cowered, expecting to feel my skin crackle and burn at their touch, my mind torn to shreds as they fed on me.

My heart pounded, and the moment seemed to stretch on and on as we waited to die. My eyes opened, slowly, and my lips stretched into a cruel smile. “Hey,” I said, standing up again. “That tickles!”

The swarm surrounded me, darting in and out as they struck. I held up my left hand, turning it and watching as the predators chased my fingers. In the blinding light, my skin remained shadowed. As the predators attacked, the smallest of them winked out of existence. My shadow was even more astounded and dumbstruck than I was.

They attacked, and we could feel them touching our minds. But that was the kicker, wasn’t it? Minds, plural. My shadow was in my mind, and I was in hers – we were a binary being, and the predators couldn’t get a grip on us. Couldn’t sink their teeth in because we filled the gaps in each other’s mental armor. And when these little motes of fire and light came too close… without even needing to think about it, my shadow fed. And they died.

The larger ones flickered but weren’t snuffed. The fell back, confused, and struck again and again. I reached out, and my shadow and I blurred even closer together. It was like last night at the junkyard, when I’d let my shadow control my movements. Only this time it was me behind the wheel – I was the darkness and she watched through my eyes as the shadows billowed up from my outspread arms, spreading from my body like great dark wings. I attacked, and I fed, and the sheer feeling of power that filled me felt like an orgasm that left me shuddering and laughing in ecstasy.

Tanner roared in fury, and all but the largest of the predators died, as we drank the light and fire of the swarm and kept on reaching for more. So much power, but we never felt full. Thousands of the motes blinked out, empty dead husks falling away, sucked down into the void like wisps of ash. I reached out, and the darkness crashed over Tanner like a tidal wave. We struck him, hard, and with barely a thought I seized the enchantment holding the bridge between worlds open and crushed it.

Just like that, the rift was gone. Tanner roared in pain, and I laughed. His feet had still been in the hole. He’d lost his toes and the better part of his feet below the heel. Blood spread on the tile floor and he shuffled my way with murder in his eyes and flecks of foam dripping from his mouth.

My shadow was elated. A handful of the goldfish-sized predators were milling about, desperately searching for something. Probably the doorway back home, though who knows? Maybe the smaller ones had been their offspring, and they were wondering where the children went. The shadow stepped up, and I gave her the reins again, settling back into my body comfortably while she spread out over the floor, watching the predators with a hungry, vengeful intent.

I thought she’d been strong before, after the Carl-geist shot her full of energy? That was nothing. She felt vast now, like she could black out half the city if we had a mind to try it. Normally that would terrify me, but I’d just shown her that the scariest things in the universe couldn’t touch her – not so long as she had me, that is. We might bicker a bit from here on in, over day-to-day stuff, but I suspected the days where she thought she could do better on her own were over.

Tanner was still worrying, though. Even as he crawled through the spreading darkness on the floor, my shadow didn’t sense anything about him. He wasn’t there, as far as she knew. He hissed through his teeth at me, his bloody eyes looking like they were about to fall out of his head, and I wondered how much of him was there at all. From the way he was shining, I bet he had at least one predator in that skull of his. And shortly after that, there wouldn’t be much room for him in there.

He launched himself at me, but without toes he didn’t have much to push off with. He came in low, and I caught his shoulder with one of my boots and leaned forward. He bellowed again, as my gravity tweak helped me slam him down onto the floor hard enough to shatter a few more of the tiles. I pinned him down easily, my magic giving the heft of a steroid-addicted luchador.

I was distracted by polite applause coming from behind me. Looking back, I saw Leonard and Damian golf-clapping politely, having done away with the shimmery barrier they’d bravely been hiding behind. “That was amazing.” Leonard said, undressing me with his eyes. “You’re magnificent.”

One of the predators turned at the sound of his voice, and made a beeline at him. I flicked the tip of my machete, calling up a line of darkness that lashed up off the floor like a whip and seized it in midair. The little thing fought, and my shadow flexed, drawing more and more substance into the whiplash, holding it as it fought. The little thing felt fragile, like it was made of butterfly wings and cobwebs. Leonard flinched back, as it flared bright and hot for a moment, smiling delightedly as it dimmed and faded, until my shadow drew back and a hollow husk drifted to the floor at his feet.

“If one of those things gets into you, I’ll have to kill you. Fair warning,” I snarled.

“Perfectly reasonable,” Damian answered, putting on his designer sunglasses.

I turned my attention back to Tanner, leaning on him and enjoying the sound of his ribs cracking. “Are you still in there, Tanner?” I asked, hoping for a yes. “Only I don’t want you to miss this. You’ve earned what’s coming.” I raised the machete, shifting it to get the best grip. Elsewhere in the room, two more lashes of darkness shot up, plucking another pair of predators out of the air.

Which is when my boots gave off a sudden spark and a wisp of gray smoke, and my gravity tweak abruptly gave out. Prototypes. He heaved, and threw me back a few steps, windmilling for balance. He was on me just that fast, his fist slamming into my stomach causing my scarf to hiss and spark and still he knocked the wind right out of me. His other hand latched onto my face, squeezing hard and trying for one of my eyes.

I slashed at his stomach with my blade, but he didn’t so much as flinch. He grabbed my head with his other hand, and I could feel him trying to get at my mind. His hands were torn and bloody from his struggle clawing his way out of the abyss, and the blood felt hot and thick on my skin. I tucked the machete edge-up between his legs. “Hey. Pay attention to this part,” I snarled through his fingers, and dragged the blade back my way, cutting upwards as it went.

I felt another predator die as my shadow left me to fight the invisible Tanner and carried on with her revenge fantasy. Tanner howled, and used his grip on my noggin to throw me several feet away. I landed in a scree of rubble from a collapsed wall, and skidded to a stop hissing in pain. It wrenched my neck something awful, and I felt my upper spine go numb as the shadow saw to my hurts.

Tanner was clutching at his bloody crotch with one hand, and hobbling toward me. My blade was really, really sharp, and I was sure I’d notched his pelvis pretty well. Blood was running down his legs, and his one outstretched hand was twisted like a claw. Even this far away, I could feel him scrabbling at my mind, like a fly trying to get through a window. I pulled a handful of marbles out of my pocket, and started sorting through them for something useful when something fell down from above and hit Tanner like a ton of bricks.

I thought it was part of the ceiling at first, and then I realized it was screaming. Like her namesake, Cat came down all pointy bits and noise, knives in each hand. She landed on Tanner’s back, punching him in the chest with both blades and riding him to the floor, landing with her knee planted firmly in the back of his neck. She grabbed his head and slammed his face into the floor repeatedly, and I winced. I’d been on the receiving end of that move and it looked as bad as it had felt. She twisted his head to one side, and his neck broke with a sound like a wet gunshot. Blood, thick and black and definitely not glowing flew up in black trails as she jerked her fist up.

Four more predators died, and my shadow began spreading farther afield, searching for any who might have flown away. Up into the tower, and out over the manicured lawns of Franklin park, where she actually found one flittering around a trashcan.

The sensory input, as she explored and mapped and tasted so much area – almost six acres of area, easily, was staggering. I had to make a conscious effort to leave her to her task and narrow my focus to what was happening right here in front of me.

Cat was wearing a low-cut black leather catsuit, complete with a web belt and utility vest that bristled with tools and weapons. Her hair was slicked back and wet, and she was wearing dark makeup around her eyes. It made her look sleek and sexy and deadly, and I was dead certain this was not a look her father would approve of. I heaved myself back up to my feet, wiping blood out of my eyes and twisting to make my back crack. “Ow,” I said. She grinned up at me, looking smug and pleased with herself. “Yuk it up, kid,” I grumbled. “We’ll see how well you bounce when you’ve got another twenty years’ mileage.”

Tanner dragged in a long ragged breath and let it out in a roar of outrage and pain, rolling over and knocking Cat off him with a vicious backhand. The infuriating bitch actually rolled gracefully with it and came up in a combat crouch, with another pair of blades in her hands. They charged at each other, him all brute force and her with a series of wicked fast surgical strikes. He landed a solid punch to her jaw that spun her completely around and made her stagger back a few paces, but not before she’d slashed him open half a dozen times.

She’d taken one of his eyes, and cut his wrists badly enough to leave his fingers hanging, flopping uselessly off severed tendons. A flap of skin hung off his forehead, revealing wet bone underneath and sending blood running down his face in thick black streams. His throat was cut, too, and his inarticulate roars had become quieter, inarticulate gurgles. Oh, and he still had two knives buried hilt-deep in his chest from her earlier strike. She glared at him through narrowed eyes, and spun one of the knives she held. I sighed.

We didn’t have all night to finish this. Tanner wasn’t even the main event tonight.

Damian sent a stream of silvery light that flowed right over Tanner like water sliding off a duck and blasted a hole in the far wall. It didn’t accomplish much, but at least he was trying. Leonard had his eyebrows raised high, and was admiring the way Cat filled out that catsuit with his head tilted thoughtfully to one side. Men. Two minutes ago, I was ‘magnificent.’ Now he was ogling the teenager in the leather pants.

I reeled my shadow in, putting a stop the exploration/hunting trip on the far side of the park. I doubted any of them could have gotten that far this fast, and even if one did, they’d be easy to find later if they didn’t just die on their own. Right now, there was work to do in here. Cat danced forward, kicking Tanner in the face and burying a long spike heel in the meat under his chin. In the same motion as she regained her footing, she reached out and buried her knives under his arms, sinking deep into his center mass before grabbing the first two knives, twisting them, and wrenching them free in a motion that sent blood spattering the wall twenty feet away. Tanner yelled again, seizing Cat’s wrist to stop the slashes. He heaved, and she was pulled off her feet, flying over his head and coming down on his other side, on her feet, where she lashed out with one leg and shattered his knee. Tanner fell, but got his other hand around her forearm, hanging on in a death grip, face carved in a rictus of agony and rage. Cat planted a boot in his shoulder and piston-kicked Tanner in the face, once, twice, again, and again.

Cat flexed, changing tactics and bracing her feet on the floor again. She stabbed him in the soft inner part of his elbow, sawing the blade back and forth in a single efficient move before she hauled back with a grunt, and ripped his lower arm clean off – unbelievable. Leaving the knife to fall as his arm came loose, she jerked a big handgun out of the holster at her side, aiming it into Tanner’s face and pulling the trigger.

The shot took him in his remaining eye, and blew the back of his skull out in an impressive spray of bone and brain. But he still didn’t die. He was already clambering to his feet again and coming at her with his teeth snapping, reaching for her with a hand he didn’t actually have anymore. Cat let out a wordless cry of wrath, pistol-whipping the Confessor across the face. More blood flew in a pretty black arc.

I jogged in, closing distance fast on my long legs, readying my shadow and my machete. Cat didn’t get it. Tanner was dead already. He’d been dead before he even crawled back into this world. This was a predator, wearing his body like an old suit. She could cut him up all she liked, and unless she got the predator itself it would just keep pushing the body to act. Keep using it.

He knocked a blade out of her hand but she spun, ducking his wide, sloppy swing and coming up with yet another knife appearing in her hand like goddamn magic. I was a bit worried by how much the kid liked the sharp stuff. Knife fighters are scary people.

Cat drove her knife down into his throat. Tanner made a sound like “Gluck!” and lunged, getting his good arm hooked around her waist and leaning in biting at her face. Swathed in shade, I didn’t feel the heat, but I could see wisps of smoke rising up where he held her, and where she grabbed at his shoulder, fighting to keep his teeth away from her throat. She grabbed the knife sticking out of Tanner’s throat in both hands, sawing it back and forth. He didn’t appear to notice. I grabbed him by the shoulder and drove my machete up through his back, feeling its spell-sharpened edge scrape along his spine. Cat’s eyes met mine over his shoulder as he vomited a gout of blood onto her stomach.

“Hi, kid.” I dragged the knife up the edge of his spine, feeling no resistance on it at all as it went through him like a hot knife through butter. “Mind if I cut in?” Cat jerked the knife out of his throat as the darkness rolled over him like an oil spill, dousing his light and sinking into his body. She flowed into every cut, every wound and every orifice. We filled him, eating the fire and dousing the light, seeking that little, flickering sun at his core. He twitched and moaned, as thick, palpable darkness crawled down his throat and forced itself through his wounds, crawling deep in his veins.

“Not really,” she growled, arming sweat and blood off her face. “Age before beauty,” she added, with a polite nod, and I was in such a good mood I didn’t even think about tearing her head off. Much.

In the end, we didn’t have to do much searching for the predator. It sensed the nearness of the shadow, and attacked what it thought was food. A blaze of light exploded from Tanner’s abdomen, piercing the shadow for just a second. It guttered like a candle as the darkness surged forward, smothering it and feeding. It only lasted a second, but it was so delicious.

Tanner’s husk fell to my feet, sliding off my machete with a wet scrape and landing in a boneless heap. The shadows ran off him like ink, and wisped away like scraps of smoke and just like that there was nothing left of the hollowman who had been Tanner but a mangled corpse.

He looked a lot smaller now, somehow. Also, the room was a lot darker. I dismissed the shadow lenses over my eyes, and my protective layer of shade, and tucked my machete back up my sleeve.

Cat reached down and collected a few of her knives from where she’d left them in the Confessor’s body. Damian whispered in Arabic, conjuring another of those glowballs, and Leonard whistled, a very masculine note of approval. I had time to roll my eyes at that, and then Cat launched herself at me. She caught me by the shoulders and twisted me up off my feet in midair, riding me to the ground and knocking the wind right out of me. Again. I coughed, and went stock still as I realized the girl straddling me had a blade at my throat and another poised over my left eye. I wheezed for air and tried not to blink – fuck, but the kid was fast!

She leaned in to whisper in my ear. Her breath washed over my cheek as I lay there, looking at the razor sharp blade before my eye and she purred, “You’re okay, for what you are. But if you ever hurt him, I’ll fucking gut you, witch.”

Day’s glowball burst to life, and from their angle, it probably looked like Cat was kissing me. Or giving me mouth-to-mouth. “What?” I hissed at her, flummoxed. Blood was running down the blade over my eye, Tanner’s blood, and while I watched, a bead began to form on the tip. Even the shadow seemed to be caught flat-footed. I registered her surprise and confusion, as she blinked and shook her head at me. But the knives held rock-steady.

“My father.” She pushed the other knife a little harder against my skin, and I avoided swallowing for fear of cutting my own throat. “Hurt him, and I will kill you.”

“What?” I strained against her arm, pressing down on my shoulder, trying to ease away from the blades as Day called, “Alice? Are you okay?” The drop of blood was perilously close to falling in my eye, so I piffed a breath up at it and had the shadow freeze it solid. Cat sat up, making the knife from my throat disappear into a sheath under her vest, and I let out a shuddery little breath, rubbing my throat.

“Did I stutter?” she sneered down at me, still sitting on my midsection. She held up the other blade, frowning at the drop of crimson ice balanced on its tip. “Nice.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t quite follow that. I think I got hit too hard. Did you just say if I hurt Irish you were going to kill me? What the hell do you think I’m going to do, exactly? Because I haven’t worked this hard to keep him alive just to kill him myself later on!”

Cat curled her lip in a disgusted sneer. “You know what I mean. You’re together, aren’t you? If you break his heart, I’ll cut yours out and feed it to you.”

My mouth fell open. “Seriously?” I hissed at her. “You need help. Like, actual help, from a licensed therapist. You have issues. You just met him, kid. What the fuck do you even care?”

She stood up and glared down at me, eyes narrowing in a cold, angry glare enough like her dad’s that it set me back a wary step. “You stupid bitch,” she growled at me. “I thought he was dead. They told me he was dead. They told me he was corrupted by evil, and that he slaughtered a bunch of other Inquisitors, and he killed my mother and that he died.” She offered me a hand up, and I accepted it without saying a word. “I grew up hating him. I heard it my whole life, having to work twice as hard as anyone else to show them I was strong, not weak and corruptible like my father… and they were lying to me, about everything.” She drew in a ragged breath, setting her jaw. “I believed them, and we came to Detroit I followed him for three goddamn days and didn’t even know it was him until you – with that goddamn stuffed dog, and – ” she cut herself off, glaring murder and hatred at me.

“Ah, everything okay over there?”

I glanced over my shoulder and found Damian watching us, gaze sharp and wary, Leonard standing by with his arms crossed, eyes narrow and thoughtful as he studied us. Too thoughtful.

“Fine.” I snapped. “Girl talk. Fuck off.” I turned back to Cat, who was still glaring up at me. “Now you know the truth. You’re welcome. And Jesus, I’ve never laid a hand on him, so you’ve got nothing to worry about there.” I paused, thinking hard while the girl who was entirely too damn good with knives weighed and measured every word I said. “Okay, maybe there’s been some flirting, but that’s it. Now get your shit together, because those people over there are not our friends, and that tall old bastard would be just as happy to take advantage of your issues as the Order ever was, okay?”

“Is Tanner dead?” Day called, heading our way.

“As a doornail,” Cat snarled at him before turning on me again. “You actually believe that, don’t you? You’re stupid. I saw the way he looked at you. I saw the way you looked at him. How could you be so dense? I was raised in a convent and I’m not that stupid.”

“Alice, who is that?” Leonard followed Damian, a knowing little smirk dancing on his lips, as though he didn’t really need an answer. “Won’t you please introduce us to your beautiful ladyfriend?” He rubbed his hands together as he advanced, as though he’d just scented an opportunity he couldn’t wait to take advantage of.

We both drew our guns at the same moment, leveled them at Leonard, and cocked the hammers at the same time, and it was a bit off-putting. We glanced uncomfortably at each other as the men stopped dead and raised their hands in the classic non-threatening pose.

I kept my voice low, and refused to look away from my aim at Leonard’s crotch. “Fine, Cat, okay? Maybe there’s something there. Maybe not. It’s complicated.” I said, keeping my voice low. “But that is absolutely the least of our problems right now, kid.”

“Don’t forget,” she hissed out of the side of her mouth as she glared at the two men, who were looking a bit concerned. “I may not know him, but I know he’s not what I thought he was. For that, I’m willing to make you suffer if you hurt him.”

“Duly noted,” I agreed, uncocked the hammer, and stuffed the gun back in my holster. Damian sighed, probably having been remembering the way I’d shot a hole in the fucking universe a few minutes earlier. I walked over to him and jabbed him in the chest. “Goddammit, when I say ‘girl talk, fuck off,’ I mean fuck off, okay?”

“Right, sorry,” Day agreed, holding up both hands in a ‘my bad’ gesture. He eyed Cat as she reluctantly tucked her gun away.

“How long did that take?” I asked, pulling my cigarettes out of my pocket. I plugged a cigarette between my lips as I tried to gauge the shadow’s new range. It was impressive. Even as I thought about how much advance notice we might not get of the hollowman’s arrival, the shadow’s influence was thinning, rolling outward across the floor, sweeping over Damian’s feet and making him side-step in a hasty and pointless effort to get away from her. Leonard held still as the shadow slithered past, all but invisible against the floor.

“How long –?”

“The fight? The hollowman was only coming from Boblo Island.” I lit the cigarette. “I was under the impression it moved pretty fast. When I bumped into Carl at Bushie’s last night, the hollowman was on us in less than ten minutes.”

“Yes, it is. Boblo Island? That’s what, fifteen miles away?” Damian turned to look back at Leonard, who was staring into the middle distance with a pinch of concentration between his brows.

“Moments.” He shook his head. “It’s moving too fast. I can’t get a feel for exactly where it is.”

“Awesome.” I plucked the cigarette from between my lips and flicked ashes away, turning on my heel and heading back into the main hall.

“You said you had a plan?” Damian fell in step with me.

“Yeah. It’s passed out on the floor at the moment.” The shadow rolled ahead of me, stroking featherlight over the floor, thin as a breath of air. She whispered past Grace, Irish, still flat on his back, and Tyler, now groaning and rolling over. Grace caught his shoulders to stop him, and he shook her off with a little grunt. “Ty just woke up.” The shadow spooled against the far wall as I stepped into the hall. She was expanding towards the doors, falling out on the concourse, but leaving streamers to keep watch on that entrance.

“That’s something.” Damian moved ahead of me as I paused, turning to look around the room. The shadow was expanding into the smaller waiting room on my right, and far across the hall to two smaller rooms on the left. Higher up, too, covering the upper levels, stairwells, and the roof. It was easy. How much power had she eaten from the predator swarm?

Cat stepped up beside me. Her face was impassive as she stared into the circle of light where Irish lay on his back. “What happened to him?”

“Got shot in the chest. The vest stopped it.” I watched Leonard walk past us. He didn’t look at us, but I had the feeling he was listening. And planning. Good for him. A little late, sure, but it was nice to him finally abandoning his ‘let’s use the Order to fix my mess’ agenda.

“I heard that bit. That’s not what knocked him out.” Cat turned, crossing her arms as she stared at me.

“You ‘heard that bit?’” I crossed my arms, too. “You weren’t in here. You I would have spotted.”

Cat hooked a thumb over her shoulder at the huge, gaping windows, all of which were broken. “Directional microphone out in the car. No windows in here – the sound carries great. You know you can get shotgun mics online for fifty bucks? Also, I bugged the trench spike he’s carrying in his jacket. I love the Internet.” She smirked at me, a razor-thin little sneer. “But after he got shot, that’s when I left my post to come in, so I didn’t hear anything after that.”

I stared at her, trying not to feel impressed at the ingenuity. Or bare minimum, not to let it show. That’s the problem with those of us in the supernatural community. We get so enamored of the tricks we can pull, we forget the mundanes have a fairly impressive arsenal of their own.

“Grace is an enchantress. She did me a favor and removed the enchantments and programming the Order sets all you Inquisitors up with.”

“Why?” She fired the question at me with hardly a pause for breath. I blinked.

“It was getting in the way of his abilities. He believed he couldn’t do anything without the grace of God – and they’d excommunicated him. Beliefs like that? Had to go.”

“And that knocked him out?”

I exhaled smoke and shrugged. “Yeah. ‘fraid so. It –“

“And you trust her? To do that?”

I looked down at Irish, laying flat on his back. His fists were clenched, and his eyes were flicking back and forth under his lids. He was sweating. “That was the easy part. There’s nobody else who could have done it.”

She turned away from her father and looked at me with hot, angry eyes. “The answer should be ‘yes.’”

I flicked ashes and hit my cigarette, feeling my eyebrows knit themselves together in annoyance. “There weren’t a lot of options.”

“They cast me out, too. When I accused Tanner of lying to me.” She snorted. “He found my lack of faith disturbing. I found another sponsor. I didn’t have any problems.”

“So now you’re running on high-octane from Hell?”

She flinched, and that made me smile. She rallied, though, and gave me a defiant look that made her look about twelve. “Yeah, something like that.”

“When he wakes up, it’ll be just him. No deals, no bargains, no conditions and no strings attached. He’ll be his own man.”

“Sure he will,” she sneered. “And he’ll owe that to you witches. I’d call that a pretty hefty string. Witches, demons, the Order…” Cat kneeled down and brushed at the side of Irish’s flushed face. He moaned in his sleep. “Seems to me there’s always a catch. Always something, so what does it matter? So long as I can do what I need to.” She set her jaw, as though she were daring me to argue the point.

“That’s nicely pragmatic of you,” I said, throwing her off her stride. I hit my cigarette and turned to see how Ty was doing. He was on his feet, one hand on Day’s shoulder as Day murmured, filling him in on what had happened while he was passed out. “You must get that from your mother’s side.”

“You don’t talk about my –”

“It’s here,” Leonard announced, cutting off Cat’s heated response. I turned, urging the shadow onward, and she strained, reaching out. “There,” Leonard said, pointing towards the two smaller rooms where, I was reasonably sure, there was no door.

The shadow flooded the room, a faint film of darkness covering every inch of space without hindering our vision, confirming my thought. A moment later, the stone walls peeled away, folding back like greasy leather curtains. I braced myself and the taste hit me, gagging and pungent, crawling up my sinuses and burrowing in, making itself chokingly comfortable.

“Oh, Jesus,” I spat, clapping a hand over my nose and mouth like I could block it out. I whirled to face the invader, feeling it step in through wisps of shadow and clouds of that noxious gray mist that rolled in with it. I felt the room crawl, literally, with its entrance, tiles sprouting dozens of spidery little feet and prying themselves up off the floor to skitter along ahead of the creature itself, forgotten trash and insects warping and evolving as the oily mist coated them.

I flicked my cigarette away and pulled the Baby Eagle, ejecting the clip with the one remaining void round and stuffing it in my jeans pocket. I pulled another clip out of my pocket and slammed it home, racking the slide. Dragonfire, this time. It had been fairly effective before, on some of the hollowman’s offspring. The creature paused in the side room, entirely oblivious to the shadow’s presence, as far as we could tell. It was massive, with more arms, more legs, and not all of them were human. We felt long jags of glass erupting from its hide, lining its shoulders, all eight of them, like spines, in a circle around its head. Ten legs ending in feet fashioned from blocks of stone, metal, rubber tires. Bits of it were armored in torn shopping cart, chain-link fencing, and twisted rebar. Its skin had different textures, hairy in some spots, pebbled and plated like snakeskin in others, with bits of porcelain or glass or metal embedded in others.

It had armored itself for protection, and rearranged itself for aggression, acts which spoke to me of something unpleasantly like intelligence.

“It’s toxic,” I announced, as copper tiles popped themselves off the walls in the other room and slithered up towards the ceiling on hundreds of tiny, coppery cilia. At the sound of my voice, the creature shifted on its feet and headed for the door. “Those of you who are still human and want to stay that way should probably keep back. Cat, Grace, that means just you two and I dare get close to it.”

The shadow rolled in, collecting herself into an inky black flood that coated the floors and crawled up the sides of the walls. Streamers licked out of the main mass, slithering along the walls, reaching like long, spindly fingers for the door the creature was approaching.

“Fuck,” Tyler said, letting go of Damian to stare at the oily blackness spilling over the walls and floor, rushing over their feet. I slapped his shoulder.

“Focus, man! This is no time for the heebie-jeebies!”

The door on the far wall spread open wider with the sound of cracking timber and splitting plaster, sides rolling back, top arcing up. The godawful stench preceded the beast, doing more to drive the Knights and Leonard back than anything I could have said. The creature hunkered down and trundled into the room on legs that bent in ways they shouldn’t have been able to, long arms clutching the sides of the door as it levered itself through, into the thready light cast by Damian’s orbs.

I tossed a look over my shoulder, at Irish, still on the floor. Hmm. We probably should have stuck him in a closet or something. Hindsight is a bitch.

Orange light flared to my right, and I looked over to see Tyler stepping forward with two hands full of dancing flames that went blue, then white, even as I watched. Tyler was grinning. He shoved his hands forward and fire arced out in two rushing roaring spirals, almost invisible they were so hot. They slammed into the creature, still half in the door, and its flesh simply evaporated, releasing gushes of gray mist and greasy black smoke.

My eyebrows were still moving up my forehead when Damian filled the air with a hailstorm of diamonds, brilliant white slivers that danced and glittered as they streaked through the air so fast it was actually the traces they left on my retinas that I saw, not the effect itself. More mist gushed out of the creature, and before I had a chance to do much more than wonder if, just possibly, ripping holes in the thing wasn’t the greatest idea, the room seemed to chill, and suddenly every sound seemed to ring in the key of E. I felt the effect roll over and around me, something that made my nerve endings shrill and my heart pound and the little reptile bit of my hindbrain squeal and want to flee, and I realized that I’d just barely caught the edge of Grace’s attack: pure, unadulterated terror.

I hit my cigarette and scratched my temple with the barrel of my gun. “Not real sure we’re needed here,” I said off-hand to Cat, who’d drawn her gun and stood there with it as though she were still trying to figure out where to put the first shot.

The hollowman opened its traffic-light maw, letting out a wash of furnace-red light, and screamed. The sound settled in somewhere just behind my eyes and grew thorns, screwing through my sinuses and shredding my ear canals, clawing down my spine. Even the shadow writhed in my head, although I couldn’t tell if it was because the sound hurt her, too, or because she shared my pain. At some point after my knees hit the floor I clapped my hands to my ears, knocking myself upside the head with my own gun and barely even feeling it.

The room went quiet so fast and so completely that I thought for a second my ear drums had blown out. I looked up, vision blurred with pained tears, just in time to see Leonard stepping back from a metronome he’d set on the floor. It ticked back and forth, its 4/4 tick-tock the only sound in the room.

Leonard tipped me a salute as I shoved myself shakily to my feet and looked towards the hollowman. It was still screaming, or at least, its mouth was still open as it surged the rest of the way through the door followed by a billowing fogbank of that freaky mist.

The Knights rallied themselves in total silence, and the electric crackle of magic danced along the edges of my nerves as the three of them lashed out at the hollowman. I felt Grace’s fear attack swell, heavy and oppressive. It didn’t affect me, but I could feel it hanging in the air, pulsing sharp and fast like a heart on the verge of exploding. I saw Tyler’s fire lashing out a second time, the ripple waves of heat undulating through the air towards the hollowman, but that wasn’t all he was doing. There was weight there, too, a gravity attack. It slowed the creature, shoving it down so its knees buckled, its arms flopping to the floor as if stapled there. Damian silently chanted his globe larger, and spun another savage hail of light off the top of it and sent it dancing through the air like a hurricane made of razor blades.

The shadow trilled her annoyance at the silence, her hissing voice startling in the quiet, a rustling melody woven around the metronome’s tick. She liked sound. It was one of her main senses. She growled as though we’d just shut the lights out on her. Even as she was bitching, though, she was swirling around the hollowman, flowing through its wounds, leaving jags of ice in her wake, but not finding anything she could actually attack. Somewhere in that mass of metal and flesh was Carl’s body, I knew. He was alive in there, and I wondered if we could kill him. If that would be enough to expose the outsider to our reality and let it bleed out and die, or if it had enough substance now to protect itself anyway.

She did find its spawn, though, and I felt them crawling and slithering and hopping through the obscuring mist, dozens of them, hundreds of them, crumbled wads of paper with little paper hearts pumping within as they shuffled along on little paper feet, twists of plastic slumping along like worms, beetles the size of fists flowing over the walls on legs that ended in needle-like tines, copper tiles rolled up like tubes slithering along on copper cilia like centipedes, copper fangs dripping poisons that never evolved on this planet. There were a couple of rats, twisting and growing longer, like greyhounds. Good grief, so many of them! Was the monster getting better at creating them, or was this just because it was agitated? It was the mist, of course… but that didn’t explain much.

I shouted a warning to the others, but the words were swallowed up in the tick-tock, and no one heard me. I reached out and grabbed the nearest person – Cat – and spun her, forcing her to look towards the hollowman, and pointing emphatically at the floor. She made to shake me off and froze as the first wave broke out of the mist. I spun her back around and stabbed a finger out at her father, then shoved her at him. She had a better chance of moving the big lug all by herself than I did, anyway.

She ran across the room to him, and I headed towards the Knights. The more they hurt the hollowman, the more mist it bled. The more mist it leaked, the more critters it made. If I didn’t stop them soon we were going to be overrun. I got to Damian first, just as he noticed the onslaught. He tossed a startled look at me, eyes wide behind the lenses of his sunglasses, and his mouth moved, What are they?

The mist, I mouthed back at him, and then shoved him back, because there was enough of it in the room now that the Knights were in danger of being swallowed up by it. I circled around Grace and ducked Tyler’s arm as he sent another waved of blistering heat towards the hollowman. I grabbed his shoulders and nearly got myself fried for my troubles, but he caught himself just in time. I spun him around and sent him stumbling towards Damian, away from the encroaching fogbank. Leonard, of course, had already executed a tactical withdrawal. He was, in fact, hauling ass.

I stuffed a hand in my pouch and turned back as the silent wave of bugs and twisted creations rolled out of the mist at us, and came out with Leonard’s black stone, the one I’d taken off him at the shop earlier. I didn’t take time to do more than run my senses over it, enough to know how to trigger it, and learn that whatever it was, it was explosive. I flung it into the mist and through my hands up over my head as the stone shattered and a wall of silent static electricity cracked up ten feet from the floor and shot forward like a wall of lightning, fricasseeing everything in its path.

Jesus Christ, he’d been going to set that off in my shop? That asshole!

Through the shadow I could feel Leonard, Damian, and Tyler backing off, although I wasn’t entirely sure they’d gotten the point about the mist. I set the shadow to watch the mist’s advance towards them, and she put up a shadowy chain-link fence at the edge of its advance, letting the fog push it forward as a kind of warning line. She even followed my lead enough to form ebon Mister Yuk logos for the ones who were slower on the uptake. Cat had carried Irish out of immediate danger, and was returning to the fight, her footsteps light and quick through the layers of shadow on the ground.

Grace was watching me with one eye and the mist with another. The shadow’s fence pushed over us with a slight chill, and we were suddenly knee deep in gray fog filled with crawling monstrosities. The eye she watched me with was baffled, and I had the feeling she couldn’t do much to the critters. They weren’t sentient enough to be effected by Grace’s kind of magic. She swiped and slashed at them with her claws, knocking them away and crushing the smaller ones, but that was only making room for more of them to advance.

Cat was in much the same boat. She was a dervish, kicking and throwing anything that came within reach, sending tiny monstrosities flying, but most of them just rejoined the forward march wherever they landed – and there were more coming all the time. I shoved both hands in my pockets and came out with fistfuls of the last of my marbles, and I saw something wiffle past me out of the corner of my eyes, just barely registering a two dimensional gray alien in a pink bandana before it turned sideways and disappeared. Living graffiti, and I knew the artist. If I lived, I’d have to tell Larry about this. He’d be thrilled.

I tossed the marbles and unleashed a double handful full of pops of fire, gushes of acid, gusts of wind and snapping static sparks. It cleared the area around me, which rapidly began to fill again.

The shadow tugged at my attention as she swelled and filled the mist, licking it, coalescing around it. It was foul beyond words, full of chemicals I didn’t have names for and substances that probably didn’t even exist on this plane, and –

Water.

I grinned as I pulled a wax paper packet out of a pocket and tore it open, turning a flood of sparkling acid-green gnats loose to bite and sting and dissolve bits of the the undulating things swarming my boots and crawling up my jeans. The shadow gathered her strength and sucked the heat out of the mist as hard and as fast as she could and suddenly the room was full of crystallized mist, raining down like glittery snow. Grace shuddered and I think she was screaming, clawing at the bits of mist that had frozen to her face and exposed skin, but Cat seemed unaffected. I felt Tyler, about twenty yards behind us, taking a deep breath and spreading his arms wide, and I hustled out of the way, squashing a path through a small horde of what I thought might have been loose change once, but were now some sort of insect-like armored critters with silver-and-copper pincers. Tyler sent a wall of fire through the room, disintegrating the frozen mist into nothingness and clearing quite a lot of the floor. The stone walls were black with soot after the flames passed, and he was quick to send a gust of wind to clear the smoke before we choked.

I armed sweat off my face, the tick of Leonard’s metronome resounding in my skull and making it almost impossible to concentrate. That fucking tick, tick, tick just wouldn’t stop – and everything, everywhere, had that godawful taste from the mist… the shadow couldn’t avoid the taste, it was everywhere, and it was a struggle just to keep myself from curling up and puking my guts out.

I shook my head, trying to focus, and turned just as Cat flung a flash grenade into a pile of terrier-size concrete creatures, morphed out of cement and marble. They toppled and scattered in the flash, and then stood, shaking themselves. They had long tongues with stingers at the tip, lashing madly about dripping venom that sizzled silently on the floor as they rallied themselves. They regrouped and clambering towards Cat, who looked deeply annoyed with the entire situation. I jerked a ball of silk yarn out of my belt pouch and whipped it over-arm, a pretty decent fast ball. It unraveled in midair, bursting into knotted gossamer streamers that dropped down over the brick creatures, winding them up in tangles.

For a dead zone, I was doing fairly well, I realized. My artifacts should be either fizzling or draining me to the point of exhaustion. My shadow purred, even as she deep-froze and shattered some of the more brittle critters, maintained the warning barrier at the fogline, and tracked the movements of seven hundred and eighteen monsters, adding to the tally as the mist created more. She seemed pleased with herself, and I wondered briefly how much mojo I could draw off her when she was well-fed like this.

Grace flashed past me, shaking off a scatter of fluttering butterfly buggies with oversized jaws that looked to be made of glass, and I ducked as Damian sent another hail storm of light our way. That took out anything flying, but didn’t seem to have a lot of effect on anything formerly stony or metal, and while I was busy trying to keep up with what was going on, the shadow tugged at my attention. It seemed like she wanted me to duck, but before I could do anything about it, a great big ham-sized fist caught me in the chest and sent me flying as the hollowman shambled past me.

I slammed into a wall and slithered down it, seeing stars. My chest throbbed, and I realized I’d had my wind slammed out of me three times in the last ten minutes. A new personal best. I hit the floor, trying madly to suck air into my stunned lungs, and was swarmed, dozens of heavy, baseball-sized critters with sharp, sharp little feet and sharp, sharp little mouths, nipping and stabbing and clawing at my ears and nostrils, and the shadow rolled up over me, sucking the heat out of them, but there were so goddamn many of them, and I clawed and thrashed and –

Someone grabbed me by the front of the shirt and hefted me up on my feet, knocking them off me with quick swipes of hands. I got my eyes open as I wrenched critters off my front and out of my hair, stomping at them, and looked up to see – Irish’s grim expression as he turned to survey the chaos. His jaw was set, and his brow furrowed. He looked exactly the same, but my heart caught in my throat as I looked up into those icy blue eyes. Who was in there?

“Holy shit, am I glad to see you,” I exclaimed, and of course, I didn’t make a sound. He turned back long enough to shoot me a quick tight grin, though, as though he had somehow heard me. As he did, his eyes went wide and alarmed and I spun to see the back end of a white box van slam soundlessly through the front doors, barely six feet from where I was leaning against the wall. It brought a rolling cloud of dust and sent debris flying – some of which landed in the mist and began growing legs and teeth.

The van’s doors popped open, disgorging a load of bloody, emptied-eyed, slavering undead. Vampires, some of them – judging by the bared fangs and the gleaming red eyes. Not all of them, though. I saw a teenaged black girl with sunken eyes, her jaw extended impossibly long and bristling with jagged, blackened teeth. A ghoul, if I didn’t miss my guess. A second van breached the wall nearby, and more of them clambered out of that one, too. There had to be almost twenty of them, and all of them looked to be in full-on blood frenzy. Awesome.

I looked up at Irish just in time to see him heave a sigh and shake his head, and then he drew his sword in one hand and stalked angrily into the chaos.

Black Alice © 2012 Marci Sischo & James Agle. All rights reserved. Join Black Alice's Facebook page or subscribe by RSS for regular updates.

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Comments

    Marci Sischo | Apr 16, 10:53 AM
    That's not irony. That's a broken tank.

    Bo | Apr 16, 9:16 AM
    Does the realization that you are poisoning yourself with your...

    Marci Sischo | Apr 01, 2:16 PM
    Hi! I actually have the little "use your own grounds"...

    old gunner | Mar 31, 10:51 PM
    You might take the time to review the instructions to...

    Marci Sischo (@MarciSischo) | Mar 17, 10:10 AM
    That's a valid point - everything's easier looking back on...

    Kaci | Mar 13, 7:15 AM
    I hear you dog, but you're speaking as a self-actualized...

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