The music was so loud I could feel it rattling my fillings, a synthesized techno beat with a bass line that shook the floor and vibrated through the walls. Some overly auto-tuned gal was moaning along while colored lights strobed over walls draped in metallic fabric, and out on the dance floor people were gyrating and dry-humping. I sat at our table, glaring into my over-priced, watered-down drink, head pulsing as my shadow writhed in ecstasy. She loved it.
The club was deliberately poorly-lit, and the flashing laser light and wildly spinning spotlights made it easy for my shadow to writhe along the floor, between the dancers, and up among the rafters. She was drinking in the light and noise, the thumping vibrations and the dizzying array of tastes and scents all over the place. This of course meant that I was, too. There was so much mouthwash in my near future, not that it would help.
“See? I told you this would be fun!” Honey shouted into my face. I could barely hear her over the music and the thundering cacophony of two hundred and seventy six heartbeats. And that wasn’t even counting the rats in the walls. She was dancing in her seat, hands on the table tapping along, shoulders undulating and head bobbing.
“Oh, definitely,” I shouted back, mouth a sour twist. “Good times!” I lifted the plastic tumbler and drained the alleged screwdriver. I was in desperate need of some quiet and a cigarette. This was our third club tonight and so help me, I was going to gut the next skinny little asshole who introduced himself by grinding his crotch on my ass while I was trying to get a drink. Or I would, if I’d had a blade on me.
I adjusted the strap of my black knit dress, pulling it back up onto my shoulder. My jeans and blouse and bra were still back at Honey’s place, neatly folded on her coffee table. Honey had made me change, and the dress was one of hers. Despite the fact that I’m almost a foot taller than she is, the dress hung a lot lower on me, almost to my knees. I didn’t have Honey’s curves to fill it out, which, incidentally, meant that the neckline hung a lot lower on me, too. What curves I did have were rather more on display than I might have preferred. She had let me keep my black high heels, and I’d chosen all black jewelry tonight. A choker with a black silk ribbon and a tarnished silver spider cameo, jet-and-onyx beaded bracelets, four rings featuring black pearl, agate, and obsidian stones, and a pair of cast-iron chain anklets done in the finest, tiniest links I could forge by hand in my basement workshop. She’d also redone my hair, giving it more curl and bounce than usual. It hung just past my shoulders, and I’d layered my ruddy locks with swaths of living shadow, making the patches of color stand out all the more. With my pale, pale skin, it was a striking look – and I had, just like that, become a douchebag magnet.
I didn’t have a blade on me, but the ring with the black pearl was a health sink. I wondered if Honey would chew me out if I responded to my next sexual assault of the evening by ripping the guy’s auto-immune system to shreds?
“Ooo, girls, look!” Honey nodded towards the dance floor, and I followed her look, eyes widening as I spotted the man she was staring at. He was surrounded by a sweaty, enthralled bevy of young women, so I only caught a glimpse of him here and there as swaying bodies parted and closed.
Bit by bit, I put those glimpses together to assemble a mental picture. Long, dark wavy hair. Tight black jeans. A devilish smile, with smoldering dark eyes under heavy brows… a silver piercing accenting one eyebrow. A sleeveless black fishnet shirt, which would have counted against him, except he had the most wonderfully lithe and muscular body; lean, like a swimmer, and just a hint of a tan. The crowd shifted a little, and he looked our direction. Not directly at us, but near enough to give us the full effect. He was just a little Goth, but not so much as to be obnoxious. A little bit Eurotrash, but only enough to be enticing. The solid musculature, his boots and the wallet chain gave him a dash of biker, too, enough to evoke that classic bad boy look.
Well, well, well.
“Oh. My.” Grace sat up next to me.
It hadn’t been my idea to invite Grace along. Hell, it hadn’t been my idea to bring myself. This little Girls’ Night Out had been all Honey’s idea. She needs to get out, Honey had insisted. And by some bizarre twist of Honey-logic, ‘she’ translated as ‘the three of us.’ Looking at tall, dark, and delicious over there, I was starting to warm to the idea despite myself.
“Let’s go introduce ourselves.” Honey grinned as we all undressed him with our eyes. Honey hitched up the front of her bustier, unabashedly adjusting the girls. She was decked out in shades of dark emerald, from the ribbons laced up the back of her corset-style top to the lace on her eyepatch. Matching ribbons tied her jet-black hair into juvenile-delinquent pigtails, and coordinated beautifully with some of the highlights of her many tattoos. Her left arm was a complex sleeve of gorgeous, Technicolor designs, incorporating everything from a parrot to a zombie Ronald McDonald to fuzzy dice. With her naturally dusky skin tone, I’d often wondered how she managed to get ink so colorful. She licked her lips and gave a leer as the handsome stranger swung his hips in a particularly provocative way.
“You know what?” I asked, wishing he’d do that hip thing again. “I’m game. Best idea you’ve had all night.” His black jeans were skin tight, and it was a really nice ass. “I don’t get out much. How do we do this? Do we draw straws to see who gets him, or just let the best woman win?” I jingled my bracelet meaningfully, and grinned at back at her. For a moment, each of the black stones flared with a glowing crimson rune. “I should warn you, I’m armed.” Honey knew that I was a witch, and she knew how good I was at making something as innocent as a charm bracelet very, very dangerous indeed. I’d agreed to leave my guns at home tonight, but that didn’t mean a lot when one was as good an artificer as I was.
“What, you can’t share?” Honey shot me a wicked look and I felt my eyebrows crawl up.
“You wanna double-team him?” I hazarded, not quite sure if I’d had enough to drink for that kind of night. I eyed my empty tumbler. “Really?”
“We oughtta be able to keep him busy, right?” She made a little circle with one finger to indicate all three of us and tipped a wink at Grace.
Whoa. I flicked a quick look at Grace. There wasn’t enough booze in this whole bar for that kind of night.
“Whoa.” Grace held both hands up. “I just want a closer look. I don’t even know if I still have sex organs.”
Honey glanced at Grace, a bit startled. Well, of course – she couldn’t see the real Grace. All she could see was the beautiful raven-haired brunette with waterfalls of thick, gorgeous curly hair, the big blue eyes and the slender, fashion-model figure. I could see the real Grace, wavering in and out of the mental illusion she projected, the seven-foot tall monstrosity that was both insectoid and reptilian, fishbelly-white skin stretched tight over elongated bones interrupted by too many joints in the wrong places. Her skull was too long, raptorish, her face noseless and lipless, her eyes big chameleon-like orbs that swiveled independently in their sockets.
Oddly enough, she still had all that beautiful hair, and her eyes were still that rich cobalt blue, even if they rarely looked in the same direction anymore.
“Besides. Nothing personal, but…” She glanced at us with an apologetic look and a shrug.
“Oh, what? We aren’t hot enough for you?” I waved between me and Honey, who laughed.
“No! I mean –” Grace blushed fire-engine red – or at least, the mental projection did – and Honey laughed harder. Grace sighed, folded her razor talons, and rested her jutting jaw on them, shaking her head. “Oh, you know what I mean.” She sighed. “He is pretty though.”
I followed her gaze back to the extremely fine gentleman on the dance floor. A hot blonde wearing next to nothing and a good ten years younger than me was writhing against him, and he was grinning down at her. He had a great smile, all white teeth and raw sex appeal. He leaned down to whisper in the girl’s ear and she pressed herself against him, shuddering.
“Oh!” Grace straightened as the girl’s knees buckled and the man caught her. I quirked a surprised eyebrow up and looked to Grace. “He just did something naughty.” Grace’s faux face smirked, and I looked back to the man, confused.
“What? What did he do?” His hands were in plain sight and everyone’s clothes were in the right places. “I didn’t see anything.”
“He was using illusion, I’m pretty sure.” Grace chuckled. “I think he’s one of us, Alice.” Grace was an enchantress – not the same thing as an illusionist, but close enough that the two schools of magic were sensitive to one another.
“A hollowman?” I blurted without thinking, and that caught the shadow’s attention. I felt her perking up in my head, forgetting the delicious vibrations of the bass line to creep and flow closer toward him for a better inspection.
Technically, Grace and I were both corruptions; that is to say, we’ve both been physically altered and twisted by exposure to a piece of another reality. Grace was a monster, physically, while my own changes were more subtle. I didn’t sleep or feel the cold much, for example. I was a hollowman as well, though – I had a denizen of another reality sharing my skin. We were symbiotes, my shadow and I, while Grace was all alone in her misshapen body.
Grace smacked my arm. “No. I mean he’s Arcana. If his illusions are strong enough for me to feel it from here, and subtle enough to do… what he was doing to give that girl an orgasm on the dance floor…” my eyebrows went up again. Sexy Stranger’s boyfriend potential just went way, way up. “…then he’s definitely Arcana material.” The Arcana were the self-appointed top tier of the supernatural pyramid. Any magician worth his salt was dragooned into their ranks, myself included.
“Oh. Right,” I said as the shadow slithered over feet and around legs, reaching the mystery man and returning a disdainful verdict of ‘only human.’ My shadow was fiercely territorial, and we’d only just repelled an invasion from another hollowman. Two, really… though the second had only hosted his outlander for a matter of minutes. Now that she was paying attention, I could feel a slight, shivery tingle prickling her/my skin… magic. “You’re right. We can feel it too. I don’t know him, though.”
“Me either.” Grace stood up, unfolding from her hunched position in the chair. Her legs bent in all the wrong places now, which made sitting in a chair a bit of a chore. She stretched up to her full seven feet, the claws on her footpads scraping the tile floor as she peered over the crowd. “Maybe we should say hello. Officially.”
I caught her arm, her skin too hot under my hand, and I suppressed a grimace at the plasticene feel of her flesh. “Sit your ass back down. It’s not your job anymore.”
She kept one lizard eye on the magician, and shifted one to look at me. The expression on her fake face was angry, glaring at me. Her real face peeled her upper lip back, revealing an alarming number of long, sharp teeth. I tugged her arm as the shadow brought me the taste and feel of new leather boots – the magician’s – and the taste and scent of his cologne. Everything around him was cheap, trendy stink, but his cologne stood out, something full of smoke and amber and money. We could feel the air coming out of his mouth, taste peppermint and cognac on his breath, but the music was so loud we couldn’t discern his voice from the dull thud pounding out of the speakers.
Grace pulled her arm out of my grip and folded herself back down to the chair, the anger leaving her fake expression, replaced with a sullen heat.
Honey watched the two of us carefully. “Is there going to be a problem?”
“No.” Grace huffed the word out. She picked up the margarita that had been melting in front of her all night, glaring at it. “God, I want a drink.” She set it back down hard and some sloshed out on the table. Alcohol didn’t agree with her new digestive tract, poor thing.
Barely a month ago, Grace had been a beautiful woman, a human woman, a powerful woman. She’d been at the pinnacle of two careers. As Detroit’s Knight of Wands, she was charged with protecting the city and, more importantly, the interests of the Major Arcana. She’d complemented her abilities as an enchantress with an education, and had been one of the best therapists in Michigan. She’d been wealthy, influential, in love, and she’d had the whole world at her feet.
In one night, she’d lost it all, every last bit of it. Well, technically I suppose she was still a therapist, but she’d been on a leave of absence for the last month, and she didn’t talk like she was planning to go back to the job. She’d been in a fight against an abomination, a woman twisted and corrupted by an encounter with the hollowman who’d run amok in Detroit last month. Freshly corrupted, the taint of an alien world had been oozing from the poor creature, literally – and Grace had been contaminated by it. She’d managed to keep her sanity, and some measure of her magic, but the other effects had been a bitch.
The other Knights treated her politely, but that was about it. Damian Halkias, the Knight of Pentacles, paid lip service to finding a cure for her condition, but he’d made it clear that he wouldn’t work alongside something he didn’t understand or trust. He’d also been putting less and less work into finding that mythical ‘cure’ he was talking about. It was racism, pure and simple. I’d told him she didn’t need a cure any more than someone needed a cure for being Jewish. This was her natural state now.
Tyler Grant was worse. The Knight of Swords had been her One True Love, and when she’d dropped her enchantment and let him see her real face, he’d thrown up on his shoes. That had been over three weeks ago, and he hadn’t said a word to her since. I’d chewed his ass over that, even called him a bigot to his face. And in Detroit, when the skinny white girl calls the burly black man a bigot, well, them’s fighting words. But he hadn’t risen to the bait. He’d just shaken his head, and asked me to leave him alone to mourn the death of his fiancée in peace. He’d talked himself into believing that Grace wasn’t Grace at all – just some monster who’d eaten her alive from the inside out, and taken her memories along with her life.
To be fair, there’s a lot of merit to that theory, but at that point it’s a matter of apples and oranges, you know? Whether it’s her or whether it thinks it’s her, she still loves him, so does it really matter? To Tyler, it mattered a lot. Frankly, I couldn’t see his point, and when I’d said so, he’d just given me the oddest look and wandered off.
I get that a lot. I’ve had this alien shadow-being living in my skull for as long as I could remember, since I was a child, and it took me until my late twenties before I’d become any good at faking humanity.
Grace had taken to turning up at Honey’s bar as soon as Honey had had it repaired and reopened. She was following the two of us around a bit like a lost puppy. Damned if I know why. Okay, sure, she got dumped, and I guess that throws some gals for a loop, but as far as the Detroit Arcana knew, she was still the same old Grace. I’d worked hard to keep my shadow a secret, since the Arcana’s policy on hollowmen involved phrases like ‘kill it’ and ‘extreme prejudice.’ By the end of the debacle last month, my secret was out. But word hadn’t got out about Grace the way it had with me. She acted like Honey and I were the only friends she had in the world, which is pretty sad when you consider that Honey just met her and I didn’t actually like her all that much.
Honey patted Grace’s arm. “You know what? Maybe you should go say hi.” Grace and I gave Honey a startled look. “No, seriously. Go on over there and get your flirt on. You need to get out of this funk, girl.”
“That’s sweet, Honey, but I can’t –” Grace suddenly twitched forward, lurching into the table and knocking over my glass. Vodka splashed everywhere and the glass bounced to the floor. She spat out a hacking little noise somewhere between a cough and a gag and her mental projection flickered. Honey jerked back with a gasp, dropping Grace’s arm, her eye flying wide open. The projection reasserted itself as Grace whirled with a snarl and I saw the blood seeping into her blue caftan from a wound in her upper back.
“What the hell?” I stood, popping my clutch purse open and reaching inside. That was a gunshot wound. Somebody had shot Grace! I pulled out my brass Zippo, and Grace jerked back again with a sound like a cat’s squall, slapping a hand at her chest like something had just stung her. What, again?
My heart-slamming burst of alarm brought the shadow’s attention flooding back to me like a cold wave. She surged through my veins, a jagged wash of ice hissing along my limbs and in the back of my mind. I saw Grace’s hand blur from the corner of my eye, felt her moving before I even saw it, and still my flinch was too slow. I blinked and realized I was staring at the back of Grace’s fist, hanging an inch in front of my nose.
She turned her hand up and opened it, stretching up to her full height as she scanned the crowd. Sitting in the palm of her hand was a misshapen bullet. A red strobe caught the dull metal, making it glow bloody scarlet for a split second. She’d caught the damn thing before it hit me in my face. Holy shit.
“Honey, get down,” I said, grinning as I sent the shadow rolling out into the club, a frigid breeze winding through the dimness. We were almost numb, the music filling the air with too many vibrations for us to locate the sound of the gunshots, but we could taste everything. She billowed out, higher and farther, and found the scents and flavors of human sweat heavy with sex and adrenalin permeating the air, swirling around eddies of deodorant, alcohol, leather and perfume and there: the sudden stench of coppery fear filling the air, wrapped around acrid cordite and gun oil. “It’s about to get bad in here.”
Book One | Table of Contents | Chapter Two
Image credit: Curran.Kelleher at Flickr