Ever have that dream where you’re falling, and suddenly you wake up?
Try it in reverse, sometime.
I woke up, stumbling over my own feet and falling. There was a small, strong hand on my right arm that almost caught me as I went down, but I’d twitched when I came to and had surprised her. My left hand was still frozen fast to my throat, so I had no way to catch myself. I went down hard, grunting as my knee ran hotly along a thick pile carpet. The side of my head hit the floor pretty hard, but I barely felt it. I barely felt anything, really… I was numb. Cold.
I blinked and tried to shake my head, but it didn’t move. I felt like I was trapped, my left hand wedged inside an incredibly cold neck brace. “She’s awake,” a man said. His voice was colored with an accent. French, I thought stupidly as I stared, confused, around what appeared to be a hotel hallway, but a really expensive one. I wriggled, getting my knees under me, and it felt like I was floating. The shadow gave me a rapid download of what I’d missed while I was out, but there wasn’t much to it except panic. She’d completely withdrawn into my body, working to keep us alive, and had been forced to use my own senses to navigate with. I had the impression that she’d bit a few people before Cat had calmed her down. How the hell had she managed that?
“About time,” a woman’s voice, and one I recognized. It was Cat. Still with us, apparently. “That other thing is fucking creepy.”
“A woman of your experience would let a little thing like that bother her?” There was a teasing lilt to the man’s tone.
“Yeah.” Cat gave a dry little snort. “My experience means I know creepy when I see it.” She tugged on my arm. “Get up. We’re almost there.”
“Almost where?” I said, or would have, if I’d had a voice. Right – throat pretty much destroyed. That was annoying. I let Cat me pull me up as I poked at the shadow, a still, quiet knot of concentration in the back of my head. I expected her to know what the hell was going on. I can get knocked out, but she can’t. She isn’t used to vision, and doesn’t like it. Her memories of my time-out were a jumble of chaotic images, with distorted faces looming large and swimming away in the confusion. Nightmarish.
“Ms. Frye?” Said the man. He was just behind my left shoulder and I couldn’t turn my head, so I couldn’t get a look at him. “Are you all right?”
What kind of dumbass question was that? I mean honestly. I have a bullet hole in my throat. I rolled my eyes and attempted to sigh through my nose.
“She is awake, right?” Cat shifted her grip, turning me so she could look me in the face. “Alice?”
The shadow was all that was holding me together. She’d fabricated an entire network inside my throat, miniscule tubes of frozen blood to replace blood vessels, sheaths of ice to encase the dangling edges of shredded nerve tissue. She was busy replacing them as I stood there, staring at Cat. I could feel bubbles of room-temperature blood moving through ice, eroding her work even as she rebuilt it. She was lining each tube, monitoring my heart beats, ushering my blood through the ruins of my neck, replacing the ice as it melted.
I’d been hurt bad before. Cat had punched my guts full of holes just last month and damn near killed me, but those had all been stomach wounds, and you die so much slower from those. The shadow hadn’t had to work nearly this hard to save me then. I blinked at her, to signal ‘yes’ as best I could. She helped me to my feet, and I wobbled again. I was still wearing the heels?
When did the shadow pick up how to walk in heels?
Tall, dark, and sexy from the club stepped around us, and moved to unlock a door just down the hall. The presence of the door startled me – I was used to having a mental map at all times, showing me every door and window, pebble and wisp of carpet lint within twenty to fifty feet at all times. He touched the doorframe on either side as the door swung open, and I felt wards parting like curtains to allow us entry. Good, solid wards, too – I’d built them.
We were in the Motor City Casino Hotel, in the floor owned and reserved for Arcana guests and visitors. My brow furrowed. Or did the Arcana own the whole hotel? I couldn’t remember. My thoughts felt sluggish, and I was acutely aware of my tepid temperature. I was cold-blooded.
Like those guys who’d shot me. I laughed, or tried to, and felt ice breaking in my throat. The shadow flared in alarm, and my vision went dark and wobbly for a few seconds until she reestablished a moderate flow of blood again. I was dimly aware of Cat catching me, and carrying me inside the suite.
When my vision cleared, I was laying on an expensive leather sectional couch. I could look down past my toes and see a beautiful view of the city, particularly the Ambassador Bridge connecting Detroit to Canada. Cat was kneeling next to me, brushing my hair out of my eyes. She looked concerned, and somehow angry at the same time.
I could make out a pale, cream-colored carpet, and some neutral but tasteful art on the wall some distance past Cat’s shoulder. Big room. The European eye-candy guy was slipping out of a long leather coat and looking at me with worry on his beautiful face. “This room is secure. You’re safe here, Ms. Frye, and a healer is on the way.” His voice was culture and velvet, like he’d learned English in England, but kept enough of the French accent to make it extra sexy. I raised my eyebrows, and he smiled. “They talked at some length about the extensive features of the Hotel security and amenities. I lost interest quickly, but they seemed very pleased with themselves, so it is quite likely very secure. Also, I will guard you with my life, should it come to that.”
“Unlikely,” Cat muttered, leaning in to get a good look at my frozen-in-place left hand.
“Indeed,” he laughed, peeling off that ridiculous fishnet shirt of his and walking out of sight into another room. Gone. Out of sight and I had no idea what was past that doorway. I hated that.
The front door opened, the wards peeling back again. Cat didn’t move that I could see, but she had her knife in her hand. “Oh,” she said, standing up. “It’s you.” She drew her other blade, and stood there with a trench spike in each hand, arms at her sides.
Who was it? I couldn’t tell without looking, and it felt like I was buried alive, cut off from my senses. I urged the shadow to go see, to count the people and explore the suite and listen from every shadow and she wearily refused. Too weak. Too busy. Too hungry.
“Is it dead?” came a deep, masculine voice. Tyler Grant. Formerly Grace’s fiancée, and still the Knight of Swords. Not a fan of mine.
“Honestly?” Cat replied, without moving out of my sight, “it’s hard to tell. There’s no pulse, and her body temperature’s way, way lower than it should be. She’s lucid, though.”
“Well, that’s something, I suppose.” A different voice. Damian Halkias leaned over me from above, and started probing at my face with his fingers. I blinked furiously, but he ignored me, touching my brow, my cheeks, my lips, and pausing when he reached my jawline. That was where the skin was icy to the touch. Just below that, the skin was frozen solid, and didn’t have any give when he pushed.
He spent a few seconds exploring the line of demarcation, and I spent it looking up at him. Damian was a Greek/Arab blend of pure yummy, easily one of the most handsome men I’ve ever met. His dark curly hair hung down over us – he wore it long, hanging to his shoulders – and his brows were furrowed in concentration. It made him look very serious, even when he was upside-down from my perspective. “Tyler, start a fire in the hearth and turn up the heat in here. We’ll need to get her temperature up so we can get her to talk.”
“I could heat her up real fast, if you want.” I resisted the urge to swallow, nervously. Tyler was an evocator, and that meant he was prone to things like throwing fireballs and electrocuting people with a touch. My shadow perked up, though, liking the idea of fire. Fire was food.
“Save the smack talk and just do it,” Damian replied, all calm and patient and never looking away from his exploration of my throat. “I can only see two of her fingers, here. Her hand is actually inside the wound. This will be difficult, if it’s even possible.”
There was a small whoomph, and a flare of warm golden firelight as Tyler got a fireplace going. My shadow extended a tiny, filament-thin appendage, and sent it down, through the sectional sofa and into the thick carpet through the weave. Slowly, she reached out toward where my ears said the sound came from. I mentally promised her that I’d be careful, I’d be still, and encouraged her to get food. I didn’t like Tyler’s tone.
“I say we don’t bother, then. The new healer’s a rookie, and what if he burns himself out trying to fix this freak? Then we’re back where we were. Not worth it.” Damian sighed.
“Yes, so you said in the elevator, and on the drive here. I heard you then, and I hear you now. Only this time, Alice heard you, too.” He patted my cheek. “Didn’t you? Of course you did.”
A blade suddenly appeared between us, and Cat guided him up and away from me with it. “That’s enough of that,” she said.
“Fair enough,” he replied, brushing his curls back out of his eyes and adjusting the hang of his expensive tailored jacket. It was cream, and went nicely with the suite’s décor. He twisted his fingers into a carefully-rehearsed gesture, completing a spell he’d started hours or days ago, and I suddenly felt like I was floating again. With a twist of his wrist he lifted me off the couch and spun me around, lowering me back on the seat in an upright position. I held my breath through the process, half afraid he’d bump or jar me enough to break my crystalline neck-plumbing. As soon as I was settled again, I gave him the dirtiest look I could manage. “We don’t really need you to live,” he explained, having a seat beside me, on my left where I couldn’t reach him with my good arm if I’d tried. “We just need you to talk for a bit.”
“What?” Cat demanded, brandishing her knife and looking a bit nonplussed at being ignored. I bet she wasn’t used to that.
“Some vaguely reptilian mercenaries attacked my apartment today. Tyler’s car was bombed, likely by the same subhuman creatures. Grace was attacked at that club you were at.” He leaned in close, speaking softly. “You’ve broken the taboo, got yourself white-listed as a hollowman. How many more of you are out there? How many other half-monsters have you invited to Detroit to hop on the gravy train? Who did you tell about the local authorities, and how best to strike at us?” His upraised hand caressed my cheek, and there was a hint of golden light shimmering along his dark skin. Something violent, something painful, just waiting for him to give the word or gesture that would release it. Damian was a thaumaturge, so like me, he could get magic to do just about whatever he wanted it to. But where I, as an artificer, had to build the effect into a device, Damian built it into a spell. Sometimes they were long, elaborate rituals that lasted for days. Sometimes it was much quicker. But all he needed was time. Damian was the scary Knight.
My eyes flicked across the room to the fireplace. My tiny trickle of shadow was still inching along under the carpet, just a few feet away from her goal. The other handsomest-man-in-the-world came out of the other room, wearing a plush white hotel bathrobe. Was having the beauty of a Greek God a requirement for Knighthood, or was this guy cheating? Hadn’t Grace said he was an illusionist?
He took in the room, noting Tyler leaning against the far wall, casually rolling a tiny ball of fire back and forth over his knuckes, and Damian snuggled up close and holding a spell on a hair-trigger against my damaged neck, and Cat standing close by with twin weapons in hand. “What’s going on?” he asked, sounding more serious than I’d ever heard him.
“We’re waiting for the healer to come so we can interrogate the hollowbitch,” Tyler replied.
“No,” replied New Guy. “non! The healer is coming so we can help an Arcana member in good standing who requires it. I was there. I saw this attack. On my word as a Knight, she was a victim of this attack, not a conspirator.”
My eyebrows went up. He’s a Knight?
“That means very little. She was probably gambling that her shadow could keep her alive if she got injured. She just got hurt more badly than she was expecting, that’s all.” Damian put his arm around my shoulders, and gave me a friendly squeeze that hurt me deep in my chest. “You don’t know Alice like we do. Overconfidence is a given.”
“You can’t know that.”
“I will. When she starts talking.”
Cat leaned in and swung one of her knives. It was a big swing, from the shoulder, and it flashed past my face and Damian’s in a split second – I heard him hiss in pain, and saw a few drops of blood land on the creamy white carpet. “Enough,” she hissed. “Get out.”
A basketball-sized ball of fire flew at her from Tyler’s direction, but it rolled over her face and passed on to splash against the magically-reinforced Lexan windows harmlessly. Like her father, Cat was a Nephilim, and was notoriously magic-resistant. She aimed a blade at Tyler, holding one aimed toward Damian.
Cat wasn’t anywhere near the brick wall her father was, but she somehow managed to exude that same imposing, immoveable air. “You heard me,” she told them as Damian and Tyler exchanged wary glances. “You’ve forgotten your oath. You’ve tried and sentenced a victim. Go, now, while she might still forgive you.”
“You don’t order us around,” Tyler began, tone heated. Damian stood up, dabbing at the cut along his cheekbone, just under his right eye. It was bleeding pretty freely, too. I was guessing Cat had cut him pretty deep.
“Miss Hayes. While it is true that we are under orders not to harm you, we are allowed to defend ourselves. Stand down, or the next salvo Tyler aims at your face won’t be a warning shot.”
Cat laughed in his face. “Is that what that was?” Damian shot a look at the Knight of Swords, who averted his gaze. “Here’s the plan. You two go down to the bar and cool off, and we’ll text you when Alice is talking. Fair enough?”
Damian narrowed his eyes. “Laurent can stay?” He said it with that rhymes-with-awnt accent, so I guessed he was talking about tall dark and sexy in the bathrobe.
“No, I think I had best come downstairs with you,” he replied. I loved that accent. And wow, he was pretty. If I was dying, I could think of worse ways to go than to have him just sit here talking to me and looking hot. “My brother will be here soon with the healer. I wouldn’t want him to get distracted when he sees the two of you in the bar.”
I wondered if he really thought Damian and Tyler would delay the healer. More, I wondered why it would matter to him. I didn’t even know if Laurent was his first or last name.
“I don’t take orders from Inquisitors,” Tyler growled. “I burn them.” Cat flourished her knives, and finished the gesture with a beckoning waggle of one blade.
My shadow reached the fire, at last, and branched out. Long fingers stretched out, the flames flickering between them like the shadow was tousling the head of a child. She drank deep of the heat, and I was glad it was a gas fireplace. She was so hungry she’d have snuffed a wood fire in seconds.
“You’d leave her alone if she were human. You’d have some respect for her if she was human. But she’s just a thing to you, so fuck it. You said it, not five minutes ago. Why would you waste your healer on a thing like her? If you’re not going to do anything to help, the least you could do is let her die with some dignity. In peace.”
“She’s right. Alice will either die or pull through. If she’s dying, she can’t tell us anything. If she lives, I still have my compulsion just waiting. It’ll keep. Let’s go.” He tugged Tyler back a step to separate him from the battle-of-wills / staring-contest he’d entered with Cat. Tyler resisted a second step and Damian leaned in, adding quietly, “The last thing we need is Irish deciding we had something to do with her death. We’ve got a handful of coordinated inhuman assassins to deal with – we don’t need a fight with him, too.”
Tyler ground his teeth, but he kept his temper. His narrow, hot look said he’d dearly love to lose it, but he didn’t. Then again, I don’t suppose you become a Knight without learning a thing or two about keeping your shit together. He’d used to be a lot more level-headed than this, but he’s had a rough month. Well, would you look at me. One little mortal wound and I go all soft.
“Fine.” He spat the word like it was made of acid and turned on his heel, striding out of the room. Damian tossed me a grim look, shaking his head, and then followed Ty out, shutting the door behind him.
The last remaining Knight knelt down in front of me, putting one hand on my knee. “We weren’t properly introduced. My name is Jean-Luc Laurent, and I am the new Knight of Wands. I can’t explain why, but I rather you’ll understand soon enough that I am not your enemy. My brother and I will do what we can to help.” He stood up, gathering his robe and tightening his belt. Damn shame, that. He turned to Cat, and gave her a gracious nod. “Thank you, Miss Hayes. This would have been unpleasant if you hadn’t been here.”
“Yeah?” she sneered, sheathing her knives. “That’s probably why Dad sent me.” Laurent saw himself to the door, and, wearing nothing but a bathrobe, left to go to the bar.
I might like this guy, I decided.
The fire popped in the fireplace. I could feel the shadow there, slurping the heat down with the greed of a kid on Halloween jamming candy in her mouth. She was starved. She’d had a rough night. After a long moment, Cat finally turned around, stuffing her hands in her jeans pockets. Her brows were knit together as she studied me.
“That was surprisingly decent of you,” I said, my voice echoing out of the fireplace. The shadow could mimic my voice precisely, but just now she wasn’t in the mood to pay attention to details, so my words had a deeper, hollow ring to them. Even so, she did a fair job of approximating the tone of my words, although it didn’t sound as sarcastic as it had in my head. Maybe sarcasm was beyond her. Maybe she was just more tactful than me. The thought made me smirk.
Cat looked from the shadows writhing in the fireplace to me, eyes narrowing. “You could’ve talked this whole time?” I couldn’t nod, so I winked and replied through the shadow with a resounding “Yup.”
She bit her lip as she considered me, before shaking her head. “So, why didn’t you? Aren’t you on their side?”
I resisted the urge to shrug, and instead rolled my eyes. From behind her, my voice echoed “What was I going to say? ‘Please, don’t hurt me?’ When did that help anyone, ever? Oh, or I could’ve said ‘Back off, or this girl who tried to kill me will kick all your asses. What with me being hurt, unarmed, and immobilized, it’d only be fair for someone who hates me to stand in for me.’”
She shrugged, and turned up the gas on the fireplace controls. “I never said I hated you.” I raised one eyebrow and held it until she looked up and saw it. “Okay, maybe I did. But that was before.”
“I’m glad we cleared that up. Good talk.”
“Are you actually going to die?”
The shadow was busy, keeping my plumbing working and absorbing as much energy as she could from the fire, and producing words that I thought at her to speak for me. Even so, part of her perked up as she got the gist of Cat’s question from my mind. My shadow was afraid, and was only just keeping her panic under control. I didn’t like to think what might happen if she thought we were really going to die.
“Where’d Irish go?” I asked instead, opting to avoid the problem all together.
“I need an answer. Dad told me to keep you alive.”
The silence stretched out for an uncomfortably long time, before the flames spoke with my answer. “Honestly, it depends on this healer. Your Dad killed the last healer we had stationed here. This new guy? Let’s hope he’s really good at his job. I’ve got a lot of tissue damage here, and you said something upsetting about how I didn’t have a pulse.”
“Dad went after the shooters.” Cat pursed her lips as she stared at the fire, watching the shadow writhe in the flickering light. “And I get stuck here,” she muttered, scuffing the toe of her boot along the carpet as she glared at the fire. “He isn’t even any good at tracking. That’s what I do, but what did I get? Babysitting duty.”
“To be fair, he isn’t going to track them. He’ll just go wait for them wherever they planned to hole up. It’s what he does.”
“He’ll try. But they don’t regroup. They scatter.”
“Oh.” I glanced around, wondering if I could manage to smoke a cigarette. I seemed to be breathing all right. I patted at my jacket, only to find I didn’t have my jacket. Or my purse. “Hey,” I said, spotting Laurent’s cigarette case and lighter on the end table. “Hand me those.” I pointed and Cat gave me an incredulous look.
“You’re actually going to smoke a cigarette. Like that.”
“I am if you hand me the smokes.”
“You’re unbelievable.” But she handed me the cigarettes. “Those aren’t even yours.”
“I’m pretty sure tall dark and sexy out there can afford more.” I popped the case open, revealing half a pack of slender black cigarettes that smelled like heaven. “Nice.” I fumbled one out, tucked it between my lips, and lit it. I drew in a shallow, careful hit, frowning. I could barely taste it, and I couldn’t feel the smoke in the draw at all. On the upside, I didn’t end up with billowing plumes of smoke escaping from my throat. I decided to call it a win and hit the cigarette again.
Cat shook her head at me, wandering over to the fire. She seemed fascinated with the mix of shadow and flame there. She crouched for a better view, plucking a log out of the basket next to the fireplace and tossing it in. Fire and sparks flared, and the shadow purred approvingly in my head.
“I never got to talk to you after the fight.” The light turned Cat’s complexion ruddy, giving her brunette hair a burnished, auburn-red glow. I blinked in surprise, realizing that she was talking to the flames. Talking to me? Or to the shadow?
“I figured you left town,” I answered, smoking and watching the back of her head.
“No. I was going to, but…” her voice trailed off, and she continued watching the fire, balanced on the balls of her feet, elbows on her knees. “Anyway, I wanted to apologize. For hurting you.”
“For stabbing me in the kidneys three or four times?” I clarified, taking a long draw off the cigarette as I smirked at her.
“Yes. That was uncalled for.”
“I thought so.”
“I was only supposed to kill you. Making you suffer was just vindictive.” Cat paused, chewing on her lip as she looked over her shoulder at me. “I was angry. It was unprofessional.”
“Damn right.” I nodded sagely. “If you’d kept your cool you wouldn’t be here babysitting me now.”
She snorted a laugh. “Right? No, I’d be home, grounded.” She shifted back to the fire and while I processed the ‘grounded’ remark, she chucked another log into the fire. She seemed to get a kick out of the way the shadow danced with the flames. I was pretty sure the logs were just there for decoration, but fuck it. Sometimes you just want to watch something burn.
“Grounded?” I asked. “What’s that supposed to mean? Confessor Tanner would have grounded you? You get trained up to be an assassin for God and you don’t even get to enjoy a few gratuitous stabbings now and again?”
“No,” she laughed, shaking her head. “Well, yeah, I suppose, but no, that’s not what I meant. I meant I’m grounded now.”
“What? By who?”
“My dad?” She rolled her eyes, tone dripping with the superior intelligence and scorn that only a teen can summon when confronted with the stupidity of an adult.
“I’m sorry, what?” I was boggled. “Hang on – it’s been a rough night. I’m not thinking very clearly. Irish grounded you? Like… grounded you.”
“Oh, yeah. I’m only out now because there were going to be a lot of guns and he wanted backup.”
I rubbed my forehead with my free hand. What in the hell had that man been up to? “Aren’t you twenty or something? How do you even – what does he do, come by your apartment once a night to make sure you aren’t having any fun while he isn’t looking?”
“Apartment?” Cat frowned, now with confusion.
“House?” I tried.
“I live with him.”
“What.” I crushed the cigarette out in a potted plant next to the sofa. “Okay, look, I haven’t talked to the man since all that shit happened, so you’re going to have to explain this to me. Are you seriously telling me you moved in with him?”
“Of course I did,” Cat answered, as though I had just asked the dumbest question on Earth. Had I?
“Is… is that normal?” I glanced around the room, suddenly wishing they hadn’t sent Honey home on me. I really could have used a translator about now. “I don’t have a lot of experience with how the whole family thing works, Cat, but when people meet their estranged families for the first time on TV shows, they hardly ever just up and move in with them. Unless it’s a comedy. And then hijinks ensue.” We stared at each other until it finally occurred to me that Cat probably didn’t have any experience with how families worked, either. That was probably sad on some human level I didn’t get.
“What else was I supposed to do?” And it sounded like an honest question, too, as if she really didn’t have any idea what else people were supposed to do in that situation. “Dad said I should.” No resentment or scorn there – just a statement of fact. Dad said so, end of discussion. Wow.
“Uh. Well, I guess I don’t know.” I ran my hand through my hair. Some of it was frozen to the back of my neck, and I carefully tugged it free. “I’ve been on my own since I was sixteen. I’m not sure what real people do.”
“I am,” Cat sighed. “They do what Dad tells them to do.”
“Why are you grounded, though? I’m almost positive you’re too old for that.”
Cat pouted and poked at the fire with one of her knives. “I’m grounded until we can get my soul back.”
Book One | Table of Contents | Interlude I | Chapter Four
(Image credit: Detroit Unspun on Flickr [Creative Commons])