The Order of St. Heinrich controls their Inquisitors with a clever combination of dogma and magic. The dogma is part of their training, good old-fashioned indoctrination and programming which I gathered started pretty early in their lives. The magic comes in the form of an artifact that gets tattooed right into their skin. Being made a part of their body, with their cooperation, allowed the artifact to bypass their innate resistance to magic.
Irish broke free of both due to, I suspect, sheer innate stubbornness and a perfect storm of luck that started when the Order had his wife killed and stole his little girl and culminated in his meeting me – an artificer who recognized the artifact when I touched it and turned it off.
Cat had the stubbornness in spades. The apple didn’t fall far from that tree, let me tell you. She didn’t have the handy artificer, though, so she went a different route. She stumbled into a demon named Sam, and made a deal with the devil.
“Get your soul back? How are you going to manage that?” I watched the kid stirring up sparks in the fire. She shrugged.
“I’m sure he’ll think of something. I don’t see what the big deal is. It’s not like I even notice it’s gone.”
“You generally don’t. Or so I hear,” I added, watching the shadow shivering in the flames, tiny little tendrils leaping out like black tongues of fire to snap at the sparks Cat kicked up. Despite the fire and the heat being turned up, the room had not warmed a bit. The shadow was inhaling every calorie of heat she could. As she – slowly – gained strength, the lights in the room and the glow from the fire were dimming, too. She was taking everything she could. “That’s not usually the problem, though. The problem is the influence that gives them over you.”
Cat waved a dismissive hand along with a little derisive snort. “I’m not worried about that.”
“You should be,” I said mildly, my voice echoing from the fireplace. “We aren’t talking about blood or hair or spit, here. That’s just sympathetic magic – you’d be immune to that. We’re talking about your soul. That’s like giving them all your banking passwords.”
“What do you mean?” Cat shifted to frown at me. “I’m not going to do anything bad. They can’t force me to do anything.”
“They probably could. Hell, if I had it I could cobble together an Xbox controller that could make you dance like a puppet.” She frowned, and dropped her eyes as she fidgeted with one of those wickedly sharp knives of hers. I hoped that meant she was listening and considering what I was telling her, but it might just as well have been teenage surliness. “They probably won’t, though. They don’t need to. Why would they make you do anything overtly evil? They’ve already got you. They’ll keep your soul as mint as they can – makes it all the juicier when they get you into your personal Hell and fire up the torture engines, mining you for… look, that’s not the point.” She was looking a little green, and I decided to ease up on the flowery descriptions and just get to the point. “No, see, the smart thing to do is to use you to get other souls. Make you do something innocent-seeming, even noble, but it’ll be something that absolutely fucks up somebody else. Maybe a lot of somebodies. Then those somebodies will get a visit from someone who can help them out, if they’re willing to cut a deal. See?”
“I’ll resist,” she insisted, suddenly rising to her feet and sheathing her knife with a flourish. “Now that I know what Samael will do, I’ll fight it.”
I tried to shrug, and winced when I heard the tissue in my shoulders and throat crack like the sound you get when you step on a mostly-frozen puddle. The wince made that crackly noise again. “Maybe. Maybe not,” I replied, making sure to keep my ventriloquist-act shadow voice sound calm and reasonable. “Say they nudge you so you find out about a sweatshop being run out of an old warehouse. Run by a sleazebag who rapes the kids when he’s not working them 18 hour shifts. You get pissed off, and it only takes another little nudge to turn righteous anger into murderous rage.”
“So? Killing a creature like that would be a good thing!”
“You play chess, ever? Pawns get sacrificed. The protection money that guy was paying to the gangs and the cops stops. The neighborhood goes to hell, fast, and innocent people suffer. The child labor force probably won’t get other work, and most of them end up homeless. Even a shitty life beats starving to death in the winter. Maybe someone else sees an opportunity in the vacuum made by removing your monster, and the demons manipulate him into becoming an even worse monster. Ripples in a pond.”
Cat stalked away, out of my line of sight. She stopped near the big windows looking out over the city, and I imagined her staring out into the night, but when I tried to send the shadow to follow her, she refused to move. She was too busy, fighting to keep me viable and every spare scrap of energy and attention she had was allocated to feeding and to providing me a voice. We agreed that being able to talk was more important than feeling out the room, but it bugged me. I hated this, feeling half-blind… how did regular humans deal with this? With not knowing what was happening in the room behind them, or not knowing where all the exits were, or what the wallpaper tasted like?
“But… those ripples happen all the time! If I do anything, ever, I’ll never know if it causes more harm than good!”
“How do I fight that?”
I didn’t have an answer for her, and frankly, I had enough on my own plate to worry about that I didn’t feel inclined to play a round of there, there, it’ll be all right with her. The silence started out awkward, bloomed into poignant, and was building up to profound when I snapped.
“Are you hungry?” I asked. “We never got dinner earlier, and I’d murder for some tapas right now.”
The door unlocked with that resounding ‘thunk’ the heavier keycard locks are prone to, and the noise startled me enough to make me jump. I didn’t jump, though, because the shadow had had enough of quick-fixing my shattered frozen tissues and had taken over much of my nervous system. My twitch reaction prompted nothing more than a wave of indignant disapproval from her. I flicked my cigarette butt toward the fireplace and did my best to scuff my ashes into the silvery grey carpeting.
“Why, Alice, was that your voice I heard?” Damian’s smug tone rode down my spine and set my teeth on edge. I debated playing innocent, but remembered Damian’s remark about having a coercion spell on hold.
“Not quite,” the fire answered on my behalf. I was suddenly happy with the hollow, echoing timber of the shadow’s mimicked voice. He’d seen me use the shadow last month at the Detroit Central Station to make my voice echo and resound through the darkness, of course. It had been a cheap but flashy effect, one that I could have attributed to an artifact easily enough, but now? I hated letting people find out my secrets. The fact that I could use the shadow to create sound might seem like a small-to-middling secret, but it had saved my ass more than once in the past. Ah, well. No point whining about it now. “Close enough for government work, though.”
“Interesting,” Damian finally said, and I heard a few people enter the suite. I struggled with the urge to turn and see who the hell was back there. It was driving me nuts, not knowing. My free hand had curled up into a frustrated fist, and I felt my nails bite into my palm as Damian said, “So, since you’ve found a voice, we have some questions.”
He sounded like he was smiling. I ground my back teeth, the tension in my neck making the ice in my throat crackle again. The shadow hissed in my head. Cat returned to my side, standing in front of the fireplace with her arms crossed, eyes narrow and mouth set in a tight little frown. She flicked a look at me, then back to Damian, presumably. I watched her eyes move across the people behind me, taking their measure.
“My orders say she walks out of here alive and well. So, since I know she didn’t have anything to do with tonight’s clusterfuck, I think I’ll have to insist she gets healed before she answers any questions.” Cat smirked at the group behind me, the expression a sour little thing, like she’d bitten a lemon.
“Gentlemen, ladies, you’ll pardon my irritation, I’m sure, but this Arcana member is dying.” That was Jean-Luc Laurent’s voice, annoyed, but civil. I wondered briefly if he was commando under that robe he was wearing, and again wished we weren’t so hobbled. “Perhaps we could carry out the – no offense, miss – Inquisition after we’re sure the woman will live?” Cat let out a short, sharp laugh at that, and her eyes twinkled. New guy was good.
I almost jumped again as a pair of hands settled on my shoulders from behind the couch. I had a brief impression of dark tan skin, and then a slight tingling from the ten fingertips brushing my bare shoulders. “Oh, she’s not dying,” came a worryingly young-sounding voice right behind me. Shit, I hoped that didn’t belong to the healer. “She’s dead.”
“Well, then. We should question her before she figures that out,” Damian’s tone was entirely too pleasant and casual.
“Pardon, Monsieur Halkias?” came Laurent’s voice, terse. “A word, please?” Cat was giving him (I guessed it was him. Whose idea was it to seat me facing away from the door?) another approving smile.
“Outside,” Laurent added. “Now would be good. I do insist.”
“Take your hand off –” The scuffing of aggravated shoes on carpet and the sudden slam of a firmly closed door told me Jean-Luc had just shoved Damian out of the room. Cat grinned.
“Okay!” She clapped her hands, rubbing them briskly together. “Make with the witchcraft. I want Alice on her feet before the head douche-nozzle gets back in here.”
Tyler came stomping into my field of vision, stalking up to Cat, standing in her personal space and glowering at her. “Bitch, what makes you think you get to give orders?”
Cat raised an eyebrow at the unreasonably angry Knight of Swords as though here were being endearingly silly. What crawled up Tyler’s ass and died? It seems like he’d been nothing but the Angry Black Man from Central Casting every time I’d seen him lately.
“Let me think,” she murmured. “It could be the fact that I could kill the whole damn bunch of you before you know what happened. I’ve trained for exactly that, remember?” The fingers on my shoulders pulled back in alarm, and Cat looked our way with a smile. “Except you. I’m guessing you’re the healer, so I’ll have to keep you alive.”
“Hey, thanks,” came that young voice, sounding dry and sarcastic. “That’s so sweet of you.”
“You actually think you can take me?” Ty growled, ignoring the byplay. His neat cornrows were gone these days, replaced with a long, unruly mane of hair. He tossed his head, getting it out of his eyes, and I got my first good look at him in a couple of weeks. He’d lost weight. There were big dark bags under his eyes, and he didn’t look like he’d showered recently. His jeans looked loose on him, which wasn’t his style at all. He’d always been the tight-jeans-to-show-off-muscle-tone kind of guy. He was wearing the black leather jacket I’d made for him, and it was looking rough. It needed some patches and repair work in a bad way. The temperature in the room rose noticeably, and smoke curled from his clenched fists.
I blinked. In that momentary split-second, there was a sound like Rocky Balboa tenderizing a side of beef and a grunt. I opened my eyes and Tyler was falling backwards, a slow graceful arc that left him flat on his back at my feet. Cat was sheathing one of her trench spikes again, the brass-knuckle handle catching the light and gleaming. Damn, I didn’t even see her draw it. I made a mental note to only piss her off from a safe distance. California, maybe.
“Yep,” she said off-handedly in my direction, “I actually do think I can take him.”
“Probably,” I agreed as a young man came around the end of the couch. “Ty’s powerful, but he’s not very fast.” I was looking at a tall, thin rail of a teenage boy, fourteen years old? Fifteen, tops. He was Latino, with his dark hair buzzed short, stubble prickling out all along his scalp. His face was long and thin, bony, making his brown eyes look huge. He wore baggy jeans and an over-sized Redwings jersey under a puffy black winter coat. He knelt down and put his hands against Tyler’s face, whistling.
“Out cold. Nice! That was awesome!”
“Hey, kid?” I said, my ‘voice’ from the dark tendrils dancing in the fireplace making him flinch and look back and forth between the fire on his right and me sitting on his left. “Do me a favor and leave him asleep, would you? He looks like he needs the rest.”
He frowned. “He actually does. He’s exhausted, undernourished… this guy’s a wreck. I can take the edge off, but what he really needs is about a week of sleep and a few big meals.”
“So you’re the healer?”
He sat back on his heels, frowning at me. He seemed fixated on my hand, wedged and frozen into my throat. “Yeah, that’s me.”
“You’re the new Knight of Cups, eh? I don’t suppose you’re really eighty years old and you just choose to look like a teenager?”
He shook his head. “Why would I do that? I’m Jimmy Vega. Youngest Knight anybody’s ever heard of. Child prodigy, me. Gifted. Natural talent, all that jazz.”
“I’m Alice Frye. Artificer, hollowman, and high-functioning sociopath. Nice to meet you. I’d offer to shake hands, but I’m using the good one to hold part of my trachea together, I think.” I paused, checking in with the shadow. “Took a bullet to my throat. In one side, out the other, kind of a nasty exit wound. You’ve dealt with gun shot wounds before?”
“Fuck yeah, GSWs. We moved here from Oakland!”
“Yeah?” I gave him a careful smile. “You’re gonna fit right in here, I can tell.”
“…aaaaand that’s enough small talk.” Cat hoisted him to his feet by the collar of his parka. “All right, kid. Do your thing.” She pushed the boy my way and he almost tripped over his own feet and landed in my lap. He managed to recover, and sat down next to me. Close, but careful not to touch me. Out in the hall, raised voices were going at each other, but the room was too well soundproofed for me to make out what they were saying.
Jimmy cleared his throat, shifting in his seat and sitting very straight. It actually made him sit taller than I was. Kid was gonna be a tall one when he stopped growing. He settled his features in a calm, professional expression and opened and closed his mouth a couple of times, like he was trying to think of how to say something and coming up blank.
“Problem?” My voice echoed out of the fire and he didn’t even twitch.
“No!” He blinked and shot a look at Cat and over his shoulder, as if remembering he had an audience. Wait, over his shoulder? Was somebody else in here? “Ah, hell no, man. I got this. This, uh… yeah.” He frowned, staring at my hand embedded in my icy throat. He shrugged out of his parka, playing for time as he folded it and set it on the etched glass end table.
I put my eyebrows up. “Really. Because you said something about my being dead.”
“Yeah…” He drew the word out as he stared at me. “About that… you don’t have a heartbeat. And your body temp is about forty degrees. Your blood isn’t flowing, it’s sort of… crawling.” A little frown pinched his eyebrows together. “Pretty sure that’s bad. But hey! Day said you weren’t human, so here’s the part where you tell me that’s normal for you.” He nodded with an encouraging little grin, as if giving me the okay to agree with him.
“That’s not normal for me.”
“Oooh, see, you missed your line. It goes, ‘Yeah, Jimmy, don’t worry about that, that’s totally cool.’ Dammit.” He sighed, running his hand back and forth over his bristly scalp and watching the ceiling. “Would you be really upset if it was normal for you from now on?”
“Yes!” I snapped as Cat said, “Probably,” and someone with a deep, masculine voice said, “Oui.” The shadow stopped me from spinning to look – just. “Who the fuck is that?” I exclaimed through gritted teeth. Holy balls this was annoying! “Get over here where I can see you!”
“Excuse me. I should know better.” The man said, and a moment later Laurent’s brother walked into view. He leaned against the wall about ten feet from where Cat was standing behind Jimmy, near the entrance to the suite’s master bedroom. It was pretty easy to tell this was the brother – they were twins.
Fraternal twins, not identical. The resemblance was striking, both having the same dark, wavy hair and stunning good looks. Note to self: apparently Jean-Luc wasn’t relying entirely on illusion in that regard.
Robaire was built a little bigger in the arms and shoulders than his brother, as though he worked out more. The planes of his face were sharper, more stern, and he wore his hair short, the wavy dark mass oiled and combed back, revealing a severe widow’s peak that made him look harsher than his twin. He also had better fashion sense than his brother, as proven by his tailored three piece suit. Although he could use a little more color – the suit was black, as was the shirt under the jacket, the tie, the slacks, and the matte leather shoes. And it was even all the same shade of black, which is tricky to accomplish. It made him look paler than his brother, almost ghostly, and combined with the slicked-back hair, gave him a severe, unfriendly look that took something away from the handsomeness. All in all, though, he had a mildly dangerous air that totally worked for him. Jean-Luc could pull off the bad boy look when he tried, but Robaire had the bad man vibe.
“Robaire Laurent,” he said, not bothering to say much else. This guy wasn’t the wordy one in the family, apparently. “Jimmy is afraid he’s going to kill you.”
“I am not!” Jimmy replied, giving me wide, worried eyes. I sighed.
“Look, just do your best, okay?” Something thumped against the door. Were Damian and Jean-Luc scuffling in the hall? “But can we please get on with it?”
Jimmy nodded, cracking his knuckles and leaning in to get a closer look at my fingers. “Bob, I’m gonna need a hand, here.”
“My name is not ‘Bob,’” Robaire corrected, crossing his arms as an annoyed frown settled into place.
“I’m gonna focus on what I know how to do first, okay, Mrs. Frye?”
“Just Alice, Jimmy. Or Ms. if you must.”
“So first thing we do is put your neck back together.” He scooched forward on the couch and gave Tyler a kick. The Knight coughed, and sat up clutching at his head. “You there, sword-guy?”
“My name is Tyler.”
“Whatever. Look, are you good at your job?”
“Can you just do fire, or can you do heat, too? Like, focused and controlled heat?”
Tyler raised himself up to one knee and rubbed his jaw, as though he expected it to hurt. There wasn’t a mark on him, though, despite the wallop he’d gotten from Cat. For the first time, I began to think Jimmy Vega might not be all talk. Optimism felt funny – did some people feel like this all the time? How did that work?
“How controlled do you want it?”
“I need you to thaw out her neck, and fast. Like, really really fast, but for God’s sake don’t cook it! Can you do that? Should we get a frozen steak for you to practice on?”
“This is your plan?” I asked from the flames. “Tyler doesn’t even like me!”
Cat chuckled. “If we’re waiting to find somebody who likes you, Alice, this could take a while.”
“Bitch,” I said, but couldn’t disagree.
“Shut up.” Tyler stood up and waved a hand, interrupting us. He also shifted a step or two farther away from Cat, while he was at it. “Yeah, I can do that. I actually have practiced that with steaks before. Tailgating. But why should I?”
Robaire didn’t even look up from the sleek ebony cigarette case he’d produced. “Because you came here to question her. This would go a long way toward getting her to be a helpful and cooperative subject. Not all the way, but a long way. There’s more.”
“More?” Tyler and I asked in unison.
He took out a slim black cigarette. Wow, this guy picked a color scheme and stuck with it. “She is weakened from her ordeal. Her shadow is weak, too. Before you begin, you should strengthen them.” He waved at the fireplace. “Make it hot. Very hot.”
Cat was still standing in front of the fireplace. Tyler sneered at Laurent, and waved a hand at the hearth. “This hot enough for you?”
He did the funniest little double-take when nothing happened. Oh, he’d done something, all right. If my shadow hadn’t already been in the fire, there probably would have been a small explosion that would have knocked Cat on her ass. As it was, though, the trickle of food we’d been siphoning from the fire was suddenly a three-course meal. The flames flickered and dimmed, but the extra energy didn’t even have time to stir the ashes.
Laurent exhaled a plume of smoke and arched an eyebrow at the Knight of Swords. “No. It is not. Try again.”
Three more of those and my shadow was feeling much better. Jimmy, who’d been resting one hand on my shoulder, announced that was enough. “Her vitals – what she has of them – are a lot better. But I don’t want Sword Guy to wear himself out. Thanks, Bob.”
“My name is not Bob.” Robaire sounded weary, as though being offended was too much bother just now. Maybe later.
“Fuck you, Cup Guy.” Tyler growled.
Jimmy smirked. “Okay. Now, I want Bob over here, ready to pull her hand out of her neck when I say ‘go.’ Tyler, you thaw her out when I give you the nod.
“My name is still not Bob,” Robaire replied, patiently. “And absolutely not. I will not touch her. Have the Inquisitor do it.”
That surprised all of us. My shadow, much restored, began to slither along in between the carpet fibers to investigate him, and I called her back. I wanted here here, focused on me, in case things went wrong. “It’s all right,” Cat said, moving around the couch to stand behind me. “I can do it.”
Tyler shrugged, standing in front of me, wide-stanced and with his hands folded behind his back. He was staring at me, no doubt feeling out the temperature in the area, but it still gave me the heebies. He looked… hostile.
The door opened, and everyone but me turned to see who it was. I sighed. “Damian got an important call,” Jean-Luc informed us. “He sends his apologies for his abrupt departure, and says you should answer any questions Mr. Grant should have.” Tyler grinned slightly, and I did my best to ignore it. “Of course, we will wait until our colleague and fellow Knight Mr. Vega says you’re well enough to answer questions.” I finally saw him as he stepped over and took up position next to his brother, plucking the cigarette out of his hand and taking a long drag. He was still wearing that fluffy white robe. Robaire calmly retrieved his cigarette case from his jacket and lit another one for himself.
“Save me one of those?” I asked. He nodded to me, and Jimmy gave Tyler the nod.
Book One | Table of Contents | Chapter Three | Chapter Five
(Photo by Rorowe8 on Flickr. Click to view source & Creative Commons License.)