The rusty blue hatchback ahead of me slows to a stop. Three cars in front of it, a cop waves his arms, directing traffic around the blackened husk of a truck and several emergency vehicles. Smoke wafts into the early morning sky, but neither of the ambulances have their lights on. Here I thought my Monday sucked. Hopefully, the driver was able to get out in time.
I tap the steering wheel. Damn it. I hate accidents. “Siri, start my scanner app.” The screen on my phone flashes to life.
“Code 16 on Broadway and Fifth. Single vehicle accident, no—” the voice crackles. I know that dispatcher, and that code. I’ve got to get out of here. I turn my phone off and toss it on the passenger seat. I can’t be around dead people; it never ends well. If I get too close, I’ll have more problems than missing my 9:00 a.m. card reading.
The car in front of me inches forward, and a narrow side street barely wide enough for my compact car appears on the right. Veering sharply, I stomp on the gas and zip down the street, a chorus of horns honking behind me. One block. Two blocks, and we’re past the accident. Phew. I’m safe.
Five minutes later, I pull behind my tea and tarot shop, Make Like a Tree and Leaf, and kill the engine. The peeling yellow paint and boarded up back windows probably don’t add much appeal for my customers, but it’s mine, and I love every inch of it. Besides, the front isn’t that bad. I remind myself to wash the bay window and sweep the steps, but that’s about as far as I go for aesthetics.
A gleaming black motorcycle with flames on the side roars down my street and pulls to a stop in front of my shop, parking on the grass. Granted, it’s dead grass, but still… I have a driveway for a reason. I tamp down my annoyance. Don’t piss off the client, Max.
Clad in black leather and faded blue jeans, the guy that gets off of his bike is about twenty years past his prime, with a scraggly gray beard trailing down to his copious stomach, and a black and white skull and crossbones bandana wrapped around his head.
“You the psychic?” he asks, looming over me. The low rumble of his voice matches the sound of his engine.
“Are you my nine o’clock appointment?” It doesn’t hurt to be cautious, especially in my line of work.
“Yup. My old lady said you was legit. I, uh, got a question I need answered.” He rolls something around in his mouth and spits a wad of chew into the grass. Eww. This day just keeps getting better and better.
“Great. Follow me.” I unlock the door and hold it open for him, pressing my fingers against the opal and jet amulet around my neck. Intuition and protection, my most essential bedfellows. The stones don’t heat up against my touch, so the guy’s not a demon. I have to check; those bastards are pretty crafty.
The guy limps to the little round table I use for readings and sits, the ratty wicker chair creaking beneath his weight. His beard spills out onto the velvet tablecloth, and he tucks it away. Interesting. Most people at least glance at all of the carvings on the walls, the books, the Hand of Glory trapped under a glass dome to stop idiotic kids from trying to pick it up.
I clear my throat. “I’m Max. What’s your name?”
“Bud,” he says. Okay, then. A man of few words. Let’s get started.
I grab the deck of cards stacked next to me and shuffle them without thinking, trying to ignore the energy pulsing from the man across from me. It’s dark, and now that we’re this close to each other, I can’t stop the images that spill from the cards into my head.
A balding man in a business suit kneels on the floor, his hands clasped in front of him. “I just need more time, please.” A gun appears, pressing against the man’s forehead. “You have twenty-four hours.”
With a start, I shake off the vision. Who is this guy? I don’t want to see anymore because I know, without a doubt, that the next image I see will be of my client pulling the trigger. That’s what this man does. That’s the kind of man he is. Hands shaking, I separate the cards into two stacks and then shuffle them together again. I have to keep this professional. I’ve read for murderers before, so this shouldn’t be any different.
“I’m going to do a three card spread for your past, present, and future. While I’m shuffling, try to think about your question.” I fan the cards out before him. “Now pick one.”
He gingerly plucks one from the spread and I lay it on the table. Then I have him pick two more and I place them on either side of the first.
“You don’t have to tell me, but it helps if I know what your question is.”
His eyes, a light brown, meet mine. “The question.” I nod. “I, uh, have a job opportunity, and I was wondering if I should take it or not.” His words are weighted. Whatever Bud’s problem is, it’s not about a new job. There’s something else, something deeper, but I sure as hell am not going to ask him.
I turn over the first card. An old man sits at the edge of a rocky cliff, contemplating the cosmos. Waves crash against its base and the moon shines overhead. He holds a lantern in one hand and a gnarled wooden staff in the other. It’s upside down. “This is the Hermit, the card that defines your present circumstances. It’s inverted, which means upside down, and stands for isolation or loneliness, often to the point of harmfulness. Like you’ve lost your way.”
“That don’t make any sense.” Bud shakes his head. “I’m not lonely. I have lots of friends.”
He’s right. I don’t feel any loneliness from him. There’s a discord here, a disconnect between the cards and the client. A haziness that tells me that the card is correct, but maybe Bud’s not asking the right question. I could also be accidentally reading someone else, another client I have booked for today, or someone I’ve read recently. No, that doesn’t feel right, either. I bet the cards relate to his real dilemma, the one he won’t talk about.
I flip over the next card. A middle-aged woman in a black cloak stands with her head bowed before a stream. Five golden chalices are clustered around her feet. Three of them lay on their sides, their contents spilled, while the other two remain standing.
“This the Five of Cups, and it’s your past card. It shows what’s influencing your life today and the decisions you make. It often represents loss and despair, dwelling in the past and an inability to look toward the future.” God, what a depressing card. This guy must have had a lovely childhood. “Have you lost someone close to you, such as your parents or a sibling?”
Bud shakes his head. “Nope. You must be doing it wrong. I ain’t lost nobody.”
“I never read them wrong.” I may embellish the truth a little, especially when I see glimpses of a client’s impending death, but I never read them wrong.
My fingers hover over the last card as it hits me. This isn’t about him, at all. This is about me. Crap. As if directed by some higher power outside of myself, I turn over the last card. In the middle of the image is a stone tower. A jagged bolt of lightning strikes the top, and flames burst from two little windows. In the back of my mind, I can almost hear the tiny figures scream for help and the fire crackle as it consumes everything in its path. The Tower. Like the last time I read my own cards by mistake, I have a feeling this isn’t going to end well for me.
“What’s it mean?” Bud taps the card with one oil-stained finger.
“This is the future card. The Tower,” I say, my voice hushed. “It represents destruction and change. Turmoil. The annihilation of everything you’ve held deeply in the past so that something new can come. It doesn’t have to be terrible.” But it usually is, at least for me. “It embodies change, sometimes difficult and challenging. Out with the old, in with the new.” I take a deep breath. Come on, Max, you can do this. Don’t let Bud see how rattled you are. “I, uh, I don’t think you should take this job, whatever it is. It doesn’t look it’s a good idea.”
“Huh.” Bud leans back. His hand disappears under the table. The gun from the reading flashes in my mind. “I don’t know about that. Seems like a pretty easy decision to me.”
“Who did you say your girlfriend was again?” My question rings in my ears. Danger. Run. Get out of here while you still can.
“I didn’t.” Bud pushes up from his chair, using the table for leverage. He touches a lump in his pocket and my heart leaps into my throat. This is it. This is how I’m going to die. In a shady tarot and tea parlor on the wrong side of town, surrounded by stuffy books and the hand of a murderer.
“Tell you what,” I say, forcing cheeriness into my voice. Maybe if I pretend everything’s fine and I don’t know what’s happening, I’ll walk out of this one alive. “My readings usually aren’t this wrong, so why don’t I let this one be on the house. Free of charge. And you can come back and we’ll do another reading later.” Please, don’t come back. “How does that sound?”
Bud stares at me for several seconds, as if trying to make a decision. Then he scans the room, his eyes taking the sigils carved into the walls and the floor and painted on the ceiling, the shelves lined with books and tea cups and oddities from around the world. The old armoire that he can’t possibly know is filled with hundreds of little glass jars, each containing something more precious than life itself. Then his eyes widen, filling with something that looks an awful lot like fear. Maybe he does know. Not everything of course, no one does, but enough to freak him out.
“Yeah, sure. That sounds good.” He pulls out a crumbled bill from his pocket and drops it on the table. After he hurries out of the door, I stare out the front window, pressing my hands to my chest as if that might slow my racing heart.
“You know that guy was here to kill you, right?”
I leap away from the table, whirling around. An auburn-haired man leans against the fireplace, his arms crossed. If it weren’t for the arrogant smirk on his face, he’d be pretty hot. A little like Robert Pattinson, except that this guy’s dead.
“Who are you and what are you doing here? I have some of the strongest wards available on this place.”
The man shrugs and joins me at the window, watching as the motorcycle thunders down the street. “Your pal there was a low–level henchman. What’d you expect? You told his boss’s girl to leave him, and he couldn’t have that. Bud was sent to take care of you.” He turns to me, assessing me with his pale blue, cloudy eyes. “But you knew that, didn’t you? Just like you know he’ll be back.”
I swallow the sudden lump in my throat. “I can take care of myself.”
The ghost barks out a laugh. “Yeah, sure you can. Why didn’t you summon a demon or something? Isn’t that what your permit is for?”
I bristle at his snide tone. I summoned a demon on my sixteenth birthday as a dare, and apparently that’s all anyone remembers about me. It’s safer that way.“Who are you?” I ask again.
“My name is Luke Madrid,” he says, executing a deep bow. “Newly retired from the PD, and this life, I guess you could say. I used to be one hell of a detective, until I got stuck with the SCU.” He must be talking about the Supernatural Cases Unit. It has one of the worst solvable rates there is because suspects can, quite literally, make evidence disappear. “My death, well, has kinda put a damper on things.” He frowns, and his gaze turns inward, like he’s trying to remember something. I almost feel sorry for him. That gradual losing of one’s self must suck, but he’s haunting me without my permission, and it’s starting to piss me off.
It was three am when the vampire walked in. Witching hour for San Francisco. Rush hour around here. Or as close as Harvey’s gas station bodega ever got.
I was restocking the freezers when the bell above the door rang. Yeah, okay, I wasn’t so much restocking as standing near the freezers, rearranging energy drink cans when I wanted to look busy, but you know what I mean. I tended to spend most of my shift “restocking.” The humming noise the freezers made halfway drowned out the shitty eighty’s pop music Harvey kept on heavy rotation. At the time, it was some overwrought synth ballad right off the Dirty Dancing soundtrack. And the store’s speakers probably predated the last war, so they made everything shrill and tinny as hell. There was a saxophone solo that routinely set off dogs howling all down the street. I’d heard it probably four times since my shift started. One more and I think it would have legally counted as torture.
I was trying so hard not to use my ears that I probably wouldn’t have noticed the bell above the door ringing if I hadn’t seen Tony flinch. Tony was a regular, in for milk and cigarettes like he was every night. I saw his broad, craggy face contort at the jangling sound, bearing his two inch tusks at nothing. I kept telling Harvey we should replace that bell with an electronic chime, but Harvey didn’t think we got enough Trollish customers to bother. I gave Tony a sympathetic look but he waved it off, like the migraine he was probably getting was no big deal. Tony was good people.
I looked back down at my phone— I’m not one of those people who stays on their phone the whole time they’re supposed to be working, honestly, but I got a text from my brother and I needed to reply.
“Got home safe,” it read. “You left the door unlocked again. Bring home pizza?”
I could have kicked myself for forgetting that stupid door again. We couldn’t be taking chances like that. Not with the neighborhood we lived in. At least since Aaron got accepted into the scholarship program at that fancy magnet school we had the same schedule. One upside to vampires running everything is the kids could be on the nightshift too.
“Finish your homework before I get off and I’ll think about it,” I wrote back. “Send photo evidence.”
Someone cleared their throat and I made about the same face Tony did when he heard that bell. The store manager, Dwayne, was Harvey’s nephew and a Grade A shitheel. He spent more time out back taking “smoke breaks” than he did in the store. Didn’t stop him from finding something to nag me about every time he decided to actually do his job, though.
“If I see that phone out again, I’m writing you up,” Dwayne threatened, wagging a finger at me like he was my mom and not a greasy creep with the skin of a particularly shower-averse teenager and the beer gut of a forty year old alcoholic.
“Come on man,” I complained. “It’s just my kid brother letting me know he got home from school alright.”
“No phones during work hours,” Dwayne replied with a dismissive sniff. “You know the rules. He can text your parents if it matters so much.”
“My parents are dead,” I replied flatly, resisting the urge to add “asshole” to the end of that statement.
Dwayne only looked flustered for a second.
“I don’t care,” he said. “No phones during work hours! And you’re lucky I don’t write you up for insubordination on top of it!”
He turned and hurried off to another smoke break, hassling me apparently being all the work he could take at once.
“Yeah, write me up, ugly son of a bitch,” I muttered under my breath as I shoved my phone in my pocket. “If I get fired you might actually have to do some damn work around here.”
Tony, who had been pretending to study the nutritional info on the back of a milk carton, watched Dwayne go with his rheumy red eyes, then leaned closer to me.
“Want me to eat him?” he asked in a conspiratorial whisper that sounded like tires on gravel. I snorted.
“Not this time, big guy,” I replied. “You ready to check out?”
There were three other customers in the store as I rang up Tony’s milk and got him his cigarettes. One was another regular, an old Witch called Mrs. Beatty. Her raggedy old familiar was the only reason she was still remotely functional. The big black hound shepherded her through the aisles, nudging her on when she got distracted.
The second was a tired looking older man I’d seen in there once or twice. Judging by the quiet growls he exchanged with Mrs. Beatty’s familiar, he was probably a wolf.
And the last was a vampire.
Tall, 6’3″ maybe, with short, sleek black hair and dark, wicked eyes, browsing postcards. He wore jeans and a black blazer that looked casual until you noticed the subtle brand names and custom tailoring. He could have been anywhere from sixteen to sixty. His face had that timeless thing going on that all vampires do. It’s the fastest way to recognize them. Even the young ones just have something around the eyes that makes it impossible to pin down how old they are. It’s unsettling as hell sometimes. Especially when they’re staring at you the way this guy was staring at me.
“Anything I can help you with?” I asked him in my best customer service voice as I handed Tony his receipt. The vampire smiled at me. I swear all bloodsuckers practice that same creepy ass smile. The “hello, food” smile. He sidled up to the counter, taking his time. He had plenty to spare, unlike the rest of us.
We’d had vampires in the store before, of course. This wasn’t exactly their side of town— not enough money and neon for their sophisticated uptown tastes— But we got all kinds in there sooner or later. No matter the species, everybody needed gas and cheap junk food. Tony lingered near the magazines. Like me, he could smell trouble. I shook my head and waved him on, despite my better judgment. I could handle this. Tony looked unsure, but shrugged and made his exit.
The vampire leaned on the counter across from me. I could smell his cologne, understated and expensive, like I could feel his eyes raking over me. Vampires were experts at making you feel self-conscious and inadequate. I did my best impression of a troll and pretended to be made of stone. His roving eyes finally landed on the name tag pinned to my shirt.
“Evie,” he said, his voice a low purr. “I’ve been looking all over for you.”
I tried to look more unimpressed than worried.
“I’m sorry, sir,” I said, tacking the sir on because only people with a death wish were rude to vampires. “I don’t think we know each other.”
“Not yet,” he replied, smiling at me with white, too sharp teeth. “But I’m hoping we’ll become very close.”
“Not fucking likely.” Alright, so maybe I have a death wish. “Unless there’s something store related I can help you with, sir, I have other customers to assist.”
The vampire blinked slowly, then turned with exaggerated care to look behind him at the nonexistent line. Mrs. Beatty was still futzing around in canned goods. The older man was pondering the drinks case in between casting dirty looks at Mrs. Beatty’s familiar. The vampire turned back, smiled at the sour look on my face, and leaned on the counter again, as though settling in.
“I have a business proposal for you.”
I licked my lips and leaned in to speak to him in a lowered voice.
“Look. Buddy,” I hissed. “I’m not a fangbanger. I don’t know what your problem with me is, but if you’re looking for an easy feed-n-fuck try the club up the road. We don’t sell your kind of convenience food here, okay?”
His smile just widened further.
“Domino sent me,” he said, and my heart briefly stopped beating. He could probably hear it. “And as much as I would enjoy trying your convenience food-” he paused to let his eyes wander over me again for a second. “When I said business proposal I was being literal. Domino recommended you for a little adventure I have in the works. Dante, of House Belial.”
He held out his hand to shake, which I ignored. He pulled out a card instead, sliding it across the counter towards me with a finger. His first name, house affiliation, and a number. No title, which didn’t necessarily mean he didn’t have one.
“I don’t do that anymore,” I said, when I could speak. “And you can remind Domino to stop giving people my name.”
“He gave me a bit more than your name.”
A chill ran down my spine.
“He told me about how you lost your parents,” the vampire continued, while I gripped the cash register so hard I could feel my pulse in my fingertips. “Freak accident, I think he said? He also told me about your brother and that expensive school he’s attending—”
“If you touch him,” I said in a low snarl, anger boiling in my chest. “If you so much as breathe in his direction—”
“Evie, please,” the vampire chuckled, light and easy like tea time by the sea side. “I’m not threatening you! I’m making you an offer. I understand your situation. I know this is only one of three jobs you’re working, and that you gave up your chance at college and a career in order to raise your brother. I know you’re putting every penny you earn towards his tuition at that charter school. I know that you’re falling more into debt every month and that even if you get him through grade school you won’t have anything left to get him to college.”
My mouth tasted like ash and there was a ringing in my ears, playing in key with the 80’s music. Listening to him calmly describing the way my life was falling apart made me want to lunge across the counter and strangle him. If you even could strangle a vampire. At the same time it made me want to curl up behind the counter and hide until someone else, someone more responsible, came and fixed everything.
“I’m offering you a way out,” the vampire continued. “One job, one night, that will set you and your brother up, not just adequately but comfortably, for the rest of your lives.”
Sometimes, temptation can be so intense it’s almost tangible. You can see it, dangling in front of you, glittering. You can taste it in the back of your throat. The impossible made possible. The only magic that matters.
“No,” I said, and almost choked on it. “I told you, I don’t do that anymore. It’s not worth the risk of Aaron ending up alone. Nothing is.”
He frowned, almost puzzled, a curious expression on that too perfect face.
The bell over the door rang again before he could say anything more. Three young men entered the store, moving in an arrow formation that would have given them away as wolves even if I hadn’t recognized their pasty faces past their lanky, matted hair.
I didn’t know their names, but they were infamous in the area. Products of the local trailer park. Uncharitable locals called it the pound or the dog park for how many wolves lived there. Mundies on the news called it a white trash ghetto and a blight on the city’s good name. Whatever you called it, it hadn’t done these three any favors. They all had a record as long as my arm, mostly for vandalism and petty theft, stealing bikes and breaking windows. But they’d been escalating recently. People in the neighborhood were pretty sure it was them who’d mugged a guy around the corner last week.
They looked ready for trouble tonight, whispering to each other and throwing glances in my direction as they slunk towards the candy aisle. I bit the inside of my cheek and stayed behind the register, giving them the benefit of the doubt. They were only a little older than Aaron, barely out of school. The shit I’d been getting into when I was that age made them look like boy scouts in comparison. If shoplifting candy was the worst they got up to tonight, they might still have a chance to pull their shit together.
“Miss, could you tell me if this is the right can?” Mrs. Beatty asked, toddling up to the register, her dog beside her. The vampire stepped graciously out of the way, though she hardly seemed to notice him.
“Of course, Mrs. Beatty,” I said, accepting the can she was waving at me.
“Is it crushed tomatoes or diced tomatoes? I can’t read the packaging. They make the letters so small these days! My recipe needs crushed tomatoes. Crushed. If I use diced it’ll be all wrong!”
“This is tomato sauce, Mrs. Beatty.”
Her familiar gave me the most exhausted look I’d ever seen on a dog.
I helped the old woman find her tomatoes and checked her out, taking my time. Half so I could keep an eye on the wolf pack still milling around in the candy aisle, half to delay dealing with the vampire. He was still leaning one elbow on the counter, ankles crossed, idly watching me work. I looked at the door to the back and for probably the first time longed for Dwayne to return from his smoke break.
I saw Mrs. Beatty out and hadn’t made it back to the register before I heard canine snarling. I turned around in time to see the older man hurrying out of the store with his tail literally between his legs, half shifted from stress. I could guess by the laughter coming from the candy aisle that the wolf pack had driven him out. It was just me and them and the vampire now. The vampire was apparently getting bored waiting for me and was flipping through a magazine.
Luckily for me, the wolves started heading for the register at the same time I did.
“You guys actually planning to pay for all that?” I asked, eyeing the candy and snacks bulging from their pockets.
The largest of the three, whose bent, repeatedly broken nose and cigarette burn scarred arms pretty much told his whole life story for him, pulled a gun out of the back of his pants.
“Empty the register,” he said in a controlled voice he’d probably practiced. “Now!”
My nostrils flared, anger almost greater than my fear as I put my hands up. I fought the urge to tell them how stupid they were being and just stepped back to open the register. Dwayne would probably fire me, but this job, as much as I needed it, wasn’t worth getting shot over.
The vampire apparently disagreed. With an expression like this was all just too tedious for words, he rolled the magazine he was holding up into a tube and smacked the nearest wolf in the head with it.
“Bad dog, down boy.”
The confused astonishment on the young men’s faces quickly became rage. One of them threw a punch, which the vampire easily caught, twisting the wolf’s arm until he went down to his knees with a shout of pain.
“I said down, Fido.” He twisted harder as the wolf struggled until I thought I heard the creak of bone. Snapping his arm would be beyond easy for a vampire. It was probably more effort not to. “Honestly, I’m trying to help you here. What exactly are you inbred mongrels hoping to accomplish? Other than jail time, obviously. A few candy bars and maybe a hundred dollars? You didn’t even wear masks!”
“Shut the fuck up, dickleech,” the leader snapped, turning his gun on the vampire. He was angry enough to have half shifted, fangs bared and fur standing on his neck.
“Do you really think that peashooter is going to do anything to me?” the vampire asked, lip curling in disdain. “You might as well use your teeth like the animal you are.”
The wolf considered it for a moment, then pointed the gun at me again.
“Bet it’ll do something to her. Want to find out?”
I almost laughed. Like he gave a shit about me. But the vampire, to my surprise, let go of the wolf he was holding, who stumbled away whining. The humor had vanished from his face, leaving it oddly blank.
Later, I’d probably be terrified imagining what he was getting ready to do. But at the time I was too busy being pissed off. The werewolf with the gun had come behind the counter, the better to hold me hostage, and made the mistake of grabbing me by the hair. He demanded something that I didn’t hear over the blood boiling in my ears. Maybe it all would have turned out differently if he’d just grabbed my arm. But you don’t drag a girl around by her hair.
Before I could stop myself I’d grabbed the barrel of the gun with one hand and the wolf’s head with the other, fisting my hand in his greasy hair. Before he could react I slammed his face into the counter with enough strength to crack the tile. He slumped to the floor, nose broken again and gushing blood. I let him go and straightened up, turning just in time to catch his pack mate’s fist with my jaw.
I’ve been punched before, plenty of times. There’s an art to relaxing your jaw and letting your neck roll to absorb the impact. Which are hard details to remember when you’re being sucker punched. But I barely felt the fist that slammed into my face. It was like being slapped by a child. I saw the werewolf’s eyes widen in confusion for a second before I decked him. He reeled back, dazed, then charged at me, claws outstretched as he became more wolf than man. The anger in me was like a furnace, filling up my thoughts, whiting out my better senses. I caught the wolf by his belt and the collar of his shirt, heaved him over my head half on the momentum of his own charge, and hurled him into a snack display. He did not get back up.
I had a heartbeat to breathe, to realize what I’d done. I looked at the vampire, who was staring at me with an expression of surprise and definite interest that made worry coil in my stomach. I started to say something, explain myself. Then the leader of the werewolves, apparently having recovered from having his head put through a tile counter, staggered to his feet and fired three rounds.
I heard the freezer doors shatter behind me as time seemed to stop, panic gripping my heart like a squeezing fist. The vampire was there a second later, striking a precise blow to the werewolf’s temple that knocked him out cold.
As the vampire pried the gun from his hand, I searched myself for bullet holes with shaking hands, and found nothing. He missed. He must have missed.
The back door creaked as it opened and Dwayne wandered in. His cigarette fell from his mouth as he took in the destruction before him.
The vampire cleared his throat and smiled at me again.
“Are you still absolutely certain you don’t want that job?”
My guide was already an hour late. The minute hand dragged ever closer to the hour and a half mark and I was convinced that if he didn’t show up soon, I was going to toss the scrawny man off the side of the mountain and let him make the acquaintance of the winding river far below. It wouldn’t kill him, but maybe the icy bath would make him think twice before standing the next person up.
The face of my wristwatch flashed red in response to my rising blood pressure levels and the runes I’d carved into its face glowed sullenly. A vibration ran the length of my arm and rattled around the corresponding piece of silver hooked into my ear. To the untrained eye, it would look like a piece of trendy jewelry. In actuality, it was something like a tuning fork. It translated the vibration into what my mind perceived as a gravelly bass voice, snarling a reprimand into my ear.
“Calm yourself, fraulein. Melt me again and I will not be pleased.”
I pursed my lips and glared down at the watch, pulling a piece of snow out of my dark hair. “You didn’t have to tag along, Horst. I’m perfectly capable of making this journey on my own.”
Still, I drew in a shaky breath through my nose and waited until my heart rate slowed to expel it. Horst was right. This interface was about as sound as using two rusted-out tin cans to talk to each other. If I melted another wristwatch with Horst inside, I was going to be short the only creature that could translate for me. He’d be trapped in the ether until I could call up someone to fish him out. And my allies were few and far between, especially in Europe, where the arm of the Trust’s influence stretched far.
I was awaiting the arrival of a Barbegazi, one of the many species of demi-humans that made their home in the Swiss Alps. The Barbegazi were an odd bunch, and rarely seen by the human eye. I worked for the Trust, the world’s solution to a magical international body, for nearly a decade and even I’d only clapped eyes on a couple of them. This one was named Volkar and was considered the oldest and wisest among this clan. An associate of mine, Anton Gray, had pointed me in this direction, and my stubborn house spirit insisted on tagging along when he’d spied me booking a flight to Europe. The creature we were meeting spoke only French, which was unfortunately not a language I knew. Set me in front of any demi-human south of the border and I could communicate just fine. But not here. So I’d brought the only creature I knew that had the gift of tongues and would actually use it to my benefit.
I gripped the bottle of pear cider in one hand. I was dying to crack it open and guzzle the whole thing, just to take the edge off the anxiety that was trying to claw its way out of my chest. It had a much lower alcohol content than I generally preferred, but I’d take anything at this point. But this was a gift meant for the leader of the clan, and I was pretty sure it would offend him to find I’d downed the offering.
My wristwatch flashed in warning again, this time displaying a sickly puce color to reflect my anxiety. I was beginning to regret the choice to allow Horst to monitor my emotional state during our trip. The watch was turning into a glorified mood ring, and all it was doing was drawing my mind back to the reason that I was camped out in this frigid cave, awaiting a glorified snow dwarf.
“Yeah, yeah,” I muttered. “I know. Keep it together.”
I was spared further reprimands from my companion by the sound of my guide’s approach. Snow crunched outside the entrance to the cave and I craned my neck to get a good look at the thing as it waddled into sight.
The Barbegazi resembled something close to a frostbitten dwarf. Small in stature but very hairy. Its snowy beard reached its knees, even braided and festooned with glittering beads of ice. Shaggy eyebrows obscured most of a heavy brow and shadowed its eyes, so it was impossible to make out the color. What little skin was visible beneath its long-sleeved gray tunic was white with just a tinge of blue. The thing that set this creature apart from its British cousins was the size of its feet. They were easily the size of trash can lids and built flat and long to allow the Barbegazi to ski across the alps on moonlit nights.
It paused in the entryway. I didn’t have to see its eyes to read the subtle shift in its body language. It stiffened and took an automatic step back from me, its hand coming to rest lightly on a stone dagger strapped to its waist. I wished I could say that it was an uncommon reaction when people caught sight of me. But alas, I hadn’t made myself many friends in the demi-human populace in recent years. I hadn’t made many friends in my life, period.
“Bow,” Horst hissed, his instruction tickling my ear insistently. I wanted to slap the silver ring out of my ear and into the snow. I was going to be itching that side of my face for days. It would be worth it if this trip panned out, but annoying in the extreme if it didn’t.
It chafed against every ounce of pride I had as a mage to do it, but I sank to my knees in the snow in front of Volkar.
“Hail, Volkar of the Barbegazi. I am honored by your presence.”
A sound split the crisp afternoon air and for a bewildered second I was sure that the ice had cracked on a nearby peak and snow was about to come thundering down on my head. Then it dawned on me that the thing was laughing. At me.
A hot, prickling flush crept up my neck and I curled my fingers into fists at my side to keep myself from reaching into my bag. I could end this little thing with either my gun or the makeshift wand I kept stowed in the pack.
The thing’s lips started to move and Horst began to translate a few seconds later. The seconds-long lag reminded me comically of some badly dubbed films I’d watched in college with Cat.
As always, thoughts of my sister doubled me over more effectively than a punch to the gut. It was a struggle to focus on what Volkar was saying, rather than the pain that radiated through my insides.
“Sweet words are often poison on a mage’s tongue,” Volkar said in a voice as shrill as the wind whipping outside of the cave.
“Then it’s a good thing I’m not a mage,” I reasoned, forcing a smile onto my face. I was out of practice and I hoped it didn’t look like I was baring my teeth in challenge. “I’ve been out of the Trust’s employ for nearly two and a half years now. I do not mean you or your people any harm. Why don’t you come and sit by my fire and share my libations?”
Volkar considered me for a long moment before he inclined his head respectfully and shuffled into the cave. I didn’t straighten out of my bow until he sat down by the small fire I spelled a few hours before.
“If not destruction, then what do you come here for, Natalia Valdez?”
I paused, midway through popping the cork on the slender green bottle and stared at him. Volkar grinned, exposing crooked yellow teeth. “Your reputation precedes you, Iron Heart. We know who you were. Do not think that I came unprepared for Trust treachery.”
I sank back onto my haunches and glared into the fire. Maybe it had been too much to hope for that I’d remain completely incognito on this trip. I spent the better part of ten years trying to make myself unforgettable, and I succeeded. Just not in the way that I’d anticipated. But this place was as remote as one could find, without traveling to either of the poles. I was hoping there was a creature out there somewhere who hadn’t heard of me.
“I really hate that nickname,” I muttered, flicking a small twig into the fire.
It was coined by my ex-boyfriend shortly after he turned me over to the Trust for moonlighting as a supernatural assassin. It referred much less to my ability to enchant ferrous metals and far more toward what he thought of me as a person. Having this thing spout it so casually was like having lemon juice squeezed into barely healed wounds.
Volkar shrugged and held his hand out for the bottle. I handed it to him wordlessly and watched as he downed the thing in one long pull. My throat was parched, my fingers were stiff, and even the triple layer of sweaters I’d donned couldn’t ward off the chill entirely. Horst had insisted pleasantries were necessary to win over the leader of the Barbegazi, but I’d never really seen a use for them. A gun jammed into the back of someone’s skull got me where I wanted to be faster and without the humiliation of groveling to a demi-human with feet that a clown would envy.
And that sort of thinking is what got you into this mess, I chided myself. Be patient for a few goddamned minutes, Valdez.
Volkar smacked his lips and then tossed the bottle into the fire, watching with interest as it cracked in the flames.
“Are you scrying something?” I leaned closer, as though the answers I sought could be found in the flames.
Volkar’s lips twitched. “No. I just like the sound. What you seek is hidden beneath Monte Rosa.”
Great. That was at least another day’s journey away on foot. It would take mere moments if I called up an associate of mine who owed me a favor. Teleportation spells took a lot of juice, but I’d make sure that the guy was well-compensated if he could get me to my end goal.
But some tingling sixth sense kept me from reaching for the burner phone in my bag. It was not a good idea to flout my probation in Europe, the Trust’s home turf.
“How could you know? You don’t even know what I’m after.”
“As I said, your reputation precedes you. There is not a creature beneath the sun that has not heard the tale of Iron Heart’s slain sister.”
“She isn’t dead,” I snapped, more out of habit than actual anger. Everyone had written Catalina off, assuming the worst. I wasn’t about to let anyone do it on my watch. She wasn’t dead until her heart ceased beating. I was going to make sure that day was a long way off.
Volkar pushed to his enormous feet and offered me a mottled hand. I cringed away like he might haul off and slap me with it.
“Come,” he said impatiently, gesturing for me to stand with his free hand. “If you want to get there before nightfall we must begin now.”
I slid my hand into Volkar’s and he pulled me to my feet with strength that belied his small stature. Then, without giving me time to do more than wrap a hand around the strap of my backpack, he slung me onto his shoulder and ran toward the ledge at the end of the cave.
“What the hell–” Was as far as I got before Volkar launched himself into the air. For a spinning second, we entered freefall. I clutched at his neck like a lifeline which, of course, it was. The wind reached up clawing fingers, raking my eyes, stinging my skin, and tugging my long, dark hair free from the ushanka I’d shoved on to protect myself from the worst of the cold. It went flying and even my quick reflexes couldn’t snag it out of midair in time. Irritation prickled along my scalp. I bought it during a mission in Saint Petersburg and it held more than a little sentimental value.
But I didn’t have long to mourn the loss of my headgear. Volkar angled his body and a second later we hit the side of the mountain. Volkar’s heels skimmed the top layer of snow, miraculously not sinking beneath the feet of powdery stuff even with the additional hundred and twenty pounds of weight on his back.
We hurtled down the side of the mountain, grazing only the top layers of snow. A startled laugh wrenched itself from my chest. For the last two years, my world had been an endless slog of misery, pain, and the desperate search for answers. It might not have been much to someone else, but sliding down the side of a mountain on the back of a creature that had more skill than any Olympic skier was probably the most fun I’d had since before Cat’s incident. The sound cut off after a few seconds as we rapidly approached a boulder and, beyond that, the end of the mountain.
“Volkar–” I warned.
But the Barbegazi didn’t slow. In fact, he crouched lower to the ground, shifting his center of gravity so that we picked up still more speed. We hit the boulder at an angle and went spinning into midair. Volkar twirled through it in concentric circles, completely jumping the river between the two peaks. We landed a few seconds later on the adjoining peak.
“Peace, fraulein,” Horst hummed into my ear. “He knows what he is doing. And he is spry for a man of a thousand, is he not?”
I nearly choked on my own tongue. This scrawny little man was over a thousand? I’d known vampires who hadn’t lived that long. To make it to that age Volkar had to be tough, as well as wise. I was suddenly grateful I hadn’t given into the childish impulse to hex him.
Our journey might have taken an hour or just a few minutes. It was impossible to tell. The splendor of the Swiss Alps rushed by at such speed that it was impossible to keep track. I only registered when my guide began to slow, digging his bin-lid-sized feet into the snow to slow us to a crawl.
To my astonishment, I craned my neck and the hulking shape of Monte Rosa came into view.
“Follow this footpath around the side of the mountain and…” He trailed off and it didn’t take me long to figure out why. A billowing black cloud of smoke was rising from the side of the mountain, obscuring the otherwise clear sky. The Barbegazi hissed a word in French and I didn’t need Horst’s translation a few seconds later to know it was colorful.
“They’ve burned it!” Volkar growled. “Who would even dare?”
I had a sinking feeling I knew. And just a few minutes later my suspicions were confirmed, when a familiar shape stepped from the haze of smoke.
“Findlay,” I muttered, glaring at the man sauntering down the footpath toward us.
Louis Findlay, undersecretary to Sienna Vogel, head of the Trust’s disciplinary committee. I was more afraid of Vogel than Findlay. She was known colloquially as the Queen of Hell, and it wasn’t just for her notoriously bitchy demeanor. Vogel had a singular talent for opening doors into other dimensions and her favorite trick was to drop someone into a hell plane for a few weeks to sort them out.
Findlay, by comparison, was less threatening, even though he was being trailed closely by a pack of alpine wolves. He was a summoner and could bind just about anything with less than human intelligence to his will.
Putting his sudden appearance together with the destruction of the Barbegazzi’s trove of forbidden magicks, I knew who had to be responsible and why he was doing it. My nails bit into my palms so hard I drew blood. I was shaking with the need to go for my weapons and end this little cretin once and for all.
Findlay came to a stop a few yards away from us, keeping the higher ground in case I attacked. Probably wise. He might have been formidable, but he wasn’t near strong enough to go toe to toe with me and walk away from it.
If I killed him, however, I’d draw the full wrath of the Trust down upon myself. And Cat needed me to survive. So I shoved my hands in my pockets to obscure my watch and gave him a very affected smile.
“Hey, Lou, what brings you out to this neck of the woods?”
A muscle in Findlay’s cheek twitched at the nickname. His eyes were small, dark, and watery behind his spectacles. His nose was pinched and narrow, and his graying beard was perpetually patchy. He’d always reminded me of a rat. Lord only knew why my sister agreed to marry him.
He didn’t answer me right away, instead fixing the Barbegazi with a steely glare. He spoke in rapid-fire French, and Horst’s translation only told me what I’d already suspected. He was telling Volkar to get lost.
To his credit, the demi-human stood his ground for a few minutes, spewing impotent threats about what his clan would do to the council. Findlay and I both knew they were bullshit. The Barbegazi were not a large clan, and even if they managed to band together every demi-human in the Alps it wouldn’t be much against the forces of the Trust.
Finally, with a baleful glance in my direction, Volkar jumped onto the nearest drift and slid away from us. The fact that he probably thought I was in cahoots with Findlay just irritated me further. I rounded on the little man.
“What the hell, Findlay? You just burned a library that’s over two millennia old!”
Findlay brushed a light dusting of snow off his tweed jacket and adjusted his spectacles, unconcerned by my outburst. “It was slated to be disposed of in any case. There are spells in those books that should never see the light of day, as you know. And it wasn’t as if we could allow something like that to fall into your hands, could we?”
Anger boiled in my stomach and I tasted blood in my mouth. “You don’t know a goddamned thing, Findlay. What the hell are you even doing here anyway?”
“An associate of mine informed me you were leaving the country. So I’ve been following you.”
I wished I could say that came as a surprise. Findlay had been following me for two and a half years, ever since the incident that put Cat in the hospital. He still blamed me for it. Hell, I blamed myself for it. I should have been there to protect her.
“You know this whole Fatal Attraction thing is getting old,” I drawled. “Find someone else to fixate on, Findlay. I haven’t broken my probation once in the last two years.”
That he knew of. Technically I’d broken it a dozen times over, incurring minor infractions here and there to keep my lights on and my sister’s bills paid. But I hadn’t used magic offensively, which was what their major stipulation had been.
His beady eyes narrowed and his anger spilled over onto the pack of beasts that he was controlling. The nearest wolf’s hackles raised, its ears flattened to its skull, and it bared sharp teeth in my direction. I hoped Findlay didn’t sic the thing on me. I’d hate to shoot an endangered species.
“Just turn custody of Cat over to me and I’ll leave you to your business, Valdez.”
“This again? The will you have is a fake, Findlay. My sister would never have given you power of attorney, not without consulting me. I was her sister for twenty-four years. You were her fiancé for what, two?”
“Three,” he hissed.
“And the lawyers came down on my side. So hell no, I’m not giving you control of what happens to her. Get lost. I’m not breaking any laws by being here.”
“You were associating with a demi-human—”
“It’s frowned upon, not illegal. So try again.”
“You are not allowed to travel—”
“To the homes of any of my old associates,” I finished for him. “And the closest person to the Alps is probably Finch, and there’s no way in hell I’m going to be meeting up with him. So you’re O for two now, Findlay. Care to make it three?”
His gaze flicked down to the backpack I clutched in white-knuckled fingers. “Empty the bag.”
I wanted to tell him to go fuck himself. Instead, I yanked the zipper so hard it nearly broke and dumped the contents out for his perusal. He knelt and sifted through it.
He held up a pair of eyeglasses. “What are these for?”
They were enchanted to act in place of a scope, in case I needed them.
“Reading,” I said. “I am getting older, Findlay.”
He picked up a flask and unscrewed the cap. His nose scrunched up. “Is that ginger?”
“Yep. Patented hangover cure. But potions aren’t magic. So next.”
He screwed the cap back on and then reached for my Sig – a reliable and highly accurate handgun. Every part of me yearned to snatch my weapon out of his hands, but I held myself in check. Findlay studied it from every conceivable angle, searching for my signature spellwork on either the magazine or the slide. When he found none he pursed his lips.
“Carrying weapons across borders is illegal, you know.”
“So what, you’re upholding mortal law now too? I thought such petty distinctions were beneath the Trust.”
Findlay set the gun back in the pack and I breathed a sigh of relief. It wasn’t the only piece I had on me, but it was one of the larger caliber guns I owned. I was reasonably confident that he’d miss me if he shot, but best not to take the chance if I didn’t have to.
He gathered up a slew of faux gold-wrapped chocolate candies and studied them.
“What are these for?”
“The baby dragon that lives in my laundry room,” I quipped. “What do you think they’re for, Findlay?”
He picked up the last item left and it was a struggle not to tense. This was the real test. I’d done my damndest to make my makeshift wand unobtrusive. My official wand had been purloined by the council. So I’d carved my great-grandfather’s wand down into something that wasn’t likely to attract attention from mortal or magical security. All the runes were hidden by the bristles and the mahogany handle looked as smooth and innocent as I’d intended it to be.
Findlay inspected the toothbrush skeptically. “Where’s the toothpaste?”
“Stolen by TSA, those bastards.”
Findlay snorted and shoved the wand back into my bag before tossing the thing to me. I breathed a barely audible sigh of relief and slung it onto my back where it belonged.
There was a tense couple of seconds where I was sure he was going to attack me without provocation. I could spot the gears turning behind his black eyes. We were in an isolated mountain range and there probably wasn’t anyone willing to step in on my behalf if he decided to start something.
He finally slumped, body sinking into a defeated slouch. Good call. I didn’t need guns or magic to end Findlay. I could pop his head off like a cork with the strength of my thighs alone. He spun on one heel, drawing a green river stone from his pocket. He tossed it lightly in the air and a portal blossomed in midair, forming what looked like a stone archway through Monte Rosa. On the other side was a rain-slicked London street. A double-decker bus trundled past as Findlay dithered between the two points in reality.
Findlay reached into his pocket once more and pulled out a scrap of paper. He flicked it at me. The cold air caught it before it could flutter to the ground, but it was a simple matter to snatch it before the breeze blew it further down the mountain.
It was a flight from Lyon-Saint Exupéry to JFK International. I squinted at him, even as he turned his back on me.
“What trick is this, Findlay? I’m in no mood today.”
“Miss Vogel sent me with a warning,” he called over his shoulder. “Don’t come to Europe again, Valdez. You won’t like where she sends you if you do.”
And with that last parting shot he stepped through the archway. It popped out of existence, as though it had never been. Which was pretty much how transportation spells worked. You bent space like it was a flat plane and folded two places together so that they touched.
The little bastard could have shoved me through right back to Queens if he’d had the mind. But he hadn’t. He’d left me in the middle of the Swiss Alps, watching one of the last hopes I had for restoring my sister crumble into ash. And after the perceived betrayal, I doubted Volkar would assist me again.
Oh, and I only had about ten hours to make it out of the Alps and reach Lyon before my connecting flight took off without me.
I ducked under the massive, rusted fence that separated the Scraps from the Dregs, keeping my head low, looking out towards the piles of junk that stretched in every direction. It was refuse to the sky dwellers – everything from half-empty containers of high-end cosmetics and old clothing to malfunctioned mage tech – but that didn’t mean it was worthless. Even their garbage was often finer quality than the stuff we were used to. Dig long enough and you could find something really valuable. Only problem was, the Dregs was forbidden, though that hadn’t stopped me before. There was no sound except for the wind whipping through the barren earth and the crumbling ruins of once-beautiful buildings. I clenched my jaw to keep my teeth from chattering. My threadbare jacket did nothing against the sharp, winter wind. Sterling settled beside me, and for a few seconds, we listened.
“If we die of hypothermia, I’m gonna come back as a ghost and haunt your uncle for the rest of his life,” Sterling hissed. “It’s too cold for us to be doing this crap, Wynter.”
It would be even colder in the Dregs. Darker, too. Looking up, I could see the rocky underside of the Floats above us, casting a deep, perennial shadow over their protected refuse piles. Just around the ledge I could see the bright tips of the floating city in the sky, an impenetrable fortress to those without a magical means of reaching them. While the Dregs got some shade depending on the time of day, the Dregs were always dark, and at night, the inky blackness was especially ominous.
“If you die of hypothermia, you’ve got my full support in haunting my uncle,” I said.
“Good. I was worried about having your approval,” Sterling said. “I totally wouldn’t have haunted your uncle anyway.”
“We both know that’s a lie,” I replied. “How many times have I had to talk you outta something dangerous?”
“And how many times have you listened?” I asked.
“Never,” Sterling replied, “But I do it for you. See. That makes it okay.”
I stifled a laugh. “How is ignoring my legitimately good advice doing anything for me?” I asked.
“You get a lot of pleasure from saying, I told you so,” Sterling joked.
I shook my head and drew my attention back to the fence. Normally, it had wards magicked into it that would prevent intruders, but those wards had been down for years. They weren’t really needed. Mage tech could be dangerous, and few had both the courage to brave the Dregs, as well as the skills to repair it into something useful. I had neither, but I was more afraid of his belt than the Dregs, and his connections knew enough about magic to use it without blowing up half the town. Usually. Gold and silver were nothing next to the value of magic.
I crept slowly forward. There was a small hole at the base of the fence. I dropped onto my belly and squirmed beneath the fence, careful not to catch my hair or clothes. When I emerged on the other side, I edged along, leaving room for Sterling.
As he crawled in, I reached into the pocket of my coat, my cold fingers fumbling with the match and candle I carried. It took me three tries to light it. The candle’s flame did little to fill the darkness, but that also meant we’d be harder to find. The fire danced over the trash before us, illuminating jagged shards of metal and broken glass. We got to work, taking turns between holding the candle and digging through the dump with long sticks.
I carefully pulled aside a warped piece of metal—potentially a frame of some sort—and nudged it aside. Leaning forward, I gingerly pulled on the thin, silvery-blue piece of metal out of a tall mound of garbage. When it came free, I breathed a sigh in relief. More than once I’d inadvertently collapsed an entire mountain of metal on my head. Even if I’d emerged unscathed, the noise would have attracted unwanted attention from other scavengers.
The item was a some kind of broken rod. I turned it, and a weak blue glow shone through the cracks on its otherwise dark surface. Definitely mage tech of some sort.
Sterling held the candle closer; the blue seemed to brighten and flicker in the firelight. “I’ve never seen anything like that before,” he said.
“I ain’t seen anything like that before,” Sterling said.
“Me neither,” I replied, turning the item around in my hands, “But it didn’t blow up in my face.”
“It’s a good day, then,” Sterling said.
He’d been on the receiving end of an explosive piece of mage tech more than once. By sheer luck, neither of us had ever gotten more than a minor burn or scrape from a piece of mage tech. Others weren’t so lucky. I’d seen people with missing limbs and blackened skin after having an accident in the Scraps, which is why jobs like this were left to stupid kids. Like us.
I unshouldered my backpack, an old and heavily patched find from five years before. After carefully wrapping the tech up with a rough strip of cloth, I slipped it into the front pocket and kept looking. My uncle wouldn’t be pleased with one piece of mage tech, even one as unique as this one, and the last thing I wanted to do was anger Gabriel. He was a volatile man even in his best of moods.
Sterling and I spent most of the night rummaging through the trash, looking for the diamonds in the rough. I had never seen a diamond before in my life, but I’d heard of them. In my mind, diamonds were shimmering bits of metal. They were a good length of steel or copper wiring. When the moon was at her fullest, after filling our bags with treasures, we sneaked back through the trash heaps and crawled back beneath a small hole in the fence surrounding the dump.
This was the dangerous part; some gangs preferred to wait in town, and jump scavengers just when they thought they were safe. We kept to the shadows, eyes tense and watchful. I sighed in relief when the entrance to the old subway appeared. Gabriel said it had once been a great place where people had traveled, but that was before the mages first appeared.
Once outside the dump, we kept to the shadows, wary of falling prey to the monsters that often haunted the shadows. I’d once had a sword that I used to fend them away, but it had been an old, rusted thing and broken some time ago. I sighed in relief when the entrance to the old subway appeared. Gabriel said it had once been a great place where people had traveled, but that was in some indistinct time before the mages first appeared.
“Well, looks like that’s a wrap, Wynter,” Sterling said, furrowing his brow.
“I guess,” I said.
With a wry smile, Sterling pulled his pack off his shoulder and handed it to me. “Make sure old man Gabriel doesn’t cheat me, huh?”
“He wouldn’t,” I replied.
Not enough to get caught anyway.
Sterling grinned. “Yeah, sure.”
“You are the one who decided to do business with him,” I pointed out. “I told you it was a bad idea.”
“I thought we’d already established that I never listen to you,” Sterling replied.
“Rude,” I said.
“You know,” I said, “You could stay the night and make sure Gabriel doesn’t cheat you.”
Sterling’s easy smiled fell. “I need to get back home, so I can sleep. I’m heading out to the forests in the morning. Mom needs medicine.”
I nodded. Sterling’s mom, Claribel, had always been good to me. When I’d been very little, she’d sat me by her, with Briar and Sterling, and read from this old book of fairy tales she had. I’d loved visiting her, until Gabriel said Briar and I were too old for children’s tales. Claribel been sick for a while, and she relied on the forests in the northern part of the Scraps for medicine. Gabriel never let me go to the forests, but Sterling went, gathering herbs and plants for his mother.
“No problem. I’ll make sure you get paid,” I replied. “Be careful.”
He lightly punched me in the shoulder. “I’m always careful. It’s everyone else you gotta worry about.”
He was careful, but that didn’t mean I didn’t worry about him walking home alone in the dark. Although he was probably safer than me, now that I was lugging two bags full of loot. I’d been carrying a short dagger since last year, but my hands were too full to reach it. Still, they’d have to be stupid to rob me on Gabriel’s front doorstep. My uncle and his connections practically owned the full expanse of the subways. Once he was gone, I walked quietly down the stairs, ducking into the darkness of the tunnel. Bits of metal poked my back through the thin fabric of my backpack and I tread down the broken steps and stepped into the shadows to wait for my brother. He was younger than me and less experienced, so he usually scavenged in the Scraps, never venturing close to the Dregs. There were safer places to search, places without fences or dangerous mage tech, but those places didn’t usually offer rewards as good as the ones I found behind. This was my inheritance, all the trash held behind locked places and high fences.
Soon, I heard the slap of boots, and Briar descended the stairs. No one would have guessed we were brother and sister; we looked nothing alike. While I was short and dark-haired, Briar was tall and blond with hair that stuck out in every direction, like the briars on a scraggly rosebush. The only similarity between us was our blue eyes, and even then, it wasn’t the same shade of blue. “How’d it go?” I asked.
He shrugged. “The usual,” he said, sighing, “Which won’t be good enough for Gabriel.”
It never was, and it probably never would be.
I forced a smile and threw an arm over his shoulders. “Someday,” I said, “We’re gonna find our own place on the outskirts of the Scraps, and then, we won’t have to deal with Gabriel anymore.”
Wishful thinking, and I knew Briar was too old for bed-time stories. Our uncle was too powerful to run from. Spiteful, too. Every time I tried to save up enough money to run, or fence a valuable piece I’d discovered on my own, Gabriel found out about them and left a permanent mark on my skin, so I wouldn’t forget the betrayal. I had a small collection of them now: a row of burn marks and scars running up my arm.
“Yeah?” Briar asked. “Are we doing that before or after you discover you’re a long-lost princess?”
He was teasing, trying to make light of our situation like I was, but I could see the jaded skepticism in his eyes, and along with a darkness that hadn’t been there a year ago. We both knew there was no where to run.
“Obviously, we’d run away first, peasant,” I replied, with an exaggerated sniff.
“You’ll have to change your name to something really pretentious,” Sterling joked. “I’ve never heard of any princess being called Wynter. You’d have to be Kristiana or something.”
I gasped, as if irreversibly offended by the name Kristiana. “Wrong. When I’m a princess, I can have any name I want,” I said smugly. “If anyone is getting their name changed, it’s you. I hope you don’t mind being called Chanticleer.”
He laughed. “That’s horrifying!”
“So is your face,” I joked.
Briar nudged me with his elbow. “We have the same parents!” he protested. “If my face is horrifying, yours is, too!”
“Maybe I got all the good looks,” I replied. “Sorry. I don’t make the rules.”
Briar sighed. “You’re so mean to me,” he said. But the spark of humor stayed in his eyes, and for a moment, we were ourselves again. Then we grabbed our bags and headed into the tunnel.
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When I was much younger, I always thought I’d move to Japan – instead, stuck in Oregon and frustrated with living at my parents house (after spending years in Malta and Italy studying philosophy and fine art) I got a job offer to teach English in Taiwan and took it. It was rough at first; I’m terrible at teaching English, especially kids, but did it for years anyway, until I got into a MA then PHD program and got a government scholarship to read all day.
But I also met my wife, which means – even though we no longer have a home base in Taiwan, we go back once a year, usually for Chinese New Year. Last year, we went home for Christmas and I returned with two boxes of my favorite cereal, Cinnamon Toast Crunch. I was also horribly depressed – we stayed in a small apartment in Taipei, I slept all day and never saw the sun. It wasn’t until that summer, when I was back in Oregon and bought another box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, that I realized it was (for some weird reason!) making me depressed.
And not like, a little sad – as in, there is no purpose to living.
Things were much better when we returned this year, sans cereal.
We stayed in Taipei again but splurged for a cozy rooftop apartment near National Taiwan University. And it was fine. I don’t love Taiwan, because there aren’t many digital nomads or fiction writers, and I don’t have much to talk about with all the English teachers or expats. Plus Taipei is BIG so we never see anyone anyway.
We did go down to Tainan for a while, Tainan has much better weather and more art and culture, plus I have some friends down there still (we’ll probably skip Taipei altogether in the future.)
While I was there, I had a bit of an identity crisis… so I made this video about “Joyful Author Branding” and bought some useless crap on ebay. I also bought a new sapphire at the Jade Market to replace the one I lost (I have kind of an obsession with vintage gold gemstone rings… I usually wear a Freemason’s ring from my great great uncle but it’s a pink sapphire, and I really want a big blue one.)
I also got a bag for my new “Razer Stealth Blade” laptop – which kicked off this whole lifestyle rebranding thing, and decided to throw away all my printed Tshirts and just wear simple black Tshirts, jean jackets and fingerless gloves all the time – kind of “Dieselpunk”.
During Chinese New Year, we also went to the temple. I’m a fan of the local religion, which (I think) is a blend of Buddhism, Confucianism and Shinto. I like it because, there are multiple gods to petition and you need to pay for favors.
I found the “god of money” and bought snacks and incense for him; he blessed my wallet (three times around the incense) and I got basically a prayer card to put in my wallet as a receipt of the transaction. I do believe physical anchors can be potent reminders to practice positive intention and thinking (filling yourself with a state of hopeful expectation, rather than worry, because you went to the temple and paid your dues). I should use practical magic more often than I do.
When I was younger, I read all the big heavy magic books from 18th century alchemists about summoning demons, etc. I’ve since learned they were mostly quacks, but I do think witchcraft/magic can have a practical use – the ritual, repetition and action is kind of a mindful meditation. You aren’t changing the world, you are changing yourself, and then you act, perceive and receive in a way that brings you the results you seek. As such it can be very powerful.
Even if all it’s doing is giving you the illusion of control, which in turn makes you happier and more confident – those are real benefits!