The van flipped onto its side and slid across the road, screeching metal and burned rubber. Anton, Mariposa and I, loose in the back, were tossed about like ragdolls. Mariposa’s head hit me in the face hard enough to leave tooth marks on my cheek. Anton, half wolf in instinctive panic, caught my elbow in his throat. The van hadn’t come to rest yet before a second impact sent it rolling into the ditch. My vision looked like a Picasso on spin dry, disconnected images whirling past too fast to recognize, my senses blurring into confused synesthesia. The smell of burning rubber and smoke becomes briefly inextricably tied to the feeling of the hard molded plastic of the dash when my face hits it. The spiders web of broken glass as the windshield shatters tastes like coppery blood in my mouth. The blaring of the horn is how panic feels, a senseless continuous scream, desperate and terrible and utterly overwhelming.
It’s kind of wild what goes through your head during something like that. You don’t think you’re going to die, or at least I didn’t. It’s all too fast, too chaotic. Mostly, you’re just thinking “oh shit this is going to hurt.” But the brain is a weird thing and sometimes it throws you a curveball. So in the middle of that panic, I wasn’t thinking about dying or what would happen if I didn’t make it or about my loved ones or anything else reasonable like that.
I was thinking, “You should have run away the second you saw that vampire’s stupid face.”
Less than a week ago, Dante swanned into my life with a plan to steal one of the most important artifacts in the history of the magical community from the middle of a party thrown by the all-powerful vampiric masters of the city. And for some fucking reason instead of grabbing my shit and getting out of town like a reasonable person, I went along with it.
As anyone— except apparently, me—could have told you, it was bound to go horribly wrong. Turns out the party was overbooked, crime-wise. Our relatively victimless heist happened to overlap with the high profile murder of a powerful vampire Elder. Son of a bitch practically died on top of me. It was a little hard to maintain a low profile once my dress was soaked in the undead bastard’s blood. So I thought hey, might as well go out with a bang. Why not just discover a couple of new powers, get shot, and literally burst into flames in front of the actual fucking Sumerian? That’s a great plan, right? At least as smart as getting into any of this to begin with.
To be honest, my world had been flipped upside down way before the van started rolling. I just didn’t fully realize how badly until this moment.
When things were finally still, I was somehow still conscious. Around me, metal ticked and creaked as it settled. The horn was still screaming, undercut by the absurd ding of the turn signal. The stench of gas fumes and smoke was strong enough to make me worry we’d explode in a ball of fire, like something out of a movie.
I was, to my genuine surprise, in no more pain than I’d been to start with, which to be fair was still a significant amount of pain. I’d been shot earlier and somehow managed to escape with just a broken rib, which is pretty good considering it could have killed me, but each ragged breath I took felt like being stabbed. Add that to my scalded throat and the full body bruise I was working on, and I’d just about hit the upper limit on how much I could hurt.
The van had landed on its side. The three of us in the back were thrown into a pile against the left wall, which was now the floor. The right wall, currently above us, was caved in around the point of impact. I fumbled to disentangle myself from Anton and Mariposa, my ears ringing and my head spinning. Some part of me was aware that I probably shouldn’t be moving, but it was not a part I was used to listening to. I fumbled my way towards the back doors, just thinking about getting out and away. But my fumbling attempts to shove them open were met with stubborn resistance. My brain caught up enough to notice how badly the doors were twisted and bent. Stuck. I wouldn’t be getting out that way.
A groan from behind me reminded me I wasn’t alone with a rush of muddled guilt. Right. I’d dragged my friends into this mess with me. Former friends, rather. Maybe. I grew up with Domino, and I’d known Mariposa, Whisper and Anton almost as long. In high school we’d developed a reputation for stealing anything that wasn’t nailed down and a few things that were. But then my parents died and I had to drop out and support my little brother, Aaron. Suddenly hanging out with criminals wasn’t just a risk to my future, which I never really gave a shit about, but to Aaron’s as well. I’d barely spoken to them in years, trying to go straight with a variety of shitty temp jobs. For a minute during the heist it was like nothing had changed between us. I was almost having fun. I should have known better.
“Domino?” I called, turning back. But it was Anton, accelerated werewolf healing already at work closing a gash on his jaw as I watched. Mariposa was out cold, braids fanned in blood, and it looked like Domino was out as well, collapsed into the airbag, his glamour glitching, revealing flashes of dramatically patterned black and white skin. Whisper was coming around, blinking dark inhuman eyes and making confused wordless noises as she pushed the slowly deflating airbag away and pawed at her seatbelt with unnaturally long, iridescent fingers.
“What the fuck was that?” I asked Anton as he pulled himself together enough to meet my eye. He just shook his head, as confused as I was.
Whisper caught sight of Mariposa and made a panicked noise, yanking at her seatbelt.
“It’s okay!” I said quickly. “I got her!”
I knelt next to Mariposa, terrified of what I would find, but she was breathing. Banged up, but alive. There was a cut on her head bleeding heavily. I tore a strip of fabric from my ruined party dress to press against it. The bottom half was burnt to dark cinders, but the material closer to my waist was clean and soft. Whisper tore her seatbelt free only to find her legs trapped under the crumpled dash. She thrashed to get free, starting to panic.
“She’s alright!” I turned back towards her so she could read my lips, but she was too freaked out to see. “Mari’s alive!”
Anton grabbed her by the shoulder to get her attention and messily signed what I’d said. Whisper sank back into her seat with a sob of relief.
While I tried to finagle a better bandage for Mari’s head, Anton moved to check on Domino. At my worried look he nodded and I could breathe again. We were all alive. My head was still ringing and the pain in my side was like a distant siren growing louder and more urgent with every second. I had a feeling when it reached full volume I was going to be near useless. Mari needed stitches at least. We all probably should have been checked out at a hospital. I tried to gather my thoughts, wondering what the hell we were going to do now. We were supposed to meet Dante outside of town to hand over the goods and get the rest of our payment. If things had gone according to plan, I would have been home already, with a stack of money for Aaron’s college fund. But my face had been seen. I was going to have to get out of town. And since I only agreed to this bullshit so I could afford to keep Aaron in his expensive school, that made everything I’d just been through completely useless. Great. Whatever. I could hate myself for this later. Right now I needed to get to Aaron before the vampires did. Judith too. She didn’t have anything to do with this, but the cop Dante had for some reason decided should be my date to the party had seen us together, knew her address. And I’d never met a cop, particularly a wolf cop, who wasn’t on the vampire payroll. When the vampires realized what I’d stolen, they were going to come after anyone that knew me. Maybe I was lucky that, aside from Aaron and Judith, pretty much everyone I’d ever given a shit about was in this van right now.
“They hit us on the right,” Anton muttered, distracting me from my disoriented thoughts. He was squinting at the crumpled side of the van above us. “Right?”
“Right.” I nodded, then regretted it when it caused a bolt of whiplash pain through my neck. “…Right?”
I suddenly wasn’t sure myself. Something about that fact seemed wrong. Through the shattered windshield I could see the Bayshore freeway, scattered with pieces of our van, glittering on the tarmac and the heat-withered grass of the median. “Why?”
“They couldn’t have hit us on the right,” Anton said, his eyes widening slowly. “We were driving on the right side of the road.”
For two silent seconds I tried to process what that meant, my sense of unease growing rapidly. But the sound of tearing metal interrupted any conclusions I might have drawn. I looked up in abject horror.
Something was tearing open the side of the van.
It ripped through the steel paneling like cheap tinfoil, tearing it open like a can of sardines. My jaw dropped as I struggled to comprehend what I was seeing. Darkness against darkness, a shadow against the washed-out night sky, an amorphous shape that seemed to boil and tremble like a mass of black fabric in a high wind.
And then, with a fluid movement made suddenly sharp, like a sheet snapping in the rising gale of a coming tornado, a piece of that rolling darkness recoiled, sharpened, and flew at me like a lance.
I threw myself clear, stumbling hard into the wall behind me in my haste, not really sure how I’d even seen it fast enough to react, especially considering the shape I was in. The siren of pain in my side was only getting louder, but I had other things to worry about. Namely, the solid bar of darkness thick as my wrist and the color of absolute void, which had punched straight through the metal at my feet. Featureless except for the strange way it fluctuated between impossibly fluid solid and impossibly solid gas, it stretched all the way back to its source above me. The figure loomed over the hole torn in the side of the van, themselves like a tattered hole in the sky, black as the void between stars, blistering and boiling. I stared in horrified shock as a second spear flew at me. I had nowhere else to move.
Anton lunged, smashing it with a bear-like paw before it could hit me. The shaft of darkness splintered and shattered like glass, then flowed instantly back together like water, like video played in reverse. With a motion somewhere between the coil and crack of a whip and the sweep of an arm lashing out, it slammed broadside into Anton’s chest, knocking the nearly three hundred pound wolf man off his feet and flinging him backwards. I’d barely had time to process the shock of this before it was coming after me again.
Spears of darkness as jagged and unpredictable as lightning strikes came down on me like an air strike. Dozens of spear-sharp limbs ricocheted and branched into what felt like hundreds of arrows. They lanced through the cramped back of the wrecked catering van. I dodged them with a speed I didn’t dare think too hard about, in case realizing that there was no way I could be doing this made it stop working. Not that introspection is exactly easy when you’re trapped in an 8×5 foot metal box, like a fish in a barrel, while some kind of nightmare shadow monster is trying to kill you. Not to mention the probable head injury.
I twisted out of the way of one spike, dove under another, barely managed to vault a third, and every movement—hell, every breath—sent pulses of white hot pain throbbing down my side. Static crowded the edges of my vision, my body threatening to knock me out for my own good. How I hadn’t passed out already was another thing I was trying not to think about.
A wordless shout from Whisper distracted me and I nearly avoided getting speared through the gut as I followed her panicked gaze to where Mariposa, still unconscious, lay just behind me, squarely in range of the spikes currently stabbing in that direction.
I flung myself towards Mari, pulling her into my arms and rolling out of the way a second before her seat was skewered by a dozen spikes. Still holding her tight, I made a run for the rear doors, a distance that should have been two steps but seemed like a football field sized obstacle course, the spears piercing through the van like bars. One of the spikes shot by my face close enough to open a gash under my eye. I leapt over one, slid under another, smashed a third with the flat of my arm, then put my head down and barreled directly into the rear doors like a linebacker.
I’ve always been strong, but panic and adrenaline (and maybe some of whatever had happened to me at the party) had ramped my strength up from unlikely-for-a-person-my-size to actually inhuman. I crashed through the doors like they were made of plywood, blasting them off their hinges, and kept going out into the wet grass of the slope beside the freeway.
I fell to my knees, Mariposa spilling out of my arms, wheezing as the pain and exhaustion overwhelmed me. Whatever magic had seized me during the party, it had left me completely drained. Once back in highschool, the week before a big track meet, I’d gone so overboard with practice that I’d ended up in the hospital. This felt almost the same, just with more broken bones. Like I’d pushed myself well beyond my limits and kept going anyway. When I’d passed out running sprints and had to be peeled off the tarmac by EMTs, my dad said when your car is out of gas you can’t just keep running on fumes. At least not for long. But I wasn’t just running on fumes here. The gas tank had gone dry an hour ago and I was still rolling along on sheer momentum. It was like I’d discovered a whole different engine. It had taken a literal car accident—the smoking wreck was all around me—to slow me down; and even then I was somehow still moving. If my dad were alive he would have kicked my ass.
There was another sedan a few feet away, its front end crumpled and smoking. That must have been the second impact, when the first spun us into the oncoming lane. The freeway was busy even this late at night and other cars were stopping. A few concerned citizens were climbing out of there cars to check on us or calling 911. A few were taking pictures. How much had they seen? We could all get in serious trouble if we were found responsible for exposing a bunch of mundies to the un-mundane. But that was something to worry about after monsters stopped trying to kill me.
Every ragged breath felt like a dagger in my side. Groaning, I resisted the urge to lay down in the nice soft grass and pass out, and instead shifted to look back at the van, hoping maybe the creature would have just gone home. Which of course, it hadn’t. If I had that kind of luck I’d be in Vegas, not working three jobs and getting conned into stupid crimes that led to being skewered by shadow monsters.
The thing I’d glimpsed before stood on top of the flipped vehicle, a patch of absolute black against the light-pollution gray of the night sky. It had stopped making swiss cheese of the wrecked van, pulling its sharpened limbs back into the amorphous mass of its main body. There was a human shape in there I realized, now that it wasn’t just a black blur against the dark sky. The glow of the wrecked sedan’s headlights illuminated a dirty pair of converse, and the ragged hem of an old pair of blue jeans. Darkness boiled around the upper half of their body, obscuring all but those sad, scuffed-up sneakers. When the darkness guttered and billowed like a candle flame, I could see it moving around the solid edges of a person. I’m not sure if it was better or worse to realize it wasn’t just a mindless monster. Hell, it might still have been mindless despite the body inside of it. There were plenty of nightmarish Fae-things that rode humans like parasites, a kind of magical cordyceps. For whatever reason, this one wanted me dead.
Like a giant spider uncurling, new limbs unfolded from the center mass, sharp and segmented. They slammed into the ground on either side of the van, lifting the main body into the air as the beast crawled forward. A shiver of horror and revulsion ran down my back, not just at the sight of this massive malevolent arachnid moving towards me, though that should have been enough. What was worse was the way the body dangled beneath the spidery legs like a fat leech or a lynching victim, swinging limply by the head, limbs loose and corpse-like.
It moved slowly, staggeringly, with a jerky, unreal quality like a film that was missing every third frame. It stumbled and slipped frequently, like it was still learning to walk, or like the eerie way it moved was making it hard to know where to put its feet. The thing’s apparent clumsiness made it no less terrifying as it dragged itself towards me on its crawling stilt legs, not sparing the van and my friends inside it another glance. Through the torn open back doors of the van I could see Whisper shouting wordlessly, still trying to get loose from the wreckage pinning her to her seat. She hurled something, the rearview mirror I think, at the monster, trying to get its attention away from me and the unconscious Mariposa. It bounced off the creature’s side, completely ignored.
It kept its entire focus on me. Just me, I realized as I stumbled to my feet. I took a few steps away from Mariposa, and saw the creature shift its trajectory to follow my stumbling, agonized steps. It took me another heartbeat to figure out what it wanted. Against my thigh, in the pocket of my ruined dress, what we’d stolen burned like a brand. The Treaty of Five Races. The singular magically binding contract that had ended centuries of war between vampires, Fae, witches, wolves, and trolls.
Maybe it wasn’t really after me. Just the treaty.
And then, all at once, before I could even start running, the thing was gone.
The weird dropped-frame stutters had been increasing with every step it took and at last it flickered like bad TV reception and disappeared. I flinched, confused and afraid, neck twinging painfully as I whipped my head around looking for where it had gone. It couldn’t have just disappeared. The humans were acting like they hadn’t seen it at all, hovering near by as though unsure whether they should approach and offer help.
Before any of them could work up the courage the sound of a siren cut through the chatter and the still blaring wail of the wrecked van’s horn.
A patrol car cleared a path through the humans and stopped right next to the wreck. The black magitech box discreetly fixed next to the car’s antennae gave it away as belonging to an Otherside officer even before I recognized Detective Ryan getting out of the front seat, still in his tailcoat and tie. If I hadn’t been busy panicking about the monster, this would have been another good reason to freak out.
This was the wolf cop who’d been my date to the party. Undeniably hot in a wholesome farm boy kind of way, but not the guy I wanted to see right now. Especially considering he’d probably already been after us from the minute we left the party, way before he heard about the wreck. That magitech box connected him to the Otherside police radio, and also explained why the humans weren’t freaking out. It could generate a near mile wide Forget-Me-Not field, an advanced bit of magitech enchantment that made any human in its vicinity less curious and more suggestible. And if the thought of something that exploitable being in the hands of the notoriously corrupt Otherside police force makes you nervous, well you’re not alone. Regardless, the intended use is to make humans less likely to notice magic happening and more inclined to accept any semi-plausible explanation they’re offered, so the police department doesn’t have to foot the bill for quite so many expensive, unreliable memory wiping rituals.
The humans standing around looking uncertain right now were probably already half convinced they were accidentally interrupting the filming of a movie or something. But if that monster started hurting people or wrecking shit no amount of Forget-Me-Not in the world would stop them from freaking out. The device was also capable of generating a temporary Fae-space bubble. But Ryan didn’t turn it on, presumably because there were already too many humans watching and it would raise more questions if we just vanished suddenly. Also, he thought this was just a car accident that happened to involve the burglars he was after. He didn’t know about the big fuck-off shadow monster. Yet.
I was frozen. If I ran he’d come after me, and in my condition he’d definitely catch me. Arrest was a death sentence. The Triumvirate owned the Otherside police, literally. As soon as they realized I was the one who’d taken the treaty I’d be lucky if the vampires just arranged for me to “commit suicide” in my cell. Torture was more likely, and it wasn’t hyperbole to say I’d rather just die. The vampires were second only to Fae when it came to finding creative ways to cause pain. Even if I got away somehow, Ryan would arrest Domino and the others, who would be in just as much danger of lethal retribution once they were connected to the robbery.
Not to mention, I still didn’t know where that monster had gone.
“Miss Barr,” Ryan called, approaching me slowly, holding his gun at his side. “Put your hands up and get down on the ground.”
My mouth was too dry to make a sarcastic comment about how I was already on my knees. I glanced towards the van again, still trying to decide what to do. He must have been able to see the panic on my face. Run on the slim chance of maybe living and abandon my friends to a fate I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, or stay and die horribly with them. Assuming the fucking monster didn’t pop back in and skewer them the minute my back was turned, and a bunch of clueless human spectators on top of that. Every option looked like death.
“Down on the ground, Evie!” Ryan demanded, apparently unsympathetic to the shit situation I’d put myself in. “Now!”
Before I could make a choice one way or the other, a shriek tore the air and a black spike the width of a young tree slammed into the hood of Ryan’s patrol car. The monster flickered back into reality with a crackle of static, and it did not look happy to be there. The human shape at its center, less dead than I’d hoped, had their hands to their head, a black hole mouth opened in a silent scream that the shadows echoed with an ear-piercing, inhuman shriek as they tore apart Ryan’s car, lashing out at the closest thing in mindless rage. Like I’d predicted, the humans started screaming and running, fleeing back to their cars. Ryan, his eyes wide and his arms bristling with wolf-fur, stumbled backwards away from it. He backed closer to me and I took advantage of his distraction to grab his arm and drag myself to my feet, tears springing to my eyes as my broken rib made it very clear how much it did not approve of this course of action. Ryan barely seemed to notice, steadying me with one hand while he stared at the monster destroying his car.
“What the hell is that thing?” he shouted over the twin shrieks of monster and metal.
“Fuck if I know!” I yelled back, which was, as it turned out, a mistake. The thing snapped to attention all at once and rushed at me, screaming and tripping over itself in its fury. It seemed to be getting the hang of walking, and it closed the distance between us much faster than before.
I turned and bolted up the slope, my exhausted muscles screaming and my damaged rib threatening mutiny. If we lived through this, Anton was going to tear me a new one.
Ryan ran after me. I couldn’t be sure if it was because he didn’t know the monster was only after me, or because he was still trying to arrest me, but I wasn’t about to stop and ask.
We hauled ass up the slope, the creature close behind us, struggling to find purchase on the steep hill with its spindly limbs and ungainly shape. One of its spiked legs snagged Ryan’s coat. He slipped out of it without hesitation. I grabbed him by the arm to drag him over the rise and through the thin line of acacia trees at the top of the hill. We sprinted through a dark backyard and over a fence towards a residential street. The monster crashed through the trees behind us, demolishing the fence in a shower of wood splinters. Then, just as I looked back over my shoulder at it, it vanished again in another TV static flicker. I stumbled to a stop in the middle of the silent, empty street. Ryan bent over, panting heavily, then snapped up and grabbed my arm.
“Where did it go?” he demanded.
“I don’t know!”
“What is it? Why is after you?”
“I said I don’t know!”
I scanned the houses and street signs for some idea of where I was. Nice residential neighborhood, lots of trees and nice little town houses. Potrero Hill, probably. Miles from home or help or any decent hiding place.
“Is it gone?” Ryan asked, looking back towards the wrecked fence where it had been. No sooner had he spoken than it appeared again, not where it had been before, but a few feet down the road, directly ahead of us.
“Nope!” I shouted, turning around and sprinting in the opposite direction.
It came after us, sounding its nightmare scream at a volume I was shocked wasn’t waking the entire neighborhood. But now the thing had us on flat ground, boxed in by houses. We were fucked. It only hadn’t caught us immediately because it kept flickering out of existence and back in again, sometimes closer to us, sometimes further away. Dumb luck was all that was keeping us alive, and if I knew anything about my luck, it wouldn’t last.
My heart pounded as I heard the squeal of breaks ahead of us. A familiar black town car tore onto the street and sped towards us and the monster behind us. The rear passenger door opened before the vehicle had even begun to skid to a stop, and Dante stepped out with innocuously casual grace, moving at a speed most humans wouldn’t be able to even perceive. In his hand was a sword, some kind of long, curved saber that looked like it belonged in a portrait of Napoleon on horseback.
Despite how fast he was going, he moved at what I could only describe as a saunter. He practically strolled past Ryan and I, who were still running for our lives, towards the creature attacking us.
I didn’t even have time to turn my head or wonder what the hell the vampire was doing. I heard the monster shrieking and felt a rush of air. By the time I managed to put on the brakes and turn around, it was already over.
For a split second I saw Dante, standing over the human figure at the creature’s heart, sword raised. The splinters of the monster’s shattered liquid limbs were still scattered in the air, not yet flying back together. There was an unnatural wind, rushing upward as though displaced by the sheer speed of Dante’s descending blade, which had torn his long black hair free of its tie and thrown it out above him like a black flame. His face was a contorted mask of rage.
And then I blinked and it was gone.
The creature vanished again, this time with a crack like thunder and a blast of wind that made me stumble.
Dante stopped his sword before it hit the asphalt of the road and straightened up. With a thoughtful frown, he touched his mouth and his fingers came away bloody. The thing must have got one hit in at least. It had split his lip.
“Odd,” he said lightly, like he was commenting on some unseasonable weather that had interrupted his walk.
“It’ll be back,” I called out as he sheathed his saber and stowed it inside the enchanted endless pocket of his blazer. “It keeps flickering in and out like that.”
“Well then, we had best leave before it does,” Dante replied, walking back towards his car. It had skidded to a stop in the middle of the road. His driver, a stout and surly European man, stood waiting by the driver’s side door as though nothing unusual had happened.
“I assume you would appreciate a ride?”
Dante opened the rear passenger door again and gestured for me to get in. I was too tired and in too much pain to even question it right now. I just limped over and collapsed into the leather seats with a sigh of relief.
“Detective Ryan,” Dante said, gesturing to the door again. “You are of course welcome to join us.”
Ryan glanced at the car, then at the spot where the monster had disappeared. He licked his lips, like he was weighing the pros and cons.
“Don’t suppose you’d let me drive?” he asked.
“I’m afraid that would be impossible,” Dante replied. “Sergei is quite territorial. You adjusted the seat when you borrowed the car earlier and he hasn’t stopped complaining about it since.”
“Mirrors too,” Sergei said, deadpan and expressionless.
Ryan climbed into the front passenger seat.
“Now.” As Dante took his seat in the back next to me and we began to drive, he cleared his throat and turned to me, frowning. “There’s something I must ask before anything else. What in god’s name have you done to your dress?”
“Burned it,” I replied, unremorseful. The thing had been pretty, but damn impractical. At least the singed lining was easier to move in. “In case you didn’t notice, things didn’t exactly go according to plan.”
“I did hear that things got a bit noisy there at the end. Something about you murdering an elder?”
“That wasn’t me and you know it! Everything would have gone perfectly if that son of a bitch hadn’t keeled over right on top of—”
I cut myself off with a pained noise as my rib reminded me that it was still broken and that yelling was a bad idea.
“You’re injured?” Dante asked.
“Fractured rib,” I admitted through clenched teeth. “It’s nothing, I just need painkillers and a month in bed. Anton tried to help, but then that thing attacked the van and—”
Then Dante kissed me, and anything else I’d been about to say disappeared completely.
Sharp pine needles pricked my skin. The forest around us was wet and damp; my legs were shaking, but it wasn’t from the icy wind blowing through the forest. I sheathed my sword and gaped upwards at Reverie, the floating kingdom we’d fallen from. We shouldn’t still be alive. Without Lucian, we wouldn’t have been. The scent of mold and leaf-litter tingled my nose. Bright green buds were poking through the carpet of dead leaves, but it was too early for spring.
The muscles in my back shifted. I winced in discomfort as the black wings between my shoulder blades, Lucian’s creation, folded away.
I felt the demon shifting around in my thoughts. I’m so tired, he murmured. I think I’m going to hide in the sword for a bit. I nodded, still too stunned to answer.
A hand seized my wrist. I tore my gaze from Reverie and looked instead at Alexander. He held me so tightly that I wondered if he could feel my pulse racing beneath his slender fingers. The intensity in his blue eyes took my breath away. It was as if he could strip me bare and see everything I was thinking. Light dappled through the forest canopy, casting spots of light and shadow over Alexander’s golden hair and fair skin. As I looked at him, time seemed to stand still for just an instant. He really was beautiful. Then he spoke and ruined the moment.
“What just happened?” Alexander asked, his voice shaking. “There’s no way way could’ve…”
He looked at me with a mixture of awe and fear, as if were a powerful mage, instead of a fraud from the Scraps. Which, I guess, he still thought I was. When I arrived in Reverie, I’d been a fraud, just pretending to have magic and cheating my way into the magic academy. I didn’t know what I was now. But as far was Alexander was concerned, I was a rich girl from Argent, the gated citadel in the middle of the Lower Realms. One who could talk to demons. A useful talent for a prince like him, even if it was forbidden.
I wasn’t ready for Alexander’s questions. Not after fighting against one of my possessed classmates, not after falling from Reverie, and not after all the magic it’d taken to free Lucian. I was too tired to lie, so I kept my mouth shut, averting my gaze towards the forest floor. It was so dark and green. I crouched, running my fingertips over the moss and studying a trail of ants.
“Wynter,” Alexander said, kneeling beside me. He brushed his fingers across my upper lip, and they came away sticky with blood. It reminded me of our kiss in the library.
“No one has ever survived a fall from Reverie,” he said, wiping his hands on a white handkerchief he pulled from the inside jacket of his dark gray coat. It was lined with silver trim that glittered when he moved.
“We did,” I replied absently.
“Yes, but how?” He handed me the handkerchief, now stained with blood, and I used it to clean up the rest of my nosebleed. Alexander’s rapier was drawn but held down at his side. I supposed that was a good sign. He hadn’t resolved to stab me yet.
I bit my lip. “I didn’t save us,” I said slowly.
I don’t think you should tell him, Lucian murmured.
Maybe not. But I was so tired of keeping secrets from everyone. And would it be so bad if Alexander did know what I’d done? If anyone in Reverie would accept me releasing a demon, it would be Alexander. Probably.
When I snapped my gaze back to him, Alexander’s eyes searched my face. Whatever he saw there didn’t please him.
“You actually freed it?” he asked, sounding hoarse. “But why isn’t it attacking? Wynter, you can’t—can you control it? Or did you just—”
It? Lucian asked indignantly. Remind your princeling that I just saved his life!
“No,” I said, “I can’t control him, and he’d like me to remind you that he just saved your life.”
He dropped my wrist and backed away with a sharp suddenness. My heart sank. Alexander had been the one to warn me against listening to the voices. Like all mages, he thought the demons were evil creatures, whispering evil temptations and destroying minds.
Hundreds of excuses flitted through my head, like butterflies trapped in a glass jar. But I was too tired to deal with Alexander’s disappointment. Maybe I should’ve lied, even though no lie would’ve been good enough to satisfy him. We were both about to die. Freeing Lucian was the only option, and I didn’t regret it.
Alexander’s face lost all its color, and yet his eyes seemed to brighten and sharpen. Beneath the wariness and the alarm, there was a spark of fascinated curiosity.
“He can…hear me?” Alexander asked.
I nodded. “Lucian hears everything I do.”
Alexander laughed, the noise edged with something brittle and hysterical, and sank to the ground. After a few seconds, he fell silent. I let the quiet stretch between us, glancing over his shoulder into the dark woods. I’d never been this deep in the forest before, and I had no idea how to survive in one. I wondered how far we were from the Scraps. With a sinking feeling, I realized that Alexander probably hadn’t been in a real forest, either. He’d grown up in luxury, surrounded by sculpted gardens, and thought a visit to Argent was slumming it. For a moment I felt a stab of fear. Just because we’d survived the fall from Reverie, didn’t mean we were safe.
“This is too much,” Alexander said suddenly. “You—you weren’t—you weren’t supposed to release a demon! Wynter, what if he tries to kill us?”
“If he wanted to kill us, he’d have let us fall,” I said.
“What if it’s something…I mean…” Alexander trailed off. “How do we know we can trust him?”
“Lucian didn’t control our classmate and make her attack us,” I said. “And he didn’t tear apart the Academy floor and make us fall from Reverie. All he has done is save our lives, and I think if we’re going to talk about people we trust, Lucian is a safe bet.”
Alexander buried his face between his hands and mumbled something I couldn’t hear. I felt a pang of sympathy. He must’ve been so confused, but at least, he wasn’t angry. Hopefully, he wouldn’t be angry at all. I didn’t think I had the strength to fight him.
I looked back to Reverie, nestled in the fluffy clouds and draped in the colors of sunset. It looked as beautiful as it always had, only I knew now it was full of dangerous mages and backstabbing politics. The earthquakes, the demon attacks. I took a deep breath and realized the air was thicker here, full of oxygen. I let it clear my head. For a moment, I wondered if I could just go home and leave this all behind me. I belonged on the ground with Briar and Sterling. I could just find a direction, head to the Scraps, and never think of Reverie again. Maybe I could even get Alexander to tell everyone I was dead, so no one would come looking for me.
But then I remembered Tatiana in the hospital, and the wild look in Viviane’s eyes when she attacked me. Someone in Reverie was behind the demon attacks, and the same person had possessed Viviane and nearly torn the Academy apart. Whatever they were looking for, I knew it wasn’t over. Could I really turn my back and let more people get hurt?
I looked back at Alexander and met his sharp eyes.
“I hope Viviane is all right,” I said.
“Me, too,” he sighed.
Viviane was awful to me, but I still wouldn’t have wished any harm on her. It must’ve been terrifying, to be controlled by someone else and forced to hurt people. After I’d burned through the glowing sigils in her arm, she’d collapsed and stammered in confusion. I wondered how much she even remembered.
“I wonder who the target was,” Alexander said. “Was someone trying to hurt Viviane, or someone else? Because she was being controlled with sigils, it had to have been a mage. Probably one that was nearby, too.”
“Like one of our professors?” I asked.
Alexander nodded slowly. “I don’t understand any of this,” he said.
Neither did I. But whatever happened to Viviane was connected to something much larger—something involving demon attacks, earthquakes and potentially a magical charm. I thought of all the girls I’d met at the Academy, the girls who’d had classes with me and slept in the same dormitories with me. I thought of Celeste and Professor Gareth, who had both been so kind to me. Whatever was going on up in Reverie, it was unlikely to stop now, which meant everyone in Reverie was in danger.
I followed Dorian’s nod, my gaze landing on a slender woman. Her thick, brown hair fell in waves over her pale, round shoulders and tumbled over the bodice of her black, satin dress. Somehow, I’d expected something more predatory from Dorian’s alleged nemesis, something like my uncle Gabriel’s story about the monstrous mage-lady who ate children, but Eleanor was beautiful.
“I see you have similar taste in dyes,” I said.
For a few seconds, Dorian looked utterly bewildered. Then, he laughed. “It’s not that. In Reverie, when a parent dies, it’s proper to observe a year-long mourning period. You wear black for the first ten months, and for the last two, you’re allowed to add gray and lilac. My mother isn’t worth nearly that level of devotion, but unfortunately, I have a reputation to uphold.”
“How did she die?” I asked.
“She fell down the stairs and broke her neck. Or something like that.”
He said it as casually as if he’d been discussing the weather.
“You don’t believe she fell?” I asked.
He didn’t sound especially bothered with the possibility that someone might have killed his mother. Maybe he’d done the deed himself. I looked nervously towards Eleanor and wondered how she felt about her mom’s death.
“Should I be worried about Eleanor?” I asked.
“She’s a very dangerous woman.”
“You’re dangerous, too,” I pointed out.
“So I am. But Eleanor is always looking to stab someone in the back. I’d at least do you the courtesy of stabbing you from the front,” Dorian replied.
As if she’d heard him from across the room, Eleanor headed straight to us.
“Don’t you have somewhere to be, Wynter?” Dorian asked.
He was right, so I headed away, drifting into the crowd. Viviane or Alexander. Where were they? There were so many people that it was impossible to find anyone. I’d never stolen jewelry off a person before, but I had an idea of how I wanted to do it. Distraction was key. All I had to do was spill a drink down the front of Viviane’s dress, draw attention to her reaction and steal the necklace right under everyone’s nose. Or if I got lucky, Viviane would go to clean herself up and take it off. But it was still a huge risk. What was so special about this necklace? Why did Dorian even want it, and why risk everything just a game to him.
I drifted to the wall and stood there, scanning the crowd. Finally, I found Alexander and headed towards him. My heart raced. Just ask him to dance. It wouldn’t be that difficult. Alexander saw me and ended his conversation with a blonde woman wearing a purple gown. I took a deep breath.
“Good evening,” I said.
Now that I knew he was a prince, it made talking to him much more awkward.
“Good evening,” he said.
“Would you like to—”
“Dance?” he asked. “With you?”
Maybe Dorian had been wrong. Maybe Alexander would humiliate me in front of all these people.
“Yes,” I replied.
He put an arm around the small of my back and drew me in closer. “Can I tell you a secret?” he whispered. “I hate dancing.”
“Me too,” I said.
“Why don’t we talk instead?”
“Um…sure,” I said.
Without warning, Alexander grabbed my wrist and pulled me along behind him. I stumbled at first, but then followed him out of the ballroom and down a long, dark corridor. This was a trap of some kind, but I didn’t know how to avoid it.
We reached the end. I pulled my wrist away, but Alexander’s hand shot out, corning me against the wall. He was even more handsome from close up, and his blue eyes were staring directly into mine with an intensity that took my breath away. I tried to say something, but all my thoughts scattered and fell apart.
“This is what you wanted, isn’t it?” he murmured.
“What are you talking about?” I asked nervously.
“You get all dressed up, attend a fancy ball, and hope to seduce a prince into a dark corner. Don’t think you’re the first to try.”
I sucked in a quick breath. I looked at his broad shoulders and then away.
“Why would I want to seduce you?”
“Why wouldn’t you? Unless you honestly think you’ve got what it takes to become a mage.”
“I passed the test, didn’t I?”
“Did you?” he asked. My breath hitched. Did he know I’d cheated? Had he seen the device?
“Besides, you’re not that plain looking, even if you do come from the Lower Realms. I’m surprised, however, you don’t smell like trash.” He leaned in close, sniffing slowly at my neck.
Asshole! I pushed him off, shaking, but he caught my wrist and spun me into his arms.
“Relax,” he whispered, “I’m just using you to rile up Viviane. It takes her down a peg, I don’t like her getting too sure of herself. It’s a little game we play. Ah, there she is, right on schedule.”
I broke free of his embrace, just in time to see Vivian come around the corner. I stepped away quickly from Alexander, leaning against the far wall.
“There you are,” Viviane’s voice drifted to us. My gaze dropped to her throat; there was the necklace. I was furious with the way Alexander had treated me, and I wanted nothing more than to run back to the safety of the main gala. But I’d come for the necklace, and it was right in front of me. It would be easier to steal away from the party.
“Whatever are you two whispering about?”
“I was just telling Wynter how dangerous magic is,” Alexander replied.
Viviane’s green eyes widened. “Why, that reminds me! I never finished telling you what happened to the last mage from Argent. I think it’s terribly tragic.”
Something bad was coming. I just knew this was going to be some terrible, morbid story. But I played along anyway.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Well,” Viviane said, “He was a prodigy at the Academy, until the day he went mad. Couldn’t handle the pressure. He started hearing voices, talking to himself. Finally, he slit a noblewoman’s throat. I heard he tossed pieces of her dismembered body off the edge, before leaping to his death. People say you can still hear them calling to each other at night on the outskirts of Reverie.”
“That’s not true,” I said uncertainly.
Viviane sighed and shook her head. “You really don’t know anything, do you?” she asked. “You’re hopeless.”
“It doesn’t matter how much I know,” I said. “It matters only what I’m willing to learn.”
“That was almost profound,” Viviane replied. “Did you steal it from my uncle? He likes to make people think he’s profound.”
Hisses struck my ears. At first I thought I’d triggered the device accidentally, but the noise was coming from down the hall.
“We should head back,” Alexander said.
“You might be right,” Viviane said. “Mother is so overprotective sometimes. Just a moment, I need to finish my drink first.”
She stepped closer to me, until we were face to face, and then she slowly emptied her champagne glass down my dress. I gasped as the cold, sparkling liquid dripped beneath my corset.
“There,” she smirked. “All done.”