I had a headache. That headache’s name was Shamus Flynn.
“Allie, my love,” he said, “you’re wrong.” That got him a quick glare from Zayvion, who was sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the fireplace. Zay dragged a whetstone along the edge of his katana and caught my gaze.
“Would you like me to make him shut up?” Zay asked with a little more excitement than I liked to hear.
Terric, who was rummaging through a stack of knives on the shelf, just snorted. “Good fucking luck with that.”
“No, it’s fine,” I said. “It’s just—”
“You’re wrong,” Shame said again, flipping off Terric. “I’m telling you, you’d do best with a projectile weapon. You can’t use magic anymore, so you’ll have to keep a certain distance from the fight. Get in too close and magic will eat you alive. Then it will eat you dead just for good measure.”
Shame was right. I couldn’t use magic. Ever since we’d fought Leander and Isabelle at the Life well and nearly gotten killed, magic had been making me sick. It had only gotten worse the more I used it, and when I tried to use a Tracking spell on a Veiled—an undead magic user I’d seen step out of a living person—I’d passed out and hit my head on the concrete.
Now if I so much as breathed an abracadabra, I was on the floor puking. I had no idea why I was the only one suddenly allergic to magic. Maybe because I was the only possessed person I knew? Maybe because I could literally pull magic up through my body, whereas other people just drew it into the air and directed it into spells. Whatever the reason, it was seriously cramping my style.
“I don’t want a gun,” I repeated.
“Come, now,” Shame coaxed. “Look at all the pretty options.”
Options was an understatement. When Shame had told us he had a small stash of weapons that the Authority didn’t know about, his only omission was how damn many blades, cudgels, whips, sticks, pointed things, explosive devices, and guns he had squirreled away in the rickety three-story town house bolted into the cliff side.
Seriously. I flinched every time he lit a cigarette.
“Shamus,” his mother, Maeve, said from where she was resting on the couch in what might have been a comfortable modern living room before Shame had covered the walls, bookshelves, and entertainment center with both magical and nonmagical killing devices. “If she doesn’t want a gun, don’t trouble her so about it. What weapon would you rather carry, Allison?” she asked.
I glanced over at Maeve. She was drinking a cup of tea, her bare feet up on an overturned crate that said explosives across the side. She looked a little more rested after her short nap. Victor still had his eyes closed and was resting in the reclining chair by the window.
Shame had had the sense to keep most of the house in working order. There were beds, a surprisingly nice kitchen, and a fairly well-stocked pantry that Hayden was off investigating.
I rubbed my palms down the sides of my jeans, wiping away sweat. Staring at the guns Shame had laid out on the coffee table made my skin crawl. I wasn’t sure I could touch a gun, much less use one.
I didn’t want to kill again. Not like that.
Bartholomew gave you little choice, my dad, who was still dead and still possessing a corner of my brain, said quietly. Whatever advantage we have now, it is because of you. Of what you did to him.
It was strange hearing my father talk about us—me, Zayvion, Shame, Terric, Hayden, Maeve, and Victor—like he was a part of our group, wanting the same things we wanted, fighting for the same things we were fighting for. Or maybe it wasn’t so strange anymore. He’d helped us, helped me, more in the last few days than in my entire life.
And now that we had mutinied from the Authority, gone against Authority law—and, oh, yeah, did I mention I shot the man who had assigned himself as head of Portland’s Authority?—we needed all the help we could get.
Even if that meant listening to the dead guy.
“I don’t know,” I said, answering Maeve’s question. “Maybe I’ll stick to a blade.”
Shame made a tsk sound. “Don’t want to shoot a man, nice and clean,” he said, “but you’re more than happy to carve him up? You sure about that? Swords can be messy business.”
“It’s all messy business,” I said. “And the only thing I’m sure about is that I’m not going to decide this right now.”
“Better sooner than later.”
“I’ll do it in the morning.”
Zay stopped running his thumb along the edge of his katana and sheathed it. He gave me a steady look. The same kind of measuring look Victor, who I had thought was half-asleep, and Terric, who was done digging through the things on Shame’s shelf, were giving me.
“What?” I asked.
“It is morning,” Shame said. “Has been for hours now.”
I closed my eyes and tipped my face up to the ceiling. Hells, I was tired. I didn’t remember the last time I’d slept, didn’t remember the last time I’d eaten. I smelled like old magic, death, and blood. And I was not going to pick up a gun, make another decision, or do another damn thing until I got clean and fed.
“Someone make breakfast, okay?” I looked back down from the ceiling. “I’m going to take a shower.”
I strode down the hall, past the open kitchen area, where Hayden was whistling a song from Phantom of the Opera, past the two guest bedrooms where everyone had slept, except me. I’d spent my downtime sweating off nightmares, and staring at the darkness while listening to make sure whoever was on watch was still awake and watching.
The last door on the right was the guest bathroom. I walked in and flicked on the lights.
I didn’t know why Shamus had decided to buy a house. When we’d asked, he had used an unconvincing innocent-eyes look on his mother and told her he hadn’t bought it—he’d won it in a poker game.
Most likely he’d stolen it.
Whoever had built the thing was either a genius or a madman. It really was bolted into the cliff, the roofline beneath the road above that snaked the hill in hairpin curves, the hill around it covered in sword fern and vine maple among the fir trees. If you weren’t trying real hard to look for it, you wouldn’t see the house at all. Not because of magic. No, nothing other than a perverse sense of architectural humor kept it hidden.
But for all that, it was decorated in a clean, modern style with just enough nice touches to show that whoever had lived here liked luxury and knew which luxuries mattered the most.
And one of those luxuries was the shower. Thing took up half of the huge bathroom, and had more sprays, mists, and other watery onslaughts than a November storm front. Dark marble and chrome hinted toward a man’s aesthetic, but didn’t make the room feel cold or uninviting.
I shucked out of every stitch I had on, hoped Dad would do me the favor of not paying attention to me for the next twenty minutes or so, and turned on the shower.
The entire ceiling above the shower sprayed water like someone had nailed a rain cloud to the rafters. I stepped into that steady stream and closed my eyes, letting the water sluice away my aches.
But when I closed my eyes, all I saw were images of the Veiled—the ghosts of dead magic users—far too strong now, and growing stronger. The Veiled had always wandered the city; not that most people believed in them.
It didn’t used to be a problem to share the city with dead magic users. But something had gone wrong with the Veiled and with magic itself. Somehow, magic had been poisoned, and the Veiled had been changed in some way. The Veiled were carriers of the poison now, biting, possessing, and killing people.
Sure, I got sick when I tried to use magic, but other people could use it just fine. However if a Veiled touched or bit them, they came down with a sickness. The Veiled were roaming this city, hurting people like my friend Davy Silvers, or, worse, killing people like Anthony Bell.
The news outlets reported it as a fast-spreading virus. Nothing magical. But we knew differently. And the one person who had been in a position to stop the sickness and death was the most current head of the Authority, Bartholomew Wray.
He hadn’t wanted to stop it. He had wanted the disaster to reach massive proportions. Because he had a grudge against my father and wanted Dad’s technology that made magic accessible for the common magic user deemed not only unsafe but deadly. Once the technology was destroyed and outlawed, magic would once again be under the singular control of the Authority. His control.
Bartholomew Wray had planned to destroy more than just my dad’s technology. He wanted to ruin his business, his wife, and me.
And he didn’t care how many deaths it took for him to get his way. All of Portland could fall, and he wouldn’t care.
So I’d shot him. Killed him. In cold blood.
My thoughts skittered away from that—away from his death—and the back of my throat tasted sour. I’d stared him straight in the eyes and pulled the trigger.
I wasn’t a killer.
No, that was a lie now.
I’d changed. I had killed. More than once. I didn’t know what I was anymore.
Alive, Dad whispered from the back of my mind. Then, Strong.
Nothing like a dead man talking in my head while I was showering to remind me that I had plenty of current problems that needed taking care of. One thing was for sure, I didn’t want to talk morality with my father. I didn’t agree with Bartholomew, but Dad’s opinions of right and wrong weren’t mine. I didn’t like what I’d done. I wasn’t sure I ever could.
I got busy with the shampoo and soap and used a scrubby cloth over every inch of my skin.
Dad gave me the decency of privacy, or at least the sense of it, since he didn’t say anything more, and pulled far enough away in my mind that I couldn’t feel him.
Problems. I had them. It was time to make a list:
One, I didn’t know what was going to happen to the Authority now that Bartholomew was dead. Two, we had to find a way to cleanse magic of the poison or whatever it was, stop the Veiled from biting and spreading the poison, and find a cure to end the epidemic. Maybe that was really two through four. So, five, I needed to find a way to cure Davy before he got any worse. And six, we were running out of options and allies to do anything.
In short, we were screwed.
I reached over to turn off the shower. Before my hands touched the handles, a flash of light filled the room, bringing with it the stink of hot copper and concrete. I squinted against the glare and pressed my back against the wall, tracing Block before I remembered I couldn’t use magic without barfing.
My left palm stabbed with cold and pain.
I shook the spell free, breaking it and waving off the cold and pain, then pushed away from the wall and opened the shower door.
The flash of light was now a concentrated bolt of magic frozen midstrike at a ragged angle from ceiling to the floor. The air tasted of salt and concrete and hot copper.
In the three seconds it took for that to register, I knew what the spell was.
Something, or someone, was about to join me in the bathroom.
And here I was all naked. Again.
The lightning bolt burned black, then split in half, opening a space, or doorway, wide enough I could see the arc of a distant blue sky where the ceiling lamps should be.
A man stepped through the Gate.
Tall, rugged, world-worn Roman Grimshaw, the ex-con, ex–Guardian of the gates, strode into the room. With a flick of his hand, the Gate slammed shut behind him, leaving gray ashes of the already dying spell to drift down and cling to his long leather jacket. I blinked and the bolt of lightning was a faded afterimage in the steamy room.
For a moment, there was no sound other than our breathing and water raining against tiles.
Roman held very still, his hands away from his body, not using magic. His frown slowly shifted to surprise as he focused on the slightly damp, exceedingly naked me standing in front of him with my hands on my hips.
“You going to hand me a towel or what?” I asked.
That seemed to snap him out of his shock. He quickly turned and picked up the towel folded on the edge of the sink.
The bathroom door burst open.
Hey, just what I needed. More people in the bathroom with me and my birthday suit.
Roman spun to face Zayvion, who had a fistful of Impact spell that snapped like a ball of red fire. His blood dagger in the other hand was already halfway through a Cleave spell.
“Peace,” Roman said, with the slightest hint of his Scottish accent. He threw his hands out to the side, dropping my towel on the floor.
Neat. Who knew when that floor had last been swept?
Zay stopped drawing the Cleave and flicked a gaze at me. I gave him what I hoped to be a bored look and he went back to glaring at the ex–Guardian of the gates. He did not, I noted, drop the Impact spell.
While they were sizing up each other and the situation, all the warm copper-tasting steam was cooling on my bare skin. I shivered and turned off the water.
Then I bent and got my own damn towel, shaking it once before wrapping it tightly around me.
No one said anything. No one moved.
Until Shame strode up to the door, a mug of coffee in his hand. “For Christsake, Grimshaw, use the frickin’ front door. Is it some kind of requirement that all Guardians of the gates have to do that creepy stalker thing?”
“What are you doing here?” Zayvion asked.
“I have been hunting Leander and Isabelle,” Roman said.
“And?” Zay asked.
“They are no longer in Portland.”
That was a problem. Leander and Isabelle were Soul Complements who had lived hundreds of years ago and found a way to cheat death. They were here among the living, and though they didn’t have physical bodies, they were capable of possessing people, and drawing on incredible amounts of magic together. Soul Complements can make magic break its own rules. If they figured out how to use the tainted magic to their advantage, it might not be just an epidemic we were fighting. It might be an apocalypse.
“Super interesting,” I interrupted. “Really, just. But I’d rather hear it clothed. Take it outside, gentlemen.”
“You’re naked?” Shame said, trying to get a better look around Zayvion and Roman.
Zayvion canceled the Impact spell, and motioned Grimshaw out into the hall with his blood blade.
“She’s naked?” Shame asked again as Zayvion shoved his shoulder to make him turn around. “Aw, give a man a break. What’s a little accidental nakedness between friends?”
“Not happening.” Zay gave Shame a harder shove and closed the door so that only he could see into the room. “Are you all right?” he asked me.
“Peachy. I don’t think Roman expected to show up in a bathroom. It’s hard to predict where Gates will open, right?”
Zay paused. “For normal people. Roman can open a Gate on the head of a pin. I’ll talk to him.” He gave me a not-entirely-tolerant look and then shut the door behind him.
Fantastic. So Roman had intended to show up in the bathroom, alone, with me. Or maybe he just wanted to show up in the bathroom. I wondered how he even knew there would be a room here. He’d been in jail for years before Shame had wheedled his way into home ownership.
More questions that needed answers. And how Roman knew we’d be here, now, was just the beginning.
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