Darkfever, p.20
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       Darkfever, p.20

         Part #1 of Fever series by Karen Marie Moning
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Page 74


  Such worries weren’t just on my waking mind; they were invading my dreams. Last night I’d had a nightmare in which I’d been floating over a Dublin that was pitch-black except for a single, blazing four-story stronghold in the middle of it. In the surreal manner of dreams, I’d been both above the city and down inside the store, looking out the front door. So much of Dublin had fallen to darkness that I’d known, even if I’d begun walking the instant the morning sun crested the horizon, I wouldn’t be able to make it to another lighted sanctuary before nightfall, and that I was stuck at Barrons Books and Baubles for the rest of my life.

  I’d woken up thinking about things like prophetic dreams and apocalypses instead of entertaining my usual blissful early-morning thoughts of what I was going to eat that day and what pretty outfits I might wear.

  Oh yes, I knew this was about worse things than death. Like being expected to go on living after your sister was killed. Like watching everything you believed about yourself and the world in general get unveiled as one great, big, fat lie. But the big picture going on out there wasn’t my problem. I’d come to Dublin to find Alina’s killer, get whatever justice I could, then go home, and that’s what I still planned to do. O’Bannion was no longer a threat, and maybe out of sight was out of mind for Mallucé. Maybe Barrons could save the city from the Fae. Maybe the Queen—if anything V’lane had said was true—would find the Dark Book without my help just fine, send the Unseelie back to prison, and our world would go back to normal. Maybe after I left, all the evil things hunting the Sinsar Dubh would fight themselves to death over it. There were a great many possibilities and none of them had to involve me. I was sick of this place. I wanted out before one more strand of reality unraveled around my ears.

  “Then what’s with the attitude,” Barrons demanded, “and why didn’t you finish at the museum?”

  “I had a bad day today, okay?” I said coolly, though inside I felt like a volcano about to blow at any moment. “Isn’t everybody entitled to one, now and then?”

  He searched my face for a long moment, then shrugged. “Fine. Finish up tomorrow. ”

  I rolled my eyes. “So what are we doing tonight?”

  He gave me a faint smile. “Tonight, Ms. Lane, you learn how to kill. ”

  I know what you’re wondering; I’d be wondering it, too: Did I call my mom?

  I’m neither that stupid nor that insensitive. She was still reeling from the shock of Alina’s death and I wasn’t about to upset her more.

  Still, I had to prove the old biddy wrong, so after I left the museum and stopped at a hardware store for a cache of flashlights, I’d made a beeline back to Barrons Books and Baubles so I could call the hospital where I’d been born and lay the old woman’s ridiculous claim to rest.

  One great thing about small towns is that the people are so much more helpful than they are in big cities. I think it’s because they know the person on the other end of the line is somebody they might run into at their kid’s softball practice on Tuesday, or at Wednesday night bowling league, or one of the town’s many church picnics and festivals.

  After being transferred a half a dozen times and put on hold a few more, I finally got through to the woman in charge of the Records Department, Eugenia Patsy Bell, and she was just as nice as could be. We chatted for a few moments during which I learned I’d gone to high school with her niece, Chandra Bell.

  I told her what I was looking for, and she told me yes, they kept both paper and electronic files on every birth in the hospital. I asked if she could find mine and read it to me over the phone. She said she was terribly sorry, she wasn’t allowed to do that, but if I could confirm some personal information, she could pull it up right now on her computer, print it off, and get it out to me in the afternoon mail.

  I gave her Barrons’ address and was just about to hang up, when she asked me to hold on a moment. I sat on the other end of the line, listening to her tap away at her keyboard. She asked me to reconfirm my information twice, and I did so, each time with a growing sense of dread. Then she asked if she could put me on hold one more time while she went and checked the physical files. It was a long hold, and I was glad I’d made the call on the bookstore’s phone.

  Then Eugenia came back and said—wasn’t it just the darnedest thing?—she couldn’t explain it, because she knew for certain their records were complete. Their database went all the way back to the early nineteen hundreds and was painstakingly maintained by none other than herself.

  Page 75


  And she was so sorry that she couldn’t help me, but there was absolutely no record, electronic or otherwise, of a MacKayla Lane born at Christ Hospital twenty-two years ago. And no, she said when I pressed, nothing twenty-four years ago for Alina Lane, either. In fact, there was no record at all of any Lane born at Christ Hospital during the past fifty years.

  We couldn’t find a single Unseelie.

  We walked down street after street, went into pub after pub, but found nothing.

  There I was, armed with a Fae-killing spear and a seriously bad attitude, only to be denied the chance to blow off some steam by taking out one of the monsters responsible for turning my life into the mess it was.

  Not that I was entirely certain I could have taken one of them out. Oh, I was pretty sure my head was in the right place. I just didn’t know if my body would perform the way it was supposed to. I was pretty sure I was feeling the same thing a guy must feel before he proves himself in his first fistfight: wondering if he has what it takes to knock out his opponent, or if he’ll humiliate himself by swinging like a girl, or worse, miss completely.

  “That’s why I brought you out tonight,” Barrons said, when I told him my concerns. “I’d rather you screw up while I’m with you, so I can manage the situation, than have you attempt your first kill on your own and get yourself killed instead. ”

  I had no idea how prophetic his words would prove. “Just a hard night’s work, out protecting your investment, huh?” I said dryly as we exited yet another pub filled with only people, no monsters. Sarcasm aside, I was glad he was along to save me if I needed saving. I might not trust Barrons, but I’d developed a healthy respect for his ability to “manage” situations. “So, how am I supposed to do it?” I asked. “Is there some trick to this?”

  “Just freeze it and stab it, Ms. Lane. But do it fast. If it sifts you somewhere else, I won’t be able to save you. ”

  “Is there any particular place I’m supposed to stab it? Assuming, of course, whatever we stumble across has the equivalent of human body parts. ” Were they like vampires? Was a direct hit to the heart necessary? For that matter, did they even have hearts?

  “The gut’s always good. ”

  I glanced down at my lavender shirt and short, purple, floral-patterned skirt. The outfit went fabulously with my new darker ’do. “Do they bleed?”

  “Some of them. In a manner of speaking, Ms. Lane. ” He gave me a quick, dark flash of a smile that wasn’t nice at all, and I knew right then and there that whatever came out of some of the Unseelie was going to seriously gross me out. “You might try wearing black next time. Then again, we could always just hose you off back at the garage. ”

  I scowled as we stepped into our fourteenth pub of the night. “Don’t any of them just poof?” Wasn’t that what monsters were supposed to do when you killed them? Disintegrate instantly into dust that promptly scattered on an opportune wind?

  “Poof, Ms. Lane?”

  The bar we’d just entered featured a live band tonight, and was jam-packed with people. I pushed into the crowd, following Barrons’ broad back. “You know, vanish. Remove all need to waste time cleaning up, or explain away inexplicable corpses littering the world,” I clarified.

  He glanced back at me, one dark brow raised. “Where do you get your ideas?”

  I shrugged. “Books and movies. You stake a vampire, it goes poof and
disappears. ”

  “Really?” He snorted. “Life is rarely so convenient. The real world is considerably messier. ” As he moved toward the bar in the center of the pub, he tossed over his shoulder, “And don’t trust a stake to work on a vampire, Ms. Lane. You’ll be sorely disappointed. Not to mention dead. ”

  “Well, then, how does a person kill a vampire?” I asked his back.

  “Good question. ”

  Typical Barrons answer—no answer at all. One of these days I was going to corner him with questions and not let him off the hook, one of these days when I didn’t have so many other things on my mind. I shook my head and turned my attention to the people around me, searching faces, looking for the one that would waver and run like melting candle wax, and betray the monster within.

  This time, I wasn’t disappointed. Barrons saw it at the same time I did. “Over by the hearth,” he said quietly.

  My eyes narrowed and my hands curled into fists. Oh yes, I’d like to kill this one. It would put an end to some of my nightmares. “I see it,” I said. “What do I do?”

  Page 76


  “Wait until it leaves. We don’t fight our battles in public. Dead, its glamour fails. The whole bar would see its true form. ”

  “Well, maybe the whole bar should see its true form,” I said. “Maybe they should know what’s going on and what’s out there. ”

  Barrons gave me a look. “Why? So they can fear things they can’t do anything to defend themselves against? So they can have nightmares about monsters they can’t see coming? Humans are of no use in this battle. ”

  I pressed a hand to my mouth and concentrated on keeping my supper of microwave popcorn down. It felt like it was popping again in my stomach and the bag was about to blow. “I can’t stand here and watch this,” I said. I didn’t know if my sudden nausea was in reaction to the Unseelie, or to the sight of its victim.

  “It’s almost over, Ms. Lane. He’s nearly done. In case you couldn’t tell. ”

  Oh, I could tell. The moment I’d spotted the Gray Man and his companion I’d known he was nearly done. The woman the gaunt, nine-foot-tall monster was feeding off had good bones. Model-worthy bones: the kind that make all the difference between a pretty face and an agency-quality one. Me, I have a pretty face. This woman had once been exquisitely beautiful.

  Now those great bones were all that was left of her, beneath a veneer of thin, pallid, sagging flesh. And still the ravaged woman was staring up at the leprous Unseelie with worship in her eyes. Even from here I could see the bloodshot jaundice of her whites, from dozens of tiny exploded capillaries. I had no doubt that her teeth had once been pearly, but they were now gray and had a brittle, crumbling appearance. A small, vicious-looking, pus-filled sore had blossomed in the corner of her mouth, and there was another budding on her forehead. As she tossed her head, smiling flirtatiously up at her destruction—in her eyes, a gorgeous blond man—two clumps of her hair fell out, one onto the floor, the other onto the shoe of a man standing behind her. The man glanced down, saw the tuft of scalp and hair on his shoe, and kicked it off his foot with a shudder. He took one look at the Gray Man’s victim, grabbed his date’s hand, and dragged her off through the crowd like he was fleeing the black plague.

  I looked away. I couldn’t watch. “I thought it just made them ugly. I thought it didn’t feed on them until they died. ”

  “It usually doesn’t. ”

  “It’s killing her, Barrons! We have to stop it!” Even I heard the edge of hysteria in my voice.

  He spun me by my shoulders and shook me. His touch crackled through me like heat lightning. “Get a grip, Ms. Lane! It’s too late. We can’t do anything for her now. That woman has no hope of recovering from what it has done to her. She’s going to die. It’s only a question of when. Tonight by the Gray Man, tomorrow by her own hand, or in a few weeks from a severe wasting disease doctors won’t be able to identify or arrest by any means known to man. ”

  I stared up at him. “Are you kidding me? You mean, even if the victim tries to go on with her life to whatever degree she can, she dies in time anyway?”

  “If the Gray Man takes it this far, yes. It usually doesn’t. It usually leaves its victims alive because it likes to revisit them, to savor their pain for a long time. Occasionally, however, it finds one so beautiful it doesn’t seem able to bear that she exists, so it kills her on the spot. At least she’ll never have to look at herself in a mirror, Ms. Lane. At least her sojourn in hell will be brief. ”

  “That’s supposed to be a comfort?” I cried. “That it will be brief?”

  “You underestimate the pricelessness of brevity, Ms. Lane. ” His eyes were ice, his smile colder. “What are you, all of twenty-one, twenty-two?”

  There was a tinkle of breaking glass, a dull thud like that of a body hitting the floor, and a collective gasp behind me. Barrons looked over my shoulder. His arctic smile faded.

  “Oh God, is she dead?” a woman cried.

  “It looks like her face is rotting!” a man exclaimed, aghast.

  “Now, Ms. Lane,” Barrons ordered. “It’s on the move. Headed for the door. Go after it. I’ve got your back. ”

  I tried to glance over my shoulder. I don’t know if I wanted to make sure the woman was really no longer suffering, or if there’s just some innate human instinct to look at dead people—it would certainly explain our funeral practices, not to mention all those rubberneckers clogging up the roads around Atlanta at the scenes of traffic accidents. But Barrons caught my chin in his hand and forced me to look straight into his eyes. “Don’t,” he barked. “The dead ones stick in your memory. Just go kill the fuck that did it. ”

  Page 77


  Sounded like good advice to me. We left the pub.

  I followed the Gray Man and Barrons followed me, a dozen paces behind. The last time I’d seen this Unseelie, I’d had long blonde hair. I doubted it would recognize me with my new look. It didn’t know I was a sidhe-seer or a Null, or that I had the spear, so I figured my odds of killing were high, if I could get close enough.

  Getting close enough, however, was going to be the problem. Inhumanly tall, it was also inhumanly fast. I was already sprinting to keep pace with it. In order to catch it, I was going to have to break into a run. It’s a little hard to sneak up on an enemy at a full gallop, especially in heels.

  “It’s getting away, Ms. Lane,” Barrons growled behind me.

  “Do you think I don’t know that?” I snapped. It was nearly halfway down the block and seemed to have suddenly amped up its glamour-repellent; pedestrians were scattering in its wake, detouring wide, out into the street. Abruptly, I had a clear view of it down the sidewalk, which was not good. I could hardly shadow something without any camouflage between us. I was going to have to make a dash for it.

  It stopped, turned around, and looked straight at me.

  I froze. I had no idea how it knew, but it knew I knew, and I knew it, and there was no point in faking.

  “Bloody hell!” I heard Barrons curse softly, followed by the scrape of steel on stone, the rustle of fabric, then silence behind me.

  We stared at each other, the Gray Man and I. Then it smiled with that awful mouth that used up half its tall, thin face. “I see you, sidhe-seer,” it said. Its laugh was the sound of cockroaches scuttling over dried leaves. “I saw you in the bar. How do you want to die?” It laughed again. “Slow or slower?”

  I wished I’d thought to ask Barrons earlier if my suspicion about the strange word the old woman had used today was correct. I was pretty sure from the context she’d used it in that I’d gotten the gist of it, but there was only one way to find out. I wet my lips, batted my eyes, and praying I was right, said breathlessly, “Whatever you wish, Master. I am Pri-ya. ”

  The Gray Man sucked in a long, hissing breath that showed shark teeth in its lipless mouth. Its mocking amusement faded and its black eyes
gleamed with sudden interest that married sexual excitement to homicidal sadism in a way that chilled me to the bone.

  I bit my tongue to keep from betraying my revulsion. I was right. Pri-ya meant something along the lines of Fae-addict or Fae-whore. I would ask Barrons for an exact definition when this was over. Right now, I had to get closer to it. The Gray Man might have somehow clued into me watching it, but it didn’t know I was a Null, or that I had a weapon capable of killing it.

  There was no mistaking that it wanted what it thought I was offering, wanted it enough to believe I was the real deal. This was its weakness, I realized, its Achilles’ heel. It could steal beauty, it could cast a glamour to make even the most beautiful human woman desire it, but it would never be desired in its true form and it knew it.

  Except . . . maybe . . . by one who was Pri-ya. A woman that was Fae-struck, Fae-blind, a whore for anything Seelie or Unseelie. Such sick devotion would be the closest thing to true attraction this monster could ever know.

  It rubbed its leprous hands together and leered. At least, unlike the Many-Mouthed-Thing, it only had one mouth to leer with. “On your knees, Pri-ya,” it said.

  I wondered what the deal was with Fae liking women on their knees. Did they all have worship fetishes? I pasted a smile on my lips like the one I’d seen on the blankly compliant face of the Goth-girl at Mallucé’s, and sank to the sidewalk, bare knees to cold stone. I could no longer hear Barrons or anyone else on the street behind me. I had no idea where everyone had gone. It looked like the Gray Man’s glamour-repellent was on a par with V’lane’s.

  My purse was unzipped, my hands ready. If it would just stay frozen half as long as the Many-Mouthed-Thing, I’d have more than enough time to kill it. Once it approached, it was dead.

  It could have worked that way, it should have worked that way, but I made a critical error. What can I say? It was my first time. My expectations weren’t in line with reality. It had walked down the street and I expected it to walk back.

  It didn’t.

  It sifted back.

  It had me, one yellow-taloned hand in my hair, before I even knew what was happening. Inhumanly strong, it jerked me up off the ground, its gray fist tight to my scalp.

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