Darkfever, p.9
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       Darkfever, p.9

         Part #1 of Fever series by Karen Marie Moning
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  Royal Hunters: a mid-level caste of Unseelie. Militantly sentient, they resemble the classic depiction of the devil, with cloven hooves, horns, long, satyr-like faces, leathery wings, fiery orange eyes, and tails. Seven to ten feet tall, they are capable of extraordinary speed on both hoof and wing. Their primary function: sidhe-seer exterminators. Threat assessment: kills.

  Which led us to the real kicker:

  Sidhe-seer: a person Fae magic doesn’t work on, capable of seeing past the illusions or “glamour” cast by the Fae to the true nature that lies beneath. Some can also see Tabh’rs, hidden portals between realms. Others can sense Seelie and Unseelie objects of power. Each sidhe-seer is different, with varying degrees of resistance to the Fae. Some are limited, some are advanced with multiple “special powers. ”

  I snorted. Special powers. Somebody’d been watching too much WB and it wasn’t me. The kicker was, I was supposedly one of these things. According to Barrons, this “True Vision” ran in bloodlines. He believed Alina must have had it, too, and that she’d been killed by one of the Fae she’d seen.

  I closed my journal. It was already two-thirds full. Soon I would need a new one. The first half contained an outpouring of grief interspersed with disjointed memories of Alina. The next thirty or so pages were crammed with lists and ideas for tracking down her murderer.

  And now the latest—I was filling page after page with absolute nonsense. Mom and Dad would lock me up and have me medicated if they ever got their hands on it. We don’t know what happened, Doctor, I could hear Dad say, handing over my diary. She went to Dublin and she just went crazy. I suddenly understood why Alina had always hidden hers.

  I blinked and replayed that in my mind—Alina had always hidden hers.

  Of course, how could I have forgotten?

  Alina had kept a journal all her life. Since we’d been kids, she’d never missed a day of writing in it. I used to watch her down the hall at night, before we closed our bedroom doors to sleep, sprawled on her bed, writing away. Someday I’ll let you read it, Junior, she’d tell me. She’d started calling me little Mac (as opposed to Big Mac) when we were young, abbreviating it to Junior as I got older. Like when we’re both in our eighties, and it’s too late for you to learn any bad habits from me. She’d laugh and I’d laugh, too, because Alina didn’t have any bad habits, and we both knew it. Her journal had been her confidante, her best friend. She’d told it things she’d never told me. I knew, because I’d found more than a few. As I’d matured, I stopped hunting for her diaries, but she hadn’t stopped hiding them. Though she’d packed the ones she’d written in her younger years away in a locked trunk in the attic, she’d never stopped teasing me about how I would never find her latest greatest hiding place.

  “Oh yes, I will,” I vowed. I’d find it even if it meant I had to dismantle her entire apartment, piece by piece. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it before—that somewhere right here in Dublin was a record of every single thing that had happened to my sister since she’d arrived, including all there was to know about the mystery man she’d been seeing—but I’d been blinded by my focus on the Gardai and packing and the strange things I’d been seeing.

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  I was struck by a sudden fear . . . was that why her apartment had been ransacked? Because the man she’d been involved with had known she’d kept a journal and searched for it, too? If so, was I too late?

  It had taken me too long to think of it as it was. I wasn’t about to waste another second. I tossed down some bills, grabbed my journal and purse, and dashed for the door.

  It was standing there—just standing there in the darkness; how the heck was I supposed to have known?—when I hurtled around the corner.

  I was sprinting in my haste to get to Alina’s place so I could find her journal and prove to myself that it was a perfectly normal man—albeit a homicidal maniac—who’d killed her, not some mythical monster. If I had rounded the corner and crashed into a person, it would have startled me. As it was, I slammed into something that made the Gray Man look like someone I might have considered taking to Senior Prom. My double vision lasted less than a heartbeat, from the instant I saw it to the moment I hit it.

  I tried to dodge but didn’t react fast enough. I crashed into it with my shoulder, bounced off it, and slammed into the side of a building. Dazed, I stumbled to my hands and knees on the sidewalk. I crouched there, staring up in horror. The glamour the thing cast was so faint it required no effort on my part at all to penetrate it. I couldn’t see how it would fool anyone.

  Like the Gray Man, it had most of the right parts. Unlike the Gray Man, it had a few extra ones, too. Parts of it were underdone, and parts of it were horrifyingly overdone. Its head was huge, hairless, and covered with dozens of eyes. It had more mouths than I could count—at least that’s what I think the wet, pink leechlike suckers all over the misshapen head and stomach were—I could see the flash of sharp teeth as the moist puckers expanded and contracted in the gray, wrinkled flesh with what sure looked to me like hunger. Four ropy arms hung from its barrel-like body, two puny ones drooped limply at its sides. It stood on legs like tree trunks and its male sex organ was distended and grotesquely oversized. I mean, as big around as a baseball bat and hanging past its knees.

  To my dismay, I realized it was leering at me—with every one of those eyes and all of those mouths. To my horror, it reached down and began stroking itself hard.

  I couldn’t move. It’s something I’m still ashamed of. You always wonder how you’ll handle a moment of crisis; if you’ve got what it takes to fight or if you’ve just been deluding yourself all along that somewhere deep inside you there’s steel beneath the magnolia. Now I knew the truth. There wasn’t. I was all petals and pollen. Good for attracting the procreators who could ensure the survival of our species, but not a survivor myself. I was Barbie after all.

  I barely managed to choke out a squeak when it reached for me.

  TEN

  This is becoming a habit, Ms. Lane,” Barrons said dryly, glancing briefly up from the book he was examining when I burst into the store.

  I slammed the door behind me and began locking it.

  He raised his head again at the sound of dead bolts ratcheting home and dropped the book on a table. “What’s wrong?”

  “I think I’m going to be sick. ” I needed to wash. With scalding water and bleach. Maybe a hundred showers would be enough.

  “No, you won’t. Concentrate. The urge will pass. ”

  I wondered if he was really so sure about that, or if he was just trying to condition me with constant denials, to keep me from puking on his precious sofa or one of his priceless rugs.

  “What happened? You’re white as a sheet. ”

  I glanced at Fiona behind the cashier’s counter.

  “You may speak freely in front of her,” he said.

  I moved to the counter and sank back against it for support. My legs were shaking, my knees weak. “I saw another one,” I told him.

  He’d turned with me as I’d moved. Now he stopped with his back to the end of a heavy, ornate bookcase. “So? I told you you would. Was it so hideous? Is that what this is about? It frightened you?”

  I took a deep breath, fighting tears. “It knows I saw it. ”

  Barrons’ mouth fell open. He gaped at me a long moment. Then he turned and punched the end of the bookcase so hard books went crashing to the floor, shelf after shelf. When he whirled back around, his face was drawn with fury. “Bloody hell!” he exploded. “Un-fucking-believable! You, Ms. Lane, are a menace to others! A walking, talking catastrophe in pink!” If gazes could scorch, his would have incinerated me where I stood. “Didn’t you hear a thing I told you last night? Weren’t you even listening?”

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  “I heard every word you said,” I said stiffly. “And for the record, I don’t always wear pink. I often wea
r peach or lavender. You braced me for another Gray Man or Hunter or Shade. You didn’t brace me for this. ”

  “How much worse could it have been?” he said disbelievingly.

  “Much,” I told him. “You have no idea. ”

  “Describe it. ”

  I did, as succinctly as possible, stumbling a little over its proportions. I got nauseated all over again merely recounting its grotesque appearance. When I finished I said, “What was it?” How does it kill? was what I really wanted to know. I didn’t care about their names. I didn’t want to see them at all. But I was developing a burgeoning obsession with the various ways I might die. Especially given what the thing’s intentions had seemed. I’d rather the Gray Man got me, or a Shade. I mean, really, just hand me over to the Royal Hunters, please. Let them skin and stake me as Barrons had said they’d once done.

  “No idea. Was it alone or with others?”

  “It was alone. ”

  “Are you absolutely certain it knew you could see it? Could you be mistaken?”

  “Oh no. No doubt there. It touched me. ” I shuddered, remembering.

  He laughed, a hollow, humorless sound. “Funny, Ms. Lane. Now tell me what really happened. ”

  “I just did. It touched me. ”

  “Impossible,” he said. “If it had, you wouldn’t be here. ”

  “I’m telling you the truth, Barrons. What possible reason could I have to lie? The thing grabbed me. ” And I wanted desperately to scrub, especially my hands, because I’d grabbed it right back, trying to fight it off. Its skin had been reptilian, slimy, and I’d gotten much too close a look at those many convulsively sucking, revolting mouths.

  “And then what? Said, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry, Ms. Lane, I didn’t mean to wrinkle your lovely blouse. May I press that for you?’ Or perhaps you gouged it with one of your pretty pink nails?”

  I was really beginning to wonder what his hang-up with pink was, but I didn’t resent the sarcasm in his voice. I couldn’t make sense of what had happened next, either, and I’d been mulling it over for nearly half an hour. It certainly hadn’t been what I’d expected. “Frankly,” I said, “it seemed strange to me, too. It grabbed me and then it just stood there looking . . . well . . . if it had been human I would have said confused. ”

  “Confused?” he repeated. “An Unseelie stood there looking confused? As in, perplexed, confounded, baffled, consternated?”

  I nodded.

  Behind me, Fiona said. “Jericho, that doesn’t make any sense. ”

  “I know, Fio. ” Barrons’ tone changed when he addressed her, softened noticeably. It was sharp as a knife when he resumed his interrogation of me. “So, it looked confused. Then what, Ms. Lane?”

  I shrugged. While the thing had stood there looking stymied, finally, finally a little steel had kicked in. “I punched it in the gut and ran. It chased me, but not right away. I think it stood there a minute. Long enough that I was able to flag down a taxi and get away. I made the cabbie drive me around for a while, to make sure I’d lost it. ” Also to try to muddle through what had just happened. I’d been grabbed by Death but granted a reprieve, and I had no idea why. I’d been able to think of only one person who might. “Then I came to you. ”

  “At least you did one thing right and muddied your path here,” he muttered. He stepped closer, peering down at me as if I were some strange new species he’d never seen before. “What the bloody hell are you, Ms. Lane?”

  “I don’t know what you mean. ” You don’t even know what you are, Alina had said in her message. If you can’t keep your head down and honor your bloodline . . . go die somewhere else. . . . the old woman in the bar had hissed. And now Barrons was demanding to know what I was. “I tend bar. I like music. My sister was murdered recently. I seem to have gone insane since then,” I added this last almost conversationally.

  He glanced beyond me, at Fiona. “See if you can uncover any record, however obscure, of this kind of thing happening. ”

  “You don’t need me to do that, Jericho,” she said. “You know there is. ”

  He shook his head. “She couldn’t possibly be a Null, Fio. They’re mythical. ”

  Fiona’s laugh was airy, musical. “So you say. As are many things. Aren’t they, Jericho?”

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  “What’s a Null?” I said.

  Barrons ignored my question. “Describe this Unseelie for Fiona again, Ms. Lane, in as much detail as you can. She may be able to identify it. ” To Fiona, he said, “After the two of you have finished here, show Ms. Lane to a room. Tomorrow, purchase shears and buy an assortment of hair colors for her to choose from. ”

  “A room?” Fiona exclaimed.

  “Shears? Hair colors?” I exclaimed. My hands flew to my hair. I’d address the room part in a minute. I had my priorities.

  “Can’t bear to shed your pretty feathers, Ms. Lane? What did you expect? It knows you saw it. It won’t stop looking for you until you’re dead—or it is. And believe me, they don’t die easily, if at all. The only question is whether it will alert the Hunters, or come for you by itself. If you’re lucky, it’s one of a kind like the Gray Man. The lower castes prefer to hunt alone. ”

  “You mean, maybe it won’t tell any of the other Unseelie?” I felt a small surge of hope. One Unseelie might just be survivable, but the thought of being hunted by a multitude of monsters was enough to make me give up without even trying. I could too easily envision a horde of hideous creatures chasing me through the Dublin night. I’d keel over and die of a heart attack before they ever caught me.

  “They have as many factions among themselves as humans do,” he said. “The Fae, particularly the Unseelie, trust each other about as much as you might trust sharing a cage with a hungry lion. ”

  Or a Jericho Barrons, I was thinking a quarter hour later, when Fiona showed me to a room. That’s exactly what it felt like—preparing to spend the night at Barrons Books and Baubles—like I was taking up residence in the lion’s den. Out of the frying pan, into the fire. That was me. But I’d thought twice about pitching a fit, because if my choices were staying at the inn by myself or staying here, I’d rather stay here, if only to minimize my odds of dying alone and unnoticed for several days like my sister had.

  The bookstore extended farther back from the street than I’d realized. The rear half wasn’t part of the store at all, but living quarters. Fiona briskly unlocked one door, led me down a short corridor, then unlocked a second door and we entered Barrons’ private residence. I got a fleeting impression of understated wealth as she whisked me through an anteroom, down a hallway, and directly to a stairwell.

  “Do you see them too?” I asked, as we climbed flight after flight, to the top floor.

  “All myths contain a grain of truth, Ms. Lane. I’ve handled books and artifacts that will never find their way into a museum or library, things no archaeologist or historian could ever make sense of. There are many realities pocketed away in the one we call our own. Most go blindly about their lives and never see beyond the ends of their noses. Some of us do. ”

  Which told me nothing about her, really, but she hadn’t exactly been giving off warm and friendly vibes in my direction, so I didn’t press. After Barrons left, I’d described the thing again. She’d taken notes with brusque efficiency, rarely looking at me directly. She’d gotten the same tight-lipped look my mom got when she vigorously disapproved of something. I was pretty sure the something was me, but couldn’t imagine why.

  We stopped at a door at the end of the hall. “Here. ” Fiona thrust a key into my hand, then turned back for the stairwell. “Oh, and Ms. Lane,” she said over her shoulder, “I’d lock myself in if I were you. ”

  It was advice I hadn’t needed. I wedged a chair beneath the door handle, too. I would have barricaded it with the dresser as well, but it was too heavy for me to move.

  The rear bedroom windows looked down four stories
onto an alley behind the bookstore. The alley vanished into darkness on the left and semidarkness on the right, after bisecting narrow cobbled walkways that ran along each side of the building. Across the alley was a one-story structure that looked like a warehouse or a huge garage with glass-block windows that were painted black, making it impossible to discern anything within. Floodlights washed the area directly between the buildings white, illuminating a walkway from door to door. Dublin sprawled beneath me, a sea of roofs, melting into the night sky. To my left, so few lights pierced the darkness that it appeared that section of the city was dead. I was relieved to see there was no fire escape on the rear of the building. I didn’t think any of the Unseelie I’d seen could scale the sheer brick face. I refused to dwell on the winged Hunters.

  I double-checked all the locks and closed the drapes.

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  Then I dug my brush from my purse, sat down on the bed, and began brushing my hair. I worked on it for a long time, until it shimmered like blond silk.

  I was going to miss it.

  Don’t leave the bookstore until I return, read the note that had been shoved beneath my door sometime during the night.

  I crumpled it, irritated. What was I supposed to eat? It was ten o’clock. I’d slept late and was starving. I’m one of those people that needs to eat as soon as I wake up.

  I removed the chair from beneath the knob and unlocked the door. Though my proper southern upbringing made me balk at the idea of intruding into another person’s house without an invitation to make myself at home, I didn’t see that I had any choice but to go hunting for his kitchen. I would get a sick headache if I went too long without food. Mom says it’s because my metabolism is so high.

  When I opened the door, I discovered someone had been busy while I’d slept. A bakery bag, a bottled latte, and my luggage were outside the door. Down South, store-bought food outside your bedroom door isn’t a treat—it’s an insult. Despite the presence of my personal belongings, Barrons couldn’t have told me any more plainly not to make myself at home. Stay out of my kitchen, the bag said, and don’t go looking around. Down South it meant, Leave before lunch, preferably now.

  I ate two croissants, drank the coffee, got dressed, and retraced my steps of last night directly back to the bookstore. I didn’t look either way as I went. Any curiosity I might have felt about Barrons was second to my pride. He didn’t want me there—fine—I didn’t want to be there. In fact, I wasn’t sure why I was there. I mean, I knew why I’d stayed, but I had no idea why he’d let me. I wasn’t stupid enough to think Jericho Barrons had an ounce of chivalry in him; damsels in distress were clearly not his cup of tea.

 
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