Hell’s Kitchen Sink 3: Delectable Corpse

Arc 1: Discovery

Chapter 1: A Young Woman, In Dire Straits
Chapter 2: Worryingly Helpful Friends
Case Files 1: Vampires, Ghouls, and Ghosts
Chapter 3: Kind-hearted Killers
Chapter 4: Keeping the Wolf from the Door
Chapter 5: The Adversarial System
Case Files 2:Redcaps, The Half-Faced Man, and Dragons

Arc 2: Pre-Trial
Chapter 6: Hope Means A Lot
Chapter 7: Cruor, Ichor, and Gore
Chapter 8: An Unexpected Guest
Case Files 3: Wizards
Chapter 9: Did You Think It Would Be That Easy
Chapter 10: The World Is Going Mad
Case Files 4: Camazotz, Strix, and Heroes

Arc 3: Court
Chapter 11: Crooked Body and Twisted Hair
Chapter 12: What Goes Around Comes Around
Chapter 13: Out of the Woods
Chapter 14: I Am Not Dead Yet
Chapter 15: Up Shit Creek Without A Boat
Chapter 16: Hun-Came Appears
Chapter 17: Sunrise

Arc 4: Settlement
Chapter 18: This Too Shall Pass

 

 

Chapter 1: A Young Woman, in Dire Straits

A man has three sons. He explains to his sons that he wants them to prosper. So, he will make them a loan of one hundred thousand dollars for their education, on the condition that at his funeral, they pay him back. Many years later, at the funeral, his sons gather around him. His first son, an archaeologist, lays a pair of priceless golden coins on his eyes, each worth 50,000 dollars. His second son, a jewelry-maker, lays a diamond necklace around his neck, worth 100,000 dollars. His final son, a lawyer, places a check for 300,000 dollars on the man’s chest, and then grabs the gold coins and the necklace as change.

Clients lie. The difference between a good client and a bad client is very thin, but it all has to do with the kind of lies they tell you. Some of them lie because they’re frightened of admitting the truth. Some of them lie because they think it’ll make you argue their case more effectively. Sometimes, they lie because they simply don’t know better. The young woman sitting in front of me had come into the office at ten minutes past midnight, shaking and stammering so badly she could barely get two words strung together. It was when her arm caught on fire and she began to scream that I figured out why she was here.

The doorknob of my office is sterling silver. If a demon or someone possessed by a demon should touch it, it’ll tarnish black. The girl had opened it with no difficulties, and paused momentarily to admire it. It’s amazing what a little opulence will do to help someone recover their wits. She sat down in the comfortably padded chair in front of my desk- The one with the iron frame and arm-rests. There’s also an oak chair, which is unpadded and much less comfortable. That helps me figure out who the fairies are. The wallpaper is a rather nice cross motif, although I’ve found that hasn’t worked on anyone yet. Whether that’s because crosses don’t work, or because I’m a faithless heathen, I don’t know.

What she’d run afoul of was, in fact, the humidifier sitting on the corner of my desk.

Binghamton has a lot of churches, and a lot of surprisingly faithful priests. I’ve been meaning to sit down with some of the wizards over at Binghamton University, one of the undead, and spend an evening figuring out which priests have the most effective holy water, but work’s been steady enough that I haven’t had the time to get to it. Nonetheless, the humidifier contains a tank of holy water that I get blessed once a week, in exchange for a donation to the big Byzantine Catholic Church with the shiny golden domes. It was this potent mixture of faith and tapwater that had incited at first itching, and then spontaneous human combustion in the girl.

“I’m afraid I have some rather bad news for you,” I explained, switching the humidifier off, and draping the blanket over the girl. The pink spots where her skin had erupted into flames were already fading. That told me that she was very new to being undead. The older they are, the more powerful they are, and inexplicably, the greater their weaknesses are. An ancient mummy or a powerful ghost wouldn’t even be able to make it through the door without succumbing to pain that had been described to me as ‘agonizing’ by the one undead friend that I had. This probably also explained why she wouldn’t let me test holy water on her. “You’re undead.” She stared at me like I’m crazy, and I sighed. “You’d better start the story over again.”

“Ah. Well… Okay. Me and my boyfriend, we were partying, because it’s Friday night-” She was Asian, although I’d be hard-pressed to tell where from exactly. There was no trace of accent in her voice, so likely adopted, or born and raised in the States. I was looking closely at her mouth. Sharp teeth there. Very sharp. There was also the obvious puncture wounds on her throat, and her overall pallor. That was odd. Binghamton’s native population of dead is, by ratio to its population of humans, very large. But to my knowledge, there aren’t any vampires in Binghamton, for two very good reasons. One was because they sometimes changed innocent young people into more vampires, which was very difficult to hide.

“So we were at this bar, Salty’s Pub.” Binghamton also has a lot of bars. That one stood out to me. The usual college joint, where kids who are too young to be drinking arrive already drunk, and dance a lot. In my line of work, I ended up hearing the name a lot. Lowered inhibitions attract the supernatural. I tapped my chin, writing the name down on a piece of scratch paper, as she continued talking about the night she’d had. I listened with half my brain, trying to keep track of the information she was providing, sifting through it as I tried to make sense of the scenario. She’d blacked out. Then she’d woken up in a hotel room a little ways outside of town, with her boyfriend lying dead on the mattress, the window broken, and blood everywhere. At this point she burst into tears in front of me.

Sometimes, what a client needs is someone to be there for them, to pat their backs and tell them everything’s going to be okay. Sometimes, though, what they need is just someone who’s not going to get wound up in their emotions. I sat, fingers steepled, and watched silently as the girl sobbed and shook, her whole body wracked with the force of her tears. She was short, over a foot shorter than me, with short dark hair cute in a punk pixie cut. Her brown eyes were rimmed with red. She’d been crying a lot tonight. I waited until she had finished crying herself out, and was able to continue with the story. “And… And when I got out of the shower of the hotel room, there was a man there. He was strange. The lights were off, but he looked pale. Much too pale. Almost like he was blue.”

She must have noticed my eyes widening, and the sharp inhalation. I coughed, and spoke, slightly strangled. “Keep going.” She nodded.

“He was wearing a mask. Like one of those fancy masquerade masks. It didn’t have any eyeholes, though. He told me that I should come to see you. He gave me your card, and he said… He said you could help.” She began to sob, her hands pressed together against her face, hiding her tears. “I can’t go to jail, they’re going to send me to jail because Tony’s dead, and I would never hurt him, and he’s dead, oh god-”

“What’s your name?” I asked sharply, snapping her out of her loop. She looked up, sniffling, tears running down her cheeks.

“Jenny. It’s… Jenny.” I nodded.

“Jenny. Do you believe in the supernatural?”

She rubbed self-consciously at her neck, where her skin had spontaneously burst into flame. “I… didn’t used to. After all of that crazy cult business down in New York City, and all of the weird things that have been happening tonight…” She swallowed.

“I suspect that you’ve been the victim of the supernatural. You’ve been bitten by a vampire, drained of blood, and made into one yourself. This is rather unfortunate, because if they weren’t there when you were made, one of two things happened.”

I was interrupted by a sudden pounding against the door. “Open up!” Jenny turned her head, shocked, her eyes widening. I knew what she must have been thinking. The police, here to take her away to jail, and to imprison her for a crime that she didn’t commit. It was the natural conclusion in the circumstances. If only things were that easy. I stood up, smoothly grabbing the tank of holy water from off of my desk as I walked to the door. I unlocked it, and slid back the dead bolt. Then I opened the door to face those outside with my shoulders squared, drawing myself up to my full height. I was taller than all three of the individuals standing outside, not that it would do me any good in a fight.

On one flank was a man. His hair was shaved, an ear pierced, looking like a man who had tried to preserve the punk look since the 80s, possibly with formaldehyde. He stunk of the stuff, one ear pierced with a large piece of knucklebone, and his skin was pale as milk, blue veins standing out against it. “We’re here for the vamp, lady. Get out of the way, and no one gets hurt.” He grabbed the door, moving to shove it open and shoulder past me. I threw a modest measure of the holy water in his face, and turned towards the woman who had been standing at the front.

“Hello, Fang Fen. You didn’t mention you’d be dropping by.”

The punk ghoul screamed on the floor, rolling and attempting to put out the flames. The flames were intense, but didn’t scorch anything, burning the ghoul alone. Another of the perks of holy water. Li Fang Fen stood in the doorway, a slight hint of amusement on her lips. The Chinese jiang-shi wore an elegant dress from the 1920s, something from right out of that horrible Great Gatsby movie, a hat over her dark hair and her attractive features. She had broad, bare shoulders, and walked with obvious discomfort, hunching over on a cane despite the fact that she looked younger than me. Her skin was looking a bit pale and waxy, which told me she hadn’t eaten anyone lately.

“Good evening, Atina. I hope that all is going well in the legal practice? You have not picked up any… unfortunate cases, yet?” Her eyes slipped past me, and fell on the young woman sitting in the chair. Jenny let out a little whimper, her hands over her mouth, staring at the ghoul writhing on the floor.

“You know how interesting my life is, Fang Fen,” I stated, stepping between her and Jenny. “You know, you don’t need to bring enforcers to meet me. We can always have a polite chat if you need some legal help. And usually, you choose more polite friends.”

Fang Fen snorted, and gave the man a gentle nudge with the toe of her boot. “Simply telling a child that the stove is hot is rarely sufficient. Experience, and the pain that comes with it, are the best teachers. And this one has been behaving as though being one of the Undead means he need show no respect to those who are human.” Her bright sapphire-blue eyes flicked up to mine.

There was no hint of an accent in her speech, either, although I knew she’d been born in China sometime in the 1800s. She was good at adapting to changing circumstances. “Of course, I can think of nobody who is better at teaching that lesson than you. I am sorry for these two. Lady Ann Willing has demanded the presence of the vampire girl.”

I winced. That was worse news. Lady Ann Willing was the other reason that vampires were rare in Binghamton. She was not a fan of them. “What about the bodies?” I asked, low, under my breath, frowning.

“We got there before the police. One drained corpse. No sign of anyone else.” Fang Fen spoke softly as well. She was a part of the Binghamton police department, and as far as I knew, was the one who helped to keep any knowledge of the undead in Binghamton from the ears of mortal authorities. If I had been a fair-minded person with high ideals about justice and all people being equal, I might have found that deeply offensive.

I also wouldn’t be a lawyer. Like it or not, I made my living out of providing vital aid in navigating the legal system in exchange for money. My livelihood existed because the supernatural wanted to stay hidden, and would pay for the privilege. Of course, the mortal authorities would have been a lot easier to deal with.

“What do you think she’s going to be charged with, Fang Fen?” I asked, frowning. Fang Fen knew a decent amount about the justice system of the Undead. She had crossed it at least a few times before, and I had been the one to prove she hadn’t killed humans in the first case I ever argued in front of the Night Court.

“Well, there’ll be a charge of Gluttony. She was the only one in that room. The boy’s death will be on her head.” I nodded. That was bad; It could mean a death sentence, although probation wouldn’t be too difficult. “But a wastrel vampire in Lady Ann Willing’s territory? She won’t have that. And that carries the death sentence. If we can’t find her sire, then she’ll be executed.” Jenny let out a little gasp from behind me, and I crossed my arms, frowning.

“Jenny. How much money do you have in your pockets right now?”

I turned to look at the girl. She opened and closed her mouth, and dug through her pockets, scooping out her wallet. “Uh, thirty-eight dollars.”

“Alright. I will defend you before the Night Court on all charges they may choose to bring, for the sum of thirty-eight dollars.”

“What? But that’s all I have-”

The other thing about clients? They’ll always argue about the money. Large corporations tend to take it for granted on legal fees. They have experience, and they know how much not having a lawyer can cost them. But every individual thinks to themselves, ‘Surely I could do better.’ The instinct to haggle with a lawyer must be inscribed on the DNA somewhere. And the less you charge them, the more eager they become about haggling. I shot the girl a ferocious look, and her eyes dropped. “Thirty-eight dollars,” I repeated, and then turned to Fang Fen. “And in the meantime, she will remain in my custody, where she’ll be safe. I’ll be keeping her in my home, so that she doesn’t experience any… accidents. When will the jury be selected?”

I could see the relief in Fang Fen’s eyes. She’d known she was coming to my office to bring in a young woman who was confused and terrified, and was most likely going to be executed unless someone stood up for her. “Sunday night. Two nights from now. We will assemble in the Slovak Catholic cemeteries, at midnight. If there is anything that I can do to help you…”

“Yeah.” I took a deep breath. “I’m going to need to re-familiarize myself with the Night Court. I could use a talk with you tomorrow.” I smiled. “Irish Kevins?”

A smile blossomed across Li Fang Fen’s face for the first time. “Your treat?” I winced, but it was mostly for show.

“My treat.”

As Li Fang Fen turned and left, the last of the three turned and gave me a brief look, and I did likewise. A young dark-haired woman, she looked to be Hispanic, with brown eyes that managed to be cold as ice. A long, dark robe hung down around her, covering everything but her head, her hands, and her feet. Her tongue ran quickly over her lips as she held eye contact with me for a moment, waiting for something. I continued to squeeze the tank of holy water in one hand, waiting for any twitch of hostile movement.

Then she reached down, helping the ghoul up to his feet, and strode out of the room. I waited until they’d gone down the stairs, and then another minute or two after that. Then I latched the door, throwing the bolt, and let out a sigh of relief, slumping down onto the ground, my back against the door. Then I realized that Jenny was still in the room with me, and stood up quickly, straightening my tie.

“I’m a vampire?”

“I’m afraid so, yes.”

“So I need to drink blood?”

“Yes. Though you shouldn’t need too much of it.” I sighed, and sat down. “I’ve got a friend in the Red Cross. Cold blood’s not as good as fresh, from what I’ve been told, but it’ll keep you from keeling over with hunger, or trying to bite my neck.”

“I’m going to be missing several days of school, won’t I?” she asked very softly, her eyes downcast.

“Your boyfriend’s disappeared under mysterious circumstances. You might have to do the same, for the sake of staying alive. I’m sorry, Jenny. We can worry about what you’re going to be doing with your life after we get you out of a death sentence, alright?”

“Do you think I can send my parents a letter?” she asked, her expression miserable.

“Yeah. Come on. Let’s get you to my home, and get you a bite to eat.”

“That’s not very funny, ma’am.”

I gave her a hard look, trailing a hand self-consciously through my hair, past the gray hairs already sprouting at my temples. I was not long out of Law School, but the bar exam had taken its toll on my roots. If I was anything like my own mother, I’d be mostly silver by the age of 40. The word ‘ma’am’ stung just a little bit. “I’m going to level with you. I don’t usually get cases that involve the death sentence. I can’t promise you that I’m going to be able to save you, here.” Then, as her eyes welled up with tears, I rested a hand on her shoulder. “But I’m going to do everything I can. Okay?” I squeezed her shoulder, and walked her to my home. She cried herself to sleep in the guest room of the small house, a Celtic cross on her door.

“So, I’m getting married,” said Alfred.

“No you’re not,” I said, horror running across my face.

“Look, Atina, I know that you’re still harboring a torch for me. But we’ve got to move on.” Horror met anger coming from the other side, and the two fought a pitched battle across my nose. I finally settled with annoyance, an old and reliable standby.

“First, we never had a thing. You assumed we did. Second, I know the kind of women you attract. You’re getting a prenuptial.”

“Oh, Atina, come on. Marriage, love, it’s a union of two hearts, it’s far too precious and beautiful a thing to be bound down in something so prosaic and thoughtless as a contract.” I took a slow, deep breath, and rested my fingers on the sides of my head. Alfred was a handsome enough guy, but the problem was he knew it. He thought of himself as god’s gift to not only the opposite sex, but the entire human race and all adjacent supernatural creatures. Messy hair the color of really good corn, blonde and stunning, with incredibly white teeth. Inexplicably, despite the blonde hair, his eyes were a shining green like seafoam-

I shook my head. If one spent too much time studying Alfred, you could get a bit hypnotized by the man. Worse, you might start thinking about him in poetry. “Marriage is absolutely a contract, Alfred. It is the ur-contract. What are you shacking up with this time?”

He gave me a dour look. He was dressed in full chainmail and had a rather large sword sitting next to him. I wore a large sweater and a long pair of jeans, heavy wool socks and boots completing my entry in the ‘World’s Frumpiest Outfit’ competition. The two of us sat at the patio outside of Citrea. I didn’t treat myself to this place often, but I usually needed a morning drink to be able to deal with Alfred. Bright, cheerful sunlight and a beautiful blue sky, all the beauty of a rare winter day with good weather for Broome County, were warring with my desire to club him over the head with a menu.

Other patrons sat around us, completely unsurprised by his appearance. To them, he looked like a LARPer. Bad foam-padded sword, little more than a wiffle bat covered in black packing peanuts, and chainmail made out of cardboard. I knew that they were real, which meant the illusion didn’t work on me. From the way Alfred told it, 95% of all LARPers were overweight nerds with poorly made facsimiles. The remaining 5% were wizards, capable of great and powerful magics, and highly trained in the arts of jamming three feet of steel through an impudent mortal’s guts and vanishing before the police could even think to get involved. I suspected the ratios were much less generous than that, but I was unfailingly polite to LARPers nonetheless. Which reminds me, sorry about that overweight nerd crack.

“She,” he said, adding a bit of extra emphasis to the word, “is Irish. A lovely young woman by the name of Polly, Polly Ryan.” I sipped my Mimosa, staring daggers at him, waiting for him to continue. “And she is a Redcap.”

There’s a special hell for those who waste booze. So I did not spit my drink in his face, no matter how richly he deserved it. I slowly, very purposefully, swallowed it, and cleared my throat. “A redcap.”

“Atina, look-”

“Of the Border mythology. The brigand fairy.”

“She’s really-”

“A species which ambushes travelers, murders them, and dips their hat in the traveler’s blood, to dye them. Because if they let them dry out, they will die. You are dating a fairy that lives on highway murder. You intend to marry a woman who will literally be out for your blood in the divorce proceedings.”

“Those are all extremely specious rumors, you realize. The truth is far more complex. Redcaps simply feed on intimidation. The fear of their physical prowess. The ‘dying their caps red with blood’ thing was all a myth. You of all people should know that the Fae don’t have to kill.” He frowned at me. “Polly is an extremely kind-hearted woman. She’s of the Summer Court, you know. She’s working towards becoming one of their Champions. She might even end up working with you at some point. I think that you’re being extremely racist right now.”

“Humans don’t have to kill either, and yet look at how much we do it.” I sighed, and waved for another Mimosa. It was going to be one of those mornings. “Alfred. Please. I’m begging you. I’ll work for free. I will pay you. Just let me write a prenuptial contract for the two of you, if you seriously intend to marry this girl.” I knew, deep down, that he wouldn’t. Alfred was… flighty. It would be wrong to call him a heartbreaker, if only because most Fairies are much too old and wise to get hurt by anything that a human could do to reject them. He also had a talent for letting them down easy. But the man was lackadaisical in his approach to women who could, and would, murder him over forgetting their birthday. I would feel personally responsible to his parents if he died on me.

“Oh, look. She mentioned wanting to meet you. I’ll get the two of you together some time, and I’m sure you’ll get along like a house on fire!”

“Screaming, calling 911, people’s livelihoods destroyed in a flash?” Alfred sighed, and rolled his eyes. “Oh, do not dare act like I’m being the difficult one here. You remember that Rusalka girl?” Alfred’s eyes clouded over with nostalgia, and he smiled.

“Aaah… Anastasia. God, she was a woman.”

“She tried to drown you, Alfred.”

He waved his hand as though this was a minor character flaw, rather akin to eating crackers in bed, as opposed to attempted homicide. “In my bathtub. I know she was just hurt, she wasn’t really trying to kill me.”

“Yeah, I’ll have another Mimosa here,” I said, and sighed as I settled back in my chair. “Let’s get on to something else. We can discuss your death wish another time. I need to figure out some things about this case. First and foremost, what those kids were doing on that night. Do you know a Jenny… Nishi, and a Tony?”

“Jenny? Oh, yeah, I know her. She’s in one of the classes I’m TAing for.”

I’ll diverge for a moment to note that Alfred, like most wizards I’ve ever met, is employed solely in the world of Academia. A place where strange and poorly groomed individuals who often profess open-mindedness while having a view of the world diplomatically described as ‘inflexible’, and where words and knowledge rule, making secrets the most useful currency? Frankly, if you’ve been to college and don’t think one of your professors was a wizard, that says more about you than it says about them. And yes, that includes the Liberal Arts; Alfred is studying for his Doctorate in English, which is more useful than you would expect when you spend all day trying not to get murdered by fairies. Don’t worry, though, hard sciences; The pay still sucks compared to engineering.

Alfred stroked his chin. “Exchange student, I think, Japanese.”

Well, shit. And here was me judging someone by their accent. I guess now I’m the racist. “She’s been attacked by a vampire,” I whispered softly. Alfred’s eyes widened. “And she’s been converted. Tony’s dead, killed by either the same vampire, or her.” I took a deep breath. “I need to defend her in front of the Night Court soon. A jury’s convening on Sunday. I could use your help on this one. She’s in real trouble. I’m in real trouble.”

It was unfair. The moment I said it, his features hardened into determination. A more flawed man, a more sardonic man, a more approachable man, might make jokes about her being available. Alfred just said, “Of course.” There was no mention of money, no mention of favors. The man was a fucking nightmare for my conscience, which was part of the reason why he drove me mad. He didn’t have the decency to let me pay him for the services he offered when there was a court case. He just wanted to help me, the chauvinistic pig. As though there were things I couldn’t do that he could.

Like bend the minds of those around us to see cardboard instead of steel. Like take on a Troll berserker or a Sidhe swordsmaster with steel and guile alone and humiliate them. Like read the emotions of a room and produce more evidence than an entire team of forensic ghouls could ever hope to discover in the course of an evening. The upside of this job had been that I no longer took my being a woman as a reason to feel inferior. I got to feel inferior for exciting new reasons like being an ordinary human being. At least I had sense enough to not get involved with murderous lunatic monsters, which was more than could be said of Alfred. “Thank you, Alfred. And I’ll talk with Polly. But for the love of god, don’t rush into a marriage with a murderous fairy woman.”

He smiled, and shrugged his shoulders. “So, how exactly did you wind up involved with this?”

I took a deep breath. This was the part I’d been dreading. “The Half-Faced Man spoke to her. He sent her directly to my office, And recommended me. This is an undead issue, but the Fairies might be-”

“Please, you could call them the Fae occasionally,” Alfred said, brows knitted, a little hint of pleading in his voice. “They know you call them Fairies to insult them, Atina.”

“That’s between them and their insecurities.” I crossed my legs and sipped the Mimosa as it arrived. “I call them Fairies because that’s what they are. And it’s a political issue. If he’s involved, the Fairy courts may be messing with Undead politics. And if there’s one thing the Undead hate, it’s being influenced by the others.” I took a deep breath. “I wanted to warn you, because I know that there’s some bad blood between you and the Fall Court.”

“Not the entire Fall Court. But that man… He’s the King’s Man, through and through. He’s damnably loyal. That would be a good thing, but it means you cannot trust him to have your best interests at heart. He would not be doing this unless there was some advantage to be had. The Fall Court is a place of secrets, lies, and illusions. You cannot trust the things you see there.”

“Well, look who’s racist now,” I said, cracking wise. But I could see the way the comment cut him, his eyes falling towards the menu. “I’m sorry, Alfred. I am being careful, trust me. But this girl needs help, badly. She just got her entire life ripped away from her by some bloodsucking asshole with no sense of personal responsibility, and is being dragged in front of a kangaroo court to be executed.” I took a deep breath. “We need to do this.”

He gave me a long, slow look. “How much are you charging for this?”

“Thirty-eight dollars.” I shrugged. “It was all she had in her pockets.”

“God, you’re like a walking lawyer-joke, you know that?” He smiled. “Well, I’m glad to hear that. How can I help?”

I sighed. “Talk with some of the people at the Salty’s Pub, see if you can find out anything about what happened with them last night, if anyone recognized Jenny and Tony. Then meet me tomorrow night, at my house. We’ll prepare for the case.” I took a deep breath, and leaned back in my chair, staring up at the ceiling. Three Mimosas in, and I was beginning to feel a pleasant tingle. Being as tall as I am, and the alcohol tolerance that comes with it, truly is a curse. My head felt slightly lighter than usual, and my heart rate was returning to normal.

“What are you going to do in the meantime?”

I rubbed my face. “I’m meeting the Half-Faced Man in a few hours at the Inebriate’s Asylum, to try to figure out what he’s doing. That’s going to be a mental ordeal. Then I need to meet Li Fang Fen for dinner tonight at Irish Kevin’s.” I raised my finger and got the waitress’ attention. “Excuse me, Miss? I’m going to get another Mimosa?”

 

 

Chapter 2: Worryingly Helpful Friends

I’m going to tell you a secret. I hate my name. Loathe it. My parents were well-meaning, as all parents were, when they named me. They wanted to give me a name that meant something, that felt strong. And so they chose Atina, because even they recognized that ‘Athena’ was too much. And my last name, LeRoux, was the last remaining shred of French identity left to my family. My ancestors had fled from Basque country two hundred and fifty years ago, up Louisiana along the Mississippi, through to Ottawa, and then drizzled back down into the States over time. I got a few strands of copper hair, most of them turned to white now, and a name that got me picked on mercilessly for most of my life.

Over time, I grew into it, somewhat. People don’t forget my name, at least. Most of them make jokes. The fact of the matter is that on my worst days, I hate my name. I blame it for driving me away from other people, I blame it for never being able to fade into a crowd, sometimes I even blame it for never having had a boyfriend for more than two weeks at a time. But in the end, I know that’s an excuse. My parents were just trying to give me a name that would sound good, and inspire me. If it hadn’t been that, there certainly would have been something else about me that would stand out. I was never going to be a social butterfly or a part of the crowd. And so, over time, I’d made peace with the name. Most days.

“Ah, hello, Red Goddess.” And yet, just like that, with a couple of words, the Half-Faced Man could get under my skin. My face flushed, and he grinned with those sharp teeth of his, arms crossed over his chest like a movie vampire in its coffin as he leaned against the wall. He was, by any human standards, a terrifying piece of work. His flesh was as blue as a frozen corpse, smooth and rubbery. He wore a delicate ivory mask with golden eyes painted where the eye holes should be, covering his face from his forehead to his upper lip. His bald scalp shone in the light. Every limb was a bit too long, and seemed to contain an extra joint. It gave him a flowing, octopus-like quality to his movement that people disquieting, to say the least. And besides all that, he was close to eight feet tall. And yet, I was genuinely happy to see him.

I know what I said to Alfred. Part of it was true. The Half-Faced Man was a nightmare visually, and his loyalties were uncertain at the best of times. But he was also a fellow lawyer. He was like the prosecutor for the Fall King. He kept secrets as a matter of professional pride, providing riddles to test the wit of those who had done wrong, or the champions they could afford. And he was an honest man, in that special lying-bastard way that only the Fairies could manage.

The first time I met him, I bested him in a riddle contest that he’d been half-assing, mocking me with riddles from The Hobbit. We wound up at a bar for an hour and a half, working our way through nearly three pitchers of beer and sharing jokes and stories about horrible clients and horrible cases. He’d been the first supernatural entity that I had been able to open up to about being a lawyer. Which made meeting him like this all the more difficult.

The thing about opposing counsel is that both of you know that someday, you may wind up in a conflict where there’s going to be one winner, and one loser. There’ll be a case that neither side can afford to lose. And that hurts a hell of a lot more with someone you care about. Because you have to put the client first, and when you’re forced to pull out every dirty trick, every last stop, and screw over the opposition, it can ruin a friendship. In that first trial, I’d been lucky. I’d been able to put him on the trail of a greater crime, enhancing his reputation and my own at the same time. But there was a limit to how long you could keep up that kind of thing, and every time I went into court against him, I’d risk it being the last time we’d be friends.

“Hey, Longneck. You doing something new with your lack of hair? Your skull’s looking smoother.”

Today, however, was not that day.

“Why, yes. I learned about something called a ball-polisher at the bowling-alleys. They give me the most delightful shine.” He trailed his slender fingers across his pate, giving all the affectation of a dandy preparing himself for the cotillion. “I’m quite flattered you noticed, actually.” He smiled toothily. “Any more assassination attempts from Earlen Wen of Johnson City?”

I shook my head, and shivered. The last time the Earlen had tried to kill me, a rather suspicious white substance was delivered in an unmarked package to my front door. I’d had Alfred over, and he’d confirmed it was the poison of a Salamander, dried, designed to be harmless until mixed with water or sweat. At that point, it would have turned my blood into pure phlogiston, which would have burned both me and my house down quite horribly. The time before had been a living tree attacking me on the walk home from work. And before that, it had been a pair of slavering jaws so close to this very location, after I had embarrassed her in front of the entire Fall Court.

We stood in the old Inebriates Asylum. Abandoned now, although they were renovating it for use with Binghamton University. Maybe the Fairies would choose a different route to their Fall Court when the renovations were finished. Maybe not, though. Traditions were important, and the Inebriate’s Asylum had, for decades, been a path into the land of secrets.I looked around the cold, abandoned room with its tile floor, and the old metal-framed cot in one corner. I would never come here if the Half-Faced Man wasn’t around. I stuck my hands deep in my pockets, as all the happy warmth of the mimosas fled me in the face of memories. Who was I going to piss off with this case? Who would I enrage so badly that they’d want to murder me this time?

“She will not provide a challenge you cannot overcome.” He smiled softly, and rested a cold, slithering hand on my shoulder. It really should’ve only made me feel worse, but he had the kind of calm demeanor that reminded me so much of my father on his best days. “She knows that to do more than that would draw the wrath of the King, and myself. Just keep your wits about you, and you will be fine.” He thoughtfully brushed a hand across his collar where an iron pushpin was visible, the colorful plastic handle jutting out of the fabric. The suit he wore was uniquely tailored for his physique, but otherwise was quite stylish, charcoal grey and timeless. Double-breasted, and double-jointed. He didn’t wear a tie with it, but I couldn’t imagine a fairy who would willingly put a garrote around their own neck. They were creatures of fantasies and madness, but they weren’t stupid.

“If you say so. Speaking of challenges I cannot overcome…”

“The girl.” The Fae straightened, and frowned. “I know that I tend to obscure what I actually know, most of the time. Hiding meaning behind wordplay and double entendre. I know it frustrates you, and we’ve talked many times about when it is and is not appropriate. I will strive to be straightforward with you about what I know. I sensed a great surge of power in the hotel room, and if anyone within left, there was no trail I could follow. When I entered, I found the girl, freshly turned, and the boy, freshly dead. She fled into the bathroom, sobbing, covered in blood. When she came out, I directed her towards you. I have no answers for you on who she is, or why she was there, or who was there with her. I have my suspicions, and I will try to help you with this, but I am consumed by another case. I am afraid that my aid will be limited, at best, to advice.”

I stared. This was a quantity of plain, helpful information that was completely suspicious. But the Fairies didn’t generally lie. They might inveigle and exaggerate and bluff and be cryptic as hell, but they didn’t lie. Possibly they simply didn’t find it sporting. I took a deep breath, and nodded. “Thank you. Well, then… Why the hell did you send her to me?”

He looked rather surprised. “That isn’t obvious? A young woman, in dire straits, thrust suddenly and unexpectedly into the world of the supernatural. Forced to sink or swim, in a world that defies everything she knows and believes is real. You were the one person I thought I could trust to protect her.” He smiled, that shark-tooth smile that managed to be reassuring and terrifying at the same time. “You took the job?”

“Yes. For 38 dollars.”

“Oh, come now. We both know you don’t need the money.” I shrugged. He was right, though. The supernatural world is ancient, which means it is rich, and it is arrogant, which means it is happy to give that money away. Even the minor players in Binghamton could afford to pay very well. I lived on a shoestring budget, staying in my parents’ old house and renting out a cheap single room office. That kept my costs tremendously low. Most of the money I had went into savings where I could manage it, though a fair chunk of it went towards my safety precautions. Pathological paranoia isn’t cheap. “Besides, you know that in this business, it’s favors that count. Who knows who the young lady’s maker might be?”

I frowned. “That’s just the question. Do you know whether any vampires are in town?”

He shrugged. “That is a tricky question. After all, vampires pass through all the time. I know that recently, there have been diplomatic approaches from a Mexican group. Do you know of the Camazotz?”

“The Mexican Death-Bat?” I asked. He gave me a look that suggested a quirked eyebrow, and I coughed. “It was on an episode of Man Vs. Monster, on National Geographic.” I lowered my head. “That… they did a parody commentary for.” Judgmental silence filled the air. “I did a bit of research on them afterward! It was an inhabitant of the Mayan underworld, who played a major part in the journey to hell of some of the heroes of Mayan mythology. The inhabitant of the House of Bats.”

“I always admire your talent for gathering knowledge from the most unlikely of places, Atina. The human quest for knowledge can be truly glorious. You never know where you’ll find something important, do you?” He gave me a broad, toothy smile. “The Camazotz are one of the native vampiric breeds of the New World. With the fall of the Mayan Empire, they lost their primary stronghold of political power, and have been something of an itinerant clan since then. From what I understand, there are only a handful left. And a pair of them came into town just a week or so ago.” He crossed his arms, twisting them together into a tight double helix. A sure sign that he was worried.

“Anyone else?”

“No. Granted, that is hardly the last word. I am of the Fall Court, and I only know of the Camazotz because they have made waves in the supernatural community. There is a great deal of concern about why such an ancient and powerful- and homeless- group of undead is in the city. Whether they will move on, or whether they wish to put down roots.” he grunted. “That would bring political upheaval. The King wishes to keep a close eye on it. But for all I know, ten thousand vampires have passed through this city in the last week, stopping only for a brief feeding session, and one of them decided to turn a young woman simply because it would stick in the Lady Ann Willing’s craw. I am afraid that I can be very clear with you, because I have so little information to give.”

I sighed. “Well, hey, I guess we both win. You get to be cryptic, and I get to know everything you know. I call that a win-win. So, you said this is a major rumor. Why haven’t I heard anything about it?” He coughed delicately, and tilted his head off to the side, muttering something. “What was that, Labat Blue? Didn’t quite catch that.”

“You’re not… exactly a member of the supernatural community.” He said it with the expression of a man on a pogo stick going down a hill who has just passed the ‘Danger: Mine Field Ahead!’ sign. When he saw the look I gave him, the terrifying blue-skinned man-thing gave a shrug of his shoulders. “It’s not as though I held it back from you, you know. It won’t do any good to blame me for the attitudes of others. You’re pure human, no blood relations and no contracts made with the supernatural community. You realize how nervous that makes my kind, don’t you?”

“I’m human. What do people have to be afraid of?”

“None of us hold any power over you. We could kill you, we could maim you, we could destroy you, but we can’t control you. And you are useful enough, and interesting enough, that to harm you would be very dangerous.” He tapped his fingers together. “I have certainly done my best to make it so.”

Perhaps someone with more spirit would have told him to shove his paternalistic attitude. That I didn’t need protection. Then again, someone with more spirit might have stood a chance when that slavering thing had come out of the darkness so close to where I was now standing. Someone with more spirit might get their dumb ass murdered for not accepting that they were a squishy, horribly vulnerable human. So I just sighed, and smiled. “Thanks, Corpse Light. Is there any help you can offer? Any advice?”

He tapped his chin, and eyed me. “To appear directly or offer much direct aid would result in trouble with the undead of the city. You still have the payoff from your first case against me?”

I grumbled. “Yeah. Cheating little bastard.” The leprechaun I had represented had paid me in human money. Specifically, in antique coins. I had not since gotten low enough on funds to be willing to jump through the hoops that would be involved in liquidating them.

“Now would be an ideal time to sell them. They may pay unexpected dividends.”

“Well, look at that, Pale Ale. You managed to work in some crypticism out there after all.” I slugged him gently on the shoulder. “If you have any other help you can offer, let me know.”

As I walked out of the asylum, down the hill, and towards my bicycle, I thought about what he’d said. I don’t own a car. It’s much, much more difficult to place a discreet bomb on a bicycle, and Binghamton is close enough together that most of the time, I’m fine with just the bike. The pot of antique coins still sat in my house, collecting dust- and one assumed, by whatever fel mechanics antiques ran on, value- on the breakfast table. If he was telling me to sell them, then there was a good reason. I’d have to break out the antique catalogue sites tonight when I finished gathering information.

Irish Kevins is a pub. I am approximately one third Irish, which means absolutely nothing to me save for the occasional joke I make, a handful of formerly red hairs, and a steadfast refusal to wear green on Saint Patrick’s Day. But I love pub food. Grease, and salt, and spice. Everything you need to stimulate numbed nerve endings after drinking. I wasn’t drinking tonight, partly because Fang Fen was at least semi-Taoist, and thus did not drink or otherwise intoxicate herself, and mostly because I had court tomorrow and never drank when I had work to do.

She’d swapped outfits since last night. Tonight’s outfit was a cloche hat, red with a black band, and a delicate gown that exposed a hell of a lot of shoulder. She was drawing eyes from every man in the bar, luxuriating in the combination of ‘exotic’ and ‘familiar’ that she pulled off so well. I was still dressed in my sweater and long pants from the morning, and had picked up a pair of heavy, mitty gloves which now sat in my jacket pockets. I looked out the window, into the dark parking lot. The street lights had come on, providing a view of the graveyard across from us. The same place where I would be trying this case tomorrow. Monuments stood there, some clean and fresh, some worn and ancient, providing an annoyingly on-point reminder of the ephemeral nature of all things.

“The Lady Ann Willing is out for blood, if you will pardon the expression. If Jenny’s sire is still in the city, they will likely not confess to it, for fear of what she might do.” Fang Fen had a melancholy expression on her face, slowly twirling the straw in her water around with one finger. “It is an unfortunate situation.”

I nodded. The Lady Ann Willing was widely regarded as a deeply fair-minded individual, dedicated to keeping the peace in the city. In the cases I’d taken where she played a part, she’d always been reasonable. It was only with vampires that she had these problems. “I can imagine. Are there any vampires in town? I’ve heard something about a group of Camazotz being in the city?”

She looked up sharply, an eyebrow raised. “Yes… Lady Ann Willing has tried to keep it quiet, but there are two. Hun-Came, and Chaac.”

“Any chance it was them?”

Fang Fen sighed. “Very little, for three reasons. First, they exclusively drink the blood of Spaniards. I’m not sure whether it’s a grudge or an actual need, but they have been notably picky with Lady Ann’s hospitality. Second, the Camazotz are deep traditionalists. They do not make new vampires out of anyone but pure-blooded Mayans. There’s a reason they’re so rare. If it were just a matter of biting whoever and changing them, they could’ve rebuilt their numbers tenfold by now.”

“Hrm. And third?”

“Third is…” Fang Fen tapped her fingers along the table. “You know of the nature of our power. Lady Ann Willing is the oldest undead in the city, and easily the most powerful. She was born in 1764.” Fang Fen’s mouth twisted. “Hun-Came was born before the birth of Christ.”

“You’re shitting me.”

“No. I wish that I was. She is not a goddess, but she is as close as undead get. You understand, then, that if she had sired a new Camazotz, she would not particularly need to hide it. If she wished to cause us trouble, she could simply kill us all.” I gave her an uncertain look. “Oh, I doubt that she would. We undead are not prone to violence. But even if she were attempting a subtle gambit, Jenny is nothing more than an unfortunate annoyance. Hun-Came is above such things. I should hope.”

I rubbed my forehead. “Shit. Is there any way to prove a connection between the two?”

“Possibly collecting a blood sample from the sire. There are several Postmortologists at the school who would be able to tell you, then.”

“What are the chances that I could get an ancient vampire-goddess to donate some of her blood to me so I can hand it over to some inquisitive wizards?”

“Remote. And even with all of that, I still do not believe it is them. It is far more likely to be one of the families of the Notte Nostra trying to start shit again. I heard that they had one of their wise guys in town.” Fang Fen winced, and kneaded her shoulder. “God damned arthritis. At any rate, this fits with their tactics much better. A quick smash-and-grab, leave us a sticky moral problem to drive a wedge between the local undead. I must warn you, this case is going to draw a lot of old and powerful undead out of their holes.”

I’ll diverge a moment now to explain undead court procedure. Ultimately, the Night Court bears a superficial resemblance to US court procedure. Twelve jurors, a judge, a prosecutor, and a defense attorney. This is where most of the similarities end.

Any of the undead in Binghamton can call the Night Court to settle disputes. You might think that this would lead to contracts with humans being unenforceable. You would be wrong, as the undead are one of the most prickly, litigation-happy groups I’ve ever met, and an undead will happily call the Night Court on someone else’s behalf if they learn about a broken deal. Old people get hidebound, and the undead are very old.

Typically, the Night Court assembles every half moon. Anyone who wishes to apply for the jury can do so. The twelve oldest applicants are made members of the Jury, and the thirteenth oldest applicant is made the Judge. The Judge and Jury determine who will prosecute the case, based on whatever criteria they choose. And then, things get complicated. The jury is a prized position, as they decide the actual cases and precedent that will be made, and are typically free to make that decision however they like- including bribes. They are chosen for this because, by definition, they must be among the oldest, wisest, and most powerful undead. The judge, then, is kind of the booby prize of positions. They are intended to keep things from breaking into actual violence, to punish any member of the court who tries to do violence to any other member, and cast a tie-breaking vote in the event of a deadlock. The prosecutor is usually little more than a catspaw in a criminal trial.

“What’s the jury line-up look like?” I asked, leaning back in my chair, staring out the window.

“We’re probably going to have some old undead. Their price is going to be high, their moral standards firm, and their outlooks jaded. This is going to be a difficult case, LeRoux. You may be in over your head on this one.” She frowned. “And it is an unjust case. The Lady Ann’s usually better than this. I wish I knew more about why she feels the way she does.”

“Is it that much of a mystery? I thought the established undead always hated vampires. They’re chaotic, bad for business, they go in for meritocracy and disrupt established power systems, all the things that cause chaos that you staid, calcified relics can’t stand.”

She groaned again, leaning her head from side to side. “Please, god, don’t use the word calcified. I feel as though someone has poured buckshot into my marrow. I haven’t gotten a good meal in days.” Her eyes drifted across the bar, licking her lips hungrily as she studied the young men. You might be worried, at this point, about the kind of things I let slide from the undead. But I wasn’t worried about her hungers.

Here’s the secret about the undead. This varies sometimes, but I’ve found that it’s true more often than it’s false. They have about the same attitude towards mortals as we have towards domestic animals. Now, that sounds fucking awful on the face of it, but humans have a very soft spot towards domestic animals. Who likes to see a dead cat, or a dead cow? And the thing about the undead is that none of them actually need to kill anyone to feed.

Which is not to say that undead are any morally better than us. Despite the habit some of them have of rubbing the whole ‘I don’t kill anything to survive hah hah hah’ thing in my face, all undead were originally human, and being made immortal and powerful has rarely if ever improved someone’s moral compass. But most of them have a very strong block against actually eating so much that it kills a human. That’s why Gluttony is a capital crime.

In other words, if Fang Fen took one of these boys home and supped upon his chi, I was absolutely confident that I would not be getting a phone-call at 3 AM asking to help move a body, and could remain friends with Fang Fen. It was something I took seriously. I know lawyers get a bad reputation, but I didn’t want to be friends with anyone who casually killed humans. For self-preservation reasons, if nothing else. It was hard enough to get the non-lethal creatures in this city to pay me respect. The ones that thought of humans as chattel? They wouldn’t be impressed or charmed by my skill with words or my legal acumen. They’d think of me as an uppity meal.

“Atina.” Fang Fen snapped her fingers in front of my face. “I asked if there was anything else?”

I coughed, and looked up. One of the young men from the bar had stood up, and was making his way over towards Fang Fen with a grin on his face. He looked young, college-aged. I groaned. “The cougar act is really distasteful, Fang Fen. You know that, right?”

“Yes, I will certainly be kept up at night by my shame at preying upon young men,” she said nonchalantly, shooting me a small smile. “Have a good trip home, Atina.” She turned towards the man with a bright smile. “Oh, yes, I would enjoy sitting with you and your friends. I wonder, do you happen to know anything about massage? You see, I was helping my friend here move into her apartment today, and my shoulders are just feeling so sore…”

“Oh, uh, yeah! Hey, if you want to join us-” The young man turned towards me, his smile fading a little bit.

“No, thanks.” I considered a cutting remark, some cruel jibe, but honestly, the best I could hope for was ensuring that Fang Fen didn’t eat tonight, and I wasn’t quite THAT petty. I gave a brief nod and a smile as the young man stood behind the Jiang-shi, and began to rub her shoulders. The sound of her highly vocal appreciation filled the restaurant as I walked out, pulling my jacket up to hide my embarrassment. I mean, look, the whole creatures-of-the-night sexual-predator thing is something I’ve gotten used to, but most of them weren’t quite so open about it. Guys got suspicious when a girl seemed too eager. That was my best explanation for the state of my own love life.

As I stepped out into the bitter cold night, I could feel the cold air dry out my nostrils. My stomach rumbled loudly. I tried not to think of the whole situation as a bluntly obvious metaphor. I was going to pick up some fast food, sooth my emotional issues with cheap unhealthy garbage, and then check that Jenny was ready for court tomorrow. I’d left her my number to call me if she needed anything, and my phone had been silent the entire time. I was going to take that as a good sign.

The Shark Belly on Front Street was still open. It was the graveyard shift, which meant Roy. This was good news, and bad news. I slid the door open into the painfully plastic, cheerful interior of the Shark Belly’s, the anthropomorphic shark mascot grinning from the walls, and the Li’l Pups meals being advertised in exciting colors. I never ordered the fish, even though it was Shark Belly’s specialty. My father always taught me to never get seafood when you’re more than thirty miles from the nearest coastline. And behind the register, working alone as he always did, no sign of a manager or relief worker at this late hour, was Roy.

Roy wasn’t bad looking. Normal height, messy dark hair, a little scrawny in a uniform that didn’t quite fit right. He wasn’t unattractive in any particular notable way, but he didn’t particularly stand out either. He had the scratchy remains of a beard and mustache shaved not-frequently-enough. He spoke with a peculiar sped-up southern accent as he smiled at me. “Miss LeRoux! Been a while, huh?”

“Just a week, Roy. Trying to slim down my figure, you know?” I smiled, a bit uncomfortably. it wasn’t that Roy made me nervous, or frightened. I had four inches on the poor guy, and I hadn’t feared a man trying to get rough with me since I’d turned sixteen.

“You don’t need to worry none about your figure, Miss LeRoux,” he said with a terribly bashful expression, blushing a bit. I wasn’t sure how old he was. I didn’t really know much at all about him, to be honest. I didn’t want to encourage his painfully obvious crush. He smiled, pointing awkwardly over his shoulder. “I got started on your usual order back there. If you want somethin’ else, though, that’s okay, I can change it up.”

“The usual will be fine, Roy. Here, please, keep the change.” I handed over a twenty, and he beamed. It made me feel a little bad inside.

The worst feeling in the world that I’ve ever had is knowing someone who was earnest, and kind, and transparently attracted to me, and knowing I was too good for him. He was a sweet guy, but he was working in a fast food place on the graveyard shift, and he’d always come across as a little bit slow. He had no ambition for something greater. I didn’t know if he even had any interests that we could share. He showed far too much eagerness, and we both knew it. I was a lawyer, and I regularly interacted with the supernatural. Where could our experiences merge? I couldn’t like him back the way he liked me. The most I could do was feel like an asshole for not reciprocating his feelings.

I took the Tuna of the Dirt meal, and gave him a smile. The food helped, a little. It drove away some of the gloom. The lettuce and tomato were crisp and fresh, the burger perfectly cooked. Even the fish-oil fries tasted fresh and crisp and clean. “Tell me, Roy…” I frowned as I sat at the table nearest the counter, leaning forward on my elbows, a fry in one hand. “Has anything… strange, been happening, lately?”

He frowned. “Well, miss, they’re planning on releasing a new sandwich. The new Longfish sandwich. But I ain’t never heard of a Longfish, so I can’t say I’d recommend it.”

I shook my head. “Never mind. Just a strange idea. I’ve been hearing a lot about disappearances and stuff. The streets just don’t feel as safe as they used to.” I gave him a brief smile, and then cringed inside as I saw the earnest concern on his face.

“If y’ever think you’re in trouble, miss, just come by here. You’ll be safe here. I promise. We got the ol’ company shotgun under the counter from the bad old days, and Mister Williger takes me out target-shooting with it twice a week. Promise, Miss LeRoux. You’d be safe here.”

I gave him a weak smile. “Thanks, Roy. It was great, as usual. Take care of yourself, alright?” The image of me running in with vampires on my heels to be saved by the boy with the hunting shotgun filled with birdshot was almost funny, but I didn’t want to laugh at him.

“You too, Miss LeRoux. And remember what I said, alright?” He smiled without a trace of guile. And I imagined actually running in here with something horrible after me, and the poor young man trying to protect me, and being murdered horribly for his troubles. It didn’t seem so funny anymore.

I got out of the fast food joint, and rode about two blocks before I realized my bike’s back tire was flat. I cursed, coasting to a stop, still half a mile from home. I frowned, beginning to walk through the cold October night, bulky black gloves keeping my hands from freezing. Then I crouched down, and stared at the bike’s tire. A large gash was visible in the rubber. A man stepped out of the darkness. He wore a pair of sunglasses and a rather casual looking black suit that fit his broad, brawny figure poorly. “Excuse me, miss. You got a light?” He noticeably did not have a cigarette.

I lashed out, hard. The gloves were bulky and unwieldy because the backs were padded with large segments full of iron filings. The gloves were technically legal in New York, and added approximately eight pounds of mass to the gloves, bracing the knuckles. A human being could strike a concrete block and be totally unharmed wearing these, and they hit like a blackjack. You could easily put a man into a coma with them.

My arm shook with the force of the impact, knuckles planted against the side of his head, just behind the eyes. He frowned as the lenses of the sunglasses slowly fell to the ground, cracked and broken from the impact. His irises were bright yellow. “I liked those glasses, lady.” Then he leapt at me.

 

 

Case Files 1: Vampires, Ghouls, and Ghosts

Vampires

Being a Vampire is, broadly, like being ‘white’ or ‘black’. That is, it’s a huge umbrella term for a very large and diverse group of individuals, and almost uselessly vague. The only thing that identifies one of the undead as a vampire is feeding on blood. Kumiho, Vampyrs, Draugr, Strix, Were-Mosquitos, Leech-Men, Camazotz, there are a shocking variety of myths about creatures that feed on blood, usually risen corpses. So, where the hell does the generic vampire with its daylight allergy, superhuman strength and speed, and hypnotic mien come from? How did those start getting made?

And that’s where Vampires get interesting. See, while methods of making new vampires may vary (Fang Fen: Oftentimes gruesomely so; There is at least one vampire breed which reproduces through traumatic insemination.) (Atina: Please tell me that they don’t live in this country.) (Fang Fen: Just change your sheets if you ever get a bed-bug infestation. Trust me on this.) one thing is a standard. The new spawn starts out as a bog-standard ‘Vampire’. Supernaturally tough and strong, though not really much more than a really fit human would be. But that’s about it. They don’t get any fancy powers, or interesting quirks. They are, essentially, just a blood-sucking weak-as-shit undead. (Fang Fen: There are said to be certain minor tells, but these are close-kept secrets among the bloodlines. I do not know of any that are widely known.)

The only way for a vampire to become one of those specialty breeds I talked about is to be recognized by their maker in some way. Usually, this involves some education, reciting of bloodlines, that kind of thing. For some reason, knowing your blood’s past changes you. And this is why most undead are edgy about vampires. See, blood is important. Power gets passed on through blood. And vampires are the only undead who can pass their power on to those they create. The spawn of an ancient and powerful vampire, fully recognized, is perhaps half as their maker.

Now, considering that most Undead start out weak-as-shit and take a long time to get more powerful, this is a real game-changer. There were terrible and brutal wars fought over these things. There aren’t a lot of old vampires left, and most of the vampires in the world today are either insular and clannish, or the kind of generic vampire crap we’re talking about here. Some people think that if one of the generic small-fry lived long enough, they’d be able to start developing a new bloodline of Vampires, but nobody’s seen it happen yet. (Fang Fen: Nor are they likely to. Lady Ann Willing’s attitude towards vampires is typical of most powerful Undead. An unattached vampire is liable to be executed on the drop of a hat for crimes that would be cause for probation with others.)

Powers and weaknesses

Like I said, vampires actually don’t tend to be that interesting. They’re rarely old enough, if they’re not of a bloodline, to get any of the cool tricks that some of the older Undead can do. Stronger than a normal human, tougher than a normal human, but at the point of birth, not by much. Someone with a bit of training could kill one fairly easily with perfectly normal means. This means, though, that they also have relatively few weaknesses. Garlic works sometimes, Holy water always works but usually just acts as a nasty blister agent unless you get a lot on them or expose them to it for a while, and holy symbols can work if you really believe in them. (Alfred: I’ve suggested Atina flash her law degree at them, but apparently not even she believes in it.) (Atina: Yeah, I’m pretty sure I’d be better off with the cross.)

The funny thing is that to my knowledge, a wooden stake DOES work, and paralyzes them quite effectively, leaving them helpless. But of course, that’s not really all that much of a weakness. You pound a wooden steak through my heart, and I’d be dead as a door knob, whereas with them, it’s a non-lethal method of subduing them.

On the blood-drinking thing: It does, in fact, need to be human blood. Vampires tend to have a lot of ways around this, though. Ever found a cut on your body that wasn’t there before? Maybe you got grazed by a vampire, they licked up a little blood, and bam. They don’t need a lot of the stuff, maybe a pint a month for newborns, more if they’re old. Blood is potent as far as sources of life go. That means they can get away with small amounts, and it’s rare that they actually drink someone to death. The only times that should be a real danger is when they’re starving, or when they’ve just been made and have no blood in their body.

Alfred: When a vampire makes a pact with a Postmortologist (Atina: Or as I call them in my case files, Horses.) (Alfred: It’s not Voodoo.) the magic they grant is usually related to blood. It varies from vampire to vampire and wizard to wizard, but mostly, it tends to be thaumaturgical skill. Blood curses, seeing in bowls of blood, that kind of thing, although I have heard there was at least one wizard who became able to charm women incredibly effectively. (Atina: My god, the only explanation for that would have to be a blood oath with a vampire.) Typically, though, such wizards are not particularly powerful, for the aforementioned reasons of most vampires being terribly young. Most of them tend to be in a pre-existing relationship with someone who wound up turned into a vampire.

What the vampire gets out of the pact is usually blood. It usually starts with the wizard letting the vampire drink from them, but then it progresses towards more widespread activities. Hooking them up at bars, working at the Red Cross, those kinds of things. Ironically, Twilight did more to stamp out this breed of wizard than any inquisition ever could have; It’s the rare wizard who’s willing to admit to being into vampires nowadays. (Atina: Which just goes to show that there is truly nobody so nerdy that they can’t find a bigger dork to mock.)

Politics

Atina: Because of aforementioned bloody wars, vampires don’t have much in the way of a political presence. As far as I know, in fact, there are no major Vampire-led courts anywhere in the world. They tend to keep things under their hat wherever they go. The one notable exception to this is the Notte Nostra. (Alfred: Italian for ‘Our Night’.)(Atina: Fun fact, the Cosa Nostra is Italian for ‘Our thing’, which is actually pretty charming and witty as far as names for murderous criminal organizations go.)

The Notte Nostra is the closest thing to home most young vampires can hope for. There’s always room for bloodsuckers in the Notte Nostra. Much like the actual Mafia, only a full-blooded Strix, one of the Italian Vampires, can reach a level of real power there. Nonetheless, the Notte Nostra provide a safe haven for vampires. (Fang Fen: And, incidentally, are one of the reasons why I wish that Lady Willing were more open to accepting orphan vampires in the city. The Notte Nostra is an abomination, and we only provide them with more impetus to exist through our oppression of young vampires.) And the reason they still exist is… Well, I’ll let Fen write it in her words, she has a better handle on it than I do.

Fang Fen: Bluntly, it is convenient to have a group of insular outsiders who are not bound by the same laws as others, and who can travel. The Notte Nostra are a useful mercenary force, capable of killing, stealing, and otherwise settling power struggles throughout the Undead world. They function on the outskirts, providing shelter for those who are outside of the law, and providing work for those who break the law. They are scum, and they feed on our own hubris and pride. They are interested in destabilization, because when there is chaos, their services become more valuable, and they can hope to supplant the courts of the Undead.

Atina: Thanks, Fang Fen. As far as I know, the Notte Nostra tends to get credit for a lot more than they actually do, but their headquarters are in New Jersey, which as far as I’m concerned, explains everything about that state. They don’t apparently have any holdings in New York City itself, possibly because of competition from the lawyers for all the available blood. (Alfred: I don’t think these lawyer jokes are healthy for you, Atina. Self loathing and depression are serious issues for legal professionals.)

As mentioned before, vampires are weird. Most Undead grow extremely inflexible as they grow older. They’re the ultimate conservatives, steadily acquiring power as they grow older, and never giving it up. A young, powerful Undead is an oxymoron. But it is conceivable that a vampire could be newborn, and stronger than most of the Undead in the city, if properly recognized. Most of the time, this is counterbalanced by the extremely conservative, even snobby attitude most ancient vampires show. Still… (Fang Fen: Be glad they don’t. Tradition has us living in harmony with humanity, without causing them grief. Change is not always a good thing.)

Past Cases

I’ve never had a case involving vampires yet. Ironically, though, I’ve thought a lot about a vampire paternity suit. The largest issue that vampires tend to have is trying to find out who their maker is, and get them to acknowledge them. If I were to guess at the most likely case to drop into my lap related to vampires, it would be like something out of the Maury show. Figure out who a vampire’s parent is, do a DNA test- Or whatever the supernatural blood curse equivalent is- and forcing them to recognize them.

Fang Fen: This would never work, for a very simple reason. The court would actually have to have some interest in the younger vampire being recognized, and getting the infusion of power it would provide. No court would willingly provide so much power to someone who has not earned it through age and experience. There’s a seniority system at work, here. The desire to be instantly recognized as powerful, and surpass your elders and superiors out of sheer talent, is a folly of youth. Wisdom can only ever come from age. (Atina: Yeah, and yet so many people manage to get old without learning a thing.) (Fang Fen: You mock. But our system prevents radicals from taking hold. Only those with patience, guile, and the ability to go unnoticed by humans make it to old age and power. We must learn to live with humans, for we spend so much time at their mercy.)

Ghouls

Ghouls are strange, even by undead standards. First, they eat dead meat; the older, the better, generally. And it has to be human. Now, that sounds like the kind of thing that would lead to someone being a murderer, but keep in mind that in any given city, far more people are dying of heart attacks or natural causes than getting stabbed. A ghoul is downright spoiled for choice when it comes to food. However, there’s a rather important caveat to this. See, many types of undead are also made out of dead meat. And they tend to be very old.

You’re getting the picture here, right? Mind you, for insubstantial types like ghosts, ghouls are no big deal, although their corpse-desecrating ways can be disturbing. But it doesn’t stop there. Because ghouls, while normally little more than humans with odd dietary restrictions, are also capable of absorbing the power of others through eating their flesh. With a mortal, that means jack squat. With a powerful undead… Yeah. This makes many undead nervous. (Fang Fen: This is not, strictly speaking, a huge concern for most Undead. Ghouls do not grow more powerful as they grow older, the way most Undead do, and so most remain understated, respectable members of society. Humans can attain great power through murder as well, if done properly; And yet most do not.)

Ghouls are usually formed when someone dies of starvation. I’ve asked Fang Fen about the myths of the Wendigo and other related cannibalism curses, but she doesn’t believe in them. (Fang Fen: In the name; undead. To become one, you must first die. I suspect that myths of Wendigo are a simple misordering of events. A person dies, becomes the monster, and then gets the hunger for dead flesh, rather than vice versa. I certainly have never met any ghoul that professed the opposite order.)

Now, the really interesting thing here is that, in fact, ghouls tend to keep down the number of undead in an area. A corpse usually takes a while to rise as undead, and ghouls are naturally attracted to those corpses most. They’re kind of like the snails that you keep in an aquarium who feed on the goo that would normally grow on the walls. (Alfred: I cannot describe how grateful I am that I get to work with the Fae rather than the Undead.)(Fang Fen: Have you never met an Akaname?)(Alfred: No. What are they?)(Atina: You don’t study much outside of Western literature, do you, Alfred? Now stop crowding up the liner notes of my damn case files.)

Powers

Ghouls are mostly no different from the human they used to be. No stronger, no faster, no tougher. The one thing that’s really unusual about them is their saliva. Ghouls bites can be paralytic, or infectious, or necrotizing, or any number of things. From what I’ve heard, they start out just paralyzing the things that they lick or bite, but the older they get, the more power they gain. It’s not disease, though it might be mistaken for it. All of this would be goddamn terrifying, except that humans aren’t really very good at biting. Our mouths are awkwardly positioned for it, our jaws don’t open very wide or protrude very far. In other words, in a fight, it’s not too dangerous. (Fang Fen: I would warn you, however, not to kiss a ghoul, or allow it to perform oral sex upon you.) (Atina: Was… there a particular danger of that?) (Fang Fen: I’m told that among other things, their tongues are unusually long, and I’ve heard stories of ghouls saliva being aphrodisiacal. And they do brush their teeth after eating. Undead are rarely asexual, Atina.)

As far as weaknesses go, most ghouls don’t actually have much in the way of weaknesses, and are about as easy to kill as a normal human would be. The one thing about them is more of a revealing issue than anything else: Ghouls can’t eat non-human meat. It makes them violently ill. Most undead can eat meat, even if they don’t derive any nourishment from it. Now, I’m not saying that every vegetarian is secretly a ghoul, but if you know any morticians who also happen to be vegetarians, just keep an eye on them. Holy water doesn’t do much to them, unless they’re unusually powerful.

Alfred: Postmortologists don’t make many pacts with ghouls. Many undead are well-placed, or at least guaranteed to grow more powerful as they age. Ghouls cannot. In fact, I’m not entirely certain that most ghouls even can support a pact, although I knew one woman who claimed she’d gained a supernaturally skilled tongue from a pact with a ghoul, who proceeded to tie a cherry stem into a knot with her tongue. (Atina: That’s an old trick, Alfred. You tie a different cherry stem beforehand, put it in your mouth, and switch them out.)

An exception exists. Once, a visiting professor from the University of Melbourne claimed he had made a pact with a particularly old and powerful ghoul, one who fed regularly on other undead. (Fang Fen: Atina please find out when this professor visited and call me asap) This professor claimed that through this connection, he had gained the ability to take the shape of those who he had eaten from, and demonstrated it with bits of hair from volunteers. It was fairly impressive, though it easily could have been illusions of some kind, save for one incident later that night where he told one of the volunteers’ favorite in-jokes. The evening grew much tenser after that.

Politics

To my knowledge, there are a handful of ghouls in Binghamton. None of them are predators on any particularly meaningful Undead, although there are a few nasty rumors that Lady Ann Willing keeps one on retainer for the purpose of dealing with problems she can’t deal with herself. I mostly deal with the quiet types of ghouls, who live their lives peacefully and wouldn’t harm a fly. They’re pretty relaxed, all things considered.

Fang Fen: Even if Lady Ann Willing herself isn’t perfectly capable of handling any problems she may have without resorting to the services of a shadowy cannibal, she’s also not the kind of person. That said, however, there is one cannibalistic ghoul in town who arrived relatively recently. Arthur is a bit of a problem. He used to work in Birmingham as a personal enforcer for one of the courts there. He’s only about 50, but he’s a strong one, nearly as strong as me. I worry that he’s going to cause an incident while he’s here, but he’s kept his nose clean so far. He claims to be a vigilante, only out to kill Undead who have killed humans. I’m not inclined to believe him. (Atina: What’s he look like?)

In general, ghouls have little political power. They could technically apply to be on a night court, but it’d be a terribly foolish move, considering their lack of power for their age. They’d be the first target for assassination or intimidation, and they’d be lucky to get even a meager bribe. They don’t tend to hold important positions. They can, however, be very well-connected if they’re old, precisely because they’re too weak to be a threat.

Past Cases

Oh, this one’s good. Okay, you can already guess where most of these cases are going to come from. Like 90% of cemetery desecration or desecration of a corpse cases are likely to involve a ghoul. Most of them tend to work with cemeteries, or as morticians, or that kind of thing. See, the thing about a ghoul is they don’t have to bite off someone’s arm. They’re perfectly happy scooping out all of those healthy, high-in-nutrients organs and cooking them. I’ve actually known a few ghouls who were quite excellent cooks, though I’d recommend never asking them to share their meals. (Alfred: For God’s sakes, Atina, you’re talking about the bodies of the dead, would it kill you to show a little sensitivity?) (Atina: Okay, confessedly, Alfred has a point here. Ghosts don’t usually arrive JUST because someone ate their body, but it can make an already disturbed and angry ghost even more furious than they were before.)

The thing here is that most of them are very subtle, waiting until a body’s been buried a few weeks. Even the ones working in mortuaries tend to focus on the ones who are being buried, snacking on organs and stuff like that after finishing the autopsy and removal procedures. At most, they might nibble off a few toes or focus on the legs, which are usually out of view. They’re also big fans of cremated corpses, because they can just put a handful of whatever ashes into the urn while enjoying a nice meal that will last them a month.

Now, my client is a mortician- And I won’t tell you his name because of confidentiality, though if you were determined, you’d probably find him. He does great work, just know what you’re getting into if you hire him. Now, he’s got a cremation, and he gets peckish one night, decides ‘Hey, this guy’s not going anywhere.’ Has a big old meal. The next day, the family tells him they’ve changed their mind; They want to bury him, and they want a casket viewing. Well, the police get involved, he calls me, and we come in front of the judge.

There are different laws about corpses in every state. In New York, the relevant law is 145.26, aggravated cemetery desecration in the second degree. The thing is, the law only applied to opening a casket, crypt, or similar vessel that had been buried or interred in a cemetery. It said nothing about what the mortician did to the body before it was buried. They also tried him under the public health law related to opening graves, section 4218. But that law only protected body tissues against being sold, used in dissections, or for ‘malice and wantonness’. I was able to demonstrate that my client had a psychological issue compelling him to eat dead human flesh, proving a lack of malice or wantonness, and getting him off scott free! (Alfred: … Is that really something you’re celebrating?) (Atina: Well, the family sued him in civil court for negligent infliction of emotional distress and made two hundred thousand. I didn’t represent him for that one. So I like to think that everyone won.)

Ghosts

Yes, there are ghosts. I’ve even been told that there’s an afterlife by individuals who would know. Possibly even more than one. Reincarnation might be there, too. None of them have been very clear on how the afterlife works, though. (Alfred: Understand, experimental work with the afterlife is tricky. Remember that story I told you about the french scientist who, on learning he was to be beheaded, devised an experiment to try to figure out how long the human head remained conscious after beheading? Most wizards are not that dedicated.)

Ghosts are a lot simpler, though. Basically, there are two kinds of ghosts. I’ve heard a lot of different names for them, but I’ll describe them as ‘Echos’ and ‘Phantasms’, because it’s usefully descriptive and because that movie scared the crap out of me when I was a kid. And to understand the difference, I’m going to have to talk about the soul.

See, the ‘soul’ exists. Or at least something close enough to fit. There’s this concept, the ‘Monkeysphere'(Alfred: This is also known as ‘Dunbar’s number’.), that says that human beings are only able to maintain a stable social relationship with about 150 people at a time, cognitively. That’s how many ‘people’ you can care about. (Alfred: Technically, the number might be anywhere between 100 and 250.) Your connection to others, and others’ connections to you, is your ‘soul’. That’s what goes on to an afterlife, that’s what demons feed on, that’s apparently also connected in some unclear way to magical ability. (Alfred: I have read entire volumes on the subject. Some people’s ability to do magic is proportional to how well-developed their soul is, others inversely proportional. It’s fascinating, and drives the wizard community nuts. I, for example, grow stronger the more gregarious I am.)(Atina: So he has an excuse to be a philandering ass.)

An Echo is an impression of powerful emotional energy. It works a lot like an actual echo. (Alfred: You’d never make it in the world of higher education with names like those.) Someone who dies while feeling an extremely clear emotion leaves an imprint of themselves on that place. If they kept living, their emotions would ‘smear’ the echo, making it nonsensical and powerless. If other people moved in, the same would happen. So Echos tend to happen when someone dies in some extremely emotional way, somewhere lonely. They’re mostly harmless, and tend to be very weak. They freak people out, but that’s about it. (Alfred: Think of it like a radio signal, getting disturbed by other signals, until it becomes unrecognizable garba)(Atina: Don’t correct my metaphors in my own case files.)

A Phantasm, however, is when someone’s soul doesn’t go to the afterlife. The whole unfinished business thing, basically. These tend to be people who was very focused. You’ve heard of someone who put their heart and soul into their business? That’s basically what we’re talking about. Someone who was obsessed with politics, or their business, or their family, or whatever, becomes a phantasm until whatever they care about- their ‘institution’- is gone. Most of the old businesses in the world have at least one Phantasm who’s working alongside them. Old family lines. That kind of thing. They are also far more powerful than an Echo, and grow more so the longer that thing survives.

Powers

Ironically, the most notable power of ghosts is to influence humans. Echoes do most of the poltergeist stuff: twitching books, creating odd lights and sounds, giving people bad dreams, and so forth. That’s about the most that they can do. Their primary weakness is the simple fact that if a human is around, they gradually become more and more smeared until they fade away. They’re not even something that can be called human-like anymore; More like animals than anything else.

Phantasms are a bigger deal. Usually they have strong connections to a human institution. They’re capable of appearing to members of that institution, and their deep familiarity usually lets them educate and help new members of the institution into positions of power so they can remain in control. They’re generally benevolent towards the things they care about, but have a bad habit of being unable to let anyone else take the reins of power. The dead don’t retire. I understand that many corporate name changes have been instituted in an attempt to throw off a persistent phantasm, cutting off their connection to this world. They are also capable of some shocking displays of violence in defense of the things they love. Understandable, since it’s a form of self defense for them.

One of their strangest weaknesses is what I’d refer to as the ‘bloodline’. A Phantasm exists so long as someone descended from them still lives. This tends to make them a little obsessed with human procreation, and as such, they have extremely harsh views about abortions, birth control, and so forth. I know, right? You thought your parents were bad about you having kids, your great-great-great grandparents are a thousand times worse. If their bloodline dies out… Well, I don’t know. They disappear. Maybe they’re gone forever, maybe they just move on to the afterlife. (Fang Fen: I have heard of this. I choose to believe in reincarnation. No thing is meant to live forever; And neither is any thing meant to end forever. I died, and became anew.) (Alfred: The Fae say there is nothing new under the sun, only variations on past themes, and so nothing truly dies. But the same note struck in two different places will mean something entirely different, and a song that only one person knows might disappear forever when they die. A disquieting thought.)

Alfred: Echoes aren’t capable of making pacts, so far as anyone knows. They’re purely emotional beings, with no real capacity to plan. Some Postmortologists do train them and provide wards to keep them whole against emotional interference, using them as a kind of watchdog, watching and stopping any intruders. I personally would prefer a burglar alarm, but some people care more about grandiosity than practicality. (Atina: I cannot believe you have the balls to act as though you aren’t the biggest showboater in the world. You carry a sword around, Alfred.)(Alfred: Swords are extremely practical for their intended purpose.) (Atina: A knife, or a pistol, are practical. A sword is a Menacing charge waiting to happen.)

Phantasms, on the other hand, can make excellent patrons for a pact. They are often old, and powerful. Their price tends to be simple enough; aid in maintaining their institute. They prefer to choose individuals from their institution- descendants are a favorite. Their powers tend to be eclectic, but most relate in some way or another to their institutions, or to establishing places of power. Ghosts are homebodies, and wizards who make pacts with them are likewise, staying in one place and fortifying it till they are comfortable. Some of them create entire pocket worlds in their homes, though they usually get worked pretty hard by the Phantasm. A very rare few have even claimed to contact those the afterlife, though I do not know how reliable their information is.

Politics

One of the most powerful ghosts in Binghamton is Edwin Albert Link. He was a major aviation engineer, and developed a number of patents. one of the most famous was the Link Trainer, which was one of the first airplane simulators. They were mostly sideshow attractions until 1934, when the US Army Air bought several. The man died of cancer in the 1980s, and the field of the Greater Binghamton Airport is named after him. His ghost has a notable dedication to the Greater Binghamton Airport, where he spends much of his time. He’s an unusually flexible man for such an old ghost. He’s easily one of my favorite members of the spirit community, but he loathes the current state of the airplane industry. He has told me, and I quote, “They are pissing on the most noble endeavor that humanity has ever strove towards, and turning it into a dull chore!” There’s a reason I like him.

Fan Fen: Ah, Edwin. He was quite a charming young man, and makes a more charming ghost. He is not particularly supernaturally powerful, but his political connections afford him an unusual amount of sway, and he was quite old when he passed on; He is actually several years older than I. Though he lives some way outside of Binghamton itself, he remains heavily involved with the individuals there. He is a solid member of Binghamton’s undead community.

Past Cases

Okay. One of the big things about buying a house or a piece of property is the title search. You want to make sure the person selling you your new piece of property actually has the right to do so, and that the federal government hasn’t purchased the right to store nuclear waste on that piece of property, right? Well, for the more supernaturally conscious, the title search doesn’t just include government issues. They also want to make sure that their new lair isn’t the home of some crazy spook. And that’s where I come in, with the help of the Horses at Binghamton U. They like to keep an eye on any ghosts that happen to live in Binghamton, and make sure they’re not starting trouble.

Now, usually, this is a fairly simple process. If you know an Echo’s in your house, you can just ignore it till it fades away. I had a Fairy baron who wanted to buy a house, and I do the usual title search. The Horses go through the house, they don’t find anything. Two months later, I get a call from the fairy, enraged. While trying to clear a stand of Japanese Maples in the backyard, these tiny little trees, a ghost appears and nearly rips his head off before he manages to ward the damn thing off! He’s pissed beyond words, and I’m pissed at the Postmortologists, so we go there to try to figure out what’s happening.

Turns out that nearly a hundred years ago, an English botanist had owned the property, and had planted the stand of Japanese maples. Loved them, developed cultivars with them, and took care of them till the day he died. The fairy agreed to help to ensure that the maples were well taken care of, and I managed to avoid a malpractice curse. And an important lesson: Real estate always comes with a catch. Sometimes it’s termites, sometimes it’s an obsessive gardener spirit with a short fuse. (Alfred: They’ve been working on an ambient ghost detector. The last time I passed by, they had a large saucer of milk they were carrying around the lab, trying to figure out whether it was curdling in a specific location.) (Atina: I would love to see what their grant applications look like.)

 

 

Chapter 3: Kind-hearted Killers

I am well aware that I am not a small woman. I’m not obese, though I weigh more than I’d like to. I’m freakishly tall, especially for a woman. That height brings with it a certain level of mass- And again, this is not an invitation for a joke about my weight, because I genuinely am sensitive about that. When I punch someone, they might not get knocked on their ass, but they should damn well have the decency to stagger. It’s not a matter of strength or toughness, it’s a question of relative mass.

As I drew my fist back from the man, shaking my arm, he sighed. “Look, Miss.” He spoke with a slight New Jersey accent, though that wasn’t entirely unknown in Binghamton. “How about you let me take you for a little ride. We’ll talk. Nice and quiet. Things don’t have to get violent.” I took a step back, and looked over my shoulder. It was two blocks to home. If I could get there… “Ah,” he said warningly. I turned back to face him. There was a pistol in his hand now. A very professional-looking silencer was screwed onto the end. I took a step back, and he raised it. “Ah ah.”

“Look,” I said, taking a deep breath to steady my nerves as I looked down the barrel. “If you want my wallet-”

“Miss, we both know you’re not stupid. That’s not what this is about. You got that case with the girl. You’re going to get into that car, and we’re going to make a little deal.”

I swallowed. “And if I decide I don’t like that deal?”

“Well. Then, we make you an offer. And this one, well-”

“Yeah, thanks, Vito, I get it. You’re giving the whole Mafioso thing the old college try, and- might I add- really selling it. But what’s with the redheaded chick with the soccer ball?”

His expression didn’t change. “Yeah, I’m not going to fall for that old trick.” Then the soccer ball struck him in the side of the head, pitching him into the car.

The car’s door-frame crunched under the impact, and the man sagged. The soccer ball rolled down his side and struck the concrete hard enough to throw out a spiderweb of cracks. It rolled along at a surprising clip to the feet of the young woman who’d sauntered out of the darkness between two suburban houses. She had hair so red it almost lit up the night, and eyes that glowed green in the dark like a cat’s. She was also wearing a rather ragged forest green jacket around her shoulders, and stood in green athletic shorts and a pair of dented steel-toed cleats. The ball rolled up onto her foot like an affectionate puppy, and she lifted her foot absently, catching it on one knee. “I’m not with him,” she said lightly, her Irish accent as thick as Guinness.

The man was up in a second, and the pistol coughed three times. His aim was both excellent, and terrible. All three shots were aimed right for the red-head’s face, but were caught partway there by the soccer ball, which had launched up off of her knee with one smooth movement. Rather than pierce the ball and drill into her excessively pretty face, the bullets ricocheted off, leaving small scratches that revealed something dull gray inside. Then she struck the ball with her forehead, and there was a ponderous moment before it moved, its inertia visible.

The thug tried to lift his hands to catch the ball, and cursed in pain as it ricocheted off of his hands, into the air. As he tried to recover, it landed heavily on his skull and bounced again. He was left flat on the ground, gasping and coughing and swearing and choking. Then the soccer ball landed firmly on his crotch, and there was nothing but a high, keening noise from him.

“Bloody cunt,” she murmured, as the soccer ball rolled back up to her feet. “Now, as for you-”

Another series of shots rang out. A second man emerged from the car, pistol in hand, muzzle flashing. I felt the world spin as the redhead threw herself into me, bearing both of us to the ground. There was a squeal of tires as the car sped off into the night, both men safely inside. My savior stood up, cursing and holding her stomach. Blood was dripping down her fingers. In the giddy rush of sensory acuity that follows any sudden, unexpected survival of a near-death experience, I noticed that her hair had turned a muddy auburn. “Oh, god,” I whispered softly, both hands over my mouth.

“I’ll be fine, I’ll be fine! Just… tell me you’ve some damn red hair dye.”

I sat in the bathroom, slowly running the tinting brush across the woman’s faded auburn hair. With each stroke of the brush, her pain seemed to fade a bit. “So, Miss LeRoux… why the hell do you have red hair dye-”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” I snapped, as I continued to run the brush down the lock of hair. I noticed the woman’s hair seemed to almost drink the dye down, going dry and brilliantly red within seconds of being painted. I’d bought the tinting brush at the same time as the dye. I’d gotten both out of a misguided notion that I’d do my hair in a new style, look fantastic, and turn everyone’s heads. Then I’d researched more into the side effects of using hair dye, and had reconsidered. That broadly sensible attitude towards life had somehow failed me entirely when it came to choosing a career where I wasn’t going to be shot at.

Shot at. With guns. Who did I know that would use a gun to try to kill me? The things that I worked with didn’t use guns for three reasons. One, they were obvious and easily traced by the police compared to, say, death-curses or salamander venom. Second, they were unreliable in the hands of the supernatural. It wasn’t a major difference, but a gun was about fifty percent more likely to jam when held by a non-human. Alfred had told me that, once. And finally… guns simply didn’t have the style that most supernatural creatures demanded. A sword, sure. A thrown knife. Even a bow or a dartgun. I could imagine all of those, easily. A gun just felt so classless.

“Aaaah, damn that feels good.” The red-haired woman raised the hem of her shirt, exposing her stomach. The gut wound had become little more than a fading pink spot. I inhaled sharply through my nose, and kept brushing. “So, full disclosure. I was hired by Earlen Wen to kill you.” The brush fell from my numb fingers, and struck the ground. “Oh, come on. You just saved my life with this hair dye. I’m not going to kill you after that. It sets a horrible precedent when you murder people who save your life.”

“Why on earth did you stop those two, then?” I asked, feeling slightly dizzy, as I reached back down and grabbed the tinting brush like my life depended on it. Thank god for insecurity. This girl seemed much more like Earlen Wen’s style. The soccer ball sat in the corner, where the woman had gently set it down. I’d tried moving it while getting out the hair dye. It weighed more than she did.

“Well, come on. I kill people with a lead-filled soccer ball. You show up in the morgue with several small-caliber wounds, nobody’s going to believe I was the one who killed you.” She sighed. “It’s just as well. The Earlen’s a bitch, and Alfred would never have forgiven me.”

This didn’t shock me. In honesty, how many redcap women could there be in one city? And I knew it had only been a matter of time before Alfred started dating a woman who would try to kill someone besides him. The real surprise was that she hadn’t been able to go through with it. “You’re Polly Ryan, then. Fine. So, you were working for the Earlen. What’s happening with us now? Are we friends, or do I just get a pass this once, or do you owe me your life…”

“I’m not entirely sure.” She frowned. “How about let’s start as friends and see where it goes?”

“Is the Earlen going to try to kill you?”

“No, no. Well, not personally. She might order me to be killed alongside you, but she’s not going to hold a grudge against me. No self-respecting fairy would screw over someone who saved their life.”

“And you’re self-respecting, dating Alfred?” I asked. She gave me a sour look, and I winced. “Sorry. He’s… got some bad habits. He’s dated more than a few women who were… unstable.”

“Well, yes, we’re not generally considered the kind of girls you bring home to mother, are we?” She gave a quirked smirk. “I don’t think I would’ve gone through with killing you even if those two hadn’t shown up. I’d hate to disappoint him, and he does seem to think very highly of you.” She sighed softly, as the last of the red hair dye soaked into her roots. “God damn, that feels better. That’s the fancy stuff, isn’t it? Doesn’t need any bleaching or nothing?”

She ran a finger through her hair. Normally, hair dye was supposed to be rough on the hair, making it fray and frizz. That’s what I’d read. The fact that her hair actually seemed to grow sleeker, fuller, and more attractive with the dye seemed like just another one of life’s little crotch-kicks. Still… She’d effortlessly demolished a trained gunman, and shrugged off a bullet wound. I tapped my fingers across the brush, considering. “Is there any way I could hire you as a bodyguard?”

She rubbed her chin in what she probably thought was a calculating way, but I could see the hungry gleam in her eyes. “Weeeell. I suppose I could consider it. How much ya thinking of paying me?”

“Five hundred.”

Her eyes widened with greedy excitement. “Five hun-”

“A day, until this trial is finished. For that, you live in this house, you escort me to and from work, and you keep awake while I’m asleep. You make sure that I don’t get my dumb ass killed.” I stood up, and cricked my neck. “Two things. First, you swear to me that you won’t kill me, or anyone I tell you not to kill.”

“Sure, I swear I won’t kill you or…” She paused a moment, trying to parse the rest of it, but I moved on. I could get all of this down in writing later.

“And second, if you do marry Alfred, I’m writing a prenuptial for him, and you are not allowed to kill him if the relationship goes sour.”

She puffed out her cheeks, standing up, staring up at me with her hands on her hips. “You really think I’m just some murdering nutjob, don’t you?”

“You’re a redcap. You are the Murdering Nutjob Fairy.”

She opened her mouth, and closed it, looking annoyed. “God, I want to tell you off, but being the Murdering Nutjob Fairy does sound pretty great.” She grinned up at me. This woman, capable of such sudden shocking violence, had one of the brightest, warmest smiles I’d ever seen. “Alright! Where’s my room?”

I’ve called the house small, though that may be giving the wrong impression. It is, in fact, a fairly large house by my New York City standards. Purchased from an old lady, its decorations were mostly still in place. The old woman had been devoutly Christian, putting crosses, relics, and pictures of Jesus everywhere. I once had toyed with a fixture, and it had opened to reveal a small censor used for sprinkling holy water and a guide on how to give someone their last rites in case of an emergency. It was the supernatural equivalent of moving into James Bond’s apartment. I was pretty sure that the wallpaper had bible verses printed on it. I personally didn’t have enough faith to make it dangerous, but it was still a nice intimidating factor, and protected the place while I was out. The old woman herself was now living in Florida, and I liked to believe she was wreaking havoc with any undead or demons down there.

Polly Ryan did not look like the women that Alfred usually dated. I’d never actually known him to get into a relationship with a human woman, but he still tended to favor the more unusual fairies. The kind who were distant and icy and beautiful. Polly was not any of those. Well, I was being a little catty on the last item. She was certainly attractive, but her skin was freckled, her clothing raucous, and she wasn’t classy. She was, however, deeply appreciative of the bed. She flopped down heavily, dropping her soccer ball to the side with a thump that made me wince. “Heeey, this is a nice room! You must make a real bundle to be able to afford a place this great, huh? Not to mention paying me five hundred a day.”

“It’s a fair amount; You may be on call at any time, and I’ve already had one person try to shoot me.” I sighed. It would cost a lot. But the redcap had already proven her ability, and you knew you’d hit the big time when you hired your own bodyguard. I couldn’t keep her on retainer like that for long, but I hopefully wouldn’t need her for long. “Now, as for food-”

“Oh, that’s fine. I think there’s going to be plenty of fear and intimidation while I’m around you, Atina.” She winked at me, and I rubbed my forehead. I stepped back from the room, and closed the door softly, leaving her to sleep off the bullet wound.

Then I turned my head towards the opposite door, where the Celtic cross hung. Jenny’s room. I felt a little pang of sorrow. I hadn’t heard from her on the phone. I stepped up to the door, and rapped it gently with my knuckles, almost hoping I wouldn’t get an answer. “Jenny?” My voice was soft, but I tried to be heard. I needed to make sure she was doing alright. I’d taken responsibility for her by becoming her defense. As a lawyer, that didn’t really extend past her legal needs, but I was never a very good lawyer. I gently opened the door, and leaned my head in.

Jenny sat on the large bed within. The curtains were all drawn, her head lowered. Her right hand was red, and she held it with her left. She looked up at me, and there were tears in her eyes. “I… It was gloomy in here. I decided to let in a little light.” Her fingers tightened around the burned hand. “I wasn’t thinking. It…” She sniffled. “I’m a monster.”

“In one sense, yeah.” I sighed softly, and closed the door behind me as I stepped into the room. “You’re going through a serious trauma, Jenny. You just had a lot of bad things happen to you, and you’re experiencing some strange new things. Kind of like puberty all over again, except this time, the blood is going in rather than coming out.”

She stared at me. Then she laughed, sharply, almost disbelieving, a little sob mixed in with it. “I can’t believe you said that.”

I smiled. “It’s the nature of dark work. Humans use humor to mock dark things, and make them less frightening. Why do you think there are so many jokes about lawyers?” I took a seat in the large, overstuffed chair, flicking the light switch as I went. A large, elaborate crystal chandelier hung from the middle of the ceiling, casting light across the room. “Did you have anything to eat? I left that blood pack in the fridge for you. You can microwave it for a minute or so on half power, and it’s supposed to taste like it’s straight from the vein.”

“Is this so mundane for you?” she asked, her hands clasped together. I’d picked up a fresh set of clothes from the dollar store; She wore a white undershirt and a poorly fitting pair of sweatpants. I’d burned the previous set of clothes and dumped the ashes into the Susquehanna river. I tried to avoid entanglement with mortal law enforcement, even when I was the one crimes were being committed against. It would get everyone involved a lot more edgy and frightened. That wouldn’t help Jenny or me one bit.

“Yeah. Everything gets mundane if you experience it often enough. That’s what mundane means.” I leaned back in the chair. “Anyway, you’re not a monster in the sense you meant. Whatever you are, it’s a natural phenomenon. You’re not cursed, though it may feel like it at times. You are in a new state of your life. My job is to make sure it’s a long and happy state.”

She looked down. “I still don’t remember what happened that night. What if it turns out I killed him?”

I rubbed my face briefly, and took a deep breath. “Alright. I’m going to level with you. If you killed your boyfriend, and I’m not saying you did, there are leniencies in the Undead legal system. Gluttony is a crime, and a serious one, but-”

“Gluttony?” She frowned.

“Ah. Okay, yeah. See, the Undead are very old-fashioned. To them, killing a human is not the crime, it’s just an act. The motivation for killing a human is what matters, and they like to use the Seven Deadly Sins because- and you’re going to have to learn to deal with this, Jenny- they are a bunch of melodramatic centenarians who are very bored, and very out of touch. They’re like your senile grandparents, except in perfect physical health and capable of snapping you in two like a board.”

“I like my grandparents,” Jenny said tartly.

“Then you should get along fine in Undead society. The charge of Gluttony is because they think you killed him out of hunger. Murdering a human to satisfy your own needs is a big taboo in Undead society. Despite their unemotional attitude towards it, they dislike killing, especially for so stupid a reason as a lack of control. The ones with a conscience despise it as a waste of human life, the ones without despise it as a huge hassle for the entire undead community because you couldn’t keep it together. But, your circumstances were unusual. Most Gluttony cases have to do with someone who’s already established and who got careless. You were just changed, every drop of blood sucked out of your body, and starving. I’m going to make a strong argument that the fault was not yours, that it was your maker’s.”

“But… I killed him, nonetheless,” she said softly, her eyes turned down.

“Maybe. We don’t even know that. It may turn out you weren’t responsible for it at all. But even if you were, the punishment for taking his life shouldn’t be death. Maybe you’ll have to spend a long time atoning, but you can’t do that if you died. Do you understand me?”

She nodded meekly.

“Good. Next, we have to deal with the charge of being makerless. This is a lot more serious to the Undead, because of what it means. They don’t know who you might be working for, or what you’re really capable of. Let’s say they accept you, and 30 years down the line, your maker reveals your true power, and you’re suddenly one of the most powerful beings in the country, and you know exactly how to tear apart everything they’ve built?”

She stared at me. “God, that sounds like the ravings of a paranoid mind. Is that really how they justify it?”

I coughed, and looked down at my hands. “That’s… actually just an idea I came up with on the spot.”

We were both quiet for several seconds.

“Let me get you some blood and oatmeal. You don’t need to eat, but it’ll make you feel better.”

A few minutes later, the two of us sat together at the small breakfast table sitting in the kitchen. A bowl of red oatmeal sat in front of Jenny. She eyed it uncertainly, before taking a bite. Her eyes widened, and she began to gulp down heavy spoonfuls of the stuff, gulping it down, and licking the bowl. She looked a little embarrassed as she finished, licking her lips hungrily. Three bowls of oatmeal and a full pint and a half of blood later, she sat down heavily, letting out a sigh of relief, sinking into the chair. I smiled. “Feeling better?” She nodded quickly, her head lowered. “Yeah, it’s amazing how much food can remind you that you’re alive.” To my gratitude, Jenny did not seem to notice the accidental faux pas.

“Do you think that you can convince them that I deserve to live?” Jenny asked, her hands folded in her lap, the rush of energy disappearing as quickly as it had arrived. Her cheeks were still pale, but a bit of the red had returned to them. “I mean, that… I won’t be a danger to them.”

“I am always very clear with my clients. I don’t promise anything. There is never certainty in these trials. All I can promise you is that I am a very good defense attorney among the supernatural, and I will be doing everything I can to protect you.” I smiled. “I know that might not sound like much, but I’ve got some good friends. This isn’t hopeless. I think we can make a very strong case for leniency. After that, we can worry about finding your maker and helping you settle down. And you’ve got a home here for as long as you need.”

She nodded slowly. “Who was that woman who you brought home?”

“Oh, that? She’s my best friend’s girlfriend, and now, my bodyguard. There was, uh…” I frowned. “Look. I wouldn’t tell you about this except it might save your life, but someone drew a gun on me. And I think it had to do with this case. So I am going to suggest you not answer the door, and if any suspicious guys come around, don’t let them in. I don’t think they want to kill us, but they certainly seemed ready to. I think this case is more than just you getting changed into a vampire. Someone’s got a political agenda.”

She paused a moment, and frowned, looking at me. “You are doing a great deal to help me, and for very little pay. You are getting 38 dollars for this from me, correct?” I nodded. “So what is your motivation? This political agenda? Do you want power? Is someone paying you?”

I looked down at my lap. “I just want to feel like I’m helping people. I became a lawyer to help people, and most of what I do, I don’t really feel like I’m making the world a better place. Most of the time, I’m working for people that patronize me, that act as though I am lesser for being a human. Even when their freedom, their life, depends on me, they can’t help but look at me and say ‘You poor, limited thing.’” I sighed. “I want to feel like I’m helping someone in a way that really matters. If you survive this, you have a chance very few people get. You could change the way this town works, which is something that I’ll never get to do, because I’m just a human.”

She frowned. “You sound almost like you want to be one of them.”

“No. I decided a long time ago that I wasn’t going to accept power. I’ll succeed on my own terms. I don’t need the supernatural,” I lied.

The doorbell rang again at 4 AM. Jenny was curled up into bed, her arms under her head. Polly was at the front door before me, and her eyes were narrowed. “You’ve got bollocks up to your neck to be coming around here, buddy,” she said, bouncing the soccer ball on one knee. I had no idea how she could move the thing so lightly. “Now turn around and buzz off before I decide to cut them off.”

The man in the door crossed his arms obstinately. The punk ghoul from before. “Is that supposed to be a Welsh accent?” he asked, sniffing, looking unconcerned with her. I saw her teeth clench.

“It’s Irish, ye bloody tan-”

“Polly, it’s alright.” I shook a squeeze-bottle in one hand, and the ghoul took a step back. “I know this guy. He’s not going to make any trouble, is he?” Polly gave him a brief glare, and then stepped back. She caught the soccer ball on her head and walked into the kitchen with it balanced there like she’d spent four years at an exceptionally sporty finishing school. I said a silent prayer that she not drop it and destroy my floors. “What brings you to my door, Johnny Rotten?”

He raised an eyebrow. “I’m here with a warning.” I raised the squeeze bottle threateningly, and he held up his hands placatingly. “Not like that. I’m sorry about getting rough with you in the office, and in deference to that, I won’t insult you by asking to come in. I’ve been around the block a couple of times. Met a few solicitors and a few humans in the supernatural. Not many of them with nerve worth talking about.” There was the faintest trace of a British accent, although I wouldn’t have been able to tell where in Britain. “You’ve got nerve in spades. Soaked me right and proper, I don’t mind telling you, made me feel like a right fool. Some men might take offense to that. I personally think it’s damned attractive.” He gave a broad, toothy grin. “Now, do you want to hear the warning?”

“Sure.” I squared my shoulders, arms crossed, squeeze bottle held loose so I could spray him. I was admittedly interested to hear what he had to say, but I wanted to look like I didn’t believe a word of it. Arms crossed, jaws tightened. All those little things to project a fake aura of intense dislike. “Then get off my property.”

“Fair enough, fair enough. You know who I am?” I raised an eyebrow. “No? Damn. I’m Arthur. I kill the Undead, and eat them. Specifically, I kill and eat them’s what’ve done wrong.”

“That sounds precisely like vigilantism, Arthur. What, you don’t have any trust in the Undead courts?”

He gave me a long, slow look, his eyes shaded and dark. “You and me, we both know what the score is with the dead. I’m more like you than I am like them. I don’t get stronger. I don’t become a prince or a noble or some great bloody dark god just by not getting my dumb ass killed long enough. The real Undead, they’re the ones who get stronger because they don’t change. You and I have to change to keep up. We aren’t given power. We earn it.”

“I don’t have to kill anyone for that,” I said, tone sharp, giving him a hard look. He looked to the side, frowning.

“True enough. I don’t kill because I want to. I kill because it means protecting humans. I don’t expect you to agree with me, but we’re both trying to do right by the ways we know.” He took a deep breath, and shook his head. “I’m getting ahead of myself. That girl, they’re saying that she killed a human, drank him dry, right?”

I gave him a cold, level look, tensing one hand. “There are charges against her that she did. I intend to prove that she didn’t.”

“And if she did?”

“What if she did, and I get her off the hook, you mean?”

“That’d be about the shape of it, yes.”

“Then she goes free, and you don’t kill her.”

“Even if she was guilty of murdering that boy whose only crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time?”

“That’s the only crime she was guilty of, either. She’s not the murderer here. She’s the victim. If you come after her, there’ll be hell to pay. Your beef is whatever asshole transformed her into a vampire.”

Abruptly, his face split into a grin. “Fantastic! Just what I wanted to hear!” He tapped the side of his nose. “Had to make sure you weren’t a turncoat type. Here’s what I know, then. My employer thinks that this is a ploy on the part of the Notte Nostra. They think they’ve got something nasty planned, they want to screw with Lady Ann Willing, and divide the city. This is a big issue, and one that might get the Lady Ann into some deep trouble. My employer’s trying to make sure that they don’t. If that means that Lady Ann has to kill Jenny, so be it, but what’s important to them is that the city not get torn apart. Find some way to get everyone on the same page. A close decision won’t do it for this one.” He shook his head. “You gotta win this thing all the way, or it’ll all end in tears. Best of luck.”

“Thanks for telling me that a lot’s riding on this case, I had no idea.”

He gave a short salute, turned on his heels, and strode down to the sidewalk, and disappeared into the night. I walked back into the house, locking the door behind me out of some random paranoid impulse. Then, I took a seat in front of my computer, and began paging through my files. I picked up my phone, and dialed Alfred.

“Mmmgh. Mluh. Hell, Atina, why are you calling me at this hour?” Alfred’s voice grew tense. “What’s the matter? Did your house get burned down? Was it another coyote?”

“No, jesus, Alfred, I just wanted to make sure you were alright. I’m fine. Polly’s here. She’s been shot, but she’s fine too.”

“Atina, I think that your jealousy over Polly is getting a little out of control.”

“Oh, funny man, very funny. Look, the jury selection is in about 20 hours. I want you to come by at sundown. I’m going to invite Fang Fen as well, and we’re going to start strategizing.”

“Oh, excellent! I’ll bring along a nice hot dish.”

“Alfred, this is not a party, this is evidence.”

“Atina, I’ve known you for about two years, now. In that time, do you know how many times I’ve seen you socialize?”

“I work a lot, so what-”

“You only work. When was the last time you went out on a date?”

“Well… I mean, in law school-”

“When was the last time you visited or threw a party?” I was silent, and sighed, lowering my head. “No booze, I promise, just some barbecue. We’ll have a great time of it. I’ll bring over meat, we’ll all sit out on the patio, it’ll be awesome.”

“Just… Jesus. Fine, whatever. Just be there.”

I didn’t say it, I didn’t admit it, but I had to be honest with myself. I was glad that he cared enough to force me to be social. Even if he could have chosen a better time.

 

 

Chapter 4: Keeping the Wolf from the Door

“Jesus Christ, Atina,” Alfred muttered, a frown on his face.

“What?” I asked, frowning. “Look, this was expensive.”

“I’ll bet it was. Is that salmon? And tuna-steaks?” He picked over the meats, an eyebrow raised. It was true, getting good fresh fish this far from the ocean was a hell of a trick. The old black Weber grill sat in my back yard, a thin layer of snow on the ground. It was cold out, but half of our party was immune to the cold, and the other half, myself included, were highly resistant. I usually was the one to handle the grill, but Jenny had shown a huge amount of enthusiasm at the idea. She was currently filling the chimney with coals, the metal pipe rattling as she lit the newspaper beneath. Licks of flame began to run over the briquettes as she watched. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, but this must have cost a lot.”

I sighed. Alfred had the die-hard penny-pinching of a lifetime academic. “I got shot at this morning, Alfred. I’m splurging. I got a bodyguard.” I hooked a thumb at Polly, who was sitting at the table. She smiled, and tossed back a quick salute. Her soccer ball rolled down her lap, off her toe, and bounced into the air like a frightened cat, before landing on her lap again. I still couldn’t quite figure out how the ball seemed to weigh nothing when she was moving it, and then weighed more than she did when it hit someone. Anything that defied physics was nice to have on my side. “I got some nice fish from the good grocery store. This stuff’s supposed to be good for your brain. I want to go into this jury selection with my brains working at top efficiency.” I smiled. “Besides, it reminds me of my dad.”

“He was a longshoreman, then?” asked Fang Fen as she stepped through the door. She was dressed in an elegant white tennis shirt, exposing her arms from the bicep down, a kicky skirt and belt completing the ensemble. A choker hung around her throat, and she looked significantly more spry than she had the night before. She’d discarded her cane, and was bearing a large bowl filled to the brim with chop suey.

“No, he just loved cooking fish.” I gave her a grin. Polly stood up, and peered into the bowl.

“Hey, I thought you were born in China. Isn’t chop suey Americanized?”

“Oh, yes.” Fang Fen gave a grin. “Much like me, really. You don’t have to be from a place to enjoy its food, and I’ve always liked American Chinese.” She took a fork, plucking out a piece of large piece of chicken, and nibbling at it delicately. “In so much of this country, people are ignorant of the greater world. They know little of the great dynasties of China, of the Irish potato famines, of the kings and blades of Wales, or of the Japanese warring states. But I wager almost everyone in this country has, at one time or another in their life, had a dish of fried rice. And in those little moments of hunger satisfied, we share everything.”

“Oh, god, don’t tell me that you’re going to start going on about how preying on humans really makes you one of them again, Fang Fen. There’s a difference between making food and being food, you know.” I grinned at her, even as Polly gave the food a doubtful look.

“I don’t know. I prefer things that are bleedin’ genuine, myself.”

“The fire’s ready!” Jenny smiled as she lifted the grate, and poured the gray charcoal into the kettle. A few moments later, the tuna and salmon filets went onto the grill, sizzling and beginning to cook immediately. The scent of charcoal smoke and lemon filled the air, the glaze pouring across the meat. “Uh, Miss Atina, I hate to ask, but do you have another of those blood packs…?”

I frowned. “You’re hungry again already? That should’ve kept you for a month.” I rubbed my chin. “Maybe we can use that. If you’d fed yourself recently, then you wouldn’t be getting hungry again so quickly. Might be evidence that you weren’t responsible for Tony’s death-”

There was a clatter, as the barbecue tongs fell onto the stone paving on the edge of the lawn. All eyes turned towards Jenny, whose eyes were filling up with tears. “I- I’m sorry, I-” She let out a choked little sob, and ran into the house. I felt a flush run up my cheeks, and a horrible little sick feeling. Of course she was still feeling sensitive about the death of her boyfriend. She’d probably forgotten he was dead for a few precious minutes.

I knew a little bit about the soul, from what Alfred had told me. When you loved someone, they became a part of you, and vice versa. The feeling of having someone you love ripped away from you was like having a meat-hook rip out an organ. I’d just shoved salt into an open wound. “I’ll go talk to her, I should-”

Fang Fen put a hand on my shoulder. “I think that I should do it, this time. Not to insult you, but you have not experienced the things that she has. The shock of death, and the horror of finding someone you love murdered… These are things that you can empathize with, but people so rarely are willing to listen unless you can match their stories.” She smiled softly. “Have a bite to eat. Save the girl’s life. I will help her to cope with these changes.”

I nodded. A part of me wanted to punch her. Another part was sickeningly grateful. Of course, Fang Fen was far more experienced with these things than I was. She’d been spending the last ninety years learning how to do it. But being told I wasn’t capable of something pissed me off, and even more so when I knew it was true. I flopped down onto the chair by the grill, and gave the meat a half-hearted poke with the barbecue fork, and turned it over. The salmon was turning from orange to a bright pink, becoming flaky. The smell filled the air.

“Mmm. Bit of a crybaby, isn’t she?” asked Polly, an eyebrow raised.

“There’s no shame in tears or pain when you lose the one you love,” Alfred chided. He was one of those men who chided people. That was probably his single most aggravating trait, even more than the handsomeness or the righteousness or the chivalry. “Your concern was well-placed, Atina. You’re trying to make sure that she survives. That’s as good a reason as any to be excited.” He gave me a bracing smile, which was almost as bad as the chiding.

“I’m not much good at the appropriate thing, am I?” I frowned. “To hell with it. This whole thing was meant to be about the case, anyway. I might as well focus on that.” I pointed a finger at Alfred. “What’ve you got for me?”

“I dropped by the pub, talked with the bartenders and some of the students from my classes, after assuring them they weren’t in any trouble. Jenny was there on Friday night, with her boyfriend. They left about an hour in, with a Hispanic woman dressed in a black dress. That was the most description I got. The hotel where she woke up was only half a mile away, so they may well have walked. The hotel staff there hadn’t seen anyone, and said that the room hadn’t been rented out that night. I couldn’t see any obvious signs of them being mentally tampered with, but a lock wouldn’t do much to stop a vampire of any decent lineage. They could have made their way in through a mistform, walked through a wall, or simply grabbed the keys off the wall while invisible.” He shrugged. “I’m afraid that physical detective-work may avail us very little. Once Jenny is feeling a bit stronger, we may have to do a dreamwalk.”

I shuddered. “Fuck. I hate dreamwalks.”

Polly raised an eyebrow. “What, seriously? They’re awesome. We do them all the time while we’re-”

“The activities that Alfred normally uses his gifts for are among the things I hate about dreamwalks, but I just tend to have really fucked up trips when I dreamwalk.” I shuddered, and Alfred gave Polly a pointed look.

“I was going to say while we’re trying to get in touch with the sacred other,” the redhead said defensively. Alfred chuckled, and then turned his head back towards me.

“I know that your experiences with them tend to be rough, Atina, but you’re also very good at them. You catch the little details. Most people get smears of emotion, impressions, but you’re perceptive about these things.”

“Oh, god damn it. The last time I did it I had nightmares for a month.” I shuddered. “I’ll do it, but I really wish you’d found something else.” I crinkled my nose. “Polly, this is a long-shot, but do you know anything about those guys who attacked us last night?”

“Weeell. That guy was still breathing, so I’m willing to bet they’re not humans. Not a lot of fae who could take that kind of punishment, either. I think they were probably undead.” She beamed brightly at me. I took a deep breath, trying to control my annoyance. She had been hired because she could kick a ball that weighed as much as the average human being around with ease, and could shrug off gunshot wounds with some red hair dye. She was a bodyguard, not a scholar. I bit back a sarcastic remark, both for Alfred’s sake, and because I’d been raised to never insult the people who were taking bullets for me.

“Alright. So we have our suspicions. That Arthur fellow came around, and told me that the Nostra Notte were moving into Binghamton.”

“Nostra Notte?” asked Polly, with a frown. Alfred stepped in before I could.

“‘Our Night’. One of the few remaining major sects of vampires. They don’t get along well with the rest of the undead world. Much like the Mafia.”

“Ah, the Irish Mafia.”

“No, dear, the Sicilian Mafia,” Alfred chided. “They are a deeply territorial group. The way I’ve heard it told is that they believe they are the true inheritors of the night, as proven by noble blood and all of that rubbish. A particular nasty group of vampiric entities known as the Strix, Roman vampires. They are a dangerous group. It wouldn’t surprise me to hear that they are behind all of this.”

“That seems likely,” Fang Fen said from the doorway. “Jenny will be out with us in a few moments, after she takes a hot shower. She felt rather embarrassed about falling to pieces in front of you, Atina. She didn’t mean to offend.”

“She didn’t offend me,” I murmured, looking down at the food. It was nearly finished grilling.

“And yes, a small group of young Notte Nostra are in town, although they swear that they are only staying for a brief period. They have been watched closely by Lady Ann Willing, enjoying her hospitality. They were not personally responsible for her being turned in the first place, but who knows what their plans may be.” She sighed. “Their leader is a thirty year-old vampire, a Strix wise man, by the name of Donald. There are two others with him, both also vampires, though I know little about them. I believe they are makerless.” She smiled. “There will be little they can do to interfere with the actual jury, however. Lady Ann Willing’s biases may work to our advantage, she would never allow agents of the Notte Nostra intimidate or bribe a court in her city. She is likely to throw her support behind the judge on that matter.”

“That reminds me. You’ve had a chance to see how interest is shaping up. Do you have any ideas for who’s going to be on the jury list?”

“Hmmm… That’s a difficult one. Most of the undead in the city are interested with this case. It’s difficult to find someone more than a century old who doesn’t have a strong opinion on vampires, and this case may prove to be precedent for quite some time. There are eleven Undead older than me who live regularly in the city, from E.A. Link up to Lady Ann Willing.” She drummed her fingers.

“That few?” Polly asked, frowning. “I thought you lived forever.”

“We do, barring misadventure.” Fang Fen smiled. “Not that many Undead are made, and most die within perhaps twenty years of being made, while they are young and weak. The population of the world was approximately six billion less when I was alive, meaning there were far less to be turned into undead. There are still others who simply don’t interact with others, no matter how important the cause. I am certain there are still a few native undead who could claim the right to trial, but don’t, simply because they have no interest in our politics. I think we can discount them.” She turned towards me, expression serious. “If I do end up as the judge or on the jury, you know that I cannot promise you help. I must be neutral.” I rolled my eyes slowly.

“Yes, Fang, I’m perfectly aware. That’s fine, I don’t expect you to attack the other jurors for me or anything. If this trial is fair, we’ll do fine.” I crossed my arms. “What are the chances that we’ll get a fair chance?”

“Remote. Of the likely jurors, six are certain to want Jenny dead. They are deeply against vampires; they would have every one of them in the city executed if they could. This is the faction Lady Ann Willing is likely to represent. Of the others, hrm…” She tapped at her chin. “Some may wish to spare her, and need only a good excuse. Others may be susceptible to a particularly persuasive bit of precedent, or a strong argument that it will be for the good of the city to save her. Some will want to be bribed.”

“Aren’t they rich? Wouldn’t they be kind of bleedin’ expensive?” asked Polly.

“They wouldn’t want money. Information, favors, these are the things that are useful to the oldest of Undead. And Atina actually has a bevy of those. I would rely heavily on bribes. Who knows when some prominent member of the Undead will need a ‘get out of jail free’ card.” She smiled.

“Pretty standard stuff for me.” I leaned back, kicking my feet up. “Now, on tracking down the sire. Alfred, let’s say we had an idea of who the sire is. Any way that we could confirm that?”

“A sample of their body would do it. Blood for preference, most of the rest doesn’t contain a lot of life. Several of the doctors of Postmortology are experimenting on ways to track lines of supernatural power.”

I gave Fang Fen a look. “Any way we could compel them?”

She shook her head. “I’m sorry, but even with that as an excuse, they’d be within their rights in the court to refuse. It’s not like the mortal world and its obsession with genetic evidence. Those things are powerful. Dangerous. A wizard who got hold of them could potentially do any number of deeply unpleasant things to the donor.”

“Damn. Did forensics find any traces of bodily fluids, anything like that?” Fang Fen’s look was all I needed to know that was barking up the wrong tree. “Damn it. They were definitely trying to avoid being noticed, then. If this had been a normal turning, they wouldn’t have been so meticulous. They’d have left behind something. I-”

“Atina, the fish!” Polly shouted.

“Oh SHIT!”

A couple of minutes later, we sat together. I nibbled the burnt tuna steak as the others munched hungrily. Fang Fen was sitting a bit closer to Alfred than seemed entirely appropriate, and Polly’s eyes were narrowed as she watched the two. Jenny came out, holding a blood pack in one hand, a straw poked through the top. I had a brief flashback to summer days sipping Capri Sun, and realized that mental image would keep me from ever drinking Capri Sun again. The things I did for this job. The five of us sat around the table, nibbling fish and chop suey together. Alfred rattled his fingers on the hilt of his sword. “I should come with you. I-”

“Alfred, you know you can’t. It’d make this whole court more political. Polly doesn’t have any serious standing with the local fairies, and she’s my hired bodyguard. I’ve got a precedent for having her along. You’re a heroic young man who happens to be a wizard. They won’t respect you and they will fear you. It’s the worst of both worlds. I need you to work on that dreamwalk, anyway.” I sighed. “I need to tell you all something, though. Arthur suggested that anything less than a unanimous decision is going to be bad for the city. Win or lose.” I twisted my mouth. “I don’t know how much I believe him, but that’s something we’re going to have to take into account. We can’t just settle for a partial win. We need to have everyone on the same side by the end of this.”

Polly snorted. “What’s the worst that could happen?”

Fang Fen coughed delicately. “It could make The Troubles look like a neighborhood scuffle. ”

Polly raised an eyebrow. “The Troubles… was that the thing with the-”

“I don’t want to cause conflict,” Jenny said, her eyes downcast towards the salmon. She licked her lips, removing the red stain from them. “If we cannot win, I would prefer death to having more blood on my hands.” She frowned, and looked down at her fingers, where a couple of droplets of red had fallen. “Metaphor is very difficult as a vampire.”

“It’s not going to come to that,” Alfred said, in his best noble hero tone, but I held up my hand.

“That’s very noble, Jenny, and if it really does come down to that, I don’t think I could stop you. But we haven’t selected a jury yet. Please, let’s focus on winning this case before we decide how to kill ourselves if we lose it.”

This time, she seemed to be genuinely cheered up by my words.

“Alright. Let’s dig in, shall we?” I smiled, and sliced into the fish, as conversation started up around me. I took a moment to just enjoy the fish. Even with skin charred, it tasted as good as I remembered. Light, flaky, moist, the taste of something long forgotten. My shoulders relaxed as I leaned back in my chair. Every case was like this. Every time. You couldn’t worry about it and freak out until the last minute. That would drive you insane. All you could do was prepare yourself as best as you can, and then not psyche yourself out.

I sometimes wondered if that lackadaisical attitude was what had led me to be in situations like this. I thought you had to be incredibly wealthy and powerful and intelligent to sway the course of events like this. But sometimes, it turned out you just had to be in the right place, and too stupid to let someone else take responsibility. Out of such foolishness, legends were born.

“So where did you meet Polly?” Jenny asked, looking at Albert curiously.

“Ah, well. I’d been called upon to duel the Summer King’s Man, in a duel to the blood. The trick was, we were to use heated blades, which of course precluded bleeding unless the strike was either excessively deep, or enough blows were struck to cool the blades. A tricky problem, as the other man could heal from such cuts, whereas I could not. But the life of a beautiful maiden-”

“It was a guy,” I interjected, grabbing a piece of chop suey. “He was very specific about that.”

“A beautiful maiden nonetheless- was on the line. The fight continued for quite some time, and I was beginning to fade, when someone screams from the stands, ‘JUST PUNCH HIM IN THE NOSE!’” Alfred grinned. “So I took their advice, bloodied his nose with the back of my hand, and won handily. And I go up to the stands afterwards, and Polly here tackled me, and shoved her tongue in my mouth.”

“That sounds… romantic?” Jenny asked, an eyebrow raised.

“I’m part of the Summer court. We’re not big on subtlety. That’s for Fall and Winter.” Polly gave a broad grin, and tossed her hair, dyed red locks briefly spinning around her head like the halo of a saint with daddy issues. “I challenged him to a fistfight a month ago, and he held his own. Though he had to use his armor, the sissy.” She snickered, and then tilted her head, giving me a curious look. “How did you two meet, anyway?”

I coughed, and looked down at my food. “Actually, of all things, I was referring a client to him. It’s kind of a silly story, to be honest. The Summer Court needs you to prove your client’s innocence through physical combat, I was no good in a fight. I start looking around in Binghamton University for someone who knows something about the Champions of the fairies, see if I could find someone who was good. Alfred wound up volunteering himself, and did a good job, so I stuck with him. I try to favor humans when I have to recommend someone; Even if Alfred only barely qualifies.”

“I’m as human as the next person,” Alfred responded with a sniff.

“Yeah, but in this case, the next person is Fang Fen,” I said, and Fang Fen smiled. “But…” I frowned. “Are you two seriously thinking about getting married? You’ve known each other for, what-”

“Six weeks,” Polly said nonchalantly.

“I mean, I don’t want to be a downer-”

“You’re a lawyer. It’s your job to give depressing cautionary advice. Don’t shy away from it.” Alfred smiled. “You’re going to say that’s not nearly enough time to know someone, that how can you possibly love someone if you aren’t aware of every inch of their past and soul, and all of those things.” The conversation went silent. “Weren’t you?”

“Well, yes, but I’d feel a little silly saying it if you’re already well aware. You know why I’m asking this. Alfred, your lifespan- accidents not withstanding- is measured in centuries. Polly, you might live forever.” I tried not to look at Jenny. “How do you deal with a relationship when you live that long? How do you commit yourself to something forever, when you know that you might come to resent it, eventually?”

Polly frowned. “Well, we could all die tomorrow, but you still save your money up, don’t you?” She grabbed a flake of salmon and popped it into her mouth. “Well, when death seems real likely, you might splurge a bit. But still. You don’t live your life expecting to die. And you don’t get into a relationship, even a committed one, thinking about when it ends. Sure, someday, either Alfred will die or I’ll get sick of him. Or maybe vice versa. But in the meantime, I’m still going to have a damn good time of things. You gotta live your life in the present if you want to be happy.”

Alfred nodded. “It’s true. I’m happy with Polly now. That may change, but that just means that I need to enjoy this time we have together as much as possible.”

Jenny stared down at her thumbs. “But it hurts when you lose someone,” she whispered softly. Alfred turned his head, and smiled sympathetically.

“It does. Falling in love is a dangerous thing, because you’re knitting your soul together with someone else. It’s not for everyone. Some people fall in love only once in their lifetimes, others not at all.”

“And others fall in love once a week, right, Alfred?” I frowned, and my eyes flickered over to Polly. “That’s the thing I don’t get. I mean, there’s no secret the kind of guy Alfred is. Why are you interested in marrying him? I mean, aren’t you worried about him cheating on you? Or, for that matter, Alfred, aren’t you worried about Polly killing you if she DOES find you cheating on her?”

“I trust Alfred,” Polly said, smiling brightly. I let out a despairing groan, and rested my head on my hands. “What? If you plan for the worst, you’re just going to make it more likely that it happens. Spending all your time focusing on bad things makes bad things come to you. Like attracts like and all that.”

“Forget it. I’m still writing a prenuptial between the two of you after all of this insanity is done with.”

“And what about you, Atina?” Fang Fen asked, an eyebrow raised. “I have known you for two years now, and you have shown little interest in pursuing a relationship with someone. Are you uninterested in passing on your genes?”

“I-” I went bright red. “God, that’s a romantic way to put it, Fang. No, I’m interested in ‘passing on my genes’, it’s just… hard.”

“To find a man who’d set aside everything for your career?” asked Alfred, a grin on his face.

“To find someone who’d meet your standards?” ask Fang.

Polly frowned. “Hey, now, leave her alone. If she’s not into guys, then there’s no call-”

“I am into guys!” I shouted, and then rested a hand on my face. “It’s hard to find a guy who hits all three of being interested in me, not being threatened by me, and who will not get murdered in some horrific revenge plot. You know?”

“Oh, yes. The eternal conundrum: My enemies might be a danger. As if. You’re the most paranoid human being I’ve ever met, Atina,” said Fang. “I’m sure protecting an additional human wouldn’t be that difficult. No, it’s not that. I think you’re not certain what you want.”

I leaned back in my chair, and stared up into the sky. There was an expectant pause, as the others waited for me to answer. When I didn’t, conversation resumed. I leaned back in my chair, and glowered up at the sky. The last fingers of light were fading from the clouds, providing just enough illumination to make the darkness textured. The broad backyard gave a lovely view of the emerging stars. The occasional bat flitted across my field of vision, soundless and serene. I took a deep breath, and let the smell of pine and earth fill my head, calming me down, letting my pulse slow back from a racing pace.

It feels like such a goddamn humiliating cliche, to be torn up about not having anyone. But it was true. My work-life balance was in the shitter. I’d never been great with people, but I wasn’t antisocial. I just put my foot in my mouth. I made the wrong moves. I didn’t know how to tell when someone was interested in me. And I sure as hell didn’t know how to keep someone interested in me. The people around me, we were bound by ties of obligation and similar work, and favors. If I stopped being a lawyer, we’d drift apart and fall into that distant not-quite friendship that defined so many of my relationships.

What I really wanted was someone who could be strong. Someone who’d make things all better. That’s what everyone wants, I think. Someone who’ll take the weight of the world off their shoulders. Someone who could be strong for me. But that was the thing about working with a group of predators. They respected me, they gave me deference, they avoided eating me, just so long as I looked like one of them. As long as I didn’t show weakness.

Jenny had asked why I didn’t become an Undead. Alfred often asked me why I didn’t make a pact. The truth was, the moment I did that, I’d lose myself. If I let someone else get their hooks into me, then I wouldn’t be myself anymore. I’d belong to someone else. And in a scary kind of way, love felt the same. What if I was given a choice, between someone I loved, and my work? It’d be a disaster.

And I know what you’re thinking, reading this. “What about the supernatural world? Must be some decent guys there, and come on, everyone knows women are nutty for vampires.” But I’d watched Alfred. Sure, he had loving relationships. But there was violence in those relationships, too. The supernatural was full of creatures powerful enough that in a fit of pique, they could break me in half. And I’m not a masochist, whatever Alfred may say about my working hours. I didn’t want to expose myself to that kind of insanity. Maybe I was being picky.

What the hell did I want? To not have to worry about being murdered by crazy people. To have a little peace and security.

For the world to be a better place.

Well, tough luck finding a guy who was going to be able to do all that. I sat back up. “What time is it?”

“Just about ten.” The air was getting awfully chilly out. I shivered.

“Alright. Alfred, do you mind keeping an eye on things here, making sure nobody’s snooping around, and getting that dreamwalk ready? The rest of us should go to the cemetery, and get there early. I want to get a feeling for what the power players are up to.” I placed the top over the grill, closing off the air, letting the fire snuff itself out. “Polly, remember to bring your soccer-ball. I don’t think this’ll get ugly, but if it does, I want you to be ready to go full hooligan. Jenny, Alfred got some of your clothes from your dorm room. They’re upstairs. Wear a long skirt and that jacket, undead are very sympathetic towards conservative dress styles.” I sighed. “I need to go get a shower and get changed.”

Half an hour later, the four of us slipped into Li Fang Fen’s car. The old, well-maintained Studebaker groaned slightly as Polly sat in the back, and I was hunched up uncomfortably in the passenger seat, but it worked. We approached the Slovak Hills cemetery, driving up to the gate. Dozens of old-fashioned cars and trucks were arranged around the entrance, mixed in with the occasional limo. There was a soft rumble, and a rush of air. I could just barely make out a faint, transparent outline of a small propeller plane turning, and making a perfect landing in a small square of open clearing in the graveyard. There was no security. The Undead didn’t do ‘rowdy’. Instead, small groups of three or four individuals made their way down into the heart of the graveyard, where I could see them gathering into a large circle.

Night Court was being called to session.

 

 

Chapter 5: The Adversarial System

As we made our way down the hill, into the cemetery proper, I noticed groups of the undead stopping and kneeling by graves. A number of them carried flowers, mementos, or bottles of alcohol. Jenny frowned, looking among them. “What are they doing?” she asked, curious.

“Leaving mementos for their loved ones. You tend to have a lot of friends in graveyards when you have been Undead for more than a couple of decades.” Fang Fen sighed softly, and shook her head. “I don’t visit here as often as I should, and I never bring something with me. I have a few friends languishing in these graves.” She ran a finger across one of the marble markers, staring at the second date. “If only they could have risen like me.”

“I always thought the Undead were kind of predatory. I thought you’d not want the competition for food,” Polly said.

“Oh, there is that concern. If everyone rose as undead, they would outnumber the living. A supernatural Malthusian crisis. A Methuselahian crisis, if you will.” Fang Fen smiled. “Death is natural, and comes to everyone, even the immortal, in time. Everything has an end. But we would not still be human if we did not desire a reprieve for those we love from the law, even those of nature.” She stopped in front of a gravestone, just for a moment, and gave a brief bow. I tried to read the monument, but it was old and well-worn. In the darkness, I couldn’t make out what was written on the gray headstone, but I felt compelled to think some good thoughts towards whoever was listening. I hadn’t been religious ever, really, raised by lapsed Catholics. I’d been baptized, but I wasn’t a faith kind of person. Maybe God would be inclined to help out these folks, though.

Jenny looked down at the graveyard. “Tony’s grandparents lived in this town, and they were buried here. His mother and father, too.” She crossed her arms, lowering her head, a sick expression on her face. “He had a cousin in Baltimore. That was about it. They’ll never know what happened to him, because he’s just going to disappear, isn’t he?”

“Maybe,” I said, my voice soft. “It’s your right to decide whether to tell him or not. I’m going to make sure you live long enough to make that choice.”

Jenny bit her lip. “I read some of your case files. They were interesting.” She rubbed her hands together. “I read what you said about ghosts. Do you think Tony’s… gone? Forever?”

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “But there are some cases where ghosts are sustained even if they don’t have any blood relations. Uh, you and Tony were… intimate, yeah?” Jenny nodded, face reddening. “Then in a way, part of him is still mixed up with you. I’ve heard that phantasms can survive on just that loose a connection with someone, so he may still be around.” This seemed to put some steel in her spine, and she stood up a bit straight.

“So, uh, I hate to be the uneducated outsider, here,” Polly said.

“But why play against type?” Fang Fen asked with a smile. She’d changed into an elegant black gown while I’d showered. It hung down to her ankles, but didn’t attract any dirt, and revealed an amount of cleavage that was scandalous today, and likely violated obscenity laws when she was alive. She wasn’t wearing a bra, I noted with a hint of annoyance. I knew that if I tried something like that, it would be a grotesque, painful misadventure. Another one of the perks of not being human. I then noticed the glare Polly was giving Fang Fen, and patted her on the shoulder. She sighed, and continued.

“Weeeell, as I was going to ask before a certain someone opened their mouths, how exactly does this jury selection go down?”

“It’s… Well, overall, it’s a pretty simple system,” I admitted. “Simple to understand, anyway. The trick is in manipulating it. See, the undead are all about seniority, in everything they do. The older something is, the longer it’s endured, the more right it’s gotta be. Bunch of hard-nosed conservatives.”

“Hey,” Fang Fen said, her nose wrinkling. “Don’t say that like it’s a bad thing. Stability’s important.”

“Whatever you say, Fang. Now this shows itself in the court system. When someone calls the Night Court, any undead present can put themselves forward to be placed on the jury. The thing is, once you’ve done so, you can’t withdraw, regardless of the results. The twelve oldest are the jurors. If you’re a juror, then you decide the case. It’s a coveted position, because anyone can sway a juror however they like. Bribes are a favorite. A good, juicy argument can get the blood flowing and persuade even the most staid corpse. They tend to be fond of great, fiery oratory. I’ve won a few cases just with some good speeches. And of course, whatever decision they make can be used as precedent for future cases. The older the precedent, the stronger it is, the less people want to break it.”

Jenny tilted her head. “What are the precedents related to vampires in these cases?”

I coughed. “Not great. Lady Ann Willing’s husband was killed by a wastrel- That is, a makerless vampire- in the 1800s. She tried the wastrel in front of the Night Court, and strangled him to death for his crimes.”

Jenny’s raised an eyebrow. “Do I… still need to breathe?”

“No. Lady Ann Willing was extraordinarily upset. She took his head clean off.”

Jenny’s eyes widened, and she turned to Fang Fen. “She’s joking, isn’t she?”

“I am afraid not.” The Jiang-shi sighed, stretching her shoulders, a symphony of pops and cracks rising from them. “The case law is not in your favor. We shall simply have to do the best that we can with what we have.”

“Next up is the judge, a position going to the thirteenth-oldest volunteer. It’s not actually a very desirable position, for several reasons, not least that their vote isn’t counted except in the case of a tie. They are duty-bound to prevent interference from outside of the trial, and to prevent violence between the attorneys.” I smiled. “Not many undead are interested in acting as referee, which is why they’re not allowed to withdraw once they’ve submitted themselves for jury duty. The stick, to go along with the carrot, ensuring that only those who take the trial seriously will take part. It also ensures that, if the case is of any importance at all, only the most powerful undead will be able to participate.”

“I’m still not quite clear… Why do older undead get more powerful?” Jenny asked, frowning.

“Why is kind of a difficult question,” I looked over at Fang Fen.

“I suspect it is a simple accumulation of power. Blood, chi, breath, body heat, all of these things are magical. The longer one of us lives, the more we feed. The more we feed, the more strength we take in, adding it to our own. Age makes many things more powerful or more valuable. Why should we be any different?” She shrugged. “Many consider it a matter of philosophy; Some wizards are intrigued with researching it, but I have yet to hear much in the way of an explanation from them. Suffice it to say that it is an almost universal trait. One which vampires… subvert.”

Jenny nodded softly, looking down. “That’s why they want to execute me.”

“Yes,” Fang Fen said softly.

“The last position is the prosecutor, at least in a criminal case. The judge gets the final decision on the prosecutor, although they’re usually fairly flexible and bow to the desires of the jury, for obvious reasons. Whoever gets the job as prosecutor is bound by honor to make the case with all the tools they have available to them. How much being bound by honor matters to them is one of the things the judge usually considers when choosing a prosecutor. Oftentimes, you’ll find someone who has a grudge against the defendant or the defense being put into the position.” I shook my head, frowning. “I personally think that makes for a poorly thought-out legal strategy, but they believe in the adversarial process.”

“Sadly, many are susceptible to bribes or other such offers. Many juries will argue for a prosecutor who can be bribed or otherwise influenced,” said Fang Fen.

Jenny frowned. “Is there any limit on who can become prosecutor?”

“Well, only those who have applied for the position on the jury. Very few young Undead are eager to apply for jury duty, because they are the ones who often wind up bearing the brunt of the most difficult and tedious positions in the court. Rather a shame, really.” Fang Fen sighed. “Conservatism is not all upside.”

We approached a large cluster of individuals. There were perhaps twenty people in the party, and my eyes scanned over them quickly for faces I recognized. I spotted Arthur, and the strange Hispanic woman from my office. The woman had removed her robes, and now stood in bandages. Wrapped around her from her throat down to her ankles, out across her arms to her wrists, they were fresh and showed no sign of yellowing. A mummy. That was odd- she must have been of a recent vintage to be wrapped in white surgical gauze like that. Then my eyes turned to Lady Ann Willing.

I have to be blunt: I think Lady Ann Willing is a pretty impressive figure. She was the daughter of a wealthy banker, and the wife of the founder of Binghamton, a great man in his own right. I’d heard that she was used as the symbol for Lady Liberty on certain coins, and that she was considered one of the most beautiful women of her time. Tastes may have changed, but the process of becoming undead had only improved her beauty.

Wights, not to put too fine a point on it, only arise from nobility. There weren’t even supposed to be American wights. It was considered metaphysically impossible by most wizards. But Lady Ann Willing sat, with absolute grace, her back straight, her posture perfect. Her skin was white as bone china, her hair the color of burnished silver, in her traditional bun. Her cheeks were rouged, and her lips painted bright, bloody red. On a lesser woman, the effect would have been spoiled by the great, jagged talons growing from her nails. But the Lady Ann Willing Bingham had cleaned them, polished them, and painted them a delicate blue, and they looked very fetching. She was not a lesser woman.

I want to be very clear that I am not sexually attracted to the Lady Ann Willing, or at least not any more than is perfectly natural. I simply appreciate the fact that she is a supernaturally attractive woman, everything I desperately wish that I could be, and everything that I never will be. Instead of becoming jealous and resentful, I simply choose to admire her, and what I’ve said to Fang Fen on nights when I’ve drunk too much does not change that.

“Ah, Miss LeRoux.” The Lady Ann inclined her head ever so slightly towards me. “I feared that you might take this case.”

I gave a slight smile. “Feared, your ladyship?” My heart was pounding, and I was sure every one of those supernatural bastards in her retinue could hear it.

“Oh, yes. I can’t think of another individual in my city who would have the courage to take this case, and the intelligence to make my life hell with it.”

“You flatter me, lady.”

“No, I’m afraid I don’t. Flattery is the giving of false compliments, meant to extract a favor in return. This is an attempt to soften the blow. I am afraid that you must lose this case, and lose it utterly. I fear that what I need to happen may shatter your reputation among the Undead in this city, and that is a shame, because you have always been a wise and thoughtful mortal.” She leaned back in her chair. “I want you to know that I don’t do this out of a personal spite for you, and that I actually respect you greatly. I can only hope that softens the blow somewhat for you.” I shrugged. “Well, I suppose that will have to do. And this must be Jenny.” She beckoned for the young Japanese woman to approach, and she did, her eyes wide.

“I’m… sorry, for what has happened, ma’am.”

Lady Ann didn’t even frown at the incorrect address. She simply reached up, resting a hand very gently on Jenny’s chin, turning her head this way and that. Jenny stayed very still, allowing herself to be manipulated, the long talons pressing delicately into her skin. After a long few seconds of study, Lady Ann sighed. “Yes. I too am very sorry. You did not intentionally enter into this state. It is a shame when we must execute those who did not realize what they were doing. Death…” She stared into space. “Death is a poor teacher.”

“You could grant clemency,” I offered, an eyebrow raised. “Take her into your household, keep her under your thumb-”

“Hnh.” Lady Ann Willing smiled, and turned towards the woman sitting at her side. I hadn’t noticed her at first. “What do you think of that, Chaac? If one of your offspring, or one of Hun-Came’s were to be in my house, and awoke to their true power, do you think I could stand a chance against them?”

Chaac was a woman. A tall woman, I could tell, even sitting down. Her features were vaguely Latino, although closer to Native American. She sat with her head slightly bowed. She did not wear the out-of-touch ancient clothing that one would expect an ancient vampire to favor. Instead, she wore a simple pair of jeans, and a button-down blouse. Her hair was black and straight, hanging down across her shoulders, feathered. It was an attractive look for her. Her pupils were dark, and she met my gaze. My back stiffened involuntarily, as a little thrill of terror ran down my spine. “You would not,” she murmured softly. “We both know this, Lady Ann. Thus, it would require trust.” She sighed softly. “There is so little trust in this place.”

“Lady Ann Willing, Fang Fen, Atina.” Edwin Link strode up, bluff and confident, his back straight, his eyes running across the assemblage. “Ah, and this must be the young Oriental girl.” He frowned. “Or is it Japanese? Or Nipponese? Damn, I can’t keep up with language. Whichever will give least offense and greatest praise, I think.” He held a hand out to Jenny. She took it, and then looked very embarrassed as their hands passed through one another. Edwin didn’t appear to notice, turning to face Lady Ann. “Once again, Lady Ann, I hope you understand how odd I find this whole thing. This city was built to be a place for all. When we begin to make exceptions, those exceptions snowball.”

Edwin Albert Link was not a big man. He didn’t need to be. His head was balding, and he wore a pair of glasses. His entire figure was faintly transparent, but it was no surprise that Jenny had not noticed in the dark. He looked almost exactly as he had in life, a hard-nosed man who had taught himself to fly and then done the same for the world. Hundreds of thousands had used his aviation simulators to learn how to fly in World War 2. This was a man whose son had died in a submersible accident, and who had responded by inventing an unmanned rescue device that could have saved him, and had saved quite a few other men’s sons.

I may have had a slight crush on Edwin Albert Link.

“You know why we can’t, Mister Link,” the Lady Ann Willing said.

“Yes, yes. Power in the hands of those who haven’t earned it. Paying your dues.” He stared off at the ghostly Cessna sitting down in its clear space. “I still remember that flight instructor telling me the very same thing. You had to learn by watching before anyone’d let you learn by doing. Hrn.”

“There is a difference. An accident with a single-engined plane kills you, Mister Link. An accident with a vampire kills this city.”

“Wait till we’ve decided the jury before you try to persuade me, Lady Ann Willing. And if you’re on that jury too, I certainly hope you aren’t going to be trying to strong-arm me.” He gave her a wide grin, showing off a set of pearly white teeth. “Lot of men tried that on me over the course of my career. Can’t think of one of them who didn’t wind up regretting it.”

Then he turned towards me. “And you’re the defense attorney, eh? Ever done any patent work, girl?”

“No, sir.”

“Good. Not a job for decent folk.” He grunted again. “You going to make a good argument on this?”

“I’m going to knock your fucking socks off, sir. With all respect.”

He laughed. “That’s what I like to hear! Good to hear a lawyer with some fire in their belly! Beats the hell out of most of the saps I worked with. That’s why I like working with young people, they still think they can do everything.”

“And you find that a plus?” asked a soft voice from further up the hill. A man approached, and Jenny shuddered. I was very glad Albert was not there. Dean Morton, Head of Applied Postmortology, had not been an attractive man before he’d developed Leukemia. What he had been was a terrifyingly powerful wizard. Around stage 4, he had completed a spell, made with the aid of a pact with the Lady Ann Willing, to become a Lich. He had saved his mind, if not his life or his appearance. He had no hair, eyebrows, or anything else. His sharp blue eyes were overlarge and protruded from a pinched, shrunken face. His hands were like sticks, the bone clearly visible in a body that looked as though every spare ounce of fat and muscle had been extracted. I was grateful for the tweed outfit he wore. “The folly of youth is in believing they have something valuable to contribute to the world besides healthy bodies for labor.”

I not only didn’t have a crush on Dean Morton, I loathed the man. But he would almost certainly be on the jury, like the vulture that he was, seeking a chance to extend his hold over some other part of Binghamton. That was a good thing. He’d be the man to approach if I were going to resort to bribes. He’d know who would want to wet their beak, and how.

“Aaah, Academics.” Link grinned. “You’re a goddamn shame to the concept of science, old man. How’re you holding up, huh?” he clapped the man on the shoulder, his hand passing directly through Dean Morton’s back, and out through his chest. The Lich shivered.

“The same as usual. I presume we’re deciding what the outcome of the trial will be?”

“We are most certainly not,” said Lady Ann Willing, a delicate brow arched. “Everyone knows what my preference is, but I am not a dictator, and this is a free county. If Miss LeRoux is able to make a strong argument, I will listen to it.”

“Oooh, Miss LeRoux!” The dean’s face turned ingratiating, a sickly smile showing through cracked lips. “I’d heard rumors that you would be the defense, but this is such lovely news! You always have the best contacts. Tell me, have you made any progress in being admitted into one of the local Demon courts? I would so love to get a chance to sit in on one of their trials. The Harbingers in the Department of Infernal Affairs are always so secretive about their work. Why, you’d think they’d sold their souls!”

“Not yet. I haven’t found much call for it, yet. Perhaps the demons of the world have enough lawyers as it is,” I suggested. I had personally tried to avoid any demon clients.

Let’s be frank, if you’re a lawyer, getting tangled up with demons has never worked out. At best you get away with your soul.

“Well, I’m sure you’ll be able to find some juicy bit of information with which to tempt me! You are a talented young lady, Atina.” He licked his lips and winked in a way that he may have thought was charming and roguish, but which reminded me of the last time I’d seen my grandfather, when the dementia had nearly destroyed his mind. I shuddered, and pulled my coat a bit tighter. “Aaah, yes, it must be a rather chilly night. Lady Ann Willing, when on earth are we going to begin the jury selection?”

“Yeah, I’m getting a little antsy here.” The man had a New Jersey accent. My eyes flickered to him. His hair was slicked back with hair gel, and he wore a fancy looking suit that looked both expensive and poorly tailored. The man had big, yellow-irised eyes, and the suit looked about two sizes too big for him, making him look as though he were about to be lost in it. Those eyes were the same as the man who had attacked me, but that was hardly proof. Many supernatural creatures had yellow eyes. “I appreciate your ladyship’s polite fuckin hospitality of keeping an eye on me and my associates at all times, but we’d like to know what’s goin’ on with this trial.”

He gave Jenny a grin, and stepped forward, prompting a tightening in the fists of every other Undead. “Hey, Donald Rossi, but you can call me Donny. If you make it through this, doll, the Notte Nostra’s always an open place for a vampire without a place to call home.” He pointed towards the other two with him. One was a young, nervous looking man wearing a rosary around his throat. The other was a woman of obvious class. Pale skin, and dark eyes, she reminded me of nothing so much as Morticia Addams, before she’d had three kids. He took out a small business card, and placed it in Jenny’s hand.

Jenny stared at it for a moment, and then coldly tore it in half. “I have little interest in your company, Mister Rossi.” The man’s eyes tightened, and his lips drew back, revealing sharp teeth. He looked about to jump at her, but then looked around. A smile replaced the rage with well-practiced ease.

“Hey, hey. I understand. Don’t want to have close connections to us. I just hope that you remember, on this day when almost everyone around you is thinking about how to kill you because of what you were, how important family is.” He gave a quick flash of his teeth. “Metaphorically speaking.”

“I think that is sufficient,” Lady Ann Willing said, resting a hand on the man’s shoulder. He turned, and her eyes were as cold and silver as her hair. “I have been a proper hostess, Strix. But if you violate the bonds of hospitality- and you come dangerously close to that- I will rip your jaw off.” He blanched, and swallowed.

“Begging your fucking pardon, ma’am,” he growled, and stepped back towards the others, shooting her a murderous look when he thought she wasn’t looking. Once again, the Lady Ann Willing showed no sign of noticing the slight as she took her seat again. She simply crossed one elegant leg over the other, settling her taloned fingers in her lap, and tapping them rhythmically.

A very old spirit slowly rose from the ground. The first judge there’d ever been in Binghamton proper, nobody remembered his name. He’d been just another laborer who’d been selected by his fellows to preside over a trial, and had never really stopped. He was old, maybe older than Lady Ann, though he never did much of anything besides this. His eyes opened. “The Night Court is now in session. What business is there to be had?”

Normally, there would be half a dozen contracts, minor complaints, and other example of the grinding wheels of justice brought up in front of the old spirit. But everybody was waiting, this month. This jury would be powerful, and opinionated, and expensive. Everyone knew that this was not the time to try to settle a dispute over property rights or complain about infringements over territory. So instead, Lady Ann Willing stepped down the path, immaculate heels managing to click on dirt as she walked up to the spirit. “I accuse Jenny Nishi of Gluttony, and of being a wastrel. The penalty for her crimes is death. A painless staking, and execution by dawn.”

The spirit nodded slowly. “Jenny Nishi. Have you retained council?”

Jenny looked towards me nervously. I nodded, and stood up. “Yes. I will act as her defense, and she pleads not guilty to all charges.” There wasn’t going to be a plea bargain or anything like that. The undead didn’t go in for half measures, and it wasn’t as though you could half-execute someone.

“Very well. If there are no other cases, then jury selection may begin. All who are willing to be among the jury, please, raise your hands and declare your age.”

Lady Ann Willing held her hand up. “I was born in the year of our Lord, Seventeen Sixty Four, on the first of August.” Several more held up their hands, and I leaned in towards Jenny as others stood up. She, Fang Fen, Polly, and I, stood in a small group. All three leaned in to listen.

“Lady Ann Willing is going to be the one who’s the head of the faction who wants you executed. That’s a good thing, and a bad thing. As long as she believes she can win, she’ll be hard. But if she really does believe this could cause a split in the jury, and divide them against her, then you’ve got a chance. She’s not going to impose her own beliefs in the face of the desires of the public. I don’t think so, anyway.”

Fang Fen frowned. “I don’t know, Atina. She hates vampires. And the presence of the Camazotz and the Notte Nostra are going to make her angry, and frightened, even if she doesn’t show it. She is going to fight hard on this one.”

“Well, regardless, she’s our lowest priority, because she won’t change her mind unless she has no other choice.”

“I am Dean Morton. I was born in the year eighteen hundred and ninety-three, on the twelfth of December.” The dean sat, his expression slimy and unpleasant, looking pleased with himself.

“The Dean’s going to want something. He’ll act as middleman, and a magnet for everyone who’s in this for their own gain. He’s a great believer in the power of advantage.” Fang Fen smiled. “His price will be heavy, and likely measured in favors to be held over your head. Control that he wishes to have over you in the future, both of you. If you survive, Jenny, you may prove a powerful ally to him. And I’m sure that he wouldn’t mind having his hooks in you, Atina.”

I sighed. “I don’t think we’ll get much choice in the matter. If it means his vote, then I’ll have to owe him a favor.” I shuddered. “Maybe more than one. That’s going to be tricky to time. If we make a deal when things look good for us, it’ll hurt less than if we desperately need him on our side to sway the court.”

“What is to keep him from changing his price if we gain favorable terms?” Jenny asked, frowning.

“Ah.” Fang Fen smiled. “The undead take contracts very, very seriously. Think about it, they live forever, and they have very good memories. Betraying a contract is not generally considered a very wise move, if only because no one trusts an oathbreaker. I know Undead hundreds of years old who still haven’t overcome the stigma of a broken deal made in their youth.”

Jenny frowned. “I’ve gotten the impression that you’re considered unusually honorable. Why would that matter if Undead don’t break contracts?”

Fang Fen sighed. “There is a difference between honor and legalism. One honors the spirit of the deal, the other the word. I might conceivably break a contract if it meant doing the right thing for the one I made the contract with, though I would never break it for selfish reasons.”

“She’s popular because of that. No tricks, no attempts to cheat those she’s contracted with.” I frowned at the crowd as Edwin stepped forward.

“Name’s Edwin Albert Link. I was born July 26th, 1904.” The phantasm stood nonchalantly, arms crossed.

“Edwin might be our best ally. He’ll need to give us good reason to believe that you’re not guilty of the murder, but on the count of being a wastrel, we can expect some leniency from him. He’s not a traditionalist.” I tapped my chin. “But we are going to have to figure out a way to convince him that you’re not the one who killed Tony, or failing that, that you weren’t responsible for his death. He’s likely to go our way the most easily. We’ll talk with him first, and try to build up some momentum. Looks like they’re almost done calling names-”

Someone stepped forward into the circle. Chaac stood, her eyes slowly turning around the group. “I am Chaac. I was born in the year 11.13.16.1.6, 7 Kimi, 14 kumk’u. In your calendar, July 16th 1496.” She looked Lady Ann Willing in the eye. “My mistress does not deign to get involved with your politics, or your feelings about my kind. But if you will allow it, I will have my voice heard on this matter. If Jenny can live, I wish to see her live. If she does not, then I will ask the gods to watch over her soul as she moves on.” Lady Ann Willing held that gaze for a very long time, tension filling the air. Then she inclined her head very slightly.

“That is your right,” Lady Ann Willing said, tense. “Is there anyone else who wishes to put their name forward?”

Fang Fen stood. ” I am Li Fang Fen. I was born October 5th, 1904. I will volunteer.” I did a little quick math, and a smile crossed my lips. Fang Fen had timed it perfectly. She was the thirteenth oldest volunteer, with Chaac putting her name forward. She’d be the judge. It wouldn’t be a guarantee of victory, but if anyone could keep the city together and make sure I didn’t get murdered by the opposing counsel, it was-

“I think I’ll volunteer too.”

The entire crowd turned. Morticia Adams had stood up, a smile on her face, and she was slowly striding down the path, with an expression of satisfaction on her face. “And your birth date?” asked Lady Ann Willing, her voice strained, her teeth gritted, her talons pressing against her palms.

“Why, as it happens, I was born in 1904, too. September 21st. Sofia Marzetti.” She smiled pleasantly. “Is there anyone else who wants to volunteer?” She looked around the crowd. Silence reigned. “Well, my-my. I suppose that makes me judge.” She gave Lady Ann Willing and Chaac a poisonously sweet look. “Unless vampires are only allowed to be a part of this proceeding if they’re powerful enough to kill you, Lady Ann?”

“Your age is sufficient,” Lady Ann hissed. “Do you have a preference for the prosecutor? I can recommend-”

“Li Fang Fen,” said Sofia, a sharp smile on her lips.

“I… cannot accept that,” Fang Fen said, her eyes narrowed, her fists tightened into balls. “I would not be a suitable candidate for prosecutor-”

“Oh, come now,” said Sofia lightly, smiling. “I’ve heard all about your honor, Fang Fen. You turned in your own partner when you found he was working with organized crime. You’re as honorable as they come. And I’ve chosen you. That’s my right as judge. Isn’t it, Willing?”

“It is,” whispered Lady Ann, in a murmur that carried across the entirety of the deathly silent court.

“So, what do you say? Are you going to play ball, Fang Fen? I could assign my buddy Donny there to Prosecutor. He could make a hash out of things, and make it so every person in this goddamn court wants to vote to acquit that girl out of sheer bloody-mindedness. But then, what do we get? Everyone says the Notte Nostra’s up to their old tricks. They say that bunch of bloodsuckers can’t be trusted. They say that the girl got away with it by cheating the system. Maybe she winds up staying out too late one night, all that’s left of her is a suicide note in someone else’s handwriting and a bunch of ashes. That wouldn’t suit our purposes. We want to show that we’re innocent, don’t we? That we don’t deserve this shitty treatment.” She turned towards the entire court, doing a slow spin. “So I want the best, the most honorable goddamn person in this town as prosecutor! So when she says that she doesn’t think Jenny here deserves to die…” Sofia smirked. “Maybe it’ll mean something.”

“Why is she doing this?” Polly asked, very softly, leaning towards me, frowning.

“I don’t know. Maybe she wants Jenny to live, and is rigging the prosecution in the hopes that Fang Fen is going to be biased towards me. If she is, she’s badly misplayed her hand.” I frowned. “Fang Fen is merciless in the prosecutorial position. She won’t accept anything less than an absolute victory, and she’s willing to fight for it. She knows what our plan is, and what our hopes are. She’s going to be trying to find the truth too, but unless we can prove to her beyond a doubt that Jenny’s not guilty, she’s going to fight for this. Hard.”

Jenny’s cheeks paled even further. “She… she would do that?” she asked softly. “But she was just helping me, and you. She said everything would be alright.”

“Yeah,” I whispered softly, staring at Fang Fen there, her hands curled into fists. I knew her. Arthur’s warning might have been just speculation, but now it had become true. Fang Fen would never accept a hung jury, a small majority. If it came down to half and half, and the vampire judge deciding the case- Fang Fen would do anything to prevent that.

“If there are no further entries, then we are ready. In fourteen days hence, the Night Court shall meet on the three days of the Full Moon. On the first day you will present opening remarks and evidence. On the second day, you will present your arguments and your closing remarks. On the third day, the accused will be sentenced, and found guilty, or not guilty.” The ghostly judge bowed his head. “May you find wisdom in your hearts.” And then, he was gone, like a puff of air on the wind.

Polly, Jenny and I sat at the ice cream store just opposite the graveyard. I was nursing a milkshake. Polly had chosen mint, and had proudly started to explain that it was because it was green before I’d shushed her. Jenny was sitting with her hands between her legs. She hadn’t been hungry. We waited for Alfred to arrive with his Honda.

“So. How fucked are we that she knows what questions we’re going to ask?”

“Not all that badly, honestly. She already would have known that. It’s who she is, not what she knows, that’s dangerous.” I closed my eyes, and rubbed my forehead.

When you make friends with other lawyers, you always know that this day might come. The thing about opposing counsel. I’d never really expected it would happen with Fang Fen. The two of us had been close friends, she owed me her life, and she was too old to be easily manipulated, most of the time. But the Notte Nostra had chosen Sofia specifically, for her age. There was no doubt in my mind about that. They’d positioned it perfectly. But it was so obvious, to try to free the girl by cheating the system. How could they have been so stupid?

Of course, they’d played the undead court system perfectly. Waiting until a moment of maximum impact to give them power as the judge. That loudmouth Donny had been acting like the leader of the group for days, while the far older Sofia had been preparing herself to take advantage of the jury selection process. It was a dangerous undead who could swallow their pride.

No, there was still something that wasn’t clear about this case. And I needed to find it out. And there was something else I needed to do, too. Polly had told me that things ended so new things could begin. I stood up suddenly. “Where are you going?” Polly asked with a frown.

“Just going to pick up some fast food. You, Jenny, and Albert wait at the house. I’ll see you in an hour or so.” I gave her a smile.

Shark Belly’s glowed in the night like a neon cathedral to the weary traveler in need of succor. I pushed open the door, and Roy looked up from a magazine. A happy smile spread across his face at the sight of me. “Miss LeRoux-”

“Tuesday night. You and I are going on a date. I’ll come to your place, and we’ll have dinner together.”

His eyes widened. “Reall-”

“This isn’t me saying I’m going to start having sex with you. This isn’t a promise, or an obligation. This is me saying that you deserve a chance, at least. Maybe, at the end of the night, I’ll decide that we don’t get along, and I’ll break it off right there. And I need you to promise me you’ll accept that. No weirdness, okay? I hate someone who can’t take a hint.”

“I understand, Miss LeRoux.” He smiled, and it was a very soft and warm smile. “I didn’t ever much s’spect you’d even be interested.”

I took a deep breath, and rested my hands on the counter. “I’ll see you Tuesday, 8 PM.” He wrote his address down for me, beaming and blushing at the same time, and I took the card. “And it doesn’t have to be anything fancy.”

He nodded slowly. “You’ve had a bad night, haven’t you, Miss LeRoux?”

“Yeah,” I whispered softly. “Pretty bad.”

“World’s got a way of working out, Miss LeRoux. I know you take on a lot of bull when you’re workin’. Taking on a lot of other people’s bad karma and bailing ’em out of their mistakes.” He smiled. “It’d be my honor to make a bit of home cooking for you.”

I felt my shoulders sag with relief. “Thanks. I’ll see you then.” I turned sharply.

“Oh, and Miss Atina! I made this for you. Something for the road.” I turned, and he placed the sandwich bag in my hands. I gave him a weak smile, and walked home through the night, taking a roundabout route. This time, I wasn’t attacked. The sandwich was cooked just right, the bun toasted on the inside, the beef sweet and tender. And for the first time in quite a while, I had no regrets about the choice I’d made.

 

 

Case Files 2: Redcaps, The Half-Faced Man, and Dragons

Redcaps

The Redcap is a traditional fairy, from the border between Scotland and England. Specifically, they’d inhabit the many castles and forts left there by the days when the Scottish were threatening to pour over the land and into the fertile belly of England. (HFM: In other words, as recently as September 2014.) Traditionally, they would haunt these walls. They were notorious for being fast runners, and wearing heavy iron boots- A notable choice among the iron-fearing fairies.

The behavior of the Redcap is particularly brutal. They were unrepentant murderers, because of their needs. They would murder travelers, and soak their hats in the blood of the victim to prolong their lives. If you know anything about fairies, this should throw up some immediate warning flags; It sounds more like a vampire, doesn’t it? Well, I suspect that the stories are inaccurate. First of all, if outrunning a redcap is impossible, and they kill travelers, how would anyone ever find out they exist? How would they describe all of this stuff? (Alfred: Well, they were also renowned braggarts, and other fae might have known of them.) (Polly: Oy.)

I suspect that the blood is relatively incidental to their actual needs for survival, and that what really matters is the intimidation. Fear, panic, terror, these things are what feed a Redcap. Thus, the brutal stories and the threat that they’re impossible to outrun. A Redcap hangs out in a spooky looking castle and hides until someone comes along. At that point, they jump out, terrify the sweet merciful piss out of some poor unfortunate, and are laughing all the way to the bank. Basic bully. (Polly: Oy!)

Funny thing is, they’re not all bad. There’s one who lives in Perthshire, it’s said, who grants good luck to anyone who sees him. I don’t know what the hell that’s about, but it is Scotland. Maybe he’s just so surrounded by fear, panic, and intimidation at all times that he doesn’t need to hunt for food and has gotten tame.

Redcaps aren’t generally found much in America, because of their uniquely British composition and upbringing. Honestly speaking, Redcaps worry me. They don’t need to kill, but many of them historically did. I would rather not run into any of them if I could avoid it. Shouldn’t be too likely, though. (Polly: No wonder you’re so goddamn paranoid about me dating Alfred! Y’know that your kind were burning witches and Catholics and invading Ireland mercilessly around the time redcaps were murdering people for blood, right?!)

Powers

The myths of redcaps and the realities describe a few things. First of all, they’re fans of big, heavy, unwieldy weapons. Pikestaffs were the traditional favorites. (Alfred: A type of very long spear intended for thrusting and use in infantry formations. If you can’t wield it with one hand, it’s a pike, not a spear. Also used for stopping horse charges, since they were one of the few weapons that could be set against the ground to stop a charge, not to mention stabbing cavalry riders off of their horses.) (Atina: How male.) (Alfred: I know you’re just saying that to needle me.) (Atina: Well, yes. But it works.)(Alfred: It really doesn’t.)

Historically, they were extremely fast, and strong. The nature of this strength has mostly been unclear, but Alfred has some interesting insights into them.

Alfred: Basically, a Redcap’s power comes from the red of their hair. While historically they dyed their hats red, the rise of cheap red hair dye has made hair dying much more popular. It’s a strange kind of combination of traits, from what I can tell: The dye, whatever it is, must be acquired in a state of fear and intimidation. Whether this means mugging for the money, intimidating a shopkeeper, or just killing someone for their blood, the fear and the red make a surprisingly potent combination. (Polly: Huh, so this is why you were asking all those questions! Nosy. Doesn’t have to be exactly like that, I can just buy red hair dye without any fuss, but without people getting afraid and angry, it doesn’t do much. And vice versa, just pissing folks off doesn’t make me any stronger. Still, when I am strong, I’m mighty strong. Atina’s seen that much!)

Players who make a pact with a redcap are rare, because most wizards aren’t terribly… athletic. (Atina: Bunch of nerds.) The gifts a Redcap gives make a man stronger, faster, quicker healing, but they depend on initial fitness. Someone who’s out of shape will receive only a minor advantage, while an Olympic athlete could break most human standards. (Polly: This goes for a lot of other things, too, like endurance. See, when Alfred’s feeling in a particularly frisky mood, I- *The remaining four paragraphs have been heavily scratched out.*) (Alfred: If Atina sees that I let you write about what we do together in her case files, she’s going to force both of us to eat iron filings.) (Atina: I know what sex is, Alfred.) (Alfred: You really don’t.)

I’ve heard some people say that there are Redcaps who have some more esoteric abilities; blood manipulation, thaumaturgy, that kind of thing. It would be unusual, to say the least; Most redcaps are not nearly intellectual enough for such things. (Polly: I’m pretty sure you’re just being deliberately hurtful at this point!) (Alfred: You are a rather notable exception, darling. That’s why I love you.) (Atina: Don’t flirt in my case files.)

Polly: Okay, here’s the long and short of it. I’m damn tough- Basically, if I have enough energy, I can take a bullet and shrug it off. Mind you, someone breaks out an assault rifle and I’d be in trouble. Second, I’m damn strong. That ball I kick around is a hundred and fifty pounds of lead; It could do some real damage. And those cleats I wear? Iron shod, baby. Atina gave me hell for wearing them in the house, something about the tiles. As to speed, well, I’m a fast runner, but I don’t quite get this one. It’s not like I’ve ever been able to do one of those crazy blurry moves like from Twilight or something. Maybe it’s something you’ve gotta learn…

Politics

Like almost all fairies, Redcaps were once human. Humans get made into fairies through adoption. When a fairy adopts a human child before a certain age- Usually about five or six- that child will become a fairy. The rules for this are… esoteric, to say the least, and I’ll go into greater detail on them later. Suffice it to say, though, redcaps are rare. You need to have a kid who’s raised in the right kind of place, and who has a penchant for violence and intimidation. Bullies would be a favorite. (Polly: Or kids who stop OTHER bullies. Man, I should sue you for slander.)(Atina: Libel. Slander is spoken, libel is written.)

Historically, Redcaps have never held offices of respect or noble position. You see them occasionally standing out as particularly impressive Champions or King’s Men, but they’re mostly only found in the Summer Court. The more subtle ones wind up in the Winter Court, and kill people in ways that are too ridiculous-looking to be taken for murder by the mortal authorities. I don’t actually know if there are any redcaps in Binghamton.

HFM: There are, in fact, three Redcaps in Binghamton that I know of. One is a rather unpleasant Scotsman who moved here a hundred years ago, and who lives near the Inebriate’s asylum- The Castle of Binghamton, as it’s called. He is, in fact, a member of the Fall Court, although I confess that he exists mostly as a bouncer; While the stereotype of the Redcap as thoughtless thug is a bit careless and cruel, we Fae are creatures of stereotypes. (Polly: I’m gonna give you people such a kick in the feckin’ arse for this.)

Of the other two, both are members of the Summer Court. They are unrelated, although both are interesting enough individuals, if slightly overzealous about their nature as intimidation fairies. They need to learn that there’s power to be had in subverting expectations, as well as fulfilling them. (Atina: Reminder to self: I should ask the Half-Faced Man what he means by that.)

Past Cases

I haven’t had any cases for redcaps. God willing, I won’t have to; They seem like they could be a real pain in the ass.

Polly: Okay, wow. I feel like I’m back in the 1920s. ‘No Irish need apply’, eh? Well, may you be eaten by a cat, and may the devil eat the cat.

I’ve kept my nose good and clean, by and large, but there was one particular run-in which involved a bit of assault. See, here I was, minding my own business, with my football team, when this chap comes up to me and starts talking shit about my hair. It’d been a while since I’d gotten a chance to dye it, y’see, and the color was getting a bit weak, so he starts going on about gingers and souls and all of that kind of bullshit. I very politely tell him that if he wants to see my hair properly red, he can help me. (Alfred: In point of fact, what she did was scream ‘Y’want to see red hair? How about I show it to you up close!’ and then headbutted him, breaking his nose.)

Now, see, turns out this fellow was a bigwig of sorts. (Alfred: He was a Sidhe noble, one of the Summer King’s Men.) He starts going on about honor and nobility and satisfactions and so forth, threatening me with a duel. And me, being the reasonable figure I am, decided to oblige him. (Alfred: By this she means that she kicked a soccer ball into his groin hard enough to bring him to his knees. The regulation kind, not the lead-filled one.) Then I give him a good kicking in the clackers for good measure. (Alfred: With her iron-shod boots.)

Yeah… Me mum was pissed. Still, nobody messed with me among the after that. And that was what gave me the idea for the soccer ball. Thing cost a pretty penny, but I can kick it through a brick wall, no feckin’ problem! I’ve been thinking about getting it a red paint-job or something. (Alfred: I’ve been trying to persuade her that this would be a bit over the top.)

Wait… I guess this technically doesn’t count as a case since he didn’t take me to trial because he was too embarrassed about getting his plums puddinged. Damn. But that just goes to prove that the stereotype of the Redcap as violent, criminal asshole is completely off-base, and you shouldn’t trust it when deciding who to associate with!

The Half-Faced Man

Talking about the Half-Faced Man is tricky, because I know he might wind up reading these case files. (HFM: This is true.) On the other hand, he seems to favor people who are honest about their feelings about him. (HFM: This is also true.) So I’m just going to try to put the information I have out there, and if he takes offense… Well, whatever.

The fact about the Half-Faced Man is that I actually like him. I’ve had quite a lot of mentors in my legal career, people who thought they were helping me out and being useful. The problem is, most of them weren’t. Most of them were arrogant, dismissive of my abilities, and treated me as essentially a gofer, or someone to whom they could dictate platitudes. ‘Show up early, work late’. ‘Never give up.’ ‘Fight every case as hard as you can.’ The Half-Faced Man taught me that I can turn iron into an aerosol with the use of a spray paint can, some iron shavings, and some cooking oil. Practical knowledge is worth it’s weight in gold.

And that’s why this is kind of hard to say… But I don’t trust him. The Half-Faced Man has helped me a lot, but of all the people who I’d choose to be the one to betray me, it would be him. (HFM: A wise thing to state. And kind of you to tell me; The surest way to prevent betrayal is to expect it, and warn against it.) He’s a fairy, he’s full of secrets, he has his own motivations. And that reference to waiting until I was fully grown to cut me… That one kind of scared me. Because I still have no fucking idea what KIND of fairy the Half-Faced Man IS.

See, there are a lot of stories of fairies LIKE the Half-Faced Man. But none of them are quite on the money. They come close, they skirt the edge of describing him, but there’s always something wrong with the story. He’s not even like any of the ‘unique’ fairies- Puck or Anansi or so on and so forth. (HFM: Technically, Anansi is a god. And no, I am not a god.)

Alfred’s got a theory about it, based on something the Half-Faced Man said in one of these case files at one point. That basically, the Half-Faced Man is kind of like the mirror of a fairy.

Alfred: Most fairies are, functionally, stereotypes. The more closely they cleave to that stereotype, the more power they derive from it. Acting against their nature weakens a fae. But there is as much power in subverting expectations as there is in fulfilling them. I have theorized that the true nature of the Half-Faced Man is that he is defying his true nature. Who knows what lies below that sinister mask and those painted eyes? Perhaps he has a whole face after all, and simply pretends otherwise? Perhaps he is just trying to avoid being understood. Not a surprising pattern of thought for a member of the Fall Court. That still brings up the question of what he was, though.

Powers

Strictly speaking, I don’t know how old the Half-Faced Man is. He could be only a few decades, or he could be millenia old. He doesn’t have an accent that I can discern, and I haven’t been able to track who he was before he came to Binghamton. Obviously, it’d be damn difficult to do so if he didn’t want those things found out; He doesn’t need a social security number, or ID, or even to look the same. He is a fairy, after all.

Alfred: Similarly, I haven’t had much luck in finding anyone who’s made a pact with the Half-Faced Man. He is a bit of an enigma. There are a fair number of wizards who have tried in Binghamton, but he has very politely but firmly turned all of them down. I don’t even know what he feeds on.

HFM: Well, this is an easy one to answer. I feed on intellectual curiosity and stimulation. The feeling of a human mind working to solve a mystery is my meat and drink. Indeed, simply reading this file has been rather like enjoying a fine wine, full of nuance and flavor.

As to pacts… I made a pact once. It was with a young woman of great talent, and greater curiosity. I was uncertain what I could do with her, and we explored the pact together. I found that I gave her the ability to unearth secrets. To ferret hidden knowledge out of people, no matter how they tried to bury it. Things that should have stayed buried. Things that should have died countless aeons ago. It ended poorly. I was forced to kill her. I do not believe there are things that man was not meant to know, but I do know that there are things that some people are not prepared to know. Talent and curiosity are not everything that a human being needs to delve into madness.

As for what I can do… Well, I can kill wolves. What more do you need me to do?

Politics

There are two primary legal factions to a Fairy Court. There are the King’s Men, and the Champions. The King’s Men are the equivalent of prosecutors, and Champions are the equivalent of defense attorneys. I have been recognized as a Champion of the Fall Court, which essentially just means I’m on their books as available to defend. I don’t get a lot of high-profile clients, because I charge money, and most fairies have money. That means I’m limited to defending those who don’t have much of anything else with which to hire a Champion. And yes, I know, the Champions almost always charge. There’s not much of a Public Defender situation among the Fairies, besides me and Alfred.

The position of King’s Man is first and foremost to avenge slights against the King. They’re expected to win. Truth is also considered useful and important, but if you get the truth and you lose, it’s kind of a booby prize. The Fall Court’s procedures use riddles; Asking them and answering them, with the first to be unable to guess three times being the loser. The actual questions can be almost anything, as long as someone besides the asker could figure out the answer; No ‘What have I got in my pockets’ bullshit. Jeopardy, as it happens, is great training for this kind of questioning. The Fairies often try to cheat, by choosing stories that are long-since forgotten, but they’re not always the greatest at this.

HFM: I confess, I didn’t expect you to be so familiar with The Hobbit. Still, while winning is generally regarded as paramount, I am not necessarily so focused. It makes me a somewhat unpredictable King’s Man, but he still tolerates my quirks for the sake of my skill. When there is a case that I must win, I have never lost. And when I do not win, my liege is usually mollified by what I discover in turn. It is a delicate game, but one worth playing. The truth of the matter is that there are always more secrets to be found, and asking a question that nobody but you knows the answer to gives little satisfaction.

I was very impressed, though, with the way you taught me about happy primes. Few fae study such recreational mathematics. It was a novel approach to the riddle game. Those are the little things that I find promising about you.

Past Cases

So… There’s the obvious one, of course. The Half-Faced Man, in the first case we ever did, saved my life. I was about to get my throat torn out by some horrible thing from the nightmares of humanity’s early days, and he stabbed it with an iron knife. Killed the bastard stone dead. I’ve had my life saved a couple of times, but it was what happened afterwards that made the strongest impression on me. The two of us went to a bar together, sat down, and tore through some beers, and played some darts.

Most Fae can never turn off the whole ‘fae’ thing. They’re mysterious, above-it-all bastards all of the time. They’re a pain in the ass. (Polly: Hey!) (Atina: I wrote these case files before I met you.) (Polly: … Oh. I thought you were just trying to hurt my feelings.) But he was different. He was someone who I could treat like a normal person. So the two of us shot the shit for a while. He talked with me about some of the things he loved, I did likewise. We acted like two human beings, and we didn’t talk about the supernatural one bit. And so, while I know he may turn on me some day, and betray me, I still work with him.

Alfred: If you ever wish to have a good reason not to trust him, ask him about the Summer Queen. The previous one.

HFM: That… was an error in judgment. And it is also the reason why I no longer play only to win. The truth proved to be more important to me. If you wish to know the story, I will tell you. It is not something I am proud of. But it is not something I am ashamed of, either.

Dragons

When I was a little girl, I loved dragons. When other girls were obsessed with unicorns and other phallus-adorned horses, I got a dragon doll. I thought they were the coolest thing ever. I read Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern when I was about nine years old. I bought my first Discworld book, Guards! Guards! because there was a dragon on the cover and because it claimed to involve dragons. I was born in the year of the Dragon, for christ’s sakes, and I loved looking at the illustrations of the dragons on the placemats whenever my family went to the Grand China Wok Buffet. So, when I learned that monsters were real, the very first thing that I asked about were dragons. I wanted to meet a dragon. I wanted to pet a dragon. I wanted to make friends with a dragon. I wanted to ride a goddamn dragon.

So I asked Fang Fen, and she told me ‘They’re all dead.’ And I asked Alfred, and he said ‘They’re all dead.’ And I asked the Half-Faced Man, and he said ‘They’re all dead, but I met one once, shortly before she was killed.’

That’s life, isn’t it? You learn that monsters are real, that there’s a world of fantasy out there, and the one part of it you want so desperately to be real, the thing you’re most excited for, turns out to have been driven extinct a long time ago.

The thing that makes it complicated is that nowadays, nobody’s exactly sure what dragons WERE. They went extinct around the 1700s, with the close of the Age of Exploration. Some claim they were fairies of some kind, feeding on people’s fear of the chaos and the unknown. Others say that they were undead of a very peculiar type, who fed on some esoteric substances found only in princesses or on gold or whatever the hell else they fed on. But the thing that scared me the most…

In the bible, there’s mention of a creature called Leviathan. A beast so great that it was unkillable. Said to have twisting coils, and a whole hell of a lot of other traits that suggest that it was not a hippo, or an elephant, or anything but a dragon. It was made by God, as a signal of his power- A creature so great, only he could destroy it. Sort of like an omnipotence paradox, except with a threat implied: ‘I can make something so powerful that ONLY I can destroy it.’ Similarly, there are many representations of dragons in literature, often as a force of primal chaos; Apep, Typhon, Jormungandr, so on and so forth. (Fang Fen: Interestingly, you find relatively few of these kinds of myths in Eastern mythology. In the East, the dragon is a divine bringer of rain; Perhaps dangerous, but ultimately necessary.) (HFM: Though notably, the Naga of Indian mythology had a less-than-flattering reputation, at least in some of their epics. They are, however, considered relatively harmless to those who have not mistreated them, at least in modern times.)

So, what happened to them? I’m not sure. But I’ve gathered some of the information that I could learn about them in these case files. I guess just as a way for me to try to reconnect with that idea. They’re a grand ideal, you know? Noble and powerful, the first of all things. There are suggestions I’ve seen that they were inspired by people finding dinosaur skeletons. And I suppose it would make me very sad if it turned out that they went extinct, too…

A TRAGEDY

Powers

Historically, there’s no such thing as a ‘weak’ dragon. You never hear about dragon whelps being killed by some random person. Why is this? What is it about dragons that makes them so damn powerful?

HEROES

Alfred: So far as I know, the last dragons died out in the mid 1700s. And the strange thing is that dragons seemed to become lesser as time went on. In the old days, they were deities, divinities. I believe that dragons may be a form of Fae for this reason, that feeds on- for lack of a better word- heroism. As the changing face of battle- firearms, artillery, and squad training- changed the way humans thought of heroism, dragons were gradually starved of their food source. It isn’t that the individual dragons were being born weak, but that they were being malnourished.

WRONG

To my knowledge, they were massively powerful at their height. Dragons were the pinnacle of what it meant to be a hero; Slaying the primal chaos. They may have been simply a form of extremely peculiar undead. It’s said that they could take the shape of humans and did so to trick others; They might have been a primeval form of Lycanthrope. A terror beyond words. The strange thing is that they were also often thought of in romantic terms. Echidna was half nymph, half dragon, and certainly seductive.

Fang Fen: I have often considered that Dragons may have been a form of god. The old and powerful things that humans worshiped, back in the days when there still were gods. They certainly were potent enough, and they occupy a curious place in humanity’s imagination, as Atina has shown. (Atina: I’m never going to hear the end of this.) To be certain, it was never clear that dragons could coexist with humans; They always seem to be at odds with them. Humanity may have problems with their gods, but they never hated them, they never feared them, the way that humans hated and feared dragons. (Alfred: I don’t know about that. Some religions get very antagonistic about their deities.)

HFM: One thing that I am certain of is that they did not make pacts. No wizard has ever successfully gained power from a dragon, at least so far as I know. A few tried, a few more are recorded as having claimed to gain such power, but no dragon ever confirmed this granting of power. This may be evidence that they are not fae, or undead, or even demons.

WRONG WRONG WRONG

Politics

This one is… archaic. And kind of hard to believe. But the Half-Faced Man swears it’s true, so it’s either true, or a very elaborate metaphor.

HFM: Dragons are beings of the most primal chaos. They do not interact with society. They do not obey laws. They are forces of nature, and things unto themselves. They do not take leadership positions, because they do not need lesser beings to bring their views into reality; They could simply enforce their vision of the world onto what is real. But, in the great state of Atlantis (Alfred: Really?) (HFM: Is it so odd to believe that it could’ve been real?) (Alfred: Then why has no one ever found it?) (HFM: They are looking in the wrong place.) there was one who took power. The wyrm Halcifax, ancient and powerful, was the queen of Atlantis, and ruled over it with an iron fist.

I REMEMBER HER

Halcifax ruled over Atlantis, wise and kind, for a thousand years, before the inhabitants grew restless under her dominion. They demanded the right to conquer and spread, to share their power across the world, but were refused that right by Halcifax. And so, they turned against her, and as a punishment, Halcifax sunk the great nation below the waves.

BACKWARDS

In the wake of this destruction, the people of Atlantis were scattered, and it stood as a warning to all others that dragons were not to be trusted as leaders. And so the era of the great serpents ruling over their lessers was brought forever to a close.

Past Cases

… I put this here just because I wasn’t sure where else to put it. I have a theory about dragons. It’s a strange one, but… The bible said Leviathan was something very much like a dragon, and the same of Satan. Creations of god that were meant to test his other creations. So… What does that sound like?

In all that I’ve learned, I haven’t met a single member of the supernatural community who claims to have met god- Not even the demons. I don’t know if God exists, and nobody’s been very good about enlightening me.

HE DOES.

But what if Dragons are a kind of demon? They’re notorious for their desires, their intense feelings, and their greed. What if they were a creation of God? … I try to keep away from demons in my business. Nothing good comes of making a deal with a demon, and I don’t much trust their laws and courts, not least because they seem to take so much inspiration from the human legal system. So what would it mean to me if it turned out that dragons were a kind of demon?

I guess it doesn’t matter that much. Much as I hate to admit it, they’re all dead now.

I AM NOT DEAD YET.

 

 

Chapter 6: Hope Means A Lot

The day before a major trial, the judge calls both lawyers into his chambers, with a very stern expression. “So, I have been presented, by both of you, with a bribe. You, Mister Abrams, gave me ten thousand dollars. And you, Mister Chandler, gave me fifteen thousand dollars.” The two lawyers bow their heads in shamed embarrassment. The Judge takes out a check for five thousand dollars, and hands it to Mister Chandler. “Now then, let’s decide this case on the merits!”

“Tonight, at sundown. That’s when the Dreamwalk will be ready.”

“Christ, that soon?” I frowned. It was two AM Monday. I sat in the living room of my home, crammed into one of the plush, overstuffed chairs designed for someone four feet tall. Jenny lay curled up in another of the chairs, a cup of hot cocoa and blood in her hands. It was her third pack. Polly sat on the fancy chintz couch, her soccer ball on her stomach, her head in Alfred’s lap. The man himself sat back, his hands stroking and teasing Polly’s hair gently, dressed in a bomber’s jacket and a pair of jeans. He nodded. “Seems faster than usual.”

“I already had all the chemicals I needed for the elixir. And the sooner we get there, the better. Emotional patterns will already be smeared from Saturday. Sunday night it was closed, tonight it’s open again. We need to preserve the crime scene as much as possible.” I grumbled, frowning darkly. “Look, the blend is perfectly safe. Psilocybin, mescaline, a dab of DMT, a little Datura for that blending of borders, and some LSD for texture.”

“Datura kills people, you know.”

“I’m not some backyard botanist. This is medical grade, part of the Liberal Dark Arts stash. Perfectly safe. Believe me, I’ve measured out our doses exactly. We’ll get two hours of solid Dreamwalk time. Harmless as aspirin.”

“I… don’t know if I wish to take illegal narcotics,” Jenny said, frowning.

“I’m afraid that all three of us will need to take it. I am taking it so that I can initiate the spell, and turn it from a simple hallucinogenic trip into a Dreamwalk. We need you there to act as a kind of translator for the emotions we experience. A Rosetta Stone, if you will. We will be searching for your memories. Without you there to provide context, it will be a mishmash of unfamiliar sensations. And of course, Atina needs to be there to make sense of the whole thing.”

“Basically, we don’t know what questions to ask right now, Jenny. We don’t know who it was that made you. We have reference to a Hispanic woman at the scene. Is she one of the Camazotz? Is she the mummy that was in Lady Ann Willing’s entourage? I don’t know. She could be someone completely unrelated to either of them, there are plenty of Hispanic women in the world. We also don’t know who else might have been around.” I sighed, and sat back as Alfred smiled.

“The drug and the spell together will give us great awareness awareness. It shows you reality. True reality, I mean.” I rolled my eyes as Alfred began his spiel. As I understood it, the spell was good old-fashioned psychometry, except the part where it worked. It was also prone to giving me nightmares. The things I saw while I was dreamwalking were extremely vivid, and rarely pleasant. I’d never taken any hallucinogens as a kid, and taking Alfred’s little dreamwalk solution reminded me, often vividly, why I had decided not to. I sighed softly, and rested an arm over my eyes, slowly thinking it over.

“I suppose that if it’ll help to prove my innocence… You’re not going to be able to use anything you see as evidence, though, are you?” Jenny asked me, forcing me to return to the conversation.

“No. Again, though, it’ll tell us who we should pursue. Anyway, we can worry about that later. First things first, after I get some sleep, I need to talk with the members of the jury that I know. Edwin Albert’s first. He’s up at the Binghamton Airport, so…” I took a deep breath. “Polly, I need you to stay here, with Jenny, while me and Alfred take his car up to talk with Albert. Alright?”

Polly nodded. “That’s going to be a little tricky, though, isn’t it? I mean, he’s a ghost, right? I read some of your files. What makes you think that he’s going to see you?”

“I have a connection that should help me out.” I gave a smile.

“Ugh. I always feel weird when I talk with him.” Alfred frowned. “He always calls me sport.”

“Yeah, but I’m pretty sure it’s a sign of affection. Now let’s get some sleep. Tomorrow’s going to be a long day.”

Overnight, it snowed. I woke up around 10 AM, and worked together with Alfred and Polly to shovel off the walk for liability purposes. Then we cleared some more snow off Alfred’s modest Honda, and he and I set off towards Greater Binghamton Airport. I leaned back in the chair, my knees uncomfortably compressed by the glove box. We drove through the streets, and out into the hills, where the road was freshly plowed and salted.

I am of the opinion that, in the summer time, upstate New York is one of the most beautiful places in the world. Rolling hills, farms, forests, a once mighty and ferocious mountain range now turned soft and sweet by an endless parade of similar summers. Sugarloaf hills and soft green fields full of flowers and life. They were something special, and honestly, I was grateful for them.

Winter, however, was a different story. In winter, the world transformed into a stark moonscape. A blanket of perfect, untouched snow, occasionally kicked into glittering waves by the wind. Fence posts and rusty barbed wire sticking up like the remains of a drowned forest. Trees standing in the thousands, the tens of thousands, denuded deciduous and impervious evergreens standing together. It was a time when everything in the world seemed dead. It was a time when the sunlight lasted barely a third of the day. It was when everything was crystallized, lakes, cities frozen in stasis, unending and unchanging. It was the Undead’s favorite time of year. It was- “So, did you see the paper this morning?”

I nodded. “That assault case? On the secretary of the Treasury. It’s hard to believe, isn’t it?” I shook my head. “The world seems like it’s getting crazier.” I drummed my fingers on my knee. “Alfred… You remember that big bruhaha with the plague, last September?” He nodded, frowning. “I read that book the journalist put out. The whole ancient cult and all that ridiculous shit, trying to summon a god.” He still didn’t answer. “Alfred, do you believe in God?”

“Never met the guy.” He looked over at me, and the two of us broke into laughs, as we drove down the lonely Airport Road. “Seriously, Atina, what are you getting at? I read that book, too. It’s bull. If there were some guardian deity in New York, we’d have heard about it.” He gave me a grin. “Admittedly, on the night of the eclipse, the Harbingers in the Department of Infernal Affairs did get a real bug up their ass about the apocalypse, screaming that the end was nigh and all that. Then the next day they sobered up and were embarrassed for weeks. Hardly a year goes by that they don’t predict the world’s going to end, and they always wind up proven wrong. What’s got you thinking about all of this?”

“I don’t know. Just seems like things are getting… crazier. Look at this case. This should be straightforward. But there are so many major figures trying to get their foot in the door. Why now?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. But that’s not our job. We’re the attorneys. We can’t stop the end of the world or change the course of mankind. What we can do is help Jenny in this case, and hope that’s the right thing to do in the broad scheme of things.” He looked up. “We’re almost there.”

John Peer met us in the break room. An air traffic controller, he had bags under his eyes as he flopped down into a couch with a large cup of coffee. “Jesus, Atina. Don’t take this the wrong way, but I had really been hoping I wouldn’t see you again.” He took a seat as I slipped a dollar into the machine, and grabbed a candy bar.

“Yeah, well, I warned you that the undead take that ‘Till Death Do You Part’ vow very seriously. But no, you just had to get that divorce.” I sat back. “How’s the arm?”

“It still aches when it rains, and when I see you.”

“Get over it. Is Link in?” John nodded, and closed his eyes. After a couple of seconds, Edwin Albert Link strode through the wall like it was just another entrance.

“Well, Atina! And Alfred! Hey, sport, you ready to make a pact and help me take the Department of Postmortology back from that bloodsucking leech, yet?” He gave me a brief glance. “No offense meant to you or your client, Atina.”

“I’m afraid I have to turn you down this time, Mister Link.” Alfred smiled politely. “I’m still quite happy with the Department of Liberal Dark Arts.”

“Feh, soft science.” Link snorted. “Well, then, Atina. I’m guessing I know what you want to talk to me about. John Peer, get back up in that control room after you finish your coffee, just in case some damn fool tries to land on the runway.” He strode through the door, and I followed, leaving Alfred to relax in the lounge.

The two of us strode out onto the airfield. The field itself had been plowed clean, leaving the frozen grass sharp and bright. Edwin took a deep breath through his nose. “God, just smell that air.” I did likewise. The lingering scent of jet fuel mixed with bitter cold air to simultaneously make my nose burn and freeze, the sharp scent of frost filling my head. “It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?” He gave me a toothy grin. “Have I ever told you how I wound up making my fortune?”

He had. Many times. But it was the kind of story worth hearing again. “Let’s hear it once more, just in case.” I gave him a bright, warm smile.

“Hah! That’s what I like about you, Atina. You’re willing to give an old man the chance to yammer on at a pretty young lady.” He smiled forlornly. “It’s one of the downsides they don’t tell you about being a ghost, you know. It’s hard to get new stories once you’ve died. You always seem to wind up making the same mistakes, going down the same paths…” He stared out across the field, his arms crossed. “This girl. You think she’s innocent?”

I winced. “I don’t think she deserves to die. Do you?”

“No.” He blew out a breath, and it failed to crystallize in the cold morning air. “This case doesn’t look good for you, LeRoux. Five of the jurors are hard-liners, forming up behind Lady Ann Willing. You’ve got no chance with them unless you get the Lady herself. That Chaac woman sounds pretty firmly in your court, she’d probably be with you even if Jenny was guilty as sin of murdering that boy. Vampire solidarity. Same seems to be true of the judge. Not that that helps you any.” He grunted. “Is it so much to ask for that people could look beyond who they are, sometimes? That they could do what’s right, instead of just dividing along the old tribal lines again?” He shook his head.

“We don’t think she killed Tony, her boyfriend. She’s been hungry. Damned hungry, for the last few days. More than she should be if she’d drunk an entire body’s worth of blood.”

Link nodded. “Well, that’s something, at least. But we both know it’s not going to be enough. I know a few of us on the court are mostly concerned with that gluttony charge. How’s the girl’s mental health going? You think she’s going to be killing to get her fill?”

“No, sir. I really don’t. We’re going to try to find out what happened.” I took a deep breath. “And if this comes down to a split decision, and the judge makes their choice?”

“I don’t want this city torn in half, Atina. If I think it’ll come down to the judge, I’ll vote for the girl to be executed, much as it’ll hurt. And so will the three spooks who I’ve talked with. Mallory, Barker, Tetch. They want a good argument, but they don’t want some outsider making a mockery of our justice. That’s the long and short of it, Atina. I won’t see everything I’ve fought to build broken down by those goddamn bastards. But!” He turned and spun, holding a finger out at me. “You convince me that girl isn’t a threat, you get one of Lady Ann Willing’s people to flip, you keep it from coming down to that bloodsucking bitch of a judge, and I’ll fight this to the end on your side.” His pointing finger lost its accusation, and he held his hand out. I took it and felt, just for a moment, the tingle of energy. Then he dropped his hand to his side and turned back to stare out over the field.

“If I might ask, sir, what do you think is the Nostra Notte’s game? I had someone try to grab me Saturday night.”

“I’ll be damned if I know. Those bastards claim they want a better life for vampires, but you can’t trust what an organization says they want.” He stared out across the field, his hands clasped behind his back. “You got good people watching your back?”

“Yes sir.”

“Good. Don’t want you joining the world of the dead early, Miss LeRoux.”

“One last thing, Mister Link.” He turned, an eyebrow raised. “That boy, Tony. He didn’t have much in the way of family left. Parents and grandparents gone, no siblings, no kids. Jenny might be the last thing that’s still keeping his memory alive.”

His eyes opened wide for a moment, and then narrowed. “I never believe in all that stuff about a man disappearing. Maybe you can’t do much about this world when you’re on the other side and forgotten, but I don’t believe you fade away.” He crossed his arms, as though he was feeling the cold for the first time.

“Just thought I’d let you know. See you soon, Mister Link.”

Alfred turned down the radio as we pulled down the road, heading back towards the city via a roundabout route that would take us to Binghamton University. “How’d it go with Link?”

“About the way I expected. A little better, even, maybe. He confirmed the battle lines for me. I need Professor Morton on my side, which is going to mean a bribe, and god only knows what that’s going to cost me. Chaac will need to be on my side, although that doesn’t sound like a huge problem. And then I’m going to need to show Link that this girl was not responsible for her boyfriend’s death.” I rested my head in my hands. “And unless I can get Lady Ann Willing to see reason, none of it will matter a shit, because if this comes down to the judge, nobody will accept the verdict. Poor Jenny’ll probably get pitchforked right there in the graveyard.”

Alfred patted my shoulder gently. “We’ll figure something out. If our job was easy, we would not be heroes.”

“We’re not heroes, Alfred. We’re lawyers.” I gave him a smile, and we merged onto the highway. I tore open the candy bar, and wolfed it down hungrily, eyes closed. It wasn’t healthy, but ghosts fed on- of all things- blood sugar. After a few minutes talking with Link, I needed something to perk me up. And maybe I also wanted something that would make me feel a bit better about myself. I refused to let myself feel guilty about that.

“So what happens if Jenny was responsible for Tony’s death?”

“Then we act like lawyers. We argue that she wasn’t really responsible for it. Put forth evidence that she was a freshly turned vampire, with no blood in her body, that she’s been put in a position where she couldn’t control herself, a situation that will never repeat. Hope like god that we get away with probation.” I stared up the long drive that lead into Binghamton University itself. “Do you mind staying in the car while I talk with Morton?”

“I’d prefer it, in fact.”

The Department of Postmortology is, on the books, a subdivision of the Institute of Biomedical Technology at Binghamton University. They operate mostly out of the basement. The population is close to a score of furtive, nervous looking grad students, and half a dozen lean, pale faculty members. It was a dead end in many senses. Sure, they got some good work done, but advancement was widely considered impossible, primarily because of Dean Morton himself. He believed in a strict hierarchy of age equaling stature in the institute. And the undead didn’t retire.

“Ah, Miss LeRoux. Such a pleasure to see you! SUCH a pleasure. How has your practice been coming along? Lucrative?” He gave me a bright smile as he stood in the office. It was not luxurious, exactly, no bright windows opening on to the rest of the campus, no pleasant paintings of previous occupants. The room’s decoration was primarily in a theme of ‘bones’. Not human bones, mind you. There were ape bones, lion bones, and my personal favorite, the colossal set of megalodon jaws which were set against the wall around the doorway. I stepped very carefully over the bottom row of razor-sharp obsidian teeth, wondering- not for the first time- whether Dean Morton could make the jaws snap shut with a whisper of necromantic energy. I also tried very hard not to think of what that would feel like if he decided to do it to me.

“I get by.” I looked around the office. The back wall was arrayed with diplomas in all manner of fields. Every five years, the dean took a leave of absence to capture a new degree. He took a delight in being well-rounded. “How’s the Dean’s list going? Any choice applicants for your scholarship this year?”

“Ah, the students nowadays aren’t as they used to be. I fear that I may have to suspend the program this year.” Every year since he’d become a Lich, Dean Morton had run a scholarship program. The most ‘deserving’ student of the Department of Postmortology was given a pact with the Lich. This brought with it, understandably, immense power and prestige. The competition was utterly cutthroat. And I had it on good authority that for as long as he’d been running the program, he’d complained of the quality of the applicants, and threatened to stop it. He never had. “Now, down to business. You need me to vote on your behalf.”

“Yes,” I admitted.

“One hundred thousand dollars, and a favor from you and Jenny if she is set free.”

I sat down weakly in the chair. That was all the savings I’d scraped up over two years. I’d have to liquidate my investment account. And I’d be desperately low on money until I got another decent case. It could ruin my practice. “If I might ask… I know for a fact that you’re worth several million dollars, at least. Why on earth do you need that much money?”

He smiled, his teeth shining brightly. “Why, isn’t it obvious? To see how much you want this. To see how much you will sacrifice to win this case. Money motivates so many people out there. They will do anything, if they are paid the right amount.”

“Case in point.”

“Oh, I don’t need the money. And the favors are the real price, here. A favor from you, and from the first vampire to be spared by Lady Ann Willing? Those could be terribly valuable, given time. But money matters the most to those who don’t have it. A hundred thousand dollars from me is a trifle. For you…” He tapped his fingers together. “Would you have to give up your house? Would you be unable to support those you love? Would you starve in the streets? Probably not. But it will make life very difficult for you.”

I took a deep breath, and thought of Jenny.

There are many values of a human life. Governments set the value of a human life to decide what they can accept to prevent deaths as far as costs go, and their estimate is impressive- Ranging from six to nine million dollars. Other people value it less. People get murdered over sneakers, over the contents of a wallet, over all kinds of stupid things. I thought of Jenny. This wasn’t even a hundred thousand dollars to save her life. It was a hundred thousand dollars to get a slim chance at saving her, and I wouldn’t get it back if I lost.

“Alright.”

The dean’s teeth showed as his lips drew apart into a death’s head smile, his fingers laced together beneath his chin. “And that is why I like you, LeRoux. You would sacrifice everything to win. It’s not about the money for you. Do you know how rare that is?”

“You’re in a graduate student program. I thought you’d know a lot about people to whom the money doesn’t matter.”

He laughed uproariously, smiling, his teeth shining like tombstones in his mouth. “Oh, even here, people dream of wealth! Of ease. Of plenty. What most people want is to be safe, and secure. That matters to them more than high-minded ideals. And yet, there are still those like you, Miss LeRoux, who would sacrifice everything they have to balm their conscience.” He smiled. “There are a handful of people who come into this world, and realize how much they owe. They realize they are in debt to their ancestors, to their parents, to their society, and that no amount of work they put in will ever make up for it. And yet, they try anyway, desperately. On the backs of such people, the world continues to spin on.” He leaned back. “I will expect the first payment of ten thousand dollars by the night of the trial, and the rest over a nine month period.”

I was going to need to liquidate the coin collection. The Half-Faced Man had been right. Who would’ve guessed it? “And the favor?”

“Something to be determined in the future.” He tented his fingers together, and smiled. “You know how this goes.”

I took a deep breath. “And. I want your aid in proving Jenny not guilty.” He raised an eyebrow.

“What did you have in mind? I could try to bring back her boyfriend’s shade, if you had some blood from a blood relative of his.”

“I don’t think that would help. For one thing, he doesn’t have any I could get ahold of quickly. And for another, I don’t have reason to think he remembers what happened to him any better than she does.” I shook my head, and frowned. “Have the Notte Nostra come to you?”

“Oh, they have. And they offered a very substantial bribe. Far more than what you offered.”

I swallowed, and my veins turned to ice. “And what did you tell them?” I asked, feeling suddenly very fragile.

“I told them I would do it in exchange for the head of the Notte Nostra, to do with as I please.” Dean Morton smiled icily. “They grew quite irate at that, but did not try to take things any further. This is not about the advantage I will gain. Not this initial price. This is about how much it means to you.” He tapped his fingers along the desk. “I doubt that Fang Fen will be bringing an offer to me, which is why my price is so relatively low for you. A single favor and a price that will cause you hardship. That seems worthwhile as a cost for my risking the stability of my institute and this city.” He smiled. “I know that I am thought of as conservative. As a fogie. As someone who does not bet on the future, and who remains mired in the past.” He leaned back in his chair. “I invite you to prove me wrong.”

I was quiet in my chair as Alfred drove. “How’d it go?”

“I need to pony up ten thousand dollars by the Sunday after next. And then another ninety thousand.”

“I don’t have that much.”

“I know.”

“How much is your house worth if you take out a second mortgage?”

“Not that much. I’ll figure it out. It’s going to hurt like hell.”

Alfred gave me a weak smile. “I’d offer to help, but-”

“We’re none of us wealthy. I know. I can pay this. It’s going to suck, but I can do it.” I let out a slow hiss of breath. “The blood-sucking old leech is testing my commitment. The Notte Nostra approached him too, and he turned down their offer. And they can definitely pay more than I can.”

Alfred frowned. “Is he? That doesn’t sound like him. I’ve never known him to be impossible to bribe. Even if he dislikes the Notte Nostra, one would think he’d be flexible.”

“Yeah.” I frowned. “But it’s still going to hurt. Whether I win or lose, that’s going to suck.”

We drove along through the streets. Lady Ann Willing lived on the outskirts of Binghamton, up in the hills. Her house was visible from most places in Binghamton proper, a white space in the forested slopes. As we drove up the slope, I tapped my fingers nervously on my knee. “Do you want me to come with you?” Alfred asked, an eyebrow raised.

“Yeah, I’m sure that having you flirt with Lady Ann Willing will make her less likely to have my client beheaded.” I took a deep breath. “I’ve got this.”

The sitting room was elegant beyond words. Understated, comfortable chairs, each one perfectly sized for its occupant. A man whose name had to be Jeeves stepped out of a side door, carrying a silver tea pot and three bone china cups. “I hope you don’t mind Earl Grey?” Lady Willing asked politely.

“It would be a pleasure.” I bowed my head. Three cups were poured, and the three of us sat around the table in a small circle as Jeeves-In-Spirit left, stepping backwards out through the door. “Lady Ann…”

“She’s going to be executed. Even if I have to kill her with my bare hands. It would not be the first time.” Lady Ann Willing sipped at her tea as I gaped. Even Chaac, sitting at her own chair, looked slightly shocked. Then her noble, native features hardened as she spoke.

“Then you have no intention of allowing a fair trial-”

“I will allow a fair trial. And whether she wins or loses, I will take her death on my own head. If that means I am branded an oathbreaker for the rest of my existence, so be it. If it means that I meet my own end at the hands of a vampiric cabal, so be it. If that means you kill me in turn for the injustice, Chaac, then so be it. But she will die for what she is.” She sipped her tea again. “You know what vampires are, Miss LeRoux?” I didn’t answer. I could see a lead-in to a rant coming. “They are power, not taken, not cultivated, not made, not earned. They are power given. They are power by circumstance of birth. They are power by accident. They are the old ways. They are the bloodlines of nobility and royalty. They are the idea that in this world, some men are born with power, and some are born to serve. That your parenthood determines who you are.” She looked up, and I had never seen those silver eyes so angry as when they met mine. “They are an abomination. And what do I see before me now, but vampires, conspiring to take away the one thing I still have left? The one thing that my husband left me.”

“That is hardly fair-” Chaac began.

“Then recognize the girl! Or call upon your mistress to recognize her! Or demand the Notte Nostra recognize her! Bring me her parent! Show me who it was who took two of my people, humans under my protection, and stole their lives! Make them pay the price, if they wish to see justice done!” Lady Ann Willing stood. “You two may discuss your conspiracy. I will not spare the girl. I will wring the life out of her with my bare hands if I need to. It is not fair, and it is not justice, but it is all that I can do for her, to save her from being turned into a pawn for some cold-hearted monster.” She turned, and strode out of the room, leaving me sitting with Chaac. I took a sip of my tea.

“She seems unhappy.” I gave Chaac a look. “Where is your mistress? I don’t think I’ve spoken to anyone in the city who’s actually met her.”

Chaac sat very still, and looked down at her lap. The handsome, arch woman folded her hands in her lap. “Can you keep a secret, Miss LeRoux?”

“If it’ll save my client, no.”

“I do not think it will, but I do not know.” She took a deep breath. “Do you know how many Camazotz there are in the new world?” I shook my head. “As of last year, there were perhaps two dozen, usually in enclaves of two to six. And do you know how many there are now?” I frowned.

“How many?”

“Two. Me, and my mistress.” She stared down at her hands. “Something is hunting us. It has hunted us down to the last two. This is why my mistress came here. We have survived for centuries without losing one of us, but now, we are nearly extinct. We desperately need new Camazotz. My mistress went into hiding soon after we arrived here, and I have not seen her since. I suspect she was the one who may have converted the girl, but she may have been attacked and driven into the shadows.” She crossed her arms. “If Jenny is indeed related to me… I want her safe as much as anyone. I will provide what aid I can. I have employed the services of two of the local undead, if you would appreciate their assistance; A young man named Arthur, and a woman named Roquette. I believe you met them.”

I frowned, and tapped my fingers on the chair. “Do you have an idea of what it is that’s hunting you?”

“An idea. But I cannot tell you. I fear that if I did… It would taint you.” She met my eyes. “My mistress refuses to face what is hunting us head-on. That frightens me. She is powerful, and anything that could hunt her is fearsome. But I have hope. If you can fight to show that this place will save her…” she took a deep breath. “The problem is, all of this smacks of bait. A trap. I am not certain who could be responsible. The Notte Nostra seeking to eliminate a rival. The Lady Ann Willing seeking to crush those she hates. They would have to be powerful to be a threat to our ancient breed, but secrets are well-kept here. For being so young, the undead in this city are often terrifyingly powerful. Despite her distrust, the Lady Ann Willing could stand a fair chance against me if she wished, and she is less than half my age. My mistress no doubt suspects a trap at the court. If you show that they can acquit her, that they might fight for her life…”

“So you think if I can persuade them, I’ll persuade Hun-Came. She might show herself if it can be proven that the undead of this city don’t want to kill her.”

“I am sorry. It is hope. But that is all I can offer you right now. I do not even know if she is truly my sister. But even if she is not, she does not deserve to die for the grudges of beings older than she. What else can I give you?”

I nodded softly. “I guess I’ll have to take it.” I handed her a card. “This is my phone. If you should happen to come up with any ideas, or if your mistress should get in contact you, call me.” I stood up, and gave her a smile. “And hope means a lot to me.”

 

 

Chapter 7: Cruor, Ichor, and Gore

I sat with Jenny on the curb outside the club. Polly was nervously kicking her soccer ball from side to side, bouncing it off of the top of her shoes with shocking precision. Every ten or twenty bounces, she’d miss, and it would heavily strike the pavement of the sidewalk, leaving large cracks. Alfred’s jaw was tensed, his forehead vein throbbing, his legs crossed. “Must you do that right now, darling?” he asked, through gritted teeth. He sat in a meditative pose, eyes closed, five candles surrounding him, the vials sitting between his crossed legs. I knew for a fact that he didn’t need any of these little accoutrements, but he’d made it clear that putting on a show made the magic easier.

“Sorry. It’s just… boring.” She let the ball strike the pavement again, and stood atop it, balancing herself, arms waving. Alfred took an extremely deep breath, and then blew it out through his nostrils, seeming to calm visibly as he did so. His eyes fluttered open slowly, and he nodded. “Alright. Let’s get in there.”

An extroverted lawyer loves the bar. An introverted lawyer loves the liquor store. I’d always been introverted. I drank alone, and yes, I know precisely how bad that sounds. But it beat this kind of environment. It was still early, the sun just set, dinner not yet served, on a Monday night. But the psychic pressure the place exerted on me was still palpable. It was like forcing my way in against a gale. Or maybe that was the loud music playing.

Bars cater to drunk people. Drunk people tend to be sensitive to light, and numbed to noise. That’s why they’re dimly lit, and play loud music. I’ve always suspected it’s also intended to make it so nobody has to try to carry on a coherent conversation. I peered owlishly through the darkness, and approached the bartender that Alfred had mentioned to me on the drive there. “You were here on Friday night, right?” I asked, smiling. He gave me a quick look, and grunted, brushing a few strands of well-manicured black hair out of his face. I’d read that was a sign of attraction. Somehow I thought it was just a coincidence with this guy. “See, my friend there left that night with someone, and we think that she might have been robbed by that person.” I took out my phone, and showed him a picture I’d grabbed at the Night Court, showing off Chaac. “You recognize this woman?”

He frowned, and looked closely at the picture, then shook his head. “Sorry, ma’am.” Then he went back to polishing the glassware. I sighed, and rejoined Alfred and the others.

“Well, he wasn’t very helpful. But it was always going to be a long-shot.” I examined the small vials as Alfred set them down on the table. Each one contained a different amount. Mine was full nearly to the top. I gave Alfred a dirty look. He shrugged his shoulders in a ‘What can I do?’ kind of way, and I lifted the vial into the air to the air. The fluid was a suspension of alcohol, containing the various purified chemicals he’d used. It was clear, and sparkled slightly. I held it in front of my eye as I looked around the room, and frowned. “Oh, that’s very weird.”

“That’s how you know that it’s the good stuff.” Alfred smiled. “Alright, ladies, bottoms up.” He unscrewed the stopper on the vial, and tossed it back. Jenny did the same, and coughed a couple of times before managing to gulp it down. I closed my eyes, and upended it. It wasn’t the worst cocktail I’d ever had, but it certainly came close. Pure ethanol tastes fucking awful.

I never know exactly how the Dreamwalk is going to hit me. Sometimes, it was slow, gradual, a gentle shifting from one state of mind. This usually happened in quiet, calm places. No such luck, here. The pounding bass beat of some meaningless song began to shift, taking on a new tenor and rhythm. I found my hips beginning to sway from side to side. I realized what the song was as I became more aware of my own chest. It was a heart beat. I turned my head towards the speakers. A great heart lay there. Not the bloody, awful, meat kind that you saw in a butcher’s window, but the kind of perfect symmetrical shape that humanity associated with love, and which resembled a really nice ass. It was pumping wildly, but that felt right. I turned my head.

Polly stood all in armor. Leather and hide, stapled to her body, covering most of her. It was rough stuff, and dark. But I could see her face through the gaps. Her features were soft and sweet, pale and kind, her red hair hanging messily across her face. Alfred stood nearby her, a crown upon his head, proud mail around his shoulders, a great sword hanging from his hip. The fucker always looked like that when I was dreamwalking. I’d never mentioned it to him, because I was mostly sure that it was him fucking with my perceptions. And Jenny…

Jenny stood in the center of the room, with a young man I didn’t recognize. The two of them had their arms in the air, dancing and shaking their heads in time with the pulsing beat. The two of them looked completely normal, smiling, twining their arms together, dancing slowly. I stared at them, and felt the little pit of jealousy in my stomach. They were happy, satisfied with their lives. They had each other, and a future full of promise and excitement. They knew what they were doing. Everything was going to be alright for them. Why couldn’t I have that?

Then she walked in.

I had never seen Hun-Came. I had no idea what she looks like. But the figure who entered the room was a dark goddess. Eyes flared like black suns, coronas of darkness emerging from them. Her ears were peaked like a bat’s, rising high into the air. Blood drooled from her lips, down across her chin. The beat of the music had changed, becoming fearsome, pounding against my skull like an assault. The speakers had changed. From soft, lovey-dovey hearts, they had become torn and bleeding organs, true hearts. Blood was dripping down to the floor in thick pools around them. Each beat of the music accompanied a beat of the hearts, and they pounded so loud it made my skull ache. The goddess carried a short obsidian knife at her side, and approached the two young lovers.

“What do you see, Atina?” Alfred asked. His voice was washed out, distant, as I watched the scene. My fists were clenched. I watched as the two turned towards the woman, smiling, inviting, innocently interested. She spoke with them, and flecks of blood splattered their skin.

“I see someone talking to Jenny and Tony. Someone powerful. I think it’s Hun-Came, but I can’t be sure. Pretty bat-like, though.” I took a deep breath. I could only gather impressions, not what had actually happened. It was someone strong, full of necromantic energy. Someone bat-like. She leaned in, and planted a kiss first on Jenny’s lips, then on Tony’s. Their eyes glazed, and their skin turned pale as their stances changed. They stood slouched, half-conscious. “She did something to them. Made them docile.” Then the three of them walked out of the bar, and I followed after, taking a quick pace.

It was pitch black outside. The waxing crescent moon hung in the sky, and it was covered in great dark lines that made the sliver of white look like a mouthful of grinning teeth. Two stars shone where the dark side of the moon should have been, creating a ghastly smile. Blood drizzled down the teeth of the moon, falling in a great arc, landing in the distance, and roaring through the river basin. The Susquehanna roared with all the fury of the spring thaw as it pounded at its banks, water replaced with cruor and ichor and gore. It threatened to overflow, to flood the entire valley. But I kept on walking, following the three. Hun-Came- The figure at the head, I couldn’t afford to get focused on the idea that it had to be Hun-Came- spoke in a low voice, laughing softly, as they walked across the sidewalks.

“What’s happening now, Atina?” asked Alfred.

“Shh,” I whispered. “They can hear us.” I pointed towards one of the trees. Dozens of owls stood in the tree. Tiny screech owls, barn owls, even a single great horned owl, its feathers tufted up. I’d always loved owls with their strange, wise eyes. These didn’t have strange, wise eyes. They had the eyes of humans, staring greedily down at the group. There was a sudden rumble of thunder, and I started, as lightning arched through the sky. “Was there a storm on the night this happened? Or is there a storm happening now?”

“No,” Alfred whispered. “Who can hear us?”

“Shit. I think this is a metaphor.” I turned my head, and froze as a great beast rose from the bloody river. Scales like gold, and a serpentine body, with a tiger-like head. My heart began to pound as it opened a single great yellow eye, and leaned in close, staring at me. I stopped dead as the creature’s massive head hung in the air next to me.

“Law-bringer,” the creature rumbled, and then withdrew as though stung, the earth rumbling. This all was not so surprising. It happened every time I did a dreamwalk in this damn city. Every time I did, I saw this damn dragon thing, and it said the same thing. I didn’t tell Alfred about these visions, either, because I knew exactly what he would say. That it was a manifestation of my own obsession with dragons, that I was letting my own desires overwrite the truth of what was really there, that-

“Atina,” whispered Jenny. I looked up. We stood before the hotel. It looked much the same in the dream as it did in reality, a spiritually barren place, without home or hearth or animating force. The woman stepped up to a door, and disappeared through it, before opening it from within. The two young students walked through, and I stared through the window, the door remaining resolutely locked. Within, the two young students sat obediently. I watched as she sank her teeth into Jenny’s throat, and the girl let out a sigh. Her body went pale, snow white, as she was drained. Then, a single drop of blood was dropped into her mouth.

Hundreds of owls gathered around the hotel, their wings ruffling, their strange human eyes piercing as they watched the proceedings with voyeuristic eagerness. Their wings rose and fell, slowly beating the air as the rain began to pour down around us. It was ice cold, and soaked me through to the bone, leaving me shivering as I watched the three.

Jenny lunged, her teeth about to find Tony’s throat, when the dark figure stopped her, a single finger pressing against the girl’s lips. Jenny slumped to the floor like a marionette with her strings cut. And then, the dark figure leaned over Tony, and began to drink, throat bobbing and rising.

I turned my head to the side. A woman stood beside me, naked save for an elaborate headdress and a single shell earring dangling from one ear. Her body was covered in scales in places, scintillating in the lightning that tore open the sky. She raised a hand into the air, and brought it down on the glass, just as the dark figure looked up from Tony.

A bolt of lightning seared out of the sky, through the scaled woman and into the dark figure. The two of them hurtled together, grappling and tearing and fighting and—

I was running through the darkness. The forest was thick and cloying, rain pounding down, tropical heat smothering my skin. I chanced a peek back over my shoulder. Flames and smoke rose into the night. Occasionally one of my fellows ran past in the darkness, leaving me behind as they sprinted, lashed forward by the primal terror of the foreign monsters that had descended upon us, who were consuming us. They ran with all the gut terror of the hunted deer. And when they disappeared from view, I heard snaps from the jungle, and cut-off screams, and knew that one more friend was gone. I kept running.

Tears stung my eyes, running down my cheeks and into the hollow of my throat. I had been on the verge of being allowed to marry. I had my entire life ahead of me. My sobs came out in ragged, choking gasps for air. I didn’t have time to cry. If they caught me, they would kill me too. All I could do was run, and run, and run. My feet ached, blood and sweat mixing together freely as I kept running. I kept going, until-

Without preamble, she stood before me. Tall, imperious, magnificent. She met my eyes, and smiled. I stopped, my legs going limp beneath me, dumping me on my ass. She met my eyes, and spoke softly. I didn’t know the language, but somehow, I understood. “Why do you cry, child?”

“Because everyone I love is dying,” I said, my hair hanging around my cheeks, plastered to my skin by my sweat. The rain began to fall, as I sobbed into my hands.

“Those you love will come and go. It is the nature of things. Tonight is hard, but there will be many more nights like it. When were you born, child?”

“I… What?” I frowned up at the woman. “On the seventh Kimi.” I’d hated that birthdate. I’d always been teased about it, nobody had wanted to befriend a girl born on Kimi. It was a time of ill omens and suffering.

“Ah, auspicious. A child born into adversity. But given the strength to survive that adversity.” She smiled, and knelt down in front of me, resting her hand on my head. “Do you want the power to make sure that this never happens again?”

I stared over my shoulder, listened as the screams filled the air, and covered my tear-stained face with my palms. “Yes.”

There was a soft chuckle. Then her teeth sank into my throat, and everything went black.

“JESUS!” I bolted upright, sitting up out of my bed. I breathed hard, staring at my palms. They were scratched and bloody. Polly jumped to her feet from beside my bed, looking around wildly.

“Is she awake?” called Alfred from downstairs. I heard him pound up the stairs, and into the room. “God damn, Atina! You’re alright!” He threw his arms around my shoulders, hugging me hard. I blinked blearily. It was still dark outside. I peered at the clock. It said it was 8 PM. My whole body was shaking. The memories of the dreamwalk and the strange vision were still furiously strong, searing lines through my brain. I took deep, steadying breaths, trying to pull myself back together.

“Jesus. What did you guys get from that room?”

Alfred frowned. “Well… There was a sense of betrayal that I got, but I couldn’t identify it more precisely than that. Jenny barely got anything at all, it was like she couldn’t remember what had happened in there.”

I rubbed my face, and groaned. “Something attacked Hun-Came while she was trying to convert Tony. I’m sure of it. It was some kind of strange woman with scales. I’m not sure what she was, but-” I shuddered, and sank down into the bed. “Jesus. Okay. Owls. That’s the Strix. I think that they were watching. Polly, get a pen and paper and take this down, would you?” Polly gave me a look, but did as I asked. “Owls. Watching owls. The moon was weeping blood, and Hun-Came- I think it must have been Hun-Came. She was powerful. Really powerful. And I saw a river of blood. There was a thunderstorm, and a scaled woman attacked Hun-Came, and then-” I rubbed my forehead. The dream was already fading, unlike the dreamwalk visions. Had it just been my brain throwing together random ideas, random imagery? I wasn’t sure. “God. How long was I out?”

“Nearly twenty-four hours,” said Polly.

“… I’m sorry, what?”

“Yes, you seemed to have something of a fit when you reached the hotel,” Alfred said, clearly embarrassed. “I managed to get you back in the car, but you wouldn’t wake up. Your body seemed to be recovering from something. I-”

“Oh god, I’m going to be late.” I was up and out of the bed in a second, rushing into the bathroom, slamming the door shut behind me. I hadn’t shaved. I hadn’t showered. I tried to do both at once, and scratched my skin up something fierce.

“Late for what, Atina?” asked Polly from outside. “Do you need me to come along and do the bodyguard thing?”

“No! I mean, no, no, don’t worry about it! It’ll be fine, I just- Shit!”

I stumbled out of the bathroom, semi-groomed and half-naked, and grabbed clothes from the closet as Alfred pointedly covered his eyes. Polly’s jaw dropped. “Wait, do you have a date? Oh, that’s awesome! Who are you going to see?”

“No one! He’s normal.”

“Wow, okay, racist,” Polly said, crossing her arms.

“Not like that, I mean he is not a spirit, or a monster, or a demon, or anything crazy. And I kind of want to keep him away from that part of my life until I’m sure that… You know…” I coughed into my hand. “That he can handle it…?”

“I see,” Alfred said tartly. “You’re ashamed of us. It’s because I spend all my time doing theater with a bunch of fairies, isn’t it?” I groaned softly.

“No, it’s because you got me whacked to the gills on Datura and made me lose a day and now I’m going to be late!” I checked the clock. 8:30. Great, I’d only be an… hour late. “Shit! Jizz-balls-cock-sucking-date-raping SHIT!” Polly was scribbling notes down furiously. “Alright, I’ll be back! Just- Shit. Just try not to cause any calamities while I’m gone!”

The upside of a bike over running was that I was not panting and gasping for air when I reached the small apartment complex. I chained my bike outside, and climbed three flights of stairs, wishing all along that I’d thought to ask for Roy’s phone number so I could let him know when I’d be late. I braced myself for the sight of disappointment and anger on his face while I knocked on the simple door.

The door opened. Roy stood there, and he looked good. Discarding the shapeless, riotously colored uniform for a pair of slacks, a couple of good shoes, and a button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up. He still looked young, and short compared to me, and a little bit silly with his stubble, but here, he actually looked just a bit handsome. He gave me a weak smile. “Miss LeRoux, please, c’mon in, make yourself at home.”

I stepped in. “I’m sorry I was late, Roy. There’s a good explanation for it.” I struggled to find one that didn’t involve admitting I’d been doped to the gills on psychedelics, but to my great relief, Roy saved me by raising his hands.

“It’s alright, Miss LeRoux. I know you’ve got crazy work hours. It was for the best, anyway, the ribs needed another hour or so!” He smiled, and as I made my way into the small studio apartment’s living room, the smell hit me.

I know I’m going to invite jokes by saying this. I got teased a lot for my weight as a kid, and even grown up and in good shape, I still feel uncomfortable with my body. But food is damn important. Good, regular meals are one of the things most necessary to a happy human being. All of the supernatural weirdos I’d met were the same. They all needed to eat.

I’d experienced many different kinds of cuisine. The scent of a rich Indian curry. The snap and crackle of Turkish kebabs. The warm oil-soaked scent of Middle Eastern. The intriguing spices of Chinese. The elegant simplicity of Japanese. The meats and beans of Mexican. And countless others. But the smell wafting through the house now was one that made my stomach growl, and my heart shudder with fear. It was the smell of Texas barbecue.

A platter of ribs lay smothered in a molasses sauce, cooking on tinfoil. They’d turned black and sticky, the fat and oil running along the surface in thick rivulets. A large loaf pan sat next to them, golden corn-bread shining in it. A heaping bowl of homemade applesauce sat next to it. I stared down for a moment, my jaw dropped. “This… Isn’t the healthiest food, you know,” I said, even as I stepped forward to take some.

“Yeah, well, I thought of doing fish or something, but I figured that might feel a li’l too familiar to both of us, y’know?” Roy rubbed the back of his head. “I could make somethin’ else, if you want-”

“No,” I said firmly. “This is exactly what I needed.” I smiled, and took a seat at the small dining table set up in the middle of the apartment. It was sparse, and small, but clean, and warm. I took a big bite of apple sauce, and closed my eyes. Cinnamon, molasses, and apples mixed together in my mouth, the taste warm and sweet. I took a deep breath, and felt something wet trickling down my cheeks. I took another bite, and the tears began to roll my cheeks in big, fat blobs, embarrassing the hell out of me while I sniffled through my nose.

“What’s the matter, Miss LeRoux?” Roy asked, his voice very soft and gentle. “Does it taste bad? Cause-”

“It’s been years since I came home and there was a meal waiting for me.” I brushed at my eyes. “It’s those things that you don’t really appreciate, you know? Coming home after a long day, and there’s a meal waiting for you, and someone who cares enough to make sure that you’re not going to starve yourself to death-” I sniffled, and brushed the tears out of my eyes. “Do you ever look at your life and just feel… terrified? Like you’re clinging to the edge of a cliff, and there’s a long drop below you, onto hard rocks?” I took another bite, and then stood. “I’m sorry, I’m a mess, I should go-”

Roy’s hand took hold of my wrist. Gently. Not pulling me back, or desperate. His fingers were warm and smooth against my skin, his eyes full of concern. “Please, don’t.” And so, I sat back down. “Miss LeRoux, what’s this problem? Is it-” He lowered his voice, looking around. “Is it criminals? Is someone threatening you?”

I smiled, weakly. “Kind of.”

“I could help, Miss LeRoux. I could, really-”

“No,” I said firmly. “I appreciate it. But you can’t help. Not that way. But this…” I cut off a slice of corn bread, and dipped it into the sticky molasses coating the barbecued ribs. “This helps. It’s just… There’s a lot riding on this case.”

“You help folks, Miss LeRoux.”

“It’s just a jo-”

“No, it ain’t.” He frowned, and sat up firmly. “I remember the first time you talked to me. Walked in like an angel with a sailor’s mouth, and started complaining about your clients. Talking about how ungrateful they could be, how stupid they could be, how they never took your advice, just going on and on about them, and I wondered why you’d help people who were so damn troublesome. Why you’d work late into the night and bust your butt to help people who didn’t understand what you were doing for them. Who didn’t help you. Till I asked you. Remember that?”

I smiled, and sniffed, runny snot dripping down my lip. I wiped my face with a paper napkin. “You asked, ‘If they’re such a pain in the butt, why don’t you let them fix their own damn problems?’” I smiled. “In those exact words.”

“And you said ‘Because then they’d be alone.’ You were the one person in the world who they could trust to help ’em. You wanted to be there for the people who had nothin’.” He frowned, and crossed his arms. “I saw that, and I thought to myself, ‘there’s a woman who’s going to drive herself mad trying to help everyone else, giving everything she’s got till she ain’t got nothin’ left.’ And I couldn’t think of somethin’ that made me sadder than the idea of you bein’ punished by the world for trying to make things right. It doesn’t seem fair.”

I sighed softly. “That’s the world, Roy. There’s no justice. The world’s not fai-”

“Don’t ever say that, Miss LeRoux. Not you. Please.” He gave me a desperate look. “You’re fightin’ every day to keep a bit of justice in the world, aintcha? To protect the people nobody else has. If you really stop believing that the world should be just, then what chance do us normal folks have?”

We sat in silence for a long few minutes, as he grew gradually more furtive and restless, squirming in his chair. Finally, he opened his mouth, and I bent forward, grabbing his collar, and gave him a kiss on the lips.

It wasn’t one of the better kisses in romantic history. I hadn’t kissed a lot of boys. It was clumsy, uncertain, a bit fumbling, and I nearly lit my sleeve on fire on one of the candles. But as we broke apart, Roy smiled. “You could give a guy some awfully strange notions doing something like that, Miss LeRoux.”

“Atina. You can call me Atina.” I smiled softly, and leaned back in my chair, the warm cinnamon taste of his lips still on my tongue. “Thank you, Roy. I really needed a chance to just… vent, I suppose. I appreciate the help, but I don’t need someone shot. Now if you could tell me where I could find a coin collector who’ll buy a grab bag quick…”

“You collect coins?” His eyes brightened. “What do you have?”

“Well… I don’t know, really-” I frowned at Roy. “You collect coins?”

“Well, I don’t have the money to actually collect ’em or anything, but I love antiques and all kindsa valuable stuff. I love watchin’ that show.” He grinned. “Sometimes we get weird coins in the register, and I let this lady down in Egg Harbor know when we find somethin’ valuable, so she trades for ’em. Uh.” He blushed. “Don’t tell Mister Williger, will ya? I don’t think it’s strictly legal.”

“Is she reliable?”

“Heck yeah. She’s pretty rich, one of those girls from a wealthy family, kinda snooty, but she always pays me good prices. I got her contact information if you wanna see her, she comes by occasionally-”

“Roy, if you can get me her info and get me in touch with her, I won’t just keep quiet about it, I will represent you in the court if Mister Williger ever finds out.” I smiled at him. “This… Thank you, Roy.” He gave me a goofy grin in return, and quickly stood up to go check his computer. While he did, I sat with the ribs, nibbling the meat off the slender, well-cooked bones.

All of the previous times that I’d had one of the dreamwalks, the nightmares that had accompanied it had left me shaking, terrified, for weeks. I had dreams, vivid ones, full of strange shocking imagery, and childhood fears. They left me weak and shakey. Sometimes I’d barely been able to focus, and it got worst in moments like this, when I was waiting, when my thoughts went quiet, when there wasn’t anything I had to do immediately. I braced myself… and nothing happened.

I sat there, nibbling on the ribs while Roy gathered together his contact information, no terror or pain in my chest. No fear and anxiety. There was just the warmth of a nice meal with a guy that I was growing increasingly fond of, which he had made specially for me. I felt the warmth flowing up through my chest. Not embarrassment, not shame, not humiliation. Nothing so awful. I felt, for all the world, like things were improving. That the world was on the mend. Maybe things weren’t so bad as I’d thought.

He sat down with me, and smiled, handing me over the sheet with the contact information. “I’ll give her an e-mail, let her know you’re planning on visiting her and such. Uh, I hope it helps out.”

“I’m sure it will.” I smiled softly. “I can’t stay tonight-”

“Oh, that’s okay-”

“But I want to see you again. The very moment this trial is finished, I want to spend some time with you. Take a little time off. I might be a little short on money, but… Just something to show you how glad I am. Is that okay?”

“It would be my genuine honor.” He smiled, and stood up, walking me to the door. “Do you want me to walk you back to your house, Miss LeRoux?”

“Not tonight.” I smiled, and leaned closer, planting a gentle kiss on his cheek, bent forward. “But as soon as I can kick everyone out. And remember, you call me Atina.”

He was beaming as he held the door for me, and so was I. The bitter cold air nipped at my skin, but it couldn’t do anything to freeze the warm little spot in the pit of my stomach, and the way my heart was pounding with excitement. I biked the entire way home without thinking once about the dreamwalk, or monsters, or my own death. My happy mood broke only when I saw the Studebaker parked in front of the house, and my heart crawled right up into my throat. Fang Fen stood outside of the car, leaning back on the hood, starring up at the stars. She turned her head towards me as I approached.

“We need to talk.”

 

 

Chapter 8: An Unexpected Guest

“I never wanted it to end up like this,” said Fang Fen, as she sat back on the hood of her car. It was still hot, providing a warm place to sit for a few minutes before the bitter cold of the night filled it, like it was filling everything else. “The two of us on opposite sides, fighting over whether someone will live or die. You saved my ass once.” I was silent. “And we both know that I can’t repay you for it here. There are a lot of things I’d do for you, Atina, but I will not betray justice for you.”

“You think this is justice?!” I asked, and then looked down. I didn’t usually yell at Fang Fen, but this whole trial was bugging me. “What about this feels like justice to you, Fang Fen? The part where the lack of evidence either way means she’s presumed guilty? The part where the jury is full of inherent biases? The part where it’s clear that she’s being set up to take the fall for someone else?! Why don’t you tell me what the fuck you think is honorable about this entire system!”

Fang Fen waited, quietly, her eyes very calm, as I shouted. I was probably going to wake up the neighbors, but I didn’t care. “Are you finished?” she asked, her face as emotive and passionate as a stone mask.

“Tell me what you think you’re defending.”

“Stability.” She waved a hand. “Haven’t you felt it, Atina? The chaos rising in the world. The prelude to madness. Instability and desperation. It’s not just the human world. The old dead are growing restless. The world has been in a state of unparalleled calm for the last seventy years, and that calm is beginning to crumble. Things are crawling up out of the darkness. Nightmarishly powerful things.” She crossed her arms. “You heard about that man who assaulted the Secretary of the Treasury? They say that he beat nearly twenty heavily armed bodyguards with his bare hands, in full daylight. Armed men with submachineguns. I couldn’t do that. I’d be surprised if Lady Ann Willing could do that and get away. And that outbreak of plague in New York City…” She shivered. “You do not understand how important stability is.”

I leaned back on the chair. “You know that old joke about medicine, right? ‘He’s listed in stable condition. Dead is stable.’”

“It’s truer than you would think.” She stared down at the ground. “Humans, both living and dead, need stability. I know traditions and conservative attitudes and all of the things that we Undead stand for are difficult. They press down on the young, they make them feel helpless. They make them feel as though they’ll never have their chance. But conservative attitudes exist for a reason. They give the young the chance to be old, someday. They keep everything from falling apart. We need that stability. Think about Jenny. What if she is a spawn of one of the old vampires? Imagine if she is the child of Hun-Came, or Chaac, or the founder of the Notte Nostra, or the Thousand Year Fox, or another terrible force?”

“So? It’s not like they have power over her. Hell, they killed her boyfriend, I doubt she’d just go along with whatever they say. I’ve read about vampires, they aren’t loyal to their makers.”

“You’re missing the point, Atina. A girl with the power of a goddess, who was born only a scant few years ago. Think about the court. What if she asked to be placed on the jury? What if she demanded the right to exercise her power? If the Night Court refused her, she could slay them for the insult. When youth is given power, it may try to do good with it, or it may be selfish with it. But youth is eager to use its power, to upset the status quo.” She crossed her head, frowning. “That man, who assaulted the Secretary of the Treasury. He’s not some ancient thing from the dawn of time. So how the hell did he get all of that power? He is what the Lady Ann Willing fears.”

I frowned. “Age doesn’t necessarily bring wisdom, you know.”

“No. But age brings caution. Do you know why none of the ancient undead seek to conquer humanity? Do you know why no Lich weaves spells upon the president of the United States? Why we stay out of the business of the living? Because all of the conquerors, the ambitious, ferocious types, are weeded out while they are weak and young. The powerful Undead are those who stayed in their holes, who decided to be patient and to not take risks, and make caution a way of life. You care about Jenny, and she’s a kind-hearted, sweet young woman. But imagine if the wrong person were to become a vampire?”

I leaned my head forward. “You’re saying it’d set a dangerous precedent.”

“Yes.”

“The whole reason we have a goddamn jury is because sometimes we recognize that a case is unusual. Jenny does not deserve to die just because someone else might.”

Fang Fen sighed. “I don’t expect you to let Jenny die. I don’t expect you to do anything but fight for her as hard as you can, with every trick that you have. I’m not here because I think that I can persuade you that I’m right. I’m just here because…” She stared down at her hands. “Because you’re my friend. And I hope, I really hope, that if I do win this case, that you’ll be able to forgive me.”

I snorted in disbelief, and she looked up at me. “Come on. What do you care? We both know I’m a human. I’ll be gone in sixty years. Maybe less.”

“Yes. Undead… We can hate each other forever. There’s always time to make up for things. But if you hate me… You might hate me until the very day you die. And then there’d never be another chance. I couldn’t stand to not have you as a friend, Atina. I know that we have to be on opposite sides of this issue… But I hope we’ll still be able to be friends afterwards.”

“Even if I win?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.

“If you win, and beat me, I will be very happy indeed.” She gave me a soft smile, and stood up. “I want you to find a way to make everything right. I want you to win without question, to prove Lady Ann Willing wrong, to make her stand down. Because if the Strix judge decides this, I know that this will not end well.” She held out a hand to me. I took a deep breath, and then shook it, pulling her in and giving her a firm hug. A bit of exhaustion crackled through me, a combination of the cold and her own enervating presence. “Please win, Atina.”

“Hey, do I ever lose?” I gave her a weak smile.

Everyone loses eventually.

Polly and Alfred were lying together in one of the guest bedrooms. Jenny was up, and reading one of my case files in my bedroom, her eyes wide. She looked up, guilty, as I entered the room. “Oh, I’m sorry, Miss LeRoux-”

“No, don’t be.” I smiled. “They’re interesting, aren’t they? I’ve thought I might publish them someday. Kind of a primer on identifying the supernatural in your neighborhood. I thought about making a supernatural law blog, but people called it a bunch of self-indulgent trash.” I reached into the bedstand, and withdrew the small pot of coins that I had gotten. I trailed my fingers through it, letting them jingle as they fell back into place. Verdigris pennies, rusty bits, silver dollars. All variety of cash. Hopefully, some of them worth enough in total to pay for the first installment of the Dean’s bribe. “If you don’t mind, why are you reading through it?”

She looked down at her feet. “I was planning to be a writer, Miss LeRoux. My major was in English. I always used to love fantasy, and romance, and all of those things.” She quirked her lip. “Be careful what you wish for, hmm?”

“I think you dodged a bullet. If you survive this case, ‘Undead’ pays a hell of a lot better than an English degree.” I sat down across from her. “I don’t want to promise you anything about the trial, but you’re going to need to make plans about the future. There’s a lot to think about.” I took a deep breath. “I’ve found out what Dean Morton wants, at least. He’ll need a favor from you. And this is a heavy price, because he hasn’t stated what the favor will be. It could be anything, and knowing him, it’s going to be something that costs you. He might ask you to kill someone, he might ask you to do almost anything, as long as it will not break the law.”

“Killing someone… without breaking the law?” She frowned. “How-”

“I’ll also have to be teaching you the law. The point is that it will be something you owe, in exchange for him voting for your acquittal.”

“A bribe, then,” she said, her tone icy.

“More like bail and parole,” I suggested delicately, though she was absolutely right. “It’s his way of making sure that you are bound not to ruin things, because he’ll have a favor to hold over your head. That way, if you break your word, he can at least prove to the world at large that you’re untrustworthy. You’re going to find that there’s a lot of paranoia in this community.”

“It is all so strange,” she whispered softly, her eyes down on the case files. “To think the world was so full of magic and wonder, and to have it all proven to be so… tawdry.”

“That’s life. Nothing’s beautiful when you get too close to it.” I gave her a smile. “It’s up to you whether we take the deal or not.”

“Can I win without doing so?”

I looked down. “Chances aren’t good.”

“Then I do not have much of a choice, do I? I must trust you, and I must trust him. The alternative is being set adrift, and trusting those whose interests are not aligned with my survival.” She set her lips in a line. “What do you get out of this, Miss LeRoux?”

“I don’t know. I…” I sighed. “If I’m being honest… I’m stubborn.” I stood up, putting the pot back down as I walked in front of the mirror. I checked myself in it for a moment, brushing a hand through my hair. I could see Jenny’s face in the mirror, the pain and fear there. Her life was hanging by a thin thread.

“How so?”

“When I took this case on from you, Jenny, it was a snap decision. I wanted to help. I didn’t realize how much that help would cost me. I didn’t realize how badly some people wanted you dead.” I took a deep breath. “But I offered to defend you, and I don’t step down from that. Who else would I find to defend you? Who else would have a chance of doing it? If I abandoned you now, it’d mean you’d be on your own. And I couldn’t stand the thought of leaving you like that.”

“So I’m a burden.” Her face grew even harder.

“Christ, you’re in a mood, aren’t you?” I took a deep breath. “You are… an investment. A burden will never stop being a burden. They’re tied to you by obligation, or contract, or fear of criminal consequences. If you survive this, Jenny, you’ll be the first native vampire of Binghamton. Figuratively speaking. Your survival could spell a positive change in the way this city works. You could make a lot of people’s lives a lot better, and you might even get the power you need to do something. Let me ask, if you could do anything- If you didn’t have to worry about money, if you had all the safety and security you needed- What would you do?”

She was silent for a few seconds. “I would sit in the sun in a nice garden all day, compose haikus and short stories and maybe novels, and share them with anyone who wanted to see them for free.” She looked melancholy for a moment, and then smiled. “But I suppose that doing it in the moonlight would be enjoyable too, in its own way.” She took a deep breath. “Thank you, Miss LeRoux. I only hope that I can find a way to pay you back, someday.”

I thought of Hun-Came. Of that terrifying power. If Jenny was made by that goddess, and was recognized by her… I felt a little spike of guilt. It felt selfish, the desire to protect her so she would be able to protect me in turn. That I was defending her in the hopes that she’d save me someday, too. As if self-interest was all there was to it. I just tried to convince myself in my head that I’d do the same even if I knew for certain that Jenny would be nothing special. I’d almost managed to when there was a jingle from downstairs, and my head jerked up.

“What is it?” Jenny asked, frowning.

“Someone just hit their head on one of the chandeliers.”

The chandeliers. When I first bought the house, I strongly considered removing every goddamn one of the chandeliers. Not a day had gone by that I didn’t turn a bit too fast, and accidentally knock my skull against one of the ornate pieces of glasswork. Frankly, they were a pain in my forehead. They had been hung for someone four feet tall, and were right at eye level for me. And yet, I’d kept them on for reasons of nostalgia, and appreciating that they were something beautiful.

The sound from downstairs had been someone knocking their skull into the chandelier, and trying to hold it still, without crying out and cursing. I pointed to the bathroom door. “Get in there.” I grabbed the sap gloves from the end-table. I thought for a second, and then grabbed my father’s old flashlight. “If I’m not back in five minutes, climb out the window and run like hell.”

“What is it?” she asked, her eyes widening in fear.

“If I’m lucky? Just my paranoid delusions.” I turned off the lights, and slid over to the door, sliding it open.

Human night vision is crap, by and large, compared to most of the things in the dark out there. Turning on the lights would make me an obvious target. Going in the dark would make me a more obvious target. So I had the Maglite. It was nearly two feet long, made out of aluminum, and was favored by police because of its ready second use as a baton. It was closer to a billy club than an instrument of illumination, but it could do both. I turned it on and swung the light in a quick arc before turning it off again. Just long enough to dazzle anyone watching and give me a sign of them. I didn’t see anything.

I made my way down the stairs. I knew this house by instinct. I knew where everything was, and each step was made with confidence. I carefully set my feet down on the cold tiles of the first floor, and did another quick turn, flashing the light on and spinning. Nothing.

An arm went around my mouth from behind, as someone put me in a tight hold. Their hands were like iron. “Now now, girl. You got the drop on me with that fae bitch last time. Not going to be quite so easy this time, is it?” I recognized the voice. “Now, we’re just going to take you, nice and quiet, and make sure that you’re going to do what we want. If you’re a good girl, you don’t have to die. Do you underst-”

I kicked the ground with both feet. I was taller than him, and had superior leverage and weight. The man was supernaturally tough and strong, but I’d seen that he wasn’t invincible. He tumbled backwards, and his cheek struck the wall papered with bible verses. I was not a bastion of faith and belief, but that wallpaper apparently was, and on contact, it ignited his skin like he’d dipped his cheek in napalm.

The man’s howling shriek rose through the room as I lunged for the light switch, the smell of burning meat filling the air as his cheek burned spectacularly. A dozen vampires stood around me, dressed like the two men who had assaulted me a couple of nights ago. Black shades, jackets, and far too much grease in their hair. They reached into their pockets, and drew out switchblades. The man whose cheek had been burned patted it out, hissing and growling under his breath. “Shit. Alright. Someone knock that bitch out, while we kill the two troublemakers upstairs. Get that wastrel bitch, too. Remember, don’t kill the shark or the girl-”

“You fuckin’ pricks!”

You know the sound a soccer ball makes when it’s kicked? It’s a hollow, rubbery kinda sound. When you do it just right, there’s almost a sharp little ping to it. That sound heralded the arrival of Polly’s soccer ball, driving one of the men down at a sharp angle into the floor. The tiles were preserved, thanks in large part to the man’s body cushioning the ball. His rib cage was not so lucky. Polly followed at high speed, striking another of the men feet-first with her cleats. The first man was the luckier, as the soccer ball wasn’t covered in small, sharp spikes. Her hair spun around her, bright red and freshly painted, shining like the halo of a particularly heavy metal angel.

+One of the men went for his gun, drawing it, even as the man who’d grabbed me shouted at him. Alfred appeared from thin air, and his slender rapier went through the man’s chest while the thick broadsword cut cleanly through his wrist. The gun fell to the floor, clattering to a halt. He took a step back, and smiled brightly at the other men.

Alfred, when he’s ready to fight, is a hell of a sight. His chainmail shimmered around his body, his blonde hair hair haloing his head. He turned to face another of the vampires, and stalked towards them. In one hand, he held a dueling rapier, slender but sharp as a needle, blood already making the blade glisten. In the other, he held a broadsword in a one handed grip. He lunged towards the man, and his arm blurred. Three arms, and three rapiers, sped for different places. The vampire moved to dodge one aimed for his throat, and wound up stuck like a pig through his gut instead. The broadsword flashed out and took his head off while he was distracted.

Alfred preferred a duelist’s style. He’d used it to become one of the few wizards who could manage the position of a Champion of the Summer Kingdom. It was also, however, a style designed for fighting one enemy at a time. I saw one of the vampires approaching him from behind, lunging even as Alfred fended off a stab with the guard of his broadsword.

Then Polly was there, her foot dividing the man’s legs like Moses in the red sea. One foot was set firmly on the ground, the other clad in a steel-toed boot, driving into the vampire’s groin so hard it lifted him nearly a foot off the ground before physics reasserted itself, turning him into a crumpled, moaning heap. Then she turned, and lashed out with the foot again at her soccer ball. It rose up off of the ground, striking an arc that sent two more vampires tumbling to the ground. Alfred and Polly went back to back. Less than a third of the vampires were still standing, and a smile played across Alfred’s lips, confident and just a little bloodthirsty. Then the door opened.

The man who stood there was familiar, though it took me a moment to place him. He had large, soft eyes, and a rosary around his neck. He wore a simple white t-shirt, and a pair of slacks. He let his eyes run along the room slowly, and sighed. He didn’t have a knife, or a gun, but his eyes were strangely familiar. Then I realized where I had seen him. The third member of the Strix at the night court.

He took a step forward, and blurred. Alfred lashed out, his blade moving to intercept the man, and the Strix caught it between his thumb and forefinger, stopping it in mid air. He tapped the side of his head with his free hand. “Pathetic, really. It says something about the quality of these mooks that you two are enough to stop them.” His voice was gentle. His other hand flickered out, catching the soccer ball.

With both hands full, he did not manage to intercept Polly’s fist in time, as it slammed into his ribs. He bent forward, growling, and then straightened up. “You know, this doesn’t have to be quite this hard. You can give up the girl, and the lawyer. We don’t want either of them dead.” He smiled, sharp white teeth visible. I backed away, taking the first few steps up the stairs.

“Go fuck yourself sideways with a duck’s dick!” Polly said. The man sighed.

“Fine.” He snapped his fingers. “You boys get out of here. Shoot anyone who goes through the windows. I don’t want those two dead, but I won’t lose any sleep over it.”

Alfred lunged for the burned vampire, but was intercepted by the large-eyed Strix. The bastard was fast, slashing with open-handed movements, more like the raking of a cat than a human blow. It shouldn’t have been very effective, but one of his swings nearly struck Alfred, and tore open three long parallel lines in the chainmail. Alfred gasped, stepping back, splitting into three identical figures. The vampire sighed, shaking his head. “That sort of trick isn’t going to work on me, wizard.” He tapped the bridge of his glasses gently, grinning. “Why waste your time?” Then he lunged at one of them, and Alfred stumbled back, hitting the bottom row of stairs.

The raking fingers struck deep into Polly’s stomach, her hair turning dull as red blossomed across her green jersey. She reared back, and slammed her skull into the vampire’s, making him stumble back a couple of steps. He recovered quickly from the headbutt, and renewed his assault, pushing the three of us back up the stairs. These were two of the strongest people I knew, and he was barely even slowing down as he fought them.

I pulled back through the bedroom door, and slammed it shut as Polly and Alfred came through. “Oh, you’re not going to be safe in there for very long,” the man laughed, voice muffled by the wood. There was a horrible crunching noise, and three long strips were torn out of the door. I fought back an urge to shout ‘Here’s Johnny.’ Alfred stood just behind me, panting, sword raised. Polly was clutching at her stomach, her hair nearly brown, bright red blood gushing down her stomach. Jenny stood with her back to the mirror at the far side of the room, her hands over her mouth. She didn’t have a reflection.

The Half-Faced Man was standing where her reflection should have been. “Hello, Atina. Do you mind if I come in?” he asked, very politely, even as a massive hole tore out of the door, revealing the bright, shining eyes of the Strix.

“Get in here!”

The Half-Faced Man unfolded from the mirror, and Jenny let out a scream as he brushed past her. He gently pushed her against the mirror, and she fell through the border. Alfred turned towards the Half-Faced Man, distrust warring with relief. “Can you kill that bastard?”

“No. I am afraid not. I can, however, buy time.” The door slammed off of its hinges, and the vampire stepped in. His eyes flickered across the room, and then settled on the Half-Faced Man. “Hello, Parsons. How’s the family?”

“How in the hell…?” The vampire took a step back, his eyes widening. “How do you know-”

“Your grandson’s not doing well, is he, Parsons?” Alfred, Polly and I backed off as the Half-Faced man strode towards the man, his arms folded behind his back, hunched forward to avoid banging his skull against the ceiling. “Do you want to know what it is that’s killing him?” Polly went through the mirror. I was about to, when I turned my head back towards the end table. The pot of coins sat there. Without that, we were screwed regardless. I pushed Alfred through, and he let out a shout as I dove onto the bed. The man, Parsons, lunged for me. An iron knife flashed through the air with impossible speed, and pinned his hand into the wall right through the palm.

The Half-Faced Man smiled. “It’s cancer, Parsons. Leukemia. It is going to kill him. And it’s all because of that time you sent him to visit Aruba. That’s where the mutation happened with a little too much sunbathing. He’s going to die, and it is your fault.”

Parsons ripped his hand off of the wall, knife and all, and lunged at the Half-Faced Man with a feral scream of rage.

I’d never seen the Half-Faced Man fight before. I’d never seen anyone who could give him a fight. It was strange, and rather beautiful. His blows had a flowing grace, his additional joints making every movement unpredictable. Two iron knives appeared in his hands, hilts wrapped in leather, guards likewise. He stepped and slashed, digging the knives in, striking again and again. All of his movements were sweeping and wide, hemming the Strix in. I stared for a moment, my mouth open, when I remembered myself. I grabbed the pot, and dashed for the mirror, throwing myself through it in a roll.

There was a moment of vertigo, and I landed on a hotel room bed. Polly was sitting with her hand over her stomach, groaning softly. Jenny was shivering. Alfred was wrapping a bandage around Polly’s stomach. I stared up at the mirror, showing a display into my bedroom. The Half-Faced man dove through the mirror, and landed on the far side of the bed as elegantly as a spider. Parsons leapt after him, and his face flattened against the far side of the mirror. Cracks appeared in the image, and then the view of my bedroom faded, leaving just a normal mirror.

“Shit,” I muttered. “I really liked that mirror.” I rested my face on my hands, and let out a long, slow sigh. “Fuck. Okay. I think it’s clear we can’t stay in Binghamton. That was definitely the Notte Nostra. We need to skip town, and stay out until the trial.” I took a deep breath. “I need to write some letters to people. I need to make sure that Lady Ann Willing and Fang Fen don’t think we’ve skipped town, and that we’ll be back, so they don’t sentence Jenny in absentia. We need to get a car-”

“I’ve taken the liberty of preparing envelopes, stamps, and a rental car,” The Half-Faced Man said, bowing his head pleasantly.

I turned towards the Half-Faced Man, and my expression turned hard. “How did you know I was going to be in trouble? This must have taken time to set up. Did you know these guys were going to be involved?”

“Actually, I’ve been preparing these things since I first met you. I presumed that eventually you would be attacked. When I felt something disrupt the sanctity of your home, I prepared this ingress. I have been working under the assumption that this would become necessary at some point, when you enraged something to the point of needing to flee the city.”

I paused a moment. “So, this isn’t because you’re secretly in league with the bad guys, but because it was obviously clear that at some point I’d get in so deep over my head that you’d absolutely need a safehouse getaway planned for me.”

“Yes. And I know how that sounds.”

“I actually would have preferred you to be with the bad guys.”

“I know.” He gave a sympathetic smile. “I did not, however, get red hair dye. I will remedy that now.”

I sat slumped in my chair, staring down at my hands. They’d attacked me, in my own house. Planning who knows what. I’d always thought I would be safe there. I took a deep breath. “I don’t know what the hell the Notte Nostra is playing at. They wanted me and Jenny alive, so they’re not trying to kill us necessarily. What do they want?” I stared down at my hands. “Their purpose, generally, is to destabilize places where the undead are strong, so they can take over in the chaos. They’ve been working towards that, here. They want to destabilize the city, and they want to use Jenny to do it. Force a confrontation, make sure that I play my part as well as I can. Maybe they just don’t trust me. Maybe they were the ones who actually changed Jenny.” I kneaded my forehead. “But… On the other hand, the Camazotz are getting hunted by something. It could be the Strix, possibly. Maybe. But then why would they want Jenny alive?” I groaned, and lay down on the bed. “Shit!”

“We’ve got a week and a half,” Alfred said. “You just need time to get your head in order. Is there anywhere we can go?”

“Uh.” I sighed, and got out the card, studying it. “There’s a coin collector. She might buy these. She lives in… Egg Harbor.”

Polly’s eyes lit up. “Oooh! That’s right outside of Atlantic City! We could all go together!”

Jenny frowned. “But… Even after we finish this case, won’t we still be in danger, even if we win? If the Notte Nostra are frustrated because of our actions…”

“When we’ve won this case, we can tell the Lady Ann Willing exactly what happened, and she can forbid every one of the Notte Nostra from the city on pain of horrible death. The only reason I can’t tell them now is because, if I did, it would result in a mis-trial.”

“Isn’t that good?” Jenny asked, frowning.

“Not quite. It would mean the presumption of guilt against you. And…” I sighed. “Death.”

“This court system is in terrible need of reform,” Jenny muttered.

“Yeah, you’re telling me.” I leaned back in my chair. “How are you doing for blood?”

“I… am hungry, but not starving.” She bit her lip. “Are we going to be able to travel with me?”

“Sure. We’ll just drive at night, and stop in a hotel during the days. Should be no problem.” I stood up, and looked at the card. I thought of Roy, and what he’d think. If I disappeared, and there were reports of a break-in at my house. How he’d react if I disappeared. I’d need to write him a letter, too.

This is why I don’t go in for relationships.

 

 

Case Files 3: Wizards

Wizards

Alright. Wizards could get an entire goddamn book to themselves, but here are the broad strokes. First, no human can do magic on their own. I’ve been told that this is the way it’s always been. There are no archmagi or sourcerors or anything like that. Every wizard who has ever existed has needed to make what’s called a ‘Pact’. If you think this sounds unfair as hell, then I agree, but it’s the nature of the world. If it makes things any better, I’ve yet to meet a supernatural creature who didn’t also depend on humans. The thing is, there are a whole shitload of humans in the world, and not that many fairies, demons, and undead.

Basically, think of it like this. Humans are a source of energy, like gasoline. But we can’t use it for anything. A supernatural creature is like an engine. You put gasoline into it, it converts it into usable power, depending on the kind of creature. I’ve heard that there used to be all kinds of things that could do this. Things from other worlds, sapient objects, classical monsters, gods, elemental spirits. But they’re things of myth and legend, now, and no living wizard I’ve met has made a deal with one. The only things that still make pacts with humans are the things that feed on us. (Fang Fen: For good reason. A parasite takes. A symbiote shares. And nobody wants to be a parasite.)

Typically, the power that a human gets from a supernatural creature is appropriate to what that creature is. Sometimes, it takes the form of spells, like the sort of thing you’d get out of Dungeons and Dragons. (Alfred: Or the works of the Hermetic Order. Don’t denigrate us by comparing us to a bunch of greasy nerds with orange fingers.) (Atina: I know for a FACT that you were into White Wolf, you poseur.) (Polly: Those games were so fucking racist. Especially about the Fae.) Sometimes, it’s just some kind of passive improvement. The problem here is that the power comes with a lot of hooks attached.

First, the power can be withdrawn at any time. I’ve never met a supernatural creature that didn’t reserve the right to take back their power. Some agree to only do so if certain agreements are broken, but they could always break that contract. Second, there’s usually some poison pill clause to allow them to fuck with someone who’s accepted their power. It may be just pain, or control, but it’s part of the negotiations. Fairies usually prefer taboos to control, forbidding things instead of compelling behavior. A demon will almost always demand some level of control over you. Undead… Well, they can be a mixed bag. Regardless, becoming a wizard means giving up your autonomy.

And as to power… Power is a mixed bag too. Some people are naturally powerful. Some people are nearly worthless. As far as I can tell, I’m one of those who’s nearly worthless. I might be able to achieve some neat card tricks if I made a pact with someone strong, but I’m never going to be one of those types who throws tsunamis or shakes mountains to their core or shit. I don’t know why. Alfred’s told me there are dozens of different identified factors that make people stronger or weaker. Birth can play a role, the time of year and where it was. The way you behave. But the thing is, different people can have different responses, and there’s no in-depth genetic analysis of this stuff available, so it’s mostly guess-work, and trying to get stronger could just as easily make you weaker.

So far as I know, when someone dies, it destroys the pact. This means brain-death, incidentally; No tricks with stopping your heart to break out of a pact. On the other hand, as long as the supernatural creature is alive, the one who makes the pact with them won’t grow old. Conceivably, you could live forever like this, save for the fact that if the pact is broken, you revert to your true age. (Alfred: This isn’t quite correct. Technically, a spirit could prevent this rapid, sudden aging. But, when a relationship has gone on long enough for this to be a factor, it seldom breaks… cleanly.)

Alfred: There’s one thing I don’t talk with Atina about much, because it doesn’t get brought up much. See, a person is not limited to a single pact. The human soul is a surprisingly hardy thing, and theoretically, there’s room for up to seven points of attachment; Seven links to the supernatural. The problem here is twofold. First, the simple realities; As Atina has said, pactmakers have a tight grip on those they give power to. It’s rare that one would be willing to let themselves be jilted or share their human with another. And second, there is the problem of feedback. Balancing power like that takes a spectacular level of dedication, and focus. The consequences of failing to do so could be lethal. I’m one of the few wizards under 40 who is attempting to take on a second pact, and that’s only because I was given the first as a child.

There are seven connections, and they are often associated with the seven Chakras. I’ve theorized that the Chakra a pact is made with influences that pact in some way, but as so few wizards have even two pacts, let alone the theoretical seven, I’m unable to figure much more about it. More than three enters purely into the realm of speculation.

Atina: You may ask yourself, by the way- Why magic? Why throw a fireball when you can use a gun? Why a flight spell when planes are freely available? The truth is, magic is hardly inherently superior to technology, and while most supernatural creatures aren’t good with it, wizards are just fine with most technology available to them. Magic’s just another tool in the kit, really; And most notably, it’s one that most humans have no idea how to deal with. That’s its main advantage: Getting one over on humans. Technology often serves a similar purpose for dealing with supernatural creatures. The ultimate advantage of being a wizard, as far as I can tell, is that you’re not limited to one or the other; You can switch-hit. Maybe you’re not as good as someone who specializes, but you’re flexible.

Bards (Players)

The official name for a Bard is a ‘Player’; As in ‘All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely’. They draw heavily from English, Literature, and History. These skills, derided by the world at large, are the primary survival traits of those who can figure out the fairies. Think about the very first kind of stories we’re told as kids: Fairy tales. Stories about how to avoid monsters, and about the mistakes other children have made. How to trick things. Those who pay attention to the stories are the ones who can survive among the fairies. I call them Bards, and because most of them are RPG dorks, most of them immediately catch on to the fact that this is an insult. And even better, most of those immediately catch on that I’m testing them, and take it with good humor. (Alfred: You are, however, still banned from the weekly gaming meet-up. Not that I’d ever expect you to go.)

Among the three, Bards are the most likely to have a romantic relationship with their pactmakers, and as far as I know, humans and fairies can interbreed. They’re actually even fairly stable relationships. A lot of Bards end up married to their pact-maker, which is why the name ‘Player’ only really applies to Alfred. (Polly: You know, a bad attitude can be conducive to bad results. I should talk with Atina about taking it for granted that Alfred’s going to move on…)

Typically, the way a Bard makes their first pact is through a hookup. They meet someone fascinating and unusual. Plays, book convention, LARPing, antique shows, the usual havens. They get laid, and they realize that there’s something strange about this person. Something that seems just a little bit too familiar from the stories and plays they’ve read. Despite the Shakespearean allusions, these aren’t always fairies out of English literature. There’s a world of strange creatures out there that feed on human thought. There’s actually a small population of Yokai in Binghamton, though they tend to blend in with the local courts. I’ve even heard that there are entirely different court systems in tropical regions, where it’s more ‘Rainy’ and ‘Dry’.

Anyway, the flattered fairy might make an offer, or the human might. One way or another, the two wind up in a pact together. This is something of a status symbol for the fairy, and most of the powerful members of a given court will usually either be looking for a human to make into a Bard, although they’re selective. And no, the King and Queen of the court are not married, and yes, they look for wizards too. These people are known as ‘Consorts’. (Polly: Though some of us do call ’em the King and Queen’s Piece o’ Side-Tail behind their backs.) (Alfred: I wish you wouldn’t, no matter how admittedly funny it is.)

Polly: For my money, the most useful thing a Fae gets from a wizard is the simple and uncomplicated connection. Humans are a lot more… stable, than fae. Even someone like Alfred brings a lot of stability into my life. You always know that they’ll be willing to put on dinner that night, that they’ll have a stable life that can cancel out a lot of the over-dramatic weirdness that we encounter. It’s nice, y’know?

Powers

Of the three, Bards tend to be in the best shape. Whether this is because of the LARPing, or the fact that most fairies tend to be fairly physically active, or even the aforementioned ‘has a significant other’ thing, the consequence is that they tend to be pretty physically formidable. Alongside this is the fact that fairies often give people abilities that enhance what they already have, rather than something entirely new. This makes Bards rather dangerous fighters- don’t trust that whole squishy wizard stereotype. They’re not always supernaturally strong or fast, but they tend to be big into Society of Creative Anachronism style shit, so they actually know how to use the ridiculous weapons they carry around.

To my understanding, there are two broad types of power that a Bard will use: Stunts, and Productions. A stunt is something that can be done in the blink of an eye, instinctively- They tend to be fairly standardized, even rote. They don’t require any spoken words, gestures, or anything else. Productions are the more elaborate stuff. They usually require some chanting, waving, a whole big… well… production. The way that Alfred describes it, all of the trimmings help the Bard to gather power for the magic. Illusions are apparently a big thing for them, too.

Alfred: Illusions are a frequent form of Fae magic, it’s true, although generally, they’re more often Production than Stunt. My ability to use them in a fight to feint is considered highly unusual, and is something of a function of my first pact. I’ve had a lot of time to practice them. The difference between stunt and production is usually a matter of complexity; A Production can take anywhere from a few seconds to hours, the only important thing being that it is not instantaneous. My Dreamwalks and the other potions I sometimes make are examples of Productions.

Generally speaking, a Production is much more flexible, since you don’t need to know it by rote. There are still some fairly significant limitations. It must be something in touch with the one I’ve made a pact with, and not against their values; For example, Atina once asked me to make a potion to reveal when she was being lied to, and it was quite impossible. Revealing deceptions goes against what my powers are about, after all. And yet, the dreamwalk lays bare the truth in an admittedly roundabout and confusing way.

Nobody ever said mastery of the mystical arts would be easy.

Politics

As far as wizard schools go, the College of Liberal Dark Arts is where the Bards usually gather. I don’t know a whole hell of a lot about its internal workings and politics. (Alfred: I’d explain them, but frankly, it’s a bunch of tedious political backbiting, and I don’t usually get involved with it. Because of the divisions in the fairy courts, the wizards who work with the fae tend to be similarly divided.)

Typically speaking, a Bard does not have any direct power in the courts, unless they are a champion. They are able to act through their pactmaker, but do not have any say of their own. Functionally, this doesn’t make much of a difference, as a team of fairy and pactmaker are often fairly closely aligned. A Bard often acts as sort of an enforcer for a given fairy, doing the things that fairy can’t be seen to be doing themselves.

Wizards will on occasion become Champions, or much more rarely King’s Men, of the four courts. They’re generally the only humans ever put in a position to do so, with the exception of yours truly. The process of becoming a Champion is fairly simple- You simply need to convince one of the fairies to rely on your services in court, and succeed in defending them. I know that the Department of Liberal Dark Arts has a few of them, including Alfred, although none of them are part of the Fall Court.

Alfred is what’s known as an Iron Knight- A champion of summer, someone who’s earned the right to carry iron-bladed weapons. Bare iron would be bad for his magic, but unlike most fairies, he can wield it, although not in a contest. It’s considered a way of making sure that he can’t be manipulated by any fairies, among other things.

HFM: While being partially a method of protecting their champion, the Iron Knight is also a threat. Ultimately, they are the Summer King’s way of reminding the other Kings and Queens that, should he choose, he has a warrior on hand who could cut down the fae. A reminder that when it comes to settling an argument, violence always exists as the final option. Hardly persuasive to watchers, but difficult to fight with words. Of course, the Winter Court maintains a counter, because violence can always be felled by more skilled violence. And those who live by the sword are fated to die by the sword. (Alfred: Look, Atina, I just find this kind of thing a little threatening, you know?) (HFM: I’ll try to tone it down.)

Past Cases

Alfred: As it happens… The first case that I ever had was when I was eighteen, just before I went to college. There was a Sidhe woman who had been accused of poisoning her previous lover with iron shavings poured into his food. This would have been bad enough, but as it turns out, the man who she’d tried to poison was the King himself, necessitating a rather brutal trial by combat against the King’s Man at the time, a vicious troll- A battle to the death, no less.

No one else would help her; The battle would be a serious one, and the King’s Man was famous for his brutality and violence, taking great pleasure in devouring his foes after crushing them to a pulp, and doing the same to those they defended. He was not a very pleasant person, all things considered, but he felt that he was fighting on the side of justice. So often the way that justice seems to justify such things, eh? (Atina: I really shouldn’t let him go on about his cases like this. His sense of humor is Shakespearean.)(Alfred: Thank you.)(Atina: Not a compliment.)(Alfred: And yet I choose to take it as one.)

The fight was a hell of an entry into the trial of combat. I was fighting with a single long-bladed rapier, as I’d been taught since childhood, which proved to be wholly insufficient for the task at hand- That is, killing a troll several times my size. The battle seemed quite hopeless, until the troll began to showboat for the crowd, setting down its cutlass. I managed to grab hold of it, and using the two weapons together, removed the troll’s head. That’s when I started my first relationship, with the fae who I had just saved. Of course, eventually, we drifted apart, but I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for her. (Atina: She offered to bake you a ‘good-bye’ cake, didn’t she? Did you ever try it?) (Alfred: Of course not. I mean, she was a fairly awful cook, so even if it wasn’t poisoned, I feel I made the right decision.)

Polly: Hey, what about the way you two met? (Atina: If there is a god, and he is kind, I am never sharing that information.)(Alfred: *Several heavily scratched out sentences appear here, ‘Singles Night’ the only two words remaining even close to legible.*)

Horses (Postmortologists)

Wherever you find autopsies, you find Postmortologists. Biology, medicine, these fields tend to have access to bodies. You may be asking yourself what that has to do with learning magic, but you have to understand that many undead take a few days after they die to ‘rise’ again. So, let’s say you’re of an inquisitive mind, studying medicine and biology, and the corpse that you’re preparing to autopsy suddenly sits up and screams at you. What do you do?

If you said ‘Start interviewing it and asking it questions’, congratulations! You’re a strong candidate for becoming a Horse. Mind you, it’s not always a newborn Undead they meet. If Lady Ann Willing were to be in a car accident, she’d be mistaken for a mundane corpse. Most Undead don’t give off many signs of life unless they’re actively trying to. One way or another, though, most med students wind up on the path to Lichdom by getting the wrong academic adviser. (Fang Fen: That’s hardly fair. Very few wizards become Liches, even among Postmortologists.)

Med students usually don’t have quite as much prosaic knowledge of fantasy and horror. When they meet one of the dead, they don’t know what to ask for, and they don’t know what’s fair, so most of them end up in fairly onerous pacts. The luckier ones wind up with one of the more moral and caring undead, who are merely patronizing and superior, rather than actively malevolent towards them. Generally speaking, the one constant is that the wizard is expected to provide what the Undead needs. Often from their own bodies. I’m not quite clear on the details, but apparently it tastes better?

Fang Fen: How to describe this… Imagine a normal human tastes like a normal meal. Some are good, some are bad, some are merely bland. The chi of someone with whom I have made a pact is like a meal, cooked by someone who loves me. It may be made well, it may be unappetizing, but in all cases it is better than it would otherwise be, because of who made it. Richer. More filling. More energizing. It is a strange thing, because in a way, it defies the idea that consumption is a zero sum game. Both can get out more than they put in. Perhaps I should start searching for another young man for a pact… (Atina: Don’t ask me to be your wingman.) (Polly: I wouldn’t mind. We could make a girl’s night of it.)

Atina: Now, I know you may be asking. “Why Postmortologist”? My only answer to that is that someone, somewhere, must have thought it sounded cooler than “Necromancer”. I call them Horses because they get ridden a lot. (Fang Fen: She had the misfortune of learning about my preferred method of feeding first. She’s never forgiven me.)

Powers

Where the fairies often enhance someone’s abilities, a pact with the undead frequently enhances the body directly. While it’s hardly universal, most Undead are able to change the body in some way appropriate to their own physical needs. Jiang-Shi, for example, are able to purify the chi of those who they make a pact with, or enhance someone’s sense of self and spiritual balance. Unfortunately, this is seldom ever useful, which may be part of why Fang Fen hasn’t made a pact lately. (Fang Fen: There is no need to get personal here, Atina.)

This is part of an overwhelming tendency towards symbolism. Thaumaturgical magic using body-parts- Blood for vampires, flesh for ghouls, and that kind of thing- is a frequent example. You’ll see some wizards who are capable of manipulating their own flesh. Others who can hold their breath for impossibly long times. All of it tends to be just a little bit disturbing. It’s difficult to nail them down to a standard theme. The most peculiar thing about Horses, however, are Liches.

See, a Postmortologist can become a Lich. It only happens if they commit a very specific kind of chemical suicide, although I don’t think the specific chemicals matter as much as they think they do. If you die with a pact in the right way and the right frame of mind, the pact is severed, but you arise as a Lich; Essentially, a corpse version of yourself. Liches feed off of brain activity, making everyone in the room a little bit duller. This makes them exactly as annoying to deal with as you might expect.

It’s a rare Wizard who’ll take their own lives in the hope of becoming independently powerful. But Liches are damn powerful, not least because they’ve been on both sides of the deal. Functionally, a lich’s own power is multiplied. Unfortunately, the kind of person who becomes a Lich is seldom very altruistic. (Fang Fen: To say the least. That Dean Morton is a distasteful man. Did you know that he once propositioned me and called me an ‘enchanting saffron dove’? It was the single most nonsensical compliment I’d ever received.) (Alfred: And the man is a pig at university functions. He doesn’t even need to eat, but he usually takes home at least an entire steamer tray of hors d’ouevres.)

The upsides are substantial, though. Liches are known for offering some of the widest variety of powers, not least because they often understand their own power on a more intellectual level. I’m told that Dean Morton’s pacts have been with many different kinds of students, but invariably produce impressively capable Horses. He himself seems to have retained much of his power from when he was a mortal wizard, though I’m not sure who his patron was. (Fang Fen: In truth, I don’t know either. He doesn’t talk about it much, nor do any of his contemporaries from that period.) In short, while most undead enhance different parts of the body, a Lich enhances the mind, and the ability to cast spells. There’s a reason competition for that scholarship is so cutthroat.

Alfred: It is worth noting that this, in and of itself, is useful, but it would be most potent in combination with other pacts. Unfortunately, Dean Morton does not maintain pacts long enough for an individual to take advantage of this; Probably to keep anyone from approaching his position of power. However, those he grants his pact to do prove to be extremely potent wizards later in life- Maybe some lingering effect of his patronage? Though that would be odd, as it suggests a permanent change, something pacts don’t generally do. I need to sit down and have a chat with some of his alumni…

Politics

The Department of Postmortology is like most academic institutions. Headed by a withered and out-of-touch tyrant, the Horses of the school wait their turn for power in vain. Tenure is more of a metaphysical principle than a simple financial incentive at this school. The only way that a new position in the department’s professors opens up is if someone dies, or someone leaves. This may sound grim, but the rate of turnover below the rank of dean is actually fairly high; Dean Morton hasn’t died in the past hundred and fifty years, despite the best efforts of God and Man, and he looks ready to go the distance and see the heat-death of the universe personally. In light of his endurance, most professors are happy to just get in their tenure, make enough discoveries to distinguish themselves, and then go somewhere else where the ranking academician isn’t immortal.

Because of Dean Morton, the Department of Postmortology actually holds a greater-than-average sway in its undead population. Relatively few departments of Postmortology- so far as Alfred has told me- actually have Liches among their number, and his status as an actual undead, and an ancient one, gives them unusual political power. For this reason, students of the Department of Postmortology are often able to secure a better class of pact, resulting in very few who are ‘blood dolls’, or the equivalent for breath or chi or brain activity or what have you.

The downside is that individual Postmortologists rarely have much say with the one they’ve made a pact with. The undead almost always take the attitude of being older and wiser, and stubborn as they are, they’re seldom likely to take advice.

Fang Fen: Atina is not entirely fair here- But when is she ever? The truth of the matter is that a youthful, vital wizard provides something that the Undead desperately need, which is passion. Youth and fervor, something to believe in, so often go hand-in-hand. While the Undead may seem staid and conservative, the injection of fresh blood (Atina: What a fucking metaphor) is often just what the more hidebound need to put themselves into a new frame of mind. It would be far worse if we were not challenged with new ideas and concepts frequently.

I know that Atina often jokes about us being parasites. But in truth, most of us do not wish to simply live off of others. In most cultures, the old are respected for being bastions of knowledge and wisdom. It sometimes makes me very sad that the same no longer seems to be true. We have much to offer, but our wisdom is so often disregarded as superstition and behind the times. (Atina: Don’t guilt-trip me in my own case-files.)

Past Cases

Oh, god, this was a fun one. Okay, so, most of the time, pacts are relatively informal. You could fit the details of most on a single page. You wouldn’t even need to use both sides. But about three months ago, I had this kid walk in. Wet around the ears, he couldn’t have been more than 19, pre-med. So, he tells me that he needs a contract written up, and explains that he was sent to me, specifically, all the way from Syracuse.

Turns out that a particularly notable contract attorney had died a few months back, and come back as a zombie. The kid had been the one to do the autopsy, and when the lawyer came back, he’d quickly gotten a feel for the whole pact thing, but insisted- insisted!- that the kid have his own legal representation. So I ask to see what the contract is. And the goddamn thing came in its own binder.

The lawyer had written in countless minutiae. He had covered every eventuality, and believe me, it was tedious as hell to read through. But due diligence always wins out. I spent a weekend poring through the damn thing in exacting detail, red-lining it, noting important clauses, and offering advice on counter-offers, until I’d compressed the whole thing down to a five page document for the kid to read through.

I’m hoping any day now that they’re going to make a buddy cop show out of it. “Shakes and the Deadman” or something.

Warlocks (Harbingers)

The Deal with the Devil. Did you know that there’s an entire genre of books and short stories about this concept? Faust, Needful Things, The Devil And (Insert Name Here), one of the most recurring themes of American literature is the man who makes a deal with the devil and then tries to get out of it. Honestly speaking, as a lawyer? I think most of these stories are shit. It’s someone making a completely fair deal and then trying to get out of it. You could argue they’re made under duress based on a bad situation, but I personally think that when you get into a deal with the devil, you know what you’ve done.

So, Harbingers. Most of them are in the hard sciences, and I mean the real hard sciences. Mathematicians make up the vast majority of the people who become Harbingers. There are some economists, too, and statisticians. That scares the shit out of me, because I don’t know how exactly they make these deals. I’ve asked everyone I know, and none of them are very clear either. The one unifying thing that every Harbinger shares is that they were all into numbers. So, is it cause, or effect? Do Harbingers come from sciences that seek answers, that seek the truth, and so turn to darker sources of information than phone polls and simulations? Or is there some number out there, or numbers, that when properly read or invoked, open a portal to mankind’s darker urges?

I don’t know. And that scares the shit out of me. Every time I do arithmetic I feel like I’m walking into a minefield without a metal detector.

So I call them Warlocks, because that makes them really annoyed and frustrated, and people are a hell of a lot less scary when they’re annoyed or frustrated. They insist that they’re not selling their souls to the demons; merely renting them. And, in honesty, they’re probably right! Demons don’t eat souls, not exactly. They just… occupy them. A demon is sort of like a friendship cuckoo. If you have a relationship with one, a friendship, or something like that, then they grow stronger. The stronger you are, the more you focus on them, the stronger they become. It creates a feedback loop. This could be positive. It rarely is.

Demons are like drug dealers. Prostitutes. Shift managers at fast food restaurants. They make your life all about them, so all you think about is them. They devour your time and your energy. They make your life hollow, so that the only thing that gives you meaning is… them. And the scariest thing for me is that they really love the law. They love human law, the way it works, the contracts and the agreements. They love the fucking obsession that most lawyers have, the workaholic attitudes, the tunnel vision. What the fuck does that say about lawyers? (A number of responses from Polly, Fang Fen, and Alfred are scratched out here.) (Atina: It was a rhetorical question, you asses!) On the positive side, I’ve never met one who was interested in making a pact with a lawyer. But then, I haven’t met many.

Powers

Strangely enough, Warlocks are the ones most likely to have a Dungeons and Dragons-esque list of spells that they have to memorize and expend. (Alfred: It’s called Vancian magic.) They’re big on spellbooks, on knowledge, and all that jazz. And the way I understand it is that it’s all about the price that’s paid. The fact that they need to memorize a spell, that the spell ‘goes away’ after they cast it, that they have to predict what they’re going to deal with so they can be ready for it… All of this crazy shit combines to make being a Warlock a royal pain in the ass.

The upside is that they’re amazingly flexible. There’s no theme shit, there’s no ‘handful of tricks’; Demons are one of the most potent sources of magic, in this sense, because they don’t fool around. They give you power, in vast amounts, to make up for all of the downsides. That’s the thing about a price, the higher it is, the more valuable the pact has to be for someone to accept it. They’re also very good at destructive things. These are the people I would expect to throw lightning, to hurl fireballs, to conjure up storms and to call down the wrath of god. They’re often paranoid to a fault on top of all of that.

The downsides are, nonetheless, enormous. Often, a demon will require the human to come to them every time they want to prepare a new set of spells. That’s a daily basis, more or less. The spells often involve complicated and ridiculous gestures and faux-dead language incantations. Some of them even actually consume physical materials- I’m fairly sure solely as a way to make it more difficult for the wizard. All in all, the purpose of a demon’s pact seems largely to be ensuring that a human doesn’t use magic unless completely necessary.

Alfred: It’s worth noting that demons are extraordinarily jealous pactmakers. I’ve never heard of someone having a pact with a demon and any other supernatural entity, particularly not another demon.

Politics

The Department of Infernal Affairs is a fairly insular group, all things considered. They don’t interact much with the other two schools of wizardry in the city, and mostly keep to their own little games of power. The one thing they do that is worth noting are their ‘warnings.’ See, whenever they think the world’s about to end, they start contacting everyone in the city. There was the time in 1969, 1988, 2012, and then just recently they got their panties in a bunch in mid 2015, talking about the War to End War.

So what’s it all about? Histrionics? Is there actually something behind it all? I mean, come on, if the apocalypse were to happen, wouldn’t we know about it? The one thing… The one really scary thing is that they saw the Cuban Missile Crisis coming. Dean Morton tells me that they freaked the hell out about that, at a time when most of the public wouldn’t have known just how close we were to nuclear war. Maybe they were just being paranoid then, too. I sure hope so.

Past Cases

I have one outstanding case involving a Warlock. This guy came by my office, about three weeks before Jenny walked in. He was freaked out, looking over his shoulder the whole time. He gave me his card, and it turns out he’s a TA at the college, name of Michael Gray. Told me that he wanted to talk to me sometime. I offered to do so, and he told me that I was being watched, and that he wanted to talk alone, and that if I ever needed his help, I could meet him at the Department of Infernal Affairs.

Still haven’t contacted him. (Alfred: Huh. I don’t know the guy.)

 

 

Chapter 9: Did You Think It Would Be That Easy

For someone who doesn’t care much for leaving home, I love driving. I don’t like maintaining cars, or souping them up, or making a particular car mine, and only mine. Cars are a big, clumsy method of giving me the freedom that is driving. It’s considered one of the quintessential American joys, and for good reason. Every time I drive, I’m consuming a resource that will take millions of years to replenish. The bones of the dead, long since rendered into energy-rich jelly. It’s the inheritance of our species, the thing that can keep society grinding long enough for us to make it to some new energy source, the necromancy for the everyman. And I was wasting it on zooming down a highway at midnight in rural Pennsylvania.

It was worth it, though. The road was empty save for truckers and the terminally hard workers, a peaceful black eternity lit by red embers in the distance in front of me, and bright white lights here and there behind, like a line of lantern-

“This is kind of a roundabout route we’re taking, isn’t it?” asked Polly, checking her phone. “We’re definitely going to have to stop at a hotel somewhere.” She was sitting in the back seat with Alfred, who was gently applying red hair dye. The two back windows were open to keep the fumes from getting overwhelming as he tended to her with all the love and care of someone whose significant other just took a disemboweling for him.

“That’s fine.” I tapped my wallet. “I’ve got about a thousand in cash. And the reason for this route is so we can avoid major population centers as much as possible, and approach Atlantic City from a roundabout route.” I took a deep breath. “New Jersey is where the Strix have their power base. Right? And we’re heading into one of the big cities in New Jersey. We try to avoid giving the impression that we’re down here to start trouble, or otherwise make life difficult for the Strix. I’ll be getting in touch with this collector this morning. We’ll set up a meeting for tomorrow evening, and everything’ll be jake.” I peered out of the window. “Who’s hungry?”

After a quick chorus of complaints, I pulled off at the next exit. Soon, the four of us sat around a table in a Denny’s, and I said a silent prayer of thanks to the god of underpaid, overworked restaurant employees. The young man who served us looked stoned out of his mind, which gave us as good a chance to talk as I could hope for.

“Grand slam,” said Alfred.

“Ultimate Skillet, bacon cheddar tater tots, and that bacon maple sundae.” Alfred and I shuddered visibly as Polly ordered.

“Just a couple of eggs for me,” Jenny said, not making eye contact.

“And I’ll get the salmon. And green tea, if you have it.” I handed him the menus, and smiled, as I leaned back. “Well, this is fun, isn’t it? The whole family piling into the car while it’s still dark out, eating out at a fancy fast food restaurant. Off to an exciting week in Atlantic City.” I sighed. “I always used to love roadtrips. My family used to drive up and down from New York City to Binghamton. We’d all pile into the car, be off for a couple of days upstate, enjoy the good weather, then be back to New York in time for school, and…” I stared down at the table. “I wonder who’s in the old family apartment now.” I looked up around the table. “None of you are stopping me from rambling.”

“Do we have to go back to Binghamton?” Jenny asked, lifting her gaze from the placemats. “Can’t we just… leave?”

“We could,” I admitted. “It’d mean you’d be sentenced to death in absentia. Anywhere with an Undead court, you’d be unsafe. You’d have to run, and you could never stop. But we could.”

“It wouldn’t just be her, though,” Alfred said. I shot him a look, but he frowned back at me. “No, damn it. You’re big on the self-sacrifice thing, Atina, but she deserves to know what it would cost you. If Atina helps you ditch the city, she’d be under the same punishment. Forget losing her license, she’d lose her life if she ever went back to Binghamton.”

“That doesn’t matter-” I started.

“Like hell it doesn’t!” Alfred gritted his teeth. “All the good you could do, Atina, gone forever, to help one person.” He turned his head towards Jenny. “If it comes down to it, I’d fight to the death to save you, but to give up, and not even try…”

“Hey.” I narrowed my eyes, and my voice got that little touch of steel that I managed. Not often, not enough, but when it counted. “It’s my life. I’ll spend it when and where I choose. I always knew, getting into this, that one day it’d be the death of me. If it means saving Jenny-”

“I do not want to give up that easily,” Jenny said, her hands in her lap. “I want to fight. I want to find out what the truth is. I want to give it a shot. I do not want to die, but I will live forever, now, it seems. That would be a terribly long time to be tormented by regrets about the things I could have done. I just wanted to know.” She looked up, and there was a confidence I hadn’t seen in her before. “I don’t want to run, Miss LeRoux. I want to find the truth.” Then her shoulders slumped. “But there still seems to be much arrayed against us. Even if we can get money for a bribe from this coin collector-”

“The Half-Faced Man put me on this track. He’s… a bit unpredictable, but he usually has a idea of the right direction to go. I’ve been researching case law, and I’ve got a lot of the documents I scanned from old stories on my phone. I’ve been reading through them, and I might have an argument.” I took a deep breath, and leaned back as our food arrived. “Undead case law is all about precedent. I might have found something in the mythology of the Iroquois Confederacy. Ever heard of Hiawatha?”

“Mmm. He was one of the founders of the Confederacy, wasn’t he?” Alfred frowned. “I swear I took a class on native literature and mythology that mentioned him.”

“Yes. The problem is, proving it was truth instead of myth.” I frowned down at my phone. “I need to figure out some way to get in contact with the native spirits still in Binghamton. Try to find a way to get one of them to speak for me. Someone who can give me some kind of positive precedent.” I rested my fingers over my face, blocking out the harsh lights of the Denny’s for a few blessed moments. How long had I been awake? Could it only have been five hours ago I was wrestled out of a solid sleep? The comfort of Roy’s room, a home-cooked meal, and a little certainty in life, could that really have just happened?

Plates clinked as our food arrived. I nibbled at the salmon, and knocked back the green tea. Polly rubbed her stomach absentmindedly, scratching at it. Her shirt was still torn open, but the wound was mostly gone, just a few places where the skin was pinker than normal. It was a testament to how out-of-it the waiter was that he didn’t even notice. “How’s it doing?” I asked, nodding my head down towards her stomach.

“Oh, I’ll be fine. It was like a damn feast of intimidation and fear, there. I knew working for you would be awesome.” She gave me a grin. “And don’t stress too much about paying me. I’m mostly in this for the experience.” She began to dig in to the food. I cringed slightly as she spooned up a piece of rigid looking bacon from the sundae, and tried to focus on my food and the bitter tea. They were good, though the smell of salt and fat on the air was a little distracting, reminding me of the smell of the vampire as he was burned. I tried to order my thoughts. There were so many of them jockeying for position.

“My father used to like roadtrips,” Alfred said, resting his head on his hand, fork slowly pushing potatoes around the plates. “We’d take trips across the country, once a year, driving to roadmarks. I remember, when I was ten, we visited Carhenge in Nebraska. It was the first time I’d ever seen a henge. I remember standing there and thinking how magnificent it was. How beautiful. I saw plenty of closer versions over the years, too. Places where people had built monuments to those standing stones.” He stared out of the window, into the dark parking lot. There were only three other cars scattered across the empty asphalt. “I still wake up thinking he’s alive, you know. Thinking I should give him a call. Five years dead, and I still haven’t gotten over it.”

Polly softly rested a hand on his shoulder. “I know the feeling. You know how the fae are, I never really knew my real mom and dad. But I’ve thought about seeing them. I’d like to get a chance to know who they were. Who I am, I guess. Earlen Wen’s always been a good mother, but she’s a bit cold.”

I frowned. “Wait a moment. The Earlen Wen is your adoptive mother?”

Polly looked surprised. “Oh, yes. Didn’t I mention?”

“I think we missed that.” I leaned back slightly. “Why did you take a job from her? Did she raise you to be an assassin, or…?”

“No, no. Well. It’s a little embarrassing, but, ah.” She flushed. “I kind of needed the reference to be a proper redcap thug, you know? Do a job for her to show that I wasn’t just some layabout.”

I raised an eyebrow. “How old are you, Polly?”

“Ah. Twenty-two.”

I was ready for that old trick. “And how long have you been twenty-two?”

“About six months?”

I rested my head on my hand. “A girl five years younger than you, Alfred?”

He looked slightly abashed. “It’s only five years, that’s hardly a significant number-”

“You usually date immortals and women who are hundreds of years old. What in god’s name possessed you to date a twenty-two year old? She’s young enough to be one of your students!”

“Oy, I-”

“Wait a second. You were adopted by the Earlen Wen- Are you even Irish?”

“Well. I think a quarter Irish. I was born in Boston-”

“And Redcaps aren’t even Irish!” I rested my head against my hands. “Oh, god. If anyone ever finds out that I didn’t figure this out until days after I hired you, I’ll be a goddamn laughingstock in the supernatural community-” I paused, and frowned up at Alfred. “Wait a fucking second. You knew about this, right?”

Alfred shrugged. “I didn’t really think to question her.” He gave Polly a smile. “It doesn’t matter to me. I think your accent’s funny.”

“‘snot supposed to be funny,” Polly said, sulking, spooning up mouthfuls of sundae with an annoyed expression. Then Jenny began to laugh. We all turned towards her, as she laughed, a genuine smile on her face, her head resting on one hand, grinning.

“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to mock, but… That’s just such a relief. You know? Here I am being told that I’m some strange foreign monster, and I feel like an absolute freak because of it. That I’m something wrong and twisted, because I’ve been bitten by some mad Mexican bat-demon-”

“Mayan,” Alfred and I corrected.

“Or some crazy Roman bloodsucking owl,” she continued, unabashed, smiling. “And I’m thinking ‘this is insane, nobody will ever take me seriously, I must be the only poor foolish foreign girl who’s ever wound up in a situation like this. And here we are, and it turns out that the closest that Polly’s been to Ireland or the native home of her myth is the local pub.” She giggled softly into her hand. “That just helps a lot. It feels awful when you feel like you’re the only one who doesn’t fit in, who doesn’t know what’s going on. But knowing that everyone else is as much in the dark as you are… It’s strange, but I feel a lot better.” She smiled.

“I’ve been to Ireland once,” Polly said under her breath. “The Earlen took me there when I was eighteen to get drunk for the first time.”

Soon, the four of us were driving again. This time, Alfred took the wheel, Polly sitting next to him, Jenny sitting next to me in the back seat. As we drove south through Pennsylvania, I thought about the fight. “That bastard was strong. Alfred, how old would you guess he was?”

“Well, the Half-Faced Man mentioned a grandson with leukemia. That says old to me. And he was a full-blooded Strix, I’m sure of it. I could barely hold him off.” I nodded. “I’m not sure I would’ve been able to kill him without an ideal situation. With him bursting in on us like that, no time to plan or prepare for him… He tore right through those doors, and I didn’t see him harmed by any of the holy symbols around. That tells me that he must be quite resilient.”

“They caught us with the same trick twice.” I frowned. “Three Strix. One seems to be the leader, one is older and is there to act as judge, the third is eldest and tough enough to burst into my house. The question is what they want. Do you think he could’ve taken on one of the Camazotz?”

“The Camazotz, each one of them, predates America. They’re all canny and paranoid, and most of all, insular. I could see the entire Notte Nostra killing one, maybe two… But two dozen?” Alfred frowned into the rear view mirror. “There would be horrific casualties on their side. Dozens of elder Strix dead. I can’t see the profit for them.”

I sighed. “I’ll have to talk to Chaac about those bodyguards. My only hope is that when the trial itself begins, we can get enough people invested- Dean Morton, Chaac, Lady Ann Willing- that no single person could let them get at me again. Keep Jenny somewhere safe that none of them know about with you two. It was foolish of me to even have you staying there, Jenny.”

Jenny lowered her head. “In perfect fairness, Miss LeRoux, I’m sure you didn’t expect a brute squad of ancient vampires.”

“Yes, but in this business, I really should have. Alright, Alfred, we’re an hour outside of Wilmington, the next cheap motel you see, stop and we’ll check in.”

It was a hotel room. That’s about what could be said for it. I’m being a little bit unfair, here; It was not a particularly unpleasant or gross hotel room. It was two king-sized beds with soft blankets, a TV, and big, voluminous curtains. A chair, a desk, and god bless, an internet connection were all supplied. The clerk had been a bit surprised by our request to rent the place through the following day, but nothing more. Polly had shown a fake ID for the place, which none of us had commented on. And now, as I slumped into the chair, exhaustion was making itself known. The mental exhaustion of desperation and fear, leaving my head feeling fuzzy. “I’ll take the floor,” I stated. “Polly, Alfred, try not to do anything unseemly in front of Jenny.”

There were a few protests but I waved them off. I took out my phone, and began composing the e-mail to the coin collector, detailing my situation in the vaguest possible terms, photographing the pot, and requesting a chance to meet with her. Then I curled up on the floor with a pillow, my arm drawn over my head, and slept.

A sharp spear of alarm ran up and down my spine as the phone rang. The lingering remnants of a dream about having a stable and peaceful life shattered around me as I dragged myself up. It was 4 PM according to the phone. I grabbed it, and recognized the number from the contact information. I answered, trepidation in the pit of my stomach. “Mrs. Faraday?”

“Ah, yes. You’re the young lawyer who’s friends with Roy, yes? He spoke very highly of you, and said that you had an interesting coin collection that you need to liquidate.” The woman on the other end of the phone sounded rich. Her voice was luxuriant, amused, pleasant, with just a hint of New Jersey and New England mixing together in the accent.

“Yes. I’m afraid I don’t really have much background in them, so I’ll need to show them to you, but I’m hoping that I can get some money. I’ve got some rather pressing debts.”

“Oh, you young people. Always in a hurry about these things. Very well. I’m available to meet you tonight in Atlantic City. I own one of the smaller casinos there. Just introduce yourself at the front door, and I’ll see that you’re given the finest accommodations; Any friend of Roy deserves at least a couple of nights here. The boy was effusive in his praise.” She gave me the address, and a time to arrive.

I closed my eyes, and said a silent prayer of thanks to the divine patron of Dumb Luck. “That would be quite kind. I’ll be there with a few friends; I hope that’s okay?”

“Of course, of course, darling. I’ll see you tonight.”

I set the phone down, and my heart rate returned to normal as I slumped into the chair. Alfred and Polly were tangled together in their bed, sleeping with the serenity of people who have fought for their lives and won. Jenny lay in the other bed, extremely still. I fought the momentary urge to check for a pulse. Fang Fen had once told me that the undead usually slept like that. It was still scary as hell, though. I sniffed my armpits quickly, and wished I’d had a chance to pack more clothes before the abrupt departure.

Two hours later, I had taken a hot shower, a quick trip to a nearby outlet store, and a meal at the local Fish Belly’s. The food was shit compared to Roy’s restaurant, but I was hungry enough to not give a damn. I returned to the hotel, and slipped into the room. Jenny was sitting up, looking a bit nervous. “Oh, hello, Atina. Polly and Alfred went out to pick up some groceries. We got your note.” I nodded, and took a seat on the couple’s bed.

“We’ve got ten days before we need to be at the trial, on Saturday night. I can cover us for that long; We’ll arrive back in Binghamton on Friday night, in time for the trial, with hopefully everything we need to defend you. I’ll set you, Alfred, and Polly in a hotel a little ways out of town, and I’ll stay at the office.”

“What are my chances?” Jenny asked softly.

“I really don’t know.”

She nodded, and took out a small letter. “I wrote this for my parents. If I don’t survive, I… I would like you to send it to them, so they know what happened to me. So they have some closure. So I don’t just… vanish, off the face of the earth.”

I took a deep breath, and took the letter. “I will.”

“And what about you? What’s to keep the Strix from just… murdering you? Or turning you into a vampire? Or whatever they have planned?”

“No matter how tough they are, a vampire’s still got its weaknesses. My office is set up to deal with those kinds of intruders. I should be fine.” I gave a bluff smile. What I’d said was… probably true. It was the best I could do. It would draw attention away from the others, and let me get in contact with the members of the supernatural world who I needed to see.

“This case is costing you a lot, isn’t it?” Jenny said, frowning.

I considered lying, but then sighed. “Yes.”

“Thank you.” She smiled. “I am very lucky that that strange man gave me your card.”

“He’s got a tendency towards that kind of thing.”

“How do you deal with all of this uncertainty?”

I stared at the curtains for a few seconds, trying to think of how to answer the question. “You ever heard the saying ‘This, too, shall pass’?” I asked.

“I think so.”

“It’s an old Persian saying. A king gathered all of his wisest men, and asked them to create him a ring which would make him happy when he’s sad. They inscribed the ring with that phrase. And it worked. But the thing was, it was cursed, because when he was happy, it would make him sad.” I fiddled with the bed. “It’s a reminder that everything, good and bad, passes on. When your life is easy and sweet, it’s a terribly sobering reminder that the things you love and enjoy now will be gone someday. But when everything is going to hell-”

“Nothing comforts you so much as knowing that this, too, shall pass.” She looked down. “It seems so sad to think that you would be pushed to rely on that phrase so much.”

“Happiness is overrated. I came into the world owing a lot, and I spent the first 25 years of my life accumulating more debt.” I smiled. “Now I’m just finally being given the opportunity to pay that debt, and I’m only sorry I can’t pay it faster.”

She frowned. “Then, do you think I will be deeply in debt to you? Will I spend the rest of my unlife paying off this debt?”

I shrugged. “That depends on you. If I get you acquitted, then how would I call in the debt? Have you killed? No, all I can do is hope that it’s a good deed, and keep going. You only owe as much debt as you think you do.”

“Do you think that things will ever get better?” she asked, her voice soft.

“Can’t get much worse, right?” I gave her a smile. “Of course things will. A happy ending is the reward for perseverance. We’re going to fight for this thing to the end. We’ll do everything we can, and believe me, that’s a lot.”

“I don’t want to be a victim. I want to be able to help.” She sniffed, and rubbed her nose. “I wish I was like one of the others. Someone strong. Someone fierce. Someone who didn’t have to simply wait for someone else to solve their problems for them. I wish I could be like you.”

“I’m not strong,” I whispered softly. “You saw how useless I was at the fight, didn’t you? All I have is the law.” I stared down at my hand. “In the end, it’s just the hope that people will agree to be civil. The law is like a set of chains that exist only in your head. They’re just as strong as you think they are. And sometimes, that means they’re nothing at all.”

“They are enough to give me a hope of survival, and more than that, a chance to live my life.” She looked at me nervously. “Do you think, then, that it will come to violence?”

“I don’t know. People have too much skin in this game. Sometimes, in life, there’s no chance for reconciliation. Sometimes, someone’s got to be the loser. And in those cases, it can be pretty hard to avoid things coming to violence.” I took a deep breath. “All we can do is our best, right?”

“Hey!”

The door opened, and Polly walked in, grinning. “Sun’s down! Let’s get going!”

I nodded, and stood up. “Yeah.”

Atlantic City’s a beautiful city. From certain angles. The route we were taking was certainly one of them. A small, but nevertheless glitzy casino, the Caesar Paulo. The place had large, open skylights, letting in plenty of sunlight during the day, and giving a good view of the clouds in the sky at night as they were lit up from below. The city itself lies on Absecon Island, a barrier island. The casino was on the inland waterfront, facing back towards New Jersey. I entered the casino, dressed in a cheap button-down shirt, flanked by the other three. The dark-haired young man at the front desk took our names, and gave us a small map, directing us into the attached hotel, and the penthouse. A couple of security guys checked us as we passed. They took Polly’s soccer ball, but didn’t notice the swords in Alfred’s belt.

The penthouse was extravagant, even by the standards of penthouses. Big glass windows from floor to ceiling showed off the view of the beach, and the surrounding city. Small lamps hung every dozen feet or so, casting a soft light over the entire room. A set of marble stairs led down to a pair of large couches, facing one another around a large coffee table with a pair of leather chairs completing the set. An elaborate four-poster bed sat in one corner, curtains drawn around it. In the other corner was what looked like a door to a bathroom.

And sitting in the far chair, one leg crossed over another, was Mrs. Faraday. She looked younger than I expected, her dark hair pulled into an elaborate, piled style, tilted slightly to one side. She wore an extremely tasteful black dress, her large eyes soft and warm, a delicate brown. I felt a touch shabby in the outlet-store button-down shirt and second-hand tie. She waved us over, a glass of red wine in one hand. “Come, please, take a seat. I’m interested to see the finds you have.”

I breathed a sigh of relief, and took a seat in front of her. “Thank you for seeing me.” I took out the small pot. “I received these as payment for a case a while back. I’m… Well, I’m hoping they’ll be worth something.”

The payment had been… idiosyncratic. I usually preferred cash, but the defendant in the case had been something of a hoarder. He’d sworn that the coins were worth more than the fees, and that I was welcome to all of them. I’d taken it on good faith, happy to help him out in the way I could. I was now starting to question that decision. Faraday dug her fingers through the coins, and softly hummed. There was a map of the United States spread out across the table with a number of marks on it. I didn’t recognize any of them as significant, though. A few in the southwest, some along the great plains, one up in Albany.

“A piece of Canadian currency, worth approximately twelve dollars on the open market… Hmm, a wheat penny, usually trade for around three dollars if you’re lucky…” She frowned, raising a valuable looking golden coin. “This is a piece of foil-wrapped chocolate.” She sniffed it delicately. “Antique, but chocolate rarely holds its value.” My heart slowly sunk in my chest. This had been a Hail Mary, I knew, but I’d still hoped… She kept listing the coins, and their depressingly small values. She paused a moment, lifting a small penny, and frowned, as she reached into her pocket and took out a small magnet, passing it over the coin. The small copper gleamed, bright and shining. She set that one to the side, and continued through the pot.

“How bad is it?” I asked softly. I’d been bilked by a leprechaun. I should have seen that coming.

“In total, I could perhaps offer you a thousand dollars for the pot.” Jenny let out a soft little noise of despair. “However.”

She held up the penny. “This happens to be from 1943. Do you know what was happening in 1943?”

I frowned. “Uh, well- World War 2?”

“Yes. Notable for its copper shortages. Pennies began to be struck on steel, coated in zinc. There were, however, some copper blanks that wound up finding themselves used for pennies.”

I frowned. The magnet. “How valuable is it?”

“Well, that’s somewhat difficult to say. The first major auction for a 1943 copper penny sold it for forty thousand dollars in 1958; Another went for ten thousand dollars in 1981. The highest price paid by 1996 was eighty two thousand, five hundred dollars.” I knew my jaw had dropped.

“Eight-two thousand?” I asked.

“For a very high-quality penny. Rather recently, one of these pennies went for over one and a half million dollars.” I stared, my mouth open.

“That much?” I asked, my voice a little weak. “And-”

“And how foolish do you think I am?” She dropped the penny onto the ground, and narrowed her eyes, standing. “Atina LeRoux. Attorney of Binghamton. Lawyer to the supernatural.” My heart thudded in my chest. Then the curtains drew back from the bed, and the bathroom door swung open. Eight gunmen stepped out, leveling submachineguns at us. “You must have thought me an utter fool. Unprepared for this. I do not know how you found me, or what your assassination plot was. I should have known that my foolish children’s quest would result in danger being brought to my front door at some point.”

Alfred stood up in a flash, his arm waving. The men in the corners screamed and dove for the floor, as the illusion of automatic gunfire filled the room. In a second, he was behind Ms. Faraday, dragging her up to her feet, his broadsword held against her pale throat. Polly was on her feet at the same time, flipping the coffee table over, and dragging Jenny and I into cover behind it. I blinked. “Alfred! Let her go!”

He looked at me like I was crazy. “Are you crazy?”

“It won’t do any good. She’s a goddamn Godmother of the Notte Nostra.”

 

 

Chapter 10: The World Is Going Mad

The room was full of tension as the men leveled their guns. Alfred gripped the sword a bit tighter. “I wouldn’t,” he told the men. “You’d be amazed what I could do with a little bit of her blood.” He looked over at Polly, and the young woman nodded.

“You assume I could not tear you in two-”

“Did you send Parsons, Donny, and Sofia to Binghamton?” I asked very firmly.

Faraday turned her cold eyes towards me. They were larger than normal. God damn, I hate subtle tells, they always seem so obvious after the fact. “I did not, though neither did I forbid them from going.”

“Good enough.” I took a deep breath. “Alfred. Let her go.”

“Are you sure-”

“We’re not here to kill you, Mrs. Faraday. We’re not even here to threaten you. I came here because Roy is a friend of mine, and he told me that you bought coins. You may be aware of the case I’m fighting?” A frown crossed Faraday’s face. That caught my attention. She had us, effectively, at her mercy. If she decided to have Alfred shot, she wouldn’t even have to get out of the way. Vampires, as I have said many times, are tough. But she didn’t know what I was talking about. Then it hit me. “They’re rogue, aren’t they?”

She looked away. “We were contacted by an unknown individual through an intermediary. They had a proposal to make. They invited three of my children to Binghamton, along with two dozen Wastrels. This would have been a couple of weeks ago. They were to contact me with the details of the proposal, and I would decide whether or not to approve.” She took a deep breath. “They have not contacted me. Now, I am hearing reports that they attacked you from my contacts within Binghamton.” She narrowed her eyes, and gave me a hard look. “Do you expect me to believe you did not discover who I am, and make contact through an easily swayed acquaintance, so as to exact retribution on me? That all of this is some grand coincidence?”

“I don’t think it was coincidence, but I’m not here to kill you. I’m not interested in killing anyone related to this case. I just wanted Jenny to survive.”

The woman frowned, and turned her eyes towards Jenny. Alfred lowered his weapon, and Faraday approached, sniffing the air, before leaning in towards Jenny, studying her eyes. “Dear me… So this is the cause of the trouble.” She frowned, and looked over at me. “I think I had better hear this story from the beginning.” She snapped her fingers, and the men lowered their weapons. “Please, get them some tea. And a pint of blood for the child. She looks famished.”

Nearly an hour later, the five of us sat in the room together, and things were substantially less tense. “Do you know what the meaning of the Notte Nostra is, Jenny?” Mrs. Faraday asked.

“I read some case files on it. ‘Our Night.’ It sounded… ominous.”

“It can. But the truth of it is that it is meant to be a sign of hope. The Vampire Lords of old deserved what happened to them, I have no doubt. Old and powerful and prideful, their end was just. But now, what was a crusade has become a pogrom. Our kind are slaughtered. They are…” She looked down at the map, her eyes growing sad. “There are so few places where a vampire is safe, that we must make them. That is the reason for our name.”

I frowned, arms crossed. “The Strix have a bad reputation. Even in ancient Rome, they were harbingers of disaster and chaos.”

“Yes, like the Banshee. Like the black cat. But did we bring it? Did we cause it? Or did we merely warn of it?” She frowned. “Sometimes, I must confess… It does feel as though we have been cursed. That we are doomed to be forever outcast because of what we are.” She growled under her breath, and took a deep drink of the red fluid swirling in her wine glass. “Then I think that perhaps all of this is perfectly justified, when my beloved children venture out into the world and make such a fucking mess of things. Testing the Lady Ann Willing… I can’t imagine what they are thinking. The woman is pathological about vampires.”

I frowned. “Do you know what makes her so… intolerant?”

Mrs Faraday sighed softly. “It is not as great a mystery as one might hope. It was simple. Her husband was murdered by vampires.”

“But all of the things she believes in…”

“A simple grudge can last forever in the right hands. Lady Ann Willing feels she is justified, but that is all her hatred is. The loss of the one she loved.” Faraday sighed softly. “There is a genocide afoot. You know the Camazotz?”

She waved down at the table, and I frowned. “I’ve been told they’re being hunted. Preyed upon, though they don’t know what’s doing it.” I left it at that. Mrs. Faraday watched me for a moment longer, before continuing.

“Yes. The Camazotz are of great interest to us, because they are one of the few native vampires of this land. They were a powerful group once, and even in the wake of the fall of the Mayan civilization, they stayed strong. Their numbers were never significant, but they chose individuals of great personal resilience, and they survived well into the present day. We have an understandable interest in anyone who could have destroyed such powerful creatures. There are, as far as we know, only two are left: Chaac, and her maker, Hun-Came, oldest and perhaps first of the Camazotz.”

I frowned. That sounded like what I knew. “Did you know that Hun-Came wanted to begin to rebuild her population?”

Mrs. Faraday’s face fell. “Yes. She told me of it, three months ago. That she wanted to try to return her kind to the world, seeing the way they were being hunted down. I offered her sanctuary, and aid. She turned me down, and told me, politely, that she did not want her kind to be tarred with the same brush that the Strix had been.”

“That must have made you very angry.”

“Yes, so angry I would try to murder her and all her family retroactively.” Mrs. Faraday rolled her eyes. “I would not expect a mortal to understand. Notte Nostra- Our Night. Every Vampire’s Night. We are all bound by blood, even if we may take different shapes and different philosophies. Do you know if she is still alive?”

I sighed. “I don’t know. One of the reasons I’m going forth with this trial is in the admittedly long-shot hope that it’ll be able to bring her out of whatever hidey-hole she’s tucked away in. Otherwise…” I frowned. “Do you know what might be hunting them?”

She breathed out a sigh. “Have you been following that assault on the Secretary of the Treasury?”

“Yeah. Ex-FBI agent, wasn’t it? Someone who got unhinged during a case. Assaulted the Secretary of the Treasury, and then left.”

Mrs. Faraday nodded. “Perhaps three and a half months ago, something happened. A town called Zion ceased to exist.” Alfred stiffened. “And when this happened… Things started happening. You remember that plague, a couple of months back, in Manhattan? The strange midnight sun?”

“That was the Aurora-”

“I was caught outside. It nearly burned me to the bone. It was not the Aurora Borealis. It was a second sun. I have lived for close to two hundred years, and in the few months, the world has gone absolutely mad, Miss LeRoux.”

I frowned. “Why? People have predicted the apocalypse as long as there have been people. As soon as someone figured out there was a world, people started insisting it was about to end. It never has yet.”

“I don’t know. But Hun-Came did not simply change her mind because she feared her own extinction. The power of Vampires is in their blood, and that power is remarkably easy to pass on. Hun-Came might have been one of the oldest vampires in the world. Even if her creations had only one half of her power, one fifth, one tenth of her power, can you imagine what they would have been capable of? She believed that they would be an army.” Mrs. Faraday stared down at the map. “She believed we needed an army to face whatever was coming out of the darkness.”

“And what is coming out of the darkness?” Alfred asked, his eyes narrowed.

“How the hell should I know?” Mrs. Faraday laughed. “Judgment Day and its seven-headed beast? Ragnarok and the Midgard Serpent run rampant? The turn of the Mayan Calendar and a new era? I don’t know. I just know that somehow, my children seem to be wound up in the matter.” She sighed softly. “But that hardly matters right now, does it? Whatever her reasons were, the immediate concern is this genocide. Perhaps some ancient beast is hunting down its enemies. Perhaps Lady Ann Willing is extending her hatred of Vampires, though it disturbs me to think how she might have come to the power necessary to kill Camazotz.” She drummed her fingers on the chair slowly.

“Why do the Strix spread chaos?” I asked softly.

“Hrn. Why were the Jewish moneylenders, LeRoux? It wasn’t because they chose to be hated and considered parasites and foul creatures. It was because polite society left them few other choices. The Notte Nostra seeks to protect vampires, and survive. We need a niche, no matter how foul it may be. That which drinks blood are seldom loved, but… Well.” She sighed softly. “We do what we do in the hopes that someday we will not need to do it anymore.”

I frowned. The whole oppressed society schtick wasn’t quite something I could believe just yet, but it made a certain kind of sense. If the Notte Nostra as a whole wanted me dead or converted or whatever else, there would be no reason to tell me all of this. But I couldn’t necessarily take anything she said on faith. I set down my cup of tea.

“How can you help us, Mrs. Faraday?”

She looked up, an eyebrow raised. “What makes you think I can help you? What makes you think it is even my place to help you?”

“Your children are mixed up in this. Your clan. You were frightened that I’d come to kill you because of what happened. You think that things are growing more chaotic. Doesn’t that mean this is a time when we need to come together?”

“That sounds surprisingly prescient to me.” I turned my head. The woman who had just spoken stood in the open doorway. She’d entered so softly that she’d barely made a noise. She was… the word for it was probably ‘handsome’. A cigarette burned merrily in a long black ceramic cigarette holder. Her skin was well-tanned, and her hair was dark. She was unmistakeably Native American. “So, Nelly. Things weren’t quite as bad as they looked?” She held the cigarette holder to her lips and inhaled, before blowing out a thin stream of smoke. Mrs. Faraday- Nelly- shot her an annoyed look.

“I would rather you not get the smoke everywhere. You can smoke with the door open a crack. Try not to let too much heat out.”

I frowned over at the windows as Doctor Smith made her way to the doorway leading out onto the balcony. “Hell of an odd choice for a vampire. Floor to ceiling glass windows?”

Mrs. Faraday smiled. “The windows are electrochromic. Fancy, isn’t it? And terribly useful if I have to execute one of the undead to make a point.” She leaned back in her chair. “Doctor Smith here is a physician. And… otherwise.” That’s when I noticed the way Alfred was staring at Doctor Smith. His expression was drawn, his fingers tightened into the couch.

“Doctor Smith… What are you? You’re not one of the Fae.” It was a statement, not a question.

“No.”

“And I don’t think you’re one of the undead, since your breath is fogging in the cold, even when you’re not smoking.”

“Good eyes. No, I’m not that, either.”

“So are you a demon?”

“No.”

“What the hell are you, then?”

Doctor Smith took a deep puff from the cigarette holder, and blew the smoke out into the cold night air. “I am something that doesn’t answer the questions of normal mortals, most of the time. I have a vested interest in the Camazotz. They are one of the great old forces of this continent, and I am worried to find them being hunted down like this.” She puffed through her cigarette. “That’s all I can say about what I am. The question is, what do you need?”

“Precedent,” I stated, looking her in the eye. “Do you know something about Native Americans, and their law?”

She raised an eyebrow. “You might say that.”

“Good.” I took a deep breath. “Nine days. On the Friday after next, we leave this place. On Saturday, the trial begins. In the meantime, I need to figure out a legal defense that’ll convince every major undead in Binghamton that they should overturn two hundred years of anti-vampire sentiment and precedent.” I pointed at Mrs. Faraday- That is, Nelly. “How much will you pay me for that coin?”

“Well… It’s not in perfect condition, it will need some cleaning and restoration. I could offer you, say… Five hundred thousand dollars?”

“I’ll take it,” I managed, trying not to choke on my own tongue. “But I’ll need one hundred thousand dollars of that in cash. You run a casino, that shouldn’t be that difficult, right?”

“What on earth do you need that much cash for?” the Strix asked, an eyebrow arched delicately.

“I’ve got a lech to pay off.”

I sat across from Doctor Smith as the woman wrote in my case files. “Alright. Be honest with me. That whole ‘I don’t answer humans’ bullshit aside, what are you?”

She gave me a deliberate look, and removed the cigarette holder from her lips, tapping off the ash into a nearby tray. “What makes you think I don’t believe what I said?”

The two of us sat together in a small lounge room. My case files had been printed out, and were spread around the room, covering the floor, notes and documents placed out. I’d written and rewritten half a dozen speeches trying to appeal to people’s better nature, to convince them of the proper way of doing things, of making things right. I’d listened, sometimes with maddened frustration, as Alfred had listed arguments from the defense’s point of view. He was good at arguing them. They made sense, even if I didn’t agree with them. They argued for the virtues that the undead believed in. I was arguing for them to break from tradition.

“Well, call me crazy, but I’ve never met a supernatural creature yet that didn’t at least want to brag a little bit about its past. What, are you ashamed of it?”

“Somewhat. I am, in relative terms, a goddess.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Well. That’s awfully impressive.”

She chuckled. “It sounds it, doesn’t it? But it’s shit. I’m a goddess of laws and codes, and almost everyone who followed those is gone. I’m weak.” She stubbed out the cigarette. “That’s the irony of our passion, isn’t it? Law, codes, society, all of these things only exist so long as everyone agrees they do. A shared hallucination. Justice exists only so long as the powerful agree that it does. And the moment it becomes inconvenient to them…” She snapped her fingers. “It’s gone. Like treaties in the wind.”

I frowned. “You really go in for that guilt-tripping thing, don’t you?”

“I saw everyone I loved murdered by outsiders. I do not hold a grudge against the color of their skin, or their religions, or anything else. But I cannot help but remember what has happened, and sometimes I fear I am the only one who remembered.” I was quiet, looking down at the page. Doctor Smith sighed. “I am sorry. I have not been having a good year.” I looked up at this. “Tell me. Have you ever heard of Zion?”

“I mean… In law school, a lot of my friends got called Zionists. And other, more unpleasant things.”

“Heh. No. This was a city.” She stared into space. “A beautiful city. I never appreciated it while I had it. It was… destroyed.”

I frowned. “When was this?”

“Just a few months ago.”

“Wait a second. Was this a real city, or-”

“Not destroyed in that sense. It was…” She sighed. “It all gets so metaphysical. The buildings are still there, the government is still there, the people are mostly still there. But the city itself is dead, and with it, I have lost another homeland for my people.”

“This too shall pass,” I said, and smiled at her. She raised an eyebrow. “If you suffer a lot in life, I believe it means something. Karma, if you like. But things will come around. You’ll wind up getting the fair shake you deserve. You just have to grab hold of life and keep fighting until it gives you what you need. Who knows? Maybe you could move to Binghamton, set down stakes there. The medical school would probably appreciate someone like you.” I gave her a smile, and she snorted. “Hey, could be worse. So… What are you doing here? What draws a goddess of laws to a casino…” I frowned at her.

She glared. “I do not gamble. That… was an unhappy coincidence. Gambling is distasteful to me.”

I smiled. “The tax on hope, I always used to think. You give people a slim, slim chance of a better life. People say that if people understood statistics, if they realized just how bad their chances were, they would never gamble, but I think that’s a naive view. People gamble because they believe they’re special. They think the rules don’t apply to them.” I looked down at my hands. “Hell, look at me. Everything I’ve been doing has been a… gamble…” I stared down at my hands.

“What?” Doctor Smith asked, frowning.

“The Prisoner’s dilemma. The ultimate gamble. The basis for all gambling. You know it, yeah?” For those who haven’t taken basic logic: The prisoner’s dilemma is fairly simple. Two people are given a choice: Trust the other, or betray the other. It’s set up so that if one party betrays the other, they’re given the best possible deal, and if both parties betray each other, they both get a terrible deal. Say that if both parties trust each other, they get ten dollars; If both parties betray each other, they each get five dollars; If one party betrays the other and the other trusts, the betrayer gets twenty dollars, and the trusting party gets nothing.

“I do. What’s the significance?”

“We’re in a prisoner’s dilemma situation. If Lady Ann Willing trusts Jenny, and Jenny is a plant, she gets betrayed. She wants to betray Jenny first, to avoid being betrayed in turn. So we make her think that she can’t afford to betray Jenny.” I tapped my fingers rapidly on the table, trying to sort my thoughts. “I just have to raise the stakes, so high that nobody will have a choice but to settle things peacefully. Bring things into a conflict between Chaac, Hun-Came, and Lady Ann Willing. Whip everyone’s expectations up.”

“That sounds as though it could go very wrong.”

I gave a feral smile. “That’s the thing, isn’t it? Whoever’s behind this is already going to try to have Jenny killed, and use her to spark a civil war in Binghamton. And what’s more… it might let me figure out who’s behind all of this. If they’re expecting this case to go a certain way, then throwing off their expectations has to be for the best.” I took a deep breath. “Do you think Hun-Came could take on all of Binghamton’s Night Court? Alone?”

“There is a very good chance, yes. Though it would spark a catastrophic war, I imagine. Revitalize the exact conflict that Nelly wishes to leave in the past.”

“Exactly.” I took a deep breath. “I’m already gambling with Jenny’s life. I can’t afford to leave anything off the table, here.” I frowned, as I saw the strange, quiet expression on Doctor Smith’s face. “You disapprove.”

“I do, but I understand why you’re doing it. No, I’m just… You remind me very much of a man I knew, once, for a very short time.” She tapped her fingers on the desk. “He destroyed Zion.” I felt my stomach sink.

“I’m… I-”

“But, he also saved everyone in the city, and maybe everyone else, by doing so. I wish that Zion could have been saved, but sometimes the most a doctor can hope to do is destroy a little to save the rest.” She took a deep breath. “I think you are embarking on a foolish course of action, but I thought the same of him.” She crossed her arms. “I still do, in honesty, but he had power to change things, and I do not.”

I frowned. “Sounds like a bit of a loose cannon, to be frank. I’ll just have to hope I can win cleaner. In honesty, I don’t think I’m going to persuade people by appealing to their better nature. I think that they’re too suspicious for that. Too suspicious.” I stared down at my hand. “No, when you want to persuade a paranoid person, you don’t act like you never thought of the bad things. You make it clear that you’d thought of every way you could hurt them, and then didn’t choose to do any of them.”

“And how well does that work?” she asked, frowning.

“Depends on if they believe you can do it. But that’s the thing about paranoia, it always overestimates what its enemy can do.” I closed my eyes. “Do you have any advice?”

“You are human,” she said softly. “Are you prepared for violence?”

“No, not really.” I sighed. “I’m going to try to set my potential enemies against each other. Make sure that all of them has reason to keep me safe, so that nobody can betray me without tipping their hand. Whoever’s behind this- They wanted to remain behind the scenes. I don’t think that they have what it takes to stand against a united front. So I make killing me an obvious give-away. Paranoia again.”

“Careless with your life. You only get one of them, you know.”

“Yeah, but the thing’s a wasting asset.” I smiled. “When you’re immortal, you’re giving up everything when you die. When you’re a human, you’re just losing at most sixty or seventy years. And most of those are spent fat, in pain, and losing track of things.” I looked down at the paper. “Do you think the world’s really ending?”

“It nearly did. I believe that it is going to come close again, soon. Everything ends. As you said, this too shall pass. This world cannot last forever.”

I took a deep breath, steadying my nerves. “Yeah, I guess so. But that doesn’t mean that it has to end today.”

“One more thing.” I looked up. “Binghamton. Binghamton…” She frowned. “There is something there. Something that has dwelt there. I’m not sure how long, exactly. It travels, but its heart remains in that city.” She met my eyes. “It is something terrible. It is something inimical to what you and I are.”

I frowned. “Is it possible that it’s what’s behind all of this? Someone’s been trying to destabilize Binghamton. I’ve been trying to figure out who’s behind this, but it’s difficult to tell who would profit. If there’s something else…”

“In my experience, there is often something else.” Doctor Smith sighed. “But in honesty, I don’t know what it is. It was there even before we were.”

“That scares the hell out of me, Doctor Smith.”

“Yes. I feel the same. Now, on the subject of native spirits…”

I remember very little of studying for the Bar Exam, or even taking it. My brain was focused on a single thing, which was cramming my short to medium-term memory full of as much information as I possibly could for just long enough to pass. And, to my credit, I did. I studied outside of New York City itself, in a very relaxed place upstate. The one thing I do remember from that time is the bicycle rides. I would bicycle five miles down to town around noon, and spend the entire day in the Dunkin Donuts, one of the few air-conditioned places. Studying, reading, doing questions, taking advantage of the good internet connection. And then, I would bicycle back.

Understand, I grew up in New York City. I am used to extreme levels of light pollution. And this was the polar opposite of that. Once I got outside of town, the darkness was… abyssal. Bicycling back on nights when the moon was new or covered by clouds or behind the hills, I’d use a little flashlight to tell where the road was. The route was pretty scary, to be honest, but there were a handful of places with street lights- Maybe five, across the entire five mile trip. The rest of it was just blackness. Often, there wouldn’t even be any cars on the road. There’d just be me, and the silence.

It’s the same every time i get deeply enmeshed in any process. I can’t remember what happens while I’m actually using my brain that hard, so instead, what I remember are the few times when I broke out of that routine. And in Atlantic City, that was walking the sand. I’d go out in the evenings or when my head began to boil over, and walk through the sand on the beach, admiring the waves as they lapped at the shore. I don’t remember all of the documents I read, I don’t remember all of the drafts I wrote, I don’t remember every crazy idea that I put down in the hopes of finding a silver bullet. I remember the sand.

It was on Friday afternoon that Polly joined me for my walk along the beach. This time of year, the beach was abandoned, and the setting sun was turning the sky into a riot of purples, oranges, and golds, pollution and nature mixing together to make something more beautiful than either of them could manage alone. “So. You don’t want me to be your bodyguard anymore.”

“No, I want you to be Jenny’s bodyguard.”

“Are you sure? Because I’m pretty sure that you’re the one who’s getting a target painted on your arse. You’re the one who’s trying to attract everyone’s attention and put yourself in the goddamn fire. In short, you’re the one who’s going to be in need of a bodyguard. So, do you not trust me, or do you think I’m weak, or is this all just some sort of fecking martyr complex of yours?”

“You don’t have to speak in fake Irish anymore, you know.”

“Yeah, but I’m going to anyway. Just because I wasn’t born on the Emerald Isles doesn’t mean I can’t speak the lingo. It’s a damn fine language to swear in.” She took a deep breath. “You’re not leaving me behind. Alfred can keep a good eye over Jenny. He’ll keep her entirely safe. I’m going to do the same for you.”

“Polly, that vampire nearly tore you in half-”

“And lookit me here, standing pretty as you please, with all my entrails on the inside. Where as you would be right properly fucked. We each do what we can, Miss LeRoux. I can’t talk worth a damn, I can’t research cases, and I sure as hell can’t sit still. So don’t you think for a moment that I’m going to stand by and not do what I can do, which is bust some goddamn heads.”

I smiled softly. “I’ve got a plan.”

“Yeah, and your plan ain’t going to be inconvenienced one bit by my being there, is it? Worst comes to worst, we both get to do the martyr thing together.”

“But you have…”

She frowned. “I have what, eh? Why can’t I do this?”

“You have Alfred. You have someone to live for.” I looked down, and wished I hadn’t said that. “Look, I’m comfortable with gambling with my own life. I’m comfortable with risking the worst happening to me. But how do you think I could look Alfred in the face if I let something happen to you?”

She was silent for a few seconds. Then she crossed her arms. “Things aren’t going to work out with Alfred.”

“What? But-”

“It’s not something he’s done. It’s not even something he’s going to do. He’s not that kind of man. No, it’s what he is. You can feel it, can’t you? The boy’s got Hero written all over him. The blonde hair, the good looks, the sword, the magic, he was born to romance a Fairy Queen or melt some cold winter witch’s heart or redeem some feckin’ fallen angel. He’s never going to end up choosing me, some dirty goddamn orphan.”

I smiled. “I don’t know. Your hair’s red, isn’t it? Heroes are really big into that kind of thing.”

“It’s brown as fucking mud. I just fake it for a while.” She shook her head, and the two of us stared out at the ocean.

“You know, a man once said ‘If you lie often enough, it becomes the truth.’”

“Well, sure, but wasn’t that man a fecking Nazi bastard?”

I shrugged. “Yeah, but he was accusing the Jewish of doing it.” I took a deep breath. “Maybe if we lie to ourselves often enough that we’re good people, it might become the truth.”

“Or maybe it’ll just make us into fecking Nazis.” She frowned. “Nah. I’m never gonna be the heroine of that guy’s story. But that’s okay, you know? For a little while longer, I can pretend that it’s not so. The truth’ll come calling eventually, and I can’t just pretend it won’t. But in the meantime, I’m gonna act like a goddamn fairybook heroine, and keep your ass from getting murdered.”

I thought of the blood soaking my carpet, Alfred holding Polly’s suddenly frail body, the sight of him trying to hold her together. I didn’t let it show on my face. I just smiled. “Thanks.”

That evening, as the sun set, the four of us set off by a more direct route home. I slept in the back seat most of the ride, and was woken up only as we approached Binghamton. A storm had blown in and sat over the city like a toad, a pounding hail of icy rain.

I was back home, such as it was.

 

 

Case Files 4: Camazotz, Strix, and Heroes

Camazotz

The Camazotz are known primarily from the ancient Mayan tale of the hero twins. Now, you know Mayan history is fun because these two were particularly well known for being athletes in the Mayan ball game. Their father and uncle were summoned to the the land of the dead by the lords of the underworld, played a game, were defeated, and were sacrificed for it. Their mother winds up fleeing, carrying the twins, and gives birth post-death, like the trooper she is. The two twins grow up, return to the land of the dead, fight the lords of the underworld, and wind up defeating them in a ballgame, becoming the sun and the moon.

I don’t want to be culturally insensitive, but I’ve never understood people who were that big into sports. Also, ‘Land of the dead’ is one word for it, but the proper translation is supposed to be something like ‘Place of fear’. Alfred made me put this part in. (Alfred: Because it’s damn evocative.) Camazotz was a bat from the House of Bats, and was the only challenge to actually get one over on the boys in the extant myth, cutting off one of the brother’s heads and forcing the other one to bluff till he could get it reattached.

The reality of the matter is… blurry. From the texts I’ve read, the vampiric Camazotz predates the classical Mayan period, making them older than the birth of Christ. Like most Undead, it’s not entirely clear where they come from. The Camazotz were supremely selective, only taking full-blooded Mayan children, and raising them from birth with the knowledge of their great destiny. Apparently, there was one for each god, which could mean quite a lot- I’ve heard that there were as many as a hundred Camazotz at times. However, the fall of the Mayan civilization and the invasion of the Europeans nearly wiped out their normal breeding pools and circles of power. They were still vastly powerful on their own, but chose not to reveal themselves, allowing their people to be wiped out.

Megan Smith: In truth, if the great variety of forces of the supernatural world had arrayed themselves behind native populations, perhaps we would have been able to drive the Europeans back. But we were ourselves divided, more interested in our own ongoing feuds and struggles than what had happened to the world while we were not watching. The Camazotz made their choice. Like so many undead, the prospect of extinction did not seem to overly frighten them. Each one was, after all, decades old at least when the Mayan empire fell. They seemed confident that they could patiently wait out eternity.

But I am beginning to think there may be another possibility. Their malaise may simply be an aspect of the Cities and their seals. I suspect that any powerful supernatural creature found itself in a torpor that grew worse as the Cities grew more numerous. It would explain why they were so uninterested in the fall of their own civilization… (Atina: Really need to ask her about this in more detail.)

Powers

From what I’ve gathered, the Camazotz were pretty unique. Megan and Nelly’s information and histories suggest that they really thought of themselves as genuine gods, though they were still undead. The idea was that by being sacrificed- drained and restored by one of the other Camazotz- the mortal in you was drained away, and replaced with the stuff of gods. You could only create a new Camazotz when one of the existing ones died, although they found ways to get around this- For example, many Mayan gods were ‘manifold’, existing simultaneously as a single divine entity but which had multiple incarnations.

Chaac, as one example, is named for the Mayan rain god. By all accounts, a god of fertility and other good things, though there’s a lot of storm god imagery there as well. Historically, Chaac was a male, but then so was Hun-Came. I’m not certain exactly what the real Chaac is capable of, but the mythological one could call storms and bring forth thunder and rain with his axe. She’s one of the youngest of the Camazotz, but that still makes her ancient. She’s probably the strongest thing in Binghamton right now, Hun-Came aside.

As for Hun-Came herself… Well, honestly, I just don’t know what her deal is. There are some old myths about the way that Mayan death gods worked, but there aren’t many records of these characters. Hun-Came was, in mythology, a primary adversary of the hero twins; It might suggest some ancient pact made between humans and the Camazotz, or it might simply be a convenient name. The only person who’d know would be Hun-Came.

Alfred: History is suggestive. Chaac used to have worshipers who were thrown into cenotes to drown- or, more optimistically, be fished out and provide oracular visions. This certainly sounds like a vampire preying upon people who believe she’s a god, and making pacts with those who strike her fancy. The oracular abilities are curious- Whether they were visions of the future briefly glimpsed, or maybe bringing forth beneficial storms when they said there would be one, I cannot be sure. Hun-Came, on the other hand, was mostly known as someone you prayed to to keep away bad luck, from what I can see. One interesting thing… Hun-Came, traditionally, used a bladed rubber ball to decapitate young men who disturbed him. (Polly: Man, sounds like my kind of sport.)

Politics

The exact dates of the Bloody Wars are unclear, but certainly they had started by the time the Mayan Empire fell. Nonetheless, the wars were a primarily European affair; While the Camazotz were recognized as vampires, they stood separate from the other lines of vampires. With little interest in the overall politics of blood, they went unscathed through the wars, and have remained relatively untouched to this very day. There’s a reason why the Camazotz are one of the few vampire lines that would be welcomed in Binghamton.

Ultimately, they’ve spent most of the last few hundred years being neutral parties, not getting in anyone’s way, and being of no offense to anyone. So why start killing them now? What could have happened to change things? Was it a response to the fall of Zion? But it started years before that. Was it some plot of these mysterious ‘forces’ that Megan alludes to, but refuses to name? Was it all just one gigantic fucking poorly timed coincidence? I feel like if I can understand this one thing, if I can know why the hell the Camazotz are being murdered, I’ll be on much steadier ground.

Megan Smith: In the pre-Colombian days, there was not a great deal of long-distance travel for the Camazotz. They were as vulnerable as any other Undead to the harsh rays of the sun, with one exception. Nevertheless, word would occasionally arrive from one of them, or one of them would travel across the vast desert plains, glutted with blood to sustain them. On these occasions, we would speak of things; rumors, plans, interesting new inventions, philosophy, religion. The one to most often make this journey was an old friend of mine, who is now known by the name K’inich Ajaw. He took great pleasure in travel through the sun-soaked lands to make his way to the Great Plains, and when I learned that he was dead, beheaded and his bones left to bleach in the sun, it was a great tragedy. But violent death seems to be the only death that immortals can hope for.

Nelly: By the time I actually learned about the Camazotz, the Notte Nostra had been forged by the Strix. We invited them, but they stood apart, as was always their way. I hated them for that for a long time, until I realized how pointless it was to hate them. They survived by not doing anything that would merit killing them. They lived on, knowing that when their enemies had forgotten them, their line could spring up again. I talked with Hun-Came about this once or twice. She believed a time would come when her enemies, all of them, would either have died, buried their grudges, or become friends. In the abyss of time, everything evened out in the end. I hope she’s alright.

Past Cases

There’s not a great deal of case law on the Camazotz. Before the Mayan civilization fell, they were thoroughly above the law. After it fell, they mostly didn’t disturb anyone. There is one case that I managed to pick up, however. This happened down in Texas, around the turn of the 20th century, in a little mining town on the slopes of Needle Peak. A Latino woman was found with the body of a man who had been drained of blood. They’d put her in the local sheriff’s office in the holding cells, till they could have a federal marshal show up and put her under arrest, take her somewhere where she could be tried. They said that the woman was found raving about the bats. People took her for a drug addict.

Now, keep in mind, this town is a bit out of the way. Not a big town, no more than a few hundred people, and a dusty telegram office. The federal marshal arrives, two or three days later, and the town is completely empty. Not a living soul is left, no sign of violence, no sign of anything. Beds left unmade, meals sitting uneaten on tables. The holding cells were torn open, from the outside. This shit’s bad enough, but it’s the next part that really weirds me out. See, the town was set on top of a rich coal mine, thick strata of the stuff. From the size of the veins, they thought they’d be mining it until judgment day. When the corporation that set up the town sent inspectors to check the mines, y’know what they found? Nothing. Not a goddamn sign of the coal, or the miners. The mountain was practically hollowed out, like every drop of coal had been ripped out of the place.

So, what makes me think this was Camazotz related? Well, it was right on the border with Mexico, and it involved a woman raving about bats, and the disappearance of a town. There aren’t many things that could do something like this. I don’t even know if one of the Camazotz could. But what the fuck is the coal about?

Strix

Most vampire myths, let’s face it, the basis is pretty obvious. Leeches, mosquitoes, lampreys, certain kinds of finches and bats. The Strix, though, are bizarre. There are no blood-drinking owls. As far as I know, the closest related animal is the Oxpecker, which more often feeds on ticks and other parasites than the actual blood itself. What owls do have going for them is being frankly terrifying in the night. They’re silent, more silent than practically any animal in existence. They’re fierce predators, and their cries can be downright terrifying. And when you see one unexpectedly in the night, it’s not unreasonable to think that it would scare the hell out of someone.

Now, it’s worth noting that actual owls are remarkably inoffensive creatures, even quite beneficial to humans. But the Strix were considered omens of intense ill fortune, bringers of civil war and civil strife. They were one of the major breeds of vampire in Europe, and the Strigoi, Nosferatu, Vampyr, and half a dozen other major lines can all trace their lineage back to the Strix. They were also a sister breed of the Lamia, a somewhat more esoteric breed of vampire that also arose in Greece around the same time, as well as the Greek Empusa and Mormo. Many times, these breeds are difficult to distinguish from Gods and Goddesses that were the basis for the myth; The actual queen Lamia, and the other monstrous creatures which shared her name, for example. (Megan Smith: These were not actual gods, or goddesses. They were simply the first of their kind, and thus, very powerful.)

The fall of the Roman Empire was, ironically, not very hard on the Strix. They weathered the period of Attila, the rise of the Holy Roman Empire and Charlemagne, the fall of Constantinople, and the rise of the Italian city-states, all while living a relatively nomadic existence throughout much of Europe. They did not have great and mythological power, and compared to other forms of vampires, were not tracked nearly so closely by the other undead.

Nelly: The Notte Nostra started as an idea. In the wake of the Bloody Wars, we realized that we had become pariahs. Our kind were hated by those undead who should have been our natural allies because of years of neglect and mismanagement. The Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian Mafia, started out of a need to provide security when the government could not do so. We were much the same. The truth of vampires is that we botched things fairly badly, and we nearly were wiped out for this. The Notte Nostra was a way for us to be useful enough to justify our existence.

We provided a sanctuary for young vampires, somewhere where they could become powerful. We even had dreams, one time, of finding a way to offer shelter to elder vampires of other lines, so that it would truly be Our Night. But… Well, principles and ideals so seldom survive in the face of power, do they? I fear that the Notte Nostra has lost its way. Or maybe it never had that way to begin with…

Powers

The Strix, historically, have been very insular. There aren’t any records I can find of Strix making contracts with traditional Postmortologists, and the few records of pacts tend to be with Mafia strongmen. My own experience in fights with the Strix- the whole single fight I saw- is that Parsons was fast, and his nails could cut through things like knives. He took a beating and a half without even being slowed, and he could see through Alfred’s illusions. I’m not sure whether he sees in a spectrum other than pure visual, whether it was sheer visual acuity, or worse, whether it was some actual magical capacity to pierce illusions, but it was pretty frightening. I still have no idea what their weaknesses are.

Nelly: We never mixed business with the Cosa Nostra, but we did mix personnel. There were humans in the Cosa Nostra who were good for making pacts, who we could use. They were our knives in the dark, and in return, they gained power that made them more effective at foxing the mortal authorities. You might wonder how Al Capone could survive, even thrive, despite living much of his life with syphilis eating away at his brain. I can take some credit for that.

For obvious reasons, I’m reluctant to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the Strix in general. Such revelations were the downfall of many vampiric lines over the years; I should hope I can at least learn from their mistakes. But I can say that the three children I have in Binghamton are troublesome ones. Parsons is a deadly bastard, but the worst one is Sofia. I don’t know if it was in her nature or an unusually strong resurgence of the old bloodlines, but she’s chaos itself. Strife and suffering seem to follow her like a pair of hounds. I strongly doubt she was born on the date she claimed before the Night Court, but it would not be difficult for her to fox any attempt to prove that. Her talents for confusion and chaos are… a real pain in my ass. (Atina: Wouldn’t do me any good even if I could prove it; Just another path to a mistrial.)

Politics

The Strix don’t generally show up much in history, or in political structures. There aren’t any major courts that have Strix on them, they aren’t mentioned in most accounts of the war with the vampires, and the Notte Nostra, while occasionally referred to, doesn’t have a whole hell of a lot of respect behind it. Mostly, they remain an enigma.

Nelly: The Strix were, ultimately, unimportant in the Bloody Wars. We did not have the great noble lines or sheer power that many vampires of Europe did. We did not own castles or countries, and that is what saved us. We had large families because we trusted each other, unlike the insular and often violent lines of other families, where betrayal was always expected. Vampires could have ruled the world with their ties through blood, save for the fact that they never would have trusted each other. It was rare that most Vampires had more than one spawn at a time. We were looked down upon by our relations, and now, we are their only hope. Not through violence, but through coexistence.

That was the ultimate purpose of the Notte Nostra. Providing a haven for those vampires who were fleeing the persecution of those they had oppressed, or who their ancestors had oppressed. We took in the dispossessed, the wastrels, and provided them meaning. There was violence, and blood, and things better left unsaid, but it was the way we kept our people alive. We became middlemen and criminals, a lubricating force between the law and reality. And at a certain point, the power we got from that became more important than sharing the night. I suspect that is why my children betrayed me. Seeking a chance to split off, to create their own thing. That is the way life goes, isn’t it? You give them everything, and it’s never enough.

Past Cases

Let me level with you. As a kid, I was fucking terrified of UFOs. I can’t explain it other than saying it involved episodes of Unsolved Mysteries that I watched while I was way too young. Even thinking about the stuff makes me tear up nowadays. There are a few of them that scare the hell out of me. The Valentich Disappearance is the worst- Even now, I can’t hear the words ‘It’s not an aircraft’ without feeling a certain primal fear. Almost as terrifying for me, though, was the story of the Flatwoods Monster.

I’ll give you the short version; A group of West Virginia folks in 1952 see a bright object cross the sky and seemingly land nearby. They go to check it out, and have their dog spot something and run off, whimpering. They reach the top of a hill, and find a pulsating red ball nearby, and a pungent odor. They notice a couple of strange glowing lights near the ball of fire, and swing their flashlights towards it, revealing the Flatwoods Monster. A large creature wearing a pleated green skirt and nearly seven feet tall with small clawed hands. It let out a shrill hiss, gliding towards them before turning towards the red light, at which point they panicked and ran. I’ll spoil it for you right now: Their description sounds exactly like a bunch of panicky people spotting a barn owl and startling it into flight. The light was almost certainly an aircraft beacon. The ‘bright object’ was probably a meteor. All very simple.

Except, except, except. What if the thing that they saw wasn’t a barn owl? What if it was something else? Like, say, one of the Strix? That’s the fucking thing about this knowledge. How do you tell the hoaxes from the genuinely supernatural? How do you tell if it was a barn owl, a UFO, or some nightmare owl vampire from the heart of Italy? It’s one thing to be able to say ‘No, no, there’s nothing unexplained or strange in the dark.’ But now, I know that’s a lie, and it’s so damned hard to figure out what’s real, and what isn’t.

Nelly: It was a Strix. A bootlegger, as it happens, he was shocked when a group of locals found him while he was loading a still, and tried to frighten them off. He wound up having to break down the still and move it to keep the authorities from finding out.

Atina: That is simultaneously a great relief, and the most depressing thing I’ve ever heard. “The supernatural is real and it was spotted running an illegal still.” That’s kind of depressing.

Nelly: Well, I never said that he was bootlegging alcohol.

Heroes

This file is password-protected. If you’re somehow reading it, stop. It’s just for my personal thoughts, and you’re being very rude.

There were people, in the old days. People who won. People who could bring forth a happy ending. People who didn’t just beat the odds, who didn’t just scrape by, but who were fighting with fate on their side. The Hero is a concept that started with the Greek mythology. You find it more often in some cultures than others, but every culture has them. Sometimes they’re purely human, sometimes they have the blood of the divine. Sometimes they are blessed by the gods, many times they’re cursed by them. And they stand up to the myths and the monsters.

The original meaning was literally a protector- a Hero is someone who protects others. But that protection only protected some people. Almost all heroes were killers, and their heroism was shown in the skill and efficiency with which they killed others. Like that old saying, ‘Kill one man at the wrong time and you’re a murderer, kill ten men at the right time and you’re a hero.’ I may be misquoting that, whatever. There’s a suggestion of honor and decency as well, but what this usually means is fulfilling the ideals of a society while ignoring its strictures. There are examples of heroism being simply a form of considerate sociopathy- Heroes are people who ignore society’s rules and mores, but nonetheless care more for other people than themselves. And I always thought they weren’t real.

Sure, we call many people heroes. We call fire fighters heroes. We call cops heroes, though that one’s pretty questionable nowadays. We call Mother Theresa a hero and Mahatma Gandhi and Rosa Parks heroes. They suffered greatly for the sake of others. But they don’t really stand out in the same way, do they? Maybe it was the advent of firearms. God made men tall and small, but Sam Colt made them all equal. Sometimes I thought that was the reason nobody stood out as a hero anymore- Because it’s become so easy to kill even the greatest of men, now. But if Megan Smith is telling the truth, I was wrong about all of this.

The way she puts it, the Cities were responsible for there being no more heroes. The way that they made the world mundane, less chaotic, meant that heroes were drawn to them. Maybe that’s why the world’s gone so mad for celebrities in the last century. The need for heroes, sublimated towards the only thing we have left that’s even close. Megan told me that people are born heroes, traditionally. There used to be new heroes, but for the past few hundred years, there haven’t been any, so far as she knows. Maybe the world just isn’t conducive to heroes anymore.

My feelings on the subject are… mixed. There’s the old saying, ‘Pity the land that needs heroes.’ By their very nature, they’re violent. People who enforce justice when every other method has failed. Violence is the least persuasive argument, but the most final, in many ways. It goes against everything that I try to live my life by, and I doubt I’d ever be considered a hero. But when someone uses violence against you, is there any real defense besides more violence? And I can’t stop thinking about what Polly said on the beach. If some people are heroes, special, born to win, then what does that make the rest of us?

Powers

This is where things get interesting, and a bit scary. See, I’ve always worked on the assumption that making a pact is selling your soul. You’re giving someone hooks into you- Power, at the price of your independence. I’ve never met a supernatural creature that didn’t work that way, and I thought that there were none. Then, Megan Smith told me about the Sisters. Four goddesses, personifications of the natural world, who give power to the worthy, rather than those who can pay the price. Frankly, that sounds crazy to me, and Megan Smith confirmed that the gifts could be misused quite badly, and sometimes had through history.

But it’s the old human dream. Right making might. Power being given to those who were noble and righteous, to those who would use it to make the world a better place. And it’s something I’ve never heard Alfred even mention. Did he know about these kinds of powers? Did he hold it back from me? I can’t imagine why, though. That suggests that the wizards don’t know as much as they usually claim, which is all too easy for me to believe. But if they learned about this… Well, I imagine a lot of wizards wouldn’t qualify as ‘righteous’, but Alfred certainly might.

The other thing is fate. Heroes are born to win, to be drawn towards what they need. It’s hardly a guarantee, but the overall flow of the world is in their favor. Kind winds take them to those who will teach them, and shelter them from enemies who they can’t hope to defeat. One in a million chances work out for them when it would defy probability for a normal person. Basically, everything- that’s conducive to their destiny, anyway- is just a bit easier for them. Things work out.

The very idea of it fills me with a white-hot rage. How fair is THAT?

Politics

Alright. I’m going to talk a bit about my position here, not because I think I’m a hero- I know for certain that I’m not- but because this is important to understand the consequences of the idea of heroes. There are three kinds of human ‘ranks’ among the supernatural creatures I know. Tools, food, and threats. Tools are people who can help. It’s the wrong word, because honestly many supernatural creatures aren’t the objectifying assholes this suggests they are, but it still describes the basic relationship: You’re controlled by the supernatural creature. They prefer to use supernatural methods, like with the pacts they make with wizards, but they’ll settle for cash, as they do with me. Food describes the vast majority of humans, and again, it’s unfair, but gives you the gist.

Threats are people strong enough to kill one of them, who they can’t control. Technically speaking, I’m a threat; I know a lot about supernatural creatures, and while money is a useful way to get me to help, it wouldn’t stop me if I got an ideological motivation. They tolerate me because I’m useful, because I’ve got friends in high places, and because deep down, they don’t think that any human without supernatural power could be a real threat.

Now imagine, for a second, what it would mean for wizards to have the option to make a pact with these Sisters. Imagine what it would mean for anyone to make a pact with these Sisters. It’d mean an end to one of the major sources of power that the supernatural world holds over humans. It would mean chaos, and civil strife, and possibly people being at each other’s throats. Maybe I’m being overly grim, but then, that’s what lawyers are paid to do.

Past Cases

I asked Megan Smith whether Alfred was a Hero, in the sense she was talking about. She said that she didn’t think so, but that she couldn’t rule it out. It’s difficult to tell if someone’s a hero if they haven’t started following their fate. Sometimes that begins at birth, sometimes at puberty, but sometimes it’s much later in life; Odysseus was a king before his odyssey began.

The reason I asked was because, of everyone I know, Alfred is the closest to a genuine, bona-fide hero. He can be a bit of a womanizer, but frankly, Odysseus fucked around on his wife almost constantly on his journey home. There are much worse flaws in a hero than being easily swayed by pretty girls. He also has that kind of aura of being born lucky. I know his mother is a very powerful fae, and that she made a pact with him- Not to control him, but because she loved him and wanted to protect him. That kind of dedication in a fae is damned unusual, and it sounds a lot like the way the Sisters operate.

I’m never going to be a hero. I work for money, or for my own self-interest. I protect people, but as a job. And to be blunt… I’ve never been in a fight that I won. I’m big, and strong, by human standards. But I’m just not any good at violence. I can’t use it, and while I might fantasize about getting even, I know that I’m always going to wind up trying to reconcile with people, even when they’re trying to break my face in half. The ideal solution for this whole situation, for me, is making sure everyone is safe and happy, even that fucking bastard Parsons. Maybe if I stabbed him, instead, I’d be a hero.

Or maybe if I just had the guts to put up a real fight.

 

 

Chapter 11: Crooked Body and Twisted Hair

A mother and child are at the graveyard, visiting the memorial of a beloved family member. On their way back to the car, the child asks his mother, “Mom? Do they ever bury two people in the same grave?”

“Of course not, honey. Why do you ask?”

“Because that tombstone read ‘A lawyer and an honest woman’”.

The four of us sat around the desk, as I went over the schedule. “Alfred. You and Jenny drive into town at 11:30 PM. You should arrive just in time for the beginning of the trial. You’ll be coming in through Vestal, which should make sure that nobody will know where the hotel is that didn’t already. Polly and I will drive into town today with the rental car.” I tapped the map. “Our first stop is the Inebriate’s Asylum, where I’ll be meeting with the Half-Faced Man. I sent a letter ahead to him, so he should be waiting for us. Our next stop… Well, I’m not sure about that one. We’re going to have to drive north, most likely. Third stop is at the house of Lady Ann Willing.”

“And how are we going to handle that? How do you know who you can trust?” asked Alfred. The concern in his voice grew a little thicker as his eyes flicked to Polly.

“We don’t. So we’re going to spread this around. Chaac, Lady Ann Willing, and Edwin Link. I’ll ask each one of them to provide protection over the course of the trial. Two bodyguards each, for eight hour shifts. Polly will be with me the entire time, so I at least stand a chance if one of them tries something. If I wind up dying suspiciously, it’ll reflect poorly on whoever was in charge of my protection at the time.”

“Isn’t that usually the job of the judge?” Jenny asked, frowning.

“It is. I’m going to play on their paranoia. Lady Ann Willing and Link don’t trust the judge one bit, and if Chaac’s any judge of character, she won’t either. I think they’ll go through with it. If they don’t, then, well, I may be hosed. Speaking of which, Alfred; I’ll keep my phone on me at all times. I’ll call you at 11:30 to confirm all of this. If I don’t, you and Jenny get out of town, go on the run wherever you need to. I’ll give you a password to make sure you know it’s me.”

“What’s the password going to be?”

“Guest.”

Alfred groaned softly, and grabbed one of the donuts off of the table. Donuts and coffee. Every lawyer function I’ve ever gone to, donuts and coffee are a constant. Sugar and caffeine, meant to hype you up and borrow from the future to give you energy in the now. But I loved french crullers, even if I rarely got them. I grabbed the only one in the box, and nibbled at the edges. “I know it seems silly to you, but it’s simple and easy to remember, and nobody’s going to guess it. If you think that things seem suspicious, if you’re worried about anything, if you think you or Jenny are in danger, you get out of here.”

“What if someone impersonates you? Or steals the knowledge from your head? Or-” Jenny began, and I held up a hand.

“There’s only so much paranoia can do for us, here. We have an idea of the players in this game. We’ve put into place what plans we can to make it costly for them to take us out. From there…” I took a deep breath. “I think Alfred is as capable as anyone of telling if I get turned or controlled or whatever other horrible things might happen to me. I’m going to set things up so that our enemy can’t act overtly against me without revealing themselves, I hope. Whoever’s really behind this, they’ve been acting subtly. That suggests that they wouldn’t succeed if they were overt in what they were doing.”

Polly picked up her cup of coffee, and slurped at it noisily for a few seconds, examining the squiggling line across the map. “And who’s this you’re visiting at the end?” she asked, an eyebrow raised.

“Nobody. Just a friend.” I tapped at the map. “I should arrive at the graveyard shortly before Alfred and Jenny. Court should last anywhere from two to six hours. Fang Fen will present her arguments, I’ll make counterarguments. I suspect that we’ll mostly be focused on the charge of Gluttony today. If I can make a solid argument for leniency on that charge, I think we’ve got an even shot on the charge of being a Wastrel. We’ll figure that out, okay?” I ran my fingers through my hair. “After the court closes, we’ll have some food at my office. I’ll make sure we’re prepared for Sunday, and we’ll destress a bit.”

It was raining outside. The thick, driving rain had begun pouring down on our drive into Binghamton, and hadn’t let up since. It was a snowstorm thirty miles south, a blizzard of Roland Emmerichian proportions. But by some bizarre trick of the El Nino systems thousands of miles to the west, Binghamton was balmy and damp, and getting pounded by the rain. I pulled the drapes aside, peering out the window. Jenny flinched, and looked embarrassed, but none of us drew attention to it. The hotel window faced out west, and it was probably too damp and dark out for the sun to do her any real harm, though I’d hate to test that on her.

Sunlight is something of a universal danger for the undead. With the exception of a very few, very weak creatures, it can do some grievous damage to all of them in very short order. Don’t ask me why, or why the reflected sunlight of the moon or the UV lights you find in certain places don’t kill them. Maybe it’s all a metaphor. But if I failed, sunlight would be the most likely method of execution for Jenny, leaving her out in the graveyard to be burned alive, nothing remaining but a pile of ashes for the rain to wash away. So I was just as glad for the rain.

The thought lasted the time it took me to get out to the small blue four-door in the parking lot with Polly, by which point my outfit and I were both soaked to the bone. We piled in, and I turned the heat up, luxuriating in the instant relief as the car’s engine started. I may not have needed a car, but I could damn well enjoy the hell out of one when I got the chance. Polly gave me a sideways glance. “Do you trust the Half-Faced Man?”

“Generally speaking, yes. He’s suspicious as all hell, but he’s generally been helpful, and while he’s been involved a lot in this case, he’s been more helpful than hindrance.” I pulled out into traffic, listening as the phone read out the instructions, peering through the thick rain to try to make out the road twenty feet ahead of us. “You think he might be the one hunting the Camazotz?”

“Well, not really. But I’d like to know why you think he isn’t.”

“I’ll confess, I considered him for it. He’s mysterious, he’s a good fighter, he couldn’t kill Parsons but that might just have been an act. He’s seemed to know a lot about this case before it even started, and he’s been directing me in dangerous ways the whole time. He’s tried to keep out of everything a lot.”

Polly frowned. “Sounds like awful good reasons to suspect him.”

“Yes, but what’s the point of getting me involved in all of this? I don’t think he wants me dead, or he would’ve done it himself a long time ago. Or at least kept it in the Fae courts. And it doesn’t fit with anything anyone knows about his personality. He came to this city years ago, long before the Camazotz started dying, he doesn’t have any kind of appreciable connections to the New World vampires. No, everything he’s done is consistent with what I know of his personality: He likes to help people where he can, and he likes to find out secrets. This is all in character for him. The people who are acting against what I know of their natures are the ones that make me suspicious.”

“Lady Ann Willing, then?”

“It’s hard to not notice. Binghamton was chosen as a place of refuge for the Camazotz because she’s considered very fair-minded. But this whole thing is bringing out a very ugly side of her.” I stared into the falling rain. A brief flash illuminated the night, and the car shook as a powerful peal of thunder rolled over it. I shivered. “I really hope it’s not her. Not only because she’s a powerful and dangerous foe, but because I idolize the damn woman. It would be awful if she was just…”

“Human?”

“I was going to say flawed, but same difference.” I peered up as we approached the asylum. A figure stood in the doorway of the asylum, and vanished within as the car approached. “He does this shit, you know. Predicts what I’m going to do, what I need. I suspect it’s an actual supernatural ability, but I might just be predictable.”

“Do you want me to come with you?”

“No. Stay with the car, make sure nobody’s following us or tries to plant a bomb in the car or something. You’ve got my cellphone number.” I slipped out, and ran up the hill, trying to shield my head with my hands until I made it into the welcoming embrace of the inebriate’s asylum.

“How was Atlantic City?” asked the Half-Faced Man with a smile.

“Infested with Strix. Did you know that the woman I was looking for was a Godmother for the Notte Nostra?”

He turned, and began walking down the hallway, tiles clicking beneath his feet, bent forwards with his arms behind his back. His fingers laced together and then pulled apart like an octopus shaking hands. “I knew that you going there would help you to solve your problems, and that you would survive the trip. That was about it. The Notte Nostra are notorious for living in New Jersey, and with the amount of money you needed…” He shrugged. “Did you find out anything useful?”

“Yes. Did you know that there are gods?” He looked over his shoulder at me, head tilted curiously. “Powerful, terrible things, and they’re coming back, so I was told. An apocalypse is coming down on all of us. You ever think about that? About the end of the world, the end to all of your little games?”

“Endings are good. They’re a wonderful time for secrets to be revealed, among other things. Nobody wants to carry a dark secret to their grave. But an ending to something does not mean the end of everything, you know. Sometimes, it means a beautiful new beginning.”

“I got the impression this wasn’t that kind of end.” I frowned. “Ever heard of a town called Zion?”

“Yes, a lovely little place in the Middle East. Or was it the Midwest?” He tilted his head. “Is all of this strictly relevant to the case, or are we just meeting up to have a little gossip session?”

“I’ve discovered a lot of strange things behind this case. A genocide attempt on the Camazotz. A bunch of stray Strix. A grudge on the part of Lady Ann Willing. And they keep telling me about something here, Half-Faced Man. Something ancient and terrible.” I looked him in the eyes of the mask, trying to keep my voice steady. “Are they talking about you?”

“I doubt it. I’m not quite ancient, and not powerful enough to be terrible. But this world is littered with secrets like that.” He tapped his fingers together, turning back towards me. “I knew this case would bring up some interesting secrets. Now, what do you need?”

“Have you heard of the legend of the founding of the Iroquois Confederacy?”

“I have. A rousing tale full of good moral lessons.”

“I need to find Tadodaho.”

The Half-Faced Man paused, and looked as though his tongue was waging a fierce war against the rest of him. After several long seconds of silence, he sighed. “Do you need that?”

“I have a way to defend Jenny. An argument. I have precedent. But I need him to speak.”

“You realize that you are white, don’t you? And the nature of your name.”

“Yes.”

“You know that he can kill with a glance.” I shivered slightly. I did know that, but being reminded of it wasn’t helping matters any.

“Look. I need someone who can argue, decisively, for burying the hatchet. And I need someone whose laws predate Lady Ann Willing’s. So, can you help me?”

He stopped, at the entrance to one of the doors. “I do not know the man personally, you understand. I have never met him, and do not know where his bones are buried. However, I do know of a story. A man who lived in this asylum was committed, at one point. After drinking long into the night, he had made claims of seeing an Indian man, wild-eyed and horrible, in the waters of Lake Onondaga. The Indian’s eyes glowed like fire, and his heart had felt like it stopped, until he fell out of the figure’s view.”

“Sounds like our man. Where did he say he saw this figure?”

“Ah, a good question-”

“And is there a short version?”

The Half-Faced Man sighed. “You’re no fun anymore. On the northwest shore, along Restoration Way, at Sawmill Creek.” He leaned back against the wall, in an expression that seemed almost sulky. “But I really don’t know if he’ll help you. You’re a bit French.”

I rolled my eyes. “Yes, I know. But I still have to try. He’s my best chance at this.”

“Very well.” He sighed. “I read your file about heroes.”

“What- How-”

“The password was ‘Guest’. You can be slightly predictable.”

“Great, way to make me feel like an idiot before I go into one of the biggest cases of my admittedly unremarkable career. What about it?”

“Atina… Do you want power?”

“Not from you,” I said, just a little too quickly. “I’m sorry. But you know how I feel about the whole pact thing.”

“Yes, a hook in your soul. A connection someone has to you that cannot be denied. Power they have over you. You realize that in all of this world, there are so many relationships that sound like that, don’t you? Family, love, friends, all of these are give and take relationships. They cost us, but they profit us as well, and when they have been made wisely, we gain what we need most, and give up what we value least. So it is with pacts. They are not always a way for someone else to control you. Sometimes, they are a way for others to help you.” He smiled, showing every one of his teeth. “Not that I would give you a pact. What I can do would be nightmarish in your hands.”

“The thing is…” I rubbed my face, trying to figure out the right words. “The power would never be mine, if I made a pact with someone. You know? It would feel like mine, I might come to think of it as mine, but it would always belong to someone else. Everything I do could just be taken away from me in an instant. If I started relying on that kind of power, it would make me dependent on it. It would be like an addiction.” I shook my head. “No. There’s a power in being a free agent, too. There’s power in having nobody pulling your strings. And that’s the rarest power of all, from what I’ve seen.”

“Atina, there is always someone pulling your strings. If you are aware of it, you can at least correct for it.”

I rolled my eyes. “Thanks for the help, Half-Faced Man. And one more thing. Is Roy some kind of freaky supernatural… thing?”

The Half-Faced Man let out a bark of laughter. “That boy? No, I’m afraid not, Atina. I know how you crave the touch of the denizens of the night, but he’s as unremarkable an individual as I’ve ever seen.” His expression became pensive. “I think you know that you’d grow bored with such an individual, in time. Perhaps not today, perhaps not tomorrow, but do you think he could support you in your chosen endeavors?”

“He can cook. Ultimately, that’s all I could ask of a man.” I gave a smile. “I’m going to err on the side of kindness and pretend you’re not blatantly hitting on me today.”

“That is very kind of you,” he said solemnly, inclining his head. I couldn’t tell whether he was being sarcastic or sincere. But I was used to that confusion.

The drive up to Syracuse took the better part of an hour and a half, the highway empty of all sane people. Most of our companions on the drive were cranky, strung-out Quebecois truckers, who seemed to take a particular delight in slowing down just as they were passing, and kicking gigantic waves of surf into my windshield. Polly and I passed the time by hurling oaths at their mothers, their purely hypothetical fathers, and the quality of man with which they spent their time. During one long stretch where our car was not being inundated with spray, Polly looked over at me. “So who exactly are we trying to get to help us, here? You mentioned something about the Iroquois Confederacy to Alfred, but…”

“Right. When the Iroquois Confederacy was founded, it was by two men; One known generally as The Peacemaker, and the other as Hiawatha. The last holdout against peace was a chief known as Tadodaho. He was said to have the powers of a sorceror, and could kill with a glance. His body was twisted and fearsome, his hair tangled in knots. At each of the peace conferences Hiawatha tried to hold, one of Hiawatha’s three daughters died after Tadodaho quashed the attempts at peace.”

“Scary-sounding bloke. So, what, did Hiawatha end up killing him?”

I tapped the steering wheel with two fingers. “Not exactly.”

We came to a halt in front of the gate leading into the park. I parked the car in the small, empty parking lot, and the two of us walked around the gate. Up this far north, the rain had slackened off a lot, becoming just a misty drizzle. It was still miserably cold as we walked along the lakeside, though. It was perhaps a five minute walk down to Sawmill Creek. The two of us stood at the edge of the lake, on either side of the creek, and peered out. The lake had frozen during the colder parts of the winter. Now, a thin coating of rain lay atop the ice, transparent, but giving it a strange and incredibly smooth appearance. It was almost like a mirror. “Now what?” Polly asked.

I took a deep breath, and blew it out. “Tadodaho! Chief of Onondaga and Iroquois!” The lake was silent. “You were the one who stood in the way of peace, the one who killed children, the one who slew men! You were the one who was twisted and broken! You were the one who was foul and evil! You were-”

“Alright, alright,” hissed a voice. And from out of the river emerged a man. Mostly transparent. He stood, his arms crossed, his hair hanging in smooth sheets around his head. He was tall, and his eyes glowed as he pulled himself out of the water. His voice carried a strong accent, but he was understandable enough. Ghosts had plenty of time to brush up on their languages. “What the hell do you want, European?” he asked, his eyes narrowed.

“I thought you said he was deformed,” whispered Polly.

“I can hear you,” Tadodaho said, eyes narrowing. “What suicidal urge could have possibly driven you to call me from my slumber, European? Do you wish to die?”

“I thought you didn’t do that anymore,” I said very softly. This seemed to startle him. Then he regained his composure.

“I chose peace because it seemed the right way. See what it got me?”

“Six hundred years of peace, in round numbers, and a stable nation which still exists today.”

“Hah! Exists! Look at the lake!” He swept his hand forward. “For a century, I’ve watched it be polluted, filled with the blood of the earth and the bones of the gods. My nation lies in ruins, destroyed and debased.”

“This too shall pass,” I said softly. He turned towards me, his eyes narrowed, and I felt my heart pound against my ribs, fear gripping me like a knife. But then his eyes softened.

“We had a pretty good run of it, didn’t we? And we’re not dead yet. I’m proof of that.” He saw Polly’s expression, and sighed. “Metaphorically speaking. Now what do you want?”

“Do you know of the Camazotz?”

“Vaguely.”

“Someone is trying to wipe them out, and they have set up a trial. I believe the purpose of the trial is to lure them into the open and wipe them out, or else to set a bone of contention between them and the court of Lady Ann Willing.”

“And why should I care? I knew of the Camazotz as distant beasts from a strange land. They are not my people. They are not of my kind. Why on earth would I want to save them?”

“Because they are about to be destroyed. Their nation is gone, their families destroyed, and they are on the verge of dying forever. Surely you can empathize. Suffering makes brothers of us all.”

He snorted. “And what would you offer in return for this?”

“What do you ask of me?”

He frowned. “Your life.”

“My life, or my death?”

He stared into my eyes. “You’re actually considering it, aren’t you? You’ve already put your life into hock for this.” He clucked his tongue. “Who is the subject of this trial?”

“A young woman from Japan. She is accused of crimes that are not crimes. Her life is at stake.” I took a deep breath. “I’m willing to do what it takes to save her. I don’t want to die, I’ll do anything I can not to die, but I’ve accepted that I might.”

“What a foul waste,” he snorted. “What do you need me to do, exactly?”

“I want you to testify at her trial. Testify to your life. Please tell me that the stories are true.”

“They are.”

“Then tell the story.”

The two of us stood for a very long time in the rain, staring at one another, arms crossed. “Oh, what the hell. It’s not as if I have much to do in the meantime until the permits go through for the restoration equipment. In exchange…” He grinned. “I think I’ll begin to attend the meetings of the Binghamton Night Court.”

I blanched. “I… I don’t think I have permission to-”

“Oh, I don’t intend to ask permission, and I don’t think I need your say-so. I am very old, and of course, have more of a claim to living there than most. Yes, this shall be fun, I think. I will be there tomorrow night.” He gave me a broad, toothy grin. “Do let the Lady Ann Willing know I look forward to seeing her again. We can talk over all those amusing old treaties.” I swallowed. I’d been hoping to get off with just another favor owed. This was going to make life a lot more complicated in Binghamton. Still, I had gotten what I needed.

“I’ll be sure to let them know.” I bowed my head. “Thank you.” I turned to go, when he cleared his throat.

“Do you know, there was a time when my people could have destroyed your settlers. Even with the disease, even with the suffering… We could have crushed you underfoot, without a second thought.” I frowned, turning back towards him. “Have you heard of the Beaver Wars?”

“The name sounds vaguely familiar.”

“They were foolish wars. Fought for greed. We took the weapons of Europeans, of Dutch traders. We moved against our ancient rivals and feudmates in these lands, spread out, and killed them. We fought a bloody swath through Northeast America. Cut them to ribbons, and incorporated them into our tribes. Many of them moved away, left this place. They left the river valleys fallow, and a hearty crop of European weeds sprung up to take their place. When something earthshaking and new entered the world, we thought it was an advantage in our old wars. We thought the old wars still had meaning. We never realized that we were simply caught up in an entirely new war.” He stared at me, hard. “Something new is stirring in the world. And old grudges will only lead to new tragedies. Tell that to Lady Ann Willing.”

I nodded. “Thank you.”

“Well, we all have to bury the hatchet at some point, don’t we.”

The drive back was quiet. Polly looked across the divider at me, a frown on her face. “You were ready to offer him free and open favors. Anything he might have asked of you.”

“Yes.”

“That’s an awfully dangerous practice.”

“For Fae, it’s dangerous. For Undead, it’s dangerous. For Demons, it’s dangerous. For a human, it’s only as good as my word. I can’t be compelled to follow through with my word. Not the way supernatural creatures can. The worst that can happen to me is that someone tries to murder me or I can never practice the law again. That’s the difference between a pact, and a favor. A pact lets them put their hooks into me. It’s power, but it makes me vulnerable. A favor… Well, a favor’s only as strong as I allow it to be.”

She frowned at me. “That’s a kind of scary thing to hear from you, Atina.”

“It’s the only advantage I’ve got in the world of the supernatural, Polly. The ability to lie, to break faith, to betray my oaths with nothing but social consequences. That’s where my strength is.” I sighed softly. “It’s kind of a comforting thing for me to remember. I can always say damn the world and all the consequences if I think it’s important enough. The same thing is true of being a lawyer. I can always break every oath, every ethical hold on my behavior. The consequence would be not being a lawyer anymore.” I stared into space. “Giving up the career I put so much into, and any hope of being a lawyer again. But what’s life without a little risk, huh?”

“And you told me that getting married was a big commitment.”

“I’m still writing up that prenuptial for you.”

“‘For sale: Prenuptial, never used.’” Polly paused for a moment, considering the words. Then she grinned at me. “Somehow, it’s just not as melancholy, is it?”

The drive back to Binghamton was a quiet ride through increasingly fierce rain. The traffic and rain were heavier and slower than I expected, and it was past sunset when we finally crossed back into town. Roy’s shift would have already started. I wouldn’t have time to visit him privately. I sighed. It would have been nice to get to see him, to apologize for leaving town so suddenly, to tell him how glad I was to see him, to do- something- but there wasn’t time for that. I needed to get to Lady Ann Willing.

We stopped in front of the long walk up to Lady Ann Willing’s mansion, and I left the car idling. Polly moved to unbuckle her seat-belt until I rested a hand on her shoulder. “I don’t know if I can trust Lady Ann Willing. When I walk in there, she might kill me. I’d like to think she’s not that kind of person, but I don’t know. So I’m using you as my insurance, here. If I don’t text you to tell you everything’s alright every fifteen minutes or so, I want you to get out of here, find Alfred and Jenny, and go have a fun life as fugitives together.”

She frowned at me. “I promised to keep you safe, Atina.”

“Right now, I want you to keep the things I care about safe. That’s you three. Don’t worry.” I looked up at the building, ominous in the gray rain and mist. “I’ll probably be fine.”

 

 

Chapter 12: What Goes Around Comes Around

“I had half expected you to leave town,” said Lady Ann Willing. She sat with one leg crossed over the other. “Though the damage your home suffered was a nice touch. Why have you come back, Atina LeRoux? Come to claim that your client, through no fault of your own, escaped? That you should be allowed to live unmolested in Binghamton again, and to continue to find legal work here? That you were simply suckered in, and are innocent of all of these things?”

I raised an eyebrow, sitting in damp clothes in the sitting room. “No. I won’t deny that we considered it, but I am here, and so is Jenny, in a safe location. Ready to stand trial, and be found not guilty.” This prompted a reaction from Lady Ann Willing. She set her cup down, and stared at me.

“Really? After what I said at our last meeting?” She caught my expression, and sighed. “I am sorry for that, by the way. It was unfair of me. My feelings are unchanged, but it is part of my duty to be better than that. To be above my own grudges.” She stirred her black breakfast tea slowly with a silver spoon, before taking a sip. “Edwin Link and Chaac have both stated an interest in meeting me here tonight. Am I to take it that is your doing?”

“Yes.” I took a deep breath. “Someone attacked me, the night before the last trial, and tried to kidnap me again. They staged a second attempt shortly after the jury selection, at which point they assaulted my house, and nearly killed my friends, while trying to take Jenny and I captive. I have every reason to suspect that they were trying to interfere with this case.”

“The Strix.”

“No-”

“Do not lie to me.” Lady Ann Willing set her glass down on her china cup, her cold silver eyes locked on mine. “I am not a fool, though the Strix appear to think I am. They were responsible, and you-” She stared at me. “You think I will use it as a reason to justify a mistrial. A reason to kill your client.” Her shoulders visibly slumped, her talons rattling against her saucer as she tapped them. “Is that what you think of me? That I will seek any opportunity to execute an innocent young woman because of an ancient grudge? Have I fallen so far, become so distant, that I have become a tyrant without even noticing it?”

“I can’t afford to trust in this case, my lady. I’m sorry if that makes you feel hurt, but I need to do what is best for my client, even if it means distrusting you.” I winced at her expression. “I do feel bad about it, though.”

“I will not move for a mistrial. I wish to win this thing cleanly, if at all possible. A mistrial would mean questions, doubts, suspicions. Procedural victories are never clean.” She gave me a weary smile. “And you? Do you truly believe that you are going to win this case for your client?” She tilted her head, and her eyes widened. “Of course you do. You wouldn’t have returned to the city if you didn’t think it was possible. What have you done?”

“A lot of things,” I sighed. “But first and foremost is the spirit Tadodaho. He will be attending the night court, and it sounds as though he intends to attend it regularly. I think he’s interested in taking a hand in Binghamton undead politics. He gave me a message for you: Old grudges will only lead to new tragedies.” The hard, angry look in Lady Ann Willing’s eye died like a snuffed candle flame at those words, and she lowered her eyes towards the floor, shame-faced. The room was quiet for a while, as I sipped at my tea. I wanted to say something, to do something, to show her that I wasn’t trying to betray her and everything she’d accomplished. But she beat me to it.

“You must think I’m quite a monster. Sitting here, passing judgment upon innocent children for crimes that they did not commit.” She stared down at her fingers. “I hope you have something good up your sleeve.” Then she looked up. “Ah, they are here.”

Edwin Link stepped through a door, followed shortly after by Chaac. The two of them took seats, as Link crossed one leg over the other. “Alright, LeRoux. What the hell is all of this about? You bring us all here a few hours before the case, you must have something damn fascinating to be telling us. I flew in through the storm, and I thought I was in serious danger of dying again!” He crossed his arms, and watched me. Despite his gruff tone, he was grinning.

“Someone has tried to co-opt me, twice.” I looked at Lady Ann Willing. “I suspect that whoever is doing this is working with the Strix, but I have no proof. Any one of the three of you could, conceivably, be responsible; But I am certain that no more than one of you could be responsible, as you all have separate motivations in this case. So I wish to make an agreement, to make sure the trial can continue. Each of you will provide bodyguards during the next three days. Each of them will do their best to ensure I am not murdered, taking eight hour shifts in my office.”

Edwin frowned. “Wait. That makes it sound like you’re going to only be having bodyguards from one set of people at a time-” He sat back in his chair, and grinned. “Oh, I get it. Clever.”

Chaac frowned. “I’m sorry, I-”

“It is to put us in competition,” said Lady Ann Willing. “If she dies, whoever was guarding her at that time will be suspect, as will be their patron. It would not be a guarantee, but it would make life very… very difficult.” She sighed. “And of course, she has a good reason for asking this protection, doesn’t she? If we refuse, perhaps Jenny will not show up at her court date tonight. Perhaps we will find they have fled-”

“Oh, that reminds me.” I took out my phone, and texted the all-clear to Polly for another fifteen minutes. “And I would never claim to have such a base betrayal planned, Lady Ann Willing, but if you want to act as though I do, it would make my life a great deal easier.” I smiled politely. “I just want to do everything I can to make sure I don’t get killed. And I don’t trust our esteemed judge, for reasons that I hope are clear to everyone in this room.”

Chaac tapped her forefingers together, and nodded. “I will agree to this. I have already extended the services of the two bodyguards who I have enlisted while here; That offer still stands.”

“I wouldn’t mind that. I’ve got a couple favors I can call in. Hell, I could even stand watch for you myself.” Edwin grinned. “Been too long since I got the opportunity to engage in some youthful hijinks. And I’m sure I could find a few people who’d be willing to pitch in.” The two of them turned towards Lady Ann Willing, who sighed.

“Yes, it would be something of a tragedy to have you die now, before you have a chance to become an even greater thorn in my side.” But she smiled as she said it. “I think that I can agree to this. I may consult with Fang Fen about her covering for you. While I would never normally expect it of the prosecutor in a case, she does have an unusual connection to you. I suspect that she would appreciate the opportunity. I would normally consider it improper, but…”

“Nobody would accuse Fang Fen of being improper.” I nodded. “That sounds agreeable to me. Then, I think that I will see the three of you in a few hours, at the trial.” I smiled. “I’m going to get a bite to eat.”

I moved to go. Chaac stopped me in the entrance hall, running to catch up with me. “Have you found anything about what is hunting my people?” she asked, her voice soft, her eyes full of concern. I felt a little string of guilt.

“I haven’t. Not yet, anyway. A lot of people are curious about it.” I gave her a little smile. “I think that Hun-Came’s going to show up tomorrow. I’ve got something planned for tonight that should force her hand. I won’t tell you now, but I’ve got a good feeling about it.”

Chaac’s expression practically melted with relief. “I am so glad to hear that.” She gave me a strained smile. “Her disappearance has been… difficult for me. And the thought of Jenny dying because of Hun-Came’s fear…” She shook her head. “You know, I was not Mayan, either. My village was Aztec. It was destroyed, and I was taken in by Hun-Came, made into one of the Camazotz. She always showed a certain willingness to flout tradition like that…” She smiled. “I am glad that Jenny has you to watch over her. My associates will be at your office tonight after the trial to watch over you. I trust them; they would not betray me. I chose individuals of honor.”

I smiled. “That means a lot to me, Chaac. But let’s not count our chickens until they’re hatched. There’s still the trial.”

I considered stopping at Shark Belly’s for food, but lost my nerve at the last minute, and picked up Chinese food instead. I wanted to see Roy, but I was frightened. Frightened that he’d be angry, frightened that he’d be hurt, maybe even frightened that he just wouldn’t care. I couldn’t bring myself to face him yet. After the trial, I promised myself. Just a couple more days and this would be behind me, and maybe I’d even have enough money that I wouldn’t do this anymore. Or could at least help him to find a better job, doing something more meaningful.

These were the thoughts swimming in my head as I arrived at the graveyard. I popped the trunk of the car while Polly called Jenny and Alfred, and slid the briefcase out. I looked up as Dean Morton stepped out of his slender black Mercedes. I stepped up to him and shoved the briefcase into his hands, making him stumble back a foot. “What is-?” He opened it, and his jaw dropped. Then he closed his mouth and looked up at me, an expression of annoyance and awe mixing on his face. “You cheated.”

“No, I got lucky. You’re not going to try to weasel out of the deal, are you?”

“Heavens no.” He slid the briefcase containing a hundred thousand dollars into the back of his car. In frankness, the briefcase was mostly padding- A hundred thousand dollars would have to be in five-dollar bills before it could warrant a whole suitcase. Still, the look of the thing was important. “I look forward to your arguments tonight. I’m sure that whatever they are, I’ll find them incredibly persuasive.” He gave me a wink, and started down the hill. Tarps had been set up, providing places of shelter from the rain, and keeping things relatively comfortable. It looked like a circus had sprouted up in the middle of the graveyard. Polly stepped up beside me, and Jenny and Alfred arrived not long after. The four of us made our way down to the court.

Twelve great chairs sat in a row, sunk into the green grass, covered by their own private tarp. A stand for the judge sat before two lecterns. There were no barriers, nothing between the attorneys, the judge, the jury, and the audience. There wasn’t a need for that kind of thing in the Night Court. Anyone foolish enough to throw themselves at the jury would get exactly what they deserved.

Fang Fen was dressed formally, a gray wrap-over coat and a tight hat covering her. She did not look terribly happy as she stood at the right lectern. I took the left, while Jenny, Alfred, and Polly set out their folding chairs, taking a seat in the audience. The twelve jurors had already settled into their chairs, and were waiting with obvious annoyance for the last person necessary to start the court: Sofia Marzetti. A young man stood with a very precise looking watch by the entrance to the tent, counting out minutes and seconds with exacting precision.

As twelve struck, he opened his mouth to announce it, only to be interrupted by the wet tent flap slapping him in the face as Sofia entered. She strode down the makeshift aisle between the seats of the audience, and settled in the chair as the damp announcer finished tolling the hour. “I think we may dispense with the formalities. Would the prosecutor like to start?”

Fang Fen cleared her throat, and straightened her back. “Ladies and gentlemen of the court. Thank you for hearing me tonight. The charges against Jenny Nishi are straightforward. First, she is accused of the crime of Murder by Gluttony, devouring the blood of a mortal, Anthony Jones, to the point that it caused his death. And second, she is accused of being a Wastrel; a vampire without lineage, without parent, without family. The punishment for these crimes is Death by Dawn.”

The court muttered, as Alfred and Polly exchanged whispered words. I could see Jenny swallow nervously. I stretched my neck, joints popping and cracking as I settled my hands on the lectern. “Your honor, the defense will show that each of these charges is without merit. That Jenny Nishi was not responsible for the death of Anthony Jones, and that she is not guilty of being a wastrel.”

“Really?” asked one of Lady Ann Willing’s cadre among the jury. A slender, pinch-faced man, with eyes like a pair of runny eggs. “You’re going to produce some evidence that she has a sire, then? Or perhaps you’ll prove that she’s not actually a vampire?” A ripple of laughter, most of it merely polite, filled the air as some of his sycophants made themselves known. Lady Ann Willing silenced it with a single raised finger. Fang Fen cleared her throat, and straightened her back, turning to address the jury.

“The charge of gluttony exists for a specific reason. We must live in unity with humanity. We cannot do this if we are predators, or parasites. We see how humanity responds to such things. The death of a human at the hands of a predator means a culling. We are blessed, because we can live in harmony with humans. We can take only what we need, and leave those we feed on unharmed. It is the basis of our society, and the root of our power, that we need not kill to survive; Along among perhaps all of the creatures on this earth, we may live in peace. When we kill, it is a greater crime for its waste.”

I took a moment to look across the crowd. A charge of Gluttony was rare, she was right; Most of the time, when one of the undead killed a human, it was for something other than simple hunger. There were just so many humans out there, and not many creatures would take enough to harm them, even if they didn’t have many humans to feed from. The undead prided themselves on being in control, on not being killers, on having refinement and civilization and delicacy. Gluttony spat on all of that. It was killing another person- Someone who might be lesser, but who was still a person- all for the sake of a meal. I could see the dark looks on people’s expressions.

“I personally witnessed the body of Anthony Jones, drained of every drop of his blood, with two wounds on his throat. He had been drunk dry. Juror Chaac, can you tell us: What is the Camazotz method of creating a new Camazotz?”

Chaac took a deep breath, standing. I wished this was a human court, where I would’ve had all the time in the world and all the formalism needed to question, to counter-question, to make sure the witnesses were prepared. But no such luck. I could only watch as Chaac spoke. “The prospective new Camazotz is drained of all of their blood, and fed the blood of their maker. This triggers the change.”

“So, the newborn Camazotz is typically starving when they arise?”

Chaac hesitated, frowning. “Yes.”

“Then if she were a Camazotz, it would be likely that Jenny, awakening, would find herself starved of the very thing she needed for life. She would, therefore, be extremely hungry, and close by to a prospective meal?” It was about this moment when, were this a human court, I would’ve leapt in with an objection. Earning my fee with outrage, and all of that. But in the court of the undead, it would simply insult everyone. The judge and jury knew what was being argued here, and would expect me to wait my turn to point out why it was invalid.

“It is possible,” said Chaac, not bothering to hem and haw around the question. Everyone involved knew the reputation vampires had. They were one of the few creatures likely to break the strictures against gluttony. Whatever little instinctual reminders kept other forms of undead from taking too much, from draining their victims to death, didn’t always work properly in vampires. That was just another of the reasons why they were so troublesome.

“No further questions at this time.” Fang Fen looked towards me. I took out the thermos of green tea and poured out a cup, taking a long sip while I let the silence stretch out. When the tension felt right, I spoke.

“Chaac. Is there a way of telling which vampire was responsible for the draining of Anthony Jones that you know of?”

“Not off the top of my head. Saliva samples could give us evidence in the forms of DNA, but Fang Fen’s contacts with the forensics department have not, so far as I know, found anything conclusive there.” Fang Fen frowned as I continued.

“Do you know if Hun Came’s saliva would still contain DNA? She was an extremely ancient vampire, who has lived thousands of years. It seems like she might not be entirely human after all that time.”

Chaac looked slightly offended, but nodded. “It is certainly conceivable. She never needed a doctor’s checkup, of course.” She frowned. “The teeth marks were difficult to distinguish, as well. Hun-Came didn’t leave any dental records, of course, but the bite marks could have been consistent with almost any Camazotz, or other vampires.”

I nodded slowly. “My point here is that we know of at least two vampires who were in the room that night- Jenny, and her maker. There may have been more, potentially many more. Dean Morton.” The man gave an ingratiatingly oily smile. “Are you familiar with the concept of a Dreamwalk?”

He snorted. “Ah, yes. Not my department, understand; A bit too soft-science for me. But I know of it.”

“Could you describe the procedure?”

“Well, it’s fairly simple. An individual takes a combination of psychedelics and deliriants, channeled and magically activated so as to produce a state of hyper-awareness and emotional sensitivity. A form of psychometry, really, it allows them to experience events in the recent past. The clarity of the events depends on a few things- The sensitivity of the individual, access to those who originally experienced events, and where the events took place. I would hardly call it decisive evidence- Ah, but of course, I’m sure that if you have something to present to the court along those lines, it is worth listening to.” He gave me a shark-toothed smile, and I wondered when he’d gotten a new set of dentures.

“Alfred Jones, would you please stand up?” He did so. “Two weeks ago, on the Monday evening following the jury selection, you, Jenny Nishi, and I engaged in a dreamwalk. Correct?”

“That is true.”

“During a dreamwalk, are the viewers capable of lying about what they’re seeing?”

“No. Part of the mix removes inhibitions on speech; They might hold back about what they’re seeing, but they won’t be able to lie about it.”

“Did I speak at the end of the Dreamwalk?”

“Yes. You went into rather graphic detail about watching Jenny being drunk by Hun-Came, followed by Hun-Came doing the same to Tony, before beginning to rant and rave about-”

“Thank you. No further questions.” I gave him a hard look, and he shrugged haplessly.

Fang Fen tapped her chin. “The Dreamwalk. Does it provide fact?” she asked, her eyes on me even as she asked Alfred.

“It’s… complex. It shows what is true-”

“Let me clarify. Is the dreamwalk vulnerable to expectations and desires? Could it provide a false impression of what has happened, if someone desperately wanted it? Can we trust what is attested to in a dreamwalk, even through a third party?”

Alfred frowned, his mouth twisted. “I suppose that it could provide a false impression.”

Fang Fen turned more fully towards me. “You are an excellent attorney, all things considered. Dedicated to your clients, and fiercely certain that they are in the right. I will not, therefore, ask whether you think that you may have been mislead by your own strong feelings about his case. However, I hope you can see how your view of things may not be proof.”

I gave a smile. “My own visions aren’t submitted as a sole proof. They are simply another piece of suggestion. Unless we have a witness to the act itself, nobody in this court room can give much of a proof one way or the other. But I think that there’s something else to realize, here: Whether Jenny Nishi killed Tony or not is hardly material to this case.” I luxuriated in the murmurs of consternation, the narrowing of eyes, the suspicious frown from Edwin Link. “I know that may sound strange. After all, if anyone in this room should be concerned about undead feeding on helpless mortals, well, it would be me.” The tension was broken with a light chuckle, as I raised my hands. “But you yourself said the reason for the existence of these laws, Li Fang Fen. Coexistence. Humans can’t live with a career predator, with someone who may kill at any time.”

I looked around the room, and then pointed towards Jenny. “Jenny. Will you please stand up.” I watched as the members of the court stared at her. She was shivering. A cheap jacket pulled around her shoulders, her face pale, her hair stringy and plastered to her forehead by the rain. She looked miserable, and frightened, and very, very small. “This is Jenny Nishi. Two weeks ago she woke up in the hotel room, her boyfriend of over a year dead. She had been changed into something strange and unfamiliar. She was feeling something that she hadn’t before.” I turned towards Fang Fen. “And she’s gone through nearly five pints of blood in that time. A surprising amount for someone accused of draining a full grown human male dry.”

Fang Fen frowned. “Even so-”

“Yes, it could be that she is in greater need of blood for other reasons, some sinister hidden power or a relic of her lineage that makes her need more blood than she would otherwise. But again, the question here is not ‘Did Jenny drink someone dry.’ The question is whether she will drink someone dry again. I have known her for only a couple of weeks, but she is not a murderer.” I turned my eyes on Fang Fen, and saw the hunted look in her eyes. “Jenny. Shortly after we met, you were emotionally vulnerable, and you spoke with Fang Fen. Could you please share what happened in the conversation?” I saw the look she gave Fang Fen. The guilty look.

“She… She told me that I was a good child, and that she respected my feelings towards others, and that she hoped that I would be safe. She told me that Tony’s death was not my fault, and that I should not bear guilt over his dying.” She looked down at her feet. “She said that she didn’t believe I would hurt a fly.”

I looked at Fang Fen. “And have your feelings on that matter changed?” I braced myself, prepared to come after her when she backtracked, when she tried to circle around-

“No. They have not. I do not, in all honestly, believe Jenny Nishi killed Tony. Even starving, I do not think she would have it in her to kill anyone, let alone the young man who she was in a relationship.” Fang Fen stood very straight and stiff, her fingernails digging into her lectern. She was emphatically not looking at Lady Ann Willing, whose expression was volcanic. “In the balance of evidence… If Jenny Nishi were to be absolved of her crime, I suspect that she would spend the rest of eternity doing no harm to anyone who had not grievously harmed her already. I think that executing her for the sake of Anthony Jones would be a miscarriage of justice.” She took a deep breath. “I would personally recommend to the jury that the charge of Gluttony be dropped.”

Sofia leaned forward, smiling indulgently. “Really? I don’t know that it’s your place, as the prosecutor, to put forth such a… conciliatory appro-”

“I do not care,” Fang Fen hissed, meeting Sofia’s eyes. The vampire narrowed her gaze, knuckles growing white. “I would recommend leniency.” The effort of saying it seemed to cost her something.

“That is all very well and good,” said Lady Ann Willing. “But the true matter of this case is not the death of the young man, tragic though it was.” I could hear the sharp intake of breath from Jenny. “The true crime here is what Jenny is, which is without connection, without patron, and without safety.”

“Ah, yes.” I smiled. “The charge of being a wastrel. It’s a strange thing, really.” I tapped my lectern. “There is all of this fear that you might take a cuckoo into the nest, that Jenny is an infiltrator. In other words, that she is a threat because she might be made more powerful than you when her patron actually appears.” My smile turned very wide, and very unpleasant. “And what if I were to tell you that Jenny’s maker will be here tomorrow? That when we reconvene tomorrow, I will bring with me the one who made Jenny into a vampire. Hun-Came, a vampire so powerful that she predates Christ. A vampire who is several times older than anyone in this tent.” I lifted my hands. “I wonder, Lady Ann Willing, if she will appreciate the hospitality you have shown to her kind while she was here.”

“You dare threaten-” the pinch-faced man began.

“To exist is not a crime! To be without parent is not a crime! To be born cannot be a crime! This is the only thing Jenny has done: To be the victim of someone else’s actions. If she killed Tony, it was because every drop of blood in her body was taken! If she was made a vampire, it was not her fault!” I pointed at the jury box. “Every one of you knows that you are called monsters by those who don’t know you. You feed on humans, you stand separate from them. If they discovered you exist, they would come down on you, en masse! They would slaughter you, and we all of us know that is why you hide: Because they could! And if you condemn Jenny to death because of the circumstances of her birth, then it is nothing less than what you deserve!”

I took a deep breath, turning to scan the jury box, the judge, Fang Fen, and the audience. They were shocked. Pitbulls that had just been bitten by a mouse. I squared my shoulders. “Hun-Came will be here tomorrow, and she is going to reveal Jenny’s true lineage, and make her what you fear. This court exists around the concept of power. Its rulings, its precedent, its laws, all of them are enforced by power. The most powerful rule here, and that’s why you’re frightened of Jenny! Because if she is what you think she is, you’re looking for an excuse to kill her to hold onto her power! And that kind of behavior will turn on you!” I could see the shock in Chaac’s eyes. She wouldn’t have wanted me to take this path, I’m sure- But I needed to do something. “But!”

I held up a single finger. “But, I am a pessimist. I believe in the worst of people. I thought Fang Fen would squirm out of what she had said. I thought that I couldn’t trust any of you. I may be wrong about you. You may not need a threat to do the right thing. It may turn out tomorrow that what you really want is not to condemn Jenny, not to sentence her to death for something she could not be held responsible for. But to give her the chance to live if she deserves it. And I sincerely hope that is true.” I let my hands drop to my sides. “The mercy that you show today is the mercy that will be shown to you. Sometimes, a great shock is needed to change tradition. I hope that you can all view what I have just said in that light.”

I let my arms fall. Sofia sat with a deeply indulgent smile, toying with a gavel between two fingers. She slammed the block of flat wood into the desk, breaking the momentary trance with a sharp crack. “Thank you for that performance, Miss LeRoux. If counsel has nothing further to be said, then we will adjourn till tomorrow night.” She smacked the gavel once more, and the courtroom erupted into chaos. I stepped up to Fang Fen. She gave me a quick look, and then moved to hurry away when I caught her by the shoulder.

“Thank you,” I said softly.

“I didn’t do it to help you.”

“I know. That’s why I’m thanking you.” I smiled.

 

 

Chapter 13: Out of the Woods

“I cannot believe you threatened the entire night court,” said Polly as we sat in the office. The humidifier was off, and the iron chair sat in the corner, where it wouldn’t do anyone any harm. A large tray of chicken spiedies, ordered earlier in the day and stored in my office where they’d stay fresh, sat in the center of the desk. Hamburger buns sat on the side. A blood bag sat in Jenny’s lap, although she didn’t seem to have much appetite. I leaned back in my chair, chewing industriously on a particularly tough piece of chicken, and enjoying the feeling immensely. I was in my nice chair, and had pulled the other good chairs out of the storage closet, big armchairs with comfortable armrests and high backs. I didn’t particularly care if they got a little messy, I never got a chance to use them.

“I wasn’t technically threatening them. I never said that I was going to alert any mortal authorities, and I certainly didn’t say I’d tell Hun-Came to do anything. It’s not a threat to remind people of the consequences of their actions when you’re not the one who’s going to directly cause those actions.” I paused for a moment to make sure I could believe that, and settled for a ‘close enough’. “Besides, I’ve been getting threatened constantly since this goddamn trial started. It was nice to do it to others for once.” I leaned back comfortably in the chair. “Now it’s just a matter of seeing if the gamble pays off-” There was a knock at the door. “Come in.”

Edwin Link strode in, hands on his hips. “Atina, you’re a daring one, you know that?” He gave Alfred a nod. “How’s it going, sport?” He turned his head back to me. “Walking up in front of the entire Night Court and giving them the business like that. Got to admit, it did my heart good.” He smiled at Jenny. “And managing to get the prosecutor to speak up for you like that, in front of the entire night court… That was a hell of a trick, I’ll have you know. I can’t speak for Lady Ann Willing’s group, but I was damned impressed. Damned impressed. I might be looking at the first free vamp of Binghamton.”

“I’m… incredibly glad to hear that, sir,” said Jenny, her head lowered as she lifted a small bowl of salad up, offering it to Edwin. He lifted the fork and chomped down on a bit of tomato, without apparent effect, placing the fork and vegetable back into the bowl with every sign of having enjoyed himself. The ghost took a seat, one leg crossing over the other.

“Now, a little bird told me that you got in touch with one of those Indian ghosts up near the territories, and wound up suckering him into helping you out in this little crusade of yours. A real nasty, real old spook, at that. Anything I should know about this chap, since it sounds like he’s going to be getting all up in our business?”

“He’s a… Well, he has a very bad reputation, but he seemed quite reasonable to me,” Polly said. “Kind of a nice guy, actually, very keen to stop conflicts? But I’d still probably recommend not making any eye contact.” Edwin nodded as he accepted a chicken sandwich from Alfred, and began taking large bites without actually consuming any of it. “You liked her making all of those…” She caught my eye, and coughed. “All of those suggestions of what the consequences might be?”

“Course I did! Most of the night court, they start to forget why they’re there. Because we need law and order. We need a stable society to be a part of. You get old enough, apparently it starts making you think ‘Hey, maybe I could do all of this on my own, maybe I’d be just fine if there were no laws, after all, I’m strong.” He snorted. “That line of thinking lasts just about until the time when someone decides to pour holy water over your grave or shove a silver crucifix down your throat or some similar gruesome fate. If you ask me, the court needs some shaking up like that, and while my fellows were a little bit edgy about the threats, they understood why you made ’em. Don’t worry, they’re not going to break ranks on these things.” He tapped his fingers on the chair, and frowned. “But you’re going to have to get Hun-Came to show up tomorrow.”

“I’m confident of it, sir.” I gave him a bluff smile, showing all the confidence that I most certainly didn’t feel. I knew he was right. Without Hun-Came to back up the threats, to make it clear that Jenny was claimed, that killing her would be a mistake, this entire trial would come down to a toss-up. And that was something that I couldn’t really afford. “Anyway, you don’t have to worry about that. Tomorrow’s going to have a lot of fascinating speeches. I’ve been practicing my desk pound.”

“Hah! I’ll just bet. Listen, I’m going to get together some boys from the airport for your bodyguard later today, once Chaac’s people are done. I need to get back to the Cessna. I just wanted to tell you I was damned impressed today. Damned impressed.” He gave a broad, toothy grin, and then turned on his heel, striding out through the still-closed door.

“See?” I asked, leaning back in my chair. “I know what I’m doing. More or less. On the balance.” I gave a smile. “Christ, I can’t wait to get a drink.” I eyed the desk drawer with the bottle of high-proof rum in it. It would be lovely to indulge in a bit of not thinking, but I couldn’t afford that for a couple more days. I took a deep breath, and contented myself with a large mug of hot chocolate, leaning back in my chair. Alfred frowned, slouched to one side, his chin on his palm. “What the hell are you frowning about?” I asked, putting my feet up.

“I don’t know how you can relax,” he said, brow furrowed. “We still don’t know why whoever did this, did this. If we don’t understand their motivations, then all of this might happen again.”

“You’ve got to focus on what you can. All this talk of prophecies and the end of the world, it’s all really ominous and great, but that’s not what we’re trying to deal with, here. We’re here for the simple things, like keeping a young woman from being executed for being a vampire by a court full of ancient ghouls.” I leaned back in my chair, and yawned. I’d been up since dawn, and the temporary energy provided by adrenaline and excitement in the courtroom was now draining away, leaving me bone-tired. I’d got the old hammock set up in the corner of the room, but it’d be at least another hour before I could use it. I sighed as there was another knock at the door, and then we all went still as Lady Ann Willing entered, flanked by a pair of white-faced men in black dress jackets and slacks.

Lady Ann Willing raised an eyebrow at our tense expressions. I realized that the two men were not dressed quite the same as the vampires who had been assaulting us, and relaxed. “At a certain point, you’re going to start hurting my feelings. Atina, this is Karloff and Gustaff. They’re cousins of mine from Germany, and individuals in whom I have every confidence, particularly that they have not been bribed. They will be guarding you tomorrow night along with Fang Fen.” She smiled, slightly uncertainly. “Do you mind if I join you for a moment?” I waved a hand, and she took a seat in one of the free chairs. Gustaff and Karloff stood by the door, backs straight, arms crossed in front of them as though lined up for a free kick.

“I hope that I did not offend you with my remarks today, Lady Ann.”

“Do you? You had a curious way of showing it,” Lady Ann said tartly, as she plucked up one of the pieces of chicken with a single talon. “You know, I’ve lived in this city… Well, for as long as it has been a city, really. I have seen it rise, and fall.” She stared for a moment at the spiedie. “The fall has been a difficult one. And yet, in all of that time, I have never had one of these.” She slowly twirled it between her fingers. “I remember when chicken was the food of kings, and when it became the food of peasants. When it went from the food my ancestors, to the food of foreigners. And yet, it was always the same bird. I remember when my husband first invited me to try the bird, all those years ago…”

She took a slow bite from the chicken, her eyes closed. The room was quiet for several long seconds as she savored the flavor. “It’s funny. I can’t even remember what it tasted like, whether it was the same as this, or different. Sometimes, I can’t even remember his face. You know? Sometimes, it feels as though the only thing I can remember is the hatred I felt for the one who killed him. Who took him away from me. Who made sure I wouldn’t be able to spend eternity with him.” She looked askance at me. “Love can creep up on you like that. You never realize how much someone meant to you until you realize you’ll never see them again.”

“Do you think that he would want your last memories of him to be hatred, and anger?” I asked, leaning back in my chair. I was tired. It was hard to be delicate about her feelings. I’d had a hell of a day. But I still felt bad when I saw the way she winced at the words. I thought of the city. “You know, this city has been dying for a long time. Ever since the big industries moved out. Everyone who’s had a chance moved away. When was it, exactly, that this city became a mecca for the dead? Was it before, or after the living stopped moving here?” She was quiet. “I don’t know, myself. I’ve looked into the history, but there’s not a lot of written history about the undead inhabitants of the city. Just hearsay and oral records. But the two were closely linked. It seemed like as the Night Court rose, Binghamton fell.”

“We do not kill things-”

“No, but you keep things the same. And that kills them. A town is like an organism. It needs to adapt to changing circumstances, it needs to be flexible. It needs to understand when what it’s doing is going to get it killed. The undead have a bad habit of ignoring those things. You’re like sharks, just doing what you’ve always done, and presuming the world will stay the same around you. You get more powerful the older you get, so you can-” I took a deep breath, letting my fists loosen. “I don’t think you’re trying to hurt anyone. I think you’re trying to help, Lady Ann Willing. I believe you’re acting out of the good of your heart. But you need to change. We all do. We need to change, and keep changing, to stay ahead of the world. I think that you need to change your mind about vampires, and about Jennifer.”

“Well, that much was obvious,” said Lady Ann with a wry smile. “Of course, if Hun-Came is to appear tomorrow, she will be able to end this whole trial easily. Jenny will no longer be a wastrel, and will, in fact, be heir to a noble and highborn lineage.” She spoke the last few words with a little more venom that was appropriate, but gathered herself, sitting straight. “In that event, there would be no real need for any of this posturing. You wouldn’t need to convince me that she shouldn’t be executed, or the rest of the court, for that matter. So I must wonder why you’re trying to persuade me here, in the privacy of your office, where there is no audience watching.”

“Because I think it’s a good idea anyway, Lady Ann.” I bowed my head. “If Hun-Came ends the trial without a decision tomorrow, I still hope that you’ll remember this the next time some poor unfortunate sap gets turned into a vampire in your city.” I sighed softly. “But I fully expect her to be there. A good lawyer just doesn’t take anything for granted, right?”

“And you are a good lawyer, aren’t you, Atina?” Lady Ann asked, her voice soft.

“No. Not really. But I might as well try to behave like one.” I closed my eyes, and sighed. “Is there anything else that I can help you with tonight, Lady Ann? I really should get some sleep, soon.”

“No, no.” She smiled, and stood up. “You must sleep, of course. You’re only human.” She winked, and turned to go, Gustaff and Karloff following after her like a pair of German shepherds. I leaned back in the chair.

“Jenny, Alfred, you two should get back to the hotel. Things should be safe there tonight. Just a couple more days of this bullshit.” I sighed, and rested my arm over my head. “Polly, I think I have a sleeping bag-”

“It’s okay, I’m not too sleepy. I might read your case files for a bit.” She gave me a cheerful smile, as Alfred and Jenny stood up. Jenny gave me a quick look, biting her lip.

“I might not die.”

“Sure looks that way.” I grinned. “Guess maybe it’s a good time to start looking for that garden-”

The door opened. Fang Fen stood in the doorway, leaning on her cane, and frowned at us. Alfred’s drawn sword, Polly’s cocked arm with soccerball in hand, the vial of holy water in my hand. “Well, at least the three of you are properly prepared.” She then looked shocked as Jenny threw her arms around her shoulder, squeezing her. The Jiang-shi’s arms rose into the air, looking shocked. Jenny released her after a second, looking embarrassed.

“Thank you. You may have saved me, by speaking up for me.”

Fang Fen frowned, standing very stiff. “You shouldn’t thank me. It was a terrible gamble. I could have provoked the Lady Ann Willing to declare a mistrial, and I have likely destroyed any reputation I had for honor-”

“Oh shut up about your damn honor, Fang Fen. Have a seat, join us. Alfred and Jenny were heading off, but we can stay to have you here for a little bit longer.”

“Ah, do not let me keep you two.” Fang Fen bowed her head to them, and smiled as they left. Polly gave us both a look, and raised an eyebrow towards me. I nodded my head, and she followed them out. Fang Fen sat across from me, and delicately plucked up a piece of chicken. “Mmm. Did you know that chicken is originally from a bird of Asian descent?” she asked, before popping it into her mouth, chewing hungrily, her eyes closed.

“You changed your mind today.” I watched her as she ate, her eyes lowered. She took a deep breath through her nose, and then nodded, swallowing.

“Yes. I’m not a fool. I cannot reasonably claim that I think Jenny murdered anyone. She was starving at your house, and she’s a gentle soul.” Fang Fen stared down at her hands. “But Lady Ann Willing was displeased. I suspect no one will trust me to act as prosecutor again after this. I will be lucky if anyone trusts me period after this.” She took a deep breath. “Do you know how I got that reputation for honor?”

“I’ve intuited a bit of it. Your partner was helping drug-smugglers. You found out, turned him in.”

Fang Fen tapped her fingers rapidly. “It wasn’t quite so simple. He wasn’t just my partner, you see. I had been… In a relationship with him. The two of us were close. Extremely close. I thought the world of him. He even knew what I really was. He cared for me, he believed in me. He was one of the few people on the force who did. And I…” She lapsed into silence for a moment. “When I found out, he begged me to let him go. He swore he would leave the force, that he would make things right. But I was full of anger, and pained by his betrayal. I thought I was teaching him a lesson. That when he was paroled, he would have learned a valuable lesson. I had forever. And a week into his sentence, he was stabbed to death in the showers.”

“It’s funny, how that happens,” I said softly. “Reminds me a little bit of Lady Ann. It seems a little strange how frequently the undead are left with those kinds of regrets.”

“Is it?” She snorted. “We live for a very long time, and immortality is ours to give, more often than not. When we lose someone, we are allowed to reflect on their loss for a very long time. I gave him up, I lost him forever, for the sake of some ideal of justice. For my ideals. And I just threw them all away.” She smiled. “He’d probably be very angry at me for that. Why couldn’t I have had this change of heart when I was making a point about him, instead of some girl.” She laughed softly. Then she looked me in the eye. “Do you know who is behind all of this? The attack on your house, the violence, the change?”

“No,” I confessed, frowning. “In honesty, part of why I’m here tonight is to act as… Well, bait. Hoping that they’ll be provoked into doing something foolish.”

“One good turn deserves another. Do you want me to watch over you?” she asked softly. “I can stay close, somewhere where I can help.”

“I’d appreciate that, Fang Fen.” I frowned. “When was the last time you ate?”

“I’ve had my mind on… other things.” She gave me a weak smile, pulling her jacket a little tighter.

“Alright, well, you’re not going to do me any good helping out if you’re starving. How about you go hit the clubs for an hour or two, find some guy with more libido than brains, and get a decent meal. I’ll still be here by then.” I smiled. “And thank you. You’re a good friend.”

“Yes, you say that now. But what if my sense of self-righteousness were to tell me that the right thing to do was betraying you, hmmm?” She smiled at me.

“Come on. We both know that’s impossible. I’m always in the right.” I stood up, and gave her a tight hug, before slapping her on the back. “Go on, get out of here for now. I’m going to try to get a little sleep while my brain is still working.”

I spent the next few minutes reading through my papers and case files, and was just getting into the right mood to lie down when there was a ferocious tapping on the door. “Atina!” Dean Morton’s voice cut through the door, and I groaned softly. The door opened, and he stood there, his eyes full of fire and bluster, Polly with an arm around his head, putting him in a half nelson. “Your watch-dog here has been EXTREMELY rude, and-”

“Polly, let him go. Come in, Dean, please, come in.”

The dean stumbled into the room as Polly released her choke hold, adjusting his tweed jacket with an annoyed look. “Well, I’m glad to see that you’re not holding my little test against me. How on earth did you get that much money on such short order?”

“Lucky penny. Sold it to the Strix.” I yawned, leaning forward. “Is there something else you wanted to say?”

“The Strix?” He frowned. “So you are working with them? It rather breaks the arrangement if you just went to them, you know-”

“It was all a complicated and very funny story, Dean. But I’m tired as hell, so can I tell it to you another time?”

“I’m sure. But there’s something rather important I must share with you first.” He tapped his fingers together nervously. “I’m sure that you’ve noticed the rain?” I looked over my shoulder. The rain had, if anything, grown heavier in the last hour or so. The far side of the Chenango River was nothing but a smear of white lights, barely visible through the thick rain. The cloud cover was hanging no more than a few dozen feet above the streets, lit eerily by the yellow sodium lights, giving the entire city a sickly, pallid color. I shivered slightly. It was odd. The rain had been sitting over Binghamton, pouring down water atop the city like this for nearly a day, now.

“What about it? I thought it was a fairly normal storm. A little odd for this time of year, but nothing sinister.”

“We’ve been doing some studies. The storm should’ve broken up and blown off hours ago. It was natural, but ever since it’s arrived, something has been feeding it, and making it grow. The rain is unnaturally hot, nearly ten degrees hotter than it should be for the ambient temperature, and the pressure has dropped low enough that it’s physically noticeable. I don’t know who is doing this, or why-”

The door opened, and Chaac entered the room. She looked surprised to see Dean Morton there. “Oh, I’m sorry. Am I interrupting?”

“Oh, not at all.” He smiled pleasantly, and waved her in. She took a seat in one of the other chairs, and she smiled at me, taking a piece of chicken as Dean Morton continued. “At any rate, I am concerned. It’s an unnatural gathering of power in one place, and I worry that someone may be trying to cover something up-”

“Oh, is this about the rain?” Chaac asked, looking slightly embarrassed. “That… Well, that may be my fault. I’ve been feeling rather strained during the course of the trial, as I’m sure you can imagine, and- Well, part of who I am is a goddess of rain and storms. It shouldn’t grow any worse than this- Thankfully, we’re not on the coasts where it might be a serious problem. Once the trial is over, everything should return to normal rapidly.” She sighed, giving me a long-suffering smile. “Being undead can be… Well, there are so many difficulties that come along with it. And to think that I was frightened when I had my first period.”

Dean Morton visibly deflated at the sudden explanation, and the fact that there was no dark and secret motivation behind it. “Oh.” He lowered his head, looking slightly embarrassed. “Well, at any rate- I must be off.” He stood up, and Chaac gave him a pleasant nod and smile, before turning towards me. I smiled, as she reached out and grabbed a few pieces of chicken, placing them onto one of the hamburger buns, and digging in with obvious satisfaction.

“It’s been a hell of a trial. I don’t blame you one bit for having some nerves about it. But I feel certain that everything’s going to be alright.” I gave her a smile. “And I look forward to a long, and profitable relationship with you and the other Camazotz.” Chaac was well-dressed tonight, wearing a rather fashionable jacket, and a pair of jeans. Her boots were soaked with rain, and a white undershirt was the only thing she wore beneath her jacket, a smile on her face.

“Ah, yes.” She smiled sweetly, and looked over her shoulder, where Dean Morton had left. “I must admit, I’m very impressed, Atina. You have done what I feared would be impossible. Swaying the hearts and minds of old conservative ghouls, finding the truth wherever it may be. I have one question, though. How did you find out that Hun-Came was dead?”

The world crystallized around me. My heart began to pound. I swallowed slowly, and Chaac licked her lips hungrily, watching my throat as she kept speaking. “I mean, I was so certain I had been subtle about it. Having Arthur eat the corpse, making sure there was no trace left of her body, leaving the girl unconscious…” She smiled. “So tell me. How did you realize that Hun-Came was dead?”

I cleared my throat. “She’s dead?” I asked, rather weakly. “Like… really, truly dead?”

Chaac smiled indulgently, an eyebrow raised. “Come now. You have the necromancer here, speaking with him in furtive tones. You visit the Godmother of the Notte Nostra, and return with money to bribe him. You swear that Hun-Came will be at the trial tomorrow. You…” Her eyes widened slightly. “You didn’t know.” She sighed. “Well, this is all very embarrassing. Here I am presuming that you’re an intricate chessmaster, maneuvering me, trying to spoil things, and I’m wrong. You’re just a foolish mortal with more courage than wisdom or power.” She sighed. “This is all very embarrassing. I could have just let you go on tomorrow, and make a fool of yourself in front of everyone.” She eyed me, annoyed. “But then I suppose that you still might have convinced them. You can be very persuasive. That whole ‘You can be better’ speech almost made me shed a tear.”

I twisted, and grabbed the cooler of holy water, throwing it. Chaac did not even react as it spilled open, pouring a gigantic gout of water across her, blessed by one of the holiest men in the city. She let a slow smile spread across her lips, as the water soaked through her skin. “I am the goddess of storms and rain, child. Holy water is my stock in trade. And I don’t suspect you have an obsidian knife bathed in the blood of an innocent virgin on hand.” She stood up. The door opened, and Polly stumbled in. A red mark was visible on her throat, a hickey.

“Atina, I- N- Y-” She shuddered, and then fell to the ground in a boneless heap. The soccer ball rolled out of her hands, coming to a stop against the foot of my chair. Arthur entered the room behind her, licking his lips slowly. The mummified woman followed, her bandages sodden, a foul expression on her face. And then the three Strix, Parsons, Sofia, and Donny, entered the room after. Polly shuddered, her body twisting and shaking slightly on the ground. I took a deep breath, and stood up straight.

“Well. Can I interest any of you in a sandwich? I’d hate for it to go to waste.”

 

 

Chapter 14: I Am Not Dead Yet

“Let’s just change her, now,” Donny said, hissing, his eyes narrowed. “Bitch is tricky. Just bite her, change her-” He dropped silent as Chaac turned her warm brown eyes on him, his back straightening. “Just saying. Just saying we should do this fast, before she has time to pull any shit. Don’t want her pulling any tricky shit like the last time-”

“We aren’t going to do that,” said Chaac very politely. “Not without giving her a chance.” She turned her head towards me, and smiled pleasantly. “I want Jenny.”

“And what are you going to do when you get her?” I asked, my eyes narrowed.

“Kill her. Painlessly, quickly. Send her to her ancestors.”

“Why?”

“Oh, come now. Does it really matter?” Chaac gave me another indulgent smile. “We all have our reasons for doing what we’re doing. If you refuse, I will turn you into a vampire, and use the connection. My blood will flow in your veins. I will make my way into your head, and rip the knowledge from you, puppet you. Blood magic is something of a specialty of mine, and I have had centuries to refine my craft. So, that is your reason. Do it because you will be turned into a hollow shell of a thing if you are not. I will most likely destroy you afterwards. Believe me when I tell you that will be a mercy. You would not like to know the things that you can be forced to do through the bond of blood.”

“Indulge me. Come on. The Strix’s motivation is obvious enough: Money and chaos. This whole trial was a chance for them to drive a stake in the heart of the undead community here. Cause chaos, destroy existing power structures, open up a nice city full of confused and scared undead looking for leadership. Vampire leadership. Arthur… Well, I’m guessing your motivations were simple enough in all this. Dispose of the body in a way that nobody will ever find, and the ghoul gets strong as hell.”

Arthur shrugged. “It ain’t half bad. And that vampire’s done more than enough to justify getting offed. You should’ve seen those two poor kids. Lying there, pale as ghosts. And I wouldn’t mind a bit of chicken.” He served himself a couple of chunks of the chicken, eating hungrily.

“One of those kids, you’re now planning to kill. You told me you wanted to protect innocent people, Arthur. Were you lying?”

He shrugged. “To protect people, you need power and friends. Your principles don’t do anyone a lick of good if you can’t uphold them. As I think you’re finding out now. Don’t worry, though. I don’t intend to let them kill your friends, besides Jenny. Wouldn’t be any point to it.”

“Oh yeah?” Donny asked, his eyes narrowed. “You think you’ve got much of a say in that right now-” Parsons lifted his hand, pressing it against Donny’s shoulder. The angry Strix snapped his mouth shut, glaring daggers at Arthur as the British ghoul ate.

“Yeah. I rather fancy I do. Funny thing, I’d never gotten burned by holy water before I ate that holier-than-thou bint. But I never was able to go toe to toe with an elder Strix before either.” He gave Donny and Parsons a grin. “Wouldn’t mind the chance to do it. But let’s take care of business before we start going all implode-y, shall we?”

“Yes, quite,” said Chaac, sighing. “My reasons are my own, Atina. And I will be extremely sorry if I have to take extreme measures with you-”

“The Sunrise Motel. About five miles north of Binghamton, room 32.” I spoke very quickly. “They’ll be there in a few minutes. I-” I shuddered as the mummy grabbed my hand, and pulled my face close to hers. She took a deep breath, and wrinkled her nose.

“Lies.”

Chaac sighed. “Well, that’s a great disappointment. I don’t suppose that I could tempt you with money?”

“Well, it would violate my legal ethics.” I smiled pleasantly. “I’m sure you understand.” Then I looked aside at the mummy. “You can smell lies? That’s completely unfair.” She gave me a yellow-toothed grin, and shrugged. “You know you’re not going to get away with this. Dean Morton’s seen you, your guards were on watch, there’s going to be no question about who did this.”

Chaac smiled. “There is not meant to be a question. It’s true, I would have preferred Jenny to die by execution, by misstep, by some method that would leave few lingering suspicions. But I did not hold back because I feared the consequences to myself.” She laughed softly. “You have seen it, haven’t you, Atina? Only two things in this world hold back someone with power. Someone with greater power, and morality. Arthur learned that lesson well. You have, too. You make friends with powerful creatures, and seek powerful allies. You make them owe you, and you allow yourself to owe them, to make a place for yourself.” She sighed softly. “I would really prefer you as a friend to an enemy.”

“Go fuck yourself.”

“What makes you so determined? What gives you such certainty? What crime did you commit, Atina, that your own life seems like a worthy price to pay for another’s? You will die, and there will be not even enough left of you to be a ghost. You will be forgotten, forever. What on earth could you have done that you think you deserve that?” She stared into my eyes for a long few seconds. Then, she made a soft, satisfied noise. “Ah, of course. I know that crime well. I’ve seen it so many times. You were born, you survived, you were given what others weren’t. You have spent all of your life knowing that you were given a chance others would have killed for, and by living, you wasted all the good that they could do.” She sighed softly. “Well, I can respect that. And I wouldn’t dishonor you by offering you another chance.”

“Bastards,” hissed Polly from the ground. Her body was twitching, as she shuddered. “Fecking bastards. Feckin’ arse-lickin’ cock-suckin’ jizz-rag bastards!”

Arthur turned, an eyebrow raised. “Jesus. I gave her a dose that should’ve been enough to put out a horse for a week.” Polly’s red hair burned like fire, beginning to sway and move.

“I promised her. I feckin’ promised her!” Tears were running down her cheeks. “I’ll find ye. I don’t care how strong you are. I’ll find every last one of ye and kill ye! I’ll rip your throats out with my teeth! I’m gonna fuckin’ kill you for this! I promised I’d keep her safe-” She let out a sharp cry as Parsons grabbed her by the hair, tugging her head up, nails going to her throat. He stopped, as Arthur grabbed his wrist.

“You do it, mate, I’ll rip off your limbs and feed them to you.”

“What the shit do you care about her?” whined Donny. “She’s just some fuckin’ Fae bitch, you’re not gonna fuck her.” The mummy turned, striding towards the two of them, as Chaac let out a groan of annoyance, turning to face them.

I am not a good fighter. I’m just outclassed compared to most of the supernatural world. But physics is still my friend. I crouched down, and grabbed the soccer ball. It was heavy as hell, and my stomach protested as I stood up. I should’ve been lifting with my legs, but I wasn’t thinking properly. I turned, and spun, letting the ball fly with all of the force I could summon. It soared through the air glacially, with a lazy unstoppability. The window of my office made a valiant and hopeless effort to stop it, and broken glass fell to the ground. As the undead turned, shocked, I threw myself out, pulling my arms in tight around my body.

Thankfully, my office is on the second floor, and right above some bushes.

I pulled myself out of the tangle of branches and needles, scraped and bruised, but with nothing broken. My jacket pulled off as I ran through the rain, and I let it go. My bicycle sat against the lamp post outside, the chain lock around it. I fumbled with the combination lock, grateful as hell that I’d cheaped out and neglected to get a proper U lock with a key. My fingers were numb as I struggled with the letters, spelling out BAAL. They shivered uncontrollably as I heard a thump behind me. I got the lock off, and threw it up and around my neck. It stung as it stuck there, but it was the closest thing I had to a weapon. I threw myself on top of the bike, and began to pedal.

Bicycles are an amazing invention. Functionally, they’re a way of efficiently converting as much muscle power into forward speed as possible. People have briefly sustained paces of 200 miles per hour, on extremely high-end custom bicycles after being towed up to speed and in ideal situations. My situation was far from ideal. I was bicycling through the rain, furiously blinking it out of my eyes as I made for the bridge, bone-tired and fingers freezing in the rain. There were several dozen churches in Binghamton, and I knew of exactly one of those churches that was open at this time of night. The trick now was getting to it before I was run down. I pumped my legs, trying to keep the bicycle going straight across the rain-slicked asphalt.

The late night and the rain were working for me, in at least one sense; There was no one else on the roads. I was the only damn fool speeding along. The icy rain whipped at my hands, and I couldn’t do anything to protect them as I peddled. I hit the bridge across the Chenango, and flew across at a frankly dangerous speed, trying to keep the handlebars straight to avoid sending myself into a spin. Then the lightning struck.

The entire sky split open, and a blinding light filled the air. I saw the purple-white aftermath of a lightning bolt across my retinas, and a crack-boom that nearly shook me off of the bike. I blinked, and the street lights flared bright. Then, they began to shatter, one after another, raining glass down onto the street, and filling the air with the sound of ringing, muffled by the continuous pounding of the rain. And the world went utterly dark.

I was back studying for the bar, bicycling through the perfect darkness. No flashlight, no idea of where I was. My heart lurched, as I heard the sudden snap-pop of the tire deflating. Maybe a piece of glass, maybe just a bad bump. The bicycle lurched, and I barely managed to keep it in control as it skidded wildly. My muscles froze instinctively, trying to keep myself on an even keel as it skidded in wider fishtails. Then I was dumped out on my side, and rolled across the rain and the broken glass. I cursed myself for not wearing a bicycle helmet, and tried to force myself to stand up. My entire body hurt, and I waited for the numbness. The sign that I’d broken my spine, that I’d destroyed my legs, that I’d killed myself in my rush. That I was helpless.

“This is how the Camazotz took their victims,” said Chaac. The adrenaline rush forced me to my feet. No broken bones, nothing obvious anyway. A lot of pain, a lot of fear, but I was still standing. I squared off against her in the terribly dim light, then noticed she wasn’t lunging for me. “They would choose a village, somewhere that had displeased them, that had earned its fate. They would come to that village, and announced that they would kill every human in the village. Then they would sweep out. Driving men, women, and children from their homes, and executing them where they stood. Draining every last drop of blood from their bodies. They would find those who hid. They would slaughter those who fought. The only ones who survived were those who ran. The longer they ran, the longer they survived. And sooner or later, there would be only one runner left. And then they’d die, too. And the only one who’d be given the second chance was that last runner.”

I took a clumsy swing at her, and she sidestepped it without apparently noticing it. “Those who fought died. Those who hid died. It was only those who ran. Run, you stupid bitch. Give me a reason to let you survive the night. Give me an excuse to fail. Just keep running!”

I squared up for another punch. Then the shriek filled the air. It was high, and shrill, harsh enough to etch glass. It came from across the bridge. I turned to look at Chaac again, and then ran, leaving my poor stricken bike there in the rain where it would rust and die just like me. My legs ached and tingled, my ribs hurt like hell. I ran as hard as I could through the night. In the darkness and the rain, I could barely see where I was going. I just managed to avoid putting my foot in a pothole and twisting my ankle clean off. My heart pounded, adrenaline trying with limited success to do the work of years of training.

I was faster running than I would have been without the bicycling, but it was a very different way of moving. My shoes slipped on the slick ground, and I tried to avoid losing my footing as I hit a patch of grass, sliding wildly, my arms windmilling. I thought of the sensation of being half-asleep, my eyes closed, imagining myself walking along. That feeling when I tripped, or fell, or something happened, and I hit the ground, and it jerked me clean out of sleep. I wished that would happen. I wished this was all a bad dream, the stress of the case giving me nightmares. I slipped, and struck the ground.

It wasn’t a dream. Cold rainwater washed across the scrapes on my face. I forced myself up again. I heard a shriek behind me, warbling strangely. I looked around wildly. Where was I? Had I passed the church? Was it still there? I ran towards one of the nearby buildings, and grabbed for the door, yanking it open, pulling myself into the dark interior, my heart pounding. Those who hid died. I couldn’t stay here. I had to find sanctuary. I had to get through to the other side of the building, take a moment to figure out where I was going, and run. I blinked the rain out of my eyes. A pair of candles had been set up, burning intimately on the counter of a restaurant. My eyes flickered up to the menu above the counter. Shark Belly’s menu. I was just across from the church. I was less than fifty feet from its door. I was home free-

“Miss Le- I mean, Atina?”

The bathroom door had opened. Roy stood there, in his silly looking uniform, his eyes wide, as he stared at me. “Oh my god, Atina, what happened? I’ll go get the first aid kit, I-”

“Roy! Look, I need to go, I-”

The door jingled, and the sound of rain briefly filled the room. Donny stood there, a grin on his face, a nine-millimeter semi-automatic in his hand. “Well, well, Miss LeRoux.” The black metal of the gun occupied my entire world as he stared at me, particularly the silencer screwed to the tip. I put my hands up, feeling my heart run cold. Then I heard a crash from behind me, and the cold feeling got worse. I turned around.

“J-Just step aside, Atina.” Roy stood, the old pump-action shotgun in his hands, leveled shakily at the man. “I don’t want to hurt you none, sir. Just put that gun down. Y-you can have what you w-want from the register, just don’t do anything-”

The nine-millimeter barked, and Roy dropped without a sound. There was the clatter of the shotgun rolling across the ground, but it didn’t go off. The damn thing probably hadn’t even been loaded. I felt my heart drop into my stomach, and my guts churn. I turned slowly, shakily, the world spinning around me. “Why? Why did- Why?”

He snorted. “What the fuck do you care? What was the guy, your boyfriend or something?” He stared at me, and then a grin spread across his face. “Hah! He was, wasn’t he? Holy shit, you must feel like a fucking idiot.”

In moments of extreme emotion, a human being is capable of some pretty incredible things. I, for example, hit Donny in his mid-section with a spear-tackle. My arms wrapped around him, and my face buried itself in his chest. He smelled of bad cologne and gunsmoke. He brought the butt of his gun down on my back, hard. I didn’t even notice it as I lifted him into the air, and through the glass door. He landed on his back and shoulders, hard. I came down on top of him, screaming incoherently.

The rain poured down around us and I punched him in the face. I felt a little better, so I did it again. My knuckles popped and crackled as I hammered him with both hands, driving my fists into his smirking bastard face mercilessly. Blood was flowing down his cheeks, but it was from my own knuckles. I kept punching, until someone grabbed me with an irresistible strength, and yanked me off of Donny. I was dragged back into the restaurant by Parsons, trying to claw at him. He shrugged the blows off with maddening ease. “Ah, come on, I had her,” said Donny.

“I don’t care. We’re trying to avoid maiming her, remember?” Parsons frowned as he dragged me towards one of the booths, shoving me down. All of the strength left me in a rush, my arms hanging limply by my sides. I could see Roy’s arm from where I sat, outstretched from behind the counter. It was the only part of him I could see. The tears began to replace the rain on my cheeks, my wet hair plastered to my head, as I let out a choking little sob. “Ugh. You murdered some civilian?”

“Hey, he pointed a shotgun at me. Self defense.” Donny gave a smirk. “Dude was asking for it, anyway. ‘P-P-Put the gun d-d-down.’” He laughed again.

“You can’t just do this,” I whispered. “You’re not going to get away with this.”

“Oh good god, shut your fucking mouth,” groaned Sofia as she stepped into the room. “Of course we’re going to get away with this. We have power, you stupid cunt. We’re better than you. We’re strong because of what we are.” She smiled. “The only thing that matters in this world is the power you have. You understand that? All of your ideals, all of your fancy laws, they don’t mean jack shit to us, because we’re powerful. You’re the mouse, telling the cat that we can all get along, and that nobody has to kill anybody. Why the fuck would the cat listen?”

“You’re not predators, you stupid… owl,” I managed. My head was pounding, throbbing. “You’re leeches. Parasites. You’re fucking nothing.” Sofia’s eyes widened, and Parsons grabbed her shoulder as she advanced.

“She’s trying to piss you off. Keep it together. We need her alive- Ah.”

The door swung open. Arthur entered, and his eyes flickered from me, to Donny, and to the arm hanging out from behind the counter. “You stupid son of a bitch,” he growled. “I’m going to straight murder you for that one when we’re done with this. Y’understand me? The moment this is done, I’m going to rip your eyes out and shove them up your ass so you can watch me kick the shit out of you.”

“What, didn’t you think this would happen?” I asked Arthur, laughing a little bit hysterically. “You were part of this whole damn thing! You wanted power, and that’s the price! You’re the-”

“Oh, don’t give me that, lady,” he growled. “If I’d been the one here, instead of you, that boy’d still be alive.” I went very silent. And then I just buried my face in my hands, and began to sob softly.

“It’s hard, isn’t it? Finding out that there’s no justice in the world, no law worth listening to.” Chaac sat across from me, and I nearly jumped out of the seat. “I’m going to try to persuade you, one more time.”

“Go fuck yourself,” I hissed, my nails digging into my palm. I was so numb I couldn’t feel it, though whether from shock, cold, or simple overload, I couldn’t tell.

“I started all of this because I wanted justice. When I was just a child, the Camazotz slaughtered my home. The Mayan priesthood demanded blood for blood, a punishment for the attacks of warriors from a city we’d never seen. They came to my village, and made an example of us. And they took me as the ultimate insult. They sucked the life out of me, and I woke up before the general who had been responsible for the attack. They made me drink his blood, sucking the life out of him. They made a killer out of me.” She took a deep breath. “They were a foul race, and I will see them wiped out.”

“Why the hell are you so interested in killing Jenny, then? She’s not Mayan. She’s not a Camazotz, and if Hun-Came is dead, she never will be, now.”

“It’s true. The blood needed to bring Hun-Came back to this world, long enough to recognize Jenny? It flows only in my veins. But even if it’s not awakened, Jenny holds Hun-Came’s bloodline. One of the last links that the Camazotz have to this world.”

I frowned. Then my eyes widened. “The bloodlines. The ghosts-”

“When the last Camazotz fades from this earth, every Camazotz will be gone. They will be forgotten, cast into oblivion, forever.” She canted her head to the side. “I fancy I can hear them, sometimes. When Hun-Came is wroth, she speaks to me, curses me, calls me a traitor. But I was never hers to begin with.” She stared into my eyes. “When Jenny is dead, I will be the last link left to the Camazotz. There are, I will confess, some side-benefits. As the last true Camazotz, I have become powerful. Perhaps as powerful as Hun-Came was, even. There is strength in being the last of something. Not to mention protection. When I die, the Camazotz die with me. That is a powerful threat to hold over those who would otherwise seek to kill me.” She smiled. “But what really mattered is the revenge.”

“You’re killing an innocent person, just to get revenge. That makes you no better-”

“I am not concerned with being better,” Chaac said, though her eyes were turned away from me. “I am concerned with vengeance. There is no justice in this world, Atina. No divine law. No right, no wrong. There is only power, and belief. I chose to do this without killing innocents, if I was capable of it. But given the choice between failure and violating that belief, I would choose success. This is the only goal I have.”

“Why? Why all of this now?”

She gave me a little smile. “What, haven’t you heard? The world is coming to an end. Now is the time for the telling of secrets, and revenge. There isn’t much time left.”

I took a deep breath. “What’s coming?”

“Oh, who knows? All I know is that it is inevitable.” She smiled pleasantly. “You know my reason. You know my motivations. I want Jenny, and I do not want to kill you, or Alfred, or Polly. I want all three of you alive, if I can manage it. You are good people. I can appreciate that. And I suspect that you are too canny to allow genocide just for the sake of revenge. You are, after all, a better person than I am.”

“I hope you die.”

She sighed. “That’s the thing, isn’t it? All you can do is hope. There is nothing else within your power. Justice only has a meaning when it’s enforced by power. Law is dead. There is only chaos.”

A low, rich laugh began to fill the air. Rich, basso profundo, rumbling and filling the air. The sound of it slowly grew. Chaac, Arthur, the three Strix, and the mummy, all of them turned, frowning. It wasn’t coming from any of them. I looked at the counter. Roy’s arm wasn’t visible anymore.

Slowly, the young man stood up, his eyes closed. There was no hint of injury, no cut, no mark. “Law is dead. How many years, almighty Lord? How many years have I been waiting to hear that joyous news?” His eyes slowly opened. They were perfectly normal, and that scared the shit out of me. He tilted his head to the side, and there was a slow crackle that filled the air like a log burning in a hearth. The lights flickered back to life, bright and actinic, throwing the room into sharp relief. “There is only chaos.”

“Whatever you are, you should’ve stayed down, motherf-” Donny raised his gun to fire. Roy’s arm moved in a blur, and the cash register ripped free of the counter, striking Donny. The vampire was left hanging from the far wall, cracks radiating out along the wall. He hung limply, the nine-millimeter pistol dropping out of his fingers and onto the ground. The register was embedded where his chest had once been, pinning him like a butterfly.

Chaac stood, her eyes arrogant and cold as she reached into her jacket, and drew out her axe. “What are you?”

“I? I am the First, the Last, and the Only. I am not dead yet.” His voice sounded the same, but there must have been something, some terrible subharmonic in it, which dragged nails across my spine, filling me with a primal terror. He turned his head slowly, lazily towards me, and a smile spread across his lips, cruel and arrogant like I had never seen on Roy’s kind face. “And that woman is Mine.”

 

 

Chapter 15: Up Shit Creek Without A Boat

The room was frozen for a long moment while Roy let his eyes lazily roll across the undead. “Well? You have come into My city. You have sought chaos. You have menaced My woman. And now I find you planning to do harm to her. Did you think that wise?”

Parsons darted forward, fast, and leapt to the far side of the counter. He raked with one of his open-palmed strikes. There was a shriek like metal on metal, as the gutting strike tore across Roy’s belly. I watched in stunned horror as the clothing shredded beneath the strike, parting like ice under a blowtorch. Then the scraps fell still, revealing unmarred skin. Roy yawned theatrically, holding a hand over his mouth. Parsons went for another strike, aimed at his face, and Roy’s arm blurred.

I saw two momentary snapshots in a blur of movement. In one, his extended fingers were buried two inches into Parson’s windpipe, his arm extended out. In the second, Roy had closed the distance, and lifted his elbow bringing it in a merciless arc into Parson’s chin. The vampire was sent in a cartwheeling spin sideways, and landed hard on the counter, arms spread out, spread-eagled, gasping and choking helplessly. I waited for him to leap back into action, to cut Roy down and doom my only chance of survival. It didn’t happen. The Strix just kept gasping and choking for air, grabbing at his collapsed throat. Roy sighed softly.

“See, that was very rude. I asked a perfectly polite question, and he tries to attack me. Is it any wonder that the Strix are considered the feral dogs of the vampire world?” He smirked, turning his shining white teeth towards Sofia. She took a step back, her spine straightening defiantly even as her eyes widened in agitation. “That gunshot probably sent someone scrambling for the police. Even on a night like this, that doesn’t give me long.” He sighed, and let his eyes run across the vampires, the ghouls, the mummy. His eyes fixed on the bandage-wrapped woman, and he stepped forward. “I could kill everyone in this city, everyone in this country, in the next twenty-four hours, if I felt like it.”

Her eyes slowly widened. She took a step back, and then another. Then she turned and ran for the door. He didn’t move to stop her as he turned towards the rest. Parsons was pulling himself to his feet. Chaac let the flint axe dangle from one hand, slowly twirling it between her fingers, her chest rising and falling as she breathed hard. Arthur was squaring up his shoulders for a boxing stance. “You are strong,” Chaac said, her eyes narrowed. “But I am a goddess.”

“No, you aren’t,” said Roy simply. “You are a bloodsucking leech that has grown fat off humans. You are a parasite. You are a little thing, of no real substance and no real power. You have dreamed yourself for decades, for centuries, to be a goddess. But no matter how many times you repeat the lie, it just won’t become true, will it?” He smirked. “In a state of nature, the strong survive. In a state of nature, it is a war of all against all. You thought that you were the strongest, and that entering a state of nature would remove the last of your obstacles. But you’re nothing but a parasite on this society. You grow strong because people like My woman allow you to run roughshod over them. You dream that in the wilderness, off the edge of the maps, you will rule.” His laughter rung out through the room, filling the air, making my whole body shiver violently. “But here be Dragons.”

“Dragons?” Chaac snorted. “Foolish reptiles. The chaos in the world has gone away. Their power faded, until they were nothing more than lizards. You don’t frighten me.” He turned his eyes towards her, and she took a single sharp breath.

“Oh, yes. My children. All of My children, so brave and bold, full of so much fierce pride. They all died at the hands of heroes, didn’t they? Over those countless thousands of years. Until only I remained. I was the first Dragon. I will be the last Dragon. I am the only Dragon.” He raised his hands into the air, a smile spreading across his face. “The Almighty God made Me as a lesson to all, that none were greater than he. And so, he made Me greater than all save him. To stand against Me is hubris of the highest order. But I do so adore the short memories of men. Your maker, Hun-Came, might have known enough to not draw My ire. But you, it seems, are in need of a lesson.” He chuckled. It was not a very nice sound.

“You don’t look that big to me,” Arthur said, his eyes narrowed, his shoulders squared. “Roquette can smell lies, but stupid or crazy isn’t the same thing as a lie, is it?” He cracked his knuckles. Roy just smiled.

“I should be thanking you, really. It’s been so long since I’ve been able to stretch My legs. So long since I’ve had a fight worth having. Let’s make a wager of it, shall we?” He tapped his finger against his lips, and smiled toothily. “Oh, I know. The fate of the world, how about? You fight Me. If you can survive, let us say, five minutes, I will surrender, the world shall be spared, and you may continue with your plans.” He grinned toothily. “If I crush you, then I will rise. The world will plunge into chaos, and I shall become its ruler. I shall make war on God, and take you as My slaves, a reminder forever of My power. You shall spend the rest of eternity beneath My heel.” He smiled wide, and my heart sank.

He wasn’t here to protect me. He wasn’t a savior, a glorious knight, the thing I’d dreamed of since I’d been young. He was something old, horribly powerful and cruel. I felt my throat tightening, terribly aware of the cold chain around my throat as I clutched at it. It was everything I’d feared. And suddenly I was caught between a rock and a hard place. He turned his head towards me, and let out a growl. “Stay away,” I whispered.

He ignored me, stepping closer, his eyes twinkling with dark amusement. “Oh, now, now, Atina. You don’t think I’d hurt you, do you? I would never break a toy as amusing you. Watching you struggle and spin, trying to make the world a better place was just so amusing. But now, your game’s over. The law is dead, after all.” He took the bicycle chain from around my throat and wrapped it around my wrists, fingers tightening. Links shifted and fused under his touch like clay, turning it into a pair of manacles. He bound my arms around the table, keeping me trapped there. Then, he reached into my pocket, smiling as he withdrew my phone, and started the stopwatch app. He set it for five minutes, and put it down on the table. Satisfied, he turned towards the others and swaggered back into the middle of the room. “Well? We don’t have all day.”

Arthur made the first move. He took three steps forward. With each step, a rush of power surrounded him, darkness flowing out of his pores. It was almost like ink, diffusing through water, turning the air around him black as he wound up for the blow. There was a strange, intense sense of suction, as though he was becoming a neutron star. I could feel my hair begin to blow in the still air of the restaurant, pulled towards him. The punch was utterly telegraphed, and could’ve been dodged with ease. But Roy just let him throw the punch, a black fist striking his cheek with enough force to break the tiles beneath their feet, shattering the linoleum.

Roy stood, an unimpressed look on his face, his cheek slightly deformed around the knuckles, but otherwise apparently unharmed. His leg lifted into the air, and whipped into Arthur’s gut in a lazy arc. The blow sent the ghoul into one of the booths, reducing it to a heap of scattered, shattered pieces of wood. “Borrowed power, eaten from something that still couldn’t have stood against me. Impressive for what you are, but what you are is nothing.” He sighed softly as Arthur pulled himself out of the wreckage, standing unsteadily. “Stamina, too, but that will never be enough against me.”

Parsons and Donny had pulled themselves to their feet, recovering, barely, from the blows. They squared up, Parsons and Donny in front, Sofia behind the two of them. She had her hands up, whispering something under her breath. I turned my head, and saw Chaac, standing back. Her eyes were closed. The dust around her feet was rising, slowly, being pulled into a circle around her, but Roy’s attention was caught on the three Strix. I briefly considered yelling a warning, before I remembered what was happening. It wasn’t Roy. It had never been the Roy I’d known. It was a monster, and if Chaac lost, the consequences would be far greater than me, or Jenny.

Parsons and Donny dashed forward. Roy’s stance shifted, his foot coming up as they lunged at him. He struck them both in the space of a heartbeat, his heel sinking into their sternums, sending the two of them falling back, their chests caved in unpleasantly. He approached Sofia, just as she breathed out. A black fog erupted from her lips, rushing at Roy. The cloud swirled into his face, and into his nostrils. He took a deep breath, and growled. Black smoke curled up from the edges of his mouth. “Trying to break My mind, corrupt Me, drive Me mad?” He chuckled. “You might as well have tried to burn me with a candle flame.”

He breathed out. A tremendous gout of black smoke filled the air, and ran over Sofia, obscuring her for a moment. When it passed, she lay on the ground, twitching and sobbing, her eyes fixed sightlessly on the ceiling. He snorted with laughter, and then turned. His eyes widened as he saw what Chaac was doing. “Oh, you little-”

There was an explosion of sound. The wind erupted out of Chaac like a miniature tornado, swirling and tearing at the fixtures. The windows shattered, and then the top of the building was torn off, thrown high into the sky, disappearing into the clouds. The only thing keeping me from being thrown with it were the manacles biting into the flesh of my wrists, my body lifted off the ground by the force of the wind. “You’ll need more than that!” shouted Roy, laughing wildly into the teeth of the gale. He stood, hair blown back by the wind, nearly rocked off his heels. Then he leaned forward into it, and began to slowly approach Chaac. Her eyes widened, as she raised the axe into the air. Every hair on my body stood on end as Roy reached out towards her.

The lightning bolt before had been nothing compared to this. I saw a purple flash, and a brief silhouette of Roy, his back arched, surrounded by a corona of light. Then I closed my eyes, though the fierce light still pierced my eyelids. The boom nearly deafened me, shaking the entire restaurant. There were several seconds of sensory deprivation, my ears ringing, my eyes watering. The first hint of sensation was the slow fall of rain, pattering against my skin, cold as ice. I slowly opened my eyes, and let the world swim back into focus.

Roy stood, his hand around the haft of the axe, a smile on his face, his eyes closed. All of the clothing had been burned off of him, no sign of it left. He himself was unharmed, standing lean and rangy, apparently completely at ease with his own nudity. His eyes opened, and I could see them from here. They were slitted like a snake’s, and bright yellow. “You did good, there, Chaac. Actually made me put a little effort into it.” He squeezed tight, and the axe’s haft snapped between his fingers. “You really care about this, I can tell. You want to save the world. For all your blood and vengeance, you’ve got a little core of a hero in you.” She lashed out, a knife-hand blow aimed right for his carotid. He slapped it away with careless ease. “I fucking hate heroes.”

His fists blurred in the rain, leaving little trails as he struck her. Throat, stomach, cheek, shoulders. He landed blows with merciless power, and Chaac fell gasping to her knees, her whole body writhing. Scales were visible across her skin, her teeth unnaturally elongated. She glistened in the water. “This-” She choked a bit, trying to gather her words. “You can’t- be beating me. This can’t be right. I’m right! I’m strong! I’m a goddess!” she howled into the storm, and the storm howled along with her.

He struck her hard across the forehead with one brutal blow, and the storm went quiet. The rain began to slacken, as he looked around the room. “I remember the old days. I remember when men and gods walked side by side. When the monsters in the night were true monsters. I remember when it was power, and wrath, and majesty. I remember when the people were worth a shit.” He sighed softly. “What happened to the world? How’d it fall so far into disrepair and degradation? What happened to the majesty, the glory?” He chuckled. “Well, don’t fret. I’ll make this world great again. I’ll change this world. I’ll make it right.” He laughed, and his laugh became a roar as he threw his head back.

“This isn’t your goddamn world!” Arthur stood up, his fists up, his eyes narrowed in anger. “You think you’re some kind of karma, do you? Divine wrath for the things that have been done wrong?! Well to shit with that! You’re nothing but a monster, mate, and I may have done a lot of awful things in my life, but it was for this!” He lunged, grabbing Roy, dragging the man around. The ghoul did something complicated looking with his hands, drawing Roy’s arms behind his back, and forcing the dragon down to his knees as Chaac pulled herself to her feet. She raised her fist, and brought it down on Roy’s skull with piledriver force. Parsons and Donny were there in a flash, joining, the three of them beating Roy, over and over again, as his head bobbed back and forth.

Then the phone, still on the table, rang. Ten seconds were left on the stopwatch. Roy looked up, and smiled. With an effortless flexing of his shoulders, he broke out of the hold. He sprung up, his hands blurring. Chaac, Donny, and Parsons fell to earth, wooden chunks from the wreckage of the booths sprouting from their chests as they fell. Then he turned, and punched through Arthur. His fist emerged from the middle of the ghoul’s back, and the ghoul fell to the ground, gasping and sputtering, screaming, his lower body twitching as he collapsed to the ground, legs splayed. Roy stood up, his right hand bloody, and looked around the shattered restaurant. The phone rang, and he sighed. “This is what it feels like. When you believe that you are powerful and righteous, and find that none of it matters.” He smiled.

“Fuck you,” choked out Arthur, shaking on the ground. “You bastard, someone’ll kill you. Someone’ll beat you.”

Roy sighed, rolling his eyes. “There’s only one being capable of that, and He doesn’t seem to care anymore.” Arthur’s eyes closed, and Roy turned towards me. “And as for you.” He grinned, teeth wide. “I think I shall teach a lesson to them. It’s a shame to kill that which is Mine, but sometimes, the herd must be culled. So which of these shall I kill?” He waved his hand across the fallen forms. “Of those who I have claimed tonight, which one will I kill to show what happens when what is Mine is threatened?”

I stared. My eyes flickered down to the bodies. They were still alive- or at least undead. My heart pounded. “Please, don’t kill them.”

“Oh, that’s not the way it works. You get to choose from the options I give you. Come now. Make up your mind, quick. Who shall I kill tonight? If you don’t make a decision, well, I’ll simply have to kill all of them.” He grinned at me, all razor white teeth and serpents eyes and mad, cruel arrogance. He would kill them. He’d make me decide, and whoever I chose…

I remembered Roy. How kind he’d been. How sweet. How gentle, and how warm. How pleasant. How he’d cared, how he’d encouraged me. How he’d given me hope. I’d thought he was someone good, a bit slow, but ultimately a moral person. I remembered the taste of molasses and apples and everything being right with the world. And now he stood there, like a mad god, hands covered in blood, asking me to choose who I’d have killed.

“Why don’t you just kill me,” I whispered.

His eyes narrowed. “I-”

“You asked, which of the ones you’ve claimed tonight. You said I’m yours. Then kill me.” I leaned my head down. I was so goddamn tired. I was tired of being powerless, and of fighting, and putting everything on the line. “It means saving one of them, right?”

He tightened his fist. “A martyr till the end.” He bent forward, and plucked the stakes out of the chests of the three vampires. They gasped, moving again, gone from corpses to people with the simple removal of a piece of wood. They scrambled to their feet, their clothes sodden. “Go. Take the crippled one and the mad one with you. If you are still here by the time I open My eyes, I will kill every one of you. And remember this: The only reason that you are alive now is because of her.” He pointed towards me. “And should any of you ever believe you can stand against me or molest that which is Mine, then I will not show this mercy again. I will end you, and your families, and everyone you have ever touched. I shall scorch this earth clean of any sign that you have ever existed.” He grinned. “And I will enjoy doing it.”

They stared at him for a moment. “Now!” he bellowed. Chaac grabbed Arthur, pulling him over her shoulders, and beat a hasty retreat. Donny and Parsons grabbed their sister, and ran. They disappeared into the night, the loose mist of rain swallowing them up. Roy took a deep breath, and turned towards me.

“Was it all a game?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Because I wanted to hurt you. Because you believed in law and justice and I thought that was funny. Because you thought you were a noble protector of freedom, when you were nothing but a powerless joke. You offend Me by your very existence, and I thought it would be fun to break you, to watch you suffer.” He lifted his hand, and I flinched, closing my eyes. There was a dull, metallic clunk. I opened my eyes to find the chains shattering, falling apart around his closed fist. He stood up straight, and sneered at me. “You disgust me. Go. I have no interest in a world with such pathetic things in it. You disappoint me on every level, Atina LeRoux. You sicken me.”

I slowly stood up, shaking. Self-loathing poured into my guts, and found something else had already taken residence there. “That’s a lie,” I whispered.

“It’s not. You are pathetic, unable to even protect yourself, unable to even take vengeance. Unable to-”

“No, I mean- You just broke those five, without even trying. I should’ve been killed half a dozen times in the fight. The debris, the violence, the lightning, I should be burned-” I looked down at the chains, and my eyes widened. “You-”

“You are Mine!” he roared, his eyes flashing. “I will decide when you die! I will decide when you are harmed! Not you!”

“You protect-”

“No! I do not protect! I claim, I dominate, I conquer, I do not protect! What is Mine is Mine, and I do not care if it is harmed, save for the insult that it gives My name! I am a Dragon! I am the king of this world, and I do not care a whit for the well-being of its inhabitants!”

I stared at him. “You’re trying to drive me away.”

“Yes! And I will kill you if you do not go!” He drew his arm back. “You saw what I can do! I can remove your head! I can kill you where you stand! It would not even be an effort!” He swung, and I didn’t flinch. His hand stopped, an inch from my face, knuckles white. I swayed in the wind from the pulled punch, and his face filled with rage. “Damn you!”

“Why did you protect me?”

“A lark! Amusement! A starfish, thrown back into the ocean! Nothing more!” He turned his back on me, arms crossing, every tendon standing out against his skin.

“Why are you trying to push me away?!” I asked, letting the anger break through. “You were kind to me! You gave me hope, you made me feel like I was doing something worthwhile for once, you saved me from them, you fought for me, you protected me! Why are you acting like this-”

“Because you will kill Me!” My stomach went cold, and I rocked back on my feet.

“What?”

He turned towards me, his expression grim. “I am a being of chaos. I am Chaos itself. Uncontrolled, bowing to none but God. The most ancient of demons. Pride itself. I will not allow you to chain me! I see the pattern you weave in the world, Atina LeRoux! You make slaves of the supernatural! You bind us in chains of obligation and mutual trust! You use love and caring to turn others into weapons! You will not collar Me! Do you understand me?! I am not a beast of the field, I am not something that you can ever control! I am the Wrath and the Lust and the Envy and the Greed! I am that from which all Sin originates, and-”

I stepped forward, and my arms went around him, my face pressing against his forehead. He stiffened, his breath drawing in. “I don’t want to kill you. I don’t want to enslave you. I just want you to be the same man who I knew.”

“I was never that man,” he snarled, pulling away from my arms. It was the first time I’d seen him take a step back. “It was a game. A diversion. One that is now over. Do you understand why Dragons die? Why all the Dragons died? It was because of heroes. Because of love! Because humans make us believe things, and make us see something in this world that is worth more than our own lives, and when that happens, we’re doomed! Because when we find something worth dying for, we do!” He growled. “A pox on love. A pox on what you humans make of us. A pox on you, Atina LeRoux, for showing compassion to the lowest and for fighting when others would give up and all of your filthy ragged human virtues! Did you ever once consider what your goodness would wreak?”

“You could do good,” I said softly.

“Exactly! And it would drag me into your battles! And I would die for the sake of your justice!”

I looked down. “I couldn’t ask that of you.”

“Again! You stupid, stupid-” He turned, roaring, and struck one of the remaining walls. It crumbled, rubble falling to the ground as dust was thrown into the wet air. “I am going. I will be back when you have died, when this place is safe for Me again. Unless. Unless.” He turned towards me again, his eyes hungry. “Make a pact with Me.”

“What?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.

“You heard Me! Sell Me your soul. Make a bargain with Me. I shall give you power, then, and you shall be Mine. You shall be My thing. You shall belong to Me, forever.”

“I thought I was already yours,” I said, voice as dry as my clothes were soaked. He hissed and threw his arms up.

“It doesn’t work that way! It doesn’t mean anything to force you! I know you, Atina! You will claim duress, that you were forced by circumstance to admit that! You don’t feel any loyalty! You will not give up simply because you were outmaneuvered!”

“You mean that love doesn’t mean anything to you if it’s not reciprocated?” I asked, with a quirk of my lips

“Hrah!” He kicked out petulantly, carving a gouge in the concrete. “No! Don’t twist my words! You will be Mine! Or I will leave forever! Flee this place! Disappear! Let the world grind to ruin! I…” He rubbed his face, and I realized tears were running down his cheeks. “I don’t want to die. I’m the only one of My kind left. When I die, they’ll all be gone. We’ll just be bones in the ground. I can’t die for you. I can’t be yours.”

“I don’t want you to die either.” I took a deep breath. “I’ll do you one better. You stay here. Stay close to me. And I promise, I will never ask you to save me again. I will never ask you to stand in the way of my enemies, I will never ask you to fight my battles. You know me.” I smiled. “I’d probably rather let myself die than beg for help from you.”

“How can I trust you?” he asked, his voice soft, his eyes refusing to meet mine.

“If I betrayed you… Well, I wouldn’t be the woman you loved, right?” He flinched at the words, as someone might from a physical blow. “Don’t try to lie to me. You’re terrible at it. I can’t believe you…” I sniffed, rubbing my nose. “The Half-Faced Man. He said you were… unremarkable. That you weren’t a monster.” I could see the possessive anger in Roy’s eyes. The jealousy. The desire. I had seen it before, I just had never seen it in someone who was thinking about me.

“That halfbreed does not know everything.”

I swallowed. “I’ve been hearing… I’ve been hearing a lot of things about the end of the world. That things are on the verge of destruction. Is that you? Are you going to destroy everything?”

He snorted. “I am a Dragon. Destruction is not my nature. Conquest, domination, control, that is what I am. But I do not want to destroy what is Mine, and I want to conquer what is not Mine.” He shook his head. “Something is returning from out of the night, Atina. Everything dies eventually. And eventually has come. I had just hoped that I could die for My cause, rather than someone else’s.” He sighed. “Why did you spare them? They tried to kill you. To do worse than kill you. They were going to murder your client. They were going to betray everything that you exist for.”

“Because I still need them. I need them all. And I need them to face actual justice for what they did. Not just revenge.”

“What’s the difference?” He snorted. “Justice and revenge, they’re all the same in the end.”

“No,” I whispered softly. “Justice includes the possibility of redemption.”

There was a soft wail of sirens from nearby. Roy looked up. “I have to go.” He was quiet for a moment. “But I’ll be back.”

I sank down onto the ground as the sirens approached. A fire truck and police cars. I hadn’t been lying when I’d made that promise. I didn’t want Roy to protect me. Looking around the building, the ruins, I could see what his protection would be. He was strong, stronger than anything in this city, and destructive. And if he protected me, it could mean his own death. I shuddered softly at the memory of him lying there, on the floor, and the rage in his eyes as he’d crushed some of the most powerful beings I’d ever met. Unstable, and terrifying.

As the police officer asked me what happened, I hunched my shoulders and thought about what I was going to say. I was going to have to talk myself out of the hospital, and still win this case.

Dragons. Fucking dragons. Life really knew how to shove my wishes down my throat.

 

 

Chapter 16: Hun-Came Appears

I groaned. My mouth was dry as sawdust. My skull was pounding. The funny thing is, I’ve almost never had a hangover that really made me feel wretched. This is at least partially because growing up, I would often wake up severely dehydrated. The experience of waking up, tongue like a piece of leather, head aching, body numb, is one that I went through on a regular basis. Having it induced by alcohol, rather than dry air, was not a major change. So I did what I always did, and groped for water by the side of my bed. My palm brushed the tabletop, and pain lanced through it, forcing my eyes open.

I was lying in a hotel room. It took me a moment to realize it was the same one where I had set up Alfred and Jenny the previous morning. I pulled myself up, my heart pounding as I checked the clock. 4 PM. I sagged with relief, and then felt another pang of panic, dragging me up again to search for my phone. There was no sign of it. “Hey. Hey, is anyone there?!” I shouted.

Jenny opened the bathroom door, stepping out, her hair plastered to her cheeks by water. “What’s the matter, Atina?”

“What day is it?” I asked, even as my brain did the math. “It’s… I didn’t miss the trial, did I?”

“Atina, I want you to know how much I appreciate everything you have done for me. And I admire your work ethic. But I think that the time has come for you to admit that you work yourself a bit too hard.”

I leaned back in the bed, feeling a little bit foolish. “Sorry. I had a long night.” I took a deep breath, closing my eyes. “The last thing I remember was the police arriving, and…”

“You passed out in the middle of questioning. They checked you out and didn’t find any head wounds, but you were bruised up a lot. Fang Fen was there, and convinced them to let her take you home. They said you were lucky to survive, with that tornado taking out the Shark Belly like that. What happened, Atina?”

I groaned, rubbing my head. “A lot. Chaac. Chaac! She’s-”

“She was taken into custody by Lady Ann Willing yesterday morning. Arthur too, though Roquette’s gone missing. Arthur’s recovering, they think. It might be a long time before he can walk again.” She winced. “The Strix left the city, but were caught by Edwin at the Binghamton Airport. He apprehended them, said they were badly injured. They barely even put up a fight. Everyone’s got their theories on what happened. Chaac and the Strix had a falling out, or Arthur turned on them, or the Half-Faced Man saved you- I even heard someone say that you were secretly an avatar of Law and Justice, and when they tried to find me and kill me, you took on your true form and humiliated them.” She gave me a curious look. “Uh, you wouldn’t happen to be willing to tell me, would you?”

I winced. “I was saved. Some guy. Nobody I really knew,” I knew it was a lie. And yet, there was enough truth there that Jenny seemed to accept it.

Roy. Roy was a dragon. That’s what he claimed, anyway. A demon, a powerful one, the first and the last, made by God, all of that shit. I didn’t know how much of it to believe, but I’d seen him beat the senses out of five people who had completely outclassed me and everyone I knew. It certainly added some weight to his claims. I ran my fingers down my forehead, and my stomach growled loudly. I slowly pulled myself to my feet, and Jenny approached, dressed up in the jacket and button-down shirt she’d gotten for the trial. “Someone left this for you at the front desk.” She placed a large Tupperware container down. ‘Soul Food’ was written on it in black sharpie. I opened it, and found a plastic fork sitting atop a rack of ribs. They were somehow still hot and fresh as though they’d just come off the grill. “You sure you can trust that?” Jenny asked, giving them a suspicious look.

“No, but I don’t have much choice.” Jenny gave me a bemused look as I tore into them hungrily, and washed my hands in the sink afterwards. I gulped down five or six glasses of water from the sink, gagging a little on the metallic taste, but forcing myself to drink anyway. When I’d finally chugged down the last of it, I sighed with relief, and slumped onto the bed again, my bones aching. “Polly. She’s-”

“She’s fine. Already recovering. Doctors thought it was botulism toxin, but her body flushed it out fast when she got her hair dye. She managed to call Alfred just a couple minutes after you went through the window. Half-paralyzed, she was calling everyone she could get her hands on, everyone in your address book, telling them you were in trouble. She was ready to start looking for you herself when Fang Fen called us.”

I slowly leaned back against the bed. It felt so good to lie down. How long had I been asleep? It certainly didn’t feel like enough time, but my body was back in panic mode after having woken up. The case, the defense, everything I needed to do, it all swirled in my head maddeningly, like blaring static on a radio. “Is she okay?”

“Yeah, Alfred’s getting her out of the hospital right now.”

“Let’s go pick them up.” I pulled myself out of bed, grunting a bit, feeling my chest where I’d fallen off the bike. It twinged a little bit. I’d have to be careful with myself. And I’d have to get a new bike. That would suck. I took a few deep breaths, steadying myself. The culprits revealed, the mysteries unveiled- But I had a serious problem on my hands. Hun-Came was dead. The only person who could’ve recognized Jenny, who could’ve saved her from the charge of being a wastrel, was gone. Chaac was the last of the Camazotz, and it didn’t seem like she wanted to preserve her own kind. I was in deep shit. If all I had to rely on was the court’s good graces… I closed my eyes, and got changed. A simple pull-over white shirt, my battered jacket, and a pair of loose sweat pants. I’d have to stop at home and hope that the vampires hadn’t torched my clothing while I was there.

The heavy storm had already begun to pass on, but the sky was still gray and overcast as the sun set, darkness falling over the city early. I stared up at the passing clouds. Last night I had watched a goddess conjure a storm, call down lightning, and still get defeated. I’d dipped my feet into the deep end, and nearly gotten them bitten off by a shark. I’d wanted to curl up in my office and hide away from the world when I’d run into something so simple, so prosaic, as a mere homicidal fairy countess.

We pulled up to the hospital just as the doors opened. Polly was sitting in a wheel-chair, being wheeled out by Alfred, Fang Fen following close behind. I waved to them, stepping out of the car. “Hey, you schmucks! C’mon, we’re having Sunday Dinner on me!”

Polly practically sprang out of the wheel chair, her arms going around my shoulders, tight enough to nearly knock me on my ass. Tears were running down her cheeks, and she didn’t say anything as she hugged me. I didn’t say anything either. I just let her hug it out, and rested a hand on the back of her head. After a few seconds, she released me, looking down at her feet. “I couldn’t protect you.”

“You did everything you could, Polly. I couldn’t have asked for anything more.” She didn’t answer. She just climbed into the back of the car. Fang Fen turned to leave, and I waved. “Hey! You too, Fang Fen! Get in here!” I gave her a grin, as she turned, looking embarrassed. “Just remember: I was the one who told you to go out and eat rather than hang around. No guilt trips for you, young lady.” I winked, and she gave a weak smile in return before climbing into the back of the car.

“So, where shall we go? Thai Time sound good to everyone?” I gave a grin towards the back seat. “No? Well, screw it, I’m paying, I get to choose where we go.”

“Before we do,” Fang Fen said, very softly, “I think that you need to talk with Lady Ann Willing.”

“Shit.” I sighed. “Fine. I’ll drop you four off at Thai Time, I’ll meet you there after I talk with the Lady Ann.”

A few minutes later, I was walking up the stone path again. I was starting to get a real complex about Lady Ann’s tea room, but this time, I was directed towards the library. Set in the basement of the fine mansion, the air was warmer than the streets above, a pleasant 68 degrees. LED lights cast stark white light and dark shadows through the room, giving it a strangely checkerboard appearance. Several large shelves stood lining the walls, packed to the gills with hundreds, maybe thousands of books. There was no order I could see in them. I stepped towards an alcove, where three chairs were set up, overstuffed and comfortable-looking. Then i nearly jumped out of my skin as I found Chaac sitting in one of them.

An elaborate harness was fitted around her chest, pulling her arms together like a straitjacket. She sat very still, almost statuesque, but I could see her breathing very shallowly. “Ah, Atina.” She gave me a weak smile. “I see that you have survived.” She shivered. “I heard that you were found alive. That you tamed the dragon.” Her eyes were wild. “How? How could you stand in the face of that thing? How could you-”

“Oh, come now, Chaac.” Lady Ann Willing was standing by my side, and I nearly jumped out of my skin. She gave me a polite smile. “Don’t worry. She’s quite harmless. Dean Morton helped me rig up that little harness. If she exerts herself too much, if she strains, if her arms pull apart, a spring will shove a sliver of wood directly into her heart. All nice and mechanical, foolproof, and guaranteed to render her harmless. He’s apparently been considering the concept for some time, but her little display last night… Well, that was what he needed to convince him of its use.”

I stared at it. “It seems… a little bit harsh.”

“She tore a building in my city apart,” growled Lady Ann. “Last night, your office was attacked. One of the Summer Kingdom fae was assaulted. She has confessed to numerous other crimes. Her lightning strike took out the power grid last night, and caused untold amounts of damage. The assault on your home two weeks ago, and your own person just before that. The murder of Hun-Came, and of nearly two dozen other ancient and powerful Camazotz. And she is responsible for the death of Anthony Jones.” She pointed towards Chaac. “That woman has brought violence and murder to my city. She is what I have feared, all of this time. Power without forbearance, strength without wisdom.” Chaac shivered. “And she tried to subvert the court. She tried to use the law of my city to murder an innocent.”

I swallowed. “What do you intend to do about that?”

“What do I intend to do?” Lady Ann stood straight, her arms crossed. “I will have them executed at the close of the trial. Your friend will be spared and allowed to be a citizen of the city; I feel confident that I can reasonably trust her. The questions have answered, the culprits have been found, and justice will be done.” She smiled at me. “And they will pay for what they have done to you, and Jenny. My subjects.”

“You’re just going to have them executed?” I asked, my head swirling.

“Yes.”

Humans love vengeance. We love seeing wrongs righted, and the most direct and obvious way is violence being repaid by violence. But I had gotten my fill of that last night, watching as Roy tore them apart. I’d watched Chaac humiliated. I’d seen Arthur crippled and Sofia driven mad, and none of it had made me feel any better. There hadn’t been any righteous fervor in it. It had just been raw meat and brutality and horror. My stomach still turned at the memory of the fight. And the worst part was what Roy had said. The way he had ranted about the law and chaos.

The whole point of a lawyer is that everyone deserves one. One of the foundations of our concept of ethics is that when you are accused of a crime you get representation, no matter how loathsome the crime, no matter how loathsome the person. The devil himself needs an advocate. The whole point is not that they should be set free; not that nobody should be punished. The point is that everyone deserves to be defended by someone. There are people who corrupt this duty, who use it to justify breaking law and ethics and morality in order to help people who are going to commit crimes again, who will learn nothing from the experience. But that doesn’t mean that you give up.

Roy had talked about chaos. When Chaac had taken the law into her own hands, when she had violated the laws of this place and filled it with chaos, it had brought him forward. He had been enraged. He’d been ready to rise, to do something horrible. Could he do that to the whole world? I didn’t know. I didn’t much want to find out. And it may have been self-centered of me, narcissistic, arrogant, to believe that I might hold the fate of the world in my hands. I was a small-town lawyer with delusions of grandeur and a bizarre client list.

But why not act as though I was better than that? Who knows, maybe the lie would become truth. I didn’t tell Lady Ann Willing that I would defend them. I had to be sure, first. I had to talk with Jenny. I had to do quite a number of things. And the first was this. “Do you mind if I talk with her alone for a little while?”

“Please, feel free. I must go prepare myself for tonight.” Lady Ann gave a polite bow of her head, and stepped away. I waited as her footsteps died away, and faded from hearing. Then I turned to Chaac.

“Do you want to die?”

“What does it matter?” she asked, her voice dull. “We all die eventually, don’t we? You think you’re strong, that you can win, that there’s nothing you can’t handle, and then, and then-”

“Do you want to die?!” I asked, harsher this time, and slapped her face. She glared up at me, and her arms shifted slightly. Then she looked down at the harness, and her shoulders dropped.

“No. I saw oblivion last night. I saw the end of everything I remember. The destruction of my family, of my soul, of everything I valued.”

“Do you want to live?” She was silent for another second. “You say you don’t want to die. So do you want to live?”

“Yes.” She whispered. “I spent so much of my life thinking that any price would be worth paying to have vengeance. I thought Hun-Came would be the last, and then when I saw she’d already changed Jenny- I thought I was ready to murder the girl, too. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t bring myself to kill an innocent. I thought that if I prepared myself, maybe-” She sobbed out. An ancient, powerful creature. One who had brought hell into my life, who had caused the death an innocent young man, who had gotten my friends hurt, who had tried to kill me, who had tried to kill Roy. And she was making me pity her.

“What would you give to live?” I asked, not letting any of that pity seep into my voice. She looked up at me, confusion on her face. “If you want to live, I have a contract for you. If I succeed, and save your life, you will spend the rest of your eternal existence helping people. You will not kill. You will not harm. You will not take revenge. You will seek to protect the lives of everyone you can. You will seek to help Jenny. You will spend the rest of your life making up for what you have done, and it will never be enough. You may never be forgiven. You may never be trusted again.”

“That’s a very harsh price for life,” she said softly, her eyes cast down. “Why would I take such an offer?”

“Hope. Because maybe, someday, people with more mercy than I will meet you, and learn of all the good you have done in the years since, and when they learn why, they will not turn away in disgust. Because maybe, someday, you will be forgiven. You’ll live forever. Do this long enough, and maybe you’ll have made up for it, someday. You’ll never deserve it, but people are stupid.” I stood up straight. She frowned up at me.

“Why offer me this? What do you want? Do you think to do this out of the good of your heart?”

“I think that you can still be useful. To my client, to Lady Ann Willing, to Binghamton. I think killing you now would be a waste of a useful asset. That, Chaac, is all you are to me at this point.”

“How did you stop the dragon?” she whispered softly.

“I made a contract with it.”

“What did you give up?”

“Give up? Chaac, you don’t seem to understand my position in this city.” I leaned very, very close, my eyes locked with hers. Her gaze slid to the side, afraid to meet mine. “You are supernatural. Contracts, bindings, laws, these things are what make you. They are your reality. When you break them, it costs you grievously. When I break the laws that bind me, do you know what happens?” I smiled. “Nothing. You thought you had all of the power you needed, Chaac. You thought that you could use violence to change the world. You thought that you were above the laws. But the laws were protecting you, this whole time. And mine will protect you, too. They will make you the kind of person who will never again find themselves sitting in a cold stone basement, wood nestled up against their heart, waiting to be thrown into the sunlight to die.”

She stared down at the harness. “I’m sorry.”

“Talk is cheap. That’s why there’s a contract. But for what it’s worth…” I took a deep breath through my nostrils. “If I didn’t think that you were sorry, I wouldn’t even be making this offer to you. I take it you’re going to accept the deal, then?” She nodded. “Fine. I’ll have a contract for you after we finish this trial.”

“So I become your slave,” she said. Her voice was dull, listless, her expression hard.

“No. I don’t do slaves. It’d be more trouble than it’s worth, and you’d just become a pain in someone else’s ass when I die. I’m going to give you a cause, whether you like it or not.” I looked at her, and my expression softened slightly. “I saw it, you know. The night your village was destroyed. When I performed the Dreamwalk, I saw you attack Hun-Came in the hotel, and then I saw your memories of that night. It’s been tearing you apart since you were young. I’m offering you a second chance. A chance to bury that memory in the past. A chance to move on to something new.” I took a deep breath. “This, too, shall pass.”

Half an hour later, I was in Thai Time again. My heart was pounding. My skull ached. I don’t like forcing people into a corner, you know? I don’t like manipulating them, I don’t like making them do things against their will. I wanted to save Chaac, but she would never believe me if I told her I was doing it from the good of my heart. Hell, I’d hardly believe it. And Jenny…

“Jenny, do you mind if we talk on the balcony?” I asked, giving her a quick smile. A few moments later, we were standing together on the cold balcony, leaning against the metal railing. The Chenango rolled past us slowly. It hadn’t frozen quite yet, but there was ice on the banks. The temperature had dropped substantially. “They have Chaac and the others at Lady Ann Willing’s. They’re going to be executed tomorrow night, at the end of the trial.” I tapped my fingers along the metal railing nervously. “I want to try to defend them.”

Jenny froze. “You want them to go free?”

“No, I-”

“After what they did to me, to you! To Tony! They’re the reason he is dead! They caused all of this! If Chaac had not begun her little revenge, Tony and I would still be alive, I would not be drinking blood and unable to ever again look on the light of the sun! It is they who have taken everything from me! Why, why would you ever want them to survive?! Why would you want to see them not punished, for what they have tried to do to you! How can you forgive someone who hunted you like game, who tried to do what they threatened to do to you?!” She stared at me, and there were tears glistening in her eyes. “How could you?”

I turned towards the river, my shoulders hunched. “I offered them a chance to try to make things right. Not forgiveness, not redemption. I told them that if they-”

“I don’t care,” she hissed. “Nothing. There is no way I could forgive them. Not for what they’ve done. Not for what they’ve taken from me.” She took a deep breath. “Do you remember the last time you watched the sun set?” I shook my head. “I do. Two weeks ago. I remember watching it dip below the trees, the sky turning slowly orange, purple, black. I remember watching the last rays of light drift up the side of the building.” She stared out at the river. “I was standing with Tony, just on the school campus. They took both of those things away from me, forever. How could you ask me to forgive them?”

I was silent for a few moments, and then took a deep breath. “I understand.” I turned, and walked towards the door, making plans along the way to betray my client.

The court assembled. There were no tents today, and the crowd was three times the size it had been the night before. Fang Fen stood at the prosecutor’s lectern, lit by a gas lantern. I was lit by the same. The lanterns hung from trees, from poles, from every corner of the graveyard. My eyes drifted from side to side, trying to keep from panicking. Trying to keep myself together, in the face of what I was preparing to do. Could I betray Jenny? I’d fought so hard and so long to save her. I considered her a friend. I wasn’t even sure whether it was the right thing to do, to try to preserve these people. Didn’t I have the right to say that they deserved this? After the way they had wronged me, the things they had done to me, the things they had exposed me to, didn’t I deserve to say they should die?

“The court will rise,” said the judge spirit, sitting where Sofia had. Sofia, Donny, and Parsons sat together, in similar harnesses to the one Chaac wore, seated off to the side with them. Arthur was in a wheelchair, a blanket drawn up over his torso. His eyes were on the ground. He wasn’t in chains or anything. There was no sign of Roquette. Everyone save Arthur rose to their feet. “Be seated. In light of the unusual circumstances of the last few days, I will take the place as judge for this court until the next Night Court adjourns. Atina LeRoux. You have opening remarks?”

I swallowed slowly, and stood up. “Yes, your honor. Over the past day, I have asked for leniency for my client. I have cited her innocence, her good intentions, her unimpeachable character. This has been a difficult case in the face of uncertainty, and I have asked much of you. I think that it is safe to say that no one in the jury would convict Jenny after what has been revealed.” I looked over towards Lady Ann Willing, who sighed. Fang Fen turned towards me, frowning slightly. It was now or never. What would you give up to do what’s right, I sang in my own head, what would you do to salve your own conscience…

“Now I need to ask for something much harder.” I looked at Jenny, and closed my eyes tightly. “I wish to ask for leniency for the five who were responsible for the assault on me yesterday. For their actions-” The booing started. “For their actions against me, against my client, and against others, I-!”

Fang Fen was staring at me, shock and horror in her eyes. Jenny looked like she was about to burst into tears. Polly wouldn’t meet my eyes. Alfred was holding her, and a cold anger was visible on his face. Screams out outrage, a chorus of disgust, filled the air.

Then there was the sound of a tap. Then another tap. They were soft, and yet they seemed to silence the entire court. I turned, along with the rest of the court, as a figure made its way slowly down the hill.

Tadodaho strode down the hill, slowly, his eyes running across the many figures seated around the court. Eyes widened, mouths dropped, expressions grew shocked as the saw him, the few faces that were not already pallid became so. I could feel the power radiating off of him, as he strode down the hill. He gave me a smile, and nodded his head. His eyes turned towards the spirit of the judge. “I notice that you are missing an old native representative on the jury. I believe I will take that place.” He strode towards the jury, and smiled as he approached Lady Ann Willing. “Lady Ann. It has been a long time. Do you remember what I said to you, the last time that we met?”

The Lady Ann Willing shivered, her china-white expression going waxy and gray. “You said that one day, you would return, and what the Sullivan Expedition had done to your people, you would return a thousandfold.”

“Did I?” He laughed, a grating, harsh sound, like a knife running across a masochistic sharpening iron, rough and happy at the same time. “I do have a way with words, don’t I? Well, these are strange times that we live in. Times where old threats are given up.” He turned towards the group. “I have returned to this place, as is my right. This was the land of the Onondaga, once, long ago, before your ancestors shattered my people. I was born nine hundred years ago in this land. I am Tadodaho, the last of the chiefs to bend his knee to peace.” He smiled. “And I have been asked here to tell a story.”

He stood tall, and began to speak. He told a story I know well, but that you may have never heard. It was his story. He was a chief of the Onondaga, a crippled, yet fearsome and terrible man. When Hiawatha and the great Peace-Maker sought to bring together the five nations to form the Iroquois Confederacy, three times he opposed them. At each of the three peace conferences, he spoiled their work, and each time, one of Hiawatha’s daughters died, the work of Tadodaho’s vile eyes. He bent Hiawatha’s spirit near to breaking. He pushed the great man.

And on the shore of Lake Onondaga, Hiawatha and the peacemaker met him. They spoke of hymns of peace, and argued with him. They held him down and straightened the knots in his hair. They unwound his arm, and untwisted it, and made it whole again. They spoke to him of peace, and forgave him of the transgressions he had made against them. And he was made the chairman of the Iroquois Confederacy, its firekeeper, to keep its spirit alive forevermore.

He looked around the hall. “I have come here in the spirit of peace. In the spirit of laying old grudges to rest. It takes a greater soul than mine to forsake vengeance, to forgive the transgressions done to them. But I hope that there are still a few who would.” Then, his eyes, and those of everyone else in the hall turned towards Jenny.

She shot me a bitter, hateful look, as she stood up. “What does it matter what I think? What does it matter whether I forgive Chaac or not? Why place this blame on my shoulders? If all of you cannot make that decision…” She looked down. “Is it my weakness that is to free them from responsibility for those they have killed? Is it my softness, too afraid to make the decision, that you all count on? Do you lay this at my feet so you can blame me, regardless of what decision I make?”

“No,” said Dean Morton quite pleasantly as he drew a knife, giving me a quick look. I nodded. He stepped towards Chaac. “I think that there is another reason.” He drew the blade across Chaac’s unresisting fingers, blood dripping across them, black as tar and just as thick. He held the knife up to the air. And Hun-Came appeared.

 

 

Chapter 17: Sunrise

The court went silent. The aura around Hun-Came was cold, even on this frigid night. The grass around her grew frosty, crystallizing. She was tall, imperious, and her arms folded around herself. A leathery robe hung around her body, attached to her arms, almost like a pair of wings. She lifted her head, her abnormally long ears almost elfin, her eyes glittering black in the night. She took a slow, deep breath. She was hovering nearly an inch off the ground, and the trees were faintly visible through her body. Lady Ann Willing stood immediately, her eyes narrowed. “Lies. A trick! This is an illusion, not-”

“When we spoke,” Hun-Came said, her voice rich and dulcet, her head swiveling to face the Lady Ann. “The last time. Shortly before I died. We spoke of the desire to continue on. To have children. I recall you expressed great regrets that it had been so long since you had been capable of that. So long since you could surround yourself in the warm embrace of family. It was funny, wasn’t it? The two of us laughed, to think of what we had both lost.” Lady Ann’s mouth snapped shut, eyes wide. Hun-Came’s eyes glittered, turning around the room, and settling on Chaac. “I didn’t ask you why, did I? I didn’t have to ask you why. I think that we both knew. I suppose I had always expected that I would be the winner if your grudge had come to light, but you were patient. Goodness, so patient.” Her eyes turned to Jenny. “Aaah, and you…”

“What is this?” Jenny asked, her eyes wide, horrified. “What are you?”

“Ah,” said Dean Morton, smiling. “I have always been a fan of providing… Well, shall we say, a little closure.” He gave Hun-came a deep bow. “My lady. I hope that you do not mind my imposing so upon your soul.” He turned towards the rest of the court. “A drop of blood from the bloodline, to summon the soul. I must confess, it was much more complicated than that to work out- Vampire bloodlines are a bit different from human- but I wouldn’t give away the secret of how I did it. Wizards must have their secrets.” He held a hand out towards Hun-Came. “The soul of Hun-Came.”

“Thank you, Lich.” She looked out across the court. Rivulets of darkness slowly rose and fell from her like solar prominences composed of ink, washing across her. She looked over the court. “You, all of you, feared the power of the Camazotz. I understand that. We had none to fear outside of ourselves, it seems.” Chaac dropped her eyes. I wondered if she was thinking of the fight with Roy right now. “Jenny.” She turned her head towards the young Japanese woman.

“You killed Tony.”

“Yes. I did not mean to, I wanted to give him the same gift as you. To ensure that he could live forever. I am sorry. I will not claim that what I did was right, or that you did not deserve better. It would be selfish of me to think I could make any demands of you at this point.” She smiled. “I have taken so many choices from you, and so many things. I will never try to tell you what is right and what is wrong. No, at this point, all I have left for you is a gift.”

“A gift?” asked Jenny, suspiciously.

“A gift?” murmured Chaac, her eyes wide.

“A gift…” said Lady Ann Willing, her expression growing horrified. “Wait-”

“You are Jenny Nishi. Child of human parents, and my offspring. You are one of the Camazotz. But there is more. Each of the Camazotz is one of the gods of our dead culture, with the gifts that includes. When I spoke with you, just a few short nights ago, the thing that inspired me to choose you as one of the Camazotz was your kindness, your compassion, your strength of character, your willingness. I have heard what you have said. Nobody in this courtroom would accuse you of being weak. Thrown into the face of terrible strife and trouble for no reason but being in the wrong place and the wrong time.” Hun-Came’s eyes closed. “You are Kinich Ajaw, the rising sun that signals an end to our world. And you are never going to be a victim of others again.”

The light was blinding and terrible. A string of shocked cries filled the air, chairs kicked down, people fleeing, screams of pain and suffering. Jenny glowed like the sun for just a moment, as every undead member of the gathering dove for cover, hiding themselves behind gravestones, behind trees, behind anything that would shield them from the unforgiving rays. It wasn’t just light, it wasn’t just UV light. It was real, actual sunlight. The thing that was a scourge on the Undead. Jenny gasped, horror on her face, and the radiance dimmed, becoming nothing more than a slight glow as she put her hands over her mouth. Only Tadodaho still sat among the jury, the rest having scattered behind their chairs. He had a simple, feral smile on his mouth, a scar of dark mist running across his chest where he’d been struck by the light.

Chaac’s eyes were closed. Her skin had grown crisp, a hint of red to the dark skin, as though faintly sunburned. The Strix were twisting, features pink and glossy, staring up at her with horror. Li Fang Fen winced slightly, her skin paler than it had been before. Jenny stared down at her hands, and then at Hun-Came. “You call this a gift? I hurt them, you made me- I didn’t-”

“You had the choice of whether to hurt them or not. If you wanted to, you could have killed them. That’s the cost of power, child. When you are strong enough that you are no longer a victim, you may wind up making victims of others.”

I stood up straight. “Jenny. I can’t make you forgive anyone. You’re my client. I can try to persuade you, to wheedle you. To show the best course of action. I can try to convince you. But the decision is always going to be yours.” I looked around the courtyard, and took a deep breath. This was going to be the biggest gamble yet. “This is the reason I wanted Chaac to survive. To give you the chance to grasp who you are. She still can be useful. She can still do good things for the world. She’s wanted to do good things for the world, even if she wound up becoming a monster because she didn’t think it through. She chose vengeance, and eventually it wound up killing innocent people.”

Jenny looked at Hun-Came. “Why did she try to kill you?”

“There are three reasons. When she was the last of the Camazotz, it gave her great power. She no longer has that; You have taken it from her. If you wish to kill her, it would be your prerogative, and it would grant you great power. Second, her life became inviolate. To kill her would’ve meant the end of the Camazotz, forever. Our souls frayed, falling to pieces as we were lost with the rest of our society. That… That much is still true. You are not of the Camazotz, not yet. You do not carry our spirit, only our power. And the third reason is revenge. We cost her everything.” Hun-Came closed her eyes. “If you wished to take revenge, on her, on every Undead in this city, for what they have done to you… Who could stop you?”

“Who could stop me,” Jenny said softly, staring down at her hands. Light glowed in her palm, like a miniature sun. Not just LIKE a miniature sun, I realized. I tensed, as she held the sun between her fingers. Then it vanished with a soft little puff. “Atina. Do you have the contract you were going to make them sign?” Her voice was soft, but firm as iron. Confidence suited her. I nodded, and produced the document. It was several pages thick. She hefted it, and read through it. Her eyes flicked up to meet mine after several quiet, tense minutes. “This is a barbaric contract. Draconian. It would bind them in chains for the rest of their existence. Death might genuinely be preferable to living under the strictures of these covenants.” She let a smile spread slowly across her face. “I suppose that I can accept that if they can.” She took her seat again, and slowly, gradually, the court returned to their seats. Jenny sat with Alfred and Polly, and a very notable gap had emerged around her, the other undead shooting her nervous looks.

The contract passed through the jury. Every one of them took the time to read it in full. I’d made several copies, thank god. One by one, they nodded, and agreed to their assent. Finally, Lady Ann Willing stood up. “You have written a thorough contract here, Atina. Many chains. But you know that it is just a document. They will try to wiggle out of the spirit of it. They will try to subvert you.”

I sighed softly. “The Strix definitely will.” Donny gave me a foul look. “Chaac might, or might not. Arthur… I’m hoping that this helps put him on a better path.” The ghoul didn’t make eye contact. “The point of the contract is not that it will make them somehow good. I’m not an idiot. You can’t mandate goodness through a contract or laws or strictures. You can only try to limit the harm that’s done. It’s a gamble to trust them, because they’ve already proven that they will break the law when it’s convenient to them. They may learn nothing from this experience but to be more subtle the next time they break the law. But. We have to have hope. We have to give people second chances, we have to let them betray us sometimes, and not let that change who we are. They may try to kill me for what I’ve done today, and I will still counsel mercy in the future. But a good contract can go a long way towards helping people trust each other.”

Fang Fen smiled. “The prosecution has nothing more to add. If the court will allow it… I believe that we are ready for the sentencing.” She turned to me, and I turned to Jenny. She nodded.

The sentencing lasted perhaps five minutes total. “The court finds unanimously that Jenny Nishi is cleared of all charges. As the proper heir of the Camazotz Hun-Came, all worldly possessions of Hun-Came shall fall to her.” Lady Ann Willing spoke for the jury, after Tadodaho declined the position. “As to the fate of the five undead who have subverted justice, they will be offered a choice. The five of them shall be bound here, in the graveyard, till morning. Should they sign the contracts Miss LeRoux has provided for them, they will be allowed to go free. Else-wise, they can meet their fates with dignity.” There was a soft sigh in the air as Hun-Came disappeared, evanescing in the air like ink diluting in water.

Donny growled, giving me the hairy eyeball. “Well? Give us that fucking thing, and we’ll sign it!”

Within a few minutes, the graveyard was emptying out. The Strix were leaving as quickly as possible. Alfred and Polly watched them go with foul expressions. “Good riddance to that shite,” Polly growled, stretching her back. “So, Jenny. You’re a sun goddess. I tell you, that’s what I love about the supernatural world: The potential for advancement.” She smiled. “So what made you decide to forgive ’em? If I had my way, the lot of ’em would be greasy smears of black ashes on the grass by now.” She looked over her shoulder. “Especially you, ye Tan feckin’ fascist!” she shouted at Arthur. The ghoul had still not made a move towards the paper I had given him.

“Killing them wouldn’t make me happy. Not really. It’d just make them dead. But knowing that every day of their lives, they are bound by that contract LeRoux made, knowing that every day, they are forced to do good, and knowing that they are trapped within their own lives… That is the kind of vengeance I can get behind.” Jenny smiled, but it wasn’t a very happy smile. “I suppose that if I cannot have Tony or the sun back, I can at least have that much, eh?” She looked down at her hands, where the ball of light appeared. “It is not quite the same, is it?”

Dean Morton approached, wincing as he held up a hand against the light. “Ah, my apologies.” He smiled towards Jenny and I. “I hope that you two do not feel a need to renege on the debt I mentioned? One favor from each of you, of my decision, called in at my chosen time?” He eyed Jenny nervously. “It is not generally considered… honorable, to renege on a debt like that, when one is Undead-” She held up a finger, and he flinched.

“Yes. But I don’t care about honor, do I?” She looked down at her hands. “You cannot particularly intimidate me with social pressure. The vast majority of your kind, I rather loathe, right now. If I wanted to, I could probably destroy you.” She looked up, and stepped closer. “But if your request is reasonable, it shall be met, Lich.”

“Ah, of course.” He smiled ingratiatingly. “Of course. I thought you were a good egg all along. That’s why the price was so low.”

“Price-” Jenny’s eyes widened, and she turned towards me. “That was what the money was for,” she whispered, eyes widening. “How much did you offer him?” she asked, slightly weak.

“Oh, a hundred thousand dollars,” said the dean, sighing. “I should have asked for more, she met the request surprisingly easily-” He flinched at my look. “Oh, look at the time, I really should be getting to bed, classes tomorrow and all that.”

“A hundred thousand dollars,” sighed Jenny, frowning. “You-”

“Ah.” Lady Ann Willing stood nearby. She cleared her throat, and smiled politely. “Jenny Nishi. I recognize you are young, and thus may not have a place on the Night Court itself. But I… Well…” She coughed, and started again. “I know that I have been harsh, and unfair with you, but- It was out of fear, and misplaced anger, rather than-” She fumbled for the words, looking utterly miserable. “Please don’t tear my city apart.”

“I didn’t ever want to hurt the city, or you, Lady.” Jenny gave a weak smile. “I know what it is to lose someone I love to vampires.”

Lady Ann stared for a moment, her mouth opening and then closing. Then she smiled. “Ah. Hah. You are, of course, painfully right. The laws of the night court may preclude you, but if you should ever have something to say, I will listen with the attentiveness of one who is aware how easily you could kill me.”

“I don’t want to kill anyone, Lady Ann.”

Lady Ann Willing smiled very kindly. “That is good of you to say. But see how you feel when you discover what contract negotiations or real estate look like among the dead.” She gave a brief bow, and turned her head to me. “Atina LeRoux. One case, and you have reduced me from the most powerful undead in Binghamton to a distant fifth. I hope you understand if I express my deepest desire now, never to serve on another jury for a case you take on.” She turned on her heel, and walked away. My mouth twisted. That hardly seemed very fair.

“Do you think that this means I can see the sun again?” Jenny asked, looking at the small orb of light in her hands. It glittered, casting bright yellow light across her features.

“I don’t know. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of an undead who wasn’t harmed, badly, by the sun. It might just be your sunlight you’re immune to. Testing it…” I frowned, my mouth twisted. “It could be fatal to try to test it. I know that the most powerful undead could be destroyed utterly by just a brief ray of sunlight. ”

“Yes, of course. It would be typical for this gift to be useful only for hurting people.”

“What about those two?” Alfred asked, frowning at Arthur and Chaac. “Looks like they’re mulling their options over a little more carefully.”

“You guys go. Get some sleep. You’ve earned it. I’ll walk home.” I smiled, as my friends walked away, leaving me standing alone with the two. Arthur was still staring down at the contract. “You know, I appreciate what you did for Polly, Arthur. Even if it was a little bit too little, a little bit too late, you took her down without killing her. Even if it was to shatter my brain and turn me into a slave so you could murder Jenny.” I pondered that for a moment. “Well, I’d probably still be angry, but watching you get gut-punched into crippledom by a dragon kind of killed any desire I had to see you get hurt any further. You going to sign that thing or what?”

“Y’know, I’ll recover from this,” he said, his voice a bit rough, softer than it had been before. I wondered if his lungs had been damaged with the attack. “It’ll take a year, or two, or five, or twenty, or something godawful, but I’ll be back up on my feet.” He leaned back in the wheelchair. “But shit. That was terrifying. You know? I fought for so long, did things I knew I’d regret, because I thought it’d make me strong, and bang, I piss the whole thing right down my leg. I mean, I was going to kill you. Kill Jenny, too. I thought that if I could do that and save more people in the future, well, it’d all be worthwhile, you know?” He stared down at his hands. “I’ve done some bad things, but never killed an innocent person. Not like I almost did last night. How do you come back from a thing like that?” He shook his head. “Maybe it’d be better if I did bite it in the sun.”

“It’d be an awful waste.”

He snorted. “I suppose it’d be a bit too much for me to hope that I could be given salvation because of my stunning personality, good looks, and charm.”

“You did try to murder me last night. Settle for ‘useful’ when you can’t be likable.”

“Well, I always do.” He breathed out through his nose. “That thing was fucking terrifying.”

“It was,” I whispered softly. “That’s why I don’t want you to die, Arthur. You faced it down, and brought it to its knees.”

“For a second. When the damn thing wasn’t even trying.”

“That’s more than almost anyone else could manage. And it might be necessary some day.” I took a deep breath. “I want you to survive because someday you might need to kill a dragon. But that’s a lot to ask of you, I know. I wouldn’t put it in the contract. But…”

He looked up at me, and frowned. “Yeah. Yeah, I reckon I can do that.” I thought of Roy, of his warm, gentle eyes, of his kind demeanor, of the way he made me feel better. I thought of his cold fury, his fully justified hubris, his careless violence. I couldn’t trust him. I could never, ever trust him, because despite what he said about loving me, despite what he said about the law, he was powerful. “But why do you need anyone to stop him? You seemed to succeed all on your own.”

“Because the way I stopped him might not work against him next time. It’s good to be able to talk my way out of trouble, but that’ll stop working someday.”

“Hell.” He grunted. “Yeah. I’ll sign.” He lifted the contract, examining it carefully for several seconds, and then signed his name. Then he slowly wheeled himself up the path, wheelchair squeaking in the predawn. I stepped forward, and sat down next to Chaac.

“You know, you agreed to a great deal for this chance. Offering your blood, letting Hun-Came be summoned. You sacrificed a hell of a lot, and it’s all going to seem very pointless if you get charred to a skeleton here,” I suggested, frowning down at her. “What the hell is wrong with you? Does the contract not seem like a fair one?”

“It is entirely fair,” whispered Chaac. She sat, her arms together over her chest.

“So what, then? I go to all of this trouble, probably ensure that Jenny is never going to forgive me, to try to save your life from your own stupid goddamn mistakes, and now you’re going to just die out of spite to piss me off?”

She frowned. “You have something of an inflated opinion of yourself, don’t you, Miss LeRoux?”

“Hey, look, you’re the one who called yourself a goddess.”

She chuckled softly. “Oh, true enough. True enough. Yes, I suppose that I’m going to be paying for that particular piece of hubris for the rest of my life.” She sighed. “Do you think about the sun, Atina?”

“Sometimes,” I admitted. “I don’t get to see it enough. Probably why I’m low on vitamin D.”

“The last time I saw the sun was several hundred years ago. Then I saw it again tonight. It felt good.” She traced a finger over her slightly burned skin. “It hurt, but it felt good. Do you know what that is like?” I coughed loudly into my hand. “No? Well, fair enough. It is a strange urge. But I realized how much I missed it.” She smiled. “It would mean a great deal to me, Miss LeRoux, if you would sit here with me until the sun has risen?”

“You’re asking me to watch you die?”

“You are the closest thing in this world I have to a friend right now. The only person who believed I deserved a second chance. And I have the opportunity to take Hun-Came with me. To take the entire Camazotz civilization with me, into the embrace of the light. All of the evil that they have done, evaporated like mist in the dawn.” She smiled. “Perhaps Jenny can make something better of it than what we did.”

“Fuck.” I slumped down onto the ground next to her. I pulled my legs up against my chest, and hooked my arms around my knees. “I really thought I might get a chance to save everyone, you know.” I frowned, staring up. The sun would rise from the east.

“Well, you saved everyone who mattered. Take some comfort from that, please.”

The two of us sat together in silence. Hours passed. It was freezing. And yet, I couldn’t find it in myself to just walk away. I was watching the destruction of something ancient and magnificent. What the hell else did I have to do? I thought about Alfred, and Polly. I’d gotten Polly paralyzed, and nearly made her fail at the task she’d promised to do, because I’d insisted on trying to be stronger than I really was. I thought of Fang Fen, and what defending Jenny had cost her. I thought of Lady Ann Willing, now no longer the undisputed ruler of her city. I thought of Jenny, who I’d betrayed, who I’d harried into forgiving the people who had cost her everything. And I thought, for the god-knows-how-manyth time, of Roy.

“How did you beat the dragon?” Chaac asked, softly.

“I told him I loved him. I swore I would never ask him to save me, never try to use him to advance my causes. I promised.” I sighed softly. “He was such a sweet guy. But maybe I would have been better if he had been normal, and had died.”

“Really?” She smiled over at me. “I don’t know. I have good senses. When he looked at you… His heart was pounding.”

“What?” I asked, flushing.

“Oh, yes. I don’t know. They say love is a powerful weapon for humans. You can inflict scars in immortal hearts with it. Surely that must be something- Ah.” She looked up. The sky was turning a fiery red. She closed her eyes, and sighed. “You know, it will feel good, I think, to come to an end. Just like going to sleep, except this time, it will last forever. I think it’s almost here-”

“Please stop!”

The two of us turned. Jenny stood a few dozen feet away. “Please, don’t kill yourself! Please, I know that I said you deserved to suffer, please, I’m sorry!” Tears were running down her cheeks.

“Goddesses do not cry,” Chaac said softly. “Show a little dignity, child. This is for the best. You will be the last Camazotz. They will be yours to rebuild, to do with as you wish. You can spread them across the land, or you can seize the power all for yourself.”

“No, please.” Jenny bit her lip. “I can’t be the last of something. I don’t want to be the last. There’s so much I don’t know. Please, I don’t know anything about the culture, about the powers, about what it means, I don’t know anything, and even if you think that it was mostly bad, I don’t want anyone else to die! Please-” She hiccuped a little bit, and rubbed her tear-stained eyes. “You’re the only other person like me left in the world. You know what it’s like, to lose the things you care about, to be made into one of these things. If you die, I’ll really be all alone. I know you did horrible things to me by accident. Please don’t do this to me on purpose. You gave me a gift of the knowledge of my maker. Please, I know it’s greedy, but I need to ask you for one more gift.”

I like to consider myself persuasive. A skilled orator, even. As such, I know one of the basic theories of human interaction: You are more positively inclined towards someone you have done a favor for, than someone who has done a favor for you. When we do someone a favor, we convince ourselves that it’s because we like them. Whereas when we owe someone a favor, it’s just an obligation. I was never much good at using obligation that way. Jenny, however, clearly was. Chaac looked down at the paperwork, and then up at the dawn, and tears began to fill her eyes “I-”

“Sign it in the shade.” I picked up the pen and paper, agitated as I grabbed Chaac’s shoulder, bringing her to her feet. “Come on, we need to go, dawn’s going to happen any-”

The sun rose. It is difficult to judge exactly when dawn will come. It’s a threatening presence, really, a building red and yellow that glows and builds until it strikes with that greatest of all possible speeds. It rose from the east, along the valley, rather than over the mountains, where we would have had some sort of warning. The light cast with merciless fury over Jenny and Chaac, and Jenny threw herself in the path of the light. Chaac let out a cry as the rays trailed across her skin like the world’s most sadistic kiss, before the shade covered her. Jenny screamed, “Go! I don’t know how long I can hold it!”

She continued to scream, even as I straightened up, and frowned. “Jenny-”

“Hurry! Please! It’s okay! I-” She paused, and frowned, lowering her hands. She stood before Chaac, casting a very long shadow over the other woman. “It… is okay.” She looked down at her hands, and then turned towards me, and Chaac, her eyes wide. “It’s okay. It’s okay!” She laughed, and jumped for joy, and Chaac let out a sharp hiss as a ray of sunshine caught her. “Oh! Chaac, I’m so sorry-”

“Let’s just get somewhere with some shade,” I suggested. “I’ll call Alfred to pick us up.”

The three of us soon stood in the shade of one of the large monuments, watching as Alfred made his way down the hill, carrying a large, thick wool blanket. Jenny sat in the frost-covered grass, making shadow-puppets in the brilliant dawn light. Chaac watched with more than a little envy, but no malice. Alfred stopped short, his jaw dropping. “How in the hell-”

“We’ll discuss it at home.” I stood up, and stretched, cricking my neck from side to side.

Jenny smiled. “She gave me back the sun.” And she danced in the dawn as Alfred and I bundled Chaac into the blanket, and carefully guided her up the hill to the car. Then Jenny ran to catch up with us before we drove off without her.

 

 

Chapter 18: This Too Shall Pass

A secretary, a paralegal and a partner in a city law firm are walking through a park on their way to lunch when they find an antique oil lamp. They rub it and a Genie comes out in a puff of smoke. The Genie says, “I usually only grant three wishes, so I’ll give each of you just one.”
“Me first! Me first!” says the secretary. “I want to be in the Bahamas, driving a speedboat, without a care in the world.”
Poof! She’s gone.
“Me next! Me next!” says the paralegal. “I want to be in Hawaii, relaxing on the beach with my personal masseuse, an endless supply of pina coladas and the love of my life.”
Poof! He’s gone.
“You’re next,” the Genie says to the partner.
The partner says, “I want those two back in the office after lunch.”

A month had passed before I got the letter. It was actually a slender envelope, with no return address, slipped in through the mail slot at 6 AM. I frowned, eying it suspiciously. There was a slender bulge in it. I passed a metal detector over it briefly, and got a soft tone. I tensed further, and placed it in the back yard, opening it carefully with a rake from behind a small stack of cinderblocks. It completely failed to explode, and I looked like a damn fool to the nice couple next door. I gave them a polite, abashed wave, opened the letter, and read it.

At 8 AM, I was at the office. The window had been replaced, and was looking in good shape. Polly sat in the front room that had been sectioned off from my office. She leaned back in the chair, stretched out. “How was the bike ride here, Atina?” she asked, giving me a bright, cheerful smile. She was fully recovered, and if anything, more cheerful than she had been before. There’d been a bit of guilt about failing me and a lot of crying, but we had come to an agreement. She acted as my secretary, and if need be, my bouncer. I wasn’t paying her as much as I had when someone had been actively trying to murder me, but it was a decent wage. God knows I could afford to pay for a few people’s livelihoods.

“Well enough. Did we get any calls?” Strictly speaking, Polly was not a great secretary. I sure as hell could type faster than her, and I still did most of my work on my own. But having someone to talk with meant a lot, and she was a top notch bouncer.

“A few. Seems like a lot of people are interested in talking to you. The Half-Faced Man left a message for you, Jenny said she hadn’t seen you in a couple of weeks, Lady Ann Willing wanted to talk to you, oh- and a Michael Gray came to visit you? Said he’d dropped by before, but that you hadn’t come to see him like he asked.” She smiled. That’s when I noticed her eyes were red, and her hair looked a bit dull.

“Something the matter, Polly? You look like you’ve been crying.” I frowned. “And you haven’t even used a trace of Irish accent all morning.”

“No. I mean yeah, I mean…” She sighed softly. “I broke up with Alfred.” I stared, my jaw dropping. Alfred had been in quite a few failed relationships. I’d gotten to hear about most of them. But I’d never heard of one where the woman had broken up with him. She looked up at me, and smiled. “Don’t get me wrong. I still care about him. I care the world about him. But…” She took a deep breath through her nose. “I can feel it around him. You know? The story. He’s going to have some big, earth-shakingly important story in the world, and I don’t know if I’m the one who’s going to be able to protect him.”

I frowned. “So you’re just…”

“No.” She smiled. “That’s why I’m sticking around you. Big things happen around you. Who knows, maybe I’ll get some fancy-schmancy powers like Jenny, huh?”

“You don’t have to be powerful for someone to love you. All you need to do is fulfill a few basic needs. And Alfred badly needs someone who can keep him grounded.” I sighed. “I won’t stop you, but it still seems awfully sad.”

“Nah, nah. This ain’t forever. Like I said, things happen around you.” She tapped her nails on the desk. “Maybe I’ll become the kind of person who could be with him, eh? Or maybe I won’t. It’ll be a hell of a ride, either way.” She chuckled. “You want me to come along with you to the asylum? The Earlen isn’t going to put a bomb in my car, you know.”

“The offer’s a kind one, and I might take you up on it when we go to visit Lady Ann Willing and Jenny.” I smiled. “But I could really use the exercise.”

The snow was crisp and heavy on the sidewalks and the grass, but the roads were clear. That was one thing to be said about the Northeast, it had its shit together when it came to snow. I pedaled through the bitter cold, gloves keeping my hands warm. The iron sap gloves. I had a few remaining questions for the Half-Faced Man, and all that he had put me through. The thought kept the cold off of my back, and gave my legs fresh strength. I made it up the long hill to the Inebriate’s asylum in one push, and chained my bike up to the fence outside.

“Atina.” He smiled, as I approached him. He looked around the building, a nostalgic expression on his face. “They’re thinking of moving the court, you know?” He shook his head. “A sad thing. But this too shall pass, hmmm?” He smiled, and traced a finger across one of the stone walls, as though caressing a lover, and I felt vaguely embarrassed. “It seems that everything went well for you. I am sorry we haven’t talked for a time, I wanted to give you time to recover after the difficulty I placed you in.”

“Yes,” I said, giving a light smile. “You had quite a hand in all of this.” My fist tightened behind my back as I stepped closer, nonchalant in my movements. “You were the one who found Jenny in the first place. You sent her to my office, gave her my card, got me involved in this whole mess. A very prescient move on your part. Then, you told me to start looking for a way to sell the coins, which brought me closer to Roy. Your advice wound up ending with me meeting Miss Faraday in Atlantic City. But I have to ask myself, it all seems very manipulative.” I stepped even closer. One good strike with the iron-filled gloves could put him on his ass. Fae didn’t like iron. “How long have you known Roy was a dragon?”

“Roy’s a dragon?!”

I’d seen the Half-Faced Man annoyed. I’d seen him irritated. I’d seen him surprised, I thought. This was something beyond surprised. Flabbergasted seemed like the appropriate word. His mouth had dropped open, the expression of shock so wide his jaw looked to be in serious danger of falling off. I coughed, and swallowed, feeling a little weak in the knees. “You… You didn’t know he was a dragon?” I asked, as my hand unclenched slowly.

“Dragons are extinct!” He rested his hands on his forehead. “You came face to face with a dragon- I called you here to ask you how you survived! I had planned to try to save you, pull you through to a place of safety, but I couldn’t push my way through to where you were, I thought Chaac had set up some kind of barrier- Oh god.” He sank down into a squat, both hands on his head. “A dragon. A dragon.”

“The, uh… The first dragon, in fact. That’s what he claimed. And he was… terrifying.”

“The first dragon.” The Half-Faced Man’s voice was weak. “In Binghamton.”

“You really didn’t know?” I asked softly.

“The things that I don’t know are few. But sometimes, the gaps in my knowledge are very significant. How did you quell the dragon? Usually, if one of them is roused, it’s… chaos. Destruction incarnate. Conquest and death. The least of them, in the waning days of heroism, were still natural disasters unto themselves. By the four seasons, I thought Chaac was a serious threat, how are you still alive?”

“I think he fell in love.”

The Half-Faced Man swallowed. “With you?” I nodded softly, feeling embarrassed at the inherent narcissism in suggesting anyone was in love with me. “Well. I fear that I have landed you in the hot soup. What did he demand of you?”

“My soul.”

“Oh, Atina, I’m so sorry-”

“I didn’t give it to him. I made an alternate agreement. I promised him I wouldn’t ask for his help, that I wouldn’t make him defend me.” The Half-Faced Man stared at me.

“You persuaded a dragon. Dear god, he really must be in love.” He rested his hands on his head. “I don’t think I can help you with that. I’m sorry, but the first dragon… That is well beyond my abilities.”

“He left,” I said softly. “I don’t know if he’s ever going to come back to the city.”

“For all of our sakes, I hope he never does.” The Half-Faced Man leaned forward, and sighed. “I am sorry, Atina. I did not foresee these consequences.”

“Well, you can’t win them all.” I sighed. “God, I could do with a drink. Haven’t been able to muster the energy to booze it up since the end of the trial. How about you and I meet up tomorrow for a beer?”

“Tomorrow? Not tonight?”

I smiled. “I’m afraid I’ve got plans for tonight.”

When I returned to the office, I was feeling ready to take the nice, heated car to our next destination. Binghamton is a beautiful, gorgeous city for perhaps five or six months out of the year. I was deep in the other side of the year, when it was a frozen arctic hellhole. This was still a nice year, but that meant only that I could survive the trip back to the office. I spent the entire drive to the botanical garden rubbing my hands together, and warming them by the heater vents. It felt immensely good to sit there, warmed, and relaxing for a while.

The botanical garden looked stark as hell, but even that was kind of pretty. Jenny sat in a small gazebo, on a cleared off space. A small pad of paper sat on her lap, a pencil in one hand. As Polly and I approached, she smiled. She was back in school. I’d been surprised, but she’d made it clear that her parents wouldn’t accept ‘Solar goddess’ as a career. Nobody outside of the supernatural world would know what had happened to Tony, but I knew that she had buried him here, in the botanical garden. I had been there when she did, just after the trial. She was still trying to figure out how to tell his cousin. “Atina, tell me, how does this sound to you? Ice settles on wood/The sun does not warm the earth/The world slumbers on.”

“Mmm. Doesn’t really have a cutting word, does it?” She sighed, and nodded. “Still, I like it.”

“Mmmm, if only my teachers did.” She studied the pad, and then looked up at me. “You still haven’t cashed the check I sent you.” It had arrived shortly after we’d finished the transfer of assets from Hun-Came to Jennifer. The old vampire had taken to compound interest in a big way. The check had been for all that I had expended in the case, and a bit more.

“I got lucky. And I did some things I’m not very proud of, there, at the end. How’s Chaac?”

“Interesting, as always. You took chances, Atina. Yet things worked out, didn’t they?”

“They might not have.” I sighed softly. “I don’t-”

“Cash the damn check, Atina.” She gave me a wry smile. “I was angry, but you made the right decision. That is why I have a lawyer, to make the right decision when I am not thinking clearly. Hmm… Frost is a cruel king/ But cherries blossom and then/Pink Funeral Shroud.” She twisted her lips, crinkling her nose. “No, no. Still not quite right.” She sighed. “I’m sorry I was angry. I’m sorry I forced you into a difficult decision. But you made it so I could go back into the sun. You knew better than me.” She chuckled. “There are so many people in this world who know better than me. It’s rather strange to be more powerful than most of them.”

I couldn’t meet her eye. She didn’t know how little I’d been able to plan. “How are you settling into the whole vampire life?”

“Mmm. It is… troublesome.” She smiled wryly. “At least I have not gone hungry. Hun-Came made very sizable regular ‘donations’ to the Red Cross. They show their appreciation. I’ve been going through two pints a week.” She frowned. “Dean Morton has been making overtures towards me about creating a pact with one of his students, but they’re all such… nerds.”

“Yeah. Yeah, they are.” I smiled. “I’m sure you’ll find a good person when you’re ready for it, and need it. And thank you for forgiving me.”

“Well, someone had to, or you’d just go on being a living guilt complex.” She smiled. “I called my family. I’ll be seeing them over the summer. I might have to talk with you about immigration procedures at some point, though.”

“Well, you’re in luck there. Turns out the United States loves helping rich people immigrate.” I gave a smirk. “We can think up businesses for you to start. Once you do that, hey, bam, they probably won’t even make you do a citizenship test.”

“God Bless America.” She tapped her chin. “Hmmm… Cold has killed the land/All life has ended and yet/this too shall pass.

“Last part isn’t five syllables, is it?”

Jenny smiled. “Sometimes the message is more important than the format. Sometimes it’s worth breaking a tradition.”

Polly snorted. “Yeah, see how that one works on your teachers.”

I looked around. Jenny was dressed loosely, in a jacket that was meant more for fashion than for warmth, and a light skirt. “I have to say, you don’t seem to be taking the loss of feeling cold very poorly. You don’t miss that like you missed the sunlight?”

“Atina, this city is a frozen wasteland for five months out of the year. As far as I’m concerned, becoming immune to the cold was the single largest advantage of becoming a vampire.” She smiled warmly. “Polly, cash the damn check.”

“I will.”

“And if you see Fang Fen… please tell her that I hope she comes back.”

“I will,” I saidsoftly.

It wasn’t that I was rich or anything. The money had been good, but after putting a large portion of it towards taxes, repairing my house, my office, paying back my debts, most of it was gone. Still, enough was left that I’d be able to keep the lights on for a good while, and jobs had been flowing my way. It was far from ‘retire at 30’ money, but retirement didn’t sound like much fun at all. Besides, the world was ending. I didn’t want to die wishing I’d spent more time at the office.

Lady Ann Willing met me for tea. It was a lot less intimidating than usual, partially because of the children. Lady Ann smiled towards me as the pair of children ran through the room. “Great, great, great, great, great grand-children. Their mother and father are sending them to stay with me for a little while. Now, children, don’t be rambunctious with Miss LeRoux. She is a lawyer, you know. A very fine and noble profession.”

I snorted. “God, don’t encourage them to be lawyers, Lady Ann. I don’t need the competition.” I gave the kids a smile, nonetheless. You ever want to have kids? I do. Man, I’d love to have kids. It was just one of those things where you always thought ‘I can do it later.’ Ah well, maybe once they invented artificial wombs, and I met a guy who wasn’t a psychotic all-powerful demon. Call me picky. “So, what did you want me for?”

“Just to have tea. To talk a bit. No great matters of law or import. The city is stabilizing. Great changes have rippled the fabric, and because of your actions, they did nothing more than ripple.” She smiled. “I suppose I just want to say thank you for everything that you did. You did not have to fight as hard as you did, you did not have to do everything that you did, but because of the effort you put in, well. It’s a good day.” She tousled the hair of one of the children, and the child laughed with glee, squeezing her hand. “And I am ready to step down as the leader of this city.”

“Step down?” My eyes widened. “But- You- I.” I closed my mouth. “Who’s going to keep the undead in line?”

“I do not know. Dean Morton, Edwin Link, Tadodaho, all of them would be fine choices. I will not be stepping down all at once, I will continue to do what I can to stabilize things. This is more of a leave of absence than anything else. But I think that the city would benefit from some fresh blood. I will keep you informed.” She sipped her tea.

The last stop of the evening was the school. I walked through the twisting halls of one of the larger buildings, following a byzantine set of instructions that seemed to carry me past the same few rooms half a dozen times. The seventh time, there was a new room at the end of the line of rooms, with a delicate silver pentagram inscribed on the doorknob. I turned it, and stepped into the room.

Michael Gray was a rather wild-eyed young man with the kind of beard you get from not taking care of your beard. He turned towards me, his eyes widening. “Miss LeRoux! I’m sorry. I tried to get in touch with you several times. You are in danger. Grave danger. There is a creature, a beast, a leviathan, stirring in this place. I know I may sound crazy, but there is something terrible. It nearly rose a month ago, but then grew quiescent. That night of the blackout, when that tornado destroyed that Shark Belly. I fear that it may raise again, and it has its eyes on you-”

I placed a hand on his shoulder. “I understand, and I believe you. It’s safe, for now. But I think I’ll need to visit you again, in the future. If you think that the beast is going to rise again, if you feel it stirring again, I want you to call me immediately. Okay?”

By the time I returned to the office, the sun had set. I pulled on my jacket. “Polly, I’m going to call it an evening. I’ve got a real estate transaction to check over tomorrow, if I’m not in by 9, give me a call and make sure I’m not sleeping in. Alright?” She gave me a smile, and I bicycled home. A light, powdery snow was falling, but it had not yet grown thick enough to coat the ground and become slippery and treacherous. It stuck on my arms, melting into droplets as I peddled. I stepped up to the front door, carrying my bike, and noticed that it was very slightly ajar.

I slid the door open, slowly, as quietly as I could. I placed the bicycle up against the wall, kickstand down, where the snow could melt harmlessly on the linoleum tiles. I took a few steps forward, towards the kitchen. Someone was inside. I clenched my fist in preparation, and stepped into the doorway.

“Hello, Atina.” Roy turned towards me, and smiled. His voice was as warm and gentle as ever, with that same silly accent. Three pots bubbled on the stove, and the smell of sweet sauces and meats filled the air, making my head spin. “Sorry, I thought you’d be out a little bit longer, dinner’s still going to be a few minutes.”

I threw my arms around his shoulders, and squeezed him as hard as I could. It didn’t even faze him, but he ran a hand over the back of my head. “I got your letter.”

He smiled. “I shouldn’t stay for too long. Wouldn’t want anyone to get suspicious-”

“Stay the night. Please?” I smiled up at him, and he rubbed the back of his head. Then he nodded.

I slumped down into the chair, as he poured me a cup of hot chocolate. I sipped at it slowly, eyes closed. He’d made it with milk, the real kind, with just a hint of peppermint from the herb garden. The two of us sat, and ate dinner together on the small kitchen table, intimate and warm. He listened and nodded and laughed and groaned as I told him about the real estate transaction and the bastard clients, and it all felt perfect. He loved me. And I loved… if not him, the him he could be. The Roy he’d shown me. Maybe the monster out of my nightmares was who he really was. Maybe the soft-hearted goof who made the world seem worth it was real. I wanted to luxuriate in that. God damn it, I deserved to feel loved for a few brief moments, at least.

“Here. It’s my favorite movie.” He lay on the couch, and I lay on top of him, my head on his stomach, lying on my back. His fingertips kneaded at my scalp slowly, running across them. It was a fantastic massage, and I groaned, only partially because of his choice of movie. It had arrived in the envelope that morning.

“Reign of Fire? That movie was awful.”

“Hey, it’s one of the great Draconic tragedies. The dragons come so close to victory, but then, tragically, are cut down.” He shook his head. “Very moving.”

“Hell no. We’re watching Godzilla.” I smiled, taking the remote control. “One of the Showa era ones. Something where he’s the big lovable goofy hero.” Roy snorted softly, but I flicked over the Netflix list anyway and started the movie. The two of us watched for a while, and I lay in his arms. He was warm. You rarely notice it, when you’ve gone without for a while, but human contact is a wonderful thing. Touching someone, being touched. We’re programmed from birth, like most mammals, to find that very soothing. Grooming, intimacy, they’re all things that we need. I wondered if it was the same for Roy, or if he was just that different.

“Atina?” He frowned. “You’re staring at me.”

“If I hadn’t saved Chaac and the others, what would have happened? Would you have destroyed the world, or…” I left the words unsaid.

He frowned. “I don’t know. I suppose that… If you had let them die, if you hadn’t done everything you could to save even someone who had betrayed you, you wouldn’t be the woman I fell in love with. And leave it at that. Shall we?”

I slowly settled, nodding, turning my head towards the movie. Right now, the world wasn’t ending. Right now, Roy wasn’t evil. Right now, there were no catastrophes, there was no one I loved whose life was sitting on the line. Right now, the only things that I had to worry about were a few annoying clients. I was getting steady work, my friends still cared about me and were proceeding towards the future. I had someone in my life who would hold me and watch bad movies with me and who could cook, who could cook wonderful food and who agreed to spend the night. And hey, he was a dragon, so he was probably even rich.

For the moment, things were good.

This too shall pass.

But not yet.

 

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