The world burst into layers of old magic, caught and tangled like slowly dissolving spiderwebs. The ashy macramé hung in the air, snagged on the building fronts, smudged in pastel luminescence among the piles of garbage leaning farther down the alley.
Scents came at me too quickly, bubble gum and booze: Tomi; pine and spice: Zayvion; Diesel, mold, algae, moss, grilled meat, and soap from a nearby dry cleaner: the city.
The other scents were harder to sort from the stink of dog shit that permeated the entire alley. Burnt blackberry, licorice, the chemical taint of formaldehyde, and a burn of copper that tasted like hot pennies on the back of my tongue.
And among it all fear. Pain. Death.
I noted it all with detached interest, not wanting to let my emotions get in the way of casting magic.
I drew one of the most simple glyphs for Light, thinking
, as I poured magic out through my fingertips to fill the ribbon and promise of the glyph.
An orb of light the size of a grapefruit appeared in front of my hand and flooded the alley with white light.
Probably should have used a lot less magic. The orb blazed like a searchlight, reflecting off the fog instead of piercing it. Blinded by the brightness, I caught only a vague outline of the figure crouching in the alley.
Hunched over, the size of a thin man or a big dog, the figure was gravestone white. Its head swiveled toward me and was too wide for a man, unless he was wearing a hood. Eyes shone animal green. Human eyes, I thought, but everything else about him was wrong.
He lifted away from the other, crumpled form on the ground. Then he lunged at us.
Zayvion grabbed my arm.
The thing’s blood-covered mouth opened on a yell, revealing fangs thick as my thumb on both the top and bottom of his jaw.
My back hit the rough stucco of the antique shop. I exhaled at the impact. Zayvion spun, pressed his back full-body against me. He blocked my view of the thing.
He whispered something that sounded like “Dead” and threw his arms out to both sides.
The smell of butterscotch and rum assaulted my nostrils, filled my mouth and lungs. A second ago, I couldn’t see around Zayvion. Now that he had cast this spell over us, I couldn’t see Zayvion at all. I still felt him, his wide back pressed against me, his hip leaning against mine. Through a wavering, watery curtain around me, I could make out the buildings. But I looked right through where Zayvion should be, where I felt him, and saw only the sagging bricks across the alley in front of me,
Weird, weird, weird.
It was a Shield spell I’d never seen before. Some kind of camouflage.
Zay didn’t move. I could feel his breathing, even and la bored, like he was jogging or lifting weights. I got the feeling he wanted me to be quiet and still, so I did my best not to freak out while my claustrophobia stuck fingers down my throat and made me want to scream.
Just because I couldn’t see any living thing didn’t mean I couldn’t hear.
The thing yelled again, a nerve-burning sound that was half human and wholly something else. The muscles down Zayvion’s back flexed, and he leaned forward a fraction, as if pushing against an unmovable wall.
Sweat poured down my back, trickled between my breasts. I wanted to run, run, like a child from a nightmare, like an adult from a gunman, a killer, death. Instinct told me that thing out there was death. My death. Zayvion’s death. And death to whatever it had been feasting on before we interrupted it.
And then it wasn’t yelling anymore.
It was talking.
Its voice was low—a man’s—words mangled by fangs. Those two words crawled under my skin, and I wished he’d go back to yelling.
Okay, yes, I was afraid. Yes, I was comforted knowing Zayvion would stand in front of me and put himself in the way of danger. But I was done being smashed against a wall, unable to move my hands, and therefore more helpless than if I were free and standing beside my knight in leather coat armor.
I drew my hand up Zayvion’s back, felt the tension in his muscles. It occurred to me that with his hands stretched out on either side, holding this spell in place like a curtain over a window, his hands were not free to draw glyphs. He couldn’t cast.
Not a problem. Because I sure as hell could.
I pulled magic up from the stores deep within the earth and it poured into me, filling me, jumping to my call until I burned with the strength of it.
I set a new Disbursement—a little more pain to that headache—and stepped out from behind Zayvion, outside his reach. I stood next to him.
“No!” Zayvion yelled. The spell he cast broke. Butterscotch and rum magic rained big, warm, slippery drops around us.
“Fear this,” I growled at the thing in front of us. I traced the glyph for Impact and poured all the magic I had in me into it.
The thing was a man, I think—heavily modified or disfigured, his arms too long, skin too white, and covered in blood. His legs bones were wrapped in sinew and bent wrong at the knees. He pivoted so damn fast, I didn’t even have time to swear.
He dropped to all fours, dodging my spell. The spell bashed into the brick wall behind him, blowing a hole into the building and sending brick and dust everywhere. Something farther down the alley skittered and ran—the very human sound of footfalls.
A siren called out in the distance.
Then the thing, still on all fours, ran. Long legs and hands stretched out into a strange liquid lope. He covered twice as much ground as anything I’d ever seen—man, animal, or nightmare—a blur of white against shadow that crossed the street and disappeared, like a ghost into the foggy night.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”Zayvion yelled.
I rubbed at my neck, which already hurt, and worked on letting go of the magic, my panic, and the push of adrenaline that made me want to yell back at him.
“So, you do lose your cool,” I said. “Who knew?”
“Do you know how stupid that was?” he asked.
“I don’t even know what kind of man? Creature . . . ?” I glanced at Zayvion, whose locked-jaw anger flickered at that guess. “Creature,” I confirmed, “that was. Do you?”
“Good, because I don’t. Want to see if it’s still in fighting range?”
I wiped my hands on my coat, because I felt dirty, covered in shit and blood even though I hadn’t touched anything in the alley. I strode over to where the creature had been eating.
Zayvion swore, and I mean he pulled out a raft of curses that made me rethink his upbringing. He stormed out of the alley and onto the sidewalk, six feet and then some of pissed-off assassin.
Me, I could hold my calm in high-stress situations. I was good at denial—had plenty of practice. I simply blocked out the fear, terror; shoved a metaphorical sock into the mouth of the little girl’s screaming panic in my mind; and took it one thing at a time. First thing was to see whether anything else was still alive back here.
I took the time to recast Light, got the glow down to a tolerable level, and left the hovering orb behind me as I walked forward slowly and quietly. If something was alive, it was probably also hurt. Sometimes injured people and animals attacked when someone was trying to help them.
I drew a circle in the air with the index fingers of both hands, pinching the point where the circles closed between my index finger and thumb. Containment spells, the basics of Hold, that I could quickly fill with magic and toss at whatever was back there.
After a few steps, I was walking in a thin trail of blood; a few steps more and the blood thickened with gore.
And Nola had wanted me to wear my strappy sandals. Shows you what a country girl knew about city dating.
About twenty feet into the alley, I spotted the mess. It wasn’t moving, wasn’t breathing. I dropped the glyph in my left hand and put my palm over my nose to try to block the stink of death, defecation, and rotted magic.
Large enough to be another person, the poor thing was spread across the entire width of the alley. From the bits I could recognize—a muzzle, tail, a paw attached to half a leg—I knew it was a dog. Had been a dog.
That thing hadn’t just killed it, it had ravaged it. There were bloody bits everywhere, but the inside gore—heart, intestine, lungs—none of that was left. Just skin and bits of bone.
Bile rose up in my throat and I swallowed to keep from puking. My eyes watered, and I started coughing.
I scanned the mess one last time, looking for a collar. I couldn’t see any, and I just didn’t have it in me to touch the poor thing’s remains. I backed away from the corpse, blinking back tears.
Zayvion made some noise striding toward me. Probably so I wouldn’t be surprised.
I turned my back on the mess and headed toward him, trying to hold it together.
“What’s back there?” he asked.
“A d-dog,” I stuttered.
Way to sound tough, Beckstrom
, I thought.
Zayvion took a deep breath, filling his chest and making him look even bigger than he was. But when he exhaled, some of the anger was gone, replaced by his familiar, and at the moment much-appreciated, Zen.
He placed his hand gently but firmly on my right arm. “If you ever do that again, if you ever break a protection spell, I will knock you down and drag you to safety. Do you understand me?”
He closed his eyes and shook his head. Okay, so maybe he really was still angry.
“Hey, it’s not like anyone taught me about protection spells like that, that—”
“Camouflage,” he said.
“Camouflage you did. You want me to stay out of your way, then I will.” I took a step, but he pulled me against him so quickly, my boot slipped down the side of his shoe, probably smearing blood and gunk all over the outside of his leather loafers.
His arms closed around me and I could feel the heat of his body, smell the sweet pine and spice of his cologne over the sharp bite of his fear and sweat, could feel the pounding of his heart—strong. Fast.
But it was not a loving embrace.
“Let me go,” I said.
“Not until you understand me.” Zayvion searched my face. “You could have been hurt. Killed. It had fed—was feeding—and you have too much magic it wants. It could have killed you.”
“Got it. Big scary monster is not my friend. Now let go.”
He didn’t loosen his grip. The stomach-dropping panic of claustrophobia licked across my skin. I didn’t do tight spaces—not even someone’s arms—very well. “Zayvion, let go.” My voice was a little higher than I liked.
“Never storm into a dark alley. Never jump out when someone’s trying to protect you. Never throw magic blind at something and expect it will go away.”
“You better let go,” I said. Panic and gore on an empty stomach were a bad combination.
“There are things in this city, Allie,” he continued like I hadn’t said anything. “Things that will kill you in a second. And if you don’t show some caution you’ll never learn how to defend yourself—”
“I’m going to barf.”
got his attention.
I was out of his arms in a flash. Maybe a little too fast. I stumbled back a step or two. His hand on my arm kept me from falling, which was nice. I pressed my hand against the wall and just stood there a second, breathing the cold and fog down into my lungs so it could cool the hot panic in the pit of my stomach.
It took some time, maybe two minutes, for the nausea to pass. Zayvion was silent, waiting, one hand pressed between my shoulder blades. Touch, his touch, felt good. I stood away from the wall. And grinned at the look on Zayvion’s face—something between worry and confusion.
“What? Never seen a girl get sick before?”
“Are you okay?” he asked. “Did it touch you?”
“The dog thing? No. It’s just ...” I swallowed. “Don’t pin me down like that, Zay. I hate not being able to move.”
“I know.” That surprised me. But then, he probably knew lots of things about me I didn’t remember telling him. “I . . . wasn’t thinking,” he said. “But you should never break a Camouflage spell, and never assume attack is the best action. Did I make that clear?”
“Loud and,” I said.
The wind stirred the fog just enough to revive the stink of the alley.
“Is that thing out there?” I asked.
“No. But I’ve called some friends. They’re looking for it.”
“Are you going to tell me what it is?” I started toward the street.
“I could. Would you rather I take you home?” Zayvion asked.
Every logical bone in my body said yes. I was a little sweaty, a little spooked, and my boots had blood on them. But, damn it, I wanted a normal date and I was determined to get it.