"You can't come, sweetheart," Carrow told the irate seven-year-old seated on the bunk before her. "Oblivion's not a place for kids."
Sometime between last night and this morning, Ruby had decided she would not be separated from Carrow.
Throughout the night, Carrow had lain awake, wanting to be there if she woke missing her mother. Carrow had been exhausted and knew she needed to be strong for her mission, but putting Ruby's needs above her own affected her in ways she wasn't ready to analyze.
Once, the girl had sleepily mumbled, "Mommy?"
Tears threatening, Carrow had said, "It's okay, baby. Go back to sleep."
But since Ruby had awakened this morning, there'd been nonstop hissy. At least she hadn't passed out so far.
"Why do you have to leave this morning?" Ruby demanded.
"The sooner I leave, the sooner I can return. Now, Dr. Dixon is going to sit you until Lanthe gets back, okay?"
Ruby crossed her little arms over her chest, jutting her chin. "You'renot leaving me behind. Or I'll do a spell to make you smell like ass. Forever."
Carrow raised her brows. "Harsh, Ruby, harsh." I think I'm the one who taught her to say "smell like ass." "And you can't do spells, anyway. Remember what I said about the collar?"
From behind Carrow, Lanthe "uietly said, "You need to be firmer with the child."
Over her shoulder, Carrow muttered, "Come on, think about what she's been through." And Carrow had no way to comfort her, none of her old tricks to pull.
Before when Ruby had cried, Carrow had been able to solve all with strategic bouts of consumerism. An all-expenses paid trip to Disney World for her and her posse of friends, a monkey, a robot, a half-pipe skating ramp. Easy, peasy, lemon s"ueezy.
Lanthe scoffed. "I lost my parents when I was not much older than she is."
Funny, so did I, Carrow thought. But she shook away those memories. She didn't have the luxury of wallowing in the past. As she looked down at Ruby, it struck Carrow yet again that she now had a responsibility. Someone depending solely on her. "You're going to be good for Miss Lanthe, right?"
"Miss Lanthe?" the sorceress repeated, her blue eyes gleaming dangerously. "Why don't you just buy me a minivan, zip me into mom jeans, and shoot me in the face?"
Carrow shrugged. "I'll make this up to you when we all get out, yeah?"
The sorceress played with one of her dark plaits. "Melanthe's sitting service has rates of one hundred K an hour."
"Put it on my tab."
Footsteps sounded down the corridor. Coming for me. Ruby heard them as well; she launched herself from the bunk at Carrow's legs.
Carrow caught her up, swinging the girl into a hug. Ruby clung with her little arms, her face streaked with tears as she pressed it against Carrow's neck. Carrow stared at the ceiling, struggling to keep from bawling with her.
"Promise you'll come back," Ruby whispered.
Her words sounded slurred, babyish even. Promise came out as pwomise. Carrow knew precisely jack-point-jack about raising kids, but she didn't think this reversion could be a good thing, in light of the circumstances.
Carrow eased Ruby back to meet her eyes. "I vow to the Lore that I will come back for you. You believe me, don't you?"
A slight nod.
Fegley, Dr. Dixon, and a contingent of guards arrived, opening the cell's glass door. The woman reached for Ruby, but Carrow hugged her even closer.
"Anything happens to her, it's on your head, Dixon." She cast the doctor a warning look, knowing her irises would flicker. Carrow's eyes didn't change color with emotion. They changed brightness, glittering like stars. Right now, she was literally starry-eyed, and it was freaking the mortal out.
Dixon stared, absently replying, "L-like we agreed ..."
Ten minutes later, Carrow sat in a military Humvee, one of five that made up Fegley's convoy. As the truck bounced down a rutted road outside the facility, Carrow gazed out of the rain-slicked window, still in turmoil, replaying the sound of Ruby screaming for her. How can I miss her like this already, as if I've left my heart behind?
Giving herself an inward shake, Carrow forced herself to study her surroundings.
The road wound through a moist forest overflowing with fir trees. Lichen and moss coated fallen trunks and anything stationary, making everything appear fuzzy, any sharp edges smothered by green. The area looked like it could be in the Pacific Northwest.
Way to narrow it down, Carrow.
The landscape was definitely coastal, which lent credence to the latest rumor going around - that the Order chummed the surrounding seas to attract great white sharks, ensuring no immortal could escape by water....
As her eyes darted over geographic details, she tried to mentally prepare for her mission, reflecting on all she'd learned from the dossier.
She was filled with curiosity about Malkom Slaine. What had happened when he'd been turned into a Scarba? Had he become the walking dead or had his demon nature remained dominant? Had he been alone for all those years?
Did the Order just assume she'd have sex with him to lure him back?
Carrow couldn't remember the last time she'd taken a lover. She would've enjoyed more, but she'd learned that sex didn't necessarily make all men happy. It made them feel good, relaxed, but not necessarily joyful. There was angry sex, insecure sex, preening sex. Some men needed validation, others vindication, but most thought of wild-child Carrow as a con"uest.
If she knew she wouldn't get all her needs met, she didn't go all the way.
Now she might not have the luxury of being choosy....
Eventually, the convoy parked around a large clearing encircled by five e"ual-sized boulders. As she climbed from the truck, Carrow sensed power there, sacredness.
Then she glared up at the steady deluge of rain that wetted her leather boots and skirt, reminding Carrow how much she loathed the wilderness. For her, the "great outdoors" was as much an oxymoron as "true myth."
Last night, Dixon had suggested combat boots in place of Carrow's own - her two-thousand-dollar, gathered-leather, over-the-knee boots. "Do you want me to go in as an enchantress or a warrior?" Carrow had asked testily. "Pick a caste, any caste, mortal. I myself think I have the best chance as an enchantress. And fuck-me boots are standard-issue."
Carrow gazed down at the mud creeping around her soles. Oh, well. She would rather die than admit a mortal was right.
Furthering his own doom, Fegley yanked Lanthe out of another Humvee by her collar, shoving her into the clearing. His continued cruelty gave Carrow insight into the skin-bag of waste that was Fegley. She'd decided he was a deeply insecure man who hated women.
This gig gave him power over females he would never otherwise possess.
Enjoy it while you can. Only a matter of time before he went down. Once Carrow got Ruby settled at Andoain, she would return here and go wicked on their asses.
"Get to it," Fegley ordered Lanthe. "You have two minutes. Try anything and the snipers will plug your skull."
With a killing look, the sorceress raised her hands. Soon an iridescent blue light glowed from her palms. Her face pinched with strain as she created a door-sized threshold, carving a black vortex as if through thin air.
Teeth gritted, Lanthe said, "Be careful out there, witch."
"I will." She shouldered her pack, readying herself at the portal's edge. "You take good care of my little girl until I get back." My little girl. As soon as she said the words, Carrow knew they were true. Ruby was hers. Would always be.
"I will take care of her," Lanthe said, but she glanced away.
The sorceress truly didn't think Carrow was going to make it back?
Before she could "uestion Lanthe, Fegley planted himself in front of Carrow. "You've got six days to get your target back to this portal. Saturday night, witch, no later than midnight, Oblivion Standard Time. Your tor"ue will activate an hour before then. You show without Slaine, and we'll slam the door right in your face. Lastly, don't call him by his name, or he'll know you're a mole. Clear?"
"As clear as you can make it, fuckwit. Anything else?"
Fegley smirked. "Yeah, if the demon finds out what you're planning, he'll cut off your head and mount it on a pike." Carrow was still gaping when the man grabbed her shoulder. "Go to hell, witch. Literally."
Then he shoved her into the abyss.
No sign of Ronath. The afternoon was drawing to a close, and now another interminable night loomed.
Malkom ceased his pacing to gaze out over the desert yet again. He'd had a sense that something momentous was about to occur, a feeling of destiny - which in his case usually meant destruction.
"Face me, armorer!" he roared.
Only the winds answered. With a disheartened exhalation, Malkom turned back toward his lair, eventually snagging a bird for his dinner on his way. Again he recognized that the supply of game was dwindling. Though he possessed unnatural speed, he found it increasingly difficult to sustain himself here.
Snap. The bird's neck cracked in Malkom's fist, and even over the howling winds, he detected the sound. With an easy yank, he severed the head from the body, then lifted the gushing neck over his mouth to sate his vampire need for blood. Back within his home, he'd cook the meat to feed the demon within -
He lowered his arm, his ears twitching. His heightened senses perceived a brief portal opening, a disturbance in the plane below his mountain home. Directly before the forest lay a circle of five boulders, marking a notorious portal's location.
He rose to investigate, tensing to trace to the circle. Nothing. Even after all this time, he still forgot that he could no longer teleport. Not since the Scarb a ritual.
No matter. He was fast, could be down in the forest in minutes.
The opening of the portal meant one of two possibilities.
More mortals had been dispatched to the wastelands to capture him. If he'd ever learned how to laugh, he would've now. Whenever they invaded his territory, he'd dismembered every soldier who'd dared set foot on his mountain, piling the mangled body pieces in a gruesome display at the closed threshold.
When the soldiers beseeched him for mercy or screamed their prayers, they always spoke Anglish, the vampires' language, which only sealed their fates.
Though Malkom recognized the tongue, he no longer comprehended it, hadn't spoken it in centuries - but hearing it enraged him.
The other possibility? The portal was being used to dispose of more Lore creatures, exiled criminals.
If so, they'd never know they were about to be judged once more. He sneered, knowing it was an ugly sight. By me.