The police cars began to roll out of Summerfields Orchard a little before ten in the morning. Cat Hein stood and watched as the line of vehicles departed - Brattleboro and State Police vehicles, as well as crime-scene folks, who had finally finished up their work. The coroner's people had been gone before the sun had risen on the first full day of autumn, taking with them the torn and broken bodies of several of her close friends, and a number of other kind and gentle folks to whom she had offered her hospitality.
She and Tori had held each other last night and cried as they waited for the police and ambulances to arrive. The EMTs had wandered the clearing with wide eyes, pale and shaken by the carnage and by their inability to save a single life. Those who had more than minor bumps and scrapes or broken bones were already dead or quickly fading by the time they had rushed through the rows of apple trees with their equipment. A burly, gentle-eyed EMT threw up and then kept apologizing when he began to cry and could not stop. Several cops vanished into the trees for a while and Cat had heard retching from at least one of them, though they pretended they had only been investigating.
It had been the longest night of Cat's life and now she was just numb. She stood and watched a state police captain talking quietly with Ted Gately, the Brattleboro police chief. Her phone buzzed and she slipped it from her pants pocket to see that it was Tori calling.
'Hi, honey,' she answered.
'Why are they still here?' Tori asked, her voice brittle. Cat's chest tightened. A little part of Tori had broken last night, no matter what new magic might have come into the world, and Cat feared it would never be repaired.
'They're going,' she said. 'Though Chief Gately says he's going to post a car at the end of the drive and he wants us to stay closed for the day -'
'As if there's any way we would open for business with all the . . . the mess up here.'
'He means well, Tori. I'm a cantankerous bitch, and even I think he's a sweet old man,' Cat said, as she watched the state police captain drive off and Chief Gately lean down to the window of a Brattleboro police car to give orders to two of his men.
'I know,' Tori said, sighing. 'I do. And I'm glad they're going to stay, as long as they stay down there. Whatever happens now is for us to decide.'
There was weight and significance to her words beyond their simple meaning, but Cat could not reply the way she might have liked, for Chief Gately had just patted the roof of the patrol car to send the men on their way and was walking across the dusty parking lot toward her.
'The chief's coming over to talk,' she said. 'I'll be up in a few minutes.'
'Okay. Thank him from me, please.'
Cat said that she would and they exchanged their I-love-yous even as Cat met the chief's gaze, silently pleading for a moment's indulgence. When she had ended the call she clutched the phone in her hand instead of putting it back into her pocket, as if that would keep Tori closer to her.
'I'll have someone at the end of the drive all day and through the night,' Chief Gately said. He had wiry gray eyebrows that stuck out at crazy angles and the skin around his eyes sagged enough that she thought it must partly obscure his vision, but he still seemed a formidable man.
'Tori wants me to thank you, Chief. For everything,' Cat said. 'But are you sure that's necessary? I mean, if any of them got away, we have no reason to assume that they're going to come back.'
Chief Gately nodded with an expression of grim approval. 'No, I don't suppose they will, after what you gals did to them.' He put his hands on his hips, the leather of his gunbelt creaking. 'I spent sixty years or so being absolutely sure that ghosts and vampires and witches and magic were a whole lot of bunk. I guess I can file it all under things I wish I'd never learned. But I'm damn glad you ladies were able to defend yourselves. If not for that bit of hoodoo . . .'
He trailed off, obviously not knowing how to finish. They had not mentioned Keomany to the police, had claimed that the roots that had been summoned up to destroy the vampires the night before had been elemental magic wielded by the earthwitches who had gathered for the equinox. He was right about one thing, though. Without that 'hoodoo', none of them would have lived to see the dawn.
'Anyway,' the chief continued, 'you've got my direct line and the dispatch number. You call immediately if you even so much as glimpse anything out of order around here, especially after sundown. And leave the crime-scene tape up until I tell you, all right? The eggheads may want another look at something in there, although I think it's all pretty self-explanatory.'
'We won't touch it,' Cat promised. 'And thank you again.'
'What a world we live in, now,' Chief Gately said, shaking his head. He turned to walk to his car, then paused and turned toward her again. 'You know you're gonna have an inspection team out here to take statements, right? Could be UN or maybe FBI doing their grunt work. Standard procedure when vampires are concerned.'
Cat hesitated. She wished that she could have asked him not to report the incident, but she knew there was no chance of that. It would have been better if they could have handled the whole thing themselves, but the people who had been killed - her friends and guests - had families and others who loved them. It wasn't as if the survivors could have simply built a pyre in the orchard. Not in modern times.
'I understand,' she said, still biting her tongue.
She didn't want the UN involved. That meant Task Force Victor, and that meant that Octavian would find out.
Her thoughts went back to the blessed clearing with the fence around it, the one they had opted not to use, and the new growth that now thrived there. Octavian would want a say in what happened next at Summerfields, and Cat was determined to see that he didn't get it. This place belonged to her and Tori, nobody else.
Still, if Octavian had to find out, better that he find out from her.
She thanked Chief Gately and shook his hand, then watched until he had pulled out onto the road and turned toward town. Cat turned and started walking up through the orchard again, passing the shop and barn which would remain locked up all day.
Her phone was still in her hand. Reluctantly she tapped the screen and searched her contacts for him. Octavian. Her finger hovered for a moment before she tapped the screen again. She picked up her pace as she listened to it ring.
'Cat,' Octavian said, answering. 'You were on my list to call this morning.'
She frowned. 'Why would you call, after the way we left it the last time you were here?'
'There are a lot of ugly things happening right now and I was worried that you might be in danger.'
She held her breath, the muscles tensing across her back. 'And why would that be?'
'I guess you know that Nikki's dead.'
Cat shuddered and let out a breath, cursing herself. 'Shit, yes. I'm sorry. I'm not myself or I would have-'
'It's all right. I understand. And there's more. Her funeral was this morning. During the service, we were attacked by vampires-'
'This morning? During the day? Wouldn't that make them Shadows?'
'They wore these suits, some kind of protective covering. Most of us are okay, but it wasn't anything I did. At the end, something bizarre happened.'
She listened in amazement as he told her about the roots bursting from the soil and impaling the vampires, wondering all the while if it was possible that Keomany - whatever she had become - could have extended her influence hundreds of miles away. It was difficult to conceive of, but no more so than any other explanation.
'I know Keomany's dead,' he went on, 'but I've never seen another earthwitch with power like this. Have you?'
'No,' she admitted. 'I haven't.'
'And, truth be told, it sort of . . . well, I'm not an empath, but it just felt like her. Does that sound crazy to you?'
While they had been talking, she had kept walking uphill through the orchard, and now she came in sight of the fence that had been built around the clearing where the new growth had sprung up, where the tree that Keomany had grown for them towered higher than all of the others.
'Peter, has it not occurred to you to wonder why I called you? I mean, you meant to call me, you said . . . but I called you, remember?'
There was a moment of silence on the phone.
'You did,' he agreed.
'Let me ask you a question. Why did those vampires come after you today? Why did they kill Nikki and then crash her funeral like this? What's the point?'
'I don't know,' he said, his voice tense. 'The only thing we can figure at this point is that Cortez killed Nikki to get to me, and if that's true, he probably engineered the attack this morning and a trap left for a friend of mine last night for the same reason.'
'And what the hell does any of that have to do with us?' Cat asked, still angry but now also afraid.
'Besides what happened with the roots this morning?' he replied. 'If he's going after people I love - my friends - he may know I have ties to Summerfields.'
'We're not friends,' Cat said quickly.
'Aren't we?' Octavian asked.
To her surprise, she realized she wasn't sure.
'We're allies at the very least,' he went on. 'Don't you think? At least that. We want the same things for the world.'
Cat paused, frowning as she stared at the wall around the clearing. One panel of the wall had been removed and she stared at that gap, awaiting whatever might emerge. She could hear Octavian breathing on the line but had nearly forgotten she was even on the phone.
'Hello?' Octavian said.
'Sorry,' she whispered, then cleared her throat. 'I'm here.'
'And, yes, we do want the same things for the world. Sometimes I forget that. People die around you. They die because they know you, and sometimes because they know people who know you, and that just . . . it fucking sucks.'
She said this last with a hitch in her throat.
'Cat?' Octavian said, worried now. 'Did something happen?'
'You're a dangerous man, Peter. But I forget that we're on the same side. That it's a dangerous world and the fight to keep it safe belongs to all of us.'
'Cat,' he said again. 'Tell me.'
No one had come out from the fenced clearing, so she approached the opening in the wall and peeked inside. Ed Rushton was there, still pale from terror and lack of sleep, but alive and working. And Tori, of course - her beautiful Tori. But nobody else. Not unless you counted the figure that now lay on its side on the grass, curled up like a sleeping infant or a night-blooming flower, and perhaps she was a little of both. The new growth remained still. Its apple-red skin did not rise and fall with breath, nor did the vines and leaves of its hair or the bark on its arms react in any way to her arrival. It seemed inert, almost as if it were a husk now abandoned.
'Damn it, Cat, what happened?' Octavian demanded.
She looked at Tori, saw the mix of love and sorrow in her eyes, and let out a breath.
'Something terrible,' Cat said. 'But something wonderful, too.'
And she began to tell him.
Allison rapped on Octavian's hotel-room door. One way or another they were checking out today, but after the debacle at the cemetery they had come back here to regroup. For her part, she felt as if she were made of lead, as if each step or motion took ten times the effort it had this morning. She had been so at home with the fluidity of her flesh that it had become second nature. No, not even that; it was simply her nature. With the Medusa toxin coursing through her system, she felt like a comet that had crashed to earth.
She didn't like that feeling at all.
'Peter?' she called, knocking again.
A low, muffled voice came from inside the room. She frowned, wondering if he had company and who it might be. Allison tried to listen more closely but the muted voice had ceased, and a moment later there came the rattle of the lock and Octavian opened the door. He seemed distracted, not meeting her gaze as he slipped his cell phone into his pocket. The voice she'd heard had been his, on the phone.
'Hey,' was all he said.
'They're all gathered,' she replied, frowning. 'Are you all right?'
Octavian laughed with something like real humor. 'I don't even know how to define that anymore. People keep dying because of me. What I'm feeling has got to be rage. Only rage burns like this. But it feels a hell of a lot like guilt.'
He came out into the corridor and pulled the door shut behind him. 'You mean what else happened? Cortez sent a bunch of his vampires to visit Summerfields Orchard during the equinox ritual last night. A lot of people died, but it ended just like our fun at the cemetery this morning.'
Allison nodded. 'Wow, okay. Did you tell them what you said to me about Keomany? About feeling -'
'She's there,' he said, starting down the corridor ahead of her.
'Wait, what?' Allison replied, hurrying after him. She'd been on her own so long, hunted and hunter, that she was no longer used to chasing after anyone. Even when she had been human she had never liked it, but Octavian was the only person still alive that she didn't mind playing sidekick to.
He shot her a baffled look as she caught up to him.
'The other night after I left, something started growing in the field where we spread Keomany's ashes. It's like an effigy made of wood and leaves and maybe even apple, from the sound of it, but it's in the shape of Keomany.'
'That's funny?' Octavian demanded.
'I'm laughing in disbelief, not amusement,' she said. 'You're serious? And they're sure it's her?'
'No. It hasn't spoken. Hasn't even looked at them. It might be just some kind of reaction to her magic, Gaea's way of mourning Keomany's death, maybe
. But they seem to feel pretty strongly that it is her, somehow, and that she saved their asses last night. After what happened in the cemetery this morning . . . well, I'm keeping my mind open to the possibilities.'
'Don't you want it to be Keomany?'
Octavian shook his head. 'Not in the slightest. Yeah, a selfish part of me - the part that misses her - wants her back. But she gave her life in combat; she's earned a rest. Hell, Keomany earned Valhalla.'
They reached the suite that had been converted into the TFV command center.
'What do you think it means?' Allison asked, thinking about the number of recent supernatural incursions into the world and wondering what it might be doing to Gaea, the soul of the Earth.
'I don't know if it means anything. But I guess we'll find out,' Octavian said, banging on the door. 'Right now, we've got other concerns.'
Corporal Galleti, the Brazilian woman who was part of Metzger's handpicked squad, opened the door and stood back to let them in. As they entered the room, Galleti eyed Allison with thinly veiled hostility and suspicion. Another day, Allison might have confronted her; it had become tiring, being painted as a renegade for her killing of the former commander of Task Force Victor when they all knew she had been entirely justified. But they were all on edge today, and Metzger's forensics guy, Barbieri, had told her there were whispers going around that Charlotte might have led their people into the trap at Bannerman's Arsenal on purpose - that she'd been working for Cortez all along. Under the circumstances, she couldn't blame them for being wary of any Shadows in their midst. And the truth was that she had felt the same suspicions about Charlotte herself. If Octavian didn't seem so certain of her allegiance, Allison would have been among those suggesting betrayal. But Octavian vouched for Charlotte, and Allison couldn't ignore that - not when he had stood by her in the past when she had been the target of similar suspicions.
A bustle of movement accompanied their arrival. As Allison and Octavian entered the suite, warriors rose to their feet, one by one. Kuromaku was first to stand, one hand on his sword, a silent indication that he pledged his sword to whatever purpose Octavian wished to assign him. The short, powerfully built Santiago did the same, followed by the gigantic Kazimir - whose hair seemed to nearly brush the ceiling - and the lovely Egyptian, Taweret. One by one, the others in the room rose as well.
Allison nodded to Amber Morrissey, to whom Octavian had introduced her in the aftermath of the carnage at the cemetery. Amber had dropped the glamour that made her look human, and Allison took a second look at the deep burgundy of her skin and those vicious talons and thought of ancient goddesses of death and destruction. The air behind Amber shimmered slightly, and Allison assumed that the ghost of Miles Varick was also among them. Two of the mages who had come to the funeral were dead and another was in the hospital with a bullet wound, but the two remaining - a pale old man named Groff, who had a bad heart, and a skittish, greasy-haired kid named Tristan - also stood.
Commander Metzger waited with his arms folded on the far side of the room, in front of the windows. This was his suite, his command center, and his body language made it clear that he asserted his authority here. But Galleti was the only other member of the TFV in the room. Allison figured it might have been just a lack of space - it was fairly cramped in there with this many people - but she believed there was more to the absence of other troops. This might be a UN operation, but these people were Octavian's new coven. They were here at his invitation and would do as he asked, so as much as it clearly went against Metzger's instincts, the commander gave no orders.
'Mr Octavian,' he said, 'you have the floor.'
Octavian nodded and surveyed the faces in the room. Allison did the same, wondering what he saw. Some of these people he had not seen in many years, and yet when he had put out the word, each of them had come running. Other than Kuromaku and herself, the Shadows among them had not even known Nikki, but they had come to her funeral. Had they sensed that more would be asked of them than to help Octavian mourn? Surely, she thought, they must have.
They gazed at him like heirs at the reading of a will, grimly expectant.
'Thank you all for coming,' Octavian said. 'Some of this you know already, so I'll be succinct. My partner - the woman I thought of as my wife - has been murdered by a vampire named Cortez. He did this, I believe, not only to hurt me but to antagonize me. Distract me. He sent the vampires that attacked the funeral this morning, and sent another group to attack an equinox ritual friends of mine were conducting in Vermont last night.'
Metzger frowned worriedly at this new information.
'There's more, and you'll all be fully briefed shortly,' Octavian went on. 'But that's just one of the troubles we're dealing with. Dimensional incursions are under way in France and Italy and the forces responding are having difficulty containing them. All of these things require my attention, but I can't be in three places at once-'
'Cortez is first,' Santiago interrupted. 'Not just because he killed your lady, but because whatever he's got cooking, it's going to boil over soon.'
'What makes you say that?' Amber asked.
Santiago shrugged. 'Pretty obvious, don't you think? He's not going to go full force on Octavian at the lady's funeral and try to take out those people in Vermont - stir up that kind of shitstorm - and then waste the distractions he's created.'
Allison nodded. Smart thinking. She decided she liked Santiago.
'Agreed,' Octavian said. 'But while I can make Cortez my first priority, I can't let these incursions go on any longer. The people over there need help. I can't be in three places at once, so I'm asking you all, now, to help me. Once upon a time, I helped found a coven that included vampires and humans. A lot of them are dead, but I've fought alongside each of you in some way over the years. I think it's time for another coven. One that isn't just about survival, but about the survival of this world. Of the human race.'
'Damn,' said the greasy kid. 'Melodramatic, don't you think?'
Octavian shot him a withering look. 'I wish it were, Tristan. I really do,' he said, then glanced around the room, looking at each face.
Allison nodded to him. 'I'm in, obviously. Just point me where you want me.'
'You're with me,' Octavian said.
Good, she thought. Cortez needed killing, and it pleased her to know she would be there with Octavian to make it happen.
The rest of them began to speak or nod their assent, and it was clear there was unanimous agreement. No one whom Octavian had summoned intended to turn their back on him now. Not on him, and not on the world - because whether Tristan thought it melodramatic or not, the peril really was global. These incursions were not just the cause of chaos and the deaths of innocents, they were eroding the walls between dimensions, eating holes right through them like rust through metal. And, like rust, the erosion would spread.
Kuromaku stood a bit taller and took a step into the center of the room.
'We are all with you, old friend,' the samurai said.
'What, you're not going to draw your sword?' Allison teased. 'Raise it up, do some kind of Three Musketeers thing?'
Kuromaku raised an eyebrow. 'I'm the only one with a sword.'
'Yeah. It would look kind of silly.'
Octavian smiled and dropped his gaze. The others looked on in surprise, maybe thinking he would be angry. But of all those in the room, Allison and Kuromaku knew him best. He might be grim at times, but he appreciated the confidence their banter implied. Confidence, and commitment. They were in this together, come what may.
'All right,' Octavian said, nodding toward the Reaper. 'Amber, I'd like you and Miles to go up to Vermont right away. We have friends and allies up there who may still be in danger, plus something is happening there that I don't understand and I would like someone up there who I can trust to tell me the truth.'
He turned to Santiago. 'Rodrigo, it means a great deal to me that you're here and I hope we have a chance to talk at length when this is over. I'd like to hear of your adventures since the last time we were together. But today, I need you to take Taweret and fly to Saint-Denis in France. There are mages on the ground already, but the troops there may need somebody harder to kill to back them up.'
Santiago nodded. 'Well, if I'm anything, it's hard to kill.' He pointed at Kuromaku. 'No cockroach jokes.'
Kuromaku gave him that same raised eyebrow and Allison smiled. Someone who didn't know better would think Kuromaku had no sense of humor at all, but it was there. Wry and sarcastic, just below the surface of that dignified air.
''Maku,' Octavian went on, 'take Kazimir, Tristan, and Mr Groff and go to Siena as quickly as Commander Metzger's people can get you there. Do what you can.' He glanced around the room. 'All of you . . . just do what you can. We've got to drive back these incursions. Somehow I've got to figure out how to reinforce the barriers the church used to keep in place, but first we put out these fires.'
'And kill Cortez,' Allison said.
'Yes,' Octavian replied, his gaze turning to ice. 'That, too.'
'If I may?' Metzger began.
'It's your room, Commander,' Octavian said.
Metzger nodded. 'Thank you, but it's not my room for much longer. We're all clearing out of here today. I've got transport ready to take you all where you need to go. Before you depart, I wanted to update you on the TFV's activities.'
Allison perked up. She could tell from his tone that he had something new.
'Miss Vigeant, are you familiar with Octavian's theory about these new incursions, that they're coming through-'
'Saints' graves, yes. Go on.'
Now Metzger looked at Octavian. 'While we waited for you, I briefed everyone else. I've got a team of UN researchers compiling a list of the burial places of saints, with a special focus on Catholic saints who were known to have been beheaded; particularly if their heads were buried separate from their bodies. There are a surprising number, and they're continuing to search.'
'Good thing I never tried to be a saint,' Santiago muttered.
Any word on Charlotte?' Octavian asked.
Metzger's gaze turned grim. 'I'm afraid not. There's no sign she survived the explosion. You know it takes faith in her own-'
'I know what it takes,' Octavian said curtly.
'Of course you do,' Metzger replied. Then he glanced around the room. 'Octavian and Miss Vigeant are not leaving as yet, but I'd suggest the rest of you gather your things and meet Sergeant Galleti in front of the elevators in twenty minutes. Your transport is waiting.'
Sergeant Galleti, Allison thought, realizing the woman had received a battlefield promotion now that Sergeant Omondi had died. She wondered if Galleti felt glad or guilty, and if Corporal Song - wherever he'd gotten off to - was jealous.
There were murmurs and nods of agreement and one by one, the mages and vampires and other supernatural creatures in the room paused by Octavian to say goodbye and receive any other instructions he wanted to share. When Amber threw her arms around him and hugged him hard, whispering fresh condolences for the death of Nikki and what now seemed to be Charlotte's death, Allison paused to watch them. Despite her death-goddess appearance, the Reaper really was barely more than a girl. Octavian held onto her arms as he thanked her, obviously touched by her affection.
So strange, she thought. We are such sentimental monsters.
In the years since she had first encountered the Shadows she had often thought of a line from one of her favorite movies, Blade Runner. The android fugitives in the film were described as 'more human than human', and the words echoed in her mind in times such as these.
In moments, the room had emptied out until only Octavian, Metzger, and Allison remained.
'What's going on?' Octavian said.
'My question exactly,' Allison added. 'I could read it in your face. You've got something new on Cortez.'
Metzger did not smile, but his eyes lit up with purpose. 'Not quite yet, but we will. Your friend Charlotte led us to one of Cortez's people in that club in New York, a vampire named Danny Rouge. He could give us nothing on Cortez that we didn't already know, but we did manage to get another name out of him, a vampire out of New York named Holzman. We don't know for sure, but we don't think Holzman is one of Cortez's minions. This is a serious monster, an old-timer, not some punk off the street that Cortez bled and made one of his foot soldiers.'
Octavian and Allison exchanged a glance.
'I want to see him,' Octavian said. 'Now.'
'We're just about to question him,' Metzger replied. 'We were waiting for you.'
Octavian went to the door, opening it for Metzger to lead the way. Allison followed, wondering if her presence would really be necessary. When Hannibal had made her into a vampire, he had done terrible things to her - things she had done her best to forget. The word 'torture' seemed insufficient to describe the experience. In the years since, she had done horrible things when necessity required them, always with a cold knot of disgust in the pit of her stomach. But in both giving and receiving such treatment, she had learned all too well how to get the answers that she needed, especially from a vampire.
Reluctantly, she followed Octavian and Metzger down the corridor, thinking of this Holzman and wondering how old he really was, and how intimately familiar he might be with pain.