Pollepel Island, New York
It started with the whistling of the wind, but it would be inaccurate to suggest that she had really heard the sound. Rather, she became aware of it, just as she became aware of the swaying of the pine trees and the shafts of sunlight that sliced down through the clouds without truly being able to see them. She sensed them, building a picture in her mind as if she were painting the world anew, bringing it to life on a blank canvas.
Alive, she thought.
Yet the moment it crossed her mind she realized that was not likely. She sensed the world around her more as an idea than as anything tangible. Perhaps she was not alive after all. Could it be that she existed now only as a ghost, haunting the world where others still walked and laughed and made love? Yes, she decided, it might well be that she was a ghost. But if that were true, how to explain the strange feeling she had of strength? Of invisible muscles with which she felt, oddly, that she could reach out and take hold of the trees and the sun and the wind?
Yet beneath that feeling of strength was another, more disturbing intuition. She felt as if she were diminishing with each moment, as if she had just managed to wake from a deep, dreamless sleep and if she did not hang on to wakefulness - let herself drift off again - she might vanish into that slumber forever, until nothing remained of her but the absence of dreams.
I feel . . . she thought, and then faltered. The concept of identity had shocked her, but now that it had occurred to her she knew that it was right and necessary. Who was she? She must have a name, of course, but she could not recall what it might have been. Though she did not dare to let go of the wind and the sun and the pine trees - or the deep, swift river she now realized was below her - still she knew that there were other things beyond her present awareness that she needed to discover.
No, rediscover. For she sensed that they were things she had lost.
Fearful of that underlying feeling that she was slipping away with every gust of wind, she forced herself to focus inward, to think and examine. Instantly she was rewarded by other flashes of awareness, and yet these were not visions of her present surroundings. They were memories. Horrible, horrible memories that made her want to scream - though she had no mouth - and filled her with pain and fury that concentrated in a burning core that might have been her heart.
Images flitted through her consciousness of cruel men grinning as they hurt her, their vacant eyes as they held her down and forced themselves on her. She could feel them still, their fists striking her ribs and breasts and face, the way the shorter one had choked her while he held her down and the way she had wept as her mind screamed for air. And she remembered the cold, calculating eyes of the other, the one who had used her and plunged his fangs into her throat and drunk from her again and again. Eyes like a leopard's. A true predator's eyes.
The name came to her like the whisper of the wind, there but not there, as if it were her own personal haunting. Hatred ignited inside her and those invisible muscles constricted, the burning core of her tightening, solidifying, and more memories began to rush in, along with her own name.
Charlotte knew herself, then, and her rage burned even brighter when she realized that she had remembered Cortez's name before her own.
Kill him, she thought. I've got to kill him.
The need for vengeance erased all other yearnings. She understood what had happened to her, now, remembered coming to Bannerman's Arsenal with Sergeant Omondi and the rest of the TFV assault group . . . remembered that chamber beneath the ruins of the castle where corpses and explosives had awaited them. The explosion seared itself upon her consciousness, even as she began to understand that she was drifting on the razor edge between life and death.
Nothing more than molecules, now, drifting apart, she had been flotsam in the maelstrom of reality since the moment of that explosion. Had she been caught in the same explosion back when she had been a part of Cortez's coven she would surely be dead, now. With no faith in their ability to exist in such a state, vampires who embraced the old ways would have drifted into nothingness, molecules spreading out until they lost all cohesion and thus all awareness. It had, she realized, nearly been her own fate.
In the instant before the explosion she had begun to shift to mist, and perhaps that had helped her. But Charlotte felt certain it was fury that had kept her from being completely obliterated. Now she stoked the flames of that rage and focused, trying to pull herself back together.
At first she felt no differently. Then, slowly . . . so slowly . . . she could feel herself stop drifting. Those invisible muscles began to knit together, the fabric of her existence rebuilding itself, using fury as its mortar.
She was Kali, now. She was vengeance.
Charlotte had been following Octavian's lead, sublimating the horrors that had been inflicted upon her. But being this . . . being nothing but thought and molecules . . . had freed her from the fears and doubts of the flesh, and now she understood that her claim to retribution was just as valid as the mage's.
Slowly, in the sky above the Hudson River, hate brought her back from the edge of destruction. She thought of nothing but Cortez and his effort to make vampires once more the monsters they had been before Octavian brought them into the light.
She could not wait to show him how much of a monster she could really be.
The first thing Amber Morrissey noticed while pulling her rented Ford into the parking lot of Summerfields Orchard was the yards of yellow police tape. With the gray autumn sky hanging low overhead and casting its pall upon the orchard, there was something garish about that tape, stretched from tree to tree far up on the hillside. Despite the charm of the big barn that had been converted into a store and the pumpkins and cornstalks and other autumn decorations that were on display in front of the place, not to mention the big tractor that should have been pulling children on hayrides, her eyes were drawn to that yellow tape way up on the hill for the simple reason that it did not belong. It spoke silently but all too clearly: something terrible had happened here.
She had passed a police car as she turned in. Now, as she parked and turned off her engine, she noticed movement in her rearview mirror and saw that he had gotten out of his vehicle and was approaching her.
'What does he want?' Amber said, studying her own reflection in the mirror. 'I just restored the glamour spell when we landed. It can't be slipping.' She glanced at the seat beside her. 'It's not slipping, is it?'
To others, the passenger seat would appear to be vacant, but she could see the ghost of Miles Varick clearly. Her former professor, handsome and grizzled and dead, frowned as he studied her.
'Not from what I can see,' Miles said. 'After the killings here last night, he's probably supposed to check out anyone who pulls in.'
'What, every young mother who drops by and pulls into the parking lot to turn around when she sees the place is closed?'
'You're not turning around.'
The rap on her window made Amber jump in her seat. The engine was off so it would have been easier to just open the door, but the cop was blocking her in, now, so she turned the key enough to get the electricity running through the car again and rolled down the window.
'Afternoon, officer,' Amber said brightly.
'Can I help you, ma'am?' he said.
The ghost drifted a little nearer to her, peering out the window so close that his cheek would have been almost touching hers if he could have touched her at all. The cop's gaze did not waver; he had no trace of the sight, none of the supernatural experience that would have allowed him to see Miles or see through Amber's glamour. It made her exhale.
'My name is Amber Morrissey,' she said, reminding herself that she was here on official business. 'I've been asked by the United Nations to consult with the owners about last night's events. If you want to check on that, I can give you a direct number to reach Commander Leon Metzger of Task Force Victor.'
Not quite the truth; Octavian had sent her, but Metzger would back him up.
The cop nodded slowly. 'These ladies know you're coming?' he asked, tilting his head toward the house a ways up the hill on the right, beyond the barn.
'As far as I know they do.'
He bent and looked into the back seat, then studied her face for a moment. She wondered exactly what he thought he might see that would alarm him. One twentysomething blonde in a rental car was not going to be able to continue the supernatural massacre that had taken place in the orchard last night. The daylight was fading, but it had to be clear that if she was a vampire, she had to be a Shadow, and they were supposed to be the good guys.
'You a witch like the others?' he asked.
A ripple of disgust went through her. The urge to let her glamour fall away, to show him the terror of her true face and plunge her fingers into his chest, maybe tug out a piece of his soul, was powerful.
Instead, she smiled. It was a cold smile, she knew, and enough to get him to take a wary step back.
'I'm a whole different sort of witch,' she said.
Nervously, he returned her smile and nodded as if they had shared a joke instead of a moment that would keep him up tonight.
'You go on up, if they're waiting for you,' he said, already half-turned for the walk back to his cruiser. 'Give a holler if you need anything.'
'I'll do that.'
By the time she had rolled up the window and gotten out of the car, slipping her keys into the pocket of her burgundy, hooded sweater, he was already halfway to his vehicle. As she slammed the door, Miles's ghost passed through the glass and metal and fell in beside her, the two of them heading up toward the house on the hill together.
The path to the house was not nearly so well trodden as the others in Summerfields Orchard, reserved as it was for family and friends rather than the thousands of customers who trooped up and down the rows of apple trees and through the pumpkin patch and other parts of the orchard through three seasons every year. Glancing around, Amber was surprised that they did not see a single person outside. No one worked at harvesting apples or pulling pumpkins in. The property stretched across the road they had come in on, and she realized now that they had not seen anyone on that side either - no tractors, no pickers, not a soul. The police had not just closed down the shop, they had shut the orchard completely.
Or perhaps it hadn't been the police who made that call. After their sacred ritual, a gathering of friends and those who shared their faith, had turned into a slaughter - after they had seen some of those friends hideously murdered - of course they would cease all activities on the property, out of respect if not in mourning. With all that Amber had been through, the way she had been altered, she sometimes found herself having to work to hang on to human instincts. It troubled her very deeply, but now was not the time for her to ruminate on her own problems. Not with so much grief all around her.
'I don't like the feeling of this place,' Miles said, his voice sounding like a whisper beside her ear, though she could see him gliding along half a dozen feet away. The voices of the dead always sounded like that to her, intimate and forlorn.
'I'm sure the whole aura of the place is tainted after last night.'
'Well, it's good that they're earthwitches,' Miles said. 'It may take a while, but if anyone can purify the land it would be them.'
Amber arched an eyebrow, tempted to ask what Miles knew about earthwitches. But he had been her favorite professor, once upon a time, and she'd enjoyed his lectures so much because he seemed to know something about everything.
As they approached the house, she saw someone moving past the window and a moment later the front door opened to reveal a lovely black woman with her hair in beaded rows. Amber's first thought was that she was crying, but the woman's eyes were dry and Amber realized that she had imagined it, that the sorrow that weighed on her was so powerful it cast the illusion of tears.
'You must be Amber,' the woman said, coming down the steps and holding out her hand. 'I'm Tori Osborne.'
'Nice to meet you,' Amber said, shaking her hand. 'I'm glad Peter told you we were coming. I was afraid he might not have reached you and then I'd be all awkward and . . . well, I'm glad.'
Tori gave a curious smile. '"We". That's right, he said there were two of you. Did your partner wait in the car?'
Miles Varick's ghost gave a small laugh. 'Not much of a witch.'
'No,' Amber said to Tori, pointing at the place where the ghost stood, hanging just above the ground. 'He's right here. His name is Miles Varick.'
Tori arched an eyebrow. 'Annndd . . . he's a ghost?'
'Peter didn't mention that?'
Amber offered an apologetic shrug. 'It's a strange world, these days.'
The sadness in Tori had abated for a moment, but now it returned full force. 'It certainly is.'
She went back and closed the front door of her house, then started along another path that led around the side of the house and up into the orchard.
'Come on, then,' Tori said. 'You should meet Cat. And I know what you've really come to see.'
'We've come to help keep you safe,' Amber said, glancing sidelong at Miles's ghost. The phantom looked slightly offended.
Tori smiled. 'No offense, but I'm not sure what you and a ghost are going to be able to do for us if we have another vampire attack tonight.'
'You'd be surprised,' Amber said, grimly serious now.
Something in her tone must have gotten through to Tori, because the earthwitch glanced at her while they walked and seemed to be examining her anew.
'You didn't just come to see . . . well, to see Keomany?'
Amber froze on the path, staring at her.
'Did she just say-' the ghost began.
'Did you say "Keomany"?' Amber asked.
A ripple of anger passed visibly across Tori's face. 'I guess Octavian didn't tell either of us very much, did he? It's a bad habit he has. A dangerous habit. Did you know Keomany before?'
Amber nodded. She had fought the chaos goddess Navalica side by side with Keomany Shaw, and had seen her die.
'Well, then, you're going to love this,' Tori said, and then they were walking again, both of them a little faster than before.
It surprised Amber that their route took them away from the police tape instead of toward it, but Tori guided her through the orchard in a zigzag pattern of rows and trails, moving ever upward until they emerged at a broad clearing where a tall apple tree in full fruit stood at the center of a makeshift post and plywood fence, as if some animal had been penned inside. Two of the panels of that strange pen had been removed. Over the top they could see a pair of heads - a man and a woman - both turned away and gazing at something on the ground which seemed to fascinate them.
'Strange,' Miles said, his voice so familiar and intimate in her ear.
'What is?' Amber whispered, feeling like an intruder and not wanting to disturb the people inside the pen.
Tori glanced at her, mistakenly thinking that Amber must be speaking to her.
'The taint I felt when we arrived?' Miles said, his spectral brows furrowed with curiosity. 'It ends here. This clearing is just . . . it's pure, somehow. Clean.'
Tori led them over to the opening in the pen.
'We've got visitors, honey,' she said.
The two people inside the pen turned, startled from their reverie. The woman had to be Cat Hein, Tori's wife. The man was fiftyish and balding, but tall and with the powerful build of a fellow used to hard work. He clutched a baseball cap in his hands and looked on in deference, waiting for his companion to speak, which made her his boss.
The woman glanced at Tori, then recoiled in shock when she saw Amber, actually taking a step back, wide-eyed and open-mouthed.
'Holy shit!' she said.
'No fair,' Tori said. 'You can see the ghost!'
Cat took another step back, eyeing the new arrivals warily. 'Yeah, I can see the ghost. It's a ghost.' She pointed at Amber. 'But what the hell are you?'
The words were not spoken in disgust, but rather a combination of fear and fascination. Yet still Amber felt the kind of shame she had rarely experienced since her days of being teased in the schoolyard when Tim Hansen had told the whole sixth grade that she had stripped naked in front of him and he'd rejected her, a reversal of the truth that had nevertheless haunted her for years.
'I'm Amber,' she managed. 'Amber Morrissey.'
'Peter Octavian sent us,' Miles's ghost supplied helpfully, since unlike Tori, Cat could see him.
Tori, meanwhile, kept glancing back and forth between her wife and their guest, clearly baffled by the reaction.
'Cat, what the hell?' Tori said.
'I'm sorry,' Cat mumbled, studying Tori as if wondering why she wasn't reacting. 'Really. We've had a horrible twenty-four hours and I just . . . I knew Octavian had sent someone, but I had no idea . . .'
The woman was at a loss for words, but at least she was no longer running away.
'Why are you freaking out?' Tori asked. 'What are you . . .' She took a closer look at Amber, realization dawning. 'Wait, what do you see?'
'Better show her,' Miles said.
Amber and Tori were still outside that wooden pen, with Cat and the man in the baseball cap on the inside. She didn't want to frighten Tori, but Miles was right. She normally would have hesitated with the employee there, but Cat didn't seem to have any interest in hiding her reaction from him, so Amber would follow suit.
'Don't be afraid,' Amber said to Tori, more a plea than a warning.
She dropped the glamour, letting them all see her true countenance, the hard, burgundy skin of the Reaper, her long talons, and the hair like razor wire that swept back from her face.
'Good Christ!' said the baseball cap man, turning pale as he crossed himself.
For her part, Tori smiled in dawning awe. 'Wow,' she whispered.
Amber gave a tiny laugh. 'Now that is one reaction I did not expect.'
Tori turned to Cat. 'Maybe Peter did send us some real protection after all.'
Cat nodded slowly, taking a few steps toward the wall that separated them. It was in the midst of being dismantled and from the look of the posts it had been higher before. Now they were able to see eye to eye over the top.
'Amber, right? I meant no offense,' Cat said.
'I know,' Amber replied, though the shame still resonated inside her, mostly from memory. Her mother had once told her that people never really got over the difficult times in their lives, they just diluted them with time and experience.
'This is Ed,' Cat said, gesturing toward the baseball cap man. 'He's our foreman.'
Ed looked as if he feared she might eat his face given the opportunity. He nodded warily and raised a hand.
'Hey,' he said.
Amber smiled, then instantly regretted it. With her long, sharp teeth, her smile looked ferocious.
'Hey, Ed,' she replied.
Tori laughed quietly, apparently enjoying the peculiar awkwardness of it all.
The ghost of Miles Varick slid into the air. Amber and Cat both watched him rise, which only seemed to confuse Tori and the foreman all the more. The ghost drifted over the top of the wall toward the huge apple tree, staring down at something that lay there on the ground, hidden from Amber's view by the wall. Yet she knew what it must be.
'She's getting stronger,' Miles whispered in that spectral voice.
Cat whipped around to stare at him. 'What are you talking about?'
'Your Miss Shaw,' the dead professor replied. 'She's growing stronger.'
'How do you know that?' Cat demanded.
The spectral face turned quizzical. 'Why, she just told me so. Can't you hear her?'
Cat turned to Amber. 'Can you hear her, too?'
Amber shook her head - she couldn't - even as Tori demanded to know what was going on. Just as she couldn't see the ghost, she couldn't hear Miles or Keomany. While Cat quickly explained, Amber at last moved around the wall and entered the clearing
. Her breath caught in her throat when she saw the extraordinary figure lying prone on the ground, roots thrust into the soil. Her thoughts went to wood nymphs and other folkloric forest sprites and spirits, but Keomany Shaw was so much more. The dead earthwitch had been reborn as some kind of avatar for Gaea, a thing of wood and leaf and even fruit, and yet somehow - to someone who had known her - she was still recognizably Keomany, as if someone had constructed this beautiful growth as a living memorial to her.
'What's she saying?' Amber asked, which caused Cat and Tori's conversation to halt abruptly.
'Yeah,' Tori said, searching the air for a spirit she would never see. 'What is she saying?'
They all turned to look at the beautiful, impossible figure of wood and bark and leaf that lay curled upon the ground, a garden shaped like a woman.
The ghost of Miles Varick drifted downward until he appeared to alight on the grass beside the new body that Gaea had grown for Keomany. The spirit smiled kindly down upon the elemental, then looked up at Cat and Tori, though he had to know that Tori could not hear him.
'She wants you to know that it's really her, that she's here with you, alive and aware,' Miles said, his voice like the whisper of the wind. 'And that she loves you all. She's weak, now, because there are terrible things happening to the earth just now . . . to Gaea.'
'What can we do-' Cat began.
Miles held up a hand, listening to something that might have been Keomany's own ghost or the elements themselves.
'She says you shouldn't worry for her or for yourselves. She can protect you as long as you are here. And she doesn't want you to fear for Gaea, either. "The goddess is getting angry," she asks me to tell you. The goddess is getting angry, and Keomany is getting stronger.'
Oriyur, Tamil Nadu, India
The building in Oriyur looked nothing like a church. But nothing in the tiny village of Oriyur looked like much of anything. No one visited the village except for traders and the occasional Christian pilgrim seeking the burial place of Saint John de Brito, the Portuguese missionary who had traveled the whole area in the late seventeenth century, spreading the word of his God.
The pilgrims came in pursuit of legend more than fact. Elsewhere there were schools named after him, but here one could find only the place where his execution was said to have taken place. And perhaps the deed had been done on that very spot. As to the disposition of the missionary's remains, however, there were many opinions. Some said that his body had been returned to Lisbon, to the halls of his fathers, and others that it had been buried in Calcutta. Locals insisted that Saint John de Brito had been buried right there in Oriyur, and many still blessed his name.
But the small, crumbling shop with its stone foundation received very little attention. No one still drawing breath in this world remembered that the stone foundation had once been a church, under construction at the time of the saint's execution. No one knew of the space beneath the stones, the chamber there and the stone box within it, or that the box contained the severed head of the martyred missionary.
It was said that on the day of his murder, the nearby sand dunes had turned red with blood. Nobody knew it, but that was a bit of melodrama, an apocryphal tale.
When the ground shook and the little shop collapsed and the stone box in the basement of the forgotten church began to disgorge massive, lumbering creatures made of brightly burning cinders and the bones of the damned, that ancient fiction became reality.
That night, the dunes were red indeed.
Octavian sat in silence in the back of the sedan as it crawled through late afternoon traffic, the sky beginning to bleed daylight in small increments. Evening was still quite a way off, but the hour of long shadows had arrived and the slant of the light turned the world to phantoms.
'You know this could be nothing,' Allison said, her words clipped and blunt. She had been a reporter in a previous life and whenever he forgot that fact, this tone would appear to remind him.
He stared at the back of the driver's head. The man did not glance back, nor did Corporal Song, who sat in the front passenger seat and stared straight out through the windshield. Song was either intimidated by them or still pissed about the way they had pushed him around earlier; probably a little of both. Octavian didn't like him, but neither did he blame the man. Song was a soldier, and pretty soon they might be in the midst of combat, side by side. Octavian figured it would do them all good to remember that.
'I mean, he would've said anything-' Allison went on.
Octavian shot her a dark look. 'He said what he knew. You were in the room and you doubt that? Under the circumstances I have no doubt that he believed what he told us, and that he told us all he had to tell us. I was satisfied of that . . .'
The rest of that sentence hung in the air unspoken, but they both heard it.
. . . before I let him die.
Allison glanced out the window for a moment before nodding. 'I agree. But Task Force Victor have been all through the places where Cortez and his coven were supposed to have nests in California and they're all abandoned. Why are we assuming this one in Seattle will be any different?'
'We're not,' Octavian replied, staring at the back of the driver's head again. 'But it's all we've got.'
Allison fell silent, then, and he understood why. He knew that she must be feeling just as useless as he was, that she had become a creature of action, that in the midst of crisis, idle time made her want to crawl out of her skin. That was, in fact, the sole reason that they were on the way to the airport right now; Octavian could not stand to be in his twelfth-floor hotel room a moment longer. After today he hoped never to return to that hotel. Hoped never to come back to Philadelphia. There would only be pain here for him from this day forward.
In the front, Song shifted in his seat and frowned, putting a hand to his right ear to cut out the ambient noise of the car engine and the city rolling by around them.
'This is Song. Come again, Commander?' The Chinese soldier listened for a moment. 'Thank you, sir. I'll pass that on.'
'What's going on?' Allison asked.
Song turned to look over the seat at them. 'We sent a team to sit on the location, monitor activity-'
'You were supposed to wait for us,' Octavian reminded him.
'They weren't going in, just observing,' Song said. 'But there's nothing to observe. The building there used to be a music company - offices, a pressing facility for CDs, even studio space, apparently - but there's no music there now. No building, either.'
'No building,' Octavian repeated.
'It burned down,' Song explained. 'Within the past week. They're contacting the Seattle police and fire departments, and of course they will sift the remains of the building.'
'You won't find anything useful,' Octavian said, thinking hard about Cortez's strategy. So many of his nests had already been abandoned. He had blown up Bannerman's Arsenal and now burned down this place in Seattle. Where had they all gone?
'We have to try,' Song replied.
'If you add all of these supposed nests up . . .' Allison said.
'That's a lot of vampires,' Octavian finished for her. 'I was just thinking the same thing. They're going somewhere, which means Cortez has some kind of plan that we haven't stumbled upon yet. All of this stuff he's doing to divert my attention is just that . . . diversion. He's trying to keep me away from wherever his real plan is going to go into action.'
Realization sparked in Allison's eyes. 'And where has he kept you away from so far?'
Octavian nodded. 'Europe. All of this - Nikki's murder included - has kept me from responding to these incursions in person, the way I normally would have.'
Song had been too polite to intrude up till now, but he scoffed at this.
'I'm sorry,' the soldier said, 'but you are jumping to some very large conclusions. I will admit it seems like this Cortez is antagonizing you with a purpose and that the abandonment of his nests hints at some larger ambition, but there has been nothing to even suggest a connection to the incursions in Europe. We know what has caused them. You dismantled the magical hierarchy keeping our world's defenses in place, and the appearance of the chaos goddess you fought in Massachusetts let the demons of a thousand Hells know there might be a way through. This isn't Cortez's doing, Mr Octavian. It's yours.'
Octavian smiled thinly. There were times he wished he still had fangs to show, and this was one of them. He hoped that the glint in his eyes would be enough to warn Song to hold his tongue.
'Octavian didn't give birth to these demons, you imbecile,' Allison said. 'And he didn't ring the damn dinner bell. To insinuate-'
'Stop,' Octavian said, holding up a hand and glancing at her. 'Thank you, but stop.' He looked at Song. 'Nikki's in the grave now, Corporal. And we have no solid leads on where to find Cortez. I could spend the next year hunting him, or more. The next hundred years, if he decided to make it really difficult. So while I'm waiting for something helpful to turn up, I'm going to do what Commander Metzger has wanted me to do all along. We're already headed to the airport. Call ahead and tell them to put a little more gas in the tank. We're headed to Europe. Italy first, and then France.'
He glanced at Allison, who nodded to confirm that she intended to accompany him, though he'd had no doubt at all.
They sat silently together, these old friends, as Song used his commlink to radio their intentions ahead. After a minute or so, with the traffic now flowing around them and a view of planes taking off and landing in the distance as they approached the airport, it was clear that Song's conversation had shifted. He wasn't doing the asking anymore, but the answering. Apparently Commander Metzger was back on the line. He had gone ahead of them by more than an hour to make sure that all would be in readiness by the time they arrived and it sounded as if he were giving Song difficulty over their decision. Octavian didn't understand that. The commander had been hoping he would go to Europe to deal with these demons since the first incursion began.
'What is the problem?' he asked angrily.
They had slowed to a stop in front of a massive chain link fence with a guard shack in view. Now the gate rolled open and the driver sped the sedan through the opening. Seconds later they were on the tarmac.
'You might want to hear it from Commander Metzger,' Song replied.
'Hear what?' Allison demanded before Octavian could get out the same words.
The sedan rolled to a stop. Song glanced back over the seat at them.
'Maybe you'd better hear it from him,' the soldier said.
As Allison started to argue, Octavian popped open his door and climbed out, tall limbs unfolding from the rear seat. A small jet stood parked nearby, in the shadow of a wing of the airport. Lights blinked on the plane and on the runway. Soon the day would turn gray and the gray would slide into night, and then the lights would be brighter, calling travelers home to safety. But safety was hard to come by these days.
Commander Metzger stood waiting for them by a second sedan, which was parked much nearer to the jet. A small coterie of soldiers had gathered nearby, including Sergeant Galleti. There were travel bags and weapons cases on the ground behind them and as Octavian and Allison approached, Metzger made a whirling gesture with his finger, the wings-up, let's-take-off command that anyone could recognize. Galleti and the others grabbed their bags and picked up weapons cases and marched toward the jet. Its stairs had already been lowered and in the twilight its interior was fading from gray to black shadow.
'You've changed destinations, I hear?' Metzger said.
'Seems like the right thing to do,' Octavian replied. 'If that barrier's still holding in France, we'll go to Siena first.'
'They're both covered,' Metzger said. 'You've already got people helping us in Saint-Denis with more on the way, and the team you're sending to Siena left hours ago.'
Octavian cocked his head, confused. 'You've been trying to get me to go-'
'There's a third breach,' Metzger cut in.
'Oh, shit,' Allison whispered.
'The middle of nowhere in India,' Metzger went on. 'Our people generated that list of saints who were beheaded. This location, as remote as it is, drew a hit on that list. Saint John somebody. Portuguese missionary.'
Octavian exhaled. 'All right. India it is.'
The driver of their car set down the rucksacks they'd packed. There weren't any weapons for them; neither of them needed a gun, though Octavian wouldn't have minded one loaded with Medusa toxin-laced bullets.
'I'm staying,' Allison said.
Octavian looked at her, startled. She'd always gone her own way, but this . . .
'I spent a few years as a bloodhound for Task Force Victor, Peter,' she said. 'I want to head out to California and sniff around, see if I can pick up Cortez's trail. If you need me, you can always call.'
Octavian hesitated. 'You know I'm not abandoning her.'
They both understood to whom he referred.
'I know. And you have other responsibilities. Go do what needs doing. That's always been what you've been best at. Let me keep trying to run this bastard down, and when I've got him up a tree, I'll keep him there for you.'
Octavian barely heard the words. His attention had strayed to a dark shape in the sky, a crow that descended toward them. He frowned as he watched its unwavering path. Beyond it, an airplane lifted off a runway, but his gaze remained locked on the crow.
Allison said his name, wary and curious, and in his peripheral vision he saw her turn and also begin tracking the crow's descent. Metzger and Song did likewise, and Song unholstered his gun, taking an instant bead on the crow, whose path was now certain.
'Don't,' Octavian said, gesturing at Song, and a sphere of bright blue light appeared around the hand holding his gun. He would not be able to pull the trigger now.
'Is this an attack?' Metzger asked, backing up a step or two and glancing worriedly at Octavian and the magic he'd used to stop Song from firing.
'Well, it's not a bird,' Allison muttered.
Octavian frowned. No, it wasn't a bird, but neither was it an attack. Though dusk had arrived, if Cortez was the stickler for tradition - for the vampire as monster - he would never have allowed one of his people to slip in as a crow. It would be a bat, the image that had been rendered absurd by a thousand parodies.
'Be wary,' he said, taking a step forward. He felt the static of magic between his fingers, felt it running through his bones, ready for anything.
In the gathering darkness, the black bird seemed almost to vanish . . . and then it ignited in a ball of flames. Fire seared the night, roaring brighter, and Octavian lifted a hand to protect his eyes. The growing blaze touched the tarmac, climbing higher, smoke rising. Song swore loudly, angry at Octavian, wanting access to his weapon. Metzger barked a warning, hoping that the mage knew what he was doing. But Allison only stepped up beside him and watched as the fire began to sculpt itself into a human silhouette.
A woman on fire.
The flames diminished and then drew inward, as if pulled back into the very flesh of the figure who now stood where the fire had been.
Octavian smiled. 'Hello, Charlotte.'
'Holy shit,' Metzger said under his breath.
Charlotte stood before them, head bowed as if she feared to meet their eyes. Her copper red hair hung down in front of her face, hiding those ocean blue eyes, and she seemed to hesitate. Octavian had been inside the worst asylums of eras past, and for just a moment she reminded him of the wary patients he had seen there, wandering the halls and talking in empty corners.
'You just left me,' she whispered, lifting her gaze at last. Those blue eyes were like ice.
Allison stepped forward. 'The explosion . . . we figured you were killed.'
Charlotte shook her head regretfully. 'No faith.'
Octavian thought she would smile, then, teasing them for not believing in her. But there wasn't a trace of jest in her expression or her tone. He felt tempted to embrace her, but she radiated anger. The girl did not want anyone trying to make her feel better.
'I thought you might have survived,' he admitted. 'But I wasn't sure how long it would take you to pull yourself together and we've got a whole world falling apart. I'm sorry, Charlotte, but we needed to stay focused.'
Again she seemed to lose herself, gazing off into some haunted middle distance. Then she blinked and nodded.
'I'm good,' she said. 'Your lady's dead and the planet's going to shit and you've been next to useless, sitting around like your hate might kill Cortez by remote control while I go out with a couple dozen guys who get vaporized around me.'
'Charlotte -' Allison began.
'While I get vaporized,' the redhead went on, blue eyes wandering as she looked at anything except for Octavian. And then she froze, staring at him. 'I get it, Peter. Priorities. You're a warrior. Every battle is fucking triage, right? You fight to win and fight to live and everything else is a luxury.'
'If I had known what would happen-' Octavian said.
Charlotte gave a throaty, humorless laugh that made it clear she had been broken and put back together slightly wrong.
'I'll get over it,' she said. 'I have no illusions as to who's the good guy and who's the bad guy in all this shit. You're not the one who killed me. Not the one who raped me. Not the one who blew me to fucking smithereens. So let's get down to business, shall we?'
Octavian glanced at Allison, then at Metzger and Song. They all looked as profoundly worried about the girl as he felt, but he suspected they were more concerned with what she might do next than they were about what would become of her. Somehow, after all that she had been through at Cortez's hands and the transition from human to vampire to Shadow, she had managed to keep her head together. But this latest horror had been too much for her, as it would have been for almost anyone.
Her grin made him shiver.
'We've lost Cortez's trail for the moment,' Octavian said. 'Allison is going out to California to try to track him. I'm headed to India to deal with the latest incursion.'
'I don't think you are,' Charlotte said. 'See, I was down in the basement of that damn armory. Cortez had left us a welcome present, a whole big pile of dead folks and a ton of explosives. But right before the blast, I saw something . . . something written on the wall in blood. It was like an artist's signature on a painting. Xibalba.'
She spelled it for them.
'Does that mean something to you?' Allison asked.
Charlotte narrowed her eyes. 'Never did before, but you can be sure I won't forget it.'
Octavian glanced at Song, who had regained control of his hand and his gun, which dangled at his side. He and Metzger both seemed baffled, though the commander did seem to be thinking hard on the question.
'What about you, Peter?' Charlotte asked. 'You know all this stuff. It's all stored away in your brain, isn't it? A whole world's occult bullshit, going back thousands of years.'
'The place of fear,' Octavian said, earning surprised looks from Allison and the two TFV men. 'That's more or less how it translates.'
'If you say so,' Metzger said. 'But what does it mean?'
Octavian searched Charlotte's eyes and realized that she understood, that she had sought out the significance of that word before she had tracked him down here tonight. He nodded to her, then bent and picked up his bag and started toward the airplane.
'Let's go,' he said. 'You too, Charlotte.'
'Oh, I wouldn't miss it,' she said, striding after him.
Allison fell into step beside Octavian, gripping her rucksack in one hand. Metzger barked an order at Song and then hurried to catch up.
'What does it mean, Octavian?' Metzger asked, trying to put his authority behind the question.
As they hustled toward the plane, Octavian didn't look back at him.
'It means we're going to Guatemala.'