NOTHING made sense anymore.
That was the thought that kept spinning through Ebenezar McCoy’s brain as he leaned back in the uncomfortable chair and stared at his desk. Currently, it was littered with dozens of half-read reports or hastily jotted down notes that he was hoping he could later coerce into full-blown ideas, but he barely noticed the mess, so distracted was he with the events that had just transpired. Yes, he was ultimately unsurprised at the result but how they got there … that still baffled him.
Shaking his head in a vain attempt to clear it, he tried to refocus on the task at hand. Of course the Merlin had tasked him with relaying this information to the acquitted – if there was anything Arthur Langtry excelled at, it was these ridiculous political games of one-upmanship – and ordinarily, Eb would have had no problem accomplishing that task. In fact, he would look forward to it since, after all, he’d championed Thaddeus’ student in the closed door Council meeting, but he just could not concentrate. Why had Joseph voted against her? Listens-To-Wind was normally one of his most stalwart allies in all things White Council – they had a friendship that stretched back more than two centuries, after all – but in this matter, Joe had sounded exactly like one of the Merlin’s hardliners. And then to have Ancient Mai decide to vote for Torres? She always voted with the Merlin, so why would she change stride now?
A sharp, commanding knock on his door dragged him out of his woolgathering and Eb mentally kicked himself for being so distracted. He cleared away the confusion and irritation from his face, pushed himself out of the chair and donned his most forbidding expression. Right now, he needed to get a firm grasp of this girl’s mindset…
“Enter,” he called out and the door opened less than a heartbeat later, revealing Warden Captain Luccio with Solomon’s fierce-eyed student a half step behind her. The girl was wearing her formal robes but had long ago been divested of her various magical tools; it did not escape Eb’s notice that both of her wrists were encircled by thin, metal bracelets. Those would be the Warden’s bracers that would ostensibly prevent a wizard from casting while the Warden who secured them was still alive. There were ways around these shackles, of course, but that was not relevant for the moment.
“Wizard Torres, as requested,” Luccio said. The Warden commander stepped aside and allowed Torres to enter but made no move to depart, which was fine as far as Eb was concerned. After all, Luccio had already expressed her own interest in recruiting this girl.
“Thank you.” Eb gestured. “Have a seat, Miss Torres.”
“I have been sitting all day,” the young woman replied. “I would prefer to stand, if you don’t mind.” There was no heat in her voice but her eyes … hell’s bells, this girl was angry. The rage lurking underneath her mask of self-control was almost intimidating and Eb tried not to relax slightly. Her fury at the loss of her mentor was there for anyone to see if they knew what they were actually looking for and that, more than anything else, had convinced him that she was wholly innocent.
“Whatever suits you.” Eb gave Luccio a discreet glance and nod, then reached forward to tap the Warden’s shackles. With a tiny flash, they fell open and Torres inhaled sharply at the sudden return of her magic. Her expression remained cool, but he could see that she understood the significance. “The Council has completed our review and found you innocent of any wrongdoing,” he said. “Yes, you were affected by violations of the Laws of Magic but you took appropriate action to bring that Lawbreaker to justice.” He was getting good at this, Eb realized – that actually sounded like the Council’s decision had been unanimous instead of the contentious four-three decision to acquit her. Admittedly, the Gatekeeper’s revelation that Torres was Cerridwen of Highfrost’s grand-daughter had convinced the Merlin and his lackey, LaFortier, to change their votes so it was six for acquittal but Joe … Joe had been adamant that this girl was a threat.
“That she has been present at both attempted Breaches by Nun’yunu’wi concerns me greatly,” Listens-To-Wind had said when he refused to change his mind. “The safest course of action for the Council would be to destroy her.”
“Welcome to the Council, Wizard Torres,” Captain Luccio said brightly, her broad face creased with a smile.
“Thank you, ma’am, sir.” Torres frowned briefly. “And this Faceless King? What are we doing about it?”
“The Council is looking into that,” Eb replied. The young woman did not look entirely satisfied so he continued. “I will be personally heading up that investigation. With your permission, I would like to review Thad … Wizard Solomon’s notes that might explain what this … Faceless King wants.”
“I do not care what it wants,” Torres said in a surprisingly hard voice for someone so young-looking. “I just want to kill it.”
“One war at a time,” Luccio interjected. “We still have the Reds to deal with.”
“Captain Luccio will take you to Wizard Peabody,” Eb added. “He will start the paperwork to officially recognize you as a full Wizard within our ranks.” Torres blinked at that, clearly surprised but hiding it well, and Eb smiled again. “Before I forget,” he said as he reached for a specific envelope resting on his desk, “I believe you will want this. It is a copy of Wizard Solomon’s last will and testament.” Torres stared at the folded document like a sane person would watch a venomous snake but grudgingly accepted it when Eb offered. “As I understand it, he acknowledged you as his heir. That absurd House of his is now yours.”
“I see.” He could not quite read her expression at the moment, but that did not bother him as much as it might have.
“There are a few things I will need from the House,” Eb said, almost as an aside. It was a lie, of course – he had long ago helped Thad set up many of the enchantments around that ridiculous structure and had very little interest in anything within – but it was necessary so he could judge her reaction. Torres did not disappoint.
“Over my dead body,” she said softly. Even Luccio looked at her askance at that but Torres did not back down. “As you said,” Torres stated flatly, “Bavinger House is now mine.” She brandished the will like a talisman. “If Doctor Solomon left it to me, he had a reason and I will not allow anyone to take his legacy away. Not even the Blackstaff himself.” Eb’s eyebrows shot up – he saw Luccio’s eyes widen as well – and he gave this girl another careful look. His job as the Council’s occasional wetworks man was not public knowledge and Torres must have interpreted his expression as a questioning one. She shrugged. “Doctor Solomon may have let slip some things once when he was … irritated at something the Merlin told him.” That caused Eb to smile – he had very fond memories of seeing Thad and Langtry go at it; the antipathy between the two men was nearly as old as they had been.
“That is not a title that you should advertise,” he said. “It might get you killed someday.” He let the hint of a threat hang – Torres nodded very slightly in acknowledgement of his warning – and then exhaled. “There is one other thing before Wizard Luccio takes you to Peabody. Inside the House, there is a Door. It is locked and … you know the one, don’t you?”
“I do.” Torres tilted her head slightly. “I could not open it,” she said.
“Only the master of the House … or mistress now, I suppose, can.” Eb pinned her with a look. “You must never open that door. Never.”
“Why? What’s on the other side?” Eb fought the urge to grimace – why was it that wizards these days just had to ask questions like that instead of doing what they were told? Hell’s bells, but he was glad he had not been this bad when he was her age. He considered his options.
And then, he told her the truth.
“Oh,” Torres said in a small voice, her face pale and her eyes wide. Good. She at least understood the dangers staring her in the face. Perhaps she would be able to avoid the fate of the last half dozen wizards who had inherited the Door.
“Oh, indeed.” Eb nodded to Luccio before offering his hand to Torres. “Welcome to the Council,” he said.
HE hated funerals.
Shifting awkwardly in place, Robert Hawkins discreetly glanced at the various faces in the crowd, noting without surprise that most of the attendees were members of the Bureau or at least had ties to Oklahoma law enforcement. He even saw a few federal agents scattered among the crowd, although at least one of them looked to be least more interested in networking with his associates than with paying respects to the dead.. There were certainly some he did not recognize – the redhead who stood with Lee, for example, or the hard-faced Native American man who stood slightly apart and watched the proceedings with an impassive expression – but the rest he knew by at least their faces and all had come to pay their respects to a fallen comrade.
This was actually the first time he’d been to a Catholic funeral and there were a handful of differences between it and the Baptist ones he was more accustomed to, but the similarities were strong enough that he was able to sleepwalk through most of it while mentally juggling his list of priorities. With the statewide budget shortfall, there was no way he was going to be able to promote someone to replace Curtmantle – half of the meetings he was forced to sit through these days were discussions on how to curtail spending – and even if managed to find a loophole around that, the next agent slotted for that position was Carter. Robert winced. Dear God, they had fallen on hard times if Jack Carter was the only agent he had who could do Arthur’s job.
At his side, the agent currently troubling his thoughts was standing silently. It took Robert a moment longer than it should have but he finally realized that Carter was studying his partner, Lee. No, that wasn’t right: Carter was watching the redhead with Lee. Why? Robert gave her another look – she was definitely attractive, but those clothes did not really seem all that appropriate for a funeral. How was she able to even breathe? He had the sudden horrifying thought that the woman was actually nude and wearing one of those painted on suits but a soft breeze caused the lapels of her too tight jacket to shift. The relief that blasted through Robert then was overwhelming.
It struck him then that Carter, even with his reputation for harebrained conspiracy theories and strange notions had somehow become more reliable than Lee, a decorated war veteran. People stepped carefully around Lee these days and eyed him cautiously, as if they expected him to fly off the handle at any moment. Through the grapevine, Robert had discovered that the agent was actually seeing a shrink for his issues – God, he hoped it wasn’t PTSD; the last thing they needed was another case of a LEO losing his damned mind because of that – which was why he had not taken any direct disciplinary action against the man for his clear temper issues. Abruptly, he brightened; if Carter took over Curtmantle’s job, then that meant Lee would be his problem.
By the time the funeral had ended, Robert was confident he had a working plan of action. Everyone in OSBI knew about the budget cuts so Carter would understand why he did not receive an actual promotion or raise when he took over Curtmantle’s job and besides, Special Investigations had been a gimmick anyway, designed to get the director off his back. He made a mental note to speak to Agent Carter before they went their separate ways. Glancing back toward the empty casket – the explosion had evidently vaporized Arthur – he felt his breath catch.
A woman stood before the casket.
She was slim and athletic and tall, even without the heeled faux-Victorian boots that did wonderful things to her calves, with dark hair that fell to her back and swayed with the wind, and Robert could not look away. Even in the black clothes appropriate for a funeral, she was all effortless style, and when she glanced up, Robert’s thoughts splintered and fractured. He wanted her. He wanted her in the most primal sense, in every way he could conceive. Whatever thoughts and love he had for his wife suddenly evaporated, washed away by a blistering desire. He swallowed and tried to reassert control, especially when he realized she was striding toward him. All eyes were watching her and Robert tried hard not to hate them all.
“Special Agent Hawkins,” she said in a voice that smoldered. He swallowed again.
“Miss Raith,” he greeted in a husky voice. He knew her now. She and Arthur had been … what? Lovers? Sex buddies? He’d never gotten the full story and had tried to stay out of it, especially with his embarrassing reaction to her presence. How could you look a friend in the eye, knowing that you would kill to have sex with their significant other? Wars had been started that way.
“Diana, please.” She smiled and Robert felt his heartbeat increase rapidly. “And Agent Carter. I do not believe we have been officially introduced.”
“Not officially, no.” How the fuck did Carter sound so cool and collected? Robert glanced at the agent and was surprised at how wary Carter looked. It was as if he was facing off with a suicide bomber desperate to go to Allah or a junkie hopped up on PCP, not a stunningly beautiful woman. “But I’m familiar with you and yours.” Miss Raith’s smile did not vanish but it did seem a touch cooler than before.
“We should have dinner one evening,” she said, “and compare notes. I am certain both of us will find it … fulfilling.” Was there a slight undertone of a threat there? Robert could not tell, not with how hard it was to think straight while standing in this woman’s intoxicating presence. It was all he could do to keep from drooling on her shoes.
“Another time perhaps.” Carter still sounded cool but there was definitely a strained quality to his voice that Robert just barely noticed. He was missing something but could not put his finger on what it was.
“Another time.” Miss Raith returned her gaze to Robert – the entire world fell away when she did so all that mattered was Her – and then leaned forward to kiss him softly on the check. It burned and froze and he felt himself stiffen even further. He was a half moment away from pouncing, from tearing her clothes away and taking her right there, regardless of the location, when she pulled back. “I shall be in touch, Agent Hawkins.” He was still clawing for a coherent response, something that did not involve professions of love and desire, as she strode away, pausing very briefly to speak to the redhead that had accompanied Lee.
Gradually, sanity reasserted itself and Robert shivered at the effort necessary to reclaim control. Damn, that was … damn. He kept his eye on Miss Raith, only slowly becoming aware that Lee, just like Carter, was watching her like she was some kind of terrifying predator about to spring. In a way, he reflected, she might be.
“That is the most beautiful woman I have ever met,” he muttered under his breath.
“Lethally beautiful,” Carter corrected softly. He was still tense as he watched her and Robert had to nod in agreement. “I wonder if Helen was one of them,” the agent murmured, mostly to himself, and then seemed to realize that he’d spoke aloud. Later, Robert would wonder about the non sequitur, but by then, it would no longer be important.
“Helen?” he asked.
“Old case, sir,” Carter replied. “Not relevant at the moment.” Robert shrugged.
“You and I need to have a chat,” he said. Without meaning to, he glanced back toward Miss Raith – Lee and his redhead had vanished; Robert spent another half moment looking around to determine what direction they had gone but there was no sign of them at all – and shivered again when she once more looked his way with a smile. “I’m going to need you to step up and handle Curtmantle’s duties,” he began. He was not surprised that Carter accepted the additional workload without complaint; for all of his problems, the man’s work ethic was second to none.
His wife, Jackie, was waiting for him when he got home but, to his utter disgust, Robert found himself constantly comparing her to Miss Raith and in every way, the latter won. He tried not to let his irritation and anger show, but Jackie could see that something was bothering him. Unfortunately, her every attempt to help only made things worse and, in no time flat, they were once more at one another’s throats. He was half moment away from saying or doing something he would truly regret later when the doorbell rang. Jackie stormed away to answer, leaving him to stew in his foul mood. At the sound of approaching footsteps, he turned to see who was with Jackie …
And stopped thinking entirely.
“Hello again, Robert,” Miss Raith said in her smoldering voice. “I was hoping you and I … and your wife, of course, could continue our earlier discussion.” Her smile sent him to his knees. A moment later, Jackie joined him, her breathing rapid and her hands trembling as she began undressing. A tiny part of Robert marveled at that – his wife was something of a prude and was not even comfortable with him seeing her unclothed – but he was too busy stripping out of his own clothes to give it much thought. And then, Miss Raith removed her jacket, her eyes gleaming…
Robert stopped thinking after that.
IT was a pleasant enough day to meet outdoors.
The Klyde Warren Park was actually above the freeway but provided a decent enough view of downtown Dallas that Miranda could not quite relax. There were plenty of people present, some of whom she immediately identified as undercover agents there to provide security for the person she was scheduled to meet. The sheer number of bodyguards gave her pause – Control did not warrant so many … unless this was a sanction operation and she was marching toward a bullet – and her step faltered only slightly when she recognized the woman sitting at one of the open air tables. Well. That explained the number of security personnel.
“Have a seat, Flores,” the older woman said. She was knitting, of all things, and looking at her, one would think grandmother or perhaps even great-grandmother. Her hair was snow white, there were more wrinkles on her face than there weren’t and the cane hanging off the table was not just there for show. No one could look at this woman and think ‘spy’ … which was probably why she was one of the most successful espionage agents to have ever lived.
“I was expecting Control,” Miranda said as she sat.
“We received your report,” the old woman said. “Control has been relieved of his duties and transferred to somewhere more in line with his inclinations.” That could mean anything and Miranda briefly wondered if Control had been transferred to a monitoring station in Antarctica or if he’d been given a bullet to the head. “I wanted to personally apologize to you for our failure to respond in a timely manner.” The old woman’s expression darkened slightly. “We were juggling multiple major operations simultaneously and I did not realize the extent of the danger Control posed to Strike Team Bravo.” Miranda looked away.
Strike Team Bravo was her baby and it still stung that they’d been taken away from her and squandered on senseless false flag ops to divert the media’s attention away from the growing extranormal threat. She’d been only slightly surprised to learn that the team had suffered casualties under Control’s mismanagement, or that at least one of the operatives had been suborned by the very threats they were supposed to be exterminating. That was to be expected when the idiot in charge had been compromised himself. She hated to admit it, but historically, better than forty percent of the threats the Department dealt with were internal because of how much a corrupting influence the supernatural was. It was seductive, looking at the beautiful faces the Reds put forward and seeing the power at their disposal, and far too many of the agents they had were not strong enough to resist temptation. That was why their strike teams were set up like sleeper cells these days, so as to minimize the amount of damage that could be done.
“I reassigning you to Bravo,” the old woman said. “You will need to rebuild it from the ground up – Davidson screwed it up so badly that none of the existing operatives are trustworthy in the field.” Miranda frowned, then realized that Davidson must have been Control’s real name; she’d never known that. “I have a few candidates you might want to review,” the woman said as she pushed a stack of files forward.
“What about Torres?” Miranda asked as she glanced through them. Castellanos she knew – the girl was a damned fine thief and their paths had crossed once before – but the others were not familiar to her. “He would make an excellent point man.”
“And his contacts with the White Council might be useful. Yes. I’m aware of the recommendation.” The old woman gave her a sour look. “The fact that you’re sleeping with him makes it difficult for me to believe that you are entirely unbiased about this.” Miranda did not reply – she’d already defended herself against this and her arguments had not changed; yes, she occasionally had sex with Matias, but that did not change her opinion of him as a potential operative and asset – and her silence evidently worked to her benefit. “Extend the offer to him,” the old woman said. “If he agrees, we’ll put him through the training regimen at the Monastery.”
“Clayton?” Miranda blurted out. “You’re going to have him train with Clayton?” The man was a legend inside the service, having survived the Cold War and single-handedly shut down a massive supernatural infiltration of the Central Intelligence Agency after he’d officially retired. There were even rumors that he’d even once gone toe to toe with the Hellhound and survived.
“While I may have my doubts about your professionalism in this matter,” the old woman said, “your research is impeccable and I like what I see. If you can focus this man, he will be an exceptionally capable weapon.” She smiled and it was a shark’s smile, devoid of human warmth or feeling. “Just remember to point him in the right direction.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Miranda hesitated. “And the other matter?”
“I am looking into it. When I have more information, I will let you know.” The old woman gestured. “Now go. Convince this man of yours to join up. There is a war coming and we need all of the weapons we can put our hands on.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Miranda was up and moving without further reply. She could feel the cold eyes of the bodyguards watching her depart and did not relax until she had reached her rental car.
Two hours later, she was on a plane heading north and wondering how she would convince her erstwhile lover and occasional asset to pledge his life to certain death in the service of the greater good. No one sane would accept that offer … but then, Matias did not truly fit that definition, did he? She smirked at that, knowing he would find it amusing as well.
And then, she began to make plans.
THE earth groaned.
One had to be carefully attuned to the forces of nature to even notice, but it was there, hidden in the way the ground trembled ever so slightly or the soft murmur of dismay one could hear when rocks rolled downhill. It was there, with the sullen faces one could see in the dirt when the wind blew or in the sparse vegetation that trembled and shivered, even when that wind was absent. One needed only to be able to See.
James Ross was blind to all.
His Gift had been stolen from him and now he stumbled through life without benefit of the great advantages he’d once held in his hands. In both hands, not just the one he’d lost. He wanted to rage at the heavens, at the underworld, at the blind fools who ghosted through existence like the dead, but inside, he was hollow. The Voice was gone, stolen from him along with his Gift, and now, he was lost.
Failure, whispered the wind. Failure, murmured the sky. Failure, groaned the earth.
He stumbled forward, unseeing and deaf to his surroundings, knowing only that something tugged him forward, pulled at the severed strings that had once tied him to his god. Perhaps it was madness. James considered that he might be mad, but then pressed on. What did it matter if he was? Would he truly be able to tell?
There was still yellow police tape enclosing the place where the cambion had failed, but he stepped over it and continued forward. His heart began beating faster. The gray that had become his world receded very slightly and he could almost taste color once more. There! That clump of dirt! He could smell the scent of the master’s home upon the ground! Stumbling forward, he fell to his knees.
And the Voice returned.
It was weak and distant but he could just make out the instructions, no matter that his ears and eyes bled at the utterances of the Voice. With clumsy fingers, he tore the wrappings free from the long-healed stump of a hand and clawed open bloody scars. The pain caused him to tremble – he was so weak! When had last eaten? Or slept? None of it mattered, not in service of the master – but he ignored it as he jammed the stump into the blackened earth.
Pain. It coursed through him like a living thing, scouring away his weakness and burning a lethal path to his mind. He saw things a Man was not meant to see and instinctively, his thoughts shied away from them. There was a noise, a Voice that was thunder without sound, and it destroyed him, remade him, and then repeated the process a second time, a third, a fourth. Someone was screaming but it was distant and he realized only afterward that it was him.
When the pain withdrew, he was still there, kneeling in the dirt with his injured arm thrust into the earth. He blinked, aware and conscious of himself for the first time since the failure. Glaring, he pulled his arm free.
And stared at the remade hand that now replaced the one he’d lost.
It was not perfect – the color was wrong and it was clearly wrought of stone instead of flesh – but he smiled at the sensation of power renewed. His master was still far distant, still buried within that prison of lost hope and broken dreams, but now, he could do that which he had been made for. Rage burned through him, both his and that of the Voice, as he reflected at how much of their work had been destroyed by sheer happenstance and the blundering of fools. His stone fist groaned as he clenched it tightly, momentarily allowing himself to imagine what it would feel like to tighten his grip around the throat of his enemies.
Patience, the Voice whispered. James shivered and trembled and groaned at the painful ecstasy he felt when heard the whispers. You moved too fast, too recklessly before. You must become the shadows themselves. Let the Enemy break themselves upon others. Husband your strength and rebuild. We shall strike when it is time.
“Yes, Master,” James murmured. “I shall see Thy will done.”