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By Cate Tiernan
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Nastasya finally begins to deal with life, and even feels safe–until the night she learns that someone wants her dead.
Cate Tiernan, author of the popular Sweep series, returns with an engaging story of a timeless struggle and inescapable romance, the first book in a stunning new fantasy trilogy.
Table of Contents
A Sneak Peek of Darkness Falls
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Last night my whole world came tumbling down. Now I'm running scared.
Have you ever been going along, living your life, living in your reality, and then suddenly something happens that rips your world right in two? You see something or hear something, and suddenly everything you are, everything you're doing, shatters into a thousand shards of sharp, bitter realization.
It happened to me last night.
I was in London. With friends, as usual. We were going out, as usual.
"No, no, turn here!" Boz leaned forward and jabbed the cabbie on the shoulder. "Here!"
The cabbie, his huge, broad shoulders barely encased in a sweatshirt and plaid vest, turned around and gave Boz a look that would have made a normal person sit back and be very quiet.
But Boz was by no means a normal person: He was prettier than most, louder than most, funner than most, and, God knew, dumber than most. We'd just come from a dance club where a knife fight had suddenly broken out. These two crazy girls had been pulling hair and screaming like fishwives, and then one of them had pulled out a knife. My gang had wanted to stay and watch—they loved stuff like that—but, you know, if you've seen one knife fight, you've seen them all. I'd dragged them all away, and we'd stumbled out into the night, luckily grabbing a cab before the cold made us sober up.
"Here! Right here in the middle of the block, my good man!" Boz said, earning himself a murderous look that made me feel grateful all over again for gun control in Merrie Olde England.
"My good man?" Cicely snickered next to me. The six of us were packed into the back of this big black cab. There could have been more, but we'd found that six wasted immortals were all the back of a London cab could hold, and that was only if no one puked.
"Yes, Jeeves," Cicely went on brightly. "Stop here."
The cabbie slammed his foot on the brakes, and we all shot forward. Boz and Katy hit their heads on the glass partition between us and the driver. Stratton, Innocencio, and I all catapulted off our seats, landing in an ungraceful, giggling heap on the dirty cab floor.
"Hey!" Boz said, rubbing his forehead.
Innocencio found me under the tangle of arms and legs. "You okay, Nas?"
I nodded, still laughing.
"Get t' hell outta my cab!" our driver spat. He lurched out of the front seat, came around, and yanked our door open. My back was against the door, and I immediately fell out into the gutter, hitting my head on the stone curb.
"Ow! Ow!" The gutter was wet—it'd been raining, of course. The pain, the cold, and the wet barely penetrated my consciousness—knife fight aside, the evening of heavy festivities had wrapped me in a warm cocoon of hazy well-being.
"Out!" the cabbie said again, grabbing my shoulders and hauling me out of the way. He dumped me on the sidewalk and reached in for Incy.
Okay, hello, anger and a trickle of consciousness. I frowned, rubbing my shoulders, sitting up. We were a block away from the Dungeon, yet another horribly seedy underground bar where we hung out. And only this short block away, the street was dark and deserted, empty lots alternating with burned-out crack houses, giving the street a missing-tooth appearance.
"All right, hands off!" Innocencio said, landing on the sidewalk next to me. His face was cold with fury, and he looked more awake than I'd thought.
"You lot!" the cabbie snarled. "I don't want your kind in my cab! Rich kids, think you're better than everyone else!" He leaned into the cab, grabbing Katy's coat collar while Boz scrambled out on his own.
"Uh—gonna be sick," Katy said, half in, half out of the cab. Boz jumped out of the way just as Katy's system purged itself of an evening's worth of Jameson whiskey—right on the cabbie's shoes.
"Goddamn it!" the cabbie roared, shaking his feet in disgust.
Boz and I giggled—we couldn't help it. Mean Mr. Taxi Driver.
The cabbie grabbed Katy's arms, intending to haul her to the sidewalk, and suddenly Incy muttered something and snapped his hand open.
I had a split second to think, Huh, and then the cab driver staggered as if struck with an axe. Katy went slack in his hands and he crumpled, his spine curving almost in half. He pitched backward, landing heavily on the sidewalk, his face white, eyes wide open.
A wave of nausea and fatigue overcame me—maybe I'd had more to drink than I thought. "Incy, what'd you do?" I asked, bemused, as I got to my feet. "Did you use magick on him?" I gave a little laugh—the idea was kind of ridiculous. I leaned against the lamppost, holding my face up to the chilly mist. A few deep breaths and I felt better.
Katy blinked blearily, and Boz chuckled.
Innocencio stood up, frowning at his new D & G boots, now flecked with rain.
Stratton and Cicely got out of the other side of the cab and joined us. They looked down at the cabbie, lying frozen on the wet pavement, and shook their heads.
"Very nice," Stratton said to Incy. "Very impressive, Mr. Magician. You can let the poor sod up now."
We were all looking at each other and at the cabbie. I couldn't remember the last time I'd seen anyone use magick like this. Yeah, maybe to get a good table at a restaurant or to catch that last train in the Underground…
"I don't think so, Strat," said Innocencio, his face still tight. "I don't think he's a very nice man."
Stratton and I met eyes. I tapped Innocencio on the shoulder. He and I had been partners in crime for almost a century, and we knew each other very, very well, but this cold rage was something I hadn't seen too much of. "Right, leave him, then. He'll be fine in a few minutes, yeah? Let's go—I'm thirsty. And I guess Katy is now, too."
Katy made a face. "Ugh."
"Yeah, let's go," said Cicely. "They have a band tonight, and I want to dance."
"By the time he comes to, we'll be long gone." I tugged on Incy's sleeve.
"Hang on," said Incy.
"Leave him," I repeated. I felt a little bad about just leaving the cabbie in the chilly, sprinkling rain, but he'd be okay once the spell wore off.
Innocencio shrugged off my hand, surprising me. As I watched, he snapped both of his hands open at the cabbie, his lips moving. I didn't hear what he said.
With a loud, horrible cracking sound, the cabbie bucked upward, once, his mouth opening in a scream he was unable to voice.
Again I felt a wave of nausea, saw a gray film pass over my eyes. I blinked several times, reaching out for Cicely's arm. She chuckled as I staggered, obviously blaming drink. A few moments later my vision cleared, and I straightened up, staring at Incy, at the cabbie. "Now what? What'd you do?"
"Oh, Incy," Stratton said, shaking his head. "Tsk, tsk. Bit unnecessary, surely? Well, let's get going, then." He set off down the sidewalk toward the Dungeon, closing his warm coat against the chill.
"Incy—what'd you do?" I repeated.
Incy shrugged. "Sod deserved it."
Katy, still a little green around the gills, stared dully at the cab driver, then at Innocencio. She coughed and shook her head, then headed off with Stratton. I let go of Cicely and she shrugged, taking Boz's arm. They followed the others, and soon their footsteps faded into the darkness.
"Incy," I said, taken aback that the others were just leaving. "Incy—did you—break his back, with magick? Where'd you learn how to do something like that? No—you didn't. Right?"
Incy looked at me then, a half-amused expression on his unearthly, darkly handsome face. His black curls were flecked with tiny diamonds of rain, glittering in the lamplight.
"Darling. You saw what he was like," he said.
I looked at him, then at the cabbie, still motionless, his face a rictus of pain and terror. "You broke his back?" I repeated, suddenly quite sober and horribly present. My brain skittered around the thought as if it were a hot spark to avoid. "You used magick to—good lord. Okay, well, go ahead and fix him, then," I said. "I want a drink, but I'll wait." I couldn't help the cabbie myself. I had no idea where Incy had learned a spell like that, and no idea how to counteract it, undo it, whatever. For the most part, I shied away from magick, the magick immortals are born with, that comes naturally to us. It was too much trouble, and it usually made me physically ill. The last time I'd dabbled in it, I'd at most made someone walk into a door or spill coffee on herself. And that had been ages ago. Nothing like this.
Innocencio ignored me and looked down at the cab driver. "Right, mate," he said in a low voice. The cab driver's eyes, now wild with shock and pain, focused on his with difficulty.
"That's what happens when you're rude to my friends, see? I hope you've learned your lesson."
The cab driver couldn't even grunt, and I realized he was under a nul-vox spell. An actual nul-vox spell—I'd only maybe seen that just once or twice before, in hundreds of years. Much less—
"Come on, undo it," I said impatiently. I'd never seen Incy like this, do something like this. "You taught him a lesson. The others are waiting for us. Just undo it so we can go."
Incy rolled his shoulders, shrugged, and took my hand in a hard, painful grip. "Can't undo it, my love," he said, and raised my hand to his lips to kiss. He pulled me with him toward the Dungeon, and I looked back at the cabbie over my shoulder.
"Can't undo it? You broke his back for good?" I stared at Incy, my best friend for the past century. He grinned down at me, his beautiful angel's face haloed by the streetlamp.
"In for a penny, in for a pound," he said gaily.
I gaped. "What next, putting Stratton through a wood chipper?" My voice was rising as the increasing mist wet my face. Incy laughed, kissed my hair, and marched me forward. In those moments I'd seen something different in his eyes—more than just uncaring indifference, more than a casual need for revenge. Incy had enjoyed breaking that man's back, had enjoyed seeing someone writhing in pain and fear. It had been exciting for him.
My brain whirled. Should I call 999? Was it already too late for that cabbie? Was he going to die, already dying? I leaned away from Incy, turning back, but within seconds I felt the vibrations of the deep bass drums of some band, throbbing up through the ground, through my shoes. The Dungeon seemed like another world, another reality, beckoning me to it, lulling me with its noise, letting me leave the appalling shock of the paralyzed cabbie outside. I wanted so badly just to succumb to it.
"Incy—but—you have to—"
Incy just shot me an amused look, and a minute later we were going down a steep flight of stairs slick with rain. I was split by indecision as Incy raised his fist and pounded on the red-painted door. I suddenly felt as though we'd gone down the steps to hell and were waiting for admittance. A small slit in the door opened, and Guvnor, the bouncer, nodded at us. The door opened and an enormous swell of music throbbed out at us and drew us in, into the darkness lit by burning cigarette tips, the hundreds of voices competing with the screaming band, the smell of liquor coiling sweetly into every breath I took.
The cabbie, outside—this felt like my last chance. My last chance to take action, to act like a person who gave a crap, like a normal person.
"Nasty!" I was enveloped in a huge, slightly unbalanced hug. "I love your hair!" my friend Mal shouted as loud as she could into my ear. "Come dance!" She put her arm around my shoulders and pulled me into the dark, low-ceilinged room.
I hesitated only a second.
And just like that, I let myself leave the outside world behind, let myself disappear into the noise and the smoke. I was horrified, and if you knew the usual high jinks I myself was often up to, those words would have more weight for you. I split away from Incy, not sure what to think. He'd just done what I thought was probably the very worst thing I'd ever seen him do. Worse than that incident with that mayor's horse, back in the forties. Worse than that poor girl who'd actually wanted to marry him, in the 1970s. That had been such a disaster. I'd managed to explain away those situations to myself, made them make sense. This one I was having a harder time with.
With a last, beautiful grin at me, Incy headed off to prowl the crowd that was already sending out tendrils of interest, from both males and females. Incy was irresistible, a seductive magnet, and most people, human and immortal alike, were helpless under the charm that hid a side that was, suddenly, so much darker than I'd realized.
Twenty minutes later, I was making out heavily on a sticky couch with Mal's friend Jase, who was cheerful and drunk and adorable. I wanted to sink into him, be someone else, be the person Jase was seeing on the outside. He wasn't immortal, didn't know I was, but he was a welcome distraction that I threw myself into with nervous urgency. People talked and smoked and drank all around us while I ran my hands under his shirt and he wound his legs around me. His fingers pushed into my short black hair, and with a sudden shock I felt an unexpected warm breeze on my neck.
I was already reeling back, grabbing for my scarf, quickly rewinding it around me when I heard Incy say, "Nas? What's that on the back of your neck?"
I looked over my shoulder at Incy standing by the end of the couch, a drink in one hand, a long cigarette glowing in the other. His eyes were black holes, glittering at me in the darkness.
My heart was beating hard. Don't overreact, Nasty. "Nothing." I shrugged and collapsed on Jase, and he reached up for me again.
"Nas?" Incy's voice was quiet but determined. "You know, I don't remember ever seeing the back of your neck, come to think of it."
I forced a small laugh and looked up even as Jase tried to kiss me again. "Don't be daft, of course you have. Now clear off. Busy here."
"Is it a tattoo?"
I tugged my scarf tighter around my neck. "Yes. It says, If you can read this sign, you're too bloody close. Now clear off!"
Incy laughed, to my relief, and moved away. The last I saw of him, a beautiful, slinky girl in satin was coiling around him like a snake.
And I just didn't let myself think about the cab driver again. When the thought, the vision, intruded, I squeezed my eyes shut and had another drink. But the next morning it all came back to me: the cabbie's face, the agony written there. He would never walk, never drive again, because Innocencio had snapped his spine and left him on a rainy London street, worse than dead.
And I had done nothing, nothing. I had walked away.
The good thing about being immortal is that you can't literally drink yourself to death, as frat boys can. The bad thing about being immortal is that you can't literally drink yourself to death, so you wake up the next morning, or maybe the day after that, and you feel everything you would be spared feeling if only you'd been lucky enough to die.
It was sort of light outside when I finally pried my eyes open for more than a few seconds. I blearily scanned the room and saw a window. The light coming in was pale and pink-tinged, which meant dusk or dawn. One or the other. Or perhaps the neighborhood was on fire. Always a possibility.
I knew it would be bad, trying to sit up, so I took it slowly, moving one small part of me at a time. Last was my head, which I raised cautiously a few inches off the mattress. The washed-out yellow roses of the bare mattress slowly clarified and resolved. Mattress, no sheet. Window with light. Dark painted brick walls, like a factory or something.
I turned my head slowly to see another sleeping body, a guy with spiky green hair, a thick silver chain around his neck, a writhing dragon tattoo covering most of his back. Um, Jeff? Jason? Jack? Something with a J, I was almost certain.
I achieved a semi-upright state several minutes later, then immediately hurled my guts up as my body attempted to rid itself of the toxins I'd ingested the night before.
I didn't make it to the toilet. Sorry, Jeff.
Feeling hollow and shaky and wishing immortality wasn't so incredibly literal, I saw I was still wearing all my clothes, which meant either the J-man or I, or both, had been too wasted to further our… acquaintance last night. Just as well. Reflexively I felt for my scarf and found it still knotted tight around my throat. I relaxed a bit, then remembered Incy standing over me, asking me about the mark on the back of my neck. I couldn't believe that had happened on the same night as the cabbie. I swallowed, grimacing, and decided to think about that later.
My leather jacket and one of my beautiful green lizard-skin ankle boots were inexplicably missing, so I took the boot I could find and crept out, not that an earthquake would have woken Jay up then. I was pretty sure he was still alive—his chest seemed to be going up and down. I vaguely remembered having two drinks to each one of his.
I stepped over a couple more sleeping bodies on my way out. This was a big, bare warehouselike building, probably on the outskirts of town. My shoulder and butt felt bruised, and all of my muscles were sore as I limped down the industrial brick steps. Outside it was really cold, the wind whipping bits of trash up the deserted street.
At least it wasn't raining, I thought, and then it all flowed back into my brain, against my will: the night before, everything we'd done, the rain, the knife fight, falling on the sidewalk, Incy breaking that cabbie's spine, me almost losing my scarf in that club, in front of everyone. My stomach roiled again and I stopped for a moment, sucking in a cold breath as I ran through the details, dismay creeping over me anew. Where had Innocencio learned that magick? As far as I knew, he hadn't made a point of knowing any, and in the last century of our hanging out, I'd never seen him do much, certainly not anything that big, that dark. No friends in our immediate circle had honed their skills with magick. I leaned against the graffitied cinder-block wall of the warehouse while I pushed my bare foot into my one boot.
The cold air filled my nose and made it start running, and suddenly the morning was horribly bright, horribly clear. Incy had done something awful last night with powerful magick, out of the blue. And I had done something just as awful, though not with magick. I'd watched Incy break that guy's spine, and then I had just… walked away. I'd walked away and gone dancing in a club. What was wrong with me? How could I have done that? Had someone found the cabbie during the night? Someone had, surely. Even though that neighborhood was mostly deserted. Even though it had been very late. And raining. Still, someone must have happened on him, taken him to the hospital. Right?
And on top of that, Incy had actually seen the mark on the back of my neck. And might well remember it. How ironic. I'd been obsessive about keeping my neck covered at all times for the last 449 years, and all at once, one night, that effort had been shot. Would Incy know the significance of what he'd seen? How could he? No one did. No one who was still alive. So why did I feel so afraid?
And all of these horrible, fevered thoughts bring us back to the beginning:
Last night my whole world came tumbling down. Now I'm running scared.
After some of the events I've witnessed, the Incy/cabbie/magick/neck night should seem like a party. I've raced away in the night, clinging to a horse's mane, with nothing but the clothes on my back, while a city behind me burned to the ground. I've seen bodies covered with the oozing sores of the bubonic plague, piled high in city streets like logs because there weren't enough people alive to bury them. I was in Paris on July 14, 1789. You never forget the sight of a human head on a pike.
But we weren't at war now. We were living an ordinary life, or as ordinary a life as an immortal can have. I mean, there's always a bit of a surreal quality. If you live long enough, through enough wars and invasions and attacks by northern raiders, you end up defending yourself, sometimes to an extreme point. If someone's coming at you with a sword, and you have a dagger tucked in the back of your skirt, well…
But that was different. It didn't matter that your attacker probably wouldn't kill you—how often does someone actually cut your head clean off?—it still felt like a life-or-death situation, and you reacted as if it were. But last night had been… just a regular night. No war, no berserkers, no life or death. Just a pissed-off cabbie.
Where had Incy gotten that spell? Yes, we're immortal, we have magick running through our veins, but one has to learn on purpose how to use it. Over the years, I'd known some people who were all about studying magick, learning spells, learning whatever they needed to learn to wield it. But I'd figured out a long time ago that I didn't want to. I'd seen the death and destruction that magick could cause, I'd seen what people were willing to do to pursue it, and I didn't want to have anything to do with it. I wanted to pretend it didn't exist. And I'd found some like-minded aefrelyffen (an old word for immortals), and we hung out.
Okay, maybe I'd use magick to get a cab when it's raining and there's none to be found. To make the person in front of me not want that last pain au chocolat. That kind of thing. But to snap someone's spine, for fun?
I'd seen Incy use people, break girls' and boys' hearts, steal, be callous—and it was just part of his charm. He was reckless and selfish and a user—but not to me. To me he was sweet and generous and funny and fun, willing to go anywhere, do anything. He was the one who would call me to go to Morocco at a moment's notice. The one I'd call to get me out of a jam. If some guy wouldn't take no for an answer, Incy was there, smiling his wolfish smile. If some woman made a snide remark, Incy's wit would skewer her in front of everyone. He helped me pick out what to wear, brought me fabulous stuff from wherever he went, never criticized me, never made me feel bad.
And I'd done the same for him—once breaking a bottle over a woman's head after she went after Incy with a long metal nail file. I'd paid off doormen, lied to bobbies and gendarmes, and pretended to be his wife or his sister or his enraged lover, whatever the situation demanded. We would howl about it afterward, falling together, laughing until tears came out of our eyes. The fact that we'd never been lovers, never had that awkwardness between us, only made it more perfect.
He was my best friend—the best friend I'd ever had. We'd been tight for almost a century, so it was amazing that he'd managed to shock me last night. And amazing that our other friends hadn't been shocked. And amazing that I'd managed to reach a new low, even for me. The low of indifference. The low of cowardice. And, to top it all off, Incy had seen my neck. Better and better.
When I got back to my London flat, I took a shower, sitting on the marble floor and letting the hot water rain down on my head for a long time, trying to wash the alcohol and the warehouse off my skin. I couldn't even name what I was feeling. Fear? Shame? It was as if I'd woken up into a different life from the one I'd woken up into yesterday, and I was a different person. And this life and I were both suddenly much darker and grosser and more dangerous than I'd realized.
I soaped up all over, practically feeling the alcohol oozing out of my pores. I washed my hair, automatically avoiding my… it's not a tattoo. Immortals get tattoos, of course, and they last a long time, maybe about ninety years or so. Other scars heal, fade, and disappear much more quickly and completely than on regular people. A couple of years later, you can't tell where you were injured or burned.
Except for me. The mark on the back of my neck was a burn, and I'd had it since I was ten years old. It had never faded, never changed, and the skin was slightly indented, patterned. It was round, about two inches across. It had been caused by a red-hot amulet pressed against my skin 449 years ago. Sure, despite my paranoia, the occasional person had seen it, now and again, over the last four and a half centuries. But as far as I knew, no one now living had ever seen it. Except for Incy, last night.
Finally I got out, all prune-y. I wrapped myself up in a thick robe I'd taken from some hotel, avoiding looking at myself in the mirror. Feeling like a ghost, a wraith, I wandered into the living room and saw the London Times on the floor in front of my door, where I'd kicked it. I carried it into the kitchenette, where all I found were an ancient packet of McVitie's and a bottle of vodka in the freezer. So I sat on my sofa and ate the stale crackers, skimming the Times. It was buried way in the back, before the obits but after, like, Girl Guide meeting announcements. It said, Trevor Hollis, 48, an independent taxicab driver, was attacked last night by one of his fares and suffered a broken spine. He is in the ICU of St. James's Hospital, undergoing tests. Doctors have said he will likely be paralyzed from the shoulders down. He has been unable to name or describe his attacker. His wife and children have been at his side.
Paralyzed below the shoulders. If I had called an ambulance, gotten him help sooner, would it have made a difference? How long had he lain on the sidewalk, rigid with pain, unable to scream?
Why hadn't I called 999? What was wrong with me? He could have died. Maybe he would have preferred to. He wouldn't be driving a cab any longer. He had a wife and children. What kind of a husband could he be now? What kind of a father? My eyes got blurry, and the stale crackers turned to dust in my throat.
I had been part of that. I hadn't helped. I'd probably made it worse.
What had I become? What had Incy turned into?
The phone rang and I ignored it. My buzzer sounded three times, and I let the doorman handle it. I'd lost my mobile a couple of days ago and hadn't gotten around to replacing it, so I didn't have to worry about that. Finally, at about eight, I got up and went to my bedroom and pulled out my biggest suitcase, the one that could hold a dead pony. (Before you go there, I'll clarify that it never has.)
Quickly, with a sense of abrupt urgency, I grabbed armfuls of clothes and whatever and shoved them in, and when it was full, I zipped it up, found a jacket, and headed out. Gopala, the doorman, got me a cab.
"Mr. Bawz and Mr. Innosaunce were looking for you, Miss Nastalya," he told me. I'd always been amused at how he butchered all of our names. Of course, he was doing a damn sight better here than what I could do if you plunked me down in the middle of Bangalore and expected me to hold a job.
"I'll be back soon," I told Gopala as the cabdriver hefted my suitcase into the boot.
"Ah, are you off to see your parents, Miss Nastalya?"
- On Sale
- Jan 2, 2012
- Page Count
- 432 pages