The Dark Devices: City Of Dices | Teen Ink

The Dark Devices: City Of Dices

October 15, 2021
By Isabelle_Snow_Montgomery, Los Angeles, California
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Isabelle_Snow_Montgomery, Los Angeles, California
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Favorite Quote:
“A dream doesn’t become reality through magic; it takes sweat, determination, and hard work.” — Colin Powell.


Author's note:

I was born in Los Angeles under a Christian name made by my mother, but my father strongly disapproves of it, so they divorced, and I was left with my mother.

When I was 13, I read Cassandra Clare's The Shadowhunter Chronicles. All that fantasy world is born from the Bible, and reading it, I had a better look at Christianity and why religion is more important to some people than love.

This is what inspired me to write this series, the series The Mortal Instruments really inspired me because it touches on the edge of the Bible.

In my series, I hope to have a better understanding of Christian believes through this and improve my writing techniques.

 

The Deathly Devices - City of Dices
 
Part I
Dark Descent
 
I sung of Chaos and eternal Night
Taught but the heavenly Muse to venture down
The dark descent, and up to reascend …
— John Milton, Paradise Lost
 
1
Chaos Club
 
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” The bouncer said, folding his arms across his massive chest. He stared down at the boy in the red zip-up jacket and shook his shaved head. “You can’t bring that thing in here.”
 
The fifty or so teenagers in line outside the Chaos Club leaned forward to eavesdrop. It was a long wait to get into the all-ages club, especially on a Sunday, and not much generally happened in line. The bouncers were fierce and would come down instantly on anyone who looked like they were going to start trouble. Fifteen-year-old Annabel Poe, standing in line with her best friend, Asher Liams, leaned forward along with everyone else, hoping for some excitement.
 
“Aw, come on.” The kid hoisted the thing up over his head. it looked like a wooden beam, pointed at one end. “It’s part of my costume.”
 
The bouncer raised an eyebrow. “Which is what?”
 
The boy grinned. He was normal-enough-looking, Annabel thought, for Chaos. He had electric purple dyed hair that stuck up around his head like the tendrils of a startled octopus, but no elaborate facial tattoos or big metal bars through his ears or lips. “I’m a vampire.” He pushed down on the wooden thing. It bent as easily as a blade of grass bending sideways. “It’s fake. Foam of rubber. See?”
 
The boy’s wide eyes were way too bright a green, Clary noticed: the color of antifreeze, spring grass. Colored contact lenses, probably. The bouncer shrugged, abruptly bored. “Whatever. Go on in.”
 
The boy slide past him, quick as an eel. Annabel liked the lilt to his shoulders, the way he tossed his hair as he went. There was a word for him that her mother would have used—insouciant.
 
“You thought he was cute,” said Asher, sounding resigned. “Didn’t you?”
 
Annabel dug her elbows into his ribs, but didn’t answer.
 
Inside, the club was full of dry-ice smoke. Colored lights played over the dance floor, turning it into a multicolored fairyland of blues and acid greens, hot pinks and golds.
~~~
The boy in the red jacket stroked the lone razor-sharp blade in his hands, an idle smile playing over his lips. It had been so easy—a little bit of a glamour on the blade, to make it look harmless. Another glamour on his is eyes, and the moment the bouncer had looked straight at him, he was in. Of course, he could probably have gotten by without all that trouble, but it was part of the fun—fooling the mundies, doing it all out in the open right in front of them, getting off on the blank looks on their sheeplike faces.
 
Not that humans didn’t have their uses. The boy’s green eyes scanned the dance floor, where slender leather appeared and disappeared inside of the revolving columns of smoke as the mundies danced. Girls tossed their long hair, boys swung their leather-clad hips, and bare skin glittered with sweat. Vitality just poured off them, waves of energy that filled him with a drunken dizziness. His lip curled. They didn’t know how lucky they were. They didn’t know what it was like to eke out life in a dead world, where the sun hung limp in the sky like burned cinder. There lives burned as brightly as candle flames—and were as easy to snuff out.
 
His hand tightened on the blade he carried, and he had begun to step out onto the dance floor, when a girl broke away from the mass of dancers and began walking towards him. He stared at her. She was beautiful—her long hair nearly the precise color of black ink, charcoaled eyes. Floor-length white gown, the kind women used to were when this would was younger. Low neckline, to expose her well-shaped breasts. Lace sleeves belled out around her slim arms. Around her neck was a thick silver chain, on which hung a dark red pendant the size of a baby’s fist. He only had to narrow his eyes to know that it was real — real and precious. His mouth started to water as she neared him. Vital energy pulsed from her like blood from an open wound. She smiled, passing him, beckoning with her eyes. He turned to follow her, tasting the phantom sizzle of her death on his lips.
 
It was always easy. He could already feel the power of her evaporating life coursing through his veins like fire. Humans were so stupid. They had something so precious, and they barely safeguarded it at all. They threw away their lives for money, for packets of powder, for a stranger’s body. The girl was a pale ghost retreating through the colored smoke. She reached the wall and turned, bunching her skirt up in her hands, lifting it as she grinned at him. Under the skirt, she was wearing thigh-high boots.
 
He sauntered up to her, his skin prickling with her nearness. Up close she wasn’t so perfect: He could see the mascara smudged under her eyes, the sweat sticking her hair to her neck. He could smell her mortality, the sweet rot of corruption. Got you, he thought.
 
A cool smile coupled her lips. She moved to the side, and he could see that she was leaning against a closed door. No Admittance — Storage was scrawled across it in red paint. She reached behind her for the knob, turned it, slid inside. He caught a glimpse of stacked boxes, tangled wiring. A storage room. He glanced behind him — no one was looking. So much the better if she wanted privacy.
 
He slipped into the room after her, unaware that he was being followed.
~~~
“So,” Asher said, “Pretty good music, eh?”
 
Annabel didn’t reply. They were dancing, or what passed for it — a lot of swaying back and forth with occasional lunges to the floor as if one of them had dropped a contact lens — in a space between a group of teenage boys in metallic corsets, and a young Asian couple who were making out passionately, their colored hair extensions tangled together like vines. A boy with a lip piercing and a teddy bear backpack was handing out free tablets of herbal ecstasy, his parachute pants flapping in the breeze from the wind machine. Annabel wasn’t paying much attention to their immediate surrounding — her eyes were on the blue-haired boy who’d talked his way into the club. He was prowling through the crowd as if he were looking for something. There was something about the way he moved that reminded her of something…
 
“I, for one,” Asher went on, “am enjoying myself immensely.”
 
This seemed unlikely. Asher, as always, stuck out at the club like a sore thumb, in jeans and an old T-shirt that said Made In China across the front. His freshly scrubbed hair was dark brown instead of green or blue, and his glasses perched crookedly on the end of his nose. He looked less as if he were contemplating the powers of darkness and more as if he were on his way to chess club.
“Mmm-hmm.” Annabel knew perfectly well that he came to Chaos with her only because she liked it, that he thought it was boring. She wasn’t even sure why it was that she liked it—the clothes, the music, made it like a dream, someone else’s life, not her boring real life at all. But she was always too shy to talk to anyone but Asher.
The blue-haired boy was making his way off the dance floor. He looked a little lost, as if he hadn’t found whom he was looking for. Annabel wondered what would happen if she went up and introduced herself, offered to show him around. Maybe he’d just stare at her. Or maybe he was shy too. Maybe he’d be grateful and pleased, and try not to show it, the way boys did—but she’d know. Maybe—
The blue-haired boy straightened up suddenly, snapping to attention, like a hunting dog on point. Annabel followed the line of his gaze, and saw the girl in the white dress.
Oh, well, Annabel thought, trying not to feel like a deflated party balloon. I guess that’s that. The girl was gorgeous, the kind of girl Annabel would have liked to draw—tall and ribbon-slim, with a long spill of black hair. Even at this distance Annabel could see the red pendant around her throat. It pulsed under the lights of the dance floor like a separate, disembodied heart.
“I feel,” Asher went on, “that this evening DJ Bat is doing a singularly exceptional job. Don’t you agree?”
Annabel rolled her eyes and didn’t answer; Asher hated trance music. Her attention was on the girl in the white dress. Through the darkness, smoke, and artificial fog, her pale dress shone out like a beacon. No wonder the blue-haired boy was following her as if he were under a spell, too distracted to notice anything else around him—even the two dark shapes hard on his heels, weaving after him through the crowd.
Annabel slowed her dancing and stared. She could just make out that the shapes were boys, tall and wearing black clothes. She couldn’t have said how she knew that they were following the other boy, but she did. She could see it in the way they paced him, their careful watchfulness, the slinking grace of their movements. A small flower of apprehension began to open inside her chest.
“Meanwhile,” Asher added, “I wanted to tell you that lately I’ve been cross-dressing. Also, I’m sleeping with your mom. I thought you should know.”
The girl had reached the wall, and was opening a door marked No Admittance. She beckoned the blue-haired boy after her, and they slipped through the door. It wasn’t anything Annabel hadn’t seen before, a couple sneaking off to the dark corners of the club to make out—but that made it even weirder that they were being followed.
She raised herself up on tiptoe, trying to see over the crowd. The two guys had stopped at the door and seemed to be conferring with each other. One of them was blond, the other dark-haired. The blond one reached into his jacket and drew out something long and sharp that flashed under the strobing lights. A knife. “Asher!” Annabel shouted, and seized his arm.
“What?” Asher looked alarmed. “I’m not really sleeping with your mom, you know. I was just trying to get your attention. Not that your mom isn’t a very attractive woman, for her age.”
“Do you see those guys?” She pointed wildly, almost hitting a curvy black girl who was dancing nearby. The girl shot her an evil look. “Sorry—sorry!” Annabel turned back to Asher. “Do you see those two guys over there? By that door?”
Asher squinted, then shrugged. “I don’t see anything.”
“There are two of them. They were following the guy with the blue hair—”
“The one you thought was cute?”
“Yes, but that’s not the point. The blond one pulled a knife.”
“Are you sure?” Asher stared harder, shaking his head. “I still don’t see anyone.”
“I’m sure.”
Suddenly all business, Asher squared his shoulders. “I’ll get one of the security guards. You stay here.” He strode away, pushing through the crowd.
Annabel turned just in time to see the blond boy slip through the No Admittance door, his friend right on his heels. She looked around; Asher was still trying to shove his way across the dance floor, but he wasn’t making much progress. Even if she yelled now, no one would hear her, and by the time Asher got back, something terrible might already have happened. Biting hard on her lower lip, Annabel started to wriggle through the crowd.
~~~
“What’s your name?”
She turned and smiled. What faint light there was in the storage room spilled down through high barred windows smeared with dirt. Piles of electrical cables, along with broken bits of mirrored disco balls and discarded paint cans, littered the floor.
“Veronica.”
“That’s a nice name.” He walked toward her, stepping carefully among the wires in case any of them were live. In the faint light she looked half-transparent, bleached of color, wrapped in white like an angel. It would be a pleasure to make her fall … “I haven’t seen you here before.”
“You’re asking me if I come here often?” She laughed, covering her mouth with her hand. There was some sort of bracelet around her wrist, just under the cuff of her dress—then, as he neared her, he saw that it wasn’t a bracelet at all but a pattern inked into her skin, a matrix of swirling lines.
He froze. “You—”
He didn’t finish. She moved with lightning swiftness, striking out at him with her open hand, a blow to his chest that would have sent him down gasping if he’d been a human being. He staggered back, and now there was something in her hand, a coiling whip that glinted gold as she brought it down, curling around his ankles, jerking him off his feet. He hit the ground, writhing, the hated metal biting deep into his skin. She laughed, standing over him, and dizzily he thought that he should have known. No human girl would wear a dress like the one Rosalie wore. She’d worn it to cover her skin—all of her skin.
Rosalie yanked hard on the whip, securing it. Her smile glittered like poisonous water. “He’s all yours, boys.”
A low laugh sounded behind him, and now there were hands on him, hauling him upright, throwing him against one of the concrete pillars. He could feel the damp stone under his back. His hands were pulled behind him, his wrists bound with wire. As he struggled, someone walked around the side of the pillar into his view: a boy, as young as Rosalie and just as beautiful. His tawny eyes glittered like chips of amber. “So,” the boy said. “Are there any more with you?”
The blue-haired boy could feel blood welling up under the too-tight metal, making his wrists slippery. “Any other what?”
“Come on now.” The tawny-eyed boy held up his hands, and his dark sleeves slipped down, showing the runes inked all over his wrists, the backs of his hands, his palms. “You know what I am.”
Far back inside his skull, the shackled boy’s second set of teeth began to grind.
“Shadowhunter,” he hissed.
The other boy grinned all over his face. “Got you,” he said.
~~~
Annabel pushed the door to the storage room open, and stepped inside. For a moment she thought it was deserted. The only windows were high up and barred; faint street noise came through them, the sound of honking cars and squealing brakes. The room smelled like old paint, and a heavy layer of dust covered the floor, marked by smeared shoe prints.
There’s no one in here, she realized, looking around in bewilderment. It was cold in the room, despite the August heat outside. Her back was icy with sweat. She took a step forward, tangling her feet in electrical wires. She bent down to free her sneaker from the cables—and heard voices. A girl’s laugh, a boy answering sharply. When she straightened up, she saw them.
It was as if they had sprung into existence between one blink of her eyes and the next. There was the girl in her long white dress, her black hair hanging down her back like damp seaweed. The two boys were with her—the tall one with black hair like hers, and the fair one, whose hair gleamed like brass in the dim light coming through the windows high above. The fair boy was standing with his hands in his pockets, facing the punk kid, who was tied to a pillar with what looked like piano wire, his hands stretched behind him, his legs bound at the ankles. His face was pulled tight with pain and fear.
Heart hammering in her chest, Annabel ducked behind the nearest concrete pillar and peered around it. She watched as the fair-haired boy paced back and forth, his arms now crossed over his chest. “So,” he said. “You still haven’t told me if there are any other of your kind with you.”
Your kind? Annabel wondered what he was talking about. Maybe she’d stumbled into some kind of gang war.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” The blue-haired boy’s tone was pained but surly.
“He means other demons,” said the dark-haired boy, speaking for the first time. “You do know what a demon is, don’t you?”
The boy tied to the pillar turned his face away, his mouth working.
“Demons,” drawled the blond boy, tracing the word on the air with his finger. “Religiously defined as hell’s denizens, the servants of Satan, but understood here, for the purposes of the Capitol, to be any malevolent spirit whose origin is outside our own home dimension—”
“That’s enough, Luke,” said the girl.
“Veronica’s right,” agreed the other boy. “Nobody here needs a lesson in semantics—or demonology.”
They’re crazy, Annabel thought. Actually crazy.
Luke raised his head and smiled. There was something fierce about the gesture, something that reminded Annabel of documentaries she’d watched about lions on the Discovery Channel, the way the big cats would raise their heads and sniff the air for prey. “Veronica and Zeke think I talk too much,” he said, confidingly. “Do you think I talk too much?”
The blue-haired boy didn’t reply. His mouth was still working. “I could give you information,” he said. “I know where Robertine is.”
Luke glanced back at Zeke, who shrugged. “Robertine’s in the ground,” Luke said. “The thing’s just toying with us.
Veronica tossed her hair. “Kill it, Luke,” she said. “It’s not going to tell us anything.”
Luke raised his hand, and Annabel saw dim light spark off the knife he was holding. It was oddly translucent, the blade clear as crystal, sharp as a shard of glass, the hilt set with red stones.
The bound boy gasped. “Robertine is back!” he protested, dragging at the bonds that held his hands behind his back. “All the Infernal Worlds know it—I know it—I can tell you where he is—”
Rage flared suddenly in Luke’s icy eyes. “By the Angel, every time we capture one of you bastards, you claim you know where Robertine is. Well, we know where he is too. He’s in hell. And you—” Luke turned the knife in his grasp, the edge sparking like a line of fire. “You can join him there.”
Annabel could take no more. She stepped out from behind the pillar. “Stop!” she cried. “You can’t do this.”
Luke whirled, so startled that the knife flew from his hand and clattered against the concrete floor. Veronica and Zeke turned along with him, wearing identical expressions of astonishment. The blue-haired boy hung in his bonds, stunned and gaping.
It was Zeke who spoke first. “What’s this?” he demanded, looking from Annabel to his companions, as if they might know what she was doing there.
“It’s a girl,” Luke said, recovering his composure. “Surely you’ve seen girls before, Zeke. Your sister Veronica is one.” He took a step closer to Annabel, squinting as if he couldn’t quite believe what he was seeing. “A mundie girl,” he said, half to himself. “And she can see us.”
“Of course I can see you,” Annabel said. “I’m not blind, you know.”
“Oh, but you are,” said Luke, bending to pick up his knife. “You just don’t know it.” He straightened up. “You’d better get out of here, if you know what’s good for you.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” Annabel said. “If I do, you’ll kill him.” She pointed at the boy with the blue hair.
“That’s true,” admitted Luke, twirling the knife between his fingers. “What do you care if I kill him or not?”
“Be-because—” Luke spluttered. “You can’t just go around killing people.”
“You’re right,” said Luke. “You can’t go around killing people.” He pointed at the boy with blue hair, whose eyes were slitted. Annabel wondered if he’d fainted. “That’s not a person, little girl. It may look like a person and talk like a person and maybe even bleed like a person. But it’s a demon.”
“Luke,” said Veronica warningly. “That’s enough.”
“You’re crazy,” Annabel said, backing away from him. “I’ve called the police, you know. They’ll be here any second.”
“She’s lying,” said Zeke, but there was doubt on his face. “Luke, do you—”
He never got to finish his sentence. At that moment the blue-haired boy, with a high, yowling cry, tore free of the restraints binding him to the pillar, and flung himself on Luke.
They fell to the ground and rolled together, the blue-haired boy tearing at Luke with hands that glittered as if tipped with metal.Annabel backed up, wanting to run, but her feet caught on a loop of wiring and she went down, knocking the breath out of her chest. She could hear Veronica shrieking. Rolling over, Clary saw the blue-haired boy sitting on Luke’s chest. Blood gleamed at the tips of his razorlike claws.
Veronica and Zeke were running toward them, Veronica brandishing the whip in her hand. The blue-haired boy slashed at Luke with claws extended. Luke threw an arm up to protect himself, and the claws raked it, splattering blood. The blue-haired boy lunged again—and Veronica’s whip came down across his back. He shrieked and fell to the side.
Swift as a flick of Veronica’s whip, Luke rolled over. There was a blade gleaming in his hand. He sank the knife into the blue-haired boy’s chest. Blackish liquid exploded around the hilt. The boy arched off the floor, gurgling and twisting. With a grimace Luke stood up. His black shirt was blacker now in some places, wet with blood. He looked down at the twitching form at his feet, reached down, and yanked out the knife. The hilt was slick with black fluid.
The blue-haired boy’s eyes flickered open. His eyes, fixed on Luke, seemed to burn. Between his teeth, he hissed, “So be it. The Forsaken will take you all.”
The boy’s eyes rolled back. His body began to jerk and twitch as he crumpled, folding in on himself, growing smaller and smaller until he vanished entirely.
Annabel scrambled to her feet, kicking free of the electrical wiring. She began to back away. None of them were paying attention to her. Zeke had reached Luke and was holding his arm, pulling at the sleeve, probably trying to get a good look at the wound. Annabel turned to run—and found her way blocked by Veronica, whip in hand. The gold length of it was stained with dark fluid. She flicked it toward Annabel, and the end wrapped itself around her wrist and jerked tight. Annabel gasped with pain and surprise.
“Stupid little mundie,” Annabel said between her teeth. “You could have gotten Luke killed.”
“He’s crazy,” Annabel said, trying to pull her wrist back. The whip bit deeper into her skin. “You’re all crazy. What do you think you are, vigilante killers? The police—”
“The police aren’t usually interested unless you can produce a body,” said Luke. Cradling his arm, he picked his way across the cable-strewn floor toward Annabel. Zeke followed behind him, face screwed into a scowl.
Annabel glanced at the spot where the boy had disappeared from, and said nothing. There wasn’t even a smear of blood there—nothing to show that the boy had ever existed.
“They return to their home dimensions when they die,” said Luke. “In case you were wondering.”
“Luke,” Zeke hissed. “Be careful.”
Luke drew his arm away. A ghoulish freckling of blood marked his face. “She can see us, Zeke,” he said. “She already knows too much.”
“So what do you want to do with her?” Veronica demanded.
“Let her go,” Luke said quietly. Veronica shot him a surprised, almost angry look, but didn’t argue. The whip slithered away, freeing Annabel’s arm. She rubbed her sore wrist and wondered how the hell she was going to get out of there.
“Maybe we should bring her back with us,” Zeke said. “I bet Hodge would like to talk to her.”
“No way are we bringing her to the Institute,” said Veronica. “She’s a mundie.”
“Or is she?” said Luke softly. His quiet tone was worse than Veronica’s snapping or Zeke’s anger. “Have you had dealings with demons, little girl? Walked with warlocks, talked with the Night Children? Have you—”
“My name is not ‘little girl,’” Annabel interrupted. “And I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Don’t you? said a voice in the back of her head. You saw that boy vanish into thin air. They aren’t crazy—you just wish they were. “I don’t believe in—in demons, or whatever you—”
“Annabel?” It was Simon’s voice. She whirled around. He was standing by the storage room door. One of the burly bouncers who’d been stamping hands at the front door was next to him. “Are you okay?” He peered at her through the gloom. “Why are you in here by yourself? What happened to the guys—you know, the ones with the knives?”
Annabel stared at him, then looked behind her, where Luke, Veronica, and Zeke stood, Luke still in his bloody shirt with the knife in his hand. He grinned at her and dropped a half-apologetic, half-mocking shrug. Clearly he wasn’t surprised that neither Asher nor the bouncer could see them.
Somehow neither was Annabel. Slowly she turned back to Asher, knowing how she must look to him, standing alone in a damp storage room, her feet tangled in bright plastic wiring cables. “I thought they went in here,” she said lamely. “But I guess they didn’t. I’m sorry.” She glanced from Asher, whose expression was changing from worried to embarrassed, to the bouncer, who just looked annoyed. “It was a mistake.”
Behind her, Veronica giggled.
~~~
“I don’t believe it,” Asher said stubbornly as Annabel, standing at the curb, tried desperately to hail a cab. Street cleaners had come down Orchard while they were inside the club, and the street was glossed black with oily water.
“I know,” she agreed. “You’d think there’d be some cabs. Where is everyone going at midnight on a Sunday?” She turned back to him, shrugging. “You think we’d have better luck on Houston?”
“Not the cabs,” Asher said. “You—I don’t believe you. I don’t believe those guys with the knives just disappeared.”
Annabel sighed. “Maybe there weren’t any guys with knives, Asher. Maybe I just imagined the whole thing.”
“No way.” Asher raised his hand over his head, but the oncoming taxis whizzed by him, spraying dirty water. “I saw your face when I came into that storage room. You looked seriously freaked out, like you’d seen a ghost.”
Annabel thought of Luke with his lion-cat eyes. She glanced down at her wrist, braceleted by a thin red line where Veronica’s whip had curled. No, not a ghost, she thought. Something even weirder than that.
“It was just a mistake,” she said wearily. She wondered why she wasn’t telling him the truth. Except, of course, that he’d think she was crazy. And there was something about what had happened—something about the black blood bubbling up around Luke’s knife, something about his voice when he’d said Have you talked with the Night Children? that she wanted to keep to herself.
“Well, it was a hell of an embarrassing mistake,” Asher said. He glanced back at the club, where a thin line still snaked out the door and halfway down the block. “I doubt they’ll ever let us back into Chaos.”
“What do you care? You hate Chaos.” Annabel raised her hand again as a yellow shape sped toward them through the fog. This time, though, the taxi screeched to a halt at their corner, the driver laying into his horn as if he needed to get their attention.
“Finally we get lucky.” Asher yanked the taxi door open and slid onto the plastic-covered backseat. Annabel followed, inhaling the familiar New York cab smell of old cigarette smoke, leather, and hair spray. “We’re going to Brooklyn,” Asher said to the cabbie, and then he turned to Annabel. “Look, you know you can tell me anything, right?”
Annabel hesitated a moment, then nodded. “Sure, Asher,” she said. “I know I can.”
She slammed the cab door shut behind her, and the taxi took off into the night.

2
Secrets And Lies
The dark prince sat astride his black steed, his sable cape flowing behind him. A golden circlet bound his black locks, his handsome face was cold with the rage of battle, and …
“And his arm looked like an eggplant,” Annabel muttered to herself in exasperation. The drawing just wasn’t working. With a sigh she tore yet another sheet from her sketchpad, crumpled it up, and tossed it against the orange wall of her bedroom. Already the floor was littered with discarded balls of paper, a sure sign that her creative juices weren’t flowing the way she’d hoped. She wished for the thousandth time that she could be a bit more like her mother. Everything Maria Poe drew, painted, or sketched was beautiful, and seemingly effortless.
Annabel pulled her headphones out—cutting off Stepping Razor in midsong—and rubbed her aching temples. It was only then that she became aware that the loud, piercing sound of a ringing telephone was echoing through the apartment. Tossing the sketchpad onto the bed, she jumped to her feet and ran into the living room, where the retro-white phone sat on a table near the front door.
“Is this Annabella Poe?” The voice on the other end of the phone sounded familiar, though not immediately identifiable.
Annabel twirled the phone cord nervously around her finger. “Yeees?”
“Hi, I’m one of the knife-carrying hooligans you met last night in Chaos? I’m afraid I made a bad impression and was hoping you’d give me a chance to make it up to—”
“Asher!” Annabel held the phone away from her ear as he cracked up laughing. “That is so not funny!”
“Sure it is. You just don’t see the humor.”
“Jerk.” Annabel sighed, leaning up against the wall. “You wouldn’t be laughing if you’d been here when I got home last night.”
“Why not?”
“My mom. She wasn’t happy that we were late. She freaked out. It was messy.”
“What? It’s not our fault there was traffic!” Asher protested. He was the youngest five children and had a finely honed sense of familial injustice.
“Yeah, well, she doesn’t see it that way. I disappointed her, I let her down, I made her worry, blah blah blah. I am the bane of her existence,” Annabel said, mimicking her mother’s precise phrasing with only a slight twinge of guilt.
“So, are you grounded?” Asher asked, a little too loudly. Annabel could hear a low rumble of voices behind him: people talking over each other.
“I don’t know yet,” she said. “My mom went out this morning with Jack, and they’re not back yet. Where are you, anyway? Java’s?”
“Yeah. We just finished up practice.” A cymbal clashed behind Asher. Annabel winced. “Java’s doing a poetry reading over at Kate Kobes tonight,” Asher went on, naming a coffee shop around the corner from Annabel’s that sometimes had live music at night. “The whole band’s going to go to show their support. Want to come?”
“Yeah, all right.” Annabel paused, tugging on the phone cord anxiously. “Wait, no.”
“Shut up, guys, will you?” Asher yelled, the faintness of his voice making Annabel suspect that he was holding the phone away from his mouth. He was back a second later, sounding troubled. “Was that a yes or a no?”
“I don’t know.” Annabel bit her lip. “My mom’s still mad at me about last night. I’m not sure I want to piss her off by asking for any favors. If I’m going to get in trouble, I don’t want it to be on account of Java’s lousy poetry.”
“Come on, it’s not so bad,” Asher said. Java was his next-door neighbor, and the two had known each other most of their lives. They weren’t close the way Asher and Annabel were, but they had formed a rock band together at the start of sophomore year, along with Java’s friends Joe and Mat. They practiced together faithfully in Java’s parents’ garage every week. “Besides, it’s not a favor,” Asher added, “it’s a poetry slam around the block from your house. It’s not like I’m inviting you to some orgy in Hoboken. Your mom can come along if she wants.”
“Orgy in Hoboken!” Annabel heard someone, probably Java, yell. Another cymbal crashed. She imagined her mother listening to Java read his poetry, and she shuddered inwardly.
“I don’t know. If all of you show up here, I think she’ll freak.”
“Then I’ll come alone. I’ll pick you up and we can walk over there together, meet the rest of them there. Your mom won’t mind. She loves me.”
Annabel had to laugh. “Sign of her questionable taste, if you ask me.”
“Nobody did.” Asher clicked off, amid shouts from his bandmates.
Annabel hung up the phone and glanced around the living room. Evidence of her mother’s artistic tendencies was everywhere, from the handmade velvet throw pillows piled on the dark red sofa to the walls hung with Maria’s paintings, carefully framed—landscapes, mostly: the winding streets of downtown Manhattan lit with golden light; scenes of Prospect Park in winter, the gray ponds edged with lacelike films of white ice.
On the mantel over the fireplace was a framed photo of Annabel’s father. A thoughtful-looking fair man in military dress, his eyes bore the telltale traces of laugh lines at the corners. He’d been a decorated soldier serving overseas. Maria had some of his medals in a small box by her bed. Not that the medals had done anyone any good when Jonathan Clark had crashed his car into a tree just outside Albany and died before his daughter was even born.
Maria had gone back to using her maiden name after he died. She never talked about Annabel’s father, but she kept the box engraved with his initials, J.C., next to her bed. Along with the medals were one or two photos, a wedding ring, and a single lock of blond hair. Sometimes Maria took the box out and opened it and held the lock of hair very gently in her hands before putting it back and carefully locking the box up again.
The sound of the key turning in the front door roused Annabel out of her reverie. Hastily she threw herself down on the couch and tried to look as if she were immersed in one of the paperbacks her mother had left stacked on the end table. Maria recognized reading as a sacred pastime and usually wouldn’t interrupt Annabel in the middle of a book, even to yell at her.
The door opened with a thump. It was Jack, his arms full of what looked like big square pieces of pasteboard. When he set them down, Annabel saw that they were cardboard boxes, folded flat. He straightened up and turned to her with a smile.
“Hey, Un—hey, Jack,” she said. He’d asked her to stop calling him Uncle Jack about a year ago, claiming that it made him feel old, and anyway reminded him of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Besides, he’d reminded her gently, he wasn’t really her uncle, just a close friend of her mother’s who’d known her all her life. “Where’s Mom?”
“Parking the truck,” he said, straightening his lanky frame with a groan. He was dressed in his usual uniform: old jeans, a flannel shirt, and a bent pair of gold-rimmed spectacles that sat askew on the bridge of his nose. “Remind me again why this building has no service elevator?”
“Because it’s old, and has character,” Annabel said immediately. Jack grinned. “What are the boxes for?” she asked.
His grin vanished. “Your mother wanted to pack up some things,” he said, avoiding her gaze.
“What things?” Annabel asked.
He gave an airy wave. “Extra stuff lying around the house. Getting in the way. You know she never throws anything out. So what are you up to? Studying?” He plucked the book out of her hand and read out loud: “‘The world still teems with those motley beings whom a more sober philosophy has discarded. Fairies and goblins, ghosts and demons, still hover about—’” He lowered the book and looked at her over his glasses. “Is this for school?”
“The Golden Bough? No. School’s not for a few weeks.” Annabel took the book back from him. “It’s my mom’s.”
“I had a feeling.”
She dropped it back on the table. “Jack?”
“Uh-huh?” The book already forgotten, he was rummaging in the tool kit next to the hearth. “Ah, here it is.” He pulled out an orange plastic tape gun and gazed at it with deep satisfaction.
“What would you do if you saw something nobody else could see?”
The tape gun fell out of Jack’s hand, and hit the tiled hearth. He knelt to pick it up, not looking at her. “You mean if I were the only witness to a crime, that sort of thing?”
“No. I mean, if there were other people around, but you were the only one who could see something. As if it were invisible to everyone but you.”
He hesitated, still kneeling, the dented tape gun gripped in his hand.
“I know it sounds crazy,” Annabel ventured nervously, “but …”
He turned around. His eyes, very blue behind the glasses, rested on her with a look of firm affection. “Annabel, you’re an artist, like your mother. That means you see the world in ways that other people don’t. It’s your gift, to see the beauty and the horror in ordinary things. It doesn’t make you crazy—just different. There’s nothing wrong with being different.”
Annabel pulled her legs up, and rested her chin on her knees. In her mind’s eye she saw the storage room, Veronica’s gold whip, the blue-haired boy convulsing in his death spasms, and Luke’s tawny eyes. Beauty and horror. She said, “If my dad had lived, do you think he’d have been an artist too?”
Jack looked taken aback. Before he could answer her, the door swung open and Annabel’s mother stalked into the room, her boot heels clacking on the polished wooden floor. She handed Luke a set of jingling car keys and turned to look at her daughter.
Maria Poe was a slim, compact woman, her hair a few shades darker than Annabel’s and twice as long. At the moment it was twisted up in a dark red knot, stuck through with a graphite pen to hold it in place. She wore paint-spattered overalls over a lavender T-shirt, and brown hiking boots whose soles were caked with oil paint.
People always told Annabel that she looked like her mother, but she couldn’t see it herself. The only thing that was similar about them was their figures: They were both slender, with small chests and narrow hips. She knew she wasn’t beautiful like her mother was. To be beautiful you had to be willowy and tall. When you were as short as Annabel was, just over five feet, you were cute. Not pretty or beautiful, but cute. Throw in carroty hair and a face full of freckles, and she was a Raggedy Ann to her mother’s Barbie doll.
Maria even had a graceful way of walking that made people turn their heads to watch her go by. Annabel, by contrast, was always tripping over her feet. The only time people turned to watch her go by was when she hurtled past them as she fell downstairs.
“Thanks for bringing the boxes up,” Annabel’s mother said to Jack, and smiled at him. He didn’t return the smile. Annabel’s stomach did an uneasy flip. Clearly there was something going on. “Sorry it took me so long to find a space. There must be a million people at the park today—”
“Mom?” Annabel interrupted. “What are the boxes for?”
Maria bit her lip. Jack flicked his eyes toward Clary, mutely urging Maria forward. With a nervous twitch of her wrist, Maria pushed a dangling lock of hair behind her ear and went to join her daughter on the couch.
Up close Annabel could see how tired her mother looked. There were dark half-moons under her eyes, and her lids were pearly with sleeplessness.
“Is this about last night?” Annabel asked.
“No,” her mother said quickly, and then hesitated. “Maybe a little. You shouldn’t have done what you did last night. You know better.”
“And I already apologized. What is this about? If you’re grounding me, get it over with.”
“I’m not,” said her mother, “grounding you.” Her voice was as taut as a wire. She glanced at Jack, who shook his head.
“Just tell her, Maria,” he said.
“Could you not talk about me like I’m not here?” Annabel said angrily. “And what do you mean, ‘tell me’? Tell me what?”
Maria expelled a sigh. “We’re going on vacation.”
Jack’s expression went blank, like a canvas wiped clean of paint.
Annabel shook her head. “That’s what this is about? You’re going on vacation?” She sank back against the cushions. “I don’t get it. Why the big production?”
“I don’t think you understand. I meant we’re all going on vacation. The three of us—you, me, and Jack. We’re going to the farmhouse.”
“Oh.” Annabel glanced at Jack, but he had his arms crossed over his chest and was staring out the window, his jaw pulled tight. She wondered what was upsetting him. He loved the old farmhouse in upstate Los Angeles—he’d bought and restored it himself ten years before, and he went there whenever he could. “For how long?”
“For the rest of the summer,” said Maria. “I brought the boxes in case you want to pack up any books, painting supplies—”
“For the rest of the summer?” Annabel sat upright with indignation. “I can’t do that, Mom. I have plans—Asher and I were going to have a back-to-school party, and I’ve got a bunch of meetings with my art group, and ten more classes at Tisch—”
“I’m sorry about Tisch. But the other things can be canceled. Asher will understand, and so will your art group.”
Annabel heard the implacability in her mother’s tone and realized she was serious. “But I paid for those art classes! I saved up all year! You promised.” She whirled, turning to Jack. “Tell her! Tell her it isn’t fair!”
Jack didn’t look away from the window, though a muscle jumped in his cheek. “She’s your mother. It’s her decision to make.”
“I don’t get it.” Annabel turned back to her mother. “Why?”
“I have to get away, Annabel,” Maria said, the corners of her mouth trembling. “I need the peace, the quiet, to paint. And money is tight right now—”
“So sell some more of Dad’s stocks,” Annabel said angrily. “That’s what you usually do, isn’t it?”
Maria recoiled. “That’s hardly fair.”
“Look, go if you want to go. I don’t care. I’ll stay here without you. I can work; I can get a job at Max Mara or something. Asher said they’re always hiring. I’m old enough to take care of myself—”
“No!” The sharpness in Maria’s voice made Annabel jump. “I’ll pay you back for the art classes, Annabel. But you are coming with us. It isn’t optional. You’re too young to stay here on your own. Something could happen.”
“Like what? What could happen?” Annabel demanded.
There was a crash. She turned in surprise to find that Jack had knocked over one of the framed pictures leaning against the wall. Looking distinctly upset, he set it back. When he straightened, his mouth was set in a grim line. “I’m leaving.”
Maria bit her lip. “Wait.” She hurried after him into the entryway, catching up just as he seized the doorknob. Twisting around on the sofa, Annabel could just overhear her mother’s urgent whisper. “…Kane,” Maria was saying. “I’ve been calling him and calling him for the past three weeks. His voice mail says he’s in Tanzania. What am I supposed to do?”
“Maria.” Jack shook his head. “You can’t keep going to him forever.”
“But Annabel—”
“Isn’t Broderick,” Jack hissed. “You’ve never been the same since it happened, but Annabel isn’t Broderick.”
Who’s Broderick? Annabel thought, bewildered.
“I can’t just keep her at home, not let her go out. She won’t put up with it.”
“Of course she won’t!” Jack sounded really angry. “She’s not a pet, she’s a teenager. Almost an adult.”
“If we were out of the city …”
“Talk to her, Maria.” Jack’s voice was firm. “I mean it.” He reached for the doorknob.
The door flew open. Maria gave a little scream.
“Jesus!” She exclaimed.
“Actually, it’s just me,” said Asher. “Although I’ve been told the resemblance is startling.” He waved at Annabel from the doorway. “You ready?”
Maria took her hand away from her mouth. “Asher, were you eavesdropping?”
Asher blinked. “No, I just got here.” He looked from Maria’s pale face to Jack’s grim one. “Is something wrong? Should I go?”
“Don’t bother,” Jack said. “I think we’re done here.” He pushed past Asher, thudding down the stairs at a rapid pace. Downstairs, the front door slammed shut.
Asher hovered in the doorway, looking uncertain. “I can come back later,” he said. “Really. It wouldn’t be a problem.”
“That might—” Maria began, but Annabel was already on her feet.
“Forget it, Asher. We’re leaving,” she said, grabbing her messenger bag from a hook near the door. She slung it over her shoulder, glaring at her mother. “See you later, Mom.”
Maria bit her lip. “Annabel, don’t you think we should talk about this?”
“We’ll have plenty of time to talk while we’re on ‘vacation,’” Annabel said venomously, and had the satisfaction of seeing her mother flinch. “Don’t wait up,” she added, and, grabbing Asher’s arm, she half-dragged him out the front door.
He dug his heels in, looking apologetically over his shoulder at Annabel’s mother, who stood small and forlorn in the entryway, her hands knitted tightly together. “Bye, Mrs. Poe!” he called. “Have a nice evening!”
“Oh, shut up, Asher,” Annabel snapped, and slammed the door behind them, cutting off her mother’s reply.
“Jesus, woman, don’t rip my arm off,” Asher protested as Annabel hauled him downstairs after her, her green Skechers slapping against the wooden stairs with every angry step. She glanced up, half-expecting to see her mother glaring down from the landing, but the apartment door stayed shut.
“Sorry,” Annabel muttered, letting go of his wrist. She paused at the foot of the stairs, her messenger bag banging against her hip.
Annabel’s brownstone, like most in Park Slope, had once been the single residence of a wealthy family. Shades of its former grandeur were still evident in the curving staircase, the chipped marble entryway floor, and the wide single-paned skylight overhead. Now the house was split into separate apartments, and Annabel and her mother shared the three-floor building with a downstairs tenant, an elderly woman who ran a psychic’s shop out of her apartment. She hardly ever came out of it, though customer visits were infrequent. A gold plaque fixed to the door proclaimed her to be Madame Dorothea.
The thick sweet scent of incense spilled from the half-open door into the foyer. Annabel could hear a low murmur of voices.
“Nice to see she’s doing a booming business,” Asher said. “It’s hard to get steady prophet work these days.”
“Do you have to be sarcastic about everything?” Annabel snapped.
Asher blinked, clearly taken aback. “I thought you liked it when I was witty and ironic.”
Annabel was about to reply when the door to Madame Dorothea’s swung fully open and a man stepped out. He was tall, with maple-syrup-colored skin, gold-green eyes like a cat’s, and tangled black hair. He grinned at her blindingly, showing sharp white teeth.
A wave of dizziness came over her, the strong sensation that she was going to faint.
Asher glanced at her uneasily. “Are you all right? You look like you’re going to pass out.”
She blinked at him. “What? No, I’m fine.”
He didn’t seem to want to let it drop. “You look like you just saw a ghost.”
She shook her head. The memory of having seen something teased her, but when she tried to concentrate, it slid away like water. “Nothing. I thought I saw Dorothea’s cat, but I guess it was just a trick of the light.” Asher stared at her. “I haven’t eaten anything since yesterday,” she added defensively. “I guess I’m a little out of it.”
He slid a comforting arm around her shoulders. “Come on, I’ll buy you some food.”
~~~
“I just can’t believe she’s being like this,” Annabel said for the fourth time, chasing a stray bit of guacamole around her plate with the tip of a nacho. They were at a neighborhood Mexican joint, a hole in the wall called Nacho Papa. “Like grounding me every other week wasn’t bad enough. Now I’m going to be exiled for the rest of the summer.”
“Well, you know, your mom gets like this sometimes,” Asher said. “Like when she breathes in or out.” He grinned at her around his veggie burrito.
“Oh, sure, act like it’s funny,” she said. “You’re not the one getting dragged off to the middle of nowhere for God knows how long—”
“Annabel.” Asher interrupted her tirade. “I’m not the one you’re mad at. Besides, it isn’t going to be permanent.”
“How do you know that?”
“Well, because I know your mom,” Asher said, after a pause. “I mean, you and I have been friends for what, ten years now? I know she gets like this sometimes. She’ll think better of it.”
Annabel picked a hot pepper off her plate and nibbled the edge meditatively. “Do you, though?” she said. “Know her, I mean? I sometimes wonder if anyone does.”
Asher blinked at her. “You lost me there.”
Annabel sucked in air to cool her burning mouth. “I mean, she never talks about herself. I don’t know anything about her early life, or her family, or much about how she met my dad. She doesn’t even have wedding photos. It’s like her life started when she had me. That’s what she always says when I ask her about it.”
“Aw.” Asher made a face at her. “That’s sweet.”
“No, it isn’t. It’s weird. It’s weird that I don’t know anything about my grandparents. I mean, I know my dad’s parents weren’t very nice to her, but could they have been that bad? What kind of people don’t want to even meet their granddaughter?”
“Maybe she hates them. Maybe they were abusive or something,” Asher suggested. “She does have those scars.”
Annabel stared at him. “She has what?”
He swallowed a mouthful of burrito. “Those little thin scars. All over her back and her arms. I have seen your mother in a bathing suit, you know.”
“I never noticed any scars,” Annabel said decidedly. “I think you’re imagining things.”
He stared at her, and seemed about to say something when her cell phone, buried in her messenger bag, began an insistent blaring. Annabel fished it out, gazed at the numbers blinking on the screen, and scowled. “It’s my mom.”
“I could tell from the look on your face. You going to talk to her?”
“Not right now,” Annabel said, feeling the familiar bite of guilt in her stomach as the phone stopped ringing and voice mail picked up. “I don’t want to fight with her.”
“You can always stay at my house,” Asher said. “For as long as you want.”
“Well, we’ll see if she calms down first.” Annabel punched the voice mail button on her phone. Her mother’s voice sounded tense, but she was clearly trying for lightness. “Annabel, I’m sorry if I sprang the vacation plan on you. Come on home and we’ll talk.” Annabel hung the phone up before the message ended, feeling even guiltier and still angry at the same time. “She wants to talk about it.”
“Do you want to talk to her?”
“I don’t know.” Annabel rubbed the back of her hand across her eyes. “Are you still going to the poetry reading?”
“I promised I would.”
Annabel stood up, pushing her chair back. “Then I’ll go with you. I’ll call her when it’s over.” The strap of her messenger bag slid down her arm. Asher pushed it back up absently, his fingers lingering at the bare skin of her shoulder.
The air outside was spongy with moisture, the humidity frizzing Annabel’s hair and sticking Asher’s blue T-shirt to his back. “So, what’s up with the band?” she asked. “Anything new? There was a lot of yelling in the background when I talked to you earlier.”
Asher’s face lit up. “Things are great,” he said. “Mat says he knows someone who could get us a gig at the Scrap Bar. We’re talking about names again too.”
“Oh, yeah?” Annabel hid a smile. Asher’s band never actually produced any music. Mostly they sat around in Simon’s living room, fighting about potential names and band logos. She sometimes wondered if any of them could actually play an instrument. “What’s on the table?”
“We’re choosing between Sea Vegetable Conspiracy and Rock Solid Panda.”
Annabel shook her head. “Those are both terrible.”
“Java suggested Lawn Chair Crisis.”
“Maybe Java should stick to gaming.”
“But then we’d have to find a new drummer.”
“Oh, is that what Java does? I thought he just mooched money off you and went around telling girls at school that he was in a band in order to impress them.”
“Not at all,” Asher said breezily. “Java has turned over a new leaf. He has a girlfriend. They’ve been going out for three months.”
“Practically married,” Annabel said, stepping around a couple pushing a toddler in a stroller: a little girl with yellow plastic clips in her hair who was clutching a pixie doll with gold-streaked sapphire wings. Out of the corner of her eye Annabel thought she saw the wings flutter. She turned her head hastily.
“Which means,” Asher continued, “that I am the last member of the band not to have a girlfriend. Which, you know, is the whole point of being in a band. To get girls.”
“I thought it was all about the music.” A man with a cane cut across her path, heading for Berkeley Street. She glanced away, afraid that if she looked at anyone for too long they would sprout wings, extra arms, or long forked tongues like snakes. “Who cares if you have a girlfriend, anyway?”
“I care,” Asher said gloomily. “Pretty soon the only people left without a girlfriend will be me and Wendell the school janitor. And he smells like Windex.”
“At least you know he’s still available.”
Asher glared. “Not funny, Poe.”
“There’s always Leila ‘The Thong’ Barbarino,” Annabel suggested. Annabel had sat behind her in math class in ninth grade. Every time Leila had dropped her pen—which had been often—Annabel had been treated to the sight of Leila’s underwear riding up above the waistband of her super-low-rise jeans.
“That is who Java’s been dating for the past three months,” Asher said. “His advice, meanwhile, was that I ought to just decide which girl in school had the most rockin’ bod and ask her out on the first day of classes.”
“Java is a sexist pig,” Annabel said, suddenly not wanting to know which girl in school Asher thought had the most rockin’ bod. “Maybe you should call the band the Sexist Pigs.”
“It has a ring to it.” Asher seemed unfazed. Annabel made a face at him, her messenger bag vibrating as her phone blared. She fished it out of the zip pocket. “Is it your mom again?” he asked.
Annabel nodded. She could see her mother in her mind’s eye, small and alone in the doorway of their apartment. Guilt unfurled in her chest.
She glanced up at Asher, who was looking at her, his eyes dark with concern. His face was so familiar she could have traced its lines in her sleep. She thought of the lonely weeks that stretched ahead without him, and shoved the phone back into her bag. “Come on,” she said. “We’re going to be late for the show.”

3

Devilhunter

By the time they got to Kate Kobes, Java was already onstage, swaying back and forth in front of the microphone with his eyes squinched shut. He’d dyed the tips of his hair pink for the occasion. Behind him, Joe, looking stoned, was beating irregularly on a djembe.

“This is going to suck so hard,” Annabel predicted. She grabbed Asher’s sleeve and tugged him toward the doorway. “If we make a run for it, we can still get away.”

He shook his head determinedly. “I’m nothing if not a man of my word.” He squared his shoulders. “I’ll get the coffee if you find us a seat. What do you want?”

“Just coffee. Black—like my soul.”

Asher headed off toward the coffee bar, muttering under his breath something to the effect that it was a far, far better thing he did now than he had ever done before. Annabel went to find them a seat.

The coffee shop was crowded for a Monday; most of the threadbare-looking couches and armchairs were taken up with teenagers enjoying a free weeknight. The smell of coffee and clove cigarettes was overwhelming. Finally Annabel found an unoccupied love seat in a darkened corner toward the back. The only other person nearby was a blond girl in an orange tank top, absorbed in playing with her iPod. Good, Annabel thought, Java won’t be able to find us back here after the show to ask how his poetry was.

The blond girl leaned over the side of her chair and tapped Annabel on the shoulder. “Excuse me.” Annabel looked up in surprise. “Is that your boyfriend?” the girl asked.

Annabel followed the line of the girl’s gaze, already prepared to say, No, I don’t know him, when she realized the girl meant Asher. He was headed toward them, face scrunched up in concentration as he tried not to drop either of his Styrofoam cups. “Uh, no,” Annabel said. “He’s a friend of mine.”

The girl beamed. “He’s cute. Does he have a girlfriend?”

Annabel hesitated a second too long before replying. “No.”

The girl looked suspicious. “Is he gay?”

Annabel was spared responding to this by Asher’s return. The blond girl sat back hastily as he set the cups on the table and threw himself down next to Asher. “I hate it when they run out of mugs. Those things are hot.” He blew on his fingers and scowled. Annabel tried to hide a smile as she watched him. Normally she never thought about whether Asher was good-looking or not. He had dark eyes, she supposed, and he’d filled out well over the past year or so. With the right haircut—

“You’re staring at me,” Asher said. “Why are you staring at me? Have I got something on my face?”

I should tell him, she thought, though some part of her was strangely reluctant. I’d be a bad friend if I didn’t. “Don’t look now, but that blond girl over there thinks you’re cute,” she whispered.

Asher’s eyes flicked sideways to stare at the girl, who was industriously studying an issue of Shonen Jump. “The girl in the orange top?” Annabel nodded. Asher looked dubious. “What makes you think so?”

Tell him. Go on, tell him. Asher opened her mouth to reply, and was interrupted by a burst of feedback. She winced and covered her ears as Java, onstage, wrestled with his microphone.

“Sorry about that, guys!” he yelled. “All right. I’m Java, and this is my homeboy Joe on the drums. My first poem is called ‘Untitled.’” He screwed up his face as if in pain, and wailed into the mike. “‘Come, my faux juggernaut, my nefarious loins! Slather every protuberance with arid zeal!’”

Asher slid down in his seat. “Please don’t tell anyone I know him.”

Annabel giggled. “Who uses the word ‘loins’?”

“Java,” Asher said grimly. “All his poems have loins in them.”

“‘Turgid is my torment!’” Java wailed. “‘Agony swells within!’”

“You bet it does,” Annabel said. She slid down in the seat next to Asher. “Anyway, about that girl who thinks you’re cute—”

“Never mind that for a second,” Asher said. Annabel blinked at him in surprise. “There’s something I wanted to talk to you about.”

“Furious Mole is not a good name for a band,” Annabel said immediately.

“Not that,” Asher said. “It’s about what we were talking about before. About me not having a girlfriend.”

Annabel lifted one shoulder in a shrug. “Oh, I don’t know. Ask Jaida Jones out,” she suggested, naming one of the few girls at St. Xavier’s she actually liked. “She’s nice, and she likes you.”

“I don’t want to ask Jaida Jones out.”

“Why not?” Annabel found herself seized with a sudden, unspecific resentment. “You don’t like smart girls? Still seeking a rockin’ bod?”

“Neither,” said Asher, who seemed agitated. “I don’t want to ask her out because it wouldn’t really be fair to her if I did….”

He trailed off. Annabel leaned forward. From the corner of her eye she could see the blond girl leaning forward too, plainly eavesdropping. “Why not?”

“Because I like someone else,” Asher said.

“Okay.” Asher looked faintly greenish, the way he had once when he’d broken his ankle playing soccer in the park and had had to limp home on it. She wondered what on earth about liking someone could possibly have him wound up to such a pitch of anxiety. “You’re not gay, are you?”

Asher’s greenish color deepened. “If I were, I would dress better.”

“So, who is it, then?” Annabel asked. She was about to add that if he were in love with Leila Barbarino, Java would kick his ass, when she heard someone cough loudly behind her. It was a derisive sort of cough, the kind of noise someone might make who was trying not to laugh out loud.

She turned around.

Sitting on a faded green sofa a few feet away from her was Luke. He was wearing the same dark clothes he’d had on the night before in the club. His arms were bare and covered with faint white lines like old scars. His wrists bore wide metal cuffs; she could see the bone handle of a knife protruding from the left one. He was looking right at her, the side of his narrow mouth quirked in amusement. Worse than the feeling of being laughed at was Annabel’s absolute conviction that he hadn’t been sitting there five minutes ago.

“What is it?” Asher had followed her gaze, but it was obvious from the blank expression on his face that he couldn’t see Luke.

But I see you. She stared at Luke as she thought it, and he raised his left hand to wave at her. A ring glittered on a slim finger. He got to his feet and began walking, unhurriedly, toward the door. Annabel’s lips parted in surprise. He was leaving, just like that.

She felt Asher’s hand on her arm. He was saying her name, asking her if something was wrong. She barely heard him. “I’ll be right back,” she heard herself say, as she sprang off the couch, almost forgetting to set her coffee cup down. She raced toward the door, leaving Asher staring after her.

Annabel burst through the doors, terrified that Luke would have vanished into the alley shadows like a ghost. But he was there, slouched against the wall. He had just taken something out of his pocket and was punching buttons on it. He looked up in surprise as the door of the coffee shop fell shut behind her.

In the rapidly falling twilight, his hair looked coppery gold. “Your friend’s poetry is terrible,” he said.

Annabel blinked, caught momentarily off guard. “What?”

“I said his poetry was terrible. It sounds like he ate a dictionary and started vomiting up words at random.”

“I don’t care about Java’s poetry.” Annabel was furious. “I want to know why you’re following me.”

“Who said I was following you?”

“Nice try. And you were eavesdropping, too. Do you want to tell me what this is about, or should I just call the police?”

“And tell them what?” Luke said witheringly. “That invisible people are bothering you? Trust me, little girl, the police aren’t going to arrest someone they can’t see.”

“I told you before, my name is not ‘little girl,’” she said through her teeth. “It’s Annabel.”

“I know,” he said. “Pretty name. Like the poem, Annabel Lee. In the old days people thought the poem has a connection to the folktale Lady Midnight. Did you know that?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“You don’t know much, do you?” he said. There was a lazy contempt in his gold eyes. “You seem to be a mundane like any other mundane, yet you can see me. It’s a conundrum.”

“What’s a mundane?”

“Someone of the human world. Someone like you.”

“But you’re human,” Annabel said.

“I am,” he said. “But I’m not like you.” There was no defensiveness in his tone. He sounded like he didn’t care if she believed him or not.

“You think you’re better. That’s why you were laughing at us.”

“I was laughing at you because declarations of love amuse me, especially when unrequited,” he said. “And because your Asher is one of the most mundane mundanes I’ve ever encountered. And because Hodge thought you might be dangerous, but if you are, you certainly don’t know it.”

“I’m dangerous?” Annabel echoed in astonishment. “I saw you kill someone last night. I saw you drive a knife up under his ribs, and—” And I saw him slash at you with fingers like razor blades. I saw you cut and bleeding, and now you look as if nothing ever touched you.

“I may be a killer,” Luke said, “but I know what I am. Can you say the same?”

“I’m an ordinary human being, just like you said. Who’s Hodge?”

“My tutor. And I wouldn’t be so quick to brand myself as ordinary, if I were you.” He leaned forward. “Let me see your right hand.”

“My right hand?” Annabel echoed. He nodded. “If I show you my hand, will you leave me alone?”

“Certainly.” His voice was edged with amusement.

She held out her right hand grudgingly. It looked pale in the half-light spilling from the windows, the knuckles dotted with a light dusting of freckles. He took her hand in his and turned it over. “Nothing.” He sounded almost disappointed. “You’re not left-handed, are you?”

“No. Why?”

He released her hand with a shrug. “Most Devilhunter children get Marked on their right hands—or left, if they’re left-handed like I am—when they’re still young. It’s a permanent rune that lends an extra skill with weapons.” He showed her the back of his left hand; it looked perfectly normal to her.

“I don’t see anything,” she said.

“Let your mind relax,” he suggested. “Wait for it to come to you. Like waiting for something to rise to the surface of water.”

“You’re crazy.” But she relaxed, gazing at his hand, seeing the tiny lines across the knuckles, the long joints of the fingers—

It jumped out at her suddenly, flashing like a Don’t Walk sign. A black design like an eye across the back of his hand. She blinked, and it vanished. “A tattoo?”

He smiled smugly and lowered his hand. “I thought you could do it. And it’s not a tattoo—it’s a Mark. They’re runes, burned into our skin.”

“They make you handle weapons better?” Annabel found this hard to believe, though perhaps no more hard to believe than the existence of zombies.

“Different Marks do different things. Some are permanent but the majority vanish when they’ve been used.”

“That’s why your arms aren’t all inked up today?” she asked. “Even when I concentrate?”

“That’s exactly why.” He sounded pleased with himself. “I knew you had the View, at least.” He glanced up at the sky. “It’s nearly full dark. We should go.”

“We? I thought you were going to leave me alone.”

“I lied,” Luke said without a shred of embarrassment. “Hodge said I have to bring you to the Institute with me. He wants to talk to you.”

“Why would he want to talk to me?”

“Because you know the truth now,” Luke said. “There hasn’t been a mundane who knew about us for at least a hundred years.”

“About us?” she echoed. “You mean people like you. People who believe in demons.”

“People who kill them,” said Luke. “We’re called Devilhunters. At least, that’s what we call ourselves. The Underworlders have less complimentary names for us.”

“Underworlders?”

“The Night Children. Warlocks. The fey. The magical folk of this dimension.”

Annabel shook her head. “Don’t stop there. I suppose there are also, what, vampires and werewolves and zombies?”

“Of course there are,” Luke informed her. “Although you mostly find zombies farther south, where the voudun priests are.”

“What about mummies? Do they only hang around Egypt?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. No one believes in mummies.”

“They don’t?”

“Of course not,” Luke said. “Look, Hodge will explain all this to you when you see him.”

Annabel crossed her arms over her chest. “What if I don’t want to see him?”

“That’s your problem. You can come either willingly or unwillingly.”

Annabel couldn’t believe her ears. “Are you threatening to kidnap me?”

“If you want to look at it that way,” Luke said, “yes.”

Annabel opened her mouth to protest angrily, but was interrupted by a strident buzzing noise. Her phone was ringing again.

“Go ahead and answer that if you like,” Jace said.

The phone stopped ringing, then started up again, loud and insistent. Annabel frowned—her mom must really be freaking out. She half-turned away from Luke and began digging in her bag. By the time she unearthed the phone, it was on its third set of rings. She raised it to her ear. “Mom?”

“Oh, Annabel. Oh, thank God.” A sharp prickle of alarm ran up Annabel’s spine. Her mother sounded panicked. “Listen to me—”

“It’s all right, Mom. I’m fine. I’m on my way home—”

“No!” Terror scraped Maria’s voice raw. “Don’t come home! Do you understand me, Annabel? Don’t you dare come home. Go to Asher’s. Go straight to Asher’s house and stay there until I can—” A noise in the background interrupted her: the sound of something falling, shattering, something heavy striking the floor—

“Mom!” Annabel shouted into the phone. “Mom, are you all right?”

A loud buzzing noise came from the phone. Annabel’s mother’s voice cut through the static: “Just promise me you won’t come home. Go to Asher’s and call Jack—tell him that he’s found me—” Her words were drowned out by a heavy crash like splintering wood.

“Who’s found you? Mom, did you call the police? Did you—”

Her frantic question was cut off by a noise Annabel would never forget—a harsh, slithering noise, followed by a thump. Annabel heard her mother draw in a sharp breath before speaking, her voice eerily calm: “I love you, Annabel.”

The phone went dead.

“Mom!” Annabel shrieked into the phone. “Mom, are you there?” Call Ended, the screen said. But why would her mother have hung up like that?

“Annabel,” Jace said. It was the first time she’d ever heard him say her name. “What’s going on?”

Annabel ignored him. Feverishly she hit the button that dialed her home number. There was no answer except a double-tone busy signal.

Annabel’s hands had begun to shake uncontrollably. When she tried to redial, the phone slipped out of her shaking grasp and hit the pavement hard. She dropped to her knees to retrieve it, but it was dead, a long crack visible across the front. “Dammit!” Almost in tears, she threw the phone down.

“Stop that.” Luke hauled her to her feet, his hand gripping her wrist. “Has something happened?”

“Give me your phone,” Annabel said, grabbing the black metal oblong out of his shirt pocket. “I have to—”

“It’s not a phone,” Luke said, making no move to get it back. “It’s a Sensor. You won’t be able to use it.”

“But I need to call the police!”

“Tell me what happened first.” She tried to yank her wrist back, but his grip was incredibly strong. “I can help you.”

Rage flooded through Annabel, a hot tide through her veins. Without even thinking about it, she struck out at his face, her nails raking his cheek. He jerked back in surprise. Tearing herself free, Annabel ran toward the lights of Seventh Avenue.

When she reached the street, she spun around, half-expecting to see Luke at her heels. But the alley was empty. For a moment she stared uncertainly into the shadows. Nothing moved inside them. She spun on her heel and ran for home.

4

Ravener

The night had gotten ever hotter, and running home felt like swimming as fast as she could through boiling soup. At the corner of her block Annabel got trapped at a Don’t Walk sign. She jittered up and down impatiently on the balls of her feet while traffic whizzed by in a blur of headlights. She tried to call home again, but Luke hadn’t been lying; his phone wasn’t a phone. At least, it didn’t look like any phone Annabel had ever seen before. The Sensor’s buttons didn’t have numbers on them, just more of those bizarre symbols, and there was no screen.

Jogging up the street toward her house, she saw that the second-floor windows were lit, the usual sign that her mother was home. Okay, she told herself. Everything’s fine. But her stomach tightened the moment she stepped into the entryway. The overhead light had burned out, and the foyer was in darkness. The shadows seemed full of secret movement. Shivering, she started upstairs.

“And just where do you think you’re going?” said a voice.

Annabel whirled. “What—”

She broke off. Her eyes were adjusting to the dimness, and she could see the shape of a large armchair, drawn up in front of Madame Dorothea’s closed door. The old woman was wedged into it like an overstuffed cushion. In the dimness Annabel could see only the round shape of her powdered face, the white lace fan in her hand, the dark, yawning gap of her mouth when she spoke. “Your mother,” Dorothea said, “has been making a god-awful racket up there. What’s she doing? Moving furniture?”

“I don’t think—”

“And the stairwell light’s burned out, did you notice?” Dorothea rapped her fan against the arm of the chair. “Can’t your mother get her boyfriend in to change it?”

“Jack isn’t—”

“The skylight needs washing too. It’s filthy. No wonder it’s nearly pitch-black in here.”

Jack is not the landlord, Clary wanted to say, but didn’t. This was typical of her elderly neighbor. Once she got Jack to come around and change the lightbulb, she’d ask him to do a hundred other things—pick up her groceries, grout her shower. Once she’d made him chop up an old sofa with an ax so she could get it out of the apartment without taking the door off the hinges.

Annabel sighed. “I’ll ask.”

“You’d better.” Dorothea snapped her fan shut with a flick of her wrist.

Annabel’s sense that something was wrong only increased when she reached the apartment door. It was unlocked, hanging slightly open, spilling a wedge-shaped shaft of light onto the landing. With a feeling of increasing panic she pushed the door open.

Inside the apartment the lights were on, all the lamps, everything turned up to full brightness. The glow stabbed into her eyes.

Her mother’s keys and pink handbag were on the small wrought-iron shelf by the door, where she always left them. “Mom?” Annabel called out. “Mom, I’m home.”

There was no reply. She went into the living room. Both windows were open, yards of gauzy white curtains blowing in the breeze like restless ghosts. Only when the wind dropped and the curtains settled did Annabel see that the cushions had been ripped from the sofa and scattered around the room. Some were torn lengthwise, cotton innards spilling onto the floor. The bookshelves had been tipped over, their contents scattered. The piano bench lay on its side, gaping open like a wound, Maria’s beloved music books spewing out.

Most terrifying were the paintings. Every single one had been cut from its frame and ripped into strips, which were scattered across the floor. It must have been done with a knife—canvas was almost impossible to tear with your bare hands. The empty frames looked like bones picked clean. Annabel felt a scream rising up in her chest. “Mom!” she shrieked. “Where are you? Mommy!”

She hadn’t called Maria “Mommy” since she was eight.

Heart pumping, she raced into the kitchen. It was empty, the cabinet doors open, a smashed bottle of Tabasco sauce spilling peppery red liquid onto the linoleum. Her knees felt like bags of water. She knew she should race out of the apartment, get to a phone, call the police. But all those things seemed distant—she needed to find her mother first, needed to see that she was all right. What if robbers had come, what if her mother had put up a fight—?

What kind of robbers didn’t take a wallet with them, or the TV, the DVD player, or the expensive laptops?

She was at the door to her mother’s bedroom now. For a moment it looked as if this room, at least, had been left untouched. Maria’s handmade flowered quilt was folded carefully on the duvet. Annabel’s own face smiled back at her from the top of the bedside table, five years old, gap-toothed smile framed by strawberry hair. A sob rose in Annabel’s chest. Mom, she cried inside, what happened to you?

Silence answered her. No, not silence—a noise sounded through the apartment, raising the short hairs along the nape of her neck. Like something being knocked over—a heavy object striking the floor with a dull thud. The thud was followed by a dragging, slithering noise—and it was coming toward the bedroom. Stomach contracting in terror, Annabel scrambled to her feet and turned around slowly.

For a moment she thought the doorway was empty, and she felt a wave of relief. Then she looked down.

It was crouched against the floor, a long, scaled creature with a cluster of flat black eyes set dead center in the front of its domed skull. Something like a cross between an alligator and a centipede, it had a thick, flat snout and a barbed tail that whipped menacingly from side to side. Multiple legs bunched underneath it as it readied itself to spring.

A shriek tore itself out of Annabel’s throat. She staggered backward, tripped, and fell, just as the creature lunged at her. She rolled to the side and it missed her by inches, sliding along the wood floor, its claws gouging deep grooves. A low growl bubbled from its throat.

She scrambled to her feet and ran toward the hallway, but the thing was too fast for her. It sprang again, landing just above the door, where it hung like a gigantic malignant spider, staring down at her with its cluster of eyes. Its jaws opened slowly, showing a row of fanged teeth spilling greenish drool. A long black tongue flickered out between its jaws as it gurgled and hissed. To her horror Annabel realized that the noises it was making were words.

“Girl,” it hissed. “Flesh. Blood. To eat, oh, to eat.”

It began to slither slowly down the wall. Some part of ANnabel had passed beyond terror into a sort of icy stillness. The thing was on its feet now, crawling toward her. Backing away, she seized a heavy framed photo off the bureau beside her—herself and her mother and Luke at Coney Island, about to go on the bumper cars—and flung it at the monster.

The photograph hit its midsection and bounced off, striking the floor with the sound of shattering glass. The creature didn’t seem to notice. It came on toward her, broken glass splintering under its feet. “Bones, to crunch, to suck out the marrow, to drink the veins …”

Annabel’s back hit the wall. She could back up no farther. She felt a movement against her hip and nearly jumped out of her skin. Her pocket. Plunging her hand inside, she drew out the plastic thing she’d taken from Luke. The Sensor was shuddering, like a cell phone set to vibrate. The hard material was almost painfully hot against her palm. She closed her hand around the Sensor just as the creature sprang.

The creature hurtled into her, knocking her to the ground, and her head and shoulders slammed against the floor. She twisted to the side, but it was too heavy. It was on top of her, an oppressive, slimy weight that made her want to gag. “To eat, to eat,” it moaned. “But it is not allowed, to swallow, to savor.”

The hot breath in her face stank of blood. She couldn’t breathe. Her ribs felt like they might shatter. Her arm was pinned between her body and the monster’s, the Sensor digging into her palm. She twisted, trying to work her hand free. “Robertine will never know. He said nothing about a girl. Robertine will not be angry.” Its lipless mouth twitched as its jaws opened, slowly, a wave of stinking breath hot in her face.

Annabel’s hand came free. With a scream she hit out at the thing, wanting to smash it, to blind it. She had almost forgotten the Sensor. As the creature lunged for her face, jaws wide, she jammed the Sensor between its teeth and felt hot, acidic drool coat her wrist and spill in burning drops onto the bare skin of her face and throat. As if from a distance, she could hear herself screaming.

Looking almost surprised, the creature jerked back, the Sensor lodged between two teeth. It growled, a thick angry buzz, and threw its head back. Annabel saw it swallow, saw the movement of its throat. I’m next, she thought, panicked. I’m—

Suddenly the thing began to twitch. Spasming uncontrollably, it rolled off Annabel and onto its back, multiple legs churning the air. Black fluid poured from its mouth.

Gasping for air, Annabel rolled over and started to scramble away from the thing. She’d nearly reached the door when she heard something whistle through the air next to her head. She tried to duck, but it was too late. An object slammed heavily into the back of her skull, and she collapsed forward into blackness.

Light stabbed through her eyelids, blue, white, and red. There was a high wailing noise, rising in pitch like the scream of a terrified child. Annabel gagged and opened her eyes.

~~~

She was lying on cold damp grass. The night sky rippled overhead, the pewter gleam of stars washed out by city lights. Luke knelt beside her, the silver cuffs on his wrists throwing off sparks of light as he tore the piece of cloth he was holding into strips. “Don’t move.”

The wailing threatened to split her ears in half. Annabel turned her head to the side, disobediently, and was rewarded with a razoring stab of pain that shot down her back. She was lying on a patch of grass behind Jocelyn’s carefully tended rosebushes. The foliage partially hid her view of the street, where a police car, its blue-and-white light bar flashing, was pulled up to the curb, siren wailing. Already a small knot of neighbors had gathered, staring as the car door opened and two blue-uniformed officers emerged.

The police. She tried to sit up, and gagged again, fingers spasming into the damp earth.

“I told you not to move,” Luke hissed. “That Ravener demon got you in the back of the neck. It was half-dead so it wasn’t much of a sting, but we have to get you to the Institute. Hold still.”

“That thing—the monster—it talked.” Annabel was shuddering uncontrollably.

“You’ve heard a demon talk before.” Luke’s hands were gentle as he slipped the strip of knotted cloth under her neck, and tied it. It was smeared with something waxy, like the gardener’s salve her mother used to keep her paint- and turpentine-abused hands soft.

“The demon in Chaos—it looked like a person.”

“It was an Eidolon demon. A shape-changer. Raveners look like they look. Not very attractive, but they’re too stupid to care.”

“It said it was going to eat me.”

“But it didn’t. You killed it.” Luke finished the knot and sat back.

To Annabel s relief the pain in the back of her neck had faded. She hauled herself into a sitting position. “The police are here.” Her voice came out like a frog’s croak. “We should—”

“There’s nothing they can do. Somebody probably heard you screaming and reported it. Ten to one those aren’t real police officers. Demons have a way of hiding their tracks.”

“My mom,” Annabel said, forcing the words through her swollen throat.

“There’s Ravener poison coursing through your veins right now. You’ll be dead in an hour if you don’t come with me.” He got to his feet and held out a hand to her. She took it and he pulled her upright. “Come on.”

The world tilted. Luke slid a hand across her back, holding her steady. He smelled of dirt, blood, and metal. “Can you walk?”

“I think so.” She glanced through the densely blooming bushes. She could see the police coming up the path. One of them, a slim blond woman, held a flashlight in one hand. As she raised it, Annabel saw the hand was fleshless, a skeleton hand sharpened to bone points at the fingertips. “Her hand—”

“I told you they might be demons.” Luke glanced at the back of the house. “We have to get out of here. Can we go through the alley?”

Annabel shook her head. “It’s bricked up. There’s no way—” Her words dissolved into a fit of coughing. She raised her hand to cover her mouth. It came away red. She whimpered.

He grabbed her wrist, turned it over so the white, vulnerable flesh of her inner arm lay bare under the moonlight. Traceries of blue vein mapped the inside of her skin, carrying poisoned blood to her heart, her brain. Annabel felt her knees buckle. There was something in Luke’s hand, something sharp and silver. She tried to pull her hand back, but his grip was too hard: She felt a stinging kiss against her skin. When he let go, she saw an inked black symbol like the ones that covered his skin, just below the fold of her wrist. This one looked like a set of overlapping circles.

“What’s that supposed to do?”

“It’ll hide you,” he said. “Temporarily.” He slid the thing Annabel had thought was a knife back into his belt. It was a long, luminous cylinder, as thick around as an index finger and tapering to a point. “My stele,” he said.

Annabel didn’t ask what that was. She was busy trying not to fall over. The ground was heaving up and down under her feet. “Luke,” she said, and she crumpled into him. He caught her as if he were used to catching fainting girls, as if he did it every day. Maybe he did. He swung her up into his arms, saying something in her ear that sounded like Covenant. Annabel tipped her head back to look at him but saw only the stars cartwheeling across the dark sky overhead. Then the bottom dropped out of everything, and even Luke’s arms around her were not enough to keep her from falling.



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