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chapter twenty-one

Iris rubbed her nose. "You know, I wish they'd just make up their minds. Like one minute, I'm just this inconsequential ghoul who doesn't know shit, and the next, I'm the person everyone looks at to ask what to do. Like I'm supposed to know. Well, I don't know shit, all right? I don't even want to know shit. I just want this whole thing to be frickin' over."

"I know what you mean," said Ros. The two were sitting at a table in the hotel's outdoor bar. The table and chairs were made from black metal, which was twisted into intricate patterns, reminiscent of the cover of fairy tale books. The top of the table was glass. Twinkling Christmas lights, woven through an overhead canopy, lit the outdoor bar. It overlooked the pool, which glistened as it reflected the lights. Ros and Iris were drinking margaritas and snorting cocaine. Iris had put up an illusion so no one could see the cocaine. "I mean, about wanting everything to be over. Because I didn't ask to be in this goddamned band. Rhett begged me�"

"That little asshole," said Iris. "He said you begged him. He's just so fucking guilt-stricken that he actually moved on and I haven't�"

"That's it exactly. He can't commit to me because he's so worried about you. He talks about you all the time. Iris did this. Iris did that. I just want to scream, 'I'm not Iris.' I mean, what the hell does he think�"

"The fucker practically kicked me out of the band. It was my band. It was my dream. Where the hell does he get off, anyway? Feeling sorry for me? I'm fine. I faced off the queen of the fucking pixies. I mean, he's so freaking frustrating." Iris sucked another line of coke into her nostril through a rolled up dollar bill. "Damn. This is good stuff. I haven't done coke in�"

"Keep your voice down," Ros cautioned, doing a line herself.

"Sorry," said Iris. "Look. All I'm saying is I'm out. If Zain's going to destroy the world, then fuck it. I'm just gonna get fried and wait for it. Because I just don't care."

"I don't even get it," said Ros. "What's going on? I'm clueless. Every time I try to figure it out, Rhett just tells me to be quiet. He has no respect for me."

"Fuck him," said Iris. "You can do better. I mean, Rhett's just a loser who doesn't know what he wants. When we were dating, I'd just tell him how it was. I'd be like, 'Rhett, this is what we're doing. Get on board.' And he would, because he has no direction of his own. You know, he just�"

"Are you still in love with him?"

"No. I have a crush on Billy."

"The rude guy with long hair?"

"He's not rude. Well, I don't think he's rude. I guess sometimes he can�"

"You can have a crush on someone and still be in love with someone else. Like this one time, I was dating this guy who I was just massively taken with. Like I adored this guy. But there was this other guy I kept flirting with, and because of that my boyfriend broke up with me�"

"Yeah, but I'm not in love with Rhett."

"Then why are you so mad at him?"

"I'm not mad at him. I'm just telling you how he is. He's a fucking�"

"In my experience, if you have strong feelings of any kind toward someone you loved, like if you hate them, it's because you really still love them. You're only over them when you feel indifferent about them."

"Maybe. But I don't hate Rhett. Sure, he kind of fucked up my life�well, I guess it was really me that fucked up my life. But Rhett and I never really had closure, you know? We didn't resolve anything. One day, I was with him twenty-four/seven. The next day, he was just gone. So, we never got a chance to�"

"Look, if you're still in love with Rhett, you should know that he's still in love with you."

"He is not."

"He is. I know it. I can tell. You're one of those chicks that guys just don't get over�"

"Tons of guys have gotten over me."

"No way. I bet all of them wonder about you. You've got this thing. It's why you're such a good performer."

"I don't have a 'thing.' I really don't. I don't know what you're talking about, because I really have bad luck with guys. I never�"

"Trust me. I know what I'm talking about. It's like when guys see you, they just want to see you more. They want to talk to you. They want to be around you. You're a star."

"Well, that's fucking tragic, isn't it?" Iris bent her head down to do another line. Ros followed suit.

"There you guys are," said a voice.

The girls looked up guiltily. Iris rubbed her nose with the back of her hand. Rhett and Billy were standing over them.

"We've been looking for you," said Rhett.

"We were hiding in plain sight at the bar," said Ros.

"You're doing coke?" said Billy. He could obviously see through Iris' illusion.

"What coke?" said Rhett. He obviously couldn't.

"Look," said Ros. "Iris and Rhett should talk. They've got issues to work�"

"I don't want to talk to Rhett," said Iris.

"You have issues to work out with Rhett?" asked Billy.

"No," said Iris. "I don't. I'm not working. I'm getting fucked up. I thought that was fairly obvious." She lit a cigarette and rolled her eyes.

"I just can't believe you're doing drugs," said Billy.

"You wanna say that a little louder?" said Ros.

"I want drugs," said Rhett.

The cocaine was laid out on a piece of tinfoil in the center of the table. Iris dropped her illusion, picked up the tinfoil and dumped the cocaine over Rhett's head. She walked off. Rhett reached into a fold in his shirt and dipped his finger into some of the white powder than had gathered there. He tasted it. "Good stuff," he said.

* * *

Billy found Iris sitting outside the hotel on the sidewalk, smoking and shaking. She was huddled against the darkness.

"What the hell are you doing?" he asked.

"Trying to be invisible," said Iris. "Go away."

Suddenly Billy felt too angry to deal with this anymore. "You know, Iris, this isn't helping anyone," he bit out.

She got to her feet. "I'm sick of helping people. I left the band to help out the guys. I laid low so they wouldn't be exposed. I just attempted to help the entire human race, and see where it got me?"

She was bitter. Just great. "Jesus, we all did the best we could."

"Well, fuck that. You had the right idea at the beginning. 'Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.'"

She was wrong. He'd been wrong. There were things that they could do. They could make a different. Iris had taught him that. He just needed to re-teach it to her. "No. Hey. We started this, we gotta finish it."

"I thought we did finish it."

How was he going to get through to her? He shook his head slowly and studied the sidewalk. Finally, he looked up. "Jesus," he said again. "I only did all of this because of you. You got me into this."

"Shut up. It's not my fault."

"This whole thing was your idea."

"So what? I'm done. I give up. It's over. I'm fired. Go away."

"No. We need you."

"For what? I haven't done anything except get in the way. I was out of place at Oric's. I nearly got us killed at the witches. Twice. I�"

"You stood up to the daion queen. You saved me from the alghuls. You lured most of the audience away from the concert. We need you." She was the heart of everything. She was the driving force.

Iris took a shuddering breath. "I've done way too much coke," she said.

A familiar motorcycle pulled up in front of the hotel. It was Tal, the black pixie. He parked the cycle, got off, and spotted them. Iris waved. He didn't wave back. He approached them quickly. "Queen Melora is dead," he told them.

* * *

On the heels of the news of the pixie queen's death came a call from Satin Blades' manager. The tour was a bust. The label didn't know what to do, now that their headliners were dead and had been criminal pixies at that. The label had hurriedly cancelled the rest of the tour dates, and they weren't crazy about putting up the members of the band in a hotel indefinitely. They were booked for one more night, but no one in Satin Blades had any desire to stay there, especially not with fifteen other people. So everyone went home.

There was some discussion about whether it would be safe for Iris and Billy to return to their respective houses. Iris decided to chance it. Billy scoped out his house and decided it was safe for him as well. Jaq refused offers from both Buckingham and Billy for a place to say in favor of crashing at Tal's house. He apparently had a large house in the area. Buckingham dropped off both Billy and Iris and then returned to his house alone, feeling exhausted and confused. He'd expected the turn of events to spur the group to action immediately, but it seemed everyone was too tired. No one was taking any initiative. He had to admit he felt lost as well. What could they do to fight such an ancient power?

As he pulled into his driveway, he noticed another car parked ahead of him. The lights were on inside his house. Too tired to be alarmed, he shut off the car and entered his house.

Price was in his living room.

Buckingham wasn't inclined to be polite. "Why are you here?"

Price, who had helped himself to Buckingham's scotch, simply smiled at him from the living room couch. "To grovel," he said.

Buckingham chuckled. He sat down beside Price and poured himself some scotch. "Well, that's a pleasant surprise."

"The news report was devious," said Price. "You've backed me into a corner."

"Have I?"

"You know you have."

"How problematic for you." Buckingham sipped at his scotch.

"What do you know about these disappearances? They started right after that rock concert. I suppose they're connected?"

"Ah yes," said Buckingham. "It seems we were mistaken in the purpose of the sacrifice we prevented."

"What do you mean?"

Buckingham smiled. "I thought you were here to grovel."

"Please, Mr. Buckingham. We have a grave situation on our hands. The organization needs your help."

Buckingham raised his eyebrows. "And they want this help for free?"

"Of course not. You've been reinstated in Magic Management. You have your job back."

"Do I? I haven't accepted it."

"You don't want the job?"

"I don't know. I meant what I said on that broadcast. Magic Management needs to make some major changes."

"Certainly, given the circumstances, they can wait."

"On the contrary. I think the circumstances demand immediate change."

Price drained his scotch glass. "I assure you, we've given a full pardon to Jaqueline Schmerfeld and her companions, and the organization has hired back you and all the defectors who helped you dispose of Mischief." He reached for the bottle of scotch to refill his glass.

Buckingham picked it up and held it out of Price's reach. "With a raise?"

"With a raise." He reached for the scotch bottle again.

Buckingham pulled it further away. "A substantial raise."

"Yes, of course. Is it settled then?"

Buckingham handed him the scotch bottle. "If I'm to share information with the organization and work with them, I'll need help that I don't think the organization can supply."

Price poured himself a bit more scotch. "Help?"

"Yes. Magical help."

"Magic Management will not employ witches and ghouls. On this point, I am firm." Price set down the scotch bottle to punctuate his sentence.

"Very well, then. We'll do it ourselves. It's been very pleasant seeing you, Mr. Price. Best of luck in future endeavors." Buckingham stood up and started for the door. "I'll see you out."

"Mr. Buckingham, please."

Buckingham turned back to Price, who was still sitting down. "That sounds a bit more like the groveling you promised."

Price sighed. "That's it, then? If we don't hire your friends, then you won't help us?"

Buckingham nodded.

"Contractually," said Price. "For this job and this job only."

"That's acceptable," said Buckingham.

"So you'll come back?"

"Contractually."

* * *

Iris expected her apartment to be ram shackled. Instead, it was in good condition, everything where she left it, except for the food, of course. They'd taken all of her flesh. She still had leftovers from Scott, so upon arriving and changing clothes, she ate what was left. It wasn't much, and she ate it all, so she'd have to find some way to get food the following day. Either take the train into the city to go to morgue or try to think of something else to do between now and then.

Her meal finished, Iris tried to settle into her apartment, but she felt restless. She paced and smoked, and, even though she tried not to, thought. The last remnants of the cocaine she'd snorted were melting away, but she still felt wired. Sleep was out of the question, although she longed for it. Numbing, thought-quenching sleep sounded pretty good right then. She wanted everything over. She wanted quiet.

Performing had really gotten to her. That was all she'd ever wanted, and to have been that close, and then to realize she never got to do it again was devastating. Jenna Murphy's newscast might have sent a message to Magic Management, but it had also exposed her as a ghoul. She wouldn't even be able to play little gigs like Martino's anymore unless she changed her appearance. It didn't really matter; Iris had known for a year now that the dream was over for her. But it had been so exhilarating to stand on that rooftop and sing for all those people. And for a moment, standing up there, she'd thought maybe there was a way to get around her issues. Maybe there was a way for her to do it. To be a rock star.

But she should have known better. The concert on the roof was a bad idea. Maybe even a bad omen. After all, the concert she'd emulated, the Beatles', had been the last concert the Beatles had ever given before breaking up. It was a concert that signaled the end. She was an idiot.

It just wasn�t fair. She'd earned success. Her talent and drive had purchased it. Why couldn't she live it?

She knew why. She couldn't be a rock star because she'd blown her chances by doing risky drugs. In the end, it really was all her fault. And she'd thought she could be okay with that. Especially if she saved the world. That was a pretty fair consolation prize. But that hadn't worked either. However, Zain hadn't tried to destroy the world so far. If the myth Kei had was right, he wasn't out to devour all the humans. Instead, he wanted to kill the pixies? Or maybe he was indiscriminate. He'd just kill whoever he felt like killing. It was strange that he didn't leave human bodies, but he left pixie bodies. Tal had said Melora's court was like a pixie holocaust�bodies ripped to pieces.

Not that Iris cared. If Zain was going to eat up the world, fine. She didn't particularly feel like living in it anymore.

It was just too . . . hard.

She'd tried. She'd worked. She'd thrown her soul into it. And everything always got fucked up anyway. It didn't matter what she did or how much of herself she gave. She couldn't win. Best case scenario, someone stopped Zain. Then Iris could look forward to many more years of scouring morgues for rotted flesh and hiding what she was from everyone. She'd never get what she dreamed of. She never do anything or be anyone. She'd just be stuck and sad and useless.

Iris didn't see any reason to fight anymore. She meticulously lit each of her candles in her bedroom, then collapsed onto her bed and stared at the ceiling. Her heart beat furiously against her ribcage. Goddamn coke. It wasn't supposed to make her feel like this. It was supposed to make her feel invincible, ready to take on the world. She just felt tired. And too drugged up to sleep.

Her phone rang.

Iris didn't move.

It kept ringing.

Iris closed her eyes.

The ringing stopped.

She heaved an enormous sigh and sat up. Maybe she could take something to knock her out�

The phone began to ring again.

"Oh, Jesus Christ," Iris muttered and got up to answer it. "Hello," she said.

"It's Billy."

Iris' stomach turned over. Goddamn it. She didn't want to feel like that when he talked to her. Giddy like a junior high schooler. "What?"

"I just got a call from Buckingham. Magic Management wants to employ us."

Yeah, right they did. Buckingham must have twisted some arms. It didn't matter, though. Iris didn�t care. "So?"

"Are you acting like this because you saw your ex-boyfriend?"

"No," she snarled.

"You have PMS or something?"

"Go to hell," she said and slammed down the phone. She stared at it for a few moments, regretting hanging up on Billy. Maybe she should call him�

The phone rang again.

She picked it up, slammed it back down, and took it off the hook. Fuck Billy. Fuck Buckingham. Fuck Magic Management. Fuck the whole world.

* * *

Zain sprawled in an oversized recliner, television remote in hand, staring slack-jawed at the screen. Scattered around him were pieces of the daion who'd lived in this apartment. Zain could feel his magic sizzling through his own body. It felt good.

He'd had some time to watch TV while imprisoned in the box on tour with Mischief. More often than not, they set the box inside their tour bus in their living area. If he squinted, Zain had been able to watch with them through the cracks in the box. He liked TV. It was loud and bright. It felt almost like magic. Real magic from before. He hadn't realized how much he'd miss real magic when he sucked it all into himself.

Beyond the fun of TV, he was now realizing it was a valuable information source. For instance, he was famous. At least his work was. Additionally, he'd learned exactly who was responsible for setting him free from those idiotic daions who'd imprisoned him for all those months. The TV kept spitting out their names over and over.

On top of that, he'd learned one of the frequent commercial breaks that these people's locations were in a book called a phone book, and by looking them up, he could pay them each a visit. The idea appealed to Zain. He was very grateful, and he wanted to thank them all personally. He did a little searching and was able to find a phone book. But after paging through it, he slammed it against a wall. Not all of the names were listed. For a moment, he was too angry to move.

Then he calmed himself. He could easily find daions by sensing their daion essence. Perhaps he could sense humans too. He'd been in close proximity to these people, and had felt each of their essences. It wouldn't be easy, but if he concentrated . . .

* * *

"So you're what? You're breaking up with me?" Rhett said. He sat down heavily on his bed. He hadn't been home long enough to even make it up, so it was naked of sheets.

Ros stood in the doorway, a cigarette in one hand and a cocktail in the other. She shrugged. "You're too chicken to break up with me."

"I don't want to break up with you," said Rhett. "The band�"

"Oh, the band, the band. It's always the fucking band," Ros said. "I don't care about the band. I never have."

"Ros, I love you."

"No, you don't."

"How do you know how I feel?" he asked. It had been a long, shitty day, and all he wanted to do was curl up in bed and go to sleep. Maybe even make love. God knew they hadn't done that in forever. And now . . .

"You don't have room for me in your heart," said Ros. And now it looked like she was starting to cry. Jesus. "It's too full of Iris."

"Would you get off that? Iris and I broke up a long time ago. I'm not with her. I'm with you."

"You only have to see the way the two of you look at each other�"

"That's crazy." It was. Wasn't it? After all, he'd just seen Iris, and it didn't mean . . . "Please, Ros. Let's talk about this in the morning. I just want to hold you�"

"No. I'm leaving."

"Where the hell are you going to go?"

"None of your business. I'll be fine."

He did not need this right now. He got up and went to her, touching her. "Don't leave. I want you here. I want you to stay."

"Do you don't. Not really."

"You're tired. I know. I'm tired too. You're not thinking straight. Tomorrow, when we wake up, we'll talk. It'll be okay."

Ros shrugged away from him, out of his reach. "I've got to go now. Tomorrow, I'll be too scared, and it will just go on like this. I can't be somebody's rebound anymore."

"You aren't a rebound," he said, but even as it came out of his mouth, he knew it was a lie.

The doorbell rang.

"It's my cab," said Ros.

"Please don't leave."

But she was already down the hall. Rhett rushed after her, calling out to her as she flung open the door.

It was Max. His eyes were wild. He pushed past Ros into the house, jabbering incoherently. Rhett couldn�t make out what he was saying. Just, "We've got to get out of here."

Rhett stopped him, took him by the shoulders, and shook him. "Slow down," he said.

"The thing," said Max. "It got Jenna Murphy. The defectors from Magic Management too. It's coming after us, I just know it."

"What?"

"It's all over the news," said Max. "Turn on the TV and you'll see�"

"Max," said Rhett. "It's not gonna come after us. We didn't do anything. We barely helped."

"No. It's gonna get us. Do whatever it does and leave our clothes�"

"Calm down," said Rhett. "We're fine."

The doorbell rang.

"That's my cab," said Ros.

"Ros called a cab?" asked Max.

"Ros, don't�" began Rhett, but she'd already opened the door.

A man in a well-cut suit sauntered inside. "Rosalyn Silver," he said. He wrapped his hand around her neck and as soon as his fingers touched her skin, it went to Jell-O. Her head flopped to the side, then began to lose its shape, deflating like a balloon. Her face melted, eyes sliding past her nose, which dripped onto her chin. The man opened his mouth, and Ros' melting features slid into it, as if the man were vacuuming her up. Her head stretched and flattened, and the man swallowed and swallowed. Until there was nothing left of Rose but her clothes in a tangled heap by the door.

Rooted to the spot, a throaty scream tore itself from Rhett's mouth.

chapter twenty-two >>

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