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chapter twenty-three

Just as Zain left the building, Billy broke free of Tal and Jaq, who had been holding him back. Billy ran to Iris, who was standing with fists full of Zain threads, screaming profanities after the retreating monster. Billy was confused, everything moving too fast like a bad action movie, but he knew he needed to be near Iris. Iris needed him, and if Iris needed him, he could do anything. He didn't need to think. He could just act. When Billy got to Iris' side, he realized tears were streaming down her face. He touched her shoulder, and she turned on him, her face contorted with rage.

"He killed Buckingham," she said, her breathing ragged. "That fuckface killed Buckingham." A pause, then a light came into her eyes. "I should go after Zain."

Was she crazy? "No," said Billy, taking her shoulders and turning her body.

Iris held up her hands, showing Billy what she'd ripped away from Zain. "Did you see what I did to him?" she said. "I hurt him. Did you see what I did?"

She was in shock. She wasn't behaving normally. Billy needed to sooth her. Bring her back. He nodded. "Yeah. Yeah, I saw." He reached down and tried to unpry her fists. "Let go of these," he said gently.

"I hurt him," Iris repeated.

"You did," Billy said.

Iris brought her hands tight to her chest, not letting Billy touch them.

Price, Tal, and Jaq had made their way over to the two of them. It was about fucking time, Billy thought. Everyone had been hanging back, staring like cowards. Now they were coming over. He glared at them. Price addressed Iris. "What did you do to him? How did you make him run off that way?"

"I hurt him," said Iris.

"Let me see what you've got there," Price said, reaching out to touch Iris.

But Iris backed away, shaking her head. "I hurt him."

"We're obviously not safe here," said Billy. "We need to leave."

"That's what I said," said Iris. Her voice was high-pitched, girlish, and Billy wondered if more was wrong with her than simple shock. Jesus, after all that business about not needing help and not needing him to worry about her, he couldn't believe she'd been so reckless.

"Let me see what's in her hands," Price said, stepping towards Iris. "We could get it in the lab�"

"Don't touch her," Billy said, putting himself between Price and Iris. He didn't want Price to upset Iris any worse than she already was.

"Billy," said Jaq, "maybe he's right. If their lab can analyze it, maybe they can find some way to help us fight him."

Billy could see the sense in that, but his first concern was Iris. She seemed almost . . . broken. He glared at Price. "Okay," he said. "But you stay away from her."

Price made a hands-off gesture and took a step back.

Billy turned to Iris. "Hey," he said softly. "Can you give me what you have in your hands?"

Iris looked at him darkly. "No," she said.

"She's in shock," offered Price.

"Thanks," said Billy sarcastically. "No one could see that."

Then Iris surprised them all by going to Price and giving him the strands. They looked like hunks of brightly colored hair, pulled directly from someone's skull. "Now," she said. "We can go."

"Right," said Billy, taking her hand and starting for the door.

"Wait," called Price. "How will I get in touch with you?"

Billy stopped. He shrugged. "We'll call the hotline."

* * *

Iris curled up in the passenger seat of Billy's car. Her hands felt numb, as did the place where Zain had grabbed her arm. It was a horrid pins-and-needles sensation. She tried to shake her hands. Tried to rub them together. Tried to massage them. Nothing worked. Inside her head, it felt the same way. Numb. Pins-and-needles. She couldn�t get her thoughts to march one in front of the other. They were sluggish. They just laid there like big, black hippos. The image delighted her, and she giggled. Hippo-thoughts.

"What's funny?" said Billy from the driver's seat. His voice sounded strained and worried.

She didn't want Billy to worry! "It's okay," she said, trying to reassure him. "I just pictured my thoughts as hippopotamuses."

"Oh God," Billy muttered. "Something's wrong with her."

"She's in shock," said Jaq from the back seat.

Iris didn't want anyone to worry about her. "I'm okay," she said. "I'm just numb. My head's all pins-and-needles."

No one said anything. Iris tried to concentrate. Tried urge her lazy thoughts into action, whip them into submission. Her hands were so numb. She massaged them again, moaning softly.

"Jesus," said Billy. "It's that Zain thing. He did this to her. If I see him�"

"I'm okay, Billy," said Iris. "Please don't worry about me." She continued to massage her hands, attempting to force feeling into them. If Billy worried, it was bad. She couldn't remember why, but she knew it was bad.

"What are you doing to your hands?" Billy asked.

"They're just numb," said Iris. "Everything's so numb."

"Maybe you need to eat," said Billy. "When was the last time you ate?"

"Um . . ." Iris couldn't remember. She didn't know. She didn't think . . . "I'm not hungry."

"We could go to the morgue," said Billy. "Where I saw you the first time. I could find you something."

Iris shook her head. There was some reason why that wasn't necessary. They didn't need to do that, because . . . "I ate," she said. "I ate a few hours ago." That was right. Scott's leftovers. How could she have forgotten? She yawned. "I'm sleepy." She closed her eyes and let the dark abyss of sleep swallow her.

* * *

Zain scrambled down the street, his hand at his face where the ghoul had wounded him. Excruciating pain shot through his head, tingling from the ragged ends of the threads of his being into his brain. He was screaming out loud and didn't realize it. None of the people on the street took any notice. To them, he was just another crazy roaming the streets just before dawn. Zain didn't know what to do. He'd never been wounded like this before. No one had ever dared attack him. No one had ever had the chance. He'd destroyed them before they could try.

Clearly, the ghoul wasn't human enough to be eaten the way he normally ate humans. Was she magical enough for him to take her magic? He hadn't tried. He'd been too shocked, too appalled that she was harming him. He needed magic to mend himself. A daion would do nicely. He stretched out his senses, searching for a beacon of daion magic. There he reoriented himself, started off in the direction of the daion. He'd suck the magic out of this thing and heal. Then he'd go after that ghoul and finish what he'd started. He'd show that little blonde vixen. He'd rip her body to shreds and cast the pieces far and wide. He'd�

He was getting distracted. He needed to get the daions first. They were meddling little creatures that needed to be taught a lesson. That was why he was here. That was what he was supposed to be doing. Hadn't he languished thousands of years under the earth, dreaming of the day that he'd be free to exact vengeance on their race? This ghoul and her friend were turning him from his purpose. But could he allow her to live, even for a small while? Shouldn't he take care of her immediately? Viciously? She'd wounded him, and he needed to make it clear what happened to those who dared hurt him. They were eradicated. It was what he'd always done. He'd crushed anyone or anything that hurt him. Yes. He had to finish her.

However, he couldn't sense her. He couldn't feel her essence, couldn't detect her magic. How would he find her?

* * *

Jaq sat in the back seat of Billy's car, which was parked in the alley behind the city morgue. Billy was rummaging through a dumpster. Iris was asleep in the front seat. Since neither of them could see her, she laid her head on Tal's shoulder and snuggled close to him. His arm came around her shoulders. "You okay?" he asked.

She nodded against his chest. "Fine."

She didn't want Billy to find out about her relationship with Tal, although she was pretty sure he suspected it. Billy wouldn't understand it, and, considering he was her ex-fianc�, jealousy might factor into his misunderstanding. All in all, she thought it was just easier if she didn't have to explain the attraction to Billy. She wasn't sure she totally understood the attraction herself. At first, she had to admit, the relationship had appealed to her because there was a court order for her execution. Tal could provide protection. He was a powerful alghul. Now that she'd been pardoned, it was different. When they'd found out about the pardon, Tal had even asked her if she wanted out of their arrangement.

She definitely didn't and was sort of embarrassed about it. For starters, part of their "arrangement" included Tal . . . nibbling on her. Billy certainly wouldn't approve of or understand that. In fact, she couldn't think of anyone who would. Most people would think that she had psychological problems or that she was being abused. Those people had obviously never been bitten by an alghul.

Tal could make it feel so amazing. Just thinking about it made her eyes roll back in her head. One thing was for sure. It didn't hurt. It was nice. And in return, Tal shared magic with her. Imbued her with it, the daion would with a pet witch. In a sense, maybe she was just a pet witch. But it was different, because she gave something back to Tal. He needed her. Maybe she was a girlfriend. It felt like that.

Tal stroked her hair. "Are you tired?"

"No," said Jaq. "Maybe a little scared. What the hell are we going to do?"

Tal didn't answer. He was fairly quiet most of the time, but he claimed to enjoy Jaq's chatter. "Should I tell you everything's okay?" he asked finally.

Wouldn't it be nice if it were? "Can you make it okay?"

He sighed. "I wish I could. I don't like it when you're afraid."

Jaq pulled back. "Aren't you afraid?"

Tal shook his head. "I don't think so. I've never been afraid before, though, so I don't know how it feels."

"Weird," said Jaq. She mused. "I guess it's true that Zain hasn't actually killed any alghuls. Maybe he isn't interested in you guys."

"I think Zain would be interested in destroying whatever he could," said Tal.

"Maybe," said Jaq. She put her head back on his shoulder. "It's nice to be close to you."

Tal planted a kiss on her forehead. "Yes," he breathed. "Very nice."

She closed her eyes and enjoyed the comfort of being held by him. He did make her feel safe, as irrational as that feeling was. They weren't safe. They weren't safe at all.

* * *

Iris was dreaming, but she didn't know she was. Certain things should have tipped her off. For instance, Buckingham was in her dream, and Buckingham was dead. Also, she and Buckingham were sitting on the hood of his car on the beach watching a television that was suspended in midair above the ocean waves. There wasn't anything on the TV. Just static. The static was loud, or maybe the water made the rushing sound. Iris couldn't tell. Whatever�it was annoying. It was too loud. Buckingham was trying to tell her something, but she couldn't hear him over the static.

She tried to tell him that she couldn't hear him, but he just kept talking, lips moving soundlessly. She had the feeling that whatever he was trying to tell her was important. His face seemed so serious. And she wanted to listen. But the static was pounding at her temples, whooshing in and out with the tide.

Melora, queen of the pixies, stepped out of the television screen, picking out bits of static that clung to her tiny bikini and tossing them into the water. She swam for the shore, waving at Buckingham. He waved back and called out a greeting Iris couldn't hear.

Melora responded, but the goddamned static was too loud for Iris to hear her either. Frustratingly, the two of them seemed to be able to hear each other fine. They chatted animatedly as Melora waded onto the sand.

It wasn't fair! Iris wanted to talk too. She felt very alone.

* * *

Zain threw aside pieces of the daion whose magic he'd just consumed. The power was coursing through him and he could feel his body mending, knitting itself back together. He was ready to take on the ghoul. Slice her into a million pieces. Feed on her ghoul magic and snack on her witch friends. He was certain now that if he just got rid of her, all would be well.

He could wipe out the daions and rule the world, snacking occasionally on the delectably delicious humans. But first he needed to kill the ghoul and her friends. He knew just how he would find her . . .

* * *

Iris was still dreaming and the static was louder than ever. It hurt her ears and no matter what she did, she couldn't block it out or hear Buckingham or Melora, both of whom now seemed desperate to communicate with her. Frustrated, Iris flounced off the hood of the car and dove into the water. Under the waves, the static was muted. She floated below the surface, face up, eyes staring through the curtain of water at the sky above.

This was nice. She could stay like this forever, just floating in the quiet. The water was nice and cold. She felt as though her skin was drinking it in. She felt like a fish. She could breathe water and live here for the rest of her life. Buckingham and Melora swam by, but now they were half-human, half-fish people. Not mermaids exactly, because they didn't have arms, just fins.

"Of course," said Buckingham. "He's made from the hair of the ancients."

"I like humans," said Melora. "What you do. The way you use your technology reminds me of real magic."

"Iris, wake up," said a voice from above the water.

Iris opened her eyes. She was disappointed to be out of the water and back in Billy's car. Her hands and arms up to the shoulders were numb. Her head still felt cloudy and. . . staticky.

Billy was sitting next to her. He had a plastic fast food bag, which he'd filled with dead flesh. "You need to eat," he said.

Iris made a face, trying to sink into the car seat. "Too fresh," she said.

Billy looked at her sternly. "You aren't well, and I want you to eat something. You need your strength."

Iris shook her head. "It's too fresh. I don't want it."

Billy sighed, yanked open the bag, ripped off a chunk of the flesh, forced her mouth open, and shoved it inside. "Chew," he said.

It tasted horrible, but Iris obeyed, more because the idea not to obey didn't occur to her than for any other reason.

"Swallow," said Billy.

Iris did, gagging. "No more," she protested. "It's gross."

But Billy was already stuffing more into her mouth. After a few more mouthfuls, the fog in her brain began to clear, and she felt more alert. She ate the rest of what Billy had brought willingly. Her arms were still terribly numb. When she'd finished eating, she said, "I feel better, but I'm still numb everywhere I touched Zain, and I think the sensation's traveling."

"I can make it feel better," said Tal. "It won't go away, but I can make an illusion so you don't feel it."

"Is that a good idea?" said Jaq.

"I don't care," said Iris. "It's driving me crazy. Do it."

"Only if we pull back the illusion every hour or so to see if it's spreading," said Billy.

Iris shrugged. "Whatever."

Tal's fingers barely brushed her arm and suddenly, her arms felt normal again. Iris clenched and unclenched her fists, testing the new sensation. "Thanks," she said. "That's awesome." She sat up straight in her seat. "Where are we? What are we doing?"

"Running from Zain, I guess," said Billy. "I don't know."

"Zain," said Iris. "I just wanna kill that guy."

"Yeah," said Billy. "Me too."

"How are we going to do it?" asked Jaq. "We can't use guns."

"Which is fine, because we don't have any," said Iris. "Jesus." She looked out the window. "Oh. Thanks for feeding me, Billy. I hope you didn't worry too much."

"Listen, it's okay that I was worried," said Billy. "It means I care about you."

Iris just shrugged. "I had a really weird dream. I was a fish. It was nice. Do any of you believe in reincarnation? I think I'd like to be reincarnated as a fish."

"Are you sure you're okay?" said Billy.

"Fine. Totally fine. Um . . . so how long did I sleep?"

"An hour, maybe," said Billy. "The sun will be coming up soon."

"And Zain didn't find us?" asked Iris.

"No," said Jaq.

"Think I scared him off?" Iris joked. No one laughed. "Shit. We need to find him."

"And do what?" asked Jaq.

"You guys didn't get any ideas while I was out?" Iris asked.

"No," said Billy. "We were trying to take care of you."

"I'm sorry," said Iris. Her dream had been so strange. The static and the TV and the ocean and Buckingham . . . Buckingham was trying to tell her something. The dream was floating away in tiny bits. She could hardly remember it. It didn't matter anyway. They had other things to worry about. Still . . .

"We should probably get moving," said Billy. "Iris, do you still think we should head out to the middle of nowhere?"

"That depends," said Iris. "Is Zain still following us? Maybe you were right and he can't sense us because we've got magic? Maybe the only way he found us before was because of Buckingham."

"He found Melora," Tal pointed out. "He could sense her, and she's about as magic as they come."

"True," said Iris. "But she's a pixie, and none of us are. If Zain were created to be the daions' champion, it would make sense that he'd be linked to them. But our magic is different. It didn't exist when he was created."

"If he couldn't sense us," said Billy, "and we went far away . . ."

"He'd be free to create havoc," finished Jaq.

"Hell," said Iris. "He is anyway. We can't stop him."

"You wounded him," said Billy.

"Yeah," said Iris. "I kind of got the impression he tried to eat me and couldn't. Maybe it's because I'm a ghoul. He doesn't eat pixies either."

"Maybe you did scare him off," said Jaq.

"If I did, he wouldn't be after us anymore. He'd be . . ."

"Creating havoc?" suggested Billy. "There's one way to find out." He put his keys in the ignition and turned on the radio.

". . . claiming to be responsible for the mysterious disappearances leaving behind only clothes. This guy's either a serious wack-job or he's for real. He's in the square in the middle of downtown. The pixie police and the regular police can't seem to contain him. So it's pretty much anyone's guess at this point.

"Hey, if you're just tuning in, you've got the Axman on 92Q-Rock, and we've suspended our regular format to let everyone know there's a guy in the square saying his name is Zain, and he's looking for Iris Tanner. If you don't know by now, Iris is the very foxy ex-lead singer of Satin Blades that saved Mischief's stadium audience from certain death. And yes, she is hot for a ghoul. This dude is holding the city hostage. He says he's responsible for all those clothing disappearances that have been happening, and he says a lot more are going to happen if Iris doesn't show her face. So if you can stay at home, please do. This guy's crazy or dangerous, maybe both. This is the day to use your sick days. The pixie police can't handle this guy, so you probably . . ."

Billy turned down the volume. "Guess he can't sense us. And you apparently didn't scare him off."

"I should go," said Iris. "He's going to kill people if I don't."

"No," said Jaq. "That's too dangerous."

"You're not going," said Billy.

Iris glared at him. He couldn't tell her what to do. Who did he think he was anyway? "We have to do something," she said. But what? She had no idea how to function. They had to stop Zain. How were they going to do that? There had to be something they'd overlooked. Some way to keep this insane monster from doing whatever it was he was going to do . . . She felt like the answer was just out of reach. Like if she tried to say it, it would be on the tip of her tongue.

Suddenly, the details of her dream rushed back to her in Technicolor and surround sound. Thoughts lined up. Pieces fell into place. "We have to talk to Price," she said.

chapter twenty-four >>

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