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chapter twenty-five

Iris felt bad. She hadn't meant to die on everyone. She wasn't dead quite yet, but she soon would be. No one had talked about any backups. Any, "If I don't make it, we'll try this," plans. Tal had brought it up, and Iris had tried to talk about it, but Billy wouldn't stand for it. He said he didn't want to think about anyone else dying. They were all going to be fine, so no one needed to worry about it. But he'd been wrong, and now Iris had to die without hope. She had no idea if, after her death, the others would be able to stop Zain. She tried to hope that they would, but she couldn't. All was lost.

She wondered what it would feel like when Zain drained her magic. Would it hurt? Would it sting? Maybe it would tickle. She wished he'd get on with it. The anticipation was�

Wait. Why wasn't he getting on with it?

Iris opened her eyes. She'd squeezed them closed in readiness for death, but death didn't seem to be quickly on its way.

Zain's face loomed over hers. Iris wondered, momentarily, what he really looked like when he didn't take on the illusion of a man. Was he just all strings and strands? A cry of frustration escaped Zain's lips.

"Can't you do it?" whispered Iris. "Can't you devour me?"

Zain spat in her face.

Her face began to go numb. She could barely feel it. Couldn�t Zain hurt her? Before, when he tried to melt her down, he hadn't been able to do it. Maybe . . .

A thought occurred to her. The myth had said that when the daions had taken hair from Crines, they'd plucked it from his head, for no weapon forged could harm a hair on the head of an ancient. But she had harmed Zain. She'd ripped him apart.

She shouldn't have been able to do that.

Was that what Buckingham meant? In the dream? And Melora . . . Melora had said that what humans did re-minded her of real magic. What was real magic exactly? Wasn't it the physical manifestation of a magical act? Wasn't that just what Iris was? She was physically altered by magic. A human who'd become something completely different. Something new.

Iris looked at her wrist. A strand of Zain curled around it. Tentatively, she pulled her arm back, gently at first, then with more force. The strand snapped. Zain howled.

Iris crowed in delight. As she had before, she began to dig her hands into Zain and pull at the strands that made up his body. She tore away pieces of him, tossing gobs of him over her shoulder.

Zain shrieked. He tried to squeeze her with his threads, but they wouldn't cut her. He tried to kick her, but she just kept ripping at him. He tried to run, but she chased him. Iris yanked and ripped and tore until Zain was nothing more than a pile of broken strands of hair.

Iris stood in the center of the strands, pulling the pieces apart, making them tinier and tinier. Her entire body was numb and she couldn't hear anything in her head except static.

* * *

Billy was arguing with the pixie police. "He's dead," he was saying. "Let me go in there."

Two officers stood on the periphery of the square, arms crossed over their chests. "Sir," they said. "Our orders are not to let anyone in."

Jaq stood behind Billy. "Can you see Tal?" she asked. "I can't see him. Is he . . . ?"

Billy ignored Jaq. "I've got to get in there," he said. "She needs to stop. He's dead, and she needs to stop."

"Sir, please step back," said one of the cops.

"Like hell," said Billy, shoving forward.

Jaq grabbed Billy from behind. "Come on," she said. "Back off."

"Jaq do you see her?"

"I do, which is more than I can say for my boyfriend. Now back off."

Billy stepped back. "Your what?"

Jaq rolled her eyes. "This way. We'll use an illusion, dumbass."

Out of sight, the two quickly used a little magic so that they appeared to be police officers. Then they strode into the square, looking official. Billy went for Iris immediately.

"Iris," he called as he approached. She didn't look up. "Iris," he said again. He was closer now. She still didn't look up. She just kept ripping the pieces of Zain into smaller and smaller pieces. When he was close enough, he touched her, but she didn't acknowledge that either. Finally, he put a hand under her chin and gently turned her to face him. Iris' eyes stared dully. Right through him.

* * *

Eventually, the pieces of Zain were separated and carted off to the far corners of the earth. Labs wanted them for experiments. Misguided daions wanted them for good luck charms. Satin Blades fans even wanted them as memorial pieces for the band. The pieces were auctioned off, proceeds going to the families of those people Zain killed. Everything sold, for phenomenal prices. Everyone hoped that keeping the pieces apart meant that Zain couldn't mend himself. By all appearances, Zain was dead and of no harm to anyone. MTV ran specials on both Satin Blades and Mischief, calling the weekend, "the most senseless and devastating tragedy the music world has ever seen." MTV ran their videos nonstop for days. In the middle of the third day, MTV got an exclusive when Lucian showed up at their studio to announce that he wasn't dead.

Admittedly, the only reason everyone had thought Lucian was dead was that they'd found a pile of clothes in his bedroom. Lucian had explained, "No, Zain didn't eat me. I'm just messy." He'd gone into hiding after hearing about the deaths of the rest of the members in his band. Had hopped a flight across the Atlantic to hide in the Swiss Alps, figuring that Zain would think it was too much trouble to come after him. He apologized for letting everyone think he was dead for so long, but "I was mostly concerned with staying alive."

High-ranking officials in Magic Management were subjected to an international court martial. Price got to keep his job because he was apparently "very cooperative." After extensive hearings, the organization was required to make certain changes, including mandatory hiring of persons with magical abilities. The Zain incident, it was felt, had been stopped largely because of a fluke. The organization appeared to have handled it badly, and in order to ensure the situations would never be repeated, the international panel made sweeping changes. Court order executions were out. Magic Management was now required to use their magical employees to create "magic jails." Trials were to be held and sentences given accordingly. The international panel also negotiated a treaty with the new daion monarch�King Dirth. Magic Management was supposed to work closely with the king to exact justice against daions.

Not all of the changes the panel made had good results. The "magic jail" soon became a joke, and to get around it, trials were often convened at odd times, in odd places. Many of the trials resulted in immediate executions. Laws were easily made, but carrying them out didn't always prove as easy. Magic Management did hire witches in droves, however. They even hired a few ghouls. Magic wasn't a dirty word anymore, and that was good.

Ghoul shelters began to spring up in cities and other highly populated areas. They took donations from abortion clinics and hospitals and provided fledgling ghouls with fetuses and discarded organs to eat. A small but growing number of people began to donate their corpses to these shelters as well. Many of them were family members or friends of ghouls, but not all of them were. Alghul clubs and bars started to appear, as well as alghul escort services. Their patrons didn't pay with money. They paid with flesh. Just a little. Not enough to really hurt anyone, but some folks seemed to get a rush from it, and the number of alghul related deaths began to steadily decline.

Magical creatures still lived on the edges of the rest of the world�in the shadows and back alleys. But steadily, they were moving closer into the lights and crowded streets. And no one really seemed to mind.

A memorial service and charity ball were held in honor of those killed by Zain. A lot of celebrities showed up and gave money, which went to the families of the deceased.Buckingham's parents were both dead, and he had no siblings. Of the attendees to his funeral, most were from Magic Management, but the people he'd worked closely with during his last few days were in attendance as well. There were tears. It was difficult to accept.

Tal lost an arm, a leg, and one-and-a-half wings. He healed quickly and took the loss fairly cheerily. He always walked around cloaked in illusion, anyway. The only difference now was that he'd be hobbling around instead of walking. On the heels of the Zain incident, business increased tenfold at the strip club, so much so that Tal began to open up new clubs closer to civilization. He worked most closely with the one in the city, because Jaq had taken a job with Magic Management and worked out of its city headquarters. The organization paid pretty well, and Jaq could afford her own place, but at Tal's insistence, she moved in with him. At first, they tried to split their time between his apartment in the city and his house an hour or so away, but eventually, they ended up full time in the city, so that they could spend more time together.

Billy was also offered a job at Magic Management, but Billy didn't need money, so he didn't take it. Instead, he spent his time studying magic gathering and keeping an eye on his investments.

And Iris. Iris was unresponsive after the incident with Zain. Her entire body was numb. She couldn't hear anything but the rush of static in her head, and her vision was clouded. She spent her time lying in bed, not speaking or moving. Billy wouldn't take her to a hospital, because he wasn't sure how the staff would deal with a ghoul. So he kept her at his house, and he diligently sought out food for her, which he force-fed her lifeless form. She lay like that for two weeks. Then one day, she spoke. Billy came into the room carrying a baggy from the morgue, and Iris turned to face him. "Hi," she said.

Billy was so startled that he dropped the bag.

After that, Iris began to recover. She never quite got back all the feeling in her limbs. A lingering pins-and-needles sensation in her fingers and joints would plague her for the rest of her life. It was worse if she didn't eat regularly. Within a week or so of her speaking, she was up and about, insisting on sleeping in her apartment instead of Billy's house. They fought about it. Iris won. Billy swore a lot.

It wasn't that Iris didn't appreciate Billy's hospitality, or even that she didn't want to be near and around him. It was simply that she couldn't bear the thought of being helpless. The fight with Zain had made her helpless, literally, and she couldn't handle it. Helplessness terrified her, and she wanted to prove�to herself, primarily�that she was capable of being alone. Billy didn't understand when she told him this. He was hurt. He didn't think he deserved her rejection after what he'd done for her. After all, he'd nursed her back to health. To have her leave immediately after getting better felt like a slap in the face.

He called her one night, after she'd been gone a few days. He told himself it was to check up on her. It was really to beg her to come back. He tried to explain to her what he'd been trying to tell her in the hall at Magic Management. He wanted to take care of her. Iris wouldn't do anything but insist she didn't need to be taken care of. Billy got angry, then. He pointed out that if he hadn't fed her for the two weeks she was unconscious, she would have died. He pointed out that if he hadn't helped her dig up the grave outside the church, she might not have survived. He pointed out that he'd saved her from being shot to death by Mother Constance.

None of this made Iris very happy. "I'm such a burden to you, then?"

She wasn't a burden. She didn't understand. Making sure that nothing happened to her was the only thing that had made him feel alive since he first discovered magic. He thought they were a team. Iris did the crazy stuff, like attack Zain with her bare hands, Billy made sure she didn't die afterwards. He liked the arrangement. He wanted it to continue indefinitely, because he was in love with her.

Iris had hung up on him.

After that, they didn't talk much. Iris didn't know what to make of Billy's declaration of love. She thought he might be crazy. He said that he loved her because she kept nearly killing herself, and he got to feel important by saving her life. That wasn't love. That was psychosis. Billy needed a doctor, not to be with her. But as the weeks went by, she realized how much she missed Billy. She picked up the phone to call him dozens of times, but she always hung it back up without dialing. She just didn't what she wanted to say or how she'd say it.

Satin Blades' albums sales had gone through the roof, especially with the posthumous release of some songs recorded for their first album that hadn't made the original cut. The royalties were coming in pretty well, but Iris still cleaned houses to make extra money.

For a lark, she played some bar gigs now and then too, but she always used some magic to alter her appearance. Even though labels had offered to put out an album of her stuff, she hadn't accepted. She was afraid they only wanted her for a publicity gimmick. She didn't want people to come to see her because was billed like a circus freak: the flesh-eating ghoul who could play guitar. Maybe that was just an excuse. The real reason was that she still couldn't write. She hadn't had an idea for a song since before she became a ghoul. She just didn't think she had it anymore. She'd used up the store of creativity she'd been born with. That was it. She was washed up. A has-been.

Still, the desire to perform welled up in her, and, for that reason, she still played out now and then. She was careful not to do it too much and to never use magic to make people want to hear her. She didn't want to build up a following. She just wanted to have a little fun now and then.

So time passed. A few weeks were suddenly a month, and a month was suddenly two months. Soon, it had been quite a while since she'd even spoken to Billy. In fact, that whole chapter of her life seemed like an eon ago. She spoke to Jaq occasionally but after Iris had expressed her concern over Jaq's involvement with a black pixie, Jaq had gotten a little huffy. Iris just didn't think the relationship sounded . . . healthy. Jaq hadn't appreciated Iris' expres-sion of concern. Most of the time, Iris forgot that she'd helped save the world. She just went on with everything as best she could.

One Saturday night, she took a gig at Martino's. She'd avoided Martino's because she used to play there regularly, and was worried that her music might be recognized if she played there. It didn't seem to, however, and she was having a good time. The set went well. That is, a few people in the audience actually clapped after she played. As far as she was concerned, that meant it went well. Somewhere towards the end of it, she saw a familiar face enter the bar. Lucian.

After she finished, she went over to his table to have a drink with him.

"It is you," said Lucian. "When I heard about the chick who was playing bars around here, I thought it sounded like you, but you look . . . different."

"It's an illusion," she said by way of explanation. "I haven't seen you in forever." She was actually sort of upset with him for not calling, but she realized that she hadn't called him either. She hadn't been at any of the funerals of the members of Satin Blades, because she'd still been out of it then. So, they hadn't seen each other in quite some time. "Sorry, I haven't called," she said.

"It's okay," said Lucian. "I probably wouldn't have taken your call anyway. I was pretty pissed at you for a while for getting us into all this shit, you know? Like I blamed you."

"I'm really sorry," she said. In a way, it kind of was all her fault, wasn't it?

"No, no," he said. "That was wrong of me. This isn't your fault. None of this. I heard you practically like died, and anyway, if it wasn't for you, we'd all be dead."

Iris laughed. "So you just stopped in to see me?"

"Uh, actually, since I heard you were playing at some bars, I stopped by to . . . make you a proposition."

Oh. She smiled uncomfortably. "Lucian, I've just never really thought of you that way�"

"A business proposition," he interrupted. "Let's get the band back together."

"What? No."

"Just like that, no? I mean, you're obviously still playing. And you're still awesome. And I don't want to stop playing. And with publicity, we could be . . . totally amazingly awesome."

"I . . ." she trailed off. "Lucian, I haven't written a song since before I got the bad pixie pill."

"So? Other people have. We'll play their songs. Lots of bands do that, you know?"

She shook her head.

"Okay, look. Here's my number. Change your mind. And call me. Notice I didn't say if you change you mind. Because I mean it as an order. Change your mind, Iris. You were meant to be a rock star. You and I both know it."

She took the number. She didn't change her mind. At least, she didn't try to change her mind. But she did think about what Lucian had said. And she remembered what it was like to be in a band. She remembered what it was like to have people she could count on. After all, she could play guitar by herself and sing, but she couldn't play the guitar and the bass and the drums. She couldn't even play rhythm guitar and lead guitar at the same time. In a band, everybody needed everybody else. People had different roles. Different strengths. But it all came together to produce music. It was awesome. Iris missed it.

And as she was thinking about that, she suddenly remembered what Billy had said to her. He'd said that they were a team. Iris did the crazy stuff, and Billy made sure she didn't die afterwards. They had different jobs. Different strengths. But it all came together . . .

Shit. She was an idiot.

* * *

Billy had given up on hearing from Iris ever again. On occasion, he'd wanted to wander into one of the bars where she was playing music, just to be close to her again, but he figured that would just make her angrier, so he stayed away. He couldn't have been more astonished when she showed up on his doorstep one night with her guitar case in her hand.

He was so surprised, he couldn't speak. He just opened the door wider, so she could come in. And she did, looking a little worried. They stood in his foyer for a few minutes. Iris rocked on her feet. Billy stared at her with his mouth open.

"Hi," she said.

"Hi," he said, finally finding his voice.

"You probably aren't real excited to see me," she said.

"No, I am. I'm really glad that you're . . ." he trailed off. He'd forgotten how beautiful she was.

"So Lucian and I are gonna go back on the road," she said.

"That's great." She'd come all the way over here to tell him that?

"With some studio musicians, probably. We're gonna work on an album�" She broke off and laughed nervously. "But I didn't come to talk about that. I came to tell you that what I said before about not needing anybody was . . . God, this is not coming out the way I . . . Well, I wrote a song. I really did. It just came to me. It like snapped into my head like a pop-up book. And it's . . . Can I play it?"

He nodded.

She set her guitar down and knelt to take it out of its case. She looked up at him. "It's called 'Together.' I wrote it for you."

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