Everyone was outside, standing in a tight bunch. One of the women was still screaming. I ran forward, pulling people aside to see what was going on. They were standing around a bundle of cloth, stained red.
“Don’t look at it, Azazel,” Hallam said. “We found it at the edge of the woods. There was a stirring like a deer or something, but we think someone left it there.”
But I had to. I knew what it was, but I had to see it and make sure. I knelt on the ground next to the bundle and pulled aside the edges. Some of the blood—I was sure it was blood—got on my fingers, but I didn’t bother wiping it off. I just opened the bundle, like it was a Christmas present. The cloth was white. Maybe it was from a sheet. The edges were fraying. It was tough to see what was in it at first, because there was so much blood. But I stared at it and forced my mind to recognize what it was seeing. One toe. Several fingers—most were pinkies, but one was a thumb. They’d come from more than one person, because the thumb was definitely male, and so was one of the pinkie fingers. The other belonged to a female. I couldn’t tell about the toe.
I rocked back so that I was sitting in the grass, my knees at my chest. “He did this for my benefit.”
“Who?” said Marlena.
“Who do you think?”
Hallam was rubbing his forehead with his hand. “It’s the scouting party. The ones who I sent out for fuel and food. The ring on that finger belongs to Lily.”
“Jason didn’t do this.” Marlena’s voice had gotten shrill.
“He’s done it before,” I said. I stood up. “He did it to his mother.”
“Listen to me,” Marlena said. “Listen. When that boy was five years old, he fell down outside on the sidewalk, and he scraped his knee, and I bandaged it for him. He is not capable of—”
Hallam drew Marlena into his chest. She quieted. Then she pushed him away and walked off, putting distance between herself and the body parts.
“He cut off body parts of his mother?” Kieran asked me in a low voice.
“She wasn’t a very nice lady,” I said. “Not that it makes it okay.”
Hallam’s face was pale. He stroked his beard nervously.
“This is a message,” I told Hallam. “He said he would make you leave. You need to do what I said. Break camp. Find a way around him.”
“I’m not leaving my scouting crew with him,” Hallam said. “They’re still alive, don’t you think?”
“The woman in the scouting crew had the Key of Asher, didn’t she?” Kieran said.
Hallam glared at him. “For God’s sake! What’s so important about the grimoire anyway? She’s lost a finger.”
Kieran was right. Damn it. I needed that book of magic. I’d come miles and miles for it. I took a deep breath. “We’ll get the scouting party back.”
“Oh, how do you propose to do that?” Hallam laughed wildly.
“You said it yourself,” I said. “If anyone can take Jason on, it’s me. We’ll get them back.” And the grimoire.
“We need to radio this in,” said Kieran. “I think I’ve almost got it fixed. Hallam, do you want to give me a hand?”
Hallam looked from Kieran to the bundle of body parts on the lawn. He threw his hands into the air.
In the distance, the crickets were chirping.
I was used to sleeping on hard floors and on the ground. Ever since I’d been recruited to work for the government, I’d been doing just that. There was no electricity, people were going crazy, and I was travelling all over the coast, trying to gather up as much gasoline, natural gas, and other fuels as I could. They needed me because I could influence people’s brains. Make them do things. I helped a lot. If we went into a community and started pumping out all the gasoline from the neighborhood gas station, people tended to get annoyed with us, whether we were the government or not. We could subdue them with the threat of force, usually. If that didn’t work, using some actual force usually did. But the government liked having me around so they didn’t have to shoot civilians. I could just convince everyone to walk away.
But I hated doing it. I hated using my power or magic or whatever you wanted to call it. I’d put my foot down about a month ago. “No more,” I’d said. The government might not understand the true nature of my magic, but I did. I didn’t know exactly why, but the power had a perverse sensibility. It liked to wreak havoc and cause destruction. If I tried to use it a different way, it would goad me and seduce me. There was a voice I always heard. It was raspy and ghostly. It liked blood. It always tricked me. No matter how I tried to keep people from getting hurt, it always made me do it.
I did not want to hurt people anymore. I hated it. Killing people had destroyed me. Maybe I’d done it in self-defense before, but I didn’t like the way it made me feel. Hard. Emotionless. And sometimes…oh God, sometimes, I even felt like I enjoyed it. That was what scared me the most about the power. The thought that maybe the voice didn’t come with the magic. Maybe it was just me. Maybe some part of me liked killing things. It made me nauseous even to consider it.
No matter how hard I tried to do good, I always managed to only do evil, awful things. Maybe the mobs of people didn’t get mowed down by army machine guns, because I convinced them to go home, but they all threw themselves off a bridge the following day because they were so depressed about the state of the world. (It happened in Tennessee.) Maybe they began shooting each other down like dogs in the street. (That was in Virginia.) The people in charge told me I was being paranoid. They said the events weren’t related. I tried to explain to them that my power had caused it, and that I’d felt it. They didn’t care.
They told me to come and get an ancient grimoire called the Key of Asher from a woman on a scouting party here in Kentucky. They thought the grimoire could help me learn to focus my magic, make it stronger. But I’d heard that the Key of Asher contained a ritual that would allow me to cleanse myself of all power. Get rid of magic entirely. That was what I planned to do.
Then the government couldn’t use me anymore. I’d have peace. It was all I wanted.
Also, cleansing myself of power would get rid of the dreams.
I might have gotten used to sleeping on hard floors, but I’d never gotten used to the dreams. Before the lights went out, I took meds that got rid of them and made me sleep like a baby. But now I couldn’t find the pills anymore. They were prescription, and they weren’t common. By now, what little supply of them there had been seemed to be gone.
The dreams were prophetic. Sort of. They were always tangled up in symbols and imagery I couldn’t understand and interwoven with my own fears and personal demons. For a few months, I’d worked on trying to decipher them. Usually, I couldn’t. Now, I just suffered with them. I wished they were gone.
I’d inherited this lovely cocktail of powers from my late grandmother, who was a gypsy. She hadn’t used her power for anything other than destruction either, but at least her powers had limits. She’d only been able to influence impressionable minds. I’d never run into a mind I couldn’t manipulate. Maybe someday, I’d run into a block, but thus far, no.
Sometimes getting drunk made the dreams go way, sometimes not. And when I was drunk, I made great decisions, like sleeping with Kieran, which had made my life much more complicated than it needed to be. Getting drunk was never a good idea. I didn’t know why I still did it occasionally. Honestly, it was less and less of a problem these days, anyway. Alcohol was harder to find than food.
I didn’t have any problem going to sleep inside the church that night, despite the fact the floor was hard and flat and I didn’t have a pillow. None of the things I’d seen that day kept me awake—not Jason, not the bundle of body parts. I crawled into my little sleeping pallet, burrowed under the blankets they’d given me, and fell to sleep immediately.
Where the dreams were waiting.
In my dream, I was back in the mansion my grandmother had left me in her will. I was living there with my brother Chance, his girlfriend Mina, their little daughter Jenna, Jason, Hallam, and Marlena. The dream started out nice. Jason and I were cuddled in our bed, spooning. He was asleep, gently snoring at my neck, his arm curled possessively around my hip. I felt cocooned in his warmth.
Then the crying started. It was little Jenna, screaming her head off across the mansion. I snuggled closer to Jason, waiting for Mina or Chance to feed Jenna and stop her squalling. You do it , rasped a voice inside me. Shut that brat up.
I felt queasy. The voice bothered me. It always urged me to do things that scared me. But what was wrong with quieting Jenna so we could all get some rest? The screaming kept up, building into a frenzy, louder and louder. Finally, someone tapped on my door.
I slid out of bed, throwing on a robe. Mina was at my door. Her hair was frazzled and there were hollow dark circles under her eyes. “She won’t eat,” she said. “She won’t be quiet.”
I followed Mina to Jenna’s nursery, where Jenna was lying on her back, flailing her arms and legs and yelling her head off. Her little eyes were scrunched up in agony. Her face was turning red from the effort of it. I did what I always did. I picked her up and put her over my shoulder, walking and rocking with her. And as I did so, I reached out with a little bit of my magic and touched her tiny mind. I willed her to be quiet, to be calm.
And like she always did, she stopped screaming.
I handed her to Mina, who looked so grateful as she popped the bottle into Jenna’s mouth. Jenna sucked contentedly. “Thank you, Azazel,” said Mina. “You’re a miracle worker. She always gets quiet for you.”
I just shrugged, ready to go back to bed and sleep next to Jason. “Guess she just likes me.”
And all of this could have happened. It did happen, many times, on many nights. But this was a dream, not a memory, and that’s why, in the dream, the flies started crawling out of little Jenna’s ear.
At first it was just one. The tiny black bug made its way across Jenna’s soft forehead. I brushed it away, but there was soon another one, and another one. They began pouring out of her ears in a swarm, enveloping us.
Mina and I cowered, arms up against the whirlwind of flies, buzzing madly around us.
Little Jenna spit the bottle out of her mouth. “Mommy,” she said.
Never mind that she was too young to talk. In the dream, it seemed perfectly normal.
“Mommy, you shouldn’t let Aunt Azazel do magic on me anymore.”
“Magic?” whispered Mina.
“I thought it was harmless, Mina,” I told her, pleading. “I never thought…”
Flies started crawling out of little Jenna’s mouth, out of her eyes and nostrils. Her body was turning gray.
Mina held up her rotting child to me. “Azazel?” she whispered. “Azazel, what did you do to my baby?”
I woke up then. I sat straight up. It was dark and silent in the church in Columbus, Kentucky. The crickets were still chirping somewhere in the distance. Now, I couldn’t sleep.
I used to wake up screaming from the dreams, but I’d trained myself not to. I did the best I could to wake myself up before they got really bad. That dream had more to it. I’d dreamed it before. Sometimes, if I let it go on, little Jenna’s dead body would chase me through the house, begging me to save her.
I threw aside my blankets and quietly dressed in the dark. I would go for a walk. Columbus was a small town, but maybe it had a drug store or a pharmacy. I hadn’t been able to stop at one on the way to Columbus, because Kieran was with me, and I didn’t want him to know.
I managed to make it out of the church without colliding with anything in the dark or making a lot of noise. Once outside, I stood in cool night air, breathing deeply to calm my racing pulse and letting my eyes adjust to the dark. Gradually, the street ahead of me became something other than unidentifiable black blobs. I was able to see that there were a few buildings down the street, one with a sign that I couldn’t read.
I set out down the silent road.
Upon further inspection, I could see that the building was actually a car garage or something. It wouldn’t have what I needed. But across the road was a store that had an ice container in front, the white letters were peeling, but still recognizable and gleaming in the moonlight. Ice meant a convenience store. A convenience store meant over-the-counter medicine and condoms. They might have what I was looking for there. It was a small town. Would women really drive all the way to another town to buy these if they needed them?
The door to the convenience store was locked, so I busted one of the windows with a rock and reached inside to unlock it. I couldn’t believe no one had rooted through this place before.
Inside, however, I realized I must have been wrong. Many of the shelves were cleared out. People had been through here all right. But someone had still locked the door. Had the owner of the store simply let people in? Hadn’t there been looting here? There had been looting everywhere else.
I found the aisle with the ibuprofen, maxi pads, and Nyquil. If they had it, it would be here. Most of the medicine was still on the shelves. I searched through it three times, hoping maybe they were hidden behind something else, or that I’d just missed them the first time through. But no.
There were no home pregnancy tests. None, and my period was a week late, and I’d slept with Kieran three weeks ago.
I sat down on the concrete floor of the store. I didn’t care that it was filthy or cold. I just sat there for a while. I couldn’t be pregnant, could I? I didn’t want to be pregnant.
Maybe someday, yeah, it would be nice, or at least it would have been if the lights hadn’t gone out. I could have seen myself, in five years or so, married to a nice guy, working a steady job, begging him to go out and get me pickles and ice cream or something. But not now. Not in this messed up, destroyed world. And not with a man I’d only had sex with because I was drunk and scared and lonely. It couldn’t be true.
The radio crackled. Hallam, Kieran, Marlena, and I were sitting in the radio room the next morning. Kieran and Hallam had gotten it to work, and had contacted OF headquarters. Even though the OF was the U.S. government, things were so different these days than they used to be. I’d gotten used to thinking of them as the Order of the Fly a long time ago. Old habits died hard.
When I accidentally convinced all the members of the Sons of the Rising Sun to commit suicide, I had no idea what kind of effect this would have on the world. The Sons were an influential bunch. Their membership extended not only to the slavishly devoted Brothers, who were a cross between monks and James Bond (and, incidentally was what Hallam had been), but to rich and influential men all over the world. The upshot of this was that when they all killed themselves, over three quarters of the world’s governing members were suddenly gone. Heads of corporations were dead. Certain influential journalists were dead. It was truly an event that brought the world to its knees. And it was my fault. Oops.
Afterwards, theories abounded. Terrorism. A widespread suicide pact. But the one that was the most popular by far was the theory that this was a sign. The end of the world was coming.
The Order of the Fly didn’t think the world was coming to an end. They thought this was a sign that their time had come. The OF had long been aware of the Sons, since the Sons had swindled them out of a great deal of money back in the 1800s, when they were just another new-agey type order floating around, trying to do magic. The difference was, that unlike the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (that people like Aleister Crowley and W. B. Yeats were members of) the people in the OF really could do magic. The Sons sensed their power as a threat, and squelched them.
I came in contact with the OF right after the mass suicide. A woman named Agnes, who had been a bit of a mentor to me in Italy, put me in touch with them. They were supposed to be able to help me learn to use my powers.
The Order of the Fly was busy trying to get its people elected into as many government positions as they could, and they succeeded in having enough to essentially overtake the U.S. government. This didn’t bug me too much. Overall, the OF was made up of good people. Not all could do magic, but all believed in tolerance, fair-thinking, and being open-minded.
There were some people in the country who it did bug, though. To them, the Order of the Fly sounded Satanic. Having been raised by Satanists, I knew they were way off base, but one girl can’t change the mind of half the country. Things were getting pretty bad before the lights went out. There weren’t just protests and walk-outs. Things like bombs and shoot-outs were happening. It was like America was turning into Ireland.
Maybe it was like Jason said. Now that the lights were out, the people on the other side of the country had decided to let the OF fend for itself. But I hoped not. I really hoped not.
On the radio, Hallam’s immediate superior, Phillips, was talking. His voice sounded flat and staticky. “I thought you had the ringleader captured. Over.”
“He escaped,” Hallam said. “Over.”
“Can’t you capture him again, over?” Phillips asked.
“If I might add something?” I asked.
“Go ahead,” said Phillips. “Over.”
“Jason allowed himself to be captured and allowed himself to stay captured. He could have escaped at any time, but he didn’t. He was toying with us. He’s quite skilled, and the force we have here isn’t capable of taking him down,” I said. “I suggest we do nothing more than go in covertly and get the scouting mission out, then break camp and try to go around him.” I paused. “Uh, over.”
Phillips didn’t answer for a while. Finally, he said, through the static, “That’s a negative Wakefield team. We’d like you to hold your position and take no offensive action. Over.”
“But our team is being tortured,” Hallam said.
“Junkin’s group to the north of you is making good progress. They may be able to get across the river within a week or so. If we can get them across, then we’ll be in a better position. Until then, I don’t want to risk the safety of the remainder of your group on trying to rescue a few. If this ringleader is as dangerous as you say, it doesn’t seem wise at this juncture. Over.”
Hallam argued with Phillips a little more, but Phillips wasn’t budging. Our orders were to wait it out. To do nothing. There was no word on Kieran and I. We weren’t told to report back south, and I didn’t bring it up. I needed to get my hands on that grimoire. As long as there was some chance I could get to it, I was staying.
Finally, Hallam ended contact with Phillips. “I can’t believe this. My people are being tortured, and I’ve been ordered to do nothing about it.” He stood up and kicked the metal folding chair he’d been sitting on. It fell over with a clatter.
Marlena rushed to him. “Hallam, calm down,” she said, putting a hand on his shoulder.
It was nice watching the two of them. They comforted each other. They were there for each other. Of the three couples that had lived in my grandmother’s mansion, they were the only one that was still together. I could see why. They were a team.
Hallam took Marlena by the shoulders. “They count on me,” he said. “They won’t expect to just be left there.”
She put a hand on his cheek. “I’m sorry.”
“We could just go anyway,” I said. “That grimoire is with the Lily person you mentioned and—”
Hallam pushed Marlena aside and stared down at me. “You and that wretched book. There are people there. People who are losing pieces of their bodies. Besides, if she were captured, I’m sure the last thing she was worried about was that book. The Key of Asher is probably lying on the ground somewhere in the woods.”
I stood up. “You don’t think the book is there?”
“I highly doubt it.”
Well, then. Maybe I didn’t need to be so gung-ho about breaking into Jason’s camp.
“Do you even care about those people, Azazel?” Hallam asked.
“Of course I do,” I said. But I needed to think. Was there any way I could find the Key of Asher, if I searched for it? Maybe we could retrace the scouting party’s steps and figure out where exactly they were taken.
“I don’t think you do,” said Hallam, and the way he looked at me hurt. He looked disgusted. “Yesterday, Kieran was saying that Jason was sociopathic, but are you any different? You’re both the same.”
“Hey,” said Kieran, standing up. “She’s concerned, okay? But we have our orders.”
“They didn’t give you orders,” said Hallam. “Just me.”
“I just need to find the grimoire, Hallam,” I said softly. “It’s important. Of course, if you’d like to assemble some people to break into Jason’s camp and look—”
“Why risk lives, when you could end this in seconds?” Hallam’s nostrils flared.
Marlena put her hand on Hallam’s shoulder again. “Hallam, it’s okay.”
“It’s not,” said Hallam. “Azazel, you could stand right here and make all of them crazy or make all of them want to throw themselves in the river. All of those locals Jason has working for him. It would be over.”
I looked down at the ground. “I can’t.”
Marlena peered around Hallam. “Why can’t you?”
Kieran raised his eyebrows questioningly.
“There are consequences to using this kind of power,” I said. “It always turns out worse.”
Marlena stepped forward, taking my hand. “You can’t still blame yourself about Jenna, can you, Azazel?”
I shook her off. “It was my fault. When I use the magic, something bad always happens. I won’t use it again. I won’t.” And then, I turned on my heel and left the room.
Jason pulled the car up to the curb of the Order of the Fly’s campaign headquarters. The building was nothing exciting—three stories of boring brick and square windows. On the lawn, there were six or eight people picketing. They held signs that said things like, “Get the Witches out of the Whitehouse” and “Hocus Pocus and Foreign Policy Don’t Mix.” They looked pissed off.
I opened the passenger side door and put one foot on the asphalt.
“Sure you don’t want me to come in with you?” Jason asked.
“I’m fine,” I said. The picketers were always outside the building. I leaned across the car and kissed his mouth. “Pick me up in an hour?”
“You got it,” he said.
I made my way inside amidst shouts of, “Witch” and “Nutso” and “Communist.” The picketers didn’t exactly always make a lot of sense, but they were part of life these days. Not a day went by that the news wasn’t covering a demonstration or hosting a debate between OF supporters and the Christian right.
Once indoors, I knew my way around. This was my fourth session with Lucy, a psychic who was able to gauge when I was able to access my power. I hadn’t been able to manage it thus far. I waved to the girl behind the desk. Her name was Gina or Georgia or something. She always remembered my name, but then, my name was a little distinctive.
Lucy was waiting for me in her office, a room filled with several plush chairs, shag carpeting, and numerous hanging houseplants. Lucy said that atmosphere was important to using magic. I wasn’t sure I wanted to embrace that I was actually doing magic. It made me sound like a five-year-old or something.
After we exchanged greetings and made some small talk about Lucy’s kids and Jason’s health, she asked me if I’d been working on the exercises she’d given me last week.
I flung myself into one of the plush chairs. “I’ve been trying, but nothing’s happening,” I said. “No matter how relaxed I am, I can’t influence anyone to do anything, let alone thousands of men all over the earth to kill themselves all at once. Are we sure I did that?”
Lucy chuckled. “Of course we’re sure. I sense enormous power whenever I’m around you.”
I sure didn’t feel like I had enormous power. I felt overwhelmed by the world. Mina, Chance’s girlfriend, was hugely pregnant. Whenever I could, I did my best to make sure she kept off her feet, which meant running errands for her and ordering ridiculous amounts of food for her to eat. (No one in our house really knew how to cook.) I was just starting my first semester of college, and I didn’t have a major yet. Everyone kept asking me what my major was, and I kept feeling stupid. I felt so behind in all my classes, due to the fact I hadn’t really had a proper senior year of high school. Technically, I hadn’t graduated from anywhere, even though the Sol Solis School had issued Jason and me diplomas. There hadn’t been much left of the school, of course, after I’d made most of the teachers kill themselves. I was ecstatic to be so close to Jason, and to be able to have a normal relationship, but sometimes it felt like there was pressure from all directions. A little bit of power would be nice right now. It really would.
Lucy and I got started with our session. She had me close my eyes and lean back in the chair. She began to speak in a soothing voice, telling me to relax and think of a warm, dark, empty place. This was how all the sessions started. Apparently, in order to master my power, visualization was very important. Grounding myself in an imagined space provided my mind a space to work from. Or something.
I did as she asked, immersing myself in warmth and darkness. There was nothing there, not even my body. Everything was dark and warm and comfortable. I felt, like usual, that I might go to sleep.
“I’ve been telling you to imagine your power filling this space,” said Lucy’s voice, velvety and comforting, floating into my dark warmth, “and it hasn’t been working. Today, instead, I’d like you to imagine that there is a container in the room. You can make it look however you’d like.”
I imagined a huge glass bottle in the middle of my dark space.
“The container has a cap or a lid,” continued Lucy.
I imagined the glass bottle capped tightly.
“Inside this container,” said Lucy, “is your power. You’ve put it all inside the container. Now, you need to let it out, by opening the cap or lid.”
Oh, what the heck? Nothing ever happened anyway. I imagined popping the cap off the glass bottle.
“When you open the container, your power rushes out.”
My power looked like soda in my imagination. It foamed over the lid and spilled out into the darkness.
I felt an odd tingling feeling in my stomach. It was as if the warmth from the dark space I was imagining was spilling out into my body. The tingling began to spread over my torso, into my limbs. It flowed up my spine, bubbling like Coca-Cola, and I felt it nudge the back of my brain.
“I feel something,” I gasped to Lucy.
“So do I,” said Lucy. “You’ve done it. You’ve released your power!”
She sounded excited. I was too. “What should I do?” I asked.
“Slowly open your eyes,” she said, “and see if you can still feel it when you do.”
I eased my eyelids open. Lucy was sitting across from me in one of her chairs. The room looked exactly the same. But suddenly, I could feel Lucy’s brain. I couldn’t read her thoughts or anything like that, but I could get a sense of what she wanted. Right now, more than anything, she wanted me to be able to use my powers. Cool! “I can feel it,” I told her. “I can feel you too. What you’re focused on right now.”
“Good,” said Lucy. “See if you can stretch out further, beyond this room.”
I imagined my power as a bubbling liquid, spreading out through the building. I couldn’t make out individuals, but I could feel the divergent desires of many, many minds. Suddenly, it seemed easy. I could…make everyone want to dance the mambo!
Lucy stood up and began to undulate her hips. Ha! I was doing it! I was controlling her. I got up out of my chair and ran to the door. Flinging it open, I looked down the hall. Everywhere, everyone was dancing the mambo. No way! This was fabulous.
My head felt bubbly, like the power was dancing around inside my brain. It was surging, growing more powerful by the second. The things I could do with power like this! Geez. I could—
Make them all stab each other, whispered a ghostly voice from inside my head. I pictured it for a second. All of the people in the office wielding whatever weapon they could find. Scissors. Pens. Pencils. Letter openers. Blood would be everywhere, soaking into Lucy’s shag carpet…
The people weren’t mambo dancing anymore. Now, they were stalking out of their cubicles, heading towards each other, their faces ugly.
No. I didn’t want this. I stuffed the power down, pulling it together and shoving it back inside the glass bottle. I slammed the cap back on.
Everyone shook themselves and went back to their desks. I breathed a sigh of relief.
Lucy called to me from inside her office.
I turned to her. “Are we sure that my using this power is a good idea?” I asked.