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Iris pulled away. Billy had just kissed her. She tried three times to say something. She didn't know what to say. Did she want Billy to kiss her?
"I'm sorry," said Billy.
Should he be sorry? She didn't know. She'd thought since that night with the disastrous sex that— It had been a nice kiss. Very soft.
So she just stood there, without saying anything. Billy's arms were still around her. Billy's strong, big arms. And she was tired. She couldn't stop crying. She buried her face in his chest. His arms came around her tight. They stood like that for what seemed like hours. Then Billy moved back and held her at arm's length.
"Look," he said.
"I don't want to talk," said Iris. "We talk too much."
"But . . . shouldn't we . . . ?"
"No. It doesn't matter. You feel nice."
They both slept on the couch, a tangle of arms and legs. They didn't kiss. They didn't speak. They didn't even hold each other. They felt each other's warmth. Each other's presence.
The next morning, after a brief discussion, Scott took them to Buckingham's. If he had knowledge about Zain, they needed it. The concert was tomorrow. If they were going to try to stop Mischief, they had to do it. Jaq would have wanted them to. As they walked from Scott's car to Buckingham's door, Billy took her hand. She smiled up at him. She didn't know what it meant. Seeing as a mythical monster might eat them all the following evening, she didn't suppose it mattered. But she liked holding hands.
Buckingham met them at the door. He began to stammer an apology, but Billy held up his hand. "We don't have time to think about that right now," Billy said. Buckingham stepped aside and let them into his living room. It was crowded. Looking over her shoulder, Iris realized there were an awful lot of cars parked on the street near Buckingham's house.
Buckingham looked a little embarrassed. "I wanted to move forward, regardless of what the two of you were doing," he said, "so I gathered a little group."
The living room was decorated the way Iris had expected Buckingham to decorate. Dark leather furniture, cherry wood, sensible white-shaded lamps. There were about ten people in the living room, sitting on couches and perched on other pieces of furniture. Buckingham had brought extra chairs into the living room—his dining room chairs, for instance. Iris recognized one of the people as Jenna Murphy, the news anchor. What the hell was she doing here?
Buckingham dug up a few more chairs for the three of them, explaining as he ducked in and out of the room, "Apparently, my firing didn't sit well with everyone at Magic Management. Most of these people are deserters. I told them what was going on and they want to help. So they jumped ship and came here. They've got guns." He smiled. "And I called Jenna because I thought we could use some documentation of the reality of the situation. Send a message to Magic Management and let the world know how the organization handles serious threats. We've got your original call to the hotline, Iris. Jenna's going to get that on the air."
"I'm going to try, Ed," said Jenna. "The network won't give me the green light on a story like this. We're going to have to sneak it in as breaking news. But if it goes down the way you're saying, I think we'll be able to pre-empt regularly scheduled programming."
This was overwhelming. They wanted to put this on the news? Iris' skepticism must have shown on her face, because Buckingham said, "Oh don't worry. We won't expose anything that's better left hidden." He finally sat down himself. "The news teams are going to cover this anyway. We just want the first news out there to be from our perspective."
The news was going to be there? Just what did Buckingham have planned? Iris voiced her concern.
"Well," said Buckingham, standing up, "I'll tell you." He scurried out of the room and returned with a huge book open in his hand. "I couldn't find anything specific about a sacrifice in the Zain myth. The myth is very vague, but one source—this one—" He held up the book. "—does mention that pixies did seem to worship Zain in much the same way as they worshipped the ancients. I was able to find documentation on the sacrifices they made to the ancients. Now, this is pure conjecture, but I believe this one is very similar to what Mischief is going to use." Buckingham handed the book to Iris and Billy.
"To invoke the full power of the ancient one?" Iris read.
"Yes," said Buckingham. "It required a very large sacrifice of living beings, and its effect was to bring forth a manifestation of the full power of an ancient being. It's the only type of worship pixies employed that required such a large sacrifice."
"The only one?" Billy asked.
"Yes. They didn't use sacrifices very often. Sometimes they used them to bind another being to their will, but that obviously isn't what we're dealing with in this case," said Buckingham, his eyes bright. "Now, I think it's safe to assume that they'll be using a similar sort of ritual to bring Zain to his full power. Zain isn't always referred to as an ancient in mythology. Sometimes he's a being created by the pixies; sometimes he's a being brought forth by them, a slumbering deity of some sort. But a few times, he's called the last of the ancients. At any rate, he's a powerful being, and he's associated with real magic, which was the primary domain of the ancients, so he's in the same league."
"Are we boring the rest of you guys?" Iris asked the gathered entourage. "Did you guys go through this before?"
"No, no," said Buckingham. "This is the first time."
"So, how does this ritual work?" Iris asked, looking down at the book on her lap. "Twenty score, but there shall be no marks on their bodies?" she read.
"It's a medieval translation," said Buckingham. "Basically, the ritual says that the sacrifice must consist of thousands of offerings, and they need to be dead, but they can't be marred. They can't be stabbed or otherwise mangled bodies. They need to be whole, killed by suffocation or strangling."
"So Mischief needs to kill all the people at the concert," said Iris.
Buckingham nodded. "I think they'll do that with an illusion."
"Like the magic guns we had?" Iris asked.
"Exactly," said Buckingham. "That's why I'm glad you're here. Your magic is Kei's, right?"
"So you could counter her illusions, then? Your magic is as powerful as hers is?"
Billy scratched the back of his head. "Technically, I guess, but I've got a limited supply. I don't know if I have enough to take something down that big. If I knew how to gather magic . . ." He trailed off, looking away.
Iris squeezed his hand. "Jaq's a gatherer witch," she said softly. Was. Jaq was. Iris thought she might cry again. She swallowed hard.
One of the Magic Management deserters spoke up. "As of three this morning, when I left, Michaels and Gibbs hadn't filed a report on Schmerfeld."
Iris turned on him. "So what?"
"It's just . . . it's odd," he said. "They got in before that." When no one said anything, he said, "Sorry."
"Billy, you'll do what you can," Buckingham said, attempting to get the conversation back on track.
"Absolutely," said Billy.
"Right then," said Buckingham. "Mischief can't go through with the sacrifice without a live offering, but stopping the illusion can't be our only plan."
"We're going to kill them, aren't we?" asked Iris.
Buckingham simply nodded. "We have guns."
"Can we?" said Iris. "These are very powerful pixies we're talking about. Even if Billy can counter one of their illusions, they can always make more. They could keep us from doing any damage."
"True," said Buckingham, "but one thing we have on our side is the element of surprise. Mischief doesn't know that anyone's trying to stop them."
As the conversation continued, Iris found herself feeling more and more skeptical. She listened to the pixie police defectors talk strategy. Their basic plan seemed to be to strong arm their way into the concert, and Iris didn't think that was the best idea. Security would easily match them in numbers. They'd probably outnumber them. And there was simply too much at stake. There would be so many people in the stadium. If they didn't stop Mischief in time, they'd all die. And what if the sacrifice, once started, couldn't be stopped with the death of the members of Mischief? Everything had to go exactly the way they were planning it, or it wouldn't work. And nothing ever went exactly as planned.
The defectors brushed off Iris' comments to this effect. They didn't seem to think she knew what she was talking about. She was just some dumb ghoul. Maybe she was, but she'd come this far. She'd destroyed her life in order to try to stop Mischief. She didn't want to fail. She wasn't really even included in the any of the plans. She was going to get a gun like everyone else. That was it. She would have protested louder, but she really didn't have any better ideas. It was no good to poke holes in someone's plan without suggestions to fill them. So she just listened and grew more frustrated.
After some time, Iris decided to go take a cigarette break. When she opened the door, a leather-clad man with a long ponytail and a redhead, similarly clad in leather—hers was skintight—were making their way of the walk in front of the house. There was a motorcycle parked on the street.
"Buckingham?" she called. "Did you invite any more guests to this party?"
Buckingham looked up from his discussion. "Hmm? Oh. No," he said.
"Well, we've got company," said Iris.
The redhead ran up to Iris, upon seeing her, and threw her arms around Iris. "Iris!" she exclaimed.
Iris pulled away. "Do I know you?"
"That's not funny."
The redhead pulled her companion into the house. She shook herself, shook away her features and height (but not her skintight leather), and Jaq appeared.
The room got quiet.
Billy stood up, knocking his chair over.
"Hi," said Jaq.
After some convincing (Billy didn't think it was really Jaq. She whispered something in his ear. He turned red), Jaq and the biker guy got settled in, and she explained what had happened.
"I've never been good at illusions," she said. "But it's amazing what being in fear for your life can do for your magical abilities."
After the officers had shot her illusion, she'd kept running into the woods, looking for Iris and Billy. "I didn't think Buckingham would leave." She hadn't found the two of them, but she had found the strip club. A little asking around confirmed that Iris and Billy had been there. Knowing she was with them, the black pixies had left her alone. But they were curious. Apparently, they didn't get a lot of ghouls wandering in. They pressed her, and Jaq told them why they were out there. Their fame had preceded them. Apparently, news in the pixie/black pixie community traveled fast. Iris was the ghoul who'd stood up to Queen Melora? The long and short of it was that the black pixies wanted to help.
At that point, Iris had to stop Jaq. "They want to help?"
"Yes," said the biker guy. His name was Tal. He was a black pixie.
"Why?" said Iris. "You're black pixies. You hate humans."
"We love humans," said Tal. "We need them to survive. If Zain devours the human race, we'll have nothing to eat. We'll die too."
He had a point. "I guess I never thought about that," said Iris.
"Me either," said Jaq. "Believe me, I was skeptical at first too. But Tal here is the head of a bunch of black pixies—alghuls, sorry—and he can bring like an army."
"What's going to stop them from eating the concert-goers?" Billy wanted to know. His own wounds were just scabbing over.
"Our word," said Tal. "Alghuls take honor very seriously."
Billy raised his eyebrows.
"It's all we have," said Tal. "Alghuls are the lowest form of magical creatures."
"No way," said Iris. "Ghouls are. We have the least magic, and we have to eat dead people."
Tal shook his head. "There you're wrong. Ghouls have a power no other creature does. Ghouls can control desire. Daions have no desire. Witches are not ruled by theirs. Alghuls are bound hand and foot to our desires. To our hunger. Ghouls can bend desire to their own means."
"Well . . . yeah," said Iris.
"If we alghuls could manipulate our victim's desire, we could destroy the world. Instead we have to guess at what they want and attempt to lure them with our estimations."
"Yeah . . ." said Iris.
"So what?" said Billy.
"Daions don't understand desire, so they don't know the pain of not receiving what they desire when it is promised. Alghuls do know that pain. Promises are sacred to us."
"It's true," said Buckingham. "Black pixies are known to honor their word."
"So we just trust them?" Billy said.
"They could get us past security," said Iris. "They could make us invisible. Their magic is just as strong as Mischief's. With all of them, stronger."
"And Jaq can gather magic," noted Buckingham.
"We won't let Kei carry out her plan," said Tal. "We'll work with your or on our own. It's your choice."
"When he puts it like that, it sounds like a threat, doesn't it?" said Billy.
"We need them," said Jaq. "And they've been super sweet. They got me here, right? No munching."
Iris was convinced. Billy was on the verge of it. Then the deserters from Magic Management got into the fray. It was bad enough that they were already working with a ghoul and a witch. Now Buckingham wanted them to work with black pixies? They did not like the idea. Everyone started arguing. Iris tuned them out. She was thinking about what Tal had said about ghouls and desire. If Mischief's illusion couldn’t be broken for whatever reason, shouldn't they have a back-up plan? She mused, going over the plan she was formulating, looking for weak spots or trouble issues.
She stood up. "Listen."
Everyone stopped talking and looked at her.
"You guys should get over your prejudices and work with the black pixies," she said.
"Thanks for your input," said Buckingham. "Was that all?"
"No," said Iris. "I've got an idea. I'll need Scott and Scott's car, and I'll need to talk to Satin Blades. I think we need a back-up plan."