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Billy switched off the TV. "That was awesome," he said. Everyone was squeezed into Rhett's and Ros' hotel room except Jenna and the black pixies. Band members and pixie police sprawled on the bed. It was before noon the day after the concert, but they were all drinking. Everyone had been too exhausted the night before to do anything other than sleep. So they had slept, piled into Satin Blades' hotel rooms. They were all over the news, but this last segment was the kicker, the one where Jenna revealed that magic had been used to take down Mischief and challenged Magic Management's handling of the situation. Phone calls were coming in from all over—Oprah, the Tonight Show, Barbara Walters. Reluctantly, they were refusing all interviews except to Jenna for now. They owed her, so Buckingham kept telling them.
But they were famous. They were heroes. So they were partying. They had been since the morning news.
"Turn it back on," said Lucian. "I haven't seen me yet. I want to see me."
"Shut up," said Rhett. "You didn't do anything."
"Everyone did something," said Iris. "We're really grateful. You guys know that, right?"
"Give Iris another beer," said Max. "She sounds too sober."
Billy reached into one of the coolers that were stacked in front of the beds and got a beer for Iris. He handed it to her, grinning. "We did it."
"Yeah," she said. "We did."
Zain the Devourer preened in front of the mirror at the department store. He looked very dapper if he didn't say so himself. Framed by the oak door that the mirror hung on, he was a picture of refinement. He liked the suit. He liked the salesman who'd been wearing it too. Guy'd tasted damned good.
All in all, Zain liked humans. They weren't magic, but they sure were yummy. Little bursts of energy, like walking battery packs. He'd been so weak in that damned box, with those damned daions sucking off his magic all the time. They were idiots to think they could control him. Think they could make him eat up all these lovely little morsels. Forget that. The humans propagated like rabbits. Better than rabbits. The planet was overflowing with them. He'd keep them around. Not all of them, of course, but enough that they'd keep reproducing at a good rate. Which shouldn't be hard. From what he understood (mostly from listening to TV inside Mischief's tour bus), they seemed to mate more in times of crisis. Wars resulted in baby booms, that kind of thing. He'd give them a damned good crisis, then it would be a banquet for thousands of years to come. First, he had to get rid of the meddlesome daions. He smiled at his reflection. Very nice. What daion would suspect him? He looked just like a human. Satisfied, he ducked out of the dressing room and back into the store.
A man with silver hair was going through a rack of pants. He turned on Zain. "Do you work here?" he demanded. "I've been here for ten minutes, and I haven't gotten any service. What kind of wreck of a store are you running here? I could have just walked out with these clothes. I want to speak to your manager. This is appalling. Every moment I spend in here wastes—"
Zain took the man by the arm.
"What are you doing?" asked the man. "Let go of—"
The man shrieked. His hand and arm had liquefied. Zain put the man's suit sleeve to his mouth and began to slurp. The man screamed until his head melted. His clothes crumpled to the ground.
Zain wiped his mouth and belched. They sure did taste good.
Lucian turned the TV back on.
"Lucian, enough," said Iris. "They aren't going to show you."
". . . bizarre case of missing persons," blared the TV.
"You never know," said Lucian.
". . . subway," said the TV, "only leaving their clothes behind. Police suspect a streaking demonstration, while religious authorities claim the rapture has started."
"This isn't about us," said Lucian. He changed the channel.
". . . piles of clothes left in department stores, work-places, and subways," said the next channel.
"Goddamnit," said Lucian. He switched the TV off.
"Turn that back on," said Rhett.
"It's not about us," said Lucian.
Rhett wrenched the remote out of Lucian's hands and hit the power button.
"All over the city, large groups of people seem to be missing," said the reporter. "Authorities are at a loss to explain this phenomenon. Citizens are advised to use caution until more is known. Stay inside if at all possible. Again, a rash of unexplained disappearances leaves hundred of people missing with only their clothes left to indicate they were there at all."
Rhett turned to Lucian. "Isn't that what happened to that girl backstage?"
"What?" said Lucian.
"Those girls that you let backstage," said Rhett. "Her name was Kelly or something. She disappeared, but you said Rizzo had her clothes."
"Her friend thought it was her clothes," said Lucian. "Rizzo said—"
"And Rizzo was real trustworthy," said Rhett sarcastically. "It's that monster. The one we supposedly stopped. It's loose."
Everyone in the hotel room stopped moving or talking.
Iris shook her head. "No. No, it can't be. We stopped the sacrifice. He can't have come into his power. Can he, Buckingham?"
"It seems unlikely," said Buckingham. "The ritual didn't even get started. He certainly didn't get a sacrifice."
"But," said Billy, "did anybody else notice how Mischief didn't try to kill the audience members? Buckingham, didn't you say they had to be dead, with no marks on their bodies?"
"I did think that was odd," said Buckingham.
"So what are we saying?" said Iris. "We didn't stop Zain?"
"Perhaps the events are unrelated," said Buckingham.
"Oh, what? You think it's the rapture?" said Billy.
"Why doesn't Lucian tell us exactly what happened with the disappearance of the girl?" said Buckingham.
An hour or so later, Iris excused herself to the bathroom for a snack. Even though she'd eaten last night, she was starving. Normally, she wouldn't have given in to the hunger. She would have waited until later that evening. But she felt it so acutely that she just didn't think she could wait. The hotel room was very crowded. Everyone kept talking over each other. Nine conversations were going on at once. Everyone kept asking Iris what she thought, and because she couldn't think about anything except how hungry she was, her replies were short and snappish. She decided if she wanted to function, she'd have to eat, so she went into the bathroom, closed the door, and sat down on the floor between the toilet and the shower.
She had some organ bits in her satchel, things that Scott had given to her, and she told herself, as she opened it, that she'd just have a few bites. Just something to hold her over and get her though the discussion. As she reached for one of the baggies, she noticed a roll of papers in her satchel.
Kei's myths! She'd meant to show them to Buckingham, but in all the excitement, she'd forgotten. Eating momentarily forgotten, she burst out of the bathroom and gave the papers to Buckingham, explaining herself as she did so. Buckingham took the papers, unrolled them, and began to read. Everyone watched him in silence.
"Interesting," said Buckingham, flipping through the pages.
"What's interesting?" Iris asked finally.
"The top paper here is a version of a ritual to bind a creature to one's will," said Buckingham. "It involves a sacrifice."
"So that's what they were doing last night?" asked Iris. "Not bringing Zain to his full power?"
"Possibly," said Buckingham, still reading.
"But that doesn't make any sense," said Iris. "Why would they want to bind him to their will?"
"Maybe so they could tell him what to do," said Rhett.
"But they brought him forth to devour all the humans," said Iris. "That's what he does naturally anyway. Right?"
No one said anything.
"Billy," said Iris. "Isn't that what the myths say he does?"
"Yeah," said Billy.
"So why would they do that?" asked Iris. "Buckingham?"
"Hmmm?" said Buckingham. "Oh. Right. I don't know." He moved onto the next page. "Oh my."
"What?" said Iris.
"This," said Buckingham, holding up a photocopy of what looked like a page in a very old book. The handwriting was precise calligraphy. The border was ornate. "This was written in a very ancient form of the pixie language. I don't know if I've ever seen this version of the myth. It's quite old."
"Can you translate it?" asked Iris.
"Certainly, but I think—yes, there's a translation on the next page," said Buckingham.
"Yeah," said Billy. "Kei wouldn't have been able to read that."
"So what's it say?" said Iris.
"Do you want me to read it to you?" asked Buckingham.
"Yes," said Iris. Everyone nodded.
"All right then." Buckingham cleared his throat. "I feel a bit like one of those children's television shows."
"Just read," said Iris.
In the last year of the reign of King Vail of the race of the daions (read Buckingham) the scourge of the great beasts lay heavily on the land. The daion people gave great gifts and supplications to the great ruler of the ancient beings, Crines. But Crines was silent to the pleas of his people. At long last, King Vail himself, though he was old and frail, made the long journey to the cloud fortress of Crines. There he stayed for many months, pleading with the great ruler for aid for his people.
But Crines turned a deaf ear to the plight of King Vail and the race of the daions, and it came to pass that King Vail died in the cloud fortress of the great ruler of the ancient beings, Crines. When the race of the daions learned the news about the death of their king, sorrow gripped them, and for many long months they mourned the death of their king. So intense was their mourning that they abandoned their festivals and holy rites, and they did not sacrifice nor did they worship the great ruler Crines nor any of the ancient beings.
Crines deeply felt the loss of the worship of the race of the daions, and so he sent the ancient being Herkt, who was the missive of the ancients, to the race of the daions to find the reason for their neglect of the holy rites and festivals. But the grief of the race of the daions was too great, and they could not speak to the great Herkt for their weeping. Herkt returned to the Crines to tell the great ruler that the race of the daions were beside themselves in agony and could not speak for their weeping.
So Crines himself descended from his fortress in the clouds and walked among the daions disguised as a daion himself. In this way, he was able to learn the source of their grief. The champion of the race of the daions, King Vail, had died in attempt to plead for help from Crines himself.
When Crines realized the suffering he had brought upon the race of the daions, he shed the disguise of a daion and stood in the great hall in all his splendor and decreed, "I will make for the daions a champion. I will bring him forth. He will devour your enemies, the great beasts, and rule your people in the stead of your King."
And there was great rejoicing among the race of the daions. There were festivals and revels, and the daions made many gifts and supplications to the great ruler Crines.
Crines retreated to his fortress. He took from each ancient several strands of hair, and from his own head he also took strands of hair. And Crines fashioned these strands of hair into a great creature, powerful as any of the ancients themselves and indestructible, for the hair of the ancients could not be destroyed or cut or marred in any way. He called this creature Zain, and he loved him, for in Zain, he had created a being like himself. He called Zain son, and Zain called Crines father.
But among the ancients, Zain was not loved. The ancients began to murmur amongst themselves, for they were angry that Crines had fashioned so great a warrior for the race of the daions and had not created anything for them. So they were cruel to Zain, and they ridiculed him. They pushed Zain from the fortress before he was grown, telling him that Crines, his father, wished him to protect the daions and make war on their enemies. And they locked tight the door of the cloud fortress and would not let Zain enter, no matter how he begged or sobbed.
At last, Zain descended to the dwellings of the race of the daions, his head low and his face downcast. When he reached the daions, he told them Crines, his father, had sent him to protect them and make war on their enemies. But, because he was not yet grown, the daions laughed at him and said surely Crines would not have sent them one so small, for their enemies were great. And so, Zain left the dwelling of the daions and walked alone throughout the world, his face downcast.
When Crines learned of the treachery of the ancients, he rebuked them, and his rage sent sparks into the sky. Crines searched for Zain, his son, from one edge of the earth to the other, but he could not find him, for Zain was hiding.
Zain was angry with his father and with all the beings on earth, so he hid from the sight of Crines and grew in the great water. When he was full grown, he returned to the cloud fortress, and there he slaughtered the ancients and devoured their magic. His father Crines he slaughtered also, for Zain knew only hate. He left their bodies broken and bleeding in the great hall of the cloud fortress, and when he was finished, he was hungry.
Zain devoured the great beasts that plagued the race of the daions. He devoured the plants that grew on the land, the animals that lived in the sea, and the birds that flew in the sky. Then he came unto the race of the daions, and he began to slaughter them and devour their magic. When he had devoured all the real magic from the earth, he grew tired and he slept.
The daions went to the cloud fortress of the great ruler Crines, and sorrowfully, they plucked from his head many strands of hair, which they wove into a rope. They bound Zain with the material with which he had been made, and they buried him deep under the earth. But just before the last bit of sod was placed over Zain's head, he awoke, and he roared, "One day one bent on destruction will free me from these bonds and I will finish what I began."
Buckingham stopped reading and looked up. "That's all," he said.
"So wait," said Billy. "He's not out to devour the enemies of the daions?"
"Not according to this version," said Buckingham.
"But you said it was an older one," said Billy. "You said that's the oldest you've ever seen, right?"
"So then, that's the true story," said Billy.
"It's a myth," said Buckingham. "It had elements in common with other ancient myths. It's hardly what one would call true."
"Whatever. It's the closest we're going to get to the truth," said Billy. He shook his head. "Kei had that. She knew what she was releasing, and she did it anyway."
"It sounds like she thought she could control him," said Jaq.
"That thing killed the ancients," said Billy. "Why would she think that? She really did go crazy."
"Listen," said Buckingham, "there's no evidence the ancients existed. They were gods to the pixies, like the Olympians or the—"
"Don't," said Billy. "Don't get all rational and studious. We've obviously got a real live monster on out hands. I'd say whether or not the ancients existed is pretty much a nonissue."
"I only meant," said Buckingham, "that there's no reason to assume Zain is so powerful."
"How many people have disappeared?" Billy asked. "Should we check the news? He sounds pretty powerful."
"Certainly," said Buckingham, "but there's nothing to be gained by panicking. We need to say calm."
"I am calm," said Billy. "Iris? What are we going to do?"
Iris was sitting on the floor, tracing her name into the carpet. She looked up. "Why is everyone looking at me?" She stood up, throwing her satchel over her shoulder. "I need some air."
Iris stalked out of the hotel room, slamming the door behind her.
When no one moved, Ros stood up from her seat beside the mini-bar. "Air sounds good," she said.
Melora, Queen of the Daions, was painting her toenails purple. She'd gone for a deep purple base with a shimmering lavender over it, so the purple underneath was still visible. It was a work of art. She was quite proud of herself. Of course, ever since that damned ghoul and her friends had shown up, Melora had felt uneasy. Guilty might be the word. But that was ridiculous. She didn't feel guilt. She supposed she could have stopped Kei. She could have sent out guards, clapped her in irons, and brought her back.
Problem was, she didn't really have guards anymore. Hadn't in at least five hundred years. And she didn't have a dungeon or a prison or anything else to put Kei in. Melora had simply gotten bored with that sort of thing. Besides, it attracted attention. Human attention. And if there was one thing Melora believed in, it was lying low and blending in. She was proud of that policy. She believed it had enabled her people to survive. They'd faded out of sight, and the humans hadn't been able to find them. Additionally, it kept her from having to do any real work. She didn't have to protect the daion people. If they were getting killed, it was their own fault. They weren't blending in.
But Kei certainly wasn't blending, and if the rumors were true, she was dead now. And the humans had stopped Zain from the entering the world and devouring the human race. So all was well. Why, then, did Melora feel so guilty? Or not guilty, but uneasy. Disinterested. Painting her nails didn't seem to hold the same excitement anymore. She'd also given up bubble gum, which had been delightful. It probably had nothing to do with the visit from that ghoul. It was just a coincidence.
Still, Melora wondered. Had she done the right thing? She used to be a feared monarch, when she was young. No daion would have dared cross her. Now, her subjects were running amuck, trying to raise ancient beings. Certainly, they weren't following her careful instructions. Had she lost control? Did she need to step things up? Ah, but she was old. She was tired. She didn't have the energy to run the court with an iron fist, the way she had in the old days. Did she?
She tossed the nail polish bottle aside in disgust. It rolled on the deck, settling in a space between two boards. She looked up. Someone stood in the doorway to the porch. He had opened the sliding glass door. A man. Dark hair. Handsome. Wearing a gray pinstripe suit.
"Court doesn't start for hours," Melora informed him. "Didn't Mik tell you?"
The man didn't speak, just started towards her.
"I'm not hearing any petitioners," she said. "Come back at six."
When the man kept coming, she stood up. "I mean it. Go away," she said. "Mik?" she called. "Mik, get your ass in here."
"Mik had to split," said the man, pulling pieces of the daion's body out of his pockets and throwing them on the porch like a flower girl with rose petals.
Melora covered her mouth in horror. "Oh, ancients protect us," she breathed.
The man just chuckled. "I killed the ancients myself. Your majesty."
"Who are you?" said Melora.
The man made a deep bow. "Zain the Devourer," he said. "Pleased to make your acquaintance."
"But-but . . . you're the daions' champion," Melora said.
Zain chuckled again. He thrust his hand forward, and it broke apart into tiny strands that stretched and writhed toward Melora. The strands encircled her neck, her wrists. They wrapped around her legs and squeezed. Melora's illusion deflated, like one of her bubbles. Her true form appeared, and she was just a wizened pixie, held in the air by Zain's threads. Her magic leapt and sparked along the strands like current on a wire.
He drained her body of magic, sucking it from her and into himself. When the last of it was gone, he squeezed the threads tighter. They bit into her skin, severing her limbs, which fell, thudding against the wooden deck. Her head popped off and dropped to the floor, rolling as the nail polish bottle had. Blood seeped into the wood of the porch. Melora's open, blank eyes stared at the ocean.