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Iris had taken several muscle relaxers and was sleeping soundly when she heard the pounding. At first, she thought it was part of her dream. Billy was hammering up a huge "Do Not Disturb" sign on the windshield of Buckingham's car. She was sleeping inside the car, or trying to sleep, anyway, and she kept yelling at Billy to stop because he was keeping her awake. But Billy said that if the sign didn't go up, they'd be disturbed and never get any rest. Eventually, she realized the pounding was not coming from a hammer, but from her front door. Someone was knocking.
Groggily, she threw aside the covers and stumbled out of bed. As she made her way to the door, she noticed she hadn't blown her candles out. She was lucky she hadn't started a fire.
Billy was at the door.
"Look, I don't want to work for Magic Management," she said.
"Get dressed," said Billy.
Iris looked down at the oversized t-shirt she was wearing as a nightgown. "Why?"
"We have to get out of here," said Billy.
"No," said Iris. "I want to go back to sleep."
"You can sleep in my car. Now get dressed."
"Damn it, Iris, we're in danger."
Iris shrugged. "I don't care," she said and walked back to her bed.
After a few moments, Billy appeared in the doorway of her bedroom. "You're not getting dressed."
"You're very observant," said Iris.
"Zain is killing us. All of us that helped at the concert. He's already gotten Jenna Murphy, the pixie police defectors, and everybody in Satin Blades."
Iris sat up. "Can you leave?"
"No. He'll be coming after you next."
"I meant the bedroom. I need to get dressed."
Billy ducked into the kitchen.
"Did you say your car?" called Iris. "Because you car—"
"Was in my garage when I got home," Billy said.
Iris emerged from her room in her usual layered getup.
"You ever think about wearing less clothes?" Billy asked. "Don't you get hot?"
Iris rolled her eyes. "So you think the pixie police brought it back?"
"Guess so," said Billy. "Oh. We've all got a full pardon. Jaq too."
"I didn't think they were actually after you and me," Iris said.
"Where are we going?"
They arrived at Magic Management headquarters in the city within a half hour. Jaq and Tal were already there, as was Buckingham. The five of them were sequestered in what was generally used as an interrogation room. It contained a stainless steel table and several uncomfortable metal fold-up chairs. The walls were painted a neutral gray color. The accents on the door were deep maroon. It reminded Iris of the interior colors of a school. Of a jail. She didn't like it there. She felt like it was hard to breathe.
The rest of the group filled Iris in. Earlier that night, the news had reported the disappearance of Jenna Murphy. Apparently, she'd managed to get a 911 call in before her demise, but she'd been incoherent and, by the time the paramedics arrived, there had been nothing left but her clothes. After the deaths of the Magic Management officers, the news reporters started to put together what was happening. Buckingham had, of course, already figured it out, or at least had his suspicions, and quickly began calling everyone else. By that time, Iris' phone had been off the hook.
Guiltily, she realized she was the only one with Rhett's phone number. He could have been warned . . . All because she'd been depressed. People were dead.
Finally, when Iris couldn't be reached, Billy went looking for her. They feared the worst, but obviously, she was okay, and they were glad. What no one could figure out was why Zain was doing it. Essentially, their actions had freed him from Mischief's control. Shouldn't he be grateful? Why was he trying to kill them all?
Buckingham made a complicated suggestion, involving unpronounceable names for psychoses.
Iris said, "Maybe he's hungry."
They also didn't know how he was finding everyone. The general consensus was that he must be able to sense them somehow, because many of the people he'd killed were unlisted and difficult to find through normal ways of searching. That meant they could be vulnerable in a group like this, but they agreed that Magic Management was probably the safest place to go, so for the meantime, they sat tight. The hours dragged by. They broke the monotony by taking trips to the soda machine down the hall. Jaq and Tal sat awfully close to each other, and Iris couldn’t help but wonder what the hell was up with them.
On one such soda trip, she was alone with Billy, so she asked him about it. Billy made a face, and said he didn't know either, but he didn't like it. Iris shrugged, and started back up the hall with her Mountain Dew can, but Billy stopped her.
"How are you?" he asked.
"After what happened to Rhett, are you . . . I mean . . .?"
Iris nodded. "That sucks," she said. "I guess I feel responsible."
"I was the only person with his phone number."
Billy shook his head. "Buckingham works for Magic Management. He has connections. He got Rhett's phone number. He got everyone's phone number. We were just . . . too late."
Iris hadn't thought about that. "Oh," she said.
"You know, when we talked—when you hung up on me—I said that thing to you about him," Billy said.
"I'd forgotten." Iris studied the top of her can. Perspiration beads were starting to form. It felt slippery in her hands.
"I'm sorry I said it. It's just, you know, before, you and I—"
"I know that was just because you thought Jaq was dead. Don't worry about it."
"It wasn't because of that," said Billy.
Iris looked up at him. "Billy, really, it's okay. You don't have to . . . I understand. I'm not expecting anything from you. I'm a big girl. I can take care of myself."
"That's just it. Tonight. When you weren't there. I was alone. And I missed . . . I guess I got used to you being around."
"Oh," said Iris. For a second, she'd thought he was going to say something else. Something she desperately wanted him to say. Something he shouldn't say, because— "Maybe we should head back."
"This is all coming out wrong," said Billy. "Let me just start over."
"Seriously, Billy, you don't have to explain anything to me."
"You don't understand," he said. "Do you remember the night when we parked at that church for the night to sleep?"
Iris nodded. "Sure." What did that have to do with anything?
"You scared the hell out of me. You were so hungry and crazy, and I couldn't quite figure out how to help you."
Help her? That was what this was about? He was going to tell her how much help he'd had to give her?
"But then, when I did. When we got the grave dug and the coffin open and you were, well, you know what you were doing, I felt . . . I realized that I couldn't handle it if something happened to you."
Iris wiped her can on her shirt because it was going to fall out of her hand. "I know I haven't always been an asset during this time when we've been doing this. But I've been trying to do better. I'm sorry that I worried you. I know that I worried you tonight. And I know it was selfish of me. But please, don't worry about me. I've done okay so far."
"No, I want to worry about you. I want to take care of you. I want—"
"I don't need you to take care of me," said Iris. "I'm sorry if I did need you a couple times, but it won't happen again. I'll do better."
"You're not getting what I'm trying to say," said Billy.
"Then say it better," said Iris.
"I . . . I couldn't handle it if something happened to you. I want to be close to you so that I can stop it from happening. I want to be with you, because I—"
"Nothing's going to happen to me, okay?" said Iris. "Stop worrying." She turned and started back up the hall.
Billy caught up to her and grabbed her hand. "Hey," he said.
"What?" she said, turning to face him.
He kissed her.
Iris pushed him away. "What is wrong with you?" she demanded.
She got back to the interrogation room as quickly as she could. Billy didn't come back for quite some time. She was totally confused. He said all this stuff to her about how useless she was, how pitiful, and then he wanted to kiss her? What did he think she was, some damsel in distress who would swoon at the very thought of his coming for her rescue? She didn't even need rescuing. How dare he say that she worried him all the time? She hadn't been that bad. Had she?
Hell, maybe she had. Rhett was dead. Lots of people were dead. She wanted to do this to keep people from dying. So far, she really hadn't done a very good job. She'd show Billy, though. He'd see that he didn't need to think of her like that. He'd see.
Later, Price, who was apparently Buckingham's boss, came into the interrogation room to talk to them. He let them know that the organization was actively trying to locate Zain. The news was instructing anyone who witnessed an attack or found evidence of one to contact the Magic Management Hotline. Magic Management had charted a path of Zain's whereabouts from the previous incidents, but it was erratic and didn't seem to follow any pattern. Neither he nor his handiwork had been spotted since the attack on Rhett, Ros, and Max.
Price had his research team going over every known version of the myth that they could find. He and Buckingham got into a brief argument about whether or not Buckingham should be helping them. Price said no; Buckingham said yes. Price won when he explained that he didn't want the group separated. They were trying to lure Zain to headquarters so they could contain him. Buckingham thought that was a good idea.
Iris thought it was a particularly bad one, and considering her new resolution to show Billy how capable she was, she spoke up. "Contain him? How do you plan to do that?"
"Contain him, kill him. Whatever we have to do," said Price.
"And again I say, 'How do you plan to do that?'" Iris said.
Price sighed. "Mr. Buckingham, would you explain to the ghoul—"
"Actually," said Buckingham. "I think it's a good question."
"Well," said Price, "I suppose we'll shoot him."
"We don't even know if that will work," said Iris.
"Guns are very effective against all manner of magical creatures—" Price began.
"Zain is an ancient being," said Iris. "God, did you read the myths?"
"Listen," said Price. "You'll have to trust the organization. We're professionals. We—"
"I thought," said Jaq, "that you'd hired us. Shouldn't we be . . . working?"
"Yeah, what are we, paid bait?" Billy demanded.
Price's face grew red. "Essentially, yes," he said and stalked out of the room.
"Well," said Billy. "Good to know we're wanted."
"I don't know if we should stay here," said Iris.
"I thought we agreed this was the safest place for us," said Buckingham.
"I'm kind of not feeling safe anymore," said Jaq.
"Right," said Iris. "What if Zain does attack here? What if he kills everyone? Who's going to fight him then?"
"Despite its shortcomings, the organization is the best equipped to deal with him," Buckingham conceded. "You may be right."
"Maybe guns will work on him," said Jaq.
"All the myths say he's invincible," said Billy.
"Yeah, but guns weren't invented back then," said Jaq.
"That's true," said Buckingham. "They are powerful weapons."
"But is this the place to test that?" said Iris.
"Where should we go instead?" Billy said.
"The middle of nowhere," said Iris. "If he's following us, we should lure him someplace where he's least likely to do damage."
"We're in the city," said Tal. "The middle of nowhere is pretty far away."
"Not to mention Price won't like it," said Buckingham.
"Fuck Price," said Iris. Her idea was growing on her.
"When we get to the middle of nowhere, how will we fight Zain?" asked Buckingham.
That was the question, wasn't it? Iris shook her head. "I don't know."
Billy snorted. "So he comes after us, kills us all, and then kills everyone else."
"We don't know what he's going to do," said Iris. "We don't know what his motivations are. In light of the myth that Kei had, I'd say he was going to destroy the pixies. And he did kill the queen. But why is he killing all these humans?"
"Didn't you say it was because he was hungry?" asked Tal.
"I was just guessing," said Iris.
"But he doesn't eat daions, does he?" said Jaq. "Tal, you said there were bodies, right?"
"So he just eats humans," said Billy.
"The myth said something about him eating plants and animals," said Iris.
"Yes," said Buckingham. "He drained the magic from the pixies. He didn't devour them."
"Is that why he hasn't killed us, then?" said Billy. "All of us have some magic, and everyone else that he's eaten hasn't."
"Except me," said Buckingham.
"Right," said Billy. "Weird."
"Obviously, he's not just doing it because he's hungry," said Iris. "Because he's targeting people who stopped the Mischief concert."
"Maybe he doesn't have any reasons," said Jaq. "Maybe he's just doing it for . . . fun." She made a face.
"Maybe," said Iris. "But that doesn't help us much, does it?"
"It makes him unpredictable," said Jaq. "But I don't think it's important anyway. We have to figure out how to stop him. Who cares why he's doing what he's doing?"
"We do need to stop him," said Buckingham. "Knowing his motivations might help us do that."
"Yeah," said Iris, "but how is being locked up in this room helping us figure anything out? We can throw ideas around anywhere."
"We have resources here," said Buckingham. "A research team. Weapons."
"But we can't use them if we're stuck in this room," said Iris. She still thought getting out was the best idea. Maybe it was because this place made her nervous. It was too sterile or something.
"Maybe I ought to talk to Price," said Buckingham.
Iris didn't trust Price. "He won't listen," she said.
"He might," said Jaq.
"It's worth a try," said Billy.
Iris thought they should just go, but she reluctantly agreed that Buckingham should at least try first.
Zain found the essences of the remaining humans he was searching for difficult to focus on. They were slippery, sliding out of the grasp of his mind. Only that of the old man, Buckingham, could he fully sense. He thought this must be because the other humans had magic. He could feel their magic, but it felt strange. Not at all like daion magic, which called to him across great distances and shone out like a beacon. He couldn’t sense the essences of individual daions, but he always sensed their magic. This other magic, this human magic, was like a muffled din or a light through a crack. He could sense it, but he couldn’t latch onto it.
Humans certainly seemed to have modified the world. Their existence had mutated some of the daions, turning them into alghuls. Their magic was tainted with humanity also, and Zain couldn't quite pick it out. Then there were those humans who had magic themselves, the witches and ghouls. It was as if these humans could take anything they encountered and twist it to their own purpose.
Gradually, he was beginning to see them as less of a yummy snack and more of a nuisance. He wasn’t sure if he would let them live or not. At first, it had seemed like a simple decision. Let them live and feast for eons. Now, he was beginning to wish for the old days, when the creatures of earth were lumbering beasts, huge, but stupid. Where had these humans come from? Had they simply sprung up or popped into existence from nothing? Their monuments and machines suddenly seemed intimidating.
Upon first being released from the box, he'd thought of nothing but devouring. While in the box, he'd thought of nothing but escaping. Now free and fed, he contemplated the fact that these humans were responsible for all manner of things in this new world. The televisions and trains were all their doing. They had no magic, but they'd managed to reduce the race of the daions to a cowering mass in disguise, hiding from the human threat. It was disturbing.
Now Zain made his way among the few people that walked the dark streets of the city, keeping the essence of Buckingham at the front of his mind, letting it guide him towards his destination.
Buckingham had been gone quite some time, and Iris was itching to leave. She had smoked all her cigarettes and was thinking about bumming one from Billy. What she really needed was another pack, and if they left, she could stop somewhere and pick one up.
Impatient and jonesing for a smoke, Iris convinced the other three that Buckingham had been gone too long, and they needed to go look for him. They walked down halls and turned corners, but they couldn't seem to find anyone. After wandering for some time, they found an elevator. They were about to get inside and explore some other floors when an alarm went off, and a recorded voice began intoning, "Code Burgundy. Code Burgundy."
What the hell did that mean?
"We should go back," said Jaq.
"We don't know how to get back," said Billy.
"Let's take the elevator," said Iris.
The minute the Code Burgundy sounded both Price and Buckingham scrambled to the main floor. The sight that greeted them confirmed the worst of Iris' suspicions. Magic Management uniforms were scattered on the floor, empty of their wearers. A good-looking man in a suit stood near the entrance, two officers in either hand. They appeared to be melting as the man drew their liquid flesh into his open mouth. Scores of officers were shooting at the man, but the bullets appeared to be going right through him, and he was unphased.
It was Zain. Buckingham knew it.
Zain looked up when Buckingham entered the room, and his eyes lit up in recognition. He let go of the officers he was holding and they tumbled to the floor, what was left of them seeping into their clothing. Zain started towards Buckingham.
A bullet went into Zain's head, and Buckingham watched as Zain's skin parted for it, breaking into tiny threads that moved out of the way for the bullet to pass through. Of course! He was made from strands of the hair of the ancients.
Then Zain was in front of Buckingham and reaching for his throat.
The elevator door opened and Iris, Billy, Jaq, and Tal tumbled out onto the first floor. The elevator's functions seemed to have been overridden by the Code Burgundy. It would only take them to the first floor. None of the other buttons they had pressed had made any difference.
Surveying the room, Iris could see that elevator doors were opening all over, and uniformed pixie police were streaming into the large entrance room. They were all armed and shooting at a man in a suit. The suit was full of bullet holes, but the bullets didn't seem to affect him as he walked calmly forward.
He must be Zain, thought Iris. And then she noticed he was walking straight towards Buckingham.
"Buckingham," she yelled, but the old man didn't hear her.
Zain's hand closed around Buckingham's throat, and Iris rushed to Buckingham, screaming, "No!"
Zain's fingers touched Buckingham's neck, and immediately, Buckingham's skin began to liquefy. Zain inhaled sharply in pleasure. He loved every second of his destruction. Feeding on humans was delightful, but feeding on the ones who had freed him excited him tremendously. He opened his mouth to begin sucking in the melted flesh, when something small leapt onto his back and wouldn't let go.
Zain tried to shake the something off. He'd just gotten his first taste of Buckingham, and it had tasted like heaven. He didn't need any kind of distraction. He elbowed whatever it was on his back as hard as he could but it clung to him. With a roar of outrage, he reached back and ripped it from him, throwing it over his head and onto the remains of Buckingham.
It was the ghoul.
A smile broke onto his face. "Iris Tanner," he said.
The ghoul glared at him. "Zain the Devourer," she responded, getting to her feet.
He hadn't eaten a ghoul yet. Anticipation flooded him as he reached for her.
She tried to twist out of his grasp, but he was not easily evaded, and his fingers sunk into the flesh of her upper arm. "Gotcha," he said, chuckling.
The ghoul struggled, but his grip was firm. She wasn't going to get away.
She wasn't melting either.
Panicking, Zain concentrated on turning her flesh to liquid. It wasn't working.
The ghoul struggled furiously. With her free hand, she reached for him. Her fingers went for his face, his eye. His skin parted for her, separating into strands. But the ghoul's fist closed around a handful of the strands and she yanked at them with all her strength.
Zain shrieked as she ripped them away from him. The strands broke and the pain was like hell. It hurt. It hurt. He let go of her arm, but she came at him again, ripping away pieces of him. Howling, Zain backed away. He turned and ran out of the building, back into the night and onto the streets.