Maybe all the trouble began because I wanted a day off.
It had been a rough summer. I had almost been killed several times, and I had seen things that gave me nightmares and learned secrets that people would murder to protect. I needed some time off, to get away from the awful things I had seen and the new set of jagged memories that haunted me.
So I took my teenage brother to the mall.
I was a thief and a wizard, and I suppose a woman like me was supposed to find relief through drugs and alcohol and the seduction of dark, brooding strangers. Yet my brother was the whole reason I was a thief and a wizard. Russell had frostfever, an alien, magical disease, and it should have killed him long ago. It would have killed him, but the Elven archmage Kaethran Morvilind cast cure spells over him every year to keep the illness at bay.
In exchange, I used my spells and my wits to steal things for Morvilind.
As for the traditional means of self-destructive stress relief, alcohol gave me a headache. I wanted to stay in good shape, and drugs didn’t help with that. And seducing a stranger…well, I wanted more control over my life, and a romantic relationship seemed like an excellent way to lose what control I still had.
I had tried that, once. That relationship had almost gotten me killed at the time…and it had come back around to bite me in Madison last month.
So, to unwind a bit, I was going to take my brother to the mall.
It was a chilly day in September. I woke up in the Marneys’ guest room before dawn, dressed in a tank top and running shorts, and went on a nine-mile run. James and Lucy lived in western Milwaukee, in a neighborhood filled with compact two-story, three-bedroom houses, most of them populated by veterans and retirees. The neighborhood was safe enough, though anyone trying to rob me would have been in for a nasty surprise. I saw a lot of old people in tracksuits and sneakers out for their morning walks. There were far more women than men, and many of the men limped, or were missing arms and ears and eyes, or moved with grimly determined gait of a man adjusting to an artificial leg.
Some of the veteran men-at-arms came back unharmed from the Shadowlands. Many came back alive but wounded. And quite a few never came back at all.
It was a Saturday, so no one else was awake when I got back to the Marneys’ house. I locked myself in the guest room, which was furnished with a narrow bed, a dresser, a desk, and picture of Christ teaching the Apostles on the Mount of Olives or something. I did strength exercises for a while – pushups, squats, planks, leg lifts, and curls, using the set of free weights James needed for his physical therapy.
Once that was done, I checked to make sure the door was locked.
Then I practiced my spells for a while.
Morvilind had taught me several spells, most of them dealing with illusion and the mind. I had learned a few others long the way, and some of them I could not practice here without accidentally burning down the house. I started with the telekinesis spell, lifting the weights with my mind and making them wobble around the room. I wasn’t very good at it, but I was getting better. Morvilind could call a book to his hand from across the room or crush someone’s skull with a thought.
I also practiced my Cloaking spell.
When Cloaked, I was invisible and undetectable to both sight and spell. Unfortunately, I couldn’t move while Cloaked, and the spell took the entirety of my magical strength to cast. Or almost the entirety of my strength – I had used the spell so often that it was getting easier to cast. I had practiced enough that I could now move my hands and arms while Cloaked.
Maybe I had grown skilled enough that I could move while Cloaked.
I cast the spell around me, my entire will upon it, and I vanished. I took a deep breath, holding the spell tight, and took a small step forward.
For an instant, a tantalizing instant, the spell held. But when my bare foot touched the carpet, the spell collapsed with a flash of silver light. I sighed with disappointment, but I wasn’t that upset. The Cloak had held for a half-second after I started to move, and I had never been able to manage that before. With enough practice, I could take a step when Cloaked, then two steps, then three…and then I could walk around while invisible.
Maybe then I could put a knife in Morvilind’s back.
But only after he cured Russell, of course.
I showered off and dressed in a T-shirt and a pair of jeans. I was still the first one up, so I went to the kitchen and started breakfast. Lucy kept a well-stocked fridge, so I broke out a pair of skillets and started breaking eggs and laying out bacon. I sliced up some peppers to add to the eggs, and popped a pair of English muffins into the toaster. I wouldn’t eat them myself – too many carbs – but James and Russell liked them. I picked up a jar of strawberry jam, wavered for a moment as I considered eating a spoonful (or three), then decided upon the course of self-discipline.
“Good heavens. Do you ever sleep, girl?”
I blinked as Dr. James Marney limped into his kitchen, the cane in his left hand tapping against the linoleum, his right leg stiff and rigid as ever. I had seen pictures of him as a young man, and he had possessed the sleek musculature of a champion swimmer. Several decades and a few bad wounds had turned him from sleek to bony, and deep lines marked his face. He was still strong, though – I had once seen him lift an eighty-pound bag of salt over his shoulder one-handed.
“Well,” I said. “I was up anyway. Seemed rude to expect Lucy to make breakfast.”
James snorted and lowered himself into his chair at the kitchen table. “You’re going to spoil her, you know. The next time you leave, I’ll be back to having frozen burritos for breakfast.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said, taking a spatula and plucking the bacon from the skillet. “Lucy would never let you eat a frozen burrito for any reason. Besides, if I’m squatting under your roof, it’s only fair that I help out.”
“You’ve been here for a while,” said James.
I hesitated. “Have I overstayed my welcome? If you need me to leave, it’s not a big deal.”
Because I had stayed longer than I had planned. I had only thought to stay overnight, and then head back to my apartment. One night had turned into two and then three…and suddenly nearly a month had passed.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” said James, mirroring my tone from earlier. “You can stay as long as you want. Though I did notice…”
His voice trailed off.
“What?” I said, dividing the eggs amongst four plates. “Come on, you can tell me.”
“You’ve never stayed for more than a night at time,” said James. “Now you’ve been here a month…and you came here right after that terrorist attack in Madison.”
I didn’t say anything for a moment.
“Funny coincidence, yeah?” I said once I found my voice.
“Yeah,” said James. “Look. You…want to talk about it?”
“No,” I said.
Actually, I did. One of Morvilind’s little jobs had sent me to Madison on the day of a Rebel attack, and I had almost been killed. I had seen horrible things. I had wound up owing a favor to a powerful lord of the Shadowlands, and God only knew what he would demand of me.
And I had almost murdered an innocent woman to save myself.
I hadn’t done it, but I could have. I had only stopped myself at the last minute. Sometimes I woke up in a cold sweat thinking about it, or the other things I had seen.
Turns out that’s not the kind of thing you can just shrug off.
“I understand,” said James.
“I know you do,” I said. James had been an officer of men-at-arms in service to Lord Morvilind. He had seen the Shadowlands, and an orcish warrior’s axe had left his right leg maimed.
He understood…yet I couldn’t tell him about the things I had seen. Morvilind had been very clear about what would happen if I told anyone about what really I did for him. He would kill me, and he would let the frostfever kill Russell. “Let’s…just say I had a really bad day.”
James snorted. “I know all about bad days. If you want to talk, I’ll listen.”
“Thank you,” I said in a quiet voice.
“But if you don’t want to talk, you could finish those eggs and bring me some coffee,” said James.
I laughed, taken off guard. “You’re terrible.”
“I’m just saying,” said James, “that if you don’t want to talk about your problems, then the next best thing is to do useful work, and bringing me a cup of coffee followed by an excellent breakfast would be very useful.”
I laughed again, and gave him a gentle smack on the forehead, but I did put a cup of coffee in front of him.
“I do hope you didn’t put too much sugar into that, dear.” James’s wife Lucy came into the kitchen, still wearing her bathrobe. She was five years younger than James, with bright blue eyes and graying blond hair, and she looked like one of those athletic middle-aged women who always appeared in commercials for pharmaceuticals aimed at the elderly. She was a nurse, and for some medical reason she and James had never been able to have children.
So they had taken in Russell, for which I was infinitely grateful.
“She put no sugar in it whatsoever,” said James.
“She’ll make someone a very good wife someday,” said Lucy.
Lucy wanted to find me a good husband. It would have been annoying, had she not meant so well. I couldn’t tell her why it was such a bad idea. I would not surrender any more power over myself to anyone, and I had learned the hard way that came with a romance. For that matter, Lucy only knew nice young men, and she kept trying to introduce me to nice young men.
What kind of nice young man deserved someone like me inflicted upon him?
I saw again Alexandra Ross weeping in the Shadowlands, and remembered the cold, dead feeling that had come over me as I prepared to kill her.
“Nadia?” said Lucy.
“Sorry, mind wandered off,” I said. “Better make sure the bacon doesn’t burn.”
I turned before she could ask any questions. James had been a man-at-arms, had been in the Shadowlands, so he could understand a little. Lucy hadn’t, and there was no way she could understand.
I wondered how James and Lucy would react if they learned the truth about what I was, about the things I had done.
Then a loud, cheerful voice cut into my thoughts.
“I smell bacon!”
Russell bounded into the kitchen. My brother tended to…well, bound into places. If he lived long enough, he was going to become one of those men who commanded attention simply by striding into a room. At the age of fourteen, he was all raw energy and enthusiasm. He was already several inches taller than me, which was immensely unfair, though since I was only five foot three, being taller than me may have been unfair but it certainly wasn’t difficult.
He should have died fourteen years ago. The fact that he was taller than me wasn’t the surprising part, nor was his vigor. The fact that he was alive at all was the surprising part.
Lord Morvilind’s magic had done that. For all his cruelty, he had kept his word, and his magic had sustained Russell’s life.
Despite that, the disease had left its marks on Russell. He was thinner than a boy his age should have been, almost to the point of gauntness. He would never get conscripted as man-of-arms, which relieved me, but that meant he was barred by law from numerous well-paying careers. The frostfever had turned his hair and eyebrows (and beard, as he continued into adolescence) white. Russell liked to point out that the net effect of the thinness and the white hair made him look like some sort of mischievous creature from ancient myth, the sort that granted wishes for unsuspecting shoemakers.
But he was alive. And someday, if I stayed alive long enough, he would be cured. Fourteen times Morvilind had cast the cure spell upon him, and after six more castings, Russell would be purged of the frostfever.
Then, of course, Morvilind would probably try to kill me, if he had no further use for me.
Six years. I had six years to think of something clever. Some way to save Russell and save myself.
Russell was saying something, so I jerked myself out of my dark thoughts and made myself pay attention. If I was going to find a way to save us, I probably wasn’t going to do it today.
If only I had known.
“You made bacon,” said Russell, grinning. “And eggs?” I nodded. “And pancakes?”
“No. An English muffin,” I said.
“But not pancakes,” said Russell.
“Eggs and bacon have protein,” I said, “and pancakes have…”
“Too many carbs,” said Russell in perfect synchronization with me.
“Don’t be smart,” I said. “In deference to your sweet tooth, I have put jam on your English muffin.”
“Thank you,” said Russell, and I handed him his plate. He started to eat even before he sat down. I had seen some terrifying creatures in the Shadowlands, but I had yet to see one that devoured its meals with the same gusto as a teenage boy. He paused only long enough to put hot sauce on his eggs, which was an absolutely disgusting habit and one I refused to contemplate.
James owned a number of commemorative beer steins from reunions of his company of men-at-arms, so I took one, filled it with coffee (without cream or sugar, of course), and sat down to eat my own breakfast. Russell was already halfway through his, so it was just as well I had left more eggs in the skillet. James and Lucy ate at a more sedate pace, reading the news on their tablets as they did.
“Are we still going to the mall today?” said Russell around a mouthful.
“Don’t talk with food in your mouth, dear,” said Lucy, not looking up from her tablet.
Russell nodded, chewed, swallowed, and spoke again. “Are we still going to the mall today?”
“Yep,” I said. “Unless you’ve changed your mind.”
“No, no,” said Russell. “There are some books I want to get.”
Other teenage boys went to the mall to pick up girls. Russell went to buy books. At least, I assumed other teenage boys went to the mall to pick up girls. I didn’t have any firsthand experience in the matter.
“We’ll take your bike?” said Russell, leaning forward.
“You most certainly will not take Nadia’s motorcycle,” said Lucy with a frown as she lowered her tablet.
“Sportbike,” I said. “Technically it’s a Royal Motors NX-9 Sportbike with a six cylinder engine, capable of going from zero to sixty in…”
“I don’t care if it’s capable of going from zero to sixty in two seconds and can fly to the moon and make grilled cheese sandwiches while it does it,” said Lucy. “Those things are deathtraps.” James smiled a little, then caught himself and put on a grave expression. I bit my cheek to keep from laughing. “Nadia is an adult and she can do what she wants, no matter how reckless it is. You, however, will not be riding on a motorcycle.”
“Even with a helmet?” said Russell.
“Even with a helmet,” said Lucy. “From the accidents I have seen at the medical center, the helmet only serves as a convenient bucket for your brains.”
“That,” said James as he took a bite of eggs, “is a disturbing mental image.”
“I don’t like motorcycles,” said Lucy. “I’ve seen the end result of too many accidents.”
“I’m sure Nadia is a very cautious rider,” said James. That was true. Mostly.
“So you’re free all day?” said Russell. “You don’t have to do any work for Lord Morvilind?”
“Not a thing,” I said. In fact, since the disaster at Madison, Morvilind had summoned me only once. I had gone to his mansion dreading some perilous task like the thefts of the Ringbyrne Amulet or the ancient tablet from Paul McCade’s mansion. Instead, Morvilind had sent me to steal a set of backup drives from a bank vault in Cincinnati. It had been dead easy, and the entire job had taken only two days. I had even able to help myself to several bundles of hundred-dollar bills on the way out, which had given me enough money to live on for a while. Morvilind had not summoned me since, and it had been the longest time I had gone without hearing from him…well, ever.
Maybe something had distracted him. Maybe the contents of the backup drives held his attention. Maybe he was taking a vacation, if someone like Morvilind ever took vacations. I didn’t know, and I didn’t care.
“The entire day,” I said, “assuming Lord Morvilind doesn’t summon me for work.”
“It’s unusually generous for him to give you so much time off,” said James. “His lordship is of course a wise man.” I kept a straight face at that. “But he usually works you quite hard.”
“I suppose he’s busy,” I said. “Well, when he wants to find me, he…uh, he has my cell phone number.” Of course, Morvilind had never once used a cell phone to summon me. I glanced at Russell. “Ready to go.”
“Almost,” said Russell. There wasn’t a crumb of food remaining on his plate. “Are there seconds?”
Lucy had discouraged Russell from riding with me on my motorcycle, but she hadn’t outright forbidden it.
So of course we took my motorcycle.
The bike was black with orange highlights, so I had a leather jacket with orange stripes on the sleeves and chest to match. I had a black helmet with a mirrored visor, and both helmet and padded jacket were uncomfortable in the summer, but were still better than wiping out and leaving half my skin on the asphalt. As the weather got cooler, the jacket and helmet got more comfortable, until it got too cold and too snowy to use a bike.
I had bought Russell a helmet, but I wasn’t going to get him a jacket until I was sure he wouldn’t outgrow the damn thing in six weeks. Of course, by then maybe he would be living on his own and could afford his own bike. I was pretty sure he had acquired a taste for motorcycles. And maybe the motorcycle would impress a girl.
Russell with a girl. Now there was a thought I wasn’t ready to process.
“Ready?” I said, swinging my leg over the side of the bike and pulling the helmet over my head.
“Yep,” said Russell, climbing on the back of the bike. His thin limbs and the helmet made him look a little like a shiny black lollipop.
I grunted, reached back, and pulled his arms around my waist. “Arms there. If you fall off the back, I’ll never hear the end of it from Lucy.”
“True.” He got a good grip around my middle. “Too bad you aren’t a real girl.”
I looked back at him. He couldn’t see my expression through the visor, but he had to know how I would react to that. “A real girl? What does that mean? Last time I checked, I was pretty sure that I was a girl.”
“Well, you know,” said Russell. “A girl who isn’t my sister.”
“Ah,” I said. “You’ve hit adolescence. Did James and Lucy have the talk with you?”
“Er…they did,” said Russell. He was getting embarrassed. “It was…pretty frank. Of course, he’s a doctor and she’s a nurse, so they don’t mind being…candid. Then they gave me a book to read. It had a lot of diagrams.”
I grinned behind my visor. “And then they explained that Jesus disapproves of sex before marriage?”
“Well, he does,” said Russell with perfect earnestness.
I wasn’t sure what I thought of the Marneys raising Russell in their church. My attitude toward God was basically embittered cynicism – if he loved humanity, why did the Elves rule over us? Still, I wanted Russell to grow up with a sense of right and wrong, and raising him to believe in God was the most efficient way to do that. I wanted Russell to have a good life, a better life than me…
Basically, I didn’t want Russell to become anything like me.
“Good for him,” I said, putting my keys into the bike’s ignition.
“What about you?” said Russell.
“Did James and Lucy have the talk with me, you mean?” I said. They had not. When I had hit puberty, one of Morvilind’s tutors had given me a prescription for birth control pills, followed by a lecture from Morvilind about how I would become useless to him if I was pregnant. “I think I would have preferred that, actually.”
“So you do have a boyfriend, then?” said Russell.
My startled twitch knocked my hand off the keys. “Um. What?”
“Well,” said Russell, and I could hear the smirk in his voice, “if you can ask if I had the talk with James and Lucy, I can ask if you have a boyfriend.”
“I don’t have a boyfriend,” I said.
“Have you ever had a boyfriend?” said Russell.
I hesitated. There had been on serious boyfriend, one man for whom I had fallen head over heels in love. His name had been Nicholas Connor, and he had been brilliant and strong and handsome.
He had also been the leader of a Rebel cell, planning to set off a bomb that would have killed tens of thousands of people in Los Angeles…and he had set me up to take the blame. I had defused the plot, wrecked his Rebel cell, and escaped scot-free back to Milwaukee, much sadder, but much wiser.
“I don’t have time for that kind of nonsense,” I said.
Russell laughed. “Do you know what I think?”
“I think,” I said, turning the key, “that we should shut up and ride.”
The engine roared to life and I fed the throttle, drowning out Russell’s answer. He whooped, his arms tightening around my waist, and I grinned and gunned the bike into motion. We took off down the streets, going a good twenty miles over the speed limit, but there wasn’t much traffic on a Saturday morning and the Homeland Security traffic patrollers kept to the main streets and the freeways.
I whooped in turn, and I heard Russell laughing. I had to admit that I loved motorcycles. I loved the speed, the sense of power and freedom as I gunned the throttle. Of course, that sense of freedom was an illusion. Morvilind only had to crook his finger and I would come running, since the consequences of ignoring his summons would be dire. I wasn’t free, and I didn’t have anything remotely like the power I needed to free myself.
Not yet, anyway.
Today, though, I would enjoy myself.
Russell wasn’t that heavy, but his weight did affect the motorcycle’s handling, so I kept off the freeways and stayed to the surface streets. We left Milwaukee, made our way across Wauwatosa, and ended up in Brookfield. Most of Milwaukee’s super-rich lived in mansions along the lakefront or in high-rise condominiums downtown. Those who were merely rich lived in Brookfield, in new houses with big lawns and two-car garages. So there were a lot of shops selling fancy electronics and skis and tennis rackets whatever other expensive crap rich people needed.
The Ducal Mall had a lot of stores like that.
From what I understood, there had been a shopping center there centuries ago, but it had been destroyed during the Conquest. Later Duke Tamirlas of Milwaukee had given his approval to build a new mall there, so the county and city governments made it happen. Over the centuries it had grown into a four-story monstrosity of glass and steel and concrete, with concourses and walkways and restaurants and even a little amusement park with a couple of roller coasters. It had its own dedicated off-ramp from Interstate 94, which I avoided, circling instead to the eastern side of the Ducal Mall and using the back entrance.
“Why are we parking so far from the doors?” said Russell as I brought the bike to a halt in the outer reaches of the parking lot.
“Because,” I said, putting the kickstand in place, “walking is a healthy activity. That, and if anyone gets a scratch on my bike, I’m going to get mad.”
“And because there is no place to park near the doors?” said Russell, squinting at the sea of cars gleaming in the morning sun.
“Yep,” I said, climbing off the motorcycle and stretching my legs. Motorcycles are a lot of fun and often useful, but they sure aren’t comfortable. “Also, seriously. If anyone scratches my bike, I’m going to be pissed.” We set our helmets on the seat.
“You don’t mind all the dents in your Duluth Motors sedan,” said Russell as we walked to the mall doors.
“That car is older than I am,” I said. Plus, I used it for my various jobs. A Royal Motors NX-9 sportbike with orange highlights drew attention. No one paid attention to an old four-door sedan.
“Let’s have lunch first,” said Russell. “Can we get burgers?”
“We just had breakfast,” I said.
“Yeah, like two and a half hours ago,” said Russell.
I laughed. “You’re part locust. Come on.”
We went through the Ducal Mall’s side doors and into the crowds. It was Saturday, so the place was packed. Most of the elderly and the veterans did their shopping on weekdays, so on the weekend working men and women with young children filled the mall, and constant cacophony of children’s voices echoed off the glassy storefronts. I watched the shoppers with a mixture of bemusement and annoyance. Their lives were so different than mine that I could barely understand them. In some ways I had pitied them. I had magic and they did not (well, except for the veterans of the Wizards’ Legion), and I understood more of how the world really worked than they did. In a way, they were a lot like sheep. They went through their lives believing that the High Queen and the nobles were wise and benevolent, watching the Punishment Day videos and the addresses from the nobles, and doing what they were told. They had been shaped from childhood to revere the Elves, and so they revered the Elves.
I saw a toddler wobble to her mother, a woman a few years older than me. The woman picked up the child, and an expression of pure delight went over the little girl’s face. That woman didn’t have to worry about the capricious demands of an Elven noble. That woman didn’t have to fear that her brother would die if she did not obey. Maybe she had a husband that loved her and a home of her own…
For a moment I was so sad that I stopped walking.
“Nadia?” said Russell.
Then a scowl went over the little girl’s face, and even from several yards away I detected the odor as she filled her diaper.
Well. No one’s life is perfect.
“You okay?” said Russell.
“I was just reflecting,” I said, “that every life has its thorns.”
“You have no idea,” I said. “Let’s eat.”
We found a burger place in the Ducal Mall’s food court and had lunch. As Russell and James liked to point out, I was a bit of a fanatic about healthful eating, with Lucy’s full support. I had my reasons. Given the kind of things Morvilind had me do, I needed to be in the best shape I could manage. So I had a chicken sandwich while Russell wolfed down a double bacon cheeseburger and a mega-sized carton of fries. I would like to say that only through heroic willpower I resisted the temptation to stuff myself with fried food, but truth be told I didn’t like the stuff very much and wished I could have a salad instead. Of course, Russell’s body needed a lot more energy to fight off the frostfever.
I suppose a double bacon cheeseburger was one way to get that energy. But, God, all that grease!
“Bookstore next?” Russell said, once I dumped our wrappers in the bin.
“Yup,” I said. “Let’s…”
A tall, gaunt man in a dark suit, white shirt, and black silken tie walked across the food court, his eyes fixed on me. A ribbon of icy fear shot through my mind. I had seen men like him before. He was a disguised anthrophage, a creature from the Shadowlands and a servant of the Dark Ones, and the anthrophages wanted me dead. I started to reach into my jacket for the little revolver I had concealed in the interior pocket, clearing my mind to work a spell as I did so…
“Nadia?” said Russell, alarmed.
My brain caught up with my reflexes.
The man wasn’t a disguised anthrophage. He was just an old man in a suit. He wasn’t staring at me, but at the menu for a taco place behind me. Even as I watched, he stepped around me and approached the counter. I looked at him, trying not to shake. He looked a lot like a disguised anthrophage, and the anthrophages had almost killed me in the Shadowlands. I still remembered the weight and the wiry strength as the anthrophage drove me to the ground, its vile breath washing over my skin as its mouth yawned wide to bite my face off…
“Nadia?” said Russell again, tugging at my sleeve. “Are you all right?”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I heard myself say. That was a lie. James was right. I was definitely not okay. “Just thought I saw someone I recognized. Let’s go to the bookstore. Get you some books. Get me some coffee. God, I could use some coffee.”
“You seem too jittery for coffee,” said Russell. He still hadn’t let go of my sleeve. He knew me well enough to realize that something was wrong.
Fortunately, I am a very good liar.
“Thought it was a guy who gave me some trouble,” I said in a quiet voice. “But I was wrong. I’m fine, really.”
Russell gave me one more concerned look, but nodded at last, and we set off for the bookstore on the mall’s fourth level. It was a big place, full of rows of shiny paperbacks and a large section of games and toys. Russell made a beeline for the historical fiction section. He loved books about the Crusades. At his urging, I had read a few of them, and had been amused how the books compared a Crusader knight’s loyalty to his lord to the fealty of a modern man-at-arms to his Elven liege. The Department of Education and the Inquisition made sure of that. You couldn’t read a book or watch a video or go on the Internet without seeing a message, sometimes blatant, sometimes subtle, about how the Elves had benefited humanity and how the highest duty in life was to serve the High Queen and her nobles.
I wondered if people ever realized just how profoundly they had been programmed. Sometimes I felt like I was the only one who saw the truth. Well, the Rebels did, but the Rebels were psychotic assholes. For once the Department of Education’s propaganda did not overstate the truth.
I had seen the dead children left behind from Rebel bombs, which was yet another memory I could have done without.
I went to the bookstore’s café for some coffee. A coltish-looking teenage girl of about Russell’s age took my order. Of course, she was already taller than I was, with long blond hair and bright blue eyes, and would likely grow into a six-foot swimsuit model. I managed to convince her that I wanted a straight black coffee without any cream, any sugar, any whipped cream or God knows what other nonsense. At last the nervous girl produced my coffee, and I paid for it and took a sip, only to discover that she had in fact added sugar to it. A wave of irritated exasperation went through me. I’m not usually one of those jerks who yells at cashiers, but I was still rattled after my mini panic attack in the food court, and the coffee girl was about to get the brunt of my bad mood. Then my brain caught up with my irritation, announcing that taking out my startled fear on the poor girl wouldn’t accomplish anything, and that a woman who had committed as many illegal acts as I had should not draw attention to herself with a tantrum over a damn cup of coffee.
It took a few seconds for all of this to work its way through my head, and I can only imagine what my expression looked like.
The girl stared at me as if I was a bomb about to go off.
“Ma’am?” said the girl. “Is…everything all right?”
Ha. Now there was a profound question.
I opened my mouth to answer, and Russell bumped into my elbow.
“There you are,” he said. “I was looking all over for you.”
I started to say that I had told him I was getting coffee, but then the girl behind the counter squealed. I kid you not. She actually squealed.
“Russell!” she said. “Oh my God! What are you doing here?”
“Hey, Lydia,” said Russell with an easy smile. “I didn’t know you were working today.”
“I wasn’t going to,” said the girl, “but rifle club got canceled for the weekend, and the manager said I could have the hours if I wanted, so here I am. What are you doing here?”
“Making trouble and acting disorderly,” said Russell.
The girl laughed. “Is she your girlfriend? You took her out for coffee?”
Russell put his arm around my shoulders and nodded solemnly. “Yes. I like older women now.”
The girl laughed at that, and I gaped at Russell, two facts taking hold in my brain.
One. My brother had set this all up. He had wanted those books, and he had four paperbacks in his hand…but the entire point of this trip had been so he could hit on the coffee girl.
The devious little stinker! I wasn’t sure if I should be annoyed or proud.
Two. The girl was into him. Her eyes sparkled when she laughed, and she pushed her hair away from her forehead when she looked at him.
Russell Moran, my baby brother, was a nascent ladies’ man.
“Don’t be gross,” I told him, taking his arm off my shoulders. “I’m Nadia, Russell’s sister.”
“Oh my God!” said the girl. “I’m Lydia. Russell and I go to the same high school. We’re both in rifle club. He’s a really good shot, did you know that?”
“It’s easy when the targets don’t move,” said Russell.
He was more right than he knew.
“I wish I was that good of a shot,” said Lydia. “I take ten shots, and I’ll be lucky if three of them hit the target. I wish someone would show me a few tricks so I could do it better, you know?”
There was a golden opening if I had ever heard one, and Russell seized it without hesitation.
“I’d be happy to show you,” said Russell. “The high school range is open tomorrow night. Meet me there at about seven.”
“It’s a date!” said Lydia, and then she turned red. “I mean, it’s…”
Russell gave her an easy smile. “We’ll just be practicing for rifle club. Nothing to get excited about.”
Lydia smiled back. “I’ll see you then. Oh! I’d better look busy. Mr. Loman is coming.” I glanced over my shoulder and saw a balding middle-aged man in a tie and a blazer wandering towards the coffee counter, the MANAGER badge prominently displayed upon his lapel.
“I don’t want you to get in trouble,” said Russell. “See you tomorrow, then.”
“See you tomorrow,” said Lydia, and she smiled in my direction. “It was nice meeting you, Natalie.”
I very carefully did not roll my eyes.
Russell walked into the bookstore proper, and I followed him, the cardboard cup of coffee in my right hand.
“What was that about?” I said.
Russell shrugged, but his grin belied the gesture. “What was what? We’re just going shooting, that’s all. If you can get the competency badge in rifle club, it counts for a lot of extra credit points.”
“You asked her out,” I said. “You’re going on a date.”
“Well, yeah,” said Russell. “I figured that was obvious. But I didn’t want to be obvious about it with her, you know? You have to play it cool.”
“Oh, you do?” I said.
“Yeah,” said Russell. “After I broke up with Julia, I decided…”
“Wait,” I said. “You had another girlfriend before her?”
“What?” said Russell, gesturing with one of his Crusader books. “No, no. I had two girlfriends before. Well, three, if you include Anna, but we only went out twice so I don’t think that really counts.”
“Three,” I said. “But two if you don’t count Anna.” I took a sip of coffee to collect my thoughts. The coffee might have had sugar, but at least it was hot. “Um. Were you ever going to tell me about this?”
Russell raised his white eyebrows. “Were you going to tell me about your boyfriend?”
“I don’t have a boyfriend,” I said.
“And you’ve never had one?”
I opened my mouth, tried to think of an answer, and came up with nothing. I’d had a boyfriend…and he’d almost killed me.
And a whole lot of other people, too. Of course, I turned the tables on him, but after surviving Nicholas Connor I had come to regard romance of any kind as a mistake at best and a fatal weakness at worst. It felt strange to be standing here in a mall bookstore with my teenage brother, discussing his girlfriends as if I was a normal twenty-year-old woman instead of an Elven lord’s trained thief, as if I did not know things that would get me executed in a heartbeat.
“Okay,” I said at last. “Maybe I’m not the best person to talk to about this.”
Russell shrugged. “Don’t worry, though. The thing with Lydia won’t last. It never does.”
“What do you mean?” I said.
“The girls all like me, and their moms and dads do, too, but once they find out about the frostfever…” He ran a hand through his white hair. “I’ll never be a man-at-arms, right? The parents want their daughters to marry an Elven lord’s man-at-arms. So they shut it down before it gets too serious.”
“Oh, Russell,” I said.
He shrugged. “It is what it is. And I should be dead, right? So I really can’t complain.”
“Then why do you do it?” I said. “I mean, if you know it’s going to fall apart? Why take the chance with girls?”
He shrugged again. “I dunno. Because I think they’re hot?”
I snorted. “Good answer.”
“And…I should be dead, you know,” said Russell. “If Lord Morvilind didn’t keep casting spells on me, I know I would have died as a baby. So what’s the worst that can happen to me? I mean, I should have died already. So why not take the chance?”
“That’s…a good attitude,” I said.
“Besides,” said Russell, and he grinned. “You know what I found out?”
“Girls like confidence,” he said. “Seriously, they really do.”
“Oh, we do?” I said.
“They do!” said Russell. “I mean, look at me. I kind of look like a scarecrow with snow on my head. But if you walk up and look girls in the eye and don’t show any fear, they’ll go for it. They’ll try and push back a little, make fun of you, but if you flip the joke on its head, they’ll laugh, and the next thing you know you have a date.”
I laughed. “Russell Moran, ladies’ man. I never would have guessed.”
He grinned…and then, right then and there, everything went to hell.
I felt a surge of magical power around me. Usually I could only sense the presence of magical force when I used the detection spell, or when I stood near a powerfully enchanted object. I spun in alarm, my hand twitching towards the pocket in my coat that held my gun, expecting to see someone right behind me casting a spell.
At the moment, Russell and I were alone the aisle.
The surge of magical power peaked and then faded from my arcane senses.
“Nadia?” said Russell. “What’s wrong?”
“I…” I tried to think up a good lie, but came up blank. “I…don’t know.”
“Are you sick?” He gave a suspicious look at the coffee cup still in my other hand. Though if anything was going to make me sick, it was that damned chicken sandwich.
“No,” I said. “I think we should go home. I think we should go home right now.”
“I haven’t paid for the books yet,” said Russell.
“Fine,” I said. “Go pay for them, and then…”
The lights went out, plunging the bookshop into darkness. The glow from the rest of the mall vanished, and I heard a sudden murmur of surprise from the crowds on the concourse. A click came from the ceiling, and the battery-powered emergency lights by the doors flicked on.
“Oh,” said Russell. “The power must have gone out. Good thing I brought cash.”
“Wait,” I said, reaching into my jacket and grabbing my phone. “Check your phone. See if you can call out.”
“Okay,” said Russell, puzzled. Light flickered next to me as he checked his phone. “Huh. No signal. Maybe the power outage knocked out the cell tower.”
“No,” I said. My phone, too, displayed NO NETWORK AVAILABLE on the screen. However, my phone had a little after-market module, one not available in most consumer phones. A cell phone could lose network access for two reasons – the network was down, or something was blocking the phone’s radio. Most consumer cell phones couldn’t tell the difference.
My phone could.
Below the NO NETWORK AVAILABLE message appeared another line of red text.
ERROR: BROAD-SPECTRUM JAMMING DETECTED. UNABLE TO CONNECT.
The network wasn’t down. The network was being jammed. Someone was deliberately cutting off cell phone access to the mall. Combined with the surge of magical power I had just felt, that meant…
I wasn’t sure what it meant, but it wasn’t anything good.
“We need to get out of here right now,” I said, grabbing Russell’s arm.
“I haven’t paid for the books yet,” said Russell.
“Leave the books,” I said. “We’ll come back for them later. We have to go right now.”
“It’s just a power outage,” said Russell. “What’s the big deal? We’ll sit down in the café until the lights come back on.” He glanced in that direction, and in the dim glow of the emergency lights I saw him smile. “We could keep Lydia company.”
“I don’t think this is just a power outage,” I said. “Someone’s jamming the network, which means the power failure was deliberate. Someone shut off the electricity, and I don’t want to be here when…”
“Excuse me, miss?” said a male voice. I turned and saw Mr. Loman coming towards me, his MANAGER pin flashing in the emergency lights. Up close, I saw that he had a graying mustache that looked kind of like dryer lint. “Company policy says all customers must shelter in the café area in the event of a power outage.”
“No, it’s fine, we’re leaving,” I said. Mr. Loman seemed affronted at that, but I didn’t give a damn. Something was wrong here, and I wanted to get the hell out before it got worse.
“I’m sorry, miss,” said Mr. Loman, “but I really must insist…”
His voice trailed off, and his eyes went wide.
I turned to see what had caught his attention, and shock jolted through me.
An orc walked past the cash register and into the bookstore.
The creature couldn’t have been anything else. The figure stood nearly seven feet tall, its skin a peculiar metallic blue, its eyes black, its face fierce with tusks rising from its lower jaw. The orc wore a peculiar combination of armor, with chain mail beneath a ballistic vest. A massive double-bladed battle axe had been slung over its shoulder. Backed with an orc’s strength, the weapon could split a man in half, and even a glancing hit from an orcish axe had left James Marney in need of a cane for the rest of his life.
Of course, the orc didn’t need the axe. It carried a long black gun with a wooden stock, an AK-47. The AK-47 had been designed centuries ago, even before the Conquest, and had been used ever since.
For a terrible instant I was frozen, and then my brain kicked into overdrive as three important facts occurred to me.
First, there weren’t supposed to be any orcs on Earth. The High Queen hated them, and refused to ally with them.
Second, the Archons, the rebel Elves that ruled the Elven homeworld, used orcish mercenaries extensively. The Archons had driven the High Queen from the Elven homeworld, but their war had continued, and sometimes the Archons crossed the Shadowlands and launched attacks upon Earth.
Third, if the orc was standing here, if the power was out and the network was jammed, that meant the Archons were launching an attack. They were launching an attack on Milwaukee right here, right now, and Russell and I were in the middle of it.
The orc growled and raised the AK-47.
“Get down!” I screamed, and I shoved Russell to the ground.
I ducked and Russell had the wit to throw himself behind a row of shelves, but Mr. Loman stood frozen, gaping at the intruder. The orc squeezed the trigger, and the AK-47’s end chattered. The gun must have been set to full-auto, because Mr. Loman’s chest seemed to explode in a crimson spray, and the poor man collapsed dead to the floor, his blood soaking into the gray carpet. The bullets had shredded his heart and lungs, so at least it had been quick.
In the distance I heard Lydia screaming, the sound of gunfire erupting throughout the mall.
The orc strode into the bookstore, seeking for more victims.