Night fell upon Spectra City. The city emptied as quickly as though a blaring alarm had resounded through the streets. Doors slammed. Shutters drew down over windows. Bolts slid into their locks with abrupt, metallic clicks. The silence that followed was charged and ominous. “Anyone out there tonight,” said the tall, thin publican of the Phantasm Bar as he peered out the dark, tinted glass into the dreary alley outside, “is looking for a fight.”
Tamsin’s gaze shifted to Cedric. He did not meet her eyes. He hunched over his glass. He took a sip of the warm, watered-down gin and tonic as if to steel his nerves.
A chilling, ear-splitting scream rent the electric stillness outside.
The publican flinched. He covered his head and ducked behind the bar. The patrons of the Phantasm looked around with bleary, hunted eyes. Tamsin vaulted off her stool at the bar. Her body vibrated with excitement.
“It’s happening again,” Cedric said. He rose swiftly from his seat. The expression on his sharp, handsome features was so cold and so severe, Tamsin took a step back before she remembered that he was on her side.
“Finally!” Tamsin exclaimed. She started for the door. Cedric overtook her with longer strides. He threw open the battered wooden door and stepped out into the alley with chilling resignation. “Cedric, wait–”
He ignored her. “It’s going to happen. This time we‘re ready.”
The scene on the thoroughfare outside the Phantasm was gruesome.
Half a dozen creatures in long, black hooded overcoats tore through the alley. They were not men. Men did not move quite that way, as though they were gliding inches above the ground. Their faces were shadowed by their hoods, but when the flickering streetlights momentarily illuminated them, the skin underneath was mottled grey, withered and lined as though they were crumbling to bits as they moved.
Their lips did not move to form words, but a low, monotonous drone issued in chorus from their cavernous maws. It seemed to come from somewhere low in their bellies. The air around them was pungent with a strange, metallic bitterness. An acrid taste coated Cedric‘s and Tamsin‘s throats as though they had swallowed battery acid. The wraiths left a blaze of fire in their wake. It ignited the detritus littering the streets, stealing across the alley and up the sides of the dark, stained and deteriorating buildings looming in hushed terror around them.
Tamsin caught her breath. She was motionless was dread. “They’re real.”
Beside her, Cedric’s body pulsated like a live wire. “Yes. You knew they were.”
“I didn’t want to believe it. Is anyone else here yet?”
His reply was lost in the wraith’s strange, macabre din. A young woman stumbled on wobbling legs from the False Haven Tavern next door. The wraiths moved as one towards her. She did not move away. She goggled at them. She did not seem to even realize her danger until the wraith at the head of the uncanny procession seized her by the throat.
It lifted her effortlessly off the ground. She kicked feebly. She clawed desperately at the misshapen hand clutching her throat. It held her in an unyielding grip. Her eyes bulged. The wraiths hummed as one with no sense or emotion. Tamsin started towards them. “Stop!” she shouted. They did not seem to hear her cry. They did not turn toward her. The wraith did not release the girl. The others were eerily still. They peered up at the struggling girl with identical ghastly faces.
Beside Tamsin, the air around Cedric changed. She spun to look at him.
His lips were moving rapidly. The words he spoke were a soft, incomprehensible stream of passionate, urgent gibberish. His stunning blue eyes rolled back to reveal glowing, milky whites. Tamsin did not bother to speak to him. He would not have heard her. He had slipped into a trance.
The wraiths’ low whine intensified. The leader dropped the hapless, frantically thrashing girl. She tumbled to the ground. She clutched her throat. She gasped desperately for breath. The air around the wraiths shimmered. In a flash of brilliant, violent light, the leader exploded in a puff of fetid grey smoke The eerie, terrible sound swelled into a sonorous roar as the others turned toward Cedric.
Tamsin raced forward. She seized the trembling girl’s arm to tug her urgently to her feet. “Come on! Get up. Get up! Get inside.”
The girl did not move. She stared at Tamsin with a shocked and terrified expression. “You’re chanters.”
“Get inside!” Tamsin barked. “Now! Now!
“I saw him. He’s chanting.”
“For god’s sake, get up and go inside.”
“You aren’t supposed to chant.”
Tamsin glared at the stupefied girl. She shoved her roughly towards the False Haven. “We saved your ass, didn’t we? Go. Go!”
The young girl’s eyes slid to the wraiths. She spun on her heel and lurched towards the sanctuary of the tavern. Tamsin did not spare a glance to ensure she was safely indoors. The creatures turned. Their heads swiveled from side to side like dogs scenting their prey in the air.
Brilliant, white light burst from Cedric’s eyes. His eerie, resonant chant crackled around him in a strange, shimmering haze of static. Tamsin’s heart leapt. “No! Cedric!”
He was as impervious to her words as to the looming wraiths. They swarmed him. They caught him up in their arms. His tall, vibrating form disappeared between them. Tamsin could not reach him. She took a deep breath. The surge of rage and panic inside her rushed to her belly. It gathered into a tight, vibrating ball of energy. She opened her mouth. She raised her hands. She willed the trance to overtake her body. She called the chant to her lips.
Cedric’s shout broke the spell abruptly. Tamsin staggered slightly as the pressure of the unreleased energy flooded the length of her body. “Tam, go! Run! Get away from them!”
“Cedric!” She could not see him among the wraiths as they moved toward the darkness beyond the flickering streetlights and garish neon of the tavern signs.
“Don’t chant! Just go! X can find me!”
“Please, Tam! Go.” But his voice faded. The wraiths slipped into the darkness and shadows as though they had never been there at all.
Tamsin cursed. She spun on her heel and ran the other way.
A red light blinked steadily on the tiny black box in Cedric pocket. He opened his eyes slowly. The ground upon which he was laying was soft, plush cream carpet. His fingers clawed reflexively at it. “Ah,” a low, smooth voice murmured above his head. “I believe he’s waking up.”
Cedric turned his head slightly to roll his eyes towards the voice. He sighed deeply. The man was tall and lean. His dark hair was combed neatly back from his sculpted, angular features He was watching Cedric steadily through cold, ice blue eyes, as though he were nothing more than an interesting specimen. His suit was expensive Italian wool. He had dressed for the occasion.
Cedric had expected to recognize his abductor. He did. It was Nico Creed.
The room in which Cedric lay face down upon the ground seemed to be an opulent, richly furnished study. There were chairs scattered about the room as though Nico expected company. Rather than a desk in the center of the room, there was a large, polished oak table covered in strange instruments: metal rods, scattered geodes and crystals of multiple colors, dog-eared books and small, glass discs filled with strange, glowing liquids.
Inside his pocket, the tiny black box bleeped once, quietly.
Nico Creed scowled and lurched toward Cedric. “What is that?” he growled. “What’s that noise? Tully! Search him.”
Cedric hadn’t noticed the tall, thin man dressed like a footman or butler in a neat black jacket until the man stepped forward into his view. Tully turned Cedric over as though he were nothing more than a small child’s toy. Cedric did not resist. His limbs felt strange. He struggled to think clearly. His mind was sluggish and slow. He tried to roll away from Tully. He didn’t get far. The tall man seemed completely unaffected by his struggles. His hands quested impersonally over Cedric’s body.
“It’s a black box, sir,” Tully announced. He held up the small object he’d discovered in Cedric’s jacket pocket.
“Let me see it.” Nico snatched it from Tully’s hand. He knelt beside Cedric. He held the black box in front of his eyes. “What is this?”
Cedric didn’t reply. He held Nico’s glacier pool eyes steadily.
“Tell me what this is!”
“It appears to be some sort of tracking device, sir,” Tully said evenly.
Nico rose to his feet. His sculpted face was as immovable and cold as marble, but his blue eyes burned with an infernal flame. “Is this some sort of trap?” He spun and slammed the black box abruptly on the oak table. It shattered in a shower of plastic splinters and chips. “Who are you working for? Is it Chant?”
Cedric stared silently back at Nico. Nico raised his hands to his sides. His lips moved rapidly. The words they formed were strange, intense and incomprehensible. His blue eyes rolled up into his head so they glowed brightly white. The air crackled around him.
On the floor, Cedric writhed in sudden, awful pain. He snapped his mouth shut against a scream and tasted blood as he bit his tongue. His limbs flailed helplessly. He didn’t scream. He didn’t make a sound. When it was over, he lay once more upon the ground. He gasped for breath. He looked back up at Nico.
Nico looked smug. He lifted his eyebrows expectantly.
“They could already be on their way,” Cedric said in a low voice.
Nico glanced at Tully. He strode to the window. He threw it open. Cold, wet rain pelted into the room and upon the rich Oriental rugs. Nico waved his arm wildly behind him. “Go. Check the front of the house.”
Tully was gone in an instant. Nico didn’t speak to Cedric. He paced the room for several long moments. He checked the window as though he expected sirens or soldiers to emerge from the darkness outside and climb the walls. He avoided Cedric as if he were a dangerous, unpredictable creature.
The door opened once more. Tully strode into the room and bowed smartly. “Nothing, sir.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, sir. I’m sure. There is nothing.”
Nico’s eyes gleamed triumphantly. He spun towards Cedric with a laugh. It was low, cold and humorless. “No one seems to be coming. I suppose not even Chant is stupid enough to come here.”
Energy gathered around Nico once again. The strange, unintelligible murmur was soft and lilting. There was no pain. Cedric’s eyes drooped. He fell instantly into darkness. “Keep this one,” Nico said, spinning away from Cedric dismissively. “He may have useful information. Bring me another.”
Tully inclined his head. He disappeared through a crack in the wall.
Nico paced swiftly from one side of the room to the other. He stepped over Cedric’s prone figure. He glared out the window. Rain dripped down the thick panes of glass. A canopy of trees blotted out the sky above. A few bleary lights burned in the distance beyond. None of them were red or blue or flashing.
Tully reappeared, moving slowly and laboriously backwards. He was not a man accustomed to heavy lifting. His breath came in ragged huffs. Nico sighed impatiently. “Just leave him there,” Nico snapped.
Tully dropped the young man’s ankles. They flopped limply against the ground. The young man was thin and dirty. The jeans and tee shirt he wore were slightly tattered. They were the same clothes he’d worn the night the wraiths had taken him. His mouth lolled slackly. Even as Nico bent over him, he did not open his eyes.
Nico waved his hand behind his back. Tully caught up the glittering silver wand on the worktable and placed it in his master’s hand. Nico exhaled deeply, as though the feel of the smooth, cool metal soothed his impatience. He stood and ran his hands along the wand in exaltation. It was a foot in length, an inch in diameter and featureless from end to end. A dull, uncut crystal was roughly mounted upon each tip.
Nico knelt back down before the young man. He seized his collar and lifted him so they were eye to eye. He balanced the wand between them. He pressed the jagged orange stone of one end of the wand against the young man’s forehead. He leaned toward him. He rested his own forehead against the smooth, dark grey stone on his end. He inhaled deeply.
A strange, breathy murmur issued from his lips. His eyes flashed brilliant white. Tully faded quietly from the room. He closed the door behind him with an inaudible click. Energy surged through the young man. His body jerked, as though electricity coursed violently through him. The wand heated and burned against Nico’s fingers as the energy traveled along the shining shaft, crackling with a sound like static. Nico ignored it.
His body tensed as the young man’s energy rushed into him. It gathered in the pit of his stomach until it felt as though he must surely explode with the intensity of it. He threw his head back. He gasped. The wand dropped meekly on the floor between the men. Nico tossed the young man aside as though he were nothing more than a child’s forgotten toy.
Nico spun away from the deflated figure. The young man’s skin hung loosely from his bones as though he had been hollowed from the inside out. He breathed still, but his breath was low and rattling. He didn’t move. Nico ignored him. He rushed from the room. His breath was shallow and harsh. His body felt charged and powerful.
He took the stairs toward his bedroom three at a time with long, agitated strides. He did not pause when he reached the large, lavish chamber but darted to the wide, elegantly carved French doors on the farthest wall. He threw them open. They banged violently against the walls on either side. A large, ornately engraved mirror crashed to the ground and shattered.
Nico ignored it. He stepped out onto the stone balcony. Rain fell in powerful, furious sheets, spattering his expensive suit and plastering his fashionably gelled hair to his forehead. He raised his hands. He turned his face up to receive the thick, shining drops upon his hot, tingling cheeks. Then he opened his eyes and glared across the tops of the trees in the courtyard below him.
A light burned across the lawn. The Mobley house was so close to Creed Manor, situated almost directly behind it, that Nico could see the occupants moving around the fourth floor library. Lochlan Mobley stood beside the window. His outline was tall and broad and still powerful for his advancing age. He held a glass in one hand. He might have been laughing, for his strong, square jaw was tilted slightly up. His shoulders moved in a slow, sweeping tremor.
Colin Mobley moved in front of the window beside his father. He was the image of a younger Lochlan, as tall and as strong. His dark hair fell roguishly across his forehead. He poured his father more of the amber liquid from a bottle in his hand. His young, handsome face was lit with a smile. Nico smiled, as though in return, but his smile was as cold as ice and as sharp as a rapier.
Inside his belly, energy pulsed and burned like hate. Words tumbled from him in a wild, feral scream. He threw out his hands in front of him. Across the courtyard, the window shattered in the Mobley’s library. Colin dove out of view. Lochlan spun towards Nico. His lined, handsome face was austere and twisted with rage.
Lochlan’s lips moved feverishly. The whites of his eyes shone brightly across the lawn, but Nico was blind to his enemy’s retaliation. His body jerked as Lochlan’s chant struck him. He hardly noticed. Power flowed out of him in a steady, violent stream. The trees beneath them ignited as the energy passed over them. The fires went out as quickly as they were lit. They were no match for the fierce, relentless rain.
All around Nico, planters and chairs exploded, showering him in shards of ceramic and carved stone. Across the way, shingles and shudders tore from the Mobley Mansion, tumbling to the gardens below. Colin stood beside Lochlan. He raised his hands to his sides. Like his father, his eyes rolled back, and his lips moved reflexively.
Nico trembled. In a startling instant, the energy drained from his body. The combined force of the Mobley’s assault struck him fully in the chest, knocking him to his knees. He gasped, pressing his hand to his side. The rain mixed with his blood and ran in pink rivulets across the stone balcony. He grasped the frame of the French doors desperately, dragging himself inside the dry, brilliantly lit bedchamber. He slammed the doors quickly behind him.
For a long moment, he lay helpless on the floor. “Tully!”
His voice was weak. He struggled frantically against the pain and darkness. His eyes drooped. He slipped away.
Lex pounded on his brother’s bedroom door. There was no response from within. He pressed his ear to the door. Inside, he could hear the French doors rattling, as though Nico had failed to latch them properly. The wind outside howled faintly. “Nico! Open the door!”
He sighed and tried the knob. It wasn’t locked. Nico never locked his door. No one had ever dared to enter uninvited before. When Lex found him, he was sprawled in front of the French doors in a small pool of blood. Rain leaked in through the cracked doors and spattered his motionless face. Lex sighed.
Lex knelt beside his brother. He turned him over carefully and tore open his stained white shirt. The wound wasn’t as bad as Lex expected. It was a long, thin gash along his side. Blood still leaked half-heartedly from the it. Lex lifted his head. His eyes rolled back. He pressed a hand against his brother’s side. He fell effortlessly into a trance. The rhythmic chanting was barely audible. He blinked once and sat back on his haunches, scowling.
Nico sat up, running his hand across the unmarked flesh where the wound had been. He glanced at Lex. “Thanks, big brother.” There was a cold, ironic edge to his voice.
Lex’s eyes narrowed to slits. “What were you doing?”
Nico tossed his head. Flecks of rain showered Lex, who wiped them away impatiently. “The Mobleys attacked me. I had to fight them off.”
“They attacked you?” Lex sounded skeptical.
Lex sighed and rose abruptly to his feet. “I think it’s time we all stopped attacking each other.”
Nico’s eyes glittered coldly. “The Mobleys killed our father. Is that not enough reason for you to fight? Do you not want revenge?”
“Revenge?” Lex considered, wiping a hand across his brow. “No. Justice? Yes.”
Nico shot to his feet. “This is justice!”
“It is not justice. None of this is justice.”
“The feud has been going on since long before our father was born.”
“Yes,” Lex agreed, meeting his glare rigidly. “And I see no reason for us to continue it. It’s nothing to do with us. I have no real quarrel against the Mobleys. I barely know them. We’ve only been fighting them our entire lives because we were taught to. That doesn’t make it right.”
“You dishonor our father’s memory with talk like this,” Nico told him in a low, furious voice.
Lex sighed deeply, but there was sarcasm in his voice when he replied. “Yes. Perhaps you’re right, Nico. Dad would probably turn over in his grave if he heard me speak like that.
“You cannot fight who you are, Lex.” Nico’s tone was slightly mocking now. His mouth turned up in a cold smirk. “You’re one of us. A Creed and a chanter. Don’t start pretending you’re something you aren’t. It doesn’t suit you.”
“And what am I pretending to be, do you think?” Lex sounded weary.
“A decent man. A man with pity and scruples and morals. We both know that isn’t you, is it?”
Lex lifted his chin angrily. “What do you know about me?”
“I know everything about you, Lex, and I know you’re no better than me. Lochlan and Colin killed our father, and they killed your slut, Diana.”
His brother was in front of him so quickly, Nico had barely seen him move. “Don’t talk about her that way!” he snarled.
Nico glared into his eyes. “She was one of them. You intended to betray your family for one of them!”
“I intended to be free! The Mobleys didn’t kill her. It was all of this. The fighting, the feud!”
“Don’t pretend you don’t want revenge as badly as I do. You just want it your own way.”
Lex took a step back, away from Nico. “You’re right about that,” he said in a low, toneless voice. “I do want revenge my own way.”
He did not look back at Nico as he stormed from the room, slamming the door behind him. Nico did not follow or call to him. Lex hadn’t expected him to. His quick, angry strides brought him to the second floor. The wide, oak double doors of the Creed library were ajar. It was handsomely furnished in rich leather wing backed chairs, scarlet cushioned armchairs and a large, polished mahogany library table. Elegant, rare and expensive fine art decorated the walls in the spaces between the ceiling-high rows of equally rare and expensive books.
A handsome oak mini bar lined the north wall beneath the wide, panoramic stained glass window. Lex filled a tumbler with scotch from the mini bar and tossed it back without tasting it. It burned his throat.
“It’s a little early for that, don’t you think? I’m sure you want to make a good showing tonight. It would hardly do for a Creed to compromise himself at such an important function,” Simone Stowe purred.
Lex had not heard her enter the room. She moved as silently as a slinking cat, despite the tall, spiked jeweled heels upon her feet. She was a tall, effortlessly beautiful and willowy-slim woman. Her long, blonde hair tumbled in waves around delicate shoulders. Her dress was short, tight, black and extremely expensive. She leaned against the library table, crossing her long, shapely tanned legs in front of her as though to display them to their greatest advantage. Her lips, painted a deep, dark scarlet, were twisted in an ironic smile.
“It’s never too early for Nico,” Lex replied wryly. He poured himself another drink. Before he raised it to his lips, Simone strode forward and took it gently from his fingers.
She lifted her eyebrows and raised the glass to her own crimson lips. “Did you two have another row? I do wish you two would try to get along.”
Lex smirked. “Do you? I was under the impression you enjoy the tension.”
Simone laughed. “Now, you are very unkind, Lex.” Her eyes drifted toward the opened doors. She seemed not to see them at all. “Is he very upset?”
Lex’s expression was not calculated to give her hope. Her chest lifted again in a delicate sigh. “Maybe you can calm him down.”
Her eyes slid away doubtfully. She swallowed the scotch as though it might steel her nerves and strode past Lex to pour herself another drink. “I do wish you two wouldn’t fight so much,” she repeated in a hushed, serious voice. “You’re brothers.”
She handed him back his glass. He sipped it reflectively. He sighed. “It’s been like this since Dad died.” He turned away from her, staring at the stained glass window as if he could see beyond the delicate patchwork of color. The sky outside was grey, and rain streaked across the glass, running in streams along the cracks. “He just can’t let go. He keeps fighting even though the feud already killed our father. And for what? Does he really mean to kill the entire Mobley family? Does he think that will end it and we can all live in peace?”
Simone sighed. He felt her pause beside him. Her perfume was musky and intoxicating. “I don’t know if Nico knows what peace is like.”
“I think he likes it. The fighting. It gives him a purpose.”
She glanced sharply at him. Her turquoise blue eyes glittered angrily. “You think he lives for fighting and murder? You think that is his only reason? What am I, then? What is the rest of it?”
“I didn’t mean it like that, Simone.”
She sighed deeply. “I know. It’s just…”
Lex glanced at her, but she did not voice the suspicions or nagging doubts in her mind. Simone could do better than Nico. Neither one of them said it. He leaned his forehead against the window, peering out. He could barely make out the Mobley house, blurry and distorted by the rippling glass. The stained glass hadn’t always been there. Years ago, he’d been able to see straight through, into the glowing rooms across the gardens that surrounded both mansions and offered little protection from the other.
She’d been there, all those years ago. He had watched her moving around the rooms across the courtyard. Sometimes she’d looked back. He couldn’t see her now, even if she had still been there. Disgust roiled in his belly.
“Maybe he’s right,” Lex muttered. “Maybe I do want revenge.”
Simone paused at the door and turned back to him. “Perhaps you should spend less time fighting him and more time helping him, then. He wants what you want.”
He turned away from the window when she’d gone. He paced to the mini bar again. He poured himself another drink. He stared at the pale liquid moodily for several long moments. He tossed the contents of the glass abruptly into the small, stainless steel sink. He regretted it almost immediately. He poured himself another.
“I’m glad to see I’m not the only one starting early today.” Peyton Creed said behind him in a sardonic voice.
Lex sighed and spun towards his mother. She was a tall woman, still slender in her advancing age. She was dressed to the nines in a long, green silk gown that swirled around her ankles. Pearls glowed at her throat and on her earlobes. Her long, dark auburn hair was swept into an elaborate twist, displaying her long, ivory neck and sparkling ornaments. She was still very beautiful. She knew it.
She held a tumbler of amber liquid in her perfectly manicured hand. She lifted it as if in salute. “I heard voices. Is Simone here?”
“What are you doing, Alexander?” Her voice was sharp. Her eyes narrowed shrewdly as they had when he was a child and she’d suspected him of wrong-doing.
Lex pushed his hands through his blonde hair so it stuck up from his head. Peyton frowned. She stepped toward him and smoothed it almost reflexively. “Nothing,” Lex replied, batting her hand gently away.
Peyton turned away from him, swallowing her drink as though it were nothing more than water. “Something more constructive, I hope, than your brother.”
Lex didn’t reply. He strode to the window and peered out broodingly.
Peyton paused beside him. Her breath smelled strongly of whiskey. Her perfume was powerful, flowery and sweet. “Those damn Mobleys,” she hissed resentfully. “They were all your father thought of, too. When Caleb was alive, all he did was fight. You and Nicholas are more like him everyday.” She turned to him. There was no sentiment in her watery blue eyes. “You will die like him, too. In the war.”
Lex met her gaze. She wobbled slightly on her high heels. He didn’t reach out a hand to steady her.
“The war will never end,” she told him, glaring at him as though he’d started the whole thing. “Not until they are all dead. Or we are.”
He sighed, turning away from her. “I know.”
Nico was slumped sullenly in a wing-backed arm chair when Lex pushed open the door to his bedchamber. Nico’s eyes followed his brother indifferently as he paused to peer guardedly at him from the center of the room. Nico curled his lip insolently. “What do you want?” There was no rancor in Nico’s voice. He sounded weary.
“Where is Simone?”
“Smart girl. At least she isn’t a complete pushover.” Lex strode forward and kicked his brother’s foot. “You need to get ready for the gala. You’re suit’s a damn mess. Dad would roll over in his grave if you showed up at his fete looking like that.” Nico didn’t smile. Lex sighed. “The Mobleys will be there, Nico. Do you think you can behave?”
Nico scoffed. He looked away disdainfully. “Of course. Unlike some, I would not disparage our father’s memory.”
Lex’s expression was cold. “I need you to be cool tonight, Nico. No attacks.”
“I’m not going to attack anyone! I’m not an idiot. I know how to behave in public, Mobleys or no Mobleys.”
“Good. Change clothes. Mother will kill you if we’re late and blame me for it.” Lex spun and strode towards the door. He paused. “Simone is still coming, isn’t she?”
Nico snorted. “Yes. Of course she’s coming. She wouldn’t let a lover’s quarrel spoil a chance to wear an expensive dress and brush elbows with Spectra City’s elite. I‘m picking her up on the way.” He lifted an eyebrow, straightening in his chair. “I don’t suppose you have a date?”
Lex scowled. He did not respond to this.
Nico smirked. “No, I didn’t think so.” He rose so abruptly, Lex tensed as though preparing for an attack. “I’m getting ready. Go.”
Lex spun on his heel. He slammed the door on his way out.