19 April 2012

Biting Cold – First Chapter

Chapter One

It shone like a beacon. More than a thousand feet of skyscraper, the lights at the top of its antennas blinking through the darkness that blanketed the city. The Willis Tower, one of the tallest buildings in the world, was nestled in downtown Chicago, surrounded by glass and steel and the waters of the Chicago River and Lake Michigan. Its bulk was a reminder of where we’d come from . . . and where we were going.

We’d left Hyde Park, our home turf, and were heading west across the plains toward Nebraska and the Maleficium, an ancient book of magic that my (former?) best friend, Mallory, was evidently intent on stealing.

My nerves on edge, I tightened my grip on the steering wheel of my companion’s sleek Mercedes convertible.

That companion, Ethan Sullivan, smiled at me from the passenger seat. “You needn’t look so morose, Sentinel. Nor should you keep looking at the postcard of the city you’ve taped to the dashboard.”

“I know,” I said, sitting up a little straighter and scanning the freeway before us. We were somewhere in the cornfields of Iowa, about halfway between Chicago and Omaha. It was November and the corn was gone, but the acres of wind turbines arced in the darkness above us.

“It’s just weird to be leaving,” I said. “I haven’t really been out of Chicago since I became a vampire.”

“I think you’ll find life as a vampire is fairly similar regardless of the location. It’s really only the food that’s different.”

“What do you think they have in Nebraska? Corn?”

“And steak, I imagine. And probably most everything else. Although your Mallocakes may be hard to find.”

“That’s why I packed a box in my duffel bag.”

He burst out laughing like I’d told the funniest joke he’d ever heard, but I’d told the absolute truth. Mallocakes were a favorite dessert—chocolate cakes filled with marshmallow cream—and they were exceedingly hard to find. I’d brought some along just in case.

Regardless of my culinary choices, we were on our way, so I smiled and worked on adjusting to the fact that Ethan, the once and future Master of Chicago’s Cadogan House, was sitting in the seat beside me. Less than twenty-four hours ago, he’d been completely and utterly deceased. And now, by a trick of ill-intentioned magic, he was back.

I was still pretty dumbfounded. Thrilled? Sure. Shocked? Absolutely. But mostly dumbfounded.

Ethan chuckled. “And are you aware you keep looking over here like you’re nervous I’m going to disappear?”

“It’s because you’re devastatingly handsome.”

He grinned slyly. “I wasn’t questioning your good taste.”

I rolled my eyes. “Mallory brought you back from ashes,” I reminded him. “If something like that is possible, there’s not much in the world that’s impossible.”

She’d raised Ethan from ashes to make him a magical familiar . . . and to release an ancient evil that had been locked away in a book by sorcerers who thought they were doing the world a favor. They had been, at least until Mallory decided releasing the evil would fix her weird sensitivity to the locked-away dark magic.

Fortunately, her spell had been interrupted, so she hadn’t actually managed to set the evil free or make Ethan a familiar. We assumed that was why she’d escaped her bonds and was chasing down the Maleficium—she wanted another try.

Familiar or not, Ethan was back again: tall, blond, fanged, and handsome.

“How do you feel?” I asked.

“Fine,” he said. “Unnerved that you keep staring at me, and pissed that Mallory has interrupted what should be a very long and involved reunion between me and my House and my vampires.” He paused and looked over at me, his green eyes fire bright. “All of my vampires.”

My cheeks burned crimson, and I quickly turned my gaze on the road again, although my mind was decidedly elsewhere. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

“As well you should.”

“What, exactly, are we going to do if we find Mallory?”

“When we find her,” he corrected. “She wants the Maleficium, and it’s in Nebraska. There’s little doubt our paths will cross. As for the what . . . I’m not entirely sure. Do you think she’d be amenable to bribery?”

“I’m aware of only one thing she wants,” I said. “And she has a head start, which means she’ll probably get there before we do.”

“Assuming she manages to evade the Order,” Ethan said. “Which seems pretty likely.”

The Order was the union of sorcerers that had been overseeing Mallory in rehab and was responsible for keeping the Maleficium safe. All around, they’d done an embarrassingly bad job of both.

“That’s funny, Sullivan. Especially for someone who’s been alive for barely twenty-four hours.”

“Don’t let my youthful good looks confuse you. I now have two lifetimes of experience.”

I made a sarcastic sound but said a silent thank-you. I’d grieved for Ethan, and it was glorious—all the more for being so unexpected—to have him back again.

Unfortunately, my gratitude was matched by the icy gnawing in my stomach. He was here, but Mallory was out there, inviting an ancient leviathan back into our world.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“I can’t shake the Mallory funk. I’m furious with her, mad at myself for missing the fact that she was the one trying to destroy Chicago, and irritated that instead of celebrating your return, we have to play supernatural babysitters for a woman who should know better.”

I rued the day Mallory had learned she had magic; things had gone downhill for her—and by extension, her friends and family—since then. But she’d been my friend for a long time. She’d jumped to my defense the first day we’d met, when a thug tried to snatch my backpack on the El, and it was her shoulder I’d cried on when Ethan made me a vampire. I couldn’t abandon her now, even as much as I might have wanted to.

“We’re on our way to find her. I’m not sure what else we can do. And I agree that you should be basking in my glory . . . especially since I took a stake through the heart to save your life.”

I couldn’t help but grin. “And it didn’t even take you twenty-four hours to remind me.”

“One uses the tools at one’s disposal, Sentinel.”

There was a twinkle in his eye, even as the telltale line of worry appeared between his eyebrows.

“Do you have any idea where we’re actually supposed to go when we get to Nebraska? Where the silo is? It’s a big state.”

“I don’t,” he said. “I’d planned to give Catcher time to get his bearings and then ask for details.”

Catcher was Mallory’s boyfriend. He’d been employed by my grandfather, Chicago’s supernatural Ombudsman until Diane Kowalcyzk, the city’s new mayor, stripped him of the title. Like Mallory, Catcher was a sorcerer, but he’d been on the outs with the Order much longer than she had.

My cell phone rang, a herald of news, good or bad.

Ethan glanced at it, then propped it up on the dashboard between us. “I guess he’s ready to talk.”

“Ethan, Merit,” Catcher said in greeting. His voice was gravelly, his tone even lower than usual. He wasn’t one for displays of emotion, but Mallory’s disappearance had to be wearing on him.

“How are you doing?” I asked.

“The woman I’d planned to spend the rest of my life with is trying her best to open Pandora’s box, and damn the consequences. I have had better days. And weeks.”

I winced sympathetically. “So fill us in. What do we know?”

“She was staying at a facility not far from O’Hare,” Catcher said. “There were armed guards to keep an eye on her and medical staff to make sure she was stable.”

“I thought the Order didn’t have operations in Chicago?” Ethan asked.

“Baumgartner claims it’s not an Order facility. Just an inpatient medical facility where Baumgartner has friends,” Catcher said. Baumgartner was the head of the Order. From the sound of Catcher’s voice, he wasn’t buying Baumgartner’s excuse.

“So what happened?” Ethan asked.

“She slept for a while, woke up, and started talking about her addiction. She seemed self-aware, remorseful, so they removed her restraints for a med exam.”

“That’s when she attacked the guard?” Ethan asked.

“Yeah. Turns out, she wasn’t groggy. The guard’s still in the hospital, but I understand they’re releasing him today.”

“Where did she go?” I asked.

“Transit authority security cameras have a record of her,” Catcher said. “She caught the El and then took the train to Aurora. She was spotted at a truck stop, catching a ride on an eighteen-wheeler headed to Des Moines. The trail ran cold in Iowa. She hasn’t popped up again since.”

Catcher had been the one to put a stop to Mallory’s familiar spell by knocking her out. Pity he hadn’t knocked her out a little harder.

“So she’s probably headed toward Nebraska,” I guessed. “But how did she know to go there? How did she know the Order would send the Maleficium there instead of to a new guardian?”

“Simon told her about the silo,” Catcher said. “And he and Baumgartner visited and talked about the book being transported when she was supposedly asleep.”

“That’s two more strikes against Simon,” I said.

“Yep,” Catcher said. “He’d be out of the Order if Baumgartner wasn’t afraid of him. Too much knowledge, too little common sense. If he’s still a member, Baumgartner still has some authority.”

“Tough position to be in,” Ethan mused. “Any thoughts on our strategy?”

“First step is to get closer,” he said. “You’ll want to head toward Elliott, Nebraska. It’s about five miles northwest of Omaha. The Order’s archivist lives in a farmhouse outside the silo. I’ll send directions.”

“The archivist?” I asked.

“The recorder of Order history.”

“And will he be the only sorcerer guarding the book?” Ethan asked.

“Her name is Paige Martin. She’s the only sorcerer at the farmstead; she’s also the only sorceress in Nebraska. The Maleficium isn’t always kept there. Since it travels, there’s no need for a full contingent. I’ve asked them to reconsider letting me go,” Catcher quietly added. “I want to be there if things go bad. If worse comes to worst. But they’re afraid I can’t be objective.”

We were all quiet for a moment, probably all imagining just how bad things might go, and the possibilities that we couldn’t save Mallory . . . or that she wouldn’t want to be saved.

“But they’ll allow this archivist to be there?” Ethan asked.

“She doesn’t know Mallory,” Catcher said, “and she’s part of the Order. They think she can handle herself.”

And they probably thought they could handle her, too. Just like they could handle Simon, Mallory, and Catcher, before he was kicked out. The Order had an awful track record for managing its employees.

“You’d think they could spare one or two more soldiers to stop a problem they created in the first place,” Ethan mused.

“Unfortunately,” Catcher said, “this isn’t the world’s only magical crisis, and there aren’t many sorcerers to go around. They’re assigned as they’re available.”

I’d been taught as Sentinel to make do with what I had, but that didn’t mean I had to like a bad set of odds, or the thought of similar crises around the world.

“We’ll chart a course for Elliott,” Ethan said. “Mallory got a head start, so it seems unlikely we’ll reach the book before she does. You might warn the archivist, if you haven’t already.”

“She knows. And there’s something else.” Catcher cleared his throat nervously. At the sound, Ethan shifted uncomfortably in his seat.

“It’s possible you and Mallory aren’t the only ones on the road. Seth Tate was released this morning.”

I swore under my breath. Seth Tate was the former mayor of Chicago, deposed after we’d discovered he’d been running a drug ring.

Tate was also a supernatural with an old, unfamiliar magic, one that had lifted the hairs on my neck more than once. Unfortunately, we knew nothing else about his powers.

“‘This morning’ was hours ago,” Ethan said. “Why are we just learning this?”

“Because we’re just learning it. We aren’t employees anymore, so Kowalcyzk didn’t feel the urge to fill us in. Our new mayor has decided Tate was framed, in part because one of the individuals allegedly killed at his residence was spotted outside Cadogan House earlier tonight.”

“That would be you,” I whispered to Ethan.

“And no thanks to Tate,” Ethan said. “Do we think he’s looking for the Maleficium, too?”

“We don’t know for sure,” Catcher said. “He was pardoned by Kowalcyzk, so the CPD didn’t feel they had the authority to follow him, even if they had the resources. And we’re short staffed today.”

“Short staffed?” I wondered. There were three unofficial Ombuddies, as I liked to call them, in addition to my grandfather: Catcher; computer wizard Jeff Christopher; and the admin, Marjorie. None seemed like the type to miss work.

“Jeff called in today. Said he had some things to take care of. Which is only fair since he’s not an employee and isn’t actually paid to be here.”

Logical, sure, but it still seemed weird. Jeff was uncommonly reliable, and he was usually planted in front of his very large computer. Of course, if he’d needed our help, he wouldn’t have been shy about asking for it.

“We can’t be sure he’s looking for the book,” I said, “but I wouldn’t be surprised to find him in the middle of the action. After all, he was the one who told me about the Maleficium.” He’d been clearly intrigued by the magic, and it wasn’t hard to imagine he’d cash in on an opportunity to grab it. It was too bad I hadn’t brought along my worry wood, a token of magic from my grandfather that gave me protection from Tate’s more subtle forms of magic.

“No argument there,” Catcher said.

“In the unlikely event Tate causes problems in Chicago, you can call Malik,” Ethan said. “He can rally the rest of the Cadogan guards.”

Malik was the official Master of Cadogan House, Ethan’s second until he’d been killed and still in charge until Ethan was officially Invested as Master again.

“You can also call Jonah,” I offered, but the offer was met with silence. Jonah was captain of the guards of Chicago’s Grey House, and he’d been my substitute partner while Ethan had been gone. Although neither Catcher nor Ethan knew it, Jonah was also my official partner in the Red Guard, a secret organization dedicated to keeping an eye on the vampire Masters and the Greenwich Presidium, the British council that ruled us.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” Catcher said. “For now, I need to wrap this up. I’ll call you if I learn anything else.”

We said our good-byes, and Ethan switched off the phone.

“He seems to be holding up,” Ethan said.

“He doesn’t have much of a choice. He loves her, or I assume he still does, and she’s out there head over heels in danger, and he can’t do a damn thing about it. For the second time.”

“How did he fail to see what she was doing the first time around?” Ethan wondered. “They were living together.”

Mallory had set Chicago ablaze in her attempt to make Ethan a familiar. She’d made the magic in the basement of the Wicker Park brownstone she and Catcher shared.

“I think part of it was denial. He didn’t want to believe she was capable of the mess she put the city through. And she was studying for exams—and taking them, apparently—the entire time. If Simon didn’t suspect anything, why should Catcher?”

“Simon again?”

“Unfortunately. And that’s not the end of it. Catcher thought she and Simon were having an affair. Not a romantic one, maybe, but they were becoming too close for his comfort. He was afraid she was going to take Simon’s side—the Order’s side—against Catcher.”

“Love does strange things to a man,” Ethan said, his voice suddenly distracted. He tapped a finger on the dashboard. “There’s something in the road there. A dog?”

I squinted at the freeway ahead, trying to ferret out what Ethan had spotted. After a moment, I saw it—a dark mass on the centerline a quarter mile ahead. It wasn’t moving. It also definitely wasn’t a dog.

Two arms, two legs, six foot tall, and standing in the middle of the road. It was a person.

“Ethan,” I called out in warning, my first thought that the figure was McKetrick, a Chicago-based vampire hater who’d guessed our route and was ready to launch an attack against the car.

The sudden punch of peppery magic that filled the car—and the cloying scent of sugar and lemons that accompanied it—proved this was a magical problem . . . and a problem I knew all too well.

A cold sweat trickled down my back. “It’s not an animal. It’s Tate.”

We didn’t have time to decide whether to fight or take flight. Before I could speed up or change course, the car began to slow.

Tate had somehow managed to take control of it.

I wrenched the wheel, but it made no difference. We were heading right for him.

Fear and anticipation tightened my chest, my heart fluttering like a frightened bird beneath my ribs. I had no idea what Tate was capable of, or even what he really was. Well, other than an asshat.

We slowed to a stop in the middle of the westbound lanes, straddling the centerline. Fortunately, it was late and we were in the middle of Iowa; there wasn’t another car in sight. Since Tate had rendered the car useless and there was no point in wasting gas, I turned off the ignition but left the headlights on.

He stood in the beam in jeans and a black T-shirt, his hair ruffled into dark waves. There was a glint of gold around his neck, and I knew instantly what it was. Every Cadogan vampire wore a small gold disc on a chain, a kind of vampire dog tag, that identified their name and position. I’d bargained mine away to Tate in exchange for information about the Maleficium.

Ethan had given me the medal, and although I’d gotten a replacement, I didn’t like to see Tate wearing it.

“I’m open to any suggestions you might have, Sentinel,” Ethan said, eyes fixed on Tate.

Unfortunately, our sharp and sleek Japanese swords were in the trunk, and I doubted Tate was going to give us time to grab them.

“We face him,” I said. “And in case we need to make a run for it, leave your door open.” Knowing Ethan could maneuver the Mercedes more effectively than me, I handed him the keys, sucked in a breath, and opened the door.

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