15 June 2015

The Veil – Chapter Three

[ Read Chapter 1 or Chapter 2 ]

CHAPTER THREE

Veil FinalInstead of heading down Royal Street, I walked around the Square to Decatur. It was only a block out of the way, and I liked the route better—I liked seeing the river and imagining the world hadn’t really changed, that life as we’d known it hadn’t really ended. That my father and I still lived in a house in Central City, and I was worrying about dating and getting a good job. That a giant prison wasn’t lurking behind me.

When I was younger, I’d roam through the store’s antiques, making up adventures. I’d always thought it was cool that so many people who lived or worked in the quarter knew my dad, considered him a friend. It was like being part of a secret club—the secret guild of folks who weren’t just tourists but who knew New Orleans. I guess I had a little of that now—Burke seemed to know who I was, for example. But it wasn’t the kind of familiarity I’d expected. And now it was dangerous.

I turned up Conti, reached the building that held the Louisiana Supreme Court, an enormous marble structure that took up an entire block between Royal and Chartres. It was square on the Royal side, and rectangular on the Chartres side with rounded towers on each end.

I’d heard the city had spent tons of money restoring it in the late nineties only to have most of the back half destroyed in the war. Now the building was abandoned, and the few surviving palms and magnolias around it overgrown. The windows were supposed to be boarded over, but plywood was a valuable commodity, so it disappeared more often than not. This time, someone had gotten creative, removing the plywood from enough windows in one curved flank that the dark holes looked like a grinning skull.

You could take the people out of New Orleans, but you’d never get all the crazy.

I rounded the corner, saw movement near one of the magnolias. From the very unfortunate groans, War Night or Drink or both had gotten the best of someone.

I nearly smiled in sympathy before she burst out of the foliage. She couldn’t have been more than eighteen or nineteen, and she was screaming like a maniac.

She didn’t see me in front of her and hit me full on, so we struck the sidewalk together like felled trees. Pain sang through the elbow I’d inadvertently used to break my fall, and the skin scraped against still-hot asphalt. She tried to get to her feet, kneed me in the stomach.

I grunted, tried to help her up, but she wore only shorts and a tank top in the heat, and her skin was slicked with sweat. “What the hell?” I asked.

She didn’t respond, and she was panting when she finally crawled off me, climbed to her feet, and loped into the street. She was limping.

I sat up to watch her, confused. Did she need help, or was she just walking off the effects of a long and boozy night?

But when her gaze met mine, her eyes were wide and terrified. She hadn’t been drunk, I realized; she’d been afraid.

She knew had been my first paranoid and totally irrational thought. She’d somehow realized I had magic, thought of war and terror and death.

But it wasn’t me she was afraid of.

He emerged through the darkness like a horrible ghost, whipping past me like a raptor and leaving behind the scent of something sour and spoiled. The magic had left him desiccated and skeletal. He looked brittle, with pale, nearly translucent skin and hair that had gone white.

He was a wraith. And he wasn’t alone.

A second monster, another male, streaked after him, joined the first one as they followed the woman into the street.

Their withered and angular bodies were partially covered by dirty scraps of cotton and denim, probably the remnants of the clothes they’d been wearing when they finally crossed the line between Sensitive and wraith.

Fear flooded me, and with it, memories of war. Of the blood-hungry Valkyrie I’d killed with my own two hands. Of the angel I’d seen standing atop the Superdome, calling out to his troops with a golden horn, his ivory wings streaked with blood.

I glanced up at the building on the corner. The light on the magic monitor that hung ten feet above the street blinked green, activated by the wraiths’ abundant magic, the energy they’d absorbed from the Veil. Containment had been notified. Agents would be on their way, so I shouldn’t get involved. That was always my father’s advice.

One night, a few weeks before the Battle of New Orleans, he’d stood beside me while we watched a Containment vehicle rumble down Royal. In the back, clutching each other with obvious fear, were male and female Paras whose naked skin glowed pale green in the twilight.

“Will-o’-the-wisps,” he’d said. “Or what we’d call will-o’-the-wisps, at any rate.” That had been before the gaslights were turned on again, and it didn’t take the truck long to disappear from sight.

“They look scared,” I’d said. They hadn’t looked like the enemies we’d faced, the Paras who’d threatened us with weapons and death.

“It’s better not to get involved. What’s our motto?”

He’d said the words a thousand times. “Stay quiet. Work hard.”

“Good. You worry about the store, about the citizens of the Quarter, and let Containment take care of the rest.” He’d looked up at the stars that dotted the sky over New Orleans, visible when the power was out, and put a hand on my shoulder. “Someday, things will be back to the way they were before. Only hard work will get us there.”

He told me that six weeks after he’d helped the army personnel who were left in New Orleans fight a battle it didn’t look like we could win. But he’d jumped into it anyway, because, his warnings to me notwithstanding, that was the kind of guy he was.

He’d died two weeks later.

The woman screamed, pulling me from the memory and back to the present. She’d moved into the empty street, shrieking wildly as she tried to scurry away from the wraiths. Her ankle crumpled, and she hit the ground again.

All the while, the wraiths were getting closer, their eyes focused on her. And they weren’t going to wait. The surplus of magic short-circuited their brains’ impulse-control centers, made them extra aggressive. They’d kill her without hesitation, without remorse, because they existed to feed their hunger for magic. And damn anything that stood in their way.

I knew my father had wanted me safe, that he’d told me not to get involved because life in New Orleans was too precarious now. But the woman was in danger, and Containment wasn’t here. This was my street, my Quarter, my city. That made it my responsibility. I had to keep her safe—or at least keep the wraiths away from her—until help arrived.

I couldn’t use magic—not with Containment cameras all around. I looked around, found a fallen limb beneath one of the gigantic magnolias. Hands shaking with adrenaline, I grabbed it up and ran back toward them, holding the branch like a baseball bat.

“Hey! Get away from her!” I hoped yelling would scare them away and bring out people with actual weapons—assuming anyone was sober enough to hear us, or that the sound could carry over the horns and drums that still echoed from Jackson Square.

One of the wraiths turned back to me, a man with arms painfully pulled toward its body, skinny fingers tipped with long nails. He seemed to sniff the air—recognizing the magic I absorbed like him—then opened his mouth, screamed with a sound that was somewhere between fingernails on a chalkboard and the scrape of rough metal against metal. It was a horrible noise, pitiable and terrifying at the same time, and it made my stomach tighten with nerves.

Head bobbing, it began to lope toward me.

I pushed down fear. If it was moving toward me, it was moving away from her.

“Yeah, that’s right!” I yelled. “Over here!” I waved the stick in the air, ran back and forth across the street, trying to get the other wraith’s attention, too. Not that I knew what I’d do if I got it—but I was at least mobile, stick in hand, with solid lungs.

But it didn’t work. The second wraith grabbed the woman’s ankle, lunged at her.

This time, I didn’t think, I didn’t remember, I didn’t debate. I ran forward, wound up, and slammed the branch across the wraith’s spine. He screamed and reared back, looked at me with furious, watery eyes that were equally pitiful and terrifying.

I wasn’t thrilled about hurting something that I could so easily become. But he didn’t seem to care about my struggle. He shrieked, took a step forward. I moved backward and swung the limb in front of me to make sure he was giving me space.

I caught movement from the corner of my eye, realized the other wraith was also moving toward me. I’d managed to get their attention off the girl, but that might not serve me well in the long term.

I realized I could have used one of those walking sticks about now. Maybe one with a pop-up bayonet.

I looked back at the girl. She still looked wan, but she’d survive, if she could get up and run.

“Go!” I told her, and she climbed to her feet, limped down the street.

I looked back at the wraiths, trying to keep them both in front of me so I wouldn’t be surrounded, so they couldn’t trip me up.

One of them reached out to grab, skinny fingers like painted bones, tipped in thick pointed nails. I swung the limb to bat the hand away, but he was faster than I’d anticipated. He snatched it, wrenched it from my hands, and tossed it down the street.

He swung out with his free hand. He might have been skinny, but he was strong, like his strength had been honed and concentrated into what was left of him. His arm hit me like an iron bar, and I flew backward through the air, a doll thrown by a spoiled child.

I hit the asphalt on my back. Pain burst through my body as the air seemed to fly out of my lungs. I tried to breathe, wheezed roughly.

They were both moving toward me. I sat in the middle of Royal, with not a soul in sight. Drums echoed down the street, the rhythm growing faster as the song rose to its crescendo.

Stay quiet. Work hard. Just like Gunnar had said, I had to be my own hero.

I climbed to my feet, still woozy, and paused to let my brain catch up with my body. But that only gave time for the fear to settle into my bones.

The wraiths opened their mouths, their high-pitched wails shuddering through my body. One of them darted forward and scraped claws along my arm, the scratches burning like he’d poured salt into them. Instinct had me slapping back, pushing him away.

The other one stepped in, ready to take over. I ran down the street to the other corner, putting space between us, but they followed quickly, eyes darting back and forth as they closed the distance.

I moved to the right, and they dodged.

They might have moved like animals, but there was something very human in the way they looked at each other, in the way their eyes met, as if silent communication passed between them. Silent agreement.

They made a deep and guttural sound. The one who’d first followed the woman into the street stayed where it was. The other moved to cut off my exit, as though they were executing a careful plan.

Were they working together? No. That was impossible, just fear and panic making me paranoid.

Either way, they were getting closer. I looked for escape. I glanced around, remembered the alley that ran between two buildings to my left. The fire escapes for both ended there, and a gate halfway down the alley kept people from playing around on them. Well, prewar, anyway. Now the gate was always unlocked; folks who lived in the Quarter used the alley as a shortcut.

I didn’t think wraiths could climb. So if I could get into the alley, I could get behind the gate and close it, putting iron bars between me and them.

I ran for it.

I could hear them lumbering behind me; they sounded more excited. I turned sharply into the alley and barreled toward the gate. I hit the wrought-iron fence, pushed . . . and nearly ran into it when it didn’t budge.

“No, no, no,” I murmured, pushing the gate to force it open, before realizing a shiny new lock had been installed, the gate solidly locked. Of all the damn days for someone to be careful about the damn lock.

I looked up, around. The fire escape was on the other side of the fence, and there was no way to scale it. It was at least seven feet tall, with vertical balusters and nothing to climb.

Like they’d realized victory was near, the wraiths lurched forward.

I was trapped.

I glanced up at the brick walls. There was a monitor at the edge of the alley, the light green like the one down the block. Containment was on its way, but that wasn’t all. The monitors had cameras that would begin filming when the sensors were activated. If I did magic here and now, they’d have me on tape.

“Damn,” I murmured. Talk about a rock and a hard place—or two wraiths and two brick walls and an iron fence. We were down to magic or die.

I decided I’d rather be alive and running from Containment than dead on the street.

“To everything there is a season,” I murmured. I had to hope this wasn’t the reason for my incarceration in Devil’s Isle.

Through the alley, behind the wraiths, was an empty building that had once held an art gallery. The gallery was gone, but its sign still hung from hooks in front. nola artwerks was painted across the square of wood in curved purple script around a fleur-de-lis.

A sign could be a weapon, as I’d learned.

Moving something wasn’t difficult in itself—I’d proven that enough in the shop today. But there was a big difference between moving something accidentally and consciously getting it to go where you wanted. There was a gap between those things I hadn’t learned how to bridge—mainly because I wasn’t allowed to practice.

I blew out a breath. I was going to have to be very careful, and since Containment was supposed to be on the way, I was going to have to be fast.

I focused on the sign, its warped and beaten edge, and thought of the magic that hovered in the air. I tried to clear my mind, to imagine gathering up all that power, using it to force the sign off its hooks and pull it toward me. Frankly, I had no idea what I was doing; this was a best guess.

The wraiths crept forward, drawn by the buzz of energy in the air. But I made myself ignore them, concentrate, set my gaze on the sign, apologized to the person who’d crafted it. Using all that magic in the air, sweat sheening across my skin with the effort, I pulled.

The sign popped off its hooks and hurled through the air toward us. But that’s where the easy part ended.

The sign was only a couple of feet across. But moving it was like guiding an elephant across a piece of dental floss a thousand feet in the air. I drew it toward me, but the sign barely wanted to obey. It barreled across the street, bumping into the brick at the edge of the alley and ricocheting backward.

I didn’t have time to be excited I’d gotten it this far, because I was going to have to thread the elephant-laden dental floss through a needle.

I narrowed my eyes with purpose, imagined the alley growing bigger, the sign shrinking until it was the side of a postcard. And when I had them lined up, I tugged the sign toward me.

One of the wraiths reached out, and I dodged to the side to avoid it. The thread between me and the sign jerked, too. It barreled down the alley, cracked against the wall like thunder, splintering in half. I spun, standing straight again, clasped my hands in front of me, and then wrenched them apart so each hand pointed at the wraiths.

With that motion, I hurled the two pieces of the broken sign toward the wraiths, nailed them both on the back. They screamed, arching and rolling in pain.

But they weren’t deterred. If anything, I’d made them angrier, more intent on getting to me and punishing the hurt I’d caused. I wouldn’t be able to use the power much longer, and could already feel exhaustion settling into my bones. I had to make this count.

I sucked in air, still hot and humid, and jerked the signs forward with the leash of magic I’d created. They moved toward me, and I hit them again—one across the back, the other on the shoulder.

They were still furious. But they were in pain, and their hearts weren’t in the fight any longer. Howling in frustration, they loped back down the alley and into darkness again.

I held my breath, counting to five just in case they changed their mind. But the street was quiet and still. I let the rest of the power go, felt it flow through the alley like a brutal wind. The remains of the sign hit the ground with a clatter, and silence fell again.

# # #

I didn’t have much time to savor my victory. I’d have been on camera, filmed working magic in violation of the Magic Act. I’d be locked into Devil’s Isle, where I’d sit behind bars and wait to become a wraith. There was no way in hell I was going to let that happen.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have any magical endurance, so using it left me starving and dizzy. I took a breath, made myself concentrate, remember what I’d told myself to do, the list I’d made myself memorize just in case worse came to worst. That’s how I dealt with the real possibility I’d be found out: I had an escape plan. A bag and a goal. I’d head west into the country, across southern Louisiana toward Texas. That was the closest Zone border, and if I could get out of the Zone, I’d have a chance.

Follow the steps, I reminded myself. “Step one,” I quietly said, then repeated it again until the words made sense. “Step One: Go home.”

Easier said than done. I crept to the end of the alley, saw two flashlights bouncing up from the river end of Conti. I dodged down the street into the next doorway, pausing while the agents looked into the alley, and then hustled around the corner to Royal.

I hauled ass back to the store, nearly tripping over the uneven sidewalk as I reached the door. I pulled the keys from the dress’s pocket, but my hands were shaky, and it took three tries to get the right key and shift the tumblers home. When the lock snapped, I shoved the door open, slammed it shut behind me again, and ran to the narrow staircase that led to the building’s second and third floors.

Step Two: Get the go bag.

I climbed the stairs to the second floor, opened the antique armoire near the door, grabbed the change of clothes waiting for me. I yanked the dress over my head, wincing as the fabric touched the scrapes on my arm, kicked off my shoes, pulled on the jeans and black T-shirt I’d set aside, and stuffed my feet into low boots. I shoved the discarded clothes into the back of the armoire. Containment might find it, might wonder. But it wouldn’t matter, because I’d be gone.

Next to the waiting pile of clothes was the black leather valise I’d cleaned and outfitted with a cross-body strap. It was packed with necessities: a perfect copy of my identification papers, a few changes of clothes, money. My hands shaking with need, I pulled it out, unfastened it.

Step Three: Fuel.

I grabbed one of the energy bars I’d packed inside, tore at the wrapper like a fiend. I wouldn’t be able to think or run if I was still dizzy from post-magic hunger. I ate the entire thing in two bites, mouth full and chewing as I fought to ease the screaming need in my belly. I swallowed, paused to breathe and suck in air. And when my vision wasn’t shaky, I closed the bag again, rose, and pulled the strap over my body.

I’d gotten to my stash, gotten nutrition. There was only one step left.

Step Four: Say good-bye.

I looked around the room, blinking back tears. Hatboxes, tins, suitcases, books piled in columns around the room that stretched to the rafters. Vintage clothing hung from racks, vintage oil and gas signs—including that damn star—leaned against a brick wall. There was a labyrinth of French secretaries, chests, and armoires brought to New Orleans once upon a very different time to outfit majestic homes.

My chest ached with the heavy sense of failure. I hadn’t managed to hold on to the stuff, to the store—to my family—for nearly long enough. Not enough to keep my family’s memories alive, to safeguard the treasures they’d found. Maybe someday, when Containment wasn’t looking for me, I could return. Maybe—if they didn’t take the shop.

I shook my head, fighting back tears. It couldn’t be helped now. It couldn’t be changed. War had taught me enough about that.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered to the ghost of my father, and walked out of the room. It was time for Step Five.

Run.

# # #

I crept down the stairs, ears straining for the sound of sirens that would signal Containment’s arrival, and the official end of the life I’d known. But the world was quiet, the only sound from the first floor the steady tick of antique clocks. War Night must have kept them busy tonight.

I rounded the stairwell, stepped into the store’s first floor, decided the back door and alley were a better bet than the front. I stopped short when I realized a large body filled the doorway.

My heart hammered against my chest like a frightened bird, which wasn’t much different from my own emotional state.

“Going somewhere?” he asked.

Damn.

The man was backlit by the bright shard of moon, so I couldn’t see his face. But he was a big one. Broad-shouldered, easily six foot two or three. Larger and probably stronger than I was. I wouldn’t be able to best him physically, and I’d have to wait to recharge before I could move something again. That meant I’d have to talk my way out of this. Fortunately, I had eight months of fibbing under my belt.

I schooled my expression into nonchalance and moved down the stairs. My gaze was on him, but I was thinking about escape, about making it to the back door, then the alley, then Royal, where I’d run until my legs couldn’t carry me anymore.

“The store’s closed.”

“Be that as it may, the door wasn’t locked.” His voice was deep, strong, and just a little accented. Cajun, I guessed.

I cursed myself silently for failing to lock the door. “My mistake. But we’re closed for War Night. Open again tomorrow.”

He took a step forward, slipping into the spear of light, and I stared at him. He was the man from Bourbon Street, the blue-eyed guy who’d looked at me before disappearing into the crowd.

The impact of that dark hair, those vivid eyes, was even stronger up close. Not just because he was handsome, but because he now seemed to be a threat. I pushed down the warring attraction and fear. Neither would help me now.


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