“Helpful is my middle name,” Cora said. “Well, it’s actually Harriet, but you cannot tell anyone that.” She shuddered then raked me over. “Babe, maybe you should change into something more investigatory?”
I looked down at my leather jacket, then unzipped it to reveal the bloodstained cami with the knife slit in it. “Yeah, you’re probably right.”
“Pack up anything you want to take with you,” Conah said. “I’ll make sure it gets picked up later.”
Up in my attic room, I stripped and quickly pulled on my regular, sturdy bootcut jeans, a vest, a polo jumper, my favorite fluffy socks, and my low-heeled boots made for shitty weather.
What to pack?
My collection of detective novels? My video games? Would I even have time for them? I picked a couple of books and grabbed Chaos Dimensions because, hey, they might have internet in the Underealm, and gaming helped me wind down. I packed some clothes and my toiletries. I could come back for other stuff if I needed it. My gaze snagged on a picture of Aunt Lara and me when I was six on my bedside table. We were both smiling at the camera, and I was clutching Lissa, my favorite doll, the first thing Aunt Lara had bought me when I’d come to live with her. I’d built her myself at a store where they allowed you to customize the dolls. Lissa was gone now. Lost years ago, but she’d gotten me through some nightmares and kept me company when I’d been lonely. I plucked the picture from the bedside table and added it to the stuff to take.
Everything I needed fit in one travel bag, a bag I’d bought in the hopes I would actually get out of the city someday and never used. It still had a tag on it. Story of my life.
My life in a bag.
I’d need to grab my gaming console too, but I could come back for that, I guess.
Downstairs, I put the bag by the door and went in to say goodbye to Cyril. He lifted his head as soon as I entered. His tongue flicked out to taste the air, and then he moved fast toward the glass as if he meant to smash through it.
Whoa. “Easy, big guy.”
The voice was sibilant and demanding.
I stared at Cyril, my brain refusing to process what I’d heard.
“Dammit, woman, speak to me.”
I crouched and leaned in toward the enclosure, so my nose was an inch away from Cyril’s. My breath fogged up the glass, coming faster and shallower as my mind finally accepted the fact that yes, my snake had just spoken to me.
“Oh, my God,” Cyril said. “You fucking hear me, don’t you?”
After everything crazy that had happened in the past few hours, you’d think my pet python speaking to me would have been minor, but nope, my body decided that this moment was the last straw.
I passed out.
I sipped the water Conah handed to me and stared at Cyril. He was silent now. Watching me. Waiting …
“He spoke to you?” Cora asked for the third time.
Maybe he hadn’t. Maybe the stress of the last few hours was giving me auditory hallucinations. “Maybe I’m going insane.”
Conah studied the snake through the glass. “It’s not been unknown for demons to have special abilities, although I’ve never come across one that could communicate with snakes before.”
“Is he speaking to you now?” Cora asked.
I set the glass of water on the coffee table and approached the enclosure. Conah’s shoulder brushed mine, and I caught a hit of his heady scent before he moved back to give me space.
I licked my dry lips and gave Cyril what I hoped was an encouraging smile. “Hey, look, I’m sorry for freaking out on you, but if you can talk, then I’m listening.”
He brought his head up to the glass, eyeing me up warily.
I’d heard him. I was sure of it. I was not insane. “I promise not to flip out, okay.”
“I don’t blame you.” The voice was sibilant and soft.
I held my breath, attention on Cyril’s unmoving mouth. His voice. He was speaking to me. Oh, God, this was real.
“I’m kind of flipping out myself actually,” Cyril continued.
The words weren’t in my head. “Did you guys hear that?”
“No,” Conah said.
Cora shook her head. “Is he talking to you right now?”
“Yeah, he just spoke.”
“What did he say?” Conah asked.
“That he’s flipping out too.” I focused on Cyril. “Have you always been able to talk?”
“If I could roll my eyes, I would,” he said. “All animals can speak, but it’s very rare for anyone to hear or understand us. Although, there was this gecko I knew who swore her handler could hear her. She died a week later when the handler accidentally stepped on her, so I believe it was wishful thinking on her part.” Cyril’s smile widened. “I guess the human didn’t hear the screams.”
“But I can hear you. All of a sudden, I can hear you. Why is that?”
“Do I look like a wise man with all the answers? I’m just as shocked as you. Unfortunately, my face has very limited range of movement.” His head moved from side to side. “Eyebrows make all the difference. You humans do underestimate eyebrows.”
“Well?” Cora asked. “What did he say?”
“He has no idea why I can hear him now when I couldn’t before.”
“It could have to do with that scythe thingy,” Cora suggested.
“Cora has a point,” Conah said. “The scythe can amplify existing talents. Tell me, have you always felt a connection to this creature? An affinity where you feel you understand it, even before you couldn’t hear it.”
I’d always allocated human attributes to Cyril. “Don’t most people do that with their pets, though? Imagine what they might be thinking and feeling?”
“Yes,” Conah said. “Except in your case, it wasn’t imaginary. In your case, Cyril was speaking, and you were subconsciously picking up on his needs.”
“Your reaper friend has a point,” Cyril said. “You do always know what I need.”
“You know about reapers too?”
Conah looked surprised. “He knows what I am?”
“We know a lot of things, Fee,” Cyril said. “Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like out of this enclosure. If you’re going to be gone for several days on this mission of yours, then I’d prefer to have free rein of the house.”
I looked at Cora. “He wants to have free rein of the house.”
“As long as he stays out of my room,” Cora said.
“Once again, if I could roll my eyes, I would,” Cyril drawled. “As if I’d be interested in a ghost’s unslept-in bed and unlived-in chambers. No, there are much more interesting spots to curl up in.”
Wait. “What kind of spots?”
“I’ll let you know when I find them. Now, if you don’t mind …”
I slid the glass of the enclosure open, and Cyril slid out onto the floor. His huge body unfurled and stretched out to its full four-foot length.
“Off you go now,” he hissed. “I’ll be guard snake while you’re gone. Crush any intruders.”
“Maybe don’t crush anyone.”
He slid out of the room.
“Well, that was … Yeah.” Cora crossed her arms under her breasts. “Wonder what other surprises are in store for us today.”
“We should go,” Conah said. “The lunchtime rush will be over. We can scope out the alley in peace before we head back to quarters.”
“Come on, snake whisperer.” Cora nudged me and wiggled her eyebrows. “Let’s put our mystery-solving skills to the test.”
I stood at the mouth of the alley, unable to go in while Cora and Conah scanned the ground for clues. My feet were rooted to the ground, and my pulse pounded like crazy in my veins. Images flitted through my mind—the hooded figures, Peiter with a dagger in his chest.
They’d dragged me in, they’d stabbed me.
They’d tried to kill me in this alley. They’d tried to use the dagger on me.
Why? The question burned a hole in my head. They’d killed Peiter, the person they’d come for, but then why go for me? I was no one. I was … A revelation began to unfurl in my mind.
“Fee, you okay?” Cora asked. “You look like you’re about to puke.”
Conah looked back from farther in the alley. “You do look pale.”
“She was stabbed in this alley,” Cora said. “I think she’s having a flashback.”
I shook it off. “I’m fine. I just … I’m wondering what the hooded figures hoped to gain. Why they’d want to kill Peiter, and I think I have an idea.”
“Okay …” Conah nodded. “I’m listening.”
“So, I healed from the first stab wound, the one made with a regular knife …” I stepped into the alley. “I healed after Peiter gave me the scythe. It healed me.”
“Yes …” Conah said. “A Dominus reaper can’t be killed by regular means. The scythe heals us.”
“Right, I figured that, but Peiter told me to run, and then the hooded figures tried to use the dagger on me. To kill me. If they’d succeeded, what would happen to the scythe?”
Conah looked thoughtful. “I don’t know. There’s only been a handful of incidents when a Dominus has been killed. Each one by a Dread. In the first two cases, the scythe passed to another wielder. In the most recent, it was never retrieved. We were told it was no longer active.”
“Yes, Vale’s body was never returned to us, and neither was his scythe. They killed him, and they disposed of his body.”
I nodded. “Okay. So, those were death by Dread, but what if it’s different when a Dominus is killed with this dagger?”