It had been meant as a warning, not an accusation, but at the moment, Mateo didn’t care. His mind was filled with one horrible image: Nadia as the beastlike, inhuman thing he’d once seen as Elizabeth—golden, melting, ferocious, and brutal. If she changed, his Steadfast powers would force him to see exactly how quickly her humanity drained away. “I don’t know. You want more power, don’t you? You’re always talking about it. How little you know, how much you wish your mom had taught you. You went diving in the sound to get this other spell book even though it nearly killed you.” And then he said the thing he knew he shouldn’t say but couldn’t hold back. “You definitely want your magic more than you want me.”
“What?” Her eyes went wide, like she had no idea what he was talking about. And she knew. She had to know. “Mateo, you’re not making any sense.”
“Yeah, I am. I love you more than you love me, and we both know it.”
“Mateo, please.” Nadia kept shaking her head no, which was meaningless, because everything he’d said was true. “Please, don’t.”
“I have to get out of here.” He grabbed his backpack and headed for the door. Just as he pushed down the ladder, though, he hesitated. “I’ll bring the knife by tomorrow. If you can use it to help Verlaine’s dad, you should.”
When Nadia nodded, he could see that he’d made her cry. Which made him feel like dirt—but he hadn’t said anything that wasn’t true. It didn’t matter. He felt awful anyway.
Her voice shook as she said, “Did you just break up with me?”
Dammit, now his own throat was tight. “No. Because I love you and I can’t help it. But I can’t be here right now.”
The attic door fell shut behind him, like he’d slammed it. He hadn’t. Just sounded that way.
From the higher branches of the tree next to the Caldani home, two witnesses watched Mateo get onto his motorcycle and roar away. One was the crow, which looked on with cobweb eyes, projecting every moment back to Elizabeth.
The other was Asa, who lounged along one long, crooked limb, the wood smoldering slightly beneath him.
“Damn, I’m good,” he said to the crow.
The bird responded by flapping its broad wings and flying away. Asa sighed.
He couldn’t see into the attic from this vantage point, and his myriad powers didn’t involve X-ray vision. But Asa was close enough to hear Nadia’s sobs. They told him all he needed to know.
They’re further apart now. That makes each of them more likely to follow my suggestions. If even one of them succeeds, I rid myself of Elizabeth. And if they’re parted, the One Beneath is more likely to win in the end. Instead of owing His triumph to Elizabeth, He’ll owe it to me.
Maybe then I could be free.
He was lost in thought—rare for him, with his laser-like focus—but this dream was too precious to resist. If Asa were free, he wouldn’t have to suffer in hell any longer. He wouldn’t have to do the bidding of the One Beneath any longer . . .
. . . but he wouldn’t be able to live in the human world, either. At least, not the human world as he now knew it. After the One Beneath’s triumph, there would be little difference between this place and hell. Good-bye, internet; good-bye, blue skies; good-bye, Burger King chicken sandwiches; good-bye, loving parents; good-bye, Celtics games; good-bye, joy and laughter and Verlaine’s smile—
The scent of woodsmoke around him grew stronger. Asa realized he’d lost his concentration enough to very nearly set the tree ablaze, and he wasn’t here to start fires.
So he rolled off the limb, caught himself with one hand for a moment, then dropped silently to the ground, landing on his feet. The jolt would have broken bones in a human; for Asa, it registered as a thump, no more.
Night had begun to fall. In his black coat and dark jeans, he blended easily into the shadows, no magic required. He liked walking along the streets without being seen, without having to pretend to be Jeremy Prasad. Not that there weren’t parts of that masquerade he relished—but sometimes he wanted the simple luxury of being himself, being able to enjoy this world for what it was.
Two weeks to Thanksgiving, a holiday Asa had never experienced. It seemed to involve eating, so he was game to give it a try. He ought to have the joys of this world while they were still here for the having. The more brilliant colors of the leaves had faded to brown, and already as many were on the ground as on the trees. Given the heat that radiated from him, he didn’t need a coat; the one he wore was mostly for show, and also because he looked damn good in it. The mere humans around him were already beginning to don heavier coats, scarves, and those ridiculous knitted hats that made them look like garden gnomes.
Thinking of garden gnomes reminded him of the last time he’d become seriously distracted, enough to nearly start a fire—the night he’d watched Verlaine working on her computer. Her silver hair had fallen over her shoulders, and the light from her screen had illuminated the thin, fragile lines of her face. Her eyes had been wide, like she was drinking in every single thing she could learn, everything the world had to offer.
That memory was replaced by the one from this afternoon in the hospital, when she’d slumped in a plastic chair like a broken doll, all hope and joy gone.
Two people, he thought, anger rising inside him. Only two humans in the world aren’t ensnared by Elizabeth’s spell. Only two of them can see Verlaine for what she really is: her fathers. She might have been allowed to keep them both. It was so little, and it was all she had.