Nick could not move. He could do nothing but watch, and he watched Mum burn.
There was a fire now to rival Anzu’s, and this fire was real. Nick could feel the heat of it, could smell Mum’s burning clothes and hair and flesh. Arthur was screaming, trying to break free of her embrace, throwing up shielding spells, and still enveloped in flames. Nick saw his pale face remain untouched in the center of the fire, while his black hair became a streaming torch. Mum put up no defenses. She did not even scream. She just burned, skin crackling and going black, hair a sheet of flame. Nick knew she was alive only because the fire was still going, backed up by more power than he had ever dreamed she still possessed, burning with the rage and hate Mum had been saving for fifteen years. Arthur’s voice was an inarticulate roar, and the water spells were bouncing off them. For a moment Nick thought that Mum was actually going to succeed.
Then she tumbled against Arthur’s chest, the kiss broken, her body reduced to charred skin and bones. Arthur gasped for clean air, his clothes and hair hanging in blackened remnants.
Mae shouted, “Jamie, come here!”
She positioned the knife point above the magician’s chest, over the heart, and then hesitated. Nick remembered what he’d told her last night: Across the throat or under the ribs for a killing blow.
The magician tried to buck Mae off but she hung on, set her teeth, and slid the knife in under his ribs. Blood flowed out around the knife, spreading across the man’s shirt, and Jamie went white.
“Mae,” he said. “No—”
Mae was panting, her breaths coming out like sobs. “Jamie,” she said, her voice wavering. “Come here.”
Jamie stumbled forward, and Mae closed her hand around the knife blade. Then she reached up to Jamie, still making those sounds between breaths and sobs, and lifted his shirt. She left a bloody handprint on her brother’s hip, over his demon’s mark. For a moment the mark could still be seen, black under the smudgy red print, and then the lines blurred, turning into a gray shadow, and the mark was lost beneath a magician’s blood.
Laura the magician grabbed Mae by her hair, wrenching her up and away from the fallen magician, and swinging her knife down in a vicious arc aimed for Mae’s throat.
“No!” Gerald commanded. He took Jamie gently by the shoulders and pulled him back a step. “Don’t hurt her.”
“She just murdered Rufus!” Laura exclaimed.
“She might be useful,” said Gerald. “Leave her alone.”
Laura looked mutinous for a moment, but she contented herself with pressing the blade of her knife hard against Mae’s already-grazed throat. Mae stayed still, her eyes closed and her face turned away from them all toward the window.
“Do you know why Gerald wants them spared?” Arthur asked, his voice harsh from inhaling smoke and perhaps from something else, something as strange and human as grief.
Nick looked at him, which meant looking at his mother. She was on the floor now, so much discarded rubbish, and Arthur was approaching Nick with glittering, furious eyes. Even as he walked, his burned hair was growing, writhing like so many black and silver snakes. His shirt was wrapping itself around him, the charred shreds twining like lovers.
“Maybe he likes the look of Mae,” Nick drawled.
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
Nick raised his eyebrows. “Does he like the look of Jamie?”
“He thinks that we might be able to use them as bargaining chips,” Arthur snarled. “He thinks that you might prefer them alive. I think Gerald’s young, and he’s being naive. I also think that you’ll do what I say without more bargaining. I sold my wife for this; I sold my son, and I will have what I paid for! Do you know how many demons would give anything to be in your place?”
There was a strange sound as Arthur spoke. Starting low, and then rising above the hiss of his balefire, was the sibilant sound of Anzu laughing.
“Oh yes, anything,” Anzu said. “Who wouldn’t want to be trapped in a pathetic little human mind, unable to remember who they were? Especially since it went so well this time. How many demons volunteered to be put into a squalling brat, Arthur? There was only Hnikarr, and he was always reckless and stupid. Even he almost didn’t do it. Liannan advised against it from the start.”
“Liannan,” Nick echoed.
He remembered her cold kiss and her trembling mouth. She had told him that she had known him once, a hundred years ago or more.
She had told him not to trust Anzu.
“You don’t remember her, do you?” Anzu asked, lips curling and wings forming an almost sardonic curve above his head. “You don’t remember me, either. Of course, we knew you wouldn’t, but Arthur promised he would remind you of us and our claims. I suppose it slipped his mind.”
“Do you think, Hnikarr,” Anzu said, black eyes on his, “that we would ever have trusted a magician with one of our own? You, me, and Liannan…we had an alliance. We agreed to your crazy plan, we knew you would be helpless as a child in this world if the magicians failed you. You promised us bodies, and we bound ourselves in service to you. For years you’ve been calling us up, treating us like slaves, playing the human and remembering nothing! Now you know everything, old friend. When will you be paying your debt?”
It had always been so easy for Nick to call his demons.
Anzu had said the word “friend,” but that did not tally with the frosty snap at the end of every word he spoke. He was not looking at Nick like a friend.
“You shouldn’t have marked my brother,” Nick said slowly.
“How did I know you’d say something like that?” Anzu snarled. “You’re disgusting. Of course I marked him. I am going to kill him. We are demons. That is what we do! If you don’t understand that, there’s at least one thing that hasn’t changed. You were always a fool.”
“Shut up,” Arthur commanded.
“And you’re a fool too,” Anzu said. “Do you have any idea what a demon is? Do you really think, even for escape, we would exchange everything we know, everything we’ve learned over the centuries, to become a crawling creature like that one?”
He spat in Nick’s direction, a fat spark bursting from his beak and sputtering out at the edge of his circle.
“You humans barely live long enough to know you’re going to die! Any of us would rather go on living where we are, snatching escape in a crumbling body, than give up who we are. You’d better come to some arrangement with Hnikarr. The rest of us have all seen what he’s become. Nobody will have anything to do with your marvelous bargain.”
Nick looked at Anzu, dark-winged in his fiery circle, and thought of a hundred questions to ask him, about the demon world, about Liannan. About what he had meant to Liannan and what he had meant to Anzu.
Anzu’s face was filled with malevolent amusement. He’d find it funny, not answering Nick’s questions. Besides, even if Anzu had wanted to tell him, Nick suspected he would not be able to. He would not understand what Nick meant if he asked what a demon was.
Nick should know what a demon was. He should know what he was.
“I didn’t know you two were acquainted,” Arthur said slowly.
“You don’t know much, magician,” Anzu sneered.
“Well, if you know Hnikarr, you can clear up the little debate between me and Gerald. You’ve known it for centuries. Will it care about these humans’ lives?”
Everyone looked at Mae and Jamie. Mae still had her eyes shut, blood sliding down her throat, bloody hands clenched. Gerald was whispering in Jamie’s ear, and there was a change coming slow as dawn over Jamie’s face. He was starting to look angry. Nick knew them both, as he had known very few people in his life. He could remember them in a hundred different ways, Jamie frightened in a bar in Salisbury, Mae supporting him outside the House of Mezentius.
He wondered if that mattered.
Anzu snorted. “Why should he?”
Anzu should know.
“As I thought,” Arthur said. “Humanity is not something that can be built.” He turned to Nick. “You are not my son. You are not something that can feel,” he whispered. “Your own mother is lying there dead. And you don’t care.”
Nick looked across the floor strewn with magical circles to where what remained of Mum lay. All he could see was a heap of burned clothes and hair. She was dead. He had hated her because he’d thought it was her fault they were being hunted, and that had been a lie. She had hated him for wearing her son’s face, which was a lie too.
There was the cold thought in Nick’s mind, somewhere in the gray absence of feeling, that he shouldn’t waste time with humans. They didn’t last.
“Laura,” Arthur snapped. “Gerald. Bring them to me.”
Laura shoved Mae almost onto the blade of the knife with every step. Jamie followed her without Gerald having to push him at all.
Arthur glanced at them and then turned back to Nick with eyes that had been wilder every second since Mum died.
“I know what you are,” he said. “A demon, a creature defined by your actions and desires. I made a bargain with you, knowing what you are. You’ll do what I want because it’s the best thing for both of us. Don’t tell me you care if these two live or die.”
Nick thought of Anzu’s words. He had sounded certain; sounded as if he knew who Nick was, what demons were. Nick was not certain of anything except for unavoidable realities like Mum on the floor.
Maybe he never had felt anything. Maybe it was just that Alan had always expected him to feel something, and he had convinced himself that he could.
He didn’t get a chance to answer Arthur. All the lights went out and they were plunged into what, except for the dim, unearthly light of Anzu’s circle, amounted to total darkness.
Someone screamed, and Black Arthur swore. Close by there was movement in the dark, shadows stirring within shadows, and Nick knew that Mae and Jamie had dived for the floor. Laura cursed, and Nick thought he saw a smaller movement: her hands grasping for Mae an instant too late.
Everyone was in motion. Nobody was watching but Nick, so nobody else saw the small slice of paler shadow when the door opened and shut.
Black Arthur’s voice struck through the darkness like a whip. “Pull yourselves together! There’s no need to panic.”
Nick threw his head back and let himself laugh. It was a slow, delighted laugh, rolling cold as the sea and washing through the whole room. He’d used the laugh before to make people shiver and turn pale.
He knew now that his laugh did not sound human.
“What?” Arthur snapped, and then, as the low laugh continued, his nerve broke and he shouted, “What?”
Nick leaned forward in the dark and whispered, “You don’t know my brother.”
He was still speaking when the first shot was fired.
It was too dark in that room, with night and a summer storm closing in, to see a thing. There were too many magicians and they were moving too much, and Black Arthur was shouting orders and causing even more confusion. The weak shimmer of Anzu’s balefire only seemed to deepen the shadows in the recesses of the room.
Alan had planned this ambush well.
The first shot sounded like bone cracking, and it was followed by a thump. A man screamed, and Nick started to laugh again. The sound should cover the sound of Alan moving. Besides, it was frightening people, and that might help.
He saw another flurry of movement beside him and strongly suspected that Gerald had pulled Laura quietly to the ground. He could tell Alan where they were, once more pressing threats were dealt with.
“Somebody catch that boy!” shouted Black Arthur, and from his charms and amulets came a sudden low, smoky haze of color. It was red like the embers of a dying fire, shot here and there with moody purple. The power outlined the shape «linlet of Arthur’s hands in darkness.