City of the Dead
New Orleans -- St. Louis No. 3
"So where's this weird-ass bit of hoodoo supposed to be?" Von asked.
"Beside a tomb," Dante said as they scaled the cemetery's locked, wrought-iron fence, both vaulting with ease over the black bars and onto the path below.
"Yeah, but which tomb?"
"Baronne, I think," Dante said, pushing his hood back. He chose the paved central path and followed it past gleaming white crypts. He drew in a deep breath of cherry-blossom-scented air. But beneath the sweet scent, he caught a whiff of decay, moldering bones, and old, old grief.
"These N'awlins cemeteries are creepy as hell," Von commented. "I can't imagine what they'd look like in daylight."
"Didn't you ever check 'em out when you were still mortal?"
"Hell, no," Von snorted. "Like I said, creepy. Especially for a delicate flower likemoi." He paused, touching a finger to his ear. "Wait...breaking news. Correction, seems Iain'ta delicate flower." He shrugged. "Who knew? Mama musta lied."
Dante laughed. "Yeah, you're gonna be fun on the tour bus."
"Man, I'm funanywhere. And we should be heading to the airport soon."
"Yeah, yeah, I know."
Dante read the names on the tombs as he passed: DUFOUR, GALLIER, ROUQUETTE, and listened for the quiet pulse that had drawn him to St. Louis No. 3. When he caught the letters BA, he stopped, his heart kicking against his ribs.
He hears the sound of his own voice, raw and demanding, the words echoing in the cathedral's vaulted silence. "What was her name? Genevieve...what?"
Dante's hands clenched into fists as he struggled with the memory. He closed his eyes. His breathing quickened and fire flickered to life within his veins. Smoldered within his heart. He opened his eyes. Pale moonlight shafted through the thick, twisted oaks, dripped from the Spanish moss.
"Baptiste," he whispered.
<You okay, little brother?>Von sent.
Dante nodded. He looked at the tomb and finished reading the name chiseled into the white stone: BASTILLE. He released his breath. His hands unknotted and an emotion he couldn't name curled through him, damping the flames into embers.
Did his mother even have a grave?
A hand squeezed his shoulder and he looked up into Von's moonlit, green eyes. The nomad had shoved his El Diablo shades on top of his head.
"You sure, man? No pain? Cuz I thought I felt -- "
Dante cupped Von's whisker-rough face between his hands. He brushed his lips against Von's, tasted him, whiskey and road dust, then smoothed his thumbs along the edges of the mustache framing the nomad's mouth.
"I'm good,mon ami," Dante replied. Dropping his hands, he twisted free of the nomad's grip. "And I don't need a fucking nanny."
Von extended a middle finger. Arched an eyebrow. "How about that? You need that?" Extended the finger on his other hand. "How about some more?"
"I'll take it all," Dante said, "gêné toi pas."
Dropping his El Diablos back over his eyes, Von shook his head and sighed. "Boy's hopeless as hell."
As they resumed walking the moonlit path, a hush swirled through the city of the dead, isolating it from the world beyond the wrought-iron fence like a deep black moat. The air was so still the muffled clink of the chains on Dante's leather jacket and the creak of Von's leather chaps echoed in the silence.
But beneath the hush, Dante caught the faint rhythm that had -- for the last couple of weeks -- filled his mind just as Sleep swept over him. Primal. Like a tribal drum beating within the earth's heart.
Like the wordless song that poured, at times, from Lucien and into him, its complicated melody meshing with the refrain of his answering song. Similar, yeah, but not the same. This rhythm reminded him of the unfamiliar song that had rung through his mind that night in Club Hell.
The night Jay had been murdered, dying as Dante had struggled to reach him.
I knew you'd come.
The same night he'd found Lucien broken and impaled on the checkered floor of St. Louis Cathedral, his wings torn, his song nothing but cooling embers. And had learned that Lucien, his closest friend, hisami intime, was something else altogether.
You look so much like her.
Pain prickled at Dante's temples.Send it below. Focus on now. Focus on here.
The song wisped into his mind again like smoke. A muted, desperate rhythm. Beckoning him. Hemoved, racing past whitewashed and time-weathered statues guarding tombs, standing sentinel to loss. Trees and marble monuments blurred into one flickering shadow as he picked up speed.
The song's deep-earth drumming pulsed in time with the blood flowing through his veins, increasing in intensity until he felt it resonate within his own chest. Then the sound vanished.
Dante slowed to a stop. He stood next to a tomb marked BARONNE. And crouched beside it, holding a bouquet dead and dried, its wings curved forward, mouth wide-open, was a stone angel.
The one rumored on the streets to have appeared in the cemetery overnight.
Magic, some said.Gris-gris, others believed. A sign.
So mortals whispered, yeah.
And nightkind said nothing, their silence uneasy.
A gust of cool air smelling of leather, frost, and old motor oil fluttered his hair as Von stopped beside him. "Well, there ya go," the nomad said. "Weird-ass hoodoo shit."
"Ain't just hoodoo shit,llygad," Dante murmured, his gaze on the stone angel. He felt Von step back a few paces as he took up his duties as Eye.
Observing. Safeguarding. Composing.
Candles in glass holders burned before the stone angel. The smell of vanilla and wax curled into the air. Plastic Mardi Gras beads hung from the wing tips and around the corded throat. Good luckxs chalked in blue, yellow, and pink decorated the path in front of the statue, and curled scraps of paper nestled against the taloned feet.
"One of the Fallen, looks like," Dante said. Something else Lucien hadn't bothered to mention. "And someone's turned him to fucking stone."
Dante knelt, picked up one of the pieces of paper and read it.Loa of the stone, grant me protection from evil. Keep me safe in the night.He returned the prayer to its place beside the stone foot.
He studied the squatting shape. Moonlight glimmered and sparkled like ice along faint patterns etched into the wings. But not feathered wings, no. Like Lucien's, these wings would be black and as smooth as warm velvet to the touch, the undersides streaked with purple. Waist-length hair framed the screaming face. The figure was nude, except for some kind of thick collar-bracelet twisted around the throat and a bracelet around one bicep. And most definitely male.
Von sent an image of the collar-bracelet.<Torc. Celtic. Ancient.>
Moonlight illuminated a dark stain on the statue's forehead. It looked swiped on, a blood symbol of some kind, maybe a hoodoovévé. Dante leaned forward, leather jacket creaking, and touched the stain. Residual power crackled against his fingertips like static electricity. A tiny blue flame arced in the space between his hand and the statue.
Catching a whiff of Lucien's pomegranates-and-dark-earth scent from the blood symbol, Dante pulled his hand back and regarded the angel, wondering what Lucien had done and why. To turn one of his own kind into stone...
Then he remembered Lucien's words fromthatnight:Shield yourself. Shut it out. Promise me you won't follow.
Dante would bet anything he was looking at the reason why for that promise. Touching a finger to the collar --torc-- around the angel's throat, he closed his eyes and listened. Song whispered in through his fingertips. His breath caught in his throat as his own song, chaotic and dark, answered. The stone beneath his fingers tremored like a rung bell.
Pain suddenly bit into his mind. White light strobed behind his closed eyes. Migraine storm warning. Dante opened his eyes and started to rise, then hesitated, one knee still down on the pavement. The fading song plucked at him like desperate fingers.
He wrapped his left hand around the angel's dead bouquet. The sun-dried stems and shriveled petals crackled beneath his fingers. Flaked away like cindered wood. Like unspoken truth.
You look so much like her.
You knew all this time? And you never said a word?
Anger swept through Dante and music pulsed white-hot at his core. He poured energy into the wasted bouquet's remains. Song, dark and driven and wild, raged through his mind, from his heart, and spiraled around the skeletal stems. Blue fire kindled in his palms and shimmered against the stone.
The cupped stone fingers now held green stems topped by tightly closed buds. But pain shafted through Dante's mind again and his rhythm shifted, blasted harsh and dissonant notes, and his song spilled away into the night.
His hand slid from the angel and he staggered up to his feet. Pain twisted through his mind, snagged his thoughts like barbed wire. He clenched his jaw. Tried to will the pain away.
Send it below.
The cemetery spun; the moonlit tombs wheeled white beneath the cypress. Blood trickled from his nose. Spattered the pavement at his feet.
Behind, he heard Von calling his name.
Within, voices whispered.Dante-angel?
Above, he heard a rush of wings.
Dante closed his eyes and touched fingers to his temples. Sweat slicked his skin. A familiar, cool touch pressed against his mind, seeking admittance. Lucien. He tightened his shields, refusing.
Fingers squeezed his shoulder. "How the hell do you do that?" Von's voice, low and tight, sounded uneasy.
Dante opened his eyes. A black-flowered and thorned bouquet swayed within the angel's stone grip as though caught in a gentle breeze. Or as if it moved on its own, dancing to the song cupped within the heart of each dark blossom.
"Fuck." He'd done it wrong. Pain throbbed behind his eyes. "Not what I intended."
"Intended or not," Von said, "that gift ain't nightkind, least not that I've ever heard. Must come from your dad's side of the family."
"Yeah, my thought too."
Von gently turned Dante around. "How's your head?" he asked.
Dante shrugged and wiped his nose with the back of his hand. Blood smeared his skin. "I'm okay."
Sliding his shades up, the nomad cocked an eyebrow and regarded him dubiously. "Uh-huh," he said, then dropped the shades back over his eyes.
Dante glanced at the stone angel and the midnight twist of flowers in its hand. "Why?" He nodded at the offerings tucked at the angel's feet. "Why do mortals pray this way? What do they hope to gain?"
Von stroked his mustache, considering. "Hard to say," he replied. "A lot of different reasons. Some might be prayers for a friend or relative who's in trouble, maybe for protection or success, or to be healed from something."
Dante's gaze returned to the candles. He stepped forward and fingered a loop of smooth beads dangling from one wing tip. "Did you do stuff like this? When you were mortal? Pray, I mean."
"No, not like this," the nomad replied. "And I never prayed to anyone, ya know? I just kinda said things that I really hoped would happen, like wishing a friend safe on a long journey or saying good-bye to one that'd died."
"Who hears the wishes and good-byes?"
"I forget you don't know this stuff." Von shook his head. "Who hears the wishes and good-byes? The speaker does," he said, voice quiet, reflective. "And you hope that what you say from the heart has power. Power to protect, power to reach the ears of the dead. A spoken thing or a wished-hard thing takes a shape within the heart, man. Takes shape. Becomes real."
"Becomes real," Dante repeated. "And the good-byes?"
"Good-byes can heal the hurt. Or at least start the healing."
This doesn't need to be good-bye.
Heather's words whispered through Dante's memory. An image of her filled his mind: Rain-beaded red hair, black trenchcoat, cornflower-blue eyes, she'd lookedintohim with her steady gaze. She was a fed, yeah, but a woman of heart and steel too. He remembered telling her:Run from me.
She had and now she was safe.
From him, maybe. But was she safe from the Bureau? She'd uncovered a nasty secret in D.C. Now she was caught between the truth and a hard fucking place. She was on her own in Seattle, without backup.
But not for long.
The West Coast leg of the tour ended with two gigs in Seattle followed by two weeks of downtime before the tour picked up again. Trey had already ferreted Heather's address, had teased it free from the Seattle DMV's online records with a deft touch.
Easier than rolling a tourist on Bourbon Street, Tee-Tee.
Dante let go of the Mardi Gras necklace, the beads clicking against the stone wing, and turned to face Von. "You got paper? A pen?"
Von frowned. "Fuck, I dunno." He patted his jacket pockets, leather creaking with his movement. "I hope you ain't planning on me taking dictation." He pulled a Bic pen from an inside pocket.
Dante took the pen, holding it between the fingers of his left hand as the nomad fished a wadded-up receipt out of his front jeans pocket and handed it to him.
Kneeling on the pavement in front of the stone angel, Dante smoothed the crumpled piece of paper against his leather-clad thigh. His pulse raced as he scrawled his prayer on the receipt, wondering if it had the power to protect, the power to reach the ears of the dead.
Dante folded the piece of paper, then raised it to his lips and kissed it. Blood from his nose dotted the prayer with dark color. He laid it at the angel's taloned feet among all the other paper prayers and chalk wishes.
Dante stood, glanced at Von. Wondered at the expression on his face, shadowed and a little sad. A smile touched the nomad's mustache-framed lips as he took his pen back and tucked it away again.
"You ready, little brother?" he asked, voice low.
"What time does the plane leave?"
"In about two hours."
Dante nodded. "Let's go."
A sudden gust of vanilla- and wax-scented air blew Dante's hair into his eyes. The candles flickered wildly and a few dimmed to blue, then died. Von's gaze shifted up and his brow furrowed. Dante's muscles knotted. Pain pulsed at his temples. He saw his own tension mirrored in the nomad's face.
Hoped we'd slip away without a scene. But maybe I need to play this out.
"Child, wait." Lucien's deep voice resonated from the sky above.
Pushing his hair back with both hands, Dante drew in a deep breath, swiveled around, and watched as Lucien descended from the star-flecked night, black wings stroking gracefully through the air.
Dressed only in expensive black slacks, Lucien De Noir touched bare feet to the flagstones bordering the Baronne tomb. His wings flared once more before folding behind him, their tips arching above his head. He straightened to his full six-eight height, his black hair spilling over his tight-muscled shoulders to his waist. His handsome face was composed, watchful. Gold light glimmered in the depths of his eyes.
"Wait, huh?" Dante shifted his weight to one hip and crossed his arms over his chest. "Give me one fucking reason why."
"You can't go on tour."
"That's acommand, not areason. And fuck you."
"You're not well. Your control slips more every day. You're dangerous."
Fire blazed to life, fused with the pain in Dante's head, the ache within his heart. "Fuck you twice," he said, voice low and strained.
Lucien's face remained impassive, but tendrils of his black hair lifted as though breeze-caught. "You know I speak the truth."
"Wow." Dante's gaze locked with Lucien's. "Is that like a first for you?"
A muscle jumped in Lucien's jaw. Shifting his attention to Von, he said, "I need to speak alone with my son."
<You want me to stay? Play referee?>Von sent.
<No, I'm cool. Don't worry. I'll meet you at the bike.>
<Your nose is still bleeding, little brother.>
"Merde," Dante muttered, wiping his nose against the sleeve of his jacket.
Von studied him for another moment before nodding. "Okay. See you in a few." He walked down the path past moon-washed crypts to the cemetery gates. "Play nice, you two," he called over his shoulder.
"I didn't lie to you," Lucien said, voice tight.
"D'accord, you didn't lie. But you kept the fucking truth from me and that's the same as lying. Happy now?"
"How can I be when your search for the truth is tearing you apart?"
"My problem, not yours. Stay outta my business."
"Impossible. Youaremy business!"
"Fuck you! I ain't your business, never was!" Pain fractured Dante's vision, throbbed at his temples. Blood trickled hot from his nose. "We werefriends, remember?"
Lucien looked away. His fingers reached for the pendant that no longer hung at the base of his throat -- the rune for friendship, for partnership, that Dante had given him -- then closed into a fist. Dante wasn't sure when Lucien had lost the pendant or how, but its loss seemed somehow karmic to him.
"I made a mistake, one I regret," Lucien said, returning his gaze to Dante's. Amber fire flared in his eyes. "But I refuse to keep apologizing."
"I neveraskedfor a fucking apology." Rubbing his temples, Dante closed his eyes. Nothing looked right. Blurry. Distorted. "And I ain't asking for one now either. Quitpushing! Leave me the fuck alone so I can find what I'm looking for. I need the truth or the past will always control me."
"The truth is never what you hope it will be, Dante. And the cost is always higher than you imagine. Much higher," Lucien said, his deep voice as low as a sigh. "I thought I could keep you safe in silence. I thought I could hide you, help you heal from all the damage done to you."
Dante opened his eyes and lowered his hands.Safe in silence?
"I thought I could contain your song or at least muffle it so it couldn't be heard." Lucien closed the distance between them with one long stride. His dark-earth scent curled around Dante. "But I was wrong."
Dante straightened, suddenly uneasy -- something he'd never felt with Lucien before. "Hide me? From who? Are you talking about Bad Seed?"
"I didn't know Bad Seed even existed. No, I hid you from others.Powerfulothers who would use you without mercy."
"Others...like him?" Dante nodded at the stone angel hunched on the path.
Lucien's gaze flicked to the statue, resting for a moment on the flowers swaying in its hand, then back to Dante. "Yes, like Loki. I trapped him to protect you."
"Yeah?" Dante questioned softly. "From what?"
Lucien's golden gaze pierced Dante to the core, iced his heart. "What the hell are you talking about? Why would I need protection from them?"
"You aren't merely True Blood and Fallen, child. You're much more."
"And that is...?"
"Creawdwr." A reverent note sounded in Lucien's voice. Pride gleamed in his eyes. "You're a Maker. The only one in existence."
A chill rippled down the length of Dante's spine. He looked at the bouquet bobbing in Loki's hand. "Is that why I can do shit like this?"
"Yes. You can create anything and everything. Your song carries the chaos rhythm of life. And you can unmake, as well."
Dante's memory flipped back. The center.Johanna Moore screams as his song pulls her apart, divides her into elements...
Dante returned his gaze to Lucien, his hands curling into fists. "And how long have you known this? That I was a...Maker?"
"From the first moment I met you," Lucien admitted quietly. "Your song, youranhrefncathldrew me. Just like it drew Loki. Just like it will eventually draw the rest of the Elohim. Unless I teach you -- "
"Forget it. No," Dante said, throat tight, heart pounding out a furious rhythm. "Instead of pretending to be my friend, you shoulda told me the fuckingtruth! Shoulda offered to teach methen. Now's a little late."
Pain prickled behind Dante's eyes and suddenly it was as if he was looking through a shattered window as Lucien's image fractured and multiplied. Alarm flickered across Lucien's now diamond-faceted face. "Child...?"
Something abruptly shifted inside Dante, something long broken, carving into his mind with white light and molten pain. The world spun, the stars streaking the night with gossamer ribbons of light, and he felt himself falling, tumbling down, down, down as memory sheared up, sharp and slick and edged with whispers.
You wanna take her punishment,p'tit? D'accord,take it if you so hellfire eager.
He's quiet now. Take him down.
Little fucking psycho.
Pain wrenched Dante apart and his vision winked out in an explosion of incandescent light --
Dante tasted blood, pomegranate-tart and heady. Felt heated flesh against his cheek. He opened his eyes and looked up into Lucien's shadowed face. He tried to remember where he was and why he was cradled in Lucien's lap, held tight within his arms. Lucien's wings curved forward and purple-tinged darkness folded around them, creating a warm shelter smelling of dark earth and green leaves, of wing musk.
"I was falling..." Dante said, then stopped, uncertain. Or had that been a dream?
"Shhh,mon fils. You're safe. Rest." Gold motes danced in Lucien's dark eyes.
"You need morphine, little brother?" Von asked, voice pitched low.
Ice frosted the base of Dante's spine. There were only two reasons Von would spike him full of dope. Migraine or...
Another fucking seizure.
"No,mon ami." The lingering taste of Lucien's blood on Dante's tongue, his lips, told him why red-hot pain wasn't needling his joints and muscles, why he wasn't sapped of strength. "Did you give me blood? Or did I jump you?"
A smile quirked up the corners of Lucien's mouth. "I gave."
"Merci," Dante murmured. He felt Lucien gently tapping against their closed bond, urging him to reopen the link. Shaking his head, he pushed free of Lucien's embrace. As he rolled to his knees, kneeling within the circle of Lucien's wings, thewhereandwhysuddenly poured into his mind like water from a broken levee.
I tried to keep you safe in silence.
The bead-draped stone angel.
Yes, like Loki.
Dante's hands clenched into fists on his leather-clad thighs as his rage reignited. He met and held Lucien's gleaming gaze.
To Von he sent,<How long was I down? Did we miss our flight>
<Only a few minutes. We're good to go -- if you still wanna.>
Lucien's wings swept back and folded behind him. He uncrossed his legs, rising to his feet in one smooth motion. "You are ill, Dante, and hurt. You need time to heal."
Dante stood. "Don't tell me what I need."
A muscle ticked in Lucien's jaw. "Let the past go. Cancel the tour and let me teach you what you need to keep safe."
"No." Dante turned and headed down the path, his fingernails biting into his palms.
"The Fallenwillfind you, one night," Lucien said quietly.
"And, if I'm not with you to prevent it, they will bind you." Dante paused on the path. Deep inside, wasps droned. "If they find me, they ain't binding me," he said, his voice low and taut. "They're gonna hafta kill me."
"Not if, Dante. When."
"Peut-être que oui, peut-être que non. Same ending."
"Not if I can help it."
"You ain't got a say," Dante said, his throat almost too tight for speech. "And we're done here." Hemoved, racing down the path, the night streaking past in a blue-white ribbon, the smells of moss and weathered marble deep in his lungs.
A few moments later, astride Von's Harley, his hands on the nomad's hips, the wind cold against his face, Dante wondered if Lucien followed. Wondered if any of the Fallen followed. Wondered if Lucien had finally given him the truth.
I hid you from others. Powerful others who would use you without mercy.
The Fallenwillfind you. And bind you.
No, they wouldn't. Not ever. Not unless they knew how to bind a corpse.
One way or another, he would be free -- his life, his own.
Dante glanced up. The sky was empty but for stars and moon and pale streamers of clouds. Nothing winged above. Not that he could see. And the Harley's deep-throated rumble swallowed any sound he might hear.
Like a rush of wings.Copyright © 2009 by Adrian Phoenix
Excerpted from In the Blood by Adrian Phoenix
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.