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Darkness On The Edge Of Town

The Heavenly Grace Cathedral and Casino of Prayer was the anchor building in a twenty-five-acre business park on the outskirts of Atlantic City. So far, the rest of the park was still "under development," but it was entirely owned by Fairchild Ministries, and it was Billy's intention to make it a Christian oasis in the Godless wilderness of Sin and Vice that was Atlantic City. A television station and recording studio were under construction, and as projects were completed, Billy intended to consolidate the components of the ever-growing Fairchild Empire all in one place—as well as attract like-minded tenants.

His departure from Tulsa had not been entirely his own idea, though by now he had mostly managed to banish those painful memories from his mind and convince himself that it had been. How could his spiritual brethren have been so blind? He had been doing the Lord's work—and with Heavenly Grace gone, he'd needed to put a little pepper in his sermons to keep his market share.

"Heavenly Grace," he'd always told her, "you are the keystone of my Cathedral of the Airwaves." But she hadn't cared, the ungrateful serpent's tooth—she'd fled like the Prodigal into the fleshpots of Babylon. They'd managed to hush it up, but that hadn't done anything toward replacing her. And a man had to do something.

He'd thought he'd found the perfect solution, with Gabriel Horn's help, giving his flock a message of strength and power to bear them up in these times of conflict and uncertainty. And for a while, it had seemed to work.

Then one night he'd received an unexpected visit.

They were quiet men, men of God, men whose faces were familiar across the nation. Spiritual advisors to presidents and even kings.

They'd come to talk to him.

His wife Donna had served coffee, fluttering like a setting dove with the glory of having them in her house. They'd praised her and flattered her, and Billy had desperately wanted her to stay, because he knew that whatever they'd come to say, they wouldn't say it in front of her. But Donna was a good woman, with too much sense to stick around when men had come to talk man-talk. She'd gotten everyone settled and taken herself off to her part of the house.

And then they'd gotten down to business.

Oh, they'd been slick! He was outclassed, and part of him had to admire that, even while he hated them for it. They suggested it might be a good idea for him to move himself elsewhere, that he might even like to be closer to little Heavenly Grace during her schooling. They offered to buy out his holdings, find jobs for any of his people who didn't want to come with him, so that nobody would suffer by it.

And then they slipped in the steel.

"You can understand, Brother Fairchild, that loose talk about bombing out the enemies of Christ does not go down well in Oklahoma, particularly when you're calling the FBI and the Federal Government the Enemies of Christ as well as Infidels who truly deserve to be chastised with the Lord's rod. . . ." 

Bitter memories, best forgot.

It was Gabriel Horn who showed him the honeycomb concealed within the lion's maw. It was time for him to take on a real challenge, Gabriel said. There were plenty of God-fearing Christians in Oklahoma—and plenty of blind, self-satisfied Pharisees, too. Why not take his Ministry among the pagans, the heathens, those wallowing in their sins instead? Fight the Enemies of Christ in their stronghold?

And so Billy had moved the Fairchild Ministries to New Jersey.

Of course, here his message had to be presented a little differently than it had been back home. But Billy had always been adaptable.

* * *

"First order of business . . . the casino revenues."

Gabriel Horn hated the weekly business meetings. Well, perhaps "hate" was too strong a word. They bored him desperately. But Billy thrived on them, and he wasn't ready—not yet—for an open break with his cats-paw.

"Up again this week, Reverend Fairchild. The good people just love doing the Lord's work at the tables and the slots—"

Billy nodded wisely. Gabriel Horn suppressed a sneer. It hadn't taken much effort at all to convince all of Fairchild's people that there was no sin in gambling if it was done in the name of Jesus. And the house took ten percent, and that went right back into the Ministry; truly it was blessed work! Besides, it wasn't as if the people throwing their money away were the Lord's true sheep, who deserved to be fed and guided. These were the Devil's own lambs, and deserved to be sheared. So Gabriel and Billy told them, and so they believed.

"Plus we have offering buckets scattered around the floor for praise-offerings if people feel they've been extra-lucky." Marvin Garibaldi was the casino manager, a new hire—one of the few new hires on Billy's staff who wasn't one of Gabriel's people.

"Good, good," Billy said. The various departments around the table reported in: merchandise sales were up, both in the casino and by direct mail, the publishing company would be showing a profit by the next quarter, the Hour of Praise had been picked up by several more stations.

"And now, I think Mr. Horn has a special treat for all of us," Billy added.

"Indeed I do," Gabriel said. He got to his feet and picked up the remote lying on the table in front of him.

There was a wide-screen plasma television built into the wall of the room behind him. The DVD was already loaded.

"Ladies and gentlemen, as you know, reaching the youth market has always been the most difficult part of our Ministry. With the launch of the Red Nails label, Fairchild Ministries is able to reach out to that market share that would otherwise not be able to receive our word, through the medium of Christian-oriented heavy-metal. The best thing about this sort of music—though I grant it may not be to the taste of everyone here—is that, properly packaged, our videos will be picked up by mainstream outlets such as MTV and VH-1, spreading our message even further. We'll be launching the label with a free concert here in just under two weeks time: Pure Blood will headline what I consider quite an impressive roster. And now, a sample."

He pressed the "play" button and sat down.

The darkness on the screen faded to reveal the leather-clad figure of Pure Blood's lead singer, Judah Galilee, standing in a field of human skulls. His waist-length hair was the lurid color of fresh blood. As he writhed and howled in torment to the opening bars of "They Killed Him," the song Gabriel intended as the hit single off their debut album, Pure Sacrifice, the camera pulled back to reveal a horribly tortured and very fair-skinned man hanging from a cross.

The viewers around the table gasped and recoiled.

The images on the screen dissolved and intercut with dizzying quickness: the blond muscular Jesus scourging a horde of dark, ratlike Pharisees from a shining white Temple. Jesus being tortured by those same Pharisees while a group of soft, indecisive Romans looked on. Jesus being dragged to the Cross by more dark-skinned people, while, mixed into the watching mob, other, lighter-skinned people fought helplessly to save him.

Mixed into the footage, in almost subliminal flashes, were shots of the falling World Trade Towers, burning American flags, street scenes from the Middle East. And through it all, the message of the music beat: look what they did—look what they did— 

Gabrevys ap Ganeliel had to admit that Jormin's talents were impressive. But what Bard's weren't?

Since he'd come to the World Above to entertain himself—and Billy Fairchild could be very entertaining, when he didn't vex one half to madness!—Gabrevys had taken care to acquaint himself thoroughly with the petty factions of mortalkind, the better to manipulate them to his own ends. He'd discovered that there were something called Christian White Supremacists, and it had been an easy thing to nudge Billy's ministry in their direction. They had money and influence, and Billy wanted both. They wanted strife and war among the mortalkind, and so did the Unseleighe Prince calling himself Gabriel Horn.

And to recruit new young fools to their cause, these human Whites seduced their young through music, which was the easiest thing in both the worlds for one of the Unseleighe to manipulate. Jormin would craft the songs his master asked of him, and mortals would find them irresistible. Not every song would carry Gabrevys's hidden message of hatred and factionalism, but enough.

But there were markets Pure Blood couldn't touch. Most of the "Christian Rock" venue was still dominated by pretty, soft-voiced girl singers.

Like Heavenly Grace Fairchild.

Oh, she would be the perfect tool in his campaign—if she were only in his hands and under his control! Gabriel kept his face smooth with an effort. He knew precisely where she was, now—and had for several months—but he dared not attack her openly, either as Prince Gabrevys or as Gabriel Horn. She was protected from both his personae—by Bard Eric Banyon of Elfhame Misthold, and by Ria Llewellyn of LlewellCo.

But now . . . now the darling girl was coming home to the bosom of her family. Now he could take her, with law and cunning on his side, and no one would be able to stop him. Once he had her back in his hands—even for a few hours—there were a number of things he could do to convince her that it was in her best interests to remain with him forever.

And once he had her back, she would do just as he wanted. She would sing the songs he wanted her to sing, and spread Billy Fairchild's new gospel far and wide.

The music video reached an end. The screen went black. There was a faintly confused silence, broken after a moment by Billy's enthusiastic clapping.

"Ain't that just the caterpillar's meow? I don't know how you do it, Gabe—that's fancier than one of those Star Wars movies!" Billy said happily.

"Our technicians are happy to do the Lord's work, Reverend," Gabriel said smoothly. "All Fairchild Ministries has to pay for is the computer time." Not that there'd been any computers involved, of course. No special-effects house in the World Above could duplicate what Gabriel and his minions could provide through illusion and magick. . . .

"Well, that's just great," Billy said again. He paused. "I don't suppose you could get that Judah Galilee feller to cut his hair?"

Gabriel smiled faintly. "I believe it's a part of the image. We must temper the wind to the shorn lamb, as you know."

And when the time was right, he intended to shear the Reverend Billy Fairchild. Thoroughly. Far more thoroughly than any of the suckers in the Casino.

* * *

Everything was going wonderfully well. It was clear to Billy that the Lord was smiling on the new direction his ministry was taking. He looked down at the gleaming mahogany sweep of his desk, and idly picked through the samples of new merchandise that Gabriel had left him.

New T-shirts. Not the passive victim-Jesus that Billy remembered from his childhood, the one that encouraged people to lie down and let their enemies do whatever they liked with them. This one was dynamic, a real action hero, with a scourge in one hand and a staff in the other, striking out at His enemies just as Billy exhorted his followers to strike out at theirs. And if His enemies looked an awful lot like the enemies America faced today, well, all the better. God's Ministry should move with the times. "Guts Ministry," they called it.

Bumper stickers and key chains, all with the "Red Nails" logo and the slogan "They Killed Him." Billy liked that a lot—it had a lot more punch than "He Died for You." He thought he'd work it into the next few sermons—and that would tie in to that long-hair band's CD release as well.

But good as this music thing was for the Ministry, Billy didn't intend to hitch his wagon entirely to Gabriel Horn's star. Not entirely. He'd dragged himself up from nothing—just another backwoods preacher with a bus, moving from one wide spot in the road to another, and he hadn't gotten where he was today by putting all his eggs in somebody else's basket. Gabe might have a lot of good ideas, but it was time to show him that Billy still had a few of his own.

His phone beeped gently, and Billy picked it up.

"Reverend Fairchild? Your three o'clock appointment is here."

"Thank you, Miz Granger. Send him in."

A moment later the door opened.

The man who entered wore a well-cut, well-tailored suit, but no amount of fancy sewing could disguise either the color or the fabric. It was a shade halfway between the green of a dollar bill and the lurid green of a St. Paddy's Day hat, of some dense, faintly shiny, obviously unnatural material. A pair of reflective sunglasses were hooked over a breast pocket, their lenses the same shade of green—it appeared that the man was very fond of green—and strapped to one wrist was an exceptionally large and exceptionally ugly black plastic wristwatch. It seemed oddly out of place on the man's wrist—he was the sort of man who seemed as if he would be more comfortable wearing a whisper-thin gold Rolex, such as Billy wore himself. Perhaps he wore the thing for medical reasons. Perhaps it wasn't a watch at all.

Billy got to his feet and came around the desk, holding out his hand.

"Mr. Wheatley. A pleasure to meet you."

* * *

Parker Wheatley had not been pleased to lose his comfortable and influential Washington post and see all the careful work of years destroyed overnight. However, he knew who to blame—Ria Llewellyn and Aerune mac Audelaine.

Aerune, for promising him support and then vanishing when Wheatley needed him most. Ria Llewellyn, for setting up the tissue of lies and perverted truths that gave his colleagues on the Hill no choice but to dismantle the Paranormal Defense Initiative.

Fortunately, Wheatley had been prudent. Much of the equipment Aerune had given him with which to hunt Spookies—unduplicatable by Earthly science—had been stored at a secret off-site location. He'd been able to steal it—though it wasn't really stealing, since it was rightfully his—before anyone bothered to inventory it.

But to effect his revenge against those who had destroyed his life, he needed to rebuild his power base.

With a little thought, he'd realized there was a ready market for his services. The Christian fundamentalists believed that practically everything was Satanic, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Harry Potter—and if the Spookies weren't strictly Satanic, they were out to enslave and destroy humanity, they didn't worship Jesus or the Judeo-Christian God, and they had pointed ears and unnatural powers. By just about any test of the fundamentalists, they qualified as demonic.

The newly christened Satanic Defense Initiative had done a booming business, if not the same sort its predecessor had. Wheatley had been in great demand as a speaker about the Satanic Infiltration of Humanity, and how the government had shut down the project to discover Satanic Agents In Our Midst due to pressure from above.

It was stomach-turning work, but Wheatley had done a number of things he didn't like in his career. Meeting with a tub-thumping—but very rich—televangelist was only the latest in a long series of such things.

"So tell me, Mr. Wheatley," Billy Fairchild said, when they were seated. "What can I do for you?"

"It's not what you can do for me," Parker Wheatley said. "It's what I can do for you."

By now, his pitch was a practiced one. He explained about the creatures that had infiltrated humanity for unknown reasons. How they were nearly undetectable—except when they struck.

"You certainly didn't call them demons when you were in Washington, now, did you, Mr. Wheatley?" Reverend Fairchild said with a confidential smile.

Parker Wheatley allowed himself a small smile in return. The rich were rarely stupid. "You'll understand that 'demon' was not a word that would advance anybody's career in Washington, Reverend Fairchild. But I can't imagine what else they'd be, frankly. They certainly aren't human. They don't seem to come from outer space."

"And you say they're everywhere?"

"They're a lot more places than people think!" Wheatley said urgently, absolute honesty plain in his voice for a moment. "I've never captured one—not alive—but I've come close. Very close."

"But you have gotten your hands on a few?" Reverend Fairchild said shrewdly.

Wheatley grimaced. "Back in the early days, when we didn't really know what we were up against, we captured a few. Most of them escaped, but we managed to kill one. We tried to do an autopsy. The body just . . . dissolved. We'd had cameras running, of course. But there was something wrong with the film and the tape."

Scrubbed by high-intensity electromagnetic pulse, the technician had said. They hadn't completely understood the Spookie allergy to ferrous metal in those days, or realized that they were just as dangerous dead as alive.

"After that, we tracked them. We were able to develop a good idea of their . . . interests."

"But the government shut down your operation, Mr. Wheatley," Reverend Fairchild pointed out. "That doesn't sound as if you were doing very well."

"I can only assume they thought the PDI was becoming a little too successful," Wheatley said. "Believe me when I tell you that these creatures can look as human as you or I. And the level of influence they can exert over real human beings is literally ungodly." Wheatley lowered his voice to a confidential tone, even as he hated himself for pandering to this yahoo. "In fact, loose talk about conspiracy theories aside, I have to tell you that I think the real reason I was shut down is that They have someone—perhaps more people than just one—at the highest level under their influence. The highest," he repeated, nodding in the general direction of Washington. Then he allowed his voice to take on a more normal tone. "Now, I've been speaking out on the subject for a while, but to do any real good—to get my hands on some subjects for interrogation—I'll need a serious sponsor willing to put real muscle—spiritual, financial, and political—behind the Satanic Defense Initiative. Whoever takes that on won't have an easy time. The demons have left me alone, so I believe, because they think I'm no longer a threat. If I become one, I can't say what will happen." He blinked, and put on a brave face. "Whoever stands with me will have to have the cloak of the Lord over his shoulders."

It nearly gagged him to say that drivel. Cloak of the Lord, indeed! The cloak of the U.S. government hadn't done any good, and that was something Wheatley had possessed slightly more faith in.

"But this isn't entirely about my needs, Reverend Fairchild. I told you that when I was working for the government we'd managed to develop a sort of profile of the sort of people that attract these creatures, and believe me, sir, you fit the bill."

"Because I am a man of God, you mean?" Billy said, blinking smugly, sure of his own sanctity.

"Because you're a powerful and influential man," Wheatley said bluntly. "They're attracted to that. Sometimes they use it for their own ends, when they can, sometimes they just destroy their victims. Particularly when there are children involved."

"Children?" Billy said sharply.

Wheatley smiled to himself. He'd thought that barb would hit home. "They're attracted to children—all ages up to the late teens. We don't know why. We think it's a lot more than just that children are easier to tempt."

As you should know, sending your buses out into the suburbs to pick up latchkey kids with promises of prizes for the older ones and candy for the little ones. And of course, how could parents object? Aren't the kids going to be safe with people of God? 

"Perhaps it's that children easier to corrupt as well: we do know that the creatures—the demons—keep human slaves. A lot of the kids they target just vanish forever. Some of them show up again years later, but they're the wrong ages—years older or younger than they ought to be." Wheatley shook his head. "It's a tragedy. I've speculated that the demons are relatively few, so they're trying to build a Satanic Army out of these children, brainwashing them and turning them into recruiters for the Devil. Certainly their pawns can go where the demons can't, and that might be enough of an explanation. But your daughter's safely off in school, isn't she?"

Wheatley knew very well she wasn't. He might be a Washington outsider now, but he hadn't quite lost all of his old contacts. He knew Heavenly Grace Fairchild had run away from home several months ago. He knew she was living with Ria Llewellyn now. But if he could get Billy thinking she might be in the hands of the Spookies—maybe Spookies using LlewellCo as a front—

"Yes. Yes, she is," Billy said slowly. "And you think I'm at risk?"

Parker Wheatley smiled. Gotcha, Elmer Gantry! "I can't say for certain. Certainly you're the type of man, with the type of organization, that would attract Spookie interest—as we used to call them." He waited.

"Suppose I were interested in sponsoring your . . . Defense Initiative," Billy Fairchild said slowly. "It would have to be done tastefully, and with dignity."

"Believe me, Reverend Fairchild," Parker Wheatley said, oozing earnestness. "I'm only interested in telling people the truth, not turning the truth into a sideshow that would only discredit my—holy—mission."

"And," Billy said, a faint note of triumph in his voice, "I'd need a little something to go on with. Oh, I believe that Satan and his minions are among us, but I need some indication that these demons are as widespread as you claim."

Wheatley kept his face bland. Not as good as he'd hoped for, but probably as good as he was going to get. And with the Ria Llewellyn connection here through the daughter, Parker Wheatley very much wanted to forge an alliance with Fairchild Ministries, Inc.

Revenge, as the saying went, was a dish best eaten cold.

He nodded and spread his hands to indicate honest agreement. "I tell you what, Reverend Fairchild. We're both hardheaded old horse traders. You give me six months and reasonable funding. I'll start with Fairchild Ministries and work out from here, seeing what I find. We turned up a whole nest of the things in Las Vegas just before we were shut down, so who knows what we'll find in Atlantic City? If I don't find anything at the end of that time, we part ways as friends, and you'll know that everyone in your Ministry is just what they seem to be—God-fearing and human."

There. Plant the seed of suspicion. Make Fairchild think that he just—might—have a wolf in the fold. Make him wonder if that wasn't the reason his daughter ran away. Make him nervous and start him looking over his shoulder at shadows.

"If I do find something, well, you'll have nipped the canker in the bud—and between us, we may well have performed a valuable service to humanity." Wheatley smiled now, a smile of supreme self-confidence. "We'll have all the evidence that anyone could want And I don't need to tell you that good works on this scale will get you more than just a pat on the back."

Think about the book deals and the talk shows, Reverend. Think about how much it will increase your market share if you can exhibit a real live demon in an iron cage in that fancy prayer-casino of yours. 

Billy got to his feet. "Let's shake on it, Brother Wheatley. That sounds like a fine idea. I'll have Miz Granger draw up the papers and set up a drawing account. And you can meet with Andrew about doing fifteen minutes on next week's Praise Hour, to let my congregation know that Reverend Billy isn't soft on demons any more than any other enemies of Christ. We'll go over the script together, put a little pepper in it, what do you think?"

"A fine idea, Reverend," Parker Wheatley said deliberately.

And a better idea to get the rest of your people looking over their shoulders, too. 

* * *

Eric walked into his apartment about forty minutes before Magnus was supposed to get up to get ready for school. Fortunately today was Friday, and he didn't have any lessons to give today, so as soon as he got Magnus out the door, he intended to hit the sack for a few hours and catch up on missed sleep. It had been a long night, and he always got together with Hosea at the end of the week for a lesson in Bardcraft—not that their work together bore a lot of resemblance to the training he'd received from Master Dharniel.

But he had no complaints of Hosea's progress as a student, and he knew if Hosea had any problems with his teaching, Hosea would let him know, tactfully but firmly. The Ozark Bard wasn't the least shy of speaking his mind when he felt that the situation called for it, and he had a good sense about people—better than Eric's, Eric sometimes thought.

Eric had figured the living room would be littered with pizza boxes, or the remains of whatever kind of takeout Magnus had decided on—his brother wasn't any better about cleaning up after himself than Eric had been, well, for several years past Magnus's age—but to his surprise, the only thing in the living room that hadn't been there when he left was one very large stone gargoyle.

"Enjoy yerself on yer jaunt, did ye, laddybuck?" Greystone asked, turning his head. The gargoyle's black eyes twinkled at his own joke.

Greystone was Eric's oldest friend at Guardian House, and in a sense, Greystone was the House, for he and his fellow gargoyles had been—crafted?—at the same time as the House itself as a combination security system and set of guard dogs to protect both the House and its Guardian inhabitants. It had been a mixture of Greystone's curiosity about Eric that first night, and Eric's calling-on spell to find a friend, that had begun their friendship, but it had deepened all on its own. Greystone was curious about the things he could only hear from his perch atop the building—like movies and television programs—and Eric was happy to let his friend sate that curiosity with his DVD library—and even surf the Internet.

He glanced at the television. Greystone had been watching Trigun—one of Magnus's additions to their DVD library, and not something Eric would have bought for himself. Greystone usually preferred classic movies. But Eric supposed all popular culture was equally bizarre from a gargoyle's point of view.

He gathered his scattered thoughts and answered the gargoyle's question. "Oh, it had its moments. Sometimes I wish the Unseleighe would find a new interior decorator, though. It looked like a Gothic playpen down there, or maybe an old Frank Frazetta painting. Everything quiet here?" he asked, unzipping his jacket.

"Quieter here than where you were, I fancy." Greystone snorted. "The lad went on up to Ria's penthouse for dinner—though naturally she wasn't there for it—and got home full to the gills with bad news and roast beef. Both of which he shared with me. There's a bit of the beef left in the kitchen, and I don't doubt he'll be opening his budget of sorrow to ye by and by."

"Can I get a preview?" Eric asked, sitting down on the arm of the couch.

"Well, 'tis no secret, and he expects you and Ria between you to pull the proverbial lapin out of the chapeau, I'm warning you now. Young Heavenly Grace's father has found a judge to block the Grant of Emancipated Minor status. There's to be a hearing, and she'll have to go down in person."

Eric groaned feelingly. "That's . . . just . . . so . . . special."

"Isn't it, though?" Greystone grinned, showing a wide mouth filled with stone fangs. "You've got a bit over a week to broker a miracle, boyo."

Eric just shook his head, walking into the kitchen to brew tea. As he unzipped his jacket, the letters from Jachiel crinkled. He set them on the counter in plain sight, so he wouldn't forget to hand them over immediately.

But Greystone's news certainly hadn't been anything he wanted to hear. Of course Billy Fairchild wanted Ace's abilities back. Eric was even grudgingly willing to admit the man might be fond of his daughter, or at least as fond as anyone who considered children to be possessions could be. But her powers seemed to be the most important thing to him—from what Ace had told them, Billy had been exploiting her Talent for years. He'd built his ministry on them.

Like Eric, Ace had Talent. Like Eric, Ace's Talent expressed itself through music. But while Eric, as a Bard, could cast a variety of spells, Ace could do only one thing, though it was the equivalent of a howitzer: when she sang, she could make people feel whatever emotion she chose.

When she'd been younger, it had simply been the same feeling the song she was singing made her feel, or so she'd told Eric, Magnus, and Ria, when she had finally been willing to talk about her Talent. But now, she could take a song and build on it, shape it, twist it. With song, Heavenly Grace Fairchild could make people feel anything. 

Love. Hate. Fear. Joy. Terror. Guilt. Shame. Rage. Blind panic. Name the emotion, and Ace could conjure it.

When she'd gotten old enough to realize what she was doing, she'd tried to stop, but her father wouldn't let her. He'd wanted her up on the stage, leading his choir, singing his audiences into a frenzy of adoration for him. Lucrative adoration.

So she'd run away.

And now he wants her back so she can keep on doing it. Well, who wouldn't—if they were a manipulative slimeball? 

Eric wasn't quite sure what sort of miracle was required in this case—the real puzzle was why Ria hadn't been able to make Billy Fairchild back off. No matter how much the Reverend Billy Fairchild wanted his star attraction returned to center stage, he ought to be more afraid of what Ria Llewellyn would do to him.

But obviously he wasn't.

By the time the kettle had boiled, Magnus came staggering into the kitchen, looking like a disheveled and very grumpy leopard. He went directly to the refrigerator, pulled it open, and chugged half a carton of orange juice before seeming to register that his brother was there.

"Guy can't sleep with you two making all that racket," he muttered sullenly.

It wasn't that much noise, Eric thought. And he and Greystone had been careful to keep their voices low. If Trigun hadn't woken Magnus, he didn't see how a little conversation could—especially through Bardcrafted sound-baffles.

But he knew from experience that Magnus wasn't a morning person. "Sorry," Eric said. "Tea?"

Magnus shuddered, grabbed a Coke out of the still-open fridge, and wandered back toward his bedroom.

When he reemerged twenty minutes later, he was dressed for school and looked more alert, and Eric was on his second cup of tea.

"So," Magnus said. "It go okay last night?"

"Pretty good," Eric said. "I saw Jaycie. He says there's a problem with the Internet connection, but he can write. I brought you a letter, and one for Ace. If you want to write back, Lady Day can deliver them, and bring his replies."

"Streetmail," Magnus muttered, as if it were the most horrible thing imaginable. "Snailmail."

Eric handed him the letter—several sheets of thick parchment, bound together with a green ribbon and sealed with a round blob of silver wax. "You might have some pity on him," he pointed out. "Part of the problem might be he doesn't know how to type, much less use a computer. Not a lot of keyboards Underhill." He tactfully forbore to mention what Jaycie had said about the treaty—no need to involve Magnus in Underhill politics any more than absolutely necessary.

Magnus gave Eric a look, the kind that said he wasn't sure he believed his older brother, but that if the assertion was true, he, Magnus, could not imagine a more horrifying place.

"Um . . . Ace wanted to talk to you tonight. And Hosea. If that's okay. She could get her letter then. She's got a kind of a problem," Magnus said tentatively, still holding the unopened letter.

"Greystone told me a little about it," Eric said. "He didn't think you'd mind."

Magnus shrugged, going over to the cabinet for a bowl and the cereal box. "Can't you just make this creep disappear or something?"

That was a reasonable question, from a teenager's point of view. "A . . . friend of mine always told me to keep my mind on what I actually wanted, not on what I thought I had to do to get there. What we want is to get Ace her Emancipated Minor status. Making Billy disappear might not be the best way to go about that." He countered Magnus's look of disbelief with explanation. "People like Billy don't just vanish. If he disappeared, there would be a lot of questions, and Ria would be right at the center of it because she's helping Ace. Ria's made some enemies—they'd be only to happy to 'find' evidence that Ria was involved."

Magnus didn't say anything, but he obviously didn't like the answer. Well, Eric hadn't liked it either, the first dozen times he'd heard it from Master Dharniel.

"Life is war, young Banyon. Art is war. You would do well to remember both these things. Concentrate on the destination, not the journey. And do not allow your lust for frivolity and self-indulgence to distract you, for your enemy will use that against you. Self-indulgence is a vice no Bard—and no warrior—can afford." 

Magnus settled down at the kitchen table with his bowl of cereal to read his letter, and Eric went back out into the living room. Greystone was gone, of course—it was light enough now that his absence from the top of the building would be noticed.

Eric put away the DVD and settled down to channel-surf for a few minutes. There was nothing unusual on any of the news channels, and like every New Yorker these days, he spared a brief moment of thanksgiving for that.

After a few minutes—Eric had settled down with an old silent movie—Magnus came into the living room, ready for school.

"So," he said, sounding oddly hesitant. "Do you think that maybe you guys could come up to Ria's place tonight and kinda talk about it with us?"

"You guys" meaning me and Hosea, Eric translated mentally with the ease of long practice. "Sure," he said. "And hey, maybe Ria'll even be there."

"She'd better be," Magnus said darkly.

* * *

There were many things Jormin ap Galever liked about the World Above. Bringing his master bad news was not one of them.

Still it was better—oh, by far!—to be the first to bring bad news to Prince Gabrevys than to have to explain why you had not done so. Unlike some of the princes Jormin had served, Gabrevys rewarded efficiency and discretion.

Jormin was not supposed to be here now—Judah Galilee and Pure Blood were supposed to be in California, putting the finishing touches on their album and getting ready for their upcoming concert. But this news wouldn't wait. And if anyone did see him, it would be simple enough to explain away, after all. What could be more reasonable than that Gabriel Horn would wish to speak personally to Judah about some minor detail of the concert to come? Musicians were temperamental creatures. All mortals knew that.

But he arrived without mishap or discovery: a second glamourie cast over the one that gave him human seeming made him look not only more than ordinary, but encouraged all eyes to rest elsewhere. He did not even need spellcraft for the elevator, for Gabrevys had given him all their codes long ago, and he quickly ascended to the residence floor, charmed as always by the endless inventiveness of mortals.

The door he sought opened as he reached it. Jormin entered quickly, shedding both his glamouries, and knelt respectfully at the feet of his master.

"You would not have come yourself to bring me good news," Gabriel/Gabrevys said, after a long pause.

"I have heard better," Judah admitted, not moving. "Will you hear it, my Prince?"

"Get up. Tell me all you know. But first—who knows?"

Judah got to his feet, shaking his waist-length mane back into place. "Any who might have the wit and the spellcraft to eavesdrop on your Presence Chamber—you will know who that might be better than I. And all your court saw Misthold's mortal Bard ride into your Domain and beg audience with you. I know not what they may make of that. I saw him safe away, for your honor."

"And what purpose did Eric Banyon claim at Bete Noir?" Gabriel asked. His voice was low and even, but Judah was not fooled. His master had sounded just so when sending victims to his torturers.

When he spoke, he gave every rhythm and inflection just as he had heard them, his voice becoming an uncanny echo of Eric Banyon's. "'Hear Prince Arvin's words to Prince Gabrevys: Hail and greetings, cousin. Know that your son, Jachiel ap Gabrevys, resides under the watchful care of his Protector, Rionne ferch Rianten, at the Court of Elfhame Misthold until such time as it pleases her to remove him elsewhere. Should you wish to attend him in Elfhame Misthold, you may send your Bard to arrange the terms of safe passage between our Domains.'" He paused, then added in his own voice: "Such was the message I was given, but I questioned the Bard further, and learned more." Quickly, Judah told Gabriel everything he had learned from Misthold's mortal Bard: how Jachiel had fled to the World Above, pursued by his Protector. How he had refused to return to Bete Noir. How Eric had offered Jachiel and Rionne Sanctuary at Elfhame Misthold, in Prince Arvin's name. The longer he spoke, the more encouraged he became. The Prince was not inclined to punish his Bard this day.

* * *

"You have done well to bring me this news as swiftly as you have," Gabriel said, though to speak the words of praise nearly choked him. "Leave me now."

When Judah was gone, he got to his feet and began to pace.

His son—his only son—in the loathsome hands of the Bright Court!

But Rionne was there. His Jachiel would come to no harm with her to watch over him.

But why was he there? Why had he fled? Why would he not return home?

Perhaps he had discovered a plot against his life. If that were so, Gabriel would deal with it at the proper time.

And if that were so—strange as it seemed, he was safer at the Bright Court, where all eyes would be on any Unseleighe who dared to enter Seleighe lands. For now, so long as no one learned where the boy was—well, this was not all bad news. He could use his Bright Court cousins; the proper thing to do with them was to use them.

At the moment, such things did not matter. Jachiel was safe. And if he were to take his rightful place at the Unseleighe Court, Gabriel's plans must succeed here.

But to have a son held at the Bright Court, no matter the reason, was a grave insult, and one he could not afford, no matter his certainty of Jachiel's safety there. The moment it became known—and it would become known now that Bard Eric had come to his Court; Jormin knew that as well as Gabrevys did—his enemies would see it as a sign of weakness, and strike. But let him only bring his plans for Billy Fairchild to fruition, and he would create such a feast of blood and pain that it would be sung of all the way to the Morrigan's throne. He would be rewarded with rich gifts from her own dark hands; his power and influence would grow, and none in all of Underhill would dare raise spell or sword against him or his.

And perhaps he could discover some way to share that feast of pain in which lay his protection with the Bard—the mortal Bard—who had meddled so casually in things that did not concern him.


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