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Strange Angels #01: Betrayalsby Lili St Crow
Windshield wipers struggled back and forth, clumped with snow. The mingled breath of three teenagers fought with the defroster. Thank God the truck was still running, even after they’d driven it through a wall.
“So you’re sending us somewhere you know there’s a traitor.” Graves’s chin dipped even further, resting harder on the top of my head.
I thought about all this, felt nothing but a faint, weary surprise.
Christophe sighed, “I’ve got friends at the Schola—they’ll watch over her just as I would. She’ll be perfectly safe. And while she’s there, she can help me find whoever’s feeding information to Sergej. She’s been drafted.”
Graves tensed. “What if she doesn’t want to?”
“Then you won’t last a week out there on your own. If Ash doesn’t find you, someone else will. The secret’s out. If Sergej knows, other suckers know there’s another svetocha. They’ll hunt her down and rip her heart out.” The windshield wipers flicked on. “Dru? Do you hear me? I’m sending you somewhere safe, and I’ll be in touch.”
"I think she hears you.” Graves sighed. “What about her truck? And all her stuff?”
“I’ll make sure they get to the Schola too. The important thing is to get her out of here before the sun goes down and Sergej can rise renewed. He’s not dead, just driven into a dark hole and very angry.”
“How are we going to—”
“Shut up.” He didn’t say it harshly or unkindly, but Graves did shut up. “Dru? You’re listening.”
Oh God, leave me alone. But I raised my head, looked at the dash. There really was no option. Hair fell in my face, the curls slicked down with damp, behaving for once.
“Yeah.” It sounded like I had something caught in my throat. The word was just a husk of itself. “I heard.”
“You were lucky. You ever put yourself in danger like that again and I’ll make you regret it. Clear?”
He sounded just like Dad. The familiarity was like a spike in my chest. “Clear,” I anaged around it. My entire body ached, even my hair.
I was wet and cold, and the memory of the sucker’s dead eyes and oddly wrong, melodious voice burrowed into my brain. It wouldn’t let go.
That thing killed my father. Turned him into a zombie. And Mom . . . “My mother.” The same husky, flat tone. Shock. Maybe I was in shock. I heard a lot about shock from Dad.
Silence crackled, but then Christophe took pity on me. Maybe. Or maybe he figured I had a right to know, and that I’d listen to him now.
When he spoke, his voice was harsh, whether with pain or with the cold I couldn’t guess. “She was svetocha. Decided to give it all up, stop hunting, married a nice jarhead from the sticks and had a kid. But the nosferatu don’t forget, and they don’t stop playing the game because we pick up our marbles and go home. She got rusty and she got caught away from sanctuary, drawing a nosferat away from her home and her baby.” Christophe put the truck in gear. The windshield was clearing rapidly. “I’m . . . sorry.”
“What else do you know?” I pulled away from Graves, his arm falling back down to his side. He slumped, looking acutely uncomfortable, a raccoon mask of bruising beginning to puff up around his eyes.
His nose was definitely broken.
“Go to the Schola and find out. They’ll train you, show you how to do things you’ve only dreamed of. God knows you’re so close to blooming. . .” Christophe stared out the windshield, his profile as clean and severe as ever. His eyes were bright enough to glow even through the gray daylight. Drying blood coated his face, a trickle of fresh red sliding from a cut along his hairline. He was absolutely soaked in the stuff, but it didn’t seem to matter to him. “And when you hear from me, I’ll set you a challenge worthy of your talents. Like finding out who almost got you killed here.”
The truck was still running like a dream. Good old American steel. Dad’s billfold sat in my jacket pocket, a heavy, accusing lump. Christophe measured off a space on the wheel between two fingertips, looked intently at it. “So what about it, Dru? Be a good girl and go back to school?”
Why was he even asking? Like I had anywhere else to go. But there was another question. “What about Graves?”
The kid in question glanced at me. I couldn’t tell if he was grateful or not. But I meant it. I wasn’t going anywhere without him. He really was all I had. That and a locket, and Dad’s billfold, and a truck full of stuff.
A shadow crossed Christophe’s face. The pause was just long enough for me to figure out what he thought of me even asking that question, and that he was weighing my likelihood to be difficult. Or just letting me know I didn’t have anywhere else to go. “He can go with you. There are wulfen there, one or two other loup-garou. He’ll be an aristocrat. They’ll teach him too.”
That’s all right then. I nodded. My neck ached with the movement. “Then I’ll go.”
“Good.” Christophe took his foot off the brake. “And for the record, next time I ask for the keys, hand them over.”
I didn’t think that merited a response. Graves scooched a little closer to me, and I didn’t even think about it. I put my arms around him and hugged. I didn’t care if it hurt my arm and my ribs and my neck and pretty much every other part of me, my heart most of all. When you’re wrecked, that’s the only thing to do, right? Hold on to whatever you can. Hold on hard.
Ten hours later the black van pulled around in a neat half-circle. “End of the line,” the dark-haired boy said. “Let’s go.”
Darkness crouched around the huge building. I had a confused impression of cold, high-piled gray stone. Towers and two wings going off to the sides, the whole thing raked back like a Gothic spaceship.
Two big smooth concrete lions on pedestals faced out from the long circular driveway, glaring down the thin ribbon of blacktop that had peeled off the county highway and brought us here. Weird ropy ivy crawled over the walls, like long bony fingers. Morning fog was a thick gray blanket, and the trees dripped silently on all sides, pushing against the building’s frigid personal space.
Graves held my hand, still, so hard my fingers had long ago gone numb. The driver and the dark-haired boy in the passenger seat hopped out neat as you please, taking the shotgun and the AK-47 with them.
“You okay?” Graves asked for the hundredth time. I coughed a little, cleared my throat. The motion of the van had almost lulled me to sleep, especially since it was warm and I was exhausted.
My back ran with pain and I’d stiffened up, moving like a creaky old lady when I moved at all. Plus I had to pee something fierce.
Horror movies never tell you that—about how most of the time when you’re faced with the unspeakable, the biggest thing you take away from the experience is the need to find some indoor plumbing.
My hair was greasy, frizzing out because it had air-dried after being drenched with snow. The wild mass of curls unraveled on my shoulders and I really, really wanted to wash it. Not to mention the rest of me. If I scrubbed hard enough, maybe I could rinse all the fear off. The thick, cloying fear that coated me like chocolate—only not so sweet or warm.
I clutched my bag with my free hand—everything I had in the world, since Christophe had the truck keys and my truck to go with it. I was now completely at their mercy, and I wouldn’t have minded so much if they would just give me a bed and let me sleep for a little while. Then they could do whatever they wanted. Up to and including killing me.
Not really, Dru. Don’t even joke about that.
“One of them’s going up to the door,” Graves muttered. He’d done that all along, giving me a play-by-play as if I didn’t have eyes. It was academic—I kept said eyes shut most of the time. I just didn’t care. “The guy with the big gun is near the front of the van.”
Of course. “Standing guard.” My throat was scraped raw. I wanted a drink of water almost as much as I wanted to pee. It was ironic. “Just in case.”
“How you doing?” Graves turned away from the tinted window to peer anxiously at me, green eyes firing in the gloom, just like the silver skull and crossbones dangling from his left ear. His hair was a tangled mass of dyed black. It was predawn, gray and hushed, and now that the van had stopped you could tell it was cold outside.
A warm car never stays warm for long. Heat is like love. It drains away.
I searched for something witty to say, settled for bare honesty. “I want to pee.”
Amazingly, he laughed. It was his usual bitter little bark, but heavier and deeper now. He sounded tired, and his proud, beaklike nose lifted a little. Under his half-Asian coloring, he looked so exhausted he was almost gray. There was very little left of the babyfaced Goth Boy he’d been.
Getting your life yanked out from under you will do that, I suppose.
Graves’s laughter petered away. He sobered. “Yeah, me too. We haven’t been left alone since they picked us up in that chopper, either. Do you think—”
Whatever he was going to ask me was lost as the kid with the AK-47 opened the van door. “It’s clear.” He gave me a smile that looked like it was trying to be reassuring. He was even sharply handsome, with a button nose and dark flyaway hair, an engaging smile, and light brown, almost yellowish eyes. But the gun and the way he glanced back over his shoulder, checking the space between the van and the front door of the big pile of stone, was something I’d seen a few times following Dad around while he hunted the things from the Real Word, the world of stuff that goes bump and crunch and yowl in the night.
Professionalism. It sat uncomfortably on his young face.
Every single person from the Order looked like a teenager—except my dad’s friend August, who looked about twenty-five. I wasn’t sure what to think of that, and just sat there staring at the rapidly strengthening foggy daylight outside the van for a moment.
“Miss Anderson?” He leaned forward a little, the mouth of the gun pointed carefully down and away. “It’s okay. We’re at a Schola; it’s safe.”
Nowhere’s safe. Not anymore. But I moved a little, and Graves took that as a signal to slide across the seat, letting go of my hand, and hop down. He turned, awkwardly, as if he wanted to help me.
But the dark-haired kid shouldered Graves aside and offered his free hand. “Here. Really, everything’s all right.” Another one of those smiles, and his eyes glittered at me.
I made it down out of the van, ignoring his hand. As soon as my feet touched down, he slammed the door behind me. “Let’s get you inside.” He made little waving movements with his hands, like he was trying to herd chickens or something.
It was the crowning absurdity. Cold air pressed against my cheeks; I smelled ice and damp leaves and the particular rot of a forest in a cold winter. The fog pressed close, deadened every sound. I scrubbed at my face, surprised to find my cheeks were still wet. Had I been crying?
The steps were huge and granite, and the massive iron-bound oak door atop them opened slowly. Mr. AK-47 herded us up toward it, and my fingers fished around blindly until they hooked on Graves’s and squeezed. Both of Goth Boy’s eyes were puffed up with bruising, and the bridge of his nose was a little flattened, but the swelling had gone down remarkably quickly. He made the stairs easily. I had to stop on each one because my back felt like it was going to shred itself. My knees creaked. I glanced up at the sky—featureless iron. It didn’t look like snow, and I was happy about that. I’ve had enough snow to last me a long time.
But it was cold, and it smelled like early morning. Like metal against the tongue, and like sodden, frozen plants. And the flat white heaviness of fog. My chin dropped toward my chest. The soft muffled wingbeats of an owl echoed inside my head.
Gran’s owl, the warning of danger. I should have told Dad I’d seen it that week and a half ago. Maybe he would have stayed home, and he’d still be alive. Jeez. Just over a week was all it took for my life to implode. It was some kind of record.
“Jesus,” a boy said softly, up ahead of us. “It’s really true.”
I didn’t even look up. We reached the top of the stairs, and Graves squeezed my hand before we were separated and I was whisked off by three boys who didn’t seem as young as their unlined faces would have me believe. They were murmuring over my head, various cryptic things, and I paid no attention. They took me through halls, and I heard whispers as kids clustered in doorways. It was like running a gauntlet or something, and I pulled into myself, concentrating on one foot in front of the other.
There was a long flight of stairs at last, and then a room with blue carpet. “You look pretty tired,” someone said. “Are you hungry? Thirsty? Anything we can—”
I saw an empty bed-shaped object and let out a sigh. “No thanks. No. I just want to sleep.” I just want to lay down and die.
“All right.” He was a faceless blur, I was so tired. I couldn’t even ask where Graves was. “You just try to rest, then. The bathroom’s through there, and—”
I didn’t hear whatever he said after that. I made it to the bed and sank down in a cloud of softness. The coverlet was blue too, I figured out that much. I didn’t even think about warding the walls. Gran and Dad would have been on me about that.
The thought was a pinch in a numb place. Gran and Dad. Both gone.
I should get up and pee, I thought, and then darkness swallowed me. I dreamed of Gran’s owl, moonlight edging its feathers as it winged through blackness. A fuzzy sense of danger enfolded me, but I was too tired to care.
And that was how I arrived at the Schola.
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