Yvonne Navarro lives in southern Arizona, where by day she works on historic Fort Huachuca and by night she chops her time into little pieces, dividing it among writing, art, college, dogs, birds and family (not necessarily in that order). She's written seven solo novels about topics ranging from vampires (AfterAge) to the end of the world (Final Impact and Red Shadows). She's also the author of a number of film tie-ins, including the novelization of Ultraviolet, Elektra, Hellboy, and seven novels‑‑ five of them originals‑‑ in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer universe. Her work has won the HWA's Bram Stoker plus a number of other writing awards. Having completed Highborn, she's (always) hammering on the next one in the series, Concrete Savior, while waiting to see what the Universe decides to throw at her. Highborn will be published in October 2010 by Pocket/Juno (check it out at http://www.darkredemption.net/). She's married to author Weston Ochse (http://www.westonochse.com) and has a menagerie of animals that include three rescue Great Danes and two attention-greedy parakeets. Visit her at www.yvonnenavarro.com and look her up on Facebook to keep up with slices of a life that's growing exponentially insane. Visit her at http://www.yvonnenavarro.com or on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/yvonne.navarro.001.
Most of the time, Astarte could smell the souls burning.
Accompanying the heavy fragrance, the tortured screams below her window endlessly swelled and receded, strung together like notes pried from a twisted violin and seething with the burned‑sugar scent of agony.
There had been a time, early on, when she had enjoyed this, had relished the eternal punishment being hammered upon the spirits of those creatures she and her long‑time lover considered no better than the rats that infested their earthly world. No, not rats; mice, tiny, insignificant rodents worthy only of being food for those beings not much better than themselves. The shrieks had been musical back then, filled with blood and retribution, but eventually Astarte found that she barely heard the sounds—they faded to the background like the constant buzzing of ever‑present insects.
But now the soul cries had changed. They should have been as natural as the blood that constantly oozed from the cracks in the walls of her opulent rooms, nothing more unusual than the eternity of time one second took to pass to another. But no; lately the undulating waves of suffering had begun to eat at her, stinging her psyche like hungry, biting blowflies diving relentlessly at the wounds of a dying beast. Sometimes she would lash out and silence the ones within range, her rage and impatience incinerating them instantly and giving her a few moments—just that—of heavy, anticipatory silence.
Then, of course, the next shrieks would ripple across the plains as more souls were pushed forward to fill the void left by those she had temporarily destroyed. A hundred or a thousand seconds from now, the same souls she had just obliterated would be reborn into another cycle of their punishment and would be heard yet again. If she was lucky, their wails would fall upon the ears of another rather than herself, one who would grin rather than flinch at the sound.
But who in Hell was ever lucky?
She turned away from the sill and its vista of glowing scarlet rivers, a landscape that was dark but forever well lit. It was an arena filled with abominations that were always new and unspeakably dangerous, things that even now continued to surprise her when they crossed her royal path.
Everything in Hell watched everything else; it was a living thing, encompassing all, missing nothing, revealing everything to everyone. Even so, she neither knew nor cared who or what watched as her cracked and blackened fingertips lifted the only thing that remained of what she had once been.
Its quill still glowed white, crystalline and pure—even the fires of Hell could not dim the light within its center. That the edges of the vane were singed and stained with sulfur and smoke took nothing away from the power it held over her. The pain she felt each time she held it was worse than anything a thousand demons could inflict, and the agony grew deeper and more overwhelming every time. The feather’s light was an aberration in this room, a single spot of perfection that was impossible to disguise or hide in this city of sheer obscenity; as if to prove that, the screams of the damned would swell to an unbearable cadence of want if she held it toward the unshuttered window. That the feather had not been ripped from her possession was a testament to the fact that even she, with all her vile, hallowed standing in this place, was not above being personally tormented. Nothing reminded an immortal being of its own eternity like an everlasting memento of that which could never again come to be.
Hell had taught her many things, not the least of which was how to wait. She had spent countless days, each like a century, with one elbow resting on her knees as she contemplated the feather, that glorious relic of the time before her fall from Grace. As the heat of Hell swirled inside and outside of her, she had to wonder—
Could she be redeemed?
It was said that nothing and no one could truly return from Hell, that time ceased to exist once those colossal black gates closed behind a weeping spirit. Any chance of salvation or forgiveness was left behind, as eternally unreachable as the Great Light of God Himself. But Lucifer was the King of Lies, and what better way to intensify the punishment of those who were forever condemned than to take away the one thing that had always kept even that weakest of creations, mankind, going?
She had it now, but only because she was allowed to, only because someday she would awaken to find the feather gone, spirited away as though it had never been. Then her symbol of hope would be gone, and what would be worse, she wondered: to have had it and lost it, or to have lost it and wonder if she had ever truly had it at all?
No, she had to get out of here before it truly was all gone. Not just the feather itself, but the hope, and the memories—before the last of those finally fled to leave her with nothing but a nameless, charred emptiness she no longer remembered how to satisfy.
A butterfly saved her.
Being what she was, she’d always been partial to anything with wings, and the fireball missed her only because she leaned sideways to look at the creature where it was balanced on the back of a park bench in Chicago’s Lincoln Park. Two inches wide at best, the butterfly was orange and yellow, plus a couple more colors that never registered because of the agony that suddenly ran up one arm and nearly spread to her neck and jawline.
A Hunter had already found her!
She dropped forward and rolled away from the next fireball, then scrambled around and behind the bench. A third fireball, small and white‑hot, arced across the space in which she’d been standing only a second before, then disintegrated against a massive old tree. It made a sound like a fast‑moving forest fire then instantly burned out, leaving a smoking, circular scar on the tree’s thick trunk. On its heels was a scream from a woman who had come around the bend in the path just in time to see the miniature blast.
Good. Getting humans involved would put the balance on her side, give her a chance to escape while her pursuer was forced to hide. He wouldn’t kill her, but it was glaringly obvious he was going to have fun hurting her before he dragged her back.
Like she was ever going to let that happen.
It wasn’t difficult to lose herself in the trees off the path while the Hunter tried to follow without being seen. Once he made it into the trees, she could hear her attacker crashing after her, and all it took to leave him behind was stealth—he was overconfident and noisy; she was neither. She stayed close to the ground, almost on all fours, and moved as fast as she could, intentionally weaving in and out of the populated areas. In these she was barely more than a blur that made passersby frown and blink, and when she got to the edge of a body of water next to a sign that said South Pond, she sucked in air and slipped into the warm mud‑ and leaf‑choked liquid without hesitating. She didn’t breathe for a long, long time, swimming blindly away from the danger and coming up like an alligator at the water’s edge several hundred feet later, slow and cautious as only the top of her head and her eyes broke the surface.
She was safe.
She washed her face and hands at a water fountain in the park, then pulled clean water through her hair until she felt reasonably presentable. Water was such an amazing thing—refreshing and clear, sweet against her skin despite the chemicals added by the city’s processing system. Although she hadn’t been able to stay and appreciate it, she’d even enjoyed the dirty, slightly polluted water in the pond.
Quickly moving west and away from the upscale lakefront area, she found some clothes hanging on a line in a small backyard. In this world of modern conveniences, she didn’t think people did that anymore—hang clothes out to dry—but perhaps this person wanted the smell of fresh air in the fabric. To her sensitive nose, Chicago’s exhaust‑choked air wasn't truly fresh, but people here were used to it.
Taking the simple T‑shirt and denim jeans and the worn pair of athletic shoes she found by the back door was stealing, but she was out of options and that, surely, was not even a blip on the chart of her many crimes. Besides, walking around in rags stinking of pond water and streaked with dried mud wasn’t going to help her accomplish her task. The stolen jeans fit her tall frame surprisingly well, although the T‑shirt was stretched snugly across her wide back and small breasts. The fabric was tight around her biceps, and every movement of her right arm sent a hot jolt down the flesh burned earlier. The side of her neck and face were deep pink from the heat spillover, but the pain was minor; her hair was singed and still smelled of fire. But she was quite used to that smell.
That’s a pretty nasty burn on your arm.”
The voice came from her right and belonged to a nice‑looking guy in his late thirties and who was a good four inches taller than her own six foot two. She was in Walgreens, a store like a twenty‑first-century apothecary, staring at a shelf full of gauze and burn salve and thinking about the products on display. Her own physical pain was something she hadn’t had to contemplate in quite awhile. The last time she’d paid it any mind, human medicine had been little more than someone waving burning clumps of herbs over a wound and uttering a meaningless chant. Was there anything among the brightly colored boxes on these shelves that would actually soothe the monstrous stinging on her arm, or would it simply be a waste of time? Humans were certainly good at that. Because of what she was, a lot of things‑‑ how to dress, how to talk, even a culture's customs and slang, just came to her automatically. But for this, she really had no idea, simply because she'd never needed such a thing. And in the meantime, here was this man.
No, not a man.
A child fathered by an angel and born of a human mother.
She could smell him, in the way that only her kind could. It was an unmistakable thing, deep and alluring, as though he were surrounded by a mist of clean ocean water. The scent was so strong and so unexpected that all she could do for an overly long moment was breathe it in, pull it deep into her lungs and hold it there while she reveled in his nearness as his essence spread throughout her body.
A double heartbeat later, she exhaled. Without conscious thought, her tongue flicked over her lips, seeking the last trace.
He was looking at her expectantly. The burn—right. He’d said something about it. “Yeah,” she responded at last. Her voice was low and husky, a bit hoarse. She hadn’t actually spoken in centuries—it simply hadn’t been necessary—and she certainly hadn’t carried on a conversation with a human. Was there something else she should say about her injuries? What would this nephilim want to hear?
No, she reminded herself. Don’t think of him as nephilim, think of him as a man. After all, that’s all he knows that he is. Just a man.
The guy looked down at her arm again, then his gaze skimmed along the display. “This,” he said, pointing to a small blue-and-white box labeled Burn Jel. “If you’re not going to see a doctor, this is your best bet. Wash the entire area thoroughly every morning and evening, then spread this stuff on a piece of sterile gauze and scrub off the newly formed skin until all the dead skin is gone and the new is growing in evenly. It’s called debriding. It’ll be painful but it will help it heal and keep scarring to a minimum.”
She shrugged, then winced as the movement pulled the fabric of the shirt against her arm. “I don’t care about that,” she said. She wanted to keep him talking, but her people skills sucked. “It just... hurts.”
He nodded. “I’m sure it does, but there’s not much over the counter that’s going to help the pain. The ointment has a small amount of lidocaine in it, and you could take some aspirin along with that. You could also try one of the burn sprays, but I wouldn’t expect much out of it, not at that level.” He nodded at her arm, then fell silent for a moment. “You know,” he added finally, “that’s a fresh second-degree burn. I can’t believe you’re not going to see a doctor.”
She managed a small, strained smile. The pain made that easy, even if normal conversation was a challenge. “I thought you were one.”
He looked momentarily surprised, then shook his head. “Me? No, I’m an EMT.”
She squinted at him. “What does that stand for?”
“Emergency medical technician. I drive an ambulance.”
“Next best thing.”
“To a doctor?” He shook his head again, this time more emphatically. “Not at all.”
“Well,” she said. She hesitated, finally stepping back from the shelf. She’d run out of creativity and couldn’t think of anything else to talk about. “Thanks for the advice.”
His eyes widened. “Wait—aren’t you going to pick up some supplies?”
“Ah.” He frowned at her, then his expression smoothed. She realized instantly that he knew she had no money. As much as he dealt with people, he was probably an expert at reading situations. “I’m Toby. What’s your name?”
Name? Of course—she should have one of those, yet she hadn’t given it a moment’s thought. Giving her real name was unthinkable, but what should she call herself? Twice before she had been formally named, and she had used thousands of others through the millennia; for the first time, now she could choose her own. A million alternatives flashed through her brain, letters and languages with little rhyme or reason, still others with hidden purpose—
“Brynna,” she blurted.
All right. That would do.
“Very nice,” he said, but it was clear he was thinking about anything but that as his hand dug in his back pocket and brought out a worn leather wallet. “Listen, Brynna. I think you could use a little hel—“
The left side of his head caved in.
There wasn’t much sound with it, just a sort of thump and a crystalline tinkling that seemed to come afterwards, almost as an addendum to the actual event. One moment Brynna was gazing at Toby, whose expression was sincere and vaguely like that of an eager‑to‑please child as he prepared to offer her money; in the next, she was blinking at a misshapen red hole easily two inches around. It was a huge and ugly thing that gouted blood down his shoulder; even more hideous was the way the right side of his skull had suddenly bulged outward, like someone had forced air into a balloon then let only part of it out. Toby’s knees buckled and he turned and fell in front of her, leaving a pattern of bloody mist and vaporized skin in his wake. He went down as quickly and gracelessly as a dropped wooden puppet.
Brynna scowled and bent over him, but it was a useless gesture: he’d been gone and sent to glory in the millisecond between when the bullet had touched his left temple and slammed against the inside of his skull on the right. If she touched him, she might be able to see at least a hint of the duty his destiny had demanded, but why bother? Whatever task had been assigned to this gentle and generous nephilim soul would never be completed. Now he was just an empty husk ready to be returned to the dust of the earth. “For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return,” she murmured.
Brynna straightened, then realized someone was screaming. It was an older man in a white coat behind the counter at the end of the aisle, and the only reason she even noticed was because it was so odd to her senses that there was just one man screaming instead of thousands. He was frozen in place, his sight locked on her as his mouth gaped and howled, and he gave no sign of stopping anytime soon. She sent him a puzzled look, then it hit her that this must be a terrible shock—most humans simply weren’t used to blood and death on the same scale she was.
As if to underscore that, something red and moist dribbled down Brynna’s forehead and slid across the bridge of her nose. When she reached to flick at it, her fingers came away washed in the familiar hue of scarlet. Her hair and face were splattered with Toby’s blood. Nothing new historically, but it was really kind of admirable, the way humans had come up with so many deadly methods of killing one another. Twenty thousand years ago she never would have thought them capable of much more than desperate hunting with rudimentary tools, yet look at them now.
Brynna sighed and automatically tuned out the old man’s screeching as she turned away from the nephilim’s corpse. There was nothing to be done for Toby now, and she didn’t have currency or anything else that seemed likely to be accepted in trade for the medicine the dead EMT had recommended. She had an idea that Toby’s death was going to throw off the normal rhythm of things, anyway. From where she stood, Brynna could see the front window of the drugstore, or what had been the window before it, too, had been shattered by the same single bullet that had killed her nephilim. Glass fragments sparkled in the sun where they weren’t shadowed by the flapping remains of the advertising posters that had been taped to the inside surface. She glanced back at Toby one more time before starting toward the door. As she did, her gaze skimmed across the people gathering on the sidewalk; she stopped short as her eyes locked with those of a single young man’s.
Brown hair cut very short, hazel eyes. Tall and overly thin, all arms and legs underneath a hip‑length denim jacket that was too heavy for the hot afternoon and bulky along one side—
The escalating sound of a siren cut through the jabber of conversation outside. The man jerked his gaze away from Brynna’s, then backed up and disappeared behind the gawkers crowding up to the broken window.
Brynna stared at the space where he’d been, considering, before she quickly left the drugstore. There was no reason to stay here, and she certainly didn’t want to be involved in any police investigation. The man outside, though, he was another story; there was something about him that intrigued her. Was he also a nephilim? Nephilim weren't common but they also weren't rare; still, to see one at the moment of another’s death... that was certainly on the side of odd.
The people standing on the sidewalk stepped aside to let her pass, and it took Brynna a couple of seconds to figure out why—she was bloody, her face and shoulders splattered with the last moments of Toby’s earthly life. With her history, it was ridiculously easy for her not to notice something like this; the sensation, the sticky, heavy copper scent, the warmth—it was all just one more part of a bigger normalcy. But that had to change if she was going to blend into this world. Judging from the appalled expressions of the onlookers and the way they backstepped, she really needed to work harder on remembering her surroundings. It was damned ironic—all the mayhem, murder, and devastation that mankind had wrought throughout the ages, yet now people in some of the most densely populated areas on the globe couldn’t seem to stomach the sight of blood. How had the human race ever gotten through the Dark Ages? The Inquisition? The countless, never‑ending wars they waged upon each other?
There wasn’t any place she could wash as she had in the park, so the best Brynna could do was stay close to the buildings and duck her head when someone came toward her on the sidewalk. She didn’t miss that she was essentially skulking in broad daylight, and she hated having to do that. Skulking reminded her of the alley demons from Below, hideously filthy creatures that looked like a cross between hyenas and Komodo dragons. They prowled the blood‑soaked passageways of the undercities and preyed on fleeing souls, darting forward to snap and drag a fugitive into the darkest shadows. There they chewed on the screaming victim until nothing remained but ragged, twitching puddles of ripped and half‑digested soul‑flesh. When the soul finally died, they moved onto the next and left the ruined spirit to disintegrate and re-form back at the original location it had so stupidly thought it had escaped. Hell was nothing if not repetitious.
Finally Brynna found a service station with outside restrooms. She waited, and when an older man came out of one door, she ducked inside; the sarcastic comment he started to utter died in his throat at the sight of her blood‑smeared cheeks.
With her face and hands cleaned a few minutes later, Brynna came out and studied her surroundings. There was a big yellow Shell symbol above her, and on the corner was a dual street sign that read Halsted on one side and Wrightwood on the other. The air was heavy with the smell of gasoline, but Brynna barely noticed. She’d smelled a lot worse.
The slight breeze tingled the places on her face that were still wet and Brynna let herself soak in the feeling for a few seconds. But only that—she wasn’t here, standing on this particular corner in the city, by happenstance; even as she’d tried to make herself as invisible as possible, she’d been tracking the man she’d seen staring at her through the drugstore’s broken window. There wasn’t much to go on but the slightest hint of his body odor; by itself it wouldn’t have been enough—there were too many other scents in the city that smothered it. But there was something unnatural mixed with it, something much stronger and heavier and impossible to miss.
Feeling less conspicuous now that she’d been able to clean up, Brynna lifted her head to the sunshine as she turned onto Wrightwood and followed the acrid scent west. She’d only gone two blocks before her sharp sense of smell made her turn north onto a heavily tree‑lined street called Mildred Avenue.
The thick canopy of leaves from hundred‑year‑old oaks made the air cooler and dimmer; instead of heavy summer sunshine, the sidewalks and buildings were mottled with thousands of sunlit circles that moved and danced as the breeze cut through the leaf‑laden branches. It gave the old apartment buildings a softer, more appealing look than they would have normally had. On an overcast day, Brynna knew they would appear as they really were: worn and overused brick and crumbling mortar fronted by cracked sidewalks and lawns dotted with weeds. Here and there were halfhearted splashes of color, geraniums, petunias, and marigolds planted along borders that weren’t particularly straight. Right now there wasn’t much going on and the street was devoid of people. That made it easy for Brynna to follow the stink of gunpowder down a shadowed walkway to where it ended at the glass‑fronted door of an apartment building.
Brynna stood there for a moment, then tried the door. It was locked, which wasn’t much of a surprise. Humans always thought they could keep out their version of the Big Bad with things like flimsy metal fastenings. It was a useless effort, but she wasn’t here to be the evil anymore, was she?
She was pretty sure her target was a nephilim—he’d paused at the door and she was almost positive an ocean scent lingered beneath the caustic smell of gunpowder. There were names and doorbells along one side but unless he made a habit of pushing his own bell, she had no way of sensing which one belonged to him. It was a big building, at least thirty‑six units, but once she was inside, it would be easy to find the door to his apartment.
Brynna tried the door again. The handle was nothing but decoration; the lock mechanism above was what kept it closed. To force it, she’d only have to break the jamb on the side.
“What are you doing down there?”
A sudden gravelly voice somewhere above her head made Brynna jump. She backed away from the door and looked up to where a wrinkled old woman with fuzzy, iron‑colored hair was glaring down at her from two stories above. “This is a Neighborhood Watch area, missy, and you’d better believe I watch it all the time.” The woman’s voice climbed higher and took on a threatening tone as she squinted at Brynna. “Never seen you here before.”
“I was looking for a friend of mine,” Brynna explained.
“Then ring the damned doorbell instead of hanging around like a hoodlum!”
“I don’t know his last name,” Brynna said without thinking.
“Then you’re not much of a friend,” the woman snapped back. “You get out of here or I’m calling the police. This is a Neighborhood Watch area!”
“I heard you the first time,” Brynna said. She gave the door a final look, then shrugged. If the murderer who’d gone into this building really was a nephilim, he’d been corrupted, led astray from the path God had set out for him. It was unlikely Brynna would do herself any good by finding him anyway. Let the humans deal with the killer in their midst. She wanted nothing more than to forget he existed.
“I’m warning you!” the elderly woman screeched.
Brynna turned to follow the sidewalk back to the street. “You have a nice day, ma’am,” she said as sweetly as she could. The woman muttered something cantankerous in return as Brynna touched her forehead in a gesture of farewell. A moment later the crone gasped and backed away from her concrete windowsill.
Brynna grinned darkly. Stone was always so good at soaking up heat. Maybe that would keep the old bat away from her Neighborhood Watch area for a while so her fellow tenants could go in and out in peace.
(C) Yvonne Navarro 2010