*The Watcher in the Darkness Series and all characters contained therein are the sole copyright of K.M. Spires. All rights reserved.*
The Watcher in the Darkness series contains adult situations, graphic violence, and lots and lots of bad language. Rated M for Mature, seriously.
Sleep held me like a lake of syrupy quicksand. It was as though my tired body was determined to undo weeks of insomnia in one deep, dark, dreamless session. I was aware of the distant but gentle sting of sunlight on my face and the chirping of birds, but if I stopped struggling toward consciousness even for a second, oblivion would suck me back down.
The hollow ache in my stomach finally brought me around, and I found myself in a strange bed. I sat up on my elbows, stiff and sort of hung over, but otherwise fine. Great, in fact. Much better than I’d felt in months, if only I could figure out what the hell was going on.
The room was small, like a walk-in closet that had been converted into a bedroom. The ceiling was slanted, the floral wallpaper faded. The furniture was mismatched, but sturdy and very clean. The single window was covered in lace and thick iron bars.
I threw the handmade quilt aside to discover I was naked. Naturally. A moment later, I noticed the jeans, underwear, tee shirt, and hoodie folded in a neat stack on the corner chair. I could reach the clothes without having to get out of bed, so I dragged them over to put them on, then realized they were mine.
I finished dressing then checked myself in the mirror, which was old and covered in discolored spots. My hair had been brushed smooth, my skin was clean, and my fangs had half-grown back. I could almost pass for human, if not for the yellow eyes.
I pulled back the curtain to look outside, and immediately knew where I was. This was an older section of town, a short trip from the boardwalk, but not all cheap and touristy. These few blocks housed antique shops, specialty clothing stores, and other small businesses too rich for my blood.
The window didn’t open, and the bars were welded into the frame. The only way out of the room was a thick wooden door covered in flaky white paint. I braced myself as I tested the knob, but it turned without hesitation. I poked my head out into the hall, found it deserted, then stepped out of the room.
I was at the end of a long, very narrow, unlit corridor. I could hear a woman’s voice hum a lullaby at the opposite end, so I eased my way toward the sound. I walked on the balls of my feet with my back against the wall to avoid creaking any floorboards. I opened my senses, then recognized the voice as belonging to the demon, Gwen.
“Who’s my sweet boy?” she said, making me wonder if she had a dog. I didn’t smell a dog. All I could smell was…oh, fuck me.
The door to the room was open a crack, so I gave it a shove to announce my presence. Inside the brightly-colored nursery, the demoness rocked an armful of infant human. It had fat, pink cheeks and a mass of curly blonde hair. The child’s bottle was almost empty and its eyes were closed, but it continued to suckle in its sleep. There was a second baby in the crib, not as large as the first and dressed in pink ruffles. I had no experience with babies—tiny humans freak me out—but they looked to be about the age people are when they started to walk.
“Who’s my little darling? Yes, you are. Poor, hungry lamb.” Gwen looked at me at last. Her tone remained unchanged, but her eyes hardened in warning. I was only slightly offended. With the horrible exception of Elaina, I was no kiddie-biter, but I was still a vampire.
“Look who’s awake, my sweet boy. Is it Tobias? Yes, it is. Do you think you’re ready to go back to sleep so I can talk to our guest? There’s my little angel.” The baby started to fuss the instant Gwen tried to place him in the crib. She sighed as she put him back on her shoulder, then said, “There, there. I know it hurts. You don’t want Gwen to go? As you wish, my little prince.”
Gwen closed her eyes, then sort of… stepped outside of herself. She walked toward me with a benevolent smile on her face, but at the same time, she stood by the crib with her back to me. Gwen One bounced the baby as he gnawed his pacifier and tugged at his earlobe. Gwen Two stepped out of the room then gently closed the door.
I shook my head. Goddamn demons. “Neat trick,” I said in the most insincere tone I could muster.
“Thank you, it’s new,” she said, beckoning for me to follow as she started down the hall. “With there being two of them this time, I had to get better at multitasking.”
“Cute kids.” Again, I didn’t mean it. “What are their names?”
Gwen responded with a superior laugh. “They’re a little young to have decided upon their names, don’t you think?”
I rolled my eyes, because…you know. Demons.
“I’m this close to having both of them down. Their molars are coming in, so they’re being quite a handful right now. Forgive me for not being a better hostess. I’m sure you must be hungry.”
We walked down a steep flight of stairs so narrow that my shoulders kept brushing the walls. “Cards on the table, demon. Did you do some sort of changeling swap with those kids? I’ve got enough legal problems right now.”
“Don’t be silly.” Gwen said as we stepped into the kitchen. The back door was open to let in a spring breeze, but Gwen gestured toward the kitchen table. I considered my options then sat down, because why the hell not.
“Well, I know they’re not yours. They’re one-hundred percent human.”
“True, but they are still mine. Rather, I am theirs.”
I closed my eyes as I shook my head. “Okay, I don’t have time for demon riddles and I don’t care enough to investigate. Do whatever you want. Where’s Karen?”
Gwen pulled a jug of thick red fluid out of the refrigerator. The appliance was pea-soup green and looked as though it had been manufactured the week after ice was discovered. “Karen is gone, thank goodness. Are you ready to discuss what you’re about to do for me?”
I scowled. “Slow your roll, lady. You came to me in response to the offer I made to that hellhound, right?”
“Well, the deal was for you to help me find Karen.”
“And so I did.” Gwen poured a generous serving of cold blood into a plastic cup. “So, according to the terms laid out by your verbal contract, you owe me an unspecified boon. Which was very generous, by the way.”
Her smile made my skin crawl. Possessed or not, what was I thinking when I made that fucking offer?
“Now, back to the matter at hand. Here’s what you owe me.”
“Back up. Sweet lies or ugly truth, demon?”
“Ugly truth, always.” Gwen placed the cup in my hands, and I was surprised to discover it was warm.
“Did you really come in response to my offer?”
She seemed taken aback by the question. “Of course. Why do you ask?”
“Because you said when we first met that you were there on behalf of the people that cared about me.”
She nodded once. “I did say that.”
“My fath—” The word caught in my throat. I literally could not make myself refer to him that way. “Sebastian must have realized the day he came to see me at the Sanctuary that I had a Skin-rider and therefore told his mother. It was Hlin that hired you to get the ghost out of me, and she’s already paid you out the ass. I owe you nothing.”
Gwen tilted her head and gave me an affectionate look, as though I was cute but dimwitted. “You really are quite charming. Also, you’re very astute. I don’t think you get enough credit.”
I shrugged as I drank. It wasn’t bad, for cold blood.
“However, at this moment, your grandmother is being paraded around Europe as the Archduke’s arm candy. The vampires are having a global conference on ocean pollution, or some such nonsense. She hasn’t seen her son in months.” Gwen’s voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. “I hear she’s had very little to do with him ever since he was weaned, at the Archduke’s insistence. I suppose it’s difficult to trust one’s youngest son to a woman who’s proven willing and capable of sacrificing her own children for personal gain.
“Secondly, vampires hate my kind. If your relatives were to enlist any sort of aid in exorcising you, they would’ve hired a priest. When I said that I was there on behalf of your loved ones, I never said that they’d actively sent me. When I met you on the bridge, it was in response to your call.”
“Okay, but why? Demons have no love for vampires, either.”
“No, but they do have use for them. Also, if you don’t stop throwing that word around, I’m going to put a hex on you that will make you lose a body part every time you say it.”
“Oh, really?” It seemed like a lot of wasted energy over a stupid word, so I was skeptical.
She nodded again. “First your hair, then your claws. Eventually, you’ll lose your teeth, ears, fingers and toes. If you continue to refuse to learn your lesson, you’ll eventually have to change your name to Ken.”
I winced as I crossed my legs. Message received. “Alrighty then. What do I call you?”
“Gwen,” she said very slowly, as though talking to an idiot.
“Is that your real name?”
“Of course not, don’t be silly.”
I tilted my head back to drain the last of the blood. The mild weakness and very slight headache I’d endured since waking had disappeared. “What type of…what are you?”
“I fail to see how that’s relevant.” She took a deep breath, as though tired of having to repeat the story. “My father was worshipped as a fire god by early civilizations that witnessed his power firsthand. He was known by several names before his slumber. He took a wife, my mother, the Lady Rhiannon of the Fomorians. I am the seventh born of the two, and the second daughter. My mother’s last breath was my first, and in his grief, my father destroyed the city of Pompeii and all of its neighbors.”
I took a moment to process her words. “I see. Seriously, as far as back stories go, that one was right up there. But what does that make you?”
Gwen sat in the chair across from me then swatted my hand, which had been idly picking at a chip in the tabletop. She folded her hands on the table then said, “My kind has many names. Some know us as guardian angels. In other parts of the world, we are called the djinn. We grant any heart’s desire, but always at a price, for this is the natural order of things.”
“You’re a fairy godmother,” I said. “Why didn’t you just say so?”
Gwen moaned as she put her face in her hands. “You have no idea how demeaning that label is. Thank you so much, Walt Disney, for that incredibly racist portrayal of my kind, because it’s stuck forever.”
“So, those kids upstairs. You entered into a contract with their parents?”
“No. My contract is with them.”
I sneered at her. “Ugly truth, my lily-white vampire ass. How does a baby enter into that sort of contract?”
“They inherit it,” she said, placing unnecessary emphasis on every single letter. “Toby, the children have nothing to do with this. The simple fact of the matter is that you owe me, so let’s get down to business. We’ll start with the most pressing issue—”
“Of course. You will remain in my debt until my kindness has been repaid to my satisfaction.”
“And how long will that take?”
“That depends, Tobias, how much is your life worth to you?”
“Honestly? Not that much.”
Gwen made a sympathetic noise as she stroked my cheek with the back of her hand. I jerked away on reflex. Her touch was like groundwater. She didn’t seem offended as she said, “I’m sure that witch would disagree, as do I. There is no greater gift in the universe than life, half-breed, and don’t you forget it. Now, do you want to hear what I have in mind?”
I shrugged. “Why the fuck not?”
“Splendid. I don’t know if you’re aware, given the fact that you’ve been imprisoned for the last several months, but a great evil has awakened in this city.”
Shit. I should’ve guessed what she’d want from me.
“A disease is spreading, an unnatural disease. The symptoms are—”
“Fever. Rash. Coughing up blood,” I said in a flat tone, staring at the floor as though hypnotized by the scratches in the wood.
“Yes, for some, but the disease doesn’t affect all of its victims in the same way. That’s why the CDC has been so slow to link the victims together, and recognize this for the budding plague that it is. Some experience nausea and vomiting. Some anaphylaxis. Some slip into an inexplicable coma. But, as you said, there is always the fever and the rash. The sickness is always fatal, and most recently, the dead have been reanimating as ghouls.”
I bit the corner of my lip. “Hey, look…you’re old, right?”
She stared at me without blinking. “Thank you?”
“No, I mean you’ve been around for a long time. You’ve seen some shit. How much do you know about revenants?”
Gwen pulled a face. If she was Catholic, I think she would’ve crossed herself. “Revenants mean trouble. The circumstances of a person’s life and death have to be very precise for so much pain and evil to manifest as a new life.”
She wasn’t trying to rub in my deepest shame, but goddamn if it didn’t feel that way. “There’s a revenant in this town.”
“Yes, I know, and whenever a revenant appears, plague follows. In medieval Europe, three appeared at the same time. It’s the only time in history that this has ever happened, and they were the harbingers of the Black Death. If we don’t do something soon, that sort of calamity could sweep the globe again. It has already begun.”
“I guess I don’t need to ask what you want from me,” I said, miserable.
“The source of this disease must be exterminated. Left unchecked, she will turn this city into a graveyard.”
“Justine…” My voice caught and I felt my sinuses begin to sting. I had no idea how much grief my unwelcome passenger had been soaking up, but undiluted it was a constant ache in my chest. I could feel again, and it sucked balls. “It’s my fault she is the way she is. I did that to her. She loved me and I killed her. She died in agony. Why am I the one that has to stop her?”
“Because, like it or not, you’re the one with the power to stop her. Thousands, maybe millions, of people are counting on you.”
“Since when do demons give a shit what happens to people?”
She gave me a dry look. “Not all Vættir would see humanity destroyed. Most of us view your kind as wayward children in need of guidance. You shouldn’t stereotype all based on the actions of a regrettable few. And I warned you about using that word in my presence.”
I opened my mouth to argue, then felt something soft land on the back of my hand. I looked down to find a clump of hair lying across my wrist, having dropped like a petal from a flower. I touched the bald spot on the crown of my head and my scalp was tender, as though sunburned. “Are you fucking kidding me?” I said.
She gave me a look that dripped self-righteousness. “Well, you can’t say I didn’t give you every opportunity to correct your behavior.”
No, I could not. Son of a… “Whatever. You know what, have it your way. I’ll try to find her, but no promises.”
“Oh, I would really make this your number one priority. When you enter into this sort of agreement with my kind, misfortune will follow until you satisfy the contract.” She slid a long knife across the table as though she’d been holding it the entire time. “Take this. It’s imbued with great healing magic.”
I picked the weapon up to examine it. It was the same blade Karen had used during my exorcism. “Healing? Will this cure Justine?”
Gwen stood. “If by cure, you mean shuffle her off this mortal coil and end her suffering, then absolutely. Just drive it into her heart then the unholy magic animating her will be undone.”
“There has to be another way.”
“There is no other way,” Gwen said, her patience finally wearing thin. “Revenants sustain themselves on blood, flesh, and suffering. If she were rational, Justine would beg you to end this existence for her. Think of it not as murder, but as atonement for taking her life in the first place.”
I tossed the knife onto the table. “Easy for you to say.”
“I’d hold on to that. I guarantee that you’ll need it.”
Against my will, I stretched out my hand to pick the weapon up again only to find it was gone. “Where did it go?” I said with a frown, checking to see if it had fallen onto the floor.
“It will appear when you need it,” Gwen said as she washed out my cup. “If you name it, it will appear when you call.”
“Name it?” I said with contempt. “It’s a pansy-ass fairy knife, not a baby.”
Gwen wiped the watered-down blood splatter from the counter. “Suit yourself. Look, Toby, I upheld my end of the bargain. I brought you and Karen back together.”
“How do I know that was even intentional? You asked if we knew each other during the ceremony.” I knew I was grasping at straws, but the only thing that lives longer than a vampire is a fucking demon. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life as her thrall.
“Intentional or not is beside the point, but I asked that for her benefit. I had to make it seem like a believable coincidence. If Karen had any inkling that she was helping you instead of literally any other vampire, her master wouldn’t have allowed her to come. I’d hate for him to feel it necessary to move her again.”
I nodded, preoccupied with Justine, so it took a second for her words to register. When they did, I leapt to my feet so quick that my chair tipped over. “Wait, her what? What are you talking about?”
Gwen motioned for me to keep my voice down as she cast a worried look toward the ceiling. “Her new master is very stingy about that necromancer. He’s gone to a lot of trouble to keep her all to himself. I had to promise him three favors just to enlist her aid, so…I’m not looking forward to that.”
“So, some demon—” More hair drifted to the floor and my back teeth ground together. “Goddamn it. Fine. Karen wasn’t the one that hired that doppelganger?”
“I’m sure she believes she did.”
My heart began to pound in growing panic. “Where is Karen?”
“I can’t say.”
“Bullshit. How did you hire her if you don’t know where she is?”
“I never said that I didn’t know where she is, I said that I can’t say. I have children to think about.”
I pushed my hand through my hair and more loose strands tangled around my claws. “I’m not afraid. Where the hell is this guy?”
“You asked me to find Karen for you and I did. Keeping you together was never part of the deal. Now, you owe me. That’s the long and short of it. You have bigger fish to fry. Ending this plague is of far greater concern than you patching things up with your girlfriend.”
“She’s not my girlfriend.” This was a conditioned response from me.
“And that’s probably for the best. So complicated.”
I held up the messy clump of my hair. “Hold on, what about this?”
Gwen pursed her lips as she thought it over. “My hex ends with the plague. Fair?”
I let the mess drop to the floor. She’d cursed me, she could deal with the cleanup. “Fine, but you need to sweeten the deal for me. I’m about to kill a revenant and end a plague, but all you did was put me and Karen in the same room for an hour. I need to be able to talk to her, face to face and as myself.”
Gwen put her hands on her hips. “All I did, Tobias, was rescue you from nixies, exorcise your body of an invading spirit, and nurse your ungrateful hide back to health over the last three days. What I ask in return is so reasonable that if you don’t get on top of it, I’m going to take your tongue as a trophy. And trust me, I would be doing the entire world a favor.”
I fucking hate demons. “Fine. I’m on it. But…could you at least call her and let her know that I’m looking for her?”
“Find the revenant, and I’ll consider trying to put you in touch with her.”
I narrowed my eyes as I pulled the hood over my patchy scalp. “Fine,” I said with a growl before I stormed out of her crappy little house.