Read on for the first 3 chapters of Shadow Fall, the final conclusion to the Nightkind Trilogy
The Blue Crescent Hotel must have been impressive once. Its hulking edifice hunched on the summit of a wooded hill like a stone sentry overlooking the snaking river and snowy meadows far below. It was a tall, boxlike construction and its painted facade, which had been as blue as its name, was chipped, bleached and peeling.
I carefully made my way through the woods behind the building. Navigating the snowdrifts and ducking below the bare black branches snaking before me, which actively seemed to snag at me, wasn’t exactly easy. It was like they were trying to prevent me from reaching my destination. My gloves gave some relief from the frigid air, but my nose felt as if it was about ready to fall off. I glanced back at the red sun dawning in the east. It didn’t seem like anyone would feel its radiance today.
A voice cried out from one of the hotel’s many windows. I ignored it. There’d been a cacophony of such sounds since I’d climbed the icy hill to approach my destination.
The Blue Crescent was filled with the detritus polite society had shrugged off; tweakers, heroin-addled walking dead, the damned souls who’d fallen through the cracks of a constructed reality. Worse, they were blinkereds; the tribe of humans who only saw what was placed before them. Or, in this case, whatever mirages their drugs provided.
I redoubled the enchanted shield I’d cast around myself. My job should have been simple, on paper at least, but it felt like it would be anything but. The woman who’d hired me, Mrs. Kembolde, was blinkered. She’d found me through a mutual friend, who, like me, walked both the blinkered and magical worlds. All I needed to do was find the demon who’d slain her brother, Reggie.
Of course, Mrs. Kembolde hadn’t been aware that an actual demon had murdered Reggie when she’d explained her requirements. She’d used the term as a pejorative but, after she’d handed over her brother’s almost empty wallet, and Thaddeus had studied the bloodstains on the single crumpled dollar bill contained within it, we’d found traces of ichor that strongly suggested his killer had in fact been demonic.
Reggie had been a methhead and, according to Mrs. Kembolde, he’d been bad news for most of his life; a recurring curse upon their family. He’d robbed them, abused them, and pleaded for financial aid in an almost constant cycle. He’d checked into rehab, checked out of rehab moments later, lied, cheated, and stolen his sister’s wedding ring. She’d hated him for that, and yet she’d been devastated when his body had been discovered in the woods behind the Blue Crescent.
The dog walker who’d stumbled upon Reggie’s corpse had described it as being completely stripped of flesh, and his face had been such a mess it had taken the cops days to identify him. Of course, they’d searched the Blue Crescent and interviewed its broken tenants, but they’d come up blank. As for the state of Reggie’s body, the cops had put it down to wild animals, but it was clearly something else entirely. Something wild, sure, but something evil too.
“Nice,” I muttered as I entered the hotel through the remains of the back door.
The place was gloomy, but there was enough light to reveal the devastation that had been wrought upon the building’s former grandeur. Multicolored loops of graffiti covered the sides; names, threats, crudely drawn genitalia, the usual fare. Spent cigarettes studded the carpet along with crushed beer cans, and scorched circles from where people had started fires. The air reeked of urine, ash, and charred wood. I couldn’t imagine how the building had looked in its glory days, but as I held my hand against the wall, I caught a flash of a warm, brightly lit building with royal blue carpets and fine art displayed on its walls. Well-heeled staff, and even more well-heeled guests.
And then my vision flickered, and I was plunged back into the twilit hell looming before me.
Muffled voices issued from a nearby door as I entered what appeared to be an old conference room. Three men and two women lay sprawled across the floor. Crack pipes and needles surrounded them like malignant toys.
“Can you help me?” I pulled my phone and showed them a picture of Reggie Kembolde. “Do you know this man?
One of the group, a man barely out of his teens, nodded. He spoke, but his voice was so drawled he might as well have been conversing in a made-up language.
“He got ate,” one woman explained. “By wolves. I heard the only thing they left was his spine. Mad Taylor said whoever did it didn’t even leave him his eyeballs.”
“That’s not quite… accurate. Did you know Reggie?” I glanced around the room. “Did anyone bear him a grudge?”
The woman shrugged. “Not really.”
“Yeah,” a skeletal man with a shock of coppery hair said, “we don’t exactly swap names and details here.” He gave me a humorless laugh. “Just needles and pipes. Know what I mean?”
I nodded. “I wondered if there’d been a falling out. Anything that might have prompted someone to attack him?”
“There’s fights every day.” The woman fumbled for a cigarette from her crushed packet. She looked crestfallen as she spotted it was snapped in half. She tried to mend it but it was unfixable, and it was also her last one.
“You may just get into a fight yourself, mister,” the man said. He wasn’t threatening me; he was warning me.
“I just need to know what happened,” I said. “And find the man who hurt Reggie.” I glanced around. “He might still be here.”
“Maybe,” the other woman said. She sat up and fixed me with a bleary look. “Irene vanished last night, but she’s always going missing, so that doesn’t mean jack shit.” Her eyes flitted over me in a cautious appraisal and focused on the phone in my hand as she openly weighed its value. She shook her head. I guessed my blinkered phone wasn’t worth the effort of stealing.
“Where’s Irene’s room?” I asked.
This produced a cacophony of wheezing laughter.
“We don’t have rooms, mister,” the copper-haired man said.
“We sleep where we fall,” the woman who’d appraised me replied. “But I heard she went to the top,” she shivered.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
She held out a grubby hand, and it took a moment to realize she wanted paying. I’d folded some twenties into my pocket ahead of time so I wouldn’t have to pull out my wallet. I handed her one.
“It means she’s probably dead,” the woman said. “You should check out the second floor though. She was always up there. Don’t ask me why.”
“Just keep away from the fourth floor,” the other woman said.
“Why?” I asked.
“There’s a man up there and you don’t want to meet him. That’s all I’m saying.”
I nodded my thanks and left.
“I don’t like these people,” Eznárez whispered. I had him by my side in plain sight, but I’d cast a spell over the sword so the blinkereds wouldn’t see it, not that it would have registered with them anyway. Still, I was finally learning the value of caution.
“They’re unwell,” I said.
“They’re almost dead and they’ve done it to themselves. And they tell untruths with impunity. Lies will be their last words.”
I nodded. He had a point, even if it was a pitiless one. I’d almost reached the wide stairwell when someone spoke behind me.
I turned to find a man in a crumpled suit standing in a doorway. He ran a grimy hand through his receding hair and tried to straighten his tie. He had pale, tired eyes, a careworn smile and the look of a man who’d made something of himself once, until the world had kicked him down.
“Are you talking to me?” I hadn’t expected to be called sir in this wretched place.
“Yes. Are you with the police?” He glanced me over and it seemed he was perfectly aware I wasn’t a cop.
“I’m a private detective. And you are?” I kept my voice casual as I waited for whatever he was going to demand for information.
“Mr. Lyle.” He offered his hand. I reluctantly shook it. “I… I guess I’m a resident.” His lips twitched in a short-lived smile.
“Do you know why I’m here?” I asked.
“That poor man. Mr. Kembolde.”
“Did you know him?”
Mr. Lyle shook his head decisively. “No. I mean… I saw him from time to time.” He gestured around himself. “Things are transient here. You meet someone one day, they’re gone the next. It’s the nature of our existence. But regardless, I was sorry when I heard what happened to him.”
“Can you tell me anything that might help?”
Mr. Lyle shook his head again. “I’m afraid not.”
“Okay, well, nice meeting you.” I headed up the stairs.
I turned back to meet those quick nervous eyes.
He clasped his hands together. “I just wanted to warn you.” His gaze flitted to the ceiling. “I mean, I wouldn’t go too far up there. And…. Well, you should probably leave.”
“Some residents can be… unpredictable.”
“Someone already warned me about the man on the fourth floor. Is that who you’re referring to?”
Lyle gave a slight nod. He lowered his voice. “I don’t want to cause any trouble. We have enough of that already. I’m not good with conflict.” He gave a bitter laugh. “It was my overwhelming urge to soothe my nerves that got me into this damned addiction in the first place.”
“Well, I appreciate the warning, Mr. Lyle. And I’m not looking for trouble either, but it usually finds me. Maybe you should go for a walk or something. Just for a couple of hours.”
He appraised me carefully and seemed to reach a decision. “Perhaps I will. Take care.” He gave me another half smile before flitting into the shadows.
I climbed the stairs, my heart beating a little faster than it had before.
The second floor comprised a long, dank corridor with doors leading off on either side. Some doors were intact, most weren’t.
People lay inside the rooms, sprawled in beds, and on the floors. It was hard to see much with the ragged curtains drawn against the dawn. Some sat with their backs to the walls, smoking noxious, bubbling substances that filled the air with sharp bitter scents. I spoke with the few who met my eye. Most thought I was a cop, not that it stopped them demanding cash. They threatened me and laughed at me in equal measure.
“You should put them out of their misery,” Eznárez said. “Cut them down.”
“We don’t do things like that here,” I replied.
“And no doubt you think that’s humane.” He muttered something in his other tongue. I had no idea what he’d said, but it didn’t sound pleasant.
I’d almost reached the end of the corridor when I felt the displacement in the air.
“Turn!” Eznárez cried.
I whirled around as a gaunt woman with wild blue eyes dashed from the door behind me.
The shard of glass in her bleeding hand glimmered like a dagger. Time slowed as I watched it descend toward me. I broke from my reverie and seized her as the tip punctured the skin on my throat. The wound wasn’t bad, but it smarted all the same. I twisted her wrist.
Her scream was horrific in the confined space.
“Sorry!” she cried as she dropped to her knees and nursed her wrist. “Sorry, sorry, sorry!”
I brought my boot down on the glassy dagger, splintering it into fragments.
“Why did you do it then?” I kept my voice as calm as possible.
“He made me do it!” Her lips turned into a rictus grin. “He doesn’t want you here. He wants you to leave. Dead or alive, he doesn’t care.”
She shook her head.
“Where is he?” I glanced at the ceiling. “Up there?”
“I can’t talk about him. Can’t say. Even though he’ll torture me either way!” She spoke in a sing-song rhyme. This seemed to amuse her, but then her eyes filled with tears and she began rocking.
“He won’t hurt you if I find him first,” I said. “Tell me where he is.”
“Everywhere. And nowhere.”
“What’s his name?” I asked.
“Legion,” she whispered, before crawling upon her hands and knees across the floor and disappearing into the murky room she’d emerged from. “Sorry!” she called, before softly closing the door behind her.
I rubbed my throat. It was bleeding, but not heavily. I’d been lucky. I was slipping. My attention wasn’t fully where it needed to be… I hadn’t gotten a good night’s sleep in days. Things were going to hell fast. The magical quarter was in uproar and it seemed my ex-colleague, Morgan Rook, had stirred up some kind of ant’s nest in his hidden war against a shade. Apparently, my former employers at The Organization were in the thick of everything too. I’d only heard the gossip, so I had no idea what was true and what wasn’t, but it was as plain as day that a storm was brewing. One that might tear the city apart.
But I had my own problems to deal with. The last of the Nightkind, Evanora, was coming for me. She hadn’t made her move, but she would. I’d slain both her granddaughter and daughter, and it wouldn’t go unpunished. They hadn’t exactly given me a choice in the matter, not that Evanora would care. She was death and nightmare rolled into one, and the hatred I’d glimpsed in her eyes had chilled me from the first moment I’d encountered her and her kindred in their twilit realm.
I wondered what I’d feel when death found me… Would I die twice? Once from regret, before my final exit? Had I achieved even half of what I’d wanted for my life? Hardly. Not that I’d ever really had any clear goals other than getting through existence as best I could. But the one thing I definitely hadn’t resolved was finding and killing the man who had murdered my mother. In that, I’d failed abysmally, but not for want of trying.
A desolate howl came from above me, bringing me back to the darkened corridor. I wished I wasn’t alone, but Thaddeus was away searching for whatever world he’d arrived in ours from, as well as whoever he had been there. Sometimes it seemed he was even more lost than I was.
Evelyn was on an assignment, meaning someone was about to lose their life. And Johnny Deadlock… Well, he’d been super cagey when he’d left the apartment that morning. Whatever he was up to, it was clearly no good, not that I’d pressed him on it. I was just his unwitting landlord, and his business was his own.
I continued searching the floor, but found nothing more than scenes of wretchedness and squalor. Most of the people I encountered shot me sly, malicious looks. The demon could have been any or none of them.
From what I’d been told, my target was most likely on the top floor, but I wasn’t certain he was up there. No, I had the sense he was wandering the corridors, stirring things up in my wake. I could almost scent his evil in the musty air.
I climbed the stairs to the next floor, which was empty save for a room filled with bodies sprawled across the threadbare carpet.
“They’re alive,” Eznárez said. “Somehow. But they’re on the precipice. You could serve them a kindness.”
“I told you; I’m not killing anyone,” I said. “Except for my assignment.”
“You’re a weak master.”
“And you’re a poor servant. Now shut the hell up.”
I searched the rest of the corridor and found nothing, but as I climbed the final set of stairs, I heard a muffled whimper. I took the steps quickly, gripping my gun in my pocket, much to Eznárez’s chagrin.
A man lay upon the landing. His leg was chained to a radiator, and his eyes rolled like he was dipping in and out of consciousness. I placed a quick healing spell on him, and blew sleep dust into his face so he’d forget I’d been there.
I glanced around, listening carefully. It seemed there was no one else on this level, at least no one breathing…
“What do you hear?” I whispered to Eznárez.
“Where’s the demon?”
“I couldn’t tell you, but I suspect you’ve already met him. He hides well.”
“No shit, Sherlock.”
“I’ve told you before, I don’t know who Sherlock is.”
“No matter.” I glanced down to where Eznárez’ glowing green eye shone on the pommel of the sword. He blinked slowly, like an irritated cat. I was vexed myself. I knew the demon was present but, as Eznárez had said, he could have been anyone I’d already met.
“You need to make him reveal himself,” Eznárez said, as if reading my thoughts.
“Any ideas how?”
“Indeed. I’ll need blood. You can take it from the sleeping man at your feet, or I can use yours. I’ll leave the decision to you.”
“Fine. We’ll use my blood. What’s the spell?”
“Kthampa. Or the Mothwing Glow in your tongue.”
“You’ll see. Give me blood, but be warned, this will cost us both magic.”
Before I could think twice, I held my hand out and ran the blade across my palm. The sound Eznárez made was beyond creepy; as if he treasured my blood far more than anything I’d fed him before. The sword glowed with an eldritch green light, and his eye rolled with ecstasy.
Eznárez whispered in his native tongue. It was a song-like, melancholy dirge. The dust gleaming in the patch of sunlight along the hall stirred, before drawing toward us, like a tide. I thought I heard wings, soft, delicate, and almost imperceptible. Nothing seemed to be out of place.
“You won’t see the spell for now,” Eznárez said.
“That sounds useful.”
“But you’d feel it if it was cast on you,” said whoever was climbing the stairs behind me. I didn’t recognize the voice and yet it seemed familiar all the same. How long had they been listening to our exchange?
Mr. Lyle appeared. “I figured I might as well reveal myself before your moths do. Make the magic you used irrelevant.” He studied me closely. “I was going to leave you be.” His voice was suddenly a lot less nervous and unassuming than it had been when we’d first met. “You were cordial, and I respect that. Besides, you’re not long for this world.”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“You’re marked for death.” Lyle held his hands out. “Not by me. Another’s claimed your ending, and I would have respected that. But you didn’t leave.”
At first I thought a cloud had drawn over the rising sun outside, because the window behind Lyle darkened. And then I wrested my gaze from him and saw it was moths… hundreds of moths. They bumped against the glass, their brown and gray bodies fluttering madly, their antenna probing. They were seeking a way in. Soon, they found a crack in the wall.
“They saw the light your sword cast inside me.” Lyle inclined his head to the moths. “I’ve seen that magic before, but not for a very long time. It’s rare.” He glanced from the moths to me. “You’re rare. You and your talking blade. It’s a shame I’ll have to deprive the world of you both.” He swept his hand to the floor. “I’ve enjoyed feasting on the people downstairs, if you can call them that. But you… you’ll be far more exquisite, I think.” He nodded almost politely as he strolled toward me. “Come, let’s see what’s inside you.”
Lyle paused as even more moths seeped into the hotel through a broken window at the end of the corridor. They swelled in numbers, forming an immense, swirling cloud and there were so many I heard their beating wings and felt the intensity of their gazes. Lyle held his arms out, as if seeking to embrace them. Within seconds, the creatures flew down the passage and covered his suit and face until it was almost impossible to make out his features.
“Kill him!” Eznárez urged, drawing me from my stupor.
I was about to drive the blade through the demon’s heart when Lyle’s whole body shuddered. A moment later, a tearing sound filled the air as two colossal leathery black wings unfolded behind him, sending the moths fluttering away.
His face had changed. Now it was jagged and long, and his thin flesh was a shade of midnight blue. His yellow slitted eyes bored into mine. There wasn’t a scrap of humanity in them. “I warned you to leave, didn’t I?”
“Why did you do it?” I asked in an effort to buy myself time. I’d fought demons before, but I had no idea what kind this one was. If I could work that out, I had a chance of figuring out his vulnerabilities…
“Why did I do what?”
“Why did you kill Mr. Kembolde? What brought you here?”
Lyle shrugged, sending the last of the moths fluttering from his shoulder. It joined the others as they flew back down the corridor. It seemed whatever shine Eznárez’s magic had revealed to them in Lyle wasn’t enough to keep them drawn to him. “I’m a demon. Killing’s what we do. You know that. I’ll tear your flesh to shreds and toss it down like bloody confetti, and you know that, too. I warned you to leave, didn’t I?”
It was true; he had. But why?
“He fears you,” Eznárez said.
As Lyle approached, his hands spasmed and grew into long, misshapen things, and his nails curled into talons.
He came at me so fast I barely had time to move.
Claws raked my chest, and if I hadn’t fortified my magical shield before I’d entered the hotel, my heart would have been resting in his palm.
I shoved him off of me. The sleeping man chained to the radiator was close by. I had to draw the demon away in case he used his victim as leverage.
Lyle leaped. His wings slammed me against the wall, and he hit me so hard I fell. I rolled away, kicking as he stooped for me. My boot found his face. His grin faded.
I jumped to my feet and slugged him with all my might. Suddenly, it was his turn to fall. He struck the carpet and groaned with fury. I ran, as much to draw him from his victim as from the terror coursing through me. This demon, whatever he was, was strong. I didn’t have time to investigate him further. I just needed to end his vile life.
The temptation to glance back was almost irresistible. But I ran on and ducked into a small darkened room that led to another. They weren’t hotel rooms; they were interconnected offices. Soon, I found myself immersed in gloom. The place was empty; no junkies, no lost souls, just me, the demon, and the darkness.
“Coward!” Lyle called.
I ignored him as I snuck through a warren of rooms before emerging by a door leading to the corridor. I glanced around its frame.
Lyle was further along the passage with his head pressed against a wall, presumably listening for me. It seemed he was a cautious demon, which was my least favorite…
“Where are you?” he called in a sing-song voice. “You’ll have to face me, eventually. Better to get it over with now. Because if you don’t, I’ll head downstairs and go room by room, slaughtering everyone I find. The walls and carpets will be crimson by the time I finish, and when you finally scuttle out from wherever you’re hiding, I’ll take you apart limb by limb.”
I ignored him.
He paused before continuing. “What’s the matter?” he asked as he drew closer. “Is the big hero scared? You came to make your mark, didn’t you? Came to right a wrong. You puffed out your chest and strapped on your sword, and arrived with such lofty ambitions, but now you’re hiding like the coward you are. Is your hand trembling on your sword grip? Are your guts water yet?”
Again, I held my tongue. The situation reminded me of my younger years, and the blinkered bullies who’d harassed me at school. They’d liked to mock me too when I’d hidden from them, but eventually faced with my silence, their mockery would turn to doubt. Was I still there? Had I eluded them? What was I planning?
Doubt was a gateway to fear… and it was there in Lyle’s voice. He hated that he couldn’t see me.
I had an idea. I secured the door and locked it before scraping my fingernails across the wall in a quick burst. Lyle’s footsteps came, light and limber, as he padded toward the wall. I scratched the plaster again, this time with the tip of Eznárez’s blade.
The wall exploded as Lyle punched through it.
I seized his arm before he could pull it away and snapped it. He howled. Before he could draw back, I drove Eznárez through the wall beside the hole he’d made and felt the tension as the blade punctured the demon. His howl turned into a scream.
Lyle crashed through the wall. His eyes were wide, and he appeared utterly unhinged. The demon’s wings beat in a wild tattoo, sending dust and papers flying.
I lunged forward to stab him through the heart with my sword, but he batted the blade away with his one good arm. There was a steely resolve in his eyes now, one that wouldn’t dim until he’d torn me apart.
I never got to hear what he was planning on doing. And I didn’t need to… it would be painful and messy, that much was assured. I pulled my gun and fired. The bullets thudded into his gnarly hide and ruptured his wings. He grimaced as he absorbed them, but he didn’t falter. We both knew I was about to run out of ammo.
As the last bullet tore through the side of his throat, I thrust the empty gun into my pocket. There wasn’t time to reload. There wasn’t time for anything.
Lyle seized my throat with one hand as the other lay limp beside him. I gripped his wrist with both hands and tried to pry him from me. The sinews on his limbs wriggled like worms and his breath was horrific; acidic, yet sweet and cloying. He grinned as I retched.
I punched his broken arm. His smile slipped, but the steel in his eyes remained.
The corridor darkened. Everything darkened.
I couldn’t believe this was how I was going to die… I’d thought it might be at Evanora’s withered hands, or by whatever assassin she’d send after me. But not this. Not on some random case that had paid me next to nothing. Not on the blinkered side of the world…
But perhaps it was fitting, for that was where my mother had passed.
I punched Lyle, but the blow barely seemed to register with him.
“Stop fighting,” he said.
I shook my head, but my defiance only drew his laughter. I was weaponless, and the last of my strength had almost ebbed to nothing. I glanced away from him so I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of seeing my terror as the room and then the world darkened further.
My gaze strayed to where Eznárez lay in the corridor outside. His blade was a dim green. His power was fading with mine.
‘Come to me,’ I thought. ‘Please.’
“And if I do?”
“Then I’ll feed you like you’ve never feasted before.”
My head fell limp. I glanced down at the demon’s bare chest. His heart was pounding with the thrill of my ending.
This was it.
My final moment.
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