In the middle of the night, the dream came to her.
It came on All Hallows Eve, one of the few nights of the year Meredith voluntarily stayed home. Numerous Halloween parties abounded, but the night was too full of magic for her to risk going out. She stayed up late the night before, ran herself ragged all day, and went to bed early, shutting out the sounds of trick-or-treaters and Halloween partygoers. But she lay in bed for hours, tossing and turning, and drifting in and out of fitful snatches of sleep before falling asleep for real and that was when the dream came.
She was in a ballroom whose perimeters were wreathed in some warped mirror-and-smoke effect. The room was lit by hundreds of candles and filled with people dressed in hooped ball gowns and frock coats. They were dancing, and so was she, to a fast and strangely dissonant tune with someone she couldn’t quite make out. They flew across the floor in wide, graceful loops, their feet moving faster and faster in dizzying circles. She tried to get a better look at her partner, but all she could tell was that he was very tall and very thin and very dark. And that he had the strangest eyes fastened upon her, but what made them strange, she couldn’t say –
Meredith drew in a deep breath, inhaling magic into her lungs like stardust. It hit her then that everyone in this room was magical in some way or form, and she instinctively recoiled, breaking away from her partner. The ballroom came into sharp focus as the music stopped and everyone turned to stare at her. She stared back at their alien, beautiful features, the Wildness soaring through her, screaming shrilly in her ears.
A swift nebulous form came up at the edge of her sight, she pivoted sharply, and that was when the ballroom vanished and she found herself tripping through a rich, velvety darkness –
Meredith sat up in bed.
“Shit,” she whispered once she had gotten her breath back.
What a weird dream. Had she really dreamt herself in a ballroom? In a most fantastic medieval-type gown of velvety crimson material overhung with a netting of gold and black lace? And dancing – with – with – she couldn’t remember now. What had the dream been about? Something about – a room? People?
Had she been having a dream?
And why did her face feel so hot to the touch?
It couldn’t have been a dream. She never dreamt. Never. It was something that had intrigued her Uncle Ben. He always wondered if it had something to do with her being a Wild One. It had always made Meredith a little sad, like she was missing out on something, some wonderful fantasy land that everyone got to go to except her.
“Ridiculous,” she whispered. She glanced at the clock. It was 3.30 a.m. and she was restless, probably because she had gone to bed so early. She went to the window and looked out. She could see jack-o’-lanterns in her neighbours’ windows, some scattered remnants of party streamers, and abandoned plastic masks. One or two jack-o’-lanterns still had a candle burning in their heads, lighting up their eyes and mouths with an eerie orange glow. Meredith leaned her forehead against the glass and wondered if she’d really just had a dream for the first time in her life – a damn dream she couldn’t even remember.
“What’s happening to me?” she whispered.
Easy. It was All Hallows Eve and the unusually strong magic of the night was affecting her. And, of course, she was affected by the restlessness within her. It was time to go, to keep moving, curbing the danger inside of her.
But she wouldn’t go. She would wait. She would wait for him.
It was early November when the first sign of trouble flew in, like a crow on a foul wind. As usual, InterPara got hold of it before the rest of the world did.
Jansen, Pascal, and Olivier were sitting in a stakeout van in the middle of the Coronary in downtown Berninski. The van was an old beaten-up junk, advertising Mother’s Laundry Services on the exterior. The interior, however, was a womb strung through with electronic equipment and esoteric charms, the usual catchall arsenal of the psychic force. Cable wires dangled next to dreamcatchers, long-lens cameras rested beside a bowl of wards and charms. Agate dzi bead necklaces hung from hooks over the doors, while a stack of curse tablets sat beside the computer screens. Pascal sat by the left rear window, a heavily tinted panel that looked out across the road onto a block of decrepit inner-city flats.
Three raps, one loud, two soft, sounded on the back doors of the van. Olivier sprung up, stranger-ward in hand, and cracked the doors open. Kennedy climbed into the van, bearing a paper bag and four coffees. “Hey, guess what?” he said. “You’ll never believe this, but word’s just out that the Queen Bee and her court are headed this way for winter.”
All three heads snapped around. “The Queen Bee?” Pascal said. “No way. Why would she come to Berninski, of all places?”
“Dunno,” Kennedy answered as he passed around muffins and coffee. “But that’s the word on the wind.”
“The Queen Bee,” Jansen said thoughtfully.
Everyone was silent, casting their minds back on all they’d ever heard of the Queen Bee. What stood out most clearly was she was a woman nobody wanted to mess with.
Her heritage was a mishmash pottage of supernatural ancestry – a hint of shapeshifter, a third of demon, and a whole lot of magician, one-tenth hag and one-eleventh succubus, a dash of sprite and a dab of hag, a quart of sidhe and who knew what else. The thing was, the Queen Bee’s veins ran so strong with the blood and power of all these various breeds that no one species could ever hold her. It was a one in quadrillion chance that someone like the Queen Bee could ever be created, a culmination of hundreds of years of her various ancestors meeting and coupling with each other, producing mixed-blood children, most of whom were probably shunned and hated and not deified the way the Queen Bee was, but still managing to meet and propagate amongst themselves until their unbelievable mix of blood resulted in the Queen Bee herself. A child of power, a woman of power. Her retinue was a blend of various preternatural beings drawn to her unnatural gifts, all wanting to hang on to what was unofficially declared the most powerful being of the 21st century. She moved from place to place with her court, she attended to her own affairs, and no one was ever really sure what those affairs were except the Queen Bee herself. The only thing anyone knew for certain was that power was her baseline, power was her ambition, power was her identity, and she was power itself.
It was even whispered that the Queen Bee was capable of controlling Wild Ones. No one was ever quite sure if the Queen Bee was really so powerful she had achieved point of negation, or if she had some other secret means of controlling Wildlings. Or perhaps it was just a rumour, a piece of fabricated legend among all the other legends of the Queen Bee. But what everyone did know was that she was incredibly powerful and she had a killing machine by her side, a bodyguard and an assassin known as the Darkness, and while no one was ever quite sure what he was, he definitely had to be at least half demon.
“And that’s not all,” Kennedy went on. “Umadine, the Market Street fortune teller?”
“That big old fraud?” Olivier said, screwing up his nose. Short, dark, and handsome, Olivier was the newest recruit to Berninski’s InterPara Force.
“Umadine’s no fraud,” Jansen said with a wry smile. “A fraud most of the time, yes. But when he goes into one of his epileptic fits, he starts telling very accurate fortunes indeed.”
“Well, he went into one of those fits this morning,” Kennedy said. “And according to him, Katyahananya is going to be in town too.”
Everyone straightened. Pascal gave a low whistle.
“The killer goddess Katyahananya?” Olivier said. “No way. Are you sure it’s not just Umadine trying on a practical joke to scare folks?”
“Amara checked it out and it’s kosher.”
That was good enough for everyone. If Amara said it was kosher, it was kosher.
“The Queen Bee and Katyahananya in town for winter,” Pascal mused. “As if things aren’t bad enough at that time of year, what with all the kerfuffle that always kicks up around Christmas and the winter solstice. Think we should call for extra back-up?”
“Let’s see how things go,” Jansen said. “Definitely the towns around us will be placed on high alert.” He frowned. “What could possibly interest her into coming here?”
Pascal shrugged. “I guess we’ll find out soon enough.” He peered out the window. “Looks like you’re right, Jansen. Alpa’s up to her old tricks again.”
Olivier looked over his shoulder. “That’s Alpa?” he said in disbelief. “That’s the biggest black-market dealer in illegal wards in this town?” All he saw was an elderly woman in a shabby fur coat, struggling to haul a faded shopping trolley down the apartment steps. But as he looked closer, he saw then the strangeness of her veined hands, more clawed than manicured, and the camel-coloured shoes, more hoofs than heels.
“Looks can be deceiving,” Jansen said shortly. “You’ll learn that soon enough in this business, Olivier. Let’s nab our quarry, boys, before she vanishes on us again.”
“Or at least,” Pascal added, as he got to his feet, “before the Queen Bee shows up and sends everything in this town to hell in a magical hand basket.”
Bad news spreads fast. Within days, it seemed that everybody had heard of the Queen Bee’s impending arrival. Quite a few well known, and not so well known, characters quickly shifted out of town. Others arrived. A lot of folks started fixing up their homes with hurricane shutters, super-strengthened security screens and roof anchors, as if they were preparing against an imminent cyclone, which would not have been an entirely inappropriate way of describing the Queen Bee herself. Insurance premiums rose overnight. So did the price lists of various warders and spell-casters.
The newspapers ran rampant with complaints about the sudden increase in cost of living due to the mere suggestion that the Queen Bee just might be on her way to town, but the criticism never really made any specific references to the woman herself because any prominent critics of the Queen Bee had a tendency of disappearing or winding up dead. Very dead.
In the meantime, there was a definite chill in the air, the unmistakable scent of snow on its way. I could feel it as I stood on the little balcony at the front of my house, the icy coolness lulling me toward warmth and sleep. I shivered and wrapped my coat tighter about me. Winter was almost here, and I should go. I had put off my departure for far too long, but now I must go. I had no choice in the matter.
A chill wind drifted down and whispered against my face. I shivered again.
“What’s going on?”
Meredith stared at the mess around her. Computers, their wires torn out and gathered haphazardly in handfuls. Half-packed crates filled with straw. Trunks overflowing with books and papers and files.
And magic, magic everywhere.
“You shouldn’t be here.” She turned, but by that time Belinda was gone and all she was left with was a ghost image of flying blonde curls. She tried to follow the image, but Belinda was moving too fast, darting from room to room, lab to lab. Meredith felt dazed; she rarely, if ever, witnessed Belinda employ her supernatural speed to its full capacity.
The vampiress came to a halt before Meredith and she jumped back, startled. Not just by the sudden materialisation, but by the look on Belinda’s face. She had never seen fear on the woman’s face, not even when Ben was dying. Stoicism, yes, and bitterness, sadness, even anger. But never fear. What was Belinda afraid of?
“What are you doing?” she asked foolishly.
“What does it look like I’m doing?” Belinda said curtly. “I’m shutting down Fool’s Tower. Getting out of town. The Queen Bee’s a-coming. Do I look a fool that I’d risk my immortal neck to stay here? Even Lucerne’s got to be a safer destination than this place come winter.”
Meredith shook her head, but Belinda had vanished once more. Her disembodied voice echoed behind her. “And you shouldn’t be here either. You should have gotten out a long time ago.”
“Why should I?” Meredith said. “The Queen Bee doesn’t even know who I am. I’m unregistered, remember?”
Belinda reappeared, one finger crooked at her. “And that’s where you’re wrong. The Queen Bee isn’t InterPara. She sniffs out Wild Ones for breakfast, or so the rumours go. Besides, do you really think you’d be able to stay here once the Queen Bee and her court have settled in? The very air is going to be thick with magic, my girl, thicker even than the smoke of bonfires in autumn. You won’t be able to take it. Do you understand me, Meredith?”
Meredith hesitated. Then she folded her arms and stuck her chin out. “I’ll risk it.”
Belinda stared at her. Then her lips tightened. “Is this about the boy?”
“He said he’d come back. I promised I’d wait.”
Belinda snarled, a low animal sound. “He’s a nice boy, Meredith, but even he’s not worth waiting for, not with the Queen Bee coming. Hell, it’s not even safe for him here. The Queen Bee loves power, Meredith. She loves to possess it. She’s very dangerous, far more so than you can imagine.” Belinda paused and her face softened, a pleading expression upon her vampiric features. “I mean it, Meredith. She’s too dangerous – even for you.”
In the end, Meredith had to appease Belinda by promising she would leave town. But she told a lie. Long after the vampiress and Walter had taken flight, long after even savvy part-breeds like Lucy and Rudolph Mockingbird had fled, declaring their intentions to take a long vacation in the Caribbean, Meredith stayed behind. She didn’t go. She had promised Tyler she would wait. She had promised she would not run – although she ran like crazy every night and day, ran until her lungs burnt and her muscles screamed for mercy. He said he’d be back by the end of autumn. Soon, a few days or weeks more, he would be back. She knew he would.
She would wait.
But every day the world around her grew a little crazier. The Queen Bee’s coming imbued every little thing she saw; she was there in every newspaper, every hushed whisper on the street, in the cafes, the buildings, in the sigh of the wind and the dance of a dead leaf. The Queen Bee was like that, she pervaded and invaded everything she came into contact with, she was like a huge swollen thing that continued to balloon until she had crowded everything else out with her presence alone. There was fear and excitement in the air, like the atmosphere of an occupied town or a dystopian city in the clutches of an all-seeing dictatorship.
And the town was crowded with new arrivals, new beings of magic, unscrupulous beings drawn to wherever the Queen Bee was, and magic itself pervaded the air like an overpowering fragrance, a haze, a twinkling, dizzying pollution. The subsequent effect on Meredith was instantaneous, driving up her Wildness to the point where she was forced to run marathon lengths every day, when swimming countless laps in her pool only made her frustrated with its 50 by 25 metre boundaries, when she began to take greater risks than ever to calm the whirling energy within her. She felt like a wire stretched to its utmost limit, about to snap, to explode.
Finally, two weeks later, as the world was humming with the news that the Queen Bee’s in town, the Queen Bee’s in town, she could take it no longer. She left work early, almost running through the streets (her latest job had been at the local stables, mucking out stalls, filthy, hard work with close to little pay, but the head groom was a laconic old man whom Meredith liked and who was probably the least likely person to trigger her Wildness). She was finished, she knew she was finished in this town as long as the Queen Bee was here. She wanted badly to wait for Tyler, but she couldn’t. And what the hell. Tyler said he knew to find her no matter where she went. When he did, she would explain everything to him, how she had tried to wait but couldn’t. He would understand. Tyler always understood her. Sometimes she thought he understood her better than she understood herself.
That was the last thought on her mind as she turned a corner and caught sight of her house. She burst into a sprint for the final few yards that would take her into the house and up to her bedroom where she could throw a few things into a bag, quick and easy, and get out of town. Fast.
At the corner of her eye, Meredith saw something dark rising out of a miserable old hedge, darting toward her. At the same time, she sense the sudden dearth of light from above, a giant’s shadow, a tsunami rising to block out the fading winter light. She thought, shit, and turned quickly, raising her arm to defend herself.
The darkness knocked her out cold.
“Iris is gone.”
Jenna looked up from the maraschino cherry-flavoured hot chocolate the waiter had just set down before her. “What do you mean, gone?”
“Gone. Vanished.” Shawna slid into the booth with a frown. “I’ve tried ringing her all week, but she hasn’t answered her phone. And her house’s all shut up.”
“Did you try her office?”
“Yeah, apparently she left her job two days ago, left the temp in charge.”
“Well, she’s probably gone home for winter, as she always does.”
“Without telling any of us? Without saying goodbye? Even Jean hasn’t heard from her, and he’s really worried. He wants to call the cops, but – you know.” Shawna spread her hands helplessly.
Jenna knew. No one ever called the cops unless they had proof, concrete proof that something was really, really wrong. Cops were anathema in a magical society for there was a very real chance that whatever had happened might be supernatural and require InterPara involvement. No one ever wanted to take that risk. Cops –and the risk of InterPara – were always a last resort in a society ruled by magic. The upshot of this was that private detecting remained a burgeoning industry.
“Iris would be pissed if we called the cops,” Jenna said, chewing her lip. “Are you sure Jean doesn’t know anything about this? Maybe they had a fight and she left town in a huff.”
“Jean is just as puzzled as I am.”
“She must have gone home,” Jenna said with confidence. “You wait and see. We’ll get a message or a phone call from her sooner or later.”
“I hope so,” Shawna said. “I really hope so. I don’t like this, Jenna. I don’t like this one bit.”
Jenna glanced at her watch. “Well, Meredith should be here any minute now. Late as usual, but when she gets here, we’ll ask her what she thinks. Maybe she’ll know something.”
They waited. But Meredith never showed.
Go on to: Chapter Twenty
Go back to: Chapter Eighteen
New to A Reason for Being? Start from: Chapter One.