The sounds of DJ Kosta pounded through the speakers of the Portal, a club set at the north end of Gasoline Centre. Ravers hyped up on a mix of ecstasy, acid and speed gyrated on the dance floor before Kosta himself, who reigned from behind his turntables and laptops on a tall white podium. On the other side of the dance floor, a gold jacquard-print wall dotted with balconies flashed in the strobe lights, illuminating animated faces and the crimson velvet curtains that draped over each balcony before plunging down the length of the wall to the floor.
Jean leaned over the gold-flaked railing, his face turned to the ravers pouring down the steps from the club entrance. Still, he missed her coming until he heard her voice at his back. “Hey, Jean,” Meredith said loudly. “What the hell are you doing here? You still a narc for the po-pos?”
A horrified silence from the dancers around them, followed by a stampede for the exit.
Jean glanced over his shoulder. “You sure know how to clear a balcony, don’t you, Meredith?”
Meredith grinned as she came up beside him. “Well, I wasn’t going to have half a dozen hyped-up punks listening in on us.”
“We could have met somewhere more private,” he suggested mildly.
“Uh-uh, no way. I already had tickets to see Kosta; there’s no way I was going to miss this. Do you know how hard it is to get a Kosta ticket?”
Jean shrugged. He recalled the envelope he’d found in his mailbox this morning containing the ticket and a note from Meredith. Can I see you tonight? It’s super urgent. Meredith.
He scanned Meredith’s face as she bopped at the railing, her gaze intent on the crowd below. She looked good as usual, in a short black sequinned dress with a plunging V neckline, long legs extending into dark pumps. But he also saw she had lost a great deal of weight, which seemed strictly incredible since she didn’t have an ounce of fat on her to begin with. He wondered what tonight was about. “Have you heard from Iris?”
“Iris?” Meredith quit bopping and looked up sharply. “No. Why?”
The slight hope in Jean’s chest flared out. He tried to keep his voice even. “Just that no one’s seen her. Jenna thinks she’s gone home, but she left without a word, not even so much as a goodbye. It’s not like her and I’m seriously worried.”
Meredith frowned. “You don’t say? I didn’t know that. I haven’t been in touch with anyone lately.” Her frown deepened. “That’s not good.”
“I know. I thought that was what you wanted to talk about tonight.”
“No – no. I didn’t know about Iris.” Meredith straightened and cleared her throat. “I didn’t know she was missing, but now that I do, I’m pretty worried. But before we discuss that, I have something to tell you.” She took a deep breath. Here we go. No point beating around the bush. “The Queen Bee’s ordered me to kill you.”
She kept her eyes on Jean to gauge his reaction. He continued to watch the ravers below, his face unchanged. At last, he said, “I see.”
Meredith raised an eyebrow. “Either you’re one cool customer or you saw this coming way before I did.”
He shrugged. “I knew she’d try something while she was in town, but I didn’t think it’d be something like this.”
Meredith shook her head. “Why does the Queen Bee want you dead?”
“She’s wanted me dead for a long time.” Jean paused. “I’m her nephew.”
Meredith almost fell over the balcony. “Are you fucking kidding me?”
“You’re related to the Queen Bee?”
“Not by blood. Through marriage. When she was young, long before she was the Queen Bee, she fell in love with a certain Henri Bertrand. My uncle. They were married.”
“Yes. Technically, they’re still married. Never filed for divorce.”
“You’re shitting me. But – wha – so why does she want you dead?”
“She’s been trying to kill my uncle and everyone who’s related to him for some time now. She sees their former relationship as a weakness, a weakness she wishes to erase all signs of. That would fit in with the way her mind works.” Jean looked into his drink. “I was just a child, but I remember her as she was before she was the Queen Bee. I used to spend summers with them on their excavations in Iraq and Greece.”
“Why hasn’t she killed you before this?” Meredith demanded.
“I’m not sure. But I think it is because she once loved my uncle that she cannot touch him nor anyone of his blood.”
“I see,” Meredith said softly. “And what about the Darkness? Isn’t he her Grand Assassin No. 1?”
“He can’t touch us either. The Darkness has been with her since the very beginning, so he’s kind of like family, I guess.”
Meredith chuckled. “So does that mean I’m family too? If I take a swing at you?”
“It depends.” He met her gaze. “Are you going to take a swing at me?”
Meredith looked away and her lips turned up in a smile. She laughed softly and turned back to him. “Nope.”
Something flickered in Jean’s eyes. He looked down at the ravers, then back at her. A small smile touched his lips. “Shame,” he said. “I could do with you as family.”
Meredith laughed. “A lot of people wouldn’t.” She thought of Charlotte Berhansen.
“I would.” His smile faltered. “You should kill me, though.”
You should kill me. Hadn’t she said those same words to Tyler, what felt like half a century ago? “Hell, no,” Meredith said. “Iris would have my ass for that.” She lowered her voice. “Jean, do you know what I am? I mean, what I really am?”
He shook his head. “I know that you are – different. But I don’t know exactly what you are.”
“And you haven’t spoken about this to anyone. That’s good of you.”
He shrugged. “It’s none of my business. You’re entitled to your privacy.”
Meredith nodded. “Thank you.” Then, “I’m a Wild One.”
Jean’s eyes sharpened. “You’re a rouge.”
“Yes.” Meredith watched him carefully, but she saw no signs of disgust.
Jean thought about this. “How did my aunt know about you?”
Meredith sighed and launched into a mini-summary of the tale she had told Iris, finishing off with the night the Queen Bee had summoned Meredith to her house.
“And that’s when she ordered me to kill you,” she concluded. “And here you are and here I am.”
Jean nodded. “You’re in a pretty sticky situation.”
“Thanks for noticing,” Meredith said sarcastically. She leaned forward. “Jean. I need to know something. Your aunt. Has she or has she not achieved point of negation?”
Jean frowned. “I’d be surprised if she had.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, we’re talking point of negation here, Meredith. The last time anyone achieved that was, what, several hundred years ago?”
Meredith sighed. “Yeah, don’t remind me.”
Jean grimaced sympathetically. He knew she was thinking about Tyler’s quest. “I’m sorry, Meredith. But for what it’s worth, I don’t think my aunt has achieved point of negation, not even with the power of all her bloodlines. If it doesn’t sound strange, I don’t think she’s got the personality to achieve negation.”
“Huh. Then why do I feel like a dead fish around her?”
“I don’t know. There could be any number of reasons. It might be fear. Unnecessary fear. Yes, she is very powerful. And, yes, she is incredibly dangerous. But I think a great deal of the fear she engenders is generated by the hype surrounding the Queen Bee, rather than the Queen Bee herself. It is like rumours, you see, it grows and grows and feeds on itself, often without any real basis for it. And fear has been known to negate power. Any power.”
“Huh,” Meredith said doubtfully.
“But,” Jean concluded, “that’s just pure conjecture on my part.”
Meredith smiled at him. “It may be just a hunch, but I think you’re pretty good at hunches. You’re a fairly perceptive guy. I said so once to Iris.”
“What else did you tell Iris about me?” Jean asked, interested.
Meredith laughed. “Don’t you want to know what she told me about you?”
“Well, yes, that too. But the important thing now is what are you going to do about my aunt?”
“I think we’re going to find out pretty soon.” Meredith looked over the balcony. “The Darkness is in the house.”
Jean followed her gaze, but saw nothing. Still, he didn’t doubt Meredith’s words. “You’ve got to get out of here.”
“He’s gone up the stairs. He’ll be here in a sec. And he knows I’m not going to kill you. I think he’s known that from the start. But never mind, forget that. What’s more important is Iris.” Meredith grabbed Jean’s wrist. “Look, Jean, I want you to find Iris. Find out what trouble she’s in and look after her, get her out of whatever mess she’s gotten herself into. Can you do that?”
“Of course,” Jean said. “But what about you?”
“Never mind me –” Meredith broke off as the door to the balcony swung open and the Darkness stood silhouetted in the brightly lit hallway.
Jean was in front of Meredith in a flash. “You’ll have to get through me to get to her. And we both know you can’t touch me.”
“There’s no need to,” Meredith said from behind him. “I’m outta here. See ya, Jean.”
Jean turned in time to see her tip backward over the balustrade.
As she fell, Meredith twisted her body, lunging for the crimson draperies that flowed on either side of the balcony. Friction burnt her palms as she grabbed handfuls of the fabric and hooked her legs around the curtains, sliding down and down until she hit the floor and fell back on her butt.
Ignoring the gasps and shrieks of those who had noticed her descent, she scrambled to her feet and ran for the exit.
The Darkness turned a look of what might pass for mild exasperation on Jean as he glided past. Placing a hand on the railing, he vaulted over in one graceful move. More gasps and shrieks ensued as the Darkness dropped to the ground sans curtains and landed on his feet, an agile black cat. Le chat noir.
Jean leaned over the balustrade to watch as the Darkness chased after Meredith. It was no contest – Meredith’s progress was slowed from having to push her way through the crowd, whereas any raver who turned to see the Darkness gulped, swore never to do drugs again and got out of his way super-fast. He was closing in – he was behind her – she spun around just as the Darkness came down on her like a swift black shadow and she disappeared from sight –
Jean held his breath.
A second passed. Two seconds. Three.
The explosion rocked the club like a bomb going off.
If Jean hadn’t been watching intently, he wouldn’t have seen it at all, wouldn’t have seen the Darkness fly halfway across the room, though he would have felt the harsh whip of Wild energy through the air, vibrating along with the synthesizers pounding through the speakers. In the next second, Meredith was standing in the middle of the dance floor, people screaming and racing past her for the exit, her eyes ablaze with a light that could only be called wild.
She strode forward as the Darkness rose to his feet. They threw themselves at one another at the same time.
The Darkness was the better fighter, no doubt about it, but Meredith was a Wild One and Wild Ones never submit. She wrestled her way out of every grip he pinned her down in; for the first time, she employed her Wildness indiscriminately, lashing at him over and over again, as fast and viciously as he was lashing back at her with hands and feet. Blood splattered over her, whose blood, she couldn’t tell, and she was laughing, revelling in her one opportunity to go Wild. For the first time, here was someone she wasn’t afraid of hurting; she wasn’t holding back. For the first time, she wasn’t afraid to be truly Wild.
He caught her in yet another crushing grip and she found herself momentarily trapped with her nose only inches from his. She caught his gaze and froze, staring into those shadowy eyes. An odd sense of déjà vu flashed through her. Hey, I remember now, we were dancing – in a ballroom – in my dream –
It was no dream. She knew that now. It had been the Darkness.
Embarrassment and fury rose through her, emotions that were like dynamite to her Wildness. It burst out of her without so much as a hey, I’m leaving now, don’t bother waiting up. It tore right through the Darkness, standing so close to her, and sent him flying across the club. He slammed against the bottom of the podium – now empty, Kosta having been hustled out by security – sending cracks racing up along the white wall.
Meredith leapt atop of him, her Wildness crackling through her like electricity. She was going to smash him to pieces, she was going to show him what it meant to mess with a Wild One. She was going to punish him for making her think she could be like everyone else and have a dream – then taking it all away, showing her how laughable that was.
That hurt more than anything else.
The Darkness stared at her. He had suffered badly from the Wildness, his face in near-pieces, like a shattered mirror. It was that shattered-mirror look that stopped her cold, reminding her of yet another ruined face.
Kill him! a voice inside her yelled. What are you waiting for? He’s recovering fast – take him out now before it’s too late.
But something deep inside her told her not to. That what she had done in the past was an accident, capable of forgiveness. That if she acted now, if she took this life violently and knowingly, she would cross a line and be changed forever in some terrible way.
She leaned over the Darkness, so close her lips almost brushed his obsidian skin. “If you ever come into my mind again, I will kill you,” she hissed into his ear. “Wild Ones never dream, or don’t you know that?”
She sprang up and turned to go.
The force was like a house slamming into her.
The next thing she knew, Meredith had smashed face-first into the wall on the other side of the club, the impact muffling her cry as pain exploded through her bones. At the same time, her Wildness was extinguished like a candle going out.
She sank to the ground, too shaky and racked with pain to move. There was a shrill ringing in her ears.
At the corner of her eye, she saw a pair of legs. They were female legs and went on forever. She turned her head to take in the rest of forever.
A tall body, well over six feet. Good toned physique, plenty of lean, wiry muscle. A head full of wild white hair that flowed down the back like a fur cape or an Indian chief’s headdress. Tiny white skulls nestled in the ends of the hair. Eyes as white as a winter storm, skin as brown as sun-bronzed earth. At least three pairs of arms, each one holding a sword or a dagger or a scythe. The lethal aura of a natural born killer.
Her mouth moved of its own accord to form the name, though she was unable to vocalise it. Katyahananya. The killer goddess.
No wonder her Wildness had deserted her. A god or goddess negated all wild powers. They were entirely of another dimension.
Katyahananya bent and picked her up, slinging Meredith over her shoulder. The world whirled around her and she passed out, the ringing in her ears following her into unconsciousness.
Katyahananya turned and strode across the dance floor. She climbed the ivory stairs to the exit, her powerful legs effortlessly clearing several steps at a time. At the door, she paused and glanced over the club, now in utter chaos. For one second, her gaze turned on Jean – and lingered there.
He looked back at her, at the strong, beautiful face, hawklike and godlike and completely different from any other face he had ever seen before, yet with such familiar lines. His eyes travelled to the wrist of the bronze hand holding onto Meredith’s limp form, the wrist where a white lotus now bloomed instead of a red rose.
He looked back at Katyahananya’s face, and he knew.
“Iris,” he whispered.
Katyahananya turned away without giving any sign of recognition and, with the unconscious Meredith still hanging over her back, she walked out of the club and disappeared into the night.
Go on to: Chapter Twenty-Two
Go back to: Chapter Twenty
New to A Reason for Being? Start from: Chapter One.