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Octavian climbed out of the professor's car, hoping they had come to this grimy corner of Montreal on a fool's errand, that there would be no monsters tonight. Fighting monsters took time—magic or spirits or demons even longer—and he had promised to return to The Red Door before Nikki took the stage tonight. Don't make me break my promise, he had warned the professor. The man had nodded anxiously and tried to reassure him, but Octavian did not feel reassured.
He stood on the sidewalk in the golden light of the setting sun and looked up at the windows of the third-floor apartment. They were dirty, like everything else in this neighborhood, and the glint of the waning daylight only made the glass opaque and almost sinister.
"So this girl is a student of yours?" Octavian asked.
The professor slammed his car door and thumbed the button on his keychain that made the car chirp, its doors locking automatically. He looked even more pale and nervous than usual.
"Last year," the professor said. "We've stayed close."
Octavian raised an eyebrow but did not comment. Derek Tremblay had been a professor at McGill University in Montreal for a dozen years. A decade before that, he'd gone to visit friends at Boston College and—after a drug-fueled rave—woken up to find one of those friends dead and himself under arrest for murder. In those days, before the world knew the truth about shadows and vampires and demons, Octavian had been a private investigator in Boston. Helping people like Derek Tremblay, back before he was Professor Tremblay, had been Octavian's way of trying to make up for the hideous things he had done in his first few centuries as a shadow… as a vampire.
"A lot of students in this neighborhood?" Octavian asked, glancing around at the bicycles chained to lampposts, the posters for music events plastered on the bus station, and the old VW bus parked at the corner. Across the street was a coffeehouse, its open door pumping music. Two grungy-looking guys came out as he watched, both carrying skateboards.
"Who else would live here?" the professor asked.
Octavian smiled thinly. There were millions of people who would weep with joy if offered the opportunity to live here, but he knew what the professor meant. There was certainly a Bohemian air in the neighborhood, which spread for several blocks, not far from the university. The Red Door—the music club where Octavian's girlfriend, Nikki Wydra, was playing tonight—was only a few blocks away. They'd been to The Red Door, or La Porte Rouge, before, and the clientele would fit right in on this street. They were Boho twenty- and thirty-somethings with a passion for coffee, music, peace, and the environment. Octavian figured as long as people like them existed, there was still hope for the world.
Most visitors thought Montreal could be divided into two basic areas: the tourist-friendly Old Town, with its European architecture, cobblestoned streets, and eclectic shops, and the rest of the city, which was much more metropolitan and modern. But it would be too simple to split Montreal between the distant past and the vibrant future, especially when neighborhoods like this one, stuck in the 1960s, still thrived. Vidscreens might show news and advertisements 24/7 in the subway, the underground malls, and bus stations in the city's business centers, but such technology might as well not even exist here.
So it surprised Octavian all the more when the professor used his own key to open the apartment building's front door. Tremblay caught himself, but too late. As he pushed the door open and pocketed his keys, he glanced guiltily at Octavian.
"You said you were close," Octavian said.
The professor nodded. "Yeah."
Neither man needed to elaborate. If the professor had a sexual relationship with one of his students, that was an issue for the university. Their reason for being here tonight—if the professor and his young girlfriend were right—concerned Octavian much more. Enough to take time away from Nikki to accompany Tremblay on this errand, despite the distance he had been feeling in their relationship of late.
The foyer smelled of mold and piss. Someone had painted the walls within the past few years but had just slathered the latex on top of the old, peeling paint without doing much scraping. If not for the cat on the stairs and the mail stacked on a table just inside the door, the place would have seemed abandoned.
Cooking smells wafted from the closed door to the first-floor apartment. Octavian nodded for the professor to lead the way and they started up the stairs.
The professor had his own key to the girl's apartment building, on the same ring as his car keys and the key to his own place. He unlocked the apartment door, swung it open, and stepped inside.
"Viviane?" he said quietly.
Octavian followed him into the apartment and the professor shut the door. The day had been warm for September, and the air in the apartment was musty and close. Not quite stifling, but it must have been almost unbearable earlier in the day. No air moved. No breeze. The place was closed up tight. If the professor hadn't told him the girl was home, he would have thought the apartment was empty.
The professor pocketed his keys and ventured into a small living room full of mismatched furniture. Based on the décor and the overall tidiness of the place, it was clearly an apartment without a permanent male presence. Chinese paper lanterns hung from the ceiling above the sofa. A light hummed in the galley kitchen, as though the bulb might burn out at any moment.
"Viviane?" the professor said, a bit louder now, as he started toward the short hall that led deeper into the apartment.
Octavian resisted the urge to check the time on his cell phone. Nikki would be doing sound check right now. He had hours before she went on stage. Plenty of time for whatever darkness lay ahead.
A door clicked softly open down the hall. The professor halted, letting his young girlfriend come to him. Viviane emerged from the shadowed hallway tentatively at first, but when she saw Octavian, her expression turned hopeful.
"Hey," the professor said, reaching for her hand.
Viviane let him pull her into a quick embrace but barely seemed aware of his kiss. She wore a McGill sweatshirt and pajama pants and looked as if she hadn't showered in days. The dark circles under her eyes, visible despite the deep chocolate hue of her skin, suggested she hadn't slept in at least as long.
"Is this him?" she asked.
Octavian nodded. "I'm him."
Viviane smiled, and suddenly she didn't look so weary. But then the smile faded as she remembered what awaited them in the other room.
"Thank you for coming," she said, approaching him and holding out her hand. "I'm Viviane Gagnon."
"Peter Octavian," he replied, shaking her hand. "And it's no trouble. I'm in Montreal for a few days anyway."
Viviane was nodding. "That's how Derek tracked you down. He saw on Nikki Wydra's Twitter that she was playing at La Porte Rouge tonight—"
"I explained it all to him," the professor interrupted.
"Yeah," Viviane said, nodding. "Sorry. Of course you did."
Octavian always thought it was interesting when people referred to Nikki by her first and last name, but that was her public identity. She wasn't a celebrity by any means, but to people who liked the kind of music she played, she was famous enough. And to them, she was Nikki Wydra. Names of famous people were like that; they held weight. And that was indeed how the professor had known Octavian would be in Montreal tonight and had tracked him down—through Nikki's Twitter page. Octavian hadn't seen Derek Tremblay in more than twenty years, but the professor knew what Octavian had been up to in that time. A lot of people did.
"It's no trouble," Octavian said, trying to soothe the girl.
It was not quite a lie. Nikki had not been entirely pleased with his leaving her to meet Tremblay, but neither was she selfish enough to have attempted to stop him. Her career had become more and more important to her. The time they spent apart had grown more frequent thanks to her music and to his work. Whenever unexplained supernatural phenomena appeared, he would get a phone call. Sometimes he had to get involved. When the two of them were alone together, without the pressures of the outside world, it was easy for her to forget that he was supernatural, and for him to forget that she was not—that she was ordinary and mortal and could not imagine some of the things he had seen and lived.
So it was no trouble for him to meet with Tremblay today. He was in Montreal, after all. But it certainly did nothing to heal the rift that he felt beginning to grow between himself and Nikki. He loved her, but of late he had begun to wonder if that was enough.
"I'm happy to help, if I can," Octavian continued. "Derek and I go back a long way."
The professor smiled awkwardly. "I knew Peter before he came out as a vampire," he said, and then he glanced quickly at Octavian. "Sorry. A shadow. No offense."
Octavian waved it away, though it did make him tense, being called a vampire. The world had learned the truth of their existence years before, thanks to live news coverage of a bloody battle in Venice between shadows—the blood-drinking shapeshifters who were the source of the world's vampire legends—and a rogue sect of Vatican sorcerers who'd murdered the pope and launched a crusade to exterminate all shadows, whether good or evil. The world was still feeling the aftershocks both of that revelation and of the events that followed. The Roman Catholic Church had splintered and was severely weakened. Shadows lived peacefully, side by side with humanity, but there were still some who embraced the word vampire and all of the savagery it entailed, and those creatures were hunted by human and shadow alike.
"No offense taken," Octavian said. "Though you know I'm not one of them anymore."
Viviane nodded. "I read that somewhere. How does that work, exactly? How do you stop being a vam—I mean, a shadow?"
Octavian thought about answering, considered telling her about the thousand years he'd spent in Hell learning magic, and the metamorphosis that had evolved him from shadow to human mage. But then he remembered why he had come.
"It's a long story," he said, remembering how much trouble people had understanding how he could have spent a thousand years in Hell while only five years had passed in the human world. Infernal physics was enough of an answer for someone used to dealing with the supernatural, but just another conundrum for a regular citizen. "Another time, maybe."
Guilt and sadness washed over Viviane's face, as though she had been trying just for a moment to forget her troubles and knew she couldn't put them off any longer.
"Sure," she said. She glanced at the professor and then back at Octavian. "He's in my bedroom."
Octavian gestured for Viviane to lead the way, and at last she did, walking down the hall as if she wished she were anywhere else. When she reached for the bedroom doorknob, her hand trembled. She pushed the door open and stood aside to let them enter first.
"Jesus," the professor said, wrinkling his nose. "What's that smell?"
Octavian had caught it as well, earthy and damp, like a hothouse full of dying flowers. Both bedroom windows were open, but the warm breeze did nothing to diminish the aroma. And unless Viviane had a wilting, rotten garden hidden underneath her bed, there could be no doubt about the source of the smell.
A young guy lay sprawled on the bed, legs tangled in the sheets like he'd been sleeping off a bad drunk or ugly nightmares. His arms were flung wide and his head lolled to one side, a thin stream of yellowish drool trailing from one corner of his mouth. His throat rattled with every exhalation and his neck looked swollen, and for a second, Octavian thought of plague… he'd seen more than his share of such sickness since his childhood, but that had been centuries ago. And there were no welts or sores or even the sort of inflammation that might suggest plague. The sight of the young man and his constricted breathing reminded him of hideous memories, but this was no plague.
Still, even if the professor hadn't already said so, Octavian would have known at first glance that this was no ordinary flu or infection. The smell offered the first clue. The man's complexion provided the second. No healthy human being had flesh of that particular hue—not so much a jaundiced yellow as a slight greenish tint.
"His name is Michael, you said?" Octavian asked, glancing at the professor.
"Michael," Viviane confirmed from just inside the open bedroom door. She hung back, arms crossed, fretting and tense as though she might flee. "He hates being called Mike."
Octavian nodded. "Michael it is, then. How long has he been like this?"
"Two days that we know of," the professor said.
"The sink was leaking," Viviane said, her voice cracking with emotion, her gaze haunted, as though she blamed herself for her brother's condition. "The landlord kept promising to fix it, but he never showed up, so Michael came over to take care of it. He didn't… well, I mean, he wasn't… green. Just a little pale. But he didn't look well and he kept coughing and he was short of breath and he seemed a little weird—"
Viviane shrugged. "Like he'd been smoking something, y'know?"
Octavian nodded and moved closer. Something was strange about the unconscious man's arms and legs, his body hair. Bending to take a closer look, Octavian saw that amid the hair were tiny growths that looked almost like sprigs of something growing there. Something green.
"He thought he was getting a cold or something," Viviane went on. "I told him to come in here and lie down and when I checked on him a little while later, I couldn't wake him up."
He investigated the man's hands. Similar sprigs grew from beneath his fingernails. Unsettling as these things were, the most troubling of Michael's afflictions were the tiny leaves visible in his right ear and both nostrils. Octavian cursed inwardly, wondering how much time had elapsed since he had gotten in the car with the professor, and how much time he had before Nikki took the stage at The Red Door.
"It's awful," the professor said.
Octavian shot him a hard look. Of course it was awful. Did he think Viviane needed him to confirm that her brother going catatonic and growing twigs and tiny leaves out of his orifices and pores was something other than a joyous event? Asshole.
With what he hoped was a comforting glance toward Viviane, Octavian turned back to her brother. The thick rattle of his breathing turned into a choking noise, and Michael twitched several times before he began breathing through his nose and relaxed again. The rattle hadn't vanished, but lessened.
Octavian reached for his face. Gently, he pulled back one of Michael's eyelids. Tiny plant roots had grown across the eyeball like the miniature wiring on an old computer circuit board.
"Oh, my God," Viviane whispered.
Octavian glanced at her. "His eyes weren't like that before?"
"I didn't look at his eyes," she said. "But check his throat. I thought… I wanted to see if I could clear his breathing or do something to help him, so I got a little flashlight and had a look. I would've taken him to the hospital, or called an ambulance, but once I saw that, I knew there was nothing a doctor could do for him. When Derek said he knew you… Please tell me you can help him?"
Her smile was brittle, as though she were teetering on the brink of hysteria.
Octavian did not answer. Conjecture would not help Viviane or her brother at this point. Instead, he worked Michael's mouth open, massaging the muscles of the lower jaw to get it wider. A dark mass was visible just inside, and at first Octavian thought the man's tongue had swollen. The smell that wafted out of Michael's throat was much worse than the rest of the room—moist and filled with rot.
He glanced around, grabbed the slim flashlight from the nightstand, clicked it on, and shone its beam into Michael Gagnon's throat. The mass had seemed more solid in the dark, but now Octavian could make out the tiny leaves and green and brown strands that made up the mossy clump growing there.
"Have you ever seen anything like this before?" the professor asked.
"Not exactly like it, no," Octavian admitted, stepping away from the bed.
"What is it?" Viviane asked. "How does something like this happen?"
Octavian narrowed his eyes, studying the man in the bed. "Things like this don't just happen. It could be a curse. It could be that Michael was attacked by something or someone… an earthwitch, maybe."
"What the hell is an earthwitch?" the professor asked.
"Usually benevolent, actually," Octavian replied.
"But can you help him? Can you get it out of him?" Viviane pleaded.
"I can try," Octavian said. Somehow that did not assuage Viviane's fear for her brother, but he had not come to take away her fear. He'd come to help, if he could. "Do you know what kind of plant this is?"
The professor glanced away. Obviously he had some ideas. Viviane only frowned and shook her head.
"It's cannabis," Octavian said. "Marijuana."
Viviane stared at him and gave a soft chuckle of horrified disbelief. "Pot? Michael's got pot growing inside him?"
"Does he smoke regularly?" Octavian asked.
Her eyes began to glaze over with confusion, as though she were looking inward for an answer.
"Yeah," she said. "Plenty."
"Where does he get it?"
At that, Viviane gave a sickly laugh. "Get it? They grow it. Michael and his housemates. They've got a whole crop in the basement of their place. Heat lamps and everything."
"Have you heard from any of the housemates since Michael came over here the other day?"
Viviane shook her head.
Octavian glanced at the professor, then back to his girlfriend.
"Give me the address," he told her.
"Okay. But… can you get this stuff out of him? Derek said you… that you knew magic."
She said the last word as though it embarrassed her. Octavian figured it probably did. Not the word itself, but the suggestion that she might believe it to be more than a word. A lot of people felt that way about magic, right up until they needed it.
"I'm going to check out the house," Octavian said. "Try to get to the bottom of this. If I can, that might cure him. But if it doesn't, I know an earthwitch who probably can."
"But you said you thought an earthwitch might have done this!" Viviane said.
Octavian took a last glance at her brother.
"Time to find out."