Seven years ago, the Veil that separates humanity from what lies beyond was torn apart, and New Orleans was engulfed in a supernatural war. Now, those with paranormal powers have been confined in a walled community that humans call the District. Those who live there call it Devil's Isle.
Claire Connolly is a good girl with a dangerous secret: she’s a Sensitive, a human endowed with magic that seeped through the Veil. Claire knows that revealing her skills would mean being confined to Devil’s Isle. Unfortunately, hiding her power has left her untrained and unfocused.
Liam Quinn knows from experience that magic makes monsters of the weak, and he has no time for a Sensitive with no control of her own strength. But when he sees Claire using her powers to save a human under attack—in full view of the French Quarter—Liam decides to bring her to Devil’s Isle and the teacher she needs, even though getting her out of his way isn’t the same as keeping her out of his head.
As more and more Sensitives fall prey to their magic, and unleash their hunger on the city, Claire and Liam must work together to save New Orleans, or else the city will burn…
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THE CHICAGOLAND VAMPIRES NOVELS
THE DARK ELITE NOVELS
The French Quarter was thinking about war again.
Booms echoed across the neighborhood, vibrating windows and shaking the shelves at Royal Mercantile—the finest purveyor of dehydrated meals in New Orleans.
And antique walking sticks. We were flush with antique walking sticks.
I sat at the store’s front counter, working on a brass owl that topped one of them. The owl’s head was supposed to turn when you pushed a button on the handle, but the mechanism was broken. I’d taken apart the tiny brass pieces and found the problem—one of the small toothy gears had become misaligned. I just needed to slip it back into place.
I adjusted the magnifying glass over the owl, its jointed brass wings spread to reveal its inner mechanisms. I had a thin screwdriver in one hand, a pair of watchmaking tweezers in the other. To get the gear in place, I had to push one spring down and another up in that very small space.
I liked tinkering with the store’s antiques, to puzzle through broken parts and sticky locks. It was satisfying to make something work that hadn’t before. And since the demand for fancy French sideboards and secretaries wasn’t exactly high these days, there was plenty of inventory to pick from.
I nibbled on my bottom lip as I moved the pieces, carefully adjusting the tension so the gear could slip in. I had to get the gear into the back compartment, between the rods, and into place between the springs. Just a smidge to the right, and . . .
I jumped, the sound of another round of fireworks shuddering me back to the store—and the gear that now floated in the air beside me, bobbing a foot off the counter’s surface.
“Damn,” I muttered, heart tripping.
I’d moved it with my mind, with the telekinetic magic I wasn’t supposed to have. At least, not unless I wanted a lifetime prison sentence.
I let go of the magic, and the gear dropped, hit the counter, bounced onto the floor.
My heart now pounding in my chest, the fingers on both hands crossed superstitiously, I hopped off the stool and hurried to the front door to check the box mounted on the building across the street. It was a monitor with a camera on top, triggered when the amount of magic in the air rose above background levels—like when a Sensitive accidentally moved a gear.
I’d gotten lucky; the light was still red. I must not have done enough to trigger it, at least from this distance. I was still in the clear—for now. But damn, that had been close. I hadn’t even known I’d been using magic.
Already pumped with nervous energy, I jumped again.
“Good lord,” I said, pushing the door open and stepping outside onto the threshold between the store’s bay windows, where MERCANTILE was mosaicked in tidy blue capitals.
It was mid-October, and the heat and humidity still formed a miserable blanket across the French Quarter. Royal Street was nearly empty of people.
The war had knocked down half the buildings in the Quarter, which gave me a clear view of the back part of the neighborhood and the Mississippi River, which bordered it. Figures moved along the riverbank, testing fireworks for the finale of the festivities. The air smelled like sparks and flame, and wisps of white smoke drifted across the twilight sky.
It wasn’t the first time we’d seen smoke over the Quarter.
On an equally sweltering day in October seven years ago, the Veil—the barrier that separated humans from a world of magic we hadn’t even known existed—was shattered by the Paranormals who’d lived in what we now called the Beyond.
They wanted our world, and they didn’t have a problem eradicating us in the process. They spilled through the fracture, bringing death and destruction—and changing everything: Magic was now real and measurable and a scientific fact.
I was seventeen when the Veil, which ran roughly along the ninetieth line of longitude, straight north through the heart of NOLA, had splintered. That made New Orleans, where I’d been born and raised, ground zero.
My dad had owned Royal Mercantile when it was still an antiques store, selling French furniture, priceless art, and very expensive jewelry. (And, of course, the walking sticks. So many damn walking sticks.) When the war started, I’d helped him transition the store by adding MREs, water, and other supplies to the inventory.
War had spread through southern Louisiana, and then north, east, and west through Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, and the eastern half of Texas. The conflict had destroyed so much of the South, leaving acres of scarred land and burned, lonely cities. It had taken a year of fighting to stop the bloodshed and close the Veil again. By that time, the military had been spread so thin that civilians often fought alongside the troops.
Unfortunately, he hadn’t lived to see the Veil close again. The store became mine and I moved into the small apartment on the third floor. We hadn’t lived there together—he didn’t want to spend every hour of his life in the same building, he’d said. But the store and building were now my only links to him, so I didn’t hesitate. I missed him terribly.
When the war was done, Containment—the military unit that managed the war and the Paranormals—had tried to scrub New Orleans not only of magic but of voodoo, Marie Laveau, ghost tours, and even literary vampires. They’d convinced Congress to pass the so-called Magic Act, banning magic inside and outside the war zone, what we called the Zone. (Technically, it was the MIGECC Act: Measure for the Illegality of Glamour and Enchantment in Conflict Communities. But that didn’t have the same ring to it.)
The war had flattened half of Fabourg Marigny, a neighborhood next door to the French Quarter, and Containment took advantage. They’d shoved every remaining Para they could find into the neighborhood and built a wall to keep them there.
Officially, it was called the District.
We called it Devil’s Isle, after a square in the Marigny where criminals had once been hanged. And if Containment learned I had magic, I’d be imprisoned there with the rest of them.
They had good reason to be wary. Most humans weren’t affected by magic; if it was an infection, an illness, they were immune. But a small percentage of the population didn’t have that immunity. We were sensitive to the energy from the Beyond. That hadn’t been a problem before the Veil was opened; the magic that came through was minimal—enough for magic tricks and illusions but not much else. But the scarred Veil wasn’t as strong; magic still seeped through the rip where it had been sewn back together. Sensitives weren’t physically equipped to handle the magic that poured through.
Magic wasn’t a problem for Paras. In the Beyond, they’d bathed in the magic day in and day out, but that magic had an outlet—their bodies became canvases for the power. Some had wings; some had horns or fangs.
Sensitives couldn’t process magic that way. Instead, we just kept absorbing more and more magic, until we lost ourselves completely. Until we became wraiths, pale and dangerous shadows of the humans we’d once been, our lives devoted to seeking out more magic, filling that horrible need.
I’d learned eight months ago that I was a Sensitive, part of that unlucky percentage. I’d been in the store’s second-floor storage room, moving a large, star-shaped sign to a better spot. (Along with walking sticks, my dad had loved big antique gas station signs. The sticks, at least, were easier to store.) I’d tripped on a knot in the old oak floor and stumbled backward, falling flat on my back. And I’d watched in slow motion as the hundred-pound sign—and one of its sharp metallic points—fell toward me.
I hadn’t had time to move, to roll away, or even to throw up an arm and block the rusty spike of steel, which was aimed at the spot between my eyes. But I did have a split second to object, to curse the fact that I’d lived through war only to be impaled by a damn gas station sign that should have been rusting on a barn in the middle of nowhere.
“No, damn it!” I’d screamed out the words with every ounce of air in my lungs, with my eyes squeezed shut like a total coward.
And nothing had happened.
Lips pursed, I’d slitted one eye open to find the metal tip hovering two inches above my face. I’d held my breath, shaking with adrenaline and sweating with fear, for a full minute before I gathered up the nerve to move.
I’d counted to five, then dodged and rolled away. The star’s point hit the floor, tunneling in. There was still a two-inch-deep notch in the wood.
I hadn’t wanted the star to impale me—and it hadn’t. I’d used magic I hadn’t known I’d had—Sensitivity I hadn’t known I possessed—to stop the thing in its tracks.
I’d gotten lucky then, too: The magic monitor hadn’t been triggered, and I’d kept my store . . . and my freedom.
Another boom sounded, pulling me through memory to my spot on the sidewalk. I jumped, cursed under my breath.
“I think you’re good, guys!” I yelled. Not that I was close enough for them to hear me, or that they’d care. This was War Night. Excess was the entire point.
Six years before, the Second Battle of New Orleans had raged across the city. (The first NOLA battle, during the War of 1812, had been very human. At least as far as we were aware.) It had been one of the last battles of the war and one of the biggest.
Tonight we’d celebrate our survival with colors, feathers, brass bands, and plenty of booze. It would be loud, crazy, and amazing. Assuming I could manage not to get arrested before the fun started . . .
“You finally losing it, Claire?”
I glanced back and found a man, tall and leanly muscled, standing behind me. Antoine Lafayette Gunnar Landreau, one of my best friends, looked unwilted by the heat.
His dark brown, wavy hair was perfectly rakish, and his smile was adorably crooked, the usual gleam in his deep-set hazel eyes. Tonight, he wore slim dark pants and a sleeveless shirt that showed off his well-toned arms—and the intricate but temporary paintings that stained his skin.
“Hey, Gunnar.” We exchanged cheek kisses. I cursed when another boom sounded, followed by the sparkle of gold stars in the air.
I smiled despite myself. “Damn it. Now they’re just showing off.”
“Good thing you’re getting into the spirit,” he said with a grin. “Happy War Night.”
“Happy War Night, smarty-pants. Let me check your ink.”
Gunnar obliged, stretching out his arms so I could get a closer view. New Orleans was a city of traditions, and War Night had its own: the long parade, the fireworks, the spiked punch we simply called “Drink” because the ingredients depended on what was available. And since the beginning, when there was nothing but mud and ash, painting the body to remember the fallen. Making a living memorial of those of us who’d survived.
The intricate scene on Gunnar’s left arm showed survivors celebrating in front of the Cabildo, waving a purple flag bearing four gold fleurs-de-lis—the official postwar flag of New Orleans. The other arm showed the concrete and stone sculpture of wings near Talisheek in St. Tammany Parish, which memorialized one of the deadliest battles of the war, and the spot where thousands of Paras had entered our world.
The realism lifted goose bumps on my arms. “Seriously amazing.”
“Just trying to do War Night proud. And Aunt Reenie.”
“God bless her,” I said of Gunnar’s late and lamented aunt, who’d been a great lover of War Night, rich as Croesus, and, according to Gunnar’s mother, “not quite there.”
“God bless her,” he agreed.
“Let’s get the party started,” I said. “You want something to drink?”
“Always the hostess. I don’t suppose there’s any tea?”
“I think there’s a little bit left,” I said, opening the door and gesturing him in.
Gunnar was a sucker for sweet tea, a rarity now that sugar was a luxury in New Orleans. That was another lingering effect of war. Magic was powerful stuff, and it wasn’t meant to be in our world. Nothing would grow in soil scarred by magic, so war had devastated the Zone’s farms. And since there were still rumors of bands of Paras in rural areas who’d escaped the Containment roundup and preyed on humans, there weren’t many businesses eager to ship in the goods that wouldn’t grow here.
There’d been a mass exodus of folks out of the cities with major fighting—New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Mobile—about three weeks after the war started, when it began to look as though we weren’t equipped to fight Paras, even on our own soil.
There were plenty of people who still asked why we stayed in the Zone, why we put up with scarcity, with the threat of wraith and Para attacks, with Containment on every corner, with Devil’s Isle looming behind us.
Some folks stayed because they didn’t have a better choice, because somebody had to take care of those who couldn’t leave. Some stayed because they didn’t have resources to leave, anywhere to go, or anyone to go to. And some stayed because they’d been through hard times before—when there’d been no electricity, no comforts, and too much grief—and the city was worth saving again. Some stayed because if we left, that would be the end of New Orleans, Little Rock, Memphis, and Nashville. Of the culture, the food, the traditions. Of the family members who existed only in our memories, who tied us to the land.
And some folks stayed because they had no choice at all. Containment coordinated the exodus. And when everyone who’d wanted to get out was out, they started controlling access to the Zone’s borders, hoping to keep the Paras and fighting contained.
No, staying in the Zone wasn’t easy. But for a lot of us—certainly for me—it was the only option. I’d rather make do in New Orleans than be rich anywhere else.
We’d tried to make the best of it. In the Quarter, we’d solved the scorched-earth problem by planting things in containers with “clean” soil. I had a lemon tree and a tomato plant in the courtyard behind the store, and I got more fruit and produce from the small roof garden shared by a few of us who still lived in the Quarter. We’d taken over the terrace that had once been a fancy pool and cabana at the abandoned Florissant Hotel, turned it into a community garden. Containment had done the same thing at the former Marriott to provide supplies for the agents.
War made people creative about their survival.
Owning one of the few stores left in the Quarter also had some advantages. Because so many of my customers were Containment personnel, I’d been able to get goods from the military convoys that crossed the Zone. It also helped that Gunnar worked for Devil’s Isle’s Commandant. Of course, that had unfortunate personal implications, too. Gunnar didn’t know about my magic, and I had no intention of telling him. That would be bad for both of us.
Gunnar followed me inside to the small curtained area behind the front counter. It was the building’s “kitchen,” and held a small blue refrigerator that had lived (thank God) long past its prime, a gas stove, an old farmhouse sink, and a few stingy cabinets.
I sighed with relief at the burst of cold air from the fridge. Gunnar moved beside me, and we stood in front of it for a moment, savoring the chill.
“All right. Let’s not waste the cold while we’ve got it.” Consistent power was another rarity in the Zone. Magic and electricity didn’t mix, which made the electrical system unstable. Keeping the lights on and the city dry were constant battles.
Considering that, it made sense to finish the tea while it was still good and cold. I grabbed the cut-glass pitcher and poured the rest of the tea into two plastic hurricane cups.
The pitcher had come with the store; the cups were my contribution.
Gunnar sipped, closed his eyes in obvious pleasure. “You could steal a man’s heart with this.”
I took a drink, nodded. “It’s good, but it hasn’t done much heart stealing so far.” My last go-round hadn’t been successful. Rainier Beaulieu had been tall, dark, and handsome. Unfortunately, when he told me I was the “only one,” he’d forgotten to mention “right now.”
I’d been in a lull since that little mistake. The Zone wasn’t usually a draw for the young and eligible.
Gunnar grinned. “It’s War Night. Everything could change.”
That was the best part of it: Anything seemed possible. “My fingers are crossed. Feel free to keep an eye out.”
“I love playing your wingman.”
“I can wing my own men. You’re just the scout. How are the crowds?”
“Emboldened by the heat,” Gunnar said with a grin. “And embiggening. It’s gonna be a helluva night out there.”
“War Night always is,” I said, but knew exactly what he meant. New Orleans could never be accused of shyness, and War Night would be no exception.
He glanced at the wall clock. “Tadji’s meeting us at the start. How much longer till you close up?”
Tadji Dupre was the third in our friendship trio. “Fifteen minutes if I keep her open until six.”
“Be a rebel,” he said. “Close early.”
Funds were hard to come by these days, and I wasn’t one to turn down even fifteen minutes of business. On the other hand, I probably wouldn’t be missing big sales tonight. People would be thinking about jazz and booze, not dried fruit and duct tape.
Some of that jazz bloomed outside, and we walked back into the front room, drawn by the music.
Half a dozen men in brilliantly colored suits, the fabric and elaborate headpieces covered in feathers and beading, filled the sidewalk. They were the Vanguard, New Orleanians who’d served in the war and organized the first War Night parade six years ago. A few had been the feathered performers known as Mardi Gras Indians, and they’d brought some of those traditions into this celebration.
One of members stopped, tapped a dark fist against the window. I grinned back at Tony Mercier, a silver whistle between his teeth, a black patch covering the eye he’d lost in the Second Battle. Tony had fought with the Niners from the Ninth Ward. And now he was the Vanguard’s Big Chief.
He pointed down the street, signaling their destination, and then back at me. That message was obvious: They were heading to the starting line, and it was time for me to join them.
“I’m leaving soon!” I called out, and waved them on. They shuffled down the sidewalk, followed by a second line band that grooved to notes wrought through worn brass. A tuba marked the beat, a trombone and trumpet pushed the rhythm and melody, and half a dozen men, women, and children with tambourines, silver whistles, and homemade drums danced behind them.
The song, the instruments, and the parade were bittersweet reminders of life before the Veil had opened. But they were also reminders of what made New Orleans so amazing: its creativity, its traditions, its willingness to band together and face down a common enemy.
I rejected the idea that I was part of that common enemy. And besides, tonight wasn’t about fear or regret. Tonight was about life, about experience, about celebration.
“All right,” I said, grinning at Gunnar. “Lock the door. Let the good times roll.”
“Laissez les bon temps rouler,” he agreed.
Blacks, grays, taupes. There weren’t many civilians left in New Orleans these days, especially in the Quarter, and we tended to wear neutral colors. Military colors. Our clothes blended with theirs, and that was fine by me.
Stay quiet; work hard. That was my motto.
But this was War Night. War Night deserved more than camouflage, so I’d donned a pale violet dress sprigged with white flowers. While Gunnar waited downstairs, I changed from black and gray into NOLA-appropriate purple that worked pretty well against my green eyes and long red hair. Fortunately, I was happy with it straight, because it wouldn’t hold a curl if you begged it.
When Gunnar finished off the tea and the store was locked up tight, we followed Royal Street past brick buildings still half-destroyed, then turned onto Canal. As Gunnar had reported, the crowd was already huge.
The few remaining palm trees swayed, the air cooling as the sun dropped toward the horizon. The sounds and smells of War Night were carried on the breeze—the rhythms of brass-heavy jazz, the fruity scent of tonight’s Drink, lingering smoke from the fireworks.
The Vanguard stood at the head of Bourbon Street, scepters waving beneath a homemade arch of metal scraps, paper flowers, beads from prewar Mardi Gras parades. This year’s War Night theme was “paradise,” so they’d also stuck in palm fronds, Spanish moss, and flowers made of cut soda cans.
The parade would zigzag through the Quarter, down Bourbon to St. Anne, and then over to Jackson Square, a gorgeous park even war hadn’t managed to destroy. At the Square, the parade would turn into a block party that would last until the band got tired, the booze ran out, or Containment shut us down.
We looked over, found Tadji waving from a spot in the middle of the street. She was tall and slender, with velvet-dark skin and curly hair that framed a face dominated by enviable cheekbones and a wide mouth. Tonight she wore a gauzy purple tunic over a saffron bodysuit, and a dozen thin golden rings on her fingers that sparkled in the light. The ensemble—fluid fabric over her long, strong form—made her look like a pagan goddess.
She was absolutely gorgeous, crazy focused on her work, and usually unflappable.
Except when it came to magic.
Tadji was a couple of years older than me. She’d been born in a small community in Acadiana, the French-speaking part of Louisiana, but left the state after high school. Her mom and aunt, and her grandmother before them, had practiced voodoo, preparing gris-gris and cure-alls for neighbors, helping them summon loa and saints.
Tadji thought they were con artists, and had been angry and embarrassed that they’d wanted to bring her into the family business. It wasn’t until the Veil opened that we learned magic really did exist, that some of the voodoo and hoodoo practitioners, psychics, and magicians really did have some power. I wasn’t sure whether Tadji’s relatives fell in that category.
She’d eventually made peace with her mom and aunt. But she didn’t talk about them much, except to say they moved around a lot. She never wanted to discuss them, or magic.
Tadji was now in grad school, studying linguistics at Tulane, the only college still operating in southern Louisiana. She was interviewing survivors in southern Louisiana to investigate how war affected language in the Zone.
I hadn’t gone to college, but I knew how to make do. I read as much as I could on my own, and I’d learned some things on the streets that couldn’t be learned in a classroom. But I was still in awe of how much Tadji knew about so many things. Jealousy bit me sometimes, even though I knew I’d made my choice to focus on the store.
We exchanged hugs, and she and Gunnar exchanged cheek kisses.
“Hey, guys!” she yelled over the booming drum. “Happy War Night!”
“Happy War Night!” we shouted back at her. She pulled paper cups and a recycled lemonade bottle from the khaki messenger bag around her shoulder, distributed the Drink.
“To New Orleans,” Gunnar said. “May she be forever strange.”
I sipped, my eyes widening at mouth-puckering tartness that warred with sinus-clearing alcohol.
Tadji was good with words. Tadji was not good with chemistry.
“That is . . . strong,” I said as Gunnar wheezed beside me.
“Is it gasoline?” he asked.
“What?” Tadji blinked in surprise. “What do you mean?” She took another drink, tasted. “It’s good, right? It’s good.”
“It’s definitely almost a beverage,” Gunnar said, then pointed toward Bourbon Street. “Ooh! Fire-eaters.”
When Tadji turned to look, he took my cup and tipped both his and mine into a planter box overgrown with weeds. I doubted the plants would survive the night.
“Gumbo,” he whispered, the word a warning.
I loved Tadji. But as we’d learned during Sunday night dinners—our weekly ritual—she could not cook. As far as I could tell, she didn’t taste things the way other people did, and didn’t have much interest in food anyway. I didn’t consider myself a foodie, but I preferred edible to gummy cardboard. Which generously described the “gumbo” she’d made for us one evening. Gunnar and I had worked to keep her away from the stove after that.
Since there was no point chastising someone who literally didn’t have a taste for cooking, Gunnar just kept smiling.
“So good,” he complimented after handing my cup back to me, but shook his head when she held up the bottle in invitation. “Don’t want to push things too early.”
The look in her eyes said she didn’t buy the excuse, but she didn’t argue about it. “Suit yourself. I like your dress,” she said to me.
I glanced down. It was probably a little old-fashioned for War Night, but that made it feel more appropriate. That was why we were there, after all—to remember traditions and luxuries we couldn’t afford anymore.
“Thanks,” I said. “You look amazing.”
Tadji shrugged off the compliment. She wasn’t great with them, which I thought was residual guilt about coming home with more than she’d had when she left. And probably more than her family had now.
The music grew louder as the Vanguard prepared to move. Gold fireworks arched over us, sending my heart stuttering again as the crowd’s roar grew to a thundering crescendo.
“Nous vivons!” we shouted together. It meant “we live,” and was our mantra of remembrance, of grief, of joy that we’d survived war, even as we lived in its shadow.
The Vanguard stepped forward, feathers and sequins flashing in the gaslights that had replaced streetlamps. We were a few dozen feet from the front of the crowd, and we could take only tiny steps forward. It took ten minutes for us to reach the arch, which was guarded on both sides by a pair of Containment agents in gray fatigues and black boots. Their gazes passed over the crowd, looking for troublemakers.
One of the agents made eye contact with me. I forced a vague smile and pretended to be nothing more than a red-haired girl in the crowd.
Gunnar, Tadji, and I linked our hands as we passed beneath the arch, the soda can flowers glittering as they shimmied in the breeze.
Gunnar squeezed our hands. “Let’s make this a War Night to remember, ladies.”
• • •
Even in the heat, people were damn certain they’d enjoy War Night. A party was a luxury they wouldn’t give up.
There weren’t many wrought-iron balconies left on Bourbon Street. But people still filled them because you couldn’t have a parade in New Orleans without throws. Beads were expensive and not exactly a priority for military convoys, but paper was still easy to come by, so necklaces of twisted paper and folded flowers had become another War Night tradition. Folks on the balconies wore dozens of necklaces on their arms, and they tossed them over the parade as it passed, filling the air with paper petals.
I snatched two as they fell, handed one to Tadji, and we slipped them over our heads. The twisted necklace and its flowers, big as old-fashioned peonies, were made from folded phone book pages. Not that we needed them—war had destroyed most of the phone, cable, and fiber-optic lines and towers. The Paras had learned quickly enough to target them.
We were six blocks into the parade, and the sweaty crowd had bunched together again, any sense of personal boundaries completely abandoned. Gunnar had found a dance partner a few people away, so when the fourth sweaty person in a row bounced against me, I decided it was time for a break. I grabbed Tadji’s hand and maneuvered through jostling bodies to the edge of the crowd.
The breeze felt like a miracle.
“Oh my God, that’s better,” Tadji said, flapping her tunic to cool herself. “Good call.”
I nodded. “I was about to punch the next sweaty person who elbowed me in the stomach.”
“The next person who elbowed you in the stomach, or you were going to punch them in the stomach?”
Sometimes it didn’t pay to be friends with a woman obsessed with words. “Har-har. The point is, there are a lot of sweaty people in that crowd.” I glanced back, surveyed the mass of people. “I think the party’s even bigger than last year.”
She nodded. “The population’s actually gone up a little in the last few years. Some people think it’s safe to come back, that there’s no chance the Veil will open again. And some people are fascinated by what happened, really hope that it will.”
Her voice had gone quiet, and I glanced at her, found her gaze on the high wall that surrounded Devil’s Isle, visible at the other end of Bourbon Street, the sky orange above it from the glow of the electrified mesh that covered the neighborhood and kept the Paras from escaping upward.
“Do you ever wonder what it’s like in there?” she asked.
I had wondered, and hadn’t liked what my imagination had come up with. A few thousand Paranormals and Sensitives interned for our protection—and because the government had no idea what else to do with them. We’d closed the Veil, after all. That made them prisoners of war from a world we could no longer access.
That made me think of uncomfortable things. I wasn’t bad, and Containment still would have tossed me into Devil’s Isle. If I wasn’t bad, what about the other Sensitives who’d been locked in?
“I try not to think about it,” I said honestly.
“It’s a complicated issue. But man, what I wouldn’t give to get in there. Can you imagine the vocabulary they’ve developed? The Paranormals probably had to create a completely new language just to describe what they’re going through.”
She was probably right, and I could admit it was intriguing. But I still didn’t want any part of Devil’s Isle, and I had no interest in going in there. Not when the odds were good that they wouldn’t let me out again.
While Tadji watched the parade, bouncing to the music, I checked out the street. There was a former walk-in daiquiri shop on the corner. It was missing a front wall, but an off-duty Containment agent—a man I’d seen in the shop—stood behind the bar and poured red liquid into plastic cups. His version of Drink, probably, and an opportunity to make a little extra money. Couldn’t fault him for that.
A handful of his uniformed Containment colleagues looked on from the sidewalk, gazes moving suspiciously between the parade and the patrons in the make-do Drink shop.
Most of the agents who worked in the Quarter had been in the war. They’d seen its horrors, and knew about its tragedies. Others came from outside the Zone, or were too young to remember battle. They’d missed the fighting, the injuries, the sweet and bitter smells of death and battle. Maybe because they hadn’t seen the horrors for themselves, there was fervor in their eyes. They’d learned to hate Paras, and wanted their own chance to fight magic.
I looked away, torn as usual between who I was and what magic would have made of me, and let my gaze skim the rest of the revelers. The couple whose pale skin sheened with sweat, whose eyes were filled with love as they drank greedily from plastic cups. The friends who sat in a line on the curb, shirts soaked through, but all of them grinning. A man who stood alone, arms crossed, watching the party.
He was tall, with a long, taut body, and wore jeans and a short-sleeved shirt that snugged over muscled arms and chest. His hair was dark and short, his eyes sharply blue and topped by thick eyebrows, his nose a sharp, straight wedge. He blinked long, dark lashes that fell like crescents across his tan skin.
“Handsome” didn’t seem nearly a good enough description. His attractiveness was nearly visceral, bladed and sharp, like a weapon he could draw. He probably had women at his beck and call, probably had every romantic skill a woman might imagine.
And because I lived in a war zone, I had a very active imagination.
A casual glance would have said he was bored by the shenanigans. But boredom hadn’t tensed his body like a panther posed to attack, or put that intense gleam in his eyes. He was coiled energy, and his gaze was on the crowd, tense and watchful, as if he was waiting for something big to happen.
His gaze suddenly shifted, those sapphire eyes streaking toward mine and locking on.
Something settled low in my gut, like my soul had rearranged itself, changed and shifted to account for him. For this man I’d never seen before.
Each dull thud of my heart ticked off another second, and still he didn’t move or look away. The intensity of his gaze didn’t diminish, and that made cold sweat skitter down my spine. Why was he focused on me?
A group of men and women shaking tambourines and maracas passed between us, breaking our eye contact. There were nearly twenty of them, dancers with plastic coins sewed to their bodysuits, feathers braided into their hair. And when they finally cleared the block, he was gone.
I turned in a circle, scanning the street and crowd for him, half annoyed to find him gone, half relieved. He apparently hadn’t been watching me. But he had been . . . interesting. Hard edges, serious eyes, beautiful body. I wouldn’t have minded if he’d ambled toward me, asked my name. And I didn’t say that very often.
“Did you hear what I said?”
I blinked at the sound of Tadji’s voice. “Sorry. What?”
“You were staring again.”
It was a bad habit. Like the man with blue eyes, I was a watcher of the world.
“Guilty as charged,” I said, putting a smile on my face, rolling the sudden tension from my shoulders. “What were you saying?”
“I was asking if you were ready to get back out there.”
“Absolutely.” I put an arm through hers. “Let’s get back to the parade.”
• • •
Three hours later, we stood in front of the Cabildo, where the parade had turned into a party.
The Cabildo had been a city council building, a court, a museum. After the storm, the Louisiana State Police set up there. Now it was the headquarters for the Devil’s Isle Commandant—and Gunnar’s tidy desk sat outside his office. Its former buildings-at-arms, St. Louis Cathedral and the Presbytère, had been destroyed in the war, leaving the Cabildo as the lone sentinel in front of Jackson Square.
Magic had mostly skipped over the Square itself. The plants had survived the war, providing a gorgeous spot of green among the gray of the Quarter. But the statue of Andrew Jackson, the hero of the first Battle of New Orleans in 1815, hadn’t made it through the second one. Jackson could beat back the British. He wasn’t as good with Paranormals.
Around the Square and inside its gates, War Nighters abandoned paper flowers and costumes in the heat, switched from booze to bottled water shipped in by a snack food company outside the Zone that had apparently been feeling charitable—or wanted to market its goods to the folks who came into the Zone for a good party.
We’d danced so long I was almost deliriously tired. But it was the right kind of tired—the kind of exhaustion that made troubles seem far away. War Night was about unity and debauchery, and we were taking full advantage, like hedonism on this one night could make up for a lot of want the rest of the year.
Tadji and I sat in front of the fence that surrounded the Square, our feet stretched in front of us.
“I am starving,” Gunnar said, hand on his stomach as he leaned against the fence. Bodies and sweat had smeared the paint on his arms, blurring the figures and landscapes into hazy stripes.
He glanced speculatively at a pushcart on the corner selling unidentified meat chunks on skewers. The grill filled the air with the slightly gamey scent of swamp critters.
“No,” I said.
“What if I dared you?” Gunnar asked, poking me with the toe of a boot.
“I’ve had my share of questionable meat,” I said. “And I don’t need to relive it.” Times had been even leaner during the war, when even FEMA had trouble finding food in New Orleans. Dealing with wars on American soil was politically complicated, and it had taken nearly a week for the feds to mount a response to the invading Paranormals. In the interim, before FEMA brought in the trucks, we did what we had to survive. If that meant nutria for dinner, so be it.
“Our little scavenger,” Tadji said, patting my arm. “You know what would do us all some good right now?”
“A bottle of very old Scotch?” Gunnar suggested.
“That, too,” Tadji asserted. “But I was thinking good, old-fashioned yaka mein.”
Yaka mein was another New Orleans specialty that took off during the war, but tasted a helluva lot better than gamey swamp critter. It was supposed to be hot broth over noodles with hard-boiled egg and green onions. Nowadays, it was bouillon cubes and dried, reconstituted eggs. Not exactly the same, but it still hit the spot, when you could find it.
We probably could have wandered into one of the more residential neighborhoods, found someone selling bowls from the back of a truck. But I was running out of energy to find anything.
I yawned hugely.
“Lightweight,” Gunnar teased.
“Guilty as charged. I think it’s time for me to head home. Who wants to carry me back to the store?”
“I’ve got a little party left in me yet,” Tadji said. “But even if I didn’t, I’m not carrying you anywhere.”
I looked at Gunnar, who shook his head. “You’re not a helpless damsel. Rescue your own damn self.”
I couldn’t really argue with that. “In that case, my friends, this is where I leave you. I’ll drag my tired, old bones back to the store.” I held out a hand to Gunnar. “If you’ll at least help me up.”
Tadji clucked her tongue. “She always gets so dramatic when she’s tired.”
“I know. She’s twenty-four, acts like she’s eighty-four.”
“I have customers who are eighty-four,” I pointed out, “and I’m sprightlier than at least some of them.”
Gunnar offered both hands, helped pull me to my feet.
Tadji stood up, too. She looked a little guilty, and I half expected her to give in and walk back with me.
But before she could speak, a shadow fell over us. We looked up. The shadow belonged to a very well-built man. His skin was dark, and his eyes were brown and amused beneath slightly pointed eyebrows. His chest was bare, his abandoned T-shirt tucked into one of his back pockets. And across his gloriously broad chest was a black tattoo in a Gothic font: WORK HARD, PLAY HARD.
I could relate.
“Hey,” he said with a smile.
“Hey,” the three of us said simultaneously. We all held out hope.
The man grinned, a flash of white teeth, but it was all for Tadji. He put a hand on his chest. “I’m Will Burke,” he said, then hooked a thumb toward the band, currently offering us a lively rendition of “Tipitina.” “But everybody calls me ‘Burke.’ Would you like to dance?”
“Oh, well, I—” Tadji looked at me, eyebrows lifted in obvious hope.
“Don’t mind me,” I said with a smile. “I was just leaving. The store is calling my name.”
Burke snapped his fingers, pointed at me. “I knew I’d seen you before. You run Royal Mercantile?”
“I do.” The Marriott was only a few blocks away, and the soldiers who lived there bought sundries at the store, so I knew a lot of agents by sight. But Burke didn’t look familiar. “Have you been in?”
“Only once. I haven’t been in the city very long. I’m with PCC Materiel. Just transferred.” He grinned. “I hear you’ve got the best store in the Quarter.”
PCC was the Paranormal Combatant Command, the Defense agency that managed the entire war effort. Containment was one of its units, as was Materiel.
“It’s easy to be one of the best when you’re one of the few,” I said, returning the smile, and deciding I liked him. And not just because he’d complimented my store. “But don’t let us interrupt you. You were going to dance?”
“Thank you,” Tadji mouthed, and took Burke’s extended hand. They walked toward the crowd, began to move and sway to the music.
“I like him,” Gunnar said.
I snorted. “That’s because he’s your type: gorgeous and well connected.”
“And apparently skilled at the art of materiel.”
“And in civilian terms that means what, exactly?”
“That means he has access to the good stuff. Food. Furniture. Uniforms.”
I knew an opportunity when I heard one. I turned to him, linked my hands together pleadingly. “See if he can get me some cheese. The real stuff, not cheese-flavored product, not ‘cheeselike’ spread. Actual, real cheddar.”
“You know refrigerated trucks don’t do well in the Zone.”
I knew—it was another electricity problem—but I didn’t care. “I’ll give you a million dollars if you can get me some real cheese.”
“You don’t have a million dollars.”
“I have a million walking sticks.”
Gunnar grinned. “I don’t want your walking sticks.” He pursed his lips, considering. “But I do need to make sure he’s on the Commandant’s visitor list.” He pulled out a small notebook and pencil to scribble a note. Gunnar took his job seriously, and wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to tell the Commandant about a material (or materiel) advantage.
That’s precisely what made my friendship with Gunnar tricky. But he was too much my family to give up on him now.
“Come on,” he said, shoving the notebook away again. “I’ll walk you back to the store.”
I didn’t mind the offer, but I knew the Quarter better than I knew the guy who’d just asked Tadji to dance. I didn’t get any bad vibes from Burke the materiel guy, but better safe than sorry. And besides: cheese.
I shook my head. “Don’t worry about me. You stay with Tadji. Keep an eye on her. And when they’re done dancing, find out which materiel he’s responsible for. Use your copious charm.” I spread my hands in a dramatic rainbow. “Think dairy.”
“That’s my hilarious girl,” he said, but concern flashed on his face. “There were three wraith attacks last week. Are you sure you’ll be okay walking back alone?”
He’d told me about each attack to warn me, to keep me on my guard. He hadn’t realized the irony.
“It’s only four blocks,” I said, “and there are Containment agents everywhere.” That was a blessing and a curse. “I’ll probably have to push them out of the way just to get inside the store.”
Gunnar didn’t look thrilled, but his pressed his lips to my temple. “Be good, Claire. And be safe.”
I told him I would.
And I really had meant it.
Instead of heading down Royal Street, I walked around the Square to Decatur. It was only a block out of the way, and I liked the route better—I liked seeing the river and imagining the world hadn’t really changed, that life as we’d known it hadn’t really ended. That my father and I still lived in a house in Central City, and I was worrying about dating and getting a good job. That a giant prison wasn’t lurking behind me.
When I was younger, I’d roam through the store’s antiques, making up adventures. I’d always thought it was cool that so many people who lived or worked in the Quarter knew my dad, considered him a friend. It was like being part of a secret club—the secret guild of folks who weren’t just tourists but who knew New Orleans. I guess I had a little of that now—Burke seemed to know who I was, for example. But it wasn’t the kind of familiarity I’d expected. And now it was dangerous.
I turned up Conti, reached the building that held the Louisiana Supreme Court, an enormous marble structure that took up an entire block between Royal and Chartres. It was square on the Royal side, and rectangular on the Chartres side with rounded towers on each end.
I’d heard the city had spent tons of money restoring it in the late nineties, only to have most of the back half destroyed in the war. Now the building was abandoned, and the few surviving palms and magnolias around it overgrown. The windows were supposed to be boarded over, but plywood was a valuable commodity, so it disappeared more often than not. This time, someone had gotten creative, removing the plywood from enough windows in one curved flank that the dark holes looked like a grinning skull.
You could take the people out of New Orleans, but you’d never get all the crazy.
I rounded the corner, saw movement near one of the magnolias. From the very unfortunate groans, War Night or Drink or both had gotten the best of someone.
I nearly smiled in sympathy before she burst out of the foliage. She couldn’t have been more than eighteen or nineteen, and she was screaming like a maniac.
She didn’t see me in front of her and hit me full on, so we struck the sidewalk together like felled trees. Pain sang through the elbow I’d inadvertently used to break my fall, and the skin scraped against still-hot asphalt. She tried to get to her feet, kneed me in the stomach.
I grunted, tried to help her up, but she wore only shorts and a tank top in the heat, and her skin was slicked with sweat. “What the hell?” I asked.
She didn’t respond, and she was panting when she finally crawled off me, climbed to her feet, and loped into the street. She was limping.
I sat up to watch her, confused. Did she need help, or was she just walking off the effects of a long and boozy night?
But when her gaze met mine, her eyes were wide and terrified. She hadn’t been drunk, I realized; she’d been afraid.
She knew had been my first paranoid and totally irrational thought. She’d somehow realized I had magic, thought of war and terror and death.
But it wasn’t me she was afraid of.
He emerged through the darkness like a horrible ghost, whipping past me like a raptor and leaving behind the scent of something sour and spoiled. The magic had left him desiccated and skeletal. He looked brittle, with pale, nearly translucent skin and hair that had gone white.
He was a wraith. And he wasn’t alone.
A second monster, another male, streaked after him, joined the first one as they followed the woman into the street.
Their withered and angular bodies were partially covered by dirty scraps of cotton and denim, probably the remnants of the clothes they’d been wearing when they finally crossed the line between Sensitive and wraith.
Fear flooded me, and with it, memories of war. Of the blood-hungry Valkyrie I’d killed with my own two hands. Of the angel I’d seen standing atop the Superdome, calling out to his troops with a golden horn, his ivory wings streaked with blood.
I glanced up at the building on the corner. The light on the magic monitor that hung ten feet above the street blinked green, activated by the wraiths’ abundant magic, the energy they’d absorbed from the Veil. Containment had been notified. Agents would be on their way, so I shouldn’t get involved. That was always my father’s advice.
One night, a few weeks before the Battle of New Orleans, he’d stood beside me while we watched a Containment vehicle rumble down Royal. In the back, clutching each other with obvious fear, were male and female Paras whose naked skin glowed pale green in the twilight.
“Will-o’-the-wisps,” he’d said. “Or what we’d call will-o’-the-wisps, at any rate.” That had been before the gaslights were turned on again, and it didn’t take the truck long to disappear from sight.
“They look scared,” I’d said. They hadn’t looked like the enemies we’d faced, the Paras who’d threatened us with weapons and death.
“It’s better not to get involved. What’s our motto?”
He’d said the words a thousand times. “Stay quiet. Work hard.”
“Good. You worry about the store, about the citizens of the Quarter, and let Containment take care of the rest.” He’d looked up at the stars that dotted the sky over New Orleans, visible when the power was out, and put a hand on my shoulder. “Someday, things will be back to the way they were before. Only hard work will get us there.”
He told me that six weeks after he’d helped the army personnel who were left in New Orleans fight a battle it didn’t look like we could win. But he’d jumped into it anyway, because, his warnings to me notwithstanding, that was the kind of guy he was.
He’d died two weeks later.
The woman screamed, pulling me from the memory and back to the present. She’d moved into the empty street, shrieking wildly as she tried to scurry away from the wraiths. Her ankle crumpled, and she hit the ground again.
All the while, the wraiths were getting closer, their eyes focused on her. And they weren’t going to wait. The surplus of magic short-circuited their brains’ impulse-control centers, made them extra aggressive. They’d kill her without hesitation, without remorse, because they existed to feed their hunger for magic. And damn anything that stood in their way.
I knew my father had wanted me safe, that he’d told me not to get involved because life in New Orleans was too precarious now. But the woman was in danger, and Containment wasn’t here. This was my street, my Quarter, my city. That made it my responsibility. I had to keep her safe—or at least keep the wraiths away from her—until help arrived.
I couldn’t use magic—not with Containment cameras all around. I looked around, found a fallen limb beneath one of the gigantic magnolias. Hands shaking with adrenaline, I grabbed it up and ran back toward them, holding the branch like a baseball bat.
“Hey! Get away from her!” I hoped yelling would scare them away and bring out people with actual weapons—assuming anyone was sober enough to hear us, or that the sound could carry over the horns and drums that still echoed from Jackson Square.
One of the wraiths turned back to me, a man with arms painfully pulled toward his body, skinny fingers tipped with long nails. He seemed to sniff the air—recognizing the magic I absorbed like him—then opened his mouth, screamed with a sound that was somewhere between fingernails on a chalkboard and the scrape of rough metal against metal. It was a horrible noise, pitiable and terrifying at the same time, and it made my stomach tighten with nerves.
Head bobbing, he began to lope toward me.
I pushed down fear. If he was moving toward me, he was moving away from her.
“Yeah, that’s right!” I yelled. “Over here!” I waved the stick in the air, ran back and forth across the street, trying to get the other wraith’s attention, too. Not that I knew what I’d do if I got it—but I was at least mobile, stick in hand, with solid lungs.
But it didn’t work. The second wraith grabbed the woman’s ankle, lunged at her.
This time, I didn’t think, I didn’t remember, I didn’t debate. I ran forward, wound up, and slammed the branch across the wraith’s spine. He screamed and reared back, looked at me with furious, watery eyes that were equally pitiful and terrifying.
I wasn’t thrilled about hurting something that I could so easily become. But he didn’t seem to care about my struggle. He shrieked, took a step forward. I moved backward and swung the limb in front of me to make sure he was giving me space.
I caught movement from the corner of my eye, realized the other wraith was also moving toward me. I’d managed to get their attention off the girl, but that might not serve me well in the long term.
I realized I could have used one of those walking sticks about now. Maybe one with a pop-up bayonet.
I looked back at the girl. She still looked wan, but she’d survive, if she could get up and run.
“Go!” I told her, and she climbed to her feet, limped down the street.
I looked back at the wraiths, trying to keep them both in front of me so I wouldn’t be surrounded, so they couldn’t trip me up.
One of them reached out to grab, skinny fingers like painted bones, tipped in thick, pointed nails. I swung the limb to bat the hand away, but he was faster than I’d anticipated. He snatched it, wrenched it from my hands, and tossed it down the street.
He swung out with his free hand. He might have been skinny, but he was strong, like his strength had been honed and concentrated into what was left of him. His arm hit me like an iron bar, and I flew backward through the air, a doll thrown by a spoiled child.
I hit the asphalt on my back. Pain burst through my body as the air seemed to fly out of my lungs. I tried to breathe, wheezed roughly.
They were both moving toward me. I sat in the middle of Royal, with not a soul in sight. Drums echoed down the street, the rhythm growing faster as the song rose to its crescendo.
Just like Gunnar had said, I had to be my own hero.
I climbed to my feet, still woozy, and paused to let my brain catch up with my body. But that only gave time for the fear to settle into my bones.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Chloe Neill’s Chicagoland Vampires Novels:
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“Neill creates a strong-minded, sharp-witted heroine who will appeal to fans of Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series and Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake.”—Library Journal
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