As a partner at Grimm’s magical Agency, Marissa Locks is used to working odd jobs. But when an evil queen reappears in Kingdom, life becomes too strange to handle…
Even when she’s not starting it, trouble follows Marissa everywhere. First there was the incident with the homicidal Fairy Godmother. Then there was the time she accidentally started Armageddon. But the problems that always seem to arise on Marissa’s birthday take the cake.
This year, her annual bad-luck presents include an army of invading goblins, the resurrection of two vengeful enemies from hell, and the return of the Black Queen, the evil sorceress whose reign of terror still haunts Kingdom and who happens to have claimed Marissa as her servant.
As Marissa’s friends try to save her from the Black Queen’s clutches, Marissa fights to end a bitter war that started before her birth. But her quest for peace is about to bring up some inconvenient truths about her own past—ones that might cost her the happily ever after she’s always dreamed of…
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
For Allison, who makes the decision every day
WHEN I WAS a little girl, my mother used to say, “A little birthday party can’t hurt anyone.” She stopped saying that after my seventh birthday, when the ponies they rented stampeded. Then it was “How bad could a birthday party be?” which lasted until my tenth birthday, when the microwave oven exploded, coating everyone in melted frosting. Then it was “Let’s get this over with,” followed the year after by “You know, this year let’s let Marissa celebrate her own way.” Which meant I spent my birthdays reading alone while my parents went out for drinks.
And that’s how I planned to spend my twenty-eighth birthday, which fell on a Monday, which, statistically, it does once every seven years. Mondays, in my experience, are lousy, and birthdays are even worse.
I ran to work that day, keeping my girlish figure looking slightly more girlish than trash-can-ish, and Liam ran with me. Liam. Almost six feet, built like a barrel, with arms like tree trunks. My fiancé. My other half. The man who’d stood by me through the end of the world. Also, a man in lousy shape.
“Marissa, could we take a break?” Liam limped along a few dozen feet back.
I learned to run earlier in my life. Run to get away from things that wanted to kill me, run to get away from things I couldn’t get away from. Technically, these days I could eat the buffet and the table it came on, and still not gain a pound, thanks to the gift of a harbinger of the apocalypse, Famine. Being the apocalypse bringer had its benefits, but I wasn’t taking chances, so we still ran.
In case you’re imagining a romantic run through the city, two lovers getting an endorphin kick to keep us ready for work, stop. We had company. A few feet behind Liam came a bombshell blonde, curvy and pale, with brilliant blue eyes and a figure that stopped hearts.
“You can run on. I will stay with my liege.” Svetlana, the aforementioned beautiful disaster, waved to me. I wasn’t about to leave her any more than she ever left us. Which was never. It wasn’t just devotion to my fiancé; it was a form of contract. Thanks to the machinations of an evil queen and her team of assassins, Liam wound up holding a stake in, well, everything Svetlana’s people owned. Given that they were all vegetarian vampires, they objected to stakes of any flavor.
I jogged in place, waiting for Liam to gain his breath.
“This is a lot easier when I have four feet,” called a six-foot-eight man with curly brown hair. The head of our shipping department and full-time Big Bad Wolf, Mikey, never passed up a chance to chase people, even if he wasn’t allowed to devour them. The crowd parted for him in a way that would have made Old Testament Moses envious. Crowds in the city don’t move for anyone, but even city folks had a healthy self-preservation instinct. “I’ll see you at the office,” Mikey shouted. He loped off, nearly sprinting.
We took another forty minutes to arrive, mostly due to my fiancé, partially due to a flower vendor who insisted I wanted a dahlia. What I really wanted was to shove the dahlia somewhere he’d find painful.
When we arrived at the Agency, I left Liam and Svetlana to take the elevator. I, on the other hand, sprinted up the stairs for a final calorie-burn burst, and exploded through the front door, ready for a Monday.
Our receptionist, Rosa, hunched over a man, shocking him repeatedly with a stun gun.
I nodded to her. “Morning, Rosa.”
She made the sign of the cross with her middle finger, blessing herself and telling me off in one pass, and muttered under her breath.
Since Rosa obviously had the morning crowd under control, I checked the schedule. In my office, a six-by-four mirror pulsed, glowing orange in the darkness. I used masking tape to divide the mirror into slots for each day and hour, keeping a schedule that Grimm couldn’t claim to not see. Monday morning. Liam had an appointment in the sewers, where a group of mud men awaited the “Final Flush.” I hoped Svetlana brought her muck boots.
Mikey needed to be down at the docks, where something on a container ship kept eating the night watchmen. If you are what you eat, something had a cholesterol count that might kill it.
I looked at my name, and saw the whole day blocked out without explanation.
The column next to mine looked identical.
“Morning, Marissa. Does this outfit make my eyes look more or less yellow?”
I recognized Ari’s voice, and couldn’t help but smile. In the doorway to my office, Arianna Thromson stood, dressed in a yellow tracksuit. The yellow made her red hair look two shades lighter, and it made the diseased yellow of her eyes look even more diseased and yellow.
Arianna Thromson, my best friend. Also, princess, and witch. Don’t hold those last two against her—the first you could blame on her parents, the second on an evil queen who forced Ari to use too much magic at once.
“Looks better.” I looked at her dead-on, to remind her that regardless of how other people treated her, she was still just Ari to me. Witches didn’t get many smiles, and most folks would stare at the ceiling rather than meet her gaze. “You and I have some sort of all-day engagement.”
“I’m meeting Wyatt for lunch. I wish it were an engagement.” Ari narrowed her eyes at me, then looked past me to the board. Despite the fact that her eyes had neither pupils nor irises, she could see perfectly well. In fact, if what you were looking for was a spirit, spell, or curse, she saw better than me.
Ari read the schedule, then put one hand to the bracelet on her wrist. A simple gold bracelet, the key to our communication with the Fairy Godfather. “Bastard Grimm, you come here this instant.” Using Grimm’s first name was something even I avoided, and I outranked Ari.
The calendar faded from the mirror, and Grimm swirled into view. He adjusted his coat, looking every bit the English butler I always imagined him as. “Ladies, how may I assist you?”
“I was going to have lunch with my prince.” Ari crossed her arms and tapped her foot.
Grimm took off the heavy black glasses he wore, revealing eyebrows like a yeti. “Young lady, I’m sorry. We require your assistance. I’ll make it up to you. Reservations to anywhere in the city.”
“What exactly are we supposed to be doing?” I went around to my desk and opened my ammo drawer.
“Marissa, you always say I never let you travel for business. I think today I’ll correct that. You are going to visit another realm.” Grimm’s calm smile left me worried.
I’d traveled to other realms. Inferno, a few times. It was better than the department of licensing. I’d been to a fairy’s realm as well, and would rather not go back. “Which one? Avalon? Say Avalon. Or Atlantis.”
Grimm looked down. “Nowhere near as extravagant. We’ve suffered an influx of goblins for the last few weeks, and I believe it prudent to check the health of the realm seal.”
Of course. The realm seal, if it looked like the others, was a giant ball of lightning that acted as a barrier between realms. Part magic construct, part physical creatures, the realm seals required constant attention to keep them healthy. Grimm couldn’t go himself, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t send others. “I don’t want to go to the Forest. I want to go to Avalon.”
“You don’t have enough frequent-flier miles built up, but we’ll talk about it afterward. Meet me at the portal in fifteen minutes.” Grimm faded out.
“Look at it this way: You’ll get to shoot at least one goblin, and I’ll be that much happier to see Wyatt tonight.” That was Ari, always trying to salvage a bad situation.
“There’s no point in shooting goblins. They’re dumber than the bullets in my gun. As a matter of fact, in a trivia contest, I’d bet on the bullets—”
Grimm reappeared in a burst of light, in every reflective surface in my office. He spoke from all of them at once. “Code Mauve, Marissa. I need you in my office immediately. Alone.” Grimm kept his tone calm, his eyes fixed on me. Not good.
I ran down the hall, threw open the door, ready for murder, mayhem, or destruction. The air conditioner’s hum competed with the murmur of the crowds in the waiting room for loudest noise. “Yes?”
Grimm appeared in his mirror, his regular gray silk suit changed out for black, his look stern. He ignored me, keeping his eyes on the high-back chair, where I noticed two feet in penny loafers.
“Ah, so good of you to come at once.” I knew the voice. Knew the man, if you could call him that.
I shut the door behind me. “Nick.” Nickolas Scratch. The Adversary. King of demons, ruler of Inferno, and first-order paper pusher.
He rose from his chair, barely as tall as me, with heavy wrinkles around his eyes and a bald spot that could blind a girl. “I hate to bother you here, Marissa. I really do, but I have a problem, and you only lose your driver’s license every couple of weeks, so I couldn’t just wait for you to come in and replace it.” The Adversary’s second job, at the department of licensing, allowed him to be truly evil.
Since offending the commander of demon armies could have immediate impact on my life span, I chose my words with care. “Anything that’s bothering you is way out of my league. I’m trying to pick on things my own size.” Refusing the Adversary directly could be bad, but not, in my book, as bad as agreeing to help him.
Nick walked over and put one hand on my shoulder. “I know. I wouldn’t ask, but I don’t have anywhere else to turn. There’s been a theft.”
Grimm disappeared in a flash, leaving me alone. And for once, I didn’t feel abandoned. Grimm had mastered the art of foretelling the future in a dozen ways, all of them bloody enough to make me lose my lunch. I was convinced he secretly made no effort to evict the rabbits that haunted his home, because they came in handy when a quick fortune needed to be told. Right now, I needed the knowledge he’d gain from slaughtering a few bunnies as much as he did.
“The Vault of Souls.” Nick’s eyes glowed like fireside embers as he spoke. “Think of it like a bank vault, only instead of your mortgage papers, or some certificates of deposit, I keep valuable things. Mass murderers. Tyrants. Genocidal maniacs.”
“Who broke out?” I slipped around the desk and sat down in Grimm’s chair.
Nick’s hands clenched, turning white, and he trembled with barely contained rage. “There’s never been a breakout. Someone broke into Inferno and took three souls from the vault.” With each word, the lights in the office flickered, as if each shadow siphoned away the light. I’d stood face-to-face with demons and dealt with the harbingers of the apocalypse, including Death himself, but the Adversary was so far out of my league, my best hope was to let him rant and hope Grimm had a plan for how to contain the damage when his temper exploded.
“The angels did it?” The angels were the only creatures I could imagine being dumb enough to mount an attack on hell itself. Now would be a great time for Grimm to make an appearance. The Adversary could squash me like a bug if I said the wrong thing.
He rumbled like a thunderstorm. Anger or laughter, I couldn’t tell. “Are you kidding? They want most of the souls in the vault locked up just as much as I do. You know, most of those souls are mine by agreement. And those three were mine by right. Given to me freely.” Blood dripped from Nick’s hands as his nails cut into his palms. It burst into flames that licked the edges of his fingers.
For just a moment, my curiosity got the better of me. “Don’t you have armies? You know, the sort that you’d need to bring about the end of the world?”
The Lord of Destruction looked at me over his bifocals, his eyes round. “I can’t admit there’s been a lapse in security. My own children would rise up against me. So, you are going to retrieve those souls. If they’ve been lashed into another body, you have my permission to take them apart in any way you find convenient. Death will take care of bringing them back to me at that point.”
The friendly grin on Nick’s face made my spine tingle. “I’m sorry. I’m your girl if you need a pair of slippers returned, or a library book, but souls? Maybe Fairy Godfather can find them and—” The words strangled out in my throat as Nick began to belch black smoke and sulfur.
“You will do it. If I don’t get them back, I’m going to start killing random people on the off chance that one of them has the soul I’m looking for. And you won’t have to find the other two. They’re going to come for you, Marissa. I’d bet on it.”
I think his final words scared me more than his threats. “Who?”
For just a moment, Nickolas Scratch looked almost concerned. “An ex-queen and her son. Both of whom have issues with you.”
Where two seconds earlier I could have baked bread just by setting it on my desk, now beads of sweat formed on my head and I shivered. I knew who he meant, and had barely survived the last time she tried to kill me. Maybe they hadn’t meant to get her. Maybe—
“Marissa, don’t kid yourself.” The Adversary crossed his arms and shook his head. “That was no accident. There were murderers in that vault a thousand times more deadly; hell, Rip Van Winkle’s soul was in a Mason jar two shelves down.”
I nearly died at the hands of Rip Van Winkle, Kingdom’s own boogeyman. “Who was it that broke in? And who else did they take?” I couldn’t have moved from Grimm’s seat if I had to, wrapped in a spell of fear as I waited for an answer I dreaded.
“You should probably have that discussion with your Fairy Godfather.” He rubbed his hands together, extinguishing the flames. “I’ll see myself out, assuming that receptionist of yours doesn’t shoot me again. If she ever wants a night job, send her over. She’ll fit right in below.” Nick put his clipboard under his arm and marched out, leaving scorch marks on the carpet with each step.
I can’t tell you how many minutes passed until my skin tingled from Grimm’s presence in the mirror at my back. I didn’t speak. Didn’t move. Prince Mihail and his crazy mother were some of the few people who truly deserved their spot in Inferno. The thought of them out and about, watching, waiting—that I couldn’t stand.
“Marissa, I listened in on your conversation. You have a special rapport with the Adversary, and I felt it wiser to allow you to deal with him.”
“Is he telling the truth?”
“Yes, my dear. I’m afraid he is. I know in the past you’ve been reluctant to use deadly force, but in this case, I want you to shoot first, reload, and shoot again. Leave the question asking to me.” The concern in Grimm’s voice only amplified my fear. The Fairy Godfather feared nothing.
“We have to take care of Ari. Prince Mihail might come for her.” Mihail had meant to marry Ari. Then murder her.
“His mother won’t waste time on Ari or anyone else. I would comfort you, but fear will keep you alert. Alive. I confess I’m considering having Jess released from the hospital to accompany Arianna. Anywhere you go in this realm, Liam must remain with you at all times.”
The thought of half-djinn Jess roaming the streets of my city worried me almost as much as the Adversary’s threats. Once one of Grimm’s agents, Jess was violent death given flesh when her bipolar medication wasn’t working, or when she wouldn’t take it, which was most of the time. “We can’t do that. Too many innocent people might get hurt. What if, for once, you actually did some form of magic? Can’t you influence fate to keep her safe?” Grimm had a way of influencing events that worked best when the person being influenced didn’t know what was happening. He could bring two people together in a crowd of thousands—or, hopefully, keep them apart.
Grimm ignored my dig at his stinginess, his eyes unfocused. “I could, Marissa, but I can’t do so for two people at once. That means, my dear, that I can’t provide the same protection for you if I’m doing so for Arianna.”
“Then there’s no decision. You keep both Mihails away from Ari. If the Mihails want revenge, they can take it up with me.”
“Marissa—” Grimm stopped for a moment, his forehead wrinkled and lips pursed. “You shouldn’t endanger yourself so lightly.”
“Better me than anyone else.”
Grimm just shook his head and faded from the mirror, leaving me alone. Which meant I could spare a moment to worry for myself.
• • •
AN URGENT KNOCK on Grimm’s door roused me from my worry. Grimm himself disappeared half an hour before, saying he needed to spend quality time divining the future. There’d be a food bank receiving donations of hasenpfeffer for days.
“Little pig, little pig, let me come in.” I recognized Mikey’s voice through the oak door.
“Oh, all right.” I rose and unlocked the door, looking up to meet his eyes. “What?”
Mikey grabbed my arm, a move which would have earned him a silver bullet two years earlier, and dragged me along. “Emergency in the kitchen. You’re in charge.” He let go and sprinted off, rounding the corner like he’d just spotted a whitetail deer, or a cheerleader.
I followed him to the kitchen, throwing open the door and marching in, ready to lay down the law.
Darkness engulfed me, absolute darkness, as the door swung shut behind me, and the sounds of shallow breathing made my heart race.
“Surprise!” a hail of voices shouted, and the lights flickered on. A shiver ran from my feet to my ears. In the center of the table sat a cake with “Happy Barmitzvah, Joshua” written in pink gel frosting.
“I got it on clearance at the bakery.” Mikey reached out and lit a candle on the cake, oblivious to the terror in my eyes.
The kitchen door opened, and Liam shouted, “What idiot brought a cake? Grimm, we need you.” He banged on the wall so hard, it shook the door.
The patter of light feet meant everyone was leaving. I clenched my teeth and tried to look away. “It’s going to be okay, M.” Ari stepped forward. “Everyone out of the building. Move, people.” She barked orders while I struggled to contain a wave of nausea that made the world spin.
Grimm flashed into the microwave door, glanced around the room, and glowered at Mikey. “What exactly do you think you are doing?”
“Stairs.” Ari cupped her hands and shouted. “Only use the stairs. Remember what happened to the elevators last time?”
“Marissa, take a deep breath. Close your eyes.” Grimm’s voice calmed me, though the panic still swirled in my stomach like a gallon of cheap rum.
Liam snuffed out the candle and threw his jacket over the cake. “It’s fine, M. Nothing to see here. We’re all going to just go for a walk down the stairs, out onto the street, and take the day off.”
That’s when the sprinklers went off.
Then every light in the building went out at once.
Then a bubbling noise like some monster from the depths gurgled up from the sewers, and a stench like rotten sheep entrails stung my nose. From the floors above and below, cries of terror and disgust echoed from vents.
“Deep breaths. Eyes closed.” Liam put a rough hand on my face and pulled me toward him. “Mikey didn’t know.”
Mikey didn’t know. Didn’t know that I avoided every birthday, anniversary, wedding, or funeral for exactly the same reason. They all ended in disaster. If we were unlucky, it required the hazmat squad. If we were lucky, there’d only be a couple feet of raw sewage spilling into the building.
“Grimm, you’ve got to help me with this.” I pushed away from Liam as the emergency lighting came on, flooding the Agency with a dull red glow.
“Marissa, everyone has situations in which things do not go well. Little things, where the universe reminds them they have better ways to spend their fleeting days.” Grimm spoke like a schoolteacher.
“Do you remember what happened when Ari baked me cupcakes for my birthday?”
Ari tromped back into the room, wearing yellow muck boots and carrying a matching parasol. “Asps. There were no asp eggs in the batter, Grimm. None. Would you like to guess how many cupcakes had asps in them when Marissa cut into them? What does that tell you?”
“It tells me cupcakes are bad for your figure. Now, if you don’t mind—” Grimm cut off, his eyes losing focus, then snapping wide open. “Ladies, I need you to check on that realm seal immediately. There isn’t a moment to waste.”
I followed Ari to the back of the Agency, where Grimm kept portal runes ground into the concrete, having long ago given up any pretense of getting his security deposit returned. This birthday was turning out as bad as the rest.
“Proceed directly along the path to the Seal, contact me when you arrive. Do not waste time shooting goblins.” Grimm stood in the full-length mirror, waiting. He looked to Liam. “Sir, I need your assistance as soon as the ladies have departed. We have a minor invasion to deal with.”
“You got it.” Liam rubbed his hands through his hair, wringing it out.
The portal lit up like a rainbow and solidified, revealing a land that looked like a barren fall landscape.
Grimm waved his hand like a host. “This is your stop. Please keep your hands and feet inside the portal, or a team of surgeons will be required to reattach them. I will reopen the gate once we have inspected the realm seal and understand what is wrong.”
Ari stepped through, appearing on the trail visible through the portal. The portal rippled and shook, like it was made of cold, clear water.
“That normal?” I studied Grimm’s face.
“Not exactly. Hurry, Marissa. There’s a tremor in the fabric of magic itself coming, which might strand Ari.” Grimm concentrated, his eyebrows arched.
I dashed forward, ducking down, and stepped across. As I did, the building shook again, and it felt like my insides twisted like a pretzel. Then a grip like iron seized my hand. Ari screamed. Liam cursed, and I disappeared into darkness.
I OPENED MY eyes to absolute pitch black. Nothingness, no sound or smell. Only the iron grip on my arm kept me from fleeing into the void.
“Happy birthday, Marissa. You’re one day closer to dying.” The voice came straight into my head, a voice like dried leaves and cracked bones rattling in the October wind.
“Death. That’s you, right?” A few years earlier, Death, a harbinger of the apocalypse, spent quite a bit of time hanging around my apartment. “I didn’t see it coming.”
“You aren’t dead yet. I came to give you a present. You know, I never did get you a proper present for almost ending the world.”
I looked around, but couldn’t see. Movement, eyes open or closed, nothing mattered.
In the inky black, a match struck and flared with the stench of sulfur. Before me, a single candle glowed to life, planted on a cupcake. I stared across it into a skull, its empty eye sockets leering back at me.
His grip held me fast, stifling my involuntary attempt to flee. “I’m sorry, I didn’t have time to change skins. I’m very busy, and I have the feeling I’m headed into a holiday season of sorts.” Death placed the cupcake in my hands. Then with a bony claw, he reached toward my left eye.
Scream? Hell yes, I did.
His claw tips met a gnat’s width above my eye, and a sound, a feeling of tearing, ripped through me. With a puff of air like the gust of a coffin lid closing, he blew out the candle, and darkness wrapped itself about me once more.
“I’m sorry, Marissa. You need to be able to see to understand.” His voice began to fade out.
The darkness seeped into me, freezing me to my core. “What did you do?”
“I’ve made a hole in the veil for you. So you won’t be fooled.”
A pinprick of light in the darkness caught my eye, the only light in the world. Rushing toward me, growing larger by the second, moving like a train. At the last moment, I saw forest, leaves, and then I went flying into the light.
“M?” Ari’s voice, soft and sweet, distant. I tried to open my eyes, but after the darkness of the void, even the gray light of the Forest seemed to stab me.
“Ari.” My own voice came from a distance.
Something clicked, and Ari spoke, “She just arrived. The portal opened on its own and threw her out face-first.”
With my hands over my eyes, I sat up. “I’m fine.”
“My dear, you were gone for nearly half an hour. I feared we lost you.” Grimm’s voice trembled.
“Death spoke to me.” I opened my eyes, squinting. “Said I needed to see through the veil.”
“What?” Grimm practically roared. “That’s completely illegal according to the celestial laws, and not good for your health. Cosmic radiation, and so on.”
Ari jerked her hand back, almost dropping the compact.
“He said it would help me understand. Why? And what?” I stood and dusted rotten leaves out of my shirt. The remains of a smashed cupcake said I’d landed on my birthday present.
“Arianna, please find the realm seal and return quickly. I need to examine Marissa.” Grimm faded out.
Ari took my hand and stared at me. At one time, her dead eyes made my skin crawl, but these days, I just saw my best friend. She was using her spirit sight, for sure, looking down through my skin to see if there was damage inside.
“Well?” I arched one eyebrow.
“You look like you always do. Come on, let’s get this over with.” She started down the path, and I followed her.
The Forest Realm certainly wouldn’t win any tourism destination awards if I were handing them out. It’s not just the fact that every goblin, ever, made their homes there. The thing that really killed it for me was the endless array of brown, gray, and black. Not a green leaf or yellow flower for as far as the eye could see.
Combine that with the perpetual October-evening twilight, and I needed a beach vacation just to recover. Still, any realm visit was one worth remembering, if only so I could remember I didn’t want to come here again. As Ari followed the path through blistered trees, I stopped her. “I never get to travel to other realms. Take a picture?” I handed her my phone.
Ari shook her head. “You have to come with me to Fae next time I tend my Seal.”
A seal, in this case, was neither a small, furry aquatic mammal nor an imposing navy warrior. Seals, magical entities that served as barriers between realms, resembled living thunderstorms. Attempting to club one might get you electrocuted.
“Grimm says no. Actually, he doesn’t say no. He just always has some emergency for me to handle. ‘Marissa, I need you to find this missing child,’ or ‘Marissa, you have to prevent them from poisoning the city’s water supply.’ It’s always something.” I made a mental note that next time, I was going, no matter what. “This dump’s the first place he’s let me go on my own.” I gave her a fake smile for the camera.
“Say cheddar.” Ari waited. And waited.
I glared at her. “That’s not funny.” She knew darn well why. In the office fridge lurked a wheel of cheddar, which arrived of its own accord the day Grimm threw me a “welcome to the Agency” party. The number of interns who attempted to remove it matched exactly the number of interns who died horrible, bloody deaths within hours of touching it.
“Fine. Say ‘Grimm’s a bastard.’” Ari snapped the picture before I could open my mouth and handed me the phone. “You know what I’m noticing about this place?” She twirled around, taking in the breathtakingly dull landscape.
“Nothing. There’s absolutely nothing of interest.”
“No goblins. Shouldn’t we have met at least one?” Ari peered into the forest.
She had a point. Goblins served as the cheapest, dumbest enforcers anyone with a little Glitter and an axe or ten to grind could afford. Now that I’d seen where they came from, I understood why they left. Goblins also tended to be as territorial as trailer park residents, so the fact that we’d made it twenty steps without having to give one lead poisoning didn’t bode well. “Come on. Let’s go for a jog, get this over with, and go someplace with sun, or at least fluorescent lights.” I took off at a trot, with Ari close behind.
The path opened up to a vast meadow. Not the sort of meadow where forest animals frolicked in the sun. The sort of meadow where sick and dying animals would stagger, wounded and rabid, while making noises reminiscent of a band of drunken bagpipe players before dying. Like the rest of the Forest, it seemed frozen in a late autumn, dead grass, dead trees. The mounds of dead goblins, that was new.
Ari caught up with me, both of us reaching for our handguns at the same time. Goblins lay piled like cordwood, their black blood coagulating in pools like an oil slick.
Ari poked one with the barrel of her Desert Eagle. “What do you think happened?”
“No idea.” With each step, I watched, waited for something to attack. I think I preferred the endless dead trees to the maze of goblin bodies. The closer we got toward the center, the worse the carnage. Bodies gave way to shredded mounds of barely recognizable flesh.
A glint of black caught my eye, and I approached, digging into the mound. “Take a look at—” A flash of pain shot up my arm, and I yanked back my hand. From my palm, a gush of blood welled up.
Ari grabbed my hand and chanted, turning the air cold as magic swept into her. I expected the wound to close. Instead, a filthy Ace bandage materialized, cobwebs and dust covering the outside.
“Seriously? Can’t you do healing yet?” I poked at a spider, turning it into a splat.
Ari wound the bandage around my hand. “You have no idea how much power that takes when I have to do it on my own.” Then she turned, and without a word, fire burst from her palm, incinerating the corpse on which I’d cut myself.
Roast goblin smelled a lot like roast goat. In spite of the pain in my hand, my mouth watered, imagining black beans, corn tortillas, and some fresh salsa.
“Oh no.” Ari stopped the flamethrower act, looking back to me, rubbing her fingers together. “We need to get you out of here.”
Where a mass of goblin flesh once stood, ashes drifted. Entwined in the bones of the goblin, a tangled mass of thorns twisted, still burning. My stomach twisted itself into a Gordian knot while my brain packed its bags and began considering the contortions necessary to escape via my left ear.
I’d read about deaths like that. Deaths that hadn’t happened for more than four hundred years. Such bodies were the standard, the hallmark of the Black Queen. I reflexively covered my wrist, where the handmaiden’s mark peeked out from beneath the bandage.
Grimm thought she’d take several hundred years to return.
The bodies said otherwise.
I looked around and didn’t see Ari. While I’d stood, lost in my thoughts, she’d kept going. Quelling the fear that danced up and down my spine, I ran through the maze until I reached the center.
Ari stood there, on a black stone block I recognized as a realm gate. In her arms, she cradled something. It crackled and popped like an electrical transformer.
As I approached, Ari sang softly, a Kingdom lullaby.
Ari looked up, her mouth open, lips turned down. “I don’t know if we got here in time.”
She opened her arms a bit, and I finally saw what she cradled. In her arms lay a wisp of blue energy. It shifted as I looked at it, sometimes almost resembling a baby, sometimes an octopus with hands. I’d seen one before, once, barely. That one was covered in lightning and wrapped in mist.
I opened my pocket compact. “Grimm, we’ve found the realm seal. It’s not good.”
Seconds passed without an answer, and then Grimm’s eyes appeared, and only his eyes. “I am somewhat occupied, Marissa.” His gaze went to the realm seal, and his eyes shut. “Thank goodness Arianna is present. Princess, I need you to take care of the Seal. It is starved, as the previous royal family has not had a seal bearer for two decades.”
Ari continued to cradle it, sometimes petting it like a dog, sometimes just cuddling it like a child. Ari, in case you were wondering, was a seal bearer, as if being a princess and a witch wasn’t bad enough. Each royal family had one seal bearer per generation. The seal bearers cared for the realm seal. In return, they received access to pure magic, sorcery at a discounted price. I’d never asked exactly what caring for a seal entailed. “What happened? It doesn’t look like the Fae Seal.”
Ari answered before Grimm could. “This one’s sick. Realm seals need love and attention, or they weaken. I visit the one in Fae every week.”
I’d seen the Fae Seal, touched it, nearly been electrocuted by it. I dropped my purse on the ground so my phone didn’t get fried, then approached the Seal, holding out my hand. A tentacle of blue reached out, pushing my hand away. While the power in it buzzed like a drill, it didn’t shock me. “Can I hold it?”
Ari frowned. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. Frankly, I’m surprised it let you get this close. The Fae one would knock you flat for getting within five yards, now that it’s back home and at full strength.”
“I believe this one would almost tolerate Marissa,” said Grimm. “It belonged to Queen Mihail and her family, which explains the poor condition.”
“So it belongs to me now.” I reached out for it, and it shrank from me. That was just plain rude. I’d won her title (didn’t want it), her throne (currently in storage in Queens), and apparently, one extremely sick Seal a few years ago.
“Marissa, we’ve had this discussion.” Grimm sounded exhausted. “You cannot simply become a princess, and aside from the original seal bearers, they’ve all been born, not made. We must find someone to take over the role soon.” His gaze flickered to Ari. “In the meantime, princess, I’d like you to care for Marissa’s seal.”
Ari frowned. “That’s like asking me to scoop her litter box.” The Seal let out a low whine, and nuzzled, wrapped all eight of its arms around her in a hug. “Oh, all right.” She stroked it like a puppy. “I’ll do it.”
I’d owned a cat once, and the ending was definitely not happily ever after. Far as I was concerned, Ari could keep the Seal. “Grimm, I know why the goblins are coming. They’re not invading. They’re fleeing.” I pointed the mirror toward a goblin body, where black thorns grew out of the eyes. “The Black Queen was here.”
Ari gasped at the same time I did, and if the Seal hadn’t been latched on to her like a frightened toddler, she’d have dropped it.
“You what?” we said together.
“I recognize her work, but she is not in the Forest any longer.” Grimm spoke slowly, calmly. “She is on Earth, in Kingdom.”
GRIMM’S WORDS HUNG in the dead air, striking more fear into me than a pack of gremlins armed with grenades or an army of lawyers.
“You said it would be hundreds of years before Isolde had enough power to return.” My ears rang, and when Ari put her hand on my shoulder, I couldn’t help flinching.
“I was wrong, or perhaps right, and the timer simply started at her death. I told you my daughter’s actions were a blind spot for me. She arrived in Kingdom during the time you were . . . delayed. I suspect that her inability to locate you may have been a blessing. For now, you are safe. I will reopen the portal for you when I can.” Grimm disappeared, not even waiting for me to respond.
I put my hand on my bracelet, which was far more than a simple piece of jewelry. Made of pure magic, it allowed me to summon the Fairy Godfather in any reflective surface, but for what I had in mind, I didn’t need a mirror. By agreement with Grimm, I could contact a select few other people, though I wouldn’t be able to see them. “Liam.” I waited for the gentle touch of my fiancé’s mind. And waited, and waited some more.
“M, we’re a little occupied. Had a few thousand goblins arrive all at once.” Liam’s voice had an echo behind it, meaning he’d let the curse take control in return for the strength that came with it.
“The Black Queen was here, in the Forest.” I waited, counting seconds, listening for his reply. At last, his presence swept around me, the same feeling when we were sitting in my living room together, that simple pressure that said he was here.
His panic spiked through our connection, matching my own. “Marissa, hang on, I’ll be there—”
“Calm, Mr. Stone.” Grimm cut in on our conversation, something he almost never did. What exactly Liam said in response, I couldn’t hear with Grimm interfering, but Grimm’s side of the conversation came through loud and clear. “I assure you, Marissa is in the safest place possible. She’s in an entirely different realm. Your presence there would not assist her, while it may make the difference here. Please, Marissa, tell him.”
I wanted him there with me. I wanted to hold him and be held. To know that with his love, a few bullets, and a touch of magic, we’d find a way through this. The business side of me cut that desire to shreds. “I’m okay. Take care of the goblins, then take care of me.”
“I want to be with her.” Liam’s passion came through loud and clear, making me almost as happy as holding his hand. “I’m not playing around anymore. Any goblin that looks at me funny gets barbecued.”
Our link cut off, leaving me in the silence of the Forest. Not quite silence. Ari stood on a black stone obelisk, her hands clasped before her, chanting.
“What exactly are you doing?” I walked toward her.
With a wave her hand, a wall of wind pushed me back to the clearing edge. “Stay out of this, Marissa.”
At her feet, the runes carved in the stone lit up, one by one. With a gasp, I recognized the spell. Ari was attempting to open the portal.
“Stop! You can’t even program your DVR, let alone tune a portal.” I pushed my way through her barrier, though it buffeted me like a hurricane gale.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in Fae, M. I listened to everything the Fae Mother said.” Behind Ari, the portal blossomed like a rainbow rose opening. “I don’t have to tune it. Just open it to wherever it went last.”
“Grimm! Stop her!” I shrieked, holding my bracelet and broadcasting to the world. “Ari, stop! You might open a portal straight to the Black Queen.”
Ari opened her eyes for a moment, looking at me with a cold stare that left me frozen. “I know.”
The gale knocked me to my knees as Ari’s portal stabilized. “I don’t understand.”
Ari drew in the last of her magic, and the rush of wind ceased, leaving only the patter of leaves to the earth. “I’m going to fulfill my destiny.”
“Be what you are.” I’d repeated those words so many times, even Ari gave up complaining.
Ari shook her head. “I asked the Fae Mother how to stop the Black Queen, and I understand. I’m the last to challenge her before she is defeated. I’m going to save you.” With those words, Ari turned and walked through her makeshift portal.
The moment Ari left, her spell weakened, becoming nothing more than a strongly worded suggestion that I stay in place. I’d never been one to take suggestions, or commands for that matter. I paced back and forth, and waited for Ari to return. Waited for Grimm to answer me.
The stone slab where she’d summoned her portal stood empty. The light from the portal runes faded as the minutes passed, and the only sound was the occasional crackle of the Forest Seal, which rested in an altar-manger combination you’d never find on a baby registry on Earth.
Every crackle of magic from it reminded me of goblin feet crushing dead leaves. The last thing I needed was a close encounter of the green kind on their home turf, alone. As I glanced about wildly, searching, a flash of light hit me, like a glint from a mirror. When I turned to look at it, I saw nothing, but it hit me again as I scanned the slab. Wincing, I closed my eyes, then peeked out. Like a spot in the corner of my eye, if I looked just right, a beam of light shot out from the portal slab.
When I realized what I was looking at, it took my breath away. Death told me I needed to see, and I did. Through the veil that hid most of the spirit world, I saw where Ari had opened her portal.
And it wasn’t gone.
The last faint echoes of it hung, still outlined in the air. Invisible to human eyes, but maybe—
I sprinted toward the fragmenting vortex of light, curling into a ball as I leaped. My stomach swirled as the portal tore me from the Forest, casting me into the beyond.
I landed shoulder first, rolling onto my back and knocking the breath out of me, but the good news seemed to be that both of my feet, my hands, and all of my fingers made the trip with me. Even better, they weren’t rearranged into some sort of Picasso painting, where I’d pick my nose every time I moved my lips. The lights above looked familiar. Fluorescent.
The carpet underneath felt much too comfortable for the Agency. Grimm never paid for anything but the cheapest remnants available, on account of how often our carpet caught fire, got doused in blood, or transmuted into moss. Light streamed in from stained glass windows, and wooden chairs lay scattered like leaves before me, in a—
“Rise, handmaiden.” A voice like a silver flute, lilting with a French accent, laced with power. “I have awaited you.”
I rolled to my feet and froze.
Twenty feet away stood a face I recognized from a dozen history books. From half a dozen documentaries that showed on the Kingdom Channel late at night. From an oil painting that showed up on my front doorstep, sent by the doorman at the Court of Queens. Her beauty entranced me, regal, unreal. From the gentle sweep of her arms to brown eyes that mesmerized me, everything about her said she was as powerful, as beautiful, and probably even more dangerous than the documentaries claimed.
Her hair hung in long brown tresses to her waist, without the annoying curls that would have turned mine to springs at that length. Her figure, I’d call it killer, as in “that’s got to kill her back.” Like anyone else famous, she wasn’t nearly as tall as pictures made her look.
“Isolde Faron.” I practically spit her name, reaching for my bracelet. “Grimm, she’s here. Time to do your thing.”
The edges of her rose-pink lips curled up. “Yes, Father. Come and rescue your pet. Come and negate my power.”
The bracelet on my arm began to glow, almost white-hot, but Grimm didn’t even appear in the glass windows.
“Is something wrong?” The Black Queen glanced around. “Father, it’s going to be hard to have our family reunion without you present.”
Though my bracelet continued to glow like fire, Grimm showed no signs of coming to my rescue. I looked the Black Queen in the eyes and kept my tone firm. “Where is Ari?”
Isolde stepped to the side, and behind her, Ari hung in midair, spinning lazily like a top. “She challenged me to a contest. She, a peasant’s princess, not even trained.”
“Put her down.” I reached for my purse and the gun inside, realizing too late I’d left it behind in the Forest.
“I won’t let you hurt Ari.” I stepped to one side, watching her turn to face me.
“Take your place at my side, handmaiden, and I will forgive her challenge.”
I looked around, searching for something to throw, something to hit her with. “Not going to happen.”
I know exactly what a tennis ball feels like, when someone lines up and smacks it so hard it breaks the sound barrier. I can’t say what she hit me with, just that I went flying so hard and fast I hit the ground before I had time to flinch.
“You bear my mark.” Isolde appeared at the edge of my vision, gliding toward me like a phantom, staring down at me like Death himself. “You wear my ring. A ring you chose to put on. You declared yourself my handmaiden before the Court of Queens.”
Now, I can explain the mark. That was so not my fault, using the Black Queen’s bones to kill a fairy. The ring, I could almost explain. I really, really needed to get into the Court of Queens. As in, “The world will end if I don’t get in there.” That said, when I did those things, I still believed the Black Queen was dead. Standing before her never appeared anywhere on my “Things Marissa needs to do” list.
I kicked myself to my feet, unwilling to let her stare me down. “You want the ring back, take it.” I’m not entirely crazy. The debate in the Court of Queens over whether or not it was possible for me to be a handmaiden ended with the decision to seal the ring on me, until such time as Isolde took it from me.
I held out my hand, beckoning. “You want it?”
“No, handmaiden.” Isolde shook her head once. “You will be my emissary to the Court of Queens.”
Some people just don’t listen. So I picked up a chair and swung it at her, getting a nice smooth arc that would make a professional wrestler proud.
The chair exploded across her, shattering into a thousand pieces.
She didn’t move. If I’d hit her with a foam bat, I’d have done more. Splinters of wood rained like confetti all around her, and she had the absolute gall to ignore me.
“I don’t force my handmaidens. They come to me willingly.” She raised her hand toward Ari, and Ari convulsed. “I also don’t challenge lesser opponents, but I don’t deny them that right.”
I flung myself at the Black Queen, reaching for hair, clawing at eyes. I’d learned more martial arts than you’d think possible, but all of that was self-defense. In a brawl, a good hair pulling works perfectly well.
From what I could tell, I didn’t fall, the carpet zoomed up to smack me, then bounced me into the air and hit me like a fist again. And the building began to shake.
See, there was this one time when I impersonated a genocidal fairy-tale character and shot up a village full of wolves (in retrospect, it doesn’t sound so great). In the process, I rescued a Fae child, and his mother rewarded me with the worst pets in existence.
The windows split, spiderwebs running through them, and blew inward.
My pets were fifty percent cat, fifty percent ghost, one hundred percent psychotic. Creatures of pure magic, living spells called harakathin, they started out cute and cuddly, like a pirhana. You know how people pick a puppy at the shelter, and a few years later it weighs three hundred pounds and eats ponies?
My harakathin did something like that. The only good thing was the older they got, the less inclined to leave the house they were. Long as we sacrificed a daily can of cat food to them, they were happy. And when people made the mistake of threatening me, my harakathin objected in ways that required replacing the carpet, the windows, and every bone in the person’s body.
A pressure wave burst past me, heading for Isolde.
Where she’d regarded me as nothing more than a nuisance, Isolde glanced at the air above me and switched to a battle stance. Of course she had spirit sight—I’d never seen it mentioned, but from the way her eyes tracked movement, I had no doubts. She held one arm in front of her, and with the other, held a whip of raw magic, which bubbled out of her hand. She lashed out with it, twisting her whip through the air to strike.
I closed an eye and peered through the veil. There, I could see my harakathin. Each stood at least twelve feet tall, with long arms that trailed on the ground. One glowed pure white, the one called blessing. The other, technically a curse, shone with violet light. In my experience, the term blessing or curse was completely arbitrary.
Isolde swung her whip, slicing a cut open across blessing’s chest. A shower of golden sparks trailed to the ground as my pet bled magic, and I winced, losing my tenuous view through the veil. Before me, Isolde twisted and sidestepped, lashing out again and again. A storm gathered on her face with every act, and every time she swung, a hint of fear crept into her eyes. A gash tore open in her dress, and her whip faltered, fading away.
And for one split second, fear found footing in Isolde’s eyes. The carpet rippled toward her, and all sound ceased. My ears rang in the silence.
Then the world breathed out.
At least, that’s the closest I can get to it. Like Isolde had sucked reality itself inside her and blew it out. From the corners of the room, a wail like all the voices of the dead and every wounded cat to ever grace a highway split my ears.
“Oblivion.” Isolde spoke the word, and the air snapped, like static electricity.
I felt them die. My blessings. My pets. Torn away in an instant, blown to shreds by a force of magic so strong, I’d never encountered anything remotely like it. Sharp pain flared inside me as two lives guttered out like candles in a hurricane.
It’s a good thing I was already on my face; I wouldn’t have been able to stand.
Ari’s gasps roused me, choking cries, like a hamster caught in a blender. I pushed up, looking for her, and the spotlight-in-the-eyes hit me again as my vision momentarily aligned with my peephole in the veil. This time, I understood how to use it, tilting my head just so.
If I’d eaten breakfast, I’d have vomited.
In flesh, Isolde resembled the paintings. Breathtaking beauty that seemed to only grow richer each time I looked at her, sleek white skin, and grace I could only dream of.
Through the veil, I saw the truth, a truth that would haunt my nightmares from that moment onward.
Isolde spent a few years trapped in a thorn tree, according to Grimm. Through the veil, I saw that perhaps she’d never truly left it. The best I can do is to say she looked like a thorn tree grew legs, borrowed a set of teeth from a shark, and grafted octopus tentacles into its branches. Actually, any self-respecting octopus would tear those limbs off and take up life as a jellyfish before waving appendages like that.
Ari shone like a spotlight, the source of the beam that caught my attention, golden light like a thousand suns welling up, churning inside her. And then the tentacles wrapped around her, pulling her in, breaking off chunks of light and swallowing them.
I once heard a witch claim the Black Queen could drink souls. Now I no longer considered it a euphemism.
Ari didn’t scream. Her body convulsed in bursts, the guttural moan from her lips telling me she had seconds, maybe less.
“Stop.” I don’t remember making the decision. Just knowing what I had to do. “I’ll do it.”
Ari went stiff, a convulsion gripping her.
Excerpted from "Wish Bound"
Copyright © 2015 J. C. Nelson.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Praise for the Grimm Agency novels
“A fireball of a start to Nelson’s Grimm Agency series.”—Publishers Weekly
“Non-stop action, an awesome cast of characters…An excellent opening to a new series.”—All Things Urban Fantasy
“The plot moved quickly and the pacing was steady, keeping me well entertained, and the characters, specifically Marissa, were fantastic…A good read.”—A Book Obsession
“There is a dark edge to this intriguing tale, lending a sense of gravity to the fantastic happenings taking place. Keep an eye on Nelson!”—RT Book Reviews