Authors: Richelle Mead
Tags: #Romance Speculative Fiction
“Yup. Two big black birds, hovering in the air. They flew over to a corner of the room, and I followed them. I don’t know. Maybe I just didn’t have any other choice. And there, I saw that part of the wall had collapsed and that there was a small opening to the outside. Mae, you have to believe me. I couldn’t see that spot from the bed. There was no way I could’ve known about it without those birds.” His eyes suddenly became wide and desperate.
“I believe you,” she said, not sure if she did.
That seemed to satisfy him, but he still looked anxious and frantic as he dove into the old memories. “I managed to get out of it, though my shirt caught on fire. I had to kind of flounder around to put it out on the ground, but I managed. Got a few burns in the process. I saw a specialist later who was able to fix most of them up without scarring—except this one.”
Justin unbuttoned his shirt and opened it to show her the side of his torso. Mae moved over beside him to look at a spot he pointed to just below his rib cage. There was a scar there, but it was barely visible, just a small mark of raised skin nearly the same color as the rest of him. She wasn’t even sure she would’ve seen it if she wasn’t looking for it. It was
only a few centimeters long. Without thinking, she touched it with her fingertip and traced its odd shape. They weren’t perfectly straight, but she could make out a vertical line that had two shorter lines extending from its top at a downward diagonal. It reminded her of a slanting
. He tensed at her touch, and without thinking, she splayed her fingers and rested her palm on his skin. It was warm and smooth, and a jolt of memories went through her. She jerked back.
“No problem.” He buttoned the shirt back up.
There was a weird moment of awkwardness between them, and she tried to remember the narrative. “So you made it out of the fire?”
“Not exactly.” He fell back into the stride of his story. “It was just as bad outside. We were by some woods, and it was almost impossible to make anything out. It was the middle of the night, and there was no moon, like in the dream. The smoke didn’t help. There was more light near the front of the inn, but that’s where most of those zealots were. Apparently they’d had more followers than we realized in the initial arrest. I started moving blindly into the woods, but one of them saw me and yelled for his colleagues. I ran but couldn’t see where I was going and could hear them approaching. That’s when I started following the ravens.”
“The ones who showed you the opening in the wall.”
“Yes. It was weird too—and not just because I was following two birds that had appeared out of nowhere. I mean, it was dark out, and they were black, but somehow I knew where they were going. They took me through this crazy convoluted path in the woods, finding openings in the trees I never could have seen on my own. I lost the pursuit, and after what seemed like forever, I emerged out near this road…just as some police and fire trucks were coming by. And the ravens vanished.”
Mae didn’t know what to make of the raven part, but the rest was certainly amazing. “You got lucky.”
He nodded. “Very. They got me back to civilization and caught the remaining members. Bruno—my security guy—got fired. I went back to the office and wrote up the report on what had happened. I didn’t say anything about the dream…but I did mention the ravens.”
Mae couldn’t respond. Bad enough for a servitor to harbor beliefs in the supernatural. But to write them up in an official report?
“I described how they’d led me places I couldn’t have known about and how they appeared and disappeared out of thin air. I didn’t even try to find a reason for it. I just wrote, ‘Perhaps there are supernatural forces in the world we can’t rule out.’ Cornelia wrote those same words on her note in Panama.”
Mae made the connection. “The letter I delivered.”
“Yup. It was Cornelia’s sign that the offer to come back was authentic. She wasn’t very happy about it at the time of the report, though. You wouldn’t believe all the shit I got from others. A servitor acknowledging something supernatural in an official report. My whole job is to show that stuff is make-believe and that those who subscribe to it are deluded. They berated me to redact it. They threw all sorts of theories at me, about how I’d mistaken things in the dark or that the ravens were just products of my subconscious showing me things I already knew. It would’ve been easy to delete it too. One line, Mae. One line, and it would’ve all gone away. But I just couldn’t do it.”
“Because you couldn’t explain what you saw.”
“Well, that, and because the ravens never left me.”
She waited for more, but it didn’t come. “You said they vanished.”
“They did—in physical form. But they went in here.” He tapped his head. “They live here in my mind. I don’t see them, not exactly, but I feel them there. They’re with me all the time. They
to me. They want me to swear fealty to their god, but I dodged it with a, uh, technicality.”
“Justin…” Mae was floored. She had no ability to deal with something like this, except to suggest he completely stop all drugs and alcohol. Her earlier outrage was gone. Now she felt sorry for him. “You can’t…you must be mistaken. You went through a lot. If you thought you saw them that night, then maybe you…I don’t know. Maybe you convinced yourself they were real and just developed some kind of…” She hated to use the word, but there was no other. “Delusion.”
He collapsed back against the bed and laughed without much humor. “Oh, believe me. You have no idea how many times I told myself that. How many times I still tell myself that. I didn’t mention that in the report,
though. I wasn’t that crazy. That one line got me into enough trouble, enough to get me exiled. Imprisoning me was too dangerous. What if I told someone else about what I’d seen—or thought I saw? They just had to get rid of me, get me away from honest Gemmans altogether. Three days after I filed that report, I got a military escort to the airport and was told to pick a place to go. ‘Anywhere but here,’ they said.”
There was an earnestness in his face and more of that desperation from earlier. Whatever was going on here, Justin believed it was true. Mae didn’t. She couldn’t because she didn’t believe the world had things without explanation.
“Justin, I don’t know what to say.”
“You think I’m crazy. I’ve thought about it myself.”
“No…I think you’re dedicated and astute and actually kind of brilliant. But you went through a lot.”
“The ravens are real,” he said adamantly. “I don’t understand the how or the why, but they’re real. I denied it for a long time, but they’ve been with me for four years. They know things that I couldn’t possibly know.”
Just because something had been with you for four years didn’t mean it was real. If anything, Mae just thought it was proof of a serious problem. Unwilling to say so, she switched subjects as a realization hit her. “SCI already knows about your beliefs.”
“Well, not all of them.”
“But the report is why Cornelia wanted you back?”
“It’s why Francis did,” Justin said. “They don’t understand the video, and he must’ve read the report. He’s a believer in something—I can spot that stuff—and figured maybe the only servitor who has gone on record contradicting his job’s premise might be able to do something on a case that defies the RUNA’s founding principles. That, and I’ve seen other things….”
“Things I can’t explain. Feats of power. People like Callista.”
Mae didn’t really find Callista to be proof of a higher power. “What’s so special about her?”
He studied her. “You don’t see it? It’s hard for me sometimes, I guess.
Some can hide it. But there are people out there who sometimes shine with power. Every once in a while, if I look just right, I can make it out.”
The words sent chills down her spine. “What kind of power?”
“I don’t know. Callista was the first person I ever saw who manifested that—and it freaked me out. I didn’t know what to do. It was why I didn’t write her up.”
“Was that why you slept with her?” Mae asked archly.
“I slept with her because she was hot and wanted me. Maybe we’re dealing with the supernatural, but
still human. I never told Cornelia about Callista, but I occasionally hinted at some of the other things I saw—off the record. Cornelia told me to forget about them and didn’t seem to think they were a big deal, at least until I put one of them in writing.”
Mae mulled over the subtext. “Are you saying the head of SCI believes there are higher powers at work in the world?”
“I don’t know if she believes in them, but she knows the reports are out there. And even if she doesn’t like it—or me—I’m here because they’re grasping at straws.”
Numbed, Mae lay down beside him and stared at the ceiling. Such an amazing mind…bogged down by delusion. It was a pity. But then, after what he’d gone through, how could he not be scarred? Which now left her with a problem. What did she do with everything she’d learned? Because she’d learned
. There was an unlicensed cult stockpiling weapons in Mazatlán, as well as a priestess with information about other unlicensed groups. There was a servitor who believed he had supernatural creatures living in his mind and who had all but admitted to a belief in gods interfering in mortal lives. Of course, if what he’d said was true, SCI might already know where his beliefs were…but did they realize the extent? Would they care? They would probably care that he wasn’t reporting dangerous factions.
“What are you going to do?” asked Justin quietly, guessing her thoughts.
“I don’t know.”
“Horatio tells me you have a lot of control right now.”
“One of the ravens.”
“That’s his name?” she asked. “Horatio?”
“I didn’t give it to him. The other’s Magnus. But he’s right. You can make or break me, Mae.”
She pondered it for several more moments. “I want you to break this case. And right now, no matter how, um, confused you are, I still think you’re the only one who can do it.”
He turned to her and smiled. “You’ve got a lot of faith in me.”
“Faith in your powers of observation and deduction. I don’t know about the rest.” Some of Callista’s words came back to her. “What did Callista mean when she was asking who’d chosen you? Did she mean the ravens?”
“No.” His smile faded. “According to them, they’re just the messengers—of the god I gave the apple to. I’m supposed to follow him.”
She caught the wording. “Are you saying you don’t?”
“I’m saying I’ve found a few loopholes in the agreement that night that have spared me from officially signing on with this god who’s claimed me.”
“You really believe there’s one?”
“I believe there’s something interfering in my life.” He paused. “And in yours.”
Mae jerked upright. “No. Do not bring that up.”
He sat up as well. “Mae, maybe you can doubt me, but you can’t ignore what happened tonight. Didn’t you feel it? During the fight? I could see it! There was something with you, something spurring you on. You’re one of the elect.”
“Someone a god has staked out and chosen. You’ve got one following you, and Callista’s right. It’s a hell of a lot more dangerous than my ravens.”
“Nothing’s following me or choosing me or whatever you insane people want to believe,” she exclaimed. No way would she tell him how terrifying that knife fight had been—terrifying and exhilarating to have that tremendous, dark power filling her and driving her, making her invincible.
“You saw the implant in action, that’s all. It has that effect in battle sometimes. All the chemicals get churning and—”
“That wasn’t the implant. And I’m pretty sure the implant didn’t protect you from Golden Arrow’s drug either. I think that was your unwelcome patron. Leo said you shouldn’t have been that impervious.”
“Leo can’t figure out that faked video,” she retorted. “He’s not the genius you think.”
Justin was surprisingly calm. “Mae, I know you can feel it. I’ve seen the fear in you afterward—and I’ve seen
. This thing that wants you to serve it. And when we were in the Lady of the Book’s temple, the ravens say another god made a play for you. They say you’re the kind of person that gods want to—”
“No more.” Mae scooted off the bed and stood up. She’d hoped he’d forgotten about the statue, but she should’ve known better. Crazy or not, he didn’t forget anything. “Justin, I’m not going to report you. And I’ll accept without protest that you believe what you’ve seen is real. But don’t drag me into your philosophies. There’s nothing you can say that’s going to convince me of magic powers in the world. There might be…there might be something wrong with me, something biological. But that’s for me and a psychiatrist to work out—not a god. I don’t believe in them. I can’t. I’ve seen too many horrors in this world to think any deity could willingly allow such things. Please don’t bring this up again.”
His dark eyes held her in deep thought, but she couldn’t read him. At last, he sank back into the bed. “Okay.”
“Thank you. And thank you for talking to me.” She glanced at the time and winced in sympathy. Not everyone could forgo sleep. “Get some rest. We’ve got a long trip tomorrow. At least you can sleep on the plane.”
He nodded, looking as though he might fall asleep before she cleared the room. His eyelids started to droop and then blinked open. “Oh, hey. Can you do me a favor? One that has nothing whatsoever to do with…any of this?”
“What is it?” she asked warily.
“You think when we get back home, you could go get your uniform and come over to my place?”
Mae made no effort to hide her surprise at the bizarre topic change. “Why would I do that?”
“Tessa’s got a date today. Er, tomorrow. Whatever. You hang out with me in black while I meet him, scare the hell out of him, and we won’t have anything to worry about.”
A sickening feeling welled up in Mae. “No. Absolutely not.”
“After everything else that’s happened, is it that big a deal?”
“It’s wasteful,” she said, mustering as much scorn as she could to hide her sadness over her ban from wearing the uniform. “I’m not putting on the uniform of the RUNA’s greatest military branch for your own amusement. You should be ashamed for asking.”