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Orange was so not her color.
Felicity Shaltis knew this, knew it even as she slipped the purloined key into the heavy antique lock and committed her first felony. The knowledge made her hands shake, but it didn't stop her. She couldn't stop; all she could do was hope she went to one of those progressive Canadian prisons where they let the inmates wear blue. Or black. She looked decent in black.
If she got lucky, maybe Ella would visit her.
Ella Harrow: long-lost college pal, kindred spirit, and—Fil was beginning to think—possible art thief. It was Ella who had steered Fil down this new road to a life of crime, and she had managed it with one phone call—one request for a seemingly trivial favor. At the time, Fil hadn't seen the harm in helping her old friend locate a gargoyle statue similar to the one that had made the news when it had disappeared from the museum where Ella worked. Now Fil wasn't so sure.
Of course, if Fil had stopped at revealing the statue's location to her old friend, she might have gotten off easy as a simple accessory. But, no. She could hardly continue to call herself an accessory to a theft when she was the one committing unauthorized entry, criminal trespass, and what she herself could only term felony stupidity, all because she couldn't get that damned sculpture out of her mind.
Around her, the grounds of the Abbaye Saint-Thomas l'Apôst lay in quiet contemplation under a blanket of stars. On this hill above the bustling center of Montreal, the lighting was dim enough that she could actually see the bright twinkling, especially given the lack of moon. But Fil still felt as if there were a Broadway spotlight shining directly on top of her.
Hurrying, she fumbled and cursed, then heaved a grateful sigh when the ancient, rusty lock finally disengaged. Easing the door open, she squeezed through the bare minimum of space and quickly closed it again, sealing herself in the rear of the abbey's old chapter house. Before she so much as had the chance to draw breath, her gaze moved involuntarily to fixate on the limestone giant in the center of the chilly room.
Her heartbeat quickened.
In the back of her mind, her rational self kicked and screamed and called her all sorts of really quite hurtful names, but Fil ignored them. To be honest, she barely heard them. Her ears rang with a strange, powerful buzzing noise, and her focus had condensed down into a kind of tunnel vision. The rest of reality faded away, leaving just the statue and the surge of adrenaline that propelled her toward it.
She'd experienced this same weirdness the first time she'd seen the sculpture, but she'd tried to ignore it. That glimpse had been brief, just enough for her to report back to Ella that she had verified the item's existence and its location.
Even then, she'd felt an odd compulsion to look closer, to stare, even to touch, but it had been the middle of the day, and the abbey had buzzed with the activity of employees and tourists. Even behind the scenes in the storage areas only someone with her credentials could easily gain access. Fil had forced herself to leave, to push the fascination to the back of her mind and go about her business.
That had been two and a half days ago. By this afternoon, she'd felt like a junkie detoxing from a long and brutal high. Her skin had buzzed and crawled, her attention had constantly wandered, and she'd vibrated with some kind of restless energy that had urged her—hell, it had compelled her—to return to the abbey, to get one more look at the statue that had her old friend in what had sounded like a heck of a tizzy.
Shadows drifted past Fil as she slowly crossed the room. In the dark silence, even the cushy rubber soles of her boots made quiet padding noises against the polished marble tiles. The stillness made her soft breaths echo in her own ears, but she continued to move forward. She couldn't stop.
Maybe she should have asked Ella a few more questions when her friend had first called, part of Fil acknowledged. Maybe her friend knew something about the statue that would explain this weird power it seemed to have over her. Then again, how exactly would Fil have phrased that question?
So this gargoyle you're looking for, she could imagine herself saying. It wouldn't happen to have freaky magical powers, or the ability to devour human souls, would it?
Sure. That would have made her sound perfectly sane.
Of course, there was always the possibility that insanity would serve her well when she went on trial. Maybe if she pulled it off, the judge would just lock her in a loony bin for a couple of years instead of throwing her into prison.
Look on the bright side, right?
Insanity might be the only logical explanation for why she was here, creeping illegally around a semi-operational historic monastery in the dead of night just to get a private, uninterrupted look at a piece of art that really wasn't all that artful.
Medievalism had never been a favorite style of Fil's. As a professional art restorationist, she'd studied or worked on creations from various historical eras, though admittedly her work focused on paintings, rather than sculpture.
Still, even paintings from the medieval era didn't float her boat. The figures were too stylized; they lacked the realism and dimension that the Renaissance had brought to the medium. And while she was hardly an expert in sculpture of the period, even less in architectural statuary, she'd never been a fan. Religious figures, gargoyles, and grotesques, she thought, looked fine on Gothic cathedrals, but she'd always spent more time looking at the murals inside the buildings than the carvings outside.
So why did this one seem to have captured all her attention?
She approached the base of the statue, the enormous hunk of slate-colored granite that served as the figure's pedestal, and wished she dared to turn on the lights. Better not to advertise her presence, but there was barely enough illumination coming in through the room's stained-glass windows to navigate through the dark. She felt like one giant stubbed toe just waiting to happen.
Her eyes had adjusted as well as they were likely to, so Fil circled the stone platform, trying to find the angle that shed the most light on the subject of her fascination. She found it mostly by accident, when she tripped over her own feet and caught herself by shooting a hand out to brace against the granite. Instinctively, her gaze flicked up, and she stared right into the figure's smooth, blank eyes.
Darkness hid the fine details from her, but she could make out the sharp angles of a square jaw and high, slanted cheekbones. The artist had posed his subject more like a classical archangel than a monstrous demon, slim hips clad in the kind of paneled kilt most often seen in gladiator movies, his body poised straight and tall with a spear held in one hand. He looked like Michael poised for battle, the way she'd seen the head of God's armies depicted in a thousand Italian masterpieces.
You know, if she ignored the claws. And the fangs. And the way his legs, jointed like a stag's, ended in giant raptor's talons. Just those few, pesky details.
Even the statue's enormous, mostly furled wings appeared more angelic than demonic. Heavily creased and carved as if to denote the presence of feathers, the top joints rose above the figure's head while the trailing ends rested on the pedestal by its heels. She imagined that if the things had been real, the way they stirred the air would have more in common with a tornado than a gentle spring breeze.
Whatever church or fortress this guy had once protected, Fil figured it had stayed safe and sound from the forces of evil. Unless, of course, evil had been really, really stupid.
The itching in her palms intensified, until it felt more like a burning than anything else. She rubbed the skin together to try to ease the sensation, but it didn't help; nothing did. Not until she reached out and laid her palm flat against the cool, smooth stone.
Fil jerked at the contact, an involuntary gasp torn from her lips. It felt like she'd just licked a nine-volt battery, the sweet shock of electricity making her pulse race. And didn't that just add to the bizarreness of this whole situation? Not only was she inexplicably drawn to an inanimate hunk of stone, but said hunk made her feel like she'd just plugged into an electrical outlet designed specifically for her. There had to be a reason for it, for all of it. She just wasn't sure she was going to like it.
You have to look. The little voice in her head sounded too much like an obnoxious younger sibling to be ignored, and Fil should know; she'd been trying for years to pretend her instincts didn't yammer at her all the live-long day. There's only one logical explanation. You know that. This statue has to be special. Now take a look, and see.
The tight clenching beneath her breastbone should have been enough proof of what was going on, but Fil looked anyway. Taking a deep breath, she briefly closed her eyes so that she could open her sight. When she lifted her lids, the truth shone back at her.
The sculpture glowed.
It didn't cast a single shadow, and it didn't make anything else in the room easier to see, because the only one who would be able to detect the light was Fil. At least she assumed so; she'd lived for twenty-seven years, after all, and she'd never met a single other person with a talent quite like hers.
Fil could "see" energy. She'd heard some people call it seeing auras, but she didn't like that term. The energy she saw wasn't the normal kind that surrounded every living thing in some sort of ethereal nimbus of colored light. She could see that if she wanted to, but she'd learned almost before she could read that blocking out that kind of everyday energy was the best way to stay sane.
No, what Fil saw when she lowered her barriers and looked was special energy, the kind that not everyone had; and she saw it in things, too, like the statue. She'd never quite decided what to call it, mostly settling on energy for lack of a better term, but it was the stuff that emanated from unusual people and objects—people like her friend Ella, who had always struggled so hard to hold it back.
People like herself, if she bothered to look in a mirror, or her grandmother's elderly aunt, who had always known who was coming to the door before the bell rang. The energy came from people with special abilities, and very rarely it came from an object with a special history.
She'd seen it come from objects only a couple of times in her life. Once it had clung to a blessed crucifix that her grandmother's mother had brought with her to Canada when her family had fled Lithuania. The silver necklace had shone gently, even in the pitch dark, making Fil rethink her brief foray into atheism.
The second time she had seen the energy, she'd been making her way slowly through an exhibit at the British Museum, viewing items unearthed from an ancient Saxon burial hoard. The medallion had been carved with beautiful images of horses and hounds, and the etched lines had given off a light so brightly golden that she'd nearly reached for her sunglasses before coming to her senses and closing off that inner eye of hers.
Neither of those objects had glowed like this statue.
It wasn't the volume of the blue-white light that had Fil's breath catching in her throat; it was the intensity. Somehow this light felt almost powerful. She couldn't think of the words to describe it, but despite its relative dimness, it seemed to vibrate or pulse with restrained force.
Shifting her fingers, Fil realized the tingling in her palms had faded and the buzzing drone in her ears had stopped as if it had never been there. Suddenly she could hear everything: the soft puffs of her own breath, the tapping of a tree branch against one of the far windows. The rustling of fabric against fabric near the entry door.
Realization slammed down like a hammer. She was no longer alone.
She spun into a half crouch, ready to flee in a rush of pure animal instinct. Her gaze had no trouble picking out the source of her panic, mostly because he, too, lit up against the shadows. Unlike the icy blue of the statue's light, though, the stranger glowed with a sick, muddy-red color that pulsed and throbbed like an open wound in the darkness. The color hit Fil's senses like a bad smell, making her lip curl and her throat tighten. Whoever this was, he had not a single good intention. Quite possibly, he never had.
"Well." The low hiss cut through the stillness and raised the hairs on the back of Fil's neck. "I hadn't planned on another little thief in the night here. But no matter. I'll be long gone by the time anyone finds a body in the rubble."
Fil couldn't tell if the dark figure was talking to her or to himself, but it didn't matter. She was moving before the question had time to form. Instinct pushed her forward, fast, and she ducked around the corner of the gargoyle's pedestal at a velocity she hadn't achieved since she'd gotten her last speeding ticket.
Light flashed in the shadows near where the stranger had spoken, and in the next instant the marble sill of the window just beyond where Fil had stood a second before shattered and crumbled to the ground.
Holy shit! Was the guy packing a grenade launcher?
She pressed her back against the cool stone of the pedestal and decided maybe prison didn't sound so bad after all. At least if she were in prison, she'd be alive, and out of this maniac's line of fire.
"Hmm, another surprise." The voice grated like metal on china. "I don't think I like surprises. How did you see that coming, little girl? Is there anything you'd like to tell me about yourself? Hmmm?"
The words ended on a high, sharp giggle that made Fil's stomach lurch. Seriously, this guy sounded like a certifiable psycho lunatic. Maybe she should think about calling it a night here and heading home, freaky-compelling statue be damned.
Too bad Mr. Crazypants was blocking the only doorway out. He moved farther into the room but kept himself between Fil and the exit.
"The Hierophant only told me to smash the Guardian," the stranger mused aloud. He seemed happy enough talking to himself—or maybe his imaginary friend—and Fil had no intention of making herself easier to find by engaging the nutjob in conversation. "He never mentioned I might find a prize to bring him. No, no, no. But yes! Bring the man a prize and win a prize myself! If he's pleased, he might ask the Master to reward me."
Okay, it was one thing to read about people with serious mental illnesses, and another still to see them in documentaries on television; but to have one stalking her in real life was a bit more than Fil had bargained for. This man scared her—his voice, his actions, his aura, that not-in-any-conceivable-way-right laugh, they all set her nerves on edge. In a flash of insight she understood—all the way to her toes—where the term spine-chilling had come from. She felt like someone had just replaced her cerebral spinal fluid with ice water.
"Little girl," the man called, his voice singsong and creepy beyond measure. "Come out, little girl. I've got a piece of candy for you."
That sent him into a fit of giggles that had Fil's stomach churning inside her.
"Candy is dandy, little girl. Or maybe—" He paused, and she could hear the faint whisper of movement. When he spoke again, the sound was closer. "Maybe you're a little mouse, skittering through the dark looking for crumbs."
Holding her breath, Fil eased to the side and caught a glimpse of the muddy-rusty glow emanating from the stranger. He had definitely gotten closer, but he was sticking to the sides of the room, keeping the thick stone walls at his back. She realized that the faint rustling sound she heard from him came from the long, dark costume he wore, a fall of voluminous fabric like a monk's robes. It disguised his shape and, Fil realized, could have obscured any number of things in its folds. Hell, the man actually could be packing a grenade launcher under that thing, and she'd never be able to tell.
The madman moved again, and she ducked back behind her cover. The guy was getting closer all the time. Fat lot of good it did her, though. Insane the man might be, but he was clever enough to approach on the side closest to her hiding place. She still couldn't get to the door without passing way too close to him for comfort.
Bugger. How did she always manage to get herself into these positions?
The man giggled again. "A little church mouse. That's it. Mice don't want candy. Church mouse wants cheese! Come out, come out, little mouse, and Henry will give you a nice big chunk of cheese to nibble on. Hee hee!"
Fil shivered. This just kept getting better and better.
She gathered herself into a crouch, keeping her legs under her so she could move fast if she got the chance. Up, down, sideways, through a dimensional portal, she didn't much care which direction at the moment. The only way that mattered was away. Leaning forward, she reassessed the situation.
She could see the man lit by his aura of twisted menace standing in front of an alcove approximately twenty-five feet ahead of her and to the right. The gargoyle loomed between them, offering Fil a decent amount of cover for the moment, but she knew it wouldn't last, especially if the lunatic took another shot at her.
Part of her wanted to pretend that the man had blasted in her direction with some kind of weapon, like a pistol or a sawed-off shotgun—or a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, given the crater in the windowsill—but she knew better. A couple of quick glimpses of that nasty light swirling around him told her that the only thing the crazy man had attempted to harm her with was magic.
And wasn't that just a kick in the teeth?
Of all the special abilities Fil had glimpsed in the auras of the people she met, she'd never seen anything quite like this. She'd never seen energy used as a weapon before. She hadn't known it was possible. Ella's abilities might have been the closest to this stranger's, but whatever Ella had, she'd never discussed it with Fil, and it had always appeared to come from inside her somewhere, as if it were woven into the fabric of her being. This man's aura was rooted inside him, but like some kind of invasive plant species it grew out of control the minute it pushed past the surface. It twined around him, feeding not on the faint bits of rust-colored light that surrounded him, but on the darkness.
The wrongness of it seeped into Fil's bones and made her shudder. She had to get out of here. If the loon kept circling, she might be able to seize a second's worth of opportunity. Gathering herself into a desperate ball of fear and muscle, she prepared to make a break for it.
"Naughty, naughty, stubborn little mousy. If I can't charm you out, I suppose I'll have to harm you out. Ha!"
Instinct sent her flying, helped along by a hefty shot of adrenaline. She leapt not back under cover but forward, throwing herself out of the firing line of the man's next bolt of malevolent energy. She could almost swear she felt it singe the soles of her boots before it blasted off the corner of the gargoyle statue's enormous pedestal.
And then the world shifted, because the statue suddenly stopped being a statue. In its place stood a seven-foot-tall stone-skinned warrior with a spear in his hand and fire in his eyes. The creature spread his wings and let out a bellow that knocked Fil straight onto her ass and made the crazy stalker across from her scream like a little girl.
Hm, Fil thought hazily as the world went a little bit fuzzy, I wonder if they'll let me have paints and canvas in the psych ward?
Copyright © 2014 by Christine Warren