Mae must have entered the circle beside him when Nick had entered his, but Nick had no awareness of her now. Partners or not, she would dance or fall on her own.
The drums surged and pounded in his temples, and he stepped along the lines for communication. The lines of traveling began to whirl as if they really were the spokes of a wheel, and he had to keep up with them. There was a cold, well-known touch all along his side, a seductive and almost familiar voice whispering to him, and in his other ear the call of “Come buy!” spiked into an appeal to stay, a promise of warmth in this world. He side-stepped neatly, never going too far to meet the demons; he twisted and spun in the center of sound and color and set lines.
There were thin screams of approval all around him. Arms reached out for him. Some were human, and he let them reach him. They pressed warm hands against his body, against his face, and the fever fruit was pressed again to his lips. He bit down and the world was bright around him, like a glass sculpture on the very edge of a mantelpiece, catching the light before it fell. He put his body between the worlds, threw back his head and put the straining muscles of his shoulders, the twisting strength of his hips, put his heart and his clenched hands at the service of the demon, and then held firm.
Nick always had to wait for his partner to catch up. He waited with his heart slamming against his chest and his throat raw with every breath, the world in a glow from fever fruit.
For a moment all he registered was that Mae was doing well for a beginner. Her steps along the weaving were sure, and she was making the right gestures of offering and appeal. Then he saw the fall of her skirt against her leg, the gleam of the chain around her stomach in the firelight. He saw her hands sliding like a lover’s hands down her own throat as she tipped her head back, and he realized that he could want her, after all.
He realized that he did want her.
There was no time to think about that, since at the point where their two circles intersected there was a cold light burning, racing along the patterns of the weaving but growing stronger and stronger at the point where it had started. Until the light gave birth to a dull red bonfire, and at the center of the red chill a shape formed.
Anzu was taking the shape of a man today, though there was a suggestion of the eagle in the curve of his nose, a glint and pattern like crimson feathers about his golden hair. The fair skin he had chosen to wear was reddened by the dull glow of the fire around him, and when he lifted his eyes to Nick’s face, they were enormous, and clear as water.
Nick saw his own face reflected in those e Stedormyes, black eyes and black hair, a face far colder and more grim than the demon’s face before him. That was Anzu’s intention, of course.
“Nick, isn’t it?” Anzu asked, pronouncing Nick’s name as if it was rather a good joke. “Well, well. Dancing again, are we?”
“Our pair danced for you and you fed off their feelings. You owe us some service, Anzu,” said Alan.
Anzu peered out past the circle. “Ah,” he said, looking even more amused. “It’s Alan, isn’t it? The one who knows so much. What service do you require?”
A new voice broke through the sound of drums and the sizzle of the flame.
“I want to save my brother,” said Mae, clear and confident. “He has a third-tier mark. How can I do that?”
Anzu laughed. “You can’t,” he answered. “He’s ours now. It’s only a matter of time.” His great glass-colored eyes traveled to Jamie’s face. “So young,” he remarked, smiling wickedly at Mae. “We do like them young.”
He turned and grinned at Nick. Nick saw sparks pinwheel around Anzu’s head and take flight in the shape of tiny birds.
Alan hesitated, his face grave, but Nick’s brother knew better than to leave a pause for a demon to misinterpret.
“I have a first-tier mark,” he said quietly. “Can you remove it?”
“Oh, of course,” Anzu replied. “Washing you clean would be my pleasure. Can’t have you leaving that little family of yours. What would they do without you? Put the mark in the flame.”
Alan knelt with some difficulty on the grass and rolled up his jeans. He extended his leg into the circle, making sure it was lifted well above the pattern of the weaving, and held it in the center of the fire.
The fire did not burn him, but its sullen glow lit up his leg so the first mark stood out dark against his skin, the two slashes forming a doorway. The shadows lurking in them were so deep that it looked like they were welling with fresh blood.
“Hmm,” said Anzu. “That’s interesting.”
Alan’s voice was clipped. “Explain.”
“Oh — it’s nothing,” Anzu said. “Only that your mark”—he nodded to Alan—“and the young thing’s mark were made by the same Circle. The Obsidian Circle. And they were made by the same demon.”
“What does that mean?” Alan demanded.
“A small thing,” Anzu told him. “It means that if you agreed, I could transfer one of the young thing’s marks onto you instead. That would mean you would both be bearing a second-tier mark, which still means death for someone. If you caught and sacrificed two magicians of the Obsidian Circle, then you would both live. It is the only chance the boy has, but it would be a terrible risk for you to take.” Anzu waved a careless hand, fingers blending into the flame. Nick could almost see talons. “Forget I mentioned it.”
“Wait,” said Alan.
Nick had kissed the speaking charm and given his voice into Alan’s keeping a hundred times, and he had never missed his voice. It was almost peaceful, having no words, having Alan speak for them both, but now Nick had something to say. It felt as if smoke had got caught in his throat, or the lack of words was scorching him. He moved his mouth, moved his tongue with a painful effort, and found his whole body empty of words when he needed them most.
Mae had words. She looked at Alan and she said simply, “Please.”
Nick knew that while he was within the circle, Anzu could feel a little of what he felt. Even though Nick could not speak, even though he knew that his own face rarely betrayed much emotion, Anzu looked at Nick as Mae spoke and Nick was sure Anzu knew everything Nick could not say. In turn, Nick thought he could feel just a touch of the demon’s malicious delight.
No, Nick thought, his whole body thrumming with that single word. He wanted to shout it. No.
Alan cleared his throat and said, “All right.”
Still looking at Nick, still grinning, Anzu reached out one of those hands that blurred into talons, and with a talon he stabbed Alan three times as deep as he could.
He drew the second mark, which meant death, onto the skin of Nick’s brother.
The Hunt Begins
AS SOON AS THE BALEFIRE DIED AND THE DEMON WENT down in smoke, Nick broke out of the circle in one stride. He was beside Alan in another step, one fist clenched in Alan’s shirt and one closing around the speaking charm. He ripped the charm violently from Alan’s neck and took a savage satisfaction in seeing the thin red line spring up on Alan’s skin when the chain broke.
He stamped on the shell and felt as if he had bitten his tongue and blood was filling his mouth, slipping down his throat. Only instead of blood, it was his voice.
Now that he could speak, he found he had nothing to say. It was done.
Nick shoved Alan away, sending him stumbling back into the ash and the broken pattern of the demon’s circle. Alan was easy to throw off balance. If Nick had thrown him back with any more force, he would have fallen, and if he’d fallen, Nick might have kicked him when he was down.
A crowd of people had gathered to watch the dance, and now they were all gaping like the idiots they were. Even those idiots were not stupid enough to get in Nick’s way. He stormed forward, and they scattered in all directions before him. He plunged into the depths of the wood, away from the noise and lights of the Goblin Market into a raging darkness. Branches caught in the night wind whipped at him, twigs raking his face.
There was a sharp burn in the corner of one eye and a trail of heat down his cheek. Of course, it was blood.
Nick wiped at his eye and saw the lurid smear of blood on his knuckles, red even in the darkness. He wanted every trace of the fever fruit burned out of his system. The fruit made even this dark wood too bright. It made the wind and shadows into whispers and lurking thorns.
He turned at every sound, wanting to lash out at something, but nobody was stupid enough to follow him. He was surprised when he heard the unmistakable sound behind him, a sound not of wind or branches but of a step, and he realized that somebody had been stupid enough to follow him, after all.
He wheeled around and it was not Alan.
It was Mae, coming toward him with her eyes wide and her whole face luminous with emotion. At first Nick thought she was just happy. She had every reason to be happy, after all, since Nick’s stupid brother had removed her stupid brother from immediate danger by risking himself.
Then he remembered the fever fruit.
Mae’s eyes were a little too wide, her pupils dilated. Nick remembered how the world was after that first taste, how everything was magnified and glowing, every color breaking in on you like light, and every thought like a revelation.
“What do you want?” Nick snapped.
Mae’s lips were slightly parted and quivering. She licked them, and with that fevered sharpness Nick saw the place on her mouth where her tongue had rubbed away the lip gloss.
She came closer, put out her hand, and pushed Nick against a tree. Her lips quivered again, and she spoke.
“I want,” said Mae, offering up her mouth. “Oh, I want…”
She lifted her free hand to pull Nick’s head down, fingers knotted in his hair. Nick remembered, with a vividness born of the fever fruit, the curve of Mae’s h*ps dancing. He could want her.
Alan wanted her too. This would hurt Alan, and after Alan’s little stunt Nick liked the idea of hurting him.
Nick seldom said no to a girl, and he had never done so in circumstances like these, with the lights of the Goblin Market glimpsed like far-off lightning behind her and her trembling mouth an inch from his.
Nick touched her for the first time.
He took hold of her shoulders and pushed her away. Then he leaned forward and whispered into her ear.
“You’d want anyone right now.”
He let his lips touch her ear and when he drew back, she did not look angry, only dazed and uncomprehending.
He left her. He did not want to run, because that would have looked like fear or some other ridiculous thing, so he loped through the woods, going easily, knowing that when he walked fast no girl and no crippled idiot could catch him. He held his hands clenched in fists, but he did not hit out at any thorns.
When black night was touched with the cold, unfriendly blue of coming morning, Nick went back.
The Goblin Market was in the process of being packed away. The remnants of the stalls stood forlorn as their owners stored their wares in boxes, and the few customers left lingered uneasily around the debris of magic.
The others were standing in the center of the clearing, near a fortune-telling stall. Jamie was looking uneasily around and saw him at once. Mae was leaning against Alan, cheek pressed against his shoulder. As Nick came toward them, she made a determined effort to twine herself around Alan and turned her face up to his.
It seemed that, indeed, anyone would do.
Alan stooped and gave her a soft kiss, light, but enough to show her she was not being rejected.
“No, Mae, I really can’t. It would be taking advantage,” Alan was saying.
The fortune-teller picked this unfortunate moment to lean over her stall and pluck at Nick’s sleeve.
Her crystal ball, left out in forlorn hope, stared up at Nick as if the woman had a huge third eye cupped between her palms. In the crystal depths, luminous points of green spiked like a tiny forest; above the green, streams of iridescent blue were looped like ribbons.