Lydia’s eyes stung beneath her lashes, even as she squeezed them shut against the greasy layer of concealer and cold cream that slid off her skin and swirled like milk-drowned coffee into the shower drain, carrying the tension of her day in disguise along with it.
The first day back to the mundane world was always hard, but this . . . While Lydia was no stranger to death, no Sister of the Forest could be, there was a difference between death—clean, sharp, and cold—and hot, wet murder. One carried the sharpness and clarity of pine and snow, of blue skies and the cry of the hawk at dusk. The slaughter of the Maitresse brought with it only the stench of copper and filth. Even now the odor of rot seemed to rise on the steam around her as the grisly scene returned to her mind, and Lydia scrubbed at the tinted chemicals concealing her true skin a little harder.
The wolf that lay across her back—the Companion even most mages assumed was an elaborate tattoo—whined and nipped at her neck. She forced herself to be calm again. She whispered soothing words to it, sluicing warm water over its face, and felt the wolf subside, wriggling across her skin, content to roll and stretch in the beautiful woods her sisters had made for it, had carved with blood and paint into her flesh.
The water in the drain ran clear, and Lydia’s heart settled. It always did when she could shed the masks, the concessions to modern corporate culture and ancient fears that they were only a bad winter and a whispered rumor away from a crowd of ravenous eyes and empty bellies erecting stakes and bonfires at the foot of London Bridge. It had been two hundred years since the last Sister had burned, but Lydia could still scent the memory of her ashes on the wind. The water cooled and Lydia turned off the taps.
Alone in her living room, Lydia turned her dinner—a piece of rabbit—over the fire. It was an indulgence to take the time to cook this way, when she could use the modern magic of radiation and machines to prepare a manufactured meal to satisfy her hunger in a matter of moments. But while she might be required to spend her days working in a glass and steel cage, manipulating the runes of international finance to provide for her Brothers in the woods, she too had needs beyond the gross and physical. The ritual of licking fire and spitting fat helped her feel less alone, and as the light from the window faded, Lydia could almost imagine the shadowed faces of her absent Sisters on the other side of the flames. She waited for the fire to do its work and sang to her Companion in the Old Tongue. They watched the flames together and she nurtured the tiny spark of home that nestled in her breast.
The Maitresse, for all that she had not been of the blood, had been right about one thing. The world was forever altered since the events of London. The masses might still be ignorant of much of the hidden world, but the veil was shredding before their eyes. Eventually, the true nature of magic would be revealed to everyone, and those who had lived in ignorance would need the experience of the ones who had not left the old paths. The Brothers would be able to walk out of the Forest without fear, and if that were possible . . . maybe Lydia would be allowed to return home.
Both Lydia and her Companion were watching the fire, devouring the fragrant sizzling hare with hungry eyes and ears in anticipation of the joy for fingers and tongue to come. And so neither saw the man who slipped into her house, silent as a shadow. Nor did they notice his sword until it entered Lydia’s back.
The blade pierced her Companion first, and it was its snarl of anger and pain that gave Lydia an instant’s warning before the steel pushed all the way through her skin to reach the flesh beneath. It was only an instant, but in it, Lydia seized the flames before her and snatched them from the grate.
She felt a shadow bloom in the blade’s wake, ripping through lungs and heart like roots through rock, if roots moved with the speed of an ibex over hard snow. Even as she screamed, Lydia staggered to her feet, turned, and flung the flames before her: a shield, a sword, a light against the darkness tearing her apart from the inside out.
She was dying, and with her last breath she set her Companion free: Run. Leave me. Warn the others. She could hear its roar through the ringing in her ears. The last thing she saw was gray fur, and the face of a man with hollowed cheeks and shadowed eyes.
Then there was nothing but the dark.
Alexander. Mr. Norse. Mr. Alexander Norse. He repeated the name in his mind, a mantra as he searched the house, heedless of the blood smeared by his shoes over the floor. There had been a time when he would have been appalled at the mere thought of bloodstains on his hand-stitched leather oxfords, individually crafted to his exact measurements by a blind cobbler who...