Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 35
Stories
Tangible Progress
by Edmund R. Schubert
Last Resort
by Michael Greenhut
Wet Work: A Tale of the Unseen
by Matthew S. Rotundo
Southside Gods
by Sarah Grey
Tales for the Young and Unafraid
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews
At the Picture Show: Extended Cut
Beautiful demise
by Chris Bellamy

Wet Work: A Tale of the Unseen
    by Matthew S. Rotundo

Wet Work: A Tale of the Unseen
Artwork by M. Wayne Miller

Shambling, vaguely man-shaped creatures parted before Ellie's H2 as she pulled it into a vacant space in the mansion's paved courtyard. Her headlights picked out eyeless faces, gaping jaws that revealed rows of teeth, skin that literally hung and drooped off the creatures' limbs, giving them a half-melted appearance. They bore no resemblance to any Unseen in Ellie's experience. And they were everywhere, a crowd of at least forty of the things. Even with the windows shut against the chill October night, she could smell them -- a rotted, carrion stench.

At the far end of the courtyard, the vast black bulk of the mansion rose into the night sky, its entrance flanked by spires that made the place look like a castle. Yellow-orange light shone from various windows. Flashy, even for this remote part of Long Island.

Her hand strayed to the silvery medallion, engraved with arcane characters and designs, that hung around her neck. It had been given to her at the end of the last challenge. She had shown it at the main gate, some half a mile back, at the other end of a drive that wound up the forested hill. The security guard had instructed her, for her own safety, to keep it on her person at all times while on the grounds. With another glance at the shambling creatures, she understood why.

Cars filled the courtyard -- Ferraris, BMWs, Porsches, and the like. Apparently, this final challenge would have an audience, and a well-heeled one, at that. Another reminder, as if she needed it, of how high the stakes had become. Ellie was glad she'd opted to dress up for the evening, wearing one of her nicest black gowns, diamond earrings, and heels.

She parked and got out, braced by the autumnal breezes on the night air. The eyeless things paid her no mind. They just shambled on their way to wherever they were going, jaws agape.

Another vehicle pulled into the courtyard and found a nearby parking space. She recognized the car, a big maroon Chrysler that looked black in the moonlight. Mackenzie. Her final rival.

Ellie's eyes narrowed.

The bastard was actually running a little late for once. She crossed her arms and waited, watching him. He got out of the car, donned a suit jacket, ran a hand through his perfectly coiffed red hair. He started when he noticed Ellie. "Gibbons," he said, a little out of breath.

"What's the matter, Mackenzie? Did you oversleep?"

He jerked a thumb over one shoulder. "Accident on the highway a few miles back."

"Funny. I didn't see it. And I just got here myself."

"You must have just missed it. Lucky you." He straightened the lines of his suit, cracked a smile. "Well, here we are."

He had an annoying habit of pointing out the obvious. She chose not to respond.

He reached into a pants pocket. Coins jingled as he removed his own silvery medallion, a twin of the one Ellie had. "What say we skip this whole thing, and I flip you for it?"

"Why?" she said. "You scared?"

He pocketed the medallion; it jingled again. "Hope you've done your homework tonight, Gibbons. You'll need it."

She shook her head and started toward the house.

The entrance was a pair of great wooden doors, iron-banded, that slowly creaked open as she neared them. Yellow light spilled out. She thought she discerned voices floating toward her on the breeze.

Mackenzie hurried to catch up with her. "Nice," he said, indicating the shambling, eyeless horrors. "I suppose I could get used to the smell, if I had to. Oh, here." He reached into a jacket pocket, pulled out a small object, held it out to her. "Before I forget. I think this belongs to you."

It was -- of all things -- a hair comb. He was right: it did belong to her, one of a set, black, to match her own hair. It had been missing over a month.

"I found it after one of our challenges -- that one in the deserted house, I think, with those weird druid guys that ambushed us."

She remembered. They had fought like berserkers.

"Anyway, I picked it up, and I've been meaning to give it back to you. Figured this would be my last chance. After tonight, no matter what happens, I expect we'll never see each other again."

He had a point. She took the comb from him, wary, half expecting it to be booby-trapped, or something. But it was just her comb. "Uh . . . thanks," she said. She put it in her purse.

They entered the house. A short hallway opened onto a much larger space, circular, maybe half a football field across, and decked out like . . . well, like a ballroom. Huge chandeliers hung from the ceiling, each bearing perhaps a hundred candles each. Mirrors on the walls caught the light, made it dazzling. The floor was polished white stone. A grand staircase with a deep red runner stood on the other end of the room, leading to an ornate balcony that encircled half the chamber.

A large crowd filled the space -- men and women dressed in tuxedos, evening gowns, and glittering jewels. They held drinks and stood in clusters, conversing among themselves. They looked to be in their fifties or older, most of them, judging by their gray hair and lined features -- wealthy, but otherwise normal-looking. They all had silver medallions of their own, no doubt. Not a single eyeless horror in the bunch.

They turned as Ellie and Mackenzie entered, and broke into applause.

Uncomfortable warmth suffused Ellie, the heat shooting to her face.

She'd been a Stalker for ten years. The Unseen had compensated her very well for her service, and that despite her being on the low end of the Stalker totem pole. She owned a nice Manhattan condo, unlimited access to the finest drugs, and two sports cars to go with her H2. Nonetheless, she felt out of place among people like this. She had come from the street, having eked out a hardscrabble existence since she'd been a teenage runaway from a foster home. She'd done plenty of jobs among the rich and powerful, but always as a Stalker, never as one of them. And when she lured some unsuspecting debutante or playboy into a dark alley to be consumed -- or worse -- by one of the Unseen, it all came back to wet work, anyway.

That realization had been long in coming. It was why she'd entered this competition in the first place. The Stalker's Oath bound for a lifetime. For Ellie, the only way out was to move up.

She and Mackenzie walked full into the room, acknowledging the applause with waves and smiles. When they reached the center, a voice boomed over the applause: "And here are your two finalists!"

The clapping swelled to cheers. Ellie craned her neck, looking for the owner of the voice. She found him at the head of the staircase -- a tall man, dark hair, dressed in a white tuxedo. He opened his arms wide. Even at this distance, Ellie could make out a dazzling smile.

The applause tapered off. The man at the top of stairs said, "Welcome, Brian Mackenzie and Eleanor Gibbons. This is a momentous night." His tone was conversational, but his voice still boomed as if he wore a microphone. He began to descend. Ellie and Mackenzie went to meet him.

He reached the bottom of the stairs and shook their hands, each in turn. His touch was warm, his grip firm. He had exceptionally bright eyes, pale blue. "I'm so glad to finally meet you."

Mackenzie averted his eyes as he shook the man's hand. "And you, Lord Dontur."

The man cocked his head. "So you know me?"

Mackenzie pulled the medallion from his pocket. "I recognized your sigil on the talisman, lord."

Dontur -- Ellie recognized the name. High-order demon, pretty reclusive. He -- it -- had very few dealings with mortals, preferring to move among his own kind. Ellie had never known anyone who worked for him, but some of the Unseen she'd done jobs for had mentioned his name once or twice.

It made sense that someone like him was behind this competition. Some of the early challenges -- like the one with the crazy druids -- had tested her fighting skills, but she'd also been called upon to solve intricate puzzles, dig up dirt on city officials, and even organize a hack job on a government network. Throughout it all, the contestants hadn't known whom they were working for, but clearly he was much more interested in power and politics than food.

The competition had taxed Ellie in ways she'd never known. Street smarts had counted for a lot, but she'd gotten lucky once or twice, too. Still, she had made it this far.

In human form, Dontur was quite striking -- though not exactly handsome, as far as Ellie was concerned. A little too thin -- bony even -- with wan, drawn features. But he moved with grace and precision, and his eyes positively shone, illuminated from within. He projected supreme confidence.

A major player, and here Mackenzie was already scoring points with him. Damn suck-up.

"And Eleanor," Dontur said, turning his full attention to her. "Welcome."

"Thank you . . . lord."

His gaze was direct without being confrontational, his smile wide enough on his thin face to be comical. She relaxed a little.

"Well." Dontur took a step back from him. "You two are the best and the brightest of all the Stalkers who entered this competition, thirteen in all. Tonight, we decide the winner."

More applause and cheers. Ellie began to think of the audience as trained seals.

Dontur held up a hand; the crowd quieted.

Ellie wondered, belatedly, who these people were. She supposed they could all be Unseen. Vampires, shapeshifters, and demons could all appear mortal when they wanted to be. There were even certain Unseen incantations that mortals could use to take on another's appearance. But there were no ghosts, trolls, goblins, or any of the other myriad denizens of the night that Stalkers served. And no one in the crowd gave off an Unseen vibe. Ellie had worked for them long enough to pick up on their essential otherness, even when they wore human faces.

"After tonight," Dontur said, "one of you two will come to work for me, as my mortal liaison. It's one of the most important positions a Stalker can hold. Few who take the Oath can aspire to reach this level. So: your final challenge. Are you ready?"

Mackenzie answered immediately: "Yes, lord."

"Sure," Ellie said. "I mean, yes."

Silence fell on the chamber. All idle conversation stilled; no one so much as coughed.

Dontur drew himself to full height. "Tonight -- Halloween -- is a special night for the Unseen. One of the most important of the year, in fact. Do you know what happens on Halloween?"

Of course Ellie knew. Every Stalker knew. She and Mackenzie answered in unison: "The Granting."

"Exactly," Dontur said. "Tonight, a mortal may petition a member of my order for a boon. All of these guests are here to do exactly that. They have all completed the initial propitiation rites, and are here to make offerings to me in return for my favor. Tonight, I will grant one request. And you, Brian and Eleanor, will choose the one. Or, more appropriately, each of you will bring before me one petitioner out of those here assembled, and I will decide which offering is most suitable." He glanced at his diamond-studded watch. "You have two hours to make your selections. Whoever brings me the best offering will be named the winner."

He smiled again. With a sweep of his arm, he said, "Brian, Eleanor, out there is the key to your victory tonight. Go to it, and may fortune smile on you."

The crowd applauded once more. Ellie looked around. There had to be over two hundred people in the room. Their gazes were fixed on her and Mackenzie, their eyes hungry, hopeful. No way she could get through two hundred supplicants, or even one hundred, in an hour. Doubtful that her street smarts would be of much use here. And how the hell was she to know what Dontur would consider a suitable offering?

The chances of her moving up, of moving beyond a life of wet work, never seemed more remote.

Mackenzie leaned over and spoke in her ear. "Hope you've done your homework, Gibbons."

She resisted the urge to drive a fist into one of his kidneys. Barely.

Before the first hour was up, Ellie had gone numb. It was like running a damned gauntlet. She moved from knot to knot of party-goers, where each one gave her a thirty-second pitch. After a while, all the offers, the requests for Dontur's favor, started blurring, taking on a disturbing similarity. She reached a point where she could no longer distinguish one from the next.

Many of them were for simple vengeance, or for the casting down of the petitioners' enemies. Some sought to be cured of fatal diseases. Still others wanted wealth, fame, or power -- usually all three. And in return, Dontur would get the still-beating hearts of a hundred virgins, or the blood of children, or -- yawn -- the petitioner's soul.

After the tenth soul offer, Ellie couldn't resist. "Let me get this straight," she said to the frail, elderly woman in a sequined blue gown. "You've come here tonight, to the home of a high-ranking demon, begging his favor -- and you really think there's a chance your soul isn't already going to hell?" She patted the old woman on the shoulder. "Sorry, hon. That ship has sailed."

The woman looked shocked. Ellie moved on.

Even more ill-advised were the side offers some of them made to her directly, promises of untold millions, of tropical islands, even cabinet positions. As if any of them would impress Dontur. She didn't even bother replying to those bozos.

Every now and again, she would glance around the room, looking for Mackenzie. He appeared at ease and cheerful, speaking animatedly with his petitioners, even laughing along with some of them, as if he were at a genuine dinner party. He was in his element.

It began to wear on her. She felt hemmed in, cornered. She itched to lash out, but of course she couldn't, and that made her even more edgy.

Time was running out. None of the offers sounded even remotely intriguing to her; she doubted Dontur would be any more interested. He had ascended the staircase, and sat on a great chair like a throne up there, presiding over the party. His face was unreadable at this distance, but she imagined he was still smiling.

A hand tapped her shoulder.

She turned, assuming it was Mackenzie, coming over to gloat. Instead, she found herself facing a man with blond hair and a full mustache, dressed in a tuxedo one size too small for him, short in the arms and binding at the hips. Younger than most of the others, without a hint of gray, or even the beginnings of crow's feet around the eyes. Early thirties, maybe. She might have thought him good-looking, if he weren't so damned dour.

Unlike the others, he seemed to have no friends, no little clique. The petitioners kept their distance, talking among themselves, evincing no interest in this man. His hands hung at his sides, empty of cocktails.

Ellie had no time left for pleasantries. "Okay, go. What do you want?"

The dour man, thankfully, didn't bother to introduce himself or attempt small talk. He said simply, "Eternal life."

"You and the rest of the world."

"Yes, but the difference is what I intend to do with my time. I want to establish the First Church of Dontur."

She opened her mouth to dismiss him, but stopped as his words sunk in. "You -- you want to set up a church?"

"I will be his high priest on Earth, the better to praise his exalted name."

He delivered the words so deadpan that she thought he might be playing a joke on her -- one liable to earn him a backhand across the face for wasting her time. But he remained solemn, his gaze fixed on her.

"A church," Ellie said. "Praising his name."

"And bringing him new followers."

"Well." She scratched her head. "I'll give you points for originality. But you do understand that they're called the Unseen for a reason, right? They don't like to attract attention. Interferes with the feeding."

"Look around you." The dour man pointed to Dontur on his throne. "Look at him up there. Does he come across as your run-of-the-mill Unseen, content to skulk in the shadows and wait for a Stalker to lure walkers to him?"

She couldn't argue with that. "What's your name?"

"Daniel. Schoermann." He kept his hands at his sides, not offering to shake.

She glanced at her watch. She had less than twenty minutes. "All right, Daniel Schoermann, future High Priest of Dontur, you're my boy. You up for it?"

"Yes. Are you?"

"Funny guy. Listen, when you go before Dontur, you might want to consider cracking a smile or two."

"I'll do whatever is necessary."

He said it with all the emotional resonance of a man discussing the weather.

"Tell you what," Ellie said. "Let me do the talking."

Their two hours up, Ellie and Mackenzie brought their candidates up the stairs to meet the big man.

Mackenzie had selected a young woman in a backless red gown with a plunging neckline. Her skin was pale and smooth, a stark contrast to the deeply tanned, wrinkled, and rich set that filled most of the room. She wore a wide, warm smile, her gaze fixed on the figure at the head of the stairs.

Dontur stood in front of his throne, waiting with his hands behind his back. As the four ascended the stairs, the babble in the chamber dropped away.

Ellie kept stealing glances at Daniel Schoermann. He, like the woman, had eyes only for Dontur, but there was no warmth at all in his face. If anything, Schoermann looked even more stern than before. His brow had formed a faint ridge; muscles in his jaw seemed to bulge.

He was tightening up. Terrific. He'd be useless; Ellie would have to do this on her own.

When they reached the penultimate step, Dontur held up a hand to stop them. He addressed the crowd in his booming voice: "The two petitioners have been chosen. I would like to thank all of you for coming tonight. I'm sure your offerings were sincere and generous. I look forward to the opportunity to meet with you again, on another Granting Night."

He turned his shining gaze and too-wide smile to Ellie and Mackenzie, and the two petitioners. "And here we are at last. I hope you're as excited as I am. Who wants to present their offering first?"

Ellie and Mackenzie glanced at each other. "Go ahead," she said. Mackenzie clearly had a better idea how to handle this than she did; she hoped to pick up some hints from his presentation.

Mackenzie cleared his throat. "Lord Dontur, tonight I have the honor to present an offering from your loyal servant, Miss Natalia Orlova."

The woman in the red gown curtsied deeply, affording Dontur a better view of her generous cleavage. "A pleasure, my lord," she said, her voice husky and thickly accented, Eastern European. Ellie rolled her eyes.

"Natalia has come before you tonight, lord, to request that you deliver her aging father from the ravages of cancer. In gratitude for your generosity, she offers this magnificent body. She will become your latest bride, my lord, and will gladly bear you as many children as you wish, so that your progeny may fill the Earth, to further your glory and dominion."

Ellie bit the insides of her cheeks to keep from laughing. Dontur, however, stroked his chin, tilting his head this way and that as he appraised young Natalia's assets. He might have been inspecting a new car.

"Natalia," he said. "Do you know what it means to be the mortal bride of an Unseen?"

She lowered her gaze. "I do, my lord."

"I could save your father, but you would never get to see him again. You would be mine, body and soul. But I cannot be yours. I can never be like a mortal husband. My duties take me away for long stretches. And my appetites can be . . . demanding."

For an instant, his smile vanished, and his shining eyes seemed to Ellie colder than the night breezes outside the castle. The urge to laugh subsided.

"I understand, lord," Natalia said. "I would be honored to bear you many children."

In spite of herself, Ellie felt a moment's pity for her. Despite her assurances, this big-breasted twit could not have the slightest idea what sort of appetites she would have to satisfy. But Ellie had worked for the Unseen long enough to know. Not that she had ever been called upon to do anything like that. It was part of the bargain, the Stalker's Oath.

Ellie would have to hope that Dontur's ego would win out over his libido. It could happen.

Dontur turned to her and Schoermann. "And you, Eleanor? What offering do you bring?"

Ellie took a breath. "My lord, this is Daniel Schoermann. He's come here tonight to --"

Schoermann moved, faster than Ellie would have thought. From his jacket pockets, he whipped out two implements, one in each hand, and lunged at Dontur.

As fast as he was, Mackenzie was faster. He shoved his bimbo aside and intercepted Schoermann, tackling him. The items in his hands bounced onto the carpet -- Dontur's talisman, and a silver crucifix.

Schoermann struggled with Mackenzie, yelling all the while: "In the name of Jesus Christ, I banish thee, Dontur'alet'ania, accursed of God, from the Earth! Depart forever, and never return! In the name of the Almighty --"

Mackenzie drove a fist into his face. Schoermann's head snapped back. His voice modulated to a shriek. He writhed and bucked, brought a knee into Mackenzie's side.

"Son of a bitch," Ellie said under her breath. She moved in to the fracas, delivered a heeled kick to Schoermann's midsection. He stopped shrieking. She grabbed one flailing arm and broke it with a swift downward motion. He writhed, went limp.

Mackenzie disentangled himself, but pinned down Schoermann's other arm. Ellie crouched, grabbed the man's blond hair and yanked backward. Blood ran from a split lip and a ruined nose, matting his mustache. He gasped for breath, his mouth bobbing open like a fish's. All the fight seemed to have gone out of him.

Mackenzie looked over his shoulder at Dontur. "My lord, we have him."

The shine had left Dontur's eyes; they had gone dark. His smile had morphed into a grimace. His drawn features bulged, as if something just under the surface of his skin pushed to escape -- which was probably close to the truth. Something horned and scaly, Ellie guessed.

Shouts and clamor went up from the assembly. Buxom Natalia sat in a heap on the floor, weeping, forgotten. Mackenzie raised his voice: "It's all right! Everyone calm down! Thesituation is under control!" His red hair was mussed, his shirttails untucked, but he had not a mark on him.

Damn him. He'd been just a step faster than her. And she'd allowed a madman to get this close to their host.

"Stand him up." Dontur's voice had modulated to a low growl. "Stand him up right now."

Ellie and Mackenzie hauled Schoermann to his feet. He screamed; Ellie was none too gentle with the broken arm.

Dontur squatted, picked up the talisman on the floor at his feet. He sneered at the crucifix, but left it untouched. He straightened and stepped forward, getting in Schoermann's face. "Who are you?"

A grimace twisted the man's features, but he said nothing.

Ellie said, "He told me his name is Daniel Schoermann. He --"

"I don't give a damn what his name is," Dontur said without taking his attention from Schoermann. "I said, who are you?"

The man's little black bowtie was askew; a few buttons of his dress shirt had popped loose. Ellie glimpsed dark clothing underneath it. On instinct, she yanked at the bowtie -- it came off easily -- and tore at the front his shirt, revealing a black outfit with a white collar.

"A priest?" she said. "You're a priest?" God, this just got better and better. She shook him hard, and he moaned.

Dontur held the talisman up to the man's face. "Where did you get this, priest?"

Schoermann's mouth hung open. His breathing was labored, but he remained silent.

Ellie had hold of him by the upper arm. The rest of the limb hung at an awkward angle. She took his hand, wrenched it. He screamed again.

"Answer him," Ellie said in his ear. "Or I'll show you new meanings of the word pain."

Schoermann closed his eyes and spoke under his breath, his lips moving rapidly. He was praying.

Dontur's hand closed over his talisman. He turned away disgustedly, began pacing at the head of the stairs. "He knew my name -- my full name. And he dared to utter it here, in my home. And he brought that filthy thing with him." Dontur spat on the crucifix. His spittle sizzled as it hit.

Mackenzie kicked it away. "He's obviously had inside help, lord. No way he could have gotten this far on his own."

That was Mackenzie all over again, with his penchant for stating the obvious.

Ellie grabbed Schoermann's face with one hand and forced him to look at her. "Who are you working with, scumbag? How many others are there? Who told you about the Unseen? Who gave you that talisman?"

He opened his eyes, but his lips kept moving in barely audible prayer.

Ellie's hand slid down to his throat, slicked with sweat. "You want to keep that tongue, you'll use it to talk. Who?"

"-- hallowed be Thy name, Thy kingdom come --"

She squeezed, just enough to turn his words raspy. "Who?"

He stopped praying, his gaze fixed on her. Tears ran freely from his eyes. "You."

Rage boiled in her. She hit him in the ribs, where she'd kicked him earlier. He doubled over, collapsed to his knees. Mackenzie let him go. He glanced from Schoermann to Ellie and back again, mouth slightly open, shaking his head.

She kicked Schoermann in the face. Blood spattered; he fell backward.

A hand grabbed her by the arm, spun her around. Dontur's baleful glare filled her vision. His grip was iron, painful. "Eleanor," he said. His lips skinned back from his teeth -- which looked much sharper than they had before.

Panic filled her. "He's lying! That son of a bitch would say anything! He --" Ellie's voice cracked.

Dontur released her, flinging her arm aside as if it disgusted him, and grabbed the priest by the shoulders, lifting him easily, holding him aloft. His dark stared bored into Schoermann. "Tell me, priest."

Schoermann's jaw went slack. Drool ran from his mouth, mixing with blood. "Ssshe . . . came to my church. Said she needed to confess. Said she did . . . horrible things. Wanted to atone. Told me . . . of the Unseen. Of you. Told me where the house was. Told me I could strike a blow for God."

Dontur hissed.

"Met me tonight on the road to this place, gave me the talisman. Said she would see me at the party, pretend she didn't know me. Told me what to say. Said she would take me to meet you. Said I could . . . I could . . . aaaaaa --" His eyes glazed, rolled back into his head. He slumped in Dontur's grasp, unconscious.

The demon roared and hurled Schoermann down the stairs. The priest's body landed with a sickening crack, then thumped a few more times before reaching the bottom step, twisted in an impossible position.

A few gasps went up through the chamber, but the crowd was otherwise silent and still. No one approached the priest's broken and bloodied form.

Ellie stood dumbstruck. She caught sight of Mackenzie, straightening his rumpled suit, still shaking his head.

Hope you've done your homework, Gibbons.

Dontur's roar became feral. He bellowed rage at the chamber's vaulted ceiling, loud enough to make the house rumble. Ellie felt the tremors in her feet.

The demon lunged for Ellie, blindingly fast. The humanity was gone from his features. His face had elongated; the jaw, cheekbones, and jawline had sharpened to hard ridges. He grabbed her by the hair, bellowing: "Confession? You want to confess? You should have come to me! I'll show you how to confess!"

"I swear I never saw that ass before in my life! He --"

Dontur dragged her down the stairs by her hair, oblivious to her protests. She half-ran, half-stumbled to keep up. One of her shoes came off. The pain was manageable; she'd certainly endured worse. But the terror was something beyond her experience.

Mackenzie trailed them, in no apparent hurry, one corner of his mouth upturned, just a little.

The bastard had set it all up, somehow. But how? Ellie needed to think, but the circumstances made it impossible. She figured she had only a minute or two to live.

Dontur, still roaring about confession, moved past Schoermann's body without slowing. The crowd gave him a wide berth, retreating to the mirrored walls. On the far side of the chamber, the great iron-banded doors slammed open. A chill carrion wind blew in.

Just outside the doors stood row upon row of Dontur's eyeless, half-melted, razor-toothed servants. They flowed into the chamber as if borne on the breeze.

"Want to confess? Want to confess now, Ellie?" He clawed at her neck, snapping the chain that held the silvery talisman, yanked it away. "Confess to them!" He threw her in the direction of his servants. She landed on her hands and knees on the pale stone floor. It was cold to the touch.

"Tell them about it, Ellie! Tell them aaaaall about it!"

The creatures formed a semicircle in front of her. Their jaws gaped, seeming wide enough to swallow her whole. Keening noises came from them. The stench was awful. Ellie could feel their hunger.

"Such a shame."

She looked behind her. Mackenzie stood at Dontur's side. Any hint of a smile was gone from his face. "You were good, Ellie. But I guess you just didn't have enough faith in yourself. You felt you had to resort to . . . this."

He had done this to her. Somehow, he had gotten to that priest, convinced him to say it was her. He had been ready for Schoermann's move, ready to intervene.

But why would the priest have lied? What good would it have done him? He had to have known that fingering Ellie wouldn't save his life. Still, he had named her.

Unless he hadn't been lying. Unless he had genuinely thought it was her.

And she recalled those Unseen incantations that enabled you to take on another's appearance. But they required something unique from the person whose identity you were stealing, like blood, or sweat, or . . .

She thought of the comb Mackenzie had given back to her.

The things crossed the floor with whisper-soft movements. Their keening filled her ears. Something heavy and very cold dropped on her shoulder.

She tore away from it. Her dress ripped down the back. She kicked off her remaining shoe and went after Mackenzie. "You son of --"

He was ready for it. He executed a spin-kick, took out her legs. She went down.

It didn't matter. She just needed to be close.

Ellie grabbed for his outstretched leg and yanked, upending him. He landed hard, but sprang immediately back to his feet. So did she.

"Oh, this is pointless." Dontur no longer sounded angry, but annoyed. "Let it go, Eleanor Gibbons. It's over." To his minions, he said, "Finish her."

The eyeless horrors closed on her. She ignored them, focused on Mackenzie.

His lip curled in a sneer. "You heard the man."

"He's not a man," Ellie said, "and neither are you."

She feinted left. He swung a roundhouse right, but the set of his shoulders telegraphed it. She ducked the blow, darted behind him, and got him in a headlock. "Always too obvious," she said in his ear.

He struggled, and she bore down. He was the stronger; she wouldn't be able to hold him for but a few moments.

"That's not going to save you, Eleanor." Dontur had resumed something like his human aspect again. "Surrender, and it will be quick."

His creatures surrounded Ellie and Mackenzie. Using him as a shield wouldn't work; the things would just get her from behind.

Her mind raced: Mackenzie had run late tonight -- most unlike him. What had he been busy with? And how could he have been certain that Ellie would pick the priest? He wouldn't go to the trouble of setting her up only to leave such an important detail to chance.

How many others are there? she had said to Schoermann.

No, Mackenzie wouldn't have left it to chance. He would have seeded the crowd with his dupes.

Ellie plunged a hand into his pants pocket, where she'd seen him stuff his own talisman. She grabbled a handful of the coins she had heard jingling, pulled them out, held them up high. Some of them spilled onto the floor.

The creatures stopped.

Mackenzie wriggled free of her grasp. Ellie didn't care. She lowered her hand, knowing what she'd see when she looked -- not coins at all, but talismans. Breathing hard, she held them out to Mackenzie. "Hey. Did you lose something?"

He reached for them. She pulled back, delivered a spin-kick of her own, catching him in the shins. He cried out and went down. Before he could grab any of the talismans off the floor, she swept them out of reach with one foot.

He looked up at her with pleading eyes. "I --"

"Maybe you have something to confess, eh?"

To her right, the eyeless things parted, making way for Dontur. He took in the situation with a sweeping glance, from Mackenzie to Ellie to the evidence she held in her hand.

"Did your homework, didn't you?" Ellie said. "Got your talisman and knew who it belonged to. You knew the final challenge would be on Halloween night, figured it would have something to do with the Granting. And you hatched a little plan. You had some extra talismans made, so you could sneak a few plants in here tonight as bait. No wonder you were running late. How many did you give out, Mackenzie?"

His eyes, wide and bulging, darted in their sockets like frightened fish. Mute, he shook his head in weak denial.

"You went to each of them disguised as me. You told each one some version of the story you gave the priest. You had it all rigged perfectly, didn't you? Nothing left to chance."

Mackenzie continued to shake his head. "No no no --"

Dontur took one of the talismans from Ellie's hand, examined it. "Pretty shoddy workmanship, actually. Like it was made in a hurry." He sighed. "Oh, Brian. Under other circumstances, I might actually have appreciated your creativity. But this" -- he held up the talisman -- "this is a major security breach." He glanced around. "I can't have it. My lieutenants need to be people I can trust. And here you have filled my house with who knows how many enemies." He chuckled. "None of them would be a match for me, but that's not really the point, is it?"

Mackenzie swallowed hard. "Lord, I . . . I . . . please --"

More of Dontur's creatures appeared in the doorway, flowed into the chamber. There were hundreds of them.

Dontur's hand closed around the talisman he held. With his other hand, he executed a little overhead flourish. Startled cries went up from the assembly. Ellie glanced around; floating talismans -- some loose, some on chains -- filled the air over everyone's heads. Some of the guests reached up to grab at them, but the medallions danced out of range, levitating ever higher.

"Sorry, folks," Dontur said. "I have neither the time nor the inclination to question each of you individually. And I can't have word of this event leaking out. I'm afraid I'll have to revoke your invitations. And as for you, Brian --"

Mackenzie buried his face in his hands.

"-- you're fired." Dontur gestured again with his free hand, and the floating talismans vanished with a flash -- all except for the ones Ellie still held.

The keening went up again from Dontur's servants. Their jaws opened wide. And the screaming began.

Ellie stood in the middle of it all, untouched, as the ballroom became an abattoir. Some tried to fight. Some tried to hide. Some tried to flee. The eyeless things battened on all of them, decapitating, eviscerating, snapping off limbs

. . . and feeding. A group of them swarmed around Mackenzie; Ellie heard wet crunching and rending noises. To his credit, he didn't scream. Or if he did, it was drowned out by the din. The smell of fresh blood filled the air. The white stone floor ran red. Quite of bit of it splattered Ellie. Her gown would be ruined.

As she watched, numb, the horrors around her too numerous for her mind to process, she became aware that beneath her shock, her revulsion, her growing relief at being spared, she found herself profoundly . . . disappointed.

Eventually, the sounds of slaughter subsided. The creatures worked methodically at devouring the remains. By dawn, Ellie was sure, no trace of the partygoers would be left.

"Eleanor," Dontur said, once again the elegant host. He extended a hand to her. "Congratulations, and well done."

She regarded his hand, frowning with concentration. A thought had occurred to her, and she was still trying to frame it coherently in her mind.

"Come," he said. "I apologize for that little misunderstanding. You've proven yourself a hundred times over tonight. I'll never doubt you again."

"Thanks," she said. "But --"

He lowered the extended hand. "But?"

"I'm, ah, not sure I have what it takes to win this."

"But . . . Eleanor, you did win. And in impressive style, too."

"Maybe. Or maybe I just got lucky." She glanced around the ballroom-turned-slaughterhouse. "You know, I entered this thing hoping for something . . . more. Something else, anyway. Needing it, to tell you the truth. But it seems like no matter what the job may be, no matter how high up the chain you go, no matter how much you dress it up" -- she looked down at herself -- "in the end, it still all comes down to wet work."

Dontur set hands on hips. "Eleanor, you're a Stalker. You took the Oath of your own free will. You knew what it meant. There is nothing else for you."

She nodded. "But you can change that."

"Me?" A half-smile, half-frown wrinkled his face.

"I'm pretty sure you have enough pull among the Unseen to release me from my Oath." She gestured toward the stairs. "I'm also pretty sure that poor little Natalia back there isn't going to get her wish tonight." The thought made her a little ill. "And it seems to me that you owe me one, Dontur. It's the night of the Granting, and I'm the only mortal still standing in this place."

Dontur crossed his arms. He regarded her for long moments, his stare hard. She watched his face for signs of him losing his temper again, knowing that if he wanted to take the remaining talismans from her, she could do nothing to prevent it.

He said, "Everything you have came from us, Eleanor."

"You want it back? You can have it. I survived on the street for a lot of years before I got mixed up with the Unseen."

His frown deepened -- not an angry expression, but one of puzzlement, as if she were a cipher, a complex riddle to be solved.

All the while, his servants ate and ate. Teeth crunched and lips smacked. Ellie kept her eyes on Dontur.

"Well." He uncrossed his arms. "I must say that's a new one on me. And very disappointing. But I can't argue your logic. If you're sure that's what you want --" He turned his head. "Very well. You're released from your Oath."

Ellie blinked. "Uh . . . that's it? You don't have to do some spell or ceremony or something?"

He faced her again, heaved an exasperated sigh. "You're the first Stalker to be released from her Oath since -- well, possibly the first in the entire history of the Stalkers. Others have tried to get out of it, of course, but you may be the first to succeed. So no, there is no ceremony. It's done."

"And do I need to give back my condo and cars and stuff?"

"What do I care? Those are mortal concerns. I am Unseen. If you can figure out a way to afford it all, keep it." He raised a finger. "But there's no going back, Eleanor. You're finished with us. You keep your mouth shut, and make sure you never cross paths with the Unseen again. Understand?"

She glanced again at the hordes of his servants at their work, nodded. "Yeah. I understand."

"Good. Now go." He turned away, headed for the stairs.

She watched his retreating back for a moment, then dumped the remaining talismans on the floor -- all but one. She held it up, called after him: "I'll just leave this at the gate."

He flapped a hand as if swatting at an insect, walked on without turning.

She stood in the center of the ballroom for a few moments, feeling like something more needed to be said or done. But nothing came to mind.

The chill night wind blew through the open doors. Ellie glanced down at herself. Wet gore covered her dress, and her shoes were gone. It would make for a cold walk back to her car. Nothing for it, she supposed. She had never been comfortable in heels, anyway.


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