“Cristina,” Diego breathed, staring past Emma. “Pensé que eras tú, pero no estaba seguro. ¿Qué haces aquí? ¿Por qué estabas tratando de proteger a este hombre?”
“Diego?” Not understanding a word of what he’d said, Emma examined the boy again, noting the Marks that decorated his neck, disappearing down into the collar of his shirt. He was a Shadowhunter, all right. “This is Perfect Diego?”
“Emma,” Cristina said, her cheeks flushing. “Let him go.”
“I’m not letting him go.” Emma glared at Perfect Diego, who glared right back, his black eyes flaring. “He shot Julian.”
“I didn’t know you were Nephilim,” Perfect Diego snapped. “You were wearing long sleeves and jackets. I couldn’t see your runes.” His English was perfect, perhaps unsurprisingly, considering his nickname.
“Weren’t they in gear?” Cristina demanded. She was still looking at Perfect Diego incredulously.
“Just the jackets.” Emma shoved Perfect Diego hard against the wall; he winced. “I guess they look like regular jackets from a distance. Not that that’s an excuse.”
“You were wearing jeans. I’d never seen you before. You were going through the dead girl’s purse. Why wouldn’t I think you were one of the killers?”
Emma, not wanting to acknowledge that he had a point, shoved him harder against the wall. “Do you know who I am now?”
The corner of his mouth quirked up. “Oh, indeed, Emma Carstairs.”
“So you know I could rip all your internal organs out at once, thread some string through them, and turn them into Christmas tree decorations without batting an eyelash?”
His eyes flashed. “You could try.”
“Stop it, both of you,” said Cristina. “We don’t have time for this. We have to find Sterling.”
“She’s right,” said Diego. “Now either let go of me or kill me, because we are wasting time. I know where Sterling will be. He has a meeting with a witch from the Shadow Market. We must get there soon— he is fast, as half wolves are.”
“Is the witch going to kill him?” Emma let go of Diego, who went to gather up his crossbow. Cristina’s butterfly knife had stuck point-down into the side of it. Diego snorted and pulled it free. He handed it to her. She took it silently.
Diego whirled around and began striding down the alley. “If that is a joke, it’s not funny.” “It’s not a joke,” said Cristina. “We have been trying to protect him.”
“What?” Diego turned the corner into a blind alley, where a chain-link fence closed them off from the street beyond. He climbed it expertly, dropping lightly to the ground on the other side. Emma scrambled up after, and Cristina next. Diego appeared to be fiddling with his weapons belt, but Emma could tell he was watching Cristina out of the corner of his eye, making sure she landed safely. “Why would you protect a murderer?”
“He’s not a murderer,” Cristina said. “He is a victim. And he’s very unpleasant, but this is our job.” They had turned onto a dead-end street lined with houses. Crabgrass and cactus grew on overgrown
lawns. Diego moved with purpose toward the end of the street.
“Didn’t you understand?” Diego shook his head, his dark hair flying. “Why everyone must stay away from him? I can’t believe this. I can’t believe—everything you’ve done—you saw him get the number? At the Lottery? You saw him chosen?”
“Yes,” said Emma, a cold feeling beginning to spread through her veins. “Yes, that’s how we knew we needed to protect him—”
A sudden, blinding flare of light shot like fireworks from the far end of the street. A swirl of green-and-blue fire, edged with red. Cristina’s eyes were wide, the flaring sparks touching her hair with scarlet.
Diego swore and took off running. After a split second, Emma and Cristina followed.
Emma had never met a Shadowhunter she couldn’t keep up with, but Diego was fast. Really fast. She was breathing hard by the time they skidded to a stop at the end of the street.
The cul-de-sac ended in a row of abandoned houses. Sterling’s car had slammed into a dead streetlamp, the hood crumpled, the driver’s side door hanging open. One of the air bags had exploded, but Sterling was unharmed.
He was in the middle of the road, struggling with someone—the girl with green hair Emma had seen earlier, on the street in front of the bar. She was pulling to get away from him; he had a hand fisted in the back of her coat, and the look on his face was half-maniacal.
“Let her go!” Diego shouted. The three of them began to run, Emma reaching for Cortana. Sterling, seeing them, began to drag the girl around to the other side of his car. Emma, hurtling toward the Jeep, leaped onto the hood, scrambled over the roof, and dropped down on the other side.
To be met with a sheet of blue-green fire. Sterling was standing behind it, still clasping the green-haired girl. Her eyes met Emma’s. She had a slight, elfin face—a recollection of seeing her at the Midnight Theater touched the edge of Emma’s memory.
Emma leaped forward. The blue-green fire blasted upward, knocking her back several steps. Sterling raised his hand. Something glittered in his grasp—a knife.
“Stop him!” Diego shouted. He and Cristina had appeared on the other side of the wall of blue fire. Emma pushed forward—though it was like walking against a typhoon—just as Sterling brought the knife down, plunging it into the girl’s chest.
No, Emma thought, shocked through with horror. No, no, no. It was a Shadowhunter’s job to save people, to protect them. Sterling couldn’t harm the girl, he couldn’t—
For a moment she saw a darkness within the fire—caught a glimpse of the inside of the convergence cave, carved all over with poetry and symbols—and then hands reached from the darkness and snatched the girl from Sterling’s grip. Emma glimpsed them only briefly, amid the flame and confusion, but they seemed to be long white hands—oddly crooked, as if they had been stripped to bones—
Choking on blood, limp and dying, the girl was dragged into the darkness. Sterling turned and grinned at Emma. His shirt was marked with bloody handprints, and the blade of his knife was scarlet.
“You’re too late!” he shouted. “Too late, Nephilim! She was the thirteenth—the last!”
Diego cursed and threw himself forward, but the wall of fire flared up, and he staggered back, knocked to his knees. Gritting his teeth, he rose again to his feet and advanced.
Sterling had stopped grinning. Fear flashed in his sallow eyes. He flung out an arm, and the skeletal hand reached from the fire to clasp his and drag him after the girl.
“No!” Emma sprang and rolled under the wave of fire, as if she were ducking under a wave at the beach. She caught at Sterling’s leg, digging her hands into his calf.
“Let me go!” he yelled. “Let me go, let me go. Guardian, take me, take me away from here—” The skeletal hand pulled at Sterling’s. Emma felt herself losing her grip. She looked up, her eyes
stinging and burning, just in time to see Cristina fling her butterfly knife. It struck the clawlike hand; the bones cracked and the hand withdrew hastily, releasing Sterling, who fell heavily to the ground.
“No!” Sterling rose to his knees, his arms held out, as the fire faded and disappeared. “Please! Take me with you—”
The three Shadowhunters descended on him, Diego grabbing hold of Sterling unceremoniously and hauling him to his feet. Sterling laughed painfully. “You couldn’t stop me,” he said. “You stupid girls, following me around, protecting me—”
Diego shoved him, hard, but Emma was shaking her head. “When you were picked in the Lottery,” she said to Sterling through a dry throat, asking the question though she already knew the answer, “you weren’t being picked to be killed. You were being picked to do the killing?”
“Oh, Raziel,” Cristina whispered. Her hand was at her throat, clutching her pendant; she looked at a loss.
Sterling spat on the ground. “That’s right,” he said. “You get your number picked, you kill or be killed. Just like you, Wren didn’t know how it worked. She agreed to meet me here. Stupid bitch.” His eyes were half-wild. “I killed her, and the Guardian took her, and now I’ll live forever. As soon as the Guardian finds me again. I’ll get riches, immortality, anything I want.”
“You killed for that?” Cristina demanded. “You made yourself a murderer?”
“I was a murderer from the second they picked my name in the Lottery,” said Sterling. “I had no choice.”
The sound of police sirens started up in the distance.
“We need to get out of here,” said Cristina, glancing toward Sterling’s wrecked car, the blood on the street. Emma raised Cortana, and was rewarded with a look of quivering fear on Sterling’s face.
“No,” he whimpered. “Don’t—”
“We can’t kill him,” Diego protested. “We need him. I’ve never caught one of them alive before. We must question him.”
“Relax, Perfect Diego,” Emma said, and slammed the handle of Cortana into Sterling’s temple. He dropped like a rock, out cold.
Carrying Sterling back to the car was awkward, since he wasn’t glamoured; they slung one of his arms over Diego’s shoulder, and he did his best to look as if he was helping a drunk friend home. Once they reached the Toyota, they tied Sterling’s wrists and ankles with electrum wire before bundling him into the back of the car, his head lolling, his body limp.
They’d discussed whether to race straight to the convergence, but decided to head to the Institute first to pick up more weapons and consult with the others. Emma especially was eager to talk to Julian—she’d called several times, but he hadn’t picked up. She told herself he was probably busy with the kids, but faint worry rankled at the back of her mind as she slid into the driver’s seat, Cristina beside her. Perfect Diego clambered in beside Sterling, his dagger out, pressed to Sterling’s throat.
Emma took off with a vicious screech of tires. She was filled with rage, at least half of it directed at herself. How could she not have figured out that Sterling wasn’t a victim, but a killer? How could they all not have known?
“It’s not your fault,” Perfect Diego said from the back of the car, as if he’d read her mind. “It made
sense to assume that the Lottery was choosing victims, not killers.”
“And Johnny Rook lied to us,” Emma snarled. “Or at least—he let us believe it. That we were protecting someone.”
“We were protecting a killer,” said Cristina. She looked miserable, her hand clamped around her pendant.
“Don’t blame yourself,” said Perfect Diego, being perfect. “You’ve been investigating with no information. No help from the Silent Brothers or—anyone else.”
Cristina looked over her shoulder at him and glared. “How do you know all this?”
“What makes you think we’ve been investigating?” Emma demanded. “Just because you saw me and Julian at Wells’s place?”
“That was my first clue,” Perfect Diego said. “After that I asked around. Talked to a guy at the Shadow Market—”
“Johnny Rook again,” Emma said in disgust. “Is there anyone that guy won’t blab to?”
“He told me everything,” Perfect Diego said. “That you were looking into the murders without the Clave knowing. That it was a secret. I was scared for you, Cristina.”
Cristina snorted without turning around.
“Tina,” Perfect Diego said, and his voice was filled with longing. “Tina, please.”
Emma looked awkwardly out the windshield. They were almost in view of the ocean. She tried to concentrate on that and not the tension between the two other conscious occupants of the car.
Cristina clenched her medallion tighter, but said nothing.
“Rook said you were investigating because you believed the murders were tied to your parents’ death,” Perfect Diego said to Emma. “For what it is worth, I am sorry for your loss.”
“That was a long time ago.” Emma could see Perfect Diego in the rearview mirror. He had a delicate chain of runes that circled his neck, like a torque. His hair curled, not Julian’s waves but ringlets that fell over the tops of his ears.
He was hot. And he seemed nice. And he had some serious badass moves. He really was Perfect Diego, she thought wryly. No wonder Cristina had been so hurt.
“What are you doing here?” Cristina demanded. “Emma has a reason to be investigating the murders, but you?”
“You know I was at the Scholomance,” Perfect Diego said. “And you know Centurions are often sent to investigate matters that don’t fall strictly under Shadowhunter mandate—”
There was a hoarse yell. Sterling had jerked awake and was flailing in the backseat. Perfect Diego’s knife flashed in the darkness. Cars honked as Emma jerked the wheel to the right and they careened onto Ocean Avenue.
“Let me go!” Sterling jerked and flailed against the wire wrapping his wrists. “Let me go!”
He yelped in pain as Perfect Diego flung him hard against the backseat of the car, pressing the knife against his jugular. “Get off me,” Sterling yelled. “Goddammit, get off me—”
Sterling shrieked as Perfect Diego dug his knee into his thigh. “Settle,” Diego said in a flat, deadly voice, “down.”
They were still hurtling down Ocean. Palm trees fringed either side of the street like eyelashes. Emma cut wildly in front of the left-hand turn lane and shot down the ramp to the coast highway amid a furious chorus of blaring horns.
“Jesus Christ!” Sterling shouted. “Where’d you learn to drive?”
“Nobody asked you for commentary!” Emma yelled back as they hurtled into the moving traffic. Luckily it was late and the lanes were mostly empty.
“I don’t want to die on the Pacific Coast Highway!” Sterling wailed.
“Oh, I’m sorry.” Emma’s voice dripped acid. “Is there a different highway you’d like to die on?
BECAUSE WE CAN ARRANGE THAT.” “Bitch,” Sterling hissed.
Cristina whirled around in her seat. There was a cracking sound like a gunshot; a second later, as they hurtled past a group of surfers walking along the highway’s edge, Emma realized she’d slapped Sterling across the face.
“Don’t you call my friend a bitch,” Cristina said. “You understand?”
Sterling rubbed his jaw. His eyes were slits. “You’ve got no right to touch me.” There was a whine in his voice. “Nephilim only deal with issues that break the Accords.”
“Wrong,” Perfect Diego said. “We deal with any issues we feel like.” “But Belinda told us—”
“Yeah, about that,” Cristina said. “How did you end up joining that cult or whatever it is at the Midnight Theater?”
Sterling exhaled a shaky breath. “We’re sworn to secrecy,” he said finally. “If I tell you everything I know, are you going to protect me?”
“Maybe,” said Emma. “But you’re tied up and we’re all heavily armed. You really fancy your chances if you don’t tell?”
Sterling glanced at Perfect Diego, who was holding the dagger idly, as if it were a pen. Nevertheless, there was a sense of coiled power about him, as if he could explode into action in under a second. If Sterling had any brains he’d be terrified. “I got into it through a producer friend of mine. He said he’d found a way to guarantee that everything you touched turned to gold. Not literally,” Sterling hastened to add.
“No one thought you meant literally, idiot,” said Emma.
Sterling made an angry noise, cut off quickly by Diego pressing the knife tighter against his throat. “Who’s the Guardian?” Cristina demanded. “Who leads the Followers at the theater?”
“I’ve got no idea,” Sterling said sulkily. “Nobody knows. Not even Belinda.”
“I saw Belinda at the Shadow Market, shilling for your little cult,” Emma said. “I’m guessing they promised money and luck if you came to their meetings. You just had to risk the lotteries. Am I right?” “They didn’t seem like that big a risk,” said Sterling. “They were only once in a while. If you got
picked, no one could touch you. No one could interfere until you took a life.”
Cristina’s face twisted in disgust. “And those who took lives? What happened to them?”
“They got whatever they wanted,” Sterling said. “To be rich. Beautiful. After a sacrifice, everyone gets stronger, but the one who performs the sacrifice gets stronger than the rest.”
“How do you know?” said Cristina. “Had any of the people at the theater been picked in the Lottery before?”
“Belinda,” said Sterling promptly. “She was the first. Most of the others didn’t stick around. They’re probably off somewhere, living it up. Well, except Ava.”
“Ava Leigh was a Lottery winner?” asked Emma. “The one who lived with Stanley Wells?” Perfect Diego jammed his knife harder against Sterling’s throat. “What did you know about Ava?” Sterling winced away from the knife. “Yeah, she was a Lottery winner. Look, it didn’t matter who
winners picked to kill—no Downworlders except faeries, that was the only rule. Some of the Lottery winners chose people they knew. Ava decided to kill her sugar-daddy boyfriend. She was tired of him. But it freaked her out. She killed herself after. Drowned herself in his pool. It was stupid of her. She could have had anything she wanted.”
“She didn’t commit suicide,” Emma said. “She was murdered.” He shrugged. “Nah, she offed herself. That’s what everyone said.”
Cristina looked as if she was struggling to stay calm. “You knew her,” she said. “Don’t you care? Do you feel anything? What about guilt over the girl you killed?”
“Some girl from the Shadow Market,” said Sterling with a shrug. “Used to sell jewelry there. I told her I could get her designs into department stores. Make her rich, if she’d just meet me.” He snorted. “Everyone’s greedy.”
They had passed the initial highway clutter and reached a stretch of beach, dotted with blue lifeguard towers.
“That blue fire,” Emma said, thinking out loud. “The Guardian was in it. They took the body to the convergence. You stabbed her, but the Guardian grabbed her before she died. So the deaths happen at the convergence, and everything else too—the burning, submerging the body in seawater, carving the runes, the whole ritual?”
“Yeah. And I was supposed to be taken to the convergence too,” Sterling said, resentment coloring his voice. “It’s where the Guardian would have thanked me—given me anything I wanted. I could have seen the ritual. One death strengthens us all.”
Emma and Cristina exchanged looks. Sterling wasn’t clearing things up; he was making them more confusing.
“You said she was the last,” said Diego. “What happens after this? What’s the payoff?”
Sterling grunted. “No idea. I didn’t get where I am in life by asking questions I don’t need the answers to.”
“Get where you are in life?” Emma snorted. “You mean tied up in the back of a car?”
Emma could see the lights of the Malibu Pier up ahead. They shone against the dark water. “None of that matters. The Guardian will find me,” Sterling said.
“I wouldn’t count on it,” said Perfect Diego in his low voice.
Emma turned off the highway onto their familiar road. She could see the lights of the Institute in the distance, illuminating the rutted track under her wheels. “And when he does find you?” she said. “The Guardian? What do you think he’ll do, just welcome you back after you told us all this? You don’t think he’ll make you pay?”
“There’s one more thing I have to give him,” Sterling said. “Belinda did. And even Ava did. One last, last thing. And then—”
Sterling broke off with a yowl of terror. The Institute loomed up in front of them. Perfect Diego swore. “Emma!” Cristina gasped. “Emma, stop!”
Emma saw the familiar shape of the Institute, the drive ahead of them, the canyon and hills rising behind. There were shadows everywhere, a ring of them around the Institute, but only when the car crested the last rise and the headlights swept the building did Emma feel the shock of what she was seeing.
The Institute was surrounded.
Figures—dark, human-shaped—contained the Institute in a loose square. They stood shoulder to shoulder, absolutely silent and unmoving, like old drawings Emma had seen of Greek warriors.
Sterling yelled something incomprehensible. Emma slammed on the brakes as the headlights skittered across the trampled brush in front of the building. The figures were illuminated, lit up like daylight. Some were familiar. She recognized the curly-haired boy from the band at the Midnight Theater, his face set in a stony snarl. Beside him was a woman—dark hair, red lips—who raised a hand with a gun in it—
“Belinda!” Sterling sounded stupidly terrified. “She—”
Belinda’s hand rocked back with the ricochet of the gun. An explosion of noise seared Emma’s ears as the right front tire of the car exploded, torn in two by a bullet. The car slewed violently to the side and skidded into a ditch.
Darkness and the sound of shattering glass. The steering wheel slammed into Emma’s chest, knocking the breath out of her; the headlights went out. She heard Cristina scream, and scrambling noises from the backseat. She wrenched at her seat belt, ripping it free, turning to reach for Cristina.
She was gone. The backseat was also empty. Emma bashed the door open and half-fell out onto the packed dirt. She struggled to her feet and whirled around.
The car was mashed nose down into a ditch, smoke rising from the burst tire. Diego was coming around from the passenger-side door, boots crunching on the dry earth. He was carrying Cristina, his left arm slung under her knees; one of her legs hung at an odd angle. She had a hand on his shoulder, her fingers bunched in the sleeve of his sweatshirt.
He looked very heroic in the moonlight. A bit like Superman. Perfect Diego. Emma kind of wanted to throw something at him but she was afraid of hitting Cristina. He jerked his manly chin toward the Institute. “Emma!”
Emma whirled. The figures surrounding the Institute had turned—they were facing toward her now, toward her and Diego and the wreckage of the car.
In the moonlight they looked eerie. Stark figures in black and gray, a blur of faces. Weres, half faeries, vampire darklings, and ifrits: the Followers.
“Emma!” Perfect Diego called again. He had his stele out and was inking a healing rune on Cristina’s arm. “Sterling’s on the move—he has your sword—”
Emma whirled as Sterling shot past her, moving with inhuman speed. He’d freed his wrists and ankles, but blood stained the hems of his trousers. “Belinda!” he shouted. “I’m here! Help me!” He held something up as he ran, something that glowed gold in the darkness.
Rage exploded inside Emma’s chest. It shot through her veins like lit gunpowder and then she was running, slamming across the grass and dirt after Sterling. She leaped over rocks, shot past blurred figures. Sterling was fast, but she was just that much faster. She caught up to him nearly at the Institute steps. He had almost reached Belinda.
She crashed into him, grabbed his jacket, and swung him around. His face was dirty, blood-streaked, pale with terror. She seized the wrist that held Cortana. Her sword. Her father’s sword. Her only connection to a family that seemed to have dissolved away into the past like powder in rain.
She heard a crack. Sterling shrieked and fell to his knees, Cortana dropping to the ground. She reached down to seize it up; by the time she straightened she was surrounded by a small group of Followers, led by Belinda.
“What have you told her, Sterling?” Belinda demanded, showing small white teeth behind her red lips. “N-nothing.” Sterling was clutching his wrist. It looked badly broken. “I took the sword to give to you
—proof of good faith—”
“What would I want with a sword? Idiot.” She turned to Emma. “We’re here for him,” she said, pointing at Sterling. “Let us take him and we’ll go.” She grinned at Emma. “If you’re wondering how we knew to come here, the Guardian has eyes everywhere.”
“Emma!” It was Cristina’s voice; Emma whirled and saw Cristina on the outside of the circle, Perfect Diego beside her. To Emma’s relief, Cristina was only limping a little bit.
“Let them in,” Belinda said, and the crowd parted so that Perfect Diego and Cristina took their places on either side of Emma. The circle closed back up around them.
“What’s going on?” Perfect Diego demanded. His gaze lit on Belinda. “Are you the Guardian?”
She burst out laughing. After a moment several of the other Followers, including the curly-haired boy, started to laugh alongside her. “Me? What a hoot you are, handsome.” She winked at Perfect Diego as if acknowledging his perfectness. “I’m not the Guardian, but I know what the Guardian wants. I know what’s necessary. Right now the Guardian needs Sterling. The Followers need him.”
Sterling whimpered, his cry lost among the laughter of the crowd. Emma was looking around, gauging the distance to the front doors of the Institute; if they could get inside, the Followers couldn’t come after them. But then they’d be trapped—and they couldn’t call the Conclave for help.
Sterling curled a hand around Perfect Diego’s ankle. Apparently he had decided Perfect Diego was his best bet for mercy in the circumstances. “Don’t let them take me,” he begged. “They’ll kill me. I screwed up. They’ll kill me.”
“We can’t let you have him,” said Perfect Diego. Emma was mostly sure she was imagining the regret in his voice. “Our mandate is to protect mundanes unless they are posing a danger to our lives.”
“I don’t know,” Emma said, thinking of the green-haired girl bleeding out her life. “This one seems killable.”
Belinda gave them a red-lipped smile. “He’s not a mundane. None of us are.”
“Our mandate is to protect, either way,” Perfect Diego said. Emma exchanged a glance with Cristina, but could tell Cristina agreed with Perfect Diego. Mercy was a quality the Angel expected Shadowhunters to have. Mercy was the Law. Sometimes Emma worried her capacity for mercy had been burned away in the Dark War.
“We need him for information,” Cristina said quietly, but Belinda heard it, and her lips tightened. “We need him more,” she said. “Now hand him over and we’ll go. There’s three of you and three
hundred of us. Think about it.” Emma threw Cortana.
It whipped out of her hand so quickly that Belinda had no chance to react; it spun around the circle of Followers like a needle around a compass, flickering and golden. She heard shouts, cries, half-pain and half-astonishment, and then the sword was back in her hand, thunking solidly into her palm.
Belinda looked around in genuine astonishment. The tip of Cortana had just grazed the shirtfronts of the circle of Followers; some were bleeding, some just had rips in their clothes. All were clutching at themselves, looking stunned and frightened.
Cristina seemed delighted. Perfect Diego just seemed thoughtful. “Outnumbered isn’t necessarily overmatched,” said Emma. “Kill her,” Belinda said, raised her gun, and pulled the trigger.
Emma barely had time to brace herself before something flew across her field of vision—something bright and silver—and she heard a loud crack. A dagger dropped to the ground at her feet, a bullet lodged in the handle.
Perfect Diego was looking at her, his hand still open. He’d thrown the dagger, averted the bullet. Maybe not saved her life—gear repelled bullets—but definitely prevented her from being knocked to the ground, maybe killed with a second shot to the head.
She didn’t have time to mouth a thanks. The other Followers lunged toward her, and this time the cold of battle shot through her veins. The world slowed down around her. The half-fey boy with the curly hair launched himself into the air, hurtling toward her. Emma speared him before he could hit the ground, her blade shearing through his chest. Blood sprayed around her as she jerked the sword back, a slow, hot rain of red droplets.
The curly-haired boy crumpled to the ground. There was blood on Cortana’s blade as Emma swung it again, and again, and the sword became a golden blur around her. She could hear screams. Sterling was cowering on the ground, his arms over his head.
She cut at legs and arms; she chopped guns out of hands. Diego and Cristina were doing the same, slicing out with their weapons. Cristina flung her butterfly knife; it slammed into Belinda’s shoulder, knocking her backward. She swore and pulled the knife free, tossing it aside. Though there was a hole torn in her white sweater, there was no blood.
Emma backed up until she was standing in front of Sterling. “Get to the Institute!” she shouted at Cristina. “Get the others!”
Cristina nodded and darted toward the steps. She was halfway there when a gray-skinned, red-eyed darkling lunged toward her, sinking its teeth into her already injured leg.
Cristina screamed. Emma and Diego both turned as Cristina stabbed down with a dagger and the darkling fell away, choking on blood. There was a rip in the leg of Cristina’s gear.
Diego tore across the grass toward her. The moment had cost Emma her concentration; she saw a flicker of movement out of the corner of her eye and found Belinda hurtling toward her, her left hand outstretched. It fastened around Emma’s throat.
She choked, grasping at Belinda’s other arm. She yanked hard, and as Belinda staggered away from her, her glove slipped off.
Her right arm ended in a bare stump. Belinda’s face contorted, and Emma heard Cristina exclaim. She had her dagger out, though the leg of her gear was soaked with blood. Diego stood beside her, a massive shadow against the shape of the Institute.
“Your hand’s missing,” Emma gasped, raising Cortana between her and Belinda. “Just like Ava’s—” The Institute doors slammed open. Light so bright it was blinding blazed up and Emma froze, bloody
sword in hand. She looked up to see Julian in the doorway.
He stood with a seraph blade raised over his head and it burned with light like a star. It bleached the sky, the moon. The Followers actually fell back from it, as if it were the light of a crashing aircraft.
In that still moment, Emma looked directly at Jules and saw him look back at her. A fierce pride rose inside her. This was her Julian. A gentle boy with a gentle soul, but every soul contains its own opposite, and the opposite of gentleness was ruthlessness—the beautiful wreckage of mercy.
She could see it on his face. To save her he would kill everyone else in the vicinity. He wouldn’t think twice until it was over, when he’d wash the blood down the drain of the sink like scarlet paint. And he would not regret it.
“Stop,” Julian said, and though he didn’t shout, didn’t yell, the Followers who were still moving froze in place, as if they could read his expression just like Emma could. As if they were afraid.
Emma grabbed Sterling by the back of his shirt, yanking him to his feet. “Come on,” she said, and began pushing through the crowd, dragging him toward the Institute. If she could just get him inside—
But Belinda was suddenly pushing herself forward, shoving among the other Followers to get close to the Institute steps. There was still no blood around the rip in her sweater. Her glove was back on her hand. Her dark hair was coming out of its elaborately crafted Victory rolls, and she looked furious.
She bounded forward, placing herself between Emma and the stairs. Cristina and Diego were just behind them; Cristina was wincing, her face pale.
“Julian Blackthorn!” Belinda shouted. “I demand that you let us take this man”—she pointed at Sterling —“away from here! And that you cease interfering in our business! The Followers of the Guardian have nothing to do with you or your Laws!”
Julian descended a single step. The glow of his seraph blade lit his eyes to an eerie undersea green. “How dare you come here,” he said flatly. “How dare you invade the space of the Nephilim; how dare you make demands. Your idiot cult wasn’t our business, no, until you started murdering. Now it’s our business to make you stop. And we will.”
Belinda gave a harsh laugh. “There are three hundred of us—there are barely any of you—and you’re children—”
“Not all of us are children,” said another voice, and Malcolm Fade stepped out onto the stairs beside Julian.
The Followers gaped. Clearly, most of them had no idea who he was. But the fact that he was surrounded by a halo of crackling violet fire was obviously making quite a few of them nervous.
“I’m Malcolm Fade,” he said. “High Warlock of Los Angeles. You do know what warlocks are, don’t you?”
Emma couldn’t suppress a wild giggle. Perfect Diego was staring. Sterling was pallid with terror. “One of us,” said Malcolm, “is worth five hundred of you. I can burn you to the ground in six seconds
flat and use the ashes to stuff a teddy bear for my girlfriend. Not that I have a girlfriend at the moment,” he added, “but one lives in hope.”
“You’re a warlock, and you serve Nephilim?” Belinda demanded. “After all they’ve done to Downworlders?”
“Don’t try to use your feeble knowledge of a thousand years of politics on me, child. It won’t work.” Malcolm looked at his watch. “I’m giving you one minute,” he said. “Anyone who’s still here after that gets set on fire.”
With a sigh, Malcolm pointed at a shrub of California sage clustered by the bottom of the stairs. It burst into flames. A choking, sage-smelling smoke rose up. Flames danced along his fingers.
The Followers turned and ran for the road. Emma stood as they hurtled around her, as if she were planted in the middle of an avalanche. In a moment all of them were gone but Belinda.
There was a terrible rage on her face, and an even more terrible despair. It was a look that froze them all in place.
She raised her dark eyes to Julian. “You,” she said. “You may think you’ve defeated us now, with your pet warlock, but the things we know about you—oh, the things we could tell the Clave. The truth about your uncle. The truth about who runs this Institute. The truth—”
Julian had gone white, but before he could speak or move, an agonized shriek tore the air. It was Sterling. He clutched at his chest, and as all of them, even Belinda, turned to stare, he crumpled to the grass. A gout of blood spilled from his mouth, staining the ground. His eyes bugged out with fear as his knees gave way; he clawed at the ground, his pink scarab ring sparking on his finger, and was still.
“He’s dead,” said Cristina in disbelief. She turned on Belinda. “What did you do?”
Briefly Belinda looked blank, as if she were just as shocked as the others. Then she said, “Wouldn’t you like to know,” and sashayed up to the body. She bent as if to examine it.
A moment later a knife flashed in the fingers of her left hand. There were two grotesque thick chopping noises and Sterling’s hands came away from his wrists. Belinda caught them up, grinning.
“Thanks,” she said. “The Guardian will be pleased to know he’s dead.”
Emma flashed back to Ava in the pool, the ragged skin around her severed hand. Did the Guardian always insist on this specific grisly proof that those he wanted dead were dead? But what about Belinda? She was still alive. Was it meant to be a tribute?
Belinda grinned, cutting into Emma’s thoughts.
“Later, little Shadowhunters,” she said. And she stalked off toward the road, her bloody trophies held high.
Emma took a step forward, meaning to climb the Institute steps, but Malcolm held up a hand to stop her. “Emma, stay where you are,” he said. “Cristina, step back from the body.”
Cristina did as he asked, her hand at her throat, touching her medallion. Sterling’s body lay crumpled at her feet, curled in on itself. Blood no longer pumped from his severed wrists, but the ground around him was wet with it.
As Cristina stepped back with alacrity, she bumped into Perfect Diego. He raised his hands as if to steady her, and to Emma’s surprise, she allowed it. She was wincing, clearly in pain. Blood had spattered onto her shoe.
Malcolm lowered his hand, curling his fingers under. Sterling’s body burst into flame. Mage-fire, burning hard and quick and clean. The body seemed to glow intensely for a moment before sifting away to ash. The fire vanished and there was only a charred and bloodstained patch on the ground to show where it had been.
Emma realized she was still holding Cortana. She knelt, mechanically wiped off the blade on the dry
grass, and sheathed it. As she rose to her feet, her gaze sought out Julian. He was leaning against one of the pillars by the front doors, the seraph blade, now dark, dangling in his hand. He met her gaze for only a moment; his was bleak.
The front door of the Institute opened and Mark came out. “Is it over?” Mark asked. “It’s over,” Julian said wearily. “For now, anyway.”
Mark’s gaze scanned over the others—Emma, then Cristina—and lit on Diego. Diego looked puzzled at the intensity of his gaze. “Who’s that?”
“That’s Diego,” said Emma. “Diego Rocio Rosales.” “Perfect Diego?” said Mark, sounding incredulous.
Diego looked even more puzzled. Before he could say anything, Cristina dropped to the ground, clutching at her leg. “I need,” she said, a little breathlessly, “another iratze—”
Diego lifted her up into his arms and ran up the stairs, ignoring her protests that she could walk. “I must get her inside,” he said, pushing past Julian and then Mark. “You have an infirmary?”
“Of course,” Julian said. “Second floor—”
“Cristina!” Emma called, running up the stairs after them, but they had already disappeared inside. “She’ll be fine,” Malcolm said. “Better not to chase after them and frighten the kids.”
“How are the kids?” Emma asked anxiously. “Ty, Dru—” “They’re all fine,” Mark said. “I was looking after them.” “And Arthur?”
“Didn’t even seem to notice anything was happening,” said Mark with a quizzical look. “It was odd—” Emma turned to Julian. “It is odd,” she said. “Julian, what did Belinda mean? When she said she knew
who really ran the Institute?”
Julian shook his head. “I don’t know.”
Malcolm exhaled an exasperated breath. “Jules,” he said. “Tell her.”
Julian looked exhausted—more than exhausted. Emma had read somewhere that people drowned when they became too tired to keep themselves afloat any longer. They gave up and let the sea take them. Julian looked that tired now. “Malcolm, don’t,” he whispered.
“Can you even remember all the lies you’ve told?” Malcolm asked, and there was none of his usual insouciance in his look. His eyes were hard as amethyst. “You didn’t tell me about your brother’s return —”
“Oh—Mark!” Emma exclaimed, realizing suddenly that of course Malcolm hadn’t known before tonight that he was in the Institute. Quickly, she put her hand over her mouth. Mark raised an eyebrow at her. He seemed remarkably calm.
“You concealed it,” Malcolm went on, “knowing that I would realize it meant faerie involvement in these murders, and that I would know I might be breaking the Cold Peace by helping you.”
“You couldn’t break it if you didn’t know,” Julian said. “I was protecting you, too.”
“Maybe,” said Malcolm. “But I’ve had enough. Tell them the truth. Or that will be the end of my help.” Julian nodded. “I’ll tell Emma and Mark,” he said. “It’s not fair on the others.”
“Your uncle would probably be able to tell you who said this,” Malcolm said. “‘Do nothing secretly; for Time sees and hears all things, and discloses all.’”
“I can tell you who said it.” Julian’s eyes burned with a low fire. “Sophocles.” “Clever boy,” said Malcolm. There was affection in his voice, but weariness, too.
He turned and marched down the steps. He paused when he reached the bottom, staring off past Emma, his eyes too dark for her to read. He seemed to be seeing something in the distance she couldn’t, either something too far in the future to imagine or too far in the past to remember.
“You’ll help us, still?” Julian called after him. “Malcolm, you won’t . . .” He trailed off; Malcolm had vanished into the shadows of the night. “Abandon us?” he said, speaking as if he knew no one was
Julian was still leaning against the pillar as if it was the only thing holding him up, and Emma couldn’t keep her mind from flashing to the pillars in the Hall of Accords, to Julian when he was twelve, crumpled against one and sobbing into his hands.
He’d cried since then, but not often. There wasn’t much, she supposed, that measured up to having killed your father.
The seraph blade in his hand had burned out. He flung it aside just as Emma came close to him. She slid her hand into his now-empty one. There was no passion in the gesture, nothing that recalled that night on the beach. Only the absolute solidity of the friendship they had shared for more than a decade.
He looked over at her then, and she saw the gratitude in his eyes. For a moment there was nothing in the world but the two of them, breathing, his fingertip dancing across her bare wrist. T-H-A-N-K Y-O-U.
“Malcolm said there was something you needed to tell us,” said Mark. “You seemed to agree. What is it? If we keep the kids waiting much longer, they’ll riot.”
Julian nodded, straightening up, drawing away from the pillar. He was the calm older brother again, the good soldier, the boy with a plan.
“I’ll go tell them what’s going on. You two, wait for me in the dining room,” he said. “Malcolm was right. We need to talk.”
Los Angeles, 2008
Julian would always remember the day his uncle Arthur first arrived at the Los Angeles Institute.
It was only the third time he’d ever been there, even though his brother, Andrew, Julian’s father, had headed up the biggest Institute on the West Coast for almost fifteen years. Relations had been strained between Andrew and the rest of the Blackthorns ever since a faerie woman had arrived on his doorstep carrying two tiny sleeping children, declared them to be Andrew’s son and daughter with the Lady Nerissa of the Seelie Court, and deposited them there to be taken into his care.
Even the fact that his wife had adopted them quickly, adored them, and treated them just as she treated her other children with Andrew hadn’t entirely repaired the breach. Julian always thought there was more to it than his father was admitting. Arthur seemed to think so too, but neither of them spoke of what they knew, and now that Andrew was dead, Julian suspected the story had died with him.
Julian stood at the top of the Institute steps, watching his uncle get out of the car Diana had picked him up in from the airport. Arthur could have Portaled, but he’d chosen to travel like a mundane. He looked crumpled and travel worn as he headed up the steps, Diana behind him. Julian could see that her mouth was set in a hard line, and wondered if Arthur had done something to annoy her. He hoped not; Diana had been at the Los Angeles Institute for only a month and already Julian liked her enormously. It would be better for everyone if she and Arthur got along.
Arthur entered the Institute foyer, blinking as his sun-dazzled eyes adjusted to the dimness inside. The other Blackthorns were there, dressed in their best clothes—Dru was wearing velvet, and Tiberius had a tie knotted around his throat. Livvy held Tavvy in her arms, beaming hopefully. Emma stood warily at the foot of the steps, clearly very aware of her status as part of the family, but still not one of them.
She’d had her braids pinned up, loops of pale hair swinging like coiled rope on either side of her head. Julian still remembered that.
Diana made the introductions. Julian shook hands with his uncle, who, up close, still didn’t look much like Julian’s father. Maybe that was a good thing. Julian’s last memory of his father was not a pleasant one.
Julian stared at his uncle as Arthur clasped his hand in a firm grip. Arthur had the Blackthorn brown hair, though it was almost entirely gray, and blue-green eyes behind glasses. His features were broad and rough and he still limped slightly from the injury he’d incurred during the Dark War.
Arthur turned to greet the rest of the children and Julian felt something jolt through his veins. He saw Dru’s hopeful face turned up, Ty’s shy sideways glance, and thought: Love them. Love them. For the Angel’s sake, love them.
It didn’t matter if anyone loved him. He was twelve. He was old enough. He had Marks, he was a Shadowhunter. He had Emma. But the others still needed someone to kiss them good night, ward off the nightmares, bandage scraped knees, and soothe hurt feelings. Someone to teach them how to grow up. Arthur moved to Drusilla and shook her hand awkwardly. The smile faded off her face as he went to
Livvy next, ignoring Tavvy, and then bent to Tiberius, his hand outstretched. Ty didn’t reach back.
“Look at me, Tiberius,” Arthur said, his voice slightly hoarse. He cleared his throat. “Tiberius!” He
straightened up and turned to Julian. “Why won’t he look at me?” “He doesn’t always like to make eye contact,” Julian said. “Why?” Arthur asked. “What’s wrong with him?”
Julian saw Livvy slip her free hand into Ty’s. It was the only thing that stopped him from knocking his uncle down to get to his younger brother himself. “Nothing. It’s just how he is.”
“Odd,” Arthur said, and turned away from Ty, dismissing him forever. He looked at Diana. “Where’s my office?”
Diana’s lips thinned further. Julian felt as if he were choking. “Diana doesn’t live here or work for us,” he said. “She’s a tutor; she works for the Clave. I can help you find your office.”
“Good.” Uncle Arthur picked up his suitcase. “I have a lot of work to do.”
Julian went up the stairs feeling as if his head were full of tiny explosions, drowning out Uncle Arthur’s lecture about the important monograph on the Iliad that he was working on. Apparently the Dark War had interrupted his work, some of which had been destroyed in the attack on the London Institute.
“Very inconvenient, war,” said Arthur, stepping into the office that had been Julian’s father’s. The walls were light wood; dozens of windows looked out onto the sea and the sky.
Particularly for the people who died in it, Julian thought, but his uncle was shaking his head, his knuckles whitening around the handle of his briefcase. “Oh no, no,” Arthur said. “This won’t do at all.” When he turned away from the windows, Julian saw that he was white and sweating. “Too much glass,” he said, his voice lowering to a mumble. “Light—too bright. Too much.” He coughed. “Is there an attic?”
Julian hadn’t been in the attic of the Institute for years, but he remembered where it was, up a narrow flight of stairs from the fourth floor. He trudged up there with his uncle, coughing on dust. The room itself had floorboards blackened with mold, stacks of old trunks, and a massive desk with a broken leg propped in one corner.
Uncle Arthur set his case down. “Perfect,” he said.
Julian didn’t see him again until the next night, when hunger must have driven him downstairs. Arthur sat at the dinner table in silence, eating furtively. Emma tried to talk to him that night, and then the next. Eventually even she gave up.
“I don’t like him,” Drusilla said one day, frowning as he retreated down the hall. “Can’t the Clave send us another uncle?”
Julian put his arms around her. “I’m afraid not. He’s what we’ve got.”
Arthur became more withdrawn. Sometimes he would speak in snatches of poetry or a few words of Latin; once he asked Julian to pass the salt in Ancient Greek. One night Diana stayed for dinner; after Arthur retired for the night, she took Julian aside.
“Maybe it would be better if he didn’t eat with the family,” she said quietly. “You could bring him up a tray at night.”
Julian nodded. The anger and fear that had been like explosions going off in his head had quieted to the dull throb of disappointment. Uncle Arthur was not going to love his brothers and sisters. He was not going to tuck them into bed and kiss their scraped knees. He was not going to be any help at all.
Julian determined that he would love them twice as fiercely as any adult could. He would do everything for them, he thought, as he went up to the attic one night after his uncle had lived in the Institute for some months. He would make sure they had everything they wanted. He would make sure they never missed what they didn’t have; he would love them enough to make up for everything they’d lost.
He shouldered open the door to the attic. For a moment, blinking in disorientation, he thought that the room was empty. That his uncle had gone, or was downstairs, sleeping, as he sometimes did at odd
“Andrew?” The voice came from the floor. There was Uncle Arthur, hunched over, his back against the massive desk. It looked as if he were sitting in a pool of darkness. It took Julian a moment to realize that it was blood—black in the dim light, sticky pools of it everywhere, drying on the floor, gumming together loose pages of paper. Arthur’s shirtsleeves were rolled up, his shirt itself liberally splattered with blood. He held a dull knife in his right hand. “Andrew,” he said in a slurred voice, rolling his head toward Julian. “Forgive me. I had to do it. I had—too many thoughts. Dreams. Their voices are carried to me on blood, you see. When I spill the blood, I stop hearing them.”
Somehow Julian found his voice. “Whose voices?”
“The angels in Heaven above,” said Arthur. “And the demons down under the sea.” He pressed the pad of a finger to the tip of the knife and watched the blood bead there.
But Julian barely heard him. He was staring down the barrel of the years and the Clave and the Law. “Lunacy” was what they called it when a Shadowhunter heard voices speak to them that no one else
could hear, when they saw things that no one else could see. There were other words, uglier ones, but there was no understanding, no sympathy, and no tolerance. Lunacy was a taint, a sign that your brain had rejected the perfection of the Angel’s blood. Those who were considered lunatics were closed up in the Basilias and never allowed out again.
They certainly were not allowed to run Institutes.
It seemed that the matter of not being loved enough was not the ugliest possibility the Blackthorn children had to face after all.