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  • Home > Kelly Keaton > The Wicked Within     

    ONE

    THE CRUNCH OF OUR SHOES on asphalt, leaves, and debris was loud in the quiet of Coliseum Street. Violet, Henri, and I had little less than two hours before nightfall, two hours before the February chill would invade the sun-warmed bricks and pavements, when blurry halos would appear around the few working streetlamps, when the predators, both natural and supernatural, would wake and begin to hunt.

    We had to hurry.

    A barely-there breeze moved through the Garden District. I saw it more than felt it; the jagged strips of Spanish moss waved gently from the limbs of old oaks. All the way down the street, the low-reaching limbs and pale moss created a tunnel of swaying, ghostly dancers.

    The GD was a semi–ghost town, a ruinous, forgotten neighborhood populated by squatters, misfits, and other things that preferred to stay hidden. By day it was a beautiful, overgrown jungle, a strange mix of grandeur and decay—southern opulence turned rotting splendor. But at night the GD was downright still, as though the entire neighborhood was holding its breath, hoping like hell it’d make it to see another sunrise.

    Lining the street were old mansions, some in ruins, some occupied, and some hollow and dark, watching and waiting, daring one to cross their eerie thresholds and lay claim.

    To say I loved the GD was putting it mildly. As someone who’d felt lost and abandoned most of her life, this place spoke to me. In a weird way, I related to those old houses and their wild, overgrown gardens. They were dark and neglected—exactly how I’d been for so long. How I still felt at times, because, honestly, I had a hell of a lot of darkness left in me to deal with. Only now, I wasn’t lost.

    And I wasn’t alone.

    I’d found my home and I’d found my family.

    When the city flooded fifteen years earlier, some of the water never receded from the lower half of the GD. In those areas, mansions rose out of black stagnant water. Statues, streetlamps, iron fences, and even the southern tip of Lafayette Cemetery had become fixtures of the shallow swamp. As we passed the cemetery, with its aboveground tombs and exposed bones, my stomach clenched. In one of those tombs I’d inhaled the ground-up toe bone of the infamous clairvoyant, Alice Cromley, and was shown the day Athena cursed my ancestor, the beautiful and devout Medusa, with an unjust, unwarranted punishment.

    The cemetery had played host to our first battle with Athena and her grotesque minions. And it was the place the goddess had shown me and my friends a vision of the gorgon I’d one day become. It was a memory I wished time would erase, but so far, the memory hadn’t even dimmed. The muted pain of what my future held had slithered beneath my scalp, splitting my skin as milky-white visions crept out, rising like weightless streamers around my face. The brush of their phantom skin, the hissing so close and intimate in my ears . . .

    The memory had a knack for making my hands shake and my blood run cold. I let out a long, quiet exhale, shoving my hands into the front pocket of my hoodie and linking them together.

    “I wonder what she’s gonna do when he grows too big to carry,” Henri said as we continued toward Audubon Park and the Fly.

    I smiled at the picture Violet made as she walked in front of us. Pascal, her small white alligator, clung to her shoulder, his head facing us and bobbing with each step. His mouth hung open in that frozen alligator way, and his eyes seemed glued on me. Violet’s Mardi Gras mask was pushed back onto her head. The white feathers on each side of the mask stuck backward like wings. She wore a black dress that came to her knees. Her socks were mismatched, one black with gray checks, the other solid black.

    “Don’t know,” I answered with a shrug. “Leave him home with some raw fish and the remote control?” Because with Violet that could totally be a reality. She was a strange little girl with huge dark eyes, pale skin, and a short black bob that she cut herself.

    And . . . she had fangs.

    In the years since Athena had slammed her wrath into New Orleans with twin hurricanes, the Novem—nine of the city’s oldest and most elite supernaturals—had bought the ruined city and its surrounding land from the US government. New 2 had become a sanctuary for all things paranormal, and an urban legend to those outside of its now privately owned borders.

    But knowing all that, knowing my share of witches, demigods, and vampires, Violet was in a class by herself. A true mystery. No one knew what she was or why she had fangs. She never said. In fact, she didn’t say much. But when she did, you paid attention.

    That tiny kid with her love of all things Mardi Gras had stabbed Athena in the heart to save me. Violet had even lived through the horror of that same goddess trying to turn her into a gorgon, but the curse hadn’t touched Violet, couldn’t touch her, and when I’d asked why, her answer had been a simple, “It just didn’t.”

    Eventually the swamp squeezed in on the debris-covered road. Brackish water spilled over in places, our shoes squishing on layers of soaked leaves and vegetation. A few cypress trees had grown up through the water, their knobby roots sticking out like rounded, black pyramids. Moss grew everywhere. It was beautiful to look at, but not something you wanted to touch, seeing as most of it was infested with chiggers and spider mites.

    I could handle the swamp. I’d done it before. The key was not to let my imagination wander. That meant shutting down the fear and staying focused on our destination. Simple, right? Deep breath in, another one out. No problem. I slowed my pace and scanned the ground, making damn sure there was nothing coiled or hidden along our path.

    “You know,” Henri began, turning to wait for me to catch up, “I bet they’re more scared of you than you are of them.”

    “Yeah. That doesn’t help at all.” I didn’t bother explaining the nature of my phobia—true adrenaline-inducing, hyperventilating-causing, nausea-inspiring fear of snakes. It wasn’t rational. It just . . . was.

    A small smile played at the corners of his mouth. With his flannel shirt, his long red hair tied back, and all that scruff on the lower half of his face, Henri was close to sporting a mountain-man look. “Figured I’d give it a try,” he said, falling into step beside me. “You know you’ll have to shake your fear at some point, chère, if you live out here with us.”

    “I don’t live out here.” I waved my arm at the swamp. “Says the guy who eats rats and snakes.”

    “I don’t eat them, for chrissakes, just clear them out of buildings.”

    Henri was a shifter, an ability inherited from a distant, godly ancestor. Some people said demigods and shape shifters were one and the same, and the idea didn’t seem far-fetched, not when you considered that in mythology many gods were able to transform into animals. Falcons, crows, stags, bulls, serpents, lions . . . Henri could shift into a beautiful red-tailed hawk. He earned money clearing vermin from buildings outside the French Quarter that the Novem wanted to reclaim.

    He was good at what he did, being a predator and all. . . .

    “Well, I hope they’re paying you well,” I muttered, “because that’s just about the grossest job ever.”

    “Says the girl who’s going to have a head full of snakes one day. The Novem could always pay me better, but it puts money in my pocket and food on the table, so don’t knock it, seeing as how, you know, you eat said food.”

    I let out a sigh. “I’m working on the job thing. . . .” Among other things.

    He bumped me with his shoulder, and I veered precariously close to the water. I bumped him back, shooting him a glare, only to be met with laughter. “Pas de problème,” he said with a shrug, which I gathered to mean “no problem.” “Not like you haven’t been busy fighting gods and making a general nuisance of yourself.”

    “Ha, ha.” But the reality went way beyond being a nuisance. My fight with Athena and my quest to end my curse had been a harrowing, brutal affair so far. And I didn’t expect that to change.

    “They wouldn’t hurt you,” Violet called in a dreamy voice. She’d turned around and was walking backward. “You’re like their queen. I bet you could even control them if you tried.”

    “Yeah. No thanks.” Not something I wanted to hear, picture, or even think about. Just the idea that I could control a bunch of slithering, rubbery, hissing . . . I didn’t care if they loved me; I was terrified. Just seeing one sent my heart skipping and instant panic racing through my limbs.

    I hated that I was afraid. I was armed with a 9mm handgun, a borrowed blade, and a power that could turn things to stone, and yet I was scared of a creature only a fraction of my size.

    “Fear like that comes from somewhere,” Henri said quietly.

    I sidestepped a rotting log. “It comes from outrunning the hurricanes with my mother. You know what happens when it floods, when things are rushing so fast through the swamps and into the city? It pushes everything at you—fish, gators, snakes. . . .” So many snakes.

    “Heard about that. Covington and some other towns out by The Rim were overrun with them.”

    It was a memory, one of a very few, I had of my mother—four years old, running with her from New Orleans to a town that would eventually sit along The Rim, the boundary between New 2 and the rest of the United States. But as horrendous as that memory was, it paled in comparison to my mother giving me up to the state shortly after.

    So began a long succession of foster homes, abuse, and trying to hide my differences. Though, for all my efforts, I couldn’t hide my pale hair and eyes. Now I knew where I got them—Medusa. Her long white hair, thick and straight and shiny, and her eyes so bright they looked like the clearest Caribbean Sea, had attracted the attention of a god who raped her, and another god, Athena, who cursed Medusa for that crime. But in her haste to punish, Athena had made a crucial mistake. She forgot to exempt the gods from the gorgon’s power. She’d created a god-killer.

    Spying the dock and the boat, I let out a relieved breath.

    Violet skipped down the stretch of rickety, low-lying boards and hopped into a metal boat tied to one of the dock’s posts. She set Pascal on the only bench and then tinkered with the engine as I climbed aboard and sat down next to Pascal.

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