The Wicked Within
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.
The boat dipped again with Henri’s weight, rocking slightly from side to side. “Need help with that, Vi?”
“Nope.” Violet eased past Henri and stepped onto an old wooden box. “I’m captain today.”
She pulled her mask down over her face, as though she was preparing for war, not a trip down the bayou. The boat’s engine roared, startling two snowy egrets nearby. Black smoke sputtered from the motor as Violet revved the engine a few times before reversing us away from the dock.
Henri smiled at me, lifting his brow. “Captain it is. Allons-y!” he called to her. Let’s go.
We raced across the wide Mississippi, bouncing over the choppy waves, the fine spray dampening our skin. Violet guided the boat like she’d been born to it, and I supposed she had, being raised out in the bayous and swamps of New 2. She knew exactly how to navigate us to our destination—a secluded house deep in the bayou, owned by an old man, a trapper called the River Witch.
According to Violet, the River Witch was very powerful and knowledgeable. He was not in a coven, not a member of the three main witch families that populated the city, nor was he a
warlock, which was what the few male witches in existence were called these days. I’d learned in one of my classes at Presby that there was a time long ago when all magical practitioners, whatever their gender, were called “witch.”
The constant rise and dip of the boat made my stomach tight and uneasy. I gripped the metal hull with one hand, my other holding the edge of the bench, trying to stay anchored to my seat. Violet pushed the small boat to its limit, and I knew she was making up time. No one wanted to be stuck in the swamps at night.
We entered the wide channel the hurricanes had cut through Bayou Segnette State Park and Jean Lafitte Preserve. The bayou connected the Mississippi to Lake Cataouatche. Off the bayou were smaller channels, eerie dark places. Dangerous places. The perfect places for all manner of creatures to hide.
The boat slowed as Violet navigated down a smaller channel under a cathedral of moss-draped trees.
Strangely, it felt absent of temperature here. Neither hot nor cold. Just stagnant and damp, causing a film of humidity to cover my face. The smells of mud and decomposing sea life hung heavy in the air. A water moccasin slithered through the water, making serpentine waves, before curling itself around a small cypress root. Its body bobbed in the wake as we went by, and my skin crawled.
After a few more miles, Violet steered the boat into another
narrow channel and slowed until we were coasting. Mist hovered over the dark water, and through it, a yellow glow appeared and a narrow boat took shape. It looked like it came from another time, another world. Made of reeds, the sides were low but the bow and stern curved high and inward to a point. A lantern hung from one of the curves, casting its dim glow over the boat. A hunched-over old man, his face partially hidden by the hood of a dark cloak, stood at one end, holding a long pole to push the boat forward.
I glanced down at Pascal stretched out by my side and muttered, “Looks like we’re going to meet the reaper, doesn’t it, boy?”
“He won’t hurt you,” Violet said softly over her shoulder. “As long as you don’t touch his stuff.”
Sebastian once told me that Violet had been raised by a trapper who lived in the swamps. “Is this the person who raised you, Violet?”
This time she shrugged. “He taught me some things.”
As we drew close enough to exchange words with the River Witch, the reed boat turned and moved deeper into the bayou.
Eventually the River Witch’s house appeared, rising from the water on short, stocky stilts. It was one story, with a porch that ran the length of the house and steps that led to the dock where we tied our boat. Wind chimes and sun catchers hung from the porch’s top frame.
“When we go in, don’t touch anything. He hates when you touch his stuff, okay?” Violet reminded us.
“Don’t worry,” Henri assured her. “We won’t touch anything.”
Single file we went, the witch leading the way, our weight creaking the boards under our feet. Warm yellow light filled each of the windows and spilled from the door as the witch opened it and went inside.
I followed, feeling a huge dose of skepticism mixed with a desperate kind of hope. So far, finding the means to unravel the two-thousand-year-old gorgon curse inside me had been like trying to find a tiny grain of salt in a desert full of sand. The only information I’d found had been in the Novem’s library, where I uncovered two stories, one Sumerian, one Egyptian, of gods cursing a human. And nothing that helped me much, other than vague references to “untangling” the curse words.
I hesitated just inside the doorway, surprised to find the front room crammed with antiquities, the sort of things that would’ve been more at home in the Novem’s library than out here in the swamp. Shields, swords, helms, statues, jewelry, chests . . . all stacked with no rhyme or reason.
Henri gave me a gentle nudge. “You moving or what?”
“Yeah,” I said, distracted by what I saw and wondering just who the River Witch was and how he’d come by all those things. He wasn’t a simple trapper, a simple witch. That much was obvious.
Wariness crept up my spine and tingled the back of my neck as I moved through the room and entered the large kitchen.
Herbs hung from exposed rafters. Mortars and pestles of different sizes lay on the countertops along with rocks, eggs of varying sizes, and jars of preserved animals and reptiles.
Violet crawled onto a high stool at the wide island, and spread her hands over the smooth slab of white marble as a cat jumped onto the counter, arched its back, and hissed at her.
Violet hissed right back.
I smiled. Thatta girl.
“So,” the River Witch started in a roughened voice. He removed his hood and took up position across from us. His was an old face with prominent bones under paper-thin skin, wrinkles, and age spots. He had a proud-looking nose, long and straight, and sharp green eyes that studied us for an uncomfortable moment.
“The gorgon and the shifter come to call. You are without the Mistborn, I see.”
We’d waited as long as we could for Sebastian to take the trip into the bayou with us. But he never showed. If we’d waited any longer our daylight would have been compromised. And we only had the boat for today.
A low, scratchy chuckle came out of the River Witch. “A rocky start. A rocky road. And maybe a rocky end. You prepared
for this, gorgon?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “Of course you are. You’re young. Foolish. Think you can do anything, you and your friends, you and your Mistborn vampire.” He made a sarcastic flourish with his hands. “Romance . . . ,” he sneered before grabbing a ladle from the counter behind him, muttering under his breath. “Nothing but trouble. Heartache that lasts millennia. Violet, bring me that jar of oil behind you.”
Violet went to the shelf and lifted a fat glass jar, bumping an adjacent clay jar. A tiny, muted squeak erupted, followed by scratching and scrambling, like a bird trapped in a chimney. Two other jars next to it, both clay, both secured with lids, began the same kind of racket. The witch shouted an irritated command, and they stopped as Violet hefted the jar onto the table.
“Special gorgon,” the witch said, taking off the lid. “God-killer. Powers before your time. Powers to do what others could not. That is important. So important.” He dipped the ladle into the oil. “This . . . Hmm. This is the good stuff.” He laughed as though his words were a joke. His head lifted. “How old are you?”
He returned to his task. “Not long then. Not long until you turn gorgon for good. That’s why you’re here. To find out if I can lift your curse.”
“Or if you know someone who can,” I said, trying to keep the skepticism from my voice.
His shoulders shook with more laughter. “Oh, no doubt about that. I know them all.”
The curse would change me forever on my twenty-first birthday—the same age Medusa had been when Athena had cursed her. That left me three and a half years to figure out how to not end up like my ancestors, who’d chosen suicide rather than become a snake-headed horror, or who’d hidden themselves away from civilization and from the Sons of Perseus, hunters Athena had ordered to slay each successive gorgon.
Fate played out with each generation. Somehow the line continued, despite Athena. Despite the hunters. It was a cycle that never broke.
My father had been a hunter. And instead of killing my mother, he fell in love with her. So the cycle was breaking. It had begun with him, and it would end with me.
It had to.
The witch lifted a large ladleful of oil from the jar and dumped it onto the marble. It spread out slowly. “Give me your blade,” he said quickly, shoving out his hand.
“Hurry. Give it to me.”
I withdrew the new blade Bran, my teacher, had given to me and handed it over, grip first. The witch snatched it and sliced his palm. Blood drizzled into the oil as I took my blade back, wiped
it on my jeans, and returned it to the sheath at my thigh.
Violet propped her elbows on the counter, rested her chin in her hands, and watched the blood mix with the oil as though watching dough rise or cookies bake.
The witch’s blood began to swirl in the oil. The hairs on my arms stood as small blood symbols began to take shape.
“This is a form of divining.” Henri moved closer, fascinated. “You’re going to read the blood in the oil. The same way others read bones or entrails.”
“Correct. But this is not just any oil, shifter. This oil is from the olives of Athena’s first tree. The one she created to win the city named in her honor. Athens.”
“How did you—” I went to ask.
“Hush, gorgon. The how is not important.” The River Witch hunched over the oil with concentration.
I disagreed. The how was very important. The witch. His words. His connection to Athena, the artifacts piled in the front room . . . How could he know about us, have raised Violet, and be in possession of oil from Athena’s first olive tree? That in and of itself was astounding. Why did I suddenly feel like a tiny game piece on a huge game board? The witch was definitely a player, but whose side was he on, and what was his motive?
“She’ll come.” The witch studied the oil, as though assuring himself. Then he raised his head. “They’ll both come.”
“She already came and left with a blade buried in her chest,” Henri said. “Athena is either dead or wishing she was.”
“No, shifter. She is not dead. Nor is she finished with the gorgon or this city. You have seen but a fraction of what Athena is capable of. You all”—he gave us each a long, measured look—“will soon discover what it means to stare war in the face. You must sacrifice your fear on the altar of protection,” he told Violet, giving her a nod she seemed to understand. “And, you,” he said to me, “you must find the Hands of Zeus or you will lose your family, your friends, your city. Athena will heal and rise again. She will make her twin hurricanes of years past feel like a summer breeze. Find her greatest desire and you, we all, just might survive.”
His words made my pulse pound. I drew in a deep breath to steady myself. “You know what the Hands are?”
“Athena’s child, frozen in stone like the hands that hold it, yes.” The sneer in his voice was unmistakable. “And no, I don’t know who the father is.”
“So I find the Hands. Then what? Turn them over to Athena so she spares us? She knows what I can do. She’ll want me to resurrect her child.” And then she’d kill me afterward. Letting a god-killer run loose was a risk she wouldn’t tolerate. I leaned forward, gripping the edge of the marble countertop. “I need to
find someone who can undo the words she cursed me with now.”
The old witch’s stare collided with mine in a contest of wills. His eyes glinted. I could almost see his mind calculating. Finally he shifted. “Of course you do. Of course. You find the Hands, return them here to me, and I will lift your curse myself.”
I blinked, immediately suspicious. It was too easy. “No offense, but how do I know you can?”
He straightened, his chest puffing out as if I’d pricked his ego. “I trained with Hecate herself, a goddess older than the Olympians and far more powerful. Doubt me if you must, young gorgon. You bring the Hands to me or give them to Athena. The choice is yours.”
I didn’t like the River Witch, though I couldn’t exactly pinpoint a specific reason. He’d raised Violet, which was a point in his favor, but he was also cunning and obviously kept his secrets and motives close to his heart.
“I don’t know where to start,” I finally said, but my guess was on Josephine Arnaud, Novem council member and head of the Arnaud family of vampires. She had either hidden them in the vast dimension of the Novem’s library, placed them somewhere else, or destroyed them.
“You must look to the knowledge of the Novem. You must ask yourself why the Bloodborn Queen cares so much. What is she after? What does she hope to gain?”
“Josephine is a queen?” Violet asked, intrigued.
The witch chuckled. “Josephine Arnaud.” He stuck his pointer finger into the oil and swirled it around in a circle. “There was a time, long ago, when vampire kings and queens ruled their kind in Europe. Unknown to humans, of course. Long, long ago. The Arnaud family once ruled the vampires in France; they once held human titles and lands, immersing themselves in the affairs of the country. Josephine’s grandfather was instrumental in seeing the rise of the Capetian dynasty over the Carolingians in the tenth century. Had times not changed, had god wars not come and gone, had vampires not retreated further and further away from human affairs and fought among themselves, she would be queen of the French vampires. But such is life. . . . ”
I could see it. Josephine acted like a queen and would gladly rule over all of New 2 if she could.
“Titles mean nothing these days,” the witch said wistfully.
Two weeks ago in the ruins, during our last battle, Athena had demanded the return of Anesidora’s Jar, the name for the mythical Pandora’s Box, along with the original contents that were inside it when the jar was gifted to the Novem. Those contents I now knew to be the Hands of Zeus. During the exchange between Athena and the Novem, it was clear that Josephine knew more about the “original contents” than anyone else. It
wasn’t a jump to conclude that Josephine had something to do with their disappearance.
And apparently, the River Witch thought so too.
“So Josephine is our target,” Henri said. I glanced at him and he shrugged. “She’s probably got the Hands or knows where they are. Obviously she has some sort of beef with Athena. Makes sense she’d take what Athena wants.”
The River Witch stayed quiet, returning his attention to the blood symbols. If he was telling the truth, if he could untangle my curse, then getting the Hands was all that mattered.
Hope stirred in my chest, but I tamped it down. No reason to trust in him just yet. He knew too much and was somehow connected to what was going on. Until I knew how, I’d keep him at arm’s length.
I watched as he dragged a finger through the bloody oil, then reached over the counter and drew a symbol on Violet’s cheek with the same finger. “Your day is coming, little one. Just like we talked about; face fear head-on. Putting yourself in harm’s way can be a glorious thing.”
Violet didn’t flinch or blink. She simply stared at the wrinkled old face, either understanding his words and accepting them, or not caring what he said. But I cared, and it frightened me to the core. I moved closer to her, not liking his ominous words one bit. I felt Henri stiffen beside me.
“Leave her alone,” I said. “She’s just a kid.”
The witch’s head canted slowly in my direction, and for a long moment, he said nothing. “Unlike you, Violet is not afraid. She will know her destiny when the time comes. Question is, will you?”