A blade so black, p.1
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       A Blade So Black, p.1
 

           L.L. McKinney
A Blade So Black


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  Copyright Page

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  For my Granny, who put a pen in my hand and told me I had the power to shape the world

  “Begin at the beginning … and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

  —LEWIS CARROLL

  Prologue

  CURIOUSER

  Alice couldn’t cry. She couldn’t scream. All she could do was run.

  Her boots slapped the vinyl floor. Light flickered in the red leather. Someone shouted her name. Maybe her mother. Maybe a nurse. A hurricane of rushing blood and her thrashing heart wailed in her ears.

  Out. She had to get out.

  A feeling like a hammer beating at the inside of her skull made everything fuzzy. She didn’t see the white man in the middle of the hall until she was on top of him, but she couldn’t stop. It was like hitting a wall. Then they both hit the ground. The smell of bleach and disinfectant coated her throat.

  She fought to untangle herself from him.

  “Dammit, kid, hold on a second!”

  “Alice!” Mom’s voice chased her past the lobby and through the sliding doors.

  Get. Out.

  Bright red letters danced in the puddles peppering the concrete.

  EMERGENCY

  Grady towered over her, casting a shadow across the night.

  Warm water misted her skin and hung in the air, a rain that wasn’t really committed to falling.

  She raced into the street. A car swerved to avoid her, horn blaring and headlights flashing.

  “You crazy?” the driver hollered at her back.

  Alice had no idea where she was headed. She just ran. Past parking garages and a couple shops. Squat, beige buildings lined the street. The GSU campus. She kept going.

  He was okay.

  And going.

  All day, he was fine. Why did he do this?

  And going.

  Why did he leave me?

  Her lungs kicked at her rib cage, strangled by the hollow feeling clawing at her chest. Her legs pumped until the burn in her stomach rolled to her feet. When they refused to carry her any farther, she dropped to the ground. Water soaked her gloves. Dirt stained the white fabric. Uneven asphalt dug into her knees, scraping them as she crawled the last few feet to sink against a wall.

  Tears and snot ran down her face. “Daddy.” But he was gone. Dead.

  “Poor child,” someone nearby whispered, the words dragging across their tongue in a growl. “So alone. So afraid.”

  Panting around hiccups, Alice shook her head, her face in her hands. “Go away.”

  “Oh, I can’t just leave you. Not when your fear is so … inviting.”

  Alice lifted her head to search the emptiness around her. She sat in the mouth of an alley, god knows where. Her tears made it hard to see. Snot and the stink of something sour made it hard to breathe.

  “I can take it away.” The darkness shifted with movement deeper in the alley, coming toward her. “Let me help you.”

  A dog stepped out of the black. Huge paws ended with long, wicked claws that clacked against the ground. Inky skin, no fur, rippled as it moved. Illuminated eyes blinked at her; one pair, then two, and three. Lips curled in a flash of fangs the size of her fingers.

  The trembling in Alice’s gut shuddered through the rest of her.

  She screamed.

  It lunged. Teeth snapped shut just inches shy of her face. Drool that smelled like rotten meat splashed across her chest and cheek. She scrambled backward, trying to call for help, the words choked in a wail. The roughness of the brick at her back caught her clothes and scraped her skin. She was trapped.

  Instead of attacking again, the creature collapsed and flailed, ripping at the ground. “Traitor!” it shrieked.

  “Yeah, yeah.”

  The air quivered, steeped in shadows that seemed to recoil as a white boy stepped into view. He gripped the end of something sticking out of the monster’s back.

  A sword, Alice realized. The thunder of her heartbeat against her skull sharpened.

  What little light that managed to thread the gloom hovered along the length of the blade, as if afraid or unable to touch it.

  “You will suffer! You will all suffer!” Pinned to the ground, the beast thrashed. Yellow blood slid against the blade, coating the onyx metal, dripping onto the pavement beneath it.

  “What’s that? I couldn’t hear you over the sound of…” The boy pulled the sword free and drove it in again with a slurch.

  Alice jerked. So did the monster. Then it fell still. The glow in its eyes slowly faded.

  Stepping over the body, the boy wiped his sword clean then slipped it into a sheath over his shoulder. As the hilt clicked into place, light poured in from the street, saturating the alley.

  Confused, Alice blinked against the stinging bright, trying to focus on what and who was in front of her. Wearing dark jeans, boots, and purple T-shirt with the words We’re All Mad Here scrawled across the front, he looked like a regular dude. With a weapon strapped to his back.

  She didn’t realize she was staring until the beast’s body jolted with a loud pop, startling her. Its leathery skin bubbled and folded, shrinking in. A smell like old milk and mold filled the air. She gagged, her stomach roiling.

  Oh my god. There was really a dead monster. She was going to be sick.

  Unfolding his lithe frame from a crouch, the boy turned to go, though he paused as if noticing her for the first time. Blinking, he shifted to the left, then to the right as Alice watched. “You see me?” He had an accent. Sounded English.

  It took a second for Alice to realize he was speaking to her. She nodded, her eyes darting between him and the dissolving creature. “Curiouser.” He tilted his head to the side and came toward her.

  Alice jerked back, fear cold in her limbs.

  “Whoa.” He lifted both hands and went still. “I just wanna make sure you’re okay.” He took another, slower step. When Alice didn’t move—she wasn’t sure she could—he took a couple more, then knelt in front of her. Light from the street slid across his moss green hair and spilled into gray eyes looking her over from beneath a furrowed brow. “Anything hurt?” he asked.

  Alice stared. She couldn’t manage words. Her thoughts tumbled over themselves as her mind tried to make sense of … she wasn’t even sure. Talking dog-monsters, some dude with a sword, he killed—what the hell just happened? She couldn’t breathe. When she tried, sour air stuck in her throat. Her stomach quivered.

  “Hey. It’s okay.” His quiet voice managed to fill the alley. The gray in his eyes shifted, colors catching and dancing like a kaleidoscope in the dark.

  Chest heaving, Alice shook her head. Blond strands from her wig clung to her face. Her thighs stung where she’d crawled across the ground. The pounding in her head worsened, made it hard to think. She had to get up. She had to go. Dad was waiting to take her to the con. Only he wasn’t. He was gone.

  “Can you walk?”

  “Wh-who—” She could
n’t get the rest of the words out. They weren’t even words anymore, just small sounds on the edge of more sobs. No. She gripped her mouth with both hands, her fingers digging into her cheeks. Stop it. Stop. It. The ache in her jaw spread to her throat and slithered behind her eyes as she fought back tears, bottling them up to throw them away. She wouldn’t break down like this. Not out here. Not in front of … whoever this was. Hiccupping around slow breaths, she fixed the boy with a stare and pushed the question free. “Who are you?”

  “Oh good. I thought you might pass out on me.” He pressed a hand to his chest. “I’m Addison Hatta.” He offered her the other. Bands of silver gleamed on each of his fingers. “Can I help you?”

  She watched those fingers for a long moment. When he wiggled them, her eyes shot to his face, then the hilt of the sword peeking over his shoulder.

  A freaking sword.

  This is too much.

  She took his hand.

  Addison stood, drawing her up as well. Her legs shook but held, though she braced her free hand against the wall. Dirty water and lord knows what else stained her gloves and her sailor fuku. Her costume was ruined. She’d worked so hard on it.

  But that didn’t matter anymore.

  Swallowing thickly, she forced words over the sand in her throat. “Thank you.”

  “You’re welcommme.” He drew out the last syllable, trailing off with a lift of his eyebrows.

  “A-Alice.”

  “You’re welcome, Alice.” A smile stretched his face, and the color of his irises shifted again, brighter now.

  “Your eyes!” She pointed, nearly poking him in one. “They changed!”

  “Yeah.” He rubbed at the back of his head. “That happens when I come to this side … of town.”

  “This side—where are you from?”

  “Not anywhere near here.”

  The burbling body nearby gave a loud crack. It was nearly gone, the ground stained black beneath it.

  She aimed her finger at that mess. “What was that thing? Where did it come from?” The questions leaped free on their own, her brain latching on to something, anything to try and make sense of what she was seeing. Shifting to the side a few steps, she eyed Addison and his sword once more.

  “The same place as me?”

  “And where the hell is that?”

  “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.” Addison chewed at his lower lip, watching the body before looking to Alice. He eyed her up and down, then nodded to himself. “But I think I will.”

  One

  HERE WE GO

  Alice ran her fingers over the ivory handles of the daggers on the desk in front of her. Cold light filled the blades, their surfaces more like silvered glass than steel. You’d think after three months of knowing Addison Hatta, she wouldn’t be surprised whenever he pulled random weapons out.

  “Pretty.” She plucked one up and raised her eyebrows. “Light. What are they?”

  “Figment Blades.” Addison dug around in the drawers where he sat on the other side of the desk. The old metal rattled and creaked.

  “For real?” She trailed her fingers over the flat of one of the glittering blades, the only things capable of killing Nightmares. She’d never held one before or seen one, really.

  “They’ll help focus your Muchness.”

  “Munch-what now?”

  “Muchness.” He slammed a drawer then jumped with a curse, shaking out his hand. “Your Muchness, to be precise.” The fingers he’d shoved into his mouth muffled the words. “The part of you that believes in yourself, even when the rest of you doesn’t.”

  Alice blinked a few times then set the dagger down. “Right. They look a lil small for killing monsters.” She’d only ever seen one Nightmare, when Addison rescued her the night her dad died. While it wasn’t huge, it was big enough to be scary as all hell.

  “That’s not what matters.” He slammed another drawer. “The weapon is only part of the equation. A small part.”

  The desk took up most of the cramped space he called his office—more like a slightly large broom closet—along with the small love seat Alice sat perched on. There were a couple lamps, but the place was mostly bare. No file cabinets, no computer, just a little shelf in the corner with a funky teapot on it.

  “Says the dude who carries around a big fuck-off sword.” She’d glimpsed the black blade a couple times since that night. When he wasn’t fighting monsters, Addison kept it in a metal locker that filled a corner of this “office.”

  “Aha!” Addison straightened and set a leather belt beside the daggers. The sheaths strapped to it clapped together. “You’ll have to be specific; I have many swords.” There was a room in the back of this very building full of weapons, but they were blunted for training.

  Alice twisted her lips to the side and leveled a look at him. “You know the one I’m talking about.”

  “Do I?”

  “Addison.”

  “So many.”

  “Addison.”

  “Well, firstly: It’s not a Figment Blade, and secondly: I’m not human, meaning I don’t have Muchness, so I need a little something extra.” According to Addison, he could destroy a Nightmare’s physical body, but it would just re-form after a while. Since Nightmares were a manifestation of humanity’s fears, humans were the only ones who could put them down permanently. That’s why people like him trained people like her.

  “And last: you play too much.” She narrowed her eyes at him, but there was no real heat behind it. “Talkin’ ’bout some ‘you’ll have to be specific.’ Specific deeze.”

  Addison grinned, his dimples popping into view, as he came around from behind the desk and tilted against the front of it. In the harsh fluorescent lighting his hair was dark green, his eyes a subtle though somewhat rainbowy gray. Piercings lined his left ear, shining silver as he cocked his head to the side. Metal glinted over the rest of him, too: the studs in his shirt at the shoulders, the chain around his hips, the zippers and buckles on his boots. A punk rock Prince Charming. Damn, he was fine. Lucky for him.

  She turned her attention to the weapons, picking one up, the ivory warm in her palm. “This what you wanted to show me? I mean they’re cool and all, but you made it sound like you had some big surprise set up.”

  “Those are now yours, luv.”

  Alice nearly dropped the dagger. “For real?”

  He nodded, his smile widening. “You’re ready.”

  She jerked straight in her chair. “So soon?”

  “I wouldn’t call three months soon, but yeah. I knew there was something special about you.” He angled forward, closing off a bit of the space between them.

  Heat filled Alice’s face. She turned her attention to the weapons, hoping he couldn’t see her blush. Not that she actually turned red or anything—she don’t blush for real, for real. “Special how?”

  “Well, you were able to see me, for one thing.”

  She smiled. “Hard to miss a dude stabbing a monster to death three feet in front of you.”

  “That’s not the p—I’m trying to be serious and give you a compliment. May I get through my serious compliment?”

  Alice lifted her hands, fighting laughter. “Excuse the hell outta me for having eyeballs.”

  “That somehow see me even when I mean not to be.” Addison narrowed his eyes before folding his arms over his chest. “Nope. Never mind, moment’s ruined. I now deem you unspecial. Give the daggers back.”

  “Wait—” The laughter burst free.

  “Nope! Damage is done. Come on, hand them over.”

  “No, no,” Alice said, still laughing as she waved off his reaching hands. “No, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.”

  “And they’re so fragile.” He grabbed for one of the daggers.

  “Waaaiiiiiiit.” She pressed her hand over his, still snickering. “Go on, serious compliment away.”

  He watched her, his eyes crinkling at the corners as he fought his own smile. “Where
was I?”

  “I was special.” She wiggled her eyebrows.

  He finally chuckled. “Right, then.” Lifting her hand and the dagger she still clutched, he curled her fingers around it and his fingers around hers. “I knew you were special. That’s why I told you about the Veil, the monsters that cross it, and my duty to stop them. Well, my duty to train someone to stop them. I have trained three others before you, and none of them learned so quickly. It was a pleasant surprise.”

  Hell, if Addison was surprised, she was floored. He gave her a sword to start, and it was like she’d been carrying the thing her whole life. Maybe not her whole life—she did smash a table once. And a few chairs. On accident. But when she got her hands on a pair of daggers, that was a whole different story. It was like in the movies where someone says something about becoming one with the weapon, blah blah, it’s an extension of your body, blah. No joke, it really felt like that, like her body somehow knew what to do. She still had to practice, though. A lot.

  “I had motivation.” More like a need to beat the shit out of something. Ever since her dad died, whenever Alice was alone she was just so … angry. She swallowed it. Bottled it up. Her mom needed her. Her grandma needed her. She got through the funeral. She got through the first days back at school. She cried. She hugged it out. But she wanted to punch things.

  So when Addison presented her with the chance to be like him, to kill monsters that crept across what he called the Veil, a border between the real world and the world he came from, a realm of dreams called Wonderland, well … she called him crazy. Then she apologized; that was rude.

  But she’d seen the monster. She’d smelled the damn thing. She’d felt its breath hot on her face, and after going back to that alley near the hospital the next week and seeing that stain on the concrete, after talking with him out in the open and noticing how no one else seemed to notice him, she decided to take him up on his offer.

  “Alice?” Addison’s voice sliced through her thoughts.

  “Hmm? What?” She blinked up at him, her cheeks warm again. “Sorry.”

 

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