Black Heart Page 21

“Those first attacks took us unawares,” Batarian said.

I didn’t need him to draw me a picture to know that they had suffered heavy losses.

Batarian continued. “After that, we were more cautious. However, we were also forced to be more daring. Meat was becoming very scarce. The Cimice, it seems, will eat anything. The area of the forest where they live is completely stripped.”

“Like locusts,” I murmured.

Litarian looked at me questioningly.

“They’re these little insects that descend on crops in massive hordes. They strip everything clean and then fly away to do it again somewhere else.”

“That sounds like the Cimice,” he said. “Except that they did not fly away. They stayed. And as time passed, they grew more aggressive. They began to attack the village, always in small numbers.”

“They were testing our defenses,” Sakarian said. “To see how much risk would be required to defeat us.”

“We have always managed to hold them off, to make them pay for these excursions,” Batarian said. “Enough to make them doubtful of their success if they attempted a full-scale attack.”

I stared at the king. “You’ve got to be kidding. If their numbers are as great as you say, then they could have overwhelmed you at any time. You are under a serious delusion if you think your fighting abilities affected them in any way. They’re feinting and retreating for some reason of their own.”

Realization and chagrin dawned in the eyes of all three. The arrogance of every fae I had ever met on any world was astounding. These guys had actually believed they had held off an enemy that outnumbered them simply by virtue of their skill.

“What reason would they have for doing such a thing?” Sakarian asked.

“Maybe they’re practicing for some other foe, and they’re using you to season their soldiers,” I said.

“They’re killing our people as part of some game?” Batarian asked, disgust showing on his face.

“Well, I don’t know for sure,” I said, backpedaling. Batarian seemed like he might shoot the messenger. “I’m just guessing.”

“But what other foe could they prepare for?” Litarian asked. “There are no other fae in this land, nor any other creatures like the Cimice.”

“Maybe they don’t plan on staying here,” I said. “Maybe they’re planning an assault somewhere else.”

And as I said this, my heart froze. I had killed a Cimice in Chicago, one who had warned me that it was merely one of many, one who said it was the advance of an assault that would cover the city. My legs wobbled a little.

“Not again,” I said. “Not again.”

“What is it?” Litarian asked.

“I know where they are going,” I said. “To my world, to my city.”

Maybe Nathaniel hadn’t meant me harm in sending me to this place, after all. But how could he have known that the Cimice were here? Was it really just a horrible coincidence?

I needed to stop worrying about Nathaniel and his motivations and deal with what was in front of me. I knew the Cimice were here. I knew they intended to attack Chicago. There was no reason for these monsters from another world to choose my home unless they were being directed by one of my enemies.

Which meant that 1) despite all evidence to the contrary, there must be a way to get on and off this world without going to that permanent portal on the other side of the ocean, and 2) while determining the identity of the Cimice’s puppet master was important, it wasn’t nearly as important as stopping the Cimice from descending on my city.

The people of Chicago had just survived an infestation of vampires. They could not survive another large-scale attack so soon. As it was, I was certain many people would not return. I couldn’t blame them. Once you knew the monster under the bed was real, it was hard to go back to your old life.

I became aware that Litarian was speaking to me but I didn’t register any of the words.

“Huh?” I said.

“Why do you believe the Cimice’s ultimate goal is your world?” Litarian asked.

Might as well put my cards on the table, I thought. It looked as though these fae and I had a common enemy.

“This isn’t the first time I’ve seen these creatures,” I said.

I quickly explained that I’d encountered one while acting in my capacity as an Agent, which of course they didn’t understand. Then I had to explain the purpose of the Agency.

“You collect dead souls?” Sakarian asked. “That is the province of Lucifer. You have lied to us about your connection with him.”

“Wow, you really haven’t seen Lucifer for a long time,” I said, deftly avoiding the accusation of lying. “He hasn’t collected a soul since before the fall.”

“What fall?” Sakarian asked.

“I am not going to get into the history of the fallen angels,” I said. “Suffice it to say that Lucifer had a disagreement with his previous employer and they don’t work together anymore. But you’re really missing the point here. The point is that we both have reason to want the Cimice gone. I can help you. I think I’ve proven that. Although you never did explain why my killing the Cimice was a bad thing.”

Batarian looked slightly embarrassed. “I believed that your display of power would frighten the surviving Cimice, and that they would return to their leader with tales of wonder. I thought that their fright would cause them to descend upon us with their full strength. However, in light of your belief that they could have done such a thing at any time, my anger with you seems foolish.”

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