Make me, p.4

Make Me, page 4

 

Make Me
 


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  Stunned, at first Micah had no response. Damn it, David had a point. And what defense did Micah have? He’d blindly followed the guidelines his father had laid down, without questioning them. He’d taken the easy way out. Did that make him a bad leader? No. He’d done his job the best he could with the information he had. “I sent Fang to her.”

  YEAH, BUT I’M ONLY ONE SMALL HELLHOUND. I CAN’T HELP EVERYONE. AND SOON I’LL HAVE A LITTER FULL OF BABY HELLHOUNDS TO PROTECT. When Micah shot him a glance, Fang shrugged. DOESN’T LOOK LIKE I CAN COUNT ON YOU TO DO IT.

  Micah flinched. So that was why Fang was on their side. From the expression on Val’s face, it looked like she was, too. If Fang and Val didn’t trust him, how could he expect the rest of the demon community to follow him? Could he have been wrong?

  YEAH, DUDE. CONSIDER THIS YOUR WAKE-UP CALL.

  Four sets of eyes stared at him. Hell, if they were right, he was responsible for some of Val’s torment… and others’ pain, as well. Micah thought he’d done the right things. But, looking into their unwavering gazes, he realized he’d done the convenient things.

  An unaccustomed feeling of guilt niggled at him. “Okay, I’m listening,” Micah said. “What do you want from me?”

  The scarred demon snorted. “You’re more concerned about feeding your incubus and running this club than you are about your own people.” Intense now, David said, “What we need is for you to be a real leader. Research the old ways. I don’t care about the mumbo jumbo. Find out what they used to do, how they used to keep us safe. You should be doing everything you can to ensure our existence remains secret. How many tormenters like Pia’s father have met the Memory Eater lately?”

  Val’s eyes widened in surprise. “The what?”

  And there it was—the one thing Micah had hoped to keep hidden. He closed his eyes. The Memory Eater was the Underground’s dirty little secret, and he’d wanted to keep it that way. Opening his eyes, he said wearily, “Trust me. You don’t want to know.”

  “Another damn secret, Micah? Seriously?” Val shook her head. “Tell me. Now.”

  “Better yet,” David said, “show her.”

  Okay, maybe it was better. Better that Val see exactly what returning to the old ways meant.

  Chapter Four

  Micah knew I hated secrets and here he was keeping even more from me. Maybe there was something to David’s claims. “What’s the Memory Eater, Micah?” I asked, my voice tight.

  Micah looked down at the keys and weighed them in his hand, as if wondering what to do with them. “A remnant of the old ways David is so fond of. You sure you really want to see this?”

  Damn betcha. I was tired of being kept in the dark. “Show me.”

  He led me to a cell around the corner, one you couldn’t see from the door. The candlelight didn’t penetrate well enough to see into the cell very far, but I could tell it didn’t hold the same fixtures mine had. In fact, it seemed empty except for something—someone?—huddled in the far corner. What was it? I stepped closer to the bars to get a better look.

  Big mistake. The huddle erupted and flew at me with inhuman speed. Grabbing me by the shirt, it jerked me hard up against the bars and shoved its face into mine. “Releeease meee,” it whispered in a grating voice.

  A skeletal face, its bone-white skin stretched tight against the skull, seemed to hang in the air, inches from mine, teeth bared, eyes reddened and glowing with madness. I slammed Lola into the creature, or at least I tried. No luck. Crap. I thought the drug had worn off. Desperately, I tried to shove him away physically.

  Behind me, I felt Micah using his incubus to reach for the creature. “Stop,” he said, his voice surprisingly gentle. “Release her and back away.”

  No wonder Lola hadn’t worked—this, whatever it was, was a woman. She let go at Micah’s command and took a step back.

  I straightened my shirt and moved out of arm’s reach, then stared at her now that she was revealed in what little light there was. Thin to the point of gauntness, she wore some kind of black unitard or something that made her look like a loose collection of knobby sticks topped by a barely fleshed skull, her breasts so small as to be almost nonexistent. Creepy.

  Why didn’t you tell me? I asked Fang.

  YOU HAD TO SEE FOR YOURSELF.

  “Sssheee is the one,” the creature hissed, staring at me with her mad eyes.

  I kinda hoped she meant Pia, but that was just wishful thinking. Unnerved, I asked, “The one for what?”

  Micah shrugged. “Who knows? She’s… insane.”

  “Fang? What does she mean?”

  I DUNNO, Fang said with a shake of his head. AND NO WAY AM I GOING INTO THAT MIND TO FIND OUT.

  Can’t say I blamed him. “This is the Memory Eater?”

  Micah nodded.

  “Tell Val why she’s called that,” David said, stepping forward to stare intently at Micah. Until he said something, I’d almost forgotten he was there.

  Micah sighed. “Because she can make anyone forget anything. A moment, an event, a person…”

  “Or the existence of demons and the Underground,” David added. “She plucks the memories out of your skull and they’re gone for good.”

  Really creeped out now, I backed farther away, toward Pia, wondering how far away would be safe.

  “Don’t worry,” David told me. “She only eats memories at Micah’s command. Didn’t you ever wonder why the soothsayers chose him as leader at such a young age?”

  I’d never thought about it. “I figured it was because his father was leader before him.”

  David shook his head. “No, it’s not a hereditary position. It’s because incubi can control her, ensure she only eats the memories the Underground wants her to.” He glanced at Micah with a raised eyebrow. “But when was the last time you actually used her abilities to help us?”

  Micah grimaced. “She’s a person, not a tool to be used at someone’s whim.”

  “Is that what your father told you?” David asked, sounding sarcastic. “Is that why he didn’t erase Pia’s father’s memories of her abilities before the monster cut out her tongue? Would that have been a whim or a kindness? For both of them?”

  Micah’s jaw firmed. “It would have been the behavior of a tyrant, who believes his choices are the only ones. Only a tyrant or a power-hungry dictator deploys the Memory Eater indiscriminately on impulse, on slim suspicion. These are people’s lives we’re dealing with, David. They deserve a chance before we rape their memories. In either way, yours or my father’s, mistakes can be made. My father believed the future would be better if we tried to break from the old ways. That the mistakes would be fewer. I’m honoring his vision.”

  Whoa. They both had great points. I didn’t know whose side I was on. Could I be on both?

  YOU NEED TO MAKE UP YOUR OWN MIND ABOUT RIGHT AND WRONG, Fang said. I BROUGHT YOU HERE SO YOU’D HAVE ALL THE FACTS.

  Micah continued. “Once I start using her whenever there’s even the smallest threat of exposure, where do I stop?” He shook his head. “And do you really want me—or anyone—to have that kind of unbridled power?”

  David looked unmoved. “What I want is for you to protect your own kind.”

  “I know my job,” Micah said softly. “But I never forget that I’m dealing with people’s lives, and that the Memory Eater is a person too. She doesn’t really enjoy this, you know. Do you think this is what she wanted in life?”

  I looked at the poor creature in a different light. If I’d eaten all those memories, maybe I’d be insane, too. She just stood there, her arms limp at her sides, her head lolling on her chest, as if she’d been hanged by the neck until dead, then stood upright.

  “What’s her name?” I asked.

  Micah shook his head. “I don’t know. She won’t tell me.”

  How strange. Wouldn’t she want him to know?

  MAYBE SHE DOESN’T REMEMBER, Fang said sadly.

  Maybe, but it made me wonder. “Why do you keep her lo
cked up in an empty, dark cell?”

  “I don’t. There’s a door in the back of the cell that leads to her apartment. She has all the comforts of home there. But sometimes, when the madness takes her, she prefers to stay in the cell.”

  PLUS, WHEN HE NEEDS TO BRING SOMEONE TO MEET HER, THE ATMOSPHERE OUT HERE SCARES THE BEJEEZUS OUT OF THEM, Fang said in a sardonic tone.

  No kidding.

  Micah shook his head, his expression sad. “We can’t let her out into the world, and to tell the truth, she prefers it down here.”

  I glanced at her once again. She hadn’t moved from that strange position. “What’s your name?” I asked her.

  She looked up. The madness in her eyes had dimmed, replaced by the murky light of understanding. “I am the Memory Eater,” she said, her voice raspy. “It is who I am, what I do, until you release me from this existence.” She sounded more sane now.

  “Why me?” I asked.

  “Because the soothsayer promised me.”

  “Which soothsayer?” I pressed. Maybe there’d be a record of it or something.

  “In Ausssstin,” she said vaguely.

  I was beginning to get that uneasy feeling again. The one in which your life begins to unfold and force you into your destiny. You might still have a choice, but only after you were firmly on the path. I hated that feeling.

  Before I could ask another question, her eyes unfocused again. We’d lost her to that world inside her head. I could only imagine what it was like to live with all of those memories fighting in her mind.

  “There’s a Demon Underground in Austin?” I asked Micah.

  He nodded. “I was going to suggest you contact them when you get there.”

  Pia made rapid movements with her hands—sign language—and David translated. “You’re still going to go with the vampires, after everything we’ve told you?”

  “I have to. I gave my word.” At their annoyed looks, I added, “That doesn’t mean I’m going to help them do anything against our interests. My contract says only that I have to work for them until they come out.” And David had just about convinced me that it was wrong for the Movement to reveal themselves if that action would eventually make the world aware of demons’ existence as well.

  “What if they never come out?” David persisted. “Are you okay with that?”

  I shrugged. “If they don’t come out within the next five years, I’m still released from the contract.” But that meant five years in servitude to bloodsuckers. I could also be released if Alejandro chose to do so out of the goodness of his heart, but I didn’t see that happening.

  David said, “While you’re there, you might want to be careful when dealing with the Austin Underground. I’m not hearing good things about them.”

  “Like what?” Micah asked, looking surprised.

  “Like strange things happening, people gone missing, and Dina Bellama making the Underground into her own private playground.”

  DINA IS THE UNDERGROUND LEADER IN AUSTIN, Fang told me.

  Exasperated, I asked, “You want me to fix them, too?” Ridiculous.

  “No,” Micah said. “But it wouldn’t hurt for us to know what’s going on, just in case it spills over onto us.”

  Turning to him, David challenged, “This mean you’re going to step up and be the leader you should have been all along, or are you going to have the Memory Eater erase the memories of anyone who tries to make you do your duty?”

  “I am ready to ssserve,” the Memory Eater said.

  I shivered. Would she really rip out my memories if Micah asked her to?

  YOU KNOW IT, BABE.

  Judging from the expression on his face, Micah was mighty peeved. “I wouldn’t do that,” he said, but a flicker of guilt in his eyes showed he’d at least thought about it. He glanced at the skeletal woman. “You can go back to your home, now.”

  She nodded, and moving as though the weight of the world was on her shoulders, left through the door at the back of the cell. The bright light on the other side blinded me temporarily until she shut the door behind her. The light cut off and I wondered if that’s how she felt—severed from community and hope.

  “Come on, Val,” Micah said. “You know I have everyone’s best interests at heart.”

  Until now, I’d considered Micah my hero, my guardian angel. But I had to admit his halo was tilting off its axis, looking a bit tarnished. I glanced at him and said thoughtfully, “I know you think you do. But I wonder, is your way—your father’s way—what’s really best for the Underground?”

  He looked hurt. “I’ll think about David’s concerns, but why would you believe his judgment over mine, Val? They represent a bitter minority.”

  Pia stepped forward, glared at Micah, then signed at David.

  David nodded. “Pia wants me to tell you that we may be in the minority, but it’s a significant one. We’re the lost, the maimed, the demons who counted on the Underground to protect us but were disappointed by Micah and his father. All we want is a chance to make it what it should be, so no one else has to suffer.”

  “I said I’d think about it,” Micah said in exasperation. “Why are you even listening to them, Val? They locked you up.”

  It was a good question. I knew and trusted Micah, but I also trusted Fang’s judgment. “They locked me up so Pia would feel safe,” I told him. “And I understand why now.”

  “It’s theater. They’re just trying to turn you against me.”

  David started to protest but I stopped him with a raised hand and answered Micah myself. “No, you’re not hearing what they’ve been saying. They want you, as leader, to help them feel safe.”

  David nodded. “That, or step down and let someone else lead.”

  “Who?” Micah challenged him. “You? You think you can do better? You haven’t got a clue what I’m dealing with.”

  “I couldn’t do worse.”

  Anger flared in Micah’s eyes, but he didn’t respond. Maybe he was listening.

  YEAH, Fang confirmed. WITH YOUR HELP, DAVID HAS WEDGED IN SOME DOUBT AND GOTTEN HIM TO RETHINK HIS POLICIES.

  David shrugged and continued, “But it’s not up to me. By tradition, the soothsayer uses her abilities to choose the best person for the job. It might be you, it might be me, or it might even be someone else… like Val.”

  “Me?” He was kidding, right? He had to be kidding. “No way. I don’t want to be a leader.”

  David smiled. “You are one, whether you realize it or not. Others are following your example, not waiting for Micah to give us permission to defend ourselves, but taking it into our own hands to clear the streets of undead scum who prey on humans.”

  “That’s dangerous,” Micah protested. “Val has training where most do not.”

  “And whose fault is that?” David shot back. “Besides, it’s more dangerous to leave them out there.”

  Pia retrieved an envelope from one of the chairs along the wall and handed it to Micah.

  David gestured at it. “That’s a petition from a dozen members of the Underground, requesting a Naming Ritual to validate your position as leader. By tradition, it is our right to call for one.”

  “What you’re really asking for is a vote of confidence,” Micah said tightly.

  Pia nodded, her intent gaze never leaving Micah’s face.

  Micah turned to me, his face grim. “And you, Val? Do you think the Underground needs a new leader?”

  Oh, no, he was not going to put this on me. But since he asked, I was going to tell him the absolute truth. “I don’t know. But this would answer the question either way, right?”

  YES, Fang agreed. LET THE GROUP DECIDE WHAT IS BEST FOR THEM.

  Micah’s lips tightened. I guess that wasn’t the answer he was hoping for. “All right,” he bit out, “I don’t think it’s necessary, but you’ll have your ritual.”

  “When?” David asked.

  “After Christmas. I don’t want to interrupt anyone’s holiday plans. Will that work for you
?” he asked David stiffly.

  David and Pia both nodded.

  “Good,” he said, practically biting out the word. “I assume you can see yourselves out.” Without waiting for an answer, he strode out of the room like he couldn’t get away fast enough. Or like it hurt too much to stay.

  I watched him go, disturbed that I might be the cause of his pain. Did I do the right thing? I asked Fang.

  DON’T WORRY, Fang said. HE’S NOT MAD AT YOU. HE’S MAD AT HIMSELF, THAT HE DIDN’T SEE THIS COMING. HE PRETTY MUCH JUST GOT THE CRAP KICKED OUT OF HIS BELIEFS. HE FEELS A LITTLE GUILTY AND HE’S WORRIED THAT THE RITUAL WILL GO AGAINST HIM AND SHOW THAT HE’S BEEN SCREWING UP ALL ALONG.

  And I’d just gone and said it was necessary. Crap. Why couldn’t I have kept my mouth shut? No matter what happened with this ritual, I was afraid my easy, cousinly relationship with Micah had just changed forever.

  Chapter Five

  “So,” I said, turning to David. “The least you can do is give me a ride home.”

  “Sure. Let me get my truck and I’ll meet you out back.”

  As David left, Pia moved toward me. She gazed into my eyes then grabbed my hand and deliberately pumped it up and down. Her way of saying thanks, I guess.

  RIGHT, Fang confirmed. SHE ASKED ME TO TELL YOU THAT SHE APPRECIATES YOU BACKING THEM UP. MICAH WOULDN’T HAVE LISTENED TO THEM WITHOUT YOUR HELP. AND SHE’S SORRY SHE HAD TO DRUG YOU AND LOCK YOU UP.

  “You’re welcome,” I told her. I still didn’t think the drug and cage were necessary, though I did understand why she wanted them. “And you’re forgiven. But next time, just text, okay?”

  She grinned and nodded.

  As I followed her out of Micah’s secret basement, Fang trotted alongside me. DO YOU FORGIVE ME, TOO?

  He sounded uncharacteristically anxious. I don’t know. Why shouldn’t I wring your neck for putting me through that?

  As we squeezed into the cab of David’s beat-up pickup, Fang cuddled up in my lap. BECAUSE YOU LOVE ME? he asked plaintively, looking up at me with his big brown eyes.

 
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