Written in Blood part 1

Chicago, Il, Thursday July 21st, 2016

Sanctuary. That was what I’d named my bedroom, almost as though it was some kind of mansion or grand property. Naming my bedroom might have seemed silly, but my grandmother had once said that naming something gave you power over it, and I’d taken that to heart as far as my room went. After all, every fourteen…nearly fifteen year old boy needed a space they could call their own, and by naming my room, it felt as though I’d made an even stronger claim on that space.

There was a good reason that I’d chosen Sanctuary for the name of my room. It truly was my sanctuary from the world, the place where I felt the safest and most secure. I’d done everything I could to make my room as comfortable as possible, even setting a quarter of it up with a couple book shelves and a recliner, turning it into my own personal reading nook and library. This was where I spent a great deal of my free time.

I was sitting back in my recliner, reading the final chapter of a Dan Brown novel. As I finished the last bit of Robert Langdon’s most recent adventure, I set the book aside and glanced over the shelf beside me. I was an avid reader and had a nice stack of books in my ‘to read’ pile, one which seemed to keep growing larger. After a moment of consideration, I picked out my next read, the latest book in the Darius Shepard series.

Darius Shepard was the protagonist in a series of adventure/thriller novels, where he was a baseline FBI agent, who used his wits and ingenuity to uncover and stop an evil mutant conspiracy. The author clearly didn’t like mutants, and I suspected that he was using his books to share his own personal conspiracy theories, so I took it all with a grain of salt. However, in spite of the propagandist elements, the writing was good and the man really knew how to tell a good story.

I sat there for a moment, reading the cover blurb and smiling faintly in anticipation of the story. However, instead of immediately starting the new book, I set it down on the end table next to my chair, then I got up to stretch. After finishing a good book, I liked to give it a little time to ‘digest’ before I began the next one.

My eyes went over the shelves and my collection of books, and though I knew I could have fit all of those books onto a single e-reader, there was something about having a real book in your hands when you read a good story. As Dad once said, it somehow adds an extra depth to the experience. The fact that Dad had actually said this proved just how much he believed it. My father was a man of few words, only speaking when he had something worth saying, and then usually doing so as efficiently as possible.

A minute later, I left Sanctuary and stepped into the hallway. My family lived in a large house, one that probably cost more than most people could reasonably expect to spend on their homes. We had five bedrooms, a library, an individual study for each of my parents, as well as a kitchen that would please most professional chefs. Of course, this still wasn’t a mansion. My grandmother lived in a small mansion, and our house didn’t come close to where she lived.

As I walked down the hallway, I saw that the door to my dad’s office was open so I glanced inside and saw him sitting behind his desk, hard at work. My dad was tall and slender, with a receding hairline that was just starting to become obvious, and a pair of stylish glasses that were perched on his nose. I looked like a younger version of him, and though I’d already inherited the need for glasses, I hoped that I hadn’t gained his receding hairline as well. He looked up and saw me, then gave a brief nod before returning to his work.

My dad worked in the family business, as did my mom and nearly all of my relatives. Once I was old enough, I was expected to join the family business as well, though I was less than enthusiastic about that idea. In fact, I fully intended to avoid the family business completely if I could. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do when I was older, only that it wouldn’t involve the Family.

After I gave my dad a brief wave of acknowledgement, I went to my mom’s study, which was just a little further down the hall. Normally, Mom kept the door closed and locked, and on the occasions when it was open, I usually hurried past as quickly as I could so she wouldn’t notice me. This time, the door was cracked open, and though I couldn’t really see inside, I could hear Mom talking with my sister Paige.

Paige was twelve years old, and where I took after Dad, she definitely took after Mom. It was no wonder that she was Mom’s pride and joy. I’d long since accepted the fact that Paige was my mom’s favorite, and I’d even come to appreciate the benefits. While Paige received our mom’s full parental attention, I usually received far less scrutiny. And as I’d learned from watching my dad, there were advantages to blending into the background and being virtually invisible…especially where my mom was concerned.

“Remember,” Mom instructed Paige. “You must hold your essence tight so as not to let a single drop spill away. Essence is a treasure far more valuable than even gold, and once you ignite your essence and are able to gather your own…you do not want to waste any of it.”

I remained outside the room for a minute, listening in as Mom gave Paige another magic lesson, like she’d been doing for the last few months. Mom had been one of my grandmother’s apprentices, and now she was passing her knowledge on to Paige. Eventually, once Paige had learned a little more, Grandmother would take over and begin teaching her directly.

Admittedly, I felt a little jealous that Paige was being taught magic, but this was hardly the first opportunity she’d been given that I hadn’t. Ever since Paige had been born, she’d been groomed to one day take a leadership role in the Family. If I went into the family business, I’d have to take orders from my little sister, which would be more than a little humiliating. In fact, that was one of the reasons that I had no intention of going into the family business, though certainly not the only one.

The entire reason that Paige received this special treatment was because of our grandmother. Grandmother was a powerful magic user, though I’d never heard her refer to herself as a witch, sorceress, or anything else like that. What I did know was that if anything ever happened to her, only a woman of her bloodline would be able to inherit her title and power. Paige was the youngest of the three people who fit this criteria, and as such, was third in line of inheritance. There were times when I strongly suspected that the main reason my mom had married my dad, was so that one of her children or grandchildren might one day inherit my grandmother’s position.

“Focus,” Mom told Paige impatiently. “Start the exercise over. When you see your grandmother tomorrow, she may test you to see how well you’ve mastered the basics, so you had better be prepared.”

I scowled as I listened to Mom give Paige more instructions, being thankful that I didn’t have to go through these lessons. The one thing that was even worse than being ignored by my mother was being the target of her parental affection. At times like this, I almost felt sorry for Paige, because all that favoritism she received, didn’t come without a cost.

With that, I turned away from the door and quietly walked away, being careful not to make any noise. The last thing I wanted was for my mom to realize that I’d been eavesdropping on her and then yell out with the dreaded, “Bryan Adam St. Claire.” Being called out by your full name was NEVER a good thing, and it NEVER led to anything good.

Everyone else in the family was busy, which meant that I had the rest of the house to myself without having to worry about tripping over anyone else, except perhaps for our housekeeper Mrs. Henderson. However, Mrs. Henderson was probably in the kitchen getting dinner started, and I knew that she wouldn’t care what I did, just as long as I didn’t try to intrude into what she considered to be her domain.

My thoughts turned to the family room TV, and to the movies I’d saved on our DVR. I’d recently recorded Casablanca off one of the movie channels and was eager to check it out, especially after I’d watched the African Queen last week. Since Paige couldn’t appreciate any movie that hadn’t been made in the last five years, and she usually got her way when it came to deciding what to watch, this was an opportunity I couldn’t ignore. With a grin, I hurried to the family room.

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Chicago, Il, Friday July 22nd, 2016

I stood in front of a full length mirror, carefully looking myself over to make sure that I was presentable. At that moment, I was wearing a nice suit, one that I secretly thought of as being the unofficial uniform for visiting my grandmother. And since I was getting ready for my grandmother’s birthday party, I took care to ensure that my uniform looked extra sharp.

My grandmother was a stickler for formality and good manners. She didn’t tolerate rudeness, bad language in her presence, or a ‘slovenly’ appearance, and being who she was, no one dared to protest her rules…at least not within her hearing. After all, not only was she the undisputed matriarch of our family, but also of THE Family.

Three hundred years ago, one of my ancestors had gathered together her closest friends and neighbors, then formed the group that would eventually become known as the Family. Originally, their purpose had been mutual protection and profit, but over time, the organization had become larger and more powerful. Now, the Family was equal parts family business, extended family, and admittedly…a criminal empire. As far as most outsiders were concerned, we were an organized crime family, which meant that they saw my grandmother as some kind of mob boss. And admittedly, that probably wasn’t too far off.

I frowned, then ran a comb through my hair in order to catch the loose strands. Better. Once I was satisfied that I wouldn’t offend my grandmother, or even worse, have my mom chew me out for fear that I might offend my grandmother, I finally turned away from the mirror and waited for everyone else to get ready.

Since I still had to wait on everyone else, I started for Sanctuary, thinking that I might be able to get in another chapter from the book I was reading before it was time to go. I was well into the new Darius Shepard novel, and I’d left off at the part where he’d just discovered that his old partner was actually involved in the conspiracy, so I was curious about what he was going to do next.

I had barely picked up my book when my mom came through the door and gave me a disapproving look. “Bryan Adam St. Claire,” Mom announced, using the dreaded full name. “You know we’re running late. You had better not make me wait on you when we leave…”

“I won’t,” I responded, carefully keeping both my voice and expression neutral. I didn’t bother pointing out that I’d been ready for half an hour and that it was my sister Paige who was holding everything up. Mom would never listen to anything that might be considered as criticism of Paige, not when Paige was her pride and joy, and especially not from me.

After my mom had left my room, I attempted to get into my book, but I just couldn’t do so. I kept glancing to the clock, thinking about just how much I’d get chewed out if she had to delay leaving even one minute because of me.

“Never mind that we all have to wait an hour for Paige,” I muttered to myself. With that, I reluctantly closed my book and got up to leave Sanctuary.

In order to avoid giving Mom any excuse to think about me, I went to the living room, planning to wait right next to the door until it was time to go. But when I reached the living room, I was surprised to see that someone else was already there waiting. The man was a little on the short side, about the same height as me and I wasn’t even fifteen yet, but he was stocky and dressed in a nice suit.

“Marcus,” I exclaimed with a grin.

Marcus gave me a friendly smile and asked, “How are you doing, Bryan?”

“About the same as usual,” I responded with a shrug.

Marcus gave me a knowing look and nodded at that. “Then I assume you’re looking forward to going fishing next weekend…”

“Of course,” I said, grinning even more broadly.

Fishing was about the only sport or outdoor activity that I actually liked, and admittedly, that was probably because I could do it while sitting down. There was something incredibly relaxing about sitting out in a boat with your line in the water, not having to do anything but wait for the fish to bite. I was just thankful that Marcus had introduced me to fishing, and that he continued to take me out whenever possible. If nothing else, our fishing trips were a great way for me to get out of the house.

Marcus was a bodyguard for the Family, though he was usually assigned to look out for my immediate family. After all, Dad was the Family accountant, who knew where every penny was, both the legally and the illegally acquired, and he was also Grandmother’s youngest son. Mom was a trusted lieutenant and Hand…a magic user who cast spells for the Family. And then there was Paige, who was only twelve years old, but she was third in line for inheritance, which made her a potential target for enemies of the Family as well.

Though no one had ever said I was expendable to my face, I knew quite well that out of my immediate family, I was considered the least valuable to the Family, and that I had the lowest priority when it came to protection. However, I never would have guessed that from the way Marcus treated me. Our bodyguard had always been friendly to me, taking me out fishing, teaching me how to shoot a gun, giving advice on how to ask a girl out, and generally taking on the role of my favorite uncle, even though there was no blood relation.

“I’ve got a new pole I want to break in,” Marcus said, immediately catching my attention since his having a new fishing pole might mean that he’d give me his old one. “Maybe this time, we can talk your old man into coming with us…”

“Maybe,” I responded, though I doubted it. As far as I knew, my dad hasn’t gone fishing since he was my age, and he’d never shown any interest in doing so again.

Marcus and I continued to talk until everyone else was finally ready to leave. Dad joined us first, wearing a nice suit as though it was a uniform, though he tended to dress up far more often than I did. Mom and Paige arrived five minutes after him, both of them wearing nice dresses.

“You look lovely as always, Elaine,” Dad told Mom, who looked pleased by that. Though he didn’t usually speak much, spending a few words to keep Mom happy was always worth it. Then he put a hand on my shoulder and just gave me a faint smile and an approving nod.

My eyes went to Paige, who looked like a miniature version of Mom. She had long blonde hair, of the same shade as Mom’s, and it was done up in some kind of fancy braid. Her dress was even the same color as Mom’s, which was obviously intentional.

Then, just as we were about to leave, Paige abruptly announced, “I forgot my purse…”

“Go get your sister’s purse,” Mom told me.

I didn’t bother to protest that it was Paige’s purse, that she was the one who’d forgotten it, or that it was in her room. If I did, Mom would just chew ME out for wasting time and making us even later than we already were. So I turned around, being careful not to roll my eyes until she couldn’t see them, then I hurried off to do as she asked.

I knew full well that the real reason Mom told me to get my sister’s purse was that she wanted to get me into the habit of doing what Paige wanted, for when we were both older and working for the Family. The smirk on Paige’s face as I hurried off only confirmed that she knew this as well, and suggested that she may have left her purse behind intentionally, just so she could see me run for it.

Once I came back with the purse, I handed it over to Paige without a word, carefully keeping my expression blank. Paige looked a little smug as she took the purse, and she didn’t even bother to thank me. Yet again, I made myself a silent promise not to go into the family business when I was older, because there was no way I wanted to end up working for her.

“You took your time retrieving her purse,” Mom said, giving me a disapproving look, as though it was my fault Paige had left it behind. In her mind, it probably was my fault. Dad gave me a sympathetic look and put a reassuring hand on my shoulder, though as usual, he didn’t actually say anything.

“Is everyone ready to go?” Marcus asked in a professional tone. I knew Marcus well enough to know that he wasn’t just reminding everyone that we were late to my grandmother’s party, he was also getting my mom off my back. As everyone hurried out the door, Marcus gave me a faint nod.

Marcus played chauffeur, as he usually did on these kinds of formal occasions, and it didn’t take him long to drive us to my grandmother’s house. Her house was a small mansion, about five times the size of our own home, and it had been built back around the time when Al Capone and Elliot Ness had been going at it. In fact, Marcus had told me that the house had even been built with some secret bootlegger tunnels, though he refused to tell me where they were. Considering who my grandmother was and what kind of business the Family did, I wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised to find out that some of those tunnels were still in use.

The large iron gate in front of the house was usually kept closed for security, but not tonight. Tonight, there were too many guests arriving to worry about the gate, so additional guards had been added in order to compensate. As we slowly drove past, Marcus nodded to one of the guards and made a gesture with his hands, a signal that everything was as it should be. If someone had been forcing him to sneak them through, he would have given a somewhat different gesture.

Marcus stopped right in front of the main entrance, letting us out of the car before he went to park it. Two guards stood by the large and ornate set of wooden doors, one on either side. They were both dressed in nice suits, and though I couldn’t see any weapons, I knew for certain that they were both armed. They wouldn’t be very good as guards if they weren’t.

While Mom and Paige walked right through the doors, Dad stopped and nodded to the guard on the right before turning his attention to the one on the left. He gave Tony a nod, just like he had Michael, then simply said, “Congratulations for Shawn.”

“Thanks,” Tony responded with a rare smile. I was confused for a moment, until I realized what the congratulations were for. Tony’s son Shawn had just graduated from college and was on his way to medical school, and the gruff bodyguard was quite proud of him. “And thanks for making it possible.”

“Family takes care of each other,” Dad responded with a smile, referring to the fact that the Family was actually financing Shawn’s college education. Of course, Shawn was expected to join the Family after graduation, which was a common practice and one of the ways that the Family encouraged loyalty. Without saying another word, Dad put a hand on Tony’s shoulder and gave him a nod before going inside.

Once inside, we entered the large ballroom where the party was occurring. Several dozen guests were already present, most of them members of the Family. My eyes swept the group, and I took note of who was here and who would probably show up later. I knew just about everyone I saw, at least enough to recognize them on sight. Many of them were related to me in one way or another, either by blood or marriage. I saw an uncle and a couple cousins from my mom’s side of the family. Then I saw my uncle Andre, sitting back in the corner. Dad immediately started towards his older brother while I was left to do my own thing.

I spotted my mom a moment later, along with Paige who was following immediately behind her. Mom stopped next to Aunt Clarice, my dad’s older sister and the first in line of inheritance. Aunt Clarice’s daughter, my seventeen year old cousin Nicolette, was second in line of succession and standing right beside her mother.

I felt just a little awkward as I watched the gathering of the first, second, and third in line of inheritance, all standing together. Aunt Clarice was already one of the most influential members of the Family, and might very well end up inheriting my grandmother’s power and position one day. In just a few years, Nicolette and then Paige would join the leadership of the Family as well, and I knew that both my sister and cousin were spoiled brats. I doubted that would be good for anyone.

After a moment, I tore my eyes away from them and looked over the room again. This time, my attention settled on a very distinctive woman, one who looked to be in her thirties, but who had pure white skin and hair…the same color as chalk or freshly fallen snow. She wore a long white dress, which was elegant and undoubtedly very expensive. About the only real color that she possessed was in the red lipstick she wore, and the ruby necklace and earrings. There was a reason that my grandmother was known as the White Lady.

My grandmother was in the middle of a conversation with several people, which was probably why my parents hadn’t gone straight over to greet her upon arrival. She could be pretty intimidating, especially if someone did something that she considered rude, such as interrupting her while she was talking. After several seconds of hesitation, I slowly started walking towards her.

When I was closer, I could hear a little of the conversation. One of the men whom my grandmother was talking to, said, “So, you really did know Al Capone…”

“Oui,” Grandmother responded, looking faintly amused. “Alphonse and I had our disagreements, but we came to an understanding.”

I paused to listen in for a moment, not at all surprised to hear them talking about Al Capone, though I was curious. My grandmother was older than she looked, a lot older. Even though the party was in honor of my grandmother’s birthday, no one knew her exact age, and she wasn’t saying. What I did know was that she’d inherited the title of the White Lady during World War One, when her predecessor had been killed during a German attack. After that, she’d fled to the United States, along with the surviving members of the Family, then over the next few decades, she’d rebuilt the Family from a handful of refugees into the influential organization they’d once again become.

I remained where I was, listening in for a little longer as my grandmother told her companions about her first meeting with Al Capone. She had quite a few interesting stories, though she rarely bothered to share them. On the rare occasions when she did, they were well worth listening to. One of my favorites was the story of how she’d first met Champion…the original Champion…back in the days when she’d been a costumed supervillain. That had been decades ago, during the 30’s and 40’s, but some of the local superheroes still kept a close eye on her because of it, or at least they tried to.

Grandmother finally seemed to notice my presence and turned to look at me with her pale silvery eyes. I shrunk just a little under her gaze and squirmed uncomfortably. Most people did. But in spite of her strict demeanor and eccentric appearance, Grandmother was actually quite protective of her family, and I had no fear of being in any kind of danger from her.

After a moment, my eyes darted to her bare right arm, which revealed several unusual marks on her otherwise pure white skin. These marks were like tattoos, each looking like some kind of symbol or rune that reminding me a bit of Chinese writing, though they were actually quite different. Instead of ink, each of these tattoos was composed of shiny lines and swirls on her skin, which reminded me of the watermarks you sometimes saw on important papers. If you looked at them straight on, they tended to blend in with her skin so you didn’t notice them, unless the light caught them enough to reflect off the shiny spots. There was one on the back of her hand, stretching out to her wrist, one just below her elbow, and one at her upper arm, though I knew she had others on her body as well, all hidden beneath her clothes. These watermark tattoos were just another sign of how unusual my grandmother was.

“Bonjour, Bryan,” she greeted me. It had been about a hundred years since she’d left France, and she still had a noticeable accent. Of course, I suspected that she intentionally kept the accent in order to help maintain her exotic image.

“Hello, Grandmother,” I said in response, feeling intimidated in spite of the fact that she’d never hurt me. “I just wanted to wish you a happy birthday.”

“Merci,” she responded with a faint smile. Then she looked to her companions and said, “You remember my grandson Bryan?”

One of the old men looked me over and chuckled, holding his hand down about waist high. “You were about this tall the last time I saw you.”

“They do grow quickly,” Grandmother told me with a look of amusement.

Grandmother asked me a few polite questions about how I was doing, then dismissed me. I quickly hurried off, thankful that I’d gotten that taken care of. However, as I walked away from my grandmother, I saw Mom and Paige standing back and glaring at me. Apparently, I’d annoyed them by beating them to Grandmother, which meant that I’d probably hear about it once we got home.

Since I’d fulfilled my obligation, I began wandering around, mingling a little and making a few polite greetings as I slowly made my way to the far wall where Dad was sitting with Uncle Andre. I wasn’t really comfortable with parties or being around a lot of people, which was something I’d inherited from Dad. Uncle Andre had a different excuse for sitting back out of the way. His age. If I hadn’t known that Dad and Uncle Andre were brothers, I never would have guessed it. Uncle Andre was about eighty, which meant that he looked more like my grandfather or great-grandfather than he did my uncle.

“Hello, Bryan,” Uncle Andre greeted me as I came over. He leaned over on his cane, adjusted his glasses, and gave me a good look before nodding faintly. “You’re growing like a weed, boy.” I just smiled politely at that, not sure what to say in response.

The three of us just sat there in silence for about ten minutes, watching as everyone went past but not saying a thing. I wished that I’d brought my book, though I knew that never would have been allowed since it would probably have been considered rude. Still, I would much rather have been reading than sitting back and people-watching.

Suddenly, a flash of white shot down from the ceiling, making me jump back and out of my chair in surprise. Dad and Uncle Andre both laughed at my reaction. Then I saw the source of my surprise, a large white bird that was now perched on the back of an empty chair in front of us. However, this wasn’t just any white bird. This was a white raven.

“Thanks a lot,” I muttered to Lenore, my grandmother’s familiar. Lenore cawed and then nodded her head as though to acknowledge my comment.

“Hello to you too, old girl,” Uncle Andre told the familiar. Then he smiled as he reached into his pocket and pulled out a plastic bag full of dead crickets. After feeding her a few crickets, Uncle Andre turned to me and said, “Back when I was just a boy, Lenore used to watch over me like my own personal bodyguard.” He gently pet the bird, who fluttered her wings a little in response. “She doesn’t look like she’s aged a day…”

And with that, Uncle Andre glanced across the room to my grandmother, who probably looked as though she hadn’t aged a day either. That just made me wonder how strange it must be for him, to have a mother who looked young enough to be his daughter…or even granddaughter.

Lenore remained where she was, enjoying the attention for another minute before she took off, flying across the room and settling down a perch that had been set up for her. With the raven gone, Uncle Andre turned his attention back on me. He studied me for a moment, then asked, “Has your father begun teaching you the business yet?”

I blinked a little in confusion, then glanced to my dad, who had a slightly guilty expression on his face. “Not yet,” Dad answered Uncle Andre. “I intend to wait until Bryan is finished with high school.”

For a brief moment, I looked back and forth between Dad and Uncle Andre, wondering what they were talking about. Then it dawned on me. For decades, Uncle Andre had been the Family accountant, then when he was ready to retire from that job, he’d passed the job on to my dad. Now, it looks like they were planning on me eventually becoming Dad’s replacement. I felt a knot form in my stomach as I realized that they were planning my future, without even asking what I thought. Of course, I’d always known that I’d be pressured to go into the family business, but I’d always thought that was something I’d have to worry about in the distant future.

Dad seemed to sense my reticence, because he put a gentle hand on mine and simply said, “The Family comes first. We all have to do our part.” All I could to do that was nod numbly.

After that little revelation, I no longer felt quite so comfortable just hanging out with Dad and Uncle Andre. I kind of feared that if I stayed there, I’d get caught up listening to all the plans that the Family had made for my future, and right now, that was about the last thing I wanted to deal with, so I got up to go ‘mingle’.

I slowly made my way across the large ballroom, making several stops to talk with people for a minute or two before moving on. I had nearly reached the spot where Lenore was perched, when someone screamed. I immediately snapped around, looking for the source of the scream, and I saw it at the entrance to the ballroom.

Two people had just entered the room through the large wooden doors. The man in front was tall and thin, as well as old…but not as old as Uncle Andre. He looked to be in his late fifties or early sixties, and he was dressed in a very nice but somewhat old fashioned suit. The old man was leaning on a cane, and at first glance, I thought he looked like some kind of fancy British gentleman…or a butler.

Standing beside the old man was a beautiful blonde woman, one who was dressed in a green and black spandex costume. Her clothing choice was a little surprising for the party, though I knew for a fact that at least one of my grandmother’s other guests tended to wear spandex when he was at work. However, it only took me a moment realize that what had caused the scream, was the fact that she had a gun in each hand, and she was pointing them into the crowd.

The blonde woman opened fire, shooting into the crowd of guests at random. Before she’d fired the first shot, the guards were already in motion. Well-dressed men, suddenly pulled weapons out from their jackets, aiming at the old man and the blonde. After only a couple shots, she changed her target and started firing at the guards instead.

“Do not forget our targets,” the old man announced, yanking on his cane and revealing the thin rapier blade that had been hidden within. Without further warning, he slashed out with the blade, moving with an unbelievable speed as he lunged forward and impaled Jon Duboir, then slashed to the side and sliced through another man while making his way towards my grandmother.

“Of course not, Daddy,” the blonde responded with a smirk, right before she suddenly vanished. An instant later, the blonde appeared on the other side of the room, right in front of where Aunt Clarice and my cousin Nicolette were trying to escape out the back door. She didn’t say a word as she immediately opened fire. I could only watch in horror as my aunt and cousin were murdered right before my eyes.

I just stood there, staring at the scene in front of me in stunned disbelief. I was in shock and not thinking clearly, otherwise I would have run for the exits or dove for cover like nearly everyone else was. As it was, the guards and enforcers had the opposite reaction and were trying to go for the intruders, but there were still too many guests in the way for them to shoot indiscriminately.

Suddenly, a wave of flame swept across the room, straight at the old man. He just stood there, letting the flames wash over him without seeming to harm him in the least. However, that drew my eyes to the source of the flames, my grandmother. She stood in the middle of the room with a look of icy cold fury on her face. Her eyes were glowing a reddish orange, as were the symbols on her arm which were normally very difficult to see from a distance. At that moment, she looked even more intimidating than I’d ever seen her look before, and I was VERY grateful that it wasn’t directed at me.

“How dare you intrude on my home uninvited?” Grandmother demanded in a hard tone. “And even worse, you have the gall to attack my guests.”

“Please, don’t waste your energies, Madame,” the old man said in an almost pleasant tone. “You see, one of my gifts is a certain protection from magic.”

“You will pay for your actions,” Grandmother stated, as though this was a simple fact.

With that, some of the intricate patterns on the ballroom floor began to glow in the area around Grandmother and the old man. A moment later, a column of light erupted from around the old man, followed by an explosion of force. However, by the time the light cleared, the old man was no longer standing in the same spot and had moved outside the glowing symbols.

“I assure you, Madame, that there is nothing personal in my actions,” the old man commented, suddenly lunging to the side, using his sword to slice at one of the guards who was trying to get close enough to shoot him without hitting any of the panicking guests, “I am merely the messenger. Unfortunately for you and your heirs, the message I was hired to deliver this day is one of death.”

The decorative patterns beneath the old man began to glow again, and at the same time, Grandmother’s eyes and tattoos began to glow with a silvery white color. A transparent bubble formed around my grandmother. I wasn’t sure what the glowing symbols beneath the man were meant to do, because they didn’t seem to bother him in the least. He suddenly charged forward, moving with a blinding speed and going through the bubble as though it wasn’t even there. A mere second after he’d begun to move, he drove his sword straight into Grandmother’s chest.

I let out another gasp of horror, but just then, something slammed into me from behind and knocked me to the ground. “GET DOWN,” a familiar voice command. “Take cover.”

Marcus crouched down beside me, aiming his gun at the old man, though he didn’t shoot. It took me a moment to realize that with the way they were positioned, the old man had my grandmother in front of him like a shield. If Marcus tried shooting him, he’d likely hit my grandmother instead. After a moment, Marcus shifted targets and took several shots at the blonde woman instead. Unfortunately, that did little good as she instantly teleported again, which made her difficult for him to target.

Then I saw that Mom and Paige had taken cover behind a table they’d knocked over, but the blonde woman appeared right behind them. “NO,” Dad and I cried out at the same time, right before Dad tackled the blonde woman. She was thrown to the ground, though immediately teleported again, appearing right behind Dad and firing three shots into his back.

I wanted to scream, but my throat was frozen and no sound escaped. Mom stared at Dad’s body for a moment, an expression of rage and grief forming on her face. My Mom had been so focused on Paige, on grooming her to be the perfect heir for my grandmother, that I’d always wondered if she’d been some kind of gold digger, marrying Dad just so that her daughter might inherit. But at that instant, the look on my mom’s face made those suspicions vanish.

The blonde raised her guns again, then the gunshots echoed through the large room. However, this time it was the blonde who was shot, causing her to lose one of her guns as she staggered back. Marcus jumped to his feet and fired several more shots at her, though she teleported again instead of going down. I didn’t see any blood coming from her either, which probably meant that her uniform was made of kevra or something similar.

While this was happening, Lenore threw herself at the old man, viciously attacking him with her beak and claws. The old man swung at the raven, but as fast as he was, the bird was somehow able to avoid being hit. Grandmother had fallen to the ground, though she was still moving a little. Her arm was stretched out and it looked like she was drawing something on the floor, using her own blood.

I’d always known that my mom could perform magic, though I’d never really seen her do anything flashy or impressive. She’d always said that essence was far too valuable to waste on showing off, though at that moment, she seemed to be making an exception. Mom stood there, no longer bothering to use the table as cover. In her hand, she held out a crystal, which suddenly burst into blue flames.

“Run,” Mom yelled at Paige, right before throwing the flames at the blonde woman.

The blonde woman was still dodging Marcus’ gunfire, and apparently didn’t notice Mom’s attack until she was suddenly engulfed in blue fire. She screamed as she teleported away, leaving the flames behind, though when she reappeared, her uniform and was a little charred and her exposed skin was blistered and burnt. The murderess looked hurt and furious, but instead of shooting back at Marcus or Mom, she targeted Paige instead, shooting my sister in the back just as she’d nearly reached the exit.

“PAIGE,” I cried out in horror, simultaneously wanting to run over and check on my sister, and run away as fast as I could. I felt guilty for my cowardice, but it didn’t really matter because at that moment, I was too terrified to move at all. I remained frozen where I was, helpless do to anything but watch the nightmare that surrounded me.

“You…will…pay,” Grandmother said, her voice extremely weak though I was still able to make it out.

As I looked at Grandmother again, I realized that whatever she’d drawn on the floor with her blood was starting to glow. Suddenly, the floor around her exploded, sending shards of marble flying in every direction. The old man jumped back, but even he wasn’t fast enough to completely avoid the marble shrapnel which tore through him in several places.

A moment later, I realized that whatever Grandmother had done, it wasn’t finished yet. All over the ballroom, patterns that were etched into the marble floor began to glow, though not all of them. Suddenly, anyone who was touching one of these glowing patterns was engulfed in golden flames. Two of the guests who’d been staying down to avoid being shot, let out shrieks of agony, then collapsed like rag dolls. However, they weren’t the only ones. The blonde killer was taking aim at my mom when she was engulfed as well. And like the two guests, she screamed, then dropped motionless to the floor.

The old man was standing on some of the glowing patterns as well, but unlike everyone else, the golden flames did absolutely nothing to him. However, as soon as his partner fell, he yelled out, “Bethany!”

Before the old man had even finished calling out her name, he raced across the ballroom so fast I could barely see him moving. An instant later, his sword slashed out again, right across my mom’s throat. He didn’t even glance at her as she fell to the floor. Instead, he hurried over to the blonde. From the look of pain and rage on his face, she was probably dead. After what they’d just done, I felt a dark satisfaction in that.

“Even upon death, the White Lady proves a dangerous adversary,” the old man spoke in a grim tone, looking across the room to my grandmother…or at least what was left of her. She’d been at ground zero when the floor exploded, and she hadn’t escaped the shrapnel. “True to your word, you have made me pay a steep price indeed.”

With that, the old man picked up the body of his partner, lifting her up as though she weighed almost nothing. Marcus took advantage of the old man’s distraction to take another shot, but even then, the old man shifted position quickly enough that the bullet merely grazed his arm.

“The message has been delivered,” the old man stated, staring straight at Marcus with a cold deadly gaze. “I have no reason to remain, so if you force me to linger, I will be forced to slay every last person remaining.”

Marcus hesitated a moment, his expression grim though his eyes burned with rage. He glanced to me, then at the other people who were scattered around the room, desperately trying to hide in corners or behind flimsy furniture. After another second of consideration, Marcus glared at the old man but gave a faint nod.

The old man didn’t say a word as he walked right out the double doors with the blonde still in his arms. Marcus watched him with a burning intensity, and I was sure that he was going to shoot the old man in the back. However, Marcus held off, probably fearing just how fast that old man was and not wanting to risk any further deaths.

Once the old man was gone, the overwhelming sense of danger faded, though this was hardly a relief. Because without the immediate threat to my own life, I was suddenly hit with the crushing nightmare of what had just happened, and all I could do was start screaming.

--------------------

Chicago, Il, Saturday afternoon, July 23rd, 2016

I was in bed, curled up in the fetal position and shaking like a leaf. I had no idea how long I’d been there, nor did I care. All I knew was that I’d been sobbing uncontrollably for so long that my eyes were cried out. At that moment, my entire being was a swirling mass of grief, rage, confusion, and terror, all rolled into one horrific knot.

With nearly every breath, images flashed through my mind. I closed my eyes tightly in order to shut them out, but that only brought them on stronger. I saw my grandmother, laying on the floor and using her own blood and her last breath to fight back against the intruders. I saw my dad, killed while trying to protect my mom and sister. Mom, had actually managed to hurt that blonde bitch, doing something with magic that I’d never seen her do before, though it hadn’t been quite enough. And Paige, who’d been shot in the back while trying to escape.

While all that had been going on, I just stood there like some kind of idiot. My family had been murdered right in front of me, and I hadn’t done a single damn thing to help. I’d been too terrified to even run away. I felt so disgusted with myself…so ashamed. I just wanted to curl up and die.

Eventually a full bladder began calling for my attention, and no matter how much I wanted to ignore the outside world, that was one thing I couldn’t ignore. I finally opened my eyes, and the sunlight streaming through the curtain told me that it was about the middle of the day. I was vaguely surprised at that, though I couldn’t bring myself to really care.

In spite of my urgent need to go relieve myself, I remained where I was, knowing I should get up but just not being able to make myself move. While I lay there, I looked around the room. It was empty of anything except some basic furniture, and it was almost completely devoid of any personality. It wasn’t my room…or even my home. Last night, Marcus had brought me to his apartment and put me to bed in his spare bedroom. After a few more minutes of just looking at the unfamiliar walls, I finally managed to climb out of bed, though I did so with a distinct lack of enthusiasm.

I didn’t want to go wandering around Marcus’ home in nothing but my underwear, and the only thing I had to wear was the suit that I’d been wearing last night. When I’d gotten undressed, there had been blood on the jacket sleeve, though I hadn’t been injured and had no real idea of how it got there. A lot of what happened after the attack was a bit of a blur.

After I put on my pants, without bothering to worry about my glasses or a shirt, I grudgingly left the bedroom and went straight to the bathroom. I performed my business while on auto-pilot, and when I came out of the bathroom, I found Marcus standing in the hallway. Like me, he was only wearing a pair of pants, but unlike me, he had a bandage wrapped around one of his shoulders. I was a little startled at that since I hadn’t realized he’d been injured, but I probably shouldn’t have been. There had been a lot of bullets flying around.

My eyes darted to the tattoo that was on one side of Marcus’ chest, a set of strange, interconnected symbols and writing in black ink. I didn’t know what all these symbols meant, only that the tattoo was really a magic spell that my grandmother had put on Marcus, increasing his strength, stamina and vitality. Marcus was one of the Loyal, one of the select few bodyguards and enforcers who were considered completely trustworthy and deserving of this honor.

Marcus gave me a concerned look and asked, “How are you holding up?”

“I’m all right,” I lied.

Marcus just nodded at that, not looking like he believed me but not pushing the matter either. Instead, he gave a faint grunt and said, “I was just about to fix up something to eat…”

“I’m not hungry,” I responded without much energy.

Marcus grunted again. “Maybe not, but you still need to eat something. You’re gonna need the energy.”

I didn’t have the emotional energy to argue with Marcus, so I shambled behind him into the kitchen, where he began cooking up a bunch of scrambled eggs and sausages. I ate without enthusiasm, only taking a few bites. Marcus watched me without saying anything, though I could see that he was worried. After eating about a third of what Marcus had given me, I couldn’t bring myself to eat anything more.

Marcus remained silent while we ate, though afterwards, he gave me a steady look. “I was only a little younger than you are when my old man died,” Marcus finally said. His gruff voice was calm and steady as he continued. “He was killed by some vigilante hero who was trying to take out the White Lady…your grandmother.”

I gave Marcus a look of surprise. I’d known that Marcus’ family had been in the Family for a few generations, and that his dad had been one of the Loyal before him, but this was the first I’d heard about his death.

“Afterwards, the Lady took care of my family,” Marcus told me. “She made sure that we had everything we needed, that our mortgage was paid off, and that my sister could go to college.” He paused at that, giving me a faint smile before stating, “Your grandmother was a real class act. I truly wish I could have saved her and the rest of your family.”

I nodded weakly at that, feeling the tears starting to form again as I whispered, “Me too…”

“One thing I’ll never forget,” Marcus told me grimly, looking me straight in the eyes. “I was just a kid, but the Lady took the time to actually talk to me. She promised me that she’d make the guy who killed my old man pay. And she did.” Then he reached over and put his hand on mine as he added, “And I promise you, the people responsible for this will pay.”

“Good,” I stated. I’d never been a vengeful person before, but at that moment, I suddenly wanted it a great deal.

In spite of that brief burst of focused anger, the grief soon rushed over me again and I quietly slipped back to the bedroom where I promptly curled up under the covers again. Since I hadn’t actually gotten any sleep last night, I was exhausted, and shortly after I was back in bed, sleep finally claimed me.

--------------------

Chicago, Il, Saturday, early evening, July 23rd, 2016

When I woke up from my nap, I felt better physically, though not so much emotionally. I just wanted to turn over and go back to sleep, to escape reality for a little longer. Unfortunately, I had a really nasty itch in the middle of my back, which was what woke me from my sleep in the first place. This time, I climbed out of bed much more quickly than the last, just so I could rub my back against the wall in an attempt to scratch it. It helped a bit, but not as much as I would have liked.

I threw my pants back on and then grudgingly went out to use the bathroom again. However, I had barely left the bedroom when I heard voices coming from the living room. I immediately recognized one of them as being Marcus, though it took me a few seconds to recognize the other. It was Tessa, my mom’s friend and my grandmother’s personal assistant.

I paused where I was, though the only thing I could really make out was Marcus saying, “Survivor’s guilt…” I realized that they were probably talking about me, but after last night, there were probably a lot of other survivors who felt guilty as well. I hesitated a moment, then quietly crept closer to that I could make out more of what they were saying. “I really feel for the kid,” Marcus told her. “He just lost his entire family…”

“I’m worried about Bryan too,” Tessa said a moment later. “Elaine is…was one of my closest friends. But to be honest, as horrible as her death is, I’m even more concerned about the rest of the Family. We lost more than a dozen people.”

“I know,” Marcus responded grimly. “Three of them were Loyal. They got Michael, Jean, and Larry. Tony’s still alive, but he won’t be in any shape to fight for awhile. As it is, I’m now the senior Loyal.”

“And I am now the senior Hand,” Tessa added with an exhausted sounding sigh. “Clarice and Elaine were two of our best, and now we’ve lost them…a third of our number. And unfortunately, you know as well as I that as tragic as these deaths are, they cannot compare to our greatest loss.”

“The White Lady,” Marcus stated. I peeked around the corner and saw him standing with a deep grimace on his face.

Tessa, a slender brunette with her hair pulled back into a braid, nodded her head in agreement. Then with a look that was every bit as grim as Marcus’, she quietly added, “And all of her heirs. Without the White Lady, I don’t know how long the Family can last. She was the heart that pumped our blood…and we cannot long survive without our heart.”

I stepped further back into the hallway so they wouldn’t see me, and continued listening. I knew that eavesdropping like that was rude, but I’d long ago learned that staying out of sight and keeping your eyes and ears open was the best way to learn what was going on. After all, if I’d waited for my parents to tell me anything, I never would have learned a thing.

After a few more minutes of talking about how bad the situation was, Marcus said, “I found a name for our assassin. Apparently, the guy calls himself the Messenger. He’s a freelancer, used to work the UK until a few years ago when he pissed off a couple of the wrong people. I’ve put the word into a few discreet ears that we’re looking for him, for a little payback.”

Tessa was silent for a moment, then responded, “If this Messenger is a hired gun, then we need to find who hired him.”

“No one is claiming credit, yet,” Marcus pointed out with a shake of his head. “Could be the Outfit, but the Lady had an understanding with them, so I don’t see them pulling this crap. My guess is that it’s Scorn and his people. They’ve been trying to move in on our shipping and protection businesses for years, so this is just the opening they need. With the Lady gone, we’re vulnerable, and if we’re not careful, they can sweep in and take everything.”

“Agreed,” Tessa told him. “But we need to know who did this for certain. I’ll warn everyone to keep their eyes open and expect trouble.”

I clenched my fists tightly as I listened to this, feeling the anger rising again. At least now, I knew the name of the monster who’d murdered my family, though it seemed that we still didn’t know for sure who hired him. Still, I was relieved to see that Marcus was taking his promise seriously.

Once Marcus and Tessa were finished with their conversation, I quietly backed away and went to the bathroom to do what I’d intended to before the distraction. While I was doing this, I was annoyed to find that the itch from my back had spread, and I could now feel it in a number of different spots. However, it was a strange sensation that was part itch, part tingle, and part cold chill. I absently scratched one of the itchy spots on my arm as I went out to Marcus, and to see if he’d be honest and tell me anything that he’d learned.

In the living room, I found Marcus sitting on his couch with a gun disassembled and spread out on the coffee table in front of him. He was busy cleaning the weapon and didn’t even glance up at my entrance. I saw no sign of Tessa and figured that she must have left as soon as they were done talking.

“I assume you heard us talking,” Marcus said, surprising me since I thought I’d been sneaky.

“A little,” I admitted awkwardly. I was feeling a little shaky as I thought about it, but I had to get the words out. “That guy… He’s called the Messenger?”

Marcus snorted at that. “Yeah. From what I gather, he likes to make out like he’s not personally involved. He’s just a messenger, delivering a message from one person to another.”

I felt myself growing angrier at that, at the idea that the man who murdered my family didn’t even think it was personal. It certainly was personal, and I wanted to see him pay for what he’d done. I wanted him to hurt as much as I did.

Marcus finally looked up at me and said, “Tessa stopped by your house and picked up a few of your things.” He gestured to a cardboard box, which seemed to be filled with clothes.

I nodded at that, glad that at least I’d have something to wear. However, tears started to form again, though I tried to choke them down, without much success.

“What’s going to happen to me?” I asked quietly. I was shaken, realizing that I couldn’t go back home, not when there was no one else there. However, I had no idea of where else I could go.

“I’m not really sure,” Marcus reluctantly admitted. “You’re more than welcome to stay here with me, but you’ve still got some blood relatives who probably want to take you in. Just remember, you aren’t on your own. The Family takes care of each other.”

I nodded faintly at that, not really feeling very reassured. I continued to absently scratch my arm, then finally looked at where I was scratching, wondering if I had a bug bite or something that was causing this. However, what I saw was certainly no bug bite.

“What in the world?” I asked, staring at a spot on my arm, just below the elbow, where I now had a strange symbol marking my skin like a tattoo. It was about three inches across, and instead of ink, the symbol was drawn in pale and shiny lines on my skin, much like a watermark. It took me a moment to realize that it was identical to the symbol that my grandmother had…used to have…in the same location. “How…?”

I ran my fingers over mark on my skin, and it felt like normal smooth skin, except for the fact that I felt a faint tingle in my fingertips. I pulled my hand back, staring at that symbol, then at the back of my hand where another symbol had also mysteriously appeared.

“Bryan,” Marcus exclaimed, jumping to his feet and staring at my arm with a look of surprise. “Where did you get these?”

“I don’t know,” I responded, feeling surprised and a bit confused. “They weren’t there earlier, and they’re just like the ones Grandmother had…”

Marcus nodded at that, then instructed, “Turn around.” I did as he asked, and a few seconds later, he said, “You’ve got some running across your back too…” I felt his finger, touching my right shoulder and then going down across my back to about my left hip. “Seven of them.”

“Did my grandmother do this?” I asked, pretty sure that she had something to do with my gaining these marks.

Marcus just started at me for a moment, his expression grim, though I could see a mixture of excitement and worry in his eyes. After a few more seconds, he picked up his cell phone and made a quick call. “Tessa,” he greeted her. “You’d better get back over here as soon as possible. It looks like the White Lady may have left a successor after all.”

--------------------

Chicago, Il, Sunday morning, July 24th, 2016

Tessa Contrare stood in front of me, holding up a clear crystal and staring at me through it, just as she had been for the last minutes. Then without a word, she shifted over to a blue crystal and stared at me through that one instead.

“I do not know how this is possible,” Tessa finally said, staring at me with a look of amazement, “but you hold the power of the White Lady.”

“Told ya,” Marcus commented from a few feet away, looking just a little smug.

“You don’t understand,” Tessa told him, giving me a curious look. “This shouldn’t be possible. The Lady told me that her power could only go to a female heir, and if there wasn’t one available, the power would dissipate and be lost forever…”

“Maybe the Lady was wrong,” Marcus pointed out thoughtfully. “I mean, her predecessors all had women to inherit their power, so no one has ever seen what really happens when there isn’t a female heir left. Maybe the power doesn’t really require the heir to be a girl, but just prefers it.”

“Perhaps,” Tessa reluctantly agreed.

“Or maybe,” Marcus added after a moment. “Maybe she knew but didn’t want it getting out…in case it gave some people ideas.”

“Also a possibility,” Tessa responded with a sigh. She didn’t look convinced.

I bit my lip, not saying a word as Marcus and Tessa discussed what was happening to me. They both seemed excited, but I was terrified. Terrified and confused. After what had happened the other day, I just wanted to scream, and cry, and hide under my bed covers until everything just went away. But now all this was happening to me as well...

“This is a bad dream,” I whispered as I lifted my glasses and rubbed the bridge of my nose. This was a mannerism that I’d picked up from Dad, and which reminded me of him as I performed it, for both good and bad.

Yesterday, I’d had that annoying itch to deal with, and I really wished it had ended there. Once the itching had passed, I’d been left with these marks all over my body, which looked like they had been tattooed on with some kind of shiny watercolor ink. There were fifteen of these symbols, each one different from the others. There were three of them on my right arm, seven going diagonally down my back, and three more on my left leg. In addition, I had them on my right upper arm and on my stomach as well. All of these symbols were about three inches across, except the one in the very center of my back, which was about five inches across.

After these symbols had appeared on my skin, other things began to happen to me as well. At first, it was just my hair, which kept becoming lighter, so that by the time I went back to bed, it was all pale blonde. By the time I woke up, not only was my hair pure white, but it had also grown about four inches. It had grown another two inches since then.

I nervously stared at my hands, gulping as I did so. I’d never been much of an outdoors person, but what little tan I had possessed was now gone. Like my hair, my skin was becoming bleached out, and I was now so pale that it looked like I’d never seen sunlight in my life. I looked like some kind of albino, and if these changes continued, then it wouldn’t be long before I had the same coloration as my grandmother.

All these changes were a clear indication that I had somehow inherited my grandmother’s power, though it should have been impossible. Everyone in the family knew that if something happened to her, the only ones she could pass her power and title to were girls of the right bloodline. That meant Aunt Clarice, Nicolette, or Paige. Once Grandmother died, this should have gone to one of them…not to me. That just sent another wave of guilt crashing through me, making me gasp at the weight of it.

“Bryan is already developing all the marks,” Tessa told Marcus, making me blink since I’d been distracted and not paying attention. “The White Lady’s legacy has clearly taken hold.” She gave me a thoughtful look before continuing. “I think we should tell the other Family leaders that we have a successor, but that we should keep all the details to ourselves for now. Knowing that we have a successor will help to calm everyone down and reassure them, but…”

“But knowing that the Lady’s successor is underage and a boy would do the opposite,” Marcus finished for her. He frowned thoughtfully, then nodded. “That would raise a lot of questions and concerns. I agree. We’ll let everyone get settled down a little before we break out the details.”

So far, Marcus and Tessa had talking about all this as though I wasn’t right there, as though I didn’t have a stake in what they were saying. I felt a knot of dread in my stomach and had to clench my fists tightly just to keep from shaking. I took a deep breath, then blurted out, “What does this mean for me?”

Marcus and Tessa both looked startled at that, and Marcus had a faint expression of guilt. However, it was Tessa who looked me in the eyes and answered, “This means that you…you’re going to inherit all of your grandmother’s powers.” I gulped at that, suddenly feeling even more shaken, though I tried not to show it. “And it means that you are going to be the new leader of the Family.”

I nearly choked at that. For the last couple years, ever since I was old enough to really understand that the Family made their money from being criminals, I’ve intended to avoid joining. The fact that Paige would have been my boss was merely the last bit of motivation I’d needed to make that decision. Now my choice, and even the illusion of having a choice, had been shredded.

I sat frozen, too shocked at that sudden bit of understanding to even think of a response. Tessa seemed to take that as acceptance because she continued. “I have served the Lady as her personal assistant for over a decade, and one of my duties has always been, to help prepare her successor should the need arise. Your family legacy…this power has been passed down through the women in your family for centuries. Your grandmother was the fifth woman to wield it…the fifth White Lady. It seems that you are to be the first White Lord.” She paused at that, staring me straight in the eyes as she finished. “I promise, I will help you however I can.”

“You aren’t alone,” Marcus told me. “I know this is a lot to take in, especially after everything that’s already happened.”

“Oh God,” I gasped, shaking in my seat.

“The Lady always knew her time would eventually end,” Tessa continued, her voice calm and steady, though still filled with sadness. “She made plans for that eventuality.”

“We don’t have to do this right now,” Marcus said, giving me a worried look. He looked to Tessa and added, “Bryan looks worn out. This is a lot for him to take in…especially considering…”

Tessa stared at me for a moment, then her expression softened to one of concern. She put her hand on mine, in what was obviously intended to be a comforting manner. “I’ve known your mother since I was your age,” she told me in a gentle voice, giving me a sad smile. “Elaine was my friend as much as a rival, and I’m going to miss her a great deal. If you need anything, anything at all, let me know.”

“Thank you,” I responded quietly.

“Then, it seems we are done for the moment,” Tessa said. “So I will take my leave for now, though I will return early tomorrow.” She paused at that, then gave me another sympathetic look. “I know that this isn’t easy, especially not after losing your family. I wish we could hold off until you were ready, but I fear that time is the of the essence. You will soon be developing new powers, powers that the other heirs were trained to deal with ahead of time, but which you were not. And just as importantly, I need to prepare you for your new role.”

With that, Tessa said a polite goodbye to us before she departed. I was left where I was, feeling even more overwhelmed than before, which I hadn’t thought was even possible. I gulped, then got to my feet before slowly staggering back to the hallway.

I went to the bathroom, though not to relieve myself. Instead, I turned on the faucet, removed my glasses, and splashed my face with some cold water. Perhaps some part of me hoped that by doing this, I might shock myself awake and find that the events of the last couple days had just been some kind of twisted nightmare. Maybe I’d wake up in my bed and everything would be perfectly normal again. I didn’t really believe this, but it was nice to hope, even if only for a second.

As I looked at my reflection in the mirror, it felt as though I was staring at a complete stranger. My hair was pure white and far longer than it should be, which almost made it look as though it was some kind of Halloween wig. My skin was ridiculously pale, and I realized that I could no longer see the veins beneath it as I had been able to a short time ago. My skin was no longer just losing pigmentation, it was starting to change and become white, just as my grandmother’s had been. And then, I saw that my eyes had changed without my even noticing until then. My irises were a pale silvery color, identical to my grandmother’s.

For a moment, it felt as though my heart jumped up into my throat and I couldn’t swallow. I stood there frozen as I continued staring at my reflection, only absently noticing that everything was crystal clear, and that there was none of the blurriness I usually saw without my glasses. After everything else that was happening to me, improved vision seemed a very minor compensation.

During my life, I’d met professional bodyguards, enforcers, and even a supervillain or two, but my grandmother had always been the most intimidating person I knew. Part of that had been due to her power, both the magic and her control over the Family, and part had simply been from her personality, the air of confidence and calm control that she radiated. And admittedly, a great deal of that had also come from her eerie and almost inhuman appearance. To see so much of my grandmother staring back at me from the mirror was terrifying. It was like she was reaching out from the grave in order to possess me.

My legs collapsed from beneath me and I dropped right to the floor. A crushing wave of grief, guilt, and dread all rushed over me at once, drowning me in its strength. Without consciously thinking about it, I curled up into a ball and began sobbing uncontrollably.



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