Tuesday, 6 November 2012

City of Ashes - Prologue

The formidable glass-and-steel structure rose from its position on Front Street like a
glittering needle threading the sky. There were fifty-seven floors to the Metropole, Manhattan's
most expensive new downtown condominium tower. The topmost floor, the fifty-seventh,
contained the most luxurious apartment of all: the Metropole penthouse, a masterpiece of sleek
black-and-white design. Too new to have gathered dust yet, its bare marble floors reflected back
the stars visible through the enormous floor-to-ceiling windows. The window glass was perfectly
translucent, providing such a complete illusion that there was nothing between the viewer and the
view that it had been known to induce vertigo even in those unafraid of heights.
Far below ran the silver ribbon of the East River, braceleted by shining bridges, flecked by
boats as small as flyspecks, splitting the shining banks of light that were Manhattan and Brooklyn
on either side. On a clear night the illuminated Statue of Liberty was just visible to the south—but
there was fog tonight, and Liberty Island was hidden behind a white bank of mist.
However spectacular the view, the man standing in front of the window didn't look particularly
impressed by it. There was a frown on his narrow, ascetic face as he turned away from the glass
and strode across the floor, the heels of his boots echoing against the marble floor. "Aren't you
ready yet?" he demanded, raking a hand through his salt-white hair. "We've been here nearly an
The boy kneeling on the floor looked up at him, nervous and petulant. "It's the marble. It's
more solid than I thought. It's making it hard to draw the pentagram."
"So skip the pentagram." Up close it was easier to see that despite his white hair, the man
wasn't old. His hard face was severe but unlined, his eyes clear and steady.
The boy swallowed hard and the membranous black wings protruding from his narrow
shoulder blades (he had cut slits in the back of his denim jacket to accommodate them) flapped
nervously. "The pentagram is a necessary part of any demon-raising ritual. You know that, sir.
Without it…"
"We're not protected. I know that, young Elias. But get on with it. I've known warlocks who
could raise a demon, chat him up, and dispatch him back to hell in the time it's taken you to draw
half a five-pointed star."
The boy said nothing, only attacked the marble again, this time with renewed urgency. Sweat
dripped from his forehead and he pushed his hair back with a hand whose fingers were connected
with delicate weblike membranes. "Done," he said at last, sitting back on his heels with a gasp.
"It's done."
"Good." The man sounded pleased. "Let's get started."
"My money—"
"I told you. You'll get your money after I talk to Agramon, not before."
Elias got to his feet and shrugged his jacket off. Despite the holes he'd cut in it, it still
compressed his wings uncomfortably; freed, they stretched and expanded themselves, wafting a
breeze through the unventilated room. His wings were the color of an oil slick: black threaded with
a rainbow of dizzying colors. The man looked away from him, as if the wings displeased him, but
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Elias didn't seem to notice. He began circling the pentagram he'd drawn, circling it
counterclockwise and chanting in a demon language that sounded like the crackle of flames.
With a sound like air being sucked from a tire, the outline of the pentagram suddenly burst into
flames. The dozen huge windows cast back a dozen burning reflected five-pointed stars.
Something was moving inside the pentagram, something formless and black. Elias was
chanting more quickly now, raising his webbed hands, tracing delicate outlines on the air with his
fingers. Where they passed, blue fire crackled. The man couldn't speak Chthonian, the warlock
language, with any fluency, but he recognized enough of the words to understand Elias's repeated
chant: Agramon, I summon thee. Out of the spaces between the worlds, I summon thee.
The man slid a hand into his pocket. Something hard and cold and metallic met the touch of
his fingers. He smiled.
Elias had stopped walking. He was standing in front of the pentagram now, his voice rising
and falling in a steady chant, blue fire crackling around him like lightning. Suddenly a plume of
black smoke rose inside the pentagram; it spiraled upward, spreading and solidifying. Two eyes
hung in the shadow like jewels caught in a spider's web.
"Who has called me here across the worlds?" Agramon demanded in a voice like shattering
glass. "Who summons me?"
Elias had stopped chanting. He was standing still in front of the pentagram—still except for his
wings, which beat the air slowly. The air stank of corrosion and burning.
"Agramon," the warlock said. "I am the warlock Elias. I am the one who has summoned you."
For a moment there was silence. Then the demon laughed, if smoke can be said to laugh. The
laugh itself was caustic as acid. "Foolish warlock," Agramon wheezed. "Foolish boy."
"You are the foolish one, if you think you can threaten me," Elias said, but his voice trembled
like his wings. "You will be a prisoner of that pentagram, Agramon, until I release you."
"Will I?" The smoke surged forward, forming and re-forming itself. A tendril took the shape
of a human hand and stroked the edge of the burning pentagram that contained it. Then, with a
surge, the smoke seethed past the edge of the star, poured over the border like a wave breaching
a levee. The flames guttered and died as Elias, screaming, stumbled backward. He was chanting
now, in rapid Chthonian, spells of containment and banishment. Nothing happened; the black
smoke-mass came on inexorably, and now it was starting to have something of a shape—a
malformed, enormous, hideous shape, its glowing eyes altering, rounding to the size of saucers,
spilling a dreadful light.
The man watched with impassive interest as Elias screamed again and turned to run. He never
reached the door. Agramon surged forward, his dark mass crashing down over the warlock like a
surge of boiling black tar. Elias struggled feebly for a moment under the onslaught—and then was
The black shape withdrew, leaving the warlock lying contorted on the marble floor.
"I do hope," said the man, who had taken the cold metal object out of his pocket and was
toying with it idly, "that you haven't done anything to him that will render him useless to me. I
need his blood, you see."
Agramon turned, a black pillar with deadly diamond eyes. They took in the man in the
expensive suit, his narrow, unconcerned face, the black Marks covering his skin, and the glowing
object in his hand. "You paid the warlock child to summon me? And you did not tell him what I
could do?"
"You guess correctly," said the man.
Agramon spoke with grudging admiration. "That was clever."
The man took a step toward the demon. "I am very clever. And I'm also your master now. I
hold the Mortal Cup. You must obey me, or face the consequences."
The demon was silent a moment. Then it slid to the ground in a mockery of obeisance—the
closest a creature with no real body could come to kneeling. "I am at your service, my Lord…?"
The sentence ended politely, on a question.
The man smiled. "You may call me Valentine."


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