Chapter 26


Crouched in the dark at the back of the shop, Quinn flicked one ear to catch the sound of his "father" snoring upstairs in his bed. Normally, he joined Alan in their home above the shop during the night, because the action spoke of normality and humanity. On those nights, he would sway in his hammock, tail dragging the floor, and listen to the noises his father made, and those the building made, and even more distant sounds from the city. He did not sleep. Quinn never slept.

On nights like tonight, however, he could not make himself lie still and listen. On nights like tonight, when he needed to prowl and relieve his restlessness, he stayed away from the upstairs out of what was not quite respect for his father. Quinn wasn't sure that he really understood what respect was, or that he felt it for Alan, but he did know that humans were fragile and needed to sleep. If they didn't, they became muddled and snappish, and--in Alan's case--more lazy and demanding than ever. Unwilling to put up with these mood swings, Quinn let his father sleep undisturbed.

Often, when he couldn't stay still, he left the shop altogether and stalked around in the vicinity. Despite his size and the added bulk his tail and the small wings he sometimes wore, Quinn could move in silence and shadow, undetectable if he didn't want to be seen, and faster than human sight could follow when he wanted to hunt. He didn't hunt often--hunting drew unnecessary attention and, despite the considerable power that he and Alan could wield between the two of them, this could complicate day-to-day living. This was another thing Quinn was unwilling to deal with, and so he kept his consumption of human flesh to a minimum.

Tonight he was staying inside. There was something that buzzed in the air that he didn't like. There was something coming, and the tinkling of his soul bottles gave him a good idea of what. He crouched in front of the shelves the bottles occupied, watching them. They were of varying sizes and shapes, shaded in every color light came in--though Quinn could see quite a few more colors than humans, and so his collection of bottles were much more appealing to him than to others. Each bottle was sealed with wax and contained a small amount of an unidentifiable liquid at the bottom. Above the liquid hung a string, weighted in various ways--with lumps of metal, old coins, stones and gems. Some of the small pendulums would have been very valuable if fenced, as would many of the bottles themselves, and it was with some difficulty that he had protected them from his father's greed.

Of course, Alan had left them alone when he realized what else they contained. They admittedly made Quinn's father nervous, the way the pendulums swung on their own, sometimes violently, clinking against the glass as though speaking in tiny, faraway voices.

What they said, though, only Quinn could decipher. His soul bottles were an obsession--his little informants.

He lashed his tail and flicked the ends of both ears. He didn't need the bottles to tell him what was approaching now. He could feel a pressure behind his eyes, in a part of his mind receptive to stimuli outside the world his physical body occupied.

He waited while the pressure built, fidgeting with impatience and irritation. These mental intrusions were not enjoyable for him, but he had learned not to try to block them out. His visitor was far more powerful than him, and it would only make his head hurt to struggle.

The pressure released like a pustule breaking open and Quinn's tail went still on the floor behind him.

"It's getting close now." The voice unfurled in his mind like wings flapping. If he closed his eyes, he would be able to see the speaker, but he kept them open, fixed on the bottles in front of him, which continued to sing him songs.

"Our time is almost upon us," the speaker continued. "Aren't you excited?"

The tip of Quinn's tail twitched. His displeasure was so thick in his mind that he didn't have to reply to be understood.

"You've had that vast territory to yourself for far too long. It's time you shared it."

"Malchior." Quinn spoke the creature's name--or the name he had given it anyway--aloud. It did not roll off of his tongue in the same way it did for humans. From his mouth, words spoken to this creature came out comprehensible only to the two of them, harsh and hissed and guttural. "I don't want to share what is mine."

"You will. Won't you be happy."

Quinn glared horribly, baring his teeth in a silent hiss. "We are not alike."

"We are alike in every way that matters." Malchior laughed, a sound that could shatter minds. "I am so looking forward to meeting you. I want to see if you're really as capable as you pretend to be."

"The night is dying," Quinn muttered finally.

"It is," Malchior agreed. "I will obey your unsubtle dismissal because we will be face to face shortly."

Malchior's departure was not as gradual or as gentle as his entrance. Quinn slumped forward, bracing himself up with his palms flat on the floor. His head burned--he could feel a trickle of blood from one ear and lashed his tail violently, flicking the ear so that droplets of blood shattered on the floor beside him. In front of him, the voices from the bottles were riotous.