CHANNEL

 

 

"I have heard the mermaids singing each to each.
I do not think they will sing to me.

...

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Til human voices wake us, and we drown."
   T.S. Eliot

 

 

Daemon never figured on getting caught in the middle of a magical grudge match. He was pure human, from nowhere and everywhere in the World, from a military family that moved often enough no-one got close enough to hurt him really badly. When he found there was more strangeness in him than either he or the World could handle, he drifted until he found the Border, where he wasn't so obvious, and the inhabitants asked fewer questions.

High Magic is weird stuff, even here, where bits of it keep blowing in from the hills over the Border to mingle with the two-penny spells that keep the city running. Until he met Swan, Daemon had avoided getting involved in most of it. But then, there were a number of things he never got involved in until he met Swan.

It was a weird name, too, but it fitted. Swan was as sleek and white and beautiful as one of those big birds the rich folk up on the Hill import from the World to float around on their garden ponds looking decorative and aristocratic - and he had the same kind of nasty temper you'd never expect out of anything so pretty. Daemon worked up the nerve once, much later, to ask where the name came from, but Swan just smiled as if it were a joke, and Daemon let it drop. Swan isn't the kind of person you ask twice about something he doesn't want to tell you once.

It was a warm, rainy fall evening and Daemon was cruising the Dancing Ferret between sets, waiting for Something For The Pain to come on, when he first met Swan. Daemon was himself, as they say, Between Bands. Actually, he'd been Between Bands for quite a while now and it was starting to look like, maybe, a permanent condition. The warm-up band had the crowd in a good mood - hot and loose, high on the music, the drugs, the beer, and each other. Samhain was a good band: a little rough yet, but playing the way Daemon liked, loud and hard on the beat but with enough blues wail on the guitar to give it a solid melody. They were the best of the new retro pre-Change/elvin-folk groups that were hot on the club circuit at the moment.

Daemon lounged against the bar, one silver-booted foot up on the rail. He knew he was looking sharp tonight in the tight white pants that showed off his ass and his black-and-silver elf cloth shirt, the outfit that had cost him a fortune at Trader's Heaven. The halfie bitch had made him throw in a whole ounce of pure organic catnip, genuine CuddlePets, to sweeten the deal, but the outfit was worth it. Parrel Din had just put in some witchlite strobes that flashed off the fairydust woven into the cloth like a streetlight on new snow, glittering with tiny bright stars. He was going to get lucky this time. He could feel it.

For about two songs he had been watching an elvin hunk with a Silence = Death t-shirt stretched across impressive pecs who had been dancing by himself at the edge of the floor. The slogan had meant something different, something political, before the Change, but ever since somebody had found an ancient shirt with the message in a crumbling old building out in the Nevernever, copies had been all over the trendier shops in the elvin neighborhoods. The elvin kids who were into human music wore them to piss off their parents and amuse their friends, who thought it was a great joke.

Daemon noticed there was a equally impressive bulge in the kid's tight jeans. He eased casually over toward where the elf stood shaking back his long, pale hair, rearranging the streaks of rose and violet with slim fingers. Up close, the boy smelled of clean sweat, bergamot, and male hormones, maybe a touch of Dragon's Milk. Daemon hoped the kid was sending another signal besides a general interest in humans by wearing those colors down here in mixed territory. There was a section of alley out back, a sheltered spot behind a concrete slab supporting stairs to a stockroom on the building's second floor, where some homeless person had stashed an old mattress. It was a perfect spot for a nice, slow blow-job, or even a quick fuck. Daemon checked the inside pocket of his leather jacket, then laid it down over the back of the nearest chair. The miniature tube of Astroglide was still there. Daemon grinned. He'd bet the elf kid would be delighted to have a story like that to show off to his less daring friends back home on Dragonstooth Hill.

As Daemon went to make his move, a furry-sounding voice purred in his ear from just behind his left shoulder. "Do you play anything?"

Not the most original pick-up line he had ever heard, Daemon thought. At that moment somebody called "Rowen!" from across the emptying dance floor. The elvin hunk smiled, waved, and hurried off in that direction. "Shit!” Daemon muttered. As he etched, the elf threw his arms around a tall human in torn jeans as if he were a long-lost buddy the elf hadn't seen in months and the human grinned ear to ear. "Shit," Daemon repeated, louder.

He turned to snarl at who-ever-it-was who had spoken to him - and stood there airing his tongue, stopped dead by the cold authority of Swan's gaze. They were almost the same height, even though Daemon was not a tall human, and his first thought was, no, this couldn't be a purebred elf, not with that cream tone lying under the white of his skin, not with that height. He didn't look like a halfie out of Borderland either. The shape of his ears was hidden by a cascade of pale-gold hair down to his shoulders, framing a perfect face. He was all the same color, dressed in a cream suede jacket over a white shirt with ruffles at throat and cuffs, form-fitting cream suede pants hugging a slim, elegant figure, and white leather elf-boots. His faint ironic smile as he eyed Daemon had all the arrogant assurance of one of the High Born of Faerie, but whatever he was, Daemon was sure he was no elf.

Daemon had never wanted anything so badly at first sight in his life.

"Do you play anything? Any instrument?" the vision in white repeated. "Or sing?" Anyone else might have sounded impatient, but Swan never sounds impatient.

Daemon swallowed. He usually would have invited a nosy stranger to take his damned questions and shove them up crosswise, but he found himself answering numbly, "Keyboards a little." When I can afford to get my spellbox recharged, he thought. "Mostly, I sing."

"Excellent. I may be able to use you."

"For what?" Daemon stared into Swan's closed face, fascinated by the pale grey eyes. He remembered reading, in some dim time before Borderland, that the eyes are the windows of the soul. These were mirrors. He could see himself reflected in them, but nothing else. It was as if there were no self, no soul, behind the eyes to be visible. Daemon shuddered slightly and thrust the thought away. He knew that Swan was not going to tell him the whole truth. If he hadn't done so much horn before going out to the Ferret this evening, maybe he could feel what it was Swan was hiding. Daemon thought vaguely, fumbling for the nameless, untrustworthy talent that often let him sense what other people were thinking and feeling. But it was horn, the elvish powder from across the Border, that numbed him enough, insulated him from that disturbing and painful talent enough, to make the presence of other people bearable.

"I'm making some changes in Something For The Pain. I need a new singer."

"A new singer for the Pain?" Daemon echoed, his drug-befogged brain struggling to make sense of this. A visit backstage to party with Something For The Pain had provided the plot-line for many an imaginary porn vid in Daemon's idle hours. They were the hottest band in Borderland at the moment, their flashy lead singer, Steff, the closest thing to God in the clubs, and any kid in SoHo would cheerfully crawl through broken glass for a chance to have someone in the Pain sneeze on him. No way. Daemon knew, he was good enough to sing with them. He was nobody, invisible. "Why do they need a new singer? What about Steff?" Daemon said at last. And what do you have to do with it? he added to himself.

Swan shrugged, a fluid ripple of shoulders, and spread his hands. "I manage them. I say they need a new singer." His tone said: I own them. The smile as he said it reminded Daemon of honey-vanilla ice cream, sweet and cold enough to make your teeth ache. "I want you to audition for me. Tomorrow. Four o'clock sharp. Twenty-four Cibola Heights Road. Ask for - Swan." The address made Daemon blink. Cibola Heights was for humans what Dragons Tooth Hill was for elves, the most exclusive neighborhood in Borderland. He wondered if the locals would even let him out on the street up there in anything he had to wear.

Before Daemon could say another word, Swan turned and made his way through the door that led backstage. The crowd moved out of his way without seeming to notice him, as if he were some kind of invisible force.

Shaken, Daemon slid into his leather jacket, reached into the inside pocket, and felt around until he came up with a joint of pot laced with fairydust. He moved over to pick out a piece of the Ferret's wall with a clear view of the stage, leaned back against it, and lit up, sucking in the good strong smoke, watching it drift up, backlit by the stage's lights, to become part of the general grey pall overhead, thinking. He could feel the chemical calm flowing along his nerves, riding on top of the horn. His body automatically slouched in The Pose: one knee slightly bent, the thumb of his free hand slid under his belt with the fingers splayed casually but pointedly across his crotch, his expression halfway between attitude and boredom.

Daemon was just grinding the last smoldering crumbs of his joint out: on the grimy floor as Something For The Pain stalked on stage, all long hair and arrogance. That trademark hair was not the spikes and dye-streaks of most Borderland kids, but a lush mass standing out around their heads and flowing half-way down their backs. It shaded all the way from the bassist's pure white to the lead guitarist's jet black, with some odd colors in between. In the style begun by Eldritch Steel and developed by the new mixed bands, they were part elvin, part human, part something uniquely their own. Jeweled elf-style boots and glittercloth hosen were topped by human T-shirts, vests, and shirts, accented by bright strips of metallic gold and silver wrapped and tied at knees and elbows in human style, flashing in the stage lights at every move.

The band stood poised for a moment, then crashed into the opening chords of "Silkie," the Something For The Pain song that had become a tribal anthem for the halfies, exiles, and runaways of the city caught between the World and the land beyond the Border like a silkie between sea and shore. The lyrics were loneliness and fear, pain and despair, but the music held courage. Driving hard rock beat, insistent instruments countered the words with reckless bravado and the thrill of life on the edge. The lead guitar keened up in intricate counterpoint as Steff stepped forward and spread his musical guts all over the stage in a powerful voice that went into a controlled scream on the high notes, a sound that grabbed you at crotch level and demanded that you move with it, that made you an offer you couldn't refuse.

It wasn't until half-way through the set that Daemon actually noticed the bassist. He had gone pale enough to look greenish rather than elf-white, and was definitely sweating a lot harder than even his playing would justify. Once or twice he seemed to fumble for a note, shaking his head. Daemon wondered if he was sick or coming down off of something. It seemed odd that no one on the stage or in the audience was paying any attention to his distress. The bassist recovered, or pulled himself together, or something - Daemon couldn't tell and decided he didn't care - as the band tore into a scorching version of "Dancing On The River." Daemon surrendered to the music. That strange sense, for which he had no name, that was a part of him, the sense that was so painful and frightening when he was sober, became instead a magical stoned awareness that fused him into some perfect whole with the flashing lights, the pounding sound, the mass of people, the band itself, and his lingering high.

After a long dazed moment Daemon realized that Something For The Pain had stopped playing and the stage was empty. He blinked, shook himself, ran his hands through his hair, looked around the room. The elvin hunk he had been pursuing was gone, as was the boy in the torn jeans. Worse, he saw Jeff and the kid they called King 0'Beer sitting at one of the corner tables. The two looked completely absorbed in each other. Daemon could swear they were actually holding hands under the table. He scowled. Four years they'd been lovers, and as far as he knew they hadn't even tricked with anyone else - certainly not with him, at any rate.

Not that he hadn't tried. He'd made a determined play for Jeff last year and then, a few months later, for the King. Both of them had turned him down with what Daemon considered the perfectly lame excuse that they were happy with each other and intended to keep it that way. Daemon didn't buy it. The ones who claimed they were too good to trick with him, the ones whose eyes held the embarrassed pity and revulsion he was sure he had seen in King 0'Beer's, pissed him off big time, especially when they disguised it with bullshit about monogamy and commitment. Filled with baffled irritation, Daemon looked away from the couple, around the room. The next band was beginning to set up, but the Dancing Ferret had lost its appeal. The crowd's presence closed in on Daemon as he pushed his way to the door and out into the street. He stood on the sidewalk outside for a moment catching his breath, letting the sudden sweat dry on his forehead, then started the walk home.

Ho street had its own tawdry excitement: Bloods and Packers strutting and bristling at each other like rival dogpacks on a mutual scentpost, crowds of wild kids in their ragged, fanciful finery, the slummers down from the Hill trying to look cool and exotic, the bohemians, poseurs, and street people, all bathed in the forgiving glitter of fairydust and self-conscious romanticism. A block or two further and the reality of the city took over. Broken glass started getting aggressive, the graffiti turned nasty, the sidewalk fumed slimy and contagious-looking and every doorway and cul-de-sac became a giant rat's-nest of trash. Several of the nests were inhabited by beings, asleep or passed out, in shapeless bundles of clothing or blankets. Daemon held his breath against the stench coming out of every alley. He didn't want to know what lived back in there. He was fuzzily on guard against a possible roving gang of human-bashing Bloods or gay-bashing Packers, although he didn't expect trouble. This wasn't his territory, and he didn't want to look like a mugging trying to happen.

He slowed as he came to the edge of the Scandal District. The area was not much better, but it was his. He turned left off of Hideaway Street into the pocket park that cut through to Butchers' Alley. Dry grass and sand, pale in the darkness, crunched underfoot as he rounded the rusting skeletons of a swing-set and jungle-gym. By the time he reached the Alley the warm, drizzling rain had stopped. Under the dim light of street glows and the few neon window signs, wet asphalt was black glass, obsidian mirror, dotted with darker patches of deeper water. Light caught on iridescent oil-slick on the surfaces. Daemon stared down as he moved, one step at a time now, mesmerized by the swirling colors. A slow memory rose to the surface of his mind, of a story he had read years ago in the World about a magic Wood Between- the Worlds where -puddles in the ground were gateways to other worlds. If ever there were a place like that, it should be here in Bordertown, Daemon thought. The air was thick with magic tonight; he could smell it. In front of him now was a miniature lake where curb met street. Glows reflected in it were distant bright stars in a deep well of space. He could float down into infinity, into a new universe. All around him was a waiting silence. Daemon took a deep, terrified breath and jumped.

The shock of landing on asphalt ran up his legs. Cold water splashed up, then trickled down inside his boots to his toes. That was all.

From behind him a laugh rasped across his jangled nerves. Daemon turned, his eyes traveling up hi-tops, a long stretch of muscular bare leg, tiny shorts, a windbreaker unzipped over bare chest, a young male face. Oh, joy; this had to happen to him on Jay-Jay's comer. "Hey, Jay-Jay," Daemon acknowledged.

"Yo, Daemon. Whatchew doin'? Check it out, man: you're standin' in a bunch a water."

How perceptive of you to notice, Daemon thought sourly. Jay-Jay was the prototype: body by God, mind by Mattel, mental processes a la fairydust. It was a good thing his customers seldom asked for much conversation. "Right," Daemon muttered, "Film at eleven."

"You okay, man?" There was a look of dull concern on the other's face.

Daemon was silent. There was no way he could explain the vision he had seen, not even to himself. It was just another of the inexplicable strangenesses that passed through his life, outside his control. He climbed out of the puddle and squelched off down the sidewalk without another word.

"Fuck you, man. Just tryin' to help!" followed him down the street.

It was only half a block farther to Daemon's building. He detoured around the Nameless One in dirt-enameled sweats who had taken to sitting on his front stoop talking to himself and stopped at the bank of tenant message-boxes on the lobby wall. This close to the Border, telephones were hopelessly erratic. The Council had decided it was too expensive to provide the magical/electronic redundancy systems to make standard postal-sorting machinery and delivery trucks reliable in Bordertown. So the closest thing Daemon's neighborhood had to mail service was the private courier companies that carried messages back and forth across town on foot, horseback, or bicycle. Daemon glanced through the notes in his box and separated out the ones that meant money: one answer to his ad in the sex magazine, one response to the flyer he had put up in the bar, three from regulars. He broke into a smile when he saw the last envelope's elegant dark-grey ink on heavy pale-grey paper. He loved the kinky ones who wanted a little extra and were willing to pay for it. Last time this John had netted him half a month's rent for a bit of formula cross-dressing and verbal humiliation he could do in his sleep.

Three flights of muddy mustard walls and eye-searing electric-blue stair treads later. Daemon arrived at the door of his apartment, where he spent the usual few minutes of pounding on the door jamb and cursing to get it open. He wasn't sure his cut-rate lockspell was entirely compatible with this lock, but as long as it continued working, more or less, he kept forgetting to get it fixed. Once again, he swore he would take care of it tomorrow.

Tension like a clenched fist opened and dissolved inside him as the lock clicked shut behind his back. He stood breathing in the wonderfully empty space and silence. Nothing else alive invaded this room, not even the ghostly taint of former visitors for business or pleasure; sex and conversation were outcall only, and the vulnerability of sleep was impossible unless he was alone or very stoned. With another body in his bed, as soon as the horn wore off, he would wake sweating and trembling from dreams of being smothered and violated.

The serene minimalism of the room, born as much of poverty as aesthetics, calmed him. Blank walls the color of concrete met slate-grey industrial carpeting. A platform bed covered in a plain white blanket faced a long, low chest of bleached wood along the opposite wall. A tiny kitchen alcove with a table and chair and a cubicle bathroom completed Daemon's living space. The only hint of luxury was an elaborate sound system on top of the chest.

He tossed his messages on the table, threw his jacket over the chair, and reached for the bottle of Ruby Springs Mad River Water on a shelf over the stove. He had found a regular source at a hole-in-the-wall health food store in Fare-You-Well Park. As he waited for the kettle to boil, he studied the idealized landscape on the label, wondering, as he always did, if it actually looked anything like the land over the Border. Unlike the fetid stuff dipped up out of the stream running through the city. Ruby Springs had a faint flowery scent arid taste. It was, according to the label, "bottled from pure mountain springs at the headwaters of the Mad River." He poured a cup of the hot liquid, then added a careful spoonful of horn from another box on the shelf, watching glittering opalescent flakes dissolve into burgundy tea. Maybe it really was unicorn horn. Daemon thought. There was some kind of magic in it; horn wouldn't go into solution in anything except River water. On the other hand, it might be some over-the=Border equivalent of used engine oil or catshit, and the Elf land pushers were laughing up their sleeves at the stupid humans who were actually willing to give good exchange for it. He knew it did nothing for elves. What it did for him, he thought as he took the first sip, made it worth whatever it cost.

At the moment, it would give him a good night's sleep. In his current mood of peaceful melancholy, he wanted something old, something classic, something he had heard a hundred times, on the sound system. He murmured the spellbox's charm to power up a favorite chip on his Spellsound, then took his tea over to lie back on bed pillows, savoring the cup's warmth between his hands, feeling the final sharp edges of perception smooth out and stop hurting. He lay there, not-thinking, watching light from the street outside crawl across the wall, floating on the calm despair of Don Henley's voice singing about loss of innocence and wasted time, until he fell asleep.

* * *

Day began in flickering black-and-white, like an old movie, as a slash of late-morning sun through miniblinds slapped Daemon across the face. He opened sticky eyes, winced, closed them again as he shifted position and climbed to his feet. A dull ache pounded in his head and he had to fight with his stomach to avoid vomiting. There was something he was supposed to do today, something important, but he couldn't remember what it was. He plodded to the kitchen to put on the kettle.

By the time he had finished some toast and a second cup of red tea with horn, the sick feeling had faded. He checked his pockets, making sure his keys and wallet were still there, checking for some hint of what he had forgotten, and pulled out a folded piece of paper. There was an address on it, not in his handwriting: twenty-four Cibola Heights Road. Memory struggled back, although it did not include any hint of how the slip of paper had made it into his pocket. He had an audition today, an impossible audition for Something For The Pain. It was real.

He showered, dressed in black jeans and a plain black T-shirt, found his best pair of dry boots, and played with his hair for a while, fluffing it up to look as much like Something For The Pain as possible. A long, critical look in the mirror on the back of his bathroom door showed him a small, fine-boned figure whose delicate features gave him the image of someone several years younger than his actual twenty-three. Big, dark human eyes belied fair skin and long hair bleached elf-color. He had the fragile and fashionably unwholesome air of a person who lives at night, a strong resemblance to a very young W. Axel Rose, before Rose's inflated hair and shriveled ego exchanged places.

Daemon examined himself from all angles, considered, adjusted clothes and hair again minutely, added a black belt with silver studs, a silver earring, and a silver-and-black-leather wristband, considered again, decided it would have to do. He took a breath, squared his shoulders. It was time to go. He picked up his leather jacket and walked out into the world, setting the lockspell behind him with a muttered phrase.

He walked over to Hideaway Street and caught a cab up the hill. The cabbie had no trouble finding the address, a big house almost at the top of Dilmun Drive off the canyon road. He followed a looming stone fence until it was punctuated by a tall iron gate, where a guard refused to let the cab enter. Daemon got out and trudged up gravel driveway lined with cypress trees, glimpses of well-clipped lawn visible through the tree trunks, for what seemed like miles, cursing under his breath and wishing he had worn flat boots instead of his stylish heeled ones with the bells. The driveway ended at last in a gigantic pseudo-Gothick mansion so incredibly ornate and grand that it had to have been built by a man with lots of dirty money and no taste of his own.

The bell was answered by a burly thug who did not look like the butler. Swan evidently believed in a strong security system. Daemon eyed him nervously. "Yeah?" the thug offered.

"I'm here to see Swan."

The guard looked him up and down dubiously. "What'd Swan want with you?"

"He's expecting me at four o'clock for an audition. My name's Daemon - D-A-E-M-0-N." It had been simply Damon before he moved to Bordertown and changed it; it was pronounced the same, but the new spelling added a bit of class to his flyers and ads, Daemon felt. He realized Swan probably didn't know his name since he hadn't mentioned it at the Ferret. "I talked to him last night at the Dancing Ferret? He told me to come up here today?" Daemon couldn't help adding the question at the end of his sentences. It still sounded impossible, even to him, and the guard's glower was not helping his self-confidence at all.

Swan's security pushed a button next to the door and engaged in a conversation with the intercom consisting mainly (at his end) of nods and grunts. At last he turned back to Daemon. "Come with me."

Daemon followed down long corridors lined with tall closed doors. Polished walnut wainscot reached to his shoulder height; above was dark, patterned wallpaper, elaborate cornice, patterned ceiling. Light glanced off gilt picture-rail and wallpaper background, glittered on gold picture frames and brass chandeliers with frosted glass globes. Daemon felt awed and rather smothered by the magnificence. Down a flight of stairs, another length of hallway, more stairs, and the distant sound of rock music grew gradually louder. It stopped, started again, stopped again. An angry voice rose over the band's playing, which faded away in a squeal of off-key feedback and ragged drums.

"Damn it, Bren, get on the fucking beat! Tighten up! Try it again."

Bren's response, if any, was lost as Daemon's guide knocked on the door. A moment later someone in a sweat-soaked, sleeveless T-shirt and cutoff jeans yanked it open and stood glaring at them out of a tangle of damp black hair. Daemon recognized Anton, lead guitar for Something For The Pain. "What do you want?"

"I'm Daemon."

"Oh. Right." Anton gave him a considering appraisal as the guard clomped away down the corridor in the direction they had come. Then he said, over his shoulder, "He's here, Swan."

"Excellent," the furry voice Daemon remembered so well purred. "Do come in, Mr. ...Daemon."

"Just 'Daemon'" he said automatically as he stepped past Anton into the room. What had once been the mansion's ballroom was now a complete music studio, set within a shell of polished wood paneling, elaborate parquet floor, and frescoed ceiling. This was an old house, Daemon realized, far older than the Return, from long before Bordertown had been Bordertown. One of the room's walls was covered by storage cabinets; the rest of the space was filled with an assortment of furniture, electronics, machinery: some human, some elvin, most clearly Spelled. Some of it Daemon recognized, but much of it was unfamiliar, far beyond his garage-band level of musicianship.

Swan was standing behind a bank of mysterious machinery across the room, one hand resting on it, the other holding a cigar. Daemon inhaled, catching the rich scent of tobacco. It took him a minute to identify the smell. Like most of the people he knew. Daemon had never tried tobacco. It was too rich for his blood, too dangerous, too hard to score. Ever since the health scares of the 'nineties when tobacco had been banned, a nicotine habit was damned expensive, more than he could afford. Better not to get started.

As Swan moved out from behind the console, Daemon noticed he was still all in white, this time a long-tailed coat of shimmering brocade in elf-fashion. He was giving Daemon a measuring look, head cocked a bit to the side, expressionless except for a slight curve of the mouth that might have been a smile. Daemon's stomach knotted with some confused emotion he could not quite sort out: desire, apprehension, most of all, an awful sense of visibility. He was clear glass and Swan could see everything inside him, could shatter him if Swan applied the right pressure. The feeling terrified and excited him. As he watched, Swan's smile widened slightly.

"Excellent," Swan repeated. "Daemon is here to audition for us, gentlemen. I think he may be just what we are looking for."

"He looks like every other 'elf'-groupie in Bordertown to me. We don't need it." Daemon turned, startled, to see the elvin bassist eyeing him with frank hatred. In spite of his Prince of Faerie body, the accent was pure Bordertown. What was a Trueblood bigot doing in a mixed band, Daemon wondered.

Anton growled, "Lay off that shit, Dwale. You hear me? You're not running with the Bloods any more."

"Humans are cool. My mom was human." That was the little halfie behind the drums. He sounded calm but emphatic, a student repeating the teachers' explanation of some obvious fact to a particularly slow classmate.

The other guitarist, a stocky human, reached over to ruffle the halfie's hair, smiling at him. "Thanks, Babe." He sounded amused.

"When they stay where they belong," Dwale snarled. He rounded on Daemon, pointing a long, thin, white finger in his direction. "It's them I hate, the ones with the bleached hair and the dog's eyes like him. Humans tell lies about us, claim we steal their children - as if any of the True Blood would want their brats. Then these come and steal our style and our look, steal our songs and our histories for their ballads. Even steal our women. They suck magic out of us; poison us with their stinking death. They're rotting meat from the day they're born!"

The drummer's clear voice rose up over the resulting angry outcry, intersected by Dwale's furious shout: "You have no right to say that, Dwale, not when-"

"SHUT-"

"-your dad was a human."

"-UP! That's a lie - a lie made by my Kin's enemies to shame my House across the Border. Because my mother, in honor, would not name the High Born who fathered me."

Anton laughed, an ugly noise. "Are we getting this 'I am the Lost Heir of Faerie' crap again?"

Dwale was poised, fists clenched, his head turning from Anton to the drummer as if trying to decide which one to attack. As Daemon stood wondering what to do, the second guitarist took a step or two toward him and said, "Don't mind Dwale. He just goes off like this." He struck an exaggerated pose, hands on hips and head to one side, as if studying Daemon. "Think you should let your hair grow out dark again, though, if you're going to sing with the Pain. Just a fashion tip." He acted as if the entire interaction among the band had been a joke staged for his benefit.

"Gentlemen, gen - tle - men," Swan said, and the room was instantly silent, although he hadn't raised his voice. "Let's not make any premature judgments, shall we? I think he has talent."

Even flustered as he was by Dwale's attack, Daemon found Swan's words puzzling. Swan had not heard him sing that night at the Ferret; how could he have any idea whether Daemon could sing or not? Swan glanced from Daemon to the members of the band, shrugged delicately, took a drag on his cigar, exhaled. Smoke curled up, veiling his face, as he added, "You are the ones who will have to work with him. I would like your opinion." His tone suggested this was just a formality; their opinion wouldn't make much of a difference if it didn't agree with his. But he had made them a unit again. Daemon, the outsider, eyed them. They eyed him back, four scruffy rockers up to their knees in a welter of instruments, electronics, tangled cords, amps and power spellboxes.

"Daemon," Swan said, "I'd like you to meet the band." He gestured languidly with his cigar in the direction of each one in turn. "Anton Satanas, lead guitar." He smiled faintly. "Not, as you may imagine, his real name."

Swan's smile seemed to demand some kind of response. "No, I imagine not," Daemon found himself babbling without thinking. Anton glared at him. He was an intimidating figure, tall and athletic, with a strong face and khaki-colored skin.

"Dylan White, rhythm guitar - 'China' to his friends." Magazines Daemon advertised in would describe this one as a "bear." A few years older than Anton's mid-twenties, several inches shorter, he was broad and solid, except for a hint of softness above his low-slung jeans. Bare chest was covered with a sandy-brown pelt the same color as thick, curly hair. His face was average, neither handsome nor ugly. There was a dreamy vagueness Daemon recognized in the way China moved, a familiar blankness behind his seagreen eyes, that explained his nickname.

"VayuDwale Henbane-Setting-Seed, bass," Swan continued, without a change of tone. The bassist's gust of protest had calmed to a sullen glower. Most elves were tall and thin; this one was gaunt, cheekbones like knives under dead-white skin, slim fingers moving restlessly against silent strings. His cloud of white hair was streaked with blue. He was wearing a loose elf-style surcoat, as if he were chilled, although the rest of the band was half-naked and the room seemed warm enough. Daemon remembered Dwale's performance the night before, and wondered what was actually wrong with him.

"Bren Sunflower, drums," Swan concluded. Bren was small and quick- moving, his father's elvin features combined with his mother's dark brown skin, flaming red hair tipped with black. He was wearing black bike shorts which. Daemon noted, revealed a rather nice pair of buns, and a red mesh sleeveless shirt.

Daemon surveyed the room. There was no one else there. "So what happened to your singer?" he asked. He still had the feeling there was something going on he did not understand, and it bothered him.

"As I told you last night, I think we need a new one," Swan said. "You may not remember." His tone implied that Daemon had been too stoned to remember anything.

Irritation made Daemon stubborn. "He sounded great to me last night. Plus he's got a major rep in the clubs."

Anton doodled a series of minor notes down the scale on his guitar, then resolved them into a hard major chord. "Steff just didn't work out, that's all," he said. Watching him. Daemon had a flash of memory: walking past a fence around a warehouse yard. The guard dog, a big Doberman:, had paced Daemon on his side of the fence, silent and deadly, down a whole city block. He was just doing his job. Daemon had read in the dog's cold, glittering black eyes: he would not attack unless Daemon stepped over his assigned boundary; one step over and he would rip Daemon's throat out. Anton's face had the same expression of impersonal menace, the same dark, glittering eyes. Daemon decided he didn't want to know any more about Steff's absence.

"That is why you are here, Daemon," Swan drawled, then became businesslike. "Let's see what you can do."

"I brought a chip -"

"No, I want to hear you live." At Daemon's quizzical look, Swan smiled. "Let's just say I want to get the, ah, feel of the way you relate to the music. What do you have there?" Daemon walked over and silently handed Swan the chip. Swan slipped it into a player, listened to a few bars, pulled it out again. He opened one of the cabinets set against the wall and flipped quickly through rows of chipcases until he came to the one he wanted. "I have this with the lyrics lifted, right here." He handed the chip to Anton, then walked over to sit down on one end of a large antique sofa upholstered in tufted black leather on the opposite side of the room, in front of the old fireplace. He leaned back, crossed his legs, gestured with a wave of his hand. This man moved as if he were set to music. Daemon thought, but not rock; no, some music older, more elegant, more mannered, more suited to ambiguity and intrigue.

Swan gestured again. "Please, make yourself comfortable. Take off your coat." Daemon draped his leather jacket over the back of Swan's sofa and stood, waiting. "Are you ready?" Swan asked.

Daemon took a breath as Swan nodded to Anton, who slid the chip into the player. It hit a couple of heavy beats and took off with the raunchy, drawling guitar line of "Borderer." Daemon picked up the vocal, a little strained on the first verse, easing into it as the music took over and carried him with it, trying to put the right insouciant leer into the words. When the song ended, Swan exchanged glances with Anton, nodded slightly. Sane sort of communication passed silently through the band, and Daemon could feel tension in the room relax. A tight fist in his stomach uncurled slightly and he let out the breath he was holding in a small sigh.

"Now give me a slow one," Swan said. "You know this, of course...." Anton reached over to take a second chip from him.

The chip-pulsed as Anton forwarded it to the setting Swan indicated. Rocking double notes began, followed by a slow guitar run. Daemon smiled. Yes, he knew this one. He closed his eyes and let it wash over him, singing with it as if he were alone in the room. "Dreams in Scarlet Water" was his song; how had Swan known? It was perfect for his voice, too, starting out sweet and soft, almost like a love song, then going up and up, harder and harder, until it hit a cry of raw agony, a sustained shriek that sandpapered the audience's nerve endings when it was done right. Daemon put his whole soul into it, feeling the reality of his love/hate relationship with the River flow out of him on the sound, feeling the pain and the necessity of escape, and the pain of that necessity. He hit the last note and held it, pushing with everything he had, then stood breathless and shaking.

Again he felt that sense of communication between Swan and Anton, reaching out to include the other three band members a moment later.

Swan knocked ash off his cigar, took a long pull on it, blew out a plume of smoke. "Good enough. Let's see how you work a live gig and we'll talk. He's all yours, Anton." He rose and walked out of the room.

Daemon followed the exquisite figure out of the room with his eyes, then pulled his attention back to Anton. He felt uncertain and a bit embarrassed; he had not intended to open himself so much to these strangers. The song had made him forget for a moment where he was. He cleared his throat slightly. "Ah - when do you want me to start rehearsals?"

"Right now," Anton said. He was working his way through a pile of paper on top of one of the filing cabinets, looking for something.

"But, ah... but I thought this was just an audition," Daemon stammered. He could not remember actually deciding to join the band. He was a part of this group; there was an emotional certainty inside of him that this was so and that it was right, but the certainty was distant, as if the decision had been made by others, as if he had no choice. At his center, a small, trapped sense of panic fluttered against invisible bars. The feeling was too vague for him to get a hold on it. At the surface was the much more concrete realization that he had left all his horn at home. He would be needing it before long. "Ah...I'm not ready...! have an appointment at...."

"Sit down, shut up, and pay attention," said Anton. "Here's the lyrics to the one we're working on now. We'll run through it once, and then you try it."

Overborne, Daemon took the lyric sheet Anton shoved at him without any more argument. He realized he was seeing Anton the Legend of the Borderland club scene in action, learning that his reputation as a perfectionist who took no shit from anyone and ran his band with an iron hand was no exaggeration. Every note, every nuance of expression, mattered to Anton; if it wasn't right, they did it again until it was right and Anton was satisfied.

At one point, as the band was taking a short breather, Daemon leaned over and muttered to China, who seemed the most approachable of the group, "Jesus, this guy's riding our ass like a twenty-dollar whore on Pearl -"

"-And not givin' us near as good a time!" China grinned back. Daemon knew he had found an ally.

"Doesn't he ever let up?"

"Not 'til you get it the way he wants it."

"How do you get out of this chicken outfit?" Daemon sighed, wondering how much of a joke it was.

"You don't." China said. His voice was still cheerful, but there was an undertone to it that Daemon did not like at all. What about Steff? Daemon wondered to himself again. What had become of the Pain's last lead singer? He did not say anything, but China must have read the question in the look Daemon traded with him. The laughter went out of China's eyes, leaving them like rain-slicked gray-green stones, as Anton's peremptory voice dragged them back to work.

By the time the band finished rehearsal, it was close to ten o'clock. Daemon's body had been trying to communicate with him for some time, but he had not been able to spare it much attention. He could tell he was going to be really sick if he didn't make a graceful exit and take care of himself soon. Daemon looked around. China had disappeared, Bren was sitting on the fender, poking up the fire, Dwale was slowly packing up the last of his gear. Anton sat on an arm of the black-leather couch, his boots on the cushions, chewing a gluey piece of pizza that had been hot three or four hours ago when it had been delivered. The sight and smell of it kicked Daemon's nausea into high gear, and his mouth flooded with sour saliva. He put a hand on the back of the couch, leaning on it, swallowing hard and starting to sweat.

"Anton - I'm out of here. See you tomorrow." Daemon said, hoping he sounded sufficiently casual.

Anton looked up from his pizza, studied Daemon, glanced at the wall clock, turned back. "Shit. How'd it get so fuckin' late?" he said, abstracted. Daemon could have told him that it was because Anton had made China repeat the guitar bridge on that last song four times to get it perfect, among other things, but he decided not to mention it.

"I've got to go." he repeated. "I'll have them call a cab for me at the front door - the security office." He reached for his fringed leather jacket thrown over the sofa.

Anton's hand covered Daemon's as he started to pick up the jacket, holding him in place effortlessly. "What are you on, Daemon? Horn?" he asked. His voice sounded indifferent, but Daemon could feel steel under the casual tone.

"Horn - yes!" That was Dwale. A malicious half-smile curved his mouth and slitted his long eyes. "When he came, he was lit - burning with the Fire like a midsummer bonfire on the erlking's own high hill." He made a "tsk" sound and shook his head, as Daemon found himself wishing he felt well enough to shove that smirk down Dwale's elvin face, then added, "Now his fire is blown out."

Daemon wondered what Dwale was talking about, then called up a hazy memory of one elvin trick who had curled against his chest, stoned on peca, playfully tracing the lines of Daemon's veins under the skin up and down Daemon's body, telling him that elves could see the drug flowing through human bodies like lines of golden fire; magical tracks. Daemon could remember the elf laughing as he told Daemon how the street junkies looked like a fresh lava flow: "The ones who take it the way those of the True Blood take abed paca'aryn - the little slashes, the ones that close at once by the magic in the Fire; the bright, bright lines of fire burning on the deadness of their skin, all dark...."

Bren had looked up from flames in the fireplace at the word "Fire" in Dwale's voice, and was watching them calmly. Daemon thought he caught a glimpse of someone coming in through a door across the room, a flick of movement out of the corner of his eye, but he didn't bother looking to see who it was. He was sick of this whole group of people, sick of the whole situation, and rapidly feeling worse physically as well. Let them play their sinister little games without him. He had come expecting a short audition, come clean, afraid of being caught carrying horn in this rich, conservative neighborhood, afraid the band wouldn't offer a junkie a job as their singer. Now he didn't care about any of it. All he wanted was out.

"What are you on, Daemon?" Anton repeated in the same quiet voice.

"Nothing!" Daemon yelled at him, trying to yank his jacket out from under Anton's hand and escape. He wasn't going to let them have any more of him, wasn't going to tell them anything more, true or false, about himself.

"Don't give me that!" Anton snarled. His other hand reached out, fastened on the front of Daemon's shirt. Without apparent effort, Anton pulled Daemon over the arm of the sofa and slammed him hard against the back cushions. "Don't ever try to lie to me, Daemon. It won't work." Daemon made a final effort to sit up. Anton pushed him back again, almost gently, and he lay, defeated, against the sofa-back, watching Anton with dull intensity. Like a cornered animal. Daemon thought, as he noticed the tatooed black panther stalking down the inside of Anton's forearm through a savannah of dark hair. Anton sat back down on the sofa's opposite arm, muscles cording under his flesh as he moved, and stared down at Daemon, leaning forward with his arms resting on his knees.

"There's a few things you'd better understand now, Daemon," Anton said, his voice calm. "Once you're in the Pain, you're in until Swan says you're out. And as long as you give me the music Swan wants, there's no hassles about what goes on off-stage. The band hangs, no matter what. But whatever affects the music, I got to know. That means no bullshit. You give me all you got, all the time, and you give it to me straight." He grinned and leaned back. "Or, in your

case, you give it to me honest."

So Anton knew that, too, Daemon thought. "You know all this stuff about me, and you want me to tell you everything. What about you?"

"All you need to know is that I'm in charge," Anton said. He gave Daemon a long look. "That's the way it is until Swan signs you. If he does. After that, maybe we'll talk."

"The hell with you. I'm going home." Daemon tried to stand. The room spun as his stomach twisted, headache clamped down, sharp, sick pain clawed at him. He fell back, panting slightly. How could he have been so stupid? he thought. He was full of anger - anger at them, anger at himself - and underneath the anger, fear.

"You'd never make it like that." Anton raised his voice slightly. "China!" China appeared at Anton's shoulder. He was swaying slightly, his eyes half-closed, a faint smile on his mouth as he held out a syringe full of burgundy liquid. His elusive accent - southern? Texan? Daemon wasn't sure - had deepened to a real drawl. "Here, Anton. Swan said he'd be needing it."

"And of course you had to try it out first," Anton said wearily. Under his breath, he added, "Fuck, now I've got two of them...."

"Well, naturally, I couldn't expose this poor, innocent boy to a po-ten-tial-ly dangerous drug without-" China was waving the syringe in an expansive gesture, looking as if he might drop it any minute.

Anton took it out of his hand. "You know all Swan's shit is pharmaceutical."

"Yup, it's good shit," China grinned, "Enjoy." He gave Daemon a fond smile and wandered off humming to himself. Anton sighed as the other two members of the band, who had been following this exchange, laughed.

Anton turned back to Daemon, took hold of his arm and straightened it, shifting the syringe to the sofa-back long enough to push up Daemon's sleeve with the other hand, as he said, "You idiot - did you think we didn't know you were a junkie? Here." When he saw there were no puncture marks on the inside of Daemon's arm, he stopped, then laughed, "Well, well...."

"Not that way. Tea," Daemon panted. He pushed against Anton's am, but he might as well have tried to shift an I-beam one-handed. There was something about the needle Daemon shrank from, some final act that defined him, to himself, as an addict. It was a surrender and a humiliation.

Anton's grip did not loosen. "Trust me, Daemon," he said.

Daemon could feel that, for Anton, this was an issue of power and need to control as strong as Daemon's need for horn. He looked up into Anton's unyielding face, shadowed by long, dark hair, into the black eyes. He remembered himself standing on the edge of a curb - on the edge of the world - in Butchers' Alley staring down into a magic pool of blackness that looked like Anton's eyes, and he remembered jumping. He relaxed and gave Anton his arm for the needle.

There was a stick, a slight burn, then, a moment later, a shock of pure pleasure surged through him. He was in a place of tingling bright wonder, floating on tiptoe among crystalline bubbles that burst into cool sparks that rang like wind-chimes that smelled as sharp as eucalyptus. There was nothing outside him, only the blood that was liquid light singing in his ears and his heart beating joy - joy - joy. He might have laughed out loud; he didn't know. After an infinite time, he came down into a warm, safe, comfortable place where he was at peace, and very sleepy.

Daemon heard Anton's voice from somewhere over his head, saying, "He's O.K.; let him crash here."

Eyes closed, drifting into sleep on the leather sofa, Daemon felt a jacket being laid over his shoulders. There was the quick touch of a calloused palm stroking his hair and Bren's voice murmuring something soothing as he slid into unconsciousness with a smile on his face.

* * *

In the days before the Pain's next gig, Daemon learned to deal with Anton's grueling rehearsal sessions, to do a song or a phrase over and over until Anton was satisfied, to take orders without sulking or exploding in anger. He almost learned how to live on cold pizza. Daemon had never been good at details and hard, steady work, preferring to go with the flow and retreat into horn when the going became too difficult, bat Anton, Daemon discovered, was remarkably good at motivation, and he had a grim singleness of purpose. Nothing mattered to him but the music. After three days when he didn't have time to go home for clean clothes, Daemon made a hurried trip back to his apartment for the few belongings that he cared about and moved into an empty bedroom on the second floor of Swan's house, where the rest of the group each had a room.

He was beginning to learn the give-and-take of living with all of them. He dyed his hair back to its natural shade of chestnut-brown and Dwale stopped scowling at him. China and Bren agreed Daemon looked much better, and even Anton gave a grunt of approval when he looked up from his guitar. They did seem to get along, accepting each others' quirks with a sort of amused, or resigned, tolerance. Daemon was amazed to find being with them did not rasp his nerves with the familiar prickly pain other people usually brought with them; there was only a muted discomfort, a sense of presence pressing in on him that was easier to bear. He had no explanation for it; he was simply grateful.

He wasn't quite one of them yet, since he hadn't been through a live gig with the band, and he hadn't been Signed. Daemon could hear the capital letter in the others' voices every time they talked about it - or didn't talk about it. They would start to say something and fall silent when they saw Daemon was listening. Once, Daemon overheard Dwale ask Anton if one of the musicians in another of Swan's bands had been Signed, and Anton answered, no, just the standard contract. When Daemon asked them what that meant, both turned a look like a brick wall on him.

Otherwise, they loosened up as they got used to having him around, and Daemon learned a little about them in fragments of conversation dropped during breaks and time spent fiddling with the equipment and in the wind-down sessions at the end of rehearsal. His best source was China, who turned out to be a world-class doper. China spent most of his time thoroughly drowned in the River and full of extravagant stories which he shared with Daemon as they passed a joint or a needle back and forth, stories mainly of Anton's prodigious and bizarre sexual exploits on tour, his own stoned misadventures, and Dwale's hot-tempered violence.

"Did Dwale really run with the Bloods?" Daemon and China were lounging on China's unmade bed in the dusty clutter of his room, smoking.

"Sure," China answered. "He was a vicious little fucker, too. Nasty temper, always swaggering around like he owned the sidewalk and picking fights with humans. Killed a couple, I heard, before the Bloods threw him out."

"Why'd they throw him out?"

China leaned back against the headboard with his hands behind his head, staring at the wall with the unfocused expression Daemon knew meant China was going to launch into another of his stories. Daemon was never sure how much of them to believe. "Turned out Dwale wasn't quite as True a Blood as he claimed," China continued. "Or at least that's what the Bloods believed. Oh, his mother was elvish all right: one of the High Born, the daughter of some big duke or king or something in Faerie. She ran away to see the World, ended up in Bordertown, and when her father's men found her and took her back, she was pregnant. Her dad was seriously pissed; seems she had been promised to some other major High Born in marriage to seal some political deal, and he didn't want a wife with a bastard kid. So when the baby was born, the elves sent it back over the Border, and the elf lady married this guy anyway."

"So the baby was a halfie?" Daemon asked.

China shrugged. "How should I know? Do I look like an elf?"

Actually, Daemon thought, China looked rather like his own unmade bed, vague and disheveled in the same pair of jeans he had worn for a week and an ancient T-shirt. It was hard to believe this was the same brilliant musician whose technique on guitar was as precise, as clean and sharp, as a razor cut. Daemon filed it away as one of the Pain's mysteries. He took a drag and leaned over to pass the joint back to the storyteller, his words coming out in puffs of sweet-smelling smoke as he asked, "What happened to the baby?"

"The elves gave it to some human family in Bordertown who owed the lady's father a favor, and the family and the changeling made each other miserable until the kid was old enough to run away. Lived on the street until the Bloods took him in."

Squinting through the haze at China's bland expression. Daemon wondered if this was all an elaborate joke at his expense. "China, are you putting me on?"

"Of course I'm putting you on. Daemon," China said. "Would you believe a story like that?"

"Then what really happened? Come on, China!"

"Well, the truth is," China answered solemnly, "Dwale was found under a toadstool in Fare-You-Well Park."

Daemon threw a pillow at him. "I'm going to kill you, China! With my bare hands...."

So it went, and Swan was always there. Patient, exquisite, secret, he watched and said nothing while the band rehearsed and disappeared with Anton at intervals for mysterious conversations. Daemon nearly went mad with frustration watching him. Everything he had felt for Something For The Pain was concentrated in Swan now; he could not say why.

* * *

Something woke him. For a confused moment as he sat up and switched on the Tiffany lamp, he did not remember where he was. He was not at home yet among these rich things, the heavy velvet drapes and lace curtains, the antique furniture and gilt-framed prints, the marble fireplace and elaborate four-poster bed with its thick down comforter. He wondered if it had been a dream. No, he could hear voices, right outside his room in the hall, where the staircase led down toward the main entrance ball.

"Save it for the gig, Baby; it's only a few days."

"No, now! I'm not going to wait!"

"Come back to bed." Words muffled against flesh: "Come on. Sweetheart. Let me take care of you. Mmmmm-"

Daemon moved silently across thick carpet to his door and opened it a crack on silent hinges. A naked China was standing in the hall with his arms around Bren, his hands down the back of Bren's drawstring pants, his mouth pressed against the halfie's mouth.

"Jesus fucking Christ," Daemon breathed to himself.

Bren turned his head and pushed China aside, backing up a step. "No, I'm going." He pulled down his shirt and tied his pants tight around it, turning toward the stairs.

They both froze as a door at the far end of the hall opened. Anton stepped out and walked down to join them, wearing nothing except an irritated expression and an air of authority. "What's going on?"

"The kid wants to play with matches again," China told him in a tone between amusement and frustration. The whole conversation was taking on a vaguely surreal quality for Daemon as he watched it in fragments through the small opening in his doorway. Maybe, he thought, it was because he was still half-asleep.

He heard a faint rustle of cloth on cloth, and pushed his door open a bit more to see Dwale coming up to join the group. The elf, who was always complaining he was cold, was wrapped from throat to ankle in a long-sleeved sleeprobe of some elvish fabric like woven dark-blue stormclouds. "What woke me? I felt something," he said.

China jerked his head in Bren's direction: "Him."

"I want to go out," Bren said, arms folded across his chest, chin at a stubborn angle. From the looks the others exchanged. Daemon could tell this meant something to them besides a simple stroll around the estate's grounds. Daemon decided he would rather not get involved. He tried to shut his door quietly and retreat to his bed without being noticed, but the movement mast have caught Anton's eye. The guitarist took two quick steps; Daemon's door was pushed open and he was dragged out into the hall by Anton's hand on his arm, then released.

"What woke you up?" Anton barked. Overhead, Daemon heard a creak of floorboards in Swan's suite on the third floor, and wondered if same thing had awakened the whole house.

"I - I don't know. I heard something," Daemon stammered. It was not the question he had expected.

"Hmmm," Anton grunted, plainly unconvinced. Daemon realized, with all the horn he had done last night, he should have slept like a rock until mid-morning, and Anton knew it. Anton fixed Daemon with the same hard, measuring gaze Daemon remembered from his audition with the Pain, then nodded once. "All right; we'll all go. You too," he said, nodding again in Daemon's direction. "Meet me at the car."

Daemon threw on some clothes, grabbed his leather jacket, and followed the others to a carriage-house behind the main building. As Anton unlocked the door and motioned them all inside. Daemon gave a whistle of surprise: the garage held a sleek silver Rolls-Royce and a black limousine. Swan had enough magic to spell and power a limo this close to the Border? The thought was awesome. Anton murmured a complex spell as he slid into the driver's seat, with China and Bren behind him, and Daemon next to Dwale in the back seat. The limo purred downhill through dark, empty streets, heading into the crumbling ruin of Soho.

It was shortly before dawn. A cold wind brought them damp reek off the Mad River and sound of the Mock Avenue Bell tolling the wrong hour. Here and there dim light still showed behind papered-over or blanketed windows. A few unbroken street glows shone faintly, and moonlight flickered in and out behind thick scudding clouds as Anton steered carefully through broken pavement, glass, and trash. Finally Bren pointed at a decrepit building smeared with graffiti, its doors boarded up, its windows empty except for a few remaining shards of glass. It might once have been an apartment-house. Daemon guessed. "I want that one," Bren said; "Stop here, Anton."

Anton pulled over and got out of the limo; Bren scrambled after him. None of the others moved. Daemon heard door locks snap shut and heard Anton saying hurriedly over his shoulder as he followed Bren toward the building: "Stay here. Keep an eye on him." That must be me, Daemon thought.

Time passed in tense silence. Daemon asked once, "What is it? What's going on?" but when no one answered, he returned to waiting quietly, nervously, for something to happen. A flicker of light flared on one corner of the building, then, a second later he heard a whomp! like an exploding bomb and the entire apartment-house was filled with fare, flames shooting out of every window and. surging up over the roof with clouds of thick black smoke, the air choked with its smell and its deep roar, the whole building going up instantly like a lighted matchhead.

Searing pain flared. Daemon went rigid with a strangled scream, then forced out, one word at a time: "People... in... there...." As if to confirm his words, a dark figure appeared at the roof's edge, silhouetted against fire's bright glow for a moment as if hoping for rescue, then jumped or fell over the side. It hit the ground three floors down and lay still. Daemon, intent on his own pain, hardly noticed. He yanked at the lock for his door; it refused to move. He slammed his shoulder into the door, panting with each breath; that just added the pain of a bruised arm.

One hand reached over the seat in front of him and grabbed Daemon's other shoulder. A second hand held out something to him and China's voice floated in the air over his head: "Daemon - Dude - here!" It was a bottle of Ruby Springs Mad River Water; Daemon recognized the familiar label like a relic of an impossibly distant past, an archeological artifact from a different lifetime. He: groped for it blindly through pain, gulped, swallowed, hardly tasting flower-scented water heavily laced with sharp tang of horn. By the time the bottle was empty, pain had faded to a dull background ache. Daemon laid the bottle down carefully at his feet. "There're people in there," he repeated stupidly. His eyes were wide and unfocused.

"Were," China said. "Forget it, Dude." They looked out the car window toward the burning building, where leaping flames had become a red glow behind charred black walls and wisps of dirty-grey smoke drifting up from smoldering remnants of wood. Daemon had never seen anything burn so fast. He turned to Dwale, "There were people...."

"What are they to me-?" Dwale said.

"Elves, maybe. There're elves down here too," Daemon added, trying, through the fog in his brain, to understand and counter Dwale's dead calm.

"Perhaps," Dwale answered, "But none of my House or oath."

At that moment, Anton arrived back at the limo with Bren in tow. The halfie was protesting, "I don't want to go; it's not all burned up yet! Anton!"

Anton muttered a quick Word to unlock the doors, opened one, and shoved Bren into the seat in front of Daemon. "Somebody turned in an alarm. There's going to be firemen and Suits all over the place down here in a minute."

"Shit," said China. "Let's get going."

Dwale shrugged. "Why? These folk are nothing: runaways, throwaways, lost children of no kindred. Who will care if they burn?"

"Nobody," Anton agreed, "But they'll care if the fire spreads up into the Heights. They'll send somebody to stop it down here."

"Anton," Daemon said, with the plodding single-mindedness of the thoroughly stoned, "There were people in there...."

"So?" Anton said. He reached across the seat in front of Daemon, leaning over Bren, and took Daemon's chin in his hand, tilting Daemon's head up to look at him, his fingers pressing hard into the sides of Daemon's face. To Daemon, he was a block of darker black against deep grey of slowly lightening pre-dawn sky behind him. "Forget it, Daemon," he said, in a tone that brooked no argument. He backed out, slammed Bren's door, took the driver's seat, and the limo pulled away from the curb.

During the drive back to Swan's estate. Daemon sat stunned and unmoving. Beside him Dwale lay back against his seat's rich leather upholstery, silent and dreamy, the last of waning night's moonlight reflected on his moon-white upturned face and silver hair. From the seat in front of him Daemon heard unmistakable sounds of Bren and China engaged in frantic sex. Daemon could not bring himself to look over the seat. He was chilled, numb, his mind blank as images of burning faded, growing fainter, blowing away, smoke on the wind, fire drowned in water, smothered in earth. By the time they were parked back in Swan's garage, he had only a distant uneasy memory of something strange and terrible happening in a dream. He puzzled over it as Anton shepherded them back into the mansion.

Swan was waiting for them at the top of the wide staircase leading up from the entrance hall, draped in a long cream-silk dressing gown, a smoldering cigar in his hand. As Swan took a puff, the tobacco's dull red glow and pale ash prodded Daemon with the suggestion of something he had forgotten, and he flinched, away from it, unsure why it disturbed him, then dismissed the feeling. It was only a cigar. Dwale, then Bren and China, reached the landing and detoured around Swan on their way back to their rooms. Daemon followed. As he turned his doorknob to enter, he heard Swan addressing Anton as the guitarist set foot on the top step. "Well?" was all he said.

"No problem," Anton answered, walked on down the hallway, and closed the door to his room behind him.

Daemon closed his own door and crawled back into bed. In the wan grey of first light, that bed was the only solid thing; he was floating down some swirling, unseen river, the sound of rushing water loud in his ears, the space around him full of vague dark shapes that blurred and wavered, undefined and faintly threatening. Walls around him dissolved into thick mist and smoke; he could swim through them into some other place and lose himself there. He was melting, evaporating, blowing away like fog on some invisible wind. Frightened, he closed his eyes to shut out everything around him and flowed downhill into sleep. When he woke again, he would remember only that he had had a nightmare about something dreadful he could not recall.

* * *

No matter how much you practice, Daemon thought, it's never real until you're on stage. The night of the new Something For The Pain's first gig at the Ferret, he was in a fine state of nerves, his blood running hot-and-cold tingles, his ears almost deafened by the pressure in his head. The horn he had done about an hour before had taken the edge off somewhat, but he could feel stage-fright like dragon-claws in his stomach, waiting to rip him open. Samhain was just finishing up its set, and he could hear the crowd applauding, whistling and shouting, the clank of bottles and glasses on tables, occasional scrape of chairs. The club's air was thick with smells of beer and pot and people, streaks of light from stage spots cutting through haze to flash on the glitter of fairydust. Daemon could feel a cold, damp draft from an open back door fuming his toes to ice, while everything above his knees was hot and dank with sweat. He wiped his palms on his black tights, looking around the bare little room behind the stage where bands waited to go on. Anton, who was sharing a last cigarette with Dwale, caught his glance and gave Daemon a grave thumbs-up. China and then Bren gave him an encouraging smile. All the good-will and attention made him even more self-conscious.

Swan stepped through the door, as cool and graceful as ever in another of his outfits of pale elvish brocade, walked over and stood studying Daemon for a moment with an ironic smile, seemingly amused by Daemon's discomfort. "Well, Daemon," he said, and, as always. Daemon's belly tightened at the sound of his name in Swan's silky, insinuating voice, "Your first live performance with Something For The Pain. Quite an event. Nervous?"

Daemon was silent, not sure whether Swan wanted him to say yes or no.

"Good. Feel it," Swan said, raised his hand, and laid three sleek, perfectly manicured fingers against Daemon's sweaty cheek. Daemon was acutely aware of Swan's touch as the whole world narrowed down to those three fingers burning-cold against Daemon's flushed skin, and Swan's low voice. Swan sounded the way the Mad River looked at four in the morning after a bad night, dead moonlight glinting silver off metalflake surface, and below, the deep, slow, burgundy water like something strong and hungry, luring him down into its seductive darkness, promising peaceful oblivion. The depths called to Daemon, cool and silent and comfortable.

"Feel it," Swan said again. "Go with it, use it, give it to me. Give me that crowd, Daemon."

"How?" Daemon murmured. "I don't understand."

"You will," Swan answered, "if you are what I think you are, you will."

He turned away, and Daemon watched, dazed, as Swan brushed a touch against each of the other band members in turn, then laid a hand briefly on Anton's blood-red custom guitar before disappearing out the door into the club again. Daemon was amazed; he had never seen Anton let anyone else near his precious axe.

Then it was time to go on, and the audience screamed its welcome as Something For The Pain stepped out onto the stage, stamping and whistling, and shouting out comments nobody could understand above the general din. Anton stood for a minute with his legs apart, arms akimbo, filling the room with his presence. He shook back his mane of thick black hair and shouted, "You going to help me rip the roof off this place tonight?" The crowd answered with a deep growl that sounded as if they might give it a try. They knew it was Anton's band, no matter who the lead singer was.

Anton swung his guitar into position and slammed into the opening chord; the crowd's roar grew louder as they recognized the familiar song. Daemon could feel their excitement surrounding him, threatening to carry him away with it. He felt as if he were clinging by his fingertips to the crumbling bank of a river in flood. It had been something like this before when he had come to the Ferret to dance and lose himself in the music, but never so strong. Then he had been part of the crowd instead of a focus, and stoned enough that it was exciting, like rushing down a water-slide, instead of frightening. Now he could not let go and flow with it. He was supposed to produce something coherent in the midst of all of it, something like lyrics.

At the center of all the furious sound was Swan's remembered voice on Daemon's inner ear: feel it, use it, give it to me. Blindly, without design, Daemon groped for that presence, touched something - a goal, an anchor - and, closing his eyes, threw himself into the flooding void. The anchor held. Daemon opened his mouth and his first note was there - powerful, clear, dead on above Anton's guitar - as he reached out, snapped the mike out of the stand, and moved into the music. He was dancing inside it, pulling the sound up from somewhere inside himself and screaming it back at the crowd.

The band was fast and loud, roughened with lust and rage and amplified distortion, unambiguous. Above Bren's solid beat and the driving force of Dwale's heavy bass, Anton and China were a keening wail of electronic hunger luring the audience into a power that was inside and outside and all around them, making them part of the sound. There was hardly time to take a breath between songs, no relief from the music; the music was the relief. The crowd was dancing, glassy-eyed and mindless, all emotion, pouring energy into the band, into Daemon.

He was not giving anything to them, Daemon realized; they were giving it to him. He could feel the wave rising, beating against the fragile barrier that kept him from being swept away with them into mindlessness, to drown his self in that sea. Terror rose in him: this time, he knew, there would be no coming back to shore. Again he heard Swan's voice, urgent in his mind: give it to me, give it to me NOW! Take it! Daemon's whole self cried, as all barriers gave way.

A jagged slash of pain as a festering wound that had never quite healed tore wide open, then pure, sweet relief as he became a clear channel and the crowd's energy flowed through him like a rushing high-tide into somewhere else. Daemon's voice soared and exaltation leaped in him. He was singing - no longer mouthing lyrics with an intonation Anton had drilled into him, but singing in a powerful voice full of his own passion and understanding, and making the words and the music his.

The band paused for a space of several beats as one song ended, then as the audience quieted, China's keyboards, like distant chiming bells, began the deceptively slow and lyrical intro to the Pain's final number as Daemon sang:

 "Living in the madness, dancing on the River;

Living in the magic, drawing down the Moon...."

Bren's drums, then Anton and Dwale joined in as the tempo quickened and the song turned to rock:

"Running from your old life to a dream in scarlet water...."

Daemon's voice rose above the pounding beat and banshee guitar in a harsh wail that held all the anguished longing of Bordertown exiled humans, living in sight of the Border they could never cross, almost within touching distance of the land of heart's desire they could never reach.

"...a dream in red, red water,

Just a dream in blood-red water; just a shadow on the Wall...."

Anton crashed his last chord down over the audience like a pane of glass breaking, and, abruptly, there was total quiet as the crowd caught their collective breath. The band stood panting, drenched in sweat, as Anton bowed, an impatient snap of the head, and said "Thank you, Good night." He turned and stalked offstage as the rest of the band followed him without a backward glance; Something For The Pain never played encores. A roar as the audience exhaled in one giant shout of applause followed them out.

Daemon had heard people talk about being drained after a performance or a great emotional experience - he'd said it himself - but he had never known until that moment what it meant to be utterly, totally emptied. He stumbled after his bandmates toward the little dressing room backstage, steadying himself with a hand on either side of the narrow, grimy passage. He was dizzy, and the edges of his vision were dark, filled with little dancing flakes of light, as if he were about to pass out. As he stood holding on to the doorframe and trying to touch something - anything - in the blank space that was his interior, he heard a muffled sound from inside, then Anton calling sharply, "Swan!" Daemon lunged on through the door, following Bren, and fell into one of the chairs. As his vision cleared, he saw Dwale slumped on the floor with Anton down on one knee, bending over him, and China and Bren standing over the two of them, staring down at them, frozen.

Swan came through the door, moving fast without appearing to hurry - a talent Daemon had often envied. "Put him over there," he said, gesturing toward a sagging couch against one wall of the room, and Anton and China picked Dwale up and deposited him on the sofa. Swan stood looking down at Dwale's body for a time. Dwale was out cold, breathing shallowly with a little wheeze on the inhale, as if his chest was trying to collapse inward with each sip of air. An- ugly blue tinge was developing under his translucent skin.

"Swan, I told you -" Anton began angrily.

Swan held up a hand for silence - Anton, still scowling, subsided - then laid his fingertips lightly on Dwale's chest, his pefect face tense with concentration. Without taking his eyes off Dwale, he said, "You did well tonight. Daemon - exactly as I had hoped. Do you want to be a permanent member of Something For The Pain?"

Daemon glanced from Swan to the elf apparently choking to death under Swan's hand and back again. It seemed a singularly inappropriate moment to be discussing his future career plans. Daemon thought with a touch of hysteria. "Shouldn't you - uh - take him to the hospital or something?" he asked. Daemon realized he had no idea what to do for a sick elf.

"There is nothing any doctor could do for him," Swan said calmly. He; looked up into Daemon's eyes and Daemon felt a hint of warmth in the pit of his stomach, in the center of the cold void inside him. "Stay or go, Daemon," Swan said, and Daemon could feel his name in Swan's mouth as if it gave him some kind of power over Daemon. "Choose now - are you with us or not?"

Daemon looked around at the group - Anton, China, Bren - who were watching him with cold eyes and grim, impatient faces, waiting. He remembered a line from a book he had read long ago: "'-ye know the Law! Look well, 0 Wolves!" What was this Pack he was being asked to join, really. Daemon wondered, and what would happen if -?

The asthmatic whine of Dwale's breathing pulled Daemon's attention back to the elf. Daemon could see the blue color deepening under Dwale's bone-white skin and the way the hollow at the base of his throat was sucked inward with each struggling gasp. He's going to die; he really is, Daemon thought, staring at the elf helplessly.

"Swan," Anton said, "We haven't got much time." His voice was like his axework; controlled, passionate, with an undertone of threat.

"What happens if I leave?" Daemon asked. "You blame this on me, and I get nailed by the Suits for Dwale's o.d.?"

Swan's mouth curved in a faint smile. "You have a better imagination than I thought. No, if you leave, nothing will happen to you; no reprisals. You'll walk away and," the smile widened slightly, "forget any of this ever happened."

"And if I stay?"

Swan gave his curiously liquid shrug. "You'll be one of us."

"Whatever that means," Daemon muttered. He could feel the silence around him thick with expectation, and he remembered all the times he had gone down into darkness, darkness sometimes sweet and welcome, sometimes terrifying, but never certain, without knowing if he would touch bottom and come up again. He remembered the power he had felt when he was inside the music, and he thought about what people are to each other when they make something together. He thought - quite hard - about walking away and not looking back. He studied the beautiful man in front of him, with his pale-gold hair and exquisite body, and thought about Swan.

"O.K.," Daemon said, "I'll stay."

Swan nodded. "Excellent." Daemon heard a faint snic as the door's lock snapped shut - apparently by itself - then Anton, China, and Bren pulled the sofa with Dwale's body on it away from the wall. Each of them moved to one corner of the sofa, and Swan took the last corner, saying to the others, "Link with me."

There was silence for a moment, except for the rasp of Dwale's breathing. A shimmer like overheated air began over the body on the couch. Swan closed his eyes and bent over slightly, his hands weaving a pattern through the shimmer, his voice chanting softly in some speech that might have been elvish and might have been something else, full of gutturals and strangled vowels. Shimmer darkened and thickened around the five of them to a blue-grey cloud, as Daemon suddenly realized that Swan was building a wall around the couch out of something Daemon had never known existed, to wall out something so much a part of him he had never been without it except when unconscious. Daemon could still feel a background of the club's audience out front, dancing to the next band's music, but within this room Swan and the others faded out as Swan's barrier darkened almost to black and the figures inside it became indistinct blurs moving in slow motion.

Then, with a crack the barrier broke open, dissolving into grey wisps and a sharp scent of ozone. The sense of presence returning hit Daemon like a solid blow; he flinched and barely swallowed a yelp of pain before he saw that nobody was paying any attention to him anyway. They were all concentrating on Dwale, who was taking deep gulps of air between bouts of coughing. Bren helped him sit up and supported him as Dwale's breathing slowly returned to normal and he reached out a shaking hand for the glass of plain water China held out to him. He muttered something softly in elvish and Bren nodded, answering him soothingly in the same language.

Anton cursed viciously, balling his hands into fists at his sides, his face dark with anger. "I told you, Swan - performing is too dangerous until we find out who's behind this!"

"And I told you we need the energy. I am not about to face Them with nothing but excuses," Swan answered, slightly out of breath. Swan would never. Daemon thought, do anything as undignified as pant, but he sounded as if he had been moving something large and heavy requiring great effort.

"I'm not going to let you use Dwale as a sacrifice, like Steff!" Anton shouted, as Swan eyed him calmly, looking unimpressed.

A cold, tickling sensation crept up Daemon's backbone: Steff, the singer whose place he had taken, the one who "didn't work out...." Sacrifice? he wondered. He climbed slowly to his feet, steadying himself with one hand on the wall against another, less violent, surge of vertigo, saying "Just a minute-" Both Swan and Anton turned to look at him, and his confused "What's going on?" came out sounding more plaintive than protesting.

"Ah, Daemon," Swan said in a tone that flooded Daemon with a rush of pure lust, "that is what you are going to find out for us: what is going on."

Anything you want, Swan; just ask me, Daemon thought. Aloud, he said, "What do you mean?"

At that moment a fist pounded on their locked door and they heard Farrel Din's bouncer yelling from the other side that the club was closing. A second later the knob turned and a large elf with spiked purple hair leaned in to repeat the message, adding, "C'mon, give us a break. Don't use your own shit on the door; we have a hard enough time getting it to hold a spell as it is."

"I'll be sure to remember that," Swan said with poisonous politeness. He gestured toward the door. Gentlemen, shall we go? I think we have some business at home."

* * *

"I didn't know until tonight if you could channel for me or not, Daemon," Swan was saying. "It's not something we could show you - it's like breathing: you have to do it yourself."

The band had gathered in the library of Swan's mansion, a dark room full of old oak paneling, polished mahogany, and crimson velvet. Anton had carried a limp and exhausted Dwale from the garage to a massive overstuffed couch, one of a pair that flanked a wide fireplace of carved red marble, where the elf was now sleeping. China had pulled all the pillows off several pieces of furniture to construct a nest in front of the fire, where he was now curled up working his way steadily through a big glass mug of Riverwater and horn. Bren perched on the raised hearth, watching the flames and stirring the ashes with a poker, while Anton stood next to him, silhouetted against the bright glow, his arms crossed.

Across the room was an alcove of floor-to-ceiling oak shelves full of leather-bound volumes with gold-stamped titles, a parlor-table, and two deep, tall wing chairs of maroon leather. Daemon leaned back in one; Swan was hidden in the depths of the other. Except for flickering firelight, the only illumination in the room came from a floorlamp behind Swan's chair. His seemingly disembodied voice floated out of darkness on his eternal tobacco-scented smoke.

"I suspected the night I found you overloading at the Ferret, trying to block it with horn. You hadn't the faintest idea of what you were doing, I could see that. The talent strengthens with age; if they don't learn to channel, most empaths go insane, or overdose trying to block it before they are thirty - and you were well on your way. Traditional, but messy. And wasteful. I have a much better use in mind for you."

"What if I don't want to be used?" Daemon asked, more out of curiosity than argument. Warm darkness, weariness and horn created a dreamy state in which it was hard to be upset about anything.

"You gave up that option when you chose to stay this evening," Swan said. "You will be used, one way or the other, but it will be much more enjoyable if you cooperate - for both of us. For all of us, Ah, Daemon," Swan's voice had that seductive caress in it again as he added, "there are so many things we can do with you that would be very enjoyable indeed...."

Daemon was sweating more than the room's warmth justified, feeling himself growing hard in response to Swan's tone. Damned cocktease, he thought, shifting uncomfortably in his chair. He heard something suspiciously like a stifled snicker from the direction of China's nest of pillows, but when he flicked a sideways glance in that direction, China's nose was innocently buried in his glass. He lowered the mug and smiled sleepily at Daemon, his eyes vague and half-closed.

"But I'm human!" Daemon burst out, the frustration he was feeling for completely different reasons sharpening his tone, "I was born and raised in Orange County, for god's sake. I don't have any magic."

"The fae have no monopoly on magic, Daemon," Swan said.

"Can we get to the point, Swan?" Anton said, shifting to rest his arm on the mantel and put one boot up on the fireplace fender. Bren looked up briefly, then went back to drawing in the ash with the poker.

Daemon could feel currents in the room, the testing of power always there between Swan and the Pain's lead guitarist. Swan gave no indication he had heard, except to lean forward in his chair until firelight shimmered along his pale, flowing hair and glinted on elvish brocade.

"We lost our old channel about three months ago; that was the first we knew about it," Swan continued. "You remember Withe?"

"Sure," Daemon said. "Too bad; he was great. Niqhtlife said he set the place on fire smoking in bed, but I heard a lot of rumors. No one knew for sure what happened."

"We were careless," Swan said. "Someone... interfered... with an operation, and Withe was caught in, well, the feedback, I suppose you could call it."

"Porno For Pyros for real, Dude," China chimed in, his voice slurred. He threw up his hands, fingers spread wide, and laughed. "Just like that: up in smoke. Fucking light show, Dude; blew me away." Bren was watching him, nodding slowly, his face solemn and distant. Daemon's stomach lurched slightly.

"Shut the fuck up, China!" Anton snapped. Daemon could feel in him

not sorrow, but proprietary anger: something that belonged to him had been stolen.

"What are you so pissed off about?" China asked, squinting up at Anton above him, outlined in fireglow, "You didn't even like him...Oh, all right..." he finished, as, Anton's heavy boot threatened to come down on a sensitive part of his body. Anton replaced the boot on the fender, and China subsided into sulky quiet.

Swan had been watching this exchange patiently through the silver plume of cigar-smoke rising from a hand on the arm of his big chair. "Since then we have been more careful when we can," he continued, "but they have been attacking while the group is on stage, when we must be open in both directions, to the audience's energy too. You saw the result: Dwale nearly died tonight."

"Why are they after Dwale?" Daemon asked.

"Dwale is the most vulnerable; they will begin with him." Swan smiled. "Don't you know, Daemon, that hatred is as strong a bond as love? Perhaps stronger. Dwale hates those of the True Blood who cast him out as much as he hates the humans who took him in. He is the most connected to this Borderland of all of us."

"Well, who are these people?" Daemon asked again.

"I don't know," Swan said, "and without a channel we couldn't Search to find out. Now we have one."

It took a moment for this to register, then Daemon's hand slapped against his chest, and his "ME?" came out as a terrified yelp. "Oh, no. I'm so thrilled to get tapped for this gig, but no thanks. I don't know anything about this stuff, and I don't want to find out. No Way."

Anton gave Daemon one of the guitarist's cold, measuring looks and said evenly, "That's what Steff said."

Silence stretched out, broken only by soft crackle of fire, and Daemon realized how badly he wanted a joint, a drink, a bit of the River, anything to take some of the edge off of this nightmare. He fumbled at the inner pocket in his vest and found nothing. "Shit," he muttered.

Swan nodded to Anton, who reached into a carved cinnabar box on the mantel next to him, took something out, and started toward Daemon. Daemon climbed out of his chair, backed away without taking his eyes off Anton, ran into the tall bookcase behind him, and reached down to rub the painful spot where an oversized volume on the bottom shelf had gored him in the calf. When he straightened up, Anton was holding out a white paper cylinder to him. Daemon looked up into Anton's face. Menace had faded out of it; the guitarist's expression was calm and neutral, and Daemon could read nothing, feel nothing from him. Only Anton's eyes glittered haematite-black, and red highlights seemed to flicker in their depths. Probably reflected firelight. Daemon thought. "This what you're looking for?" Anton asked.

Daemon took the joint from him automatically, rolled it between his fingers, sniffed it, touched it to his tongue, all the while watching Anton's impassive face. The herb smelled of elfweed and pot, with a smoky, bitter undertone Daemon did not recognize. The hell with it, Daemon thought. He walked over, took one from the box of long fireplace matches on the mantel (it flared bright green as he thrust it into the fire) and lit the joint. He drew in a deep lungful of smoke, held it for a long moment, and let it out with a sigh.

Around him the darkness wavered and deepened into smooth black satin, wrapping Daemon in peace and well-being, a sweet, dull rapture in which nothing else mattered. "Daemon, Daemon," Swan was saying in a voice like heavy cream, "You must realize that you have no choice. You have already given yourself to us. All that is left is the formal Signing to mark and bind you."

Something was weighing down Daemon's hand; he couldn't move it. He looked down. Anton was holding his forearm. There was a flash of light on metal, a cold slash of sensation that refused to identify itself as pain, and a dark line appeared across the flat white surface inside his elbow. Blood welled out and flowed in dark rivulets down Daemon's forearm over the dam of Anton's thumb and into a shallow dish - dark red-glazed pottery, with some design scratched into it - Swan was holding under the cut. Daemon wondered dully how Swan had gotten there; Daemon hadn't seen him move.

The rest of the group were standing around Daemon now: broken planes of dark, rich colors, twinkle of light on metal and jewels, glint of eyeshine in the dimness - confused shape and outline - hiss of breath, thick smell of warm male bodies, fabric, mousse, stage makeup, and sweet smoke. Daemon swam - no, floated, drowned - in the heavy presence, dissolving into it until there was nothing else.

One by one, Swan repeated the bloodletting on each of the other members of the group, leaning down to slash the unconscious Dwale's elbow. Silently, each of the others held out his arm for the ceremonial knife, dark streams flowing down against white and brown skin to mingle in the red dish. Last, Anton and then Swan added his own blood. Swan murmured something over it as he sprinkled a powder into the dish, reached down to where the fire now burned blue and touched the liquid briefly with dark flame. Light flared for an instant; a green and dizzying smell mingled with the scent of blood. Swan lifted the dish and touched the tip of his tongue to the mix; the pale-silk waterfall of his hair flowed down and hid his mouth before Daemon could see if he drank. As the dish moved from hand to hand around the circle, each of the others repeated the tasting, their faces still and secret.

When the dish returned to Swan, he dipped a finger in the thick liquid, raised his hand. and drew a shape on Daemon's forehead, chanting soft words in some language Daemon did not understand, weaving netted patterns of sound around them all. The mark burned cold on Daemon's skin. Swan dipped his finger again and touched Daemon's tongue with the mixture, a taste of spoiled cinnamon and iron. All Daemon's bones seemed to melt, and someone (Anton, he thought) caught him as Daemon slid downward, his whole being singing wordlessly: 0 wonderful, wonderful, better than sex, better than any high, somethingwonderfullylike both of them; o wonderful-wonderful-to be free of barriers and pain, open and not hurting....

"Drink it all," Swan's voice whispered and a hand held the red dish to Daemon's mouth. He- swallowed the mixture, licked the dish clean; hotcold enchantment burned all the way down, filled him, and Daemon was a part of it. The shape of his self was washing away, a sand castle melting on the incoming tide, and Daemon waited eagerly for the flood to cover him and turn him into a silkie. He knew now that he could live under water as he never had breathing air, that he was a merman's changeling and land was not his natural habitat, but this new sea.

“Daemon,” Swan said, and the name in Swan's voice created him again. Damon, the boy from Orange County, was gone, and Daemon was real, and Swan's mouth was on his, tasting sweet-and-bitter with blood, mingling with the same taste in Daemon's open mouth under Swan's. Daemon closed his eyes and surrendered completely to the new identity Swan and Something For The Pain had unbound and set free.

For Daemon, what happened after that was totally confused: empathy, telepathy, magic, some kind of new psychedelic high, something he had no name for at all. He felt hands and mouths and bodies - more than two, he was sure; how many he did not know - felt his mind and body opened, filled, and taken; felt himself (or someone else, or both or all of them) come: a unity and pleasure that was complete and absolute. He was totally inside it, and yet it was abstract, like the particularly vivid memory of a dream. He was never sure afterward if any of it was real, and yet, in some way he was sure it was all real.

* * *

When he woke, late-morning was a stained-glass glow through crimson velvet drapes drawn over the library's tall Victorian window, and he was half-buried in the pile of pillows China had claimed the night before, his nose full of the dusty smell of antique tapestry and needlepoint and old Oriental rug. Daemon levered himself up on one elbow, then cautiously sat up, pulling the hair that was glued down on his forehead out of his eyes. He was naked, he reeked of various stale biological and chemical substances, he was wrung out, and his mouth tasted disgusting, but he was amazed to discover he had no trace of a hangover and, except for a polite reminder that it would be needing its morning fix soon, his body felt better than he could ever remember. The faint background rasp of pain that was always part of him was gone.

He looked around. Swan and Anton were nowhere to be seen and Dwale was gone from the couch next to him. Daemon wondered if they had taken the elf to a doctor after all. Bren was curled up asleep, also naked, on the fireplace's wide raised hearth. The fire had gone out, and Bren's toes and one outstretched hand were half-covered in cold ashes. Rich red light gleamed on his sleek brown skin, the line of his thigh and his beautiful ass; Daemon felt desire stir in him. At that moment, a large, shapeless lump beside him shifted.  He turned to watch a convulsive tsunami of cloth among the pillows as a tangled mass of sand-colored curly hair emerged, followed by a naked body which shook its head, pawed the fur away from its face, and became China. He yawned and mumbled, "Momin', Dude."

Time for a reality check. Daemon thought. "Uh, China - what happened?"

 "What d'you mean, 'what happened?'"

"What happened last night?"

"Fuck if I know, Dude. I was floating face down." He yawned again, stretched, and reached over, grinning, to slap Daemon lightly on the shoulder. "So were you. Hold on; be right back."

China climbed to his feet and ambled out of the room. He returned in a few minutes with his works, a bottle of Ruby Springs, and the coral box that held his stash of horn. He and Daemon shared a companionable needle in silence, then China stretched out again on the pillows with his hands behind his head. Somewhere along the line he had acquired a pair of blue-green drawstring pants that, along with his bare feet and chest, and his sleepy, masculine good looks, gave him the air of a rather disheveled model from an International Male catalog. Daemon thought - he had never noticed before how good China looked; he wondered why. "China..." he began.

"Mmmmmm?"

"Nothing."

They remained there a while longer in silence. Daemon watched the hollow just under China's ribcage empty and fill as China breathed and wondered if he would be able to feel China's heart beating if Daemon put his hand there. He imagined the warm feel of that flesh, of China's broad chest....

"Something bugging you?" China said. Daemon shook his head. China sighed, sat up, and pushed several pillows together into a backrest against the hearth. "Look, Dude; I'm getting hungry and my armpits itch. If you don't get around to what's on your mind soon, I'm going for breakfast and a shower anyway. Come on, Daemon - talk to me."

Daemon swallowed and said all in one breath, "China, did you fuck me last night?"

"Probably," he said calmly. "I think everybody fucked you some time last night. That's the way it usually goes at one of these things."

"One of what things?"

"Initiations. Ceremonies. Sabbats. Whatever the hell you call them. Speaking of which-" China stood up, reached into the cinnabar box on the mantel, and took out one of the small white cylinders inside. "Cool. Some left," he said, lighting it with one of the matches from the fireplace box, then sliding back down to the pillows. He took a puff, held the joint out to Daemon (who shook his head) and shrugged. There was a gap in the conversation. China smoked, eyeing Daemon with calm patience. Behind them, Bren stirred in his sleep, but did not wake.

Finally, Daemon said, "So you're gay? And everybody else - Anton? ...And Swan?”

China pointed a finger at him. "Wrong. You're gay - I sleep with boys. And girls, sometimes. Elves, humans, halfies - never met a sheep I was particularly into, but then, I'm a city boy. I'm anything that feels good, Dude; I'm not into fucking labels. Anton, Bren, Swan-" He shrugged again and raised his hands, palms out, in a "who knows?" gesture, then laid one hand lightly on Daemon's knee. "Swan says it's part of the ritual. Sex magic. Energy and like that, y'know." He smiled. "Don't know about the magic part, but the sex is great."

Daemon rolled over and accepted the invitation; China didn't smell any worse than he did. When they had both come, China climbed to his feet. He lurched, steadied himself against the mantel, and said, "Woah! I don't get some food on top of this shit, I won't be fit to rehearse this afternoon, and Anton will bite my head off at the knees. Hey, Bren." He shoved the prostrate figure on the hearth gently with a foot, and Bren shifted, making a protesting "I'm awake" sound. "Get your ass in gear. Breakfast."

Bren gave him a half-hearted obscenity and sat up, scattering grey ashes as he pulled himself out of the fireplace and swung his legs over the edge of the hearth. He yawned, shook himself, and started combing his hair out with his hands, carefully separating the tangles.

"Rehearse?" Daemon asked in a small voice as he slowly stood up.

"Fuck, yes, Dude," China said. "We've got a gig this Friday."

"Not unless we get this thing settled, we don't," came a voice, and the three of them turned to watch Anton striding through the door. "I told Swan I wouldn't do it again. Flat out - no way. I won't risk my band."

China and Bren exchanged glances, a strange combination of uncertainty and fear that said: he wouldn't do that, would he? "Swan's the Master," Bren said in a carefully neutral tone.

Anton shook back his mane of dark hair. "Swan can go fuck himself. He can't do the Work without us. He doesn't back off on this, I'm taking over."

"Good luck," China muttered somewhere near Daemon's ear.

Anton took a step toward China, his whole body vibrant with anger that threatened to replace Swan with China as a handy substitute target. "What was that?"

"Hey, nothing, man," China said, holding his hands up, palms out. "Lighten up, Anton; I'm easy." He yawned theatrically and added, "How's Dwale?"

Good save, China, Daemon thought, as the diversion gave Anton a chance to calm down and realize these were the people he was supposed to be fighting to protect. He glanced around at the three of them, all doing a good job of looking harmless and inoffensive, and the anger went out of his face. "Dwale's asleep," he said. "Warded and Spelled. Swan and I did a healing on him. He'll be all right by tomorrow."

Anton finally seemed to notice Daemon standing there, gave him what looked - and felt, to Daemon's newly opened sensitivity - like an honest grin of affection, and walked over to put an arm around him for a hard hug. Daemon could sense Anton, solid and powerful and fiercely sexual in a way that made Daemon wonder if he might not be into black leather chaps and a slave collar after all; something very different from Bren's prettiness or China's cheerful lechery, harsher and more exciting.

"Hey, Bro," Anton said, standing back for a good look at Daemon, "Good to see you conscious. How're you doing?"

"Great," Daemon said, and, in spite of everything, meant it.

"We've all got to talk about this shit." Anton looked at his watch and added, "God, I'm starved. Let's send out for-"

"NO!" three voices chorused as one, "No pizza!"

"O.K., O.K." Anton grumbled; "No pizza."

* * *

After a brief detour upstairs for a shower. Daemon wandered down to the kitchen, scavenged in the refrigerator for a bagel and some good cheese, poured himself a cup of coffee, and settled down with Bren, China, and Anton around a massive oak worktable that filled the center of the room. A small club could have fit into that kitchen. Daemon thought, studying the acres of wood floor, wavy in spots from years of foot traffic, tall glass-fronted cabinets, counters of yellowed marble, and rack of bright-copper pans hung over the industrial-size Aga stove. Noon sun spilled in through big windows and French doors leading out into an elaborate garden fragrant with herbs and flowers, loud with a twitter of birds. After the library's darkness, this bright light on cream-colored walls was almost blinding. Daemon blinked against the dazzle, and looked down to the tabletop, where his fingers were unconsciously tracing patterns of grain and knife cuts in the scrubbed old wood. He lifted a hand and rubbed his thumb across the inside of his elbow, where a deep slash had already healed as a white, shiny scar.

Anton laid his hand across Daemon's over the scar. You are one of us, the gesture said wordlessly, and we take care of our own. Anton's own scar showed against his bare arm and Daemon had a strange shift of perception that told him the scar had always been there, but he had not seen it until now.

Daemon looked up at Anton, standing beside him, then around the table. Bren was chewing his way steadily through an Eggo, but China took time to salute Daemon with a sticky fork, and Daemon smiled back at the two of them. He could sense them now, real and satisfying as food in his stomach, sweet and soothing as horn running in his blood; could feel them in his mind, in his body; feel them without pain. Rather their presence surrounded and supported him the way their backups and instruments surrounded his vocals, each separate sound blending into a whole. Somewhere else, two other presences were part of the unity: Dwale, a faint vibration like the sustain on a note, and Swan. He could feel Swan underneath it all, holding it all together like the drummer on the backbeat, the steady, body-shaking beat that makes it rock, and it was all one thing: Swan and the group and the sex and the music and this new perception that made him part of it.

Anton's hand was still on Daemon's arm, and Daemon's attention shifted to the guitarist's strong, arrogant face. Anton's eyes were the haematite-black Daemon remembered as Daemon followed the corded "V" of Anton's throat down his wide shoulders and dark-furred chest and flat belly to his cut-off 501 jeans. With this new perception, Daemon could see him from inside and outside, feel the way Anton knew him and responded, feel, too, the way Bren and China joined with them. He could smell the heat of Anton's body.

"Get down there and take care of me," Anton said, a rough command.

"The Pain Breakfast Special; go for it, Dude!" China chortled as Bren, grinning, stood up for a better view.

Daemon slid down from his chair between Anton's thick-muscled bare thighs and fumbled with the buttons on his jeans; a minute later and he was putting all his skill and enthusiasm into the job his mouth was doing on Anton's cock. Some time later, as he sat back on his heels, savoring the taste of Anton's cum, an ironic voice purred from behind him, "My word. Daemon - you are a slut, aren't you?"

Daemon whirled around, swallowing hastily. Out of the comer of his eye he could see Anton casually buttoning up his jeans. Swan walked toward them through the kitchen door, elegant and unruffled in his brocade dressing gown, the inevitable cigar smoldering in his hand. As Daemon started to rise, Swan put the other hand on his head, running his fingers through Daemon's hair. "Don't get up; I like you on your knees. Appropriate, wouldn't you say, Anton?"

Anton laughed.

"I see Anton has been introducing you to some of the perks that go with this job. Good. You're perfect, Daemon; perfect." Swan took a deep drag on his cigar and blew out a languid cloud of smoke, then gestured toward the chair behind Daemon. "Oh, go ahead. I don't want you wearing out your reflexes."

As Daemon slid back into his seat. Swan slipped a hand under his chin, tilted his face up, and brushed Daemon's mouth with his own, his lips cool and silky and firmly closed. A wave of raw, overwhelming lust swept over Daemon, something that was beyond sexual desire, and he made a strangled, inarticulate sound, but before he could move Swan turned his wrist and laid the tips of his fingers against Daemon's bare chest. Daemon froze; the touch was feather-light, but he could no more move against it than he could push one of the mansion's stone walls down bare-handed. The abrupt shock of that check reverberated through his body and his nerves screamed with adrenalin; he gasped one short intake of breath. Swan smiled, a slight curve at the corners of that perfect mouth, and said in an amused tone, "Don't be greedy, Daemon."

Swan sat down in an empty chair at the head of the table and motioned. Bren resumed his seat and Anton chose a chair at the opposite end of the table. "Sit down, gentlemen," Swan said. "This may be a bit informal for a staff conference, but here we are. Anton, I've decided you're correct; it's too dangerous to perform again on stage until we've taken care of whatever is out there, but we'll have to move soon. They are becoming impatient."

"Did you-" Anton paused.

"Yes," Swan said. "I - ah - spoke with Them this morning. They were quite... insistent."

"Shit," Anton muttered, and China and Bren shifted uneasily, breath hissing between their teeth as they inhaled.

"Luckily, this Tuesday will be the dark of the moon," Swan continued, "And our dear Daemon is finally ready to channel."

Swan was still smiling at him, watching him with the fond regard of a mother wolverine overseeing her cubs, and Daemon took advantage of the moment to say, "Look, you guys - Swan - O.K., I signed on for the tour, but you didn't exactly let me read the fine print-"

Swan spread his hands. "Not my problem, Daemon."

"I've been 'volunteered' for something I don't understand, and it sounds fucking dangerous, and I have a right to know what's really going on here," Daemon exploded, out of patience. "What are you talking about with this 'They' shit? What are you doing?"

"He's got a point, Swan," Anton said. "He has a right to know what's going on."

Swan turned and ran a cold look up and down Anton. "When did you start talking about 'rights'?"

"He's one of my people."

Daemon had the feeling Swan and Anton were not really talking about him at all. An image rose in his mind of two wolves, hackles raised, bristling and growling as they circled a bitch, testing each other. He glanced from one to the other and reconsidered: maybe it was more like two dogs fighting over a biscuit. He wondered if Swan was trying to make sure Anton didn't get any ideas because Swan had backed down about the band performing on Friday. He felt shifting balances of power as the two stared at each other wordlessly for a long moment until Anton reluctantly yielded and Swan graciously accepted his retreat, refusing to push Anton to the wall for a final confrontation. Swan inclined his head slightly, ironically, in Anton's direction and said, "Very well - do explain it to him, Anton." He leaned back, veiled in a cloud of cigar smoke, smiling maliciously.

Anton put one heavy boot up on his chairseat and leaned back, raking one hand through his tangle of black curls. "Hell, where do I start," he said, then snorted a laugh. "I guess that's as good a place as anywhere. 'They' feed on energy the crowd gives us when we're on stage - sex, fear, anger - and most of the time that keeps 'em happy, but every so often..." Anton shifted in his seat, replacing his boot on the floor, his hands tightening on the chair back. "You remember that writer for Niqhtlife last year who said we ought to rename the band 'DWI' 'cause everywhere we went there was a bad accident?"

Daemon nodded. It was rumored that particular bit of "bad taste" had cost the reporter his job after an ugly round of complaints by the band's fans.

"Well, he was on to something, but he didn't know it. I mean, if some guy gets run over in a rush through the gate, or stomped in the mosh pit, or wasted in a fight in the parking lot, or o.d. 's in the John, or gets creamed driving home - hey, who's going to blame the band? It's not Altamont, right? It all goes to 'them' and if 'they' don't get 'their' goodies on time, 'they' get pissed. At us."

Daemon's mind grasped at details. "That's what happened to Steff?"

"We Signed him, like we did you," Anton said. "He tried to back out of the deal."

During Anton's talk, China had pushed his plate back, padded to the stove, lifted the lid on one of the big kettles on a burner, and muttered a spell to light a fire under it. He clanged the lid down, and said over his shoulder, "Gen-u-ine Pain demon-munchies. No loss; Steff couldn't do jack-shit on anything we played anyway."

"Too much channel; not enough rocker. Bad news," Bren added, picking absently at the flaking logo on the front of his faded T-shirt.

Daemon tried to ignore a bead of cold sweat tricking down his side toward the waistband of his jeans and a prickling chill along his spine. "Are you telling me," he said carefully, "that you're Satanists? That you do human sacrifices?" It sounded like something from the National Enquirer, and he found the hint of a squeaky giggle coming out of his mouth.

"'Satanist' is such a crude term," Swan said. The smug expression on his face, the amused glint in his eye, suggested he was enjoying this exchange very much.

Anton shrugged. "Call 'em aliens if it makes you feel better. Or something from over the Border. How do we know what High Elves do for fun in their spare time?"

"High Elves," Daemon said. "Sure. But - what do you get out of it?"

"Haven't you heard?" China put in from where he was leaning against the counter, waiting for his kettle to boil, "Something For The Pain is top of the charts. Dude. Triple platinum. Number one on the MTV countdown. Cover story in Rolling Stone and Spin. You know, shit like that."

"But you - we - make good music!" Daemon protested. "I mean, we rock. The Pain is the hottest, tightest killer band in the world - and, whatever you say, Steff was a great singer. The Pain doesn't need -"

Anton interrupted him, slamming one hand down hard on the table. "You know what we are? Look at us. A burned-out commercial hack with a habit the size of a dragon on his back...."

"I love you too, Anton," China said, grinning at him, unfazed.

"...A pyromaniac space cadet with no timing..." Anton continued. Bren looked, hurt but kept quiet as Anton charged onward with "...An Axel-Rose-rip-off, no-talent poseur...."

Daemon realized Anton meant him, and half-rose out of his seat to respond, but Swan forestalled him with "...And a third-rate Joe Perry imitation with delusions of guitar godhood and a surplus of Attitude."

Anton shoved his chair back so hard it crashed on the floor behind him as he lunged to his feet, fist raised, a yard from Swan's face, but Swan didn't even move. "Sit. Down. Anton," he said, biting off each word without raising his voice. Anton glared at him for half a minute, then slowly picked up the chair, turned it with its back toward the table and straddled it, hands gripping the sides of its back like Darth Vader sighting down on a rebel in his TIE-fighter.

"If it weren't for me," Swan continued, "You'd still be gigging Monday-night dives and laying the A-and-R man's receptionist to try to get your demo chip played. I can put you back where I found you, Harvey Wilbur Smoot."

Harvey Smoot? No wonder he had changed it, Daemon thought. Anton seemed to deflate and pull back into himself. Daemon could see the ghost of a scared, defiant young musician, desperate for a break, scratching to survive on the Industry's tawdry fringes with little talent and less hope; a ghost that looked familiar, much like the one he used to see in the bathroom mirror when he shaved in the morning.

"He's right, you know," China said. He poured a steaming mug full of burgundy tea-water from his boiling kettle, pulled his coral box from the deep pocket of his baggy pants and dumped in a generous handful of opalescent flakes, stirred, then ambled back to his chair, scratching his chest absently with his empty hand. As he sat down, he raised the mug and saluted Swan with ironic formality, then took a deep gulp. "It weren't for this, I'd probably be laid out on a cold slab somewhere, O.D.'d on some kind of bad shit, or be sittin' on some sidewalk playin' for spare change in my hat. Maybe I'd rate a footnote in somebody's 'definitive history of rock' about how I did session work on some big star's studio chip. 'Competent' - god, I hate that!" Daemon suspected China was quoting. China smacked his mug down hard on the table and leaned forward, sounding almost angry as he said, "Now I'm a Rock Star - now, what I play comes out right, the way I hear it in my head. I got everything I want - the boys, the girls, the dope, and my music - the way I want it. What else is there? Sell your soul for Rock-n-Roll? Shit, Dude - who wouldn't?"

China leaned back and took a long pull of red tea.  Daemon followed China's glance across the table to the place where Bren sat, nodding slowly and emphatically, and staring down into the plate where he was reducing the remains of his waffle into a syrupy soup with a fork held at the angle of a drumstick.

"Well, Anton?" Swan asked. He had an elbow propped elegantly on an arm of his chair - it was the only chair with armrests - playing it cool, smiling complacently through cigar smoke. Daemon realized he had never seen Swan eat anything, and for a wild moment wondered if Swan was some non-human creature who lived on tobacco leaves. In the atmosphere of the last hour, anything seemed possible. Swan never came down from his third-floor suite except for rehearsals, but Daemon had seen, now and then out of the comer of his eye, one of the house's shadowy servants heading up the stairs with a covered tray. He was sure the servants were not human; work of the house was done by unseen hands and dim, half-seen figures who were never there when he looked at them directly.

"Yeah, China's right," Anton took a deep breath and slowly let it out as a sigh, looking down sideways at the floor, sounding tired and infinitely bitter. Daemon could not tell if Anton thought the bargain was worth it or not. China knew he was, at best, a mediocre musician and he had learned to live with it, telling himself he didn't care. Anton cared, cared desperately. Daemon could feel the anger and frustration eating at Anton's guts.

Daemon knew what he was. At this moment, he was not sure if he cared or not.

China hummed an old riff, and sang, "...Everybody's got their dues in life to pay...." Daemon recognized it: something from a scratchy, flickering flat-vid from a time before he was born - a slurred, rough voice full of the pain of self-knowledge and self-destruction. China cocked his head, his mouth twisted in a wry half-smile.

"Damn you, China," Anton whispered in a strangled croak, the sound of a man too proud of his masculinity to cry, taking refuge in anger.

"I'm afraid you're a bit late on that one, Anton - for all of us," Swan said smoothly. He stubbed out his cigar on the saucer of Daemon's coffee cup and leaned forward. "Let's get down to business. We need to find out who is sabotaging this I group and take care of them, so that we can get back to fulfilling our...contractual obligations. Dwale will be ready to work by tomorrow. Daemon will channel. Tuesday, Gentlemen - at the dark of the moon. Anton -"

Anton looked up from the floor, his voice emotionless again. "We'll be ready by Tuesday, Swan. Trust me."

"Not a chance," Swan said, sounding amused. "But you know what will happen to you if you fail me. Tuesday, then." He rose, nodded to the group, and glided out of the room.

* * *

Tuesday night, they gathered again in the library. In the light of black candles, the room was a dark, shadowy crimson, the color of dried blood. Warm air was thick with the scent of hemp and opium and elfweed burning in the low fire, silent except for a soft murmur of voices making nervous conversation to keep their minds off what was happening. Along the west wall, beneath a heavy tapestry hanging, was a refectory table of black wood carved in fantastic figures. Daemon lay on it, naked.

Daemon was floating on the River and the strange mix of herbs in Swan's cinnabar box. He hardly felt the dark-red velvet altar-cloth under him; above him was smoky air disappearing into indefinite darkness. He blinked half-closed eyes, feeling disconnected, balanced between this reality and some other world. He heard soft footsteps, the whisper of cloth on carpet, and Swan was beside him, a silhouette against firelight, blotting out everything else. Daemon could smell bergamot and musk, the spoiled cinnamon of elfweed, tobacco, the scent of male flesh. Swan's ceremonial robe was the burgundy of the River in moonlight; Daemon saw a wide sleeve dark against Swan's pale marble skin as Swan brushed back damp hair on Daemon's forehead with a cool hand. "Are you ready?" Swan murmured.

Daemon nodded. Thick air tasted like metal at the back of his throat.

"This is the last test, Daemon," Swan said. "This is the last moment of decision for you. It's about trust, you know. A channel is never sure he'll survive, when he opens himself to the Power. If there is any resistance, any block to the clear flow, you'll go up like a match. You understand?”

"Yes," Daemon whispered.

"Give yourself to me, Daemon - completely," Swan said. Swan rested his hands on Daemon's head and above Daemon's heart, and began soft chanting in that strange language Daemon remembered. Above him. Swan's face was a luminous pale shape that wavered against darkness; Swan was a force as strong and inevitable as gravity, drawing him down into it.

For the first time, Daemon felt no desire whatever to resist. Shape and direction, identity and time, blurred; the scarred, secret place inside Daemon opened, willingly, and he felt himself poured into the shape of Swan's will like water into a glass. It was a place of immense content, where he belonged. This was right; this was as it should be, what he was. Channel.

"Now, Daemon," Swan said, and Daemon gave himself to the darkness. He slid, melted, flowed into unconsciousness, open.

* * *

Some time later, Daemon swam back into consciousness. All around him was silence. He felt chilled, a little shaky, utterly empty, and completely clear-headed.

"Welcome back, Daemon," Swan's voice came from somewhere out of sight.

"I did it?" Daemon asked.

"Yes, you did it." Swan's voice was a contented purr. Daemon pushed himself up into sitting position, starting to shiver, as Swan's pale hands settled a warm, soft robe around Daemon's shoulders. It was dark velvet and rich embroidery, with the look of a ceremonial garment. "Black and silver - Channel's colors," Swan said. "Here, drink this. You need it."

Daemon looked into Swan's face, where his smile, for the first time Daemon could remember, reached Swan's eyes, then down to the big mug in Swan's hands. A mouth-watering smell was rising from the mug. Daemon took it, lifted it, and took a sip; it was thick soup, almost too hot to drink, and delicious. Daemon realized he was very hungry. "I feel - weird," he said between swallows of soup.

"Yes. It's reaction, of course - Channeling takes a lot of energy." Swan chuckled. "And you're sober, for the first time in years, I suspect. I've Shielded you: the pain and the craving are gone. You won't need the drugs except for opening yourself to the Power, although if you want to indulge recreationally, my dear, I have no objection. Please don't recover - twelve-steppers are so annoying."

Daemon laughed. A sense of well-being was starting to flow into him, along with the hot soup, as he looked around the room. The black candles had gone out, dull-red coals glowed among ashes in the fireplace, air was stale with the grey smell of cold incense. In low lamp-light, the room was empty except for himself and Swan, who was dressed once again in his cream brocade dressing gown. He looked inquiringly at Swan. "Where is everybody? Are they all right?"

"They're fine. Gone to bed." He smiled again. "This is our night. Come with me, Daemon."

Daemon set down his empty mug and slid off the altar to stand on his feet, steadying himself on a hand Swan held out to him. He wrapped his robe around himself and tied it, as he followed Swan out of the library into the foyer and up two flights of stairs. At the second landing, he stopped, staring up the sweep of oriental runner and gleaning oak banister toward a carved and gilt pier glass at the head of the stairs above him. No one but the shadowy servitors ever went up the third flight of stairs to Swan's private apartments.

"Come along, Daemon," Swan said over his shoulder, as he went on up the steps. Daemon followed slowly down a hallway to another heavy oak door. Swan opened it, and, with an uneasy feeling that he was invading a forbidden sanctuary. Daemon followed him into Swan's bedroom suite. He padded after Swan across the room, his bare toes sinking into deep rugs spread on the floor, catching quick sideways glimpses of an alcove with a wide, tall canopied bed, a massive carved wardrobe, and a marble fireplace with a desk on one side and a table and chair on the other. A bouquet of elvish bell-flowers sat on the table, chiming softly and filling the room with their alien perfume. Swan drew back drapes, pushed open French doors, and stepped out onto a balcony, motioning Daemon to follow.

Between the Hills and the far shimmer of the Border, the city lay spread out below them in cool, sweet pre-dawn air. Pale grey of lightening morning showed the dark band of the Mad River, looping between blocks of buildings and blank squares of parkland, punctuated by pin-points of light.

"Look," said Swan, gesturing with one hand. On the near side of Fare-You-Well Park, between it and the River, a column of black smoke was rising. Half a city block was burning furiously.

"Bren's work," Swan said, "with help from you for targeting and delivery. It's convenient having a fire-elemental under contract." At the look on Daemon's face, he added, "Yes, all of them: earth, air, water, and fire. They are more than even they realize... and less. Homunculi: artificial beings with created memories."

"...artificial..." Daemon muttered, remembering some of his interactions with the members of the band.

Swan did not actually go so far as to grin, but he gave the impression of grinning. He was clearly in excellent humor. "Oh, they seem real enough - and they believe it themselves; but you and I are the only real beings in this house. And even I am not completely human."

Daemon simply stared at him; it was more than Daemon could absorb all at once. He found himself regretting the clarity of his new mental state, longing for the comfortable, familiar vagueness of the River. "Then - what are you?" he asked.

"Something... other," Swan said. "We - my line - have bred mother to son, daughter to father, since the time of Atlantis. One in each generation is the Child, the Head, and first among Their servants." He gestured again toward the burning buildings far below them. "My daughter coveted my place and my power, but she was clever, and I did not think she would dare to move against me. Without you to channel my search, she would have destroyed me before I suspected her. I have spelled her into stasis and bound her Between, outside time and space, until the son she bore me is old enough to breed a daughter on her. When that is done, she will be no more use to me and she will die. Her hiding place and her constructs are burning down there, along with her magic."

It was too much; Daemon's overburdened nerve snapped. "Talk about your dysfunctional families..." He stopped. "Oh, shit," he muttered.

Swan looked at him for a moment. Then a muffled sound began, growing from a sputter to a snicker to a chuckle and finally a genuine full-throated laugh. Daemon had never heard such a sound from Swan. In surprise and relief, he joined in, and the two of them stood on Swan's balcony, laughing together, while sun crept over the horizon and below them fire died toward ashes. Finally, Swan led him back inside and closed the French doors behind them, then heavy grey-green drapes.

Strengthening light filtered through those drapes, reflected off sea-green walls, bathed Swan's bedroom in dim watercolors. Unseen hands had turned down the bed, and in its cavernous depths white sheets glimmered like pale sea-sand on an ocean cave's floor* within the walls of its bed-curtains. Daemon noticed they were the same fabric as the drapes: the color of mossy rocks. On a nightstand beside the bed was a silver tray and a decanter filled with burgundy liquid. Swan poured two cut-crystal cups full, handed one to Daemon, took one himself, as flowery-sharp scent of Mad River water and horn swirled around them.

Swan touched his glass to Daemon's with a sound like chiming elvin bellflowers. "Call it our wedding-cup, Daemon, if you will. A very old tradition. Before Eve was Lilith, and she was a witch; there is her blood in the both of us, and it is as fey as anything from over the Border." He smiled. "Drink up."

Swan sipped, watching Daemon over the edge of his glass. Daemon drank

eagerly. Sweet and soothing, the horn slid into its accustomed place, sheathing his nerve-ends in familiar peace. It was no longer a defense against the outside world; it was pure pleasure. Blood was the surge of ocean in his ears.

"Daemon," Swan purred in his velvet voice. Daemon set down his empty glass as Swan drew the black-and-silver robe down, away from Daemon's body, pulled Daemon gently down to the bed next to him. In the dim underwater light, Swan was sound and scent, warm bergamot and musk, and a half-seen perfect body, naked, as beautiful as he had imagined it. His white-gold hair was like pale sea-grass in ocean currents, floating in dappled light. Daemon ran his hands slowly, wonderingly, over Swan's body, bent his head, and accepted Swan's kiss.

He took a breath. From somewhere, a fragment of an old song came into his mind, and he sang softly, "I am a man upon the land; I am a silkie in the sea. And when I am in my aine countree -"

"You are here," Swan said. "This is your own country."

"Yes," Daemon said. He could feel Swan hard against him, ready to claim him, to take Daemon's body as he had taken Daemon's mind and soul. Daemon gave it to him willingly, joy rising in him. He was home.

           - End -

 

 

Winter's Tales