Darkest Misery – Chapter 1

Gryphon agent Tom Kassin might know more about what I was than most people on this planet, but he totally didn’t get who I was. Which is how I ended up on a plane taxiing down the runway at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.

Passengers shuffled in their seats, clearly antsy to get to the gate and impatient for the Fasten seat belt light to go off. I shared their impatience—literally. It tasted to me like bitter almonds. But that was as much as I shared with my fellow passengers. Though I wanted to stretch my legs too, I had little else to look forward to when I got off the plane.

“I still think this is a bad idea,” I muttered, stuffing my water bottle into my duffel bag.

I could sense Tom was just as eager to get off this flying deathtrap as everyone else, but he hid his irritation better than most. Which was to say he was one of the few who hadn’t actually made a move toward his phone yet. “You’re too hard on yourself, Jessica. I truly think having you along will do a lot to reassure Mr. Johnson.”

“See, this is why I keep saying you don’t get me. You used my name and ‘reassure’ in the same sentence.”

“I get you better that you think.” His disconcerting accent, part Southern twang and part butchered British, always seeped out when his emotions were heightened. And they’d been heightened a lot lately.

Tom did not like me challenging his authority.

I could no longer keep from rolling my eyes. “Just because you have my magical profile and rap sheet memorized doesn’t mean you understand my psyche.”

In light of a looming apocalypse I could no longer ignore, I was willing to work with Tom and his secret Gryphon group of expert magic workers and highly trained fighters to prevent it, but it killed me a little inside to do so. The Brotherhood of the Wing, AKA Le Confrérie de l’Aile, had created me to become a super pred-fighting warrior against my will and without my knowledge. Those actions had made my life hell for a multitude of reasons, and regardless of the Brotherhood’s intentions, I had a hard time forgiving them for it.

If that made me petty or short-sighted or even vindictive, I could live with it.

After several torturous minutes, the plane reached the gate, and I stuffed my brand new e-reader into my bag. Lucen had given it to me a couple days ago, just as Tom was starting to make noise about the value of having me along on his Arizona mission.

Over the years, Lucen had given me lots of things—a reason to live, a safe place to hide, all the free booze I could drink, and more recently, the best sex I could ever imagine. But this was the first present-like thing he’d given me.

Despite his bar recently being destroyed and his alliances turned upside down, Lucen had been in remarkably good spirits lately. Apparently me screwing around with his best friend Devon did that to him. For Lucen, it was a sign that I was becoming comfortable in my sorta-satyr skin and we could make our relationship work. While I was glad he was happy, and as much as I did like Devon, I couldn’t kill my hope that one day Lucen and I could have a normal, human-style relationship that did not involve some form of ménage. I just wasn’t about to tell either of the men that.

Missing Lucen already, I watched Tom worm his way into the aisle. After he grabbed his bag from the overhead compartment, I adjusted my grip on my duffel and followed his blond head into the terminal. There, I breathed deeply and stretched my cramping muscles, rejoicing in leaving behind the plane’s odors of sweat and stale coffee. The airport was done up in shades of neutral, and through the wall of windows to my left, a line of majestic mountains jutted into a blue sky dotted with perfect fluffy clouds.

I gazed at them in delight. Although I still believed my presence on this trip was superfluous, maybe I wouldn’t end up hating it so much. Dragging my longing gaze from the window, I turned to Tom. He was only my height, and with a disarmingly cherubic face, he inadvertently hid the extent of his magical and political power well.

“So.” I yawned. “Do we have an actual plan, or are we simply going to knock on this guy’s door? And do I have time to use the restroom before we do?”

Tom had his phone out, and he was staring at it. “We have time,” he said, choosing to ignore what I thought was some obvious hyperbole in my question. “Mr. Johnson just got home.”

“Good.” I immediately took off toward the restroom signs, and Tom trailed behind me. I had a feeling he didn’t intend to let me out of his sight. Lack of trust was one of the few things we had in common. “So you’ve been calling him?”

Tom shook his head. “Given the sensitivity of the situation, I’ve had someone at the local Gryphon office keeping an eye on him. This is a conversation we need to have with him face-to-face.”

I merely nodded. Tom and the other members of our little apocalyptic prep group had all been in agreement about the need for discretion. For some reason, the furies were interested in me, and that meant they’d likely be interested in Mr. Johnson too if they found out we shared some traits. It was best, therefore, to keep our mission hush-hush.

“What does he do for a living?” I asked, thinking about Mitchell Johnson’s strange talents and what sorts of occupations they might lend themselves to.

Tom stuck his phone away. “He’s a psychiatric nurse.”

I couldn’t help myself. I snorted. “Oh well, then I think his job would have been the perfect place to tell him the truth. It’s exactly the sort of story that makes people want to check themselves into a psych ward.”

“Actually, I expect he’ll want to commit us.” Tom smiled grimly. “That’s one of the reasons you’re along.”

Right. Because I was so mentally fucking stable.

I headed into the restroom, enjoying the image of Tom strapped into a straightjacket.

In theory, whether we accosted Johnson at his work or at his home or at the local McDonald’s, it shouldn’t matter. Our mission was simple: convince Johnson to come with us, both for his personal safety and because the Gryphons thought he would be instrumental in saving the world. But first, we would have to explain to Johnson what he was and find out what he could do.

The what-he-could-do part interested me greatly, but although I’d asked lots of questions, Tom only shared information with me when he felt like it. For all of his “we’re in this together” BS, it was clear where he and his fraternity saw my place in the pecking order. I was their tool, a weapon they’d created to be used as they required, and no more. If I were feeling generous, I’d say they expected me to be a foot soldier to their commanding officers, but I rarely felt generous given what they’d done to me.

All I could do, therefore, was wait until Tom decided to spill his guts about the Brotherhood’s experiments and those of us who’d survived them this long. We were three now. Two of Le Confrérie’s test subjects were dead. Kyra McNaughton had committed suicide years ago, and Victor Aubrey was a twisted serial killer who’d been murdered in prison.

That left me, Mitchell Johnson and another woman who lived in Chicago. After we convinced Johnson to come with us, we were supposed to swing by the Windy City and pick her up.

When I finished washing my hands, I pulled my mess of brown curls back in a ponytail. Whether it was the early flight or the horrible bathroom lighting, I couldn’t tell, but my face seemed paler, and those circles under my eyes should not have been there. No way to deny it, I was stressed and tired. I felt like I’d been running on nothing but adrenaline for weeks.

But there was no backing out now. No getting off this roller coaster. I was the person who’d clued the Gryphons in to various parts of this prophecy, and I was the one who’d brought together the unhappy alliance of Gryphons, magi and preds to deal with it. For the sake of everyone I loved—and maybe the world—I had to suck it up and act like something I didn’t feel. A confident, competent warrior.

Too bad I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was just a misery-sucking freak in way over her head.

Neither Tom nor I had any checked luggage since this was supposed to be a short trip, so after we picked up our rental car, we were on the road. Rubbing my tired eyes, I kept silent as Tom navigated us out of the airport morass. Once we hit the highway, however, I adjusted my sunglasses and seized the silence. “Tell me about Mitchell Johnson.”

Tom was quiet a moment, frowning. “I can hardly tell you a lot about someone I’ve never met.”

I glared at him, but the gesture went unnoticed because Tom kept his gaze focused on the road. “You said you’d tell me more about the experiments if I came to Phoenix. Well, I came to Phoenix. So tell me—how were we selected? Is Johnson also a satyr?”

“You’re not a satyr.” Tom’s frown deepened.

I narrowed my eyes at him. “Really? Because the satyrs in Boston seem to think I am. They said I’m a rare subspecies.” Thinking of myself that way still unsettled me. Mentally un-conditioning yourself to believe you’re human was about as difficult as it sounded. Particularly when you grew up thinking the creature you truly were was evil.

Tom said nothing for a moment, but his grip on the steering wheel tightened. I waited him out. “You shouldn’t listen to your satyr friends.”

“Aw, and I thought we were all on the same side now. The enemy of my enemy is still my enemy then, as far as the Gryphons are concerned?”

They sure were as far as the satyrs were concerned. Lucen and others had made it quite clear to me that though we were all working together on this apocalyptic problem, the satyrs trusted the Gryphons not even half as far as they could throw one.

Tom sighed. “At best, the enemy of my enemy is my casual acquaintance. Nothing more. Something you’d do well to keep in mind.”

It was my turn to stay silent. Neither Tom nor any other Gryphons knew just how close my current relationships with some of the satyrs were, or how far into my past those relationships extended. The animosity between all the pred races and humanity—especially the Gryphons—probably went back until the day the two groups had met thousands of years ago.

All pred races had to feed on human misery, after all. And they all had to “addict” some humans to survive. That is, the preds created a magical bond between themselves and a human whose emotional barriers—usually referred to as their soul—were worn down. Then the preds dumped their negativity on their addicts and fed on the suffering it caused.

As a result, the small pool of magically gifted humans who formed the Gryphons had always sought to defend humanity and fight preds. But centuries of laws and treaties codifying how the groups should behave around each other to avoid bloodshed couldn’t overcome the natural fear and loathing between predator and prey.

“So back to my question—will Johnson share my lusty skill set? Or did you shake it up among the five of us?”

A muscle in Tom’s cheek twitched. “Satyr magic was used on all of you.”

“Well, that doesn’t seem particularly experimental. Why?”

I was testing Tom’s patience. I’d always suspected he wore some very strong charms to damper his emotions, which made sensing them difficult for me, but I was picking up on them now. “As far as pred races go, satyrs were deemed the best option. The Brotherhood felt the side effects of lust magic were less likely to cause issues.”

I mused on this, twisting the water bottle cap around. “I don’t know. The ability to wound a person’s vanity doesn’t seem so scary as far as things go. Although I’m just as glad to not be part sylph.”

“The blow to the self-esteem faced by a sylph’s addict is exceptionally detrimental to a person’s mental health,” Tom said. “Physically, too, satyrs appear more human. If there were any side effects with regards to appearance, we figured they would be easier to manage.”

Okay, that made sense. Aside from the small horns on their heads, satyrs were indistinguishable from humans, something none of the other four races could say.

Tom preemptively hushed me so he could concentrate on the GPS, and I stared out the window, sucking up the view. Phoenix was so unlike Boston I might as well have been in a different country altogether. I was used to shining steel façades and lush green trees, to peeling houses whipped raw by the Atlantic and tall buildings crowded together on narrow, winding roads that became other narrow, winding roads without warning until outsiders were hopelessly lost.

Here, it was as though someone had taken a city and squashed it flat. The buildings oozed away from the core and spread thin across the landscape. Everything was wide and open. Everywhere I looked was a palette of browns and oranges and subdued reds, except for the sky, which was a singularly amazing blue.

Lost in my thoughts, I only returned my attention to Tom as the car slowed. He parked along the street and waved at an unmarked SUV on the opposite side of the road. The driver, a Gryphon in uniform, returned the gesture then pulled away. Once she was gone, we headed up the stone path to a ranch-style house in what appeared to be a middle-class neighborhood. Even out of uniform, Tom looked every bit the professional in his button-down shirt, tie and khaki pants. Me? I looked like exactly what I was—an unwilling recruit.

Tom knocked twice, then let the screen door creak loudly on its hinges as it banged shut. Someone must have been home because it sounded like a TV was on.

When no one answered after a moment, Tom knocked harder. I closed my eyes and stretched out with my gift, trying to sense the emotions of whoever was inside. They came to me faintly—irritation, confusion, sadness maybe. Or more likely weariness. All emotions had their unique taste, but within those tastes were variations. Sometimes the variations gave me useful information, but just as often my interpretation depended on my own mood. I could well be projecting my own weariness and making unwarranted assumptions.

“Someone’s home,” I said to Tom.

He gave me a funny look, then his eyes widened in understanding. “You’re sensing him. Interesting.”

I crossed my arms, wishing I could make Tom sense what it felt like to be a lab rat. “Yes, Doctor Frankenstein, I am.”

Tom ignored the jab and knocked a third time. At last, I heard footsteps, and the door was thrown open. Startled, I straightened and wiped away my pissy expression.

On the other side of the screen door stood a guy about my age. Tall and thin, he wore a faded T-shirt over a pair of blue scrubs. His black hair was shaved close to his scalp, and a heavy five o’clock shadow covered his chin. His dark eyes swept over us. Though they were small, they were expressive. You didn’t need to be an empath to figure out what he was feeling.

“Can I help you?”

“Are you Mitchell Johnson?” Tom asked.

Johnson’s irritation morphed into suspicion in my mouth. “Yeah, I’m Mitch. What’s this about?”

Tom flashed his badge. “I’m Gryphon Agent Tom Kassin, and this is…”

I didn’t hear the rest of Tom’s speech because the strength of Johnson’s panic almost knocked me over. The emotional rush left my head spinning.

Then the door slammed in our faces.