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I’m a really big fan of this series. A badass heroine, action packed, witty dialogue, smokin’ hot males, and one of the coolest sidekicks in urban fantasy. I’m talking about Christina Henry’s Black Wings series. Christina’s Agent of Death, Madeline Black (BLACK NIGHT, the second book in the Black Wings series is available now) is back to give us her version of the Grimm fairy tale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses”. Have you read this series? Want to? Thanks to the wonderful people at Penguin/Ace, two of you who comment on this post will win a copy of the book! See details below!
Madeline Black is an Agent of death, which means that she collects the souls of the departed and delivers them to the Door. She also happens to be the daughter of a fallen angel, and the many-times-great-granddaughter of Lucifer himself. Needless to say, life is not easy for Maddy, especially when Great-Granddad is always manipulating her into performing tasks she’s rather not do.
This story takes place a few minutes after the events of BLACK NIGHT.
THE TWELVE DANCING PRINCES
I stared at him, then at the apple he’d made appear in my hand. “Please tell me why I should do anything for you, especially after I barely survived your last assignment.”
“Because you know what will happen to Gabriel if you don’t,” Lucifer said, smiling, and it was not a nice smile.
Dear old Granddad had been holding the threat of Gabriel’s death over my head in order to manipulate me into doing his bidding. It was working, too – I’d do anything to keep Gabriel safe. Unfortunately, Lucifer knew that.
“What is it?” I sighed.
“A friend has asked me to look into a series of strange occurrences that have happened here in Chicago.”
“You have friends?”
Lucifer quirked an eyebrow at me. “An associate, if you prefer. In any case, this particular individual has twelve sons.”
“His poor wife,” I murmured. “Is this associate a fallen angel?”
“No, he is a shapeshifter. At any rate, none of his sons are married so they still live at home.”
“How old are they?” I asked.
“They range in age from thirteen to twenty-nine. Their father has noted that all of his sons have been leaving the house every evening after dinner and not returning until dawn.”
“That doesn’t sound particularly unusual for a bunch of young men,” I said. “What’s Daddy dearest worried about?”
“He does not know where the boys go, and all attempts to follow them have failed. Those who attempt to track the sons find themselves hopelessly lost down dark alleys, or fall asleep while on watch, or any other number of bizarre impediments. And these are all professional trackers. My associate is a very wealthy man and can afford to hire the best.”
I frowned at him. “Do you actually think that I’ll succeed where the others have failed?”
Lucifer clapped me on the shoulder. “I have noticed that people tend to underestimate you, Madeline. It can be advantage.”
“Speaking of advantages…what is it that you’re getting out of all this?”
“Oh, if you succeed this fellow will owe me a favor at a later date,” Lucifer said lightly.
I would not want to owe Lucifer any unnamed future favors. I felt kind of sorry for this guy.
“All right, I’ll get Gabriel,” I said, rising to my feet.
“No,” Lucifer said firmly. “No Gabriel. No Beezle. No entourage. You will be far less obtrusive on your own.”
“Gabriel won’t like that,” I warned.
“I think he will listen to me,” Lucifer said. “You will be introduced to the shapeshifter’s family as my granddaughter, nothing more. The family is expecting you for dinner this evening.”
He snapped his fingers and a piece of paper appeared between his fingers. He handed it to me. I read the name – Jason McNamara – and whistled when I saw the fancy Gold Coast address.
“You probably have nothing appropriate to wear,” Lucifer said, eyeing me critically.
He snapped his fingers again. A skirted suit that probably cost more than my house replaced my regular black t-shirt and jeans. I touched my head and found that my long curls were tucked into a fancy updo. I looked down at my new outfit in horror.
“I hope you don’t expect to get this back, because it will probably be covered in blood before the end of the night,” I said. “That seems to happen to me a lot.”
Lucifer smiled again. “I will have a word with Gabriel. Do not be late for dinner.”
A few hours later I rang the doorbell at the McNamara’s address. Their front door was nicer than mine. A lot nicer. And it was answered by a butler, who looked me up and down.
“Madeline Black?” he asked dubiously.
I tried not to bristle. Was the fact that I was always broke obvious even when I was wearing fancy clothes? I guess I just didn’t give off that upper-class vibe.
“Yup,” I said, giving him a level stare.
Just about every creature I’d ever met had tried to intimidate me and it hadn’t worked. Well, maybe Lucifer intimidated me a little bit, but this butler wasn’t even close to Lucifer.
The guy held my look for a moment, then stepped aside so I could enter. Apparently I’d been deemed clean enough to cross the threshold.
“Mr. and Mrs. McNamara are awaiting you in the parlor,” he said stiffly.
I’d thought parlors had gone out about the same time as corsets and waistcoats, but what did I know?
The butler led me through a marbled foyer and down a maze of hallways. I peeked in some of the open doorways and saw a lot of ostentatious rooms, each one fancier than the last.
We stopped in front of a door made of some dark and polished wood. He opened the door and announced me. I went in, trying not to feel nervous. I’d faced down big bad monsters galore. Surely I could handle a couple of rich folks.
The room was small and cozy, with a cracking fire and lots of cushy chairs. Mr. and Mrs. McNamara sat side by side on a loveseat, their hands clasped together.
They both had worry lines around their eyes, and that made me realize that whatever the class differences between us they were still parents, and they were obviously concerned about their children. It made me like them better, and I felt a little twinge of shame for my own prejudices.
We all waited in silence until the butler left the room. Then McNamara spoke.
“You are Lucifer’s granddaughter? He told you of our…difficulties?” he said.
“Yes,” I said. “I’m not sure how I can help, but I will try.”
“We just want to know where they’re going,” his wife said. “You don’t have to intervene once they arrive. But if we know their location, what they’ve been doing every night…”
“…then we can help them,” McNamara finished.
“Why do you suspect there is something wrong?” I said.
“When you see the boys, you’ll understand,” his wife said.
And at dinner, I did see. All of the boys were loving, attentive to their parents and each other, full of high spirits – just as you would want your sons to be. But each and every one was pale as chalk, and there were dark circles rimming their eyes.
As the meal was cleared away, I politely took my leave of the family. Neither McNamara nor his wife betrayed by word or gesture the hope that they had expressed to me earlier – that I would find out where the boys were going, that I would succeed where so many others had failed.
I went outside to watch and wait. I pushed out my wings, and blinked out of sight. When my wings are out ordinary humans can’t see me. This is so that I can conduct souls to the Door without people finding out what happens after death. Sometimes supernatural creatures can see me when I’m in this state, and sometimes they can’t. I was hoping that the McNamara’s sons would be the latter. It would make it a lot easier to track them if they didn’t know I was there.
About an hour after dinner all twelve boys filed out the front door. As they stepped on to the sidewalk in front of the house a large black limousine suddenly appeared before them. I blinked in surprise, but the McNamara boys seemed nonplussed. They all climbed in the back of the limo without a word.
I took flight as the car drove down the street. I stayed a careful distance away just in case the driver of the limo could see or sense me, even though the boys had not. Whatever could make a car appear out of thin air had some serious magical abilities, and I was sure that they were on the alert for any kind of tail.
The car moved surely through the early evening Chicago traffic and hopped on to Lake Shore Drive, heading north. I stayed as close as I could, and if I were any further away I would have missed it.
A portal opened up on Lake Shore Drive just before the pedestrian bridge south of Fullerton. None of the other drivers seemed to notice it, which meant that it was under a cloak. I sped up, zipping inside just as the limo’s taillights disappeared and the portal began to close.
It belatedly occurred to me that I hated portals.
My eyeballs felt like they were being squeezed out of my head, my ears rang, and it was difficult to breathe. A few seconds later, I crashed face-first onto the dirt track of a country road. I looked up, wiped the dust from my eyes, and saw the limo speeding away from me.
I pushed to my feet and took flight again, but there was no desperate need to stay close now. There was only one road, and it led to only one place. In the distance I could see a large pavilion lit by tiny twinkling lights in the center of a grassy field. There was nothing else for miles except for the dark night and the buzz of cicadas.
As I approached I could see that the roof was made of some iridescent material that shone in the moonlight. The twinkling lights were thousands of fireflies captured in jars and set at intervals on torch poles.
The limo drew to a stop in front of the pavilion. The McNamara boys filed from the car as robotically as they had filed in. I approached as closely as I dared, landing about fifteen feet away in the grass.
There were twelve women standing in the pavilion, each more beautiful than the last. They smiled their welcome at the boys, and opened their arms. The McNamara sons went willingly into their embrace, and the couples began to dance.
Ah. Now I understood. I also understood that there was no time to waste going back to the McNamara household with the location and information. I had to get these boys free of the spell they were under before their lives were drained by the succubae that danced with them.
A succubus takes a little bit of human essence at a time, drawing out the death because it brings them pleasure. But the succubus knows how to bring pleasure to the human they are killing, too, so that the man will go willingly into their arms, night after night.
I didn’t have my sword (it didn’t go with Lucifer’s fancy outfit) so I’d have to use magic. I’m not well-versed in the subtler forms of magic, so I figured I’d just do what I do best.
Smash, crash, burn it all to the ground.
I flew out of the grass and landed on the edge of the pavilion. As one, all of the succubi released the boys and turned, hissing, in my direction.
Suddenly they were not so pretty. Their teeth grew long and fanged, their hands flexed with sharp-tipped claws, and their eyes blazed.
I didn’t wait for the crazy ladies to scratch my eyes out. I launched nightfire at them as quickly as I could. I hit the first two charging succubi with nightfire in the dead center of their chest, and they both burst into blue flames, screaming long hideous wails into the night.
The McNamara sons stood where the succubi had left them. Their eyes were blank and glazed, save for two of the older boys. A long stream of silver mist flowed from each burning succubus to the boys, returning their essence to them. They looked like sleepers waking from a long dream. So if I killed all the demons then the boys would be restored.
Nightfire bounced harmlessly off the next two, which made me realize that if I didn’t hit them perfectly on target my spell wouldn’t affect them.
I threw nightfire faster, hoping that a pray-and-spray approach might help. And it did. I took down four more succubae before they managed to reach me. That meant half the demons were down.
The seventh one got me.
She leapt on to me, screaming like a harpy, and raked her claws across my face, narrowly missing my left eye. Hot blood poured down my cheek as I fell on to my back with the succubus above me. I put my hand on her chest and blasted her point-blank with nightfire.
The close range meant the spell turned her to ash in an instant. Which was good, because two of her sisters were right behind her. I held my hands out and waited for them to charge me so I could take care of them the same way I’d taken care of their sibling. Only three left.
I heard the growl of several big cats, and saw that the newly lucid McNamara boys had shapeshifted into cougars. They’d cornered the remaining succubae. The demons had restored their beautiful glamour and were pleading with the boys to spare their lives, promising them nights of pleasure.
The cougars leapt, and I turned away. There are some things you just don’t need to see. I looked out over the open field of grass, and smelled dark earth and coppery blood, and waited.
After a while the screaming and the sounds of rending flesh stopped. Someone tapped my shoulder. The oldest McNamara son, Jared, stood there, naked and streaked with red.
“Thank you,” he said simply.
I nodded. “Let’s go home. Your parents are waiting for you.”
The next day I felt unusually restless again. I was starting to figure out what this meant. I picked up a plastic bag by the front door and went downstairs to the front porch. Lucifer stood there, his wings hidden beneath his coat, a light snow falling on his golden head.
I held up the bag. “One expensive outfit, covered in blood and ash, as promised.”
Lucifer laughed. Then he sobered and put his hand under my chin. He turned my face to the right. I knew what he was looking at. Gabriel had healed me, but for some reason a tiny scar from the succubus’ claw had remained. It was about an inch long and barely visible just under my eye. Angelic healing overpowers just about any damage, and it was extremely unusual for a mark to remain.
“I had no idea the spell that held them was so powerful,” Lucifer murmured. “I did not realize the risk I sent you into.”
“I can’t believe it would have made a difference to you,” I said. “You’ve sent me to worse.”
“And you keep surviving, Madeline,” Lucifer said, coming out of his reverie. He winked, and I did not like the look on his face at all.
“Now, about your next assignment…”
Christina Henry is a graduate of Columbia College Chicago and enjoys running long distances, reading anything she can get her hands on and watching movies with samurai, zombies, and subtitles in her spare time. She lives in Chicago with her husband and son.
Want to read more from Christina Henry?
This giveaway is provided by Penguin/Ace
Two winners will each receive a copy of Black Night by Christina Henry
Available on July 26, 2011 from Penguin/Ace
About the Book:
Madeline Black is an Agent of death, meaning she escorts the souls of people who have died to the afterlife. Of course, not everyone is happy to see her…
If obstinate dead people were all that Maddy had to worry about, life would be much easier. But the best-laid plans of Agents and fallen angels often go awry. Deaths are occurring contrary to the natural order, Maddy’s being stalked by foes inside and outside of her family, and her two loves-her bodyguard, Gabriel, and her doughnut-loving gargoyle, Beezle-have disappeared. But because Maddy is Lucifer’s granddaughter, things are expected of her, things like delicate diplomatic missions to other realms.
Click HERE to read an excerpt
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