Chapter One: The Seventh Beacon
Dianne Harrison's heart was pounding. Someone was following her.
She resisted the urge to call out to whoever was stalking her through the darker parts of Hallmark. She'd known the city was hiding magic, but she hadn't thought it would be this much. She'd seen a woman and man dancing a waltz on the empty streets; he'd twirled her and pulled her close, looking entranced. Then the woman had drawn a dagger from the folds of her dense, frilly gown (how was she able to move in that thing?) and slid it into his gut while leaning in to kiss him.
She had twisted the dagger while pulling it out and tutted sadly before he fell to the floor, an agonized cry escaping from his lips. Dianne would never forget the words she'd whispered: "Revenge is mine, tesoro."
Nor would she forget the fact that the dagger was dripping blue, not red, as it slid out of him. Or the wings that had appeared out of nowhere, now visible and crushed beneath the dying man.
Dianne's gasp had been what drew her attention from the man. She'd glimpsed the woman's startled expression for all of a second before she took off, weaving through the streets and alleyways she knew so well.
Now here she was, hours after it happened. Followed by quite possibly the same woman or a different one; what did it matter? She was going to die anyway.
She turned a corner and stopped; it was a dead end. There was nowhere to go.
"Are you looking for me?" said a sing-song female voice from behind her. Dianne froze.
She made to move, but was stopped by the hair raising on her neck -
"I said, are you looking for me?" the voice said again, this time far too close for comfort. There was something cold and sharp resting at the base of her neck.
"Y-yes," she said, cursing the tremble in her voice.
"Good. Now, I know you saw me kill that man with wings. I know you are too afraid of me speak. So when I put this blade down, you are going to turn around slowly and explain your relationship to Holly Gardien."
"Yes, ma'am," she whispered.
Somehow, the woman heard her and stepped back. Dianne turned around and blinked; the woman was gorgeous. She looked to be in her twenties and had bright purple eyes - it looked like someone had implanted amethysts where her eyes were supposed to be. She had longish black hair in a simple, loose braid, and pearls decorating her slender brown neck.
The woman smirked. "I understand if your brain stopped functioning for a moment there because of my good looks, but do hurry up. I've only got a few more minutes before I must leave for a party - hence the dress." She gestured to herself and Dianne blinked again. Why hadn't she heard the dress swishing when the woman had cornered her from behind? "What is Holly Gardien to you?"
Dianne frowned. Holly...Holly Gardien...oh, that girl she'd bumped into on the street two days ago. She been lugging her heavy groceries home, when a stranger had run directly into her, apparently not looking where she was going. Dianne had fallen down, bruising her elbow and dropping her bags. The stranger had let out an impressive stream of curses; when she saw Dianne, she'd apologized profusely and introduced herself, helping her stand up and gather the groceries. And maybe it had been her imagination, but the bags had been a lot easier to carry the rest of the way home.
She said as much to the woman, who scrunched up her face in concentration. Dianne decided that no matter how pretty the woman was, she was far more dangerous, and Dianne was going to be immensely lucky to walk away from this unscathed. Then the woman grinned.
"Well, it seems you're fine after all. Just don't tell anyone I killed that man, okay?" The woman held out her arms. "Reconciliation hug?"
Dianne stared. "You threatened me. With a knife. And I saw you kill him in close quarters - how can I be sure you won't do the same to me?"
The woman rolled her eyes. "Because he was dangerous to me. Now come on, I won't bite."
Dianne wanted to go home, curl up in her bed, and quite possibly live out the rest of her life there, but the woman was standing between the mouth of the alley and her - she had no choice.
She stepped forward tentatively. The woman smiled warmly and held out her arms.
She loosed a breath and stepped into the woman's embrace, ready to dart at the slightest sign she had changed her mind. But the woman's arms closed around her, and she relaxed into the embrace -
A sharp pain erupted in her stomach and the woman shoved her away, dagger in hand.
She looked down at the wound in her stomach, red blood gushing from it. She sank to the floor, suddenly dizzy.
The woman clucked, wiping the dagger on the inside of her ridiculously frilly skirt. "Stupid, foolish girl." Their eyes met, and something like satisfaction flashed across the other woman's face. "Bye, then."
The world blurred, then went black.
Hours later, an officer stumbled out of that alley and vomited into the sewers. He described what he had seen to his companions: the girl was small, maybe sixteen. Her guts had been carved out, and so had her eyes - they were lying next to her. Her arms had been cut up with scrawling designs, clearly done after death. It was reminiscent of the six other bodies they'd found, the last one killed about twelve hours back and taken away by the most secretive department of Hallmark's lawkeepers.
He repeated the words he heard the beggars and whores on the streets murmuring fearfully, with no one to hear him. The whispers that grew with each murder, and would no doubt be echoed through the city the coming morning. He glanced at the rising sun as he spoke.
"The Jewel Hunter has returned."
In the recesses of some small town, Holly Gardien set a duffel bag down on the table and looked around disapprovingly.
The flat was small, and dank, and dirty. Whoever had last lived here had not bothered to clean up.
Behind her, Scarlet made a noise of disgust. "Why do we always have to be the ones to go out scouting?"
Holly shrugged. The other girl's dark red (and absurdly long) hair was braided back tightly. Her dark blue eyes surveyed the space like a disapproving mother. "I have no idea."
Scarlet gave her a pointed look. "Yes, well, how fortunate that we have someone who can brighten it."
A corner of Holly's mouth quirked up. "Your wish is my command, Your Highness."
She let her vision unfocus. Thousands of dials appeared. She turned up one for cleanliness, and another to change the colour of the dull brown blanket, and one to conjure a window. Water gurgled in the walls, the air lost its stink, black curtains decorated the windows.
She blinked and the dials were gone. Scarlet was spread out on the blankets, eyes lit up by the sunlight streaming through the window. The ceiling was midnight black with constellations dotting it, and the walls were pale pink. Just the way she liked it.
Holly prodded Scarlet. "Get up, sleepyhead. We need to eat."
Scarlet rolled over and mumbled something into the pillow.
"I am aware changing time zones is hard on you, but you need to eat. You can sleep later."
Scarlet raised her head to look her Holly blearily in the eye. "But warm pillow."
Holly glared at her. "Don't tempt me."
Scarlet poked her, but it lacked her usual force. "I am a sexy vampire temptress. I am tempting you."
"All I want is a night of sleep, but I have to be the sensible one here. So fuck the vampire temptresses."
"Careful, Holly, or Adrian might be wounded. "
Holly rolled her eyes, hoping she wasn't blushing. "Be quiet."
Scarlet pointed at her. "You're blushing!"
Holly cursed her body's reaction to Adrian. She also cursed the various gods who had decreed Scarlet loved sleep. "Scarlet, please get up."
Scarlet flipped her off and buried her head in the pillow like an ostrich. Holly stifled a laugh. Here was one of the most skilled and powerful warriors alive. Scarlet's mother was probably applauding sarcastically from beyond the grave.
Guarding the crown fucking sucked.
Holly Gardien was a sworn defendant of the Beauvoir Crown, and brave knight of Scarlet Cress. Scarlet had grown up in Britain with her little sister Lisa, and frequently visited Holly. She had no outside family other than Lisa and Adrian Cress as they had all died in a tragic bombing by the Jewel Hunter (so she was told. Her mother had been murdered in cold blood, but her father was well and alive, running the country); therefore, she stayed with Holly every moment she had. Holly always felt guilty about lying to Scarlet when they had shared so many things, and she only got over it by reminding herself that Scarlet was her princess, first and foremost.
"Scarlet, wake up."
"No," she said into the pillow.
"I will drench you," Holly said warningly, hand ready to turn the dial.
"Okay, okay, give me a minute."
"No minutes," Holly said firmly, though she wanted to bury herself in the blankets as well. "Get up." When Scarlet didn't react, Holly added, "I'll make you mac and cheese."
Scarlet grunted and rolled over. "Promise?"
"You know I never lie." Only to you, Scarlet.
The other girl sat up and yawned. The backs of her hands were covered with a glossy black metal; Holly had gifted her those gauntlets a week after her mother died and they found out the blast had left Scarlet unnaturally good at any kind of fighting.
Something rattled in the kitchen, and the girls started at the same time. Holly held up a hand, signaling she would whistle if backup was needed and crept into the room on cat-soft feet. A shape moved in the dark, and Holly pounced.
Someone yelled. "Ow! Let go of me, you miserable fucker!"
A light flicked on, and Holly realized who she was pinning down.
"Jack," she said, standing up, "what are you doing here? Are you all right?"
Jack glared at her but took her hand and pulled himself up. "Bonjour, ma sœur chérie. How nice to see you."
Holly sighed. "Look, I'm sorry, okay? I didn't know it was you."
Jack crossed his arms. "You should have seen better - " His eyes landed on something behind her and he smiled brilliantly. "Scarlet! How lovely to see you!"
Holly turned around to see Scarlet lounging by the light switch, looking très amusée. "Hello, Jack. We weren't informed you were dropping by, or we would have been a bit more prepared." She raised an eyebrow pointedly and Jack had the grace to look abashed.
"Yes, well, I came over to tell you I have some business here, so Holly needs to take my place in Hallmark."
"You have business here?" Holly said incredulously. "Who has business in this backwater town?"
"Watch your words, Holly Gardian," he said cheerfully. "I wouldn't risk saying that with who knows how many pixie natives listening in."
Holly reached out to kick his shin, but he sidestepped neatly. "But you agree."
"Certainement, ma sœur. It ees, how you say, uneventful enough to gain a place in Guinness records."
Holly shoved him. "Outsider French accents are bad enough without you trying to imitate them. Now shut up and go find a place on the couch."
Jack shuddered. "It has rats. I'm not going to sit there."
Holly snapped her fingers. "There. No more rats. Brand new couch. Get your ass on it. I'm bringing out sake."
Jack remained standing. "I already looked through your shelves. There isn't anything."
"That's what you were doing in our kitchen?" Scarlet said incredulously.
Scarlet pointed a stern finger in the couch's direction. "Sit your ass down."
Unsurprisingly, Jack listened to her.
Holly kicked Scarlet's ankle lightly. "How dare my older brother listen to you more than he does to me."
Scarlet laughed. "Indeed."
Holly poured three cups of sake from a batch of bottles she summoned from their old flat, and floated them along behind her to the couch. Sake was a mildly alcoholic drink that was famous in Beauvoir and even more famous in the Gardien household. Jack and Scarlet plucked their glasses out of the air, but Holly waited till she was comfortably settled in the couch to start hers.
"What are you doing here?" she said. Jack looked far too relaxed. Something was up.
"What, you don't want me here?" he asked, assuming a wounded expression.
Holly made an exasperated noise. "Like I ever do. What happened to Adrian? Is he all right?"
Scarlet coughed pointedly and Holly glared at her.
Adrian Cress was Scarlet's older brother by a year, and the silver to Jack's gold. Where Jack was loud and brash and bold and charming, Adrian was quiet and subtle and frankly intimidating. But he was also good-looking (in fact bearing a strong resemblance to much of the fanart she'd seen for Dorian Havilliard and William Herondale) and endearing with that quietly flirty manner (again, like Dorian and William). He was sarcastic, nosy, and acted a great deal like Sherlock Holmes towards people who pissed him off, aided by his ability to read emotions. But Holly had seen him on missions and kidnapping alerts, seen the naked fear in his eyes when he thought Lisa or Scarlet or Jack were in danger, and she was very aware that Adrian was perhaps one of the few people in real life that had an actual heart of gold and would risk it for those he loved.
It would have been lovely if she was one of those people, but Adrian didn't seem to particularly care for her - in fact, she didn't think he'd notice if she actually died.
"Adrian," Jack said with a knowing smirk she didn't like, "is perfectly fine. He's a Nouveau, after all." Nouveau was the surname the Cress siblings went by seeing that they couldn't use their actual one. It was fitting; it meant "new" in Beauvoir's main language.
"Then why are you here?"
Jack and Scarlet exchanged guilty looks. "There may have been a distress call in Hallmark," Jack began.
Oh. Oh no.
"And it may or may not call for a manipulator of probability," Scarlet said.
"Who also has to take my place in a flat in Hallmark. In close quarters with Adrian," Jack added.
Holly stared at them. They stared back innocently.
"I never should have told you about my feelings for him," Holly said finally.
"No, you shouldn't have," Jack said sagely. He sipped his drink. "This tastes strangely of strawberries."
Holly sipped hers as well. "It tastes just fine."
"You like strawberries," Jack pointed out. "You're biased."
Scarlet tipped her glass into her mouth, swallowing the entire thing in one gulp. "So what if it tastes like strawberries? It's sweet, tastes good, and has three times the alcohol content of your manly beers." She made a face. "Which tastes like shit, by the way."
Jack squinted at her. "Are you drunk or sleep-deprived?"
"Neither," Holly said at the same time Scarlet said, "I long for the warmth of my pillow."
They exchanged incredulous looks. "On second thought," Holly said, "she is sleep-deprived. Good eye, Jack."
Jack bowed as much as he could. "I live to serve."
Holly put her head on his shoulder, breathing in the smell of burnt sugar and feathers that surrounded him. A brief pause in her heartbeat seemed to say, I recognize my blood, my brother, my well-wisher, my protector. "When do I leave for Hallmark?" she said at last.
"Whenever you're ready. And this isn't just for you to get to know Adrian better - you need to talk to more people. Meet and converse with human beings besides me, Scarlet, and Red." Red was their nickname for Lisa, whose hair matched Scarlet's.
"I've talked to Adrian," Holly pointed out. "And numerous strangers."
"You need to make emotional connections, and emotional connections don't occur in five-second conversations. As for Adrian, when have you ever been able to talk him for more than a minute alone?" Scarlet said.
"I can't believe you two are actually condoning this," Holly said. "Shouldn't you be warding off boys?"
"Holly, you're assuming there are boys to ward off," Jack said gravely. "I inherited all the good genes from our parents, including but not limited to my vivid turquoise hair."
"You dyed it."
"You're jealous," Jack retorted, apparently reduced to a five-year-old in defense of his hair.
Scarlet yawned. "This is stupid. I want to sleep."
"Or you could video chat with Red," Holly offered.
"It's midnight at Aunt Jeanette's. She sleeping. An action, incidentally," Scarlet said with a pointed look, "that I should be engaging in."
"Not now, unfortunately." Holly patted her shoulder. "Now, about that mac and cheese. Jack, will you be staying?"