Wicked – Jennifer L. Armentrout

Sweat dotted my brow. Tendrils of red hair clung to my neck. My legs felt like I’d been sitting in a sauna. I was pretty sure there was a waterfall of sweat coursing between my breasts, and that alone put my mood somewhere between slapping someone and pushing them in front of a trolley. It was so hot and sticky humid that I was seriously beginning to believe that New Orleans was one of the seven circles of hell and the outdoor seating area of the Palace Café was the gateway. Or the waiting room. A fat drop of sweat slipped from the tip of my nose and smacked off my Philosophy of Human Person text, leaving a little damp circle in the middle of a paragraph I could barely see through the sheen of sweat blinding me. I always thought the title of my class was missing an ‘A’ somewhere in there. It should be Philosophy of A Human Person. But oh no, that wasn’t how Loyola rolled. The small table rattled on its legs as a large iced coffee slammed down directly in front of my book. “For you!” As I peered over the top of my sunglasses, my mouth watered like I was one of Pavlov’s dogs. Valerie Adrieux plopped into the seat across from me, her hand like a claw on top of my iced coffee. A mix of Spanish and African heritage, Val had an absolutely beautiful skin tone, a rich and flawless shade of brown, and she looked awesome in bright oranges and blues and pinks and every freaking color of the rainbow. Like today, Val wore a loose, orange halter that defied gravity, a purple necklace, and as I glanced down, I saw a turquoise peasant skirt.

She looked as if she had stepped off a catalog featuring urban chic. If I wore any color other than black, tan, or gray, I looked like an asylum escapee. Sitting up straight, ignoring how the backs of my thighs stuck to the chair, I made grabby fingers at the iced coffee. “Gimmie.” She arched a brow. In the sunlight, Val’s hair had a burnt auburn sheen to it. Pretty. Mine looked like a fire engine. Scary. No matter the level of humidity, her head full of corkscrew curls always looked great.

Again, pretty. Between the months of April and November, the curl in my hair got lazy and turned into a frizzy wave. Again, scary as hell. Sometimes I wanted to hate her. “Don’t you have something else to add to that?” she asked. This was one of those times. “Gimmie . my precious?” I added. She grinned. “Try again.

” “Thank you?” I wiggled my fingers toward the coffee. She shook her head. I dropped my hands in my lap with a tired sigh. “Can you point me in the right direction of what you want to hear? Play a game of hot and cold or something?” “While I love that game most of the time, I’m gonna pass.” Lifting the iced coffee between us, she smiled broadly at me. “The correct response would be, ‘I love you so much for getting me iced coffee that I’d do anything for you.'” She waggled her brows. “Yeah, that sounds about right.” Leaning back in my chair, I laughed as I kicked my legs onto the empty seat to my left, stretching out the muscles. The reason I was probably sweating so much was because I was wearing lace-up boots that ended just below my knees and it was like two-hundred degrees, but I was working tonight, and flip-flops really weren’t conducive to getting the job done or hiding the things necessary to get said job done.

“You know I can totally just kick your ass and take the coffee, right?” Val stuck out her lower lip. “That’s not nice, Ivy.” I grinned at her. “It’s true though. I could ninja-kick your ass all up and down Canal Street.” “Maybe, but you would never do such a thing because I’m your best-est friend-est in the world-est,” she said with another wide smile, and she was right. “Okay. What I want isn’t a big deal.” She moved the straw jutting out of the iced tea close to her mouth, and I groaned. “Not at all.

” “What do you want?” My second groan was lost in the hum of foot traffic passing the café, and the sound of sirens most likely heading toward the Quarter. Val shrugged one shoulder. “I have a date Saturday night—a hot date. Well, hopefully a hot date, but Daniel has me on the schedule to work the Quarter, so . ?” “So, let me guess.” I reached behind me, draping my arms over the back of the chair. Not the most comfortable position, but it helped me air out. “You want me to take your shift in the Quarter . on a Saturday night? In September. Smack dab in tourist hell?” Her head bobbed an enthusiastic yes.

“Please. Pretty please?” She shook the iced coffee, and the chunks of ice rattled in the plastic container enticingly. “Please?” My gaze moved from her hopeful face to the iced coffee and stayed there. “Sure. Why not? Not like I have a hot date.” “Yay!” She shoved the coffee forward, and I snatched it out of the air a half second before she dropped it. A heartbeat later, I was slurping away happily, totally transported to a chilly, caffeinated heaven. “You know,” she began, placing her elbows on the table, “you could have a hot date, if like, you went out on a date once every year or so.” I ignored that comment and continued drinking at brain freeze speed. “You’re really pretty, even with all that hair.

” She made a circle with her hand in the general vicinity of my head as if I didn’t know I looked like a Q-tip with my hair piled atop it. “And you have really great boobs and a total tap-that-ass kind of ass. I’d totally do you.” I continued to ignore her as a dull ache started behind my eyes. I so needed to slow down on the coffee, but it was so damn good. “Do you even like boys, Ivy? You know, I swing both ways. I’m more than willing to help a girl out.” I rolled my eyes then immediately winced. Lowering the iced coffee, I pressed my palm to my forehead. “Ow.

” Val snorted. “I like boys,” I grumbled as the icepick sensation faded. “And can we not talk about boys or swinging both ways or helping me out? Because this conversation is going to lead to the lack of orgasms in my life and how I need to get naked with some random dude, and I’m not really in the mood to talk about that.” “What do you want to talk about then?” Taking a slower sip of the coffee, I eyed her. “How come you’re not sweating?” Val tipped her chin back and laughed so loudly an older couple strolling by with matching fanny packs stared at her. “Babe, I’m born and raised in Louisiana. My family can be traced back to the original French settlers—” “Blah, blah. Does that somehow mean you have some kind of magical ability that makes you absolutely resistant to the heat while I’m drowning in my own funk?” “Can take the girl out of the north but can’t take the north out of the girl.” I snorted at that. It was true.

Having moved to New Orleans only three years ago from northern Virginia, I still hadn’t adapted to the weather. “Do you know what I’d do for a polar vortex right about now?” “Not have sex, that’s for sure.” I flipped her off. Truthfully, I didn’t even know why I didn’t miss a single day when it came to taking my birth control pills. I guessed it was habit from when it actually mattered. She giggled as she leaned against the table, her dark brown eyes surveying my philosophy book. “I just do not get why you’re going to college.” “Why not?” The look on her face suggested the heat had fried a few of my brain cells. “You already have a job—a job that pays extraordinarily well, and you don’t really need to get another one like some of the others do. We don’t have a lot of bennies, and we have probably the shortest lifespan of any job out there that doesn’t involve sky diving without a parachute, but that’s another reason to not waste your time on that crap.

” My shrug was my response. To be honest, I wasn’t sure why I started going to Loyola a year ago. Maybe it was boredom. Maybe it was the weird need to do something most twenty-one-yearolds were doing. Or maybe it ran deeper than that, and whatever that was, was the reason behind taking sociology with a psychology minor. I toyed with the idea of being a social worker, because I knew I could do both things if I wanted to. Maybe it had to do with what happened to— I cut those thoughts off. No reason to go there today, or any day. The past was in the past, dead and buried with the entirety of my family. Despite the sweltering heat, I shivered.

Val was right though. Our lifespan could be brutally short. Since May, we’d lost three Order members—Cora Howard, aged twenty-six. She was killed on Royal, neck snapped. Vincent Carmack, aged twenty-nine. He met the end on Bourbon, his neck torn open. And Shari Jordan, thirty-five, was killed just three weeks ago, her neck also snapped. She’d been found in the warehouse district. Deaths were common, but three in the last five months had all of us uneasy. “You okay?” Val asked, head tilted to the side.

“Yeah.” My gaze tracked the trolley as it rolled past. “You’re working tonight, right?” “Yeppers peppers pots.” Shifting back from the table, she clapped her hands and rubbed them together. “Want a friendly wager?” “On?” Her smile turned downright evil. “Most kills by one in the morning.” An elderly man shuffling past our table sent Val a strange look and then picked up his pace, but the truth was, people heard stranger crap on the streets of New Orleans, especially when you were only a handful of blocks from the French Quarter. “It’s a deal.” I finished off the coffee. “Wait.

What do I get when I win?” “If you win,” she corrected. “I’ll bring you iced coffee for a week. And if I win, you do the . ” She trailed off, eyes squinting. “Lookie. Lookie, artichokie.” She lifted her chin. Frowning, I twisted around and immediately saw what Val was talking about. I sucked in a shallow breath as I bent my right leg so my boot was closer to my hand. There was no missing the chick.

To most humans, like ninety-nine percent of them, the woman in the flowing maxi dress walking down Canal Street looked like the average person. Maybe a tourist. Or possibly a local out shopping on a Wednesday afternoon. But Val and I weren’t like most humans. At birth, a lot of mumbo jumbo was said, warding us against glamour. We saw what most did not. Which was the monster behind the normal façade. This creature was one of the most deadly things known to man and had been since the beginning of time. Sunglasses shielded her eyes. For some reason, her race was sensitive to the sunlight.

Their true eye color was the palest of blue, a shade leached of all color. But using glamour, a dark magic, their kind could choose what humans saw, so they came with a variety of physical traits, shapes, and sizes. This one was blonde, tall and willowy, almost frail looking, but her appearance was extremely deceptive. Not a single human or animal in this world was stronger or faster, and their talents ran the gambit, anywhere from telekinesis to igniting the most violent of fires with a brush of their fingertips. But the most dangerous weapon was their ability to bend mortals to their will, enslaving them. Fae needed humans. Feeding off mortals was the only way the fae slowed their aging process down to a lifespan that rivaled immortality. Without humans, they’d age and die just like us. Sometimes they played around with their victims, feeding off them for months, if not years, until nothing was left but a dry husk of what used to be. When they did that, they poisoned the human’s body and mind, turning them into something just as dangerous and unpredictable as the fae.

But sometimes they just outright slaughtered their victims. People like Val and I couldn’t be warded against the feeding and the effects at birth, but centuries ago, the simplest and smallest thing had been discovered to null their abilities to manipulate us. Nothing was more unexpectedly badass like a four-leaf clover. Each member of the Order wore one. Val had a clover encased in her bracelet. I wore mine inside my gemstone tiger-eye necklace. I even wore it at home when I showered and slept, having learned the hard way that no place was truly one hundred percent safe without one. Seeing through the glamour that enabled them to blend in was how we were able to spot and hunt them. Their true forms were equally beautiful . and disturbing.

Skin a silvery color, kind of like liquid nitrogen, and incredibly smooth. Their beauty was eerily flawless, with high angular cheekbones, full lips, and eyes that tilted up at the outer corners. Everything about their true form was creepily alluring, in a way that made it hard to look away. The only thing the fairytales and myths got correct was the slightly pointed ears. “Fucking fae,” muttered Val. My sentiments exactly since they had taken everything from me. Not once, but twice, and I hated them with the passion of ten thousand blazing suns. Other than the ears, the fae were nothing like Disney painted them, or the ones Shakespeare had spun tales about, and they, like all their distant relatives, did not belong in this realm. Long, long ago, the fae had discovered a way to breach the divide between the mortal realm and theirs, what was known as the Otherworld. The summer and winter courts, if they’d ever existed, had been dissolved, and there was just one ginormous group with one really scary, totally typical goal.

They wanted to take over the mortal realm. And it was our job to send them back to the Otherworld. Or kill them. Whatever worked the quickest. Problem with that was the fact they weren’t easy to do either of those things to, and they’d woven themselves into every facet of the mortal world. As the fae passed our table, Val smiled up at her, all friendly innocence, and the fae returned a tight smile, having no idea we saw right through it all. Val looked at me and winked. “That one is mine.” I flipped my textbook shut. “No fair.

” “Saw her first.” She stood, smoothing her hand along the wide leather belt she wore over the waist of her skirt. “See you later.” She started to turn. “Oh, and seriously, thank you for Saturday night. I’ll get laid and you’ll be able to live vicariously through me.” I laughed as I shoved my book into my bag. “Thanks.” “Always thinking of others. Peace out.

” Spinning around, she easily sidestepped another table and disappeared into the throng of people crowding the sidewalk. Val would catch up to the fae and lure it to a place where she could quickly dispose of it without the general populace witnessing what would probably look like cold-blooded murder. Things got really awkward really fast when an unsuspecting human stumbled upon that mess. Other than the mortals that fae kept around for a multitude of nefarious reasons, most of mankind had no idea that the fae were very real even though they were everywhere. And in cities like New Orleans where a whole crap ton of weird could go down without anyone batting an eyelash, they were a plague upon the city. As I lifted my gaze and stared out at the swaying palms, I wondered how it was to be like everyone walking up and down the street. To, well, live in blissful ignorance. If I’d been born into any other family than the one I was, so many things would be different. I’d probably be graduating from college in the spring. I’d have a large group of friends where memories instead of secrets linked us together.

I might even have a—gasp—boyfriend. Boyfriend. Immediately, the busy street I sat on faded away. It was just me and . God, three years later and it still cut deep to even think of Shaun, and it took no effort to picture those soulful brown eyes. Some of the detail was beginning to fade—the image of his face had begun to blur, but the pain had not lessened. A seed of sadness rooted deep in my stomach, and I desperately ignored it. Because what did my mother used to say? Not my real mom. I had been too young when she was killed to remember anything about her. My foster mother—Holly—used to say if wishes were fishes, we’d all cast nets.

It was a quote she picked up from some book, loosely translated into there was no point in spending time on wishes. At least that’s how I took it. It wasn’t as if I didn’t know how important my job—my duty—was. Belonging to the Order, a widespread organization full of knowledge that had been handed down through families, generation after generation, meant my life had more meaning than most. Or so they said. Each of us was marked with a symbol signifying that we belonged to the Order, and the tattoo, which were three interlocking spirals reminiscent of a Pre-Celtic design. Ours had three straight lines underneath it, though. It had been adopted as the Order’s symbol of freedom. Freedom to live without fear. Freedom to make our own choices.

Freedom to thrive. Mine was next to my hipbone. None of us wore it an area visible to mortals or fae. So what I did with my life was important. I got that. The Order was my family. And I didn’t regret any of what I had to do or what I’d given up. Even if the vast majority of people had no clue what the Order and I were doing, I was still making a difference with my life. I was saving lives. And I was one badass ninja when I wanted to be.

That brought a grin to my lips. Slinging my bag over my shoulder, I grabbed my empty iced coffee and hopped to my feet. It was time to work. ~ The fae I spotted outside of a bar on Bourbon Street reminded me of Daryl Dixon from The Walking Dead. Which was made of suck since I was going to have to kill him. He was wearing a tan button-up shirt with the sleeves cut off at the shoulders, the edges frayed and worn, and jeans almost faded out completely at the knees. He had that weirdly hot redneck vibe about him, especially with the shaggy haircut. The whole silvery skin tone and pointy ears really ruined the redneck ambiance though. In and out of the bars on Bourbon Street, the fae reminded me of a tourist, because each time he walked out, he had a new container in his hand. Rumor had it that human alcohol didn’t affect the fae, but nightshade, a plant toxic to humans, worked just like liquor did.

After seeing him with so many different containers and watching him for the past hour, I began to suspect that each of those bars might have a fae in them, because he was walking like he was three sheets to the wind by the time he wandered off Bourbon and passed the Gumbo Shop. I made a mental note to call David Faustin, the head of the New Orleans branch of the Order, to see if he’d heard anything from the other members about nightshade being served at the human bars. But first I needed to take care of the Daryl Dixon reject. I couldn’t just walk up to the fae and get all stabby with him in front of people. I didn’t want to spend a night in jail. Again. The last time someone saw me take out a fae, the police were called, and even though there was no body, I was loaded up with weapons, and that was kind of hard to explain. And I really didn’t want to listen to David bitch about all the strings he had to pull and blah, blah. I’d probably sweated a pound off my boobs by the time the fae stumbled down an alley. Hallefreakin’-lujah.

I was starving, there were beignets with my name written all over them, and since it was Wednesday night, there weren’t a lot of fae roaming around, so I was totally going to lose my bet with Val. The weekend would be a totally different story. When there were more mortals to mess with and it was easier for them to do what they wanted and get away, they came out in droves. Kind of like cockroaches scurrying around at night. The fae blended in with the thick shadows of the narrow alley, and I was quiet as I followed him, keeping close to the damp brick walls. Sliding my hands off the straps of my backpack, I groaned when the fae stopped halfway down the alley and faced the building. His hands dropped to his zipper. Was he seriously going to pee? Really? Ugh, that was so not on my list of things I wanted to hear or see tonight. And could I really kill something while it was peeing? Seemed kind of unsportsmanlike to kick a dude with his pants down. I was so not going to wait for him to do his business.

At the rate in which he was moving, I’d be here for about ten minutes before he got his zipper down. Keeping my gaze trained on the fae, I reached down and slipped my hand around the nonbusiness side of the iron stake secured inside my boot. Iron had always been epically destructive to the fae. They didn’t go anywhere near it. Just the touch of it singed them, and if you stabbed one in the center of the chest, it didn’t kill them but sent them right back to their world. However, separating their heads from their bodies ended them. For realsies. But sending them to the Otherworld was enough, thank God, because obviously chopping heads off was messy and gross. Gates, hidden all over, were the doorways between our worlds. They’d been closed for centuries, but were still well guarded.

Sending them back was a one-way ticket. I stepped away from the building, stake in hand as I moved swiftly down the alley. At my back was the hum of the busy street, muted conversations, and the distant drone of laughter. My fingers tightened on the stake as the fae shifted his legs, spreading his thighs. I didn’t make a sound as I walked right up to him, but some kind of inherent instinct alerted him to my presence. Fae couldn’t sense us, but they knew the Order were around. The fae twisted at the waist; his milky blue eyes met mine but were unfocused. Confusion splashed across his striking features. “Hi!” I chirped, cocking my arm back. His gaze flickered to my hand and he sighed.

“Fuck.” Even intoxicated and about to pee, the fae was freaking fast. Whirling around, he deflected my blow with one arm and lifted his knee. Spinning to the side, I narrowly avoided a kick to the stomach. I didn’t glance down to see just how far he got with the zipper as I sprung forward and dipped under the arm he swung at me. Popping up behind him, I planted my foot in the center of his back. The fae grunted as he staggered a step then turned to me as I rushed forward, ready for this to be over. Swinging my hand with the stake, the sharpened edge wasn’t even an inch from his chest when he spat, “Your whole world is about to end. He’s—” I shoved the iron stake into his chest, cutting off his words. The stake cut through his skin like he was made of the cheapest tissue.

For a second, he stayed completely intact, and he opened his mouth, letting out a high-pitched howl that sounded like a coyote getting run over by a Mack truck. Holy shark teeth! Four incisors were razor sharp and elongated. They reached his lower lip and reminded me of a mutant saber-toothed tiger. Fae could bite. It wasn’t pretty. Actually, all creatures from the Otherworld had a tendency to get nippy. Snapping back, I lowered the stake as the fae was sort of sucked into itself. From the top of his shaggy head to his sneakers, he folded like a ball of paper being crumpled, going from over six feet to the size of my hand before there was a crack of sound, like one of those bang snap fireworks, and a flash of intense light. Then there was nothing. “As last words go, that was kind of cliché and lame,” I said to the spot where the fae had stood.

“I’ve heard better.” “I’m sure you have.” Heart slamming against my chest, I whirled around. Visions of spending the night in the city jail danced in my head. Despite the fact that I’d probably already been caught red-handed, I shoved the stake behind my back. Thankfully, it wasn’t one of the city’s finest standing at the mouth of the alley, but a man wearing black pants and a white shirt. As he lazily walked forward like he was out for a midnight stroll, I felt no measure of relief. The dude obviously saw me stab the fae. This could only mean one of two things. The man belonged to the Order, but wasn’t a part of the New Orleans branch, because I didn’t recognize him.

Or he was a servant to the fae, a human entranced to them. They could be just as dangerous. And when you stabbed them, they didn’t pull the poof, be-gone act. They bled. They died just like everyone else did. Sometimes slowly. The Order didn’t have a no-kill human policy because it was a necessary evil at times, but it had to suck something fierce to kill one. My fingers spasmed around the stake. Please don’t be a servant. Please be some whack job who thinks I’m his redheaded stepchild or something.

Please. Please. “Can I help you?” I asked, bracing myself. The man cocked his head. Oh, I didn’t like this. Every muscle in my body tensed. He stood a few feet inside the mouth of the alley, and then I saw it. Pale, washed out blue eyes, slanted at the outer corners—fae eyes. But his skin wasn’t silvery. It was a rich olive color that stood out against blond hair so pale it was almost white, and that hair was long, like Legolas in the Lord of the Rings long.

Legolas was kind of hot. Okay. I so needed to focus because this dude was not right. Every instinct in me fired off warnings. I took a step back as I eyed the newcomer. There was no glamour on this guy, and he didn’t carry the typical glazed over look servants favored. He looked human but not, and there was something about him that screamed he wasn’t going to get friendly in any way I’d be happy with. The man smiled as he lifted his arm. Out of thin air, a gun appeared in his hand. Just like that.

Hand empty one second and the next he was holding a gun. What in the holy hell? “I wish you could see your expression right about now,” he said, and then lowered the gun, aiming it right at me.


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