Riverside, California, 1990
The envelope arrived on a Tuesday. It was such an ordinary thing—off-white and business-sized, printed with the return address of the NorAm Territory Citizenship and Immigration Services—to mark a day Markus Vogel would never forget.
Mama juggled the mail and her keys around his baby sister. She swore under her breath, tossing her head to clear a stray lock from her eye as Isela fussed.
His younger brother whined about a kid at school who had stolen his book during recess and called him a nerd.
Mama listened with half an ear, sighing softly. “You’ve got to learn to ignore people like that, Tobias.”
Mark made a mental note to find that kid tomorrow and have a word with him.
“Go put that on Papa’s desk.” She handed Mark the mail when the door swung open. “I need to put your sister down for her nap. Can you take your brother out into the courtyard to play for a little while before you start homework? Papa or I will help you finish after supper.”
He didn’t bother telling her that six-year-old Tobias would have been happy curled up with his books for the rest of the afternoon. She had a strict rule on outdoor playtime every day, even on rare rainy days.
Mark’d rather be outside no matter the weather. Herding Toby back out into the courtyard on a mild spring afternoon took the kind of effort that involved his favorite action figures out in the dirt. He had to let Toby play Lady Samurai even though she was Mark’s favorite.
They played Nightfeather’s Agents, pursuing the dreaded Others that threatened humanity. He was Mad Irish, cornered by an evil snake monster and fighting his way free until Lady Samurai and the Strongmen arrived.
Mark forgot all about that envelope until after dinner. He finished his homework as Papa swept the table clear of crumbs and looked over his shoulder occasionally to correct an answer.
Papa paused at the envelope tucked beneath his laptop. He pushed his glasses up his nose and studied the return address. “Was ist das?”
“Keine ahnung.” Mama shrugged and traded the baby for the wet dishrag. She turned to the boys. “All right, wild ones, head to the bathroom and brush teeth. Papa will come read you a story in just a minute.”
As Mark turned to go down the hall, he caught a glimpse of his father’s bushy eyebrows lowering, and the single page unfolded in his hand. The baby grabbed for it. He tucked her under his chin, out of the way, to finish reading. His frown deepened.
“What’s wrong, Lukas?” Mama asked quietly.
He didn’t answer.
She glared down the hall, spotting Mark in the shadows. “Hop along. Make sure your brother gets his back teeth.”
Papa read a short story at bedtime. His mind was somewhere else: he kept forgetting to switch voices for the characters like he usually did.
The scent of fear woke Mark in the dark hours before dawn.
Fear had a peculiar tang, metallic and dull. His parents often worried about money and work and something they were careful not to talk about when he or Toby was nearby. This was different.
“I don’t know how they can do this after all these years.” His father’s voice, anger tightly leashed.
Mark slipped out of bed, crept down the carpeted hall. He must be extra quiet. His mother’s sense of her children was the only thing sharper than his own nose. She just seemed to know when they were close by, awake, or upset.
Mark leaned against the doorway until he could just see his parents in the little breakfast nook at the end of the narrow kitchen. Even sitting across from one another—tension drawing the air tight between them—their fingers were intertwined on the peeling table.
Papa looked up finally. “This is your home. Take the savings, stay with your cousins. I can send money, and when the kids are older—”
Mama fixed him with one of her long stares—the same one that made Tobias admit who broke what and Mark confess when he provoked the fight. “We stay together.”
Papa released a long sigh and bowed his head. Pale brown hair flopped over his forehead in an unruly wave. His voice thickened. “I couldn’t ask, but the thought of leaving you all—”
“It might be safer if… Better now than later. Later might be too late. They say Azrael is more lenient. As long as we follow the codes. And there’s so much wilderness there, not like this city. So the boys will have a chance to just be.”
He exhaled. “Better now than later.”
“We stay together no matter what,” Mama said.
Mark tried not to groan when they kissed. They were always doing that.
Mark headed back to bed.
The next few weeks were lost in the sea of arrangements to be made.
Papa sat Mark and Toby down and told them he’d gotten a new job offer overseas, near where he was born, and he and Mama had decided to take it. There was no word about the letter.
Mark searched, but it was gone.
They were allowed one suitcase apiece with necessities and one small personal bag for the plane. Suddenly the pocket-sized two-bedroom apartment seemed full of indispensable treasures.
On the last day, Mark came into the room he shared with Toby to find his little brother trying to close the zipper of his small backpack, which was stuffed with books. Toby’s glasses were fogged from crying.
“Pop says we have to be ready to go to the airport in an hour,” Mark said.
“Mr. Henderson will look after things. He’s going to find a nice family that needs all our stuff and send us the money so Mom and Dad can buy you new books.”
“I want my books.”Tobias sobbed.
Mark hurried to his side. The baby was sleeping, and Mama was trying to nap too. Before leaving, Papa warned him not to disturb them.
Their baby sister had been named after their grandmother: Isela Rose. Mark had only the haziest memories of the old woman. By the time Mark was born, Gramma Rosemarie could barely rise from her rocking chair, but her smile was bright for her first grandson. His only firm memory was of her skin, wrinkled as an old walnut, the same deep shade of brown as his own.
Mama had kept her picture with the other ancestors on the fake mantel. Now they were all packed carefully in her suitcase. She often spoke of the courage of the woman who had survived the war between the gods that nearly destroyed the world. She must have been strong. If an old woman could be that tough, so could he.
Confronted with a hysterical younger brother, Mark did the first thing that came to mind. He grabbed the backpack from his own bed and undid the zipper. He dumped the contents and shoved the mess of it under his blanket, then dropped to Toby’s side.
“Genug, Toby.” He grunted the command, reaching for the books spilling out of the smaller pack. Speaking German like Papa did always soothed Tobias. “Hush. Pick the ones you can fit in here too.”
Toby gave a few lingering snuffles, and together they packed both bags full of books. At the sound of Mama’s footsteps in the hall, Mark froze with a finger over his lips. He zipped up the bag and tossed it on his bed. Then he grabbed his action figures and set them up between himself and Toby.
The door creaked as he’d settled. Mama yawned, poking her head in. “I thought I heard crying?”
Mark pushed Mad Irish into Toby’s hand. “No, Ma, just trying to get Toby to play with me.”
She sighed, squatting beside them on the carpet. “Tobias, honey, everything’s going to be okay.”
She repeated herself in German. That seemed to do the trick.
Toby sniffed obediently as their mother’s fingers traced the wavy hair away from his face. He even looked more like Papa.
She touched Mark’s cheek and shared a rare smile with him. “Thanks for trying.”
“Sorry to wake you, Ma,” Mark murmured as she stifled another yawn.
“Wasn’t really sleeping,” she admitted. “What’s Mad Irish doing out… and Lady Samurai? These are your favorites. Papa told you not to take anything out of your bag.”
He nodded. “I just wanted to play for a bit.”
She sighed heavily. “But when we gotta go, we gotta go, Markus. No time to go looking for lost toys. And you don’t want to leave them behind, right?”
He shook his head, unable to speak.
The front door opened, and their father called for them to leave.
Mama levered herself off the floor. “Hurry up—get these guys packed. Come on, Tobias, grab your bag and let your brother have a minute.”
Tobias tugged his small pack over one bony shoulder as Mama clasped his hand. She took the bag from him. “Good gracious, Tobias Henry Vogel. How many bricks are you bringing?”
Tobias grinned up at her, his round baby face shining. “No bricks, Mama. Books!”
“Of course!” She beamed back at him, adjusted his glasses, and steered him toward the door. She cast a look at Mark over her shoulder, and her smile faded a little. “Don’t take too long, okay?”
When they were gone, he scooped up his action figures. He carried them to the bed, fingers tracing the familiar edges fondly. He pantomimed the sweep of the Strongmen’s powerful arms flexing, Mad Irish’s dancing feet, a few strokes of Lady Samurai’s blades. He tried to think of some other kid playing with them and swallowed the hot lump rising against the back of his throat. Then he stuffed them under his pillow and grabbed his backpack.
“Markus,” his father called. “Komm her mein Junge, wir gehen jetzt.”
The time had come. Mark hurried to the door at his father’s call to leave. Halfway there, he turned back. Maybe just one. He grabbed Lady Samurai and tucked her into a small corner near the zipper, tugging it closed as best he could.
His parents waited in the doorway of the tiny apartment, framed by the light of the glaring afternoon sun.
Papa pushed the door open and extended a hand to Mark. “Komm, schatz,” he urged. “Wir haben ein Flugzeug zu fangen.”
He imagined the plane rolling down the tarmac and them chasing after.
At the airport, armed guards patrolled from the curbs to the checkpoint. Some had dogs, but the ones without made him shiver. Their strangely colored eyes seemed to be gazing beyond anything an average human could see. The departure hall bustled with people, and security lines wound through the endless mess of it all.
Mama kept Toby close, squeezing Mark’s hand. Every time eyes skimmed her or the boys, she tensed. A whisper seemed to be constantly on her lips, though he picked up no sound.
Papa returned from dropping off their luggage, tickets clutched in one hand. “Just a flight delay. It’s normal. Nothing to worry about.”
Flights in and out of the country were still hard to come by, made trickier by the real borders crossed depending on the destination.
The night before, Papa had sat him down at the dining room table, unrolled a map, and pointed out hand-drawn lines over the printed ones, each highlighted in bright yellow. Some encompassed whole countries by the handful. Others covered enormous territories of land or sea. Eight in all. He tapped the West Coast. “Wir sind hier.”
“The Nightfeather!” Mark exclaimed. He’d seen images of the Allegiance of Necromancers in school. Eight all-powerful sorcerers who commanded death itself. They’d emerged from the shadows after the godswar to rule, keeping humanity, which was bent on self-destruction, safe from powers they didn’t understand. Mark liked the long dark hair and piercing gaze of their necromancer.
Papa nodded, but his expression didn’t lighten. “Und wir gehen hier.”
His finger slid across the ocean to Europe, stopping on a tiny landlocked country in the center of a highlighted area. This territory ran to the Mediterranean in the south, north over the islands and peninsulas, and east to the Caspian Sea.
“The Angel of Death,” Mark whispered. “And the Red Death above.”
The necromancer Azrael’s territory was bordered by a female necromancer known for her vicious nature. Rumor was that Azrael and Vanka were fighting over disputed territory on the Black Sea.
Mark looked at his father’s finger, well within the boundaries of Azrael’s territory. As safe as anywhere could be.
“But Papa,” he whispered. “We can’t cross borders.”
“It is difficult to impossible usually,” his father agreed. “But with the East Coast unlivable, Raymond Nightfeather’s territory is too crowded, so he and the Angel of De—Azrael—have worked out an arrangement. A kind of repatriation. I have skills that can be useful there, and I have been invited to return.”
“But not to Germany?”
Papa shook his head and tapped the map with one blunt finger. “The city of Prague is a new technological center. I should be able to get a good job. I will need your help to take care of this family on the long trip. You can do that, yes?”
At the airport, Mark remembered his promise and stayed close to Mama and Toby while Papa checked the monitors for updates. He tugged the straps of the backpack on his shoulders. Books were much heavier than action figures, CDs, and his favorite Mariners T-shirt.
“Come now,” Papa murmured. “Let’s get through security early. We can get something to eat on the other side.”
The slow-moving line made Toby wiggly and restless. The hot air smelled of too many humans in a small space. Mark breathed shallowly. Sweat trickled down his back.
“Take your brother’s hand,” Mama said as they shifted their backpacks off their shoulders.
Obediently, Mark grabbed for Toby. Toby tried to slip loose, but Mark was faster. When Mark looked back, Mama and Papa had stepped ahead in line, murmuring to one another.
He gave Toby a tug.
They turned and came face-to-face with an enormous Belgian Malinois on a short leash, held by an airport guard. The young, light-skinned man wore a black utility jumper emblazoned with the distinctive form-line raven, wings spread. The Nightfeather’s symbol.
The dog fixed Mark with a deep stare, chest expanding like a bellows as its nostrils flared, scenting him.
An answering snarl rose in Mark’s throat, and he strangled it back. Where had that come from?
He edged Tobias behind him, unable to tear his gaze away from the dog’s shiny black nostrils framed in dark fur. The dog growled.
The muscles above Mark’s lip twitched in response.
Papa shouted, scooping him off his feet and away from the dog. Mama pulled Toby behind her.
“What is the meaning of this?” Papa snapped.
The guard’s eyes never left Mark. Instead, he touched the radio on his shoulder, muttered a number code, and then his gaze flicked to Papa. “Please come with me, sir.”
Mama gasped as the dog tugged at the leash, closing the distance.
Papa snapped, “Restrain your animal. They are children.”
The passengers around them edged away as more black-clad enforcers materialized in the crowd. No one would meet their eyes. Pity at best, suspicion at worst hovered in their faces. But no one spoke in their defense. No one dared.
Mama’s voice lowered. “Lukas.”
“Please come with us,” the handler ordered. “All of you.”
The air-conditioning that had been absent in the main hall turned the waiting room off the security checkpoint into a refrigerator. Below the unit, a slow drip formed an uneven blotch of water stain on the wall.
Their carry-ons were piled on the stainless-steel table on one side of the room near the scanners.
Mama sat in the only chair, tugging Mark close. She swept her fingers over his cheek, down his ear to his collar. Her mouth moved the whole time, silent lips forming words as she stroked his shoulder and his arm to his fingers. She moved to the other arm. Her occasional shudder had become a steady shiver.
Papa shrugged off his sweater and made her put it on. Tobias snuggled into her chest around Isela, whimpering softly.
Mark clenched his teeth to keep them from clacking. His hoodie irritated the goose bumps springing up on his arms and neck.
Papa paced. He’d surrendered their papers. He met Mama’s eyes, saw something that made the color drain from his face. But he nodded without speaking and resumed pacing.
There were no clocks. Mama touched the crown of Mark’s head. She looked faded, her skin dimmed somehow. “Will have to do.”
Finally the door opened. Three guards entered—an Asian man with a ponytail, the dog handler, and a dark-haired, pale woman in plainclothes with an official-looking lanyard around her neck. She smiled tightly, gesturing for the one with the dog to wait by the door.
This time Mark kept his eyes on the tile, ignoring the clack of the dog’s nails on the floor.
“What is the meaning of this delay,” Papa asked, but indignance bowed to the strain of worry in his voice. “You want us gone. We’re leaving.”
“Everything is in order, Mr. Vogel,” the woman said with the weighted air of one overworked and out of patience. “We’ll just do a quick check of your bags and you’ll be on your way.”
Mark snuck a glance at the guards as papers shuffled. The guy with the ponytail scanned the bags with a wand before unzipping each and poking through the contents.
“Sir?” The dog handler spoke. He sounded younger in this small room, less authoritative than he had in the main hall. The dog was attentive but not focused on anything.
The woman’s brow rose. “Yes, Private?”
The handler reddened, acne scars visible under his flush. He didn’t look much older than the high school boys who played pickup games in the park in the afternoons. “The boy.”
Mama’s grip on Mark’s shoulder tightened.
“My son.” Papa’s voice held a note of iron Mark had never heard before. “A child that you menace with an animal.”
Mark almost broke his stare to look into his father’s face as heat and tightness wedged themselves into the back of his throat.
“I apologize, Mr. and Mrs. Vogel.” The woman sighed before turning to the young guard. “It must have been a false positive.”
“But, sir,” the handler said.
“Enough, Iglesias,” she said. “They don’t show so young—you know that. Your dog needs a break.”
“Ma’am,” the handler mumbled, and the dog heeled to his side.
Mark’s gaze darted up once more. The dog huffed once, then followed the handler obediently from the room.
Mama exhaled a deeply pent breath beside him. Mark felt like his knees might melt and soak into the legs of his jeans.
Papa knelt in front of him as the first tear slipped free.
Mark wrapped his arms around his father’s neck, and when the man stood, Mark’s feet left the floor. His father hadn’t carried him in years.
Papa’s free arm lowered, and Mark didn’t need to look to know he and Mama had clasped hands. Tobias kept his face nestled in Mama’s collar. Isela began to protest the pressure.
The second uniform finished the inspection. The woman in charge returned their papers. Papa shifted Mark to handle both documents and their carry-ons but didn’t put him down.
The woman opened the door leading to the departure hall. Mama was outside, and Papa was halfway through when the uniform called, “Hey! Just a minute.”
Mark tensed. Papa’s expression was calm and mildly irritated, but Mark could feel his heartbeat against his chest, fast and hard.
The guy with the ponytail held out a small plastic figure with a hesitant smile. “This must have fallen out. Is it yours?”
Mark saw the familiar figurine, and his stomach heaved.
Papa rocked him gently. “Mein schatz?”
“Lady Samurai,” the uniform said, offering it up. “She’s my fave. Yours too?”
Mark shook his head and buried his face in his father’s neck, breathing deep. Papa smelled like aftershave and hazelnuts, and that pervasive tang Mark now knew too well: fear.
Papa shrugged at the man. “Guess not?”
The overhead paged their flight number, and the officer nodded. “Have a good flight.”
Mark’s last glimpse of the worn figurine was the uniform tucking it into his breast pocket as the door closed behind them. He pressed his cheek against his father’s collar and wept.
To be continued in Conjuring Moonlight (Tooth & Spell Book 2) coming soon from No Inside Voice Books.