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Die and Stay Dead

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Last Updated: valashain

Die and Stay Dead

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Author: Nicholas Kaufmann
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin, 2014
Series: Trent: Book 2

1. Dying Is My Business
2. Die and Stay Dead

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-Genre Tags: Urban Fantasy
Contemporary Fantasy
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Synopsis

In this pulse-pounding sequel to Dying Is My Business, Trent, a man who can't stay dead or retain his memories, tries to uncover his connection to a deadly doomsday cult bent on destroying NYC.

A brutal murder in Greenwich Village puts Trent and the Five-Pointed Star on the trail of Erickson Arkwright, the last surviving member of a doomsday cult. Back in the day, the Aeternis Tenebris cult thought the world would end on New Year's Eve of 2000. When it didn't, they decided to end it themselves by summoning Nahash-Dred, a powerful, terrifying demon known as the Destroyer of Worlds. But something went wrong. The demon massacred the cult, leaving Arkwright the sole survivor.

Now, hiding somewhere in New York City with a new identity, Arkwright plans to summon the demon again and finish the job he started over a decade ago. As Trent rushes to locate a long-lost magical artifact that may be the only way to stop him, the clues begin to mount... Trent's past and Arkwright's might be linked somehow. And if they are, it means the truth of who Trent really is may lie buried in the twisted mind of a madman.


Excerpt

One

There was nothing in the world like New York City at night. After the last of the sunlight faded and the sky turned black, there were parts of the city that remained as bright as day, shielded from the dark by neon signs and sodium streetlights, by the twinkling galaxies of headlights snaking across the bridge spans and the illuminated pinnacles of skyscrapers like burning spears. All three hundred and five square miles of the city raged with so much light that at times the night was no more than perpetual dusk. Yet no matter how brightly the city burned, there were secret places where darkness took root and flourished. Hidden, dark spots where New Yorkers never strayed, steered away by the whispers of some ancient and forgotten instinct. It was on one of those beautiful nights, in one of those secret places, that I was getting the crap beaten out of me by an infected magician named Biddy.

Joggers had been disappearing from Central Park at night, all of them women, and all of them vanishing from the same area: the dark, wooded, winding paths known as the Ramble. No clues had been left behind and no bodies had been found. The police and the newspapers thought there was a serial killer at work--"Invasion of the Hottie Snatcher!" shouted one New York Post headline--but we suspected something different was happening, something the police weren't equipped to handle. So that night, after the police patrol left the area, we sent Bethany out into the Ramble alone as bait. Isaac, Philip, and I hid at various points nearby, waiting. I watched Bethany through lightweight, high-definition binoculars whose special lenses boosted light transmission for nighttime use. They made her glow and look fuzzy around the edges, like a ghost haunting the park. It wasn't long before Biddy made his move, snatching Bethany up and dragging her into the woods. Isaac and Philip burst from their hiding spots and ran after him. I tucked the binoculars into my trench coat pocket and started running, but like an idiot I tripped one of Biddy's booby traps. A rope snare caught me by the ankle and hoisted me upside down into a tree. By the time I got myself loose and followed the trail of scuffed footprints and trampled plants to a camouflaged trapdoor at the base of the bronze Alice in Wonderland statue, I found myself locked out of Biddy's underground lair with the others already inside. It took me another ten minutes to break my way in. Frankly, the rescue part of our plan could have gone better.

Reeling from Biddy's punches, I stumbled backward, careful to stay away from the edge of the natural stone bridge we stood on. Below us, a wide pit extended farther down than I could see, a bottomless hole in the earth. The sides of the bridge had been lined with rows of black candles that burned with an eerie red flame. Everything about it screamed ritual to me. But what ritual? What the hell was Biddy doing down here?

I risked a quick glance at Bethany. She was dangling from a long, retractable metal contraption that held her over the yawning black pit, her wrists chained together over her head. Wet, slimy sounds echoed up from below, as if something were moving down there. Suddenly I had a pretty good idea what had happened to the missing women. Bethany struggled to free herself, twisting her diminutive, five-foot frame and pinwheeling her legs under her as she strained for any kind of leverage. But there was nothing beneath her, just a straight fall of untold hundreds of feet, all the way down to whatever was making those slithery noises.

"Trent!" she shouted. "Stop messing around and get me down from here!"

"What do you think I'm trying to do?" I shouted back. I hated when she got like this. Only Bethany Savory could micromanage her own rescue.

She nodded at the control panel of levers and knobs at the base of the retractable contraption. "Just get over there and press the damn button that gets me down from here!"

I turned back to Biddy and wiped blood from my lip. "Do yourself a favor. Let her go and I'll go easy on you."

Biddy laughed crazily. Crazy enough to remind me that he wasn't just bad, he was infected, which meant he was insane enough to see this through. He fully intended to feed Bethany to whatever was down there, just as he'd fed a dozen other women to it over the past few weeks. He would never let her go.

The infection had given Biddy's skin a rough, stonelike quality and a tumorous, misshapen head. At least he still looked somewhat human. I'd seen the infection do worse to people. Unfortunately, his fist felt as stony as it looked. As he landed another blow, it was like being punched by a boulder.

He smirked. He had good reason to. He was stronger than me, and I was weaponless. The grip of my chrome-plated Bersa semiautomatic pistol poked out of the waist of Biddy's pants. Though something told me that even if I had the gun, bullets wouldn't pierce that rocklike skin of his. It wouldn't be the first time I'd gone up against someone bullets couldn't harm, but I always felt better about the odds when I had the gun in my hand. No wonder Bethany had called it my totem.

"There must be some mistake," Biddy sneered, his voice as deep and hollow as the pit below us. "I thought you were the great and mighty Immortal Storm. I expected a challenge, at least." When he spoke, his lopsided mouth moved like a mudfish's.

"You're one to talk about funny names, Biddy," I said, spitting more blood onto the ground.

The Immortal Storm. I hated that name. It had been bestowed on me by the gargoyles as an honorary title after I freed them from their long history of slavery. I'd hoped to keep it private, but word had spread faster than I expected. Who knew gargoyles were such gossips? But it wasn't just modesty that made me uncomfortable with the title. The Immortal Storm was also a prophecy--a bad one, real end of the world stuff--and I didn't like being associated with that.

"My god and master, Mab-Akarr, will have His feast tonight, as He does every night," Biddy went on. "You cannot stop this, Immortal Storm. He craves flesh, and as His faithful servant, I willingly supply it."

"Tell me something, Biddy. Does Mab-Akarr insist on only eating women, or was that your idea?" He glared at me. "I thought so. What happened, you get rejected in high school too many times?"

Biddy sneered and feinted throwing another punch. I flinched. He laughed.

"Fool. Who are you to question the rites of Mab-Akarr? He does not protect you. He protects me." He thumped one stony hand on his chest for emphasis.

I looked up at him. "Protects you? You live under Central Park and kidnap women to throw in a pit. You're the one people need protection from."

He shook his head like he pitied my ignorance. "You do not feel it, do you? It is everywhere around you. It is in the air itself. Something dark and terrible is coming. Something no one can escape. No one but me. Mab-Akarr will protect me from it, as long as I keep Him fed."

Biddy strode toward the control panel, turning his back to me. I leapt to tackle him, but he was surprisingly fast. He spun and brought up one arm. His palm burst with a seething light, and a blast of something cold and painful caught me by surprise. I couldn't move. Every part of my body raged with agony. I gritted my teeth and bit back a scream.

Stupid of me. I should have expected a spell. Biddy was infected--of course he was carrying magic inside him.

He giggled insanely and inched closer. "Kneel."

"Go fuck yourself," I growled through the pain. You can take the ex-thief out of Brooklyn, but you can't take the Brooklyn out of the ex-thief.

"Kneel," Biddy repeated, louder.

The agony of the spell intensified. Magic. Sometimes I hated it. Okay, most of the time. I cried out and fell to my knees. I didn't mean to. I didn't want to give the bastard the satisfaction, but I didn't have a choice. The pain was too much.

"Trent!" Bethany yelled. Metal jangled loudly as she swung back and forth on the chain, struggling to get her legs high enough to wrap them around the retractable arm. But she was too small. Her legs wouldn't reach.

Biddy's spell dissipated. The pain subsided, albeit maddeningly slowly. Biddy picked up his sword from where he'd dropped it on the stone bridge. He loomed over me, putting the tip of the blade to my neck. It felt cold and sharp against my throat.

"The Immortal Storm," he scoffed. "They should have called you the Sniveling Worm instead."

I moved my fingers desperately along the ground, grasping for anything I could use as a weapon. All I got was a handful of loose dirt and pebbles. It would have to do. I tossed it in Biddy's face. He snarled and backed away, protecting his eyes with his free hand. I jumped to my feet, but Biddy recovered faster than I thought he would. He drove the sword deep into my stomach.

His lopsided mudfish mouth curled in a sneer. "Now die."

Hot blood spilled out of me, coursing down my shirt, my pants. I was dying, and I knew what that meant. With my last ounce of strength I grabbed Biddy's lapels, pulled him close, and didn't let go. A cold emptiness blossomed inside me, and I felt the dizzying sensation of falling even though I was still on my feet. The edges of my vision turned gray, then black, and everything went dark very quickly.

The last thing I heard before I died was Bethany's voice saying, "You shouldn't have done that, Biddy."

* * *

After the darkness came the mad rush back to life. I opened my eyes and greedily sucked air into my lungs. I was lying on a natural stone bridge, but I didn't remember where I was or why I was here. I never remembered anything after coming back from the dead, at least not right away. But as the fog began to clear, the memories edged in from the corners of my mind. Biddy was lying next to me, dead. He'd been drained of his life force, leaving behind a corpse as dry and wrinkled as old parchment. It looked like he'd been dead for years, even though I knew only a few minutes had passed. My hands were still clutching his lapels in an iron grip. I let go.

I'd held him close as I died because I knew what would happen. The terrible, nameless thing inside me would steal his life force and use it to bring me back. It had saved my life a dozen times over, but I still didn't know what it was or where it came from. All I knew was that it didn't care whose life force it stole. Friend or foe, innocent or guilty, everyone was fair game as far as it was concerned. I hated it. I hated it more than anything in the world. The fact that I'd just used it as a weapon, and not for the first time, didn't change that.

Biddy's sword lay beside me, expelled from my body. I looked down at the bloodstains that ringed the hole in my shirt where the blade had gone through. Another shirt ruined. Some things never changed. Underneath the shirt, the skin of my stomach was whole again, as if I'd never been stabbed. There wasn't even a scar. The thing inside me never just brought me back; it always brought me back completely healed.

I brushed myself off and stood up, mentally adding Biddy's name to the running tally in my head. His was the twelfth life I'd stolen. Every breath I took, every beat of my heart, was a reminder that I was just as much a killer as he was.

"Trent!" Bethany shouted, still hanging by her wrists from the metal contraption. "Get me down!"

"Working on it," I said. My voice was hoarse, my throat dry from being dead.

I squatted next to Biddy's corpse, retrieved my gun, and stuck it in the holster at the small of my back. Then I dug into his pants pocket. Through the cloth, his desiccated leg felt like a roll of old newspaper. I found what I was looking for, the long-necked key I'd seen him use to lock the padlock on Bethany's chains. I went to the control panel. I flipped the same switch Biddy had, only in the opposite direction. The contraption began to reel Bethany back toward the bridge. She looked down into the pit as she approached. Whatever she saw made her eyes bulge.

"Faster! Make it go faster!" she yelled, squirming.

I looked at the control panel in confusion. There were too many knobs and switches to choose from. How the hell was I supposed to work this thing? I turned the knob next to the switch I'd already flipped. The contraption ground to a sudden halt, leaving Bethany still dangling over the pit, ten feet from the edge of the bridge. Shit. Wrong knob.

"Trent, get me down from here! Hurry!"

I reached for another knob. A bestial roar came from the pit. A long, black tentacle snaked quickly upward from the depths and wrapped itself around one of Bethany's legs. Biddy's god, Mab-Akarr, wasn't about to let his dinner get away. Bethany kicked her leg, trying to dislodge the tentacle, but it held tight.

"Get it off me!"

I pulled my gun and squeezed off three rounds. The bullets punctured the leathery, reticulated hide of the tentacle and a foul-smelling green ichor welled up out of the wounds, but it wasn't enough. Undeterred, Mab-Akarr wrapped his tentacle around her leg more forcefully and started to pull. Bethany's arms strained in the chains above her head. If I didn't stop that thing, he would pull her in half.

I holstered the gun and snatched Biddy's sword off the ground. I would only have one shot at this. If I missed, Bethany would be Mab-Akarr's main course. Standing at the edge of the bridge, I threw the sword sidearm. It sailed out over the pit like a whirling helicopter rotor. It struck the tentacle, and then the sword went tumbling down into the darkness of the pit. At first I couldn't tell if it had done anything. Then the meat of Mab-Akarr's tentacle split apart in a long gash, releasing more of the foul-smelling green ichor. From somewhere deep below, Mab-Akarr screeched in pain. The tentacle stretched apart and snapped. The bleeding stump retreated into the pit. The severed tip remained wrapped around Bethany's boot, until it slowly uncoiled and fell into the pit after its larger half.

"Get me down from here!" Bethany shouted.

I turned the knob again, in the other direction this time. The contraption brought her back to dangle directly in front of me on the bridge. I wrapped one arm around her waist so she wouldn't fall, and with the other I used the key to unlock the chains around her wrists. She dropped against me, and I lowered her gently to the floor. Holding her close like that, something stirred inside me. I wondered if it made her feel something, too. If she'd changed her mind about us.

"Thanks, I'm fine now," she said, pulling away from me quickly.

I guess I had my answer.

We hurried to the far side of the stone bridge. There, a cave extended deep into the bedrock. Embedded in the cave wall was the thick, metal door of the cell where Biddy had locked up Isaac and Philip. I tried the same key I'd used to free Bethany, but it didn't fit the keyhole. From behind us, Mab-Akarr's low, angry growl echoed out of the pit. Crap. There was no time to search Biddy's lair for the proper key, so I put my shoulder to the door. I hit it two, three, four times, but the damn thing wouldn't budge. I heard movement on the other side. I took it as a good sign that they were still alive in there.

"Stand aside," Bethany said.

She reached into a pocket of her cargo vest and pulled out a charm. Charms were her specialty, and this one was a small, round object that looked like a brooch, only instead of a pin on the back it had four tiny metal clamps. She clamped it to the doorknob and twisted a tiny knob on top of the charm.

"Get back!" she shouted, not just for my sake but to warn the people on the other side of the door, too.

We ran clear to the other side of the cave. The charm erupted with a bright light. There was the sound of rending metal, and the smell of something burning. A moment later the light faded. The doorknob lay on the floor, leaving a smooth, perfectly round hole in the door. Bethany's hand was small enough to fit in the hole, so she reached in and pulled the door open.

Inside was a dark cell. The air smelled stale and terrible. I could only imagine how many women Biddy had kept in here, waiting in terror to be fed to his god. Bethany pulled out another charm, a small, mirrored disc that glowed in her hand like a flashlight. She cast its light on the two prisoners in front of us.

Isaac Keene, our leader, sat on the floor with his hands bound behind his back. He looked up at us, his lip and cheek bloody from when Biddy had beaten him into unconsciousness. His red, close-cropped hair and beard were matted with dirt and sweat.

"Where's Biddy?" he asked.

"Dead," Bethany replied, kneeling to untie him. "Unfortunately, the thing in the pit is still alive. And still hungry."

I turned my attention to the second person in the room: Philip Chen, our resident vampire. His skinny form was wrapped in so many silver chains he couldn't move. All that silver had to be sapping his strength and burning his skin like a branding iron, but his face didn't register any pain. Instead, he wore his usual scowl beneath the mirrored sunglasses he never took off.

"Get these chains off of me," he snarled.

Philip grimaced as I unwrapped the chains as gently as I could. The silver left angry red marks on his forearms, neck, and anywhere else his skin wasn't covered by his tight black T-shirt. I winced at how painful it looked. I didn't know how he did it. He should have been screaming.

When I finally got all the silver chains off of him, he said, "You should have left Biddy to me. The son of a bitch puts me in silver? I would have made him beg before he died. I would have made him wish he'd never met me." He rubbed at the red, blistered marks on his skin.

"I didn't exactly have a choice," I said.

Philip looked at the blood-rimmed hole in my shirt, noticing it for the first time. "So it happened again, huh?"

I didn't answer him. I didn't like talking about it.

"While you're at it, you might also want to look after our friend there," Philip added, nodding behind me.

I turned around. A woman crouched in the corner of the room, hidden in the shadows. I hadn't noticed her when I came in. She was trembling and holding a knife in my direction. I held my hands up and walked slowly toward her. She panicked. She started breathing heavily and jabbed the knife at the air between us.

"It's okay," I said. "We're here to help you. You're free now. Biddy's dead."

She gritted her teeth, her eyes darting quickly from me to the others and then back.

"Biddy's dead," I said again. I knelt in front of her.

Her face was streaked with dirt and sweat, but there was something striking about her, the way she looked both youthfully innocent and world-weary at the same time. There was a maturity to the lines of her face, but her cheeks were as full and round as a teenager's. She wore jeans that were torn at the knees, and a ratty old black sweater with holes in the cuffs and elbows. Her hair was cut into a messy black bob with a narrow band of blue running down one side. She had a diamond stud in the side of her nose.

I kept my hands where she could see them, one eye on the knife. It was a folding knife. I could see the groove in the handle where the blade fit inside. It was strange that Biddy had let her keep a knife, but I put the thought aside for now. I knew better than to touch her or try to take the knife away. She was so frightened she would slash me to ribbons before she knew what she was doing.

"My name is Trent," I said, keeping my voice calm and even. "What's your name?"

She looked at me for a long moment. She had two different-colored eyes, one blue and one a gold-flecked hazel. Like two people inhabiting the same body.

"C-Calliope," she stammered.

"Hi, Calliope," I said. "Would you like to go home now?"

Her eyes welled with tears. She nodded. She folded the knife and put it back in her jeans pocket. I helped her to her feet. She trembled in my hands like a frightened animal. As I introduced her to the others, she began to calm down.

"From what Bethany told me, the thing in the pit sounds like a trembler," Isaac said. "It's kind of like a land kraken. They don't have much in the way of intelligence or cunning, they mostly just eat and sleep. We can burn it out."

"Biddy said it was his--his god," Calliope said.

"It's true," I said. "He even had a name for it: Mab-Akarr."

"Biddy was insane from the infection," Isaac pointed out. "I have no doubt he really thought the trembler was speaking to him, ordering him to feed it, but I can assure you it wasn't."

"He also said it was protecting him from something," I said. "Something nasty that was coming our way."

"Likely more delusions," Isaac said. He tipped back suddenly, losing his balance and stumbling to regain it.

Philip rushed to his side to help him. "You all right, old man?"

"I'm fine, I'm fine," Isaac said. "Just still a little woozy. Now how about we get out of this damn cell?"

We walked out into the cave. Calliope gripped my arm like a vise, as if she thought letting go would bring all the horror back.

"Where'd you get that knife, Calliope?" I asked.

"I had it with me when he--when he brought me here." She looked around the cave nervously, as though she expected Biddy to jump out at any moment.

"And Biddy let you keep it?" I was skeptical.

Her jaw tightened at the mention of his name. "I tried to stab him with it. It didn't do anything. Didn't even break the skin. He thought it was funny that I tried to hurt him. That's why he let me keep it. It amused him."

We started back across the natural stone bridge.

"And yet he didn't feed you to the trembler, even though you attacked him?"

She shook her head. "I'm--I'm different. I can see the spirits of the dead, even talk to them sometimes. He liked that. He kept me around so I could tell him about the other women he fed to that thing. He made me watch. He got off on killing them, and he got off again on me telling him how angry or sad their spirits were. I guess for him it was like killing them twice. It amused him. Everything about me amused him."

"You're a necromancer?" I asked, surprised. I hadn't had good experiences with necromancers. Of course, maybe not all of them were like Reve Azrael. Calliope certainly seemed different.

She turned to me sharply. "Wait! What day is it?"

When I told her, she was stunned.

"Three days. I've been here three days. I--I've lost so much time!"

"What do you mean?" I asked.

I didn't get an answer. Calliope spied Biddy's desiccated husk on the bridge and clung to me with a shriek.

"It's okay," I said. "He's dead, just like I said. I killed him myself."

"But--but look at him..." She shook her head, her eyes wide with alarm. It was all too much for her. She choked back a sob, and then she wept, openly and unashamed. She buried her face in my shirt.

Not knowing what else to do, I put my arms around her awkwardly. "It's okay," I said. "It's over."

She looked up at me, wiped her eyes with her sweater sleeve, and nodded.

Philip went over to Biddy's body and brought his boot down hard on the misshapen skull, crushing it.

"Feel better?" I asked.

"Ask me again after I stomp the rest of this bastard into dust." He turned to Calliope. "You want a turn, kid?"

Calliope just shook her head and dug her fingernails into my arm. It occurred to me she wasn't just scared of Biddy. She was scared of Philip, too.

"Leave it, Philip," Isaac said. "We don't have time. The trembler is still down there, and it's awake and hungry."

"Fine," Philip sighed, disappointed. "Humans. No sense of priorities."

Isaac moved to the edge of the bridge, held up his hands, and chanted a few strange syllables that drew a chill up my spine. I didn't like the language of magic. It spooked me every time I heard it, like someone walking over my grave. When Isaac was finished, a huge fireball materialized in the air before him. Like Biddy, Isaac carried magic inside him. But Isaac was a mage, which meant he was immune to magic's infection.

He dropped the fireball into the abyss. It sailed down farther and farther, illuminating the walls of the pit as it descended, until it was nothing but a pinpoint of light in the darkness below. There was a flash as it burst, followed by a loud, bloodcurdling shriek. A moment later, the pit erupted with black tentacles, a veritable forest of lashing, groping, angry appendages.

"Damn it, the trembler's bigger than I thought," Isaac said.

I drew my gun, but Philip put out a hand to stop me. "I got this."

With a throaty battle cry, he threw himself off the bridge and into the squirming mass of tentacles. They coiled around him until he was lost inside the sheer multitude of limbs. Then Philip and the trembler fell into the darkness of the pit together.

I ran to the edge of the bridge. "Philip!"

Below us, the dark pit reverberated with the sound of shrieking and thrashing, and a wet, slimy sound that brought to mind handfuls of spaghetti being thrown against a wall. Finally, there was silence.

Next to me, Isaac called out, "Philip!"

No sound came from the depths.

Then we saw him, climbing up the wall of the pit toward us. He jumped and caught the side of the bridge, then pulled himself up. He was covered with gobs of the trembler's sticky, foul-smelling, green blood. Even his mirrored shades were coated. He wiped the lenses clean and grinned.

"Okay," he said. "Now I feel better."

Copyright © 2014 by Nicholas Kaufmann


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Die and Stay Dead

- Weesam
  (2/25/2015)

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