Chapter 1: The Devil

"Take nothing on its looks; take everything on evidence. There's no better rule." - from Great Expectations

There was no beat.

There was no melody.

Each instrument was its own, refusing to cooperate with the others in the symphony. The percussionists fought to outdo the other, the bass and brass joining the battle of conquering the young girl's delicate eardrums. They gave no heed to her weak coughs or soft moans and cries. If anything, those pitiful, human sounds merely gave vigor to the merciless orchestra that cackled and whispered insults in her presence. They spoke in gravelly voices and sang in shrills, and the otherworldly faces of shadow and smoke played hide-and-seek within the raging fire, almost dancing to the music no human should ever have the misfortune to hear.

On and on the war song went, the most powerful force in Mother Nature's arsenal threatening to eradicate the virus invading the territory of its brothers. The trills of the flutes and other woodwinds broke out like malicious laughter, whispering of doom and eternal death. There was no hope. There had never been hope. The creation of human beings had been a joke—cruel amusement for the Creator. The young girl cried and coughed as she crawled, refusing to listen to the evil that surrounded her.

"Mummy!" she cried out; her words were choked out by pitiful coughs as her lungs tried desperately to expel the tainted air she was forced to breathe in.

The very air burned her lungs and seared her throat and nostrils. Her mouth was dry, and her lips were chapped. She needed water. She needed anything to make the pain go away, but the war song could only get louder, drowning out her beggarly thoughts.

Faintly from outside, the girl heard the cries of fear and disbelief of the people around the city. They were very likely terrified of another tragedy like the one from the year before. Eyelids beginning to grow heavy, the girl turned her head towards where the window was and tried to move there. The fire was moving quickly, its gluttonous flames never satisfied. It only wanted more, and she could hear it chanting devilishly as she inched forward, limbs weak.

"More… more… more…"

The sickening chant made the girl's heart pound and her stomach flip and tie into a knot. After breathing in too deeply, she nearly fell to her side as she coughed; acid burnt what was left of her throat. Dark yellow liquid ended up on the floor before her, and her nose burned with the most foul of stenches. She realized the odor of cooking flesh began to surround her, screaming joining the orchestra.

It came from downstairs—No, she pleaded—as well as just behind her. It was not until the smell registered in her mind she realized that it was her flesh that was burning.

A yelp was ripped away from her, making her throat hurt all the more, and she tried to move towards the window, having to lash her hands out forwards and claw at the knotted boards to drag her exhaustion-laden body forward. Her teeth gritted as she did this, her tears beginning to evaporate. Soon, her eyes felt dry, sending pain through those tawny orbs. Her eyelids then squeezed shut to try and keep in the remaining moisture as her skin tightened. There was also pain shooting through her fingertips, but nothing registered nearly as much as the creeping fire, licking over her milky skin and sighing with delight as the fresh meat provided for them.

Almost…, she thought. She risked opening her eyes in a squint, but her vision grew blurry. She couldn't be more than a few arm lengths from the window, but her strength was dropping dangerously low. And with that falling strength went her hope as well. If it were possible, she'd cry more, but she was spent. The fire was taking away her moisture, and she was sure that one of her feet was now gone, the ruby and vermillion demons working their way up her leg. She tried to move some more, but her right hand caught the path of one of the flames.

The girl could not scream. She could not cry. She could only stare with her hazy vision in awe as the demons licked at her fingertips and nails. They began to work their way towards her knuckles, and the girl opened her mouth slightly, legs curling up to where her knees touched her chest. She laid her head down on the floor, long hair creating a puddle around her small body. She pulled the disappearing hand near her face, mind no longer able to register what was happening. She was growing oh-so sleepy, and only a weak moan came from her as the war song lifted into another grand crescendo. The flames cheered, and it wasn't until they began a new dance the girl realized the window had been opened. Slowly, her head inclined so her half-lidded eyes would face that direction.

Standing among the flames was a shadow that took on a full, humanoid shape rather than the flickering half-faces the girl had been seeing. The shadow stood straight in an arrogant pose with its hip cocked and hands on the waist.

A woman, the girl thought weakly.

Long hair reaching the shadow-woman's calves fluttered about her slender frame, and, after watching the girl for a few moments, she stuck out one hand, palm down, and waved it in front of her. At her command, the fire disappeared completely into a small, glowing orb of orange that went to her palm and disappeared as she made a fist.

Clack, clack, clack.

The raised heels of the shadow-woman's shoes made thunder claps to replace the awful symphony that had taken away the girl's hand and foot. She could not move as the shadow-woman knelt down by her on one knee, elbow settling on her right thigh, which was parallel with the ground. Her head came down along with her hand, fingers hot like the fire, yet cooling down quickly to the temperature of ice. Suspended in where her face should be were eyes of the coldest grey the girl had ever seen. They were like rings of quicksilver; she did not have to touch them to feel its arctic chill. It burned worse than even the fire, and it seemed the chill was slowly working its way from her flesh down to her soul.

The unnatural silence made those unblinking eyes all the more menacing, and the girl found herself becoming more lucid as time went by. Her bottom lip quivered as the realization of what was before her filled her mind with fear. So desperately, she silently pleaded to hear the orchestra again. She longed to be caught in its passionate sound and give herself to the crimson and orange altar.

Sacrificing her flesh would be better than allowing this monster steal her soul.

Breath that was warm but left the girl shivering could be felt on her jaw and neck as the shadow-woman spoke. "And here I thought you'd put up more of a fight… Well, my mistake." She chuckled the last part, chill after chill shot down the young girl's spine like lightning bolts.

There had been a smooth quality to the shadow-woman's voice, yet, there was also an underlying edge to it as well. It was like frozen blade slicing through her heart, the pain feeding this demon's pleasure.

The girl's lips parted an inch more to form a scream that was unable to form. Her heart thundered as loudly and quickly as the drums had been only moments earlier, and the shadow-woman came closer still. Her features could now faintly be made out: full lips, almond-shaped eyes with long lashes, and a small nose. Her whole body seemed to have been crafted of shadow and smoke that had somehow become solid. Her skin grew increasingly colder still, and her eyes closed as those cool lips met the girl's throat. There was a flash of bright blue light before it all collapsed into grave darkness.

xxx

"Miss Russo!"

Alex's head snapped up from her closed history book at the exclamation, sleep leaving her completely and abruptly. She rubbed her eyes as she looked up at Mr. Laritate, who had been talking about the Louisiana Purchase when she fell asleep. He had been filling in for Mrs. Cannon, who was out of the state for a few weeks to visit her ailing sister, and, as usual, he seemed to be trying to make Alex work harder in school, whereas Mrs. Cannon (and most other teachers) had already deemed her a lost cause.

"Uh… yes, Mr. Laritate?" Alex smoothed down her dark hair; her heart was beating so quickly, Alex was almost worried it might just stop suddenly. A chill ran up her spine at the thought, those cruel, silver eyes invading her mind. She shivered again before forcing those eyes away from her sanctuary.

"Since you were sleeping during my lecture," Mr. Laritate drawled, "that must mean you know all about the Louisiana Purchase. So, share with us your knowledge: Who was president at the time; who did he send; where did he send them; what were they supposed to buy; why were they supposed to buy it; how much were they supposed to pay for it; what did they buy instead; how much was it; who offered it at that price; why did he offer it; and once the deal was made, why was the president upset?"

As par usual when asking Alex these Justin-level questions, his voice was quick and curt as if already knowing she had no chance of answering correctly.

Blinking slowly, Alex had already forgotten over half of the questions, but she remembered learning a little bit about the Louisiana Purchase in a Schoolhouse Rock video in elementary school. She could not remember any of the lyrics to the songs, but she remembered seeing an image of Jefferson shaking Napoleon's hand after Napoleon handed over the deed to Louisiana.

"Uh… Thomas Jefferson was president, and he bought Louisiana from Napoleon, who ruled France at the time. We got it because of…" Damn, what was that thing Mr. Laritate was always talking about? "Manifest Destiny…?" Alex knew that she did not answer all of the questions, but she figured that what she had said should suffice, seeing as it was much more than she would normally give as an answer. However, she was four demerits away from suspension, and she had decided to tread lightly—at least until after winter break.

A few chuckles and snickers blew around the classroom, making Alex's ears burn, and Mr. Laritate heaved a heavy sigh. "Harper, can you help her out?"

Turning around, Alex saw that Harper's hand had been raised, probably since the questions had first been asked. She put it down and answered each in order, starting with naming the president as Thomas Jefferson (well, at least Alex had gotten that right), who had sent Jay and Madison to Paris to buy New Orleans.

New Orleans? Alex thought. I thought this was the Louisiana Purchase!

Harper went into a bit of detail about how the Spanish had gotten hold of the Louisiana territory after the French were basically kicked out of North America by the British after the French and Indian war—The Brits were in that war? wondered Alex. Since when?—but then France had gotten it back after Napoleon came to power. Alex zoned out a bit as Harper spoke, but she heard something about Haiti and some "trouble-maker" with a name Alex couldn't bother herself to try and pronounce.

"Very good." Mr. Laritate returned to his lecture, writing the names of the treaties on the blackboard. He soon began talking about Louis and Clark, but Alex just zoned out again, only catching bits and pieces of his speech as she flipped the smooth pages of her text book to the correct page.

Instead of listening however, Alex took out her notebook, flipped it to a clean page, and began to sketch the little girl in her dream. The girl had looked to be about eleven or twelve with brown eyes, a pink mouth, small nose, and a face slightly rounded at the jawline with remnants of baby fat. Her legs and arms were lean, and her hands had shown calluses. Her honey-toned hair had been tangled and knotted, falling down to the floor as she crawled. She had been wearing a night gown that may have been white once upon a time, but it had a light brown-yellow tint that showed age—possibly a hand-me-down from her older sister or mother.

Alex worked meticulously on the sketch, using light strokes for cross-hatching to mark the cast shadow on features and on the ground below her. She used her fingers to rub the graphite, spreading it evenly to value shade. Alex had been working on the human profile, and she had finally gotten proportions down. However, noses still tended to give her trouble, so it took her about five tries to get it right.

She was just about finished when the bell rang, and graphite stained the ring and pinky fingers of her left hand. She closed her notebook gingerly, not wanting the picture to smear. She then dumped her text book into the dark-colored backpack before placing her notebook in the front. She followed Harper out of the classroom, the two going towards English. Alex's stomach growled, ready for lunch.

"It's our junior year, Alex. You should really try harder in class," Harper said, obviously concerned that her best friend may end up in a dead-end job just as Justin had predicted on multiple occasions.

She rewrapped the deep green scarf around her neck, making sure not to disturb the holly leaves and berries. It had taken her a long time to sew them on, and she seemed a bit regretful for using real leaves instead of fake ones as Alex had suggested. Holly was also attached to Harper's red headband, and a cream-colored sweater coat flowed around a dress with pine needles sewn over the soft fabric in an over-lapping pattern.

"Yeah, I should probably come to school at eight in the morning too, but that's not gonna happen either," Alex retorted humorously with a snort. She readjusted the strap of her backpack over her left shoulder, the weight pulling on her navy overcoat, which was unbuttoned to show her top, denim skirt, leggings, and boots. She wiped the graphite on her skirt as she and Harper headed towards the senior hall.

Harper rolled her eyes at her friend's sarcasm. "I'm serious, Alex. Colleges won't even look at you if you only do just enough to slide by, and even if you do, you're not prepared enough to get by in college. You'll just end up flunking or dropping out. You may even get academic probation or just get kicked out!" Harper took some quick, deep breaths to calm herself down. "You also need to participate in an extracurricular activity. Three weeks of Happy Helper's Club and being in one play just isn't enough."

"Hey," Alex argued, "I'm in Art Society."

"Not anymore." Harper shook her head. "You missed too many meetings, so you were dismissed. Terry Long told me she tried to tell you last week in art class, while you were painting Gatobella sleeping on a pillow. She said it looked really good, by the way."

"Then why am I out? I don't remember any meetings."

"Every Thursday morning before school starts."

"What?!" The two entered English class, and Alex dropped her backpack into her seat. On the desk next to Alex's, Harper set down her own book bag, grunting lightly as she did so.

As the two made their way towards the cafeteria, Harper suggested, "How about Spanish Club? Delilah Meeks is in it, and she doesn't even speak Spanish aside from 'Hola'. You could just sign up for salsa dancing. Or maybe Debate Club. You're opinionated."

"Do any of them meet in the mornings?" Just the thought of having to get up early was making Alex feel tired.

"Spanish Club does," Harper admitted, "but the dancers meet on Tuesday nights."

"I don't know. Dancing sounds like exercise," Alex groaned, hating the idea of exercise just as much as getting up early. She had failed gym freshman year for that very reason. It was first period, and unlike most coaches who passed everyone who bothered to show up every day, Coach Rhodes made participation and scores on the fitness test half of each person's final grade.

Sighing, Harper muttered, "What do you want? There's no Lazy Club here, and even if there was, it'd be dismissed because the president was too lazy to do anything."

Alex's jaw set in irritation, but she knew that her friend was right. She did not want to sell movie tickets, bag groceries, or pick up garbage on the side of the freeway in an orange jumpsuit, but Alex did not like the idea of having to work hard. She wanted to paint, but there was no way of knowing how far that would get her in life. Her mom said that just painting would not get her enough money to afford the cost of living—especially in New York City, and that she needed a Plan B. Alex was not much for plans. Those alone took work and only led to even more work.

"How about Book Club?" Harper suggested. "They meet in the afternoon, there's no exercise, and newcomers get to suggest the next book. You could suggest one by H. J. Darling. I know you don't really like to read, but her books are growing in popularity, and you already know that you like them. Well, at least that one book you read."

Thinking for a moment, Alex bit the inside of her cheek. Besides Charmed and Dangerous: The Story of the Lost Wand, the last book Alex had read was Green Eggs and Ham, but Alex knew that Harper would keep bugging her about extracurricular activities. That meant her parents would soon start bugging her about it as well. She needed to make a choice, so she first thought about debate club. Justin had tried it once but got too nervous when it was his turn to speak and ended up running out of the room to puke.

Alex could put up a pretty good argument, but she would have to do research about her standing (she preferred to just BS through all her arguments if she didn't have enough information on the subject). In book club, however, she could always just read sparknotes or one of the book reports Justin did—some hadn't even been for school. He always kept them in a special archive, proud of his work and how it progressed over the years.

Finally, Alex heaved a sigh as they approached the lunch line. "Fine. I'll join Book Club. Do you know what they're reading now? I don't want to read something big and boring." Alex grimaced at the thought of reading one of those huge books Justin enjoys to read when he can't go outside (or even when he can but just doesn't feel like it since he has no friends).

Harper beamed at Alex and grabbed a tray. "They just finished reading Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. Go to room three-hundred-five tomorrow afternoon, and bring a book to suggest. Mrs. Gray won't let you bring in a book less than one-hundred-fifty pages, but it isn't like you'll have to worry about reading War and Peace." Still smiling, Harper got some chicken nuggets and a cup of mashed potatoes.

Even if I did, I'll just look up the sparknotes on the internet, thought Alex. "Okay." She got a slice of pizza that looked safe and followed Harper to the table.

xxx

Instead of homework, Alex had immediately started drawing the little girl from her dream onto a stretch canvas, a mixed CD playing her favorite music from the far corner of her room. She had started painting the walls that may have once been white, but it now had the angry smoke choking out its dim light. The girl had a sickly pallor, and Alex found herself tearing up as she began to paint the girl's face. She had to wait for the paint to dry on the canvas, seeing that she had not made the color light enough. She mixed in a bit more white on her paint palette, a tear falling into the mixture. She sniffed, and wiped her eyes with the sleeve of her large, button-up shirt. She wore it whenever she painted so that paint would not get all over her clothes—her mom had gotten angry after seeing all of her jeans and shirts splattered with paint.

On Alex's bed was a picture of the shadow-woman standing before the fire after she came in through the window. Alex had used oil pastels, and she had stared at the woman for nearly twenty minutes, thinking that she seemed so familiar. Next to the picture was another, but it depicted the eyes that had seemed to pierce the young girl's soul. Alex had used charcoal, and the area around the eyes was black, as if they were suspended in ink. She had not sprayed it yet, so she had to be careful not to let it smudge.

After she finished mixing the paint, Alex tried again, getting the skin color done correctly. It took an hour or so for her to get the shine and the shadows, the CD already on its sixth repeat. However, it still looked much better than her last painting of a person.

Thinking about it for a moment, Alex tried to picture exactly how the fire's damning light played over the poor girl's skin as the heat robbed her of moisture. It was going to be very difficult, and Alex only screwed up the entire face with the first few strokes. She was going to need a different type of brush for this, and she'd need an experimentation sheet to try out different ways to get this right.

With a sigh, the budding artist moved on to the girl's fearful eyes, and within them, Alex saw all of her fears: fear of dying, fear of fire, fear of never seeing her parents again, fear of the shadow-woman, and fear of being incomplete.

Alex did not understand that final fear. She wiped her eyes, smearing a bit of paint on her cheeks and brow, and moved onto the girl's pink lips. They were parted slightly, as if yearning to make one final plea for life, and though they were not exactly full, they could not be called thin either—bow shaped? Was that what it was called?

Thoughts began to trickle through the painter's mind, and Alex found herself wondering what the girl would have looked like as a teenager. What would she have wanted to do? Would she have been an academic? Would she have been athletic? Would she have been artistic? Would she have had a boyfriend?

Shaking her head, Alex tried to force the thoughts out of her head. It was just a dream. This girl isn't even real.

"Mew."

Giggling slightly, Alex looked over at her cat, who had jumped onto her bed and was inspecting the two pictures. Alex loved Gatobella's meow. Although the grey and white cat had nearly reached her mature size of four feet from head to tail and weighed approximately ten pounds, Gatobella had a meow like a tiny, newborn kitten. It always seemed to make Alex laugh, even in the mood she was at the moment.

Alex had gotten Gatobella for her sixteenth birthday a few months ago, and she learned much about Maine Coons from the veterinarian when Gatobella had gotten her shots (protesting the entire way, Alex remembered). However, Gatobella sometimes did not act like a typical Maine Coon, who were normally very quiet and didn't usually pester owners for attention. Gatobella was normally fairly talkative and always seemed to want something from Alex.

Upon receiving her, Alex had gotten Max to feed and water her, but Gatobella refused to eat until Alex filled her food bowl—same with her water. Alex sometimes half-wondered if Gatobella was actually a wizard in disguise, sent by her parents to teach her to be more responsible. Alex did not really mind after a while, enjoying being able to keep a pet alive for more than a week, unlike the fish she had when she was eight. However, Max was still the one who cleaned the litter box.

"Mew." Gatobella jumped down from the bed and scampered towards the desk next to Alex's easel. She climbed up the desk and leaned towards the canvas, using her paw to point at the girl's face. She turned her eyes towards Alex. "Meow." This time, she sounded more insistent.

Smiling, Alex followed Gatobella's paw, and her smile fell as her lips parted. The palette and brush fell from her hands, muscles unable to tense and hold them up any longer. Her legs gave way beneath her, and only a sharp pain in the back of Alex's head registered before everything went black.