Book: Led Astray: The Best of Kelley Armstrong

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For two hundred years, I have done penance for my crimes as a human. After twenty years, I had saved more lives than I took. After fifty, I had helped more people than I had wronged. I understand that my punishment should not end with an even accounting. The balance between good and evil is not that simple. I expected my good deeds must exceed my evil ones before I am set free.

Yet now, after two hundred years, that balance has long passed equilibrium. And I have come to realize that this life is no different than my old one. If I wish something for myself, I cannot rely on others to provide it.

Reliance on Fate is the refuge of the weak. The strong know that free will is all. What I want, I must take.

I waited in the car while Jonathan checked the house. Jonathan. There is something ridiculous about calling your master by his given name. It’s an affectation of the modern age. In the early years, I was to refer to them as Master or Isha. When the family moved west, it became Sir, then Mr. Roy.

My newest master, Jonathan, does not particularly care for this familiarity. He pretends otherwise, but the fact that I must call him by his full name, where his wife and others use the simplified “Jon” says much about my master. I have attempted to revert to Mr. Roy, for his comfort, but he won’t allow it. The formal appellation smacks too loudly of slavery, and he prefers the illusion that I am merely an employee.

He called my cell phone. Yes, I use cell phones. They are a convenient method of communication and I am very capable of learning and adapting.

“Amrita?” he said, as if someone else might be answering my phone. My name is not Amrita. My name is not important. Or, perhaps, too important. I have never given it to my masters. They call me Amrita, the eternal one.

“The coast is clear,” he said. He paused. “I mean—”

“I understand American idiom quite well,” I said. “I have been living here since before you were born.”

He mumbled something unimportant, then gave me my instructions, as if I hadn’t been doing this, too, since before he was born.

I got out of the car and headed for the house.

As Jonathan said, there was an open window on the second floor. I found a quiet place away from the road, not yet on the property of the man I’d come to visit. Then I shifted to my secondary form: a raven. Fly to the bedroom window. Squeeze through. Shift back to woman.

There wasn’t even an alarm on the window to alert the occupant to my intrusion. Quite disappointing. These jobs always are. I long for the old days, when I would do bloody battle against power-mad English sahibs and crazed Kshatriyas. Then came the murderers and whore-masters, then the Mob, then the drug dealers. It was, with the drug dealers, that the Roys began to rethink their strategy. Getting one alone was not easy. On the streets, they came with well-armed friends. I may be immortal, but I can be injured, and while my personal comfort is not a concern, my income-earning potential is. They tried targeting drug dealers at home, but there they were often surrounded by relative innocents. So, in this last decade, they have concentrated on a new source of evil. A dull, weak, mewling source, one that bores me to tears. But my opinion, like my comfort, is of little consequence.

I took a moment to primp in the mirror. I am eternally young. Beautiful, too. More beautiful than when I was alive, which was not to say that I was ugly then, but when I look in the mirror now, I imagine what my husband—Daman—would say if he saw me. Imagine his smile. His laugh. His kiss. I have not seen him in two hundred years, but when I primp for my target, it is still him I imagine I am readying myself for.

I found the target—Morrison—in the study, talking on his speaker phone while punching keys on his laptop. I moved into the doorway. Leaned against it. Smiled.

He stopped talking. Stopped typing. Stared.

Then, “Bill? I’ll call you back.”

He jabbed the phone off and shut his laptop. “How’d you get in here?”

“My name is Amrita. I am a surprise. From a very pleased client.”

I slid forward, gaze fixed on his. For another moment he stared, before remembering himself.

“But how did you get—”

I smiled. “I would not be much of a surprise if I rang your front bell, would I?” I glanced back at the door. “I trust we are alone?” Jonathan said Morrison was the only one in the house, but I always checked.

“W-we are.”

“Good.”

I sidled over and pushed his chair back, away from the desk and any alarms under it or guns in the drawers. That was all the security men like this had.

I straddled Morrison’s lap. I could see indecision wavering in his eyes. He was a smart man. He knew this was suspicious. And yet, as I said, I am a beautiful woman.

I put my arms around him, hands sliding down his arms, fingers entwining with his. I leaned over, lifting our hands . . . then wrenched his arms back so hard he screamed. I leapt from his lap, over the back of the chair, then bound them with the cord I’d used as a belt on my sheer dress.

I have subdued lapdogs that gave me more trouble than Morrison. By the time he recovered from the shock and pain of that first strike, he was secured. He fought, but my bonds have bound warriors. He was no warrior.

Next, I tortured him for information. It was a bloodless torture. Necessity, not preference. There are ways to inflict pain without leaving marks. Mental pain is the most effective of all, and with the power of illusion, it is easy for me to torture a mind. I can make a man believe he is being rent limb from limb, and scream with imagined agony.

As for the information I needed, it was a simple accounting of his misdeeds. Details on the financial scam that paid for this mansion. I had him write out those details, in a confession. Then I tortured him for the location and combination to his home safe.

With my help, the Roys kill—sorry, eliminate—the basest dregs of the criminal bucket. This is their divine mission, handed down to them millennia ago, when they were granted the ability to harness the powers of my kind. They seek out evil. I eliminate it. A very noble profession but one that, as you would say, does not pay the bills. Finding targets, researching them and preparing for my attack is a full time job. So the Roys, like other isha families, also have divine permission to take what they require from their victims.

I did so. Then I forced Morrison to take out his gun and shoot himself, leaving the confession of his crimes on the table, and compensation for his victims still in his safe.

Before he pulled the trigger, he looked at me. They always do. Seeking mercy, I suppose. But I know, better than anyone, that such sins cannot be pardoned in this life. If they are, it will be seen as a sign of weakness, the perpetrator reverting to his or her old ways as soon as the initial scare passes.

They always look at me, though, and they always ask me the same thing.

“What are you?” he said.

“Rakshasi,” I replied, and pushed his finger on the trigger.

Rakshasi. Morrison didn’t know what that meant. They never do. Even those of my own heritage rarely have more than a vague inkling of my kind, perhaps a story told by a grandmother to frighten them into obedience.

Rakshasa. Rakshasi for women, though there are far fewer of us. The word means protector, which has always made me laugh. We are demon warriors, cursed after a life of evil to walk the earth as monsters, wreaking havoc wherever we go. Disturbers. Defilers. Devourers.

Though the word is used for all my kind, it is only after we accept the bargain of the isha that we become protectors. When we rise from our death-bed, we are met by a member of an isha family. He tells us our fate. Misery and guilt and pain. We shall forever feel everything that we did, in life, visited upon others. Yet we can redeem ourselves. Submit to their bargain, work for them until we have repaid our debt, and then we will be free.

I did not take the offer. I doubt any rakshasa does, at that death-bed visit. We are men and women of iron will. We do not snivel and cower at the first threat of adversity. I truly do not believe the isha expect agreement. Not then. They simply offer the deal, and when it is rejected they leave. Then, on every succeeding anniversary, they find us, and they offer again.

In the end, it was not the misery or guilt or pain that wore me down. It was the loneliness. We are doomed to be alone as we walk the earth, and after almost eighty years, I could take it no longer. I would have held out, though, if the isha did not bring me a letter one year. A letter from Daman. He too had been doomed to this existence. Our crimes were shared, as was every part of our lives from the time we were children.

Daman had accepted his isha’s bargain, and he pleaded with me to do the same. Take the deal and we would be together again. So he had been promised. So I was promised. And I accepted.

We returned to the house. It is the same house I have lived in for sixty years, though Jonathan and Catherine only came a few years ago, when he took over from his uncle as my isha. I came with the house. Or, I should say, it came with me.

It was no modest family home. For size and grandeur, it was on scale with Morrison’s mansion. There were no vows of poverty in this family of crusaders. Like the Templar Knights, they lined their pockets extravagantly with the proceeds of their good deeds, which may explain part of the logic behind the switch from petty drug dealers to corporate sharks. We are in a recession. To some, that means tightening the purse-strings. To others, it means seeking richer sources of income. I cannot argue with that. I felt the same way when I walked the earth as a human. But it does beg the question, how prosperous were the Roys before I agreed to their bargain? The answer is that they’d been barely able to feed their families. If they free me, they will lose the prosperity I bring them. Which gives them little incentive for agreeing I have repaid my debt to humankind.

Jonathan took me to my apartment. As cages go, it is a gilded one. Sleeping quarters, living area, kitchen, and bath, all well furnished. The shelves are lined with books. There is a computer for my amusement. Anything I wish will be brought to me. Anything except freedom. The walls are endued with magic that prevents me from leaving without my isha so long as I am bound to him.

Beyond a recitation of events, Jonathan and I had not spoken on the four-hour drive from Morrison’s house. Every isha is different. With some, I have found something akin to friendship. Most prefer a more businesslike relationship. Jonathan takes that to the extreme, talking to me only when necessary. He is not rude or unkind. He simply pays me no heed. It is easier for him to treat me as an object. To engage me in conversation might lead to asking my thoughts or feelings, which would imply I possess such things. That I am not a robot warrior, but a sentient being. Best not to think on that.

In my apartment I prepared dinner. A glass of human blood. A plate of human flesh. It is what I need to survive and my ishas provide it. At one time, they used their victims. Now, that is inconvenient. One of the isha families without a rakshasa saw a market of their own and filled it. Jonathan orders my meals. They come in a refrigerated case, the blood in wine bottles and flesh neatly packaged and labeled as pork. He can bring me the case and leave, never even needing to look at the contents.

I fixed a plate of curry with the flesh. I may be a cannibal, but I have retained some sense of taste. When I’d finished, I waited for Catherine. She gives me time after a job to eat, preferring not to visit while the scent of cooked flesh still lingers in the air. As a courtesy, I opened the windows. Yes, I did have windows, though I couldn’t reach out them—the magical shield that kept me here blocked these exits as well.

Catherine extended me a return courtesy by knocking before she entered. Most of my ishas do not—either they forget I may have a human’s need for privacy or they wish to remind me of my place. Jonathan regularly “forgets” to knock, which is his way of asserting his position without challenging me. I would hold him in higher regard if he simply barged in.

“Did it go well today?” Catherine asked as she entered. One might presume she’d already spoken to her husband and was simply asking to be polite, but with this couple, such a level of communication was not a given.

I told her it had, as I accompanied her to the living area, walking slowly to keep pace with her crutches. Catherine suffers from a crippling disease that today has a name—multiple sclerosis. In general, I’m not interested in the advances of science, but I have researched this particular ailment to help me better understand the first wife of an isha who has chosen to seek my companionship.

For most wives, it is not an option because to them, I do not exist. They have no knowledge of their husband’s otherworldly abilities, and thus no knowledge of me. For decades, I have been shunted in and out a side door while the wives are out, and otherwise kept in my soundproof apartment, which they are told contains whatever brand of toxicity is currently popular. With the last isha, it was asbestos.

Occasionally, though, the Roys take a wife from within the isha community. That is where Jonathan found Catherine. And if such a choice—not only an isha’s daughter but a poor cripple—helped him win his position over his brothers. . . ? It is not my concern. I say nothing to Catherine and she pretends, if poorly, not to believe it herself.

We chatted for a while. As to what we could possibly have in common, the answer is “little,” which gave us much to discuss. Catherine was endlessly fascinated with my life. To her, I was the star in some terrible yet endlessly thrilling adventure. I reciprocated by asking about her life, but she rarely said much, preferring instead to talk about me.

“Have you been doing better?” she asked as I fixed tea.

“I am surviving. We both know that I would prefer it wasn’t so but . . .” I smiled her way. “You have heard quite enough on that matter.”

“I wish you could be happier, Amrita.”

“I’ve been alive too long to be happy. I would prefer to be gone. At peace.” I handed her a cup. “But, again, we’ve talked about this enough. It’s a depressing way to spend your visits. I would prefer to talk about you and your happiness. Did you ask Jonathan about the trip?”

Her gaze dropped to her teacup. “He said it wasn’t possible. He’d love to, but he can’t take you and he can’t leave his duties here.”

“Oh. I had thought perhaps he would be able to take me. That the council would consider it acceptable for me to revisit my roots. I am sorry I mentioned it then.”

“Don’t be. You know I want to see India. You make it sound so wonderful. I just hope . . .” She sipped her tea. “I hope by the time he’s free of his obligation, I’m still in good enough health . . .”

She trailed off. I didn’t need to remind her that was a fool’s dream. By the time the next generation was ready to take over as my isha, she would not have the strength to travel.

“He would like to take you,” I said.

“I know.”

“He would like to go himself.”

“I know. But his obligation . . .”

Could be over any time he chooses. Those were the words left unspoken. Also the words: but he does not have the strength of will to do it, to defy his family by making that decision on his own, despite the fact it is his to make, and the council will support it. They have no choice. I have clearly earned my freedom.

“I would miss you,” she blurted. “I’d miss our talks.”

I smiled. “As would I. If you were free to travel, though, you would see these places for yourself, do these things for yourself, make new friends. Here, you are as much a prisoner as I am. Jonathan must worry about you—about retaliation from those we attack—so he must insist you stay here, in this house, for your own safety.”

Did she believe that? No. She suspected, I’m sure, that he kept her here because it was convenient. She was as much his property as I was. Birds in our gilded cages. I simply gave him the excuse to keep her here. Without that, I knew she was thinking, she’d have more freedom, whether he liked it or not.

She shook her head. “Jonathan knows best. He will free you. I know he will. It just isn’t time.”

It never would be. These nudges weren’t enough. Time for a push.

There were many things Daman and I agreed on, as partners in life, in love, in ambition. One was that, despite the teachings of the Brahmins, all men are essentially created equal. Each bears within him the capacity to achieve his heart’s desire. He needs only the strength of will to see those ambitions through.

Daman’s story was an old one. A boy from a family rich in respect and land and lineage, poor in wealth and power and character. His family wanted him to marry a merchant’s daughter with a rich dowry. Instead he chose me, his childhood playmate, a scholar’s daughter. I brought no money, but I brought something more valuable—intelligence, ambition and a shared vision for what could be.

A hundred years ago, when my ishas lived in England, one saw the play Macbeth, and forever after that, when he was in an ill-temper, he would call me Lady Macbeth. I read the script, to see what he meant, and found the allusion insulting. Macbeth was a coward; his wife a harpy. Daman did not need me to push him. Every step we took, we took as one.

In our twenty years together, we recouped everything his family had lost over the centuries. And more. Our supporters would say that we brought peace and stability and prosperity to the region, far outlasting our deaths. Our detractors would point out the trail of bodies in our wake, and the growing piles in our coffers. Neither is incorrect. We did good and we did evil. We left the lands better than we found them, but at a price that was, perhaps, too steep.

I do regret the path we took. Yet if given a second chance, I would not sit in a corner, content with my lot. My ambition would merely be checked by an appreciation for the value of human life. That appreciation has stayed my hand in this matter. And it has gotten me nowhere. So it will be stayed no more.

My next assignment came nearly four months later. That is typical. While one might look at the world and see plenty of wrongdoers, it is a rare one that ought to be culled from our society altogether. Jonathan must search for a target. Then he must compile a dossier on the client and submit it to the council, who will return “elimination approval” or request more information. Then comes the weeks of surveillance, at which point my participation is required, my talents for illusion and shape-shifting being useful.

How much of the surveillance work is left to me depends on the isha. Jonathan lets me do almost all of it, claiming he’s conducting his own elsewhere, though when I’ve followed, I’ve found him relaxing in coffee shops, flirting with serving girls or working on his novel.

There is a reason he is supposed to supervise me. Because I could shirk my duties, perhaps find a coffee shop of my own. I’ve considered doing so. I even have an idea for a novel. While it amuses me to think of this, I could not do it. I enjoy these unsupervised times too much to risk them, and I do not have the personality for lounging and storytelling.

However, this time, when I did my surveillance, I was . . . less than forthright about my findings.

The target was yet another financier. Unlike Morrison—and the others—this one had more than a security alarm and a handgun to keep him safe. Having been the subject of death threats, he had employed a bodyguard, in the form of a young man he passed off as his personal assistant.

I learned about the death threats only by eavesdropping. I left them out of the report. I discovered the “assistant’s” true nature only by surveillance. I left that out of the report as well. My official conclusion was that this man—Garvey—was no more security conscious than the others, but that his assistant was rarely away from his side, which could pose a problem if we proceeded as usual. I suggested I lure the assistant away and let Jonathan subdue him while I dealt with Garvey.

It went as one might expect. My plan for separating the two went perfectly. Such things are minor obstacles for one who has spent hundreds of years practicing the art of illusion.

I got the bodyguard upstairs, where Jonathan was waiting. Then I hurried back to Garvey before the confrontation could begin.

Jonathan’s cries for help came before I even reached the bottom of the stairs. They alerted Garvey, as I knew they would. My job, then, was to subdue the financier before he could retrieve his gun. Then it would be safe for me to go to my isha’s aid.

It took some time for me to subdue Garvey. He was unexpectedly strong. Or so I would claim.

By the time I returned upstairs, the bodyguard had beaten Jonathan unconscious and was preparing the killing blow. I shot him with Garvey’s gun. Then I returned to Garvey and carried on. This was my mission and my mission superseded all else, even the life of my isha.

When I was finished with Garvey—after he confessed to killing his guard and then taking his own life—I took Jonathan to the hospital. Then I called Catherine.

“I take responsibility for this,” I said to Catherine as we stood beside Jonathan’s hospital bed. “My job was to protect him and I failed.”

“You didn’t know.”

“I should have known. That too is my job. We are both to conduct a proper survey—”

“If Jon didn’t find out about the guard, you couldn’t have. There was no way to know he’d have need of one. He wasn’t being investigated yet.”

I fell silent. Stared down at Jonathan, still unconscious after surgery to staunch the internal bleeding. As I feigned guilt and concern, I sneaked looks at Catherine, searching for some sign that she would secretly have been relieved by his death. I’d seen none so far and caught none now, even as she thought I wasn’t watching.

She claimed to love him. She did love him. Either way, I could work with this. I had simply needed to know which it was. Now I did.

“It’s becoming so much more dangerous,” I murmured. “There were always problems, but it is so much harder to keep an isha safe these days.”

“Problems?” she said. “This—this hasn’t happened before, has it?”

I kept my gaze on Jonathan.

“Amrita.”

I looked up slowly, hesitating before saying, “The council has assured me that my rate of accidental injury is far below that of most rakshasas.”

“Rate of accidental injury?” Her voice squeaked a little. “You mean the little mishaps, right? A bruise? A cut? I’ve never heard of an isha getting more than a few broken bones. That’s what you mean, isn’t it?”

I said nothing.

“Amrita!”

Again, I looked up. Again I hesitated before speaking. “There have been . . . incidents. Jonathan’s great-uncle’s car accident. It was . . . not an accident. That was the story the council told the family. And there have been . . . others.” I hurried on. “But they say that the risk with me is negligible, compared to that of others.”

Which didn’t reassure her in the least.

I said nothing after that. I had planted the seed. It would take time to sprout.

A week later, Jonathan was still in the hospital, recovering from his injuries. I had not yet returned to my apartment—once I entered, I wouldn’t be able to leave. Catherine had to get my food from the refrigerator. She didn’t like that, but the alterative was to sentence her only help-mate to prison until Jonathan recovered.

The day before he was due to come home, Catherine visited me in the guest room.

She entered without a word. She sat without word. She stayed there for nearly thirty minutes without a word. Then she looked up at me and said,

“Tell me how to release you.”

We had to hurry. The only way to free me without Jonathan’s consent was while he was unable to give that consent.

We withheld his fever medication until his temperature rose and he became confused. With the aid of a few illusory tricks, he parted with the combination to his safe.

While Catherine treated his fever, I retrieved what we needed from the safe. I fingered the stacks of hundred dollar bills taken from our victims, but I took none. I had no need of it.

“Are you sure this is what you want?” she asked as I prepared for the ritual. “They say that when a rakshasa passes to the other side, there is no afterlife. You’re living your afterlife. There’ll be nothing.”

“Peace,” I said. “There will be peace. It is for the best. The council will not judge you harshly if I am gone. Nor will Jonathan.”

She nodded. She knew this, which was why she’d agreed to it. The only reason she’d agreed to it.

I drew the ritual circle in sand around Jonathan’s bed. I lit tiny fires in the appropriate locations. I placed a necklace bearing one half of the amulet around my neck, the other around his. I recited the incantations. Endless details, each of which had to be done in exactly the right order. Endless details that were etched into my brain, the memories of my kind, as accessible as any other aspect of my magic, but requiring Jonathan’s assistance. Or the assistance of his bodily form—hair to be burned, fingernails to be ground into powder, saliva and blood to be mixed with the powder.

Finally, as Catherine waited anxiously, I injected myself with the mixture. The ritual calls for it to be rubbed into an open wound. I’d made this one modernized alteration, and Catherine had readily agreed it seemed far less barbaric than the original.

Next I injected Jonathan. Then I began the incantations.

Jonathan shuddered in his sleep. His mouth opened and closed, as if gasping for air. Catherine grabbed his hand and wheeled on me.

“What’s happening?” she said.

“The bond is breaking.”

I shuddered myself, feeling that hated tie tighten, as if in reflexive protest. Then slowly, blessedly, it began to loosen.

Catherine began to gibber that something was wrong. Jonathan wasn’t breathing. Why wasn’t he breathing? His heartbeat was slowing. It wasn’t supposed to be slowing, was it?

I kept my eyes closed, ignoring her cries, ignoring her tugs on my arm, until at last, the bond slid away. One last deep shudder and I opened my eyes to see the world as I hadn’t seen it in two hundred years. Bright and glimmering with promise.

Catherine was shrieking now.

I turned toward the door. She lunged at me, her crutches falling as she grabbed my shirt with both hands.

“He’s dead!” she cried. “You’re still here and he’s dead! Something went wrong.”

“No,” I said. “Nothing went wrong.”

She screamed then, an endless wail of rage and grief. I picked her up, ignoring her feeble blows and kicks, and set her gently in a chair, then leaned her crutches within reach.

She snatched them and pushed to her feet. When I tried to walk out, she managed to get in front of me.

“What have you done?” she said.

“Freed us. Both of us.”

“You lied!”

“I told you what you needed to hear.” I carefully moved her aside. “I do not want annihilation. I want what I was promised—a free life. For that, I need his consent and the council’s approval. There is, however, a loophole. A final act of mercy from an isha to his rakshasi. On his deathbed, he may free me with his amulet and the ritual. You will tell the council that is what happened here. The poison I injected with the ritual potion will be undetectable. We have used it many times without incident. They will believe he has unexpectedly succumbed to his injuries.”

“I will not tell them—”

“Yes, you will. Otherwise, you will be complicit in his death. And even if you manage to convince them otherwise, you will forfeit this house and all that goes with it. It is yours only if he dies and I am freed. They may contest that, but even if they do, you’ll have already removed the contents of his safe. I left everything for you.”

That was less generous than it seemed. For years, I’d been taking extra from our targets and hidden it away in my room as I’d used my computer to research life on the outside. I would not leave unprepared. I was never unprepared.

Now that the bond was broken, there was nothing to stop me from entering and exiting my apartment, and taking all I had collected as I began my search for Daman. I passed Catherine and headed for the door.

She was silent until I reached it.

“What will I do now?” she said.

“Live,” I said. “I intend to.”

Next: Kat