Isobel’s sense of déjà vu grew twofold, the sensation threatening to spill directly into her conscious recognition until, like murky waters, gray and black rolls and squiggles rose up the television screen to scribble the woman away, and fizzing white noise eclipsed the music.

“No,” Isobel whispered, snapping to as though released from a spell. “Wait.” She placed a hand against the screen, but it blinked to blue again, resuming its silent fluttering, flashing in her face like cold firelight.

“Don’t worry,” an acidic voice rasped from behind her. “They don’t work anyway.”

Isobel shot to her feet. She spun to find him sitting in an armchair next to the darkened Christmas tree.

Leaning forward, elbows resting on his knees, he sat staring down at the floor in front of him. His hands hung in between, one overlapping the other, the curved tips of his razor claws aimed toward the floor.

“Lullabies, I mean,” he whispered in the corrosive hiss that never failed to set her on edge. “Never have.”

He didn’t look up at her when he spoke but remained motionless.

Every so often, the light from the TV burst strong enough to flare across his scarecrowlike frame, illuminating the crimson curve of long claws and the pointed, slicked-back black-to-red spikes of his coarse feather-and-quill hair.



Of Ill Omen


“Why are you here?” Isobel asked him, her tone guarded. In her hand, her “Number One Flyer” trophy began to feel slick, greased by her own sweat. She clutched it tighter.

Part of her had suspected that the black feather had been the Noc’s way of announcing himself, of dropping off a quiet calling card before retreating and waiting to be received.

It was a far cry from his usual jack-in-the-box style of popping up out of nowhere, all demented smiles and gleaming malice.

But what was he seeking to gain by entering her world like this?

More important, how was he doing it?

Pinfeathers blinked, his black eyes remaining downcast. Tilting his head to the side and knitting his brow, he seemed to contemplate the question. He didn’t answer, though. He only looked the other way, toward the Christmas tree, so that with the next flicker from the television, Isobel caught a glimpse of the jagged hole in his cheek.

It made her wonder—if he could reconstruct his arm and side, what kept him from doing as much for his face?

But there was something in his demeanor, in the heavy way he sat, that warned her against asking and launching the opening bid for a match of verbal tag-you’re-it with the Noc.

Instead she shifted her weight from foot to foot and kept her eyes trained on him, waiting for him to speak or move again. When neither of those things happened, Isobel’s anxiety began to build, its intensity magnified by the ticking of the clock on the mantel.

The clock.

Isobel shot a glance in its direction long enough to see that the second hand moved at its normal pace.

That time remained steady helped to solidify the notion that she had to be awake. And why was he just sitting there anyway? Was he waiting for her to offer him leftover Christmas cookies and a glass of milk?

Finally his sullen silence became too much.

Raising the trophy, she took a quick step toward him, feigning the intent to strike, as though he were a snake she could scare off.

His eyes alone flicked up. He shot her a withering glare.

“Mature,” he said.

Isobel felt her face burn. His response, so infuriatingly snide, left her wishing she’d gone ahead and taken a crack at his jaw instead of pretending. Now she’d given him the upper hand, the knowledge that she wouldn’t attack unless she had to. Something even she hadn’t known until that very moment.

“You’re—You’re not supposed to be here,” she said, stammering in her effort to remain calm.

“We could also argue that I’m not supposed to be,” he replied. “But one thing you and I seem to have in common, cheerleader, is our knack for existence. Though it would appear I’m not quite as adept at evading destruction as you. For there you are.” He pointed at her with one curved claw. “Yet . . . here am I. And if you look carefully in between, you can see everything we knew would happen. Or wouldn’t,” he added with a flippant wave.

His gaze returned to the floor.

Isobel shifted uncomfortably where she stood.

While she was used to his speaking in riddles, she didn’t know what to make of his uncharacteristically dour mood. Was it just a show? Another game?

“Look,” she said, raising the trophy again and aiming it at him as though it were a gun she could blast him into bits with. “I already know this isn’t a dream. So tell me how you’re doing it. How are you entering the real world again?”

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