A Jane Yellowrock / Walker Papers Crossover
(fan fiction by the authors themselves)
Faith Hunter & C.E. Murphy
I think it’s safe to say this one’s for the fans.
All of them, including us!
I’d like to say this crossover novella is entirely Faith’s fault. I read the first two Jane Yellowrock books back to back, and in a fit of utter, total fanboy glee, wrote this silly little fan fiction “Jane and Joanne meet!” story introduction. Faith said it was okay for me to post it publicly, and then we got to talking and started to think that it could really be a lot of fun to actually go ahead and write the story.
We spent most of a year (working on and off) writing “Easy Pickings”, and had a ridiculously good time doing so. We hope you enjoy it was much as we have.
Please do note: this really is fan fiction by the authors themselves. It Didn’t Happen, in the Walker Papers universe.
. . . but if it had (which it didn’t), it would happen after MOUNTAIN ECHOES, the 8th book in the Walker Papers series. So if it happens (but it won’t!), you’re getting a glimpse into Joanne’s future . . . :-)
Yeah—Ditto. What she said. :-) This has been a blast.
And though this story didn’t happen in Jane’s universe either, if it did, it would have happened between RAVEN CURSED and DEATH’S RIVAL. But I promise, no spoilers. This is a standalone in every way.
And hey, keep an eye out. Jane and Jo might meet again sometime. Maybe in Seattle . . . Just sayin’.
There was something weird about crossing the city lines into New Orleans. Not just that the Big Easy was by anybody’s standards—in fiction, anyway—the center of all things supernatural in the States. It was bigger than that, a nasty jolt that wrenched everything a couple steps to the left. Even the city’s aura looked different from inside than it had from a few miles out, and I had absolutely no clue why.
The exciting thing about my life was that I’d probably find out.
For all my traveling around as a kid, I’d never gone through New Orleans. N’awlins, the way the natives said it. I loved that sound, like it was a word to be rolled around in and licked off the skin. So I did what any tourist would do upon arriving in the heartland of American Weird.
I hit the French Quarter.
Three days before Mardi Gras, the Quarter was hopping. It was probably the worst time of year to visit if I actually wanted to see New Orleans, but it was the best time if I wanted to throw myself eyeball-deep into beads, streamers, costumes, half-naked girls—Gary was going to deeply regret not having come along—parades, parties, obscene amounts of incredibly good food, and bourbon. I’d never actually tried bourbon and was kind of looking forward to it. Unfortunately, I couldn’t indulge right away, because the fish-hook sensation in my belly, the one that had been hauling me around ever since my shamanic powers had awakened, was getting tighter and more uncomfortable the deeper I got into the Quarter. I didn’t think my magic would give me an even break—let me heal up from a hangover, in other words—if I ignored it in favor of tying one on.
The city was a veritable teeming mass of humanity. Scent bombarded me from every direction: booze, perfume, pot, food, oh, God, the food, and the pervasive stink of sweat that no amount of deodorant or cologne was going to drown. Voices rose and fell in shrieks of laughter, joy, dismay; shouting was the only way to be heard, even if you were talking to the guy standing next to you. Everyone was beautiful in that flush-of-life way, though here in the heart of the city, so close to Mardi Gras, there were an unnatural number of genuinely beautiful people. They ran the color spectrum from rich blue-black all the way through to translucent white, with me thrown in on the whiter end, though when one of those really white girls stumbled into my arms, the skin tone comparison made me look rich and gold beside her. It was only back in Qualla Boundary, surrounded by others of Cherokee descent, that I felt stand-out pale. I pushed the girl to her feet and watched her totter drunkenly away.
Maybe it was thinking about North Carolina and the life I’d left behind there that made me notice her. There were too many people to explain it otherwise, though the fish-hooks in my gut pulled so hard and sharp that they might’ve been an explanation on their own. It didn’t matter: she was half a block away and visible for about five seconds through a break in the crowd. She wore black leather damned near head to toe, all of it so snug against her body it had to be custom-made. Silver sparkled all over it, zippers and guns and blades and silver stakes in her hair like an Oriental fan of death. She wore a gold nugget on a doubled chain around her neck and she looked hot, both literally and figuratively. I thought the reason I’d glimpsed her at all was everybody else thought so too, and was backing up to get a better look at her.
She had to be at least my height, just a hair under six feet tall, even without the shit-stomping combat-style motorcycle boots she wore. And speaking of hair, if you took my crop cut and her four foot braid and divvied them out, we would both end up with what society considered a normal amount of hair for a woman. She was even built a lot like I was, rangy long limbs, though I thought I carried more muscle across the chest and shoulder from years of working on my car. Her skin tones were darker than mine, more pure Indian, but if somebody’d told me we were sisters, I’d have been inclined to believe them.
Particularly when she glanced my way and a flash of light caught the color of her amber eyes.
In my world, yellow eyes meant magic user. I should know: my own eyes were probably gold as sunrise just then, as the Sight kicked in to study one of the most complex, gorgeous auras I’d ever seen. Earthy colors tangled with something absolutely inhuman: dark, sleek, sentient and dangerous. A hunter, sharing body and soul with a human, and just ever so slightly bubbling with resentment over it.
I sure as hell knew what had brought me to New Orleans, now.
Something was wrong with the city. It wasn’t all the extra people in town for Mardi Gras. It wasn’t the reek of body odor—though my Beast was rising close to the surface, taking that in, her pelt abrading the inside of my skin like sandpaper, her claws kneading my mind painfully. It wasn’t even the wild energies I felt on the air with so many magic users in town to play. New Orleans smelled different. It felt different. Something had happened.
I had felt it an hour ago, while on the edge of the forest in the New Orleans City Park, Beast’s fangs buried in a rabbit’s throat. A ripple in . . . it felt stupid even remembering what I’d thought I’d felt. A ripple in reality. A shift in the way light worked. In the pull of the moon. Followed by Beast’s awareness that the smells were subtly different. I had wanted to shift back to human from my puma concolor form, but Beast had held on until she finished the freaking rabbit before she allowed me to take back over. Then I’d shifted back to human, pulled on my loose cotton clothes and raced my bastard Harley back to the French Quarter to eat a fast meal and pull on my fighting clothes. Whatever had happened, I wanted to be weaponed up.
Now, walking the city, I was carrying more weapons than a Special Forces soldier, my Benelli M4 across my back and four holstered handguns under my leathers, a half dozen silver-plated vamp-killer blades sheathed in my clothes, and a dozen wood and silver stakes in my hair. But the weapons weren’t enough. I was still on edge, smelling and feeling a weird energy dance along my skin. Something was wrong. Really wrong.
I reached the Royal Mojo Blues Company, a blues and rock and roll club I frequented when I needed to let off steam and dance. And the name of the bar was different.
I felt the hairs on the back of my neck rise, a low growl caught in my throat. I knew my eyes were glowing yellow with Beast and I couldn’t force her back down, couldn’t hang on totally to humanity. I had been here last week, danced here last week. It had still been the RMBC.
Businesses changed hands, closed and reopened under new management so often in this town that it wasn’t impossible the bar had been sold. But the sign was old and faded. Now it was the Vamp Mojo. And it smelled—no it reeked—of vamp and human blood. In four days—four short, totally impossible days—it had become a vamp-blood bar. Crap. I stood in the shadows, pulling scents in over my tongue and through my nose in a soft scree of sound.
Leo was inside. But a drunk and well fed Leo. A . . . a passive Leo. One without the energies I’d come to associate with the Master of the City. I smelled Katie, of Katie’s Ladies, and some vamp who scented of power like I had never known in a vamp before. And sex. Lots of sex.
I almost went in, when something else caught my attention. A woman. Just ahead. She was the reason things were different, though how I knew that, I wasn’t certain. But I did. I turned and walked away from the bar. Toward her.
She was tall like me, but with more muscle. Hair cut short, skin paler than my Cherokee, but dang. We might have been sisters. Beast stood in the forefront of my mind and studied her. I could see the energies in her, not pouring off her, but contained, restrained, like high water behind a dam.
Magic. Smell magic. Smell little brother of wolf.
I didn’t have time to ask Beast what she meant. The woman’s eyes were glowing like mine. Yellow. I stopped in front of her, breathing in short puffs and screes of sound. Oddly, she didn’t take offence, even when I leaned in sniffed close to her face, although her eyebrows did go up. She wasn’t a skinwalker, like me. But she was something. “I’m Jane Yellowrock.”
The woman nodded once, and when she spoke I could feel her magic questing out at me. “And I hope that sniffing routine wasn’t commentary. My car doesn’t have air conditioning.” She hesitated before adding, “Joanne Walker. Shaman for hire. Only, you know, not for hire, because it doesn’t work that way. Whatever. Anyway.” She pulled a hand over her face, then looked at me. Waiting.
The way she said it, I knew she didn’t introduce herself that way often. We had just met and she had given me something personal. Which meant I had to give back a gift of equal measure. The words nearly choked me. “I’m a Skinwalker.”
She didn’t even blink, as if she heard people claiming weird crap, like being a mythical supernat, all the time. “Skinwalker, not shapechanger? You’re Native, like me.” Not a question. Not not-a-question, either, though.
“Cherokee. But not a U’tlun’ta.” It was pronounced hut luna, and was The People’s word for one of my species who had gone insane and started eating humans. And Joanne Walker seemed to know what I meant because she nodded, believing me, as if maybe she could see my energies and tell I was telling the truth. Most shamans could truth-tell, and Joanne clearly had that gift to some extent. I said, “Something hinky is happening. Did you do it?”
“No. But I felt something when I crossed the city lines. My magic’s pushy,” she said almost like that was a normal thing to say. “It pulled me here. Wanted me here. Wanted me to see you. And the whole city feels . . . not like home.”
I looked around at the world. “Well, you get to be Dorothy. I’m the lion—after he got his courage back. And I have a feeling that that,” I pointed to a yellow-orange light blasting up between the buildings several streets over “is why we’re here. There’s supposed to be nothing there but partygoers.”
“That.” Joanne glanced that way, then bared her teeth. “Crap. I saw it earlier, but not with the Sight. I thought it was spotlights, not magic. Lots of magic. . . .”
I shook myself as Beast’s pelt quivered and lifted. “It looks nasty.” I sniffed. “And I smell something hot and dry.”
“Like in hell-fire?” She nodded. I sighed out the words, “Well, crap.” Louder, I said, “You need a weapon? Bare hands aren’t going to be much help against something from hell.”
Joanne smiled, never taking her eyes from the orange yellow glow. “I have what I need.”
I looked her over again, wondering what hidden weaponry I’d missed. As far as I could see, I hadn’t. “Yeah. Okay. Whatever. I have a bike, but it’s useless in this crowd. We’ll have to walk.” She nodded, and we turned, me taking point, Joanne at my side, as if we had practiced the movement all our lives.
We got a good six feet or so before I noticed the crowd was parting before us. Not that I blamed them. I would part before us too, because my newfound buddy looked like a badass, which gave automatic street cred to anybody hanging with her. Skinwalker. I hadn’t encountered that one before. I hadn’t encountered much with the kind of confidence she exuded, either. I’d fallen in beside her like we’d been practicing our whole lives. I wasn’t often enthusiastic about going to see what was causing obvious magical awfulness, but Ms. Tall Dark and Yellowrock looked so obviously prepared for anything, the whole idea sort of sounded like fun.
We got about six more feet before I saw the name of the bar we were passing by and let out an amused snort. “Vamp Mojo, huh? I kind of thought New Orleans would shy away from embracing the whole Anne Rice motif.”
Jane slid a look at me. Yellow-eyed look that sent creepies crawling down my spine. No wonder the guys back at my garage in Seattle had stopped talking to me once I went all magic and woo-woo. The golden gaze was just plain unnatural. I was relieved when she answered, because it gave me an excuse to stop meeting her eyes.
Well, it did for half a second, anyway, because she said, “In my world it used to be a dance club owned by a vampire. Now it’s a vampire bar.” She sniffed indelicately. “A blood bordello.”
I laughed. She didn’t. All the rich delicious smells in the air suddenly turned my stomach, and I swallowed bile. “There’s no such thing as vampires.”
This time Jane did laugh, but it wasn’t a particularly delightful sound. “I think I’d like to come from wherever you did. Vamps are at the top of the food chain, here. Literally.”
My feet lost their enthusiasm for heading toward the magical block party. Jane surged on a few steps ahead of me, only turning back when the crowd started closing in again. They didn’t matter; we could still see each other easily, what with the height advantage over two-thirds of the population. I swallowed. “There are really vampires here?”
Jane came back, planted herself in front of me, and nodded, jutting her chin down once. The whole action was an emphatic statement. I, much less emphatic, pinched the bridge of my nose. “Okay. Look, before we go rushing in where angels fear to tread, maybe we should try to get some tiny idea of what we could possibly be facing. I don’t have vampires,” I said. “Werewolves?”
“And werecats. Of the African variety. Lions in prides, Leopards in small groups, though they tend to be solitary hunters. Wolves. All predators. No were-gazelles or were-bovines. Witches. Shamans. You?”
My eyes bugged. I felt them. Another quarter inch and they’d pop right out of my head. “You’re joking. Werecats? Isn’t that, I don’t know, very teenage girl wish fulfillment?”
Jane grunted. The sound was weirdly cat-like, and I got the nervous feeling I probably should have shut up about fifteen words earlier. Instead, I rushed on, answering her question. “Witches, yeah. Shamans, obviously. Sorcerers. The occasional demon. Gods of various sizes.”
I wet my lips. “I take it you don’t truck with them. That’s probably just as well. Probably that means whatever’s down there,” I said with a nod toward the frothing light of doom, “is coming from something that meets us in the middle. Witches. Shamans.” Except I didn’t have vampires, which probably meant we were already in over my head. I didn’t see the need to mention that just yet.
Jane jerked her head in a way that might have meant “Probably” or it might have meant “Stop wasting time, let’s get a move on.” The latter interpretation was buoyed by her turning on her heel and leading the way forward again. “Come on, Dorothy. Let’s see what Big Bad Uglies this world has to offer us.”
I let her take point again. This was her city more than mine, assuming it was anybody’s city at all, tonight. She did the head-jerk thing again, pointing left. “That used to be a jewelry store. Yesterday. And that was an art gallery, not a restaurant. Not my world, not anymore.”
Her words sent more creepies down my spine. Around us, party-goers, some in feathered masks, danced, screamed, showed their breasts in return for a twenty-five-cent strand of beads, drank, vomited on the sidewalks, and swayed into and out of danger of collision like zombies. I took a moment to make sure they weren’t zombies, and came away satisfied they were just stoned. The smell of marijuana was ripe on the air, and mixed with the other scents it was both heady and rank.
Not as rank, though, as a rotted-meat stench that didn’t so much waft as thunder down the street. I automatically held my breath, and somehow the smell got worse, burning my eyes with its power. I coughed, wiped my eyes, and glanced over peoples’ heads in search of the smell’s source.
Sadly, it wasn’t all that hard to find. Something taller than we were was coming up on our right, and I say something, not someone, because it had horns. I knew at least one guy with horns, and he was a someone, but this fellow also had gills. And scales. And a spreading hood, like velociraptors had. A demon velociraptor. Great. I’d gotten yanked into another world where vampires were real and demon velociraptors stalked the streets. Not just demon velociraptors, but demon velociraptors who hadn’t had a fashion update since the 1980s, because the thing’s flared hood was streaked in vibrant neon shades of red, green, blue, and yellow.
It saw us at the same time we saw it.
The smell was coming from it. Whatever it was. It stank of brimstone, rotten meat and the worst body odor I’d ever encountered. Yet the partying crowd didn’t seem to notice, just opened a space in front of him. It. And closed behind, never noticing the stench or the creature bearing it. I drew an eighteen inch vamp-killer with my left hand and pulled the M4 with my right. It was loaded for vamp with silver fléchette rounds, but if I got in a neck shot, it would kill most anything. If I could do that without collateral damage. Killing civilians was not in my contract or my moral code.
Joanne glanced my way, then glanced again, eyes popping. “Jesus Christ, you got a carry and conceal for that thing? You can’t start shooting here, we’re in the middle of Mardi Gras, for God’s sake!”
There was a big ugly monster coming our way and she was worried about me shooting people. Really worried, apparently, because the gold in her eyes started blazing, and even more bizarrely, her hands started to glow. Gunpowder blue, that silver-steely blue color that looks a little dangerous just by itself, nevermind with a pissed-off magic user standing behind it. “You got a better idea?”
“Yes. Just . . .” She eyed my M4 again. “Just don’t do anything rash.” Then she muttered, “I hate doing this around people,” and raised her steel-blue hands into the air.
Magic rippled out from her, visible shields that slithered between people and pushed them to the side, clearing a path between me and the big bad ugly. People did notice that, grunting and swearing and cooing as they got shoved up against one another, and some of the more-stoned ones started ooohing and aaahing at the light show.
For about half a second it looked like a great idea. I had a clear shot, no civilians were going to get hurt.
Then the stench-ridden monster realized he had a clear path to us. His legs bent and he leaped right at us.
Time did that little slow-down phenomenon it does when everything is going into the crapper. The thing was in the air. Coming straight down at us. Bellowing.
The BBU didn’t even look at my gun. Didn’t even look at me. He was focused on Joanne and the pretty sparklies she was drawing up from . . . wherever. Witch/shaman crap. His hood did this weird thing where it just rippled. Hard. Like a canvas sail in the wind. He dropped, his bellow going up in pitch, a scream of victory as he fell.
Joanne turned a shade of pale girls with our complexions shouldn’t be able to achieve, and ducked sideways. Her shields wavered, party-goers pressing against them. I caught a glimpse of indecision on her face. Then the shields failed and half of New Orleans started closing in on us again.
My heart stuttered. I dropped and rolled, elbow and knee hitting the pavement hard, letting gravity and momentum pull me under the thing. I adjusted the M4, the stock against the pavement. Aimed at his underbelly and his privates, if he had any under the Speedo he was wearing, and fired. The M4 slammed back into me. Boom, boom, boom. Six shots, so fast the concussive reports became only three. And the silver fléchettes punched holes into him. His scream went from victory to agony. And rage. Which couldn’t be good.
I continued the roll. He landed. Just in front of me, between Joanne and me. I felt more than heard Joanne and him doing something. Fighting. Blue light exploded out. I came to my knee, one foot and hand braced.
Humans were running, screaming. The scent of panic filled the air, overriding even Stinky’s stench. There was blood on the pavement. From the reek, it was his, not Joanne’s, but I couldn’t see her. I slammed the Benelli back into its harness across my back. Pulled the nine mil and my favorite vamp killer, the carved elkhorn handle secure in my grip.
A little flash of silver landed between Stinky’s feet. Huge cloven hooves, like a Pan-god or a bull gone totally wrong. I stared at them, and at the silver falling between them, for maybe half a breath. My ears were ruined by the shotgun and the roar of humans everywhere. But I knew what a fléchette looked like, even after it had been blunted and damaged by being fired into something hard. Really hard. Dozens of others followed. The thing was healing itself in fast forward. Stinky wasn’t allergic to silver. This was so not gonna be good.
I finally got a glimpse of Joanne again, scrambling to her feet behind Stinky. She had a four foot long rapier in one hand and an expression of total dismay on her face. Then her lip curled and she flung her other hand out. A net, a freaking steel blue net of magic, flew out and wrapped around Stinky’s head. She yanked, maybe trying to pull him off-balance. It didn’t, but it did get his attention. Stinky spun around and Joanne took off as fast as her combat boots could carry her. Stinky followed. I could feel his feet hitting the earth beneath my knee. I shoved upright, into a dead run, pulling on Beast-speed.
Jo raced onto Dumaine Street at Royal, and the small white house with gray shutters that had been there in my world, was gone. Instead there was new construction, a three-story, half-finished place, narrow but deep. I caught the old sour stink of fire, and understood instantly that the quaint house had burned, and maybe other buildings beside. Jo spun toward the new building. Another net spat out, this one tinged red to my human sight and gray to Beast’s. It hit the door with an almost audible spat. A hard pull, and the door flew outward. Joanne ducked and the door sailed over her head to catch Stinky in the teeth. He wrenched his head back. Blood flew and maybe a tooth.
It only slowed him down for a second. Long enough for me to see that the space where the door had been was now a doorway blacker than the entrance to hell. And Jo, still armed with the sword—where had she gotten a sword?—raced inside. I watched Stinky shake off the effects of the door even while his blood still splattered onto the pavement. Spitting splinters, he dove through the doorway into the dark. Swallowed up by the night within.
Empty, Beast murmured into my back-brain. No humans here now.
I looked around at the suddenly-empty street. Not liking this one bit, flying by the seat of my pants again, I followed. One step into the dark and pain hit me like a bus. I stumbled to my knees, agony ripping through my bones. Gray light, brighter than the dark around me shot out. “Oh, crap . . .”
No wonder I didn’t like using magic around people. Not only was it hard to explain, but they became a liability. I could have held the crushing masses off all day, except for the crushing part of the masses. People just kept showing up from alleyways and side roads and pouring out of bars and restaurants, none of them paying any heed to the great stench-ridden demon velociraptor in the street. They pushed against my shields and the shields pushed back until I began to sense the partiers’ discomfort, and then their pain. Loss of breath, elbowed ribs, stepped-on feet, all turning toward sour panic. I caught a glimpse of Jane unloading what looked like a full complement of bullets into the demon velociraptor, and relieved, gave up the fight.
Crowds flooded in again, panic abated, and only too late did I realize the velociraptor—he needed a shorter name—was not down for the count. I shoved a tipsy blonde sideways and reached for the one weapon I had: a silver rapier I’d taken off a god a while back. It materialized as I plowed toward the demon, and I let healing power surge down the blade in a blue blaze as I lifted it to slam into the bastard’s back.
He screamed holy living murder. I staggered back, wheezing with satisfaction.
Then silver bullets—fléchettes, actually—began to rain down between his giant-ass cloven hooves, and the sword gash that should have severed his spinal cord melded together and disappeared.
The son of a bitch was immune to silver. I stared at his healing back for maybe half a second, my gut churning with dismay, and then got pissed. The oldest weapon in my repertoire was a net, pure magic woven from the core of me. It was an extension of myself, bright and silver-blue, and in and of itself, it did no harm. But it landed on the demon like Greek sticky fire, like napalm, not burning but not coming off, either. He shrieked, a sure sign I’d gotten his attention. Once I had it, I did what any sensible human being would do.
I ran like hell.
I had no idea where I was going. Away from people. Away from people in the sense that I cleared a path in front of me with shields, and they bounced around without quite realizing what was going on. I careened onto a street where new construction was happening, picked a likely-looking empty building, and yanked the door off with another net. The healing power inside me, the source of my magic, gave a weird little burp at that. It was not generally meant to cause property damage. On the other hand, its job—my job—was making people healthy. A demon velociraptor was not going to help along those lines, so the power did not, thank God, seize up as it was wont to do when it disapproved of my behavior. That would have been a real problem, because the truth was, I could only think of one place to go where I could be sure my buddy the rainbow dinosaur wouldn’t rip people apart while I figured out how to deal with him.
The Lower World.
Honestly, opening portals to other planes wasn’t my strong suit. I did better with astral travel, but I knew how to create a door to the red-sunned, yellow-earthed level of the universe that was the Lower World. Usually I’d use a power circle and spirit animals and some polite words to the cardinal directions. Usually, however, I didn’t have a punk demon on my ass, so I simply threw forth a panicked warning, the psychic equivalent of How’s the water, I’m comin’ in!, and ripped a hole between the Middle World—Earth—and the Lower.
A few steps into the new building’s darkness, heat seared me, and red light came down like a weight. Gravity was always different in the Lower World, but this time it felt even more different. Not my Lower World. Not my Middle World either, the one I’d just left. They were close, but not the same. And unlike the Middle World, the Lower had more sense of awareness. It noticed me, and it knew I didn’t quite belong. Dark loamy earth with short blades of yellow grass rolled under my feet, ready to throw me out again. The doorway I’d opened shuddered, struggling to close, but the demon hadn’t crossed through yet. Time ran differently in the Lower World, but maybe the door I’d thrown at him had slowed him down, too. Either way, I had a couple seconds to collapse and do something I normally wouldn’t: grab the rapier blade to cut my hand open, and smash my bloodied palm against the earth.
Power sucked out of me so fast I saw black. I intensified my shields—they had to be down for this to work, but letting this new Lower World drain me dry wouldn’t do anybody any good. I whispered shaman into the bloody feed. Healer, warrior, shifter. A friend, if from distant places. Ah, hell, I was doing it again. Magic made people talk funny, all semi-formal and ritualistic-like. I hated it, but I found myself doing it anyway.
Even more irritatingly, this funky Lower World—the light was softer, a little more distant and mist-filled than in mine—this Lower World responded to it. Stopped gulping my power away and stopped shaking and shivering under my knees. It accepted me for what I was, and with that acceptance, offered up a willingness to support me.
Just as the demon came tearing through the door I’d opened up. I got to my feet, sword in hand, ready to face him. I was grounded, accepted. I could match his weight class, if not his actual size. I’d fought demons in the Lower World before. There would be a way to take him down. Confident, almost calm, I turned toward the ginormous stinky monster bearing down on me.
A huge fricking mountain lion bolted through the portal and ripped the demon’s rainbow ruff right off.
I was in place of dark. Narrow strip of night. Ahead was strange yellow light, like sun under smoky sky. Light and dark were spilt like entrance to cave, but no cave walls rose up. No cave overhead. Silent like cave, but was not cave. Strange.
My ruff rose and I growled, sniffed. Smelled no danger except for snake/lizard/manlike-thing. It rushed into light and disappeared. Pain of shift into big-cat burned.
Jane was lost deep inside. There was only Beast and big prey to hunt. Beast was good hunter. The best. I shoved out of Jane-clothes. Pulled paws out of boots. Stupid Jane to wear so much, but Jane did not have fur or claws. I shook self and felt the necklace twist on my neck, tangled as fur settled into place.
I padded, silent, shoulders high and tight, legs bent, with belly low to ground. Mouth closed to hide white killing teeth in dark. Stood at edge of light and dark but could not see through. Joanne had gone there. Thing that Jane called Stinky had gone there. Stink thing made eyes water like smoke. Foul stench, like death and snakes and old ashes. Easy to follow. Easy to hunt.
I did not want to leave Jane clothes and claws in place of dark. Did not know how to get back to them. Gathered her things and pushed them into the light with teeth and paws. They disappeared into the strange light.
Hunger sank claws into belly. Needed to eat. I crouched and tightened paws beneath me. Growled. Took deep breath. And leaped, screaming big-cat scream, into light.
Landed on dirt. Light burned eyes, so followed nose. Leaped again, high. Onto big prey. Back claws sank into its haunches, front claws into its shoulders. Something flashed with shadow, at face. Ripped with teeth at flare of black. Was like paper, like feathers or scales. Tasted bad. Slung ruff away, growling.
Buried killing teeth into its spine, on either side. Crushed down. Felt spine sever. Crunch-crunch through bones. Shaking. Hard. Thing started to fall forward. Spinning. Shook it hard, tearing through flesh. Ripped killing teeth free. Fell and fell like jump from tree limb.
Pushed off, long tail spinning for balance. Landed on its chest. Gripped throat, killing teeth sinking deep. Tasted blood. Tasted good. Big, good prey. Beast rode prey down like bison. Thing landed and bounced. Tore throat out with single rip. Blood splattered over coat. Into eyes. Prey head fell to side. Attached by small piece of skin. Dead.
I raised head and screamed into strange yellow sun. Calling out: Beast is good hunter! Beast killed prey like bison. Like big snake like cow. Screamed again: Beast is hungry and will eat.
Looked up. Saw woman, but not human-woman. She stood, watching Stinky and Beast, holding sword. Light flashed over her like Molly witch-magic, but not like Molly magic. Like Aggie One Feather shaman-magic, but not like. Witch and shaman and yet different. Like traveler. She had brought us here, through black cave-not-cave place, leading Stinky, like false prey.
I snarled. My kill. My food. She stepped back one step. Two. Showing proper deference. You can eat after, I thought at her. Hunger hurt belly, twisting.
“You can eat the whole damn thing for all I care,” she said. “But it’s a demon. I bet it’s gonna taste awful.”
I snarled, showing her my killing teeth, and bit down, eating at neck, tongue laving fresh blood. Keeping eyes on her, I backed down and bit into stomach. Blood and liver and muscle and good food. Ripped at it and swallowed. Again. Keeping her in sight. She smelled stomach-sick with sweat. I chuffed with amusement. Ate more.
Woman stepped forward, but made herself small. Lifted chin. Showed throat. Deference. Smart shaman-thing. Wise. Curious eyes, full of gold. “. . . you’re Jane, aren’t you?”
I looked at woman, thinking. You hear my thoughts? I asked at her. She nodded. I ate, feeding hunger. Its claws, buried in stomach, tearing, began to release. More than five bites later, I thought at her, Not Jane. Not big-cat. Better than Jane. Better than big-cat. Am Beast. I swallowed. Beast is good hunter.
I chuffed and ate. Many more than five bites later, I showed her my back and walked off of prey, down to dirt, lithe and lissome, Jane’s words for me. Belly was bulging, satisfied. I sat and cleaned blood from claws and muzzle with rough tongue. Spoke to her like to kit. You may eat.
“Y’know, I thought I was starving, but not so much now. It’s all yours.”
I looked at not-witch woman. She had gathered up Jane’s clothes, where I had pushed them, into the light, folding them like laundry. Her sword was gone. Magic sword? Comes and goes like Beast’s claws?
Not-witch woman grinned. “Yeah, kind of. I keep it under my bed at home. In reserve, you know? Kind of like Jane . . .” She stopped. Looked hard at Beast. Scent changed: scent of caution. Smart shaman-thing didn’t want to offend good-hunter Beast. “Kind of like you and Jane work together, maybe. I bet most people don’t know she’s got a Beast inside. You’re a secret. A sharp dangerous secret. So’s my sword.”
I chuffed. Looked back at still-hot stinky meat. Flipped dirt over it: done. Trash. Defeated.
Not-witch woman smiled again. “You said it, sister.”
There’s nothing to take the wind out of a girl’s sails like a ginormous lion coming along and ripping the head off the demon she was about to fight. I stood there agape while Jane—it had to be Jane—went positively medieval, if medieval people had mountain lions to do their dirty work, on the velociprator’s rainbowy ass.
It took a lot less time for her to do it than it would’ve for me. I had the good goddamned sense to back off when the lion looked like it was ready for lunch, and I wasn’t really even surprised when it—she—started talking in my head. I sent the sword home, watched the lion gorge herself on smelly demon meat, and nearly jumped out of my skin when a third voice intruded on our little conversation: “And heah Ah thought Ah’d be coumin’ to sayve d’daye.”
It took me a couple seconds to get past the rich rolling deliciousness of a Cajun accent so thick it sounded like it’d been poured on with molasses and honey. In that time, Jane-Beast went from sated contented cat to wary prickly lion. I held a finger up, like that would possibly stop her if she decided to make a second lunch out of the new arrival, and turned to see what this Lower World had wrought.
It had wrought the most gorgeous John Henry I’d ever laid eyes on. The guy looked like he’d earned every one of his muscles working the railroad, and the Lower World’s red sunlight just sank into skin so black he couldn’t possibly have had any crackers in his woodpile. He stood about six steps away, and even so I had to raise my eyes to meet his. That never happened. He was NBA tall, had shoulders a little wider than God’s, and wore a wife-beater that showed off beautiful arms and emphasized an equally well-muscled chest. His jeans had blown-out knees and his feet were bare, toes dug into the Lower World’s cool dirt. I had the idea he was introducing himself to it in the same way I had. Almost the same way. He hadn’t cut his foot open to bleed on the ground. Just as well. I was too busy gawking to think about healing foot injuries.
“You are?” he said. Aaah, really, the consonants all swallowed by Southern gentility.
“Smitten,” I said brightly, then shook myself. “Uh. I mean. Joanne. I’m Joanne. That’s, um.” I looked at Beast-Jane and decided not to go there. “That’s a cat. And you’re. . . ?” Utterly gorgeous. Physically flawless, with striking African features. The back of my brain reminded me that perfect people usually weren’t human, and that I should probably check the guy’s aura out, but his physicality was so much more interesting I put it off for a minute. I didn’t want to find out he was one of the bad guys. Not yet, anyway.
He grinned. “Lazarus, but you call me Laz, cherie.”
I deflated ever so slightly. Odds of him actually being named John Henry were, of course, astronomically low, but for a brief shining moment there, I’d had hope. “You better call me Jo.” Because while my romantic life was on an upswing, I still didn’t think it would go over well to explain to a boyfriend so new I wasn’t sure I should even use the word yet just why an unutterably gorgeous Southern gentleman was referring to me as cherie. “Lazarus, huh? Only in the South does that name not even cause a blink.”
“Oh, it causes a blink.” Jane stalked up beside me. I squeaked. I hadn’t even heard her change—not that I knew if shapechanging made noise, since I’d never tried listening to myself while I did it—and I certainly hadn’t heard her putting all her leather and guns and shiny silver bits back on.
Lazarus looked at her, all hot and sexy in her leather, and looked at me, considerably less hot and sexy in jeans and a tank-top. His eyebrows rose. “Sisters?”
Jane and I looked at each other and shook our heads in unison. Laz’s eyebrows went higher. “But power, it runs in family, no?”
“Different families,” I said after a minute, then edged three steps back, like that distance would make it impossible for him to hear me mutter, “Lazarus is a worrying name?”
“Anybody who rises from the dead worries me,” Jane muttered back. Since she was the one who came from a world with vampires, I conceded the point instantly and whether I liked it or not, took a good look at Lazarus with the Sight.
Power flared in him, through him, in earth-rich colors and in a way I’d never seen before. It was like his toes, dug into the earth, absorbed its very strength, and the top of his head, way high up there in the sky—even to my tall perspective—let it flow on out. The reverse happened too, and his fingertips took in the quiet animistic strength of still air and released it as casually, and left the impression that if a hurricane blew his way, it, too, would wash right through him. I had no doubt at all that he could capture and use it for the working of magic, but it didn’t stay in him the way it stayed in me, and it came to him far, far more naturally than it did to the witches I knew. There was no need for a guiding deity, with him. The power just ran through him like a river. Witty as ever, I said, “Wow. What are you?”
He shrugged big broad beautiful shoulders. The outrageousness of his accent started wearing off, becoming easier for me to understand, though he still sounded as old-school Cajun as anything I’d ever heard. “A conduit, mebbe. A gateway. You?”
“A shaman.” I wasn’t going to answer for Jane, even though Lazarus looked at her, too. “A gateway, huh. Are you what brought us here? I mean, not here-here, I did that,” I said with a wave at the Lower World, “but to the Middle World we just left? Because it’s not Jane’s world and it’s sure not mine.”
“Does it matter?” Jane growled. “Stinky is dead. Let’s go home.”
“Are you kidding? Of course it matters. People don’t just go flying off to different universes without a reason. Or they don’t in my world, anyway. So whatever brought us here has got to be impor—”
I stopped talking then, because Lazarus opened his hands wide and became a man-shaped gateway right back to the Middle World.
Passing through the portal—whatever that was—back into the physical world, hurt. A lot. Jo muttered “You’ve got to be kidding,” but she made it look easy, like stepping through a guy who’d turned into a doorway between worlds was simple. Like one step to the next , from light, through a sliver of blackness darker than the armpit of hell, back into a different place was easy, right? Not.
In that one step, Beast’s pelt roiled under my skin like it wanted to burst through my flesh, and her front and back claws sank into my mind like sixteen knives. I hissed out a breath as I stepped from world to world, and felt more than saw tall, African and gorgeous follow me. He smelled . . . odd. Like magic and animals, but not like me. And not like Jo. And Not like a were. And whatever smelled not-like-the-familiar was usually dangerous.
I found my balance in the neon-lit blackness and party roar of New Orleans Mardi Gras and looked around. We’d lost time. We had left this plane at daylight. Now it was night. Time in the other place wasn’t linear, which bothered the heck outta me. Jo looked a little nonplused too, and I shrugged at her; she shrugged back, which was nearly a mirror image of mine, and we shared a grin. Time changes were not something I could change, so I’d have to live with it. Seems she felt the same way.
With Beast still pushing speed and power into my muscles and nerves, I pivoted on one foot and pulled two vamp killers, holding then down at my sides, one backhand, one forehand settling my balance, knees bent. “Jane?” Jo asked. I ignored her, but kept my awareness of her to my side.
Laz stepped through the cut-away of his own shape, having to twist his shoulders and bend a little to fit. The portal stuck to his hands, flipping inside-out as he came through, then began to shrink. He packed it up, sparkling blackness wedging smaller and smaller between his hands. Not wanting to be pulled back through, or stuffed back through, I waited until the rip in reality disappeared. Then I moved. Fast.
I twisted, hooked an elbow around his. Slammed one boot against his heel. Stepped behind him and yanked. Twisting him around, keeping him from taking a compensatory step, I let gravity do its thing. He hit hard and bounced, air oofing out of him. I landed atop him, dropping fast, one knee in his gut, but it didn’t sink in nearly as far I’d have liked. Big guy with rock hard abs. Great.
Almost gently, I put my backhand knife at his throat and my forehand knife at his belly. And I grinned. “You smell like spiders. And snakes. And maybe wolf or coyote, with a little bear in it. Magic that smells like sunshine and soot. And I don’t like it.”
“Jesus Christ, Jane!” At a guess, Jo disagreed with my course of action. “He came to help us.”
“Yeah. Coincidently to the same place you went to, but conveniently too little too late.” I put a heap of sarcasm into the word conveniently, just in case he missed my intent. “Can you prove he didn’t bring that thing in the first place? Lure us there?”
“Of course I can’t, but good God, have you ever heard of ask questions first, beat to a pulp later?” I felt, more than saw Jo take a step back. Smelled her reaction. She liked this, this, thing. This thing that was not human, not witch, not shaman, but was pretty. Dang pretty. I could feel his magics rolling under my hands, against my knee on his belly. With Beast-sight, I could see magic too, easier than in my own world, green and yellow and rainbow colors that reminded me of the ruff on Old Stinky.
I firmed my blade against his skin. Okay, maybe I pushed a little, because a bead of blood slid out and trickled down his neck. I let my smile widen as if I’d done it on purpose. And maybe Beast had.
“I was brought heyah, I was.” He laid on the accent and the smile. I could feel a compulsion in his smile, like some kind of “like-me” spell.
I grinned wider, showing my blunt teeth even as Beast’s claws pressed down on my brain, breaking the compulsion. “Convenient,” I said again.
“Stepping through a portal, I was, when I felt dis—” his eyes slid away in thought, “—dis power draw. I stop. I listen. And I follow it to dis strange place, and then I follow it again to underworld of yellow grass. Not my underworld, no. But a thing of darkness pull me there. And any hunter who kill that dark thing,” he nodded and more blood flowed, “is a friend of mine.”
I smelled truth on him and yet I still didn’t believe him. I rose in one long motion and sheathed the unbloodied-blade. The bloodied one, I wiped off on the hem of my tee shirt, then sliced the scrap off. Folded it. And put it in my pocket. And I made sure Pretty Boy and Joanne Walker saw me do it. If she needed something for a blood-spell, we had it. Joanne stared at me. Laz looked disconcerted and scheming all at once.
I looked around, and discovered that we had come out in a different place from where we went in. It felt like a few hours had passed too, but my subjective time sense was getting all mixed up, so I wasn’t sure. We were near the Mississippi, the sour smell of its power wet on the air. “I have to eat,” I said. “Shifting uses up a lot of calories.”
“Calories?” Pretty Boy asked, like he’d never heard of them. “Shifting uses up magic, no?”
Jo startled. “Oh. Oh. Yeah, of course it does. No wonder . . .” I ignored her and jerked a thumb the direction I wanted to go. “Let’s take a walk along the waterfront. There are some really good restaurants and diners there.”
Minutes later, we had taken two turns and I came to a dead stop, staring through a window. The diner was one I knew. And in my world, the proprietor, Antoine, was dead. In my world he’d been an African witch or shaman or something, and he’d been killed by one of my kind. By a skinwalker masquerading as a vamp who had gone nutso and started eating people and vamps. Long story I decided not to tell Jo. She might not understand. Whatever Antoine was, he was a magic user and a really good cook. The smells wafting from his diner were amazing. Stomach growling, I led the way inside. “Don’t shake his hand. He reads magic.”
Joanne shot me a look and put her hands in her pockets. Laz looked interested, but did the same as we skulked through the door. Antoine’s was one long narrow room with a bar on the right and red leather upholstered booths on the left. The place was packed with everything from city blue-collar employees in work boots, to men and women in suits, banker types, out for a bite before heading home to family or empty apartments filled with cats and books. In the far corner sat five cops. A musician perched on a tall stool in a corner played guitar, something Spanish-flamenco and hip all at once. I smelled grass and lots of beer and steamed shellfish and fried foods.
The cement floor that had been worn in my world was brightly painted in this one—like yellow sand and streaks that might have been yellow grass. Just like the underworld we had just left. The walls were a fresh tan. The ceiling was midnight blue painted with stars and runes and magic stuff. The bar was black Formica with sparkles in it, and a mirror ran the length of the wall behind the bar. Glass shelves in front of the mirror were stocked with a jillion bottles of liquor. A fine set of cooking knives with green stone inlaid handles and wicked-sharp blades, ones I remembered well, lay in an open, velvet-lined tray, gleaming in the overhead lights.
Conversations wove through the air with the scent of food and inside it smelled even better than out, the heavenly steam of beer, grease, and seafood so fresh it still carried salt and sea.
The black man behind the counter, Antoine, wore a crisp white jacket, a tall chef’s hat, and a smile. We took the only empty table in front and a waitress, a skinny gal took our order even before we were seated, Jo on the inside, me on the aisle, and Pretty Boy across from us.
“Three Dixie Blackened Voodoo Lagers, three colas, three waters, a serving of everything fried and a couple buckets of crawfish,” I said. Jo raised her brows and I shrugged. “It’s good. I’m buying.” The waitress nodded and wove her way through the crowd clotting the doorway. We had just beat the next rush. Lucky us. Less than a minute later she slid six red plastic baskets lined with newspaper to soak up the grease, onto the table, followed by the nine glasses. There wasn’t room to eat but I did anyway. A lot. Hot onion rings, hush puppies, and boudin—round fried balls of meat and spices and rice the size of golf balls; it tasted like heaven. Beer-batter crust that crunched like God Himself had made them in His own kitchen. Highly spiced, sizzling with oil. I drank one beer fast to cool my mouth and kept eating. At some point, Pretty Boy Laz started eating too.
“Boudin, dat is, right dere,” he said. “Good, yes?”
I nodded. “The cook is Antoine, and according to someone I knew here, he knows everything there is to know about this town.”
“Handy,” Jo said. Which was exactly the word I had used when I was introduced to him.
The waitress was back and set two steel garden buckets of crawfish on the table, beer- and sea-flavored steam curling up, hot with pepper and spices. I drew out a crawfish, its red shell curled, pretty sure the crustacean had been tossed alive into boiling beer. I bent the back, hearing the shell crack, and pulled the meat out of the tail, eating, fingers messy and greasy and stinky, loving it all. I saluted my dinner companions with the two pieces of mudbug shell. “Suck de head,” I said, just like Rick when brought me here on our first . . . date? Whatever. And Rick was now not human in my world. I wondered what he was here, and pushed that thought away. I slurped the liquid—spicy with hot peppers, garlic, and onion, and beery—and smacked my lips. Took another crawfish. Jo muttered “Don’t teach your grandmother to suck eggs. Or crawfish,” and dug in. Pretty Boy broke his mudbug like an expert and sucked it down, which indicated he was what he claimed—a local boy. For a minute or ten we were all silent except for licking fingers and breaking shells. It was good. Really good.
When I had eaten enough to quell the pain in my stomach, I asked Jo, “What do you see when you look at Antoine? In my world, he was a good guy. But his smile is different and so is his bar.” I pointed up with my greasy fingers. “And he’s got magic stuff painted up there.”
“Magic stuff. That’s the technical term, right?” I licked my fingers one more time before eyeing Antoine and his magic stuff. Wow. Morrison, the light and love of my life, probably would think poorly of me eyeing another man’s magic stuff. On the other hand, he wasn’t here, and although I had no doubt I would be telling him about Joanne’s Adventures in Wonderland, I could probably manage to edit the phrase magic stuff out of it. Maybe. I hoped.
This, I recognized, was procrastinating. Probably the fault of the food: another crawfish had somehow worked its way into my fingers and mouth while I’d been eyeing things, and Jane’s order of “everything fried” had been inspired. I’d gained six pounds just watching her eat, nevermind what I’d inhaled myself. I finished my crawfish, licked my fingers again, and this time wiped my hands on a grease-laden, falling-to-pieces paper napkin just for good measure.
Then I triggered the Sight.
Hairs stood on my nape and raced all the way down my spine, over my arms, and up to my cheekbones, sending a deep shiver through me before I registered what I Saw on a conscious level. Part of it was just the room: the vivacious colors, the pounding lifeblood in diners’ veins, the physical hunger and groaning sated delight of people coming in for a good meal. I didn’t normally use the Sight in crowds, and wasn’t accustomed to the sheer humanity of it all.
But mostly it was Antoine’s flat dead black and silver aura that freaked me out. It reminded me vividly of another aura I’d seen, approximately forever ago in terms of my growth as a shaman, but not really all that long in absolute time. The colors hadn’t been the same, but no two auras were exactly the same in color anyway. It was the feeling of them: dull, slithering, dangerous.
The word came out of my mouth before I could stop it: “Sorcerer.”
Jane crunched a crawfish so hard it sounded like commentary. “No. I know witches and maybe Antoine was one in my world, but that’s no witch.”
I tore my gaze from Antoine, which wasn’t all that hard to do. Sorcerers scared me. “I didn’t say witch. I said sorcerer.”
Jane shrugged. “Same thing. Boys, girls, they all get their own name, but they’re the same thing.”
“They sure as hell aren’t.” Maybe that came out a little strongly, because Jane stopped eating and squinted at me. Gold eyes. Always gold. I hoped mine weren’t ever going to take on a permanent tint. “Witches,” I said, still forcefully, “are earth magic focused through or on a deity. They’re basically good guys. Sorcerers are blood magic and conduits for a big goddamned bad and there is nothing good about them at all.”
Jane’s ears all but perked up, even if big cats didn’t usually have unperked ears to begin with. “Witches here are different from my world, then. What kind of big bad?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s all different faces of one—” I stopped right there and backed up. Jane probably didn’t want a lecture on the various faces of evil in my world, and besides, it probably wouldn’t be much help. “The one I dealt with was in thrall to a serpent called Amhuluk.”
Jane’s eyes narrowed and she jerked her head toward Laz. “He smells like snake.”
I glanced at Laz. He widened his eyes and made a show of sniffing his arms, then turned his palms up—pale and pink, compared to the blackness of his hands, and his fingertips still shining with crawfish juice—with amusement, as if to say “What does snake smell like?”
It was a good question, and I turned to Jane with a bit more ferocity than necessary. “Shit, Jane, I probably smell like snake. Snakes are symbols of renewal, healing, medicine, all sorts of things, besides being the bad apple in the garden.” My metaphor had gotten badly mixed there, but I didn’t let that stop me. “The point is you asked what I Saw, and I’m telling you I See trouble.”
“Just what we’re looking for.” Jane threw her napkin down, got up, and stomped over to Antoine, or she would have, if cats ever stomped. It was more like a slither/slide/hunting/step. I breathed a curse toward the bucket of crawfish and went after her. My people skills left something to be desired, but so far Jane made me look like a paragon of tact and reason. I did not want to be cleaning up evil sorcerer from all over the diner, not if I could help it.
Well, not unless he was the reason we were here. In that case, I might look the other way for a few seconds while Jane got in his face and ugly about it. Lazarus sauntered up to the counter with us just as Antoine turned back from the grill with an armload of artery-clotting, amazing-smelling food.
Between us, me and Jane and Laz, we were about eighteen and a half feet tall, and just about that thick with magic potential. Antoine didn’t have to touch us to know it: I could see that in the sudden shift of expressions across his face. Astonishment first, followed hard by resentment and then sly greed, all of which disappeared so quickly that if they hadn’t lingered in his aura I might not have believed I’d seen them. There wasn’t a hint of any of it in his smile as he slid plates full of food onto the counter, spread his arms wide on either side of them, and leaned toward us with what would have been a good smile if looking at his aura didn’t give me the creeps.
“Welcome to Antoine’s, mes amis. You new in town, yes? I haven’t seen you here before. But not tourists: Antoine’s is for locals. Mardi Gras partiers never seem to find me here.”
I shot a look at Jane. She’d been a regular here in her own world, but this Antoine didn’t know her. That meant there wasn’t another Jane running around this version of New Orleans. I wondered what had happened to her, and then I wondered if there was a me somewhere up in the Pacific Northwest. I still had my police-issue cell phone stuffed in a pocket. I stifled the impulse to pull it out and call the same number, just to see if one Joanne Walker, Seattle Police Department, would pick up.
“We asked around,” Jane said. “A woman called Evangelina Everhart suggested we try this place.”
Antoine’s expression did the same kind of flat dull thing his aura did, again for less than a blink. “Did she now. Master Amaury will have a thing or two to say about that.”
“Amaury?” That was me, wishing I’d kept my mouth shut when both Jane and Antoine gave me a look. At least Lazarus didn’t seem to recognize the name, either, which made me feel slightly better. This world was more like Jane’s than mine. Maybe it was more like Jane’s than Lazarus’s, too. Once we figured out why we were here—and how to get home—I kind of wanted to sit down and compare notes.
“The big man,” Antoine said after a pause just long enough to make me uncomfortable. Long enough to suggest he was looking for the right words rather than just having a casual conversation. “New folk ‘round here are expected to pay him a visit. Evangelina should’ve sent you there, not here. Mighty peculiar that she didn’t.”
“Mister Amaury don’ make crawdads like Antoine,” Lazarus said, sounding very solemn. “Miss Jane here was fierce hungry. Surely Miss Evangelina took pity on d’poor woman an’ sent her here before she had to get gussied up for d’big man.”
Jane turned an incredulous stare at Lazarus while I turned an equally incredulous one on Jane. She no doubt gussied up well—I did, and we could be sisters—but the idea of putting her in anything but sleek black leather already seemed bizarre beyond belief. From Jane’s expression, the suggestion might have been a killing offense.
Antoine, creepy aura or not, had the good sense to see when a knock-down-drag-out was brewing in his diner. He lowered his voice. “Well, you fed now. On the house for being new in town, but you go on, get going to Master Amaury. He’ll be wanting to see you, gussied up or no.”
Jane and I both said “Nuh,” at once and dug into our pockets, throwing cash on the counter until we independently decided it looked like enough to pay for lunch. Neither of us, apparently, wanted to owe flat-auraed Antoine anything. And then we skedaddled, Lazarus tagging along. The door had barely closed behind us before Jane said “Something’s not right. The Antoine I knew would never have called anybody “Master”, and the only Amaury I know about died in the forties. A vamp. If he’s still here, then he’s old and dangerous and—”
“And running this town,” I finished, and shivered.
Outside, the smell of water on the night breeze hit me, powerful and sour, fishy and fierce, like a living thing, the Mississippi just over the levee. It was different here from the world I knew, as if it was laced with magic. And then the smell of wolf hit me, musky and wet with rain and straining for the hunt. Beast raised up in me, growling. I turned to Laz, a vamp-killer in one hand, the growl echoing in the street.
I ignored the warning question in Jo’s tone. The smell of spiders hit the wind. Laz laughed at whatever he saw in my eyes, and suddenly he smelled like many animals all at once. Skinwalker? I lifted the blade that had pierced his neck and sniffed the traces of his blood on the steel edge. No. Not skinwalker, Beast thought at me. I do not know what it is.
“I don’t know what you are,” I said, stealing Beast’s line, my pitch still half-growl, “but you stink something not-quite-right. And whatever you are, Beast really wants to gut you now and be done with it all.”
“What does he smell like,” Jo asked carefully.
“Like wolf and spiders and snakes. And now like raccoons and nutria and swamp water full of crawly things. He can change his scent at will and he’s playing with us.”
Jo said, “Jane, look, he—” She stopped, exhaled noisily, then muttered, “Look, let me try something, okay? I’m a shaman, right? You’re okay with that?” She waited an instant for me to nod, then nodded in return and said “Keep your nose open.”
Her eyes went gold as she spoke. Mine were gold all the time. Hers were green most of the time, but I could practically smell her pulling power down, and with the pull came the color change.
And a scent change. It was like she was pulling Beast, or something like Beast, into her. She smelled of snakes, all of a sudden, and then of coyotes, and for half a second I even got an avian smell off her. Not a bird I knew. Something huge. Something dangerous. Her skin shivered a little, but she didn’t change into any of the things I smelled. They were still part of her, right under the skin.
After a minute she let the magic go and wheezed a bit. “Okay, that was horrible. I don’t usually do that. But—look, did my scent change?”
I gave a wary nod and Joanne’s shoulder’s dropped. “And does that make you want to stick a knife in me?”
“Maybe a little bit.”
She snorted a laugh. “Great. No, see, my point is we’re obviously all three coming from different magic backgrounds. Laz looks like a witch to me. Connected to the earth on a really deep level, and hooked up to some kind of god on the other side. My witches don’t do shapeshifting, but I bet your shamans don’t carry coyotes under their skin either.” Her eyebrows went up challengingly, and I had to nod an agreement. “Okay,” Jo said again. “So can we get past the pig-sticking impulse and accept that Laz’s magic isn’t like yours any more than mine is? We’ve got to find out what we’re all doing here, Jane. We might very well need all three of our talents to do that.”
Beast huffed and stepped back, claws sheathed. “Not my world,” I grumbled, slamming the weapon back in its sheath. “Looks like my world, smells like my world on the surface, but the magics are turned all inside out and upside down.” I eyed Laz, “And it stinks. Let’s go.”
“Where?” Jo asked, with that careful tone still in her voice.
“To Vamp Mojo, the vampire bordello that, in my day, was a rock-n-roll, jazz, dance club, and bar. Any place that smells of blood and sex that strongly has to be central to our being brought here.” I saw Jo shrug and Laz grin. I really hated that grin. It was too pretty by half, and pretty boys were dangerous any way you looked at them. But the other two seemed to think my killing Laz was not a good idea. Which totally sucked.
I turned and led the way, keeping an eye on Laz and Jo in the windows of storefronts as we passed. As we walked, I talked and braided my hair, which had come back loose and straight as it always did after a shift. Then I twirled the braid up into a bun, and arranged my weapons in it, the stakes working like hairsticks, and my derringer hidden underneath. Insurance, just in case. “In my world,” I said, “Amaury, assuming it’s the same guy, is dead. He was the former Blood Master of New Orleans. Powerful. Old.” The other two considered that as we walked.
Vamp Mojo was nothing like the bar from my own world. We walked in the front door and were met by two blood-servant bouncers, one a big, former special forces soldier with a bald head and muscled biceps the size of my thighs, and one a small, lithe, Asian guy with cold eyes and hard hands. I leaned slowly in and whispered in the former-soldier’s ear, “Evangelina sent us to talk to Amaury.”
“Not with the weapons,” he whispered back, “I don’t care if the Devil himself sent you as a present.”
I started removing the weapons, setting them on a table to the side. It was an impressive pile when I was done. Then I assumed the position, palms flat on the wall and feet spread. The small guy did the pat-down and while his hands cupped my breasts and got a little friendly below my waist, I ignored it. For now. When I picked my weapons back up, it would be a different matter. The muscle ignored Jo and Laz, as if my obvious weaponry was all that mattered. Which was odd, as they had magic that might put my guns to shame. With the hairsticks and derringer under my braids, we walked into Vamp Mojo.
The place stank of blood and sex, and was mostly in shadow, lit by gas lanterns, the flames protected from drafts by glass globes. The bar ran along the back, serving the usual beer and liquor, but also coffee, tea, and blood. The vintages sat on stools inside the bar, every one of them pretty and mostly naked. Every one of them with half-healed bite marks on their wrists and the inside of their elbows, every one of them severely anemic and blood drunk, happily stoned on sips of vamp blood.
There was a dance floor and a stage to the side, but set up higher, about three feet off the floor, and there were brass poles with totally naked dancers mounted on each. Laz leered. Jo rolled her eyes. I followed the scents on the air conditioned breeze to a booth in the corner. The stink of unknown vamp and power, and also the familiar—Leo Pellissier.
Leo was debonair and pale-skinned, his long hair pulled back into a queue, tied with a black silk ribbon. He was wearing black pants and a black silk dress shirt open at the throat, and he looked strangely diminished here, less powerful, less commanding. He looked oddly anguished.
There was a woman on his lap, blonde and delicate, his fingers tangled in her hair. Katie Fonteneau, and a half dozen other names. She was different in this world. Coarser. She was wearing a scarlet bustier, garter, and panties, with black stockings, and that was all. And though Katie was on Leo’s lap, another vamp was drinking from her.
He was not as pretty as Leo, his skin duskier, his hair a bit coarser. And he was sucking on Katie’s neck while one hand massaged her breast. Cute. Katie was moaning, but I could see her face and she was not enjoying the attention. She was being abused by someone in power, which just got all over me. Despite that fact that Katie was half nutso in my world, I liked her.
“Careful,” Jo whispered in my ear. “He’s got some magic in him. Like a sorcerer again. Jesus, what is it with sorcerers in this place?”
“Great.” I rapped on the table and said, “Hey, fanghead. You got visitors.”
Amaury went deadly still at the insult. So did Leo and Katie, and nobody does immobile like a vamp. It’s that not having to breathe thing that makes it so effective and so spooky. Slowly, he opened his eyes and stared at me over Katie’s head. Katie rolled her eyes back at me, afraid, and I had never seen her afraid. Only Leo did the expected—sat back in his seat and quirked up a brow, all old-world hoity-toity. He looked me over carefully and thoroughly, taking note of the silver hairsticks with a little quirk of his lips, before turning curious attention to his uncle.
Amaury withdrew his fangs from Katie’s throat with a little click. He lifted her by her head, up into the air, and placed her across Leo. It was an amazing feat of one-armed strength, spoiled when there wasn’t enough bench seat for her and she nearly fell to the floor. Jo caught her by the arm until she got her feet under her, and helped Katie off toward a door behind the stage.
I stared at Amaury, maintaining a half-smile and attitude until Joanne got back. Then I said, “I understand we have to talk to the chief suckhead of New Orleans.” When in doubt, go for crass.
Amaury leaned back in his seat, arms out to his sides, his shirt billowing open to reveal a chest with sparse hair and a gold chain, the disco kind they wore in the seventies. He was typically Frenchy, like Leo, with black hair and black eyes, and the scent of his power was like static electricity on the air, tickling my nose, making me want to rub it. Jo’s eyes went gold and if she was a cat I’d have said her hackles stood up. She got stiff and still, and watched Amaury like he was the Devil himself.
“I am the one you seek. You will show me proper deference.” He raised the fingers of his left hand and did a little twisting motion. The scent of power grew stronger, harsher, like bees buzzing on the air. “Kneel.”
His power landed on my shoulders like a weight, and I locked my knees. I pulled on Beast’s energies, and could see from my peripheral vision Jo doing something to maintain control too. Laz just looked amused. I let Beast flow into me, her claws kneading my brain painfully. No way was I gonna kneel to this guy. He’d been dangerous and power-mad before he was killed on my world, and I could tell he was even worse here. He’d had a few decades longer to work his villain-charms in this world. “Don’t think so,” I said. “We’re not from around here, and we’re not yours to control.
The power shut off instantly. Amaury sat up, clear calculation in his eyes. “Every magic user in this region is mine to control, and their magic mine to use as I choose.” He tilted his head slightly. “It has been so since I held back the waters of Katrina and saved the coast and the city.”
Jo’s lip curled. “You took their power as payment for saving them?”
“I did. It was fair recompense for my services.”
“Sure. Whatever,” I said. “We’ve made the required appearance and now we need to be outta here. We were called here for a purpose. We have business to attend to.”
“Wait.” Joanne kept staring at Amaury like he was something the cat dragged in, but she still ignored me even when I rolled my head until my neck popped and glared at her. “All the magic here flows through you?”
Amaury nodded once. Jo made fists and stood her ground. “Then you’ve got to know what called us here. There’s something that needs doing here, and either you know what it is or you’re not as hot as you think you are.”
The casual insult rolled off her tongue so trippingly it took a moment for Amaury’s expression to go black. Then it shivered back to reasonable so fast I wasn’t sure I’d seen the darkness. Calculation lay beneath the reason, though: he was assessing us, deciding what to say, while Leo watched me a little too intently, a little too much of the predator in his gaze.
“There has been a disturbance,” Amaury finally said.
I grinned, thinking, in the force, but I didn’t say it. Go me. Jo sucked her cheeks in like she was holding back a grin herself, and I had a feeling that if we looked at each other, we’d start to giggle. Not gonna happen. I kept my eyes on Amaury and forced my lips down.
“A girl, a voodooine, was given a task. A simple task, and she failed.” His sneer came and went in a flash, which I thought took a lot of cajones from a guy who couldn’t even maintain a power base without stealing magic from other people. “She was meant to create a love spell, and instead I have sensed a rift and the arrival of a thing I do not recognize. A demon, I should say, which not even my power can locate or contain. Perhaps this demon is why you have been called to my territory.”
I shot Lazarus a hard look and Joanne shot me one. I clamped my mouth tight before I said anything. I might not like how Laz smelled, but if Amaury thought demons were arriving in the Big Easy, it probably wasn’t a good idea to let him know that when I’d said we weren’t from around here, I’d really meant all three of us were from other worlds. He might think we were his demons. Right now he probably figured we were from, like, Pittsburgh. No point in tipping the vamp off—that would be bad for all of us. I ground my teeth and muttered, “Fine. Where do we find your voodooine? If she’s pulling down demons, she’s probably where we should start.”
Amaury gave us a toothy, nasty smile. “The bayou. Ten miles out. If you’re half the magic-makes you say you are, you’ll feel her when you get close. If you’re not . . .”
We left before he finished that threat.
I was very proud of myself. I made it all the way out the door, into sunlight, and halfway down the block before my knees buckled and I had to grab a fence for support. Or Lazarus, as it turned out. I’d been reaching for the fence, but he got there first, and although it would be bad form to mention it to one Captain Michael Morrison of the Seattle Police Department, between the fence and Lazarus, I’d much rather lean on Laz.
Jane, who apparently had the stamina and stomach of a racehorse, because she didn’t look nearly as affected by Amaury as I felt, stopped with her arms crossed beneath her breasts and frowned at me. Good impression of a brick wall, I thought, and wondered if my own shoulders were as imposing. “Didn’t you see,” I wheezed, but of course she hadn’t. I shuddered all over and wrapped my fingers around Laz’s forearm to prop myself upright. “That bastard is writhing with black magic, Jane. He wasn’t kidding. He’s sucking down every last drop of power in this city. I can See it now that I know what I’m looking for.”
I didn’t particularly want to, but I triggered the Sight as I spoke, glancing upward. Amaury’s hideaway was the center of a damned vortex, magic twisting in myriad shades toward the bordello and blackening as it reached it. That was how amalgamated magic tended to work, at least in my world. Either it was born of good intention and all those blended colors went to white, or it was bad news and it all turned black.
“Amaury’s a cesspool,” I said to the sky. “Oil spill. Whatever you want to call it, his aura is bubbling with evil, and I can’t read it, Jane. I have no idea if he was telling the truth. Do you know how long it’s been since I couldn’t read an aura?”
“Most of forever,” Jane guessed, which was actually completely wrong, but also hardly worth correcting. “He smells like blood and sex and lies to me,” she said, “just like any vamp. I figure they’re all lying, all the time.”
“He wasn’t wrong,” Lazarus rumbled. “You, me, d’big cat lady, we all from somewhere else, and somebody brought us t’rough. Maybe it’s dis voodooine. We find her, we get answers, whether Mister Amaury like it or no.”
I said, “I like the way you think,” and heard Jane make a sound that said she didn’t like anything about Lazarus, but that he probably had a point. I didn’t know why I got a free pass from her and Laz didn’t, except for maybe our weird physical similarities overrode her suspicions. I generally trusted the person I saw in the mirror, after all, and although Jane and I weren’t quite that carbon-copied, it was pretty close.
“What if she did bring a demon through?” Jane asked.
“You’re kind of a worst-case-scenario girl, aren’t you?” I tested my legs and found them worthy to stand on, but Laz kept an arm around my waist an extra minute anyway. I didn’t really have any complaints. “I’m not a demon. Are you?” Jane shook her head and we both looked at Laz, whose white teeth flashed brightly as he shook his head.
Jane’s scowl deepened and I wished I had something to throw at her. “Yes, of course, Jane, he’d lie to us if he was a demon. But I would lie to you if I was a demon, and you’d lie to us if you were one, so we might as well just take each other at our words and move on. If the voodooine did bring a demon through and it’s not one of us, well then by gosh we’ve got three adepts to take it down with. And I’ve fought demons before.”
“You fought demons?” Jane said incredulously. “And I thought my life was weird.”
“You turn into a giant panther. Your life is weird. That aside, do either of you know where we’re going?” I wished I had my classic Mustang, Petite. I would feel a lot safer going anywhere with her sturdy steel body and 190 mph engine around me. But I’d left her on the outskirts of the city, its peculiarities—its wrongness—strong enough from out there that I hadn’t wanted to risk her custom purple paint job, nevermind the decade-plus of work I’d put into her.
“Yeah,” Jane said, and jerked her thumb to the indistinct south. “The bayou. But we’re gonna need a vehicle, unless you two can adopt four fast legs.”
“Actually, I can.” We both glanced at Laz, who shrugged apologetically.
“D’hare, oui, I can do dat. D’snake, him too. Young man, old man—”
“Beggar man,” I said under my breath, “thief.”
Laz gave me a sharp, curious look, then flashed that grin again. “Oui, dem too, but de fox, maybe de coyote, dey d’fastest I can do, and dey smaller dan d’cat.”
“Really? My mass stays the same when I change. I’d think you’d make a pretty, er, massive, coyote. You’d keep up with a—”
A resounding crunch interrupted me. Laz and I turned to see Jane reaching through the smashed-in window of a 1987 AMC Eagle station wagon. She flipped the sun visor down, keys fell into her palm, and she jangled them at us. “We’ll drive.”
I gawked, then threw my hands in the air. Stealing cars, what the hell, it wasn’t my world anyway. If there was a Joanne Walker up in Seattle to get blamed for it, I would feel very bad, but if this world had a Joanne Walker, it seemed to me like she should be the one down in the Big Easy, fighting this world’s fight. For a moment I wondered if, if there had been a Jo here, what had happened to her, and then decided I really didn’t want to know and said, “I’ll drive,” instead of pursuing the thought.
I never let anybody else drive if I could help it, even if I didn’t know the territory. I’d been the best driver in my class at the police academy, and it was a point of pride. I figured I’d have to argue it, but to my astonishment, Jane handed the keys over, got in the front passenger’s seat. Laz got in behind me, and Jane played navigator all the way out of the city limits toward the rich green swamps of the bayou.
Any other time in my life and I’d have reveled in just the drive. The roads weren’t good, but I’d cut my teeth on narrow, twisting Appalachian trails, so not good was a familiar variable. And the rest of it was amazing, the rich green scent of rot from old trees and stagnant water accompanying the endless buzz of mosquitoes, loud enough to be heard over the Eagle’s engine when we paused a time or two to decide which way to go. There were alligators and snapping turtles and birds I didn’t know the names of out there, and I dearly wanted to stop the car and roll around in it all. On the other hand, I also dearly wanted to know how we’d gotten to this world, and rolling around in slimy, duckweed-coated water would not get us any answers.
After a while Jane’s directions started getting a little fuzzy, and I pulled over to trigger the Sight and see what it could tell us. At home I would guess nothing: magic was hard to track. But here, with Amaury dragging power out of every adept in the region, there was a constant pull, active magic being used, and that I could see.
We were just about on top of a power drain. Gorgeous rich red and gold magic spiraled into the sky, drawn inexorably toward New Orleans. I exhaled, relieved, and opened my door. “We’re here. We’ve just got to get out and root around a little. Everybody be careful, though. If this woman can call up demons, we don’t want to piss her off.”
Jane and Lazarus climbed out of the car, and as we slammed the doors shut, the station wagon exploded.
I had shields, mental constructs that I’d finally—after being bitten by one of Hollywood’s favorite monsters—learned to keep in place always, all the time, quote the raven forevermore. They kept me from being roasted alive.
They did not keep me from being knocked ass over teakettle halfway across the bayou. Cars, despite what movies told us, did not explode at the drop of a hat. When one did, the resulting concussive fireball was not something our heroes should idly or easily get up and walk away from. I hit water with a cannonball splash any twelve-year-old boy would be proud of, and came up flailing and coughing thick green muck.
Lazarus was a shadow in flame, unmoved by the inferno around him. I couldn’t seen Jane at all, not even her aura: the magic-born fire’s colors blocked everything else from my sight. I stood up—the water turned out to be only hip-deep—and was envisioning my shields extending to cramp the fire, to take away its air and put it out, when it winked out all on its own.
All right, not quite on its own. Lazarus came clear as the flame faded away, magic flexing around him. Dirt brown, primarily, and gold that glittered and shone and faded, like it was sucking up the fire and dispersing it into the air. I stood there in the water, mesmerized by the flow and flex of power. The whole act was performed in such a concentrated, braided way that it made me think of covens. I’d seen a dozen witches working together braid threads like that, but never an individual. The man had been big guns wherever he came from, that much I was sure of.
And speaking of big guns, he tugged the burnt ruin of his shirt off, exposing some of the most flawless pectorals I’d ever laid eyes on. Bits of cloth smoldered against his skin. He brushed them away without concern and I gave myself a shake. Standing around gawking at beautiful men would not deal with the problem of whatever had exploded our car, and I still didn’t know where Jane was. I waded out of the water, realizing the Eagle had only exploded about five seconds ago. My ears were only just beginning to ring, a slightly delayed reaction to the eruption. I got back to Laz’s side and shouted, “Are you okay? How’d you do that? Where’s Jane?” without being able to hear myself, then remembered I was a healer. I’d even dealt with hearing problems in the past, and it wasn’t hard to clear the bells away.
Laz bellowed, “Fine, I fine. Dat was eart’ magic, cherie. Fire eat de air, but soil snuff it out,” back at me, then looked startled when I put my hand on his cheek and shot a bolt of healing power through him to clear his ears too. He dropped his jaw a couple times after, and said, “Jane,” in a more normal voice, and shook his head.
I took a breath to start being worried with, and had it stolen by the scream of an infuriated big cat.
Beast hates fire. Fears fire. Jane is quick, but not quick enough. Take control, force shift, leap. Away from fire, away from burning-magic smell. Dark stink. Strong stink. Easy to track. Not-witch woman smells big over the fire: wet, not scared. Hollow-man smells of earth magic, not fear. Safe from fire. Good.
My stomach dropped through my shoes. I was halfway over the burnt-out Eagle, trusting my shields to protect me from its lingering heat, when Laz collared me and hauled me backward. “Don’ be a fool, witchy-woman. You go after d’cat, den we all separate an’ whoever out dere, dey pick us off easy. You and me, we find our enemy, den we find de cat.”
My nostrils filled with the scent of sulfur as he spoke. I glanced at my hands: coated in yellow dust, as if the car had been hit with a colored dust-bomb, not a fireball. That seemed slightly important, but less so than glaring futilely at Laz. I nodded. I’d shouted it at every horror movie I’d ever seen: don’t split the party. “Arright. Okay. But what the hell hit us?”
Sulfur’s stench faded, replaced by the cleaner smell of salt. I hadn’t even known salt had a scent, much less one I could recognize, but it permeated the air, sparkling like fairy dust. Then as if remembering it had come from the sea, it sucked water up from the swamp and attacked Laz and me.
I snapped shields around both of us, creating a bubble of air that I figured would last maybe three minutes. This was going to have to be a very short, decisive fight, or we’d suffocate. Teeth bared, I pushed back with my shields.
Water being what it was—malleable, permeable, probably other things that ended with -able too—it rolled around the shield. I had the distinct feeling it was examining my magic, or at least the shields. I hadn’t doubted there was a real live person somewhere in the swamp directing it, but that solidified my certainty. Our voodooine was nearby, controlling the water as it studied my shields. The magic covered my shield, wrapping around it until the rest of the outside world was only a wavering mass.
Then it began to squeeze.
I had never thought of myself as claustrophobic, not until I’d gone crawling through narrow tunnels deep under Seattle. Since then I’d had a dislike of small enclosed places.
All of a sudden the safety of my own shielding felt like a small enclosed place. The water was dark, much darker than it should be, like the whole damned swamp had come up on us. Even the generally shimmery blue-silver of my shields didn’t have much effect against that dark. I squeaked an I’m-being-brave little laugh and knelt down, focusing on the ground as I tried to breathe.
Creepy-crawlies crept up my spine and settled at my neck. My skin turned to goosebumps as water started dripping on my nape. It shouldn’t be possible. It wasn’t possible. My shields were stronger than that. They should hold against pretty much anything as long as I believed they could.
The drip turned to a deluge. I whispered, “Laz?”
“Eart’, fire, air,” he said, sounding strained, “dey ain’t notin’ dat stand against water, cherie.”
I looked up to see his black skin sallow and his eyes wide and white with fear. He stood rigid above my coiled-up ball, the two of us making an example of what the numeral 10 would look like if terrified out of its wits. I gave a high-pitched giggle and struggled to my feet so we were at least a petrified 11, standing back to back. “The air’s going to run out.”
“Den maybe we better do sometin’ dramatic.”
I was halfway through saying, “Right, good plan, got any ideas?” when the goddamned fool blew up the earth we were standing on.
I didn’t see how he did it. Dirt and mud simply exploded under my feet, rupturing a hole big enough that the Eagle fell halfway in. So did we. The water, though, fell apart: our enemy hadn’t expected that. Fair enough, because neither had I. I balled up a fist to hit Lazarus with, but he grabbed it and hauled me out of the pit he’d created. “Where your sword, witchy woman?”
“I’m not a witch, I’m—” I had the terrible urge finish that sentence with “your wife,” which was a quote I suspected would make Jane laugh and which I thought Laz wouldn’t get at all. Instead of finishing, I drew the sword for the second time that day, its four-foot blade afire with shamanic power.
Then, to my complete horror, I swung around and slashed Lazarus across the chest.
Blood rose up bright and frightening. My heart seized up, panic and confusion wrenching my breath away. Wrenching everything away: I had no control as I lunged again, piercing his left pectoral. I just missed shoving it through his heart only because he skipped backward with more alacrity than a man his size should possess. I swung again and this time he parried with his arm, for Christ’s sake, laying flesh open almost to the bone, and bellowed, “What de hell you doing, woman!”
“I don’t know!” The sword felt weirdly light in my hand, as if someone else held it and I was little more than a voodoo doll dancing to somebody’s whim.
A voodoo doll.
“Oh, bloody fucking hell . . .”
I shook pelt, loose skin slinging water and fire away. Snorted with anger. Huffed. Do not like magics. Smells bad. Feels bad on nose.
Padded though the hot, wet place, panting in the heat. Scenting strange witchy-woman nearby, smelling salt in air, seeing-feeling water in air as it moved up from bayou. It moved as if it was alive, shaped like human hand, black as night. Killing water, water to drown in, powered by magic. Formed like fist of witch. It smelled salty like sea, and stinky-with-dead-things like bayou. And it wrapped around blue magics Jo and Laz hid behind. Squeezing. Witches were stuck inside to drown. I could not help. I padded off to side, following witch-scent on wind, following magic scent on air.
Saw witchy woman, voodooine woman in trees. I crouched low, belly to ground, watching. Witch woman was in open place in trees, had fire in center of clearing. Behind it was small house, planks and windows, no paint, tall roof, porch in front and back, dock behind, on bayou. Her hand was out and closed, making fist. Squeezing, just as water magics were squeezing Jo and Laz.
I prodded Jane, inside of mind, but she was still asleep after fire and danger, after fast-fast-fast shift. I did not know what to do with dangerous witch. I could leap and kill witchy woman. I could go back to Jo and jump through water and Jo-magic and save Jo. Maybe. Maybe could drown. Looked at fire in fire pit. Maybe could burn.
I crept closer, paws beneath belly, padpadpad through brush, not crackling leaves. Not—
Terrible noise sounded. Blast of air and water. Mud and dirt. Threw Beast high. Explosion from behind. It whirled Beast in air, over and over. But Beast twisted in air and faced where Jo and Laz were. Landed in brush. Water-fist was gone. Laz was pulling Jo from hole in ground. Did not understand magic. Smelled bad.
I crouched low and crept under spiky plant to look at witchy woman. She picked up something from ground. Held it front of her. Kit? Sniffed air. Smelled of kit. Young kit. Milk on skin. But thing in witchy woman’s hands was not kit. Strange.
Looked back at Jo, seen through trees. Jo had sharp claw out. And hit Laz. Jo and Laz were fighting. I did not understand. Looked back to witchy woman. Witchy woman was holding not-kit’s arms out, moving them.
Doll, Jane thought. Crap. She’s using a voodoo doll.
Doll like Angie-baby plays with? I thought to her.
Yeah. But this one can kill. You have to stop her.
I gathered paws close. Watching witchy woman. Dangerous witchy woman. Black magic woman. Jane laughed and sang song in mind. I ignored her. And I leaped. Jane went silent in midair. I landed close to witchy woman, silent in brush. Studied woman with not-kit-doll.
Gathered limbs tight. And leaped again. Just as Jo screamed. Landed on witchy woman in mid-leap. Pushed her from fire, lifted her with paws and claws. Growling. Took her down to ground far from fire. She took breath to scream, and Beast dropped her. Landed on her. Breath left her in hard whoosh. I lowered head and took her throat in killing teeth. Her eyes were wide and she smelled good, like fear and blood and prey. And kit. Hunger cramped belly.
Stop! Jane shouted into mind. Beast had already stopped killing strike. Held witchy woman with teeth. World fell silent. Woman smelled of kit with milk. I snuffled in scent, lips pulled back. Woman had kit to feed from teats. But witchy woman was prey and predator both. And dangerous. I did not know what to do. Jane did not know what to do. Jane did not understand witchy power, not even witch power of friend Molly. I held witchy woman still.
Saw her eyes begin to leak. Saw not-kit-doll off to side. Felt witchy woman’s hands start to move under paws. Growled and shook her. Killing teeth broke skin. Blood tasted good. Beast was hungry. Tried to tell her so with eyes. Move and you will feed me.
I heard humans coming close. I waited. “Jane?” Jo said. “Are you . . . Um. Are you okay?”
I growled. Hungry.
“I thinkin’ big cat need to eat,” Laz said.
“Yeah. And I’ll let the big kitty cat eat you, too,” Jo said, “unless you agree to talk.”
Witchy woman swallowed, throat moving under teeth, against tongue. Tasted good. “Oui,” she said.
“Talk? No magic?” Jo asked.
“Don’ believe her,” Laz said. “We wrap her in eart’, no? D’eart’ will stop her magics. Big cat, dis might hurt some.”
I growled and swiveled my eyes to big witch man. Do not hurt Beast. I will kill.
Magics twisted under belly. Burning. I pushed off of witchy woman, shoving down with paws. Heard breath grunt out of her. I did spiral in midair, swiveling with long, heavy tail. Landed in front of Laz and leaped at him. Screaming, Hurt! Hurt! Kill witchy man!
Landed on him, like landed on small woman. But Laz did not fall. Did not move at all. He caught Beast with arm and threw Beast into trees. Beast landed, rolled, and screamed again, screamer cat cry. Angry!
“Stop!” Jo shouted. She had arm out, with claw in hand. Magics surrounded her, hot and blazing like blue fire.
Jane clamped down on Beast mind. Stop. Stop now. Jane pushed down on legs and paws. Beast sat. Growled. But sat.
“Jane? Are you in control?” Jo asked.
Jane nodded Beast’s head. Beast did not like Jane in control. Beast is alpha! Pushed at mind with claws. Beast is alpha!
Not right now. Jo can kill us with that sharp pointy thing.
Beast growled, but lowered body to ground. Lying down. Flicked ears in disgust. Looked away. Bored. Small biting things bit at skin. Mosquitoes. Hate small biting things. Hate stinky magic.
“Okay, lady.” Jo bent and picked up not-kit-doll. Shook it and laughed. She held it to Laz. “Doesn’t look a thing like me.” She touched lock of hair on not-kit-doll. “Where . . . Son of a bitch. This is mine! When did you get this from me? In the underworld? Had to be. How did you get some of my hair!”
Witchy-woman-Jo made stubborn frown. Pointed sharp claw at black magic woman. “I think we were drawn here to stop you from doing whatever black magic you’re doing.”
“I no do black magic,” other witchy woman said. She put hand to throat. Smearing her blood. Laz put hand to his chest. Blood was dried there. Beast wanted to lick it. Hungry!
He’s healed, Jane thought in mind. Wonder when that happened.
“Coulda fooled me,” Jo said.
“Black magic vampire does black magic. No me. Black magic vampire said I had to hurt you, or else he would hurt Lissa.” She rose to her knees, fighting Laz magics on her skin. “Where is Lissa? Give her back to me!”
“Lady, I don’t know any Lissa.” Jo tilted head. “We aren’t from around here. We were pulled here to fix something that went wrong on this . . . in this place.”
“Pulled here?” The little witchy woman sat down the ground. “Pulled here? Oh praise all that is holy. I did that. I pulled you here. I did that.” She started to leak again.
I pulled from Jane’s control and moved silently into bushes. Hunt. I hunger.
No. Not yet. Shift back, Jane thought. We need to know what’s going on here and I think she can tell us.
I hunger! Beast screamed. But Jane pressed down on mind. I lay down beneath sharp pointy plant.
Not here. Oh, crap. Not again. Jane thought about Jane form. Pain hit belly and bones. Pain made much worse by hunger, hunger like from hunger times, when there was no prey to eat.
* * *
I came to lying naked under a sword plant, so named because the leaves were serrated on the sides and pointed on the end. Dang Beast and her petty games. The leaves drew blood as I climbed out. And now I had to find my clothes, which would be back at the burned out car. Grumbling imprecations under my breath about cats in general and Beast in particular, I made my way painfully across the rough ground, limping each time my bare feet came down on something sharp—every other step, it seemed—and swatting mosquitoes. Dang Beast.
My clothes were scattered everywhere, and I never found my underwear or my socks. Going commando was not comfortable, but it was better than the naked alternative. I already had damaged feet, and the blisters I’d get from the boots would only make things worse. Still grumbling, I made my way back to the shack.
From the voices spilling onto the air, Laz and Jo had herded the voodoo-gal inside and started an interrogation. It was pretty much one sided, or maybe two sided, with the third side—the voodoo-gal—remaining silent except for sobbing.
I stomped up the rickety steps and stopped just inside the door. I’d seen dozens, maybe hundreds, of these bayou shacks while in Louisiana, but this was the first time I’d ever been inside one. It was a sensory overload I could only call awful.
The unpainted boards on the outside were covered with layers of newspaper on the inside, damp and moldering. The boards between the uprights were piled with things—saltshakers, herbs in glass jars, candles in jars, wicks flaming and fluttering in the night. Bird nests and bird houses sat next to hammers, saws, spatulas and soup dippers hanging from nails pounded into the wood. Pots hung from hooks next to brightly colored dresses or shawls. Mardi Gras masks hung next to bags with cartoon babies crawling on them, next to shoulder bags with university names and mascots on them, next to parasols and umbrellas and hats and plastic containers and books by the hundreds, most mystery or romance. The scents were citronella, kerosene, lighter fluid, chicken, and overcooked grease. The sounds were the snapping of candle flames and the heartbroken crying of the witchy-woman.
I studied her. She was thin, maybe five feet tall, with coffee-and-milk skin and curly black hair pulled back in a messy ponytail. Her eyes were green and intelligent, and her hands and nails were clean.
From the look of her skin, she had been crying a lot. Sitting in a rocker, her knees drawn up and her arms around them, her face was crusted with white from the salt of tears. Her belly was flat. And her dress was stained and wet over her breasts. That’s when I recognized the other smells, hidden beneath the others. Breast milk. And baby.
I looked around fast. “Holy crap. Where’s the baby?” I asked. The woman burst into tears again. Jo and Laz looked at each other and then at me. Their eyes said, Baby? The woman’s anguish didn’t smell like grief. It sounded and smelled like fear.
Someone took her kit, Beast thought at me.
The others went quiet as I went to the stove and turned on a burner, found a pot—amazingly it was clean—and I poured water into it from a huge container marked with a commercial water company logo. Added salt. A 42-ounce box of Quaker Old-Fashioned Oats was on a wall-board over the stove and there was milk in the old icebox. A real icebox, with a block of melting ice in it. The voodoo-gal had no electricity and, if the smell was anything to by, no indoor plumbing. It wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t modern at all.
While the water heated, I prowled, and the other three watched me. There was an outhouse to the side of the house. No car in the drive, but a small electric scooter, which I had no idea how she charged, was leaned against the house.
I found the basinet in the back room, empty and cold. It hadn’t been used recently, but the dirty diapers suggested that the baby had only been gone a day or two. I pulled the bassinet into the kitchen and set it in front of the crying woman with a firm snap of wheels on the wood floor. She stared at it with tormented eyes.
“Lissa is your baby, right?”
“Oui. My bebe.” And she started wailing again.
Took kit, Beast snarled in my mind. Will kill thief of kit.
Jo looked at it, and then at me. And she sighed. “Son of a bitch.”
“Yeah. That pretty well sums up my feelings,” I said as I stirred a half box of oats into the boiling water. Moments later, I dumped the oats into a big bowl, added a fourth of a pound of sugar and all the milk, and ate. While I stuffed my face, Laz bent over the erstwhile enemy and said, gently, softly, “Who dat took your baby, sweetheart, eh? We get him back for you, yes?” Laz gently wiped her face with a tissue he pulled from a box on the jumbled shelves. “What your name, eh?”
“S-s-s-Serena.” And the girl laid her head on Laz’s arm and bawled.
It was a totally unexpected tenderness from the big guy and I saw Jo melt. I was feeling a little mushy myself, though that could have been the oatmeal and sugar. Who knew the muscle bound man could be such a knight in shining armor?
“Monsieur Pellissier,” Serena sobbed into Laz’s arm. “He ask for something stupid, no? A love spell. He want a woman he cannot have—the wife of the Vampire Crewe.”
Joanne interrupted with an, “Um?”
“The Mardi Gras Vampire Crewes,” Serena wailed.
“The Crewes who make the parades, the floats, all that. The biggest Crewe is led by another vampire, a rival to Monsieur Pellissier, and Monsieur Pellissier, he wanted his rival’s human wife to love him instead.” She shuddered in a breath, fresh tears streaking her cheeks. “And when I could not do it, he took my bebe, my little Lissa, and said I would do it or my bebe would die.”
Anger began to burn through her sobs. Anger and vengeance. I knew a thing or two about those motivators. She still cried, but more quietly now, and the hand clinging to Laz’s big muscular biceps tightened with fury, not sobs. “I told him I would try again, but instead I open a rift into the magic worlds, so I can pull something through. Something strong that might kill Amaury Pellissier. And something came, but I can’t find it. It got free! And if I don’t do what he wants by tomorrow night, Amaury will kill my bebe.” Her rage faded into a frightened whisper: “My Lissa, my bebe. . . .”
Jo tilted her head as the story came out, her eyes lost in the distance. I was too busy eating to figure out what had her thinking so hard. I mean, it was easy right? Kill Pellissier and get the baby back.
Finally, Jo said, “So you opened a rift, and pulled something dangerous through, and we came through too.”
The girl went still, staring at Laz, who still held her, then at me and Joanne in turn. Jo didn’t seem to notice, focused on Laz as she said thoughtfully to Serena, “And there you are, pulling down a major magic like opening rifts between worlds, but you can’t even do a love spell, and in the meantime Laz puts the kibosh on your attack like he’s not even thinking about it. What the hell does that mean, that we’ve got a higher power threshold in this world than people who live here do?”
Serena gave Joanne a withering look. Her tears turned on themselves, quenched in sarcasm, an emotion that could let her be brave instead of terrified. “Love don’t come and go with a magic spell, fool. Hate, hate is easy, hate you stir up from all the little black thoughts we all got buried inside us, but love is God bleedin’ through the cracks of weak human souls. I got power,” she spat. “I pray to Papa Legba, the gatekeeper, I pray and I ask for help, and I open a rift so maybe something stronger than me comes through, but it’s too much stronger and I can’t keep it in my hands.” Her fingers clutched together like she was grabbing at water, and then she looked at each of us, me while I wolfed down her food and Jo and Laz as they listened in silence.
“You,” she said to all of us. “I called you through, and if this big man here couldn’t shut down my magic easy as pie then none of you would be any help to me at all. I donno what you are, but you came here and you gotta help me now.” Her bravado suddenly fled and she shrank in on herself, all big eyes and fear once more. “You’ll help me, yes? You’ll save my bebe, Lissa?”
“Of course we will,” Joanne said, and Beast forgot her hunger long enough to rumble approval deep inside my head.
I didn’t look at Jane to see if she agreed. Laz was on my side already, and frankly, we were going to help Serena find her kid if I had to stay in this Somebody Else’s World for a month, because let’s face it. Threatening children is about as low as it gets, and that was without my own personal monogrammed set of baggage on the matter.
I did look at Lazarus. I didn’t have a name for whatever he was. The earth magic he connected to said witch, but the witches I knew needed a coven to pull down the kind of earth power he’d been throwing around so casually. Maybe he was a warlock. I had the vague idea that, traditionally, warlocks didn’t work with covens, though also traditionally, warlocks were men and I’d met a fair number of male witches. Of course, as far as I knew, warlocks were also traditionally bad guys, but Laz was doing a pretty convincing impression of being one of the good guys. Even Jane had softened up when he went all protective and daddy-like with Serena.
The thought that I might just not get all the answers I wanted crossed my mind. I dismissed it with a snort, then scrubbed my hands over my face. “I don’t suppose you know where he’s keeping your baby, Serena.”
I knew the answer before I even asked, though. The kid was back in New Orleans at that blood bordello. All that stood between us and the kid was one vampire channeling every drop of magic in the Big Easy, and all his vampirey minions. No problem. “I don’t suppose,” I said mostly to Lazarus, “that you can use that funky earth magic of yours to fake a love spell. . . .”
Jane coughed on her oatmeal. My ears turned red. “Okay, okay, no, not really. I’m not getting some other poor sap involved in this, not even long enough to be used as a distraction. I just, y’know. Nevermind. How do you stop a vampire?”
“You kill him.” Jane sounded like her Beast had found a human voice, all snarls and deadly business.
As mildly as I could, I said, “I don’t know how to kill a vampire,” but really, I’d known that answer was coming. Amaury wasn’t going to give up his grip on the Big Easy’s magic without giving up his grip on life. Even without Serena’s baby in the picture, it wasn’t like I could really go home again knowing I’d left dozens or hundreds of adepts in magical slavery. Amaury had been a dead man walking since we’d crossed into this world.
Well of course he’s a dead man walking a snarky little voice said in the depths of my skull. I smacked myself in the temple and muttered, “Oh, shut up,” aloud.
Jane banged her bowl down—I’d never seen somebody eat that much oatmeal at once, nevermind so quickly—and stood up with the lithe movement of an angry cat. “I do,” she said. “I get paid for killing vamps. She’s coming with us.”
She pointed her spoon at Serena while my brain stuttered over get paid for killing vamps. I didn’t get paid to do magic. The idea kind of gave me the creeps, actually, and I wondered how Jane lived with it. Then I shook it off, because of the various problems and questions we had right now, how Jane made a living wasn’t one of them. What was an important question, though, was, “How?”
“How what?” Jane and Laz both looked at me, Jane with the spoon still pointed accusingly at Serena.
“How is she coming with us? Our car got kind of blown up—” A fact which would give me palpitations if I thought about it, since we’d stolen the damned car in the first place, which meant we’d blown up somebody else’s vehicle. “—and I didn’t see another one anywhere around her house.”
Lazarus stood, put his hands together in front of his chest, and bowed his head. “Dat,” he said, “dat I can help wit’.”
* * *
“Eart’,” he said when we were all outside. “It all connected, whether we stand in d’dirt and d’swamps or wet’er we walk d’hard concrete streets of d’city. Take off you shoes.”
Serena already wasn’t wearing any, and Laz had taken his off when we came outdoors. His were super-shiny black patent leather with buckles and platform heels, not that a man his size needed any more height. I toed my soggy tennies off and wondered how his shoes had come through the swamp fight unscathed. Earth magic, I guessed. Jane pulled her boots off, picked them up, and glowered at them like boot leather was the next thing on her menu. I sympathized: shapeshifting took a lot of energy. It hadn’t been that long ago I’d run through so many shifts that my body had started cannibalizing itself to survive. Just thinking about it made me hungry.
Once we were unshod, Laz gave a satisfied nod and extended his hands. Serena took one without hesitation. Jane and I looked between each other, our shoes, and the offered hands. Then we both scrambled to tie laces together and throw them over our shoulders before joining hands, me with Laz, Jane with Serena and me.
Instinct made me edge about three-quarters of a step to the right. Everybody else shifted accordingly, and Laz gave me a startled flash of approval. I shrugged, pleased, and Jane muttered, “What?”
“Power circle. We were misaligned to the cardinal directions, now we’re not.”
She went, “Huh,” which was mostly a motion of her eyebrows, and we both looked back at Laz.
“Eart’, it all de same,” he said again. “We here, we need to be dere. De eart’, it carry us.”
I triggered the Sight, and was glad I did.
Rich brown power roared up from the ground we stood on, rushing over Lazarus like a mud bath. It coated him head to toe, all the variation of the swamp. Mud bugs, earthworms, green growing muck, everything that had a spark of life glittered gold within the rising power until they became stars in a blacked-out, man-shaped sky. Lazarus still held my hand, but at the same time he was gone, a cut-away door rife with mystical energy.
Serena fearlessly stepped through the portal that Lazarus had become, and because she held our hands, we followed.
I expected it to be cold. The space between stars was, after all, but no: traversing the world through the Lazarus-gate was warm, like drifting in an equatorial sea. Life pulsed within him, small bumps and waves of passion sparking and fading as we passed them by. In the months since my shamanic powers had awakened, I’d rarely felt such serenity—and when I had, it had been in the moments where the power of many adepts came together to create a larger whole. Lazarus, I thought with a grin, contained the power of multitudes.
A moment later the journey ended and we stepped onto the sidewalk of St. Louis Street in front of Vamp Mojo. Laz came through himself last. Jane and I sat down to haul our shoes on, and I took half a second to notice we were now all opposite the cardinal points where we’d been.
Neither of us had our shoes tied when the front doors of Vamp Mojo blew open, releasing a heavy, muggy scent of blood and sex. For a gut-freezing moment, all my nightmares came calling.
Witches and werewolves and something that looked like the swamp itself had come alive, part mud, part rotting vegetation, part God-awful stink of swamp gas. There were two of them, each ten feet tall, built like gorillas, and they moved like nothing I had ever seen before. Faster than the wind, angry as a tornado and just as uncontrolled. I wasn’t even certain they were alive in the biological sense.
In the Sight, they were a flood of angry power twisted up and shaped into a creature I didn’t even want to admit existed. I could See their magic, how it was hauled out of them in all the various shades of power, and how it was fed back, part and parcel, with a heavy dose of guilt that would turn even the purest of intentions grey. Hell, I could See Katrina, the hurricane-that-wasn’t, and how her Force 5 winds and rain and destructive capability had been lashed down through Amaury’s focal point. He’d been the only one strong enough to become the conduit for a city’s worth of magic thrown against the storm, and when he’d tucked the hurricane’s power into his treasure chest, these things had been born, leashed to his control. Shit. We were so screwed.
My gaze shot upward, to the whirlpool of black magic spinning above Vamp Mojo. To the eye of it, the hollow center that was the calm in every storm, and my stomach turned to lead.
Amaury had never released Katrina. He hadn’t diffused or redirected her. He’d taken the combined magics of every adept in New Orleans and had captured a literal force of nature. The Big Easy’s magic users didn’t just owe him. They couldn’t escape from him, not as long as Katrina’s contained rage kept sucking up their magic.
We were going to have to defuse the hurricane in Amaury’s pocket in order to take him down.
That was the bad news.
The good news was that everybody knew vampires didn’t come out in daylight, and the sun hadn’t gone down yet. So instead of Amaury and his vamps, all we had to fight was every other magic user in New Orleans. And they were pumped up on the feedback loop of Amaury ripping their power away, feeding it into Katrina, and having it come back down the line to them with the agony of an imprisoned elemental.
Nevermind. There wasn’t any good news. We were utterly and completely boned. I said, “Try not to kill anybody,” to Jane, and then we met the onslaught.
“Crap!” Beast slammed into my mind, her strength and speed into my bloodstream. I jutted my chin at Laz while pulling my M4 and a nine-mil loaded for vamp and were with silvershot. “You take care of the walking bags of mud. I got the weres.” I pointed the shotgun at two wolves in a dead-run and fired. The recoil slammed up my arm.
The wolves were too close for the silver fléchettes to expand enough to take out both, but the one in front yelped and flipped over backward, dozens of tiny silver knives cutting into his body and front legs. I took more careful aim with the nine-mil and fired pointblank into his chest. He fell and I finished him off with a two tap to his forehead. He started to shift back, his body trying to heal from the mortal wound even as he died, the silver in his system stopping the transition.
“I said not to kill anything!” Jo was so busy with a ball of blue light and that freaking magical sword I didn’t know how she noticed what I was doing, but her order broke through the sounds of battle anyway.
“Weres’ bites are infectious!” A third wolf leaped through the open door. He was reddish and huge, with a slavering mouth and two-inch-long canines. I fired a fast two-tap at the wolf, taking him midcenter of his chest. I watched his leap turn into a tumbling, dead, freefall, and only now noticed that I knew this were. I glanced over at the other two dead ones and realized that I’d fought them before, in my Louisiana. They were about to get as dead in this world as they were in mine.
“Well then don’t get bit by the sons of bitches!” Jo bellowed back.
I laughed and fired at the two other wolves exploding through the bordello’s door. The M4 round took them both, wounding, not killing. One was instantly blind, and him I’d leave alive. He might heal after we cut all the silver out. The other one was only lame and I finished him off. “Yeah, all of them are sons of bitches. Kinda goes with the whole wolf thing. And when women are infected, they go into permanent heat and insane.”
Jo grunted something foul under her breath and gave me a short nod without looking my way. I took that as permission to kill the werewolves. She had one witch down, unconscious, and the other on her knees. That witch looked angry, her hair out in a frizzed cloud, her fingers bent into claws as she fought, but she looked scared too, and I figured Jo would be ticked off if I killed the witch for her.
Serena was fighting a witch too, a tall woman, who weighed three of Serena, maybe four of her, but size is no indication of power, and the skinny witch was holding her own in a fight that seemed to be made of bats and rainbows. Weird.
Laz was standing in a stinking puddle of swamp mud and rotted vegetation, one Swamp Thing creature down and one to go. But this fight didn’t look so good. Laz was injured, his left knee bent at a weird angle, his weight all on his right. If the sparkling bluish glow was an indication, he seemed to be trying to pull at the earth, but it wasn’t helping much, not with the dead Swamp Thing and a half-foot of asphalt between him and the ground.
I had fired three of my seven silver shotgun rounds, so I had four left. And a few more in Bitsa’s saddlebags several streets over. I lifted the M4, aimed it at what might be Swamp Thing’s stomach—assuming Swamp Things had stomachs. I mean, what did they eat? And fired.
For a moment, nothing happened. Then the big bad ugly piece of mud turned to me and charged. “Crap!” I whirled and took off but I made it only three good paces when muddy water and clumps of bayou mud and dead leaves and what might have been a dead rat shot under my feet. I did a quick dance step at the flood and landed on the sidewalk. The muck smelled like the love child of a hundred rotten eggs, that dead rat, and methane gas from the swamp. And maybe a little like vomit. My gorge rose and I pushed it back down. I would not throw up in front of Joanne Walker. Would not. I looked back to see what had happened, and Laz cut me a sharp smile.
“Thank you. I needed dat diversion, oui.”
“You’re welcome.” I scraped the goo off my boots onto the sidewalk curb. It slimed. “I think.”
Jo fell forward, landing on her knees in the muck. “Son of a bitch,” she muttered. “These jeans were brand new.” She looked up at me. “Think I can get the stink out of them?”
“With enough bleach and Febreez. Me? I’m tossing the boots when I get home.”
“Where’s Serena?” Jo asked.
“She’s over—” I pointed and stopped. The hefty witch was lying in the goo, breathing but unconscious. And Serena was nowhere to be seen. “Crap.” We both looked at Vamp Mojo.
A huge fireball of blue light shot out the front door of the bordello. Taking the door with it. I dove to the side behind the protection of the wall. Joanne dropped back into the goo. The heavy hunk of steel door flew over Jo’s ducked head and landed with a clang in the mud, sending a stinking wave of it over the far sidewalk. The magics smelled like Serena, like baby powder and fury.
“Inside?” I said, helpfully.
Jo laughed. “Ya think?”
“I hope Amaury doesn’t mind stinking goo on his floors. Let’s go see what trouble Serena is in.” I pulled a vamp-killer, my new one, with the eighteen-inch, silver-plated blade and steel handle and crosshatched grip. I tossed it up and caught it, checking the heft and balance. I was still getting used to it.
Looking over my shoulder at the sky, I figured we had about twenty minutes until sunset, when every vamp in the city, even the young, unstable ones, would be wide awake. “I’ve only got three silver shotgun rounds and the silver bullets left in this gun. The rest on me are regular ammo, so let’s make this fast.”
“The rest? How may damn bullets do you have?”
“Enough. I hope.”
Jo got a funny look on her face.
“Vamps and weres are hard to kill,” I said.
“I so want to get back to my own world.”
“What, and miss all the fun?”
Jo, sounding like she didn’t want to, chuckled. Laz spread out his hands and cast a silvery light in front of us. It had a concave shape bowing out before us, and the far edge looked nearly solid, like a shield. Jo seemed to be studying what he did and she twirled the silvery blade in an arc. It made a swishing sound, deadly but pretty, as long as she was on my side. Laz went through the vamp-bar doorway, Jo followed, and I took up the rear.
Inside, the place was black, no lights, no torches, no nothing. And while vamps don’t go out in the sunlight, they also didn’t have to sleep by day. I’d killed vamps in dark places by daylight before, and Amaury was an old vampire, so he’d have resistance to the need for sleep. And this place wasn’t exactly a decorator’s dream—no windows, no view, no sunlight.
Laz tossed a ball of blue light into the air. The place still stank of vamp and sex and blood, but there was no one around now, except for Serena kneeling beside a corpse on the stage. It had been burned to a crisp. Not a pretty sight. And the little witch was crying, her eyes wide with shock. I was betting that she had never killed before.
I checked the position of my stakes, sheathed the blade and toed the body over. I blew out a breath. I knew this werewolf. Her name was Maggie Sweets, and she had been the alpha bitch of the Lupus Pack on my world—i nsane and in permanent heat, the true definition of a slutty bitch. On my world, her head had been nearly ripped off: here, here she had been turned into a crispy critter. Fate had it in for her, it seemed, no matter where she lived.
I touched Serena’s shoulder. “She was a torturer, a killer, a kidnapper, and rapist. She was insane and sick, with no treatment, no release, no real life.”
“And so you saying I should be proud of taking a life?”
“No. But there are levels of remorse, and this is one time not to grieve too deeply.”
The little witch turned red-rimmed eyes up to me. “All lives got value. All lives count equal: good, bad, kind, mean, murderers, priests, Satanists, children and doddering old men. This woman I have killed has no chance, now. No chance to change, to make good on her past evil. I took from her any chance of redemption.”
Her words lashed me across the soul like a horsewhip. My face blanched cold. I knew what she was saying. I understood. I had done that too. Often.
Before I could think what to say, I heard a pop, familiar and dangerous as a gunshot. The sound of displaced air made by a vamp moving fast.
“Vamps,” I shouted. I pulled the vamp-killer and cut hard right, whirling my body into place as a shield over Serena. Cool blood splattered over me. Crap. It was sundown.
Beast-sight filled my vision, turning the world into blues and greens and glistening shades of silver. Even without Laz’s witch-light, I could see that I was facing three vamps: Leo, Katie, and Grégoire, all vamps from my world. All friends—if vamps made friends. Seeing them made me hesitate, and Katie slashed in with her talons. I was too slow and took the gash across my forearm. I followed her pivot and popped her on the back of the head with the knife hilt. She fell like a pile of old rags.
I kicked out, my boot heel hitting Leo in the jaw. He went down. Which was way too weird.
I heard the swish of a rapier and ducked fast, behind a pillar holding up the roof. On the other side stood Grégoire, holding a sword. On my world, the beautiful, blond, French vamp, who looked about fifteen, was a soldier, a warrior, and adored battle. And he was probably a lot more powerful than he acted.
His blue eyes laughed at me as his sword danced. “Come out here, beautiful woman, and fight like a man.”
I swore and pulled the nine mil. Fired two shots, midcenter chest, and when his eyes widened, I said, “Surprise!” And stabbed him with an ash stake into the middle of his body, above his navel. He dropped hard, the sword clattering at his side.
I looked up to see Jo busy with a werewolf and the little Asian muscle-man who had felt me up when he’d patted me down earlier that day. I’d mentally promised a rematch when I had my weapons again, and now I did.
Before I could shoot him, Joanne’s sword disappeared. She grabbed the Asian guy by the shirt, slammed him around to bounce his head off a wall, then kneed him in the nuts. He collapsed in a dazed, whimpering puddle, and Jo snapped, “Maybe that’ll teach you to keep your goddamned hands to yourself, asshole,” before turning to deal with her werewolf.
I couldn’t remember the last time—any time—that somebody had stood up for me. Not just stood up. Protected. I hadn’t known she’d even noticed Mr. Touchy-Feely, and there she was offering up some well-deserved justice. I was touched. In thanks, I shot Jo’s were twice.
She grunted her own thanks. I liked Jo. She didn’t get all girlie, despite her feelings about not killing things. People. Whatever. ‘course, she hadn’t killed Mr. Touchy-Feely and she’d still taught him a lesson he’d be remembering every time he peed for the next week, so maybe there was something for me to learn there. I’d have to think about it.
Not right now, though. I checked for Laz—fighting four vamps and looking like he was having fun—then dragged Grégoire across the floor to Leo, dropping him beside his friend. “This was way too easy, y’all. I’ve fought Leo on my world and ended up bleeding. I woudda died if we hadn’t been interrupted.”
“Your world?” Leo grunted. I had broken his jaw, and he pressed on the broken pieces of bone working them back into place to heal. That had to hurt.
“Yeah. On my world Amaury is dead, poisoned by drinking from a woman drunk on brandy mixed with colloidal silver water. On my world you are the Master of the City of New Orleans and most of the southeastern U.S. You are freaking powerful. There? I wouldn’t have connected with your jaw, and if I had, I’d a broken my foot. You are powerful on my world, not the weak-as-a-human thing you are here. Your uncle is siphoning your power too, isn’t he? How about you call off your vamps and let me kill Amaury for you?”
“You would challenge me?” The silken voice was spiked with power, and slid across my nape like rose thorns dipped in molten glass. This was the kind of power I expected from a vamp.
I turned and faced the Master of the City. And fired four shots into his chest, heart-shots every one, silver ammo. He dropped to his knees. “Yeah. Where I come from, you are true dead, and the world is a better place for it.” I reared back to take his head, and suddenly, he just . . . wasn’t there.
I leaped to the raised dance floor, a wall at my back, the crispy critter in front of me. I hadn’t heard the tell-tale popping of displaced air, but he was gone. Which was freaky.
Laz stepped to the stage with me, to my left, and Jo followed, standing out front, her silver sword glowing wildly blue. “Where’s Serena,” she asked.
“Dat bebe,” Laz rumbled. “I hear bebe cry. From de back of de building.”
I listened, but heard nothing except a storm brewing outside. Smelled nothing but charred werewolf.
“The wind is coming up,” Jo said.
“So?” I asked.
“So I’m guessing somebody is about to unleash Katrina-in-a-bottle.”
“And if it gets free?”
“This city is toast,” Jo said flatly. “Blown away by category five winds and rain and tides strong enough to take out the levee.”
“Aren’t you a ray of sunshine.”
Laz laughed. So did Jo, though it didn’t sound happy. “Amaury isn’t a witch,” she said. “He can’t control that much power on his own. That means he’s got a power circle with witches going twenty-four/seven, or he’s got some kind of—” She lifted her sword and waved it in the air. “Some kind of thing. Something like this, that can be charged with magic.”
“Like an amulet?”
“Yeah! A storm amulet.” She looked like she thought that was awesome for about two seconds. Then she looked like she’d actually thought what that meant through, and turned green. The rain outside splatted down in a burst, so hard it sounded like a drum corps in the street. The wind grew louder, its pitch rising to a scream, like a screech owl the size of a bus. It sounded angry.
A tendril of wind quested into the room, lifting and swirling papers, overturning glasses on the bar, pushing at the tables from underneath, making them rock. And the wind was heated, wet, feeling like the breath of a large animal. The burned body at my feet started to smell worse, a putrefied stench of burned hair and flesh. I. Did. Not. Like it.
“He’s a power-hungry maniac.” I said. “My bet is an amulet, so he doesn’t have to trust witches to do what he wants. What would the amulet look like? And can we just smash it when we find it?”
“Crap, you think I know? It could be a toothbrush or a snow globe, for all I know. But I’m dead certain we can’t smash it. Everything would go boom.”
In the corner, Leo swiveled to his butt and sat up. “Pull the stakes from Grégoire and I will help you.”
“Yeah? Why’s that?”
“For me,” Katie said. She put out a pale, thin hand, slid it down Leo’s face in a caress that was pure sex. “He would do it for me. And for Grégoire. Amaury is dangerous. He feeds from us until we are near death. Without him . . .”
“Yeah. Without him, Leo takes over and this city is better. Stronger. Which leads us back to the problem. What do we do with the amulet when we find it?”
Lazarus, with all the serenity in the world, said, “I will take it.”
Jane barked a laugh. Meowed a laugh. Whatever short-tempered shapeshifter chicks who turned into big cats did when they let out a short, sharp laugh, anyway. “You’ll take it. Really.”
Laz, who had manifested plenty of sense of humor, didn’t seem to have any now as he nodded once. “Oui, yes. Really.”
“And just how’s that’s going to work?” As far as I could tell, Jane was happy to forget about our larger problem while she gave Lazarus a good mocking. I sighed, about to interrupt, when the rich earthy brown of Laz’s aura began to crack.
Power shone through the cracks. Not witch power, not black sorcery, not shamanic power, not magery. He shone gold and black and brown and green, jewel-like earth tones. He got brighter and brighter, until my eyes began to hurt and then to burn. I swore, flung an arm over my face to make myself stop looking, then dropped it again with the Sight safely turned off.
Laz looked normal again. Well, as normal as any six-foot-six bald man with a body like a young African god could look, anyway. I said, “Well, fuck me,” very softly.
Lazarus, bless his predictable little heart and soul, leered at me. “Name de time and de place, mon cour.”
I couldn’t help it: I snorted a laugh. He wasn’t going to distract me, though. “I knew you weren’t a sorcerer. I thought you were a witch. A really strong one, like my friend Melinda. One with a personal connection to her goddess. You’re not.”
“No.” Laz spread his hands wide, palms up, innocent. “I am not dem t’ings.”
“No,” I agreed, and started to grin. Jane was over there all but doing the pee-pee dance, dying to know what the hell we were talking about, but before she could ask, we all heard an infant wail from behind the stage.
Jane, who had the quickest reflexes I’d ever seen on anybody, whirled and yanked the stakes from Grégoire’s belly. I half wanted to stay and watch what happened to an un-staked vampire, but Jane raced along the wall and through the door at the end. Laz and I went after her and the vamps followed.
Amaury was in the next room, an office with oriental rug, an antique desk covering more floor space than some third world homes, ornate lamps, stone busts, bronze statues. Serena was clasped to his chest, a knife to her throat. Beside him was a screaming baby in a crib. I didn’t speak a lot of baby, but her shrieks were more than just general misery. She sounded hungry and she sounded furious, like she had every intention of laying the smacketh down on Amaury just as soon as she learned to walk and kick ass. I liked her automatically.
Jane, who maybe liked the infant on general principles just like I did, laughed and pulled her nine mil, pointing at Amaury. It looked like a tricky shot, aiming for the knife instead of the vamp. She started to squeeze the trigger.
Serena screamed, “No!”
Jane, who had the best goddamned reflexes in the universe, froze. Stopped with the shot so close I was afraid that if she exhaled, the semi-automatic would fire.
In the same instant I turned the Sight back on, and the knife flared with damned near as much brilliance as Lazarus had. Grey storm fury danced in the blade, Damascus folds that lived, pulsed and changed. Amaury’s hand trembled, holding the thing. It fought him with everything it had. With the force of a category five hurricane. It fought him with Katrina’s soul, and even with all the magic in New Orleans helping him keep it in line, he could still just barely keep the storm contained.
“The knife,” I whispered. “It’s the amulet.”
Jane, millimeter by freaking millimeter, eased off the trigger. Amaury’s smile flashed white and sharp with three inch fangs, and he pressed the knife a little more closely against Serena’s throat. “Now we can settle this, no?”
I said, “Yes,” so softly that even I thought I sounded afraid. I wasn’t. I was thinking, yes, but mostly I was getting ready to move. Way back in the back of my head, I said, Rattler? and a spirit snake, a sketch of light and lines, awakened in my mind. He was one of three animals that had come to me in my shamanic journey, and he was the weapon in my arsenal. The others carried me through death and time, but it was always my rattlesnake I turned to when I needed to strike with inhuman speed.
Hey, I whispered to him. I need your speed, Rattler. We’ve got a fight on our hands, and I’m going to have to move faster than I’ve ever done.
Rattler stretched and coiled in my mind, ropy muscle tensing and relaxing in preparation. He hissed, We ssstrike, with pleasure, and I released my awareness of him so I could speak to Jane again, ever so softly.
“Get the baby,” I said. “Get Serena. And stay out of the way.”
Jane, in the corner of my eye, bristled and shifted her shoulders like her hackles were rising. I had no idea what her problem was, but her eyes were pure gold, like Beast had a thing or two to say about my commands. I took my gaze off Amaury for a three-second stare-down with a big cat, and neither of us liked it at all.
Jane’s nostrils were flaring, her lips curled back like she was a cat smelling something nasty. I bared my own teeth, one hunting animal to another, before recognition snapped in. Beast was smelling something nasty: she smelled Rattler rising in me. I laughed again, and this time it was a warning hiss of its own. “You and me can throw down after this, Beastie girl. Right now we’ve got a cub to save.”
I looked away, insouciant as a cat. Pretending I didn’t care, pretending she wasn’t a threat. I had to trust Jane to control her Beast, or we were all so much lunchmeat anyway.
Amaury, clearly enjoying our little tête-à-tête, clearly happy about the dissention in our ranks, had simply watched the exchange. Mistake. Big mistake.
I said, “I’m sorry,” to Serena, because unless she got very lucky, things were about to go remarkably badly for her. She would survive it—that was kind of my raison d’être—but unless I misjudged things, there would be an unpleasant thirty seconds or so where she wouldn’t think she was going to.
She had exactly enough time to widen her eyes in alarm before Rattler’s magic filled me and I struck.
Jane’s commentary had made it clear that vampires were fast. Hell, in my extremely limited experience, I’d seen them pop from one place to another so quickly the air exploded with confusion. At a guess, there weren’t any predators a vampire might normally face that could come anywhere near their speed.
Too bad for Amaury that not one goddamned thing about this day was even vaguely normal.
I slammed the sword through his right shoulder before he even knew I’d moved. Serena got lucky: his arm spasmed out, not in, and the knife only left the thinnest scrape across her throat. She still screamed like she’d been murdered. The baby screamed even more loudly, and Amaury put them both to shame with a cry that rocked the heavens and made my eardrums shudder with pain.
He wrenched his body from my sword and shot backward at speed, leaping up onto the antique desk with such incredible grace that under any other circumstances I’d have applauded. Blood made a thin arc between his shoulder and my sword. I bunched my thighs and leapt, rattlesnake-fast, to tackle him off the desk before the blood had even broken from its flawless arc. Momentum carrying us, we bashed into the far wall.
Fists flew. Amaury hit like a pile driver, vampiric speed making up for lack of strength, assuming he lacked it, which my aching jaw did not assume. I hammered my elbow into his face, feeling his nose crack beneath pointy bone. He howled, which was gratifying. I’d broken my nose as a kid. It was good to know it hurt a vampire as much as it had hurt me. Then he seized my shirt with one hand, strong-armed me straight into the air, and slammed himself up at top speed, bashing his forehead into my nose.
Blood spurted everywhere. I couldn’t breathe enough to scream. Amaury flung me across the room and I rammed into another wall, sliding down, half blinded by tears. I managed to catch a breath and my healing magic kicked in, straightening cartilage—ow—and stopping the flow of blood as well as the dripping tears.
That let me see all sorts of exciting things. Serena had been knocked against a far wall amidst fluttering papers that had been tidily piled half an instant earlier. Jane was still caught in the aftermath of the motion that had flung Serena to safety, one arm extended, her very person bristling with energy and preparation. Amaury was already on his feet again, the knife upraised. Jesus, raised over the baby, who was about to be a vampire’s sacrificial lamb.
The biggest cat in the universe leapt on him, and that was all the time I needed.
Amaury had no fear of Beast. He thrust her away as he’d done me. She writhed in the air, landing prepared to pounce, leaping even as her paws touched down. But I bellowed, “Get the kitten!” and she changed the angle of her jump, her body swiveling in midair, her long stubby tail swiveling opposite for balance. The crib went to pieces under her weight, but she came up with a squalling miserable infant’s onesie caught gently in her teeth. Serena’s screams underlined the baby’s.
Lazarus, during all of that, just waited, arms crossed over his chest, watching. That was it. He just stood there, calm, handsome, waiting. I gathered myself while he waited, and this time when Amaury came to his feet, I struck again.
Not his chest. Not his neck. I was pretty sure my sword would obliterate him—it was solid silver, made by an ancient Irish king called Nuada—but I didn’t know what would happen if he died before the amulet was contained. So he spun, protecting his heart, and I—
—I, as infantile as I was gleeful, yelled, “Unhand me, thou shag-eared villain!” and lopped off his right hand, the one holding the dagger.
It was an upward swing, so momentum would kick the stump—was it a stump if it was the free-flying end? It didn’t matter. The stump flew upward a few inches. I turned my sword flat-wise toward it and swung like I was hitting a baseball. The hand, still clutching the dagger, made a bright bloody arc through the air.
Lazarus reached out and caught it as easily as any first baseman, and while Amaury was still screaming with shock, I shoved my sword through his heart and hauled upward, splitting his clavicle, his jawbone, and his brain in two.
Katrina exploded into the study, a force five hurricane unleashed all at once. Wild wind. Lashing rain. Everybody, everything, in fact I thought probably the whole universe, was soaked to the bone before we could even blink. The desk smashed through a wall, then out of the building. We were all, in that instant, dead, and just waiting to realize it.
As fast as she’d come, Katrina shut down again, swallowed by a flare of earth magic that came from the whole bayou country. It surged up, rich earthy stench of life, and wrapped around Lazarus, who wrapped it around Katrina, and quenched her rage.
Beast, not so much dripping as pouring wet, crouched in the silence, a now-silent baby between her paws. The poor kid’s eyes were big as apples, but it gave a sudden happy chirrup and laughed. She reached up and grabbed the big-cat’s ears and tugged. Beast, despite being sopping, licked the little creature, then turned back into an equally wet, none-too-happy, buck-naked Jane.
Serena cried out and scrambled the few steps to her baby, catching the little girl in her arms and clutching her close. Lazarus, looking satisfied, folded his hands over and over the dagger like he was tucking it away, while I stood there and dripped. A bunch of vampires, one of them clutching a healing chest wound, stood in the doorway of Amaury’s study, wheezing and gaping at the aftermath of what had been, at most, a fifteen-second battle.
“What,” said Jane, who had not once used a curse word stronger than “crap” since I’d met her. “What the hell. Was. That?”
Me, I said, “Who are you,” to Lazarus, but it was Serena, cooing and whispering to her baby, who gave me the answer.
She looked up at Laz, tears running down her face, and said, “Papa, yes? Papa Legba, I call you up, no? The gateway god, the link between here and there. These two, they just got pulled in by accident, but you, you came to save my bebe, my Lissa.”
I wheezed just like the vampires were doing. Even I knew who Papa Legba was, the voodoo father figure, brought across from Africa and the Caribbean islands to settle in New Orleans with the slaves.
“Seriously?” I said. “Really? I finally figured out you were a god, but Papa Legba? Really? That’s—”
It was cool. I hadn’t met any African gods before, and Legba was a trickster character, somebody who should be near and dear to the heart of a shaman. I blushed suddenly and shot a guilty look at Jane. Maybe that was why I’d taken so much more of a fancy to him than she had. He was rather literally my kind of god.
She looked like I deserved to feel guilty, but not for liking Lazarus, oh no. She got to her feet, pointing an accusing finger at me even as she went to find her clothes. “You knew he was a god? A god? I don’t do gods, Joanne, I don’t—”
“I swear didn’t know until the last minute! He’s got—you’ve got hellacious shields,” I said to Lazarus, more than a little admiring. “I mean, really, the other gods I’ve met, if I looked at them with the Sight at all they basically burned out my eyes, but you didn’t, not until you had to lose the wraps to get Katrina under control—”
I broke off, eyeing the knife warily. “She’s under control, right? And now what do we do with her?”
“I’ll take her,” Leo, one of the vampires said, and Lazarus finally responded.
Well. He laughed out loud, actually, pure derision. “You think you can control de hurricane, little vampire? Non. She is mine, we are lovers, only I can woo her. You wish to die, you try to dance wit’ her. Otherwise, don’ be a fool.”
“You promised,” the vampire hissed at Jane. “You said New Orleans would be mine.”
Jane paused in the middle of getting dressed to lift her hands. “Hey, I said it was yours on my world. Take it up with the god, why don’t you, not me. I’m just a lil’ ol’ skinwalker. Really, Joanne? A god? And you were being all buddy-buddy with him? Really? And you!” she said to Serena. “You got us all here, how are you going to get us home? How are you going to get him home?”
“Dis my home,” Lazarus said, and we all shut up for a minute. “Dis city, it’s alive,” he said. “Full of magic, full of power. Full of sex and love. Full of food an’ dancing. Dese things, dey feed me. Dey make me strong. I go, the hurricane, she unleashed. I stay, she stay safe, she stay quiet, she come out of her shell bit by bit, when de city need her love. I make her d’ queen of New Orleans, an we dance an party and love all the years long.”
Leo the vampire said, “But—!” and spat dirt, worms, muck, earth, instead of words.
Lazarus just looked at him, and when he’d finally cleared his lungs of muck, Laz said, “You dead, son, an I de god of dis here eart’ right here.” He tapped his foot on the wet floor. “You really want to mess wit dat? Cause if you do, I got more bayou I can fill you up wit’. Lot more bayou.”
The vampire shook his head, wet black curls whipping. Laz looked satisfied. “Dat’s fine, den. You run your business d’way you see fit, boy. Jus’ you don’ mess wit’ me and I won’t mess with you. G’wan now.”
All three vampires fled, which I didn’t think was normal vampire behavior. Jane crowed laughter as they skedaddled, then remembered herself and gave me another glare. “Gods?”
“An’ you.” Lazarus, magnificently unconcerned with me and Jane, spoke to Serena. “My little witch who brought me to dis new place. Katrina my queen in power, but maybe you be my queen in life, no? We try it, mebbe, you an’ me. Even ol’ Papa Legba likes a pretty girl.”
I really, really wanted to say something. Something like, “Oh no you don’t, you scoundrel! Not to an innocent young thing like Serena!”
Trouble was, I recognized the star-struck expression on Serena’s face. I’d felt it more than once, in the presence of the first god I’d met. Lazarus didn’t hit me the same way Cernunnos did—he was less feral, though not necessarily more civilized—but the only thing keeping me away from the horned god of the Wild Hunt was the very human man I’d fallen in love with long before I met Cernunnos. I didn’t think Serena had a Morrison of her own, and frankly, I wasn’t going to begrudge her a fling with Papa Legba when ninety-seven percent of me dearly wanted one with Cernunnos. So I kept my mouth shut, and kicked Jane in the shin when she looked like she might say something too.
Not that Serena would probably notice, what with Lazarus leaning in toward her and murmuring, “I buy you a pretty house all filled with pretty things. Buy you a pretty dress too. Yes?”
Serena giggled. Honest to god, giggled. I sighed. At least I’d never giggled over Cernunnos. Then again, he’d never offered to buy me a pretty house and a pretty dress.
“You two,” Lazarus said to me and Jane, absently. “You tell ol’ Papa when you want to go home, an’ I open up a gateway for you. Dat’s my thanks for cleanin’ up my city.”
“You—your—” Jane descended into strangled noises, then tried again. “You think we’re going to let you stay?”
Lazarus took his attention from Serena and focused it on us. It hit me like an avalanche, weighty power of the earth pressing down. Jane shifted her weight back, searching for purchase while I strengthened my shields. “You t’ink you can send me back?” Laz asked almost casually. Then Serena, who really was of this world, stepped up beside him and reached for her own magic, just to back up his point.
I staggered under the combination. Actually staggered, and grabbed Jane’s arm so I wouldn’t fall down. My friend Melinda, who refused to talk about it but implied she had a close personal relationship with her goddess, had thrown some impressive power around a few times in the past. Mel had nothing on the power of a witch standing side by side with her god. Right in that instant, I believed to the bottom of my soul that Serena could crush us like bugs if she wanted to. I wondered if I was seeing the birth of an avatar, one of the rare humans actually blessed with the direct magic of a god.
I wanted, however, to wonder that from a long way away, so I grabbed Jane’s arm, whispered, “Let’s discuss it outside,” and hauled her away before Laz and Serena got bored and squashed us.
The street was full of dead things and dazed magic-users. We avoided the worst of both, dripping our way down the road until we found a pool of light beneath a lamp, and together slid down to sit in its bath. Bath being the operative term: we were still drenched to the bone, drops of water sliding down my nose to hang at its tip, then fall. I was too tired to even wipe them away.
“A god,” Jane said after a while. “And you didn’t tell me.”
“I honestly didn’t know. He had shields like nobody’s business. Maybe it’s the connection to the earth that Papa Legba’s supposed to have. Or maybe he was trying to hide. The other gods I’ve met . . . weren’t. Is, um, splitting Amaury in half, is that going to stop a vampire?”
Jane laughed. “Yeah. That should do the trick. We can’t leave him here. Laz, I mean. We can’t leave him here. Can we?”
“I don’t think we could send him home even if we wanted to. Did you feel the power rolling off Serena?” I had no idea if Jane was sensitive to that kind of thing or not, but she nodded. “Besides, it’s either he stays or Katrina obliterates the Big Easy. I’m not crazy about a million deaths on my head. How about you?”
She curled a lip. “When you put it like that. Well, crap. I guess we saved the day.” She looked up at the night sky, now clear of clouds, and a bright star visible even through the city lights. “I’m starving.”
“Yeah, I bet you are.” I glanced at her. She looked worse than hungry, really. She looked like a big, soaking wet cat who hadn’t eaten in about three months. I lifted my own wet foot, sighed, and squelched it back down against the pavement. “You need to eat something.”
“We could hit Antoine’s again.” Jane got up.
I didn’t. She offered a hand and I took it, letting her pull me to my feet, but instead of striking off in search of food with her, I looked back at the vampire bar. “That sounds awesome, but there’s this one thing.”
Jane got a wary look, shoulders lifting like a cat ready to jump. “What?”
“Gods are kind of capricious. I’m kind of afraid if we don’t go home right now while Lazarus is still thinking about it we might never find him again so we can go home. He might keep not-quite-accidentally forgetting about us. We’re kind of a lot of magic. He might want to keep that around.”
“Ah, crap. Great. Does that mean we have to go through that freaky cold portal thing again?”
“I’m pretty sure it does.”
“No way,” Jane said firmly. “Not without food. I’ll die.”
I wasn’t entirely sure she was kidding. I pursed my lips. “Can’t have that. Not after all this trouble. Look, do you mind if I. . . ?” I called healing magic up. I was pretty certain Jane could see the power anyway, but I put a little extra effort in, making sure it had a visible component. Silvery blue washed down my arms, intensifying as it reached my hands.
She eyed the glow warily. “Mind if you what?”
“Just offer you a boost. It probably won’t stave off needing to eat an elephant later, but it should get you home without you collapsing.”
“You’re still gonna make me go through that nasty portal, aren’t you. I didn’t have to coming in to this . . . world. I mean, I was just in downtown and it went a little weird, that’s all.”
I crooked a smile. “Yeah, you’re still going to have to go through it. Serena’s magic brought us here, but Legba’s is going to send us home. So was that a yes?”
Jane grunted, which I took as an agreement. I reached out with two fingers, touching her over the heart. I did that a lot. Sometime when I got all introspective it would probably strike me that heart magic was, like, big important mojo and there was deep meaningful symbolism in the gesture. But I wasn’t much into introspection, so mostly I just let go a bubble of power: refreshing, strengthening, perky, enlivening.
Jane hissed, sounding like a surprised cat, and almost stepped back, but caught herself at the last moment. Around the tips of my fingers, a gray light swirled up, gray sparkling with black and silver sparks. It was cold and hot all at once, tingling against my fingertips like static electricity.
Jane took a breath and it too was filled with the silvery-gray light. I could See inside her, into a place filled by stalactites and stalagmites dripping water, with shadows and flames that danced on the walls, hiding and illuminating. I was used to Seeing souls as gardens, but I had no doubt that this dark cavern was Jane’s soul place.
She sat beside the fire as a little girl who watched me with an emotionless face. She was wearing a homespun dress and wore her hair in braids to either side of her face. Feathers were tucked into the braids, and around her neck was a necklace of claws and bones.
In the shadows, sitting on a ledge, was a . . . was her Beast, watching me with a predator’s intensity. Her tail draped off the ledge, hanging like a thick rope.
The little girl reached up and took my fingers. Her grip was hot, like the coals in her fire, and when she put my fingertips on her chest, over her heart, I sucked in a breath and steadied myself against the pull.
Her body ate the healing magics up like so much steak and eggs, hungry for more. The little girl before me stood, and stood and stood, growing in to an adult, the Jane I knew. On the human plane, her muscle mass swelled again, becoming healthier. I could almost feel the roar of emptiness in her belly. I couldn’t do anything about that, not exactly, but I could mask it for a little while longer. Long enough to get home, now that her bone and body were a little less fragile.
I gave a last push of energy and sagged, both impressed and faintly alarmed at the glimpse I’d gotten of Jane’s soul. That tough little girl inside her had been able to take exactly what she needed from me. I thought it was a damned good thing she hadn’t needed, or decided she wanted, more.
Jane staggered back a step when the magic sluiced off. “That was . . . I feel better. A lot better. I feel like I could shift again.”
“Don’t,” I said hastily. “Mostly you still really, really need to eat. I’ve just given you enough to claw your way through without passing out. I can’t actually replace the mass you lost, not without giving you some of my own, or something, and that would get—”
“Freaky,” Jane supplied, though I’d been going to go with “dangerous.” Either way, I nodded and she flexed, looking all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Or as bushy-tailed as somebody still sopping wet could be, anyway. “All right. Okay. I can face that stinking void now, I think. Let’s go before this wears off.”
We set off toward the bar. Jane’s stride matched mine exactly, and her competitiveness was just slightly greater. She kept pulling ahead. I kept catching up, until we were almost running and then both laughing. We broke into a full-on run, leaping swamp things and dead weres as we skidded toward the bar. We slammed into its front doors—what was left of its front doors—at exactly the same time, and burst out laughing again. A bunch of shell-shocked vampires stared at us, but not one of them made a move toward the kooky humans laughing it up on the doorstep.
Lazarus—Legba—had already made himself at home inside, sprawled over an overstuffed chair that had been dragged into the main bar from somewhere else. He had a cigar in one hand, a bottle of rum in the other, and Serena’s baby chortling on his lap. He looked to me as he had before: like a witch with a very strong connection to a god, not a god himself. But some of that fell away as Jane and I, still giggling, staggered in, and he offered up a sentence that was half a question: “You g’wan home now, girls.”
“Yeah. Yeah, we think we better. You’re, um. You’ll take care of New Orleans, right? You’ll get it back on track?”
“Cherie, dat’s what I do. Dese people, dey mine, no matter what d’world, no matter when d’time. We make it good, we make it whole again. D’city’s heart ain’t broken. D’rest can heal.” His gaze sharpened. “Wouldn’t hurt to have your magic here for dat.”
“No, but my world doesn’t have an active Papa Legba, either, so I think I better head on home.”
“Mmm.” Legba eyed Jane in turn. “How ‘bout you, cherie? You got power and control. Lotta folk in dis town gotta learn all ‘bout control again. You could help.”
Jane snorted. “I don’t think so. Gods and screwing around in alternate timelines aren’t my deal. I’ll go home, thanks.”
Legba shrugged, unsurprised, and lifted his rum in farewell. On either side of him, star-filled gateways opened. “I’ll miss you girls.”
“I’m sure we’ll miss you too,” Jane muttered under her breath. We nodded at each other, then drew identically deep breaths and headed for our gates.
Half a step out of mine, a thought shocked through me and I backpedaled. “Hey! Wait! Wait! Jane!”
Jane turned away from her gate, eyebrows lifted curiously. “Here.” I yanked one of my earrings free and offered it to her. An ivory coyote. It had been a gift from a friend, but it had also signaled a connection that wasn’t meant to be. I kind of liked the idea of handing it over to someone else, making another connection that had probably never been intended. “Look, here, it’s . . . not one of my totem animals, not quite, but it’s important. And maybe if, I don’t know, like, if you ever, like . . . need me . . .”
Ah yes, that was me, mistress of the English language. I shrugged, embarrassed at myself, and finished in a mumble: “I mean, God only knows if it would work, but hell, even if it doesn’t . . .”
Jane looked at the dangly earring, then twisted a slow grin. “You’re all right, Joanne Walker.” She took an ash wood, silver-tipped stake out of her hair and rubbed the wood across her gold nugget necklace as if anointing it. She tossed it to me. “I don’t know, rub it and click your heels together three times, Dorothy. We’ll see what happens.”
I caught the stake with a stupid twisty grin of my own. “You’re not bad yourself, Jane Yellowrock. Tell you what, I’ll see you on the flip side.”
We turned and walked away from one another, away from that world inverted.
. . . the end?
Fans are the only reason we have careers. Fans keep meals on our tables, and house payments made, and boots purchased. And most important, fans give us a reason to keep writing. Your letters and emails and chats keep us going when we are tired, overworked, and gave ourselves too many deadlines.
So, this is to recognize you, the fans. Easy Pickings is yours, written with you in mind, hoping you love this third-world-new-reality we’ve created herein.
Thank you for making it possible for us to write it.
—Faith and Catie
About the Authors
Faith Hunter was born in Louisiana and raised all over the south. She writes the Skinwalker series, featuring Jane Yellowrock. Her Rogue Mage novels, a dark, urban fantasy series feature Thorn St. Croix, a stone mage in a post-apocalyptic alternate reality. These novels are the basis for Rogue Mage RPG and World Book.
Hunter fell in love with reading in fifth grade, and best loved SiFi, fantasy, and gothic. She decided to become a writer in high school, when a teacher told her she had talent. Now, she writes full-time and works full-time in a hospital lab, (for the benefits) tries to keep house, and is a workaholic with a passion for travel, jewelry making, whitewater kayaking, and writing. She and her husband love to RV, traveling with their rescued Pomeranians to whitewater rivers all over the Southeast.
For more, please see www.faithhunter.net, www.gwenhunter.com & www.magicalwords.net.
C.E. Murphy began writing around age six, when she submitted three poems to a school publication. The teacher producing the magazine selected (inevitably) the one she thought was by far the worst, but also told her to keep writing, which she has. She has held the usual grab-bag of jobs usually seen in an authorial biography, including public library volunteer, archival assistant, cannery worker, and web designer. Writing books is better.
She was born and raised in Alaska, and now lives with her family in her ancestral homeland of Ireland, which is a magical land where it rains a lot but winter rarely actually arrives.
More information about C.E. Murphy, her career, and her writing can be found at www.cemurphy.net.
Also by Faith Hunter
The Jane Yellowrock Books
RAVEN CURSED (Jan 2012)
CAT TALES (e-book)
*anthology containing the short story "Signatures of the Dead"
The Rogue Mage Series
ROGUE MAGE RPG and World Book (2012)
The Walker Papers
RAVEN CALLS (March 2012)
*anthology containing the novella "Banshee Cries"
The Old Races Universe
HEART OF STONE
HOUSE OF CARDS
HANDS OF FLAME
BABA YAGA'S DAUGHTER
& OTHER TALES OF THE OLD RACES (Sept 2012)
The Worldwalker Duology
The Inheritors' Cycle
THE QUEEN'S BASTARD
THE PRETENDER'S CROW