Final Prophecy – Book 1
By Jessica Andersen
Leah’s head spun. She should be so out of there. This was nuts. Insane. Completely unbelievable. But she was a cop, and cops followed the evidence. Right now, the evidence—if she could believe her own senses, anyway—was telling her there was something seriously whacked going on. Logic—and what she knew about how the world worked—said none of this was real. But if it wasn’t real, how did she explain what’d just happened to her?
Her options seemed to be limited to: A) magic existed, and she’d gotten caught up in something way outside her comfort zone; or B) magic didn’t exist, and she’d been kidnapped, nearly drowned, and then boffed a total stranger.
She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to slow the spins, trying not to freak right the hell out and start screaming at the dark-haired man. ‘‘And here I was last night thinking you were a fantasy, and how that was better than your being a doomsday nut.’’
She realized her mistake too late, and backpedaled. ‘‘I meant just now.’’
‘‘No, you didn’t. Which means you dreamed about me.’’
Everything inside her went still. ‘‘Why do you say that?’’
Heat kindled in his dark blue eyes. ‘‘Because I sure as hell dreamed of you.’’
Every twenty-six thousand years, the earth, sun, and moon align at the exact center of the Milky Way . . . and all hell breaks loose.
During the last Great Conjunction, in 24,000 B.C., the earth’s magnetic poles reversed, sunspots torched half the planet, tsunamis drowned the other half, and terrible, bloodthirsty demons broke out of the underworld and destroyed the civilization that would later become known as Atlantis.
The few survivors of the devastation, powerful warrior-priests called Nightkeepers, managed to band together and kick the demons’ asses back to the underworld, sealing them behind a barrier of psi energy. Ever since then, the Nightkeepers and their servants, the winikin, have had one imperative: to stay alive until the next Great Conjunction, when the magi will be the only power standing between mankind and the demons’ return . . .
... on December 21, 2012.
For tens of thousands of years, the Nightkeepers have walked among normal humans, teaching them math, science, writing, and an intricate polytheistic religion based on blood sacrifice and sex. They lived first with the Egyptians and then with the Maya, influencing the development of ancient legends and prophecies, and the backward-ticking Mayan Long Count calendar that will end on the day of the Great Conjunction, signaling that there is no more time to count. On that day, mankind will either enter a new time cycle, one of enlightenment . . . or humanity will cease to exist. It will be up to the Nightkeepers, guardians of the night and protectors of the barrier between the earth and the underworld, to make sure time continues past the zero date and mankind is enlightened, not annihilated.
Within the Mayan Empire, however, arose the Order of Xibalba, a group of demon-worshiping dark magi who believed that when the zero date came and humanity was destroyed, they would become the leaders of the new earth.
The Maya had no knowledge of the wheel or metal tools, yet they produced thousands of soaring stone temples and pyramids, serving a population that eventually topped thirteen million. They worshiped time and their three calendars, one of which was a set of daily prophecies used to plan everything from marriages and the naming of children, to wars and sacrifices. There were also larger prophecies repeating on a longer cycle that still holds today. One such prophecy, set for the Gregorian date of Easter Day 1521, spoke of a white man coming from the east. The Nightkeepers warned that he brought death and destruction. Members of the Order of Xibalba, however, convinced the Maya that this heralded the coming of the god Kulkulkan (later known as Quetzalcoatl).
When Cortés and the Spanish conquistadors appeared on precisely this day, the Maya welcomed them into their lands and hearts. Over the next thirty years, pre-Columbian civilization was decimated by disease, war, and the efforts of the conquistadors’ missionaries, who slaughtered the priests and burned tens of thousands of written texts in their zeal to convert the ‘‘heathens’’ from the Mayan pantheon to the missionaries’ one true God. A handful of Nightkeeper children survived the slaughter, protected by their winikin . . . but most of their traditions and all but a few of their spellbooks were lost.
The Order of Xibalba went underground, over time becoming a rumor, and then a myth. The surviving Nightkeepers fled north and took shelter with the Hopi for several hundred years, then eventually liquidated many of their artifacts and used the money to build a training center deep in the Chacoan territories of New Mexico. Each year the warrior-priests gathered at the training center to celebrate the equinoxes and solstices, the four cardinal days when the barrier was thinnest and the magi were sometimes able to speak to their gods and ancestors. They collected the remaining spells, along with their theories on the end date and interpretations of the ancient prophecies, in a hidden archive. They trained. They raised their children. And they waited for the Long Count to run out, signaling the time for war.
Then, nearly thirty years before the zero date, the Nightkeepers’ king had a vision unlike any other—one he believed was sent by the gods. Even though prescience was never granted to Nightkeeper males, King Scarred-Jaguar saw himself leading an attack on the intersection of the earth, sky, and underworld and sealing the barrier forever, using a spell that was burned into his mind when he awoke . . . a spell that hadn’t existed on earth since the fifteen hundreds. A spell given to him by the gods.
This intersection, located in a sacred underground chamber beneath the Mayan ruins of Chichén Itzá, was the one place the gods and demons could access the earthly plane. While sealing the intersection would rob the Nightkeepers of their magic and forever separate them from their gods, it would also prevent the coming apocalypse.
Or so the king believed.
The first day of summer has the longest day and shortest night of the year, and the sun seems to stand still in the sky.
Twenty-four years ago
Two big clocks hung high at one end of the great hall, counting time. One ran in reverse, measuring out how long was left until the end-time: almost exactly twenty-eight years and six months. The other was a normal clock, and it was creepy-crawling to nine fifty-three p.m., the moment of the summer solstice. The moment King Scarred-Jaguar and two hundred other Nightkeeper warrior-priests would take their places in the sacred tunnels beneath Chichén Itzá and cast the king’s spell, sealing the intersection of the earth, sky, and underworld.
Three minutes and change to go.
Scarred-Jaguar’s loyal servant, Jox, stood guard, along with fifty other winikin, all spaced around the edge of the huge hall, watching the seconds tick down. The Nightkeeper children who were too young to fight were gathered in the center of the room. Some of them were watching a Michael Jackson video on the big screen.
The rest were watching the clock.
‘‘Nothing yet,’’ Hannah said from beside Jox. The pretty brunette glanced down at the marks on her right inner forearm, rows of tiny lizard glyphs, each representing a member of the bloodline she was sworn to protect.
The winikin weren’t magic users, but the marks themselves were magic. Every time a member of the bloodline died, one of the glyphs disappeared.
So far, so good. Two minutes to go, and nobody had lost a glyph.
‘‘You should be with the baby,’’ Jox murmured. ‘‘Just in case.’’
‘‘I know.’’ Hannah glanced down at the infants’ area, where she’d gotten her best friend, Izzy, to watch her tiny charge for a few minutes. Instead of hurrying away as the countdown continued, though, she took Jox’s hand and pressed his palm to her cheek. ‘‘Be safe.’’
His heart tightened in his chest, heavy with the knowledge that he couldn’t put her first, not when he was blood-bound to the king’s son and daughter. But when she released his hand, instead of letting it fall away from her soft, warm skin like he knew he should, he slid his grip to the back of her neck and drew her closer.
‘‘Maybe after,’’ he whispered, and touched his lips to hers.
She hesitated for a fraction of a second, as if wondering whether he actually meant it after all this time. Then she returned the kiss with a sharp edge of fear. Of hope.
Maybe after. It was what they were all saying— Nightkeeper and winikin alike—if not aloud, then in their hearts. Maybe after the intersection was sealed, they’d be able to break away from lives ruled by ancient roles and prophecies. If the end-time could be prevented from ever beginning, then the Nightkeepers wouldn’t need to protect mankind anymore. The winikin wouldn’t need to serve anymore. They could all disband, disperse, go off to live as they chose. Jox figured he’d start his own business, maybe a garden center. He could run the front with Hannah while their rug rats played tag in the shrubbery.
And he was so getting ahead of himself.
As the final minute began to tick down, he broke the kiss and gave her a little push. ‘‘Go on. Get back to work.’’
He didn’t watch her go. He watched the clock. Forty-five seconds. Twenty-five. Fifteen. Five. Three. Two. One. There was a collective indrawn breath when half the wristwatches in the room went off in a chaos of digital bleats as the solstice came. . . .
And absolutely nothing happened.
The second hand on the big clock swept past the critical moment and kept going. Thirty seconds. One minute. Two. Three.
After five minutes there was a collective exhale and a few cheers, and the kids in the middle of the room started talking, only a few at first, then more and more, the volume building as the tension released and excitement took hold.
The winiken to Jox’s immediate left, a sturdy guy named Kneeland who was bound to the ax bloodline, said, ‘‘Hannah, huh?’’ He elbowed Jox in the ribs. ‘‘Rock on. We didn’t think you had it in you. Ever since the prince was born, you’ve been so caught up in— Shit!’’ Kneeland went dead pale and clawed at his arm, pushing up his sleeve. ‘‘Oh, no. No! Please, gods, no!’’
Screams ripped through the winikin, echoing at the perimeter of the hall, then in the middle as the kids reacted to their protectors’ alarm.
A second later, pain seared along Jox’s arm. Cursing, praying, he shoved up his sleeve and stared at the black tattoolike marks on his right forearm.
There was a ripple of motion as the jaguar glyphs disappeared one by one.
Blood red washed across his vision and his pulse stuttered. Agony vised his body. Fear. Disbelief. Crushing, awful grief.
No! He wanted to scream for his people, for himself, but instead clamped his teeth on the cry as tears ran down his cheeks. Then, like a switch had been thrown, the pain was gone. So were almost all of the glyphs, including two of the four royal marks.
The absence of the pain echoed like silence. Like sorrow.
The king is dead, he thought. Long live the king.
The hall was in chaos. The girls—most of whom had the sight to one degree or another—screamed at the things they saw in their minds, or wept for their parents, or both. Most of the boys were shouting, running around, banging on the gun cabinet and hammering at the locked and warded exterior doors, ready to fight the enemy, the demons called Banol Kax.
Kneeland grabbed Jox’s arm, his fingers digging down to the bone. ‘‘We’ve got to do something! They’re dying! What do we do? What do we—’’
‘‘Focus!’’ Jox grabbed the other man and shook him hard. ‘‘The kids are the priority. We’re safe here. The hall is protected, and if we batten down—’’
Yellow light flared all around them as the protective wards fell. Jox’s heart froze in his chest. Impossible, he thought. The wards had been set by blood sacrifice from the strongest of the Nightkeepers. The only creature capable of breaching them was one of the Banol Kax, or their lava creatures, the—
‘‘Boluntiku!’’ shouted a winikin named Olivar as a dark shadow rose from the floor, radiating terrible magma-borne heat that set the parquet aflame. The creature coalesced out of a nightmare, rising up from the bowels of the earth, a swirling image of red-brown scales that remained translucent as it formed a six-fingered hand tipped with razor-sharp claws, and swung.
In the moment before it touched Olivar, the thing flared bright orange and turned solid. Blood geysered and Olivar’s body arched like a crossbow strung too tightly, suspended from the boluntiku’s six-clawed grip.
A chatter of gunfire rang out, sounding loud even through the screams. Olivar’s body jerked with the impact of bullets fired by a terrified-looking winikin, who’d unlocked the gun cabinet and grabbed an autopistol loaded with jade-tipped bullets.
Jade was to the Banol Kax as garlic was to the mythical vampires, or silver to the werewolves of legend. While the demons and their ilk were impervious to most other nonmagical weapons, jade could pierce their psi armor and do some damage.
The bullets had to hit to work, though, and these didn’t. The boluntiku puffed to vapor so the jade-tips passed harmlessly through, and Olivar’s limp body dropped to the floor. Then the lava creature turned on the shooter, going solid in the moment before it attacked.
Seconds later, the winikin was dead and the weapons cabinet was a mass of shattered wood and twisted metal. And the floor nearby was aflame.
Jox was moving before he’d even processed what was happening, running toward his charges, nine-year-old Striking-Jaguar and his fourteen-year-old sister, Anna-Paw.
Scarred-Jaguar’s attack must have failed. The Nightkeepers were all dead and the intersection was wide-open. The Banol Kax had sent their creatures to kill the children, to wipe out any chance of resistance when the Great Conjunction arrived. And it wouldn’t matter if the winikin got the kids out of the training center and hid—the boluntiku could smell magic.
They could also smell royalty.
Acting in concert, the boluntiku zeroed in on Anna, who was fighting her way toward Strike through the crush piled up near the exit, where children struggled to unlock the doors and winikin scrambled to get to their charges, everyone screaming as more boluntiku erupted from the floor.
‘‘No!’’ Jox shouted, his voice breaking as he fought his way toward the king’s children. Terrified cries rose up around him, and the floor was slick with blood, but he was entirely focused on the prince and princess he was blood-bound to protect.
Then a huge boluntiku rose up from the middle of the crush, rearing up and flaring its claws to swing at Anna, who was trying to shield her little brother.
Too late, Jox thought, desperation pounding in his veins as he struggled through a sea of panic and gore. He was going to be too late.
The creature went solid, killing everyone who’d been inside the confines of its vapor body. But in the second before the six-fingered claws raked the children, gunfire chattered and jade-tipped bullets struck home.
The boluntiku jerked back with a shriek that sounded like a thousand fingernails scratching across a giant blackboard, and spun toward its attacker. Jox turned, too, and saw Kneeland standing in front of the big-screen TV, holding a dented autopistol while tears rolled down his cheeks. When the winikin caught Jox’s eye, he flashed his forearm.
It was bare. His protectees—and their bloodline— were gone.
With nothing left to live for, Kneeland lifted the weapon in salute, then ran across the raised platform and leaped straight for the huge boluntiku. The thing stayed solid and caught him in midair with its claws, hoisting him to its gaping, hundred-toothed mouth.
The moment before it bit down, Kneeland let loose with the autopistol, emptying the clip. The back of the creature’s head blew out in a spray of blackish blood and rust-colored scales. But, still, its jaws closed with an audible crunch.
Kneeland’s body went limp, then fell to the ground in a bloody heap when the boluntiku vaporized in death, opening up a corpse-filled hole in the panicked mob. Retching, Jox hurdled the bodies and tried not to think of them as people who’d been alive only seconds earlier.
Around him the screams and fingernails-on-blackboard howls continued and the air smelled of blood and death. Then he was at the doors, and Anna grabbed him, and she was hanging on to Strike, and all Jox could think about was getting the hell out of there.
Someone must’ve hit the panic release—shit, he should’ve thought of that—because the doors weren’t locked anymore; they were wide-open and survivors were running out into the starlit crevasse where the training center was hidden, deep within Chaco Canyon. Winikin were dragging their children away from the carnage, running for their lives, but the boluntiku pursued with single-minded ferocity, their vapor bulks partially submerged beneath the ground as they gained strength from the magma flow at the earth’s mantle.
‘‘Jox, come on!’’ Anna pulled him toward the door. ‘‘Jox!’’
Three boluntiku were closing in on them, drawn by the smell of royalty.
‘‘Not that way.’’ Most of the escapees were headed toward the forty-car garage, or for the barns and the high canyon trails beyond. Jox’s heart hurt with the knowledge that they’d never make it to the vehicles or horses. More important, it wouldn’t matter if they did, because distance was nothing to the boluntiku. Only smell mattered.
He had to get the children to the secret blood-warded room beneath the archives, which only the royal winikin knew of.
‘‘This way,’’ he said, making the only call he possibly could, though it nearly killed him to turn away from everyone else he’d ever known.
Making sure Anna was right behind him, he grabbed a dazed-looking Strike by the waist and arm, half carrying, half dragging the boy across the great hall to the covered walkway leading to the mansion. It’d been locked all night, but now the doors stood open, one hanging halfway off its hinge. ‘‘Don’t look,’’ he ordered as their feet slid in the bloody wetness that seemed to be everywhere. He lifted Strike higher and the boy trembled and clung to him like a limpet, pressing his face into the winikin’s chest.
Jox heard fingernails on blackboard behind them, heard an infant’s wail and a familiar feminine voice screaming a battle cry. Something deep inside him wept— Hannah. But he didn’t turn back to help her.
He took the king’s children and ran for his life.
The glowing green numbers of the Crown Vic’s in-dash clock ticked from eleven fifty-nine to midnight, signaling the start of a new day. Detective Leah Ann Daniels let out a slow breath, trying to settle her nerves. ‘‘First day of summer used to be a good thing.’’
‘‘That was before the locals started drinking the Kool-Aid, ’’ her partner, Nick Ramon, said, then winced. ‘‘Sorry.’’
‘‘Don’t be.’’ It’s not your fault my brother joined a cult and drew the short straw. Battling the churning in her gut, Leah scanned the dark, cluttered alley outside the car, looking for Itchy Pasquale, the scrawny gangbanger— and occasional snitch—who’d called her for a meeting, claiming to know where the Kool-Aid was being served this time around.
She and Nick were parked only a few streets over from Miami’s chichi Wynwood Art District, but the alley could’ve been in another world—one peopled with sallow-faced junkies rather than glitterati and run by gang rule rather than art critics. The Miami-Dade PD made regular sweeps of the buildings on either side of the alley, and the raids turned up pretty much every crime on the books, and occasionally some that weren’t.
Like human sacrifice.
The bodies had started turning up eighteen months ago and had followed every three months like clockwork: two at each equinox, two at each solstice. The victims were beheaded, their hearts cut from their chests. The news vultures had dubbed them the Calendar Killings and hauled out all the old favorites—Buono and Bianchi, Dahmer, Kemper, Gacy. Only one reporter had been savvy enough to draw the parallel between the Manson family and Miami’s newest cult, Survivor2012; between Helter Skelter and the doomsday espoused by their leader, Zipacna, who had named himself after the crocodile demon of the Mayan underworld.
Said clever reporter had turned up right after the vernal equinox, sans head and heart. Next to him had been Leah’s thirty-year-old brother, Matt. Unfortunately, the connections between the Calendar Killings and Survivor 2012 were strictly circumstantial; there wasn’t any evidence the locals or FBI were willing to run with.
‘‘Not yet, anyway,’’ she said softly. Anticipation burned in her veins, making her impatient. ‘‘Itchy’s late,’’ she said louder, so Nick knew she wasn’t talking to herself anymore. They’d been partners nearly six years. He’d gotten used to telling the difference.
‘‘We shouldn’t even be here. Not our case anymore.’’ But Nick didn’t look bothered by the thought. Long and lean and dark-skinned, he was dancer-graceful, yet sturdy as a hurricane shelter, and wore a plain gold wedding band she hadn’t gotten used to yet.
Leah had danced at his and Selina’s wedding a month earlier, and toasted them with a big old, ‘‘Better you guys than me,’’ though it’d stuck a little. She and Nick had been there and done that and managed to stay partners in the aftermath, so she had absolutely nothing against the nurse he’d married. Besides, her relationships seemed to have a three-month expiration date, which tended to defeat the whole ‘‘till death do us part’’ thing.
Didn’t mean she loved being alone, though. Heck, even her subconscious was telling her it was time to start dating again, sending her some seriously hot dreams that had her waking up wanting and lonely, and thinking of a dark-haired man with piercing blue eyes, some righteous ink, and what looked an awful lot like a MAC-10 autopistol on his belt.
Great. Just what she didn’t need—a crush on a gang-banger. Although she supposed—hypothetically—that a ’banger would be better than a doomsday nut who believed that when the Maya’s backward-counting calendar hit its zero date in a few years, the world was going to end.
News flash: Not even the modern Maya believed that shit anymore. Most of ’em, anyway.
In the Crown Vic’s passenger seat, Nick rolled his shoulders, trying to work out the kinks. ‘‘Long day.’’ He was wearing yesterday’s khakis and shirt, but somehow managed to make the wrinkles look like a fashion statement.
Leah, on the other hand, was way more wrinkle than fashion in navy pants and a fitted blue button-down that’d done the sexy curve-clinging thing twenty hours earlier, but now chafed beneath the Kevlar vest she’d pulled on for the meet. Her white-blond hair was pulled up in a ponytail and stuffed under an MDPD ball cap, and all vestiges of makeup had hasta-la-vista’ed it hours ago.
Long day, indeed.
They should’ve been off shift at nine. Technically, they were off shift, but the snitch’s call had been too good to pass up . . . and too tempting to pass along. ‘‘Itchy won’t talk to anyone but me,’’ she said, faintly defensive because they both knew she should’ve taken it to the task force handling the Calendar Killings, which had ceased including her the moment she’d ID’d her brother’s body.
‘‘So where is he?’’
‘‘Damned if I know.’’ She tried Itchy’s cell again, but it bounced straight to voice mail.
‘‘Wait.’’ Nick pointed as a figure emerged from behind an overflowing Dumpster at the far end of the alley. ‘‘Over there.’’
Leah’s heart did a bumpity-bump as she identified her informant by the faint hitch in his get-along, courtesy of a drive-by a few years back. ‘‘That’s him.’’ She checked the clip on her .22 and reached for the door handle. ‘‘Stay here. You know how twitchy he gets around you.’’
‘‘Dude was born twitchy.’’ But Nick hit the headlights. ‘‘Keep in sight.’’
Anticipation flared through Leah, alongside something that hummed in her veins and stomach and made her feel like this was it; this was the moment she’d been waiting for—a chance to pin something real on Zipacna and his freakazoid followers.
Taking a deep breath, she climbed out of the car, leaving the door open in case she needed quick cover. She held the .22 at the ready. ‘‘Hey, Itchy.’’
The banger was in his late teens, wearing a pair of low-slung jeans and a T-shirt featuring a cartoon penis and a caption she had no desire to read. His head was shaved bald, and a hollow plug stretched his earlobe around empty space the size of a quarter, making him look lopsided.
He grinned, baring a shiny set of caps with both front teeth filed to points. ‘‘Hey, beautiful. Got a present for you.’’
‘‘Zipacna.’’ It was no secret she thought the head of Survivor2012 was the Calendar Killer, but three warrants had failed to find any evidence in the mansion he’d retrofitted for the bloodletting rituals he conducted, claiming to be descended from King Somebody-or-other. Freak.
Unfortunately, he was a smart freak. She hadn’t even been able to pin him with a parking ticket. Until tonight.
Lowering the .22, she patted her pocket beneath the Kevlar. ‘‘I’ve got the cash, and the solstice hits in twelve hours. Time for a couple more bodies. You going to tell me where he kills them?’’
Itchy grinned. ‘‘I’m gonna do better than tell you, baby.’’ His eyes flicked to a point over her shoulder in a blatant signal.
Shit! Survival instincts going into overdrive, Leah spun and lifted her weapon just as a dark figure stepped from the shadows and lifted a rocket launcher to shoulder height, aiming it at the Crown Vic. Panic spurted and she snapped off three quick shots, screaming, ‘‘Nick, run!’’
But her shots missed and her words were lost beneath the rocket thump. Seconds later, the car exploded and a red-orange fireball howled outward, flattening everything in its path.
The shock wave slammed into Leah, flinging her through the air. She hit a Dumpster with battering force and crashed into a pile of spilled refuse.
‘‘Nick!’’ Head ringing, pulse hammering, she scrambled to her hands and knees in the garbage. He got out, she told herself. He can’t be dead.
Except deep down inside, she knew he was.
‘‘She’s over here,’’ Itchy’s voice called, and footsteps rattled as a half dozen of Itchy’s compadres converged around the Dumpster, warning that she could mourn Nick later. She had her own ass to worry about right now.
Breath sobbing in her lungs, she scrabbled around, found the .22 half-buried beneath a pile of garbage, grabbed the gun, and came up firing.
Her first shot caught a shirtless teen in the chest, punching a hole just above the tattoo of a flying crocodile on his left pec. The guy fell back, but that left Itchy plus four others. She got off another shot before she felt a sting of impact, though no major pain. She looked down and saw the double barb of a high-powered Taser hooked onto her pants. Before she could yank it out, Itchy hit the button and nailed her with fifty thousand volts.
Leah’s jaw locked tight, holding the scream inside as everything went numb and she flopped to the pavement, twitching hard.
Then they were pawing at her, groping her as they hauled her up and dragged her out of the alley. She couldn’t move, could barely breathe, could do little more than scream inside her own skull as they gagged her, zip-tied her hands and feet, and tossed her in the back of a van. Moments later, she felt a sharp prick in her left butt cheek, and as the doors slammed and the van drove off into the night, everything started to go gray. Then black.
The blonde leaning over the garden center’s display table of annual flats was wearing a tight pink tank top and no bra.
Not that Strike was looking or anything.
‘‘I just love impatiens, don’t you?’’ She bent over further to select just the right six-pack of flowers, giving him an eyeful.
Hello. He dialed down the water wand he’d been using to fertilize the hanging begonias, and moved around the table. ‘‘Impatiens are pretty enough,’’ he said, pretending to look at the flowers. ‘‘But I prefer the full-sun varieties, myself. No tan lines.’’
She shot him a gotcha look before nodding at his right arm. ‘‘Nice ink. Aztec, right?’’
He normally wore long-sleeved shirts to avoid just this sort of conversation, especially from people who noticed that his business partners, Jox and Red-Boar, wore similar glyphs. Today was scorching hot, though, and he’d gone with cutoffs and a black T-shirt that bared his marks: the jaguar that symbolized his bloodline and the ju that marked him as royalty.
‘‘They’re Mayan.’’ He could’ve told her that the Maya had been the only society in the New World to develop a fully functional writing system, or that it was because they, like the Egyptians two millennia earlier, had been taught by a warrior culture that went back twenty thousand years or so to Atlantis.
He didn’t tell her that because, one, she’d think he was whacked; two, lectures weren’t sexy; and three, the details, like the forearm marks, weren’t relevant anymore. The barrier was sealed, the Nightkeepers unnecessary. In four-plus years, the Great Conjunction would come and go with nothing more than a Michael Bay disaster movie and some empty hype.
‘‘Very nice,’’ she said again, and it was clear she wasn’t just talking about the marks.
‘‘Thanks.’’ Strike was bigger than average—most Nightkeepers were, or had been—and he kept himself fighting fit. Add that to deep blue eyes, shoulder-length black hair worn in a ponytail regardless of trends, and a close-clipped jawline beard, and he had a look that either fascinated women or scared them off, depending.
The blonde didn’t seem scared as she took a long look around the garden center.
The sturdy barn-red store was flanked with plastic-covered greenhouses, with the one- and five-gallon shrubs grouped out front like leafy islands sprouting from an ocean of parking lot. The balled and burlapped trees were set around the perimeter, and tables of flowers and veg flats were strategically placed so shoppers couldn’t miss them on the way in. ‘‘This place is cute,’’ she said finally. ‘‘Yours?’’
In other words, was he an owner, a contract landscaper working out of the nursery, or a schlub who, at thirty-three, watered plants for a living at seven bucks an hour?
‘‘Mine and my partners’,’’ he said, wondering how she’d react if he told her it was a little bit of all of those things.
He was part owner, along with Jox and Red-Boar, because all three of their names were on the Nightkeeper Fund started by his umpteenth-great-grandfather after he’d sold off most of the old artifacts. Strike also did some landscaping now and then, when he got the itch. And yeah, he was thirty-three, and although he had an MBA from Harvard Biz and used it to manage the fund, at the moment his career pretty much consisted of watering plants and discussing the intricacies of dried versus composted cow manure.
That, and studying spells that hadn’t worked in twenty-four years.
‘‘Want to give me a behind-the-scenes tour?’’ The blonde shot him a look of pure invitation that normally would’ve had his glands sitting up and taking notice.
Now, though, his libido sort of shrugged and yawned, which gave him serious pause. Oh, come on. How could he not be interested in getting some of that?
He ought to be . . . hell, he was trying to be, but he was doing the autoflirt thing—and had been for the past few weeks—all because of some seriously funky, sexed-up dreams that had him waking up horny as hell. He could clearly picture the woman in those dreams: her high-cheekboned face and pale blue eyes, a set of full lips that seemed made to wrap around a guy and hang on for the ride, and white-blond hair that sifted through his fingers like spun platinum.
He looked at Pink Top again to make sure. Nope, wrong blonde. Assuming, of course, there was a ‘‘right’’ blonde . . . which was a serious stretch, because even if the barrier were active, which it wasn’t, and he’d gone through the talent ceremony at puberty to get his full powers, which he hadn’t, Nightkeeper males weren’t supposed to be precogs. Which meant the dreams were just dreams, and he should be good to go.
Only he wasn’t.
‘‘There’s really not much to see out back.’’ He smiled in an effort to soften the brush-off. ‘‘Besides, I’ve got to keep working. My boss is a real ballbuster.’’ There was even a bit of truth to that—Jox might be the royal winikin and thus technically Strike’s servant, but the garden center was his baby, and woe to he who skimped on watering duty.
Surprise flicked across the blonde’s face, along with a hint of temper he figured she was entitled to. ‘‘Really? Wow. Guess I called that wrong.’’
‘‘My bad, not yours.’’ He cranked the water wand and hit a hanging pot of salmon-colored begonias. ‘‘Enjoy the impatiens.’’
As she huffed off and the begonia pot overflowed, a voice from behind Strike said, ‘‘What are you, fucking stupid?’’
Exhaling and counting to ten backward, Strike dealt with the water first, shutting it off and dropping the hose. Then he turned and held out a hand. ‘‘That’ll be five bucks, Rabbit.’’
Wearing low-slung jeans, heavy work boots, and a black hooded track jacket even though it was in the high eighties and rising, with the hood pulled up over his shaved head and his iPod buds stuck firmly in his ears, Red-Boar’s seventeen-year-old son was dressed to depress, and wore the ’tude to match.
Smirking, the kid dug in his pocket, pulled out a ten, and slapped it in Strike’s palm to pay the ‘‘no saying ‘fuck’ on the job’’ fine they’d been forced to institute when Rabbit graduated high school a full year ahead of schedule, blew off his SATs to joyride down the coast in Jox’s truck, and then e-mailed all his completed college applications to the U.S. Embassy in Honduras while swearing to Jox and Strike that he’d submitted the apps on time.
He’d probably figured—hoped—that his father would cut ties after those stunts, leaving him free to do whatever the hell he wanted. Instead, Red-Boar—aka the only adult Nightkeeper who’d survived the Solstice Massacre—had surprised all of them by rousing his PTSD-zonked self long enough to ground Rabbit’s ass, cancel his AmEx, julienne his license, and order the kid to work at the garden center all summer, where he’d promptly started cussing out the customers.
Thus, the ‘‘fuck’’ fine.
Strike pocketed the ten. ‘‘You want change?’’
‘‘Put it on account.’’ The kid’s eyes, so light blue they were almost gray, followed the blonde into the store. ‘‘But seriously. How can you not want a piece of that?’’
‘‘I take it you’re done pruning out back?’’
Jox and Strike did their best to keep Rabbit away from the front of the store as much as possible, because they never knew what he’d get into next. Sometimes his ideas were brilliant, sometimes terrifying, quite often both. But Rabbit was Red-Boar’s son, which meant he was one of them. It also meant that he was at a serious disadvantage, because his father was a head case, and nobody knew a damn thing about his mother except Red-Boar, who wasn’t talking. So Strike tried to cut the kid some slack. In the end, the four of them were a family, albeit a seriously dysfunctional one.
Rabbit lifted a shoulder, still focused on the front of the store even though the blonde was long gone. ‘‘Why don’t you check on the pruning for yourself, Strike-out? ’’
‘‘In other words, no.’’ Strike rubbed absently at his wrist, which had started aching early that morning, along with most of the rest of his body. He was tired, and vaguely pissed off for no good reason. There was nothing wrong, but there was nothing particularly right, either.
He was used to living with Jox, Red-Boar, and Rabbit in a strange bacheloresque symbiosis that was part necessity, part history, but it wasn’t the life he would’ve picked. Four and a half more years until the world doesn’t end, he reminded himself. You’ve just got to hang on until then.
‘‘Delivery’s here,’’ Rabbit said, shifting his attention as an eighteen-wheeler turned up the driveway. ‘‘I’ll sign for it.’’
‘‘No way.’’ Strike grabbed Rabbit by the back of his hood, knowing the kid was just as likely to blow straight past the truck and down the street to the liquor store, bucking for another shoplifting conviction. He headed the teen toward the greenhouse with a shove. ‘‘Prune. Now.’’
Strike patted his pocket, where he’d stuck the ten. ‘‘We’re even.’’
He signed for the delivery—more cow shit—and headed into the store, which was functional and homey without being unrelentingly cute.
The walls were lined with shelves and bins holding everything from fifty-cent peat cakes to three-hundred-dollar customized bird feeders, complete with advanced squirrel deterrent systems that made no sense to Strike. Rows of freestanding shelves held the seeds and chemicals, and twenty-pounders of fertilizer, crabgrass killer, and slug repellent were stacked neatly in a row headed for the checkout area, where books and magazines competed for space with other point-of-purchase doodads. The counter was paneled in rustic wood like the rest of the shop, and the high-tech cash register was disguised to look like something out of the forties.
Behind the counter, Jox was perched on a bar stool chatting with the blonde, whom he’d apparently talked into a pink ceramic pot for her impatiens, along with a bonsai money tree.
The winikin was wearing khakis and a green long-sleeved jersey that covered the two jaguar glyphs on his arm—one for Strike, the other for his sister. Anna might’ve renounced her magic and taken off, but the bloodline connection remained unbroken. Jox’s dark skin was relatively unlined for his fifty-seven years, his close-cropped hair shot through with silver. He looked relaxed enough, but his expression was edged with the same tension Strike felt in his own gut, the same sense of dread mingled with anticipation.
The thirteenth prophecy spoke of the final five years before the Great Conjunction, when a terrible sacrifice would be required to keep the Banol Kax from coming to earth and precipitating the big game-over. Thing was, King Scarred-Jaguar’s attack on the intersection twenty-four years ago had sealed the barrier, preventing the few surviving Nightkeepers—i.e., Strike, Red-Boar, and Anna—from using their powers. The seal also prevented the Banol Kax—and the gods, for that matter—from even communicating with the earthly plane, never mind reaching through the barrier to possess a willing, or unwilling, host. In all those things, Scarred-Jaguar’s vision had proven true, though it had cost him the Nightkeepers.
Had it been worth it? Strike didn’t know, and a whole hell of a lot of the answer depended on whether the barrier stayed sealed through the final five-year countdown.
With her purchase concluded, the blonde wiggled out, winking at Strike. ‘‘Your loss.’’
‘‘No doubt.’’ He watched her go, thinking that Rabbit was right. He was an idiot.
Scratching a red patch on his inner wrist—he must’ve gotten nailed by a spider or something—he told Jox, ‘‘Your shit’s here.’’
‘‘Thanks.’’ The winikin skirted the counter and headed for the back, where a set of swinging doors led to the warehouse and loading dock. ‘‘Watch the register for a few minutes. I want to make sure they didn’t send me broken bags again.’’
‘‘Ah, yes. A smell to remember.’’ Strike took Jox’s customary place on the bar stool behind the counter, swallowing hard against an unexpected surge of nausea.
A glance around the storefront showed a few browsers, but nobody who looked like they needed immediate attention. Which was a good thing, because all of a sudden he wasn’t feeling so hot. His wrist was burning like a son of a bitch, and when he looked down he saw three right hands where there should’ve been one. A quick grab told him he hadn’t sprouted extra limbs; he was seeing triple. He was also sweating like a pig, and the idea of sticking his head in the john so he could barf in peace was sounding real good.
Narrowing his eyes to cut the spin, he groped for the phone to buzz Jox out back, and came up with a utility knife instead. This’ll do, he thought out of nowhere.
Moving without conscious volition, he flipped the knife open and sliced the blade across his right palm.
Blood spilled over, tracking down his wrist and across his glyph marks. Then the pain hit, first from the cut, and again when he slithered off the bar stool and landed hard on his knees. His head spun and the nausea increased, but it was more like a pressure in his throat, a burning compulsion to say . . . what?
Jesus, what the fuck’s going on? he thought, but the acid burning at the back of his throat told his head what his heart already knew. It was the summer solstice, one of the four days each year that the barrier used to be at its thinnest, when a Nightkeeper’s powers had been strongest.
The barrier—and his power—was coming back online after all these years.
Panic mingled with excitement as blood dripped onto the floor, pooling near his right knee. The warm smell touched his nostrils, tangy and sweet and calling to something inside him, something that ripped at his chest like fear. Like heartache.
‘‘Pasaj,’’ he whispered. The word was the basic command for a Nightkeeper to open a connection to the barrier, to his ancestors, and it hadn’t worked since the massacre.
Gray-green mist filled his brain, and the world started to slide sideways beneath him.
‘‘Pasaj!’’ he said again, louder. ‘‘Are you out there? Talk to me, damn it!’’
He heard distant voices, a woman’s cry of alarm. ‘‘He’s bleeding! Someone help!’’
Inside his head, though, there was nothing beyond the spin and the terrible, awful pressure in his throat. Then he saw something in the grayness behind his eyelids. A single slender thread of yellow in the fog. Holy crap. Acting on instinct, he reached out with his mind and touched the thread, grabbed onto it, and whispered the second word of the barrier spell. ‘‘Och.’’ Enter.
And the world around him vanished.
Jox was counting bags of cow shit when he heard raised voices from out front, and what sounded like a woman’s scream. Seconds later, Rabbit burst through the warehouse doors, his eyes wild, his hood thrown back, and one earpiece dangling. ‘‘Jox, come quick!’’
Jox’s heart shimmied in his chest. Oh, hell. ‘‘What’s wrong?’’
‘‘Hurry!’’ The kid disappeared back through the doors and Jox bolted after him, spurred by a quick jolt of adrenaline, because anything that rattled Rabbit had to be bad.
Shit, he thought. The pipes. The plumbing running the length of the store had needed replacing when they bought the property five years earlier, but there was always something that needed fixing more urgently, so the pipes had waited. Maybe too long.
But when he got out to the front, he didn’t see a flood, didn’t hear the telltale hiss of a broken pipe. A few customers were gathered around the counter waving their hands and talking loud and excitedly, but the source of the drama wasn’t immediately obvious. Pausing, Jox looked around for Strike, who no doubt already had things under control. Then he froze.
He. Didn’t. See. Strike.
Brain instantly upshifting from store owner to winikin mode, Jox shoved between two customers to where Rabbit was hunched behind the counter. He grabbed the teen by the sweatshirt. ‘‘Where is he?’’
Rabbit’s face had gone chalky. ‘‘He was here a second ago, I swear.’’
‘‘He disappeared,’’ said a thirty-something woman, voice cracking with excitement. ‘‘His hand was bleeding— there, you can see the blood. Then he said something, and—poof! Gone.’’
Jox stared at the blood pool and the stained utility knife lying nearby. A litany of denial rattled through his brain. Oh, shit. Oh, no. Oh, shit, no. No. Please, no.
‘‘The barrier,’’ Rabbit said, his voice climbing. ‘‘The solstice is today. He must’ve—’’
‘‘Zip it!’’ Jox shook him harder than necessary, because he needed Rabbit to stop talking, and also because the kid was right, damn it.
‘‘Poof! Then he was gone,’’ the woman said again, and two other customers behind her nodded, like they’d seen it, too. There were four of them, eyes bright and excited, and a fifth was edging in with his camera phone aimed at the blood pool.
‘‘Excuse me; I need to borrow that.’’ Jox snagged the phone and stuck it in his pocket before the guy could even yelp.
His brain raced. They needed damage control and a search party, pronto. If it’d been three decades earlier he would’ve had his choice of magi. As it was, he had no choice at all.
‘‘Go get—’’ Jox started to say to Rabbit, then broke off. ‘‘Never mind, I’ll get him.’’ He leaned close to the teen and hissed, ‘‘Make sure nobody else comes in, and nobody gets out.’’
Rabbit looked startled. ‘‘How am I supposed to do that?’’
As Jox headed up to the apartment above the shop, he knew he was asking for trouble, giving the kid free rein. But Red-Boar was a mind-bender. He could wipe Strike’s disappearing act from the customers’ brains . . . and he could go deeper if Rabbit went too far.
That was assuming, of course, that the barrier was all the way active. Jox had to assume that, because if it wasn’t and Red-Boar couldn’t go into the barrier and drag Strike’s ass out, then they were seriously screwed. The possibility made the winikin’s breath whistle in his lungs as he pounded up the stairs and skidded through the main door of the apartment. Going on instinct, he headed for the back, to a door that was almost always kept locked.
The padlock hung open.
Taking a deep breath, Jox pushed open the door and stepped through into Red-Boar’s ritual chamber.
They’d had the windows drywalled over, the recessed lights removed, and the walls covered with a fake stone facade. Lit braziers hung at the four world corners, and a small chac-mool altar stood against the far wall. Shaped like a man sitting in a sort of zigzag shape, with his feet, ass, and elbows on the ground, and his knees and upper body raised, balancing a flat slab on his kneecaps and collarbones, with his head turned ninety degrees, the chac-mool, represented the sacred rain god. It served as altar and throne, and as a place for sacrifice.
Red-Boar sat cross-legged in front of the chac-mool, with his eyes closed and his hands lying on his knees, palms up. His right palm was slashed and bloodstained, though already partway healed. Another sign that the magic was working.
‘‘I need you,’’ Jox said quietly, hating to disturb him but having no choice.
Red-Boar’s dusky face, with its slashing, hooked nose and wide, high cheekbones, didn’t change. He didn’t even twitch.
He was wearing his ceremonial robes, which were long and black, with stingray spines forming intricate glyph patterns at the cuffs and collar. The hood was thrown back, revealing his dark, close-clipped hair and the gray streaks at the temples that made him look older than his forty-five years, though his body was big and strong beneath the robes.
His right sleeve was pushed up to reveal the chitam glyph that tagged him as a member of the boar bloodline, along with the mind-bender’s talent glyph and the mark of an elite warrior-priest. Between those marks, though, was a bare patch where he’d once worn the jun tan ‘‘beloved’’ glyph for his wife, along with two smaller chitams representing his twin sons, all three of whom had died during the Solstice Massacre.
‘‘Red-Boar.’’ Jox reached out and gripped the other man’s shoulder. ‘‘We have—’’
At the touch, the Nightkeeper exploded off the floor and grabbed Jox by the throat. Pain seared at the point of contact, and a terrible scream erupted in Jox’s head as the Nightkeeper slammed him against the wall and held him there.
Red-Boar’s eyes seared into him, gleaming with power, with hatred.
Jox flailed, trying to shout at Red-Boar, to tell him to snap out of it, but all he could manage was a panicked gurgle. His vision went gray at the edges, telescoping down to the blackness of the Nightkeeper’s eyes.
Then the other man blinked. And let go.
Jox landed in a heap, gasping for breath.
Red-Boar crouched down beside him, not to aid or comfort, but to hiss, ‘‘What the fuck do you think you’re doing, winikin?’’ In his rasping voice, the title was a slur. ‘‘You know better than to interrupt magic.’’
‘‘And you should’ve known better than to jack in the moment you felt the barrier come back online,’’ Jox got out between gasps. ‘‘You should’ve damn well checked on Strike first.’’
‘‘You forget your place, winikin. I—’’
‘‘He’s gone,’’ Jox interrupted, and had the satisfaction of seeing the other man go pale.
‘‘He jacked in without an escort?’’
‘‘He vanished in front of five witnesses.’’ Jox mimicked the woman downstairs: ‘‘Poof.’’
Red-Boar’s breath hissed out as he made the connection. ‘‘Shit. Teleport.’’
Strike’s father hadn’t had an innate talent beyond the warrior’s mark—only about one in three Nightkeepers did—but his father had been a teleport, as had a couple of other jaguars in the generation prior. So, yeah, that made sense. But it wasn’t good news by any stretch. Teleporting was a tricky talent—the user had to link to a person or place first, then initiate the ’port. Jumping blind was . . . well, it wasn’t good.
‘‘Can you track him?’’ Jox demanded, almost afraid of the answer.
‘‘I can damn well try,’’ Red-Boar said, yanking open the door and heading for the stairs.
But his voice made it sound like ‘‘probably not.’’
Leah woke in pitch darkness, bound and gagged and draped over a man’s shoulder. There was no moment of confusion, no gap between unconsciousness and memory. She came around sick with rage over Nick’s death, and with fear at knowing she’d walked into Zipacna’s trap and given him exactly what he’d wanted.
We’ll see about that, she thought, fanning the anger because she knew she couldn’t afford the fear. She had to be strong—for herself. For Matty and Nick. For her parents, who shouldn’t have had to bury one of their children, never mind both.
Forcing herself to focus, she examined the situation, using her other senses when the darkness left her blind. Her captor’s footsteps crunched on gravel, maybe coarse sand, and there was a faint rasp, as though he was trailing his hand against the irregular wall she sensed right beside them. Other footsteps grated ahead and behind, suggesting a single-file line of five, maybe six people. Vibrations echoed from a wall and ceiling very close by, and that, along with the darkness, said they were in a tunnel of some sort. But water dripped into water on the other side—an underground river with a path beside it, maybe?
The thought brought a jolt of fear, of memory, but she shoved it aside. No freaking way, she told herself. Impossible.
She wasn’t in Miami anymore—she was sure of that much, though she couldn’t have said why. She was also pretty sure it was nighttime, meaning that she’d been out of it all day. Long enough to travel.
Focus, she told herself. Be a cop. Wherever they were, it smelled old. Worse, the vibe reminded her of the grimmest crime scenes she’d ever worked, ones where the body counts had reached into the dozens and they’d had to use DNA to figure out which parts belonged in what pile. People had died down here—lots of them, though not recently.
The shuffling line—creepy in its lack of chatter— turned a corner and the air changed, becoming drier as they moved away from the underground river. Then the faintest hint of a new smell prickled Leah’s sinuses, some sort of incense, and they turned another corner and firelight warmed the tunnel walls, barely detectable at first but growing stronger as they moved on.
In the yellow-orange glow, she saw strangely fluid symbols and pictures carved into the walls—men and women with flattened foreheads and exaggerated noses, fierce animals with long fangs and claws.
Her gut fisted and cold sweat prickled her skin. She wanted to tell herself it was a bunch of props, an elaborate set Zipacna had designed to put the fear of his gods into his disciples. Hell, rumor had it he’d built himself a fake temple in the swampside compound he and his fellow freaks called home. But the air was wrong, the sense of being far underground too strong.
She was pretty sure this was the real deal. He’d kidnapped her and brought her to Mexico, to a goddamn Mayan ruin.
Then the guy carrying her turned the final corner, and the firelight resolved itself to a series of burning torches set around the perimeter of a circular stone room.
In the center stood a dark-haired man, heavily muscled, barefoot and bare chested, wearing loose black pants fastened at the ankles with intricate twists of red twine. His eyes were green, one darker than the other, and he had a flying crocodile inked across his right pec.
Zipacna, she thought with a jolt of fear, of hatred.
His origins were a mystery aside from the claim of royal blood. He’d appeared in Miami eighteen months earlier, bought up a chunk of swamp, and set out to create a social movement. None of her background checks had turned up much more than the obvious: Money wasn’t an issue, but sanity was, and he had some serious charisma going for him.
She tasted bile and told herself it was fury, but knew it was terror, a terror that only increased when she looked around and saw crude stone braziers hung from the wall leaking curls of reddish smoke. In between them, human skulls were carved into the stone, their mouths open in silent screams.
Zipacna pointed toward the altar. ‘‘Strap her in and scram,’’ he said, his voice sounding jarringly normal. ‘‘Stand guard up at the tunnel mouth. Nobody gets in or out until I say otherwise. Understand?’’
A howl bubbled up in Leah’s throat as her captor carried her across the room, trailed by four other guys with cold, mocking expressions and winged croc tats slapped atop older ink.
She tried to block out the sights and the fear, concentrating on what seemed like her only chance for escape: the moment they’d have to undo the zip ties to get her hands and feet into the shackles. Her heart drummed in her ears as the guy carried her across the room and dumped her unceremoniously on the altar. She hit hard, landing on her tailbone with bruising force and cracking her head against the stone. Pain lanced and she cried out behind the gag, squeezing her eyes shut as she saw stars, along with a light so bright it hurt.
‘‘Careful,’’ Zipacna snapped. ‘‘Her blood is even more valuable than her brother’s.’’
There it was, Leah thought on a howl of rage. Confirmation. Practically a confession. And it wouldn’t do her a damn bit of good, because it was the solstice. Two more bodies were due, maybe more because he’d brought them south, to the home of his ancient gods.
Clammy hands pawed at her, and a knife touched her belly as her shirt and bra were cut away. She squeezed her eyes shut, partly to preserve the illusion that she was stunned, and partly because, deep down inside, she didn’t want to watch.
Then, finally, she felt hands on her ankles, felt a tug and release as the zip tie was cut away. Adrenaline revved her senses. Terror. Rage. Come on, you bastards, she urged silently. Do the wrists, too. Can’t you see I’m not going anywhere?
Instead, they shoved her farther onto the altar and pulled her legs apart. The moment she felt the touch of a shackle, Leah erupted. Screaming behind the gag, she opened her eyes, twisted, and dove for the floor.
Surprise gave her a momentary advantage and she actually managed to break free. She hit hard, scrambled to her feet, and slammed her bound hands into the nearest guy’s gut. When he stumbled back, she bolted for the door, heart hammering.
‘‘Damn it, get her!’’ Zipacna shouted, and footsteps closed in behind her, moving fast.
Sobbing, Leah flung herself through the arched doorway as Zipacna yelled something in a language she didn’t recognize, and the stones trembled beneath her feet. Fighting to keep her balance, she skidded around a corner and slammed into someone coming the other way.
For a split second, she thought she was saved. Then she saw the glint of filed-sharp teeth, and knew she was dead, after all.
‘‘Sorry, baby,’’ Itchy said. ‘‘Wrong way.’’ He punched her in the temple and caught her when she fell. Over the roaring in her ears, she heard him shout, ‘‘Chill. I’ve got her.’’
Moments later, she was back in the chamber. Seconds after that, the shackles clicked into place around her ankles, then her wrists. They took the gag off, but she didn’t bother screaming, because she knew damn well there was nobody around to hear, nobody to care.
Backup—and home—was far away.
Tears stung her eyelids and spilled free, tracking down her cheeks, and she whimpered when Zipacna leaned over her. She expected him to gloat, to taunt her.
Instead he touched her right wrist, where her sleeve was pulled down over a faded scar. ‘‘The gods marked you as their own long ago. Your brother’s blood began the process. Yours will complete it.’’ He lifted a black stone blade, turned it so it glinted in the torchlight. ‘‘I’m offering you power. Immortality. A place in what the world will become beyond the zero date.’’
She was trapped in his mismatched eyes, frozen in their magnetic pull, unable to look away. A warm pressure kindled at the base of her skull, urging her to accept whatever it was he was offering. Yes, a voice seemed to whisper. Join us. Help us.
He leaned closer, so her entire world became his lopsided pupils, the crackle of the torches, and the heavy smell of incense. ‘‘Just relax,’’ he said, voice dropping to a hypnotic whisper. ‘‘Don’t fight it.’’
‘‘Fight what?’’ she managed to ask, nearly beyond herself with the fear and the spinning pressure inside her head, the drumming urges that seemed to come from outside her, telling her to do things she didn’t want to do, like give in to him, join with him. He’s the enemy! she screamed inside her own skull. He killed Nick. He killed Matty. How could she know that, yet feel the power, the fascination?
‘‘You can be more than you are, more than you ever thought you’d be. But you have to accept the power. Will you take a master inside you?’’ Without waiting for her answer, he lifted the knife and plunged it into her arm.
Leah shrieked when pain flared white-hot. She thrashed, trying to twist away as he stabbed her a second time, then a third, creating three parallel gashes on her right arm between her shoulder and elbow. Blood spilled from her wounds and onto the stone altar as she kept screaming, unable to stop even though she knew it wouldn’t do a damn bit of good.
The blood ran down a carved track, pulled along by the slight tilt of the altar until it pooled in a shallow stone depression between her legs.
Placing the bloody knife beside her head, he pulled a length of parchment from his loose black pants, and used the folded square to mop up the blood. The air thickened around them, going purple-black with incense and smoke. The humming whine grew louder, not just in her head now, but filling the chamber and sounding like a distant swarm of bees.
‘‘Stop,’’ she cried, sobbing now with the fear and the pain, and an increasing pressure that built inside her skull. ‘‘Stop it!’’
He shouted strange words, and the sound echoed in the chamber until it seemed to be coming from the skeletal mouths that screamed from high up in the walls. Then he spun and flung the blood-soaked parchment into one of the torches. The moment the paper caught fire, a detonation rocked the room, blasting outward from the flames.
The shock wave battered Leah and drove Zipacna back several paces as the purple smoke went black, and the air in the chamber snapped so cold that Leah’s breath fogged on her next shallow exhalation.
Expression beatific, Zipacna stared into the smoke, which thickened and twined, reaching tendrils toward him as he threw back his head and shouted, ‘‘I invite the masters into the woman. Into me. Och Banol Kax!’’
Leah arched her back, straining away from the altar, and screamed, ‘‘No!’’
Without warning, the entire chamber shuddered and dropped downward like some sort of ancient elevator gone wrong, falling a few feet and then stopping with a jolt and a loud bang. Moments later, a rushing noise gathered, then grew louder. Then water blasted inward, geysering from the screaming skull mouths and crashing down to the chamber floor.
Leah moaned, beyond herself from terror and the splitting pressure inside her brain. Zipacna leaned over her, running the flat of the knife softly across her belly before he lifted the blade and slashed it across his tongue. Blood welled up and spilled over as he shouted the same words as before. ‘‘Och Banol Kax!’’
The torches flared higher around the edge of the chamber, above the rising water. A tentacle of black smoke reached for Leah, caressing her cheek, then dropping down to stroke her ribs and belly, blatantly sexual.
Please let this all be a bad dream, she prayed, and felt a mocking chuckle rise up from deep inside her.
Zipacna grinned a gory, horrible smile. Blood dripped from his mouth and spattered on her stomach. Around them, the water pooled and collected, climbing to his ankles, then his knees. He pressed the knife just beneath her breastbone and spoke a string of words in that strange language, only now it somehow translated itself inside her head in a mix of purple and bright gold. As the masters have commanded, I have opened the intersection. With blood I offer myself, offer the gods’ keeper, to become makol, to become a tool for your—
Leah could barely hear him anymore over the howling scream that filled her head, where darkness and light spun together, fighting for dominance.
She heard words in that strange language, though she didn’t know what they meant, knew only that they were there, and the warm golden light urged her to use them. Filling her lungs, she arched her head back and screamed as loud as she could, ‘‘Och jun tan!’’
At the words, a tornado blasted through the room.
One second Strike was hanging motionless, suspended in the barrier—a murky gray-green mist that had no beginning or end, no point of reference, no way out except a magic that he didn’t know how to manage. Then words echoed—a spell he didn’t recognize, spoken in a woman’s voice that sent shivers down the back of his neck.
And the bottom dropped out of his world. A hole appeared in the fog and he plummeted through, straight back to earth. He knew it was earth the same way he knew it was hours later, nearly the solstice, because the magic of it, the power of it hummed in his bones. Then the world came clear around him, and he realized three things at once.
One, he was in the sacred chamber beneath Chichén Itzá, where his parents and the others had died.
Two, the blonde—the one he’d dreamed of—was there.
And three, she was in deep shit.
A guy appeared in midair at the edge of the circular chamber and hovered for a split second. He was a big man, wearing a tight black T-shirt over whipcord muscles, with ragged cutoffs below. His high cheekbones and piercing eyes were those of a warrior, and Leah knew them instantly from her dreams, just as she recognized his dark ponytail and jawline beard, and the ink on his inner forearm, two marks next to each other with a third above. In that instant of hovering, he looked at her, recognized her, and seemed more surprised to see her than he did to have materialized inside a Mayan temple.
Then gravity took over and he fell with a shout, slamming into Zipacna. The men went down together in the deepening water, which churned with their struggles. Leah screamed as they shot to their feet, streaming water and grappling for the knife.
She strained toward the newcomer, screaming, ‘‘Help me!’’
Zipacna twisted away and slashed a wide arc with the stone knife, forcing his opponent to dodge. The stranger moved like a fighter, but had no weapons. Zipacna slashed again, then spun and crossed to the altar.
Blood poured from his mouth, painting his front a gory red, and purple-black smoke twined around him like an unholy halo. Water licked over the top of the altar as he lifted the knife and said, ‘‘The heart of the gods’ keeper gives me life beyond the barrier, the power to become power itself.’’
The stranger lunged across the chamber, shouting, ‘‘Torotobik!’’
The cuffs at Leah’s wrists and ankles exploded, the shrapnel driving Zipacna back a pace without touching her skin.
She wasted half a second gaping before she flung herself off the altar, straight at Zipacna. She lacked leverage, but had the advantage of surprise as she got a fistful of his hair in one hand and drove her opposite elbow into his gut. The knife went flying and the stranger dove for it.
Zipacna bellowed and went down, nearly submerging them both in the cold water, which had started glowing a strange greenish white.
A rising howl echoed in the chamber, nearly drowning out the stranger’s voice when he shouted, ‘‘Get away from her, you bastard!’’
Zipacna thrashed and twisted, reversing their positions so she was the one neck-deep in the water. His eyes took on a strange greenish glow as he wrapped his fingers around her throat and squeezed.
His voice was gravelly and barely human when he said, ‘‘You’re too late, Nightkeeper. I am ajaw-makol, and she belongs to me.’’ He bore down, choking her. Leah’s vision went dim, then dark, and a rushing noise filled her head.
Over it all, she heard the stranger say, ‘‘Wrong. She’s mine.’’ He hurled himself forward and plunged the stone knife into Zipacna’s back.
Zipacna jerked and arched, screaming in pain. He staggered away from her, convulsing as he grabbed for a deep stab wound beneath his shoulder blade. Slamming against the wall near the doorway, he listed to one side, drawing a red smear on the wall.
But incredibly, horribly, he grinned, his mismatched eyes glowing pure emerald green. ‘‘Too late, Nightkeeper. ’’
He slapped his palm against the wall, spoke a low word, and lurched through the doorway. The stranger roared and lunged for the door, but a stone panel slid across the opening, sealing them in.
‘‘Oh, God!’’ Heart pounding, Leah splashed toward the door. She was halfway there when the chamber dropped a few more feet and the incoming water doubled, blasting from the screaming skulls with pounding force. Moments later, the torches snuffed out, leaving the room lit by the unearthly radiance of the water, which quickly climbed to her throat, then buoyed her off the floor until she was treading to keep her head above the surface.
Heart racing, she turned to the stranger. Remembering the grenade thing he’d done with her cuffs, she said, ‘‘Can you open the door?’’
He shook his head. ‘‘No, but I can try something else. Come here.’’ Swimming now, he gathered her close and fitted her body against his as the cool, white-green water edged up past her ears and touched her cheeks. ‘‘Hang on.’’
Leah grabbed onto him as her head bumped the ceiling. ‘‘Hurry!’’
His arms tightened around her and she felt that click of connection, the twist in her belly that said, There you are. He held her close, said a few words in that strange language. . . .
And nothing happened.
Come on. Heart hammering, Strike tried again, bearing down and thinking of the garden center. For fuck’s sake, teleport!
He was wearing a new mark on his forearm, the talent glyph of a teleporter. But no matter how hard he concentrated on the garden center, giving himself a destination this time, the yellow travel thread refused to appear in his mind.
Focus, he thought as the water closed over them. Clear your head.
The blonde bowed against him, convulsing. Gods, he prayed, help me get us out of here. Please.
But there was no answer as her heartbeat slowed and his own lungful of air grew stale.
Pulse racing, he tried again, this time picturing the studio apartment the Nightkeepers—or rather Jox— maintained near Chichén Itzá as a bolt-hole. Maybe the garden center was too far away. Maybe he could manage something local.
Darkness closed in. Despair. How was it possible that he’d survived the massacre only to die like this, in the moment it seemed like the world might actually need him after all?
Gods, he thought, though he’d never been a big one for praying, help me out here.
And, incredibly, there was an answer. Golden light flared, the power of the sky and sun, the color of the gods. Strike’s heart stuttered in his chest as he heard a rattle of scales, a whisper of feathers. And what could only be the voice of a god, pure and clarion.
Accept my power, child of man, the entity said, and it wasn’t talking to him. It was talking to the woman he held cradled against his chest. The one he’d dreamed of.
The makol had called her the gods’ keeper. Yet the writs said that only a female Nightkeeper could become such a thing, and she wore no Nightkeeper’s mark.
Accept the magic and the light, the voice urged again, and there was a tinge of desperation in the words.
The Godkeepers were a myth, Strike thought, a dream. Prophesied to arise at the end of the age, destined to fight the Banol Kax for possession of the earth during the Great Conjunction with their warrior mates at their sides, they were part of the stories he’d been tempted to stop believing as he’d grown to adulthood and the magic had started to seem like a childhood fantasy. But he now had proof-positive the magic was real. What if the Godkeepers were, too? What if the dreams had been telling him that this woman—this human woman—was somehow destined to become his mate, his Godkeeper?
Come on, Blondie, he urged inwardly. Come on. Not because he was in any position to take a mate, but because the gods came first, and if the cosmic shit was really about to hit the fan, the Nightkeepers—or what was left of them—were going to need all the help they could get.
She writhed in his arms, fighting the invading presence even as her heart faltered. Slowed. Stopped.
Come on! Strike shouted inwardly as his oxygen ran out and the universe coalesced to a pinprick of darkness. Terror howled through him, fear for himself, for the woman.
The god’s golden voice came again, aimed at him this time, the mental touch growing fainter by the second as the solstice passed. Save her, Nightkeeper.
‘‘I don’t know how,’’ Strike said aloud, the words emerging as precious bubbles carrying the very last of his air. But then he realized he did. For a god to pass through the portal and link with a Nightkeeper female, she had to be near death. That was the only way to touch the other side of the barrier, except for . . .
He acted fast, cursing himself for having not thought of it sooner, for being hindered by modern ethics in a situation ruled by ancient law. He palmed the ajawmakol ’s knife from his belt, drew the blade in a quick slash across his tongue, and then opened her mouth to draw a matching scratch on hers.
Then, as he had done in his dreams, he held her close and kissed her.
A loud crack split the room, and the water rushed out, dumping them both on the floor, but he kept kissing her, willing her to respond. To live. To become what she seemed destined to be.
But she didn’t move, didn’t breathe.
She was dying.
In the space between the purple-black funnel that’d sucked her down and a vortex of golden light that called her onward, Leah found a world of gray-green mist that smelled of her brother’s cologne. The familiar scent beckoned her inside and cocooned her in warmth. ‘‘Matty?’’ she called, suddenly certain he was nearby, though that didn’t make any sense unless she was dead.
So what if she was? she thought on a sad, soft burst of acceptance. Would it really be so bad to turn her back on that life and—
She frowned at the word whispered on the mist. ‘‘Don’t call me that.’’ It had been one of her brother’s favorite torments, one he’d never outgrown. That and the inevitable blonde jokes. ‘‘Where are you?’’
Come on, baby. Don’t let me down.
The whisper didn’t sound like her brother now. It sounded more like . . . She thought for a moment, but couldn’t place a name, didn’t quite have the face, remembered only a pair of piercing cobalt eyes above a warrior’s cheekbones. The image came with a wash of heat and the phantom press of lips.
That’s it, Blondie. Breathe.
She felt the lips again, followed by the touch of a tongue, and other sensations began to intrude. The good, solid weight of a man’s body pressed against hers, kindling heat where there’d been nothing. She sucked in a breath when the sensation spiraled higher, hotter, catching her unawares and vulnerable.
‘‘I’ve got you. You’re okay.’’ She could hear him for real now, and she could feel a cool, wet stone surface pressing against her hips and spine. She opened her eyes and found herself still in the circular chamber with the carved walls and screaming skulls. The torches were lit again, not burning purple now, but rather a warm amber that softened the sharp planes of the warrior’s face. He was lying full-length atop her, pressing against her through their sodden clothing. He stared at her as though he knew her already, and said something in that same strange language Zipacna had used.
It was probably Mayan, given the circumstances, which should’ve freaked her shit right out. But somehow the language and the strange goings-on didn’t seem nearly as important as the weight of his body and the hard press of his erection at the juncture of her thighs. Wild heat flared, running through her veins like power. Like fury. Like sex.
Sex. The need for it thrilled within her. She was incomplete, unfinished. Suddenly, joining with this man, this stranger, was the most important thing in the world.
What are you doing? a small voice asked. This isn’t you. This is crazy!
Perhaps, but she didn’t care about crazy. A beehive buzz hummed in her bones, gaining in pitch as though something was coming, something was waiting for them at the end of ecstasy. She wanted the craziness, craved the madness.
And though it should have seemed entirely wrong, it was perfectly right when she reached up and touched her lips to his.
She was connected to the gods, yet not. Strike could sense the sky in her, could taste the golden power in her kiss and on her breath, and he could feel it when she slid her hands up his chest, into his hair, and locked on. She was human, yet she was somehow magic as well. The ritual her attacker had used to transform himself from a human into an emissary of the Banol Kax had started the process. Now it was up to him to finish it.
They kissed fiercely, passionately. Power spiked amber and crimson, blurring the line between dream and reality. Part of him knew she was driven by something she didn’t have the tools to understand, and that brought a pinch of guilt.
Then the torches flared higher, burning around him, within him, calling to him, telling him it was now or never, and never wasn’t an option if he wanted to honor the sacrifice of those who had gone before him. Knowing it’d been too late the moment he’d dreamed of her, he whispered, ‘‘Gods.’’
And returned her kiss.
She sensed the change in him, felt power in the moment his hands fisted in her shirt and he kissed her hard and hot and fast, and in the buzz of flame and excitement that followed. Connection arced, binding them together at a level deeper than she’d expected, deeper than she’d wanted. That small, panicked voice inside demanded that she slow down, think about what she was doing, think!
Instead, she leaned into him, opened herself up to him, and flowed into the moment as one kiss became many, deep and searching and almost painfully raw. He swept aside her ruined shirt and bra and peeled her out of her damp pants, leaving her clad in only her panties.
His nostrils flared on a sharply indrawn breath. He eased back, and she thought his hands trembled slightly when they went to the hem of his black T-shirt.
‘‘Wait,’’ she said. ‘‘Let me.’’ But instead of undressing him, she slipped off her panties, leaving her naked while he remained fully clothed.
Excitement spike, spearing outward from her center until she felt as though she were lit from within, pulsing gold and crimson with femininity.
‘‘Blondie,’’ he said, voice rasping on the word. ‘‘Gods.’’ Then he broke, moving fast as he swept her up in his arms and carried her to the stone altar.
In some dim recess of her mind, she thought the candles flared and the smoke went from gold to red, but those details were lost in a tidal rush of sensation and need. Hurry, a voice chanted inside her as he fastened his lips on her throat and cupped a hand around her breast, bringing a lightning bolt of heat from her core.
She tugged at his shirt, rushing now, needing to touch him as he was touching her. He rolled her nipple between his finger and thumb, wringing a cry from her, one that echoed strangely inside her skull, as though two voices had shouted, maybe more. She got his shirt off and gloried at the play of his hard muscles beneath the taut masculine skin. Touching her lips to the hollow beside his collarbone, then lower, she went to work on his cutoffs, where the material strained tight across a massive erection. He groaned when her fingertips brushed against his hard flesh, and he thrust against her hand, silently urging her onward.
She freed the buttons and zipper, and then his hands were there, helping strip off his shorts and sandals, until he was as naked as she and they were pressed together, hard against soft, need against need.
The air thickened around them, humming with waiting, with wanting. Then she was finished with waiting. She arched up and kissed him, claiming his mouth with hers and leaving no doubt as to her demand. She tasted his urgency and felt it in the bone-breakingly taut lines of his body, but his hands were gentle when he touched her, when he brushed the soft skin inside her knees, then higher, drawing his fingertips across the acutely sensitized skin of her inner thighs.
She whimpered when he feathered an intimate brush across her center, then nearly screamed when he repeated the touch more firmly, stroking a long, clean line that ended with his thumb atop the nub of her pleasure. ‘‘Come for me,’’ he whispered against her mouth. ‘‘Open up to me.’’
‘‘Let me touch you.’’ She reached for his straining member, but he angled his body away even as he kissed her.
He murmured something against her mouth, something that sounded like, ‘‘We don’t have time.’’ But that didn’t make any sense, she thought. Time for what? Then she couldn’t think at all, because he kissed her long and deep, and the heat rose up to sweep her away.
The hum in Leah’s brain intensified, and her body shook as a strange fracture split her in two. One fragment of her was aware of the press of the stone altar against her buttocks and upper thighs, conscious of the way her legs wrapped around him, pulling him into her, binding them together. A thought tried to break through— a warning—but the spinning in her head and the growing heat beat it back as her body bowed into his touch, welcoming him, demanding him.
‘‘Come for me,’’ he said again, as though her pleasure were the most important thing in his universe. He rotated his thumb and kept that pressure on her nub as he traced two fingers around her opening and then dipped inside in a smooth, liquid glide.
Suddenly, all the restless, shifting energy Leah had been carrying since the dreams first began collected itself at the point of their joining, fisting around his fingers and vibrating deep inside her at a raw, primal level. ‘‘Please!’’ she cried, not sure what she was asking for.
But he seemed to understand, because he withdrew his fingers and moved between her legs, so the blunt tip of his hard shaft rested at her opening. At the first nudge, she opened her eyes and found his face just above hers, his eyes staring into hers. Their cobalt blue depths were dark and intense, and she felt a momentary flicker of fear. But then he was sliding home in one long thrust that had her insides knotting and her eyes closing on a rush of pleasure. She gasped and gripped his shoulders, anchoring herself amidst a storm of sensation. Inhaling deeply, she filled her lungs with the scent of their lovemaking, part incense, part musk. Then she parted her legs wider, accommodating his mass, inviting him deeper, and deeper still.
He thrust once and again, dropping his forehead to hers, his breathing synchronized with hers, his very heartbeat seeming to come in time with hers. He thrust a third time as her body coiled tight around his hard flesh and the humming sound transformed to something sweeter, almost a melody.
Leah cried out as the first exhilarating rush of orgasm gripped her, stopping the breath in her lungs. He thrust deeply in a hard, ever-increasing tempo that matched the hammering in her ears, in her chest. Her consciousness expanded outward until she could feel the press of his mind on hers as surely as she could feel the surge of their bodies. Then everything contracted inward, an exquisite moment spent poised on the brink of explosion.
In that moment, in that breathless pause, she felt something shift, tearing deep within her, ripping away from her even as she convulsed in a hard fist of heat that spun out endlessly. His deep, masculine voice echoed her cries, and he thrust hard within her and cut loose, a groan wringing from deep within his chest—her name, perhaps, or a curse. A prayer.
The pressure in her brain disappeared, leaving only pleasure in its wake. Joy and exultation spun within her, spiraling outward in a rush that made her want to run and dance and leap for joy. But when she opened her eyes and smiled up at him, she saw none of that same joy in his face.
Instead, she saw despair.
Reality returned with a serious buzz kill. Goose bumps broke out everywhere Leah had skin—not just because he had that oh, shit, big mistake look on his face, but because that expression doused enough of the afterglow to ass-smack her with what she’d done.
Heart jolting, she scrambled out from underneath the guy—a total stranger, for crap’s sake—and backed away in a defensive crouch. ‘‘What. The. Fuck. Just. Happened? ’’
‘‘Nothing,’’ he rasped. ‘‘Everything. I don’t know. Shit.’’ He sat up and dragged both hands through his dark hair, which had come free from its ponytail.
With his hair hanging to his shoulders and the close-clipped beard along his jawline, his body stunningly naked and ripped with a fighter’s muscles, and firelight flickering on the ancient carvings behind him, the whole scenario could’ve come from another age, when all this would’ve made way more sense.
Torchlight played over the long, lean lines of him as he stood and snagged his clothes. Naked, he was a statue. A fantasy. Even though they’d just had at each other and she didn’t even know his name, greedy need knotted Leah’s belly.
Then he pulled on his cutoffs and T-shirt and toed on his sandals, and he became a man again. One she was going to have to deal with, because, um, hello, they were in Mexico. And something very strange had just happened. Several somethings, in fact, starting with a botched human sacrifice and ending with an orgasm.
Brain churning, she turned away from him and got dressed while she tried to put her thoughts in order. Her pants were soaked but otherwise okay, while her shirt and bra were write-offs. Knotting the material as best she could at her midriff, she turned to face him and stuck out a hand. ‘‘Detective Leah Ann Daniels, Miami-Dade Narcotics.’’
Might as well start with the introductions. Then it’d be time for What the Christ is going on?
His wide, mobile lips twisted into something that wasn’t quite a smile. ‘‘Striking-Jaguar, last male of the Nightkeepers’ royal house. You can call me Strike.’’
And suddenly it made way too much sense. Anger and self-disgust fisted in her gut. ‘‘Oh, shit. You’re one of them.’’ She looked around. ‘‘Bastard. Where are the cameras?’’
He looked surprised. ‘‘Cameras?’’
She didn’t bother answering, instead making a wide circuit of the room, looking at the braziers, the carved skulls, trying to be a cop when the woman in her wanted to scream and start throwing things. ‘‘Of course. No sense in him staging something like this and not filming it for blackmail to get me off his back. Or, hell, he could just YouTube it and crash my career. I can see the title now: ‘MDPD detective gets down and dirty during Survivor 2012 ritual.’ What are you, one of his disciples? Nah,’’ she answered her own question. ‘‘None of them look as good as you. So, what . . . out-of-work actor?’’ Her voice climbed an octave. ‘‘Oh, bloody hell. Do not tell me I just had unprotected sex with a porn star.’’
Incipient hysteria heated her blood just as the sex had done minutes before, though with far less pleasure. Her brother’s friend Vince, the only one left who believed as she did that Zipacna was behind the serial killings, had warned her the 2012ers would go to any length to protect themselves. Of course they’d set her up. It made rational sense.
More, at least, than any of the other explanations she could come up with.
‘‘Jesus, that’s a leap.’’ He held up both hands in a stop the presses gesture. ‘‘Okay, let’s hang on here. Chill. Take a breath. I’m not anyone’s disciple, or an actor. I’m definitely not a porn star, and I’m not sure whether to be complimented or insulted by that one.’’
‘‘Then what are you? And make it good.’’ She looked around again, and panic fluttered, because if this wasn’t a setup and there weren’t any cameras, then there was a very real possibility she was losing her mind, because so much of what she remembered happening couldn’t possibly be real: the purple-black smoke touching her; the stranger—Strike? What kind of a name was that?— appearing in midair; the way he’d busted her cuffs with a word . . . and the voice in her head.
If that wasn’t crazy, she didn’t know what was.
‘‘I told you,’’ he repeated as though it were all very logical. ‘‘I’m a Nightkeeper.’’
‘‘Which means what, exactly?’’ And does it mean I’m not nuts?
He hesitated, then said, ‘‘I’m one of the guys in charge of stopping things like this from happening.’’ His gesture encompassed the chamber, the altar, all of it. ‘‘The man—the creature—who had you . . .’’
‘‘Zipacna.’’ Even saying the name filled her with hatred, more now than ever because of what he’d done to Nick, what he’d tried to do to her. ‘‘He’s mine.’’
‘‘No, he’s not.’’ There was no give in the words. ‘‘Leave him to us, Detective. He’s way out of your jurisdiction.’’
‘‘He’s a murderer.’’
‘‘He’s a makol.’’
Zipacna had used the word, too, during one of his chants. ‘‘What does that mean?’’
‘‘Roughly, a disciple of the underworld who’s offered himself for partial demonic possession in exchange for magic and a role in the coming war leading up to the 2012 end date,’’ he said. ‘‘Zipacna, in particular, is now the ajaw-makol, the top predator, the head dude. The ritual he just used you in, that means he takes his power directly from the rulers of the underworld, the Banol Kax. Over the next three months, he’ll make other makol from evil-minded humans—the more willing they are to undergo demonic possession, the more of their own human traits and intelligence they’ll retain. You can tell them by the glowing green eyes, and they’re a bitch to kill.’’ He paused, grimaced. ‘‘Or so the stories go. There hasn’t been a makol on earth in more than a thousand years.’’
Leah’s head spun. She should be so out of there. This was nuts. Insane. Completely unbelievable. But she was a cop, and cops followed the evidence. Right now, the evidence—if she could believe her own senses, anyway— was telling her there was something seriously whacked going on. She’d also done enough reading on the semireligious, semihistorical, semiscientific basis of the Survivor 2012 doctrine to know that it was, if not believable, then at least internally consistent.
That didn’t mean it was real, though. Hell, logic—and what she knew about how the world worked—said it wasn’t real. But if it wasn’t real, how did she explain what’d just happened to her?
Her options seemed to be limited to: A) magic existed, and she’d gotten caught up in something way outside her comfort zone; or B) magic didn’t exist, and she’d been kidnapped, nearly drowned, and then boffed a total stranger.
‘‘So the thing you did with the cuffs,’’ she said, trying to feel her way in a world that was shifting beneath her feet, ‘‘does that mean you’ve got demonic powers, too?’’
He shook his head. ‘‘The Nightkeepers are the good guys. We’ve got the gods on our side.’’ He paused. ‘‘Look, the short version is that I’m one of the last three surviving members of an ancient group of magi sworn to protect the earth from the 2012 apocalypse. Several hundred of us—including my parents—died in the early eighties enacting a spell designed to permanently seal the gateway to the underworld, Xibalba. Now it’s looking like someone, probably this Zipacna—not a very creative name, by the way—managed to reactivate the gateway, probably through some large-scale blood sacrifices. ’’
Leah jammed her fingertips into her temples when her spinning head threatened to float off her shoulders. ‘‘Which leaves it up to you to save the world.’’
‘‘Right,’’ he said again, and looked at her. ‘‘You’re not buying it.’’
‘‘Unfortunately, I think you are.’’ She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to slow the spins, trying not to freak right the hell out and start screaming. ‘‘And here I was last night thinking you were a fantasy, and how that was better than your being a doomsday nut.’’
She realized her mistake too late, and backpedaled. ‘‘I meant just now.’’
‘‘No, you didn’t. Which means you dreamed about me.’’
Everything inside her went still. ‘‘Why do you say that?’’
Heat kindled in his dark blue eyes. ‘‘Because I sure as hell dreamed of you. Which means this isn’t a ‘wrong place, wrong time’ thing, or an accident. We were meant to meet. We were meant to be together like we were just now.’’ He held out a hand. ‘‘Give me your right wrist.’’
Resisting the urge to stick her hands behind her back, she did as he asked. ‘‘No ink.’’
‘‘What happened here?’’ His thumb lightly brushed over a lighter, roughly circular patch on her forearm.
‘‘Old scar.’’ She withdrew her arm. ‘‘No biggie. Don’t even remember how I got it.’’ Feeling trapped, she looked around the room, focusing on the doorway, which was still tightly shut. ‘‘Please tell me you know how to get us out of here.’’
He raised one dark eyebrow, but said only, ‘‘Will you do something for me first?’’
Keeping her distance, she said, ‘‘Depends.’’
‘‘It’s nothing bad. Trust me.’’ He bent and scooped the black stone knife from the floor. Offered it to her. ‘‘Take this.’’
She held up both hands. ‘‘I’m so not cutting you.’’ And none of this was real. It was all a dream. It had to be.
He flipped the knife one-handed, so he was holding on to the blade, then closed his fingers over the sharp edge, cutting himself.
‘‘Don’t!’’ She lurched forward, only to stop dead when he flipped the knife again and offered it to her haft-first, seeming unconcerned by the blood oozing from between his fingers.
The walls of unreality closed in on her, and her laugh came out tinged with hysteria. ‘‘I’m not cutting myself. No freaking way. Zipacna already . . .’’ Her words died as she glanced down at her upper arm and saw slices in the fabric of her soggy shirt, but none in the skin beneath. ‘‘What the . . . ?’’ She pawed at the shirt, pulling it down over her shoulder to see the spot where she’d been badly cut no more than an hour ago.
Instead of gashes there were three parallel scars, thin with age.
The blood drained from her head and her gut clenched with fear and denial. Her voice went thin. ‘‘There’s no such thing as magic.’’
‘‘Then this won’t work.’’ He held out the knife. ‘‘Just deep enough to draw blood.’’
She stared at the knife, hearing Zipacna’s voice in her head. Accept the power; take a master inside you. But this guy wasn’t Zipacna. He claimed he was going to track the bastard down. The enemy of her enemy was her friend, right?
Ignoring the little voice inside her that said, Not necessarily , compelled by an urge she didn’t recognize, couldn’t name, she took the knife and dragged the tip across her palm. It didn’t hurt as much as she’d expected, but the chamber took a long, lazy spin around her as blood welled up, the droplets dark red against her skin. ‘‘What now?’’
‘‘Repeat after me.’’ He slowly recited a string of words, pausing after each one and waiting while she parsed them out syllable by syllable. As she did, the air seemed to thicken around her, and the room spins upped their revs.
When he fell silent, she looked at him. ‘‘That’s it?’’
He shook his head. ‘‘Now say, ‘Pasaj och.’ ’’
She took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and steeled herself. ‘‘Pasaj och!’’
She waited. Still nothing.
Letting out a long, shuddering breath, she opened her eyes. The room had stopped spinning, and the wary hope that’d briefly gathered on Strike’s face had fallen away to a bleakness so terrible she almost wished she’d felt something. But she shook her head. ‘‘Sorry . . . does that mean I’m right and there’s no such thing as magic?’’
‘‘No,’’ he said softly, and crossed to take the knife from her. ‘‘It means I failed.’’ He took her hand and pressed their bleeding palms together, bringing a spark of connection and a hint of sadness. ‘‘It means this isn’t your fight.’’
‘‘Bull,’’ she said quickly, though the word came out slightly slurred as a gray curtain descended over her. ‘‘Zipacna is mine. He killed Matty and Nick. He—’’
‘‘Hush,’’ Strike whispered. ‘‘Sleep.’’ He said a few more words in that strange language and gray mist surrounded her, cushioned her.
She felt herself falling, felt strong arms catch her.
‘‘Here.’’ Rabbit shoved a can of Coke across the kitchen table in Jox’s direction.
The winikin took the can and stared at it, his wits dulled with fatigue and grief, with failure. Strike had been gone for hours. The solstice had passed, and although the barrier remained active, Red-Boar hadn’t been able to find him.
Here one second, then poof. Gone while his winikin counted pallets of cow shit and bitched about broken bags.
‘‘Drink,’’ Rabbit urged. ‘‘You know—sugar? Caffeine? The old man isn’t the only one who needs to recharge.’’
Magic consumed enormous amounts of energy, so while Red-Boar had searched, Jox had done what a winikin ought, forcing the mage to eat and drink, mostly foods that were heavy on fat, sugar, and protein. Even with that, the Nightkeeper’s strength had given out eventually. He’d staggered off to bed an hour earlier, muttering something about looking in their few remaining spellbooks when he got up.
He hadn’t bothered stating the obvious; that they might already be too late. Strike had teleported with no training, no guidance. For all they knew, he’d materialized inside a mountain.
‘‘I could help, you know,’’ Rabbit said out of nowhere.
Jox looked across the table to find the kid fiddling with his own soda can, practically vibrating with suppressed excitement. Oh, hell. This was so not what he needed right now. ‘‘Listen, Rabbit,’’ Jox said, wishing one of the others could’ve handled the convo. ‘‘You know there are . . . circumstances that’re going to make it difficult to induct you into the magic. It could be dangerous. Probably will be.’’
Rabbit scowled. ‘‘I’m a half-blood. Trust me, I got that. But it doesn’t mean I can’t do magic, just that it might be different magic. And it’s not like you’ve got a bunch of options. What have you got to lose?’’
‘‘It’s not as easy as that,’’ Jox said, but held up a hand to stem the coming protest. ‘‘But I’ll talk to your father. That’s all I can promise.’’
Slumping in his chair, the teen shrugged and pretended to be absorbed by reading the side of his Coke can. ‘‘Whatever.’’ His tone made it clear he didn’t expect squat from Red-Boar, and frankly Jox couldn’t blame him.
‘‘Look, Rabbit. I’ll—’’
The house phone rang, interrupting. Jox stared at the cordless handset as it rang again, and fear gathered in the pit of his stomach. It could be Strike, he thought. Or it could be someone calling to say they’d found Strike. Or—
Nope. It was one or the other. And until he answered, the scale was evenly balanced between the two, between hope and despair.
It rang again, and Rabbit said, ‘‘You want me to get it?’’
‘‘No.’’ Jox reached for the phone with shaking hands and hit the speakerphone button on the second try. ‘‘Hello?’’
‘‘I’m okay.’’ It was Strike’s voice, tired-sounding and on a crappy connection, but it was his voice. He was alive, and somewhere on the earth. He wasn’t stuck in the barrier, and he hadn’t become an insta-fossil.
Jox exhaled on a rush of relief so intense it would’ve floored him if he hadn’t already been sitting down. ‘‘Thank the gods.’’ He went dizzy, and pinched the bridge of his nose when his eyes prickled. ‘‘Gods damn it, you had us scared.’’
‘‘Sorry. I called as soon as I got somewhere with a signal.’’
Jox waved for Rabbit to go get his father, but he needn’t have bothered. Red-Boar came stumbling in, bleary eyed. ‘‘Where is he?’’
‘‘I’m in the apartment down by Chichén Itzá,’’ Strike answered. ‘‘It’s a long story.’’ He rapped out a quick report about a murderer who’d gone through the makol ritual, and the woman he’d planned to sacrifice.
The words sort of blurred together, though, as Jox dropped his head into his hands. Thank you, gods. Thank you for keeping him safe when his fuckup winikin was asleep at the switch. I’ll never ask you for anything ever again. I promise.
The vow lasted approximately thirty seconds or so, until Strike said something about a vision.
Jox whipped his head up. ‘‘Please gods, you did not just say what I think you said.’’
‘‘I used a sleep spell on her,’’ Strike said, ignoring the winikin. ‘‘She’ll be okay until you guys get down here, right?’’
‘‘Who cares?’’ Red-Boar said bluntly. ‘‘She’s collateral damage. We need to find the ajaw-makol before it starts multiplying. One of those green-eyed bastards is bad enough. We sure as hell don’t want an army of them.’’
‘‘We’ll find the ajaw-makol and take care of him,’’ Strike said, voice going hard. ‘‘But Leah is not collateral damage.’’
‘‘You’ve had a hell of a day,’’ Jox said quickly, before the two exhausted magi could get into it. ‘‘Put some protein into your system, and shut it down for a few hours. We can figure out the rest when we get there.’’
‘‘Don’t handle me, Jox,’’ Strike snapped. ‘‘I’ve been having the dreams for weeks. She had them, too. We recognized each other, for crap’s sake. And the ajaw-makol called her a keeper of the gods.’’
Shit. Jox and Red-Boar exchanged a look, while Rabbit grinned at the prospect of a fight.
‘‘Forget the dreams.’’ Jox tried not to hear the words echo decades into the past. ‘‘Forget the woman. She’s not your priority.’’
‘‘How can you be so sure?’’ Strike’s voice roughened. ‘‘I heard it, Jox. I heard the god begging her to let it inside. I tried to help, tried to make the connection, but—’’ He broke off with a ragged sigh. ‘‘I wasn’t fast enough, not strong enough. The solstice passed and the voice . . . left. But it was real. She’s supposed to be a Godkeeper.’’
Right. Like that made sense. Mated Nightkeeper-Godkeeper pairs were supposed to be at the apex of the power scale, second only to the Triad, the three legendary magi who could channel all the knowledge and powers of their ancestors. No way the gods had chosen a human to be a Godkeeper.
Then again, it wasn’t like they’d had their choice of Nightkeeper females.
Jox pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to stave off the monster headache he could feel brewing. ‘‘You need to eat something,’’ he said, feeling for the boy—the man—he’d raised, who was both his son and his boss. Like his father before him, Strike was always reaching for more, never exactly happy with what was in front of him. And far too ready to bend the rules to fit his theories. ‘‘Keep the sleep spell going on the woman and get some rest. We’ll be there by dawn.’’
‘‘I’m not going to let this drop.’’
‘‘Tell me something I don’t know. See you soon.’’ Jox punched off the phone.
‘‘Bloody stubborn jaguars.’’ Red-Boar shoved away from the kitchen table and headed for his room, snapping, ‘‘Find us a charter. I want to be on the ground in Mexico before he does something else stupid.’’
Rabbit jumped up from the table and put himself between his father and the door. ‘‘I’m coming with you.’’
‘‘No fucking way.’’
‘‘But I can help.’’
Red-Boar snorted. ‘‘How?’’
The teen flushed. ‘‘Jack me in and I’ll show you.’’
‘‘Not happening. Stay here.’’ Red-Boar pushed past his son. ‘‘And don’t fuck anything up while we’re gone.’’
Rabbit took a step after him, fists clenched.
Jox crossed to the teen. He didn’t touch him because he knew the boy didn’t like to be touched, but he said, ‘‘Stay here and chill. Once we know what’s up, I’ll talk to him.’’
‘‘I didn’t ask to be a half-blood.’’ Rabbit’s voice shook. ‘‘That was his call.’’
‘‘I know.’’ Jox clasped the boy’s shoulder. ‘‘For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.’’
Rabbit shrugged him off. ‘‘Not your fault he’s a prick.’’
Maybe, maybe not. A winikin was supposed to guide his Nightkeeper as well as protect him. Red-Boar might not’ve been Jox’s blood-bound charge, but he’d become his responsibility by default. Jox had done his best, but that hadn’t been good enough; Red-Boar’s scars ran too deep, leaving the winikin once again in the position of trying to save the son when the father put himself beyond salvation.
‘‘I’ll talk to him,’’ Jox repeated. ‘‘If it comes to it, Strike will probably agree to jack you in without his consent.’’
‘‘But I won’t get a bloodline mark if he doesn’t accept me as his own.’’ Rabbit’s voice went rough—with anger, maybe, or tears. Or both. ‘‘No bloodline mark means no talent mark. No magic. What’s the point?’’
‘‘We’ll figure something out.’’ Jox gripped the boy’s shoulder again, and this time didn’t let himself be shaken off. ‘‘I promise.’’
‘‘Whatever.’’ Rabbit shrugged and turned away. He headed for his room and slammed the door. Moments later, the rhythmic thump of bass vibrated through the floorboards.
Jox let out a breath, knowing that Rabbit was so not a complication he needed right now. He hated what had just happened, but Strike needed him, and the king’s son was his first responsibility.
Grabbing the phone, Jox stabbed a few buttons and hit up the slightly disreputable pilot for hire he’d put on speed dial, just in case. A good winikin—or, for that matter, a fuckup winikin who occasionally got a few things right—knew to have contingency plans for just about anything.
The line went live and a thick voice growled, ‘‘This had better be goddamned good.’’
‘‘Five grand if you get us to Cancún before dawn,’’ Jox said, skipping the pleasantries.
There was a moment of silence, then, ‘‘It’ll be an extra ten if you’re carrying illegals.’’
‘‘No illegals, just two passengers, but time is critical. Family emergency.’’
‘‘My ass.’’ But the pilot didn’t press. ‘‘How soon can you be at the airport?’’
‘‘See you there.’’ The line went dead.
Jox headed for his room to grab the essentials, but he paused at the kitchen doorway and looked back, not just at the kitchen and attached sitting area, but at the big picture window and the warehouse beyond, where towering stacks of pallets held his fertilizers and feed, soil and seed.
Winikin weren’t precogs, but something told him he wouldn’t be back.
Rabbit watched his old man and Jox leave, waiting until the brake lights on Jox’s Jeep flashed at the end of the sloped driveway and the vehicle pulled out into traffic and accelerated away. Then he waited another five minutes to make sure they hadn’t forgotten anything worth coming back for.
Then he got on the phone and called a few people, who said they’d call a few more people, and blah, blah. He wasn’t sure if that counted as ‘‘fucking anything up,’’ and didn’t particularly care. Served the others right if they got home and he’d trashed the place. They could’ve brought him along. Wouldn’t have hurt anyone, or screwed with the Nightkeepers’ almighty rules.
But the barrier hadn’t sucked him in. Hell, he hadn’t even known it’d reactivated until he’d heard the screams and saw what Strike-out had done to himself. Then, when the old man had jacked in to look for him, Rabbit hadn’t felt shit, which probably meant the old man’d been right all along and he didn’t have a lick of power or worth. He wasn’t a Nightkeeper, wasn’t anything. He was just a half-blood screwup. And what did screwups do when their parents left them home alone?
They threw parties.
After Strike got off the phone with Jox and Red-Boar—and that convo had been a real case of can open, worms everywhere—he checked on Leah.
She lay on the pullout couch of the studio apartment, beneath a brightly colored serape that was one of the few splashes of color in the utilitarian space Jox had maintained over the years, another of his ‘‘just in case’’ contingencies.
This particular contingency plan had come in seriously handy, because there was no way in hell Strike would’ve had enough strength to teleport him and Leah back to the garden center, even if he’d been sure enough of the magic to try. So instead he’d carried her into town, weaving as he’d walked and singing off-key so the few people who’d seen them assumed they were tourists who’d had too much to drink.
Her chest rose and fell in the slow rhythm of deep sleep. The very fact that he was able to keep her asleep with such a thin spell all but proved she wasn’t a Nightkeeper. The lesser spells, like the sleep spell, worked on humans but not magi.
‘‘But you’re a hell of a human, Blondie,’’ he murmured, tracing his fingers down her porcelain-pale face and lingering on the faint puffiness of a split lip and the slight irregularity of an old scar at her temple, near her hairline. ‘‘A hell of a human.’’
But where did that leave them? The dreams—and they were visions, whether Jox and Red-Boar wanted to believe it or not—suggested they were to be lovers, but did that mean something long-term, or had the moment already come and gone? And if so, what was the point? The god hadn’t made it through the barrier and the makol had escaped. What the hell role was she meant to play in the things to come?
‘‘You’re not going to figure it out staring at her,’’ he told himself. He needed more information. So, despite Jox’s warning, he chanted the simple counterspell to wake her.
Her eyelids flickered and her skin flushed. She murmured something under her breath. Then her eyes popped open, blue and intense, and locked on him immediately.
She didn’t scream—that was the cop in her, he supposed, and felt a flash of gratitude because it gave him time to hold up both hands in an I’m unarmed gesture, and say, ‘‘I’m not going to hurt you. I’m going to feed you.’’
That had her hesitating long enough for the rest of the memories to hit—he saw it in the way her face flushed even harder, the color riding high in her cheeks as she remembered how they’d gone at each other in the sacrificial chamber.
The blush—and his own memories—had his skin heating and his blood revving, and a whole lot of ideas jamming his skull. He wasn’t about to act on any of them, but some of the sizzle must’ve shown in his eyes, because she sat up abruptly enough that she swayed.
Draping the serape around her shoulders to cover where the ruined shirt left her half-naked, she lifted her chin. ‘‘Don’t even think it.’’
‘‘I’m a guy, which means I’m hardwired to think it.’’ He deliberately turned his back on her and headed for the kitchen. ‘‘But I’ll give you my word I won’t act on it tonight.’’
‘‘Which implies you think there’ll be another night.’’ She winced and rubbed at her temples. ‘‘What the hell did you drug me with? My head’s killing me.’’
‘‘No drug,’’ he said, which was the truth. ‘‘You just sort of passed out on me.’’ Which wasn’t exactly a lie. ‘‘We weren’t safe in the ruins, so I brought you here.’’
‘‘Where is here?’’
‘‘A friend’s apartment. He’ll be here in the morning, and he’ll help us get home.’’ Which was more or less the truth, though it left out the part where Red-Boar would block off her memories first. When he saw her glance at the door, he added, ‘‘It locks from the inside, and the key’s in my pocket. And the window is four floors up, so please don’t try it. You have my word that you’ll be home by lunchtime tomorrow.’’
He came out of the kitchen carrying a couple of spoons and an assortment of tinned meat. Jox had stocked the apartment’s small kitchenette with nonperishable proteins of the sort that’d outlive cockroaches on the evolutionary scale, but damned if SPAM, sardines, and Vienna sausages didn’t sound like manna from the gods just then.
‘‘Here.’’ He held out a tin and one of the spoons. ‘‘You need protein.’’
She stared at the tin, then up at him, her eyes very blue against her porcelain skin, which had gone pale as she’d processed everything that’d happened to them, and between them. ‘‘I don’t understand,’’ she said in a small voice, one that had a little tremor in it.
Aw, hell, Strike thought, cursing himself. She had to be terrified, and he was trying to feed her processed meat by-products. Like that was going to make it better.
He sat down beside her on the sofa, put an arm around her, and hugged her in as nonthreatening a way as he could manage. ‘‘I’ll explain what I can.’’ He could tell her anything he wanted, knowing Red-Boar would block it all anyway. ‘‘And in return, I’d like you to answer a few questions for me.’’
She sniffed and nodded. ‘‘If you think it’ll help.’’
‘‘I do.’’ He used his free hand to tip her chin up, so she would see the truth in his eyes. ‘‘You’re going to be home tomorrow. I promise.’’
He’d intended nothing more than that safe vow, that small comfort, but the moment their eyes met it was like somebody cranked his libido to ‘‘on.’’ Heat roared through him, and he wanted nothing more than to grab the long white silk of her hair and use it to bare her throat, to hold her in place as he kissed his way down, taking the time he hadn’t had before.
She sucked in a breath and held it, and damned if that color wasn’t riding her cheeks again, telling him he wasn’t alone in feeling the need.
‘‘I said I wouldn’t touch you tonight,’’ he rasped, throat tight with the horns that rode him, goading him on, urging him to screw his good intentions and take what they both wanted.
‘‘Did you?’’ she murmured, leaning in. ‘‘It seems to have slipped my mind.’’
On the heels of that permission, that invitation, he slid his hand up into the long fall of her hair, which was still faintly damp. He felt the echo of the solstice power within him, but more than that he felt the pounding lust that had ridden him since he’d first dreamed of her, since he’d first awakened thinking of her eyes, and of the way she’d felt wrapped around him.
She leaned in, so their lips were a breath apart, and whispered, ‘‘Go ahead. Kiss me.’’
A harsh groan rattled in his chest, and he closed the distance between them and touched his lips to hers, softly at first, a faint whisper of sensation. She murmured pleasure and met him for the next, taking it wetter, deeper, opening her mouth beneath his and inviting him in.
He crowded close, aligning their bodies and loosening his grip on her hair, sliding his hand down to cup the back of her neck. She whispered something, but the blood was pounding too hard in his veins, too fast in his ears for him to hear. ‘‘What was that?’’
She eased away, cupped his jaw in her hands, and stared into his eyes. ‘‘I said, ‘Thanks for the key.’’’
Then she brought up her knee and racked him in the balls.
The attack was off center enough to be kind, but hard enough to drop him. He curled in pain as she shot to her feet and bolted across the room, headed for the door. ‘‘Don’t!’’ he shouted, his words garbling on a groan of agony. " ’S not safe."
But she was already gone, pounding along the hall and down the stairs.
‘‘Shit!’’ Strike got to his hands and knees and breathed through the pain, tried to find the barrier power when he barely knew where to look, never mind how to handle it. But this was an emergency. No way was he admitting he’d lost her.
He found the barrier, chanted the jack-in spell, and thought of Leah. The travel thread popped up in front of him immediately. Here goes nothing, he thought, and grabbed onto the thread with a mental touch and yanked.
The world went gray-green and slewed sideways, and he crashed into an alley two streets over from the apartment, smack in front of Leah.
This time she did scream.
He grabbed her, envisioned the apartment, and zapped them back hard and fast. They landed in a tangle of arms and legs, and she immediately started thrashing, screaming at the top of her lungs. Worse, the world was starting to spin and go fuzzy at the edges, warning Strike that he was running out of magic fast.
With his last ounce of power he put the sleep spell back on her, and she went limp against him.
Breathing hard, he lay there for a minute while the world did doughnuts around him, and he thanked the gods that he’d managed to get her back before the locals noticed her half-naked self parading around the not-very -nice neighborhood. Then he thanked them some more that he’d managed to pull off two teleports and a sleep spell, which meant he wouldn’t have to admit to Jox that he’d nearly screwed the pooch and lost her.
Then he lay there a minute longer because his balls hurt and he didn’t want to move.
Eventually, though, the floor got hard and he forced himself to his feet. He laid Leah back on the couch and covered her up with the serape, and she murmured something in a soft, sweet voice and turned on her side, tucking her hands beneath her cheek. With her face smoothed out in sleep, she looked very young and vulnerable.
‘‘Vulnerable.’’ He snorted. ‘‘Not exactly accurate, eh, Blondie?’’
He hadn’t enjoyed the experience, but he admired her flair. She’d played him hard and he’d fallen easy, and props to her. She might’ve gotten away, too, if it weren’t for the magic.
Damn, he liked what he knew of her. She was tough and resourceful, soft and sexy, and she’d held her own against the makol. She was gorgeous and quick-minded and—
And whether he liked her or not, dreamed of her or not, she hadn’t retained any magic past the equinox, which meant she wasn’t part of what was coming. And really, that was for the best, given the prophecy.
At the thought, he looked at the far wall, where a framed piece of parchment hung on a bent nail. It wasn’t a decorative touch. It was a reminder of what was important. Ascribed to the god Kauil, whose origins and allegiances were unknown, the thirteenth prophecy read: In the final five years / The king stands ready / To make his greatest sacrifice. / If the dark lord comes / The end begins.
He sighed. Though he wasn’t the king yet, he was next in line, and the only jaguar male left. That meant the prophecy drove him, shadowed him. For so long he’d hoped it meant nothing, that the five-year mark would come and go, that 2012 would come and go. But now the barrier had churned back online, right on schedule, and now there was an ajaw-makol on the earthly plane, with the power to bring a dark lord through the barrier on the next cardinal day. It wasn’t much of a stretch to think the greatest sacrifice would be coming right on its heels.
And didn’t that just suck. Cursing, he pushed away from the wall, intending to pace.
He nearly fell on his ass.
All of a sudden, his legs felt like bungees hooked to nothing, limp and elastic. The urge to sleep was almost overwhelming, and the floor was looking soft as a mattress, but he knew he couldn’t pass out. Not now. Not here.
No way in hell was he leaving Leah unprotected. Not with a makol on the loose. So he headed back into the main room and scrounged the tinned meat he’d pulled out for their interrupted snack. By his fourth can of by-products, the world had stopped spinning. By his sixth— when the SPAM started tasting like SPAM, which wasn’t saying much—he was feeling almost normal, except for the part about needing to sleep for a week. Since that wasn’t an option, he went for caffeine instead, raiding the coffee supply and drinking the stuff black, because powdered creamer was just wrong.
Fortified with a mug of sludgelike caffeine, he snagged a package of stale cookies from a cabinet, then headed back to Leah. He tucked the serape more tightly around her, set a chair near her head, facing the door, and sat himself down with the cookies and coffee within reach, along with the MAC-10 autopistol he’d pulled out of the gun locker hidden behind a secret panel in the bathroom closet. With the gun on his lap and a spare clip of jade-tipped bullets nearby, he watched the door. And waited.
He was still waiting and watching, and was on his third pot of coffee when the dawn broke with quiet ferocity.
In the aftermath of the solstice, the sun rose almost directly behind the great pyramid at Chichén Itzá, a black step-sided silhouette against the fiery red of dawn. The pyramid—dedicated to the creator god Kulkulkan— was a monumental calendar, with ninety-one steps on each of the four sides, plus the top platform, equaling the 365 days of a solar year. Built atop an earlier temple dedicated to the jaguars gods believed to hold up the four corners of the world, the pyramid of Kulkulkan was designed so a serpent shadow descended the stairs at the exact moment of each equinox, in spring and fall. It overlooked the city of Chichén Itzá, which had been the center of religious and military power in the Yucatán from 800-1100 or so, A.D., housing upward of fifty thousand Maya and Nightkeepers at its peak.
Now, as the sun rose over the ancient city, Strike could just see the parking area that would fill with buses and rental cars in the next few hours, as tourists thronged the ruins, oohing and aahing over the ball court, where teams had competed to toss a heavy ball through stone rings set high on the parallel walls of the court. Little would the tourists know that the ball had represented the sun and the ring had symbolized the center of the Milky Way galaxy, which the Maya had believed was the entrance to Xibalba. In that way, they had reenacted the Great Conjunction over and over again, with the game’s winners offering blood sacrifices— and sometimes their lives—to the gods in the hopes of preventing the end-time.
The tourists also wouldn’t know that the Sacred Cenote, a giant sinkhole opening onto the underground waterways that were the only source of freshwater in the Yucatán, was not only a sacrifical well into which the Maya had thrown thousands of offerings, it was also one of the two entrances to the sacred underground tunnels of the Nightkeepers. Because, hello, nobody even knew the Nightkeepers existed anymore. Thanks to the conquistadors and their missionaries, knowledge of the Great Conjunction had faded to an astronomical oddity, and the Nightkeeper-inspired Mayan pantheon had been lost to monotheism.
Which meant what in practical terms? Nothing, really, Strike admitted to himself as the sun continued to climb the sky above the step-sided pyramid belonging to a god who might’ve been forgotten, but was far from gone. The Nightkeepers’ duties had been set long ago, codified into the thirteen prophecies. The Great Conjunction was coming whether mankind cared or not. The Banol Kax would seek to breach the barrier.
And the Nightkeepers—what was left of them, anyway— would stand and fight.
Exhaustion drummed through him. Or maybe that was depression. Grief. It was impossible not to think about the massacre, about what it’d meant. If the barrier was fully back online and the Banol Kax had sent their ajaw-makol to prepare the stage for a dark lord’s arrival, then everything was happening right on schedule despite the ultimate sacrifice represented by the massacre. Which meant his father’s dreams had been lies. Or maybe he’d failed to follow the visions to their conclusion? Nobody knew at this point, which was a real bugger, because it didn’t give Strike a damn bit of insight into how to deal with his own dreams. Or Leah’s.
‘‘We’ve known each other only a few hours, Blondie, and we’re already up against it,’’ he said to the sleeping woman. He ached over the necessity of wiping her memories and sending her back where she belonged, but the alternative was impossible.
Nightkeepers were born, not recruited.
Footsteps sounded in the hallway outside the apartment, jolting Strike from his reverie. He rose to his feet, autopistol at the ready, and relaxed only marginally when he heard the tapping rhythm on the door that signaled friend.
Moments later, a key turned in the lock and the door opened, and he saw the relief in Jox’s face, the condemnation in Red-Boar’s.
The sight of the two men loosened something inside Strike, making him feel a little less alone in the world. The second the door shut at their backs, the exhaustion he’d been fighting back all night rose up to claim him. ‘‘Don’t hurt her,’’ he said. ‘‘That’s an order.’’
And he pitched to the floor, out cold.
The party at the garden center was in full swing by two a.m. Music pumped from the surround-sound speakers in the apartment, and someone had rigged the intercom to blast the tunes out in the warehouse. It was so loud, nobody cared that it sounded like shit.
The apartment above the store was jammed, and there were probably fifty or so kids packed into the warehouse. They were dancing in the main aisle and climbing on the stacked pallets of seeds and fertilizer, jumping from one leaning tower to the next and making bets on who’d fall first. A stack of 5-10-10 had already bitten the dust, and it looked like the leaning tower of diatomaceous earth was next. The dancers ground the fertilizer granules to dust beneath their feet, making the air sparkle faintly in the red-tinged emergency lights.
Rabbit stood above it all, watching from behind the wide picture window that opened from Jox’s office onto the warehouse. He’d declared the room off-limits by slapping a crisscross of yellow-and-black caution tape over the door and locking it behind him, and so far the barricade had held.
The office lights were off, leaving him watching in the darkness as somebody started lobbing five-pounders of birdseed from the top racks of the thirty-foot-high warehouse. The bags exploded when they hit, sending up millet and sunflower shrapnel and making the dancers scream with laughter.
Rabbit knew he should be out there. This was his frigging party, and he was going to catch hell for it when the others got back. But he didn’t move, just sat and watched instead, wishing he’d had the guts to go toe-to-toe with the old man when it’d counted. But he hadn’t, so here he was, stuck in the middle of nowhere, doing nothing important. As usual.
‘‘Rabbit?’’ There was a knock on the door. ‘‘You in there?’’
The voice was female, which pretty much guaranteed he was going to answer. He cracked the door and saw Tracy Lindh, a dark-haired junior cheerleader he knew in passing, who scored about a seven of ten on the do-ability scale, mostly because her breasts balanced out her chunky legs. ‘‘Yeah?’’
‘‘I, uh, don’t want to interrupt or anything.’’
‘‘I’m alone. Just taking a time-out. You want in?’’ He let the door swing wide enough that she could get through, but kept it tight so she’d have to slide up past him.
But she stayed put. ‘‘No, I, uh . . . You know that room in the apartment? The one with the padlock? Well, Ben Stanley and a couple of his buddies—’’
Rabbit was out the door before she finished.
He should’ve been cursing whatever asshole’d invited the terrible trio, when pretty much everyone who was anyone knew they’d made Rabbit’s life a living hell since junior high. It’d gotten so bad he’d actually studied so he could graduate early and get away from them.
But all he could think as he bolted up the hallway and skidded through the front door of the apartment, heart pounding in his ears, was, Oh, shit. Oh, no. No, shit, please, no—
He broke off when he saw that the door to the ritual room was splintered wide-open, with the padlock still attached to its hasp. Raucous male laughter sounded from within.
Lunging for the door, hoping like hell he wasn’t too late, he shouted, ‘‘Hey, get out of—’’
He stopped dead, heart slamming in his chest at the sight of three guys standing over the chac-mool altar, drinking beer from the ritual bowls.
Ben Stanley—a big, arrogant blond jerk who was a second-stringer on the football team and acted like he was captain—stood in the middle. Rabbit didn’t recognize the guys on either side of him, because they were wearing the Nightkeepers’ sacred robes, one red, one black, with the hoods pulled forward to shadow their faces. The hems and sleeve points dragged on the floor, which was littered with broken nachos and what looked like a big spooge of string cheese.
‘‘Get. Out.’’ Rabbit tried to keep his voice even, but it shook with rage.
They shouldn’t be in the ritual chamber. Hell, he shouldn’t even be in there. Not if the barrier had reactivated.
He’d never doubted the magic, even when it failed to work year after year. Somehow he’d always known it’d work someday; he just hadn’t counted on being left behind. And in response, he was just now realizing, he’d made a big fucking mistake.
Probably the biggest of his life.
‘‘Hey, Bunny-boy,’’ the black-robed guy said. ‘‘What the fuck is this? You part of a cult? You and your fucked-up father worship the devil or something?’’
Rabbit ID’d the voice as belonging to one of Ben’s two usual partners in crime: brown-haired, pockmarked Zits Vicker. That meant Jason Tremblay, skinhead extraordinaire, was wearing the royal red.
‘‘Come on, guys,’’ Tracy said, surprising Rabbit because she’d followed him into the apartment. ‘‘Lay off. You’ve gotta admit this is a pretty cool place. You want to be invited back, right?’’
Rabbit turned to her. ‘‘Go downstairs, okay? I’ve got this.’’
He didn’t want her to see him get his shit knocked loose.
‘‘Aw, let her stay,’’ Zits whined. ‘‘We’re just gonna have a little fun.’’ He shook the black robe, making the stingray spines dance. ‘‘Is this your dress, Bunny? Or does your daddy like you in the red one better?’’
‘‘Go,’’ Rabbit whispered, his heart bumping unevenly in his chest. ‘‘Please.’’
Tracy finally left, and Ben shut the door after her, giving it a shove so it wedged against the busted part and stuck fast. Then he crossed to the altar and dropped the bowl he’d been drinking from, giving it a spin so beer sloshed over the edges.
Rabbit was tempted to tell them that the last thing to hit those bowls had been human blood. He was going to take a pounding anyway. Why not deserve it?
But where before he’d more or less taken what they’d dished out—because resistance was futile and just earned him more of a beating—now he found himself squaring off opposite Ben as Zits and Jason moved up on either side of their leader.
Outside the sacred chamber, somebody swapped out the music, and a heavy throb of drumbeats sounded, seeming to echo up through the floor.
‘‘Wanna tell us what goes on in here?’’ Zits asked. He slurped from his bowl, beer sloshing down the front of the sacred black robe.
Rabbit wanted to kill him. Really and truly kill him— a quick slash across the throat would do it, or even better, he could cut the bastard’s heart out of his chest and watch as Zits’s blood pressure crashed, his brain cut out, and he dropped dead. Better still, he could burn him, robes and all, and listen to him scream.
For a second the image of it was so vivid in his mind, so perfect, Rabbit thought he’d already crisped the son of a bitch. Then the fantasy winked out and he was stuck back in the reality of high school torment, three months after he’d escaped the halls of hell.
This time, though, he wasn’t the skinny kid who’d moved to town halfway through junior high and got caught doodling a black-robed wizard in his algebra notebook. This time he was . . .
Nothing. He was nothing. A half-blood who couldn’t even jack in.
‘‘He’s not gonna tell us,’’ Ben said. ‘‘Guess we’ll have to make him.’’ He slapped the ceremonial bowl off the altar, sending it across the room. The thin jade shattered when it hit the wall, and the air hummed off-key.
‘‘Hey! Knock it off.’’ Heart hammering in his chest, feeling faintly sick, Rabbit crouched down and picked up the largest piece of jade, which had broken off in an elongated triangle with knife-sharp edges.
Ben stuck his chin out. ‘‘Make me.’’
The humming got louder, reverberating in Rabbit’s ears. ‘‘Just go,’’ he whispered, gripping the shard of jade and feeling it cut into his palm. ‘‘Please, just go.’’
Heat surrounded him. Built inside him.
There must’ve been something in his eyes or voice, or maybe the heat and the humming weren’t just his imagination, because Jason started edging toward the door. He pulled off the red robe and dropped it on the floor. ‘‘Come on, guys. We don’t want to get in trouble with the ’rents. This shit looks expensive.’’
‘‘There aren’t any ’rents,’’ Ben scoffed. ‘‘Just his stoner dad. You ever see him wandering around here in his brown bathrobe? What a loser.’’ His eyes flicked to Rabbit’s hand. ‘‘What’re you gonna do, stab me with that?’’ He spread his hands and stuck out the beginnings of a gut. ‘‘Have at it, Bunny. You don’t have the stones.’’
Red washed Rabbit’s vision, narrowing it to a pinprick focused on Ben’s face. All the jeers and indignities, every kick and punch, came back to him in a flare of humiliation.
‘‘Go,’’ he said again, his voice shaking with fear, not of them, but of what was happening inside him. Say it, a voice whispered. Say the word.
‘‘His hand’s bleeding,’’ Zits said suddenly. ‘‘And I think he’s gonna puke. Come on; let’s blow before he does.’’ He yanked the door and took off with Jason on his heels, tripping on the too-long robe and crushing the stingray spines into a twisted mess. But Rabbit was only peripherally aware of those small details.
His whole focus was on Ben. His enemy.
The humming in his head turned into a scream. The heat flared higher and higher still. Finally, Ben realized he was in trouble. His eyes got big and he started edging away, but it was too late for him to escape, too late to stop the thing that built within Rabbit, taking him over, thrilling him. Terrifying him.
Pressure grew inside Rabbit’s skull and his fingertips burned, pain erupting as if the skin were peeling away. He tipped back his head and screamed, not sure whether he was trying to make it stop or urge it to keep going.
Ben made a run for it, bolting for the door. He skidded on the nacho crumbs and string cheese and went down on his hands and knees, but kept going, crawling out of the room as Rabbit screamed.
Finally, a word emerged, one he didn’t even know he knew—not even a word, really, more a long syllable. A cry for mercy. For vengeance. ‘‘Kaak!’’
Power blasted from him like an orgasm. Flames rose up around him like lovers, touching him, stroking him, urging him on, and he said the word again, calling the fire to him and sending it higher and higher still.
Dimly, far away, he heard screams and running feet. He felt the terror and pain of the others, and drank it in.
‘‘Kaak!’’ he said a third time, and clapped his bleeding palms together.
Force and flame exploded outward, away from him, flattening everything in its path and leaving him untouched. Leaving him in control.
Rabbit had a moment of pure, perfect joy as the apartment burned around him. Then he passed the hell out.
When Leah awoke, she smelled Betadine and alcohol wipes, and heard the hum of ventilation and the turned-low chatter of daytime TV. Oh, crap. She was in a hospital. And she was lying on something soft, which meant she wasn’t doing the neck-crick nap-in-a-chair routine while waiting for a patient to wake up for questioning.
She was the patient. Damn it, she hated being the patient. Worse, beside the first quick surge of irritation was another emotion, a hollow, aching sense of loss that made her want to curl into a ball and weep.
She racked her brain, trying to find the source, but found only the sadness.
‘‘What happened?’’ She pushed the words through a parched-dry throat, and they came out slurred, like she had a serious hit of happy pills in her system, blocking some monster pain. Remembering the feeling from the year before, when she’d taken a bullet in the leg during a bust gone wrong, she said, ‘‘Did I get shot again?’’
She heard motion nearby, and had the sense of a man leaning over her. She wasn’t sure why her eyes hadn’t come back online yet, but thanks to the drugs she wasn’t too worried about it. Besides, his presence was warm and reassuring, though he didn’t touch her.
‘‘What is the last thing you remember?’’ His voice sent a skitter of warmth through her, a little zip of electricity that had her heart bumping in her chest.
‘‘I don’t know.’’ Memory was a thick cloud of gray-green mist. ‘‘Not much.’’ Had she hit her head? Did she have amnesia? The idea brought a jolt of fear. ‘‘Why can’t I see?’’
‘‘Give it a minute.’’ He paused. ‘‘Can you tell me your name, and your parents’ names?’’
‘‘I’m Leah Ann Daniels,’’ she said, relieved when the information came quickly. ‘‘My parents are Timothy and Ann Daniels, and they live in Boca. I’ve got a place outside town, and I drive a ’sixty-seven Mustang named Peggy Sue. My brother—’’
She broke off, sucking in a breath as a big chunk of it clicked into place. Matty was dead, she remembered with a slice of grief so fresh it was like it’d just happened. Ever since then, she’d been trying to nail Zipacna and his 2012ers for the Calendar Killings.
‘‘We were meeting a snitch,’’ she said, remembering Nick’s unhesitating support and wondering why that brought another wash of grief. ‘‘Itchy. He showed up and . . .’’ She frowned, bumping up against that grayness again. ‘‘I don’t remember anything after that.’’
She let the silence continue for a minute, sure the doctor—because that was what he had to be, right?— would either fill in the gaps or ask her another question. But he did neither.
‘‘Hello?’’ she tried, wondering if the silence meant she was missing more than a few hours. ‘‘What day is it, anyway?’’
‘‘Tuesday,’’ a female voice answered. ‘‘Welcome back, Detective.’’
Leah frowned. ‘‘Where’s the doctor?’’
‘‘I’m Dr. Black.’’
‘‘What about the guy who was just in here?’’
The newcomer ignored the question, instead taking Leah’s pulse, then running her through the exact same ‘‘who are you and who are your parents’’ questions she’d just answered for the other guy.
Leah’s banged-up brain spun. Who the hell had she just been talking to? The easy answer was that he’d been one of Zipacna’s boys, sent to see what she remembered. Which meant there’d been something for her to remember, damn it. Problem was, she couldn’t convince herself the voice had belonged to a 2012er. First off, they didn’t tend to blend. Someone would’ve noticed. Second off, though she told herself she damn well knew better than to judge on looks—or sound—it didn’t feel right. The owner of that voice wasn’t a member of Zipacna’s cult; he was . . .
Nothing, she realized, coming up against that gray wall again. He was nothing to her. Probably just a dream, or a fragment of TV dialogue that she’d turned into something more.
Yet the image of piercing blue eyes stayed with her, even though she hadn’t seen his face.
When the doctor finished her exam, she said, ‘‘You’re looking good, considering.’’
‘‘Considering what?’’ Concentrating, Leah managed to open her eyes, wincing at the glare and the rasp of her eyelids. Her eyeballs felt like they’d been scorched, like all the tears had been burned away, and once the light leveled off, the dull pain at the back of her head increased to a steadily drumming headache. Her tongue was sore, too, and her body ached all over, though in a not entirely unpleasant way, like she’d had really good sex or something.
The doctor turned out to be a forty-something motherly type wearing round-rimmed glasses and happy-face scrubs that made Leah wonder if she’d gotten turfed to pediatrics. The room looked vaguely familiar, as did the view of Biscayne Bay. ‘‘I’m in Mercy?’’
The doctor nodded as she scribbled something in Leah’s chart. ‘‘Yep. Miami’s finest.’’
‘‘How long am I going to be here?’’
‘‘Not long. I’ll run a few tests, make sure everything still checks out okay. You were unconscious for quite a while, but sometimes the body knows best. You may have needed to shut it off for a while. Considering what you went through, you’re in very good shape.’’
That was the second time the doctor had given her the ‘‘considering’’ line, but since she’d avoided the question the first time Leah didn’t bother trying again. ‘‘My head hurts. And if I’m doing so well, what’s with the drugs?’’
‘‘We haven’t given you anything.’’ Concerned, she put down the clipboard and crossed to Leah so she could do the penlight-in-eyes, follow-my-finger routine. ‘‘Is your vision blurry?’’
‘‘Getting clearer by the second, now that I’ve got my eyes open,’’ Leah said quickly, knowing she was on the verge of adding an overnight to her hospital sentence.
The doc didn’t look convinced. ‘‘Do you have someone who can stay with you for the next forty-eight hours or so?’’
Which begged the question of where the ‘‘utterly single with no prospects in sight’’ check mark went on the admissions form—and who’d filled it in for her.
Nick, probably, she thought. Then she remembered that he’d been with her for the gone-wrong meeting with Itchy. ‘‘How’s my partner? Nick Ramon. Did he bring me in?’’
The doctor headed for the door. ‘‘The waiting room is practically overflowing with cops. Captain Mendez, in particular, would like to speak with you.’’
Another evasion, Leah realized, a chill settling in her gut. ‘‘Bring her on.’’
Connie would tell it like it was.
Dr. Black pushed through the door. Moments later, Connie swung through, her heels tapping on the polished floor, her brown eyes fixed on Leah. She was wearing her usual conservative power suit—this one a member of the olive green family—buttoned tight across her thick fifty-something frame, but her serene I’m in charge expression showed cracks of concern.
She stopped beside the bed and stared down. The sight of her normally stoic boss with her mouth working and nothing coming out was enough to send a chill through Leah. It was the glint of tears in Connie’s eyes, though, that sealed it.
‘‘Nick’s dead, isn’t he.’’ It wasn’t even a question. Leah already knew. It explained the doctor’s reticence and the look in Connie’s eyes.
It also explained why, from the moment she’d woken up all the way from her dream, she’d felt as though her heart were breaking.
Strike dumped the borrowed lab coat on an empty gurney, slipped out of Mercy Hospital, and headed down the block to the Vizcaya Gardens, where Jox and Red-Boar were waiting for him. They had helped him hide Leah’s unconscious body near where her partner had died—an image Red-Boar had pulled from her mind. Once she was in place, he’d made an anonymous 911 call and stood watch until the cops arrived, and then he’d shadowed them to the hospital in order to make sure she woke up okay.
Red-Boar had bitched about the time suck, but Strike had been adamant. Bad enough he’d had to wipe her memories, had to leave her. He sure as hell wasn’t taking off without making sure she was okay. He’d also slapped a protection spell on her when Red-Boar and Jox weren’t looking. The threadlike connection running through the barrier would alert him if she thought she was in mortal danger. In theory, anyway. In practice, who the hell knew?
They’d lost too much of the knowledge and magic their ancestors had once commanded.
Fury and frustration bubbled up in Strike as he walked beneath the screaming Florida sun. He wanted to put his fist through something, wanted to drive too fast, wanted to press a willing woman—okay, Leah—up against the wall and pound himself into her until he forgot that he was a king without a people, a protector without much power, a savior who didn’t have the foggiest notion how to go about doing what thirteen hundred generations of his forebears had intended for him to do. The writs said that a Nightkeeper answered to the gods first, and then to his people, but what if he had no people? What if he was on his own?
‘‘Then he’s just a guy who can do a few parlor tricks, and the world is pretty much fucked four and a half years from now,’’ he said aloud, the words rasping in his throat.
He needed more power, needed more people, needed . . .
Help. He needed help.
You had help, a voice whispered inside. You let her go.
‘‘She’s better off without me,’’ he said, and meant it.
Strike paid his admission fee to Vizcaya, which was some sort of mansion-turned-tourist attraction. He did a thanks-but-no-thanks on the guided tour and headed straight through the main house, which was huge and rococo, a sort of ode to Italian Renaissance built in the early nineteen hundreds by some industrialist or another. It wasn’t his thing, but Jox had chosen the meeting place, and it hadn’t seemed worth arguing.
The gardens beside the mansion were pretty, green and hot, and the sound of fountain-borne water mingled with that of jetliners entering their landing pattern on the way to the airport. Strike followed the brochure map out to the meeting spot. Jox and Red-Boar were waiting for him in something called the Grotto, which proved to be a cavelike structure made of coral and carved stone that’d probably sounded really good when the architect first pitched it, but as far as Strike was concerned just looked lumpy and weird. Statues of the sea god Neptune flanked either side of the arched doorway, and a low bench ran around the interior. The coral walls absorbed the sounds made by the few other tourists meandering around the formal gardens, and that, combined with the rush of a large fountain cascading over and in front of the Grotto, gave the illusion of privacy for their council of war.
Jox stood by the entrance, pensive. Red-Boar sat cross-legged on the floor, doing his Yoda impression of eyes-closed, hands-folded-in-lap meditation.
‘‘It’s done,’’ Strike said.
‘‘Good.’’ Jox waved him into the small space, then sat near the door, so he could see both in and out. Guarding them, like generations of winikin had guarded their Nightkeepers.
Seeing that, Strike felt a layer of strangeness settle around them. How long had they talked about what-if? What if the barrier came back to life before the end-time? What if the Banol Kax found a way to contact evil on earth and set out to fulfill the final prophecy?
They’d never come up with good answers before. Why should it be any different now that what-if had become, Oh, shit?
‘‘She doesn’t remember you?’’ Red-Boar asked.
‘‘You did a good job,’’ Strike answered, hating that it had been necessary. Why had she been in his dreams if she wasn’t going to be in his life? Only half joking, he said, ‘‘You want to wipe my mind now, and we can pretend none of it happened?’’
‘‘Mind-wipe doesn’t work on Nightkeepers.’’
‘‘Right. I knew that.’’ Strike sighed and dropped onto the bench. ‘‘What now?’’
Jox gestured to the garden. ‘‘Did you look around on the way in?’’
Strike shrugged. ‘‘Yeah. Too fussy for my taste, and the staff salary’s got to be a killer, but whatever works for you, I guess.’’
‘‘It’s gorgeous,’’ Jox said, more ignoring him than disagreeing.
Strike said, ‘‘And this is relevant why?’’
But he stood and joined the winikin in the Grotto doorway, so they stood shoulder-to-shoulder looking out at the gardens and the fussy mansion beyond, with its pale stone, ornate ironwork, and yellow and blue-striped awnings. Figures moved on the east terrace, setting out chairs and bunting for some sort of event later in the day.
‘‘What do you see?’’ Jox said quietly.
The quick answer died on Strike’s tongue. After a moment, he said, ‘‘Shit. People. Mankind. The things we’ve built.’’
It shamed him, which had no doubt been Jox’s intention. He’d been so caught up in being pissed off about Leah, the barrier reopening, and the ajaw-makol getting away, so worried about the visions and what they might mean, so conflicted about the return of the magic and finally being able to jack in . . . that he’d lost track of what the hell this was all about.
It was about saving the world.
‘‘There’s just me and Red-Boar left,’’ Strike said, his heart heavy with the knowledge that they’d failed before they’d even begun. ‘‘Anna’s gone, and all of the others are dead.’’
There was a long moment of silence. Then Jox said, ‘‘That’s not exactly true.’’
The world went very, very still.
Strike’s breath left him in a long, slow hiss. ‘‘Meaning what?’’
Red-Boar’s head came up. His eyes fixed on Jox.
‘‘There are others out there, hidden. Raised in secret.’’ The winikin said it fast, not looking at Strike or Red-Boar.
Strike wasn’t sure how he was supposed to react, wasn’t sure how he felt, wasn’t sure he’d even heard it correctly. Somehow the words had gotten stuck between his ears and his brain, jamming him up, making his brain buzz.
Other Nightkeepers. Raised in secret. Gods.
After a lifetime of thinking he was the only male full-blood of his generation, the concept just didn’t compute.
Red-Boar rose, his face gone gray. ‘‘Winikin, what have you done?’’
‘‘My duty. Always my duty.’’ That was said with a hint of self-directed anger, as Jox pulled a folded sheet of paper out of his pocket and offered it to Strike. ‘‘I protected the bloodlines from their enemies.’’ The look he shot at Red-Boar suggested he wasn’t just talking about the underworld, either, but Strike let that pass as he took the folded paper and opened it with fingers that trembled faintly.
It was a computer printout of names. Not just any names, though. The words Owl and Iguana leaped out at him, seeming to burn his eyeballs.
A bolt of something that might’ve been excitement, might’ve been dread, hit him square in the midsection and fired through his veins. Behind him, Red-Boar dropped down to one of the benches as though his legs had given out.
‘‘Jesus,’’ Strike said. He looked at Jox. ‘‘How?’’
‘‘That night . . .’’ The winikin swallowed hard before continuing, as though he, too, still saw the bloody images of the massacre in his sleep. ‘‘The boluntiku smelled the magic. Any connection to the barrier was a way for them to track the children. But there were a few they couldn’t chase down, a few who got away.’’
‘‘The babies,’’ Red-Boar rasped. ‘‘They didn’t have their bloodline marks yet. The monsters couldn’t see them.’’ He paused, shaking his head. ‘‘Gods. How did I not know?’’
‘‘The babies,’’ Strike repeated, thinking of the crèche in its soundproof globe. Excitement kindled. ‘‘You’re fucking kidding me.’’ They’d be what—twenty-five, twenty-six now?
And they’d be full-bloods. Nightkeepers. Magi.
The world took a long, lazy spin around him. This couldn’t be happening, couldn’t be real. Could it?
‘‘How many?’’ he whispered, almost afraid to ask, because if they were going to pull this off he was going to need a whole fucking army. The sheet of paper suddenly seemed heavy, like it carried the weight of the world. ‘‘How many survived?’’
‘‘Ten, along with their winikin.’’ Jox paused. ‘‘With you two and Rabbit or Anna, that makes thirteen. A powerful number.’’
Strike drew his finger down the list, pausing where two names sat beside the name of a single winikin. ‘‘Siblings?’’
‘‘Twins,’’ Jox said, and there was a wealth of meaning in the single word. The Hero Twins were the saviors in countless Mayan legends, reflecting the fact that twins were a powerful force in Nightkeeper magic. Siblings could boost each other’s magic through the bloodline connection, mates through the emotional link. The twin link was ten times stronger than either.
‘‘Gods.’’ Strike looked at Jox—the man who’d saved him, the man who’d raised him. ‘‘They don’t know who they are? They don’t know the magic?’’
‘‘They can learn,’’ Jox said with quiet authority. ‘‘Each of them was raised by a winikin. They know the stories by heart. They can learn the rest.’’
In the silence that followed, the winikin’s cell phone rang. He pulled it from his back pocket, glanced at the caller ID, and frowned. ‘‘Police?’’
Everything inside Strike went on red alert in an instant, and he nearly lunged across and grabbed the phone before he stopped himself. The protection spell hadn’t given him the slightest quiver, and besides, Leah and Jox hadn’t swapped cell numbers. There was no reason she or anyone else at the MDPD would be calling.
‘‘Hello?’’ Jox answered. ‘‘Yes, this is he.’’ He listened, stiffened, and his face went blank, then flushed a dull red. After a moment, he said, ‘‘His father is part owner in the business.’’
Strike winced. Oh, hell. What’d Rabbit done this time?
The conversation went on for a few minutes, with Jox giving nothing but an occasional, ‘‘Yes, of course,’’ and, ‘‘Uh-huh,’’ his voice going thicker each time, his complexion going paler. Finally, he said, ‘‘Yes, please put him on.’’
‘‘What’d he do?’’ Strike hissed.
The winikin held up a wait a minute finger and said, ‘‘Rabbit? It’s Jox. Are you okay?’’ He listened for a moment, and Strike caught the rise and fall of the teen’s voice, sounding younger than usual, and atypically high, like he was on the verge of losing it.
Strike’s irritation morphed to worry. Had the kid actually hurt himself this time? Worse, had he hurt someone else?
‘‘It’s okay, son. It’s okay. We’ll get through this, I promise. I need you to listen to me. Rabbit, are you listening? Good. It was an accident. There were candles and alcohol, and that’s all the cops need to know.’’
‘‘Oh, shit,’’ Strike said, putting two and two together and getting zero.
‘‘I’ll kill him.’’ Red-Boar held out his hand. ‘‘Let me talk to him.’’
Jox turned his back. ‘‘I’ll take care of everything. I’ll deal with it, I promise. Do you still have your ID and the AmEx I gave you for emergencies?"
‘‘Winikin.’’ Red-Boar’s voice turned deadly. ‘‘Give. Me. The. Phone.’’
‘‘Good,’’ Jox said, ignoring him. ‘‘I want you to get your ass to Logan Airport and wait for me to call you with a destination. If the cops give you any grief, tell them it’s a family emergency and have them call me. Got it?’’
When Red-Boar moved, looking as though he were going to deck Jox and take the phone, Strike stepped between them. ‘‘Don’t,’’ he said quietly. ‘‘He’s more than earned our trust.’’
‘‘Speak for yourself.’’ But Red-Boar stalked away, slammed the heels of his palms against the coral-trimmed doorway, and leaned out, breathing deeply.
‘‘Bye, kid,’’ Jox said, then added, ‘‘And hey— congratulations, sort of. Next time wait for an escort, though, okay?’’
‘‘Oh, shit,’’ Strike said as Jox hung up the phone.
‘‘Yep,’’ Jox said grimly, losing the everything’s okay facade he’d pulled together for the teen’s sake. ‘‘You guessed it. The good news is that Rabbit’s a pyrokine.’’ He left it hanging, but there was no need to say it aloud.
The bad news is that Rabbit’s a pyrokine.
And his magic was shit-strong, or the barrier wouldn’t have reached out to him, giving him his talent without the proper ceremonies. Not only that, he was a half-blood, which automatically made his talents volatile, and not necessarily subject to the same rules as Nightkeeper magic.
Red-Boar turned back. ‘‘Did he hurt anyone else?’’
‘‘No.’’ Jox shook his head. ‘‘Thank the gods.’’
‘‘What about—’’ Strike broke off, afraid to ask.
The winikin shook his head. ‘‘It’s all gone. The cops are willing to call it an accident, but we’ll have to take a flier on the insurance. No way they’re paying out on a party gone wrong.’’
Strike tried to take it in, but on some level he was numb to the tragedy. He’d found his dream woman, only to learn that she wasn’t his at all. The barrier was open and there was an ajaw-makol on the loose. And there were more Nightkeepers. Ten of them, plus their winikin.
After that, losing their business, home, and possessions didn’t seem all that major. Then again, the garden center hadn’t been his dream. It’d been Jox’s.
‘‘Hey. I’m sorry.’’ Strike reached out to the winikin, then hesitated. They were close, but not particularly touchy-feely. ‘‘I’m really freaking sorry.’’
Jox backed away, holding up a hand. ‘‘Don’t.’’ There was something broken in his voice. ‘‘Just don’t, okay? Give me a minute.’’ He sat. Blew out a breath. ‘‘It’s stupid, really. We would’ve had to leave anyway, right? That part of our lives is over.’’
Strike sat beside him. ‘‘Doesn’t make it any easier.’’
‘‘Sacrifice.’’ Jox scrubbed his hands over his face. ‘‘It’s all about sacrifice.’’
‘‘We’ll have to find someplace to train the newbies,’’ Red-Boar said from the doorway, seemingly ignoring the fact that his kid was an untrained pyro who had torched Jox’s pride and joy. ‘‘Maybe a farmhouse. Something near some good ley lines, with no close neighbors. Maybe the Midwest. Shit.’’ He scowled. ‘‘The robes and bowls are probably trash. Altar might be salvageable if the stone didn’t crack in the heat. Spellbooks are gone. So what the fuck am I supposed to use to teach the magic to these hypothetical magi?
‘‘Having them meet us at the training compound would be a good start,’’ Jox said quietly.
Something in his voice had Strike sitting up. ‘‘The training center’s long gone.’’ When the winikin said nothing, Strike got a weird shimmy in his gut. ‘‘Isn’t it?’’
The morning after the massacre, Jox had left him and Anna down in the bunkerlike safe room beneath the archives while he’d collected the bodies and set the Great Hall ablaze as a massive funeral pyre. Then the winikin had gathered the robes and a few sacred objects, and all the spellbooks he could fit in the Jeep he was taking. Finally, he’d invoked the training compound’s self-destruct spell. Known only to a select few Nightkeepers and the royal winikin, the spell was intended to keep the magic away from human eyes. It—as Jox had explained it, anyway—basically shoved the compound into the barrier, wiping it from the earth forever.
It was the last Nightkeeper magic done before the barrier shut down. Or so Strike had always believed. Now, when the winikin stayed silent and Red-Boar glared, Strike said, ‘‘Jox?’’
‘‘The training center is still there,’’ the winikin admitted. ‘‘It’s just . . . hidden.’’
Red-Boar’s voice shook when he said, ‘‘You used a curtain spell?’’
Jox nodded. ‘‘King Scarred-Jaguar preset a disguise spell for me before he left, sort of a level below the self-destruct. Maybe he knew what was going to happen; I don’t know.’’ He paused, glancing at Strike. ‘‘You can reverse the spell. The Great Hall is gone, but the rest of the training center stands intact . . . including the archives.’’
Oh, gods in heaven. ‘‘The archives,’’ Strike repeated, his brain buzzing with shock, with possibilities. Though most of the spellbooks had been lost to the missionaries’ fires, a handful had survived. That collected wisdom, along with generations of written commentaries from various spell casters and magi, had been located in the three-room archive of the Nightkeepers’ training compound.
Apparently, it still was.
‘‘Christ.’’ Strike was having a hard time processing this. He was being offered the ultimate knowledge base, but with a serious caveat—to get it, he’d have to go back to the place that still haunted him.
It’d taken years before he could close his eyes and not see the boluntiku, not relive the deaths of his friends and their winikin. The nightmares were few and far between these days, but they were hard and dark and crippling when they came.
He looked over at Jox. ‘‘What does it . . . look like?’’ Last he’d seen it, the place had been in shambles, littered with torn clothing and the debris of violence. Six-clawed marks had marred the buildings, and the wrecked cars had been awash with blood.
‘‘Probably not so good.’’ Jox lifted a shoulder. ‘‘The curtain spell protects it from sight, but not from the elements. It’s been twenty-four years. Who knows what we’ll find when we get there?’’
Great, Strike thought. But Jox was right—they had to go. There was no turning down the lure of the archives . . . and Rabbit had fucking burned down the garden center. Hating the necessity, he nodded. ‘‘New Mexico it is.’’
They were silent a moment, each caught in memory. Finally, Strike said, ‘‘What I don’t get is why you didn’t tell us about the others sooner. Why not let us all grow up together?’’
‘‘I couldn’t risk it,’’ the winikin replied. ‘‘The younger ones never went through their first binding ceremonies, so the barrier didn’t recognize them at all. You and Anna had your first marks, though, and Red-Boar was fully bound.’’
‘‘So if the boluntiku came through the barrier again, they’d come straight for us, and once they found us, they’d be likely to kill the youngsters, too.’’ Strike nodded, his gut knotting at the memories. ‘‘But after a few years, once you knew it was safe, you could’ve said something.’’
‘‘I couldn’t risk it,’’ the winikin said in his end of discussion voice, warning Strike that it wasn’t worth pressing. Not now, anyway.
Besides, he could make an educated guess from the way Jox and Red-Boar were careful not to look at each other. There’s something there, Strike thought, and he wondered, not for the first time, exactly what had happened between the two men back when Red-Boar had disappeared into the rain forest near the sacred tunnels, and returned several years later with his son in tow.
And why the winikin had felt it necessary to protect the young survivors from the sole remaining full-fledged mage.
Twelve hours later, Strike, Jox, Red-Boar, and Rabbit stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the New Mexico badlands, staring at an empty box canyon off the Chaco River cut-through.
Some thirty miles away over rough terrain lay the intricate, soaring ruins of the six-hundred-room Pueblo Bonito, which the early Puebloans—with a little help from traveling Nightkeepers up from the Yucatán—had built as a ceremonial home for the gods around A.D. 1000. The larger-than-life stone-and-mortar ruins formed the center of the Chaco Culture National Historical Park, which saw its share of tourist traffic. Farther north, the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness offered dinosaur skeletons and funky ’shroom-shaped rock formations.
Here, though, a stiff five-mile drive off a gravel track that optimistically called itself Route 57, there was nothing but canyon walls of sandstone, flatlands dotted with chamisa and saltbush, and the occasional rock formation.
The box canyon was maybe a half mile across, widening out past the mouth to form a flattened arrow shape of open land that dead-ended in a sheer rock face about a mile away. High stacks of cumulus clouds dotted the blue sky, and large bird shadows passed now and then, one of the few signs that they weren’t completely alone.
Strike squinted into the sharp-edged sunlight and thought he could just make out the shadows of pueblo ruins high up on the rock face of the box canyon’s back wall. The memory of climbing up to those ruins with a group of kids his own age was the only thing that clicked. Nothing else seemed familiar.
‘‘You sure this is the right place?’’ Red-Boar asked suddenly.
It was a relief to hear him speak after so many hours of silence. As far as Strike was concerned, it was also a relief to know he wasn’t the only one with doubts. He’d expected to feel something when he got here. He’d expected to remember more, but the canyon was just a canyon.
‘‘This is the place,’’ Jox said with quiet assurance. He stepped back, gesturing for Rabbit to join him. ‘‘Let’s let these two work.’’
‘‘Hey,’’ the teen protested. ‘‘I want to—’’
"Not now," Red-Boar said sharply. ‘‘Go with the winikin."
The kid shot his father a look, and Strike could’ve sworn that the air crinkled with heat for a second. Then Rabbit slouched over to join Jox, temper etched in every fiber of his sweaty-assed, hoodie-wearing self.
Strike glared at the older Nightkeeper. ‘‘Do you think we should—’’
‘‘Not now.’’ Red-Boar did the interrupting thing again, then palmed the knife from his belt. It was a Buck knife knockoff they’d bought from a roadside stand, not a purified ceremonial dagger, and they wore combat black-on -black instead of the ceremonial robes, but they’d tied fabric strips around their upper arms—black for Red-Boar, royal crimson for Strike—as a nod to the regalia they’d lost in the fire.
With a smooth motion, the older man flipped open the knife and drew it across his right palm, signifying that his would be the lead power for this spell. He tossed the knife to Strike, who caught it on the fly and scored his left palm for the subordinate role.
The moment the first drop of blood hit the sand, the air hammered with an invisible detonation. The ground trembled, then stilled, but the world around them shimmered gold.
‘‘Pasaj och,’’ the men said in unison, jacking in.
Strike could feel the power within, could feel it straining against the barrier. He saw a yellow thread but didn’t dare grab on, because he’d promised Jox he wouldn’t ’port again until he’d done some controlled practicing. Catching a flash of motion, he turned his head to follow, but didn’t see anything. Was that weird? He didn’t know.
‘‘Focus,’’ Red-Boar said quietly, and held out his hand. The blood from his palm looked crimson in the golden air, which shimmered some twenty feet away from them at the mouth of the box canyon, as though some sort of field were repelling the power itself.
Strike pressed his bleeding palm to Red-Boar’s, boosting the older Nightkeeper.
‘‘Gods,’’ Red-Boar said, and power sang through their connected hands and exploded in Strike’s head. The jolt rocketed through his body and blasted outward in a shock wave that drove Jox and Rabbit back on their asses. The golden curtain thickened before them, moving and roiling as if it were a living thing that fought destruction.
Red-Boar rapped out a string of words so quickly and so oddly accented that Strike couldn’t begin to follow, finishing with a loud cry of, ‘‘Ye-ye-ye!’’ Reveal!
The gold burst like ground-level fireworks, raining down on them in pellets of power that felt cool to the touch. Air rushed into the space where the golden light had been, a howling whip of wind that moved the sand and plucked an eagle from the sky.
The bird recovered quickly, winging away over the canyon with a screech of protest, then swerving sharply to the right when a huge leafy tree materialized in front of it. As the eagle flapped its powerful wings, seeming eager to get the hell away, four other buildings shimmered to life, becoming solid and recognizable, and punching Strike with a grief so fresh that he nearly dropped to his knees. He couldn’t, though, because he was held up by Red-Boar’s viselike grip on his hand.
Through the connection, he saw the image of a golden-haired woman and two toddlers, identical copies of each other, and felt a wash of love so acute he wanted to scream with it.
Realizing he was catching Red-Boar’s emotional backlash, he tried to pull away, shouting, ‘‘Jack out!’’ When the mage resisted, Strike got in his face, grabbed him by the jaw, and forced the older man to look at him. ‘‘Listen to me! Let them go; they’re not real!’’
Red-Boar released his hand and the golden light cut out. The images dimmed, and Strike sagged, bracing his hands on his knees to stay upright.
Then Red-Boar punched him in the face and Strike went down anyway.
‘‘What the fuck?’’ Strike rolled and blocked, in case there was another coldcock incoming, but it’d been a one-shot deal.
The older man just stood over him, breathing hard. ‘‘They were real to me,’’ he said, and turned and walked toward the newly materialized buildings.
Red-Boar’s step didn’t change when Rabbit called after him. He didn’t hear the quaver in the boy’s voice. Or maybe he didn’t care.
‘‘Here. Up you go.’’ Jox hauled Strike to his feet with a strength that seemed disproportionate to his size. ‘‘You okay?’’ At Strike’s nod, he turned to Rabbit. ‘‘You?’’
‘‘Whatever.’’ The kid took a good, long look at what had sprung to life in the box canyon, and his lips twisted. ‘‘You guys better be able to magic us up about fifty Ty Penningtons, because this place needs a serious make-over. ’’
Strike followed the direction of his gaze—he’d managed to avoid looking at the compound up to that point—and let out a long, shaky breath. It was the scene of his nightmares. Yet at the same time it wasn’t.
Yes, the walls were scored with claw marks, but they were faded and worn from wind, rain, and blowing sand. Yes, wrecked cars dotted the landscape, but they were dated, rusted shells now, looking like a more appropriate setting for a junkyard dog than for fear.
Strike had worried that all he’d see was the past. Instead, he saw possibilities.
The main house was as huge as his nine-year-old self remembered, a three-story mansion of mortar-set sandstone with wings running off on either side, curving around, a swimming pool in the back. The driveway ran around the left side to the huge connected garage, and on the right a covered tunnel led to the Great Hall. At least, it had. Now the spot where the rec building had stood was nothing more than a dark stain on the canyon floor, marking the ashes of the dead children and winikin.
In the center of the rectangular impression where the hall had once stood, there was a huge tree that hadn’t been there before. Yet, oddly, it looked like it’d been there for hundreds of years, because there was no way it’d gotten that big in a couple of decades. It had to be five or six feet across at the base, probably fifty-plus feet high, with lush green leaves that seemed completely out of place amidst the arid dryness of the New Mexican landscape.
‘‘What the hell?’’ Rabbit said.
‘‘It’s a ceiba tree,’’ Strike answered, though he’d been thinking pretty much the same thing. Their ancestors had planted the sacred ‘‘world trees’’ in the center of their villages and plazas. They’d believed the ceiba’s roots ran to the underworld, and its branches held up the heavens. He turned to Jox. ‘‘Did you plant it?’’
The winikin shook his head, seeming stunned. ‘‘No. It makes a hell of a memorial, though. Wish I’d thought of it.’’
‘‘Someone did,’’ Strike said, though he couldn’t bring himself to say what he knew they were both thinking. It was one thing to jack in to a concentration of psi energy that existed at the barrier between the planes. It was another to suggest that an actual god had planted a tree in their backyard. A tree that grew exclusively in rain forests. One that shouldn’t have had leaves during the dry season, and looked like it’d been there far longer than was actually possible.
He stood there for a moment, wondering if this was the point where he woke up from the dream. Instead, he stayed exactly where he was.
After a moment, Jox looped an arm across his shoulders and hugged him close, as he had done when Strike was a boy. ‘‘Come on, kid. It’s time to call your people home.’’
But as Strike followed his winikin through the main entrance of the training compound built by his ancestors, he wasn’t thinking of the massacre and times past, or the renovations they’d need to do to get the place livable, or even of the strangers he was supposed to turn into a tiny army. He was thinking about Leah, and how she’d stood up to him, chin jutting like she was leading for a punch; how he’d watched her sleep, her face going soft and vulnerable; and how she’d looked at him after they’d been together, how she’d seen him as a man rather than something so much more complicated.
And as he stepped through the doorway into the entryway of the king’s mansion, where the past and future ran together and made his heart hurt, he wished like hell that he could’ve been just a man, could’ve been her man. But he wasn’t and couldn’t be.
He was a Nightkeeper.
The point in the earth’s orbit when it is farthest from the sun.
Alexis Gray strode toward the Fish Shack, fuming. Her long legs ate up the distance across the pier to the restaurant, which was far more elegant than the name implied, and her waist-length hair, which was streaky blond this week, crackled with static electricity. That, along with a low mutter of thunder in the distance, warned that a squall was coming in over Newport Harbor.
If I’m lucky, the storm’ll sink his damn yacht with his lying dick caught in the tiller.
Alexis glanced down the marina, where her suckfest newly ex-boyfriend, Aaron Worth—aka the Worthless Prick who’d screwed his way through the Riviera—had tethered his pride and joy front and center for everyone to admire. The yacht, that was, not his dick, though it turned out both pieces of equipment had been around the world a few more times than she’d thought. Meanwhile, she’d been holed up in her beachside office, managing the scum-sucking cheater’s portfolio for him and making him money hand over frigging fist.
Which, it turned out, had just given him less of a reason to come clean with her.
Or maybe he was right; maybe he’d tried to tell her it wasn’t working and she’d been too stubborn to listen, too determined to keep their sinking relationship afloat. God knew, Isabella called her mule-stubborn more often than not.
Smiling at the thought of the godmother who’d raised her from the age of two, Alexis shoved aside the thoughts of her ‘‘sorry about the triplets in the bedroom; how am I fixed for liquid assets?’’ jackass ex and opened the door to the Fish Shack.
The smell of garlic and fresh bread greeted her first, followed closely by the maître’d, Tony. ‘‘Your usual table, Miss Gray?’’
‘‘Not in a million years.’’ That was another of those front-and-center things dictated by Aaron, who liked to sit smack in the middle of the huge window facing the boardwalk. ‘‘I’m meeting Izzy today.’’
Tony’s smile broadened, though she wasn’t sure if it was because she was guyless for lunch, or because her godmother made pretty much everyone smile. He waved through the dining area to a covered porch that faced the sea. ‘‘She’s in the bar.’’
‘‘Perfect.’’ Alexis headed in that direction, thinking that she could always count on Izzy to know what she needed even before she did. Today, that included a drink before noon.
In the bar area, Izzy sat at the farthest table down, close to the water and the incoming storm. When she saw Alexis, her dark eyes lit and she raised an umbrella-topped glass. ‘‘Cheers. The wind just changed.’’
‘‘You have no idea.’’ Alexis hiked herself up onto the stool opposite her and waved to the bartender. ‘‘Two of whatever she’s having, along with a basket of fries and the catch of the day.’’
Izzy’s lips twitched. ‘‘Hungry, dear?’’
Dark, petite, and graceful, with a wonderfully calm way of dealing with life, Izzy was the diametric opposite of Alexis in so many ways, both physically and emotionally, that it was a wonder they got along. Then again, maybe it was because of those differences that it worked so well, even though just being near her godmother made Alexis feel huge, ungainly, and loud, like a flatulent elephant in an antiques store. She’d long ago decided she loved Izzy too much to mind, though, even if she still envied her long dark hair and olive-toned skin, and the way she never seemed to age or doubt herself.
‘‘I’m starving.’’ Alexis glanced through the clear plastic sheets the waitstaff had pulled over the screened-in porch, preparing for the squall. ‘‘Not much sea for such a heavy sky.’’
‘‘Give it ten minutes.’’ Izzy paused. ‘‘How are things?’’
‘‘Complicated,’’ Alexis said, wondering if her godmother had somehow known early that morning, when she’d called with a lunch invite, that her goddaughter’s life was going to have taken a big dump in the great cosmic toilet bowl by noon. ‘‘Let’s just say the weather’s not the only thing that’s going to be changing around here.’’
Izzy idly rubbed her inner right forearm in a habitual gesture, pulling the skin tight across a pair of old, faded tattoos. One was of a disembodied hand touching a smiling face; the other was a stylized symbol that might’ve been a vaguely reptilian head beneath a puff of smoke.
Alexis had expected questions, or sympathy, or something after her dire pronouncement. Instead, Izzy had a seriously weird look on her face.
‘‘Iz?’’ Alexis asked after a moment. ‘‘Are you okay?’’ Her problems with Aaron took a quick backseat to a spurt of worry. She’d lost both her parents before her second birthday. If she lost Izzy, too . . . Panic backed up quickly, closing her throat and making her force the words. ‘‘What’s wrong? Are you sick?’’
Izzy shook her head but remained silent as the bartender delivered their drinks. When he was gone, she said quietly, ‘‘You know all those stories I told you growing up?’’
‘‘Of course,’’ Alexis said, puzzled. Granted, the first words out of Izzy’s mouth weren’t I went to the doctor, or I have cancer, but she wasn’t sure she was relieved yet. Her godmother’s expression was too strange. ‘‘What about the stories?’’ she asked, then as a thought occurred: ‘‘Are you finally thinking of getting them published? ’’
Izzy had all these great stories about gods and ancient magical warriors. More detailed than Tolkien, more mythos-based than Star Wars . . . Alexis had always thought the book would sell in a heartbeat. God, she could practically see the cover, with a handsome, dark-haired warrior who wore a hawk’s insignia at his throat, and—
She jolted, then coughed and grabbed for her drink to cover the depth of her response to the image. Where the hell had that come from? More important, where can I meet him?
‘‘Not exactly.’’ Izzy reached over and took her god-daughter’s right hand, turning it palm up to show the lighter underside of Alexis’s forearm, where she’d neglected her tanning. ‘‘What if I told you that all of those stories were true?’’
Cara Liu frowned at her father, Carlos. ‘‘I’d say, ‘Bullshit, ’ but you raised me better than that.’’ She pulled off her Stetson and messed with her long, dark hair, feeling the different texture of the white section in front, the one her friends called a skunk stripe. Beneath her, Coyote, the blue roan gelding she’d raised from a foal, shifted his weight and flicked an ear back as though sensing her distress but realizing she wasn’t in any immediate danger under the wide-open Montana sky.
The horses stood on a low ridge that sloped down to the farthest fence line of the Findlay Ranch, which Carlos had managed for more than two decades. It was Cara’s home. Her sanctuary. She’d come back for the summer intending to take stock of her life. Instead, it looked like she needed to deal with the distinct possibility that her father was losing his mind.
She glanced at him, searching for a sign that this was some sort of elaborate setup, maybe for a welcome-home party. Hell, she’d even settle for one of his famous ‘‘I feel like you’re going in the wrong direction’’ talks.
At sixty-three, Carlos sat straight in his saddle, his spine stiff as always, as if he were forever trying to combat his five-foot-nine-inch stature. His dark hair was short and gray-shot, his skin deeply tanned with the color neither of them lost completely even during the long winter months. Now, as she’d seen him do so many times before, he stared off toward the horizon, where blue-gray mountains rose up to touch the low-hanging clouds, and the look in his eye made her think he was seeing something else entirely.
‘‘This is a joke, right?’’ she said. ‘‘I’m being Punk’d. Where are the cameras?’’
Carlos shook his head. ‘‘No cameras, baby, and no joke. Twenty-four years ago King Scarred-Jaguar and the Nightkeepers sacrificed themselves in order to close the intersection, but in the last minutes before the spell took hold, terrible creatures came through and killed all but a few of their children.’’ The faraway look in his eyes darkened. ‘‘I was there. I saved and raised the child entrusted to me. Now the king’s son has called the survivors home.’’
‘‘This is home,’’ Cara protested automatically.
‘‘Give me your hand.’’
‘‘Seriously, where are the cameras? Who put you up to this? It was Dino and Treece, wasn’t it? They haven’t forgiven me yet for that thing with the goat.’’
‘‘Your hand, Cara Liu.’’ He was deadly serious.
A tremor started deep down inside Cara’s stomach and spread outward. She’d known her father had been depressed since her mother’s death eighteen months earlier, but she hadn’t realized it’d gotten this bad. She should’ve come home more, should’ve called more.
What the hell was going on? And what was she supposed to do with a grown man who’d confused fiction with reality but otherwise seemed like his old self?
Using her knees, she cued Coyote to move up alongside her father’s sorrel, so the two horses were nose-to-tail and she faced her father squarely. She saw sadness in his eyes, and regrets. She didn’t see craziness, but what exactly did crazy look like?
Wishing she’d taken Abnormal Psych last semester instead of Ancient Mythology—most of which she’d already known anyway—she held out her right hand, expecting him to grab it, maybe give her something he thought proved what he was saying.
Instead, he drew the jade-handled knife he’d worn at his waist for as long as she could remember, and sliced the blade sharply across his palm. Blood welled up as Cara gasped. Before she could recover, he grabbed her hand and cut her as well.
‘‘Daddy!’’ She tried to jerk away but he held her fast, gripping her wrist tightly as she struggled. ‘‘Stop it. Let go!’’
Coyote shied sideways, but her father hung on to her wrist, dragging her from the saddle as the blue roan bolted off. She fell in slow motion, her father lowering her to the ground and following her down, still holding her wrist. Once they were both kneeling, he shifted his grip and clasped her bloody hand with his.
She thought he whispered, ‘‘I’m sorry.’’ But she couldn’t be sure, because there was a sudden roaring noise in her head, and the grass seemed to surge beneath her as he spoke in a language she’d never heard before, but that seemed to call to something deep inside her when he said, ‘‘Aj-winikin.’’
No cameras, she thought, gasping for breath as an invisible pressure grabbed onto her, holding her in place. It’s for real. Oh, God. Oh, shit. Oh, shit.
Terror flared alongside pain.
Carlos lifted his face to the sky and raised their joined hands so their mingled blood ran down the insides of their forearms, where he wore a couple of old tattoos. ‘‘Gods!’’ he shouted now in English, maybe for her benefit, maybe for his own. ‘‘Accept this child as your servant!’’
Wind erupted from nowhere, lashing the hot summer air against them, around them, forming a swirling vortex with them at its center. Cara’s straw Stetson blew off and her hair whipped free, plastering itself to her face and getting in her mouth when she screamed, ‘‘Daddy!’’
Then, as if that scream were a sign, the wind funnel abruptly reversed itself, sucking upward into the cloudless sky. And disappearing.
In the utter silence that followed, which was undisturbed by even the rustle of branches or the cry of a hawk, Cara scrambled up, eyes bugging. ‘‘You’re losing it. Or I am. Maybe both of us. Mass hallucination.’’
‘‘Hallucination?’’ He took her hand and turned it palm up, then held it beside his. The cuts were gone, leaving only long, thin scars.
Cara gaped. ‘‘That’s impossible.’’
‘‘It’s magic,’’ he said simply. ‘‘Push up your sleeve.’’
Numbly, dumbly, she did as she was told, unfastening the single button that held the bloodstained cuff of her denim work shirt in place and rolling it up, part of her knowing what she was going to see before she saw it.
Her forearm, which had been bare that morning, was now marked with the perfect outline of a canine head, a tattoo where there hadn’t been one before. Its nose was rounded, its tongue and teeth pointed, its mouth slashed in a snarl. Below it was the image of a hand touching a face. Her father made a sound of utter satisfaction and held his own forearm next to hers. There, he had the same two marks, along with a newer mark she didn’t remember having seen before, shaped like a bird of some sort. Maybe a hawk.
His voice was gruff with emotion when he said, ‘‘Welcome to the family, Cara.’’
She struggled to breathe normally, struggled to do anything normally as her heart pounded in her chest and low-grade nausea twisted in her gut. She looked around and saw that the ridge and fence line looked as they always had; the sky was blue and the sorrel grazed peacefully nearby. Coyote was long gone, but he’d always been spooky like that. Luckily, he also had a good homing instinct. No doubt they’d find him in his pen, chowing down on his evening ration of pellets.
That thought, that normal, everyday thought, lodged a ball of emotion in her throat, part panic, part . . . excitement. She glanced at her father and saw pride in his eyes, as though she’d just done something wonderful, just become something wonderful. Which she had, she realized. If her father was telling the truth, she’d woken up half a semester away from a journalism degree she wasn’t sure she wanted anymore, and in the space of the past five minutes she’d become Wonder Woman. A magic user. Holy crap.
Her lips curved and she touched the marks on her arm, feeling a faint buzz jangle through her system at the contact. ‘‘Does this mean I can do all those things you used to tell me about? It’s all real? I’m a . . . a Nightkeeper?’’
‘‘Um. Not exactly.’’
She narrowed her eyes. ‘‘What do you mean, ‘not exactly’?’’
Quick hurt flashed across his face and was just as quickly masked. ‘‘You’re my true daughter. My heart. My blood.’’ Then he waited, as he’d done ever since she was a little girl when he wanted her to figure out something for herself rather than telling her the answer straightaway.
When it clicked, Cara shot to her feet, elation morphing to betrayal, anger, shame—a sickening mix of emotions that cranked her volume as she shouted, ‘‘You’re fucking kidding me! I’m a winikin?’’
He didn’t chide her for her language, which just proved she was right.
She wasn’t Wonder Woman. She was a sidekick. Even worse, she was a sidekick to—
‘‘Oh, no.’’ She backpedaled, nearly falling when she stumbled on a rock. ‘‘Oh, hell, no. You’re shitting me. Sven?’’
But if—even for an instant—she bought into the delusion that the winikin were real, then her adopted older brother fit the description of a Nightkeeper all too well. Where she and her father were small and olive-skinned, with dark hair and eyes, Sven was their exact opposite in every way. He was over six-three and as wide as two of her father standing side by side. His skin was fair, his dark blond hair prone to bleaching in the sun, and where she had always been happy with the small pleasures of ranch life, he’d lusted for bigger and better, for the next challenge, the next conquest.
Sven lived life right out loud and loved being the center of attention. He was the true golden boy. At least, he had been. She hadn’t seen him in close to five years, and that wasn’t nearly long enough for her.
Her father nodded. ‘‘Yes. Sven is a Nightkeeper.’’
‘‘How fitting,’’ Cara said, looking at the mark on her wrist. ‘‘He’s a dog.’’
‘‘The Coyote bloodline is old and respected, as are its winikin,’’ he said, voice chiding.
‘‘Don’t call yourself a servant, and don’t call me one, either,’’ Cara snapped. ‘‘I’m nobody’s slave.’’
‘‘A winikin is no slave,’’ her father said with quiet dignity. ‘‘We protect the magic users, and help them stay the moral path.’’
‘‘News flash. You didn’t do so hot on the morality thing.’’ No wonder he’d never wanted to face the truth about Sven. That would’ve meant accepting that the child—the Nightkeeper child—he’d raised wasn’t perfect. Far from it, in fact. Sven had been a spoiled, mean-tempered brat who’d grown into a moody teen, and from there to a young man who’d been far too attractive for his own good, and did his own thing regardless of how it affected others.
‘‘I don’t want this,’’ she said, scrubbing at the mark on her arm. ‘‘Take it back.’’
‘‘I can’t . . . I need you. The Nightkeepers need you. The king has recalled the survivors, but one among them has lost his winikin. They’ve asked me to teach him, which means I need you to take my place watching over Sven.’’
She glared at him, furious that he’d done something like this without asking her. ‘‘Fine. I’ll slap some makeup on it, or get a coverup tattoo. Maybe scrub it with some bleach first.’’
‘‘That won’t change anything.’’ He didn’t even have the grace to look ashamed. He seemed calm now, calmer than he’d been since the funeral, or maybe even before that. It was like he knew where he was going for the first time in a long, long while.
The realization terrified her.
This shit was for real.
‘‘Daddy,’’ she whispered, her heart breaking a little when she realized that nothing would be the same ever again. ‘‘I don’t want this. I can’t . . . work for him, whatever you want to call it. I can’t be around him.’’
He looked sad. ‘‘You don’t have a choice.’’
She didn’t argue with that, because there was a hum in the back of her brain that hadn’t been there before, an impulse that made her want to walk, to pace, to jump on the sorrel and ride hard, covering ground, headed southeast to the Carolina coast, where—the last they’d heard, anyway—Sven was wreck diving for conquistador gold.
‘‘I won’t go to him,’’ she whispered. ‘‘You can’t make me.’’
Her father stood and strode toward his horse, and for a half second she thought he was going to ride away and leave her there. Instead, he leaned down and retrieved her hat from where it had snagged on a thick stand of heavy grass. He dusted off the straw brim and crossed to her, holding out the Stetson like a peace offering. ‘‘Please. He needs you. We all need you. There are so few of us and so little time.’’ He paused. ‘‘Remember the stories I told you about the end-time?’’
She stiffened, thinking back to the darkest of his dark stories. ‘‘The apocalypse?’’
He nodded, glancing once again up into the sky. ‘‘It’s coming, baby. You and me and the others . . . we’ve got a little over four years to save the world.’’
Patience White-Eagle lowered the phone and pressed her palms to the kitchen countertop.
Gods, why now? After all those years she’d wished the magic worked, wished she really were the person Hannah claimed, why did everything have to change now?
She lifted the phone again. ‘‘Are you sure?’’
‘‘I wouldn’t have made this call otherwise,’’ her godmother replied simply, and with quiet dignity. Hannah was more mother to Patience than godmother, having raised her from infancy. She’d insisted on the distinction of being called ‘‘godmother,’’ though, just as she’d insisted on so many things relating to Patience’s biological parents. Some days it had seemed stifling and unnecessary. Other times, like when the winikin had started teaching Patience about the responsibilities of her bloodline, the rules had made sense.
Now, though, nothing made sense. Or, rather, it did, but Patience didn’t like the sense it made. Not one bit, which left her standing in her utterly normal-looking kitchen outside Philadelphia, talking on a disposable cell phone about things that were far from normal.
She’d believed Hannah’s stories . . . or at least she’d thought she did. Now, though, she wondered whether on some level she’d seen them as a lovely fantasy, fairy tales that made her feel special without really changing anything. Because if she’d believed in the Nightkeepers and their purpose, really believed it deep down inside, she wouldn’t have made some of the choices she’d made, would she?
Maybe, she acknowledged. Maybe not.
She glanced at the gleaming toaster she’d bought just the week before, catching her reflection in the chrome and wondering how she could still look like a normal, if overly tall, blonde-and-blue twenty-four year-old, when she was, apparently, also something more.
‘‘Where and when?’’ she asked finally, because there had never been a question of whether she’d come when her king called—she had a king; how messed up was that?—it was purely a question of how to juggle the other responsibilities Hannah knew nothing about.
‘‘I’m flying out tonight. If you like, we can meet at the airport and drive over together.’’ Hannah always made everything seem so matter-of-fact, regardless of whether she was talking about a quick swing through Jiffy Lube, or the end of the world.
Patience mentally ran through her options, which were pretty limited. ‘‘I’ll have to check into flights and stuff, and get someone to cover my classes for the foreseeable future.’’ Fortunately, as the owner of White-Eagle Martial Arts, she didn’t have to ask for the time off. She could just make it happen. Other things, however, weren’t so easy. ‘‘How about you e-mail me the directions and I’ll meet you there?’’
‘‘Sounds like a plan,’’ Hannah said. Patience expected her to hang up without saying good-bye, which was her way. Instead, the older woman’s voice softened. ‘‘Are you okay with this?’’
Do I have a choice? Patience thought, but she didn’t ask the question aloud, because she’d been raised knowing that she wasn’t like the other kids—she needed to be better, faster, smarter, a little more of everything. ‘‘I’m fine,’’ she said, willing herself to believe it. ‘‘I’ve waited my whole life for this call.’’
‘‘Good girl,’’ Hannah said. And hung up.
Patience just stood there for a long moment, staring at the toaster.
She was a magic user. A Nightkeeper. Her king was calling her home.
Thing was, she already was home.
Keep yourself apart, Hannah had taught her. Be ready to disappear at a moment’s notice. Once the end-time has passed you can live the life you want. Until then you belong to the Nightkeepers. There is no other attachment more important than that.
She hadn’t listened, though. Or, rather, she’d listened, but an impulsive spring-break trip to Cancún and way too much tequila had dictated a change in plans.
As though called by the thought, her husband’s footsteps sounded in the hallway. Moments later, he filled the kitchen doorway, all broad shoulders and rippling muscles, graced with thick sable brown hair and a sharply angled, handsome face that should’ve been in magazines but instead was hers. All hers.
Lips curving, she crossed the kitchen, slipping the cell into the pocket of her jeans as she went and hoping he wouldn’t notice it wasn’t her usual phone. Heat rose when she bumped her hip against his, then moved in for a kiss.
They’d been together a little more than four years and it was still the same heat, the same addiction. She craved him like a drug, with an aching intensity that seemed, if anything, to grow stronger as time passed.
Just as she was thinking of backing him down the short hallway to the master bedroom of their split-level, he broke the kiss and touched his forehead to hers, leaning down so she saw his gold-flecked brown eyes up close, and saw the shadows deep within them.
She leaned back in his arms and frowned. ‘‘What’s wrong?’’
‘‘I just got off the phone with Taylor. There’s been a major cluster fuck with the zoning on the Chicago project. It was supposed to have been handled, but . . .’’ He lifted one shoulder. ‘‘I’ll probably be gone through next week, and I hate like hell to dump everything on you.’’
‘‘I can get Joanie to help me out,’’ Patience said, trying to camouflage the immediate spurt of relief. As a rising star in the world of corporate architecture, he often had to take off on a moment’s notice. The emergency call couldn’t have come at a better time, as it gave her the weekend to figure things out. She tightened her arms around his waist, loving the good, solid feel of him. ‘‘Promise to miss me?’’
‘‘I already do.’’ He kissed her quickly, then disengaged. ‘‘I’ve got to pack. My plane leaves in a couple hours.’’
The next twenty minutes were a whirlwind of getting him out the door. Before he left, though, he took her hand and turned it palm up so he could kiss the tattoos at her wrist, a stylized lizard’s head beside a cluster of circles that looked like a Pacman gone wrong. His own tattoos, consisting of a matching Pac-Man beside a tribal-looking eagle’s head, were covered by the sleeve of his starched shirt and suit coat, but she knew they were there, knew the symbols bound them together just as surely as their white-gold wedding bands.
The tattoos, like their relationship, had come from a half-remembered night of carousing in the Yucatán. They’d awakened in her hotel room, two strangers who’d obviously made love, with dirty feet and fresh tats that, oddly enough, hadn’t hurt. Patience could only assume that she’d chosen the tattoos, placing them where Hannah said the Nightkeepers wore their bloodline glyphs. The lizard was her bloodline signature. The eagle, she guessed, had come from his last name, which was now hers. She didn’t know about the Pac-Man.
He smiled as he linked his fingers with hers and leaned in for a last, lingering kiss. ‘‘Miss me.’’
It was a command, not a question, but she didn’t argue. Instead, she pressed her cheek to his and hung on a moment longer than usual. ‘‘Back atcha.’’
Then he left, striding down their flagstone walkway with his garment bag and computer case slung over his shoulder. Uncharacteristically, Patience stood at the front door, watching as he backed his Explorer out of the garage and drove off with a beep-beep and a wave.
She couldn’t help feeling that she wasn’t going to see him again.
When the alarm went off before dawn, Sven grabbed for the clock, intending to chuck it at the nearest wall. He came up with his cell phone instead, and realized that was what’d been ringing.
‘‘Oh, for fuck’s sake.’’ He flipped the thing open, squinting into the too-bright light in an effort to make sense of the caller ID, but last night’s drunk hadn’t yet turned into today’s hangover, and he couldn’t see the letters.
Didn’t matter, though. His so-called partner was the only a-hole likely to be calling at this hour, and if Fontana was calling postparty, he’d be too blitzed to make a lick of sense. He could wait. Besides, it was already too late to answer—the damn call had gone to voice mail while Sven was staring at the display.
Head still drumming with the backbeat from last night’s dance music, he dropped the phone on the floor and rolled over, dragging the bedsheet with him. The motion earned a feminine, ‘‘Hey!’’
Surprised, Sven rolled back and did the squinting thing again, this time making out a pouty brunette. Huh. Go figure. He didn’t feel lucky, but apparently he’d gotten there sometime last night. Sweet.
She crooked a finger and slid him a look as she shimmied her torso in a fake shiver. ‘‘Can I have the sheet back? I’m cold.’’
‘‘Take it.’’ He tossed it in her direction, too out-of-it to decide whether she was actually cold, or sending him a green light. ‘‘I gotta pee.’’
Okay, even woozy he knew that wasn’t a great line. But by the time he’d taken care of business and splashed some cold water in the direction of his face, he’d regrouped and was ready for a second—and hopefully more memorable—assault on Mount Brunette.
‘‘Hey, babe,’’ he said as he strolled into the bedroom. ‘‘I was thinking—’’ He broke off when he saw that the bed was empty.
Figuring on writing it off as her loss and catching another few hours of shut-eye, Sven was headed back to the bed when he heard female voices out in the main room.
Voices, as in more than one female. Cool. He was the man.
Suddenly really, really wishing he could remember the night before—and hoping he could talk them into round two—he pulled on a pair of swim trunks and strode through the door into the main room of his beachside apartment.
And stopped dead at the sight of the girl, or rather the woman, standing in the open doorway. Sunlight spilled in behind her, gleaming on her dark, white-streaked hair and outlining her boy-slim, athletic body.
She might have been wearing shorts, a tank, and sandals instead of jeans and a work shirt, but he knew her instantly even through the fog in his brain. The gut-punch was unmistakable.
She didn’t say anything, just let her gaze roam around his apartment, where surfboards and dive gear were piled atop depth charts and the odd artifact, competing for space amid what he liked to call creative clutter but suspected she would see as garbage.
The brunette—who was still wearing his sheet, for chrissake—looked at Sven, brow furrowed. ‘‘This your girlfriend or something?’’
‘‘No,’’ he said quickly. ‘‘She’s—’’ Then he broke off, because he’d never been able to figure out what to call her. She wasn’t his sister, not really. She wasn’t his friend, either, not now, anyway. She was—
‘‘I’m his little sister,’’ she said, apparently not sharing an ounce of his dislike for the term. Focusing on him, she said, ‘‘Get dressed and pack your things. We’re leaving.’’
Sven’s gut iced over. ‘‘Is something wrong with Carlos?’’
‘‘Yes and no.’’ She paused, and for a second he thought he saw a crack in the disdain she was projecting like plate armor. ‘‘Look, please don’t ask me to explain. Just pack.’’
The brunette pouted and turned to him. ‘‘Are you going to let her talk to you like that?’’
The look in Cara’s eyes said, You owe me.
And the hell of it was, he did.
Sven nodded slowly. ‘‘Yeah. I am.’’ He glanced at the brunette. ‘‘Get dressed and get out. Apparently I have a plane to catch.’’
‘‘Nearly half of them have confirmed.’’ Strike went down the list. ‘‘We’ve got flight info for Alexis Gray, along with Coyote-Seven and Patience Lizbet, and their winikin , one of which is a substitute, so we can shift manpower over to Nathan Blackhawk when the time comes.’’
He and Jox were sitting on lounge chairs out on the pool deck of the mansion, while the cleanup continued around them. They’d been at the training compound in New Mex for a week now, and after few days of DIY had sucked it up and used the Nightkeeper Fund to hire a couple of local crews to strip the junk and update the facilities. Granted, it would’ve been better to keep the place out of the public eye, but that just hadn’t been feasible. Besides, with the traffic they were expecting starting in the next few days, it would’ve been pretty tough to keep the place a secret for long.
So far, none of the workers had mentioned the little detail that there hadn’t been any buildings in the out-of -the-way box canyon up until a week ago, yet the place clearly dated back to the turn of the twentieth century and showed a couple decades’ worth of neglect. Either the locals didn’t know about the compound’s appear-disappear -reappear routine, or they’d decided the generous pay made up for the freak factor.
‘‘Carlos is a good man,’’ Jox said. ‘‘A good winikin. He’ll help Blackhawk adjust.’’
That had been the first bit of bad news after the initial buzz of learning about the survivors: At least one of their winikin hadn’t lived long.
Jox’s list was twenty-four years old, garnered from notes dropped to a P.O. box in Shiprock, a few hundred miles north of the compound. As per the escape protocol drilled into each winikin at maturity, they’d left basic contact information and a confirmation word, and then gone underground and found their way into regular society, focusing on the child—or children—they’d saved. They’d modernized the young Nightkeepers’ names to make mainstreaming easier—the smoke, lizard, and harvester bloodlines had become the surnames Gray, Lizbet, and Farmer for the females. Among the males, Coyote-Seven had been shortened to Sven, while Blackhawk, White-Eagle, and Stone had been common enough surnames that they’d stayed as they were.
Through the magic of Google and a private investigator named Carter, a friend of a friend of Jox’s who would cheerfully hack into the IRS database for a hefty fee, they’d found current addresses for almost all of the survivors. Unfortunately, they also learned that the winikin to the sole survivor of the hawk bloodline had succumbed to his wounds within a few days of escaping from the boluntiku. His charge had wound up in the foster system with no clue who—or what—he was. Carter had eventually turned up info indicating that Nathan Blackhawk had bounced around a bit until he wound up in Chicago, where he’d done a few years in juvie, and a few more in Greenville for grand theft auto. Since then, he seemed to have gone straight, moving to Denver and launching a small but successful computer gaming company.
And he’d ducked every one of Strike’s calls.
‘‘I’m going to have to go there in person.’’ Strike grimaced and looked around. ‘‘There’s a shitload left to be done before this place is workable.’’
They’d made some progress, granted. The kidney-shaped pool had been pumped, scrubbed, resealed, and filled, and the subcontractor had installed a new filter system and creepy-crawly pool cleaner. The pool area, a seventies-era cement deck that was pretty low on the priority list for updating, was surrounded by the mansion on three sides. The fourth side was open, with a view of the traditional ball court the Nightkeepers had used to blow off steam, and occasionally for ceremonial games. The two high parallel stone walls, with a single stone hoop set some twenty feet up on either side, had stood the test of time pretty well, as had the ‘‘real’’ ball courts in the Yucatán and Central America. Pretty much everything else in the training compound was in tough shape, though.
The plumbing, electricals, and carpets in the mansion were being gutted and redone, and they’d made the decision to tear the barn down and start over with a steel-span building, rather than trying to salvage the sagging wreck. They would use the space not for horses and mules for pack trips into the backcountry, as before, but for what Jox was dubbing Magic 101—on the theory that it’d be best to unleash the untrained magi in a fireproof space.
‘‘Go to Denver,’’ Jox said, waving him off. ‘‘Admit it—you’re dying to get away from this place. Too many memories.’’
‘‘For all of us.’’ Strike couldn’t deny that he was edgy being back in the compound. There were ghosts in every room of every building, and around every corner. In the aftermath of the massacre he’d made it a point not to think about his life before, and over the years those memories had faded. Now, triggered by each sight and smell, they’d returned with a vengeance.
His father had loved baseball. How had he forgotten that? Scarred-Jaguar had taught Strike to switch-hit, and had pounded fungoes for fielding practice. They’d watched the Rangers on TV, and took weekend trips twice a year for back-to-back games at Arlington Stadium.
And his mother . . . his mother had been thin and elegant, with close-cropped dark hair and a core of steel, wearing a warrior’s mark in her own right. Yet she’d been the one to kiss his skinned knees and make them better. She’d nearly fainted at the sight of his scalp split open when he’d fallen from the pueblo ruins at the back of the compound, after trying to make it up to the walled-off kiva on a dare. How had he forgotten any of those things?
‘‘It hasn’t been fun for any of us,’’ Strike said. ‘‘Don’t think I haven’t seen you turn a funny color now and then, and Red-Boar . . . well, you know.’’
The older Nightkeeper had withdrawn even more, shutting himself away in the four-room house behind the mansion where he’d lived with his family before the massacre. Rabbit lived in the second bedroom of the small cottage, helping with the demo when he felt like it, and spending the rest of the time sitting high up in the pueblo ruins with his iPod.
The four of them were farther apart than they’d ever been before, which made Strike wonder how great a leader he was going to be if he couldn’t even manage the team spirit of one winikin along with a zonked-out Nightkeeper and his half-blood son.
‘‘Your father was a good king,’’ Jox said, as if he knew Strike needed the reassurance. ‘‘In some ways you’re very like him; you walk the same, and the way you fill the room just by being in it, that’s the same. That’s genetics, and the blood-magic. But in other ways you’re not alike at all; you question yourself and others around you far more than he ever did, and you’re more a man of today than he was of his time. That’s environment, I think. Nature versus nurture. He was raised knowing every single day of his life who he was and where he fit within his people. He was taught to lead, and his warriors were taught to be led.’’
Strike grimaced. ‘‘Not exactly the situation we’ve got now.’’
‘‘Blood tells,’’ Jox said. ‘‘You’re your father’s son. You’ll find a way.’’
‘‘I’d better, or none of this is going to matter in a few years. Or, hell, a few months.’’ There was no doubt in his mind that when the fall equinox came in just under eleven weeks, the ajaw-makol was going to try to bring a Banol Kax through the barrier, thus triggering the thirteenth prophecy by bringing a dark lord to earth in the final five years before the zero date.
That was assuming they didn’t find a way to neutralize the creature first. Since they didn’t have an itza’at seer to track the evil, they’d had to improvise. He’d asked the investigator, Carter, to get all the background info possible on the man Leah had known as Zipacna, and his Survivor2012 group. According to the PI, the 2012ers hadn’t seen their leader since the solstice, and when Strike had teleported Red-Boar to their group’s head-quarters, neither of them had detected makol magic from within, suggesting that the bastard was in the wind.
Carter was watching for Zipacna to reappear, and the PI was tracking bulk purchases of several rare ingredients necessary to the magic of the Banol Kax. Hopefully, one of those lines of investigation would lead them to the ajaw-makol.
In the meantime, Strike had a fighting force to assemble.
He said, ‘‘We don’t have arrival info for the eagle, stone, or harvester bloodlines, but I spoke with their winikin, who’ve promised to get their Nightkeepers here by the first of next month at the absolute latest . . . which is cutting it close.’’
Although the barrier was most active during each solstice and equinox, other conjunctions could be used for ceremonies if necessary. The next one on the calendar was the aphelion, which fell, ironically, on the Fourth of July. Strike and Red-Boar were planning to use that day to jack in the new trainees and get them their bloodline marks, and their first taste of power. That’d give them a little over two months to cram in an entire childhood of magic theory before the next ceremonial day, the Venus conjunction, when they’d perform the talent ceremony that would give the newbies their talent marks and increase the Nightkeepers’ ranks from two to lucky thirteen.
After the Venus conjunction, they would have a scant nine days until the fall equinox, when the ajaw-makol was most likely to make his move, and when the skyroad connecting the heavens and earth would once again open up, providing the Nightkeepers an opportunity to bring a god to earth and create a Godkeeper.
Again, in theory.
‘‘The trainees will be here in time,’’ Jox said. ‘‘Their winikin won’t let you down.’’ His tone indicated that they’d better damn well not. He held out a hand. ‘‘Give me the list. I’ll make a few more calls and see about tracking down the stragglers.’’
They hadn’t been able to contact the last two winikin. The star twins’ winikin wasn’t returning calls, and the serpent boy’s winikin was nowhere to be found.
‘‘Sounds like a plan.’’ Strike rose. ‘‘And do me a favor? See if you can get Rabbit interested in the construction projects. I don’t like how much time he’s spending by himself.’’
‘‘Like father, like son.’’ But Jox nodded. ‘‘I’ll see what I can do.’’
‘‘Thanks.’’ Strike paused. ‘‘I guess I’ve got a date in Denver, then.’’ Not like he was going to make an appointment. Nathan Blackhawk was in for a surprise.
‘‘Make sure that’s where you go.’’ Jox fixed him with a look. ‘‘No detours.’’
‘‘Shit.’’ Strike scowled at his winikin. ‘‘You sure you’re not an itza’at?’’
‘‘Doesn’t take a seer to know you’ve got a woman on your mind, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out which one. Remember, ‘The king’s duty is to the gods above all others, then to his people; all else comes after,’ ’’ the winikin said, quoting from the writs. He paused, then said, ‘‘Red-Boar and I talked about this some. His theory is that the dreams came from the barrier as it was reactivating. In the last few months before a mage hits puberty, the hormones go totally wonky. Since you didn’t get your talent mark back when you were a teenager, there’s a good chance all those hormones got packed into a few weeks once Zipacna’s sacrifices thinned the barrier enough that the magic started to leak through.’’
‘‘I’ve heard Red-Boar’s wet-dream theory,’’ Strike muttered. ‘‘That’s not what it was.’’
‘‘You’ve always had a thing for blue-eyed blondes with a bit of an edge to them. Is there any wonder that’s what your subconscious fixed on?’’
‘‘I didn’t see just any blue-eyed blonde. I saw Leah.’’
‘‘The mind can play tricks.’’ The winikin laid a hand on his shoulder, a fatherly gesture that irked the shit right out of him. ‘‘Five of the survivors are female, including the twins.’’
Strike gritted his teeth. ‘‘Matchmaking, Jox?’’
The winikin didn’t bother looking ashamed. ‘‘Matebonded Nightkeepers are stronger together than they are apart. You’d serve your people better to choose one of your own kind.’’
Thoroughly annoyed, and halfway wishing his father had been a dogcatcher or something, Strike pushed himself to his feet. ‘‘I’ll call you from Denver.’’
Nathan Blackhawk scowled as he scanned his laptop screen. Handheld computer sales were up, indicating that the gamers had latched on to the upgraded pod, which gave players near VR quality control over their characters. Problem was, the games themselves weren’t showing the same spike, whereas his competitors’ products were flying off the shelves.
‘‘Goddamn violent-ass kids,’’ he muttered under his breath, spinning in his chair and glaring at his office walls, which were painted the same glossy black as his furniture. ‘‘They’d rather blow shit up than use their brains.’’
It didn’t escape him that he’d been exactly that sort of kid until a stint in juvie and a social worker who hadn’t taken ‘‘fuck off and die’’ as an answer had set him more or less straight. But it probably served him right for thinking he could change the thought process of an entire generation with the physics of extreme sports and a handful of quest sagas that contained far more actual history than your average LOTR rip-off.
It’d taken balls—and admittedly a bit of bloodless disregard—to leave the software company that’d given him his start, promoting him to developer despite his lack of a formal degree. It’d taken even more testicular fortitude to hire a bunch of nobodies like himself and call the whole mess a software gaming company, but he’d made it work; for the first three years Hawk Enterprises had made obscene amounts of money selling the same sort of bloodthirsty pap the rest of the industry spewed out. When Nathan had started tweaking things a year ago, though, sales hadn’t kept up, and now the frigging profit-and-loss charts were looking grim.
‘‘Hey, boss?’’ A quick knock on the door frame followed Denjie’s hail. Before Nathan could answer—or not—the sandy-haired programmer, rotund and wearing tight black jeans, an obscene concert T-shirt, and electric blue-framed glasses, stuck his head through the door.
Nate held up a hand before Den could start. ‘‘I know, I know. I’ll have a decision for you on the new blood’n’ -guts slasherfest by this afternoon.’’
The programmer drew himself up to his full five-seven. ‘‘If you’re referring to EmoPunk III, then I’m not sure why there’s any question in your puny excuse for a brain. EP3 is going to be a freakin’ best seller.’’
‘‘It’s also freakin’ nasty, and guaranteed to curdle the gray matter of anyone stupid enough to play it.’’
‘‘Which is why it’s going to outsell the shit out of your pathetic Viking Warrior franchise, and do double the numbers of all the celebrity skateboarder VRs combined. But that’s not why I’m in here.’’ Den hooked a thumb over his shoulder. ‘‘Guy’s here to see you.’’
Nate frowned. ‘‘What guy?’’
‘‘Dunno. Dark hair, cool tats. He buzzed from downstairs, said he had an appointment. I put him in the conference room.’’
‘‘I don’t have any—’’ Nate broke off as Den ducked out again, clearly not giving a shit whether or not the guy’s story was true. ‘‘Damn it.’’
Nate knew he really ought to get a receptionist, someone who’d help him organize things and run interference. But he’d never bothered, mostly because their games were sold under the aegis of a bigger company, which meant that Hawk Enterprises flew pretty far under the radars of most gaming crazies, leaving them relatively unmolested.
That, and the fact that he liked to do things his way, all the way.
The bad news was that the lack of a receptionist meant he was sometimes ambushed by ambitious low-level developers, along with the occasional wacko who wanted to meet Hera, the stacked blond heroine from the Viking Warrior games. Not to mention that he got to personally field the weird-ass phone calls, like the one he’d gotten the week before from some guy who claimed to have information about Nate’s parents. Yeah, like he’d never heard that one before.
The good news about having no receptionist, though, was that it left him free to ignore people until they went away. He seriously considered doing exactly that with the guy in the conference room, but since his other options seemed limited to P&L statements or going over the EP3 projections again, he climbed to his feet and headed for the conference room.
The offices of Hawk Enterprises took up the front quarter of a warehouse, with the rest of the building left open for real-time modeling of X-stunts using VR suits and the semipermanent half-pipes and ramps they’d built with some of the early money. At the moment, most of the pending projects were either in the conception phase or final testing, so the stunt area was deserted. That was a relief, because it could get damn loud back there when the adrenaline junkies got the music blasting and started trying to outdo one another.
Bypassing the break room—no way he was offering his uninvited guest coffee until he knew what the guy wanted—Nate headed down a short corridor to the conference room.
Whereas the developers had each done up their own offices—ranging from Nate’s all-black to Glitch’s ode to Battlestar Galactica—the conference room looked pretty normal. The same could not be said for the man who stood staring through the floor-length windows overlooking the half-pipe in the warehouse beyond. He was six-five if he was an inch, with long black hair dropping to his massive shoulders and features that looked like they belonged in Viking Warrior 5: Odin’s Return. He was wearing black cargo pants, scarred lace-up boots, and a wide webbed utility belt, with a white button-down shirt that saved the look from being straight out of military-surplus -goes-Goth. Barely.
The stranger turned and took a long look that made Nate feel as though he were being judged, or maybe weighed. ‘‘You’re Nathan Blackhawk,’’ the guy said. It wasn’t a question.
‘‘And you’re trespassing,’’ Nate replied, more or less pleasantly. ‘‘Lucky for you I’m in a good mood. You’ve got five minutes.’’
‘‘That’ll do.’’ The stranger shot his cuffs, unbuttoned one, and bared his right forearm to reveal four black-ink tattoos: a stylized leopard’s head of some sort, along with three unfamiliar symbols that stirred something deep inside Nate.
‘‘Nice ink,’’ he said casually, wondering if he should call Denjie in, or maybe the cops. This guy was registering pretty high on the freak-o-meter.
‘‘Ever seen anything like it?’’
‘‘Should I have?’’
‘‘Where’d you get the chain?’’ the stranger asked, jerking his chin at Nate’s chest. ‘‘The hawk medallion.’’
‘‘None of your goddamn business,’’ Nate said, trying to keep it on the level, though the pucker factor was rising quickly. ‘‘You’re down to four minutes and you’re bugging me. I’d suggest you state your business or go away.’’
‘‘I need to talk to you about your parents.’’
The single sentence, the dream of so many kids in the foster system, shot through him on a sizzle of anger. He pointed to the door. ‘‘Get. Out.’’
‘‘Or not.’’ The stranger moved suddenly, grabbing Nate’s wrist.
The battle rage of Nate’s youth rose fast and hard, and he twisted away and swung a punch. The stranger dodged, got his wrist again, and barked out a word.
And everything went gray-green.
Nate howled and flailed, and suddenly they were outside on the warehouse roof. Scratch that; they were five feet above the warehouse roof for a second before they fell, slamming down in a heap. The stranger recovered first, mostly because Nate felt like he was about to barf up a lung. The guy dragged Nate up, got him halfway over the edge of the roof, and held him there by the front of his shirt. ‘‘Are you ready to listen to me yet?’’
Nate didn’t answer. He gaped. ‘‘How . . . what . . . ?’’ The stranger nodded, cobalt blue eyes gleaming with satisfaction and something else, something that glittered gold for a moment, then was gone. He reached into the breast pocket of his button-down shirt, withdrew a card, and tucked it into Nate’s shirt pocket. ‘‘Call this number when you’re ready to hear what I have to say. Better yet, just show up at that address. We’ll explain, and we’ll show you how to use the power that’s in your blood.’’ He shook his head. ‘‘Bad luck, you losing your protector so young. We’ve got someone lined up for you, a man named Carlos. He’ll get you up to speed.’’
‘‘Screw you,’’ Nate snapped. ‘‘I have a business to run.’’
Okay, so maybe that was just about the dumbest possible response to being teleported and hung halfway off the side of his own roof, but he was pretty rattled.
‘‘Your games won’t matter worth shit four years from now unless you help us out.’’ The stranger cocked his head. ‘‘You want to save the world? You’re not going to do it with history lectures disguised as video games.’’
‘‘And I suppose you’re going to tell me how I am?’’
‘‘You bet your ass.’’ The stranger tapped the card. ‘‘Call me.’’ Then he pulled Nate in, away from the edge, and sent him stumbling across the roof.
When Nate turned back, the other man was gone.
Exhausted and nursing the beginnings of a hell of a postmagic hangover—though the shock value had been way worth it—Strike headed for the parking lot outside Blackhawk’s converted warehouse, where he’d parked the lame-ass minivan he’d rented rather than risking a series of teleports he was nowhere near ready to navigate.
He was getting better at ’porting, which required him to picture either a person or a place as a destination. If he thought of a person, the travel thread would appear and take him to their location. If he thought of a place, the thread took him there. He could zap someplace he’d never been based on a photo, but had to be careful about being seen. More, he had to be absolutely certain that he pictured his destination accurately, or he could get his ass stuck halfway between, or worse. Ergo, he was being stingy with his teleports . . . except that the stunt he’d just pulled with Blackhawk, thinking ‘‘roof’’ and getting there, suggested the power stretched farther than any of them suspected.
He wasn’t ready to see how far he could push it, though. Thus, the minivan. Once he was in the car, he phoned home.
Jox picked up the call on the fourth ring, and after they’d done the hey, how are you thing, asked, ‘‘How’d it go with Blackhawk?’’
‘‘We’ll see. He’s going to be tough. Wanted nothing to do with me at first.’’ Strike popped on his cell phone’s headset, cranked the engine, and headed for his next appointment, which was in a seriously seedy part of the city.
Carter had finally tracked down the last winikin, servant to the serpent bloodline . . . in a mental institution. Through him, the investigator had managed to find the grown Nightkeeper child, also in Denver. The coincidence of two survivors both winding up in the same city had given Strike a bad vibe, as had Snake Mendez himself when he’d gotten the guy on the phone.
Seriously bad vibes. Like pack a MAC and some jade-tips bad. Which might’ve had something to do with Carter’s mentioning an outstanding arrest warrant for assault and battery.
‘‘You change his mind?’’ Jox asked about Blackhawk.
‘‘Either that or I scared the ever-living shit out of him,’’ Strike admitted. ‘‘I sort of zapped him onto the roof and dangled him over the side.’’
‘‘Don’t worry, he’ll show. The hawk bloodline has too much magic and ego for him to blow it off.’’ The doorbell chimed in the background, and Jox said, ‘‘Hang on; someone’s here. Let me just—’’ He broke off, and then said, ‘‘Hannah.’’
And the line went dead.
Jox saw her through the wiggly glass panel beside the front door—just a glimpse, then gone as she reached for the doorbell and rang it a second time. It might’ve been anyone—anyone female, at least—but he knew it was her. Maybe it was the way she moved, maybe the bright colors she was wearing—strong purples and reds and greens. Or maybe it was just wishful thinking. But there wasn’t an iota of doubt in his brain. Hannah had come.
So why, exactly, was he still standing there like he’d grown roots?
‘‘No real reason,’’ he muttered, and forced his feet to unstick. He crossed the foyer and opened the door as she was aiming for doorbell ring number three. ‘‘Why are you ringing?’’ Jox said. ‘‘This is your home as much as—’’
He broke off as she turned to him, and he saw that the jade green scarf she wore tied around her head was more necessity than fashion statement, dipping across her forehead at an angle and covering her left eye and ear. From beneath the lower edge of the scarf, parallel scars trailed across her cheek and the side of her neck. Six of them.
‘‘Hullo, Jox,’’ she said.
‘‘Hannah.’’ Those damn roots were at it again; he couldn’t move. He told himself to just step up, and hug her, for gods’ sake. They’d been friends. Hell, he’d kissed her. Twenty-four years ago, but it still counted, right?
Only that’d been before. After, they’d said that night, and dared to make plans. Except now it was after, and nothing had gone as they’d hoped. He wanted to say he was sorry, wanted to tell her he still sometimes dreamed about that night, when he’d heard her scream and ran the other way. He wanted to let her know that he’d cried when he’d realized she’d made it out with the baby. He wanted to tell her that he’d carried her address with him for nearly a decade before finally acknowledging that he was never going to call. But the roots had spread up to his tongue, and he couldn’t get the words out. Just stood there staring like a moron.
Her good eye, which had been soft and hopeful when he’d opened the door, slowly darkened with disappointment. Her lips turned down, farther on one side than the other because of the scars. She glanced back toward the parking area, like she might head back to her car and take off, but then she squared her shoulders beneath her brightly printed floral shirt and stared him down. ‘‘Awful, isn’t it?’’
‘‘No,’’ he said, but it came out too weak. ‘‘Hannah, no. Never.’’ He moved toward her, but it was too late.
She stepped back on the pretext of bending to pick up her duffel—it was black with turquoise and pink flowers—and slung the strap over her shoulder. ‘‘Where to?’’
‘‘You’re the first to arrive,’’ he said, finally getting his tongue unglued from the roof of his mouth. ‘‘Where’s . . . I guess calling her ‘the baby’ doesn’t work anymore.’’
That got a smile out of her. ‘‘She’d kick your butt for trying. My Patience teaches martial arts. She’s a real warrior.’’
‘‘Now that’s good news. Where is she?’’
‘‘She’ll be here.’’ Hannah sagged a little under the weight of the duffel, but when he moved to take it she shook her head. ‘‘I’m fine. Just point me to a bedroom and I’ll unload.’’
He waved to the mansion at large. ‘‘Take your pick. We stripped the rooms and redid the walls and floors, so you’ve got your choice between drywall and carpet or drywall and hardwood, but you can tap the fund for paint and whatever. Just grab a room and have at it.’’
‘‘Are you in your father’s quarters?’’
‘‘Yeah, I . . . yeah.’’ It’d been beyond difficult to move into the three-room apartment, but it made the most sense, given its proximity to the royal suite. Of course, that was before Strike moved into the pool house, unable to stay in his parents’ quarters—or anywhere else in the mansion, for that matter. Which had made Jox’s room choice sort of pointless.
Hannah gave an of course you did nod. ‘‘Then I’ll take one of the singles in the winikin’s wing.’’
‘‘You don’t have to,’’ he protested. ‘‘There’s room for all of us in the main building.’’
‘‘It wouldn’t feel right. You, of all people, should know that.’’
‘‘What’s that supposed to mean?’’
‘‘Nothing bad.’’ She closed the distance between them and lifted a hand to cup his cheek. She smiled at him, and the expression was a touch sad, but it stripped away the years and the scars, and he could see the girl he’d known. ‘‘Only that your sense of propriety was too bone-deep to have changed, even after all this time.’’ Without waiting for an answer, she brushed past him and headed for the hall leading to the winikin’s wing.
Jox cursed under his breath. That had so not gone the way he’d planned. He should follow her. He should ask for a do-over, ask if he could give her a hug, a kiss— hell, a kidney. He was halfway across the sunken great room, headed to do just that, when the phone rang.
He hesitated. Told himself to ignore it, to do what he wanted for a change rather than what he was supposed to do. He made it two more steps. . . .
Then he cursed, detoured to the kitchen, and grabbed the ringing phone. ‘‘Jox here.’’
‘‘It’s Carver,’’ the PI said. ‘‘I found the last two.’’
Jox closed his eyes. He’d found the twins. Thank the gods. ‘‘Where are they?’’
Strike navigated the minivan through a twisty series of increasingly narrow streets made narrower by strategic piles of trash. The slow summer dusk had caught up with him, and he flicked on the rental’s headlights. The yellow beams picked out the last landmark he’d been given— the freshly burned-out shell of an apartment building, with the busted-out windows and debris that went with such an event.
According to Carter, the fire had broken out the night of the solstice. Strike hoped to hell that was a coincidence.
The buildings on either side didn’t look much better than the torched wreck. Their windows were blank, broken, or boarded up—sometimes a mix of all three— indicating that they were empty . . . or at least not occupied by tenants of the paying variety.
Strike parked nose-out in case he had to make a quick exit, and made sure the night dwellers got a look at the autopistol when he climbed out of the mom-mobile. He set the alarm, and the minivan gave an ineffective-sounding beep-beep and blinked its lights twice, like an obedient poodle sit-staying in the middle of a minefield. The lights did that delayed-off thing, lighting Strike’s way to what used to be the front door of the burned-out wreck.
When he heard the slide of footsteps and the clink of metal-on-metal behind him, he said, ‘‘You don’t want to mess with me. It’s been a long damn day and I just want to do my business and get out of here.’’
He didn’t expect a response, so it was a surprise when a shadow detached itself from a doorway and sauntered toward him. It was even more of a surprise to see that it was a woman, and a hell of a sexy one at that.
She was long and lean, her face sharp enough to be interesting instead of pretty. Her hair was blue-black and slicked away from her face, and she wore a white halter top along with tight black leather pants and tall boots, an outfit that would’ve gotten her in trouble in this sort of neighborhood if she hadn’t accessorized it with a Beretta nine-millimeter on one side and a cute little .22 chick gun on the other.
By the time she reached him the minivan headlights had clicked off. In the reflected moonlight, he saw her tilt her head and give him an up-and-down. ‘‘What sort of business?’’
‘‘Don’t have to.’’
He thought she’d insist. Instead, she curved her lips in a sweet smile and melted back into the darkness, until all that was left of her was a faint, mocking chuckle. ‘‘Well, then, Strike. Have at it.’’
Which meant either she worked for Snake Mendez, or she was prescient. With the general dearth of actual magic among humankind, Strike was betting on the former as he headed into the damaged building, kicking in the door when the knob jammed.
It wasn’t like he was going for stealth. He just wanted the meeting over with.
Cinders crunched underfoot when he strode into the building, damning himself for a fool for not having brought the basics, like night-vision goggles or—duh— a flashlight.
‘‘Sloppy,’’ he said to himself, and halfway thought of trying a quick light spell. But although teleporting came naturally, he’d been struggling with some of the other basics and didn’t want to risk a misfire. So he worked by moonlight, moving farther into the building, trying to make out the shapes of what had once been walls and doorways.
‘‘You Strike?’’ a deep voice said without warning, seeming to come from all around him.
Strike raised the MAC, though there was nothing to shoot at but dark and more dark. ‘‘You’re a hard guy to track down, Mendez.’’
‘‘A smart man would’ve taken the hint.’’
A roadside flare hissed to cherry red life, sputtering as it was tossed in a spinning arc. It landed on a pile of fire debris off to Strike’s right, bathing the scene in an eerie red glow. In the blood-colored illumination, a tall figure materialized out of the shadows, staying close to what looked like a door, or maybe a busted-out window. An escape route. Which made sense, given that Mendez had a warrant outstanding on him.
‘‘I need you to come back to New Mexico with me,’’ Strike said. He lowered the pistol. ‘‘I can tell you about your family.’’
‘‘I know everything I need to know.’’ But Mendez moved forward into the light. The flare showed a big, towering man with a shaved-bald head, sharp features, and pale, intelligent eyes. None of that was a surprise— all of the Nightkeepers were larger than average and practically oozed charisma. The other man’s loose gray long-sleeved T-shirt, jeans, and skids weren’t surprising, either, though they were tamer than Strike would’ve expected, given the setting. What was surprising were the tattoos, both because the narrow cuffs of arcane symbols at his wrists were vaguely familiar, and because it was one of the rules the winikin had been charged with upholding: The young Nightkeepers weren’t supposed to mark their skin. The skin was sacred to the gods, as was blood.
The big man followed Strike’s gaze. His eyes flashed as he lifted his hands, crossing his wrists so the tattooed cuffs formed a world cross, the ancestor’s icon for the ceiba tree. ‘‘You don’t approve, Nochem?’’
The word for ‘‘leader’’ or ‘‘king’’ in the old tongue rocked Strike back. ‘‘You know?’’
‘‘What do you think?’’ Mendez uncrossed his wrists, shoved up a sleeve, and offered his forearm, holding it near the light so Strike could see the serpent bloodline glyph, along with the warrior and another, unfamiliar mark. ‘‘Kinda cool how it’s working now, after all these years.’’
Shock jolted through Strike. ‘‘How did—’’
‘‘The gods showed me the way.’’ Mendez snapped his fingers, and a green glow ignited from the tip of his index finger, curled up into the darkness, then guttered and winked out.
In its wake, magic rippled on the air. Power.
Impossible, Strike thought. The winikin were sworn not to teach the magic outside the training compound. Yet Mendez knew the old language and the glyphs. If his winikin had broken those dicta, what others might he have ignored?
‘‘Let’s just say Louis pointed me in the right direction, ’’ Mendez said, as though Strike had spoken his thoughts. He shot his sleeves, so the marks were once again covered. ‘‘And don’t bother hauling him up on charges or anything. His sanity checked out a few years ago.’’ He circled a finger at his temple. ‘‘Last I knew, he was in the Parker House of Nuts.’’ He paused. ‘‘Dude was bonkers. Kept babbling on about the end of the world.’’
‘‘He was right,’’ Strike said.
‘‘I know.’’ Mendez grinned with zero humor. ‘‘Thing is, I don’t figure I owe humanity much of anything, and I sure as hell don’t owe you. Unless, of course, you’re offering something in return for my services.’’ Another snap, another flame, and though Strike could manage something similar, the color worried him.
Nightkeeper flame was yellow or red. Green and purple were the colors of the Banol Kax and the makol, but he didn’t get that sense off Mendez, either; it was as though he had dark tendencies, but hadn’t yet chosen a side.
Strike had a feeling that when he did, it was going to mean trouble. He didn’t really want this guy in the compound, but he didn’t want to fight him, either. And thirteen was their magic number. There had to be a way to make it fly, because he couldn’t walk away from one of the surviving Nightkeepers. ‘‘Come with me,’’ he said finally. ‘‘We’ll work something out.’’
Mendez snorted. ‘‘Here’s how it’s going to work. You take care of the cops and the ass-pain bounty hunter bitch they’ve got tracking me, and I’ll take a look at your setup. If I like what I see, I’ll stay and let you convince me to fight on your team. If not, I’ll give you a chance to buy the spellbook off me.’’
A nasty feeling twisted down Strike’s spine alongside a jolt of adrenaline. Did Mendez somehow have one of the lost spellbooks? How? That should’ve been impossible. ‘‘Where’s the book now?’’ he asked, as if he’d known about it all along.
‘‘Safe,’’ Mendez replied. ‘‘So why don’t you—’’
‘‘Sorry to interrupt,’’ a new, female voice said unexpectedly. ‘‘But I’m interrupting.’’ There was a zap-hiss, and an arc of blue light flared behind Mendez. The big man bowed, going rigid on a silent scream, and then collapsed.
‘‘Freeze!’’ Strike shouted, levering the MAC as a smaller figure crouched over Mendez’s prostrate form. When the figure shifted, he saw black leather and high boots, and recognized the hottie from the alley. ‘‘Back off before I put a round in you,’’ he said.
Dual clicks sounded next to his head, one in each ear, as two huge dudes came up behind him on damn silent feet with damn big guns. ‘‘Don’t be stupid,’’ Leftmost Dude said. ‘‘She doesn’t want to hurt you. Said you’re too pretty to mess up, and the car is a hoot.’’
Gods, Strike thought on a groan. Saved by a minivan. ‘‘Okay.’’ He held up the MAC and opened his fingers in the universal gesture of no harm, no foul. ‘‘Maybe we can make a deal.’’
‘‘I’m the bounty hunter the cops have tracking Snake here,’’ the hottie said without looking up. ‘‘Trust me, with what they’re offering, you can’t afford me.’’
Mendez groaned and sucked in a harsh, rattling breath. ‘‘Bitch.’’
‘‘Back atcha,’’ she said, and hit the button on her Taser, sending another fifty thousand volts or so shooting through his system.
When he was finished twitching, she gestured to her men. ‘‘Let’s get this meat loaded on the wagon and get the hell out of here.’’ She crossed to Strike, stopping just shy of him. ‘‘Can I give you a word of advice? Whatever you’re looking for, find an alternative. Snake here is . . .’’ She trailed off, as if searching for exactly the right word. ‘‘Let’s just say that of all the seriously screwed-up people I deal with on a daily basis, he is by far the most damaged. He’s like a rottweiler that had a really bad puppyhood . . . you can gentle it all you want, but when it comes down to it, the thing’s going to be just as likely to bite your arm off as wag its tail.’’
Strike looked down at the unconscious man. ‘‘Shit.’’
‘‘Couldn’t have said it better myself.’’ She turned away. ‘‘Stay cool, minivan man.’’
She turned back. ‘‘What? You want to kiss him good-bye or something?’’
Despite everything, Strike found himself grinning, enjoying her. ‘‘No. Your name. For reasons I can’t even begin to decipher, I’d like to know your name.’’
She sketched a bow. ‘‘Reece Montana at your service. Now, bugger off.’’
And just like that, the bounty hunter—and the thirteenth Nightkeeper—were gone.
‘‘Well, shit,’’ Strike said, and headed back for the minivan. It was sitting right where he’d left it, and still had all four tires in good working order. He’d be paying to have the thing repainted to cover up a particularly creative suggestion spray-painted across the back door, but what the hell. It could’ve been worse, given the neighborhood.
He checked his voice mail once he was on the road, and found one from Jox. The message was a simple, ‘‘Call me,’’ but the winikin’s tone was off.
A bad feeling tightened Strike’s gut as he phoned home and punched it to speaker. ‘‘What’s wrong?’’ he said the moment Jox picked up.
‘‘Carter found the twins,’’ the winikin reported, his voice flat with grief. ‘‘They’re dead.’’
Strike yanked the wheel and sent the soccer-mobile screeching across the highway, ignoring the blare of horns behind him. When he was stopped at an angle across the breakdown lane, he slapped the minivan into park. Sat and breathed. ‘‘Gods damn it.’’
‘‘They were in New Jersey, headed along Skyline Drive the night of the solstice,’’ Jox said. ‘‘They went off the road near midnight.’’
Which probably meant the barrier had reached out to them just like it’d grabbed him, Strike thought. The twin link would’ve made them more susceptible to the lure, and more powerful once they were jacked in. But fucking bad luck—destiny, whatever—had put one of them behind the wheel next to a sheer drop at exactly the wrong moment. And now the Nightkeepers were down to eleven. Ten, if he counted out Mendez.
Heart heavy, Strike said something reassuring to Jox, who sounded like he was taking it way hard, and rang off. Cranking the minivan into drive, he pulled back into traffic and headed for the car rental place. Once he’d dropped off the keys, he found a secluded spot for the ’port magic. He didn’t particularly want to go back to the training compound, but he had a duty, damn it. It was like the king’s writ said: His first duty was to the gods and his people, then to mankind and his family. His own needs barely made the list.
Closing his eyes, he touched the barrier for a boost of power and imagined his mental turbines coming to life. Once he had enough magic to work with, he thought of home, and a yellow travel thread shimmered into existence in front of him. He reached out and touched it, felt the power sing through him. When it peaked, he sent himself into the thread, into the barrier.
There was a blur of gray-green, a gut wrench of sideways motion, then the jarring halt he didn’t think he’d ever get used to. Displaced air slammed away from him as he materialized a few inches off the ground, and he stumbled upon landing, windmilling his arms to keep his balance when he tripped over a hump of grass.
Except there shouldn’t have been any grass. For that matter, it was dark out, when New Mex would’ve still had light, and the air was moist and verdant rather than desert dry.
Ergo, he wasn’t in New Mex.
Heart hammering, Strike looked around. He’d zapped in at the front of a three-story house that towered over its ground-level neighbors on either side, which were nearly hidden behind tall, leafy hedges, as though the owner of the three-story liked privacy. The street out front was lined with palm trees, and the car parked by the front door had a sleek and somewhat dated silhouette.
He’d bet his next meal she was a ’67 Mustang named Peggy Sue. He’d thought of home and his powers had brought him, not to a place, but to a person.
Leah knew she was dreaming, but she couldn’t be bothered to wake up when the dream was so much better than reality.
Reality was a roomful of cops looking at her sideways. Reality was Nick’s empty desk chair across from hers, and a cardboard box where her partner’s things should have been. Reality was the memorial service, and the funeral, and Selina asking her to say something at the service when she couldn’t, she just couldn’t. And reality was Matty’s memory fading bit by bit.
Basically, reality sucked.
The dream, though . . . Wow, and hello, baby. Where have you been all my life?
In tonight’s installment of her fantasy life, her dream warrior stood in the shadows of the attic eaves, staring at her. He was tall and dark, with high, slashing cheekbones, piercing eyes, and the aristocratic line of a thin beard. He was wearing black combat pants and boots and a white oxford, and held himself like a leader, like he didn’t take crap from anyone. She appreciated that in a guy, as long as he didn’t take it too far into Neanderthal territory. But this was her dream, wasn’t it? Her rules, her desires.
She lay on the futon mattress up in the attic, where she’d slept since Nick’s death. In her bedroom she’d felt hemmed in, restless. Up here, she could stretch out beneath the wide skylight and feel the starlight on her skin.
Naked, she turned on her side and let the light sheet fall away, baring herself to her dream lover, needing to let loose of the grim control she kept on herself during the day so her recent frustrations wouldn’t have her lashing out at the people around her. But here, with him, those frustrations turned to pure heat. A strange hum built in her bones, in her ears, in the air around her, and a flush climbed her skin, warming her, prickling when her pores opened and her neurons flared to life, as though they’d been dead numb all day and were just now awakening. The moon caught the edge of the skylight, dimming all but the brightest stars, and the tiny points of light called to her, sending heat throbbing beneath her skin.
Daring him, she crooked a finger. ‘‘Come here.’’
He moved out of the shadows into the moonlight, his steps soundless on the wide attic floorboards. Slowly, so slowly, he dropped to his knees beside the mattress and bent over her, but didn’t touch.
‘‘Leah,’’ he whispered, his voice rasping across her name like a caress. Like a prayer.
‘‘I don’t know your name,’’ she said softly, lifting a hand to touch his jaw, and finding it warm and solid and masculine beneath her dream fingertips.
‘‘You don’t need to.’’ Something flickered in his eyes—sorrow, perhaps, or guilt.
She wanted to argue, wanted his name, but that small desire didn’t seem as important as the larger roar of lust brought on by the feel of his strong jaw against her palm, and the rasp of his close-clipped beard as he leaned over her, leaned into her. And touched his lips to hers.
The kiss was a whisper at first, though not a question. It was more like a test, though she didn’t know if he was challenging himself or her.
Heat came quickly, digging her with sharp claws of need, and she arched up to him, offering. Demanding. And the moment of hesitation was gone.
He came down on her with a muttered oath, and then his hands were everywhere—touching and stroking and shaping her. She arched into him, gasping as pleasure flared, hard and hot. The intensity of his touch and her response would’ve been too much, too soon if it hadn’t been for the edge of tenderness in the way his tongue touched hers when she opened her mouth, strong and sure, but coaxing a response rather than demanding it.
There was no need for either a coax or a demand, though. She was right there with him. Hell, she was powering past him, ahead of him, waiting for him to catch up.
Then again, this was her dream. Why shouldn’t she be in charge?
As the kiss spiraled hotter, harder, she plastered herself against him, feeling his strength through his clothing, the nap of the fabric an exquisite torture against her bare, sensitized skin. He stiffened and hissed out a breath as she hooked his shirt from his waistband and slid her hands beneath, walking her fingernails across the hard ridges of his abs and lingering on the trail of rough, masculine hair leading down. But when she made a move for his belt he caught her wrists in one of his hands and broke the kiss to say, ‘‘Relax. This is about you, not me.’’
Of course it is, she thought. It’s my dream.
Bathed in the warmth of desire, she lay back at his urging and spread her legs, offering herself to the night sky and feeling the weight of his eyes, the pressure of a thousand stars burning down from above.
Heat roared within her when they kissed. Need hammered when he touched her breasts, which were heavy and ached with desire. The world spun when he touched her with his clever fingers, his agile tongue; then she felt the rasp of his beard against the skin of her belly, and lower. Then he was tonguing her, nipping at her sensitized flesh and making her squirm, making the heat spiral harder, making the world contract inward until there was nothing but the two of them and the dream haze.
She turned toward him, lifting and bending one leg to tilt herself more fully open to him, and her breath came in short, staccato bursts as tension coiled within, tighter and tighter still until she couldn’t breathe. She buried her fingers in his hair and urged him up her body, so they were pressed chest-to-chest, tangled in each other, wrapped around each other. She tasted herself on his lips, tasted him, his need and frustrated desire, and though he’d said it was about her she wanted it to be about the two of them. Together.
When she opened her eyes to say as much, she found his eyes open as well, found herself caught in their depths. Then he touched her where his mouth had just been, slipped two fingers inside her, and set a hard, fast rhythm that mimicked the beat of her heart, and matched the stroke of his tongue against hers.
Gasping, she strained against him as a rush of sensation built, coalescing around his fingers, around them both. Then the universe exploded. Golden light flared in her mind, in her body, warming her, pleasuring her. She cried out and clung to him as the orgasm gripped her, rolled over her, washed through her.
When it was done, the world spun around her and she clung to him still, his solid body her only anchor in an existence suddenly gone unsteady. She stirred against him, opened her eyes to look at him and found them still in her attic, still in each other’s arms.
Suddenly, the fantasy seemed awfully real. The dreams had never taken her this far before, never continued through completion to the aftermath. They’d never left her feeling both satisfied and terribly alone.
‘‘This is real, isn’t it?’’ she whispered, not sure whether the huge emotion that welled up inside her was hope or fear.
His cobalt eyes went sharp with regret, and he shook his head slightly. ‘‘No. It’s a dream. It’s all a dream.’’
He touched his lips to her forehead and said something, two words in a language she didn’t know, but which sounded familiar somehow. But before she could ask how she knew the sounds, gray-green mist crept to the edges of her vision, cocooning her in warm lassitude.
She fought the pull, fought a sudden, overwhelming sleepiness. ‘‘Wait! What—’’
‘‘Sleep,’’ he said softly. ‘‘This is all just a dream.’’
He cut off her protest with a kiss. And as she slid into the kiss, she tumbled off the edge to sleep, taking with her the power of his touch and the safety of his arms.
Strike was hard and sore, and his body burned for release, for completion, but he denied both and turned Leah in his arms, fitting her up against him so they were nestled together back-to-front. Then he pulled the light sheet off the floor to cover them both.
The sleep spell wasn’t as comprehensive as Red-Boar’s mind-wipe, but she’d already thought she was dreaming. She’d wake and think of him as a pleasant fantasy, which would have to be enough.
He knew he should feel guilty, and maybe that would come later. For now, there was only the satisfaction of holding her in his arms. She fit against him perfectly, small enough that he could tuck her head beneath his chin, tough enough that she could hold her own against him, against the makol.
Deep down inside him there was a faint warning tug, a twitch of unease that his connection to her was too strong to be anything but meant by the fates, by the gods.
‘‘No,’’ he said aloud. He wanted—needed—to claim something for himself. A moment of private humanity. His feelings for Leah, which he was careful not to examine too closely, weren’t part of his being a Nightkeeper or the son of the king. Maybe they had been at first, but not anymore. Now, the attraction was about his being a man and her being a woman.
Jox was right—he’d always had a thing for edgy blondes. More, he respected the loyalty to family and friends that had driven her after Zipacna. Her need to fight for what she believed in. She was a cop, a protector in her own right, one who didn’t let herself get pushed around even in situations far beyond her understanding. Yet at the same time, she was all woman in her responses, in her unabashed enjoyment of her own body, and his.
If he’d been nothing more than a man, or if it were five years later, with the zero date come and gone without drama, he would’ve done whatever it took to make her his own. As it was, that was out of the question, a danger to both of them. So he’d take this one time— and he swore to himself that it would only be once— and let her go, hoping she’d dream of him.
He’d keep the protection spell in place and make sure the ajaw-makol didn’t try to touch her again. He’d watch over her, just as he was bound to oversee the safety of the human race. But that was it for the two of them together. Hell, he shouldn’t have even come into her house tonight, but once he’d realized where he was, he hadn’t been able to override the compulsion. Hadn’t wanted to.
Tomorrow, he would meet the new Nightkeepers. Tonight, he’d wanted one last thing for himself. But when his cell phone vibrated in his pocket, twice over five minutes, he knew his time was up. Undoubtedly it was Jox wanting to know where the hell he was, and when he’d be back. And though Strike was feeling vaguely out of step with his winikin these days, it wasn’t fair for him to disappear. There had been too much of that already.
So he gathered himself and slipped out from underneath the sheet, tucking the single layer around Leah as she stirred and murmured something sweet and low. A faint frown touched her lips and crinkled her brow, forming soft lines in the moonlight.
‘‘Sleep,’’ he said in the language of his ancestors, and touched his lips to hers. ‘‘Be safe.’’
Then he closed his eyes and tapped the barrier for power, envisioned the training compound, and teleported away.
Strike woke late the next morning, groggy and disoriented, and dreading the day ahead. He used the small bathroom at the back of the pool house, pulled on a pair of cutoffs, and stumbled outside. Squinting against the too-bright summer sun, he headed across the pool deck and through the sliders into the mansion, making a beeline for the kitchen, and coffee. He stepped through the doorway to the great room that formed the center of the first floor—
And stopped dead as five pairs of eyes snapped to him and five strangers stopped talking.
Oh, shit, he thought. They’re here.
It was stupid for him to be surprised. He’d known the new Nightkeepers had begun arriving the night before, had even seen some of the luggage when he’d zapped in, chowed a snack, and gone to bed. But somehow he’d thought he’d have a chance to confab with Jox and Red-Boar before meeting the newbies.
The five gorgeous twenty-somethings were sitting in the sunken middle of the main room. The long leather couch held two women, a streaky blonde who was six feet tall if she was an inch and a smaller brunette with green eyes, both wearing business casual. Next to them sat a big sprawl of a blond guy wearing swim trunks and a shirt advertising a bait store. Two other guys sat in the flanking chairs, both dark haired and intense-looking. One of them was clean-shaven, short haired, and all business in a navy suit and tie he wore with the ease of familiarity. The other sported a careful layer of stubble on his jaw and long wavy hair, along with a trendy, open-throated shirt that had a pair of shades looped over the first button.
Strike’s precoffee brain did the first-impression thing, summing them up as the Valkyrie and the Ingenue, the Surfer Dude, the Business Guy, and the Playboy.
They were also complete and utter strangers. He didn’t know why that surprised him, but it did. Maybe deep down inside, he’d figured he’d recognize them because he’d known their parents when he was a kid.
Jox came out of the kitchen on the opposite side. Skirting the upper level of the room, he joined Strike and handed over a mug of coffee, whispering, ‘‘If you weren’t going to dress for the occasion, you could’ve at least brushed your hair.’’
‘‘Shit.’’ Strike looked down at himself, bare chested in a pair of cutoffs and nothing else, and stifled a curse. No need to question where he scored on the first-impression scale: somewhere between Scuzzy Bedhead Guy and Please Don’t Tell Me That’s Him.
‘‘You’ll do fine.’’ Jox clapped him on the shoulder and turned to leave.
The winikin paused. ‘‘What, you want a fanfare or something?’’
Yeah, actually. Well, maybe not trumpets, but he’d sort of imagined that when it came time to meet the newcomers, Jox would at least introduce him, maybe play up his father or something. But that was the point, wasn’t it? He wasn’t his father, and this wasn’t his father’s time anymore. So much had changed, they were going to have to rewrite some of the rules and protocols as they went. Starting now.
So Strike didn’t ask for a fanfare, instead saying, ‘‘Where are the others?’’
Jox jerked a thumb over his shoulder, in the direction he’d been headed. ‘‘Their winikin are in the kitchen getting reacquainted. I figured we should stagger the intros so your head doesn’t blow up.’’ He paused. ‘‘Besides, Carlos’s daughter is pretty shell-shocked.’’
‘‘She can join the club.’’
‘‘No.’’ Jox shook his head. ‘‘It’s more than that. Carlos didn’t give her the option . . .’’ He trailed off, shook his head. ‘‘Not your problem. I’ll handle it.’’
Strike glanced over his shoulder to where the five newbies had returned to their conversations, but were keeping a collective eye on him. ‘‘Who are we missing? I know Mendez is in jail, and obviously Blackhawk hasn’t seen fit to show yet.’’ And he was going to have to figure out a way to make sure that happened. ‘‘But that still leaves us one short.’’
‘‘Working on it.’’
‘‘Another holdout?’’ Strike said, hoping that was all it was.
‘‘She said she was coming, then didn’t show. Her winikin , Hannah, has gone to pick her up.’’ Jox paused. ‘‘I sent Red-Boar along in case there’s trouble.’’
Something in his tone warned Strike not to ask. Hannah was the name Jox had breathed over the phone with such reverence the night before, yet there was none of that in his tone or expression now. There were only fatigue, frustration, and worry.
Or maybe I’m the one who’s tired and frustrated, Strike thought. For a brief, crazy second he pictured himself zapping back to Miami—do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dollars. He could get a job and accidentally-on -purpose bump into Leah. They could get to know each other like normal human beings and see if what had started between them was real.
What if it is? said his conscience. So what? Maybe you get married. Maybe you have kids and the picket fence. You won’t make it past your fourth anniversary. Boom. Gone. Game over.
So he sighed, shoved aside the lovely fantasy of walking away from it all, and held up a hold on finger to the newcomers. ‘‘Give me five minutes and we’ll try this again.’’
Four minutes later, fortified by caffeine and wearing jeans, a concert T, and rope sandals—on the theory that he shouldn’t sell a bill of goods he couldn’t deliver—he strode back into the great room and sat on the back of a chair with his feet on the seat cushion, so he was higher up than the rest of them. Then he said, ‘‘Okay, take two. As you probably guessed already, I’m Striking-Jaguar. Call me Strike.’’
They did introductions first. The streaky blond Valkyrie, Alexis Gray of the smoke bloodline, looked him in the eye and had a man-strong handshake. The brunette Ingenue, Jade Farmer of the harvester bloodline, spoke so softly he could barely hear her. Surfer Dude was Coyote-Seven, who went by Sven and didn’t look like he was taking much of anything seriously. Business Guy was Brandt White-Eagle, who looked like he wanted to be somewhere else, and Playboy was Michael Stone, whose easy smile and surface charm did little to change Strike’s first impression of a player.
Once they’d done the intro thing, Strike tried to think of something grand and wonderful to say. In the end, though, he was neither grand nor wonderful. He was just a basic sort of guy. So he went with the basics. ‘‘I’m assuming your winikin have explained the situation?’’
All five of them nodded. Strike would’ve bet a hundred bucks that none of them had the slightest clue what they were about to buy into, but it wasn’t like he could pull a Monty Python and start shouting, ‘‘Run away, run away!’’ And if he couldn’t bail, then they shouldn’t get the option, either. They were all in this together, bound by a bloodline responsibility none of them had asked for.
So instead of offering them the illusion of an out, he held out his right arm and flipped his hand palm up. ‘‘I know you’ve seen marks like these on the people who raised you. You’re going to get your first ones exactly seven days from now, on the Fourth of July.’’
‘‘What happens then?’’ This from Surfer Dude. Sven.
‘‘The aphelion,’’ Strike answered. ‘‘It’s one of the minor astral events when the barrier increases its activity. We’re going to hold the connection ritual, which will bind you to the barrier and give you your bloodline marks, along with your first link to the power.’’ He paused. ‘‘That doesn’t mean you’ll be able to do major magic—that’ll come after the talent ceremony, which won’t be until mid-September.’’
There was a moment of silence, and he could almost feel the newcomers trying to figure out which question to ask first.
Finally, Alexis said, ‘‘What happens in between?’’
‘‘You’ll be studying spell theory, working out, training, preparing to fight.’’ Pausing, he scrubbed a hand across the back of his neck, remembering the horns that’d ridden him in the days leading up to the solstice, when the barrier had reactivated. ‘‘There’s also a good chance that you’ll experience some, um, sexual side effects.’’
Sven crossed his legs. ‘‘You mean we’re going to go Bob Dole?’’
Bob—oh, Viagra. Strike shook his head. ‘‘Exactly the opposite. You’ll most likely spend those two months horny as hell.’’
Sven grinned wide and shrugged. ‘‘I can handle that. Get it? Handle?’’
‘‘What are you, eighteen?’’ Alexis shot over at him, her eyebrows arched in disgust.
Which made Strike wonder where their resident juvenile delinquent had gone. If Red-Boar was off tracking down their straggler, that left him and Jox on Rabbit duty.
‘‘No, I’m honest.’’ Sven jerked his thumb at the other guys. ‘‘And if these two are being honest, they’ll back me up."
Michael shot him a keep dreaming look, but White-Eagle ignored them both. He leaned forward, bracing his shirtsleeved forearms on his knees. ‘‘Is there any other way to get the bloodline mark besides this connection ceremony?’’
Strike shook his head. ‘‘Not as far as I know.’’ But that made him think about the marks on Snake Mendez’s arms, which meant there was probably at least one other way to connect.
‘‘What about before the massacre, when the barrier was still active?’’
Strike sent White-Eagle a sharp look. ‘‘Maybe. I was nine when it went down. You’ll have to ask Jox, or Red-Boar when he gets back. Why?’’
White-Eagle lifted a shoulder. ‘‘Just trying to figure all this out.’’ He shifted in his chair, glancing over his shoulder. ‘‘You mind if I hit the bathroom? Too much coffee.’’
‘‘Go.’’ Strike waved him off. ‘‘We’re not going to do hall passes or anything.’’ But as the big man moved off, walking with the same smooth glide Strike remembered from his childhood, when he’d watched the Nightkeeper warriors train under his father’s guidance, he wondered whether hall passes might not be a good idea, after all.
He had a feeling White-Eagle’s disappearing act had nothing to do with coffee.
The minute Brandt hit the john, he closed and locked the door, and whipped out his cell phone. Hitting the number labeled HOME SWEET HOME, he murmured, ‘‘Come on, Patience, come on. Pick up!’’
Finally, she did. ‘‘Hey, baby. I was just thinking about you. How’s Chicago?’’
‘‘I lied,’’ Brandt said succinctly. ‘‘I’m not in Chicago. I’m in New Mexico, near Chaco Canyon. Which I’m guessing is where you’re supposed to be.’’
There was absolute silence on the other end of the phone.
Knowing that was all the answer he needed, Brandt closed his eyes for a second, damning himself for never pressing her about her family, for never pushing the conversation they should’ve had years ago, when they’d woken up with their bloodline marks and hidden the truth from each other. ‘‘They’re coming for you,’’ he said. ‘‘Don’t pack, don’t ask any questions, just get out of there.’’
He hung up, trusting that she’d know what to do, and why.
Patience couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t think. She sure as hell couldn’t move.
Brandt was a Nightkeeper, too. Holy crap.
It made a crazy sort of sense, really. He was ridiculously big and handsome, and had always seemed larger than life. And when they’d met on spring break, she’d fallen for him instantly, as if they’d had some sort of karmic connection. They’d met at the ruins of Chichén Itzá and gotten drunk together, only neither of them had remembered drinking that much. Apparently the memory lapse hadn’t been alcohol. It’d been the spring equinox.
She sank to one of the kitchen chairs, brain spinning as she looked at the marks on her arm. ‘‘Oh, boy,’’ she breathed. ‘‘That’s not a tattoo, is it?’’
Get out, Brandt’s voice whispered in her head. They’re coming for you.
Her heart hammered. She’d already decided not to go, decided it wasn’t worth giving up her life for a responsibility she’d never asked for, didn’t feel prepared for. And besides—
The doorbell rang.
She bolted to her feet with a shriek. Something sizzled through her blood, feeling like anger, only hotter, headier. Her skin felt too tight and her mouth went dry, and her feet barely touched the floor as she ran from the kitchen into the nursery, where Harry and Braden were asleep in their oversize crib, wearing their footie pj’s with cars on them.
Or rather, Harry was asleep and Braden was wide-awake, plotting his next mischief. She could tell from the look in his eyes, and the ESP that she’d found had come with motherhood.
She held a finger to her lips. ‘‘Ssh. Don’t make a sound.’’
He must’ve realized she was serious, because he didn’t immediately do the opposite of what she asked. Instead, he touched Braden’s shoulder, waking his brother. She got them out of the crib, balancing one on each hip even though, at nearly three, they’d grown too heavy for her to comfortably carry them both. But she stalled at the nursery door.
Where was she supposed to go?
The doorbell chimed again, speeding her heart rate even further and making her blood hum in her ears so loud it almost sounded like the wind, only there was no wind inside the house, no wind outside, no wind—
It wasn’t wind, she realized with a sudden certainty that came straight from her bones. It was power. Her power.
A flicker of movement caught her peripheral vision. She looked down, and gaped when she saw nothing. Literally nothing. She had disappeared, along with the boys.
I’m invisible, she thought as shock fisted itself around her throat and squeezed until only a thin trickle of air got through. Impossible. Except it wasn’t impossible. She was a Nightkeeper, wasn’t she?
‘‘No. I’m not,’’ she whispered. ‘‘I don’t want to be.’’
She had other priorities now. Her sons were more important than her being a Nightkeeper and saving the world. She didn’t want the boys used, didn’t want them thrown into an impossible war, didn’t want them orphaned the way she and Brandt had been. Yes, she’d had Hannah and he’d had his godfather, Woodrow, who must’ve been a winikin, as well. But it wasn’t the same, had never been the same as having parents.
‘‘You need to be really, really quiet,’’ she whispered to the invisible boys, and thought she felt the warm bundles in her arms nod acquiescence.
Breathing through her mouth, she tiptoed out of the nursery, listening for any stray sound that could give her away, and hearing nothing. You can do this, she told herself. You can.
The doorbell was at the front of the house, but there were two other exits—the garage and the back door. She would’ve gone out through the garage, but starting the car would negate the whole invisibility bonus. That left the back.
A quick glance showed her that the coast was clear. She eased out, juggling the boys and trying not to feel the pull in her right shoulder, which she’d strained during a judo class the week before. She’d head around the side, cut through the Fitches’ backyard and across the next street over. Her friend Joanie lived two blocks down from there. She’d help.
And by then, Patience figured she was going to need some help. Already the buzzing had decreased, and a heavy pounding had started up in her skull. She didn’t know how much longer she could sustain the now you see me, now you don’t routine. Steps dragging, she started toward the Fitches’ yard, only to backpedal furiously when Hannah appeared from around the front, her brows furrowed.
Patience’s heart gave an uneven bump at the sight of her godmother’s lovely, scarred face beneath a bright pink scarf. She hated knowing she had to disappoint one of the most important people in her life in order to protect two others. Then again, she hadn’t liked keeping her marriage or babies secret from Hannah, either, talking on disposable cells and finding neutral places to meet a couple of times a year. She’d been living a second life, living a lie, and now it was coming back to bite her in the ass.
Get moving, she told herself. Just go and don’t look back. Instead, she stood for a moment and watched Hannah, wishing impossible things.
The winikin moved to the back door and said something unladylike when she found it hanging open. She raised her voice and called, ‘‘She’s gone!’’
‘‘Not exactly,’’ a male voice said from directly behind Patience.
Before she could turn, before she could react, something went pzzzt in her brain and everything turned dark. Strong arms caught her as she fell, bearing her weight and grabbing her sons as they started to struggle and squall.
‘‘Easy, boys,’’ the man said, and took them. ‘‘Here. Meet your auntie Hannah.’’
The last thing Patience heard was the man muttering under his breath, something about half-bloods and idiot neophytes who thought their powers worked on mages. No, she wanted to say. I might be an idiot and I’m definitely a neophyte, but my sons aren’t half-bloods. Their father is a Nightkeeper, too.
And that was the whole problem, because they were her babies. They weren’t weapons in a war nobody could win.
Nate Blackhawk considered himself a straightforward guy with straightforward goals. He never wanted to spend another night in jail. He wanted to work for himself. And he wanted to make his first million before he turned forty without being ashamed of how he’d done it.
But he’d never really wanted to be a hero, or a magician.
Sure, he’d written games for both. Even Hera, the kick-ass hottie at the heart of his Viking Warrior franchise, could see the future sometimes. But he’d never really pictured himself in the role of sorcerer’s apprentice . . . until the dark-haired guy with the tats had hung him off the roof and left him with a business card and some bruises.
He’d tried to tell himself it was all part of an elaborate scam, that the guy had somehow found out he was an orphan—not exactly something that was front and center on the Hawk Enterprises home page—and was using that as an in. But that didn’t explain the teleporting trick, and it didn’t explain why the stranger had asked about Nate’s medallion, which was the one thing he possessed that he was pretty sure had come from his parents.
As the SUV limo bounced its way along the optimistically named Route 57, deep in the middle of nowhere New Mexico, Nate pulled the medallion out from beneath his white button-down and rubbed his thumb across the metal disk, feeling the etched marks that looked like a hawk if you turned the piece one way, a man if you turned it the other.
He’d had the thing for as long as he could remember. According to the records, he’d been wearing it when he’d appeared in the waiting room of the University of Chicago’s Lying-In Hospital at the age of two. He’d been wearing soiled pj’s stained with blood that wasn’t his, he’d had the words ‘‘My name is Nathan Blackhawk’’ written on his forehead in ballpoint pen, and he hadn’t spoken for nearly fourteen months thereafter. For a while, they’d thought he was mute.
He’d had night terrors regularly until his teens and then sporadically ever since—amorphous dreams of bright red-orange creatures that dripped flame and killed everything around them. The prison therapist had told him the monsters represented his mother, and his anger at her for leaving him alone, but Nate was pretty sure the monsters were just monsters. He didn’t hate his parents. He’d never met them, and if they hadn’t cared enough to keep him, then he didn’t care enough to hate them.
But that didn’t stop him from being curious about what the stranger had hinted at.
He’d thought about it for a couple of days, until the bruises had gone from red to purple, and then he’d okayed EmoPunk III—God help him—downloaded the storyboard for Viking Warrior 6: Hera’s Mate—he still wasn’t sure about the hero—and hopped a flight to New Mexico.
Odds were he’d be back in Denver tomorrow, feeling like a schmuck.
He hadn’t even called ahead, figuring on a surprise attack. Beside, the guy had left his address, sort of. The card said simply: Rt. 57, Chaco Canyon.
Now he was thinking the surprise was on him, because 57 was a damn gravel track, and they hadn’t passed a house or cross street in a good ten minutes. There was nothing outside the air-conditioned cabin of the stretch pimp-mobile besides sun, scrub brush, and more sun, with the occasional rock for variety.
‘‘Great,’’ he muttered. ‘‘This is a total waste of time.’’ He didn’t tell the driver to about-face, though. Instead, he palmed his handheld and called up a set of graphics, not of the pasty-faced hero his developers had come up with, but of Hera.
Big, blond, and angular, but with a pixie-delicate face and wide hazel eyes, capable of kicking ass equally well in swordplay and hand-to-hand, she was his queen, the cornerstone of Hawk Enterprises. The guys on his team might tease him about his imaginary girlfriend, but as far as he was concerned she was perfect. She never bitched at him for being a slob, never complained when he slept at his desk. She was always there when he wanted to see her, but disappeared with the touch of a button. Okay, she wasn’t real high on the bed-warmer scale, and he was pretty sure he’d torpedoed his last two relationships because the women hadn’t measured up to the Hera that lived in his mind, but please. He was twenty-six and in no hurry to settle.
She was out there. He didn’t know why or how he knew that, but he was sure of it. He just hadn’t met her yet.
‘‘Here’s something,’’ the driver said through the buzzed-down privacy window as he let the limo roll to a stop. ‘‘Want me to try it?’’
Off to one side, a two-lane track had been beaten into the prairie, as though a convoy had been through recently. About a half mile ahead of them, it looked like the dirt road twisted down and disappeared. ‘‘Does it head toward the canyon?’’
‘‘Then let’s go. What’s the worst that could happen?’’
‘‘We drive off the road, get stuck, try to walk back, and die miserably of dehydration and sunstroke,’’ the driver offered, but he grinned as he said it, and turned the stretch SUV down the track. ‘‘Hang on.’’
It wasn’t bad at first, but as they hit the bend in the road and it did, indeed, drop down into Chaco Canyon, Nate gave up his dignity, strapped on his seat belt, and clung to the armrests as the vehicle bounced and shuddered all the way to the bottom.
When they turned the final corner, the driver let up on the gas. ‘‘Well, hell.’’
Something twisted in Nate’s gut at the sight of the buildings scattered in a small box canyon about a quarter of a mile farther up. ‘‘I guess this is it.’’
It looked like a construction site at first, with tri-axle dumps raising big dust clouds and double crews working on high scaffolds, securing the roof of a huge steel-span building off to one side. But as they got closer he realized it was a mix of old and new buildings, some under construction, with a patch of blackened earth the size of a football field and a huge tree that seemed utterly out of place. There were other structures in the rear that he couldn’t quite make out, and the whole thing was fronted by a new-looking masonry wall that ran from one side of the box canyon to the other.
The gates were wide-open, though, and the driver rolled him right up to the front door of the main house, which was more mansion than house, three stories of pale pink-and-gray limestone, with trim that practically vibrated shiny white from a new coat of paint.
After they’d sat there for a moment, the driver looked at him. ‘‘You getting out?’’
Yes. No. He didn’t know. Shit.
Nate didn’t consider himself a weenie, but this so wasn’t what he’d been expecting. He wasn’t sure what he had been expecting, but this wasn’t it.
He took a deep breath and reminded himself he’d planted a time-delayed e-mail in the system back at work, ready to drop a mayday in a couple of hours if he didn’t delete it. ‘‘Yeah, I’m getting out.’’ He left his laptop and bags in the car, though. ‘‘Give me fifteen minutes to check out the situation and I’ll let you know if I’m staying or not.’’
Then the front door of the mansion opened and his heart stopped for a second, then started up again, hammering in his ears so loud he could barely think. ‘‘Scratch that,’’ he said, fumbling for his bags. ‘‘I’m staying.’’
Hera stood in the doorway.
Alexis held her ground as the newcomer strode toward her, his long legs eating up the distance that separated them, his eyes fixed on her. She recognized the look; ten bucks said he was going to invite her for a ride in his mine’s-bigger-than-yours chauffeur-driven dick-mobile.
Instead, he climbed the marble steps, stopped a few feet away from her, and didn’t say a word. He just looked at her.
A shimmer of awareness worked its way across her skin, sliding along her nerve endings and whispering something she couldn’t hear. She rubbed her arms, which were bare beneath a cap-sleeved T-shirt, brushing away the sensation.
Sure, he was just her type—wealthy and slick in his Armani suit and trendy, heavy-framed glasses, bigger than her by a good four inches in all directions, and no-holds -barred masculine, with his dark hair slicked back and a layer of stubble on his jaw. But that was the problem—he was just her type, and as her recent nonrelationship with Aaron the Worthless Prick proved, the men that were her type tended to be spoiled, arrogant brats who should’ve been spanked more when they were young.
And no, she wasn’t volunteering to fix that now. So she narrowed her eyes into a don’t even think it glare. ‘‘Can I help you?’’
He blinked as though that was entirely not what he’d expected her to say. Recovering, he two-fingered a card out of his pocket and held it out. ‘‘Guy teleported me onto a roof, hung me over the side, then told me to come here if I wanted to learn more.’’
‘‘No kidding?’’ She glanced at the card. ‘‘Then you’ve already seen more of the magic than I have, and I’ve already been here a few days.’’ She waved him in. ‘‘We’re in the middle of Magic 101.’’ As an afterthought, she stuck out a hand. ‘‘I’m Alexis Gray. Smoke bloodline. ’’
He took her hand. His grip was warm and firm, but he’d started to look a little thin around the edges, like he was going into overload. ‘‘Nate Blackhawk. What’s a bloodline?’’
She cocked her head. ‘‘Didn’t your winikin explain all this shit as you were growing up? The whole Nightkeepers-save -the-world-from-the-2012-apocalypse thing?’’
‘‘Winikin?’’ No doubt about it, he’d gone gray.
‘‘Oh, shit,’’ she said, making the connection to a convo she’d overheard between Izzy and one of the other winikin . ‘‘You’re Carlos’s orphan, aren’t you?’’ When his bags hit the deck and his knees started to buckle, she jammed her shoulder into his armpit and shouted, ‘‘Need a little help here!’’
But she was too late. They were both headed for the floor.
Once they got Blackhawk back on his feet and looking more or less steady, Strike herded the trainees back into the sunken great room at the center of the mansion.
‘‘Okay. Moving on.’’ He glanced at Blackhawk, who was looking seriously shell-shocked. ‘‘We went over the writs and the thirteen prophecies yesterday. Maybe Alexis can fill you in on that stuff later.’’ He chose her partly because Izzy had given her a strong foundation in Nightkeeper history and partly because Blackhawk was trying way too hard not to stare at her.
Strike wasn’t interested in making a match of his own, but Jox was right—they were going to need the Nightkeepers to pair up.
‘‘We were talking about the barrier,’’ he said to the group. ‘‘Think of it as an energy field that you can use in a bunch of different ways. Once you’ve been through both the binding and talent ceremonies you’ll be able to uplink, tapping the barrier for the power to perform spells. You can do that pretty much whenever, as long as you’ve got enough physical energy to sustain the uplink. During the astral conjunctions—the solstice and equinox and so forth—you’ll be able to jack in and send your incorporeal form into the barrier itself. In extreme cases, with the strongest of magic and sacrifice, you may be able to punch all the way through the barrier.’’
Alexis nodded. ‘‘Like for the transition spell.’’
Sven elbowed her. ‘‘Suckup.’’
‘‘Burnout,’’ she fired back.
‘‘Anyway,’’ Strike said, raising his voice to drown them out. ‘‘Alexis is correct—a Nightkeeper can sometimes punch through the barrier using a transition spell—in theory, anyway. Now that we’re in the final five years of the countdown to zero date, on rare occasions— like the solstice or equinox—it should be possible for a god to travel the skyroad connecting the heavens and earth, in order to enter a female Nightkeeper. When that happens, she’ll becomes what’s called a Godkeeper, and she’ll be able to wield some—or all—of the god’s power with the help of her jun tan mate.’’
‘‘In theory?’’ Sven pressed.
Strike shook his head. ‘‘To the best of our knowledge, the Godkeeper spell was lost in the fifteen hundreds when the conquistadors and their missionaries did their damnedest to wipe out anything that didn’t look like Christianity. Which amounted to almost the entirety of pre-Columbian civilization.’’
‘‘Gods coming to earth,’’ Blackhawk broke in, incredulous. ‘‘Magical spells. Are you people listening to yourselves? ’’
Strike glanced at him. ‘‘You forgetting the roof deal?’’
Blackhawk subsided, but Strike figured the guy was getting close to critical mass, so he took five and handed the new arrival off to his assigned winikin, Carlos.
When class resumed, Strike said, ‘‘All of you should be able to perform the traditional spells, the ones involving a small blood sacrifice and tapping the barrier. During the second ceremony, some—if not all—of you will get one or two additional marks, indicating that you have inherent abilities the others don’t. The talent marks don’t always show up at the time of the ceremony— some do; some come later. It’s more that the ceremony prepares you to accept them, and opens you to your full powers.’’
Sven broke in. ‘‘What sort of talent am I going to get?’’
Strike shrugged. ‘‘It’s not a sure thing. Most of you will hopefully get the warrior’s mark and the fighting powers that come with it, which include the ability to block with a shield spell and attack with fire. Some of the women may get prescience to one degree or another. ’’ He didn’t figure they needed to know the considerable downside of the rare full-blown foretelling powers until one of them actually got the itza’at seer’s mark. ‘‘About one in three Nightkeepers on average gets another talent.’’ Ticking them off on his fingers, he said, ‘‘Teleporting runs in the jaguar bloodline, as does mimicry. Invisibility and flight tend to pop up in the bird bloodlines. Mental talents like mind-bending and mesmerism are common in—’’
He broke off at the sound of the front door opening, then shutting again, followed by the quiet murmur of a woman’s voice, followed by Red-Boar’s deeper tones.
‘‘Sounds like the last of us is finally here.’’ Strike rose to his feet and called, ‘‘We’re in here.’’
Moments later, Red-Boar appeared in the arched doorway near the front entrance, and ushered through a Nightkeeper woman who was tall and gorgeous and blond, and looked younger than the others. She was wearing shorts and long sleeves, which jarred, but that wasn’t what had Strike freezing in place.
No, that would be the little boys holding her hands, one on each side.
They were identical.
‘‘Twins,’’ he said, breathing past a spike of adrenaline and a crushing pressure in his chest. ‘‘They’re twins.’’
‘‘Yeah.’’ Red-Boar nodded. ‘‘How do you like that? They’re only half-bloods, but still.’’
Strike saw the newcomer’s eyes flash at the term and couldn’t say he cared for it much himself, but he didn’t get a chance to respond, because Jox appeared in the foyer, caught sight of the kids, and went white. For a second Strike thought he was going to hit the deck like Blackhawk had done earlier.
A petite woman in a flowing print dress, with a pink scarf tied across one side of her face at an angle, stepped around Red-Boar to touch Jox’s arm. ‘‘I’m sorry,’’ she said. ‘‘I didn’t know.’’ She turned to Strike. ‘‘My name is Hannah, sire. I’d like to introduce Patience Lizbet, of the iguana bloodline, and her sons, Harry and Braden.’’
‘‘You can call me Strike,’’ he said, but what he really meant was, Don’t call me ‘‘sire.’’
‘‘Actually, our name isn’t Lizbet,’’ the young woman contradicted, color riding high as she looked past Strike and latched onto something behind him. ‘‘It’s White-Eagle. ’’
Strike turned in time to see Brandt rise from his place on the couch, his expression a complicated mix of joy and resignation as he bent and opened his arms to the boys. ‘‘Hey, guys. I missed you!’’
Matching faces lit with identical smiles, and matching mouths cried, ‘‘Daddy!’’
The kids broke from their mother, charged across the foyer, and flung themselves on their father, while the rest of the world, at least from Strike’s perspective, came to a grinding halt at a stunning, blinding revelation.
Those. Weren’t. Half-bloods.
Suddenly, Brandt’s habit of wearing long sleeves, even outside in the scorching sun, made sense.
Patience and Brandt already had their marks, Strike realized. Somehow they’d punched through and gotten their bloodline marks. And for the first time since he’d left Leah alone in her starlit bed, he felt like things were starting to go a little bit right.
‘‘Gods be praised,’’ Jox whispered, voice shaking, and Strike could only nod agreement.
They had their twins. Gods be praised, indeed.
But as Brandt embraced his wife, and the boys clung to both their legs, and the winikin and the trainees clustered around them, all talking at once, Strike found himself edging away, feeling very much alone in the crowd. He wasn’t jealous, precisely; he was . . .
Okay, he was jealous. Not because he necessarily wanted the wife-and-kids thing right away, but because he wanted to make that choice for himself.
Which was why, when his cell phone vibrated with an incoming call, he was grateful for the distraction. He flipped the phone, saw the private investigator’s number, and answered, ‘‘Hey, Carter. Tell me you found Zipacna. ’’
There had been no sign of the ajaw-makol since the solstice—at least, not that Carter had been able to unearth—but somebody had started buying up a shitload of stingray spines and copan incense, along with jugs of an alcoholic beverage called pulque.
All of which were crucial to the spells of both Nightkeepers and makol.
The PI said, ‘‘Zipacna is back in the compound— there’s some sort of gala being held there tonight. And the detective you asked me to flag?’’
Strike’s fingers tightened on the handset. ‘‘What about her?’’
‘‘Her name’s on the guest list.’’
Leah’s new partner, Billy Cole, wasn’t a bad kid. Baby-faced and borderline pretty, Billy drove like a stock-car junkie, kept his mouth shut when it mattered, and seemed to do good policework. But he wasn’t Nick.
Tired after putting in a full shift, and feeling rubbed raw from the sharp edges of a new partnership and the busywork Connie had been giving them rather than putting her back on the street, Leah sighed as Billy drove them back to the PD to clock out for the night. ‘‘Long day.’’
It was the sort of thing Nick used to say when he was thinking of something else, and the memory punched a fist beneath her heart. She missed him, missed Matty. Without them she felt so damn alone, like nobody around her got her, or cared enough to try.
‘‘And it’s going to be a long night, too,’’ Billy said, making it sound like a good thing. At her sidelong look, he elaborated. ‘‘A bunch of us are going to hit the clubs.’’ He paused. ‘‘You want to tag?’’
Dear God, no, Leah thought, but managed to stick some regret in her voice. ‘‘Sorry, I can’t. I’ve got plans.’’
He raised an eyebrow. ‘‘A date?’’
‘‘You don’t have to sound so surprised. And no, it’s not really a date. More of a friend thing.’’ With an agenda, she thought, but didn’t say.
She was going to a party at the Survivor2012 compound with Vince Rincon, a computer programmer a good fifteen years older than she, who’d been a co-worker and friend of her brother’s. They’d met at Matty’s funeral and bonded over their mutual distrust for the weirdos her brother had started hanging with over the last six months of his life. It’d been Vince who’d urged her to follow up with the warrants and searches, Vince who’d shared her frustration when they’d come up empty, and Vince who, a month earlier, had gotten them both tickets to some fund-raiser-slash-recruitment thing being held at the Survivor2012 compound, on the theory that it couldn’t hurt to look around.
At the time it’d seemed like a good idea—or, if not a good one, at least an idea, an opportunity to do something that might jump-start the stalled investigation into Matty’s murder. Now she wasn’t sure she wanted to go. Nick’s death and the forced vacation she’d gotten just after had given her some much-needed perspective on the evidence that’d led her to suspect Zipacna was the Calendar Killer.
In all honesty, there hadn’t been any actual evidence, only her gut-level dislike for Matty’s involvement in Survivor 2012. Yeah, there were similarities between the Calendar Killer’s signature—removing the victims’ hearts and heads—and the ritual sacrifices of the ancient Maya. And yeah, Zipacna and his people were certified freakazoids. But she’d gone after him because she didn’t like him, didn’t like what he stood for, not because policework said he was the killer.
‘‘A friend thing. Got it.’’ Billy nodded. ‘‘Give me a call if you get done early and want to hook up.’’
‘‘Thanks,’’ Leah said, and meant it. She doubted she and Billy would ever have the level of partnership she’d shared with Nick, but appreciated the reach-out.
Once she was in Peggy Sue and headed home, though, loneliness seeped in around the edges of her mind.
It would’ve been nice to call around and hook up for dinner or whatever, but she’d let most of her old friends slip away over the years and hadn’t made others, first because she was studying to be a cop, then because she had Nick to hang around with, and Matty. Now they were both gone, leaving her behind.
Which was why, instead of calling and canceling on Vince when she got home, as if she knew she ought to, she headed upstairs to change.
It wasn’t a date. But it was something.
Given free choice in the matter, Strike would’ve gone after the ajaw-makol alone. But since this wasn’t about just him, he relayed Carter’s info to Red-Boar and the others, so they could plan a targeted attack.
That was when the trouble started.
‘‘Absolutely not,’’ Brandt said, jaw tight. He was sitting on the love seat in the center of the great room beside his wife. The other trainees were scattered around the room, and Strike and Red-Boar stood on the raised area near the kitchen entryway. Hannah and Woody, Brandt’s winikin, had taken the twins, leaving the adults to hash things out. Rabbit sat at the back of the room, though Strike didn’t know when he’d come in. With his hoodie pulled low and his ear buds plugged in, the kid looked totally tuned out. But the glitter in his pale eyes beneath the hood suggested he was enjoying the chaos.
‘‘Excuse me?’’ Patience turned on her husband, eyes narrowing. ‘‘Strike didn’t ask you to go. He asked me.’’
Though a flicker of worry revealed that Brandt knew he was treading dangerous ground, he didn’t back down. ‘‘Think about it, hon. You’re not trained. Hell, you just figured out you can make yourself invisible—which, by the way, is very cool. But you don’t have your talent mark yet. What if the ability comes and goes until you get it? Are you willing to risk that? Think about the—’’
‘‘Don’t go there,’’ she snapped, cutting him off.
‘‘Don’t even bring the boys into it. I can make myself invisible, and I can make whoever touches me invisible. If I can help these two’’—she gestured to Strike and Red-Boar without looking at them—‘‘take care of this mako . . . well, whatever it’s called, then I will. Isn’t that what we’re all here for? To defeat darkness, save the world, all that crap?’’
‘‘You’re not doing it,’’ Brandt said, his square jaw locked mule-stubborn.
‘‘It’s not your choice,’’ Patience fired back.
‘‘Actually,’’ Strike said, raising his voice to carry, ‘‘it’s mine.’’
The room went silent.
He bit back a curse. Brandt was right—it was too soon, their talents too unfinished. But if they could kill the ajaw-makol before he got too strong they’d buy themselves more time to train.
‘‘Look,’’ Strike said. ‘‘I realize you guys don’t know me. You didn’t know my father, or, hell, even your own parents. You don’t remember how it was before, how things worked. So maybe you think there’s no real reason for you to buy into the power structure our parents lived by. But I’m what you’ve got in the way of a leader.’’ He looked from one to the other of them, ending with Brandt. ‘‘And you’re all I’ve got, so I won’t put any of you in danger unnecessarily. I swear it.’’
He waited it out, waited to see if any of his new Nightkeepers called him on his father’s choices or asked him whether he would’ve considered the attack on the intersection a necessary danger. Instead they stayed silent, shifting and looking at each other. All but Brandt, who kept staring at Strike as though assessing whether or not to trust him.
Then, finally, the other man looked away. Glancing at his wife, he murmured, ‘‘Sorry. Neanderthal moment. It’s your call.’’
Patience didn’t even hesitate. She stood and crossed to Strike. ‘‘When do we leave?’’
The Survivor2012 compound was situated on a ten-acre hump of dry land surrounded on all sides by the Everglades. Leah’s previous snoops had revealed that the single bridgelike road leading to the so-called retreat was normally guarded by a decent-size security force, along with cameras and heat and motion detectors. Tonight, though, the white-painted wrought-iron gates were wide-open, and a stream of limos and sports cars motored in, straight over the bridge and onward to follow a winding drive past artfully lit reproductions of crumbling Mayan temples.
At least, she thought they were repros. For all she knew, the freakazoids had bought—or flat-out stolen— the temples, moved them, and had them reassembled stone by stone. Because rocks could help save the world, you know.
She pulled up to the circular drive and handed off Peggy Sue to a valet, then joined the line of partygoers headed up to the mansion, where she and Vince had arranged to meet.
And it was a hell of a mansion, too. Zipacna and his cronies might be freakazoids, but they were well-funded freakazoids. The main house was set high above the swamp on built-up fill contained within a huge stone retaining wall, meaning that visitors had to climb a long, narrow flight of stone steps to reach the door. Presumably there was an easier way up, but Zipacna no doubt wanted his guests to get the full effect.
That, or he enjoyed watching them struggle with the stairs in their fancy clothes.
Leah knew she was getting the eye from a couple of male guests in their penguin suits as she headed up. She didn’t need the double takes to tell her she looked good in one hell of a little black dress, with her hair swept up in a twist, and the wink of small—but real—diamonds at her ears, throat, and wrist.
She didn’t need the looks. But they didn’t hurt, either.
Feeling her confidence kick on the hit of female power—enough, anyway, to override the small voice in the back of her head that said this was a waste of time and she should’ve stayed home—she made it to the top and headed toward the house, which was sort of a Robinson Crusoe-meets-Frank Lloyd Wright amalgam of tree house and modern. Dodging knots of people doing the handshake-and-air-kiss thing out front, she headed through the front door.
A tall, half-naked man moved to block her path.
He was wearing sandals and some sort of loincloth contraption, and had a winged croc inked across his smoothly shaved—and extremely well defined—chest. He had a black stone knife stuck through his rope belt— a prop? an artifact? she wasn’t sure—and wore a circlet of bluish white stone around his upper arm. His head was shaved bald except for a long topknot that was encircled at his scalp by a graduated stack of wooden rings that maxed him out at a good seven feet tall, and he was, incongruously, wearing a pair of designer sunglasses and an earpiece. Secret service gone pre-Columbian.
Leah stumbled back a pace in surprise, and the incoming partiers backed up behind her in a logjam of black and white.
‘‘Do you think they’re real?’’ she heard someone whisper.
Before Leah could figure out exactly what ‘‘they’’ were, the guy held out a hand. ‘‘Ticket.’’
Well, shit. Laughing inwardly at herself—what else had she expected, a blood sacrifice?—she handed it over and moved past him.
She hadn’t been involved in executing either of the search warrants, so this was the first time she’d been inside the house where Matty had spent a good chunk of his last few months on earth. So she gave herself a moment to look around.
The space was wide and open, and the walls were done up with carved plaster—at least, she hoped it was plaster—reliefs that looked like they’d been copied straight off one of the big ruins, scenes of flat-faced men playing a ball game and then being killed, their heads cut from their bodies and gouts of blood coming from the neck stumps and turning to snakes. Lovely. The room itself was packed with minor celebs, local politicos, and various members of the rich and aimless, all dressed in versions of black and white, with a daring splash of red here and there. The 2012ers were unmistakable, wearing the same loincloth-and-topknot deal as the guy at the door—in the case of the women, with the addition of a stretchy band covering their nipples.
Very tasteful, Leah thought. Not. But at the same time, she couldn’t really blame the 2012ers for pandering to the entertainment value. Miami’s elite were notoriously easy to bore.
Music played in the background, almost below the level of hearing, a complicated drumbeat that got inside her, echoing in her chest and in the floor beneath her feet. There weren’t any of the REPENT NOW! and THE END IS NEAR! posters she’d halfway expected to see based on what she understood of the Survivor2012 doctrine, which appeared to be an amalgam of the militant us-against-the -world propaganda favored by garden-variety anarchists, plus the time-frame incentive provided by their 2012 D-day and the promise that the cult members were going to lead the coming age.
Given all that, she wouldn’t have been surprised to find recruiters working the room, and a signup table at the back. Instead, the decor actually came off as sort of restful and interesting—or she thought it would have if it hadn’t been for the crowd. Or, rather, her awareness of the men.
She pretended she was scanning the scene, not looking for anyone in particular, but she knew damn well that was a crock. She was looking for him, for the warrior she’d dreamed of. The one she told herself couldn’t possibly exist.
Yet she looked for him in the crowd.
There were plenty of wannabes in the assembled group, men who caught her scan and tried to intercept. Under normal circumstances, she might’ve even given one or two of them a chance to impress her. But tonight she glanced past in search of cobalt blue eyes, dark, shoulder-length hair, and a jawline beard, and felt a beat of disappointment when she came up empty. Which was just stupid, because he was a fantasy. But still.
‘‘Focus,’’ she told herself. ‘‘Be a cop.’’
From her new sense of perspective on the whole Survivor 2012 thing—i.e., maybe Zipacna wasn’t actually the serial killer who’d murdered Matty—she could maybe see what’d attracted her brother to the group. Matty’s fiancée had broken their engagement for unknown reasons—at least, Leah didn’t know what they were, and hadn’t pressed nearly as much as she should have. His programming job had been in jeopardy due to corporate restructuring and hints of trouble at work. It wouldn’t have been the first time he’d left a job under suspicion, either. He and Leah had been diametric opposites—she was truth and justice, where he’d liked to cut corners and find the easy money, though he’d stayed out of actual legal trouble. He’d always been a bit of a follower, too, and once Cheryl had left him, he’d been in need of a leader, and some peace. He’d bumped into Zipacna at some club or another, and they’d gotten into a conversation that’d ended with an invite to the very mansion she was standing in now.
A few weeks before Matty’s death, he’d said Survivor 2012 had made him feel like he was a part of something. At the time, she’d mocked the Zipacna shtick and offered to make her brother a tinfoil hat. After his murder, she’d focused on the group of nutbags he’d joined, needing to blame someone else. Now she wished she could take back the mockery, wished she could go back in time and really listen to her brother. Wished she’d pushed him more, helped him more.
If she had, he wouldn’t have needed to turn to a group like this for a sense of family support . . . and he might not’ve been in the wrong place at the wrong time during the equinox.
‘‘A penny for your thoughts,’’ a man said from directly behind Leah.
She stiffened, then relaxed as she identified the voice. Turning and dredging up a smile, she said, ‘‘Hey, Vince. Just getting my bearings.’’
The programmer was wearing a tux as uninspired as his penny-for-your-thoughts line, and his medium-brown hair was brushed neatly—and uninspiringly—flat in defiance of its usual haphazard nonstyle. His eyes were a bland hazel, his smile unassuming as he said, ‘‘I’m glad you came. I wasn’t sure you would after the other day.’’
They’d gotten into it on the phone a few days earlier, when she’d told him her suspicions were moving away from Survivor2012. Vince had been so fervent in his insistance that Zipacna was the Calendar Killer that Leah had started to wonder if he had another agenda altogether, one that she’d gotten caught up in because she’d needed someone other than herself to blame over Matty’s loss.
‘‘I’m here,’’ she said noncommittally. ‘‘You said you wanted to show me something.’’
She was already regretting having come. Should’ve broken it off the other day, she thought. Her grief had moved past the point where she needed to lean on Vince as a connection to her brother. But as she’d started to ease away he’d gotten clingy, suggesting he wasn’t there yet. So she’d decided to stick it out a few more weeks or months, figuring she owed him a little longer in the lean-on-me department.
Besides, his background check had come back whistle-clean and he didn’t register on her cop creep-o-meter. He was just a guy who’d lost a friend, and was looking for someone to blame. Unlike her, though, he didn’t seem to be moving past his conviction that Zipacna was the serial killer responsible for Matty’s death. Not yet, anyway.
‘‘Matt told me about a special room where they perform their rituals.’’ Vince’s throat worked. ‘‘I want to check it out.’’
‘‘It was included in the last warrant,’’ Leah argued. ‘‘They didn’t find anything.’’
Actually, that wasn’t precisely true. The crime scene folk had said the room was a mosaic of semen stains, vaginal contributions, and blood—but the former weren’t illegal, and the latter hadn’t been substantial enough to suggest exsanguination, but instead had been consistent with the smaller ritual bloodlettings the members of Survivor 2012 readily admitted engaging in.
‘‘Humor me?’’ Vince’s expression went sheepish. ‘‘Look, I know you’re losing steam on this, and I understand. I really do. It’s just . . . I don’t know. I’m not ready to let go yet. I need something . . . more.’’
Because she could relate, and because she figured it’d give their nonrelationship enough closure that she could walk away without feeling too much like a bitch, she nodded. ‘‘Okay. Let’s go.’’
Keeping an eye out for security—half-naked or otherwise—they worked their way across the main room to an offshoot hallway, passing a glossy sign that told them they were headed into the Temple of Wisdom. Said temple proved to be a series of small classrooms furnished with tables and chairs, and flat-screen TVs running documentaries. There were a few partygoers in each room, and Leah slowed down enough to catch snippets of the narration as she and Vince passed.
‘‘The Maya used the tall pyramids as landmarks,’’ said the voice-over in the first room, which held five people deep in conversation. The TV showed an aerial image of three piles of rubble—presumably former pyramids— poking up from a sea of green leaves. ‘‘They could see them over the rain forest canopy, and navigate from one to the next.’’
Which was pretty clever, Leah thought as they moved on.
The screen in the next room, which had a few more people in it, most of whom seemed to be paying attention, showed a CGI rendering of the earth, sun and moon, and the narrator intoned, ‘‘. . . the Mayan Long Count calendar is based on astronomy and the end date of December 21, 2012, when the next Great Conjunction will occur. Other cultures, completely separate from the Maya, have also fixated on this date as a time of great change.’’
‘‘Guess we found the propaganda,’’ Vince said. ‘‘Come on.’’
They moved past two more classrooms—another pyramid lecture and more astronomy, or else the same films running on different schedules—and stopped when the corridor teed into another. A table blocking the hallway to the left was hung with a discreet sign that read, NO GUESTS BEYOND THIS POINT, PLEASE.
‘‘Not exactly high-level security,’’ Leah said as they squeezed past the table and moved into the corridor beyond.
‘‘The cops didn’t find anything,’’ Vince said, in what sounded a little like a dig. ‘‘Zipacna’s probably not worried anymore.’’
Or he didn’t have anything to worry about in the first place, Leah thought but didn’t say, because she just wanted to get this over with and go home. The weird vibes coming off Vince only strengthened her resolve to end their nonrelationship ASAP. The only thing keeping her going now was the memory of how fondly Matty had spoken of his friend. Vince had been there for him when Cheryl had taken off. Leah, not so much.
For that, she figured she owed the guy.
‘‘Here.’’ Vince stopped in front of a floor-to-ceiling glass-fronted case holding a bunch of worn stone statues, all stylized variations of the crocodile god Zipacna. ‘‘It’s behind here.’’
‘‘If you’re going to break something, I’m leaving.’’ Hell, she should leave now. But she stayed put as he pressed his palm against the wall and said something under his breath.
The display case swung inward on concealed hinges. The moment the door opened, torches flared to life, one at each corner of the room that was revealed in the firelight, and a trickle of water became audible. The walls were lined with stones—fake or real, she wasn’t sure—carved with row after row of glyphs. Unlike the ones out in the main room, these carvings looked more like formal writing, as though the walls could tell a story if she knew how to read the hieroglyphs. Above the writing, about chest-high, a wavy line of brilliant blue was painted all the way around the room. Above that, human skulls were carved into the stone in relief up near the ceiling. Water cascaded from each of their mouths, tumbling down to a shallow trench running the perimeter of the room and no doubt recirculating in the bizarre fountain.
In the center of the space sat a carved stone altar shaped like a man lying on his back, balancing a stone slab.
‘‘The chac-mool,’’ Vince said, indicating the recumbent figure. ‘‘Sometimes a throne, sometimes an altar.’’ He paused. ‘‘Sometimes a place of sacrifice.’’
‘‘Shit.’’ Leah stared at it, frozen. This was way freakier than she’d expected, and somehow familiar. She hated that she could picture Matty here, could picture him doing some of the stuff the task force had included in their reports, which ranged from small bloodlettings to full-on orgies, all part of prayers to a pantheon that hadn’t mattered since the fifteen hundreds, in an effort to avert a doomsday nobody sane believed in.
‘‘Come on, before someone sees us.’’ Vince pulled her inside before she could think to dig in her heels, and he let the door swing behind them.
‘‘Wait!’’ Leah spun and made a grab for the edge of the panel, but she was too late. It shut with a click. There was no latch on this side, no knob. No visible way of getting the hell out.
She whirled on Vince, anger firing. ‘‘Open it, right now!’’
‘‘Shh.’’ He put a finger to his lips and whispered, ‘‘They’ll hear us. And don’t worry; there’s a pressure pad next to the door, just like on the other side. We can get out whenever we want. I didn’t want to leave it standing open in case anyone comes this way.’’
‘‘This was a bad idea.’’ Leah pressed on the carvings beside the door, searching for the pad. ‘‘Let’s go.’’
‘‘But we haven’t—’’
‘‘I’ve seen enough. We’re leaving.’’ Nerves flared to life in her stomach, knotting against one another. A throbbing beat rose through the floor and shook the air around her, sounding like a human pulse, only too fast. Like fear. ‘‘Vince,’’ she snapped, knowing there was no real reason to panic but unable to stem the rising tide of nerves. ‘‘Get over here and get this door open. Now!’’
The throbbing grew louder, making her want to put her hands over her ears to block it out. But at the same time, it called to her, pulled at her. Tempted her. Pressure flared at the base of her brain. It wasn’t a headache, though. More like an entreaty.
What the hell was going on?
‘‘Vince?’’ she said, barely able to hear herself over the pounding rush. She took a couple of steps toward where he stood beside the altar, calm and motionless, like he couldn’t hear the drumbeat, couldn’t feel the floor heave beneath their feet.
He started toward her. ‘‘You don’t look so good. Maybe you should sit down.’’
He helped her across the chamber and propped her up against the altar while her head spun and her stomach heaved. She wanted to lie down, but she’d be damned if she was going to nap on the altar. ‘‘Get us out of here,’’ she said, and this time she heard herself, heard how weak her voice sounded. ‘‘Please.’’
‘‘I want to show you what I found first.’’ He produced a black blade, held it out to her. ‘‘Looks like it could be the murder weapon.’’
Everything inside her rebelled. Put it down, she wanted to scream as every chain-of-evidence nightmare she’d ever heard of fast-forwarded through her brain in a split second. Put it right back where you found it! Not that replacing it would fix things now. She had no warrant, no probable cause, no—
‘‘Here.’’ He handed her the knife. ‘‘Take it.’’
No, she said, only the word didn’t come out, and instead of warding him off, she found herself reaching for the blade with unsteady hands that weren’t entirely under her control. She touched the knife, grabbed onto it blade-first, and felt the edge bite into her palm. Vince started backing away as blood flowed, and she thought he whispered something in words she didn’t comprehend.
A detonation rocked the room, sending them both staggering.
Three other people appeared in the chamber with shocking suddenness, two men and a woman, wearing black-on-black combat gear and armed to the teeth with automatics and grenades. They advanced on Vince with deadly intent, their backs to Leah.
The drumbeats stopped. The world stopped. Her head cleared, rage flared, and she swung into cop mode and launched herself into the fight. She’d lost the knife in the blast, and she didn’t know if the newcomers were part of Survivor2012 or something else, but she wasn’t waiting to find out.
‘‘Vince, get the door!’’ she screamed, and lunged for the guy closest to her, aiming for a choke hold and missing because he was way bigger than she’d thought, nearly six-five if he was an inch. Sensation zipped up her arm when she touched him, arcing from his skin to hers like static electricity. She hissed out a breath but hung on and went for the choke a second time.
He countered, spun and grabbed her, flipping her in a practiced move that put her flat on her back and drove the breath from her lungs. She lay there stunned for a second, staring up . . .
... into the cobalt-colored eyes of her dream lover.
‘‘You!’’ she hissed.
Snapshot impressions bombarded her—the angle of his jaw, the piercing dark blue of his eyes, the black-on-black combat clothes that stretched across his muscular body. Reaction sizzled through her, feeling more like desire than fear.
‘‘Don’t worry; I’ve got you,’’ he said, which was ridiculous, because as far as she could tell, she should damn well be afraid of him. But somehow she couldn’t make herself protest as he helped her up and crowded her with his big body, backing her across the room. His voice was a deep, sexy rasp when he said, ‘‘You don’t want to watch this.’’
‘‘Watch—’’ Her question devolved to a scream when the other guy—older and sharp featured—pulled a MAC- 10 and unloaded the clip into Vince’s chest, point-blank. The noise was deafening, the blood spray horrific as Vince’s body jerked with the rapid-fire impact.
Leah shrieked and flung herself toward her friend, but the blue-eyed guy grabbed her and held her close while she fought and scratched, still screaming. ‘‘Easy,’’ he said over her cries. ‘‘He’s not what you think.’’
Then brilliant green light flared out of nowhere, and wind whipped through the chamber, though that should’ve been impossible. Leah stopped screaming, because a buzzing noise had taken up where the chatter of gunfire left off, rising in speed and intensity as Vince’s body slid down the wall, leaving a blood trail.
In the center of the room, the altar began to glow green.
‘‘Get over here,’’ Blue Eyes ordered his companions. He held Leah tightly against his body, and as the others approached, he said quietly in her ear, ‘‘I’m sorry you had to see that, and I’m sorry that I can’t stay and explain. Trust me when I tell you I’m keeping you safer by staying away.’’ Then the others were there, hanging on to his arms, and he said, ‘‘Close your eyes.’’
A flash of motion caught her attention, and she saw Vince pull himself up the wall and start limping across the chamber. Which was impossible. Had those been blanks? What the hell was going on? ‘‘Vince,’’ she screamed, heart pounding in her chest, ‘‘help me!’’
Then the buzz racheted up to a scream, and the world exploded.
Everything went gray-green for a second, and there was a sideways lurch. Then the air changed and a shock wave slammed into Leah and the man who held her, sending them flying. She landed first, with him atop her, driving the breath from her lungs.
She heard him curse, heard the crash of debris all around them, and realized he’d used his body to shield her from the blast. Then she heard screams and shouts and the pound of approaching feet, the sounds echoing differently than they’d been moments earlier. The air was different, too.
She felt the press of a kiss on the side of her neck, heard him whisper, ‘‘Stay safe.’’ Then his weight was gone.
‘‘How . . . ?’’ She struggled up on her elbows. ‘‘What the . . . ?’’
She found herself lying in the hallway, staring at the sign asking people not to venture into the darkened wing. Beyond that was a wall of rubble where the hallway used to be.
The warrior and his companions were gone.
Leah lunged to her feet as a mob of half-naked 2012ers and dressed-up partygoers jammed the hallway, some running toward the explosion, some away, creating a milling, screaming chaos.
With no suspects to chase, the cop inside her gave way to the woman. Grief slashed through confusion, battering her to her knees. ‘‘No!’’
She’d lost first Matty, then Nick. Now Vince. And in a way, she’d lost her dream warrior too, because there was no way she could knowingly lust after a guy who ran with killers, with terrorists who used explosives to . . . what? Make a statement? Kill a man? And what was with the green light and the noises? Special effects, or something more?
For the first time, Leah seriously considered that she might be losing her mind.
Tears welled up and sobs tore at her chest. Giving in, she bowed her head and wept for the dead, and for a reality that seemed to be falling to pieces around her.
Strike took two steps toward her before he forced himself to stop. Or, more accurately, before Red-Boar’s grip on his arm made stopping the only option.
He couldn’t pull away, because Patience needed a chain of contact in order to keep up their invisibility. But damn, he wanted to go to Leah, wanted to explain that he’d just made her safe. The makol Red-Boar had shot—and who’d triggered some sort of timed detonation from the altar—wasn’t Zipacna and had been wearing contacts that concealed his green-hued eyes, but magic knew magic. The bastard had lured her to the chamber somehow. But why? Did his master want to complete the blood sacrifice he’d begun at the equinox?
If it weren’t for the protection spell, he wouldn’t have known to teleport directly to Leah, and might not have gotten there in time. The very thought was beyond chilling.
‘‘We should bring her back with us,’’ he said quietly, low enough that only Patience and Red-Boar could hear, as the mob of partygoers filled the hallway, everyone talking at once.
‘‘Out of the question,’’ Red-Boar hissed. ‘‘Get it through your damn head that she’s not for you.’’
Strike gritted his teeth. ‘‘She’s in danger.’’
‘‘And she’ll be safer with you?’’ The older Nightkeeper let the question hang for a beat, then said, ‘‘I didn’t think so. You said it yourself. You’re protecting her by staying the hell away.’’
Was he? Strike wasn’t even sure of that anymore. His attempt to protect her by giving her space had wound up with her going one-on-one with a makol. He was going to have to do better. He just didn’t know how yet, and wasn’t about to figure it out with Red-Boar standing right next to him. All three of them might be invisible, but he could still feel the weight of the older man’s glare.
‘‘Hey, lady, are you okay?’’ a stranger crouched down beside Leah as random people milled around, some rubbernecking the debris from the blast, others talking excitedly. ‘‘Are you hurt?’’ another voice asked, and then it all degenerated into a babble of questions without answers.
‘‘Come on.’’ Red-Boar tugged at Strike. ‘‘Let’s go.’’ Strike waited a moment longer, until he heard sirens nearby, and the clipped orders of rescue personnel. Then, when he knew Leah was as safe as she could be right now, surrounded by other cops, he closed his eyes, found the travel thread, and took his people home.
The next few days were a blur of training sessions and preparations for the binding ceremony, which should’ve left Strike with zero time to worry about Leah. But somehow he managed to do exactly that.
She’d treated the makol, Vince, like a friend. He’d presumably been a second-generation critter, one created by the ajaw-makol after the solstice. There hadn’t been any sense of a second source of evil in the Survivor 2012 compound, meaning that Carter’s info had been wrong and Zipacna was somewhere else.
Shit, he didn’t know, and he didn’t know what else to have Carter be on the lookout for. He needed an itza’at, that was what he needed. A good seer—hell, even a half-assed one—could track the ajaw-makol by its magic.
If he was seriously lucky, either Alexis or Jade would get the seer’s mark during the talent ceremony, and they’d have a prayer of getting some answers.
If not, well, it was time for coloring outside the lines, which was exactly what had him leaving the mansion on the evening before the aphelion, braced for a fight.
When he reached Red-Boar’s cottage, he knocked. ‘‘It’s me.’’
After a long moment, the door swung open to reveal Rabbit in full-on sulk mode, wearing cutoffs that showed his thin calves to no great effect, and a dark blue hoodie over his T-shirt. ‘‘Yeah?’’
‘‘I need to talk to your father. Could you give us fifteen minutes alone?’’
Rabbit shrugged. ‘‘Whatever.’’
He slouched out and Strike stepped through, straight into the kitchen of the four-room bungalow. Red-Boar was sitting at the kitchen table, wearing the brown robes of a penitent.
Strike hadn’t seen him in the robes—which signified a magi atoning for great sin—in a long time. Initially, Jox had asked him to quit wearing the robes around the garden center because they made the customers nervous. After a while, Red-Boar had gotten out of the habit, and it’d been a nice change to see him in normal clothes day in and day out.
Which left Strike wondering what else in the older Nightkeeper’s psyche had backslid.
‘‘We need to talk,’’ Strike said, crossing the kitchen to rummage in the fridge. He pulled out a Coke for himself, tossed Red-Boar a bottle of water without asking, and took the chair opposite him, cracking the soda open as he did so. He drained half of it, welcoming the kick of sugar and caffeine, before he said, ‘‘We need Rabbit to make thirteen.’’
‘‘Bad idea,’’ Red-Boar said, his voice nearly inflectionless.
‘‘The way I see it, we’re better off having him on the team than not, especially after the stunt he pulled at the garden center,’’ Strike countered. ‘‘And it’s not fair to keep him out of the classes.’’
Red-Boar stared into the bottled water. ‘‘I won’t accept him into the bloodline. I can’t.’’
It was an old argument Strike and Jox had never won. But they had their theories why.
‘‘Does it have something to do with his mother?’’ Strike asked. Red-Boar had never spoken of her, had never acknowledged her existence, though the proof stood in the form of their son.
‘‘It has everything to do with his mother,’’ the older man said suddenly, his voice descending to a hiss.
‘‘Who was she?’’
‘‘Better to ask where I met her. And the answer to that would be in the highlands.’’
Strike’s breath whistled between his teeth. ‘‘Mexico?’’
Before the conquistadors drove the Nightkeepers north to Hopi territory, the magic users had coexisted with the Maya for centuries. The two cultures had lived in parallel, and maybe because of that, or because of their own fascination with the stars, the Maya had developed a magic system of their own. Some said rogue Nightkeepers had shared their magic, others that the Maya had been in contact with the nahwal, ghosts of the Nightkeepers’ ancestors, or even with the Banol Kax themselves. Whatever the source of their power, the Order of Xibalba, an offshoot cult of Mayan shaman-priests, had developed spells unlike anything the Nightkeepers had ever seen. Something they came to fear.
Members of the order had brought the Banol Kax to earth in A.D. 869. The demons had destroyed the city of Tikal before the Nightkeepers had managed to drive them back behind the barrier. In the aftermath, the cultural center of the Maya shifted to Chichén Itzá, and the Order of Xibalba had been banned.
Rumors said it had lived on in secret, though.
Strike pinched the bridge of his nose, hoping to ward off the headache he knew was in his future. ‘‘Please don’t tell me she was a disciple of the order.’’
Red-Boar said nothing.
‘‘Shit.’’ Needing to move, Strike drained the rest of the Coke, crumpled the can, and got up to toss it in the recycling bin beneath the sink. ‘‘I guess that explains a few things.’’
‘‘Exactly.’’ Red-Boar grimaced. ‘‘Order magic and Nightkeeper magic aren’t the same; we can’t know how they mixed in Rabbit. Which is why I can’t claim him into the bloodline, and why I absolutely don’t want him jacked in. If he goes through the binding ritual—’’
‘‘He’s already jacked in once with no help from us,’’ Strike pointed out. ‘‘He’s a tough kid. He’ll make it.’’
‘‘I’m not worried about whether or not he’ll survive,’’ Red-Boar said flatly. ‘‘I’m worried about what will come out on the other side. He’s already a punk. What do you think he’d be like with even more power?’’
Rabbit’s problems aren’t entirely his fault, Strike wanted to say, but he didn’t have time for an argument he knew he wouldn’t win, so instead he said, ‘‘I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to take that risk. I want him to go through the ceremony tomorrow.’’ He had to believe it would work. If not, they were stuck at twelve, and that was nowhere near a magic number.
Red-Boar’s head came up. ‘‘Is that an order?’’
He hated to do it, but he didn’t see another way. ‘‘Yes.’’
‘‘Then have at it. Your call, your responsibility. I wash my hands of the issue.’’
Having gotten what he’d come for, whether gracefully or not, Strike headed for the door. He paused at the threshold, though, and turned back. ‘‘Was that what you said to my father?’’ It was no secret that Red-Boar had argued against the attack on the intersection. He hadn’t been the only one.
The Nightkeeper’s grin held zero humor. ‘‘No. I told the king he was a damned fool following damn fool dreams.’’
‘‘Since you didn’t say anything like that just now, I’m guessing you think I’m right about binding Rabbit.’’
‘‘I think he’ll find his way to the magic regardless,’’ Red-Boar said. ‘‘I also think that even if we can bind— and control—him, there’s no guarantee the gods will count him as one of the thirteen, especially when there’s one more true Nightkeeper out there.’’
‘‘Don’t go there,’’ Strike warned. ‘‘Either Anna comes back of her own free will or she doesn’t come at all.’’
Red-Boar nodded. ‘‘And that’s where I think you’re being a damned fool.’’
After Strike-out kicked him out of the cottage, Rabbit headed for the pool, planning to swim a few hundred laps to work off the jittery burn in his chest, the one that made him do and say things he sometimes later wished he hadn’t. When he got to the pool area, though, he couldn’t settle enough to dive in. The air jangled with a strange, pent-up energy that amped him up even more than usual. He felt itchy, like he wanted to peel his skin off, starting with his toes and working his way up.
Restless, he slipped into the mansion through one of the glass sliders leading to the hall just beyond the great room. He stopped on the far side of the arched doorway and leaned against the wall, so he could watch without being seen, and listen without being asked to participate in the whole lame-ass Magic 101 thing.
Who are you kidding? he scoffed inwardly. Not like they’d ask you anyway. He wasn’t one of them—his father had made that crystal clear over the years. He’d never really said why, but he hadn’t needed to; it was all too obvious. Rabbit wasn’t the child of his precious wife, Cassie, wasn’t one of the sons he’d lost in the battle. He might be blood kin, but he wasn’t family. Wasn’t a Nightkeeper.
For whatever the hell that was worth.
Hearing the murmur of voices, Rabbit shuffle-stepped a little closer to peek around the arch. Jox was in the middle of saying something about fractal waves and computer programs—Rabbit had no clue what the hell that had to do with the barrier and magic—when he broke off and turned, his eyes looking on Rabbit. ‘‘You want in on this, kid? You could tell these guys what it’s like to jack in.’’
Anger flashing that the winikin was making fun of him, teasing him with stuff he wasn’t going to be taught to do properly, Rabbit sneered. ‘‘Yeah, right. Screw you.’’ He flipped the bird, spun on his heel, and headed back down the hall, moving fast.
And ran smack into Strike-out.
Strike gave him The Look, which was one of the few royal things he did really well. ‘‘Apologize.’’
A hundred or so smart-ass responses popped into Rabbit’s head, but for a change he managed to control his mouth. He turned, shuffled back to the arched doorway leading into the great room, and mumbled, ‘‘Sorry, Jox.’’
Strike’s heavy hand landed on his shoulder. ‘‘Now do what he asked you to do. Describe what it’s like to jack in.’’
Rabbit lifted a shoulder. ‘‘You can’t describe it; you’ve just got to do it.’’ Besides, he wasn’t sure he could put the terror—and the elation—into words. So instead he said, ‘‘After you get your second mark, if you’re lucky you’ll be able to do stuff like this.’’ He snapped, and an amber flame sprang from his fingertips.
He knew he was pushing it, doing things he wasn’t supposed to be able to do. Instead of barking at him, though, Strike said, ‘‘Not bad. But with a little teamwork, you can do this.’’ He held his larger hands on either side of the small flame and boosted the power.
The flame turned royal red and erupted to a fireball the size of Rabbit’s head.
The teen reeled back, banging into the big man behind him. Power danced across his skin and burned in his blood, making him want to throw his head back and scream with the mad glory of it.
Then it was gone.
For a few seconds, there was utter silence in the great room. The newbies’ eyes were big and it didn’t look like they were breathing.
Strike lowered his hands, letting them drop to Rabbit’s shoulders. ‘‘You shouldn’t be able to call fire without training,’’ he said quietly.
‘‘So sue me,’’ Rabbit said, equally quiet, totally buzzing with the aftermath of the boosted power.
Strike pushed him forward. ‘‘Go on; get in there. You may think you know everything already, but trust me, you don’t.’’
Unprepared for the shove, Rabbit stumbled forward a few steps, then spun. ‘‘What are you saying?’’ He couldn’t quite keep the pitiful hope out of his voice.
Strike nodded yes to the question he hadn’t asked. ‘‘You’ll be part of the ceremony tomorrow.’’
Shock hammered through the teen. ‘‘No way the old man is going to let that happen.’’
‘‘I’ve taken care of that,’’ Strike said, then paused. ‘‘I think you should move into the main house. It’ll make the training easier if everyone’s in one place.’’
Rabbit’s mouth went dry. ‘‘He kicked me out of the cottage?’’
‘‘No.’’ Strike shook his head. ‘‘No, never think that. He’s just trying—has always tried—to do right by you. Believe that, even if it doesn’t always make sense. But things have changed, and they’re going to keep changing, and I want you to be a part of it.’’
A quick suspicion nagged at Rabbit, itching across his skin, but he ignored it because he was finally—finally!— being offered a chance at some real, honest-to-gods, sink-your-teeth-into-it training. Strike was offering to bind him, to—
He gulped as a thought occurred. ‘‘What . . . what will my mark be?’’
Red-Boar had never accepted him as his son. Would the barrier see him as a member of the peccary bloodline, or as something else?
Worse, what if the barrier didn’t recognize him at all?
‘‘I’ll see you through it,’’ Strike said, which wasn’t an answer, but was kind of reassuring, regardless.
Rabbit’s chest felt funny when he nodded. ‘‘Yeah . . . okay. Um. Thanks.’’
Strike’s eyes were very serious and a little bit sad. ‘‘I should’ve done something like this a long time ago.’’
That funny feeling spread up Rabbit’s throat and itched at the back of his eyeballs, and to his utter horror he realized he was about to cry. " ’S okay," he mumbled, and reversed course to push past Strike and head for the john.
Halfway there, he turned back and sniffed. ‘‘Tell him . . . please tell Jox that I’ll be right back. And not to start without me.’’
Then he locked himself in the bathroom, turned on the water, and bawled like a baby.
For several days after Vince’s death and Leah’s subsequent suspension for blatantly disobeying orders to ‘‘stay the hell away from the 2012ers,’’ she functioned on autopilot.
She grieved, but it was like there’d been so much grief lately that she’d worn out those neurons, making her numb and angry rather than sad. So she ate too little, slept too much, and spent the rest of the time sitting at her kitchen table, surfing the Internet, and trying to make some sense of it all.
On the morning of the Fourth of July, she dragged her ass out of bed midmorning, stumbled down from the attic, where she still slept beneath the stars. When she hit the button on her Mr. Coffee, a fat yellow spark jumped from her fingertip to the machine, and electricity arced with a sizzle and a yellow flash.
Leah shrieked and leaped back, her arm vibrating with the shock and her heart giving a funny bumpity-bump in her chest, as if whatever’d just happened had kicked it off rhythm.
Hello, static electricity, she thought, though the air was humid and her floors weren’t carpeted. But what other explanation was there?
Mr. Coffee didn’t so much as gurgle when she hit the ON button, suggesting that she’d fried something vital, so she went with tea for her morning caffeine hit as she powered up her laptop and glanced at her notes from the day before.
The Calendar Killer had taken twelve victims that they knew of, two at each equinox and solstice over the past eighteen months, with the exception of the previous month, when the summer solstice had passed without new victims.
Granted, Nick had died that day, but the signature was completely different; the only connection was the ritualistic nature of the Calendar murders, which might or might not point to the 2012ers, and the fact that she and Nick had been waiting for info on the leader of Survivor2012.
Chicken and egg or coincidence? Damned if she knew.
Then there was Vince’s death. Guilt twisted tight when she pushed herself to remember exactly what’d happened. She should’ve insisted that he leave the investigation to the task force. Hell, she should’ve left the investigation to the task force. If she had, Vince would still be alive.
Then again, if they’d left it alone, the task force wouldn’t be taking another look at Survivor2012.
The explosion seemed to have been aimed at the heart of the group, their ceremonies. The Calendar Killings could—although this might be stretching it a little—have been intended to throw suspicion on the group. Which might mean the killer wasn’t necessarily a member of Survivor2012. He could be its enemy.
The thought brought a flash of piercing blue eyes, the image of a big man who had moved like a fighter and bombed a charity gala, yet had somehow gotten her out of a locked chamber before it blew.
Logic said she’d gotten blown clear by the shock wave. But the door had been shut, and even if it’d been open, the shock wave would’ve splatted her on the opposite wall rather than taking a right-hand turn and dumping her in the main hallway.
Logic also said that the dreams were nothing more than a pastiche of her experiences over the past few months, a way for her subconscious to deal with the pain. But the skulls in the older dreams had screamed a blast of water rather than a trickle, and the blue-eyed warrior had worn cutoffs rather than combat fatigues. And rather than a murderer, he’d been her lover.
It didn’t make sense. None of it did.
But she sure as hell intended to figure it out. For Matty. For Nick. For Vince.
For her own sanity.
Ignoring the tea that cooled at her elbow, she got to work. She wasn’t looking for the names and faces of people who might want Survivor2012 gone for good— the task force was already on that, and with a ton more computer power than she had at her disposal. No, she was coming at it from another angle.
She was trying to figure out what made the doomsdayers tick. Maybe it was partly because, if she accepted the 2012ers as the victims rather than the perps, that meant Matty hadn’t been stupid for joining them, meant she hadn’t been irresponsible for letting her brother run with the crowd that’d killed him. Maybe it was because the snippets she’d caught from the 2012ers’ educational programs had been oddly compelling. And maybe it was an effort to understand her own response to the dark-haired stranger.
Whatever the source of the compulsion—obsession?— she worked through the day, bent over her computer until her eyes burned and her joints ached and her head buzzed with strange words that made more sense to her than they ought.
She didn’t get dressed until midafternoon, didn’t have lunch until four. And when darkness fell, she kept working.
As the stars prickled to life overhead, she discovered an author named Ambrose Ledbetter who seemed to know more than all the rest, or maybe he just put it in words that a nonexpert could understand. Either way, his articles seemed to synthesize all the information, ask all the right questions. Ledbetter had written in an article published just before the Calendar Killings began:
Thompson’s elucidation of the Long Count calendar of the classical Maya gives an end date when the backward-counting calendar will reach zero. Mc-Kenna identified complementary patterns buried in the Chinese I Ching also pointing to a paradigm shift on the same day. He called this shift ‘‘Timewave Zero.’’
Although the end-time prophecy may seem like the realm of historians (or perhaps only pseudoscientists) , recent discoveries suggest otherwise. For one, quantum physicists have identified a degenerating mathematical fractal pattern that will reach its endpoint on the exact date cited in the ancient texts. Perhaps more persuasive is the supported astronomical fact that on that same day, the sun, moon, and earth will precisely align at the center of the Milky Way in a Great Conjunction the likes of which occurs only once every twenty-six thousand years.
This alignment is predicted to trigger devastating sunspots, shifts of the magnetic poles, and changes in the orbit of the Earth itself, all of which will have heightened effects due to mankind’s progressive destruction of the ozone layer. In sum, therefore, both ancient prophecies and modern science combine to predict that the total and catastrophic destruction of our world will occur on December 21, 2012. Legend holds, however, that this destruction may be averted by—
A knock at the door had Leah jolting. She’d been so into the research that she hadn’t heard the sound of a car, or footsteps coming up the drive. But the interruption was probably a good thing, she realized as she stood and the room took a long, lazy spin around her. She needed to move around, get her blood pressure above ‘‘hibernate.’’
When the knock came again, she called, ‘‘Be right there.’’
The floor seemed to move beneath her feet, swaying, and the air hummed faintly off-key. She had a hell of a headache—when had that started? She didn’t remember. The pressure began at the base of her skull and radiated upward, somehow seeming more like desire for something forbidden than actual pain. It also felt familiar, though she couldn’t have said why.
When she reached the door, she left the security system armed and checked the peephole. She saw Connie standing there, looking sleek and stylish even after a full day of work, and faintly irritated by the wait.
‘‘One sec,’’ Leah called. ‘‘Let me kill the alarm.’’
She also took a detour through the kitchen and shoved her computer and the messy pile of printouts into a cabinet. No reason to let Connie know she was working on her own—that would only slow her return to active duty.
An obsessed cop was a cop without perspective.
Which was true, Leah acknowledged as she headed back to the door and disarmed the security system. But an obsessed cop also sometimes saw stuff the others missed.
Giving her appearance a once-over in the hallway mirror, Leah pulled open the door. ‘‘Hey, Connie. I was just—’’
The world went luminous green. Then black.
Something was wrong. Strike didn’t know how he knew it, or what exactly ‘‘it’’ was, but the wrongness hummed over his skin alongside the aphelion’s power as he and Jox finished prepping the ceremonial chamber for the binding ritual.
The room was located on the top floor of the mansion, roughly in the center of the sprawling footprint of the big house. It was one of the few spaces they’d left alone during the renovations, mainly because the altar itself was set in a cement pad containing the ashes of nearly seven generations of Nightkeepers. There was serious magic in the room, serious power.
And seriously weird vibes, Strike thought, frowning as he counted the tapers—lucky thirteen—and assured himself that the stingray spines, knives, parchments, and bowls were all set out and ready to roll. ‘‘Why do I feel like we’re forgetting something?’’
Jox glanced over, raising an eyebrow. ‘‘Like you’ve done this before?’’
‘‘That’s the point—I haven’t. So why the willies?’’ Strike rubbed his chest, where a strange pressure burned. ‘‘Maybe I just need some Pepto.’’ Or a beer.
Jox crossed in front of the large chac-mool altar to grip his shoulder. ‘‘You’ll do fine.’’
‘‘Thanks.’’ Strike glanced up through the transparent glass roof of the sacred chamber. The reflected firelight from the tapers meant he couldn’t see the stars winking into existence high above, but he could feel them, just as he could feel the lines of power shift into place as the aphelion drew near. ‘‘I feel . . . jumpy.’’
‘‘Hormones,’’ the winikin said. ‘‘They’re going to ramp up during every conjunction for a while, until you’re really solid in the magic.’’
‘‘In any other lifetime, having your father figure tell you, ‘Don’t worry, you’re just horny,’ would seem weird,’’ Strike said. ‘‘But I find myself oddly reassured. Probably explains why I haven’t been able to get Leah out of my head all day.’’
Jox made a face, but kept working his lint brush over the royal crimson robes Strike would wear for the ceremony. ‘‘That Alexis, you know . . . she’s a knockout. Blond, edgy . . .’’
‘‘Don’t start.’’ Strike’s jumpiness flickered toward temper.
‘‘Mating with another Nightkeeper will boost your power by double, if not more.’’
‘‘And who gives a crap if I spend the rest of my life miserable?’’
Jox waved him off. ‘‘Tell it to Dr. Phil.’’
Strike gritted his teeth so hard he thought he felt a molar give. ‘‘You don’t know the first thing about how I feel.’’
‘‘The hell I don’t,’’ Jox snapped, tossing the lint brush and whirling to face him. ‘‘Get your head out of your ass and look around.’’
Strike fought the anger, fought the power as the planets aligned and the barrier thinned, and his gut told him he was missing something major. ‘‘Watch your step, winikin.’’
Jox’s voice cracked around the edges when he said, ‘‘Do you honestly think this is the life I would’ve picked? I wouldn’t have traded raising you and Anna, but gods. Don’t tell me I don’t know what it means to want someone and not be able to go after her, and don’t you dare think you’re the only one making a sacrifice.’’ He jabbed a finger toward the door. ‘‘Never mind me. Including the winikin, there are fourteen people out there who dropped their lives to come here because they knew it was the right thing to do. Have you stopped to think for a second what they walked away from? Whether they want to be here? No, of course not, because it’s their duty to be here; it’s in their bloodlines. Well, guess what? Same goes for you, only double because you’re Scarred-Jaguar’s son. Get used to it.’’
‘‘Why, because you did?’’ Anger and worry rode Strike, had him lashing out. ‘‘Leah is mine. Just because you didn’t go after your woman doesn’t mean I can’t have mine.’’
‘‘She’s not yours!’’ the winikin shouted. ‘‘She’s human.’’
‘‘Did you ever wonder why you didn’t go after Hannah years ago?’’ Strike asked, aiming low when he used the story Jox had told him in confidence. ‘‘Did you ever stop to think that maybe you liked the idea of her more than the reality? That she was a pretty fantasy, but the reality would’ve been too messy? That—’’
Jox punched him in the mouth, splitting the crap out of his lip.
Strike reeled back, tasting blood as the winikin stalked out, slamming the door.
‘‘Damn it!’’ Strike took a couple of steps after him, then stopped when the door opened once again and he saw the others standing there, wearing blue trainees’ robes and looking pretty freaked.
Way to go into the ceremony nice and focused, he thought. Shit. And he wasn’t even dressed.
‘‘I’ll be back in five minutes,’’ he said, grabbing the red robe and bundling it under his arm. ‘‘Get comfortable. Or something.’’
Booking it to the pool house, he stripped out of his jeans, shirt, and briefs, and pulled on the ceremonial regalia Jox had dug out of storage. The floor-length robe had long, pointed sleeves and a draping hood, with the edges encrusted with small, intricately carved shells. The fabric was bloodred. Royal red, for the last of the royal line.
With it went a feathered headdress that fit close to Strike’s scalp and hung down in the back, gaudy with feathers and jade. Last but not least, he pulled three jade celts out of the pocket of the robe. Working by feel, he hooked the flat, carved ovals so they hung down in front of his nose and cheeks, distorting his profile and making it—according to legend—look more like that of a god.
Always before when he’d donned the ceremonial regalia, he’d felt thoroughly silly, as if he were getting ready for Halloween. But now, barefoot and commando beneath the heavy red robe, wearing something that looked like a bad roadside souvenir on his head when he glanced in the full-length mirror inside the pool house bathroom, he didn’t see an idiot.
He wasn’t sure what he saw, exactly. The guy looking back at him seemed like a stranger, like someone out of another time. Then he got it, and a shiver took hold in his gut, making him think the reflection in the mirror might be the source of his unease.
Because, gods help him, all of a sudden he looked like his father.
He felt a twinge when he said, ‘‘Let’s just hope I got more of the good parts of him than the bad.’’
He’d loved his father, worshiped him the way only a nine-year-old boy could. But at the same time, the king had singlehandedly wiped out an entire civilization. Not exactly a proud legacy. Then again, Strike wasn’t exactly proud of himself at the moment, either. Jox was right: He had a duty. Everything else had to take a backseat for the next four years, even Leah.
Especially Leah. Seeing her the other day—having her recognize him, and then realizing that she’d somehow come back into the ajaw-makol’s orbit—had gotten him thinking about fate and the gods again, about destiny and how many times their paths needed to cross before he’d admit they were meant to be together.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t about whether they were destined for each other. It was about the prophecy, the future. And in the immediate future, he needed to get his head off the woman and into the ceremony.
Scrubbing a hand across the back of his neck, where the creepy-crawly feeling of not-quite-rightness had settled in, Strike took a deep breath and headed back to the mansion, reminding himself that tonight wasn’t about him. It was about the trainees, and their bloodline marks. It was about the continuation, however tenuous, of the Nightkeepers.
In the ritual chamber, the trainees were ranged shoulder-to-shoulder in a loose semicircle facing the altar. Rabbit, smaller and darker than the others, stood on one end, slightly apart from the group. Patience and Brandt were at the other end. Although they already had their bloodline marks, Strike wanted them to have an escort for their first official jack-in. Besides, he might need their power for an uplink if things went wrong. It didn’t happen often, but newbies sometimes went missing in the barrier. When that happened, it was up to their escort to go find them. Which begged a question— where the hell was their second escort?
‘‘Where’s Red-Boar?’’ Strike asked as he stepped to his place beside the altar. If the bastard was boycotting because Rabbit was included in the ceremony, he’d—
‘‘I’m here,’’ the older man said, appearing in the doorway wearing his ceremonial robes, which were black and worked with intricate patterns of stingray spines and boar’s teeth. ‘‘I . . .’’ He paused, staring at the chac-mool . ‘‘Never mind.’’
Strike winced, realizing that while he’d never been part of the chamber rituals as a child, the older Nightkeeper no doubt had plenty of memories in the room. His own talent ceremony. His wedding. The barrier ceremony for his twin sons. Ouch. Serious ghosts.
Without another word, Red-Boar took position on the other side of the altar. ‘‘Proceed.’’
Strike nodded, feeling the power hum. ‘‘Let’s do it.’’ He rolled up the right sleeve of his crimson robe, baring his marks. Red-Boar followed suit, baring his. Then the trainees did the same, showing that they had no marks.
Strike passed the bowls, parchment scraps, and spines and gestured for the trainees to sit. Once they’d all assumed cross-legged positions, he said, ‘‘Okay, gang. Follow my lead, and no matter what happens, try not to panic. If we get separated, stay where you are. Red-Boar or I will come find you.’’
He picked up his bowl and set it in the hollow formed by his crossed legs. It was the king’s bowl, made of sand-smoothed jade and carved with glyphs spelling out the king’s writ. Touching the bowl, he sent a quick thought toward the heavens. Gods, please help me not fuck this up. Not the most eloquent of prayers, maybe, but he’d never pretended to be a poet. He was just a regular guy with a few upgrades.
Laying a square of parchment in the bottom of the bowl—okay, technically it was high-grade card stock from Staples, but it wasn’t the paper so much as the symbol—Strike picked up his stingray spine, braced himself, and drove it into his tongue. Pain slapped at him, then again when he ripped the spine free and blood flowed into his mouth. Shit, that hurt.
He opened his mouth, letting the blood fall into the bowl, where it soaked into the paper. Once the others had followed suit, he lit his taper, then touched it to the one held by the trainee beside him, Patience. The flame was passed from one to another, coming full circle until Red-Boar touched his lit candle to Strike’s, completing the circle.
Then, moving as one, they set the blood-soaked pages aflame and snuffed their candles as acrid smoke rose. They leaned in. Inhaled the smoke. And said in unison, ‘‘Pasaj och.’’ The world lurched and went gray-green, then solidified. And they were in. Or, rather, he was in.
Strike found himself standing in the middle of nowhere and everywhere at once, on a soft, yielding surface, with nothing but mist around him, eddying in random swirls created by an unseen wind. Either the others hadn’t made it into the barrier, or they’d landed somewhere else.
‘‘Hello?’’ He looked around wildly. ‘‘Red-Boar? Patience? Anyone?’’ His shout fell dead on the mist. There was no echo, no response.
He was alone.
Leah awoke in her own attic, lying spread-eagled on the futon mattress beneath the skylight. For a second, looking up at the stars and somehow feeling them hum in her bones, she thought everything was okay, that her stomach was in knots because of a strange dream.
Then she tried to move. And couldn’t.
Fear jolted as a hazy memory returned: that of seeing Connie on her doorstep but opening her door to someone else, someone she hadn’t seen clearly. Then a flash of green, then nothing.
Heart pounding, Leah tugged at her arms and legs and found them held fast in doubled-up zip ties threaded through eyebolts sunk into the sturdy attic floorboards. She had no leverage; the plastic cut into her skin but didn’t give. She was alone, but heard the heavy tread of footsteps downstairs. She had to think. Think!
She looked around for a weapon, a plan.
The knife, she thought. She’d brought a carving knife up from the kitchen; she didn’t know why. And, wonder of wonders, it was still sitting in the bowl where she’d left it, half buried beneath a parchment diary.
But it was a good four feet away from the outstretched fingertips of her left hand. ‘‘Damn it,’’ she whispered, frustrated tears pressing in her throat. ‘‘Come on; you can do it. Get the knife.’’
She squirmed and strained, tugging against the zip ties until blood slicked her wrists and ankles. The pain hazed her vision yellow-gold, and her head pounded with what felt like a sinus headache times a million. The room spun and the golden light brightened, though it was night out and the room was lit with the single beeswax candle.
The footsteps sounded again from below, and this time they were headed her way.
Come on, come on. She reached toward the knife, fingers straining, her entire attention focused on the black resin handle.
And the knife moved.
The rational part of Leah gaped, but the rest of her, the part that belonged to the yellow-gold pressure inside her mind, kept straining, kept concentrating, panicking as the ladder leading up to the attic creaked.
Come on! she thought, only the words that formed in her head didn’t sound right, didn’t sound like English at all.
Half a second later, the knife slid out from underneath the diary and floated across the floorboards as if it were swinging on an invisible string, coming to rest against her bloodstained palm.
Impossible, she thought, even as she grabbed the knife and twisted her hand, jamming the blade beneath the zip ties and sawing frantically. That didn’t just happen. Yet somehow she had the knife.
Working fast, she cut her left hand free, then her right, and was working on her feet when the trapdoor lifted and swung all the way open, and a slightly built man appeared, wearing jeans and a cartoon-covered T-shirt, walking backward up the ladder because he was carrying something bulky in his arms. A carved wooden chest, to be exact.
The zip ties gave, and she stumbled to her feet, lunging toward the guy as he hit the top of the ladder and turned. Her brain froze at the sight of filed-sharp teeth and a hollow earplug. It looked like her ex-snitch, Itchy Pasquale, except that his eyes were a bright, luminous green. An impossible, glowing green that should’ve existed only in the movies. But though her brain cramped with horror, her body kept moving. She hit him waist-high, and her unexpected attack drove them both across the attic floor.
Cursing, Itchy dropped the carved chest and grabbed her blood-slicked wrist in a bruising grip. He twisted her arm up and back with one hand and raised his other hand to her head. The press of a gun muzzle had her stilling.
‘‘Don’t make me kill you,’’ he said, his voice rasping in her ear. ‘‘Don’t—’’
She screamed and twisted away from the gun, then reversed and slammed her knife into the side of his neck. He howled and ripped the knife free, reeling back and losing his grip on the gun.
She grabbed the weapon—a good-size Glock—and came up straight into Itchy’s fist. The punch drove her away from the trapdoor, away from freedom.
Tasting blood, she fell against the wall, dazed. Pain was a dull roar, overtaken by the command of a strange voice inside her, one that shouted, Get the chest!
Itchy swiped at the side of his neck, and his hand came away red with blood. His face contorted and he came at her with the knife. ‘‘Fucking bitch!’’
Shaking, she struggled to her feet and unloaded the Glock into his face at point-blank range. Blood sprayed, bone shattered, and unidentifiable gristle chunks spattered her in the blowback. Someone was screaming, and it took a second to realize it was her, shouting curses and prayers and sobs, all mixed together as she ran through the clip.
Itchy’s body—it had to be a body, because there was no way anything could survive with its head hamburgered up like that—hit the back wall and slid down, drawing a gory streak.
Shaking, sobbing, she bolted for the ladder, her only thought to escape, to get free, to get somewhere, anywhere far away. Then her eyes locked on the carved chest, which sat near the trapdoor. Yes, the voice inside her said. Open it.
‘‘I don’t know how,’’ she whispered. There was no latch, padlock, or keyhole, no obvious way to get the thing open.
Yes, you do.
No, she didn’t. But somehow she did. She held her torn wrists over the lid and waited for a few drops of blood to fall. When they did, she whispered, ‘‘Pasaj.’’
She didn’t have a clue what it meant or where it’d come from, but it worked. The trunk opened, not by the boring old lock-and-lid method, but by freaking vaporizing, puffing out of existence as though it’d never been. Inside the box lay a square packet wrapped in oilcloth and tied with a shoelace. It glowed red and resonated a high, sweet note in her soul.
Mine, Leah thought, and reached for it. Her fingers closed over the packet, and cool heat radiated up her arm as she tucked the thing into the back pocket of her jeans. Her headache snapped out of existence, and the pressure disappeared as though it’d never been, leaving a silence inside her head that crackled with electricity, with power. With urgency.
She had to get out of there, had to get away. She hadn’t heard any other footsteps down below, but kept the empty Glock at the ready, figuring it’d be good for intimidation if nothing else.
She was halfway down the ladder when a heavy weight slammed into her from behind.
Screaming and fighting for balance, she pitched forward and landed hard, rolling onto her back as she scratched for freedom, trying to struggle out from underneath her attacker.
Itchy’s ruined face loomed over her, which was just unbelievable. He shouldn’t still be alive. But as she watched, the flesh started knitting back, eyes and tendons re-forming, meat growing out to cover regenerating bone. Impossible! she screamed in her head, but knew it wasn’t a dream. It was real.
Shrieking, she jerked a knee up between them and tried to break free, but he was too strong. She couldn’t get any leverage as his fingers closed over her throat and bore down. Her windpipe folded closed under the pressure, and her consciousness dimmed.
Help, she cried in her skull. Help me!
Damn it! Strike’s mind raced as he looked around the featureless mist of the barrier, searching for the others.
What’d gone wrong? What had—No, never mind that, he told himself. Just go back and get them. If they were already jacked in, he should be able to tap into Red-Boar’s connection and follow from there.
Closing his eyes, he envisioned his corporeal body still sitting cross-legged in the ceremonial chamber back at the training center.
Without warning, red-gold light flared behind his eyelids, and power thrummed through him on a high, clarion note of alarm. Everything inside him froze.
The protection spell had activated. Leah was in immediate fear for her life.
‘‘Leah!’’ he shouted, rage and anger coalescing in his soul. ‘‘Hold on!’’ He closed his eyes, thought of her, grabbed onto the travel thread that appeared in his mind’s eye, and—
His mind raced. Leah needed him, but so did the trainees. Given that he’d gotten knocked off course within the barrier, what was to say Red-Boar hadn’t gotten his ass lost, too? The trainees might be alone, stuck somewhere, unable to get back. But Leah was in danger.
Nightkeepers before mankind, the king’s writ said. Mankind before family and personal desire. But the gods were before all else, and it couldn’t be a coincidence that Leah’s trouble had hit during the aphelion, could it? What if she were still connected to the god somehow?
Caught between the two, Strike stripped off the heavy headdress and tipped his head back so he could say to the gray sky, ‘‘Gods, I know I haven’t been the best about my prayers, but please hear this one. Please help me make the right choice.’’
‘‘Go to her.’’ The words came from everywhere and nowhere at once, in an amalgam of many different voices, all speaking at once, though at different pitches.
Heart jamming his throat, Strike looked around. ‘‘Who said that?’’
Nearby, a human-shaped shadow darkened the mist. It was tall and broad, in the way of all Nightkeepers, but stick-thin, as if the muscle and substance had melted away. It solidified out of the fog, a man yet not a man, with nut-brown skin drawn in tight wrinkles over bones and sinew, and gleaming obsidian orbs instead of eyeballs. On its right inner forearm, it wore the mark of the jaguar bloodline.
‘‘Nahwal,’’ Strike said quietly, heart thudding against his ribs as he tried to figure out whether he should bow or run. The nahwal of each bloodline embodied a small piece of all the ancestors from that line—not their personalities, but fragments of their wisdom and sight. The creatures lived—if you could call it that—in the barrier and showed themselves when they chose, provided information when they chose. They weren’t supposed to have distinguishing marks, save for their bloodline glyphs. But as this one approached, Strike saw the glint of a bloodred ruby in its left ear.
Chest tightening, he touched his own left ear, where the piercing he’d gotten in his teens had long since grown over. ‘‘Father?’’
‘‘The others must find their own way,’’ the many-voiced voice said without inflection. ‘‘Go now, or the woman dies.’’
The mists thickened, and it was gone.
‘‘Wait!’’ Strike took two running steps toward where the image had been, then slammed on the brakes when the surface beneath him shifted. The ground—or whatever the hell it was—under his feet fell away, sliding like quicksand, or soil running into a growing rift, drawing him with it. The mists around him shifted from green to gray, warning that he was far too close to the edge of the barrier.
‘‘Shit!’’ Backpedaling, he scrambled to solid ground, then stood, chest heaving with exertion, with the desire to shout, What the hell is going on?
But he didn’t have the time for more questions. Leah didn’t have the time. And though he knew the nahwal could’ve been wishful thinking, that he could be following his father’s steps into the place where delusion became reality, he couldn’t—just couldn’t—leave her to die. So he was going to have to screw the writs and go with his gut.
Closing his eyes, he pictured Leah. Grabbed the travel thread.
And made the selfish choice, hoping to hell it was the right one.
Leah wrestled with Itchy’s choke hold, growing weak as oxygen dimmed and her consciousness flickered. Panic kicked alongside an overwhelming sense of déjà vu, as though she’d suffocated before, died before. Only she hadn’t.
Please help, she screamed in her mind, arching against her attacker in mindless terror, in supplication. Please!
There was a sharp crack, and a huge ripping noise filled her upstairs hallway with sound and light and wind. The next thing she knew, the blue-eyed guy was there, wearing a seashell-dotted red robe that should’ve made him look foolish but instead made him look like a warrior from another time, a modern samurai.
He took one look at the situation, and his face contorted with terrible rage. He grabbed Itchy by his bloodstained shirt and pants, hauled the bastard off her, and slammed him into the wall. There was a sickening crack, and Itchy’s ruined head flopped sideways.
The blue-eyed man lowered the body to the floor. Then, incredibly, horribly, he reached for the knife that’d fallen free during the struggle.
‘‘No!’’ Leah surged forward when she saw his intent. ‘‘Don’t!’’
‘‘It’d be better if you don’t watch,’’ he said without looking at her. A muscle pulsed at his jaw, and his face was tight with something that might’ve been remorse, might’ve been repugnance, but neither of those emotions made sense. It wasn’t like anyone was forcing him to . . .
Cut. Itchy’s. Heart. Out.
Leah knew she should run, or better yet, slap a set of cuffs on Blue Eyes and call for backup. But she didn’t move. Couldn’t move.
Once he was finished with the heart, he went to work on the head, hacking grimly through Itchy’s neck and spinal cord with the rapidly dulling knife, gagging once or twice. The earthy, tangy scent of blood hung thick in the air, and the dark wetness soaked his robes and coated his hands to the elbows, and he looked miserable as he stood and looked down at the mutilated body. Then he spoke a word that made no sense and sounded like a cat urping a hairball.
And the body burst into flame—not normal fire, but a greenish purple flame that twisted with black and shed no heat. It looked like sickness. Like evil. And Leah couldn’t stop staring at it.
The fire burned for a few seconds, then flashed so high she had to close her eyes and turn away, shielding herself. When the light dimmed she looked back to find that the body was gone, as was the gore that’d splashed the hallway and walls only moments earlier. Blue Eyes was clean of blood. But the deed he’d just done was written on his face, and in his eyes when he turned to her.
When their gazes connected, electricity seared through her as it had that morning when she’d zapped Mr. Coffee, only so much stronger. Something shifted inside her, realigning the universe and leaving everything just a little bit different than it had been before.
‘‘Are you okay?’’ he asked, his voice a harsh rasp, as though he’d been through seven kinds of hell getting to her. Only that didn’t make any sense. He’d been in the house all along, hadn’t he? He was one of them, had turned on them for some reason. That was the only way he fit into the ‘‘enemy of the 2012ers’’ theory on the terrorist attack that’d killed Vince.
But she hadn’t heard his footsteps, Leah realized, her brain spinning perilously close to panic. He’d appeared out of nowhere, out of thin air. And she’d made a carving knife fly. The body and blood spatter had disappeared.
Even stranger—and more dangerous—golden heat kindled in her core, and a lurching twist of raw lust threatened to overshadow her better judgment. She was dangerously attracted to this man. This murderer who’d butchered her informant in front of her and acted like it’d been the right thing to do. She wanted to be with him, felt like she already had, already knew what it would feel like.
‘‘Wh-what’s going on?’’ Her voice shook on the question, but she didn’t care.
He stared at her for a long moment, as though weighing an enormous decision. Then he held out his hand to her. ‘‘Come on. I’ll show you.’’
His sleeve fell back to reveal four symbols tattooed in stark relief on his forearm, symbols that should’ve meant nothing to her but seemed familiar, as though forgotten memories were struggling to break through some invisible barrier. She stared at the marks, then at him, then asked in a whisper, ‘‘Did you kill my brother?’’
He shook his head slowly. ‘‘I had nothing to do with Matty’s death.’’
She froze, gut twisting. ‘‘How did you know his name?’’
‘‘A private investigator told me.’’ He kept his hand outstretched. ‘‘I’ll explain everything. I promise.’’
And though she knew she absolutely, positively shouldn’t trust him, shouldn’t go anywhere with him, what was her other option? There were things going on here that made no sense, that weren’t going to lend themselves to Internet searches and policework. She owed it to the dead to follow through. And damn, she wanted to go with him, wanted him, though that made the least sense of all.
Knowing it was probably a very bad decision, she nodded. ‘‘Okay, start talking. If I like what I’m hearing, I’ll let you show me whatever you want to show me.’’
‘‘It doesn’t work that way.’’ He crossed the distance between them and took her arm. ‘‘I’m sorry.’’
She pulled back instinctively. ‘‘Sorry for— Aaah!’’ The question devolved to a scream as the world disappeared and they lunged upward, catapulting through a thick gray mist as though they were at the end of a yo-yo that’d just reversed course. She was still screaming as they jolted sideways, then down, and the mist blinked out of existence, leaving them suspended in a glass-ceilinged, circular room that bore way too much of a resemblance to the ritual chamber in the Survivor2012 compound.
Leah’s brain took a snapshot in the second they hovered. Eight blue-robed figures were seated in a loose circle below them, with wooden bowls perched in their laps. She recognized one of the women and the black-robed man who knelt before the carved stone altar. They had accompanied Blue Eyes to the 2012ers’ compound; Black Robe was the one who’d shot Vince.
A smaller, older guy in jeans and a T-shirt stood near an open door. He was the first one to notice them, his attention jerking to the ceiling and his mouth going round in shock. Then the yo-yo string snapped, and Leah and Blue Eyes fell right in the middle of the circle.
He landed first and then Leah hit, driving the breath from both of them. They just lay there for a few heartbeats, staring at each other. Then reality returned— unreality returned?—and she scrambled off him, her heart jackrabbiting and her breath whistling in her lungs as she tried to suck in enough oxygen to get her brain back online.
‘‘Holy shit,’’ she whispered, looking around the glassed-in room to the night beyond, where high rock walls and a faint glow of dusk suggested she’d skipped a couple of time zones in the blink of an eye. Or traveled through time. Or both.
She felt Blue Eyes move up behind her, and knew it was him without turning to look because of the fine warmth that vibrated across her skin. ‘‘Easy, Blondie,’’ he murmured next to her ear. ‘‘Don’t freak-out on me.’’
‘‘Cops don’t freak.’’ But she was damn close to it as she looked at the blue robes and realized not one of them had moved. Black Robe hadn’t twitched either. In fact, none of them had responded to her and Blue Eyes’s arrival except the older guy near the door, who was doing a good impression of a guppy.
The expression quickly morphed to that of a pissed-off guppy when the guy closed his mouth, glared at her rescuer, and snapped, ‘‘We discussed this.’’
Blue Eyes set his jaw and got big. ‘‘The choice is made, winikin. Deal with it.’’
‘‘Wait a minute!’’ Leah turned on him, heart pounding, feeling like she’d stepped out of her own life and into someone else’s. ‘‘What discussion? What choice?’’
Before Blue Eyes could respond—if he was even intending to—the other nine people, the ones sitting on the floor like they’d been frozen there, snapped out of it, all simultaneously drawing convulsive breaths and coming back to life as though someone had thrown a switch.
The ones in the blue robes looked dazed as shit, shaking their heads and staring around as if they’d been someplace else and were happy to be back. In contrast, Black Robe, older and tougher and seeming just as pissed off as the guppy, shot to his feet, glanced at Leah, and immediately looked like he wanted to kill someone. Again.
He was maybe a few years younger than Jox, and had a Last of the Mohicans thing going on, with a skull trim, hawk nose, and eyes that would’ve done any predator proud. He looked scary as hell, in a don’t-want-to-meet-him -in-a-dark-alley-without-backup way. But when he crossed the room and got in Blue Eyes’s face, the two men seemed evenly matched in brawn and charisma. And pissed-offedness.
‘‘What the hell were you thinking?’’ Black Robe spat. ‘‘Two escorts means two escorts. As it was, I got kicked off course and had to come back here and follow them. If I hadn’t, they would’ve died in there. All of them. How dare you leave them like that to go chase tail? What the fuck kind of kingship is that?’’
Leah’s chest tightened, not at being called a piece of tail—hell, she’d been called worse—but at the reference to royalty, which underscored that she’d somehow wound up exactly where she’d vowed not to go—deep inside Cultsville. If this wasn’t an offshoot of Survivor 2012, then it was something similar, and at least two of its members were killers.
Yet she wasn’t nearly as afraid as she ought to have been, as though the fear and unreality were blunted somehow by the golden warmth that fuzzed her brain.
She glanced up at her dream warrior, who had taken a protective stance a little in front of her, as though he thought Black Robe might hurt her. ‘‘King?’’ she asked in a voice that sounded smaller then she’d intended.
‘‘Call me Strike,’’ he said without looking at her.
The name struck a chord, as though she’d heard it before, but the memory was gone before she could grab onto it.
‘‘I saw my father,’’ Strike said to Black Robe. ‘‘He told me to go to her. That you and the others would be okay, but she’d die if I didn’t go.’’
Black Robe’s breath hissed out. ‘‘You’d risk your people for another vision?’’
‘‘Don’t start. Besides, you got them back.’’
‘‘Barely.’’ Black Robe’s eyes flicked over to the blue robes. ‘‘There were . . . complications.’’
Some of the blue robes were still blinking stupidly, while others were shoving up their sleeves and staring at black tats on their forearms. The youngest of them, a pale teenager, sat apart, both forearms bare.
‘‘Speaking of complications,’’ Leah interrupted, putting herself between the two men so she could get in Strike’s face. ‘‘You promised me an explanation. You can start with where we are and what the hell is going on.’’
‘‘What is that?’’ The sharp question came from Black Robe.
Leah turned. ‘‘What?’’
At first she thought he was staring at her ass. Then she realized he was locked onto the oilskin packet jammed in her back pocket.
She pulled it free, feeling a little queasy when the red glow spread from the packet to her arm. ‘‘I got it from the guy Strike here killed and then vaporized. It was in a trunk of some sort. Trunk didn’t glow red like this thing, though.’’ She looked from Strike to Black Robe and back. ‘‘You guys want it? Start talking.’’
‘‘You can see the red?’’ Strike asked, his expression going intent.
‘‘That’s what I said, isn’t it?’’
Strike looked at Black Robe. ‘‘Lose the blocks.’’
The older man shook his head. ‘‘Bad idea.’’
‘‘Lose. The. Blocks.’’
Black Robe scowled and looked at the smaller man, the one Strike had called winikin. ‘‘What do you think?’’ he asked, as though winikin meant ‘‘arbiter of common sense’’ in whatever fucked-up universe she’d stumbled into. At the other man’s slight nod, Black Robe crossed to her and touched her forehead, then spoke a few words.
Something clicked in Leah’s brain. A rushing noise filled her ears.
And she remembered everything: Nick’s death, Zipacna holding her prisoner in the Mayan temple, Strike rescuing her, the water filling the chamber, her nearly drowning. His kissing her awake.
She stood there, frozen in place, staring at Strike, and all she could think was, Holy shit. Because he wasn’t just a whacked-out doomsday freak with above-average sex appeal and some tricks she hadn’t even begun to process.
He was also her lover.
Strike saw it in her eyes, the moment he went from ‘‘weird guy wearing nothing but a red bathrobe’’ to the guy she’d had raunchy, no-holds-barred sex with approximately five minutes after the first time she’d laid eyes on him. Which would have been right after the ajaw-makol had tried to cut her heart out of her chest with a stone knife and she’d subsequently drowned and been reborn.
Not to mention the part where she’d dreamed of him coming to her in her attic bedroom, only it hadn’t been a dream.
When the color drained from her face and she swayed, he stepped forward to catch her if she went down. ‘‘Easy there. Lots to take in.’’
But she didn’t go down. She pulled back, swung from the shoulder, and punched him square in the mouth.
Strike reeled back, cursing and clapping a hand to the lip Jox had split an hour earlier. Not that he could blame her—he figured he’d earned that and more.
‘‘How dare you?’’ she hissed, then winced and dug her fingers into her scalp, massaging beneath the white-blond hair he’d dreamed of. ‘‘Ow, damn it.’’
He crossed to her and caught her arm when she sagged. ‘‘Postmagic hangover. You need to eat something and get some sleep. Then we’ll talk.’’
Even though her eyes were practically crossed with the pain-fatigue of the hangover, she glared up at him. ‘‘Take me home.’’
He knew he should do it, wipe her one more time and take her home. But that just wasn’t possible. ‘‘I can’t,’’ he said. ‘‘You’re not safe in Miami anymore.’’ They had come after her again, and not just because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He wasn’t letting her out of his sight until he figured out why.
‘‘And I’m supposed to take your word that I’m safe here?’’
‘‘I’m guessing a promise wouldn’t get me very far,’’ he said drily.
‘‘I’ll take it anyway.’’ She paused. ‘‘Along with the MAC-10 you were packing the other night. With one of those under my pillow I’ll sleep fine.’’
And she’d put some serious holes in anyone who disturbed her, Strike warranted. He wasn’t too keen on having an autopistol loose in the mansion, and knew that Jox would tear a strip out of him if he agreed, but he couldn’t blame her for wanting the protection.
Besides, she’d be unconscious for the next half day or so, whether she liked it or not.
He raised a hand as if he were pledging allegiance. ‘‘I swear that you’ll be safe here tonight.’’ He didn’t dare promise beyond that, and saw her register the qualifier. ‘‘As for the autopistol’’—he nodded to his winikin—
‘‘Jox will take care of that.’’
The winikin glared at him. ‘‘What does she mean, ‘the other night?’’
‘‘Later,’’ Strike grated out. ‘‘Christ.’’ His head was starting to pound, too, and the room had a pretty good spin going on. ‘‘We all need to eat and have some—’’ He broke off. He’d been about to say, ‘‘have some sex.’’
Maybe it was the aphelion, maybe having Leah nearby, all blond hair and edgy attitude, standing up for herself even though she was so far out of her depth she could barely see the surface. But suddenly, he wanted nothing more than to take her somewhere private, where none of the others would matter, where nothing would matter but the two of them and the heat they created together.
Hello, pretalent hornies.
Trying to banish the sex buzz he was getting off the blue robes, Strike grated, ‘‘Jox? Please show Leah where she’ll be staying.’’
‘‘And that would be . . . ?’’ the winikin asked coolly.
The pool house, Strike almost said, because he wanted her in his space, wanted her within reach. But he didn’t dare keep her so close, not with the hormones in the air. ‘‘Put her in the royal quarters.’’
Jox’s jaw was locked tight, though Strike didn’t know if it was solely because he was pissed, or if he was also picking up on the do-me vibes that were flying around the room, thicker with every passing minute.
Sweat popped out on Strike’s brow, and he was careful not to touch Leah when he waved for her to follow the winikin. ‘‘Go ahead. Jox will take care of everything, including the MAC. Get some food in you, get some rest, and I’ll scrounge some clothes for you. When you’re feeling steadier, we’ll talk.’’
‘‘Okay.’’ Leah nodded. Her eyes were starting to glaze a little, though he wasn’t sure if it was the shock and postmagic hangover, or if she was picking up on the vibes. She shouldn’t be able to, because she wasn’t a Nightkeeper. But then again, she shouldn’t have been able to tell that there was anything special about the oilskin packet she clutched in one hand as she followed Jox from the room.
Strike hoped like hell that the packet contained a fragment from one of the old spellbooks. There was no other explanation for why it glowed red—royal red. He’d wanted to ask her for it, wanted to commandeer it, but she needed to keep it for now, needed to trust that he wouldn’t take it by force. Besides, assuming it was one of the lost spells, they couldn’t do anything with it right now. Not without a translator.
For the moment, its greatest strength would be helping him convince Red-Boar and the others that the gods well and truly meant for Leah to be involved with the coming battle. Then it’d be up to him to figure out how to manage that without endangering her further.
Step one, he thought as he watched her leave, keep your hands off her. Which was going to be far easier said than done. He’d already touched her, already tasted her. He’d heard the sexy catch of her breath against his skin, and knew what it felt like to come inside her.
And it couldn’t happen again, or she was dead.
THE VENUS CONJUNCTION
Alignment of the Sun, Earth, and the planet Venus, which was the morning star used by the Maya to predict the equinoxes and solstices.
Deep in the bowels of the art history building at UT Austin, Lucius Hunt was hunched over his desk, hard at work. Okay, technically he was in his first-floor office, but it was nearly three a.m. and pitch dark outside, so it was feeling bowelish. Or maybe that was his total, utter lack of success at deciphering the line of Mayan text that sat on his computer screen, mocking him.
‘‘I can’t tell if the damn skull is grinning or screaming. ’’ He hunkered down in his desk chair until he was eye level with his laptop screen, but all that did was give him a crick in his neck. Sometimes being tall sucked.
Thanks to fifteen hundred years’ worth of tropical weather at the ruins of Chichén Itzá, the Mayan glyphwork was badly eroded. If he adjusted the contrast, he could distinguish what looked like a skull carved inside the outline of a jellyfish, but that could make it any one of twenty-plus glyphs he’d accumulated for his thesis on the end-time prophecy, depending on what the damned skull was doing. Digital comparison to other symbols in the text had allowed him to narrow his options down to grinning or screaming. If the skull was grinning, he’d found himself an ode to Jaguar-Paw Skull, the fourteenth ruler of the ancient Mayan city. Boo-ring.
But if it was screaming . . . if it was screaming, he was looking at something seriously important, a discovery that could blow the lid off the prevailing theories on the end-time. If the skull was screaming, then the zero date on the Mayan Long Count calendar wasn’t a metaphor for social change at all. It was a prophecy, just like the doomsday nuts kept saying. A warning.
His boss, top Mayanist Anna Catori, didn’t believe the world would end on the day the backward-counting calendar zeroed out. She and the rest of the naysayers chose to ignore the modern astronomers who’d discovered that the zero date on the Long Count calendar was the same exact day the earth would pass through the precise center of the Milky Way galaxy while in conjunction with the sun and moon.
Half the astrophysicists Lucius had interviewed said there was a good chance that the earth’s magnetic poles would flip abruptly on that day, making north become south and south, north. The other half said that was bullshit. There seemed to be a general consensus, though, that the sun-moon-earth conjunction in the galactic center was likely to spark the sort of sunspot activity that hadn’t been seen in twenty-six thousand or so years, since the last time there was a meta-conjunction like this one.
Oh, and by the way, twenty-six thousand years ago, the magnetic poles had flipped, and the earth had actually owned an ozone layer capable of protecting it from the sunspots.
The question was, how much of this had the ancient Maya known, and—and here was where Anna kept accusing Lucius of straying over into the tinfoil-hat zone— what was with the handful of inscriptions he’d found that mentioned the Nightkeepers, a secret sect of warrior-priests supposedly sworn to protect the earth when the zero date came?
Ergo, the screaming skulls.
Excitement buzzed through his veins, alongside the caffeine from the six-pack of Mountain Dew he’d downed since midnight. With T minus six weeks and counting to his thesis defense, he needed one more find, one last bit of oomph to put him over the top and counteract his less than stellar disciplinary record at UT. This could be it.
‘‘Come on, baby. Scream for me.’’ He clicked a few keys on his laptop and swapped the colors over to a deep, vibrant purple, which he’d found sometimes popped details the other views washed out.
The result was a purple jellyfish containing a lavender skull that looked like it was snickering at him.
‘‘Son of a bitch.’’ He pushed away from the desk and scrubbed his hands over his eyes, which burned with fatigue and too many hours at the computer. When he blinked against the sting, he saw his favorite skeptic standing in the doorway to his tiny office.
Anna was a dark-haired beauty in her late thirties, lovely and sad-looking, with the most gorgeous blue eyes he’d ever seen in his life. She was wearing jeans and a clingy blue shirt a shade darker than her eyes, with the sleeves rolled up over the forearm tattoos she didn’t like to talk about. One was a perfect representation of the Mayan balam glyph, representing the sacred jaguar, the other the ju glyph of royalty. Together, they were dead sexy, at least as far as Lucius was concerned.
When she didn’t move from the doorway, didn’t say anything, he started to think he was having a waking fantasy, the kind where she’d glide across the room, haul him down to the desk, and make love to him amidst his thesis notes.
Then she scowled. ‘‘Don’t you ever sleep?’’
Not a dream, then. Bummer.
Lucius glanced at his watch. Three fifteen. Over the past few months he’d been sleeping less and less, kept awake by dark dreams and a strange, growing restlessness. ‘‘What makes you think I’m not just getting a really early start on tomorrow?’’
She pointed to the line of empties on his desk. ‘‘I count six dead soldiers, and you’re wearing yesterday’s clothes.’’ She paused, her expression softening. ‘‘Go home and sleep, Lucius. I don’t want to see you back here before noon. You’re no good to me if you burn out before the ink dries on your doctorate.’’
"But I found—"
‘‘Go.’’ She crossed the room, pulled him out of his chair, and shoved him toward the door. ‘‘It’ll still be here in a few hours. One nice thing about the study of an ancient civilization is that life-threatening emergencies are rare.’’
The sentiment was so un-Anna-like that he paused. ‘‘Is everything okay?’’
She avoided his eyes. ‘‘Everything’s fine. I want to get a jump on things before the grant vultures descend this afternoon.’’
‘‘Don’t bullshit a bullshitter, Anna.’’ Talk to me, he wanted to say. Tell me what’s wrong. I’ll listen; I want to help. But he didn’t go there, because she’d already let him know in so many little ways that she was flattered, but not interested in a student nearly ten years her junior. Rumor said her marriage to Dick Catori of the economics department was on shaky ground, but she left that at the door. At least, she usually did. Tonight, she seemed to waver, seemed to lean toward him for half a second.
Then she straightened and shook her head. ‘‘It’s nothing you can help me with.’’
Her eyes softened to the you’re so cute look he hated like poison, and she nudged him toward the door. ‘‘It’s not your fight. Go home.’’
Lucius didn’t like the thought of her sleeping at the lab because things had gotten bad with the Dick, but he’d just look like an idiot if he invited her to his place, a shared apartment furnished in Early Roach, so he said, ‘‘Call me if you change your mind.’’
‘‘I will,’’ she said, but they both knew she wouldn’t.
‘‘See you in a few hours.’’
‘‘Not before noon, or I’m docking your stipend.’’ He shot her a grin. ‘‘Can’t threaten me. Half of nothing’s still nothing.’’ But the moment the door swung shut at his back, his smile faded.
What was going on? She’d been distracted lately, worried by more than just the grant committee. A bubble of anger worked its way through his normal calm. If the Dick was giving her grief, he’d . . .
You’ll do what, he thought bitterly, tell on him?
Lucius was two inches taller and a good fifty pounds lighter than his younger brothers and his father, who were all cut in the Hunt mold of dark, handsome, and built. Lucius looked more like his mother and sister, and while light and willowy was gorgeous on them, he looked more wussy than willowy, and doubted Anna’s ex-linebacker husband would be impressed.
He’d have to try another angle, then. So, think, he told himself as he crossed the narrow bridge at the front of the art history building. What does Anna need?
The question bumped against the twitchiness deep inside him, and he glanced up at the waning moon overhead. He could swear he felt the night in his bones, a subsonic itch that added to the restlessness.
His mother used to say he should’ve been born in another time, when he could’ve lived the quests he read about and played on VR games. But neither books nor games were enough, had never been enough. He wanted to do something, be something more than a scrawny glyph geek who was constantly getting himself in trouble more through accident than design.
Going on instinct, he doubled back, circling the outer edge of the dark, seventies-style building until he reached the window of Anna’s first-floor office. The window was closed but the room was fully lit. Trusting that the darkness at his back would shield him from view, he squelched the guilt and peeked in.
He saw his laptop open on the desk, with the monitor switched to a deep crimson that really popped the line of glyphwork he’d been working on. The red showed the skull screaming, clear as day. But that wasn’t what had Lucius freezing in place.
It was the sight of Anna, slumped in her desk chair with her eyes closed and blood trickling from the corner of her mouth.
Leah awoke midafternoon, with a serious crick in her neck from having slept on a MAC-10 autopistol and a profound wish that she’d open her eyes and find that the last few weeks—hell, the last year and a half—had been a really twisted dream.
But when she did the eyes-open thing and found herself in a sumptuous bedroom with tall ceilings, thick carpets and drapes, and a faintly impersonal Native American- themed decor that practically screamed ‘‘high-end hotel,’’ she had a strong feeling the weirdness was just beginning.
As the events of the night before came clearer in her mind, she was sure of only one thing: She was way out of her jurisdiction.
The red-rock canyon walls visible beyond the wide bedroom windows suggested the Southwest, and what she now remembered of the explanation Strike had given her in the Mayan temple—after they’d had total-stranger sex—suggested she’d stumbled into a cosmic-level battle that went well beyond the MDPD.
It should’ve been utterly ridiculous even to consider that any of what she’d seen—or thought she’d seen— was real. But what was the alternative? Hallucination? Insanity? It felt way too real, and her online searches on the Survivor2012 doctrine had made it sound like an awful lot of experts—including real scientists, not just doomsday nuts—agreed that something wonky was going to happen at the end of 2012. And if she believed the Maya had predicted the zero date a few thousand years ago, was it such a stretch to believe that there was a religious component to it all?
‘‘But religion isn’t the same as actual magic,’’ she said aloud. ‘‘An astronomical event isn’t the same as gods and demons battling for control of the earth.’’
In order for her to believe what Strike had told her about the Nightkeepers, she had to accept that the 2012 apocalypse was going to boil down to a battle between good and evil, and while that might make a hell of a movie, it didn’t do much for her in terms of common sense. She was a cop. A realist.
‘‘There’s no such thing as magic,’’ she said. But she didn’t sound convinced, even to her own ears, because if there was no such thing as magic, how did she explain all that she’d seen and done recently?
A tap on the door interrupted her thoughts, which was a relief, because they weren’t getting her anywhere. Scrambling out of the plush, king-size bed, she pulled on her bloodstained clothes and fastened her belt loosely enough that she could jam the MAC beneath it. Exiting the bedroom, she crossed an equally opulent sitting room, taking note of the attached kitchenette and a short hallway beyond, leading to what looked like a solarium and a few other closed doors.
Forget upscale hotel. Apparently she’d rated a small condo.
The main door to the suite was actually a set of double doors, both elaborately carved with the same sort of glyphs Strike wore on his arm. At the thought of the marks—and the man—Leah’s skin warmed, anger at his deception tangling with desire. The churned-up heat had her voice sharpening when she opened one of the doors. ‘‘Yes?’’
Jox stood there, his lived-in face tight with disapproval as he held out a small pile of clothing, with a pair of sneakers on top. ‘‘They’ll be too big for you.’’
She bristled to meet his ’tude. ‘‘Better than bloodstains. ’’ She took the clothes before he could snatch them back. And what the hell was his problem? It wasn’t like she’d asked to get herself dragged into this mess. She’d just been doing her job.
More or less.
He bowed stiffly. ‘‘Aj-winikin.’’ Then he turned on his heel and strode off, somehow making his faded jeans and long-sleeved shirt look like livery.
‘‘Wait,’’ she said quickly. She needed more info, needed to figure out if these people—these Nightkeepers—were the real deal, and if so, whether they were the good guys or the bad. She wanted to believe Strike, wanted to trust him. And that was a serious problem, because her track record really sucked in the picking-trustworthy-men-for-relationships department.
Jox turned back with a scowl. ‘‘What?’’
‘‘What is that?’’ Leah asked. ‘‘Aj-winikin. What does it mean?’’
‘‘It means, ‘I am your servant,’’’ Jox replied. ‘‘That’s what I am, a winikin. A servant.’’
She shook her head, not buying it. ‘‘That might be the translation, but you’re nobody’s servant. What does it really mean?’’
That got her a considering look. ‘‘The winikin look after . . . people like Strike and the others. When they’re children, we help raise them, teach them, guard them. When they’re grown we act as . . . I guess you’d say their conscience. We’re the little voices that sit on their shoulders and give advice when things are going to hell.’’
‘‘You have no idea.’’
‘‘Dude.’’ She risked a smile. ‘‘I blew up my coffeemaker yesterday morning, got kidnapped in my own house, shot the bejesus out of an ex-snitch and couldn’t keep him down, and then got my butt teleported from Miami to canyon country. Oh, and I seem to have acquired a one-nighter I forgot about . . . and he’s some sort of king.’’ She paused. ‘‘I think I’ve got a pretty good idea.’’
‘‘You haven’t the faintest clue,’’ he said, but there was more pity than snark in his voice.
‘‘They’re the Nightkeepers,’’ she said. ‘‘They’re supposed to save the world.’’
His eyebrows lowered. ‘‘He told you?’’
‘‘Yes and no. He told me, but then he made me forget it. Other things back home made me wonder about the 2012 date, though.’’ Like a cult that didn’t act like a cult, and a friend of her brother’s who’d insisted she keep digging. Shoving aside the guilt and grief—for the moment, at least—she pantomimed typing. ‘‘I’m hell on wheels with Google. I started pulling up papers by an Anna Catori out at UT Austin, talking about how the end of the Mayan Long Count calendar doesn’t symbolize the end of the world; it’s just a metaphor for cyclical social change, sort of a cosmic reset button. But then there’s this guy Ledbetter, who seems to think that it predicts full-on armageddon. And I got to thinking . . . what if he’s the one who’s got it right?’’
‘‘Anna is Strike’s sister.’’
Hello, non sequitur. Whatever Leah might’ve expected Jox to say, that wasn’t it. But it was information. ‘‘And she doesn’t believe in any of . . . this?’’ She waved a hand around them both. ‘‘That doesn’t make sense.’’
The winikin shifted from one foot to the other, as though he needed to be somewhere else, or really wished he did. ‘‘It’s a long story.’’
He sighed. ‘‘Twenty-four years ago, Strike and Anna’s father had a vision that said he could prevent the end-time by bringing together all of the Nightkeepers for an attack on their enemies, the Banol Kax.’’
When he paused, she said, ‘‘They all died.’’ At his sharp look, she lifted a shoulder. ‘‘He mentioned it. Besides, it’s a hell of a big house for, what, a dozen people, most of whom are under the age of twenty-five? And it’s been gutted recently. Doesn’t take a cop to do the math and figure out that something big and bad— Oh.’’ She broke off, wincing when her mental connect-the-dots reached the center of the spiral. ‘‘His parents.’’
‘‘All of their parents, and the rest of the children, gone.’’ He snapped his fingers, though his expression robbed the gesture of any play. ‘‘Just like that. We are all that remains.’’
And the winikin had saved Strike and raised him, Leah realized. That was the dynamic. They might be master and servant on the one hand, but they were parent and grown child on the other. Complicated, like everything else she’d suddenly dropped ass-first into.
‘‘You want more, you’ll have to ask him yourself,’’ Jox said, turning away, and this time she knew he wouldn’t come back if she called his name.
So instead she said softly, ‘‘Why does he live in the pool house?’’
He paused and half turned, so he was in profile to her. ‘‘When Scarred-Jaguar led his attack on the intersection, we thought we were safe here, the winikin and the children.’’ He paused, and there was exquisite pain etched in the lines of his face when he said, ‘‘We were wrong. I got Strike and Anna to the royal family’s safe room and we waited it out.’’ He lifted a shoulder. ‘‘Strike recovered okay, more or less, but Anna . . . didn’t. She left for college and never looked back.’’
Leah didn’t know what to say. She looked around the suite, which was pleasant, but sterile. Impersonal. ‘‘This was where his parents lived.’’ It wasn’t a question.
‘‘Their things are in storage. I’m hoping—’’ Jox broke off. ‘‘Never mind.’’
Tell me, she wanted to say. I want to know everything. I need to figure out what’s real and what isn’t, and how I fit into this. You’re worried about him; I can tell. But why? Is it just me or is there something else? But she didn’t have the right to ask, because this wasn’t her world. Despite what had happened between her and Strike, he wasn’t hers. Not really.
So she didn’t ask. Instead, she reached into her back pocket and withdrew the oilskin packet. It still glowed red, though the luminescence was muted, as though the power had dimmed. She held it out. ‘‘Here. He should have this.’’
Jox looked at her for a long moment, measuring her. Then he nodded. ‘‘Thank you.’’ Taking the packet, he tipped his head in an almost-bow.
Before he could leave, she said, ‘‘Wait, please. Last question, I promise.’’ Even though there seemed to be no end to the questions.
‘‘What,’’ he said, tone resigned.
‘‘What are they?’’ she said. ‘‘What does Nightkeeper mean?’’ It wasn’t the most important question, but suddenly it was critical for her to know the answer.
‘‘The Mayan shaman-priests who oversaw the calendars were called the Daykeepers, because they protected the smaller prophecies and kept the calendars moving from one day to the next. Strike’s ancestors watched over the nights and kept the Banol Kax from coming through the barrier between the planes. That was their job, is their job,’’ he corrected himself, then said, ‘‘Strike and the others are the last of the Nightkeepers.’’ He paused. ‘‘Do yourself a favor and remember that you’re not one of them.’’
Strike woke late afternoon, groggy as hell. But once he was oriented, he couldn’t keep down the buzz of knowing Leah was nearby. He shouldn’t want her, couldn’t have her, but his body didn’t seem to give a crap about any of that.
Changing into jeans and a ratty Metallica T-shirt, he made tracks for the kitchen and did a postmagic calorie replacement by chugging a half gallon of OJ straight from the jug—with a quick look to make sure Jox couldn’t see him and bitch about backwash—and chowing a package of provolone that was probably intended for dinner.
Once the first pangs had passed and he could focus better, he noticed the oilskin packet propped up against the saltshaker. Which meant he wasn’t going directly to Leah. He had another stop to make first.
He slid the packet across the marble countertop so it rested directly in front of him. Then, slowly, half-afraid of what he might—or might not—see, he untied the string and pried up a corner of the oilskin. The first layer gave way to a second, then a third before he uncovered the makol’s treasure.
And a treasure it was. ‘‘Holy shit.’’ He’d had a hunch based on the glow, but seeing it for real . . . that was different.
The piece of fig bark was the size of two hands held side by side, and was covered with the smallest, most intricate glyphwork he’d ever seen. He didn’t have a clue what it said, but he could feel the latent power humming through his fingertips, and it was the red of the royal Nightkeepers, not the purple-green of the makol.
‘‘Thank you, Father,’’ he whispered. Then, refolding the protective covering, he tucked the packet inside his T-shirt, next to his skin, and went in search of Red-Boar.
He found the older Nightkeeper in his cottage, sitting at the kitchen table in his brown penitent’s robes with a Coke in one hand and a hunk of cheddar in the other.
The moment Strike’s foot hit the kitchen tile, Red-Boar scowled and snapped, ‘‘Why did you do it? Why did you abandon your people and go after the woman? What the hell were you thinking?’’
Snagging a Coke for himself—like the OJ hadn’t spiked enough sugar into his system—Strike dragged out a chair and sat. ‘‘I told you. I saw my father.’’
‘‘Like you saw the woman in your dreams.’’ It wasn’t a question.
‘‘Yes. No.’’ Strike popped the top of the soda and took a drag. ‘‘I saw him in the barrier. Technically, I saw a nahwal wearing his earring. It told me to go to her, and I saw her thread. When I grabbed it, wham, I was there. She and a makol were fighting—she’d done a damn good job on him, but not enough.’’
Red-Boar’s eyes went sharp at the mention of a makol. ‘‘It survived the explosion?’’
Strike shook his head. ‘‘Different one.’’ Which meant the ajaw-makol had made more of itself. Question was, how many more? Had the two they killed been the sum total, or were there others out there? Knowing they were going to need all the power they could get to deal with the issue, he pulled out the packet and set it on the table in front of the older Nightkeeper. ‘‘Open it.’’
Red-Boar unfolded the oilskin. The moment he saw the codex fragment, his expression went dark. ‘‘Shit. We need a translator.’’
‘‘I know.’’ Strike grimaced. ‘‘I hate asking her for this.’’
‘‘Anna’s going to like it even less.’’
Strike let the silence linger for a moment before he said, ‘‘I want you to take it to her. She’ll listen to you.’’
That earned him a baleful look. ‘‘You just want me out of the way so you can—’’
‘‘Don’t,’’ Strike said sharply, interrupting. Then, more softly, ‘‘Don’t. I’m doing the best I can, and I need you to back me on it.’’
‘‘Let’s not go there. I need you. The newbies need you.’’ Strike chugged the rest of his Coke, tossed it toward the recycle bin, and missed.
‘‘You need me when it’s convenient to have someone backing you up,’’ Red-Boar said evenly, ‘‘but not when I disagree with you, or remind you you’re not the only one of your bloodline to make bad decisions based on a dream.’’ When Strike would’ve said something, he held up a hand. ‘‘Let me finish. It was your choice to put Rabbit through the ritual, and I think we both know his magic is probably what pulled us away from the trainees and nearly got them lost for good. His power isn’t the same as ours, never will be. Trying to make him into a Nightkeeper is only going to end badly.’’
‘‘So we should ignore him?’’ Strike snapped. ‘‘Do you hate him that much?’’
The corners of Red-Boar’s mouth tipped up, though there was no amusement in his expression. ‘‘Trying to derail the argument by striking your opponent’s weak spot? That’s not like you. More like my style.’’
‘‘Is he your weak spot?’’ Strike countered. ‘‘I couldn’t tell from the way you’ve raised him. Gods, you didn’t even give the kid a real name!’’
Something flickered in the older Nightkeeper’s eyes. ‘‘I’ve done what I’ve done for a reason. Never doubt that.’’
‘‘Whatever.’’ Strike pushed away from the table and stood, annoyed that he was so close to losing his temper, irritated that they hadn’t really settled anything, frustrated that—
That was it, he realized. He was frustrated, and it had far less to do with Red-Boar than with the knowledge that Leah was nearby. He might’ve already had his talent ceremony, might’ve passed beyond the binding-hormone madness, but that didn’t mean he was oblivious to the vibes in the air. Shit. It was going to be a long couple of months.
‘‘Go see Anna,’’ he said to Red-Boar.
The older Nightkeeper sighed and touched the codex fragment, and for a moment he looked almost . . . sad. ‘‘As you wish.’’
‘‘Give her this.’’ Strike reached into his pocket and withdrew a long, thin chain. At the end dangled a yellow quartz effigy carved in the shape of a skull, its eyes and teeth worn smooth from the touch of generations of itza’at seers.
Anna had left the effigy behind the day she took off, making them promise not to come after her, to leave her alone so she could live a normal life.
Red-Boar’s eyes fixed on the pendant, but he shook his head. ‘‘Keep it. I can’t be the one to give it back to her.’’
Strike let the skull hang for a moment, then nodded and tucked it in his pocket. ‘‘I’ll see you when you get back. We’ll talk then.’’
‘‘Sure,’’ Red-Boar said, but his body language all but shouted, You’re an idiot.
Strike let the cottage door slam at his back, not because he was mad about any one thing, but because he was mad about everything. He was stirred up, juiced up. He wanted to run, wanted to howl at the moon like he hadn’t since he was a teenager.
And then he saw her, sitting on a plastic deck chair beside the pool.
Leah. Waiting for him.
She rose to her feet when she saw him. Her borrowed jeans were belted on and cuffed at the bottom, and she was wearing a crimson scoop-necked T-shirt that was baggy in front—Alexis’s clothes, probably. Her long white-blond hair was slicked back in a no-nonsense ponytail, and there was a dark shadow along her jaw where a bruise was starting to come through. Her expression was guarded and wary, her eyes cool. Cop’s eyes.
He had quite literally never seen anything so beautiful in his entire life—and he was pretty sure that was the man talking, not the magic or the gods.
He approached, stopping a few feet away from her. ‘‘Hey.’’
‘‘Hey, yourself,’’ she said back, and they stared at each other for a long time. They’d been lovers but they didn’t know each other. Didn’t know how to talk to each other.
‘‘Well,’’ he said finally. ‘‘This is weird.’’
Her voice held a bite of temper when she said, ‘‘Which part of it, the part where your people killed Vince, the part where we’ve had two separate sexual encounters and only one semicoherent conversation? Or . . .’’ Her voice went unsteady. ‘‘The part where I dreamed about you before I met you, made a carving knife fly, and freaking teleported from Miami to the middle of the desert?’’ Whispering now, eyes dark with confusion, she said, ‘‘That’s not possible. None of it is.’’ But it was more of a plea than a statement of fact.
Strike had gone still. ‘‘Tell me about the knife.’’
She gave him a long look, but said, ‘‘Last night Itchy had me strapped down pretty good when I came to. There was a knife a few feet away, and I . . . I thought at it, really hard, and it came to me. Floated. Right into my hand.’’
Which just added more weight to his growing conviction—concern? —that the gods had plans for her. What was he supposed to do with that? ‘‘Have you ever done anything like that before?’’
She shook her head, then lifted one shoulder in a sort of no-yes-maybe answer. ‘‘Yesterday morning I went to turn my coffeemaker on and fried its circuits instead, but that was probably just a coincidence.’’
Or not, he thought. If she’d retained some sort of magic from her experience at the intersection, it would stand to reason that she’d be more likely to be able to tap the power during a conjunction. Which meant . . .
Hell, he didn’t know what it meant.
Waving to a couple of poolside chairs, he said, ‘‘We should sit. This could take a while.’’
‘‘Apparently I’ve got time,’’ she muttered as she sat. ‘‘I called in this morning to put in for leave, and Connie—my boss—said I should take as long as I needed.’’
‘‘Yeah. I can’t blame her, really. I’ve been skirting the line ever since Matty was murdered.’’ Her eyes went hard. ‘‘I’m not staying away, though. Not if I can help get the bastard who did it. Which brings us back to you. Start talking. Who are the 2012ers, how does the Calendar Killer fit into this, and why . . . why did you guys kill Vince? He was a friend.’’
‘‘He was a makol.’’
‘‘He was a computer programmer.’’
‘‘The two are not mutually exclusive. Look . . .’’ Strike spun his chair so he was facing her, their knees almost bumping, and when her eyes went wide and she started looking for the nearest exit, he took her hands, telling himself it was only for reassurance, only an effort to keep her in place long enough to get the full story. ‘‘It’s an understatement to say this is complicated. I’m going to have to ask you to believe that I’m one of the good guys. I know you have absolutely no reason to trust me—hell, you’ve got every reason not to—but I’m asking you to give me a chance. Please.’’
‘‘I shouldn’t,’’ she said softly. But she didn’t pull her hands away. ‘‘I should’ve left last night, should’ve run screaming, but there are things going on that I can’t explain. Things that don’t fall under the heading of ‘standard police procedure.’ ’’
‘‘Yes.’’ He resisted the urge to hold her hands tighter, to move closer. Her skin was soft and smooth beneath his fingers, with the hardness of bone and strength beneath. ‘‘I’ll explain what I can.’’ Which they both knew wasn’t the same as explaining everything.
‘‘You made me think I dreamed you.’’ Her accusation went so much deeper than just the forgetting spell. ‘‘If that’s not a lie of omission, I don’t know what is. And what’s worse, there’s a big part of me that wants to trust you.’’
‘‘Then do it,’’ he urged.
‘‘I’m not sure I can.’’ Her tone lost some of its edge, making her sound unutterably weary. ‘‘You made me forget us making love. I’m not going to play the forced-seduction card, because I know damn well I was a willing participant, and I appreciate the whole saving-my-life thing, but it doesn’t seem like you want to be with me. More like you’re trying to get the hell away.’’ She paused. ‘‘What exactly do you want from me?’’
Nothing, he wanted to say. Everything. Damn it. ‘‘I don’t know,’’ he said finally, which was also the truth. ‘‘What do you want from me?’’
‘‘An explanation,’’ she said softly. ‘‘I want to know who killed Matty, and why.’’
Which put them right back at odds, making him think she had her own reasons for not wanting to pick up where they’d left off the other night. He should’ve been relieved that she hadn’t forced him to talk about what was—and wasn’t—between them. Instead, he was irritated.
Which just proved how screwed-up he was these days.
‘‘I’ll give you as much as I can,’’ he said. ‘‘But I need some context. Tell me about these Calendar murders.’’ When she scowled, looking ready to refuse, he squeezed her hands. ‘‘Trust me.’’
Suddenly, it was very important that she do just that.
‘‘Okay,’’ she finally said, but he wasn’t sure whether she was agreeing to trust him, or only to describe the murders. Then she started talking about a serial killer who preyed at the solstice and equinox, and within a few sentences he knew they were onto something. She must’ve seen it on his face, because she broke off. ‘‘The killer’s signature means something to you.’’
Choosing his words carefully, he said, ‘‘The equinox and solstice are the times of highest magical activity, the times the barrier between worlds is thinnest. If I were trying to use human sacrifice to jump-start the barrier back into action, those are the days I’d pick for the bloodletting.’’
‘‘Did you?’’ Her eyes held his, unwavering.
‘‘No.’’ He projected everything he could into the word, wanting—needing—her to believe him. To believe in him. ‘‘Our magic is mostly autosacrifice. Self-bloodletting. It’s very rare for one Nightkeeper to blood another.’’ He leaned in so their faces were very close together when he said, ‘‘We’re the good guys, Leah. My father sacrificed almost our entire race to close the barrier. We were waiting for the end date to pass so we could finally live our lives. No way any of us did what you’re describing.’’
‘‘Then who did?’’
‘‘Zipacna,’’ Strike said, and there was no doubt in his mind. ‘‘Either the barrier thinned enough that one of the Banol Kax reached through to him, or he found one of the lost spells and made contact from this side.’’
‘‘You said Vince was a makol, too,’’ Leah said, ‘‘but he hated Survivor2012. He was convinced they killed Matty—heck, it was his idea to crash that party. And you said before that the makol ritual only works on evil-minded people, or someone who accepts evil in exchange for power. So how could he be—’’ She broke off. Then she scrubbed both hands across her face and halfway screamed, ‘‘Aah!’’
She dropped her hands and looked at him, shaking her head, eyes bleak. ‘‘This is . . . ridiculous. I can’t even believe I’m treating this discussion like it’s real. Do you ever listen to yourself and think that what you’re saying sounds completely insane? Like you should be waiting for the mother ship?’’
‘‘This is religion, not an alien abduction.’’
‘‘Depending on who you talk to, there’s not much difference.’’
‘‘Then why are you still here?’’
‘‘Because of the dreams,’’ she said, avoiding his eyes a little, her color riding high, making him very aware of the curve of her jaw, the long line of her neck. ‘‘And because Matty . . .’’ She faltered. ‘‘I need to know why he picked Matty.’’
But the ajaw-makol hadn’t just picked her brother, Strike realized suddenly. Zipacna had brought her to the sacred chamber at the solstice. Vince had drawn her back into the Survivor2012 compound when Red-Boar’s mind-bending had told her to leave it alone. Itchy had held her prisoner in her own house, no doubt under his master’s orders.
When he put those things together, it started to look like her brother hadn’t been the main target of any of this. She was.
As Strike had done the first time they met, he took her right hand and turned it palm up. He traced his thumb across a small square of puckered, roughened skin on her inner forearm. ‘‘Tell me about this scar.’’
She looked away. ‘‘It’s nothing. I don’t even remember getting it.’’
‘‘Leah,’’ he said quietly.
That brought her eyes back to him, but she shook her head. ‘‘Please. Tell me about Zipacna.’’
He knew he should push. Instead, he said, ‘‘In the Nightkeepers’ pantheon, he’s a vicious, vindictive piece of work with a taste for blood and the ability to appear as a winged crocodile. His father is one of the rulers of Xibalba, which gives him a power boost.’’
‘‘I meant the guy in Miami.’’
‘‘I know.’’ Carter’s report on the leader of Survivor 2012 had included a few grainy, overenlarged photos and a sketchy history that went a whopping six years back. ‘‘You probably know way more about him than I do.’’
‘‘In other words, almost nothing,’’ Leah said grimly. ‘‘What I want to know is whether he killed my brother and Nick. Whether Vince died because of what Zipacna made him.’’
Strike nodded slowly. ‘‘My gut says yes to all three.’’
‘‘I hear a ‘but’ in your voice.’’
‘‘That would be the part where I say, ‘but I can’t let you go after him.’ ’’
She pulled her hands away, eyes going hard. ‘‘Sorry, Ace. You have no right to tell me what I can and can’t do.’’
Yeah, but I have a couple of overflow storage lockers in the basement that’d keep you out of trouble, he thought. He didn’t say that, though, because for one, he didn’t want to turn this into a battle . . . and for another, he figured he should probably hold the lockup idea in reserve, just in case. So instead he said, ‘‘This is bigger than both of us, and I think you know it, or at least suspect that it might be.’’
‘‘You really, truly think the world is going to end,’’ she said softly. It wasn’t a question.
‘‘I believe that the next few months are going to determine exactly that,’’ he said, going with a half-truth. Then he added, ‘‘The Nightkeepers believe the world exists in a series of repeating cycles, both spiritual and cosmic, all of which are going to intersect on the end date. The Great Conjunction is coming no matter what we do— that’s an astrological fact. It’s up to us to block the spiritual side of things. It’s what our ancestors lived for. What our parents died for.’’ He took a deep breath. Let it out. ‘‘I’m the king’s son, which means I have a responsibility to my people and what we’re bound to do over the next four-plus years. If I were just a man . . .’’
He leaned in and brushed the backs of his fingers across her cheek, and his blood heated when she trembled at his touch.
‘‘Yeah, well . . .’’ She pulled away from him and stood, moving away a few feet so she could stare out across the compound, past the cottages and ball court to the pueblo-dotted canyon walls beyond, all of which were going purple-red with the approach of dusk. ‘‘Don’t think I’m staying away from Zipacna just because you’re hot.’’
His lips twitched. ‘‘Not even if I offer to be your sex slave?’’
‘‘Are you offering?’’
Shaking his head—and regretting the hell out of the necessity—he said, ‘‘I can’t.
‘‘Because I’m not a Nightkeeper.’’
‘‘Because we don’t know what you are yet.’’ Another half-truth. ‘‘I’m going to have to do some reading, see what I can figure out about your flying-knife trick, and why Zipacna seems to have targeted you specifically.’’ He rose and joined her, so they stood shoulder-to-shoulder, looking out at the dark shadows of the pueblo ruins—the remains of another people who had tracked time by the sun and stars, and believed in magic and the apocalypse.
‘‘What am I supposed to do now?’’ Her voice came out weary, wary, as though she acknowledged the need for protection but didn’t like it. ‘‘House arrest isn’t really my style.’’
‘‘Be a cop,’’ he said. ‘‘Find Zipacna. Make some calls, pull in some favors, do whatever it takes. You can lean on Carter for the legwork.’’
‘‘You’re not going to let me leave.’’
‘‘I think it’s safer if you stay,’’ he said, hoping she didn’t push him to lock her down.
‘‘And you think you’re not letting me near Zipacna.’’
‘‘Again, safer that way. I don’t want to see you get hurt.’’ Which was approximately the understatement of the decade. Having her this near had his blood humming in his veins, and having her bent on going after the ajaw-makol chilled him to the bone.
She glanced up at him, eyes shadowed. ‘‘This was a hell of a lot easier in the dreams.’’
‘‘Yeah.’’ He nodded, in that moment feeling as close to his father as he ever had. ‘‘Somehow it always is.’’
Jox had forgotten what it felt like to be around magi on the prowl. The house practically vibrated with the need for sex. Worse, it wasn’t the unfocused horniness of a bunch of teenaged kids—the newbies were in their twenties, and he’d eat his arm if there was a virgin among them. They knew what it felt like, knew what they wanted and where they wanted to get it.
And damned if the winikin couldn’t relate. Strike was wrong about a bunch of things—with the blond cop topping the list—but he might’ve been right in some of the things he’d said about Hannah.
Shit or get off the pot, Jox thought to himself as he walked down the long marble hallway to the winikin’s wing around midnight. If the war was coming—hell, if the end of the world was coming—better to face it with a partner than not.
He fought the urge to tug at his jeans and T—or worse, beat a quick retreat to his quarters and change into a better shirt, maybe a nicer belt, and boots instead of sandals. But that would be stalling, and he was no wimp. ‘‘Besides,’’ he said under his breath as he reached her door, ‘‘it’s Hannah. You’ve known her forever.’’ Okay, so there was that twenty-four-year gap in the middle and all, but still.
Telling himself it’d be okay, he knocked on her door.
She answered immediately, as though she’d been waiting for him. She was wearing flowing drawstring pants of royal blue and a patterned teal-colored top, and had a scarf of the same material tied around her head, pirate-style. When she saw who it was, though, surprise flashed across her face. ‘‘Jox!’’
‘‘Expecting someone else?’’ He heard the faint bite in his tone and winced. ‘‘Sorry. Not my business.’’
‘‘No, it’s not. Can I help you with something?’’
‘‘I wanted . . .’’ you, he should’ve said, but he was still fighting a losing battle against logic, against the part of him that said he needed to focus on his duties, now more than ever, since Strike seemed to be wobbling off course.
‘‘You wanted . . . ?’’ She wasn’t helping him out, and seemed faintly irritated that he was there at all, as though two weeks after their reunion was far too late for him to come knocking.
And maybe it was. Maybe Strike had been right that he’d cared more for the idea of her than the reality. The thought was a cold wash that had him retreating a step and dropping back to winikin mode. ‘‘I came to make sure things were under control over here.’’
‘‘We’re good,’’ she said, seemingly willing to pretend that was what he’d come to ask. ‘‘Carlos is going to keep Cara close for the next few days while we see how things shake out.’’
‘‘In other words, while the newbies figure out who belongs in which bed between now and the talent ceremony. ’’
Her lips twitched, despite the tension between them. ‘‘What’s the current score?’’
‘‘Well, Patience and Brandt are a given.’’
‘‘One should hope. They’re married.’’
‘‘And stupid in love,’’ Jox agreed with what might’ve been a twinge of jealousy. He ticked off the others on his fingers. ‘‘Michael and Jade headed off together—they’re either a couple or will be soon. Rabbit didn’t get his mark, so he probably won’t get the binding hornies— and besides, he’s too young for anyone here, so he’s on his own. That leaves Alexis, Blackhawk, and Sven, which means either there’ll be an odd man out, or some three-way kink.’’
‘‘Have you seen the way Nate looks at her?’’ Hannah shook her head. ‘‘Sven’s out of luck.’’
‘‘Strike and Alexis would make a hell of a couple,’’ Jox said, still not ready to give up on the idea.
‘‘They would.’’ Hannah nodded. ‘‘She’s the strongest of the women, she’s smart as hell, and she has a knack for strategy. She’d make a superlative queen. But it’s not going to happen.’’
Her face softened. ‘‘Poor Jox. Still trying to save the jaguar kings from themselves.’’
Before he could respond to that—if he could even figure out how—there was a clatter of footsteps and Brandt’s winikin, Woodrow, swung around the corner. He was wearing jeans and a button-down Hawaiian shirt, and his long, graying hair was caught back in a ponytail that made him look like he’d gone native. He was barefoot, whistling, and carrying a bottle of wine in one hand, a couple of glasses in the other.
He hesitated midstride when he saw Jox and Hannah standing close together in her doorway. ‘‘Wow. I know I’m late, but you didn’t need to call the boss on me.’’ It was said with all of Wood’s typical laid-back good humor, but there was a glint of challenge beneath the words.
Oh, Jox thought. So that was how it was.
Disappointed, but also relieved because the decision had already been made for him, he stepped away from Hannah. ‘‘You’re lucky you got here when you did,’’ he said, forcing humor. ‘‘We were talking about organizing a search.’’
‘‘Doubt you’d have much luck,’’ Wood said, moving to Hannah’s side so they formed a unit, blocking the doorway and putting Jox on the outside. ‘‘Most everyone in this place is otherwise occupied, one way or the other.’’
He handed the wineglasses to Hannah, pulled a corkscrew from his pocket, and looked at Jox. Lifted a shoulder. ‘‘Sorry, dude. Only two glasses.’’
‘‘No problem,’’ Jox said, and almost meant it. ‘‘Actually, I wanted to talk to both of you real quick; then I’ll get out of your way.’’ He thought he saw a flicker of surprised hurt in Hannah’s eye, but couldn’t be sure. And even if he had, what of it? She had the right to make time with whomever she wanted. They’d never promised each other anything.
Wood gestured with the corkscrew. ‘‘Go on.’’
‘‘Can you be in charge of both Patience and Brandt for a couple of days, so Hannah can spend some time with Leah?’’
When Wood nodded, Hannah said, ‘‘How much do you want her to know?’’
‘‘Everything.’’ He gritted his teeth, totally disagreeing with Strike’s plan. ‘‘She’s going to be sitting in on Magic 101 starting tomorrow. He’s convinced himself that even though Red-Boar couldn’t detect any connection to the barrier or the gods, she gained power of some sort during the ajaw-makol ritual.’’
She tipped her head and hummed a flat note. ‘‘But you don’t think so.’’
‘‘He’s not thinking with his head.’’ Not the right one, anyway.
‘‘Because he believes this human may have power.’’
‘‘Because he saw her even before he met her.’’ He paused. ‘‘In a dream.’’
Wood lost his grin. ‘‘He’s been having visions?’’
‘‘Hannah can fill you in.’’ Jox took a step back. ‘‘I’ll leave you two to your . . . whatever.’’ He strode off, not wanting to watch the door close behind him.
‘‘Jox,’’ Hannah called softly.
He stopped, cursed himself, and turned. ‘‘Yeah?’’
She stood alone, having apparently sent Wood inside. Soft light spilled from behind her, picking out the silvery waves of her hair, softening the lines of her face, and buffing away the lower edge of the scars, making her look very young, younger even than she’d been the night of the massacre.
She was silent so long he thought she wasn’t going to say anything, that she’d meant only to call his name. Then she said, very quietly, ‘‘It’s not your fault. You didn’t do anything to cause this—not now, and not back then.’’
He almost resented that she saw it so easily. ‘‘I keep hoping it’ll be different this time.’’
‘‘Maybe it will be.’’ But there was little hope in her voice, which told him she feared it, too.
It was like the writs said: What had happened before would happen again.
Hearing footsteps coming up the hall toward him, Sven ducked through the nearest doorway and closed the door to a crack. Not because he was doing anything wrong, but because he didn’t want to have to talk to one of the other winikin—not about the ceremony, not about the coyote’s-head mark on his forearm, which tingled faintly as though the ink—or whatever the hell it was—had rerouted the blood vessels beneath his skin, and certainly not about what he was doing outside the winikin’s wing at oh-dark-thirty in the a.m.
He was busy not sleeping, that was what he was doing. Busy not thinking about sex. He and the rest of the newbies—except for Patience and Brandt, no doubt, because they had sanctioned shagging privileges and had gotten their marks years ago. And potentially Michael and Jade, who he was pretty sure had hooked up a couple of days ago. The rest of them . . . well, it was either make friends real quick, or hello, self-service.
The footsteps passed and he got a good rear view of Jox, who was moving fast, like he had places to go. Well, good for him. So did Sven. Sort of.
Once the winikin had turned the corner and his footsteps faded, Sven slipped from concealment and headed for the third door on the right, where he knocked and waited. Knocked again.
Finally, when it was getting borderline ridiculous, Carlos opened the door. He was wearing Wranglers belted below his slight paunch, with a snap-studded shirt of faded blue, and save for a little gray around the edges he looked exactly the same as he had for . . . well, forever, Sven realized on a sudden slap of nostalgia. He had to swallow hard before he said, ‘‘Hey, Pops. Look.’’ He flipped his arm, showed off the coyote. ‘‘Remember how I used to bug you about getting a tattoo just like yours?’’
‘‘You did it,’’ the older man said softly, turning his own right hand palm up for a forearm comparison. ‘‘Congratulations, kid.’’
That got a snort. ‘‘Don’t forget who used to change your Pampers, boyo.’’
‘‘True, but I’ve heard stuff shrinks once you’re on the downhill side of middle age.’’
They grinned at each other, and Sven felt a loosening of something inside him he hadn’t even known was tight. He exhaled. ‘‘I missed you, Pops.’’ He paused, realizing that although they’d been in the same house for a couple of weeks now, they hadn’t really talked. Partly because he’d been sorta freaked by the whole winikin-Nightkeeper revelation—okay, really freaked, but fascinated in a by the way, you’re a superhero sort of way—and partly because the timing hadn’t been right. Now, in the wake of a ceremony that’d left him feeling a step closer to the parents he’d never known, he was ready to deal with the parent he had known, and hadn’t always done right by. ‘‘I’m sorry I didn’t come home for the funeral.’’
Carlos shook his head. ‘‘Australia was too far to fly to for just a few days. I understood. Sometimes the needs of the living outweigh those of the dead.’’
The last part sounded like a quote, underscoring that the winikin had a whole other life and culture aside from managing a ranch and raising two kids who couldn’t have been more different if they’d tried.
Sven shoved his hands in the pockets of his hip-hanger shorts. ‘‘Still, I should’ve been there.’’ He didn’t say that he’d had the offer of a spare seat on an investor’s charter plane but hadn’t taken it because things had been too damn complicated back then. Still were.
His eyes must’ve wandered to the door to Cara’s room, because Carlos shook his head. ‘‘She’s asleep.’’
The lights were up in the suite and the TV was on, though, and Cara was a light sleeper of epic proportions.
Sven nodded, accepting the lie. ‘‘Okay. No problem. I just . . .’’ wanted to see her, wanted us to maybe go for a walk like we used to. He’d wanted to inject a bit of normalcy into the craziness, to get her take on things that were moving too far, too fast for his hang-loose brain to keep up with.
‘‘I know.’’ Carlos nodded as though Sven had said all that aloud. ‘‘But things are different now.’’ He paused. ‘‘She’s not your sister anymore, kid. She’s your servant. If you want me to wake her, I will.’’
She’s not my servant any more than she’s my sister, Sven wanted to argue, but didn’t, because there were some things better left alone. So he shook his head. ‘‘No, let her sleep. Besides, this should probably come from you anyway. I think . . .’’ He paused, weighing his loyalties. ‘‘I think you should tell her to leave.’’
The older man’s eyes widened fractionally. ‘‘Why?’’
Sven shifted, faking a shrug. ‘‘She’s a semester away from her degree. Seems silly to keep her here when I barely even see her as it is.’’
‘‘And?’’ Carlos said with no shift in his expression.
She doesn’t want to be here, Sven wanted to say. Can’t you see that? But he didn’t say it, because he could also see how much it meant to Carlos to have sired the only second-generation winikin in the group, how much he was enjoying having Cara around. So instead he said, ‘‘What we’re going to be doing here is dangerous.’’ He looked at the coyote mark again, because the binding ceremony had made the whole end-of-the-world-as-we-know -it thing seem a whole lot more real than it had when they’d just been sitting around talking about it. ‘‘I don’t want her to get hurt.’’
‘‘Neither do I, but I don’t think that’s what this is really about.’’ Carlos waited, but Sven didn’t say anything else, couldn’t explain it to the man who’d raised him when he could barely understand it himself. After a long moment, the winikin sighed. ‘‘Do you command this?’’
Sven nodded, feeling like a total poser. ‘‘I do. She’s my winikin.’’
‘‘And for that I’m sorry.’’ Carlos shook his head. ‘‘I should be the one serving you.’’
‘‘Nobody’s serving anybody here. We’re all in this together—I’m just trying to figure out how to minimize the danger.’’
‘‘It’s not a Nightkeeper’s job to protect his winikin.’’ Carlos paused. ‘‘But I’ll do as you ask. She’ll be gone before the end of the week; I’ll take care of it. You just concentrate on learning how to control your powers . . . and yourself.’’
Which answered one question, Sven acknowledged with a dull thud of pain. Carlos definitely knew about what’d happened between him and Cara, knew why he’d taken off and why he hadn’t been back since. He’d always figured Carlos didn’t know, for the simple reason that their relationship had stayed close despite the physical distance. Now, he realized it’d been more a case of the winikin’s imperative to keep tabs on his charge outweighing the other stuff.
The thought was humbling. And damned awkward.
That wasn’t how it was, he wanted to say. I can control myself. But that begged the question of why he’d come knocking on her door too late at night, with his blood humming and his senses