Curse the Dawn
Cassandra Palmer, book 4
Thanks to Laurence P. Lehman for a fun conversation on voivodes.
Stalking a time traveler is hard work, even if you are one. Especially when said traveler totally has you made. "Can we talk?" I screamed as I dodged behind a column to avoid a spray of bullets.
The woman hunting me through the cellar slung her flashlight beam in my direction. "Sure," she said amiably. "Hold still for a second."
My name is Cassie Palmer and a lot of people think I'm not the sharpest pencil in the box. My strawberry blond hair, which usually resembles Shirley Temple's in a windstorm, is part of the reason. My blue eyes, slightly pudgy cheeks and tip-tilted nose might be another, except that most men's gazes never make it up that far. But dumb blonde or not, even I wasn't buying that one.
My own weapon—a new 9 mm Beretta—was crowding the waistband of my jeans and poking me insistently in the hipbone. I ignored it. Years from now, the woman with the gun would leave a little message that would save my life. I kind of wanted her to be around to write it. Not to mention that shooting people is a good way to ensure that they don't want to talk to you, and we really needed to have a chat.
"When did the Guild start employing women?" she demanded, getting warmer.
I stayed utterly still, pressed against the back of one of the wooden columns holding up the roof. As hiding places go, it pretty much sucked, but there weren't a lot of alternatives. The cellar's walls were stone, except for areas that had been patched with brick. The ceiling was wood and flat, I guess because it served as the floor of the building above. And that was it, except for a few old barrels, some mildew and a lot of dark.
Even empty, the place was big enough that she'd have trouble finding me if I stayed silent. On the other hand, it was going to be tough for us to have a conversation if I never said anything. "Look, you've obviously mistaken me for—" I began, only to have the wall behind me peppered with bullets.
Stinging particles of brick and old mortar exploded out at me, and a few must have grazed my cheek because I felt a trickle of blood start to slide down my neck. The stillness after the gunfire made my ears ring and my nerves jump, and my hand instinctively closed over my gun. I dragged it back. I wasn't here to shoot her, I reminded myself sternly.
Although the idea was growing on me.
"I thought you guys were a bunch of misogynistic assholes with delusions of grandeur," she taunted.
I stayed stubbornly silent, which seemed to piss her off. A couple bullets thwacked into the wood at my back, shaking the column. I bit my lip to stay quiet until I felt something like a firm pinch on my left butt cheek. A second later, the pinch blossomed into white-hot pain.
My searching hand came back damp and sticky with streaks that looked black in the almost nonexistent light. I stared at it incredulously. I hadn't been here ten minutes yet, and I'd already been shot in the ass.
"You shot me!"
"Come out and I'll make the pain stop."
She paused to reload and I scurried behind a nearby barrel. As cover went, it wasn't much of an improvement, forcing me to hunker down against the cold, filthy floor to stay out of sight. But at least vulnerable bits of my anatomy weren't poking out past the sides.
I explored the gash in the back of my jeans. The bullet had only grazed me—what Pritkin, my war mage partner, would call a flesh wound. He'd probably slap a Band-Aid on it and tell me to stop whinging—whatever that meant—after he finished shouting at me for getting shot in the first place. But it hurt.
Of course, it would hurt a lot more if she shot me again. I peered over the top of the barrel, hoping to talk some sense into her while she was temporarily unable to kill me. Instead, my attention was caught by movement near the stairs. The dim glow of her flashlight gleamed off the barrel of a semiautomatic that had reached out of the dark. That was a problem since we were currently in 1605 and that type of gun hadn't been invented yet.
Even worse, it was aimed at her head.
She didn't hesitate. The flashlight went skittering across the stones, distracting the shooter, who blasted the hell out of it while she disappeared into shadow. One of the bullets went astray and hit a small wooden cask. It looked harmless, but it must have contained the equivalent of a few sticks of TNT. Because a deafening explosion was followed by a ball of orange flame smashing against the ceiling.
Fire rained down everywhere, including onto the shooter's hand and arm. The gun hit the floor and a man danced out of the stairwell, beating at the flames with his bare hands and shrieking. He also dropped a lantern that spun across the stones in lazy parabolas, lighting him up intermittently, like a strobe.
He was a tall, lanky blond, with horsey features half hidden by a floppy hat. He wore a long dark vest, knee pants and a puffy shirt that was quickly going up in smoke. He managed to get the flames out by flinging off the vest and ripping open the shirt, revealing a pale torso and some singed chest hair. He bent to retrieve his fallen gun, and a bullet sheared off more hair, this time from the top of his head.
He tore off his hat and stared at the hole in the crown as if wondering how it got there. The woman demonstrated by firing again, but he must have been a mage, because he'd managed to get his shields up. Her bullets hit them and hung there, a few feet away from his body, starfishing out from the impact points. He stared at one that would have taken him straight between the eyes and gave a little shriek.
It didn't look like he was all that accustomed to gunfights, because his concentration wobbled. His shields went with it, and the suspended bullets dropped to the floor, rattling against the stones like beads. He snatched up his gun with adrenaline-clumsy fingers and got off a few random shots in our direction before stumbling through a doorway near the stairs. He never stopped screaming.
The woman kicked a few burning scraps of wood aside and emerged into the dim puddle of light given off by the lantern. She retrieved her flashlight and clicked it a few times, but nothing happened so she sighed and stuffed it into a pocket of the coat she wore. It was camel-colored wool and looked warm, I noticed enviously. Underneath she was wearing a lavender silk dress with a wrapped top and calf-length flared skirt. She looked like June Cleaver out for a night on the town, if June had accessorized with firearms.
This was the first time I'd seen her clearly, and I took a second to adjust my mental image. Our last meeting had also been on a time shift, but she'd been traveling in spirit instead of in body and had chosen to appear as a young woman. She didn't look that different in the flesh. Her brown hair was streaked with silver now and there were fine lines around her eyes and mouth. But her body was as slim as ever and her current expression—exasperated amusement—was eerily familiar.
"Come out. I won't hurt you," she promised.
"You mean again?" I asked nervously.
"You're hiding behind a barrel filled with gunpowder. If I wanted you dead, I'd just shoot it," she told me with a deep under-note of duh.
She was tapping her foot impatiently and had lowered the weapon. That might not mean anything, but the fact was, I hadn't come here to cower in the dark. No matter how good that sounded. Besides, I didn't think she was kidding about the gunpowder.
I slowly emerged. "Where did I shoot you?" she demanded.
"In the butt." Her lips quirked. "It's not funny!"
"If you say so." She looked me over. My outfit was more appropriate than hers for crawling around a damp cellar, except for not including a coat. I was wearing jeans, sneakers and a T-shirt that said "I Took the Road Less Traveled. Now Where the Heck Am I?" Yet for some reason, she looked perfect while I'd ripped the knee out of my jeans and had black stuff all over my arms. I held my wrist up to my nose and smelled it.
She hadn't been kidding.
"You're playing hide-and-seek in a cellar full of gunpowder?" I demanded incredulously, desperately brushing at myself.
"A cellar full of gunpowder that an idiot is trying to blow up," she corrected. "So I'm a little tense right now. Who are you and why are you here?"
Now that the moment had arrived, I didn't quite know where to start. "It's complicated," I finally said.
"It always is." She headed for the door where the mage had disappeared, gun in hand. "You aren't Guild."
"I don't even know what that is," I said, jogging to keep up. "Is that who we're hunting?"
"That's who I'm hunting. I don't know who—or what—you are." She snagged the abandoned lantern and shoved it at me.
I took it gingerly, worried about powder residue near an open flame. It was a weird little thing, shaped like a large beer stein, with a black metal body and a door that could be opened or closed to control the light. I opened it all the way, but it didn't help much. "I'm Cassie. And, uh. . I'm sort of Pythia."
That stopped her. Her sharp blue gaze swept over me again. "Don't think so," she said curtly.
The Pythia was the supernatural community's chief Seer and, as a bonus, also the person charged with maintaining the integrity of the time line. It would have been a crappy job even if I'd had the faintest idea what I was doing. Since I didn't, it was also really dangerous.
My assailant was named Agnes, AKA Lady Phemonoe, the former Pythia. She was the one who had stuck me with this mess and then died before she could give me any training. As a result, I'd spent the first half of my first month in office trying to get out of the deal and the rest of it running for my life. So it had taken me a while to realize the obvious: I was a time traveler now, whether I liked it or not. Agnes' death didn't necessarily mean she couldn't train me. She just had to do it in the past.
I hadn't intended for it to be quite this far in the past, but she was always surrounded by people in her own time. And most of them were the types who might recognize and resent another time traveler. Getting her alone had been tough.
Probably not as tough as talking her into this though.
"Then how did I get here?" I demanded.
"My best guess is that you're some Pythia's newly appointed heir on a joyride, testing out the power," she said, stopping beside the black hole of the doorway. "Ooh, look. I can travel through time. Isn't that cool?" she mimicked.
"I'm not joyriding! And I don't find being shot at and almost blown up cool!"
"I did the same thing myself a few times when young and stupid," she said, ignoring me. "And almost got killed. Take some advice: go home."
"Not until we talk," I said flatly. "And we can't do that here. The explosion was loud enough to wake the dead. Someone is probably on their way to investigate right now!"
"I wouldn't worry too much about that," she said, slipping off little champagne-colored heels. "These cellars date back to the eleventh century. And when they built something back then, they intended it to last. The walls are seven feet thick."
I felt the muscles along my spine start to relax just as a barrel came bouncing at us out of the dark. Agnes slammed the door and scrambled back while I ducked behind another support column. I'd barely made it when a second explosion deafened me and a hail of former door parts exploded through the room, impaling everything in sight.
A jagged piece of iron from one of the hinges hit the floor beside me, burying itself into the stone an inch from my right foot. I jerked back and stared at it wide-eyed. "Why is it that everywhere I go, someone is shooting at me?" I demanded hysterically.
"Your winning personality?" Agnes offered. "And if you don't like it, you could always, oh, I don't know, leave?"
"I'm not going anywhere!"
Agnes didn't respond. I looked around the column to see her cautiously approaching what had been the door. Burning shards framed the opening in fire, and streamers of noxious fumes were swirling slowly outward. It looked like a portal to hell, but she nonetheless squatted to one side, peering into the darkness within.
"Who is the Guild?" I whispered, joining her despite my better judgment.
"An order of mages who play around with very dangerous spells. Unfortunately for us, once in a while they don't manage to blow themselves up."
"And that's a problem because. .?"
"Because they're time travelers."
She started forward, and I grabbed her arm. "Wait. You're going in there?"
"That's the job."
"The job sucks!"
"You're telling me." She threw off my hand and slipped echo across the threshold, her stocking-clad feet silent on the old stones.
"Agnes!" I hissed it after her, but there was no response. I stared into the dark for half a second, cursing softly, and then followed.
I'd closed the lantern's little door, but it must have gotten dented in the fall, and the sides didn't meet all the way. Thin beams of sepia light leaked out, gilding the stones around us and turning our shadows into hulking monsters. I stared into the darkness crowding the rest of the room and tried not to think about sharpshooters and easy targets.
When the attack came, the only warning was a flicker of red in the gloom. Agnes aimed for it, but before she could pull the trigger, a bloody snake of lightning flashed across the room and struck her shoulder. She spun around and collapsed against me with a choked cry.
I dropped the lantern and grabbed her and my gun. But I only managed to get a couple of shots off before her fingers closed over my wrist. "Not in here."
I didn't argue since I didn't have anything to use as a target anyway. I dragged her out of the puddle of light into the shadow of a nearby support column. She peered around the side, but unless her eyesight was a hell of a lot better than mine, she didn't see anything. I listened, but there was no sound except her ragged breathing.
"Maybe I hit him," I whispered.
"I'm not that lucky."
Her voice sounded strained, and something gleamed wetly on the shoulder of her dress. "You're hurt."
"My own damn fault." She peeled violet-printed chiffon away from a nasty-looking burn. "I loaned my ward to my heir for a training exercise right before she eloped with some loser. Naturally, she didn't bother to give it back first."
I bit my lip and didn't reply. The ward in question was a pentagram-shaped tattoo the size of a saucer that currently sat between my shoulder blades. It didn't guard against human weapons, but was pretty amazing when fending off magical assaults. My mother, who had been Agnes' heir before wisely running for the hills, had passed it on to me. But somehow I didn't think this was a great time to bring that up.
"Do you usually wear high heels to chase armed men around?" I asked instead.
She wiggled the toes of her now bare foot, making the ladder in one silk stocking creep up a little higher. "I was called away in the middle of a dinner party."
"You could have brought a bodyguard with you."
"Yes, that's all this fiasco needs! Another mage. Probably go off half cocked and blow up the whole complex, saving the Guild the trouble!"
"And maybe saving your life!"
She leaned her head wearily back against the column. "I can do that for myself."
I crossed my arms but said nothing. Her breathing was still heavy and her color wasn't good, but I was in no position to give a lecture. She wasn't the only one who had left a partner behind.
Pritkin hated my trips through time for the same reason I did—the conviction that, sooner or later, I was going to screw up something we couldn't fix. I'd decided to save myself some grief and just not mention this to him, but it was a decision I was starting to regret. He carried enough firepower for three people, if those people happened to be Rambo. He'd have come in pretty handy right about now.
After a minute, Agnes struggled back to her feet. She stood with one hand braced against the column, her head bowed, her forehead knotted in pain. "Can you make it back to your time?" I asked. "Because if not, I can—"
"I have a job to do," she repeated, straightening. Her slight shoulders squared. "We need more light."
"We need to get out of here!"
"Then go. Nobody's stopping you." I stared at her for a moment, really tempted, before cursing and scurrying back for the lantern. For a wonder, nobody shot at me.
It had a ring welded into the top, so I grabbed a long stick from one of the piles of firewood that crunched underfoot and hooked the light on the end of it. After opening the door as wide as it would go, I poked the contraption out into the room while remaining behind the column with Agnes. I'd been hoping to illuminate a crumpled body on the floor. Instead, the warm golden glow fell across dozens of casks and barrels.
Some of them were almost buried under the mounds of wood and coal that nearly filled the room. But a few were stacked nearby, as if the camouflage attempt had gotten to be too much work. Or maybe the problem was that these barrels were leaking.
The nearest one had a crack as large as my finger in the side. The floor around it was covered in tiny grains that sparkled in the light like black diamond dust. My hand shook as I realized what they were, and a couple sparks spilled from the open side of the lantern. I had time to think, Oh, shit, before flames leapt up from the floor and ran straight toward the heap of barrels.
I dove for Agnes and we hit the floor together as a wave of force swept over us. A roar of sound deafened me, fire bloomed behind me and a wash of heat flooded the air. Dead, I thought in a rush of nausea.
And then nothing.
After a stunned moment, I opened my eyes to see a room filled with what looked like red and gold glitter. It took me a second to recognize it as flaming bits of wood and powder thrown off by the explosion, frozen in the air like confetti on the Fourth of July. A small piece was resting beside my cheek and it was hot. I knocked it away, and it moved a few inches before stopping, hanging suspended and molten as a tiny sun.
"You know, you're a real pain in the ass," Agnes mumbled. I belatedly realized that I'd squashed her face against the floor.
"Get off me."
I rolled to the side and stopped, blinking. A couple feet away was a freeze-frame out of hell. A ball of fire hung in space, surrounded by burning bits of wood that had once formed the sides of a barrel. Sparks were everywhere, turning the dull old stones around us bloodred and highlighting the pissy look on Agnes' face.
"What does it look like?" she snapped. "You almost blew us up!"
"You didn't tell me there was gunpowder in here!"
"There was gunpowder out there!" She waved an arm wildly in the direction of the other room. "And someone threw a barrel at us from in here! What the hell do you want, a diagram?"
"I want to know what's going on," I said heatedly. "All I know is that I followed you into a cellar—"
"Which you had no business doing."
"— and now some crazy man is trying to kill us!"
"At the rate we're going, he won't have to," Agnes said, staggering back to her feet. Her hair had come loose from its once neat chignon and floated down over her temples and cheeks. It moved delicately with her breath, giving away how fast her heart beat. She put a hand to her head. "I'm going to feel like hell tomorrow."
"You stopped time." I'd seen her do it once before; I'd even done it myself on one memorable occasion. Of course, in my case, it had been an accident.
She eyed the suspended fireball. "What gave it away?"
I decided to ignore that and retrieved my stick. I used it to push at the burning splinters. They were radiating outward from the blast in a concentric ring, like spores off hell's dandelion. They bent at my touch but didn't go out or fall to the floor. I stared at them for a moment, a strange echoing vertigo in my mind when I thought about the distance between this new life and everything I'd ever known.
"Look," Agnes said, pointing at the far wall. The mage stood pressed against the stones, caught midscream. "I told you we didn't get him."
As she spoke, she was starting to gather the wooden shards and bits of lit powder from the air. She looked pretty steady on her feet, but I knew from experience how much strain even a small hiccup in time could cause. "How long can you hold it?"
"Long enough if you help. And be careful—if we miss even one. ." She didn't have to finish the sentence.
I swatted the stray sparks like fireflies, knocking them to the ground and stomping on them before I realized that it wasn't doing any good. Time had stopped, meaning that I could jump up and down on the damn things all I wanted, but they weren't going to go out. I settled for gathering them into the tail of my T-shirt while Agnes dug into the barrels closest to the explosion. Flaming shards of wood had penetrated their sides, causing fire to boil up around their edges as the powder caught.
The embers I held were uncomfortably warm. I finally resorted to stripping off my T-shirt and using it as a net to trap them without burning myself. I made a dozen glowing piles in the empty outer room before I had them all. By then Agnes had dealt with the barrels, and we turned our attention to the big boy.
She poked the fireball with a stick, but it remained frozen in place, like the shadows on the ceiling and the clouds of smoke in the air. "I can handle that," I told her, taking the stick. To my surprise, she gave in without a fight. From the little I knew of her, I guessed that meant we were running out of time. "If you want something to do, you could tell me what's going on."
"You really don't know about the Guild?" she asked, watching me whack at the ball like an oversized piñata. It wasn't elegant, but it seemed to work. The exploded cask and its attached flames slowly began to move through the air.
"I don't know anything. That's my problem!"
"They're a bunch of utopians out to create a better world through time travel. Stop plagues, wars and famines before they start—that kind of thing."
"Doesn't sound so bad," I panted as the explosion moved in fits and starts into the outer room.
"Maybe you should sign up. Except they don't like women much. Might have something to do with the Pythias thwarting their plans for the last five hundred years. Send it up the stairs," she added as I stopped to get my breath.
I eyed the staircase without enthusiasm. "Why? The other one exploded in here and nothing happened."
"The other one was a lot smaller. This could bring down the ceiling on our heads."
I sighed and started thumping the fiery thing again. "And you might want to check out their manifesto," she continued as I battled my way upward. "Not all of us like the idea of living in a Stepford world where if we do anything the Guild doesn't like, they go back in time and change it. Repeat offenders are to be snuffed out of existence. Couples are to be denied the right to reproduce if their child is seen as a future threat to the Guild."
"Okay. That sounds a little less enticing," I admitted.
"And it goes on and on. They aren't big on free will. They don't care that one person's utopia is another person's hell," she said as we emerged into a long room.
It was covered wall to ceiling in biblical-themed murals. The light of the explosion brought the colors to life, glinting off gilt paint and causing the jewel-colored glass in the high, arched windows to shimmer. I blinked, staring around like a tourist until Agnes poked me in the back.
"That way." She pointed at a door I hadn't noticed. "And hurry. I can't hold things much longer."
I gave up hitting the cask and started pushing it instead. It had a weird, spongy feel in the center, I guess from the ignited but not-yet-burned gunpowder, which didn't make for great leverage. But I nonetheless managed to maneuver my bomb-on-a-stick through the long, narrow room and outside. Three- and four-story buildings of stone and wood hemmed in a courtyard. Frozen smoke belched from their chimney pots, reaching pale fingers toward a leaden sky.
It was bitterly cold and the air hit my face like a wet rag. It took me a moment to realize it was raining. Sheets of water hung suspended in the air like a beaded curtain, gleaming in the light we threw off. Heavy drops dangled like cabochon diamonds from the edge of rooftops, spangled low-hanging limbs and congealed half-in, half-out of puddles. It was strangely beautiful.
"The river," Agnes gasped, from cold or exhaustion. "That way." She pointed toward the right, where a line of scattered trees blocked the view.
Mud squelched under my feet as I started forward. I kept my head down, but it didn't help. Soon water ran down my forehead and dripped into my eyes, its movement the result of my own forward momentum. The rain wasn't falling on us; we were running into it as we hurried forward, leaving a path of clear air behind us like the wake of a ship.
To make the going even tougher, there was very little light. Only a few stars were visible in the cloud-covered sky, and while we shed a glow, it didn't extend far in any direction. Everything beyond our immediate vicinity was lost in shadow.
That was a problem because the place was a minefield of carts, wheelbarrows and junky lean-tos. I kept running into things and slipping on slick paving stones, which became worse after we left them behind for dirt. But Agnes turned to glare at me every time I slowed down, so I hurried after her.
We navigated across a more or less open area, around a rickety-looking fence and down a path to an iron railing. Below us was undoubtedly a river. I couldn't see much, but the smell was unmistakable: a mixture of rotting fish, sewage, mold and damp.
Agnes gave me a shove. "Get rid of it!"
I looked around. A mass of dark buildings clustered along the water's edge in either direction, just waiting to be firebombed. The only safe place for an explosion was over the water. But the stick was too short to push the fireball far enough to do any good, and climbing over the railing wouldn't help. A stone retaining wall started immediately on the other side, flowing straight down to the water's edge.
But I had to do something. The explosion had begun expanding again in super slow motion. Agnes was losing her grip on time.
I pulled off my T-shirt again and draped it around the fiery mass. "What are you doing?" she demanded.
The glowing mass lit up the thin cotton, and a few brown spots appeared. The shirt was on fire, but with time still in slow mo, I thought I might have a minute before it disintegrated. I grabbed both ends, creating a big slingshot, and spun around in a wide circle until I got up some momentum. Then I let go, sending the entire burning mass spinning away into the night.
It made it almost to mid-river, a bright ruby ball of fire against the black of the water, before splashing down. It went under, lighting up a school of fish as it slowly began to sink. Then Agnes gave a small sigh, time sped back up to normal and the underwater explosion threw a column of water twenty feet into the air.
Most of the water fell on a nearby sailing ship docked for the night. But not all. I scooped fish guts out of my bra and glared at Agnes. She didn't notice, having already taken off.
"What's the rush?" I demanded, jogging to keep up.
"It'll be November fifth in another hour," she said as light erupted behind us. I looked over my shoulder to see lanterns being lit all over the ship. Sailors scrambled to the railing, staring alternately at the waves rocking them back and forth and at the mangled sushi that had splattered the deck and lay draped over the ropes.
I turned back to find that Agnes had almost disappeared up the path. I ran after her, rain slapping me in the face.
"Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, 'twas his intent, to blow up King and Parli'ment," she singsonged.
Something clicked. "Three-score barrels of powder below, to prove old England's overthrow." She looked surprised. "I had a British governess," I explained.
"Then you know the score. Some English Catholics want to blow up parliament and James the First along with it. They don't want a Protestant king, and they think his death will return the country to Catholicism. It might have worked, if one of the members of the plot hadn't had a relative in parliament. He received a letter warning him to skip tomorrow's session and ratted them out."
"And Fawkes was found in the cellar surrounded by the evidence hours before parliament met."
"But the Guild is here to see that this time, he succeeds."
"Why would they care about that?"
She put on a burst of speed instead of answering, probably in response to the candles appearing in windows all around us. We ran, slipping and sliding over mud and water-slick grass, until we reached the painted room. I slammed the door on a few shouts from outside and leaned against it, panting.
"They don't. It's their own history they hope to help," she said, glancing at me and grinning, the adrenaline rush sparkling in her eyes. "They were just getting started in these days. But before they could grow their numbers significantly, the Circle found out what they were up to and hunted them down, almost to a man. It took them centuries to recover. I suppose they think that a massive civil war might give the Circle more important things to worry about."
She headed down the stairs and I followed silently. By Circle she meant the Silver Circle, the world's largest magical association and an umbrella organization for thousands of covens. To most people in the supernatural community, the Circle represented order, safety and stability.
I wasn't one of those people.
That had a lot to do with the fact that the Circle was currently trying to kill me in the hopes that a more suitable Pythia would take my place. Suitable in their view, meaning someone brainwashed from childhood to believe that they could do no wrong. They'd had a few thousand years of treating the Pythias as their personal errand girls and weren't happy to have a more independent-minded type in office.
"Speaking of the Circle—" I began, before Agnes clapped a hand to my mouth. We'd reentered the outer room of the cellar, and I guess she didn't want us alerting the mage that we'd returned. Just as well. I'd gotten the impression that a little tension between the Pythia and her magical protectors was normal, but the whole I-want-you-dead thing might freak her out.
What freaked me out was the reappearance of the mage, pale and wild-eyed, exploding out of the gunpowder room at a dead run. He crashed into me and I instinctively grabbed him, getting a fist to the stomach in return. I kicked him in the knee and he yelled and reared back, fist clenched, but stopped when he felt Agnes' gun beside his ear.
"Go ahead," she told him. "The paperwork for a trial is a real bitch."
"So are you!" he snarled.
I clutched my stomach and covered him with my gun while Agnes pulled a pair of cuffs out of her coat. "I have a problem," I told her quickly, before she could shift away. "I really am Pythia, but I don't know what I'm doing and there's no one in my time who can help me."
"That's a problem," she agreed, snicking the cuffs shut.
"Good luck with that." She grabbed the mage by the collar.
"Don't you dare leave!"" I said furiously. "I helped you!"
"You almost blew this place sky-high! Anyway, even if I wanted to help you, there are rules."
"Screw the rules! You stuck me with this godforsaken position—"
"I didn't hear that."
"— and now you think you can just walk away? You have a responsibility here!"
I'd been waving the gun around in my agitation, and it accidentally went off and took a chip out of a brick over the mage's head. He blinked. "Uh, ladies? Might I suggest—"
"Shut up!" we told him in unison. He shut up.
Agnes tried to shift, but I grabbed her wrist, wrenching us back at the same moment that she tried to go forward. "Are you crazy?" she screeched, only it sounded like she was talking in slow motion.
Time wobbled around us: one second, we were back where I came in, with bullets whizzing around our heads; the next we were in the future, watching a party of cloaked men in funny hats examining the ruined door. One of them caught sight of us and paled, and then we were gone, bouncing backward once more.
Agnes somehow managed to put on the brakes, wrenching us out of the time stream with what I swear was an audible pop. For a moment, we stood there, white-faced and shaking, back where we'd started but a little worse for the wear. I don't know about the others, but I felt like I'd just stepped off a roller coaster—light-headed and a little sick.
"I need to go to the bathroom," the mage said weakly.
Agnes took a deep breath and let it out, glaring at me. "You're a lousy liar. If I'd trained you, you'd have known better than to pull a stunt like that!"
"Didn't you hear me?" I demanded. "You didn't train me. That's the problem. You gave me this lousy job and then died before—"
"La-la-la. Not listening." She stuck a finger in one ear, which didn't help much as the other hand still gripped the mage's shirt.
I stared at her. My last image of Agnes was her heroic death to keep a rogue initiate from laying waste to the time line. Somewhere in my hero worship, I'd forgotten how deeply weird she could be. Of course, if I kept this job as long as she had, I might not be too normal, either. It wasn't a comforting thought.
"What the hell is wrong with you?" I asked, honestly worried that my last chance for a mentor was headed down the toilet along with her sanity.
"What's wrong with me?" She took the finger out of her ear to shake it at me. "You're not supposed to tell me these things!"
"I haven't told you that much—" I began, only to be cut off with a savage gesture.
"You've told me plenty! I have an initiate in training and she isn't you. You said I got you into this, so what happened to her? Is she dead? Did she turn dark?" Her hands waved around, banging the mage's head into the wall. "I don't know!"
"Sort of both," I said uneasily. Agnes' second heir, Myra, had turned dark and began using her time-travel abilities for her own and her allies' gain. Agnes would be forced to kill her to remove the threat to the time line but would die herself in the process. And that would leave an untrained nobody in the Pythia's position—me.
"Don't tell me that!" she whispered, clearly horrified.
"No! I didn't! I was explaining how much information I could get out of this meeting if I thought about it, which I'm absolutely not going to do because I may have already learned too much. What if something you say causes me to change the way I deal with the present—my present—which then alters your future? You might shift back only to find out that you don't exist anymore! Hadn't thought of that, had you?"
"No," I said, working to keep my temper under control.
"But that doesn't change the fact that I need training!"
"The early Pythias didn't have much in the way of training, but they managed to figure things out. So will you."
"Easy for you to say. You were trained. You never had to figure anything out!"
"Like hell." She put the hand not choking the mage on her hip in a familiar gesture. "No amount of training really prepares you for this job."
"But at least you know how the power works. I didn't get the manual!"
"There is no manual. If our enemies ever figured out everything we can do, they would be much more successful in opposing us. And time isn't all that easy to screw up any—"
She paused as, somewhere on the far side of the gunpowder room, a key turned in a lock. Agnes drew her gun and pushed it into the mage's temple hard enough to dent the skin. "Say one word—make one sound—and I swear. .," she whispered. He looked conflicted, ideology warring with self-preservation, but I guess the latter won because he stayed silent. Or maybe he couldn't talk with her fist knotted in his collar.
The three of us peered through the missing door and caught glimpses of fire. A dark-haired man stood at the far end of the room. He sat a lantern that looked a lot like the mage's well away from the casks, which he started shifting around. He was dressed like the mage, too, except for a long dark coat, and he had boots on. The spurs chimed softly in the quiet.
"Fawkes," Agnes whispered. She nudged the mage with the barrel of her gun. "Did you change anything?"
He stayed silent.
"That's not how it works," he said irritably. "You can't say you'll shoot me if I talk and then ask me a question!"
We froze as the man paused, looking our way but not seeing anything. It was pitch-dark at our end of the cellar. We'd left the mage's lantern behind when we took our stroll with the bomb and it must have gone out, because the only source of light came from Fawkes'. He paused, sniffing the damp air, where the acrid smell of the explosion still lingered. But after a moment, he went back to work.
"We've got to hurry this up," Agnes whispered. "Where was I?"
"You said time is hard to mess up. But hard isn't impossible. Some things can make a difference." On a recent trip through time, I'd accidentally changed one little thing, merely meeting a man a few hundred years before I was supposed to, and the results had been insane. The results had almost gotten both of us killed.
"Of course they can," she said impatiently. "That's why we're here."
"But how do I know what can safely be changed and what can't?" I asked desperately.
Agnes frowned. "What is this?" she demanded, her voice suddenly going flat and hard. It matched the icy color of her eyes. "Some kind of elaborate hoax?"
"What? No! I—"
She jerked the mage down to the level of her face. "Did you recruit a woman to try to fool me? Was that was this was all about?"
He glanced at me and then back at her. "Yeah," he said slowly. "You got me."
"I should have known! I knew the power wouldn't allow two Pythias to meet!" she hissed, and turned her gun on me.
I stared at her. "He's lying!"
"If he was lying, you wouldn't have asked me that!" she spat. "No Pythia would."
"Asked what? All I want is some help!"
"Oh, I'll help you!" she said, and lunged for me. The mage took his chance and ran into the gunpowder room while Agnes and I went down in a flail of limbs, her trying to cuff me while I attempted to get free without either of our guns going off. It wasn't easy. I swear the woman had an extra arm, because she somehow managed to hold both my wrists while a tiny fist clocked me upside the jaw.
"The mage is with Fawkes!" I gasped as another pair of cuffs clicked shut around my wrists. "They're going to set this whole place off and we're all going to die!"
"Yeah, and if I let you go, we'll die faster!"
"I'm not going to help them!"
"I know you're not. You're staying tied up here until I deal with this."
I glared at her. "I'm Pythia! I don't really need you to release me!"
She sat back on her heels, surveying me mockingly. "Okay, Pythia." She waved a hand. "Do your thing."
"Okay, I will!"
One of the few upsides of an otherwise hellish job is the ability to shift spatially as well as temporally. That's a fancy way of saying that I can pop in and out of places as well as times, something that's saved me on more than one occasion. I'd used the ability to move across continents; getting out of a pair of handcuffs was child's play.
I shifted a couple feet to the right, expecting to leave the cuffs behind. I'd pulled a similar trick once before and it had worked great. But this time, the cuffs traveled right along with me. Agnes demurely rearranged her skirts as I tried again. My body moved another couple feet to the left, but my hands remained as tightly bound as before.
"What the hell?"
"Magical handcuffs," she murmured.
"Get them off!"
"I thought you didn't need my help."
From the powder room, we heard the sound of angry voices and the clash of steel on steel. "You may need mine," I pointed out.
She sighed. "Some days I really hate my job."
I managed to get to my feet, but having my hands bound threw my balance off. I fell onto the steps, bounced off and ended up on my abused butt. "I hate mine all the time," I said bitterly.
"Okay, you're a Pythia."
"We go through all that, and you believe me because I have a bad attitude?"
She started working on the cuffs. "That and the fact that the Guild can't do spatial shifts."
"So why did you attack me?"
"Because you aren't supposed to be here! This isn't even supposed to be possible!"
"Maybe the power thinks I need training, too," I pointed out.
"The power doesn't think. It isn't sentient. It follows a strict group of rules, such as those built into any spell. One of which is that you can't interfere in a mission that has nothing to do with you!"
"I'm not interfering," I said crossly. "I just wanted to talk! You're the one who—"
"And in case you didn't get the memo, we're the good guys!" she added furiously, cutting me off. "We don't go around changing time!"
"Never?" I asked skeptically. Because if Agnes hadn't broken that rule, I wouldn't be alive.
"Oh, God." She threw up her hands. "Here we go again. Every initiate starts out thinking she can save the world."
"Can't you? You're Pythia. You can do anything you want."
She laughed. "Oh, you are new." She tugged on the cuffs. "Damn."
"What do you mean stuck?"
"I mean, they won't open," she said patiently.
I pulled on them until it felt like my wrists might pop off. "Why not?"
"I don't know. I don't design these things. I just use them."
"What kind of dumb-ass philosophy is that?!"
"You drive a car, don't you? Do you know how that works?"
"The general principle, yes!"
"Well, I understand the general principle here, but for some reason they aren't releasing." She worked on them for another minute until things suddenly went silent in the next room.
"What's going on?" I whispered.
"Do I need to explain the difference between clairvoyant and mind reader?" She gave up on the cuffs and dragged me to my feet, almost dislocating a shoulder in the process. "I still don't trust you," she said flatly. "But if you help me with those two, I'll give you a hint."
"A hint about what?"
"What did you come here to ask?"
"I need a little more than that!"
We glared at each other for a few seconds, until I sighed and gave in. A hint wasn't what I was after, but it was better than I had now. And it didn't look like I was going to get anything else. "Fine."
We stared into the doorway together but didn't see much. The lamp appeared to have gone out, and the sounds of fighting had stopped. That probably wasn't a good thing.
Without warning, Agnes took off across the darkened room. I followed the best I could, but running through pitch blackness with bound arms and a sore butt is even harder than it sounds, and there were obstacles everywhere. Agnes somehow managed to avoid them, but I tripped over some firewood and plowed into a support column, scraping my cheek and stubbing my toe in the process.
I lost sight of her while trying to right myself and then almost ran right past her. A hand reached out from behind another column and dragged me over. "I think I lost a toe," I gasped, waves of pain radiating up my leg.
"Shut up! They're in a small room over there!" She gestured in the direction of the slightly-less-dark pouring out of an open doorway. "The mage doesn't have a gun, but Fawkes might, so no heroics." She paused for a minute. "Sorry. I forgot who I was talking to."
I glared, but she didn't see it, having already started moving. I caught up with her and we burst into the small room together. The mage was sitting on a barrel holding an old-fashioned matchlock gun. His cuffs had come off nicely, I noticed jealously. They were on the floor, along with a sword and the lantern. Fawkes was standing alongside the wall and showed no surprise at seeing us; in fact, he didn't appear to notice that we were there. Spelled.
I saw all that in the split second before Agnes shot the mage. The bullets would have taken him right between the eyes if he hadn't been using shields. As it was, they just seemed to piss him off.
"I'd prefer you didn't do that," he said testily when she stopped.
"You can't remain shielded forever," she shot back. "And that gun only has one bullet."
"But which of you gets it?" he sneered.
Agnes changed tactics. "What's the plan, genius? Because you can blow this place up, but it won't do any good. Parliament doesn't meet until tomorrow morning. And at midnight, a party of the king's men are going to show up and spoil your fun. That's why Fawkes failed, remember?"
"But when they show up this time, they'll be met with a few surprises." He nodded at a line of little vials laid out on another barrel. They were the kind mages used in combat, and most of the spells they contained were lethal.
"I thought you people were against war," I said, mainly to give Agnes time to figure something out. I had nothing.
"There's going to be a civil war in about fifty years in any case. We're merely speeding up the timetable—and building a better world in the process."
"A better world that may not have you in it! If you start a war now, it could kill off your ancestors or alter the world in ways that guarantee they never meet. You could be committing suicide!"
"Not if I stay in this time."
"You'd stay here?" I asked incredulously.
"Unlike you, I risked my life to get here!" he snapped, suddenly angry. "Of course I'm staying!"
Agnes glanced at me. "Stop trying to reason with this joker. Go ahead and do it."
"Stop time. I'd take care of it, but I can't pull that trick twice in a row. It takes too much energy."
I fidgeted. "Uh, Agnes?"
"Your bad luck to get the mission with two Pythias!" she said with a smirk. The mage began to look a little worried.
I felt the muscles knot around my spine again. Of course, that may have been from the cuffs. "Um, there's. . sort of a problem."
"What problem? You've done it before, right?" she demanded.
"Well, yeah. But it all happened sort of fast, and I'm not sure exactly—"
"Don't tell me you don't know how!"
She was glaring at me, so I glared right back. "Hello! No training, remember? That's why I'm here!"
"That's why you're useless!" she yelled, poking me in the shoulder with the gun. Her expression was pretty fierce, but her head was doing some weird wobbly thing, like her neck was broken. I stared at her for a heartbeat before realizing that she was nodding at the mage's little vial collection. Oh, great.
She poked me again, this time in the stomach, and it hurt. I stumbled away from her, moving a few steps farther into the room. "Oh, so what? I can't perform on cue so you're going to shoot me? Is that how this works?"
"Maybe I will," she said furiously. "A Pythia who can't do anything is no help to anyone. The people in your time would probably thank me."
She had no idea. I retreated a few more steps, almost within arm's reach of the vials. "You can't kill a Pythia or her designated heir, or the power won't go to you," I reminded her. "Even I know that much!"
"News flash, kiddo," she said, aiming for my head. "I already have it!"
Agnes let off a round and I screamed and ducked, only half acting the terror thing. I lurched into the barrel, tipping it over and scattering vials everywhere. The mage cursed and leveled his gun at me, but Agnes picked up Fawkes' fallen sword and chucked it at him. He instinctively ducked and fell backward off his seat.
I dropped to the floor, trying to feel around behind me with tightly bound hands. My fingers touched two small vials and I grabbed them. I couldn't see them, but it didn't matter; I wouldn't have known what they were anyway. I stared over my shoulder and, as soon as the mage popped his head up, I flipped them at him.
The first burst against his shields in a scattering of dry orange powder and didn't appear to have any effect. But the second, a blue liquid, bit a chunk out of his shields. I started looking for more of those while Agnes kept alternating gunfire with throwing things: a wooden footstool, a burnt-out torch and a dead rat all sailed past my face to go splat against the mage's shields.
I flinched back from the rat, and then I saw it—another blue vial, nestled up against the bottom of a barrel. I crouched awkwardly, scrabbling around on the grimy floor, and at last my fingers closed over it. I didn't wait for the mage to pop back up this time, just chucked it over the pile of casks.
For once, my aim must have been pretty good. He screamed and shot out of the hedge of barrels like he was on fire. He sprinted past me, shedding sparks in his wake and—Oh, crap. "He's on fire!" I screamed.
Agnes tripped him up and he went sprawling just outside the door. She sat on his butt and clocked him upside the head with her gun. He collapsed like a sack of sand.
"You wanted a hint," she panted, batting out the flames on his back. "Here it is. You're clairvoyant. Use your gift."
I waited a few seconds, but she didn't say anything else. "That's it? That's your big hint?"
"What did you expect?"
"Something else! Something more! There has to be. . I don't know, some kind of trick to it!"
"You're the trick," she told me, retrieving his cuffs. "Why do you think clairvoyants are chosen as Pythias? If anyone could do it, these morons wouldn't screw things up every time they try to 'improve' things. They can't see what effect their actions will have; they have to guess. We can know."
A headache started to pound behind my eyes. I hadn't realized how much I'd been counting on Agnes to help me until this minute, when she refused. "Maybe you can know," I told her. "My gift doesn't work like that. Some days, it doesn't work at all!"
"Maybe you need to exercise it a little more. And to answer your earlier question, fiddling with the time stream usually causes more problems than it solves. Trust me on that one."
"So that's it?" I asked furiously. "That's what you have for me? Don't mess with time and trust my gift?"
"That's all you really need." Agnes dragged the mage's hands behind his back and clicked the cuffs on. Once he was secure, she looked up at me, and for the first time, her gaze held a flicker of compassion. "Your power will work with your natural ability, training it—and you—over time. Eventually, you will learn what you need to know."
"If it was that easy, you wouldn't spend decades training a successor!" I said quickly before she could shift out on me.
"I never said it was easy. Nothing about this job is. I said you will learn."
"And what if I don't last that long?!" I screamed, but Agnes was already gone.
I arrived back at Dante's, Vegas' hell-themed casino and my current hideout, exhausted, filthy and steaming. The worst part was, I'd gotten exactly zip out of it. I might be the world's chief clairvoyant, but my power didn't seem to know that. It came and went, ebbing and flowing like the tide, but never on such a precise schedule. And that meant I couldn't do visions on demand. I couldn't choose what I saw and what I didn't. I wasn't that strong and I never had been.
Despite the lurid theme of the casino, the penthouse was sleek, Scandinavian and contemporary, with a soft blue and gray color scheme that I usually found soothing. It wasn't working so well today. That was doubly true when I walked into the living room and was immediately accosted by a couple of half-crazed thugs. I'd have been worried, except that they were mine. Sort of.
Marco, the one weaving a quarter through his fingers as he surveyed me, was six foot six with a twenty-inch neck. The guy made dump trucks look petite. The fact that he was a vampire was almost irrelevant.
I didn't know the other guy, but that wasn't unusual. Marco's partners constantly changed, but they were always vamps armed to the teeth. This one was no exception and looked enough like Marco—slicked-back dark hair, barrel chest and tree trunk legs—that they might have been related. Of course, they just as easily might not. That description fit almost every babysitter I'd had in the last three days.
"What's the deal here?" Marco asked, his voice thick with muscle. "You said you was going for a fitting. That you had to get naked for this designer guy, so we might as well stay here since you wasn't letting us in the room anyway. You said you was just going downstairs. That you'd be right back."
"I don't have time for this," I told him. I ached pretty much everywhere, except for my shoulders, which had stopped screaming and started going numb. It was making me think about lack of blood flow and gangrene. "Can you get me out of these cuffs?"
"Yeah, I'll get right on that." He made a savage gesture, and the quarter sailed through the open balcony doors and took out a window on the next building. It made me jump, since Marco had so far shown no emotion whatsoever. "As soon as you tell me what's going on. Because I'm thinking we got a communication problem, you and me."
"You took advantage of our trust," his partner added in a high-pitched squeak.
"What's going on is that I need to get out of these cuffs and into a bath!" I snapped, my temper hanging by a thread. "Mircea is coming—"
"Yeah. I know," Marco said tightly. "The front desk called to say he's on his way up."
"He's on his way now? Why?"
"You have a date."
"Appointment. And that's not until two a.m.!" I whirled, looking for a clock, but of course I didn't find one. Clocks made you think about bedtime and bath time and dinner-time instead of gambling the night away in blissful ignorance. The casino didn't like clocks.
"It's five to two," Marco informed me, shoving his hairy wrist in my face. "You've been gone all night."
"You want to get me killed, is that it?" he demanded. "I piss you off somehow I don't remember? You working out some kinda grudge?"
"No! I. . just lost track of time. I was busy." In fact, I wasn't all that great at timing my shifts yet. I'd planned to come back a few minutes after I left, in which case I wouldn't have had to worry about explaining things to the deadly duo. Not that I should have had to do so in the first place.
Marco scraped something gray and hairy that was absolutely not smashed rat off my shoulder. "Doing what? Dumpster diving?"
I counted to ten and reminded myself not to overreact. The muscle twins were only doing what they'd been told. Getting rid of them was going to require talking with the one who'd sent them, and even that wasn't likely to work. Because their master also considered himself mine, and he liked to keep an eye on his property.
Mircea Basarab had been born a nobleman in fifteenth-century Romania, when one's woman was almost as prized a possession as one's horse. They were also treated about the same: dressed up and shown off on important occasions, and petted and pampered and kept under careful watch the rest of the time. And although he had since modernized his wardrobe, his vocabulary and his job description, his attitude toward women was remarkably constant.
Not that I was his woman, as I'd mentioned several times. By coincidence, it was the same number he hadn't been listening. I somehow had the feeling that something similar would happen if I brought up getting rid of Marco and friend. For someone who could hear a pin drop three rooms away, Mircea could be amazingly deaf.
It wasn't that I objected to the idea of protection—quite the opposite, in fact. Far too many people had my name on their to-do-nasty-things-to list. But while vampires are formidable opponents—especially the masters, which judging by the power he was leaking all over the place, Marco definitely was—they tend not to perform so well against certain kinds of opponents. Like revenge-minded ancient deities. For what I was facing, I needed something a little more subtle with a lot more punch. Not that I had any idea what that was yet.
I heard the elevator outside the penthouse ding and went into panic mode. I fled to the bedroom, followed closely by Marco. His buddy must've remained in the living room to greet the master—and hopefully to stall him.
"Tell him I'm not up yet," I said, trying to wriggle under the bedclothes.
Marco shook his head. "That ain't gonna work. You knew he was coming. He's gonna expect you to talk. He's gonna expect some quality time. And if there's cuffs involved, he's gonna expect them to be his."
I shut my eyes, trying hard not to think about Mircea and handcuffs. And got an inspiration. "The bathroom. Hurry!"
We ran into the gray and white opulence of the adjoining bath and I slammed the door. "Quick! Fill the tub. And get me out of these cuffs!"
Marco didn't ask questions, just started hot water flowing into the huge soaking tub and threw in half a container of bath salts. Bubbles foamed up everywhere as he bent to examine the restraints. After a few seconds, he said a bad word. "These are magical cuffs," he told me so softly I could hardly understand him over the rushing water. I guess he was worried about vampire hearing. "They ain't gonna come off easy. We're gonna need a mage."
Pritkin would have normally been my first choice, but he already considered my intelligence to be sadly underutilized. If he saw me like this, I'd never hear the end of it. Not to mention that he'd demand to know where I'd been, and I hadn't had time to come up with a good lie yet.
"Find Francoise," I whispered. She was a witch and a good friend. There was an outside chance she wouldn't laugh at me. "And get my bra off, fast!"
Marco shied back, and for the first time an expression broke through that tough demeanor. It was terror. "You're cute, but you're the master's woman. And ain't no woman alive worth that kind of—"
"I'm not propositioning you!" I hissed. "I need to be in that tub with my cuffs hidden under the bubbles until you get back, in case Mircea pokes his head around the door. And I can't wear a bra and pull that off!"
"Then add more bubbles or something, because ain't no way in hell—"
"Help me out here, Marco. Unless you want him to know you lost track of me for most of the night?" Truth be told, I wasn't thrilled with that idea myself. Mircea was already of the opinion that I should be hidden away somewhere for my own protection, and I didn't need anything adding fuel to the fire. The Pythia's power wasn't absolute, and he was damn tricky.
"I'm still not ripping your bra off," Marco said stubbornly.
"I am pleased to hear it," a voice said from the doorway.
Marco spun in a move too fast to see and went dead white. I looked past him and found myself staring into a familiar face. One with a full-lipped mouth curved enough to be almost feminine that contrasted starkly with strong, masculine features. Mircea.
"It's not Marco's fault," I said quickly, because a vampire who disobeyed his master usually met a very serious fate.
"Not entirely," Mircea agreed. His voice was calm, but his cheeks were flushed and a pulse throbbed at his temple. He looked to be in the middle of a slow-burning, very tightly controlled freak-out. And that really wasn't good. Mircea's iron control was legendary, although a few incidents in the recent past had shaken it somewhat.
Come to think of it, most of them had involved me.
"Out," Mircea said, and Marco didn't need to be told twice.
I was on his heels until a heavy hand descended on my shoulder, right over the suspicious stain. I caught sight of myself in the rapidly fogging mirror, and suddenly it was all too much. "I have fish guts in my hair," I said.
"I can see that."
"And I think there may be r-rat," I admitted tearfully.
Mircea studied me for a long moment and then relief softened his grim expression and he let out a sigh. "I am more concerned about the gunpowder," he said, pulling me in.
"Most of it didn't blow up," I told him, trying to pull back so that the God-knew-what clinging to my sweat-streaked upper body didn't stain his silk shirt or drop onto his Italian loafers.
"Good to know," he said calmly before drawing me into a fierce embrace. Mircea kissed like he wanted to live in my skin, slow and thorough, with teeth and tongue, like he never ever wanted to stop. Like he was afraid.
He took a second longer than me to open his lids. When he did, I was confronted with eyes that had gone bright amber. They're usually a rich brown, changing colors only when his power is surging. From a distance, it's impressive; this close, it was dazzling.
The rest of the package wasn't too shabby, either. His hair was mahogany and below shoulder length, although it was hard to tell because it was always pulled back into a slim gold clip at his neck. Well, almost always. The few times I'd seen it in disarray flashed across my mind unexpectedly and heated my cheeks.
Despite close contact with me, his clothes were dirt free and as usual were showcasing the sheer expense of restraint. Today's outfit consisted of a long-sleeved shirt striped in black on black and black slacks. The clothes were so casually elegant that I immediately wanted to pull them out of shape. Of course, the body underneath might have had something to do with that.
Mircea's fingers unerringly found the gash in the back of my jeans. They slid carefully over the small wound below and his lips tightened, but I didn't get a demand for information. I hadn't really expected one; Mircea was subtler than that. "We've been searching for you for hours" was his only comment.
"But Marco said he didn't tell you—"
"An oversight that will never reoccur."
Master vampires protected their families, and in return they received unquestioning obedience. Most of their servants were physically unable to disobey, with the only exceptions being those who reached master status themselves. But even in their case, going against a direct command was extremely difficult, especially when they served one of the few first-level masters in the world. Marco must have been really strong to be able to flout Mircea's orders.
And now he was in trouble because he'd covered for me.
"What are you going to do?" I asked, worried.
"Discipline my servant." His usually mellow voice was suddenly flat and hard.
"Do you know what some of our enemies could have done to you in five hours, Cassie?" His fingers tightened fractionally on my skin. "I do. I've spent all night with the possible scenarios running through my mind."
"He didn't know I'd left the hotel. I told him that I was—"
"How? And if Marco didn't tell you I was missing, how did you know?"
He didn't answer, just leaned over and turned off the tap. A mountain of feathery white bubbles had foamed over the side of the bath and spilled onto the marble tiles, making the floor even slipperier than usual. They didn't seem to bother Mircea, who sat on the side of the tub to examine the cuffs.
"Ah, yes. An older version, but I think I recall—" He did something and, at last, they snapped open.
I sagged against him in relief and didn't even notice that he'd gotten my bra off until a thumb swept over a nipple. "Mircea. ." I started to make some kind of protest but forgot halfway through.
He dropped to one knee and undid my shoes, while I held on to his shoulders and bit my lip. "Most men would have taken advantage of your previous position," he told me. His face was still stern, but eyes were laughing.
"You're not most men."
"Kind of you to notice." He tossed my filthy shoes, socks and bra into a corner. "And I prefer you to have the full use of your hands." I swallowed and he finally smiled for real, his hands lingering on my waist.
"I don't like the idea of someone suffering because of me," I told him.
"He won't be suffering because of you." His fingers found the button on my jeans, and I stepped back, grateful for the steam that might help explain my furious blush. It was stupid—it wasn't like Mircea hadn't seen me in less—but the idea of standing there in a thong with him still fully clothed was doing bad things to my blood pressure.
He moved with me, arching an eyebrow. He trailed a finger along my waistband. "Is there something in there that will surprise me?"
"I hope not," I said fervently. "About Marco—"
"He disobeyed my direct command to be immediately informed of any danger to you. I could not ignore such a challenge to my authority, even were you not involved."
"That doesn't make me feel any better."
"I will not permanently injure him, Cassie," he told me, sounding as if it was a major concession—which was probably the case.
He unzipped my jeans and pushed them down my hips before I could protest. I stepped out of the puddle of filthy denim, caught between desire and serious embarrassment. He tossed the jeans aside, hooked a finger under the little bow on the front of my thong and pulled me to him.
He was still smiling, but it had changed. Something about it made sweat start to prickle at the base of my hair and my arms to curve around his neck. His lips fit against mine like a missing puzzle piece.
Dark and sweet, Mircea's taste was intoxicating, like the crisp midnight scent of him. It sent liquid shivers to the pit of my stomach and made my toes curl. I heard myself groan into his mouth, my entire body leaping at his touch, and suddenly a kiss wasn't enough. I wanted to taste all of him, to learn the texture and sensitivity of every inch of flesh.
But that was exactly what I couldn't do. If I wanted any chance of making up with the Circle, I had to avoid things that might increase their distaste for me. Like rumors connecting me to a Senate member.
The North American Vampire Senate was one of six sovereign bodies that ruled the world's vampire population the way the Circle did the mages. It and the Circle were currently allies, but it was a new association that had done little to erase centuries of dislike and mistrust. The Circle viewed a Pythia who was out of their control as bad enough; one under the thumb, or so they believed, of the vampires was a worst-case scenario.
Unless it was a Pythia dating a senator, that is.
Not that Mircea and I were dating. In fact, I'd been studiously avoiding him lately. Add lingering traces of a childhood infatuation, a powerful devotion spell that had only recently been lifted and a guy who even non-bespelled women went stupid over, and what did you get? A mess.
I knew what I felt for Mircea, but I wasn't sure why; even worse, I didn't have any idea what he felt for me. While under the spell, he'd been genuinely infatuated. But with it no longer in the picture, I had to wonder what attraction I would hold for a five-hundred-year-old master vampire if I wasn't the reigning Pythia and we weren't in the middle of a war.
Until I found out, I didn't want my heartbeat to pick up speed every time I thought of him. I didn't want to feel that smile, lazy and suggestive and full of promise, when he kissed me; didn't want to smell the intoxicating scent of his neck under his shirt collar, to taste his sweat and hear his voice break. I didn't want to want.
," Mircea said quietly, using the pet name he'd given me as a child, meaning "dear one." And despite everything, that word in that voice made my heart give a little start behind my ribs.
It didn't matter what my heart said, I reminded myself. My heart told me stupid stuff all the time. My heart should just shut the hell up.
"Come back to MAGIC with me," Mircea murmured, his hands finding the muscles of my neck and beginning to expertly knead away the tension. I told my body not to respond and it obeyed as well as it ever did when it came to Mircea—not at all. "My personal apartment is extensive. You can have your own room" — he nipped me lightly on the neck—"if you want it."
"I don't like MAGIC," I told him unsteadily, turning away. I lost the thong and submerged myself in the tub.
"It's the safest place for you," he said lightly.
MAGIC, short for the Metaphysical Alliance for Greater Interspecies Cooperation, was the supernatural community's version of the United Nations, allowing mages, vampires, Weres and even the Fey—when they bothered to show up—to talk out their difficulties. It had some of the strongest wards anywhere, powered by a potent energy source known as a ley line sink. Mircea was right—it was the safest place around.
For anyone not fighting a god, that is.
"There is no safe place for me," I told him shortly, searching around under the bubbles for my loofah.
"Not if you continue to evade the protections placed around you." Mircea pushed his sleeve up and plunged his arm into the almost scalding water, finding the loofah easily. He turned me around and began to wash my back in long, soothing strokes. I tried not to relax—I knew damn well what he was up to—but my body had other ideas. When he zeroed in on the knot at the small of my back, I couldn't bite back a groan.
He finished my back and pulled me against him. He abandoned the loofah, lathered his hands with soap and began to wash my shoulders and arms. "You'll ruin your clothes," I protested weakly.
"I have others."
I sighed and closed my eyes, letting my body go on autopilot for a few minutes. The warmth of his hands slowly worked the tension out of my muscles, making me feel almost human again. Soon I was holding out an arm or leg when instructed, so he could wash my elbows and the underside of my breasts, my calves and the back of my knees. .
I could feel his breath on my cheek as I relaxed back against the tub. My hand unconsciously went to his hair, feeling its softness as he massaged me with slow deliberate strokes, pulling a deep sigh from my aching body. God, it was unfair how easily he could make me melt, every good intention lost in pleasure after only a few touches. "I love how responsive you are," he whispered, his fingers trailing a path of goose bumps down my stomach. When they brushed between my legs a moment later, I felt like I might climb out of my skin.
I sat up abruptly, grabbed a washcloth and took over before I ended up agreeing to whatever he wanted. "What are you doing, Mircea?" I asked unsteadily.
He sighed and sat back on his heels, but he didn't pretend to misunderstand me. "Trying to keep you alive."
"That won't happen by hiding me away somewhere. And cowering in a corner until Apollo finds me isn't—"
"Apollo." Mircea's voice held disdain. "You honor him by continuing to use that name."
I shrugged. "It's what he calls himself."
"Because he enjoys pretending to godhood."
"Whereas he's really only an immensely powerful, ancient magical creature from another world," I said sarcastically.
"Whatever he is, the Circle is better equipped—"
"No. They're not. They're in even more danger than I am."
As the ancient legends said, Apollo had once lorded it over the Earth along with others of his kind. Among other things, their rule had involved a lot of smiting of worshippers who didn't grovel sufficiently or, worse, failed to grovel at all, being too busy attempting to eject some godly butts from the planet. But the mages of the day hadn't had much success with that: the «gods» had their own form of magic, one that was so different from the human variety that all attempts to dislodge them had failed.
That had continued to be true until Apollo's sister, Artemis, realized that humankind was heading for extinction and gave some mages the spell to banish her kind and block the way back to Earth. The only ones not affected were of the demigod variety who had enough human blood to anchor them to this world, and most of them were soon rounded up and imprisoned by the magical community. Human rule over Earth was reestablished, and the Silver Circle formed to guard it.
That might have been the end of the story, except that Apollo had been able to keep in contact with his servants, the Pythias, through the power he'd bestowed on them. The Circle knew that, but the fact that the power migrated to a new host as soon as the old one died had made dealing with them a problem. They couldn't kill every clairvoyant on the planet, so they compromised by ensuring that the Pythias stayed firmly under their magical thumb. That had remained true for thousands of years.
The Circle's fear of what Apollo might do through me was the main reason for their dogged attempts to put me in a grave situation. That was highly ironic, since almost the only thing I'd done with the power so far had been to use it against their old enemy. That had stuck me between the proverbial rock and a hard place, with both the Circle and Apollo wanting me dead.
It was nice that they could agree on something.
To add to the irony, the Circle and I were currently allies—at least technically. They had joined with the Senate, with whom I had an understanding, against Apollo and everyone he'd been able to con into supporting him—some rogue vampires and a powerful group of dark mages calling themselves the Black Circle. And so far things weren't looking that great for our side, mainly because Apollo didn't have to win in order for us to lose.
Artemis' spell had a weakness—it took too much power for any one person to maintain. That was one reason the Circle had been set up in the first place: to parcel the load out onto thousands of mages. The Circle also had the advantage of being eternal, which dodged the inconvenient fact that spells don't usually outlast the demise of the caster. With new mages being recruited as fast as the old ones died or retired, the Circle hadn't had to worry about the deaths of individual members threatening the spell—unless it was the deaths of thousands of members.
All Apollo had to do was to keep chipping away at the Circle's numbers and, sooner or later, there wouldn't be enough people left to maintain the spell. The doorway would reopen and he and his kind would be back for an encore. And I doubted the magical community would enjoy, or survive, the experience. The other side was united, and if we didn't manage the same soon, they'd wipe the floor with us.
"We have done some research," Mircea told me, pouring shampoo into his palm and starting on my filthy hair. He paused to pick something out of it, which I deliberately didn't look at, and then continued. "Based on the size of the Circle when the spell was first cast versus what it is today, we estimate that our enemies would have to destroy more than ninety percent of the current mages for the spell to fail. Not a likely scenario."
It was a little hard to think with his fingers kneading my scalp, but I tried anyway. "But not an impossible one. And where apocalypse is concerned, I'd prefer a sure thing."
"And I would prefer you to stay out of it." He pulled me to my feet, and a warm drizzle from a rainforest shower head set into the ceiling began sluicing the suds away. I frowned at him through silvery beads of water, too annoyed to be embarrassed.
"Apollo won't let me stay out of it," I pointed out. "Other than the Circle, I'm at the top of his hit list. It's going to be a little hard to draw him out without using me as bait."
"There is a vast difference between being bait and being a target," Mircea noted, wrapping a huge Turkish bath towel around me. The black silk of his shirt had gotten wet and was clinging to the muscles in his stomach and arms. I tried really hard not to stare.
"Funny; they feel about the same from where I'm standing."
I gingerly got out of the tub and sat at the dressing table to check the extent of the damage. The furrow carved by the bullet in my hip was gone, courtesy of Mircea, I assumed. He had a limited ability to heal injuries and had helped me once before. A puncture mark I didn't remember getting stung my calf and there were a few burn marks on my hands. They matched the still-tender scars on my stomach and wrist from a recent adventure I was trying hard to forget.
Mircea's eyes lingered on the scars, too. "Magical healers can work miracles compared to their non-magical counterparts, but there are things even they cannot heal," he said softly.
"I guess I've been lucky."
Mircea didn't say anything, but his expression was eloquent. Luck didn't last forever. How long would it be before mine ran out?
A finger brushed aside my hair and trailed lightly over two little bumps on my neck. They weren't noticeable, being tiny and the same color as the rest of my skin, but Mircea found them easily. Not surprising, since he'd put them there. They were his mark, the one that identified me as his in the vampire world.
We might as well be married as far as vamps were concerned, despite the fact that I hadn't actually been asked. Hadn't, in fact, realized what was happening until the marking was long over. It wouldn't have mattered to another vampire, who would have considered herself lucky to belong to a Senate member. But although I might have grown up with them, I wasn't a vamp. And I wasn't thrilled with the idea of being owned, no matter how nice the fringe benefits.
"You aren't going to distract me," I told Mircea severely, because he was doing a damn good job of it. "I need to come to terms with the Circle, and they aren't going to understand my living with you."
"You're already living with me. I own this hotel."
"It's open to the public and you aren't here on a regular basis. Moving into your personal quarters, even if they are the size of a house, isn't the same thing. The Circle won't like it."
Mircea bent down and trailed his lips over the twin marks, making me shiver. "Do you know, dulceaţ, I am getting very tired of hearing about what the Circle does and does not like."
"So am I. But we have to face—"
He stopped me with a kiss that turned my spine to JellO. This wasn't the way this argument was supposed to go, I thought vaguely as my fingers curled into the wet fabric of his shirt. I was right; I should be winning. And nobody should be sticking a tongue in anybody else's mouth.
"You're too precious to lose," he told me, when I broke for air.
"If anything happens, I'm sure the Senate will—"
"I wasn't talking about the Senate," he said, a strange smile ghosting his lips.
Our eyes met and it was suddenly hard to breathe. "Oh." I felt oddly small and strangely powerful at the same time.
"And I am not proposing to take you to MAGIC, at least not immediately. I have been called away on family business."
"Again? You just got back."
"And because I cannot trust you not to undermine my servants in my absence—"
"— or to stay out of trouble for even a few days, you are coming with me."
The family's customized Boeing Business Jet wasn't so much a plane as a flying hotel suite. It had glove leather seats the size of recliners in the dining area that were clustered around a shiny maple table. There was more maple on the walls and a luxurious coffee-and-cream-patterned carpet on the floor, and the bathroom boasted almost as much granite as the one at Dante's.
Mircea was sitting on a cream leather sofa in the lounge area, looking perfectly at home in a silver-gray shirt and tie and a sleek black suit. I felt a little too informal in a pair of jean shorts and a blue and white striped tank top, but I hadn't had a chance to ask where we were going before getting dressed. At least I was clean.
Mircea had been staring out the window instead of at the forty-seven-inch plasma TV on the wall, but he looked up when I returned from my exploration. "There's an actual bed in the next room," I informed him, before realizing how that sounded.
His lips did a slow curve. "We aren't going that far."
"Where are we going, exactly?"
"To Radu's home, near Napa."
I knew Mircea had a brother named Radu. I'd even met him on one very memorable occasion. But this seemed an odd time for a social call.
"It has been my experience that family business never waits for a convenient time," he commented when I said as much. "Although this will be a quick visit. The Consul is expecting to receive her African and European counterparts in two days, and I must be there."
"They're coming here?"
"With their entourages."
"But. . I didn't think consuls traveled much." A consul was the head of a senate and as such was seen as too valuable to risk. Not that the ones I'd met had seemed in need of much protection. They were pretty scary all on their own.
"These are difficult times. The danger in not combining our strength is far greater than any risks required to do so. If we don't align our interests for the war, we may soon find ourselves without any."
Mircea sounded like maybe he'd made that argument more than a few times lately. "Is that a prepared speech?"
He ran a hand over his face, and for the first time, he looked tired. "Yes, but it's not supposed to sound like one."
A steward came in and set a silver tray with some covered chafing dishes on the coffee table. They turned out to be hiding eggs, bacon and thick-sliced French toast. Orange juice in a cut crystal carafe sat on the side, along with a small bowl of fresh peaches. The sun wouldn't rise for another hour or so, but my stomach grumbled anyway. I'd missed dinner by about four hundred years.
I ate some of everything, even the eggs, despite the pearl-gray caviar the steward had insisted on piling on top. Mircea had coffee. But as stimulants don't work too well on vampires, I doubted it was doing much for him.
He resumed staring out the window while I ate, which alone would have told me that something was wrong. He was the reigning champion of idle chitchat. And that was with someone he didn't know.
Everyone on the Senate had a job, what in a president's cabinet would be called a portfolio. Mircea was the Consul's chief negotiator, the go-to guy when people were being stubborn about giving her what she wanted. Normally, he was able to engineer miracles, bringing even the most obstinate types around to her way of thinking. But this time, she might have asked too much.
"Do you really think the other senates are going to get on board?" I asked.
"What do your cards say?" he countered, obviously not wanting to give odds.
The only tarot deck I had on me had been a present from an old friend who'd had them spelled as a joke. I didn't know who had done the charm, but it was a damn good one. Doing a spread with them was a real pain, but they were eerily good at predicting the overall magical climate of a situation.
"It won't be a normal reading," I warned him, fishing them out. "They don't shut up long enough."
I'd barely gotten the words out when two cards popped up all on their own from the deck.
"The Emperor," a light tenor proclaimed, while a deeper voice majestically intoned, "Death!" After that, it was a little hard to tell what they said, as they kept trying to talk over one another. They got progressively louder in the process until I finally managed to shove them back in the pack and snap it shut.
"The Emperor stands for strength, assertiveness, sometimes aggression," I told Mircea, who was looking amused. "If referring to a person, it usually signifies a father or father figure, a leader or employer, or a king or despot. If to a situation, it indicates a time when bold moves are needed for success."
"Should I worry that the Death card came up as well?" he asked lightly.
"Not really. It almost never means actual death. Normally it foretells the end of something—a dream, an ambition, a relationship. ."
"For some reason I do not feel particularly reassured" was the dry response.
"In this case, it modifies the Emperor," I explained. "The two cards are often associated with each other. An emperor only secures power through the death of his predecessor, he stays in power partially by the fear of death he inspires and his power ends with his own death."
Mircea frowned. "We will shortly have three consuls together for the first time in centuries. Do not take this the wrong way, but I sincerely hope that your interpretation is not the correct one."
So did I.
"What do you plan to do with the alliance, if you get it?" I asked.
"Defeat this god of yours. We cannot reach him—he isn't in this world; a situation we hope continues—but his followers are. To eradicate the threat, we must remove them. All of them. But such an operation will require a combined effort."
A combined effort. Why did I see a problem there? "If the other senates agree, who will lead them?" I asked slowly. "The Consul?"
Mircea sighed and rubbed his eyes again. "That is one of many sticking points. None of the consuls are accustomed to taking anyone else's direction, nor have they been for hundreds of years."
"So it's your job to convince the world's five most powerful vampires to take orders from her?"
"And I thought my job sucked."
He smiled slightly. "In fact, I do not expect to persuade them all. The Consul has a reasonably good relationship with the European and African consuls, which is how we were able to convince them to visit. And I have some influence at the Chinese court. But we have little leverage with the Indian durbar and none at all in Latin America. If we bring even one of those around, it will surprise me."
"But still, even three or four senates united has to be some kind of record, right?"
"If we can pull it off, yes. But half the senators hate the other half, in many cases because of slights hundreds of years old. Not to mention jealousies, rivalries and too-sensitive egos. Without any real proof of our allegations to offer them, I am not sanguine about our chances."
"We're at war. That seems pretty tangible to me!"
"But against whom? Apollo is not here. All they see are the same old enemies—the Black Circle and a few rogue vampires—with whom our senate has successfully dealt on previous occasions. As a result, they are extremely suspicious of the necessity for an alliance. I believe they suspect us of inventing the divine connection in an attempt to bring them under the Consul's subjugation."
I blinked, absorbing all that. I hadn't seen much of Mircea in the last few days, but I'd assumed that I was just really good at avoiding him. Or, more likely, that he'd noticed the distinct lack of Cassie in his vicinity right away and hadn't cared. But that had made me feel pathetically like a kicked puppy, so I'd focused on the fact that he had a perfectly good reason to be absent.
Mircea and I had both been affected by the love spell gone haywire, but he'd been hit by it far harder and, because of some time complications, had had to deal with it far longer than I had. I'd assumed he was taking some time to recover and had been glad of it, considering how he'd looked when I last saw him. But it didn't sound like he'd been getting any rest at all. And now this family thing had cropped up, whatever it was.
"You should try to take it easy for a while," I said, frowning. "You aren't exactly at your best right now."
One of those expressive eyebrows went up. "I beg your pardon?"
I sighed. That hadn't come out right. "I mean, everybody thinks master vampires are pretty much invincible. Only that's not true, is it? You can get tired and. . and things." I'd seen him hurt and vulnerable recently, and the image had stuck with me. It was yet another reason for keeping my distance.
I'd learned the lesson years ago—never let people get too close. Care, but not too much, because sooner or later, I was going to lose them. My mother's attempt at a new life had ended in a car bomb arranged by a vampire who'd wanted a Seer at his court. She was too smart to take the job, but he thought her daughter would be perfect—if only I didn't have pesky parents around to tell me what a jerk he was.
Tony, the vamp in question, had also tortured my childhood governess to death in a fit of pique, after I'd grown up enough to figure things out and flee from him. Others I'd left behind, either at Tony's or while moving about from place to place, trying to stay one step ahead of the servants he had searching for me. But however it happened, sooner or later, I'd look around and the people who meant something were gone. I'd learned the hard way that keeping my distance made it easier for everyone in the end.
Keep it superficial, stay far enough away, and no one even noticed when you left.
"Is something wrong, dulceaƫă?"
"No." I swallowed. "Nothing. I just wish. ."
"I wish you could take some time off," I told him.
Mircea's face still looked grave, but his eyes were smiling. "I'm afraid a vacation is out of the question at the moment."
"Well, maybe you could think of something else that relaxes you."
Amber sparked somewhere deep in his eyes. "A few things do come to mind."
I gave him a look. "I mean, maybe you could work on something different for a while? They say a change is as good as a rest."
The growing amber flecks seemed to hold the light and warm it. "I am always happy to experiment." He tucked a stray curl behind my ear. "Did you have anything particular in mind?"
I licked suddenly dry lips, trying not to think about what five hundred years of experience could dream up. "N-not really."
"Then I suppose we'll have to wing it." He pressed me back against the sinfully soft couch cushions and kissed me. When his tongue touched mine, my brain suddenly started suggesting all sorts of interesting possibilities.
And then the captain came on the intercom to announce our successful landing. I looked around in surprise. I hadn't even noticed the descent.
"We could stay here for a while," someone who sounded a lot like me said breathlessly.
Mircea kissed me again, quickly this time, before getting up. "Tempting. But I have to go."
"You mean, we have to go."
"I brought you with me to keep you safe—not to put you in more danger." He started to walk away, but I grabbed his sleeve, managing to put a few wrinkles in its perfect drape.
"Danger? I thought we were visiting your brother."
"I am. You are staying here. Radu is having a few problems and I don't wish you involved in them."
"Maybe I can help," I said, starting to get up. Only to find that I couldn't.
I looked down to see a familiar silver bracelet tight around my wrist. I pulled on it, but it was securely fastened through the arm of the couch, caught on something inside the plush leather—the frame, by the feel of it. Damn it, I'd forgotten to ask for the cuffs back!
"This shouldn't take long, and you will be well cared for until I return," he said. And then he just walked out.
I yelled and rattled the cuffs loud enough to wake the dead, but nobody came to help me. I tried shifting and ended up on the tarmac outside the plane—still attached to the couch—in time to watch Mircea drive away. I didn't know where Radu lived, so I couldn't follow him. Not to mention that it was kind of hard to envision being of much use chained to a huge piece of furniture.
I shifted back onto the plane, fuming, and a ghost popped in. That wouldn't normally require comment, as it happens to me all the time—one of the annoyances of being clairvoyant. But this was a little different since this ghost I knew.
Billy Joe was wearing the jaunty Stetson and the ruffled shirt he'd died in a century and a half ago. Normally, the shirt is a brilliant crimson that easily catches the eye. At the moment, it was a pale, faded color, like it had been left out on a wash line too long. It got that way only when his energy levels were close to bottoming out.
"Don't start," I told him before he could open his mouth. "I tried to find you before we left. I knew you needed a draw." Billy and I had a long-standing arrangement in which I fed him extra energy and he fed me information. Neither of us ever got as much as we wanted out of the deal, but it was better than nothing.
"Damn right I need a draw, but that isn't why I'm here." He noticed my wrist and his frown changed to a smirk. "You and the vampire getting kinky?"
"He didn't want me following him."
"So he tied you up?" Billy laughed. "Did you even get any first?"
I glared at him. The skin of my wrist burned where Mircea had touched me, a fluid heat that spread through me and brought an answering flush to my cheeks. "Just because you have a habit of popping in on me at all times of the day and night doesn't give you the right to—"
"Guess not," he said, hiking an insubstantial butt cheek onto the sofa. "So get out of those and let's go. You got an important meeting to make."
"If I knew how to get out of them, I'd have already done it," I said testily. "And what meeting?"
"Oh, I don't know. Which one have you been trying to set up for the past three days?"
It took me a second to get it. Pritkin had been pestering the Circle to meet with me ever since Apollo entered the equation. But I hadn't actually expected him to get anywhere. Once a member of the Circle himself, Pritkin had broken with them over his support of me. I'd assumed they wanted his head on the platter right beside mine.
"The Circle wants to meet? Since when?"
Billy rolled his eyes. "Since yesterday. Word came in shortly after you left to chase Agnes. Don't you read your messages?"
"What messages? I didn't get any messages!"
"Pritkin went by your place about a dozen times, but you were never there. So he started leaving notes with that huge guy."
"Yeah. That's the one."
"Marco didn't give them to me." Or even mention them—or Pritkin or the meeting. I was beginning to think that he was right. We had a communication problem.
Billy shrugged. "Mircea must have ordered him not to."
I opened my mouth to say that Mircea wouldn't do that but shut it again before the words got out. Who was I kidding? Mircea totally would.
"The Senate likes the idea of a Pythia under their control," I said, working it out. "And if the Circle and I make up—"
"You might get a little too cozy," Billy finished.
"So Mircea was delegated to get me out of the way before the meeting." I felt my face flush, remembering that scene in front of the mirror. So I was too precious to lose, huh? Too important to him?
"Uh, Cass?" Billy was looking at me a little funny. "The meeting is at Dante's—Pritkin insisted. Something about neutral ground. Anyway, we got less than an hour before the mages show up."
I started to stand, only to be jerked back down again. "I'm kind of chained to a sofa," I pointed out.
Billy grinned. "Bet Pritkin could get you loose."
I sighed. Yeah, but I'd never live it down. "He's in his room?" I asked resignedly.
"I think you'll fit," Billy said gleefully. "If we push."
I sighed. Never. And shifted.
Like me, Pritkin had recently gotten an upgrade in accommodations. They were roomier than the old version, but to be on the safe side, I landed in the corridor outside. And my large leather accessory landed on top of Marco's friend. He was a vampire and the sofa was built to be lightweight for air travel, so it didn't hurt him. It didn't make him too happy, though.
"Marco said you might show up," he said, lifting it off and dumping it to the side. "He also said you wasn't to be allowed to talk to the mage."
My eyes narrowed. "I'll talk to whomever I damn well please," I told him, trying to drag the sofa around so I could knock on the door.
He put a foot on the nearest couch cushion and took out a cell phone. "She's back," he told it while I pulled and tugged and got nowhere. "Marco says I'm to take you upstairs," I was informed.
"You and what army?" I grunted. "And get your foot off my sofa."
The vamp regarded my leather appendage for a second and then looked toward the elevator. The thought process didn't appear to be swift, but he did eventually arrive at the right conclusion—it wasn't going to fit. "I'll have to break it in two," he said, grabbing the other end. "Sorry, but I'm sure the master will buy you another one."
"It's Mircea's," I said quickly. "It's his sofa. And he's really, really attached to it."
The vamp looked suspicious. "To a sofa?"
"It's a designer original, hand-dyed to coordinate with the rest of the furniture on his BBJ. You mess it up, and they'll never get another one to match. It'll stand out like a sore thumb. It'll be embarrassing."
We stood staring at each other for a long minute, and the vamp blinked first. "I don't want to embarrass the master," he said slowly, reaching for his cell phone. But he'd forgotten to put his foot back on the couch, so I gave a mighty heave and slid over within arm's length of the door.
"Hey!" He was there in a heartbeat, with his hand on my arm. So I kicked the door instead of knocking. "You gotta go back upstairs. Marco said so!"
"Tell Marco to go to hell!"
"Trust me, I'm already there," Marco informed me from the stairwell.
Damn it! I tried to kick the door again, but Marco grabbed the end of the sofa and dragged me back out of reach. "You're coming with us. Deal with it," he told me.
An elderly couple came out of the next room while we were standing there glaring at each other. The man was wearing a blue polo shirt and a pair of plaid shorts that started around his armpits and just brushed his knobby knees. The woman had on a Chippendales souvenir tee, a pair of bright red jogging shorts and matching Keds. They both looked about ninety.
"You're gonna have to move your couch," the old man said. "The missus and I gotta get to the elevator."
"If you don't get to the buffet early, the eggs get all dried up," the woman agreed. "They should cook more eggs."
"You heard the man," I told Marco. "Move the sofa."
Marco rolled his eyes. "It's your fucking sofa. Why don't you move it?"
"That's no way to talk to a lady," the old man told him. "And how's a little thing like her going to move a big sofa like that anyway?"
"You look like strong boys," the woman chimed in. "Why don't you move it for me?" She batted her eyes at Marco's buddy, who started looking slightly panicked.
"Take the stairs," Marco told her. "It's better for you."
She frowned. "I had hip replacement surgery. I can't do stairs."
"Don't tell my girlfriend what to do!" the old man said, looking pissed. "This is a public hallway. You can't block the way like this! I'm going to report you to the management if you don't move this thing right now!"
The old woman beamed at him. "Isn't he something?" she asked me.
"Chivalry isn't dead," I agreed.
"You want this sofa moved?" Marco asked. "You got it."
He picked me up, dumped me on the couch, and yanked up one end. His buddy got the other, and the two vamps started carrying it down the hall. Either of them could have managed it alone, probably with one hand, but we had an audience.
The man and woman followed us to the elevators and pressed the button, and then we all waited until an empty car arrived. The door pinged and the two lovebirds got on. The woman held the door, but I shook my head at her. "It won't fit."
Marco glanced from the couch to the elevator and reached the same conclusion. Scowling, he put down his end of the sofa, shifted me to one side, and stomped a size thirteen foot down through the middle. There was a loud crack and the sofa broke clean in two.
"Oh, my," the woman said, her foot firmly planted in the elevator door. It looked like the eggs could wait.
"Oh, jeez." Marco's buddy was looking from him to the sofa, back and forth, like he couldn't quite believe his eyes. "Oh, man, you shouldn't have done that. That was a special couch. That was Lord Mircea's favorite couch!"
"Lord Mircea doesn't have a favorite couch!" Marco told him, trying to shove me onto the elevator. But the piece I was attached to was still too big, especially with two people already on board.
Marco grabbed the sofa arm that my cuffs were stuck through as if he meant to wrench it off, but his buddy stopped him. "I can't let you do that," he said seriously.
Marco stared at him for a moment. "Can't let me do what?" he finally asked.
"I can't let you do any more damage to Lord Mircea's property. This is a special couch. See that leather? It was custom dyed. You can't just go out and buy another one, not and have it match." He surveyed the pieces with a worried frown. "The leather split along the seam. Maybe it can be repaired. Maybe we can—"
I never heard his suggestion, because Marco planted a fist to his jaw with enough force to send him sailing back against the wall. It shuddered when he hit, and a wall sconce tumbled to the carpet, shattering into pieces. The vampire didn't look so good himself, sliding slowly down onto his haunches.
Marco glowered at him. "Don't ever challenge my authority again. I'm in charge of this detail. You do what I tell you." He turned back to the sofa and got a grip.
"Don't do it," his friend warned, slowly getting back to his feet.
"What did you say?" Marco asked softly, turning toward him again.
"I said. Put. It. Down."
"Okay." Marco let go of the sofa and carefully pushed the old woman's foot out of the door. "Show's over. Nothing to see here," he told her, and hit the button for the lobby. As soon as the elevator car was away, he launched himself at the other vamp.
I'd known what was coming and was ready. Half a sofa weighed a lot less than the whole thing and was more maneuverable, too. I got to my feet as they staggered into a stairwell, cursing and clawing, and started dragging myself back down the hall.
Normally, I'd have shifted, but I'd already had a hard night—a trip of four centuries isn't fun—and then had had to shift back from the airplane. Plus the small detour to the tarmac. I was pooped. And I didn't think meeting the head of the Circle completely out of juice was a good idea.
I knocked sharply on Pritkin's door. This time it opened to reveal a half-shaved war mage with a razor in his hand. He was wearing nicely pressed dress slacks and a sleeveless undershirt that fit him like a second skin. But for once it wasn't the well-defined arms and muscular shoulders that caught my attention. It was the hair.
His short blond mane fell in waves over his forehead and just brushed his collar. It looked soft. It looked under control. It looked normal.
"Your hair." I gaped at it.
He ran a hand through it. "I haven't had a chance to deal with it yet."
"Do you have to?"
Green eyes narrowed. "Where have you been?" he demanded. "And why aren't you dressed?"
I didn't reply because suddenly Marco was there with a scowl on his face and a rip in his suit. "All right," he said, panting slightly. "Let's go."
"How do you think Mircea would like you manhandling me like this?" I asked, looking down at the hand gripping my bicep.
"The master wants you to wait for him upstairs."
"You called him?"
"No. He left a message in case you showed up. I guess he knows you."
I ignored that. "Since when do you deliver messages?" I looked at Pritkin. "He didn't give me any of yours. I wouldn't have even known about the meeting if it weren't for Billy."
"Why didn't you give her my messages?" Pritkin demanded.
"Billy and I have this theory," I told him, "that maybe the Senate isn't too happy about—" I stopped because Marco clapped a hand over my mouth. Pritkin knocked it away, and the two sized each other up.
"I haven't had dinner yet," Marco told him. "Bring it." Pritkin glanced at me and finally noticed that I was attached to something. "Why are you handcuffed to a chair?"
"It's part of a couch," I told him.
The elevator dinged and the old man and woman got out. They skirted the damaged furniture in front of the elevators and walked down the hall toward us, her limping slightly because of her hip. They finally reached us and the old man scowled. "I thought I told you to move that thing," he said querulously. "I forgot my medication. I have to take it with breakfast or I'm messed up the whole day. And your sofa is blocking my door."
Marco closed his eyes for a minute and then picked up the sofa. He broke off the arm that I was chained to and handed it to me. Then he proceeded to rip the rest into tiny pieces while the old couple watched him with big eyes.
He'd almost finished when his buddy, looking pretty beat up, came running out of the stairwell leading a detail of security. Since the hotel is owned by one vamp and managed by another, it isn't too surprising that most of the security force is also among the life challenged.
"I'm her bodyguard!" Marco yelled at them as six vampires piled onto him. "You don't understand—she's in danger!"
"Uh-huh," the leader of the patrol said, eyeing the old couple. "It looks like we arrived just in the nick of time."
"Tell him!" Marco ordered me.
I opened my mouth and then closed it again. Marco was a new arrival on the scene in Vegas, having been brought in from Mircea's court in Washington State. As a result, most of the casino employees didn't know him yet. With luck, the guards wouldn't get confirmation on his identity until after my meeting with the Circle was over. I stood there silently as they dragged him away while he stared at me with little narrowed eyes.
"Sorry about that," the security chief was telling the old couple.
"You could comp us a buffet," the old woman said hopefully.
"Damn straight," the old man agreed. "There's something wrong when a fella can't even get to his meds."
"What the hell is going on?" Pritkin demanded.
I held out the arm with the cuff. "Get this thing off and I'll fill you in."
Half an hour later, I was standing in Dante's lobby getting smacked around by a blond. For once, it wasn't Pritkin. "Stop that!" The willowy creature at my side slapped my hands. I'd been trying to surreptitiously wipe my sweaty palms on the full skirts of my dress, but I guess I hadn't been subtle enough.
"I'm not hurting anything," I said as someone started sniffling nearby. I looked around, but all I saw was the gimlet-eyed group across the hotel lobby. They were filing in by twos and threes, attempting to blend in with the crowd. But despite the fact that Dante's employees dressed in everything from sequined devil suits to dominatrix garb, they weren't doing so great.
It might have been the heavy coats they wore despite the fact that the temperature outside was threatening to shatter thermometers. It might have been the ominous bulges under said coats. Or maybe it had something to do with the fact that they all looked like they dearly wanted to kill someone. Since that someone would be me, I thought a few sweat stains might be forgivable. Too bad Augustine didn't agree.
"After the way you brought back my last creation?" he sniffed. "Don't even talk to me."
I shifted my feet guiltily. Augustine was a dress designer who thought pretty highly of his work. That was why I'd stuffed the remains of the last dress he'd made for me, which had suffered a few unavoidable indignities, into a trash bag and hid it in a Dumpster. Somehow, he'd located it anyway. And when I showed up at his shop in the casino promenade half an hour ago, out of breath and desperate for something to wear to this meeting, he'd pointed to the poor, tattered remains.
Augustine had made it clear that off the rack was too good for me and flounced out. But half a minute later he'd had to flounce back in when Sal, my new, self-appointed assistant, had backed him into the workroom with a fang-filled smile. Apparently, Mircea hadn't had time to alert the entire family to the fact that he'd prefer I miss this meeting. And Sal wasn't about to let me embarrass us all in front of the Circle.
I'd gotten my dress—a rich green velvet that made me look vaguely like I was wearing Scarlett O'Hara's curtains—barely in time to drag it on and sprint over here. Since it was an Augustine creation, I kept expecting it to morph into something or try to bite me, but so far it hadn't done anything interesting. Except do its damnedest to make me look more sophisticated.
It had its work cut out for it.
Nothing was going to turn my five-foot-four frame statuesque, I hadn't had a chance to redo my makeup, and an attempt to tame my flyaway curls with hairspray had given me helmet head. Not that it mattered: the Circle already knew what I looked like. They should, considering how many wanted posters they'd sent out.
Casanova, the hotel manager, sidled up, frowning. He was looking stylish as usual in a wheat-colored suit that set off his Spanish good looks and fit like it had been made for him, which it probably had. He gave me a glass and a glare. "What's the matter? Is your corset too tight?"
"I'm not wearing a corset." For once, Augustine had refrained from trying to asphyxiate me.
"Then would you mind attempting to look a little less like you're about to fall over? You are supposed to be projecting an aura of strength."
I took the champagne, but my hand was shaking enough to spill a few drops onto my bodice. "I'm trying!" I hissed as someone began weeping softly. "And what the hell is that?"
"Us, going up in flames," Casanova said, leaving as abruptly as he'd come.
Augustine was looking a little smug. "Okay, what did you do?" I demanded.
"Call it insurance," he said cryptically as more leather-trench-coat-wearing «tourists» filtered in through the door. They were war mages, the Circle's version of a police force, FBI and CIA all rolled up into one maniacal package. I'd expected to see at least a few of them around as a precautionary measure. This was more than a few.
I did a quick visual survey and decided we might have a problem. Because the agreement Pritkin had worked out explicitly stated that each side could have no more than a dozen members present at the meeting. Ours were scattered around the room, mostly vampires on loan from Casanova. The mages had also fanned out, and while it was a little difficult to be sure with all the real tourists around, I was fairly certain I counted more than a dozen. Make that absolutely certain, I decided as another trio nonchalantly wandered in.
One day I was going to find allies who didn't try to kill me on a regular basis. One fine, fine day.
Francoise, the pretty brunette witch flanking me on the other side from Augustine, shifted uncomfortably. "Pritkin, 'e ees 'ere, no?" she asked, her French accent more pronounced than usual. That meant she was nervous. Probably because, while she still had a little trouble with English, she could count as well as I could.
"I do not see 'im."
"That's kind of the point."
I'd have preferred to have Pritkin glued to my side, in case this went the way of every other encounter with the Circle I'd ever had. But he'd argued that he could keep a better eye on the overall scenario if he had more freedom of movement. Francoise was there to run temporary interference if things got out of hand.
I wouldn't have told her for anything, but that didn't make me feel a lot better. I didn't doubt her ability, but the fact was that the Circle didn't play by the rules. Sometimes, I didn't think they even had any rules. And they were supposedly the good guys. No wonder I was always in trouble.
"Zere are too many mages," Francoise muttered, casting a glance at the entrance, where two more were sauntering over the bridge that separated the land of the living from the underworld. Below them, a couple of Charons were poling boats laden with clueless tourists across the Styx, or what passed for it. The vacationers were laughing and tossing coins into the water, making the usual jokes about paying the ferryman.
"They won't try anything surrounded by norms," I said, more to convince myself than her.
"Zey are already trying somezeeg!" she pointed out, frowning like someone who badly needed to be cheered up by some decent leadership. I kind of felt that way myself; unfortunately the one in charge was me.
"Are you planning to wait for them to attack?" Pritkin's voice was loud in my ear. He'd done some sort of spell to allow us to communicate, or so he'd said. I should have known he'd use it to eavesdrop.
"If I leave, what then?" I asked reasonably. "We need the Circle."
"And we need you alive!"
"They haven't done anything yet."
"Other than deceive us," Pritkin said in his let-me-explain-this-to-you-in-little-words voice. "We said a dozen; I've counted more than twice that many. And if they will break one promise, why not another? We'll have to try again."
"And what if they refuse to meet again?" They didn't like me already; a deliberate snub might be the last straw. If we were ever going to reconcile, someone had to take a risk and show a little trust. And it didn't look like it was going to be them.
"Miss Palmer. ."
"I thought we'd agreed that you were going to call me Cassie."
"There are a few things I'd like to call you. Now get out of there!"
"I'll shift out if there's trouble," I promised.
"If they explode a null bomb, you won't be able to shift!"
"We discussed this," I reminded him. "If they use a null bomb, it will cancel out all magic in the area—including theirs—and Casanova's boys will wipe the floor with them. I only want to talk to Saunders for a few minutes."
"He isn't here! He sent one of his lieutenants instead. Richardson. He just came in."
And sure enough, three mages had broken off the pack and started toward me. I didn't have to ask which one was in charge. The man in the center was middle-aged and distinguished looking, with startlingly blue eyes and graying auburn hair that was swept back from a high forehead. He was wearing a business suit in a neat gray pinstripe with a bright blue tie. He looked more like a diplomat than a warrior. Maybe they actually did intend to talk.
"Get out now!" Pritkin repeated, sounding furious.
"If I leave, what then?" I whispered. "We don't have a Plan B."
"And if you die, we'll never have a chance to form one!"
"Damn it, Pritkin. We need the Circle!" He didn't reply. Maybe because Richardson and his cold-eyed buddies had arrived.
"I thought we'd agreed no more than twelve per side," I said, and immediately wished I could take it back. I hadn't planned to start off sounding so suspicious. If this meeting had taken place a month ago, I'd have handled it differently. But weeks of constant running, almost dying and frequent betrayal had sharpened my usual defensiveness to something approaching hostile paranoia.
Richardson didn't look ruffled, however. "Had we met at a neutral site, we would have kept the bargain. But this" — he swept out a hand to indicate the gothic gloom of Dante's lobby—"is not neutral."
"It's a public place! And if you had an objection, you might have mentioned it before now!"
"A public place owned by your master and run by his servants."
"I don't have a master."
He smiled condescendingly. "That is what the vampires said. They speak highly of you." It didn't sound like a compliment.
"But you don't believe them."
"Tell me about Nicholas," he said instead of answering.
It took me a second to respond, because I'd known Nick only by the abbreviated version of his name. He'd been a war mage acquaintance of Pritkin's, one who had turned against the Circle but hadn't joined my side. He had preferred his own.
I paused, wondering how to explain the complex series of events that had left the only book with a translation of Artemis' spell in Nick's hands, forcing Pritkin to kill him to keep it safe. I really hoped Nick and Richardson hadn't been friends. "He was going to use the Codex for his own ends," I finally said.
"Yes, so we were told. Unfortunately, there isn't a shred of evidence to that effect. Unless you perhaps still have it? Even a page—"
"It was burnt."
Richardson pursed his lips. "How unfortunate."
"Pritkin did what was necessary—"
"On your orders."
I started to argue the point but shut my mouth without saying anything. I hadn't ordered Nick's death, but I'd known how Pritkin worked and what his solution was likely to be. And I'd made no attempt to stop him. It was one of many decisions weighing on my conscience these days, although I still couldn't see another alternative. If Nick had succeeded, we'd all be dead now—probably even him.
"We did what we had to do, whether you choose to believe that or not," I told him.
"We all do," Richardson commented mildly, offering his hand.
This conversation wasn't going as well as I'd hoped, but at least we were talking. It was a start.
His hand was warm and slightly damp and his grip was firm—a little too firm. His fingers tightened as he drew me close, bending his head as if to say something privately. But all I heard was a low-voiced incantation that sent a sharp frisson running over my skin.
"Nick was my son," he said gently.
I stared up at him, seeing the resemblance that should have registered before—the auburn hair, darker than Nick's carrottop but with the same natural wave, and the eyes, surprisingly translucent when the light was right and dark as sapphire at the rim. And the expression, which told me as clearly as if he'd screamed it that talk wasn't what he'd come to do.
Francoise muttered a spell, but before she could finish, Richardson flung out a hand and she went flying. Two of Casanova's security team started forward, but the mages flanking us threw up a shield that they couldn't penetrate. That wouldn't last, but then, it didn't have to. Richardson reached out and, with a savage motion, ripped open the air.
The darkness of the casino's lobby was suddenly brilliant with icy blue light that highlighted the patched areas in the carpet and the hidden speakers in the corners. It made Richardson's eyes brighter and colder even than they were while washing all human color from his face. I tried to shift but nothing happened. I pulled back, but his grip had turned to steel.
"We need each other," I reminded him. "You don't want to do this!"
His face took on an expression that was nothing like a smile. "Oh, but I really think I do."
A movement caught my eye and I looked up in time to see Pritkin jumping down from the second-floor balcony. But it was too late. Richardson jerked me to him, an arm encircled my waist and we were gone.
I knew what had happened as soon as I saw the familiar tunnel of leaping energy all around us, although the sensation in my stomach—rising, sinking, a bit like flying, only far more terrifying—would have been enough. We were skimming the surface of a ley line, a term the mages used for the rivers of power generated when worlds collide: ours, the demon realms, Faerie or any of a hundred others.
For the width of a couple of football fields on either side was a sea of glimmering blue, a thousand shades from robin's egg to sapphire running together like an electric ocean. In front and behind, energy sparkled and danced along gleaming bands of pure power, telescoping out to an infinite vanishing point. It wasn't a calm picture: everywhere knots and snarls of blue-tinged lightning were tossed up like flotsam or, as someone had once explained it to me, magma in a tectonic drift.
The mages had long ago learned how to skim along the surface of these metaphysical hot spots, surfing their currents to rapidly travel from one point to another. The lines didn't go everywhere, which was one reason trains, planes and automobiles were still in use by the magical set. Another was the fact that most people didn't have shields strong enough to navigate this otherworldy highway system. Without them, the energy of a ley line would turn a human into dust in seconds.
"Shift, damn it!" Pritkin's voice echoed in my ear, the connection staticky and weak.
Yeah. Like that never would have occurred to me. I glared at the passing stream of vivid color and wished I could yell back. But if Richardson learned we could communicate, he'd probably figure out some way to block it. The only way to retain my tenuous connection with Pritkin was to keep my mouth shut.
"Cassie! Can you hear me?"
I realized that I had to say something. He couldn't help me if he didn't know what was wrong. "Why can't I shift?" I asked Richardson.
"You can't shift?" Pritkin repeated. His voice was wavering in and out, like a badly tuned radio, and I wasn't sure he'd heard me.
"Because it doesn't make sense that I can't shift," I repeated as loudly as I dared. "And don't tell me you used a null bomb, because then your shields wouldn't work. We'd both be dead by now."
"I used a null net," Richardson said, strangely matter-of-fact. He sounded like we were having the conversation over lunch instead of hurtling down a magical river that was trying its best to consume us. "The power you've usurped won't help you."
"A null net?" I prompted, hoping someone would take the hint. It was a little hard to fight something I'd never even heard of.
To my surprise, Richardson filled me in. "A bomb is designed to project the null effect outward—to stop a battle, for instance. A net does the opposite, projecting the power inward, over a more limited surface—in this case, your body." He sounded pretty pleased with himself; I assumed the net had been his idea. "It blocks your ability to access your magic but does not interfere with that of anyone around you."
Pritkin used one of his favorite swear words, so I knew Richardson wasn't lying. "Are you still on the Chaco Canyon Line?" Pritkin demanded, like I'd know. I'd experienced the part thrill, part terror of ley line travel only recently, since most vampires don't find rivers of fire a fun way to get around. Tony had never used them, and as a result I wasn't up on all the ins and outs. I knew that different worlds intersecting created different colors, due to variations in the atmospheres, but I hadn't even begun to know which color went where.
I wouldn't have had a chance to answer anyway, because a burst of power exploded right in front of us like a solar flare. The arm around my waist tightened convulsively, almost cutting off my air, as we spun out of control. The centrifugal forces were greater at the borders of the lines, where thick bands of power helped to push mages out of their version of a subway. Only we weren't leaving. My captor merely used the opportunity to regain control before we were back in the midst of the stream.
"All this blue is blinding," I said breathlessly. "I don't know how you can see to navigate."
"He's taking you to MAGIC," Pritkin confirmed.
"Yes, we're on the Chaco Canyon Line, on our way to MAGIC, where she will stand trial for her crimes. Is there anything else you'd like to know, John?" Richardson asked politely.
"He can't hear us," Pritkin informed me quickly. "He's guessing based on your comments. They weren't exactly subtle."
Well, excuse the hell out of me
, I didn't say.
"You can't let him get you to MAGIC," Pritkin continued. "Once you're in the Circle's cells, it will be almost impossible to get you out. I'll create a diversion. Use the opportunity to force him out of the line, and I'll follow you down."
Right. Because I'd navigated a ley line on my own all of once, and that had been using an artificial shield because no way were mine up to this kind of stress. I'd almost gotten myself killed, and that had been without a war mage to incapacitate—one who I couldn't knock out, even were that physically possible, because then his shields would go and we'd both die. The same was true if Pritkin's «distraction» made him lose his concentration.
"Tell me, in your head, do these plans actually sound like they're going to work?" I asked.
Richardson made a huffing sound that might have been a laugh. "Just do it!" Pritkin snapped.
I ignored him. I wasn't going to risk getting fried if we were going to MAGIC. Because, yes, it was the mages' stronghold, but it also happened to be the vampires'. And while the Consul didn't like me much, she saw me as a potentially useful tool—and in vamp terms, that was better than affection. By now, Casanova would have informed the Senate that I'd been taken, and none of them was exactly slow on the uptake. Richardson might get more than he bargained for when we arrived at MAGIC.
Since I couldn't very well tell Pritkin that without also alerting Richardson, I used the time to begin calculating what the Consul was going to demand for saving my life. No way was I getting this for free, even if it benefited her, too. That wasn't how the game was played.
A few moments later, Richardson started maneuvering us toward the side of the line again. I braced myself for what was usually the bumpiest part of the ride, which turned out to be a good thing. Because we hadn't even started to exit when something smashed into his shields, shuddering them all around us.
For a split second I thought it was another flare until a weirdly distorted face appeared in front of me. It was bathed in jumping blue light, like a photograph taken underwater, and was squashed into the mage's shields as if pressed against a glass bubble. But the wild blond hair and furious green eyes were the same as ever.
The mage stared at Pritkin for a startled second, apparently as shocked as I was, and then he scowled and jerked us hard to the left. We bounced off a thick band of power running along the side of the line and ricocheted back the other way. As we passed Pritkin, who was trying to pull up from a dive toward where we had just been, Richardson threw a spell that exploded against my partner's shields like a bomb blast.
I screamed, knowing what it meant if Pritkin's shields failed. But before the blast even cleared, he plowed into us again, hard enough to almost force us out of the line. Unfortunately, Richardson recovered quickly and hit back, bouncing Pritkin's bubble of protection so far into the distance that it was lost from sight among the jumping blue maelstrom.
"Pritkin! Get out of here!" I yelled, the need for subtlety over. I received no reply. I really hoped that, for once, he'd been sensible and retreated. He was at a serious disadvantage otherwise. He couldn't hit Richardson hard enough to risk rupturing his shields and killing us both, but the mage could attack him with impunity.
Make that mages. A flicker of movement caught my eye and I glanced behind us to see a dozen or more ripples in the energy stream, like sharks slicing through water. And off to the left, something dark appeared against all that jumping color. I deliberately didn't look directly at it in case I tipped Richardson off. He didn't see it, but apparently one of the mages following us did. A bolt of energy—red instead of blue—flashed past to explode against Pritkin's shields.
"No!" Richardson yelled. "Not inside the line!"
Nobody paid him any attention. Two more bursts screamed by us moments later, barely missing Pritkin, who dodged out of the way at the last second. Leaving the spells to burst against the river of power below.
I didn't see what they did—we were moving too fast and were almost immediately beyond them—but I felt it. The line trembled and wavered all around us, and energy bands that a moment before had been straight and more or less steady were suddenly arcing across our path. The already dangerous flow of the ley line became a raging torrent, tossing us around like a speck of dust in a cyclone. Lightning or something equally energetic sparked off the mage's shields as we spun, rolled and bobbed uncontrollably, swimming on wild currents of power.
I caught a glimpse of Pritkin barely avoiding being speared by a tower of blue flame. But he ducked under a fiery arch the size of a house and it surged past him. We weren't so lucky. Richardson swerved to avoid a stuttering mass that had erupted right in front of us and ran straight into another one hard enough that the impact reverberated through my bones.
Glowing streaks and odd swirls of light curled all around us. For a moment, all I could see were bursts of power exploding everywhere, burning through our bubble of protection like acid, before the mage made a sudden, violent motion and tore us free. The current tossed us to the side of the line, where a thick band of power threw us back once more, straight into the path of the granddaddy of all fissures.
It covered half the line's width in a towering column of angry blue fire. A tidal wave of prickling energy rushed over me as we breached the outer skin, and then it flared into a blinding brightness. I couldn't see anything, blue-white light filling my vision and my brain, overwhelming and unbearable.
My eyes slowly adjusted to show me the inside of the flare. Power pulsed everywhere in glowing blue-white streams that sheared chunks off Richardson's remaining shields every couple of seconds. They couldn't last at this rate—and as soon as they were gone, so were we.
Richardson must have had the same thought, because he started prying my arms off his waist. "I regret that there will not be a trial," he said as I struggled and fought. "I looked forward to hearing you beg for your life."
My fists bunched in his suit coat, trying to hold on, but he tore them loose and got his hands around my wrists. "Please! You can't do this!" I screamed, my eyes on the leaping wall of fire outside.
"I suppose that will have to do," he said regretfully. And with a brutal shove, he sent me flying backward, straight into the heart of the flame.
My scream lodged in my throat as reality whited out and I was consumed by a pain so pure that it took over everything: my body, my thoughts, even my name. I tried to breathe through the panic that was threatening to choke me, but I couldn't even tell if I had lungs anymore. I tried to reach out, desperate to feel, see, do something, but if I still had a hand it didn't connect with anything. For a long moment, I really thought I was dead.
And then it was over.
The pain was gone between one breath and the next, leaving me shaken and very, very confused. I gasped in air and it tasted wrong, sharp and bitter, but I could breathe. My head was spinning, my nerves were stuttering like a junkie's and I could feel my heart in my fingertips. But it didn't feel like my muscles were ripping themselves loose from my bones any longer, which I counted as a plus.
I risked opening my eyes and looked down in disbelief at my unmarked hands, at my body that for some reason was not being incinerated. But once my eyes adjusted to the intense light inside the flare, I didn't have to wonder why. A familiar golden haze surrounded me on all sides, pushing against the jumping blue field, keeping it back.
The field was in the shape of Agnes' stolen ward, the one passed onto me by my mother before she died. It was given only to the Pythias or their heirs, and it was designed to be powered by the collective energy of the Circle. That wasn't true anymore—they'd cut me off as soon as they realized that it might interfere with their plans for my early retirement—but a friend had managed to fix it. He'd set it to draw from the only other power source of that magnitude available: that of my office.
It was the same pool of power that should let me shift out of here, if the null net had stopped working. I tried to access it again but went nowhere. Yet the ward burned brighter than I'd ever seen it, with an almost blinding golden light. I decided I didn't much care about the reason right now—I was just grateful for it.
Especially considering what the fissure was doing to Richardson's shields.
The column of pure energy tore through his remaining protection like it wasn't even there. For an instant the light haloed him, with every eyelash, every seam on the tailored suit, every ghostly freckle on the bridge of his nose clearly visible. He screamed, eyes opened blind and dilated, mouth wide and soundless, as light spilled through him, bright enough to give me a glimpse of dark bone inside incandescent flesh.
Then he was gone, with nothing to show that he'd been there but a few ashes that the current snatched away.
Even when I squeezed my eyes shut, the image was there, burnt in white-hot light behind my eyelids. My stomach rebelled and bile burned my throat. I pressed my arms over my stomach and waited for the same thing to happen to me, for my ward to fail, for the end. Then something hit me, sending me spinning off into the main current of the stream, jolting me back into myself, to the reality of get out, get out now!
Only I wasn't sure how.
I had a little experience with ley lines, but this no longer looked much like one. The thick bands of power that usually stayed along the outer edges were fraying, shooting electric tendrils from one side of the line to the other. Twisting surges of deadly blue fire—some as thick as a large tree trunk, others no wider than my finger—crisscrossed the corridor, forcing me to throw myself first to one side and then the other in a deadly game of dodgeball that I was sure to lose.
It was the smaller surges that were the most deadly, jittering here and there so quickly that they were almost impossible to avoid. They turned the previously stable corridor into a leaping, burning mass of flame, spotted by dark specks where the war mages' bodies blocked out the light. One shimmering band hit a mage who had almost caught up with me, exploding his protective shell and sending the blazing body straight at me.
He struck my ward like a bird hitting the windshield of a speeding car and exploded—there was no other word for it. The smell of burnt meat reached me, drowning out the harsh tang of the ley line's air as flaming pieces of his body tumbled past. I screamed as the force of the movement pushed me once more toward the edge of the line. But unlike before, I didn't bounce back. The outer bands of power had unraveled too much, and this time nothing caught me.
Electric blue dissolved into darkness as my body was thrown clear. I had a brief glimpse of a sky like a bruise: blue/black, septic yellow and festering, angry green. And then I was falling toward the ground hundreds of feet below.
I dropped like a stone and landed with a jolt. Despite the ward, my head hit brutally hard, thumping against dirt as rigid as concrete, causing my ribs to howl in protest. For a second, everything went white and ringing. I lay there, gasping, trying to get air back in my lungs but they didn't seem in the mood to cooperate. I finally managed to suck in some oxygen and used it to groan.
Shudders ran through me at odd intervals, mimicking the electric pulses of the line, while my stomach informed me that, yes, it was possible to be motion sick even while lying totally still on the ground. Opening my eyes sounded like a bad idea, as I wasn't particularly interested in seeing what the mages had planned for an encore. But not seeing was even worse.
I looked up and lay there transfixed, unable to do anything but stare at the sight of a blue gash spanning half the length of the sky. It spewed bursts of power like sun flares in every direction, shedding embers like transient stars. Some hit the ground, scorching the sand and setting the nearby scrub brush on fire.
It looked like we'd left Vegas behind and were somewhere in the desert. But that was the only good thing. You weren't supposed to be able to see ley lines—they didn't exist in our world, or any other. They were the metaphysical borderlines, the buffer zones between realms. It suddenly occurred to me to wonder what would happen if one of them ruptured and two worlds came into direct contact.
Why didn't I think it would be good?
A raw wind pushed at me, tossing my hair around, while my stomach kept doing slow rolls. I got to my knees, gagging on the electric air, trying to scan the area for any sign that Pritkin had made it out. But my vision kept blurring. Or maybe that was the ripples, like waves, that were flowing over the sand, flooding the desert like underwater light. Everything seemed to move, but nothing was him.
I didn't need to yell—the communication spell could pick up even a whisper—but I did it anyway. It was hard to hear anything with the wind screaming around me as the sky writhed and shredded. I stared upward until my eyes watered from the strain, and I yelled again at intervals, but there was no response.
Maybe the spell had failed, I thought desperately. Maybe that's all it was, some minor glitch. Or possibly whatever was happening to the line was throwing up interference that he couldn't break through. That had to be it, because Pritkin was virtually indestructible. And because I didn't think I could take it if it was something worse.
My tried-and-true philosophy of keeping people at a distance was taking a beating lately. It wasn't working so well with Mircea, and Pritkin had somehow bulldozed past every defense I had before I'd even noticed. I still wasn't sure how he'd done it.
He wasn't that good-looking, he had the social skills of a wet cat and the patience of a caffeinated hummingbird. In between crazy stunts and, okay, saving my life, he was just really annoying. When we'd started working together, I'd assumed it would be a question of putting up with Pritkin; then suddenly the stupid hair was making me smile, and the sporadic heroics were making my heart jump and the constant bitching had me wanting to kiss him quiet. And now I cared more than was good for me.
So, of course, he was gone.
"Pritkin!" I screamed it again, my eyes searching the widening gap above me, but there were no little dark specks that might be my partner bailing out. Had he seen me leave? Or was he still searching? No, that couldn't be it. That would be crazy and reckless and stupid.
And very Pritkin.
"— is ruptur. . now!" The garbled phrase was loud enough to make me jump and to practically crack my eardrum—and I'd never been so happy to hear anything in my life.
"I'm already out! Stop looking for me!" I yelled, but the wind blew half my words away.
"Are you. . right? Can you. . before—"
"Stop talking! Why are you still talking? Bail out, damn it!" " — the ground. Stay—"
"Shut up! Stop giving me orders and get the hell out of there!"
I didn't hear his answer, if he gave one, because the sky exploded. Blue lightning had been threading through the seething clouds, and now a huge branch arced downward, hitting a nearby hill with enough force to blow sand half a mile high. I hunched down with my arms over my head, trying to protect myself from the resulting hail of rocks and debris. And a hand descended on my shoulder.
I turned, grateful and furious, a few appropriate comments trembling on my lips—and looked into the face of a stranger. He was tall with spiky black hair and startled hazel eyes. It looked like someone bailed out early, I thought. And then my ward flared, throwing him back a dozen yards.
I watched his body arch pale and limp against the night, and then I turned and ran in the other direction. A flash of lightning hit nearby, with a thunderclap that threw me blind and rolling across the ground. I stumbled and almost fell down the side of the hill, stunned and furious. I was sick of having to dodge the people who should have been my allies while I fought my enemies and theirs. And where the hell was Pritkin?
The residual static in the air had the hair on my arms standing up as I scrambled back to my feet. I glanced back at the mage, but he didn't look too dangerous at the moment. His body lay in the weird, contorted position he'd landed in, sprawled across the dirt like a broken doll. I paused, my heart pounding wildly, flight reflex kicking in, sweat springing to the surface of my skin.
Normally, I wouldn't have wasted any sympathy—my ward doesn't flare unless there is a serious threat. That and the fact that he was with the guys who'd just tried to kill me was all the incentive I needed to get out of there. Except I couldn't. Because he'd landed facedown in a pile of loose sand deep enough to suffocate him.
The wind wrestled with my hair while I struggled with the life-or-death decision that had been dumped on me. I didn't have Pritkin's knowledge of magic. My only real defenses were my ward and my ability to shift, and neither was inexhaustible. Letting him suffocate might be the only sure way to stop him from dragging me off to a swift trial and a certain death.
But that level of ruthlessness wasn't in me.
More important, I didn't want it to become me.
I felt the chill in my chest that always came before I did something really stupid. I ran over, intending to kick him faceup and get out of there. But his damn coat weighed a ton and he wasn't exactly a lightweight. By the time I finally managed to flip him, I was panting from the effort and he still hadn't moved. "Hey." I shook him. That didn't seem to do a lot of good. "Hey, you!" I slapped his face. "Come on, don't die on me."
He didn't answer. He also didn't try to grab me again. He just lay there like a broken doll.
"I'm serious. You don't want me to have to try CPR. I killed the dummy fourteen times."
I don't know if that did it or if he'd had time to come around. He coughed up some sand and gasped in a breath, blinking grit out of his eyes. He got a clear look at me and an arm snaked out and latched onto my shoulder, jerking me down to the dirt.
My ward flared but only dimly this time. And although I could hear it sizzle against his palm, he didn't let go. So I kneed him in the groin and, when he collapsed, hit him in the back of the neck like Pritkin had taught me. He fell back against the sand with a thud.
I stared at him, awed and slightly freaked out. The work-outs that Pritkin called "a decent warm-up" and I called "evidence that you've gone crazy, oh my God, I'm having a coronary" had actually paid off. Despite the fact that that had been the point, it was a shock.
As was the fact that he'd landed facedown again.
Son of a bitch!
I finally managed to turn him over, decided I'd done my good deed for the year, picked up my skirts and ran. Psycho war mage aside, it had been almost a relief to have something to distract me from the unwelcome awareness that Pritkin was still inside the line. And that the fissure was widening and pretty soon no one was going to be able to survive in there no matter how good their shields and, oh, look, I was thinking about it after all.
There wasn't much natural cover, but some of the dunes had long shadows that, with the wind and the debris and the dim, rippling light, should have been enough to hide me. Except for the dress. I called Augustine every name in the book and invented a few new ones while my dress sobbed and cried and whined about a tear in its hem and a smear of dirt on my backside. The damn man had apparently spelled it to protest—loudly—whenever it got dirty.
It had probably seemed like a cute joke back at Dante's; here, it wasn't so funny. I might as well have a neon sign over my head glaring, HERE SHE IS. I stayed huddled where I was for a moment, watching the wind pull cayenne-colored veils off the ground and spread them across the electric blue of the sky. And every time a wave of airborne dust hit us, the dress moaned that much louder.
I dragged myself to my feet, hoping to get far enough away that the damn thing wouldn't matter. But the wind had picked up even more to the point that it felt like it would actually lift me off my feet any minute, and visibility was going south fast, with lightning sputtering overhead like a bad fluorescent bulb. And then someone tripped me.
I went down in a tangle of sobbing velvet right before a hand reached out from the dark and wrapped around my throat. My ward didn't flare at all this time, so it was down to old-fashioned, dirty fighting. I wasn't nearly as strong as the mage, and no matter what Pritkin said, strength does matter. Not to mention that war mages train in human as well as magical techniques, and I still couldn't shift.
Weird strobelike flashes started exploding across my vision. But it wasn't from the choke hold, at least not entirely, because something really not good was happening to the sky overhead. The mage's head whipped around, a hand still on my throat, and we watched in silent awe as one lightning bolt was followed by another. Within seconds the sky was filled with them, the line shedding thousands of crackling fingers of energy as its massive bands of power unraveled.
In the middle of all that tumult, my eyes somehow managed to focus on a tiny dark smudge. Someone was bailing out a dozen stories above us. "Hold on; I'm coming," Pritkin told me, sounding calm despite the pyrotechnics going on all around him. I didn't answer, but the mage saw him, too. He dragged me to my feet and put a gun to my temple.
Pritkin landed hard, letting his shields absorb the crash instead of taking the time to form them into a parachute as I'd seen him do once before. He was coming for us at a dead run, but above him, off to the east, the sky tore open like a dozen blue stars had been born all at once. And each one contained the dark form of a war mage. Either they'd seen him leave and figured out that I wasn't up there anymore, or else it was getting too hot in there even for them.
I watched their shields flow up into a dozen little chutes to carry them gently toward us on the night breeze. The maneuver would preserve whatever was left of their shields, while Pritkin's had probably been severely weakened by the ley line battle and the fall, and mine were nonexistent. We were so screwed.
"Don't be a fool, John," the mage shouted. "You can't fight these odds! You'll have to find someone else to help your ambition!"
Pritkin paused and glanced upward at the pulsing wound in the sky. "I don't know what you've been told, Liam, but my sole ambition at the moment is to survive the night."
"Then go! I'll tell them you overpowered me. Leave the pretender and I will stall them long enough for you to get away!"
I blinked at him, but Priktin didn't look surprised. "You owe me more than that," he chided. "She goes with me."
"I'm afraid not," Liam said, although he looked torn. Not torn enough to let me go, though.
"Release her and I will stay and face what passes for justice in the Circle these days."
"You would die for this one?" Liam asked incredulously.
"I have been trying to avoid it" was the dry-as-sandpaper response.
"Then go, while you still can!"
"Not without her."
"A life debt is not transferable," Liam said furiously. "I might owe you my life, but I don't owe it to her!"
Pritkin lunged forward and Liam struck out with an elbow, catching him on the chin. It snapped his head back hard enough to break his neck, had he been fully human. Thankfully, he wasn't. He rolled back to a crouched position and flung out a hand. I didn't hear an incantation, but he'd done something. Because Liam jerked like he'd been shot and hit the ground hard enough to carve a furrow in the dirt.
I scurried back out of the way as Liam looked up. Stray light played over his face, distorting the features with odd ripples and shadows. If I hadn't known better, I'd have guessed him for the one with the demon father. He threw a spell that caught Pritkin in the upper body, knocking him off his feet and using up what remained of my patience.
I hadn't wanted to carry a gun to a supposedly friendly meeting, so the only weapons I had were a couple of ghostly knives that resided in a bracelet around my wrist. Despite their appearance, they were deadly, which was why I hadn't already used them—I was supposed to be trying to keep the Circle intact, not to help destroy it. But if I had to choose between Liam and Pritkin, Liam was toast.
Pritkin had staggered back up, looking the worse for the wear. But when he saw what I was doing, he shook his head. "Don't kill him!"
Liam was also back on his feet, but he didn't attack. "She wields a dark weapon—what a surprise." The mist in his eyes grew thicker, coalescing into something unpleasant as he stared at me. "Like father, like daughter!"
"My father worked for a member of the vampire mafia," I admitted, "but that doesn't make him—"
But Liam wasn't listening. "Be grateful I don't put a bullet in your head right now," he spat. "I can guarantee that no one would question it!"
The hate in his face killed any impulse to try to win him over. I stopped extending myself, my defenses slamming firmly into place. I didn't reply, just sent him an expression that was the facial equivalent of the finger.
I was sick of the Circle treating me like roadkill because I hadn't come out of their precious initiate pool. Okay, my track record wasn't perfect, but considering the amount of training I'd received for this job, it could have been a lot worse. And maybe I'd have done a little better if they had ever made the slightest attempt to work with me.
"It would be the last thing you did," Pritkin promised.
Liam sucked in a breath. "How can you defend her?" he demanded. "Consider what she came from! A dark mage for a father, a ruined initiate for a mother, a vampire for a surrogate and, if the rumors are to be believed, another for a lover! Can't you see what's coming? Hell, man, open your eyes! She's already divided the Circle and helped to start a war, and she hasn't been on the throne a month yet! What's next?"
"She hasn't been on the throne at all," Pritkin replied as the two men circled each other. "Thanks to you and the rest of the Circle, she's never even seen it."
"And she never will," Liam said flatly. He launched himself at Pritkin and the two men lurched around the sand together.
Meanwhile, the clouds above us had formed themselves into what looked an awful lot like a tornado. A big, blue tornado spitting lightning at everything in its path. It whirled and writhed as if possessed, twisting bluish black clouds into a violent surge of pure force. Heat was coming off it—dizzying, sear-your-skin heat—while the inner column glowed with a light that permeated even the clouds. It painted the landscape with madly leaping shapes and cast light shadows on the other war mages, who had landed and were now running for us at top speed.
I ignored them, far more worried about the way the clouds were funneling down into a sharp point maybe a mile away. "Is it supposed to do that?" I asked hysterically.
Both men paused to look at me, but then the rest of the mages were on us and the fight began in earnest. Half a dozen jumped Pritkin, while I stood there and watched as the awesome power of the ley line pulsed, crested—and drained into the breach it had made into our world. Someone grabbed my arms, pulling them back brutally, but I hardly noticed. The tornado or whatever it was finished spiraling down to some goal just out of sight. And then the sky burned white.
I had time to see Pritkin turn his face away, the bones beneath his skin etched in the instant of brilliant glare. The surrounding brush and boulders and the worn leather of his beaten-up coat were all suddenly, vividly clear as the flash seared away their color. The flare was followed by a sound louder than a thunderclap, only worse; it knifed through my eardrums, filling my whole head with the vibration of it.
My eyelids squeezed shut, but a soundless white light burned through my lids as the ground rumbled beneath my feet. A hot rush of wind tangled my hair and the mage holding my arm abruptly let go. I raised my hands to help shield my eyes, but the light was already gone. After a moment, I cautiously peeked out from between my fingers, trying to get my vision to work again. But for a long moment, I couldn't see anything but a leaping field of red.
The haze eventually lifted to show me a black sky littered with stars instead of searing white or dancing blue flames. As incredible as it seemed, it was over. Except for the fierce hail of debris. The mages combined their shields to protect the area while I crouched down, hands over my head, as rubble smashed against the shield in blooms of red-orange fire.
The barrage finally stopped and the mages dropped the shield with a wave of relieved sighs. Something brushed my hand, and I looked down to see a few gray flakes trembling on the breeze before blowing away. Ash.
All around us, a soft rain of ash was falling, filling the air, covering the sand. Something over the hill was burning. Great boiling clouds hung on the horizon, eating the stars, dark at the tops but red-lit from below where flames fingered the sky.
"My God," someone said, "it hit MAGIC."
There was a small quiet as we all stared at the hill. I could hear hollow echoes of the blast reverberating in my head and feel sweat trickling down my cheek, stinging a cut on my lip. Then someone started walking toward the ridge, a black silhouette against the dim glow, and we all followed.
I made it to the crest of the dune and froze. The canyon looked like a giant meteor had hit it. Where a cluster of adobe buildings had once stood, there was nothing but a yawning crater, black and still smoking. The initial heat must have been incredible. In places the sand had taken on a runny, glasslike sheen, melted in an instant.
, I thought, but it was distant and blank. We all stared at the place MAGIC should have been for a long moment. Finally, somebody started moving and the rest of us followed. We picked our way down an old path until it was lost under a drift of dirt and rock thrown up by the explosion. Judging by the colors, some of it had come from far underground. The once pale tan landscape was now raw umber, old gold, blackened bronze and ash gray. It was also slippery in places, where cooling glass hid under the softer sand that was still raining down. I kept my footing because Pritkin had me by the arm, his grip mirroring the tight clench of his jaw.
The mages seemed to have forgotten I was there. We sidestepped over broken stones together, across drifts of white-speckled ash, under clouds of fine black particles that billowed up with every movement and settled over our clothes, our faces, our hair. I could taste them at the back of my throat. Nothing could have survived.
My legs suddenly gave out, dumping me in the dirt. I rested my head on my knees and took slow, deep breaths, forcing the hollow, aching fear pushing at my ribs to still. More ash floated up, threatening to choke me, and I didn't care. I saw a succession of faces across my vision, all friends who lived and worked at MAGIC—or had. One in particular caught my breath. Rafe, my childhood friend, was the closest thing I ever had to a father. And he was buried under there along with the rest, assuming he hadn't been incinerated by the explosion.
Part of my brain was busy running the odds, looking for an angle that would provide a way out—even when I knew damn well there wasn't one. I wrapped my arms around my torso and shook but not with grief. Not yet. It was rage that stopped my throat and made it almost impossible to speak. It felt like being flayed, being hollowed out and filled with boiling acid. I'd never experienced so much anger, such a bitter desire to strike back. Because this wasn't something that our enemies had done to us.
I'd said we were going to tear ourselves apart; I just hadn't thought it would start so soon.
The mages were shuffling around like zombies, blank faced and disbelieving. Their feet stirred up black and gray clouds, disturbing the embers. Something was burning underground. There were glowing orange-red spots beneath the ashes, dotted here and there like a huge funeral pyre. I watched them with eyes that stung and watered from more than the particles in the air.
The Senate was gone. Beyond the personal tragedy, it was a military disaster—the disaster—that would almost certainly hand Apollo a win. Not today, maybe, but soon. Whether their arrogance allowed them to see it or not, the Circle couldn't hold out alone against the forces he had amassed. It would be lucky to last the month.
"Shift us inside," Pritkin said, his voice a harsh rasp. Several nearby mages heard him and turned to look at me, expressionless and tense as drawn wire.
I slowly lifted my head, gazing at Pritkin through a haze of grief and rage. His eyes were dark and wild, the pupils devouring the green, leaving a corona of feverish jade. He looked wounded; he looked the way I felt, as if he'd done the calculations, too. As if he already knew we'd lost.
"I thought we'd at least get to fight the war first," I said.
"The lower levels. Cassie—with MAGIC's wards, some may still be intact!" He gripped my arms like there was some kind of urgency. Like any wards could have held against that. "Take us there!"
"Null net," I said, unable to get anything else out.
"Remove it!" I heard Pritkin order someone, but I didn't bother to see who. Sweat was running down my back, soaking the seam of the dress, and I must have touched something hot because my palms were burned. "She is innocent of the charges. Let her prove it—remove the net and she'll help us!"
"Help us?" Liam stepped forward, almost unrecognizable with his grubby face, blossoming black eye and hate-filled snarl. "She killed a dozen mages tonight!"
"The fissure killed them," Pritkin retorted. "And she had nothing to do with that."
It was like Liam didn't hear him. "They were good men! Richardson most of all, killed while still in mourning for his son—another of her victims!"
The unfairness of the accusation should have bothered me. It would have, ten minutes ago. Now I didn't even blink. For some reason, I wasn't angry anymore; instead, I felt empty, like someone had hollowed out my body and replaced my bones with dry wood, like I'd break if I moved too fast.
"She didn't kill Nick," Pritkin said, maintaining his temper although his glare could have powdered diamond. "She wasn't even there when it happened. And Richardson died in the fissure."
"So you say," Liam sneered. "Yet she survived."
"I don't understand why you threw everything away in support of her, but it may not be too late," Liam told him, suddenly earnest. "Help me bring her in and I'll vouch for you. We all will. You can say anything—that you were bewitched, that she and those vampires did something to you—and as long as she's out of the way, the Council will believe it. We need people like you now more than ever!"
"And the girl?" Pritkin demanded.
"She'll get a trial," Liam said, his face closing down.
"A trial she'll lose."
"It's one life! One life against the thousands who will die if we can't bring cohesion back to the Circle. You or I would gladly give our own lives in such a cause. If she's any kind of Pythia, can she do less?"
"You can't have it both ways," Pritkin said harshly. "By your reasoning, she's evil and must be destroyed before she can help our enemies, or she's innocent and must be destroyed to preserve the Circle. Either way, she dies."
"For the common good!"
"For the Circle's good. I'm not so sure that has much to do with what's good for everybody else. Not anymore."
"What did she do to you?" Liam asked, his voice soft with amazement. "You almost died defending the Circle on more than one occasion!"
"It was a different organization then."
"Nothing has changed! I know Marsden has been stirring up trouble, but—"
A spell came out of the night and dropped Liam to his knees. I looked around, confused, because Pritkin hadn't cast it. A tall African-American mage stepped forward as Liam toppled over. He had a buzz cut and enough muscles to give Marco a run for his money. "We don't have time for this," he said harshly, and waved a hand at me.
My power suddenly came rushing back, a steady hum running under my skin, through my bones, singing in my cells, ready, ready, ready. I pulled it around me like a familiar coat as the mage glowered at me. "Caleb, meet Cassie," Pritkin said dryly.
The mage didn't look to be in the mood for pleasantries. "We have no way to get them out, assuming there is anyone alive down there. But you do," he told me.
It had the flavor of a command more than a request, especially in his deep baritone. But at the moment, I wasn't feeling picky. I didn't really believe anyone had survived that, wards or no. But I had to know for sure. "I can take only two people with me," I said.
"Me and Pritkin," Caleb said, extending his hand. I eyed it unhappily. I'd already taken one mage's hand tonight, and look where that had got me.
Pritkin didn't say anything, letting me make the decision for once. Only there wasn't much of one to make. Whatever my feelings toward the Circle, right now, I needed the help. I took his hand. "Where to?" I asked Pritkin.
"How strong is your ward?"
"I think the ley line blew it out. Why?"
"That creates a problem," he said, glancing at the other mage.
"Don't look at me," Caleb said grimly. "The line all but fried me before I could get out of there, and what was left I expended shielding us from the debris. I'm done." There was a general round of agreement from the watchers. It looked like nobody had shields worth a damn.
"What difference does it make?" I demanded. The idea that there might actually be survivors had lodged in my head and was beating a frantic tattoo against my skull. I felt almost dizzy at the rapid shift of emotions—from disbelief to rage to numb horror to barely acknowledged hope—all in the space of maybe half an hour.
"We can't risk shifting in there without a ward," Pritkin said flatly. "MAGIC's shields may have held, but if not, we could find ourselves inside a landslide—"
"Then I'll shift us back out!"
"— or solid rock."
"We have to risk it!" Pritkin was usually the one pulling the crazy stunts. This was no time for him to learn caution.
"We can't." It sounded final.
"Watch me," I told him seriously.
"There is a difference between courage and foolhardiness! Dying yourself will not help—"
"And neither will standing here! Rafe deserves better than that from me. He'd give me better than that!"
Caleb looked confused. "Rafe?"
"Vampire," Pritkin said shortly.
"You'd risk your life for one of those things?" Caleb asked me, incredulous.
"Yeah. Too bad you don't have friends like that. But if they're all war mages, I can't say I'm surprised," I snapped.
"Miss Palmer." That was Pritkin, and since he was back to formal mode, I assumed he wasn't happy. Unfortunately for him, neither was I.
"I'm going with or without you. So which is it?"
He looked like he wanted to argue, but he couldn't stop me from going alone and he knew it. "Take us to the Senate chamber," he finally said. "It's on the lowest level and well-warded. If anything survived, it should have."
"Hold your breath," I told them. "If we shift into the middle of a mess, I'll get us out. Don't panic."
Caleb looked at Pritkin. "Did she just tell me not to panic?"
"She doesn't know you."
I didn't bother to comment. I took a deep breath and shifted.
It was second nature now to fling myself outward, everything blurring around me as I streaked through insubstantial layers of stone, thought translating instantly to motion. It was less familiar to land in a vast mud pit. But that's where we ended up, in a suffocating ocean of muddy water, over my head deep and impossible to see or breathe through.
I was about to shift us back out before we could die an unfortunate and very moist death when the guys started swimming, taking me with them. A moment later, we surfaced with a splash and a gasp. The air was warm and full of dust and already going stale. Whatever method this place used for air circulation seemed to be off-line.
I floundered around, trying to free my hands from Pritkin's and Caleb's iron grips so I could wipe the mud out of my eyes. Even when I managed, it didn't help. There was absolutely no light, with the enormous iron chandeliers that usually light the Senate chamber either dark or missing. But at least I could breathe.
Until someone forced my head back underwater.
It was so unexpected that I sucked in a lungful of mud and choked while I was towed what felt like half the length of the chamber. My head finally broke the surface again, but I couldn't seem to get any air. Pritkin hit me on the back—hard—half a dozen times until I probably had bruises but, mercifully, also clear lungs. I clutched the edge of something solid and pondered the wonder of oxygen for a minute.
Light spun up and expanded from a sphere in Caleb's hand, allowing me to see a few yards into the gloom. Not that there was much to see. The Senate's main meeting hall was normally mostly bare, with a high ceiling that disappeared into shadow, leaving plenty of space below for the massive mahogany table that formed its only major piece of furniture. Except for today, when little was visible besides the undulating black ocean. And what I could finally identify as the Senate table, floating despite its weight and currently serving as our life raft.
A loud clanking noise suddenly came from overhead. It sounded like rusty machinery and reverberated harshly off the walls. Caleb held up the sphere and light glinted off the jagged metal tips of the chamber's chandeliers.
They were enormous, easily twelve feet across, with rows of barb-filled rings sitting one inside the other. I couldn't tell how many darts there were on each ring, but it looked like a lot. And every time a ring emptied, it dropped back to a lower tier, allowing a new one to cycle up into place. The sound had been the closest chandelier rotating a new set of lethal darts to bear on us.
I'd forgotten the tendency of the fixtures in the Senate chamber for launching iron spikes at intruders, mainly because they had never before viewed me as one. "Why are they shooting at us?" I demanded. As if they'd heard me, a barrage of foot-long projectiles tore loose from their moorings and came hurtling our way.
Our combined weight had pushed half of the table underwater, leaving the other half raised like a partial shield. But even the rock-hard mahogany didn't stop them all. My eyes crossed, taking in a particularly vicious-looking dart that had partially penetrated the wood, stopping barely an inch from my face. It had hit with enough force to push out finger-length shards ahead of the razor-sharp point, one of which brushed my cheek. Somebody let out a small, hiccupping scream.
"Be silent!" Pritkin hissed in my ear. "The wards are attracted to motion and sound."
Now he told me.
"The ley line breach confused them," Caleb whispered. "They're targeting anything that moves. Shift us into the corridor outside!"
I started to answer when there was a reverberating crack overhead. One of the darts that had missed us was sticking out of the wall, where its force had widened a fissure that had already been leaking water. What had been a spout was now a waterfall, and from the sound of things, it wasn't the only one. It looked like an underground stream had ruptured. Trust me to find a way to drown in the desert, I thought as a flood of icy water poured onto my head.
It was heavy enough to knock my grip free and send me falling back into the void. I reached out, desperate to find a handhold, and something brushed my wrist. Something living, but not human-warm.
I jerked back, the small hairs on my arm prickling at the ghostly touch. I got a vague glimpse of it—motion, something like eyes that glittered in the almost darkness, teeth.
Hands grabbed me roughly under the armpits and hauled me back to the surface. Where I quickly discovered that I'd drifted beyond the protective shadow of the table. Pritkin jerked me out of the way right before two darts plowed into the water, and we ducked back into place with a slither of legs and flailing arms.
I gripped his shoulder hard, scanning the area where I'd just been. But the only thing in sight was the light from Caleb's sphere reflecting off the ripples. "I think there's something in the water," I gasped.
"I'm more concerned about what's in the air!" Caleb snapped. "Get us the hell out of here!"
"And go where?" I demanded. "In case you've forgotten, there are wards in the corridors, too!" Dagger-edged sconces studded MAGIC's hallways every five feet. We wouldn't even make it to the stairs.
"Yes, but those don't work! We hadn't finished repairs from the last attack yet!" He meant the storming of the complex a month ago by a group of suicidal dark mages. For once, I was grateful to them.
I nodded in relief and grabbed his hand, but Pritkin pulled back when I reached for him. "It's your call," he told me seriously. "But we don't know what we'll find once we get out of here. It would be wise to conserve your energy if you plan to rescue anyone."
Caleb stared at him incredulously. "You actually think they made it out of here without being turned into shish kebabs? And even if they did, this place is more than half flooded—putting the corridors outside completely underwater!"
"Something that would not overly concern a vampire," Priktin said, meeting my eyes in understanding. Caleb was thinking about the disaster from a human perspective, but the people in this section of MAGIC hadn't been human in a long time. If they had survived the initial blast, they might actually be okay. Rafe might be okay. I felt a little light-headed suddenly.
"It looks like no easy way out, then," I said reluctantly.
"You can't be serious!" Caleb was looking at me like I'd lost my mind.
I bristled, because I wasn't any happier about this than he was. "I can only shift so many times in a day, and taking two people with me drains my strength pretty fast," I told him flatly. "Pritkin's right. If I exhaust myself now, I won't be able to help any survivors. Even assuming we find some."
"Then how do you suggest we get out of here?" he demanded, glaring at me. Like I'd come up with this idea instead of his buddy.
"You're war mages," I told him irritably. "You figure it out. Preferably before we drown."
"Yeah, you're a Pythia all right," he muttered.
"I'll check out the corridor," Pritkin offered, stripping off his heavy coat. "It might not be as bad as it looks." He took a deep breath and dove—leaving me alone with a war mage who, until a few minutes ago, had been doing his best to hunt me down. From his expression, I could tell that Caleb was thinking the same thing.
"I guess it's a compliment for one of us," I said a little nervously.
"Not really. If I kill you, how do I get out?" I stared at him, and he was expressionless for a drawn-taut moment. Then he sent me a brief flick of a smile. "John knows me."
Yeah, I thought darkly. He'd known Nick, too.
"What was that?" Caleb suddenly demanded, whipping his head around.
"What was what?"
He ducked the sphere underwater, but there was nothing to see but our legs churning up the mud. After a minute, he brought it back up, where it highlighted a scowling face. "I thought I felt some—" he began, and then his head disappeared.
I stared blankly at the spot where it should have been for a second before looking around frantically for a dart with a scalp. But there was nothing. Nothing except tiny ripples in the water.
I scanned the surface, but the only clue to his whereabouts was the ghostly glow of his sphere, sinking fast. Somehow I didn't think he'd suddenly decided to take a swim. And then a trio of darts thumped into the wall behind me, giving me something new to worry about. They almost hit a dark shape that had been crouched on a jut of rock, making it leap outward to avoid them. Of course, it jumped straight at me.
My arm jerked up and my knives met the creature halfway through its arc, slamming into it right before it slammed into me. I had a brief impression of hot, stinking breath and bloodstained jaws, and then it was on me. A body thick with fur and muscle knocked me out of the water and back onto the scored and pitted tabletop.
A guttural growl vibrated through my skull as a clawed foot slashed at the wood. It caught the bell of my sleeve, ripping it completely off. I rolled to the side just as a heavy head came crashing down, burying powerful jaws in the thick planks beside me.
My instinct was to run, but there was nowhere to go. Instead, I ended up with handfuls of wet, stinking fur as I fought to keep the slippery head against the table, where it could chew on wood instead of on me. But even partly trapped, it was strong and ferocious.
Claws raked my dress, and for once I was grateful for Augustine's exuberant use of fabric. The heavy, waterlogged folds kept my skin from getting shredded as badly as the material. Powerful legs scrabbled on the slick tabletop, trying to find purchase, while my knives stabbed it over and over, the little blades punching holes that splattered hot blood over my chest, arms and face.
Despite my efforts, the creature finally tore free of the wood by ripping out a large chunk of it. It turned with serpentine quickness, reared up on hind legs directly over me—and was stabbed in the back by a dart. The iron wedge exploded out of its midsection and over my head, soaking me in gore as it passed.
I slid back into the water, trying to stifle a scream. It was easier than usual, thanks to the bubble of panic that had lodged somewhere between my stomach and throat. My fingers tightened convulsively on the slab of wood while I gasped and choked and tried not to move. I really didn't want to end up like whatever had just tried to eat me.
A moment later, Caleb's head broke the surface. He still had the sphere clutched in his fist as he heaved and coughed and brought up what looked like a quart of muddy water. "You all right?" I asked when I could speak.
The light glinted off the drops beading his buzz cut, silver on black, and the dark trickle of blood sliding down his temple. "Better than it is."
"You killed it."
"Hope so." His smoker's growl was a little more prominent.
"Good," I said shakily. "What was it?"
"Don't know." His eyes focused on something just behind me. "You kill that?"
I looked at him blankly before following his gaze to where my knives had impaled something furry and scaly and really, really wrong to the tabletop not three feet away. I shrieked and jerked back, and the knives followed the motion, letting go of their prey to be reabsorbed by my bracelet. And untethered by anything, the gory body slid slowly off the tilted side of the table.
Caleb pushed it aside, giving the darts a target other than us. We crouched in the dark, hearing the steady thud of metal into meat, until Pritkin surfaced at my elbow a few moments later.
Pritkin popped up at my elbow a moment later. He gasped in a lungful of air before catching sight of the dark hulk of the creature floating a few yards off. "What is that?"
"The welcoming committee," Caleb said straight-faced. "What did you find?"
"The corridors are flooded, but the nearest staircase is clear from about halfway up. It's doable."
"If we make it that far," Caleb growled, glancing upward.
As if it had heard him, the chandelier finally stopped rotating. Without the scrape of metal on metal, the chamber was almost silent. The only noise came from the water lapping against the walls and splashing into the flood. And the even softer sounds of wretched sobbing.
Both men tensed and Caleb waved the light around, but of course he didn't see anything. "What is making that noise?" Pritkin demanded.
"Augustine's idea of a joke. He spelled my dress," I told him.
Pritkin sized me up for a moment. "Take it off."
"I can use the charm on it to confuse the wards."
The arm that wasn't holding on to the table crossed protectively over my chest. "But. . I'm not wearing anything underneath."
"Maybe panties." At least I thought I was. After the day I'd had, I wasn't really sure.
Pritkin pinched the bridge of his nose. "Would it help at all to remind you that I've seen it?"
"Once! A long time ago! And it was really, really dark!"
He started to say something and then seemed to catch himself. "Give me what your maidenly modesty can spare, then."
"Why do you need it again?"
"Oh, for—Give me the damn dress and I'll show you!" Before I could reply, he pulled out a knife, reached underwater and sliced off what felt like half the skirt.
"Why do these plans of yours always involve me getting naked?!" I whispered viciously—to no one because he'd already gone.
In a minute, another row of darts tore loose with the earsplitting sound of shredding metal. They ignored us in favor of targeting Pritkin and the row of sobbing fabric he was sticking in cracks and crevasses along the wall. The material was fast turning into tatters as dart after dart hit it, fracturing the stone behind and letting in what could now literally be called a flood. Between the crying dress and the rushing water, the wards suddenly had plenty to shoot at besides us.
"Come on!" Caleb tugged me out of the protective shade of the table. "That charm won't last forever!"
We swam full out for the far wall, staying underwater as much as possible. The wards had rotated away from us to fire volley after volley in Pritkin's direction, their rusty clanging a cacophony in the enclosed space. I peered into the gloom every time we surfaced, desperately trying to see him, but the light was just too low. The most my eyes could pick out were brief flashes off multiple knifelike edges, as dozens of darts were flung through the air.
I was still looking when I swam into the wall. Caleb steadied me and then ducked underwater for a minute. "The door is just below us," he told me after surfacing. "John was right: the corridor is completely flooded. But the stairs are only about fifteen feet to the left." He started to dive again, but I caught his arm.
"John will be all right."
I stared at the hail of darts that were still being unleashed behind us. Chunks the size of boulders had been carved out of the wall where they hit, with a spiderweb of cracks radiating out from the larger ones. "How could anyone be all right in that?"
"Trust me—I know him."
"So do I," I said savagely. "That's what's worrying me!" A crack echoed through the room, loud enough to momentarily drown out the wards. And the next second, a huge piece of the wall gave way, dropping almost whole into the flood like the calving of a glacier. It hit the water with the granddaddy of all belly flops. The resulting wave reached even us, slamming me back into Caleb.
"Don't move," he whispered as the nearest chandelier rotated our way, drawn by the disturbance of the water. It swiveled this way and that, sending darts slicing through the waves crashing all around us.
"We're going now," Caleb said in my ear. "Okay?"
I searched the dark one more time for any sign of Pritkin, but there was nothing. Damn it! I should never have left him!
"Okay." It came out more like a croak. I'd never felt so helpless.
That was the longest fifteen feet of my life. I ducked underwater, following the dim light of Caleb's sphere through the black rectangle of the doorway. And almost immediately I realized I had a problem. I'd planned just to follow Caleb, but although I knew Caleb was somewhere right up ahead, I couldn't see him. There was too much dirt and debris in the water, choking off what little light his sphere gave out and leaving the flooded corridor almost pitch-black.
I quickly lost all sense of direction, unable to find up or down in the dark, freezing water. Everything looked the same, and the burn in my lungs was making it hard to concentrate. My pulse pounded sickeningly at my temples, and a flood of cold ran through my limbs, turning them sluggish and slow to respond to my brain's frantic commands.
My grasping fingers finally found something that felt like a doorway and my foot scraped against a jagged surface that might have been stairs. I kicked against it instinctively but didn't go very far. The remains of my waterlogged outfit dragged me down as I tried to fight my way toward the dim undulation that I really hoped was the surface.
Then a hand wrapped in the front of my dress, threatening to strangle me, and with a kick and a heave, I broke into air. I grabbed the sleeves of a wet white shirt and stared at the man wearing it. For a second, everything went gray except his face. His eyes looked too green, too clear, with a diamond-sharp, surreal edge. It took me a moment to notice that his face was flushed and his eyes were bright as lightning. The lunatic had enjoyed himself.
"How the hell did you get here before me?" I demanded, gasping as much from relief as lack of air.
Pritkin shrugged. "I took the back door and came around."
"Pritkin. There is no back door."
"There is now. The projector punched a hole in the south corridor."
"Bit of a design flaw," Caleb rumbled.
"I don't think the wards were ever tested over a sustained period," Pritkin told him. "Something to keep in mind when we rebuild." He finally noticed my expression and frowned. "Are you all right?"
"You don't look fine."
"I'm trying to remember all the reasons you are indispensable and can't be killed slowly and painfully."
He ignored that and hauled me to my feet. I gathered up my tattered skirts, along with whatever dignity I'd managed to salvage. Then the three of us squelched up the stairs.
Caleb's sphere made little headway against the gloom and was soon covered in a thick layer of dust. It was like the one I felt clinging to my skin, gritty and all-encompassing, as if the place resented not being able to drown us and was trying to slowly bury us alive. It didn't have far to go.
The swath of destruction carved by the ley line hadn't reached down this far, but it looked like some of the tremors it caused had. There were cracks in the walls as big as my thumb and chunks missing from most of the steps. We picked a zigzag path up the solid parts to the top, only to find yet another dark-as-night corridor.
Pritkin took point while Caleb brought up the rear. The rooms in this section were mostly residential, including the palatial suite used by Mircea when he was in residence. We stepped through the doorway into his rooms, and it was suddenly difficult to tell that we were in an underground fortress in the middle of a crisis.
The walls were covered in drywall painted in tasteful, muted colors of wine and deep gold. They complemented the Italian marble floors, the gilt moldings and the hand-painted ceilings. Mircea was the Senate's chief diplomat, so his quarters took on the role of embassy. It was here, among the priceless antiques, Swarovski chandeliers and unknown paintings by the world's great masters, that he welcomed dignitaries, soothed ruffled feathers and struck deals.
Away from the main entrance, signs of the disaster were more apparent. In places, the elegant Venetian plaster had erupted with raw red stone, the bones of the place peeking through the veneer. And everything was covered in a layer of fine red dust. I could taste the tang of it in the back of my mouth and feel it coating the inside of my nostrils. Even an overlooked spiderweb high in one corner was caked with it.
Pritkin found a couple of candelabras and some matches, giving us each a light source, and we split up to make the search go faster. The two mages concentrated on the common areas, while I went down the main hallway, opening bedrooms. Most were pristine except for the dust, their elegant furnishings untouched. But Mircea's private rooms were in more disarray.
The bed linens hung half off the large pedestal bed, and one pillow clung to the mattress in a silent battle of wills with gravity. The ornate wardrobe was open, but most of the clothes, like the priceless paintings on the walls, had been left behind. Yet there were only blank niches in the walls where Romanian folk art had recently stood.
Mircea's home away from home was beautiful, elegant and designed to impress. As a result, it said little about the man who lived here. Like the BBJ and the Armani wardrobe, it was what people expected to see. But I found it telling that his servants, when fleeing for their lives, had left the Sèvres and the Swarovski and had grabbed a collection of painted tin crucifixes and worthless wooden spoons.
It bothered me that, in their position, I wouldn't have known what to take. I stared around at the things they'd left, like an intricately carved set of jade figurines on a shelf, and realized that I'd have probably made all the wrong choices. I didn't know what were treasured memories and what were just decorations. Like I didn't know his hopes, his dreams or his fears, if he had any. .
My heel caught in a puddle of silk by the bed. As I freed it, I found one personal item that had been overlooked in the rush: an old, beat-up book. The black leather cover was worn at the edges and the gilt lettering on the front had mostly faded, with only a few small specks left to gleam in the candlelight. But it was undoubtedly a photo album.
I glanced around, but the guys were nowhere in sight. I knelt on the floor and opened the cover with slightly shaking hands. Mircea had the diplomat's ability to talk for hours without actually saying much, and what he did say was often suspect. I'd heard two versions—so far—about how he became a vampire, and still had no idea if either was true.
But photos didn't lie. At least, not as often as master vampires. And suddenly I was confronted with a whole album containing hundreds of photos of Mircea.
Only it didn't.
The photos had a theme, all right, but it wasn't him. On every page the same face stared out at me—that of a beautiful, dark-haired woman of approximately my age. She combined sloe-eyed sultriness with petite delicacy and would have stopped traffic in no makeup and wearing a muumuu. Only she preferred form-fitting clothes that showed off a trim, athletic figure.
One picture showed her eating at a café. She was wearing old-fashioned clothes—forties era, at a guess—consisting of a white short-sleeved suit and a striped scarf. She was waving a fork around and laughing at someone off camera. Her hair was glossy and sleek in a sassy bob that made a mockery of bad hair days. Her nose didn't turn up at the end, her cheekbones were sculpted, and if she had any freckles they didn't show. She could have been a model for an early issue of Vogue.
I stared at her, the album open on my knees, feeling strangely dizzy. I felt something else, too, something I couldn't quite define, but it heated my cheeks and burned in my stomach like acid. There were no photos of me in this room. Not one. But there was an entire album devoted to this mystery woman. Whoever she was, obviously she was important to Mircea.
More so than me.
Something hit the clear plastic protecting the image, rolled to the edge of the book and was absorbed by the cracked leather binding. I blinked away more somethings, vaguely appalled. This is stupid and petty, I told myself. With everything I had to worry about, here I was, preoccupied with who Mircea might be—God, I couldn't even think it. And that was even more stupid.
What had I believed, that he'd been some kind of monk for five hundred years? After seeing the way women regularly threw themselves at him? And I couldn't very well be jealous of events that had happened long before I was born, even if they did involve beautiful, sophisticated brunettes.
I looked down at a crinkling sound to see that my fist had balled around the page with the photograph, crushing the plastic and threatening to put permanent creases in the paper. Okay, maybe I could. All right, I very definitely could.
Mircea's sexual history was something I'd been able to put out of my mind, at least most of the time, because I hadn't known any of the people involved. At least, I hadn't thought so. Now I wondered.
He was closer than I'd like to the Chinese Consul, who had become fond of him while he was on a diplomatic mission to her court and who still sent him expensive presents every year. He'd also been pretty friendly with an icy blonde senator and a passionate raven-haired countess—and those were just the ones I knew about. The women had been pretty diverse in status, personality and background, but they had one thing in common: they were all heartstoppingly beautiful. Like this woman.
I flipped to the back of the book and got another shock. The brunette turned up again, but this time, she was jogging through a park. And the earbud to an iPod trailed down across her left shoulder. I went back through the album and realized that the photos were in chronological order—old sepia images from maybe the nineteenth century giving way to early black and white, then to bold sixties-era color and finally to the modern day. And, except for superficial details, she looked the same in every photo. She was a vampire, ageless and eternally beautiful.
Just like Mircea.
I put the album down with shaking hands and told myself to get a grip. I was just really emotional right now, that was all. That's why I was feeling this way, like I wanted to gouge those pretty dark eyes out with my thumbs.
That was so very not me it was scary. I didn't get possessive about people, any people. I never had. And Mircea and I didn't have an exclusivity agreement, didn't have any agreement at all, in fact. He could see anyone he wanted. Only for some reason it hadn't occurred to me that he might actually be seeing—might, in fact, be doing a hell of a lot more than just seeing—someone who made me look like one of Cinderella's ugly stepsisters.
With my thumbs
"Find anything?" I turned to see Pritkin coming in the door. He glanced around without interest. Maybe he didn't realize whose room this was, or maybe he just didn't care. Mircea was only another vampire to him, and Pritkin had never been fond of those.
"No. Nothing." I didn't make any attempt to hide the book, and his eyes passed over it uninterestedly.
"Feels like a ghost town," Caleb murmured, joining us. I disagreed. Ghosts were livelier than this.
"They must have gotten out," Pritkin said. "Trust the vampires to have an escape route even in a supposedly impregnable fortress."
"But I doubt they stuck around to help anyone else," Caleb added, glancing at me. I didn't deny it; I doubted they had, either. "There may be people farther up. Let's go."
We were in the foyer, heading for the main entrance, when the crystals in the chandelier overhead started to chime. A blue and white vase that I really hoped wasn't Ming danced across the central table and crashed to the floor before I could grab it. The ground beneath my feet groaned and shuddered for a long moment, and I had to brace one hand against the wall to keep my balance.
"An earthquake?" I said in disbelief. "What's next? A tsunami?"
"It's probably the upper levels settling," Pritkin said, but he didn't look convinced. "We should hurry."
We exited into the corridor and Caleb started for a door near a set of steps cut into the rock and going up. "I wouldn't do that," I advised.
He paused, his hand on the doorknob. "Why not?" He gave me a suspicious look from under lowered brows, like he suspected me of assisting the vamps to hide some nefarious secret.
As if they needed my help.
"Those are Marlowe's rooms." Kit Marlowe, onetime playwright, was now the Consul's chief spy. And in the paranoid Olympics, he took the gold. I was betting that even in a magical fortress surrounded by guards, he'd warded his rooms. And, knowing him, probably with something lethal.
Caleb took his hand away under the pretense of straightening his lapels. And didn't put it back. I guess he agreed with me.
The emergency lights were still working on the next level, casting a red stain over the old rocks. The passage at the top of the stairs turned a couple of times, passing shadowy rooms filled with strange equipment. Cables snaked underfoot, walls were lined with a lot of slimy things in jars, upended cages were everywhere and the overhead fluorescents flickered like horror movie lighting.
"Sigourney Weaver shows up and I'm out of here," I muttered, surprising a laugh out of Caleb.
"We already killed the alien," he reminded me.
"You sure about that?" Pritkin asked.
He was a little ahead of us, around a bend in the passage. We caught up with him to find that this level was also empty—of people. But there were plenty of other things prowling, flying and oozing around to make up for it. It looked like someone had been running a menagerie that the disaster had set loose. A very creepy menagerie, I decided after getting a close-up look at something pale pink and orange that was sliming its way out of a hole in a crate. A mass of jellylike similar creatures could be seen inside, waiting their turn. The pretty colors didn't help obscure the fact that it was frighteningly like a huge slug.
Only it had small, angry, coal-black eyes. Intelligent ones.
I scrambled back, fighting an urge to lose my dinner, while Caleb swore and pulled a gun. I caught his arm. "What are you doing?"
"What does it look like?" His brief good humor was completely gone.
"You can't just kill it."
"You didn't have that problem in the chamber!"
"We were being attacked in the chamber!"
"And now we know by what. Some perverted experiments your vampires were running!"
He took aim again, but I guess his powder must have been wet, because the gun didn't fire. He scowled, muttered a spell and tried again. This time, the gun worked fine, but I knocked his arm and the shot went wild.
The sound was enough to send a small stampede down the corridor, away from us. "I said, no killing!"
Caleb glared at me. "She's Pythia," Pritkin reminded him quickly.
"Not mine," Caleb said grimly.
"Then who is? Or do you intend to fight this war without one?"
The two stared at each other for a moment, and then Caleb swore. "We can't do this with those things jumping us at every turn!"
"They don't look too interested in attacking to me," I pointed out.
"And what about the ones that are?"
"We'll take care of them if and when we find them."
"And if these creatures find a way out of here? You want to let something as potentially lethal as the things we killed loose into the general population?"
"We're nine levels down! And these don't look too dangerous to me."
"Looks can be deceiving. We know nothing about their abilities, about why the vampires were breeding them," he argued stubbornly.
I watched as the slug thing started to ooze away from us. The underground streams would probably survive the pending implosion. What if the creature got into the water system? What if several did, and they started to multiply? There could be thousands within weeks.
"Most will die anyway," Pritkin pointed out quietly, "of starvation or drowning or by being crushed under a mountain of rock." He nodded to where a couple of sort-of birds were already feasting on something's remains, tearing off strips of flesh with their long black beaks. "Or at the claws of the larger predators. It's kinder this way."
I stared at the impromptu feast and felt my stomach roil. "Do what you have to," I finally said. "I'll be at the top of the stairs."
The sound of gunfire and the smell of smoke followed me up. It was dark and silent at the top except for a faint blush of light from below. I sat down, wrapped my arms around my knees, leaned my head against the wall and tried not to think at all. Which was when a hand reached out from the dark and covered my mouth.
I was dragged kicking and fighting into a blacked-out room. A light flared—only a single candle—but in the dense dark it shone like a searchlight. It highlighted a small table cluttered with papers and the man sitting behind it. His curls were in disarray and his cashmere sweater was dirty and torn. But the bright brown eyes and quick smile were the same as ever. "Rafe!"
He stood and moved around the desk and I all but threw myself in his arms. I'd known he was probably okay, but some part of me hadn't believed it until now. My heart expanded in my chest at the sight of him, whole and unhurt, exhilaration flooding my veins like bright water.
"Look what I found prowling the corridors," Marlowe's voice said cheerfully from behind me. "She has two mages with her, Pritkin and one I don't know."
"I assume they are the cause of the gunshots?" Rafe asked, smoothing my tangled hair.
"They're doing mercy killings of the experiments," Marlowe said, sounding amused.
"Why not now?" I asked.
"Because the wards will fail in fifty-three minutes," Marlowe answered, "rather taking care of the problem." The ground rumbled under our feet again as if to underscore his words.
"Then why are you two still here? We haven't found any bodies, so I'm guessing there's a way out."
"There are several," Rafe agreed, glancing at Marlowe.
I turned to find the Senate's spymaster regarding me thoughtfully. The candlelight gleamed off the small hoop in his left ear and leapt in his dark eyes. I knew that look; I'd been getting it a lot lately. It usually meant, I wonder if she's actually stupid enough to fall for this? And usually, the answer was yes.
"I'm going to hate this, aren't I?" I asked, resigned.
"Perhaps not." Marlowe tapped the roll of papers on the desk, which I now realized was a schematic, presumably of MAGIC. "You are here on a rescue attempt?"
"Yeah. Only, so far, we haven't found anyone to rescue."
"Most of those who survived the blast have already been evacuated. However, one area remains populated—the mages' holding cells."
"The prisoners are still here? Why?"
"A cave-in," Rafe said. "For security reasons, there is only one way into the cells, and the wards failed in that section." One long finger traced a line on the map two levels up from our position. "It cut them off from any hope of rescue."
"We went over the schematics and questioned the mages, but there's no convenient back door," Marlowe added. "And the cave-in is too extensive for us to clear in the time we have. Almost the entire length of the passageway was affected."
I blinked at him. "I must have heard wrong. You remained behind to rescue humans?"
He grinned behind his goatee. "Well, one, anyway."
"What about the others?"
He shrugged. "You can rescue them, too, if you like."
"Oh, thank you! Now tell me what this is really about."
"The answer to a prayer," he said piously.
"Naturally," he said innocently. "Of course, I didn't say to what."
"Stop teasing her, Kit," Rafe reproached. He looked at me. "If we are to rescue anyone, we must hurry."
I decided I could get the story out of Rafe later. "It's not that simple," I told them. "Spatial shifting doesn't work the same as time travel; my power doesn't give me a preview. Without knowing where I'm going, I could end up inside a wall or, in this case, a bunch of rock."
"It is thirty meters to the area we believe to be clear," Marlowe told me.
"The wards are reporting that area as safe. However. ."
"They may not be completely reliable. Not with this level of damage."
I stared at him. "Not completely reliable means I could shift into the middle of a rockfall, Marlowe! No guesses—this is going to be hard enough as it is. I have to know!"
He just looked at me, but Rafe's eyes slid to the right to an area still swathed in utter darkness. A hissing sigh came out of the gloom, and a moment later, the Consul appeared so suddenly that it was almost as if she'd shifted in. I knew better—she'd probably been there all the time, but she'd been so still I hadn't noticed her. And considering that she was dressed in her everyday outfit of live, writhing snakes, it was a good trick.
Ancient, kohl-rimmed eyes sized me up, and as usual, they didn't look as if they liked what they saw. "I will tell you exactly, Pythia," she informed me. "And then you will do as we have bid."
It wasn't a request. She swept regally out the door and Rafe, Marlowe and I followed. Rafe went downstairs to round up Pritkin and Caleb, while Marlowe and I ran up two flights after the Consul.
The dust became thicker as we ascended, and small siftings of sand were starting to trickle down the walls every time there was a mini-quake. "What happens when the wards go?" I asked as we reached a tumbled mass of stone and dirt at the top of the second flight of steps.
"The levels above this one have solidified into a solid mass," Marlowe told me. "Without the support of the wards, their weight will crush anything below it."
"So, no pressure, then." I stared at the passageway to the left, which, as Marlowe had said, was totally blocked. Red sandstone from the lower levels had mixed with deep yellow from the upper, forming a jumbled mass that didn't appear to have even a small gap at the top. It was like the corridor had been reabsorbed by the rocks around it.
"We believe that it is blocked almost to the cells themselves, which have an independent ward system for added security," Marlowe told me quickly.
"I need more than a good guess," I reminded him.
"You shall have it," he said, steering me back down a few steps.
We both looked up at the Consul, who remained at the top. "You never saw this," she ordered.
"Saw what?" I asked, bewildered. She was just standing there, a slim figure who, I suddenly realized, was only about my height. Funny; she'd always seemed taller.
Marlowe's arm curved around my waist, moving me back even farther right as there was an abrupt burst of motion. Suddenly there were snakes everywhere—a thick mass of black, squirming shapes that boiled up around the Consul's feet and legs. They swarmed up her body, twined around her neck, flowed over her face and twisted into her hair. A particularly fat one forced its way past her lips and started down her throat, distending the flesh on either side of her neck as it undulated.
"Marlowe! Do something!" I cried, horrified.
He didn't say anything, but his grip tightened as more snakes appeared and began to cleave her flesh, their black bodies sheathed in red as they forced their way inside her. I could see them moving in writhing patterns under her skin, the small ones pulsing like overfilled veins, larger ones distending her form in ghastly ways as they tunneled inside, seeming determined to consume her. There was a sound like a ripe fruit bursting, and suddenly there was no woman at all. Only a corridor filled with slick, gleaming creatures writhing in a puddle of bloody goo.
"Oh, God!" I stumbled backward and would have fallen without Marlowe's arm around my waist. I stood transfixed by shock and revulsion as the truth slowly dawned. The Consul was still there; she'd just changed form.
The snakes found holes in the rockfall through which a human could never have fit. We watched them wriggle away, slipping into the earth as easily as water, until they had all disappeared. Then Marlowe slowly lowered me into a seated position.
"Are you going to be sick?"
I shook my head. I was too freaked out to be sick. "I'd heard stories. .»
He sat on the step next to me, facing the darkness below, and stretched his legs comfortably out in front of him. "About us turning into mist or wolves or bats?"
"Yes. But I didn't believe. . I thought they were myths."
"For the most part, they are. There are very few of us who live long enough to acquire the sort of power needed for bodily transformation." His voice was admiring, as if the Consul had done a particularly nifty parlor trick."I've heard stories that Parendra—the Consul's Indian counterpart—can do it, too. They say he becomes a cobra."
I didn't say anything. I was too busy trying to swallow the lump that had risen in my throat. It felt like I might be sick after all, and then I wondered how the Consul would take that, if she'd be offended when she got back, all hundred pieces of her. .
I swallowed the lump back down.
"It can be a little. . disturbing. . the first time you witness it," Marlowe said, glancing at me. "I recall being somewhat taken aback myself."
Taken aback. Yeah. That covered it.
We sat there for a few moments while precious seconds ticked away. And then she was back. Dozens of dusty, scaly bodies wriggled their way out of gaps in the rockfall and fell onto the sticky floor. I blinked, and the Consul was the Consul again. She staggered over to the far wall and stood there, trembling slightly, looking more shaken than I'd ever seen her. Marlowe started toward her side, but she waved him back.
"It is blocked for thirty-two and one-half meters," she told me, sounding perfectly composed. "All the way to the mages' holding cells. Their wards are all that is keeping this level intact, and they will not last much longer." She looked at Marlowe. "You will accompany the Pythia on her errand."
I shook my head. "The more people I take with me, the faster my power is drained." And it was pretty low already.
"And the more desperate men become, the less clearly they think," Marlowe responded."These cells are among the most secure in the Circle's control. As a result, they house the most dangerous criminals. You cannot go alone."
I wasn't sure I could go anyway. The idea of shifting into a place I'd never seen was making me feel a little faint, not to mention that I wasn't entirely clear on exactly how far a meter was. "So, it's about thirty yards, right?" I said nervously.
Marlowe sighed. "A little over thirty-five. But perhaps you should add one to be safe."
Right. Like anything about this was safe. But it was either try or accept defeat and go home now. And we were running out of time.
The ground shook again, longer and more violently than before, throwing me to my knees. The vibrations ran through my skin into my bones, doing weird things to my balance even this close to the ground. And then a crack opened up right in front of us, exposing jagged, striated rock, with sand pouring over the edge like water.
Marlowe snatched me back as the floor beneath us completely disintegrated. Vamps don't fly, but he moved fast enough that it almost felt that way. The next thing I knew, we were down to the curve in the stairs, choking on a billowing cloud of dust.
"Go now!" the Consul ordered. I hadn't seen her move, but she was somehow beside us. I didn't wait to see how much more ground we were about to lose, just tightened my grip on Marlowe's shoulders and shifted.
We landed in another world—cold, sterile and dust-free, with sputtering lights and gray concrete walls. "This way," Marlowe said, pulling me down a corridor.
We passed a long row of cells, most of which had an occupant. I quickly realized that, unlike in human jails, the people incarcerated here weren't conscious. They were frozen in some form of stasis, leaning against the walls of their three-foot-deep cells like department store mannequins, staring outward with expressions ranging from startled to angry to defiant.
I stared back at them in mounting concern. Ten, fifteen, twenty—and this was only one half of one corridor. There was likely at least this many in the other direction, and probably more than one passageway. .
It was simply impossible. I could feel it in my bones, like the jerking pulse of my own heart. There was simply no way could I shift so many. Even if I'd been well-rested, I could have made only four or five trips, taking out two at a time. As things stood, I'd be lucky to rescue the man the vamps seemed so interested in and still get the rest of my own party out.
We stopped in front of a cell containing a middle-aged man with frizzy brown hair. Marlowe worked to get the ward on his door to release while I glanced at the cells on either side of him. One contained a red-haired woman with a sly, calculating look on her face. The other held another middle-aged man who was losing the fight with male-pattern baldness, despite there being charms for that sort of thing. Maybe he'd been too proud to use them—his expression was certainly haughty enough—or possibly the Circle didn't allow such vanities in its cells.
Neither of them looked particularly sympathetic, but the thought of what was about to happen to them sent cold chills across my skin nonetheless. This was my doing. Not my fault—I hadn't told Richardson to betray us, hadn't thrown the spell that caused this. But if I'd left that meeting when Pritkin had warned me, none of this would have happened. His voice came back to me suddenly: "They'll die of starvation or drowning or by being crushed under a mountain of rock." I looked into the man's face and shuddered.
A ward snapped, the buzz ringing in my bones like a struck tuning fork, and the frizzy-haired man tumbled bonelessly into Marlowe's arms. "How many can you take?" Marlowe asked me.
"I. . not this many," I said, admitting the obvious.
"Tell me which ones."
"Which ones?" I stared at him. "You're asking me to choose who lives and who dies."
"Someone has to do it," he said with a shrug, hoisting the man onto his shoulder. "And the Senate has no stake here. We have the one we want."
I looked at the red-haired woman again. She had gray eyes that, in the flickering light, seemed almost conscious, almost aware. We stared at each other, her stiff and lifeless as a doll, me as wooden as a carved statue. In a few more minutes, she'd be dead. Or I'd take her and the rest would die. Like the human servants the vampires had housed upstairs, like anyone who had happened to be on the upper levels. It seemed so horribly random.
"There has to be a way," I said desperately.
"A way to do what?" Marlowe asked, his brow knitting.
"To rescue them. All of them. We can't just leave them here!"
Marlowe stared at me blankly. "Yes. We can. In approximately forty minutes this entire level will collapse and in the process take out those below it. Your compassion is admirable, but if we don't leave soon, none of us will get out of here. And I, for one, would miss me."
"And I'm sure a lot of these people would be missed, Marlowe!"
The light directly above us took that moment to blow out, raining plastic and glass onto the corridor floor and throwing Marlowe's face into shadow. The darker atmosphere accentuated the harsh planes of his face, making them visible behind the jovial mask. For a moment, he looked as dangerous as everyone always said he was.
"If there was a way to save them, we would do it. But there isn't," he said flatly. "And keep in mind where we are. For all you know, these people deserve their fate."
My gut clenched, my usual deny-repress-ignore method for dealing with uncomfortable facts suddenly not working so great. I looked up and down the corridor at the faces, young and old, hard and soft. They had won the Circle's enmity, but so had I. If Richardson had had his way, I'd be in one of these cells, too. They were no different from me, except that they were about to die. Condemned because I'd made a stupid mistake.
Green light from inside one of the cells dyed my hands an eerie, ill color. I pressed them tight until they ached, staring around at dozens of faces. The temptation to finally use my power was almost overwhelming. I'd been thinking about it, had it in the back of my mind ever since I saw that burnt, dead landscape, the milling group of shell-shocked mages, the empty space where MAGIC should have been. Because Marlowe was wrong—I could do this.
I just didn't know if I should.
"Cassie, the mouth of the nearest escape tunnel is ten minutes from here, and it is a further ten beyond that to safety," Marlowe said. "Time is not our ally."
I felt a hysterical laugh building in my throat but tamped it back down. "Yeah, well, that's the question of the day, isn't it?"
A small frown creased his forehead. "Cassie—"
"I need a minute, Marlowe."
"To do what?"
"I don't know yet!"
This was one of those times when I really lusted after that nonexistent training. In the last month, I'd sort of come to terms with the fact that I was time's janitor, there to clean up the messes left by other people's attempts to play god. That wasn't what had been keeping me up nights. This was. The idea that, sooner or later, I was going to run across a situation where the person wanting to change time would be me.
I could go back, make sure I missed that meeting, prevent all of this so easily. There would be no destruction of MAGIC, no loss of life. . It seemed almost too easy. And that was what scared me. I'd changed one small thing before and almost killed Mircea. What would changing something this big do? I didn't know, and that terrified me.
Agnes had said not to mess about with time, that it almost always caused more problems than it solved. But she'd also said that the reason the Pythia was a clairvoyant was because we could look into the future and see the outcome of our actions. She'd said to trust my gift. But that was just it—I'd never trusted it.
My whole life, it had shown me nothing but bad news, had been a source of nightmares instead of daydreams. One of the few things I'd liked about becoming Pythia was the fact that my visions had tapered off. Instead of one every two or three days, weeks had passed with nothing. And now I suddenly found myself in a situation in which lives depended on that despised gift.
I really hoped Agnes had been right.
"I'm going to try something," I told Marlowe. "It'll only take a minute."
"You've already had a minute."
"And now I'm taking another one!"
I closed my eyes and tried to concentrate. I could practically feel the disapproval coming off him in waves, but he didn't say anything. And after a few seconds, I calmed down enough to make the attempt. Only I wasn't sure how.
I'd struggled with my talent all my life, but mostly to repress it. Only rarely had I deliberately tried to see things, and most of those efforts had been failures. And now I was asking the impossible, to see a potential future in place of the real one. I didn't really expect it to work.
But it did.
I picked my way over blackened rubble to the entrance of Dante's—or what was left of it. The buildings had been bisected by a line of destruction, cracked open like a broken tooth. A wash of dirt had collected in the carved letters over the main doors, which now opened onto nothing.
Only part of one tower remained, ruined rooms cut open and exposed to the elements. Water-stained, faded furniture leaked over the sides and a few tattered curtains still shifted in the breeze. The rest was a blackened shell, with only a faux stalagmite sticking up here and there, like burnt and wrinkled fingers pointing at the sky.
I crawled through a door half obscured by rubble to a floor knee-deep in windblown debris. It had been part of the lobby, although it was only possible to tell by the location and overall shape. The bridge was gone, as was the Styx, the reservation desk and the employees' dressing rooms. The lobby bar was still there, a jumble of overturned tables, broken bottles and a slanting drift of sand from two missing windows. It was also home to a chattering colony of rats. I quickly backed out again.
I sat down abruptly in the shadow of the remaining tower, sending up a little cloud of dust. The sun was glaringly hot through the missing roof, and it was the only shade available. But it came at a price.
Every time I looked up, I saw some new horror: a human rib cage, yellowed with age, housing a family of foxes; random bones, several with teeth marks on them where some long-dead animal had feasted; and a crumpled Dante's uniform behind the desiccated remains of a potted palm. Where once there had been constant life and bustling activity, there was suddenly only dust and decay, everything brown and withered and so very still.
The vision shattered, the dead world spinning backward at a dizzying pace. I looked up to see Marlowe kneeling beside me. I was on the floor, although I couldn't remember how I got there. "What is it?" he asked urgently. "What did you see?"
"I'm not sure."
Agnes had been partially right—my power was trying to tell me something. I just didn't know what. MAGIC had been destroyed, not Dante's. And even if the breach had taken place in Vegas, a major casino wouldn't just have been left there like that, with no signs of attempted repair or even demolition. None of this made any sense.
But one thing was clear: I'd asked my power to show me what would happen if I changed time. I didn't understand the message, but the general gist hadn't seemed positive. And without some major confirmation, I didn't dare meddle with anything.
"Can you describe it?" Marlowe asked, helping me to my feet. When I looked into his face, I saw only concern. The frightening glimpse behind the mask was gone, and the kind, genial man I'd always known was back.
Not that that meant anything.
"It. . was a jumble. It happens like that sometimes." I couldn't change time, but I could use the time I had. I could do a lot with forty minutes, if I had help. But I wouldn't get it from Marlowe. The Senate wasn't likely to risk a useful tool to help a bunch of convicts.
"I think you were right," I said. "We need to get out of here."
Marlowe hoisted his prisoner like a sack of potatoes and took my hand. I shifted us back only to find Rafe, Pritkin and Caleb crowding the small stairwell. "What is this?" Caleb demanded, catching sight of Marlowe's burden. His hand dropped to his weapon belt.
"A rescue," I said, grabbing Pritkin's shoulder. "The cells are full and the passage is blocked. Any ideas?"
"I was hoping you'd say that," I said, and shifted.
We landed in the middle of a tremor and fell to our knees. The corridor shook, setting the industrial pendants overhead swinging and popping a block out of the wall like a shotgun shell. It exploded against one of the cells on the opposite side of the corridor. It didn't faze the ward, but it peppered us with shards like minuscule hailstones and scattered gray dust over the floor. I closed my eyes and resisted the urge to curl into a ball and put my hands over my head.
When I looked again, Pritkin was regarding the exploded block with a scowl. "We don't have much time," I told him, getting back to my feet. "Marlowe said it's a twenty-minute hike to the surface from here."
"I know. Raphael showed us the schematics. Caleb is working on a faster alternative." But he continued to kneel there, scowling fiercely.
"Pritkin! Come on! What are you waiting for?"
"Inspiration," he said, gesturing at the cells. "It's worse than I thought. If the outer wards had held, the walls would be stable. But they're buckling under the weight from above. That means that the only thing keeping this place intact are the inner wards."
"The inner wards?"
"The ones on the cells."
I looked at the row of prisoners and my jaw dropped. "But. . how are we going to get everyone out? If we disable the wards—"
"Then the weight from above will crush us all," he finished grimly. "And once they go down, they aren't going back up again. Not with this kind of damage."
"Exactly." He stared at a cell for a few seconds. "If we can preserve the wards on at least half the cells, it should buy us enough time to get away."
"Get away how? Because I can't shift out this many!"
He glanced at me as if surprised that I'd be worried by a little thing like that. "I can get them out as long as enough wards remain to keep the roof up."
His tone made it sound like getting through thirty-five yards of rockfall in roughly that many minutes was no big deal. I opened my mouth to ask for specifics and then realized we didn't have time. Besides, if Pritkin said he had a plan, then he did, and it would probably work. But that didn't mean I had to like it. "You're talking about leaving half these people to die."
"Not necessarily." His gaze turned considering. "You could shift in."
It took me a second to get it. "I could bypass the wards, and bring the people out with me!"
"If you can shift that precisely. There's not much room for error."
I glanced at the nearest cell, which held a large, hairy, tattooed man in a tank top. There was very little extra space that I could see around him. But in the next cell was a slim woman, and between her and the ward there was maybe two feet. "I can try," I agreed.
I shifted past the ward and inside the woman's cell. It was a tight fit, and there was some sort of energy field that wrapped around my limbs like a blanket, trying to paralyze me. I didn't give it time, just grabbed her wrist and shifted out again.
"How much energy did that cost you?" Pritkin asked, catching her before she could collapse.
"Not much. But I won't fit in all the cells."
"Do the best you can," he told me, glancing up at the swaying light fixtures. The place was becoming rapidly more unstable. Every moment we stayed upped the chances of our getting killed by falling debris before the place could crush us to death. "And make sure you keep back enough energy to get yourself out of here, if this goes wrong."
"Sure, because it's not like any of this was my fault," I said sarcastically.
He grabbed my arm hard enough to hurt. "I mean it."
I blinked at him, taking in the tense set of his jaw, the tight press of his mouth and the more-than-slightly-maniacal gleam in his eyes. I'd never tell Pritkin this, but there were times when he really reminded me of a vamp. He had the same way of flipping into the scariest person in history, and then flipping right back out and never noticing the difference.
"Okay," I said meekly.
He nodded curtly and moved to the cell with the tattooed man. He started on the wards and I went to work avoiding them. The tiny hops, only a few feet at a time, didn't take much energy, but there were a lot of cells. And no matter what I'd promised Pritkin, I couldn't look into people's faces and tell them, Hey, sorry you have to die, but I'm getting really tired.
By the time I reached the end of the row, I was soaked in perspiration, my skin was a sickly white and my hands were shaking violently. I leaned against the wall and watched Pritkin release another person the old-fashioned way. Together, we'd freed about thirty people, most of whom were lolling drunkenly against walls or sprawled unconscious on the floor.
Pritkin glanced at me and frowned. "Take a break," he said curtly.
"How? We aren't even halfway yet." And I hadn't seen what was on the next corridor.
Pritkin's eyes moved from me to the cells to the half-unconscious young man who had just fallen into his arms. He had wavy black hair pulled into a short ponytail, pale skin and an athlete's body. He looked to be around thirty. Pritkin propped him against the wall and shook him. The young man stirred, blinked his eyes open and looked up groggily. Just in time to get slapped hard across the face.
"What are you doing?!"
"Bringing him around. Some of the prisoners are war mages—or used to be. They can help open the cells."
"What are war mages doing in here?"
"The current administration has a habit of locking away those who get too vocal against its policies," he said shortly.
Two more blocks burst from the wall before I could comment. The once orderly pattern was starting to look like a toddler with missing teeth. "There's another cell block beyond this one," Pritkin said. "Although with any luck, it isn't fully occupied. Can you finish here?"
I nodded and he slipped around the corner. I stumbled down the corridor and knelt beside the mage. "Wake up! We need your help!"
He looked up at me with bleary eyes. They were a weird color, almost no-color, like rocks viewed through river water. I took another look at the number of cells remaining and then pulled my arm back and slapped him as hard as I could.
"I'm awake!" he said heatedly, his eyes sharpening up fast. "What's happening?"
"A ley line ruptured, destroying most of MAGIC. We're trying to get everyone out, but a cave-in cut off the passageway from the prison wing. We need you to help release the rest of the prisoners while we look for a way out!"
"There isn't one," he said, sitting up with his hands on his head, like a hangover victim. "It's a prison. It's supposed to keep people in."
"If you want to live, you'll help us think of one," I said grimly.
"The Circle will rescue us."
"The Circle evacuated an hour ago!"
"I don't think so," he told me nastily. "We're war mages. We don't simply abandon our colleagues."
"Then what are you doing in here?
He glared at me. "That's none of your concern! The point is that you're wrong."
"You'll figure out otherwise in about twenty-five minutes," I said. "But it'll be a little late."
"Fuck that." The red-haired woman I'd noticed earlier had come around. She crossed to the other side of the corridor and started working on the ward imprisoning a tall Asian woman. "I'm not dying today."
The corridor shook again, and the war mage gave a start. He noticed the missing blocks, and for some reason, they seemed to shake him. "The external wards are down. Why?"
"Because they're being crushed from above by a few thousand tons of rock!"
The older balding man had slipped to one side and was trying to pull himself up on shaky arms, but they kept collapsing. "Are you okay?" I asked.
"I'll be all righ'," he slurred. "'N a minute."
"The longer you're in stasis, the worse it gets," the redhead told me as her friend collapsed into her arms. "What's the date?"
I told her and she nodded with no visible reaction, but the war mage gripped my arm. "You're lying!"
"Yeah, because that's what I feel like doing when a mountain is about to drop on my head!" I told him, exasperated. "Lie about trivialities!"
"It isn't trivial. If you're telling the truth, I've been in here for over six months!"
"And you're going to die in here if you don't move your war mage ass," the redhead told him. The corridor was shaking pretty much continually now, the situation deteriorating every second. It seemed to do more than her words to convince him, and he staggered to his feet.
The balding man was also up, although he looked like death—gray faced and slack-jawed. But he stumbled over to a cell and started working on it.And the Asian woman was already on her feet and working furiously beside the redhead.
"If the way is blocked, how did you get in?" the war mage demanded, starting on a nearby cell.
He blinked, taking in my damp, ragged outfit—now liberally smeared with dust—and my frazzled hair. "What happened to Lady Phemonoe?"
"The same thing that's about to happen to us! Minus the crushing thing. Does it matter?"
"No, no." He looked confused. "I apologize, Lady. I didn't realize who you were. Peter Tremaine, at your service." And he actually bowed.
I stared at him. A courteous war mage. The world really was coming to an end.
And then Pritkin ran back around the corner followed by half a dozen groggy people. He glanced at the cells that still had to be emptied. "You aren't done yet?" he demanded.
The world righted itself.
"Commander!" Tremaine came to a pretty good approximation of attention, considering that he was still swaying on his feet. "We are proceeding apace with the extrication, sir!"
I blinked at him and then looked at Pritkin. "Commander?"
"Later. Get the rest of them out!"
"We'll be done in a minute," I told him. Half of the freed prisoners were now lucid and working on the cells.
"We don't have a minute!"
"Find a way to get us out of here and leave the prisoners to me!" I said, exasperated.
"The prisoners are the way out." He gazed up at the ceiling for a moment, where half of the wildly swinging lights had now gone dark, and then his gaze shifted to the floor. "The upper levels are gone; we'll have to go lower. And to do that, I'm going to need magic users—strong ones."
"And then what?"
"And then we blast a hole through the floor. With the outer wards down, the only thing standing between us and the next level is a ton or so of rock."
"And you can move that much in the next few minutes?"
"I can move that much in the next few seconds, with the right people."
"Point them out to me." We went down the corridor, pausing at each cell, Pritkin muttering under his breath about this one or that one. I got the impression from a few of his comments that most of the people I was releasing weren't in Tremaine's category. Pritkin was looking for power, not politics or moral persuasion. I only hoped he could control them.
"That should do it," he finally said as I shifted out with the last one. Which was good, because I was about to have to tell him that no way could I do even one more jump. I was having trouble just focusing my eyes. Fortunately, Pritkin had something else to worry about. "We can't do this and shield all of you as well," he said.
"Clear this hallway and get everyone around the corner," I told Tremaine, who jumped to obey. Damn, I could get used to this.
A couple minutes later, we were ready to make the attempt. I was crouched around the corner with most of the prisoners, while Pritkin's crew positioned themselves at the end of the first passage. I'd assumed he was going to do a countdown or give some kind of warning, but I'd barely gotten into place when a massive explosion rocked the floor beneath our feet and brought half the ceiling tiles down on our heads. Somebody screamed and someone else cursed and I knew this was the end.
Only it wasn't.
The rocks behind the ceiling tiles remained in place, the walls continued to bow but not break and there wasn't even that much dust in the air. I peered cautiously around the corner, leaving sweat-smudged fingerprints on the concrete, expecting the worst. What I saw instead was a huge hole in the once solid floor.
Pritkin hopped up out of the hole, covered in red dust like an Indian in war paint. "Again," he ordered. I drew my head back just as another huge explosion rent the air.
The reverberations from it hadn't even worn away when a mass yell came from his group. "We're through!" I heard someone say, and then I was hugging the wall to keep from being trampled as the crowd surged forward.
"Cassie!" Pritkin's arm found my wrist and jerked me around the corner. "Hurry up! Even if Caleb succeeded, we're running out of time!"
"Exactly what is he trying to do?" I asked, but didn't get an answer.
Everyone was shoving and jostling, and those getting stepped on were screaming. Some of the tougher crowd were literally running over the older and weaker prisoners in their way. And that was a problem for more than one reason. Because the hole the mages had cut was big enough for only two, maybe three people at a time. And a logjam caused by line jumpers could block the whole thing.
Pritkin pulled a gun and fired a couple of shots at the remaining ceiling. "In order," he barked.
Most people stopped and looked up, the terror fading from their eyes slightly at the sight of someone taking charge. But a big guy in the middle of the line wasn't so docile. He had a red ponytail and beard stubble that almost matched his florid face.
"I helped cut that thing!" he told Pritkin. "I'm not waiting in line to see if I live long enough to use it!"
"Don't," Pritkin warned him. The man's response was to throw a slighter man out of his way and start pushing forward, sending the crowd back into panic mode. And Pritkin shot him.
I didn't even realize what had happened for a few seconds. Until the man stumbled and fell to one knee, a bright spot of color appearing on the tail of the white T-shirt he was wearing. Then he slowly toppled over onto his side.
"I said, in order," Pritkin repeated calmly. The crowd quickly rearranged itself into a nice, straight line.
I stared at the fallen man, stunned. No one tried to help him, and a few people even stepped over him so as to not lose their place in line. I started to move forward, but a heavy hand fell on the nape of my neck.
"Shift out of here," Pritkin told me. "Now."
"I–I don't know that I can make it quite that far," I admitted. Unless the surface was a couple feet away.
Pritkin swore and jerked his head at Tremaine, who was already on his way toward us through the crowd. "Take her to the front of the line," Pritkin told him, handing him a weapon. "Get her out of here. Shoot anyone who tries to stop you."
"What?" I pushed a matted clump of hair out of my eyes. "Don't be ridiculous. I'm not going without—"
"I could stay," Tremaine offered quietly.
"Did you not hear me, mage?" Pritkin's voice didn't get any higher, but Tremaine snapped back to attention.
"Yes, sir!" His hand clapped onto my shoulder and Pritkin let go.
I caught my crazy partner's arm. "What do you think you're doing?"
Pritkin hadn't met my gaze since he'd hauled me out from around the corner, but he did now. His eyes looked strange, but maybe it was the lighting. "You're one of the most adaptable people I've ever met. You'll find your balance," he told me apropos of absolutely nothing. I was starting to think he'd been hit in the head by a rock.
"Pritkin! What the hell?"
He didn't answer, or if he did, I didn't hear him. Because Tremaine was already pulling me through the crowd, gun in hand. No one tried to stop us.
"I'm not going!" I said as we reached the gaping pit in the floor. With its red, jagged rocks next to the pale concrete, it looked like a hungry mouth.
"The commander said—"
"I don't care what the commander said!" I told him furiously. "I'm Pythia. Are you sworn to my service or not?"
Tremaine looked torn. War mages were required to swear an oath to obey the reigning Pythia. Of course, since the Circle didn't recognize me as legitimate, that didn't actually apply in my case. But he was in no position to know that. He pulled me aside and motioned for the people behind us to go ahead. Another three prisoners were swallowed up as he showed me his wrist.
"The time," Tremaine hissed in my ear. I blinked at the dial of his watch. We had fourteen minutes before the wards on this level failed entirely.
I looked back at the line of remaining prisoners and did a few swift calculations. "We can do it. There should be enough time."
"To get off this level, yes. But to get away?" His face remained impassive; I suppose to avoid panicking the crowd. But his eyes were anything but calm. "Everyone isn't going to make it."
"But. . Pritkin—"
"The commander is staying behind to control the crowd. Otherwise, no one would get out."
I looked up and met Pritkin's eyes. He was watching me narrowly, and I knew that expression. It meant he was about two seconds from coming over, grabbing me and dropping me down the hole headfirst.
"Okay. Let's go." I didn't give Tremaine time to say anything. I turned and, as soon as the people who had just entered dropped out of sight, I followed.
The hastily constructed tunnel dropped straight down for about eight feet but was navigable because of all the sharp, shattered rock lining the sides, providing both handholds and opportunities for sliced palms. I managed to make it to the small ledge at the bottom of the first tunnel with a minimum of blood loss, only to see another sloping downward at a steep forty-five-degree angle. I assumed that was where the second spell had hit.
I had to wait until the previous spelunkers cleared the way, and then took their place. A few seconds after I entered the second tunnel, I saw Caleb's face peering up at me out of the dark. "About time," he rumbled. I scrambled forward and took his hand.
He helped me out, but a rock slid under my foot, sending me stumbling into a bulbous green fender. Caleb set me on my feet, and I quickly moved out of the way so he could help the next person to exit. That turned out to be Tremaine, who joined me along the wall. For a moment, we stared at the very odd sight of a corridor filled as far as the eye could see with cars.
And not any old cars. I didn't know the names of most of them, but a couple Bentleys and a silver Rolls-Royce sparkled under the emergency lights not too far away. Buttery leather, gleaming chrome and a rainbow of custom colors marched away from us in a long line.
"What is this?" Tremaine asked softly.
"Our way out," Caleb threw over his shoulder. "The Consul generously donated her antique car collection when I pointed out that having convicts drive it out of here was the only way to save it."
"But I thought MAGIC's garage was on the surface," I said. I clearly remembered stealing a car from there once.
"Yeah, for your common Porsches, Jaguars or Ferraris," Caleb said sardonically. "The junk they keep around for the servants. Apparently, it isn't good enough for Her Highness."
"Lucky for us," Tremaine murmured. He looked at me. "We need to get you a place in one of the cars."
"The vampire Raphael is holding one for her in the black Bentley," Caleb told him. "Better hurry. They're starting to move out now." And sure enough, I could hear the growl of powerful engines starting up from the front of the line and smell the exhaust of unfiltered emissions permeating the air.
"Which car are you taking?" I asked Caleb.
"Whatever one leaves last."
"Then I'll go with you," I said, folding my arms and leaning against the wall.
"You said you were leaving!" Tremaine reminded me, putting a hand under my elbow.
"I never said anything of the kind. And get your hand off me."
Tremaine looked at me helplessly and then at Caleb. "Take over for me here," the older war mage instructed him. Tremaine moved to the tunnel in time to help out a middle-aged woman who sent him a luminous smile through the tears running down her face. Caleb led me down the line of cars and into the shadow of a doorway. "What the fuck?" he demanded.
"I'll leave with you and Pritkin," I repeated, deliberately keeping my voice even. It wasn't easy. I felt like I wanted to jump up and down and scream at everyone to move, damn it! To stop creeping and start flying out of here. I knew that wouldn't help, that they were already moving as fast as they could, and that starting a panic would only slow things down even more. But it still wasn't easy to simply stand there.
"You're the Pythia," Caleb told me. "You can't die in here."
"I'm Pythia?" I did a slow blink. "Since when? The last time I checked, I was a rogue initiate you were trying to hunt down."
"You know what I mean."
"No," I told him honestly. "I don't."
Caleb put a meaty hand behind his neck and rubbed it as if he had a headache. "There might have been some kind of. . miscommunication. . about you."
The panic of a dozen near misses in the last twenty-four hours crowded the back of my throat, jostling for room with more current fears. Like Pritkin not making it out of the death trap I'd dragged him into. Like the fact that that little speech of his was suddenly sounding a lot like good-bye. And the fact that there wasn't a hell of a lot I could do about it as drained as I was.
I really needed somebody to yell at, and Caleb was handy.
"A miscommunication?" I asked him furiously. "Which one would that be? When the warrant was issued for my arrest? Or when the shoot to kill order was given? Or, hey, maybe it was when the huge freaking bounty was put on my head!"
It was Caleb's turn to do the slow blink thing. "If a mistake was made, you have a legitimate grievance," he said. "But dying to prove a point won't help anybody. Pritkin was right: there's a war on and we need a Pythia. If you're it, you have a responsibility."
"My responsibility is the people I brought down here!"
"Pritkin and I will get out!" Caleb said, looking exasperated. "And when you do, I'll be with you."
"I can shift away if need be," I reminded him. "Shouldn't you send someone in the car who doesn't have a life preserver?"
He regarded me narrowly. "You can still shift?"
Caleb didn't look happy, but he nodded. "All right, then. Stay here. I'll come get you in a few minutes."
"I'd rather be doing something."
"All right. You could help by getting people sorted into a vehicle with a competent driver. They don't have to navigate—there's only one way out. But they have to be able to drive a stick."
Caleb took over at the tunnel's mouth again, while Tremaine and I grabbed the dust-covered prisoners and stuffed them into cars. The line was moving swifter now, a blur of color and noise as cars made their way along a tunnel that was scarcely wider than some of them. I assumed the Consul's chauffeurs were vampires, and with their reflexes, a tight squeeze didn't matter. But some of these drivers weren't as skilled. I saw more than one fender get crushed as the car behind it got a little overly enthusiastic, and a number of polished side panels were going to need repainting from scraping against unforgiving rock.
And then the end of the line rolled into place, the last car for the last group out the door. I slipped toward the tunnel's mouth in time to see a familiar blond head and pair of broad shoulders emerge. For some reason, Pritkin was facing backward.
"Pritkin!" I ran toward him, almost dizzy with relief, only to hear a thundering thud overhead and to have him obscured by a billowing cloud of thick red dust.
"In the car! Everybody in the car!"
I distantly heard Caleb's voice, but I couldn't find him. The exhaust fumes and the dust were a choking, blinding mist, the floor shook violently under my feet and rocks and gravel rained down on my head. Then something hit me in the temple, driving me to my knees, and the world went red.
And then nothing.
I woke up to find myself lying in a backseat, draped over a couple of smelly red men. Tremaine and Caleb looked like the Blue Man Group would if they'd suddenly changed their color scheme—completely coated in a thick red paste from head to foot. Dust and sweat, I realized as my eyes managed to fully focus. And I was in no better shape myself.
My lungs felt caked with about an inch of desert and I was having trouble breathing. I managed to cough, and that was both good and bad, because it opened my airway a little more, but then I couldn't stop. I coughed and hacked and gagged and coughed some more until I was sure I was going to bring my lungs up.
It would have helped to have had some water, but there wasn't any. Because we weren't out of the woods yet. I slid into the modest gap between the two mages and peered over the seat. A red man who I vaguely recognized as Rafe was at the wheel. The speedometer said eighty-six despite the fact that the narrow red tunnel we were hurtling down couldn't have been more than half an inch away from the car on either side.
Pritkin was riding shotgun, but he didn't turn around to look at me. I sat back and tried not to stare at the almost hypnotic tunnel arrowing out in front of us. I heard a distant thud and the walls shook. No one said anything, but Tremaine's hand gripped the door handle tight enough to crack his coating of mud.
"What was that?" I asked when the shaking finally stopped.
"Another level collapsing on top of us," Tremaine answered, sounding a little choked.
"We had to go down a freight elevator to a lower level to avoid being crushed," Caleb added. His voice was expressionless, but his hands kept clenching and unclenching on his thighs.
"Only the Senate level is below us now," Rafe chimed in. He sounded the same as always, although I noticed he had a pretty good grip on the wheel. "And it is completely flooded. I am afraid this is as far down as we can go."
Pritkin still didn't say anything.
We were in some kind of bulbous mid-century car, huge and gray and probably made of solid steel. Too bad that wouldn't hold against a few thousand tons of rock. "How many levels are still on top of us?" I asked, not sure I wanted to know.
"That was the last before ours," Tremaine said, and a small giggle escaped his lips before he clamped them shut.
"Can you shift?" Pritkin suddenly asked me, his voice harsh in the stillness.
"You told Caleb you can shift. Was it true?" I licked my lips and saw him watching me in the driver's mirror. "You lied."
Tremaine looked slightly shocked, as if surprised that a Pythia would do such a thing. He obviously hadn't known Agnes. Caleb put a hand to his head."I should have knocked you out and shoved you in a car."
"Yes! You should have!" Pritkin snapped.
Rafe merely sighed. "You shouldn't tell lies, mia stella," he reproached, and floored it.
The car leapt ahead, its gas-guzzling engine tearing through the tunnels at what the speedometer now reported was in excess of one hundred miles an hour. I decided not to look at it anymore. I only hoped it was going to be enough.
At that speed, even vampire reflexes aren't perfect, not to mention that I'm not entirely certain that the tunnel was actually wide enough in places for the car. Dirt and rocks went flying, along with the two side mirrors and part of the back bumper. The rest of it trailed along behind us, hitting enough sparks off the stone floor to have started a fire if there had been anything to burn.
Then something hit the panel behind my seat hard enough to bruise my lower back. I sat up and twisted around to find a man's fist poking through the upholstery. "Who is that?" I demanded, sliding lower to get a look.
"The man the commander was forced to shoot," Tremaine told me as the mysterious hand wrapped around my throat.
Caleb took out a gun and smashed the butt down on the man's wrist. I heard a howl, and the hand was withdrawn. I sat up, careful to stay well away from the back of the seat. "I thought he was dead," I said.
"Not yet," Caleb replied.
"So you put him in the trunk?"
He shrugged. "This was the last car."
We hit a particularly narrow patch, and everyone slid to the center of the seats as the doors on either side buckled like a soda can in a giant's fist. "Who designed this tunnel anyway?!" I screamed, as the side windows shattered.
"It hasn't been in use in years," Rafe said. He burned rubber and we shot out into a slightly broader area in a burst of rubble and glass.
"It was shut down in the thirties after Lake Mead was created. The lake bisected the old route."
"What do you mean, bisected?" I didn't get an answer, because there was a rumbling and a groaning behind us and another billowing wave of dust. And suddenly we were flying out into dazzling sunlight.
The ride immediately became incredibly smooth, with no traction at all other than the wind whistling through the missing windows. I realized why when I wrenched my neck around to look behind us and saw a small cloud poofing out of the pale side of a cliff. The cliff we'd just fallen out of.
We fell more than fifteen feet before nose-diving into a boulder the size of a VW Bug, cartwheeling over and finally hitting a shining expanse of water. The car was built circa 1955, which meant that it had no air bags, and I wasn't even wearing a seat belt. We should have been dead. But Tremaine somehow managed to get a rudimentary shield around us, which popped shortly after encountering the boulder, but spared us the worst.
We survived; the car wasn't so lucky. But at least it sank slowly enough for us to slither through the windows and for Caleb to drag Red out of the trunk. He accomplished that by kicking out the partition between it and the backseat, and I think he might have kicked Red a few times, too. Either that or the guy couldn't swim, because he didn't give us too much trouble on the way to shore.
Cell phones don't work all that great after being drowned, leaving us with little choice but to hike around the side of Lake Mead. In one direction, heat shimmered off miles of dusty earth, scrub brush and distant purple hills. In the other were towering clay-red cliffs with a stark white mineral line striping them near the water's edge. There was little vegetation to soften the austere canyon, giving the place an oddly alien vibe: a big body of water in an almost bare landscape, like a lake on the moon. But with the cobalt sky and the deep azure of the river, it was undeniably striking.
I trudged through the shallower water near the shore, the high heels that were miraculously still strapped to my feet catching on underwater rocks and threatening to trip me. I didn't care. I just kept gazing around in something like awe. Everything was blisteringly hot and breathtakingly beautiful.
It took me a few moments to notice that everyone was looking at me oddly. I just laughed, almost giddy. We'd made it—dust-covered, red-faced and dripping wet, but alive. Rafe grinned with me, and a second later, even Caleb had cracked a smile.
We eventually came to a small trailer park. Most of the plots marked off by white stripes of paint were empty except for some windblown gravel. It was summer, and few people thought that 120-degree heat equaled a fun vacation.
I watched dust devils blow across the sand like miniature cyclones while the guys broke into one of the trailers that stayed there all year round. It looked like it came from the same era as the car, miniscule and vaguely round, with white aluminum sides and a small covered patio. A bedraggled honeysuckle vine was trying its best to decorate the latter, along with a wind chime made out of old forks.
They rattled in the strong breeze coming off the lake as the door opened and Rafe came out. "No phone," he told me. I shrugged. I hadn't really expected one. He had a large yellow and white bottle in his hand that turned out to be sunscreen. "I left some money on the counter," he told me, as if worried that I might think less of him for stealing.
"Blocks eighty percent of UV rays," I read. I looked at him skeptically. "Think this is going to help?"
"At this point, I am willing to try anything," he said, slathering the milky stuff all over his face and hands. Despite the fact that most of the dust had washed off on the way here, Rafe was still bright red. Noonday sun is hell on vampires.
"Here." Pritkin poked his head out of the trailer and handed me a bottle of warm water. Since I'd already swallowed half a gallon on the swim to shore, I passed it to Red, who was looking a little shaky. Pritkin's shot might not have been fatal, but the guy had lost a lot of blood. He needed medical help and we all needed to get out of the heat.
Tremaine emerged a minute later, carrying some plastic deck chairs. "I'm going to hike up the road to the ticket office, see if they have a working phone," he announced.
"You going with him?" Caleb asked Pritkin as Rafe and I got Red off the concrete and into a chair.
"Hadn't planned on it. Why?"
"He's a convict. None of this changes that."
"Cassie and I also have warrants out for our arrest," Pritkin pointed out. "Are you planning to turn us in as well?"
"I'm planning to do my job," Caleb retorted. "Or do you think I should let this one go, too?" He nudged Red with his knee. Red spit out a mouthful of water and started looking slightly hopeful. "Where do we draw the line, John?"
"You know what he did."
"And I know what they say you did."
"And I thought you knew me better than to believe it." The two men stared at each other for a long minute while Red and I watched and Rafe smeared himself with more SPF 80.
Caleb swore. "You have to go in. You have to end this. If there's been a mistake and she really is legit, people need to know."
"Then tell them," Pritkin snapped. "Not vague rumors or memos from higher-ups, but what you heard, what you saw, what you experienced. But don't be surprised if you end up in a prison cell for your trouble."
He and Tremaine took off without another word, and Caleb settled against the trailer, arms crossed and a dark frown on his face, watching his prisoner. I don't know why. It's not like any of us were going anywhere.
Rafe went back inside and emerged a few minutes later with a couple of white sheets that he proceeded to wrap around himself. With his riotous brown curls and easy smile, he looked like a particularly charming bedouin. A bedouin with a face full of sunscreen and a pair of designer sunglasses.
"Where'd you get the shades?" I asked.
"Rome. They're Gucci."
"Very nice." I glanced at Red. "Vampires have coagulants in their saliva that aid in healing. If you're still bleeding, Rafe could stop it."
Red gave Caleb a panicked look. "You keep that thing away from me! I know my rights! You can't let him feed!"
"He's offering to help you," Caleb said mildly.
"Yeah, help me out of a few pints! I know how they are!"
"I believe the bleeding has stopped, mia stella," Rafe said wryly. "And I do not normally feed from, ah, that particular region."
"Pritkin shot him in the ass," Caleb said bluntly.
I looked at Red with more sympathy. I could relate.
A small gust of wind blew some sand in our faces, making me cough and settling onto everyone's hair, turning it vaguely pink. I lifted my sweaty hair off my neck and wished for a headband. God, it was hot.
Fortunately, it wasn't long before Pritkin was back, along with an older man in a golf cart. He seemed to be under the impression that we'd been in a boating accident and needed transport back to Vegas. He had already called us a cab.
"Where's Tremaine?" Caleb demanded.
"Waiting for the cab," Pritkin said blandly.
Caleb scowled, but he kept his comments to himself in front of the norm. He and Red got into the back of the golf cart, and Pritkin got in front. Leaving me and Rafe to follow on foot.
"That wasn't very gentlemanly," Rafe noted, watching them drive off.
I didn't say anything.
It took us five minutes to make it out of the campground, up a small hill and down the road to the ticket booth. We found Pritkin outside, leaning against the booth. Caleb and Red were in the golf cart, taking a short nap. The ticket taker was inside, apparently fascinated by his shoelaces, which he'd knotted into some pretty intricate shapes. Tremaine was nowhere in sight.
"Do I want to know?" I asked.
"We have perhaps half an hour before they wake up," Pritkin informed me. "Peter has gone to the highway to arrange transportation."
"I thought a cab was coming."
"We can't afford to wait that long. McCullough is wearing a tracker; all prisoners do as a precaution. The Corps is preoccupied at the moment, which doubtless explains why a team has yet to arrive to pick him up. But with our luck, they will be here any moment."
The Corps was the military arm of the Circle; i.e., war mage central. I was definitely in favor of moving on before any more of Pritkin's old buddies showed up. But something else he'd said caught my attention.
"A tracker?" I blinked dust out of my eyes. "You mean, if he goes anywhere, they know it?"
"I don't see it on him."
"It's a spell, not a physical device," Pritkin said impatiently. "Is there a reason for your interest?"
"Yes. Can you check to see if I have one?"
He handed me a bottle of water from the ticket taker's fridge and splashed his face with another. "You have three." He started down the road at a fast enough clip that Rafe and I had to hurry to keep up.
"Wait a minute. How do you know?"
"One of them is mine."
"You bugged me?"
"It isn't a listening device, Miss Palmer. It merely records your location. Which, considering how many people wish to kidnap and/or murder you, is a reasonable precaution."
"If it's so reasonable, why didn't you mention it?" Water and perspiration had turned his usually pale eyelashes dark and clumpy, emphasizing the color of his eyes as he rolled them. "Because I wanted it to work! Something it would not have done had you persuaded the witch to remove it."
"Her name is Francoise and you're damn right she'd have removed it!"
"Which is why I didn't mention it."
If I'd been less exhausted, I'd have been livid. As it was, the best I could manage was disgusted. "When I was growing up at Tony's, I was followed everywhere," I told him. "By bodyguards, by my governess, by someone all the time. I had zero privacy. But even Tony didn't go so far as to put a spell on me!"
"He doubtless didn't have anyone competent enough to cast it," Pritkin said, striding ahead.
I shouted after him. "You said one was yours. It doesn't worry you that two other groups are tracking me?"
Rafe cleared his throat. "Ah, Cassie. ."
"Mircea bugged me?" I guessed.
"And Marlowe, I believe."
"Why? Was he afraid Mircea might not tell him everything?"
Rafe looked shocked. "We all have the same desire, mia stella: to keep you safe. And a new version of the spell was recently perfected. It is much harder to detect, even by mages."
"Then why not remove the old one?"
"We were not aware that the mage was also planning to cast one on you. And if someone did abduct you, they would expect to find such a spell."
"So the original was left to give them something to remove, in the hopes that they wouldn't look any further."
"Exactly!" Rafe seemed pleased that I'd grasped his point so easily. Yet he managed to totally miss mine. Sometimes I forgot that Rafe, who had taken to modern clothes and cars, music and art, almost better than any vamp I knew, had been born in the same century as Mircea. No wonder he didn't understand why I'd object to having my every movement followed. The women back then had probably enjoyed it.
Pritkin met my eyes. He got it; he just didn't care.
"You could have asked me," I pointed out, keeping my temper because I was too tired for anything else.
"You admitted that you would have had it removed."
"If you had explained that you'd done it for my safety—"
"Yes, because safety is so important to you!" He rounded on me. "So important, in fact, that you deliberately lied in order to stay in a situation you knew was perilous. For no reason!"
"No reason?" I felt my face flush with more than sunburn. "I had the impression that you needed my help!"
"Until the prisoners were freed, yes. Afterward, there was nothing more you could do and no reason for you to remain. You should have left when I instructed you to do so!"
"Partners don't abandon each other to die."
"If the alternative is to stay and die with them? Yes! They do!" His words were angry, but his face was oddly still, strained and pale.
I tried again. "I am concerned with safety. But I can't always do my job and—"
"That was not your job. Rescuing those prisoners had nothing to do with the time line! Had I guessed that you were foolish enough to almost get killed over them, I would never have agreed to help you!"
"It might not have been my job, but it was my doing. If I hadn't gone to that meeting—"
"Then we wouldn't know that there is a problem with the lines."
I frowned. "What are you talking about? The battle—"
"Should have had no effect. If the lines were that unstable, they would be useless to us. Someone or something must have weakened the structural integrity of that line before the battle."
"Someone? You think this was deliberate?"
"I don't know. But I've never heard of anything of the kind occurring naturally, and the fact that the breach targeted MAGIC is highly suspect."
I thought about the incredible power of a ley line, all those acres and acres of jumping, brilliant energy, and didn't believe it. "But how?"
"I can't explain it. No one has that kind of power. Not the dark, not even us."
"Apollo does."And if anyone had reason to want MAGIC destroyed, it was him.
But Pritkin didn't seem to think much of that idea. "If he could send that amount of energy to his supporters, he would have done so long ago and destroyed the Circle at the outset. Thankfully, you possess the only remnants of his power on Earth."
The conversation had to pause at that point because we'd reached Tremaine and, just beyond him, his idea of a ride. He shot us an apologetic glance. "It seems that any food that doesn't make it into tourists' stomachs is made into high-quality pig feed," he explained. "And Mr. Ellis here hauls leftovers from several casinos to a recycler. He's kindly agreed to drop us at Dante's on his way back for another load."
"It's on my way," the old man repeated cheerfully. "Now settle yourselves any old where. The drums are empty; you won't hurt anything."
Empty, as it turns out, is a relative term. The buffet sludge leaking over the sides of a half dozen black plastic drums was joined by several weeks' worth of dried flotsam rattling around the truck bed. It was also about one hundred degrees with no shade, causing Rafe to hunker down with the sheets pulled up over his head.
"Are you all right?" I asked him, worried. Rafe was a master, but only fourth level. The sun didn't merely drain someone like him of power; it could hurt or even kill him in sufficient quantities.
"Well enough," he told me, but he didn't sound good. Thankfully, it was only about twenty-five miles into town.
"I don't get it," I told Pritkin, who shook his head before I could even frame a question.
"I don't think he's listening," I said, nodding at the driver. The radio was blaring Johnny Cash at ear-ringing decibels, and that was from where we were sitting. The sound in the cab had to be deafening.
Pritkin just looked at me, so I turned to the nice war mage. "I don't understand what stopped that thing. Once there was a tear in the fabric between worlds, why didn't it continue all the way to the end of the line? Like ripping a seam when the thread's cut?"
Tremaine looked nervously at Pritkin, who muttered something but answered the question. "My best guess would be that the ley line sink at MAGIC had enough energy to seal the breach. In your analogy, it would be like encountering a knot in the thread."
"But what if that hadn't been enough? What would have happened?"
"The tear would have continued until reaching a vortex big enough to counter it."
"And that would be where?" I asked, getting a very bad feeling.
"The line where the eruption occurred runs from MAGIC straight to Chaco Canyon, where there is a great vortex—a crossing of more than two dozen lines. It is one of the most powerful in this hemisphere."
Pritkin grimaced. "New Mexico."
I stared at him for a moment, sure I'd heard wrong. "New Mexico? You're saying that thing could have continued for hundreds of miles?"
"Leveling every magical edifice across three states," he agreed tightly.
"And a lot of nonmagical ones," Tremaine added, looking horrified. "Even some norms can pick up on the kind of energy a powerful ley line throws off. Traditionally, a lot of human structures have been built around the lines, even when the builders didn't know why."
Pritkin nodded. "If someone has found a way to disrupt the lines, it could be disastrous. Both for us and for the human population."
I thought about the seared plain, the death and the destruction we'd left behind. "I think it already has been," I said quietly.
At least I didn't have to worry about any war mages who might still be prowling around the casino. By the time we made it back, our closest friends wouldn't have recognized us. Or wanted to get within ten feet of us.
I picked a desiccated wonton wrapper out of my hair, thanked the driver and skirted a long line of cabs to the front entrance. Despite the fact that we were covered in garbage and leaving a trail of dust that would have done Pig-Pen proud, no one gave us a second glance. The place was a madhouse.
Hundreds of tourists had crowded around the reception desk, yelling and waving papers at the usually suave Dante's employees, who were looking a little stressed. Luggage was piled in heaps on the floor and on overflowing carts as harried bellhops ran back and forth, trying to keep up with the demand. Children were crying and threatening to fall in the Styx. An overtaxed air-conditioning system was straining to lower the temperature to maybe ninety degrees. And a bevy of new, life-challenged guests were clogging the lobby bar.
For a minute, I saw a double scene, the ruined bar from my vision transposed over the real thing. Then I shook my head and it cleared, leaving me looking at a muscle-bound type who had one of the fetish-clad waitresses by the waist. She was kicking and screaming and not with pleasure, but the senator didn't seem to care. He'd been born in ancient Rome, where the manners relating to bar wenches had been a little different. Fortunately, the southern belle by his side wasn't in a good mood. She cut her eyes up at him, frowned and nailed his hand to the table with a swizzle stick. He eyed her unfavorably as he pried it loose, but he did let go of the waitress.
"What is the Senate doing here?" I asked Rafe, only to discover that he'd disappeared. I glanced around but didn't see him in the uproar. "Where did Rafe go?" I asked Pritkin.
"He left as soon as we arrived," he told me, eyeing the dozen vamps, luggage in hand, who were waiting by an elevator.
None were Rafe. "Did he say where he was going?"
"No. But he probably went to check in. It appears that the Senate and its servants were instructed to rendezvous here."
"It looks more like they're moving in."
"They are," Casanova said, hurrying over. "And ruining me in the process. I have three conventions booked for this week and two more for next, and I've been ordered to cancel them all! Oh, and you're being moved out of the penthouse. The Consul outranks you."
"Since when?" I demanded.
"Since this is a vampire-run property and she's head of the Senate."
"There are other hotels! Why does she have to stay here?"
"Other hotels aren't a well-warded property with a portal to Faerie. Welcome to MAGIC Two," he said in disgust.
"Sorry," I told him, because he seemed to expect me to say something.
"I need a little more than that, like the key card to the penthouse. Our machine's busted." He caught my expression. "You aren't going to make a scene about this, right?"
"I'm kind of in the mood for a scene," I admitted. Casanova said something in Italian that I won't repeat. "And that's not going to help you any."
He gave me a speculative look. "Then how about this? I was planning to evict those deadbeat kids you foisted off on me—"
"They're orphans!" I said, outraged.
"Not all of them."
"They don't have anywhere else to go!"
"I'm weeping on the inside."
I sighed. "What do you want?"
"I told you. Move out of the penthouse nice and quiet, and I'll find somewhere to put the kids."
"I'll move out of the penthouse nice and quiet, and you'll leave them where they are," I countered. I was too tired for this, but if I didn't didn't spell things out, Casanova would have them sleeping in the Dumpsters out back. And it wasn't like I could get them rooms somewhere else.
The kids in question called themselves the Misfits because their magic had chosen to manifest abnormally, ensuring that they would never fit into the mainstream supernatural community. The ones with more dangerous powers had been confined to a series of «schools» the Circle had set up, where they were supposed to be taught to control their often dangerous powers. But most would never evidence enough control to suit the Circle's standards, meaning that they would never graduate. Or leave.
Tamika Hodges, a friend of mine and one of the Misfits' mothers, had tried to get her son released by legal means. When that failed, she'd taken a more direct approach and broken him out. She'd released some of his friends at the same time, thereby landing her at the top of the Circle's most wanted list right alongside me. With the help of the Senate, I'd recently cut a deal that got her out of trouble for her various crimes. But the deal hadn't included the kids, which was why they'd been hiding at Dante's until I made nice with the Circle. At the rate things were going, they were going to be here awhile. Assuming Casanova didn't throw them into the street.
"They're occupying two very nice suites!" he protested.
"There are eight of them—nine if you count the baby! What were you planning to do, stuff them in a broom closet?" He looked shifty. "They stay where they are or no deal," I said flatly.
"All right! But you owe me."
Before I could give the reply that comment deserved, my eyes locked with those of a tall, exquisite creature across the lobby. And the poor, shredded, dirt-and-garbage-covered remains of my dress suddenly began screeching like an air horn. It was loud enough to draw every eye in the place.
"Shut it off!" Pritkin yelled.
He tried some kind of spell, but it had no noticeable effect. "The Corps is probably still here!" he informed me, as if I could do anything about that.
And then it got worse. "Murderer!" Augustine shrieked, raising an arm to point at me.And thereby drawing whatever eyes hadn't already been turned my way. "Murderer!"
"Take it off!" Pritkin told me, grabbing the hem.
"Corps or no, I'm not streaking through the damn lobby!"
"Here." Tremaine shucked the standard-issue war mage topcoat he was wearing and passed it over. It was midcalf length on him, which meant it dragged the floor on me, but I didn't feel like complaining. I pulled it on, trying not to think about the audience I'd suddenly acquired.
"Two teams just came in the front door," Tremaine warned.
"Give it to me,"
Pritkin ordered. I unbuttoned the shrieking dress with shaking fingers and dropped it around my feet, feeling like a flasher. Pritkin grabbed it, and he and Tremaine took off, waving it above the heads of the crowd and drawing the war mages' attention—for the moment.
I clutched the coat around me and ran in the other direction, toward the employee dressing room. Luckily, I'd worked at the casino for almost a month now, so I had a locker all of my own. Unluckily, its sole contents were a sequined bustier and a pair of three-inch heels.
I slammed it shut, one eye on the doorway, and chewed a nail. Several employees stopped to stare at me, taking in my sunburned face, tangled hair, and filthy, topcoat-clad body. I really needed a shower, but taking one here was out of the question. The only thing worse than getting caught by the Circle was getting caught by the Circle naked. I needed somewhere to recharge, somewhere I could get a change of clothes and a bath, somewhere safe. And only one place came to mind.
Sometimes, it really helps to have a witch for a friend.
A string of furious French was the response to my knock. "I 'ave until four!" I was informed through the door. "Go away!"
I tapped on the door again—carefully—because a powerful witch in a mood is not someone to take lightly. Especially when she knows as many archaic spells as this one. "Francoise—it's me."
The door flung open to reveal a really unhappy brunette. Her long hair was everywhere, her chic green and white sundress was streaked with dust and she had a bulging garbage bag in one hand. From the look of things, it contained most of her clothes.
"Cassie!" Her eyes widened and a second later I found myself enveloped in a bone-crushing hug. "I was so worried! I was afraid the Circle 'ad taken you to MAGIC!"
"But. . 'ow did you escape? Zey say it was destroyed!"
"It's a long story." I glanced at the garbage bag. "I take it you've been evicted?"
The scowl returned."Casanova, 'e say zat ze Senate needs my room for one of zere servants. So I must go! Today!"
"There's a lot of that going around."
"I 'ad thought to ask if I might stay with you," she admitted.
"What a coincidence."
"Mais c'est impossible!
You are ze Pythia!"
"And the Consul likes a view."
Francoise said some uncharitable things about the Consul. Since they were in French—which I'm not supposed to speak—I didn't contradict her. It was also a fact that they were all true.
I flopped onto the bed. I'd only meant to sit down, but I swear the mattress was spelled. It just pulled me in. I tried to kick my shoes off, but mud had welded them to my feet. I decided I didn't care.
I lay there for a few minutes, listening to Francoise tear the room apart. "Any ideas?" I finally asked.
Francoise grimaced. "Randolph 'as an apartment."
"Randy?" I opened an eye to watch her flush slightly. "Tall, corn-fed, crew-cut blond with biceps like boulders? That Randy?"
"When 'e 'eard that ze employees 'ave to move, 'e called me."
I rolled over onto my stomach and propped my chin in my hand. "Did he?"
The flush became a blush. "'E 'as an extra room."
"Uh-huh." And I'm sure he meant for her to stay in it, too.
She sighed. "'E ees very 'andsome, non?"
"Yeah." If you liked the laid-back surfer boy type, Randy was the man. He was also a genuinely nice guy, for someone possessed by an incubus. "So what's the problem?"
Francoise shot me a look. "You know what ees ze problem!"
"He wouldn't feed off you," I assured her. For one thing, she'd curse him into next week.
"I know zat!" She filled another Hefty bag with the extra pillow and blanket from the closet, the bedside lamp and the hotel's iron. When she picked up the last, the cord fell out the back.
"Then what is it? And you need that long skinny black thing." She looked blank. "It makes it go," I added, and she nodded and went hunting under the bed.
Francoise had issues with modern equipment. «Modern» meaning anything invented after the seventeenth century. That's when she'd been born, and when she'd met a bunch of dark mages with an entrepreneurial streak.
The Fey would pay top dollar for attractive, fertile young witches who could help them with their population problem, but most of the likely candidates were either too well-guarded or too powerful to be taken easily. But the mages had caught Francoise at a vulnerable moment and quickly bundled her off to a slave auction in Faerie. She'd lived with the Fey for what had seemed like a few years, until seizing the chance to escape—only to discover on her return that four hundred years had passed in our world. The whole thing just left Rip van Winkle standing.
"Zees?" She held up the cord.
"That would be the one."
It went into the bag, along with a painting that she climbed up onto the bed to rip off the wall. "It ees zese ozzair women," she told me, tugging on the painting. "I tell him, I weel not be—what ees ze word? Many women with one man?"
"Oui. I weel not be a harem!" she said, and tugged really hard. The painting came off the wall, flew across the room and put a dent in the door. Francoise hopped down and checked out the damage. The frame looked a little wonky, but apparently it passed muster because it went into the bag.
"I can see where that could pose a problem. He has an incubus to feed."
"I tell heem, geet rid of it," she said, making one of those wild French gestures that mean anything and nothing. "But non. 'It changed my life, " she mimicked.
"Maybe it did," I said carefully. "Casanova recruits a lot of his boys from small towns who don't think they have much of a future."
"'E ees 'ere now," she said fiercely. "'E does not need it anymore. I theenk it ees the ozzair women 'e does not wish to give up!"
I tried to find something to say, but everything was too jumbled, too out of control in my head. Thoughts and feelings I didn't want to examine kept pushing their way to the front. I wondered if Mircea felt the same way now that a spell no longer bound us together. Would he want other women? Or did he already have one?
He came from an era when it was common to have a wife to play hostess and a mistress or two with whom to play at other things. I'd never heard anyone speak of a long-term lover in connection with Mircea, but then, I hadn't asked, either. And I'd never been to his main court in Washington State. That was despite the fact that he'd discovered my existence when I was eleven, after a call from Raphael, his resident stooge at Tony's court.
Mircea was Tony's master, which by vampire law allowed him to put a claim on me. At best, he'd hoped that I might inherit the Pythia's position and give the vampires their first shot at controlling that kind of power. At worst, I was a genuine clairvoyant, and those aren't a dime a dozen. But he'd nonetheless chosen to let me grow up at Tony's rather than take me back to court with him.
I'd always assumed that had been to ensure that the Circle didn't find out about me. They had a proprietary interest in magic users in general and clairvoyants in particular, and they might have given him trouble. Tony's court was a lot lower profile than Mircea's, and therefore safer. But now I wondered if maybe there had been another reason as well.
A beautiful dark-eyed reason.
I groaned and threw an arm over my eyes. Damn it! There were only ever questions when it came to Mircea, never answers. It was starting to get really old.
My head hurt, my body ached and I wanted to just stop thinking for a while. But something about those photos was nagging at me. I suddenly realized that Mircea hadn't appeared in a single one, which seemed a little strange considering how many there had been. I'd have assumed that he was the one taking the pictures, but the woman hadn't been looking at the camera in any of them, at least not that I could remember. It was like she hadn't even been aware of it.
So what the hell was he doing? Paying someone to take photos for him, to keep track of her? And if so, why? Why not just take her if he was that smitten? Who could a master vampire possibly need to stalk?
I could only think of a few options, none of which seemed all that likely. Did she belong to another master, maybe even another Senate member? In that case, yes, he could refuse to give her up. But masters traded their servants all the time, and Mircea was perfectly capable of talking the moon down from the heavens when he wanted. If he was that motivated, he would have found something or someone the woman's master would have taken in trade.
So was she a senator herself who'd rejected him? That seemed even less plausible. Most vampires viewed sexuality as merely another marketable commodity. I couldn't imagine any senator turning down Mircea's advances when they would likely bring her an important political alliance. Vampires almost always thought in terms of profit and loss, even about intimate relations. And there would be no profit in refusal.
That left me with one idea, and not one I liked. The Senate had recently suffered some losses in the war. Was it possible that the woman in the photos was one of the senators who had died? Could that album have been some kind of memorial Mircea had compiled of his lost love?
The thought that he might have been pretending interest in me even while mourning someone he'd loved for decades, maybe centuries, made me almost physically ill. And what hurt the most was that he hadn't needed seduction to get me on his side. I'd already been there. He just hadn't noticed.
"What ees it?" Francoise asked, sounding concerned.
I realized that I'd totally missed whatever she'd been saying, too busy pondering my train wreck of a love life. I sat up and blanked my face, but she just raised an eyebrow. Damn it. It had been too long since I'd had to regularly control my features. I was out of practice.
"Nothing. It's just. . I sort of know how you feel."
She looked surprised. "Lord Mircea, 'e 'as a woman?"
"I don't know." I got up and started to pace, but the damn high heels hurt my feet. I sat back down again. "I don't know anything. We never talk."
"He's been gone most of the time lately, on Senate business. And when I do see him, he has so much else on his mind that it's hard to bring up relationship stuff." Next to war, politics and the supernatural world threatening to implode, it seemed a little trivial. But the result was that I'd somehow ended up married—at least from the vamps' perspective—to someone I knew next to nothing about.
"You should talk to 'im," Francoise said, eyeing the overhead light fixture. Luckily for Dante's, it was bolted into the ceiling.
"Yeah." Only every time I tried, talking wasn't what we ended up doing. Not to mention that I had absolutely no idea how to broach the subject of a possibly recently deceased ex-lover. Or whatever she was.
Francoise arched an eyebrow and started to say something, but a rap on the door saved me. She threw up her hands, turned around and snatched it open. Randy stood there looking sheepish, as much as is possible for a guy wearing skintight black jeans and a matching muscle shirt. At least I think it was a shirt. It might have been paint.
"What are you doing 'ere?"
He shrugged, setting a lot of muscles rippling. "I thought I could help you move. To wherever you're going," he added quickly as Francoise's expression darkened.
"We 'aven't decided zat yet," she said with a good attempt at nonchalance.
"I think I might know a place," I told her, prying my weary body off the bed.
A few minutes later, me, Randy, Francoise and her bags of loot arrived at what had once been a tiki bar on the hotel's fourth floor. It had recently suffered an unfortunate fire and renovations were still ongoing. The rebuilt stage smelled of varnish and the bare drywall on the walls still awaited paint. It was probably the only quiet place in the whole hotel.
Unfortunately, quiet was about the only thing the bar's back room had to recommend it. The place was tiny and had no bathroom, and we had to move boxes of plastic leis and condiment packets out to make room for a second bed. But it was livable. I should know; not so long ago, it had been my room.
"Okay. This is. . cozy," Randy said, looking around.
"It used to be a storage closet."
"I'd have never guessed." I shot him a look and he shrugged. "At least you won't get evicted." No, I didn't suppose so. No self-respecting vampire would be caught dead in it.
"I like eet," Francoise said, trying to navigate the maybe one-inch-wide aisle between her bed and the wall.
"It's just temporary," I promised.
"Yes. Lord Mircea will arrange something for you." I could already see her mentally removing my bed.
I'd been thinking more of the room next door. It was smaller but a lot more colorful than this one, with a floor-to-ceiling stained glass window depicting a battle scene. The window had met an unfortunate accident—they seemed to be pretty common around here since I showed up—and hadn't yet been replaced. A plastic sheet printed to look like it had been stapled over the gap but it let in the heat. I needed to ask Casanova when he thought a replacement might be expected.
But that could wait. There were more pressing issues at the moment. I left Francoise to arrange things to her liking and borrowed the key to her old room. If I was lucky, I'd have time for a shower before I was evicted again.
I woke hours later to a thump and a scream. The latter started in a falsetto and ended up in a baritone, which was enough to tell me that it wasn't Francoise even before the profanity started. I tensed, my lids flew open and I saw a hulking eight-foot shadow looming over me. I screamed.
"Honey, I know it's last year's wig," someone snapped. "But it's Liza. It's timeless."
I reached up and flicked on the overhead light, and the shadow resolved itself into an eight-foot-tall woman rubbing her shin. Part of the height was due to the aforementioned towering black wig and part to seven-inch platforms. The rest of the package was swathed in a skintight sheath short enough to be considered a shirt and constructed entirely of black sequined bow ties. It strained over shoulders wider than most men's and showed off heavily muscled legs. The total effect was linebacker in drag.
It took me a minute to realize that was because she was, in fact, a linebacker in drag.
"Who are you?" I demanded shrilly.
She looked insulted. "Darling, have you been living under a rock? I'm Dee Sire."
I just looked at her.
"Of the Three D's?"
I shook my head.
"We used to be the Double D's, but then we picked up a third. ."
I had no idea what she was talking about, but a quick survey showed that whoever she was, she didn't appear to be carrying a weapon. Unless she had one stuffed in that enormous wig. She could have stuck an AK-47 in there and no one would know.
"What are you doing in my room?" I asked a little more calmly.
"I know how it is: you have one too many drinks, you're looking for the ladies' and you stumble in here. Fair enough, but, sweetie, this ain't your room."
"It is at the moment," I said testily, looking around.
Francoise was nowhere to be seen, probably still out with Randy. He'd talked her into dinner and she'd invited me along, but Randy had been giving me pleading eyes behind her back and anyway, I'd been too exhausted to eat. Not to mention that the only clean clothes I had were the Dante's T-shirt and sweatpants I'd bought at the gift shop to sleep in. No one had seemed to know where my luggage was and everything Francoise owned was six inches too long on me.
"What do you want?" I asked, finger combing my hair.
"No need to get snippy. And if you don't want to wake up in the stockroom with no idea how you got there, I'd lay off the sauce."
"I don't drink! And I know exactly how I got here. I was—Wait a minute!" I stopped, staring from her to the still-locked door. "How did you get in?"
Dee wasn't listening. She'd pulled a silver bejeweled phone out of her enormous bosom and was stabbing at it with a crimson talon. "Get me Dee Vine," she told it, and paused for a beat. "Don't give me that! Tell her to stop primping and answer the damn phone!" There was another pause and she rolled her eyes. "Dee Vine, my ass!" she told me. "She ought to call herself Dee Crepit; the bitch has to be going on sixty. No amount of makeup is going to hel—lo Dee, you gorgeous thing. ."
My stomach grumbled plaintively, a counterpoint to the throbbing in my skull. My last meal had been breakfast with Mircea and that had to be. . I wasn't even sure. A long time ago. I started looking for my shoes.
"Well, I don't know, do I?" Dee asked. "The only other person here is some wino in wrinkled sweats. ."
I looked down at myself and then glared up at her. She made a kissy face at me but didn't apologize. I found one shoe under Francoise's bed, but the other was nowhere to be seen. It had vanished like a sock in a dryer.
Dee grumbled into the phone some more and then clicked it shut. "They moved the rehearsal and didn't bother to tell me." She watched me crawling around the floor. "What are you doing?"
"Trying to find my other shoe." I held up the one I'd located and she snatched it with a little cry.
"Oh, my God. That's a Jimmy Choo Atlas gladiator sandal!"
"Uh-huh." Sal had picked them out. They were a little flashy, but at least all the straps had kept them on my feet. Otherwise, my bruises would have been joined by some seriously lacerated soles.
Dee lifted the sandal delicately, holding it up to her face. The patent surface was looking a little battered after its recent adventures and mud caked the heel, which had lost its end cap. She stroked its side softly. "Oh, my poor, poor baby."
Once upon a time, I'd also taken an interest in fashion, as much as my limited budget allowed. But lately, I was more interested in whether I could run in a pair of shoes than in whose name was on the box. And I'd never cooed to my footwear.
"It's just a shoe," I said impatiently.
She hugged it to her huge chest, glaring at me. "People like you shouldn't be allowed to own fashion." She stuck a massive calf up on the bed, a long nail pointing at her shiny red platform. "See these? Four years old and not a scratch. And they're off the rack!"
"It's been a rough day."
She shook her head hard enough to almost dislodge the wig. "That's no excuse. We've all been there, but you take the designer shoes off and then you puke."
"I'm not drunk!"
She was too busy petting the shoe to listen. "I could so work a pair of these."
I eyed her maybe size fourteen foot. "I don't think they come in your size."
"Oh, please. What's a little blood? I'd bind my feet up like a geisha if I could afford—"
"Well, I'd trade them for a pair of Keds and a good meal," I muttered, and looked up to find huge fake eyelashes fluttering in my face like a pair of angry moths.
"You would?" Dee asked, a little breathless.
"Yeah. If I don't get something to eat soon, I'm going to—"
She gave me a shove and I stumbled back into the wall—and kept going. I fell down what felt like a water slide except with no water. In its place was a blur of color and a roar of sound—and then I was tumbling head over heels into an alcove. It had rough wood floors, stucco walls and a pay phone with an out of order sign.
Something taupe and muddy lay right in front of my nose. I grabbed it. "My shoe!"
"My shoe," Dee said, stumbling out of the wall behind me. She plucked it out of my hands. "Keds and a meal—that was the deal, right?"
"Yes, but. ." I stared at the wall we'd just fallen out of.
"There was a portal in my room!"
"No kidding." Dee peered out of a set of red velvet drapes in front of the alcove.
"Because it used to be a nightclub with undead performers," she threw over her massive shoulder. "How do you think they got them in and out? Walked them through the main casino floor, so they could munch on a few tourists in passing?"
I scowled. "You can't go around telling people this kind of stuff. You just met me. I might be a norm for all you—"
"The whole group, Dee Vine, Dee Licious and me. We're all Scrims."
"What difference does that make?" Scrims were just mages who didn't produce much magical energy. They varied in ability, from those who weren't very good at magic to those who couldn't even cast a simple spell. Like the Misfits, they weren't popular in the magical community, but they weren't locked up because nobody viewed them as a threat.
"Scrims can detect magic," she said impatiently. "We're like bloodhounds on a scent, drawn to it like queens to fashion. Speaking of which, those bitches I work with would kill for these shoes. Literally—I'm talking a stiletto to the neck. We have to be careful."
"Look, I just want a sandwich—"
"It's all about you, isn't it?" she hissed. "This is an act of mercy. I have a friend who can restore these babies to their proper glory but I have to smuggle them past the hags. Oh, shit! There's one now!"
Dee snapped the curtains shut and started stuffing the shoes down her already overpadded front. She'd just finished when the curtain was snatched back to reveal a tall, gaunt person in a black see-through body stocking, sequined pasties and black satin hot pants. «She» had purple lipstick, purple feathers on her long, fake eyelashes and the pale, expressionless face of the overly Botoxed.
"That look went out with the eighties," she drawled, staring suspiciously at Dee's now ultrapointy breasts.
Dee draped an arm around my shoulders. "Darling, meet Dee Ceased—"
"Dee Vine!" the woman snapped.
"Careful with the emotion, love. Your forehead might fall off."
Someone laughed and edged in around the ample space left by Dee Vine's scrawny form. The newcomer was a seven-foot-tall African-American in a blond wig, her ample curves spilling over the top of a full-length red-sequined dress. "That's what I was telling her. Then we can call her Dee Composed."
That won her a glare from her costar. "Like you've never had work. You're over forty without a line!"
The newcomer ran hands in opera-length, red satin gloves down her curves. "And it's all natural, baby. Ain't you heard? Black don't crack."
"Are we gonna get this rehearsal on or not?" Dee Vine demanded. "This dump opens in two days!"
"I'm going to grab a bite first," Dee Sire told her, pushing me through the miniscule opening between the two queens.
"Another few pounds and what'll be cracking around here is your ass out of that dress!" floated after us as we emerged into a dark club.
The theme seemed to be Wild West saloon, with a long bar, clusters of round wood tables, sawdust on the floor and a couple of old-fashioned swinging doors. We stepped through them into the middle of a ghost town. Or at least Dante's idea of one.
Most of the casinos in town were trending away from Vegas' overly kitschy roots, but not here. Dante's had a vested interest in maintaining its reputation as the home of the wild, the wacky and the tacky. The more the scarier; that was Dante's motto.
The overall theme of the casino had begun as various versions of hell, as evidenced by the lobby. But over time, that had pretty much devolved into a hodgepodge of all things supernatural. The more there was to distract the eye, the less likely that anyone would notice that not all of the «acts» were fake.
Nowhere was that better realized than on the casino's main drag. Wooden sidewalks creaked and groaned mysteriously, even when no one was on them. There were hitching posts every so often for ghostly horses that only showed up in the darkened windows of the stores they faced. There was a water tower at one end with a hanged man dangling from it, turning gently in a nonexistent breeze. And the sky overhead was constantly dark, except for a few fake bolts of lightning flashing occasionally.
Of course, this was Vegas, which meant the old wooden shops had been slutted up with neon signs featuring glowing cacti, dancing martini glasses and tap dancing skeletons. There was one advertising "Drag on the drag" outside the saloon we'd just exited. And there were tourists everywhere.
"Look at this!" Dee was indignant. "I wouldn't wait in those lines for seventy-five percent off at Saks, much less a Tombstone Taco."
"I don't care. Right now, anything I can put in my mouth is fine."
"Oh, honey, if only you were a boy," she sighed, and pulled me into the madhouse of Main Street.
It was not only busier than usual, it was creepier, too. Along with the tourists in bright colored tees and the Dante's employees in costumes and face paint were a large number of pale, elegant observers watching the melee through jaded eyes. The senators' servants had arrived in force and midnight was lunchtime. And the street was a walking buffet.
"This is ridiculous," Dee said as people kept trying to pose with her. I guess they thought she was one of the costumed performers who appeared here and there for photo ops. Only they were dressed in a gothic version of Old West attire, not Dee's glittery bow ties.
"You know, I could just call room service—"
"No way. A deal's a deal." She spied an opening in the throng and towed me through.
We ended up at the Last Stop train station. It was a steakhouse filled with conductors wearing white face paint, with deep black circles under their eyes and wild Beetle-juice hair. Among others, the menu featured Punched Ticket Porterhouses, Terminated T-bones and No Return Rib Eyes. The smell was enough to make my stomach complain loudly, but the place was hip deep in people and the line snaked around the corner.
Dee parked me by the menu sign. "I know a guy in the kitchen. Stay here. I'll be right back." She waded through the throng like a bulldozer in heels, scattering tourists left and right.
I leaned against the sign, trying not to get stepped on, and watched the people go by. A costumed brunette in black lace and burgundy satin sashayed down the street a few minutes later, flirting and laughing and posing for photos. And getting steadily closer to a group of three too-pale loiterers.
The performer stopped near the trio to straighten a garter, smiling at them flirtatiously. She obviously liked admiration, and they were giving it to her in spades. Her smile grew as they surrounded her and didn't falter even when their hands brushed down her arms. She was still smiling when they started to feed.
It was the PC way to do it, drawing her blood up through the skin in molecules so small, even she didn't notice, but three on one was a definite no-no. Three hungry vampires could drain a human in less than a minute, and she was already looking unsteady on her feet. I glanced around, but there was no security in sight. Wonderful.
I darted across the street before I could talk myself out of it just as a master vamp approached from the other direction. He grabbed the girl and sent her spinning into a party of Japanese tourists. They happily started posing for photos while she blinked at them dazedly, her cheeks pale under a liberal amount of blush.
I breathed a sigh of relief. It looked like the Senate had their own security in place, and he looked pretty pissed off. The master hoisted one of the three delinquents into the air by his expensive lapels, looked him over with a slight curl to his lip and tossed him casually into the water tower. That would have been great, except the tower was a prop with no actual water in it. It hadn't been designed to withstand the force of a 180-pound vampire hitting it at about ninety miles an hour, which it demonstrated by groaning and toppling slowly into the crowd.
People screamed and scattered as it hit down, including the two remaining miscreants who'd started the whole thing. The master cursed and went after them, leaving me standing in the street in front of the downed tower. Everyone who wasn't running for the sidewalks was looking right at me—including two war mages.
For an instant, we locked eyes, and I saw theirs widen in recognition. Shit! I ran for the nearest sidewalk, intending to get out of sight and shift—assuming I could. But the crowd was six deep on either side, and nobody felt like letting me through. I looked back to find the mages almost on top of me. I changed course and scurried for the fallen tower. Maybe, if I could get underneath—
An arm reached out of the aluminum side of the tower and pulled me in. Only I didn't end up there. There was a moment of disorientation and then I popped out on a balcony hanging off the facade of a fake feed store. "I thought I told you to stay put!" Dee said, pushing a fallen curl out of her face.
"What did you—How many portals are there?"
"Never counted. A bunch were put in for a magic act a couple years ago and nobody ever shut them down. They don't use magic unless they're activated, so. ." She shrugged. "Anyway, I got you an End of the Line burger and fries. Will that do?"
I took a greasy sack that smelled like heaven. "Absolutely," I said fervently.
"Okay, then. We're making progress. Now stay here while I go look for some shoes."
"Gotcha." The balcony was more for show than anything else and only a few feet wide. I'd have to eat standing up, but at the moment, I didn't care.
Dee nodded and stepped back through the side of the building, heedless of any watching eyes, not that there appeared to be any. The crowd was fixated on the mages, who were studying the fallen tower suspiciously. One cautiously stuck an arm in the side, which disappeared up to the shoulder—and reappeared on my side of the portal.
It flailed around for a second, almost brushing against me twice, while he craned his neck and looked around to see where it came out. He didn't see me, but someone in the crowd did and pointed. The waving arm snatched at me, I jerked back and it grabbed my sandwich bag instead. And disappeared.
The mage pulled my lunch out on his side of the portal, dropped it on the ground like he was afraid it was contagious and threw a fireball at it. The crowd roared in delight, apparently deciding that this was some unscheduled entertainment. I almost cried.
"That was my lunch, you idiot!" I yelled right before he stepped through the portal.
He appeared in my face, startling me, and I instinctively pushed him away. He fell back through the portal, stumbled out of the tower and landed on his ass. He glared, scrambled up and pulled a gun.
For a moment, I didn't believe he'd do it. There were a couple hundred people around; no way would he risk killing one of them while trying to take me out. The Circle hadn't impressed me with their sanity, but they weren't that crazy.
Then he pointed the gun, not at me, but at the fallen tower.
I threw myself out of the way just as he shot at point-blank range into the portal. The bullet came out my side, ruffling my hair on its way past, and shattered a lighted sign on the other side of the street. I was still staring at the sparks and broken glass when he launched himself back through—and this time he grabbed me.
I panicked and shifted—and since he was still holding on, he came along for the ride. We landed on the roof of the opposite building, or rather, he did. I was left dangling over the side, and in his surprise, he let go.
I shifted midair and ended up back where I'd started, woozy and nauseous. Shifting two people on no food and maybe five hours' sleep had wiped me out. I didn't think I could do it again. That proved to be a problem when the other mage popped out of the portal practically on top of me.
I did the only thing I could. I grabbed his coat, swung him around and fell back through the portal before he could curse me. I rolled out of the tower a second later, into the middle of the street, adding another layer of bruises. The crowd applauded as I struggled to my feet.
"They do it with doubles," I heard someone say. "The girl on the balcony was a lot more blond."
"You'd think they'd check for something like that," someone else said.
The mage stepped out of the portal and tripped over my body, kicking me painfully in the ribs. Down the street, his partner jumped from the roof and started for us through the crowd. I got my feet under me, kicked the still-burning remains of my lunch in the mage's face and ran.
"Over here!" I saw Dee waving at me, her wig towering over everyone else. A hand grabbed the back of my sweatshirt, but she jerked me over the heads of the last few people and it fell away. She swiveled on a heel, plunged into a ladies' restroom and shoved me into the janitor's closet. I didn't even have time to catch my breath before we fell through a wall.
We tumbled out into my room again a second later. I landed on the bed, but Dee hit her shin painfully on the side of the headboard. "Fuck it, that's twice today!"
I lay there, staring at the wall, wondering who was going to come through next. But nobody did. I guess the mages hadn't been able to pass the gauntlet of outraged women in line.
"Here!" Dee threw a package on the bed and pulled my shoes out of her bra. "God, what I do to look good," she said, clutching them to her heaving bosom. And disappeared.
I tried room service, but after getting a busy signal for ten minutes straight, I put my new sneakers on and decided to go out.
There are things I am never going to like about Vegas: the relentless sun that reflects off sand and glass and concrete everywhere you look. The constantly changing skyline, where housing developments and gaudy tourist traps seem to pop up and fade away overnight, as if the whole city is set on fast-forward. And the crowds of tourists that are constantly underfoot. But you have to love a place just a little that serves up pizza and beer to go at midnight.
I reentered Dante's through a side entrance, intending to find a quiet place to picnic. But apparently someone else had other ideas. A meaty hand reached out of a stairwell and grabbed me around the wrist.
"If you want some pizza, you could just ask," I told Marco.
He glowered at me out of red-rimmed eyes but didn't say anything. Just breathed heavily and stuck a phone in my ear. "Cassie? Are you there?" a voice asked.
Damn. It was Mircea. And I hadn't even started to figure out what to say to him yet—about a lot of things. "What did you do to Marco?" I demanded, deciding to go with a good offense.
"Assigned him as your permanent bodyguard." Mircea's usually warm voice was cold steel.
"I meant as punishment."
"So did I."
I stared at the phone for a moment and then clicked it shut.
It almost immediately rang again.
I tossed it at Marco and continued walking. He followed. "You gotta take the boss's call."
There was a slight pause. "He'll be mad."
"He's already mad."
I looked up to find Marco practically shaking in his boots. His face was pale and his eyes were almost bugging out of his head. He looked terrified.
At that moment, I didn't like Mircea very much.
The phone rang.
Marco held it out to me and I took it. "What?"
"I thought you might wish to know that Raphael is in the infirmary."
I stopped walking. "Why?"
"The doctors tell me that he is dying." Mircea said something else, but I didn't hear him. I'd already dropped the phone and the pizza and was running for the stairs.
I don't remember how I got to the lobby and couldn't tell you the name of the person who gave me directions. I skidded into a table on the way and almost fell but managed to clutch it with both hands and hang on. Cursing, I started to take off again and ran into a solid wall of vampire.
Alphonse, Tony's onetime head henchman, set me back on my feet. As usual, his seven-foot-plus body was clad in a bespoke suit. This one was dark tan with a cranberry stripe, and he had a ruby the size of a quail's egg for a tie tack. More rubies glinted from a couple of finger rings and from the wrist of his longtime girlfriend, Sal. He had the suits cut loose to conceal the half ton of weaponry he carried but didn't need. Between him and Sal, they could have taken out a platoon.
Sal was all in red to match the rubies, from the skintight sheath designed to draw attention to her ample curves and away from her missing eye—lost long ago in a saloon brawl with another "hostess" — to her anger-darkened cheeks. "I wish someone had done this to him, so I could gut them," she said by way of greeting.
"You've seen him?"
"Yeah." Sal wiped an arm across her face, smearing her mascara. I stared; I'd never seen her look this rattled. She noticed and smiled grimly. "You kinda get attached to someone when you know him for a century and a half."
"He's not bad, for a pretty-boy painter," Alphonse agreed. "You been in there?" He jerked a thumb at the set of ornate doors down the hall.
"No. I just found out—"
"So did we. Fucking idiots didn't tell nobody he was here, and he was too weak to do it himself. We're getting him transferred to a private room."
"How. . how is he? Mircea said something—"
"Bad," he said flatly.
"If you want to see him, you better do it now," Sal added bleakly.
Casanova had said that they'd had to cancel the conventions, but I'd assumed it was because they needed the space. They did, but not only for rooms. The Murano glass chandeliers of the main ballroom, which usually looked down on fashion shows and business luncheons, now lit up row after row of cots. I could see them dimly through the glass insets in the main doors but not reach them. Because the ballroom had another new feature—a pair of armed guards.
They were vampires, but they weren't part of Casanova's security force. I knew all of them by now and they knew me, whereas neither of these guys made any attempt to move out of the way. "Human visitors are not allowed," one of them said without bothering to look at me.
"I'll take my chances," I told him, but he didn't budge. "My friend is in there." Not a word, not even a glance. "He's dying!"
"She's with me," Marco said, coming out of nowhere.
"No humans," the guard repeated in the same abrupt way, but at least Marco got eye contact. "Senate's orders."
"There have been problems?" Marco asked sharply.
The vamp shrugged. "Indiscriminate feeding. Some of the injured were out of their heads. The nurses say they have it under control, but the Senate doesn't want any incidents. That means no human visitors."
"Well, this human is visiting whether the Senate likes it or not!" I said furiously.
"Keep it in line or I'll do it for you," the guard told Marco.
"Screw this," I said, and shifted inside—only to almost get run over by an orderly with a cart. More than a dozen of them were zipping here and there, patching up patients like pit crews servicing race cars. A nearby patient had his sheets changed, his pillow fluffed, his water jug refilled and his meds doled out in about the time it took for me to blink.
The guard was suddenly beside me. I hadn't seen him come in, but I saw him stop when Marco's hand latched onto his shoulder. Marco pulled back my hair to show off the two small marks on my neck. "She belongs to Lord Mircea."
The guard's eyes thawed slightly. "Don't let her run loose," he warned.
"Yeah. I get that a lot." Marco put a hand to my back and hustled me down the nearest aisle.
We stopped at a cot exactly the same as all the rest by one of the walls. The man-shaped patient who lay naked on top of the plain white sheets was covered head to toe in cracked and blistered flesh that glistened from ointment that didn't seem to be helping at all. His bare hairy ankles and long pink feet looked relatively untouched, but the rest of him. . It was like he'd been parboiled.
His shoes, I thought blankly. Like his belt, which had left a pale stripe across his midsection, the heavy leather of his shoes had spared his feet the worst of it. But the light summer clothes and thin cotton sheets he'd wrapped around himself had been next to useless. They may have reduced the third-degree burns to second in a few places, but it was honestly hard to tell. A human wouldn't have survived that kind of trauma. And even Rafe was so disfigured that, without Marco's help, I would never have recognized him.
But he knew me.
"Cassie." It was a harsh whisper, like his lungs were on fire. My legs gave out and I collapsed to my knees.
"They say he was in the sun for hours." Marco sounded awed and appalled.
I didn't answer. A rush of adrenaline was making the room seem to pulse around me, but there was nowhere to run, nothing to do. I gulped in air, a little too much, a little too quickly, and choked, causing Marco's grip to tighten on my shoulder.
"Why did he do this?" I whispered. "He could have stayed behind—there was shelter."
"I heard you came back with some mages."
"They escaped with us."
"Yeah. People work together when their lives are on the line. But when they calm down, they revert to type."
I remembered Caleb's conversation with Pritkin. Had Rafe heard it and decided he couldn't trust them? My stomach rebelled as the implication hit—had he ended up this way because of me?
Rafe squinted up at us and tried to say something, but his lips had swollen so much that I couldn't understand him. "I think he wants his sunglasses," Marco translated. "Do you know what they look like?"
"They're Gucci," I whispered.
Marco found them on a nearby table and tried to put them on Rafe's face, but there was no way of resting them that wasn't going to hurt him. The moment they touched his raw flesh, he cringed and let out a hiss, and Marco snatched them back. I guess that explained the lack of hospital gown or top sheet. I couldn't imagine anything touching him and not being excruciating.
Marco was still trying to figure out the glasses dilemma when I heard a wet-sounding gasp and turned to see Sal staring at Rafe, her pale skin blotchy. Tears rolled and splashed down her face, though she didn't seem to care; she just raised her arm to swipe at her cheek without looking away from the bed. I'd never been so grateful for anyone in my entire life, because Sal was crying, Sal was, so I didn't have to.
"They said that he. . shouldn't be moved," Alphonse told me from behind her. The unspoken words, wouldn't survive it, hung in the air between us.
"This is bullshit!" Sal said, grabbing one of the passing orderlies with a cobralike motion. "Why isn't anything being done for him?"
"Th-there's nothing to be done," the vamp said. He looked young, which didn't mean anything, but there was also very little power coming off him. And he wasn't very good at controlling his expressions. He glanced at Rafe and winced. "We had the healers look at him, but they said the damage was too extensive. That only his master had a chance of—"
"His master is hiding his cowardly ass in Faerie!" Sal snarled, her bloodred talons biting into the vamp's arm. "Think of something else!"
"There isn't anything else," the vamp said, starting to look a little panicked. "P-please. . I belong to Lady Halcyone. If I've offended—"
Sal released him with a disgusted snort, and he scurried away. From her expression, he was lucky that his lady and defender was a Senate member. But he was right. Vampires either healed themselves or they didn't, which was why it really worried me that Rafe hadn't dropped into a healing trance yet. Or maybe he had and he'd already come out of it unchanged. A sickening rush of dread pooled in my stomach.
I stared at him, remembering how quiet he'd been on the way back and how he'd disappeared in the lobby. I should have realized that there was a problem then, or if not, definitely when I took a shower later. The tip of my nose and the rise of my cheekbones had been sunburned enough to sting under the water. How had it not occurred to me that Rafe had to be much worse off? Nuclear-radiation-proof sunscreen or not, vampires under first level should never be out in direct sunlight. Everyone knew that; even people who hadn't grown up at a vampire's court. So how could I have missed it? How could I have gone to sleep and let this happen?
"Please, Rafe," I begged, my voice breaking. "Please—"
Sal had grabbed someone else, one of the Circle's healers as a guess, and dragged her forcibly over to the bed. She had black hair curling under her chin, an even tan and beautiful features. She managed to be unattractive anyway. "Release me immediately!" the woman demanded. "This is an outrage!"
"It seems we got a different idea of what constitutes an outrage," Sal told her. "Do something for my friend here or I'll demonstrate mine."
The woman flushed an ugly red. "We have already done what we could. Conventional medicine is of little use when the body it is being practiced on is already dead!"
"Then come up with something unconventional."
The argument continued but I stopped listening. Something unconventional. That was supposed to be my department. I was the one who'd inherited all this power, the one who was supposed to be able to fix things. But I didn't know how to fix this.
I tried to summon my power, but it wouldn't come. And attempting to force it resulted in the same thing it always did—giving me a headache and having it shy away like a skittish colt. So I tried to reason things out, but that didn't help, either.
I could go back in time and warn Rafe, tell him to leave with Marlowe and the others. But I didn't think he'd do it—I knew him better than that—and even if he did, it would only condemn everyone else in our car to death. We'd barely gotten out with Rafe at the wheel. No way would we have made it without vampire reflexes. And he was the only vamp who'd stayed.
There has to be something, I thought desperately. Something I'd missed, something I hadn't—
My power cut me off midthought. It had decided to come back, and with a vengeance. The makeshift clinic abruptly disappeared, overtaken by a vision so strong, I couldn't see anything else.
I was walking down a cracked highway half grown in with desert plants. I didn't encounter any people, but when I topped a hill and stared into the distance, I saw that I wasn't completely alone. The road was not just broken up and badly overgrown; it was a car graveyard.
Sunlight gleamed dully on the dust-caked surfaces of cars, trucks and SUVs. They were lined up in rows, like a rusted traffic jam, for as far as I could see. And although most of the vehicles were newer models, they didn't look like they'd moved for fifty years.
I started wading through the mass, but the cars were practically bumper to bumper and I decided it might be easier to walk on the sand. But when I stepped off the highway, the ground under my feet felt funny. It was dry and baked hard underneath, but on top was a layer of crumbling dust that crunched oddly under the soles of my sneakers.
I realized why a second too late, and jerked my foot back. But the bone I'd stepped on was dry and brittle enough that it crumbled to pieces anyway. More bones were everywhere, scattered like shells on a well-traveled beach. Staring ahead, I could see sand littered with white and brittle bits for what looked like miles.
After a minute, I continued through the maze, the glass from shattered windshields crunching under my feet. Some of the cars looked like they'd burned, but the pattern was random, not like that of an attack. Maybe the sun had reflected off of a shard of glass, igniting the fuel leaking from a decaying chassis. The blackened skeletons of twisted metal spotted the line, dark blotches against the field of yellow, like a leopard's spots.
Even the cars that hadn't burned were ruined, with drifts of sand and growing weeds obscuring any clues to what had happened. Every once in a while, I came across one with still-intact windows, but they were so caked with accumulated grime that it was hard to see inside. And layers of rust and dust had ruined the hinges.
I tried half a dozen of the best-preserved cars before finally finding one that I could force open. A billow of stale air rushed out, like the breath of a tomb, and something moved inside. I drew back with a little scream.
A desiccated body still sat in the driver's seat, held in place by a seat belt that had almost been bleached white by the sun. Forcing the door had jarred the remains, causing the head to detach from the rest of the corpse and fall into the floorboard. Its face stared up at me, turned to leather by the dry heat, a few tufts of brittle hair still sticking out from under a baseball cap and mouth caught in a frozen scream.
I stumbled away, but everywhere I turned, it was the same story—more tomblike cars baking in the sun. That's where the bones came from, I realized dully. From cars that hadn't remained sealed, from ones that animals could get into and—
I crouched down, my hand on a bumper, my head between my legs. For a long moment, I thought I was going to be sick. But nothing happened except that the dizziness finally passed and my eyes managed to focus again—on the dust-caked remains of a license plate.
My breath quickened, my heart suddenly pounding in my chest. I tried knocking the dirt away, but it was almost baked on, so I clawed at it with my fingernails. I finally managed to uncover the little plastic sticker with the year. And then I just stared, the colors all blurring together in a smear of primaries—red sticker, yellow dust, blue sky.
It was this year's date.
The vision shattered as abruptly as before, leaving me trying to breathe through a white-hot spike of panic. Hands gripped my shoulders and I couldn't break their hold. I heard voices, but I was hysterical, close to hyperventilating, and I couldn't make sense of them. Until a new voice spoke my name, the simple word melting into a rich, golden tone that washed over me like a benediction.
"It will be all right, Cassie." Mircea was murmuring the same thing over and over while stroking my back, my hair. And I kept trying to tell him that it wasn't, that it wouldn't be. Because my power kept showing me nightmares instead of the answers I desperately needed. Because I didn't understand what it was trying to tell me. Because Rafe was dying and there was nothing I could do to stop it.
"But there is something I can do, dulceaƫă," he said, somehow understanding. "At least, there is something I can try. I will be with you soon."
"Soon? What are you. ." I opened my eyes to find myself lying half over Alphonse's lap, his hands gripping my wrists, while Sal and Marco stared at me. Mircea was nowhere to be seen.
Before I could say anything, there was a commotion outside. The doors opened and two big vamps in dark suits came in. "Now, this is quite enough!" the nurse said. "The rules governing visitors are clearly posted!"
The vamps ignored her and checked the area, even eyeing the patients on either side of Rafe with suspicion, before dragging over a couple of large white screens. They hadn't been in use at the time, not that I think they cared. "We have limited space here and you're clogging the aisles," the nurse informed us. "All but two of you are going to have to leave."
Marco's «Sure» translated as "When hell freezes over." Sal and Alphonse didn't bother to answer her at all. Their attention had fixed on the main doors with the intensity of hunting dogs scenting prey.
The vamps finished arranging the screens around Rafe's bed, completely surrounding us except for the section facing the door. They took up positions on either side of the opening before one of them murmured, "All clear."
"You can't just barge in here," the nurse was spluttering. "I'm going to call for security—" She stopped and turned as the door opened again.
Mircea walked in.
He glanced around the room, one quick flick of the eyes that seemed to take in everything: the rows of cots, the rushing orderlies who were trying not to look like they were avidly watching, the bed with its ointment-stained sheets, and came to rest on Rafe.
Mircea studied him for a moment and then turned to the gaping nurse. "Thank you for providing such excellent care for my kinsman," he told her. "Your actions will be remembered."
Irony laced the words, but she didn't hear. "I–I—it was nothing. Really. We were thrilled to be able to do what we could," she said, still talking as Mircea walked behind the partition and calmly shut her out.
There was no more talk of throwing us out, and no interruptions. Not that I think Mircea would have noticed if there were. His attention was focused solely on Rafe, who appeared to have fallen into a light sleep.
"Raphael! Attend me!" His voice snapped like a whip, demanding obedience. And somewhere in the fog of pain that had fallen over him, Rafe heard. He opened his eyes a slit, a bare glittering against the raw flesh. "At this point, the process itself might kill you," Mircea informed him. "What do you wish to do?"
I didn't know what Mircea was talking about, but obviously Rafe did. He said something, but it was unintelligible. His voice was muffled, cracking, and I was suddenly grateful that I couldn't understand. I didn't want to know what went with the soft, broken sounds. One hand curled into a painful-looking fist and he pressed it down with terrible, leashed force against the soft surface of the bed.
"Then you must be willing to fight," Mircea responded. "Life is not a gift, Raphael; it is a challenge. Rise to it!"
Mircea's eyes had lightened, brightened, mahogany fired to gold-chased bronze. Trust me, they demanded, fierce and proud and infinitely compelling. It was the look that made me want to make really idiotic decisions that would only end in heartbreak. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, Rafe nodded.
And Sal pulled me up and out of the curtained area. I looked around to find myself surrounded by the family. Sal and Alphonse were there, along with Marco, the two security men and Casanova, who was managing to look suave and frazzled at the same time.
"What are you doing?" I struggled as Sal pulled me toward the entrance. "Let me go! I want to stay with Rafe!" My voice had risen three octaves in that short sentence, which meant I was closer to losing it than I'd thought.
I tried to tear out of her grip, but of course that didn't work, and her words caught me before I tried to shift. "It's private," she said sharply.
"What is private? What is going on?"
"Mircea is going to try to break Tony's bond with Raphael," Sal said, biting her lip. "Normally, it wouldn't be a big deal, but as weak as Rafe is. ."
"What are you talking about? What difference does it make who his master is if they can't save him?"
"You heard what that orderly said. The damage is too great for them to do anything, not that I think they tried too hard until we got after their asses. They took one look at him and decided he was a goner."
She plopped down onto one of the seats that Alphonse and Marco had dragged in through the main doors, and she pulled me down into another one. We were flanking the wall not far from the entrance in one of the few areas with no cots. Instead, a jumbled bunch of medical equipment—wheelchairs, gurneys, IV stands—had been pushed here out of the way. Unneeded for the moment. Like us.
"I still don't see how changing masters is going to help!" I felt edgy and hot and weirdly tight in the chest, like I couldn't breathe. Like I had to do something or I might explode.
"Mircea made Tony, but Tony made Rafe," Sal said tersely. "And the blood is the life."
I'd heard that phrase all my life; it was a mantra among vampires. But I didn't see the relevance now. "But Rafe's blood isn't helping him!"
"Because it's Tony's," Sal said as if I was being especially slow. "It isn't powerful enough to let Rafe repair this kind of damage. But Mircea isn't Tony."
Alphonse snorted. "No shit."
"We get our strength partly from our own abilities and partly from our master," Sal explained, reaching for a cigarette. She noticed a couple of oxygen tanks nearby and stopped, looking frustrated. "The more powerful the master, the more powerful his servants. If Rafe has enough strength left to absorb Mircea's blood, to let it become his new source of life, he should heal."
"And if he doesn't?"
"What do you think?" she snapped, obviously tired of twenty questions. She glanced up at Alphonse. "I need a drink."
"Send Marco," he said, settling into a permanent-looking stance by the wall. "If the master pulls this off, he's gonna be weak. And by now everybody knows he's here. If someone was gonna hit him, this would be the time."
"He brought guards," Sal said.
"Two." Alphonse sounded disapproving. "I got ten more boys on the way, and I ain't budging till they get here."
"I have guards," Casanova said, looking insulted. "Not to mention those thugs the Senate imposed on me."
For once, Alphonse refrained from a snide comment on the quality of Casanova's stable. "And now you got more."
Sal looked at me and I looked defiantly back. I wasn't budging until I knew about Rafe. She sighed. "I'll go. This place is fucking depressing. What does everyone want?"
As soon as she left, I rounded on Alphonse. "How could turning someone weaken a first-level master? They do it all the time!"
Alphonse tilted his head back against the wall. For a moment, I didn't think he'd bother to answer. But then he cut his eyes my way and I must have looked pretty frantic, because he sighed. "For a master to turn a non-magical human, yeah—it's no problem," he told me. "Three bites from the same vampire in quick succession and that's pretty much it. But Rafe was already turned."
"So to break the bond, Mircea has to drain Tony's blood from Rafe and replace it with his own. Normally, it's exhausting, but no big deal. A first-level master's blood is pretty damn potent, so it doesn't take a lot. But Rafe's so far gone, Mircea's gonna have to lend him extra power just so he can survive the Change."
"And that means draining himself dangerously low," I guessed, wishing I hadn't asked.
Alphonse scowled at a couple of orderlies who had been loitering around like starstruck teenagers ever since Mircea showed up. They quickly found somewhere else to be. "The master's gonna be hemorrhaging power whether this works or not," he rumbled. "I'm here to see that he doesn't pay for it."
There didn't seem to be much else to say, after that. The three of us sat there silent, unmoving and, in the case of the vampires, not even breathing. I couldn't tell how Casanova and Alphonse were feeling, because they'd lapsed into the non-expression vamps use when there's no reason to impress the humans. But I felt anxious, miserable and utterly useless.
For some reason, my brain kept going to the presents Rafe used to bring me whenever he went on a trip. They were always thoughtful, fitting whatever I needed at the time. As a rambunctious tomboy, I'd received a plastic gladiator helmet from Rome and a matching sword that I'd used to chase him through the halls of Tony's farmhouse. As an adolescent girl who wanted to appear more grown-up than she was, I'd been given small bottles of perfume from Paris, perfectly child-sized but filled with adult fragrances. And right before my escape from Tony's, Rafe had slipped me my very first fake ID.
He had never asked for anything in return, had never seemed to expect or want anything. He was probably the only person in my life I could say that about. And now he was dying.
I usually wasn't a violent person. I'd seen so much of it growing up that it had lost its glamour for me, even before everybody and their dog started attacking me. So it took me a few minutes to put a name to the feeling flushing my cheeks and curdling my stomach. I didn't know who was behind the attack today, or even for certain that anyone was. But I knew one thing.
If I ever found out, I'd kill them.
I don't know when I fell asleep, but I woke up with my head against Marco's shoulder, which somebody appeared to have drooled on. My eyes were gummy and I felt like I'd been hit by a large truck. My shoulders and back were in knots and my head was pounding. But Mircea was outside the screen, leaning heavily on Alphonse's arm, and Rafe was—
"Rafe!" I bolted up the aisle, grabbed him and held on tight, whispering things that hurt against my throat. He still looked like death, but he was on his feet, and the skin that showed under the pale blue hospital gown he'd acquired was crisscrossed by scars but whole. The cracks were gone, the redness was gone, and he was standing. I was seeing it, and I could barely believe it.
"He broke your bond," Sal said, and the look she sent Rafe was half relief, half jealousy. She'd been after Mircea to do the same for her and Alphonse ever since they came to Vegas, but so far, he hadn't had the time or the energy to spare.
Rafe didn't notice the undercurrent. He just nodded, looking dazed and amazed and utterly exhausted. He glanced at me, but I wasn't sure he even knew who I was.
"My son requires a room," Mircea told Casanova.
"I have something ready. Your rooms are waiting as well, of course. And the Consul requests an audience at your earliest convenience."
"Tell her I will see her in an hour," Mircea said. Casanova blinked and started to say something but swallowed the words. Instead, he mutely led the way out of the infirmary.
Dante's had two penthouses, one in each of its twin towers, with the second reserved for the hotel's owner. The best thing about them from my standpoint was their sheer inaccessibility. Each suite took up a whole floor and the only way in was through a private elevator with key-code access. And just in case Spidey scaled the building or a bunch of ninjas rappelled out of a helicopter, we were joined by a dozen guards as we crossed the lobby.
Six took the elevator up ahead of us, and the rest waited to follow. Marco, Mircea's two guards, Casanova, Sal and Alphonse came up with us. And even in the plush elevator, which boasted its own padded bench seat and twinkly chandelier, that was a squeeze. I was all for security, but I didn't see how anyone was supposed to draw a weapon if we couldn't even move.
"Do we need a whole platoon?" I asked when we finally got the doors closed.
"The order went out after MAGIC fell: no one of senatorial rank is to go anywhere without an escort," Mircea informed me.
"But you're a master vampire."
"And you are Pythia," he said pointedly. "At the moment, our power merely makes us better targets."
"Not for long," Casanova said, his voice muffled because he'd ended up squashed behind two huge vampires. "The Senate has a staff working to strengthen the wards."
"Wards don't have eyes and ears," Marco argued."They'll never replace a well-trained bodyguard."
Maybe not, I thought, but they were a lot less creepy. I didn't know the new guards, but I assumed they were part of Mircea's personal stable. Because they gave off enough energy in the confined space to send a current prickling over my skin. And it wasn't the usual light frisson, either. The energy in the air felt like an electrical storm, with power crawling over my arms, itching my scalp, making me want to scream.
Both masters, then.
I managed not to scrub at my arms, but when the nearest turned flat gold eyes on me, I forgot my training and shrank back slightly. He smiled, a slow baring of fangs, while the other looked at me like I was something funky he'd found growing at the back of the refrigerator. Then the doors opened and we spilled out into a private hallway.
It contained a potted palm, a small strip of carpet and the six guards who had preceded us framing the only door. One of them hurried to open it and we passed into a large foyer. For a moment, I just stared. Unlike my old quarters, which could have belonged in any hotel on the strip, this one was themed. The motif being flogged to death appeared to be the Old West, or some designer's idea of it. The two-tiered chandelier was made of antlers, there were oil paintings of cowboys on the red flocked wallpaper, a cow skin rug made a black and white puddle on the floor, and a rough wood entry table supported a cowboy-and-rearing-horse sculpture in bronze.
Casanova noticed my expression. "The Consul preferred the blue suite," he said stiffly.
A wizened old vamp hobbled toward us, looking unhappy. "What's all this?" he demanded in a quavery voice.
Most humans would have taken one look at the liver-spotted hands and wild clumps of white hair and guessed him to be about a hundred. And they'd have been off by four centuries. He wore pince-nez on his long nose, despite the fact that they didn't help his blind-as-a-bat status, and he was almost deaf to boot. But Horatiu had been Mircea's childhood tutor and was the only person I'd ever heard tell off the boss.
"The master needs to rest!" Horatiu said, surveying the army of guards attempting to crowd in through the door. "Out, all of you!"
When the guards uniformly ignored him, he shuffled over to one of the larger vamps and began attempting to push him out the door. That had about as much effect as a fly trying to move a boulder, but Horatiu didn't appear to notice. The guard didn't fight back, just stood there with a long-suffering look on his face and let himself be pummeled.
"I'm sorry," Casanova told Mircea in a low tone. "I assigned a staff to these rooms, but Horatiu arrived with the refugees from MAGIC and—"
"Threw them out."
Casanova nodded. "He said they weren't trustworthy. I tried to reassure him, but—"
"It's all right," Mircea murmured.
"I said out. Are you deaf?" Horatiu demanded, now resorting to kicking. "How do they grow them so big?" I heard him mutter.
Sal sighed and lit another cigarette. "The guards are needed for the master's protection."
"And what do you think I'm here for, young lady?"
Alphonse opened his mouth and Mircea shot him a look. He shut up. "I'm sure Horatiu is perfectly capable of seeing to my well-being," Mircea said mildly.
"I'll sneak them in later," Casanova murmured, and Mircea nodded.
The huge vamp that Horatiu had been thumping reluctantly gave ground, getting pushed all the way back to the elevator before the old man was satisfied. Then the brushed nickel doors opened, spilling four more guards into the already packed hallway. Horatiu broke into infuriated Romanian while the rest of us followed Casanova into a large living room. Marco and the two guards Mircea had brought with him moved quickly through the apartment, checking for intruders. I wondered how they'd be able to tell. The obviously mad designer had only been warming up in the foyer; by the time he made it in here, he was working on all cylinders.
There were mounted heads on every wall, everything from deer and longhorn cattle to buffalo and reindeer, including two bare skulls flanking the flat-screen TV mounted above the oversized fireplace. A grizzly bear rug took pride of place under two cowhide-covered sofas facing each other across a lacquered horn coffee table, the whole lit by another horn chandelier. A neon cactus brightened a rustic bar in the corner, which had stools shaped like saddles. The whole managed to look pricey and outrageously tacky at the same time.
Mircea hesitated for a moment on the top step leading down into the sunken morass of kitsch, as if slightly stunned. "It was like this when I took over," Casanova said, sounding defensive. "I plan to remodel, of course."
"I dunno." Sal plopped down onto cow skin and stubbed out her cigarette in an ashtray shaped like a spittoon. "It's different."
"It's vulgar," Casanova snapped.
"And the rest of this place isn't?"
"It's fine," Mircea said, crossing the barn-wood floor to join her.
Casanova went to the wall and flicked a switch. There was the sound of a quiet motor, and what had seemed like a solid wall began to retract. It slowly opened to reveal a huge balcony with the long dark rectangle of a private infinity pool reflecting the glittering panorama of the Strip. Okay, maybe a person could forgive the decor for a view like that.
In addition to the master suite, the penthouse boasted three additional bedrooms, one of which had been ear-marked for Rafe. Marco and one of Mircea's guards helped get him there, supporting him without making it obvious that that's what they were doing. I didn't think Rafe cared much about dignity at this point. When he raised his head to gaze numbly around, he looked wrecked, eyes heavy and mouth swollen.
"Do you need anything?" I asked, having followed them in. I didn't get an answer. Rafe was out as soon as his head hit the pillow.
"A rebirth is hard enough on its own," Marco said, noticing my expression. "And with the burns on top of it. . he's gonna be out a while."
"He'll be okay, though, right?"
"He survived the process, so yeah. He should be fine."
I studied Rafe's face. He had deep hollows under his eyes and a few limp curls falling over his forehead. His bare wrists on top of the sheet looked fragile. He didn't look fine to me. "We need a nurse," I decided.
"We know how to take care of our own," the guard said dismissively. He was one of those who had given me the evil eye in the elevator. It didn't look like I was growing on him.
"I'm sure you do," I said, fighting to stay civil despite nerves that had passed raw hours ago. "But considering the extent of his injuries, I would prefer to have a professional sit with him."
"Explain to her," the guard told Marco, ignoring me.
"They're not allowing unauthorized personnel in senators' quarters," Marco said. "That includes nurses."
"Then get an authorized one!" I could feel my pulse start to throb in my temple. "And I guess I should be happy you aren't referring to me as 'it, " I told the guard, "but it's usually considered polite to look at someone when you're talking to them."
"Cassie—" Marco began.
"Rafe almost died, Marco! He needs proper care. Not some guy who's too busy blindly following orders to—"
I abruptly found myself jerked up to meet a pair of dazzlingly golden eyes glittering with a serpent's hypnotic stare. The guard was smiling, but there was nothing of warmth in the expression—the eyes too flat, the smile too amused, something a little too hungry about it to be kind. Like a cat that had some small animal cornered and was savoring the moment before snapping its neck.
"You wish me to look at you, human?" he asked silkily. "My pleasure." And the air in the room went electric.
I'd been through this kind of thing enough by now not to go into total shock and freeze up. Some of the vamps at Tony's had liked to play scare-the-human when there was nothing better to do, and I'd learned a few coping strategies through the years. But the strongest of Tony's goons had had only a fraction of this one's power.
Already, despite the tricks I'd learned for keeping my mind clear, I was starting to fog over. The room went dim as quickly as if someone had thrown a switch. A suffocating darkness shouldered in that crowded my lungs and wouldn't let me breathe. The only bright spots were two scarlet-tinged eyes with huge black pupils that had nearly devoured the gold. And all I could think was that Nietzsche had been right: sometimes when you look into the abyss, the abyss looks back.
Someone's hand was on my arm, but I could barely feel it, and I couldn't hear at all. The master's power filled my brain, stuttered along my nerves, blocked out everything else. I was starting to forget what I'd been saying and why it had seemed so important. In another few seconds, I'd forget a lot more—where I was, maybe even who I was—until there was nothing left but one simple idea: to obey.
Remember, I told myself savagely, digging my nails as hard as I could into my palm, and the pain dulled slightly the rushing voice in the back of my head. I stared into ancient, alien eyes and was too empty to play games. "Go ahead and show everyone how powerful you are," I said unsteadily. "But when you're finished, I want a goddamned nurse in here!"
The eyes held mine for another second, two—and then blinked and looked away. And just like that, the tension broke, the lights came on and the rushing sound was replaced by the soft breath of the air-conditioning and Marco's cursing. I could still taste bile at the back of my throat, acid and dark, but I knew who I was.
"You don't want to be doing that," Marco was telling someone while keeping a tight enough grip on me that I didn't fall. "This one's the boss's woman!"
The guard's eyes narrowed. "She's human." He looked confused and vaguely disgusted. "I haven't heard anything about—"
"Yeah. The master's been busy. I'm sure he'll get around to formal introductions eventually. In the meantime, be a little more careful, huh?" Marco dragged me away from the stunned-looking guard and back toward the main living space.
We reached the hallway and I stopped, needing a second to arrange my face before dealing with the others. Marco sighed and glared at me, arms crossed and brows knitted. And I decided that as long as he was already pissed off, we might as well get something straight.
"You need to stop introducing me like that," I said seriously. "Talking about me like I'm property—"
"Is the only thing some of them are gonna understand."
"Tell it to someone else. I grew up at a vampire's court; I know the protocol. And that's not it!"
"You grew up at the court of a two-bit hood with delusions of grandeur," Marco shot back. "You're gonna have to get used to the fact that Mircea's retainers are older and a lot more traditional than those you grew up with. And based on what I've seen so far, you don't know shit about protocol."
"All I did was ask for a nurse!"
"It's not what you say; it's how you say it. You don't talk to an old family master the same way as you would a brand-new vamp or a human."
"I've met plenty of older vamps!" I said, stung. "I've met the Senate—"
"And if you weren't connected to the master and also Pythia. ." Marco shook his head. "I don't know."
"Other people's prejudices are not my problem," I told him furiously. I couldn't believe that I was getting this lecture from Marco of all people. A guy who acted like an extra from The Godfather was telling me I needed to improve my manners?
"If you don't learn some etiquette, they will be," he said flatly. "A lot of the older vamps are touchy. They've been around five, six hundred years; some even longer. They've been waiting to hit first-level status, to be emancipated, to become the master of their own fate. But it ain't happened yet. And most of 'em have figured out that it never will."
"What does that have to do with anything?" I asked, honestly bewildered.
"Some of our vamps didn't start with us," he hissed. "A few, like Nicu in there, have had three or four masters. For hundreds of years they've been shuffled around like cattle, with no control over who they served or what they did—no control over anything. All they've had—and all they're ever gonna have—is respect because of their age and abilities. And if they think you ain't showing 'em that respect, they're gonna react."
I swallowed, too drained for a lecture right now but sensing that this might be one I needed. No one at Tony's had been that old besides him and Rafe. And come to think of it, Tony had been pretty damn touchy about his dignity. I'd always thought it was because of his huge ego, and maybe it was. Or maybe there were still a few things I didn't understand about vamps.
"I'm sorry," I said quietly. "I didn't realize—"
"Yeah, I know. But these are things you have to think about. Because you know what Nicu is thinking right now? He's wondering if this was a hint, if the boss's lady disrespecting him was Mircea's way of telling him that he's out of favor. He's wondering if maybe he's about to be disowned—again—and shuffled off to another court where he'll have to spend the next fifty years clawing his way into a position of respect. If he survives that long. He's wondering if the ax is about to fall."
I stared at Marco, sickened. "I'll talk to him. I'll explain—"
Marco rolled his eyes. "Yeah. 'Cause that'll go over great. Don't worry about it; I'll tell him you just don't know no better. But you gotta realize that things are different now. You're not a little hanger-on at a court nobody cares about. People pay attention to what you say, so you gotta do the same."
"Okay," I said, feeling about two inches tall. God, could today get any worse?
"I'm not the best person to be telling you this," Marco said, looking frustrated. "We gotta find you a teacher, and not one of those hicks you came up with—"
"You two may as well come in here," Sal called from the living room. "It's not like everybody can't hear you anyway. And we hicks would like a few words."
Casanova had gone when we reentered the living room, probably back to corral the chaos. But Alphonse, Sal and Mircea were sitting on cowhide. Mircea and Sal were on either end of the same sofa, with the middle seat occupied by lunch in the form of a young blond man. That left the other couch for me and the guys, although it was hardly a squeeze—the thing had to be nine feet long.
Sal and Alphonse topped up their drinks at the awful bar while Mircea finished his dessert. I recognized him as one of Casanova's stable who usually worked the front desk. We'd pulled a few shifts together and he gave me a slight smile as he got to his somewhat unsteady feet. One of the guards escorted him and the main course, a twenty-something brunet, toward the foyer.
Amazingly, Mircea looked tired even after a double feeding. He was sitting slightly slumped down, with his hands crossed over his stomach and his head tilted back. It would have been a normal enough pose for anyone else, especially after a hard day. But Mircea didn't do relaxed. He usually had a frisson of energy around him, and not just from the power he gave off. It was noticeably absent tonight.
I stared at him, trying to focus on his eyes and not on the tired lines around them. Mircea wasn't supposed to get tired. Or sick. Or hurt. It was one of the things that had made him so attractive to me, even as a child. In a world where alliances were constantly shifting and people were constantly dying, Mircea was stable, strong, eternal.
Except that he wasn't.
Which meant that, one day, I could lose him, too.
If I was honest, that was my biggest reason for not wanting to let him any closer than he already was. Having someone was the precursor to losing him. It had happened over and over. It was easier not to want anything—not from Mircea, not from anyone.
Wanting, needing—they were so close, and needing always hurt.
"Cassie?" Mircea was looking at me strangely. I suddenly realized that I'd just been standing there, staring at him.
"How much blood did Rafe take?" I blurted.
Mircea gave me a small smile, but Marco hung his head and Sal burst out laughing. "What?" I demanded.
"It's considered impolite to inquire about someone's Change," Horatiu informed me, tottering in with a folding table and a loaded tray. I jumped up to help him—and not just because the tray smelled divine—but good manners only won me a glower. "Sit down, sit down! Were you brought up by wolves, young woman?"
"By Tony," Sal said, reclaiming her seat.
"Ah. The same thing, then," Horatiu said, trying to balance the tray while wrestling with the folding table.
"Don't mind him," Alphonse said, rescuing my dinner before it hit the carpet. "That old goat lectures me all the time." That didn't reassure me much; Alphonse's idea of good manners consisted of remembering to bury all the bodies.
"That old goat can hear you," Horatiu said tartly.
"That's a first," Alphonse muttered, settling my dinner across my knees.
I hadn't realized how hungry I was until I smelled the roast beef sandwich Horatiu had rustled up. It had grilled onions and mushrooms and tangy little banana peppers and was pretty much my idea of heaven. The only thing that would have made it better was fries instead of the mountain of salad off to one side, but I didn't feel like complaining.
I dug in while Sal frowned at me. It didn't take me long to figure out why. She was hyperconscious of appearance, or so I'd always thought. But having met the family, her attitude was starting to make more sense. She might not have the age or the power of Mircea's masters, but she was damned if she wasn't going to outdress them.
"I look this way because the Consul threw me out of my room and somebody stole my luggage," I told her between bites.
"Your luggage is here, where it's supposed to be. What we couldn't figure out is where you were, as you didn't bother to inform anybody."
"You had me tagged—you knew exactly where I was!"
"We knew you were somewhere in the hotel," she agreed, as if monitoring my every move was no big deal. "But the wards around here interfere with the spell, so we couldn't narrow it down any more than that. Marco only managed to locate you when you went outside."
"For pizza. On her own," he grumbled under his breath.
Mircea didn't say anything, but his expression was deliberately blank. It made me very nervous.
"Coulda been worse," Alphonse said. "We spent half the day thinking it was worse. The tag said you was alive, but then they brought the car in—"
Damn. I'd forgotten about that. "Is the Consul really pissed?" I asked nervously.
"Her car. I know it was probably really rare—"
"It was a car." Alphonse shrugged. "It's no big deal. But everyone would like to know how you survived."
"It's a long story."
"I bet. I saw that thing and I'd have given odds that nobody made it out. Burnt to a crisp."
I frowned. A lot of things had happened to that car, but that hadn't been one of them. "It wasn't burnt. And if it had been, the water would have put it out."
Mircea lifted his head to look at me strangely. "What water?"
"The water in the lake. You know, that we nose-dived into?"
He was silent for a moment. "No, dulceaƫă, I do not. The car exploded in the middle of the desert."
For a moment, I just chewed sandwich. I swallowed and drank some of my wine. "It exploded," I repeated.
"We believe it was a car bomb meant for the Consul. The Bentley was one of her favorites."
The gray whale we'd left at the bottom of Lake Mead had been a Packard. I'd seen the name written across its bulbous backside in big silver letters as it sank. None of this was making sense.
"She informed us that she asked Raphael to drive it out for her," he added.
And then I remembered. Rafe had been saving a seat for me in a black Bentley. I'd seen it in the lineup, a sleek, antique gem gleaming under the emergency lights. I'd almost forgotten until now because we hadn't taken that car. Somebody else had. Somebody who was now dead.
"I assume you shifted out before the explosion?" Mircea asked, watching me keenly. He knew something was wrong.
"We took another car," I said numbly. And if we hadn't, Rafe wouldn't have been in the infirmary today. He would have been dead. If I'd gone back in time to try to save him, I'd have killed him.
"Here." Sal shoved a glass into my hand. From the fumes, I was guessing it was straight whiskey.
I stared at the coffee table while I sipped it, but all I saw were hundreds of ruined cars baking under a cloudless sky. And all around them, an empty, dead landscape filled with bones. Had all that been the power's way of telling me that I was about to screw up big-time? Had it been trying to warn me about Rafe's death?
I really liked that idea, because in that case the images weren't something to worry about. The crisis was over, Rafe had survived, and for once, we'd dodged a bullet. But as much as I wanted to believe it, something about that idea bugged me.
The burnt-out cars I could understand, considering what had happened to the Bentley. But why not just show me that? The actual explosion would have been a lot easier to decipher than some eerie landscape filled with rotting vehicles. And for that matter, why show me a destroyed Dante's when I asked about preventing the attack on MAGIC?
I was sick of trying to figure out messages conveyed, not through language, but through nightmares! It was just one more reason I hated my gift. Once in a while, you got an image that was clear-cut and unmistakable. Like on my fourteenth birthday, when I'd been gifted with a vision of my parents' deaths in a car bomb, complete with sound and vivid Technicolor. Those types were bad enough, but at least they beat the more mystical variety, which could mean anything or nothing. Half the time you never understood them until the events had come to pass and it was too late.
"So this is what? The third attempt on the Consul's life in the last month?" Sal was asking.
"It is an ongoing problem," Mircea agreed. "Made more so now without MAGIC's extensive ward system."
"And by her refusal to go into hiding," Sal said, looking approving.
Mircea rubbed his eyes. I was beginning to know that gesture. "Yes, and while that has allowed us to identify several traitors, it is. . nerve-wracking."
"She can't cower in the dark," Sal pointed out. "She's a symbol. People take their courage from her."
"That is also her opinion. Kit swears she is giving him ulcers."
Sal frowned and leaned forward, suddenly intense. "She understands that you can't just sit by and hope things work out! That you have to make things happen—"
"I thought he liked stubborn, powerful, complicated types," Alphonse interrupted.
"He likes them alive," Mircea said pointedly.
I pretended not to notice.
"How could one of the Consul's cars have a bomb?" I asked. "Aren't they cared for by her servants?"
"Yes." Mircea looked grim. "It would appear that we have another traitor."
"How many did that damn girl corrupt?" Alphonse asked angrily.
"That damn girl" was Myra, Agnes' former ward, who had joined Apollo's side. She'd figured out how to weaken the bonds between master vampires and their servants by using her abilities to go back in time and poison soon-to-be vampires. Vamps who were ill or dying when changed were never as strongly bound to their master's will. Horatiu, for example, had been on his deathbed when Mircea changed him, but the most he did with his greater freedom was to speak his mind.
Others had found more dangerous pastimes.
"There cannot be many more," Mircea said, looking like he really wanted to believe that. "Myra was targeting the leading servants of Senate members, weakening their bonds so that they could be persuaded to betray or kill their masters. That narrows the number of suspects to a relatively small group. And at the rate we're going, they will all have rebelled before long!"
"Wouldn't it be wise to isolate them or something?" I suggested. "At least until things calm down?" I didn't like the thought of one of those hard-eyed masters stabbing him in the back. Or anywhere else.
Mircea shook his head. "Unfortunately, the very ones under suspicion are also those of the most value to us. And at the moment, we need our strength."
"Yes, but if they're dangerous—"
"It would be more dangerous to deprive ourselves of their support," he said firmly. "And we may already know who the traitor is. An old adherent of my house tried to assassinate someone dear to me recently. He failed and was killed. But for months before that, he was on my staff at MAGIC. He would have had ample opportunity to set a trap for the Consul."
And so would a lot of other people,
I thought but didn't say. If I knew Marlowe, he wasn't likely to leave any stone unturned in the investigation. Someone had almost assassinated his leader right under his nose. That had to sting.
"What would happen to the war if the Consul died?" I asked, pretty sure that I already knew the answer.
"Our participation would be severely curtailed while a replacement was determined. That could take months, as our laws allow anyone to contend for the position who has reached first-level status. That includes masters from other courts. And many of them are of the opinion that we need nothing from humans other than their blood."
"So there goes the alliance with the Circle," I said blankly. And possibly the war. I drained my glass, appreciating the warmth it sent coursing through me. My skin had suddenly gone cold.
At Mircea's request, I spent the next fifteen minutes bringing everyone up to speed about my day. He didn't interrupt, but he didn't look happy. And he actually drank the amber liquid in his glass instead of just swirling it around as usual.
"I will have someone examine your ward," he said when I'd finished. "I don't like the idea of your being without it."
"Yeah. Especially with the Circle still after me."
"Yes, about that," Mircea said, accepting a refill from Sal. "The Lord Protector called me this afternoon to ask about you."
"How kind of him." I stabbed a tomato with my fork.
Something that wasn't a smile lifted the corner of Mircea's mouth. "He assured me that Mage Richardson acted completely without his knowledge or consent, out of a spirit of revenge."
"So what's his excuse for the last month?"
"He asked me to convey his personal regrets to you. . and to arrange another meeting as soon as possible."
I smiled. I'd been waiting for a chance to use one of Pritkin's more colorful swear words. And if ever there was a moment. .
Mircea's lips quirked. "That is what I thought you'd say. Which is why I agreed to the meeting on your behalf."
"Tradition states that the new Pythia's reign does not officially begin until she is confirmed at a ceremony by the Lord Protector of the Circle," he said mildly.
"I don't care about tradition!"
"But the magical community does. To be accepted as Pythia, you need the legitimacy such a ceremony would provide."
"That wasn't your view this morning!"
"It was, in fact. But that meeting was deemed inadvisable because of safety concerns. Kit had heard rumors that there might be trouble."
"Something you might have shared with me."
Mircea raised one of those expressive brows. "Would you really have chosen to miss such an opportunity?"
"I don't know. But it would have been nice to have the choice!"
"I will keep that in mind."
Sure he would. When he ran out of handcuffs. "I'm still not meeting with the Circle," I told him flatly. "And I don't need or want their blessing. Feel free to quote me."
"The Senate will guarantee your safety."
"You can't. You can't trust anything they tell you!"
"We don't. Which is why we have set the meeting to take place during the reception for the visiting consuls." Mircea paused, and for the first time that night his eyes glinted with the usual fire. "All six of them."
Alphonse choked on his whiskey while the rest of us just stared.
"The first convocation of six consuls in history is meeting in two days' time," Mircea confirmed. His voice was steady, but there was definite color in his cheeks. It took a lot to make a first-level master lose control, even to that degree. But news like that would just about do it. The Consul might even have blinked.
"You work fast," I said. "This morning you could only get two."
"It seems that today's tragedy convinced the senates that this war is unlike any we have seen."
"And scared 'em shitless," Alphonse guessed. "Not that they'll admit it."
Mircea smiled slightly. "They have had a shock—something unusual for them. Their courts are also built on or near ley lines."
"They're afraid that what happened once can happen again," I reasoned.
He didn't look too concerned. "There is always a chance, of course. But the lines have been in use for millennia and there has never been a similar catastrophe. Our best guess at the moment is that it was a tragic accident."
"An accident that just happened to take place over MAGIC?"
"If the line was unstable, a rift could have occurred anywhere. But it appears that the battle was the trigger and it took place there. We will know more in a few days, when the turbulence within the line diminishes enough for an investigation."
"So, if there's no danger, why are the consuls meeting?"
"They may be under the impression that the threat is more serious than perhaps is the case," he said blandly.
"And you don't think they're going to be a little upset when they find out otherwise?"
"Early reports are often misleading. And by the time a conclusive answer can be obtained, the meeting will have already taken place."
It sounded like Mircea was gambling that, given the opportunity to talk to them face-to-face, he could bring them around. And maybe he could. But I wouldn't have liked to look at that group and say, Sorry, just joking!
"Pritkin thinks someone sabotaged the line," I told him.
Mircea frowned. Since that was his usual response to any mention of John Pritkin, I ignored it. "To engineer such a breach would require a fantastic amount of energy. More than any known magical alliance possesses. Our experts are convinced that a naturally occurring phenomenon was to blame."
"Let's hope so," I said fervently.
"Where are the consuls meeting now that MAGIC is gone?" Sal asked.
"Here. Casanova is arranging lodging as we speak, and the wards are being reinforced." He looked at me. "That should not go beyond this room, by the way."
"I don't gossip!"
Mircea smiled. "That goes for everyone."
Yeah, but he'd looked at me.
Horatiu entered, leading a vampire in hospital scrubs. The nurse, I assumed. He looked at us nervously and gave a quick bow before ducking his head and scurrying past. And for the first time that night, I felt myself relax. A vamp medic should know how to care for Rafe.
Mircea was on his feet when I turned around again. That seemed to signal the breakup of the party because, within a moment, everyone had disappeared. For once, even Marco found somewhere else to be.
Leaving me alone with Mircea.
I started for the door, but a hand snagged the back of my shirt. "A moment," Mircea said quietly. I sighed but didn't fight it; we needed to talk.
I was ushered into the master suite, where I stopped dead at the sight of the designer's pièce de résistance. A full-sized cream leather Indian teepee, complete with brown, hand-painted buffalos and beaded fringe, was serving as a canopy for the bed. "Oh, my God."
"I'm beginning to sense a theme," Mircea said, tossing his suit coat over a buckskin-covered chair. A moose head with huge, outspread antlers loomed over it, its bright glass eyes looking oddly lifelike in the low light. Mircea took in the room, his expression slightly repulsed yet fascinated. "I believe there is only one thing to say at this point."
"Yee haw," he said gravely, and took me down like a rodeo calf. Before I entirely figured out what was happening, I was on my back in the teepee with a vampire crawling on top of me.
It was completely unfair, I thought, that when I was tired and disheveled I looked a mess, and when it happened to Mircea he looked like a particularly elegant porn star. His hair was artfully mussed, his shirt was unbuttoned enough to show a glimpse of lean-muscled chest, and his dress slacks clung lovingly to muscular thighs. In contrast, I was wearing the rumpled sweats I'd slept in, which had also acquired a pizza sauce stain. And that was despite the fact that I had never actually had any pizza.
Not that it mattered much what my clothes looked like considering how fast I was losing them. My sweatpants went flying, ending up atop the leering moose head, while warm hands slid along my sides, pushing up my T-shirt. I sucked in a breath at the unexpected speed of it all and at the electric tingle that spread up my body.
"You're supposed to be tired!"
"I am. Which is why I am not berating you for almost giving me a heart attack." My T-shirt followed the sweatpants, and at least the eerie fake eyeballs on the moose were now covered up. Which was more than I could say for me.
"Vampires don't get heart attacks."
Mircea gave me a playful flick of his eyebrow and tugged my panties off. "Good thing."
I opened my mouth to reply when his palms bracketed my face, swiftly followed by his mouth hard and demanding on mine. And somehow my witty riposte turned into a pathetic whimpering noise in the back of my throat. Unlike his usual habit, there was no slow seduction this time; Mircea kissed me hot and wet and dirty.
"We knew you were at MAGIC," he told me a few moments later as I tried to remember how to breathe. "But with the interference from the breach, there was no way to know where you were or if you would get out in time."
"I wasn't in there very long," I said, trying to focus.
"Dulceaƫă, you were in there for two hours." And for a moment, the mask slipped. For an instant he looked. . hungry, in some way I couldn't quite define. Not the predatory desire I'd seen on a few occasions, but more like need. Like some huge, gaping hole had opened up inside him since this morning.
His hair was mussed from having my hands all over it. I reached out and smoothed the worst of the snarls. I wondered if he'd lost friends today, if some of the people who didn't make it out of MAGIC were family. And then I remembered that Radu had been in trouble. And it had been bad enough to drag Mircea away in the middle of delicate negotiations.
"Mircea. . is Radu—"
"He is well. He sends his regards." I felt a wash of relief. "He suffered some damage to the house, but it has given him the excuse to redecorate. I believe the term 'rococo' was used." He glanced at the moose head and his lips quirked. "Of course, he hasn't seen this place yet."
"You actually think he'd like it?"
"He has a fine-tuned appreciation for irony and the absurd," he told me, stripping off his shirt. "He would love it."
"You should tell Casanova not to bulldoze it, then."
"I'll do that," Mircea murmured. Fine cloth hissed, a zipper jangled and a leg slid between mine in a heady rush of skin on skin. Teeth grazed the soft skin of my neck and a tongue flickered over the vein. "Dulceaƫă, are you familiar with the concept of a quickie?"
I laughed. There were about a hundred reasons why I shouldn't be here right now, but none of them seemed to matter next to the one overwhelming reason why I should. We were alive, we were both alive, along with the people we loved. It seemed like a miracle.
"Yes, but I didn't think you were." Mircea preferred long and slow and sensual, or so I'd assumed based on limited past experience.
"I am familiar with a great many things, as I will be happy to—" He suddenly went still.
His face had the distant look it got when he was communicating with other vampires long-distance. I didn't particularly understand how they did it; maybe it was merely better hearing, but I didn't think so. Like I didn't think I'd imagined his voice in my head in the clinic.
Mircea closed his eyes, his breath coming out in an irritated sigh. "This war is becoming very. . inconvenient," he said, and rolled off the bed.
"What is it?"
"I am being summoned," he told me, shedding his last item of clothing on the way to the bathroom. His voice had been light, but his muscles looked tense as he walked away.
He stepped into the shower but it was glass sided and he didn't bother to shut the bathroom door. The water turned his hair to black silk and molded it to the shape of his skull. More moisture collected on his high arched brows and dark lashes, before cascading down his cheekbones to wet his lips. Other tiny streams poured over his shoulders and chest in fascinating rivulets, before running down the hard muscles of his stomach and thighs to splash around his feet.
The steam started to obscure the view after a minute, but by then I'd ended up beside the shower door with a sheet wrapped around me. I wiped a hand across the glass so I could see his eyes. "When was the last time you had a day off?"
"Today. I was away from my duties on family business—until the disaster caused me to return early."
"A day off, Mircea. Not a day doing another kind of work."
"There are too few senators and too much business for any of us to enjoy much leisure these days, dulceaƫă."
He stepped out of the direct spray in order to lather up, turning to retrieve a washcloth from a bench in the corner. The motion caused a small cascade down his spine and over the taut muscle further down. My mouth went a little dry.
He paused to grin at me over his shoulder. "Wash my back?" he offered innocently.
I licked my lips and stayed where I was. "Tell the Consul she'll keep and maybe I will."
A wet eyebrow quirked. "Would you like me to quote you?"
"Go ahead. She owes me a favor."
He didn't immediately respond, just added soap to the cloth and began to run it leisurely over his body. I knew what he was up to, but my eyes simply ignored my brain's order for them to look elsewhere. Instead, they followed that lucky washcloth as it roamed over the fine chest and arms, moved on to the satiny skin of his inner legs, and glided along the jointure of his hip to areas more interesting still.
I had the door open and a foot across the sill before I even realized it. "I do not believe she views your assistance in quite that way," he said, a slight smirk tugging at his lips.
I frowned at him and drew my foot back. "That's the problem. She needs to understand that I'm not her little errand girl."
"No one thinks of you in those terms," he said soothingly, pausing to rinse off all those fascinating bubbles.
"Don't patronize me, Mircea."
"I wouldn't dream of it." And, okay, there was just no doubt about it. That was a definite smirk. He apparently thought his little game was cute.
I'd show him cute.
I dropped the sheet and got in beside him, pushing him down onto the bench. I stood in front of him, taking my time checking out the bewildering array of available toiletries. "What are you doing?" he asked, eyes lazily slitting.
"You washed my hair. It's only fair I return the favor." I managed to just brush his cheek with one breast as I reached up to get the shampoo. I put one knee on the bench as I lathered him up, nudging his legs apart to make room. I might have nudged a few other things, too, but he merely watched, although something wicked lurked behind his eyes, feral and amused and hungry.
"The Consul acts like I'm one of her vampires," I said, massaging in the suds. "She orders me around and expects me to help with plans she doesn't even bother to explain. I broke a guy out of jail for her today and I don't even know his name!"
"You broke a great many people out of jail." His hands settled on my hips, his thumbs stroking me slowly.
"That's not the point! I'm her ally, not her servant. She needs to understand that." I picked the shower head off the wall and leaned against him as I rinsed. "So do a few other people."
"I do not consider you a servant, dulceaƫă."
"But you don't tell me anything." I nudged him again, a little more firmly, and the smirk faded. I smiled.
"In the last month, you have had experiences that would have broken a weaker person. You have enough on your plate."
"Don't you think that's for me to decide?"
"We obviously need to discuss this," he said, but his breath hitched slightly.
"I thought you were out of time."
"If you keep doing that, I soon will be."
"Doing what?" I asked, rubbing against him in a soft, sweet tease.
A sharply indrawn breath was followed by a movement so quick I couldn't track it with my eyes. But somehow I ended up against the wet shower wall, bubbles in the air and Mircea between my legs. His still soapy hands were slick and barely controlled as he slid them around my hips, pulling me against him. I had a moment to see amber eyes narrow, glittering and full of intent, before the weight of his body slid against me, in me, deep and hard and hot.
I made a little whimpering noise as my body expanded to accommodate him, and then my voice was busy giving orders as he pressed in each time—harder and more and don't stop. Every movement sent spikes of pleasure arcing up my spine, turning my muscles soft and helpless. Instinct sent my hands sliding down the long, lean muscles of his back, nails lightly running across his buttocks, caressing him. And the room suddenly went hazy, shimmering like heat on asphalt.
I kept my eyes stubbornly open; I didn't want to miss a single second of this. And for a few moments I even managed to keep that resolution. Until the sensation of the water pouring down his chest and over my skin combined with the feel of his movements inside me to drive me to the edge. Everything became a blur of heat and need, of words breathed over my skin like a caress, of hands and mouths etching the Braille of desire onto warm, wet skin. My eyes finally closed as I was savored, devoured, possessed.
Strong arms came around me as his rhythm began to falter, water-slick hands sliding over my face, my breasts, my hips before he sucked air between his teeth and tilted just so and that was it. The world went white before my eyes, my whole body condensing into a single point of pleasure. A toe-curling orgasm broke over me that left me shaking and laughing up at the ceiling as he finished in a staccato frenzy of motion.
And someone knocked on the door.
Mircea cursed in a string of low-voiced Romanian, his head against my neck, his wet hair trailing over my breast. After a moment, he snatched a big Turkish towel off a rack and wrapped it around me. I leaned against the wall, weak-kneed and breathless, as he wrenched open the door. "Yes?"
One of the blank-faced masters was there, radiating disapproval. "The Consul wanted to be sure you received her message," he rumbled.
"Tell her I will be with her momentarily," Mircea snapped, and slammed the door in his face.
"Marco says you can't do that to the older masters," I informed him as he dried off with abrupt, angry motions.
"You shouldn't take Marco's advice too much to heart. He is one of those he spoke to you about—one who has reached the farthest limit of his power. He is having, I think, some trouble accepting that."
"It still wouldn't hurt to be polite."
"It is obvious that you have yet to meet the family. I am terrorized by them, not the other way around, I assure you."
Mircea reentered the bedroom and started throwing on clothes without his usual grace. I followed, sitting in the teepee. "When will you be back?"
"Not for hours." He paused to kiss me quickly. "Get some sleep."
"I'll try." I was exhausted, but my brain didn't seem to know how to cut off anymore. When the endorphins wore off, I'd probably be wide awake, staring at the ceiling, thumbing through my ever-growing catalogue of horrors. It wasn't a pleasant thought."Do you want some help?" he asked, sitting beside me.
I nodded. Anything to avoid replaying today's events or seeing Rafe like that again. . Mircea's arms slipped around me and a wave of peace flowed over me better than any drug. I hadn't expected it to take hold so fast. I had a dozen things to talk to him about, to ask. . and suddenly I couldn't think of even one. Sleep was dragging at my consciousness, my body going thick and heavy, and I couldn't make myself open my eyes again.
"It's over; everyone's safe," I heard him murmur. The arms tightened abruptly. "Even you."
I had no idea what that meant, but I was drifting. Mircea's hand was running slowly up and down my spine, the other heavy on the back of my neck. I breathed out and let the weight pull me under.