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.
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 insure that they
don’t want to talk to you, and we really needed to have a
“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
Although the idea was growing on me.
“I thought you guys were a
bunch of misogynistic assholes with delusions of grandeur,” she
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.
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
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 gun fights, 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.
“They don’t make dark
mages like they used to,” the woman muttered.
She 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
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
“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.
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
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
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
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 joy ride,
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.
joyriding! And I don’t find being shot at and almost blown
“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
“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.
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!”
me.” She threw off my hand and slipped silently across the
threshold, her stocking-clad feet silent on the old stones.
hissed after her, but there was no response. I stared into the
dark for half a second, cursing silently, 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
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 shots off
before her fingers closed over my wrist. “Not in
I didn’t argue since I
didn’t have anything to use as a target anyway. I dragged
her away from the lantern 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
“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 around enough firepower for three people, if those people
happenedto 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!”
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
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
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 blood-red 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
“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
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 mid-scream. “I told you we didn’t get
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
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
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
“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
“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
“The river,” Agnes
gasped, from cold or exhaustion. “That way.”
She pointed toward the right, where a line of scattered trees blocked
Mud squelched under my feet as we
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.
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 the 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
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
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
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.
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. “And?”
“Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes,
t’was his intent, to blow up King and Parli’ment,” she
“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
“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,
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 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
“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
“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.”
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
“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—”
listening.” She stuck a finger in one ear, which
didn’t help much as the other hand still gripped the mage’s
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
“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
“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
“Don’t tell me
that!” she whispered, clearly horrified.
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
“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!”
She put the hand not choking the mage on her hip in a familiar
gesture. “No amount of training really prepares you for
“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 that
all 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
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 a 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
“But how do I know what can
safely be changed and what can’t?” I asked
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
“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
“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
“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
I glared at her.
“I’m Pythia! I don’t really need you to release
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
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
“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
“So why did you attack me?”
“Because you aren’t
supposed to be here! This isn’t even supposed to be
“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
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
“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.”
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 though 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
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.
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 match-lock 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
“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
“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
“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.”
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!”
you’re useless!” she yelled, poking me in the shoulder with
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
“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
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
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
“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 more! There has to be…I don’t know, some
kind of trick to it!”
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
“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 in 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 away.
“I never said it was
easy. Nothing about this job is. I said you will
“And what if I
don’t last that long?!” I screamed, but Agnes was already
Look for Curse the Dawn on April 7, 2009!