A Family Affair
double doors were painted white with gold trim and had fussy gold door
handles. They also had one of the new,
high-priced protection wards with none of the traditional potion stench or oily
residue. Or any protection worth a damn,
John thought darkly.
was scowling at it when something hard bumped into his back. He flung an arm across the doorway to keep
himself from falling into the useless ward.
“Wait a minute.”
wait a minute.” The impatient voice came from behind him. “This is heavy!”
put it down.”
going to. Inside.”
forced himself to count to ten. Guarding
the pythia-elect, the woman soon to become the world’s chief seer, was no easy
task. The fact that the supernatural community
was currently in the middle of a war didn’t help. But it was her penchant for running headlong
into trouble that regularly threatened his nerves—and his sanity.
“The wardsmiths haven’t been here yet,” he
explained. “There’s only the standard
I know of at least a dozen ways around this particular type, and that is
assuming the would-be intruder is human.
Which considering your talent for making enemies, is by no means—”
“I’m about to rupture something,” he was
informed, as the big, gaily wrapped box she was carrying smacked into the small
of his back again. She had an uncanny
ability to hit the same spot every time.
add additional weight training to your routine,” he told her evilly, and threw
a shield over one hand. He ran it
cautiously over the doorway, checking for traps or the tell-tale holes in the
ward’s surface that an intruder would likely leave behind.
it’s a hotel room, not a death trap!” A
glance over his shoulder showed him impatient
blue eyes under a fall of messy blond curls.
“Anyway, you’re here.”
can’t protect you from everything,” he forced himself to say, because it was
true. It was
also frankly terrifying in a way that his own mortality was not. He’d never had children, but he sometimes
wondered if this was how parents felt when catching sight of a fearless toddler
confidently heading toward a busy street.
Not that his charge was a child, as he was all-too uncomfortably
aware. But the knowledge of just how
many potentially lethal pitfalls lay in her path sometimes caused him that same
And the same
overwhelming need to throw her over his lap and spank the living daylights out
of her, he thought grimly, when she suddenly popped out of existence. “Cassie!”
His only answer was a loud groan
from indoors. He ripped through the ward
and bolted inside, gun drawn and heart in his throat. Only to see her staring in annoyance at six
huge vampires lounging in the suite’s sizeable living room.
their leader, was a great bear of a creature, a foot and a half taller and at
least ten stone heavier than the small woman facing him. But he was the one who
looked alarmed. Possibly because she’d just
appeared out of thin air barely a foot in front of him.
she wasn’t backing up. “What are you
doing here?” she demanded.
“It’s not my idea of fun, either,
princess,” he told her defensively.
“Oh, for—Casanova was just here!”
she said, referring to the hotel’s manager.
“He checked everything out this morning.”
Marco sneered. “Yeah.
Like I’m gonna trust that pansy-waist incubus to check anything. Everybody knows what they’re good for.”
ignored the unintended jab in favor of grabbing Cassie’s arm. “You’re not moving until I check it out.”
inside a vampire stronghold!” she said, thrusting the package at him.
thrust it back. “That’s what worries
sighed and shoved the box into the nearest vampire’s gut instead. “Don’t drop it,” she warned, before turning
her attention on his boss.
Marco protested as she tugged his polo shirt out of his pants and pushed it up,
revealing an angry red scar bisecting a thick mat of black hair.
knew it!” She looked at him accusingly. “You aren’t healed.”
enough,” he said, trying to pull his shirt back down.
stopped when Cassie slapped his hands.
Then her touch gentled, and she traced the ugly, livid mark with one
finger. The simple movement sent an
unexpected shiver along John’s spine, perhaps because he recalled what those
soft little hands had once felt like on his own scars, moving over his skin…
shook himself and shoved the image away.
didn’t seem to be having the same reaction, but the obvious concern on her face
brought a softer look to his. “I’m
“You almost died, Marco—less than
two weeks ago,” she told him severely.
“You are not okay!”
not planning on running any marathons.
But I couldn’t stay in that damn hospital bed one more day. Those nurses are complete bastards.”
because they wouldn’t let you bring in vodka and cigars.”
why did you need a laptop?”
looked shifty. “You know, for
rolled her eyes. “You needed to rest.”
gave up with a little snort and started for the bedroom. John had anticipated that and stepped in
front of the door. “Shift inside and I
will make your life hell,” he said pleasantly.
sound like I’m about to run headlong into danger—”
“As you just did? As you always do?”
you know the room has already been checked out.
crossed his arms and didn’t budge. He’d
found out the hard way—give the woman an inch and she’d shift to another
continent when he wasn’t looking. She
was the oddest combination of contradictions he’d ever met: innocence and
sensuality, candor and diplomacy, anxiety and utter fearlessness. He hadn’t even begun to figure out how her
she was damn well going to live long enough for him to try.
put her hands on her hips and glared at him.
“This is ridiculous! I’m not
going to live my life in constant fear, do you understand?”
than not living it at all,” he snapped.
And for once, he received a semi-sympathetic glance from Marco.
threw her hands up in a gesture that reminded him vaguely of someone, although
he couldn’t place it. “Fine,” she said,
obviously annoyed. She took the heavy
package back from the vamp, probably so she would have something to complain about
already did that,” Marco said mildly, as John pushed open the bedroom door with
now I’m doing it again.”
bared a lot of gleaming white teeth, several of which were pointier than they
should have been. But he didn’t
argue. They each had abilities the other
lacked, and there was a chance a mage might detect something his men had
missed. And whatever else John might
think about the creature, it was clear that he took his job seriously.
did John, and he wasn’t happy about this latest move. The ongoing repairs from the hotel’s most
recent disaster had forced Cassie to switch suites, requiring that all
protection spells be redone and a new security workup be created. The extra labor was annoying, but the real
issue was that it left worrying holes in the security net for however long it
took for the wardsmiths to show up.
went over the bedroom and attached bath twice, just to be sure, switching from
Arcane to Druid to Fey magic to detect different types of spells. But it looked like the vampires had done
their job. He didn’t find so much as a
decayed eavesdropping charm.
soon as he gave the all clear, Cassie pushed past him and staggered inside,
carrying her precious burden. She
dropped it onto the king-sized bed next to the panoramic view of the Vegas
skyline, then collapsed beside it with a theatrical groan. An outside observer might have been forgiven
for concluding that she was on her last leg, but John knew better. And sure enough, by the time he returned from
checking out the rest of the suite, she was sitting cross-legged on the bed,
trying to get the cherry red ribbon off the package.
“What are you doing?” he demanded.
don’t know what it contains.”
“I didn’t find it on the
doorstep,” she said impatiently. “Ming-de sent it to me.”
did not reassure John greatly. Ming-de
was a first-level master vampire and
empress of the powerful Chinese court.
More to the point, she was currently in a cut-throat competition with
the Consul, the leader of the North American vampires. And Cassie was viewed by most vamps, however
inaccurately, as one of the Consul’s chief supporters.
were a short-sighted breed when it came to getting what they wanted, or in most
other ways. And he wouldn’t put it past Ming-de to try to weaken the
competition by removing one of the Consul’s assets. Not to mention that he’d heard rumors of a
long-running affair between the empress and Mircea, the vampire Cassie was
“I’ll open it,” he
said decisively, holding out a hand.
you sure you don’t want to submerge it in the bathtub first?” she asked sarcastically.
not a bad idea.” He pulled it out of her
teasing! It could be something delicate,
like porcelain. Or…or silk.” She reached for it, her eyes hopeful.
will be careful,” he said patiently.
“But I’ll open it in the next room.”
looked like she planned to argue, but thought better of it at the last minute
and flopped back onto the bed. He
decided that he needed to run her around the track a few extra times every
day. It cut down on arguments.
took the package outside. Giving gifts
to the pythia-elect was traditional, but it was yet another headache for her
security. That was especially true in
this case, when half the senders had been loudly denouncing her for a month,
and a good portion of the rest had been trying to have her killed.
the circumstances, her guards had no choice but to open each and every package
before Cassie saw it, looking for booby traps, poison and malignant spells. And
that was after everything had been gone over with a fine-toothed comb by
Casanova’s people in the lobby. But a
brief perusal of this particular gift had his lips twitching.
seemed that politics wasn’t the main thing on Ming-de’s mind.
left most of the box’s contents in the front hall, re-entering the bedroom
carrying something that resembled a thin soft drink can. He handed it to Cassie, who took it, looking
puzzled. “What is this?”
blinked. “I beg your pardon?”
made from the oral secretions of a certain type of bird. They build nests out of it.”
examined the can as if she thought he might be making the whole thing
sent me bird spit?”
sell it in the salon downstairs,” Marco chimed in. “I think they harvest it somewhere
in the mountains in China. I hear it’s
pretty hard to get because the birdies nest so high up.”
“Why would anyone bother?” Cassie
asked, looking revolted.
good for the skin,” John said, waiting for it.
supposed to improve the look and texture of the skin.”
Cassie’s frown took on a new quality
as the implication set in. “Ming-de sent
me bird spit because she thinks I
have bad skin?”
“I thought women liked cosmetics,”
he said innocently.
“She sent me a case, Pritkin!”
started to reply, when a presence slammed into him, hard enough to send him
staggering. It was the buzz that came
from a powerful demon, and there was no question which one. The familiar, hated aura was like a prickle
of acid against his skin.
“Pritkin?” Marco’s amused dark eyes went
suddenly sharp. But this wasn’t
something any vampire could fix.
just recalled…an errand,” he said, his breath hitching on a snarl. And then he was out the door, before Cassie
could figure out that a much bigger threat than a spurned lover had just
scanned the sea of kitsch, looking for the deadly threat that his every sense
told him was there somewhere. He didn’t
find it. The flock of tourists,
cowboy-goth employees and dancing neon cactuses conspired to confuse his human
hotel where Cassie was currently residing was themed after Dante’s Inferno, with a lobby complete with fake
stalactites that shot out geysers of steam on a regular basis. The main drag had tried to combine this with
a homage to Nevada’s wild west roots, resulting in an explosion of
tastelessness that still made him wince, even after a month’s exposure. He finally blinked, transitioning to the type
of sight he rarely allowed himself, and there it was--an acid green flame
shining through the windows of a nearby bar.
pushed open the swinging doors—authentic right down to the wood grain in the
fiberglass—and glanced around. If
possible, the bar was even worse than the faux ghost town outside. It featured mementoes of colorful characters
from the region’s past—colorful in the sense that most of them had ended their
lives splattered red from a gunfight gone wrong or black and blue courtesy of a
hangman’s noose. He finally found the
demon he sought sitting under a framed wanted poster for Butch Cassidy,
entertaining a small child.
child was perhaps two, dressed in a yellow romper that left its gender in
question and a pair of tennis shoes with bear faces on the tops. It was watching the demon with fascinated
brown eyes. Or to be more accurate, it
was watching the napkin the creature was holding up.
see? Merely a plain piece of paper,” the
blond devil said solemnly, turning it around so that the tot could see both
sides. “But with a little magic…” his
voice trailed off and the napkin suddenly flew up from his hand in the shape of
fluttered around the delighted child’s head, prompting squeals loud enough to
threaten John’s eardrums and to turn the head of a nearby waitress. “Lisa!” The woman, dressed as a saloon girl,
had they had favored neon-yellow polyester and black lace, hurried over. “I’m sorry.
I told her to wait in back.”
“Think nothing of it. I do
so enjoy children.” The demon caught John’s eye. “Most of
a magician,” the waitress said, smiling.
But unlike her daughter, she wasn’t looking at the napkin.
creature reclined back against the leather booth, all tousled golden hair and
lips red from the wine he’d been drinking.
“Something like that,” he agreed easily.
haven’t seen you in here before.”
from out of town.”
out,” John said sourly.
woman glanced at him, and did a quick double take. She looked between the two of them for a
moment, clearly confused. “Are you two
It was emphatic.
in fact,” the demon said brightly. “He’s
“Really?” The waitress took in the creature’s unlined
face, clear green eyes and youthful body.
It was on display in a scoop-neck tank with a silver sheen under a light
gray suit. The skin was flawless and
sun-bronzed, the nails were buffed to a high shine and he smelled of some kind
of exotic spice.
she glanced at John. He didn’t need her
expression to know that, of the two, he looked older. Crow’s feet were beginning to form at the
corners of his eyes, his complexion was weathered and his hands had never seen
a manicure. He also hadn’t had a chance
to bathe since chasing a very grumpy young woman around a makeshift gym for two
hours, resulting in damp hair and a sweat-stained t-shirt.
strongly suspected that he stunk.
also didn’t give a damn.
don’t look old enough to have an adult son,” the woman told the demon
too kind, Jessica.”
nametag said Brittany. She looked down
at it, and then back up at him. “I lost
my tag a few days ago and had to borrow one.
How did you—”
“Magic.” He smiled charmingly. “I’m Rosier, by the
an unusual name. First or last?”
He took the hand she rested on
the table—the one with the wedding ring.
“Whichever you prefer.”
leaned closer, wetting her lips. “You
know, my shift is over in a few minutes--”
you’ll need to take your child home at that time,” John said, putting a hand on
her shoulder. He’d expected to have to disperse
the gathering threads of a spell, but there wasn’t one. The demon looked at him, amused, and the
I…yes.” She turned and hurried off,
without remembering to take his order or to retrieve her child.
don’t really need the help,” the demon told John, pulling out a slim silver case
and tapping a cigarette on the table.
“Neither would you, if you took some pains. You look like hell.”
creature ignored that. “You can’t starve
the incubus out, no matter how hard you try.
You are what you are. Someday,
you’re going to have to come to terms with that.”
have been. For entirely too long.”
choked back the reply that sprang to his lips.
He was not going to get into a dialogue with the creature. Not over this; not again.
eyes fell to the little girl, who was still trying to catch the paper bird
hovering just out of reach. “I’m not
going to kill you in a casino full of people,” he told the demon tersely. “You don’t need a shield.”
yet I feel so much better with one. At
least until we reach an understanding.”
refrained from commenting on the likelihood of that. “Why are you here?”
down, Emrys. At least pretend to be
not my name.”
better than what you call yourself these days.
A prince of hell named John.” He
Are. You. Here?”
demon held up his hand and a whorl of fire danced over his fingers. He lit the cigarette and sat back, regarding
John through a haze of smoke. “To do you
doubt that very much.”
depends. On whether you’re still defending
that unbearable harpy.”
felt a quiver of rage rake along his nerves.
“I am sure you meant to say Lady Cassandra.”
do use the title. That makes it so much
hand clenched at his side, his mind automatically working out the logistics for
turning the monster into a puddle of goo while sparing the child. It could be done, he decided. Just.
sit down,” Rosier snapped. “I’m here to
would be a first.” Of the many
assassination attempts that had been made on Cassie’s life in recent months,
some of the deadliest had been engineered by the creature opposite him. But as
her bodyguard, John couldn’t afford the luxury of telling the bastard to go to
hell. At least not until he learned why
he’d left it.
signaled the waitress. “Another for me
and one for my son.”
don’t want a drink,” John said flatly.
let out a breath of smoke that floated lazily upwards. “Don’t be so sure. You haven’t heard why I’ve
waitress had two glasses on the table in record time. “I believe she’s tired,” the demon said,
passing the sleepy child to her mother after finally allowing her to catch the
elusive toy. She looked disappointed to
find that, after all, it was merely a piece of paper.
wondered what kind of deception was about to be dangled in front of him.
* * *
was warm, and there was the seductive slide of silken flesh against his
own. He let his hand slowly fondle the
nearest pert backside without bothering to open his eyes. ‘Ticia,
he identified lazily. Or possibly Berenice. He decided he
was hungry and threw a leg over
whoever-it-was, pressing the giggling bundle further into the soft
folds of the
he decided. She really did have the most
covers were abruptly stripped away, and a puff of air conditioning hit his bare
ass. The girls squealed, more out of
cold than modesty, he suspected, although there was a strange man in the
room. Very strange, Casanova thought resentfully, catching sight of a
familiar scowl in the mirror behind the bed.
up,” he was told brusquely.
hotel had best be burning down,” he said, rolling over and reaching for his
robe. ‘Ticia grabbed it first and fled,
followed by Berenice. The blond took her
time, and didn’t bother to cover up her best asset as she swayed out of the
room. She did, however, throw a coy
glance over her shoulder in the direction of the war mage.
accounting for taste, Casanova thought darkly, as Jason’s red head popped up
over the far side of the bed. He looked
around blearily, wincing at the light.
Pritkin hiked a thumb at him.
because you’ve chosen the life of a eunuch--” Casanova began hotly, cutting off
when his clothes hit him in the solar plexus.
the hell do you think you are?”
who in hell,” Pritkin said, with a
took Casanova a second to get it, because it was the middle of the day—far too
early for him to be vertical. And
because it was so bizarre. “Since when
do you claim your title?”
it’s useful to me. Now get dressed. Unless you intend to go naked.”
“Ealdris escaped again.”
Casanova stared at him, his clothes
clutched to his chest. “Ealdris? Ancient demon battle queen with a grudge
against the world, that Ealdris?”
would be the one.”
you just put her back in prison!”
“And now she’s out again.”
Casanova stared at him, feeling
slightly ill. Not that he’d had anything
to do with it. When one of the ancient
horrors escaped their very just imprisonment, it was a problem for the demon
lords, not the minor-level incubus with whom he shared body space. But he was marginally acquainted with the
lord who had returned this particular horror to captivity, and beings as old as
Ealdris took a wide-ranging view of retribution.
He suddenly wanted Pritkin gone for
an entirely new reason.
“What do you expect me to do about
it?” he demanded. “I wouldn’t last ten
seconds against one of those things!” He
shivered. “Hateful, filthy beasts. I don’t know why the council didn’t destroy
because it had enough trouble merely imprisoning them.”
“Which is my point! If the council
itself couldn’t deal with them, what use do you think
why in the name of all that’s unholy are you dragging me—”
not dragging you anywhere. You’re going
Casanova stopped, a horrible idea surfacing.
“No. Oh, no. Please tell me that complete disaster of a—”
“I knew it!” Casanova raged. “It’s that
awful, awful woman, isn’t it? She’s
“She isn’t involved.”
used to be a nice, quiet operation—”
by a mob boss.”
then she showed up and look at it!
Someone is always trying to kill her, or kidnap her
or do something to her and what
happens in the process?”
“A good woman is put through hell
for no reason?”
Casanova frowned. “No.
My hotel is slowly being destroyed!
Every other week it’s either raided or bombed or taken over by a bunch
of deadbeats. And now there’s an ancient
nightmare coming to finish off what’s left!”
has never heard of Miss Palmer.”
the hell can I be expected to show a profit when—” Casanova stopped, as the
mage’s words sunk in. “She hasn’t?”
my knowledge, no.”
why are you—”
felt his demon curl into a tighter ball somewhere under his
sternum. Or maybe that was his stomach. It tended to give
him problems whenever the
Lord of the Incubi decided to pay a visit.
“What does he have to do with this?”
“He’s offered me a deal. I
recapture Ealdris, and he refrains from
further harm to Miss Palmer.”
you believe him?”
swore a binding oath. If I succeed, he
will have no choice but to honor his commitment or the curse will kill him.”
this involves me why?” Casanova demanded, dropping the wrinkled mass of
clothing and stalking over to the closet for something more suitable.
I don’t trust him.”
you do me? I’m possessed by one of his
is why you’ll be able to detect a demon presence, should one show up. And I trust
your enlightened self-interest. What do
you think Mircea would do to you if you let his golden goose get killed on your
scowled, and yanked on a pair of boxers.
“If you’re so concerned, tell Rosier to go hang. Stay and watch the damn girl yourself!”
can’t afford to do that.”
why not? We’ve managed to keep her alive
so far without making deals with the devil—any devil.”
been lucky so far. But I can’t protect
her 24/7. Neither can you. Neither can that fool of a vampire, who
believes that if he surrounds her with enough of his creatures, no one can
shifted slightly, uncomfortable with criticism of his other
master. Even if he somewhat agreed with it. “You can’t
protect her at all if you’re
dead,” he pointed out.
is my problem. Yours is making sure that
nothing happens while I’m away.”
Casanova scowled and pulled on a
honey-colored shirt that set off his olive skin. “She’s a time
traveler, isn’t she? Why not have her shift a few weeks into the
past until you deal with this, take in a movie?”
that would require telling her why she needs to go. And that would result in
her deciding to help me—whether I like it or not!”
even Mircea has trouble keeping up with her.
How am I supposed—”
sure you’ll think of something.”
could chase her around the training salle like you do, but I’m not that
frustrated,” Casanova said caustically.
“I prefer a different kind of swordplay with nubile young—”
that touches her gets hacked off when I return.”
disaster areas are not my type,” Casanova sneered. “You can save the
threats.” Besides, Mircea had already
made them all.
you think of no way of amusing a young woman for an afternoon besides sex?”
blinked. “Why would I want to do that?”
The mage took a deep breath for some
reason. “I don’t care what excuse you
use, merely that you stay with her. Her
bodyguards won’t notice a demon presence until it’s too late, but you will.
“Making me the chief target! Is that supposed to make me feel
broke off when the mage grabbed him by the shirt and slammed him into the
wall. “I don’t care how you feel,” he
hissed, looking a lot like his father suddenly.
“I care about what you do. Allow me to spell things out for you. I will
be back. And if she’s dead, so are you.”
watched him leave, feeling his demon curling within him. “Well, shit,” they said.
street of the soul vendors looked deserted.
Dim moonlight filtered down through a heavy lid of clouds highlighting
soot-stained brick buildings, most with empty, dark windows reflecting the
empty, dark street. Only a single ifrit,
glowing coal-red against the darkness, was in sight, and it was in a
hurry. Its bouncy, jittering movement
left a trail of sparks on the cobblestones as it rushed past.
wasn’t entirely unexpected in an area where the shoppers were often as
incorporeal as the items for which they bartered, but the place felt empty,
too. The clammy mist of spirits that
usually flowed around him, ruffling John’s hair and sending chills across his
flesh, was simply gone. But at least the
small shop he wanted was open, spilling rich golden light into the muddy
crossed the lane and pushed open the door.
This place hadn’t changed, at least.
It still looked like a Victorian-era apothecary, with a scuffed wooden
floor, gas lights overhead and shelves of glass jars lining the walls. The owner was the same, too, hurrying out of
the back as soon as the string of bells over the door announced a
then trying to hurry back inside once he saw who it was.
Sid.” John reached over the counter and grabbed him by the scruff of the neck,
causing the demon to curse and spit. A
trail of ooze started sliming down the wall, eating into the plaster and
leaving an ugly burnt scar, as John jerked the creature back against him. “That was unwise.”
“Instinct,” his captive
babbled, the ruddy face breaking into a nervous smile. “Just instinct. You startled me.”
you must be startled constantly, if this place is as busy as I remember.”
other customers aren’t outlaws!”
am I.” John released him. “The council
has given me a weekend pass, so to speak.”
Sid demanded, turning around.
looked like a small, bald man with a pleasant, round face and pronounced
jowls. It was an illusion, of course,
like the rest of the shop, like the street outside, for that matter. What he actually was might have scared off
the occasional mage who ventured here for supplies, and Sid wasn’t about to
lose a sale.
hate you,” he pointed out.
they hate Ealdris more.”
“Ealdris?” Sid sounded like he’d never heard the
name. John shot him the look that
deserved. Sid had been a fixture among
the incorporeal demon races for longer than anyone could remember, and he paid
attention. “Oh, yes,” Sid looked
diffident. “That Ealdris.”
has offered me a deal. I recapture her,
and he refrains from attempting to murder the new pythia.”
you believe him?” Sid’s bushy
eyebrows met his nonexistent hairline.
sighed. He was already getting tired of
that question. “I believe that he
doesn’t want to go up against her himself.
But it’s one of his responsibilities as a member of the council.”
wouldn’t be on the council if he wasn’t strong enough to handle it,” Sid
pointed out. “Why does he need you?”
she’s hiding here.”
was the part that didn’t make sense to John.
The Shadowland was a minor demon realm that had risen to prominence as a
marketplace, to facilitate trade between the various dominions. But then the leaders of the main factions had
started moving in, establishing secondary courts where they could meet without
the danger of entering another’s power base.
Over time, the demon council had begun meeting here as well, making the
unprepossessing hunk of rock the de facto
capitol of hell.
a damn strange place for a wanted ex-queen to choose for a hide out.
isn’t a run of the mill demon we’re talking about,” Sid said, wiping his shiny
brow. “The ancient horrors were locked
away by the council because even they couldn’t control them. What do you think you’re going to do if you
dealt with her before.”
“She was on earth for the first
time in six thousand years! She was confused and disoriented, and
underestimated you. I wouldn’t bet on
that happening twice.”
keep it in mind.” John leaned on the
highly polished counter. “Where is she, Sid?”
“I don’t know,” the demon’s
pudgy hands nervously smoothed his pristine white apron. “And I wouldn’t tell
you if I did. People have been going
missing, John--a lot of people--and everyone else is lying low. Which is what you’ll do if you have any—” he
suddenly cut off, staring at the darkened windows over John’s shoulder. He must have sensed something that John
couldn’t, because his face closed down, becoming business-like.
second later the bells tinkled again, announcing a new customer. John moved away to peruse the shelves,
leaving them to it. If it had been
another time, he might have been tempted to do some shopping. The small slotted drawers on the lower half
of the antiquated fixtures held the kind of potion supplies almost unobtainable
on earth, and when they were the cost was staggering.
tried to keep his eyes on the drawers, but the shelves up above were impossible
to ignore. The glimmering contents of
the rows of apothecary jars writhed and twisted in a spectrum of colors--pale
amethyst and deep green, brilliant turquoise and ruby red, glittering white and
darkest obsidian--with glints like captured fire. But what they contained was far more precious,
and far more destructive.
stepped back, but the shop was small and jars ringed the walls, as well as
being stacked high on display tables.
His hand brushed against one behind him, and for an instant, he caught a
flash of the wonders it promised: cool
green water slipping over his skin, a darting school of tiny fish up ahead,
their scales gleaming in the light that dappled the shallows. He surged after them, faster and sleeker, the
joy of the hunt thrumming through his veins, scattering them like sliver petals
in the wind—
snatched his hand away, but they were all around him, whispering, promising,
yearning. They sang to him with siren songs and glimpses of wonders, of colors
that had never lived in human imagination, of music beyond the range of his
senses, of the sounds and scents of worlds long dead. He’d been shielded when he came in, but he’d
let them drop to save strength, knowing that Sid’s protection was the best
forgotten; in this particular shop, the real dangers were already indoors.
“Almost irresistible, isn't it?” a
rich voice asked.
head jerked up, only to see one of the Irin standing in front of him, its faint
glimmer dispelling the shadows for a full two yards around them. This one was tall, as they all were, and
powerfully built, with skin the color of burnished bronze and ebony hair that
spilled onto its spotless wings. It
regarded John kindly, out of a face so beautiful, so perfect, it almost made
him want to weep.
squashed that impulse by asking himself what exactly it had done to get barred
from the heavens.
“Living another’s life,” the Irin
continued, picking up the jar, “seeing what they saw, experiencing what they
felt… It’s almost like being another person for a time, isn’t it?”
“Yes.” John shoved his hands deep in
the pockets of his coat, and deliberately didn’t look at the seductively
“I try to draw out the experience with the
more interesting ones,” the creature told him.
“Allowing me to visit them over and over. I like to think that it permits them to live
again, in a way.”
dead,” John rasped. “They’ll never live
I suppose not.” The Irin tipped its
head, looking at him consideringly. “I
must confess, I was surprised that a human could interact with them. I had always understood that to be
don’t—” John began, only to be cut off as the scene in front of him rippled and
The shop was the
same size, but now it had a dirt floor and a thatched roof.
Instead of gas lights, there were rough
tallow candles, and the windows were merely dark open spaces letting in
sound of crickets and the smell of peat.
The same slightly anxious Sid stood behind a rough wooden counter, a
homespun apron serving as a handkerchief for his perpetually damp
palms. But instead of the Irin, Rosier stood at his side.
In his hands was
a clay bowl filled with shades of honey, gold and burnt sienna.
They swirled together in glittering bands, bright as jewels in the
candlelight, mesmerizing. “Excellent work, Sid,” his father said, “I admit, I
didn’t think you could do it.”
“I wasn’t sure
myself. It took two of my best hunters
the better part of a month, but there you are.
Nothing good comes easy, I always say.”
“And this is
very good.” Rosier placed the bowl
carefully in his son’s hands. “I explored one of these as a child; enjoyed
myself no end. They’re a sort of
merpeople, for lack of a better term, in one of the minor water realms.”
Emrys took the
bowl gingerly, with both hands, and was surprised to find it so
light. As if it contained air. As if it contained nothing
at all. “But…how can you—”
“A spell,” his
father said easily. “It captures a
being’s memories in the moments before death, preserving them for us to
“Then I can see
through anyone’s eyes?” he heard himself ask, amazement in his voice.
“It’s better than that,” his father said,
putting an arm around him. “For a short time after use,
you’ll retain their abilities. In a real
sense of the word, you can be anyone.”
Emrys stared at
him, speechless, the possibilities spinning around in his mind like the colors
in the bowl. His father saw his
expression and clapped him on the shoulder, laughing. “What’s the matter, boy? Didn’t I promise you wonders?”
John shoved the memory away, brutally enough
to make the Irin flinch. “My apologies,”
the creature said. “My people
communicate mentally, and sometimes I forget…”
there, panting, so angry he could barely see.
It hadn’t forgotten a damn thing.
Like most of the stronger denizens of the vast network of realms humans
dismissed as “Hell,” it had simply taken what it wanted.
it wouldn’t take anything else.
John’s shields slammed into place,
and this time, he didn’t ward with his usual water, but with ice. The temperature of the room plummeted
dramatically, enough to freeze the mud that had been tracked in the entrance
and to send a frozen scale creeping across the boards. Sid gave a bleat of alarm over by the old
cash register, and the Irin raised a single elegant brow.
appears I have offended. Again, my
regrets.” The words and tone were
contrite, but it flashed him a knowing smile as it turned to leave. “Enjoy your purchase.”
stared after the creature as it swept out, wondering how much more it
seen. Enough to guess that its parting
shot would hit home. “Don’t pay any
attention to him,” Sid said, as John rejoined him at the counter.
“He’s just jealous. The Irin can only take one kind of energy,
and your line can absorb almost anything.
Well, not legally, but you know what I—”
had pulled out a map from under his coat as Sid talked. Now he
spread it on the counter and grabbed
one of the pudgy white hands the shop owner was flailing around.
“Just point,” he said harshly. He wanted out of there. He
wanted out now.
don’t want to get involved,” Sid protested, while he scribbled something on the
portion of the map hidden by the cash register’s iron bulk. “I’m not a warrior. I can’t afford—”
understand, although the council may not.
You should expect to receive a visit from them shortly.”
have to catch me first.” Sid leaned
across the counter to flip over the OPEN sign in the nearest window. “That was my last delivery and the rest can
go hang. I’ve decided to take a long
overdue vacation. If you’re smart,
you’ll do the same.”
took the hint and the map, pocketing it before turning away from the
counter. He stepped out of the
smothering warmth and back into the blessed chill of the night. He didn’t make a purchase before he left.
Marlowe said, nodding solemnly. “In one of his own pots no less. Henry thought
it was fitting.”
Cassie looked up from unwrapping
another parcel to stare at the curly-haired vampire. “Fitting?”
“Well, the man did try to poison
VIII boiled one of his own cooks?”
Marlowe added helpfully.
blue eyes narrowed. “You’re making that
heard it from one of the servants who was there. Said the stench lingered for days. Scouts
were never a scout.”
“True.” He grinned.
“But then, I never had any honor, either…”
snorted and went back to tackling her gift.
“See? I knew you were joking.”
rolled his eyes. It wouldn’t surprise
him if Marlowe had lit the match.
as if he’d heard him, that sharp brown gaze turned in his direction. Casanova quickly went to fix himself a drink,
in order to have some excuse to linger.
It was just his luck to have arrived at the girl’s suite to find the Consul’s
chief spy ensconced on the sofa, amusing her with more of his gruesome
didn’t appear to be in a hurry to leave, and he kept glancing at Casanova as if
wondering what he was doing there.
Casanova was starting to wonder the same thing. Counting him and the spy, there were no fewer
than eight master-level vampires prowling around the suite, with two more
or not, no one was getting through all that.
brief exploration of the bar’s fridge turned up three tiny bottles of vodka and
he used them all. They were too cold and
there was no lime, but today was obviously about hardships. He turned back around to find Marlowe still
I get you anything?” he asked acerbically.
was wondering the same about you,” Marlowe said mildly, as Pritkin entered
pushing a room service cart loaded with gifts.
was about to ask him what he was still doing there when he felt it—a familiar
power prickling along his skin like a feathering of knives. There was no mistaking what it was—or where
it was coming from. He started to shout
a warning, but before he could so much as utter a syllable his vocal chords
seized up, as if an invisible hand had suddenly clenched around his throat.
of them?” Cassie moaned, staring at the cart.
you like receiving tokens from your admirers?” Marlowe asked.
not my admirers,” she said, frowning.
“Half these people were calling for my head
less than a month ago. They’re only
sucking up now because it looks like I might live long enough to be pythia,
after all. And the rest are trying to
exerted enough power to punch through a wall, and managed to jerk his glass all
of half an inch. A few drops of clear
liquid spilled over the side and slid slowly down his hand, cool, cool, against
his skin. But he couldn’t wipe them away.
He couldn’t, in fact, seem to move at all.
young to be so cynical,” Marlowe reproached.
really? Look that this,” Cassie held up
a blue velvet jewel case with a family seal stamped in gold on top. “Some Dutch count wants me to do a reading,
but not for him. Oh, no. It seems that his wife has found out about
his long-term mistress and is threatening to throw him out, and she’s the one
with the money. So he wants me to tell
her that she got it all wrong—he’s pure as the driven snow.”
don’t blame you for being insulted,” Marlowe said, picking up the case and
perusing the contents.
nodded. “I know, right? I’ve never even met this guy and he expects
me to lie for him!”
something like that, he could at least have sent diamonds.” Marlowe held up a
pale blue necklace. “I mean really. Aquamarines!”
narrowed her eyes at her guest. “I’m
serious, Marlowe! There’s like a metric
ton of this stuff, and virtually all of it comes with some kind of strings.”
chief spy shrugged. “What did you
expect? People have been attempting to
bribe pythias since ancient times. It’s
what did those other pythias do?”
cell phone rang. He fished it out of a
pocket and glanced at the display.
the gifts as their due and told the petitioners whatever they liked.”
“That’s so wrong!”
rose to his feet and took her hand, kissing it with an ironic air that said he
knew such things were out of style—and didn’t give a damn. “You’ll get used to it.”
cursed inwardly, since that was the only way he could do it. The damned creature pretending to be Pritkin
was leaning against the wall, arms crossed, with a faint smirk on his face. He was obviously waiting for the chief spy to
clear out, which it looked like he was about to do. Casanova didn’t know the details of what was
scheduled to happen then, but he could make a damn good guess.
didn’t bother trying to appeal to the creature’s better nature, because he
didn’t have one. He focused instead on
the tight little ball curled beneath his rib cage. “Let me
was no response.
“Damn it, I know
he thought viciously. “Demon lord or no, Rosier doesn’t have
access to my body. I only trusted one
person enough for that!”
“I’m sorry, I’m
His demon, whom he persisted in thinking of as ‘she’, sounded nothing like her
usual polished self.
“Then let me
“I can’t!” He closed his
eyes to see her shaking her head violently, her long dark hair whipping about
her panicked face. “He’ll kill you if he has to—he swore as
much. But as long as you don’t
will kill me!”
“He can’t blame you if you’re
“What the hell do you call this?”
there something wrong?”
opened his eyes to find Marlowe regarding him from barely a foot away. The chief
spy was inside his comfort zone, sharp brown eyes steady on his, but at the
moment it hardly registered. “Wrong?” he
heard himself say. “What could be
lips twisted. “Around here? Virtually anything.”
usually found Marlowe’s suspicious nature a trial, particularly when his people
were poking around the casino, looking for God-knew-what. But today he could have really used some of
that perpetual paranoia. So, of course,
Marlowe gave him one last considering look and turned to go.
“Rian!” Casanova thought
kill you. He…he’s not that vindictive.” She sounded as
if she was trying to convince herself, and doing a poor job of it.
willing to bet my life on that?” Casanova hissed.
“I don’t have a
“Not a chance,” he thought
fiercely. “He doesn’t control you. He can give you commands, but you decide
whether to follow them or not. And I
want you to remember that, when this is over, when I’m paying the price. I want you to remember that you chose.”
reached the door and “Pritkin” moved to Cassie’s side.
I have a word?” the fake mage asked pleasantly.
looked up, obviously still preoccupied by her little ethics problem. “What?
private? It won’t take a moment.”
nodded and got up, starting for the bedroom.
She didn’t notice, Casanova realized, his stomach sinking. She might have, under other circumstances, but
she was preoccupied and her guard was down because she was in a place she
believed to be safe. And that damn demon
would have her dead before she ever knew otherwise.
must have thought so, too, because he could feel her panic, like a tremor down his
spine. “I don’t know what to do!” she
“I said the same
to you once, do you remember?”
“Yes.” Her voice shook
“And do you
remember what you told me?”
was silent for a long moment, while Cassie reached the door to the bedroom and
a vampire opened the one to the hallway for Marlowe. “That
you would never regret it,” she whispered.
“Well? Will I?”
“I hope not,” she said
then she let him go.
followed couldn’t have taken more than a few seconds, but it was blazoned on
Casanova’s memory nonetheless. He sprang
for the girl, screaming his head off.
“Not Pritkin, not Pritkin!”
spun before he’d even gotten all of the words out and was across the room,
leaping for the demon while the guards were still trying to figure out what was
going on. He almost made it. Rosier flicked out an arm and Marlowe went
flying backwards, barely missing Casanova as he hurtled across the room in his
Casanova wasn’t going for Rosier, because he’d last even less time than Marlowe
had, and because he didn’t matter, anyway.
His job wasn’t to kill the demon but to rescue the girl. So that was what he did, using the split
second it took Rosier to deal with the chief spy to snatch Cassie and—
room shimmered around him as they tumbled forward, bursting through the bedroom
door and hitting the floor—and then kept on going into the middle of a very
hard, very cold street. For a moment,
there was nothing but confusion—Cassie struggling and Rian screaming and a
horrible stench flooding Casanova’s senses, making him want to gag. And then he looked up to see a huge,
gelatinous blob of a creature bearing down on him.
vampire vision, he couldn’t see it very well, the edges going all fuzzy and
vague as his eyes tried to focus. But
that wasn’t such a bad thing, considering that what he could see was making his flesh want to crawl off his bones and go
whimper in a corner. It looked like a
man, if men were six hundred pounds of pale, jelly-like flesh that was
transparent enough to show another creature crouched inside, surrounded by its
host’s ropy intestines.
stared at it in disbelief, caught between paralyzing terror and an absurd urge
to laugh. It was ghastly and yet unreal,
like something out of a bad fifties horror flick, its translucent skin gleaming
in the dim light of a nearby streetlamp.
But then the hunched passenger’s dark red eyes swiveled in his
direction, and he suddenly found that he could move, after all.
the hell are we?” Cassie demanded, pushing tumbled curls out of her eyes.
Casanova breathed. Then he snatched her
up, threw her over his shoulder and ran like all the demons of hell were after
one of them, anyway.
shop looked a little different from the back, with the shades drawn and the
lights extinguished. But Sid’s shiny
bald head was the same as it poked out a crack in the door and stared around
nervously. “Hurry up!” he hissed,
catching sight of John. “Before anyone
John felt like pointing out that
he’d just cut through a maze of side streets and across two marketplaces before
doubling back, just to insure that no one would
see him. But he didn’t. Because Sid could have left him to find
Ealdris on his own, instead of scribbling ‘meet me out back in half an hour’ on
the edge of the map.
stepped through the door to find that the lights were off inside, too. But the softly glowing contents of the rows
of apothecary jars provided just enough illumination to see by, throwing a
watery rainbow over the walls, the floor and Sid’s anxious face. “I couldn’t talk before,” he said, wiping his
hands down his apron front. “If Ealdris
heard I helped you--”
me where to find her and you won’t have to worry about it for long.”
snorted. “Typical human arrogance!”
Knowledge she doesn’t have.”
little demon didn’t look convinced.
spread the map on the counter again. “If
she was hiding in the city, the Alû would have found her by now,” he said, referring
to the High Council’s feared enforcement squad.
“But they haven’t, and none of the tracking spells they sent into the
hinterlands returned anything. So I know
where she is.”
think she’s camping in the middle of the desert?” Sid asked archly.
think she’s camping under it.” John’s
finger traced an arc across a mountain range to the north of the city. “Long before there was a settlement here,
there was some kind of mining concern in the hills. I don’t know what they were taking out of
there, but it was extensive. I came
across a few of the tunnels as a boy—”
that’s what you were doing when no one could find you? Exploring the
desert? You might
have been killed!”
I wasn’t. And that gives me an advantage
she doesn’t know I have. As do these.”
looked dubiously at the yellowish blocks of explosives John was pulling out of a
backpack and piling on his nice clean counter.
“And you think this lot will let you take her on?”
she’s like most of the older demons, yes.”
won him a narrow-eyed look. “And how is
but not resourceful.”
huffed out a laugh. “I’ve never known
your father to have a problem in that area.
And he’s nearly as old as our missing queen.”
incubi are different,” John admitted. “They
have to build relationships with their prey unless they want to spend all their
time hunting. And humans are nothing if
not unpredictable. Interacting with them
requires the incubi to be flexible, inventive, even somewhat open-minded.”
Ealdris. You think she won’t expect an
assault with human weapons.”
nodded, not wanting to elaborate and insult the creature. After
all, Sid was fairly ancient, too. But as a shopkeeper, he also
had to be
flexible, at least to a point, to deal with so many different
species. That wasn’t true of most of the older demons,
who tended to turn more and more inward as the centuries past. By
the time they reached Ealdris’ age, they
were virtually unable to comprehend any ways other than their own.
was what had him worried, because she should have done exactly as she had last
time and headed for earth as soon as she broke free. Demons gained strength through one thing and
one thing only—feeding. She needed food,
and quickly, if she was to maintain her independence. And earth was by far the richest source
instead, she’d come here. It was like a
starving man passing up a banquet hall to search for scraps in the Dumpster
outside. It didn’t make sense, and every
time an ancient demon surprised him, John got edgy. And when he got edgy, he tended to hedge his
bets, which was why he’d packed enough C-4 to bring down a mountain.
right over her,” Sid said, when he’d finished explaining.
a good one,” Sid admitted, frowning.
“The wards she’s familiar with guard against magic. Like as not, this…stuff…won’t even register.”
John asked, because there clearly had been one in his tone.
sighed and started returning a few scattered jars to their appropriate
shelves. “Nothing. I’m just a foolish
old man who remembers another time.”
in my day we did things differently. We
faced our enemies.”
stared at him incredulously. “You think
I’m being dishonorable? Knowing what
she’s done? What she’ll do again given
no.” Sid shook his head. “I didn’t mean
anything. You’re only half-demon and
incubus at that. I don’t expect you to
understand.” He caught John’s
expression. “No offense.”
taken,” John said curtly. Not being
mistaken for a demon was hardly an insult.
And standing and dueling a being as powerful as Ealdris wasn’t
honorable, it was stupid.
you’re little more than a child,” Sid said, looking down at the jar he
held. A hazy smear of deep magenta
curled and twisted inside, painting his skin a livid hue. “You don’t know what it was like, in our
day. And how could you? Seeing what we’ve become.”
mean it was worse?” John asked cynically.
glanced up at him, and smiled slightly.
“You’d probably think so. It was
certainly more savage, more raw. But
infinitely more glorious, too. You
should have seen it, John,” he said, his voice going dreamy. “There weren’t as many of us then, so you
might think we were weaker, but it wasn’t so.
Huge armies we had, glittering in the night, under commanders worthy of
the name, marching off to victory or death—”
death,” John interjected, because there had been nothing glorious about the
ancient wars. Just century after century
of bloody chaos, as each race struggled for existence in a never ending
competition for food and resources.
Ending them had been one of the few things the High Council had ever
“Yes, yes, but you miss the point,” Sid said
irritably. “The chaff was winnowed out, but the best survived, thrived, grew
stronger by their ordeals. Instead of
the weakest being rewarded for how well they can toady, like today.”
never took you for a Social Darwinist.”
not anything human,” Sid told him, with a bite to his tone. “We were stronger
without them, back when every resource was scarcer, every meal more hard
won. Then we found their weak, soft,
rule-bound race, and everything changed.”
sure they felt the same,” John said curtly, not interested in a debate. “I’m also fairly certain that Ealdris is
where I say she is. But there could be
miles of tunnels through these hills and I don’t have time to search them
all. I need you to narrow it down.”
stared at the map, but didn’t say anything.
the rest of your clientele goes missing.”
The little demon sighed fretfully
and flapped a hand at the windows. “Check the shades, would
promise you, I will find her,” John said,
turning to look for gaps in the dark green cloth.
then dropping to his knees when something slammed into him with the force of a
dozen sledgehammers. It knocked him to
the floor, his head reeling, pain shooting from temple to temple in a mind
numbing haze. But not so numb that he
couldn’t make out the ancient being bending over him--who was suddenly glowing with
a power he shouldn’t have had.
believe I can guarantee it,” Sid said, as the room exploded around him.
* * *
think I wet myself,” Casanova said faintly, hugging a wall.
was soot-stained brick, crumbling and moldy and cold against his shoulder
blades. Or at least it was for the
moment. Part of the illusion they used
to keep people from running and screaming at the sight of this place didn’t
fool his vampire senses. But part of it
did. The result was a mishmash of images
that would have made his head ache if it wasn’t already threatening to take the
top off his skull.
have to get out of here,” Rian told him.
“We’ve lost them for the moment, but I can’t shield us for—”
why did you bring us here?” he asked savagely.
didn’t know what else to do! The girl
didn’t know she needed to shift and there was no time to explain and Rosier—”
“So you brought
us to his doorstep?”
The wall was stucco now, he couldn’t help but notice. Bright, buttery stucco, like on his home in
beautiful Cordoba. Where he would really
like to be right now instead of shivering in Hell.
he thought suddenly, and had to bite his lip on a hysterical giggle.
don’t have her power,” Rian said, looking at him strangely. “I can shift between worlds, but not between
places in a world. And she couldn’t survive in most of our
realms in any—”
“Survive? You mean I’m not dead?” Cassie suddenly piped
turned to stare at her, but there was no doubt about it, she was looking
straight at Rian’s hazy outline.
“Well? Are we in Hell or not?” she demanded.
looked at him, apparently nonplussed herself, and then back at Cassie. “You can see
me?” she asked hesitantly.
I’ve known clairvoyants before, and they couldn’t—”
Pythia. It comes with more power.”
know,” Casanova said, scowling. “That’s
what’s drawing them. Demons feed off
human energy and you’re lit up like a Vegas buffet.”
can’t help it!”
never saw me before,” Rian accused. “Did
“You were in a body before. I see
spirits. And will somebody please answer
the damn ques—”
you’re in hell,” Rian told her. “A hell, in any case, there are a number
Casanova interjected absently. He was
watching the wall out of the corner of his eye, and he was pretty sure it was
playing with him. Because now it was covered
in the hideous wallpaper one of his mistresses had had in her bedroom in
Seville. The one in which she’d entertained
three other men, occasionally at the same time, whenever he chanced to be out
“More than that,” Rian said. “But it doesn’t
matter now. What matters is—”
I am dead,” Cassie said hollowly.
reached over and pinched her, hard. “Do
you feel dead?”
jumped. “Cut it out!”
Rian agreed, shooting him a look. “We
have to decide what to do.”
I’m dead?” Cassie said sharply.
was talking to him,” Rian told her, starting to look confused.
to do is obvious,” Casanova said impatiently.
“We need to find somewhere to hide.
As soon as the mage kills Ealdris—”
if he doesn’t?”
will. He’s good at killing things.”
things. But you know as well as I do that Ealdris isn’t just any—”
please tell me if I’m dead or not?” Cassie yelled, before Casanova clapped
a hand over her mouth.
you want to be something’s dinner?”
shut her eyes for a moment, and then spoke very slowly and
distinctly. “You are not dead. Humans come here from time
to time. Powerful mages can transition to the upper
hells and back--the ones which can support human life, at least--and
occasionally someone is brought here—”
a snack,” Casanova finished for her, “which is what we are going to be if we
don’t get out!”
what I’ve been saying!” Rian tossed her hair agitatedly. “But we
can’t go back to the casino. If Rosier isn’t still there himself,
take us somewhere else!”
just told you, if I transition back to your world, it will be where I left it. I would need a portal to go somewhere else,
and the master knows that. He’ll have
hell, then. Somewhere safer.”
looked at him like he might have lost his mind.
“A safer hell?”
won’t be there long! We only need to
hide until Pritkin deals with this.”
with what?” Cassie asked.
supposed to kill Ealdris,” Casanova informed her shortly. “As soon as he does, Rosier can’t hurt
you. He swore a binding—”
difference does it make? All you need to
understand is that Rosier blackmailed him into going after her, thinking that
he’d kill you while Pritkin was on his little errand. But the mage anticipated that and sent me to
watch you. And now all we have to do is
stay out of the way until--”
Is. Ealdris?” Cassie was looking strangely red in the face.
ancient demon battle queen,” Casanova said, right before he was slammed against
a wall for the second time that day.
“And you let him
“You let Pritkin go after this
thing, knowing the risk—”
“He’s doing it to protect you—”
“How many times do I have to say
this?” Little fingers dug into his
flesh, surprisingly hard. “I don’t want to be protected! Not if it costs someone else’s life! Don’t
you get it?”
“Of course? Then why—”
‘get it’,” Casanova told her nastily. “I
just don’t care. I don’t work for you, chica, and for that matter, neither does
the mage. It’s his life. If he wants to risk it, I don’t see where
that’s any concern of—”
my concern because I’m the cause!”
Cassie whispered furiously, her hands letting go of his arms only to bunch in
the expensive fabric of his lapels. “And
you do work for Mircea. And by vampire law, I’m his wife, so you work
for me. And if you’d like to continue to
work for me, you had damn well better learn to care!”
glared at her. “Why, you vicious,
“Will you two stop it?”
ceased prying Cassie’s hands off his jacket and looked at Rian. Because she never used that tone, much less
with him. But then, she never glared at
him like that, either.
have to decide what we’re going to do,”
she said severely. “The master will be
here any moment, and I cannot hide us from him!”
could he possibly know where you took us?” Cassie demanded.
there aren’t that many options. Most of
the hells require permission to enter—”
this one doesn’t?”
neutral ground, a meeting place, a market—” she waved an restless
hand. “Anyone can come here. And as soon as he does, he’ll
follow my trail
right to you. All incubi can sense
another’s presence. But if I leave, I
can’t shield you from—”
you do it?”
looked confused again. “Can I do what?”
but what does that—”
I know what we’re going to do,” Cassie said, jerking Casanova’s face down to
hers. “And I know who’s going to help
sounded like someone was hammering on a door, John thought vaguely. He wished
they’d stop. Or that someone would
answer the damn thing. He couldn’t sleep
with all this pounding going on.
with all this pain. Every thud made
agonized lightning zigzag behind his eyeballs, to the point that he was getting
nauseous with it. It reminded him of a
few of the hangovers he’d had in the bad old days, when he’d found solace, or
what passed for it, in the bottom of a bottle.
this hurt more.
Bump, bump, b-
Bugger it! If someone didn’t get that damn thing--
opened his eyes, just in time to close them again in a tortured wince as—ump—the back of his cranium came down,
connecting with what felt like solid rock.
A disoriented moment later, he realized that it was rock, specifically an uneven floor that he was being dragged
across by the legs, his head allowed to bounce along behind the rest of him as
best it could.
probably explained why it felt like a particularly ill-used football.
tried to take stock, but it was a little difficult. He couldn’t see bugger all, being in almost
complete darkness; his arms were bound to his sides and his coat was gone,
which explained the raw meat texture of his back. But his weapons…one of them was somewhere
could feel it, the enchantment it carried chiming along his nerves like a
glissando of bells. Cool and sweet, it
was soothingly familiar. And loud, so
loud that he had to be almost—
was the small knife next to his right calf. John blinked, taking a moment to absorb the
fact that some idiot had actually left his boots on. And had compounded the folly by not even checking
them for weapons first. He didn’t know
whether to be pleased or insulted, but on the whole he thought he’d go with--
fucking up whoever was responsible.
dragged the tattered threads of his concentration together, focusing them on
that tiny chime. He could usually do
this without thinking, an almost automated response after so long, like
breathing. It was more difficult now,
but he finally felt the connection snap into place and all that dormant magic
spring to life, eager to leap to his defense at a whispered--
someone yelled, slinging him against a wall.
Which hurt like the devil, since he had no way to avoid hitting face
first. But on the whole that bothered
him less than the supernova that suddenly erupted all around him.
instinctively turned his head further into the wall, but that only seemed to
make things worse. Light seared his
eyeballs even through the lids, spearing straight through to his brain. For a brief instant he could see every blood
vessel on the inside of his head, feel every scraped-raw nerve lit up in
then something hot and intense shot though his body like a bolt of lightning before
grounding itself in his spine.
let out a not-so-manly mewl of pain and he hoped it wasn’t him.
He didn’t think so, actually. Because he was fairly certain that
had just fused to the roof of his mouth.
else didn’t have that problem. He
recognized Sid’s voice, cursing up a storm in some long-dead language, but he couldn’t
see him. Not even when the light finally
dimmed, the wildly jumping aftereffects insuring that he remained blind as a
bat. Hoping that that was true for his
attacker as well, John pried his tongue loose and started an incantation, only
to stop when a knife was pressed hard against his jugular.
if you want to live,” Sid rasped, and the words died in his throat.
not because of the threat. The blade
currently denting his skin was well-oiled and razor sharp—and bleating at him
alarmingly because it was his weapon.
Sid must have caught it mid-flight, which would have been impressive
except that a syllable from John would send it plunging into the demon’s gut
before he knew what had hit him. But
John didn’t utter that syllable. Because
he didn’t think the stark panic in Sid’s voice was fake.
a moment later he knew it wasn’t when his eyes finally adjusted.
you see?” Sid demanded.
saw. It was rather hard to miss, since
every surface of the low-ceilinged tunnel they were in had turned as
translucent as alabaster, lit from within by hundreds of glowing red lines. They spidered through the rock like veins in
marble--or under the skin, because these pulsed with some strange, unearthly
fire that brightened and dimmed, brightened and dimmed, as if driven by the
beating of a distant heart.
was like being in the belly of a huge, still-breathing animal, John’s brain
helpfully supplied, until he snarled at it to shut up. But the impression was damn apt, heightened
by the unhappy rumbling in the stones around him and the heat generated by all
that trapped energy. At least that
explained why the shreds of his T-shirt were plastered to his body, he thought
maybe that was terror.
answer that question you asked earlier,” Sid said, his voice dripping sarcasm,
“they mined brimstone here. It’s why I
could magic you up here, but not in
here.” The little demon pulled the knife
away from John’s throat and shook it at him, before tucking it away in his
eyes followed it, but he made no effort to call it to him. Because the substance known on earth as ‘brimstone’
resembled the demon variety only in the overwhelming smell of rotten eggs. It didn’t rain fire from the heavens, as some
human legends insisted, or destroy entire cities. He’d always suspected that those accounts
were ancient memories of the last of the demon wars, a few battles of which had
been fought on earth. Then the sky had burned, along with huge swathes of
land, obliterated by single blasts.
the stuff glowing a few inches away from his face.
laced all though these rocks,” Sid informed him, slapping the side of the
corridor hard enough to make John wince, even though he knew that wouldn’t set
it off. Sid could stick a pick axe
through the wall and it would make no difference. Brimstone responded to only one thing.
it happened to be the thing that John needed rather badly right now.
* * *
had spent years perfecting the alluring quality of his voice, imbuing
the charm, the grace, the honeyed tones that often did much of his
for him. Rian had taught him some of
that, but he was proud to say that much more came from his own
from a people who understood the lyrical potential of the spoken word
in a way
that few of the braying descendants of the British Isles ever
would. He was an artist with his voice. He could make
women, and the occasional man, weep with his voice.
then there were times like these.
“Fuck it,” he rasped, which would
have made his point quite clearly had anyone been listening to him.
think I found something,” Cassie’s excited shriek drifted out of one of the
rocks on this godforsaken hill.
Casanova thought grimly, and he didn’t blame Him one iota. Ugly, barren, and creepy as, well, hell--and
he’d thought the city was bad. Out here,
nobody bothered with a spell to disguise anything, because there was nothing
worth the effort. Just rocks and a
little on-the-brink scrub and a lot of dark, the latter broken only by the
faint urban sprawl in the murky valley below them.
did anyone live here? Surely even demons
could do better than this? And more
importantly, what in the name of sanity was he
“Did you hear me?” Cassie demanded,
and Casanova’s hand clenched.
knew what he was doing here. She was
like a disease, a human virus that infected everyone around her, turning off
their good sense and making them do things completely against their own best
interests. Someone should lock her up,
study her, figure out a vaccine before the whole damn world caught the madness—
curly blond head poked out of a crack in the rock so its owner could glare at
him. “I’m not going in there,” he said
eyes narrowed. “Why not?”
not? Because this—” his savage gesture took in the entire train of events that
had led him from a warm, soft bed in Vegas to a frigid, rocky mountainside in Hell--“is insane. The only thing that could possibly make it
more insane would be to crawl inside an unexplored hole in the ground after a
mage who, on a good day, is suicidally reckless and who on this day is chasing a demon battle queen.”
looked at someone over her shoulder.
Rian, he assumed, since his traitor of a demon had floated in after her
a few minutes ago. “I thought you said he’d calm down once we got out of the
murmured something reassuring.
I don’t know,” Cassie told her. “He’s
getting pretty shrill.”
am not shrill!” Casanova said, and all right, perhaps that had been a little
shrill, but if so, he thought he’d earned it.
“I am the voice of reason—”
the voice of reason needs to get his butt in here.”
didn’t even bother to respond to that.
Instead, he pulled the little silk pocket square out of his coat and
made a point of placing it exactly in the center of the nearest sort-of-flat
rock he could find. He smoothed it out,
sat his Gucci-covered ass on it and looked at her. Calmly, considering that he really didn’t see
how this could get any worse.
fine,” Cassie said. “I just thought
you’d prefer it to the alternative.”
think she means me,” Rosier said gently, from behind him.
spun, but even vampire reflexes weren’t fast enough this time. A blast of power picked him up and sent his
body hurtling backwards through the air, right at the wretched little cave. And for a moment, things became a bit
was possibly because his head hit the overhang hard enough to send his brain
cavorting around inside his skull. Or
because the impact half collapsed the structure on top of him. Or because he was grabbed by the shirt and
jerked into the falling mass of
debris, half of which put dents in his already abused body, while the rest
rapidly blocked the way behind him.
bought him perhaps seconds with the power Rosier had at his disposal.
thought had Casanova staggering off the remaining wall, which for some ungodly
reason appeared to be glowing, with his brain still sloshing about between his
ears. But despite that, and the mountain
of dirt he’d just swallowed, and the fact that he appeared to be missing maybe
half a pound of flesh, he somehow got fumbling hands on a certain blond-haired
menace. And shook her like a
us out of here!”
blue eyes glared at him through the dust.
shifted us in!” Her power wasn’t supposed to work outside earth, but that
hadn’t stopped her from hopping them in stages across the damn desert,
following the sight trail Rian had laid out.
shifted us outside.”
shift us outside again—far outside!”
you listening? I can’t,” she repeated, jerking away from him.
a form of magic,” Rian told him agitatedly, “when she shifts, I mean, and right
difference does that make?”
great deal,” she said, her dark eyes on the cave-in behind him, as if she could
see right through it. And maybe she
could, because he’d never seen her that upset.
“You need to listen, Carlos—”
real first name usually got his attention, but not this time. “What I need,” he said, his voice trembling
only slightly, “what we all need, is to get out of here, now, before—”
not going anywhere without Pritkin,” Cassie informed him, making Casanova want
to scream. So he did.
a war mage! He can take care of
if he can’t use magic!” she said heatedly, while scrabbling for something in
the debris on the floor. “If he doesn’t
know the risk, he could blow himself up.
And even if not, he’s stuck down there facing that…that thing…with
nothing more than a gun that probably won’t even dent it. And I won’t—”
didn’t hear what the wretched woman wouldn’t do this time, because the rock
fall took that moment to implode, sending a dozen shards of whatever made up
this blasted hill into Casanova’s backside.
But he’d grabbed the girl, covering her body with his as he tumbled to
the floor. Which promptly cracked and
dropped, and then gave way entirely.
course it did, Casanova thought, as they plunged into darkness.
magic,” Sid said, spelling it out. “No
type, no amount. Not unless you want to
get yourself killed!”
thought that was the idea,” John slurred, causing the demon to shoot him a
look, as if suspicious that he was pretending to worse injuries than he had.
wouldn’t be much use then, would you?” he finally said.
was supposed to be your father,” Sid complained, bending over to tug at John’s
boots. “We specifically waited until
it was his turn. But I should have known
Rosier would find someone else to do his dirty work. He was always like that, even as a child.”
doesn’t that surprise me?” John muttered, trying to work the ropes over his
chest loose while Sid was busy examining his footwear.
while Sid obviously didn’t know much about tying someone up—he’d left John’s
wrists free—he’d made up for it in sheer enthusiasm. John was cocooned in rope from nipples to
ribs, and it wasn’t the kind with much in the way of give. Every movement just made the damn chords eat
deeper into his flesh, threatening to cut off what little air supply he had. Without some way to cut the bonds, his arms
weren’t going anywhere.
left his legs.
common perceptions to the contrary, it was perfectly possible to be deadly without
using the upper body at all. John could almost
see the maneuver he needed—a sweep outward to dump Sid on his ass, then a quick
scissoring movement to trap his neck between John’s feet and ankles. And then it was merely a matter of an abrupt
twist and listening to the bones crunch.
It wasn’t the easiest of maneuvers, but it was doable, and it would also
be pretty damn satisfying right about now.
it would also be pretty damned useless.
a demon as old as Sid was never as simple as snapping a neck. But that was especially true when they
happened to be one of the two-natured—demons who could take both spectral or
physical form. In Sid’s case, he was an Uttuku,
a type the Sumerians had once mistaken for ghosts due to their ability to leave
their bodies behind. So even if John
managed to kill Sid’s body, he’d be left tied up and weaponless, facing a very
unhappy ancient spirit with who knew what kind of abilities.
he’d had better odds.
course, he’d had worse ones, too, but he shoved those thoughts away. Things weren’t that bad. Yet.
you needed Rosier for what?” he asked, while trying to come up with
another option. He didn’t really expect an answer, since Sid had
no reason to tell him anything.
for what John belatedly recognized as the intensity of a zealot.
little demon looked up from ripping apart John’s boots, and his whole face lit
up with it. “It’s what we were talking
about before. You saw the potential—you
even had the right idea. Merely the
“It’s not Ealdris
and the ancients who are the problem. It’s
the bloody council.”
felt his blood pressure increase a little more, if that was possible. Because as corrupt, self-seeking and
generally appalling as the demon High Council often was, it did serve one vital
purpose—it was the one thing keeping the species from running amuck. And it was based here, in the Shadowland.
thought he might finally understand what Ealdris wanted with the place.
Ealdris can’t take on the council,” he said, fear making his voice harsh. “They’re too powerful—”
the ones who imprisoned her in the first place!”
was that or a blood bath in which thousands would have died! What would you have had—”
would have had them face her!” Sid screamed, suddenly in John’s own
face. And while the features hadn’t changed, it was
amazing how much he currently looked like a demon. “Properly,
honorably--on the field of battle! There would have been no
tricks then, no
deception. If there is such now, they
have only themselves to blame!” He
hurled John’s boots at the still-glowing wall.
met his glare squarely, not flinching.
Of course, the ropes helped with that.
But it seemed to be the right move.
Because after a moment, Sid calmed slightly.
honorable death this time, then?” John asked.
learned,” Sid said shortly. “I told her,
times have changed. To survive, we have
to change with them.”
didn’t think the old ones were good at that.”
sat back on his heels, the genial mask slipping perfectly back into
though he didn’t need it anymore. John
supposed it got to be habit when you wore it for something like six
years. “She always did adapt well. You have to in battle,
you know. But she still didn’t believe me, when I told
her that an incubus could be our salvation.
In our day, you were considered rather…hopeless.”
we’re not now?”
no,” Sid said, an edge creeping into his tone.
“Rosier has a finger in every pie, these days, an ear in every court. Your kind have made a profession out of
weakness, gaining power through soft words and pretty speeches, lies and
deception, while being too innocuous for anyone to worry about. Ironic that it’s your only strength that will
bring you down!”
didn’t have to think it over, as there weren’t a lot of options. Unlike most families, the incubi hadn’t been
blessed with an arsenal of weapons. “We
can…feed from anyone?” he guessed.
makes you unique among the races.”
licked his lips, wishing his head didn’t hurt quite so much. Because he was fairly certain that he was
missing something important. “And how
does that help you?”
Sid shrugged. “Not at all. There’s only so much energy I can absorb at
one time. Any surplus is wasted, I’m
afraid. But Ealdris now…” He suddenly
scowled. “They sent her to an awful
place, John; you should have seen it. There
was almost nothing to eat. It was
supposed to keep her too weak to find a way back, but she almost went mad with
didn’t stay that way for long. She killed dozens before I trapped her!”
yes,” Sid nodded. “But what she needed
was thousands. Tens of thousands. There’s no limit on her ability to absorb
power. That’s what made her so
formidable once--and will again.”
history repeats itself.”
suddenly laughed. “I don’t think so.”
what’s to stop it?”
head tilted, as if surprised that John didn’t understand. “You
are, of course. We tried it with a few other incubi, but they
weren’t strong enough. The effect lasted
seconds only, and we’re going to want more than that. That’s when
I realized, we needed someone of
the royal line.”
waited, but John still didn’t get it.
Until suddenly he did. Sid saw
when his eyes widened, when the beauty and horror of it hit him, all at once.
symmetry, isn’t it?” Sid asked. “She can
absorb an unlimited amount of power, but only of certain types. You can absorb any type, but only in limited
amounts. But put the two of you
mad!” John said, struggling uselessly against the damned ropes.
you are what you eat—isn’t that what the humans say?” Sid asked mildly. “In the past, we hunted only the strong, we
hunted each other, and so we were strong, too.
But then we find a perfect feeding ground, with plentiful, prolific, stupid
prey, and what happens? The feeble are
elevated beyond their station; the greatest among us are hounded almost to
extinction. The easy hunting has ruined
us, made us soft, made us weak!”
going to blow it up,” John rasped.
“You’re going to use the brimstone to destroy the city.”
the council along with it. And thanks to
that royal blood of yours, when all those souls are released, Ealdris will have
the ability to absorb every one. It will
wipe out her enemies and return her to her former glory, all at the same
the council is the only thing keeping the races in line! Without
will be free--free to feed, free to gorge.
And once the humans are gone, we will go back to preying on each
Sid grinned, baring a lot of teeth, none of which looked like they
the mouth of a shopkeeper. “Until only
the strong survive.”
And all right, John decided. Maybe things were that bad.
then he dumped the demon on his ass.
* * *
screamed, Cassie cursed, and someone kicked Casanova in the head. That last was Rosier, who had leapt into the
hole after them, even as Casanova hauled the damned girl against his side,
preparing to jump back up. But they were
falling too fast, the rock rushing by in a blur, the square of slightly less
dark above their heads rapidly diminishing as his feet struggled for purchase
on nothing more than—
a solid piece of perforated metal.
stared at it for a split second, uncomprehending. It was dull gray, except for splotches of
rust and bits of red soil that were flying up to hit him in the face. It suddenly dawned on him that they were on
some type of platform—it was too kind to call it an elevator—that was plunging
with wild but possibly not life threatening speed into the heart of the
would have been quite a relief if their passenger wasn’t about to murder them
are you just standing there?” Cassie yelled, as Rosier got unsteadily back to
This is it, Casanova
thought blankly. He was going to
die. He was going to die hearing that
voice bellowing at him, and the knowledge that she would probably swiftly
follow him into the hereafter was exactly no consolation at all.
do you go if you die in Hell?” he wondered aloud, only to have her sink those
tacky pink nails into him.
would you suggest?” Casanova demanded.
lord,” he pointed out, and Rosier grinned.
now! He can’t use magic!”
hell he can’t!” Casanova had bruises that said otherwise.
in here!” she said furiously. “Rian said—”
didn’t get to hear what wisdom his demon might have imparted, because Rosier
took that moment to spring across the platform and take a swing at his head. Which,
for a being as powerful as he was supposed to be, seemed a little clumsy. Casanova ducked with vampire speed and
glanced at the girl.
use magic?” he asked. She shook her head
frantically, as the demon snarled and spun on a dime, coming back at
calmly punched a hole through his face.
at least, he would have, had the creature been human. The blow didn’t appear to have had the same
effect in this instance, although it did send him flying back against a rusted
support beam. Casanova couldn’t be sure,
because they were moving too swiftly, but he rather thought that particular
beam might have a Rosier-shaped dent from now on.
the demon shook it off and staggered back into the middle of the platform,
glaring and holding his jaw. “Bastard,”
Casanova smiled and spread his hands.
Rosier kicked him in the kidney.
gasped and thought about throwing up, while the girl grabbed a lever on the floor
of the contraption and gave it a jerk. The
platform shuddered, jolting them all and throwing the demon off his pale gray
thought, before picking him up by the lapels and shoving him into the side of
the now even more briskly streaming rock face.
And holding him there.
demon spat something Casanova decided to ignore because he was enjoying the
sound of jagged rock grating his victim’s backside. It made up for some of the pain in his
own. At least it did until the vile,
unprincipled son of a bitch kneed him in the nuts.
stared at him out of watering eyes. “Who
does that?” he screeched, in
Rosier said pleasantly. Then he did it
staggered back, trying to tell if he was still intact, only to have his arms
grabbed by the girl. “You can take him!”
she said, turning him back around.
take him!” he told her shrilly, as Rosier sprang off the wall.
landed on his feet, like the cat he had always vaguely resembled, and he was in
a cat-like crouch, too. Making it
impossible for Casanova to return the favor.
So he kicked him in the side of his perfectly coifed blond head instead,
sending him sprawling. And then the girl
surprised him by copying his action, only aiming for the villain’s side,
obviously trying to shove him through the narrow gap between the platform and
all right, occasionally she did have a good idea, Casanova thought, moving to
help. Only to have Rian grab him in a
metaphysical clinch, freezing his legs halfway through a step. We’re
going to have to talk, he thought grimly, as he toppled to the floor right
by her master.
promptly poked him in the eye.
demon cackled, Casanova cursed, and Cassie grabbed him by the arm, trying to
haul him back up. But only succeeded in
ripping the sleeve off a very expensive shirt.
“She’s the gift that keeps on giving, isn’t she?” Rosier asked, and
punched him in the throat.
is your problem?” Cassie demanded, glaring at him.
glared back out of his one good eye, tempted to tell her exactly what his
problem was, assuming he could still talk.
But then the infernal device they were on came to a very abrupt
halt. The three of them with bodies went
tumbling off the platform and into the middle of a rough stone floor.
was warm for some reason, and was giving off a strange sort of ghost light that
sent grotesque shadows jumping along the walls.
But Casanova barely noticed. He
also wasn’t paying any attention to the girl’s shrieks or the demon’s
curses. He was too busy staring at the
half-eaten face that was all of an inch from the end of his nose.
didn’t move, which was the only thing that kept him from gibbering. But he was close, thanks to the greenish
color of the rotting flesh. Not to
mention the missing eye, the caved in nose and the cracked skull that had oozed
something he deliberately didn’t look at all down the still mostly intact side
of the face…
is that smell?” Cassie asked, grabbing
him. She sounded a little freaked.
the club he thought, noting that the corpse hadn’t died alone. Half rotten bodies littered the floor of the
not-insubstantial-sized room. More lay
slumped against the walls or piled in heaps, like so many empty bottles, tossed
aside after the yummy contents were consumed...
“Casanova,” she said
urgently. She apparently couldn’t see
too well, even with the faint light. And
didn’t he just envy her that right now?
was especially true after he caught sight of a couple of bodies sitting against
the nearest wall. Some of the corpses
were old enough to be truly putrescent, but these were newly dead, their blank,
staring eyes shining in the dim light, the shadows painting little half smiles
on their faces. Like they were welcoming
him to the party--
you hear me?” Cassie demanded, shaking him.
And something in Casanova finally snapped.
up!” he screamed, rounding on her. “Shut
up, shut up, shut up! Or I swear I’ll save Rosier the trouble and
kill you my—”
silent!” someone hissed, and a hand clasped over his mouth, causing his eyes to
bulge in sheer unadulterated fury. Until
he realized that it was far too large to be Cassie’s. But before he could throw it, and the demon
it was attached to, against the nearest wall, he heard something that would
have stopped his heart in his chest had it been beating.
was that?” Rian whispered, sounding a lot more nervous than a demon had any
didn’t answer. His vocal chords didn’t seem to work all of a sudden, but it
didn’t matter. He doubted that she wanted
to know that the faint shushing sound was the drag of scales over an uneven
floor. A lot of scales.
Dinner is served, he thought
blankly, as something huge blocked out the faint light from the corridor.
fuck,” Rosier said.
John smacked the floor like a sack of sand. That went well, he thought, as a pair of dusty boots stopped by his
braver than your father,” Sid said, kicking him over. “I’ll give you that.”
How kind, John didn’t
say, not being quite up to sarcasm at the moment. He settled for palming his knife out of Sid’s
waistband when the demon bent over to pick him up.
not as bright.” Sid looked at him in
amazement as John went scuttling backwards, all feet and elbows, like a
particularly inept crab. “What do you
think you’re going to do with that little thing?” he demanded. “You can’t kill me with it, and even if you
manage to get your arms free, what then?
Do you really think that will improve your odds?”
Can’t hurt, John thought hysterically,
and rolled to his feet, which is harder than it sounds when you’re basically a
sausage with legs.
the plan, John?” Sid demanded. “You’re
underground, lost in a maze, which—believe me—you are not going to find your
way through. You can’t use magic, your
human weapons are gone, and in the last two minutes, I’ve had no fewer than
four opportunities to kill you.”
John thought irrelevantly, but he guessed Sid had missed one. It
was the only thing he’d missed. For someone who swore he wasn’t a
Sid was doing okay.
make this harder than it has to be?” Sid asked.
“I’ll knock you out; you won’t feel a thing—”
you will,” John snarled. “After I bring
this place down on your head!”
It was pretty much the only card
he had to play. Thanks to the no-magic clause, his options
had been narrowed to two: get out--which meant getting past the
brimstone so he
could transition back to earth—or make sure that neither of them
did. The former was looking less and less likely
all the time, and the latter…
lot of people believed that John had a death wish. Even some of
those closest to him acted like
they suspected it, despite denying it when anyone else brought it
up. But it had never been true. There had been times when
he could honestly
say he hadn’t cared much, either way, but he’d never been
suicidal. It wasn’t in him not to go down fighting, not
to struggle for every last breath, not to take as many of his enemies
could along for the ride.
But suicidal or not, his line of work insured
that he’d faced death any number of times.
And he thought he’d at least come to terms with it. Damn it, he had come to terms with it.
He knew the feeling like an old friend—the hard ache of despair, the iron
strength of resolution, the cold calm of acceptance.
he wasn’t feeling so much that way right now.
Which was a problem, since the acceptance of death was one of the few
things that had so far helped him to avoid it.
Get a grip, he told himself
savagely, as Sid slowed to a halt.
But despite his lack of
forward momentum, the little demon didn’t look impressed. “And
then what?” he asked. “If you collapse the corridor with some
spell, what happens?”
die!” John spat, sawing frantically at the acre of rope the bastard had
cocooned him in.
you die,” Sid said blandly. “I
am…inconvenienced…for a time, while forming another body. Which I have more than enough power to
do. You’ll delay this, nothing more.”
“But I don’t get another
body,” John reminded him sweetly. “This
is it. And without me—”
Sid looked at him impatiently. “John, I
didn’t even know you were coming until you walked into my shop!
We were planning this for Rosier, all along. You were a happy
coincidence, yes, but if you
die, we’ll merely go back to the original plan.”
the council doesn’t find out about it in the meantime--”
“They haven’t so far, and
we’ve been planning this for months.”
assuming your partner survives the explosion.
If brimstone really is laced throughout these rocks, setting it off here
might bring down the whole mountain!”
expected that to hit home, since Sid’s plan pretty much required keeping his
battle queen alive until she returned to her former strength. But either the little demon had a damn good
poker face, or John had missed something.
Because there was no flutter of those short eyelashes, no slight flush
to those plump cheeks. Just a slight
moue of irritation.
two-natured,” Sid reminded him, “or have you forgotten?”
“No. I also haven’t forgotten that she’s
weak. She was almost starved, you said
so yourself. And I doubt the council was
kind enough to feed her before they threw her back in jail!”
doesn’t need her full strength to best you,” Sid said dryly.
I’m not the scariest thing out there, am I?”
was what John had been betting on when he’d formulated his plan, in case she
got past him. Of course, in that happy
scenario, he’d also had a cadre of the council’s elite guards to back him up. But even without them, the Shadowland wasn’t
the place to be an unhoused spirit--not unless you were a great deal more
formidable than Ealdris was at present.
Sid brushed that argument away like the others.
“You aren’t scary at all,” he said frankly. “And this has gone on long enough.”
backed up again as the demon resumed advancing, wondering if he could risk a
glance behind him. All he needed was a
distraction and an open corridor. He
might not be able to outfight Sid under the circumstances, but bare feet or no,
he was willing to bet that he could still outrun him. And he didn’t need to make it all the way
back to the surface; he just needed—
not fall on his ass. A piece of the damn
uneven floor tripped him up, sending him staggering backwards—into a solid wall
of rock. He felt around frantically with
his foot, but there was no opening.
Dead end, his
oh-so-helpful brain quipped.
was going to have the damn thing examined if he ever got out of this.
nowhere to go, John,” Sid said, echoing his thoughts. “Now, why don’t you give me the knife—”
pleasure,” he hissed, and threw it with the arm he’d finally worked free of the
saw it connect with the flabby fold of Sid’s neck, saw blood spew in a pinkish
mist--and then nothing. The knife had
barely left his hand when something that looked like black smoke boiled out of
Sid’s pores, his eyes, even his mouth, as if he’d caught fire on the
inside. In an eye blink, it had
enveloped the two of them in a color so thick, so dense, it almost had
Almost nothing, John thought,
as something latched onto him, like a thousand tiny barbs sinking into his
skin. His shields should have stopped
it, but he hadn’t been able to use them here.
And without them, there was nothing to prevent the horrible sensation of
something other slithering in through
his skin, sinking inside him through a million tiny invasions, draining him
dry. He sank to his knees, a scream
unable to get out past the suffocating mist pouring down his throat.
he finally realized why Sid hadn’t seemed too concerned about his partner.
* * *
had never been much for sports. It had
mostly been viewed as training for war when he was young, and even before he
met up with the incubus who had once possessed his namesake, he’d always
thought of himself as more of a lover than a fighter. But he would have been willing to bet that he
broke Olympic speed records getting back to the elevator.
meant he hit it about the same time as the cowardly bastard of a demon
slammed the heel of his shoe back into Casanova’s face while simultaneously leaning
on the lever to raise the elevator.
Which went up all of two inches, because Casanova was holding it down
with the hand that wasn’t cradling his broken nose. “Going thomewhere?” he asked viciously.
pleathure!” Casanova snarled, and jerked him off the platform.
he didn’t also remember to hold down the elevator, which shot up like a rocket,
leaving the two of them looking at it in horror. And then at the wall, for a recall lever that
wasn’t there. And then simultaneously
diving for the only exit that wasn’t currently being blocked by a monster.
reached it first, only to slam into the floor when Casanova tackled
him. “Let me go, you fool!” he grunted. “You can’t outrun
don’t have to outrun her,” Rosier hissed.
“I only have to outrun you!” Which was when he flipped over, got a foot
in Casanova’s stomach and used it as a lever to throw him over his head.
at the monster.
“Bastardo!” Casanova breathed, even as he
grabbed onto Rosier’s leg halfway through the arc, skewing it and sending them
rolling and sliding and kicking and biting almost back where they’d
where the blond whose existence he’d briefly forgotten was still standing,
staring death in the face.
Shit. She couldn’t see worth a damn down here, Casanova
reminded himself. He was trying to work
out how to grab her, lose the villain currently trying to eviscerate him and
make it back to the damn door, all in the second or so he probably had left,
when the daft girl suddenly reached out a hand.
gave death a little push.
surprised Casanova almost as much as when death quivered and wobbled and
toppled over onto its side.
froze in shock, allowing Rosier the chance to take a vicious shot to his
ribs. Casanova didn’t retaliate, being
too busy watching Cassie squat beside an acre or so of gleaming lavender
scales. And do it again.
poking that thing!” he told her wildly.
looked up, and apparently her eyes had adjusted somewhat, after all, because
she found his easily. “Why?”
think it’s dead.” She stood up and nudged the horror on the floor with one
are you—oh,” Rosier said, his head poking out from underneath Casanova’s
arm. “Well, look at that.”
slammed his face into the ground, just because.
looked up, nose bloodied and teeth bared in a rictus, but his eyes were fixed
on the thing on the floor. And Casanova
had to admit, it was rather hard to look anywhere else. It had a Medusa-like head, human and
reptilian all mixed up in an extremely unfortunate way, only the things poking
out of it weren’t snakes. Not that
tentacles were a great improvement, particularly not when the body ended not in
legs, but in a long spiny tail.
another fetish ruined,
he thought wildly. He’d always found
mermaids faintly erotic, or at least the idea of them, since they didn’t
actually exist. At least not as far as
he knew, and if they did, he wasn’t keen to meet any after today. Because it turned out that a scale-covered
tail actually looked pretty damn obscene sprouting out of a naked human torso.
did it die of?” he asked hoarsely, before he managed to finish horrifying
Rosier, said. “And get off me. Unless you’re planning to make me an offer.”
practically wrenched something getting back to his feet.
do you mean, nothing?” Cassie asked, before he could find something vile enough
to say to the creature. “She isn’t
to Casanova’s utter disbelief, she did, squatting beside the body to feel for a
pulse at the pale gray skin of the neck.
The scaly, scaly neck, right next to where some of those tentacles were
slightly moving, like seaweed in a current.
Or unnaturally long fingers reaching out to—
a pulse,” Cassie said, frowning. “But
it’s faint. And she’s cold. And barely breathing. Of course, I don’t know if that’s normal or—”
is,” Rosier had gotten to his feet and moved over to the thing’s other side,
where he crouched opposite the girl.
looked heavenward, why Casanova didn’t know.
It wasn’t like he was on speaking terms with anyone up there. “Demon bodies aren’t like human ones,” he
told her. “Ours don’t require a soul in situ to continue functioning, albeit
on a low level. Some of us can take them
off like a set of clothes, if it is more convenient, and return to pure spirit
form for a time.”
blinked. “That’s…really weird.”
being trapped in one body, one world, one plane of existence, unable to see or
experience anything except the trickle of information supplied to you by your
so-called senses?” He barked out a laugh.
“‘Weird.’ As with most words you
humans use, you don’t know the meaning of the term.”
didn’t comment, but he swallowed thickly.
He had absolutely no problem believing that, after today.
glanced at him, amused, and then back at Cassie. “You know, if you’re going to hunt demons,
girl, you should perhaps take a moment to find out something about us.”
wasn’t hunting her!” Cassie said, scowling.
“I wasn’t even hunting you. I wasn’t doing anything—”
risking my son’s life--again. I don’t know why you don’t simply put a knife in
his ribs and be done with it.” The last was said with a tone that had the girl
you care! Like you’ve ever cared! You sent him here to die!”
sent him here to get him out of the way.
He wasn’t supposed to find anything this quickly—”
he has! And if her body’s here, her
spirit probably is, too. And if she’s
like most demons, that’s just as—”
isn’t,” he said grimly. “She’s worse.”
sneered at him, and it was a pretty good effort, Casanova
thought. She clearly didn’t lack courage. Intelligence,
prudence and a healthy sense of
self-preservation, yes; courage no.
the matter?” she demanded. “Afraid
somebody else will kill him before you get the chance?”
eyes narrowed. “Coming from the person
who has done more to put him in an early grave than anyone in centuries—”
been trying to save him!”
glanced around, his expression eloquent.
“And this is what you call a rescue, is it?”
didn’t get a chance to hear what from Cassie’s expression would have been an
interesting comment, because the next moment Rian was back. Which was a bit of a shock since he hadn’t
noticed her leaving. “There’s no way
through,” she said, and for some reason, she was looking at Cassie.
transferred her scowl from one incubus to the other. “There has to be!”
shook her head agitatedly. “I checked in
every direction. The demons she didn’t
consume she put to work. There has to be
two, perhaps three dozen, just in the corridors near here, and who knows how
many between us and--”
to work on what?”
“Brimstone. They’re mining it. I don’t know why but—”
Casanova asked, confused, only to have everyone turn to look at him with varying
expressions of incredulity. “What?”
try to keep up, old boy,” Rosier said, with a sigh.
an explosive,” Rian said, getting between Casanova, who had about had enough,
boss. “Like TNT--”
know what it is!” Casanova snapped, glancing
around. The glowing striations in the
stone suddenly made a horrible kind of sense.
“That’s why we can’t use magic?”
Cassie hissed. “And without it we have
no way to get through the tunnels and find—” she stopped abruptly. And looked at the crumpled body on the
floor. And then she slowly raised her
head and looked at Rosier, her eyes narrowing.
for some reason, his widened. “No.”
said it was like a suit of clothes.”
isn’t my suit!”
smiled, and it was vicious. “It is now.”
no, no!” Sid yelled. “The charges aren’t
set yet! Consume him now and we’ll have
to start all over!”
pressure abruptly released and John hit the ground, hard enough to rip the air
from his lungs and to stab him in the side with his own broken rib. But the outward pain was nothing next to the emptiness
inside. Dark and cold and echoing, it
made him want to curl into a protective ball around his terrified, savaged
he couldn’t. He couldn’t even manage to lift
his head when someone grabbed him, jerking him off the floor. “I wanted you fresh,” Sid hissed. “You’re
more powerful that way. But I’m not
going to lose you after this much trouble!”
found himself slung over a shoulder and carted back down the hall, then dropped
in a heap on the floor. It hurt, but not
nearly as much as it should have. Which
was a bad sign for some reason he couldn’t seem to concentrate on at the
head lolled to one side, seemingly of its own accord, but he couldn’t see
anything. Until he switched to demon
sight, but that was little better because the glare of Sid’s power practically
blinded him to everything else. It
glowed through the demon’s skin like a searchlight through cheesecloth, turning
the veins of ore in the walls into a web of silver fire, revealing their true
color instead of the tint they borrowed from the stone.
yet, there was a gleam of red, a faint flicker against all that light.
transitioned back to human sight to find that the darkness had retreated into
its host, leaving the corridor dim and prosaic-looking except for that coil of
angry red. It was coming from the small
jar Sid had just pulled out of a backpack.
John watched, mesmerized, as the contents gleamed and twisted, sending
hellish flames dancing across the stones.
sat it down on a flat piece of floor and pulled out another one, this
one empty. John didn’t ask what it was for. He didn’t have
the strength, and in any case,
he had a pretty good idea.
forced himself to look away, to search for some avenue of escape. But and all his peripheral vision showed him
was more of the same: a small, rock-cut tunnel, a few distant shadows that
might have been exits he couldn’t possibly reach, and Sid, muttering to
himself. If there was anything helpful
in that, John didn’t see it.
of course, for the obvious.
the best teacher,” Rosier had said, leaning back in his chair. “Why read about something when you can live
kills them!” John held out the jar that had contained his latest acquisition.
It had been a
special order, one he’d been so eager to get his hands on that he’d paid a
premium for a rush job. Perhaps that was
why the hunters had been a little careless, why they’d left some of the final
memories intact. Or perhaps their usual
clients wouldn’t have cared.
But whatever the
cause, John had experienced everything, just as if it had been happening to
him: the desperate flight, the heart pounding terror, the cold wash of disbelief
when they cornered him. The hopeless
cry—what had he done? And finally, the veil of pain that fogged
his senses, as he clung to consciousness, to life, with a frightening effort of
will, even as his soul was ripped from his body--
John had come
out of it in a cold sweat, hands shaking, stomach churning, unsure for
who he was, where he was. He’d run into
the next room in a blind panic, trying to hide from soul hunters who
there, before reality finally caught up with him. He hadn’t found
it a great improvement. In the end, he’d lain on the floor in his
bedroom, soul-sick and shaken, and stared at the ceiling for a long
Then he’d gone
to see his father.
butchering a cow,” Rosier had said, impatiently. “And I haven’t noticed you becoming
“A cow is an animal—”
“As are some of
all! Not most! Many of them are sentient beings--”
“Who have the
most to teach us.”
John had looked
at the creature he’d once so admired, and for the first time, seen him for what
he was. “Even if doing so destroys them?”
Rosier saw his
expression, and his face closed down. “What did you expect?” he demanded. “A library full of books? We’re demons.”
“You are,” John
had breathed. And walked out.
had taken him years, and a wealth of pain, to understand that he’d been right
that day, in what he’d told his father.
But he’d been wrong, too. Because
part of him was demon, with the same
unending hunger as all the rest.
could feel it now, not taste or scent or any other sense a human would
have understood. Just desperate, all-consuming need. It was
mewling in his gut right now, begging
piteously for just.one.taste. of all that exotic power, that deadly
didn’t know how he knew. But the part of
him that was incubus identified it unerringly.
He even knew which one, the memory of its power still fresh from their
brief meeting in the shop.
supposed he knew what Sid had done with those thirty minutes.
didn’t know why, because Irin were not easy prey. They had abilities that might have turned the
tables on Sid very handily. But then,
that was true of John, too, before he lost his magic, and it hadn’t helped
him. He could see Sid, the trusted
shopkeeper, running after one of his best customers, having forgotten to tell
him…something. It didn’t matter; it had
obviously worked. And now they had the
perfect test subject.
that’s what he was, John realized, watching the color thrash uselessly against
the glass. They couldn’t risk implementing
their plan without being sure that his watered down blood would do the trick,
so they needed a test. He assumed that,
after Ealdris got done with him, she would try to absorb the contents of the
jar. Which had to be something
unusual. Something exotic. Something most demons couldn’t possibly ingest.
John wouldn’t have that problem.
never had that problem.
stared at the jar.
didn’t often get this close to temptation anymore. Incubi needed their victim’s lust, like vampires
needed blood; without it, they had no conduit to a person’s power, no way to
feed. But there was no body here anymore,
no barrier, and thus no need for a conduit.
All he had to do was reach out.
All he had to do...
closed his eyes, but the color swirled in through his lids nonetheless, sharper,
richer, clearer in his demon senses than it ever could be in human sight. It was breathtakingly beautiful, as they all
were. And sweet, so sweet, every single
You are what you
are. Someday, you’re going to have to
come to terms with that.
father’s voice echoed in his head, but it lacked any weight.
Because Rosier had never understood: John had come to terms with
it. He knew what he was, what he would always be,
no matter how far he managed to run. He’d
had that demonstrated one horrible night in the most vivid way
possible. And for years, he’d believed that it was all
he ever could be.
he met someone who refused to see him that way. Who argued and fussed and tried
her best to boss him around, but who never shrank away. Who relied on him and needed him and called
him friend. Who touched the scars on his
body, and other places, as if they were just another part of him, not evidence
of where he’d been, what he was.
lately he’d begun to hope that perhaps, just perhaps, there was something even
a monster could contribute.
stared at the jar.
then slowly, shakily, he held out his hand.
This is never going to work, Casanova
thought, panicking, as several nearby demons turned their way. They were short and squat and had too many
limbs, and he had no idea what either of them were. But they looked suspicious.
maybe that was him. He couldn’t tell
anymore. He was pretty sure he was having
a nervous breakdown, but since that wouldn’t help he concentrated on ignoring
them. And on personifying his role as a
recruit being escorted to the job by the big boss herself.
would have been vastly easier had said boss not hit the damn wall every five
it!” Casanova hissed.
don’t know how to drive this thing,” Rosier complained, his tail making little
furrows in the dust as it swished back and forth, propelling him into a corner.
figure it out!”
a bit of a learning curve,” he muttered, slithering back a few steps. And then smacking straight into the wall
leaned over and grabbed a scaly arm, jerking him back into the
corridor. It was a broad one, which would have done
positive things for his claustrophobia if it hadn’t been full of
demons. And the hellish equivalent of TNT. And a ten foot
tall half-snake that was
weaving drunkenly along, as if coming back from a night on the town.
That’s where he should be, right now, on the town. Any town. Or better yet, enjoying the nightlife in his
beautiful casino. Pressing the flesh
with high rollers, schmoozing with starlets, making sure it all ran smoothly,
effortlessly. He was good at that—no, he
was great at it, maybe better than
anything he’d ever done in his life. He
wasn’t so good at this, particularly not when it involved touching that hideous
thing in order to keep up some semblance of—
are you doing?” he demanded shrilly, catching sight of Rosier’s current
was momentarily speechless, disbelief and revulsion warring for dominance on
his tongue. Revulsion won. “You were feeling
she’s obviously female,” one hand glided over evidence of that fact with every
appearance of appreciation. “And I was
a snake,” Casanova said, horror
making his voice quake.
a lamia, which makes it—her—a sentient being.”
disgusting creature licked his lips.
“And it’s dead!” Dios, how many perversions was that in a single—
in stasis,” Rosier said calmly, “it isn’t dead.
Although we’re likely to be if I don’t figure out how this body works.”
was beginning to think that was inevitable anyway. He’d been envisioning a quick trip through a
few short tunnels, grabbing the damn mage and heading straight out the nearest
exit. That rosy little vision had lasted
all of five minutes, until the small side tunnels let out into increasingly
larger ones, populated by pick-wielding demons who couldn’t all be
mind-controlled. There was just too many
of them; at least some had to be in on this, whatever this was.
still hadn’t figured it out and he really didn’t care. Right now,
he cared about exactly one thing. “Where is that blasted mage?”
savagely, as he turned a corner.
had the damn man slam into him, hard enough to knock him off his feet.
hit the ground, Cassie yelled “Pritkin!” and Rosier cursed. And then the crazy bastard was gone again, as
if jerked back by some unseen wire. Leaving
Casanova sprawled in the dirt with his ass in the air.
was not such a bad thing considering what was spread out all of a foot in front
of his nose.
“Dios,” he breathed, his
fingers digging into rock as he stared at the lip of a very narrow ledge. Over what appeared to be nothing at all.
peered cautiously over the rim to see a cavern the size of an airline hangar,
if they were also a mile deep and carved out of glittering rock. Demons lined the deeply grooved sides, where jagged
streaks of pure ore glistened silver-bright against the stone, like captured
lightning. It looked like half the damn
mountain was hollow, he thought, awed.
before he was hit by the rest of it.
heard Cassie scream as their ledge was engulfed by an avalanche of debris,
including dirt, rock and several sharp little pick axes, one of which bounced
off his already abused ass. It took him
a moment to dig himself out, only to find that everyone else had been smart
enough to hug the wall. And were now
staring with varying expressions of horror at something behind him.
whipped his neck around in time to see that, for once, the danger wasn’t to
him. The mage had just hit the wall in a
billowing explosion of dust--on the other
side of the cavern. How he’d gotten all
the way over there, Casanova didn’t know, since he didn’t see a bridge. But that was less of a concern than the fact
that they’d come all this way to rescue someone who had just gotten himself
should have been dead; hell,
should have been a greasy streak on the rock face. But instead,
Casanova watched him spin,
snarling, and launch himself off the side of the cave--straight into
thin air. But instead of instead of plummeting who knew
how far to his death, he soared up,
which was clearly impossible unless the Shadowland had some crazy rule on
gravity he’d yet to—
“Wait. Are those…wings?”
Casanova asked stupidly, as Pritkin hit a fat little demon who had also been hovering
with gravity-defying ease in the middle of a lot of nothing. And sent him smashing into the wall above
of which came down on Casanova’s head.
“Carlos! Get out of the floor!” Rian told him, as he
struggled to fight himself free a second time.
pulled his face out of the dust to glare up at her, grateful he didn’t actually
need to breathe. “You know,” he said
sarcastically. “That never would have—” he
cut off as Cassie stepped on his head, scrambling over the mountain of debris
survived the double avalanche, but she looked a little worse for the wear, with
a bloody streak glistening on one cheek and red dust coating her like a
film. But that was nothing compared to
her just-shy-of-crazed expression. Which
might explain why she grabbed a fistful of those horrible tentacles, jerked Rosier
down to her and screamed in his face.
would you suggest?”
Everything! He’s going to get himself killed!”
looks like he’s doing all right to me,” Casanova said sourly, dragging his filthy,
torn and bloody ass over to the minutely safer area by the wall.
isn’t,” Rosier said shortly.
can you tell?”
was, but it looked to him like the mage was winning. The fat demon dove for Pritkin, the air
boiling around him like an angry black cloud, only to be sent flying into the
midst of a half dozen miners. They’d
been hugging a ledge, watching the show, but should have picked a better
vantage point. Because they toppled like
bowling pins, the pudgy demon sprawled in the middle of them, bloody and obviously
Pritkin was, too, either that or he needed a breather. At least Casanova assumed that was why he
didn’t immediately follow up his advantage.
He hovered in the middle of the cave, the great white wings he’d somehow
acquired beating the air, while his opponent writhed in pain and black smoke
boiled around him.
it didn’t look so much like smoke anymore.
More like a swarm of angry insects, which were pursuing the miners the demon
had toppled. And while Casanova couldn’t
tell what it was doing, every time it caught one, the miner screamed and
dropped—and didn’t get back up.
happening?” Cassie demanded.
Rosier said grimly. “She’s feeding.”
“Now? But why--”
glanced at her impatiently. “Every time
her associate is injured, she pulls energy from the surrounding life forms and
feeds it to him. He can keep going
indefinitely—or as long as the food holds out, at least. Emrys can’t.”
“John then,” Rosier said, gesturing violently.
“Call him what you will, he is going to die if
we don’t find a way to separate those two.
how do we do that?”
thinking,” Rosier snapped.
can try,” Rian volunteered. “If I could
not powerful enough,” Rosier said curtly.
“I might be, but not through a body.
That’s Ealdris’s talent, not mine.”
she doesn’t have a body right—”
soon as either of us attacks, she’ll simply draw back into Sid.”
He made a disgusted noise. “Sid. You can’t trust anybody
stared at him, a little awed at the arrogant irony in that statement. But he didn’t think this was the moment to
point it out. Not when the fat
demon—Sid, he assumed—suddenly jumped up and threw himself back into the fight,
slamming into Pritkin and sending the two of them swerving and looping and diving
around the space. And everywhere they
went, the black cloud followed, buzzing around the war mage just as it had the
demons who were now bleeding out on the ledge.
doesn’t have much time,” Rosier said harshly.
“If we don’t do something soon, he won’t—”
stopped on a gasp, a look of surprise coming over his features. Casanova didn’t know why until he looked down.
And saw the gore-coated end of one of the picks sticking a good two inches out
of Rosier’s middle.
was a shock, but not as much as who was holding it. “What are you doing?” he asked Cassie
its attention,” she said savagely, and ripped the pick back out.
made a choked sound, everyone in the vicinity got sprayed with hot green blood,
and an ear-splitting shriek echoed around the cavern. Right before the cloud whipped about in a
swirling mass of vengeful fury. And dove
straight for them.
Rosier told Cassie, staring at it.
turned around and fled, and he must have figured out something about how his
new body worked, because he wasn’t hitting any walls this time. Casanova felt a chill, deathly wind ruffle
his hair as the cloud streamed past, ignoring the girl holding the gory pick in
favor of the demon making off with its body.
then, for a split second, there was nothing.
At least, not in the threat category.
Casanova stared around, first at Pritkin, who was currently making
mincemeat of the small demon, then at the three of them, all of whom were still
more or less intact, and finally at the distinct lack of any enemies that
weren’t running for their lives.
all right, he thought, straightening his tattered jacket. This was more like it.
then the cave blew up.
happened between one heartbeat and another.
Sid’s body falling, broken and bloody and beaten, to spin away into darkness. His spirit rising out of it and moving, but
not up, as Pritkin had half expected, in order to attack him. Not even out, toward one of the tunnels and
freedom. But down.
where the biggest vein of brimstone ran in a glittering ring around the cave.
had no time to stop him, no time even to brace himself, before he was hit by a vast
wash of air from the explosion. It sent
him tumbling helplessly backwards, head over heels, with no way to right
himself or even tell where he was going.
Until he crashed into a wall like a bird hitting a window.
slid down to a ledge, body bruised and wings askew, in time to glimpse
streaming past, a faint outline against a curtain of silver fire.
But he didn’t pursue. Not because he couldn’t have caught him,
whatever spell Sid had used to ignite the brimstone had caused a chain
reaction, exploding vein after vein, one right after the other like a
pinwheel, all the way back to—
He hadn’t seen her before, hadn’t had time to see anything in the life or death
struggle with not one but two ancient horrors.
He would have thought he was hallucinating, but Casanova was there, too,
screaming his fool head off as the ledge they were on cracked and splintered
saw them fall, saw Rian grab Casanova, saw her reach for Cassie—who was too far
away. Rian stared up at him for s split
second, horrified and apologetic, and then she and Casanova winked out. While Cassie fell into a pit straight out of
a medieval vision.
dove, not knowing if she had enough strength left to shift, not betting on it
because the damnable, damnable woman never held anything back, never once put
her own safety ahead of anyone else’s, a fact that was going to get her killed
one day, but please God, not this day.
But he couldn’t see anything through billowing clouds of red dust, could
barely breathe through the waves of fiery heat, and there was no hope of
hearing her cry out, not with the roar of all that raw power being released, the
crack of huge swaths of stone as they calved off the sides of the cave and
fell, many exploding from the inside as they did so…
“Cassie!” It was a desperate, stupid,
useless. Because he hadn’t caught her,
and if she hadn’t shifted, somehow holding concentration in the midst of an
inferno, there was no chance left—
“Over here!” He heard it, faint, so faint, that it might have been a figment of his imagination. But he turned anyway, banking left, barely missing a mass of burning stone with a few screaming miners still clinging to it as it fell, and then he saw her.
She was half on, half off a ledge, one leg dangling over nothing, rivers of molten brimstone cascading on either side, the whole shelf ready to blow at any moment. But she was alive. Somehow, despite all possible odds—and then he had her.
“I…tried to shift to you, but I landed…here—” she broke off, choking, as a stinging cloud of gas and debris showered them, seemingly from all directions.
The whole place was imploding, with huge gouts of fire belching out of tunnels, molten brimstone dropping like silver rain, and falling boulders shattering off pieces of the overhang above them. Shifting back to Dante’s while surrounded by this much explosive was impossible; they’d be dead before he could finish the spell. But staying put was equally out of the question.
A great wash of air boiling up from the inferno below buffeted them as he took off once more, launching them toward the only halfway clear air he could see. And then there it was: a piece of sky, blessedly dark against the searing light, just a crack far, far above his head. But a second later there were two, and then a dozen, and then the whole top of the mountain was cracking and fissuring and falling in.
He pulled Cassie’s T-shirt over her nose and mouth, raised one forearm over his eyes to shield them, and strained upward. Sparks showered down everywhere; smoke masked the only way out after barely an instant; and the heat was unbelievable. He couldn’t reassure Cassie, even if he’d had the breath, because close as she was, she wouldn’t have heard him. He had never before been inside and explosion as it was happening, but it was deafening. It cracked and rumbled, whistled and roared, thundered and boomed, on all sides, as it consumed the mountain from the inside out.
the knowledge he’d gained from the Irin was insufficient to chart a course through
something like this. The demon had never
done it, so there were no memories to plunder, no visuals to guide him, no
anything but desperate clawing against air so dry, it had hardly any lift. John had the impression that the only thing
he was doing was managing not to fall, while the headway they gained was mostly
from the huge surges of air rushing up from below.
had been riding the edges of most of them, but one finally caught him full on,
picking him up as if he was no heavier than the burning bits of ash glittering
through the air, and then throwing him up, up, up—and out.
burst out through the remains of the mountaintop, just as what looked like a volcano
erupted below them. The whole mountain breathed
in for one last great gasp before bursting outward, the colossal explosion throwing
huge burning pieces of rock high into the sky.
But not as high as John flew, his borrowed wings beating the air in time
to the rapid pace of his heart.
didn’t stop, didn’t even slow down, until they had put whole mountains between
them and the smoking hulk behind. He
finally set them down on a blessedly cold, dark hillside, far enough away that he
couldn’t even feel the heat anymore. Only
then did he sink to his knees, gasping for breath, the great singed wings falling
around him and still smoking slightly.
he didn’t let his passenger go.
For a long time, they just stayed like that, John eventually moving into a sitting position, pulling Cassie’s body back against him as they watched the awesome power erupting on the horizon. She kept swallowing, tiny little gulps that John could barely hear, which could have been from a parched throat or too much smoke or a thousand other things. But he didn’t think so. Because she was also trembling.
eyes,” he told her softly, and she did, tilting her head back against his
chest, her breath hitching again. But
she didn’t cry, didn’t go into hysterics, didn’t do anything. Except stay there, her hand tight on his
thigh, her breath hot against his chest, until her own slowly evened out again.
After a long time,
one small hand moved, slowly, tentatively, tracing the feathers falling around her,
stroking the black slashes along one huge wing.
She didn’t ask where he’d gotten them, didn’t ask why they mimicked the
marks on his shoulder. She didn’t ask
anything, just kept running those soft fingers through the down, along the
long will they last?”
“A few hours,” he said
hoarsely. He should tell her, he
thought, that the feathers weren’t just a projection. That for the moment, for however long the
Irin’s essence held out, they were an innate, physical part of him. And that her fingers stroking along the marks
felt just like they once had, moving over his scars.
ought to tell her, ought to ask her to stop.
It’s what a gentleman would do, he knew that. But then, he was half demon.
tonight, he thought maybe he’d just go with that.
“They’re nice,” she murmured,
pulling one around her.
One hand tightened
in her thick soft hair. “Yes.”
* * *
was epic,” Rosier said, as they watched Cassie sitting in her living room,
opening more gifts. John scowled. His father was incorporeal today, not having
had time to replace the body he lost in the explosion. So John could barely see him, just a smudged
outline against the gaudy wallpaper the casino deemed elegant. But he was looking smug.
mean you got lucky.”
looked offended. “Luck had nothing to do
with it. I drained her during the whole
chase back to the elevator, until her body bled out, and by then I was close
enough to pop back into mine. And even
Ealdris has some trouble leeching a
soul through the protection of a body. It
gave me the few seconds I needed to finish the job.” The smug look spread. “I was awesome.”
were lucky,” Pritkin repeated, not that it was likely to do any good. Nothing, to his knowledge, had ever dented
his father’s overweening arrogance, and he doubted anything he could say was
likely to do so now. And in any case,
that wasn’t why he had asked to see him. “Are
you going to tell me why you came after Cassie?”
“Oh, yes, that.” Rosier shrugged, as if it was a minor
detail. “The high council had a meeting
a few days ago. After some deliberations
to which they did not bother to invite me, I was summoned. They informed me that we were in mortal
peril, and that your precious pythia was the cause.”
have been pythias for thousands of years,” John said, his eyes narrowing.
one allied with a homicidal half-demon best known for killing one of the high
council,” Rosier said dryly. “They were
convinced that you had seduced her with the intent to use her power against
at all. Your well-known hatred for our
kind coupled with her ability to time shift—the one power we do not
possess—makes the two of you a formidable threat. You possess enough information about us and
our history to know exactly where and when to strike. With her power at your disposal—”
isn’t at my disposal, and it wouldn’t work in the demon realms if it were!”
shrugged. “Perhaps, perhaps not, but it is immaterial. It works
perfectly well here on earth. If she wanted to attack us at a
point in our history, all she would have to do is to shift backwards in
time stream, and then enter our realms from there. That would
effectively put her back in our
time, too, would it not?”
answer. His mind felt strangely
numb. Like he’d been hit by a blow so
hard, he had yet to feel it.
can’t say I was surprised,” Rosier continued, sounding aggrieved.
“I saw this coming some time ago. If you’d stayed out of the way
I could have
dealt with it before it became an issue--”
killing her, you mean,” John grated.
will never understand the attraction you have for those things,” Rosier hissed,
leaning forward. “Time after time, you
choose their side over ours, when you know perfectly well they. Die.
Anyway. A year from now, a
hundred--what difference does it make?”
great deal to them, I should imagine.”
none at all to us! We will be here when
they are dust, when their civilization—or what passes for it—is dust. Do you have any idea how many of their petty
little kingdoms I’ve seen rise and fall?”
couldn’t have cared less. “And how does
the council feel now that this great threat saved their asses?”
scowled. “You mean, after I saved—”
wouldn’t have been on hand to do anything if Cassie hadn’t led you there!”
“She’s human. We do not consider their actions worth—”
I am not, as you so frequently point out.
And she wouldn’t have led you there if she hadn’t been looking for
me. So in a way, you could say that I saved their asses.”
Rosier’s eyes narrowed. “Do I
need to ask what your price is?”
think you know.”
appears you did get something from me, after all,” he said bitingly. “Fine time to recall it.”
smiled as his father abruptly winked out, and dropped the silence shield he’d
had up. For the first time since this
whole mess started, he allowed himself to unwind, relaxing back in his chair as
Cassie finished opening her latest gift.
And then sitting up abruptly again when he saw what it was.
is this?” she asked, pulling out a length of gleaming lavender scales, fine as
silk and far more precious.
who had shown up a few minutes ago searching for answers he wasn’t going to
get, raised an eyebrow. “Lamia scales,”
he breathed. “Now that’s a bribe worth
Cassie said blankly, and then flinched back when it hit her, dropping the
shimmering length in a puddle on the floor.
no card,” Marlowe said, frowning, as he searched through the box.
His dark eyes met hers. “Who would send you a priceless gift and
isn’t priceless,” Cassie said, in disgust.
chief spy’s eyebrow climbed a bit higher.
“Most people wouldn’t think so.
You might not either, one of these days.”
doubt that,” Cassie said, staring at it in revulsion. John was having much the same reaction,
unsure whether this was his father’s idea of a gruesome joke or a peace
offering. Knowing him, it was probably a
bit of both.
scales are supposed to be good for—how should I put it? Aging skin,” Marlowe told her.
that you have anything to worry about for many years to come,” he added reassuringly,
because her eyes had narrowed.
not at him. Pritkin didn’t understand
the odd look she was suddenly giving the softly gleaming pile. Until a few days later, when he happened to be
in the suite when Mircea burst in the front door.
vampire was looking less than pleased, and he had the glimmering lavender
length with him. He held it out, his
hand shaking slightly. “Cassandra! What on earth did you send Ming-de?”
blue eyes met his, guileless and sweet. “Why,
just a thank you gift, Mircea.”
turned away, hiding a smile. She was