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Chapter One

A weeping angel shattered in a crack of gray dust, sending its wings flying off in two directions. It took a second for the lack of death to register, then I dove for the side of a nearby obelisk. I pressed flat against the ground, feeling the mud seeping into my already drenched clothes, while a barrage of shots struck sparks off the granite overhead.  I was starting to suspect that this tomb raider thing might not be as much fun as I’d hoped. 
            Of course, that was pretty much the story of my life lately.  A chain of events that might very charitably be classified as disasters, had left me with the position of Pythia, the supernatural community’s chief seer.  The Silver Circle, a group of light magic users, had expected one of their tame acolytes to inherit the office since it had happened that way for a few thousand years now.  They’d been less than thrilled when the power went to me instead: Cassie Palmer, untrained clairvoyant, protégée of a vampire crime boss and known cohort of a renegade war mage.
            Some people have no sense of irony. 
            The mages had expressed their displeasure by trying to send me off to explore the great mystery of what lies in store for us after death.  Since I wasn’t that curious, I’d been attempting to stay under their radar.  It didn’t look like I was doing so hot.
            I decided to try for better cover beside a crypt, and was halfway there when something that felt like a sledgehammer knocked me to the ground.  A bolt of lightning exploded against a nearby tree, causing the air to tingle and writhe with electricity and sending blue-white, hissing snakes scurrying over a tangle of exposed roots.  It left the tree split in half, blackened along the center like old firewood, the air flooded with ozone and my skull hammering from the near miss.  Above me, thunder rolled ominously across the sky, an appropriate bit of sound effects that I would have appreciated a lot more during a movie. 
            Speaking of irony, it would be really amusing if Mother Nature managed to kill me before the Circle got the chance.  I crawled in the general direction of the crypt, temporarily night-blind and helpless, blinking away afterimages.  At least I discovered why gun grips are ribbed: so when your palm is sweating with abject terror, you can still manage to clutch the thing. 
            My new 9 mm didn’t fit my hand as well as my old one, but it was rapidly becoming a familiar weight.  At first I’d decided it was okay to wear as long as I shot only at supernatural bad guys who were already shooting at me.  Lately, I’d had to broaden that definition to anytime my life was in danger.  I was currently leaning toward a slightly more comprehensive rule somewhere between proactive self-defense and the-bastards-had-it-coming, which, if I survived long enough, I intended to blame on my deranged partner rubbing off on me.
            I found the crypt by running into it face-first, scraping a cheek on the pitted limestone exterior.  I strained my ears, but there was no sign of my attackers.  A hail of shots rattled against a nearby path, ricocheting off the cobblestones to fly away in all directions.  Okay, no sign other than the fact that someone kept shooting at me. 
            I hugged the wall and told myself not to overreact and waste bullets. I’d already lobotomized a cupid after a gust of wind blew a few leaves across it, giving it a fleeting sense of movement--and that had been with the glow of an almost full moon to see by.  It was worse now that the wind had blown dark clouds in, and the spatter of rain made it impossible to hear quiet footsteps.
            The firing finally stopped, but my whole body continued to shake, to the point that I dropped the reserve clip I’d fumbled out of my pocket.  The old one still had several rounds left, but I didn’t want to run out at a crucial moment.  Another shot hit the cupid I’d decapitated, shaving off one of its little butt cheeks.  I flinched and my foot kicked something that splashed into a nearby puddle.  I got to my knees, searching around in the grass for it and trying to curse quietly. 
            “A little to the left.”  I whirled, gun up, heart pounding.  But the dark-haired man leaning against a moss-stained fountain didn’t look concerned.  Maybe because he no longer had a body to worry about. 
            I relaxed slightly.  Ghosts I could deal with; I’d even been expecting them. Pere Lachaise isn’t Paris’ oldest cemetery, but it’s huge.  I’d had to reinforce my shields to be able to see anything past the green glow of thousands of ghost trails, crisscrossing the landscape like a crazy spiderweb.  It was the main reason I’d left my own ghostly helper behind.  Billy Joe could be a pain, but I really didn’t want him serving as a midnight snack for a bunch of hungry ghosts. 
            “You’re American.” 
            “Uh, yeah.” A bullet pinged against an iron railing nearby and I flinched.  “How’d you know?”
            “My dear.”  He looked pointedly at my mud-spattered jeans, once-white tennis shoes and soaked gray T-shirt.  The last had been an impulse buy a few days ago, something to wear to target practice to remind my exacting coach that I was still a beginner at this.  Its quip, "I don't have a license to kill: I have a learner's permit," was starting to look really ironic now. 
            Lara Croft would have worn something a lot less mud-covered, and she would have had her hair in a sexy style that still kept it out of her face.  My own curly mop was at the stage where it was too long to stay out of the way and too short to keep in a ponytail.  As a result, I had wet blond strands falling into my eyes and clinging to my cheeks, adding to the overall lack of cool. 
            “When good Americans die, they go to Paris,” the ghost said, after taking a drag on a small cigarette.  “But you’re not dead.  I suppose the question must be, are you good?”
            My hand finally closed over the clip, and I slammed it into place.  I surreptitiously looked him over, wondering what answer was likely to get me some help.  I took in the long velvet jacket, the silk cravat and the lazy smile. “Depends who you ask.”
            “Prevarication, how divine!  I always did get along better with sinners.”
            “Then maybe you can tell me how many people are out there?”
            Another ghost drifted up, wearing only a pair of low-rise blue jeans.  He looked vaguely familiar, with shoulder-length brown hair, classic features and a slightly petulant pout.  “About a dozen.  They just shot up my ugly-ass memorial.”    
            The older ghost sniffed.  “Your legions of fans will doubtless have you another inside a week--” 
            “Can I help it if I’m popular?”
            “--and will then proceed to vandalize it and everything in the vicinity.”
            “Hey, be cool.” 
            The older ghost bristled.  “Don’t talk to me about cool, you preposterous pretender!  I was cool!  I was the epitome of cool!  For all intents and purposes, I invented cool!”
            “Can you two keep it down?” I asked a little shrilly.  Sweat trickled down one side of my temple and into my eye, burning.  I blinked it away and watched a few shadows slink closer.  They existed only at the edge of my vision, and seemed to disappear whenever I looked directly at them.  Then a spell exploded overhead, lighting up the area like a flare and giving me a clear view.  Unfortunately, it did the same for my attackers.  The Gothic arch above my head immediately rang with shots, causing bits of stonework to crumble on top of me as I ducked inside. 
            “This is ridiculous!  You people are worse than the madmen Kardec attracts.”   The ghosts had followed me in.  Of course.  “Mystic, ha!  The man never even rose yet there’s always someone praying or chanting or draping him with flowers--”
            “He believed in reincarnation, man.  Maybe he came back.”
            I fought my way out of a large cobweb, and managed not to slip on the stone tiles, which were slick with rain and decaying leaves.  “Shut up!” I whispered viciously. 
            The older ghost sniffed.  “At least the mystics aren’t rude.” 
            I squinted down at the vague squiggles that were supposed to be a map and tried to ignore him.  It might have been easier if I wasn't soaking wet and filthy with a pounding headache.  I really, really wanted to get out of here.  But, thanks to a certain devious master vampire, that wasn't an option. 

I was prowling around a cemetery in the middle of the night, dodging guard dogs, lightning bolts and crazed war mages, because of a spell known as a geis. The vamp in question, Mircea, had had it placed on me years ago, without bothering to get my permission or even remembering to mention that he'd done it. Master vamps are like that, but in this case, there might have been more than the usual arrogance behind his forgetfulness.  
            On the one hand, the spell provided me protection growing up--it marked me as his, meaning that no sane vampire would touch me with a ten-foot pole. On the other, it was designed to ensure loyalty to a single person: exclusive, complete and utter loyalty. 
Now that we were both adults, the spell wanted to bind Mircea and me together forever, and it didn’t appreciate my noncooperation. 
That was a problem, since people have been known to go mad from this thing, even committing suicide rather than live with the constant, gnawing ache that was just one of the spell’s tricks when thwarted. But sitting back and enjoying the ride wasn’t an option, either.
            If the bond ever fully formed, our lives would be run by the dominant partner--which I had no doubt would be Mircea--leaving me stuck as his eager little slave.  And since he was a member in good standing of the Vampire Senate, the governing body of all North American vampires, I would doubtless end up running their errands, too. The thought of what some of those requests might be was enough to put me in a cold sweat.  It was what the Circle feared--the Pythia under the control of the vamps.  And while I wasn’t in favor of their method of preventing it, I could grudgingly concede the point: it would be a disaster. 

Becoming pythia had made me a target for anybody in the supernatural community who was attracted to power--in other words, pretty much everyone--but it had bought me some time as far as the spell was concerned.  How much, I didn’t know.  Meaning that I really needed that counterspell.  And rumor was, the only grimoire that contained a copy was buried somewhere around here. 
            Of course, it would help if I could read the damn map.  I squinted at it, but the only illumination was moonlight filtered through the remains of once beautiful stained-glass windows.  Half of a seated Madonna looked out onto a charcoal gray sky, with the occasional flash of lightning outlining layered clouds.  I had a flashlight, but turning it on would only make me that much better of a-- 
            Something lunged at me out of the night.  “Don’t shoot!” a man whispered. 
            He smelled of sweat, metal and dirt, plus a static crackle of nervous energy that was practically his signature.  I turned on the flashlight and saw what I’d expected: a shock of pale hair, which as usual was making taunting gestures in the face of gravity, a square jaw, a slightly overlarge nose and furious green eyes.  The Circle’s most famous renegade and my reluctant partner, John Pritkin.  

I breathed a sigh of relief and clicked my gun’s safety on.  To know Pritkin was to want to kill him, but so far I’d resisted temptation.  “You shouldn’t sneak up on me like that!” I whispered.  
            “Why didn’t you shoot me?” he demanded.
            “You told me not to.” 
            “I--that’s--” Pritkin seemed momentarily incoherent, so I shoved the gun's barrel lightly against his stomach.  At least I’d thought it was his stomach.  I’d only intended to show that I wasn’t defenseless, but in a flash, I was slammed against the side of the crypt, my gun arm pinned to the wall, my body stuck between the hard surface and a very angry war mage.  I reluctantly admitted that there may have been a fantasy or two that began with this scenario, but I doubted the evening was going to end the same way. 
            “I knew it was you,” I told him before his ability to vocalize returned.  “You smell like gunpowder and magic.”  That was truer than usual because his coat, a thick leather duster that hid his weapon collection, had a large spot where the leather was crisped and curled up.  Like maybe a spell hadn’t missed him by much. 
            "Those are mages out there!” he whispered savagely.  “So do they!  And what the hell are you still doing here?!”
            “I have the map,” I reminded him. 
            “Give it to me and go!”
            “And leave you here alone?  There’s a dozen of them!”
            “If you don’t leave right now…”
            I raised my chin, even though I’d turned off the flashlight so he probably couldn’t see it. “What?  You’ll shoot me?”
            His hand clenched my shoulder, almost painfully. Don’t tempt the
crazy war mage, I reminded myself, just as a bullet sliced through the open doorway.  It ricocheted several times around the crypt’s inner walls before crashing through what remained of the Madonna.  “If you’re here much longer, I won’t have to!” he whispered furiously. 
            “Let’s just get the damn thing and we can both leave,” I said reasonably.
            “In case it has somehow slipped your notice, this was a trap!”
            “Damn it, you can’t trust anybody anymore!”  The elderly French mage we’d visited in his sweet little country cottage had seemed so reliable, with his old world charm and his kind eyes--and his lousy map that had sent us on the treasure hunt from hell.  It wasn’t fair; the bad guys weren’t supposed to look like someone’s grandfather.  “And Manassier seemed so--”
            “If the next word out of your mouth is ‘nice,’ I will make your life hell when we get back.  Pure hell.”
            I didn’t bother to dignify that with a response.  Pritkin was just . . . Pritkin. At some point I’d learned to mostly roll with it.  I’d often wondered if he gave the Circle half as much trouble before he broke with them over his decision to support me.  If so, you'd think they’d have thanked me for taking him off their hands.  Maybe they planned to send a nice bouquet to the funeral. 
            “Look, all we know for sure is that some mages got here ahead of us.  Maybe we all decided to burgle the place on the same night.”  I didn’t really believe it--they’d attacked us almost as soon as we'd arrived and we hadn’t even found anything.  But I hated to give up on our best lead yet.  And leaving Pritkin to pursue it alone wasn’t an option.  He had all the self-preservation instincts of a bug near a shiny windshield.  
            A strong hand clenched my arm.  “Ow,” I pointed out. 
            “Give me the damn map!”
            “Not a chance.” 
            “Hey!”  I looked up to see the younger ghost staring at us.   “In case you missed it, people are trying to kill you.”
            “People are always trying to kill me,” I said irritably.
            “The only way you’re dying tonight is if I kill you,” Pritkin informed me. 
            “I’ve been in relationships like that,” the ghost sympathized.  
            “We’re not in a relationship,” I muttered.
            “Sheer bloody-minded--what?”  Pritkin broke off his rant, which I hadn’t been listening to anyway, to look around wildly.  “What’s happening?”
            “You mean you let him talk to you like that and you aren’t even getting any?  Man, what a rip-off.”
            “Nothing.  Just a couple of spirits,” I said, shooting ghost #2 a look.  
            “Hey, standing right here.”  
            “And,” his counterpart chimed in, “I resent that ‘just’ comment.  We’re the two most active spirits in this entire--”
            “Active?”  A hand moved down my arm, the touch both gentle and rough, calloused from holding guns and doing pushups and snapping peoples’ necks.  “Don’t even think about it,” I told Pritkin, then turned my attention back to the ghost.  “How active?”
            The older ghost preened slightly.  “We see everything that goes on around here.    The things I could tell--”
            “So, if there were hidden passageways, you’d know?” I asked, as Pritkin found my wrist.  A moment later, the map was snatched out of my hand.  “Still not leaving,” I told 

            “Oh. You're after the thing, aren't you?" the younger ghost asked.
            I decided not to wrestle Pritkin for the map, which wouldn’t be dignified.  It also wouldn’t work. “What thing?”  
            “The thing with the thing.”  He waved a negligent hand.  I was starting to suspect that if you died stoned, your ghost stayed that way.  
            “Could you be a little more specific?”  Before he could answer, there was a strange sound from outside, a dim, high-pitched whine.  I felt a hand on my back, viciously shoving me to the ground.  Then Pritkin was on top of me, crushing me into a fetal position while things exploded and rained fire all around us.   
            Red and violet spots danced behind my tightly clenched lids for several long moments.  There were minute tremors in the ground, like the aftershocks of an earthquake, and my skin prickled with leftover energy. When I cautiously opened my eyes, I saw starlight seeping in from a gaping hole in the roof and clouds of disintegrated stone in the air.  
            Pritkin was on his feet again, firing at the mages, who fired back, gunshots echoing off the high, close-packed monuments like firecrackers.  Most of the time I thought he was a little too quick to opt for the shoot-it-and-hope-it-dies solution.  Other times, like when someone was trying to make a colander out of my head, it seemed okay.
            “Over there,” the younger ghost offered, pointing to the right.  “Come on.”  He slouched off, ignoring a nearby snaky pathway in favor of a shortcut across the tombstone -littered grounds.  
            “One of the ghosts knows where the passage is!” I told Pritkin.  He looked surprised and I scowled.  Just because I didn’t know seven ways to kill a guy with my elbow didn’t make me completely useless. 
            He looked like he was about to argue about the wisdom of trusting random spirits, or possibly my sanity.  But the mages accidentally did me a favor by sending a spell that exploded with a massive crack against a nearby chestnut tree.  The burning trunk fell over, taking half the crypt with it.  Luckily, it wasn’t our half. 
            “Come on, then!”  Pritkin yelled, grabbing me by the hand and starting off, as if this had been his idea all along.
            “This way!”  I dragged him after the ghost as a fresh haze of bullets rattled off the rubble behind us.  

 I found it hard going: the soggy soil sucked at my shoes with every step and the rain made it almost impossible to keep the flickering, pale image of our guide in sight.  But Pritkin, damn him, slipped through the granite obstacle course like he’d laid it out himself.  “How are you doing that?”  I demanded the fourth time I knocked a knee into a very hard tombstone.
            “Doing what?”
            “You can see!”  I accused. 
            “Here.”  I felt a hand against my cheek for a split second, and Pritkin mumbled something.  I blinked, and suddenly everything had a weird, flat, grainy look to it, like bad TV reception.  Leaf shadows moved over his face as a gust of wind shook a tree, spattering drops of rain on us, and I could just make out the edges of that familiar scowl.
            “Why didn’t you do that before?” I demanded.
            “I thought you were leaving before!”
            “Do you two want this or not?” the ghost asked, hands on insubstantial hips.  He’d stopped in front of the image of a bored-looking woman leaning on a tombstone.  Enough moss had grown over her granite gown that it was practically green.  Green and slimy, I discovered, after the ghost directed me to tap her knee three times.  Nothing happened.  
            “Now what?” 
            “You have to say the magic word.” 
            He laughed.  “No, I mean a real magic word.  To get the statue to move out of the way.”
            A spell exploded in the branches of an overhanging oak and a bunch of burning leaves dropped around me, threatening to set my hair alight.  “What is it?!” 
            “Don’t know.” The ghost shrugged negligently. “It’s not like I need it.”
            “What’s the problem?”  Pritkin demanded, sending his whole arsenal of animated weapons at the advancing line of dark shapes.  His knives swooped and danced, striking sparks off their shields with every pass, but it didn’t look like they were slowing our pursuers down much.   
            “The ghost doesn’t know the password!”
            Pritkin shot me his best edge-of-murder glare and muttered one of his weird British swear words.  I don’t think it was the open sesame, but the spell he cast with his next breath worked almost as well.  The statue split straight down the middle to reveal a gaping cavern.
            Inside was as dark as a well, just a black hole silhouetted against the electric sky.  I pulled out my flashlight and clicked it on, but it barely dented the darkness.  Even worse, there were no stairs, only an iron-rung ladder descending into a claustrophobic tunnel carved into solid rock.  

"I've seen many treasure hunters go in," the older ghost commented, having floated up beside me, "but few come out again.  And those who do are empty handed."

"That won't happen to us." 

"That's what they all say," he murmured, just as a spell burst overhead.  I shoved the gun and flashlight in my belt, grabbed the first rusty rung and half climbed, half slid to the bottom.  Pritkin followed practically on top of me, and as soon as we were both down, he sent a spell back up the tunnel that caused a cave-in.  

It blocked our pursuers, but it also cut off what little light there was.  Once the rumble from the falling rock stopped, we were in dead silence and utter darkness.  Apparently, even enhanced vision needs something to work with, because I couldn’t see a thing.
            I clicked the flashlight back on.  It took a moment for my eyes to adjust, and when they did, I yelped and stumbled back a step.  The thin beam didn’t show much--it was like the dark down here was hungry, eating the light almost as soon as it left the bulb.  But I wouldn’t have minded seeing even less.  Along every side of a long corridor were bones arranged in patterns all the way to the low ceiling.  Water had seeped in from somewhere, and a lot of the skulls were crying green tears and growing fuzzy green beards.  It didn’t make them look less creepy. 
            “The catacombs,” Pritkin said, before I could ask. 
            “The what?”
            “The Parisians started using old limestone quarries as underground cemeteries a few hundred years ago.”  He took the flashlight and pointed it at the map, frowning.  “I didn’t think they extended out this far.”
            “How far?” 
            “If these tunnels connect to those in the city, then hundreds of kilometers.”  He started shining the light here and there.  I wished he’d stop; it lit puddles of water in the empty eye sockets, making the faces seem to move.  “There have been stories of catacombs under Pere Lachaise for years, but I thought they were merely rumors.”
            I stared at a nearby skull.  It was bodiless, sitting atop a stack of what looked like femurs, and was missing the jawbone.  But somehow it still seemed to be grinning.  “They look pretty real to me.”
            The flashlight picked out a glint of gold, half buried in the mortar keeping a line of bones in place.  I scraped at the cement with my finger, and it was so old that pieces of it just flaked off.  The golden circle I revealed wouldn't budge, but I did get a better look at it.  It appeared to be formed out of a snake that was chowing down on its own tail.  “The ouroboros,” Pritkin said, coming up behind me.  
            “The what?”
            “An ancient symbol for regeneration and eternity.”  
            “Like a cross?”
            “Older.”  He shone the light around some more.  “The Paris coven must have created their own catacombs, possibly during the Inquisition.  Witches and wizards were sometimes disinterred and their bodies mutilated or burnt.  This would have been one way of preventing that.”
            “You mean, this is a mages' graveyard?”
            “Possibly.  The limestone pits were dug by the Romans. They were there for centuries before the Parisian authorities decided to make use of them.  Perhaps the magical community had the idea first.”  From up the ladder came a sudden rain of stone and rubble.  It sounded like our pursuers weren’t giving up.  “Can you shift us here?” he asked, pointing to a vague squiggle on the map.  
            My new job had more downsides than I could count, but there were a few perks, too.  Well, one, anyway.  The power that came with the office of Pythia allowed me to move myself and one or two others around in space and time.  It was a damn useful weapon, and so far my only one.  But it had its limitations.  “I can’t shift unless I know where I’m going.”
            “You’ve time-shifted before to places you’ve never been!”
            “That’s different.”
            There was a sudden avalanche, and a spell crashed into the floor behind us, igniting a storm of violent white light.  It hit the skulls, causing them to crack and splinter, then bounced off the opposite wall, slinging stone fragments everywhere like flying daggers.  Pritkin shielded me from the worst of the blast, then grabbed my hand and towed me down the corridor.  
            Since I didn’t go bouncing off any walls, I assumed he could still see something, but to me it was a headlong plunge into nothingness.  He’d clicked off the flashlight, I suppose to make it harder for our pursuers to track us, but without it the tunnels were so dark I couldn't tell whether my eyes were open or closed.  “How different?” he demanded.  
            “The power lets me see other times, past places.  Not the present,” I explained, flinching.  Afterimages from the blast were making reddish shapes leap in front of my vision, and I kept thinking I was about to plow into something.  “If I want to do spatial shifts in the here and now, I have to be able to visualize where I want to go.”  And a shaky line on a bad map wasn’t even close to good enough.  
            The corridor abruptly narrowed, to the point that it was impossible to continue side by side.  Pritkin went first, pulling me along at something approaching a run.  It was hot, the air was close, and the ground underneath our feet wasn’t anything like level.  It was soon obvious why someone would put a treasury here; without clear directions, you could wander around for months and never find anything.  
            Pritkin stopped, so suddenly that I ran into him.  He spread the map out on the wall and handed me the flashlight.  I clicked it on and saw a much-less-organized scene than before: bones had tumbled out of the walls and littered the floor, and in some cases they were mounded up in piles with no effort at arrangement at all.  Unlike the ones in the main corridor, these looked like they’d just been thrown around any old way.  I’m not usually sentimental about the dead--I meet too many of them--but it still seemed wrong.  Friends and enemies, parents and children, all jumbled up, with nothing to give a history, a date of death, even a name.  
            “It would help if you shone the torch on the map,” Pritkin commented caustically.  
I obliged, and the beam lit up his face, too.  Its expression wasn’t reassuring.  “Are your ghosts here?” he demanded. 
            “No.  They wouldn’t follow us beyond the cemetery limits.”  And it felt like we’d left those behind a while ago. 
            “What about others?”
            “Why do you want to know?”
            “Because this map is less than adequate!  Some directions would be helpful.”
            I shook my head.  “These bodies were disturbed. I think they were brought here from their original resting places.”
            “That their ghosts would have stayed behind.”  Not to mention that if it was mages buried here, they wouldn’t have left ghosts anyway. Supernatural creatures just didn’t, as far as I knew. 
            “But their bones are here.”
            “Doesn’t matter.  Spirits can haunt a house, even when their bodies aren’t there.  It’s all about what was important to them in life, the place where they felt a connection.”  I looked around and repressed a shiver.  “I don’t think I’d feel real connected to this place, either.”
            Pritkin finally settled on a direction and we took off again, sliding through gaps in the rock that, at times, were barely big enough for me.  I don’t know how he got through, but based on the amount of muttered comments that drifted back, it wasn’t without the loss of some flesh.  Finally we came to a slightly wider corridor, meaning that we still had to go single file but could pick up speed.  For a minute, I thought we’d succeeded in losing our pursuers, but as usual, Murphy’s Law caught up with us.  
            We came barreling around a corner only to run almost directly into a party of dark shapes.  There were yells and bullets and spells, with one of the last exploding against Pritkin’s shields, popping them like heat on a soap bubble.  “Run!” he snarled in my face.  I heard rumbling, like distant thunder, and then the ceiling came down with a roar that consumed the world.




Chapter Two

It took me a few seconds to realize that I still wasn’t dead.  I was in a crouch, my hands protecting my head, expecting an attack, but the corridor was as silent as the tomb it was.  The only people besides us were cemented into the walls or buried under the pile of rubble that their own spell had brought down on their heads.  I collapsed back against the floor, breathing raggedly, and tried not to scream.
            After a minute, I felt around for the flashlight and my hand closed over a cool plastic cylinder.  I clicked it on, relieved to find that it still worked, and saw Pritkin lying on his side. He wasn’t moving, and he had blood smeared through the stubble on his chin, bright and frightening. Murphy and his little law can go to hell, I thought furiously, shaking him frantically. 
            “Would you kindly stop doing that?” he asked politely.
            I stared.  I wasn’t entirely sure, but a polite John Pritkin might be a sign of the apocalypse.  “Did you hit your head?”  I tried to move closer to get a better look, and my knee accidentally knocked a shower of stone pebbles onto the oozing gash on his forehead.
            “If I tell you I’m all right, will you stop trying to help me?”  Every muscle in my body relaxed at the familiar tone, all ruffled feathers and crisp impatience. That was better; that was solid ground.
            “So, still alive?”  I croaked.
            “Damn right.” 
            He just lay there, though, so I shone the beam around, giving him a minute.  It took a few seconds to realize exactly what I was seeing.  Pritkin had apparently gotten his shields back up, because they glowed blue and waterlike, rippling slowly in the yellow beam.  But the cave ceiling wasn't above them anymore. Or, to be more accurate, it was there, it was just no longer attached to anything. 
            Huge, half-quarried blocks, some still bearing ancient chisel marks, lay on top of the suddenly very thin-looking shields.  Every time they flexed, small showers of rubble and grit slid along the top and trickled down the sides, making soft shushing sounds in the quiet.  The larger pieces had nowhere to go, but they moved enough to make it obvious that they weren't anchored to anything.  Even the smaller, cobblestone-sized chunks would hurt like hell if they fell on us, and I didn’t have to wonder what the larger ones would do.  Two mages were giving gory proof of that barely a yard away.
            I could have reached out and touched them, where they lay caught between the shield and the cave-in.  Their bodies were oddly contorted, trapped in the stone and rubble like ancient fossils, their open eyes shining in the reflected light.  Except that fossils don’t usually come complete with evidence of how they got that way, at least not in Technicolor brilliance. 
            The red-streaked white of newly shattered bone stood out starkly against the mellow gold of the older specimens.  One hand rested against the blue of the shield, caught in a gesture of defense, as if human strength could stand against the weight of a mountain.  It made me wonder for an insane moment if it would leave a red outline, if the next time Pritkin raised his shields, it would manifest, too. 
            The air suddenly felt a lot heavier in my lungs.  Despite the large number of impossible things that had happened to me lately, my brain couldn’t quite seem to deal.  It was loudly insisting that huge slabs of rock that weighed maybe a ton each didn’t just hover in the air and that we were both going to die any second now.
            I made a small, choked sound, but managed to swallow the bubble of hysteria before it could tear loose.  If Pritkin had been a second later getting his protection back up, there would be four new bodies entombed down here instead of two.  But there weren’t.  We were safe.  Sort of. 
            Pritkin had rolled onto his back and was staring at me, hard and intent.  “This is exactly why I told you to go home.”
            “I have a devastating comeback for that,” I informed him with dignity.  “Just not right now.”
            “Do you want to give up?”  I blinked.  I could count on zero fingers the number of times he had asked my opinion.  “Because there are almost certainly more of them back there.” 
            I remembered the ghost saying that there were twelve mages all together.  Which meant that behind the rockfall, ten more were still hanging around, unless they were caught somewhere I couldn’t see.  Or unless they’d left, assuming that the cave-in had killed us.  But no, I wasn’t that lucky. 
            “You know what’s at stake,” I reminded him. 
            “I thought you’d say that.”  Pritkin levered himself to his knees with a grunt.  The rubble shifted along with him, enough to bring another large slab crashing down.  The jagged underside landed only a few feet away from my face. 
            Pritkin’s voice, laced with its usual impatience, cut through my panic.  “Let’s go.”
            “Go?”  It came out as more of a squeak than I’d intended.  “How?  Because I can shift us back home, but I can’t shift us beyond this.  I don’t know what’s on the other side or even where the other side is--”
            “Just stay close.”  Before he’d even finished speaking, his shields had changed from fluid waves to hard crystal, reflecting the cave-in through a hundred sharp facets.  A few more rocks fell off, allowing more to rain down from above, striking off the new, rigid surface with dull thuds.  Pritkin started crawling forward, and his shields went with him, almost scooping me off my feet before I got with the program and moved up close behind him.
            It wasn’t until I saw the body of one of the mages slide down the side and roll behind us that I completely realized what was happening.  Our small bubble was plowing through the rocks and dirt like a crystal mole intent on making a new burrow.  We hit a wall once, looking for an entrance that wasn’t there, but we found it a few feet to the left and burst through, the cave collapsing in on itself behind us. 
            Pritkin dropped his shields with an audible sigh, and the dust we’d dislodged in our escape flooded in, almost blinding me.  We forged ahead to get away from the choking cloud, which had no way to disperse in an area without wind or open air.  But before we’d gone ten yards, we ran into what felt like another cave-in.   
            Once I blinked the dirt out of my eyes, I realized what I was seeing. A narrow tunnel stretched out in front of us, filled halfway to the ceiling with what looked like a mile of bones.  Pritkin climbed on top of the broken, human mass, flashing the light around.  “There’s a hole in the wall up ahead.  It probably leads to another tunnel.”
            I eyed the pile of bones uneasily.  Anything kept in close proximity to a person’s aura eventually imprints with a psychic skin.  I’d experienced more horror stories from inadvertently brushing up against a strong trigger than I could count.  And I couldn’t think of a stronger trigger than an actual body part. 
“Hurry, damn it!”  Pritkin thrust a hand down to me as the sound of voices echoed dimly from the corridor behind us.  Somebody had heard our exit.  
            I hefted myself up gingerly, before I could think about it too much.  The bones were old and dry, and crunched sickeningly under my weight.  Many splintered, sending little knives into my palms and tearing my jeans, but there were no psychic flashes.  Moving them must have ruptured any imprints that had formed. 
            When Pritkin said a hole in the wall, he wasn’t kidding.  I could barely squeeze through the thing, and it sounded from his language like he’d scraped off more than a little skin himself.  “Move!” he whispered, giving me a push in the small of my back.  I scrambled inside the small rock-hewn cavern on the other side of the hole, and almost tumbled down a set of stairs that started after only a few feet. 
            The claustrophobically low stairwell was extremely uninviting; mostly I just saw the darkness that pooled in every niche and corner.  I really didn’t want to go down there.  Then a spell hit the ceiling behind me with a crack like cannon fire and I reconsidered, scrambling down the stairs ahead of Pritkin.
            A second spell hit while we were still on the steps.  It went on and on, like a slow-motion bomb blast, causing gravel to pepper the back of my hands and neck like hail. It sent me sliding down the stairs, but the vibrations rode up through my legs, making it almost impossible to find a foothold.  And then it didn’t matter because there was no foothold to find.  The rock disintegrated beneath my feet, and I tumbled through darkness and empty air before slamming into freezing water. 
            It took me a moment to realize I wasn’t drowning.  The water came only up to my waist, but it was like ice and the cold shot right up my spine.  Worse was the by-now-familiar billowing cloud of dust, trapping me in a choking haze.  Instinctively, I sloshed farther away from the rockfall, trying to breathe, and found myself treading water.  I grabbed a moss-covered skull
that jutted out from the wall, my fingers finding purchase in the eye sockets.  I held on, too grateful to be repulsed, gasping in great lungfuls of air.
            “Pritkin!”  It was barely a croak, but a moment later the flashlight beam hit my eyes, blinding me. 
            “Still alive?”
            I tried to answer, but my lungs decided this would be a good moment to expel all the foreign matter I’d breathed in, and I ended up heaving and choking.  I lost my grip on the slimy bone and slid under the frigid water. For a long, terrifying moment, I was lost in an endless sea of black that immediately chilled me to the core. Then two broad hands were fumbling for a grip on my shoulders, pulling me back to the surface, reminding me where up and down were. 
            “Miss Palmer!”
            I spat out a mouthful of limestone paste, the result of oily water mixed with dust, and gasped in some air.  “Damn right.”
            Pritkin nodded and flashed the light around, giving glimpses of a corridor where the floor rippled oddly and everything was suddenly shades of gray and pale, unearthly green.  It looked like the entire lower levels had flooded.  I can swim, but I wasn’t in love with the idea of navigating a dark underground stream with barely enough headroom to breathe. 
            “I’ll deal with this,” Pritkin said grimly. “Shift out of here.” 
            “And if they keep coming?”
            “I’ll manage.”
            And he called me bloody-minded.  I took another breath to inform my lungs that asphyxiation would have to wait, and pushed back off into the flood.  “Just swim.”
            Pritkin didn’t answer, unless you count a curse, although that could have been due to the spell that hit the water behind us, instantly raising the temperature from chilled to boiling.  I screamed, and coherent thought fled.  I didn’t think, just grabbed his hand and shifted.
            A second later, we landed in the same corridor, but with no dust cloud, no mages and no flood.  I’d been treading water in the other time, so I was only a few feet off the ground.  Pritkin, unfortunately, had been floating, and he fell from a little farther.  Like about six feet. 
            He hit the rocky floor with a thud, a curse and a crack, the last from the demise of the flashlight.  I tried to ask how he was, but a stitch was biting deep into my side and, for a long moment it was impossible to draw oxygen into my lungs. I slid down the wall to a seated position because my knees suddenly felt too rubbery to be reliable. 
            “What happened?”  Pritkin gasped after a moment.  With no flashlight and no deadly spells zipping around, it was pitch-dark, but from the direction of his voice, it sounded like he was still on the floor. 
            “I shifted us back in time,” I managed to croak. 
            I decided that it probably wasn’t good that I was still feeling shaky and nauseated despite being this close to the floor and completely motionless. I couldn't figure out what was wrong.  I'd shifted only twice today, once to get us to Paris from Manassier's cottage and once just now, yet I was exhausted.  It looked like bringing another person along for the ride took a lot out of me
. Too bad no one had bothered to give me the manual. 
            “A little warning next time!” 
            “You’re welcome.” 
            “When are we?”
            I spit out more chalky-tasting dust.  Now I knew why Lara Croft always carried a canteen.  My body was dripping, but my throat was parched.  I swallowed dry, while running through the mental Rolodex my power gives me.  “Seventeen ninety-three.”    
            “What?  Why?”
            “Because I didn’t feel like being boiled alive?”  
            “You could have shifted us back a day, a week!  This is no bloody use at all!”  
            Of course, I thought sourly, Lara Croft would also have some nice convenient techie thing to get her out of this.  And a partner who wasn’t a complete ass.  I cautiously stood up and found to my surprise that I was only faintly dizzy.  I strained my ears, but all I heard was my own harsh breathing and a faint drip, drip of water from somewhere. 
            “Let’s go,” I said, fumbling around until I found Pritkin’s hand.  His skin was cold from the water, and his pulse was fast but not bad.  Not, for example, like mine, which felt like it could burst a vein. I needed to make sure I didn’t have to shift again anytime soon.  Like for the rest of the week. 
            Pritkin stayed where he was.  “Go?  Where?” 
            “To find the Codex!  I thought it might be nice to look for it without somebody shooting at us for a change.”
            “An excellent sentiment.  Except for the small matter of the Paris coven being one of the oldest in Europe.  They may have abandoned this facility in our time, but in this era there are doubtless mages all over the place.  Not to mention snares and traps.  If we haven’t already tripped a protection ward, we soon will!”
            “Do you have another suggestion?”
            “Yes.  Shift us out!”  Even in complete darkness I was positive I could see his glare. 
            I sucked in a breath, more annoyed than I could remember--well, more annoyed than before John Pritkin, anyway.  “Why didn’t I think of that?”
            “You have shifted multiple times in a day before--”
            “And it wiped me out before.”
            “You never mentioned that.”
            “You never asked.”
            There was a brief pause. “Are you all right?”    
            “Yeah, peachy.”  I really hated his suggestion, but I couldn’t think of a better one.  “Let’s at least clear the corridor first,” I compromised.  “Then I’ll try to set us back a little early, before the fireworks start.”
            It took forever to get down that corridor, not because of the darkness, but because Pritkin was certain someone or something was about to jump us.  But the only problems were the usual--heat, bad air and the fun of trying not to fall on the uneven floor or scrape off a little more skin on the wall.  We finally came to a branch in the path and Pritkin stopped.  “Are you certain you’re up to this?”
            “What’s your plan if I say no?”
            “Wait here until you say yes.”
            “Then I guess I’m up to it.”  I don’t suffer from claustrophobia, but I was getting really tired of those tunnels.  I gripped his hand tighter, focused on our era and shifted
            This time the world melted around us slowly, like paint dissolving in water, bleeding away in slow drips.  I normally don’t feel the passing of years, just a weightless free fall that ends with me whenever I planned to be.  I felt it this time.  Reality rippled around us in a nauseating, frictionless, gravity-free waver.  I was suddenly grateful I couldn’t see, because what I could feel was terrifying: for a long moment, I was a tearing stream of dislocated atoms, consciousness ripped apart, with a body that was so elongated it neither began nor ended. 
            Then I snapped back into myself, only to have the whole process start again.  There were snatches of conversation, a few notes of music and what sounded like another explosion or cave-in, all in quick succession, like someone flipping a radio too fast.  And I finally realized what was happening. This trip wasn’t one long jump, but a series of smaller hops, with us flashing in and out of other times as we slowly made our way back to our own. 
            I could feel time, and it was heavy, like swimming through molasses.  Pushing through the centuries was like running a marathon.  In the dark.  With weights tied to my legs. 
            When we finally broke through, it felt like oxygen when drowning--shocking, unexpected, miraculous. I’d half expected to materialize underwater, but apparently we’d passed the flooded area, because I stumbled into a mostly dry wall.  I sat down abruptly, tilting my head back, swallowing a relief so sharp it made me light-headed.
            Pritkin crawled over to lean against the wall next to me.  “Are you all right?” 
            “Stop asking me that,” I said, then had to go very still to deal with the nausea.  It
felt like my stomach had been a couple seconds behind the rest of me, and when it caught up it wasn’t happy to be there. 
            “I take it that’s a yes.”
            I swallowed, still tasting dust, and told myself that throwing up would be very unprofessional.  “Yeah.  It’s just . . . the learning curve can be a little rough.”
            After a few minutes of sitting quietly with my eyes closed, I managed to relax and start breathing evenly.  “You don’t have to do this,” Pritkin said.  “I could--”
            “I couldn’t shift out of here right now if my life depended on it,” I said truthfully.  

“Your power shouldn’t fluctuate this greatly,” he told me, and I could hear the
puzzled frown in his voice.
            “The power doesn’t fluctuate.  My ability to channel it does.  The more tired I am, the harder it gets.”
            “But it shouldn’t be this difficult,” Pritkin repeated stubbornly.  “My power doesn’t--”
            “Because it’s yours!” Damn it, I didn’t have the breath for one of our long, drawn-out arguments right now.  “This isn’t mine.  I wasn’t born with it.  It’s on loan, remember?” 
            The power hadn’t originated with the Pythias, who had once been the priestesses of an ancient being calling himself Apollo.  I’d met him exactly once, when he’d promised to train me.  So far, he’d paid that promise the same amount of attention he had my objections over receiving the office in the first place: none.  Unfortunately, I didn't have anywhere else to turn.  

Unlike most pythias, who had been trained for a decade or two on the ins and outs of their position, my intro to the office had lasted about thirty seconds--just long enough for the last incumbent to shove the power off on me before she died.  And everyone else who might have given me a few pointers was under the control of the Circle.   
            We sat there for a while in silence.  I eventually summoned the strength to pull off my shoes and toss my waterlogged socks against the far wall, where they landed with little splats.  It didn’t help much because I just had to put the wet shoes back on. 
            “Before you completed the ritual to become Pythia, your power controlled how and when it manifested,” Pritkin said, as I dragged myself to my feet.  I’d almost fallen asleep for the second time against his shoulder, wet clothes, hard floor and all.  “Is that correct?”
            “Yeah.  I was only allowed in the driver’s seat after I bought the car, so to speak.”  Which was better than getting thrown back to another century every time I turned around, to fix whatever was about to get messed up--usually without having a clue what it might be. 
            “Then you must start monitoring your endurance.  Otherwise, you could become trapped in another time or overtax your system, possibly resulting in serious injury.”
            “You don’t say?”  I started down the corridor, my feet feeling like they were encased in cement. “I’d have never figured that out on my own.”
            “I am serious.”  Pritkin grabbed my arm, in his favorite spot, right over the bicep.  I was probably going to have the permanent indentation of his fingers there someday.  “You must begin experimentation, to discover your limits.  How many times can you shift before you reach exhaustion?  Does going farther back in time cause more of a drain than more recent shifts?  What other powers over time do you possess?”
            “If I'm not letting someone piggyback along, three or four, depending on how tired I am to start with; hell, yes; and I don’t really want to know,” I answered him, in order.  “Now, can we deal with the current crisis, please, and leave the twenty questions for later?”
            Pritkin shut up, but with a meaningful silence that said this wasn’t over.  I let him brood while I concentrated on not falling on my face.  We felt our way down another dark, dusty corridor.
            We finally found the storeroom by the simple method of running into it.  Or, to be more accurate, into the rusty ironwork gate that blocked the entrance.  I backed up a few steps while Pritkin scuffled around.  I heard a match strike and suddenly I could see.  Watery yellow light filtered outward from a small lantern set in a niche, allowing him to check the area for booby traps.  He didn’t find any, which seemed to worry him more than the reverse.
            “What’s wrong?  Manassier said this place was abandoned.”
            Pritkin ran a hand over his hair, which despite the water and the sweat and the limestone dust was still acting like an independent entity.  “Can you shift yet?”
            “If anything goes wrong, you are to shift away immediately.  Do you understand?”

Pritkin shot me a suspicious look, and I gave him my best bland expression right back.  He'd asked if I understood, and  said yes.  I hadn't agreed to anything.
            He smeared his finger across the door mechanism, cutting through an inch of dust and grime.  Something clicked and he pulled back before cautiously nudging the door with his toe.  It swung inward obligingly, but he hesitated on the threshold.  “I don’t like it. This is too easy.”
            I personally thought easy was just fine.  In fact, it was about damn time easy showed up.  “Maybe our luck is chang-”
            Pritkin stepped into the room and disappeared with a strangled sort of sound.  “Pritkin!”  There was no answer.  I knelt by the threshold, but there was nothing to see: only a small, empty cave, with no exit, and no mage.
            I got a death grip on the iron bars of the door and reached out.  My hand encountered nothing but dusty limestone for about two feet, then disappeared into the floor.  I snatched my arm back, but there didn’t appear to be any damage.  An illusion, then. 
            I stretched out on the floor, closed my eyes and leaned over, to the point that my forehead would have hit stone if there really had been a floor there.  When it didn’t, I opened my eyes in blackness.  After a moment, my sight adjusted to show me dirty fingers, white with strain, clinging to a shard of limestone three or four yards down.  They were human, and below them, almost out of sight, was a familiar, spiky head.  
            “Grab my hand and I’ll shift us out,” I called, hoping I could actually do it.  The head snapped up.
            “What did I just tell you?!” Pritkin demanded. 
            "Hi, I'm Cassie Palmer.  Have we met?"
            Steel entered the suddenly soft tones.  “Miss Palmer.  Move away from the edge.  Now.”
            “I’m not going to fall in,” I told him irritably.
            “Neither did I!  There’s something down here.”  I couldn't see Pritkin’s face very well, just a pale blur against the shadows, but he didn’t sound happy.  Some people thought he had only one mode--pissed off.  In reality, he had plenty of them.  Over the last few weeks, I’d learned to tell the difference between real pissed off, impatient pissed off and scared pissed off.  I suspected that this was the last kind.  If so, that made two of us.
            That feeling amped up a few notches when he cursed and fired several rounds at something out in the darkness.  The faint, acrid smell of gunpowder floated up to me as I wiggled forward, keeping my legs spread, hoping that if I distributed my weight over a larger surface I wouldn’t cause a rock slide. I stretched until I heard something pop in my shoulder, but I wasn’t even close.  And if I couldn’t touch him, I couldn’t shift him. 
            I bit my lip and stared up at the floor that wasn’t there.  It was kind of odd seeing it from this angle, as if the ocean’s surface had been smeared with dirt and pebbles.  It didn’t help my concentration, so I pulled back up to a sitting position and stared at the top of it instead.  
            Once upon a time, my reaction to scary things had been to run and hide.  It was an effective strategy for staying alive in the good old days when all I had to worry about was a homicidal vampire.  The difference between then and now was that once upon a time I'd had problems I really could outrun. Now I had duties and responsibilities, the kind of things that are always with you.  There were about a dozen nightmares vying for the top spot every day, each of them spectacularly horrible in its own way.  And right at the top of the list was the fear that I’d have to stand by and watch another friend die trying to help me.  
            I was suddenly really glad I couldn’t see the bottom.  
            The rock felt crumbly under my fingers as I slithered over the side.  Or maybe that was my hands shaking.  A cascade of small rocks disappeared beyond the illusion and some of them must have hit Pritkin, because I heard him swear again. 
            “What the hell are you-”
            “Sheer bloody-mindedness, remember?  And can you see my leg?” 
            I was holding on to the edge of the chasm by my arms and elbows, and still felt unbelievably unsteady.  I carefully did not look down, but for a few seconds, I strained to hear the rocks hit bottom.  I never did. 
            I tried to feel around with my toe without falling off, but met only air.  Damn it, what if I needed to be touching bare skin?  Why hadn’t I thought remove my shoes first?  I tried toeing one off, but the water had made the sneaker shrink around my foot.  “Grab my ankle.” 
            A lot of less than genteel language echoed off the walls.  “I can’t grab anything without letting go!”
            “You have two arms!”
            “Listen to me.”  Pritkin’s voice was low and controlled, the tone he used when he was pretending to be reasonable.  “I can’t let go of the gun. There’s something down here.  It pulled me in.  It could get bored with me at any moment and come after you.  You have to--” He broke off at the sound of shouts and explosions and booted feet echoing down the corridor.  “Shift goddamn it!”
            “Grab my leg!”
            I lowered myself down to the point that my head was barely over the top of the chasm, but still touched nothing.  The damn rock was falling apart under my fingers and nervous sweat was making my palms slippery.  My arms were sending sharp little pains up to my shoulders and there was no purchase on the side of the chasm for my feet.  How the hell far down was he? 
            And then it didn’t matter, because a pair of booted feet stopped right in front of my eyes.  I craned my neck enough to see an older man with salt-and-pepper hair and pale gray eyes smiling down at me.  Manassier.  Well, didn’t that just explain a lot. 
            “I didn’t think you would get this far,” he told me in his thick accent.  And to think, only that afternoon, I’d found it attractive. 
            Somewhere along the line I’d bitten my tongue hard enough to taste copper.  I swallowed blood.  “Surprise.” 
            He shrugged.  “No matter.  I still collect the bounty.”
            “There’s a bounty?”
            “Half a million euros.”  His smile grew.  “You are about to make me rich.”
            “Half a million? Are you kidding me?  I’m the Pythia.  I’m worth way more than that.”
            He took out a gun, a Sig Sauer P210, which I recognized because of the shooting lessons Pritkin had been giving me.  My aim wasn’t any better, but I could identify all kinds of guns now.  Even the one about to kill me.
            “I’m a simple man,” Manassier said, “with simple needs.  Half a million will do nicely.”  
            It figured that I’d get the non-greedy crook. I swallowed a crazy urge to laugh.  “You don’t have to shoot me,” I gasped.  “I can’t hold on much longer anyway.” 
            “Yes, but if you slip, the Circle may say you died of natural causes and not pay the bounty.  And then all this was for nothing.”
            “Yeah.  That’d be a shame.”
            He clicked the safety off.  “Now hold still and this won’t hurt.”
            “That would be a nice change.”  My body felt like it weighed a ton, my arms were liquid with fatigue and my shoulders were aching in their sockets.  It would be such a relief to just let go. 
            So I did. 
            I heard him yell something in French and felt a bullet whiz by my head, but it was unimportant because I was falling, and there was nothing to hold on to, just sliding dirt and limestone rocks crumbling beneath my hands.  My arms flailed wildly, grasping for the one thing I had to find, but for a long second I felt only air.  Then my fingers collided with something warm and alive and I grabbed it and we were both falling.  There was a dizzying rush of air and my power wouldn’t come and all I could think was that I’d killed us both--then my brain whited out and my heart tried to stop and reality twisted and bent around us.
            And we tumbled into a casino lobby half a world away. 
            I hadn’t judged things perfectly because of the whole abject terror thing, and we fell from about four feet above the ground.  Pritkin hit the floor first, with a pained grunt, with me clinging to his back.  And then everything got incredibly still for a minute, as it always did whenever I survived something insanely dangerous and really stupid.  The fact that I recognized the phenomenon probably meant it had happened a few too many times.  I lay there quivering, hearing an upsurge in the polite babble of the guests and not caring.  All I could think was, oh thank God, I didn’t kill us. 
            After a stunned moment, I coughed hard and rolled off.  My face was dusty, my palms were scraped raw and I was panting and limp.  Various muscle groups were twitching at random, seizing up with tight bursts of pain and then releasing.  I felt like bursting into tears and screaming in triumph all at the same time. 
            Pritkin finally groaned and sat up.  He was pale and sweating profusely, with damp hair plastered to his forehead.  He had cuts on his face and hands and burns on his forearm. 
            I wanted to touch him, to reassure myself that we’d both actually survived, but I didn’t dare.  A gal could lose a hand that way.  So I just stared at him instead, so glad to be alive that my aching back and trembling arms and ferocious headache hardly registered at all.  “That was fun,” I croaked.  “Only, not.”
            Pritkin hauled me into a sitting position, one dirty, scarred hand cupping the back of my neck.  “Are you all right?” His voice was sharp and biting, with a slightly panicked edge. 
            “I told you to stop asking--” 
            He shook me, and despite it being one-handed, it made my teeth rattle.  “If anything like that ever happens again.  You. Leave. Me. Behind.  Do you understand?”
            I would have argued, but I was feeling a little shocky for some reason.  “I’m not good at abandoning people,” I finally said.
            A front-desk person scurried over, first-aid kit in hand, but Pritkin snarled at the poor guy and he quickly backed up a step.  “Then get good at it!”
            He stomped off, limping, one shoulder hanging at an odd angle.  “You’re welcome,” I murmured.

 Look for Embrace the Night on April 1, 2008!