Reap the Wind
Okay, this was going to be easy.
That wasn’t something I said very often, because my life is a lot of things, but easy has never been one of them. My name is Cassie Palmer, and I used to be a down-on-my-luck clairvoyant who made ends meet by reading tarot in a bar. But then stuff happened. A lot of stuff. A lot of hair-raising, spine-tingling, unbelievably crazy and potentially deadly stuff. As a result, I was now a down-on-my-luck Pythia, the chief seer of the supernatural world.
Yeah, I don’t know how that happened, either.
But my no-good luck was about to change. Because my partner, who was currently lost in time, and who I’d been searching for what felt like forever, was right across the room.
And this time, nothing was going to go wrong.
“This time, nothing is going to go wrong,” I said into my beer.
The should-have-been-handsome-but-wasn’t-because-he-was-an-ass who was propping up the wall next to me didn’t answer. His shirt was open and he was poking at something on his stomach—presumably a bruise. I clenched my hand on my beer mug so I wouldn’t be tempted to add a few more.
“Did you hear me?” I demanded softly, trying not to call attention to us. Not that that seemed likely. The little dive in Amsterdam where we’d washed up was loud, and an especially raucous group had just blown in through the door. Along with a blast of cold air and icy slush that numbed my toes even through thick leather boots and added another layer of frost to my eyelashes.
Apparently, central heating was not a thing in the 1790s.
The smart people were over by the fire, which had managed to melt the slush around a small ring of chairs and a few stool-type things that I guess were supposed to be tables. Or beer holders, anyway. But we couldn’t join them and try to thaw out. Because the bar was by the fire and a half-demon war mage named Pritkin was by the bar.
He’d glanced around a few times since we came in, but hadn’t picked me out because my strawberry blond curls were hidden under a dark brown glamourie. The same one that had changed my tip-tilted nose into a pug and fattened my already plump cheeks into chipmunk territory. It was not a great look for me, but since my reluctant partner had provided it, I’d decided it could be worse.
I was sort of surprised he hadn’t given me warts.
I wasn’t surprised that he hadn’t bothered to answer. Rosier might be Lord of all Incubi, the demon race known for being smooth, suave, and charming, but I didn’t get to see that side of him. No, I saw this side. The side that was poking at his hairy abdomen with a frown, as if the ring of bruises there was potentially life-threatening.
If only, I thought, and kicked him.
That won me a glare out of a stranger’s black eyes, because Rosier was wearing a glamourie, too. Normally, he shared the green eye color and rugged blond good looks of his son and our elusive target. And nothing else. The stubborn sense of honor, the brutal honesty, and the iron discipline of the man I knew must have all come from Pritkin’s human side, because I’d yet to see a shred of them in his reprehensible father.
“Why are you asking me?” the creature demanded, glowering at me from under greasy, dark brown bangs. “I wasn’t the one who screwed up last time.”
“You got mugged last time!”
“You shouldn’t have left me alone,” he complained. “London is a dangerous city, doubly so in the Victorian age—”
“You’re a demon lord! How the hell you managed to get beaten up—”
“A demon lord without magic.”
“—by a handful of street thugs who didn’t even have—wait. What?”
He scowled at me. “Why do you think I’m carrying this?” he slapped the side of the leather man purse he’d brought along, because I guess incubi are more secure in their sexuality than most guys. Or maybe there was another reason.
He’d pulled the little patch that had provided my glamourie out of it earlier. I hadn’t stopped to wonder about it at the time, being too busy already wondering how to get into my multilayered Victorian outfit. But now it occurred to me that maybe a demon lord shouldn’t have to carry around his magic.
Or have the crap beaten out of him quite that easily.
“In their infinite wisdom, the demon council decided to put a dam on my power,” he confirmed bitterly. “They worried about what I would do to some of them, back in time with both foreknowledge and magic intact. Not being able to deprive me of the former, they restricted the latter—something that becomes a problem when one is set upon by six huge brutes!”
I didn’t waste time pointing out that it had been three the first time he told that story, because deflating his ego could wait. Something else couldn’t. “Then what about the counterspell?” I hissed.
Rosier and I were putting up with each other because we had a common goal: to save his son from obliteration. Pritkin’s twenty-first-century body was back where it belonged, and in decent shape despite being hit by a deadly curse. But only because it hadn’t been the target. His soul had. The demon spell had sent his spirit sliding back through the eras of his life, and would destroy it once it reached the beginning of what had been, thankfully, a very long existence.
At least, it would unless we put the countercurse on him first.
But that wasn’t my job. I’d done my job—flipping us through time after the wildly careening soul, which didn’t have anything like a steady, predictable path. It jumped here and there, like a piece of flotsam in the rapids, only catching up occasionally on some bit of time’s shoreline before being snatched off again a few minutes later.
And now the one person who could stop it was telling me he couldn’t cast the damned spell?
“Of course I can,” Rosier said acidly, when I pointed this out. “They had to leave me that much or what’s the use in my coming?”
“Nothing as far as I can—”
“But that’s the only one.”
I stared at him as his meaning sunk in. “You mean that’s the only spell you can do?”
He gestured at his bruised ribs. “Obviously.”
“But . . . but what if we run into trouble?”
“Well, you’re a witch, aren’t you?”
“No! No, I am not a witch! How many times do I have to—”
A hand reached around my shoulders and clapped over my mouth. “Keep your voice down! That is not a popular word in this era.”
I shut up, because he was right. And because I didn’t have a choice. And, eventually, Rosier decided to let me breathe again, but just so he could interrogate me.
“What do you mean, you’re not a witch?”
“I mean, I don’t do witch stuff,” I whispered. “I do Pythia stuff. That’s why I have bodyguards!” Only there was a limit to how many people I could take along on my jaunts through time, since every person added to the already considerable strain. So I’d left my guards at home, assuming that a demon lord could protect me.
Only to find out that he couldn’t even do that for himself.
“What do we do if we’re attacked?” he demanded.
“That’s what I just asked you!”
“You couldn’t have mentioned this before?”
“You told me to get us here, and you’d take care of the rest!”
“That was before I knew I was dealing with someone without even rudimentary—” he abruptly cut off.
“What is it?” I glanced around nervously. But it wasn’t a witch-hunting posse coming for me with torches blazing. In fact, nothing of interest appeared to be happening at all. Just the bar’s alcoholic tabby winding around a few legs, looking for handouts, more icy rain lashing the windows, and a couple guys arguing over a game of dice.
And Pritkin chatting up one of the barmaids.
I did a double take at that, because it wasn’t the sort of thing you saw every day. Or ever. The asshole beside me had seen to that.
About a century ago, Rosier had had one of his intermittent bouts of fatherly enthusiasm, during which he usually managed to screw up his son’s life in a major way. This time, he’d decided he wanted Pritkin back in hell on a permanent basis. Not so much for the pleasure of his company as to use him as a pawn in his little power games.
The fact that incubi gain power and influence through sex, and that this plan had therefore involved whoring his son out to the highest bidders, wasn’t thought of as a problem. Or probably thought of at all, since incubi had to feed to live anyway. So obliging other demons merely meant a two-way power exchange for them, with a little added influence for the pimp-in-chief.
At least, it did unless you were Pritkin. Who, as half human, could live off pizza like the rest of us. And who’d had this weird idea that there might be more to life. Long story short, he’d ended up being allowed to stay on earth, but only for as long as he could handle complete abstinence—something that, for most incubi, was considered the same as constant torture. Rosier assumed he’d have his son back inside a month.
He was still waiting.
As a result, when I met the stubborn cuss known as John Pritkin, he’d been that strangest of strange creatures: a celibate incubus. So it was more than a little odd to watch him flirting with a buxom blond who was trying her best to fall out of a low-cut blouse. It looked like barmaids dressing for tips wasn’t a new concept, I thought, scowling.
And then a mug was shoved in my face. “Here,” Rosier told me abruptly. “I need a refill.”
“So? What do you expect me to do about it?”
“Get me another!”
“With what? You were mugged, remember?” He’d charmed the first round out of the other barmaid somehow, but that sort of thing wasn’t in my repertoire. Besides, I still had beer.
“Do you usually pay for your own drinks?”
“No, but that’s in—what are you doing?” I demanded, as he started unbuttoning the top of my prim little shirtwaist.
I slapped his hand away. “Advertise yourself!”
“I’m not his type.”
“His—” I stopped, staring at Rosier.
“We need to get him alone,” the demon said impatiently. “And distracted. Can you think of a better way?”
“I can’t think of too many worse ones,” I said, clutching my top to stop Rosier from looking down my shirt. “And anyway, that sort of thing doesn’t work on Pritkin.”
“Doesn’t work on your version,” he corrected, wiping something off my cheek. “But this isn’t the man you know, and this one didn’t come in here for a drink. He came in for a meal.”
“But this place doesn’t serve—” I broke off at the look Rosier was sending me. “Oh.”
That type of meal.
“Hurry,” Rosier said, stealing my beer. “It looks like he’s already found the first course.”
I looked back at the bar to see that, sure enough, Pritkin was being led off somewhere by the blond. I felt my face flush. I thought he’d have better taste.
And then Rosier gave me what could only be called a shove, sending me stumbling into the middle of the room.
I might have returned the favor, but he was right, damn him. We couldn’t just de-hex Pritkin from across the bar, however nice that sounded. That’s what had tripped us up in London.
I’d left the poor, unprotected demon lord at the mercy of the city’s murderous brutes in order to play damsel in distress. Or at least damsel in need of some directions. Pritkin had gone sauntering by the alley where we’d popped in, and I’d run after him to lure him back so Rosier could zap him, although not with the counterspell.
We’d planned to knock him out and wait—until his eyes glowed neon green with a double dose of soul energy behind them. We’d showed up in London to get ahead of the hexed spirit, because hitting him with the counterspell before it arrived wouldn’t help. And, knowing Pritkin, would probably get us hit back. So unconscious it had had to be.
Or distracted, although that sort of thing was more daunting for me than for a horny demon lord.
I looked back to see Rosier shooing at me, with an expression of utter disgust on his face. Whatever. I started winding my way through the low, bench-like tables, nervousness gnawing at my gut.
Sure, Rosier wouldn’t have a problem seducing somebody into doing what he wanted. It was practically his job description. But it wasn’t mine, and the whole thing was uncomfortable in ways I didn’t want to think about right now.
Like some of the things Pritkin had said recently, after he’d had his father’s prohibition lifted, but before he’d gotten zapped with the curse. Things I had probably misinterpreted. Things that, even if I hadn’t misinterpreted, weren’t going anywhere, because my personal life was even more complicated than my job.
And wasn’t that saying something?
I stopped in front of a tattered curtain leading to what I guessed was the back of the bar. And then just stayed there, chewing my lip and trying to come up with a better plan. Because this one wasn’t going to work.
I wasn’t one of Rosier’s succubi, some experienced femme fatale. Hell, I wasn’t even a femme slightly nauseous. I was a time-traveling, ghost-whispering, somewhat clumsy clairvoyant, with an upturned nose, too many freckles and cheeks nobody would call defined even without Rosier’s idea of a disguise. I wouldn’t have been competition for Dolly Parton in there on my best day.
But I had to come up with something. Enough to keep Pritkin in sight, at least. Otherwise, if his soul came and went while he was in the back, we might never know it. And that would be a problem, since we were fast running out of time before—
And then I was out.
The curtain was abruptly thrown back and the blond emerged with a giggle and a wink, tucking something down the front of her front. Wow, I thought, faintly disappointed. That hadn’t taken long.
And then I was being jerked through the door by a furious war mage. “You!”
“What?” I asked stupidly.
And then three things happened at once. The outer room went suddenly silent, a knife blade bit into the skin of my throat, and the barmaid came back through the curtain, smirking at me. And then continued doing so as she toppled over, stiff as a blond-haired mannequin. And hit the floor, bouncing on her considerable padding off to the side.
Pritkin and I stared down at her for a moment, at her glassy eyes and messy hair and still-leering face. Which was more than a little creepy, since she was now leering at my left boot. And then we looked at each other.
“What did you do?” we demanded, at the same time.
“What?” we said again.
And then “Stop that!”
And Pritkin did. But only so he could grab me and snarl: “It’s here, isn’t it?”
“Wh-what’s here?” I asked, as he backed me into a wall with no effort at all. Because I’ve always found a knife over my jugular to be really persuasive.
“Don’t play games,” he hissed.
I started to swallow and then stopped, afraid I’d push the blade in more. Of course, that might not matter. Since one glance at the frozen girl told me I had bigger problems than a pissed-off war mage.
There are spells that can render a person unconscious just that fast, but they wouldn’t leave her with one hand raised, adjusting a bit of material over the assets between her assets. Or cause her skirts to be stuck in a swirl, like around moving legs. Or make stray bits of her hair stay suspended in air that was no longer flowing.
She looked like someone had called her name right after she’d come out of the back, and she’d turned toward them, professional grin already in place. Only to freeze halfway through the motion and come tumbling back in here. She looked like a frame cut out of a movie, which would have been weird if I hadn’t seen that sort of thing before.
“You know,” I told him nervously, “I’ve never felt less like a game in my—”
“What you stole from me!” he yelled, making me flinch. And freak out, since I wasn’t sure I hadn’t just slit my own throat.
And then a voice came from the outer room. “In back! Check it out.”
Pritkin and I froze, stiff as the girl on the floor. I don’t know what his reasoning was, but mine ran something like: crap. That command had been in English, which was weird enough considering where we were. But not as much as hearing it in imperious female tones, in a place where women were tolerated only if they were with a man or serving drinks.
It can’t be, I told myself sternly. You’re just being paranoid. Even your luck isn’t that—
And then the curtain was flung back and Pritkin let go of me to face off with . . . two little girls?
That’s what they looked like at first glance, two teenagers wearing long, white gowns, their red and brown curls held back with ribbons from their innocent faces. But I knew the drill, I knew the goddamned uniform, and innocent they weren’t.
“Oh, shit,” I said, causing the brunette’s head to jerk up.
Her hand followed the motion a second later, but I’d expected that and already thrown myself at the floor, jerking Pritkin down with me. As a result, the time wave she threw rippled overhead, missing us by inches. And hit something to our rear that collapsed in a cacophony of rusty metal and shattering glass that I didn’t see because I was busy.
Freezing two Pythian acolytes in place before they could do the same to me.
It was lucky I was already on my hands and knees, because the power drain of stopping time was immediate and terrible, especially after flipping through the damn stuff all day. If “day” even meant anything anymore, which I wasn’t sure it did, I was just sure I was going to throw up. And then Pritkin grabbed me again.
“Where is it?”
Dear God, he was single-minded, I thought, trying to crawl off. I’d forgotten that, somehow. Although I was remembering as he dragged me back to my feet and shook me.
I caught sight of myself—red face, tumbled blond curls, startled blue eyes—in some brass platters hanging on the wall. And damn Rosier! He must have taken off the unflattering glamourie when he sent me after his son, and hadn’t bothered to mention it.
Well, that explained my reception, anyway.
My Pritkin might not be here yet, but this one . . . well, we’d met before. To be precise, we’d met in 1793 on one of my previous time jaunts, which had been barely a year ago from his perspective. It was why I’d needed the glamourie.
Okay, and because the last time we met I’d made like one of Rosier’s street toughs, and mugged him.
It hadn’t been intentional—all right, it had been, but it was for his own good. He’d been looking for something he absolutely couldn’t be allowed to find, and he’d had a map on him to its location, and well, I’d had no choice but to take it.
And strip him and steal his clothes.
And get him beaten up by a vampire.
And then there was the small matter of burning the only map that led to the location of his most prized possession, so, yeah, I probably wasn’t his favorite person just now. But I had one big advantage. “I’m n-not t-trying to k-kill you,” I told him, pointing at the girls. “They are!”
It wasn’t a lie.
Because the frozen barmaid, and the time wave, and the girls’ prim little outfits all added up to one thing. One very, very bad thing. And if there was about to be a time battle in here, I didn’t want him anywhere near it.
“You have to go,” I told him frantically, when he finally stopped shaking me.
But Pritkin didn’t go. He just stood there, looking bemused, as I tried my best to push him out the back door. “Why?”
“Because . . . there are some . . . people . . . after me and . . . goddamnit!” The guy weighed a freaking ton.
Green eyes narrowed. “Perhaps we could work out an arrangement—”
“No! No, we can’t!”
“Give me what I want, and I will help—”
“You can’t help me with this. It’s—new magic,” I said, thinking fast. “Really new. Like super new.”
Pritkin frowned, but he didn’t call me on the lie, maybe because he couldn’t. This Pritkin wasn’t the spell master of my day, when there were few enchantments he didn’t know or hadn’t invented. This one was just back from an extended jaunt in hell, and was therefore out of the loop as far as magical theory went.
Way out. It was why he’d lost the property he was trying to recover from me to a couple of low-end scam artists who didn’t have as much magic in their whole bodies as he did in his little finger. But knowledge is power, and they’d known stuff he didn’t.
I could almost see the thoughts running through his head, but he still wasn’t moving. And that was a problem since he was half again as heavy as me and most of that was muscle. But I was determined, because we didn’t have a lot of time.
And then we had less, when he glanced at the curtain and then at me, and I suddenly found myself up against the wall again.
But this time, the knife was nowhere in sight.
“No, see—” I managed to say, right before a hard mouth came down on mine.
“This . . . is no time . . . for a snack!” I gasped furiously, when Pritkin let me up for air. Only to have him scowl in a very disturbing impression of his father.
All the more so because the next thing I knew, a knee was spreading my thighs, hard hands were gripping my hips, and he was nuzzling my neck with little growling sounds that sent shivers all the way to my belly.
And put a crease in my forehead, because this was so typical.
Not the sexy stuff, although there’d been a few moments. . . . But moments were all they’d been, because of the whole no-sex rule and because, well, it was complicated. But the stubbornness. The arrogance. The absolute certainty that he knew better than me about every damned thing, yeah, that was familiar.
The last time I’d seen him, other than for that glimpse in London, had been the moment he was cursed. And just after, when I was sure I’d lost him for good. It had felt like a punch to the gut. It had felt like the end of the world. I’d thought, if only we had one more minute . . .
And now that we did, all I wanted was to give him a swift kick.
But instead, my hands were finding their way under his shirt, my fingers were ghosting over his ribs and nipples, and my palms were enjoying the feel of springy chest hair under my hands.
And then he pushed me against the wall and kissed me again.
And damn it, I knew what he was doing, I thought, returning the kiss furiously. He was trying to use incubus abilities on me, and it wasn’t going to work. Because he could feed anytime—I broke off to bite on a luscious lower lip—when we weren’t—and to suck on his chin—in the middle—and along his jaw—of a damned crisis! I bit an earlobe and heard him inhale sharply. Served him right, I thought, worrying it, and wondering how I was supposed to face a Pythia at full power when I was barely able to stand up on my own.
And then suddenly I wasn’t.
A single hand curved under my butt, lifting me, another captured my hands, shoving them over my head, and a body pressed against mine, holding me helplessly against the wall. I couldn’t touch him, I couldn’t move, except to wind my legs around his waist, skirts and all, and try to hold on. But he could, and he took full advantage, with little vibrations of his hips against mine that quickly had me gasping and groaning and staring at some cobwebs on the ceiling like I had no idea what they were.
And then he was groaning, too, and talking into my neck.
I couldn’t understand a word because it wasn’t English, at least I didn’t think so. But it was hard to tell with all the white noise suddenly roaring in my ears. Along with the ebb and flow of labored breathing, which might have been mine but I couldn’t tell anymore because he was kissing me again, hot and hard and hungry, almost desperate. And his hips were moving more, pounding me into the wall until he forgot to hold my hands and they found his shoulders and I just hung on. And every time he did that grind again, the white noise ramped up and my heart sped up and my breathing became sobs became groans became cries until I was just screaming and thrashing and—
And . . . and . . . oh.
I held on as wave after wave of sensation crashed through me, like a hurricane slamming into a beach. Hurricane Pritkin, I thought deliriously, as the vibrations hammered at me, wild and tumultuous and demanding. And then softer, gentler, sweeter, but no less strong for all that. I finally surfaced to find his body still pressed against mine, his breathing uneven and his fingers trembling on my jaw. A piece of my hair was stuck to his cheek. I brushed it off, panting slightly, feeling drugged and delirious and golden warm wherever our skin touched.
And then someone cleared a throat.
It wasn’t Pritkin.
I looked up, blinking. And saw a short, stout, middle-aged woman in a frilly Victorian frock framed in the doorway. She had a head full of improbable violet sausage curls and was carrying a cherry-covered parasol. The frock had cherries on it, too, big red ones on a white background, and small, round, purple glasses were perched on the end of her nose.
She looked totally nuts.
She also looked confused, although not half as much as I was.
“Are you finished?” she finally asked, politely.
I just looked at her.
“Yes, I remember,” she said, a little nostalgically. “Take a moment, girl.”
I took a moment.
And then I took another one.
“Who the hell are you?” I finally asked.
“My very question.”
I opened my mouth, and then closed it again. Then I looked at the two girls in white, who were still imitating statues on either side of the door. “Yours?” I asked carefully.
I slumped back against the wall in sheer relief. “Oh, thank God.”
Brown eyes that were shrewder than the outfit would suggest narrowed. “You were expecting another answer?”
“I—well, to tell the truth, I’ve been having a little trouble with some of my . . . associates . . . lately.”
I’d almost said “acolytes,” since that’s who I’d assumed the girls were. I was a new Pythia, and not everybody from my predecessor’s court was exactly on board with the change of command. Five especially had decided that they could do without me, preferably permanently. And since they were on the loose at the moment, it had been a logical conclusion that some or all of them had hunted me down.
Logical but, apparently, also wrong.
Unless my acolytes had adopted one hell of a new dress code.
“Some trouble?” A slender eyebrow went up.
“They sort of want me dead.” It was one of the messes I was going to have to deal with as soon as I got Pritkin back.
Cherry red lips pursed. “Understandable. A rogue is a serious problem.”
“I’m not a rogue.”
That did not appear to go down well. “Whatever you are, you do not belong here.”
“Neither do you,” I pointed out. That outfit was pure Victorian excess.
She smiled gently. “Had you remained in London a little while longer, I would not have had to be.”
Well, that explained that. It looked like the nineteenth-century Pythia had taken exception to my romping through her turf; why, I didn’t know. Nobody had ever said anything before.
“Isn’t the usual procedure to, uh, ignore that sort of thing?” I asked hopefully.
The eyebrow ratcheted up another notch. “Ignore a powerful demon lord intruding into areas he oughtn’t?”
Crap. I should have known. Rosier.
He was just the gift that kept on giving, wasn’t he?
“But no matter,” she told me. “I do enjoy a bit of a chase. But I’m afraid this one is over now.”
I swallowed. Under other circumstances, she’d have been right. I’d have gone back to Victorian Britain without a fuss, on the assumption that I’d be able to talk my way out of this sooner or later. But right now, I didn’t have that option. Even if I could eventually convince her that I wasn’t a dangerous rogue, that Rosier wasn’t currently a powerful anything, and that we should therefore be allowed to go on our way, it wouldn’t matter.
It would still be too late for Pritkin.
The demon who had cast the spell had boasted that it had been selected with my abilities in mind, to make rescue unlikely. As a result, Pritkin’s cursed soul would only pass through each era of his life once. No matter how many times I came back to this year afterward, it would never be here again. And shortly beyond this point, his past became a lot more difficult to navigate, with a lengthy time spent in hell where my power didn’t work well, if at all, and then . . . an early life at a point too far back in time for me to reach.
My hands clenched on his arms. I was drained from a day of time-shifting, demon-sitting, and now Pritkin’s idea of a late-night snack. I was in no shape to challenge a Pythia who, presumably, had a lot more experience on the job than me and had two members of her court with her. Each of whom was like an extra battery pack, giving her a major advantage even if I’d been at full strength.
If I challenged her, I was going to lose.
But I didn’t have a choice. I had to catch Pritkin here. And based on how fast his soul had been going, it could arrive any time.
Only, looking into the woman’s sharp brown eyes, time wasn’t something I thought I had.
And then Pritkin’s hands clenched back.
I looked up at him, surprised, but couldn’t read his expression. But he didn’t leave me wondering for long. “One kiss before you go,” he rasped.
I blinked at him, not sure I understood, and then at my counterpart. Who sighed and rolled her eyes. “Get on with it, then.”
He got on with it.
But this wasn’t a normal kiss. I knew it as soon as our lips touched, because I’d felt something like it before, although the memory had faded somewhat. Until a spine-tingling, thrumming, heady rush coursed through every cell in my body, and I remembered.
Oh God, yes, I remembered, I thought, groaning and grabbing on to his hair, his shoulders, his butt, trying to crawl up his body as he filled me with life and energy and power, to the point that I found myself laughing against his lips, the feeling so giddy, so effervescent, so light, that it simply had to come out somehow.
“All right,” the other Pythia said dryly. “I think that’s quite enough.”
I didn’t answer, being too busy giggling and holding helplessly on to Pritkin.
“Come along, girl,” she said impatiently.
“No.” It was strangled, because I was desperately trying to keep a straight face.
Brown eyes narrowed. “You don’t want to test me, my dear.”
“You know,” I gasped, “I kind of think I do.”
And then I froze her.
The expression on her face as she toppled over really set me off, but Pritkin was already towing me through the door and back into the bar. Where people were starting to move sluggishly as her time spell unraveled. And that included one extremely odd-looking demon lord who scowled in slo-mo when he saw me run through with his son, still doubled over with laughter and strange euphoria and utter disbelief that I’d just done that.
Oh God, I was so dead, I thought hysterically.
And then a sheet of rain slapped some sense back into me.
Pritkin had pulled open the door, which almost resulted in us getting blown off our feet. It looked like the other Pythia’s time bubble extended only as far as this room. Because outside, nature was taking its course in the form of a gale of wind and sleety rain that was only slightly lessened when Pritkin jerked me around the corner and up against the side of the building.
There was intermittent cover under the eaves and the spreading arms of a tree. But unlike the dark shadows along a nearby canal, it was way too close to a window for my liking. A haze of golden light speared the darkness from between the gaps in a pair of old wooden shutters, highlighting random bits of war mage: a cheekbone, a stubbly jaw, one violent green eye.
And a pair of thin lips that opened to say: “Where is it?”
“Where is what?”
Oh, right. He wanted his damned map back. “We don’t have time for that,” I told him, sobering up slightly. “We have to get . . . somebody . . . and then get out of here—”
“Give me what I want and I will let you go!”
“I can’t give you what I don’t have,” I told him, distracted, because the gaps in the shutters were from warped boards, not slats, and I couldn’t see much inside. That was worrying, since Pythias weren’t affected by time spells like other people. What I’d flung at her would have bought me fifteen minutes, maybe more, with anyone else. With her . . . I honestly didn’t know how long we had.
But I was betting it came under the heading of not long enough.
Annnnnnd now Pritkin was shaking me again. “I helped you!”
“Yes, after m-mugging me,” I pointed out. Although in fairness, it felt like I’d gotten back more power than I’d given. Like, a lot more.
Which was weird, because he was looking kind of energized himself.
Along with pissed.
“I b-burnt the map,” I reminded him quickly. “You w-watched me—”
“But you’d memorized it, hadn’t you?”
“Look, can we t-talk about this another—”
“You’d memorized it”—low and furious—“and you saw something in there that brought you here!”
“And you know that h-how?”
“Don’t play dumb!”
“Trust me, she doesn’t have to,” came a cynical voice.
Pritkin’s head jerked up at sight of the specimen that had just joined us. Fortunately, Rosier was still unrecognizable. Unfortunately, it was because he’d somehow managed to fall onto my leftover glamourie.
And I guessed it wasn’t advisable to try to use two at the same time. Because the usually polished demon lord now looked like Popeye, with one bulging eye and one regular, a swollen chipmunk cheek, a bulbous nose, and a couple of shaggy brown things above his eyes that resembled fuzzy caterpillars. Caterpillars that pulled together when Pritkin grabbed his satchel.
“Does nobody in this benighted place have any respect for private property?” Rosier demanded.
I didn’t know what kind of dangerous stuff Rosier was carrying, but Pritkin took one glance at the contents and his already fearsome scowl grew exponentially. He grabbed me around the neck, facing off with Rosier, the bag held tight in the hand that wasn’t busy choking me. “Any closer and she dies!”
“Oh no, stop,” Rosier said lazily.
“I’m not bluffing,” Pritkin snarled. He looked down at me. “And now you’re going to tell me what that thing was.”
“What thing?” I asked, confused. “Look, we don’t have time for—urp.”
“I traced the thieves’ movements,” Pritkin told me, quietly vicious. “I discovered that they’d gone from England, where they stole my property, to Paris, where they sold it, via Amsterdam. I came here suspecting that they might have preferred to hide it well away from the auction site. And what do I find on the very day I arrive? My chief competitor—”
“You have to admit, it does sound damning,” Rosier murmured.
“—trying to eavesdrop on my conversation with their sister!”
“Their—you mean the barmaid?” I asked, strangely relieved. Although that may have been because he’d finally realized he was choking me and loosened his grip slightly.
“Or were you distracting me while your accomplice searched the place?” Pritkin suddenly stared around, as if he thought his prize was about to drop from a tree or something. “That’s it, isn’t it? It’s here!”
“Then tell me where it is if you want to live!”
And, okay, things suddenly weren’t so funny anymore. Because Pritkin wasn’t kidding. I knew him well enough to know his don’t-fuck-with-me expression when I saw it. Just as I knew I couldn’t give him what he wanted. The map he’d lost had led to something called the Codex Merlini, a book of spells that needed to molder away exactly where it was, since some rather delicate events would later hinge on that. Some delicate, potentially world-ending events.
But I somehow didn’t think that trying to explain that was going to go over well.
And then I didn’t have to.
Half of the wall we were standing against suddenly crumbled in a cascade of rocks and dust and, oh, crap. I got a half-second glimpse of an incensed Pythia standing backlit amid the billowing clouds, parasol at the ready and chin tilted determinedly, and then I panicked. And since there weren’t a whole lot of options, I did what I usually do when terrified and defenseless, and shifted.
But not me.
The power that allows me temporal shifts also permits spatial ones, to a limited degree. Limited in that I have to know where I’m going, which I didn’t, and can see where I’m landing, which I couldn’t. I also couldn’t leave Pritkin with the cursed soul due to arrive any minute, and it’s not like I had a lot of time to think about it and—
And so I shifted her.
“Was that supposed to help?” Rosier demanded, staring at the sight of a waterlogged Pythia rising from the dark and, okay, faintly slimy canal, lavender curls hanging dispiritedly around a by now truly furious face.
For a split second, I just stared back in horror. I’d been aiming for the opposite bank, but I couldn’t see shit and—and damn.
“Run,” I squawked. Only to find out that I couldn’t. Because Pritkin wasn’t letting go, not having managed to follow all of that.
But Rosier had and he grabbed his satchel back and took off. Leaving me behind, because nobody had ever accused him of being noble. But for once, I thought he had the right idea.
“You want . . . the Codex?” I asked Pritkin, panting from lack of air and utter, utter terror. “Because you just let it get away. He has it!”
And, okay, that worked, I thought, as Pritkin started after the fleeing demon lord. Sort of, I amended, as he jerked me along for the ride. But that was okay; that was good even. I just had to keep them close and keep him from killing Rosier and keep an eye out for the damned soul while I was at it.
Well, and one other thing, I amended, as the gnarled old limbs of a tree exploded into flower as we passed.
I turned around while still running, watching through pelting rain as the massive trunk shrank, old bark became new, twisted limbs straightened and flowered and hung heavy with life. It would have been beautiful, except for the knowledge that a blast of reverse time like that wouldn’t do me the same good. Would, in fact, age me right out of existence.
Good thing she couldn’t see me any better than I could her, huh, I thought, right before something like the sun suddenly flooded the area all around us. Something exactly like, I realized, staring up at the darkened sky. And at a patch of icy slush the size of a house that had just been replaced by clear blue skies and fat, happy-looking clouds.
Damn, I didn’t know we could do that, I thought, as the light of another day shone down around us, out of some type of time portal I didn’t understand because I didn’t understand much about this job. But if the idea was to turn a searchlight on us, it was doing okay, I thought, and jerked Pritkin into the shade of a nearby bridge.
“What the—” he began, staring upward at the shimmering beam that was sparkling off the water, and throwing moving shadows of tree limbs onto snow-covered streets as it started moving around, looking for us.
“New magic?” I said weakly. And received a frown in return, because Pritkin isn’t stupid.
But before he could work it out, something like a speedboat tore out from under the bridge, drenching us with freezing spray.
I hadn’t seen who was driving it, but I guess Pritkin had. Because he swore and dragged us down a rusty ladder into a small dinghy, which seemed kind of useless since it had no form of propulsion that I could see. Outboard motors didn’t exist in 1794.
But magic did. At least, I assumed there was some sort of spell involved when we zipped out into the canal, so fast that it sent me tumbling into the stern and had the prow of the boat leaping out of the water, barely touching the waves. But we were doing better than Rosier, who I saw when I scrambled back to my feet, just ahead of us.
He was in another speeding boat, courtesy of his big bag o’ tricks, I supposed, but whatever he was using must not have come with instructions. Or steering. Because he was weaving back and forth along the narrow waterway, his boat hitting other boats and the high brick walls of the canal and basically anything and everything in his path, making his frantic face and waving arms kind of superfluous.
Yes, I knew he was in trouble.
But then, so were we.
Because the makeshift searchlight was now chasing us, flowing along the sides of the canal like bright water. The portal looked like an oval of colored film imposed over the black-and-white landscape around us, some avant-garde cinematography about youth and age. Behind us, skeletal trees became green, snow melted into leaf-strewn streets, people strolled along the shore enjoying a bright spring day.
And then stopped to stare through the portal at us, including one guy who ran into a tree.
I stared back as time boiled along a line just behind us, bisecting day and night. And summer and winter. And the bottom of our boat, sending me scrambling frantically into the front and Pritkin cursing and somehow increasing our speed.
It worked, sort of. We jumped ahead, all but flying now, with a sound like the crack of a mighty whip. Or, I realized a second later, like half a boat splintering and breaking and falling away.
I stared behind us through my wildly flying hair as what had been the back of our boat was swallowed by that other day, bobbing and listing and then sinking in bright spring sunshine. And realized that we weren’t going to be any better off soon. Half a boat doesn’t float well, and only our crazy speed was keeping us momentarily above water.
I looked around frantically, trying to spot Rosier, planning to shift us onto his vessel, which at least was still in one piece. But it was dark ahead, even without the glow from behind obscuring my vision. And the sleety half rain, half snow was coming down harder now, making it almost impossible to—
And then Rosier made it easy by crashing headlong into the back of a barge.
It sent him hurtling out of his craft and through the air, and I grabbed Pritkin and shifted even before he landed. We ended up right beside him, which would have been impressive—if I’d remembered to leave our broken craft behind. But we were still clinging to the sides, so our boat had come, too, and for a second there, it was skipping along the long, unladen surface of the barge, right beside a falling, cursing, and rolling demon lord. And then Pritkin reached out and grabbed his father. And I shifted us again, about a second before we would have plowed into the back of the captain’s cabin.
So we plowed into one of the small bridges that spanned the canals instead.
That actually wouldn’t have been so bad, since our little half craft had managed to land on top. But then we kept right on going. I screamed and grabbed Pritkin, who was clutching Rosier in a death grip but manfully keeping silent. Unlike the elegant demon lord, who was yelling right along with me as our momentum carried us across the narrow span, which was little more than a brick arch sans railings.
And off the other side.
And into a patch of bright sunlight and the front of a larger boat being guided along by a still-dripping Pythia.
“Well, hello,” she said, smiling at me evilly, as I looked up from a pile of demon.
“Well, good-bye,” I gasped, and kicked her into the canal.
And then our tiny boat shuddered and shook as Pritkin got control of it again. And then abruptly detached itself from the Pythia’s stately barge. And skittered off down the canal, through the early morning sunlight of that other day that had now engulfed us, with Rosier clinging to the bow, Pritkin holding on to him and me drowning along behind, my body half in the water as I gripped an oar I’d snared at the last second and hung on for dear life.
I tried to pull myself up, which would have been easier without all the kicking and scuffling feet in my face. And without being slung back and forth wildly, because no one seemed to be driving this thing. But then I forgot about all that; I forgot about everything.
Because I’d just looked up.
And seen a new form of light shining out of a pair of brilliant green eyes.
My throat closed up for a moment in sheer, unadulterated relief. And then opened so I could scream, “Hex him! Hex him!”
That won me a glare but nothing else, because Rosier was in a stranglehold and couldn’t speak the damned words. And I could barely hold on, much less help him out. And then the little boat got even more crowded when the triple damned Pythia shifted in next to me with a snarl.
That would have been bad—really bad—if our craft hadn’t suddenly sped into darkness again. And not because we’d passed under another bridge. It fell all around us, like night arriving in a moment, all but blinding after the glare. And then just as abruptly we hit something.
We were thrown into the high front of the boat, all of us landing in a wad of thrashing limbs and screaming faces. And then we bounced off the prow and fell out the nonexistent back, because our craft was suddenly not budging. I realized why a second later, when my butt hit something hard and ice-cold.
Which was a good description since it was, in fact, ice.
More was spread out all around us, and had frozen the boat in place, which explained why we weren’t moving.
I stared around at dim moonlight reflecting off a long ribbon of solid canal and felt dizzy and confused. First we’d been in a sleet storm, then in a sunny spring day, and now where were we? If we’d somehow escaped the other Pythia’s time portal, or whatever the heck that had been, shouldn’t we be back where we started? But there was no driving rain, no sleet, no boiling dark clouds to be seen. Just a quiet midnight scene, an icy canal, and a stooped figure on a bridge overhead, silhouetted against a harvest moon.
It was a tiny woman with a black cloak billowing in the breeze. And a wispy bun of white hair. And a pissed-off expression.
Rosier and Pritkin were wrestling over to the side, thrashing around in a way that threatened to break through the ice. I desperately wanted to go and help, but I didn’t. Because the patch of sunlight had stopped just behind us, as if it was afraid to come any closer.
Like my counterpart of the dripping cherries, who wasn’t looking so confident, suddenly.
“Lydia,” Cherries said nervously. “I—I can explain.”
“What?” The old woman scowled at her.
“It’s me, Gertie.” It was louder this time.
“Ger—oh, for goodness’ sake. Your horn.”
“Speak up, why can’t you?”
“Your horn! Put in your horn!”
“Give me a moment,” the old woman said querulously. “I’ve got to put in me horn.”
She pulled an old black ear horn out from under her cloak and held it to the side of her head. “What?” she demanded again.
“It’s me,” the other Pythia repeated, loud and slow. “Gertie. And I know we’re out of place—”
“Demmed right, ye’re out of place!”
“Yes, I know. But—”
“Always breaking the rules, you were. And now ye’re consorting with the likes of him!”
“Consort . . .” Gerdie puffed up. “I am doing no such thing—”
“Knew I should have trained your sister,” the old woman muttered.
“I’m trying to get him back where he belongs!”
“Oh, I’ll get ye back,” the old woman said ominously.
“No! No, Lydia, you must listen—”
But listening didn’t appear to be Lydia’s strong suit. And a second later, there was no more Gertie. Who, I assumed, had just been sent packing to the 1880s.
By her 1794 counterpart.
It was getting crowded with Pythias around here, I thought blankly, as the old woman turned her attention on me. I smiled weakly. And then I shifted to the boys, not even waiting to get a good grip on them before shifting us all through the rapidly closing time portal behind us.
To my surprise, it worked. We landed in daylight, which was good. And in the middle of a canal that was no longer solid, which was bad. But that was still okay.
Until my damned useless partner sank like a stone.
I dove after him, grabbed him by the collar, and dragged him back to the surface, where he flailed and spluttered and tried to drown me.
“I thought your kind were supposed to float!” I said, smacking him upside the head.
“That’s . . . witches,” he gasped, but calmed down slightly.
Until we looked around for Pritkin. And almost got run over by a canal boat full of tourists, instead. A Japanese guy in an “I got high in Amsterdam” T-shirt hung over the open side of the boat, snapping pictures of the waterlogged crazies, while Rosier cussed and flailed and swore and sank. And I stared around in confusion at a few hundred bicycles, a bunch of tiny cars, and no Pritkin, cursed or otherwise.
And all right, then, I thought, letting the water close over my own head.
Maybe this wasn’t going to be as easy as I’d thought.