A Family Affair

Chapter One

            The double doors were painted white with gold trim and had fussy gold door handles.  They also had one of the new, high-priced protection wards with none of the traditional potion stench or oily residue.  Or any protection worth a damn, John thought darkly.
            He was scowling at it when something hard bumped into his back.  He flung an arm across the doorway to keep himself from falling into the useless ward.  “Wait a minute.”
            “You wait a minute.” The impatient voice came from behind him. “This is heavy!”
            “Then put it down.”
            “I’m going to.  Inside.” 
            John forced himself to count to ten.  Guarding the pythia-elect, the woman soon to become the world’s chief seer, was no easy task.  The fact that the supernatural community was currently in the middle of a war didn’t help.  But it was her penchant for running headlong into trouble that regularly threatened his nerves—and his sanity.
            “The wardsmiths haven’t been here yet,” he explained.  “There’s only the standard protection.”
            “So I know of at least a dozen ways around this particular type, and that is assuming the would-be intruder is human.  Which considering your talent for making enemies, is by no means—”
              “I’m about to rupture something,” he was informed, as the big, gaily wrapped box she was carrying smacked into the small of his back again.  She had an uncanny ability to hit the same spot every time.
            “We’ll add additional weight training to your routine,” he told her evilly, and threw a shield over one hand.  He ran it cautiously over the doorway, checking for traps or the tell-tale holes in the ward’s surface that an intruder would likely leave behind. 
            “Pritkin, it’s a hotel room, not a death trap!”  A glance over his shoulder showed him impatient blue eyes under a fall of messy blond curls.  “Anyway, you’re here.”
            “I can’t protect you from everything,” he forced himself to say, because it was true.  It was also frankly terrifying in a way that his own mortality was not.  He’d never had children, but he sometimes wondered if this was how parents felt when catching sight of a fearless toddler confidently heading toward a busy street.  Not that his charge was a child, as he was all-too uncomfortably aware.  But the knowledge of just how many potentially lethal pitfalls lay in her path sometimes caused him that same heart-clenching terror.
            And the same overwhelming need to throw her over his lap and spank the living daylights out of her, he thought grimly, when she suddenly popped out of existence.  “Cassie!”
            His only answer was a loud groan from indoors.  He ripped through the ward and bolted inside, gun drawn and heart in his throat.  Only to see her staring in annoyance at six huge vampires lounging in the suite’s sizeable living room. 
            Marco, their leader, was a great bear of a creature, a foot and a half taller and at least ten stone heavier than the small woman facing him. But he was the one who looked alarmed.  Possibly because she’d just appeared out of thin air barely a foot in front of him.
            And she wasn’t backing up.  “What are you doing here?” she demanded.
            “It’s not my idea of fun, either, princess,” he told her defensively.  “Master’s orders.”
            “Oh, for—Casanova was just here!” she said, referring to the hotel’s manager.  “He checked everything out this morning.”
            Marco sneered.  “Yeah.  Like I’m gonna trust that pansy-waist incubus to check anything.  Everybody knows what they’re good for.”
            John ignored the unintended jab in favor of grabbing Cassie’s arm.  “You’re not moving until I check it out.”
            “We’re inside a vampire stronghold!” she said, thrusting the package at him.
            He thrust it back.  “That’s what worries me.” 
            She sighed and shoved the box into the nearest vampire’s gut instead.  “Don’t drop it,” she warned, before turning her attention on his boss. 
            “Hey!” Marco protested as she tugged his polo shirt out of his pants and pushed it up, revealing an angry red scar bisecting a thick mat of black hair.   
            “I knew it!”  She looked at him accusingly.  “You aren’t healed.”
            “Close enough,” he said, trying to pull his shirt back down.  
            He stopped when Cassie slapped his hands.  Then her touch gentled, and she traced the ugly, livid mark with one finger.  The simple movement sent an unexpected shiver along John’s spine, perhaps because he recalled what those soft little hands had once felt like on his own scars, moving over his skin…
            He shook himself and shoved the image away. 
            Marco didn’t seem to be having the same reaction, but the obvious concern on her face brought a softer look to his.  “I’m okay.”
            “You almost died, Marco—less than two weeks ago,” she told him severely.  “You are not okay!”
            “I’m not planning on running any marathons.  But I couldn’t stay in that damn hospital bed one more day.  Those nurses are complete bastards.”
            “Just because they wouldn’t let you bring in vodka and cigars.”
            “Or my laptop.”
            “And why did you need a laptop?”
            He looked shifty.  “You know, for games.  And…stuff.”
            Cassie rolled her eyes.  “You needed to rest.”
            “That is resting!”
            She gave up with a little snort and started for the bedroom.  John had anticipated that and stepped in front of the door.  “Shift inside and I will make your life hell,” he said pleasantly.
            “You sound like I’m about to run headlong into danger—” 
            “As you just did?  As you always do?” 
            “—when you know the room has already been checked out.  Twice.” 
            He crossed his arms and didn’t budge.  He’d found out the hard way—give the woman an inch and she’d shift to another continent when he wasn’t looking.  She was the oddest combination of contradictions he’d ever met: innocence and sensuality, candor and diplomacy, anxiety and utter fearlessness.  He hadn’t even begun to figure out how her mind worked.
            But she was damn well going to live long enough for him to try.
            She put her hands on her hips and glared at him.  “This is ridiculous!  I’m not going to live my life in constant fear, do you understand?”
            “Better than not living it at all,” he snapped.  And for once, he received a semi-sympathetic glance from Marco.
            Cassie threw her hands up in a gesture that reminded him vaguely of someone, although he couldn’t place it.  “Fine,” she said, obviously annoyed.  She took the heavy package back from the vamp, probably so she would have something to complain about later. 
            “We already did that,” Marco said mildly, as John pushed open the bedroom door with his foot. 
            “And now I’m doing it again.”
            Marco bared a lot of gleaming white teeth, several of which were pointier than they should have been.  But he didn’t argue.  They each had abilities the other lacked, and there was a chance a mage might detect something his men had missed.  And whatever else John might think about the creature, it was clear that he took his job seriously.
            So did John, and he wasn’t happy about this latest move.  The ongoing repairs from the hotel’s most recent disaster had forced Cassie to switch suites, requiring that all protection spells be redone and a new security workup be created.  The extra labor was annoying, but the real issue was that it left worrying holes in the security net for however long it took for the wardsmiths to show up. 
            He went over the bedroom and attached bath twice, just to be sure, switching from Arcane to Druid to Fey magic to detect different types of spells.  But it looked like the vampires had done their job.  He didn’t find so much as a decayed eavesdropping charm. 
            As soon as he gave the all clear, Cassie pushed past him and staggered inside, carrying her precious burden.  She dropped it onto the king-sized bed next to the panoramic view of the Vegas skyline, then collapsed beside it with a theatrical groan.  An outside observer might have been forgiven for concluding that she was on her last leg, but John knew better.  And sure enough, by the time he returned from checking out the rest of the suite, she was sitting cross-legged on the bed, trying to get the cherry red ribbon off the package.
            “What are you doing?” he demanded. 
            “Opening my gift.”
            “You don’t know what it contains.”
            “I didn’t find it on the doorstep,” she said impatiently.  “Ming-de sent it to me.”
            That did not reassure John greatly.  Ming-de was a first-level master vampire and empress of the powerful Chinese court.  More to the point, she was currently in a cut-throat competition with the Consul, the leader of the North American vampires.  And Cassie was viewed by most vamps, however inaccurately, as one of the Consul’s chief supporters. 
            Vampires were a short-sighted breed when it came to getting what they wanted, or in most other ways.  And he wouldn’t put it past Ming-de to try to weaken the competition by removing one of the Consul’s assets.  Not to mention that he’d heard rumors of a long-running affair between the empress and Mircea, the vampire Cassie was currently dating.  
            “I’ll open it,” he said decisively, holding out a hand.
            “Are you sure you don’t want to submerge it in the bathtub first?” she asked sarcastically.
            “That’s not a bad idea.”  He pulled it out of her hands. 
            “Stop teasing!  It could be something delicate, like porcelain. Or…or silk.” She reached for it, her eyes hopeful.
            “I will be careful,” he said patiently.  “But I’ll open it in the next room.”
            She looked like she planned to argue, but thought better of it at the last minute and flopped back onto the bed.  He decided that he needed to run her around the track a few extra times every day.  It cut down on arguments.  
            He took the package outside.  Giving gifts to the pythia-elect was traditional, but it was yet another headache for her security.  That was especially true in this case, when half the senders had been loudly denouncing her for a month, and a good portion of the rest had been trying to have her killed. 
            Under the circumstances, her guards had no choice but to open each and every package before Cassie saw it, looking for booby traps, poison and malignant spells. And that was after everything had been gone over with a fine-toothed comb by Casanova’s people in the lobby.  But a brief perusal of this particular gift had his lips twitching. 
            It seemed that politics wasn’t the main thing on Ming-de’s mind.  
            He left most of the box’s contents in the front hall, re-entering the bedroom carrying something that resembled a thin soft drink can.  He handed it to Cassie, who took it, looking puzzled.  “What is this?”
            “Bird spit.”
            She blinked.  “I beg your pardon?”
            “It’s made from the oral secretions of a certain type of bird.  They build nests out of it.”
            Cassie examined the can as if she thought he might be making the whole thing up. 
            “Ming-de sent me bird spit?”
            “They sell it in the salon downstairs,” Marco chimed in.  “I think they harvest it somewhere in the mountains in China.  I hear it’s pretty hard to get because the birdies nest so high up.”
            “Why would anyone bother?” Cassie asked, looking revolted. 
            “It’s good for the skin,” John said, waiting for it.  
            “It’s supposed to improve the look and texture of the skin.”
            Cassie’s frown took on a new quality as the implication set in.  “Ming-de sent me bird spit because she thinks I have bad skin?”
            “I thought women liked cosmetics,” he said innocently.
            “She sent me a case, Pritkin!”
            He started to reply, when a presence slammed into him, hard enough to send him staggering.  It was the buzz that came from a powerful demon, and there was no question which one.  The familiar, hated aura was like a prickle of acid against his skin.
            “Pritkin?” Marco’s amused dark eyes went suddenly sharp.  But this wasn’t something any vampire could fix. 
            “I just recalled…an errand,” he said, his breath hitching on a snarl.  And then he was out the door, before Cassie could figure out that a much bigger threat than a spurned lover had just arrived.          


Chapter Two

            John scanned the sea of kitsch, looking for the deadly threat that his every sense told him was there somewhere.  He didn’t find it.  The flock of tourists, cowboy-goth employees and dancing neon cactuses conspired to confuse his human vision. 
            The hotel where Cassie was currently residing was themed after Dante’s Inferno, with a lobby complete with fake stalactites that shot out geysers of steam on a regular basis.  The main drag had tried to combine this with a homage to Nevada’s wild west roots, resulting in an explosion of tastelessness that still made him wince, even after a month’s exposure.  He finally blinked, transitioning to the type of sight he rarely allowed himself, and there it was--an acid green flame shining through the windows of a nearby bar.
            John pushed open the swinging doors—authentic right down to the wood grain in the fiberglass—and glanced around.  If possible, the bar was even worse than the faux ghost town outside.  It featured mementoes of colorful characters from the region’s past—colorful in the sense that most of them had ended their lives splattered red from a gunfight gone wrong or black and blue courtesy of a hangman’s noose.  He finally found the demon he sought sitting under a framed wanted poster for Butch Cassidy, entertaining a small child. 
            The child was perhaps two, dressed in a yellow romper that left its gender in question and a pair of tennis shoes with bear faces on the tops.  It was watching the demon with fascinated brown eyes.  Or to be more accurate, it was watching the napkin the creature was holding up.
            “You see?  Merely a plain piece of paper,” the blond devil said solemnly, turning it around so that the tot could see both sides.  “But with a little magic…” his voice trailed off and the napkin suddenly flew up from his hand in the shape of a hummingbird.
            It fluttered around the delighted child’s head, prompting squeals loud enough to threaten John’s eardrums and to turn the head of a nearby waitress.  “Lisa!” The woman, dressed as a saloon girl, had they had favored neon-yellow polyester and black lace, hurried over.  “I’m sorry.  I told her to wait in back.”
            “Think nothing of it.  I do so enjoy children.”  The demon caught John’s eye.  “Most of the time.”
            “You’re a magician,” the waitress said, smiling.  But unlike her daughter, she wasn’t looking at the napkin. 
            The creature reclined back against the leather booth, all tousled golden hair and lips red from the wine he’d been drinking.  “Something like that,” he agreed easily.
            “I haven’t seen you in here before.”
            “I’m from out of town.”
            “Way out,” John said sourly.
            The woman glanced at him, and did a quick double take.  She looked between the two of them for a moment, clearly confused.  “Are you two related?”
            “No.” It was emphatic.
            “Yes, in fact,” the demon said brightly.  “He’s my son.”
            “Really?”  The waitress took in the creature’s unlined face, clear green eyes and youthful body.  It was on display in a scoop-neck tank with a silver sheen under a light gray suit.  The skin was flawless and sun-bronzed, the nails were buffed to a high shine and he smelled of some kind of exotic spice. 
            Then she glanced at John.  He didn’t need her expression to know that, of the two, he looked older.  Crow’s feet were beginning to form at the corners of his eyes, his complexion was weathered and his hands had never seen a manicure.  He also hadn’t had a chance to bathe since chasing a very grumpy young woman around a makeshift gym for two hours, resulting in damp hair and a sweat-stained t-shirt. 
            He strongly suspected that he stunk. 
            He also didn’t give a damn.
            “You don’t look old enough to have an adult son,” the woman told the demon doubtfully.
            “You’re too kind, Jessica.”
            Her nametag said Brittany.  She looked down at it, and then back up at him.  “I lost my tag a few days ago and had to borrow one.  How did you—”
            “Magic.”  He smiled charmingly. “I’m Rosier, by the way.”
            “That’s an unusual name.  First or last?”
            He took the hand she rested on the table—the one with the wedding ring.  “Whichever you prefer.”
            She leaned closer, wetting her lips.  “You know, my shift is over in a few minutes--”
            “And you’ll need to take your child home at that time,” John said, putting a hand on her shoulder.  He’d expected to have to disperse the gathering threads of a spell, but there wasn’t one.  The demon looked at him, amused, and the woman flushed.
            “Yes, I…yes.”  She turned and hurried off, without remembering to take his order or to retrieve her child.  
            “I don’t really need the help,” the demon told John, pulling out a slim silver case and tapping a cigarette on the table.  “Neither would you, if you took some pains.  You look like hell.”
            “You should know.”
            The creature ignored that.  “You can’t starve the incubus out, no matter how hard you try.  You are what you are.  Someday, you’re going to have to come to terms with that.”
            “Wait for it.”
            “I have been.  For entirely too long.”
            John choked back the reply that sprang to his lips.  He was not going to get into a dialogue with the creature.  Not over this; not again. 
            His eyes fell to the little girl, who was still trying to catch the paper bird hovering just out of reach.  “I’m not going to kill you in a casino full of people,” he told the demon tersely.  “You don’t need a shield.”
            “And yet I feel so much better with one.  At least until we reach an understanding.”
            John refrained from commenting on the likelihood of that.  “Why are you here?”
            “Sit down, Emrys.  At least pretend to be civilized.”
            “That’s not my name.”
            “It’s better than what you call yourself these days.  A prince of hell named John.”  He looked pained. 
            “Why. Are. You. Here?”
            The demon held up his hand and a whorl of fire danced over his fingers.  He lit the cigarette and sat back, regarding John through a haze of smoke.  “To do you a favor.”
            “I doubt that very much.”
            “That depends.  On whether you’re still defending that unbearable harpy.”
            John felt a quiver of rage rake along his nerves.  “I am sure you meant to say Lady Cassandra.” 
            “Yes, do use the title.  That makes it so much better.”
            John’s hand clenched at his side, his mind automatically working out the logistics for turning the monster into a puddle of goo while sparing the child.  It could be done, he decided.  Just.
            “Oh, sit down,” Rosier snapped.  “I’m here to help.”
            “That would be a first.”  Of the many assassination attempts that had been made on Cassie’s life in recent months, some of the deadliest had been engineered by the creature opposite him. But as her bodyguard, John couldn’t afford the luxury of telling the bastard to go to hell.  At least not until he learned why he’d left it. 
            He sat down.
            Rosier signaled the waitress.  “Another for me and one for my son.”
            “I don’t want a drink,” John said flatly. 
            Rosier let out a breath of smoke that floated lazily upwards.  “Don’t be so sure. You haven’t heard why I’ve come yet.”  
            The waitress had two glasses on the table in record time.  “I believe she’s tired,” the demon said, passing the sleepy child to her mother after finally allowing her to catch the elusive toy.  She looked disappointed to find that, after all, it was merely a piece of paper. 
            John wondered what kind of deception was about to be dangled in front of him.  
*   *   *

Casanova was warm, and there was the seductive slide of silken flesh against his own.  He let his hand slowly fondle the nearest pert backside without bothering to open his eyes.  ‘Ticia, he identified lazily.  Or possibly Berenice.  He decided he was hungry and threw a leg over whoever-it-was, pressing the giggling bundle further into the soft folds of the feather bed.  
            Berenice, he decided.  She really did have the most delightful—
            The covers were abruptly stripped away, and a puff of air conditioning hit his bare ass.  The girls squealed, more out of cold than modesty, he suspected, although there was a strange man in the room.  Very strange, Casanova thought resentfully, catching sight of a familiar scowl in the mirror behind the bed. 
            “Get up,” he was told brusquely. 
            “The hotel had best be burning down,” he said, rolling over and reaching for his robe.  ‘Ticia grabbed it first and fled, followed by Berenice.  The blond took her time, and didn’t bother to cover up her best asset as she swayed out of the room.  She did, however, throw a coy glance over her shoulder in the direction of the war mage. 
            No accounting for taste, Casanova thought darkly, as Jason’s red head popped up over the far side of the bed.  He looked around blearily, wincing at the light.  Pritkin hiked a thumb at him.  “Out.”
            “Just because you’ve chosen the life of a eunuch--” Casanova began hotly, cutting off when his clothes hit him in the solar plexus. 
            “Get dressed.”
            “Who the hell do you think you are?”
            “It’s who in hell,” Pritkin said, with a strange smile.
            It took Casanova a second to get it, because it was the middle of the day—far too early for him to be vertical.  And because it was so bizarre.  “Since when do you claim your title?”
            “Whenever it’s useful to me.  Now get dressed.  Unless you intend to go naked.”
            “Go? Go where?”
            “Ealdris escaped again.”
            Casanova stared at him, his clothes clutched to his chest.  “Ealdris?  Ancient demon battle queen with a grudge against the world, that Ealdris?”
            “That would be the one.”
            “But…but you just put her back in prison!”
            “And now she’s out again.”
            Casanova stared at him, feeling slightly ill.  Not that he’d had anything to do with it.  When one of the ancient horrors escaped their very just imprisonment, it was a problem for the demon lords, not the minor-level incubus with whom he shared body space.  But he was marginally acquainted with the lord who had returned this particular horror to captivity, and beings as old as Ealdris took a wide-ranging view of retribution.
            He suddenly wanted Pritkin gone for an entirely new reason. 
            “What do you expect me to do about it?” he demanded.  “I wouldn’t last ten seconds against one of those things!”  He shivered.  “Hateful, filthy beasts.  I don’t know why the council didn’t destroy them all—”
            “Probably because it had enough trouble merely imprisoning them.”
            “Which is my point!  If the council itself couldn’t deal with them, what use do you think I’d be?”
            “None whatsoever.”
            “Then why in the name of all that’s unholy are you dragging me—”
            “I’m not dragging you anywhere.  You’re going upstairs.”
            “Up—” Casanova stopped, a horrible idea surfacing.  “No.  Oh, no.  Please tell me that complete disaster of a—”
            “I knew it!” Casanova raged.  “It’s that awful, awful woman, isn’t it?  She’s somehow involved in this.”
            “She isn’t involved.”
            “This used to be a nice, quiet operation—”
            “Run by a mob boss.”
            “--and then she showed up and look at it!  Someone is always trying to kill her, or kidnap her or do something to her and what happens in the process?”
            “A good woman is put through hell for no reason?”
            Casanova frowned.  “No.  My hotel is slowly being destroyed!  Every other week it’s either raided or bombed or taken over by a bunch of deadbeats.  And now there’s an ancient nightmare coming to finish off what’s left!”
            “Ealdris has never heard of Miss Palmer.”
            “How the hell can I be expected to show a profit when—” Casanova stopped, as the mage’s words sunk in.  “She hasn’t?”
            “To my knowledge, no.”  
            “Then why are you—”
            “Because Rosier has.”   
            Casanova felt his demon curl into a tighter ball somewhere under his sternum.  Or maybe that was his stomach.  It tended to give him problems whenever the Lord of the Incubi decided to pay a visit.  “What does he have to do with this?”
            “He’s offered me a deal.  I recapture Ealdris, and he refrains from further harm to Miss Palmer.”
            “And you believe him?”
            “He swore a binding oath.  If I succeed, he will have no choice but to honor his commitment or the curse will kill him.”
            “And this involves me why?” Casanova demanded, dropping the wrinkled mass of clothing and stalking over to the closet for something more suitable. 
            “Because I don’t trust him.”
            “And you do me?  I’m possessed by one of his subjects, remember?”
            “Which is why you’ll be able to detect a demon presence, should one show up.  And I trust your enlightened self-interest.  What do you think Mircea would do to you if you let his golden goose get killed on your watch?”
            Casanova scowled, and yanked on a pair of boxers.  “If you’re so concerned, tell Rosier to go hang.  Stay and watch the damn girl yourself!”
            “I can’t afford to do that.”
            “And why not?  We’ve managed to keep her alive so far without making deals with the devil—any devil.”
            “We’ve been lucky so far.  But I can’t protect her 24/7.  Neither can you.  Neither can that fool of a vampire, who believes that if he surrounds her with enough of his creatures, no one can touch her.”
            Casanova shifted slightly, uncomfortable with criticism of his other master.  Even if he somewhat agreed with it.  “You can’t protect her at all if you’re dead,” he pointed out. 
            “That is my problem.  Yours is making sure that nothing happens while I’m away.”
            Casanova scowled and pulled on a honey-colored shirt that set off his olive skin.  “She’s a time traveler, isn’t she?  Why not have her shift a few weeks into the past until you deal with this, take in a movie?”
            “Because that would require telling her why she needs to go. And that would result in her deciding to help me—whether I like it or not!”
            “But even Mircea has trouble keeping up with her.  How am I supposed—”    
            “I’m sure you’ll think of something.”
            “I could chase her around the training salle like you do, but I’m not that frustrated,” Casanova said caustically.  “I prefer a different kind of swordplay with nubile young—”
            “Anything that touches her gets hacked off when I return.”
            “Walking disaster areas are not my type,” Casanova sneered. “You can save the threats.”  Besides, Mircea had already made them all. 
            “Can you think of no way of amusing a young woman for an afternoon besides sex?”
            Casanova blinked.  “Why would I want to do that?”
            The mage took a deep breath for some reason.  “I don’t care what excuse you use, merely that you stay with her.  Her bodyguards won’t notice a demon presence until it’s too late, but you will.
            “Making me the chief target!  Is that supposed to make me feel better?  Because--” 
            He broke off when the mage grabbed him by the shirt and slammed him into the wall.  “I don’t care how you feel,” he hissed, looking a lot like his father suddenly.  “I care about what you do.  Allow me to spell things out for you.  I will be back.  And if she’s dead, so are you.”
            Casanova watched him leave, feeling his demon curling within him.  “Well, shit,” they said.


Chapter Three


The street of the soul vendors looked deserted.  Dim moonlight filtered down through a heavy lid of clouds highlighting soot-stained brick buildings, most with empty, dark windows reflecting the empty, dark street.  Only a single ifrit, glowing coal-red against the darkness, was in sight, and it was in a hurry.  Its bouncy, jittering movement left a trail of sparks on the cobblestones as it rushed past.
            That wasn’t entirely unexpected in an area where the shoppers were often as incorporeal as the items for which they bartered, but the place felt empty, too.  The clammy mist of spirits that usually flowed around him, ruffling John’s hair and sending chills across his flesh, was simply gone.  But at least the small shop he wanted was open, spilling rich golden light into the muddy street. 
            He crossed the lane and pushed open the door.  This place hadn’t changed, at least.  It still looked like a Victorian-era apothecary, with a scuffed wooden floor, gas lights overhead and shelves of glass jars lining the walls.  The owner was the same, too, hurrying out of the back as soon as the string of bells over the door announced a customer. 
            And then trying to hurry back inside once he saw who it was.
            “Hello, Sid.” John reached over the counter and grabbed him by the scruff of the neck, causing the demon to curse and spit.  A trail of ooze started sliming down the wall, eating into the plaster and leaving an ugly burnt scar, as John jerked the creature back against him.  “That was unwise.”
           “Instinct,” his captive babbled, the ruddy face breaking into a nervous smile. “Just instinct.  You startled me.”
            “Then you must be startled constantly, if this place is as busy as I remember.”
            “My other customers aren’t outlaws!”
            “Neither am I.” John released him.  “The council has given me a weekend pass, so to speak.”
            “Why?” Sid demanded, turning around. 
            He looked like a small, bald man with a pleasant, round face and pronounced jowls.  It was an illusion, of course, like the rest of the shop, like the street outside, for that matter.  What he actually was might have scared off the occasional mage who ventured here for supplies, and Sid wasn’t about to lose a sale.
            “They hate you,” he pointed out.
            “Fortunately, they hate Ealdris more.”
            “Ealdris?”  Sid sounded like he’d never heard the name.  John shot him the look that deserved.  Sid had been a fixture among the incorporeal demon races for longer than anyone could remember, and he paid attention.  “Oh, yes,” Sid looked diffident.  “That Ealdris.”
            “Rosier has offered me a deal.  I recapture her, and he refrains from attempting to murder the new pythia.”
            “And you believe him?” Sid’s bushy eyebrows met his nonexistent hairline.
            John sighed.  He was already getting tired of that question.  “I believe that he doesn’t want to go up against her himself.  But it’s one of his responsibilities as a member of the council.”
            “He wouldn’t be on the council if he wasn’t strong enough to handle it,” Sid pointed out. “Why does he need you?”
            “Because she’s hiding here.”
            That was the part that didn’t make sense to John.  The Shadowland was a minor demon realm that had risen to prominence as a marketplace, to facilitate trade between the various dominions.  But then the leaders of the main factions had started moving in, establishing secondary courts where they could meet without the danger of entering another’s power base.  Over time, the demon council had begun meeting here as well, making the unprepossessing hunk of rock the de facto capitol of hell. 
            And a damn strange place for a wanted ex-queen to choose for a hide out.
            “This isn’t a run of the mill demon we’re talking about,” Sid said, wiping his shiny brow.  “The ancient horrors were locked away by the council because even they couldn’t control them.  What do you think you’re going to do if you find her?” 
            “I dealt with her before.”
            “She was on earth for the first time in six thousand years!  She was confused and disoriented, and she underestimated you.  I wouldn’t bet on that happening twice.”
           “I’ll keep it in mind.”  John leaned on the highly polished counter. “Where is she, Sid?”
           “I don’t know,” the demon’s pudgy hands nervously smoothed his pristine white apron. “And I wouldn’t tell you if I did.  People have been going missing, John--a lot of people--and everyone else is lying low.  Which is what you’ll do if you have any—” he suddenly cut off, staring at the darkened windows over John’s shoulder.  He must have sensed something that John couldn’t, because his face closed down, becoming business-like. 
            A second later the bells tinkled again, announcing a new customer.  John moved away to peruse the shelves, leaving them to it.  If it had been another time, he might have been tempted to do some shopping.  The small slotted drawers on the lower half of the antiquated fixtures held the kind of potion supplies almost unobtainable on earth, and when they were the cost was staggering. 
            He tried to keep his eyes on the drawers, but the shelves up above were impossible to ignore.  The glimmering contents of the rows of apothecary jars writhed and twisted in a spectrum of colors--pale amethyst and deep green, brilliant turquoise and ruby red, glittering white and darkest obsidian--with glints like captured fire.  But what they contained was far more precious, and far more destructive. 
            He stepped back, but the shop was small and jars ringed the walls, as well as being stacked high on display tables.  His hand brushed against one behind him, and for an instant, he caught a flash of the wonders it promised: cool green water slipping over his skin, a darting school of tiny fish up ahead, their scales gleaming in the light that dappled the shallows.  He surged after them, faster and sleeker, the joy of the hunt thrumming through his veins, scattering them like sliver petals in the wind—
            He snatched his hand away, but they were all around him, whispering, promising, yearning. They sang to him with siren songs and glimpses of wonders, of colors that had never lived in human imagination, of music beyond the range of his senses, of the sounds and scents of worlds long dead.  He’d been shielded when he came in, but he’d let them drop to save strength, knowing that Sid’s protection was the best available. 
            He’d forgotten; in this particular shop, the real dangers were already indoors.
            “Almost irresistible, isn't it?” a rich voice asked.
            John’s head jerked up, only to see one of the Irin standing in front of him, its faint glimmer dispelling the shadows for a full two yards around them.  This one was tall, as they all were, and powerfully built, with skin the color of burnished bronze and ebony hair that spilled onto its spotless wings.  It regarded John kindly, out of a face so beautiful, so perfect, it almost made him want to weep. 
            He squashed that impulse by asking himself what exactly it had done to get barred from the heavens.
            “Living another’s life,” the Irin continued, picking up the jar, “seeing what they saw, experiencing what they felt… It’s almost like being another person for a time, isn’t it?”
            “Yes.” John shoved his hands deep in the pockets of his coat, and deliberately didn’t look at the seductively twisting colors. 
            “I try to draw out the experience with the more interesting ones,” the creature told him.  “Allowing me to visit them over and over.  I like to think that it permits them to live again, in a way.”
            “They’re dead,” John rasped.  “They’ll never live again.”
            “No, I suppose not.”  The Irin tipped its head, looking at him consideringly.  “I must confess, I was surprised that a human could interact with them.  I had always understood that to be impossible.”
            “I don’t—” John began, only to be cut off as the scene in front of him rippled and changed.
            The shop was the same size, but now it had a dirt floor and a thatched roof.  Instead of gas lights, there were rough tallow candles, and the windows were merely dark open spaces letting in the sound of crickets and the smell of peat.  The same slightly anxious Sid stood behind a rough wooden counter, a homespun apron serving as a handkerchief for his perpetually damp palms.  But instead of the Irin, Rosier stood at his side. 
            In his hands was a clay bowl filled with shades of honey, gold and burnt sienna.  They swirled together in glittering bands, bright as jewels in the candlelight, mesmerizing. “Excellent work, Sid,” his father said, “I admit, I didn’t think you could do it.”
            “I wasn’t sure myself.  It took two of my best hunters the better part of a month, but there you are.  Nothing good comes easy, I always say.”
            “And this is very good.”  Rosier placed the bowl carefully in his son’s hands. “I explored one of these as a child; enjoyed myself no end.  They’re a sort of merpeople, for lack of a better term, in one of the minor water realms.”  
            Emrys took the bowl gingerly, with both hands, and was surprised to find it so light.  As if it contained air.  As if it contained nothing at all.  “But…how can you—”
            “A spell,” his father said easily.  “It captures a being’s memories in the moments before death, preserving them for us to study.” 
            “Then I can see through anyone’s eyes?” he heard himself ask, amazement in his voice. 
            “It’s better than that,” his father said, putting an arm around him. “For a short time after use, you’ll retain their abilities.  In a real sense of the word, you can be anyone.”
            Emrys stared at him, speechless, the possibilities spinning around in his mind like the colors in the bowl.  His father saw his expression and clapped him on the shoulder, laughing.  “What’s the matter, boy?  Didn’t I promise you wonders?”
             John shoved the memory away, brutally enough to make the Irin flinch.  “My apologies,” the creature said.  “My people communicate mentally, and sometimes I forget…”
            John stood there, panting, so angry he could barely see.  It hadn’t forgotten a damn thing.  Like most of the stronger denizens of the vast network of realms humans dismissed as “Hell,” it had simply taken what it wanted. 
            But it wouldn’t take anything else.
            John’s shields slammed into place, and this time, he didn’t ward with his usual water, but with ice.  The temperature of the room plummeted dramatically, enough to freeze the mud that had been tracked in the entrance and to send a frozen scale creeping across the boards.  Sid gave a bleat of alarm over by the old cash register, and the Irin raised a single elegant brow. 
            “It appears I have offended.  Again, my regrets.”  The words and tone were contrite, but it flashed him a knowing smile as it turned to leave.  “Enjoy your purchase.”
            John stared after the creature as it swept out, wondering how much more it had seen.  Enough to guess that its parting shot would hit home.  “Don’t pay any attention to him,” Sid said, as John rejoined him at the counter.  “He’s just jealous.  The Irin can only take one kind of energy, and your line can absorb almost anything.  Well, not legally, but you know what I—” 
            John had pulled out a map from under his coat as Sid talked.  Now he spread it on the counter and grabbed one of the pudgy white hands the shop owner was flailing around.  “Just point,” he said harshly.  He wanted out of there.  He wanted out now. 
            “I don’t want to get involved,” Sid protested, while he scribbled something on the portion of the map hidden by the cash register’s iron bulk.  “I’m not a warrior.  I can’t afford—”
            “I understand, although the council may not.  You should expect to receive a visit from them shortly.”
            “They’ll have to catch me first.”  Sid leaned across the counter to flip over the OPEN sign in the nearest window.  “That was my last delivery and the rest can go hang.  I’ve decided to take a long overdue vacation.  If you’re smart, you’ll do the same.”
            John took the hint and the map, pocketing it before turning away from the counter.  He stepped out of the smothering warmth and back into the blessed chill of the night.  He didn’t make a purchase before he left.


Chapter Four

            “Boiled,” Marlowe said, nodding solemnly. “In one of his own pots no less.  Henry thought it was fitting.”
            Cassie looked up from unwrapping another parcel to stare at the curly-haired vampire.  “Fitting?”
            “Well, the man did try to poison him…”
            “Henry VIII boiled one of his own cooks?”
            “Alive.” Marlowe added helpfully. 
            Her blue eyes narrowed.  “You’re making that up.”
            “I heard it from one of the servants who was there.  Said the stench lingered for days. Scouts honor.”
            “You were never a scout.”
            “True.”  He grinned.  “But then, I never had any honor, either…” 
            She snorted and went back to tackling her gift.  “See?  I knew you were joking.”
            Casanova rolled his eyes.  It wouldn’t surprise him if Marlowe had lit the match.
            Almost as if he’d heard him, that sharp brown gaze turned in his direction.  Casanova quickly went to fix himself a drink, in order to have some excuse to linger.  It was just his luck to have arrived at the girl’s suite to find the Consul’s chief spy ensconced on the sofa, amusing her with more of his gruesome stories.  
            He didn’t appear to be in a hurry to leave, and he kept glancing at Casanova as if wondering what he was doing there.  Casanova was starting to wonder the same thing.  Counting him and the spy, there were no fewer than eight master-level vampires prowling around the suite, with two more stationed outside. 
            Demon or not, no one was getting through all that.
            A brief exploration of the bar’s fridge turned up three tiny bottles of vodka and he used them all.  They were too cold and there was no lime, but today was obviously about hardships.  He turned back around to find Marlowe still watching him. 
            “Can I get you anything?” he asked acerbically.
            “I was wondering the same about you,” Marlowe said mildly, as Pritkin entered pushing a room service cart loaded with gifts. 
            Casanova was about to ask him what he was still doing there when he felt it—a familiar power prickling along his skin like a feathering of knives.  There was no mistaking what it was—or where it was coming from.  He started to shout a warning, but before he could so much as utter a syllable his vocal chords seized up, as if an invisible hand had suddenly clenched around his throat.  
            “More of them?” Cassie moaned, staring at the cart. 
            “Don’t you like receiving tokens from your admirers?” Marlowe asked.
            “They’re not my admirers,” she said, frowning.  “Half these people were calling for my head less than a month ago.  They’re only sucking up now because it looks like I might live long enough to be pythia, after all.  And the rest are trying to bribe me.”
            Casanova exerted enough power to punch through a wall, and managed to jerk his glass all of half an inch.  A few drops of clear liquid spilled over the side and slid slowly down his hand, cool, cool, against his skin. But he couldn’t wipe them away.  He couldn’t, in fact, seem to move at all.
            “So young to be so cynical,” Marlowe reproached. 
            “Oh, really?  Look that this,” Cassie held up a blue velvet jewel case with a family seal stamped in gold on top.  “Some Dutch count wants me to do a reading, but not for him.  Oh, no.  It seems that his wife has found out about his long-term mistress and is threatening to throw him out, and she’s the one with the money.  So he wants me to tell her that she got it all wrong—he’s pure as the driven snow.” 
            “I don’t blame you for being insulted,” Marlowe said, picking up the case and perusing the contents.
            Cassie nodded.  “I know, right?  I’ve never even met this guy and he expects me to lie for him!”
            “For something like that, he could at least have sent diamonds.” Marlowe held up a pale blue necklace.  “I mean really.  Aquamarines!”
            Cassie narrowed her eyes at her guest.  “I’m serious, Marlowe!  There’s like a metric ton of this stuff, and virtually all of it comes with some kind of strings.”
            The chief spy shrugged.  “What did you expect?  People have been attempting to bribe pythias since ancient times.  It’s tradition.”
            “And what did those other pythias do?”
            Marlowe’s cell phone rang.  He fished it out of a pocket and glanced at the display. 
            “Took the gifts as their due and told the petitioners whatever they liked.”
            “That’s so wrong!”
            Marlowe rose to his feet and took her hand, kissing it with an ironic air that said he knew such things were out of style—and didn’t give a damn.  “You’ll get used to it.”
            Casanova cursed inwardly, since that was the only way he could do it.  The damned creature pretending to be Pritkin was leaning against the wall, arms crossed, with a faint smirk on his face.  He was obviously waiting for the chief spy to clear out, which it looked like he was about to do.  Casanova didn’t know the details of what was scheduled to happen then, but he could make a damn good guess.
            He didn’t bother trying to appeal to the creature’s better nature, because he didn’t have one.  He focused instead on the tight little ball curled beneath his rib cage.  “Let me go, Rian.”
            There was no response. 
            “Damn it, I know it’s you,” he thought viciously.  “Demon lord or no, Rosier doesn’t have access to my body.  I only trusted one person enough for that!”
            “I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” His demon, whom he persisted in thinking of as ‘she’, sounded nothing like her usual polished self. 
            “Then let me go!”
            “I can’t!” He closed his eyes to see her shaking her head violently, her long dark hair whipping about her panicked face.  “He’ll kill you if he has to—he swore as much.  But as long as you don’t interfere—” 
            “Then Mircea will kill me!”
            “He can’t blame you if you’re not involved!”
            “What the hell do you call this?”
            “Is there something wrong?”
            Casanova opened his eyes to find Marlowe regarding him from barely a foot away.  The chief spy was inside his comfort zone, sharp brown eyes steady on his, but at the moment it hardly registered.  “Wrong?” he heard himself say.  “What could be wrong?”
            Marlowe’s lips twisted.  “Around here?  Virtually anything.”  
            Casanova usually found Marlowe’s suspicious nature a trial, particularly when his people were poking around the casino, looking for God-knew-what.  But today he could have really used some of that perpetual paranoia.  So, of course, Marlowe gave him one last considering look and turned to go.
            “Rian!” Casanova thought urgently.
            “Mircea won’t kill you.  He…he’s not that vindictive.” She sounded as if she was trying to convince herself, and doing a poor job of it.
            “And you’re willing to bet my life on that?” Casanova hissed. 
            “I don’t have a choice!”
            “Not a chance,” he thought fiercely. “He doesn’t control you.  He can give you commands, but you decide whether to follow them or not.  And I want you to remember that, when this is over, when I’m paying the price.  I want you to remember that you chose.”
            Marlowe reached the door and “Pritkin” moved to Cassie’s side.
            “Could I have a word?” the fake mage asked pleasantly.
            Cassie looked up, obviously still preoccupied by her little ethics problem.  “What?  Oh, sure.”
            “In private?  It won’t take a moment.”
            Cassie nodded and got up, starting for the bedroom.  She didn’t notice, Casanova realized, his stomach sinking.  She might have, under other circumstances, but she was preoccupied and her guard was down because she was in a place she believed to be safe.  And that damn demon would have her dead before she ever knew otherwise.
            Rian must have thought so, too, because he could feel her panic, like a tremor down his spine. “I don’t know what to do!” she said desperately.
            “I said the same to you once, do you remember?”
            “Yes.” Her voice shook slightly.
            “And do you remember what you told me?”
            She was silent for a long moment, while Cassie reached the door to the bedroom and a vampire opened the one to the hallway for Marlowe.  “That you would never regret it,” she whispered. 
            “Well? Will I?”
            “I hope not,” she said fervently. 
            And then she let him go.
            What followed couldn’t have taken more than a few seconds, but it was blazoned on Casanova’s memory nonetheless.  He sprang for the girl, screaming his head off.  “Not Pritkin, not Pritkin!” 
            Marlowe spun before he’d even gotten all of the words out and was across the room, leaping for the demon while the guards were still trying to figure out what was going on.  He almost made it.  Rosier flicked out an arm and Marlowe went flying backwards, barely missing Casanova as he hurtled across the room in his own leap. 
            But Casanova wasn’t going for Rosier, because he’d last even less time than Marlowe had, and because he didn’t matter, anyway.  His job wasn’t to kill the demon but to rescue the girl.  So that was what he did, using the split second it took Rosier to deal with the chief spy to snatch Cassie and—
            The room shimmered around him as they tumbled forward, bursting through the bedroom door and hitting the floor—and then kept on going into the middle of a very hard, very cold street.  For a moment, there was nothing but confusion—Cassie struggling and Rian screaming and a horrible stench flooding Casanova’s senses, making him want to gag.  And then he looked up to see a huge, gelatinous blob of a creature bearing down on him.
            Despite vampire vision, he couldn’t see it very well, the edges going all fuzzy and vague as his eyes tried to focus.  But that wasn’t such a bad thing, considering that what he could see was making his flesh want to crawl off his bones and go whimper in a corner.  It looked like a man, if men were six hundred pounds of pale, jelly-like flesh that was transparent enough to show another creature crouched inside, surrounded by its host’s ropy intestines. 
            Casanova stared at it in disbelief, caught between paralyzing terror and an absurd urge to laugh.  It was ghastly and yet unreal, like something out of a bad fifties horror flick, its translucent skin gleaming in the dim light of a nearby streetlamp.  But then the hunched passenger’s dark red eyes swiveled in his direction, and he suddenly found that he could move, after all. 
            “Where the hell are we?” Cassie demanded, pushing tumbled curls out of her eyes. 
            “Yes,” Casanova breathed.  Then he snatched her up, threw her over his shoulder and ran like all the demons of hell were after him. 
            Or one of them, anyway.



Chapter Five


 The shop looked a little different from the back, with the shades drawn and the lights extinguished.  But Sid’s shiny bald head was the same as it poked out a crack in the door and stared around nervously.  “Hurry up!” he hissed, catching sight of John.  “Before anyone sees you!”
            John felt like pointing out that he’d just cut through a maze of side streets and across two marketplaces before doubling back, just to insure that no one would see him.  But he didn’t.  Because Sid could have left him to find Ealdris on his own, instead of scribbling ‘meet me out back in half an hour’ on the edge of the map. 
            He stepped through the door to find that the lights were off inside, too.  But the softly glowing contents of the rows of apothecary jars provided just enough illumination to see by, throwing a watery rainbow over the walls, the floor and Sid’s anxious face.  “I couldn’t talk before,” he said, wiping his hands down his apron front.  “If Ealdris heard I helped you--”
            “Tell me where to find her and you won’t have to worry about it for long.”
            Sid snorted.  “Typical human arrogance!”
            “No. Knowledge she doesn’t have.”
            The little demon didn’t look convinced.  “Such as?”
            John spread the map on the counter again.  “If she was hiding in the city, the Alû would have found her by now,” he said, referring to the High Council’s feared enforcement squad.  “But they haven’t, and none of the tracking spells they sent into the hinterlands returned anything.  So I know where she is.” 
            “You think she’s camping in the middle of the desert?” Sid asked archly.
            “I think she’s camping under it.”  John’s finger traced an arc across a mountain range to the north of the city.  “Long before there was a settlement here, there was some kind of mining concern in the hills.  I don’t know what they were taking out of there, but it was extensive.  I came across a few of the tunnels as a boy—”
            “So that’s what you were doing when no one could find you? Exploring the desert?  You might have been killed!”
            “But I wasn’t.  And that gives me an advantage she doesn’t know I have.  As do these.”
            Sid looked dubiously at the yellowish blocks of explosives John was pulling out of a backpack and piling on his nice clean counter.  “And you think this lot will let you take her on?” 
            “If she’s like most of the older demons, yes.”
            That won him a narrow-eyed look.  “And how is that?”
            “Powerful but not resourceful.”
            Sid huffed out a laugh.  “I’ve never known your father to have a problem in that area.  And he’s nearly as old as our missing queen.” 
            “The incubi are different,” John admitted.  “They have to build relationships with their prey unless they want to spend all their time hunting.  And humans are nothing if not unpredictable.  Interacting with them requires the incubi to be flexible, inventive, even somewhat open-minded.”
            “Unlike Ealdris.  You think she won’t expect an assault with human weapons.”
            John nodded, not wanting to elaborate and insult the creature.  After all, Sid was fairly ancient, too.  But as a shopkeeper, he also had to be flexible, at least to a point, to deal with so many different species.  That wasn’t true of most of the older demons, who tended to turn more and more inward as the centuries past.  By the time they reached Ealdris’ age, they were virtually unable to comprehend any ways other than their own.
            It was what had him worried, because she should have done exactly as she had last time and headed for earth as soon as she broke free.  Demons gained strength through one thing and one thing only—feeding.  She needed food, and quickly, if she was to maintain her independence.  And earth was by far the richest source available. 
            But instead, she’d come here.  It was like a starving man passing up a banquet hall to search for scraps in the Dumpster outside.  It didn’t make sense, and every time an ancient demon surprised him, John got edgy.  And when he got edgy, he tended to hedge his bets, which was why he’d packed enough C-4 to bring down a mountain.
            “Preferably right over her,” Sid said, when he’d finished explaining.
            “That’s the plan.”
            “It’s a good one,” Sid admitted, frowning.  “The wards she’s familiar with guard against magic.  Like as not, this…stuff…won’t even register.”
            “But?” John asked, because there clearly had been one in his tone.
            Sid sighed and started returning a few scattered jars to their appropriate shelves.   “Nothing. I’m just a foolish old man who remembers another time.”
            “That in my day we did things differently.  We faced our enemies.”
            John stared at him incredulously.  “You think I’m being dishonorable?  Knowing what she’s done?  What she’ll do again given the slightest—” 
            “No, no.” Sid shook his head.  “I didn’t mean anything.  You’re only half-demon and incubus at that.  I don’t expect you to understand.”  He caught John’s expression.  “No offense.”
            “None taken,” John said curtly.  Not being mistaken for a demon was hardly an insult.  And standing and dueling a being as powerful as Ealdris wasn’t honorable, it was stupid. 
            “And you’re little more than a child,” Sid said, looking down at the jar he held.  A hazy smear of deep magenta curled and twisted inside, painting his skin a livid hue.  “You don’t know what it was like, in our day.  And how could you?  Seeing what we’ve become.”
            “You mean it was worse?” John asked cynically.
            Sid glanced up at him, and smiled slightly.  “You’d probably think so.  It was certainly more savage, more raw.  But infinitely more glorious, too.  You should have seen it, John,” he said, his voice going dreamy.  “There weren’t as many of us then, so you might think we were weaker, but it wasn’t so.  Huge armies we had, glittering in the night, under commanders worthy of the name, marching off to victory or death—”
            “Mostly death,” John interjected, because there had been nothing glorious about the ancient wars.  Just century after century of bloody chaos, as each race struggled for existence in a never ending competition for food and resources.  Ending them had been one of the few things the High Council had ever gotten right.
            “Yes, yes, but you miss the point,” Sid said irritably. “The chaff was winnowed out, but the best survived, thrived, grew stronger by their ordeals.  Instead of the weakest being rewarded for how well they can toady, like today.”
            “I never took you for a Social Darwinist.” 
            “I’m not anything human,” Sid told him, with a bite to his tone. “We were stronger without them, back when every resource was scarcer, every meal more hard won.  Then we found their weak, soft, rule-bound race, and everything changed.”
            “I’m sure they felt the same,” John said curtly, not interested in a debate.  “I’m also fairly certain that Ealdris is where I say she is.  But there could be miles of tunnels through these hills and I don’t have time to search them all.  I need you to narrow it down.”
            Sid stared at the map, but didn’t say anything.
            “Before the rest of your clientele goes missing.”
            The little demon sighed fretfully and flapped a hand at the windows. “Check the shades, would you?” 
            “I promise you, I will find her,” John said, turning to look for gaps in the dark green cloth. 
            And then dropping to his knees when something slammed into him with the force of a dozen sledgehammers.  It knocked him to the floor, his head reeling, pain shooting from temple to temple in a mind numbing haze.  But not so numb that he couldn’t make out the ancient being bending over him--who was suddenly glowing with a power he shouldn’t have had. 
            “I believe I can guarantee it,” Sid said, as the room exploded around him.

*   *   *

“I think I wet myself,” Casanova said faintly, hugging a wall. 
            It was soot-stained brick, crumbling and moldy and cold against his shoulder blades.  Or at least it was for the moment.  Part of the illusion they used to keep people from running and screaming at the sight of this place didn’t fool his vampire senses.  But part of it did.  The result was a mishmash of images that would have made his head ache if it wasn’t already threatening to take the top off his skull.
            “We have to get out of here,” Rian told him.  “We’ve lost them for the moment, but I can’t shield us for—”
            “Then why did you bring us here?” he asked savagely.
            “I didn’t know what else to do!  The girl didn’t know she needed to shift and there was no time to explain and Rosier—”
            “So you brought us to his doorstep?” The wall was stucco now, he couldn’t help but notice.  Bright, buttery stucco, like on his home in beautiful Cordoba.  Where he would really like to be right now instead of shivering in Hell.
            It’s freezing over, he thought suddenly, and had to bite his lip on a hysterical giggle.
            “I don’t have her power,” Rian said, looking at him strangely.  “I can shift between worlds, but not between places in a world.  And she couldn’t survive in most of our realms in any—”
            “Survive?  You mean I’m not dead?” Cassie suddenly piped up.    
            Casanova turned to stare at her, but there was no doubt about it, she was looking straight at Rian’s hazy outline.
            “Well?  Are we in Hell or not?” she demanded.
            Rian looked at him, apparently nonplussed herself, and then back at Cassie.  “You can see me?” she asked hesitantly.
            “Clairvoyant,” Cassie snapped.
            “But I’ve known clairvoyants before, and they couldn’t—”
            “I’m Pythia.  It comes with more power.”
            “We know,” Casanova said, scowling.  “That’s what’s drawing them.  Demons feed off human energy and you’re lit up like a Vegas buffet.”
            “I can’t help it!”
            “You never saw me before,” Rian accused.  “Did you?”
            “You were in a body before.  I see spirits.  And will somebody please answer the damn ques—”
            “Yes, you’re in hell,” Rian told her.  “A hell, in any case, there are a number of them.”
            “Hundreds,” Casanova interjected absently.  He was watching the wall out of the corner of his eye, and he was pretty sure it was playing with him.  Because now it was covered in the hideous wallpaper one of his mistresses had had in her bedroom in Seville.  The one in which she’d entertained three other men, occasionally at the same time, whenever he chanced to be out of town…
            “More than that,” Rian said. “But it doesn’t matter now.  What matters is—”
            “Then I am dead,” Cassie said hollowly.
            Casanova reached over and pinched her, hard.  “Do you feel dead?”
            She jumped.  “Cut it out!”
            “Yes,” Rian agreed, shooting him a look.  “We have to decide what to do.”
            “Yes, I’m dead?” Cassie said sharply.
            “I was talking to him,” Rian told her, starting to look confused.
            “What to do is obvious,” Casanova said impatiently.  “We need to find somewhere to hide.  As soon as the mage kills Ealdris—”
            “And if he doesn’t?”
            “He will.  He’s good at killing things.”
            “Most things. But you know as well as I do that Ealdris isn’t just any—”
            “Will somebody please tell me if I’m dead or not?” Cassie yelled, before Casanova clapped a hand over her mouth.
            “Do you want to be something’s dinner?” he hissed.
            Rian shut her eyes for a moment, and then spoke very slowly and distinctly.  “You are not dead.  Humans come here from time to time.  Powerful mages can transition to the upper hells and back--the ones which can support human life, at least--and occasionally someone is brought here—”
            “As a snack,” Casanova finished for her, “which is what we are going to be if we don’t get out!”
            “That’s what I’ve been saying!” Rian tossed her hair agitatedly.  “But we can’t go back to the casino.  If Rosier isn’t still there himself, he’ll have people--”
            “Then take us somewhere else!”
            “I just told you, if I transition back to your world, it will be where I left it.  I would need a portal to go somewhere else, and the master knows that.  He’ll have someone—”   
            “Another hell, then.  Somewhere safer.”
            Rian looked at him like he might have lost his mind.  “A safer hell?
            “We won’t be there long!  We only need to hide until Pritkin deals with this.”
            “Deals with what?” Cassie asked.
            “He’s supposed to kill Ealdris,” Casanova informed her shortly.  “As soon as he does, Rosier can’t hurt you.  He swore a binding—”
            “Who’s Ealdris?”
            “What difference does it make?  All you need to understand is that Rosier blackmailed him into going after her, thinking that he’d kill you while Pritkin was on his little errand.  But the mage anticipated that and sent me to watch you.  And now all we have to do is stay out of the way until--”  
            “Who. Is. Ealdris?” Cassie was looking strangely red in the face.
            “An ancient demon battle queen,” Casanova said, right before he was slammed against a wall for the second time that day.
            “And you let him go?”
            “You let Pritkin go after this thing, knowing the risk—”
            “He’s doing it to protect you—”
            “How many times do I have to say this?”  Little fingers dug into his flesh, surprisingly hard.  “I don’t want to be protected!  Not if it costs someone else’s life!  Don’t you get it?
            “Of course.”
            “Of course?  Then why—”
            “I ‘get it’,” Casanova told her nastily.  “I just don’t care.  I don’t work for you, chica, and for that matter, neither does the mage.  It’s his life.  If he wants to risk it, I don’t see where that’s any concern of—”
            “It’s my concern because I’m the cause!” Cassie whispered furiously, her hands letting go of his arms only to bunch in the expensive fabric of his lapels.  “And you do work for Mircea.  And by vampire law, I’m his wife, so you work for me.  And if you’d like to continue to work for me, you had damn well better learn to care!”
            Casanova glared at her.  “Why, you vicious, ungrateful little—”
            “Will you two stop it?”
            Casanova ceased prying Cassie’s hands off his jacket and looked at Rian.  Because she never used that tone, much less with him.  But then, she never glared at him like that, either. 
            “We have to decide what we’re going to do,” she said severely.  “The master will be here any moment, and I cannot hide us from him!”
            “How could he possibly know where you took us?” Cassie demanded.
            “Because there aren’t that many options.  Most of the hells require permission to enter—”  
            “And this one doesn’t?”
            “It’s neutral ground, a meeting place, a market—” she waved an restless hand.  “Anyone can come here.  And as soon as he does, he’ll follow my trail right to you.  All incubi can sense another’s presence.  But if I leave, I can’t shield you from—”
            “Can you do it?”
            Rian looked confused again.  “Can I do what?”
            “Find another incubus.”
            “Yes, but what does that—”
            “Then I know what we’re going to do,” Cassie said, jerking Casanova’s face down to hers.  “And I know who’s going to help me.”



Chapter Six

            Bump, bump, bump.
            It sounded like someone was hammering on a door, John thought vaguely. He wished they’d stop.  Or that someone would answer the damn thing.  He couldn’t sleep with all this pounding going on.
            Bump, bump, bump.
            Or with all this pain.  Every thud made agonized lightning zigzag behind his eyeballs, to the point that he was getting nauseous with it.  It reminded him of a few of the hangovers he’d had in the bad old days, when he’d found solace, or what passed for it, in the bottom of a bottle. 
            Except this hurt more.
            Bump, bump, b-
            Bugger it!  If someone didn’t get that damn thing-- 
            John opened his eyes, just in time to close them again in a tortured wince as—ump—the back of his cranium came down, connecting with what felt like solid rock.  A disoriented moment later, he realized that it was rock, specifically an uneven floor that he was being dragged across by the legs, his head allowed to bounce along behind the rest of him as best it could. 
            Which probably explained why it felt like a particularly ill-used football.
            He tried to take stock, but it was a little difficult.  He couldn’t see bugger all, being in almost complete darkness; his arms were bound to his sides and his coat was gone, which explained the raw meat texture of his back.  But his weapons…one of them was somewhere nearby. 
            He could feel it, the enchantment it carried chiming along his nerves like a glissando of bells.  Cool and sweet, it was soothingly familiar.  And loud, so loud that he had to be almost—
            It was the small knife next to his right calf.  John blinked, taking a moment to absorb the fact that some idiot had actually left his boots on.  And had compounded the folly by not even checking them for weapons first.  He didn’t know whether to be pleased or insulted, but on the whole he thought he’d go with-- 
            --seriously fucking up whoever was responsible. 
            He dragged the tattered threads of his concentration together, focusing them on that tiny chime.  He could usually do this without thinking, an almost automated response after so long, like breathing.  It was more difficult now, but he finally felt the connection snap into place and all that dormant magic spring to life, eager to leap to his defense at a whispered--
            “No!” someone yelled, slinging him against a wall.  Which hurt like the devil, since he had no way to avoid hitting face first.  But on the whole that bothered him less than the supernova that suddenly erupted all around him. 
            John instinctively turned his head further into the wall, but that only seemed to make things worse.  Light seared his eyeballs even through the lids, spearing straight through to his brain.  For a brief instant he could see every blood vessel on the inside of his head, feel every scraped-raw nerve lit up in excruciating clarity. 
            And then something hot and intense shot though his body like a bolt of lightning before grounding itself in his spine. 
            Someone let out a not-so-manly mewl of pain and he hoped it wasn’t him.  He didn’t think so, actually.  Because he was fairly certain that his tongue had just fused to the roof of his mouth. 
            Someone else didn’t have that problem.  He recognized Sid’s voice, cursing up a storm in some long-dead language, but he couldn’t see him.  Not even when the light finally dimmed, the wildly jumping aftereffects insuring that he remained blind as a bat.  Hoping that that was true for his attacker as well, John pried his tongue loose and started an incantation, only to stop when a knife was pressed hard against his jugular.
            “Not if you want to live,” Sid rasped, and the words died in his throat.
            But not because of the threat.  The blade currently denting his skin was well-oiled and razor sharp—and bleating at him alarmingly because it was his weapon.  Sid must have caught it mid-flight, which would have been impressive except that a syllable from John would send it plunging into the demon’s gut before he knew what had hit him.  But John didn’t utter that syllable.  Because he didn’t think the stark panic in Sid’s voice was fake. 
            And a moment later he knew it wasn’t when his eyes finally adjusted.
            “Do you see?” Sid demanded. 
            John saw.  It was rather hard to miss, since every surface of the low-ceilinged tunnel they were in had turned as translucent as alabaster, lit from within by hundreds of glowing red lines.  They spidered through the rock like veins in marble--or under the skin, because these pulsed with some strange, unearthly fire that brightened and dimmed, brightened and dimmed, as if driven by the beating of a distant heart.  
            It was like being in the belly of a huge, still-breathing animal, John’s brain helpfully supplied, until he snarled at it to shut up.  But the impression was damn apt, heightened by the unhappy rumbling in the stones around him and the heat generated by all that trapped energy.  At least that explained why the shreds of his T-shirt were plastered to his body, he thought blankly. 
            Or maybe that was terror. 
            “To answer that question you asked earlier,” Sid said, his voice dripping sarcasm, “they mined brimstone here.  It’s why I could magic you up here, but not in here.”  The little demon pulled the knife away from John’s throat and shook it at him, before tucking it away in his waistband.
            John’s eyes followed it, but he made no effort to call it to him.  Because the substance known on earth as ‘brimstone’ resembled the demon variety only in the overwhelming smell of rotten eggs.  It didn’t rain fire from the heavens, as some human legends insisted, or destroy entire cities.  He’d always suspected that those accounts were ancient memories of the last of the demon wars, a few battles of which had been fought on earth.  Then the sky had burned, along with huge swathes of land, obliterated by single blasts.
            Of the stuff glowing a few inches away from his face.
            “It’s laced all though these rocks,” Sid informed him, slapping the side of the corridor hard enough to make John wince, even though he knew that wouldn’t set it off.  Sid could stick a pick axe through the wall and it would make no difference.  Brimstone responded to only one thing.
            Unfortunately, it happened to be the thing that John needed rather badly right now.

*   *   *

Casanova had spent years perfecting the alluring quality of his voice, imbuing it with the charm, the grace, the honeyed tones that often did much of his seduction for him.  Rian had taught him some of that, but he was proud to say that much more came from his own Castilian roots, from a people who understood the lyrical potential of the spoken word in a way that few of the braying descendants of the British Isles ever would.  He was an artist with his voice.  He could make women, and the occasional man, weep with his voice. 
            And then there were times like these.
            “Fuck it,” he rasped, which would have made his point quite clearly had anyone been listening to him.
            “I think I found something,” Cassie’s excited shriek drifted out of one of the rocks on this godforsaken hill. 
            Literally God forsaken, Casanova thought grimly, and he didn’t blame Him one iota.  Ugly, barren, and creepy as, well, hell--and he’d thought the city was bad.  Out here, nobody bothered with a spell to disguise anything, because there was nothing worth the effort.  Just rocks and a little on-the-brink scrub and a lot of dark, the latter broken only by the faint urban sprawl in the murky valley below them. 
            Why did anyone live here?  Surely even demons could do better than this?  And more importantly, what in the name of sanity was he doing here?
           “Did you hear me?” Cassie demanded, and Casanova’s hand clenched.
            He knew what he was doing here.  She was like a disease, a human virus that infected everyone around her, turning off their good sense and making them do things completely against their own best interests.  Someone should lock her up, study her, figure out a vaccine before the whole damn world caught the madness—
            A curly blond head poked out of a crack in the rock so its owner could glare at him.  “I’m not going in there,” he said curtly.
            Blue eyes narrowed. “Why not?”
            “Why not?  Why not?  Because this—” his savage gesture took in the entire train of events that had led him from a warm, soft bed in Vegas to a frigid, rocky mountainside in Hell--“is insane.  The only thing that could possibly make it more insane would be to crawl inside an unexplored hole in the ground after a mage who, on a good day, is suicidally reckless and who on this day is chasing a demon battle queen.”
            Cassie looked at someone over her shoulder.  Rian, he assumed, since his traitor of a demon had floated in after her a few minutes ago. “I thought you said he’d calm down once we got out of the city.” 
            Rian murmured something reassuring.
            “Well, I don’t know,” Cassie told her.  “He’s getting pretty shrill.”
            “I am not shrill!” Casanova said, and all right, perhaps that had been a little shrill, but if so, he thought he’d earned it.  “I am the voice of reason—”
            “Well the voice of reason needs to get his butt in here.”
            Casanova didn’t even bother to respond to that.  Instead, he pulled the little silk pocket square out of his coat and made a point of placing it exactly in the center of the nearest sort-of-flat rock he could find.  He smoothed it out, sat his Gucci-covered ass on it and looked at her.  Calmly, considering that he really didn’t see how this could get any worse.
            “Okay, fine,” Cassie said.  “I just thought you’d prefer it to the alternative.”
            “What alternative?”
            “I think she means me,” Rosier said gently, from behind him. 
            Casanova spun, but even vampire reflexes weren’t fast enough this time.  A blast of power picked him up and sent his body hurtling backwards through the air, right at the wretched little cave.  And for a moment, things became a bit blurred.
            That was possibly because his head hit the overhang hard enough to send his brain cavorting around inside his skull.  Or because the impact half collapsed the structure on top of him.  Or because he was grabbed by the shirt and jerked into the falling mass of debris, half of which put dents in his already abused body, while the rest rapidly blocked the way behind him. 
            Which bought him perhaps seconds with the power Rosier had at his disposal. 
            That thought had Casanova staggering off the remaining wall, which for some ungodly reason appeared to be glowing, with his brain still sloshing about between his ears.  But despite that, and the mountain of dirt he’d just swallowed, and the fact that he appeared to be missing maybe half a pound of flesh, he somehow got fumbling hands on a certain blond-haired menace.  And shook her like a maraca. 
            “Shift us out of here!”
            Burning blue eyes glared at him through the dust.  “I can’t!”
            “You shifted us in!” Her power wasn’t supposed to work outside earth, but that hadn’t stopped her from hopping them in stages across the damn desert, following the sight trail Rian had laid out. 
            “I shifted us outside.” 
            “Then shift us outside again—far outside!”
            “Are you listening?  I can’t,” she repeated, jerking away from him.
            “It’s a form of magic,” Rian told him agitatedly, “when she shifts, I mean, and right now—”
            “What difference does that make?”
            “A great deal,” she said, her dark eyes on the cave-in behind him, as if she could see right through it.  And maybe she could, because he’d never seen her that upset.  “You need to listen, Carlos—”
            His real first name usually got his attention, but not this time.  “What I need,” he said, his voice trembling only slightly, “what we all need, is to get out of here, now, before—”
            “I’m not going anywhere without Pritkin,” Cassie informed him, making Casanova want to scream.  So he did.
            “He’s a war mage!  He can take care of himself!”
            “Not if he can’t use magic!” she said heatedly, while scrabbling for something in the debris on the floor.  “If he doesn’t know the risk, he could blow himself up.  And even if not, he’s stuck down there facing that…that thing…with nothing more than a gun that probably won’t even dent it.  And I won’t—”
            He didn’t hear what the wretched woman wouldn’t do this time, because the rock fall took that moment to implode, sending a dozen shards of whatever made up this blasted hill into Casanova’s backside.  But he’d grabbed the girl, covering her body with his as he tumbled to the floor.  Which promptly cracked and dropped, and then gave way entirely.  
            Of course it did, Casanova thought, as they plunged into darkness.



Chapter Seven


“No magic,” Sid said, spelling it out.  “No type, no amount.  Not unless you want to get yourself killed!”
            “I thought that was the idea,” John slurred, causing the demon to shoot him a look, as if suspicious that he was pretending to worse injuries than he had.
            If only.
            “No, wouldn’t be much use then, would you?” he finally said.
            “It was supposed to be your father,” Sid complained, bending over to tug at John’s boots.    “We specifically waited until it was his turn.  But I should have known Rosier would find someone else to do his dirty work.  He was always like that, even as a child.”
            “Why doesn’t that surprise me?” John muttered, trying to work the ropes over his chest loose while Sid was busy examining his footwear. 
            But while Sid obviously didn’t know much about tying someone up—he’d left John’s wrists free—he’d made up for it in sheer enthusiasm.   John was cocooned in rope from nipples to ribs, and it wasn’t the kind with much in the way of give.  Every movement just made the damn chords eat deeper into his flesh, threatening to cut off what little air supply he had.  Without some way to cut the bonds, his arms weren’t going anywhere.
            Which left his legs. 
            Despite common perceptions to the contrary, it was perfectly possible to be deadly without using the upper body at all.  John could almost see the maneuver he needed—a sweep outward to dump Sid on his ass, then a quick scissoring movement to trap his neck between John’s feet and ankles.  And then it was merely a matter of an abrupt twist and listening to the bones crunch.  It wasn’t the easiest of maneuvers, but it was doable, and it would also be pretty damn satisfying right about now. 
            Unfortunately, it would also be pretty damned useless. 
            Killing a demon as old as Sid was never as simple as snapping a neck.  But that was especially true when they happened to be one of the two-natured—demons who could take both spectral or physical form.  In Sid’s case, he was an Uttuku, a type the Sumerians had once mistaken for ghosts due to their ability to leave their bodies behind.  So even if John managed to kill Sid’s body, he’d be left tied up and weaponless, facing a very unhappy ancient spirit with who knew what kind of abilities.
            Frankly, he’d had better odds. 
            Of course, he’d had worse ones, too, but he shoved those thoughts away.  Things weren’t that bad. Yet. 
            “And you needed Rosier for what?” he asked, while trying to come up with another option.  He didn’t really expect an answer, since Sid had no reason to tell him anything. 
            Except for what John belatedly recognized as the intensity of a zealot. 
            The little demon looked up from ripping apart John’s boots, and his whole face lit up with it.  “It’s what we were talking about before.  You saw the potential—you even had the right idea.  Merely the wrong target.”
            “The wrong target?”
            “It’s not Ealdris and the ancients who are the problem.  It’s the bloody council.” 
            John felt his blood pressure increase a little more, if that was possible.  Because as corrupt, self-seeking and generally appalling as the demon High Council often was, it did serve one vital purpose—it was the one thing keeping the species from running amuck.  And it was based here, in the Shadowland.
            He thought he might finally understand what Ealdris wanted with the place.
            “Even Ealdris can’t take on the council,” he said, fear making his voice harsh.  “They’re too powerful—”
            “We’ll see.”
            “They’re the ones who imprisoned her in the first place!”
            “Through trickery!”
            “It was that or a blood bath in which thousands would have died!  What would you have had—” 
            “I would have had them face her!” Sid screamed, suddenly in John’s own face.  And while the features hadn’t changed, it was amazing how much he currently looked like a demon.  “Properly, honorably--on the field of battle!  There would have been no tricks then, no deception.  If there is such now, they have only themselves to blame!”  He hurled John’s boots at the still-glowing wall.
            John met his glare squarely, not flinching.  Of course, the ropes helped with that.  But it seemed to be the right move.  Because after a moment, Sid calmed slightly. 
            “No honorable death this time, then?” John asked.
            “She’s learned,” Sid said shortly.  “I told her, times have changed.  To survive, we have to change with them.”
            “I didn’t think the old ones were good at that.”  
            Sid sat back on his heels, the genial mask slipping perfectly back into place even though he didn’t need it anymore.  John supposed it got to be habit when you wore it for something like six thousand years.  “She always did adapt well.  You have to in battle, you know.  But she still didn’t believe me, when I told her that an incubus could be our salvation.  In our day, you were considered rather…hopeless.”
            “And we’re not now?”
            “Oh, no,” Sid said, an edge creeping into his tone.  “Rosier has a finger in every pie, these days, an ear in every court.  Your kind have made a profession out of weakness, gaining power through soft words and pretty speeches, lies and deception, while being too innocuous for anyone to worry about.  Ironic that it’s your only strength that will bring you down!”
            John didn’t have to think it over, as there weren’t a lot of options.  Unlike most families, the incubi hadn’t been blessed with an arsenal of weapons.  “We can…feed from anyone?” he guessed.
            “It makes you unique among the races.” 
            John licked his lips, wishing his head didn’t hurt quite so much.  Because he was fairly certain that he was missing something important.  “And how does that help you?”
            “Me?” Sid shrugged.  “Not at all.  There’s only so much energy I can absorb at one time.  Any surplus is wasted, I’m afraid.  But Ealdris now…” He suddenly scowled.  “They sent her to an awful place, John; you should have seen it.  There was almost nothing to eat.  It was supposed to keep her too weak to find a way back, but she almost went mad with hunger--”
            “She didn’t stay that way for long. She killed dozens before I trapped her!”
            “Dozens, yes,” Sid nodded.  “But what she needed was thousands.  Tens of thousands.  There’s no limit on her ability to absorb power.  That’s what made her so formidable once--and will again.”
            “Unless history repeats itself.”
            Sid suddenly laughed.  “I don’t think so.”
            “And what’s to stop it?”  
            His head tilted, as if surprised that John didn’t understand.  “You are, of course.  We tried it with a few other incubi, but they weren’t strong enough.  The effect lasted seconds only, and we’re going to want more than that.  That’s when I realized, we needed someone of the royal line.”
            He waited, but John still didn’t get it.  Until suddenly he did.  Sid saw when his eyes widened, when the beauty and horror of it hit him, all at once.
            “Perfect symmetry, isn’t it?” Sid asked.  “She can absorb an unlimited amount of power, but only of certain types.  You can absorb any type, but only in limited amounts.  But put the two of you together…”
            “You’re mad!” John said, struggling uselessly against the damned ropes. 
            “And you are what you eat—isn’t that what the humans say?” Sid asked mildly.  “In the past, we hunted only the strong, we hunted each other, and so we were strong, too.  But then we find a perfect feeding ground, with plentiful, prolific, stupid prey, and what happens?  The feeble are elevated beyond their station; the greatest among us are hounded almost to extinction.  The easy hunting has ruined us, made us soft, made us weak!”
            “You’re going to blow it up,” John rasped.  “You’re going to use the brimstone to destroy the city.”
            “And the council along with it.  And thanks to that royal blood of yours, when all those souls are released, Ealdris will have the ability to absorb every one.  It will wipe out her enemies and return her to her former glory, all at the same time.” 
            “But the council is the only thing keeping the races in line!  Without it—”                “Everyone will be free--free to feed, free to gorge.  And once the humans are gone, we will go back to preying on each other.” Sid grinned, baring a lot of teeth, none of which looked like they belonged in the mouth of a shopkeeper.  “Until only the strong survive.”
            And all right, John decided.  Maybe things were that bad. 
            And then he dumped the demon on his ass.

 *   *   *

 Rian screamed, Cassie cursed, and someone kicked Casanova in the head.  That last was Rosier, who had leapt into the hole after them, even as Casanova hauled the damned girl against his side, preparing to jump back up.  But they were falling too fast, the rock rushing by in a blur, the square of slightly less dark above their heads rapidly diminishing as his feet struggled for purchase on nothing more than—
            Than a solid piece of perforated metal. 
            He stared at it for a split second, uncomprehending.  It was dull gray, except for splotches of rust and bits of red soil that were flying up to hit him in the face.  It suddenly dawned on him that they were on some type of platform—it was too kind to call it an elevator—that was plunging with wild but possibly not life threatening speed into the heart of the mountain.
            Which would have been quite a relief if their passenger wasn’t about to murder them all.
            “Why are you just standing there?” Cassie yelled, as Rosier got unsteadily back to his feet. 
            This is it, Casanova thought blankly.  He was going to die.  He was going to die hearing that voice bellowing at him, and the knowledge that she would probably swiftly follow him into the hereafter was exactly no consolation at all. 
            “Where do you go if you die in Hell?” he wondered aloud, only to have her sink those tacky pink nails into him.
            “Do something!”
            “What would you suggest?” Casanova demanded. 
            “Beat him up!”
            “Demon lord,” he pointed out, and Rosier grinned. 
            “Not now!  He can’t use magic!”
            “Like hell he can’t!” Casanova had bruises that said otherwise.
            “Not in here!” she said furiously.  “Rian said—”
            Casanova didn’t get to hear what wisdom his demon might have imparted, because Rosier took that moment to spring across the platform and take a swing at his head.  Which, for a being as powerful as he was supposed to be, seemed a little clumsy.  Casanova ducked with vampire speed and glanced at the girl.
            “Can’t use magic?” he asked.  She shook her head frantically, as the demon snarled and spun on a dime, coming back at Casanova. 
            Who calmly punched a hole through his face.
            Or, at least, he would have, had the creature been human.  The blow didn’t appear to have had the same effect in this instance, although it did send him flying back against a rusted support beam.  Casanova couldn’t be sure, because they were moving too swiftly, but he rather thought that particular beam might have a Rosier-shaped dent from now on.
            But the demon shook it off and staggered back into the middle of the platform, glaring and holding his jaw.  “Bastard,” he snarled.
            “Vampire,” Casanova smiled and spread his hands. 
            So Rosier kicked him in the kidney.
            Casanova gasped and thought about throwing up, while the girl grabbed a lever on the floor of the contraption and gave it a jerk.  The platform shuddered, jolting them all and throwing the demon off his pale gray Prada loafers.  
            Nice, Casanova thought, before picking him up by the lapels and shoving him into the side of the now even more briskly streaming rock face. 
            And holding him there.
            The demon spat something Casanova decided to ignore because he was enjoying the sound of jagged rock grating his victim’s backside.  It made up for some of the pain in his own.  At least it did until the vile, unprincipled son of a bitch kneed him in the nuts. 
            Casanova stared at him out of watering eyes.  “Who does that?” he screeched, in disbelief.
            “Demon,” Rosier said pleasantly.  Then he did it again.
            Casanova staggered back, trying to tell if he was still intact, only to have his arms grabbed by the girl.  “You can take him!” she said, turning him back around.
            “You take him!” he told her shrilly, as Rosier sprang off the wall.              
            He landed on his feet, like the cat he had always vaguely resembled, and he was in a cat-like crouch, too.  Making it impossible for Casanova to return the favor.  So he kicked him in the side of his perfectly coifed blond head instead, sending him sprawling.  And then the girl surprised him by copying his action, only aiming for the villain’s side, obviously trying to shove him through the narrow gap between the platform and the wall. 
            And all right, occasionally she did have a good idea, Casanova thought, moving to help.  Only to have Rian grab him in a metaphysical clinch, freezing his legs halfway through a step.  We’re going to have to talk, he thought grimly, as he toppled to the floor right by her master. 
            Who promptly poked him in the eye.
            The demon cackled, Casanova cursed, and Cassie grabbed him by the arm, trying to haul him back up.  But only succeeded in ripping the sleeve off a very expensive shirt.  “She’s the gift that keeps on giving, isn’t she?” Rosier asked, and punched him in the throat.
            “What is your problem?” Cassie demanded, glaring at him.
            Casanova glared back out of his one good eye, tempted to tell her exactly what his problem was, assuming he could still talk.  But then the infernal device they were on came to a very abrupt halt.  The three of them with bodies went tumbling off the platform and into the middle of a rough stone floor. 
            It was warm for some reason, and was giving off a strange sort of ghost light that sent grotesque shadows jumping along the walls.  But Casanova barely noticed.  He also wasn’t paying any attention to the girl’s shrieks or the demon’s curses.  He was too busy staring at the half-eaten face that was all of an inch from the end of his nose. 
            It didn’t move, which was the only thing that kept him from gibbering.  But he was close, thanks to the greenish color of the rotting flesh.  Not to mention the missing eye, the caved in nose and the cracked skull that had oozed something he deliberately didn’t look at all down the still mostly intact side of the face…
            “What is that smell?”  Cassie asked, grabbing him. She sounded a little freaked.
            Join the club he thought, noting that the corpse hadn’t died alone.  Half rotten bodies littered the floor of the not-insubstantial-sized room.  More lay slumped against the walls or piled in heaps, like so many empty bottles, tossed aside after the yummy contents were consumed...
            “Casanova,” she said urgently.  She apparently couldn’t see too well, even with the faint light.  And didn’t he just envy her that right now? 
            That was especially true after he caught sight of a couple of bodies sitting against the nearest wall.  Some of the corpses were old enough to be truly putrescent, but these were newly dead, their blank, staring eyes shining in the dim light, the shadows painting little half smiles on their faces.  Like they were welcoming him to the party--
            “Did you hear me?” Cassie demanded, shaking him.  And something in Casanova finally snapped. 
            “Shut up!” he screamed, rounding on her.  “Shut up, shut up, shut up!  Or I swear I’ll save Rosier the trouble and kill you my—”
            “Be silent!” someone hissed, and a hand clasped over his mouth, causing his eyes to bulge in sheer unadulterated fury.  Until he realized that it was far too large to be Cassie’s.  But before he could throw it, and the demon it was attached to, against the nearest wall, he heard something that would have stopped his heart in his chest had it been beating.
            “What was that?” Rian whispered, sounding a lot more nervous than a demon had any right to. 
            Casanova didn’t answer. His vocal chords didn’t seem to work all of a sudden, but it didn’t matter.  He doubted that she wanted to know that the faint shushing sound was the drag of scales over an uneven floor.  A lot of scales.
            Dinner is served, he thought blankly, as something huge blocked out the faint light from the corridor.
            “Well, fuck,” Rosier said. 



Chapter Eight


John smacked the floor like a sack of sand.  That went well, he thought, as a pair of dusty boots stopped by his head. 
            “You’re braver than your father,” Sid said, kicking him over. “I’ll give you that.”
            How kind, John didn’t say, not being quite up to sarcasm at the moment.  He settled for palming his knife out of Sid’s waistband when the demon bent over to pick him up.
            “But not as bright.”  Sid looked at him in amazement as John went scuttling backwards, all feet and elbows, like a particularly inept crab.  “What do you think you’re going to do with that little thing?” he demanded.  “You can’t kill me with it, and even if you manage to get your arms free, what then?  Do you really think that will improve your odds?”
            Can’t hurt, John thought hysterically, and rolled to his feet, which is harder than it sounds when you’re basically a sausage with legs. 
            “What’s the plan, John?” Sid demanded.  “You’re underground, lost in a maze, which—believe me—you are not going to find your way through.  You can’t use magic, your human weapons are gone, and in the last two minutes, I’ve had no fewer than four opportunities to kill you.”
            Five, John thought irrelevantly, but he guessed Sid had missed one.  It was the only thing he’d missed.  For someone who swore he wasn’t a warrior, Sid was doing okay.
            “Why make this harder than it has to be?” Sid asked.  “I’ll knock you out; you won’t feel a thing—”
            “But you will,” John snarled.  “After I bring this place down on your head!”   
            It was pretty much the only card he had to play.  Thanks to the no-magic clause, his options had been narrowed to two: get out--which meant getting past the brimstone so he could transition back to earth—or make sure that neither of them did.  The former was looking less and less likely all the time, and the latter…
            A lot of people believed that John had a death wish.  Even some of those closest to him acted like they suspected it, despite denying it when anyone else brought it up.  But it had never been true.  There had been times when he could honestly say he hadn’t cared much, either way, but he’d never been suicidal.  It wasn’t in him not to go down fighting, not to struggle for every last breath, not to take as many of his enemies as he could along for the ride.
            But suicidal or not, his line of work insured that he’d faced death any number of times.  And he thought he’d at least come to terms with it.  Damn it, he had come to terms with it.  He knew the feeling like an old friend—the hard ache of despair, the iron strength of resolution, the cold calm of acceptance.
            Only he wasn’t feeling so much that way right now.  Which was a problem, since the acceptance of death was one of the few things that had so far helped him to avoid it.  Get a grip, he told himself savagely, as Sid slowed to a halt. 
            But despite his lack of forward momentum, the little demon didn’t look impressed.  “And then what?” he asked.  “If you collapse the corridor with some spell, what happens?”
            “We die!” John spat, sawing frantically at the acre of rope the bastard had cocooned him in. 
            “No, you die,” Sid said blandly.  “I am…inconvenienced…for a time, while forming another body.  Which I have more than enough power to do.  You’ll delay this, nothing more.”
            “But I don’t get another body,” John reminded him sweetly.  “This is it.  And without me—”
            “What?” Sid looked at him impatiently.  “John, I didn’t even know you were coming until you walked into my shop!  We were planning this for Rosier, all along.  You were a happy coincidence, yes, but if you die, we’ll merely go back to the original plan.”
            “Assuming the council doesn’t find out about it in the meantime--”
            “They haven’t so far, and we’ve been planning this for months.”
            “--and assuming your partner survives the explosion.  If brimstone really is laced throughout these rocks, setting it off here might bring down the whole mountain!”
            He’d expected that to hit home, since Sid’s plan pretty much required keeping his battle queen alive until she returned to her former strength.  But either the little demon had a damn good poker face, or John had missed something.  Because there was no flutter of those short eyelashes, no slight flush to those plump cheeks.  Just a slight moue of irritation.
            “She’s two-natured,” Sid reminded him, “or have you forgotten?”
            “No.  I also haven’t forgotten that she’s weak.  She was almost starved, you said so yourself.  And I doubt the council was kind enough to feed her before they threw her back in jail!”
            “She doesn’t need her full strength to best you,” Sid said dryly.
            “But I’m not the scariest thing out there, am I?”
            It was what John had been betting on when he’d formulated his plan, in case she got past him.  Of course, in that happy scenario, he’d also had a cadre of the council’s elite guards to back him up.  But even without them, the Shadowland wasn’t the place to be an unhoused spirit--not unless you were a great deal more formidable than Ealdris was at present.
            But Sid brushed that argument away like the others.  “You aren’t scary at all,” he said frankly.  “And this has gone on long enough.”
            John backed up again as the demon resumed advancing, wondering if he could risk a glance behind him.  All he needed was a distraction and an open corridor.  He might not be able to outfight Sid under the circumstances, but bare feet or no, he was willing to bet that he could still outrun him.  And he didn’t need to make it all the way back to the surface; he just needed—
            To not fall on his ass.  A piece of the damn uneven floor tripped him up, sending him staggering backwards—into a solid wall of rock.  He felt around frantically with his foot, but there was no opening. 
            Dead end, his oh-so-helpful brain quipped. 
            He was going to have the damn thing examined if he ever got out of this. 
            “There’s nowhere to go, John,” Sid said, echoing his thoughts.  “Now, why don’t you give me the knife—”
            “My pleasure,” he hissed, and threw it with the arm he’d finally worked free of the damn rope.
            He saw it connect with the flabby fold of Sid’s neck, saw blood spew in a pinkish mist--and then nothing.  The knife had barely left his hand when something that looked like black smoke boiled out of Sid’s pores, his eyes, even his mouth, as if he’d caught fire on the inside.  In an eye blink, it had enveloped the two of them in a color so thick, so dense, it almost had substance.
            Almost nothing, John thought, as something latched onto him, like a thousand tiny barbs sinking into his skin.  His shields should have stopped it, but he hadn’t been able to use them here.  And without them, there was nothing to prevent the horrible sensation of something other slithering in through his skin, sinking inside him through a million tiny invasions, draining him dry.  He sank to his knees, a scream unable to get out past the suffocating mist pouring down his throat. 
            And he finally realized why Sid hadn’t seemed too concerned about his partner. 

*   *   *

Casanova had never been much for sports.  It had mostly been viewed as training for war when he was young, and even before he met up with the incubus who had once possessed his namesake, he’d always thought of himself as more of a lover than a fighter.  But he would have been willing to bet that he broke Olympic speed records getting back to the elevator.
            Which meant he hit it about the same time as the cowardly bastard of a demon lord.
            Rosier slammed the heel of his shoe back into Casanova’s face while simultaneously leaning on the lever to raise the elevator.  Which went up all of two inches, because Casanova was holding it down with the hand that wasn’t cradling his broken nose.  “Going thomewhere?” he asked viciously.
            “Bite me!”
            “My pleathure!” Casanova snarled, and jerked him off the platform.
            Unfortunately, he didn’t also remember to hold down the elevator, which shot up like a rocket, leaving the two of them looking at it in horror.  And then at the wall, for a recall lever that wasn’t there.  And then simultaneously diving for the only exit that wasn’t currently being blocked by a monster.
            Rosier reached it first, only to slam into the floor when Casanova tackled him.  “Let me go, you fool!” he grunted.  “You can’t outrun her!”
            “And you can?”
            “I don’t have to outrun her,” Rosier hissed.  “I only have to outrun you!” Which was when he flipped over, got a foot in Casanova’s stomach and used it as a lever to throw him over his head.
            Straight at the monster. 
            “Bastardo!” Casanova breathed, even as he grabbed onto Rosier’s leg halfway through the arc, skewing it and sending them rolling and sliding and kicking and biting almost back where they’d started. 
            And where the blond whose existence he’d briefly forgotten was still standing, staring death in the face.
            Shit.  She couldn’t see worth a damn down here, Casanova reminded himself.  He was trying to work out how to grab her, lose the villain currently trying to eviscerate him and make it back to the damn door, all in the second or so he probably had left, when the daft girl suddenly reached out a hand. 
            And gave death a little push.
            Which surprised Casanova almost as much as when death quivered and wobbled and toppled over onto its side.
            He froze in shock, allowing Rosier the chance to take a vicious shot to his ribs.  Casanova didn’t retaliate, being too busy watching Cassie squat beside an acre or so of gleaming lavender scales.  And do it again.
            “Thop poking that thing!” he told her wildly.
            She looked up, and apparently her eyes had adjusted somewhat, after all, because she found his easily.  “Why?”
            “I think it’s dead.” She stood up and nudged the horror on the floor with one small shoe.
            “What are you—oh,” Rosier said, his head poking out from underneath Casanova’s arm.  “Well, look at that.”
            Casanova slammed his face into the ground, just because.
            Rosier looked up, nose bloodied and teeth bared in a rictus, but his eyes were fixed on the thing on the floor.  And Casanova had to admit, it was rather hard to look anywhere else.  It had a Medusa-like head, human and reptilian all mixed up in an extremely unfortunate way, only the things poking out of it weren’t snakes.  Not that tentacles were a great improvement, particularly not when the body ended not in legs, but in a long spiny tail. 
            And there’s another fetish ruined, he thought wildly.  He’d always found mermaids faintly erotic, or at least the idea of them, since they didn’t actually exist.  At least not as far as he knew, and if they did, he wasn’t keen to meet any after today.  Because it turned out that a scale-covered tail actually looked pretty damn obscene sprouting out of a naked human torso.
            “What did it die of?” he asked hoarsely, before he managed to finish horrifying himself.
            “Nothing,” Rosier, said.  “And get off me.  Unless you’re planning to make me an offer.”
            Casanova practically wrenched something getting back to his feet. 
            “What do you mean, nothing?” Cassie asked, before he could find something vile enough to say to the creature.  “She isn’t dead?”
            “See for yourself.”
            And to Casanova’s utter disbelief, she did, squatting beside the body to feel for a pulse at the pale gray skin of the neck.  The scaly, scaly neck, right next to where some of those tentacles were slightly moving, like seaweed in a current.  Or unnaturally long fingers reaching out to—
            “There’s a pulse,” Cassie said, frowning.  “But it’s faint.  And she’s cold.  And barely breathing.  Of course, I don’t know if that’s normal or—”
            “It is,” Rosier had gotten to his feet and moved over to the thing’s other side, where he crouched opposite the girl.  “For stasis.”
            He looked heavenward, why Casanova didn’t know.  It wasn’t like he was on speaking terms with anyone up there.  “Demon bodies aren’t like human ones,” he told her.  “Ours don’t require a soul in situ to continue functioning, albeit on a low level.  Some of us can take them off like a set of clothes, if it is more convenient, and return to pure spirit form for a time.”
            Cassie blinked.  “That’s…really weird.”
            “Unlike being trapped in one body, one world, one plane of existence, unable to see or experience anything except the trickle of information supplied to you by your so-called senses?” He barked out a laugh.  “‘Weird.’  As with most words you humans use, you don’t know the meaning of the term.”
            Casanova didn’t comment, but he swallowed thickly.  He had absolutely no problem believing that, after today. 
            Rosier glanced at him, amused, and then back at Cassie.  “You know, if you’re going to hunt demons, girl, you should perhaps take a moment to find out something about us.”
            “I wasn’t hunting her!” Cassie said, scowling.  “I wasn’t even hunting you.  I wasn’t doing anything—”
            “Except risking my son’s life--again. I don’t know why you don’t simply put a knife in his ribs and be done with it.” The last was said with a tone that had the girl practically apoplectic.
            “Like you care!  Like you’ve ever cared!  You sent him here to die!”
            “I sent him here to get him out of the way.  He wasn’t supposed to find anything this quickly—”
            “But he has!  And if her body’s here, her spirit probably is, too.  And if she’s like most demons, that’s just as—”
            “She isn’t,” he said grimly.  “She’s worse.”
            Cassie sneered at him, and it was a pretty good effort, Casanova thought.  She clearly didn’t lack courage.  Intelligence, prudence and a healthy sense of self-preservation, yes; courage no.
            “What’s the matter?” she demanded.  “Afraid somebody else will kill him before you get the chance?”
            Rosier’s eyes narrowed.  “Coming from the person who has done more to put him in an early grave than anyone in centuries—”
            “I’ve been trying to save him!”
            Rosier glanced around, his expression eloquent.  “And this is what you call a rescue, is it?” 
            Casanova didn’t get a chance to hear what from Cassie’s expression would have been an interesting comment, because the next moment Rian was back.  Which was a bit of a shock since he hadn’t noticed her leaving.  “There’s no way through,” she said, and for some reason, she was looking at Cassie.
            Who transferred her scowl from one incubus to the other.  “There has to be!”
            Rian shook her head agitatedly.  “I checked in every direction.  The demons she didn’t consume she put to work.  There has to be two, perhaps three dozen, just in the corridors near here, and who knows how many between us and--”
            “Put to work on what?”
            “Brimstone.  They’re mining it.  I don’t know why but—”
            “Brimstone?” Casanova asked, confused, only to have everyone turn to look at him with varying expressions of incredulity.  “What?”
            “Do try to keep up, old boy,” Rosier said, with a sigh.
            “It’s an explosive,” Rian said, getting between Casanova, who had about had enough, and her boss.  “Like TNT--”
            “I know what it is!”  Casanova snapped, glancing around.  The glowing striations in the stone suddenly made a horrible kind of sense.  “That’s why we can’t use magic?”
            “Yes!” Cassie hissed.  “And without it we have no way to get through the tunnels and find—” she stopped abruptly.  And looked at the crumpled body on the floor.  And then she slowly raised her head and looked at Rosier, her eyes narrowing.
            And for some reason, his widened.  “No.”
            “You said it was like a suit of clothes.”
            “It isn’t my suit!”
            Cassie smiled, and it was vicious.  “It is now.” 



Chapter Nine


“No, no, no!” Sid yelled.  “The charges aren’t set yet!  Consume him now and we’ll have to start all over!”
            The pressure abruptly released and John hit the ground, hard enough to rip the air from his lungs and to stab him in the side with his own broken rib.  But the outward pain was nothing next to the emptiness inside.  Dark and cold and echoing, it made him want to curl into a protective ball around his terrified, savaged soul.
            But he couldn’t.  He couldn’t even manage to lift his head when someone grabbed him, jerking him off the floor.  “I wanted you fresh,” Sid hissed. “You’re more powerful that way.  But I’m not going to lose you after this much trouble!”
            John found himself slung over a shoulder and carted back down the hall, then dropped in a heap on the floor.  It hurt, but not nearly as much as it should have.  Which was a bad sign for some reason he couldn’t seem to concentrate on at the moment.
            His head lolled to one side, seemingly of its own accord, but he couldn’t see anything.  Until he switched to demon sight, but that was little better because the glare of Sid’s power practically blinded him to everything else.  It glowed through the demon’s skin like a searchlight through cheesecloth, turning the veins of ore in the walls into a web of silver fire, revealing their true color instead of the tint they borrowed from the stone. 
            And yet, there was a gleam of red, a faint flicker against all that light. 
            John transitioned back to human sight to find that the darkness had retreated into its host, leaving the corridor dim and prosaic-looking except for that coil of angry red.  It was coming from the small jar Sid had just pulled out of a backpack.  John watched, mesmerized, as the contents gleamed and twisted, sending hellish flames dancing across the stones.
            Sid sat it down on a flat piece of floor and pulled out another one, this one empty.  John didn’t ask what it was for.  He didn’t have the strength, and in any case, he had a pretty good idea. 
            He forced himself to look away, to search for some avenue of escape.  But and all his peripheral vision showed him was more of the same: a small, rock-cut tunnel, a few distant shadows that might have been exits he couldn’t possibly reach, and Sid, muttering to himself.  If there was anything helpful in that, John didn’t see it.
            Except, of course, for the obvious.
            “Experience is the best teacher,” Rosier had said, leaning back in his chair.  “Why read about something when you can live it?” 
            “Because it kills them!” John held out the jar that had contained his latest acquisition.
            It had been a special order, one he’d been so eager to get his hands on that he’d paid a premium for a rush job.  Perhaps that was why the hunters had been a little careless, why they’d left some of the final memories intact.  Or perhaps their usual clients wouldn’t have cared. 
            But whatever the cause, John had experienced everything, just as if it had been happening to him: the desperate flight, the heart pounding terror, the cold wash of disbelief when they cornered him.  The hopeless cry—what had he done? And finally, the veil of pain that fogged his senses, as he clung to consciousness, to life, with a frightening effort of will, even as his soul was ripped from his body--   
            John had come out of it in a cold sweat, hands shaking, stomach churning, unsure for a moment who he was, where he was.  He’d run into the next room in a blind panic, trying to hide from soul hunters who weren’t there, before reality finally caught up with him.  He hadn’t found it a great improvement.  In the end, he’d lain on the floor in his bedroom, soul-sick and shaken, and stared at the ceiling for a long time. 
            Then he’d gone to see his father.    
            “So does butchering a cow,” Rosier had said, impatiently.  “And I haven’t noticed you becoming vegetarian.”
            “A cow is an animal—”
            “As are some of these.”
            “But not all!  Not most!  Many of them are sentient beings--”
            “Who have the most to teach us.”
            John had looked at the creature he’d once so admired, and for the first time, seen him for what he was. “Even if doing so destroys them?”
            Rosier saw his expression, and his face closed down. “What did you expect?” he demanded.  “A library full of books? We’re demons.”
            “You are,” John had breathed.  And walked out. 
            It had taken him years, and a wealth of pain, to understand that he’d been right that day, in what he’d told his father.  But he’d been wrong, too.  Because part of him was demon, with the same unending hunger as all the rest.  
            He could feel it now, not taste or scent or any other sense a human would have understood.  Just desperate, all-consuming need.  It was mewling in his gut right now, begging piteously for just.one.taste. of all that exotic power, that deadly strength, that…
            He didn’t know how he knew.  But the part of him that was incubus identified it unerringly.  He even knew which one, the memory of its power still fresh from their brief meeting in the shop. 
            John supposed he knew what Sid had done with those thirty minutes. 
            He didn’t know why, because Irin were not easy prey.  They had abilities that might have turned the tables on Sid very handily.  But then, that was true of John, too, before he lost his magic, and it hadn’t helped him.  He could see Sid, the trusted shopkeeper, running after one of his best customers, having forgotten to tell him…something.  It didn’t matter; it had obviously worked.  And now they had the perfect test subject.
            And that’s what he was, John realized, watching the color thrash uselessly against the glass.  They couldn’t risk implementing their plan without being sure that his watered down blood would do the trick, so they needed a test.  He assumed that, after Ealdris got done with him, she would try to absorb the contents of the jar.  Which had to be something unusual.  Something exotic.  Something most demons couldn’t possibly ingest. 
            But John wouldn’t have that problem. 
            John never had that problem.
            He stared at the jar.  
            He didn’t often get this close to temptation anymore.  Incubi needed their victim’s lust, like vampires needed blood; without it, they had no conduit to a person’s power, no way to feed.  But there was no body here anymore, no barrier, and thus no need for a conduit.  All he had to do was reach out.  All he had to do...
            John closed his eyes, but the color swirled in through his lids nonetheless, sharper, richer, clearer in his demon senses than it ever could be in human sight.  It was breathtakingly beautiful, as they all were.  And sweet, so sweet, every single one.
            Even the last.
            You are what you are.  Someday, you’re going to have to come to terms with that.  His father’s voice echoed in his head, but it lacked any weight.  Because Rosier had never understood: John had come to terms with it.  He knew what he was, what he would always be, no matter how far he managed to run.  He’d had that demonstrated one horrible night in the most vivid way possible.  And for years, he’d believed that it was all he ever could be. 
            Until he met someone who refused to see him that way. Who argued and fussed and tried her best to boss him around, but who never shrank away.  Who relied on him and needed him and called him friend.  Who touched the scars on his body, and other places, as if they were just another part of him, not evidence of where he’d been, what he was. 
            And lately he’d begun to hope that perhaps, just perhaps, there was something even a monster could contribute.
            He stared at the jar. 
            And then slowly, shakily, he held out his hand.



Chapter Ten

            This is never going to work, Casanova thought, panicking, as several nearby demons turned their way.  They were short and squat and had too many limbs, and he had no idea what either of them were.  But they looked suspicious. 
            Or maybe that was him.  He couldn’t tell anymore.  He was pretty sure he was having a nervous breakdown, but since that wouldn’t help he concentrated on ignoring them.  And on personifying his role as a recruit being escorted to the job by the big boss herself.
            Which would have been vastly easier had said boss not hit the damn wall every five seconds.
            “Stop it!” Casanova hissed.
            “I don’t know how to drive this thing,” Rosier complained, his tail making little furrows in the dust as it swished back and forth, propelling him into a corner.
            “Then figure it out!”
            “There’s a bit of a learning curve,” he muttered, slithering back a few steps.  And then smacking straight into the wall again.
            Casanova leaned over and grabbed a scaly arm, jerking him back into the corridor.  It was a broad one, which would have done positive things for his claustrophobia if it hadn’t been full of demons.  And the hellish equivalent of TNT.  And a ten foot tall half-snake that was weaving drunkenly along, as if coming back from a night on the town.
            God. That’s where he should be, right now, on the town. Any town.  Or better yet, enjoying the nightlife in his beautiful casino.  Pressing the flesh with high rollers, schmoozing with starlets, making sure it all ran smoothly, effortlessly.  He was good at that—no, he was great at it, maybe better than anything he’d ever done in his life.  He wasn’t so good at this, particularly not when it involved touching that hideous thing in order to keep up some semblance of—
            “What are you doing?” he demanded shrilly, catching sight of Rosier’s current activity.
            Casanova was momentarily speechless, disbelief and revulsion warring for dominance on his tongue.  Revulsion won.  “You were feeling it up?
            “Well, she’s obviously female,” one hand glided over evidence of that fact with every appearance of appreciation.  “And I was merely trying—”
            “It’s a snake,” Casanova said, horror making his voice quake.
            “It’s a lamia, which makes it—her—a sentient being.”
            “It has scales.”
            The disgusting creature licked his lips.  “Quite.”
            “And it’s dead!”  Dios, how many perversions was that in a single—
            “It’s in stasis,” Rosier said calmly, “it isn’t dead.  Although we’re likely to be if I don’t figure out how this body works.”
            Casanova was beginning to think that was inevitable anyway.  He’d been envisioning a quick trip through a few short tunnels, grabbing the damn mage and heading straight out the nearest exit.  That rosy little vision had lasted all of five minutes, until the small side tunnels let out into increasingly larger ones, populated by pick-wielding demons who couldn’t all be mind-controlled.  There was just too many of them; at least some had to be in on this, whatever this was. 
                He still hadn’t figured it out and he really didn’t care.  Right now, he cared about exactly one thing.  “Where is that blasted mage?” he said savagely, as he turned a corner. 
            And had the damn man slam into him, hard enough to knock him off his feet.
            Casanova hit the ground, Cassie yelled “Pritkin!” and Rosier cursed.  And then the crazy bastard was gone again, as if jerked back by some unseen wire.  Leaving Casanova sprawled in the dirt with his ass in the air. 
            Which was not such a bad thing considering what was spread out all of a foot in front of his nose.
            “Dios,” he breathed, his fingers digging into rock as he stared at the lip of a very narrow ledge.  Over what appeared to be nothing at all. 
            Casanova peered cautiously over the rim to see a cavern the size of an airline hangar, if they were also a mile deep and carved out of glittering rock.  Demons lined the deeply grooved sides, where jagged streaks of pure ore glistened silver-bright against the stone, like captured lightning.  It looked like half the damn mountain was hollow, he thought, awed.
            Right before he was hit by the rest of it.
            He heard Cassie scream as their ledge was engulfed by an avalanche of debris, including dirt, rock and several sharp little pick axes, one of which bounced off his already abused ass.  It took him a moment to dig himself out, only to find that everyone else had been smart enough to hug the wall.  And were now staring with varying expressions of horror at something behind him.
            He whipped his neck around in time to see that, for once, the danger wasn’t to him.  The mage had just hit the wall in a billowing explosion of dust--on the other side of the cavern.  How he’d gotten all the way over there, Casanova didn’t know, since he didn’t see a bridge.  But that was less of a concern than the fact that they’d come all this way to rescue someone who had just gotten himself killed.
            Only he hadn’t.  
            He should have been dead; hell, he should have been a greasy streak on the rock face.  But instead, Casanova watched him spin, snarling, and launch himself off the side of the cave--straight into thin air.  But instead of instead of plummeting who knew how far to his death, he soared up, which was clearly impossible unless the Shadowland had some crazy rule on gravity he’d yet to—
            “Wait.  Are those…wings?” Casanova asked stupidly, as Pritkin hit a fat little demon who had also been hovering with gravity-defying ease in the middle of a lot of nothing.  And sent him smashing into the wall above them.
            Most of which came down on Casanova’s head.
            “Carlos!  Get out of the floor!” Rian told him, as he struggled to fight himself free a second time. 
            He pulled his face out of the dust to glare up at her, grateful he didn’t actually need to breathe.  “You know,” he said sarcastically.  “That never would have—” he cut off as Cassie stepped on his head, scrambling over the mountain of debris towards Rosier.
            She’d survived the double avalanche, but she looked a little worse for the wear, with a bloody streak glistening on one cheek and red dust coating her like a film.  But that was nothing compared to her just-shy-of-crazed expression.  Which might explain why she grabbed a fistful of those horrible tentacles, jerked Rosier down to her and screamed in his face. 
            “Do something!”
            “What would you suggest?”
            “Anything! Everything! He’s going to get himself killed!”
            “He looks like he’s doing all right to me,” Casanova said sourly, dragging his filthy, torn and bloody ass over to the minutely safer area by the wall. 
            “He isn’t,” Rosier said shortly.
            “How can you tell?”
            Casanova was, but it looked to him like the mage was winning.  The fat demon dove for Pritkin, the air boiling around him like an angry black cloud, only to be sent flying into the midst of a half dozen miners.  They’d been hugging a ledge, watching the show, but should have picked a better vantage point.  Because they toppled like bowling pins, the pudgy demon sprawled in the middle of them, bloody and obviously hurting. 
            But Pritkin was, too, either that or he needed a breather.  At least Casanova assumed that was why he didn’t immediately follow up his advantage.  He hovered in the middle of the cave, the great white wings he’d somehow acquired beating the air, while his opponent writhed in pain and black smoke boiled around him.
            Only it didn’t look so much like smoke anymore.  More like a swarm of angry insects, which were pursuing the miners the demon had toppled.  And while Casanova couldn’t tell what it was doing, every time it caught one, the miner screamed and dropped—and didn’t get back up.
            “What’s happening?” Cassie demanded.
            “Ealdris,” Rosier said grimly.  “She’s feeding.”
            “Now? But why--”
            Rosier glanced at her impatiently.  “Every time her associate is injured, she pulls energy from the surrounding life forms and feeds it to him.  He can keep going indefinitely—or as long as the food holds out, at least.  Emrys can’t.”
            “John then,” Rosier said, gesturing violently.  “Call him what you will, he is going to die if we don’t find a way to separate those two.  Soon.”
            “And how do we do that?”
            “I’m thinking,” Rosier snapped.
            “I can try,” Rian volunteered.  “If I could drain her--”
            “You’re not powerful enough,” Rosier said curtly.  “I might be, but not through a body.  That’s Ealdris’s talent, not mine.”
            “But she doesn’t have a body right—”
            “As soon as either of us attacks, she’ll simply draw back into Sid.”  He made a disgusted noise.  “Sid. You can’t trust anybody anymore.”
            Casanova stared at him, a little awed at the arrogant irony in that statement.  But he didn’t think this was the moment to point it out.  Not when the fat demon—Sid, he assumed—suddenly jumped up and threw himself back into the fight, slamming into Pritkin and sending the two of them swerving and looping and diving around the space.  And everywhere they went, the black cloud followed, buzzing around the war mage just as it had the demons who were now bleeding out on the ledge. 
            “He doesn’t have much time,” Rosier said harshly.  “If we don’t do something soon, he won’t—”
            He stopped on a gasp, a look of surprise coming over his features.  Casanova didn’t know why until he looked down. And saw the gore-coated end of one of the picks sticking a good two inches out of Rosier’s middle. 
            It was a shock, but not as much as who was holding it.  “What are you doing?” he asked Cassie blankly.
            “Getting its attention,” she said savagely, and ripped the pick back out.
            Rosier made a choked sound, everyone in the vicinity got sprayed with hot green blood, and an ear-splitting shriek echoed around the cavern.  Right before the cloud whipped about in a swirling mass of vengeful fury.  And dove straight for them.
            “Thanks,” Rosier told Cassie, staring at it.
            “Any time.”
            He turned around and fled, and he must have figured out something about how his new body worked, because he wasn’t hitting any walls this time.  Casanova felt a chill, deathly wind ruffle his hair as the cloud streamed past, ignoring the girl holding the gory pick in favor of the demon making off with its body. 
            And then, for a split second, there was nothing.  At least, not in the threat category.  Casanova stared around, first at Pritkin, who was currently making mincemeat of the small demon, then at the three of them, all of whom were still more or less intact, and finally at the distinct lack of any enemies that weren’t running for their lives. 
            And all right, he thought, straightening his tattered jacket.  This was more like it.
            And then the cave blew up.



Chapter Eleven


Everything happened between one heartbeat and another.  Sid’s body falling, broken and bloody and beaten, to spin away into darkness.  His spirit rising out of it and moving, but not up, as Pritkin had half expected, in order to attack him.  Not even out, toward one of the tunnels and freedom.  But down.
            To where the biggest vein of brimstone ran in a glittering ring around the cave.
            Pritkin had no time to stop him, no time even to brace himself, before he was hit by a vast wash of air from the explosion.  It sent him tumbling helplessly backwards, head over heels, with no way to right himself or even tell where he was going.  Until he crashed into a wall like a bird hitting a window. 
            He slid down to a ledge, body bruised and wings askew, in time to glimpse Sid streaming past, a faint outline against a curtain of silver fire.  But he didn’t pursue.  Not because he couldn’t have caught him, but because whatever spell Sid had used to ignite the brimstone had caused a chain reaction, exploding vein after vein, one right after the other like a massive firework pinwheel, all the way back to—
            “Cassie!” He hadn’t seen her before, hadn’t had time to see anything in the life or death struggle with not one but two ancient horrors.  He would have thought he was hallucinating, but Casanova was there, too, screaming his fool head off as the ledge they were on cracked and splintered and—
            Pritkin saw them fall, saw Rian grab Casanova, saw her reach for Cassie—who was too far away.  Rian stared up at him for s split second, horrified and apologetic, and then she and Casanova winked out.  While Cassie fell into a pit straight out of a medieval vision.
            John dove, not knowing if she had enough strength left to shift, not betting on it because the damnable, damnable woman never held anything back, never once put her own safety ahead of anyone else’s, a fact that was going to get her killed one day, but please God, not this day.  But he couldn’t see anything through billowing clouds of red dust, could barely breathe through the waves of fiery heat, and there was no hope of hearing her cry out, not with the roar of all that raw power being released, the crack of huge swaths of stone as they calved off the sides of the cave and fell, many exploding from the inside as they did so…
            “Cassie!” It was a desperate, stupid, useless.  Because he hadn’t caught her, and if she hadn’t shifted, somehow holding concentration in the midst of an inferno, there was no chance left—
            “Over here!” He heard it, faint, so faint, that it might have been a figment of his imagination. But he turned anyway, banking left, barely missing a mass of burning stone with a few screaming miners still clinging to it as it fell, and then he saw her. 
            She was half on, half off a ledge, one leg dangling over nothing, rivers of molten brimstone cascading on either side, the whole shelf ready to blow at any moment. But she was alive. Somehow, despite all possible odds—and then he had her.
            “I…tried to shift to you, but I landed…here—” she broke off, choking, as a stinging cloud of gas and debris showered them, seemingly from all directions.                  The whole place was imploding, with huge gouts of fire belching out of tunnels, molten brimstone dropping like silver rain, and falling boulders shattering off pieces of the overhang above them. Shifting back to Dante’s while surrounded by this much explosive was impossible; they’d be dead before he could finish the spell. But staying put was equally out of the question.
            A great wash of air boiling up from the inferno below buffeted them as he took off once more, launching them toward the only halfway clear air he could see. And then there it was: a piece of sky, blessedly dark against the searing light, just a crack far, far above his head. But a second later there were two, and then a dozen, and then the whole top of the mountain was cracking and fissuring and falling in.
            He pulled Cassie’s T-shirt over her nose and mouth, raised one forearm over his eyes to shield them, and strained upward. Sparks showered down everywhere; smoke masked the only way out after barely an instant; and the heat was unbelievable. He couldn’t reassure Cassie, even if he’d had the breath, because close as she was, she wouldn’t have heard him. He had never before been inside and explosion as it was happening, but it was deafening. It cracked and rumbled, whistled and roared, thundered and boomed, on all sides, as it consumed the mountain from the inside out.
            Even the knowledge he’d gained from the Irin was insufficient to chart a course through something like this.  The demon had never done it, so there were no memories to plunder, no visuals to guide him, no anything but desperate clawing against air so dry, it had hardly any lift.  John had the impression that the only thing he was doing was managing not to fall, while the headway they gained was mostly from the huge surges of air rushing up from below.
            He had been riding the edges of most of them, but one finally caught him full on, picking him up as if he was no heavier than the burning bits of ash glittering through the air, and then throwing him up, up, up—and out.
            They burst out through the remains of the mountaintop, just as what looked like a volcano erupted below them.  The whole mountain breathed in for one last great gasp before bursting outward, the colossal explosion throwing huge burning pieces of rock high into the sky.  But not as high as John flew, his borrowed wings beating the air in time to the rapid pace of his heart. 
            He didn’t stop, didn’t even slow down, until they had put whole mountains between them and the smoking hulk behind.  He finally set them down on a blessedly cold, dark hillside, far enough away that he couldn’t even feel the heat anymore.  Only then did he sink to his knees, gasping for breath, the great singed wings falling around him and still smoking slightly. 
            But he didn’t let his passenger go. 
            For a long time, they just stayed like that, John eventually moving into a sitting position, pulling Cassie’s body back against him as they watched the awesome power erupting on the horizon. She kept swallowing, tiny little gulps that John could barely hear, which could have been from a parched throat or too much smoke or a thousand other things. But he didn’t think so. Because she was also trembling.
            “Close your eyes,” he told her softly, and she did, tilting her head back against his chest, her breath hitching again.  But she didn’t cry, didn’t go into hysterics, didn’t do anything.  Except stay there, her hand tight on his thigh, her breath hot against his chest, until her own slowly evened out again.
            After a long time, one small hand moved, slowly, tentatively, tracing the feathers falling around her, stroking the black slashes along one huge wing.  She didn’t ask where he’d gotten them, didn’t ask why they mimicked the marks on his shoulder.  She didn’t ask anything, just kept running those soft fingers through the down, along the spines…
            “How long will they last?”
            “A few hours,” he said hoarsely.  He should tell her, he thought, that the feathers weren’t just a projection.  That for the moment, for however long the Irin’s essence held out, they were an innate, physical part of him.  And that her fingers stroking along the marks felt just like they once had, moving over his scars. 
            He ought to tell her, ought to ask her to stop.  It’s what a gentleman would do, he knew that.  But then, he was half demon. 
            And tonight, he thought maybe he’d just go with that.       
            “They’re nice,” she murmured, pulling one around her.
            “Yes.” One hand tightened in her thick soft hair.  “Yes.”

*   *   *

“It was epic,” Rosier said, as they watched Cassie sitting in her living room, opening more gifts.  John scowled.  His father was incorporeal today, not having had time to replace the body he lost in the explosion.  So John could barely see him, just a smudged outline against the gaudy wallpaper the casino deemed elegant.  But he was looking smug.
            “You mean you got lucky.”
            Rosier looked offended.  “Luck had nothing to do with it.  I drained her during the whole chase back to the elevator, until her body bled out, and by then I was close enough to pop back into mine.  And even Ealdris has some trouble leeching a soul through the protection of a body.  It gave me the few seconds I needed to finish the job.”  The smug look spread.  “I was awesome.”
            “You were lucky,” Pritkin repeated, not that it was likely to do any good.  Nothing, to his knowledge, had ever dented his father’s overweening arrogance, and he doubted anything he could say was likely to do so now.  And in any case, that wasn’t why he had asked to see him.  “Are you going to tell me why you came after Cassie?”
            “Oh, yes, that.”  Rosier shrugged, as if it was a minor detail.  “The high council had a meeting a few days ago.  After some deliberations to which they did not bother to invite me, I was summoned.  They informed me that we were in mortal peril, and that your precious pythia was the cause.”
            “There have been pythias for thousands of years,” John said, his eyes narrowing. 
            “Not one allied with a homicidal half-demon best known for killing one of the high council,” Rosier said dryly.  “They were convinced that you had seduced her with the intent to use her power against them.”
            “That’s ridiculous!”
            “Not at all.  Your well-known hatred for our kind coupled with her ability to time shift—the one power we do not possess—makes the two of you a formidable threat.  You possess enough information about us and our history to know exactly where and when to strike.  With her power at your disposal—”
            “It isn’t at my disposal, and it wouldn’t work in the demon realms if it were!”
            Rosier shrugged. “Perhaps, perhaps not, but it is immaterial.  It works perfectly well here on earth.  If she wanted to attack us at a previous point in our history, all she would have to do is to shift backwards in her own time stream, and then enter our realms from there.  That would effectively put her back in our time, too, would it not?”
            John didn’t answer.  His mind felt strangely numb.  Like he’d been hit by a blow so hard, he had yet to feel it. 
            “I can’t say I was surprised,” Rosier continued, sounding aggrieved.  “I saw this coming some time ago.  If you’d stayed out of the way I could have dealt with it before it became an issue--”
            “By killing her, you mean,” John grated. 
            “I will never understand the attraction you have for those things,” Rosier hissed, leaning forward.  “Time after time, you choose their side over ours, when you know perfectly well they.  Die.  Anyway.  A year from now, a hundred--what difference does it make?”
            “A great deal to them, I should imagine.”
            “And none at all to us!  We will be here when they are dust, when their civilization—or what passes for it—is dust.  Do you have any idea how many of their petty little kingdoms I’ve seen rise and fall?”
            John couldn’t have cared less.  “And how does the council feel now that this great threat saved their asses?”
            Rosier scowled.  “You mean, after I saved—”
            “You wouldn’t have been on hand to do anything if Cassie hadn’t led you there!”
            “She’s human.  We do not consider their actions worth—”
            “But I am not, as you so frequently point out.  And she wouldn’t have led you there if she hadn’t been looking for me.  So in a way, you could say that I saved their asses.”
            Rosier’s eyes narrowed. “Do I need to ask what your price is?”
            “I think you know.”
            “It appears you did get something from me, after all,” he said bitingly.  “Fine time to recall it.”
            John smiled as his father abruptly winked out, and dropped the silence shield he’d had up.  For the first time since this whole mess started, he allowed himself to unwind, relaxing back in his chair as Cassie finished opening her latest gift.  And then sitting up abruptly again when he saw what it was. 
            “What is this?” she asked, pulling out a length of gleaming lavender scales, fine as silk and far more precious.
            Marlowe, who had shown up a few minutes ago searching for answers he wasn’t going to get, raised an eyebrow.  “Lamia scales,” he breathed.  “Now that’s a bribe worth having.”
            “Lamia?” Cassie said blankly, and then flinched back when it hit her, dropping the shimmering length in a puddle on the floor. 
            “There’s no card,” Marlowe said, frowning, as he searched through the box.  His dark eyes met hers.  “Who would send you a priceless gift and not claim credit?”
            “It isn’t priceless,” Cassie said, in disgust.  “It’s horrible.”
            The chief spy’s eyebrow climbed a bit higher.  “Most people wouldn’t think so.  You might not either, one of these days.”
            “I doubt that,” Cassie said, staring at it in revulsion.  John was having much the same reaction, unsure whether this was his father’s idea of a gruesome joke or a peace offering.  Knowing him, it was probably a bit of both.
            “Lamia scales are supposed to be good for—how should I put it?  Aging skin,” Marlowe told her. 
            “Not that you have anything to worry about for many years to come,” he added reassuringly, because her eyes had narrowed.    
            But not at him.  Pritkin didn’t understand the odd look she was suddenly giving the softly gleaming pile.  Until a few days later, when he happened to be in the suite when Mircea burst in the front door.
            The vampire was looking less than pleased, and he had the glimmering lavender length with him.  He held it out, his hand shaking slightly.  “Cassandra!  What on earth did you send Ming-de?”
            Wide blue eyes met his, guileless and sweet.  “Why, just a thank you gift, Mircea.”   
            John turned away, hiding a smile.  She was learning.

The End