The cherries were dancing.
They bounced around happily in front of my vision as I swam back to consciousness, plump and bright red and framed by rich green leaves. They covered almost everything in the old-fashioned bedroom, from the lamp on a nearby table, to the curtains at a tall, narrow window, to the washbasin and jug on another table across from the bed. The whole room was awash in a sea of red.
Up close, individual pieces were sort of cute. Altogether, and with my current blurry vision, it looked like a massacre had taken place. I stared at the hideously cheerful things for a moment, trying to remember why the sight was giving me hives. And then I groaned and dragged a pillow over my head.
My name is Cassie Palmer and, frankly, this wasn’t the worst place I’d woken up. Since becoming Pythia, the supernatural world’s chief seer and favorite punching bag, I’d opened my eyes on a vampire stronghold in Vegas, a torture-filled castle in France, a dank dungeon in Faerie, and a couch in hell. And, most recently, on a spine-contorting tree root in sixth-century Wales that I still hadn’t recovered from.
So, it could be worse, I told myself grimly.
“Are you planning to just lie there all night?” a pissy voice demanded.
Oh, look. It was worse.
I poked an eye out from under the pillow and saw what I’d expected: greasy blond hair, narrowed green eyes, a nose made for looking down on people with, and an expression that matched the voice.
And an outfit that didn’t.
As lord of the incubi, the demon race best known for suave seduction, Rosier should have been sporting a Hugh Heffner smoking jacket and silk lounge pants. Instead, he was wearing a mud-streaked homespun tunic and had dirty knees. But then, he shouldn’t have been here at all, wherever here was, although I had a pretty good idea.
And that was before I tried moving my right arm.
I was cuffed to a bed.
A bed covered in cherries.
“What happened?” I croaked, because my voice didn’t work any better than my eyes.
“Nothing,” Rosier said, glancing around disparagingly. “Believe it or not, this is perfectly normal for the Victorian age.”
“No.” I sat up and immediately regretted it when the cherries started dancing a whole lot faster. I lay back down and watched the fruit-covered wallpaper do the boogaloo. “No, I mean, what happened?”
“You came to rescue me.” The sarcasm was palpable.
I decided to stare at the ceiling for a while instead. It was white and plain, and gave my eyes a rest. And, slowly, things started coming back to me.
Rosier and I had been on a seemingly never-ending mission to save his son and my usual partner in crime, John Pritkin, from a demon curse. I didn’t know what the thing was called, but it was basically a sadist’s Benjamin Button: Pritkin’s soul had been sent careening back through the years of his life, and when it reached the end—poof. No more Pritkin. It would literally erase him from existence.
It seemed like a damn complicated way to kill someone, but then, the demon council—the bastards who had laid it—knew me. Or, rather, they knew what I could do. Being Pythia has a lot of downsides, but it does come with a certain skill set, part of which is the ability to time-travel. So the council had to get inventive if they wanted Pritkin to stay dead.
And they did.
They’d ensured that I couldn’t just go back to the moment he was cursed and save him, because his body might be there, but his soul wouldn’t. It was on an epic journey into the past, riding a reverse, erratic time stream that I couldn’t change or influence unless I caught up with it. Or got ahead of it, so Rosier could place the countercurse as soon as it showed up. Only that hadn’t been going so well, either.
So far, we’d utterly failed.
Only no, I corrected grimly, we hadn’t failed. We’d been prevented. Which also explained our current situation.
“We’re at the Pythian court?” I rasped.
“And I feel like this because?”
“Drugs. To prevent you from twitching your nose, or whatever you do, and getting us out of this. They hit you with a dart as soon as you showed up. Don’t you remember?”
I pulled the pillow back over my face.
As if the problem with the curse wasn’t bad enough, there was an added complication. Namely that I wasn’t the only Pythia. Each age had one, tasked with preserving her little corner of the timeline from dark mages and crazed cultists and anybody else with the insanity and power to risk a time spell. Most of us ignored each other out of professional courtesy, whenever duty required a trip back in time. But Gertie, my nineteenth-century counterpart, had decided to make an exception for me.
And for the denizen of hell I was dragging back through time along with me.
I guessed good little Pythias didn’t hang out with powerful demon lords.
Not that Rosier was powerful at the moment. Which was why he was just sitting there, frustrated, furious and, yes, about half-mad, because the demon council that had cursed his son had also put a block on his power.
Meaning that, other than for mumbling the countercurse, he was utterly useless.
Which was a problem since, right now, so was I.
“At least they didn’t strip you,” Rosier said, after a minute. “It wasn’t bad enough that they ran me across half the countryside, they had to take my clothes, too! There I was, barely managing to hide from the damn fey, when I was set upon by two of those cursed acolytes.”
He was talking about the white robed Pythias-in-training every court but mine seemed to have a lot of. They received a small amount of the Pythian power, enough to allow them to learn the ropes of the office and to compete for the top spot one day. And in the meantime, they helped the boss screw over anyone who started joyriding through the centuries in bad company.
“I thought I was doing a fair job of passing myself off as a typical Celt,” he added, “when hey, presto! No cloak! And a moment after that, no trousers! And no underwear! They used some spell to strip me butt naked, in the middle of the damn road, looking for weapons I didn’t even have because of your constant nagging about the timeline. They even took my last shoe!”
Yes! And afterward they had the temerity to act shocked, as if they’d never seen a naked man before! I thought they were Pythian acolytes, not vestal virgins. Of course, given the outfit, I suppose I should have known—”
“I’m working on the outfit.”
“You’re not going to be doing anything if we don’t get out of here,” he told me, tugging the pillow away. And eyeing me, as if trying to decide if I’d recovered yet.
“No,” I said, and wrestled it back.
But more things were starting to surface from the fog. Things like a burning Welsh countryside, a crap ton of light fey—because of course Pritkin had been in the middle of a crisis when we arrived; of course he had. And a had-it-up-to-here Pythia who had already followed us through time twice and was apparently sick of it, because this time she’d brought backup.
Rosier and I had been left dodging a whole troop of the girls in white while also dodging the fire and the fey and the other fey who had shown up to try to kill the first group and—
It hadn’t gone well.
In the bedlam, Pritkin had gotten away, fading into the dark like the mirage I was really starting to believe he was. Of course, so had I, but I couldn’t do the counterspell and Gertie had Rosier! And then she and a few other Pythias she’d recruited into a damn posse had tried to nab me, too. And when that failed they’d sent me back to my own time via some kind of portal and Gertie had dragged Rosier back here and . . .
And then I guess I’d come after him, hadn’t I?
It wasn’t like I’d had much choice.
And now she had us both.
I abruptly sat up, headache be damned, and Rosier handed me a glass of water. Which he had to stretch to do, since he was cuffed to the foot of the bed. “Victorian prudery,” he said dryly. “To keep me from ravishing you while you slept.”
“Then why didn’t they just put you in another room? In fact, why are you here at all? You’re a demon lord—”
“And you’re a powerful sorceress who placed me under your control, and have been sapping my power to fuel your jaunts through time.”
I paused halfway through a swallow to stare at him.
“Leaving me currently drained and incapable of posing a threat to anyone.” He saw my expression. “Well, I had to tell them something.”
“No! No, you didn’t!”
“Think about it, girl! If I hadn’t, they might have given me back to the damn war mages,” he said, referring to the closest thing the magical community had to a police force. “Have you forgotten what happened last time?”
Not likely. Not after everything I’d had to do to get him back before the mages killed him, or the demon council’s guards showed up to do it for them. That's why I’d checked the local war mage HQ before coming here; I’d assumed I’d have to break him out again.
Gertie was handling things herself this go-round.
Gertie was going hard-core.
“The further back we go, the more of a concern we are,” Rosier said, confirming my thoughts. “I heard them talking when I was coming out of that time freeze they slapped me with. Just snatches of conversation, but enough to know that they’ve escalated us from annoying mystery to serious threat—”
“We weren’t that already?” Could have fooled me.
“No. When we were in Amsterdam, there was a chance you were just an acolyte who had slipped her Pythia’s leash. But bored acolytes don’t have the power to make it back fifteen hundred years! By the time we reached Wales, they were betting on one of those . . . what are they called?” He flapped a hand. “Crazy men, run about trying to change time, usually get blown up for their trouble?”
“The Guild.” I swallowed, remembering how much my predecessor had loved them.
But Rosier just nodded. “That’s it. Guild of something or other—I forget. But the point is, they now think you’re dangerous—”
“Yes, thanks to you!”
“That cherry-covered freak was already determined to catch you,” he pointed out. “I merely ensured that she would think you needed me, and would be back to fetch me—”
“Which would have been great except that I do need you and I did come back!”
“— and now, thanks to my foresight, we’re together and can work on getting out of here,” he finished, ignoring the fact that he’d basically set me up. “Speaking of which, how long until you can shift?”
I picked up the glass and drained it, hoping it would help with the throbbing in my skull.
“Well?” he prodded.
I wiped my lips on the back of my hand. “Long.”
“And that means?”
“It means long. We need other options.”
“And we have one. Don’t we?”
What a surprise.
But then he did surprise me, by leaning over the bed, close enough to mouth, Two.
I blinked, brain still foggy, and followed his gaze to the door.
All it showed me was a tousle-headed blonde in an oval mirror, with dark circles under dazed blue eyes, wearing a high-collared white nightie. I guessed the shorts and T-shirt I’d started out with had offended local sensibilities. My new attire offended mine, making me look about twelve. It also did not give me any answers.
My eyes found Rosier’s again in confusion.
He sighed. Guards, on the other side of the door.
They have the key. He held up his chained wrist.
I looked from it to the skinny, hairy legs poking out from under his tunic. And the arms that in no way resembled his son’s. And the too-soft middle. Rosier looked like he’d never lifted anything heavier than a champagne glass in his life.
Which might explain why he kept getting beaten up . . . by little girls.
He sprawled across the bed to glare at me. And to whisper: “I’m a lover, not a fighter, but I’m damn good with sleight of hand. Just help me get them in here!”
“It wouldn’t have to be for long,” I said, going with the argument I’d planned to have anyway. Because I wasn’t the only one who could shift. Of course, Rosier couldn’t time-travel, and his spatial shifts only went one place. But right now I’d take it. “A short trip into the hells—”
“Really short. Like a couple of minutes—”
“Not a couple of seconds.”
“—just long enough for us to move a block or two and get past whatever wards they’ve got on this place—”
“Going into a minefield to avoid a fence. Yes, that sounds safe.”
“You know what’s not safe?” I asked, getting genuinely pissed. “Pritkin stuck in freaking Wales about to die, that’s what’s not safe.”
“And if I could do something about it, don’t you think I would?”
“Not if it meant risking your precious neck. You’ll let your own son die when a small risk—”
“Small? Small?” Rosier was beginning to look a bit flushed himself. “I put so much as a toe in hell, any hell, and I might as well have a neon sign over my head reading free buffet! I wouldn’t last two minutes—I doubt I would last one. And in case you forget, this mission requires both of us, or I wouldn’t be here talking to you!”
“Ditto! If I could do this alone, believe me—”
“Alone? You can’t walk across a room alone—”
“I did pretty well when you abandoned me in freaking medieval Wales—”
“—without starting a war!”
“I didn’t start it! I had nothing to do with it!”
“And yet there you were. There you always—”
“This isn’t about me!” I yelled. “You have to be the most selfish, uncaring, infuriating man since—”
“Pritkin! It’s Pritkin, you prick! And he’s nothing like you!”
“He's exactly like me,” Rosier said, scrambling across the bed to get in my face. “He doesn’t want to admit it; he’s never wanted to. You saw him, mooning over those damn fey. Ooooh, look, a Sky Lord! When they’re nothing but insane murderous bastards, every single one—”
“No arguments here.”
“—living in one measly, intensely creepy world—”
“Says the man from hell.”
“—when he could have thousands. And the knowledge of millennia, time out of mind. But always, always that perverse boy was attracted to every damn thing besides his own birthright!”
“The fey are his birthright, too. You saw to that yourself—”
“A fact I’ve regretted every day since!”
“—and, in fact, pretty much every problem Pritkin has can be traced back to you, can’t it?” I asked. “From leaving him to grow up with zero guidance, to taking him from earth before he was ready, to putting him in a terrible situation as your heir—”
“You understand nothing!”
“—to placing that damn prohibition on him—”
“To save his life, you wretched, wretched—”
“—to dragging him back to hell again, when you knew damn well—”
“That was your mother’s fault!” Rosier moved like lightning, wrapping his free hand around my neck. “She took my sire, long before I was ready to fill his shoes! She left me and my people vulnerable. She forced me to have to find a way to increase my power, and now her daughter is trying to take him away! I hate you! I hate your whole damn family!”
The door burst open, a fact I was grateful for, since I wasn’t entirely sure Rosier remembered that we were acting. Two war mages stood there, with their long leather coats and butt-kicking boots and annoyed expressions not looking all that different despite the era. But they didn’t come any closer.
Maybe because one of them had a blowgun.
“Well, fuck,” Rosier said as a dart caught him in the neck. He face-planted onto the bed. The door slammed.
I looked at it for a moment, then at my passed-out companion. And then I sighed and pulled the pillow back over my head.
"There's always option two," Rosier said, some time later.
At least, that's what I thought he said. But whatever knockout drug they’d given him was making his tongue loll, and it was kind of hard to tell. I looked up, but he just lay there and drooled at me. I waited for a minute, then went back to fiddling with the metal around my wrist.
It wasn’t part of the handcuffs.
I’d given up on those. They were solid steel and probably overlaid with spells to make them extra hard to pick, given experience. Not that it mattered; I wasn’t Houdini.
Of course, I wasn’t a dark mage, either, but I didn’t have a lot to work with here.
Tiny silver daggers, like links in an especially deadly chain, slid under my fingertips. I assumed Gertie had relieved me of my only weapon when I got here, but it didn’t matter. I’d tried to get rid of the little bracelet a hundred times myself, after finding out that it had once belonged to a dark mage. But every time I took it off, it was back in place moments later, spit-shined and gleaming, to the point that I could swear it was smirking at me.
It kind of looked like that now, winking smugly in the light of a nearby lamp, like it knew what I was thinking. On a positive note, it could throw out little ghostly knives that looked about as substantial as mist but cut like well-oiled steel. On the negative, I didn’t always control what they cut.
“Did you hear me?” Rosier demanded.
I looked up again. I’d rolled him onto his back and tucked the too-cheerful coverlet around him, because his tunic kept riding up and I’d had enough trauma for one day. As a result, he now resembled a colicky baby with wild tufts of blond hair sticking out everywhere.
Huh. I guess part of it was genetic, I thought, and patted one down. “I heard you.”
“Well what? You’re the one who said no.”
“What?” The colicky look intensified. “When did I say that?”
I frowned at him. “A few minutes ago. You said no shifting—”
“Shifting wasn’t option two—”
“Of course it was. Mug the guards, option one. Shift into the hells, option two—”
“That was your option two! I never—”
“That was my option one,” I corrected. “This is option two.”
I held up my wrist, and his eyes focused on it. Or tried to. But then I guess they managed, because they widened alarmingly. “That’s dark magic!” said the demon lord.
“Dark magic that just might get us out of here.”
“Dark magic doesn’t get people out of trouble,” he said, struggling with the blanket. “It gets them into it!”
“The mages who use it seem to do okay.”
“Yes, until they get addicted to the magic they steal from everyone they can get their hands on, and end up little better than junkies! And start doing progressively crazier things to get more of it—”
“I’m not talking about mainlining the stuff,” I said—to myself, because Rosier wasn’t listening.
“— summoning my people, trying to trap them—think of it,” he said, green eyes blazing, “beings thousands of years old enslaved to a group of idiots so hopped up on their latest fix they can’t see straight! Until we find a way free and eat their face!”
“Okay, I get that you don’t like it—”
“I loathe it! All demons do. If you’re smart, so will you!” he added, panting a little because the blanket was being stubborn. But he finally managed to get the arm that wasn’t chained to the bed free and flailed it around.
I moved back so he didn’t
accidentally clock me. “Then I assume you have a better idea?”
“Of course!” he said unhelpfully, and the flailing arm flailed some more. Until it landed on my leg. And then just stayed there, clenching.
It took me a moment, because the other hand was clenched, too, on the edge of the bed, probably so he wouldn’t fall off. And because he was still mostly wrapped in the quilt, like a cherry-covered burrito. And because he was scruffy and smelly and crazed-looking—
And pawing at my thigh.
“Eww!” I jumped back, all the way to the headboard.
“It’s the only way,” he insisted.
“Like hell it’s the only way!”
“I’m an incubuth. I can lend you thome energy—” he said, around the foot I had smushed in his face.
“I have energy!”
“You have the Pythian power but can’t access it. I can help—”
“Stop touching me!”
“— by increasing your personal strength—”
“I’m warning you!”
“— so you can shift uth out of here. Damn it, girl!” Rosier glared at me through a gap between my toes. “This isn’t exthactly fun for me, either!”
“Then cut it out!”
“I’m not . . . going to die . . . because of you! Now help me—”
“Oh, I’ll help you,” I growled, and kicked him.
He reared back, holding his nose and looking outraged. “You bith!” he screamed. “You coldhearted bith!”
And then he grabbed me.
But he was still handcuffed to the bed, which limited his range, and wrapped in the blanket, which limited his motion, and apparently, he hadn’t been trained in hand-to-hand combat by his son.
“Coldhearted? Coldhearted?” I got him in a headlock. “You’re the most coldhearted, conniving, evil son of a bitch I have ever—”
“Get off me!”
“— known in my life—”
“If you kill me, who is going to help you get Emrys back?” he wheezed.
“I’m not going to kill you! I’m going to make you wish you were dead!”
“Trust me. Working with you, I already do!”
The door slammed open. We looked up. I expected more grumpy mages, probably pissed that we were making so much noise
That wasn’t who I saw.
“Oh, fuck that!” Rosier screeched, and disappeared, just as a cadre of the demon council’s personal guard flooded into the room.
And since he was still cuffed to the bed, it went with him.
But I didn’t.
I hit the floor face-first, hard enough to see stars, not understanding how I’d been left behind. Until I saw the cut chain dangling off my wrist. And the ghostly knives gleefully zipping around the room, stabbing everything in sight. And the glass breaking, and the mages shielding, and the council’s guards hunkering down in their armor—
And then the lights went out.
It took me a second to realize that Rosier was back. And that it was lucky I’d still been sprawled in the floor, because the bed was, too. I hit my head on the underside anyway, which was on casters, so it was just high enough to accommodate a pissed-off Pythia. And then another one was yelling: “Forget the demon! Get the girl!”
But the council’s guards didn’t take orders from anyone except the council. And a second later my chin hit the floor again, when half a dozen supernatural soldiers leapt onto the bed on top of me. And then went flying back off, because war mages do, in fact, follow the Pythia’s orders.
Well, you know, most Pythias.
And then all hell broke loose.
There were suddenly bodies flying and hitting the floor and shaking the bed, and there went my chin again. And instead of stars I was starting to see more like whole galaxies. But not so much that I failed to notice the frantic, manacled hand waving at the end of the bed.
I grabbed it, and was jerked out and up. I had a split second to see Gertie herself blending in with the wallpaper, a bunch of war mages battling some faceless demon guards, and a confused, very young-looking version of my predecessor, Agnes. Oh, look, I thought fuzzily.
And then I was looking at something else. Something that looked a lot like the Shadowland, a minor demon realm with dark streets and shuttered buildings and absolutely nothing to recommend it, except that it happened to be close to earth. But I wasn’t sure because I didn’t get much more than a glimpse.
Because the bed had started rolling this way.
“Get up! Get up! Get up! Get up!” Rosier was yelling and pulling, and I was stumbling and scrambling, and he was heaving hard enough that I thought my arm would break.
Instead, I ended up on top of the bed, after having been dragged over the metal footboard less than ceremoniously. But that nonetheless would have been an improvement—except that the bed was still rolling. Rosier, damn him, had landed us at the top of an incline.
A big one.
“Help me stop it!” I yelled as our ride picked up speed, shaking down the hill on its little casters fast enough to throw up sparks up from the pavement.
Or maybe they were from something else.
“Never mind,” I said, and flattened out.
“What?” Rosier stared around. “Why?”
I jerked him down with me, just as a curved sword appeared, vibrating out of the footboard between us.
“That’s why,” I said.
Looked like some of the guys had tagged along.
Make that one guy, who must have been holding on to the bed when it flashed out, and was now running and then dragging behind us as we rattled down the street.
But not fast enough to throw him off.
Because the council’s guards don’t get tired, or feel pain. They can’t. They’re spirits trapped inside golemlike bodies, only instead of clay, they’re made of an almost impervious metal that takes a beating and keeps on killing. As this one demonstrated by launching himself from a prone position onto the bed—
And then lost a head, when a sword flashed and struck it clean off.
It went bouncing across the street and I looked up to see Rosier holding the blade he’d ripped out of the footboard. And then screaming, I thought to let off excess emotion. But I realized there might be another reason when, instead of collapsing, the headless body started whaling on him.
It wasn’t doing a great job, not being able to see, but it was a small bed. And Rosier wasn’t doing a great job of evading, either. Maybe because he was still handcuffed in place.
“Do something!” he shrieked, and I was trying, but pulling didn’t work and shoving didn’t work and when I grabbed for the sword that had gotten knocked out of his hand, a metal fist closed on it first. And the next second, Rosier was dodging rapid-fire sword blows that were raining down on the footboard, sending sparks flying and almost cutting through in places.
“The cuffs!” I yelled at Rosier.
“Hold out your cuffs!”
He looked like he didn’t know what I was saying, but then I extended my arms and light dawned.
“Are you crazy?”
Then it didn’t matter anyway, because the metal body went flying in a cloud of flames, sailing off toward a nearby building like a headless Tony Stark. I looked behind us to see half a dozen war mages booking it down the hill with enhanced speed, leather coats flying out behind them like action movie stars. And a great big grin of relief spread over my face.
Which was still there when the second fireball launched.
A mass of flames came boiling through the air, which is exactly as scary as it sounds when it’s coming straight at you. I screamed, Rosier screamed, and the bed suddenly leapt up off the street and traveled maybe eight feet through the air before hitting down again. Because we’d just taken a turbo shot to the ass.
And then it burst into flames.
“What are they doing?” I screamed.
“Keeping us from escaping!”
Especially since we weren’t escaping now, not on top of a merrily burning bed. And these weren’t normal flames, and they were eating this way fast. And Rosier was still chained in place and the mages were still gaining and we were still tear-assing down the hill, until suddenly we weren’t.
We were tear-assing through an open-air market.
An open-air market on earth.
A row of Victorian-looking buildings flashed by on either side, with tables set up in front piled with wares, and people diving for cover. At least most people. A vendor nimbly danced out of the way, but his cart didn’t. And there was no way to avoid it with no steering and no brakes. And then it didn’t matter when we hit it head-on and were inundated with a wave of hot water filled with . . . pig’s feet?
What had to be a couple dozen boiled pig’s feet slapped us in the face as we barreled through the man’s big metal cauldron and kept right on going. Right at a bunch of kids who had been playing in the street, but who were now just standing there, mouths hanging open. Probably because they’d never seen a burning, speeding bed before.
I grabbed Rosier, who was trying to free himself by pulling the footboard apart, where it had been scored the deepest. “Shift! Shift!”
“Would you give me a minute?”
“No! Do it now!”
“We can’t do it now! We’re not clear yet!”
I didn’t ask clear of what, because there wasn’t time. I grabbed his head and forcibly jerked it up, pointing at the kids. “Now!”
Rosier’s eyes got big, maybe because we were close enough to see the whites of theirs, and he gave a little screech—
And the next second, we were back in the Shadowland.
I breathed a sigh of relief.
I’d never been so glad to be in hell before.
Until a virtual hail of swords
clanged off the bed frame from in front, hard enough to dent it. And a bunch of
fireballs lit up the sky from behind. And the only question was, which group
was going to kill us first?
The answer was neither, because we abruptly shifted back to earth again, Rosier shrieking and the bed burning and now sword-riddled, and speeding more than ever because it had just gotten renewed life from its brief stint on the hill from hell.
A lot of life.
Like a Mach 2 amount of life, or maybe that was just the impression conveyed by all the shrieking. And the clackity, clackity, clackity of the cobblestones. And the neighing.
We burst out of the pedestrian-only street, which I guess had been closed off for the market, into one filled with horses and carriages and buses and—
And then our luck ran out. Or maybe it was the horse’s luck, I don’t know; I just knew that I saw a flash of rearing horse belly and flailing hooves and the white, screaming face of a cabbie. And then we were careening off course and heading straight for—
Well, crap, I thought, as the fetid stench of the Thames hit my nose, right before we broke through a barrier and took a flying leap—
Back into hell.
The bed hit down from maybe six feet up, hard enough to bounce me back up to the point where we’d flashed in, before I smacked down on top of Rosier.
Who dumped me onto the side of the street with a breathless snarl.
I just sat there for a minute, clinging to the now stationary bed. We’d passed down the hill and almost made it to the top of another, and the angle plus the bounce seemed to have absorbed our momentum. We weren’t moving.
We weren’t moving!
I stared around, half disbelieving.
I was so dizzy that the street still felt like it was undulating beneath me.
But it wasn’t, and that was good. And the lack of swords and fire and mayhem
was even better.
It looked like the crazies had disbursed while we were gone, either following us back to earth or spreading out around the area. Because all I saw were dark, vaguely modernish buildings, like a back alley in a normal city. Because the Shadowland pulled images from your own mind to cover up whatever the heck it actually looked like.
But the illusion only went so
far, because a very unearthly wail suddenly rent the air.
My head jerked around. “What was that?”
Rosier didn’t answer.
I looked up to see him frozen in place, dirty knees on the bed and the sword he’d pulled out of the footboard clutched in both hands. And staring in apparent dumbstruck horror at something down the street. I looked back around, but there was nothing there.
Except for another haunting, skin-ruffling howl that had me clambering back onto the bed really fast.
It came again, and our heads whipped around in unison, looking at nothing some more, because the top of the hill was in the way. And then it came from the left. Or maybe the right. Or maybe—
I couldn’t tell. The buildings were closely packed and tall enough to act as an echo chamber. Which wasn't fun when the echoes were like these. The horrible sound came again, closer now, and I felt all my skin stand up, preparing to crawl off my body and go find somewhere to hide.
I seconded the motion and grabbed Rosier. “What is that?”
“And those are?”
“Well, what does it sound like?” he snarled, and finally, finally, he was back with me. White and shaking, but back. Angry and scowling, but back. Chained to the bed, but back.
I shook him some more anyway. “So take us somewhere else!”
“I’m not you! Without a portal, I can only take us back to earth—”
“—and I am chained to a bed, in case you didn’t notice. An iron bed—”
“—and we were headed for a river! I will drown.”
“Then give me the sword!” I tried to grab it, but he jerked it away.
“It’s our only weapon—”
“I know that—I just want to get the cuffs off you. Will you listen?”
But Rosier wasn’t listening. Rosier was freaking out again. Maybe because those sounds were suddenly a lot closer, and there were more of them, and they were coming faster now, a baying pack of something that had picked up a scent it liked—
“Give me the damn sword!” I yelled.
“Get your own!”
And then a terrifying howl almost on top of us caused him to drop it.
We both went for it, but he grabbed it first, and I grabbed—
God, I thought, as something gelatinous and porky oozed up through my fingers.
And then it was too late.
A giant head appeared over the hill. And for a second, I thought it was the hill. Because it rose out of nothing, like all the darkness in the world had decided to congeal in one place. One great big slavering freakishly huge place. I’d seen houses smaller than that, only houses didn’t have evil yellow eyes and an enormous drooling maw and weren’t jumping for us—
And then stopping, halfway through the motion. And gulping and swallowing. Because I had reflexively thrown the pig foot I’d been holding, like that was going to help somehow.
Only it had.
The hound had stopped and was just standing there, steaming and black and blocking the view of everything with its enormous face.
Which was suddenly in mine.
The breath could have stopped traffic for a ninety-mile stretch. Drool was drip, drip, dripping onto the bed linens in slimy strings. Eyes bigger than my head were reflecting the still-burning fire, along with a vision of my body as I slowly, slowly, slowly bent down. And picked up another foot. And held it out—
And felt a wash of hot breath over my arm, which was somehow raising goose bumps anyway, maybe because my skin was still trying to get the hell out of there. And then a tongue, big and heavy as a rug, wrapped around my flesh. And withdrew, along with the tiny, tiny offering, but not with the arm itself, because I guess I didn’t compare with good old pork.
And really, what does? I thought hysterically. If I had bacon, I could probably make him fetch—
Rosier grabbed my arm, his fingers like a vise. “Get. On. The. Bed.”
“I . . . am on the bed.” Well, I was pretty sure.
He snaked a leg off the side and gave a little push. I felt the hell wind start to ruffle my hair as we started down the hell road with the hellhound shaking the street behind us, while I lobbed pig foot after pig foot into its gaping maw. It didn’t miss a one.
Until the darkness overhead suddenly congealed into a second hound, even larger than the first, which went for its throat. And then another crowded the street, which was almost too small to hold them despite being big enough for a couple city buses to pass each other with room to spare. But hellhounds are not buses and there was no room here, and that was before the council’s guards decided to show back up, running up the hill toward us.
And abruptly turning and running back the other way as we began picking up speed, the night boiling behind us, all black smoke and sleek, shifting fur and firelit eyes.
And sailing pig feet, because I was throwing them both-handed now.
“Put out your hands!” I told Rosier frantically.
“What do you mean, no?”
“I mean no,” he said, grunting and straining, trying to break through the damn Victorian ironwork, which must have been forged in the same factory where they made tanks if they had tanks. I didn’t know, I just knew it wasn’t freaking budging.
“That isn’t working!” I yelled the obvious.
“You can’t throw those things and get these damn cuffs off me at the same time!”
“And when I run out? What then?”
“You’re not going to run out. As soon as we get far enough to clear the river, I’m going to shift us back!”
I blinked. “Okay.”
“Okay! Sounds like a plan.”
A slight bit of color came back to his face. “Yes, okay.” He grinned at me suddenly, wide and relieved and startling like the younger version of his son for a second. “Okay! We’ll do that!”
And then the street erupted in fire.