John turned off a side street onto Las Vegas Boulevard, the early morning sun already hot enough to soak his singlet in a dark line down the front. He dragged the arm of his hoody over his face, ignoring glances from the few tourists sober enough to be up at this hour. Most of whom were doubtless wondering why he hadn’t driven two miles to run the treadmill in an air conditioned gym.
He dropped his speed to a more pedestrian friendly four miles per hour, and lifted a hand at a street vendor who had waved at him. He didn’t know the man, but he’d learned it was expected. Like people asked him how he was as a casual greeting, despite not knowing him or giving a fig how he was. John felt it was too personal of a question to ask a stranger and didn’t like the insincerity of it.
There were plenty of other things he didn’t like about Las Vegas: the otherworldly heat and arctic air conditioning, which seemed designed to give everyone pneumonia. The paucity of sidewalks and, especially, of crosswalks, which explained why his coworkers regularly took a car to go two blocks. The fact that everything seemed new. He’d never experienced a physical craving for old buildings before living here.
Some old buildings, he amended, as his run brought him back to a new structure that had deliberately been designed to look old.
Dante’s casino, hotel and generalized debauchery den loomed large at the end of the Strip, like a bad dream. Even in Vegas, a town not known for the subtlety, or indeed the sanity, of its architecture, the place stood out: a faux stone monstrosity with fake mold, fake turrets, fake everything except for the monsters. They were real enough.
He should know.
He was one of them.
But right now, he was a hot and sweaty monster badly in need of a drink. And not of water. The hotel doors showed him back a flushed face, sweaty blond hair and somewhat evil green eyes, because he hadn’t had his morning fix yet.
He jogged in between the writhing eight-foot statues that guarded the entrance and through an eye-wincing lobby intended to resemble someone’s idea of Hell. Which one? he’d almost asked on first arrival, before stopping himself. But at least it was mercifully clear of damned souls at the moment, being barely seven A.M.
Getting up early in Vegas meant you practically had the place to yourself. But newly arrived sheeple off the latest red-eye and hardened gamblers weaving their way back to bed at dawn had prompted the casino to keep a few breakfast options open. One of them had turned into John’s favorite way to reward himself for a good, long workout. He could smell it from here, the siren call of his drug of choice, suffusing the air all the way out into—
He stopped in his tracks, just inside the main drag. It was always a bit of a shock, designed to look like an Old West ghost town with the ghosts still in residence. But for once it wasn’t the fake wood buildings or the fiberglass tumbleweeds or the dancing neon skeletons over the casino coffee kiosk that had him stopping abruptly. And doing a double take.
The front counter of the little booth was lined with cobweb doilies on which sat the usual diabetic-coma-inducing pyramids of doughnuts and pastries. And something new. Something awful.
“What is that?” he demanded, transferring his glare from the case to the Goth girl standing behind it.
She looked like an extra from Beetlejuice, all wild black hair and dead white makeup except for raccoon-dark circles around her eyes. But her expression indicated that he was the one being scary. Her gaze dropped to the item in question, which was wedged between a tower of zombie cake pops and a bunch of “fruit cups” laced with custard and cream.
“M-muffin?” she asked, as if she wasn’t sure.
He couldn’t blame her. The monstrosity spilling over the edge of a shiny gold baking cup was big as a couple of clenched fists, a bloated alien of a sweet menacing the other nearby treats. And then he noticed the little heart-shaped sticker that someone—some fiend—had attached to the front of the foil.
“Heart healthy?” he asked, outraged.
“It—it has fiber,” the girl insisted weakly.
“Where?” All John saw was candied fruit, crystallized sugar and what looked to be toasted almond slices sticking out of the dessert-for-a-family-of-four disguised as breakfast.
And then he bent closer.
“Is it leaking something?” he inquired pleasantly, meeting the girl’s eyes through the curved glass of the bakery case.
She swallowed nervously. “R-raspberry jam?”
“Watch your language,” someone said from behind him.
John glanced over his shoulder to see the casino’s dandified manager standing there, in a summer-weight off-white suit and dark tie. It made him look like a young Mr. Roarke, an image helped by his Spanish coloring. And hurt by his dyspeptic expression.
The expression was not unusual when its owner was looking at John. But it was odd that a four-hundred-year-old vampire had yet to learn to control his face better than that. Especially when said vampire was possessed by a demon who had once shared body space with the illustrious Casanova.
John glanced down at his sweaty khakis and oversized hoody. The latter was hot and was usually stuck to him by the time he’d gone half a mile in the desert heat, but it was necessary to conceal accoutrements of which the local police might not approve. The butt of one of them was peeking out from under his left arm.
He pushed it back into place. “Better?”
Casanova had adopted the name of his demon’s old host, but had clearly failed to master the man’s charm. Or perhaps he had, and John simply didn’t rate the gold star treatment. Which was actually somewhat refreshing after all the faux American niceness he encountered. Some days, John became quite tired of being smiled at.
And Casanova’s mood meant that he didn’t have to bother with the social niceties, either. They loathed each other. It would only make the creature nervous.
“You look like a refugee from Platoon,” Casanova snapped.
An evil thought occurred.
John activated the appropriate facial muscles, as wide and as charmingly as he could manage with a distinct lack of practice. The creature paled. His work done, John returned his attention to the girl hovering behind the case.
“Two coffees,” he told her. “A sixteen ounce espresso and—” he broke off at her look. “What?”
“I…” she spread hands covered in black, fingerless gloves. “We don’t have…I mean, an extra-large espresso is four ounces…”
She must be new. “Yes, I know,” John said impatiently. “Give me four of them in a cup.”
“Four of them?”
“In a cup. And one medium coffee with cream and sugar. A small amount of sugar,” he added.
“Four double shots and he’s worried about sugar,” she muttered, wandering off in the direction of a silver machine in the corner.
“All right, what is it?” Casanova demanded.
John ignored him in favor of deciding on breakfast. Not his own; he didn’t eat this much sugar in a year. But for a certain blond-haired menace with a sweet tooth, who was perfectly capable of popping down here and ordering the raspberry monstrosity if he didn’t come up with a suitable substitute.
“Well?” The shrill demand came almost immediately. Patience wasn’t one of the creature’s virtues.
Of course, John had yet to discover anything that was.
“Well, what are you up to now?” A slim hand descended on John’s shoulder with the crippling grip of a veteran rugby player.
And was abruptly removed, smoking slightly, when John sent a pulse of energy through it. The creature cursed.
“Nothing,” John said mildly. “You’re paranoid.”
“I’m paranoid?” Casanova hissed. “You’re the one jogging with no fewer than five weapons—”
“—and then coming in here to terrorize my staff!”
“I’m here to buy breakfast,” John pointed out, as the girl came back with a drink holder that smelled like heaven.
Not that he would know.
He took the coffee with a junkies’ thoughtless smile. It caused her to blink again, but for a different reason this time. Damn it.
“Or seducing them,” Casanova muttered.
“I’ll leave that to you,” John said dryly, transferring his attention back to the case.
“There’s a coupon special on today,” the girl offered, suddenly friendlier. “Four mini blueberry for two dollars.”
“I don’t have a coupon.”
She smiled. “I might could find one for you.”
“No, you can’t,” Casanova said, shooting her a glare. Which she didn’t see because her eyes had never left John.
“That won’t be necessary,” he replied, as repressively as possible.
Which obviously wasn’t repressive enough.
“Hey, where are you from?” she asked brightly.
Britain by way of Hell. “Ohio.”
“Really? “Cause you sound English or something.”
“I sound Welsh.”
She looked confused. “Isn’t that the same thing?”
“Are you going up there?” Casanova demanded, before John could elaborate. Just as well.
He wanted to discourage the girl, not traumatize her.
“What about that one?” he asked, pointing at the least unhealthy-looking item he could find.
“That one?” She looked doubtful.
“Yes, what is it?”
“Applesauce donut,” she said disapprovingly, as if wondering how something without icing, coconut or any type of sprinkles had gotten in there.
“I’ll take it. The one in front,” he added, since it looked to be the smallest.
The girl might have rolled her eyes, although it was hard to tell through that much makeup. But she found the tongs and fished it out. The casino manager’s grip, meanwhile, returned to John’s arm.
And sent up sparks this time because John hadn’t bothered to lower his shield.
The creature cursed some more and snatched it back. “Answer the question!”
“Are you going up there?”
No, I thought I’d drink both coffees myself, John didn’t say, since the vampire had no sense of humor. And since it wasn’t entirely unknown. “If you mean to Lady Cassandra’s rooms, yes.”
There was no doubt about the eye roll this time. But Casanova knew better than to elaborate. “Then take her a message.”
“Take it yourself.”
“I have! And been ignored. In my own hotel!”
John scribbled his name and room number on the pay slip and handed it back, in exchange for a small white bag. The girl glanced a little too long at the number, and then smiled at him again, this time long and slow and deliberate. And bugger.
The familiar yearning pain slammed into John, hard enough to make his breath catch. He wanted, just that fast, just that stupidly. And he saw that want reach out and touch her, staining her cheeks, quickening her breath, causing a small pink tongue to flicker out to moisten ridiculous black-dyed lips--
He closed his eyes. He didn’t know her; wasn’t interested in her. But the starving thing that lived at his core didn’t care. And he couldn’t even blame his reaction on a parasitic infection like Casanova. The vampire could banish his other half, should he ever tire of it, but John didn’t have that option. An incubus didn’t possess him. It was him. And one of these days, it would destroy him.
But not today.
He slipped an arm around Casanova’s waist, and leered into the surprised demon’s face. “All right then, why don’t we go up together?”
He leaned in. “You can carry the coffee, darling.”
“Go to hell!”
John watched the girl turn away, frowning, and shove the pay slip into the cash register. “Not for her.”
“I didn’t think you had a problem with men,” John said, amused, as Casanova pushed past him into an elevator. And shoved the coffee carrier into John’s chest as he went.
“I don’t have a problem with men! I have a problem with you! And with her.” The vampire glared skyward and punched the button for one of the upper suites. “Why is she still here?”
John didn’t bother pretending not to know what he meant. Lady Cassandra, AKA the Pythia, AKA Cassie, was the newly appointed chief seer of the supernatural world and Casanova’s reluctant guest. But she wasn’t half so reluctant as her host, who had been hinting broadly about a move for the last two weeks.
It seemed he had decided on a more direct approach.
“You know why,” John told him shortly. “The casino has the best wards available.”
The vampire said a word that didn’t go with the soigné façade he cultivated in public. “She’s a witch. She belongs with the Circle,” he snapped, talking about the Silver Circle, the magical authority who usually guarded the Pythia. “And who was it who did the wards around here? Oh, that’s right—the Circle’s mages! They must be able to protect her!”
“Don’t pretend you’re concerned about her safety,” John said dryly. The creature made sociopaths look altruistic.
“Of course I’m not concerned about her,” Casanova said, looking incredulous. “She has a brigade of senior masters watching her every breath. She sneezes and ten people offer a hanky. She stubs a toe and they order an evac team! She’s perfectly fine!”
“Do you have a point?”
“Yes! That my hotel isn’t!”
“It isn’t your hotel.”
“And it never will be if I don’t manage to turn a profit—and keep it from burning to the ground,” Casanova said passionately. “And your precious pythia is doing nothing to help with that. Half the people on the planet want her dead—”
“--and a fair number from other worlds—”
“--and every damned one of them tromps through here—”
“Is that a word?”
“—and trashes this place in the process. I want her gone!”
“Is that what you want me to tell her?” John asked archly. “To get out?”
Casanova fidgeted, brushing down a wrinkle in the otherwise perfect drape of his coat. And noticing a singe mark the sparks had left. He frowned at it.
But he didn’t answer, too busy recalling, no doubt, that his master was also Cassie’s current protector. Mircea Basarab owned the hotel, a senior spot on the powerful vampire senate, and--if John understood the hierarchy properly--Casanova’s Armani-covered arse. And Basarab wanted Cassie right where she was.
It was one of the few things they agreed on.
John normally trusted vampires about as much as the demons he’d grown up with, which was to say not at all. And that went double for the oily Mircea. But at least he seemed sincere about protecting her, which was more than could be said for the Circle, which was preoccupied fighting a war and dealing with a recent coup among its leadership.
The coup had been fortunate for Cassie, since the old guard had not been fond of their new pythia’s raised-by-vampire-mobsters credentials. Or the fact that she couldn’t be relied on to turn a blind eye to some of their illegal activities. Not only would they have failed to weep had an accident befallen her, they hadn’t been above trying to arrange something of the sort themselves.
The new government had a different view, and had purged many of the old regime’s supporters. But no one believed they had found them all. And until they did, Cassie was better off where she was.
Only it seemed that Casanova didn’t agree.
“Do you know what a third of my guards—guards that I am paying for, mind you--are doing?” he asked severely. And then didn’t give John a chance to reply. “Because it isn’t watching the dealers, who are likely robbing me blind. Or attending to intoxicated patrons or breaking up fights or escorting my money. Or even dancing attendance on their lordships up there—”
John assumed he meant the vampire senate, which had taken over a large part of the hotel’s nicer suites when their previous base became an early casualty in the war. Since the hotel was owned by one of their own, they did not see any reason to pay for the rooms, or for the food consumed by their human entourages, or for much of anything else. John suspected that the dent they had made in Casanova’s income was primarily responsible for his current mood, but he couldn’t very well yell at them.
“--oh, no. They’re too busy running errands for Her Highness!”
“They’re assisting the guards,” John pointed out, “not running errands. And that isn’t her title.”
“I don’t care about her title!” Casanova slammed his hand down on the STOP button, why John didn’t know. That only worked in the cinema.
Unless, of course, you didn’t mind setting off an alarm.
“Bugger it!” Casanova snarled, looking around as a klaxon blared like a ship about to go down.
“I thought that was my line,” John said, leaning back against the wall as Casanova pressed buttons and snatched the phone out of its box and yelled at it, and then at the ceiling when that didn’t work. Finally, one of the overworked security guards called in to ask if there was a problem.
“Whatever gave you that idea?” his boss snarled. “Yes! Yes, there’s a problem! Turn off the damned alarm!”
Which the man did.
And which resulted in the elevator proceeding on its previous course.
Casanova cursed some more until John leaned over and pressed the Door Closed button as they glided to a halt. It wouldn’t avoid eavesdropping from Cassie’s vampire bodyguards, but Casanova looked to be beyond caring. And John didn’t want him ranting in front of her.
“What?” he asked flatly.
Casanova regarded him for a second, lips pursed, as if actually wondering if charm might work. He wisely decided against it. “She’s a sitting duck here,” he said finally. “You know that.”
“You just pointed out that she’s surrounded by guards.”
“Yes, but why are they necessary? Because every damn body knows where she is. Smart money is to get her somewhere they don’t know, at least until the war is over. A safe house—”
“There are no houses safe enough for Cassie.”
“Well, neither is this. Everyone knows she’s here, and despite everything, more than a few have managed to get at her. And your…and certain people…can be persistent.”
“Yes, they can,” John said, letting his voice go clipped. “Dangerously so.”
It was Casanova’s turn to just look at him.
He didn’t say anything else.
He didn’t have to.
If there was one thing he and the vampire shared, it was antipathy for the head of their dysfunctional clan. John wasn’t completely clear what Rosier, Lord of the Incubi, had done to offend Casanova, but it was probably a long list. For a creature whose stock in trade was charm and seduction, Rosier managed to make a lot of enemies.
Including his own son.
John had a list of grievances against his father longer than his arm, and at one time had actually believed that he couldn’t hate him any more. Until a little over a month ago. Until Rosier joined the queue of people trying to kill Cassie.
It hadn’t helped that it had been partly John’s fault.
The demon council, of which Rosier was a member, was afraid of the influence Rosier’s disaffected son might wield over an impressionable young woman—one who possessed a power they lacked. Cassie didn’t just see the past, she was able to visit it as well, and to take a person or two along for the ride. The council was afraid that John would be that person, and that the knowledge he had of their activities would allow him to destroy them before they even knew he existed.
It was absurd. Not his antipathy for the council, which was well-known and well-founded. But the idea that he would move against the only power keeping the other demons in line—demons who would like nothing better than to descend on Earth en masse. Or that he would risk involving Cassie if he did. But convincing his father of that might have been difficult.
For all his centuries, there were certain concepts Rosier would never understand.
Fortunately, Cassie did. And when, in the process of trying to kill her, Rosier almost managed to let Sid, another disgruntled family member, destroy the entire demon council, Cassie had intervened. And John had made damned sure that his father returned the favor. Namely, he’d forced the slimy son of a bitch to take a vow to never again lift a hand against her. And knowing Rosier, he had made it as air-tight as possible.
If he broke it, he died.
John was sure of it.
Well, as sure as he could be when dealing with someone who had had thousands of years to create a new definition for deviousness…
“We both need her out of here,” Casanova said softly, watching him. “For different reasons, perhaps, but does that matter? You could talk to the Circle. They can protect her against almost anyone...”
Yes, except themselves.
What was the world coming to, John wondered, when Cassie was safer with a bunch of blood sucking fiends than her own kind?
Speaking of which…
A huge hand inserted itself between the crack in the silver doors. The thick black hair dusting the knuckles told John who he would see before a single black eye peered through at him. “You guys making out in here, or what?” a deep voice asked.
“He would be so lucky,” Casanova sneered, and pushed his way out into the small, marble-tiled entry leading to one of the Casino’s nicer suites.
John was glad to see two guards, upper-level vampires judging by the fact that they were active in broad daylight, lounging by the door to the suite, having a smoke. Not that they were needed with the huge bear of a creature facing him. Six foot five and not slightly built with it, Marco liked to think of himself as Cassie’s senior bodyguard. John let him since it was easier, and since he rather liked having something the size of a Mac truck guarding Cassie when he wasn’t around.
Marco might be one of Basarab’s creatures, but he was competent. He also wasn’t stupid, which was probably why John was getting the hairy eyeball as he stepped out in Casanova’s wake. “Something got you spooked?”
“No.” No more than usual.
Marco looked like he was going to say something, but stopped when another vampire poked a head out into the hall. “She’s up.”
They all went inside, except for the two smokers, who would remain in place until they were relieved by the next crew. And if someone managed to get past them, they would be met by the most formidable wards the Circle could devise, which John had augmented by a few tricks of his own. Not to mention a dozen more master vampires in a very bad mood.
And a half-demon war mage in an even worse one.
Cassie was as safe as he could make her, which was pretty damned safe, he told himself, trying to stop the frisson crawling up his spine as she came out of the hall leading to the bedrooms. She was yawning and still pink-cheeked with sleep, all tumbled blond curls and drowsy blue eyes, and dressed in a rumpled, oversized tee that declared: ‘Stressed spelled backwards is desserts’. She looked about twelve, not like someone who should have the weight of the world on her shoulders.
The impression heightened when she noticed the white bag perched between the coffee cups. “Whaddjabringme?” she demanded.
He didn’t know if she got the reference, or just didn’t care. She grabbed the bag and poked her nose in. And came out with a little powdered sugar clinging to the end, and a disappointed expression. “Pritkin?”
“You brought me one doughnut?”
He crossed his arms.
“I didn’t think they even came like that,” she muttered.
“I can take it back—”
Cassie snatched the bag and took it off to the bedroom, along with her coffee. She often did that, despite having both a dining room and a breakfast bar in the suite. He had the impression she didn’t like to eat in front of the vampires, or perhaps she just tired of all the eyes on her all the time. But it had become a habit for him to drop by with something appropriately caloric every morning, and for her to eat it while they discussed the day’s schedule.
He followed her down the hall and into the large bedroom, where she began pushing some gaily wrapped packages off a small table by the window.
“More bribes,” she said, plopping the bag down in the cleared spot.
John settled into his usual chair. “It’s traditional for the leaders of the magical community to give the pythia gifts on her accession,” he reminded her. “They’re not all bribes.”
“Oh, of course they are,” she said, wolfing down the pastry in a couple of bites. She had to take big ones, but she was trying to make a point about the paucity of his offering, and by God she managed it. “They figure they have to play nice until somebody kills me.”
John had just taken his first caffeine-laced sip of the day, which was usually something approaching nirvana. But that one didn’t go down well. Damn it, he hated when she did that. They were busting their arses to keep her safe, and she talked like it was only a matter of time.
“Now you’re mad again, aren’t you?” she asked, reading him easier than he’d prefer.
“No. I simply wish you wouldn’t plan your funeral quite so soon.”
“Well, somebody has to,” she joked, and then caught his expression. And stopped.
“Nobody is going to kill you,” he said shortly. “They’ve tried and they’ve failed—”
“There’s always the next time,” she said, in a smaller voice. The kind that was worse than the bluster and bravado. The kind that let him know she meant it.
“There’s not going to be a next time,” he said harshly. The brief euphoria from his run had just taken a nose-dive.
“Okay,” Cassie said softly, because she’d just gotten up and she didn’t want to argue, either. She drank coffee and pulled over the nearest gift. “Hey, maybe it’s something fun this time. They keep sending me god-awful jewelry and I already have more of that than I—”
John had perhaps two seconds notice before Cassie died. It was enough to allow him to jerk up his head, to let the coffee cup fall from his fingers, to start up from his chair. It wasn’t enough to save her.
“No!” he shouted, diving for the chair where she sat. She looked up, blue eyes wide and startled, and the pretty package she’d been unwrapping fell from her fingers. “Don’t touch—”
A tremendous blast interrupted him, tearing through the suite. His shields slammed into place automatically, but not before he was sent hurtling backwards through the bedroom wall. He hit something on the other side, hard enough to shatter his protection and to push all the air out of his lungs. Then everything went black.
A stabbing pain in his right leg dragged him back to consciousness. Acrid black smoke boiled through the air, threatening to choke him, and when he tried to move, he discovered that he was half buried in debris. He groped about for a hand-hold only to have his fingers slip on what he vaguely identified as piano keys. It took him a second to realize that he’d been blown almost to the foyer, landing near the baby grand.
“Cassie!” He struggled to his feet, listening for a response, any response, but heard nothing. The loud ringing in his ears left him all but deaf, like the smoke deprived him of sight, but there was a slightly lighter patch of air ahead. He started that way only to have his leg spasm and collapse beneath him.
His groping hands discovered a piece of rebar making a bloody mess out of his upper calf. He couldn’t walk on it, and with the rod in place, he couldn’t heal. His hand twitched, clenching on the rough surface for a moment as he took a steadying breath. And then he jerked it out.
The spike of pure agony that followed made the room swim sickeningly around him. He dropped forward onto his hands, panting harshly and fighting a strong urge to vomit. But the panic twisting in his gut was worse than the pain. As soon as his head cleared enough, he slapped a shield patch over the wound and staggered back to his feet.
Casanova pushed past as he neared the bedroom, disappearing into the smoke. A moment later, it cleared enough for John to see him, clutching what remained of the bedroom doorframe with both arms and a leg. His mouth was moving in creative curses and it wasn’t hard to see why.
His other leg dangled over nothing but air.
The master suite wasn’t destroyed; it was gone. Only a few smoking shards of once expensive flooring remained, clinging to the space in front of the miraculously still-standing door. Below, it looked like a large bite had been taken out of the building, with nothing for several floors besides tumbled concrete, twisted rebar and expensive rubble.
“What happened?” Casanova mouthed, but John didn’t answer. He also didn’t try to stop. His shields clamped back into place and changed shape as he slid across the floor and off the side of the building.
Eighteen floors was a difficult height--too long to fall without a shield chute and too short to give it time to deploy properly. He landed on top of a Mercedes hard enough to cave in the hood and to send a lance of agony from his leg up into his chest. But he’d missed the majority of the wreckage, landing beyond the smoking pile below the casino’s jagged wound.
He strongly suspected that he’d just cracked a rib, but at least his hearing was improving. It still sounded like he’d stuffed cotton wool in his ears, but the dozen or more car alarms screaming on every side were audible. But they receded into the distance for him, like cries on a battlefield, as he rolled off the car and scanned the parking area.
It was hard to know where to even start looking. The debris was scattered widely, all the way to the fence at the far end of the lot. And thanks to the nature of the bomb, every bit of it was potentially deadly.
He saw several pieces of glowing balcony railing eat through the roof of a Lexus and drop onto the seat below, immediately starting a conflagration within the car. He saw one of the ornamental topiaries that ringed the casino, this one shaped like a satyr, writhing in almost human-like agony as it was turned into ash by strange silver flames. He saw a couple of vampire security members hacking at the limb of one of their own, whose hand had come into contact with the wrong bit of rubble.
He saw no sign of Cassie.
Panic, horror, pain—his body was screaming with all of them but he forced himself to focus on the search. Wrapping an extra layer of his shields around his hands, he started throwing aside piles of blackened furniture, ruined clothes and the remains of once-expensive drapes, some of which were still burning. But there was no spill of blond curls anywhere, no stupid pink tee, no—
No thrumming feel of feedback from the trace charm he had on her.
The thought slid sickly across the panic, stopping him in his tracks. She could have shifted, he told himself, as ice settled into the pit of his belly. She could have used the ability she possessed for travelling through time to go almost anywhere. To outrun the blast.
A blast she hadn’t known was coming?
He shoved the small voice away and shouted her name, trying to listen over the sound of blood rushing in his ears. There was no answer. But a faint trace of familiar magic tugged at his senses, leading him like a rope to the far end of the lot.
Blown up against the chain link fence, like flotsam after a storm, was a twisted snarl of blackened metal. It was only just recognizable as mangled box springs, warped into modern art by the force of the blast. And underneath, barely visible through a layer of grime, was a dull glint of red. It was just one shard among many, but this one wasn’t glass.
The chill settled into his bones, threatening to paralyze him, as he picked up the charred remains of a once-potent talisman. The chain was missing, the gold filigree of the setting half melted and the stone cracked and dark. Useless.
He stared at it blindly, outwardly calm. But inside his head every curse and prayer he’d ever heard roared like a gale force wind. It scoured him out, swept through all the corners of his mind and threw open the doors, leaving nothing but the bitter truth.
She hadn’t shifted. There hadn’t been time. Even more telling, she wouldn’t have done it, wouldn’t have left all of them to die in her place. She was far too stubborn for that. If she’d shifted, she would have taken the bomb with her.
And she hadn’t.
Everything went a little vague after that. There were flashes of people shouting, of the parking lot filling up with useless emergency personnel, of the hard asphalt giving way to the sponginess of earth beneath his boots. He slowly sank to his knees in the dirt of the empty lot behind the parking area, his right leg throbbing with every heartbeat.
Shields were not meant to be used as field dressings, and his was leaking badly. His rib was also stabbing him in the side, making each breath painful. But he couldn’t seem to care very much. It was like being high, or really, really drunk.
He sat there, scraping flakes of dried blood off his hands, while sweat rolled down his neck and adrenaline went stale in his veins. Nearby, part of a corpse sizzled in the sunlight, the smell both nauseating and strangely familiar. The smell of home, he supposed, and felt a hysterical laugh building somewhere in his chest.
Until the corpse grabbed his pant leg.
He lashed out automatically, before belatedly recognizing one of Cassie’s vampire bodyguards. Or part of one, as everything below the waist appeared to be missing. A single column of naked spine twisted in the dirt, glistening wetly in the sunlight, like a pale snake.
“Where?” Marco asked, blood spilling down his chin. “Where is she?”
John tried to answer, but the words wouldn’t come. He silently held out the remains of the talisman she never took off, the one who linked her to her ghost servant. And saw when it registered.
“What was it?” Marco asked harshly.
“Brimstone.” John left it stark, as there was no point in softening it. Humans used the name as an alternative to sulfur, probably because the pungent smell was similar. But this wasn’t nearly so benign. Found solely in an obscure demon realm, real brimstone burned with an unquenchable fire. It wouldn’t extinguish until it had finished consuming whatever living flesh it encountered. There was no antidote.
Marco closed his eyes.
“How did it get in?” he demanded, after a moment. “We checked everything. Every single goddamned—” he broke off, choking.
John stared at the anthill of activity the parking lot had become and didn’t answer. He didn’t have one to give. They opened each and every gift before Cassie ever saw it, looking for booby traps, for poison, for malignant spells. And that was after the boxes had been gone over with a fine-toothed comb by Casanova’s people in the lobby. Yet somehow, he’d still managed to miss it, until the unmistakable smell of brimstone hit the air.
Somehow, he’d still managed to get her killed.
He glanced down to see that Marco’s eyes had gone wide and glazed with shock. John stared at the creature, feeling a surge of unaccustomed pity. The vampire’s body was trying to repair the massive damage, but the brimstone was eating his flesh faster than his system could knit it back together. He would lose, but it would be a long, agonizing battle.
“What do you want?” he asked quietly.
“Not to lie here for hours like a stuck pig!”
John nodded and pulled a knife from under his coat, before kneeling beside the dying vampire. He didn’t usually carry a stake, since vampires were allies these days, and they’d never been his usual prey, in any case. But there was no need to worry. Half the yard was covered with slivers of once-costly flooring and John snapped off a jagged piece.
Marco grasped his arm. “Who did this? You know, don’t you?”
John didn’t answer.
Brimstone was an ancient weapon, almost obsolete these days. Like a modern human using Greek fire. There were few even among the demons who would have thought of it.
But one would. One who had been reminded of its existence forcefully just a few weeks ago. One who had seen it in action the last time he tried to kill Cassie.
John felt the bottom finish falling out of his world. How could he have been so sure that an oath would stop an ancient demon? One who had survived on dirty tricks and vile cunning for so long? It seemed absurd now. Laughable. Naïve. And of course, Rosier hadn’t had to violate his oath at all, had he? All he had to do was post the gift prior to taking it, and it would count him blameless.
Ancient magic was helpful like that.
But that didn’t explain how he got it past security, John thought, his head spinning. It didn’t explain--
“Rosier,” he rasped, his voice sounding like rust on old hinges. “Lord of the Incubi.”
“A demon prince. Cassie made a fool of him recently, and he doesn’t forget a slight.”
Marco’s hold tightened. His hand was cold and trembling, but his grip was still surprisingly strong. “You’re going to find him. You’re going to get him.”
In an eye blink, Marco sprang, sending the stake flying with one hand, while the other clasped like a vise around John’s throat. The creature was inches from his face, his eyes staring directly into John’s own. And for an instant, a crimson flash outlined the pupils, like the corona about an eclipse.
“I wouldn’t be too sure of that, Emrys,” the vampire said, his voice suddenly deeper, more resonant, totally inhuman. “But do feel free to try.”
John’s lips formed the most hated name he knew, but he didn’t have the breath to utter it. The vampire stretched his lips in a parody of a smile, a slash of bloody teeth against swarthy skin. And then the world around him shattered like a bullet through glass, the shards of it falling away into darkness.
“That was less than wise,” Rian sighed, as Casanova gave another twist to the shard of wood sticking out of Marco’s back.
“I wasn’t taking any chances,” he replied impatiently. “We don’t use that sawdust crap in the nicer suites. This is hard wood.” He threw aside what had been part of a very nice mahogany armoire. Goddamnit.
“I was referring to your attack on the master,” the mellifluous voice said, taking on the patient tone he particularly hated.
“Screw your master,” he hissed, struggling to heave aside what remained of Marco’s smoking corpse.
“I have. I do not think it will help us in this instance, however.”
Casanova narrowed his eyes. Sometimes, even after this long, he couldn’t tell when she was joking. And then he noticed that his coat was on fire.
“We need to discuss this,” his demon continued calmly, as Casanova danced around, trying to get the coat off without letting any stray sparks touch his body.
He finally fought his way free and threw the jacket to the ground, resisting the urge to scream. He stripped off his fine cotton shirt and wrapped it around his hand, running it nervously over his pale slacks. If one little ember touched his flesh, it would be enough to start a conflagration that would consume him. Mercifully, he didn’t find one.
It was the only mercy he was likely to receive today.
He stood there, feeling the sun bake his brain and grimly watching $2,000 worth of couture go up in flames. Brimstone. Typical. They’d layered enough spells over that room to make the air thick from all the magic floating around. An alarm went off every time that damn girl got a hangnail, yet not one of them had managed to detect the real threat.
“The master never ceases to surprise,” Rian murmured. “I would not have expected this of him.”
Casanova scowled. “Don’t talk to me about your master. I have one, too, remember?”
“But hardly on the same level of menace.”
“Oh, no?” He kicked what was left of Marco’s body aside. Then, just for the hell of it, he kicked Pritkin, too. “Tell that to my staked corpse!”
“I do not think our body is in any immediate danger. At least, not from Lord Mircea.”
“It’s not ‘our’ body,” he reminded her. “It’s mine. You can go get another, but I’m stuck with this one. And I prefer it in one piece!” He kicked Pritkin’s limp form again.
“Did you save him merely to kill him yourself?” his demon inquired mildly.
“No. Although the idea does have a certain charm.”
“Why did you do it? You obviously have no love for him.”
“Exactly.” Casanova started waving an arm, trying to flag down one of his employees to help drag the man inside. Of course, it didn’t work. Damn useless things. “Mircea is going to want blood for this. Better the mage’s than mine.”
“You plan to blame this on him, then?”
“It’s his fault!” Casanova snarled. “Everything has gone to shit since he arrived.”
“He always was a great deal of trouble,” Rian agreed. “And is about to be more so, if you persist in helping him. The master clearly wants him dead along with the girl.”
“He can have whatever Mircea leaves.” Casanova threw the body over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry and headed for the back door. One of his security members finally saw him when he was two-thirds of the way across the trash heap of a parking lot. The man held up a cell phone, but Casanova ignored it. For right now, if it wasn’t Mircea—and it wasn’t—he didn’t care.
“How do you know it isn’t?” Rian asked curiously.
“You know, sometimes I wonder what you do all day,” he snapped. “How long have we been together now?”
“Over two hundred years.”
“Yet you still don’t understand how this whole thing works.”
“How what works?”
“Masters. Their reputations. Revenge,” Casanova waved a hand, but had to stop or risk dumping Pritkin’s heavy ass in the dirt. “For this, Mircea won’t use the phone. I’ll either get a searing mental message soon, or—worse--I won’t hear anything at all. I’ll just disappear one night.”
“Are you certain you are not being slightly paranoid?” Rian’s voice was soothing. “I’ve always been under the impression that Lord Mircea is quite lenient.”
Casanova closed his eyes and there she was, sitting on her favorite rock by the sea, combing out her long, dark hair. Normally, the sight of that tall, slender body, clad only in moonlight, was enough to calm him. It wasn’t working so well today.
“Yes, because that’s how you get a senate seat. By being a nice guy.”
“There’s no need for sarcasm,” she chided. “And I have always found him charming.”
Yes, particularly when he was about to go for the jugular, Casanova thought, right before something slammed him in the face. He shrieked and dropped Pritkin, preparing to flee. Then his eyes popped open, bringing him face to face with—his own face. It took him a few heart-clenching seconds to realize that he’d run into the mirror on the side of a truck.
“You need to calm down,” Rian said mildly as he leaned against the vehicle, trying to swallow his heart back down where it belonged.
“You calm down! Your neck isn’t on the line!”
“Neither is yours unless you persist in involving yourself in this,” she said, more sharply. “Emrys and his father have been feuding for centuries. No one who gets between them ever prospers.”
“At the moment, I’d settle for survival.”
“That is why you need to listen to—”
“No, you listen,” he hissed, crouching behind the truck. “The master and the girl had a bond. At the very least, he knows that something has gone terribly wrong. At worst, he already knows she’s dead. If he’s decided I’m at fault, there could be assassins on their way here even now.”
Or perhaps there was no need to send any, he thought, spying a few of his men loitering suspiciously nearby. Maybe some of his own people had taken the job, the ungrateful bastards. He wouldn’t put it past them.
“They’re your vampires,” Rian admonished.
“That’s the point! As my master, Mircea can control them. Any minute, one of them might sneak up on us and—augghh!”
He broke off as he was slammed into the side of the truck, hard enough to rattle his teeth. He shrieked again and tried to crawl over the hood, but was jerked back down. And found himself staring into a pair of furious green eyes.
His spine sagged with relief as he recognized the mage. Which only made it hurt more when the slamming motion was repeated. “You knew what he planned,” Pritkin snarled. “You knew he was coming! That’s why you wanted her gone—to save your precious hotel!”
Casanova would have answered, but at the feel of a sliver of wood denting the skin right over his heart, all his saliva dried up. It didn’t help that the mage was looking fairly crazed. His face was red, his short blond hair was standing up in tufts and his eyes…his eyes did not look entirely sane.
What else is new, he thought hysterically.
“He knew nothing,” Rian said, answering for him. “For that matter, neither did I.”
She had used Casanova’s vocal chords, but Pritkin seemed to know who was speaking, because his scowl deepened. His hand came up, threatening to crush Casanova’s throat. “You’re one of his creatures. You do as he commands!”
“But he didn’t command.”
“Why should I believe you?”
“You know our Lord better than anyone. Would he trust me with a mission likely to put me at odds with my host?”
“You are far more ancient than your host,” Pritkin spat. “In a battle of will, you might well prevail.”
“I might,” she agreed. “And I might not. Age is not the only factor. This body belongs to another, and ownership grants certain privileges. Now release him, unless you wish to have the blood of an innocent on your hands.”
“I already have that.” The mage’s voice went suddenly cold, but Casanova found himself abruptly let go. He stayed sprawled against the truck anyway. His knees felt a little weak for some reason.
“It was not your fault, Emrys,” Rian said, sounding sad.
“Do not call me that!”
“As you wish. What will you do?”
“What do you think?” He used a knife to slice away his right trouser leg, revealing bloody, mangled flesh beneath.
“You’re injured,” she pointed out, kneeling to examine the wound.
“And he’s drained.” Pritkin tossed his coat on the truck’s hood and stripped off his shirt.
“You can’t be sure of that.”
“If he wasn’t, he would have jumped to another body and continued the fight. In spirit form, he can possess anyone he chooses.”
“Anyone except vampires,” Rian said thoughtfully. “Yet he controlled Marco, a powerful master. I did not think even Lord Rosier so strong as that.”
“He isn’t.” Pritkin pulled out a knife and began to savage his shirt. “That is one reason we had only masters guarding her. But Marco insisted on coming back to work early, despite being almost killed recently. Now we know why. His injuries made him vulnerable and that thing took full advantage.”
“You still cannot kill him, Em—John. He’ll be at court, and you are barred from that place.”
“Save your breath, Rian,” the mage said coldly. “You know as well as I do, he isn’t going there.”
“And of course, you’re going to follow him,” Rian said, sounding resigned.
She stood up as the crazy bastard began binding his wound with the remains of his shirt. Like there weren’t perfectly good, sterile bandages available at first aid, Casanova thought resentfully. Probably thought it made him look macho, all hairy-chested and sweaty, his torso crisscrossed by scuffed leather holsters and old bandoliers.
Muscle bound Neanderthal.
“I’m not afraid of death,” Pritkin said curtly, and Casanova rolled his eyes.
“That’s not courage, John; it’s suicidal ideation.”
“Spare me the pseudo science.”
“Death wish, then. Do you like that better?” Rian challenged, grasping the mage’s wrist.
Uncharacteristically, Pritkin didn’t bother to shake off the hold. “Say what you will,” he told her coldly. “But you will not save him. Not this time.”
“Even should you manage it, killing him will not change what has happened. You know this!”
He raised his head, the impromptu patch up job complete, and the eyes had gone olive and frighteningly blank. “I also know that if I had ended his existence centuries ago, as I should have done, this never would have happened.”
“You can’t be certain of that,” Rian said softly. “None of us can know the future.”
“One could,” the mage said, a strange, savage smile twisting his lips. “But she is dead. As her murderer will soon be.”
“John—” Rian cried, but it was too late. The mage didn’t move, but Casanova felt the wrist he held disintegrate under his fingers. A moment later, he closed his hand on nothing but air.
“All right,” Casanova said in disgust. “At least there's no way today could possibly get any—”
A wave of disorientation interrupted him, and when it cleared, he found himself back in the casino, in one of the back stairwells. Before he could even frame a question, the door to the flight below opened. He caught a glimpse of bronze faceplates and huge curved swords, and then his head was bouncing down the stairs like a gory soccer ball.
“I think I know a way,” Rian said.
In an instant, John was swept from a blindingly hot morning into a dark, cold night. His breath frosted the air in front of him, half obscuring what looked like a composite of every city he’d been in during the last fifty years. It had the same grimy buildings, the same smog-filled air, the same dark streets filled with dangers. Only the creatures who prowled these alleyways wouldn’t just pick your pocket and shiv you in the side for good measure.
They’d stay to dine on the corpse.
Of course, hell didn’t really decorate with Dumpsters and graffiti. But the city, or rather, the ancient ruins on which it was built, had been created by beings who didn’t rely on boring old three dimensions. Viewed without a filter, it made his head feel like it was about to explode.
Fortunately, the current inhabitants felt the same way, and had laid a spell that supplied a generic environment to keep everyone from going mad. It pulled images from the viewer’s memory, meaning that everyone saw it slightly differently.
The last time he’d visited, it had looked like Victorian London. The time before that, it had been Revolutionary France. Still earlier it had been an Iron Age village on the edge of a forest, where the trees looked back at you if you stared at them for too long. And while the basic layout never changed, the human mind relied on visual cues that shifted greatly in between incarnations.
He therefore needed a moment to get his bearings, but found that he didn’t have one.
The runes he’d used to transition were still glowing faintly in the air when he heard it--a sound like leather sheets flapping in the wind, followed by a screech that rent the night. Something huge sailed by overhead as John sprinted for the cover of a nearby alley. He moved as quickly as his leg would allow, even knowing it wouldn’t be fast enough.
A tattered shadow rippled grotesquely over the surrounding buildings as the creature banked and turned. This time it was a hunting scream that echoed off the buildings on either side--it had spotted him. John cursed himself for a fool and felt around under his coat, finally locating the right vial about the time the creature landed a few doors down.
Vetalas had notoriously bad eyesight, relying mostly on an acute sense of smell for hunting. That could be an advantage--unless you happened to be covered in sweat and gore. John dashed the neutralizer potion all over himself, then held his breath, not knowing if it would be enough.
He didn’t normally come here drenched in blood. Of course, he didn’t normally come here at all anymore. A death order signed by the demon high council was something of a deterrent.
Not that there weren’t plenty of others.
For a long moment, there was nothing but the sound of slow, heavy pants and the incongruous tap, tap, tap of claws on cement as the creature prowled up and down the sidewalk, looking for the tasty tidbit it had glimpsed from above. John stayed utterly still, not even breathing. It wasn’t likely to help.
Vetalas were rare in the city, preferring the wild hinterlands beyond. But when they did come in, no one challenged them. They were frighteningly fast, immensely strong, and cunningly smart. And they could hone in on human magic as easily as scent. Throwing a silence shield or a cloaking spell over himself would only help it find him faster.
But not being able to move was driving him crazy. His hand itched to tense, to grab a weapon, to fight. But vetalas hunted in packs, and the others wouldn’t be far away. And meeting a group of flesh-eating predators in his current condition would make this a very short trip.
Finally, through the cobweb strewn packing crates at the entrance to the alley, he glimpsed it—a fantastic beast, sleek as a viper and built for raw power. Like a nightmarish cross of hyena and bat, it was a mass of contradictions—silky russet fur that melted into leathery black wings, a delicate, fine-boned head that ended in a razored snarl. Grace seamlessly combined with terror, it was the perfect instrument of death.
And it was wagging its tail.
John slumped against the cold bricks behind him, faintly dizzy from relief and lack of oxygen. He decided that perhaps God didn’t hate him as much as he’d always believed. Because of the thousands of the creatures who ravaged this strange world, he’d stumbled across the only one he knew.
Or perhaps it had stumbled over him, because before he could emerge from the alley, it bounded over the crates, knocked him to the ground and deposited a ton of enthusiastic slobber onto his face.
“Beren—Beren get off,” he growled, which did no more good than it ever had.
Glossy fur gleamed over hard muscle as a monster the size of a large car slumped in a playful crouch. It thought he wanted to wrestle, which was more than a little dangerous in the confined space. The vetala’s heavy barbed tail had gotten caught in one of the packing crates, a problem Beren solved by thrashing it back and forth against the two sides of the alley. Nails and shards of wood went flying everywhere—including into John’s flesh.
It occurred to him that it would be exactly like him to get killed in a city full of enemies by a friend.
In desperation, he made one of the sounds he’d perfected as a young man, a pretty good approximation of the cry young vetalas used to let their nest mates know when they’d bitten too hard. He’d hardly begun the haunting mewl of distress before Beren was pulling back in an undignified waddle, until only its head was in the alley. It snuffled around his hurt leg, its muzzle careful not to nudge the wound, its body language apologetic.
“It’s all right,” John said, sitting up. “I’m glad to see you, too.”
The great head pushed its way under his arm, pretty much forcing him to scratch it behind the ears. He obliged, and found the rumble of its breath and the impression of barely contained violence familiar and soothing. He’d never been able to own a dog. After Beren, they seemed so cringing, so subservient. They were carrion eaters and beggars of scraps; Beren was a proud member of an ancient race of hunters, and he preferred his food alive.
Fortunately, he’d never viewed John as food. Why was still open to question. Beren hadn’t been an abandoned waif he rescued or a starving outcast. He’d been pretty much as he was now when they’d met, after Rosier had moved John to his secondary court in the demon realm humans called the Shadowland.
It had been the second upheaval for him, who had been snatched from life on earth to Rosier’s main court only a few years before. That had proved to be a hot, brightly lit desert world, full of spice and color and debauchery--and intrigue and danger and hatred for the half-human child who was suddenly the focus of his father’s interest. After the fifth failed assassination attempt, Rosier had moved him here.
John hadn’t found it much of an improvement, other than for the fact that he saw his father considerably less. He’d taken to exploring the outer city, mainly to avoid the court. It was no less deadly, but at least out here, he’d known who his enemies were. Until he’d met Beren, and unexpectedly found a friend.
“What have you been doing?” he asked, and received in return a joyful tumble of images, straight into his brain: of hunting little scurrying things, of russet-coated babies all in a knot, of soaring high above the claustrophobic lid of clouds, into the star strewn sky.
Beren’s head tilted to the side, obviously returning the question, and John felt a gentle probe against his mind. He rejected it fiercely, feeling suddenly, strangely vulnerable in a way that made him want to lash out at the world, to rip something apart with his bare hands, to do anything to stop the images that iced his veins. Beren gave a bleat of distress and John abruptly shut down his thoughts.
“I’m not good company today,” he said briefly, and pulled a few shards out of his skin so he could examine his leg.
It hurt like a bitch after his mad scramble for cover, but there didn’t seem to be any additional damage. Unfortunately, there also wasn’t any noticeable improvement. Pretty much the only good thing about his heritage was an ability to close most wounds within moments. But that wasn’t happening here.
He tried a healing spell, but other than for a faint lessening of heat radiating from the wound, nothing happened. He swore. He must have had an ember of brimstone caught in it during the blast. His body would compensate—probably--but it meant he would be stuck limping about on the thing until he could visit a healer and get it dug out.
He looked up at Beren. “My luck isn’t improving.”
Beren didn’t say anything. It was one of the things John liked best about him.
John got to his feet, testing his leg for strength. It held, but ached every time he put any weight on it. Just standing was painful; walking any distance was likely to be excruciating, and he had a long walk ahead.
For security reasons, transitioning into the heart of the city was forbidden. Of course, considering that John was already under a death threat, that wouldn’t have worried him overmuch--if the caretakers hadn’t backed the law up with a very nasty spell. As a result, he’d had to enter the Shadowland on the very outskirts of the city, nowhere near the areas his prey was likely to be.
John glanced at Beren, who was watching him expectantly, the great tail whisking slowly back and forth on the street. Its head tilted, as if wondering what he was waiting for. John decided it had a point.
“Feel like giving me a lift?”
The joyful cry of assent shook nearby buildings and echoed for blocks.
John gingerly climbed onto the broad back, his feet automatically hooking under the huge wings, his hands finding purchase in that luxurious fur. He was barely in place when Beren was off, bounding in quicksilver leaps down the street, before surging with terrible grace into an arcing spring. And then, with an enormous whoosh, they were airborne, fast enough to have John’s eyes watering from the speed.
In minutes, the glittering city center spread out below him, an irregular, starfish-shaped sprawl of light in the gloom. It was bigger than he recalled. Either his memory was faulty, or the Market had engulfed even more blocks since he’d been here. That wasn’t surprising, as it was the main reason the Shadowland existed.
A minor demon realm with no riches, no natural resources, and a damn depressing atmosphere, it had never been deemed worth anyone’s time to conquer. For millennia it had remained a stretch of twilit, rocky nothingness, populated only by the vetalas and the small mammals that were their natural prey. Until someone, ages past, had seen opportunity in its poverty.
Suspicion and distrust had long stymied trade among the demon worlds, with most demons barred from each other’s realms except for the occasional heavily guarded ambassadorial delegation. Those traders who did attempt to move about were often regarded as spies and treated accordingly. From a merchant’s perspective, the whole situation was, well, hellish.
Then somebody stumbled across the Shadowland. No one recalled who the commercial genius was anymore, although almost every major court claimed to have produced him. John doubted that, as none of them would have let a gold mine like this slip through their greedy hands, and they didn’t control it. More likely, it was one of the guild of traders who still ran the place who had had the epiphany: an area not worth attacking might be perfect as a much needed meeting place.
It was an immediate hit, not least because of the way it had been set up. Unique amongst a species known for bureaucratizing everything, the Shadowland had few rules and restrictions. As long as everyone paid the guild’s taxes and didn’t cheat their customers badly enough to prompt retaliation, they were free to barter, gamble and whore together to their heart’s content.
That last was the reason John was here.
Rian had been trying to spare her master, but she’d known as well as he did—Rosier wouldn’t go near either of his courts so dangerously drained. Too many of his higher ranked creatures were just waiting for an opportunity to dispose of him, and to elevate themselves in the process. No, he’d replace the strength he’d lost first. And for an incubus, that only meant one thing.
John patted Beren’s gleaming left flank and it banked and turned toward the Market’s most notorious district.
Cassie woke up screaming bloody murder. It felt pretty good, so she did it some more. She’d had nightmares before, but God damn—
Somebody grabbed her and she looked up into Marco’s concerned eyes. “What is it?” He gave her a little shake. “What’s wrong?”
She blinked and looked around, breathing hard, but saw only a ring of tense vampires.
A couple had dropped hands onto their weapons, and were darting glances around the room. Others had their eyes fixed on her, as if waiting for something to sprout out of her chest like in Alien.
She wasn’t sure that would be any weirder than waking up in a body already in progress.
Instead of finding herself lying in a dark room, enjoying a lazy Sunday morning—the only day of the week Pritkin didn’t roust her out of bed to go jogging in a heat wave--she was sitting up in bed. Early sunshine was leaking in around the curtains the vampires insisted on. A bunch of gifts were piled on the table by the window and more were on a cart near the bed. One of which had fallen off the tottering pile and landed near her feet.
She gave a little shriek and reflexively kicked it at the wall, then screamed again and ducked under the covers as everything came pouring back.
“If you don’t tell me what’s wrong right now, I’m calling a healer,” Marco told her, lifting up the edge of the sheet.
Cassie just stared at him, wishing she knew. She’d had visions, plenty of them, and okay, that had been one hell of a lot worse than most, but she could deal. If it had been a vision. Only it hadn’t felt like one. It had felt like her flesh was being stripped from her bones, which were being blown apart and simultaneously seared into charcoal, before everything went very, very dark. Not dark as in night but dark as in dead, and no one knew dead like she knew dead and that, friends and neighbors, had very definitely been—
“Are. You. All. Right?” Marco demanded, enunciating like he thought her problem might have to do with her hearing.
“Do I look all right?” she snarled, as Casanova ran into the room.
One look at his expression was enough to convince her, if she’d needed any help, that a vision was not what had just happened here. “Allu!” he yelled, sounding winded, which was ridiculous since he didn’t breathe. But Casanova wasn’t looking his usual suave self at the moment.
“Hello,” one of the other vamps said, causing Casanova to turn on the unfortunate man with a screech.
“Allu! Not hello, you incompetent—”
The sound of gunshots from outside drowned out whatever else he might have said, and caused several of the vampires to draw their weapons and run out the door. Only to get blown back into the room in pieces as several large somethings rushed inside too fast for the eyes to track.
Oh, shit, Cassie thought blankly. “Not ag—
* * *
Cassie woke up with a scream lodged in her throat that she mostly swallowed back down. Her eyes were closed and she didn’t really want to open them, because if she did, there might be a ring of vampires staring at her like she was crazy. But it got a little tiresome, sitting there looking at her inner eyelids, so eventually she did crack one lid halfway.
There was a ring of vampires staring at her like she was crazy.
“Is there a problem?” Marco asked, after a minute.
Cassie swallowed and opened both eyes, because she probably looked a little strange peering around with only one. And no one appeared to be trying to kill her just at the moment. She licked her lips. “What’s an Allu?” she asked. “Just for information.”
“Allu?” Marco asked, giving it a slightly different pronunciation.
He tensed. “I think they’re a type of demon, why?”
“Because there may be a slight chance that—”
Casanova ran into the room, looking freaked. “Allu!” he shrieked.
That time, five guards made it out the door, not that it made any noticeable difference. Cassie tried to shift, but absolutely nothing happened. Of course, she thought, as a dark wind blew inside. That would be far too—
* * *
Cassie woke up fairly calmly. She opened her eyes to see Marco standing by the door, talking to one of the other vamps, and the rest lounging around in deceptively casual stances. That could change in an instant into high alert status, but that didn’t seem to be helping much lately. “I have to go to the bathroom,” she said to no one in particular, threw back the covers and ran like all hell was after her—which apparently, it was.
Marco grabbed her before she made it out the front door. “The bathroom is back that way, princess.”
“I don’t like that one.”
“You have three.”
“I don’t like any of them.”
Marco sighed. “You want to tell me what’s going on?” he asked calmly.
“Sure thing. As soon as I figure it out.”
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but you get weirder every day.”
“It’s the days that are getting weirder,” she snapped, as Casanova came bolting in the door. “Allu?” she asked.
Cassie tore away from Marco and sprinted across the entry to the fire stairs. “That won’t work,” Casanova breathed, right at her back. “They’re coming up that way.”
“Would somebody tell me what the hell is going on?” Marco asked, as she and Casanova came running past him, back toward the suite.
“I can’t get killed again,” she told Casanova confidentially. “It’s starting to give me a complex.”
“Tell me about it,” he snarled, pulling her into the elevator and then out the floor below and shoving his pass key into a random room. Marco had gone down the stairs, and was waiting on them, but Casanova slammed the door in his face.
Normally, that wouldn’t have worked for longer than it took Marco to put his number thirteen boot through the foam core. But Casanova had barely had time to clap a hand over her mouth when the sounds of running feet were heard outside. They were followed by a shout and a squelching grunt and a body falling heavily against the floor.
Cassie swallowed hard, but didn’t scream. She was all screamed out. What she wanted was some answers.
She indicated this by pushing an elbow into Casanova’s ribs until he let go. “What is your problem?” he hissed.
Cassie stared. “What is my problem?” she whispered savagely. “Really, Casanova? Really?”
“All right,” he straightened his tie, and brushed down a few wrinkles that had dared to show up in his nice off-white suit. “All right,” he said again, which Cassie didn’t find all that helpful.
“What is going on?” she demanded.
Casanova licked his lips. “I was actually hoping you’d know.”
“Well, I don’t! I just keep waking up and somebody kills me, over and over. Who the hell are these Allu?”
“Demons.” Casanova swallowed. “They’re the elite guard of the demon high council, to be precise. Faceless and merciless, in case you didn’t notice.”
“I didn’t notice the faceless part. I never got a chance.”
“Obviously, the council has decided it wants you dead.”
“There’s no need for sarcasm.”
“No? People always say that, but you know what? If ever there was a need, I think this qualifies. I think this qualifies like gang busters.” Cassie sat down on the sofa in their borrowed suite and hugged herself. “How long until they find us?”
“Not long, if their reputation is anything to go on. The council only sends them out on important missions.”
“I feel so special.”
“What I want to know is what you did,” he said accusingly. He must be recovering, Cassie decided. That sounded more like the guy she knew.
She was feeling slightly better herself. A little shaky from the adrenaline but, overall, not too bad for someone who’d been a corpse three times today. She decided it was Casanova. He wasn’t that great of a fighter, but then, she hadn’t noticed anybody else doing any better. And at least he didn’t act like she’d lost her mind along with her head.
“The only demon I’ve pissed off is Rosier,” she told him. “At least that I know of. But Pritkin said he wasn’t going to be a problem anymore, and I haven’t so much as heard a peep from him since—”
“No!” Casanova slashed a hand through the air. “What you did. Why aren’t we dead?”
Cassie started to point out that one of them was, but saw his expression and decided against it. “I didn’t do anything,” she told him honestly. “I didn’t have time. I saw Pritkin jumping at me with that look on his face and screaming and I knew something was about to hit the fan, but—”
“You must have done something,” Casanova said nastily. “Unless you have a fairy godmother hiding in the wings.”
“No, the fey pretty much want me dead, too. At least some of them.”
Casanova put a hand to his forehead and left it there for a long moment. “Any second now,” he finally said, his voice very calm, “a group of Allu is going to come through that door and kill us. Again. Before that happens, I would like very much to know that I will continue to come back until we figure this out. I need you to concentrate and tell me what you did.”
Cassie looked at him soberly and spoke in the same measured tone he had used. “I didn’t do any—”
“I want to know!” Casanova screamed.
“So do I! Only I don’t have anyone to ask,” Cassie snapped, before remembering that she did. A heavy fist landed on the door. “If we come back again,” she told him as it blew open. “I need to make a phone call.”
An open door flooded the street with orange light, turning the shadows shades of umber and gray. One of the lampades, a type of minor demon the Greeks had called the nymphs of the Underworld, lounged in the doorway. The light added an incongruous halo to her long dark hair and shone through the diaphanous slip she was wearing, highlighting the curves beneath.
She looked bored until her sloe-eyed gaze fell on him, and then she smiled beguilingly. It might have made more of an impression if her eyes hadn’t stayed dead. John went over anyway.
“I’m looking for someone,” he told the girl, without preamble.
The ruby lips curved a bit more. “Of course you are. Everyone who comes here is.”
“Someone in particular.”
“Naturally. Or why not slake your lust with a human?”
“You don’t understand—”
“But I do.” Soft little hands slipped under his coat, smoothing over bare skin. The edge of a nail scraped over a nipple, sending a frisson hurtling down his spine. He started to push her away, but she held on, her hands curving around his biceps. “I felt it from across the street. The hunger, the anger, the pain. But I can help with that.”
“Save the speeches,” he said harshly. “I want—”
“I know what you want.” And in an instant, the dark hair faded, shortened, curled. The figure altered as well, becoming suddenly more voluptuous, more fragile, more recognizable under his hands. “I know what you need,” she murmured, her lips pressing where her hands could no longer go.
And when she looked up, her eyes had gone a perfect, cloudless blue, with that guileless expression that said she’d been up to something. John went stock still; even the voice had changed. From the scent of the citrus bath wash she used to the feel of her body under his hands, it was all familiar, all known, all Cassie.
One glimpse of her and everything came rushing back, hitting with a rawness that made it all new again. He’d worked so hard to protect her, to teach her how to protect herself. Yet all the while, an icy knot of fear had clenched in his gut, because he knew it might not be enough. He knew the kind of things that stalked her.
And it had played out exactly as he feared, almost as if pulled from one of his own nightmares. All his training, all the meticulous plans and preparations, had been useless when it counted. The knowledge of his failure writhed through him, the pain more shocking, more intimate, than the deepest wound carved into his flesh.
“Shhh,” she murmured, and he must have released her, because those small hands suddenly closed around his face. “It’s all right. I’m here now. I’m fine.”
With her words, something cold in his chest uncurled at last, bright relief slumping his shoulders. He felt a moment of calm, of peace, cocooned in drifting warmth. “You came back.” His thoughts were slow, sluggish, but that one came through with crystal clarity.
“I always do.”
His forehead wrinkled. That wasn’t what he wanted to hear. He wanted “I always will,” he wanted promises she couldn’t make, he wanted certainty. What he received were lips against his throat, feathery-soft, a tongue that licked the salt of his sweat away, and hands that branded their touch into his flesh.
His arms clenched fiercely around her, reassuring himself that she was solid, real. Their lips met in a kiss that melted down his spine and coiled in his gut, but it wasn’t the passion that undid him. It was the breath in his mouth, the feel of that small heartbeat against his, the knowledge that she was alive and that it had all been just another nightmare...
And then the warm lips suddenly fastened onto his with the hunger of a leech, the wet tongue probing further than it should have been able to reach, further than a human organ could go. And suddenly it didn’t feel like it was probing into his flesh, but into his soul. He could feel each heart-deep tug as she ripped part of him away, and he was gasping on a voiceless scream in seconds. It felt like being flayed alive, like his soul was being skinned away in flinching strips.
Which is exactly what was happening, he vaguely realized. She was peeling his spirit out of his body in great bloody rents, and yet he couldn’t reach his weapons, couldn’t fight, couldn’t move. Until his bad leg suddenly gave out.
His knee hit the sidewalk, hard enough to shoot a spike of agony through his body--and to shatter the spell. When he looked up, there was no Cassie, no lampade. Instead, a creature with a snarled mass of magenta-red hair stood over him, watching him hungrily. He’d seen wolves with that very expression, godless and cold, completely devoid of even the concept of mercy.
Just a narrow-eyed watchfulness as they sized him up for the kill.
“Well, shit,” she said, as he scrambled away, getting the brick wall of the building at his back. Not that he trusted it; not that he trusted a god damned thing here.
The creature facing him pulled a pack of cigarettes out of her rat’s nest hair. She lit up, leaning against the wall before taking her first drag. “So, you want to do business, or what?”
“Rakshasa,” he spat, as he held himself upright with an effort of will.
She looked down at her blood-streaked form, naked except for the usual necklace and a belt. In the habit of her kind, the necklace was strung with trophies she’d taken from her victims—tufts of hair, small finger bones, and what looked like a withered tongue. The belt was worse.
Rakshasas were soul hunters, living off the life essence of others. This one had three tattered remnants hanging from a worn leather strap, the ghostly forms writhing gently as if in an unseen wind. They were so decayed that it was impossible to tell what kind of bodies they’d had inhabited before she ripped them free. One still moaned softly, hopelessly.
She looked back up at him. “What gave it away?”
A killing fury leapt up white-hot inside him. He didn’t go for a gun; they were useless against such creatures. But there were things on his potions belt that were far more effective. His fingers closed over one, itching to use it, even knowing that it would open him up to a retaliation he might not survive.
She noticed the movement and sneered. “You can’t hurt me.”
“We’re not in the human world now. I assure you, I can.”
“Yes, but then the pack will be on to you, and we wouldn’t want that.” Her free hand spread the gore over her body in what he assumed was supposed to be a sensual slide. It made his gorge rise. She sighed and dropped the act. “Look, you can’t have the one you want, but you can have me. It’s not a bad deal. I won’t take that much—”
“You’ve taken enough!” He could feel the rents she had made in him, the coldness where there should have been warmth, the void where something he would never get back was missing.
She looked at him cynically, through a veil of smoke. “Will you miss it?”
“Will you miss yours?” he snarled.
“Never had one to worry about.” She crushed the cigarette under her bare heel. “If you didn’t come for the usual, why are you here?”
He dragged the back of his hand across his face, smearing the spattered blood that stained his skin. It was always the same, every time he came here, the taste of blood in his mouth, the scent of death in the air. He hated this place and everything in it.
But he hated his bastard of a father a little bit more.
Normally, it would not have been difficult to trace him. Incubi could feed from virtually anything that could feel human-like lust, but his father had high standards. There were only a few establishments he was likely to view as fit for his personal patronage.
But the higher-end houses were also frequented by the types Rosier would prefer to avoid just now, including some of his own nobles. And he was desperate enough not to be picky. That left John with block after block of low-rent brothels to check.
He had to narrow it down or he’d never find him in time.
“If you can read minds, you already know,” he said harshly.
She lit another cigarette with nicotine-yellow fingers. “That’s the problem with minds. They don’t hold thoughts all nice and indexed. I just get flashes,” she waved a hand tipped with long black nails. “Here and there.”
He carefully did not think his father’s name. Some bands of Rakshasas had entered into an alliance with him recently, and with John’s luck, this would be one of them. “I need to find an incubus,” he said instead. “He was badly drained in an accident and needs help.”
He thought he’d phrased it in such a way that it might sound as if he wanted to assist him, but she wasn’t fooled. “Plan to finish him off, huh?” She didn’t look concerned.
“Where would he go?”
“I might have an idea, for a price.” She bared her teeth at him.
“You’ve had your price—without permission. If you do not wish me to lodge a complaint with the guild…”
Of course he couldn’t go to the guild, not with a price on his head. But apparently, that was one thought she didn’t pick up. “He won’t be in one of the regular places,” she said sourly, crushing out her second cigarette.
“How do you know?”
“Because they won’t let him in. In that state, he’s likely to drain somebody. If he’s one of the higher ranked of his kind, maybe the whole damn house. They won’t want him near the merchandise.”
“Then where would he go?”
She smiled, her eyes flicking over him contemptuously. Then she decided it deserved better than that, and she laughed. And then she told him.
“So that’s it,” Cassie said, squatting in the darkness and clutching Casanova’s cell phone. “I don’t know what I did, but I must have done something because we’ve looped like six times now and nothing seems to help. Every hour and fourteen minutes—”
“—and twenty-nine seconds,” Casanova added, poking her with his bony finger. As if a few seconds more or less mattered. But nitpicking the details seemed to be some kind of crutch for him.
Sad, Cassie thought, and ate more chocolate.
“Anyway, we loop. And my power doesn’t work and Pritkin’s run off somewhere and nobody but me and Casanova seem to remember what’s happened! And before I can get Marco or anyone to listen those things show up and kill us all again and—”
“Cassie, calm down.” The warm, composed tones on the other end of the phone were a balm to her frazzled nerves. “We’ll sort this out. Give me a moment.”
She waited, heart pounding, as the magical community’s version of a president thought things over. Jonas Marsden was the second smartest man she knew when it came to magic—and her best hope considering that the absolute smartest had gone AWOL. If Jonas didn’t know how to fix this—
Cassie shut down that line of thought fast. No, Jonas would know. Jonas knew everything. Of course, it would be exactly her luck if the first problem to stump him was the last one she ever had.
“What’s he doing?” Casanova demanded.
“Well, tell him to think faster! If we run out of time we’ll have to explain all this to him again and we’ll never get anywhere.”
“I’ll get right on that,” Cassie snapped, and pushed his elbow out of her ribs. They were in a janitorial closet on the sixteenth floor. It wasn’t roomy or comfortable, but it had the huge advantage of being the one place they’d found so far that the Allu hadn’t.
And a cleaning cart stocked with Godiva’s didn’t hurt.
“We’ve been working on freezing time,” Jonas said thoughtfully. “It’s arguably a pythia’s greatest weapon, and I wanted you to concentrate on it until you’re comfortable.”
“Which I’m not.”
“Yes, but you’ve practiced that spell more than anything else you’ve done with your power, other than shifting. And in a time of crisis, we gravitate toward what is familiar.”
“But I didn’t freeze time, Jonas. I…looped it. And I didn’t even know that was possible.”
“It isn’t. That is to say, there isn’t a spell for it that I’m aware of. And I think it unlikely that you perfected an entirely new one on the spur of the moment.”
“Then how do you explain this?” she asked, trying to sound calm and in control. In reality, she thought she might be going back into the screaming phase again, because she really wanted to yell the place down, or punch something, or--
She ate more chocolate.
“Do you recall what I told you about that particular spell?” Jonas asked. “About what it actually does?”
“You said it temporarily removes me and whoever I cast it on from the timeline.”
“Yes. Everyone isn’t really frozen around you; you simply aren’t immersed in the time stream anymore, therefore it appears so. You are the one who is stationary, not them.”
“Like an island in the middle of a creek.”
“Yes, only now I fear you are in a whirlpool, endlessly circulating a single point in time, that of your death.”
“Yes, but why?”
“You knew something was wrong, knew from John’s expression that it was potentially catastrophic, but you didn’t know what it was.”
“Yes.” Casanova was poking her again and tapping his watch. She was going to rip that finger off his body later, but for the moment, she refrained. It sounded like Jonas might be onto something.
“I believe you wanted to give yourself a chance to figure it out,” he continued. “Consciously or unconsciously, you knew you needed more time.”
“But time. Isn’t. Frozen.”
“Because you did not complete the spell. You began it, but you died before you finished.”
Cassie frowned. “That can’t be right. When a pythia dies, her power goes to her successor. But mine is still here. I can’t shift or do anything else with it, but it keeps on pulling us back.”
“Exactly. You died, but your power did not go to another, because it was…busy.”
“Trying to complete your last spell. That is why Pythias traditionally pass their power to a successor before they die, to prevent that sort of thing.”
“I think I have a headache.”
“Think about it like this,” Jonas said, with that infinite patience she’d come to rely on. “You were dead. Taking your body back in time would have been useless—”
“Assuming it could have found anything to take,” Casanova muttered.
“Your power therefore took itself back, to a time when you were alive and could complete your command. And when it reintegrated with you, you received the memories of what had happened.”
“But I can’t complete it!” Cassie said, feeling herself start to panic. “I told you, I can’t do anything. The power just ignores me. I can feel it, but it won’t—”
“If that were true, why do I also remember everything?” Casanova interrupted. “The power didn’t “reintegrate” with me.”
“In a way it did,” Jonas argued. “You were pulled onto that island with her. And as to that, where were you when the bomb went off?”
“Coming down the hall towards the bedroom. I’d had to get permission from Marco to ask her High—to ask Cassie something. And it had held me up.”
“And where was he?”
“Right behind me. Why?”
Jonas didn’t answer. “Cassie, you said John is missing?”
She nodded, even though he couldn’t hear it. “Casanova thinks he’s in the demon realms, chasing Rosier.”
“I beg your pardon?”
Casanova made an impatient sound and plucked the phone from her fingers. “Rosier possessed the leader of Cassie’s bodyguards,” he said rapidly. “I would guess that was how he smuggled in the bomb, since it should have been caught long before it made it to her. And he must have also turned off the wards, because they haven’t so much as hiccoughed all through this. In any case, Pritkin jumped what was left of Marco after the explosion and figured it out. Then he pursued Rosier to the demon realms when the bastard decamped.”
Jonas was silent for a moment, absorbing this. “I didn’t think it possible to possess a vampire,” he finally said.
“Normally no, not without permission. But Rosier is a demon lord—considerably more powerful than most. And Marco nearly died in the last debacle around here. He was ordered to take a month off but instead of staying in bed, swilling vodka and smoking those horrid cigars of his, he insisted on coming back to work.”
“His illness made him vulnerable, and Rosier took advantage,” Jonas summarized.
“Essentially. But Rosier isn’t here now; my incubus can detect him and she swears Marco is clean. And even weirder, the Allu weren’t here before. The bomb caused the problem the first time, not those head-lopping maniacs! They didn’t show up until Cassie dragged us back in time on the first loop.”
“You’re sure? Perhaps you merely did not notice them before then.”
“I tend to pay attention when someone is trying to cut my head off!” Casanova said, a little shrilly.
“Yes,” Jonas said. “Quite.” And then, “I think I may have it.”
“Have what?” Casanova asked, before Cassie snatched the phone back.
“You know what happened?” she asked. They were almost out of time, and there was no way of knowing if Jonas’ epiphany would strike him again next go around.
“I know you said you cannot remember, Cassie,” he said gently, “but it would be very helpful to know if you focused the spell on yourself…or if you perhaps left it open.”
Cassie gripped the phone tighter. It was slick with sweat and kept threatening to shoot out of her palm like a bullet. “And if I did leave it open?”
“Your power might have thought you meant to include everyone in your vicinity.”
“Everyone near you at the time.” Casanova looked confused, but Cassie felt her stomach drop. This was starting to sound terribly familiar.
“When a spell doesn’t conclude, there are usually only three possible causes,” Jonas continued. “It was cast improperly, someone is blocking it, or an element is missing. We know the spell was cast properly, because it is working—repeatedly, in fact. And I do not see how anyone can be blocking you when no one else realizes you are looping. We are therefore left with the third option: something, or in this case, someone, is missing.”
“Wait. Wait, wait, wait,” Casanova said, catching up and stealing back the phone. “Are you telling me that the spell can’t complete itself until that little prick gets back?”
“If you mean John, yes,” Jonas said, sounding disapproving. “And Rosier, too. They were both in the vicinity when the spell was laid and are likely vital parts of it.”
Casanova broke into a string of Spanish curses and Cassie grabbed the phone again. “But…if we keep going back in time, why isn’t Pritkin here? He should be downstairs, buying me a donut, but he isn’t. We’ve looked!”
“You aren’t going back in time, Cassie,” Jonas explained patiently. “Your power removed you from the regular time stream. You’re on that island we discussed earlier. And without John’s presence, you have no way off it.”
“But he got off it!”
“Yes, by transitioning to the demon realms. And time doesn’t function there the same way as here. They are like Faerie, with their own, separate time line. Therefore, when John entered the Shadowland, he left the island, removing him from the spell temporarily and causing the problem we have now.”
“Great,” Cassie grumbled, and felt around for another chocolate. Only to find out that she’d eaten them all. No wonder she felt queasy.
Well, that and the whole death thing.
“What about Marco?” Casanova demanded, wrestling back the phone. “If your theory is right, he should be looping with the rest of us.”
“It is an interesting question,” Jonas agreed. “If a spell is cast on a possessed person, whom does it affect: the person or the spirit possessing him?”
“Ah, but magic is rarely obvious. It has its own rules; even when a spell is carefully thought out and rigorously tested, unexpected events can arise. And Cassie’s spell was neither carefully planned nor perfectly executed. It wasn’t even completed. Under the circumstances, it is possible that the spirit possessing Marco, in this case Lord Rosier, was caught in the spell instead of the body he was using. But, like John, he left for the demon realms shortly thereafter, and is thus unaffected—for now.”
“For now?” Cassie asked, worriedly.
“All right, all right, but what about the Allu?” Casanova persisted. “None of this explains why they’re here.”
“They are under the council’s control, are they not?” Jonas asked. “And Rosier is a member of council. Perhaps he had them along as backup, as it were, in case something went wrong.”
“Then why aren’t they waiting for the big explosion? Instead of making mincemeat out of us?”
“Because something did go wrong,” Jonas pointed out. “From their perspective, Rosier disappeared without warning, and John along with him. Perhaps they think John detected the demon’s presence and attacked him. Perhaps they think that their master is dead, or that he fled to the demon realms with John in pursuit—which is, in fact, what happened. Either way, it would be enough to engage Plan B—”
“—with Plan B involving our heads on a platter!”
“Cassie is the target,” Jonas demurred. “You’re merely in the way. But otherwise, yes.”
“In the way?” Casanova blinked. “You mean…if I get away from her, I’m not going to die every five minutes?”
“Every one hour and fourteen minutes.”
“And twenty-nine seconds,” Casanova added automatically. And then he grinned, huge and euphoric. “Who cares? It doesn’t matter anymore!”
“I am afraid it does, old boy,” Jonas said grimly, as Cassie wrenched back the phone.
“So you’re saying what? We just have to wait for Pritkin to get back?” she asked hopefully.
“No, that is what we cannot do. At the moment, John is outside the spell. But once he returns to this time stream, he will be caught in the same loop as everyone else who was in that room—unless he returns with Lord Rosier. Only once all components are back in place will you be able to access your power and end the spell.”
“Then we have to go get him,” Cassie said. The Shadowland wasn’t her favorite place, but right now, it was looking pretty damned good.
“There is no ‘we’,” Jonas said, his voice sharpening. “Once you leave the loop, the protection it offers is left behind as well. If you die outside this time stream, you will stay dead. As bad as it may seem, you are better off where you are. Casanova can go.”
The vampire in question was halfway to the door at this point, but supernatural hearing had him whirling in outrage, nonetheless. “Casanova can do no such thing! I had nothing to do with any of this!”
“Perhaps not,” Jonas agreed. “But you are involved now, trapped on that island along with Cassie, in a hotel filled with homicidal demons. And you will remain there until you retrieve your missing pieces, and their corpses will not do. You need them in the same shape they were in when the spell was cast. If either succeeds in killing the other before you reach them, the spell will never complete itself.”
“And we’ll be stuck,” Cassie said numbly. “We’ll be stuck here forever.”
Well. It looked like he’d finally found the right place, John thought, as a familiar blond came crashing through the door in front of him, staggered out into the street and hit a wall on the other side. Hard.
He’d already been in ten of these dumps tonight, looking for Rosier in the last places anyone would expect to find him. He’d begun to think the Rakshasa had been playing him, as he checked off possibly venues, one after the other. He’d left this street for last, since it was considered beyond the pale even by the kind of places that knifed you in the side for a hello. He’d assumed his father had better taste.
He should have known better.
He started forward, but before he’d taken two steps, something else came out of the door. It was huge, yet moved in a blur of speed that left it little more than a pale smudge against the night. Until it grabbed their mutual prey by the throat.
“Unhand me this instant, you cretin,” Rosier spat, a lock of the pale hair he wore longer than John’s falling into enraged green eyes. “How dare you put a hand on a member of council!”
The creature—a ten foot tall demon of a type John didn’t recognize, but which looked alarmingly like a huge, yellowish snake--did not seem impressed. “You pay,” it rumbled, twining the end of a tale as thick as a wrestler’s torso around Rosier’s legs.
“I’ve already told you. I didn’t remember to bring my purse. I was in a bit of a hurry!” Rosier said scathingly. “Now release me, and I’ll send someone back with—”
That was as far as he got, before the creature flicked the tale, throwing Rosier off his feet, and then slamming him face-first into the wall again. It looked like the bouncer didn’t believe him, John thought idly. Or maybe it just didn’t understand the language.
Not too surprising around here, where half the denizens probably weren’t even literate in whatever tongue they called their own. The brothel seemed to bear this out, lacking even a name over the door. Of course, that would have been hard, since it didn’t have a door anymore, either. What it did have was a hole in an old brick wall, a straw-strewn, dirt-floored room on the other side, a rickety-looking set of stairs, and a pungent mix of grime, sweat and sex.
Charming, John thought. Right before he was grabbed from behind.
“Hello, handsssome.” The sibilant voice went with the off-white, scaly flesh on the hand that slipped onto his shoulder. And then splayed on his chest. “Niccce,” was hissed—literally--in his ear.
John turned his head to see a body that matched the hand—vaguely humanoid, with an impressive set of curves, most of which were currently on display. But they weren’t compensating for the slit of a nose, the hairless, reptilian head or the black, forked tongue that slithered out to graze his cheek. He managed not to shudder—just.
“Looking for something in particular?” The madam asked.
“Found it,” John said, watching Rosier peel himself off the grimy wall.
The madam looked back and forth between John and his doppelgänger, and then she smiled. “We could possibly make that happen,” she offered.
“He owes a debt,” she confirmed. “Came in here not two hours ago and drained half my girls. And then demanded the other half!”
“And, of course, you demanded payment first.”
A scaly shoulder raised in a shrug. “Naturally. The girls he finished with won’t be any use for days. I couldn’t have the rest in the same condition, not without more than a councilor’s promise.” She hissed the last contemptuously; apparently, people around here had about the same respect for the council that John did.
“And now you want him to wash dishes to pay for his supper,” he guessed.
The madam didn’t look like she understood that, but she didn’t get a chance to answer anyway. Because Rosier had spotted him. “Emrys,” he gasped, hitting the ground again.
He was dressed in a suit that a self-respecting bum wouldn’t have worn, with frayed lapels, a dirty shirt and holes over the knees. Like the rest of the city, it was an approximation, designed to go with the mental image his brain had settled on for the evening’s activities. But the fact remained: he was looking rough. Yet his usual air of faint disgruntlement, caused by a world that inexplicably failed to acknowledge his greatness, remained.
The madam said something to the bouncer, who had started toward the deadbeat again. Didn’t want to damage the merchandise if there was a potential buyer on hand, John assumed, as his father started crawling over the stones toward him. “Emrys! What are you doing here?”
“Accepting your invitation.”
“What? What invitation? Have you gone mad?”
“Possibly,” John growled, wondering if he should just let the snake finish him.
It was alarmingly tempting.
“Oh, never mind that now,” Rosier said peevishly, flailing about in a puddle. “Help me up! We have to—”
“How much?” John asked, glancing at the madam. Because if he looked at his father for another second, he was going to simply walk away. And that wouldn’t do.
That would be too easy.
She named a figure and John snorted. “He’s not worth that.”
“Stop messing about!” Rosier demanded, tugging his now quite filthy trouser leg off whatever it had snagged on. “Pay the creature what she wants and let’s get out of here! You have no idea what I’ve been through!”
John felt his fists clench involuntarily, and closed his eyes. He needed to remain in control, or this would be over far too soon, and he couldn’t afford that. He wanted some answers first. He wanted—
“How much to finish him for you?” he rasped.
“What? What are you talking about?” Rosier squawked.
“You think I’m a fool?” John opened his eyes to find the madam looking at him contemptuously. “You’re an incubus, too. Think I can’t feel it? You pay me a fraction of what he owes and then drag him off, saying you’ll finish him, only to set him free! Then where will I be?”
“Good point,” John said, turning to look at Rosier. Who had opened his mouth, to make another demand no doubt. Until something in his son’s face caused him to shut it abruptly.
“Emyrs?” he asked, unsteadily this time.
“What about if I do it here?” John asked softly.
* * *
“Augghhh!” Casanova breathed, trying to push his body into the scant cover afforded by a crack in a wall.
That didn’t work very well, even though the “wall” gave slightly in a way that real brick never did, hugging his back like warm pizza dough. He tried to not think about it, which turned out to be astonishingly simple. Maybe because what mind he had left was focused on the writhing mass of huge warriors just down the street.
They were standing at a junction where five roads met, where he’d desperately tried to lose them a few moments before. He didn’t know what they used for senses, but sight didn’t seem to be foremost. They reminded him more of bloodhounds on the scent—or at least he hoped so.
On Rian’s advice, he’d run up and down every street before choosing this one, leaving multiple, overlapping scent trails. Of course, the idea had been to be gone before they came across his sensory snarl, but he’d been too thorough or they’d been too fast and now he was caught. Like a rat in a trap, he thought, too panicked to be original while watching them poke into every nook and cranny.
It’s all right, he told himself. He had super senses, too, but they didn’t work so well in the Shadowland, where smells seemed as malleable as everything else in this not-quite-real landscape. Maybe the trails he’d laid would be enough to—
His brain froze as they suddenly stopped, all at the same time, some halfway through a step. And slowly turned as one being. And looked right at him.
His eyes closed and his chest seized up, trying to hold a breath he hadn’t taken. He was in a shadow, but he never for a moment thought it would be good enough. He braced for the worst, since it wasn’t like he didn’t know what was coming.
Only this time, there was no reset button.
This time, he wouldn’t be coming back.
He thought about running, but he couldn’t seem to move and anyway, he’d already tried that. Though a maze of narrow, dirty streets with high walls, shuttered shops, and swinging oil lamps shedding puddles of light Casanova didn’t need across the gloom. It only added to the insanity that, for some reason, his brain had settled on medieval Rome for this trip, despite the fact that he’d obviously never been there.
“My bad,” Rian admitted, her voice a whisper through his mind. “It’s the Great Market. It always reminds me…”
“Shut up!” he hissed, and then they were on him.
He might have whimpered slightly as the mob surged into the confines of the alley, so closely packed that their scabbards scraped along the narrow walls. But his spine stiffened as he felt their approach, and his chin came up. He was the scion of an ancient house; he would die as one. Alright, not like that bastard of a father of his, God rot his soul, but he’d been a terrible drunk so Casanova didn’t know what anyone had expected. But he’d be goddamned if he went cowering like a little—
Oh. Oh, God, he thought, as he felt them surround him on all sides.
There was a wash of heat from the torches they carried in the hands that weren’t busy with those scimitar-like swords. One of which was placed under his chin a moment later, forcing his head up even more. His eyes flew open involuntarily, and he found himself face-to-face with one of the warriors. Or rather, face-to-polished-bronze-faceplate, because he could finally see that there was nothing behind it.
Nothing at all.
What was it Nietzsche said? he thought dizzily. Some warning about looking into the abyss and having the abyss look back, although why he cared he didn’t know. Who took life advice from a man who died penniless in an insane asylum? That had never made sense to Casanova, who’d always had far loftier goals.
Although he didn’t suppose it mattered now.
Now, all his hopes, wishes and dreams had coalesced down to just one thing: managing not to soil himself before he died again. Although they really needed to hurry up with it or he was going to be denied even that small—
He blinked, because suddenly the sword was withdrawn. And the Allu were on the move again, the wind of their passing ruffling his hair, the light from their torches splashing his face, the rough wool of their tunics brushing the fine linen of his jacket. As they just kept on going.
It took him a second to realize that they weren’t attacking, weren’t breaking stride, weren’t so much as looking his way again, if ‘look’ was appropriate with nothing in the place of eyes. Just more of those creepy face plates, leaping with flames from the torch light, heartstoppingly dreadful if he’d still had a heartbeat.
And it felt like he did. It felt like it was in his throat as they pounded past, iron tipped boots ringing off stones half buried in the muck. Until they were gone, as suddenly as they’d come, the sound of their feet almost immediately muffled by the height and thickness of the surrounding walls.
Abruptly, the alley returned to darkness, to silence, to calm. And Casanova sank down onto all fours on the cold stones, hands shaking, chest hurting. And wondering if he needed new trousers.
“I think they’re all right,” Rian said quietly, appearing like a lovely vision in front of him. She was suspiciously blank-faced, which could mean a lot of things, but which usually meant--
“If you laugh,” he told her shakily. “So help me…”
“I assure you, I don’t find this to be funny.” A frown appeared on the lovely forehead as she stared after the Allu. “Something is wrong.”
“Wrong?” Casanova quavered, trying for heat but mostly managing a breathless sort of wonder. “We’re alive! I’d say something is very right!”
“We’re alive because they weren’t after us,” Rian countered. “If you had not run, they might not have chased you at all.”
“Well, forgive me for panicking a little,” Casanova said, regaining some of his indignation. “When suddenly confronted by a group of the things that just killed me--half a dozen times!”
“I was not assigning blame, simply offering an explanation,” she said mildly. “But they are looking for someone. I’ve never seen so many of the council’s guards deployed at one time before.”
“One guess as to who the target is,” Casanova muttered, struggling to get back to his feet. Trust Rosier to have the whole damned guard after him. Like his son, he seemed to attract trouble.
Rian didn’t comment, but her lips tightened. And her eyes got that faraway look that meant she was communicating with one of her own kind. “It’s worse than that,” she told him, after a moment.
“How does that work?” Casanova asked, honestly bewildered.
“Emrys is with him.”
“You raving lunatic!” Rosier said, diving for cover behind a stack of trash cans.
They smelled foul, but not as much as when John sent a fireball into them, causing a burning wash of overripe fruit, spoiled meat and who knew what else to cascade across the already filthy alley. It also tipped a crate of empty bottles over onto its side. Mostly empty, John amended, as the superheated remains of whatever poison the locals imbibed blew out the sides of their receptacles like a line of firecrackers going off. And imbedded most of their remains into Rosier’s shins.
“Son of a bitch!” he snarled, glaring from his bloody calves to John. “What the hell is the matter with you? I took an oath, remember?”
“After you posted the bomb that killed her,” John snarled back.
“Don’t be ridiculous!” his father told him, right before throwing a spell so bright, it looked like a flare had gone off in the alley.
John managed to get a shield up in time, but was nonetheless blown off his feet by the impact and back several yards. He flipped and jumped back up—and then had to throw himself down again as the deflected spell hit the side of the brothel. A blast of old bricks and mortar shrapnelled the alley, and the madam cursed.
“Hey! Hey, you gonna pay for that!”
But John wasn’t listening. He was too busy hugging the ground to avoid the trash can lids, which had flown up in defiance of gravity and sailed at his head. They came out of the dust cloud like so many burning UFOs, but mostly missed him, skimming by overhead. And his shields deflected the ones that didn’t.
Right into the group of bouncers, who had just muscled their way out of the brothel.
“Well, shit,” Rosier said, staring at them. And then at John. “Look what you did!” he said accusingly.
John didn’t answer, being occupied evading the huge tail that had just lashed out at him, lightening quick, and threatened decapitation with a single stroke. And then the odd shaped spear that came crashing down onto the stones, striking sparks off where his body had just been. And then the screaming mass of girls and their clients who started pouring through the now defunct wall, desperate to get away.
“No, no, no!” the madam yelled, wading into the fray and trying to direct her people. “They pay first. They pay first!”
John saw an opening and jumped onto the back of the nearest spear carrier, who was bent over trying to pull his weapon out of the pavement, and from there to the top of the Dumpster. His knee almost gave way again, but he managed a flying leap off the other side, tackling the slimy bastard who was trying to use the confusion as a cover for a quick retreat. And who didn’t make it.
“Get off me!” Rosier snarled, rolling over and trying to smash him the face with a boot.
John returned the favor by throwing him into the wall, which turned out to be lucky for more than one reason. It shut his father up momentarily, and allowed them both to roll behind the Dumpster and avoid the fight that had erupted between the bouncers and some of the patrons. The bouncers were bigger and better armed, but the patrons were more numerous and determined not to pay for a truncated good time. The alley was fast turning into a war zone.
And that included his makeshift bolt-hole, where John found himself hit with a paralysis spell.
It didn’t take completely, his shields still being up. But it left him sluggish and caused the knife he’d been planning to put through his father’s eye to hit the wall instead. It stuck in some of the old mortar, and his wrist was captured in an iron grip before he could yank it back out.
“Listen to me!” Rosier hissed. “I haven’t harmed that annoying child. I don’t know what’s going on, but you have to believe—”
John stopped his lying mouth with a fist.
He would have followed up the advantage, but a man with trousers around his ankles kicked him in the head on his way past, and then tripped and staggered into the nearest bouncer. Who sent him flying into the Dumpster with one arm, and in the process spied the two people hiding behind it. Bugger!
John threw a spell that stopped the creature’s spear all of a foot from his face, and then reversed it, sending it back into the huge, thrashing tail. It pinned its owner to the ground momentarily, and before he could wrench free, he was jumped by a bunch of disgruntled patrons. John didn’t wait around to see who won, but dragged his bastard of a father inside the brothel and slammed him against the wall.
“Are you a fool?” Rosier demanded wildly. “Why would I go after her again? What could it possibly gain me?”
That made John pause for an instant, since Rosier was entirely self-serving. It was his most defining characteristic. “She almost killed you once.”
“You’ve almost killed me half a dozen times,” was the angry response. “And yet you’re still alive. And she also saved my life, if you’ll recall. I believe that makes us even.”
“The council hates her. You said so yourself!”
“Yes, and they’d love a replacement. Someone more…sane. But they recognize that she did them a favor, and they’re willing to wait and see.”
“Why? In the name of whatever you hold holy, why would I want to have anything to do with that walking time bomb? Every time I get near her, this,” he waved an arm wildly. “This is how I end up.”
“If you didn’t try to kill her, why are you injured?”
“Because you just slung me around an alley for five minutes?”
“Don’t give me that! You were hurt before! Why else would you be here?” John gestured around at the bare, unpainted walls, the chandelier composed of a dozen strings of bare bulbs knotted together, and the graffiti-covered bar. Even for hell, the place was a pit.
“You’d know why,” Rosier said heatedly. “If you’d bothered to go by my court before trying to kill me!”
“And what would I know?”
“That it isn’t there anymore! It was firebombed a few hours ago by the damned Allu. And no, I don’t know why. I was rather more concerned with getting out alive, and then eluding a few of my loyal servants, who decided to see the disaster as an opportunity for promotion! I barely managed to make it here alive.”
John stared at him, his head reeling, and not just because of the kick. Rosier sounded sincere, but of course that meant sod all. Like most of his kind, he had elevated lying to an art form. One he had long ago perfected.
John wanted to end him. He’d rarely wanted anything more. His head hurt; his leg throbbed with every heartbeat; but neither was anything close to the pain of knowing how badly he’d failed. Cassie’s death was his fault as much as his father’s, and it burned like brimstone in his gut.
But John wasn’t. The image of another young woman he’d cared about, and also utterly failed, rose up in front of his eyes. And it was suddenly all he could see, her screams all he could hear.
“You expect me to believe that someone attacked you,” he rasped. “At the exact moment that Dante’s was also being hit? You actually expect me to believe that?”
“I expect you to use your head,” Rosier said, eyes flickering oddly. “Cassie has enemies; I have enemies. But we only have one enemy. Damn it, boy! I taught you better than this! Stop wallowing in sentiment and think.”
But John couldn’t. He heard the creature’s words, but the meaning hit the old well of anguish and self-hate and seething, simmering resentment he carried around like a weight. One that, right now, was threatening to crush him. He needed to throw it off, needed to think, but the rage that had been building since he found that cracked and ruined necklace rose up with irresistible force.
And swamped him.
“You lie!” he breathed, and readied the spell that would end this. Finally, utterly--
And had a blinding pain shoot through his head, hard enough to drop him to his knees.
“Cut it a little closer next time, why don’t you?” he heard his father snarl at someone behind him.
And then nothing.
“He’s coming around,” a woman said.
“Where is it?” a man’s voice demanded sharply.
“I don’t…give me a second,” another man said, sounding distracted.
“Damn it! Why don’t you have it ready?”
“Well, don’t blame me! He has the hardest head in existence. He should have been out another half hour, at least.”
“You’re lucky he had the shield up, or he would be out permanently. And then I would be forced to gut you. Now give it to me!”
John opened his eyes to see something dangling in front of his face. It was gold and red, glinting in the low light of a bare bulb overhead. And cold like everything in the Shadowland when it grazed his cheek. It was also hauntingly familiar. He tried to raise a hand to grasp it, but nothing seemed to happen.
“Give it a moment. The vampire almost took your head off,” someone told him.
John didn’t think he had much choice. The combination of two head knocks in a row on top of blood loss, a soul hit and a stun spell had him swimming around in the realm of the barely conscious. But after a few seconds, his flailing hand managed to bump into the prize, and it swung closer to his face. Just about the time his eyes uncrossed.
And saw the impossible.
“It’s a trick,” he rasped, after a stunned second, and someone sighed.
John focused on Rian, in the form of a hazy outline of a beautiful woman. She was standing to the left of the bed he appeared to be lying on. It was Spartan and roughly twin-sized, and barely fit a tiny closet of a bedroom. One of the brothel’s, he assumed, judging by the smell. And if Rian was here--
“I told you so.” Casanova’s scowling form came into focus on the other side of the bed, standing in front of a small window. He wasn’t dangling anything, though, and neither was Rian. Which meant—
“Hold him!” Rosier’s voice said sharply, as John tried surging up. But Casanova had his arms, holding him down as Rosier shoved what John now identified as a gaudy necklace with a dull red center stone at him. “It’s real,” he said urgently. “Test it for yourself. The vampire brought it.”
“It’s true, John,” Rian chimed in, loyal as ever to the creature who’d spawned her.
“You lie!” John said, struggling against the vampire’s strength. “I saw the real one. It was broken, cracked, ruined—”
“That was only the first time,” Casanova said, and then glared as John got in a good shot to the jaw.
Some of the fog in John’s head seemed to clear, as the vampire’s words penetrated. “What first time?” he panted. “What are you talking about?”
“If you’ll cease trying to murder everyone, we’ll explain,” his father said dryly, coming into view on Rian’s side of the bed.
He looked slightly more beaten up than before, with a dirty face, a puffy jaw and two black eyes that ran together, like a superhero mask. But otherwise, he was right as rain. John growled.
“Oh, come off it,” Rosier said, sitting on the bed, and tossing the necklace onto John’s chest. “What? Did I pull that out of my ass?”
“Bet it wouldn’t be the first time,” Casanova muttered, as John closed his hand on it.
There was no way to tell if it was real. It looked the same, but of course it would. Rosier had seen Cassie’s talisman more than once. Despite what he claimed, for someone of his skill, reproducing it would be easy.
“We don’t have time for this,” Rian warned, glancing out the window.
“Do you have an alternative?” Rosier asked. “We can’t drag him through the streets unwilling, and we can’t transition in the heart of the city.”
“It wouldn’t do us any good if we could,” Casanova muttered. “The damned casino is full of Allu, too.”
Rian looked at John, her pretty face worried. “Your father is telling the truth; we brought the stone, Carlos and I. Your pythia put it in his hands herself. She said it would convince you. Was she wrong?”
“You do yourself no credit, Rian,” John sneered. “I know what I saw!”
“And you saw truly. But you did not see all.”
“Oh for—just tell him already!” Casanova said, breaking in. And then he did it for her. “Cassie did something at the last second, some kind of spell. It stuck us in a time loop with everything repeating every hour and fourteen minutes and twenty-nine seconds, including the bunch of maniac Allu going around collecting heads! We finally found a hiding spot they mostly overlooked and Marsden said—”
“Jonas?” John frowned. He wouldn’t have expected them to bring him into their lie. “What does he have to do with this? And why would the Allu--”
“I’ll tell you if you shut up!” Casanova said, a little wildly. John belatedly noticed that the vampire was looking almost worse than Rosier. His jacket was missing, his hair was covered in dust and his face and shirt were filthy. And there was an odd odor clinging to—
Rian cleared the throat she didn’t have.
“It comes down to this,” she told him quickly. “Cassandra is trapped in a time loop made of her own power. The only way for her to be free is to complete the spell. But she can only do that if all the people on whom it was inadvertently cast are once more assembled.”
“What people?” John asked.
“The ones in the damned room with her at the time,” Casanova said. “That’s why her Loftiness dispatched me to hell, in order to find you and whoever was possessing Marco—”
“That’s easily done,” John said, grabbing his father by the shirt front.
“It is no such thing,” Rosier said testily. “Let us try this again, and do see if that vaunted intelligence of yours can grasp this one simple concept, would you? I. Was. Not. There.”
“Then who was?”
“Sid?” John stared at him in disgust.
“Think about it. Who thwarted his well-laid plans to destroy the council, and half the city along with it? I did, with some help from you and the girl. And of course he wants revenge.”
John didn’t bother commenting that, as usual, his father had managed to make himself the hero of the piece when he’d actually been a villain. Instead, he concentrated on the more relevant point. “If he so much as shows his nose here, he’s dead. How—”
“But he didn’t show it, did he?” Rosier asked. “He’s likely been on Earth, feeding up and plotting revenge. And somewhere along the line, he realized that he couldn’t pick us off one by one without the others getting suspicious. If he killed me, you’d know something was up, and vice versa. Therefore he decided to take us all at once.”
“But he didn’t take us,” John gritted out. “The bomb was meant for Cassie—”
“And in the process, Sid no doubt hoped that you would die as well. But he couldn’t be sure that she would open the bomb in your presence, therefore he took back up.”
“In the form of the council’s own guards?” John looked at him incredulously. “Where did he get them?”
“From the council. He was pretending to be me, after all.”
“How could he possibly—”
“He’s an old adherent of our house,” Rosier reminded him. “It wouldn’t be difficult for someone who has known me for a few thousand years to impersonate me convincingly.”
“Except that no one goes around impersonating council members!”
“Which is likely how he got away with it. It would be a death sentence if caught, so as you say, nobody does it. But what if someone doesn’t care if he’s caught? What if all he really cares about anymore is revenge?”
John shook his head. “That makes no bloody sense! If the Allu believed Sid to be you, then they were your allies. Why suddenly turn on you? There’s no reason—”
“There’s every reason—if you don’t assume a human mindset. We’ve discussed this before,” his father said, slipping back into the lecture mode that John especially hated. “Not all creatures think like you do. Your viewpoint isn’t the only viewpoint; your logic isn’t the only logic.”
“Then what is Allu logic?”
“To do the will of the council. And a council member had told them to come along on the assassination of a known threat.” He shrugged. “They went.”
“But you had taken an oath—on the council itself—not to hurt Cassie!”
“Yes, but that was my look to, wasn’t it?” Rosier asked, as if that were obvious. “It wasn’t up to them to look after my oath for me. If I broke it, they would kill me, certainly, as the vow demanded. But until then, I was perfectly within my rights to require their assistance.”
“But they didn’t kill you—or Sid or whomever--”
“Because he left. Which is when they communicated with their counterparts here, instructing them to attack my court.”
John blinked, because that made an insane sort of sense. “Because you were then viewed as a traitor for breaking your oath.”
“It has a certain beauty to it,” Rosier said admiringly. “Sid assumed the bomb would take out the girl, but if not, the Allu would. He probably hoped the explosion would also kill you, and that the forces he’d prepped in the Shadowland would kill me, making for a nice, tidy operation. But he had an alternative plan, in case that didn’t happen.”
“To make me believe that it was all your doing.” John was beginning to see where his father was going with this.
Rosier nodded. “At which point, you could be relied on to do exactly what you did, and come after me in a murderous rage. Thereby insuring that you broke your oath not to enter the demon realms without the council’s express permission, and forfeited your life in the process.”
“He thought that I would kill you if the Allu failed, and that they would then end me,” John said, fist clenching around Cassie’s talisman.
Rosier nodded. “He planned this perfectly, with layer upon layer of assurance that, no matter what we did, we ended up dead.”
“But we didn’t. Cassie lives, and so do we! He failed.”
“Yes, well. That remains to be seen,” Rosier said dryly. “The problem is to get him to show himself. We need him, and not only to break the spell. We have to—”
Casanova cut him off with a curse. “Details can wait! Rian already told you—we don’t have time for this. The Allu are everywhere in the streets below—to the point that we barely made it through. And there’s more of them now than before!”
“They’re going door-to-door,” Rian acknowledged. “Searching every house. They aren’t familiar with this area—no one who lives here is usually important enough to come to the council’s notice—but they learn quickly.”
“And too many people saw that display you two put on,” Casanova added. “Someone’s bound to turn us in. I’m surprised they haven’t done it already.”
“The Allu aren’t popular,” Rosier said grimly. “But it doesn’t matter; they’ll find us soon enough, and I can’t hold them off in the shape I’m in. I expended what little energy I had left in the fight—”
“You’re an incubus,” Casanova said impatiently. “In a brothel! Feed, for the love of—”
“Now, why didn’t I think of what?” Rosier asked sweetly.
“It wouldn’t be sufficient, Carlos,” Rian told him. “The Master was almost drained by the wounds he sustained at court. He needs a proper feeding, more than any of the workers here could provide, even if we could find them again…”
“Then what about you?” Casanova asked. “Can’t you loan him enough—”
She shook her head sadly. “I do not have a body on which to draw. And a spirit feeding will not be enough.”
“No,” Rosier mused. “I need to feed from a body, but a normal one won’t do. This calls for someone old, rich, powerful. Someone who has been storing up energy for centuries. Someone like…”
He suddenly looked up, and met John and Rian’s eyes. And then they all turned to look at the vampire. Who was still staring worriedly out the window.
“And how are we supposed to find someone like that around here?” Casanova demanded.
Rosier smiled gently. “I may have an idea.”
“I hate you,” Casanova said weakly, grasping hold of a roof tile.
“Which one?” Pritkin asked, grabbing his forearms. And hauling him roughly onto the roof.
“All of you,” Casanova gasped. “Every single…damned one…of your hateful, misbegotten clan!”
“You’re part of that clan,” a loathed voice reminded him. He turned his head to see Rosier—God damn him—vault up from the room below like an Olympic gymnast.
And why not? That was his power the bastard was using. Almost all of his power, judging by the way he felt. Casanova groaned and rolled over, wishing he still ate so he could throw up.
“Don’t be such a drama queen,” Rosier said, clapping him on the shoulder.
“Pudrete en el infierno!”
Rian came up and slipped a cool hand onto his shoulder, but wisely didn’t attempt anything else. He’d had about enough of incubi for the moment. He’d had more than enough.
“Well, that’s less than encouraging,” Rosier said, after a moment, and his tone caused Casanova’s head to come up.
“What is?” he demanded.
But nobody was paying him any attention. They were all staring over the edge of the roof, including Rian. She’d moved from his side to peer between Rosier and his spawn’s shoulders. “Oh, dear.”
“What?” he asked again.
And was again ignored.
“Hijueputa,” he muttered, dragging his exhausted body up and over to the edge, which was crumbling like the rest of the building, and didn’t sport anything like a proper guardrail. Casanova scowled. He hated heights.
Especially ones looking out over torch-wielding mobs.
“What the—what’s that?” he demanded, grabbing Rosier’s shoulder so the bastard couldn’t avoid answering this time.
“What does it look like?” He turned to Pritkin. “Any ideas?”
“Yes,” Pritkin said shortly, and wandered off somewhere, making some weird kind of trill.
They were all mad, Casanova decided. Every damned one of them. “If someone doesn’t tell me what the hell—” he began dangerously.
“It’s the locals,” Rian said. “It seems the madam has convinced them that the disturbances in the area are all to be laid at our door.”
“Which in fairness—” Rosier began.
“Shut up!” Casanova snarled. He turned back to Rian. “We have to get rid of them. They’ll lead the damned Allu right to us!”
“I think it’s a little late for that,” she said softly, staring down at the street.
It was a long one, running the length of this sordid little part of hell, but something seemed to be going on near the end of it. Something that resolved into a bronze-colored wedge driving through the crowd like a bulldozer, or like the cow catchers on the front of old trains. A hateful, murderous train that was going to kill them all, Casanova thought blankly. There had to be a hundred of them down there.
“One hundred thirteen,” Rian supplied unhelpfully.
“Do something!” he told Rosier.
But the demon—damn his hide—was just standing there, lighting a cigarette. “And what would you have me do?”
“You’re a council member!”
“Yes, and I would normally call on the council’s guards to protect me.” His lips twisted. “Unfortunately, they’re already here.”
“Then…then use magic! Do some sort of a curse. You’re a demon!”
“I’m one demon. They are many demons. See how that works?”
“Then why the—what was all—why did we—” Casanova spluttered.
Rosier let out a smoky breath. “At the time, I assumed I’d only have to deal with small groups dispersed throughout the area. That seems to have changed.”
“Then…then all that was for nothing?”
“Don't be like that,” Rosier reproved. “I’ll always cherish our time together.”
Casanova let out a little screech and went for the creature’s throat, intending to throw him off the roof. At least he’d have the satisfaction of watching him die first. But then a horrible shriek rent the air, right behind him, like a thousand nails on a hundred chalkboards.
He spun and saw something out of a nightmare, which completely matched the sound. It was huge and deadly and spreading massive, leathery wings against the night. And Pritkin…was on its back?
“Get on,” Pritkin told him shortly.
“Die in pain!”
“The idea is to avoid that,” Rosier commented, climbing on behind his bastard of a son.
“Carlos, please,” Rian tugged on his hand.
“You’re planning to fly that thing out of here?” Casanova asked, horrified. Torchlight glistened off a maw of eight-inch fangs. It could devour them all, any second.
“Unless you have a better idea?” Pritkin asked.
“Give me a minute,” Casanova said desperately.
But they didn’t have a minute. One glance over the roof was enough to show a mass of homicidal demons flowing through what would have been the front door, if the place still had one. And he didn’t need vampire ears to hear them tearing around the house below. Or to feel them shaking the very walls by the number of boots on the stairs.
“Get on, or we’re leaving you,” the infernal mage said.
Like it was just that easy.
“Get on Carlos,” Rian begged. “Please!”
Casanova glanced over the roof again, only to meet the faceless mask of one of the Allu, looking up from the window below.
“Oh, just leave him,” Rosier said carelessly. “Once we’re gone, I’m sure he’ll be fine.”
“They’ve already seen me!” Casanova said shrilly.
“Oh, well. Probably not then.” Rosier shrugged.
Casanova screamed and went for the demon, and Rosier grabbed his arm as soon as he was close enough. And then—
“Mierda,” Casanova gasped, as his feet left the roof, just as three Allu crawled up on top of it. And lunged for them, almost too fast to see. But a beat from the great wings knocked one of them down, and the wind of it tumbled a second off the roof, and a third had to whip up his shield to defect a fireball somebody threw.
For a moment, it looked like they might make it. But then a fourth Allu Casanova hadn’t seen snuck up from the other side of the roof, and threw what looked like a fiery lasso around the great beast’s back paw. It roared in pain, getting the attention of the Allu still in the street, who raised their heads in one, bronze ripple.
And then a barrage of thrown swords came flashing at them through the air. Casanova screamed, the damned beast flapped harder, almost bucking him off, and they jerked slightly higher in the sky. Making them an even better target for the swords that were about to—
Disintegrate a few yards out?
“Pretty, isn’t it?” Rosier yelled, as the weapons hit a barely perceptible bubble in front of them.
“Pritkin—” Casanova gasped, ready to forgive the man for everything he’d ever—
“Nope,” Rosier yelled cheerfully, to be heard over the beat of massive wings shredding the air. The beast they were riding gave a tremendous heave and surged upward, taking the Allu trying to restrain him right along for the ride. “That’s your power! Feel better about our time together now?”
“Get your hand off my butt,” Casanova snarled, and kicked the Allu back into the crowd below. And then the great wings caught an updraft, and they were spiraling hundreds of feet skyward, at an angle that left them almost perpendicular to the rapidly receding ground. Casanova screamed.
“If you don’t start holding on, my arm may get tired,” Rosier warned him.
“Hijo de mil putas!” Casanova gasped, but somehow he dragged his tired, bruised body further up the beast’s huge back, clinging there like a limpet.
“No, just one,” Rosier laughed.
And then they were gone.
“You had better be right about this,” John said, as they rematerialized in the middle of the main drag at Dante’s. He glanced about, but the only one in sight was the girl at the coffee kiosk. And she just looked bored.
“Sid’s a vindictive little shit,” Rosier said confidently. “He’ll want to watch us die. My bet is that he rejoined the hunt for Cassie, after insuring that you were on your way to finish me off. Speaking of which—” he glanced at Rian, who nodded and disappeared.
John clutched Cassie’s talisman inside his pocket, hard enough to leave an impression on his palm. But he didn’t move. As a spirit, Rian could check all the little spaces where Cassie might be hiding in a matter of seconds, far faster than he could hope to do.
She would find her, of that he had no doubt.
The question was--in what condition?
Yes, the spell might have kept her alive, but at what cost? How long had they been gone? With time looping here, there was no way to tell, and the demon world worked so differently as to give no point of reference. It could have been hours, as it felt to John, but it could also have been days. Or weeks. Or…or it could have been years.
What must it have been like, he wondered, being all alone, battling for her life, hiding or running or dying, over and over again, for what must have seemed like infinity? With no way out and with no one to even share the burden? He couldn’t imagine.
He wasn’t sure he wanted to imagine.
What would he find, back in that damned hotel room, or in that dark little closet Casanova had described? She might be alive, but would she be alright? Would she be sane?
Would she still be Cassie?
“We need to find Sid first,” John heard himself say. “If he never left, then I was the only missing piece of the puzzle, and my return just broke the spell. If he kills her again…”
“Yes, but where to start looking?” Rosier asked. “He could be in spirit form still, or have possessed someone, anyone. I say we find the girl, and then let him find us, assuming the Allu don’t do it first—”
“Like that?” Casanova croaked, from the floor. Which he appeared to be clutching.
John followed the vampire’s gaze to see one of the Allu coming at them at a run. He grabbed one of his potion vials and prepared to throw, only to have a hand descend onto his shoulder. “Wait,” Rosier said softly.
It was then that John noticed something odd about this particular Allu. It’s once bright armor was battered and dented, one side was singed almost black, like an explosion had hit it, and it was limping badly, essentially just dragging its left leg behind it. But it was limping fast.
“Please…” The creature called out, its voice as scratchy as its armor, cracked and helpless. And the hand it lifted out to them, as if in supplication, was shaking.
“Cassie?” John asked carefully, wondering if she’d somehow managed to disguise herself as one of the enemy. But no. Because a moment later, he saw her flying across the lobby, blond curls bouncing, pink t-shirt crisscrossed with weapons, and half a dozen Allu right on her tail.
“Cassie!” he yelled, but she didn’t hear.
“Now!” she screamed, running onto the drag. And the words had no sooner left her mouth than the windows on the upper floor of the Old West buildings slammed open, almost in unison, and she hit the deck. And a second later, a massive barrage of gunfire erupted in the space in between, catching the Allu completely off guard.
“No,” Casanova said pitifully, crawling past John. “No. No, stop it!”
But nobody heard. And then Cassie flipped back to her feet, right on the edge of the gunfire, and tossed something into the hellscape the center of the drag had become. “Yippie Ki Yay, Motherfuckers!” John thought he heard her say, although clearly he’d been mistaken. And then she turned and ran behind an overturned wagon at the edge of the street.
Rosier looked at John, and then they both grabbed Casanova and dove in behind her. Just as the street erupted in a massive explosion. The ground trembled, the shop windows blew out, and something caught the hay spilling out of the front of the wagon on fire.
The automated sprinklers started up, making it look like it was raining indoors, as Cassie bounded back to her feet. And lunged at the battered Allu, which had followed them over, and which John had managed to totally forget. “Get away from me!” the creature screamed. “Get away!”
It ducked behind Rosier, pawing at him pathetically, while dozens of vampires poured out of the ruined storefronts on either side, weapons and fangs out.
“Cassie?” John asked again, confused.
She jerked her head around, teeth still bared from glaring at the Allu, and for half a second, she looked alarmingly like one of her vampires. And then she recognized John. “You’re back!” And suddenly he found himself with an armful of Pythia, warm and breathless and alive. And almost immediately squirming away.
“Sorry, but I don’t want to miss this,” she told him. “It’s my favorite part.”
“What is?” John asked wonderingly, as Rosier pushed the Allu off him with a look of refined disgust. The movement snapped the already battered face plate in two, and beyond it—
A terrified elder demon stared out at them.
It looked like Sid had been right, John thought, when he once said that he could make a body for himself at will.
“John?” he wavered, looking at him pleadingly. But apparently he didn’t see anything helpful. Because he let out a wail and started limping down the drag again, toward the back stairs.
“Wait,” John said, catching Cassie’s arm as she started after him. “Where’s Jonas?”
She looked confused. “No idea.”
“He isn’t…coordinating this?”
She shook her head. “I tried calling him a few dozen times. But it always takes too long to get him to believe me. And when he does, he just wants me to hide away somewhere.”
“That sounds like a good—”
“I tried that. But it’s unbelievably boring. I don’t need to sleep—time isn’t passing for my body, so I don’t get tired. I don’t get hungry—well anymore hungry,” she said, shooting him a look. The sad excuse for a donut had apparently not been forgotten. “I don’t even need to pee. And there’s never anything new on T.V.”
“You’ve been doing what, then?” he asked, in disbelief. “Killing demons?”
“Well, it occurred to me sometime back in the sixties—”
“The sixtieth go ‘round,” she said, matter-of-factly. “Anyway, I knew that when you got back, the spell would break. But then we’d be right back where we started. We might dodge the bomb this time, but we’d still have a casino full of demons.”
“You therefore decided to take care of that,” John said, his head spinning. “How many times?”
“I don’t know. I lost count a while ago. Duck.”
Cassie shoved his head down and let off a barrage from an M-16 that strafed a new group of Allu that had been trying to sneak up on them. She grinned at him, a little manically. “They hate it when I do that.”
Her vampires let out what sounded like battle cries, and jumped the disoriented demons. That included Marco, John was relieved to see, back hale and hearty enough to rip one’s head right off its body. But unlike with Sid, there was nothing underneath.
John looked back at Cassie. “Where—” he cleared his throat. “Where did you get the weapons?”
“Downstairs,” she told him happily. “The senate’s using this as a base now, remember? It’s like Guns R Us down there.”
“But they must have guards—“
“--and you’re without your powers. How did you get in?”
She looked at him like he might be slow. “I’m pythia. I told them to unlock the goddamned door.”
And then she was off, leaving John staring after her, his stomach falling, but a strange sort of smile twitching at the corner of his mouth.
“I suppose I shall have to go rescue Sid,” Rosier sighed. “We need him to tell the council that neither of us was really at fault here.”
“Uh huh.” But John made no move to help. Instead, he turned and started toward the coffee shop, where a dazed-looking Goth girl was pouring something into an overflowing cup.
“Where do you think you’re going?” his father demanded.
“To buy someone the biggest damned pastry in the world.”