“Karen Chance is a terrific writer who handles multiple plot twists with ease. Breakneck pacing, a great heroine, and great reading.”—#1 New York Times Bestselling Author Charlaine Harris
Cassie Palmer can see the future, talk to ghosts, and travel through time—but nothing’s prepared her for this.
Ever since being stuck with the job of pythia, the chief seer of the supernatural world, Cassie Palmer has been playing catch up. Catch up to the lifetime’s worth of training she missed being raised by a psychotic vampire instead of at the fabled pythian court. Catch up to the powerful, and sometimes seductive, forces trying to mold her to their will. It’s been a trial by fire that has left her more than a little burned.
But now she realizes that all that was the just the warm up for the real race. Ancient forces that once terrorized the world are trying to return, and Cassie is the only one who can stop them…
“There’s always option two,” Rosier said, some time later.
At least, that’s what I thought he said. But whatever knockout drug they’d given him was making his tongue loll, and it was kind of hard to tell. I looked up, but he just lay there and drooled at me. I waited for a minute, then went back to fiddling with the metal around my wrist.
It wasn’t part of the handcuffs.
I’d given up on those. They were solid steel and probably overlaid with spells to make them extra hard to pick, given experience. Not that it mattered; I wasn’t Houdini.
Of course, I wasn’t a dark mage, either, but I didn’t have a lot to work with here.
Tiny silver daggers, like links in an especially deadly chain, slid under my fingertips. I assumed Gertie had relieved me of my only weapon when I got here, but it didn’t matter. I’d tried to get rid of the little bracelet a hundred times myself, after finding out that it had once belonged to a dark mage. But every time I took it off, it was back in place moments later, spit-shined and gleaming, to the point that I could swear it was smirking at me.
It kind of looked like that now, winking smugly in the light of a nearby lamp, like it knew what I was thinking. On a positive note, it could throw out little ghostly knives that looked about as substantial as mist but cut like well-oiled steel. On the negative, I didn’t always control what they cut.
“Did you hear me?” Rosier demanded.
I looked up again. I’d rolled him onto his back and tucked the too-cheerful coverlet around him, because his tunic kept riding up and I’d had enough trauma for one day. As a result, he now resembled a colicky baby with wild tufts of blond hair sticking out everywhere.
Huh. I guess part of it was genetic, I thought, and patted one down. “I heard you.”
“Well what? You’re the one who said no.”
“What?” The colicky look intensified. “When did I say that?”
I frowned at him. “A few minutes ago. You said no shifting—”
“Shifting wasn’t option two—”
“Of course it was. Mug the guards, option one. Shift into the hells, option two—”
“That was your option two! I never—”
“That was my option one,” I corrected. “This is option two.”
I held up my wrist, and his eyes focused on it. Or tried to. But then I guess they managed, because they widened alarmingly. “That’s dark magic!” said the demon lord.
“Dark magic that just might get us out of here.”
“Dark magic doesn’t get people out of trouble,” he said, struggling with the blanket. “It gets them into it!”
“The mages who use it seem to do okay.”
“Yes, until they get addicted to the magic they steal from everyone they can get their hands on, and end up little better than junkies! And start doing progressively crazier things to get more of it—”
“I’m not talking about mainlining the stuff,” I said—to myself, because Rosier wasn’t listening.
“— summoning my people, trying to trap them—think of it,” he said, green eyes blazing, “beings thousands of years old enslaved to a group of idiots so hopped up on their latest fix they can’t see straight! Until we find a way free and eat their face!”
“Okay, I get that you don’t like it—”
“I loathe it! All demons do. If you’re smart, so will you!” he added, panting a little because the blanket was being stubborn. But he finally managed to get the arm that wasn’t chained to the bed free and flailed it around.
I moved back so he didn’t accidentally clock me. “Then I assume you have a better idea?”
“Of course!” he said unhelpfully, and the flailing arm flailed some more. Until it landed on my leg. And then just stayed there, clenching.
It took me a moment, because the other hand was clenched, too, on the edge of the bed, probably so he wouldn’t fall off. And because he was still mostly wrapped in the quilt, like a cherry-covered burrito. And because he was scruffy and smelly and crazed-looking—
And pawing at my thigh.
“Eww!” I jumped back, all the way to the headboard.
“It’s the only way,” he insisted.
“Like hell it’s the only way!”
“I’m an incubuth. I can lend you thome energy—” he said, around the foot I had smushed in his face.
“I have energy!”
“You have the Pythian power but can’t access it. I can help—”
“Stop touching me!”
“— by increasing your personal strength—”
“I’m warning you!”
“— so you can shift uth out of here. Damn it, girl!” Rosier glared at me through a gap between my toes. “This isn’t exthactly fun for me, either!”
“Then cut it out!”
“I’m not . . . going to die . . . because of you! Now help me—”
“Oh, I’ll help you,” I growled, and kicked him.
He reared back, holding his nose and looking outraged. “You bith!” he screamed. “You coldhearted bith!”
And then he grabbed me.
But he was still handcuffed to the bed, which limited his range, and wrapped in the blanket, which limited his motion, and apparently, he hadn’t been trained in hand-to-hand combat by his son.
“Coldhearted? Coldhearted?” I got him in a headlock. “You’re the most coldhearted, conniving, evil son of a bitch I have ever—”
“Get off me!”
“— known in my life—”
“If you kill me, who is going to help you get Emrys back?” he wheezed.
“I’m not going to kill you! I’m going to make you wish you were dead!”
“Trust me. Working with you, I already do!”
The door slammed open. We looked up. I expected more grumpy mages, probably pissed that we were making so much noise
That wasn’t who I saw.
“Oh, fuck that!” Rosier screeched, and disappeared, just as a cadre of the demon council’s personal guard flooded into the room.
And since he was still cuffed to the bed, it went with him.
But I didn’t.
I hit the floor face-first, hard enough to see stars, not understanding how I’d been left behind. Until I saw the cut chain dangling off my wrist. And the ghostly knives gleefully zipping around the room, stabbing everything in sight. And the glass breaking, and the mages shielding, and the council’s guards hunkering down in their armor—
And then the lights went out.
It took me a second to realize that Rosier was back. And that it was lucky I’d still been sprawled in the floor, because the bed was, too. I hit my head on the underside anyway, which was on casters, so it was just high enough to accommodate a pissed-off Pythia. And then another one was yelling: “Forget the demon! Get the girl!”
But the council’s guards didn’t take orders from anyone except the council. And a second later my chin hit the floor again, when half a dozen supernatural soldiers leapt onto the bed on top of me. And then went flying back off, because war mages do, in fact, follow the Pythia’s orders.
Well, you know, most Pythias.
And then all hell broke loose.
There were suddenly bodies flying and hitting the floor and shaking the bed, and there went my chin again. And instead of stars I was starting to see more like whole galaxies. But not so much that I failed to notice the frantic, manacled hand waving at the end of the bed.
I grabbed it, and was jerked out and up. I had a split second to see Gertie herself blending in with the wallpaper, a bunch of war mages battling some faceless demon guards, and a confused, very young-looking version of my predecessor, Agnes. Oh, look, I thought fuzzily.
And then I was looking at something else. Something that looked a lot like the Shadowland, a minor demon realm with dark streets and shuttered buildings and absolutely nothing to recommend it, except that it happened to be close to earth. But I wasn’t sure because I didn’t get much more than a glimpse.
Because the bed had started rolling this way.
“Get up! Get up! Get up! Get up!” Rosier was yelling and pulling, and I was stumbling and scrambling, and he was heaving hard enough that I thought my arm would break.
Instead, I ended up on top of the bed, after having been dragged over the metal footboard less than ceremoniously. But that nonetheless would have been an improvement—except that the bed was still rolling. Rosier, damn him, had landed us at the top of an incline.
A big one.
“Help me stop it!” I yelled as our ride picked up speed, shaking down the hill on its little casters fast enough to throw up sparks up from the pavement.
Or maybe they were from something else.
“Never mind,” I said, and flattened out.
“What?” Rosier stared around. “Why?”
I jerked him down with me, just as a curved sword appeared, vibrating out of the footboard between us.
“That’s why,” I said.
Looked like some of the guys had tagged along.
Make that one guy, who must have been holding on to the bed when it flashed out, and was now running and then dragging behind us as we rattled down the street.
But not fast enough to throw him off.
Because the council’s guards don’t get tired, or feel pain. They can’t. They’re spirits trapped inside golemlike bodies, only instead of clay, they’re made of an almost impervious metal that takes a beating and keeps on killing. As this one demonstrated by launching himself from a prone position onto the bed—
And then lost a head, when a sword flashed and struck it clean off.
It went bouncing across the street and I looked up to see Rosier holding the blade he’d ripped out of the footboard. And then screaming, I thought to let off excess emotion. But I realized there might be another reason when, instead of collapsing, the headless body started whaling on him.
It wasn’t doing a great job, not being able to see, but it was a small bed. And Rosier wasn’t doing a great job of evading, either. Maybe because he was still handcuffed in place.
“Do something!” he shrieked, and I was trying, but pulling didn’t work and shoving didn’t work and when I grabbed for the sword that had gotten knocked out of his hand, a metal fist closed on it first. And the next second, Rosier was dodging rapid-fire sword blows that were raining down on the footboard, sending sparks flying and almost cutting through in places.
“The cuffs!” I yelled at Rosier.
“Hold out your cuffs!”
He looked like he didn’t know what I was saying, but then I extended my arms and light dawned.
“Are you crazy?”
Then it didn’t matter anyway, because the metal body went flying in a cloud of flames, sailing off toward a nearby building like a headless Tony Stark. I looked behind us to see half a dozen war mages booking it down the hill with enhanced speed, leather coats flying out behind them like action movie stars. And a great big grin of relief spread over my face.
Which was still there when the second fireball launched.
A mass of flames came boiling through the air, which is exactly as scary as it sounds when it’s coming straight at you. I screamed, Rosier screamed, and the bed suddenly leapt up off the street and traveled maybe eight feet through the air before hitting down again. Because we’d just taken a turbo shot to the ass.
And then it burst into flames.
“What are they doing?” I screamed.
“Keeping us from escaping!”
Especially since we weren’t escaping now, not on top of a merrily burning bed. And these weren’t normal flames, and they were eating this way fast. And Rosier was still chained in place and the mages were still gaining and we were still tear-assing down the hill, until suddenly we weren’t.
We were tear-assing through an open-air market.
An open-air market on earth.
A row of Victorian-looking buildings flashed by on either side, with tables set up in front piled with wares, and people diving for cover. At least most people. A vendor nimbly danced out of the way, but his cart didn’t. And there was no way to avoid it with no steering and no brakes. And then it didn’t matter when we hit it head-on and were inundated with a wave of hot water filled with . . . pig’s feet?
What had to be a couple dozen boiled pig’s feet slapped us in the face as we barreled through the man’s big metal cauldron and kept right on going. Right at a bunch of kids who had been playing in the street, but who were now just standing there, mouths hanging open. Probably because they’d never seen a burning, speeding bed before.
I grabbed Rosier, who was trying to free himself by pulling the footboard apart, where it had been scored the deepest. “Shift! Shift!”
“Would you give me a minute?”
“No! Do it now!”
“We can’t do it now! We’re not clear yet!”
I didn’t ask clear of what, because there wasn’t time. I grabbed his head and forcibly jerked it up, pointing at the kids. “Now!”
Rosier’s eyes got big, maybe because we were close enough to see the whites of theirs, and he gave a little screech—
And the next second, we were back in the Shadowland.
I breathed a sigh of relief.
I’d never been so glad to be in hell before.
Until a virtual hail of swords clanged off the bed frame from in front, hard enough to dent it. And a bunch of fireballs lit up the sky from behind. And the only question was, which group was going to kill us first?
The answer was neither, because we abruptly shifted back to earth again, Rosier shrieking and the bed burning and now sword-riddled, and speeding more than ever because it had just gotten renewed life from its brief stint on the hill from hell.
A lot of life.
Like a Mach 2 amount of life, or maybe that was just the impression conveyed by all the shrieking. And the clackity, clackity, clackity of the cobblestones. And the neighing.
We burst out of the pedestrian-only street, which I guess had been closed off for the market, into one filled with horses and carriages and buses and—
And then our luck ran out. Or maybe it was the horse’s luck, I don’t know; I just knew that I saw a flash of rearing horse belly and flailing hooves and the white, screaming face of a cabbie. And then we were careening off course and heading straight for—
Well, crap, I thought, as the fetid stench of the Thames hit my nose, right before we broke through a barrier and took a flying leap—
Back into hell.
The bed hit down from maybe six feet up, hard enough to bounce me back up to the point where we’d flashed in, before I smacked down on top of Rosier.
Who dumped me onto the side of the street with a breathless snarl.
I just sat there for a minute, clinging to the now stationary bed. We’d passed down the hill and almost made it to the top of another, and the angle plus the bounce seemed to have absorbed our momentum. We weren’t moving.
We weren’t moving!
I stared around, half disbelieving. I was so dizzy that the street still felt like it was undulating beneath me. But it wasn’t, and that was good. And the lack of swords and fire and mayhem was even better.
It looked like the crazies had disbursed while we were gone, either following us back to earth or spreading out around the area. Because all I saw were dark, vaguely modernish buildings, like a back alley in a normal city. Because the Shadowland pulled images from your own mind to cover up whatever the heck it actually looked like.
But the illusion only went so far, because a very unearthly wail suddenly rent the air.
My head jerked around. “What was that?”
Rosier didn’t answer.
I looked up to see him frozen in place, dirty knees on the bed and the sword he’d pulled out of the footboard clutched in both hands. And staring in apparent dumbstruck horror at something down the street. I looked back around, but there was nothing there.
Except for another haunting, skin-ruffling howl that had me clambering back onto the bed really fast.
It came again, and our heads whipped around in unison, looking at nothing some more, because the top of the hill was in the way. And then it came from the left. Or maybe the right. Or maybe—
I couldn’t tell. The buildings were closely packed and tall enough to act as an echo chamber. Which wasn’t fun when the echoes were like these. The horrible sound came again, closer now, and I felt all my skin stand up, preparing to crawl off my body and go find somewhere to hide.
I seconded the motion and grabbed Rosier. “What is that?”
“And those are?”
“Well, what does it sound like?” he snarled, and finally, finally, he was back with me. White and shaking, but back. Angry and scowling, but back. Chained to the bed, but back.
I shook him some more anyway. “So take us somewhere else!”
“I’m not you! Without a portal, I can only take us back to earth—”
“—and I am chained to a bed, in case you didn’t notice. An iron bed—”
“—and we were headed for a river! I will drown.”
“Then give me the sword!” I tried to grab it, but he jerked it away.
“It’s our only weapon—”
“I know that—I just want to get the cuffs off you. Will you listen?”
But Rosier wasn’t listening. Rosier was freaking out again. Maybe because those sounds were suddenly a lot closer, and there were more of them, and they were coming faster now, a baying pack of something that had picked up a scent it liked—
“Give me the damn sword!” I yelled.
“Get your own!”
And then a terrifying howl almost on top of us caused him to drop it.
We both went for it, but he grabbed it first, and I grabbed—
God, I thought, as something gelatinous and porky oozed up through my fingers.
And then it was too late.
A giant head appeared over the hill. And for a second, I thought it was the hill. Because it rose out of nothing, like all the darkness in the world had decided to congeal in one place. One great big slavering freakishly huge place. I’d seen houses smaller than that, only houses didn’t have evil yellow eyes and an enormous drooling maw and weren’t jumping for us—
And then stopping, halfway through the motion. And gulping and swallowing. Because I had reflexively thrown the pig foot I’d been holding, like that was going to help somehow.
Only it had.
The hound had stopped and was just standing there, steaming and black and blocking the view of everything with its enormous face.
Which was suddenly in mine.
The breath could have stopped traffic for a ninety-mile stretch. Drool was drip, drip, dripping onto the bed linens in slimy strings. Eyes bigger than my head were reflecting the still-burning fire, along with a vision of my body as I slowly, slowly, slowly bent down. And picked up another foot. And held it out—
And felt a wash of hot breath over my arm, which was somehow raising goose bumps anyway, maybe because my skin was still trying to get the hell out of there. And then a tongue, big and heavy as a rug, wrapped around my flesh. And withdrew, along with the tiny, tiny offering, but not with the arm itself, because I guess I didn’t compare with good old pork.
And really, what does? I thought hysterically. If I had bacon, I could probably make him fetch—
Rosier grabbed my arm, his fingers like a vise. “Get. On. The. Bed.”
“I . . . am on the bed.” Well, I was pretty sure.
He snaked a leg off the side and gave a little push. I felt the hell wind start to ruffle my hair as we started down the hell road with the hellhound shaking the street behind us, while I lobbed pig foot after pig foot into its gaping maw. It didn’t miss a one.
Until the darkness overhead suddenly congealed into a second hound, even larger than the first, which went for its throat. And then another crowded the street, which was almost too small to hold them despite being big enough for a couple city buses to pass each other with room to spare. But hellhounds are not buses and there was no room here, and that was before the council’s guards decided to show back up, running up the hill toward us.
And abruptly turning and running back the other way as we began picking up speed, the night boiling behind us, all black smoke and sleek, shifting fur and firelit eyes.
And sailing pig feet, because I was throwing them both-handed now.
“Put out your hands!” I told Rosier frantically.
“What do you mean, no?”
“I mean no,” he said, grunting and straining, trying to break through the damn Victorian ironwork, which must have been forged in the same factory where they made tanks if they had tanks. I didn’t know, I just knew it wasn’t freaking budging.
“That isn’t working!” I yelled the obvious.
“You can’t throw those things and get these damn cuffs off me at the same time!”
“And when I run out? What then?”
“You’re not going to run out. As soon as we get far enough to clear the river, I’m going to shift us back!”
I blinked. “Okay.”
“Okay! Sounds like a plan.”
A slight bit of color came back to his face. “Yes, okay.” He grinned at me suddenly, wide and relieved and startling like the younger version of his son for a second. “Okay! We’ll do that!”
And then the street erupted in fire.