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“Miko . . . you don’t have to do this.” I strained against the leather straps binding me to the old electric chair, unable to break free, unable to take my eyes off the keen blade she kept flicking open and closed in her hand. It was a restless, angry motion, like that of a caged jaguar lashing its tail.
Only difference was, Cooper and I were the ones trapped in this dungeon, we the ones at the mercy of a predatory keeper.
She stopped flicking the switchblade and gave me a withering smile. Something far beyond hate burned in her green eyes. Her naked skin was flushed, sheened with perspiration, but her nipples were as hard as if we were in a meat freezer.
“Oh, but I do,” she said. “I promised you I’d take a trophy tonight, and I will. I can’t break a blood oath, Jessie. It’s not in my nature.”
She turned to my boyfriend, whom she’d shackled to a rough wooden Saint Andrew’s cross in the corner. Cooper was sweating, breathing hard against the blue silk rag she’d stuffed into his mouth. His white cotton dress shirt was soaked, plastered against the tight muscles of his abdomen. Miko opened the stiletto again and began to pick the buttons off his shirt with the point of the blade. I heard them ping against the concrete floor and roll away into darkness.
Once she’d exposed his torso, Miko drew the blade down the center of his chest in a single quick motion, bright red spilling down his damp flesh as his skin split. His eyes rolled white as he shuddered, but he didn’t make a sound.
“No! Don’t!” I begged. “Please.”
To my surprise, she stopped. And then she turned and stepped toward me, my lover’s blood dripping from the tip of her weapon. Her bare feet crunched on the broken glass littering the floor, turning the shards to glossy rubies.
“I must take a trophy,” she repeated. “Will you take his place, then?”
“W-what?” I said.
“You or him; it doesn’t matter to me.” She paused, tilting her head thoughtfully to the side as she stared at me. Appraising me. “You might even survive it. I don’t know about him, though. Sometimes the wiry ones can go the distance . . . and sometimes they’re done in five minutes.”
I scanned the unforgiving stone walls, looking for something, anything that would give me an idea of how to get us out of this. Jesus. There didn’t seem to be any escape except to submit to whatever twisted vivisection she had planned. All my powers seemed lost to me here.
“It’s up to you.” Miko turned and slowly walked back to Cooper. “I won’t touch you without your consent.”
“What about him? You . . . you’ve got him gagged, he can’t consent to this.” I couldn’t keep my voice from shaking.
She smiled and patted his stubbled cheek. “Oh, he made me certain promises when we were alone together. I have all the consent from him I’ll ever need.”
I squeezed my eyes shut. How had Cooper and I ended up like this? I’d tried to do the right thing, but now I was starting to doubt anything honorable or noble could survive when Miko was involved. How could I have stopped us getting to this horrible place?
The decisions I’d made only a few days before had led us here, and all other roads were lost to me now.
My familiar, Palimpsest, bent his eight legs into a crouch on the hot pavement outside Rudy Ray’s Roadstop. I tightened the straps on my backpack and pulled the enchanted gray satin opera glove up higher on my left forearm so I wouldn’t accidentally set him on fire. Gripping handfuls of his ferret-pale, shaggy fur, I hauled myself up onto the saddle pad wedged between two of his vertebral crests. Pal grunted in pain.
I worried I’d burned him, but the glove still covered my flame hand, so I stopped moving. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” There was an odd strain in his telepathic voice.
“You’re sure you’re fine?” I pressed.
“Yes, quite. I’m just a bit sore from my scuffle with the rats. It’s nothing more than bruises; I gave myself a couple of solid knocks on some low-hanging pipes down there.”
Bruises, my ass, I thought. His rangy legs were scratched, and he was missing patches of fur. The wererats in the steam tunnels beneath the local university had lured him to a place where he couldn’t use his magic; he was lucky he’d gotten out of there alive.
“If I’m on one of your sore spots, I can sit someplace else,” I said aloud.
Pal replied by changing the subject. “Are you absolutely, positively, without-a-doubt sure you want to do this?” He looked back over his shoulder at me and blinked his four eyes, licking his saber-toothed muzzle uncertainly.
“Those miserable people are burning this very minute,” I replied, thinking of the thousands of townsfolk Miko had stripped of their souls since she’d taken over Cuchillo. She was the daughter of the Japanese death goddess Izanami, and was so damn dangerous that the Virtus Regnum put an isolation barrier around this particular ventricle in the heart of Texas. Guardian spirits had driven us here, either to die or to weaken Miko or both. But when she tried to take my soul, she got the devil I’d been possessed with instead. Having the beast inside her drove her mad; whatever afterlife she’d created for the souls she’d taken had surely become a place of nightmarish torment, supposing it hadn’t been one before.
My devil, my job to clean up after it.
“I have to get ’em out of there if I can,” I said.
The trouble was, I was sick with fever, physically and mentally exhausted, and I didn’t have any clear idea about how I could possibly defeat Miko once I found her.
“Please tell me you’re not planning to head straight into the desert to go looking for her, are you?” Pal asked.
“Oh. Uh, no. I . . . should probably tell Cooper and the Warlock what I’ve decided to do, huh?”
My stomach knotted at the thought of having to face my boyfriend and his brother. Miko worked her black magic on our emotions, horning the Warlock and me up and making Cooper furious and distant. It was a sick trap, all right; when Cooper caught his brother and me in a compromising position, the two men had come close to murdering each other.
Hell, I’d come pretty damn close to killing the Warlock myself. I’d dragged him into my own personal hell dimension, and . . . I still wasn’t sure what to call what we’d done to each other in there. The memories made me want to swallow a bottle of Rohypnol and scrub my skin raw in the shower. It didn’t matter that it hadn’t happened in the “real” world--we’d tapped into something dark and terrible in our psyches. I wished eternal damnation on Miko for putting us in that position, but what I’d done in the hellement was my own sin. And I didn’t know how I could make up for it, not to the Warlock, and not to Cooper.
“Letting your beloved know where you’re going would seem prudent.” Pal’s tone was dry. “Shall I take us back to the Saguaro Hotel, then?”
“Sure, but give me a moment.”
I turned toward Rudy and his daughter, Sofia, who were talking in hushed Spanish in the shade of the awning over the gas pumps. Although both of them had been Miko’s captives, they hadn’t seen each other in at least a year; old Rudy was smiling, but his craggy face was still wet with tears.
“Hey, um, I’ve got to go,” I called over to them. “Y’all stay safe, okay?”
Rudy hurried over, his cowboy boot heels clacking on the pavement. “You ain’t leaving so soon, are you? Caint you stay for some supper?”
“I’m sorry, but I really do have to head back.”
“Well, you take care.” He looked from me to Pal and grinned. “You take care, too, big feller. I know you had a lot to do with bringing my daughter home.”
“He did,” I said. “I’d have never made it this far without him.”
“You look like you got yourself into a real scrap,” Rudy said, frowning at the cuts and abrasions on Pal’s legs. “And you’re looking a mite peaked besides.”
Rudy looked back up at me, concerned. “I think you should take him to see a vet, if they have vets for critters like him.”
“Believe me, I will, if I can find one,” I replied.
Rudy pushed his cowboy hat back on his head. “Well, thank you for all you done, miss. If you ever need anything, anything at all, let me know and I’ll make it happen if I can.”
Rudy waved adios to us and headed back to join his daughter in the shade.
I gave Pal a pat to let him know I was ready to go. His abdomen expanded as he took a deep breath, and he began to play his flying spell through the valved exhalation spiracles on his belly. It sounded like out-of-tune calliope music. He leaped into the air as the spell began to take hold, and soon we were soaring fast through the sun-hot air, heading straight for the tallest building in the middle of the small city.
Pal gave another grunt of pain as he touched down in a clear space in the street in front of the Saguaro. The broiling blacktop was littered with hundreds of corpses: townsfolk who’d been desouled and turned into Miko’s puppets. They mostly wore a mix of pajamas and once-nice clothes; every scrap of cloth clinging to their wasted forms was blood-brown and ragged. She’d hit the town on a Sunday morning when the people would be most vulnerable. To her, a sleeping family home was a delicious bento box, a packed church an all-you-can-eat buffet. According to the memories I’d tasted in some of her victims, few people had thought to bring a weapon into a house of God . . . not that any mundane weapons could provide much defense. A gunshot wound was of little more consequence to her than a mosquito bite. She’d been born in the apocalypse at Hiroshima, so I doubted anything much smaller than a tactical nuke would stop her.
Without Miko around to control the zombies, their diseased bodies had expired within minutes. Mercy at last. The smell was epic roadkill putrescence, the kind of stench that slips up your nostrils and chokes your whole brain until you can’t think a single thought that isn’t centered on getting the hell away from it. I hoped some of the local Talents were preparing a spell to bury them as quickly as possible. Failing that . . . well, I could help burn the dead, at least.
The strength of the diabolic fire in my left hand was fading; I wasn’t sure I’d have enough power to defend myself whenever the Virtus Regnum decided to lower the isolation barrier and attack me directly. They were waiting to see if I’d finish off Miko, or see if she’d be the end of me. It was just a matter of time before I’d find myself running like hell from one of the huge guardian spirits again.
As far as the Regnum was concerned, I was vermin--dangerous vermin, sure, but ultimately nothing more than a creature to be killed as quickly and efficiently as possible once I was no longer useful to them. I had no more right to counsel or appeal than a sewer rat. And that sucked huge donkey balls . . . but at least I never had to wonder if my life was in danger.
Unfortunately, it also meant that the lives of the people I cared about most were also in danger.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” I asked Pal as I slid down to the street.
“Yes, quite. Don’t worry about me.” He was starting to wheeze.
I didn’t believe him. Not even a teeny little bit. Rudy’s veterinarian suggestion struck me as a good one, but I didn’t know if any of the Talented healers who’d survived Miko could help a strange hybrid like Pal.
The front doors of the hotel slid open and my brother, Randall, stepped outside. Seeing him was like looking at my reflection in some charmed fun house mirror that turned me into a blond man. It was a little eerie, and made even stranger because I was still getting used to the idea of having an older brother. While I’d been living my decidedly unglamorous life as a student in Columbus, Ohio, he’d been going on all kinds of adventures as part of the Dallas Paranormal Defense team. I had no clue he even existed--not the slightest hint that my parents had a child before me--until my father asked me to rescue him from Miko.
Of course, a month ago I hadn’t known who my real father was, either. It had been a bitter relief to discover that my mundane stepfather wasn’t my real father; after my mom died and my magical powers started to develop, he panicked and would have dumped me in a mental institution if my mother’s sister hadn’t offered to take me. His rejection hurt and kept on hurting, a slow burn of feeling like an unwanted freak that finally went away when I met Cooper Marron my first year in college. Time might heal all wounds, but being in love (and being loved in return) deftly plucked that thorn from my psyche.
So, good to know my biological father was really the notorious Magus Shimmer, an outlaw necromancer who couldn’t be a dad to me because he’d been sent to a high-security Talent prison before I was even born. And then he’d escaped prison by having himself murdered. The resurrection afterward had apparently been a bit rough, and his recovery delayed his intended parental duties by another few years.
Yeah. I had a lot of stuff to try to get my head around. It’s always unsettling to discover you’re not the person you thought you were, even if the new you seems a whole lot more interesting.
“Hey, sis, you’re back!” Randall smiled at me, showing straight white teeth, but even his bright grin couldn’t mask the anxiety I saw deep in his hazel eyes. He stepped toward me, and my eye instantly fell on the shiny bronze lizard brooch he was wearing on the pocket of his gray T-shirt.
Just as I was wondering why the heck he was wearing a piece of jewelry that would look more at home on some little old lady at a tea party, the glittering lizard blinked at me and crawled into the pocket.
Randall didn’t seem to notice my surprise. “Dad says you need to mirror someone named Mother Karen, like right now.”
From the Paperback edition.