In three weeks, the barrier that separates the earth and underworld will fall and the vicious Banol Kax, lords of the underworld, will emerge from millennia of torture and damnation with one goal burning in their blackened blood: to destroy mankind. Our only hope rests with the Nightkeepers, a group of magic-wielding warriors who live among us in secret and who have—maybe, hopefully—enough skill, power and conviction to defeat the Banol Kax and restore the barrier between the earth and the underworld.
With their numbers decimated, the last dozen surviving Nightkeepers and their allies have managed to defend the barrier so far. Now, though, they are at a crossroads . . . and the strongest and most unpredictable among them has done the unthinkable: in a world of magi who draw their greatest powers from bonding with the other halves of themselves, he has cruelly betrayed his lover. In the end he sacrificed himself to save her, but that has put him in the demons’ clutches and destroyed his magic.
As the days count down and he suffers the tortures of the damned, the Nightkeepers widen their search, hoping for a miracle . . .
Three weeks until the zero date
Somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico
Red-Boar had always said that someday Rabbit would get what he deserved . . . and it turned out the old bastard had been one-hundred-per-fricking-cent right. Shit, Rabbit could practically picture his father standing in the arched stone doorway, glaring from beyond the grave with a big-assed “See? I told you so” plastered on his mug.
Then leather whipped through the air and the brined lash cracked across Rabbit’s back, laying open another bloody ribbon. The image exploded into white-hot pain, and he twisted against his shackles like it was the first time he’d been whipped rather than the thousandth. He might even have screamed. Maybe not, though. He wasn’t sure. He wasn’t sure of much these days; his world had gotten condensed down to the circular stone prison, and Phee, the pale-haired bitch who kept tormenting him, torturing him, trying to make him give up something that was already gone.
“Turn him around.” At Phee’s order, talons scraped on stone and he was hit with a foul stench as claws swung him on his chains, and he went from having his battered face pressed against the putrid wall to staring into the equally putrid visage of a camazotz.
Nearly eight feet tall, with the body of an overendowed man and a face cursed with ratlike red eyes, a smashed-in nose and a triangular mouth that held way too many fangs, the bat demon was ugly from a distance, and really fucking gnarly up close. It kept its ragged wings and barbed tail curled around its body in the narrow confines of the cell, but the oily drool and the way its beady-assed eyes went over Rabbit’s body said it was thinking about taking what little was left of his skin for wing patches.
Earlier in his captivity—a month ago? two months?—he would’ve told it to fuck itself, and maybe even described the process. Now all he could do was groan as his spine grated against the stone.
“Back off,” Phee said from behind the creature, and the camazotz ducked its head and gave way, returning to its post beside the door with a hiss that was its version of yes, mistress, anything you say, mistress. Which left Rabbit with a view that—to him, at least—was worse than a chorus line of camazotz doingPirates of Penzance.
He didn’t know what the demoness’s natural form looked like—the Banol Kaxcould take on many shapes, from humans to three-story-tall winged monsters that breathed fire. This one appeared to be a woman in her twenties, with light, almost colorless hair, high cheekbones and blue-gray eyes that were unnervingly like his own. She had the trefoil mark of a dark-magic user on the inside of her right wrist, and wore a long silvery-white robe.
All that was the same as it had been before, when she had slipped through the protective wards around Skywatch to speak to him in visions. Back then, though, she had seemed ethereal and ghostly. Now she was flesh and blood, or at least pretending to be.
It was all a lie.
As she approached, he forced a sardonic smile through split lips that hadn’t even bothered swelling, like his body had given up on any hope of repair. “Hello, Mother.”
She wasn’t, of course, but she had played the hell out of the role, getting inside his head and offering him what he’d most wanted: a mother who had loved him and a reason to think that his old man had given a shit at one point in time. She had sold him on the fantasy of having a real name—Rabbie—and a real family. She had cooed over him, coddled him . . . and then she had turned him, gradually and irrevocably, until he believed with every fiber of his twisted being that she was his only ally and all the others were his enemies. Even the one person who had loved him.
“Rabbie . . .” Phee tutted sorrowfully. She stayed in character even now, with him imprisoned and the charade unnecessary. He had a feeling she liked the pretty shell. More, she might not be able to get inside his head anymore—his mental powers had vanished along with his magic—but she had to know it was a bitter reminder for him to see her like this. Cruel enjoyment gleamed in her eyes as she leaned in close, brushed her fingertips along his swollen jaw, and whispered, “My poor, poor Rabbie. Why are you making me do this? You’re hurting us both, you know.”
His flesh quivered, triggering muscle spasms that had him twisting away and then swinging back when he hit the ends of his chains. He groaned as the shackles bit into his wrists and ankles, and his shoulders and arms screamed from having supported him for too long. His healing powers might not have deserted him entirely—some things, it seemed, were coded into his DNA—but the longer this went on, the slower he healed.
Her eyes were falsely warm, her voice a purr. “Just give me what I want, and all of this stops and I set you free.”
If he’d been another guy, in another place and time—some other Rabbit who lived in a parallel universe that wasn’t a few weeks away from D-day—he probably would’ve taken the deal, even knowing that freedom was her word for “death.” Anything had to be better than this . . . except that he wasn’t a different guy in a different place and time, and in this universe with him being who he was, death wouldn’t put him out of the demon’s reach. Given his track record he was headed straight for hell. Xibalba. Whatever the fuck you wanted to call it. So he was keeping his ass alive and stonewalling the demoness, figuring that if he couldn’t escape, the least he could do was stall.
His former teammates would never know about his sacrifice, but it brought a spark of grim satisfaction to dredge up bloody saliva and spit in her face. “Kiss my ass, bitch. You want what’s inside my head? Come and fucking get it.”
She hissed, her eyes flaring briefly demon-red, and the air around them crackled with the oily rattle of dark magic. The power was useless against him, though, at least for her purposes. Turned out he would have to give her his magic voluntarily for this particular spell . . . if he still had any magic, that is. She didn’t realize the gods had already taken back their gifts.
Biting off a vicious curse, she snapped, “More. I don’t care what it takes—I want him broken, damn you. We’re running out of time.”
Rabbit braced himself, knowing the first few blows were going to hurt like a bitch. He didn’t close his eyes, though—it was worse not knowing when the whip was going to hit. Instead, he glared at Phee, hating her for what she’d done to him. And hating himself for what he’d let her turn him into.
An animal. No, worse, some subhuman creature that couldn’t tell truth from lies, couldn’t recognize love and loyalty when he had it.
He still knew what hatred felt like, though. Knew it very well. It was his blood, his bones, his very existence.
The lash whined, then cracked across his shoulder and chest, and agony slapped at him, bright and brilliant. He kept his eyes fixed on the demoness, using the rage to weather the pain. Little by little, though, blow by blow, agony whittled away at his humanity, his capability for rational thought, until he became no more than a whipped dog that refused to die, living only because it dreamed of escaping its chain and tearing into its captor.
By the tenth blow, the hot agony of each whip-strike had turned cold and his body was shaking with chills. By the twentieth he was nearly numb, his eyes going unfocused as his consciousness threatened to take a hike.
And then the weirdest fucking thing happened. He saw his father, in all his hatchet-faced, pissed off, Wes Studi from Last of the Mohicans–channeling glory.
It wasn’t a memory or even a vision. It was more like Red-Boar was really there, sitting in midair near the doorway with one booted foot crossed onto his opposite knee. He was a little on the transparent side, but he was wearing brown fatigues and a camo-green T-shirt, and scowling at whoever sat opposite him, giving them his trademark don’t-be-an-idiot look. It was so real that even knowing his old man was dead and gone, anger lashed through Rabbit.
But then the image wavered and disappeared, leaving a faint tingle of magic behind.
Son of a— He roared and went after the vision, surging against his chains and hitting the ends with a body that was still big and strong despite his captivity, though marked now with new scars. The manacles bit into his wrists and ankles, giving only slightly against the pins that held them in place. And as blood flowed from the cuts, old, unloved memories came at him from someplace deep inside, a flip-book of remembrance that battered at his inner defenses and threatened to turn the beaten dog back into the boy he’d once been.
He was a kid—six, ten, sixteen, whenever, it was all pretty much the same—watching his father turn away from him with that same old don’t-be-an-idiot look because he’d fucked up again.
He was nineteen, seeing his old man do real magic for the first time as he brought the Nightkeepers’ desert home out of its magical shield and back to earth with Strike and Anna’s help. Not Rabbit’s, though, because he was only a half blood and his father didn’t trust him with the magic.
He was in a dark tunnel beneath the ruins of Chichén Itzá, fully a magic user now, though not by his old man’s doing. He raced ahead of a fiery lava creature and then darted into a side passage to hide, but tripped over a limp, yielding body. When he lit its face, he saw Red-Boar’s slashed throat and open, staring eyes.
He was torching his old man’s pyre and watching it burn, not sure how the hell he was supposed to feel, and feeling nothing, really.
After that, the time blurred into a gooey mess of mental sameness—not because the months and years had been the same as he had grown and aged, his powers accelerating the process until he was huge and looked closer to thirty-three than twenty-three—but because his old man had been the little devil that rode his shoulder and whispered in his ear: You’re an idiot, a moron, useless, unworthy.
Gods knew he’d spent those years trying to prove Red-Boar wrong. But maybe his old man’d had a point there, too. Just look where he’d wound up.
Gasping, gagging, Rabbit went limp in his shackles, numb to the outside world as he cursed the place where his old man’s ghost had been.
Or maybe there hadn’t been anything there at all. Maybe he was finally losing his grip on sanity. Gods knew it was past time.
“Enough!” The word cracked in the air, yanking him back into his body. He groaned as the agony of the beating flooded back through him, only then realizing that the flogging had stopped, that Phee was scowling at him. “This isn’t working, and we’re running out of time.” Her lips curved. “I guess we need to take a little trip and pick up that leverage we’ve been talking about.”
“No!” Rabbit bellowed with a force that turned his throat raw. “Don’t you fucking touch her!” The demon bitch meant it this time. Where before she had used the taunt to twist him up inside and make him bleed, now it was for real. He had stalled too long.
But Phee just laughed and swept out on a buzz of dark magic. The camazotzfollowed without a backward glance, dropping the blood-soaked whip into the small pool of salt water that collected near the door. Its barbed tail was the last to leave, lashing with a force that sent the wicked, knifelike point skittering across the stone floor.
Rage hazed Rabbit’s vision. He hated Phee and her camazotz minions, hated the part of him that had allowed itself to be poisoned by her lies, the part that hadn’t ever outgrown feeling unloved and unwanted. He hated this fucking cell, with its line of stone skulls carved up near the ceiling, watching him with empty sockets, and he hated the trickle of seawater that ran from a crack near the door to fill that blood-tinged depression, bringing the smell of the ocean and taunting him with the hint of the outside world. But most of all, he hated knowing that Myrinne was once again in danger because of him.
Maybe he’d been wrong to steal the resurrection skull and try to bring her back from the verge of death. But after what he’d done to her, betraying his teammates had been all too easy. The spell hadn’t worked, though, and the Nightkeepers had come after him, leaving him with just one option: a life for a life. He had offered himself to the gods in exchange for her, and had wound up in Phee’s hands instead. It was a sacrifice he would make again, though, a thousand times over. He would do anything for her, damn it. Give anything.
“You can have the magic!” he roared, straining to the ends of his shackles. “Come back. You can fucking have it!” But there was no answer.
He went mindless, berserk, lunging against the chains over and over again, howling threats, curses, pleas, words that stopped having any meaning beyond the fury in his veins and the roar of the creature he had become, which lived only to rip into his enemy and protect what had once belonged to him. The chains clattered ratta-tat like automatic fire and then snapped taut with grenade crack-booms. Agony howled through him, but he didn’t care about the damage or the pain; the whipped dog had finally reached its breaking point.
“Come back, damn you!” He slammed to the end of the chains—crack-boom!—and then fell back—ratta-tat. “I’ll give you the magic. I’ll give you whatever you want!” Shouting, foaming, he kept flinging himself forward, and then falling back.Crack-boom, ratta-tat, three more times, four. But then the noise went crack-clank.
It took a second for the difference to penetrate, another for him to feel the give in the manacle holding his right wrist. Whipping his head around, he saw that one of the bolts had sheared off where it held the chain to the wall, and another had bent partway. Sudden visions of freedom hammered through him—images of the ocean, the desert, Phee screaming as flames consumed her—and something like panic closed around him, galvanizing him to escape. He hurled himself to the end of the chain, then tore at it, yanking with every bit of strength he possessed. Crack-clunk, crack-clunk, crack-clunk-crack-clunk, the blows vibrated through him, rattling his clenched molars, until with a final crack-crunch, he wrenched the chain free from the wall.
Shaking now, breath whistling between his teeth, he tore at the lock pins on his wrists. Then, hanging on to one of the chains to keep himself upright, he undid his ankles, kicked away the clinging irons, and was free!
Son of a bitch. He was fucking free.
Letting go of the chain, he stood for a second in the center of his cell with his feet braced so his body wouldn’t reel the way his head was doing.
He had thought he was going to die there, strung up against the fucking wall.
Apparently not. Or at least not right now.
Cobbling together some semblance of his former self, he did a once-over of his body and supplies, like he would’ve done back when he was a warrior. His shoulder and hip sockets howled and his skin felt strange on his body, like gravity had changed now that he was standing on his own two feet. He was still wearing the jeans and boots he’d had on when Phee took him—or what was left of them. That was all, though. He didn’t have any weapons, backup, or way to contact the Nightkeepers. He wasn’t even sure he could copy whatever magic the demoness was using to get to Skywatch—although he could still feel the stir of dark magic in his blood, it, too, had deserted him, as if not even that half of his heritage wanted to claim him anymore.
But he was alive, damn it, and he was free.
And he had demons to kill.
Grabbing the fallen whip, he staggered through the door and into an unfamiliar tunnel that was lit by a string of bare light bulbs on a Home Depot–orange cord. The smell of the ocean was stronger here, and he could hear the rise-and-fall hiss of the surf. All around him, the softly ridged limestone and the cold slick of moisture said the tunnel had been a subterranean river at some point, while the carvings—more screaming skulls along with the trefoil hellmark of the Xibalbans—said he was in what was left of an ancient dark-magic temple, somewhere in the former Mayan empire. On the shore of the mainland, maybe, or one of the sacred islands.
Tightening his grip on the whip—the lash might work as a garrote, the bone handle as a bludgeon—he headed toward the sound of the ocean. It felt strange to be walking, stranger still to have the scenery move past him, but even as part of him registered the disconnect between now and a half hour ago, he scanned his surroundings, searching for his enemies. The tunnel curved up ahead; he slowed as he reached the bend and heard telltale scraping noises that fired his blood.
Snarling, Rabbit surged forward, moving low and fast. He whipped around the corner and slammed into a ’zotz. The lone bat demon shrieked and backwinged in shock, causing it to rake its wings bloody on the stone around it.
It wasn’t Phee’s favorite toy—this one was wearing a necklace of bones and teeth, signifying some sort of rank, and it was a big son of a bitch. Eyes flaring, it screeched beyond Rabbit’s hearing and lunged for him, claws outstretched. He tried to dodge, but the ’zotz slammed into him and they both went down. Red eyes gleamed from its pug-assed mug, and the stench swirled like sewage as they wrestled on the tunnel floor.
Rabbit jammed an elbow under the thing’s chin and reversed the whip butt for a club blow that bounced off its cement-hard skull. The ’zotz gave a piggy, pissed-off squeal and raked his torso and upper thigh with its claws. The venom couldn’t knock him out—not anymore—but the scratches hurt like a bitch.
Cursing, Rabbit grabbed the thing’s wrists and rammed a knee into its oversized genitals. The bat-demon keened in pain but wasn’t incapacitated. Instead, it twisted around, hissing, and snaked its ugly mug in to bite him.
“Fuck you!” Fury surging alongside the knowledge that he needed to hurry, Rabbit jammed the whip butt into its gaping maw and shoved, putting his weight into it.
The whip handle pierced the back of its throat and up toward its brain, something went crack up inside, and the ’zotz went limp.
Rabbit lurched to his feet and took a couple of steps away, but then turned back, knowing the fucker was going to regen—
A heavy weight slammed him into the wall and the battered ’zotz loomed over him, spraying his face with the oily black ichor that pumped from its throat wound. Fuck! Somehow, Rabbit tore free from its grip. The creature’s claws bit through skin and sinew, though, leaving him limping. He reeled around and shook out the whip, cracking it for good measure when the demon squared off opposite him with a blood-chilling snarl.
“Son of a bitch,” Rabbit got out between ragged, hurting breaths. So this was what it was like to fight without magic . . . it fucking sucked.
He was still bigger and stronger than the average human, still thought, moved and healed faster, but that was it. He didn’t have the warrior’s explosive magic or protective shield, didn’t have his own pyro skills or telekinesis. Worse, the ’zotzcould regenerate way faster than he healed, and it could be banished only by magic . . . or by him getting up close and personal, sawing off its dick and cursing it back to the hell that had spawned it.
Rabbit was outmassed, outgunned, didn’t even have a knife, but he didn’t give a shit what the odds were. He didn’t know if this was one of the fuckers that’d whipped him to the bone, but that didn’t matter. Anything that kept him from going after Phee and saving Myrinne was the enemy right now.
Roaring a vicious curse, he raised the whip and charged.
The next minute or so was a slippery, bloody blur of Rabbit getting his shit torn loose while returning as many blows as he could with the whip butt, like some mad, beaten-down Indiana Jones. He blocked a blow with his forearm and lost his grip on the whip, grabbed for it and came up with the end of the camazozt’s tail instead.
The demon screeched and tried to yank away, but Rabbit hung on. It was like holding a rattler—hot, scaly, dangerous and way stronger than it looked. The ’zotz roared and reared back, and its eyes went deadly cold, like it was saying,No more fucking around. You’re finished.
But Rabbit wasn’t letting it go down like this. No way.
Shouting as the oily fangs came at him, he blocked the incoming bite with that pissed-off rattler. The camazotz chomped down on its own tail. And screamed bloody fucking murder.
Black ichor flew, pumping oily gouts that made Rabbit’s grip even slipperier. Instead of letting loose, though, he dug in. And, turning his fingers to claws of his own, he wrenched off the barbed end of the ’zotz’s tail.
The bat demon’s screams went supersonic, no doubt calling in every reinforcement within earshot, but Rabbit didn’t care. Hissing between his teeth, he grabbed the ’zotz’s dick, set the barb’s edge to the base of the thing’s cock, and started sawing. And, as the bat demon sank its claws into the back of his neck, he grated, “Go back to hell where you belong, motherfucker.”
It was JT’s quasi-spell, JT’s discovery that a nonmage could kill the bat demons with a sharp knife and a curse. For a second, Rabbit remembered the winikin’s face and his go-to-hell attitude loud and clear, and the memory pushed the animal instincts back down inside him, making him feel for a second like a mage, like part of a team. Sudden heat flared, turned the red-gold of Nightkeeper magic, and then—whump—the camazotz puffed to a cloud of oily smoke.
And all of it—dick, tail barb, ichor, the whole mess—vanished, leaving behind only greasy smudges of char and ash.
In the aftermath, the stone hallway rang with silence.
Rabbit lay there for a second, sprawled and gasping, barely able to believe that he’d done it—he’d freaking done it! More, the silence said that the othercamazotz weren’t close by, that maybe he had a chance to get out before they showed. He didn’t know how the hell he was going to get to Skywatch, but he knew one thing for damn sure: he needed to get his ass out of this fucking tunnel.
Cursing, he dragged himself up. It wasn’t until a sharp pain in his palm worked its way through the other discomforts that he looked down and saw new blood flowing, red and thick, from a deep gash that ran along his lifeline, scoring through the tough layers of sacrificial scarring. More, the buzz he’d gotten from the ’zotz’s banishment hadn’t totally faded—it was still there, feeling more like Nightkeeper magic each second. It was weaker than his old fighting magic, more like his healing powers, deep-seated and cellular. And as he headed along the tunnel at a shambling run, it flared outward like it was seeking a distant connection.