“The creatures on medieval cathedrals aren’t gargoyles; they’re grotesques,” he replied pedantically, while we moved in the direction of the cart.
“Stop it! You know what I mean! Why are they here?”
“Illegal aliens,” he said shortly. “Cheap labor.”
I stared at him suspiciously, but if the mage had a sense of humor, I’d yet to see any sign of it. “Aliens? From where?”
“From Faerie,” he replied in the clipped tones he uses when annoyed. That seems to be most of the time, at least around me. “They have been coming into our world for centuries. But the numbers have greatly increased recently because the Light Fey have been making things difficult for the Dark—among whom the creatures we call gargoyles are numbered. The mages who handle Fey affairs have been complaining about the number of unauthorized arrivals we’ve been getting as a result.”
“So they come here and do room service?”
The elevator came and the gargoyles tugged their laden cart onto it, ignoring the loitering humans. “They were traditionally employed as guardians for temples in the ancient world and for magical edifices in later centuries. But advances in warding have lessened the call for that kind of thing. Unlike the Light Fey, they can’t pass for human, so their entrance is restricted.” He scowled. “Their legal entrance, ” he amended.
“I guess around here, they just kind of blend in with the ambiance,” I said, but Pritkin wasn’t listening. He had crouched and was looking around a corner as warily as if he expected to find an army on the other side.
“Stay here,” he ordered. “I’m going to check out the area. When I return, we will have that talk you promised, or the next time we meet won’t be so pleasant.”
“Pleasant? What weird definition of that word are you—” I stopped because he’d left, melting around the corner and into the shadows like a character in a video game. The guy was obviously cracked, but I had promised to hear him out. And if there was any chance of cutting a deal to get him and his Circle off my back, I wanted it.
I didn’t think that going back to the kitchen was a good idea, so I hung out in the hallway. The suits of armor were interspersed with ugly tapestries, with the closest showing a Cyclops eating his way through a human army, a soldier in each hand and an arm dangling out of his bloody mouth. I decided to concentrate on the armor.
That turned out to be more fun than I’d expected. The suits stood on individual wood platforms bearing brass plaques, each of which had a Latin inscription. I’d had to learn Latin growing up, thanks to my governess’s idea of what constituted a proper education, but the only time I’d used it outside the schoolroom was when Laura, a ghost friend, and I had amused ourselves thinking up mottos for Tony. Her favorite had been
Nunquam reliquiae redire: carpe omniem impremis
(Never go back for seconds: take it all the first time). I’d preferred
Mundus vult decipi
(There’s a sucker born every minute), but we settled on
(Show me the money!) because it fit better on the shield. I was rusty, but it didn’t take long to figure out that, like our efforts, the inscriptions at Dante’s weren’t as serious as they looked.
Prehende uxorem meam, sis!
(Take my wife, please!), begged the placard on the nearest knight. I grinned and moved down the hall, translating as I went. Some of the most amusing were
Certe, toto, sentio nos in kansate non iam adesse
(You know, Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore),
(Elvis lives), and
Estne volumen in amiculum, an solum tibi libet me videre?
(Is that a scroll under your cloak, or are you just happy to see me?).
I was crouched in front of a knight about halfway down the hall, trying to figure out the joke, when Pritkin came running full tilt back around the corner. I knew there was a problem before he opened his mouth—the fact that he was trailed by a line of hovering weapons sort of gave it away. “Get up!” he yelled as one of the floating arsenal—a knife long enough to be considered a short sword—took a swipe at him. If he hadn’t dodged at the last second, it would have taken off his head. As it was, an arc of bright red blood went flying from his half-severed ear.
I admit that I just stood there for a moment. In my defense, the last time I’d seen Pritkin surrounded by levitating weapons, they had been his own. Before I could figure out why his knife was attacking him, two other figures rounded the corner. I recognized them as the mages who had been facing Enyo in Casanova’s earlier. “They aren’t with you?” I asked stupidly.
He didn’t bother to reply. “Shift us out of here!” he yelled, throwing out an arm like someone doing a bad disco move. The other mages came to an abrupt halt. I didn’t know why until I reached out and a tangible wall of energy met my outstretched hand. Pritkin’s shields glimmered around us, faintly blue and wavelike in the flickering light from a nearby torch. “Do it!”
“Give us the rogue, Pritkin,” one of the mages demanded. He was tall, with a prominent Adam’s apple, pallid skin and a booming voice that didn’t match his skinny frame. “She isn’t worth this.”
“She’ll get a fair hearing,” the bulkier, African American mage at his side added, although the look he sent me wasn’t friendly. “Come peacefully while you can.”
“What’s going on?” I asked. The only answer I got was something large whizzing past my face, all of a millimeter from my nose. I jumped back with a shout, just as a heavy mace collided with a nearby suit of armor. That was a lucky break, since the heap of old metal had been about to bring a sword down on my head. The mace caught the thing in the chest, leaving a big dent and sending it staggering back into a tapestry.
I looked around wildly, not understanding what was happening. The mace had sliced through Pritkin’s shields as if they weren’t there. Even more worrying was the fact that the mages hadn’t thrown the thing—it had come from somewhere behind us—but there was nobody back there. One of the knights was missing its weapon, but there was no one around to have thrown it.
A clanging sound caused me to whip my head back around and, for a second, I thought the mages were attacking. But although they were looking even more grim, I was no longer the focus of their interest. Their eyes and weapons were leveled on the damaged suit of armor. Instead of simply falling over, it appeared to be fighting its way out of the tapestry. Once it threw off the heavy material, it started feeling around for its sword, which the impact of the mace had knocked away. But Pritkin grabbed the weapon first and, despite it being almost as tall as he was, leveled it menacingly on the creature.
The knight appeared unfazed. It righted itself, then wrenched a shield off the wall and sent it sailing at us like a hundred-pound Frisbee. Pritkin threw himself at me, smashing us into the wall just as the heavy iron sphere sliced through the air where we’d been standing. It crashed into a stained glass window at the end of the hall, causing a cloud of multicolored shards to rain down around the back staircase.
I didn’t even have time to catch my breath before Pritkin hit the floor and jerked me down beside him, pushing my head so low that my nose found out by experience just how hard fake stone can be. I didn’t complain, though, because the next instant my hair was ruffled as another shield blew through the air right above us. It took a bite out of the wall across the hall, embedding itself halfway into the plaster and sheet rock.
The two war mages must have done something that drew the armor’s attention, because the old relic suddenly started moving towards them, flakes of rust drifting to the ground behind it. I clutched Pritkin’s arm, stunned and disbelieving. “How did that thing get past my ward?” The first shield had come within about a foot of us, and the second had missed me by maybe half an inch. How close did a threat have to get before my star decided to pay attention?
Pritkin ignored me. He jumped to his feet, grabbing the sword he’d dropped when we had to get up close and personal with the wall. It turned out to be a bad move. The knight’s visor-covered face immediately swiveled back in our direction. I guess it didn’t like anyone else touching its weapon. It couldn’t fight all three mages at the same time, but somehow that didn’t make me feel better.
That was especially true a second later when the corridor echoed with the sound of a couple dozen metal figures simultaneously stepping off their plinths. It seemed that the internal defenses Casanova had talked about had decided to up the ante. The approaching metal army looked like the medieval version of a chorus line, all moving in perfect synchronization, but instead of doing high kicks they were shouldering weapons.
“The Circle found a way to block your ward—it won’t work,” Pritkin said shortly as I scrambled to my feet, ignoring the pain from my bruised nose and scraped knees. He was scanning the approaching line for some sign of weakness. I really hoped he saw one, because the closest knights had started to whirl heavy maces around their heads almost too fast to see, and the ones right behind them had unsheathed very sharp-looking swords. Then what he’d said hit me. I reached over my shoulder to grab the top of my lopsided star. It was still there, but its slight ridges lay quiescent under my fingertips.
“The Circle can’t remove it unless they have you in their power,” he added. “But it won’t flare. Don’t depend on it.”
“And you were planning on telling me this when?!”
Pritkin didn’t answer, being busy pulling an old-fashioned .45 from his belt and pumping rounds into the nearest knights. The bullets all connected, leaving sizable holes, but there was no spray of blood or mangled bodily tissue. The torchlight glimmering through the punctures in the nearest armored head showed why—all I could see was the empty interior of the helmet and part of a tapestry on the far wall. There was no one in there to hurt.
Pritkin must have figured this out, because he shoved the gun back into its holster and sent a bright orange fireball at the line instead. It was powerful enough to catch one of the banners hanging down from the ceiling alight, quickly reducing it to a few burning shreds of material. But when the flames cleared, I saw that it had had less of an effect on the knights. The closest two emerged looking like contestants in a three-legged race, lurching along with their bodies melted together from the hips down. But they were still coming, and the others had only been scorched and knocked off their feet.
“Their weapons are enchanted,” Pritkin said grimly. “And I’ve been using my shields almost nonstop all day. They won’t last, and few spells will work within the casino’s wards. Shift us out of here!”
I’d have liked nothing better, but there was a slight problem. I might be in possession of a whopping amount of power, at least temporarily, but I really didn’t want to use it. Power wasn’t free, especially in such large amounts. I’d been around magic users enough to know that if you borrow power, eventually you get a bill. I didn’t like not knowing what that bill might be, or who might be sending it.
“Why are the knights attacking us?” I asked, hoping for another solution—any other. “We haven’t done anything!” Maybe I was misreading the situation, and the casino’s defenses were actually trying to take out the mages for us. In that case, all we needed to do was get out of the way.
Pritkin quickly destroyed that hope. “Andrew and Stephan triggered the automatic defenses by drawing arms inside the casino. I didn’t respond, so we should have been safe, but they came too close. The defenses have confused us with the aggressors, and now we’re all targets. Shift us now!”
I didn’t have time to explain my views on my new power, because I had to dodge a spear thrown by a knight down the corridor. I jumped aside just before it slammed into the floor where I’d been standing, sending bits of painted concrete flying up at me. I felt liquid slide down my left cheek and raised a shaking hand to it. My fingertips came back painted red, but my ward never so much as twinged. I stared incredulously at my blood-smeared hand. So much for supernatural protection.
“Do it!” Pritkin yelled.
“I can’t!” I would break my resolution, but only if I was sure that the only alternative was death. If anyone sent me a bill for London, I could reasonably argue that I had been getting myself out of the mess I’d been dragged into against my will. I’d have no such excuse for calling the power now, and I didn’t intend to end up owing somebody my life if I could avoid it. That sort of debt in magical terms can be a very bad thing.
Pritkin might have argued, but the charred knights were quickly regaining their feet. He sent his animated arsenal into the crowd, the wildly weaving knives giving the knights some new targets. I added my daggers to the mix, just in time to take out a mace spinning straight at Pritkin’s skull. He hadn’t noticed it because he was using the sword to block a pike that had been about to run him through from the other direction. The last opportunity I’d had to see Pritkin fight, he’d looked like he was enjoying himself. His face showed no such emotion this time. Of course, the dangling ear might have had something to do with that.
I looked around for a way out, but there didn’t appear to be any. The back stairs were surrounded by a minefield of broken glass, not that it was a huge obstacle. My bare feet wouldn’t have enjoyed it, but if Pritkin could lift that huge sword, he could probably haul me across. But I doubted he could manage that while also fighting off the line of knights between us and that part of the hall. The same was true for the door to the kitchen. It was blocked by a fallen suit of armor, which was being dismembered by one of my gaseous knives, and the thing’s three companions, which were still on their feet.
“Are there hidden stairs?” Pritkin asked in a calm voice that sounded really out of place at the moment. “They should have difficulty navigating them.”
“How should I know?” I looked around frantically, but my attention was monopolized by a knight brandishing a wicked-looking two-headed axe. Alphonse, who collected weapons of all kinds, had an identical item on his safe-room wall. It had looked menacing enough just hanging there; it was a lot worse now that it was almost close enough to take off Pritkin’s head—or mine.