“Check the tapestries!” Pritkin ordered, darting forward to take a swing at the armor’s knees. “There might be a hidden door!” His blade took off one of our attacker’s legs, causing it to topple over. But it kept coming, dragging itself forward by its arms and using the remaining leg to push. Even more disconcerting, its severed limb wiggled along the ground behind it, trying to catch up to the main event. To stop one of these things, we’d have to completely dismember it, and there were too many of them and too few of us for that to be practical. We’d be in pieces long before they would.
I yanked the nearest curtain aside, but nothing except more faux stone met my eyes. I felt around, hoping to encounter a hidden door, but no such luck. I glanced at the elevator, but the indicator light showed it to be five floors away. Not to mention that the two mages were having a hell of a battle right in front of it.
While I snatched aside the other tapestries in our dwindling safe zone, looking for nonexistent exits, the armor’s detached leg reunited with its body. The metal at the top of its thigh grew liquid, like quicksilver, and the two parts merged seamlessly. A second later, you couldn’t tell there had ever been a wound. I finally accepted that we were in an impossible situation. Even dismemberment was no more than a brief inconvenience for these things. Tony was a cheap bastard, but not when it came to security. Damn it.
“No stairs!” I yelled.
Pritkin whirled around, sweeping another knight’s feet out from under it, and clipped me with his elbow. I fell in front of an empty plinth, my ears ringing. My brain automatically translated the phrase in front of my eyes:
Medio tutissimus ibis
(You will be safest in the middle). It was a quote from Ovid advising moderation, and seemed really strange at Dante’s, home of the extreme.
While I struggled to sit up, the six knights from the far end of the corridor, which had been making their cumbersome way towards us, got within striking distance. That gave us the choice of being skewered by them or being dismembered by their buddies on our other side, since it was obvious that we weren’t going to hold them all off for long. I was about to damn the consequences and shift us away when I noticed something interesting.
One of Pritkin’s larger knives was slicing busily away at a nearby knight. The armor had lost its weapon, which was clenched in the fist that had just been severed at the wrist. But it was making no effort to retrieve it, despite the fact that it lay on the carpeted strip only a few feet away. The mailed hand was also motionless, not trying to rejoin its body as the other knight’s leg had done. I suddenly realized that I had a clear view of it because not a single knight was anywhere near the center of the hall.
They were grouped on either side of the narrow strip of carpet, which they were going out of their way to avoid touching. I glanced back at the fight behind us and it was the same story. The knights on one side had gone after the mages, those on the other had come after us, but neither group came in contact with the ratty-looking piece in the center. For a brief moment, I almost felt like giving a cheer for paranoid Tony, who always designed a way out of every trap, even his own.
Pritkin had been driven to his knees blocking another pike attack, while a second and third knight converged on his position with raised swords. I didn’t wait to see whether he would be fast enough to deal with the predicament, but launched myself at him, hitting him with a thud that rolled both of us onto the carpet strip. We landed catty cornered, with Pritkin’s left leg and my whole right side dangling off the edge. Before I could do anything about that, a knight brought a sword down, spearing Pritkin’s calf where it stuck out from between my legs.
“Don’t move!” I yelled as the mage pushed me aside and plunged his sword into the knight’s belly. The blow forced the heavy thing backwards, but it also ripped the sword brutally out of Pritkin’s leg. He gasped but started after the knight as if there weren’t almost a dozen others within striking distance, converging on us from both sides. I climbed up his body and sat on him, grabbing a handful of hair to swing his face around. “Safe!” I screamed to be heard over the clanging sounds of battle. “We’re safe in the middle!”
I tugged his bleeding leg onto the maroon plush and put all my weight on the undamaged parts of his body. Even though he was injured, I couldn’t have held him for long, but as soon as we were no longer touching the floor, it was as if the knights simply didn’t see us anymore. They began lumbering down the hall toward where the mages had retreated around the corner. Pritkin looked stunned but followed my pointing finger to the inscription on the plinth and comprehension dawned.
“We need to get back to the kitchen,” he said, getting to his knees. He was careful not to touch anything except carpet, but he swayed slightly, scaring me. I looked down and understood the problem. His trouser leg was drenched with red, making it a match for the jacket below his injured ear. There was so much blood that I suspected a major artery had been hit. He leaned on me heavily as we made our way along the narrow safe way, reinforcing the impression.
Sounds of a furious battle came from around the corner, no doubt from the mages, but we ignored it. Personally, I was rooting for the casino. I knew how to deal with it now, but the mages didn’t have a time-out zone.
We burst back into the kitchen. “We need an ambulance!” I yelled, squinting around. It was hard to see, since the room seemed blindingly well lit after the hall, but I got a vague impression of a bunch of squat shapes pausing to stare at us out of huge, glowing eyes.
“No. I can deal with this.” Pritkin collapsed just inside the door. He pulled off his boot and gouts of purplish red blood flooded the previously pristine kitchen floor. His face lost what little color it had.
I grabbed up a nearby dish towel and held it to the wound. Resolution or no resolution, I wasn’t going to watch him bleed to death. “I’m going to shift us to a hospital,” I said, but he drew back from my touch.
“No! I can heal this.” He muttered something under his breath and the blood flow did decrease, but I didn’t like the shallow, panting breaths he was taking or the clammy pallor of his face. It also seriously creeped me out to see his hanging ear slowly climb back up the side of his face and reattach itself.
“Why don’t you want a hospital?” I demanded, trying to ignore the ear, which gave a final twitch to align itself with the slant of the other one. Suddenly, some pieces of the puzzle fell into place. “Wait a minute. Those mages weren’t just after me, were they? The Circle’s chasing you, too!”
Pritkin didn’t reply, being too busy chanting something inaudible. I felt a presence looming over us and looked up to see a gargoyle with red eyes and, incongruously, dainty ruby earrings in its pointed, catlike ears. It pushed me aside gently but firmly.
I stood there awkwardly, unsure whether to protest or not. I didn’t say anything, mainly because I didn’t get a feeling of evil from the thing. That might have had something to do with the jewelry, or the fact that it had chocolate icing on its fuzzy chin. It seemed to have been the right decision. A hand that looked more like a paw hovered over Pritkin’s leg for a moment, then slowly, the jagged wound began to close.
The process appeared to be helping him heal, but judging by the way his eyes were bulging, it wasn’t pleasant. He looked like he wanted to say something, so I leaned in a little, staying out of reach of his balled fists. “
Me oportet propter praeceptum te nocere
(I’m going to have to hurt you on principle),” he gasped.
“You could have shifted us out of there all the time!”
“Not without a price.”
Pritkin’s glare almost set a new record. “What price? You could have been killed! So could I!”
(Shit happens).” While he was deciphering my bastardized Latin, I went in search of another way out. I did not intend to set foot in that corridor again, nor was I planning to shift after going to such lengths to avoid it.
What I found was very satisfactory. If I hadn’t been so weirded out by the gargoyles, I might have thought to take a look around earlier and saved us that whole scene in the hall. After passing a couple of huge, built-in freezers, a cool room and a storeroom for nonperishable stuff, I found a loading dock that let out onto the back of the casino.
I looked over the sunlit parking lot and was seriously tempted to take off while the mage was healing. I so didn’t have time for this, whatever this was. I had to persuade Casanova to tell me where his boss was hiding. Not that I was 100 percent certain that Myra was with him, but it was a good guess. They both worked for the same guy, the leader of the Russian vampire mafia, known as Rasputin in the history books. What the books don’t say is that he found other uses for his formidable persuasive abilities once a Russian prince “killed” him. After lying low for a while, he brought much of the drug running, counterfeiting and illegal magical weapon-selling rackets in Eastern Europe under his control. He’d recently decided to add the North American vamps to his growing business empire by taking over the Senate, and he’d succeeded in killing off four Senate members. But that got him nowhere unless he took out their leader, and the Consul had proven tougher than he’d expected. The whole thing was very Cold War-ish and didn’t interest me much, except for the fact that I had accidentally blundered into the middle of it.
After the failed coup, Rasputin had simply disappeared. Thousands of vamps and mages were searching for him, but had so far come up with zilch. Since there aren’t many good hiding places, and since Tony and Myra had vanished at the same time, I was betting they were all together. But wherever she was, I had to find her before she recovered from our last meeting, or she would certainly find me. And I doubted I’d enjoy the experience. Or survive it.
But I had promised, and it was intriguing to think that Pritkin and I might be on the same side for a change. The enemy of my enemy might not, in this case, be precisely my friend, but I’d take anything short of outright hostility. I could use all the help I could get, and Casanova had looked very nervous when Pritkin showed up. That might be useful. I dodged a couple of gargoyles wrestling a crate of cabbages up the ramp and started to go back inside. That was when the fun really began.
“ Cassie!” Casanova flew up the loading ramp, trying to minimize his time in the sun. A moment later, my three delinquents came into view, following leisurely in his wake. Great. I’d actually managed to forget about them for a while.
The gargoyles took one look at the trio and began a high-pitched keening that made me want to cover my ears. “Did you see what your stupid enchantments did?” I asked Casanova furiously as he skidded to a stop in front of me. “I could have been killed!”
“We have worse problems.”
I jerked Enyo away from the smallest gargoyle, which she’d been poking at with a stick. The cowering, birdlike creature and his companion went running inside, squawking loudly. “And where were you?” I demanded, too angry to care that annoying an ancient goddess wasn’t smart. “You three are always spoiling for a fight, but the first time I need help, you’re off getting a manicure!”
It was true—Deino was sporting a new set of bright red nails—but less than fair, considering that they’d helped out in the bar. But I was in no mood to care. The Circle blocking my ward had me seriously rattled, now that I had time to think about it. It was the only defensive weapon I had, and being without it made me feel extremely vulnerable.
Enyo looked offended but let me keep the stick. Pemphredo and Deino crowded around while I resumed my rant at Casanova. “Now Pritkin’s half dead,” I informed him, “and the mages are sure to be—”
He gripped my arm so tightly that I yelped. “Where is he?” He began fumbling in his coat frantically. “Why can I never find my damn cell phone when I need it? We have to get him medical help, quickly!” For a minute I thought he was being sarcastic, but one look at his face told me otherwise. The guy looked absolutely terrified.
“What is wrong with you? Since when do you care if—”
Casanova left me standing there talking to myself, while he ran indoors. I followed, the Graeae trailing after me. Enyo picked up a broom on the way in and formed it into a weapon by snapping off the head to leave a jagged point. I didn’t try to wrestle her for it. She was back to old-lady mode, but she’d probably win anyway.
I reentered the kitchen to find a livid Pritkin being pawed at by a frantic Casanova. The mage knocked the vampire aside hard enough to send him sprawling and glared at the gargoyle who’d helped him. Since he was back on his feet, I had to assume that her remedy, whatever it was, had worked.
“Take it off me,” he barked. “Now!”
Casanova picked himself up off the floor. Not only did he not respond in kind, he actually seemed to cower slightly. “I can have a healer here in five minutes!”
I stared at the vamp as if he’d lost his mind, which maybe he had. Vamps and mages have an adversarial relationship, born out of the fact that they both claim to be the leading force in the supernatural world. The sight of a vamp as old as Casanova fawning over the war mage who’d just belted him was surreal.
“I don’t need a healer. I need the damn
removed,” Pritkin said furiously.
That got my attention. “She can remove it?” I ran forward, hardly daring to believe it could be that simple, and the Graeae moved with me. I didn’t get an answer because the gargoyles suddenly started to shriek like Armageddon had arrived, their combined voices loud enough to shatter several nearby glasses.
I covered my ears and dropped to my knees in shock, only to have Deino fall on top of me. I’m not sure whether she tripped, or whether she was trying to shield me from the hail of food—rolls, pastries and assorted molded-pâté body parts—being thrown at us from all sides. Either way, the landing jarred the eye loose from her face and sent it skittering across the floor. She screeched and scrambled after it, knocking gargoyles out of the way left and right. Her sisters waded into the fray as backup and I took refuge under the main prep table, where I found Casanova and Pritkin.