Evdokia pointed to Derek and Ascanio. “You! Wait there.”
A wall of ice surged around the two shapeshifters, locking them into an icy ring.
Sienna turned to me. “Your father is coming.”
• • •
THE UNIVERSE JUST kept dumping buckets of icy water on my head. “When?”
“Soon,” Evdokia said, her needles clicking.
“He’s coming to claim the city,” Sienna said. “We have foreseen it.”
Maria raised her bony hand and pointed at Sienna. “Show her.”
Sienna stood up. The mural behind her faded, dissolving into a view of a city street. To the left typical old buildings bordered the street, one of dark brick with boarded-up windows, the other covered in beige stucco and in better condition. To the right a big, sand-colored building of Roman brick and granite took up most of the block. Its lower half, a typical rectangular structure, stood about four tall floors high. On top of it a hundred-fifty-foot tower stretched to the sky. I could see all the way down the street, past the streetlights, to the distant steeple of some church.
The sky above the city churned with storm clouds, furious and dark. Wind blew trash down the street in powerful short gusts. The air vibrated with tension and magic, as if charged and just waiting for a strike of lightning. The hair on the back of my neck rose. Something dangerous rode in that storm. Something powerful and frightening.
A man rounded the corner. He wore a white robe. The wind blew his long blond hair over his face.
“Uther Stone,” Maria said.
“The name sounds familiar,” I said.
“The Gypsy massacre,” Evdokia told me, looking up from her knitting. “You’re looking at Sioux City.”
Ah. Now I remembered. Uther Stone was a really powerful zapper, an elemental mage who dealt in electricity. He came to prominence defending the city from a monstrous giant buffalo. They elected him mayor and he started making laws about what kind of people weren’t welcome in Sioux City. Then a group of Romani disappeared. Their bodies were found in a communal grave and Uther Stone had to answer some questions, except he never got the chance.
In the vision, other people trailed Stone, some in modern clothes, some wearing robes. Eight total. Stone threw open the door of the building and dashed inside. His posse followed.
The viewing angle of the vision slid up, showing the building in greater detail. A carving of a muscular bearded man flanked on both sides by six smaller figures decorated the space above the doors. Above it words spelled out in capital letters, JUSTICE AND PEACE HATH MET TOGETHER. TRUTH HATH SPRUNG OUT OF THE EARTH.
The view kept rising, higher and higher, to the top of the tower until we saw the flat roof and a small entrance, barred by a green metal door. The door thrust open and Stone emerged, the wind pulling at his robe. His people followed, forming a circle. A woman with purple hair pulled a jug of red liquid from her backpack and began throwing handfuls of it back and forth, her lips moving in a chant.
“A local coven,” Evdokia said. “All he could muster. They’re about to feed their magic into him.”
The thunderhead above the building turned black. The sky boiled. The magic clamped the city into an invisible fist and squeezed. The pressure ground on my chest. Suddenly it was hard to breathe. Inside me my magic reared in response. If it had been an animal, it would’ve snarled. This was a challenge.
The purple-haired woman emptied the jug on Stone’s feet. Stone thrust his arms out, gripping a staff in his right fist. The people surrounding him snapped rigid, their bodies unnaturally still.
The thunderhead split. Magic crackled. A spear, glowing as if made of molten gold, struck at Stone. He jerked his staff up, blocking it, and I almost moved with him. He wouldn’t be enough.
The tip of the spearhead touched the staff’s shaft. Power thundered through the air, shaking the city. Breath caught in my throat. My heart hammered in my chest, too fast. So much power . . .
The wood disintegrated.
For a second Stone stood still, the outline of his body glowing with violent red, and then he fell apart, a man made of ash. The spear buried itself in the roof. Its tip shone with brilliant light and a blast wave rolled through the city in a huge circle, sweeping the ash that used to be the coven off the roof.
I braced myself, expecting the impact, but the magic fell short of me. The spear turned dull.
A man landed on the roof, coalescing out of thin air. He was wrapped in a simple gray cloak, worn, with a ragged hem and a deep hood that hid his face. If I had seen him on the street, I wouldn’t have given him a second glance.
“I want to see his face.” I needed to see him. I wanted to see my father.
“I can’t,” Sienna’s voice whispered. “He won’t let me.”
The man grasped the spear and pulled it out. He looked over the city, turned, and slowly, unhurriedly made his way to the door.
The vision faded. I gulped the air. Sienna sank back onto her seat. Sweat beaded on her face.
“The magic pulse, what was that?” I asked.
“The claiming,” Maria said. “He has made the land his.”
“Each land has a people,” Sienna said. “Those who settle on it, those who are born and die on it, their bloodlines bonded to it for generations. Their bodies are buried within the soil, nourishing it. Their magic becomes rooted in it and grows from the land like a forest.”
“Think of it like farming,” Evdokia said. “Before a farmer can use the land, he must clear the trees, remove their roots, dig out the boulders, and pull out the weeds. Very hard to do if the forest is old and strong and the trees have been growing for thousands of years.”
Maria stirred. “But here, we’ve done the farmer’s job for him. We killed the Native people of this land. There is no forest anymore. There are just saplings, families of settlers and immigrants, the oldest from the seventeenth century, but most even younger. Their bond to the land is weak. What you do to others always comes back to you and the balance is always restored. We committed genocide. We destroyed a people and now we have to pay the price for the terrible crimes we perpetrated. The land lies fallow without defenses. All your father has to do is claim it.”
So this was why he came here. I always wondered why he had left the Middle East and traveled to North America. Now I knew. He came here because there was no Native power to oppose him. The land was fallow and was ripe for the taking. “What happens when he claims something?”
“He reaps a harvest,” Evdokia said. “The magic of the land nourishes him and makes him stronger.”
“And protects him,” Maria put in. “He’s much harder to fight on his territory. The longer he keeps it, the stronger is his bond, the more difficult it is to remove him.” She turned to me, her piercing gaze stabbing at me. “He is coming. What are you planning to do about it?”
“If he comes, I’ll try to kill him.” What else was there?
Maria spun in her chair to face Evdokia and jabbed at me with a bony finger. “She’s a moron! I told you! I told you, but no, you said—”
“Will you stop badgering her for a moment?” Evdokia snapped. She leaned forward, looking at me. “If you fight your father directly, you will die. You’re not old enough, strong enough, or educated enough.”
“Thank you for the vote of confidence.”
Evdokia grimaced. “If all of the covens, and all of the pagans, and all of the magic users of Atlanta got together and channeled their power, we could probably block your father, but we can’t exactly get everyone together in time. We don’t know how to put all of our power together. We don’t know when the claiming happens. We don’t know where.”
It would be on some tower. That was what my father did. He built towers. They were the nexus of his power and now I knew why. The taller the tower, the more he could claim with one pulse.
“You are our best chance,” Evdokia said. “There are things we can teach you, but this will take time. You have to buy us this time. You have to prevent the claiming.”
“We don’t know,” Sienna said.
“We supported you,” Maria said. “We helped you and supplied you with undead blood. We didn’t do all this so you can go and sacrifice yourself like a dimwit.”
I always knew the witches didn’t help me out of the goodness of their hearts. They wanted a return on their investment. “He killed my mother.”
“Obnyat e pluhkuht,” Evdokia sighed.
To hug and cry. That was what exasperated Russians said when there was nothing left to do.
“Your mother gave her life so you could live,” Evdokia said. “Your dying dramatically isn’t going to help anyone. It won’t honor her memory and it won’t protect any of us. There are people in this city who depend on you. Do whatever you have to do, but you must prevent the claiming.”
I spread my arms. “What do you want me to do? Should I go up to Roland and ask him nicely to please not claim the city as a favor to me?”
“If that’s what it takes, yes!” Maria snapped.
This was a ridiculous conversation. “You do realize he’ll try to kill me the moment he sees me?”
“That’s not certain,” Sienna said. “For almost six months now I’ve done nothing but look into your future. I’ve seen you die in dozens of ways and I have seen you survive. But I have never seen him die.”
Awesome. Just awesome. “Thanks. This is really helpful. Is there anything else?”
Evdokia bit a thread off her knitting and tossed the sweater at me. I caught it.
“Pure wool,” she said. “Will keep you warm even when wet. Put it on and don’t take this off for the next twenty-four hours.”
I shrugged off my jacket, pulled off my sweater, and slipped into the woolen one. “You know something I don’t?”
Evdokia sighed. “Honey, we can fill this place with what we know and you don’t.”
Ask a stupid question. “If I can find a way to resolve this Hugh d’Ambray dilemma, I may need witnesses for my negotiations with the People. Will the covens act as my witnesses?”
“Yes,” Sienna said. “We’ll send representatives to the Keep.”
I turned around and headed out. Behind me the ice cracked, releasing Ascanio and Derek.
Outside Robert and Desandra waited.
“How did it go?” Robert asked.
“Roland is coming to claim the city. They want me to stop this from happening.”
“How?” Desandra asked.
“They don’t know. They have no instructions. Their helpful suggestion is to ‘just do it.’” I growled and headed out of the forest. So far this had been one hell of a day.
• • •
I CROUCHED IN the shadow of an apartment building. Desandra, Derek, and Ascanio leaned next to me, while Robert took a running start and ran up a seemingly sheer wall. We’d left Cuddles tied to an oak in Centennial Park. Nobody in their right mind would steal an animal belonging to the witches. If vampires sighted her, they would let her alone.
We were on the edge of the Slave Pens, a housing development next to the Casino reserved for Casino employees and journeymen, who’d given it its name. The original plan called for going down Centennial Drive but the vampires were too thick. We had to turn around, loop north and west, and approach the Casino from the Slave Pens. It cost us a precious half hour and if I thought about it longer than a second, it made me grind my teeth.
From my vantage point I could see Undead Alley, a four-lane street that now lay deserted. Past it, a vast paved lot stretched out, large enough to accommodate hundreds of cars. In its center, the Casino rose, glowing like a mirage born from cold air and asphalt desert. The huge dome of the main cupola shone with the pale bluish glow of feylanterns, surrounded by slim minarets and tall textured walls of white stone. On a good day, the sight would take your breath away, and then you noticed vampires crawling on it like fleas on a white cat.
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