Ride the Storm – Karen Chance

The cherries were dancing. They bounced around happily in front of my vision as I swam back to consciousness, plump and bright red and framed by rich green leaves. They covered almost everything in the old-fashioned bedroom, from the lamp on a nearby table, to the curtains at a tall, narrow window, to the washbasin and jug on another table across from the bed. The whole room was awash in a sea of red. Up close, individual pieces were sort of cute. All together, and with my current blurry vision, it looked like a massacre had taken place. I stared at the hideously cheerful things for a moment, trying to remember why the sight was giving me hives. And then I groaned and dragged a pillow over my head. My name is Cassie Palmer and, frankly, this wasn’t the worst place I’d woken up. Since becoming Pythia, the supernatural world’s chief seer and favorite punching bag, I’d opened my eyes on a vampire stronghold in Vegas, a torture-filled castle in France, a dank dungeon in Faerie, and a couch in hell. And, most recently, on a spine-contorting tree root in sixth-century Wales that I still hadn’t recovered from. So, it could be worse, I told myself grimly. “Are you planning to just lie there all night?” a pissy voice demanded. Oh, look. It was worse.

I poked an eye out from under the pillow and saw what I’d expected: greasy blond hair, narrowed green eyes, a nose made for looking down on people with, and an expression that matched the voice. And an outfit that didn’t. As lord of the incubi, the demon race best known for suave seduction, Rosier should have been sporting a Hugh Hefner smoking jacket and silk lounge pants. Instead, he was wearing a mud-streaked homespun tunic and had dirty knees. But then, he shouldn’t have been here at all, wherever here was, although I had a pretty good idea. And that was before I tried moving my right arm. Handcuffs. I was cuffed to a bed. A bed covered in cherries. “What happened?” I croaked, because my voice didn’t work any better than my eyes.

“Nothing,” Rosier said, glancing around disparagingly. “Believe it or not, this is perfectly normal for the Victorian age.” “No.” I sat up and immediately regretted it when the cherries started dancing a whole lot faster. I lay back down and watched the fruit-covered wallpaper do the boogaloo. “No, I mean, what happened?” “You came to rescue me.” The sarcasm was palpable. I decided to stare at the ceiling for a while instead. It was white and plain, and gave my eyes a rest. And, slowly, things started coming back to me.

Rosier and I had been on a seemingly never-ending mission to save his son and my usual partner in crime, John Pritkin, from a demon curse. I didn’t know what the thing was called, but it was basically a sadist’s Benjamin Button: Pritkin’s soul had been sent careening back through the years of his life, and when it reached the end—poof. No more Pritkin. It would literally erase him from existence. It seemed like a damn complicated way to kill someone, but then, the demon council—the bastards who had laid it—knew me. Or, rather, they knew what I could do. Being Pythia has a lot of downsides, but it does come with a certain skill set, part of which is the ability to time-travel. So the council had to get inventive if they wanted Pritkin to stay dead. And they did. They’d ensured that I couldn’t just go back to the moment he was cursed and save him, because his body might be there, but his soul wouldn’t.

It was on an epic journey into the past, riding a reverse, erratic time stream that I couldn’t change or influence unless I caught up with it. Or got ahead of it, so Rosier could place the countercurse as soon as it showed up. Only that hadn’t been going so well, either. So far, we’d utterly failed. Only no, I corrected grimly, we hadn’t failed. We’d been prevented. Which also explained our current situation. “We’re at the Pythian Court?” I rasped. “Yes.” “Under arrest?” “Oh yes.

” “And I feel like this because?” “Drugs. To prevent you from twitching your nose, or whatever you do, and getting us out of this. They hit you with a dart as soon as you showed up. Don’t you remember?” “No.” I pulled the pillow back over my face. As if the problem with the curse wasn’t bad enough, there was an added complication. Namely, that I wasn’t the only Pythia. Each age had one, tasked with preserving her little corner of the timeline from dark mages and crazed cultists and anybody else with the insanity and power to risk a time spell. Most of us ignored each other out of professional courtesy, whenever duty required a trip back in time. But Gertie, my nineteenth-century counterpart, had decided to make an exception for me.

And for the denizen of hell I was dragging back through time along with me. I guessed good little Pythias didn’t hang out with powerful demon lords. Not that Rosier was powerful at the moment. Which was why he was just sitting there, frustrated, furious and, yes, about half-mad, because the demon council that had cursed his son had also put a block on his power. Meaning that, other than for mumbling the countercurse, he was utterly useless. Which was a problem since, right now, so was I. “At least they didn’t strip you,” Rosier said, after a minute. “It wasn’t bad enough that they ran me across half the countryside—they had to take my clothes, too! There I was, barely managing to hide from the damn fey, when I was set upon by two of those cursed acolytes.” He was talking about the white-robed Pythias-in-training every court but mine seemed to have a lot of. They received a small amount of the Pythian power, enough to allow them to learn the ropes of the office and to compete for the top spot one day.

And in the meantime, they helped the boss screw over anyone who started joyriding through the centuries in bad company. “I thought I was doing a fair job of passing myself off as a typical Celt,” he added, “when hey, presto! No cloak! And a moment after that, no trousers! And no underwear! They used some spell to strip me butt naked, in the middle of the damn road, looking for weapons I didn’t even have because of your constant nagging about the timeline. They even took my last shoe!” “Those bitches.” “Yes! And afterward they had the temerity to act shocked, as if they’d never seen a naked man before! I thought they were Pythian acolytes, not vestal virgins. Of course, given the outfit, I suppose I should have known—” “I’m working on the outfit.” “You’re not going to be doing anything if we don’t get out of here,” he told me, tugging the pillow away. And eyeing me, as if trying to decide if I’d recovered yet. “No,” I said, and wrestled it back. But more things were starting to surface from the fog. Things like a burning Welsh countryside, a crap ton of Light Fey—because of course Pritkin had been in the middle of a crisis when we arrived; of course he had.

And a had-it-up-to-here Pythia who had already followed us through time twice and was apparently sick of it, because this time she’d brought backup. Rosier and I had been left dodging a whole troop of the girls in white while also dodging the fire and the fey and the other fey who had shown up to try to kill the first group and— It hadn’t gone well. In the bedlam, Pritkin had gotten away, fading into the dark like the mirage I was really starting to believe he was. Of course, so had I, but I couldn’t do the counterspell and Gertie had Rosier! And then she and a few other Pythias she’d recruited into a damn posse had tried to nab me, too. And when that failed they’d sent me back to my own time via some kind of portal and Gertie had dragged Rosier back here and . And then I guess I’d come after him, hadn’t I? It wasn’t like I’d had much choice. And now she had us both. Goddamn it! I abruptly sat up, headache be damned, and Rosier handed me a glass of water. Which he had to stretch to do, since he was cuffed to the foot of the bed. “Victorian prudery,” he said dryly.

“To keep me from ravishing you while you slept.” “Then why didn’t they just put you in another room? In fact, why are you here at all? You’re a demon lord—” “And you’re a powerful sorceress who placed me under your control, and have been sapping my power to fuel your jaunts through time.” I paused halfway through a swallow to stare at him. “Leaving me currently drained and incapable of posing a threat to anyone.” He saw my expression. “Well, I had to tell them something.” “No! No, you didn’t!” “Think about it, girl! If I hadn’t, they might have given me back to the damn war mages,” he said, referring to the closest thing the magical community had to a police force. “Have you forgotten what happened last time?” Not likely. Not after everything I’d had to do to get him back before the mages killed him, or the demon council’s guards showed up to do it for them. That’s why I’d checked the local war mage HQ before coming here; I’d assumed I’d have to break him out again.

But no. Gertie was handling things herself this go-round. Gertie was going hard-core. “The further back we go, the more of a concern we are,” Rosier said, confirming my thoughts. “I heard them talking when I was coming out of that time freeze they slapped me with. Just snatches of conversation, but enough to know that they’ve elevated us from annoying mystery to serious threat—” “We weren’t that already?” Could have fooled me. “No. When we were in Amsterdam, there was a chance you were just an acolyte who had slipped her Pythia’s leash. But bored acolytes don’t have the power to make it back fifteen hundred years! By the time we reached Wales, they were betting on one of those . what are they called?” He flapped a hand.

“Crazy men, run about trying to change time, usually get blown up for their trouble?” “The Guild.” I swallowed, remembering how much my predecessor had loved them. But Rosier just nodded. “That’s it. Guild of something or other—I forget. But the point is, they now think you’re dangerous—” “Yes, thanks to you!” “That cherry-covered freak was already determined to catch you,” he pointed out. “I merely ensured that she would think you needed me, and would be back to fetch me—” “Which would have been great except that I do need you and I did come back!” “—and now, thanks to my foresight, we’re together and can work on getting out of here,” he finished, ignoring the fact that he’d basically set me up. “Speaking of which, how long until you can shift?” I picked up the glass and drained it, hoping it would help with the throbbing in my skull. Nope. “Well?” he prodded.

I wiped my lips on the back of my hand. “Long.” “And that means?” “It means long. We need other options.” Rosier scowled. “And we have one. Don’t we?” Nothing. What a surprise. But then he did surprise me, by leaning over the bed, close enough to mouth, Two. I blinked, brain still foggy, and followed his gaze to the door.

All it showed me was a tousle-headed blonde in an oval mirror, with dark circles under dazed blue eyes, wearing a high-collared white nightie. I guessed the shorts and T-shirt I’d started out with had offended local sensibilities. My new attire offended mine, making me look about twelve. It also did not give me any answers. My eyes found Rosier’s again in confusion. He sighed. Guards, on the other side of the door. Yes? They have the key. He held up his chained wrist. I looked from it to the skinny, hairy legs poking out from under his tunic.

And the arms that in no way resembled his son’s. And the too-soft middle. Rosier looked like he’d never lifted anything heavier than a champagne glass in his life. Which might explain why he kept getting beaten up . by little girls. Yes? He sprawled across the bed to glare at me. And to whisper: “I’m a lover, not a fighter, but I’m damn good with sleight of hand. Just help me get them in here!” Fine. “It wouldn’t have to be for long,” I said, going with the argument I’d planned to have anyway. Because I wasn’t the only one who could shift.

Of course, Rosier couldn’t time-travel, and his spatial shifts only went one place. But right now I’d take it. “A short trip into the hells—” “No.” “Really short. Like a couple of minutes—” “Not a couple of seconds.” “—just long enough for us to move a block or two and get past whatever wards they’ve got on this place—” “Going into a minefield to avoid a fence. Yes, that sounds safe.” “You know what’s not safe?” I asked, getting genuinely pissed. “Pritkin stuck in freaking Wales about to die, that’s what’s not safe.” “And if I could do something about it, don’t you think I would?” “Not if it meant risking your precious neck.

You’ll let your own son die when a small risk—” “Small? Small?” Rosier was beginning to look a bit flushed himself. “I put so much as a toe in hell, any hell, and I might as well have a neon sign over my head reading FREE BUFFET! I wouldn’t last two minutes—I doubt I would last one. And in case you forgot, this mission requires both of us, or I wouldn’t be here talking to you!” “Ditto! If I could do this alone, believe me—” “Alone? You can’t walk across a room alone—” “I did pretty well when you abandoned me in freaking medieval Wales—” “—without starting a war!” “I didn’t start it! I had nothing to do with it!” “And yet there you were. There you always—” “This isn’t about me!” I yelled. “You have to be the most selfish, uncaring, infuriating man since —” “Emrys?” “Pritkin! It’s Pritkin, you prick! And he’s nothing like you!” “He’s exactly like me,” Rosier said, scrambling across the bed to get in my face. “He doesn’t want to admit it; he’s never wanted to. You saw him, mooning over those damn fey. Ooooh, look, a Sky Lord! When they’re nothing but insane murderous bastards, every single one—” “No arguments here.” “—living in one measly, intensely creepy world—” “Says the man from hell.” “—when he could have thousands.

And the knowledge of millennia, time out of mind. But always, always that perverse boy was attracted to every damn thing besides his own birthright!” “The fey are his birthright, too. You saw to that yourself—” “A fact I’ve regretted every day since!” “—and, in fact, pretty much every problem Pritkin has can be traced back to you, can’t it?” I asked. “From leaving him to grow up with zero guidance, to taking him from earth before he was ready, to putting him in a terrible situation as your heir—” “You understand nothing!” “—to placing that damn prohibition on him—” “To save his life, you wretched, wretched—” “—to dragging him back to hell again, when you knew damn well—” “That was your mother’s fault!” Rosier moved like lightning, wrapping his free hand around my neck. “She took my sire, long before I was ready to fill his shoes! She left me and my people vulnerable. She forced me to have to find a way to increase my power, and now her daughter is trying to take him away! I hate you! I hate your whole damn family!” The door burst open, a fact I was grateful for, since I wasn’t entirely sure Rosier remembered that we were acting. Two war mages stood there, with their long leather coats and butt-kicking boots and annoyed expressions not looking all that different despite the era. But they didn’t come any closer. Maybe because one of them had a blowgun. “Well, fuck,” Rosier said as a dart caught him in the neck.

He face-planted onto the bed. The door slammed. I looked at it for a moment, then at my passed-out companion. And then I sighed and pulled the pillow back over my head.

.

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