The skull glared at me with empty orbits. Odd runes marked its forehead, carved into the yellowed bone and filled with black ink. Its thick bottom jaw supported a row of conical fangs, long and sharp like the teeth of a crocodile. The skull sat on top of an old STOP sign. Someone had painted the surface of the hexagon white and wrote KEEP OUT in large jagged letters. A red spatter stained the bottom edge of it, looking suspiciously like dry blood. I leaned closer. Yep, blood. Some hair, too. Human hair.
Curran frowned at the sign. “Do you think he’s trying to tell us something?”
“I don’t know. He’s being so subtle about it.”
I looked past the sign. About a hundred yards back, a large two story house waited. It was clearly built post-Shift, with solid timber and brown stone stone laid by hand to ensure it would survive the magic waves, yet instead of being a simple square box, this house had all the pre-Shift bells and whistles of a modern prairie home: rows of big windows, sweeping horizontal lines, and spacious layout. Except prairie style homes usually had long flat roofs and little ornamentation, while this place sported pitched roofs with elaborate carved gables, beautiful barge boards, and ornate wooden windows.
“It’s like someone took a Russian log cabin and a pre-Shift contemporary house, stuck them into a blender, and dumped it over there.”
Curran frowned. “It’s his… what do you call it? Terem.”
“Terem is where Russian princesses lived.”
Between us and the house lay a field of black dirt. It looked soft and powdery like potting soil or a freshly plowed field. A path of rickety old boards, half rotten and splitting, curved through the dirt to the front door. I didn’t have a good feeling about that dirt.
We’d tried to circle the house and ran into a thick thorn-studded natural fence, formed by wild rose bushes, blackberry, and trees. The fence was twelve feet tall and when Curran tried to jump to see over it, the thorny vines snapped out like lassos and made a heroic effort to pull him in. After I helped him pick the needles out of his hands, we decided frontal assault was a better option.
“No animal tracks on the dirt,” I said.
“No animal scents either,” Curran said. “There are scent trails all around us through the woods, but none here.”
“That’s why he has giant windows and no grates on them. Nothing can get close to the house.”
“It’s that, or he just doesn’t care. Why the hell doesn’t he answer his phone?”
Who knew why the priests of the gods of All Evil and Darkness did anything?
I picked up a small rock, tossed it into the dirt, and braced myself. Nothing. No toothy jaws exploding through the soil, no magic fire, no earth-shattering explosion. The rock just sat there.
We could come back later. That would be a reasonable thing to do. However, we drove ten miles through the lousy traffic in the punishing heat of Georgia’s summer and then hiked another three through the woods to get here, and our deadline to get this done was fast approaching. One way or another, I was getting into that house.
I put my foot onto the first board. It sank a little under my weight, but held. Step. Another step. Still holding.
I tiptoed across the boards, Curran right behind me. Think sneaky thoughts.
The dirt shivered.
Two more steps.
A mound formed to the left of us, the dirt shifting like waves of some jet-black sea.
“To the left,” I murmured.
“I see it.”
Long serpentine bone spines slid through the soil, the fins of a skeletal sea serpent gliding just under the surface of a midnight-black ocean. We sprinted to the door. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw loose dirt burst to the left. A scorpion the size of a pony shot out and scrambled after us.
That’s all we needed. If we killed his pet scorpion, there would be no end of complaining.
I ran up the porch and pounded on the door. “Roman!”
Behind me bone tentacles exploded from the soil and wound about Curran’s body. He snarled, straining. The left tentacle tore.
“Roman!” Damn it all to hell.
A bone tentacle grabbed me and yanked me back and up, dangling me six feet off the ground. The scorpion dashed forward, its barb poised for the kill.
The door swung open, revealing Roman. He wore a T-shirt and plaid pajamas and his dark hair, shaved on the sides into a long horse-like mane, stuck out on the side of his head.
“What’s all this?”
Roman squinted at me. “What are you guys doing here?”
“We came to talk to you,” Curran growled. “We called you for last three days. Why don’t you answer your damn phone?”
“Because I unplugged it.” Roman waved his hand. The scorpion retreated. The tentacles gently set me down and slithered back into the ground. “You would unplug yours too, if you were related to my family. My parents are fighting again and they’re trying to make me choose sides. I told them they could talk to me when they start acting like responsible adults.”
Fat chance of that. Roman’s father Girgorii was the head black volhv in the city. His mother Evdokia was one third of the Witch Oracle. When they had fights, things didn’t boil over, they exploded. Literally.
“So far I’ve avoided both of them, so I’m enjoying peace and quiet. Come in.”
He held the door open. I walked past him into a large living room. Golden wooden floors, huge fire place, thirty foot ceilings, and soft furniture. Book shelves lined the other wall, crammed to the brink. The place looked downright cozy.
Curran walked in behind me and took in the living room. His thick eyebrows rose.
“What?” Roman asked.
“Where is the sacrificial pit ringed with skulls?” I asked.
“No altar?” Curran asked. “No bloody knives and frightened virgins?”
“Ha. Ha.” Roman rolled his eyes. “Never heard that one before. I keep the virgins in the basement chained up. Do you want some coffee?”
I shook my head.
“Yes,” Curran said.
“No, put cream in it.”
“Good man. Only two kind of people drink their coffee black, cops and serial killers. Sit, sit.”
I sat on the sofa and almost sank into it. I’d need help getting up. Curran sprawled next to me.
“This is nice,” he said.
“We should get one for the living room.”
“We’d get blood on it.”
Curran shrugged. “So?”
Roman appeared with two mugs, one pitch-black and the other clearly half-filled with cream. He gave the lighter mug to Curran.
“Drinking yours black, I see,” I told him.
He shrugged. “Eh… Goes with the job. So what can I do for you?”
“We’re getting married,” I said.
“I know. Congratulations. On Ivan Kupalo night. I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but it’s brave.”
Ivan Kupalo’s night was the night of wild magic in Slavic foklore. The ancient Russians believed it was the time when the boundaries between the worlds blurred. In our case, it meant the night of a really strong magic wave. Odd things happened on Ivan Kupalo’s night. Given a choice, I would’ve picked a different day, but Curran had set the date. To him it was the last day of werewolf summer, a shapeshifter holiday and a perfect day for the wedding. Since I ducked this wedding for months already, I didn’t want to push him.
“So did you come to invite me?” Roman asked.
“Yes,” Curran said. “We’d like you to officiate.”
“We’d like you to marry us,” I said.
Roman’s eyes went wide. He pointed to himself. “Me?”
“Yes,” Curran said.
“You do know what I do, right?”
“Yes,” I said. “You’re Chernobog’s priest.”
Chernobog literally meant Black God, who was also known by other fun names like Black Serpent, Lord of Darkness, God of freezing cold, destruction, evil, and death. Some ancient Slavs broke their pantheon into light and dark, and according to that view, Chernobog was a necessary evil. Somebody had to be his priest and Roman somehow ended up with that job. It was a family business.
Roman leaned forward, his dark eyes intense. “You sure about this?”
“Yes,” Curran said.
“Not going to change your mind?”
What was it with the twenty questions. “Will you do it or not?”
“Of course, I’ll do it. Ha!” Roman jumped off the couch. “Ha! Nobody ever asks me to marry them. They always go to Nikolai, my cousin, Vasiliy’s oldest son.”
Roman had a vast family tree, but I remembered Vasiliy, his uncle. Vasiliy was priest of Belobog, Chernobog’s brother and exact opposite. He was also very proud of his children and bragged about them every chance he got.
Roman ducked behind the couch and emerged with a phone. “When some supernatural filth tries to carry off the children, call Roman so he can wade through blood and sewage to rescue them, but when it’s something nice like a wedding or a naming, oh no, we can’t have Chernobog’s volhv involved. Get Nikolai. When he finds out who I’m going to marry, he’ll have an aneurysm. His head will explode. Good that he’s a doctor, maybe he can treat himself.” He plugged the phone into the outlet.
Roman stared at it as if it were a viper.
The phone rang again.
He picked it up and held it to his ear. “Yes?”
His expression stretched. He held the phone toward me. “It’s for you.”
I took the phone. “This is Kate.”
“Roland has Saiman,” Julie said into my ear.
My brain took a second to digest it. Saiman used to be my go-to expert for all things weird and magical, but the last time I tried to hire him, he told me that sooner or later my father would murder me and he wasn’t stupid enough to play for the losing team. I knew Saiman was the center of his own Universe, but it still surprised me. I had saved him more than once. I didn’t expect friendship – that was beyond him, but expected some loyalty. Whatever loyalty he might have had must’ve evaporated at the first mention of my father.
Roland was a near immortal wizard with a megalomaniac complex, who’d survived the first apocalypse and thousands of years of technology that followed. My father and I didn’t exactly see eye to eye. He tried to murder me once in the womb. He failed, because my mother saved me, and then he managed to kill her when I was just a baby. We’ve met again about eight months ago. For some reason, he decided to play father and we existed in an uneasy peace. According to the terms of that peace, Atlanta was my territory and Saiman, being a resident of Atlanta, was under my protection. Roland built a small base next to the city but too far from the border defined by my magic to constitute a breach of our agreement. Now he divided his time between that base and his main territory in Midwest.
I pushed the speaker button. “How do you know?”
“Jim’s scouts saw him being brought in.”
“Did he look like he came voluntarily?” Curran asked.
“He was covered in blood and couldn’t walk. Roland’s people had to carry him.”
Saiman was a polymorph. He could take on any human shape, any gender, any age. His regeneration was off the charts. How hard did they have to beat him for him not be able to walk?
“When did this happen?”
“Three hours ago.”
If Roland’s people snatched Saiman out of his ultra-modern apartment, the peace was over. I would have to go see my father. I’d rather stab myself in the eye.
“Call Derek,” I told Julie. “Tell him to wait for me at the office.”
“Okay.” She hung up.
The look on Curran’s face was pure murder.
“You’re not,” he said.
“He’s an Atlanta resident,” I said.
“If you were dying of thirst, and he was sitting by a lake three feet away, he wouldn’t walk those three steps to bring you water. He told you to go screw yourself and you are running off to save him.”
“It’s not about him. It’s about Roland. He can’t just come and take people out of the city.”
“Impressive,” I told him, heading for the door. “That’s why I’m marrying you.”
“No,” Roman grinned. ‘That’s why I’m marrying you. I’ll wear my best robe. It will be glorious. I need the name of your wedding planner.”
“Kate,” Curran growled. “You aren’t going.”
I swung the door open. A black raven flew past me and landed on the back of the couch.
Roman slapped his hand over his face.
“There you are,” the raven said in Evdokia’s voice. “Ungrateful son.”
“Here we go…” Roman muttered.
“Eighteen hours in labor and that’s what I get. He can’t even pick up the phone to talk to his own mother.”
“Mother, don’t you see I have people here?”
“I bet if their mother called them, they would pick up.”
That would be a neat trick for both of us. Sadly dead mothers didn’t come back to life even in post-Shift Atlanta.
“Nice to see you, Roman.” I grabbed Curran by the hand, ignoring his pissed-off stare.
The bird swiveled toward me. “Katya!”
“Don’t you leave. I need to talk to you.”
“Got to go, bye!”
I jumped out of the house. Curran was only half a second behind me and he slapped the door closed. We started down the wooden path.
“You know I have to go,” I said. “And you know you can’t come with me.”
“I can,” he said, his eyes dark. “But it would be counter-productive.”
With me, Roland would play the benevolent father because, for some odd reason, it appealed to him. If Curran came with me, it would turn into subtle insults and intimidation as the two of them would bait each other. I had to go, because this was a slap in the face and if we didn’t respond, Roland would see it as a win. Give my father an inch, and he would bite off the whole arm. We had to respond and that response had to be uncompromising. If something went wrong, Curran would be the only person in Atlanta capable of holding the city and getting me out.
“Here is how we’re going to play this,” Curran said. “I’ll swing by the Guild and pick up my mercs. Then we’ll wait just inside the boundary. If you aren’t back within the two hours, I’ll come to get you.”
“I’ll be back,” I told him.
Gold rolled over his irises. “Yes,” he said. “You will. I promise you that.”