The St. Charles streetcar lumbered its way toward the Garden District like a mourner in a funeral procession. The rocking motion should have soothed me, but I was pretty sure I was beyond ever relaxing again.
Adam sat next me. His warm hand on my leg helped dispel some of the chill. He wore his trademark brown duster and heavy boots. The goatee and muscled frame added to his general air of menace, but the mage’s real danger lay in his ability to wield magical weapons.
In addition to being my partner, he was also my… boyfriend? No, too high school. Lover? Ugh. Consort? Meh.
I guess when it came down to it, he was just my mancy, plain and simple. And his presence had become as critical to my equilibrium as gravity or blood. So when he’d insisted on coming with me to Erron Zorn’s house, I hadn’t refused.
However, we’d opted to leave Giguhl behind at Madam Zenobia’s Voodoo Apothecary. Some situations just demanded a distinct lack of Mischief demon. Besides, staying back gave my minion a chance to mend fences with his friend Brooks, a Changeling who had stormed out of New York a few days earlier after a nasty argument with Giguhl about his lifestyle choices.
To say I wasn’t looking forward to our errand was the understatement of the millennium. Not only would I have to recount the shitty news of recent events in New York, but I also knew the favor I’d come to ask of Erron Zorn might get a door slammed in my face.
Adam squeezed my thigh, bringing my thoughts back to the present. “Whatever Erron says, try and keep your cool, okay?”
I nodded but didn’t agree verbally. Even though Adam’s sentiment was reasonable, I’d force Erron to go to Italy with us at gunpoint if I had to. Our mission was too critical to put up with squeamishness or attacks of conscience.
With each block’s progress toward Erron’s Garden District mansion, the more the memories of recent days weighed on my shoulders like a lead yoke. I picked up the moonstone amulet I wore around my neck. It had been given to me by my sister, Maisie, and advertised my position as the High Priestess of the Blood Moon. While the title was mostly symbolic, the amulet reminded me of better days when my twin was still alive. When lots of people were still alive, actually. I squeezed the round stone in my hand and closed my eyes, drawing on its strength.
The streetcar’s wheels hissed against their tracks, signaling a stop. Frowning, I squinted out the windows, trying to see how many more until we reached First. But the trolley hadn’t stopped at an intersection. Instead, it had squealed to a halt in the middle of the grassy median that held the tracks. I looked around to check if any of the other passengers had pulled the emergency stop cord.
The birthmark on my left shoulder suddenly itched and burned, like a warning. That’s when I realized all the other passengers were unnaturally still. Two old ladies near the front leaned toward each other with their mouths open. One had a hand raised in midair to make a point, but it didn’t move.
My gaze swiveled toward Adam. His head was bowed like a man at prayer. His hand was still on my thigh, but he wasn’t moving either.
I shook his shoulder. “Adam?” I whispered.
I waved a hand under his face.
“Shit.” I turned and looked at the other passengers—the middle-aged dude with his much-younger mistress, the gangly teen with headphones glued to his ears, even the streetcar operator—everyone, frozen. A quick glance outside the windows revealed that every car and body on the street had gone still as well. It was as if someone had hit a universal pause button.
So why was I still mobile?
The ominous quiet roared in my ears. My heart beat like a spastic metronome. I rose slowly, looking for any sign of life. Panic rose in my throat like a fist.
Whatever was happening was bad. Really, really bad. I had no idea what was going on, but I knew I needed to get out of the trolley and into the open. If an attack was coming—and I was pretty sure one was—I didn’t want to be trapped in the trolley.
But before I could make good on that plan, the doors opened with an ominous click-clack. A foot clad in a leather sandal appeared on the bottom step, followed by a male hand and the edge of a white sleeve. I reached back for the gun in my waistband. If this bastard thought I was easy prey, he was about to get a nasty surprise.
A mass of gray hair appeared next, on top of a face bearing a thick, white beard. With the help of a long staff, the intruder hefted himself up the rest of the steps. Finally, he turned toward me and smiled.
I frowned back and raised my gun. “Who the f**k are you?”
The old male sighed and waved a careless hand. My gun flew from my grasp and skittered down the aisle to land at his sandaled feet. “Your mundane weapons are useless here, Mixed-Blood.” His voice was deep and strong, but also weary like he had little patience for my resistance. “You mortal realm beings are so lazy. Not to mention rude.”
Instead of answering, I gathered my powers up into my solar plexus.
“Ah, ah, ah,” he said. “You could try it but I’m afraid you won’t like the results.” He waved his staff menacingly. “Besides, is that any way to treat someone who’s helped you?”
I crossed my arms, annoyed. “When have you helped me?”
Instead of answering, his face shifted and swirled until it morphed into the muzzle of a black dog. Seeing the familiar canine visage, I relaxed a fraction. “Well, shit, Asclepius, why didn’t you just tell me it was you to begin with?” I waved a hand in a circle to indicate the frozen tableau around us. “And why all the drama? You could have just appeared in my dreams or whatever.”
“Where’s the fun in that? Besides, it’s been too long since I visited the mortal realm.”
“So what do you want?”
“Don’t play coy.” His friendly expression hardened into something more menacing. “You know why I’m here.”
My stomach sank. “You’ve come to collect the favor I owe you.”
“Correction: I’ve come to collect the favors, plural.” He held up two fingers.
Shit, that’s right. I’d made two blood sacrifices to the god of healing in exchange for his help. Once when Rhea and I performed a dream incubation healing rite on my twin, Maisie, to help her regain her gift of prophecy, and the second when I went into the Liminal to save her from Cain.
Or tried to, anyway.
“Is there any way this can wait? I kind of have a lot on my plate right now.”
“No, it cannot wait. Your promise was to do my bidding at a time of my choosing. There are no rain checks.”