Before the woman sat a huge cauldron, positioned on the intersection of three roads. Black hounds ran across the walls in both directions, all facing the cauldron.

The Oracle worshipped Hekate, the Queen of the Night, the Mother of all Witches. Although known by her Greek name, she was much older. Her worship stretched through two millennia, its roots buried in the fertile folkloric soil of Turkey and Asia. The Greeks had too much respect to ignore her ancient heritage and her seductive power. They made her the only Titan Zeus had permitted into his pantheon, partially because he had fallen in love with her. She was the goddess of choice, of victory and defeat, of knowledge magical and medicinal, the guardian of the boundary between spiritual and mundane, and the witness to all crimes against women and children.

Underestimating her Oracle would prove extremely unwise.

I felt Derek behind me, waiting. The vampire had left the pool and crouched on its rim. I bowed.

The crone spoke. "Approach."

Slowly I crossed the water. My feet found stone steps and I emerged onto the floor.

"Closer," the crone said.

I took another step and felt the edges of a spell lying in wait. I put my foot down. Derek stopped too, but the vampire advanced past me, oblivious.

The crone thrust her hand at us, fingers rigid like claws. Chalk lines slid from under the stones as if blown by errant wind, and I found myself locked in a circle of glyphs. Ahead the vampire fell, caught in an identical trap. Derek growled and I didn't have to look to know he was captured, as well.

The crone smirked.

I probed the spell. Strong, but breakable. Should I stay in the circle out of respect or should I break out? Staying in would be a polite thing to do. Breaking out would likely provoke them, but would they deal with me if they could keep me pinned?

"Release me," Ghastek's voice echoed through the dome. "I've come here in good faith."

The crone stabbed her hand to the right. The circle slid, dragging the vampire within it and crashed into the wall with a harsh thud. The crone's eyes lit up with arrogant satisfaction. Well, that settled it.

"This is an outrage." The vampire sprung to its feet.

"Silence, abomination."

The circle slid to the left. Ghastek tried to run, anticipating the direction but the chalk tripped him and pulled him across the stones. She was enjoying herself way too much. She didn't chant, so it had to be a preexisting spell. If I could have sensed at least the type of magic she was using, I might have gotten some idea where to look for the spell, but locked within the glyphs, I couldn't feel a thing outside the circle.

Derek sat down, cross-legged, and settled to wait it all out.

I reached into my belt, pulled the cork off a plastic tube, and tossed a pinch of powder onto the spell. Wormwood, alder, and rowan, ground to fine dust, and iron shavings flittered to the floor in a fine cloud, tiny iron particles glistening as they caught light. The chalk lines dimmed and I stepped out and bowed.

The crone bared her teeth and thrust both hands at me, crushing the air in her gnarled fists.

A wave of chalk slid across the stones to clutch at me. A triple ring. Earth based, too. Iron and wood wouldn't work. Going all out.

"Break that, why don't you!" The crone leaned back, triumphant.

I raised my sword and thrust into the ring, gathering as much of my magic as I could and feeding it into the blade. The enchanted saber perspired. Gossamer smoke slithered from the metal. The magic squeezed the blade.

The first line of glyphs fell apart.

Sweat broke at my hairline.

The second line of glyphs wavered. My hands shook from the pressure. I leaned forward, channeling more power into the sword.

The second circle broke and I nearly fell.

The crone surged to her feet. Her hands clawed the air. Chalk blew at my feet. Three more rings. Shit.

I could use a power word to release myself, but that would mean announcing to Ghastek that I had one. The circle didn't dull his hearing, only his magic senses.

I drew the sword back, blocking the vampire's view of me with my back, and pricked my index finger. A tiny drop of red swelled. I crouched and drew a line right through the four rings. The ward cracked open like a shattered glass.

The crone drew back.

I stepped out and bowed and stayed that way. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the crone raise her hand, after a momentary hesitation. I read reluctance in her eyes. She wasn't sure she could hold me.

She had locked me three times, and three times I had broken out. Three was a number sacred to witches. I didn't want to show Ghastek more power.

The crone's fingers curled.

"Maria, please..." The maiden-witch had spoken. Her voice was weak and wilting, yet it echoed through the dome.

The crone lowered her hand with a sneer. "I spare you because she asks. For now."

I straightened and sheathed Slayer.

"I know you." The mother looked at me, her hands continuing to draw yarn with faint clicking. "Voron's child. Po russki to govorish?"

I shifted into Russian. "Yes, I speak Russian."

The witch clicked her tongue. "Accent you have. Don't speak Russian every day, no?"

"Don't have anybody to practice with."

"And whose failing is that?"

There was no good answer to that one so I backpedaled into English. "I've come for information."

"Ask," the maiden said.

I'd only get one shot at this. "Two days ago an amateur coven called the Sisters of the Crow disappeared. One of the witches, Jessica Olsen, has a daughter, Julie. Julie is only thirteen. She has no other family. Her mother means the world to her."

They said nothing. I plowed on.

"I know Morrigan is involved. I know there is a bottomless pit at the Sisters' gathering place and a smaller one in their head witch Esmeralda's trailer. I know Esmeralda was power hungry and was performing old druidic rites, but I don't know why. Now the Fomorians are running around the city, led by Bolgor the Shepherd. They want Julie. She's just a child, and although her mother was in an amateur coven, she was still a witch, just like you. Please help me understand what's going on. Help me fit it all together."

My breath caught in my throat. Either they would deal with me or send me packing. Once the covens said no, they meant it.

The mother-witch pursed her lips. "Morrigan," she said with slight distaste, as if discussing a neighbor who failed to wash her windows. "She always has a hound with her."

I frowned. "A dog?"

"No. A man. A scoundrel. A thief and a brigand."

I almost snapped my fingers. "Tall, dark, carries a bow, disappears into mist, can't keep his hands to himself?"

Tags: Ilona Andrews Kate Daniels Vampires