“Not again,” Derek growled.
“Why, what’s so bad about the witches?” Ascanio asked.
Derek’s eyebrows crept together. “You’ll see.”
The bunny hopped into the shrubs. The greenery split and pulled to the side, revealing a narrow path.
“Do we have a choice?” Robert said.
I stepped onto the path. We were short on time, but pissing off witches ranked right between sticking your hand into a hornet’s nest and telling Curran I’d made broccoli for dinner. By now, they had to know that Hugh was in town. If they wanted to see me, it had to be something important.
We passed through the thick barrier of green and emerged into a pine forest. Snow sheathed the ground in a dense blanket. Tall pine trunks towered on both sides of us, as if a Spanish armada were sailing under the snow and only its masts were visible. Past the pines a glade stretched, silver with moonlight. Behind it the translucent walls of a greenhouse rose into the night, sheltering rows of herbs. Centennial Park served as the hub for most of the Atlanta covens and they liked to have herbs in ready supply.
The bunny hopped between the trees. We followed it. Snow crunched under my feet. We really didn’t have time for this. Unfortunately, I needed the Oracle. If Hugh and Roland intended to assault Atlanta, I would need their help and their magic. And I couldn’t afford to ignore their advice. If I refused to see them and they had a magic self-guided missile that could take Hugh out, I would be kicking myself for years.
Derek wrinkled his nose. “Here it is.”
I pulled a strip of gauze out of my pocket and passed it to him.
“What is that smell?” Desandra wrinkled her nose.
Derek ripped the gauze in half and handed her a piece.
The trees fell back and we came to a hill sitting in the middle of a large clearing. Perfectly spherical and smooth, it protruded from the snow, like the cupola of a submerged cathedral. I remembered it as being dark gray with flecks of gold and swirls of green, but the moonlight turned it glossy indigo.
The bunny stopped.
The ground under our feet rumbled. Derek sneezed. Desandra clamped the gauze to her nose. The hill shuddered and slid upward, the snow sliding off its top.
Robert jumped back ten feet. Ascanio just stared, wide-eyed.
A giant head broke free of the snow, its neck a brown mass of wrinkled folds. Hey, pretty girl. Long time, no see. The colossal tortoise stared at me with dinner-plate-sized irises and opened its gargantuan mouth.
Right. The full treatment. Just once, would it kill them to meet me in a gazebo someplace or in a fried chicken joint?
Derek and Desandra doubled over in a fit of sneezing.
The bunny’s fur crawled, boiled, and stretched into the shape of a small black cat. The cat leaped into the tortoise’s mouth.
“Wow,” Ascanio said. “That’s brutal.”
I filed the new item of teenage slang away for future reference.
Desandra pointed at the open mouth, her other hand pinching her nose closed. “In dere?”
“Mm-hm,” I said.
“Fuck dis! I’m stayin’ here.”
“I’m a rat,” Robert said. “I’m not going into a reptile’s mouth.”
Oh boy. Fine time to develop phobias. “It’s fine,” I told them. “They’ll probably cut you off from the conversation anyway.”
“I’m coming,” Ascanio declared.
Derek nodded, holding the rag over his nose, and came to stand with me.
I stepped into the tortoise’s mouth.
• • •
THE THICK SPONGY tongue gave a little under my feet. I went forward, past the roof of the mouth, into the throat, draped with garlands of frozen algae and icicles. Ahead dark ice slicked the floor of the throat tunnel. Last time I came through here, I had taken a bath in what I strongly suspected was tortoise spit. I stepped onto the ice. It held. Score one for me.
“This is awesome,” Ascanio volunteered behind me.
Someone was having entirely too much fun.
The throat tunnel ended and I walked out onto an iced-over pond in the middle of a colossal dome. The walls, dark at eye level, curved up, lightening until they grew transparent at the top. The night sky, studded with stars, spilled moonlight onto clusters of blue icicles suspended from the ceiling. The icicles glowed with soft blue light, illuminating the outlines of rectangular crypts within the walls, each marked by a glowing gold glyph.
In front of me on a rectangular platform waited three women. The first had seen seventy. Life had whittled her down, turning her body skeletal and her face sharp and predatory. She perched in a large black chair like a bird of prey. Maria, the Crone. Next to her a young woman sat in a comfortable chair. Slender, with pale blond hair down to her shoulders, she looked young, barely out of her teens, and delicate. Her power was anything but. Sienna, the Maiden. I had saved her life during the last flare. To the right, in a rocking chair, sat Evdokia, the Mother. Plump, with a heavy braid of reddish-brown hair, she rocked back and forth knitting a sweater out of gray wool. It looked almost done.
The black cat ran to her and rubbed against her feet.
Behind them a large mural showed their goddess, a tall, regal woman standing behind a cauldron that sat at the intersection of three roads. The woman’s three arms held a knife, a torch, and a chalice. A black cat, a toad, a broom, and a key completed the picture. She had many names: the Queen of the Night, the Mother of All Witches, Hekate. Her power was vast and terrible and I was disinclined to disrespect her.
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.