At the end of the hall, we finally found a suspicious room. What tipped us off? The door was closed.
Kai and I stood in front of the door, considering our options. The unpleasant thing about Arcana was that, unless the runes were visible, magic could be hard to detect. And we didn’t have any sorcerers to help us.
I pulled out my Queen of Spades and positioned myself in front of the door. Cautiously, Kai touched the handle. Nothing happened, so he turned the polished knob. Locked. His lock picks came out again and in five seconds he had the door open. We peeked inside.
Barely noticing the paneled walls, lush drapery, and cluster of uncomfortable armchairs, I homed in on the giant round bed, raised on a carpeted platform, with another colossal chandelier hanging above it. A chandelier in a bedroom? Yuck.
Sprawled across the bed, fully dressed with her face buried in a pillow, was Nadine. I took an eager step into the room, but Kai grabbed my arm. That’s when I noticed the haze in the air, a sweet, smoky scent I didn’t recognize. On the table beside the bed, white tendrils coiled up from an incense burner, forming unnaturally perfect curls. Alchemy? Something to keep Nadine asleep?
Kai pulled a black handkerchief from his pocket, shook out the folds, and tied it over his nose and mouth.
“Okay, now you really look like a ninja,” I declared.
He huffed. “Let’s hope that smoke doesn’t work too fast.”
I wanted to go instead, but he’d have an easier time lifting the hundred-pound girl. Shoving my card back in my pocket, I gripped the doorway. My instincts screamed at me. Too easy. This was way too easy.
Kai inhaled deeply, then strode into the room.
I don’t know what made me look. A faint noise? An invisible pulse of magic? Whatever it was, I glanced at the windowsill where nine Russian nesting dolls were lined up from largest to smallest, their painted faces smiling benignly.
Kai crossed the path of the dolls and their bodies popped open with soft clicks. Green mist burst from inside—and shiny flashes shot at him like bullets.
“Kai!” I shouted, my warning far too late.
He jerked sideways and I heard him gasp—breathing in the perfumed smoke that filled the room. Catching himself, he launched toward the bed and grabbed Nadine’s legs. He dragged her to the edge of the mattress, flipped her dead weight over his shoulder, and sprinted back to me. I yanked the door shut as he stumbled to a halt, breathing hard.
I pulled Nadine off his shoulder and lowered her so she was slumped against the wall. When I turned back to him, he was pulling three silver needles out of his bicep. Thin trails of blood ran down his arm. Six more metal spines were stuck in his vest.
Staring at the darts, I gulped. “What are the chances that those things are poisoned?”
“One hundred percent.”
“Shit.” I had to get him out of here. He needed a healer or an alchemist—or both. I crouched and shook Nadine’s shoulder. “Hey, Nadine. Wake up. Come on, open your eyes.”
She groaned, then her eyelids fluttered. Squinting blearily, she raised her head. “Tori! What are you doing here?”
“Rescuing you, kiddo.” Taking her arm, I pulled her to her feet. “You didn’t want to be saved last time I offered, but I’m guessing that’s changed?”
She wobbled before catching her balance. “How did you—never mind. We need to get out of here. Varvara—my neighbor—she’s a mythic. She thinks she’s saving me from the druid, but she doesn’t understand that—”
“Oh, she understands,” I interrupted grimly, hauling her into motion with Kai on our heels. “Varvara is a dark-arts sorceress, and she isn’t your friend. We need to get you out of here before—”
“Ah.” The sighing exclamation brought me to a sliding halt in the middle of the dark corridor. “What terrible lies,” the heavily accented voice continued. “Nadine, devushka, do not listen.”
The hall was dimly lit but I couldn’t see the speaker—not until she moved, stepping from a cloud of shadows I hadn’t noticed until that moment. Tall, willowy, with fine lines gracefully aging her aristocratic features. Her thin lips were painted dark crimson, her deep-set eyes were adorned with smoky makeup, and her silver hair was swept into an elegant topknot. With high-waisted brown slacks, a forest-green blouse, and a long tan coat draped over her shoulders, she looked ready to stroll through an exclusive art gallery.
“Varvara!” Nadine gasped. “Is that true?”
The sorceress pursed her red lips. “Why would you believe these dogs? The druid has sent them to steal you away.”
“I already told you the druid isn’t like that. He—”
“He has ensnared you, darling. These people? They are part of his trap. This woman who lies, you know her through the druid, yes? She befriended you by his command.”
Nadine’s eyes darted to me, then back to Varvara. “N-no, that’s not—”
“That,” I interrupted loudly, “is the biggest load of bullshit I’ve ever heard. Could you be any more cliché?”
“I will protect you, Nadine,” Varvara said serenely. “Soon you will return to your senses and see he is the one who has deceived you, not I.”
“I—I don’t want to go.”
Though it was well hidden, I saw a flash of impatience in the sorceress’s face. She didn’t enjoy all this playacting, but she was determined to woo Nadine to her side by making Zak seem like the real enemy. At least she was taking her sweet time about attacking us—more precious seconds for Aaron and Ezra to hear the commotion and get their asses up here.
“Nadine,” I said softly. “The druid told me he wants you to come home. He promised to protect you.”
Tears filmed Nadine’s eyes and her lips moved, forming a silent word. Home.
“I will protect you.” This time, Varvara couldn’t hide the angry bite in her voice. “Come with me and I will take you far beyond his reach.”
Nadine raised her chin. “No. I don’t want to go with you.”
Malicious fury filled the sorceress’s eyes. “You leave me no choice. I do this for you, devushka.”
Varvara raised her hand and it gleamed with gold—an elaborate, interconnected piece of jewelry. Rings circled each finger and her thumb, linked to larger pieces that covered the back of her hand, all connected to a wide bracelet. Her fingers were tipped with two-inch gold claws.
As she moved, Kai lurched into my back. His weight pressed against me, almost pushing me to the floor, and he hooked an arm over my shoulder to brace himself. He stretched his other arm over Nadine’s shoulder, fingers spread wide.
The air crackled. All the hair on my body stood on end.
White light shot down his arm, arched between his fingers, then exploded from his palm. The lightning bolt leaped across the hallway, then burst into a thousand snaking branches. All my muscles tensed, hot tingles and spikes of pain racing through me.
It was over in an instant, leaving only the stench of burnt carpet. The lights had gone out, plunging the house into darkness, and white spots dotted my vision.
Kai grabbed my arm and I snatched Nadine’s hand. Together, we bolted down the corridor to a dead end. Dragging them with me, I wheeled through an open doorway into a giant bedroom. Moonlight, shining through the floor-to-ceiling windows, cast silver squares across the dark carpet.
We sprinted to the window. Kai sagged against the wall beside it, coughing breathlessly. I grabbed a delicate end table by the legs and swung it into the window. Glass smashed in a spray of jagged shards and cool night air rushed into the stuffy room.
I stuck my head out the broken window and peered down at the concrete terrace. We could jump—if we wanted to break our legs.
Whirling, I almost pressed back against the window before remembering I’d broken it. Varvara stood in the threshold, unharmed by Kai’s explosive attack. She raised her hand again, a swift incantation in Latin falling from her thin lips.
In front of her gold-clawed fingers, bubbling black smoke formed into the shape of a long spearhead.
I yanked out my Queen of Spades card. “Ori repercutio!”
I barely got the words out as the spearhead blasted into motion. The air rippled off my card and flung the phantom blade backward. It shot past Varvara’s shoulder, whipped across the corridor, and tore a hole through the wall.
Varvara’s eyebrows rose elegantly. “A fellow sorceress? Your pronunciation is boorish.”
Clutching my card, I fought to keep the terror off my face. I’d used the Queen of Spades and now I would have no defense for at least five minutes while the spell recharged. Behind me, Kai was leaning against the wall, his breathing shallow. I couldn’t count on his help. Where the hell were Aaron and Ezra? Had they gone for a swim in the damn pool?
Varvara raised her hands, both adorned with spelled jewelry, and she began the same incantation. Two inky black spearheads morphed into existence—one aimed at me, one aimed at Kai.
“Varvara, stop!” Nadine cried.
She paused her incantation. “I cannot, child. I will protect you, even if I earn your hatred.”
“Don’t kill them!” Her hands clenched. “I—I’ll go with you. Let’s just leave.”