"What's wrong?" Mart's head whipped around. He scanned the plinths with anxious eyes, but I wasn't looking at them.
I gripped his arm. "It's Seb!" I pointed to where a tall, elegant figure in a dove gray suit had just entered, surrounded by no fewer than eight bodyguards.
"What?" Mart's eyes practically crossed, trying to take in the whole room at once.
I smacked his arm. "Sebastian! My cousin!"
I turned to run, but Mart's big paw descended on the back of my neck. "You can't leave. We're about to start."
"Didn't you hear me?" I asked furiously. "He isn't here to say hello!" Mart's hand didn't budge. "If I'm dead, I can't keep anything from going haywire," I pointed out.
"He's not here to kill you." Matt suddenly looked much calmer. A minute before, he'd been heading for a stroke; now his flushed face wore an expression of smug satisfaction that sent my own blood pressure skyrocketing.
"And you know this how?"
Matt shrugged. "I'm surprised you didn't notice. There's only twelve plinths, Claire."
It took a second to register, then the words hit home. Despite selling fakes whenever he could get his hands on one, Gerald was a superstitious old coot. He knew better than anyone that some of his merchandise was the real deal, and a witch had told him that selling them in lots of thirteen would be an added safety precaution. I hadn't noticed the omission tonight, but I should have. I'd been so worried about the sudden appearance of the Fey that I'd forgotten - they weren't the main reason I was in hiding.
"You're planning to sell me?" My voice went up an octave and Matt winced.
"I didn't have a choice," he said defensively. "Sebastian's boys tracked you down a couple days ago. I could have handed you over then, but I figured you might do better in an auction. So I told your cousin to show up tonight if he wanted you. Looks like he does."
Seb was staring at me, a little smile curving his thin lips. Match point, he mouthed.
"Matt! What do you think Seb will do with me if he wins?"
"He said something about the family business being tied up so one heir gets it all, and the rest are out of luck."
"And did he happen to mention what they do with the losers?" I almost screamed.
"I guess he forgot that part." It was pretty clear that Matt didn't give a damn. His own inheritance rested on keeping his father happy and showing a profit. What happened after the sale wasn't his problem, a fact he demonstrated by chaining me to the podium.
"I'll kill you," I promised as the manacle snapped shut around my wrist.
Matt laughed. "You're a null, Claire. You couldn't do a spell to save your life! Now settle down and don't make a fuss."
"You have no idea what kind of a fuss I'm about to make."
Matt didn't bother to reply. He started the bidding on the first item, keeping me for last. Practical. I'd be there to keep the peace until the other items were carried away by successful bidders. Then it would be my turn, unless I could figure a way out of this before then.
I looked around, trying to crush down my rising panic. For a minute, I thought the Fey had gone, then I spotted him propping up the wall just offstage. No help there. Matt must have called him in to give Seb some competition, and ran the price up.
After a fierce bidding war, the djinn was sold to a tiny old woman swathed in black silk and pearls the size of cherries. She placidly stowed him in her huge purse, showing no sign of worry about her acquisition. Either she was barking mad, or she was a powerful witch. Considering that she kept well away from me, I was betting on the latter.
Matt started the bidding on the next lot, a nail supposedly taken from the True Cross and said to give the possessor a leg up in battle. As it had been brought back from the Holy Land by a knight of the Second Crusade - which had been a miserable failure by any standards - I was a little dubious. It seemed the rest of the room agreed, because bidding was sluggish and the reserve wasn't met.
Matt quickly passed on to item number three, not wanting to lose momentum. I barely heard him describing the history behind the small fragment of parchment because Seb had moved to the bottom of the steps, his bodyguards having pushed a path through the crowd for him. He usually maintains the air of pompous gravity he thinks is appropriate for the head of one of America's foremost magical houses, but tonight his expression was gleeful.
"How old are you again, Claire?" he asked, taking out a calculator. "I ask because I have an offer from a couple of Harvesters. And age does make a difference, you know."
I glowered at him, but refused to be baited. Harvesting was what nulls of any strength spend their lives fearing, and I wouldn't give him the satisfaction of seeing me lose it. But inwardly, I wasn't doing so good.
Around the year 900, a mage figured out how to siphon away our energy, and thereby our lives, to make bombs capable of bringing all magic in an area to a standstill. How far and how long the effect extends depends on the strength of the null being sacrificed - the younger and more powerful they are, the more energy they have to give. After the process was discovered, it became fashionable to hunt us, especially in the vampire community, although some mages did it, too. Null harvesting, as it's politely called, was outlawed shortly after the practice began, but the law had less to do with stopping the hunts than the meager quality of the nulls remaining by the Renaissance. Harvesters ran themselves out of business by being too good at their job, not that there weren't a few enterprising types still trying.
"Twenty-two, isn't it?" Seb's nimble fingers ran some calculations with the ease of a trained bean counter, which is what he'd been before father's late, unlamented demise.
"Rot in hell."
"It's too bad we didn't find you earlier. Late teens are optimal for top offers, but I'm sure we'll find someone to take you."
He wandered off as Matt gave up trying to convince anyone that the parchment contained part of one of Merlin's lost spells. The bidding started on item number four, a genuine, if somewhat tattered, grimoire from ancient Egypt. Matt was trying to sell the idea that the papyrus scroll had been part of the library of Alexandria, rescued by a daring priest before the Romans burnt it to the ground. He wasn't doing that great. He lacked his dad's genuine appreciation for the merchandise he handled and it showed.
All Matt cared about was making a buck, and his fake smiles and gushing descriptions were putting people off. But in this case, there was a flurry of bidding nonetheless. Anything from Egypt always went over well.
I was waiting for lot number six, a small birdcage covered by a white cloth. It was pretty much my only shot, now that the old lady had gone off with the djinn. Occasional scratches could be heard from inside, but nothing more distinct. That wasn't surprising since I'd personally seen a handler, with a heavy scarf wrapped around his head, fitting the small creature within with a specially made muzzle. They weren't worried about its bite; in this case, the bark really was far worse.
The cage was sitting on the stand closest to me and the chain on my manacle stretched far enough to reach it. What I couldn't figure out was how to get the latch open and the muzzle off before being pounced on by the trolls. The two guards were back in place at either side of the stage, and although they don't move very fast, they weren't more than six yards away. I'd never make it.
I'd barely had the thought when the front door burst open in a swirl of snow. The Weres were back, and they'd brought friends. In fact, it looked like their whole pack had decided to teach Matt a few much-needed manners. As soon as the trolls moved to intercept, I lunged for the cage.
My fingers had just brushed it when Matt caught me around the waist from behind. "Don't even think about it!" he roared over the sound of the Weres and trolls crashing into each other.
The cage wobbled slightly, then settled back into place with a final sounding thump. Matt started dragging me backward toward my podium. There was nothing I could do - my power only works on magical creatures and Matt, like his old man, was garden-variety human. He had no magic to steal.
As I started kicking him in his oversize calves, more to take out my frustration than in any hope of escape, the Fey appeared behind the plinth. I stared at him, and he dropped me a wink. I was still trying to absorb that when he flipped open the cage door, allowing the tiny brown bird inside to flutter out. Then a late-arriving troll crashed into him and they both went over the back of the stage.
Instead of flying away, the bird started flitting in circles around my head. Matt saw it and squeaked something rude before releasing me and snatching up a net from inside the podium. He took a swipe at the bird, but it dodged with an arrogant flip of its tiny wings. He tried again, but it moved at the last second in an almost calculated gesture. Unable to redirect his bulk in time, Matt went barreling down the steps to crash into a group of Sebastian's men, scattering them like bowling pins. I smashed my palm down on the release button on the podium, springing the manacle open, and slid my wrist free, but several of Seb's remaining thugs were there before I could so much as take a step.
"Leaving early, Claire? And you the main attraction." Sebastian mounted the steps slowly, his dignity back in place despite the pandemonium. I suppose he thought he was safe, surrounded by the rapidly re-forming posse, but for once his optimism was misplaced.
A nearby Were snatched up one of the gold, satin-striped chairs usually provided for bidders that had been shoved to the side tonight to accommodate the throng. He threw it at the head of a troll who was rhythmically smashing one of his pack member's faces into the side of the steps. He missed his target, but he didn't miss Seb.
One of the guards moved to help his felled boss and the other only had me by one arm. He didn't look too bright, but he made up for it in muscle. His suit bulged even more alarmingly than Mart's, to the point that I expected to see him burst out of it like the Hulk at any moment. He was a norm, brought along as cannon fodder in case of an emergency, to buy time for the mages in the group to hustle the boss out of danger. He obviously didn't view me as a threat, which in his case was pretty accurate. At least until the little bird fluttered down onto the dragon's nose and looked at me inquiringly.
It wasn't easy getting the muzzle off one-handed, but I managed it. "You're lazy and stupid, and nobody thinks you're tough," the gamelan told my guard. "And you look ridiculous in that suit."
The guard collapsed to his knees, holding his ears and shrieking. Gamelans don't merely speak the truth, they rip away all the happy little lies we tell ourselves to mask it, forcing us to acknowledge it deep in our very souls. They make us face the raw facts about our lives, and most of the time, they're not pretty.
Seb had gotten back to his feet, but he took one look at the feathered menace and stumbled back a step. It seemed he'd read the catalogue. Unfortunately for him, he was trapped by his own guards, who had formed a line to hold off the mad brawl the salon had become. "You have no talent for business, and three of your relatives are planning to kill you," the bird informed him, raising its high, thin voice to be heard over the noise. "Oh, and one of them is sleeping with your mistress."
Seb screamed and started clawing at his guards, desperate to get away before he heard any more. But the bird had lost interest in him. I eyed it with apprehension as it sized me up out of one bright black eye. "Your father never loved you, and he wasn't even your real father," it finally informed me.
I looked at it incredulously. "That was your best shot?" I'd figured that much out by the time I was six.
It gave an odd sort of bob with its whole body. "It's no fun when they already know their life sucks," it said to no one in particular, and flew off.
I looked around for an avenue of escape, but everything was chaos. The Weres appeared to be losing the battle, mainly because the customers, annoyed that the auction had been interrupted, had joined the trolls. Or, at least, most of them had. A few had decided to take advantage of the pandemonium to make off with some free merchandise. I saw a vampire, who had been the witch's chief competition for the djinn, make a dive for her. She glanced at him in annoyance and, with a word I couldn't hear, sent him flying across the room into a glass display case. The case broke, scattering shards everywhere and causing him to roar in rage. He didn't roar for long.
The case had held a group of charms and all the magic swirling around activated them. Individually, they wouldn't have been much of a problem for a vampire, but he obviously didn't know how to handle several dozen at once. His body was caught in wild tendrils of magic that wrapped around him like brightly colored ribbons, each with a different function. I couldn't see everything through the sparks and swirls, but a lot of the charms must have been baldness cures, because he ended up enmeshed in a cloud of long black strands that sprang from his own head. He tried to break free, ripping out handfuls of hair by the roots, but it grew back almost immediately. The witch doubled over in laughter.
I didn't wait to see what happened when he got loose, but punched the button to send the podium back underneath the stage. I insinuated myself into the small open area in the back, where the auctioneer's legs usually went, to ride it down. The service ramp used for unloading trucks with big items was adjacent to the lower level. If I was lucky, I could get out that way and circle around to my car while everyone was preoccupied with the fight.
It was a slow mechanism, but no one seemed to be paying me any attention. The only person nearby was the old mage who had seemed so enthralled by the rune. He had somehow fought his way back to the stage, and in the midst of the bedlam, had eyes only for the stone. He grabbed it, ignoring the banshee who immediately started up again, but he didn't take off with it as I'd expected. He started chanting something instead, holding the stone in front of him with a look of rapture on his face.
He was far too concentrated on whatever he was doing to see the Fey come up behind him. He tackled the mage around the ankles and the man hit the floor with a thud. The rune went flying, landing right in front of me. The Fey saw and his eyes widened. He leapt for it, shouting something, but I couldn't hear him. There was a flash, a weightless feeling, and the next thing I knew, I was sagging against a cold stone wall, struggling to lift my head.
My muscles ached and my tongue felt thick in my mouth. I tried to move and tottered, dizziness eating at the edges of my vision. What the hell?
A strong hand clapped over my mouth and I was abruptly pressed against the wall by a tall, muscular form. I couldn't see a damn thing - someone must have left the lights off downstairs - but the way my body reacted told me who it was. I started to protest, but a flash of light illuminated the area at the same moment, and I forgot what I'd been about to say.
The dragon's head stood in front of me, but behind it wasn't the familiar mess of Gerald's stockrooms. Instead, I saw a black sky, with menacing gray-green clouds that rumbled almost continually. Deadly silver streaks provided the only light, giving intermittent glimpses of a cobblestone street and a cluster of two-story wooden buildings.
Just as abruptly as I'd been slammed against the wall, I was dragged behind the podium. "Stay down," was hissed in my ear. I looked up as lightning flashed again to see the Fey from the auction house crouched beside me, looking grim.
"Where are we?" I demanded in an equally low tone.
I took a minute to process that. "And exactly how did we get here?"
"The rune. The mage activated it and opened a portal just as I reached you."
Almost like it was adding an exclamation point to his sentence, something hit the front of the podium, causing the heavy wood backing to shudder. The Fey was looking at something over my shoulder and I followed his gaze. The street had been clear only seconds before, but now it was rilled with about a dozen Fey, all staring in shock at the huge dragon's head. I realized that it was sticking out of an alley, so the lack of a body wasn't apparent. And in the poor light, it probably looked real.
Several of the Fey yelled in a language I didn't know, and something slammed into the cobblestones beside my hand. I jerked back without seeing what it was, but the next lightning flash showed that they had bows in their hands and several more were drawing back to shoot. "Tell them we're friends before they kill us!" I said in a furious whisper.
"I would, except for one problem."
"We're not friends."
"But, you're all Fey," I protested. I hadn't been able to make out a lot about our attackers, but I'd seen that much. Their bright silver hair lit up the night like beacons whenever the lightning flared.
"Yes, well, that's one way of looking at it," he muttered, beginning to root through the jumbled mess inside the podium. He was right behind the dragon's face, and arrows rattled against its surface continually, but none got through. Maybe Gerald's old man had been telling the truth about it after all. "Are there any weapons here?"
"Why? Can't you talk to them or something?"
A brief, strobelike flash reflected an exasperated pair of eyes under strands of tangled blond hair. "They're Svarestri." he informed me, like that meant anything. I just looked at him. "I'm not," he added unhelpfully.
I gave up trying to understand and he went back to pawing through the hollow head. "If the rune got us here, can't it get us back?" I asked, after a moment.
His head whipped around. "You have it?"
"No, don't you?"
"No. I couldn't get my hands on it in time. It must have remained on the other side." He held up something he'd discovered in Mart's trash heap. "I don't know human magic well. What is this?"
"An inhaler," I said, going by feel. "Matt has asthma."
"And that would be?"
"Completely unhelpful." I glanced back at the gaping black tunnel behind us. "What about retreat?" I'm not a fan of dark alleys, but it beat staying where we were.
"They've already sent some of their number to flank us," he informed me. I have no idea how he knew - maybe his eyes could see better than mine. Since I'd lost my glasses in the shuffle, that was a good bet. I pushed him out of the way and started my own search inside the podium.
I waded through a nasty pile of used tissues, a half dozen crumpled soft drink cans, piles of broken display containers, several scratched acrylic stands and a pair of old sneakers. No wonder Matt could never find the damn gavel! I had to go mostly on feel, as the lightning flashes were more confusing than helpful, and the dark interior of the podium was no brighter than the alley. But as far as I could tell the most lethal thing inside the dragon's head was the smell of Matt's tennis shoes.
"You're sure?" It wasn't at all reassuring that the Fey sounded almost as desperate as I felt.
"Just how much do these guys hate you?" It looked like talking our way out of this was the only chance we had.
"Bad enough to kill me if they can - and anyone with me."
This just kept getting better and better. A quick look out at the street told me that the trend was continuing. Not getting any response from the dragon must have made the Fey suspicious. Either that, or they thought they'd killed it. Either way, they were slowly moving closer, arrows nocked and ready. Shit.
I didn't have time to worry about it for long, because someone grabbed me from behind. While I'd been concentrating on the street in front of us, a Fey had snuck up on us through the alley. Several of them, I realized, as two more jumped my companion. I didn't think - there wasn't time. I just focused on my attacker's aura and gave a jerk. And since I hadn't been able to affect the Fey at Gerald's, I put a lot more effort behind it than usual.
The Fey holding me screamed, a high-pitched, almost musical note, and collapsed. I landed in a heap on very hard stones, but hardly noticed. I was too busy trying to figure out what to do with the avalanche of power that had flooded into me from the fallen Fey. It was a crushing weight, strong enough to cause tiny sparks in the air, as if a swarm of lightning bugs had descended on me. I'd never known anything like it and I didn't know what to do with it, but keeping it wasn't an option.
I panicked and sent the whole thing into the pavement, where my hands rested. Instead of grounding it as I'd planned, the surge of power moved under the cobblestones, churning them up like a giant earthworm moving through dirt. A giant, electric earthworm headed straight for our attackers.
The Fey scattered, but the building across the street had nowhere to go. A second later, the power hit it dead-on. It shook violently before erupting in a burst of wood, glass and pretty painted shutters, one of which hurtled across the street and almost decapitated me. I didn't have time to freak out, because my companion had hauled me to my feet and we were sprinting down the street, away from the raining cloud of rubble. I heard yells behind us, but nobody followed. I didn't blame them.