What's better than a witch on a road trip? How about a witch on a road trip with a host of supernatural creatures? Kim Harrison's Pale Demon takes her witch hero Rachel Morgan on a cross-country drive to the annual witch convention in San Francisco, to get her shunning revoked. Here's an exclusive look at chapter 12, where our heroes visit Las Vegas!
Chapter 12 stands on its pretty well, but you can also read the first four chapters of the novel here.
The warmth of the sun on my face turned into an irritating come and go of shadow and light, and I stretched. The crackle of a fastfood bag reminded me of why my back ached and why I was sleeping sitting up. Feeling fuzzy, I opened my eyes, glancing at Vivian, currently alternating her attention between the busy urban street and the clock she was trying to change. It must have been the beeps that woke me up. Apparently we'd crossed into another time zone. Six-eighteen. But I felt like it was nine. Somewhere, I'd missed another meal.
Vivian gave me a quick, neutral smile, and turned away. I looked up at the washed-out buildings on either side, wishing I had my sunglasses. We were off the interstate, and there were palm trees, but it didn't look like L.A. The timing wasn't right, either.
The street was busy, clogged with traffic and people.
Pedestrians were everywhere, and my eyes widened at the three guys dressed in velvet capes.
Vampires in the sun? Living, to be sure, but they were Gothed to the max.
"Where are we?" I asked.
"Las Vegas," Trent said from the back, his voice sour.
"Vegas?" Lips parting, I sat up and looked a little closer. Oh yeah.
Where else would you get a pyramid and the Eiffel Tower on the same street? Leaning over, I found the map at my feet. "Why are we in Vegas? I thought we were headed for L.A." Which probably had vampires roaming the streets in capes as well, come to think of it.
Vivian tightened her grip on the wheel as if I'd brought up a sore subject.
Her professionalism was running thin, and the petite woman frowned. "I'm not driving 40 to Bakersfield," she said through clenched teeth. "We're going the long way."
My gaze went to Ivy in a question, and she shrugged. "What's wrong with Bakersfield?" I finally asked, feeling the tension between Vivian and Trent.
"Nothing." Vivian frowned, but she still looked cute. Tired, but cute. "It's 40 I'm worried about. There are no gas stations after Kingman, and we would have run out."
"Someone's bad planning," Trent said softly. "The right person could make a killing."
Vivian made a huff of noise. "Someone's good planning, and make a killing is right. The people there don't want anyone driving through. Going to Vegas doesn't add much time. Stop complaining. We all want to get to the West Coast as soon as possible."
I hid a smile. Apparently Vivian and Trent hadn't been getting along, either. Settling myself, I ogled the people and buildings, acting like the Midwestern goober I was. I'd never seen so many flamboyant people flaunting their differences. It was easy to pick out the tourists with their pale faces and cameras. I'd never thought of myself as a conservative person, but this was like Halloween and Mardi Gras lumped together, a true Inderland playground.
"As long as we don't stop," I said, thinking it would be easy to lose a day here.
"We're stopping," Ivy said, voice low and confident.
From behind me, Trent muttered, "She speaks, so we must obey."
"You showered this morning," Ivy said, more loudly than she needed to. "I showered this morning. Vivian and Rachel didn't, and Rachel fought off a demon in hundred-degree heat. We can stop for an hour." There was a hesitation, followed by a soft "Besides, I'm hungry."
"Fine," Trent said, sounding like a passive-aggressive teenage girl. "But when we get back in the car, I'm driving."
A shower sounded more than good, and worried about the backseat dynamics, I stretched again. "Could you pick me up a burger or something?" I said around a yawn, eying a tall, blond vamp pacing down the
sidewalk in six-inch heels, her clothes hardly covering her important bits. "The faster we get out of here, the better."
"Burgers?" Trent's voice dripped disdain, and my tension spiked. "We are in Vegas. This is the first time we might find something that passes for food, and you want burgers?"
I turned in my seat, surprised by how tired he looked, washed out and worried. Trent was never worried. Not enough to let it show, anyway.
"Dude, why don't you stop and think about what your mouth is saying?" I said tightly.
"Children," Vivian said, not entirely joking, "if you don't stop arguing, I'm driving right through."
I turned back around, and Trent muttered, "I get to pick the restaurant."
"And the hotel," he added, and she growled in annoyance.
I suddenly felt a whole lot ickier. And hungry. Leaning forward, I began tidying the front seat, tucking the map away and picking up trash.
More Milk Duds boxes? "Jenks, you okay?" I asked, still not having seen him. It wasn't like him to miss a chance to join in with picking on Trent, and he wasn't on his usual seat on the rearview mirror.
"Peachy," came his voice from under the napkin draped over the open dash ashtray.
"He's altitude sick," Ivy said.
I resisted lifting the napkin, but just. "Are you okay?" I asked again, eying the white square. "You don't sound good."
"Leave me alone," he said, a green dust spilling over the rim of the ashtray, then sifting to the floor of the car. "I'll be fine."
"You want some pop or anything?"
It wasn't the right thing to say. In a flurry of motion, Jenks flung the napkin off, flying to an empty cup and throwing up in it, his wings flat against his back as he retched.
"Oh God!" Trent exclaimed. "He's doing it again."
"Jenks!" I exclaimed, almost frantic. I mean, when someone throws up, you're supposed to hold their hair back or make sure nothing hits their shoes, and I was way too big to do either.
"He's fine," Trent said so callously that I glared at him. "There's some honey on the dash. It helps."
I was ready to smack him, but Vivian handed me the packet, saying, "Flagstaff was really hard. He'll be okay."
"I don't feel so good," Jenks said, flying wobbly as he got back to his nest.
I shoved the cup in the bag with the rest of the trash, really worried. I knew Jenks tried to hide it, but if he didn't eat every couple of hours, he suffered. Throwing up could be a big problem. "Are you sure you're okay?" I asked as I tore open the packet and set it next to him.
Looking pale, he pulled a pair of chopsticks from his back pocket, nodding. "My head hurts." Eating a bit, he sighed, slumping to fall back when Vivian stopped at a light. We were right on the Strip, but worried about Jenks, I couldn't look up to see the sights.
"Better," he said with a sigh, then gave me a look of clarity before the honey kicked in. "I'll be okay. Just keep the honey coming."
I exhaled, relieved. He'd tell me if there was a real problem, wouldn't he? "Just what we need," I said, finding a smile. "A drunk pixy in Vegas. We'll fit right in."
"Not if I eat it slow enough," he said, easing back, looking relaxed but worn out. "Crap, now I have to pee."
My smile turned real, and I looked out the window at the people. I wished I had my camera, but then I'd stick out. Well, stick out more than two witches, a vamp, an elf, and a pixy in a powder blue Buick with Ohio plates already did. But then I saw the pack of Weres trotting down the sidewalk, and I decided we didn't stick out at all. "I said, I have to pee," Jenks said again, louder this time, and I appreciated that he wasn't going to go in a cup.
Vivian leaned forward as she made a turn. "Hold on. I know a quiet hotel off the Strip."
"Off the Strip?" Trent complained, and I realized just how this trip was wearing on all of us. "We are not stopping at some Were-bitten hole in the wall when we can stay at a decent establishment."
Vivian said nothing as she pulled my mom's car into a low-budget chain with very little neon on the sign. "We're not staying," she said when Trent voiced his disgust. "We're taking a break, and we're stopping here
because you won't get past the front desk of one of the big hotels without being recognized." She turned to him, her childlike face smiling cattily. "You want to be recognized?"
Trent said nothing, and satisfied, she put the car in park at the front office. "You've been nothing but a pain in the ass," she said as she grabbed her purse, just about the only thing she had since we'd kidnapped her. "No wonder Rachel doesn't like you. I don't like you, and I like everyone." His hand went to his chin, and Trent silently looked out the window, clearly peeved but seeing her logic. Ivy, though, was stirring, putting her boots back on and grabbing her purse.
"Is that Elvis?" I had to ask, seeing a Were in a white leisure suit and gold boots coming out of the office door. The stitching was glowing in the shadows. The man was wearing neon, and he had a Chihuahua in his arms. The dog's collar was neon, too.
Vivian reached for the door handle, barely glancing at him. "That's Bob and Chico," she said shortly. "I lived here before I moved to the coast. Well, not here, exactly, but just outside town. The ley lines are spectacular."
Really? I thought as she opened her door and got out. I'd heard they were numerous, but I had always thought it was part of the sell line. "Everyone stays here, okay?" she said from outside, looking harassed, a
hand on her hip and her clothes rumpled. She hadn't put on any makeup, and her once-slick hair was more like straw now. It made her trendy purse look like a cheap knockoff. "I'll get a room and then you can all go get something to eat," she said, eyes narrowed in annoyance. "I don't need a bunch of you in the office with me. I can handle this."
Ivy, of course, was getting out, and Vivian gave her a tired look. "I don't trust you," Ivy said with absolutely no remorse or guilt. "No hard feelings."
"None taken," the small woman said with the same detachment. "The rest of you stay."
Jenks's wings hummed, but he didn't move from the tissue-lined ashtray. "I gotta pee," he grumbled, but Vivian had shut the door, and the two walked in together, Vivian looking small next to Ivy's bruised and battered height.
"I really have to pee," he said again, this time his eyes beseechingly on mine.
I cranked the window all the way down, and he rose unsteadily into the air. "When did Vivian become everyone's mother?" I said, and he flew in a wobbling path outside. "Stay close, okay?" I said, noticing that he didn't have a scrap of red on him.
"Yeah, whatever," he said, then flew giggling to the sheared rosemary lining the path to the door.
I watched him, unable to stop my sigh. Silence descended, and as the insects buzzed, I became keenly aware of Trent, in the back. He had summoned a demon, not once, but twice. A day-walking demon. He said he'd done it to help. I wanted to believe him, but this had to stop. He wasn't proficient with magic, and he was doing more harm than good.
Twisting to see Trent, I said, "We need to talk." His eye twitched. Without a word, he unlocked his door and pushed it open, his foot catching the heavy door as it bounced back into him. Getting out, he shut the door and leaned against it, his back to me as he looked toward the Strip, a few blocks away.
Peeved, my eyes narrowed. I was too tired right now to push the issue.
After I had a burger, I'd pin him to the wall and demand some answers. Even though we were off the Strip, there was a definite flow of people headed for it, passing us with either a fast pace with loud chatter or silent with a dull drudgery. The high-magic amulet detector on my bag was glaring red, but the lethal-magic one was quiet. Remembering what Vivian had said, I reached for a ley line to see how some little city in the desert stacked up to my Cincinnati.
"Oh my God," I breathed as the reason for my slight headache became apparent. The ley lines were everywhere, thick, thin, long, and short, criss-crossing in a chaotic mess in every compass direction. It looked like someone had dropped a handful of pickup sticks. Las Vegas was on a damn rift or something, time fractured and barely holding together. Awed, I shook myself from the mental sight of so much power hovering over the desert sand, then promptly sneezed, my hair flying in my face at the quick jerk.
Oh, great, I thought as I wiped my nose, but the sun was still up, so there was no reason not to answer Al, if Al it was. Leaning over to the driver's seat, I popped the trunk and got out.
"What are you doing?" Trent asked belligerently as I shuffled through the trunk for my scrying mirror, giving him an insincere smile as I pulled it out.
"You ever use my mirror without my knowledge again, and I'm going to bust it over your head," I said. "And we are going to talk. We could all have gotten killed back there, or worse. Leave the magic to the professionals. Businessman."
He frowned as he took in my threat, and he looked like a spoiled brat standing there with his arms over his middle, wearing black from head to toe, a slight flush to his cheeks. Damn, he looked good, though, and I sneezed again as I sat down, leaving my door open for the cross breeze.
Trent turned to watch me set the mirror on my lap, and I shivered as the cold glass seemed to adhere to me, going right through my jeans. The silver-and-wine color threw back the haze of the setting sun, looking more beautiful yet. Another sneeze shook me, and I frowned. Yup, it was Al. Ignoring Trent as he moved around the car to better spy on me, I put my hand on the scrying mirror in the cave of the pentagram. I connected to one of the smaller lines, and the rest was easy.
Rachel calling Al, come in Al . . . , I thought dryly. The link formed in an instant, with a fury that left me blinking. Son of a bitch! echoed in my thoughts, foreign adrenaline slamming into me. Al was in pain. He wasn't talking to me; he was in excruciating, mind-numbing pain. Al? I thought, confused as flashes of power and half-understood spells roared through my consciousness, too fast to be realized. My lips parted, and I pressed my hand more firmly into the glass. Furious Latin uncoiled from his mind as he twisted communal stored spells. They rose from the depths of two thousand years, created during a time of war, and all the uglier for having been roused and thrust into existence with no warning.
Black and sickly, I felt them pass through my mind, coating me in Al's memory of what it was like to be in pain and how to crush another with one's thoughts.
Al! I screamed into our shared thoughts, scared that the magic might turn on me. He was pulling on a line through me, and damn it if it didn't feel good even as I tried to cut him off.
Get over here, Rachel. I need your-ow! Al thought as he finally heard me, but then his splinter of awareness jerked away, and his howl at a burst of energy created to liquidize fat burned itself into my brain. He nullified it in an instant, leaving me dizzy and panting but knowing how to do it. Al! I thought, but I must have said it aloud because Trent's shadow covered me.
"What's going on?" Trent asked, more irritation than concern in his tone.
Heat exploded in my chest, and Al and I both reacted-him with a furious shout and a thrown counterspell, me slamming my rising palm back to the mirror before my fingertips could leave the glass.
Line. Give me a line! Al thought, and I did, loosening my grip and letting the energy flow through my hand and into his mind.
The pain cut off, and I groaned in relief. My hand was trembling, and I pressed it more firmly into the scrying mirror. I looked up, feeling unreal. Past the car windows, the sky had gone hazy with red, and the gritty wind was blowing. Somehow I was using my second sight, seeing Las Vegas as if it was on fire. It looked like hell, the casinos and buildings burning, crumbling, and re-forming to crumble again. It had to be from the ley lines. There were so many that nothing was stable. I stared, transfixed, as, in the back of my mind, Al moved, dodged, and fought someone using spells so complex they looked like another language.
"Rachel, what's going on?" Trent asked again, his voice a faint buzzing as I struggled to hold my connection to Al. He'd all but forgotten me as he fought. Al was fighting hand-to-hand, teeth clenched as he struggled to keep something from his eye.
"Al!" I shouted, shoving the line into him. It burned through his mind, and he groaned, directing it into his attacker's face. Outside the car, an explosion in the ever-after ripped off the corner of a building. I watched in awe as it fell in slow motion, a red dust rising from the impact. In Al's kitchen, I felt him shove someone away, and Al rolled to his knees, his savagery making my lips pull back in a snarl.
I blinked, and I was suddenly seeing reality-the demolished building became whole and serene, its elevator rising up, the windows glittering with neon.
Trent touched my shoulder, and I jumped as our auras connected. From Al's kitchen, a savage explosion shook me. The curse falling from Al's lips was like tinfoil between my teeth, serrating into my spine and brain, and Trent felt it, too. I gasped as Al pulled on not only me, but Trent, and with a bellow of rage, Al flung the ball of death he'd pulled from us across his kitchen, exploding it against a quick black figure with silver hair.
The attacker hit the wall, the tapestry that I hated going up in green flames.
The fabric screamed, and with a clap of rushing air, the figure attacking Al vanished. On the floor, the tapestry shrieked and writhed as if in pain. Trent's yelp of shock echoed in me as he pulled away. Stunned, I sat alone with my hand on the mirror. A slithering blackness had risen, and I felt it settle over Al as he huddled on his cold black floor, whispering, I take this, I take this, before the smut could hurt him. I shivered as the smut lapped about my consciousness, touching me and recoiling like a living thing before it slid back to Al.
Sweet everlasting shit. We're in trouble, I felt in our joined thoughts. The attacker was gone, and I cut off the energy flowing between us. Al? I cautiously offered, and I felt his consciousness gather, trying to pretend that he hadn't almost just died.
Rachel . . . , he started, and then we both clenched in pain. A new rush of adrenaline poured into me, and I heard in our joined thoughts, You little runt!
There was another grunt of pain, and I doubled over. With a pop, I felt Al's thoughts leave mine. It wasn't the snap of disconnection because I could still feel what he was feeling. It was something else. Something was wrong, and this time, Al was in trouble. His mind wasn't working. At all.