recognized the whisper. Or maybe he really was crazy. Gods knew he had been raised by a madman. Maybe it had been only a matter of time.

Come and get me.

Holy shit. What was going on here? His feet started moving before his brain could catch up, and he stumbled and nearly went down. Cursing, he forced himself upright and stood braced on locked legs, caught between wanting to prove he could walk away and needing to know what the hell was going on. And—just maybe—what he could do to make the craziness go away so he and Reese could have a chance.

I’m here.

“I heard you,” he growled. “Keep your damn panties on.” Because the whisper—the insanity—was feminine. And it was pulling him toward Warehouse Seventeen.

That was where he’d first seen Reese, where he’d broken his own “don’t fuck with the Cobras and they won’t fuck with you” rule by grabbing her before Hood could make her one of his “girlfriends.” At the time, he’d told himself it had been a spur of the moment thing, a decision he’d made because something in her eyes had reminded him of his sister, Joy. Later, he’d admitted that an outside force had pulled him to Seventeen that day, and he’d toyed with the idea of destiny. Now, he didn’t know what the fuck to think. Hell, he barely could think, though he held it together enough to pull out his .44.

It was the only weapon he was packing. He didn’t trust himself with a knife anymore.

The warehouse was a black box of a building fronted with broken windows, dangling fire escapes, and a big “17” painted over the seized-up garage doors that hadn’t worked in years. Like most of the others, Seventeen had been abandoned by its owners, condemned by the city, and then ignored because nobody really gave a damn about what went on in the shit zone as long as it didn’t amoeba its way toward more important real estate. Over the years Seventeen had gone back and forth between being a central Cobra hangout and being abandoned to the street rats, who tunneled from one warehouse to the next, always making sure they had a way out. Lately, even the street kids had left it alone, though nobody knew quite why.


Dez followed the whisper into the dark shadows near where a couple of steel panels had been turned into a hidden entrance. He ducked through, leading with his gun but not seeing anything worth shooting. The few emergency lights that still worked inside Seventeen illuminated a jumble of racks, catwalks, and other random discards . . . including a small bundle that lay in a patch of scuffed-up dust beneath one of the working emergency lights. The wadded-up cloth didn’t look much different from the other garbage lying around, but he knew it was more. He knew.

His head pounded and spun; his senses fogged. A warning buzzer went off deep inside him, but he ignored it because this was what he’d been searching for. He was sure of it. Letting his gun hand sag, he crouched down and reached for the bundle.

A slight, wiry body slammed into him from behind, driving him to his knees.

Shit. Ambush! Adrenaline blasted through him, clearing his head in an instant. Reacting even as he cursed himself for walking dumb-assed into the trap, he jammed his shoulder into his attacker?s gut and heaved. The move should’ve sent the guy flying into next week, but the runt countered, got an arm across his throat, and cranked down with a ferocity that grayed his vision and brought a stab near his collarbone. Tingling pain lashed down Dez’s arm and the .44 skidded away.

Pissed at himself as much as at the other man, he lunged to his feet with a roar and then went over backward, using the little shit to break his fall. Something snapped—maybe bone—and the choke hold slackened.

He rolled away from his assailant and surged to his feet. “How’d that feel, mother . . . fucker.” In an instant, the world telescoped down to the sight of familiar pale eyes in a sharp, tautly drawn face slashed through with six gnarled scar lines that ran across the other man’s cheek and throat. “Keban.”

Dez hadn’t seen his godfather in almost five years. And the last time, he’d nearly killed the bastard.

“Hid yourself well, didn’t you, boy?” Louis Keban pulled himself to his feet, his sneer showing the jagged edge of a broken tooth. “But I found you. Always will.” His mad, bright eyes went to the cloth-wrapped bundle. “You felt her, didn’t you? That’s because it’s time—the war’s coming, boy. The end of the world’s coming. It’s time for you to step up and do what you were born to do.”

“You’re out of your fucking mind,” Dez grated, but suddenly he wasn’t so sure about that. He had felt the pull, heard the voice in his head. And the air had sparked red-gold when he kissed Reese.

They were just stories, he’d been telling himself for years. There’s no magic, no doomsday countdown. It had all been part of Keban’s elaborate insanity.

Unless it hadn’t been, he thought as the world started to swim around him. What if . . . “Fuck,” he spat when his vision fuzzed and he realized it wasn’t just shock; the little bitch had drugged him. Swaying on his feet, he pawed his collarbone and cursed when his fingers hit the end of a snapped-off needle.

“Just a little something to help you get your magic.” Keban turned, scooped up the bundle, and unrolled it to reveal a small carving. “This should take care of the rest. Courtesy of Montezuma.” Made of shiny black stone and approximately the length of Dez’s thumb, it was a woman with wide hips and a big head, more grotesque than pretty.

Dez hissed out a breath as a hard, hot force suddenly surged up inside him. Mine, it said. That’s mine. He wanted to snatch the carved fragment away from Keban, wanted to hide it, to protect it, to have it as his own. He would kill to possess it, kill to protect it. Kill.

He was moving before he was aware of having made a decision, surging forward and reaching for the statuette. Mine. But when he was halfway there his knees folded and the world went gray, fog closing in on him until the only thing he could see was the flare of triumph in the other man’s eyes. Then he was down and vulnerable, cursing in dread silence as Keban handcuffed his wrists in front of his body, positioning him so he was kneeling like a damned penitent. Then the bastard pulled a knife and cut Dez’s palms along the old scar lines.

They had played this game before.

The pain sparked a searing rage that burned through the drugs. As his vision cleared, he saw that the other man was using the same stone blade he had used throughout the years—black obsidian with etched serpent glyphs that matched the one on the bastard’s forearm: The mark of the serpent bloodline. Son of a bitch, Dez thought, reeling from both shock and drugs. What if—

Then Keban pressed the black statuette into his hand, and the world went haywire.

The stone flashed from cool to hot in an instant, searing his palms, and a strange, crackling buzz sizzled through him, reaching deep and sparking anger and greed, the lust for power, approval, recognition, respect. He bared his teeth and strained against his bonds as energy stabbed through his chest and behind his eyeballs. The head and heart are the sources of a mage’s power, came Keban’s voice in his mind, drilling the lessons into him along with the strategies of a thousand battles, the workings of a hundred political systems . . . and the future as it existed inside the older man’s warped brain. Your sister died so you could live. You owe me, owe her, owe the gods. Try harder. Be better, be more, or it was all a waste.

The memories hammered through Dez as Keban got in his face and rasped, “Say the words, damn it. Jack in.”

Pasaj och. The phrase whispered in his mind, but the spell wouldn’t work, hadn’t ever worked. It had just been an excuse for Keban to whale on him once a quarter, when he failed to tap into his so-called magic on the night of every solstice and—

Oh, shit. Tonight was the equinox.

And this was really happening.

A cold fist wrapped itself around Dez’s heart and squeezed, cutting through the drugged fog and the power of the statuette. “Make your own fucking magic,” he grated. “I don’t follow orders.”

The cool press of a gun muzzle touched his temple as Keban got in close and grated, “Jack the fuck in.”

“Suck. My. Dick.”

Face flushing an ugly brick red slashed with the six parallel white scars, Keban hammered Dez across the jaw with his own .44, and then took a couple of steps back to aim it two-handed. “Say it.” When Dez just glared, the other man’s eyes went frenzied. “Say it!” he screamed with spittle-flecked violence. “Say the fucking spell!”

Dez saw his godfather’s trigger finger tighten, saw murder in his eyes, and felt a flash of pure grief. I’m

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