THE SKULL GLARED at me out of empty eye sockets. Odd runes marked its forehead, carved into the yellowed bone and filled with black ink. Its thick bottom jaw supported a row of conical fangs, long and sharp like the teeth of a crocodile. The skull sat on top of an old Stop sign. Someone had painted the surface of the octagon white and written KEEP OUT across it in large jagged letters. A reddish-brown splatter stained the bottom edge, looking suspiciously like dried blood. I leaned closer. Yep, blood. Some hair, too. Human hair.
Curran frowned at the sign. “Do you think he’s trying to tell us something?”
“I don’t know. He’s being so subtle about it.”
I looked past the sign. About a hundred yards back, a large two-story house waited. It was clearly built post-Shift, out of solid timber and brown stone laid by hand to ensure it would survive the magic waves. But instead of the usual simple square or rectangular box of most post-Shift buildings, this house had all the pre-Shift bells and whistles of a modern prairie home: rows of big windows, sweeping horizontal lines, and a spacious layout. Except prairie-style homes usually had long flat roofs and little ornamentation, while this place sported pitched roofs with elaborate carved gables, beautiful bargeboards, and ornate wooden windows.
“It’s like someone took a Russian log cabin and a pre-Shift contemporary house, stuck them into a blender, and dumped it over there.”
Curran frowned. “It’s his . . . What do you call it? Terem.”
“A terem is where Russian princesses lived.”
Between us and the house lay a field of black dirt. It looked soft and powdery, like potting soil or a freshly plowed field. A path of rickety old boards, half rotten and splitting, curved across the field to the front door. I didn’t have a good feeling about that dirt.
We’d tried to circle the house and ran into a thick, thorn-studded natural fence formed by wild rosebushes, blackberry brambles, and trees. The fence was twelve feet tall and when Curran tried to jump high enough to see over it, the thorny vines snapped out like lassos and made a heroic effort to pull him in. After I helped him pick the needles out of his hands, we decided a frontal assault was the better option.
“No animal tracks on the dirt,” I said.
“No animal scents either,” Curran said. “There are scent trails all around us through the woods, but none here.”
“That’s why he has giant windows and no grates on them. Nothing can get close to the house.”
“It’s that, or he doesn’t care. Why the hell doesn’t he answer his phone?”
Who knew why the priest of the god of All Evil and Darkness did anything?
I picked up a small rock, tossed it into the dirt, and braced myself. Nothing. No toothy jaws exploded through the soil, no magic fire, no earth-shattering kaboom. The rock just sat there.
We could come back later, when the magic was down. That would be the sensible thing to do. However, we had driven ten miles through lousy traffic in the punishing heat of Georgia’s summer and then hiked another mile through the woods to get here, and our deadline was fast approaching. One way or another, I was getting into that house.
I put my foot onto the first board. It sank a little under my weight, but held. Step. Another step. Still holding.
I tiptoed across the boards, Curran right behind me. Think sneaky thoughts.
The dark soil shivered.
Two more steps.
A mound formed to the right of us, the dirt shifting like waves of some jet-black sea.
“To the right,” I murmured.
“I see it.”
Long serpentine bone spines pierced the mound and slid through the soil toward us, like fins of a sea serpent gliding under the surface of a midnight-black, powdery ocean.
We sprinted to the door.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a cloud of loose soil burst to the left. A black scorpion the size of a pony shot out and scrambled after us.
If we killed his pet scorpion, we’d never hear the end of it.
I ran up the porch and pounded on the door. “Roman!”
Behind me the bone spines whipped out of the soil. What I’d thought were fins turned into a cluster of tentacles, each consisting of bone segments held together by remnants of cartilage and dried, ropy connective tissue. The tentacles snapped, grabbing Curran. He locked his hands on the bones and strained, pulling them apart. Bone crunched, connective tissue tore, and the left tentacle flailed, half of it on the ground.
“Roman!” Damn it all to hell.
A bone tentacle grabbed me and yanked me back and up, dangling me six feet off the ground. The scorpion dashed forward, its barb poised for the kill.
The door swung open, revealing Roman. He wore a T-shirt and plaid pajama bottoms, and his dark hair, shaved on the sides into a long horselike mane, stuck out on the left side of his head. He looked like he’d been sleeping.
“What’s all this?”
Roman squinted at me. “What are you guys doing here?”
“We had to come here because you don’t answer your damn phone.” Curran’s voice had that icy quality that said his patience was at an end.
“I didn’t answer it because I unplugged it.”
Roman waved his hand. The scorpion retreated. The tentacles gently set me down and slithered back into the ground.
“You would unplug yours too if you were related to my family. My parents are fighting again and they’re trying to make me choose sides. I told them they could talk to me when they start acting like responsible adults.”