Prague, Czechoslovak Soviet Republic
May 2, 1970
The night had fallen extra dark. At sunset, a storm front had scudded across Prague as though the city were a child yanking the covers over her head when the campfire burned out. And, like that child holding her breath lest the beasts of the night hear and devour her, Prague had stilled itself, too.
The rain muffled everything except one steady rhythm, like the pounding of bootheels on wet cobbles. But none who heard the strange rapping—as it neared their khruschyovka windows, then Dopplered away again—imagined this was the sound of a woman in flight. Nobody could run that fast. It was nothing but a dream, they reassured themselves as they drifted back to sleep.
Or so Jordan hoped.
The charm clenched in her fist pulled its energy directly from the quivering ley lines beneath the city. She drew deep from the telluric currents to power her legs, to heighten the efficiency of her lungs, to keep exhaustion at bay. The price would be great. She’d chosen speed over stealth. After all, what point in discretion if there was nobody left to marvel? Still, it made her feel naked: a bald display of the uncanny, free for the lonely insomniacs of Prague.
Wisps of smoke and a bone-white glow leaked through her fingers to render Jordan a comet, tail and all. She’d lost a kerchief somewhere on this mad dash, and now the hair streaming behind her tugged relentlessly, fighting her like a drag racer’s drogue chute. Rainwater had wicked into the hem of her skirt, making it heavier, sapping just a little more energy with every slap against her ankles. She skidded around a corner, hobnails drawing sparks from rain-slicked pavers as she spied her destination. A convulsion rattled the ley lines and broke her connection. It sent her sprawling.
She wrapped her arms about her head, bracing for concussion. The smoking charm flew free of her grasp and crumbled to ash against a traffic bollard. She tumbled down the street, rolling and flopping like a rag doll, every bounce the source of three new bruises. But even that pain was nothing compared to the fiery agony in her lungs.
Somehow, she slid to a stop with no shattered bones. She clutched an iron railing and pulled herself upright, grimacing. A profound weariness, heavier than seven sleepless nights, bowed her shoulders. Rain seeped through the rents in her newly tattered leather jacket.
Climbing the stairs to Nadia’s apartment seemed a Herculean task, but she managed. Half throwing herself against the door, half collapsing against it, she coaxed a semblance of a voice from her wind-burned throat.
“Ostrokhina. Open up.”
She didn’t, at first. Who in her right mind would leap to this summons? Certainly not a KGB officer, nor any loyal Soviet who’d undoubtedly grown up with parents who dreaded, more than anything in the world, a knock on the door in the middle of the night. A knock like Jordan made now: loud, insistent, demanding. Ceaseless.
The door cracked open and one brown eye peeked out. The Russian swore. “What now? I’ve only just—”
“Flame has occupied my bar,” Jordan rasped. “I’m locked out.”
The door flew open, pulling Jordan off balance. She crashed to the floor at Nadia’s feet. New bruises joined those from the street. A matching set, perhaps. The KGB woman briskly lifted her like a bartender righting an overturned stool. Jordan had rarely seen somebody turn so angry so quickly.
“Are you telling me they own the confluence?”
Jordan nodded. “And they’re wasting no time. Whatever they’re doing, it’s big.”
“We’re not ready yet. Damn it!”
Nadia dashed to the bedroom and fell to a crouch beside a tall armoire. Jordan felt a little fizz of magic as the other woman breathed a short chant and snapped something against the lock of the lowest drawer. Subtle pressure, like the ache of an ear that refuses to pop, percolated through Jordan’s sinuses, made her eyes water. Nadia had dropped a heavy shielding ward. Jordan kept similar protections around her own “in case of emergency” stash.
Of course, Jordan’s emergency stash was in the bar.
“I won’t ask how you knew where to find me,” said the Russian, rummaging in the drawer. She tossed something at Jordan, who managed to pluck it from midair without bobbling it. An electric buzz ran down her arm, partially recharging overtaxed muscles—both physical and metaphysical—and saving her from the worst of the adrenaline crash. It made her alert enough to note her surroundings more clearly. One side of the bed was completely untouched.
That was disappointing. She’d harbored a faint hope she might recruit a second reinforcement with this errand.
“Where’s your girlfriend?” she asked.
Nadia kept sorting through her charms. One for her, one for Jordan, one for her, one for Jordan. She didn’t miss a beat. “Not here.”
She probably thought her tone neutral. But any barkeep worth her salt understood that tightening in the voice. It was the crackle of a...