Also by Lucy A.

Snyder Spellbent

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Shotgun Sorceress is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. 2010 Ballantine Books Mass Market Original Copyright © 2010 by Lucy Snyder All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Ballantine Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. Ballantine and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc. 978-0-345-51210-9 Cover illustration © Dan Dos Santos Printed in the United States of America 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

For Sara Larson, who, it should be noted, bears absolutely no resemblance to the Sara you’ll find in this book. Well, okay, there’s one resemblance: her kitten Fred is indeed a little devil.


I’d like to thank the people who helped bring this book into the world: my agent, Robert L. Fleck; my editor, Shauna Summers; and her assistant, Jessica Sebor. I’d also like to thank my publicist, April Flores, and my deepest gratitude goes to my first readers: Dan, Trista, and my ever-patient husband, Gary. And finally, I must express my appreciation to the following molecule for helping me make my deadlines:

Image of caffeine structure courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

part one

Suburban Outlaws

chapter eleven

A Hole in the Sky

t felt wonderful to step back out onto the damp earth of the cornfield, to feel the sun on my skin. I took a deep breath of the summer air and turned around. The scarecrow was once again just an old black suit and a straw-stuffed burlap sack head hanging on a couple of old rake handles. “Well, thank God that’s over,” I said to Pal. An unseasonably cool breeze wafted across my shoulders, and I shivered, looking upward. The sky was darkening. A late summer storm? “I’m sorry, dude,” the Warlock said to Cooper. “I . . . I just didn’t know what to say in there. I don’t know how to raise anything that can’t live in an aquarium, you know?” “It’s okay.” Cooper gave the Warlock a brotherly slap on the shoulder. “It’ll work out. The kids’ll be fine. You’ll do better with the whole big brother thing when they’re a little older.” “All the people Riviera mentioned will be very fine foster parents,” Karen added. “I don’t think you need to worry.” The hairs on my arms and the back of my neck prickled as the wind rose, turned downright cold, rattling through the cornfield. Sudden scudding clouds



Lucy A. Snyder

blotted out the sun, and my heart dropped when I saw four pavement-gray spirals begin to twist down from the overcast. “Guys, look at that!” I said. “Tornadoes?” said the Warlock. “What the hell?” “No, I don’t think they are,” Cooper replied. The tips of the descending spirals crackled with lightning, opened like the burning eyes of vast gods to reveal a blinding brightness behind them, and from them descended huge creatures that looked like crystalline orreries circling pulsing magma hearts. “Shit, it’s the Virtii!” I hollered. “Y’all get in the car and get the hell out of here!” I slung both my arms through the backpack straps, hiked up my skirts, and pelted down a corn row, running as hard and fast as I could away from the Warlock’s Land Rover. “What are you doing?” Pal demanded inside my head. Leading them away from you guys. I hope, I thought back, shielding my face from the lashing corn leaves. “But you can kill these creatures!” I killed one. With great difficulty, if you remember. I take on four, I’m dead. “But we have Cooper and the Warlock to help us this time.” They’d be good if there were one or two Virtii. If we fight four, there’ll be nothing left of us but scorched teeth and bad credit. Get everyone in the car and get them out of here. “What are you planning to do out here on your own?” Pal sounded genuinely angry. Planning to try to stay alive, first. I think I see some



trees I can hide in for a little while. I’m betting there’s a back door to the Faery Tavern floating around out here someplace. “They’ll enslave you if you go back there uninvited!” Still better than being dead, right? If that happens, tell Cooper he better come back here and break me out. I ran out of the cornfield onto a dirt road and promptly tripped over a muddy rut. As I tumbled forward onto my hands and knees, I felt the zipper and fabric at the back of my ball gown pop and rip. Swearing, I got to my feet, held my smirched skirts up with my flesh hand, and started running toward the trees again, my bodice slipping ominously downward. A Virtus loomed above me like a manta ray preparing to suck up a shrimp. “Surrender or be expunged,” it thundered. Crap, I’m gonna die, I thought, still running. I’m gonna die in a prom dress in a stupid cornfield out in the middle of BFE. I heard calliope music behind me, and suddenly Pal scooped me up underneath my arms and whisked me off toward open sky. “Dammit, Coop, move, you’re on my nuts,” the Warlock complained from somewhere on Pal’s back. “Dude, there’s no place for me to move to—” Cooper began. “Christ, guys, why didn’t you get out of here like I told you?” I hollered back at them. “I wasn’t just going to leave you out here!” Cooper sounded indignant. “Nor was I,” added my familiar.


Lucy A. Snyder

“Warlock, what’s your excuse?” I yelled. “I didn’t want to get stuck changing diapers!” Pal’s clawed fingers were digging painfully into my armpits, and my backpack was crammed up against the back of my head and neck; I couldn’t turn to see if our pursuers were gaining on us or if we were making good our escape. “Where are the Virtii?” I yelled against the wind. “The closest one’s, oh, a couple hundred yards back,” the Warlock replied hoarsely, a faint tremor in his voice. “It’s getting kinda glowy . . . that’s bad, right?” “Very bad, yes!” I stripped the glove off my flame hand just in case we were forced to fight. “Pal, if you can get us away from them any quicker, do it!” “I know a teleportation incantation—” my familiar replied. “Yes! Teleportation would be double-plus good!” “—but I can’t sing more than one spell. I’d have to land us first. They’d be on us before I could finish.” I swore. “Fly faster!” “I’m trying!” We rose higher in the air, and a sudden choppy crosswind caught my skirts. I felt the zipper give entirely and my bodice slid down to my hips. The way Pal was carrying me, I couldn’t reach down to grab it. I tried for a charm but my adrenaline-soaked brain wouldn’t come up with anything useful. “My dress! Guys, help!” I spread my legs to try to keep it from flying away; the heavy fabric flapped between my knees like a sail, jerking my legs back against Pal’s thorax. The wind whistled bracingly through my thin underwear.



“It’s too much drag!” Pal exclaimed. “It’s slowing us down; let it go!” “I’m gonna be naked!” I wailed. “And we’ll be dead if they catch us!” Pal’s logic was unassailable. I closed my legs and felt the fancy green satin-and-crinoline ball gown flap away toward the fields below. Stupid fucking dress. At least I still had my boots on. “Are we losing ’em, or are they gaining on us?” “They’re gaining!” Cooper yelled. “Hey, where’s your dress?” Christ on a cracker. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes to keep from screaming in frustration. And suddenly realized that my ocularis was itching like someone had rubbed my eye socket with poison ivy. I opened my eyes, blinked to the door-sight gemview, and began to scan the sky. And just a few hundred feet in front of us, I saw the faint outline of a wide oval, big enough to admit one of those flying Pringles cans they call regional jet planes—but maybe too small for a Virtus—hanging in the sky. “Whoa! There’s a portal! Go up, to the left!” I shouted. Pal obeyed. “What’s a portal doing here?” the Warlock asked. “I don’t know; it’s big,” I replied. “Pal, stop, we’re on top of it.” “They’re coming fast, we can’t stop long,” Cooper said. I fervently wished that I could turn my head to see behind us. “Let me try this.” I reached out to probe the edge of the portal with my flame hand. The moment I touched it, the portal sprang


Lucy A. Snyder

open with a pop, revealing a circle of bright jet-stream blue within the cloudy sky. A wind rose from the difference in pressure, dragging us toward the portal, but Pal was strong enough to resist it. I was too low to see the ground that lay beyond the portal, but it was disorienting to see the sun twinned in the second sky. “Something’s not right—” Pal began. The Warlock and Cooper swore and shouted. A burning plasma pseudopod whipped through the air, perilously close to my head. “Fuck it, go through, go through!” I screamed. Pal went through. And suddenly we were falling.

chapter twelve

A Bale of Trouble

al was still performing his musical spell as we plummeted toward the ground. I tried to shout an old word for “slow” but felt my magic blocked as solidly as if someone had put me in a stranglehold. Cooper was shouting an incantation, too, with no better result. More bizarrely, I realized my flame hand had been extinguished, leaving nothing but a couple of inches of coal-black stump below my elbow. “Haystack below! Go left so I don’t crush you!” Pal released me, and I twisted midair and pushed off his hairy body with my legs. I landed on my backpack on a steep hill of scratchy hay, rolling sideways until I tumbled to a stop against some straw bales at the bottom. The pack had miraculously stayed on my back. A piece of baling wire jabbed me painfully in the side, and I gasped. Instantly, my mouth and nose were filled with a foul roadkill stench. I rolled away from the protruding wire and came face-to-face with an eyeless, desiccated corpse, the leathery lips vermin-eaten and pulled back from the tobacco-stained teeth in a rictus. “Augh, there’s a dead guy!” I hollered, scrambling to my feet and leaping over the bales to the sandy ground beyond. “Ew, ew, nasty, ew!”



Lucy A. Snyder

I dropped the opera gloves that were still clenched in my right hand and slapped at imagined maggots on my naked body and legs. Pal was a dozen yards away, heaving himself over onto his stilting legs in the straw. “Oh dear, there’s a corpse over here as well.” He bent to examine what I’d initially thought was just a bundle of rags. “She appears to have missed the haystack entirely when she fell.” I took deep breaths, trying to still the creepy shivers jittering up my spine. The air was as hot and thick as the blood of a man dying of fever. Every inhalation brought the bitter-sharp smell of a thousand spiny weeds and the pungent stink of rotting flesh and something I took to be gasoline or kerosene. The pile of hay we’d fallen into was positively mountainous; the top had to be over a hundred feet high, and the base was easily the size of a football field. Cooper and the Warlock had gotten stuck in the hay much closer to the top and were struggling down the hill, sinking knee-deep in the fodder with every step; they both seemed to be uninjured. The cloudless sky was the blue of a natural gas flame, and the sun stung my bare breasts and shoulders; I’d be burned to blisters in a half hour. The makeup Mother Karen had put on me smelled as if it had some kind of sunscreen in it, so at least my face would be okay for a while. The tops of my ears and my nipples, maybe not so much. Where were we? I turned to survey the landscape. At first glance, I thought we were in a junkyard planted randomly in the middle of a vast expanse of flat scrub, but then I realized the twisted metal frames



were the wreckage of various types of smaller aircraft, from gliders to crop dusters to small commercial jets. I even saw the stripped, sun-bleached bones of a dragon. Farther in the distance I could see abandoned, intact aircraft; apparently their pilots had coasted to safe landings. Or mostly safe: some had broken wings and fuselages, and I could see dark, muddy fuel spills beneath them. Why hadn’t they exploded or even burned? And what had made them crash? Clearly we were in a magical dead zone, but planes didn’t need magic to stay in the air. Or if they did, the airlines sure weren’t advertising it. Cicadas were a steady, feverish buzz in the scrubby mesquites scattered among the wrecks. The earth was a mix of exposed crumbling limestone and dry caliche dotted with tufts of brown arrowgrass, purpleblossomed nightshades, ragweeds, and horse crippler cacti. “Hey, guys, I think we’re in Texas.” I shrugged off my backpack and dug out a disposable lighter. “Texas?” The Warlock was running his purple healing crystal over a nasty scratch on his face as he limped through the straw toward me. The wound was sealing, so the crystal was still working. His gaze rested on my bared breasts for two heartbeats, then slid away to the airplane wreckage. “What makes you think this is Texas?” “The weeds, mostly. And the general landscape.” I flicked the lighter several times and didn’t get so much as a spark off the steel. Huh. Planes probably didn’t need charms, but they definitely needed internal combustion. Apparently someone—or something—had


Lucy A. Snyder

nixed fire as well as spoken magic. I blinked through all the gemviews; my ocularis seemed to be working properly. Whatever was squelching our spells didn’t seem to affect enchanted items. The Warlock ran his fingers through his sweaty curls and scratched his scalp. “But it’s so . . . flat. Where are the mountains?” I laughed and started digging my street clothes out of the backpack. “You’ve seen too many Westerns; you’re thinking of Montana. Hollywood thinks it looks more like cowboy country than the Lone Star State. Or maybe it’s just cheaper to film up there.” Cooper joined us. “Not that I don’t love talking about movies, but maybe we should be talking about this spectacular trap we just randomly fell into?” I wiggled into my sports bra. “Trap, yes. Random, no.” The Warlock frowned. “What do you mean?” “Well, the trap part is obvious.” I slipped on my Hello Kitty T-shirt and gestured at the hay mountain. “That or this is the shittiest theme park attraction I’ve ever seen.” “Did you know this was probably a trap when you had Pal go through?” Cooper asked. “Yeah, I had an idea.” I started taking my boots off so I could slip on my dragonskin pants. It was way too hot for them, but at least they’d provide a bit of protection if we got attacked. I couldn’t bear the thought of putting on the dragonskin jacket, even though my arms were getting pink from the sun. For all the stuff I’d packed, I’d forgotten sunscreen. “You knew this was a trap?” The Warlock looked



like he was ready to pay me back for the broken nose I’d given him. “What the hell were you thinking?” “I was thinking we were facing certain fiery death if we didn’t go through the portal.” I stepped into the pants and pulled them up with my flesh hand; immediately my legs started sweating uncomfortably under the leather. “And since the portal didn’t seem to lead into outer space or a live volcano or Rush Limbaugh’s underwear, it seemed like the better of two lousy choices.” I was getting faint flashes of the dragon’s death as the leather clung to my damp skin. If I closed my eyes, I could feel Moorish steel slashing my long neck and belly as I belched fire at the impudent raiders. But the death-imprint was old, faded, hovering just at the edge of my perception. I could get used to it, probably tune it out entirely after a while like a mild case of post-nightclub tinnitus. “But maybe they just wanted to take us into custody,” Cooper said. “Look, guys, contrary to popular belief, I’m not an idiot.” I pulled the hem of my shirt out over the top of my pants and started to put my boots back on. “I got a peek inside the mind of the Virtus I killed. They want me dead, period, end of sentence. And to be on the safe side, they want you guys dead, too. They are probably the least random beings in the universe; everything they do is carefully planned and measured against a thousand possible outcomes. The Virtus probably didn’t have to miss when it took a swing at us, so they wanted us to go through this particular portal. So it was a setup from the beginning. And we just have to deal.” “But why here?” the Warlock asked. “I mean, if


Lucy A. Snyder

they want you dead . . . well, this hay pile doesn’t fit in with that, you know? Whoever is running the show here wants people to survive the fall. So are we looking at some kind of fate worse than death out here, like prolonged torture or something?” “They’re not sadists.” I shook the dust off the opera gloves and stowed them in the pack. Trying to explain to the others what I’d seen and felt when I’d touched the Virtus’ mind was pretty difficult. I just didn’t have the words for all of it. “I killed one of them,” I continued. “That means I’m dangerous to them in a physical sense, sure. But I’m also dangerous to them on a prophecy level, and to them, that’s even worse. Clearly the Virtus I took out the other day hadn’t planned on dying, right? I upset their carefully-laid plans, and they just can’t stand that. Their wanting me dead isn’t vengeance or something—it’s simply to fix a bug in their program, I guess is the best way to put it.” I tucked my pants cuffs into my boots. “And that probably means they expect I’ll die here without their having to risk any more of their own people to do it. Obviously, that’s not good. But there’s also the possibility that they herded us out here because their calculations say I’m likely to end up fixing some other problem they don’t want to deal with directly.” I stood up and faced them. “And that means we might get out of this alive.”

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