Frances couldn’t quite remember where she was. She had been in Middle Coom, in Ireland; they had been trying to stop the Network. Then she had . . . She tried to think, but her brain shied away. Better not to dwell on the past. Focus on the present. She could hear voices, sharp and urgent.
“Heart rate up, blood pressure stable. For the moment, anyway.”
“How long has it been since the last shift?”
“At least an hour.”
“That’s probably a good sign.”
“What about . . . those?”
The pause before the last word was pregnant with nothing good.
“Worry about that later. Does anyone know what happened?”
“Some kind of magical backlash. We lost containment. It’s lucky we got her out at all.”
Frances knew the last voice: Asanti. She struggled to open her eyes. When she did, all she could see was ceiling and bright lights shining down on the lower half of her body.
“She’s coming around.”
“Asanti?” Frances’s mouth felt dry and gluey, but she must have managed to make herself understood because Asanti’s face appeared, smiling down at her. Frances felt her brush a lock of hair off her face.
“How are you feeling? Is there any pain?” A doctor with the distinctive Vatican crest embroidered on his coat was shining a light into Frances’s eyes, checking her pupils. That answered the question of where she was, at least.
Frances had to think about it. “I . . . I don’t think so.” Her eyes sought Asanti’s and found them deep and wide and sad. “Did we win? Did we stop the Network?”
Asanti shushed her. “Don’t worry. You’re going to be fine.”
That isn’t what I asked, Frances thought.
The other doctors, nurses, and assistants were all moving around the lower half of her bed, out of her line of sight. She felt the bed shift. Someone muttered something about a reflex response.
“Can you feel that?” the doctor asked.
Frances struggled to sit up. She had felt something. But what her brain was telling her didn’t make any sense. She tried to go back to the last thing she could remember about Middle Coom, but all she could bring to mind was a rush of magic and fabric over her head and Asanti and Liam shouting, and she was being carried, bouncing, swinging . . . and . . .
“What happened to me?”
Hands were trying to push her back against the bed. “Calm down. You’re going to hurt yourself.”
Frances shoved hard at the hands around her. Whatever they were hiding from her, she had to know. It couldn’t be as bad as what she was imagining. It couldn’t be—
Frances looked down at herself.
She thought, Why are there snakes in my bed? Until she realized they weren’t snakes, they were more like tentacles, and they were growing from her hips. Her legs had been replaced by a writhing mass of reptilian flesh.
This wasn’t real. It couldn’t be. Frances looked up and saw Asanti’s wide, sad eyes, and screamed.
“I said hold her!” There was swearing in Latin.
Frances felt a pinch, like the snap of a rubber band, followed by a push and a burning feeling. Then the world felt very far away, and she lost consciousness.
Sal wanted nothing more than to go back to her apartment, forget that she had ever heard of Christina, Opie, and the Network, and sleep for a week. Instead, she grabbed a quick shower in the Society’s gym and was quietly thankful she had started to keep at least two full changes of clothes stashed away at work. They had bloodied the Network’s nose at Middle Coom, but according to Opie, Christina had gotten away clean.
Liam was tracking her now, and as soon as they had a destination, Sal expected to be heading out. Bad enough that the Network’s quest to create a magical-technological hive mind had ruptured reality in a small Irish town. If Opie’s information was accurate, the Network had found a way to make their own demonic books. Sal really hoped that Opie had been lying to them. As far as they knew, the ability to build the books that Team Three had been created to seek out and contain had been lost to the world centuries ago. If that power was in the hands of a group of techno-cultists who believed that magic was a force that should be set free in the world . . . Sal forced herself to shake off a train of thought that would do her no good to pursue. But even if Opie had been exaggerating the Network’s capabilities, they couldn’t afford to let Christina regroup. Surely Angiuli—after the near-disaster of his indecision during their last mission—couldn’t fail to realize that the time to act was now.
She found Liam alone in the Archives, bent over his computer. “Any word about Frances?” Sal asked.
Liam shook his head. “Asanti’s still in with her.”
“Angiuli called him in for a face-to-face.”
“You think he’s going to explain what the fuck happened with the chain of command in Middle Coom?”
Liam snorted. “Yeah, like that shit is explainable.”
He had a point. Sal’s history in law enforcement had taught her that failure of nerve by one’s superiors was seldom explicable....