Armageddon Rules by J. C. NelsonArmageddon Rules by J. C. Nelson

Armageddon Rules

byJ. C. Nelson

Mass Market Paperback | February 24, 2015

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Marissa Locks, newly appointed partner of the Grimm Agency, has a reputation for making a mess of magical matters—although causing Armageddon is a new low, even for her…

Marissa is due for a little happily ever after. After all, she did kill the evil Fairy Godmother, end a war, and snag a sweet promotion within the Fairy Godfather's magical-problem-solving Agency. But between maintaining a relationship with someone whose amorous advances can cause third-degree burns, dealing with a killer-poodle infestation, and helping her best friend, Princess Ari, learn to wield spells more powerful than curing a hangover, she’s not getting as much peace and quiet as she hoped.

When an enemy from her past appears to exact a terrible revenge, Marissa’s life goes from hectic to hell on earth. With Grimm inexplicably gone and Ari trapped by a sleeping spell, Marissa decides to fight fire with hellfire—and accidentally begins a countdown to the apocalypse.

With the end of days extremely nigh, Marissa will have to master royal politics, demonic law, and biblical plagues in a hurry—because even the end of the world can’t keep the Agency from opening for business…
JC Nelson, author of the Grimm Agency novels, including Free Agent and Armageddon Rules, is a software developer and ex-beekeeper residing in the Pacific Northwest with family and a few chickens.
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Title:Armageddon RulesFormat:Mass Market PaperbackDimensions:336 pages, 6.75 × 4.13 × 0.88 inPublished:February 24, 2015Publisher:Penguin Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0425272907

ISBN - 13:9780425272909

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AcknowledgmentsOneIN MY DEFENSE, I didn’t mean to start the apocalypse. It wasn’t just my personal aversion to oblivion; I had a clear financial motive: The end of the world is bad for business.Speaking of business, that Monday began the same way almost every Monday had for the past three weeks: with a plague. Last week it was frogs.I rolled into the office at about nine forty-five, and, as usual, the Agency was pure chaos. Rosa—our receptionist—was opening a fresh container of Taser darts and we’d only been open for forty-five minutes.“Miss Locks, you gotta help.” A man in an orange jumpsuit with “Corrections Department” stamped in block letters down the side grabbed my shoulder as I walked past, spinning me around. “I gotta get me a wish.”Strike one: escaping from a garbage-pickup crew. Strike two: putting grubby fingers on my brand-new top. Strike three: calling me “Miss” instead of “Ms.” Locks. Far as I was concerned, Miss Locks left the building the day I turned eighteen and hadn’t been seen around here since.“I’ll make a few calls.” To the police, if possible. To the morgue, if necessary.He nodded gratefully and sat down on a bench.I slipped through the “Staff Only” door, made it to the kitchen, and almost poured a cup of coffee before the screaming started. One should never face disaster without caffeine. So I got my coffee and headed back out to the lobby, strolling through the door to see exactly what we’d been struck with.Rats ran everywhere. They scrabbled on the walls, gnawed on the furniture, and covered the floor like a shag carpet from 1973. In the middle of the lobby stood a teenage girl, six feet tall, rail thin with platinum blonde hair. Her clothes hung in tatters from bony white arms, and red blotches surrounded each of her many, many piercings. Her extravagant collection of tattoos spoke of poor impulse control and even worse decision-making skills. She looked up at me with baleful eyes. “Please. I need help.”I glanced around the room. The couple nearest the door held a cage with an amphibian I could only loosely call a frog. In the corner waited a group of kobolds. Roughly five feet tall, and with humanoid features except for their scaled skin and forked tongues, these Germanic lizard-men came every Monday to demand and be refused Grimm’s help in forming a professional soccer team. That left the homeless guy by the door, a man we called Payday George. He still hadn’t figured out this wasn’t a payday-loan joint, probably because most days I felt sorry for him and just gave him a twenty. I opened the staff door and waved to the girl. “Come on.”Rosa glowered at me, mumbling curses in Spanish. She hated when I picked clients, and if she had her way, we’d take them one at a time, from number one to number six hundred in exactly that order. Even if fifty-three was a starving fungal giant and sixty-two was a samurai with a serious shiitake addiction. To her credit, Rosa kept her mouth shut. One does not argue with the boss.We headed down the hall to a conference room, me, the girl, and enough rats to supply a hot dog factory running three shifts, seven days a week. I took a seat on one side of the table, she took a seat on the other, and the rats took seats everywhere. Flicking one off my knee, I began the interview. “So what exactly do you want me to do for you?”Tears smudged the sludge of makeup she wore, and she waved her arms around. “Duh. Isn’t it obvious?”Absolutely. Obvious that she needed help. Figuring out which kind first, that was the hard part. I walked over and ran my fingers through her tangled, crispy hair, took a good look at all sixteen rings in her ear and the tasteful depiction on her shoulder of what was either Bob Dylan in “Man in the Long Black Coat” or a velociraptor playing acoustic guitar. “We can help. First, let’s take out those piercings. I’ll get you some alcohol and a prescription for some antibiotics. Your hair is crunchy from whatever you used to bleach it, and the tattoos are going to take years to remove.”A rat jumped into my coffee and poked its head out. The girl stared as I fished it out by the tail, set it on the table, and handed it a sugar cube.“What about the rats?”I took another sip of coffee, which tasted Parisian with a hint of rat. “What about them?”“The only thing I need is for you to get rid of the rats.” She shivered.I pushed a box of tissues across to her. “What’s your name?”She scratched out a tissue and wiped her eyes. The tissue caught in her makeup and left shreds clinging to her cheeks. “Elizabeth. I like Beth.”I brushed the rats out of the way and sat down on the table, my mind already made up. “Well, Beth, I have good news and bad news. Good news is I can help with the hair, the piercings, and I’ve got a lady in my wardrobe department who can teach you how to use less than a pound of cosmetics a day. The bad news, I’m not going to do a thing about the rats.”She stared at me as her brain tried to process what I said. I leaned across and patted her hand. “You look hungry.” Truth was, she could have starred in one of those commercials for starving kids. I used to watch TV, and every once in a while I’d see commercials where you could mail order a kid for fifty dollars a month. Always wanted to try, but given my track record with pets, I’d signed an agreement with animal control saying that anything more than a goldfish required daily home visitation. Anyway, Beth reminded me of those kids.“I can’t eat. Every time I try to eat, the rats take it from me.”I should’ve asked about her credit. I should’ve asked Rosa if her application was complete, but one look at her said I’d found my charity case for the week. “I’m going to order a pizza or two. I’ll have one of my employees bring a barrel of garbage up from the Dumpster to distract your companions. I need you to sit tight for a bit, okay?”She nodded and put her head down on the table. Walking out the door, on the way to my office, I made a mental note to have the table cleaned, or burned, or both.*   *   *MY OFFICE, INCIDENTALLY, was almost the biggest in the Agency. That was only right, since for most things, most days, I was in charge. I was a partner, the junior partner, but definitely not a silent one. On my desk sat a vase with yellow flowers. Daffodils, my favorite. The attached card read, “La fille du majordome est mon amant. Love, Liam.” His attempts to learn French from the foreign film festival went about as well as my Spanish-by-mail lessons, because the butler’s daughter was not his lover. My dad was an accountant, and Liam and I didn’t even have a butler.I pulled a towel off the full-length mirror in the corner and made a call. “Grimm, how’s it going?”Grimm snapped into view in the mirror, looking more like an English butler than a sentient manifestation of magic. Grimm was the Fairy Godfather, founder of the Agency, once my boss, and sometimes my friend. He could grant wishes if he wanted to, but most people didn’t need wishes. They needed solutions to their problems.Just so we’re clear, I had no magic. I wasn’t a princess, witch, half blood, or anything like that. The only magic I could work was performed with bullets, bacon, or boobs. Anything that couldn’t be handled with the big three, I called in Grimm. I didn’t call often.He smiled, making the wrinkles in his face crease together. “Marissa, my dear, it is only Monday. Do you require my assistance already?” His voice always reminded me of some nature documentary narrator.I shook my head. “Nah. Nothing we can’t handle yet. Got a new piper though. She can’t be more than seventeen.”Grimm slid his glasses forward to look at me over the thick, black edges. “What, may I ask, is she piping?”I shrugged. “The usual for newbies.” New pipers, particularly girls, always started with brainless, easy-to-influence creatures like rats or teenage boys. “If we can get her trained, this year’s Poodling will go a lot easier.”He raised one eyebrow and pursed his lips. “And if you can’t, my dear?”Grimm had never appreciated my term for our yearly pest-control operations. Every year, like clockwork, infernal energy welled to the surface. Instead of manifesting as something reasonable, like a six-headed hydra or a flaming squid, it tended to take the form of small, white, dog-shaped creatures with a taste for murder. “If I can’t, she can supply Kingdom with organic, free-range rats. Can you tell me where Ari is?”Arianna, my right-hand woman, my best friend, my girl Friday, or at least girl Thursday. At her name, Grimm’s lips turned down. “I already checked. She slept through her alarm, missed her bus to the Agency, and failed her civics test. On top of Arianna’s Department of Licensing disaster, she’s planning to call in sick.”Ari had spent the last two years in college. Grimm and I had running bets on what she planned on majoring in. Grimm always said, “Do what you are best at.” From what I could tell, Ari was going to major in failing the driver’s license test. “She failed this weekend? Couldn’t you intervene?”“Marissa, I did intervene. She mistook the accelerator for the volume control and drove three blocks through the market at full speed. Again. It took every bit of magic I could pull off to make certain no one got more than a little run over.”“I’ll go fetch her.” Ari usually rose with the sun, and by now, she could have walked into the Agency. And Grimm hadn’t said she was sick. Only that she planned on calling in sick. The more I thought about it, the more I figured there had to be another reason. “Did she fail one of your magic tests too?”Grimm’s expression said it all. He wouldn’t meet my eyes, his face turned down. “Not exactly. She failed my pretest. I asked her to summon a dog with eyes the size of cup saucers. What she summoned hasn’t tread the earth since the Jurassic Period.”Grimm had spent the last few years training Ari in magic. He traded passing tests in college for new lessons on how not to kill herself with magic. I remained unconvinced it was a fair trade. Grimm said he was taking his time because he didn’t want her exposed to evil. If that were true, he wouldn’t have made her take calculus.I picked up my purse and took my jacket. “I’ll be back soon. The piper’s in 2A; I suggest nobody opens the door. The kobolds need to be turned down, Rosa will send away Payday George, and there’s a frog prince waiting in the lobby.”Grimm sighed and faded out of view. I wonder at times what he ever did without me.*   *   *ARI LIVED IN a brownstone about twenty minutes from the Agency. Technically she lived alone. I knocked, and she answered without bothering to check the peephole. Her yellow sundress with matching hat made her pale complexion look a lot better, and she kept her red hair pulled back so that it didn’t fall into her face.I pulled my nine millimeter from my purse and pointed it at her. “What have I told you about answering the door without looking first?”Ari ignored me and shuffled back inside. “I can see through the door, M, and Yeller would take care of anyone who bothered me.” At the sound of his name, a dog the size of a Shetland pony padded forward. Only Ari would keep a hellhound as a pet. He looked like Cujo crossed with an alligator and a zombie. None of those crosses improved his disposition.He stared at me, the gun in my hand, and began to growl, long and low. I put the gun away, since I’d grown somewhat attached to my hands. “Hey, Yeller. I have a poodle for you in the trunk of my car.” Yeller bared his teeth at me.Ari left the door open and walked down the hall. “Come on in, M. I’m making tea.”I hated Ari’s apartment. She lived there because it was the only thing she could afford. She could afford it because it was haunted, and I don’t mean “things that go bump in the night” haunted. I mean “things that devour your spirit.”Inside, the apartment still looked as if the previous owner lived there (which he didn’t) and like he was still around (he was). Ari brought out a tea kettle and poured three cups, then sat back on a couch, the cover of which looked like woven hair. She clinked her spoon against the cup, like ringing a dinner bell. “Larry, I’m having tea with Marissa. Are you going to join us?”The basement door blew open, and a ghastly form made of shadows flowed out.I nodded to him. “Larry.”He looked at me with those dull red orbs that passed for eyes, a look that said he would rather be devouring my spirit than sipping tea. “Marissa.”That one word took five syllables. I didn’t have the patience to talk with liches. I was supposed to have evicted this one a few years ago. Evictions were cheaper than exorcisms and worked about as often, but the day I went to court to close it, I made a nasty discovery.I still remember standing there in my business suit with my property attorney at my side, while we waited for the lich to fail to make an appearance. They never showed—being bound to the place of one’s death limited mobility options. Right as the judge was getting ready to approve it, the courtroom door swung open.In lurched a postman, his mailbag still hanging from his side. He moved in awkward, jerky movements like a teenager at his first dance. The postman staggered to the bench and handed a scrawled paper to the judge. A few minutes later, when I should have been filing the new deed, I was sitting outside asking our lawyer how we got beat by a possessed postman.I spent the better part of the next year fighting him. Well, technically him. Whether it was the grandma in her walker, or the hipster on his single-speed bike, they all developed an unholy knowledge of property law when possessed by Larry the Lich. I think the low point was getting hit with attorney’s fees by an eight-year-old boy.At that point we actually did research and discovered that before death, Larry the Lich had been Larry Gulberson, Attorney at Law. That was before he took up a more respectable profession, committing unspeakable acts of evil.So we negotiated a new contract. Technically, Grimm and Larry did, and Ari sublet the top three floors from an undead spirit of wrath. He wasn’t a terrible landlord for someone bound to this plane only by the sheer weight of his hatred and malice. Ari claimed he wasn’t that bad, once you got past the glowing eyes, spectral form, and tendency to devour the meter man. She always did find the positive things.So Ari went with me when we needed to hunt uglies. She helped me out when I needed to tame something nasty. Even if she was part princess and part sorceress, I trusted her.I stood at the coffee table. “You’re late. Work started hours ago.”“I didn’t feel like coming in today. Summer semester tests are next week and I need to study more.” Ari made a terrible liar, her cheeks bright red, her hand over her mouth.“I need your help with a new piper. She’s a mess. Got so many piercings she looks like a tackle box, and more tattoos than the Detroit Lions cheerleading squad. I could use a hand.” I took my tea and sat down beside her. As I did, I winced where the fabric of my pants rubbed fresh burns.Ari looked at me and nodded. “Liam singed you again?”“Yeah.” My boyfriend, Liam, burned with more than desire.Ari stood up. “I’ll get you some ice. Where’d he get you this time?”I gave her the look.She stopped for a moment, then opened her mouth. “Oh. You want burn cream?”“No. Remind me to ask Grimm for help when we get back to the Agency.”Ari nodded. “How was the film festival?”“Wonderful. I watched this movie—all in French—you’ve got to see it.” I stopped, since Ari’s eyes glazed over like I’d wrapped her in a plastic bag again. Liam stayed by my side through three days of foreign-language films. I think he spent more time watching me than the movies.“You’re thinking about him. You get that smile when you do.” Ari blushed, happy for me that at least I’d found my happy, if not the ever after.“We’ve got work to do. I’m sorry about the driving test. I’m sorry about the magic test, and I’m sorry about the civics exam. I’ve got a lobby full of potential clients, and I’m missing my right-hand woman.”Ari stared at me for a moment. “We don’t get the results of the civics test until tonight.”“Well, in that case I have a feeling you’ll be doing the makeup exam. Now go get dressed for business, and we’ll try doing something you’re good at.” She left me with the lich, and as she walked out the mood in the room changed.I knew Grimm negotiated safety for folks who stayed out of the basement. As the lights flickered and black smoke began to ooze out from the lich like tendrils, I kept my cool. “Larry, you hear about her driver’s test?”The tendrils paused for a moment and stopped snaking toward me. Larry nodded.“When it comes to driver’s tests, that girl is cursed.”The lich shook his head, managing to keep it attached. Not bad for someone who’d been dead a few decades.“Sorry,” I said, “I don’t mean actually cursed. She just has really bad luck.”Again the lich shook his head. Then he drifted over toward one of the towering bookcases and began to point one-by-one at black bound tomes as if counting. He stretched out a skeletal hand toward one and beckoned to me with the other.If it were anyone other than Grimm who laid out the contract Ari signed before moving in, I’d have worried. Your normal rental agreement detailed due dates and damage waivers. Grimm’s covered every conceivable way an evil spirit might want to harm a person in the house. We rented a truck to move the paper version of the contract after Grimm drafted it. I took out the book the lich pointed to and gave it a glance, trying to make sense of triangle-based hieroglyphics.“I don’t read anything but English.” I went to put the book back, but he held out a hand, stopping me. One claw touched the book and a vapor-like mist seeped out from what remained of the finger bones. Through the mist, the letters crawled like maggots, rearranging themselves into words I could read. Also, I wasn’t hungry anymore. Celestial Law, Volume Three Hundred, read the title.I opened the book, and a wind began to whip through the room, blowing Ari’s mail into the air and flipping the pages until at last it died down. Again the lich did the maggot words thing. I read the chapter title: “The Exchange Principle.”I struggled through the first paragraph, then followed a bone finger to a single sentence. “For everything given, something must be taken. For every blessing, a curse.”At the words blessing and curse I shivered for reasons of my own. Blessings, curses, no real difference. I’ve had a curse do great things for me and a blessing do awful things. I had one of each. “This isn’t about me. I was talking about Ari.”He shook his head again and pointed up the stairs. That got my mind to work. Ari, through no fault of her own, was a princess. Born to a royal family, though the royal families these days had long since traded throne rooms for boardrooms. My point being, as part of their contract with the universe, members of the royal families had what could only be described as ridiculous luck.Reality itself bent over backwards to make things work out for them. Vicious creatures like hellhounds loved them, evil creatures like wraiths tolerated them, and hungry creatures like wolves would rather eat gym-sock soup than a single bite of princess. But maybe, I thought, all this came at a cost. If the only cost was not being able to drive, that was quite a bargain.“Larry, are you trying to devour Marissa again?” Ari stood on the stairs dressed in a standard black business suit with white shirt. She looked almost professional, but still cute.The lich shook his skull and held up his hands in mock surrender.“Larry was explaining something to me. On his best behavior, I promise.” I exchanged a glance with the lich and returned the book to its place. Then I took Ari and got the hell out of the haunted house she called home.TwoBACK AT THE Agency, the kobolds were gone, the frog folks were presumably in with Grimm, and Payday George was still pinning down a chair in the lobby. Ari and I slipped past him and down the hall toward the room where I’d left our new piper.Standing at the doorway, hand on knob, I looked to Ari. “Ever seen a new piper before?”She shook her head.I believed in trial by fire, so I threw the door open. “Beth, I’d like you to meet the agent who will be helping me with your case, Princess Arianna Thromson.”At her title, Ari blushed and narrowed her eyes. She stomped into the room, kicking a rat so it sailed through the air and hit the wall with a thud. “My name is Ari. It’s what you’ll call me if you want help.”“I asked Ari to help because princesses have a way with creatures. I figure she can tame your friends here until you learn to control them.” The threadbare, ragged state of Beth’s clothes said she’d been living on the street. “I’m going to set you up at a motel on the south side. It’s such a dump, the rats are a step up from their usual clientele.”Beth wiped a smear of pizza sauce from her cheek and nodded. “When do I get rid of them?”I gave her a hug, ignoring the fact that her bra squirmed. “You’ll need to complete your paperwork. It’s going to take a bit for me to find what we need, but you can come back tomorrow and get started.” I had a contractor take her down to a taxi and headed back to my office, Ari in tow.I tapped on the mirror, just because the Fairy Godfather hated being treated like an aquarium fish. “Grimm, you got a moment?”He swirled into view and gave Ari a glance that made me sorry for her. “Of course. I’m ordering a frog potion. Ari, I’ll need you to head over to Kingdom and acquire it from the Isyle Witch this afternoon.”Ari stared at the floor. Neither of us could stand the Isyle Witch, for good reason. I glanced at the scars on my left hand and shivered. “Grimm, shouldn’t that be an anti-frog potion?”Grimm shook his head. “They waited over a month to contact me about their son, so I’m afraid that’s out of the question. After some counseling, the family has accepted a relocation package to a swamp in Louisiana. The cost of living is much lower, there’s a lovely bog waiting, and I think the mother will definitely look good in green.”Ari looked up at Grimm. “Marissa told me about the civics test.”Grimm nodded. “There’s a retake on Thursday. I’m certain you’ll do better this time. And I’ll schedule you another appointment at the DMV, young lady.”I sat up in my chair. “I’m not so sure that’s a good idea. You ever heard of the Exchange Principle?”Grimm looked surprised. “Marissa, have you been dabbling in celestial law? A degree in English in no way qualifies you to negotiate with demons.”“No. Just learned something new about blessings and curses.”Grimm rolled his eyes. “Really, Marissa, I thought you had made your peace with them.”“I’m fine. But I think the principle applies to princesses as well.”Grimm thought about it a moment and nodded. “Well then, perhaps we’ll wait on the driver’s test.”“While you are here, I need help. Something to control Liam’s wilder side.” We’d been working for the last two years on lifting Liam’s curse, which at times left him scaly, with morning breath that could smelt copper. The cost in toothbrushes alone made finding a cure a necessity.Grimm rubbed his palms together, avoiding my gaze entirely. “My dear, I was thinking quite the opposite. When Liam finally gets in, the three of us need to talk. I take it from his tardiness he played poker again this weekend?”The mention of poker set my teeth on edge. A year ago I’d introduced Liam to the dwarves. They started a Friday-night poker game that stretched into Saturday. The last few months, Saturday stretched into Sunday, and last night, I think Liam came home after three in the morning. “Yes.”Grimm was smart enough not to inquire further.“Would you mind doing me a favor? I need to know something about the future. I could take a test, but I trust you more.” My nerves made sitting still impossible.“Of course. Now, let me see, I believe you are wondering if you contracted hepatitis from eating at that foul Italian restaurant. The answer is no.” Grimm smiled and nodded.I forced myself to look at him. “I wanted to know if I was pregnant.”Ari made a squeak that sounded like she was trying to communicate with the rats. Her eyes went wide with excitement, and her lips with a grin she could only have because it wasn’t her.Grimm didn’t leave the mirror for even a second. “Ah, a different form of infection. No, you are not. Really, if you were worried, you could have asked sooner.”Relief, mixed with a sadness I couldn’t pinpoint swept through me, making my arms weak and my hands shaky. “I’m sorry. The pill isn’t one hundred percent, and I worry about passing on Liam’s curse.”“I thought you wanted a baby.” Ari found her tongue when I’d rather she held it.“I do,” I said. “One day, I’ll have a family of my own, but it has to be when I’m ready. When both of us are ready.”“I’ll have Rosa make an appointment with your doctor. Perhaps an implant would suit you better.” Grimm started to fade out.“No. I need to be certain.” Grimm’s obsession with skimping on magic drove me crazy.Grimm looked at the floor. “I think the pill will do fine. Are you taking the ones I gave you faithfully?”“Like clockwork, but you aren’t listening.” I stood at my desk, trying to stay calm. “No offense, but you aren’t human, you aren’t a woman, and you’ve never been pregnant. I need your help until we are ready. Once we figure out that curse, we can talk.” I pointed my finger at him the same way I ordered our contractors around. “I want you to put that brain of yours to work. Find a foolproof way to keep me from having a cursed baby that doesn’t involve separate beds.”Grimm looked past me, at Ari. “Marissa, we will talk about this later, in private.”“Now. She lived in our apartment for three weeks. She knows.”Ari rolled her eyes. “I know. The neighbors know. Passengers on overhead jets know.”I’d been practicing my “I’m the boss, keep your mouth shut” stare for more than two years. It worked. Ari covered her mouth and looked at the floor.I turned back to Grimm. “Why won’t you help me?”Grimm threw up his hands. “I’ll make an appointment with a specialist in Kingdom. Even I can’t get you in for a few days, but I assure you, the auguries say you will not get pregnant before then.” I let him go this time.“Sorry, M.” Ari gave me a pat on the shoulder, knowing how much I wanted a family of my own. Then she left me alone in my office, where I dove into a pile of paperwork that threatened to ruin my happily ever after, or at least my evening.*   *   *THE ALARM CUT into my paperwork, a wailing screech like someone making howler monkey sausage using a live monkey.Grimm popped up in my mirror, something he didn’t usually do without permission. “Marissa, I’m detecting a buildup of infernal energy across the river. It’s early, but I’m afraid it might manifest as poodles.”I slid the desk drawer open and flipped through the custom ammunition for my nine millimeter. Balrog, klingon, ogre, there it was: poodle. I stuffed all three clips into my purse and ran for the door. Ari waited in the hallway, a shopping bag big enough to hold a pair of boots on her arm.“We’re heading out,” I said, and we ran for the stairs to our parking garage.Grimm popped into view in the rearview mirror the moment I slid into the driver’s seat. “Cross the bridge, take the expressway south, and then go west. You’ll find them in a warehouse for recliners.”We raced as fast as the speed limit would let us, flying down the expressway and making right-hand turns from the far left lane. It felt like ages before we pulled up at the warehouse, a vast metal building with layers of peeling yellow paint laced with rust. I cut straight across the parking lot and skidded to a stop on the gravel at the warehouse office. If there was any hope of survivors, it would be there.I trotted through the office door, smelling nothing but leather. No blood. No screams. Behind the counter, a teenage girl bopped to the grind of something that sounded like country-western heavy metal.“Pickups are in the rear!” she said to us, continuing to dance in a way that bore absolutely no relationship to a beat so loud it threatened to shake my fillings out.I walked over to the counter and hit the power to her stereo. “Have you seen anything small, furry, or deadly?”She wrinkled her nose like my words stank and started to give a retort. I’m sure it was going to be something sassy. Something that said “I’m eighteen and you’re twenty-seven and I’m so much cooler than you.” But her eyes grew wide and her mouth dropped open. I turned as a blast like a cannon roared beside me.Ari held her choice in weaponry, a Desert Eagle pistol with extended magazine. The gun dwarfed her tiny hands, and the stench of sulfur from it filled the air. In the doorway to the warehouse, the tattered remains of a toy poodle lay torn to bloody shreds.I’d always favored the nine millimeter. Compact, quick change on the clip, and accurate enough that I’m the limiting factor. Back when I first started training Ari, I tried to get her to use something reasonable. Something you could fit in a purse. Something you wouldn’t find mounted on a tank. Ari said if she shot something, she wanted it to stay dead.Another poodle bounded through the doorway, slobbering and growling like the bite of hell it was. Ari had used the momentary pause to put a pair of stylish white ear protectors on. Her second bullet almost tore the dog in half.Did I say dog? Did I mention the glowing red eyes? The bloody teeth and claws? The fact that it was choking down a man’s hand? These weren’t dogs. These were poodles. Toy poodles, to be precise, though they were toys in the same way that razor blades and hornets were. I ran to the office door and slammed it.Ari walked to the counter and set the Desert Eagle down. She pulled off her earmuffs and looked the girl in the eye. “How many people are in there?”Ari’s gaze drew the girl out of shock. Ari, as I’ve mentioned, was a princess. I tried not to hold that against her. Princesses have this natural geis where people feel the urge to be nice to them. To listen to them. The girl started to breathe easier. “Ten. No, wait. Mom came in today. Eleven.”I flipped open my pocket compact. I’d thrown the makeup in it away a few years ago; always made me itch. I kept it for the mirror. “Grimm, we’ve got poodles, and there were ten people in there.”“Mom!” said the teen girl, jumping over the counter and running for the door to the warehouse. Ari held out her hand, and my skin felt like it lit on fire as she drew in the magic. A bolt of purple light hit the girl and she slumped to the floor. Did I mention Ari could perform magic?I nudged the girl with my foot. “Sleep?”Ari shrugged. “Can’t do sleep yet.”The girl moaned and rolled over, then puked on the carpet.I rolled her over with my foot, noting her breathing. “Looks like sleep.”“She’s drunk. Completely wasted. I’m still working on sleep.”“Ahem,” said Grimm, watching from the compact.“Did I do good?”Grimm shrugged. “Did you give her ethanol poisoning?”Ari took a penlight from her bag and flashed it in the girl’s eyes. “I don’t think so. I haven’t done that to anyone in days.”“Then you did fine. I have a SWAT team en route. My closest team of mercenaries is twenty minutes out, but I have a mobile grooming service less than five minutes out.” Grimm sighed.“What exactly is a mobile groomer going to do against flesh-eating monsters?” Ari could be so naïve at times.I put my hand on her shoulder. “Bows. All you have to do is stick a bow on one; it’ll die of shame.”A woman’s scream from the warehouse, along with the sound of many small dogs yipping. My gaze snapped to the door and I took off for it at a run.“Marissa, don’t go in there. I’m detecting a full-blown outbreak now, and that was probably the last of the survivors. Wait for the SWAT team.” Grimm spoke with all the authority that living through several eternities gave him.I flipped the compact shut and looked to Ari. “Stay with her.”Ari dropped the girl’s head with a thud and picked up her gun from the counter. “Two barrels are better than one.”Grimm would be ticked about me going through the door. He’d be even more ticked about me taking Ari. But I had this thing about families. I still missed mine, and I wasn’t going to stand around if I could save someone else’s.Ari grabbed the warehouse door and looked over her shoulder. “Ready?”“Let’s do this,” I said, and she flung open the door.ThreeA BLAST OF hot, humid air hit me as we stepped inside. Overhead, the lights flickered and buzzed like a giant bug zapper. The skittering of pedicured claws on concrete and the clink of bone-shaped name tags against rhinestone collars echoed in the warehouse.Ari kicked the remains of a poodle out of the way. “What do you think caused them to break out here?”“They’re attracted to places where atrocities were committed.” I peeked around the corner of one pallet. A bloody, mangled body lay on the floor.“Some sort of gang shooting in the past?”I took my flashlight out and shone it into the shadows, looking for hellish eyes. “Could be almost anything. Maybe one of them picked out the gold carpet in their office. The music that girl was listening to. You see the bumper stickers out front? Mets fans. Their pitching’s worth a poodle all by itself.”A poodle leaped from the darkness between two pallets. I rolled to the side, putting a bullet into it and ruining a leather recliner. Liam always wanted one of those. Another poodle snarled and yipped as it leaped for my ankle. I sidestepped and kicked as it landed, dodging razor-sharp teeth and snapping its spine.The crippled poodle shrieked in pain and feral rage, desperate to tear our throats out. Ari walked over and crushed its bouffant head under her heel. “I don’t get why these things are so dangerous.”Another bout of screaming killed my reply. I took off at a run toward the sound with Ari close behind. At the edge of the loading bay stood a fort of recliners, turned on their sides to make a wall. A few desperate workers were making a last stand inside, armed with broken recliner levers.A hedge’s worth of poodles ringed the fort, occasionally leaping at the edges. Then I realized that in the corner, a strike team of poodles had begun to gnaw their way through the back of a recliner.“There’re too many to take on. Get out of here,” I whispered to Ari. The thump of an approaching helicopter made the loading doors shake as Grimm’s mercenaries circled, but these folks wouldn’t last another two minutes.Every single poodle in the flock turned as one to look at us, growling like a hundred miniature wood chippers. I shuddered clean down to my toes and glanced back at Ari, who held a silver whistle in her lips. “What did you do?”She spat out the whistle. “Called for help.”I fired six rounds, killing a couple of poodles with each, while beside me Ari’s Desert Eagle roared, plowing through a row of them with every bullet, but still they came for us, a fluffy white cloud of doom.“Run,” I yelled. We took off at a sprint, tiny terrors with bloody muzzles nipping at our heels.I made it to a tall metal shelf four steps behind Ari, who could outsprint me any day. I liked to think of myself as being built for distance rather than just slow. She began to climb, and I followed behind her, shaking a poodle from my pant leg. Beneath us, poodles howled in frustration.At the top of her shelf, Ari leaned over and blew a raspberry at them. “I’ve seen Chihuahuas that were deadlier. And cuter.”“Don’t mock them.” My throat constricted with fear. From below came the sound of rasping metal as the beasts gnawed raw steel. For one moment, the warehouse stood silent, then the shelf groaned, shuddered, and folded over. I could only watch as Ari slipped off the edge of her shelf and fell into a churning mass of curly white dogs.She screamed as they bit at her, and I lunged into the fray, crushing dogs underfoot and hurling them away as fast as I could grab them. Teeth gnawed my ankles, and a poodle hung from my jacket sleeve. I glanced behind me. Wall to wall poodles filled the warehouse. Then someone grabbed me from the side and threw me to the floor.“Hold still,” said Ari, her face bleeding from a dozen nips. Every poodle that bit her did so exactly once, then fell over, vomiting. Half-digested chunks of flesh covered the floor around us.That’s about when the wall exploded. Debris stung my eyes, but the only sounds were the terrified screams of poodles, and the wet noises of tearing flesh and snapping bones.Then the room went silent.A shadowy form with four-inch claws padded up and began to lick Ari. She rolled off me and put her arms around Yeller, now the size of a subcompact car. “Good dog. Someone’s earned a lawyer for dinner.” Yeller wagged his tail, walked into the shadows, and faded away.I stood up, wincing from every single bite. “What took him so long?”“Do you have any idea how many fire hydrants there are between here and my apartment?” Ari wiped blood from her eyes.“We’ve got to train him to hail a cab.” I ran my fingers down my arms, grateful I wasn’t missing large chunks of flesh. “What was with trying to protect me?”Ari reached out and touched her tongue to the back of her wrist, then spat. “Remember?”Of course. From all accounts, princesses tasted like gym socks boiled in iodine, then soaked in pus.A team of mercenaries wearing night-vision goggles smashed in the loading bay door, training laser sights on anything and everything. Yeller’s rampage left only a single poodle, lying on its side, gasping its final breaths. The strike team commander swaggered over and put a bullet through it.He flipped up his visor and triggered the radio. “It was rough, but we managed to secure the place. Threat neutralized.”Behind him, his team led out the survivors, who would most definitely be cat people for the rest of their lives.“Ma’am,” said the commander, “you need to leave. We’re going to level the place.”I took Ari’s hand, and we headed out into the sunlight. Grimm watched us from the silver lettering in the door, then in the chrome on my bumper, and finally in my rearview mirror.He stared at me until I finally looked him in the eye. “Marissa, I believe I told you to wait for the mercenaries.”“So fire me.”Grimm shook his head. “I tried that once. It’s not a mistake I’ll repeat. Take Ari to the emergency room and have those bites cleaned out. Tell them she hid pepperoni in her pockets and tried to run through a dog show.”Ari leaned back in her seat as I drove us away, adding yet another layer of bloodstains on my car’s upholstery. Two o’clock on a Monday, and we were already heading in for sutures and shots. Just another day in the Agency business.*   *   *THE AGENCY, IN case you were wondering, was a normal business. We paid normal rent and normal taxes. We had normal janitors and a somewhat normal receptionist. I say somewhat normal because Rosa was downright awful. She had a look that could turn Medusa to stone and was equally handy with a sawed-off shotgun or a credit card machine.As you might expect, the Agency also had agents. We worked for Grimm, handling problems too sensitive to contract out or tasks that had to be done right. In theory, Liam was an agent as well, but since he was a man, we used him for what men were best at. He broke toys, played with fire, and beat the living daylights out of the occasional hard case. Also, I loved him more than anyone I’d ever known. For him, I’d kill any of the things that go bump in the night.That’s why I drove to my apartment instead of the hospital. I wanted to see Liam, maybe offer him a ride to work. Mind you, I also planned on fixing up Ari. I kept a full suture kit and bought antibiotic ointment in five-gallon buckets. Came in handy in the Agency business.I kicked open the apartment door and yelled, “Honey, I’m home,” at the top of my lungs. The only answer was a slight shimmer in the room. Ari walked past me, looking like a stunt double for a bag of dog chow, and into my guest bathroom. For the better part of a year, Ari lived in my apartment. When Liam moved in, she moved out, saying we never slept, and she couldn’t either.While Ari showered, I went to my bathroom mirror to pick blood out of my hair. “Hey, Grimm, Liam out on assignment?”He appeared almost immediately. “Your boyfriend is making the usual Monday rounds, now that he’s awake. Didn’t I say to go to the emergency room?”“I’ll take care of Ari.”Grimm shook his head. “You were a lot easier to deal with as a slave.”I studied the golden band I wore on my wrist. These days, it was my choice. “Was I?”Grimm thought about it a moment. “No, not really.” Then he faded out of view, off to grant someone else an answer to their problems.I picked up one of Liam’s flannel shirts and sniffed it. It smelled like wood smoke and man, a scent I’d grown to know and love. Liam was a blacksmith. When he wasn’t breaking people’s toys or teeth for Grimm, he made iron art at a studio on the south edge of the city.The shower cut off, and a few minutes later Ari emerged, dressed in one of the only outfits she’d left at my house when she moved. She wore the frilly tracksuit like a cone of shame. I glanced up at her. “Who’s a pretty princess in pink?”Ari tensed like a spring, scrunching her eyes and face. “I wish you’d stop saying things like that. Stop introducing me as ‘princess.’ Stop buying pink bandages. There are other colors, you know. I like blue. Or green.” Ari was so cute when she was ticked.“You’ve got to learn to be who you are.” I poured Ari a consolation cup of stale coffee, adding sugar and cream until it congealed into pudding. “Here. Just the way you like it.”She slid into a chair at my table, her head in her hands. “I’m not a princess anymore.” This was technically true and false at the same time. Ari’s stepmother threw her out of the house, and in fact cast her out of Kingdom entirely a couple years ago.“Grimm says different. Being a princess is like a soul tattoo. Can’t be undone.” Personally, I bet it was a huge, ugly tattoo of Bob Marley’s face. “So what’s going on with school? You breezed through the first two years. You got good grades. Your teachers love you.” Admittedly it probably wasn’t their fault. Princesses had that effect on everything.Ari sighed in frustration and put her head down on the table. “I met someone.”“As in ‘I ran into or over the postman again’ or I met someone met someone?”Ari’s groan gave me the answer I expected. “I wasn’t studying for the civics exam on Thursday. I was out with him.”“I had to exorcise the Hukkkuti brothers by myself so you could play kissy-face with some guy? The least you could do would be to introduce me. I’m your best friend; I should get to make sure he’s good enough for you.”Ari looked up, her eyes wide with fear. “No! He doesn’t know where I work.”“You mean he doesn’t know what you are.” I put my hand on hers. “He’ll find out. People love princesses. They can’t help it. And you’re a seal bearer. That’s got to count for something.” Though the royal families pretended otherwise, their true purpose was to make sure the realm seals remained intact, and in order to do that, one woman from each generation per family would be bound to a realm seal.Ari rocked back in her chair, her mouth crumpled into a frown. “I don’t want someone to love me for what I am. I want them to love me for who I am.”I understood that. “You’ve at least got to tell me his name.”“Wyatt.” Her eyes got this distant haze in them, and a smile crept across her face in spite of the bite marks.“What are you going to tell him when he sees you bitten like that?” I went to the cupboard and took out a box of adhesive bandages, sticking them to her until she looked like a mummy.Ari grinned. “I’m going to say I volunteer at a shelter for dogs with neurotic biting tendencies, and I tried to take six of them for a walk at once.” The only dog walking Ari did was when she’d take Yeller out for a walk at night, when people could mistake him for a Clydesdale.“All right. But you have to tell him the truth at some point. Now we need to get going. Grimm’s going to be upset as it is. I need to feed blessing and curse.” I kept a pet cat once. We won’t go into exactly what happened to Mr. Sniffers, but let’s just say after that I kept things I didn’t have to feed or water, and planted an azalea bush in the courtyard in Mr. Sniffers’s memory.My current pets were a mix of spells and creature, called harakathin. You can think of them as a combination ghost and cat. I’d say psychotic cat, but that would be redundant. In theory, these two were charged with giving me good fortune. Unfortunately, they rarely took my personal safety into account.When Liam moved in, my jealous harakathin turned from silver-eyed monsters to green-eyed monsters. They spent the first few weeks tripping him in the dark, setting his clothes on fire, or turning the boiler up to 300 degrees while he was showering. The usual stuff.So we bought two cat beds, one for each of them, and most days I dumped a can of cat food on a plate. Harakathin fed on attention. My daily routine mollified them, and I considered it practicing for a real cat. I opened two cans and put them near the cat beds.Ari wrinkled her nose at the smell of cat food. “You’ve been making offerings to them?”“Works even better than naming them. Call it community service. Feed my blessings, feed the hungry.” I left the plates sitting for a minute while I waited. The lights dimmed and flickered, but at least the pipes didn’t break and the drywall didn’t crack. “Can you see them?”Being a seal bearer, Ari had spirit sight. That meant she could see all the things that went bump in the night, whether they wanted her to or not, whether she wanted to or not. Being relatively normal, I relied on her to tell me where my pets were. Ari glanced around. “No. They’re here, but I can’t see them.”I’d never seen them even take a bite of cat food, but just offering it to them made all the difference. Most days, they simply stayed at home unless called. I opened the window and picked up a wrought-iron triangle Liam made for me. When I clanged it, a man’s head popped up out of the Dumpster. “Rapunzel?”“How many times do I have to tell you that’s not my name?” I went to my kitchen and pulled the steak and potatoes left over from Liam’s birthday dinner out of the fridge, then lowered them down in a basket tied to a rope made of hair. “You can have steak. The cat food goes to—”“Rapunzel.” He handed the paper plate to a mangy tabby, who rubbed up against him. “She’s my good girl.”I shut the window, grabbed Ari, and headed back to the Agency. Definitely a Monday.FourTHE MOMENT I passed the staff door, I heard Liam’s deep laugh coming from Grimm’s office. I ran to meet him, not bothering to knock. Liam stood nearly six feet tall, with a barrel chest and arms that could tear your own off. Being a blacksmith will do that to you (give you arms, not tear them off).“M!” He crushed me in a hug, picking me up off the ground. “Sorry about this weekend.”I was still angry, but it was hard to be held and angry at the same time, so I put my head on his shoulder and relaxed. Then my eyes snapped open. I pushed back and looked at him again as he set me down. Bruises covered both of his cheeks, and bloody patches clung to his knuckles.I ran a finger along his eyebrow, wiping blood from it. “What have you been doing?”He took my hand in his and put the other on my cheek. “The usual Monday things.”Translation: making weekly rounds, reminding a few people that whatever else they had planned, this week was a bad week to get revenge on me. I’d made a lot of enemies. At least two queens wanted me killed on sight. An entire army of wolves wanted me dead for shooting their leader, and at one point the entire postal service wanted to see me returned to sender. For a while, I had assassins showing up every couple of days. All that changed when Liam moved in. My enemies probably still wanted to kill me but valued their intestines too much to try.Grimm cleared his throat. “Now that you are finally here, I’d like to talk to both of you about an opportunity.”“He’s not going to pose nude for the art college. We already had that discussion.”Liam blushed and looked at the floor. I didn’t care how many times he did that before, I had my rules, and one of them was my boyfriend kept his boy bits between us.“Tell me you’ve found a way to dull the curse. I’ve reached my yearly limit of burn cream. Any more and I have to register as a wholesale dealer.”Liam snorted and a bit of smoke curled out of his nostrils.Grimm crossed his arms. “Actually, I had quite the opposite in mind. I’ve been researching ways to trigger the curse and keep it active even when he goes to sleep.”“You’ve been doing what?” My face flushed, and I put my hands on my hips. “Why?”Liam looked to Grimm in a panic that I found completely appropriate.Grimm disappeared for a moment, and flowing script filled the mirror, though in no language or alphabet I’d ever seen. His voice came from the mirror, though I couldn’t see him. “See for yourself, my dear.”“Neither of us read hieroglyphics. Translation?”Grimm reappeared in the mirror. “I will arrange to have you taught Vampirese at some other time. For now, let us simply say that the time has come for the oldest undead family to take their once-a-century dirt nap.”I glared at Grimm, waiting for him to get to the part that involved Liam and me.“Now, in the old days, this would be when peasants would descend on castles, coffins would be overturned, steaks driven through vampires’ mouths, and then garlic salt sprinkled on them.”I nodded. “Sounds like a plan. Put me on a plane to Europe and I’ll get it done.”“The vampires of today are not bloodthirsty monsters, Marissa. Sunlight won’t kill them, holy water only upsets them because their clothes have to be dry-cleaned. And I don’t want them killed. I want them protected for two weeks while they sleep.”“But I never got to put a stake through a vampire’s heart before.” I’d accomplished most of the things on my bucket list in the first six years I worked for Grimm. I’d been buried alive in a coffin three times before I turned twenty-one. Found love with a man who loved me back. Heck, I scratched off “Get in a fistfight with a mime” my first week in the city. But vampire slaying remained on my to-do list.Grimm sighed. “Marissa, sit down. A vampire’s heart does not beat, so I can’t believe you actually fell for such a simple ruse. It was the steak in the mouth that killed them. Today’s vampires are more enlightened. More evolved. They are vegans. If they consume meat products, the fire of their own hypocrisy burns them to a crisp.”“What about drinking blood?”“Honestly, my dear, do you believe everything you read? If it weren’t for vampire families celebrating Thanksgiving, tofurkey would have failed long ago.”I always figured Vampire Thanksgiving involved carving up a redhead or something. We ate goose every year, because Grimm said it was more traditional. Also, every couple of months I had to find and kill another gold-egg-laying goose before it upset the markets. I could only fit so many of them in my freezer.My frustration with the hours spent learning useless facts mounted. Particularly as Grimm must have known that it wasn’t right. “And crosses? I bet they can’t hurt them either.”Grimm creased his brow, thinking. “No, I believe that a cross could in fact harm one.”“How?”“Well, if the cross weighed several tons and fell on them. Or if it were mounted on wheels and moving at, say, thirty-five miles per hour and ran into one. Or if one sharpened the edges and swung it at a vampire.” Grimm nodded, more to himself than me.“If they don’t drink blood, they don’t hide from the sun, and crosses don’t hurt them, they aren’t vampires. They sound more Californian than Transylvanian. Where, exactly, do we come into this?”Liam took my hand. “The old vampire families are obsessed with the best guards money or magic can buy. They wanted a family of dragons to guard their keep, but ever since the treaty put dragons on the endangered species list, they aren’t available.”The light went on in my head. See, agents were usually magical. Princesses. Half djinns. Liam accidentally got cursed a few years ago. He wasn’t half djinn, and if he ever wound up with even a trace of princess on him, I planned to take my knife and carve it out. He was, however, a were-dragon, doing time-share in his body with a curse older than the Roman Empire. A curse I accidentally put on him.That’s why my enemies decided every week that this week they’d take up knitting or lean on the local grocer. Liam belched hellfire when he wasn’t angry. When he got upset, it was like the Incredible Hulk had a child with a Komodo dragon and a napalm factory. “No. I’m not letting you turn him into a dragon. You have any idea how many princes would love to add ‘slew the dragon’ to their list of accomplishments?”“Tell her about the pay.” Liam looked at Grimm.“I’d rather be dirt-poor than rich and alone,” I said, unwilling to look at either of them.“Marissa, I give you my word I didn’t take this offer at face value. Indeed, I believed it some form of mistake until clarified. The senior royal family of the undead court has had thousands of years to accumulate money, and hundreds of years where they have collected magic.” Grimm stopped and waited for me to look up, where the page waited, the glowing script pulsing.The number on the page looked like an international phone number or two. The second number had to be the amount of Glitter they offered. Since I’m completely non-magical, the metric system never made sense. Grimm tried to teach me once. He gave up when I told him Pedo-liters were how many creepy old men fit in a jar.The numbers were big. Really big. So big, in fact, they stank of something rotten. “Fake,” I said, holding my hand over my nose to emphasize that Grimm got taken.“I assure you, my dear, this is no mistake nor a fake. I have an escrow agency who assures me that they have in fact taken delivery of the payments, pending our agreement.”I shook my head. “Still doesn’t make sense. Why would they need me?” I waited in the silence as the two of them looked at each other.Liam turned toward me. “I need you. Need you to let me go. Need you to keep yourself safe for a few weeks. Not go challenging anyone to duels, or opening cursed sarcophagi, or running into poodle-filled warehouses.”My stomach turned cold like I’d drunk a gallon of ice water. The last two years had been the happiest years of my life. I finally found someone who loved me, really loved me. I had friends and respect. “You really want to leave me?”Liam got down on one knee like he was about to propose, and my heart skipped several beats. “No. Truth is, I’d rather die than leave you. But I want to be able to be with you. I’m tired of worrying about setting the house on fire, or having to swallow my steak tartare in order for it to arrive in my stomach well-done. I want to have a life with you. I want to have children.”Grimm cleared his throat again. “Marissa, with that much magic, I could do almost anything.”He meant he could finally cure Liam’s curse.“No one has that much Glitter.” I ransacked my mind for reasons this couldn’t happen. “Even if they did, they’d use it, not give it away for two weeks of protection.”Liam leaned in to speak to me face-to-face. “You’ve said Glitter is basically magic, right? And magic is basically hope, right?”I nodded.Grimm cut in. “My dear, you have to consider that hope would be poisonous to an undead creature. Of course they’d be willing to pay with it. It’s like when I pay the kobolds in nuclear waste. They believe they are getting a fantastic deal.”I sat back in the chair with my eyes closed. Two weeks for enough magic to un-work the worst curse Grimm had ever seen.Ever.The deal still stank. “No. He’ll get killed by a prince. Or a team of princes. Or a nuclear strike.”Grimm disappeared again and the mirror scrolled for minutes, page after page of mind-numbing legal jargon. “I’ve been drafting this contract for more than six months, Marissa. I assure you the vampires will take every precaution. The penalties against them if Liam were even wounded would cost them their castles, their bank accounts. He would be the final line of defense in an arsenal of traps designed to maim all-comers. Assuming one survives the labyrinth, then one of six teams of assassins would kill them.”“And if they survived?”Liam put his hands on my cheeks so I would look at him. His eyes began to glow with fire, and when he spoke, the curse spoke as well, in a second voice. “Then I will unleash the fires of hell on them. Two weeks, M.”“How are you going to keep Liam a dragon?”Grimm nodded toward Liam, who leaned his head back like he was going to take a nap. “I’ve had Mr. Stone take a few naps in the Agency. When he’s asleep I can talk to the curse directly.”Curses were like blessings—alive, and intelligent. From what I knew, this one had been ancient when the Romans were wearing diapers and Rome was a fishmonger’s hut on a hill. “So you asked it how you could keep it active? Why didn’t you ask how to get rid of it?”“Really, my dear. It was the first thing we discussed, and I have to say the subject was poorly received. It would be simpler to make a list of people the curse did not threaten to disembowel, devour, or disembowel and then devour.”“I get it. The big bad curse wants to eat me.”Grimm raised his eyebrows. “No, my dear. You were to receive a burst of hellfire, blown directly into—”“I get it. Didn’t want to negotiate.” I turned toward Grimm’s mirror and leaned forward. “Are you sure you can do this?”