Magic Bites Chapter 9

I SAT ON MY PORCH, ALTERNATING BETWEEN A bottle of Hard Lemonade and Boone's Farm Sangria, and watched the night breathe. It was very quiet. The night breezes had died and nothing troubled the dark leaves on poplar branches. Not a blade of grass stirred on the lawn below.

I took a big swig of sangria and another of lemonade. Not drinking so much, but getting drunk. Making my body feel as bad as my mind. I wished I had some beer to chase down the wine. It would make me sick faster.

I'd accomplished quite a bit. It was hard to sit here and not be proud of myself. I'd failed to find Greg's killer. He would murder again, he would kill young women, he would kill shapechangers, and I didn't even know where to look for him. I'd pissed away whatever meager credibility I'd had with the Pack. And with the Order, for that matter. I had a thing going with a nice guy. It wasn't perfect, but he liked me. He had tried pretty hard. A normal, decent guy. And I had broken our little relationship beyond all repair. He wasn't a part of my world so I brought him into it. On my terms.

I turned one of the bottles upside down, guzzling the liquid without tasting it, until I almost choked, and raised it in a salute to the distant line of trees. "Nice going."

The trees said nothing. I shook my head and reached for the other bottle.

And saw a monster in my yard.

It sat on its hunches, sniffing at the wind. A large bastard, at least a hundred and sixty pounds. Long grayish fur grew in patches on its lean carcass. Bare skin, pale and wrinkled, showed between the irregularly shaped spots of fur, especially on the stomach, where long, ragged scars crisscrossed the flesh. A small hump protruded from the beast's back, and the fur covering it was longer and coarser, forming a matted mane that flared just behind the large head crowned with round human ears.

The thing's hind legs were heavy and muscled and shaped somewhat like those of a canine, but with longer digits. Its front paws, smaller and disturbingly human in shape, clutched something dark. I squinted at the wet fuzzy clump. A squirrel. The creature sniffed at its prize with long wrinkled muzzle, opened massive jaws, and tore into the squirrel. A sickening crunching of broken bones disturbed the night's silence.

It chewed with gusto, squeezing the bloody stump in its hands and looked at me. The small bloodshot eyes that glared from the beast's face were undeniably human. When you looked into the eyes of a shapechanger, you saw a beast clawing to get out. When I looked into this thing's eyes, they burned with understanding, dim yet significant intelligence, betraying sadness and a capacity for suffering.

The thing raised its horrid maw to the sky and made an eerie lingering noise, as if a dozen voices murmured the same phrase in a dozen languages at once. Then it turned to the squirrel and bit off another morsel.

A faint scraping of claws reached my ears. I glanced about me. Grotesque shapes hid in the shadowy comers, some small, some large. They perched on the rails, they slunk below, around the porch stairs, and darted under the truck in the driveway, shifting and moving all around me.

The rim of the bottle touched my lips and I drank, as the beasts drew closer.

"Poor Crest," a velvet voice murmured. "I've been alive for three hundred years and I can't remember the last time I laughed so hard."

I set the bottle down with marked slowness and looked toward the voice. "It's you," I said. "Shit. I would've never thought."

Bono smiled at me, showing even teeth, white and inhumanly sharp. There were too many of them, too. Funny how I never noticed it before.

The black, spiky, gel-saturated hair was gone, and long sleek strands fell to his shoulders. They were gray, the odd dark gray of dirty duct tape. His skin was pale and smooth, and I was seeing too much of it, since Bono chose to appear nude, except for something resembling a kilt or a skirt that hung from his hips, doing a piss-poor job of covering whatever it was supposed to cover.

The world went fuzzy. I rubbed my forehead. The wine was kicking in.

Bono slid from the rail on which he had been perching. He moved with liquid slickness across the porch, seamlessly coming to all fours and lowering himself to the floorboards to sit beside me.

There was something so alien in the way he moved, in how he sat, how he smelled, how he looked at me with the eyes brimming with hate, something so inhuman that my brain stopped, smashing against that inhumanity like a brick wall. He made me want to scream.

I forced myself to sit still. The effort burned some alcohol and the view didn't seem as blurry.

In the yard several smaller creatures waited impatiently as the large one finished his squirrel.

"It's hard for you, isn't it?" the upir said softly. "It's hard to sit next to me like this. You want to scream and run, run as fast as you can across the grass, never looking back, knowing that you can't escape but running still because it's better to die with your back to me. Do you know why that is? Because your body knows that you are food, to be used, eaten, and discarded."

I brought the bottle to my lips and took a small sip. "How many cheesy novels did you have to read to come up with that one?"

He leaned, lowering himself until he lay on his side, his head supported by the arm bent at his elbow. "Laugh, Kate. It's the last opportunity you'll have."

I shrugged. In the yard the squirrel hunter took a swipe at a smaller, hideous thing that darted to nip at the tuff of fur in his hand. The smaller creature yelped, readied for another pass, and froze, its short, nearly translucent tail quivering, gripped by an invisible hand. It stood stiff, thick legs far apart. The quivering spread up its spine, until its neck trembled. The phantom hand squeezed hard one last time and released it. The creature jerked and collapsed. Shaking, it gained its feet and stumbled away, whining softly, its tail between its legs.

"Children misbehave sometimes," Bono said. "They need to be punished. If you're wondering, I can do it to my women, too."

He stared at the big creature and it walked toward us. "Let's get the introductions out of the way," the upir said. "This is my eldest son at the moment. I call him Arag. Arag, this is a future dinner. Future dinner, this is Arag."

Arag's human eyes, sunken deep into his deformed skull, teared up.

"What the hell did you..."

"Baboon." The upir shook his head. "Strong, cruel, aggressive. Unfortunately, he got a little more from me than from his mother. He can speak. Say something for Kate, Arag."

The monster looked down at his hands. He shifted from foot to foot, unsure, and emitted a long distorted screech, like nails scraping against chalkboard. "Bloood," he shrieked.

"Sad, isn't it?" Bono smiled. "He walks the Earth, a pitiful, wretched creature, uttering words at random, longing for something - he himself doesn't know what - and hating everyone and everything. I tried ripping out his vocal cords, but the damn things just grow back."

"Blooood." Arag sighed.

The upir waved him away. "Go on."

Arag returned to his post in the yard. The upir sighed. "I'm thinking of killing him when we're done here. You think I should?"

I swallowed more wine.

"It won't help," Bono said.

I shrugged and drank some more. "Why make an alliance with Olathe?"

"Why not? It was a good plan. Sooner or later the half-breeds and the necromancers would've warred, and Olathe would take over the vampire stables. I'd have enough vampire meat to gorge myself sick. Vampire flesh is the best, Kate. It's aged and flavorful, like a fine wine."

"You ate shapechangers, too."

"Their magic strengthens me." Bono grimaced. "But they taste like shit."

His fingers touched my hair. He picked up a strand and raised it to his nostrils.

"I bet the original plan was to put a bun in Olathe's oven."

He bared his teeth. "The bitch was barren - can you believe that?" He twisted my hair around his fingers and looked through it at the moon. I pulled away and he let the strands slip from his hand with a chuckle. "But then I stumbled onto you. And you're not barren, Kate."

"Why me?"

He leaned close, his breath hot on my cheek. "I know what you are. I've climbed the hill and sniffed the grave of that rotting sack of bones you called Father. I smelled his stink and I know his blood isn't in your veins. And I know whose is. All of that power crammed into a tight, sweet little package. Did you know your real father hunted my kind thousands of years ago? Your puny little mind can't comprehend the extent of my hate for him. You will give me a son, Kate. And all of the magic of your bloodline will belong to me."

He laughed softly and I had to swallow a scream. "Why did you kill Greg?"

"He was getting too close to me. Olathe's little subterfuge failed to fool him. I knew I would have to kill him sooner or later. The trick was to do it so you'd leave your precious warded house and come after the killer."

"You wanted me to confront Olathe. You wanted to know if my blood was stronger than hers."

"Yes. It took you so long to figure it out. I practically drew a map for you. I hand-fed you every crumb. All you had to do was to follow the trail but you meandered and backtracked. An ape could've gotten it faster. But then, you and an ape are only a small step apart."

He licked my cheek. "The magic is thick tonight and I grow hungry. There is a fresh corpse waiting for me at my place. And more will be coming. There are many necromancers among the People who would rather serve me than that fool on his gilded throne. Let's end this, what do you say?"

I said nothing.

"No clever remark? Are you scared, Kate?" His voice dropped to a whisper, but the words he said thundered with power. "Estene aleera hesaad de viren aneda." And now, you are forever mine.

Oh Dear God. For him power words were a language. The strength of the ancient magic gripped me, crushing my mind with its enormity. The whirlwind of light swirled about me, carrying me away into unknown depths. I bit my tongue and tasted my blood. Something furious and defiant rose inside me and screamed. Blinded by the light, I heard myself speak a single word.



The light dimmed and I saw Bono's eyes staring into mine. Unfamiliar words came, surfacing from someplace long forgotten, their meaning somehow clear. "At ner tervan estene." I'll kill you first.

I smashed the bottle against the stairs. The glass shattered, spilling across concrete. I rammed the razor-sharp edge into his throat. Blood sprayed over me.

"Ud." Die.

The ground shook with the power I sank into the word. The upir fell, blood gushing from his throat. I lunged to the door and dove through. The ward flowed closed behind me.

An odd gurgling noise came from the upir. It struggled from his ruined throat, bubbling forth with the gushes of dark blood. Bono reached for the bottle. His fingers closed about the blood-slicked glass, slid, fastened around the edge, the glass slicing into the flesh of his fingers. He pulled and ripped the bottle from his neck, dropping it gently onto the boards.

The gurgling noise strengthened, expelling blood with each tortured cough. Glass shards slid from the wound, carried down by the crimson flow. A hideous creature crept onto the porch to sniff the bloody bottle. Bono grabbed it with one hand and flung the forty-pound thing over the rails like a kitten.

His fingers grazed the awful cut, wiping away the blood. The wound was closing. As it sealed shut, the gurgling noise mutated, growing louder, and I realized that Bono was laughing.

"Nice try," he said, displaying his unscarred neck. "My turn."

He leaped at the open door. An explosion of crimson rolled through the doorway and he howled, thrown back.

He flipped and spun about, his eyes blazing. Silver from his eyes leaked onto his cheeks, staining the skin. There was nothing at all human about him now.

He lunged again and saw the sharp, angular vampire bones guarding the doorway from the inside.


"Rock, wood, and bone, Bono," I said dully. "Your ward is reinforcing mine."

He screamed. The windows vibrated. I threw my hands against my ears. Bono pounded his fists against the porch floor and the boards exploded.

"Won't work," I told him. "You can demolish the whole house. The ward will still stand."

He stared at me, silvery streaks wetting his face as if he cried metal instead of tears. His offspring shivered and hugged the ground. "This isn't over," he howled. "I will murder all that give you protection. I'll kill the cat and I'll devour his flesh. His magic will be mine and then I'll come back. No ward will guard you then!"

He leaped from the porch, racing into the night, and his brood followed him.

I leaned my head against the wall. The booze made it hard to think. He didn't die. I hadn't expected him to. One who can weave the power words into sentences wouldn't die from a single word.

The cat? He said he'd kill the cat. Was he talking about Jim? No, Curran, it had to be Curran. Jim wasn't strong enough to threaten my ward. Curran was. All shapechangers had a natural resistance to warding spells. It had to do with the animal part of their nature. Curran's resistance was the strongest. I could call Jim and warn him.

Who would believe me?

"'And men my prophet wail deride!'" I mumbled and dragged myself to my feet.

I called Jim anyway. He didn't answer the call and the answering machine did not pick up.

THE JOLT OF A WARD BREAKING RIPPED THROUGH my skull. My headache exploded and sleep fled.

Someone was in my house.

I slipped my hand under the pillow, found the handle of a throwing dagger, and pulled the blade free.

I lay awake, breathing quietly. Silence and dark filled the rooms. There was no need to go hunting. Whoever it was would come to me.

A man-sized shadow loomed in the hallway, a deeper darkness against the wall. It hesitated for a breath and approached. I closed my eyes, watching it through my eyelashes.

Six yards. Breathe in and breathe out.


Four. Close enough.

I hurled the dagger. The black blade spun through the air and bit into the shadow's shoulder. Crap. Missed.

The shadow lunged for me. I went for Slayer, but the bastard was too fast. I kicked, both feet hard. The shadow swatted my kick aside and grabbed my right wrist. Steel fingers squeezed, and my hand went numb. I hit the shadow in the throat with my left hand. It growled and I found myself staring into yellow eyes.

"Let go of my hand, asshole!"

Curran let go, and I rubbed my wrist. "Damn it, don't you know how to talk?"

He stared at me, uncomprehending. I reached for the lamp, remembered that the magic was up, and took a candle from the night table instead. I struck a match. The narrow blade of a candle flame flared into existence. Curran stood before me, his eyes wide, unblinking. Tiny red marks covered his face and hands, blending into a uniform coat of crimson. I reached out and touched his palm. Magic stung my fingertips. Blood. Curran was covered with blood, miniscule drops of it swelling from every pore. He had broken through my ward and it had exerted a price.


He gave no indication of hearing me. He must be dazed from shattering the spell.

The headache pounded at my skull like a hammer. Gaining my feet, I took Curran by the hand, led him to the bathroom, and nudged him into the shower. I turned on the cold water and let the icy cascade splash on his face.

Lowering the toilet cover, I sat down and rested my head on my hands. The water poured. I would've killed for an aspirin.

Curran drew a sharp ragged breath and exhaled. Awareness crept into his eyes. "Cold," he said. Shuddering, he shut off the water and shook himself. The drops extinguished the candle and darkness swallowed us.

I reached blindly and threw a towel at him. Finding the door, I started toward the kitchen. Halfway through the short hallway something fell onto my head. I leaped to the side and grabbed at it. My fingers held a twig.

What the hell?

I looked up and saw the night sky. A large, irregular-shaped hole gaped in my roof. Curran had picked the highest point of the building, where the ward would be the weakest and punched through the ward and the roof with it.

I ground my teeth, went into the kitchen, and found a feylantern. With a little coaxing, it ignited, its gentle blue flame spreading soft light. Curran appeared in the doorway.

"You broke my roof," I told him.

"It was easier than the door," he said. "I knocked. You didn't answer."

I rubbed my temples. From now on, no more wine.

Something clanked. I looked up. Curran put my dagger on the table.

"How's your shoulder?"

"Sore," he said.

Telling him that I had been aiming for his throat wasn't in my best interest.

"You were right," he said. "It's not over."

"I know," I said softly.

"There is an upir."

"I know."

"He has Derek."

I stared at him.

"I sent Derek and Corwin to the Wood," Curran said. "He attacked them at the pickup point and took Derek. The last Corwin remembers, the kid had a broken leg, but was alive."

"What about Corwin?"

"He's hurt," Curran said.

"How bad?"

"He's dying."


We stood on the porch, shoulder to shoulder, the night stretching before us.

"I see him." A reptilian-looking thing crouched in the branches of the poplar, its long scaly tail wrapped around a tree limb. The watcher Bono had left to keep an eye on me.

"We can't kill it. Bono thinks I'll sit in the house and hide behind my wards. If we kill it, he's going to know. He has some sort of telepathic bond with them."

Curran strode to the tree. The thing watched him with huge round eyes. Curran jumped, caught a low branch, and pulled himself onto it. The reptilian monster hissed. I went to the shed and brought back a coil of cable wire. Curran grabbed the thing by the neck. It squealed and let go of the branch. He hurled it down and I stepped on it and tied the wire around its neck. Its skin was translucent and colored pale olive, glistening with transparent scales. Curran jumped down and we tied the other end around the tree.

We headed toward the ley line.

WE SAT ON A NARROW WOODEN PLATFORM, hastily thrown together from bits of discarded lumber. They were called ley taxis, cheap wooden constructs that lay in stacks near every ley point. Nothing living could ride the ley line without having some sort of support under its feet. If you were foolish enough to try, the magic current would sever your legs just above the knee.

The ley line dragged us north toward Atlanta at nearly ninety miles an hour. Magic held the taxi completely immobile, so much so that it appeared the rough wooden platform hung still, while the planet merrily rotated past it.

"Explain the bone ward to me again," Curran said quietly.

"He killed the vampires and fed on them. The flesh he consumed created the bond between their bones and him. By bringing the bones inside and binding them to the stone foundation and the walls, I forced him to fight against himself. It's nearly impossible to break this kind of ward. I had also dropped the ward-markers all around the yard so he would have a clear passage to my porch. He was too happy to see me to notice."

"You baited him?"


"So the bone ward can be reversed, but blood wards can be overcome by a person of similar blood?"

"Apples and oranges," I said dully. I felt tired and restless at the same time. "The blood ward draws its power directly from the blood, while the Rock-Wood-Bone ward is an environmental ward. It draws power from the magic itself. The presence of bones just defines it, similar to a lens that allows only light of a certain color to pass. He can't enter my house when magic is up. And since he is magic, he must be too weak to try during tech."

I watched the planet rotate by, the darkness-drowned valleys and hills rolling on both sides of us. Poor Derek. I clenched my teeth.

"Don't," Curran said.

"I should've found somebody to listen." We didn't look at each other, choosing instead to stare into the night's face.

"Wouldn't have mattered," Curran said. "I would've still sent them to the Wood. It was the safest place for them."

"In retrospect, it all fits." My voice was bitter. "He was Ghastek's journeyman, right in the middle of the People's recon crew. He knew when vamps went out and where they headed. He knew which route your people took coming back into the city from Keep. And he spent all his free time picking up women at the bar." I leaned back. I'd had the benefit of Anna's vision and I still missed it. "So stupid."

Curran didn't say anything.

The stars shone bright, mocking us from above, laughing at two humans on a piece of junk. I closed my eyes, but sleep refused to come.

"I put a broken bottle into his throat," I said.

"I saw the bloody glass."

"He laughed. The bottle was in his neck. He was bleeding all over and laughing at me."

"He won't be laughing when I find him." He said it without bravado, flat, the same way most people promise to pick up a loaf of bread on the way home.

The Almanac said that the upir was immune to metal, wood, stone, tooth, and claw. How the hell were we going to kill him?

Curran reached over. His warm hand rested on my forearm for a moment and moved on. For some reason that made me feel better. There was no reason why it should have, but it did. I closed my eyes, put my head on the damp-smelling boards, and fell asleep.

A LIGHT TOUCH ON MY SHOULDER WOKE ME. "LEY point," Curran said. I sat up and saw the break in the ley line up ahead, where the view of the normal world grew distorted. Several tall figures waited for us.

"Friend or foe?"

"Friend," Curran said.

The platform buckled, trying to contract on itself. The old boards creaked, taut under the strain, and grew slick as the damp wood expelled the moisture. The line quaked with a spasmodic jolt and spit us into the deformed arms of a dozen shapechangers. Clawed hands reached to help me off the platform. I got up to my feet on my own.

"How many are left?" Curran asked the head female.

She snarled, mismatched jaws snapping, and a shapechanger in a human form stepped forward. "Two groups, m'lord," he said. "A small family from Waynesville and nine people from Asheville. There was a freak mudslide and they have to dig through the sludge to get to the point."

Curran nodded and strode up the dirt road, flanked by dense brush. Far ahead I could hear the horrible growl of a reconditioned vehicle.

"A horse would be quieter," I said.

"I don't like horses," he said.

All around us the brush was alive with lithe shapes. Glowing eyes watched us, drinking in every movement. The Pack was mobilizing, pulling into Keep. No shapechanger would remain outside its walls, and until the last of them crossed the threshold of their fortress, the roads leading to it would remain heavily fortified.

"Nobody can remain on full alert forever," Curran said, as if answering my thoughts. "After we killed Olathe, I'd let them go."

Except that it wasn't over.

The roar of the water-powered car grew too loud to talk. We rounded the bend in the road and I saw the reconditioned Jeep guarded by three wolves. We climbed in and Curran drove to Keep.

CORWIN'S LABORED BREATHING ECHOED ACROSS Pack's infirmary like the toll of a mourning bell.

His misshapen face looked haggard, gray skin sagging from the bone. His feverish eyes fastened on me.

"The Wood is calling," he whispered. I touched his hand, and wicked claws shot out, tearing my skin. "A good hunt," the lynxwere said.

"He doesn't know who you are," Doolittle said over my shoulder.

Gently I freed my hand and patted the furry throat.

"It won't be long now," Doolittle said.

"I hurt," Corwin rasped.

I looked to Doolittle, but he shook his head. "There is nothing I can give him to stop that kind of pain."

"He was impaled on a broken lamppost when we found him," Curran said softly.

Corwin jerked upward. Massive hands gripped my shoulders and green eyes blazed, suddenly lucid. "I'm dying," he rasped.

"Yes," I said, while Doolittle said "No" at the same time.

The cat clung to me. "You never came to the Wood," he said.

"No." I held him gently. His chest shuddered, raked by pain. "I never did."

"Too bad..." the cat whispered.

He sagged in my arms and I lowered him to the pillow. He trembled. A bloody waterfall drenched the sheets, leaving a lynx among the tangle of bandages. His fur was matted and bloody.

"Shit!" Doolittle spat, shoving me aside.

I backed away from the bed, as he feverishly grabbed for a syringe. Curran took me by the shoulders and turned me toward the bed at the opposite wall.

"There is someone I need you to ID for me," he said.

I looked at the bed and saw a man lying on his back covered to his chin with a blanket. There was something unnatural about his rigid pose. Curran pulled the blanket aside and I saw that the man was strapped to the bed. I took in the filthy brown hair and the hard face. There was something familiar about him. I'd seen him before. The man's eyelids snapped open and I took a step back, instantly recognizing the promise in the pale eyes. The bum from Ted's office. The pieces clicked. How stupid of me.

"We found him next to Corwin, knocked out cold," Curran said. "Apparently he jumped into the fight for Derek, but he won't tell me why."

"Untie him," I said.

Curran looked at me. "He has trouble controlling himself."

"Untie him," I repeated. "You shouldn't keep a Crusader of the Order tied up in your infirmary, Curran."

A tortured noise came from Corwin's bed, the hoarse painful yowling of an animal in agony. For a moment Curran looked like he would pound his fist into the wall, but the slip lasted a mere breath and the calm expression reasserted itself on his face.

"Get him to behave," Curran said," and I'll untie him."

I sat down on the edge of the bed. The Crusader's gaze had a touch of insanity to it. All Crusaders were crazy. It was in their job description. If at this moment, he broke free of his restraints, he would try to kill everyone in the room.

"I know who the upir is," I told the Crusader. "I know what he wants." The Crusader's eyes fixed on me. Once he looked at you, really looked you in the eyes, you started to sweat, your muscles tensed, and you knew you had only two options: fight or flight. He wasn't giving me his hard stare now. He was listening. "The upir can't stay away," I said. "Soon he'll come here and then I'll fight him." I pointed to Curran. "So will he. While Curran and I are fighting and bleeding, a man will be lying here, tied to the bed because he was too stubborn to compromise."

The Crusader spoke. "They took my weapons."

Curran nodded. "He can have them back if he promises not to assault my people. And to stay in Keep. I can't have him running around, fucking shit up right now. He cooperates or he stays tied to the bed."

I looked to the Crusader. The madness flared in his eyes and died. "Agreed," he said.

I took a knife from my belt and sawed through the restraints securing his arms. The Crusader sat up, rubbing his wrists. I offered him the knife and he cut the bonds on his ankles.

"What's your name?" I asked.

"Nick," he said. He wore the Pack's trademark sweats and smelled clean.

I looked to Curran. "Did you force him to bathe?"

"We dipped him," Curran said. "He had lice."

"My weapons," Nick said.

Curran motioned us to follow and we did. He led us out of the room to the hallway, down the corridor, and to a small room. "I have to go," he told me, his hand on the door handle. He turned to Nick and the two men locked stares, sizing each other up. "Stay put," Curran said.

"He will," I told him. The Crusaders were insane, but they were still Knights of the Order. Their word was binding.

Curran opened the door for us and walked away, while we entered the room.

A lone bed flanked the wall next to a small dresser and a desk cluttered with metal. The place didn't look lived in - no personal items on the furniture, no loose clothes. A heavy punching bag hung from the ceiling and I wondered if that was standard equipment for Keep's rooms. Nick went to the desk, while I sat on the bed.

He had been loaded for bear when the shapechangers took him. A dozen shark-teeth gleamed on the table, next to a 9mm Sig Sauer, a .22, a shotgun, several clips, and boxes of assorted ammo. A long chain lay coiled by the shotgun. Silver, judging by the color of its metal. A short gladius-shaped sword lay on the side, flanked by several sharp dirks and a crescent-shape serrated blade designed to slice the throat. A tangle of cord and wooden parts occupied the corner of the desk - a garrote. There was a utility belt, two leather bracers, designed to hold the shark teeth, a back sheath, an r-kit, and bandages.

Nick stripped to the waist, displaying a hard scarred torso. His left shoulder was bandaged. He pulled the bandages off, exposing a raw, jagged wound, and slapped the r-kit onto it. Taking a fresh roll of gauze from the table, he began to dress the shoulder. I got up, stood behind him, and passed the bandage over his back.

We worked in silence until the wound was dressed. He put the shirt back on and strapped the utility belt over his waist.

"How long have you been tracking him?" I asked.

He didn't look at me, his attention captured by the metal on the table. "Four years." He slid the shark teeth one by one into their places on the bracers. "First Quebec, then Seattle. Tulsa."

I touched the desk. "Nothing here will kill him."

He thrust the gladius into his belt. It didn't matter that he had nothing. He would still try.

"How did you know the upir would attack the kid?"

"The kid's been bound to you. A natural target."

"I'm a better target."

"No: He wants you alive. To breed." He stepped toward me and touched my arm. Pale luminescence shimmered on his fingertips and vanished. "Power," he said. "Draws him like a moth to a flame."

He didn't need demonstrations of power. He could tell by touch. I tried to remember if he had touched me back in Ted's office. We'd brushed against each other.

"You took responsibility for the kid," he said. "You let him be taken."

He was right. "Coming from a man who let himself be captured by the Pack and strapped to a bed, that doesn't carry much weight. Tell you what, come back to me with the upir's head and then you can judge me."

He stared at me for a moment, his face blank and then said in his grating voice, "Fair enough."

We moved at the same time and I stared into the barrel of his Sig Sauer while Slayer's tip pressed against his jugular. I wasn't sure how I knew he'd move.

The door opened slowly. Someone stepped into the room and halted. Neither of us was willing to look away. A long moment passed, and the newcomer exited. The door clicked, closing. A loud knock broke the quiet.

I grimaced at Nick. "You going to do something, do it, so I can slit your throat and move on."

The gun barrel pointed upward and vanished back into the holster with a safety's click. "Not now," he said. I slid Slayer back into its sheath.

The knocking persisted. "Come in," I said.

The door opened, revealing a female shapechanger. She turned to me. "Curran wants you," she said.

The woman led me to the Council room in the back of the auditorium and held the door, motioning us to enter. I stepped inside and saw a dead girl on the floor. She lay on her side, her legs spread obscenely, her arms stretched forward. Moisture stained her torn T-shirt. A tiny heart on a long gold chain, the kind a teenage girl might buy for herself, spilled through shredded fabric to rest on the ground. Long scratches scarred the wooden floor, where her claws had scraped the boards. She must have changed shape before she died.

Her head stuck out at an unnatural angle, blind blue eyes staring at the ceiling. She looked young, frighteningly young, fourteen at the most. Someone had broken her neck, quickly, cleanly, in a single devastating jerk.

Curran was looking at her corpse from the gloom. Mahon sat at the wall, rubbing his forehead. There was a white piece of paper in his hand.

"The upir sent a phone number," Curran said.

Mahon put his hand over his face. A scene played itself before my eyes: the girl lunging forward, blue eyes insane with the upir's thoughts, changing into a snarling beast in midleap; Mahon stepping forward, huge arms grabbing her, snapping fragile bones on instinct, before the brain reacted; the girl changing back and falling to the floor... I didn't ask where on her body they found the note.

"Are you going to call him?" I asked.

"Yes," Curran said. "Suggestions?"

"He loses his temper when things slip from his control," I said. "And he thinks with his dick." It wasn't much.

Curran picked up the speakerphone and dialed the number. The long tone sounded through the room once, twice. A click announced that the phone was picked up and Bono's voice said, "I see you've got my message."

"I got it," Curran said.

"Did you kill the little girl, cat? Is she lying on the floor someplace? Are you looking at her now, wondering if she would've been good to fuck? I can help you with that. She was sweet, clumsy and dumb, but sweet. A bit dry too, but she bled a lot, so that evened things out."

Curran's face was relaxed, almost tranquil.

"Is your girlfriend there with you?" Bono asked. He was babbling, excited, as if high on something. "The tall, dark-haired one with sharp eyes? I looked for her, but she was gone, so I took the human blonde you had before her. I'm going to have her for lunch tomorrow. The trick with fresh meat is to soften it someplace warm. But then you eat your meat raw, so educating you on subtleties of cooking is a waste of time. My children are getting your girl ready to fillet. Would you like to hear her scream?"

There was a sound of a door swinging open and a woman's voice cut through. "Please no," she begged in sheer panic. "Please, please, please..." Me. It should've been me. There was nothing I could do but listen.

Curran's face was still calm. He picked up a chair and bent its metal legs into twisted curves.

Suddenly the woman choked, reaching a new intensity of terror, and broke into sobs, loud, heart-wrenching cries. Her desperation filled the room. She had no hope. She knew she was dying and she knew that there would be no escape. She screamed sharply once, twice, and fell silent.

Bono's voice snarled, "Idiot!" and Arag's unforgettable, inhuman whimper emanated from the phone.

"He punctured an artery," Bono's voice returned. "It's so simple - cut the stomach and pull out the intestines, but no, he manages to get his claws into an artery. Now I'll need to wash the innards. I'll have to kill him after all."

The whimpering receded, moving farther from the phone. "So tell me," Bono said, "did she sound like that when you fucked her? She wouldn't scream for me, she only sobbed. A real disappointment, that one. Are you there, half-breed?"

"I'm here. And I too have something for you to hear. Say hello, Kate."

"Hello," I said.

There was silence on the phone. "It's not her," Bono said. "She's still in her house."

"How's the neck?" I asked. "Still spitting up glass?"

"She is here," Curran said. "With me. Tonight, while you're waiting for your corpse to get soft, think of me and her. Think of her begging me for it."

"I'll get her in the end." Bono voice was taut with strain.

Curran made a loud sigh. "What is it about you and my sloppy seconds?"

Bono slammed the phone. I turned and left the room.

I WANDERED THE HALLWAYS UNTIL I FOUND THE room where the Crusader and I almost had our little showdown. Nick was gone. I hoped he had enough sense to stay in the compound. Pissing Curran off right now was pure suicide. I closed the door and went to the window. It was raining. The gray sky spewed gray water onto the dull grass far below. The grayness from the outside seeped into the room, leeching the color from the sparse furnishing. The rain would end eventually, leaving the grass and the trees brilliant green, vivid with fresh color. Strange how something so colorless and drab could rejuvenate the world.

There was a pair of gray sweats and nothing else in the small dresser by the bed. I placed Slayer and its sheath onto a Spartan blue blanket, stripped, and put on the sweats. I started slow, stretching, jumping an invisible rope, until warmth spread through my muscles. I cracked my neck and attacked the punching bag.

I wasn't sure how much time had passed. Sweat drenched my sweatshirt and the T-shirt under it, and the fabric stuck to my back. Sometime after my legs began to hurt, I heard a knock. My brain brushed the sound aside. I launched another kick, connected with a solid thump, launched another before my mind put on the brakes. "Come in."

Curran stepped into the room and closed the door. I wiped the sweat from my forehead and stretched. He sat down on a chair, hands resting on his knees, looking at the floor, and waited for me to finish.

"He called back," he said when I was done.

"What did he say?"

"He raved for a while. Promised to kill me. He won't attack Keep."

"You expected him to?"

"No. I hoped."

I sat on the bed. It wouldn't play out the way we hoped it would. Bono refused to be provoked into something rash, where numbers would be on the Pack's side. In this new age, combat between inpiduals decided the fate of many.

Bono would challenge Curran. It was inevitable. Curran had threatened his masculinity; he had made it personal, and when the challenge came, Curran would have to accept it. He was the Pack leader, the alpha male who didn't have the luxury of backing down. He would not hide in the safety of Keep, while the upir raged, murdering everyone whose death he thought likely to bring us pain.

I looked at Curran. "Your..." I paused searching for the right word. Girlfriend seemed inadequate, woman too impersonal. "Your lady," I finally said. "Is she safe?"

"Yes," he said. "She's here."

I nodded, screams of another woman echoing in my ears. Curran looked up at me, his eyes haunted. He looked older and tired.

"It's not that I don't care," he said. The screaming didn't stop for him either.

"I know."

"I can't let him intimidate me."

"I know," I repeated quietly.

"I'm sorry," he said and I wasn't sure exactly what for.

He left.

I sat on the bed and thought. Everyone had a weakness. It was the law of nature that for each being there was a predator, or a disease, or a vulnerability built into their very core. The upir had to have a weakness. It wouldn't be in any book. If that was the case, the crusader would have found it by now.

I thought about everything that had happened since Greg's death, carefully going over events, trying to recall every detail. I thought about Bono, the places he visited, the people he might have met, the things he did.

The rain pounded harder. The sweat-drenched clothes grew cold on my back.

My room had no phone. I got up and went down the hall, trying different rooms, until I found one that did. I closed the door and dialed the number.

"Hello," said a male voice with the smoothness of someone for whom courtesy was a part of the job description. "You have reached the People's inner office. How may I help you?"

"I need to speak to Ghastek."

"Mr. Ghastek is busy at the moment..."

"Put him on. Now."

He didn't like what he heard in my voice. The phone clicked and Ghastek came on the line against the background noises.


I heard quiet voices discussing something. He wasn't alone.

"You had to know," I said. "He was your journeyman for two years."

"I fail to understand..."

"Don't," I snarled.

There was so much fury in my voice that he fell silent.

"Tell me, Ghastek. Tell me what you know."

"No," he said.

I closed my eyes and tried to think clearly. I could go down there and slaughter everything in my way. I had a lot of frustration to vent. By the time they pulled me down, the People's stable would be awash in blood. I could do that. I wanted to do it very much, but then it wouldn't solve my bigger problem.

"He will come back for you," I told him. "He loathes you. He's committed now and after he kills everyone he hates, he'll find you and you'll be raising vampires for him and his brood. You'll be his short-order cook."

"Do you think I haven't thought of that?" Ghastek whispered fiercely.

"Then tell me what you know. Tell me!"

Silence answered me. A moment passed, then another.

"I have nothing to tell you," Ghastek said and the line went dead. I fought the urge to hurl the phone against the wall.

"Asking the People for information is both futile and stupid," said Nick behind me. "They wouldn't sell you a spare umbrella in a shit storm."

I turned. Nick's hair, pulled back from his face into a ponytail, looked two shades lighter. The stubble had vanished, leaving a hard but pleasant, open face. He crossed the room, moving like a mature martial artist, fully confident in his skill and no longer competing to prove himself, but still too young and too fit to grow a sensei paunch. I could tell he was both quick and trained, armed with a muscle memory that would allow him to counter a kick or a punch without pause or thought.

He stopped a respectable distance away, and I realized he smelled like Irish Spring soap. For a moment I wasn't sure if I was looking at the same man and then our gazes met. The familiar urge to step back flooded me.

"Why, you're adorable," I said, trying not to break into a nervous laugh. "All that you need is one of those little earrings in one ear."

He gave me his hard stare.

"I'm just curious," I said. "When you do that to people, do they usually start to shake and fall to the ground quivering with fear?"

"They usually just die surprised," he said.

"Must not have worked on the upir then."

He swung a large knapsack over his shoulder.

"Going somewhere?" I wondered, sitting down on the bed. My reaction time was probably close to his, and there was enough distance between us. If he tried anything, I had time to evade.


"And how are you planning on getting past the Pack sentries?"

"I'm planning on you getting me out," he said. "They took away my wolfsbane, but I know you have some."

I rubbed my face with my hands. I did have wolfsbane - I would have been an idiot to venture within the Pack's territory and not bring any. And I was probably better at using it, too. "Why would I help you escape? Do you have any idea how pissed Curran will be? I might as well slit my wrists now."

"Considering how the upir plans to use you, it might not be a bad idea."

Nick stepped to me, reached out slowly, and brushed my hand with his fingers. A sharp tingle of magic nipped at my skin and his fingers glowed with white radiance, as if he had dipped his hand in fluorescent paint.

I pulled away. "Would you stop doing that?"

His gaze probed me. "Who are you? Where do you come from?"

"I'm pretty sure I came from my mom and dad," I said. "See, when a man puts his penis inside a woman's vagina..."

"I know how to kill him," he interrupted.

I shut up.

Nick crouched next to me. "Back in Washington, I tracked him down to the Shrine of the Gorgon. He'd helped himself to the priestesses and slaughtered the priests, but before Archiereus of the shrine died, he told me how to kill him. But I need my tools. Help me make it out of here, and I'll come back with a weapon to fight him."

"Why not just tell Curran?"

He shook his head. "The Beast Lord won't listen. He's got tunnel vision: keep the Pack safe. He won't let me out."

"Tell me," I said.

"Will you help me?"

"Tell me first and I'll do what I can."

Nick leaned toward me. "Bone of prey," he whispered. "You kill him with bone."

"I'll help," I said. "But while you're out, I need you to do me a favor. Bring me a present, Nick."

CURRAN LOOKED AT ME. HE WASN'T GIVING ME A hard stare. He was just looking at me with no expression at all. "Where's the Crusader?" he asked. His voice was level.

"He needed some 'me' time," I said. "I might be wrong, but I don't think he's a team player."

There were seven of us in the room: Curran, Jim in his jaguar shape, Mahon, two lupine sentries, the stable master, and me. The sentries and the stable master looked decidedly uncomfortable. Their eyes still watered from the wolfsbane and the left sentry had a full-blown allergic reaction, complete with red rash and a running nose he probably desperately wanted to wipe. If it wasn't for Curran, he might have made a mad dash for the handkerchief, but the Beast Lord's presence kept him rooted at attention, and so he just stood there, both faucets dripping.

Curran nodded calmly, feigning understanding. He was too composed for my liking. In his place I would've exploded. I flexed my wrist lightly, feeling the edge of the leather bracer full of silver needles rub against my skin. Mahon had politely requested to hold Slayer for me while Curran and I had our little talk. Just as well. It's not like I could kill Curran now. Should. It's not like I should kill Curran now. I could always try. Later.

The Beast Lord crossed his arms on his chest. His face looked placid. Calm before the storm...

The jaguar at my feet tensed and tried to look smaller. Nick needed a bit of a distraction while he rode like a bat out of hell on the horse commandeered from the Pack stables. I'd provided that distraction by leading Jim and his posse of pissy shapechangers on a merry chase through the countryside.

"Just so we're clear," Curran said. "You did understand that I didn't wish you or the Crusader to leave Keep?"


"That's what I thought," Curran said.

He grabbed me by the throat and slammed me against the wall. My feet felt no floor. His fingers crushed my neck.

I clasped the hand that held me and jammed a long silver needle into his palmar nerve between the index finger and thumb. Curran's fingers trembled. His hand opened releasing me. I slid to the floor, dropped, and swiped at his legs. He fell. I rolled away and came to my feet. On the opposite side of the room Curran rose to a half crouch, his eyes burning gold.

The whole thing took maybe two seconds. The stunned audience never got a chance to react.

Curran reached for the needle, pulled it out, and dropped it to the floor, never taking his eyes off me.

"It's okay," I told him. "I have more."

He lunged from a half crouch into a spectacular pounce. I dashed forward, aiming to come under him and flick the needle into his stomach. And we both crashed into Mahon.

"No!" the Bear growled.

I bounced off his leg and sat onto the floor, stupidly blinking. Mahon grabbed Curran by his shoulders and struggled to keep him still. Huge muscles bulged on his shoulders and arms, splitting the seams of his sleeves.

"Not now," Mahon grunted. His reasonable voice had no effect. Curran locked his hands on Mahon's arms. I could see the beginnings of a judo style hold there, but Curran did not follow through. Instead it degenerated into a brute contest of strength. Mahon's face went purple with effort. His feet slid.

I got up. Mahon's arms trembled, but Curran's face had gone pale from the strain. The Bear against the Lion. The room was so thick with testosterone, you could cut it with a knife. I looked at the sentries.

"You and Jim might want to leave," I told them.

The younger lycanthrope stirred. "We don't take orders from..."

The older male cut him off. "Come."

They filed out the door, taking the jaguar with them.

I went to the locked men and very gently took Curran's right wrist and tugged on it. "Let go, Curran. Please, let go. Come on. You are mad at me, not at him. Let go."

Slowly the tension drained from his face. The gold fire ebbed. His fingers relaxed and the two men broke off.

Mahon puffed like an exhausted plow horse. "You are bad for my blood pressure," he said to me.

I shrugged and jerked my head in Curran's direction. "I'm even worse for his."

"You left," Curran said. "You knew how fucking important it was and you still left."

"Nick knows how to kill him. He needs a weapon and you wouldn't let him out," I said.

"And if the upir had caught you," Mahon said softly. "What would you have done then?"

I took a sphere Nick had given me from my pocket and showed them. The size of a walnut, it was metallic and small enough to perfectly fit into the palm of my hand. I squeezed the sides gently and three spikes popped from the sphere, moist with liquid.

"Cyanide," I explained.

"You can't kill him with that." Curran grimaced.

"It's not for him. It's for me."

They stared at me.

"People were dying," I said. "He was laughing, and all I could do was to sit tight and be safe."

Curran growled. "You think it's easy for me?"

"No. But you're used to it. You have experience with responsibility for people's lives. I don't. I don't want anybody else to die for me. I'm up to my knees in blood as is."

"I had to send three patrols out," Curran said. "Because of you. None of them died, but they could have. All because you couldn't stand to not be the center of attention for a few minutes."

"You're an asshole."

"Fuck you."

I started sniffing. "What the hell is that stink? Oh, wait a minute, it's you. You reek. Did you dine on skunk or is that your natural odor?"

"That's enough," Mahon roared, startling both of us into silence. "You're acting like children. Curran, you've missed your meditation, and you need one. Kate, there is a punching bag in your room. Make use of it."

"Why do I have to punch the bag while he meditates?" I mumbled on the way out.

"Because he breaks the bags when he punches them," Mahon said.

I was almost to the room when it occurred to me that I had obeyed Mahon without question or even doubt. He had that eternal father-thing about him that managed to throw me off track every time. There was no defense against it or at least I didn't know of one. He didn't use it when he fought with Curran. I tried to figure out why while I dutifully punched the bag. My punches were rather pathetic. Then exhaustion settled in. A mere twenty minutes later I gave up, took a shower, and fell onto my bed without finding an answer.

Prev Next
Romance | Vampires | Fantasy | Billionaire | Werewolves | Zombies