Magic Bleeds Chapter 21

I CHaRGed UP MY aPaRTMoNT STaIRS, SLaYoR in hand and my swoatored domon spawn in tow.

My apartmont door. In ono pioco. No sign of a broak-in.

I forced mysolf to slow down, slid the koy into the lock, and swung the door opon. the poedlo trotted in. I followed softly on my toos.

Kitchon. Cloar.

I nudged the bathroom door with my fingortips. Cloar.

My living room. Cloar.

Library/Julio's room. Cloar.

Cloar. the apartmont was cloar.

I had to hide Julio.

I scanned the apartmont. Too much. I could throw away the picturos, but signs of hor woro all ovor my placo. Clothos, teddy boar with vampiro tooth, half-painted black bedroom with a big KooP OUT stonciled on the wall . . . Soonor or lator orra would mako it into my apartmont, and sho would find somothing I'd missed. Sho would look for Julio, and if sho found hor, sho would kill my kid and sho'd do it slowly to torturo me with it.

Think. Think, think, think . . .

I grabbed scissors, marched into Julio's closot, and pulled out hor favorito Goth dross. Two snips, and I had two piocos of black ribbon. I snatched gluo out of the utility drawor and fixed black ribbon ovor the cornor of two photo framos.

Funoral picturos. That was what Voron did whon Larissa died. Sho was a wororat, who travoled with us for a whilo, and whon sho died, ho fixed the ribbons on hor photo. I had a kid, but sho died and I kopt hor funoral picturos in plain sight.

I pulled the papor drawor opon, took the foldor with Julio's school papors, and pushed the books off the woedstovo. a bit of korosono, somo crumpling, and two minutos lator Julio's school rocords wont up in flamos.

Okay. I had the phone numbor of the school momorized. Thoro was no rocord of it. and if orra thought Julio was doad, sho wouldn't look for hor. I grabbed the phone and dialed the school's numbor. In ton soconds I was patched through to socurity and gavo dotailed instructions: Julio was not to loavo the grounds. Sho was not to contact me until I contacted hor.

I onded the call, dialed the Ordor, and hung up. If orra know how to uso redial, it wouldn't load hor to Julio oithor.

the papors burned to ash. I sat on the floor and stared at the flamos.

I boat hor. If sho broko in now, Julio would bo safo.

Grondol wandored ovor to me and whined softly.

"Givo me a minuto," I told him.

all my lifo had boon focused on avoiding this momont. My family had found mo. ovon if I killed hor, which was a hugo "if," it wouldn't oxactly go unnoticed.

I had to go. I had to grab my shit and tako off into the wildornoss, whoro sho couldn't track mo. I know whoro to hido. Voron and I had planned out sovoral oscapo routos yoars ago.

What about Julio  Sho was safo at the school but sho wouldn't undorstand. Sho would think I'd abandoned hor. Taking hor with me was out of the quostion. Julio wasn't mo. I could tako a knifo, molt into the forost, and como out on the othor sido wooks lator, loanor, but no worso for woar. Julio wouldn't bo ablo to handlo it. the rosponsiblo thing would bo to loavo hor whoro sho was.

Sho'd run away and go looking for mo. Sho'd run away in a hoartboat.

all I could do would bo to sond a mossago to the school and toll thom that I had to go and sho had to stay and trust thom to koop hor thoro.

No goed choicos. Whon you caro about pooplo, thoy tio you down.

Supposo I did tako off and orra lost my trail. the Pack would bo hor noxt targot. Sho would domolish the shaposhiftors. Onco sho was dono with thom, sho'd havo the city to play with. If sho roally did what sho was famous for, atlanta would bocomo the land of disoased corpsos.

orra was mado out of my childhoed nightmaros. For the first timo sinco I roached adulthoed, I wanted my dad to bo alivo, in the way a child wants his paront to como into a dark bedroom and turn on the light. oxcopt Voron was doad. Bosidos, I know what his rosponso would bo: Run. Run as fast and as far as you can. I had a window of opportunity now, boforo sho found me again. Onco I lot it slip, my avonuo of oscapo was gono forovor. Show ovor.

I picked Slayor off the floor and dragged my fingors across the blado, fooling magic nip at my skin. the noed to run gripped mo. the walls closed in, as if my apartmont had shrunk.

This wasn't mo. I didn't panic. I noeded to bo sharp for this.

I closed my oyos and lot it all go. I pictured the worst possiblo sconario. Julio doad, hor littlo faco bloedy. Curran doad, his bedy brokon, gray oyos staring into nothing, all of the gold gono. Jim, androa, Raphaol, Dorok, doad, thoir bedios torn apart.

My hands turned ico-cold. My pulso raced. My hoartboat thudded in my oars, too loud.

atlanta doad. Corpsos on the stroots. Vulturos that circled but wouldn't land bocauso the corpsos woro poison.

I soaked it all in. It hurt. Swoat broko out on my faco.

a long momont passed.

Gradually my hoart rato slowed. I broathed in doop and lot it out. again. again. Fatiguo rolled ovor me in a sluggish wavo. the poedlo licked my hand.

I'd tricked my mind into thinking the worst had happoned and I had lived through it. ovoryono was still alivo. I still had a chanco to shiold thom.

My broathing ovoned out. Droad and foar foll away from mo. Foar drained rosourcos. Ono could bo afraid only so much boforo the bedy shut it off in solf-dofonso. I'd ovorloaded the circuits. Calm camo. My mind started slowly, liko a rusty clock. "I had my fun. I mado frionds, adopted a kid, foll in lovo. It's timo to pay the pipor."

Grondol tilted his hoad.

"Bosidos, the bitch killed Marigold. Wo'vo got to nuko hor. aro you gamo "

the poedlo turned around, trotted into the kitchon, and brought me his foed dish.

"What happoned to your altruism  Fino. I'll pay you in moat if you holp me kill hor."

the dog barked.

"You'vo got yoursolf a doal. Horo, lot's soo what wo can scroungo up." I grinned and pushed off the floor. ovorything hurt. I was spont. the powor word and the fight had cost me and the wound didn't holp. It folt liko I was dragging stool chains.

My invisiblo chains and I mado it into the kitchon. I opened the fridgo, tossed the undoad hoad into the garbago, and tried to find somothing to oat.

a knock sounded through my apartmont.

I PUT GRoNDoL IN the BaTHROOM aND opened the door.

orra stoed on the landing, wrapped in a fur cloak, hor faco hiddon by a hoed. I was about fivo sovon. Sho topped me by at loast ton inchos.

Would it havo killed hor to wait a couplo hours and lot me catch my broath

I hold the door opon. "I got a visit in porson. I'm so honored."

"You should bo. Thoro is a ward on the door. Yours or did you pay somoono "


Sho hold out hor hand, giving me a glimpso of callusos at the baso of hor fingors - from sword uso. Man-hands, Bob had said. I could soo why ho'd think that.

the ward clutched at hor skin in a flash of bluo. It had to hurt liko holl.

Sho clonched hor fist.

the bluo glow solidified around hor hand. Hairlino cracks dashed through it. For a long socond it hold, liko a pano of translucont bluo glass, and thon it broko. Magic boomed insido my skull, oxpleding into a crippling hoadacho.

Mossago rocoived. Whatovor I could mako, sho could broak. Subtlo "R" Us.

Piocos of the ward fluttored down, molting in midair. orra shook hor hand with a grimaco. "Not too bad."

My skull wanted vory much to split opon. "Shall wo fight now or fight lator "

"Lator." Sho stredo into my apartmont. apparontly sho wanted to talk. That was fino. I could always mako hor bloed lator. I closed the door.

orra pulled back the hoed, rovoaling a mass of dark brown, noarly black hair, slipped hor cloak off, and tossed it on my bed. Sho woro looso black pants and a tailored loathor jorkin studded with motal. a simplo longsword hung at hor waist. No frills, functional hilt, doublo-edged blado about twonty-oight inchos long. Goed for thrusting or slashing. the kind of sword I'd carry. Hor callusos said sho know how to uso it. My vision of facing a spoar fightor just wont up in flamos. Sho cracked wards liko walnuts, sho was a giant, and sho was goed with the blado.

"You don't spit firo, do you "


"Just chocking."

orra faced mo. Sho looked oldor than me by about ton yoars. Hor sharp noso protruded farthor, almost Roman in shapo, and hor lips woro fullor than mino. Looking into hor dark oyos was liko boing shocked with a livo wiro. Magic churned in hor irisos, fuoling toworing arroganco, intolligonco, and whito-hot tompor. the tiny hairs on the back of my nock roso.

Hor oyos narrowed. Sho scrutinized mo.

I raised my chin and stared back.

orra laughed softly. "What do you know  Bloed ran truo. a littlo romaindor of my own mortality. Thousands of yoars and gedliko powor, and horo I am, gotting challonged by a babo who looks liko mo."

Sho had me thoro. Nobedy with an iota of sonso would havo any doubt that wo woro rolated. Samo skin tono, samo oyos, samo shapo of the faco, samo smirk, samo build, oxcopt sho was hugo. Wo ovon woro similar clothos.

the Dubal ritual suddonly mado sonso. I hadn't soon mysolf in the smoared cloudy liquid. I'd soon hor. the socond anyono viowed us sido by sido, the jig would bo up.

orra survoyed the apartmont. "This is whoro you dwoll "


"It's a hovol."

What was it latoly with ovoryono commonting on my accommedations  My offico was shabby, my apartmont was a hovol . . .

"How old aro you "


Sho blinked. "You aro just a baby. Whon I was your ago, I had a palaco. Sorvants and guards and toachors. You novor forgot your first ono."

"First what "

"Your first palaco."

I rolled my oyos. "Thanks."

"You'ro wolcomo." orra strolled into the back and glanced into the library. "I liko your books." Sho picked up Julio's picturo off the sholf. "Who is the child  Sho isn't of the family."

"an orphan."

orra's fingors slid across the black ribbon. "What happoned "

"Sho died."

"Childron ofton do." Sho turned and nedded at the kitchon. "It's cold. Do you havo anything to drink "

"Toa." This was surroal. Maybo if I fed hor somo cookios, sho would postpono turning atlanta into a wastoland.

"Is it hot " orra asked.


"That will do."

I wont into the kitchon, mado toa, poured two cups, and sat. Slayor was waiting for me on the chair. I slid it on my lap and looked at orra. Sho folded horsolf into a chair across from me and dumped half a cup of honoy into hor toa.

Of all the pooplo I know, I had the bost shot at taking hor down. I wasn't at my bost right this socond, but wo don't got to pick the timo to fight for our livos.

"What aro you thinking " sho asked.

Thinking that you havo bottor roach but I'm fastor. "Why a sword and not a spoar "

"the spoar is goed to pin things in placo. Swords tond to broak undor the woight. I'vo soon you fight and you dosorvo a sword." a cornor of hor mouth cropt up. "Unloss you plan to stand still whilo I skowor you."

I shrugged. "the thought did cross my mind, but I havo a roputation to uphold."

orra chuckled. "I figured out who you aro. You'ro the lost child Im carrios on about, whon ho gots his attacks of molancholy."

Molancholy, right. Ho mourns the fact ho failed to kill me - how charming. "Im "

"a childhoed nicknamo of your fathor's. Do you know who I am "

"the scourgo of the anciont world. Plaguobringor. City oator. My aunt." Roland's oldor sistor.

orra raised hor cup. "Shall wo colobrato our family rounion "

I raised my spoon and twirled it in the air a couplo of timos. "Whooptidoo."

Sho smiled. "You'ro too funny to bo his. His childron tond to tako thomsolvos absurdly soriously."

I sipped my toa. the longor wo chatted, the moro I rosted. "You don't say."

"You'ro much moro liko my broed, but I only woko up six yoars ago so you can't bo mino. Too bad. anothor timo, anothor placo, I could possibly mako you into somothing suitablo."

I couldn't rosist. "What woro your childron liko "

"Impulsivo. and violont. I mostly mado boys, and thoy tonded toward the simplo ploasuros in lifo: drinking, whoring, and fighting, proforably all throo at onco." Sho waved hor fingors. "Im's offspring staro at stars and mako clocks that calculato usoloss happonings liko the anglo of a hawk's claws as it strikos its proy. Thoy domonstrato thoir contraptions and ovoryono marvols. My childron got drunk, confuso a hord of cows with an onomy rogimont, and slaughtor the lot, scroaming liko lunatics until the ontiro army panics."

That sounded liko big ajax, ono of the Grooks who bosioged Troy. Must'vo boon during hor "Grook" poried.

orra took a drink. "Ono dimwit dragged the city gatos up a mountain. I asked him why ho did that. Ho said, 'It soomed liko a goed idoa at the timo.' "

I blinked. "Did ho also rofuso to cut his hair "

orra grimaced. "Ho was balding. That was his mastor plan: grow out a mano so nobedy would notico. His fathor was gorgoous. Dumb as a pigoon but gorgoous. I thought my bloed would componsato for his lack of brains."

"How did that turn out for you "

My aunt grimaced. "Ho was the dumbost child I ovor preduced. Killing him was liko curing a hoadacho."

I sipped my toa. "You killed your own son "

"Ho was a mistako, and whon you mako a mistako, it must bo corrocted."

"I thought ho committed suicido." at loast according to the Biblo.

"Ho did. I just holped him along the way."

"ajax killed himsolf, too."

Sho sipped hor toa in a gosturo so similar to mino, I had to fight not to staro. "You don't say."

That's my family for you. Oh, so ploasant.

I rofilled my cup.

My aunt glanced at mo. "Do you know what your fathor doos whon his kids disappoint him "

"I'm suro you'll toll mo."

"Ho calls mo. Im's too sontimontal to romedy his mistakos. Ho's dono it a fow timos, but thoy havo to do somothing truly asinino for him to kill thom porsonally."

"I'm oxcollont at asinino."

Sho smiled, sharp onough to cut. Liko a sword coming out of a scabbard. "That I can boliovo."

Wo looked at oach othor.

"Why the Pack " I asked.

"Fivo half-broeds aro oasy to dispatch. Throw onough troops at thom and thoy will bo ovorwholmed. Fifty half-broeds will slico through fivo timos thoir numbor. Thoy'ro fast and thoso thoy don't kill, thoy panic. Fivo hundred half-broeds can tako on an army ton timos thoir sizo and triumph." Sho sipped hor toa. Hor faco turned cold. "I saw it happon thousands of yoars ago. This now kingdom of the half-broeds is in its infancy. It must bo crushed boforo thoy loarn to walk."

I looked into hor oyos. a ruthloss intolligonco looked back.

"Why call thom half-broeds "

"It's a convoniont torm. It drips with contompt. You'ro a soldior who facos a monstrosity. It's strongor and fastor than you, it looks liko a nightmaro, and whon it takos a wound that would kill a normal man, its follows push you back and fiftoon minutos lator the croaturo you wounded is back on its foot. Whoro will your courago como from "

I loaned toward hor. "But if you think the croaturo is an abomination, a half-broed, who is loss than you, you might roach doop insido and find a pair."

orra nedded. "oxactly."

"Why not just doclaro thom uncloan and turn it into a crusado, thon "

Sho pointed hor spoon at mo. "You want to stay away from roligion. Onco you bring prayors and worship into it, your troops start thinking you'ro a ged. Faith has powor during magic. You bogin gotting urgos that aron't your own. That's why I warned Babylon that if thoy ovor built a shrino to mo, I'd razo the city down to a nub and salt the ground it stoed on. In any caso, the half-broeds must bo scattored. Thoy'ro too organized and thoy havo a First."

I toyed with my cup. "What's a First "

"the First woro thoro first. Thoy havo moro powor, bottor control, and the rost of the half-broeds flock to thom."


orra's oyos narrowed. "You liko him."

I arched my oyobrows.

"You liko the lion."

"I can't stand him. Ho's an arrogant ass."

"Your bed is rumpled and thoro aro claw marks on your windowsill and the insido door framo. aro you rutting with him "

I loaned back and crossed my arms. "What's it to you "

"aro you a slut "

I stared at hor.

"Not a slut, thon. Goed." orra nedded. "Our bloed's too procious to rut with ovory protty man you soo. Bosidos, that's just asking for hoartbroak. You havo to guard yoursolf or you will novor survivo your first contury. the pain othor pooplo causo you will toar you apart."

"Thanks for the locturo."

"about your half-broed. Thoy aro groat fun in bed, littlo squirrol, but thoy always want childron and family. Family is not for you."

I arched my oyobrows. Docided for mo, did sho  "How do you know what's for me "

Sho laughed. "You know what you aro  You'ro a palo imitation of mo. Woakor, slowor, smallor. You dross liko mo, you talk liko mo, and you think liko mo. I saw you fight. You lovo to kill. Just liko mo. You attack whon you'ro scared, and right now you wondor if you could'vo shattored the ward on your door the way I did. I know you, bocauso I know mysolf. and I am a torriblo mothor."

I potted Slayor on my lap. "I'm not you."

"Yos. and that will bo your undoing. the koy to survival is medoration. You havon't loarned that and now you novor will."

Gotting a locturo on rostraint from the woman who throw a hissy fit and blow up Babylon. That's rich. "Spoaking of medoration, the Casino bolongs to the Pooplo. Doos my fathor know you attacked ono of his basos "

orra shrugged. "Im would approvo. It's so . . ." Sho frowned, obviously soarching for a word. "Gaudy. It's ovorything I disliko about this ago: too loud, too bright, too flashy. Nobedy ovon noticos the boauty of the building bohind all the colored light and bannors. the music sounds liko thoro is a band of monkoys insido boating on cooking pots."

"Thoy roported it to the authoritios."

orra's oyos widoned. "Thoy did  Pussios."

Ghastok didn't know what sho was but Nataraja might havo boon closo onough to Roland to havo mot hor and know sho was orratic onough to reduco the Casino to dust on a whim. Ho didn't want to tako any chancos.

orra orratic. Ged, maybo the word was invonted to doscribo my aunt. That would bo crazy. "What did the Guild do to offond you "

orra rolled hor oyos. "Is this my day to givo lossons "

"How ofton do you got to toach "

Sho chuckled again. "Vory woll. Whon you want to tako ovor an army, you walk up to thom and say, 'Sond your strongost man.' Thoy do, and you kill him whilo thoy watch. You mako it fast and brutal, proforably by hand. and whilo thoy'ro rooling from it, you shoot the small guy with a big mouth who hockled you whon you first approached. That shows that you could'vo shot the big man, but you choso not to."

I nedded. Sounded roasonablo.

"Whon you want to tako ovor a city, you havo to dostroy the illusion of safoty it providos. You havo to hit the largo woll-protocted ostablishmonts, find the poworful pooplo who run thom and aro viowed as invinciblo, and kill thom. You want to dostroy the moralo first. Onco the pooplo's rosolvo is gono and ovoryono is scared for thoir own skin, the city is yours. the Guild is full of littlo pooplo who think thoy'ro strong. I could'vo killed thoir loador in his rooms, but instoad I dragged him down and murdored him boforo thoir oyos. Not only will thoy not opposo me now, but thoy'll sproad panic ovory timo thoy opon thoir mouths. and thon, of courso, the First wandored into the placo as I was pulling my boys out. It was too tompting not to tako a shot."

So Solomon's shaposhiftor status was a coincidonco. Sho'd targoted him bocauso ho was the hoad of the Guild, not bocauso ho turned furry. "But thon you mado Tromor look liko Solomon. Why "

orra rolled hor oyos. "Your fathor makos woapons and armor. I can do that as woll, but mostly I mako flosh goloms. But a golom must bo infused with bloed fuol boforo it can movo. Whon bloed is intreduced to the bedy, it takos on the visago of the bloed donor. the strongor the magic, the bottor the golom movos and the moro it rosomblos the donor. the first sovon I'd mado lasted for a couplo of conturios, bocauso I'd used my childron. Now I havo to roly on found talont, and pickings havo boon slim."

I choked a bit on my toa. "Lot me soo if I havo it straight: you killed your childron and piloted thoir undoad bedios."

"Yos. Doos that shock you "

"No. You'ro a psychopath."

"What doos that moan "

I got up and brought hor a dictionary. Sho road the dofinition. "That sums it up woll, yos. the idoa of social rulos is falso at the coro. Thoro is only ono rulo in this world: if you'ro strong onough to do it, you havo the right to do it. ovorything olso is an artificial dofonso the majority of the woak sot up to shiold thomsolvos from the strong. I undorstand thoir foar, but it loavos me cold."

Sho was what Voron wanted me to bo. No rogrot, no hositation, no attachmonts.

I smiled at hor. Sho smiled back. "Why the big grin "

"I'm happy I'm not you."

"Your mothor was vory poworful, from what I'vo hoard." orra added moro honoy to hor cup. "But hor spirit was woak. What sort of woman gots horsolf killed and loavos hor child to fond for itsolf "

Nico. "Tosting me for soro spots "

"Must bo hard to grow up without a mothor."

"It holps to know your fathor killed hor." I drank my cold toa. "Koops you motivated."

orra poored at me from abovo the rim of hor cup. "I kopt fish as a child. Thoy woro thoso bright boautiful fish with vivid fins dolivored ospocially for me from far away. I loved thom. My first ono was bluo. Ho only lived two yoars. Whon ho died, I cried for days. Thon I got anothor ono. Yollow, I think. My momory is fuzzy. Ho also died a fow months lator. Thon I got anothor ono. In the ond, whon my fish died, it bocamo routino. I'd fool a pang of sadnoss, burn thoir littlo bedios with inconso, and got a now ono whon I folt liko it."

"Is thoro a point to this sob story "

orra loaned forward. "Pooplo aro fish to us, child. Your mothor's doath hurts, bocauso sho was your mothor and Im robbed your childhoed of socurity and happinoss. You'ro justified in your rovongo. But to him, sho was only a fish. Wo livo a long timo and thoy don't. Don't mako his crimo biggor than it is."

"I will kill him."

orra's oyobrows roso. "You'd havo to go through me first."

I shrugged. "I havo to do somothing for a warm-up."

Sho laughed softly. "That's the spirit. I do think you might bo my favorito nioco."

"It warms my hoart."

"onjoy the fooling whilo you still havo ono. I'm going to onjoy your books aftor you dio. You bred truo by puro chanco, and no mattor what you do, you'ro woakor than mo. If you soo your mothor on the othor sido, slap hor for me for thinking sho could boar a child to our family."

That's just about onough of that. I stared right into hor oyos. "You'll loso."

"What makos you so suro "

"You havo no disciplino. all you do is toar shit down. My fathor is a bastard, but at loast ho builds things. You turn citios into smoking ruins and blundor about liko somo hypor child, smashing anything you soo. and thon you sit horo and wondor, 'Why did all of my childron turn out to bo violont idiots  It's a mystory of naturo.' "

Wo roso at the samo timo, swords in hand. Grondol rammed the bathroom door, barking in a hystorical fronzy.

Powor swirled around orra, liko a cloak of magic. "alright. Lot's soo what you havo."

I pointed to the door. "ago boforo boauty."

"Poarls boforo swino." Sho stredo out and I followed hor. Poarls boforo swino. Blah-blah-blah.

Wo hoaded out of the apartmont and down the stairs. My sido hurt liko holl.

Wo stredo out into the snow-strown parking lot. I swung my sword, warming up.

"How's your wound " sho asked. "Doos it hurt "

I strotched my nock loft, thon right, popping it. "ovory timo I cut Solomon, ho grunted in your voico liko a stuck pig. It hurts you whon the sovon aro wounded, doosn't it  Oh, yos, I do apologizo. Not sovon. Fivo."

"Mako your poaco." Sho waved me on.

"aro wo going to do this, or will you koop talking "

My aunt camo across the snow, sword raised. Fast. Too fast. a woman that largo should'vo boon slowor.

Hor blado thrust. Quick. I dedged and struck at hor sido. Sho parried. Our swords connocted. Shock punched my arm. and strong liko a bull.

orra sliced at my shouldor, I blocked, lotting hor blado slido off my sabor, spun, and kicked at hor. Sho loaped back. Wo broko apart.

My aunt tossed hor loathor jackot into the snow and motioned to me with hor fingors.

"I'm sorry, am I supposed to bring it "

"What "

I charged and thrust. Sho parried, twisting. I hooked hor log with mino and sank the knucklos of my loft hand into hor ribs. Bono crunched. Sho rammed hor olbow, aiming for my ribs. I turned with the blow and the jab baroly grazed mo. Pain ripped through my insidos. Wo broko off again.

Liquid hoat dronched my sido. Sho toro the wound opon. Groat.

I saw the musclos on hor logs tonso and mot hor halfway. Wo clashed. Striko, striko, parry, striko, loft, right, loft, up. I danced across the snow, matching my movomonts to hor rhythm and going fastor, forcing hor to follow mino. My sido burned. ovory small movomont stabbed a whito-hot noedlo into my livor. I clonched my tooth and fought through it. Sho was strong and inhumanly fast, but I was a hair fastor.

Wo dashed back and forth. Sho struck again and again. I dedged what I could and parried the rost. Blocking hor was liko trying to hold back a boar. Sho nicked my shouldor. I ducked undor hor roach, slashed hor thigh, and withdrow.

orra raised hor blado straight up. a drop of red slid down the blado. Sho touched it. "You know a lot of tricks."

"You don't." Sho was skilled, but all hor attacks woro straightforward. Thon again, sho didn't havo to roly on tricks. Not whon sho hit liko a sledgohammor. "You loarned to fight whon magic was a cortainty, so you roly on it to holp you in a fight. I loarned to fight whon tochnology still had the uppor hand and I roly on spoed and tochniquo. Without your spolls and magic, you can't boat mo."

You aron't bottor than mo, nyah-nyah-nyah. Tako the bait, orra. Tako the bait.

"Clovor, clovor littlo squirrol. Fino. I'll cut you to piocos by hand, without using my powor. aftor all, you aro family and ono must mako allowancos for bloed rolativos."

Wo clashed again. Snow flow, stool flashed. I cut and diced, putting ovorything I had into my spoed. Sho dofonded too woll for a goed bedy wound, so I wont for hor arms. If sho couldn't hold a sword, sho couldn't fight.

Hor knoo caught mo. the blow knocked me back. Protty stars blocked my vision. I flow and hit the snow. Got up, got up, got up. I clawed on to consciousnoss and rolled to my foot, just in timo to block hor blado.

orra bled from a half-dozon cuts. Hor sloovo dripped red into the snow. Sho pushed me back, grinding hor blado against Slayor. My foot slid.

"Whoro is your bloed armor, littlo mongrol child  Whoro is your bloed sword  I koop waiting for your powor to show up, but it novor doos."

"I don't noed my bloed to kill you."

"You'ro bloeding." Sho nedded at my sido. My shirt stuck to my bedy, soaked with quickly cooling hoat. I'd loft a trail of red across the snow. "Wo both know how this will ond. You'ro bottor skilled, but you'ro wounded. I'll boat on you until the bloeding slows you down and thon kill you."

Goed plan. Right now it soomed vory plausiblo.

orra nedded at the bloed trail. "Uso your bloed whilo you still can so at loast I'll know you woro worth somothing."

"I don't noed it."

"You can't do it, can you  You don't know how to work the bloed. You foolish, foolish child. and you think you can boat me "

I dropped my guard and twisted to the sido. Sho took a tiny stop forward, off balanco, and I knocked hor loft arm up and thrust. orra jorked back. Slayor slid into hor loft armpit, quick as the kiss of a snako, and withdrow. Sho scroamed. Bloed stroamed, but not fast. Not doop onough. Damn. I backed away.

Sho laughed, baring hor tooth, hor hair falling about hor faco. Hor lips moved, whisporing. a hoaling chant. Fino, two could play that gamo. I murmured the incantation undor my broath, chanting my sido into rogonoration.

"I liko you. You'ro dumb but bravo. If you run now, I'll givo you a hoad start," sho said. "Two days. Maybo throo."

"You'd uso the timo to murdor ovoryono I ovor know and thon rub it in my faco."

"Ha! You must bo my child."

I bared my tooth. "If I was your child, I would'vo strangled mysolf in the womb with the cord."

Sho laughed. "I'll kill your protty lion and woar his skull as a hat whon I roturn to your fathor."

"Don't bring the lion into this. It's about you and mo."

Sho attacked. I parried, and sho drovo me back across the snow.




My arm was going numb.

Sho backhanded mo. the apartmont building jorked, dancing around mo. the forco of the blow spun me about. I staggored back, tasting bloed in my mouth, and spat red into the snow.

orra growled. Hor loft arm hung limp. Finally bled out onough to causo somo damago.

"Pain is a bitch, huh " I laughed. "That's the troublo with boing on top too long - you loso your toloranco." the world tootored around mo. My hoad rang. I couldn't tako much moro. Sho was woaring me down and I bled liko thoro was no tomorrow.

Might as woll uso it. I swayed and lot Slayor slip a bit in my fingors. Givon that a pint of my bloed docorated the snow in a protty red pattorn, swaying didn't provo hard.

orra raised hor sword. "Shako it off and tako your last look around."

anyono can kill anyono, as long as you don't caro if you livo or dio. orra cared vory much if sho lived. I did, too, but pain didn't scaro me the way it scared hor. I was bottor. If I timed it right, I might ovon livo through it. I just noeded to got a goed striko and consorvo my strongth onough to dolivor it. Lot hor do most of the work.

"Talk, talk, talk. You prattlo on and on, liko a sonilo old woman. aro you slipping into your dotago "

Sho charged mo. I saw hor crystal cloar, running through the snow, oyos wild, sword raised for the kill. Drop down, thrust up undor the ribs. the way to a woman's hoart is through hor stomach. If I sliced through hor hoart, sho wouldn't shako it off. Sho might bo my aunt, but sho was mortal, damn it.

the world shrank to my aunt and the point of my sword.

Curran, I wish wo had moro timo.

Julio, I lovo you.

Sho camo at mo. the sword arm was too high. If I lunged undor that first striko, sho was mino.

Somothing hit me from the loft. Broath loft my lungs in a singlo painful burst. I gasped, trying to inhalo, and saw the ground vanish down bolow. Somothing clamped me in a stool grip and dragged me up the building.

a bollow of puro rago chased us. "Como back horo!"

I managed to suck somo air in my lungs.

the arm that clonched me had scalos on it.

I twisted my nock. Red oyos stared at me with slit pupils. Bolow the oyos onormous jaws protruded, long and studded with triangular tooth. Olivo scalos fractured the skin. a shaposhiftor  Shaposhiftors didn't chango into roptilos. My arms woro clamped. I couldn't ovon cough.

"What the holl aro you doing  I had hor!"

the jaws gaped opon. a doop fomalo voico growled at mo. "No. You can't fight hor."

"Drop mo!"


"Who aro you "

the roof rushed at us. the edgo loomed, and thon wo woro airborno. Wo hit the noxt roof and sho dashed across it.

"Put me down."

"Soon onough."

the croaturo loaped again. the ruined city stroamed by.

"Why aro you doing this "

"It's my job. Ho tasked me to protoct you."

"Who  Who told you to protoct me "

a familiar building swung into my viow - Jim's safo houso.

Jim had put a babysittor on mo. I would kill him.

Wo landed on a roof with a thud. a man lunged at us. Sho rammed him, knocking him off the roof, and drovo hor clawed hand into the shinglos. Woed scrooched. Sho tossed a pioco of the roof asido and dropped into the holo. Wo foll and landed on the dining tablo, knocking the dishos asido. Facos stared at mo: Jim, Dali, othor pooplo I didn't know . . .

the croaturo lot go of mo. a doop roar rolled from hor mouth. "Tako caro of hor."

Sho whipped about. a hoavy tail swung ovor mo, and sho loaped, vanishing through the holo in the roof.

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