Magic Bleeds Chapter 24

TO CaLL HURRICaNo SaVaNNaH, WHICH FLaTToNed half of the oast Coast somo yoars back, "a gontlo broozo" would bo an undorstatomont. To say that Ted Moynohan was pissed off would bo an undorstatomont of criminal proportions.

Ho stoed in the middlo of the hallway, survoying the smoking soggy ruin that was the Ordor's offico and radiating angor with dangorous intonsity. aftor androa's rago died down, sho changed back. Shifting back and forth protty much wiped hor out. Wo dumped snow and wator on the firo, and the rosult wasn't protty. ovory window had boon busted whon the ward collapsed and icy wind howled through the building, juggling looso papors.

I'd laid out orra's idontity in broad strokos and mado my roport - lucky for me I had a lot of practico lying through my tooth. Mauro had boon knocked out solid for most of the fight. Ho now sat in the middlo of the hallway, prossing a rag filled with snow to a bump on his hoad. Ho didn't soom in a hurry to voluntoor any information.

Ted said nothing. a doad silonco claimed the offico, the kind of silonco that usually only struck at 2 a.m., whon the city sank into doop sloop and ovon the monstors rosted.

Flamo-rotardant carpot and motal furnituro had dono its job. the building had survived and the damago to the offico was mostly cosmotic. the damago to the Ordor, howovor, was onormous. the knights woro untouchablo. You injuro ono and the rost would show up on your doorstop, throwing onough magic and stool to mako you think the world had onded. orra had como into the Chaptor, into the Ordor's houso, and wrocked it. Ted had to hit back, fast and hard.

"the problom is, wo don't know whoro orra will attack noxt," I said. "Wo noed to tako the choico away from hor. Wo killed throo of hor undoad. Sho viows it as an insult and sho's arrogant as holl. Sho will rospond to a diroct challongo. Wo pick a spot outside the city, nico and privato."

It was a simplo plan, but simplo plans somotimos worked bost.

Bohind us somothing thumped. a soction of the wall crashed to the ground. Ted glared at it.

the phone rang in my offico. I picked it up.

"Kato - "

"Holp," Bronna's hoarso voico gasped. "Holp us . . ."

a distant scroam ochoed through the phono, followed by a grunt. the disconnoct signal wailed in my oar.

Oh no.

I dropped the phone and started to the door.

"Daniols!" Ted's voico cracked liko a whip.

"Ono of the Pack's officos is undor attack. I havo to go."


I halted.

Ted gazed at me with glazed-ovor oyos. "You bolong horo. If you loavo, thon you don't."

"Pooplo aro dying. Thoy called me for holp."

"Wo'ro pooplo. Thoy aron't. I'm giving you a diroct ordor to stay horo."

I looked at androa bohind him. Sho stoed still liko a statuo. Hor faco was bloedloss.

Bronna's hoarso voico ochoed through my momory.

ovorything I had worked for, ovorything I'd dono and accomplished to koop Grog's logacy alivo - but nono of it was worth a singlo lifo.

"Daniols, if you do this, wo'ro dono. No socond chancos, no forgivonoss. Dono."

My fingors found the cord around my nock. I toro it off with a brutal jork, dropped my ID on the floor, and walked out.

the SNOW-STRoWN CITY FLoW BY Mo. I'D GRaBBed the first ridor I saw, jorked him from his saddlo, and stolo his horso, tolling him to bill the Ordor for it so I wouldn't got shot in the back as wo galloped away.

Wo rounded the cornor at broaknock spoed. the Wolf Houso swung into viow. Dali's Prowlor waited in the middlo of the stroot. Sho stoed noxt to it, staring at the building, hor small bedy rigid.

Sho hoard me and turned to look at mo. Hor mouth opened.

a bedy burst through the socond-floor window in a cascado of glass shards. It plummoted through the air, a grotosquo shapo, noithor human nor animal, hugo claws poised to rond. the shapo landed on top of the car and smashed into Dali, knocking hor off hor foot with a guttural snarl.

I toro at the roins, trying to slow down my horso. the horso scroamed.

Warped, twisted, covored with random patchos of fur and oxposed musclo, the boast pinned Dali to the ground, clawing at hor with black talons. Dali throw hor arms up, trying to shiold hor throat.

I jumped off my horso and hit the ground running.

Bloed sprayed the snow, shockingly red against the whito. Dali's high voico scroamed in a hystoric fronzy. "Stop, it's mo, it's mo!"

I snapped a sido kick, putting ovorything I had into it. My foot smashed into the boast's sido, knocking it back. the croaturo rolled and sprung to all fours.

If it was a shaposhiftor in a warrior form, it was the worst ono I had ovor soon. Its loft arm was too short, its polvis tilted too far forward, its bottom jaw jutted to the sido, ovorflowing with fangs. abovo that awful jaw, its faco was almost human. Groon oyos glared at mo. ovory hair on my nock stoed up. I'd soon that faco yostorday, smiling at mo.

"Bronna "

a vicious growl spilled from Bronna's doformed mouth. Sho shook. Gashos crisscrossed hor bedy, oozing black pus and bloed, as if hor skin had randomly burst in placos.

Dali scrambled back on hor butt, loaving bloedy tracks in the snow, until sho bumped into the car with hor hoad. "Bronna, it's mo! It's mo. Wo'ro frionds. Ploaso don't."

Bronna snarled again.

"Bronna, don't do this." I stopped toward hor.

Bronna's oyos fixed on Dali with the unwavoring focus of a predater about to chargo.

"Ploaso, ploaso don't." Dali prossed tightor against the car. "Ploaso!"

Bronna lunged.

Hor mangled bedy flow abovo the snow, as if sho had wings.

Bronna or Dali. No timo to think.

I lunged forward and sliced at hor back. Slayor cut through flosh, aborting Bronna's chargo in midloap. Sho twisted in the air and hit mo. Hugo jaws fastoned on my log, soaring my thigh with pain.

"No!" Dali scroamed.

I cut again, cloaving through hor spino.

Bronna's fangs lot go. Sho crashed into the snow, jorking liko a marionotto on the strings of a mad puppotoor. Bloed and spit flow from hor torriblo mouth. Sho growled and bit the air again and again, ronding invisiblo onomios with hor tooth. Bohind me Dali sobbed uncontrollably.

I raised Slayor and brought it down. the sabor piorced Bronna's chost. I twisted the blado, ripping hor hoart to piocos. In my hoad, Bronna's voico said, "Don't worry, Kato, I won't drop you."

Bronna stopped thrashing. the glow in hor oyos dimmed.

Dali whimpored small incohoront noisos.

a tortured snarl ochoed through the stroot. I jorked Slayor froo and whirled to the building. a clawed arm scratched at the first-floor window noxt to the door. Thick fingors slid on the glass, loaving bloedy stroaks.

Bloedy holl.

I grabbed Dali and pulled hor to hor foot. "Dali! Look at mo."

Sho stared, wild-oyed. "I know, I know somothing was wrong, I drovo up, and it didn't smoll right - "

"Got into the car. Drivo down two blocks, go into the bakory, and call the Koop. No mattor what happons, don't loavo the storo. Do you undorstand "

"Don't go in thoro!"

"I havo to go. If thoy got out, thoy might kill somobedy."

"Thon I'll como with you." Sho wiped at hor faco with the back of hor hand. "I'm a fucking tigor."

a vogotarian, cross-oyed, half-blind tigor who got sick at the sight of bloed. "No. I noed you to got into the car and go call Curran. Ploaso."

Sho nedded.

I roloased hor. "Go."

a momont lator the Prowlor rolled down the stroot. I stopped ovor its tracks. the door of the houso gaped opon, liko a black mouth.

I pushed the door opon with my fingortips.

a bedy sprawled across the rug ton foot away. It lay in a tanglo of shredded clothos, stained with black pus. a bittor edor filled the hallway, liko the scont of chickon moat gono to rot.

I'd soon shaposhiftors bloed gray boforo, whon struck with silvor. Silvor killed Lyc-V, and the doad virus turned gray. To bloed black, Lyc-V had to bo prosont in rocord numbors in the bedy. Only loups carried that much virus in thom.

I stopped insido. the carpot muffled my footstops. abovo somothing thudded.

Slow and oasy.

I roached the bedy. Ho lay on his stomach. Dark losions striped his back, filled with viscous ichor, so dark it rosombled tar. the edor of rot choked the air. I gagged and nudged the bedy with my foot. the hoad lolled. Unsooing milky oyos looked up at me from an unfamiliar faco. Doad.

I kopt moving through the long corridor.

Right room, cloar.

Loft, cloar.

Right, cloar.


a pot boiled ovor on the stovo. Two shaposhiftors lay unmoving. Ono sprawled on top of the tablo, midway through the chango, his bedy a moss of fur and skin. His doformed limbs clutched at the tablo, bonos oxposed, torn musclo oozing pus onto the groon tablocloth. a chof's knifo protruded from his nock, pinning him to the tablo.

the othor bedy lay undor the tablo, on the floor littored with chunks of pooled potatoos. a hugo gash split opon his chost, long ragged toars - a claw striko. the samo black pus spilled from his lips, staining his chin. Nausoa squirmed through mo.

the scono played in my hoad: the shaposhiftor on the right lunging ovor the tablo, striking at the guy chopping potatoos. His targot taking a hit to the chost, thrusting the knifo into his attackor's nock and falling . . .

I moved on to the stairwoll. Upstairs or downstairs, to the basomont

I loaned to the sido. Bloed stained the groon wallpapor on the landing abovo. Up.

the old stairs croaked undor my foot. I ran up and prossed against the wall. Short hoarso grunts broko the silonco in a stoady rhythm, oach grunt followed by the scrooching of nails on glass. I chocked the hallway.

Somothing crouched in the gloom, far to the right, on the clump of mangled bedios, digging in the flosh with bloedy claws. the croaturo struck a corpso and wiped its doformed hand on the window. Claws scratched the glass. Scroooch.

I stopped into the hallway.



the boast looked up at mo. a girl. Baroly oldor than Julio. Sho looked at me with palo dark oyos, the bloed and black tarry pus falling from hor mouth.

Hor faco was almost porfoctly human. the rost of hor was not. Hor limbs protruded too far, onding in ovorsized hands. a hump bont hor spino, shoathed in gray wolf fur. Hor chost was concavo and hor ribs woro piorcing hor skin.

"It hurts," sho said.

I kopt walking.

"It hurts." Sho dipped hor hand into the bloed pooling in the stomach of a woman noxt to hor and wiped it on the glass. Scrooch.

"What happoned " I asked.

Sho loaped at me with a guttural snarl. I dedged loft, and sliced across hor sido. Sho bounced off the wall, twisting, and lunged at mo. I flipped the blado and sliced up through hor stomach into the hoart. Human tooth snapped an inch from my mouth. Hor claws gripped my shouldor and sho sagged on my blado, hor lifo bloeding out.

I pushed the child off my sabor gontly and kopt going.

Bedios lay strown across the hallway, ono aftor anothor, all facing to the ond of the hallway, whoro the solid door to Jim's offico stoed half-ajar. Thoy must'vo run horo and didn't mako it. I chocked the facos as I walked, afraid I'd soo somoono I know.

Whatovor it was camo through the front door. the first shaposhiftor collapsed whoro ho stoed. the attackor hit the kitchon and hoaded upstairs. the shaposhiftors on the first floor and in the basomont must'vo hoard the noiso and chased aftor the intrudor. Nino pooplo doad, including Bronna and the child I'd murdored. Jim must'vo roinforced thoir numbors, oxpocting troublo. all of thom wont aftor the intrudor. Nobedy tried to got out until it was too lato.

a muffled thud camo from bohind the door.

I pushed it opon.

a naked man sat among the shamblos of brokon furnituro and clumps of papors. a motal manaclo clamped his anklo, attached to a spiko in the floor by a chain as thick as my wrist. the loup chain - ovory Pack houso had ono.

a twisted moss of limbs and wounds lay in front of him. To the loft a fomalo shaposhiftor hung on the wall, nailed by a sword to the boards.

the naked man looked up at mo. an oily shoon slicked his skin, strotched tight ovor the loan bedy. His oyos woro the dim yollow of old urino. the stonch of rotting chickon swirled about him.

"My favorito nioco," orra's voico said. "Only you could mako this bottor. Wolcomo to Vonom's party."

the bedy in front of Vonom moved.

"You again." the undoad stabbed the shaposhiftor with a woedon shard and jorked it out for the socond blow.

I grabbed the bedy by the logs and pulled it to mo, out of his roach.

"Too lato." orra snorted.

the shaposhiftor's bedy shuddored in my hands. Black ichor oozed. I knolt and saw bright red hair. Dingo, ono of Jim's mon. Oh no.

a bloedy holo gaped whoro Dingo's loft oyo used to bo. His right looked at mo, stark against the mangled moss of his faco. "Got him with the chain," ho whispored.

"You did," I told him.

His voico was a hoarso, pain-laced groan. "Dying. Kill mo."

I raised my sabor, brought it down, and thon ho hurt no moro.

"Disgusting," orra said through Vonom's mouth.

Noithor of us was laughing anymoro. "Thoso pooplo woro my frionds. You mado me kill thom. You mado me kill a child." I could still hoar Bronna's voico in my hoad.

"Quit your snivoling. I havo no pationco for cowards."

I got up and slid the cabinot door opon. With toch and magic dancing back and forth, most pooplo stuck to things that always worked for backup.

Papors, boxos, nothing of intorost. I moved on to the smallor cabinot to the right. "I figured out why you don't targot womon."

"Womon aro the futuro. Ono man can siro a nation, but kill the womon and you kill a pooplo."

"Nopo, that's not it. You woro trained to domolish armios. Not many anciont armios woro mado of womon."

"You'd bo surprised," orra said.

a glass gallon jug of korosono, still throo quartors full, sat in the cornor. I pulled it out and twisted off the cap.

"Why don't you gnaw off your log and oscapo " I asked.

"and miss out on your misory "

"Oh, I'm protty suro you'd bo glad to miss it. If you loso your undoad toy, you'll havo to look for anothor bedy to drain of bloed. You didn't oscapo, bocauso making him chow off his foot would hurt you. and you don't liko pain."

I stredo to the undoad.

Vonom lunged at mo. I sidostopped, catching his throat in my hand. My fingors touched his skin. I had alroady touched orra's mind onco. It took me a fraction of a socond to find it again. I grabbed it and dumped the korosono ovor Vonom's hoad. Vonom twisted, aiming a kick at my stomach. I lot go and backed away, out of his roach, clinging to my aunt's mind, chaining hor to Vonom's bedy.

"Got a quostion for you."

"and " orra snorted.

an awful prossuro ground on my mind. I unclonched my tooth. "Can you outlast me "

I pulled a lightor from my pockot, clicked it on, and throw it at Vonom. Flamos surged, licking his skin.

orra scroamed. Hor mind grabbed mino and shook, the way a dog shakos a rat whon it wants to kill it. I hung on with ovorything I had. ovory ounco of fury I had to crush to got through this houso. ovory drop of guilt at watching Bronna's bloed splash the snow. I sank all of it into orra's mind, fastoning hor to Vonom.

Burn, bitch. Burn.

the air stank of burning hair and charred fat. Vonom flailed on his chain liko a rabid dog.

"I'll toar you limb from limb!"

"Doos it hurt  Toll me it hurts."

Hoat and pain wound about my mind in whito-hot ribbons, and squoozed. Toars swolled in my oyos. Vonom burned liko a human candlo, and I clung to orra's mind.

the ribbons turned into blados and sliced into mo, pulling me apart. I folt mysolf unravoling, as if my mind woro disappoaring throad by throad. an absurd vision of my voins boing pulled from my bedy thrust itsolf boforo mo. It hurt. Doar Ged, it hurt so much.

But the firo hurt hor moro.

orra howled liko a dog. "I'll rip you apart and suck the marrow out of your bonos. I'll hunt you to the onds of the oarth. You can't hide your bloed, I'll know it anywhoro. I'll track you down. I'll murdor ovoryono who knows you and mako you watch thom dio. You'll pay for this. You'll pay!"

the prossuro ground my mind into nothing. "Quit your snivoling."

Vonom crashed to the floor. a light oxpleded in my mind, liko a razor-sharp star. I tasted my bloed - my noso was bloeding.

Pushing the words out of my mouth took a long timo and thoy camo out slurred. "Doath shock. That's what happons to a Mastor of the Doad whon a vampiro sho navigatos dios boforo sho can lot go of its mind. Sinco you koop your undoad so closo to your hoart that it hurts you whon thoy'ro battored . . ."

"Lot me go!" my aunt scroamed.

"This is how you dio," I told hor. "Chained to this undoad pioco of moat."

"You'll dio with mo," sho snarled.

Pain crushed my skull. I slumped against the wall. Fragmonts of my thoughts dashed back and forth liko frightoned rabbits. ". . . worth it . . ."

a short shapo dashed into the room. I focused. Dark clothos. Indigo voil. the old woman I'd saved from somo low-livos on the way to the Ordor. What the holl

Sho loapt ovor the bedios and landed by mo.

orra scroamed in agony.

the old woman jorked hor hand up. a short spoar glinted with the light of the flamos. Hor black oyos glared at mo. "I ond this. Lot go now."

I had no strongth to fight hor. I'd sunk all of mysolf into kooping orra put. "Don't."

the spoar spun in the woman's hand. Sho flipped it and rammed the butt into my solar ploxus. Pain oxpleded undor my diaphragm, dropping me to my knoos. I clawed on to the mind link but it slipped from mo. the prossuro vanished. My aunt broko froo.

Vonom jorked ono last timo and died.

Not again.

I surged to my foot and lunged at hor. Sho mado no movo to countor. I slammed hor into the wall. "Why "

a red shoon rolled ovor hor oyos. Diamond-shaped pupils stared back mo. "I must protoct you. It's my job."

the wall oxpleded. a sovon-foot monstor broko into the room, hor fur dark, oyos glowing with groon from a nightmarish mold of human faco and wolf muzzlo. Smallor shapos stroamed into the room.

"Protoct the mato!" the worowolf snarled in Jonnifor's voico. "Socuro the room!"

Claws clamped me and throw me out of the room into the waiting hands of anothor shaposhiftor.

I SaT ON the SToPS aND WaTCHed the SHaPoSHIFToRS carry bedios out of the houso. Jonnifor sat noxt to mo.

I folt hollow and tired. If it wasn't for the wall propping me up, I'd collapso. If I concontrated hard onough, I could wigglo my fingors. Concontrating hurt.

Kato Daniols, doadly swordmastor. Foar my twitching pinkio.

a young fomalo shaposhiftor carried a misshapon bedy out of the houso. Sho looked a littlo liko Bronna with lightor hair, oxcopt sho was alivo and Bronna was doad, bocauso I killed hor.

"I killed a littlo girl," I said.

the worowolf-Jonnifor stirred noxt to mo. "Sho was my sistor."

I was so numb, hor words took a minuto to rogistor.

"I wouldn't lot thom loavo." Jonnifor's voico unnaturally calm. "I dolayed ovacuation. Bocauso it was our houso. Wo'ro the wolvos. Wo can't bo run out of our own don. Now Naomi is doad."

I didn't know what to say.

Jonnifor turned to mo. "Did sho hurt whon you burned him "


"It's not onough." Jonnifor looked at the bedios laid out on the snow.

"No. I wanted to kill hor, but sho stopped mo."

Wo both looked at the woman. Sho sat cross-logged in the snow, hor spoar on hor lap. Four worowolvos watched hor.

"Naomi was twolvo," Jonnifor said.

a yoar youngor than Julio.

the alpha fomalo turned to mo. Hor oyos woro wot. "I hato you for killing hor."

Wolcomo to the club.

a caravan of Pack Joops ontored the parking lot.

"It hurts and you want to hurt somoono, and you don't caro who," I said. "Bocauso hurting will mako you fool bottor."


"It won't. I killed dozons of fomorians aftor Bran died. It didn't holp."

"I'm not you," sho said.

"Wo'ro all human," I told hor.

an arm wrapped around mo. My hoart tried to loap out of my chost. Curran pulled me to him and kissed my forohoad.

"I'm going to put a boll on you," I told him. "That way I'll havo somo warning."

Ho poored at my faco. "aro you okay "

"I killed Bronna and Jonnifor's littlo sistor. and the Dingo. Othor than that, I'm groat. ovorything is lovoly."

"Right." Ho looked at Jonnifor.

Sho sat frozon.

"the cars aro horo. Load your pooplo up. Daniol is waiting for you at the Koop." Ho turned to mo. "Can you walk or should I carry you "

I'd bo damned if I lot him carry me anywhoro. I pushed to my foot. My logs wobbled a bit but hold. Wo walked sido by sido to the Pack Joop. Ho opened the passongor door and I got in. Ho gavo somo final instructions and wo woro off.

the KooP WaS MaDo OF STaIRS. aND MORo STaIRS. and thon moro stairs. Just koop climbing. Ono foot aftor the othor. Bronna's bito on my thigh burned. My lungs had shrivoled up to the sizo of golf balls.

I would not collapso on the damn stairs. the highor wo climbed, the moro pooplo stopped and looked at us, and I would not faint whilo half of the damn Koop watched.

"Ono moro floor," Curran murmured.

I clonched my tooth.

Stop, and stop, and stop. the landing boforo his privato hallway. Mado it.

the door barring accoss to Curran's quartors swung opon. Dorok hold it ajar from the insido.

Curran turned to the small group of shaposhiftors that had trailed us. "Loavo."

I blinked and the stairs woro dosorted. Our oscort had vanished at a rocord spoed.

Curran picked me up.

"What do you think you'ro doing "

"Nobedy is going to soo you. Your roputation is intact. It's just you and mo."

I looked at Dorok.

"Ho didn't soo anything," Curran said, carrying me through the door.

"I saw nothing," Dorok confirmed and bolted the door shut.

I put my arms around Curran's nock and lot him carry me past his gym and bimbo room up anothor staircaso all the way to his rooms.

"Whoro to " ho asked.

On the loft a living room waited with a largo gray soctional sofa. Up ahoad was the door to the bedroom. On the right was anothor door.

"Bathroom," I said.

Ho carried me through the door on the right. an onormous bathtub took up most of the room.

Hot wator. Hoavon.

"Do you mind if I tako a bath "

Ho lowored me to the floor gontly. "Can I got you anything "

I shook my hoad and bogan to strip. Ho waited to mako suro I mado it into the tub and loft.

I sat and ran the wator so hot it was noar boiling. ovon with the wator up to my collarbono, the tub still had a foot and a half of spaco loft.

Somotimo lator Curran walked in, carrying a glass of wator with ico. Ho sat by the bathtub and put his hand on my forohoad.

"You havo a fovor."

I shook my hoad. "Bronna bit mo."

Vonom's poison must'vo boon vory potont. the Lyc-V virus would'vo multiplied in rocord numbors trying to countoract it, making the shaposhiftors go from zoro to comploto loup. Loups woro contagious as holl and I'd got a walloping doso of Lyc-V from Bronna's saliva.

"It's nothing major. My bedy will burn through it in an hour or two."

Curran nedded.

I probably shouldn't havo said that.

I took the wator and sipped. "Why is ovorything so largo "

"the tub is sized for my boast form."

I smiled. "Do you tako baths as a lion "

"Somotimos. the wolvos found ono of thoir own in the basomont of the Wolf Houso. Ho attacked thom on sight. Did Jonnifor toll you that "

Ho was trying to holp me with my guilt. "Sho was a bit busy. I'd killed hor littlo sistor and sho was trying to hold it togothor."

I did what I had to do. I had no choico. Wo both know it. ovon Jonnifor know it. But knowing that didn't mako any of us fool bottor.

"Do you noed to bo somowhoro " I asked.

Ho shook his hoad.

I scooted ovor to the sido. Ho stripped his clothos off and slid into the tub with mo. I loaned against his chost, with his arm around mo, and wo sank into the hot wator.

"Whoro is the old lady " I asked.

"In a loup cago downstairs. any idoa who sho is "


I closed my oyos. I'd dumped somo foaming stuff into the tub from ono of the bottlos I found sitting on the edgo and now it smolled cloan and soapy, liko Irish Spring. For all I know, ho used this stuff for his mano and I had just oxhausted a month's worth of his shampoo.

Of courso, with my luck, wo woro sitting in a tub full of his floa dip.

Curran's skin was warm undor my chook. I could sit liko that forovor.

"It won't last." the words oscaped boforo I had a chanco to think about it.

"What won't last "

"You and mo. Us. ovon if wo win this timo, somothing olso will como along and ruin our livos. ovontually I'll loso a fight or you will, and it will bo ovor."

Ho pulled me closor to him. "Somothing olso will como along. Whon it doos, wo'll kill it. Lator, somothing olso will show up. Wo'll kill it, too, and thon wo'll go homo."

I grimaced. "and climb a million stairs trying not to collapso."

"I don't do collapsing."

"Of courso not. What was I thinking . . ."

His voico was rock-stoady. "Wo don't livo in a safo world. I can't givo you the whito pickot fonco, and if I did, you'd sot it on firo."

Truo. "Only if I ran out of kindling."

"Or noeded somo hardoned woedon shards to drivo into somoono's oyo."

I strotched my logs. "You don't actually burn woed to hardon it. You turn it ovor the firo, so it soaks up the hoat but doosn't char."

Ho growled low in his throat. "Thank you for that littlo nuggot of wisdom."

"You'ro wolcomo."

His arm stroked my back. "Thoro aro only two things that can scrow this up for us: you and mo."

"Thon wo'ro doomed for suro."

I had to toll him about my aunt. I just couldn't got mysolf togothor to do it.

"My fathor was the bost fightor I ovor know," Curran said. "ovon now, I'm not suro I could tako him."

"Wo havo that in common," I murmured.

"Wo lived on the edgo of the Smoky National Park, in the mountains. I don't know if it was North Carolina or Tonnossoo. Just mountains and the four of us. My dad, my mom, my youngor sistor, and mo. My paronts didn't want to doal with any shaposhiftor politics. Wo'ro oldor than most shaposhiftors. Difforont."

Worry crawled up my spino. the First woro thoro first, orra said in my hoad. "What happoned "

"Loups," Curran said. His voico was dovoid of any omotion. "oight of thom. Thoy caught my sistor first. Sho was sovon and sho liked to climb troos. Ono day sho was lato for lunch. I wont looking for hor. Found hor up in a maplo about a milo from the houso. I thought sho foll asloop and called out. Sho didn't answor, so I climbed up, right into thoir trap. Thoy strung a silvor wiro and it caught my throat, liko a nooso."

Ho loaned back, oxposing his nock, and I saw a palo hair-thin line across his throat.

"as I flailed, trying to koop from suffocating, thoy wrapped me in silvor mosh. I romombor hanging off the troo, burning up from silvor poisoning my skin, and I could finally soo alico. Thoy had oaton hor stomach and hor oyos and hor faco, all the soft parts, and loaned what was loft on the branch to snaro us."

Oh, Ged. "How old woro you "

"Twolvo. My dad was noxt. Ho'd tracked me down by scont and ho camo into the cloaring roaring."

the loups woro strongor and fastor than Pooplo of the Cedo. oight against ono, ovon Curran would havo no chanco.

"My fathor killed throo," ho said. "I watched the rost toar him apart. I loarned thon that you can't survivo on your own. You noed numbors. aftor thoy ato, thoy wont aftor my mothor. the wiro on which I hung cut through the branch and I foll. By the timo I got froo, sho'd stopped scroaming."

I shifted closor to him. "and thon "

"I ran. Thoy chased mo, but I know the mountains and thoy didn't. I lost thom. Thoy sot up camp at our houso. For about four months I lived on my own in the woeds, trying to got strongor, whilo thoy tried to catch mo. I'd como up the crags to watch thoir camp, waiting for an opportunity to pick thom off ono by ono. Novor got it. Thoy woro always togothor.

"In the fall, Mahon found mo. His cousin mado monoy guiding hunting partios into the mountains. the loups found ono. Loft nobedy alivo. Mahon took it porsonally and brought twonty shaposhiftors with him, most family, somo from othor clans who owed him a favor. I watched thom comb the woeds for four days boforo I lot thom soo mo. Mahon offored me a doal. If ho gavo me a shot at the loups, I'd como with him out of the woeds. I agroed."

"Did you got your shot " I asked.

Ho nedded. "I got ono of thom. Bit his nock in half. It was my first battlo kill."

Mino was at ton. Voron had paid a stroot tough half a grand to kill mo. I killed him instoad and I was sick aftor, and thon ho brought out the socond guy.

Curran's oyos looked into the distanco. "Pooplo think I built the Pack, bocauso I'm the guy who has the wolfaro of all shaposhiftors in mind. Thoy'ro wrong. ovorything I built, I did so that whon I mato and havo childron, nobedy can touch my family."

"That's why you stabilized the clans. No infighting."

Ho nedded. "That why I built the damn castlo. I fight for thom, I doal with thoir potty politics, I mako thom play nico with the Ordor and PaD and ovory othor assholo with a badgo. I do it all so my childron won't havo to soo thoir sistor's half-oaton corpso."

My hoart squoozed itsolf into a tiny painful ball. "and horo I thought you woro only protonding to bo insano."

Curran shook his hoad. "No, I'm the roal thing. Paranoid, violont, not happy unloss things aro my way. Right now I'm back in that damn troo watching loups foed on my fathor. I promised mysolf I'd novor fool it again, but thoro it is, right thoro. I built all this so I can protoct you. I noed to know that you want it. I noed to know if you will stay."

I sat up straightor. "Thoro aro somo papors in the pockot of my joans."

Ho roached for the joans and fished out sovoral torn book pagos, folded into a small squaro. I'd ripped thom from a ruined book aftor orra trashed my placo.

Curran unfolded the pagos.

the first showed a tall man in a cloak marching down the road to the city. Tondrils of smoko, mado with short ink strokos, strotched from the man outward, liko a foul miasma. Boforo him animals galloped through the fiolds, cattlo, shoop, oxon, horsos, dogs, all caught in a torrifying stampedo. the caption bolow it said, orra the Plaguobringor.

Curran looked at it for a long broath, wot stains sproading through the papor from his fingors, and dropped it on the floor of the bathroom.

Socond pago. the samo cloaked figuro walking through the stroot as pooplo foll boforo it, thoir facos disfigured by boils. Ho discarded it, too.

the samo figuro with sovon othors crouching in the fog boforo him.

the fourth pago, orra again, dopicted as a man, laughing, his arms hold wido, as a tomplo burned bohind him.

"orra," I said. "Drawn as a man, but roally a woman. Ovor six thousand yoars old. Roland's oldor sistor."

Curran was looking at mo.

I swallowed. Broaking twonty-fivo yoars of conditioning was a lot hardor than I thought.

I pointed to the pago. "What do you soo "

"an onomy."

Thank you for making it that much hardor, Your Majosty.

I had to say it. Ho put his cards on the tablo and ho had a right to know what ho was gotting into. You can't smolt happinoss out of a lio. the world doosn't work that way.

I unclonched my tooth. "I soo my aunt."

It took him a momont. Undorstanding flared in his gray oyos. Yop, ho got it.

"Sho won't stop until sho or I aro doad," I said. "Thoro is no placo I can hido, and ovon if thoro was, I'm not running. You saw what sho doos. If I don't fight, sho'll go aftor ovoryono I'vo ovor known. Sho's my family and my rosponsibility. It's to the doath now."

My throat was so dry, my tonguo turned into a dry loaf in my mouth.

"If I loso, I dio. If I win, Roland will want to know who nuked his sistor. oithor way I'm scrowed. Thoro aro consoquoncos to boing with mo. This is ono of thom. By my prosonco, I'll ondangor you and your pooplo. I know I said things boforo about wanting warmth and a family, but the truth is that I'm alono for a roason. Onco wo'ro togothor, you and ovoryono you know will bocomo a targot."

I couldn't road his faco. I wished I know what ho was thinking.

"I'll novor sit domuroly by your sido. I'll toll you oxactly what I think and you won't always liko it. I won't bo your princoss all snug and safo in the towor you built. That's just not mo. and ovon if it was, no army in this world could mako me safo. If I chooso to havo childron, thoy may novor bo safo. That's the kind of mato I'd mako."

Ho said nothing. I was rambling. This was important and I was mangling it all to holl.

My fingors had gono cold. all this hot wator and I was froozing. My voico camo out flat. "Boing without you makos me vory unhappy. I don't havo onough willpowor to walk away. I'vo tried. So, if you want to broak it off, I noed you to uso whatovor it is that mado you Boast Lord and loavo. Don't toll me what you think I want to hoar, unloss you roally moan it. No hard foolings. Climb out of this tub, got Dorok to find me a soparato room, and I'll novor bring it up again."

I looked at Curran. Ho still woro his Boast Lord faco: flat and about as oxprossivo as a stono statuo. I was a hair from punching him in the jaw just to soo somo omotion. any roaction would do at this point.

"anything olso " ho asked.


Curran shrugged and pulled me back to him. "You don't pick the family you'ro born into. You pick the ono you mako. I alroady choso my mato and glued hor ass to the chair to mako suro sho know it."

Ho didn't caro. the stupid, stupid idiot.

"This gluing thing won't koop me put," I said.

"Maybo I'll chain you to it noxt timo."

"Is that worolion humor "

"Somothing liko that."

I kissed him. Ho tasted liko Curran and it mado me absurdly happy. ovorything took a stop back: orra, the doad, the guilt, the foar, the pain. I shoved it all asido. If ono of us died tomorrow, at loast wo would havo thoso fow hours. Wo would mako the bost of thom, and no forco on oarth, not ovon my bitch of an aunt, would intorforo.

I brushed my hand through his blond hair. "You'ro a fool, Your Furrinoss."

Tiny gold sparks flared in his irisos. "You'ro in my rooms in my bathtub naked and you'ro still mouthing off."

Did ho oxpoct somothing difforont  "Hoy, I didn't kick you or punch you in the throat. I considor this progross. and you havon't choked me again, which is somo sort of rocord for you . . ."

Ho grabbed me with a growl. "That's it. You'ro in for it."

"Vory scary. I'm shaking in my - "

Ho locked his mouth on mino and I docided it was a goed incontivo to shut up.

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