Magic Burns Chapter 10

I DUCKED UNDER THE TABLE AND ALMOST TOOK A dive. My head swam. Purple circles flared in my eyes, blocking the view of the house, as sharp pain seared my back. Not good.

"Julie, we have to go."

She hit the wall with her back. "You're like them. Like the People."

"No. Completely different." Exactly like the People. I'm so like the People, that if you knew, you'd run away screaming. "We have to go, Julie. We can't stay here. There might be more of these things out there and we have a busted door and a busted ward on the window. We've got to go."

She shook her head.

The pain sliced my spine in half, wringing tears from my eyes. I couldn't remember the last time something had hurt so much. I forced my voice to go soft. "Julie, I'm still me. I swear to you I'll do everything I can to keep you safe. But now we have to run, before he comes back with more of those reeve things. Come on, sweetheart. Come on out. Please."

She swallowed and took my hand. I helped her from under the table.

"That's my girl. Come."

"What kind of magic was that?"

"The forbidden kind. You can never tell anyone I used it or I'll be in trouble." The power words commanded the magic itself. They were primal words. It wasn't enough to know them, one had to own them and there were no do-overs: one conquered them or died. The most accomplished mages had two or three. I had six and I didn't want to explain why. They were my weapon of last resort.

"Your back..."

"I know."

There was only one place within reach that offered stronger protection than my apartment: the Order. Under the Order lay the vault. Its wards were impenetrable, and its armored door would take a focused fire from a howitzer to break.

I tried the phone. Still out. There would be no pickup for us from the Order.

A fifteen-minute run separated us from the Order's building. Twenty with the kid in tow. Piece of cake. I could do this. I just needed something to dull the pain. Just for a little bit. And then I'd be fine.

There was a regeneration kit in the bathroom. I took a step toward the door. A streak of heat ran up my spine and exploded into a jagged hot pain in the base of my neck. It ripped at my bones, twisted my tendons, and dragged me down to my knees. I hit the floor hard, dug my saber into the wood, and clung to it, struggling to stay upright. I had a kid to protect.

The room melted out of focus. The walls sprouted fuzz and bent, like waves threatening to drown me. I smelled my own blood. Julie grabbed my arm and sobbed. "You gotta get up. Come on! Don't you die! Don't die!"

"It will be okay," I whispered. "It will be okay."

The magic drained from the world. The tech flared, bringing with it a new burst of pain.

I had to guard the door. It was all I could do.

I WAS DRIFTING IN AND OUT, CLAWING MY WAY through the fog into consciousness, when I felt someone approach. I slashed on instinct and missed.

"You're a fucking mess," Curran's voice said.

Rescued by the Beast Lord. Oh the irony.

"Will she be okay?" Julie's voice asked.

"Yeah," he said. I felt myself being lifted as Curran scooped me off the floor. "She'll be fine. Come with me. You're safe now."

THE BED WAS UNBELIEVABLY COMFORTABLE. FOR A blissfully long moment I rested, half-drowned in the luxury of soft sheets. The pain had receded, still there, lurking in the small of my back, but dulled and accompanied by the soothing warmth of well-done medmagic. I was alive. That simple fact made me unbelievably happy. As I snuggled deeper into the pillow, I saw a sliver of white on the blanket next to me. I reached over and touched Slayer's blade.

"Awake, my lady fair?" said a familiar voice. Doolittle. The self-proclaimed physician to all things Pack and wild. He sat in a chair by a reading lamp, an ancient, dog-eared paperback on his lap. He hadn't changed a bit - still the same blue-black skin, the same gray hair, and the same small smile. He had patched me up twice during the Red Point Stalker investigation, and there was no better medmage in Atlanta.

I hugged my pillow. "We meet again, Doctor."

"Indeed we do."

"There was a girl with me?"

"She's downstairs. Being entertained by Derek. I daresay she much enjoys his company."

Derek of the huge brown eyes and the knockdown smile. Poor Red didn't stand a chance.

"What was wrong with me?" I didn't insult him by asking about my bloody clothes. I knew he'd burned them.

"You were poisoned. You do test my skills every time we meet."

"I'm sorry. Thank you for saving me."

He shook his head. "I didn't. You were saved by the flare. The deep magic makes all spells more potent. Including those of your humble medmage."

Icy claws skittered up my spine. "Was it really that close?"

He nodded.

I had almost died. I could think of a number of times I had almost died, but never before while a child depended on me for protection. Great going, Kate. You just had to stand there with your back to the window. Dumbass.

As soon as I could walk, I had to find a safe place for Julie. The thought of those long claws ripping into her was too much for me.

"Where am I?"

"In the Pack's Southeast office. There was some thought of bringing you to the Keep, but the consensus was you wouldn't make it."

We were repeating the same conversation we'd had ten weeks ago, almost word for word. Except that time I had brought down a crumbling skyscraper on myself and a few hundred vampires.

I grinned. "How did I get here?"

"His Majesty carried you." He grinned back. That part was the same, also.

"Is he burned to a crisp or sliced in half this time?"

"Neither," Curran's voice said. If I had been standing, I would've jumped. He stood in the middle of the room. Behind him a young woman carried a platter filled with four bowls. "However he is quite put out at being awakened from his nap to go and rescue a fool who always bites off more than she can chew."

Doolittle rose hurriedly, bowed, and left. Curran motioned to the table at the foot of the bed, and the woman set the platter on it and left, as well. The door clicked closed, leaving the Beast Lord and me alone in the room.

Oh joy. I hadn't wanted to meet Curran at all, but if I had to meet him, I wanted to be at my best, because he was a mean, vicious sonovabitch, who enjoyed making me squirm. Instead I ended up helpless, in a bed on the Pack's grounds, having been rescued by him. I wanted to fade into the sheets. Maybe I could pretend to fall asleep and he'd leave.

Curran examined me. "You look like shit."

"Thanks. I try." He, on the other hand, looked good. A couple of inches taller than me, broad shouldered and corded with muscle visible even under his T-shirt, Curran moved with a natural grace particular to the very strong and naturally quick. He gave an impression of coiled power, a contained violence that, if released, would explode with terrifying intensity. The last time I saw him, his blond hair had been cropped too short to grab in a fight, but today he wore it longer, showing the beginning of a wave. I had no idea his hair was wavy.

Curran picked up one of the bowls, looked at it for a second, as if considering a matter of some importance, brought the bowl over, and held it before me. The aroma arising from the bowl was heavenly. Suddenly I was ravenous. I sat up and clamped the bowl with both hands. And let go, shaking my fingers. It was the temperature of molten lava.

"Idiot." He set the bowl on the blanket before me and handed me a spoon.

There are times in life when there is nothing better than a hot bowl of chicken soup.

"Thanks." For the soup and for saving my butt again.

"You're welcome."

"Did you get the surveys? They were..."

"On the dresser. Shut up and eat your soup."

Curran took Doolittle's chair, brought it over by my bed, and sat. If I reached out with my foot, I could touch him with my toes. Entirely too close for comfort. I moved Slayer closer.

Curran watched me eat. Sitting like this, relaxed, he seemed almost ordinary: a man slightly older than me, kind of on the handsome side. Except for the eyes. They always gave him away. They were alpha eyes, the eyes of a killer and protector to whom the life of a Pack mate meant everything and the life of an outsider meant nothing. He wasn't giving me his hard stare now, merely watching. But I wasn't fooled. I knew how quickly those eyes could drown in lethal gold. I've seen what happens when they do.

Curran commanded over five hundred shapechangers. Half a thousand souls stuck on the crossroads between beast and man, each a spree-killer waiting to happen. Wolves, hyenas, rats, cats, bears, they were united only by two things: the desire to stay human, and loyalty to the Pack. And Curran was the Pack. They worshipped the ground he walked on.

"So that's the secret," the Beast Lord said.

I froze with the spoon halfway to my mouth. That was it. He had figured out what I was and now he was playing with me.

"You okay?" he asked. "Gone a bit pale there."

In a moment he would drop the charade and rip me to pieces. If I was lucky. "Secret to what?"

"Secret to shutting you up," he said. "I just have to beat you till you're half-dead, then give you chicken soup and" - he raised his hands - "blessed silence."

I went back to the soup. Ha-ha. Very funny.

"What did you think I meant?"

"I don't know," I mumbled. "The ways of the Beast Lord are a mystery to a humble merc like me."

"You don't do humble."

At least he still treated me as if I were on my feet, ready to defend myself, instead of being trapped in a bed, eating chicken soup. Speaking of soup...I set the bowl aside and looked longingly at the tray. I wanted more. The medmagic made the body burn through nutrients at an accelerated rate, and I was starving.

Curran took a bowl from the platter and offered it to me. I reached for it. His fingers touched mine and lingered. I looked into his eyes and saw tiny gold sparks dancing in the gray. His lips parted, allowing for a narrow flash of his teeth.

I grabbed my bowl and scooted away from him. The hint of a smile curved the corners of his mouth. He found me amusing. That wasn't exactly the reaction I was looking for as the Order's rep.

"Why did you save me?"

He shrugged. "I picked up the phone and there was a hysterical child on the other end, crying that you were dying, and she was all alone, and the undead were coming. I thought it might be an interesting conclusion to a boring evening."

Bullshit. He came because of Julie. Shapeshifters suffered from devastating child mortality, with half their children being born dead and another quarter being killed because they went loup at puberty. Like all shapeshifters, Curran cherished children and he also hated vampires. He probably figured he would kill two birds with one stone: save Julie and stick it to the People.

I frowned. "How did Julie know to call here?"

"Hit a redial button from what I understand. Smart kid. You're going to tell me what you've blundered into."

It wasn't a question, but I determined to take it as such. "No."



He crossed his arms on his chest, making his carved biceps bulge. I vividly remembered those steel-hard biceps flexing as he hoisted me up off the floor by my throat.

"You know what I like about you? You have no sense. You sit here in my house, you can barely hold a spoon, and you're telling me 'no.' You'd pull on Death's whiskers if you could reach them."

Actually, Death wasn't that far out of reach. If I stretched my leg, I could kick him.

"I'll ask one more time, what were you doing?"

It was a pointless battle. Julie didn't stand a chance against Derek. She would tell him everything she knew, which he would then relay to Curran. But I would be damned if I'd let Curran intimidate me into caving in.

"I see. I retrieve the surveys the Pack let slip through its fingers, and in return you bring me here against my will, interrogate me, and threaten me with bodily harm. I'm sure the Order will be amused to learn the Pack kidnapped its representative."

Curran nodded thoughtfully. "Aha. Who's going to tell them?"

Um...Good question. He could kill me and nobody would ever find my body. The Order wouldn't even investigate that hard; they might just chalk it up to the flare-related craziness.

"I guess I'll just have to kick your ass and break out of here." I bravely drank the rest of the soup from the bowl, abandoning all propriety. Probably shouldn't have said that.

"In your dreams."

"We've never had our rematch. I might win." Probably shouldn't have said that, either. "Bathroom?"

Curran pointed to the two doors on his left.

I untangled myself from the sheets. I really had to go to the bathroom. The question was: would my legs support me?

Curran smiled.

"What's so funny?"

"Your panties have a bow," he said.

I looked down. I was wearing a short tank top - not mine - and my blue panties with a narrow white strip of lace at the top and a tiny white bow. Would it have killed me to check what I was wearing before I pulled the blanket down? "What's wrong with bows?"

"Nothing." He was grinning now. "I expected barbed wire. Or one of those steel chains."

Wiseass. "I'm secure enough in myself to wear panties with bows on them. Besides, they are comfy and soft."

"I bet." He almost purred.

I gulped. Okay, I needed to either crawl back into bed and cover myself with the blanket or get the hell to the bathroom and back. Since I didn't fancy peeing on myself, the bathroom was my only option.

"I don't suppose you'd mind giving me a bit of privacy for my trip?"

"Not a chance," he said.

I tried to get off the bed. Everything was under control until my weight actually hit my legs and then the room decided to crawl sideways. Curran caught me. His arm hugged my back, his touch sending an electric shiver along my skin. Oh no.

"Need some help, ass kicker?"

"I'm fine, thanks." I pushed away from him. He held on to me for a second, letting me know that he could restrain me against my will with laughable ease, and let go. I clenched my teeth. Enjoy it while it lasts. I'll be back on my feet soon.

I walked away from him, successfully maintaining vertical position, and zeroed in on the nearest door.

"That's the closet," he said.

Why me?

I made a small adjustment to my course, arrived at the bathroom door, got inside, and let out a breath. That was entirely too close for comfort.

"You okay in there?" he asked. "You need me to come and hold your hand or something?"

I locked the door and heard him laughing. Bastard.

I found a white bathrobe in the bathroom, which permitted me to emerge with some small shred of dignity intact. Curran raised his eyebrows at the robe but didn't say anything.

I made it to the bed, crawled in, and hugged Slayer. While I was in the bathroom, somebody had taken away the soup. I had still had a little bit left in my last bowl.

Outside the window was dark. "What time is it?"

"Early morning. You've been out for about six hours." He fixed me with a hard stare. "What do you want?"

I blinked. "I'm sorry?"

He spoke slowly, carefully shaping the words as if I was slow or hard of hearing. "What do you want for the maps?"

I wanted to hit him in the mouth really hard. "One of the Pack members came to me for help. If I tell you, will you promise not to punish the persons involved?"

"I can't promise that. I don't know what you'll say. You should tell me anyway. I'm curious now and I don't like being out of the loop."

"And have you embark on a bloody rampage?"

"I grow tired of your mouth." Bones shifted under Curran's skin. The nose widened, the jaws grew, the top lip split, displaying enormous teeth. I was staring into the face of a nightmare, a horrible meld of human and lion. If a thing that weighed over six hundred pounds in beast-form could be called a lion. His eyes never changed. The rest of him - the body, the arms, the legs, even his hair and skin remained human. The shapeshifters had three forms: beast, human, and half. They could shift into any of the three, but they always changed shape completely. Most had to strain to maintain the half-form and to be able to speak in it was a great achievement. Only Curran could do this: turn part of his body into one shape while keeping the rest in another.

Normally I had no trouble with Curran's face in half-form. It was well-proportioned, even - many shapeshifters suffered the "my jaws are way too big and don't fit together" syndrome - but I was used to that half-form face being sheathed in gray fur. Having human skin stretched over it was nausea inducing.

He noticed my heroic efforts not to barf. "What is it now?"

I waved my hand around my face. "Fur."

"What do you mean?"

"Your face has no fur."

Curran touched his chin. And just like that all traces of the beast vanished. He sat before me fully human.

He massaged his jaw.

The beast grew stronger during the flare. Curran's irritation caused his control to slip just a hair.

"Having technical difficulties?" I asked and immediately regretted it. Pointing out loss of control to a control freak wasn't the brightest idea.

"You shouldn't provoke me." His voice dropped low. He suddenly looked slightly hungry. "You never know what I might do if I'm not fully in control of myself."

Mayday, Mayday. "I shudder at the thought."

"I usually have that effect on women."

Ha! "Is that before or after they pee on themselves and show you their furry bellies?"

He leaned forward. "I'm leaving. Last chance."

"Myong came to see me."

"Oh," he said. "That."

The muscles on his jaw went tight. We sat in grim silence for several minutes. I waited until I couldn't stand it any longer. "Myong," I said gently.

"You know who she wants to marry?"

She wants to marry my "ex - could have been" boyfriend whom I accused of kidnapping, sexual torture, and cannibalism. "Yes."

"And you're okay with it?"


"Bullshit," he said.

"Maybe I'm not as okay with it as I want to be. But I don't want to keep them from each other." Seeing Myong, well, it stung. I shouldn't have cared that Crest clearly thought she was better than me, but it did bother me a little. She was without a doubt more beautiful, elegant, refined. But she was also dying swan. The kind of woman who, if asked to make tea, would return from the kitchen to tell you the water was boiling and expect you to deal with that emergency while she waited demurely next to you.

"I think I've been rather reasonable about this whole situation," Curran said.

"How do you figure?"

"They are still breathing, aren't they?"

Maybe he truly loved her and losing her hurt. Maybe it was his ego talking: a proud alpha, left by a beautiful woman for a normal human, a wimp, pretty much disliked by every shapeshifter who met him. I wished I could make it better for him and for me. But the only way to do so lay through setting them free.

"Please let them go."

He rose. "We'll talk about it later."



"You'll feel better if you cut them loose."

"What makes you think it bothers me?" He almost said something else, but changed his mind and left the room.

I felt very alone sitting on the bed by myself. The last time I had felt so alone was when I found out that Greg was murdered.

I untied my robe and laid down. The expedition to the bathroom followed by a tense conversation wore me out. I wanted Curran to let them marry, so I could be done with all of it.

Something moved outside the window. I raised my head. Nothing. Just a rectangular view of the sky, barely brightening before the sunrise. We were on the second or third floor. No trees nearby. I put my head back on my pillow. Wonderful. I'm hallucinating now.


A reeve? Couldn't be - those gals didn't knock. I slid off the bed and walked to the window. No bars. No alarm. I guess when you can smell a drop of blood in five quarts of water, you don't bother with alarms. And only a total lunatic would risk breaking into a house full of monsters. I turned away.


Alright, fine. I'll play. The latch on the window was of the old variety, heavy and metal. I'd have to use both hands to get it open. I put Slayer on the windowsill.

Beyond the glass, an empty street stretched into gloom. I unlocked the latch and slid the window up. Below me lay a small ledge, barely more that an ornamental row of bricks protruding from the wall.

Bran popped into existence on the ledge right in front of me. His hands clamped my hands, pinning them to the windowsill. "Hello, dove." He grinned at me. "Look at that: you don't have your pretty knife and I've got your hands. What are you gonna do now?"

I rammed my head into his nose.

"Ow!" He lost his balance, let go of me, arms swinging, and I caught his jacket just as he was about to plummet. My hand brushed the familiar plastic packet. Unbelievable.

I yanked him into the room, swiping the packet of maps from the waistband of his leather pants. The effort nearly dropped me to my knees. I struggled not to fall and growled. "You stole the maps again? Do you have a death wish?"

He blew some blood out of his nose. "I can't fucking believe it. Busted my nose twice in one day. You owe me for this." He surged to his feet and lunged at me.

And stopped when Slayer's blade made contact with his chest. I was weak but I was still fast. "Who are you, what are you doing here, who is Hood, why does he want Julie, and where is Julie's mother?"

"Is that all?" He wiped the red smudge off his lip with the back of his hand.

"Yes. No. Why is the cauldron important, where did it go, how is Morrigan involved, where do you go when you disappear, and why do you keep stealing the maps? Okay, now that's everything."

He pushed a little against Slayer. "I see now. You just want me for my mind. Who's Hood?"

"White robe, tentacles?"

His eyes lit up. "I tell you what, you put the maps right there on the bed. On the count of three, we each grab them. If you win, I'll tell you who he is. If I win, I'll get you."


He winked. "Cute bow, by the way."

I glanced down. Sure enough, my robe had come open. The whole world now knew I had a bow on my panties.

I pulled my robe closed. "You get me for how long? Forever?"

He gave me an appraising stare. "No offense, but you're not that hot. There are other fish in the sea. A night will do."

I had to give it to him, to flatter and insult a woman in one proposition took talent. "No disappearing into the mist to grab the maps?"

He raised his hands. "Fine, fine."

"Swear on Morrigan's name that you'll pay up if I win."

It was a gamble. I watched for his reaction and got it: he hesitated. To him, Morrigan's name carried weight, which meant she was likely to be his patron goddess.

"I swear by Morrighan to uphold the bargain." He pronounced Morrigan oddly, which was probably the right way to say her name.

I tossed Slayer on the bed, never taking my eyes off of him, and put the maps on the sheets. "Back away, three steps."

We stepped back in unison, he to the middle of the room, and I to the wall by the chair.

"On three. One," he said, bending forward like a runner. "Two."

He lunged for the maps. I grabbed the chair and hit him with it. He went down. I hit him again to make sure he stayed that way, stepped over him, and picked up the maps. "I win." Now if only the room would stop spinning, I'd be all set.

He groaned and a torrent of obscenities burst from him.

"Your problem is, you underestimate me because I'm a woman." I nudged him with my foot. "Hood's name?"

"Bolgor the Shepherd, of the Fomoire." Mist swirled and he vanished.

My legs gave out and I crash-landed on the bed. Fomoire? Fomorian. Morrigan's old adversaries. Now the fish stink made sense: of course, a sea-demon would stink like fish. I frowned. Bran served Morrigan and Morrigan and the Fomorians hated each other. That made perfect sense. But what did this Shepherd want with Julie?

The door burst open and Derek charged into the room, followed by two female shapeshifters.

I held out the maps. "Here. That's twice in one day. You owe me."

Derek took the maps from my hands and sniffed them, while the two women checked the window.

"He's gone," the younger woman said.

Derek's face trembled in fury. "I'm going to find him. Nobody does that to us twice."

"What's going on?" Curran stepped into the room.

Derek paled. Good luck explaining that monumental breach of security.

Bran snapped into the room in a corkscrew of mist, jerked my robe open and down to clamp my shoulders, and kissed me. His teeth clicked against mine. I kneed him, but he expected it and blocked with his leg. He realized his tongue wouldn't make it into my mouth and let go. "I'll still get you," he promised.

Curran lunged at him and caught tendrils of mist.

I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand.

"Did he hurt you?" Curran said.

If my eyes could shoot lightning, I would've fried him on the spot. "Depends on how you define hurt. What kind of show are you running here, anyway?"

Curran snarled.

"Very impressive," I told him. "He can't hear you."

I pulled my robe shut, again, climbed into my bed, and covered myself with my blanket. I had had entirely enough embarrassment for one night.

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