Magic Burns Chapter 20

CURRAN'S HAIR FELL TO HIS SHOULDERS. LONG, blond, luxuriously wavy, it framed his face like a mane. He sat in a room in the Pack Keep, reading a battered paperback under a cone of electric light from a small lamp. He didn't raise his head as Jim ushered me into the room and closed the door.

Just me and the Beast Lord. And the night, spilling into the room through the wide-open window.

Jim hadn't said a word to me on the way over here. I was on thin ice.

"What's the deal with the hair?"

Curran tore his gaze from the book and grimaced. "Grows every flare. Can't help it."

We stared at each other. "Waiting for the Fabio joke," he said.

The fatigue rolled over me in a sluggish wave. When I opened my mouth, my voice sounded dull, stripped of all life and inflection. "I brought a sick beastkin to the bouda house. She's my friend. If you're going to kill her, you'll have to go through me."

He closed his eyes tight, put his hand over them, and rubbed his face. I sat in a chair and kept my mouth shut, letting him work through his pain.

"Why me?" he said finally. "Are you on some sort of mission to fuck up my life?"

"I try my best to avoid you."

"You're doing a hell of a job."

"I honestly don't mean to cause problems."

"You don't cause problems. An unpiloted vampire causes problems. You cause catastrophes."

Rub it in, why don't you. "Look, after this, I promise I'll do my absolute best to stay out of your way. Are you going to murder my friend?"

He sighed. "No. I haven't killed any beastkin, and I'm not going to start now. It's an old, elitist custom. I'd have cut the legs from under it when Corwin found us, but there was a lot of opposition and crushing it without hurt feelings was tiresome and time-consuming. If your friend wants to join the Pack, I suppose I'll have to revisit the issue."

The sword in my sheath kept my spine from bending all the way and I very much wanted to either slump forward or to lean back. Even my vertebrae were tired. I unzipped my leather jacket, shrugged it off, unbuckled the sword, and set it in the sheath next to me. "She wants to hide. She's a member of the Order." He'd figure it out eventually anyway. "I'm going to help her to cover it up. After I find Julie."

"You lost the girl?"



I leaned back. "Her shaman boyfriend snatched her from my friend. He did something that caused her to start shifting, but she couldn't finish."

"Go on."

"I found her, loaded her into a cart, and drove her to the hyenas."

He gave me an odd look. "You drove her from the Order to there through the deep magic?"

"Yeah. We did pretty good except for some weirdness at a gas station."

He thought about it. "How long ago did all this happen?"


"Derek couldn't pick up Julie's scent at the scene?" A slight growl of disapproval crept into his voice.

I shook my head. "The shaman used too much wolfsbane. I'll find her. I just don't know how yet."

"If there is anything I can do, I'll help. Don't get excited. It's not because of you. For the child. If it wasn't for her and the flare, I'd throw your dumb ass out of this window."

"What does the flare have to do with it?"

"I don't want it to be attributed to a loss of control on my part. When I throw you out of the window, I want there to be no doubt the act was deliberate."

Wow, he was pissed.

Now the muted setting made sense: a neutral room, soothing light, a book. The deep magic fed the beast within him. It took a monumental effort of will to restrain it. With the flare so close, Curran was a powder keg with a short fuse. I had to be careful not to light that fuse. Nobody outside the Pack, except for Andrea, knew I was here. He could kill me right now and they would never find my body.

We shared a silence for a long moment. Magic blossomed, filling me with giddy energy. The short waves again. They would ebb in a minute, and then I'd be exhausted.

Guilt gnawed at me. He could control himself in my presence, but I apparently couldn't control myself in his. "Curran, up on the roof...That is, my brakes don't work sometimes."

He leaned forward, suddenly animated. "Do I smell an apology?"

"Yes. I said things I shouldn't have. I regret saying them."

"Does this mean you're throwing yourself at my feet?"

"No. I pretty much meant that part. I just wish I could've put it in less offensive terms."

I glanced at him and saw a lion. He didn't change, his face was still fully human, but there was something disturbingly lionlike in the way he sat, completely focused on me, as if ready to pounce. Stalking me without moving a muscle. The primordial urge to freeze shackled my limbs. I just sat there, unable to look away.

A slow, lazy, carnivorous smile touched Curran's lips. "Not only will you sleep with me, but you will say 'please.'"

I stared at him, shocked.

The smile widened. "You will say 'please' before and 'thank you' after."

Nervous laughter bubbled up. "You've gone insane. All that peroxide in your hair finally did your brain in, Goldilocks."


Terrified. "Of you? Nah. If you grow claws, I might get my sword, but I've fought you in your human shape." It took all my will to shrug. "You aren't that impressive."

He cleared the distance between us in a single leap. I barely had time to jump to my feet. Steel fingers grasped my left wrist. His left arm clasped my waist. I fought, but he out-muscled me with ridiculous ease, pulling me close as if to tango.

"Curran! Let..."

I recognized the angle of his hip but I could do nothing about it. He pulled me forward and flipped me in a classic hiptoss throw. Textbook perfect. I flew through the air, guided by his hands, and landed on my back. The air burst from my lungs in a startled gasp. Ow.

"Impressed yet?" he asked with a big smile.

Playing. He was playing. Not a real fight. He could've slammed me down hard enough to break my neck. Instead he had held me to the end, to make sure I landed right.

He leaned forward a little. "Big bad merc, down with a basic hip toss. In your place I'd be blushing."

I gasped, trying to draw air into my lungs.

"I could kill you right now. It wouldn't take much. I think I'm actually embarrassed on your behalf. At least do some magic or something."

As you wish. I gasped and spat my new power word. "Osanda." Kneel, Your Majesty.

He grunted like a man trying to lift a crushing weight that fell on his shoulders. His face shook with strain. Ha-ha. He wasn't the only one who got a boost from the flare.

I got up to my feet with some leisure. Curran stood locked, the muscles of his legs bulging his sweatpants. He didn't kneel. He wouldn't kneel. I hit him with a power word in the middle of a bloody flare and it didn't work. When he snapped out of it, he would probably kill me.

All sorts of alarms blared in my head. My good sense screamed, Get out of the room, stupid! Instead I stepped close to him and whispered into his ear. "Still not impressed."

His eyebrows came together, as a grimace claimed his face. He strained, the muscles on his hard frame trembling with effort. With a guttural sigh, he straightened.

I beat a hasty retreat to the rear of the room, passing Slayer on the way. I wanted to swipe it so bad, my palm itched. But the rules of the game were clear: no claws, no saber. The second I picked up the sword, I'd have signed my own death warrant.

He squared his shoulders. "Shall we continue?"

"It would be my pleasure."

He started toward me. I waited, light on me feet, ready to leap aside. He was stronger than a pair of oxen, and he'd try to grapple. If he got ahold of me, it would be over. If all else failed, I could always try the window. A forty-foot drop was a small price to pay to get away from him.

Curran grabbed at me. I twisted past him and kicked his knee from the side. It was a good solid kick; I'd turned into it. It would've broken the leg of any normal human.

"Cute," Curran said, grabbed my arm, and casually threw me across the room. I went airborne for a second, fell, rolled, and came to my feet to be greeted by Curran's smug face. "You're fun to play with. You make a good mouse."


"I was always kind of partial to toy mice." He smiled. "Sometimes they're filled with catnip. It's a nice bonus."

"I'm not filled with catnip."

"Let's find out."

He squared his shoulders and headed in my direction. Houston, we have a problem. Judging by the look in his eyes, a kick to the face simply wouldn't faze him.

"I can stop you with one word," I said.

He swiped me into a bear hug and I got an intimate insight into how a nut feels just before the nutcracker crushes it to pieces. "Do," he said.


All humor fled his eyes. He let go and just like that, the game was over.

"You just don't give up, do you?"


The magic drained again. A dull ache flared across my back - must've landed harder than I thought. The ache spread to my biceps. Thank you for the squeeze of death, Your Majesty. I slumped against the wall.

"Why are you hell-bent on their wedding?"

I rubbed my forehead, trying to wipe away fatigue and this conversation. "You really want to know?"

"Yes. What is it, guilt, revenge, love, what?"

I swallowed. "I live alone."

"And your point is?"

"You have the Pack. You're surrounded by people who would fall over themselves for the pleasure of your company. I have no one. My parents are dead, my entire family is gone. I have no friends. Except Jim, and that's more of a working relationship than anything else. I have no lover. I can't even have a pet, because I'm not at the house often enough to keep it from starving. When I come crawling home, bleeding and filthy and exhausted, the house is dark and empty. Nobody keeps the porch light on for me. Nobody hugs me and says, 'Hey, I'm glad you made it. I'm glad you're okay. I was worried.' Nobody cares if I live or die. Nobody makes me coffee, nobody holds me before I go to bed, nobody fixes my medicine when I'm sick. I'm by myself."

I shrugged, trying to keep my voice nonchalant. "And most of the time, I like being by myself. But when I look into my future, I see no family, no husband, no children. No warmth. I just see myself getting older and more scarred. Fifteen years from now I'll still drag my beaten, bloody hide to my place and lick my wounds, all alone, in a dark house. I can't have love and family, but Crest and Myong have a shot at happiness. I don't want to stand in the way."

I glanced at Curran and saw something in his eyes - understanding? sympathy? - I couldn't tell. It was there for a brief moment and then he pulled his mask back on, and I was greeted with the impenetrable face of an alpha.

I looked away. I had left a lot out. I had left out the part that explained that being with me meant being in danger, because my blood made me a target. Having sex with me meant sharing some of my magic. Being with a normal person made me selfish, because I couldn't protect them if I was found. Hell, I couldn't protect myself if that happened.

Being with a powerful person made me stupid, because as soon as they figured out what I was, they would either kill me or try to use me to their advantage. I distinctly remembered the first time I realized this. His name was Derin. He was a wizard. I was seventeen and wanting very badly to jump into somebody's bed. His bed looked pretty good. Years later looking back at it, I had to admit Derin wasn't all that, but for my first time, well, it could've been worse.

And Greg did what any good guardian would do: he sat down with me and very gently explained to me why I could never see Derin again. A one-night stand in another town was the safest option for me. Hide your blood. Bide your time until you're strong enough. Trust no one. I had known all of that, I just failed to realize the complete implications of it. My guardian had enlightened me. I hated him so much for it, I had agreed to enter the Order's Academy just to get away from him.

The magic splashed us, strong, intoxicating. Curran's hair shifted and grew another inch.

I knew exactly what drew me to him: if we fought - really fought - I wasn't sure I could win. No, scratch that, I was sure I couldn't win. He'd kill me. Wouldn't even blink. He scared me, and the more scared I got, the louder my mouth became.

"Your turn," I told him.


"Your turn. I told you why I wanted them together. Now you tell me why you want them apart." Jealousy, pride, love, all good enough reasons for an egomaniac like you. Take your pick.

He sighed. "She's weak and he's a selfish asshole. He'll use her. She's making a mistake."

I didn't expect that. "But it's her mistake to make."

"I know. I keep waiting for her to recognize she's making one."

I shook my head. "Curran, she begged the ex-girlfriend of her fiance to arrange her wedding. If she's willing to humiliate herself in that manner, she'll do anything for Crest's sake. She doesn't seem like a person who handles pressure well. If you keep delaying the wedding, you'll just drive her to suicide again."

"You saw the scars?"

I nodded. "People must make their own choices, no matter how wrong those choices are. Otherwise they can't be free."

A careful knock echoed through the room.

"Enter," Curran called.

A young man stuck his head into the door. "It's awake."

Curran rose. "I have something to show you."

Thank God it wasn't a pickup line.

As we followed the shapeshifter down the hall, Curran asked softly. "How are those arms? Sore a bit?"

"No," I lied. "How's your knee?"

A few steps later I decided to put my worry to rest. "You were joking about the whole please and thank you thing, right?"

"Meant every word." A little light danced in his eyes and he very deliberately said, "Baby."


He laughed. "You should see your face right now."

"Don't call me that."

"Would you prefer 'darling'? Or maybe 'cupcake'?" He winked.

I gritted my teeth.

We went down the spiraling stairs into the inner yard of the Keep. The Pack Keep had trouble deciding if it wanted to be a medieval castle or a twenty-first-century prison. Its main tower rose, looming, forbidding, a huge square building, utilitarian to the point of being crude. Jim once told me that it was built by hand with minimal technology and took almost ten years. It probably took a lot longer. The Keep went on for many stories underground.

A solid stone wall enclosed the main tower, carving a chunk from the clearing. I had never been inside the yard before. It was spacious and mostly empty. Some exercise equipment at the far wall. A large storage shed. A water tower. To the right a group of shapeshifers stood by a tall tank full of liquid. The last time I'd seen a tank like that, it contained dark green healing solution Doolittle had magicked, and Curran floated in it naked.

This tank contained clear water. Within the water sat a loup cage: bars as thick as my wrist, laced with silver. Something dark moved in the cage. The shapeshifters moved back and forth. Among them were three near seven-foot monstrosities in beast-form whose shaggy heads blocked the view.

"What is that?" I headed for the cage.

"You'll see." Curran looked smug, like a cat who stole the cream and thought he got away with it.

As we crossed the yard, a dark shape blotted out the stars. A dark outline of a long colossal body armed with huge membranous wings passed in silence high above us and vanished behind the tree line.

It couldn't be. Even during a flare, the possibility of such a creature was too miniscule to contemplate.

The shapeshifters parted before Curran. A familiar glowing body shifted within the cage. A reeve. "How did you...?"

Curran shrugged. "She came sniffing your trail after you left. We had a mild disagreement and I tore her arms off. She didn't die right away, so we stuck her into a loup cage and drove her over here."

The reeve floated in the water, her eyes wide-open. Tiny slits of gills fluttered on her neck. Both arms were present and perfectly functional. She had regenerated.

The reeve's hair clasped at the bars and drew back.

"Doesn't like silver." Jim congealed from the crowd as if by magic.

Curran nodded. "The loup cage was a good idea. Never would've thought of it myself. Good looking out."

The next chance I got an extra gig from the Guild, I'd put the money into getting the bars for my apartment made from the same alloy. My current bars were supposed to have a decent silver percentage but apparently not enough to have prevented the reeve from grabbing them.

I pulled the monisto from my leather. The reeve snapped to the bars, her lavender eyes fastened on the necklace.

"You want this, yes?" I moved the monisto to the left. The reeve followed it.

I pried one of the numerous knots open, slid the first coin off the cord and tossed it into the grass a few feet away. The reeve remained focused on the necklace. I slid the second coin and flicked it next to the first. No reaction.

"Is one of those special?" Curran asked.

"Yep. Don't know which one."

Third coin. Fourth.

"Hey, mates!"

I'd know that voice anywhere. I wheeled around. Bran stood atop the wall a good twenty-five yards away. He waved the crossbow at us. "What a lovely party, and me without an invitation."

"Get him down," Curran said softly.

Two shapeshifters in beast-form detached themselves from the group and padded to the wall.

Bran grinned. "So you're the big man, yea? I thought you would be taller."

"Tall enough to break your back," Curran said. His face snapped into the "pissed off Curran" mode: flat and about as expressive as a slab of granite. "Come down off the wall and we can visit."

"No thanks." Bran's gaze snagged on the monisto in my hand and jumped to the shapeshifters surrounding me. He wanted the monisto very much, but the odds were against him.

He shrugged and saw the reeve. "What's this then? Here, let me help you with that."

The crossbow snapped up and two shafts punctured the back of the reeve's head, the bolt heads emerging precisely through her eyes. The reeve went liquid.

The door leading to the tower burst open and a group of shapeshifters charged across the yard. Someone screamed, "He's got the surveys!"

"Got to run!" Bran waved a packet of surveys at us. "Thanks for the maps."

Mist swirled and he was gone.

Curran roared.

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