Magic Burns Chapter 21

WHEN A LION ROARS NEXT TO YOU, AT FIRST YOU think it's thunder. That first sound is so deep, so frightening, it couldn't possibly come from a living creature. It blasts your nerves, freezing you in place. All thoughts and reason flee from your mind, and you're left as you are, a helpless pathetic creature with no claws, no teeth, and no voice.

The rumble dies and you think it's over, but the roar lashes you again, like some horrible cough, once, twice, picking up speed, and finally rolling, unstoppable, deafening. You fight the urge to squeeze your eyes shut. You turn your head with an effort that takes every last shred of your control.

You see a seven-foot-tall monster. It has a lion's head and a lion's throat. It's gray and furry. Dark stripes dash across its tree-trunk limbs like whip marks. Its claws could disembowel you with a mere twitch. Its eyes scald you with gold fire.

It shakes the ground with its roar. You smell the sharp stench of urine as smaller monsters cringe and you clamp your hands over your ears, so you don't go deaf.

Finally Curran's roar rolled to a close. Thank God. I thought of pointing out that Bran couldn't hear him and even if he could, he probably wouldn't faint in mortal terror, but somehow this didn't seem to be the right moment for clever observations. The lion's face quivered and snapped into the familiar chimera of lion and human I knew as Curran's half-form. His voice boomed across the yard. "Search the Keep. Find out how he got in and what else he took."

The shapeshifters cleared with record speed, all except Jim.

I needed to get to Bran. Time was short, the flare was almost on us, and I wanted to find Julie and her mother before it hit full force. But there was no way I could enter the mist with the monisto in my hand. Morrigan's Hound wanted it. There was no way I could leave without it because the Fomorians wanted it, also. They would come for it.

What to do?

Jim looked at Curran. "We have bait. He likes her. He might come to visit her."

Bastard. He screwed me over again and again. Why the hell was I always surprised? I looked to Curran. He was considering it; I could almost see the wheels turning under that mane. "Don't do this. I have to find Julie. I can't stay here waiting for that idiot to pop out of thin air."

Jim reached out to me.

"Put your hand down or lose it." I didn't bother looking at him. "You know me. You know I'll do it."

"We don't need anyone's help," Curran said.

Jim withdrew his hand.

I took a deep breath. I saw a way out of this mess, but it was the kind of way that only a desperate fool like me would take. It was either incredibly smart or incredibly stupid.

I held out the monisto. "The bowman wants this. I saw him looking at it. I trust the Pack to safeguard it for me until I need it." I put it into Curran's clawed hand. "I trust you to keep it safe. I don't know why, but it's very important. Both the bowman and the reeves will come looking for it. I can't afford for it to be lost. Do you promise to guard it?"

It was a gesture of utter faith. Everyone knew Bran had breached the Pack's security three times. The fact that I trusted Curran with the monisto would mean more to him than any revenge. I had made it personal. If he accepted it, he would die to protect it.

The golden eyes looked into me. "You have my word," he said.

"That's all I need."

I was free to do as I must. I could keep Bran occupied, assuming I found him, and no reeve would ever best Curran.

"I'm going to the bouda house to check on my friend and then I'm off to look for Julie."

"I'll get you an escort as far as the hyena's territory."

"I can find my own way."

Curran shook his head. "Don't argue with me right now."

Two minutes later I rode a horse to the bouda house, accompanied by four somber-faced werewolves. They left me at the invisible boundary. As one of them kindly explained, each shapeshifter clan within the Pack had an expectation of privacy in their meeting place. The privacy wasn't easily breached by members of a different beast clan.

The same bouda that promised to smile when she crushed Jim's bones waited on the porch. She watched as I dismounted and got Esmeralda's books out of the buggy still abandoned by the house.

"You're back," she said. "I peeked in on your chickie while you were gone. She's hot. Does she like girls?"

"I honestly don't know."

"So what's her kick, candy, music? What does she like?"




The bouda frowned. "I don't know anything about guns. This isn't going to be work, is it? Bummer. Now I don't know if I want to bother."

She made me think of Curran again. "Men are dumb bastards," I said.

She nodded. "Women aren't much better. Whiny bitches, most of them." She thought about it. "Guys can be fun. I recommend Raphael. He's the most patient one we've got, so he gets lucky more than the others. Although I think your chickie has his complete attention at the moment."

I found Andrea and Aunt B in the kitchen at a small round table, drinking tea. The sight of Andrea bringing the teacup to her hyena muzzle struck me as hilarious. I clamped my mouth shut and tried not to laugh. It had to be nerves.

If she asked for biscuits, I'd lose it.

Andrea saw me and visibly stiffened. "How did it go?"

"With what?"

Aunt B sighed. "She wants to know if Curran's coming to kill her."

"Oh. No, he isn't interested in murdering you. Believe me, right now you're the least of his problems."

Andrea exhaled.

"Please tell me there is coffee."

Aunt B grimaced. "They're already crazy. If I let them have coffee, they'd be bouncing off the walls. We have herbal tea."

I put my books on the table.

"You look like you need some sleep." Andrea put a steaming cup before me.

I needed to find Julie, find her mom, convince a sociopath to donate some blood for the good of mankind, and deal with a tentacled atrocity swaddled in cloth and his rabid mermaids. I needed coffee.

A male bouda sauntered into the kitchen. He wore black leather pants and a leather vest baring a chiseled chest. He wasn't conventionally handsome, the opposite actually: his nose was too long and his face was too narrow, but he had intense blue eyes and black hair combed to shiny perfection, and he used what he had to his best advantage. You knew by some sort of natural female instinct that he would be good in bed, and when he looked at you, you thought about sex.

He glanced at Andrea with an odd longing on his face, switched his attention to me, and offered me his hand. "Sorry about our...altercation in the buggy. I was only playing. I'm Raphael."

"The one who likes the hurting." I moved to shake his hand and he reversed it and kissed my fingers instead, singeing me with a look that was pure smolder.

I took my hand back. "That woke me up."

He smiled a picture-perfect smile. "Been a while?"

For some reason, I felt like answering. "Two years. And if you could tone down that smile, I'd appreciate it. Getting weak in the knees."

Raphael took a step back. His face took on the same concerned look I saw on Doolittle when I assured him I was fine. "Two years? That's entirely too long. If you want, we can take care of that. After two years, it's pure therapy."

"No thank you. Curran already offered to help me with that problem, and since I turned him down, I wouldn't want to cause any friction between you two." The last thing I needed was to set Curran and the hyenas on a collision course.

Raphael backed away with his hands in the air, strategically positioning himself behind Andrea. "No offense."

"None taken."

"Is Curran serious?" Aunt B asked.

She wanted to know if she now had to walk on eggshells around me. For once, I was happy to disappoint. "No, he's just being an asshole. Apparently every time he calls me 'baby,' I look like a red-hot poker is stuck up my butt. Causes him no end of fun." I drank my tea.

Aunt B gave me an odd look. "You know," she said, stirring her tea, "the fastest way to get him off your back is to sleep with him. And tell him you love him. Preferably while in bed."

I smirked and the tea almost came out of my nose. "He'd run like he was on fire."

Raphael rested his hands on Andrea's shoulders. "Still a bit tense?" His fingers began to gently knead her muscles.

"Will you do it?" Aunt B gazed at me over the rim of her cup.

"Not while I'm alive, no. Wait, I take it back. That should be 'hell no.'"

"Has he invited you to dinner, dear? Gifts, flowers, the usual?"

I had to put my cup down, because my hand was shaking too much. When I stopped laughing, I said, "Curran? He isn't exactly Mr. Smooth. He handed me a bowl of soup, that's as far as we got."

"He fed you?" Raphael stopped rubbing Andrea.

"How did this happen?" Aunt B stared at me. "Be very precise, this is important."

"He didn't actually feed me. I was injured and he handed me a bowl of chicken soup. Actually I think he handed me two or three. And he called me an idiot."

"Did you accept?" Aunt B asked.

"Yes. I was starving. Why are the three of you looking at me like that?"

"For crying out loud." Andrea set her cup down, spilling some tea. "The Beast Lord's feeding you soup. Think about that for a second."

Raphael coughed. Aunt B leaned forward. "Was there anybody else in the room?"

"No. He chased everyone out."

Raphael nodded. "At least he hasn't gone public yet."

"He might never," Andrea said. "It would jeopardize her position with the Order."

Aunt B's face was grave. "It doesn't go past this room. You hear me, Raphael? No gossip, no pillow talk, not a word. We don't want any trouble with Curran."

"If you don't explain it all to me, I will strangle somebody." Of course, Raphael might like that...

"Food has a special significance," Aunt B said.

I nodded. "Food indicates hierarchy. Nobody eats before the alpha, unless permission is given, and no alpha eats in Curran's presence until Curran takes a bite."

"There is more," Aunt B said. "Animals express love through food. When a cat loves you, he'll leave dead mice on your porch, because you're a lousy hunter and he wants to take care of you. When a shapeshifter boy likes a girl, he'll bring her food and if she likes him back, she might make him lunch. When Curran wants to show interest in a woman, he buys her dinner."

"In public," Raphael added, "the shapeshifter fathers always put the first bite on the plates of their wives and children. It signals that if someone wants to challenge the wife or the child, they would have to challenge the male first."

"If you put all of Curran's girls together, you could have a parade," Aunt B said. "But I've never seen him physically put food into a woman's hands. He's a very private man, so he might have done it in an intimate moment, but I would've found out eventually. Something like that doesn't stay hidden in the Keep. Do you understand now? That's a sign of a very serious interest, dear."

"But I didn't know what it meant!"

Aunt B frowned. "Doesn't matter. You need to be very careful right now. When Curran wants something, he doesn't become distracted. He goes after it and he doesn't stop until he obtains his goal no matter what it takes. That tenacity is what makes him an alpha."

"You're scaring me."

"Scared might be too strong a word, but in your place, I would definitely be concerned."

I wished I were back home, where I could get to my bottle of sangria. This clearly counted as a dire emergency.

As if reading my thoughts, Aunt B rose, took a small bottle from a cabinet, and poured me a shot. I took it, and drained it in one gulp, letting tequila slide down my throat like liquid fire.

"Feel better?"

"It helped." Curran had driven me to drinking. At least I wasn't contemplating suicide.

I SLID THE BEAT-UP VOLUME OF MYTHS AND LEGENDS close and flipped to the index. If I was going to see Bran, it was best to go prepared. I needed a better grasp on this situation. Unfortunately my brain insisted on replaying the memory of Curran offering me soup.

Raphael wrinkled his nose. "Your books smell like chicken."

"They're not mine."

"If you're going to look for Julie, I'll help." Andrea brushed Raphael's hands off her shoulders. "She's my respon��sibility."

I shook my head. "No, she's mine. There is nothing I can do for her right now. But I can find Morrigan's bowman." I explained the coven and Esmeralda's books, and reeves, and needing Bran's blood, although I didn't go into what it was for. "When the reeves attacked us, the Shepherd mentioned the Great Crow. Let's see..."

I ran my finger down the index. No Great Crows. Loads of Fomorians but no Bolgors or Shepherds. What else? Something had to connect them all. Let's see, what did I have? A Hound of Morrigan, bow, covens, missing cauldron...

I found the entry on cauldron: "Cauldron of Plenty, see Dagda." Dagda was Morrigan's main squeeze for a while. "Cauldron of Rebirth, see Branwen." I flipped to the right page. "I will give you a cauldron, with the property that if one of your men is killed today, and be placed in the cauldron, then tomorrow he will be as well as he was at his best, except that he will not regain his speech."

"Any luck?" Raphael asked.

"Not yet."

That was certainly interesting. The reeves were partially undead...Maybe they came out of the cauldron of rebirth, somehow. I went back to the index. "Cauldron of Wisdom, see Birth of Taliesin." Anybody with a drop of education on Celtic mythology knew of Taliesin, the great bard of ancient Ireland, the druid who succeeded Merlin. I knew the myth as well as anybody but found the right page anyway just to be thorough. Blah-blah-blah, Goddess Ceridwen, blah-blah...

If it was a cobra, it would've struck me.

"What?" Andrea wanted to know.

I turned the page and showed them the illustration. "Birth of Taliesin. The goddess Ceridwen had a son of incredible ugliness. She felt sorry for him and brewed a potion of wisdom in a huge cauldron to make him wise. A servant boy stirred the potion and accidentally tasted it, stealing the gift of wisdom. Ceridwen chased him. He turned into a grain of wheat to hide but Ceridwen turned into a chicken, swallowed him, and gave birth to Taliesin, the greatest poet, bard, and druid of his time."

Andrea frowned. "Yes, I see that the boy was reborn through the cauldron, but so what?"

"The name of the Goddess's ugly son. Morfran: from the Welsh mawr, 'big,' and bran, 'crow.' The Great Crow."

"This is the guy?" Raphael asked. "The guy in charge of the Fomorians?"

"Looks that way. And more, he is a crow just like Morrigan. Very similar names plus very uneducated witches equals..."

"Disaster," Raphael supplied.

The Sisters of the Crow. It was a terrible name for a coven.

Andrea shook her head. "Those idiot Sisters couldn't actually be that ignorant. Fumbling spells - yes, but screwing up enough to accidentally pray to the wrong deity? Morfran and Morrigan aren't even of the same gender."

"Maybe they started out praying to Morrigan, and then fumbled just enough to give Morfran an opening. Maybe Morfran managed to make a deal with Esmeralda. She wanted knowledge and he offered it to her. Taliesin, Morfran's half brother, served as a druid for King Arthur after Merlin. It follows that Morfran was probably also a druid. Who else would've taught Esmeralda druidic rites?"

Andrea leaned forward. "Okay but to what purpose? Why go through all that trouble?"

"I don't know. If you were a god, what would you want?"

I refilled Aunt B's teacup and then my own.

"Life," Raphael said.

"I'm sorry?"

"I would want life. All they do is look down on us from wherever they exist but they never get to take part. Never get to play."

"It doesn't work like that," Andrea said. "Post-Shift theory says a true deity can't manifest in our world."

"You see reports of deities all the time," Raphael said. He was kneading her shoulders again.

She shook her head. "Those aren't actual true deities. They're conjurer's constructs, wicker men for their imagination. Basically magic molded into a certain shape. They have no sense of self."

My brain had difficulty wrapping around the fact that deities actually existed. I knew the theory as well as anybody: magic had the potential to give thought and will substance. Faith was both will and thought, and prayer served as the mechanism to merge them and to catalyze the magic, defining it much like a spoken incantation defined the will of the in-cantor. Practically, it meant if many people had a specific enough image of their deity and prayed hard to it, the magic might oblige and deliver the deity into existence. The Christian God or the neo-Wiccan "goddess" would probably never gain an actual form, because the beliefs of their faithful were too varied and their power was too nebulous, too encompassing. But something specific like Thor or Pan could theoretically come to life.

I held that "theoretically" like a shield between me and Morrigan and Morfran. Few things are more frightening than the thought of your god coming to life. There is no such thing as privacy between a deity and his worshipper. There are no secrets, no glossed-over failures. Only promises kept and abandoned, sins committed and imagined, and raw emotion. Love, fear, reverence. How many of us are ready to have our lives judged? What would happen if we were found wanting?

Andrea's voice penetrated my thoughts. "First, most people imagine their deity within some magical realm. I mean, what worshipper pictures Zeus strolling down the street with a thunderbolt under his arm? To manifest on Earth would require independent will on the part of the deity. That's a pretty big hurdle right there. Second, deities run on the faith of their congregations like cars run on gasoline. The moment the magic ebbs, the flow of faith cuts off. No juice, no powers. Who knows what would happen to a god? They could hibernate, they could die, they could be jerked out of existence..."

In my head Saiman's voice said, It's magic time. Time of the gods.

"The magic is simply not that strong and the shifts are too frequent for a deity to appear..."

"Unless she does it during a flare," I said.

Andrea opened her mouth and closed it with a click.

"During the flare, when the magic is at its peak for several hours, a deity could manifest and vanish back to its hiding place before the tech hits."

Aunt B set her cup on the table. "If that's so, nothing good will come of it. Gods aren't meant to meddle in our business. Good or bad, we're running things our own way."

I looked at Andrea. "You said something really smart a couple of minutes ago, about the boy being reborn through the cauldron. Manifestation is a rebirth, in a sense. What if the cauldron is Morrigan's way into our world? A cauldron is missing from the Sisters of the Crow's gathering place. I saw the imprints of its legs and it was huge. I don't think even Curran could lift it. Who would bother to take a giant cauldron unless it was really important?"

Andrea sighed. "It makes sense, I suppose."

"One big problem with this theory. I have no clue how the Shepherd and Red's necklace fit into it. Everybody wants the necklace, but nobody will tell me why."

"Where is it now?" Aunt B asked.

"I put it into Curran's hand. He promised to keep it safe." I rose. "I'm going to chat with Morrigan's bowman. Andrea, you wouldn't watch my things for me while I do my hop and dance, would you?"

She got up, moving the chair back with a screech. "You don't even have to ask."

"Why not just ask the bowman?" Raphael said.

I smiled. "Because he's a thief and a liar. The Witch Oracle is neutral and will tell me the truth."

BEHIND THE BOUDA House LAY A NICE WIDE FIELD. In the middle of the field grew an old oak. Massive, its branches spread so wide they almost touched the ground, it cast a deep shadow in moonlight. Perfect.

"This isn't complicated." I headed to the oak, carrying a big ceramic bowl and a pitcher full of water. "I'm going to do some weird dancing. If all goes well, I should disappear."

"What do you mean, disappear?" Andrea followed me and Raphael followed Andrea.

"Go into the mist. A calling is a very old spell. It's used by witches to find their familiars. Usually it's done in the woods. The witch dances and her magic draws the most compatible animal to her. There are many variations of the spell. Some are tailored to draw a man, although in my experience nothing good ever comes from that one. Some draw the caster to a specific person. It won't work with a normal person, otherwise I'd be where Julie is right now, but Bran is so saturated with magic, he should be able to pull me to him."

I unzipped my leather vest and put it under the oak. Next I unbuckled Slayer's sheath and handed it to Andrea. Boots and socks followed the leather. Technically the dance worked best when done naked, but I didn't feel like prancing in the nude into Morrigan's Hound's arms. I'm sure he'd be thrilled to see me.

I stood with my toes touching cool slick grass and took a deep breath. I knew how to do a calling. Someone had taught me a very long time ago, so long, I couldn't even remember who or when, and I've seen a couple of them done. I'd just never done one myself.

Andrea sat in the grass. Raphael landed next to her.

I poured water into the bowl, unbuckled my belt, and sprinkled the herbal powders from the compartments into it: lady fern and ash for clairvoyance, and a touch of wormwood to keep interference from curious things to a minimum. A bit of oak, for masculine reference. I had done a shabby job grinding the oak and instead of fine powder a few leaf sections floated on the surface.

I didn't bring my spinner but a few weeks ago I had happened on a very good staff of European ash and promptly defaced it by carving small chunks from the shaft and loading my belt with them. European ash was one of the best woods for a holding enchantment. I dropped one of the ash chips into the water and whispered the incantation.

The makeshift spinner shivered. It trembled like a fishing float when a fish nibbles at the bait, and spun in place, at first slowly, then faster and faster.

"What is it for?"

"It connects the herbs with magic." I pulled my throwing dagger out and gave it to her. "If something goes wrong, drop the dagger into the bowl. Please don't try to dump the bowl or take the spinner out."

"How do I know when something goes wrong?"

"I'll start screaming."

I took off the wrist guard I wore on my left arm. There go the silver needles. The other throwing knife, the three shark teeth, the r-kit...

"How much hardware do you carry?" Raphael raised his eyebrows.

I shrugged. "That's about all of it."

I stepped into the oak's shadow. I was stripped down to my T-shirt and pants, no belt, no sword, no knife. Except for the blood collecting kit and the knitted square of hair and nettle, I carried nothing. I imagined a wide circle in the oak's shadow and dropped the knitting in the middle.

I returned to the imaginary circle boundary and began to dance.

Step by step I made my way around the circle, bending my body, following the dance. Midway through the second circle, a tight line of magic snapped from the small knitted square and clutched at me. It flowed through my head into my feet, splitting into smaller currents where my skin touched the ground, as if I had become a tree. It led and pulled me.

Vaguely I saw the boudas gather from the shadows, drawn to me like moths to a flame. They watched me with glowing red eyes, swaying gently with the silent music of my dance. And then I heard it, a simple distant melody. It grew with every second, heart wrenching, sad but wild, pure but imperfect. It caught me and wormed its way into my chest, filling my heart with what my Russian father called toska, a longing so intense and painful, it made me physically ill. It weakened my knees; it sapped my will until only melancholy remained; it made me miss something, what, I wasn't sure, but I knew I missed it keenly and couldn't take another breath without it.

I danced and danced and danced. The charmed boudas dissolved. Mist swirled around me. A dark dog trotted past me through the gloom. Slowly the fog thinned. Through the whiteness I saw a gentle yellow glow beckoning me.

My feet found wet grass and rocks. I heard the quiet splashing and the popping of wood burning in the fire. Sharp salty smoke tugged at me.

A few more steps and I stepped onto the shore of a lake. It lay glossy, black, and placid in the moonlight, like the surface of a coin dipped in tar. A small fire burned in a stone fire pit near the water. Above the fire on a spit was a carcass of some small animal, a rabbit maybe.

I turned. Behind me the forest lay, dark and jagged. The mist crawled away to the trees, as if sucked into the woods.

The attack came so suddenly, I reacted on instinct. Bran lunged at me from the right, and I stepped aside, redirecting his momentum and tripping him without thinking. I had practiced this maneuver so many times, I didn't realize I had done it until I saw him fly past me and land with a splash into the lake.

He whirled in the water and grinned at me. Damn, he was a handsome bastard. I realized he was half-naked. Blue swirls of tattoos painted his chest. When God made that chest, he did it to tempt women.

"No sword this time."

I shrugged. "Yes, but you can't disappear."

"Don't need to." He sprung from the lake, black hair dripping, and ran at me again.

I dodged his hands, kicked him in the knee, and danced away. He launched a quick kick that whistled a hair from my cheek. I swept around him and rammed my elbow into his side.

He hooked me with a quick punch. I took it on the shoulder - it hurt - and swiped his legs out from under him. He jumped to his feet and hopped away. He frolicked like a hyper puppy. Run up, play bite, let himself be swatted down.

"That's no way to treat a lover."

"I didn't come here to sleep with you."

"Then why go through all the trouble?"

"I need some of your blood to save a girl."

He flexed his right arm. Veins bulged. "Some of this blood?"


He winked at me. "I'm sure we can deal."

"No deals. The blood must be a gift or it won't work."

"Keep me warm tonight and maybe I'll be feeling generous in the morning."

I shook my head. "No deals."

He looked to the sky. "You really aren't going to lie with me?"


He thought about it.

"Considering raping me? Are you that desperate?"

He jerked his head, throwing his hair out of his eyes. "I've never forced a woman. I don't have to. They flock to me."

Oi. "So nice to know you're a gentleman."

"Why would I give you my blood? What's in it for me?"

"Nothing. Except maybe knowing you've done a good deed. You told me you were a hero. Do something heroic."

He walked to the fire and sat. "You're thinking Christian hero, dove. And I'm not a Christian."

A cold breeze wrinkled the lake. I hugged myself. I wanted to ask him about Julie and about other things, but information from him couldn't be trusted. Get the blood, get out. "Just out of curiosity, what is it about me that makes you think I'm dovelike?"

"I bet you coo in bed." His black eyes shone, reflecting the flames of the fire. "Come sit next to me."

"No funny business?"

"I make no promises."

What choice did I have? I came and sat next to him, basking in the warmth of the fire.

He lay back, his head resting on his arm bent at the elbow. He was muscled like a martial artist or a soldier accustomed to running: lean and hard. And he smelled...he smelled like a man, the way young fit men sometimes smell of sweat and locker room and sun.

Somewhere far an owl hooted and her cry lingered over the pitch-black water. "What is this place?"

"Morrigan's refuge. It's her home."

"She's here?"

He nodded. "Just not watching at the moment. She sleeps."

"Does Morrigan ever come down to Earth?"

"Why won't you sleep with me? Afraid of your Rambo boyfriend?"

"Rambo is a character in a story. Not real. You didn't answer my question."

He put his arm around me. "Kiss me and I promise I'll talk."

I took his arm off of me. "I don't think so. That would be a slippery slope."

His hand stroked my arm. "Ahhh, so you want me?"

"Maybe a little bit."

He smiled.

"I'm still not sleeping with you."

"Why not?"

I thought of Saiman dancing in the snow. "I have a friend who can change his shape. Imagine any body and he can transform into it. He's invited me into his bed."

He frowned. "Can he do a girl?"


"I might like to watch that."

Men were still men, even if they lived in the mist.

Bran sat up, pulled the carcass off the fire, and stuck the spit into the ground. A knife flashed and he offered me a half-charred leg. "Here. Might as well feed you since you're telling me a story. Don't want to be inhospitable."

"Thanks." I pulled a shred of meat off the legs and chewed. Sweet aftertaste. Rabbit.

"So what is it with you? Saving yourself for marriage?"

I guffawed. "Too late for that."

"Why won't you play nice with your friend then? Seems to me, the man's working pretty hard. How long has he been after you?"

"About a year. He just keeps switching bodies like they were outfits, but no matter what body he wears, I know it's him."

"Don't like him that much, yeh?"

I shrugged. "He doesn't do anything for me. There were times when he came at me with something that might have been fun, if it weren't him. But in the end, I always remember that he isn't interested in me. If I was thrilled, he wouldn't be happy with me; if I was on the verge of suicide, he wouldn't care. I might as well sleep with a blow-up doll. He's only interested because I said no the first time."

"That's why all men are interested."

"True, but with him it ends with my body. Normal men eventually look for companionship."

He shook his head. "No. Women look for that. Men look for bedsport."

I smiled. "If it were so, why did you invite me to sit by you?"

"I figure I'll change your mind."

"You won't."

"So you say."

"When was the last time you had a dinner like this with another person?"

He shrugged. "I don't remember."

"So you just eat by yourself? All alone?"

"What's it to you?" His voice cut with a hostile edge.

"Nothing, just curious."

He poked at the coals with a long stick.

I finished my meat and lay on my back, stretching my feet to the fire. It'd been a long day. I lost Julie and I still had no clue where her mom had gone. At least Andrea didn't die.

I became aware of Bran watching me. Our stares connected and he went down for a kiss, but I put my hand onto his lips. "I don't want to headbutt you a third time. Trust me, if I change my mind, you'll be the first to know."

He sat up, picked up a twig and snapped small pieces off of it, throwing them into the fire one by one. "I don't understand you. I used to be good at this. Good at women. Now...You have a forward manner about you."

I frowned. "I don't think I'm that forward."

"You are. Most women are now. Used to be that if a woman sat next to you like this and you fed her, it was understood she would lie on her back for you. Otherwise, why bother? Women now, they are brazen. Forward. They will sit there and they wear tight clothes, but they won't sleep with you. They want to talk. What is there to talk about?"

I sat up and hugged my knees. "Bran, I don't do anything for you, do I? Kind of like my friend doesn't do anything for me."

He stared. "Why would you think that?"

"A feeling I get. Like you're trying to get into my pants because I'm a woman and you don't know what else to do with me. You don't think I'm all that."

He sighed and looked at me. Really looked at me. "No," he said. "I don't. Don't get me wrong, you've got a nice body and all. I wouldn't turn you down if you wanted to spread your legs, but yeah I've bedded better."

I nodded. "I thought so."

"What gave me away?"

"The kiss."

He reared back. "I kiss like a madman!"

"It was a kiss of a frustrated man with injured pride. There was no fire in it." I handed him another twig. "Just talk to me. Pretend I'm a traveler who stopped by your fire. I bet you don't get many visitors. You stay in the mist all the time?"

"I come out to play during the flares." He encompassed the lake and forest with a wide wave of his hand. "I fish, I hunt. Never run out of game. It's the good life."

"So you don't get to enter the real world unless the flare is up?"


"But the flare only comes every seven years or so. In between years, you're here, by yourself, with no company?"

He whistled. A shaggy shape trotted from the dark and flopped at his feet. A huge, black dog. "Got Conri here."

The dog raised his paws into the air, turning to get his belly scratched. Bran obliged. "If I get bored, I sleep. For years sometimes, until she wakes me up."

I offered my bone to the dog. He took it out of my hands very gently and settled to gnaw it at my feet. I thought I was alone. At least I could go out and talk to other people. "You must've been here awhile, but you speak with no accent."

"The Gift of Gab. One of three gifts she gave me. Gift of Gab: I speak any language I wish. Gift of Health: my wounds are healed fast. And Gift of Aim: I hit what I see. The fourth gift is my own. I was born with it."

"What is it?"

"Admit it was the best kiss you've ever had and I'll tell you."

"Sorry, I can think of a couple better." Or at least one...

"Then why do I waste time with you?"

I shook my head. He wasn't a real person. Just a shadow of one with no memories, no ties, nothing but a sex drive, good aim, and wild eyes.

"Where are you from?"

He shrugged. "Don't remember."

"Okay, when are you from? How long have you been here?"

"I don't remember."

I grappled for something, some sort of marker that any person would know. "What's your mother's name?"

"I don't remember."

I looked at the stars. This mission was doomed to failure from the start. Who was I kidding?

"Blathin," he said. "Her name was Blathin."

He grabbed my hand and pulled me to my feet. "Come! I'm going to show you something."

We ran along the edge of the lake into the trees. Ahead a wooden cabin rose, nestled among the greenery, connected to the lake by a long dock. Bran dragged me inside.

A fire burned in the fireplace. To the right a simple bed stood against the wall, to the left a row of chests sat. Carvings decorated the walls: a tree, runes, and warriors. Many, many fighters twisted by the battle spasm and carved with exquisite detail. Under them on the table lay a scroll, depicting a man with a long staff wearing a monk's cassock. He sat on a rock. Beside him mermaids played in sea waves. The Shepherd...

Bran grabbed my hand, pulled me to a chest, and swung the heavy lid open. A white cloth covered the contents. He jerked it aside. Human heads filled the chest.

"Oh God."

He scooped a mummified head from the chest by a scalp lock and thrust it at me. "All of them are mine."

This was officially the weirdest version of "come down to my place and I'll show you some etchings" I've ever been hit with.

He threw open another chest. I saw a World War I Kaiser helm next to a black motorcycle helmet splashed with painted flames. How old was he, exactly?

The third chest: blades. Turkish yataghan, a katana, a marine officer's saber with Semper Fi engraved in Old English...

"That's nothing!" He tossed the head into the chest, snatched my hand, and pulled me to the back door. It flew open from his kick and he drew me onto the porch.

Behind the house rose a spire of skulls. Taller than me, bleached white by the elements, it bristled with spears thrust through the bone. "See!" He waved his arms, triumphant. "There is more to me. Nobody has that many! My father would shit himself if he saw this!"

No kidding.

"I'm a great warrior. A hero. Each one of those was a fight I won." His face shone with pride. "You're a warrior. You understand, yes?"

So many lives...The pile of skulls towered above me. "How old are you?" I whispered.

He leaped over the rail, took a skull from the pile, and put it in front of me. "My first."

The skull wore a Roman helmet.

I sat down. It was too much to take.

He came to sit next to me. We looked at the skulls. Bran hung his head.

I touched his forearm. "What is it?"

"Nobody will ever know. Nobody but you has seen this. Nobody will ever know what I've accomplished. When I finally die, the only one who'll remember me and all this will be Morrigan."

"She's not the sentimental sort?" I guessed.

He shook his head. "It was a fool's bargain we made. I saved her bird, and she told me to choose my reward."

"What did you ask for?"

"Some would've asked for long life, strong sons. I asked to be a hero. To always have plenty to drink, plenty to fight, plenty of women."

The skulls glared at us with empty sockets in eerie silence.

"If you asked for strong sons, she would've arranged for them to eventually kill you," I said. "You can't win."

"Small solace."


I touched the Roman helmet. The metal felt ice-cold under my fingers. "The magic wasn't in the world when they were around."

"It was dying," he said. "There was just a trickle left. I slept through its death. When I awoke and fell through the mist, the world was on fire."

The first flare...So many people had died during that week.

"The little girl, Mouse, you called her...I'm trying to protect her and to find her mother. The witches said they would help me but their Oracle needs your blood to heal one of them. It would be a very good thing for her to survive. She means much to many people."

He took the skull away from me and brought it to his face, eyes to eye sockets, teeth to teeth. "What do I care?"

"The Witch Oracle lives through the ages, its members reborn, again and again. If you were to give them your blood, the covens would cherish your memory. Always. You would endure. You would be a hero and you would be known."

He turned to me, his eyes bottomless.

"It would cost you nothing. It would mean everything."

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