Magic Burns Chapter 23

THREE HOURS LATER BRAN AND I RODE UP TO THE pack keep. The witches had lent us the horses and we had ridden them until they were soaked in sweat. Bran seethed. He cursed me for not giving him the lid in time. He cursed Curran for losing the lid. He cursed Morrigan for denying him the mist as a punishment for his failure. He cursed the Fomorians by name, reaching for stronger and stronger words until his curses no longer made sense. I said nothing.

After a half hour of cursing, Bran wore out his voice and lapsed into silence. "The gray bubble we saw is a ward," he said finally. "The Fomorians can only crawl out of the cauldron one at a time. Morfran is buying time to build his army."

"Can we break the ward?" I asked.

He shook his head. "Cu Chulainn himself couldn't break through it. In fifteen hours it will fall and your city will drown in blood. We are riding through the Otherworld because all of them" - he swept his hand past the houses crowding the street - "all of them are dead. We travel through the city of the dead men. All because that son of a whore was trying to save a beggar child."

She was my beggar child. I would've risked a horde of demons to save her, too.

The gates of the Pack Keep opened at our approach. A clump of shapeshifters waited for us in the inner yard. I searched for the familiar figure.

Please. Please make it.

And then I saw him. His hair fell on his back in a mane. I had missed it, because it was no longer blond, but gray, the gray of his fur in beast-form.

Bran jumped off his horse and strode into the yard, his face twisted. "You! You fucking whoreson!"

Oh shit. "Curran, don't kill him! He's Morrigan's Hound. We need him to work the cauldron!"

I jumped off the horse and chased Bran.

The shapeshifters parted, giving Curran room. A white bandage covered his arm. That was a first.

Bran shoved Curran, but the Beast Lord didn't move.

"You gave it to them! For what? A scrawny street kid! Nobody cares if she lives or dies! You've killed hundreds for her. Why?"

Curran's eyes had gone gold. "I don't have to explain myself to you." He raised his hand and shoved Bran back. Bran stumbled a couple of steps.

I caught him. "Don't do this. You'll get hurt."

Bran pushed free of me and lunged at Curran. Curran snarled, grabbed Bran by his arm, and threw him across the yard.

Morrigan's Hound leaped upright. An inhuman, terrifying bellow erupted from his throat and slammed my ears with an air fist.

Bran's flesh boiled. Muscles swelled to obscene proportions, veins bulged like ropes, tendons knotted in apple-sized clumps. He grew, stretching upward, his elbows and knees sinking into engorged muscle. With boneless flexibility, his body twisted back, distended, flowed, melted, and finally snapped into an asymmetric aberration. Bumps slid across his torso like small cars colliding under his skin. His left eye bulged; his right sank; his face stretched back, baring his teeth and a huge, cavernous mouth. Drool sagged from his uneven lips. The one visible eye swiveled in its socket.

Warp spasm. Of course. The fourth gift he was born with. He was a warp-warrior, just like Cu Chulainn. I should've seen it.

"Let's play, little man!" Bran charged Curran.

The Beast Lord twisted out of the way and hammered a punch into Bran's misshapen gut. Bran grabbed his wrist and tossed him at the wall like a kitten.

Curran flipped in midair and bounced off the wall. A man had started the leap, but what hit Bran was a hashish-induced nightmare of lion and human.

The beast smashed Bran off his feet. Curran snarled, his gold eyes luminescent with rage. His huge, prehistoric maw gaped open and three-inch fangs nearly sheared Bran's nose from his face. The Beast Lord was pissed.

Bran kicked Curran off with two enormous legs, and leaped upright. "Come on, princess! Show me what you've got."

Curran lunged. Bran swung a meaty hand, missed, and took razored claws to his ribs, slicing him like a pear. The wounds bled and closed.

People scattered. Bran swiped the loup cage that once held the reeve and smashed at Curran with it. The Pack King caught the cage. The wound on his arm bled, the bandage long gone. Mammoth muscles bulged across Curran's back and he ripped the cage from Bran's hands and tossed it aside. "Still second best," he growled, his eyes drowning in gold.

They hammered each other, swiping, kicking, caught in a savage contest. Bran managed to land a kick, batting Curran across the yard. The Beast Lord's rebound took Bran off his feet and slammed him into a wooden shed sitting against the wall. The wall gave, and Bran fell through in an explosion of splinters. Curran dived after him. A moment later another section of the wall exploded, pelting the ground with fragments and Bran's warped body stumbled back into the open. He bled from a half dozen places but didn't seem to notice.

"Is that all you got?" When no answer came, he stuck his head into the hole. "Where are you..."

The blow sent him hurtling across the yard. As he slid past, I had to jump aside to keep from being crushed. He hit the loup cage with his head and bounced off.

Curran appeared in the gap. Half-lion, half-man, gray mane flaring around his head, his eyes on fire, huge teeth dripping spit, he looked demonic. His roar shook the air.

Bran surged to his feet and charged. Curran caught his lunge, slid back, and ground to a halt. They strained, clenching each other's arms, muscles bulging, teeth bared.

I turned away. I could kill one of them with relative ease, given that they were otherwise occupied, but there wasn't a force on this Earth that would make them stop. I could scream myself hoarse, but until they tired enough to see reason, neither of them would notice my existence. They'd beat on each other until they got tired. They both seemed to be dealing with damage just fine.

If Jim and Andrea were alive, they would be in a medward.

WHEN NOT SURE WHERE TO GO, BARREL FORWARD on pure determination. It was a good motto and it led me to the door of the medward after ten minutes of squeezing my memory dry and wandering through the Keep's maze of hallways and stairs. It took me only a minute to find the right room.

The room lay steeped in gloom, all lamps out except for a small feylantern glowing blue, more of a night-light than anything else. Its soft glow traced the contours of a familiar odd body, stuck on the crossroads between human and hyena.

I stood in the doorway, unable to enter.

"I can smell you, you know," Andrea said. "I have your sword."

Andrea raised Slayer, hilt first, still in its sheath. I came to sit next to her on the edge of the bed and took the sword.

"Not even a thank-you?"

"Thank you," I said. "How are you?"

"I lost Julie. I had her in my hands and lost her."

"I saw. You did all you could."

"You saw? How?"

"The witches showed me and Bran a vision of the fight."

Andrea sighed. "If I had my guns...they wouldn't have worked. Jesus, what a clusterfuck we made of it."

"Are you going to make it?"

She sighed. "You're worried about me. Why? I'm beastkin. I heal fast. The flare is going full force, and the doctor has worked his magic. I'll be up by tomorrow."

"And Jim?"

"Which one is Jim?"

"The jaguar."

"Heavy muscle damage," Andrea said. "Ligaments all torn to shreds. He's in the next room."

I felt like scum. If I stayed any longer, I would scream.

Andrea looked at me from the sheets. "It was a good plan. Curran creates a distraction, occupies them while they key on him, and we grab the girl. Except those bitches wouldn't die and we failed."

"You tried." That was more than I did.

"Kate, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking that if you had watched Julie, she wouldn't have left with Red and we wouldn't be in this mess."

What? "No. Not at all."

"I just want you to know: when I took her off that cross, she was calling his name. Neither you nor I can do anything to break what's between them."

"Andrea, I don't blame you. I don't blame anyone." Except myself. "You went out there and tried against impossible odds and almost won, while I played footsie with Bran in the mist."

I rose. "I'm going to see Jim and then I'll see about sending a runner to the Order, since the phones are dead."

She raised her head from the pillow, her eyes wide. "Why?"

After Bran had run out of curses, he'd condescended to explain a few things to me. "From what Bran says, the gray bubble Morfran made is some sort of ancient druidic ward. Morfran is buying time and working the cauldron, packing the sea-demons into that bubble. When it bursts, they will spill out onto the Honeycomb and then onto Warren. We'll need the knights and MSDU."

Her face fell. "There will be no help, Kate. Everyone's gone. Even Maxine."

"Where the hell did they go?"

"There's an emergency," she said softly. "All the knights and the Military Supernatural Defense Units are being pulled to counter it."

"Andrea, in less than twelve hours, Atlanta will be full of demons. They will kill, feed, and release more demons. What emergency is more important than this one?"

She hesitated. "I'm not supposed to disclose this. There's a man. His name is Roland..."

I almost punched the wall. "What is he doing that's so damn crucial? What, is he building another tower? It will fall like all his other ones. Or did his eye finally grow back and he decided to have a battle to celebrate?"

Andrea gently closed her muzzle. "Kate? How do you know that?"


"Even I don't rank high enough to know about the eye and the towers. I was only told because I would be staying behind alone. You're not even a knight. How do you know this?"

How do I fix this? I have to kill her. Wait, I can't kill her. She's my friend.

"Are you planning on walking into Ted's office after the flare and telling him that you're beastkin?"

She winced. "No. He'd throw me out. The Order is all I know."

I nodded. "You have your secrets and I have mine. I didn't say anything about Roland and you didn't hear anything." I offered her my hand. "Deal?"

She hesitated only for a moment. Her fingers grasped mine and I was relieved by their strength. "And I'm not a beastkin. Deal."

I found Jim in the next room. He sat in the bed, propped up by a pillow, and sharpened a short thick knife with a whetstone.

"You fucking owe me." He showed me his teeth in an ugly snarl. "You had a beastkin buddy. Didn't tell me. Made me look like I don't know my business. Made me look like a fool."

I came in and sat on the edge of his blanket.

"Get the fuck off my bed."

I sighed. "How are the legs?"

"Doc says I'll be walking by tomorrow." He pointed the knife at me. "Don't change the fucking subject."

The same injury would take at least two weeks to heal during normal magic.

"You remember that time you put a rat scout into an apartment above me to spy on me and Crest?" The scout who had heard everything that went on between me and Crest.

"What about him?"

"We're even."

He shook his head and went back to sharpening his knife.

"You still here?" he asked a few seconds later.

"Leaving as we speak." I got up. "Jim...Why did you go?"

He gave me his hard stare. "He promised the child she would be safe. The alpha stands by his word and the Pack stands by the alpha. That's how it works."

He went back to his knife, signaling the end of the conversation.

I NEEDED TO FIND A SINK AND SPLASH SOME WATER on my face. A small room to the left looked promising. I entered. No bathroom. No furniture, either. Just a straight shot to a square balcony connected to something with an outside stairwell leading to the left.

The door barely had a chance to close behind me before it flew open with a bang. Curran appeared in the doorway. He was human again, but only in shape. Sweat drenched his face. His hands gripped the door frame as if they still had claws. His yellow eyes glowed with feral need. He snarled, his face wrinkling, and rushed past me to the balcony. He burst outside, leaned on the stone rail with both hands, and stared down below.

Alrighty then.

I followed and rested on the rail next to him. A staircase led up to a parapet connecting the main Keep with a half-built tower to the left. When they finally finished this place, they would have to rename it. "Keep" simply didn't do it. It begged for a more appropriate name like Doom Bastion of Shapeshifter Superiority. Probably with a big sign underscoring the sentiment, in case some dummy failed to get it. Pack to the Outside World: We don't like you. Stay out!

And Curran would brood and stalk along the walls.

"Who won?" I knew he would answer that one.

"I did."


"Threw him into the smaller water tower. He doesn't like water. He shrunk."

Below us the trees shivered in the morning breeze.

"Do you want it to be your turn now? Do you want to tell me what an idiot I am?" The violence in his voice sent shivers down my spine.

"Hold on, let me make sure there are no water towers around..."

He dragged his fingers across the stone rail. If he'd still had his claws, they would've left white scratches.

"You put that damn thing in my hand and I gave it away. I've got no necklace, no kid, two of my people dead, three are in the medward. There is a ward spell over the Honeycomb Gap and scouts tell me it's full of monsters. Impressive performance all around. Go on. Take a shot."

"I would've traded the necklace for Julie in a heartbeat."

He glanced at me. The next moment I was pinned against the wall, his teeth an inch from my carotid. He sucked in my scent, his eyes still flooded with molten gold. His voice was a contained storm. "Knowing all I know now, I would do it again."

"So would I. Let go of me."

He released me and stepped back.

"If you can't save a child, what's the point of it all?" I told him. "Julie's worth saving, and I don't want to buy my safety with her blood. I'd die first."

I leaned against the wall. "I should've put it all together sooner. Better yet, I should've left her with you. That little shit Red couldn't have taken her out of the Keep. I'm sick of being a day late and a dollar short."

Our stares connected and we were quiet for a long minute, united by our misery. At least he understood me and I understood him.

"A fine pair we make," he said.


In the yard I saw a small figure stumble from the ruins of the water tower. I nodded at him. "He screwed up, too. Bran teleported all over the place like a nitwit looking for the cauldron. It was right there under the pile of crates. The first place he should've looked. We all got outsmarted by a guy with tentacles and his brood of undead mermaids."

Curran shrugged his massive shoulders. "It's never fucking simple. Just once I want it to be easy and neat. But no, there is never a good decision. I pick what I can live with."

We both knew he blamed himself for every last scratch his people got.

The sun broke above the treetops, flooding the world with sunshine, but the staircase shielded us and we remained in the cool blue shadow. Curran pushed away from the stone. "I take it, that gray bubble in the Gap will burst soon?"

"Fifteen hours from the moment it appeared. If Bran can be trusted."

"So around seven tonight. The thief..."


"I don't give a damn what his name is. He can close the cauldron, you said. What will that do?"

"How much do you know about what's going on?"

"Everything you told Andrea."

I nodded. "The cauldron belongs to Morrigan. Morfran, the ugly one, stole it from her, so he could be reborn through it. The creature with tentacles, the reeves, and the giant all serve Morfran. They are the advance party of Fomorians, the sea-demons, who are now climbing out of the cauldron. Closing the cauldron will stop more demons from being reborn. Those who are on the field will become mortal. Morrigan will gain the ownership of the cauldron again, which will be the end of Morfran and his happy Fomorian tent revival."

Curran thought about it. "The Honeycombers are moving their trailers to prevent the demons from climbing up the walls into the Honeycomb. The demons have only one way to go: southwest, along the bottom of the Gap. The Pack will block the Gap. We'll take on the brunt of the assault. Jim says there is a tunnel leading into the Gap from the Warren."

"I know of it."

"That idiot and a small party of my people can go through the tunnel into the Gap, while the demons are concentrating on us. It will put them into the Fomorian rear. With luck, the demons won't even notice him. Can he keep from throwing his hissy fit until he gets to the cauldron?"

"I don't know. You're not impressed by his warp spasm, huh?"

He grimaced. "It's abhorrent. Total loss of control. No beauty to it, no symmetry. His eye was hanging out on his cheek like some piece of snot. No, I'm not impressed."

"I can try to keep a lid on him until we get to the cauldron." I made a pun, but he wasn't in the mood to notice.


"What do you mean no?"

"No, you're not going with him."

I crossed my arms. "Who decided that?"

He put on his "I'm alpha and I'm putting my foot down" expression. "I decided."

"You don't get to decide. I'm not under your authority."

"Yes, you are. Without you the fight will happen, but without me and the Pack, it won't. I command the superior force, therefore I'm in charge. You and your army of one can put yourself under my authority or you can take a walk."

"You don't think I can do it, is that it?"

"No, I want you where I can see you."


His lip quivered with the beginning of a snarl. His face relaxed, as he brought himself under control. "Because that's how I want it," he said, using a slow, patient voice reserved for rowdy children and disagreeable mental patients. It drove me to the edge of reason. I really wanted to punch him.

"Just out of curiosity, how do you expect to prevent me from coming with Bran?"

"I'll hog-tie you, gag you, and have three shapeshifters sit on you for the duration of the fight."

I was about to tell him that he wouldn't, but his eyes assured me that he would. I wouldn't get my way. Not this time. Good moment for a new strategy.

"Very well. I'll be good, but on one condition. I want fifteen seconds before the fight. Just me between the Fomorian ranks and your people."


Because I had a crazy idea. I wanted to do something that would make my dad and Greg turn in their graves. I had nothing to lose. We might all die anyway.

I didn't answer. I just looked at him. Either he would trust me or not.

"You have them," Curran said.

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