Magic Rises Chapter 18

The castle hummed with activity. Servants strung garlands of feylantern lights in the hallways. People moved back and forth. The air smelled of roasting meat and spices.

I walked through it, strangely disconnected, the quiet sounds of my footsteps lost in the celebratory chaos.

Derek raised his head, listening. "It's the hunt dinner. They finally got all the game sorted and cooked. We are supposed to celebrate the winners at midnight."

Great. Everyone stuffed back into the single dining hall. That would go well.

I made it up the stairs. My heart beat a little faster. I picked up speed. He wouldn't leave without me. Not even with the panacea on the line.

I walked into our room.

Empty. A stack of my books had disappeared. Curran's clothes, thrown on the chair, had vanished. The bed was made.

No way.

The sound of running water came from the bathroom and Curran emerged, wiping his hands with a towel. He wore trademark Pack sweats. Gray and thin, they fell apart when a shapeshifter shifted form.

Behind me Derek stepped into the hallway and shut the door.

"You're here," I said.

"Where else would I be?"

"Hugh owns the panacea." He's also a complete fucking bastard.

"He sent a note." Curran crossed the floor and hugged me to him. My bones groaned.

I put my face into the bend of his neck. The world suddenly calmed. The fractured pieces snapped into place.

"Did you think I'd leave?" Curran whispered into my ear.

"No." I hugged him back. "What happened to all our stuff?"

"Anything nonessential is packed and loaded. I kept your belt with all your stuff out. Got any messages for me?"

"If we go to that dinner, we'll have a fight. Also, he hopes you will be a challenge."

Curran smiled. It wasn't a nice smile.

We looked at each other. We both knew Hugh would make his move tonight, and after that, everything would be over. We could try to fight our way to the ship now, except we had promised to guard Desandra. Abandoning her wasn't an option. We had given our word.

"Are you hungry, baby?" Curran asked.


"I think we should go to dinner."

"Great idea."

"What are you going to wear?"

"My badass face."

"Good choice," he said.

"Let me just get my knives and powdered silver."

* * *

We walked into the great hall to find a new seating arrangement indicated by small name cards: The Italians were sitting at the head table on the right side of Hugh, all the way around the right side of the horseshoe table. The rest of us were seated on the left of Hugh: I was first, then Curran, then Desandra, then the rest of our party. Without saying a word, Curran and I switched seats. If Hugh wanted me to sit next to him, I would sit as far away as possible.

I surveyed the hall. Everyone on our side of the table was dressed to impress: loose sweatpants and T-shirts. Andrea saw me looking and grinned. Raphael winked at me. Mahon was right. I was Pack. At least everyone in gray sweatpants thought so. If I had to fight, I wouldn't fight alone.

The walls of the great hall had gained new decorations: swords and axes hung in hooks within reach. The door to the side exit on the left was shut. That left us with the right exit and the front entrance.

Jarek Kral stared at the hall from a side table to the right, a sour grimace distorting his features into an ugly mask. On the other side, to the left, Vitaliy and Ivanna sat, stone-faced. I scanned the rest of the faces and my gaze slammed right into Lorelei. She stared at me with obvious hatred. I winked at her. She glared back, outraged.

Someone moved into position behind me. I turned. Barabas grinned at me.

"Where is Christopher?" I asked.

He pointed at the side table. Christopher sat next to Keira, his eyes clear as a summer sky without a single thought clouding the blue. He saw me and rose. His lips moved. Mistress.

The belt around Christopher's waist looked familiar, especially the pouches hanging from it. I was pretty sure they were filled with my herbs. "Is he wearing my spare belt?"

"Yes," Barabas said. "He somehow got his hands on it when we loaded supplies onto the ship. I tried taking it off him, but it really upset him and I didn't want to injure him."

"That's fine. Let him have it."

I smiled at Christopher.

He sighed happily and sat down.

Desandra strode into the hall, escorted by Aunt B and George. Doolittle followed her in an ancient wheelchair.

Desandra landed in the chair on my left. "You survived."

"I did."

"Nobody told me." She sighed. "Nobody ever tells me anything."

I shrugged, feeling Slayer's comforting weight on my back. The tension in the air was so thick, it made me itch.

The fey torches in the great hall flickered. The conversation died.

Through the wide-open doors of the front entrance, I could see the main hallway. Along the wall feylanterns blinked in their sconces. The steady glow flickered. A moment and I felt it too, a swell of magic approaching fast. Someone was coming. Next to me, Curran tensed.

A foul magic washed over me as if someone had thrust my mind into a rotting liquefied carcass. Vampires. A lot of them.

People turned to look at the hallway. Some rose and leaned over their tables to get a better view.

Horns blared in a chorus, an ancient alarming sound taut with a warning. The banners on the walls stirred.

People marched down the hallway, coming toward us. They wore black and gray and they moved in unison, two by two. I focused on the leading pair. Hibla walked on the left. Her hair was pulled back from her face and she stared straight at me with a cold predatory glare. Gone was the woman who'd asked me for help and pleaded silently from behind the cage bars. This was a killer, disciplined, icy, and lethal. A familiar insignia marked her chest: a small five-rayed star with a half circle above it and a tall triangle on the right: the ancient hieroglyph of Sirius, the Dog Star. Voron's voice came from my childhood memories: If you ever see this, run.

"We've been had," I said. "These are the Iron Dogs."

"What are they?" Aunt B asked.

"Roland's elite unit," Curran said.

"How bad?" Mahon asked.

"Bad," Curran said.

Bad was an understatement. Each Dog was a highly trained ruthless killer. They used weapons, they used magic, and a lot of them weren't human and hid more surprises than a Swiss Army knife. A single Iron Dog could slaughter a dozen normal soldiers. They served as my father's commando force. Hugh d'Ambray was the preceptor of their order.

I stared at Hibla's face. I'd felt bad for her. I'd tried to help her. I'd bought her clueless local bumpkin act hook, line, and sinker. How could I have been so stupid? No matter. Next time I'd know better.

The first pair of Iron Dogs stepped into the great hall and split, standing on each side of the door, locked into an at-ease pose.

Two men and two women followed, wearing impeccable business suits. As the first woman stepped through the door, her high heels clicking quietly on the stone, an emaciated arm hooked the top edge of the doorway. A vampire crawled into the great hall over the top edge of the doorway, muscles flexing like steel cables rubbing against each other under its pallid hide. Another undead followed. They scuttled up the wall like some grotesque predatory geckos, driven by the navigators' will.

Hugh had brought his Masters of the Dead. This was just getting better and better.

The Masters of the Dead took positions behind the twin lines of the Iron Dogs. The hallway stood empty for a long breath.

You could hear a pin drop. The shapeshifters froze, silent and wary.

Hugh turned the corner. He wore leather armor. Supple, but reinforced with metal plates, it molded to him as if it had been melted, poured over his body, and allowed to harden. Loose but thick leather pants shielded his legs. Wrist guards of hardened leather and metal plates protected his wrists. A strip of leather, likely hiding a thin flexible length of metal, guarded his neck. He had come to fight shapeshifters. Raking him with claws would do no good.

He marched down the hallway, wearing black and cloaked in magic. He looked unstoppable. He would soon learn that looks could be deceiving.

"Hail to Hugh d'Ambray," the Iron Dogs intoned in unison, their voice one loud chorus.

Hugh strode through the door and walked to our table, straight to Desandra's chair on my left.

"You're in the wrong seat." He held out his hand.

Desandra blinked, stood up, and put her hand into his. Hugh led her to his chair on Curran's right and held it out for her. She sat. He turned and sat in her place, next to me.


"You didn't bring enough," Curran said quietly.

"It will suffice," Hugh said. His voice boomed. "In honor of the hunt, I bring you entertainment."

The Iron Dogs took three steps backward, turning, moving in unison until they formed a line along the wall to our right, behind Jarek's werewolves. People entered the minstrel's gallery, carrying small round drums, accordions, and other instruments. A line of men walked into the great hall, dressed in identical jet-black djigit coats. The musicians plucked at their instruments, adjusting and settling down.

A wild melody started, fast and limber, the rhythm of the drums like a racing heart. The men spun across the floor, dancing like a flock of graceful ravens, pivoting and leaping. The lead dancer dropped down and spun across the stage on his knees. I winced.

Hugh pretended to be absorbed in the dance. What are you planning, you bastard?

Something tugged on my jeans. I glanced down carefully. Atsany stood by my chair.

You've got to be kidding me.

The small man patted my leg with his pipe, winked, and pointed to the side. I glanced up. Astamur stood by the door, leaning against the wall. He wore a long wide coat of black fleece that covered him from head to toe. A rifle rested in his hands. He looked straight at me and his eyes were grim. The nearest Iron Dog was feet away and oblivious to the man behind him. Nobody paid him any attention, as if they couldn't see him.

I glanced down. Atsany was gone. I leaned to Curran. "Do you see him?"


"Astamur. By the door."

Curran frowned. I looked back. Astamur was gone.

Okay, I did just see that. That wasn't a hallucination.

The dancers snapped into their final poses. The music died. Hugh clapped. Reluctant applause followed from the side tables.

"Is there going to be a play next?" Curran asked. "I never took you for the dinner theater type."

"I promise it will be a show you never forget," Hugh said.

A man and a woman walked in. The man, lean and graceful, wore the black djigit outfit, his profile hawkish, his dark hair slicked back. The woman wore a silver-white gown that covered her head to toe. Fitted in the bust and the waist, the gown flared at the skirt. She looked like a swan. Her black hair fell in four braids, two over her chest, two down her back, all the way past her narrow waist. A small hat perched on her glossy hair, with a white veil trailing from it to hide her back.

The woman turned, standing side by side with the man. Her face was beautiful. I felt a brush of magic. It felt ancient.

"Thousands of years ago Suliko's family entertained the ancient kings of Georgia," Hugh said. "Today she honors us with her presence. She will dance the kartuli for us. Count yourself fortunate. You will not see another dance like that."

A song started with a solo of some sort of reed pipe, so old it rolled through me, familiar and new at the same time, like an echo of some racial memory buried deep inside me, in the places mind and reason couldn't reach. The man held his hand out. The woman placed her fingers on his. He led her forward. They bowed.

Magic shifted. The shapeshifters sat, oblivious. This wouldn't be a normal dance.

"What are you up to?" I squeezed through my teeth.

"You've been sleepwalking for so long, you forgot who you are," he said "This is your wakeup call."

"What's going on?" Curran asked.

"Magic," I told him.

"Yours isn't the only ancient family," Hugh said.

Drums joined the reed pipes in a quick rhythm. Suliko and her partner backed up-he moving on his toes in tall leather boots, she gliding as if she had wheels-and split, moving to the far ends of the room. The woman stood, her arms raised, so graceful it was almost painful to watch. The man approached her, drawing a big circle with his feet, one arm bent at the elbow and pressed to the top of his chest, the other extended straight to the side. He stopped, dignified, waiting for the woman to accept the invitation. She did and they glided across the floor, their arms raised, in sync but never touching, a black raven and a white swan.

Magic wound about them in invisible currents. It tugged on me. It was impossible not to watch them.

The dancers split again.

The music quieted, the wild quick notes of the pipes slowing, careful rather than fast. The woman moved with breathtaking grace, gliding backward, turning . . . So beautiful. I couldn't look away. The magic held me spellbound.

Desandra began crying quietly. At the side tables, closest to the dancers, the people wept.

The music was now a mere breath of sound, delicate and intricate, pulling me in. Suliko turned . . .

Hugh picked up a knife and cut across my hand. Magic tore from my blood straight into the complex twisting currents surrounding the woman, like a lit match thrown into a room filled with gasoline fumes. The magic exploded.

Curran moved. I grabbed his arm before he could lunge at Hugh in full view of a dozen vampires and the Iron Dogs. "No!"

The currents spun, sparking with gold and purple, and a transparent scene unfolded, stretching the entire length of the room, hanging feet above the floor. A bloody battle raged on a vast field. Fire and lightning streaked. A machine gun spat glowing green bullets. Fighters tore at each other, shapeshifters disemboweled their opponents, vampires ripped into bodies in tactical armor. Carnage reigned, the roar, bellows, and moans of the dying blending into a terrible din.

A body fell aside, cleaved in two, and my aunt swung onto the scene. She wore the crimson blood armor and carried two swords. Blood stained her face, her hair flaring, loose. Fighters locked their ranks. She opened her mouth and screamed. The word of power burst from her. The magic cleaved through the fighters, mangling the bodies, straight as an arrow. My aunt tore into the gap, cutting like a dervish in a familiar lightning-fast pattern, severing limbs and spraying blood, unstoppable, without mercy.

"That's my girl." Hugh grinned.

She carved a shaggy ursine shapeshifter in half, disemboweling him with a precise stroke, and I saw her sword.

She carried Slayer.

The hair on the back of my neck rose. It wasn't my aunt. My aunt was dead.

I watched myself slaughter, reaping a harvest of lives, spitting magic and bringing death. On the left a clump of bodies exploded, and Hugh roared, covered in blood, a bloody axe in his hand. They connected, the blood armor-wearing Kate and Hugh, back to back. For a brief moment they stood alone in the carnage, and then they broke apart and charged back into battle.

The vision vanished. Suliko stood, her face shocked.

"What the hell is this?" Jarek Kral snarled.

"The future," Hugh said.

Hell no. No, this wouldn't be my future. Not if I had anything to say about it.

"No!" Suliko waved her arms. "A future!" Her accented voice vibrated with urgency. "Do not always to be this way. One possibility!"

She yelled something at Hugh in a language I didn't understand. The man moved between her and Hugh, shielding her.

"You lied!" Suliko screamed.

Her partner ushered her out. The musicians fled.

"No matter how much you fight, you are what you are," Hugh said to me. "Your boy knows it too, don't you, Lennart?"

"Enough." Curran growled. "Enough bullshit, d'Ambray. Let's go. You and me."

Lorelei got up and walked over to our table.

"Big talk," Hugh said. "Can you back it up?"

I stood up and held my arms out. "Ladies, you're both pretty. We still have a job to do. Last I checked, we were still guaranteeing Desandra's safety."

The two men glared at each other. They obviously didn't give a rat's ass about Desandra.

"I challenge you." Lorelei pointed at me.

I put my hand over my eyes.

"Sit the fuck down," Hugh told her.

"She'll kill you," Curran said. "Go sit down."

Lorelei opened her mouth.

"Sit down!" Curran roared.

Lorelei's face turned red. She shrank away. She must've rehearsed this, and being ordered back to her seat wasn't part of the fantasy.

A second Lorelei walked through the entrance.

Hugh swore. The first Lorelei gasped.

The second Lorelei winked at Curran and walked toward us. Her body flowed like molten wax, reshaping itself, and twisted into a new body, male, lean, and bald. Saiman held up a document and placed it in front of Curran.

"As requested. What did I miss?"

Curran took the document and scanned it. "George?"

George stepped toward him and examined the document. "Yes. Signed and notarized. It's legally binding."

"Show it to him."

George walked over and placed the paper in front of Jarek Kral. His eyes bulged. "What is this?"

"This is a contract between you and Lorelei Wilson, in which you promise her you will kill the Consort so Lorelei can take her place," Curran said. "In exchange she's supposed to provide you with one of our future children."

Everyone spoke at once.

"You bastard!" Desandra jumped to her feet. A mix of foreign words and English spilled out of her. "You sonovabitch. You would take his child over mine?"

"He's a First," Jarek roared. "It will be a child fit to rule. Not dirt like you."

Desandra's dress tore. Shreds of fabric fluttered to the ground and a huge werewolf in a warrior form dashed over the table toward Jarek. Damn it.

"No!" Doolittle yelled. "Not the half-form!"

Desandra leaped forward, landing in a crouch on the table. Jarek stood up, his face disgusted. His body expanded, fur sheathing his limbs. "You wouldn't dare-"

She swiped, huge claws like scythes. A chunk of Jarek's throat went airborne. I caught a glimpse of his spine, bloody and torn. Blood gushed. The enormous werewolf that was Jarek Kral leaped over the table at his daughter.

George's voice rang out. "Challenge accepted!"

Renok and the bald-headed guy jumped to their feet. I leaped onto the table and pulled Slayer out. Oh no, you don't.

"Interfere and die," Curran said.

Jarek's people halted.

The two werewolves rolled across the floor, snarling and biting. Jarek bit Desandra's left arm. She hammered a vicious punch into his face and rolled on top of him. Jarek tried to rear. Desandra raised her hand and smashed it into his chest. Ribs snapped like toothpicks. Desandra thrust her hand into her father's chest, tore out his heart, and threw it on the floor.

Everyone stopped.

"Rot in hell, you bastard." Desandra straightened, her monstrous clawed hands bloody. "Anybody else want to take my children? Anybody? Come on!"

She spun, pointing her hand at the Belve Ravennati, Volkodavi, and Jarek's people. "I'm waiting!"

Nobody moved.

Desandra's monstrous face jerked. She fell back, changing in midair, and landed on her back. Bulges slid across her stomach. "The babies!"

"She's going into labor," Doolittle said in a clipped voice. "I need access."

Renok jerked a sword off the wall and jumped, aiming for Desandra. As I cleared the table, I knew I was too far.

Andrea's bolt sprouted from Renok's neck. He ignored it, swinging at Desandra.

I sprinted, trying to squeeze speed out of every fraction of a second.

The sword rose in a gleaming metal arc and came down like an executioner's axe. George thrust herself between Renok and Desandra. I saw it in slow motion, as if time froze: the glint of the metal blade as it traveled down, the angle of the strike, and the precise moment the razor edge cut into George's right shoulder. Crimson blood washed the blade. It cleaved through the shoulder joint, passing through muscle and bone with ridiculous ease.

George's arm slid off her body and fell down.

I stabbed Slayer into Renok's chest and cut a hole in his heart.

George grabbed Renok's neck with her left hand, squeezed, and pushed him back. He flew and crashed into the table. George slid on her own blood and fell next to me.

Mahon roared. His face twisted, his eyes mad, and the massive Kodiak charged the fallen werewolf, almost mowing me down.

Curran landed next to me, picked up Desandra, and jumped over the table, putting distance between us and the raging Kodiak. Derek swiped George and her arm off the floor and followed him. We ran to the back of the great hall.

Mahon crushed Renok and ripped into another werewolf. Jarek's people went furry in a flash of teeth and claws.

"Damn it all to hell," Hugh growled. "Do not engage."

The Iron Dogs backed away.

"Form a perimeter!" I barked, and pulled my sword out. Andrea stood next to me on the right, Raphael next to her, Eduardo and Keira on my left. We became a semicircle, shielding Desandra. She screamed.

Aunt B ripped a banner down and dropped it on the floor. Curran lowered Desandra onto it, turned, and jumped, changing in midleap. A moment and he tore into the werewolves next to Mahon. The remaining two packs moved away, hugging the wall to avoid being caught in the carnage.

George moaned in Derek's arms.

"Hold on," he told her.

"I'm okay, I'm okay," George said.

"I need clean water," Doolittle called out. "Beatrice . . ."

"It's under control," Aunt B said. "Not my first time reattaching a limb."

"Can I be of assistance?" Saiman asked.

"Have you ever delivered a child?" Doolittle asked.

"Yes, I have."

"Good. We have to perform a C-section. One of her unborn is trying to kill the other."

"Fascinating," Saiman said.

A werewolf dashed our way. I sliced his legs, Raphael slit his throat, and Andrea shot him through the heart.

Isabella marched to us, her sons in tow. "I will see-"

"Don't," I warned.

She opened her mouth. Eduardo shifted, gaining a foot in height and another across the shoulders, and bellowed at her. Isabella took a step back.

Desandra howled, a sharp cry of pure pain.

At the other wall Curran and Mahon raged, tearing werewolves apart. The last of the shaggy bodies stopped moving. Curran and the giant bear were the only two left standing. Mahon swung and hit Curran, huge claws raking a bloody trail along his gray side. Curran roared. Mahon rose on his hind legs. Curran lunged forward, locking his arms on the bear, and took him to the floor.

"It's me," he said.

Mahon snarled.

"It's me," Curran repeated. "George is safe. It will be fine."

I held my breath. Sometimes werebears snapped and went berserk. That was how Curran had become the Beast Lord-he had killed a mad werebear. But Mahon was always calm. He was always in control-

Mahon reared, tossing Curran aside like he weighed nothing. Curran landed on his side and rolled to his feet. The bear bellowed and ran straight into the door, taking it off its hinges. A moment and he vanished down the hallway.

"Fucking animals," Hugh said, disgust on his face.

A deep voice rolled through the castle. "I've seen enough."

Everything stopped. Astamur stood in the doorway.

Hugh turned. "Who are you?"

Astamur opened his mouth. No sound came, but I heard him in my head, clear as if he stood right next to me.

"I am the shepherd."

The rifle in his hands flowed, as if liquid, turning into a tall staff. Astamur looked at Hugh. "For twenty years I watched you. You're bad for this land. You're bad for my people. Tell your master he wasn't welcome in the mountains when he was young. He is not welcome still."

"Cute," Hugh said. "Kill him."

The nearest Iron Dog moved toward the shepherd.

Astamur raised his staff. I felt a spark, a tiny hint of magic, like a glimpse of a titanic storm cloud in a flash of lightning. The butt of the staff hit the floor. A brilliant white light drowned us, as if a star had split open and swallowed us whole.

* * *

The floor shook. Thunder crashed, slapping my eardrums with an air fist. Next to me the shapeshifters clutched at their ears, screaming. The floor shuddered under my feet. I blinked, trying to clear my vision. Things swung into focus slowly: an empty space where Astamur used to be and a widening crack crawling upward through the wall. A gap sliced the floor to the right of me, fifteen feet wide and running all the way across the great hall and into the hallway. Bright blue flames shot out of the gap, cutting the great hall in two. We, the Volkodavi, and the vampires were on one side. Curran, Hugh, the Iron Dogs, and the Belve Ravennati were on the other.

Astamur had split the castle in two. Holy shit.

I turned to Curran. The flames burned between us.

Curran took a running start.

A vampire fell off the ceiling into the fire, bursting into flames. The fire seared undead flesh. He blazed bright like a sparkler and vanished into a cloud of ash.


Curran veered, avoiding the flames at the last second. Oh good. I exhaled.

Desandra shrieked, and then a child cried, a weak mewling sound. I glanced back. Saiman lifted a newborn boy, wet and bloody. A moment later Doolittle handed a second infant over to Aunt B. She turned. The thing in her arms wasn't a human baby. It wasn't a wolf, it wasn't a cat, it was a strange creature covered in soft scales, the beginnings of rudimentary wings thrusting from its back. The creature screeched and tried to bite Aunt B.

"Your firstborn is a wolf," Doolittle said.

The bewildered expression peeled off Radomil's face, leaving a hard ruthless intelligence in its place. "That does it," Radomil said. "Kill them all."

The Volkodavi snarled in unison. Their human skins ruptured. Flesh and bone boiled out, scales covered the new bodies, and a dozen lamassu took flight.

The flames exploded with bright orange. Heat bathed me. The castle rumbled again. Another peal of thunder rolled, dazing the shapeshifters. The crack split sideways, cutting half of the lamassu from us.

"The castle is breaking apart," Aunt B said. "We need to go."

"Not without Curran." I pulled the magic to me. Maybe a power word would work.

On the opposite side Hugh said something and staggered back, as if someone had thrust a sword through his gut. Ten to one that was a power word that backfired. I felt nothing. The flames remained unimpressed. Okay, scratch that idea.

"Kate?" Keira asked. "What do we do?"

We had to get the hell out of here, before the castle fell apart and plunged off the cliff. In the hallways, the lamassu couldn't swarm us. We'd have the advantage.

I spun to the flames.

"Go!" Curran yelled at me through the fire. "I'll find you."

There was nothing I could do to help him. I had to get our people out of there and then I'd go around and I would find him.

"I'm coming back!"

"I know!" He waved at me. "Go!"

I turned to the shapeshifters. "Grab Doolittle, George, and Desandra. We're getting the hell out of here."

"Don't lose her," Hugh bellowed at the Masters of the Dead. "Go around! Take her alive!"

"You won't touch her," Curran snarled, and charged Hugh.

* * *

I wanted to stand and watch. I wanted to know he would be okay. Instead I ran for the door. The sooner I found a way around, the sooner I could help him.

Barabas grabbed the wolf newborn, thrust him into Desandra's hands, and picked her up off the floor. Derek grabbed Doolittle out of his chair, Aunt B picked up George, and Christopher somehow ended up with the baby lamassu. They followed me.

A lamassu swooped down on us. Andrea fired. The bolt bit into the beast's eye. The lamassu spun, careened, and flew into the fire. Her body burst into white flame. The fire grew, widening the gap.

A door blocked our way. I drove my shoulder into the wood and bounced off.

"Eduardo!" I yelled.

The werebuffalo rammed the door. Splinters flew.

Another lamassu dove at us. Keira jumped, turning in midleap. A sable-black panther in a warrior form slapped the lamassu out of the air. He crashed. We swarmed it. I stabbed into the orange flesh. Keira bit into its throat, gouging huge chunks of flesh out.

The lamassu convulsed, beating one wing against the floor.

"Go!" I barked.

The shapeshifters fled past me into the hallway.


She tore herself away from the lamassu, reached the door in two great leaps, and ran. I followed her.

"Kill him," Hugh bellowed in the hall. Curran's roar answered. He was saving me again. I had to find him. I'd get our people out and then I would find him.

We were on the south side, facing a sheer cliff. Flames blocked the hallway to the right. Running left, east, and then north was our only option.

A lamassu crashed into the doorway, skidding into the wall, and chased us. No room to maneuver for him or us.

Keira tried to push past me. I held out my hand. Hugh or not, I had to get my people out of the castle.

I spat a power word. "Aarh." Stop.

Magic ripped from me. It hurt so much, the world blinked.

The lamassu froze, its limbs locked. Keira dashed past me. A huge spotted bouda leaped over my head and tore into the lamassu, savaging its neck with a flurry of strikes. "Run," Aunt B yelled. "We'll catch up."

I ran and turned the corner. Four different hallways branched from the main one. Damn it, Hugh. If I survived this, I would find him and I would beat his head with a brick for building this damn labyrinth. I spun and saw Barabas's white shirt as he disappeared behind a corner to the right. I ran after him.

Keira and Aunt B caught up with me, both bloody. We galloped down the hallway. Almost to the corner.

Barabas whipped about the corner, carrying Desandra, running full speed. I threw myself against the wall. They dashed past me.

"Vampires!" Andrea yelled as she passed me.

Undead magic lashed me, swelling like a tidal wave around the corner. Damn it all to hell.

I did a one-eighty and followed them. Next to me Christopher was smiling, running with a now-human baby in his hands. "This is so fun!"

This had to be some kind of twisted nightmare.

We made a sharp left, then another, and burst into another hallway, parallel to the first one. The revolting undead magic washed over me. The bloodsuckers were coming from behind us and from the right, trying to box us in. One, two . . . Fourteen. Fourteen undead minds.

We had Desandra, who was barely conscious; two infants; Doolittle, who couldn't walk; and George, who was out like a light. There was no way we would win that fight.

I stopped and turned.

"Mistress?" Christopher called.

"Kate?" Andrea crashed to a halt next to me. "What are you doing?"

"The vampires are chasing me, not you," I said. "Go. I'll lead them off."

"Don't even think about it," Andrea said. "I'll carry you if I have to."

"I'm your alpha."

"The hell you are."

I drew Slayer across my left forearm. Blood swelled, its magic sharp. "Take our people and Desandra out of this castle. Secure the panacea. That's an order."

She hesitated.

"I know what I'm doing. Go."

"I'm coming back for you."

"Good. Go!"

She ran. Who said I wasn't a good liar?

The undead were drawing closer. I turned and walked into the side hallway, moving slowly, shaking my left arm once in a while. Come on, sharks. There's blood in the water.

* * *

The short passage ended in a stairway. Might as well. The more time I bought the guys, the better.

I reached the next floor. A round room lay before me, the top floor of a low tower under a simple roof. Arched windows turned its wall into a latticework of stone and night sky. As good a place as any.

The air smelled of thick smoke. To the left and to the right, the castle burned. Flames shot out of the fissures fracturing the stone walls.

The vampires were almost at my heels.

I stopped in the center of the room and raised my sword. I could probably grab a few of the undead with my mind, but any trained Master of the Dead would be fighting for control, and Hugh's guys were unlikely to be weak amateurs.

The first vampire scuttled out of the opening and moved to the right of me. It moved on all fours, as if it had never walked upright. A thick pallid hide shielded its body, the network of lean muscle running over its back and limbs. I could count every rib. A spiky ridge thrust along its back. Its head stretched forward as if someone had taken the bones of its skull and pulled them to support the oversized jaws. A pre-Shift vampire.

The older the vampire, the more the Immortuus pathogen transformed the original human body. This one was really far gone. No traces of a person remained.

The bloodsucker stared at me with glowing red eyes, like two coals in an old fire. I'd encountered pre-Shift vampires before and always in connection with my father. They shouldn't have existed. Before the Shift we had no magic, but there it was, a lethal, undead abomination.

Another bloodsucker joined the first. They stared at me with starved eyes, filled with mindless, endless hunger. Given free rein, they would slaughter me and keep going until they ran out of things to kill. Only the steel cage of the Masters of the Dead would keep them in check.

The undead horde spilled into the room.

The first bloodsucker unhinged its jaws and a clear cold male voice issued forth. "Lay down your sword. Put your hands on the back of your head."

I simply looked at him. I could feel the undead mind, a hateful penlight in the nearly empty skull.

"Lay down your sword or we will be forced to subdue you."

Subdue me, huh. "Why don't you try?"

A vampire lunged for my legs. I cut across his neck. My blade barely grazed it. The bloodsucker withdrew. Undead blood dripped on the floor. It called to me, the magic in it shivering and twisting, alive on its own.

"There is no need for violence."

I laughed. The glowing sparks of the vamp's mind taunted me. I'd always wanted to crush one. Just squeeze it with my magic until it snapped like a flea caught between two fingernails. I'd never tried it. I always had to hide my power.

The undead shifted in place, moving into position. They would rush me in a minute.

"When a vampire dies while the navigator is controlling its mind, the navigator's brain thinks he died instead of the vampire. Two outcomes are possible," I said, gathering my magic. "One, the navigator goes catatonic. Two, he goes mad."

The vampires stared at me.

"Which one do you think you will be?"

"Apprehend her," the male said.

I reached with my magic, grabbed the nearest undead minds, and squeezed. The heads of the three vampires right in front of me exploded. Bloody mist splattered onto the stones and neighboring bloodsuckers. Undead blood spilled onto the stone floor. Two vampires in the back screamed in a high-pitched female voice, a mindless gibberish howl.

A vamp leaped at me. I sliced it with Slayer, grabbed more minds, and squeezed again. More heads exploded, the undead blood spray blossoming like crimson carnations. Its magic begged me to touch it.

Another bloodsucker leaped, while the third raked its claws down my back. I crushed their minds one by one, until only one remained, the one whose navigator had ordered me to surrender.

Hot crimson painted the stones of the tower around me. Its scent enveloped me. Its magic called to me, pulling me, pleading, waiting and eager, like a cat arching its back for a stroke. What did I have to lose anyway?

I reached out and answered the blood's call.

The undead crimson streamed to me, pouring out of the headless corpses, merging together into currents like capillaries flowed into veins. The thick, viscous liquid pooled around my legs. I pumped my left arm and let the blood from the cut drip into the puddle of red below.

The first drop landed and the reaction it set off sparked through me, like a rush of adrenaline. The blood twisted about me, suddenly malleable. It coated my feet, my legs, wound about my waist, and climbed higher, covering my body. It wasn't well-formed, not an armor yet but a flexible coat that felt like an extra layer of skin, that wrapped around me like crimson silk. It felt like I was dreaming.

The lone vampire knelt on one knee and bowed his head. "My lady," the navigator said.

I raised my hand. The blood silk ran down my forearm, hardening into a three-foot spike. I shoved it forward. The bloodsucker's eyes flared bright red-the Master of the Dead had fled its mind-and I rammed the spike into its skull, scrambling its pitiful excuse for a brain.

The spike crumbled into dust. The bloodsucker toppled over. I moved and the blood moved with me, pliant and light. So that was how one made blood armor.

A roar tore through the night. A giant lamassu swept through the sky toward me. The scales on its stomach glowed with orange, reflecting the flames below. Beautiful . . . So large, like a dragon come to life. It swooped closer and rammed the tower's roof. Stones rained down around me. A chunk hit my shoulder and bounced off the armor. The wind from the lamassu's wings buffeted my face.

It flipped around, diving for me.

Reality smashed into my magic-addled brain, shattering the dreamlike haze. Oh shit.

* * *

I ducked, but too late. The claws hooked my shoulders, piercing the thin layer of blood armor. My legs left the ground. I gritted my teeth and stabbed straight up with Slayer, right into the beast's gut, not enough for serious damage but enough to make him pay attention. Fire flashed below me, the sections of the castle like stone islands in the sea of flames. The lamassu careened, swinging above a tall square tower. The top of the main keep. Now was my chance.

I strained and stabbed straight up, again and again, mincing muscles with Slayer. Blood ran down the pale blade. Drop me. Drop me, you sonovabitch.

With a thunderous roar, the beast let go. I plunged through the air, bending my knees. The impact punched my feet. I landed on the balls of my feet, rolled forward, trying to spread the collision force, and scrambled up.

We were on the top of the keep, a square of stone. The lamassu landed at the end, its distinctive green eyes furious and familiar. Radomil.

The lamassu walked paw over paw, his cavernous mouth open wide.

I flexed my left wrist, popping a silver spike out of the wrist guard into my palm. I used to have needles, but I could afford more silver now.

Radomil bent his head low, his muscles tensing.

"Bring it." I pulled magic to me. I'd timed it last time. I'd have a second and a half.

He charged.

I sprinted. "Aarh!" Stop.

The pain of a power word exploded in the back of my skull. Blackness mugged me. My momentum carried me through it. I tore through the haze.

Time slowed to a crawl.

Radomil stood frozen in midstep. I punched the spike into his throat, stabbed Slayer into his gut, and dragged the blade, wrenching it with all my strength, ripping a gap in his stomach from foreleg to hindquarters.

Radomil's legs trembled. I yanked a bag of powdered silver granules from my belt, ripped it, and emptied it into the wound.

Radomil whipped about. Claws scoured my back. It felt like someone had dripped molten metal down my spine.

I ran.

Right now silver was burning his insides. The longer it melted his innards, the less work I'd have to do. The sound of huge feet thumping behind me chased me, blocking out the roar of the fire. I lunged to the side. He hurtled past me and whirled, snarling. Gray blood wet the cut. Singed with silver, the laceration refused to close, and his body sped up the bleeding, trying to purge the poisonous metal from his system.

Radomil swayed and charged me. A big feline paw raked at me. I sliced with my sword. He swiped at me again, like a housecat trying to shred a toy, except Radomil was forty times the size of a housecat. I cut across his paw.

Radomil rammed me. I clutched onto his scales and stabbed into his chest with my sword. He leaped up, the wings beating, roaring in pain. I hung from his neck fifty feet above the fire raging below. To let go was to die. Radomil bent in midair. The claws of his hind feet ripped into my armor, down my side, and deep into my right leg. My whole body hurt so much, I no longer cared.

Radomil careened back toward the keep, screaming. The gap in his stomach hung open. Now or never. I stabbed my sword straight into the wound. Radomil plunged down. My hand slipped off the scales. For one desperate half-second I held on, and then I fell. There was no time to right myself. The orange body thudded onto the stone with a wet thud. I fell next to it.

* * *

The world swam. The air vanished, sucked out of the Universe. I gulped like a fish on dry land, trying to inhale and failing. Don't pass out. Just don't pass out.

My lungs opened. I inhaled smoke-ruined air, coughed, and rolled upright. My left arm hung limp. It hurt so much, I couldn't tell if it was broken. Hot wetness ran down my back. I was bleeding.

The orange body shivered and melted back into human form. Radomil's beautiful face looked at the sky.

Everything hurt. It hurt so much, I could no longer tell what hurt the worst. But I was still breathing. Without the armor, I would've been dead. His claws would've finished me.

I staggered to my feet and dragged myself to the door leading down. A wall of fire greeted me. The heat pushed me back. Out of the question. The flames would cook me two steps in.

I limped to the eastern side of the keep and looked down. The wall was sheer, the stones fitted together so closely they might as well have been a single smooth block of concrete. No way. With a rope, maybe, and even that was risky. Bleeding, ropeless, and with one bum arm, no.

Flames filled the courtyard. The roofs of the side towers had crashed down and the blackened beams popped like logs in the fireplace. Cracks filled with orange-and-blue flames fractured the huge building. The castle was breaking apart. It looked like hell on Earth.

The doors of a side tower burst. Furry shapes ran out-shapeshifters in half-form making a break for the gates. I saw Christopher's blue shirt. The familiar gray werelion was missing. Curran wasn't with them. He hadn't made it out. Where are you?

I inhaled a lungful of sooty air. "Hey! Andrea! Look up!"

They didn't hear me. They were running too fast, the way one ran when chased.

People in black and gray poured out of the doors. The Iron Dogs, at least fifteen, probably more.

The shapeshifters ran through the fire. Derek's shaggy back flared, the fur igniting in a flash. He kept running, carrying Doolittle forward. The Iron Dogs followed as if the fire weren't even there.

Go, I willed, go.

A lean, darker bouda stopped and turned around. Raphael. Andrea skidded to a stop, a smaller slender creature.

The first Iron Dog fell on them, a tall lean man, swinging an axe. Magic sparked and bit Andrea in the chest. She snarled and clawed the Iron Dog's side. Raphael tore his stomach. The man swung, oblivious to his guts hanging out. The axe grazed Raphael. He batted it aside and sliced the man's throat.

Raphael and Andrea backed away, toward the gates.

A huge woman, six and a half feet tall and wearing armor, ran at them. Eduardo wheeled about and charged, back toward the fight. Andrea and Raphael stepped to the side and he rammed into the woman. They struggled, locked in a deadly grappling match. Eduardo clamped her, and Raphael and Andrea ripped at her from both sides. She shuddered.

At the gates, Aunt B handed George to Keira, spun around, and headed back.

The three shapeshifters dragged the Iron Dog down, ripping her apart. An arm flew, tossed aside.

The rest of the Iron Dogs were almost on them. I squeezed my fists. What are you doing? Go! Run.

Aunt B grabbed Raphael and Andrea by their shoulders and hurled them back. Eduardo reared. She screamed at him. He hesitated a moment and ran toward the gates. Aunt B followed.

The Iron Dogs were closing in, Hibla in the lead.

Raphael and Andrea cleared the gates. The werebuffalo charged through with Aunt B at his heels.

It wouldn't help. The Dogs would chase them all the way to the ship. That ship couldn't pull out fast enough.

Aunt B stopped before the gates.

No. No!

She hit the winch on the side of the gate. The metal portcullis crashed down, cutting her off from the rest of the shapeshifters.

Andrea screamed. I heard her even through the roar of the fire. Raphael grabbed the steel grate.

Aunt B planted herself in front of the winch. She could scale the wall, but she stayed where she was. She was buying her son and Andrea time.

Someone pulled Raphael away from the portcullis from the other side.

The Iron Dogs were almost there.

I had one more power word left in me. One more. I wasn't getting off this tower anyway. I pulled together what weak magic I had left and spat it out. "Osanda." Kneel, you bastards.

The world turned red. The pain bent me in half. I slumped over the parapet. Magic burned my lips-blood streamed from my nose over my face.

Three Iron Dogs directly by the keep plunged down. The rest closed on Aunt B. My magic didn't reach far enough. It didn't reach all of them.

The first Iron Dog leaped, unnaturally high. He sailed over the flames, his human face turning into something monstrous, inhuman, and covered in needles. Aunt B jerked him out of the air, tore open his stomach, and threw him into the fire. He flailed, burning.

Run! Go, climb the wall, get out of here. Go!

A towering man charged at her from the left, swinging a huge blade, while another, smaller and faster one, lunged at her from the right. Aunt B grabbed the giant's sword and tore it out of his hands. The smaller man sliced her side, and she backhanded him into the fire.

The giant grabbed at her. The bouda thrust her claws into his gut and wrenched his intestines out. He howled, his mouth gaping open, and she pushed him aside.

The Iron Dogs circled her, wary. Maybe she would get out of this. She had to get out of it.

Hibla raised her hand. A man behind her bowed his head and began to chant. A mage.

Aunt B shifted from foot to foot, watching them with red eyes.

Get out of there, I willed. Go!

The mage jerked his arms up and out. Three silver blades shot out of him, dragging silver chains behind them. Aunt B shied to the side, but the blades turned and pierced her chest and stomach, biting into the ground, their ends fusing at the last moment into a silver knot. For a second she stood frozen, the silver chains stretching behind her, wet with her blood.

Oh God.

The mage brought his arms together. The chains snapped taut, anchoring Aunt B in place. She strained, roaring-the silver was burning her. But the chains held. She could barely take a step.

Hibla waved her arm. Two Iron Dogs stepped forward with crossbows.

No, damn it, at least fight her. Fight her, you bastards.

The first two bolts tore into Aunt B, the impact shaking her. She snarled, straining.

Hibla nodded. I would find that bitch if I had to turn the entire fucking planet upside down. I would find her and I would kill her slowly.

The crossbowmen reloaded. Two more bolts tore through her. I jerked as if I'd been shot.

Another two.

There would be no more sundresses.

Two more bolts.

She would never see her grandchildren. I wanted to cry. I wanted to cry so badly, but my face was dry.

Two more bolts.

She screamed and screamed and they shot her. And I was stuck here on top of the tower. I couldn't even help her.

Aunt B sagged. Her knees trembled. She lunged forward, her body bristling with arrows. She howled to the sky. The silver knot ripped through her stomach. Hibla shot forward, swinging a wide sword. The blade cut through Aunt B's thick furry neck. Her head rolled to the ground.

She died. She was really dead.

They tossed her body aside like garbage and strained to raise the grate with the broken winch.

A dark beast charged out of the fire. The massive bear scattered the remaining Iron Dogs like bowling pins. Too late, Mahon. Too late.

I saw him rip into them, but staying upright was no longer an option. I sagged to the ground. My heartbeat was so loud in my ears. The bear would kill them all.

I wanted to see Curran again. I wanted to close my eyes and imagine us back at the Keep in our rooms making love on top of the ridiculous bed . . .

I had to get up. I had to get up and find him.

I would get up. I just needed a minute. Just one minute.

A lion's roar rocked the night. It came from the right.

I rolled onto my knees. My arm hurt. The gashes on my right leg were bleeding like there was no tomorrow. Something vital was cut, because the leg didn't want to hold my weight.

Crawling wasn't an option. I struggled to get up. Easy does it. Come on, piece-of-shit legs. I could do this. I leaned on the wall and hauled myself upright. My right leg was going numb. If it's not one leg, it's the other. Just my luck.

On the tower forty feet below me, Hugh and Curran fought, silhouetted among the flames. Three Iron Dogs stalked across the roof, keeping their distance from Curran, trying to flank him. Five bodies of Iron Dogs and two vampires sprawled, motionless. Curran had killed them. He'd fought his way out of that room, and he'd killed them all, because whatever Hugh had left would be right there with him on this roof. Hugh never played fair.

Only Curran could've done this and survived.

Hugh limped, favoring his left side. Curran watched him. Hugh was a big man, but Curran in a warrior form towered over Hugh. His blood-soaked hide, usually gray, now was black and red against the flames.

Curran stayed still. My throat constricted. Usually Curran moved through the fight, unstoppable, using all of his momentum and speed. He wasn't moving now, which meant he was near his limit. He had to fight all of them, while Hugh only had to fight him, and now Hugh had more stamina left. He was slowly cutting Curran down, piece by piece. It was what I would've done.

Hugh struck, his sword shining with reflected flames. He moved forward with innate grace, fast and sure. Curran batted aside one strike. The second cut across his chest but fell too short. Curran lunged forward, but Hugh danced back.

When I fought him, he'd muscled me, because it was his best chance. This was pure skill.

Curran's legs jerked. He snarled, shaking.

Hugh charged him, bringing the sword up, and moved on his toes, looking for an opening. Crusader's strike. He would reverse the blade at the end. Dodge left, honey. Left.

Oh God.

The blade sliced through Curran's side and Hugh withdrew in the same flawless move, but not before Curran's claws scoured his arm. The Iron Dog behind Curran, a short woman, lunged at Curran, trying to slice across his back. The Beast Lord spun and smashed his fist into her. She flew across the tower, rolled, and clumsily rose to her feet.

"It's over, Lennart," Hugh called.

Curran didn't answer.

The Iron Dogs resumed their circling, trying to get behind Curran.

Hugh raised his sword.

Not again. I'd just watched Aunt B die. I wouldn't sit here and watch him die, too.

I limped back, turned, gritted my teeth, and ran. The edge of the roof rushed at me. I jumped.

The air whistled past me. I saw the roof below and both Hugh and Curran staring up, their faces shocked.

The blood armor peeled off my body, expanding into a bubble in midair. I bounced against the stones. The blood bubble burst and shattered into dry dust. I hit the stone hard and stayed there. I had survived. Now I had to keep surviving. My left arm was shot. My right leg was probably shot, too. My vision blurred.

"Hey, baby," Hugh said. "Nice of you to drop in. Take her."

My right arm was under me. I let go of Slayer and pulled the throwing knife out, hiding it with my body.

The Iron Dogs moved toward me. The shorter woman was at the front of the pack. I let her get close.

Hugh struck at Curran, swinging the sword in a wide arc. Curran moved forward. Hugh tossed the sword to his left hand, so fast it was as if he had two swords and one had disappeared, and slashed at Curran's side. Curran lunged forward, but Hugh danced away. Damn it.

The short woman grabbed my hair. I stabbed her in the foot, sliced the bend of her knee, waited half a second for her to crash down, and slit her throat.

The two remaining Iron Dogs stopped. I crouched by the body, keeping my weight on my left knee.

"What the fuck," Hugh snarled. "Look at her, she's half-dead. She isn't even on her last leg. She can't fucking stand and she's cutting you down like you're children. Bring her to me alive. Now, or I'll kill you myself."

The two Iron Dogs advanced: a dark-skinned man, lean and hard, and a bigger, stockier blond in his early thirties.

Hugh struck forward, thrusting to the upper chest. Curran dodged left. Hugh flipped his sword and slashed at Curran's neck. Curran thrust forward, fast, aiming for Hugh's left side with his huge claws. Hugh clamped his arm and stabbed Curran in the stomach. The blade sank in almost to the hilt. Hugh let go and leaped out of range.

The blond was close enough. I shot up from my half-crouch. I couldn't feel my leg, but it obeyed. I slashed across the blond's chest, knocked aside his desperate thrust, and smashed my forehead into his face. He stumbled. I elbowed the other Iron Dog in the throat, stabbed him in the neck, spun about, and made a hole in the blond's liver.

Curran was on his knees. His head sagged. Hugh was walking toward him.

I ran. My leg folded under me and I crashed.

"Wait your turn." Hugh raised his sword.

Curran surged from his knees and grabbed Hugh, jerking him off his feet and pinning his arms to his body. Hugh smashed his head into Curran's muzzle. Curran snarled, flipped Hugh into the air as if he weighed nothing, and slammed him over the stone parapet, back down. Hugh's spine popped like a firecracker. He screamed. Curran heaved him up and hurled him into the flames.

Magic punched me, a bright blue explosion shooting into the night from the spot where Hugh plunged down. Curran looked down, rocked back on his feet, and fell.

I dragged myself to him and cradled his head in my arms.

The werelion shuddered and turned human. Gray eyes looked at me. "Hey there, ass kicker."

"Hello, Your Furriness."

I kissed his bloody lips. He kissed me back.

"The bastard teleported," Curran grimaced. "Can you believe that?"

"Screw him. He's weak."

"I broke his back."

"I heard."

"He'll feel it in the morning."

I laughed. It came out a little bloody.

"Did our people get out?" Curran asked.

"Most of them."

"You have to go now," he said.


"Yes. Both of my legs are broken and you can't carry me."

I brushed the soot from his face. "How the hell did you manage that?"

"He used magic. The bones fused wrong. It hurts a bit."

It probably hurt like hell.

"Kate," he said. "You'll burn to death. Leave me and try to make it down into the yard before this place collapses."

"In a minute I'm going to get up and drag you to the edge of the tower. Then we're going to jump over the wall."

"It's fifty feet down," he said. "That's called suicide."

"Or death on our terms."

"Leave me, God damn it."

"No. It's my turn to save us. We're going to jump." I coughed. The smoke was eating my lungs. I was so tired. "I'm just going to rest half a minute. My arm hurts a little."

I lay next to him.

"Will you marry me?" Curran asked.

"You're asking me now?"

"Seems like a good time," he said.

He deserved an honest answer. "If I marry you, then you'll be my husband."

"Yes, that's how it works."

Smartass. "I would be dragging you down with me."

"I thought we covered that."

"When the time comes, I can't say, 'Don't fight him. He's just someone who doesn't matter.' We would be married."

"Do you expect that I would hide behind that?" he asked. "Is that how little you think of me?"

"No. I know you wouldn't. I know it doesn't matter to you, because you love me. It's just something I tell myself when I wake up in the middle of the night and can't fall asleep."

The heat was closer. We really had to get off this tower.

"Is the offer still open?" I asked.

He nodded.

"It's a yes. I would love to be your wife."

I reached over. He took my hand and squeezed it.

Magic cracked. The stone floor under me dropped. A smooth stone slid open under me. We rolled down it, all the way to the road, coming to a gentle stop. I blinked and saw Astamur standing next to a cart drawn by a donkey. The donkey and the shepherd regarded us.

"Well?" Astamur asked. "Are you two going to lie there all night?"

It wasn't English, but I understood him all the same. I stared at him, openmouthed.

"I would've rescued you sooner, but you were having an important relationship conversation."

"What the hell . . . ?" Curran struggled to get up.

Now wasn't the time to look the gift donkey in the mouth. I propped him up and half dragged, half carried him into the cart. He fell onto the boards. I fell next to him. The donkey moved, and the cart took us away from the castle.

Fire shot out above the stone. Slowly, as if hesitating, the castle walls came apart and crashed down off the cliff, breaking into thousands of blocks as they fell.

"Who are you?" I asked.

"I told you, I'm the shepherd. I watch over these mountains."

"Are you immortal?"

"No. Nobody is truly immortal. But I was born a very long time ago, when the magic was still strong. Then the magic waned and for a while I had to sleep. Now my power is back, and I am one with the mountains again."

"Why did you save us?" I asked.

"Your father is cooked," Astamur said. "I've known him for a long time. We met when the sea and the mountains were younger. No matter what time and the world do to him, he won't change. He is what he is. You're not so bad. You try too hard and you lust for blood, but your heart is good."

I didn't know what to say.

"One day you will have to decide where you stand," he said. "I have hope for you, so I tell you the same thing I told your father. If you come to these mountains with open hands, I will welcome you, but if you come holding a sword, you will die by it."

"What did her father decide?" Curran asked.

"He chose not to come at all, which is an answer in itself. There are ancients in the world, like him and me. They are waking up. Your father, he will want to use you. Soon you might have to make a stand."

"Do you think I can win?" I asked.

"Against your father? No, not now." Astamur said. "Perhaps in time. A smart warrior chooses the time of battle."

"I will remember that."

The donkey clopped, his hoofbeats really loud. Salty wind bathed my face. I realized we were on the pier.

"The ship has pulled away but there is a boat coming back. They are planning on rescuing you from the castle," Astamur said. "It's nice to have friends."

I raised my head and saw Andrea and Raphael in the boat.

Ten minutes later we were hauled onto the deck of the Rush. Andrea sat me down gently by the cabin. I leaned against the wall. Curran lay down next to me. His legs didn't look right. They would have to be rebroken. My bones hurt just thinking about it.

Derek rested on his stomach, his back covered with burns. Keira was bloody. Eduardo's whole body was covered with soot and burns. Mahon cradled George, tears in his eyes. Her arm was missing. Shit.

"It will be fine, Dad," she told him.

"What will I tell your mother . . ."

"You will tell her that I saved a woman during childbirth." George glanced to the length of sailing canvas where Desandra curled with two naked babies.

Barabas asked me quietly, "What about Desandra?"

"What about her? Unless she wants us to drop her off somewhere, we're taking her with us. Where else is she going to go?"

Everyone was bloody, beat up, and grieving.

"Finally," Saiman said. "We can be under way."

Christopher came to stand by me and smiled.

The Rush turned, picked up speed, and slid out of the harbor. The mountains receded.

I looked at the gathering of metal drums that sat near the nose of the ship, secured by ropes. At least we had done it. At least we got the panacea. Maddie wouldn't have to die. Aunt B would never see her grandchildren, but at least, if Raphael and Andrea had any babies, they wouldn't-

"Look!" Raphael called, pointing north.

A fleet of ships anchored behind the curve of the harbor. Six large vessels, the biggest longer than the Rush. They flew the Iron Dog banner.

"Hold your breath," Saiman murmured next to me.

The Rush glided across the sea.

A minute passed. Another. The air grew thick with tension.

We turned again and sped across the blue waves. Hugh's fleet disappeared from view. They'd let us go. They must not have known what happened.

Doolittle rolled into view. He sat in an old wheelchair. Did Saiman actually get it for him? How unlike him.

Doolittle cleared his throat. "Someone tampered with the drums."

Curran set up. "What?"

"Someone tampered with the panacea drums," Doolittle said. "The seals are broken."

Barabas jerked the lid off the nearest drum, thrust his hand in, and recoiled. "Powdered silver."

"And arsenic," Doolittle said.

"All of it?" Curran asked.

Doolittle's eyes were ashen. "Every barrel."

God damn it, Hugh.

"How?" Andrea asked. "How did they get on board? I thought you had checked the barrels after they were loaded."

"I did," Doolittle said. "And I had personally sealed each one. Saiman had posted guards."

Saiman. Of course.

Curran surged to his feet, grabbed Saiman by the throat, and jerked him up. Saiman's feet left the deck.

"You!" Curran snarled. "You let d'Ambray poison it."

Saiman made no move to resist.

Curran hurled him across the deck. Saiman hit the cabin with his back and stood up. "Rage all you want," he said. "I didn't have a choice. The contract we signed obligates me to do everything in my power to maintain your safety. It was made abundantly clear to me that sacrificing the panacea was the only way to ensure your survival. Those ships would've never let us go. I did what I had to do so we could all go home."

Curran swayed on his feet, his eyes pure gold.

"Let it go," I said. "Let it go, honey. It's over."

Curran closed his eyes and lay back down. He didn't bother with threats and promises. They would do no good now.

"So it's all for nothing?" Andrea said, her voice too high. "Aunt B died for nothing?"

Raphael smashed his fist into the drum, denting it. Eduardo swore. Keira screamed, a sound of pure frustration.

I couldn't take it. I covered my face.

All for nothing. Aunt B would never see her grandchildren for nothing. Doolittle's paralysis, George's arm, Curran's legs, all for nothing.

Tears wet my fingers. I realized I finally was crying.

"Mistress?" Cold fingers touched my hands, gently. "Mistress?"

I forced my hands from my face. I couldn't even talk.

Christopher was looking at me, his face concerned. "Please don't cry. Please."

I couldn't help it. The tears just kept rolling.

"Please don't cry. Here." He pulled the chalk from my spare belt hugging his waist and began drawing a complicated glyph on the deck. "I will make more. I will make more panacea right now." He started pulling herbs out of the pouches. "I will make as much as you want. Just please don't cry."

Two hours later we had our first batch of panacea. Doolittle tested it and said it was the strongest he had ever seen.

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