Magic Rises Chapter 5

The caravan of Pack vehicles roared and thundered down the road. The magic was up full force and enchanted water engines belched so much noise, all of the windows were closed. Curran drove. In the backseat Barabas and Derek sat next to each other.

We left Julie in the Keep. She wanted to come and then she didn't want to. We said our good-byes. She hugged me and cried, so desperate and sad that I almost cried with her. I sat with her for twenty minutes, until finally we couldn't delay any longer. She was still crying when I walked out. I hoped this wouldn't be my last memory of her.

Somehow I always managed to screw things up when it came to Julie.

The highway snaked its way through a flat salt marsh. Reeds and grasses swayed gently, giving us a glimpse of wet mud exposed as low tide sucked the water out of the marsh. A sign flashed by, a yellow diamond with a turtle on it, followed immediately by another sign, a triangle bordered in red. A turtle in the center of the triangle had a dark cone touching its mouth.

"What does that mean?" Barabas asked from the backseat.

"Magic turtle crossing."

"I got that one, but what about the second one?"

"Beware the magic turtles."


"They spit fire."

Curran chuckled to himself.

The road turned. We shot onto a wooden bridge, the boards thudding a little under the pressure of the tires. Another half-mile and we rolled through the massive iron gates of the port.

"Which dock did Saiman say?" Curran asked.

I checked the paper. "Berth two. Just below the bridge."

The ruin of the Eugene Talmadge Memorial Bridge swung into view as if on cue, its concrete supports sticking sadly out of the water, the steel cables hanging over them like a torn spider web. We passed the remnants of the bridge and Curran stopped before a pier. A large vessel waited on the water, its two black masts rising above the deck that had to be close to four hundred feet long. I knew next to nothing about ships, but even I could tell this was no merchant freighter. It looked more like a naval ship, and the enormous gun mounted on the deck in front of the bridge only made that fact more apparent.

Curran studied the ship. "That's a Coast Guard High Endurance Cutter."

"How do you know?"

"We bought a gun from a decommissioned vessel. That's what's mounted in the forward tower by the gates."

"Do you think Saiman bought a Coast Guard cutter? How much money . . ."

"Millions," Barabas said, his voice dry.

We stared at the cutter.

A man strode down the gangplank. Large, broad-shouldered, he wore a plain sweater and jeans. A short brown beard traced his jaw. He looked like he worked for a living.

We got out.

The man approached us. I checked his eyes and saw the familiar superiority. He was painfully aware that his world was populated with people of lesser intelligence, and his eyes told me he was regretfully resigned to slumming. Saiman.

"May I present the Rush?" Saiman said. "Once USCGC Rush, now just the Rush. Three hundred and seventy-eight feet long, forty-three feet high, displacement of three thousand two hundred and fifty tons. Two gas turbines, four enchanted water generators, maximum speed during magic twenty knots, during tech twenty-nine knots. Otobreda seventy-six-millimeter super-rapid artillery gun, three ballistas, and a number of other bells and whistles, which makes it the finest vessel in my fleet. My flagship."

"Spared no expense?" I said.

Saiman grinned, displaying even, white teeth. "I prefer to travel safely or not at all."

* * *

I stood on the deck of the Rush, smelling the salty, ocean-saturated air, and watched our supplies being loaded. The sailors on the ship at the next pier watched also. They had a crane. We had Eduardo Ortego, who picked up five-hundred-pound containers and casually tossed them onto the deck, where Mahon and Curran caught them and lowered them into the cargo hold.

The human sailors were looking a little sick. I was glad Eduardo was coming with us. Mahon had chosen the massive werebuffalo as his backup and nobody objected.

Family members and various shapeshifters swarmed over the Rush. Jim marched about, muttering things under his breath. George was showing cabins to her mother. The wind tugged on the unruly halo of her long dark curls, which she unsuccessfully tried to tame with a rubber band. Mahon's wife, a plump, happy African American woman, followed her daughter with a proud smile on her face. George was built like her dad-taller, sturdier, broader in the shoulders than her mother-but her big smile was the same: bright and infectious. I wasn't the smiling type, but when either of them smiled at you, it was hard not to grin back.

The deck under my feet was moving. The moment I shifted my balance to compensate, the ship tried to make a break for it. Last time I'd taken a ship was almost three years ago. Clearly, this wasn't at all like riding a bicycle.

Andrea, on the other hand, seemed no worse for wear. She leaned on the rail on my right, smiling. Raphael stood next to her. Where Andrea was short and blond, Raphael was tall, lean, and dark, with a wave of nearly black hair falling to his shoulders. He was also smoking hot. Some men had that indescribable quality, a kind of masculine sensual air. They looked at you and you knew having sex with them would be a memorable experience. Raphael didn't just have the air; he was his own seductive tornado. He was also one of the deadliest knife fighters I've encountered. Raphael loved Andrea more than fish loved the sea. She loved him back and flashed her guns when single women strayed too close.

Barabas stood on the other side of me, looking like he would hurl any minute. "Does it always move this much?"

"It gets worse," Raphael told him.

"You'll get used to it," Andrea promised.

A woman came down the pier, heading for the ship. She walked with an easy, lazy grace that spoke of strength and perfect balance, despite the dangerously tall heels of her black leather boots. Shapeshifter walk. Always a dead giveaway.

Black jeans hugged her hips, and a rust-red blouse with a jean jacket over it showed off her curves. Her hair, worked into a mane of dark tight spirals, moved as she walked, underscoring her smooth stride. She turned and I saw her face. She was striking: a heart-shaped face, skin the color of coffee, with smart dark eyes and a full, sensual mouth.

Eduardo picked up the next container and saw the woman. His face fell. "Hi, Keira."

Ha! So that was what Jim's sister looked like.

Keira winked at Eduardo. "Hello, delicious."

All of the blood drained from Eduardo's face. The container whistled through the air, cleared the deck, and plunged into the water on the other side.

Keira laughed, a low contralto chuckle, and kept going.

"Oops," Eduardo called out.

"What the hell?" Curran growled.

"I'm sorry, that one was lighter."

"You threw it, you fish it out."

If that container was the one with my herbal supplies and weapons, I'd be really put out.

Keira walked up the plank. "Hey, Barabas." She offered me her hand. "Keira. Jim's sister."

"Kate. Jim's friend." I shook her hand. Good grip.

"Hi, Raphael. And you must be Andrea. From the Order, right?" Keira asked.

"Yes," Andrea said.

"Good to meet you."

"What's the deal with you and Eduardo?" Barabas asked.

Keira grinned. "It's a funny story. When Eduardo first came to the city, he decided our laws didn't apply to him and he failed to come and say hi. Jim sent me to fetch him. I might have hunted him a little. For fun."

"Hunted?" Barabas asked.

"Mm-hm." She smiled, a slow lazy parting of lips. "I also might have implied that I find buffalo scrumptious."

A Pack Jeep pulled up to the pier. The doors opened and the Jeep disgorged Doolittle and two of his assistants. The Pack medic surveyed the ship, nodded, plucked a bag from the back of the Jeep, and headed up the plank. The assistants followed him, carrying bags and cases.

Ummm. "What's going on?"

"No idea." Barabas pondered Doolittle. "Whatever it is, it's not my fault."

"Hello." Doolittle climbed aboard. "Please direct me toward the cabins."

"Why do you need the cabins? Are you coming with us?"

He drew himself to his full height. "Yes. Yes, I am."

"When was this decided?" Curran hadn't said anything about it to me. Nor had Doolittle mentioned it when I came to see him.

"It was decided this morning. The cabins, milady?"

Hmmm. Maybe Curran in his typical fashion didn't tell me. I pointed at the stairs. "Straight down."

"This way." Doolittle went down the stairs. The assistants followed.

Barabas leaned over the side and vomited into the wind.

"You do realize we're not even out to sea?" Saiman asked from behind us.

Barabas flipped him off without looking.

Saiman shook his head.

Something had occurred to me. "Saiman, how loud are those magic generators?" Riding in a car powered by enchanted water did a number on one's hearing. A generator was likely much bigger.

"The engine room is significantly larger than the space under a typical car hood," Saiman said. "The ship generators are suspended in water rather than enclosing it, as car motors do, and the engine room itself is soundproofed. You should hear a pleasant hum, nothing more. Otherwise, the sailors would go insane from the constant noise."

He went on.

Half an hour later, the last crate was loaded and secured. Doolittle's assistants left. The crew moved about the ship in a complex dance, getting ready to sail. Andrea and Raphael moved on. The last family members left the ship.

Barabas surveyed the crowd gathered on the pier. His upper lip trembled in the beginning of a sneer. "Fuck it."

He turned, barely avoiding Curran, and went down the stairs.

His Furriness leaned on the rail next to me. "What's his problem?"

I kept my voice low. "Ethan didn't come to say good-bye. A few days ago Ethan told Barabas that he wasn't sure they had a future together. That's why I had to talk Jezebel out of breaking Ethan's legs."

Curran shook his head. "I guess he's sure now."


The deckhands cast off the lines.

"He said four enchanted water generators, right?" I asked.


"The rule is, the bigger the magic engine, the longer it takes. Four giant generators, and the crew is what, two dozen people? I wonder how long it will take them to get us started." We could be sitting in port for another hour.

"Why do I smell Doolittle?" Curran asked.

"He went through here on the way to his cabin."

"Ah. Wait, what?"

"He said he's coming with us. I thought that was your idea."


"He said it was decided."

"It is." Doolittle came up the ladder. "I decided it."

The deck around us was suddenly silent. Everyone looked at Curran. I decided to look at him too, so I wouldn't feel left out.

"Why?" Curran asked quietly.

"Do you know what goes into panacea?"

"I know when I smell it," Curran said.

"But you don't know if it's potent. You don't know if it will actually do what they say it will do. You don't know how to test it."

"What about the Pack?"

"Please. I'm leaving the Pack in the care of five medmages based in a state-of-the-art facility. You will have only me." Doolittle surveyed us. "I've brought half of the people here back from the brink of death. Left to your own devices, you lose what small drop of common sense you have and do things like running through fire, breaking your bones, and taking on creatures of much larger size. If you persist in this foolishness, I should be there to make sure at least some of you get home alive."

Doolittle didn't quite bare his teeth, but if he had fur, it would've stood on end.

Curran smiled. "We appreciate having you on board, Doctor."

Doolittle blinked. He had expected a bigger fight, and now Curran had cut his feet from under him. "That's right," he finally managed, then turned around and walked away.

Saiman walked onto the deck and stopped near the nose of the ship. "Your attention, please!"

Everyone looked at him.

"We're about to sail. I ask you to please be silent so the crew can begin."

Everyone shut up.

Saiman leaned back. A subtle change came over him. He seemed to belong here on the deck of the ship. He opened his mouth and sang out, in a rough but clear voice.

"Old Storm Along is dead and gone!"

The crew caught the melody and sang out in a chorus. "Ay, ay, ay, Mr. Storm Along!"

"Old Storm Along is dead and gone!" Saiman called out, louder.

"Ay, ay, ay, Mr. Storm Along!"

Something stirred beneath the ship like a slumbering giant slowly waking up from a deep sleep.

"It's a sea shanty," Curran whispered to me.

Magic streamed from Saiman and the crew, melting together, seeping into the steel bones of the ship, as if they were at once bringing it to life with their voices and making it theirs in the process.

When Stormy died, I dug his grave,

Ay, ay, ay, Mr. Storm Along!

I dug his grave with a silver spade,

Ay, ay, ay, Mr. Storm Along!

Something purred deep within the ship. Magic sparked deep below. The hair on the back of my neck rose. The song and magic braided together and pulled me in. I wanted to join in, even though I didn't know the words and my singing would scare off the fish in the ocean. The crew was singing full out now, Saiman's voice blending with the others, part of the strong powerful chorus, its rhythm like the beating of a heart.

I hove him up with an iron crane,

Ay, ay, ay, Mr. Storm Along!

And lowered him down with a golden chain,

Ay, ay, ay, Mr. Storm Along!

The enchanted water generators came on, expelling magic in a thrilling cascade. The Rush shuddered and pulled away from the pier.

Wind bathed us, pulling at my hair. Another tremor shook the ship. The Rush surged forward, into the ocean. The crew clapped. Saiman took a bow, grinning. I had no idea he had it in him.

"We're off," Curran said.

"Yes, we are." We would get there, we would fight, and we would return.

* * *

We hit our first storm one day out. The ocean churned and boiled, its waters leaden gray and frothy with foam. Huge waves rolled, each as big as a house, and our large cutter bobbed up and down, tossed about like a paper boat. Water hammered at the hull, and the vessel careened until I thought it would overturn and the lot of us would drown, only to roll back the other way the next second.

Saiman tied himself outside. When I asked the crew to check on him, they assured me that the ship needed a forward lookout and this was his favorite thing to do. I made it to the bridge and caught a glimpse outside. The world looked like a nightmare, with wind and water locked together in a furious primal combat. Saiman stared into the wind with a big smile on his rain-splattered face, while the ocean pretended it was a moving mountain range. The waves would crest and drench the deck, and he would disappear from view behind the curtain of water.

While Saiman was getting his freak on outside, the rest of us huddled belowdecks. One by one we all gathered in the mess hall. It was either safety in numbers or misery loves company-either one would do. Eduardo and Barabas seemed to be having the worst time of the lot. Eduardo paled and prayed quietly, while Barabas hugged his bucket and looked green. Finally Barabas informed us that it was fitting that he would die here after being dumped and he was sorry he was taking us with him. Eduardo told him to shut up and offered to throw him into a lifeboat, and then Barabas demonstrated that weremongooses did go zero to sixty in less than a second and offered to amuse himself by playing with Eduardo's guts. They had to be told to go and sit in separate corners of the mess hall. I curled up next to Curran and fell asleep. If the ship decided to sink, there wasn't much I could do about it.

The magic drowned the technology soon after midnight. By morning the ocean had smoothed out and the ship had stopped trying to impersonate a drunken sailor at the end of his first night of liberty.

We got some breakfast and I escaped the mess hall and climbed onto the deck. The sea lay perfectly calm, like an infinite translucent crystal, polished to satin smoothness. The magic engines made almost no noise and the ship glided over the bottomless blue depths. The ocean and the sky seemed endless.

I surveyed the sea for a few long minutes and moved on to explore the deck. In the rear I found a large clear space marked by an H. A helipad. No helicopter in sight. I walked out onto the helipad. Such a nice clear space. I felt slightly off after sleeping on the floor. A little exertion would do me good. I stretched, turned, and kicked the air. And one more time. I launched a quick combination, jumped, and smashed my foot into an invisible opponent's chin.

"A knockout," Curran said behind me.

I jumped in the air about a foot and managed to land with some semblance of dignity. He had managed to sneak up on me again. Time to save face. "Nah. That wasn't a knockout. I just staggered him a bit."

"I wasn't talking about the kick, baby."

Oh. "Smooth, Your Furriness." I backed up and spread my arms. "Want to play?"

He pulled off his shoes.

Five minutes later, we were rolling around on the helipad as he tried to muscle his way out of my armlock, after slamming me onto the helipad.

"I finally realized the source of your mutual attraction," Saiman said, his voice dry.

I looked up. He was standing a few feet away.

"Do enlighten us." Curran tried to roll into me to break the lock. Oh no you don't.

"You both think violence is foreplay."

I laughed.

Derek came over, moving in that languid wolfish stride, took off his boots and socks, and dropped down into a one-armed push-up. He was still doing them fifteen minutes later, when Barabas and Keira emerged onto the helideck and began sparring. Barabas was shockingly fast, but Keira and Jim clearly shared a gene pool, because she just kept on coming.

Andrea and Raphael were next, and then Eduardo, George, and Mahon also found the helideck. Watching Eduardo and Mahon spar was like watching two rhinos trying to wrestle. They smashed against each other and then puffed and strained for ten minutes without moving an inch. Finally, red-faced, they broke apart and shook.

"Thank you," Eduardo said.

"Good match," Mahon said.

Raphael stripped off his shirt. He wore a black muscle shirt underneath that left his shoulders exposed. Andrea raised her eyebrows, clearly appreciating the view. Raphael walked out onto the helipad with a plain six-inch knife in his hand. It was the only weapon permitted during the Pack challenges, and during the marathon of shapeshifter attacks that earned me my place as the Pack's "Beast Lady," I had gotten very good use out of mine. Barabas joined Raphael. They clashed, lightning fast, and danced across the helipad. The core difference between a sword fighter and a knife fighter wasn't speed or strength. When a swordmaster took out his sword, the outcome wasn't always certain. He might have meant to injure his opponent or to disarm him. But when a knife fighter pulled out a knife, he meant to kill.

Aunt B walked out onto the helipad wearing loose yoga pants. "I'm just here to stretch. Kate, want to help?"


Thirty seconds later, as I was flying through the air, I decided that this wasn't the best idea.

"Watch yourself," Doolittle said. He sat on the side, holding a book.

"Are you going to join us, Doc?" Raphael asked.

"I'm sunbathing," Doolittle told him. "And enjoying my book. Don't bother me with your foolishness."

Barabas held up a folder. "As long as we're all here, I need to brief you on our situation."

"Maybe later?" Keira said. "I have plans."

"What plans?" Barabas peered at her.

"I was going to go and think deep thoughts, somewhere in the sun."

"With your eyes closed?" George asked.


"Someone sit on her before she escapes." Barabas raised his folder. "It's my job to make sure we don't go into this venture blind. You're all here, so you will have to suffer through this whether you like it or not."

"But . . ." Keira began.

Curran glanced at her.

"Oh, fine." She stretched out on the deck. "I'm listening."

"You've all heard about Desandra and the twins by now," Barabas began. "However, this fight isn't really about the babies. It's about territory. The Carpathians form a mountain range in the shape of a backward C that runs through many different countries, including Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Ukraine, and Serbia. These mountains constitute Europe's largest forested area and contain over a third of all European plant species."

Keira yawned.

Barabas rolled his eyes. "Here is the deal. It's shapeshifter paradise. Miles and miles of wooded mountains, lakes, rivers, and a good supply of fresh water and game. The terrain is harsh and the human population is light. You could dump a battalion of Army Rangers into the Carpathians, and they would wander around for years, shooting at shadows."

"Sounds good," Mahon boomed.

"It is. Prime country. So this guy, Jarek Kral, figured this out early on. He clawed his way to the top of a small wolf pack and spent the next twenty years murdering, bargaining, and scheming to get more land. Now he controls a big chunk in the northeast. He's a powerful sonovabitch, and he's got serious anger management issues. Holds grudges and never forgets an insult. There was this werebear who said something Jarek didn't like. Three years later Jarek sees him at a dinner, walks over, stabs him with a knife, rips the guy's heart out of his body, throws it on the ground, and stomps it into mush. And then goes back to finish his food. He's famous for it."

"Sounds like a lovely man," George said.

"Here, I've got a picture." Barabas passed a photograph to Eduardo on his left. "Jarek is a powerful guy, but he has a problem. In thirty years he managed eleven children. Seven went loup, two were killed with their mother when a rival pack ambushed them, one challenged Jarek and lost, and that leaves him with Desandra. Jarek is like our Mahon. He's all about dynasties and alliances. It's killing him that he doesn't have a son."

Mahon sighed. "Wait until you live as long as I have. And I have a son. I just wasn't his first father, that's all."

Curran grinned.

The photograph of Jarek finally made its way to me. A man in his late forties stared to the side with an expression of derision and disbelief on his face, as if he had just stepped on a worm and was flabbergasted that the creature had managed to get itself plastered to the bottom of his shoe. His brown wavy hair fell around his face, reaching to his broad shoulders, but did nothing to soften the impact of the face. Jarek's features were made with broad strokes: large eyes under bushy slanted eyebrows, large nose, wide mouth, firm chin and a square jaw. It was a powerful face, male and strong, but lacking refinement. He didn't look like a thug, but rather like a man without conscience, who killed because it was convenient.

Not the type of man I'd want to cross.

Curran looked over my shoulder. "Yes. That's him."

I leaned against him and passed the picture to Raphael.

"So back to Desandra," Barabas said. "Nobody wanted to ally themselves with Jarek, because he isn't exactly a man of his word. So he bargained with his daughter. By herself, Desandra is penniless. However, her first son will inherit Prislop Pass. It's a pass in northern Romania, on the edge of his territory, and it has a ley line running through it. If you're going from Russia, Ukraine, or Moldova to Hungary or Romania, you're going to take that pass. Which brings us to the other two packs."

He held up a picture. A family sat around the table. Three younger men, one elderly, and three women. "Volkodavi. A mixed pack, part Polish, part Ukrainian, part whatever. They're rubbing up against the Carpathians from the east, in Ukraine, and they control the eastern hills. Here is Radomil, Desandra's first husband."

Barabas handed the photograph to Eduardo, who passed it to George. George blinked and sat up straighter. "Whoa."

"I know, right?" Barabas grinned.

Andrea leaned over. "Let me see. Not my type." She leaned over to show Aunt B. Aunt B raised her eyebrows.

The picture went from hand to hand until I finally got it. Radomil was pretty. There was no other word for it. His hair, a rich golden blond, lay in waves on his head, framing a perfectly symmetrical face. A generous mouth stretched in a happy smile showing white teeth, a touch of stubble on the chin, high cheekbones, and glass-bottle-green eyes, framed in dense, dark blond eyelashes.

Curran looked over my shoulder and studied it with a perfectly neutral expression.

"Radomil's older brother and sister pretty much run the pack," Barabas said. "We don't know very much about them. Look here." He lifted another photo. Two parents and two grown sons, both handsome, dark-haired, hazel-eyed, with narrow faces, short haircuts, and clean-shaven square jaws.

"Gerardo and Ignazio Lovari, sons of Isabella and Cosimo Lovari. We're interested in Gerardo."

"No, dear," Aunt B said. "We're interested in Isabella. I've met her before. That woman rules Belve Ravennati. All of the Wild Beasts of Ravenna answer to her including her two sons. They're a very disciplined pack. Mostly lupine and very acquisition-minded."

"Try to remember their faces. All these people will be there," Barabas said. "And that brings us to our lovely destination. We're actually going to Abkhazia. It's a disputed territory on the border between Russia and Georgia, and it's directly across the Black Sea for everyone involved. Once every fifty or sixty years, Russia and Georgia have a war over it and it changes hands. The local pack is a werejackal pack, not large, but enough people to slaughter the lot of us. We don't know anything about it. But we do know several things." Barabas held up a finger. "One, the alpha couple will be the most likely target."

Everyone looked in our direction. Curran smiled.

"That's how I would do it," Mahon said. "Split the alphas and you split the pack. If you do it right, the pack will turn on itself."

Being a target didn't thrill me, but it wouldn't be the first time.

Barabas held up two fingers. "Two, they'll try to reduce our numbers."

"Buddy system," Curran said. "Nobody goes anywhere without someone with them. Pick your buddy and stick with them."

"Three." Barabas raised three fingers. "Trust no one. I don't know where they'll put us, but we'll have no privacy. Even if your rooms are empty, you can be sure that someone is listening to you breathe. Don't discuss anything important unless you're outside and you can see a mile around you."

"And four," Curran said. "We will be provoked on every turn. Collectively the three packs want us there. Individually, they don't. The only reason they want an arbitration is that none of the packs is strong enough to take the other two. If two clans fight, the third will destroy the victor."

"So even if you win, you lose," Andrea said.

Curran nodded. "To them, we are collateral damage. The packs have made plans, and some of them hinge on provoking us to violence. No matter what is said to you, do not let yourself be goaded into throwing the first punch. Our behavior must be beyond reproach."

"This is going to be so much fun," George murmured in a voice usually reserved for lamenting extra work piled on your desk on the last minute of Friday.

"You said it." Raphael grinned. "This will be the best vacation ever."

"Boudas." George wrinkled her nose.

* * *

As long as the big tech turbines propelled the Rush forward, the ocean remained lifeless, but as soon as the noise disappeared, life gathered around the ship. Dolphins dashed in the water, launching themselves in the air. Often larger, rainbow-hued fishes joined them, spinning above the water as they leaped. Once an enormous, fish-shaped shadow, as long as the ship, slid quietly under us and went on its way. Glittering schools of fish zipped back and forth next to the vessel.

A week into the trip we saw a sea serpent as we were getting our use out of the helipad. The ocean was smooth as glass and suddenly a dragonlike head the size of a car rose above the water on a graceful neck. The silver scales sparkled in the sun. The serpent looked at us with turquoise eyes, as big as a tire, and dove underwater. Saiman said it was only a baby, or things would've been considerably more difficult.

On the morning of the seventeenth day, we passed through the Strait of Gibraltar. It was less impressive than expected. A green shore stretched on one side for a while and then receded into the blue. The lack of drama was thoroughly disappointing.

We pressed on. Three days later, I climbed onto the deck to a beautiful day. Crystalline blue water spread as far as the eye could see. Here and there faint outlines of cliffs, the hints of distant islands, interrupted the blue. Gauzy veils of feathered clouds crossed the sky like thin spears of frost across a winter window. The magic was up, and the Rush slid across the water, a nimble steel bird.

I sat down with my coffee. Wind stirred my hair. Saiman came to stand near me.

"I never figured you for a sailor," I said.

"I never did either. I was seventeen when I happened to get on a crab fishing boat for reasons completely unrelated to fishing. I smelled the wet salt in the wind, felt the deck move, and didn't leave for three years. I was truly happy there. I do prefer cold seas. I like ice. It's the call of the blood, I suppose. Aesir or Jotun, take your pick."

"Why did you leave?"

Saiman shook his head. "It's not something I wish to share. Suffice to say, there are times when I think I should've stayed."

He leaned forward, scanning the horizon, and for the first time since we left port, his face was grim.


Saiman nodded at the endless water. "We've crossed into the Aegean."

"Are you worried senior citizens will start diving off the cliffs because our ship is flying the wrong sails?"

Barabas wandered out onto the deck and came to stand by us.

"I never understood the legend of Theseus," Saiman said. "Or rather, I understand his motivation for killing the minotaur in an effort to establish himself as a leader. I can't fathom the rationale behind Aegeus throwing himself into the sea."

"He thought his son failed to kill the minotaur and died," I said.

"So he decided to destabilize the country already paying tribute to a foreign power even further by killing himself and destroying the established royal dynasty?" Saiman shook his head. "I think it's clear what really occurred. Theseus led the invasion of Crete, destroyed their superweapon in the form of the minotaur, returned home, and made his bid for power by pushing his dear old father off a cliff. Everyone pretended it was a suicide, and Theseus went on to found Athens and unify Attica under its banner."

Barabas barked a short laugh. "He's probably right."

"I prefer the other version," I said.

Saiman shrugged. "Romanticism will be your undoing, Kate. To answer your question, I'm not worried about suicidal Greeks, but about their more violent countrymen. The Aegean is a haven for pirates."

Romanticism will be your undoing, blah blah. "Isn't that why you have that gun mounted on the front? Or is it for other reasons, because I would've thought that a man with your powers would be past the urge to compensate."

Barabas grinned.

"I had forgotten that talking to you is like trying to pet a cactus," Saiman said dryly. "Thank you for reminding me."

"Always happy to oblige."

"I'm compensating for nothing. Pirates come in two types. Most of them are opportunistic, situationally homicidal, and driven by profit. They kill as means to an end. They evaluate a vessel of this size and realize that a sea battle would be too costly and their chances of winning it are slim. Unfortunately, there is the second type: the rash, the stupid, and the insane. The Rush wouldn't prove a deterrent; on the contrary, they would view it as a great prize. Capturing it would at once give them a flagship of decent firepower and allow them to make a name for themselves. They can't be reasoned with-"

A small cutter swung around the western edge of the nearest island. Saiman looked at it. Another boat joined the first, then a third, a fourth . . .

Saiman gave out a long-suffering sigh. "Right. Please go and get your brute, Kate. We're about to get boarded."

"I'll go." Barabas jogged away.

Over a dozen cutters now sped toward us. With magic up, the giant gun was useless.

A bell rang: three rings, pause, three rings, pause. A woman barked, her voice deep, "General quarters! All hands to battle stations! General quarters!"

"Shouldn't you be on the bridge?" I asked.

"The ship must have only one captain," Saiman said. "Russell is perfectly competent to handle any emergency, and I don't want to undermine him with my presence."

The shapeshifters spilled out onto the deck, Curran in the lead. Andrea brandished a crossbow. Raphael strode next to her, carrying knives. The boats headed straight for us. The Beast Lord braked next to me. "Are you planning to ram them?"

"That would be futile. Their boats are more maneuverable. They would simply scatter."

A person dived into the ocean off the lead boat. That must've been a cue, because the pirates began dropping overboard like their boats were on fire.

"What the hell?" Eduardo muttered.

"As I said, we're about to be boarded," Saiman said with afflicted patience.

Above us on top of the brig, two sailors manned a polybolos, a siege engine that looked like a crossbow on steroids. An antipersonnel weapon, a polybolos fired large crossbow bolts with deadly accuracy, and just for fun, it was self-loading and repeating, like a machine gun.

Sleek shapes dashed through the water toward us.

"Do they have trained dolphins?" George asked.

"Not exactly," Saiman backed away, toward the center of the deck.

The dolphins shot toward the Rush all but flying beneath the waves.

I pulled Slayer out.

"Form a perimeter," Curran called. "Let them get on the deck, where it's nice and dry. Don't let them pull you into the water."

We made a ring in the center of the deck.

"This is utterly ridiculous," Aunt B said.

Keira stretched. "Fun, fun, fun . . ."

Something smashed into the side of the hull. A deformed gray hand clutched the top edge of the deck and a creature leaped over the railing and landed, dripping water. Nude except for a leather harness, it stood on short muscular legs, hunched over but upright, the sun glistening on its thick, shiny hide. Its body was all chest with a smooth, wide trunk of a waist. Broad shoulders supported two massive arms with surprisingly small hands. Its neck, disproportionately thick, with a hump on the back, anchored a head armed with long, narrow dolphin jaws filled with razor-sharp teeth. Two human eyes stared at us from the thickly fleshed face. A big bastard. At least four hundred pounds.

A weredolphin. Pinch me, somebody.

Greek legends spoke of some pirates who'd captured the god Dionysus. They were planning to rape him and sell him into slavery. Furious, he transformed them into dolphins. Apparently, their descendants were alive and well and still in the family business.

The pirate glared at us. Hell of a neck. Strikes to the throat were right out.

Other pirates leaped over the railing. One, two . . . seven . . . thirteen. A baker's dozen. Wait, fifteen. Eighteen . . . Twenty-one. The odds weren't in our favor.

"Maybe they just came over to borrow a cup of sugar," I said.

Andrea barked a short laugh. Curran put his hand on my shoulder. "That's a lot of sugar. Must be a big cake."

The lead weredolphin opened his jaws, displaying teeth designed to pierce struggling prey and not let go. English words spilled out, sotto voce, accented and mangled. "Give us your ship and your cargo and you can go."

"He lies," Saiman said. "I lost two vessels to them in the last six months. They will butcher us like cattle for the sake of the cargo."

"Do you speak Greek?" Curran asked.

Saiman shrugged. "Naturally."

"Ask him if he thought this through."

A melodious language spilled from Saiman.

The weredolphin stared at Saiman like he had grown a second head.

"Leave this ship," Curran said, his voice deepening. He was about to explode. "And you will survive. This is your only warning."

Saiman translated.

The dolphin drew back and pointed at Curran. "First, I kill you. Then I rape your woman."

Gold drowned Curran's eyes. I've seen people put their foot in their mouth. This was the first time I saw a fin jammed into one.

Curran's body exploded. The change was so fast, it was almost instantaneous. One second a man stood next to me, the next a monster towered over me, fully seven and a half feet tall. Gray fur covered his muscular limbs, dark ghostly stripes crisscrossing it like the marks of a whip. The colossal leonine mouth gaped open, flashing scimitar fangs, and a huge sound burst forth, dangerous, rough, grating, primal in its fury and sheer power, like a battle challenge delivered by a tornado. It hit you straight in the gut, bypassing logic and thought, into the bundle of nerves that made you freeze. I've heard it dozens of times and it still shook me.

The weredolphins had never heard it before, and so they did exactly what most people would do when faced with an enraged lion. They cringed, paralyzed.

I lunged forward, drawing as I struck. The head pirate saw me coming and raised his arm to ward off the strike. Slayer's blade cut through the flesh and bone of the narrow wrist like a knife through warm butter. The hand fell to the deck. The pirate clutched the stump of his arm and screamed, a high-pitched, ear-piercing shriek. I buried my sword in his gut and disemboweled him with a single rip.

The pirates swarmed me. Behind me the shapeshifters snarled, in a terrifying chorus: the deep roar of the father-and-daughter Kodiaks mixing with the howls of the wolves and the pissed-off snarl of a jaguar, laced with hyenas' psychotic cackle.

I carved the closest attacker's chest, then slashed the side of the second one open and dropped him with a cut to the neck. The smell of blood filled the air. Behind me Derek moved, breaking the necks and limbs of the bleeding pirates before they had a chance to recover.

I sliced a gaping mouth across a weredolphin's groin. He dropped, snapping his teeth at me, and through the gap in the bodies, I saw Curran pick one of the pirates off the deck and break his spine over his knee. He tossed the limp body aside. His giant lion mouth gaped. Next he bit someone's shoulder. Bones crunched, followed by a blood-chilling desperate scream.

To the left a large weredolphin charged forward, shoving shapeshifters out of the way. The crossbow bolt whined, cutting the air, and sprouted in his eye. The weredolphin spun and the seven-foot-tall striped nightmare that was Aunt B lunged at him, slicing his stomach open. She buried her hand deep in the wound and yanked out a handful of pale guts. I kept moving, carving my way through the gray, shiny bodies.

Teeth bit my arm, ripping into the muscle. I reversed my sword and stabbed Slayer deep into the weredolphin's neck. He gurgled. Blood poured from between his teeth, burning my wound as the magic in my blood reacted to the Lyc-V in his. I twisted the blade, ripping through his throat. The pirate went down. To my left, two weredolphins rammed Eduardo at full speed and dove off the deck.

Crap. In the water they had an edge. I reversed my course, trying to cut my way to the side.

Another pirate blocked my way. I thrust. He turned into my strike, and the blade pierced the thick hump of his neck. The dolphin screamed and smashed into me. The impact took me off my feet. I flew a bit and hit the cabin with my back with a solid thud. Ow.

The dolphin dived at me, too fast to avoid, too heavy to impale. I raised my left leg. The body hit me, the full weight landing on my leg. Crooked dolphin teeth snapped at my face. Heavy sonovabitch. I grunted, bending my knee more, and slid him right onto the point of my sword. Nice and easy.

He jerked, flailing on the blade, as if shocked with a live wire, his weight pinning my legs. I pulled my throwing knife out with my left hand and stabbed it into his side, turning his innards into mush. The dolphin convulsed. Teeth ripped at my clothes, scratching my side. I stabbed him again and again. Blood wet my hand, spraying on my face in a hot mist. The pirate screeched, the high-pitched desperate shriek turning into a gurgle, and sagged on top of me. The four-hundred-some pounds pinned me in place. I strained. The body didn't move. Damn it.

Suddenly the weight was gone. The dolphin hovered three feet above me and was tossed unceremoniously aside. A gray monster stained with blood crouched by me.


"You're taking a nap? Come on, Kate, I need you for this fight. Stop lying around."

You sonovabitch. I rolled to my feet and grabbed my sword. "You must think you're funny."

A weredolphin threw himself at us from the right. Curran tripped him and grabbed his shoulder, pulling him back, and I sliced the pirate's throat and punctured his heart with two quick strikes.

"Just saying, you have to pull your own weight. A hot body and flirting will only get you so far."

Hot body and flirting, huh. When I'm done killing people . . . "Everything I do, I learned from you, boy toy."

Another pirate rushed us. I dropped, slicing the tendons behind his knee, while Curran headbutted him and ripped out his throat. The pirate fell.

"Boy toy?" Curran asked.

"Would you prefer man candy?"

The deck was suddenly empty. Blood painted the ship. Gray corpses lay here and there, torn and savaged by claws and teeth. A huge shaggy Kodiak bear prowled the deck, his muzzle dripping gore. The last pirate still on his feet was running toward Andrea and Raphael near the bow. Andrea raised her crossbow. She was still in human form. Raphael stood next to her, light on his feet, his knives dripping red. A trail of bodies led to them, bristling with crossbow bolts. The pirate rushed her. She sank two bolts into his throat. He gurgled, his momentum carrying him forward. Raphael let him get within ten feet and cut him down in a fury of precise strikes.

Past them a black panther the size of a pony slapped a weredolphin with a huge paw. The shapeshifter's skull split, crushed like an egg under a hammer.

On the left a humanoid creature crawled onto the deck, lean, furry, with a round head and short round ears. Disproportionately long, sharp brown claws protruded from his oversized fingers. He strained and heaved another, much larger body onto the deck. It landed in a splash of water and a shaggy pile of brown fur, turned over, and vomited salt water from a half-human half-bison muzzle. Eduardo.

The reddish beast sank next to him, baring sharp white teeth. His bright red eyes, the color of a ripe strawberry, had a horizontal pupil, like that of a goat. They made him look demonic. I knew of only one shapeshifter with eyes like that-Barabas.

"Why don't you know how to swim?" His diction was almost perfect.

Eduardo unloaded more water on the deck. "Never needed to."

"We are crossing an ocean. It didn't occur to you to learn?"

"Look, I've tried. I walk into a pool, I thrash, and then I sink."

Ahead the flotilla of boats fled behind the island. Bodies littered the deck. I counted. Fourteen. None of them ours. We were bloody, hurt, but alive. The pirates weren't.

What a waste of life.

And I'd loved it. I loved every second of it: the blood, the rush, the heady satisfaction of striking and seeing the cut or thrust find its target . . . Voron had succeeded. I was raised and trained to be a killer, and nothing, not even happy peaceful weeks in the Keep with the man I loved, could change that. I'd come to terms with what I was a long time ago, but sometimes, like right now, looking over the deck strewn with corpses, I felt a quiet regret for the person I could've been.

Curran, naked and covered with blood, wrapped his now-human arm around me. "You okay?" he asked quietly.

I nodded. "You?"

He grinned and squeezed me to him. My bones groaned.

"Congratulations," I squeezed out. "I survived the fight, but your hug did me in."

He grinned and let me go. We'd both made it.

"We have a live one," Raphael called out.

We crossed the deck to where he crouched. A young man, maybe early twenties, with a mass of dark curls, laid on his back, his right leg twisted under at an odd angle, his face contorted by pain. Raphael held the point of his knife over the man's liver.

The man's gaze fastened on Saiman. He held up his hand and said something, his words tumbling out in a rush.

Saiman asked something. The man answered.

Saiman turned to Curran. "He has some information that would be of particular interest to you. He will tell you if you set him free, et cetera, et cetera."

"Fine," Curran said.

Saiman nodded at the man. The pirate said something halting and looked at me. Saiman looked at me as well.


Saiman turned to Curran. "It appears that this is for your ears only. I believe it's in your best interest to have this conversation in private."

"Give us some space," Curran said.

People moved back.

"Do you want me to stay?" I asked.

He reached out and squeezed my hand. "No."

I moved back with the others. Saiman leaned over and whispered something to Curran. They spoke quietly. Saiman asked the man something. The man answered. Saiman relayed it back.

Curran turned, his face dark. All humor fled from his expression. He met my gaze and didn't say anything. Not good.

"How can you stand it?" Andrea murmured next to me. "I'd be right in there."

"I didn't tell him about rescuing Saiman," I murmured back. "If he needs to keep something private, I'm fine with it. When he's ready, he'll tell me."

"Lock this man up," Saiman called.

Two sailors came, picked up the pirate, and carried him off.

"Let's get this place cleaned up," Curran called.

People spread out. He came toward me.

"Bad news?" I asked.

"Nothing we can't handle."

I nodded to him and we went to help scrub the gore off the deck.

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