Magic Rises Chapter 7

This wasn't happening. This was a hallucination, caused by stress. Hugh d'Ambray, Roland's warlord, wasn't here. He was back in the United States serving my biological father. This was his long-lost twin with the same height, build, and hair, who knew nothing about me.

Hugh looked straight at me and smiled. It was the smile of a fisherman who'd just pulled a prized catch out of the water and into his boat.

No, it was him. All this time I'd been breaking my brain trying to figure out what Curran or the Pack had done to be targeted for this trap. It wasn't Curran or the Pack. It was me.

"Please rise for the lord of the castle," the same man called out.

People around me stood up. I locked my teeth and forced myself to move. Curran was squeezing my hand so hard it hurt.

Damn it all to hell. Could I not catch a break just once in my life?

Hugh waved. His voice carried through the hall, a kind of voice that could be quiet and intimate or cut through the clamor of a battle. "Sit, please. No need for formality, we're all friends here."

He was real. He was here. Adrenaline rushed through me, sending electric needles through my fingertips. If he thought I would roll over and give up without a fight, he would be deeply disappointed.

Everyone at our side of the table went very still. They were all watching Curran and me, and they realized something was really wrong. Andrea's face turned chalk-white. She recognized d'Ambray. Before she left the Order of Merciful Aid, she had climbed high enough in its ranks to receive briefings about Roland, who was considered the greatest danger the Order would eventually face. She watched Hugh the way one watched a rabid dog. Raphael leaned closer to her, his eyes fixed on Hugh as well. He knew, too. She must've told him.

Hugh crossed the hall, coming toward us. Tall, at least two inches over six feet, he was muscled like a Roman gladiator, and his suit failed to hide it. He moved with perfect balance, gliding as if his joints were liquid. Before my mother and Voron had run off, Hugh had been Voron's protege. My adoptive father trained him, honing him into the perfect general to lead Roland's armies. Fighting Hugh would be like fighting my father. It would be the second-hardest fight of my life. The first would be my real father.

I scanned the doorways. No troops. Hugh hadn't called in the reinforcements. Did he think he could take me and Curran by himself?

Hugh was getting closer. Dark, almost black hair fell over his shoulders, longer than the last time I saw him. A small scar marked his left cheek-also a recent souvenir. His eyes were an intense dark blue and they laughed at me as he approached.

I stared back at him. Yep, the gig was up. Now what?

Hugh circled the table. He would have to sit next to Curran. Dear God.

Curran's face turned into an expressionless mask. He squeezed my hand and leaned forward slightly, putting himself between me and Hugh.

Don't attack him, Curran. Don't. Do. Anything.

A djigit pulled Hugh's chair out for him. Hugh smiled, a happy wolf confident in his lair, and picked up a glass. A server appeared as if by magic and poured red wine into it. Hugh raised the glass. "We have been truly fortunate to host the mighty Obluda of the Carpathians . . ."

He turned to Jarek Kral, who raised his fist with a self-indulgent smile. Behind him the four shapeshifters howled, and others echoed their howls at the tables.

". . . the famous Volkodavi of Ukraine . . ."

Radomil and his family nodded. The members of the Volkodavi hooted and pounded their tables.

". . . and the fearless Belve Ravennati."

The Italian brothers nodded. Their pack members howled and slapped their table.

"Tonight we welcome honored guests to our humble abode." Hugh turned to us. "The Beast Lord and his Consort join us to add their wisdom and expertise to the joyous occasion of welcoming new life into this world. You honor us with your presence."

The silence was deafening. We would not be hooting or punching things.

Curran unlocked his jaws. "The honor is all ours."

Hugh turned to the gathering. "Let us eat, drink, and celebrate."

He sat, set down his glass, and turned to Curran. "I do so hate speeches."

"I can imagine," Curran said, the same calm expression on his face.

Hugh flashed him a quick smile. "I thought you might. You and I, we are men of action. At least once the speech is done, they'll bring us food."

A nod to The Princess Bride. It was my favorite book. Did he know or was this a coincidence? If he knew, how the hell did he know?

A string of servers came into the hall, followed by a cart pushed by another four. On the cart an enormous roasted boar lay on a huge platter lined with grape leaves.

"Ahh. Excellent." Hugh picked up his fork. "I'm bloody starving."

My heart was hammering at my chest as though I had just run a marathon. Voron's ghostly voice whispered at me, "Run. You're not ready."

If I ran, Hugh would kill our people one by one until I came back. Not only had he trapped me, but he had trapped a handful of hostages with me as well. There would be no running.

The servers began distributing oversized platters heaped with meat and bread. The shapeshifters dug in. A plate was set in front of me: a thick cut of meat, cooked just enough not to be raw, bread, and a pomegranate split open, the red seeds glistening with the color of blood.

Barabas leaned over between Curran and me and cut a small piece from my meat.


He ate it, cut a piece of the bread, scooped a couple seeds from the pomegranate, ate them and stood quietly, chewing slowly. Finally he leaned to me and said quietly. "It's not poisoned."

"A weremongoose," Hugh said. "Most prudent of you."

"We mean no offense," Barabas said.

Hugh waved at him. "Of course. Would've done the same in your place. Can never be too careful."

Apparently I had acquired my own personal poison tester. I made a note to talk with Barabas once the dinner was over.

Desandra rose. "I have to go to the bathroom."

Andrea and I stood up. My legs felt wooden. Desandra rolled her eyes and went around the table to the door on the left. We followed her. Behind me Hugh said, "So, Lennart, how was the trip? The Atlantic can be dangerous this time of year."

We crossed the hall and stepped into the corridor. I sped up and took the point. We'd run the basic two-person detail. In trouble, one of us would secure the body, the other would deal with the threats. The magic was up, and that made me better equipped for countermeasures. During tech, we'd switch.

"Turn right," Desandra said. "Will the two of you watch me pee, too?"

"Why is your English so American?" Andrea asked, her voice wooden.

"My mother took off two years after I was born," Desandra said. "A nice American woman looked after me. My father hired her so I would learn the language. He said it would be useful. He wouldn't let me take Angela with me when I got married. He threw her out of the pack. I haven't seen her since."

I didn't like Desandra. I didn't know her and she would prove difficult to guard, but I felt sorry for her.

Ahead of me an intersection waited. "Which way?"


We turned the corner. Another long deserted hallway lit with yellow feylanterns. No danger. No guards either. Hmm.

"Finally," Desandra breathed. "Stupid pregnancy. Stupid babies. Can't sit for more than two minutes without running to the bathroom. I swear if that little bastard, whichever one he is, kicks me in the bladder one more time, I'll punch him."

And my sympathy evaporated. "If you try to punch your unborn children, we will restrain you."

"Cool your tits," Desandra said. "I'm not going to punch myself. I just want these kids to be superachievers and get out of me already. Here. This door."

Thank you, Universe.

I swung the door open. A typical bathroom: three stalls, a long stone vanity with two sinks. Solid floor, solid ceiling, a small ventilation window near the ceiling, six feet long, six inches wide. Steel bars guarded the window.

I checked the stalls one by one. Empty. I stepped out into the hallway. "Clear."

"Oh, good. Can I pee now? Sometime in this century would be nice."

Metal clanged against metal behind us. I spun around. A section of the floor to our right slid aside, and a metal grate dropped from the ceiling and sank into the floor, sealing the hallway and us inside it.

"That never happened before," Desandra said.

To the far left, something growled, a rough, ugly sound, like gravel being crushed.

The hair on the back of my neck rose.

A creature turned the corner, huge, bright amber. The roar rolled forth, pulsing, threatening.

I pulled Slayer from the sheath and stepped into the center of the hallway.

Andrea punched the bathroom door open, grabbed Desandra, shoved her into the bathroom, rushed after her, and slammed the door shut. Working with Andrea was effortless. We didn't even need to talk. First, it would have to go through me, then through the door, then through Andrea. Desandra would be at the very end of that very long trip.

The beast took a step toward me. Hello, varmint. And what mythology did you jump out of?

In the bathroom, metal whined followed by a thud. Andrea was ripping the doors off the stalls and barricading the door.

The beast took up most of the width of the hallway, standing at least four feet tall at the shoulder. Powerful legs, almost feline and corded with hard ropes of muscle, supported a sleek body with a broad chest that flowed into a thick, long, but mobile neck. Its head was feline too, round, armed with jaguarlike jaws, but strangely wide. Two folds rose behind its shoulders. I couldn't get a good look at them because it faced me straight on.

From this angle they looked like wings. Deformed, but still wings.

What the hell are you? It wasn't a manticore. I'd seen manticores before, and they were smaller, and the outline of the body was completely different. Manticores were built like giant stocky boxer dogs, square, with every muscle defined under smooth brown hide. This creature was more catlike, built with agility and dexterity in mind.

As if hearing my words, the beast took another step forward and grinned at me, displaying a forest of eight-inch teeth.

My, my. Scary.

I zeroed in on the way it raised its paws. Living with shapeshifters had given me some pointers. In hunting, the chief difference between cats and dogs came down to the length and shape of arm bones. Cats could turn their paws palm up, while dog paws were fixed permanently downward, a fact that shapeshifter instructors drilled into their students when they trained for the warrior form. Rotating the paw gave cats greater capacity to suppress their prey after they rushed it. It meant the difference between an ambush predator and a pack hunter. This beast was an ambush predator. It would claw and swipe, and those teeth and jaws meant it could bite through my skull. I had to treat it like a jaguar.

Luckily I had practice fighting with jaguars.

The monster took another step. As its paw touched the ground, the orange fur suddenly turned jagged. Now what?

Another step.

It wasn't fur. The creature was covered with sharp orange scales and it'd just raised them, like a dog raised its hackles. They looked thick too, like mussel shells. So it was big, it had wings, it was catlike, and it was armored. My list of probable targets just shrunk. With my luck it would spit fire next.

Was it a dragon? Some kind of drake? Somehow it seemed too feline for that. Not that I had come across many dragons. The only one I'd seen was undead and rotting, but it was the size of a large T. rex and its head had the trademark reptilian lines. This was a mammal.

No power words. No heavy-duty magic. Not with Hugh less than two hundred yards away. He knew I could use a sword, but the extent of my magic was a mystery to him and I had to keep it that way as long as possible. There could come a time when the surprise of my magic could mean the difference between living and dying.

The creature's bright blue eyes fixed on me. A cold steady fire burned inside its irises. The beast looked hungry. Not hungry for food but hungry for violence. This thing was no scavenger. It hunted the living and it enjoyed the hell out of it.

Let's see how smart you are. "Can we speed this up? I have a dinner to get back to."

The beast tucked its deformed wings to its body and charged.

It understood me. Never a good sign.

The creature came toward me, picking up speed, fangs bared, eyes glowing, gulping the distance in short leaps.

Every animal instinct in my body screamed, Run! I stood my ground. It was a cat. It would pounce at the end.

Leap, leap, leap.


It was a glorious jump, propelled by the steel-hard muscles of the beast's legs. It came at me, claws out, paws raised for the kill.

I dove forward, turning as I fell, and slid under it. The bulk of the beast's body landed on me and I sank Slayer deep into its groin. Hot blood sprayed my face and mouth. The beast screamed.

I clamped its left leg to me, trying to keep it from disemboweling me, clung to it, and ripped Slayer through its insides. The creature yowled and raked at my side with its right hind leg, trying to rip me open. Claws shredded the dress. Pain lashed my side. Argh. It hurt like a sonovabitch. Next time they told me to wear a dress instead of leather, I'd shove it up their asses.

I stabbed again, driving Slayer deeper. More blood gushed in a sticky hot flood. The beast should be going down. It wasn't. It struck at me and I scrambled its insides again and again. Die already.

Magic burned my side, as if someone had grabbed a handful of ice and thrust it straight into the cut. My blood recognized an invader and reacted, purging it from me. Lyc-V. This fucking thing was a shapeshifter.

Its regeneration meant it wouldn't bleed out. I wasn't causing enough damage. I had to get to its vital organs.

I slashed the ligament on its left leg.

The beast charged forward, dragging me with it. I slashed it again trying to cripple it, let go, and rolled to my feet. For half a second its back was still to me, and I jumped on it, right between the wings, grabbed its neck, and slashed its throat. Slayer's blade slid from the scales, barely drawing blood. Shit. It would have to do. The beast braked. I yanked the necklace off my neck, looped it over its throat, and slid Slayer into the loops.

The beast reared as silver pressed against the cut. Choke on that, why don't you?

I turned Slayer, twisting the necklace into a makeshift garrote. My side felt like someone was trying to cook me alive.

The beast shook, gurgling as the necklace bit deeper into the gash. I hung on with everything I had. To fall was to die. It veered left. I jerked my leg up a fraction of a moment before it slammed into the wall. I turned Slayer another half a turn, praying my bloody fingers wouldn't slip.

The creature shook again. My arms shuddered from the effort.

It flipped. There was nothing I could've done. The beast's weight pinned me in place. A crushing pressure ground at my chest. It rolled on me. My bones whined and I cried out.

One more twist of the garrote. Just a quarter turn.

Don't black out, don't black out.

Just a quarter turn.

I held on. My breath was coming in shallow tortured gasps. The beast convulsed on top of me.

I couldn't feel my fingers.

The big body went rigid on top of me. A long hissing breath escaped it, and it went limp.

Get up, get up, get up. This alone wouldn't do it. It wasn't dead. It had just passed out. I could lie here all day, choking it, and Lyc-V would keep it alive.

I crawled, pushing the weight off my legs, and rolled to my knees. The necklace had bitten deep into the beast's throat. It had likely cut its windpipe. I pulled on Slayer. Stuck. I grunted, lifting the beast's head, and turned Slayer counterclockwise. Little more. Little more . . .

The chain of the necklace began to loosen.

Little more . . .

The beast's eyes snapped open, a hot infuriated blue. I yanked Slayer free and chopped down, straight into the wound. Bone crunched under magic steel. The head rolled free from the stump of the neck.

I slid against the wall, trying to catch my breath. I'd just rest here, for a second. My chest hurt with every breath. Ow.

The beast lay still.

I spat blood out of my mouth. "Clear!"

Thuds came from the bathroom. The door burst open and Andrea stepped into the hallway. "Holy shit."

I tried to wipe the blood from my face, but since my hands were bloody, I just smeared some more gore on myself. Great thinking there.

Desandra peeked over Andrea's shoulder. Her eyes widened. "What the hell is that?"

"Ever see one before?" I asked.


She sounded sincere to me. I'd seen all kinds of odd things, but I'd never seen one of these either.

The body shuddered. Andrea jerked her crossbow up. I jumped to my feet.

The golden scales boiled, viscous like molten metal, and shrank. A beheaded human torso sprawled in the hallway. I nudged the now-human head so I could see the face. A man in his forties. Brown hair, brown beard. Never saw him before.

Andrea swore.

I leaned over, trying not to wince as my chest protested, picked up the head by the hair, and showed the face to Desandra.

She shook her head.

"Maybe someone in the hall knows. Why don't we go and ask?"

Andrea nodded at the floor. "Any of the blood yours?"

"It doesn't matter now, does it?" Hugh had me here in the castle. He went through a hell of a lot of trouble to get me here. He wouldn't have done it if he weren't certain of the only thing my blood would tell him: I was his boss's daughter.

"I suppose it doesn't," Andrea said.

We went down the hallway, away from the grate.

"What are we going to do about Hugh?" Andrea asked.

"Nothing, until we know what his plan is."

"Who's Hugh?" Desandra asked.

"Someone we both know," Andrea said. We turned the corner, crossed another hallway. The noise of the hall was getting closer.

Suddenly Desandra stopped. She covered her stomach with her hands. Her expression went slack.

"What is it?" I asked.

"Somebody just tried to kill my babies." Desandra blinked and vomited on the floor.

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