Magic Rises Chapter 8

I walked into the great hall, carrying my sword in one hand and a severed head in another. As one, people stopped what they were doing and turned to look at me. Nostrils flared, sampling the blood stench. The conversation died.

Hugh saw me and froze. Either he was one hell of an actor or he had no idea what had happened.

Curran half rose in his seat. I knew exactly what he saw. Twenty minutes ago I'd left for the bathroom. Now torn shreds of my dress hung from my side, drenched in red. Blood stained my face and hands. Behind me Andrea supported Desandra, who was pale as a sheet.

I raised the head. "Who does this belong to?"

You could hear a pin drop.

"Who owns this man?"

No answer.

"He turns into a feline creature with wings. Someone has to know him."

A sound of slow, measured clapping broke the silence. Jarek Kral grinned at me. "Nice joke. Very funny."

I would kill that man before this was over.

"Do you know this man?"

Jarek spread his arms. "Nobody knows this man. You bring this to us and tell us this wild story and we're supposed to do what with it?"

"It was a monster," Andrea said.

"We are all monsters here. Or did you forget?" Jarek chuckled. His shapeshifters grinned.

Desandra screamed something in a language I didn't understand. Jarek barked a derisive reply.

"This could be a servant's head for all we know." Jarek leaned over and looked at Curran. "Perhaps you should tell your pet human to stop hacking heads from castle staff or we might not get any wine."

People laughed.

Gray fur dashed down Curran's arms and melted.

"What?" Jarek rose. "What, boy? Are you going to do something?"

Curran locked his hands on the table. It was an enormous table. It had to weigh over two thousand pounds.

The table creaked and left the ground.

The snickering died. People stared, slack-faced.

Curran held the table a foot off the ground for a long second. His face didn't look strained.

Someone made a choking noise.

Curran set the table down, pushing it sideways, toward Jarek's side.

"Thank you for your hospitality," he said. "I think we're done eating for the day."

He stepped down. Our people rose. He led them across the hall, then wrapped his arm around me, and we walked the hell out of there.

* * *

"What did it look like?" Mahon asked.

We'd dropped Desandra off in her rooms. Aunt B and George decided to spend the night there. The rest of us gathered in our room. The moment Doolittle saw me, I had to submit to having my side examined. Then I was poked, my wounds were rinsed, and now he was chanting them into magical healing under his breath.

"About sixty-five inches at the shoulder, definitely feline, covered in amber scales. The scales were really thick and translucent, with sharp edges. It had wings." I shook my head. "I have no idea what it is. What he is."

Mahon looked at Andrea. "And you saw it?"

"Are you calling Kate a liar?" Barabas asked, his voice dry.

"Yes, I saw it," Andrea said. "She sawed through his neck with a silver chain. It wasn't a hallucination."

Doolittle finished chanting. A welcome, soothing coolness spread through my side. "Good as new."

"Thank you, Doc."

The edges of the wounds had stuck together. Without Doolittle, I would've needed stitches.

"Wings?" Doolittle asked.



"Sort of," Andrea told him. "The feathers weren't fully formed. Each was like a simple filament with a little bit of fuzz on it."

Doolittle frowned. "The scales, you see, they would add weight . . ."

"It doesn't make sense," I told him. "I know. But this is what I killed."

"Just because it has wings doesn't mean it can fly," Mahon said. "They can be vestigial."

"They definitely didn't look right," I said.

Doolittle nodded. "I'll test the head."

Mahon glanced at Curran. "I spoke to the Volkodavi and Belve Ravennati at dinner. Both are convinced Jarek wants to kill his daughter. When he originally promised the pass, it was one of the four ways through the mountains. They've had some natural disasters since then. Now it's one of two. He'll do anything to hold on to it."

"Too obvious for Jarek," Barabas countered. "I studied him and he likes to pin the blame on someone else. He would've used a lynx or a wolf, so he could finger one of the other packs. Two birds with one stone. Instead they used something nobody has ever seen before."

"The question is why?" Keira said. "Jarek is still the only one with the obvious motive. If Desandra dies, he doesn't have to give up the pass."

"If she dies, he can kiss his shot at grandkids good-bye," Barabas said.

"The other two packs hate him," Mahon said. "If Desandra gives birth, they won't let him have the children. He may value retaining the pass more."

"Enough," Curran said.

They fell silent.

"We're on full alert," he said. "Move in groups. Lock your doors. Nobody goes or stays anywhere alone. You have to use the bathroom in the middle of the night, you wake everyone up and you go together."

"We need to have a meeting in the morning," I told them. "We need to set the guard shifts and work out a schedule. Let's meet at Doolittle's room at eight."

"Nine." Curran said. "Now she needs rest."

People filed out of the room. He barred it and crouched by me. "Shower?"


He disappeared into the bathroom. The sound of running water was like a whisper of heaven. I was suddenly so tired. I dragged myself to my feet and into the bathroom. A shower waited for me, a tiled stall, half-hidden by a purple curtain on a curved rod. Steam rose from the tile. I tugged on the zipper of my dress. Stuck.

Curran reached over. His careful hands touched my shoulders. The sound of ripping fabric screeched and the shreds of the dress fluttered down.

"Thank you."

I slid off my ruined underwear, unhooked my bra, dropped them to the floor, and stepped into the shower. The hot spray washed over me. Red water swirled by my feet. I closed my eyes and stood under the water. Inhale, exhale. The fight was over. Everyone had survived. The war was just beginning.

I checked my side. Doolittle was a miracle worker. The shallow gashes were already closing and stripes of paler skin crossed my tan. I picked up shampoo and worked it into foam in my hair. It smelled like jasmine. I took a washcloth and began scrubbing: neck, breasts, stomach, shoulders . . .

Curran reached over my shoulder. I realized he was nude, standing in the shower with me.

He took the washcloth from my fingers and scrubbed my back. The water splashed over us. He closed his arms around me and I felt his muscular body press and slide against my back. In the whole world, there was no better place than being wrapped in him.

His arms were tense. The tightness vibrated in his muscles, like an electric current under his skin.

I turned in his arms. He rested his forehead on mine. I closed my eyes. Being attacked by strange beasts I could handle. Being in the same room with Hugh . . .

"One word," he whispered, his voice taut with suppressed anger. "Say one word, and I'll rip him apart. He won't see the sunrise."

I looked into his eyes and realized he would. He would step out of the shower, shift his shape, and fight Hugh until one of them stopped breathing. If I stood next to him, he would fight Hugh so I would be free, and if I chose to run, he would fight him so I could get away. Nobody in my entire life had loved me this much.

And because of me and Hugh, and because of Jarek, now Curran was trapped with me in this castle. Fury boiled inside me.

"No," I forced myself to say. "We still need the panacea."

Curran locked his teeth.

I wanted to go home. I wanted to go back to the Keep. I'd cut off my arm to teleport all of us back there and forget we ever came here. The frustration built inside me, fueled by fear and anger. There was absolutely nothing I could do about it now. Running in there and fighting Hugh, as great as it would feel, would condemn everyone who came with us and everyone who stayed back home.

I put my head on his shoulder. My hands squeezed into fists on their own.

He held me. "I know," he said. "I know."

We stood like that for a long time, water washing over us. Gradually, I became aware that my breasts were pressed against him, that he was hard, and that we were both nude.

I leaned in and kissed Curran, licking him in the sensitive point under his jaw. My tongue tasted the raspy stubble. My body came to attention, suddenly aware and rejoicing in the fact that I was alive. I caressed his face, sliding myself against the slick, hard wall of his chest.

A low male sound came from him, frustration and need rolled into one. "Does your side hurt?" he whispered.

I wanted him so desperately. I needed to be in that place where only the two of us mattered and nothing except love existed. It felt like if I couldn't have him, I would burst. I shook my head and kissed his mouth, with my eyes open, and saw the precise moment he let himself off the chain. His lips closed on mine. His tongue slid into my mouth. The taste of him, the smoky, male taste, was intoxicating. My body shot into overdrive. Every cell focused on him, screaming, More, more, more! I felt his hands caressing my back, I tasted his mouth, I sensed every hard inch of him pressed against me. I slipped my hand down and stroked the hot length of him.

He made a rough noise, a growl born of pleasure.

Dear God, I had to have him now or I would cry.

"I want you so much," he whispered.

I opened my arms.

Our fury, our worry, our frustration, and our need collided. He picked me up and hoisted me on his hips, his hands under my butt. I felt so alive. I locked my legs around him. The muscles of his shoulders bulged under my fingers, strong like steel cables. He was looking at me, his gray eyes luminescent with golden sparks and filled with such raw, honest need that I felt light-headed.

He kissed my throat, stoking the fire inside me. I leaned back and let him kiss me more. He licked my breasts, sucking on my nipples. The jolt of desire pulsed through me, molten and electric, and when he thrust inside me, hot and hard, I no longer cared about anything but him. I didn't want to think. I just wanted to feel him touch me.

My back pressed against the cool tile. He slid inside me again and again, pumping in a smooth rhythm into the liquid heat. A yearning need built inside me, each thrust sending a pulse of slick pleasure through me, propelling me higher and higher. My nipples were so tight, it hurt. My legs shook. My joints turned fluid. The anticipation swelled inside me, like a tidal wave threatening to crest. He thrust again. Bliss exploded inside me. The wave crested and drowned me in pleasure, each contraction of my orgasm an ecstasy in itself. I cried out. A moment later he grunted and emptied himself inside me.

"You make me crazy," he told me.

"Look who's talking."

* * *

Five minutes later, rewashed and tired, we left the shower. Curran sprawled on the bed. I forced myself to dress-we could end up jumping out of bed straight into a fight-and collapsed next to him. Above us the absurd purple canopy shifted gently in the night breeze. The cool wind felt nice on my skin.

He leaned over on his side, held me, and whispered in my ear, so quietly I thought I imagined it. "I meant it. One word and you'll never see his face again. In the morning, this castle will be a bonfire and we'll sail home."

I'd have to word this carefully. People were listening to us. I whispered back to him. "If we sail down the coast southwest, we'll pass by the ruins of Troy. Do you remember the story of Paris and Helen?"

"Yes," he said.

Troy's favorite son and badass archer, Paris, had sailed to Sparta. He came under a banner of truce. The Spartan king treated him as an honored guest, and then Paris stole the king's wife, Helen, and emptied his treasury. Nobody really knew if he kidnapped Helen or if she went with him. Her husband could've loved her or beaten her every day. But the whole of Greece united against Paris. At the end, Troy was a smoking ruin.

I kissed his jaw. "The bow and arrow was never your thing."

He locked his teeth, making his jaw muscles bulge.

We promised to be impartial. We came in peace. If we broke that peace and started a bloodbath, we'd get a bloodbath in return. Nobody would see it as an act of a man trying to save the woman he loved from her father's warlord. The European packs would spin it as an act of betrayal from a man who couldn't handle being insulted.

Attacking Hugh would be an act of war. Not to mention that I wasn't one hundred percent sure that even if both of us fought him, we'd survive that confrontation. Whatever the outcome, Roland would have an excuse to burn the Keep to the ground. He already viewed the Atlanta Pack as a threat, and this would be the tasty icing on his massacre cake. By the time we got home, people we knew and cared about would be dead.

"I'm sorry," I whispered. "I'm so sorry."

"For what?"

"It's because of me." I was the reason we were all trapped here. I didn't cause it, but I was the reason for it.

He pulled me to him and squeezed me. "You're worth the fight," he said in my ear.

He had no idea how much I loved him.

"We all volunteered," he whispered. "And without you, we wouldn't have a shot at the panacea. We need it desperately."

We fell silent. For a long moment I simply enjoyed being next to him. If only this could last . . .

"He hasn't attacked me on sight," I whispered. "That means he'll want to talk to me."

"No," Curran said. "Not alone."

"Sooner or later this conversation has to happen. If he planned on killing me, why go through all this trouble? He knew where I was. He could've just put a sniper on the roof across the street from Cutting Edge and put a bullet through my head as I unlocked the office."

Curran exhaled his frustration. "I'll do everything I can to keep you safe."

"I know," I whispered. "And I'll do the same for you."

We shouldn't have come here. I closed my eyes. I had to sleep. Tomorrow would be another day, another fight. Tomorrow Hugh would approach me and I had to be sharp. Once I figured out what his angle was, things would become a lot simpler.

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