Magic Strikes Chapter 19

TWENTY MINUTES LATER, GUTTURAL COUGHS ANNOUNCED Jim's return. I waited for him by the scaled man's corpse. He leapt off the tree and dropped a limp body onto the grass. Bulging dead eyes glared at me from a face that wasn't even remotely human. A cross between a tiger and a Chinese temple dog might have looked like that.

"Shapeshifter?" I asked.

"No. Doesn't smell right."

The werejaguar glanced at the two prone forms and prodded the red-skinned creature. He didn't respond and Jim gave a small snort.

"Swallowed his own tongue," I explained.

Jim sighed, a purely feline fatalism twisting his monstrous face. "You get anything before he croaked?"

"They dumped Derek as a declaration of war. According to the recently departed, you are scum, a mix of base races of human and animal, and no peace is possible. They hate the Pack and plan on killing you all in a glorious slaughter with much bloodshed and much feasting on your flesh, as soon as they get the jewel. They've allied themselves with the Sultan of Death, who will help them nuke you, after which they're hoping to double-cross him. Oh, and I'm to be raped many, many times."

It was hard to roll your eyes in a half-shape. Jim gave it a good college try. "Who is the Sultan of Death?"

"Beats me."

Roland would certainly fit the bill. I didn't say it out loud. Roland was the center of my existence. As long as I'd been aware of myself, I knew that I had to kill him and that if he ever found out about me, he would sacrifice every resource at his disposal to kill me. His power was incredible. Legends of him floated through the ages, and almost every ancient civilization had a record of his reign. Hunting him would be akin to assassinating a god. I needed more experience and more power, before I could even contemplate that confrontation.

Until my abilities grew, I had to hide, living every moment with the awareness of being discovered. My paranoia ran so deep it was a wonder I didn't check for Roland's agents under my bed.

Any mysterious threat, any unknown danger, any mention of a magically powerful being automatically brought Roland to the front of my mind. Yes, the Sultan of Death fit him perfectly - he had brought undeath into the world. But the title could refer to someone completely different. Just because I had fixated on him didn't mean the rest of the world had.

"This keeps coming back to the Wolf Diamond. I have a feeling they plan to use it as a weapon. It was how he said it, Jim. He said, 'We shall have the jewel' the way MSDU might say, 'We shall have air support.' "

Jim swore.

I led him inside, into the first room. A long stone table ran the length of the room. On the table Saiman's victim, still in his human body, lay spread-eagled on his stomach. Strips of flesh had been carved from his back and buttocks down to the bone and stacked aside like meat cuts in a butchery shop. I walked over to a huge stainless steel chest freezer sitting by the table. It was unplugged - there wasn't a single outlet in the ruins - and filled with ice and raw meat. Steaks, ground patties, slabs of ribs, pork chops, venison roasts layered atop one another, some in plastic, some in paper, some simply sitting, wedged, dripping frozen blood. I pointed to the left, where several long hunks of meat sat crammed into a corner. The skin on the meat was the color of coffee with cream.

Jim sniffed and recoiled.


"Yes." He snarled and spat to the side. I'd had much the same reaction when I first realized what it was. These bastards caught some person, chopped him up, and stuffed him into a freezer to be eaten. We'd never know his name. Or his sex for that matter. Somewhere a person simply didn't come home and nobody would ever find out why. It made me sick.

Jim glanced at the table, where slabs of flesh, carved from the body of Saiman's victim, lay in a stack. "Cannibals ."

"Equal opportunity carnivores: any flesh is meat. They don't discriminate. There is more."

He followed me into the second room. Empty and dusty, it offered several straw sleeping mats tossed haphazardly into a corner. A mural stretched on the wall, painted on a long sheet of plain brown paper, pinned to the stones with tape. Bright with garish red and green and gold, the mural began with a hellish forge. A waterfall of molten metal fell into a wide basin in its center. Anvils stood by the walls, lightning bolts and twisted metal tools hung from the hooks in the ceiling, and dark smoke billowed, obscuring the edges of the picture and twisting to form a frame around the forge. A demonic man hefted a huge hammer, critically surveying a half-forged sword in his hand. Monstrously muscled, he wore a leather apron and nothing else. A dark beard protruded from his face, and his eyes glowed red.

The next panel of the mural showed a room strewn with pillows. A beautiful man reclined in the center, clad in gauzy robes and surrounded by nude women bearing fruit and garlands of flowers. The man's delicate face bore little resemblance to the dark inhabitant of the forge, but the dark beard gave him away. The metalsmith cleaned up rather nice.

The third part of the mural was unfinished. A pale gold wash had been applied through the faint pencil outline. The graceful man from the center of the mural had become a god: he had grown three additional heads and six arms. One face looked straight at me, two faces showed in profile, and an outline of the back of his head pointed to a fourth face turned away from me. North, east, south, and west.

Two enormous wings protruded from his shoulders, and between the wings shimmered a mirage of a city: a sea of elegant towers and domes guarded by a wall. The style of the mural didn't point to any mythology in particular; it reminded me more of a comic book than anything else. The poses were stylized, the man's musculature seemed greatly exaggerated, and all women came equipped with tiny asses, disproportionately long legs, and perfectly round, udder-sized breasts.

"Ring any bells?" I looked at Jim.

Jim shook his head.

"Yeah, me neither."

I pulled the mural off the wall and rolled it into a tube.

Jim took the corpse from the table, slung it over his shoulder, and took it outside.

I went back to the freezer. I would've liked to bury the human remains, but we had neither the time nor the means to do it. I pulled a leather pouch from my belt, untied the cord securing it, and sprinkled dark green dust over the meat, careful not to inhale or touch the powder.

"Spicing it up?" Jim asked from the doorway.

"Water hemlock. Also called cowbane." I put the pouch away. "Thirty minutes and then projectile vomiting, violent convulsions, and death or permanent nervous system damage. A little present from me for their table."

Jim stepped outside, grasped the four-armed freak, swung it onto his shoulders, and stared pointedly at the other three bodies sprawled on the grass. They were our evidence. I would have to carry one. A seven-foot-tall scaled monstrosity, a green creature covered in foot-long needles, or the guy missing most of his flesh from his ass and legs. Hmmm, let me think . . .

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