Magic Strikes Chapter 20

CARRYING CORPSES IN PLAIN DAYLIGHT, ESPECIALLY corpses with four arms, pretty much takes the whole notion of "not drawing attention" out back and explodes it with fireworks. Especially since the people doing the carrying are covered in blood and look like they've been dragged through a hedge backward. Not to mention that one of them is a werejaguar in a warrior form and the other a woman hauling a human corpse with his ass cut off.

Fortunately, the outskirts of Unicorn were deserted. One would have to be some sort of special breed of idiot to approach that street in the first place. Apparently, Atlanta was experiencing a moron shortage, and today Jim and I were the only idiots of this caliber.

Even without his butt and thighs, Saiman's unfortunate victim weighed a ton. We passed out of the jungle into the city with no problems, but carrying him through Unicorn Lane and out to the vehicle proved to be near my limits. I had slid into a kind of fog where taking the next step was all that mattered. I dimly recalled reaching the spot where we had left the vehicle and finding a cart hitched to a pair of horses instead. The dingo must've come back with the horses once the magic wave had hit the city. Unfortunately, he didn't stick around.

I also remembered packing the corpses into the cart under some canvas and sliding into the seat to steer, because Jim, being the top man on Curran's Most-Wanted List, had to stay out of sight. Then there was the trek across the city, through the morning traffic. The glow of pain along my side and back nicely kept me awake. A layer of jungle dirt had mixed with Reaper blood on my skin, and the fall sun baked it into a crust over my face and hair. At least I had no trouble with traffic jams. The rival drivers took one look at my blood-encrusted persona and scrambled to get out of the way.

I drove and thought of Roland.

I had no mother. Instead I had Voron, whom I called my father. Tall, his dark blond hair cropped short, Voron had led me through my childhood with his quiet strength. Voron could kill anything. He could solve anything. He could fix anything. I would do anything for one of his rare smiles. He was my father, one of the two constants in my life.

Roland had been the other.

He entered my life as a fairy tale that Voron would tell me before bed. There once was a man who had lived through the ages. He had been a builder, an artisan, a healer, a priest, a prophet, a warrior, and a sorcerer. At times he had been a slave. At others he was a tyrant. Magic fell and technology reigned, and then magic rose again, and still he persevered, ancient like the sand itself, driven through the years by his obsession for a perfect world.

He had many names, although he called himself Roland now. He had been master to many men and lover to many women, but he had not loved anyone as much as he loved my mother.

She was kind and smart and generous and she filled Roland with life. My mother wanted a baby. It had been millennia since Roland had sired a child, because his child would inherit all the power of Roland's ancient blood and all of his ambition, and Roland had fought too many wars to kill children who had risen against him.

But he loved my mother too much and he decided to give her a child because it would make her happy. She was only two months along when he started to have second thoughts. He became obsessed that the child would oppose him, and he decided to kill the child in the womb.

But my mother loved the baby. The more obsessed Roland became, the farther she pulled away from him.

Roland had a Warlord. His name was Voron, which meant raven in Russian. They called him that because death followed him. And Voron loved my mother as well.

When Roland was away, my mother ran and Voron ran with her. He was there when she gave birth to me. For a few blissful months on the run they were happy. But Roland chased them, and my mother, knowing that Voron was the stronger of the two, stayed behind to delay Roland so he and I could escape. She sank her dagger into Roland's eye and then he killed her.

And that was where the fairy tale ended and we would check for a knife under my bed and then I would go to sleep, hoping to kill my natural father one day.

Wherever we went, whatever we did, Roland's presence followed me. He was my target and the reason for my existence. He gave me life and I would take his.

I knew him intimately. Voron had been his Warlord for half a century, and would've served him through the ages, kept young and virile by Roland's magic, if my mother hadn't come along. He taught me everything he learned about his former master. I knew what Roland looked like. Voron had shown me his photo and I had committed it to memory before we burned it. I recognized his face on the statues in old history books and found it once in a Renaissance painting of a battle. I read the Bible passages about him, what little there was. I knew his lieutenants, his weapons, his powers. And Roland's age had given him vast power.

He could control hundreds of undead at once. He wielded his blood like a weapon, solidifying it at will to create devastating weapons and impenetrable blood armor. It was his fucked-up blood that accounted for my power.

Voron had been a supreme warrior. He took every crumb of his knowledge and he poured it into me, tempering me like a blade. Grow stronger. Survive. Kill Roland. End it forever. Until then, hide.

Four months ago I made a conscious decision to stop hiding. I had questioned it ever since. I lacked the strength and experience to face Roland, but now I was playing out in the open, and our eventual confrontation was inevitable.

An instinct told me he was the Sultan of Death. Which meant that if I kept tugging at this tangled mess of a problem, I might end up running across someone from his inner circle. The idea filled me with dread.

I was afraid of Roland. But I was scared for Derek even more. And I was scared for Curran.

When I finally drew up to the shapeshifter safe house, the morning was in full swing. I pulled back the tarp. Jim slept atop the corpses. He'd reverted back to his human form and was naked as a jaybird. I shook him a few times, but he seemed to have gone into a Sleeping Beauty-like stupor and I wasn't going to kiss him to wake him up.

I knocked on the door. No answer. I tried the handle - and the door swung open. I stuck my head in and called a few times but nobody materialized to assist me.

Brenna was supposed to have watched the door. The only thing that could've drawn her from it was . . . Please don't let Derek be dead.

At the thought of going down to the basement, my legs nearly gave out. I wasn't sure I could take seeing him dead.

I needed to go down there but I couldn't make myself move. I swallowed and stared at the doorway.

The bodies. I better go get the bodies. That's a good idea.

It proved surprisingly difficult to maneuver a four-armed corpse through the door. I tried it for a full three minutes before my patience ran dry. But by the time Brenna appeared at the top of the gloomy staircase, I had matters well in hand.

"Is Derek dead?"

"Not yet."

Relief rolled though me. I needed a nice place to sit down. "I thought you were guarding the entrance," I said, sliding Slayer under my arm.

"I was. I had to let someone in." She stared at the corpse at my feet.

"It's not Curran, is it?" I asked.


"Great." I gathered up the four severed arms and nodded at the stub of the body. "Would you mind getting the bigger piece?"

DOOLITTLE HAD TAKEN ONE LOOK AT ME AND prescribed an immediate shower.

Half an hour later, showered, patched up, and given a mug of coffee by Brenna, I felt almost human. Doolittle had disappeared into the depths of the house to continue his constant vigil on Derek. It was just me and two corpses. At about half a mug, Jim wandered into the room, looking mean and hungover. He favored me with an ugly scowl and flopped into a chair.

"Now what?"

"We wait."

"What for?"

"My expert. She's with Derek now."

We sat for a while. I was still out of it. Doolittle was the best medmage in the business, hands down. My back almost didn't hurt and the pain in my side was a distant echo. But I was so tired I could barely see straight.

I had to check with Andrea on the results of the silver analysis. I tried the phone. No dial tone.

A young woman strode into the room. She was barely five feet tall and very slender. Her skin was almond dark, her face wide and round. She looked at the world through thick glasses and her eyes behind the Coke-bottle lenses were very brown, almost black, with a touch of Asian ancestry to their cut. She stepped into the apartment and peered at me as I closed the door.

"Indonesian," she announced, shifting a tote bag on her shoulder.


"You were trying to figure out what kind of 'nese I am. Indonesian."

"I'm Kate."


She looked to where Jim sat. As she swept past me, I caught a glimpse of a book in her tote bag: a long, lean blond man brandishing an improbably enormous sword posing with three girls strategically arranged at his feet. One of the girls had cat ears.

Dali fixed Jim with her disconcerting stare. "You owe me. If he finds out I'm here, I'll be dead meat."

He who? He better not be Curran.

"I take responsibility," Jim said.

"Where are the corpses?" Dali asked.

"Behind you."

Dali turned and stumbled over the four-armed freak's legs, and would've executed a beautiful nosedive if she were an ordinary human. As it was, she managed to jump away and land with perfect balance if not perfect grace. Shapeshifter reflexes to the rescue.

Dali adjusted her glasses and shot me an irate look. "I'm not that blind," she said. "I'm absentminded."

Perhaps she was also telepathic.

"No," she said. "I'm just not stupid."


Dali surveyed the four-armed corpse. "Oh boy. Polymelic symmetry. Any other supernumerary body parts? And did you have to hack his arms off?"

"Yes, I did. He wouldn't go through the door."

"You say it like you're proud of it."

I was proud of it. It was an example of quick thinking in a difficult situation.

Dali shrugged her tote to the floor, knelt by the corpse, and stared into the gaping hole where the creature's heart used to reside. Jim had really done a number on it. "Tell me everything."

I described the ward, the jungle, the flying palace, the ruins, the stone chariot with multiheaded driver, and the fight, with an occasional comment from Jim. She nodded, raised the corpse's front left arm to take a look at the back set, frowned . . .

"So who isn't supposed to know you're here?" I asked. Please don't be Curran, please don't be Curran . . .

"The Beast Lord," Jim said.

Damn it.

"Technically she's under house arrest."

"What for?"

"I went for a drive." Dali picked up the corpse's foot and studied the claws. "Nice and pliant.

No rigor mortis at all."

"He put you under house arrest because you went for a drive?"

"She slipped a roofie to her bodyguard, hot-wired a car, and went drag racing on Buzzard's Highway. In the dark." Jim's face held all the warmth of an iceberg.

"You're just upset that I made Theo look stupid." Dali dropped the hand. "It's not my fault that your lethal killing machine was so excited by the prospect of getting his hands on my tiny boy-breasts, he forgot to watch his drink. Quite frankly, I don't see what the big deal is."

"You're legally blind, you can't pass the exam to get a license, and you drive like shit." Jim's lip wrinkled in a silent snarl. "You're a menace."

"Drivers on Buzzard don't come there to be safe. They come there for thrills. If they knew I was legally blind, it would just make things more interesting for them. It's my body. I can do whatever I want with it. If I want to get in a wreck, then I should be able to do so."

"Yes, but you drove to Buzzard's Highway," I said. I really needed more coffee. "What if you wrecked on the way and hurt yourself, or worse, hurt somebody else, another driver or a pedestrian, a kid crossing the street?"

Dali blinked. "You know, that is precisely what Curran said. Almost word for word." She sighed. "Let's agree that, in retrospect, it wasn't one of my brightest moments. Do you have anything else besides the corpses?"

Jim handed her the rolled-up mural. She pulled the paper open and frowned. "Here, you hold this end, and, Jim, you hold this end. Okay, separate."

She actually wanted me to move. She must've been out of her mind. We walked apart until the paper was unrolled. She glanced at it for a second, nodded, and waved her hand. "You may let go. So, do you have any ideas as to what corner of mythology your friend belongs?"

I took a wild stab in the dark. "Hindu. First, we have a jungle, the ruins of what looked like a Dravidian temple to me, then a stone chariot drawn by elephants, and a humanoid with many arms and heads. We also have a tiger monster and he has four arms. Not that many mythologies feature extra sets of arms or that many extra heads in a humanoid. Several heads on dragons or giants, yes. Extra limbs and heads on a humanoid, no. Also, the girl called one of the Reapers 'Asaan.' I looked it up and it's a term for a guru or practitioner of Dravidian martial arts."

Dali looked at me for a long moment. "You're not stupid either."

"Yes, but that's all I got."

"I believe this is a rakshasa." She nudged the four-armed corpse with her toes. "And if I'm right, the two of you are in deep shit."

"AT FIRST THERE WAS VISHNU, EXCEPT AT THAT point he was Narayana, the embodiment of Supreme Divinity."

Dali sat on the floor next to the corpse.

"Narayana floated in endless waters, wrapped in a great albino serpent and having a marvelous time, until a lotus grew from his navel. Within the lotus, god Brahma, the creator of worlds, was reborn. Brahma looked around, saw Narayana being content to float, and for no apparent reason became obsessed that his water would get stolen. So he made four guardians, two couples. The first couple promised to worship the water, and they were yakshasas. The second couple promised to protect the water, and they were rakshasas."

"Talk strengths and weaknesses," Jim said.

"Rakshasas are born warriors. They were created for this purpose. According to legend, they are conceived and carried to term in a single day, and upon birth, they instantly grow to the age of their mother. They are carnivores and have no qualms about consuming human meat.

They come in a vast variety of shapes and sizes. They're excellent illusionists and magicians."

I sighed. This just got better and better. "For some reason I thought rakshasas were humanoid tigers, like a shapeshifter in a warrior form but with a tiger's head."

Dali nodded. "They are most often depicted as monsters resembling tigers, because a tiger is the scariest thing an Indian sculptor or artist could reasonably picture. Elephants are larger, but they are vegetarians and mostly keep to themselves, while tigers are silent, deadly, and actively hunt people."

A humanoid tiger, equipped with extra arms and human intelligence, would be the stuff of anyone's nightmares.

"Rakshasas realize that tigers are frightening and often adopt this form; however, legends say that they can be ugly or beautiful. Out of three rakshasa brothers, one could be lovely beyond description, one could be a giant, and one could sprout ten heads. It really varies. Some sources insist that one can never know the true form of a rakshasa; only the form they favor most at the moment."

"Anything else?" Jim asked softly.

"They can fly."

Delightful. "Ours didn't fly. They mostly jumped unnaturally high."

"That could be due to low magic, incorrect information, or an insufficient number of people believing in the myth. Or all three. Take your pick."

"Can these rakshasas do something that would stop you from shifting?" I asked.

Dali thought about it. "They're shapeshifters but not in the same way we are. They deal in illusion. You said they pulled their human skins off. Where are the skins? You brought his ripped clothes. I find it very hard to believe that between the two of you, you forgot to pick up torn human hide."

I concentrated, recalling the scene as we left the house. "The skins disappeared."

Dali nodded. "That's because technically there were no skins. Magic or no magic, you couldn't physically pack that" - she kicked the four-armed corpse again - "into a human hide.

Rakshasas don't actually flay a human and pull on his skin. They consume a human in some way, physically, mentally, or spiritually, or all of the above, and then they assume the shape."

Light dawned in my head. "The skin ripping was an illusion. An intimidation tactic."

"Exactly. They pretended to cast off human skins because they wanted to disturb you.

Rakshasas are exceedingly arrogant and cunning but not too bright. Their mythical king, Ravana, is a prime example: ten heads but very little brain. The flying palace you saw, assuming both of you haven't gone insane, is most likely Pushpaka Vimana, an ancient flying machine. Ravana appropriated it from its original owner and was flying around on it to and fro when he came upon Shiva the Destroyer during his rest." Dali paused for dramatic effect.

Hindu mythology wasn't my strongest suit, but even I knew about Shiva. Any god titled Destroyer of Worlds wasn't to be taken lightly. When not enjoying his home life with his loving wife and two sons, he ran around the woods wrapped in cobras and wearing a torn tiger skin still dripping blood. He stripped pelts from fearsome beasts with a touch of his pinkie.

His wrath was likened to Rudra, a roaring storm. In his malignant aspect, he was absolutely terrifying. In his benign aspect, he was easily amused. His forehead hid a third eye, which, when directed outward, burned everything in his path and periodically destroyed the universe.

Anything associated with Shiva had to be treated with kid gloves while wearing a Level IV

biohazard suit and preferably a tank.

Dali smiled. "Ravana managed to annoy Shiva, and the Destroyer of Worlds put him into a cage of stone bars. Ravana had to sit there and sing until Shiva got tired of listening to him and let him go. Ravana was the ultimate rakshasa: arrogant, flashy, and ruled completely by his impulses. He was what they would aspire to be. You're dealing with terrible show-offs, convinced of their own superiority. To them you're amusing food slash adoring audience.

They'll milk everything they got for dramatic effect and they get off on playing to the crowd."

Jim and I exchanged glances. If you got your jollies by getting the herd high, the Midnight Games was the place to do it.

I turned my cup upside down, looking for more coffee. None came out. Still, the crowd-pleasing factor had to be just a bonus. They were after the gem. Why? I was swimming in a sea of random information and it refused to make itself into anything logical. I opened my mouth to ask Dali about the topaz, but Jim jumped ahead of me.

"Can you explain the jungle?"

She made a face. "I have no idea. It could be some sort of pocket of deep magic. Or a portal into a magic jungle land. I'd need more information to answer this question. By the way, I'm so thirsty, my tongue feels like paper."

Dali licked her lips and Jim went into the kitchen and came back with a glass of water, which he handed to her. She drained half of it. "So, the rakshasas hate us."

" 'Us' as in shapeshifters or 'us' as in normal humans?" I asked.

"Both. This takes us back to Ravana. Ravana was an upward-climbing type of individual. He had ten heads, and every century he sacrificed one of his heads by hacking it off. Finally he had only one head and the gods could stand it no longer, came down in all their heavenly glory, and asked him what the hell did he want to stop doing that. He asked for immunity from every race except that of men and animals. He thought us to be too puny and lowly to harm him. Once he got his immunity, he set about conquering Heaven, burned the city of the gods, killed all the dancing girls . . . And then Vishnu decided he had just about enough of that, went to Earth to be reborn as a human, Rama, marshaled together an army of animals, and nuked him."

If rakshasas were as arrogant as she said, they would hate humans and animals with the passion of a thousand suns. And shapeshifters were both. Bonus genocide. Now the Reapers'

half-breed revulsion made sense.

"Is there anything in the legends about a topaz called the Wolf Diamond? A large yellow gem maybe?" I asked.

Dali wrinkled her forehead. "Topaz is associated with Brihaspati - Jupiter."

"The Roman god?" Jim frowned.

"No, the planet. Honestly, Jim, the world doesn't revolve around the Greco-Roman pantheon.

Rudra Mani, Shiva's gem, is also gold in color. He carries it on his neck. By the way, Shiva was the one who gave the rakshasas the gift of flying."

"This one would be large," I said. "A powerful stone."

"Rudra Mani is pretty large. The size of a baby's head."

Saiman had described the Wolf Diamond as being the size of a man's fist . . . Either a big fist or a very small baby . . . Unless he meant an ice giant's fist. "What do you know about it?"

Dali rolled her eyes. "It's supposed to be a stone of virtue. It also belongs to Shiva, if you catch my drift. With Shiva, you never know what you're going to get. He might find a rakshasa baby, think it was cute, and give it the power of flight and the ability to grow to adulthood in one day. Or he might start stomping demons for fun."

Jim crossed his massive arms on his chest. "So we have a rock that belongs to a bipolar god with a warped sense of humor."

"Pretty much. Not a lot is known about Rudra Mani. I'll look it up. We don't even know if your topaz is Rudra Mani or some other chunk of yellow stone." Dali waved her hands. "It's too vague. It could be anything or nothing."

I wouldn't be at all surprised if the Wolf Diamond was Rudra Mani in disguise. Mythological elements tended to occur in bunches. We had rakshasas who were firmly associated with Shiva in the Hindu myths. Shiva had a large yellow rock. The rakshasas planned to enter a tournament to win a large yellow rock. It would be foolhardy to assume that the two rocks weren't one and the same.

At least we'd get no Shiva. The flare had come and gone, so he couldn't manifest. No Shiva was good, whichever way you looked at it.

I looked at the bloodied stump that once had been the axe fighter facing Saiman. Next to the four-armed monstrosity, he looked almost fragile. "Why is he still in the human skin?"

"What?" Dali wrinkled her nose at me.

"This fellow ripped off his skin and started roaring and waving his four arms around the first chance he got. The axe fighter remained in his human form. Why?"

Dali put her cup down. "Well, you're assuming the axe fighter isn't human. But even if he is a rakshasa, he might not have wanted to change shape. You said they are posing as humans. He would blow his cover."

"He was beaten to a pulp," Jim said. "Trust me, he would've changed. It's the matter of the survival instinct taking over."

All these facts tried to coalesce in my head. I could almost grasp it. "Perhaps he couldn't change shape. Maybe something kept him from changing. Kind of like something is keeping Derek from shifting. An object. A spell. Something that suppresses the magic."

Jim caught on. "Something that would also fool the m-scanner into reading them as human."

Dali kicked off her shoes and began pulling off her shirt. "I'll have to shift. I'm more sensitive to magic in my animal shape and my sense of smell is better."

I looked to the floor. The shapeshifters mostly fell into two camps: some were very modest, and some would strip in the middle of the Market Highway without a moment's thought.

Apparently Dali was of the second category.

A deep, low rumble of a large cat rolled through my apartment, a cascade of sound bouncing off my skin. I looked up.

A white tiger stood in my living room. Glowing as if sculpted of fresh snow, she looked at me with ice-blue eyes, enormous, otherworldly, like some eternal spirit of the North, taiga, and winter hunt. Long stripes outlined her fluid shape with coal black. More than a mere animal, more than a lycanthrope in the beast form, she was majestic. I couldn't even breathe.

And then she sneezed. And sneezed again, blinking, and when she raised her head again, I realized that only one glacial eye looked straight at me. The other stared off to the side. The tiger spirit went cross-eyed like a Siamese cat.

The tigress raised one paw, looked quizzically at it, put it down, and rumbled low in the throat, a befuddled expression on her big face.

"Yes, those are your paws," Jim said patiently.

At the sound of his voice, the tigress backpedaled, stumbled over the four-armed body, and sat on it in the most undignified manner.

"You're sitting on the evidence," Jim said.

The tigress leapt up and spun around, nearly taking me off my feet with her butt. A snarl ripped from her mouth.

"Yes, there is a dead creature in the room. Lie down, Dali, and relax. It will come to you."

The tigress settled on the floor, peering at the bodies with open suspicion.

"She has short-term memory loss after the shift," Jim murmured. "It will wear off in a minute.

The cross-eyed thing will go away, too. Some cats react that way to stress."

"Does she get aggressive?" The last thing I needed was to get raked over hot coals because I used excessive force to subdue a raging cross-eyed weretigress with temporary amnesia.

Jim's face took on an odd expression, so unusual on his hard mug that it took me a moment to diagnose it as embarrassment. "No. She gags on raw meat and blood."


"She won't bite or scratch or she'll vomit. She's a vegetarian."

Oh boy. "But when she's in beast form . . ."

He shook his head. "She eats grass. Don't ask."

Dali rose and sniffed the four-armed body. She began at his feet, her flat feline muzzle trailing a mere quarter inch above the skin. The dark nose scanned the long toes of the left foot, tipped with sharp claws, and slid up, along the shin to the knee. Dali paused there, licked the hard pane of the kneecap, and moved up along the thigh. She stopped at the crotch, shifted to the right, and repeated the same thorough scent search with the right leg.

It took her a full five minutes to complete her survey.

"Anything?" I asked.

Dali shook her magnificent head. Damn it. We were back to dying Derek lying in a vat of liquid.

"Alright." Jim nodded. "Change back. I thought of something else to ask."

The tigress nodded. Her white pelt stretched, quivered, but remained on her body.

"Dali?" Jim's voice was calm and measured.

The white fur crawled and snapped back into a tiger. Glacial-blue eyes stared at me, and in their crystal depth, I saw panic.

The tigress ran.

She dashed around the room, trampling the bodies. Her furry shoulder brushed the tall, tulip-shaped lamp. The lamp went flying and exploded against the floor in a shower of glass. Dali rampaged over the shards and collided with the LCD display on the wall. The large metal frame slid off its hook and thundered down, landing on Dali's skull. I winced.

Dali whipped about, her eyes completely wild, and met Jim. He stepped in her way and stared.

Dali shivered. The fur rose on her haunches. She snarled.

Jim simply stood. His eyes were pure emerald.

With a heavy sigh, Dali hugged the ground and lay down.

Alpha of the cats in action.

Jim knelt by Dali. "Can you change shape?"

The tigress whined low. I took it as a no.

Small streaks of blood seeped from Dali's huge paws, vivid against her white fur. Given her aversion to blood, she probably wouldn't even lick her injuries. I fetched the med kit Doolittle had used to patch me up, fished out a pair of tweezers, and settled down by her feet. She offered me one enormous paw. I opened the bottle of antiseptic, poured some on a piece of gauze, and wiped the blood from the huge pads. Three glass shards sat embedded in the flesh, trophies of her glorious battle with the lamp.

"I want you to keep trying to revert to human shape," Jim said. "Don't strain yourself, but keep a steady pressure."

I hooked the first shard with the tweezers and plucked it from her paw. Blood gushed. Dali jerked, pulling me with her. Fire laced my side. I winced. There went Doolittle's patching.

"Hold still, please."

Dali whined and let me have her paw. The cut didn't seal. I swiped at it with gauze. Still open.

Shit. She and Derek now exhibited the same symptoms: an inability to shift and retarded regeneration. I deposited the bloody piece of frosted-white glass onto the lid of the first aid kit.

"Let's talk scents." Jim's voice was smooth, soothing. "Did you smell anything odd off the bodies?"

Dali rocked her head side to side.

I plucked another shard from her paw. "Aside from shape, do you feel any different?"

Dali whined. That was the trouble with shapeshifters in animal form: they couldn't vocalize and most couldn't write. Yes and no questions were our only option.

I hooked the third shard, but the tweezers slipped. The sucker was deep in there. "Dali, spread your fingers for me if you can."

Huge claws shot out from her paw as she spread her toes.

"Thank you." I pinched the shard and pulled it out.

The tiger flesh boiled under my fingers and I found myself holding a human hand.

"Oh my God." Dali's voice hit a trembling high note. "Oh my God."

"What did you do?" Jim leaned forward, focused as if he sighted prey.

Tears swelled in Dali's eyes. "I thought I would be stuck in animal form forever." She looked around the room. "I wrecked the place. And your wound . . . I'm so sorry."

"Don't worry about it," I mumbled, focused on the shard. It looked yellow to me. The tulip lamp had been frosted white. "Happens all the time."

I grabbed the first aid kit, held it under the tweezers in case I dropped the shard on the way, got up, and carried the sliver of glass to the window. The shard sparkled, casting a faint yellow shade onto the white first aid box. Hello, Mr. Clue.

Jim frowned at the shard. "Topaz?"

"I think so. What do you want to bet this is a piece of the Wolf Diamond?" It made sense. The Reapers wanted the Wolf Diamond so they could use it as a weapon against shapeshifters.

Two plus two equaled a bloody chunk of silicate in my hand. "Do you think it prevents transformation?"

Jim swiped it from the tweezers and sliced the flesh of his palm with a quick flick of his nails.

He slid the shard into the cut.

Green rolled over his eyes. His lips trembled. A shiver ran through his body, raising the hair on the back of his arms. His gaze had gone jaguar-wild, but his shape remained human.

Without a word, he extracted the shard and dropped it into the lid as if it were red-hot.

This was it. This was the weapon the rakshasas needed to destroy the Pack. The gem couldn't be stolen; it had to be won or it would bring a curse upon its thief. They entered the Midnight Games so they could get the gem, and once they got it, they would carve it into a thousand

pieces and use the shards to prevent shapeshifters from assuming their animal or warrior form.

Without shapeshifting and regeneration, the Pack would become filling for the rakshasa meat grinder.

"I must've stepped onto the shard when I touched the body," Dali murmured.

"You mean, when you stomped all over it." Jim shook once, as if flinging water from himself.

"The kid has one inside him somewhere. But the m-scanner isn't picking it up."

Dali touched the shard with her fingertip. "It's so small. The scanner might not be sensitive enough to detect it with low magic."

"I don't want to slice him to ribbons looking for it. He might not make it. There has to be another way," Jim said.

The plan shaped up in my head. "I'm going to Macon."

Jim blinked and a light sparked in his eyes. "Julie, your ward. She is in school near Macon.

And she's a hell of a sensate."

Julie, the kid whom I met during the flare, had a one-in-a-million talent. She was a sensate and she could read the colors of magic better than any m-scanner. She was studying in the best boarding school I could get her into, only two hours away by ley line.

I nodded. "If anybody can find the shard in Derek's body, she will."

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