Magic Strikes Chapter 24

HE SAT ON THE BED, HIS LEGS COVERED BY A BLUE sheet. He was human and his color had returned to its normal skin tone. His hair was still dark brown. And that was about all that remained of the former Derek.

His face had lost its perfect symmetry. Its lines, so sharply defined before, had thickened and grown harsher. His features gained a rough hardness, and from the top of his mouth to his hairline, his face seemed slightly uneven, as if the shattered bones of his skull didn't quite mesh. Before if he walked into a rough bar, someone would whistle and tell him he was too pretty. Now people would stare into their drinks and whisper to one another, "Here's a guy who's been through some bad shit."

He looked up. Dark velvet eyes regarded me. Usually a hint of sly humor hid there behind the solemn composure of a Pack wolf. It was gone now.

"Hi, Kate."

His lips moved but it took me a second to connect the low, raspy voice with Derek's mouth.

"Damaged vocal cords?" I asked.

He nodded.

"It's permanent," Doolittle said softly. He stepped out of the room and closed the door. It was me and Derek now.

I perched on the side of the bed. "You sound like you kill people for a living," I told him.

"I look like it, too." He smiled. The effect was chilling.

"Is there a spot on you that's safe to punch?"

"Depends on who'll be doing the punching."


Derek winced. "Then no."

"Are you sure? I have a lot of baggage to release from the past couple of days." My voice was breaking. I struggled for control.


All of my guilt, all of my worry, all the anxiety and pain and regret, everything I had carefully packaged and stuffed away into the deepest recesses of myself so I could function, all of it swelled into an unbearable pressure. I fought to contain it, but it was like trying to hold back the tide. A hint of relief was all it took. The flood burst through my defenses and drowned me.

My spine turned to wet cotton. I clamped my arms to my sides, trying to hold myself rigid and keep myself from slumping over. A hard, hot clump blocked my throat. My heart thudded. It hurt, it really hurt, and I didn't even understand where the pain emanated from. I just knew I hurt all over. Cold and burning up at the same time, I had to clench my teeth to keep them from chattering.

"Kate?" Derek's alarmed voice demanded my attention. If only I could speak, I'd be okay.

I wished I could cry or something; I needed, desperately wanted, a release, but my eyes were dry and that pressure remained locked in me, battering me with pain.

Derek pushed from the pillow toward me. He'd gone pale, his new face rigid like a mask.

"I'm sorry."

He put his forehead against my hair, his arms around my shoulders. I hung suspended in my own painful world, like a speck in a storm.

"You can't do this to me again." My voice sounded rusty, as though it hadn't been used in years. "You can't show me you're in trouble but not let me help. Not let me do anything."

"I won't," he promised.

"I can't deal with the guilt."

"I promise, I won't."

Everyone I dared to care about died, violently and in pain. My mother died putting a knife into Roland's eye, because he wanted to kill me. She was stolen from me before I had a chance to remember her. My dad died in his bed. I didn't even know how or why. He had sent me on a training run, three days in the wilderness, just me and a knife. The smell had hit me ten yards from the front door. I found him in his bed. He was bloated. His skin had blistered and fluids had leaked from his body. He'd disemboweled himself - the sword was still clamped in his hand. I was fifteen.

Greg died on assignment. We'd had a fight a few weeks before his death and we didn't part on good terms. He was ripped to pieces, his body shredded as if it had gone through a cheese grater.

Bran was stabbed through the back. He was almost immortal, and still he died, in my arms. I so desperately tried to keep him alive, I nearly brought him into undeath.

It was as if Death stalked me, like a cruel and cowardly enemy, taunting me, eating away at the edges of my world by stealing those I cared about. It didn't just kill; it obliterated. Every time I got distracted, it would snatch another friend from me and destroy him.

Derek had fit that pattern to a T. A part of me had known with absolute certainty that he would die just like the others. I had imagined it so vividly, I could picture myself standing over his corpse.

Explaining all this would be tedious and painful. "I thought you would die," I said simply.

"I did, too. I'm sorry."

We sat for a long time. Finally when the storm inside me calmed, I stirred, and Derek let go and turned away, hiding his face. When he looked back at me, he'd put his Pack wolf composure back on.

"Some hard-asses we are."

"Yeah. We're tough," he said with a grimace.

"Tell me about the girl."

"Her name's Olivia," he said. "Livie. I met her at the Games. She'd slip away once the bouts started and we'd talk. She's young. Her parents have money. They love her, but she was unhappy."

"Poor little rich girl?"

He nodded. "Livie never knew her real dad. Her mom married her stepdad when she was two.

She said her mom dressed her up like a little doll. They both treated her like she was a golden child. Like she was special. And then she grew up and realized she was pretty but not that special: not that bright, not that talented, not gifted with magic. She told me she'd make up stories about her dad being some magic prince."

"She wanted very much to be more than what she was?" I guessed.

Derek nodded.

It was hard to grow up believing yourself to be a star and smash headfirst into the realization that only your parents thought you were one.

"She got herself a 'special' rich boyfriend. She didn't even like him that much, but he treated her like she was walking on clouds, just like her mom. He brought her to the Games and they ran into the Reapers. The Reapers recognized her. Jim said you know about rakshasas. Well, they told her she was half. If she joined them, they'd let her go through this rite to unlock her powers. She would be able to change shapes like them and to fly. There was one catch: once she started the rites, she couldn't stop."

A sick feeling claimed my stomach. "Did she agree?"

"She did." Derek grimaced. "She said she wanted to go back to the clubs where all her friends hung out and show off her new powers."

"That's shallow and stupid."

He nodded. "I know."

"Did she complete the rite?"

"Not yet. It's long, takes several weeks. They started her on small stuff. Killing some animals.

At first she liked it a little. I could tell by the way she told me - she was excited, proud of herself. She thought she was hard-core. But it got real bad in a hurry."

"How bad?"

"They made her do some really sick shit." Derek shrugged. "Some of it might have been for a purpose, but some . . . They made her torture other rakshasas who needed punishment. I don't know if the rites were actually meant to unlock anything. I think they just got off on watching her pervert herself. She decided she couldn't take it anymore."

"Only there's no way out," I said.

"Yeah. She asked me for help. I told her I'd help her, but alone I wouldn't be enough. It would have to be a trade for the Pack to be involved. She agreed to tell us everything about the rakshasas and the Diamond. She said some mysterious guy made a deal with them.

They're supposed to get the Wolf Diamond and use it against the Pack. She'd tell us all about it if we got her out." He sighed. "Most of the rest you already know. I went to Jim with it, and he said no and cut me off. I went to Saiman to steal the tickets, gave you the note, arranged for the transport, and headed to the spot to pick her up. When I got there, they were waiting for me. At least I put up a good fight."

"Was she there?"

He nodded.

"What did she do?"

"She watched," he said.

"Didn't try to help? Didn't protest?"

He shook his head.

"Tell me about the beating."

"They jumped me, four on one. I had two shards in me with the first punch. Then there was more of them. Cesare, the big one with tattoos, supervised it. His ink slides off his body and twists into snakes with several heads. When they bite, it burns like ice. Not much to tell. I fought. I lost. It hurt."

Cesare was going to die.

"You're going after the girl?" I asked, even though I knew the answer.

"As soon as I'm strong enough. Shouldn't be long now. Doc says that the virus in my body was suppressed but it still multiplied while the shards were embedded. Now I'm healing at a record rate. I'll be on my feet in a few hours."

"You understand that she doesn't love you?" I kept my voice calm.

"I know that." He swallowed. "For the final rite, she has to eat a human child. She'll do it because she is weak and then there will be no turning back."

"If your roles were reversed, she wouldn't do the same for you. She's using you."

"It doesn't matter what she does. It only matters what I do."

He quoted me. Nice. Hard to argue with your own words.

I dreaded what I had to say next, but it needed to be said. "Rescuing her won't resurrect your sisters."

He winced. "I was weak back then. I couldn't do anything. I tried, but I couldn't. I'm stronger now."

And there it was. Four years of being trapped in a house with a loup father who raped, tortured, and ate his children one by one, with Derek powerless to do anything about it. He saw his sisters in Livie's face. He couldn't let go any more than I could let go of my blood debts. He would persist until the rakshasas killed him.


Together we managed the trip to the kitchen, where Jim, Dali, Doolittle, and Raphael were eating little chocolate cookies. Dali was nursing another cup of coffee next to Jim.

Across the table, Raphael was playing with a steak knife. The good doctor on his right looked like a man who'd run to Marathon and then was told he had to run back. He saw Derek and his eyes bulged. "So help me God, I shall have to kill you myself, boy. What are you doing out of bed?"

Derek grinned. Dali winced. Doolittle's eyes bulged a bit more. Jim remained stoic and Raphael just smiled.

I deposited Derek into a chair. "Why is it that you always gather in the kitchen?"

Dali shrugged. "That's where the food is."

Jim glanced at me. "We must get the Diamond."

"Agreed. The Diamond is too dangerous to the Pack. The rakshasas intend to use it as a weapon against you." I stole a cookie from the stash. "We have to get the Diamond. And Cesare's head."

They looked at me.

"Why the head?" Doolittle asked.

"Because it's easy to carry and I can torture it for a long time." And I didn't just say it out loud, did I? I checked their faces. Yep, I did.

"How do you torture a head?" Dali asked.

"You resurrect it and make it relive its death."

Jim cleared his throat. "We can't steal the Diamond and we can't buy it."

"The only way to get it is through the Games," Raphael said. Apparently Jim had brought him up to speed.

"You got something in mind?" Jim asked me.

"The tournament begins the day after tomorrow. It's a team event. We get Saiman to enter us into it."

"What makes you think he'll do it?" Jim asked.

"The question is, how did the shards get from the gem to the rakshasas? Somebody is helping them. Somebody with access to the stone. Saiman hates them. They threatened him, attacked him, and embarrassed him by killing his minotaur."

Dali came to life. "He had a minotaur?"

"Yep. He dragged him here all the way from Greece and Mart nuked him in ten seconds flat.

Saiman hates the Reapers." I smiled. "But he can't really do that much to them. Once he finds out that somebody provided the Reapers with shards, he'll be livid. We offer him two things: a chance to go against the Reapers in the Pit, and an opportunity to find out who within the House is aiding them and why. He won't pass it up."

"Okay," Jim said. I realized he had already worked through it in his head. Why exactly was he using me for his mouthpiece?

"What about Livie?" Derek asked.

"They are very arrogant." I glanced to Dali for confirmation. She nodded. "Once they recognize you, chances are they will surmise we have entered the tournament to rescue her and will bring Livie out to taunt us. That's our only shot at her, because there is no way we could storm their flying barn and survive."

"They should be too overconfident to pass it up," Dali said.

"Once we go in, there is no turning back," Jim said. "It's the Reapers inside and Curran outside. If you're going to back out, now is the only time you can do it."

The kitchen fell silent. They mulled it over.

Jim reached behind him and handed me the phone from the counter. I dialed Saiman's number. He picked up immediately. It took me less than a minute to outline my proposal.

Ominous silence claimed the other end of the phone.

"How sure are you of this?" he said finally.

"I'm in possession of five shards and two corpses," I told him. "You're welcome to examine them if you wish. Can you get us into the Games?"

"This is rather short notice," Saiman said. "But yes. I can. Provided I go as Stone."

"Done," I said.

"You'll need seven fighters."

I made writing motions. Everybody except the doctor looked for a pencil.

"I've never seen such a collection of idiots in my whole life." Doolittle shook his head. "If you participate in this lunacy, y'all will get yourselves killed. Then don't come crying to me."

Now that would be a neat trick.

Dali handed me a pencil. No paper materialized and I scribbled on the tablecloth.

"Stratego, Stone, Sling, Swordmaster, Shield, Shiv, and Spell. They must all be at the Games by tonight at nine p.m. We'll be sequestered for the duration of the Games. Once you enter, there is no going back, Kate. You don't get to change your mind and go home. You fight until you can't continue."


"You need a name."

I covered the receiver for a moment. "We need a team name."

"Hunters," Raphael said.

"Valiant Knights of the Fur," Dali said.

"Justice Group," Jim said. "Since Justice League is taken."

"Fools." Doolittle shook his head.

"Fools," I said into the receiver.

"Fools?" Saiman asked.


"It will be arranged, then. The crew?"

"We'll have a doctor," I said.

"No, you won't!" Doolittle declared.

"Very good," Saiman's tone was brisk. "Remember, every member of the team must be there by nine. Don't be late."

I hung up.

Jim looked at the list. "The freak is Stone. Kate, you'll take Swordmaster. Derek?"

"Shield," Derek said. "Defensive fighter."

"Will you be able to fight in two days' time?"

He smiled. Dali winced again and said, "You have to stop doing that."

"You should take Stratego," I told Jim. "You have the most experience."

That left us with three.

Raphael's knife touched the list. "Shiv," he said. "Fast fighter."

"Are you sure?" I glanced at Raphael.

"If the lot of you survives, Curran will flay the skin off your backs," Doolittle said.

"That's what I always love about you, Doctor." Raphael grinned. "You're a cup-halfway-full kind of guy. All flowers and sunshine."

"He isn't joking, Raphael. You don't have to do this." I looked at him.

Raphael's smile got wider. "I'm a bouda, Kate. I've got no principles and no honor, but you scratch one of our own, and I'll kill you."

"I'm touched," Derek quipped. "I didn't know you cared."

"About you? I don't give a fuck." Raphael looked slightly deranged. "No, I care about her.

They tried to kill her in a parking lot."

"Since when am I beloved by boudas?"

"Since you drove one of us through the flare so she wouldn't die," Raphael said. "Nobody would do that for us. Not even the other clans. Ask the cat."

Jim didn't say anything.

"I'll take Shiv." Raphael tapped the list again. "Andrea will take Sling. Don't argue, Kate.

She'll shoot us both if we keep her out."

"Andrea is a knight of the Order," I said. "I don't think she can compete."

"Neither can any of us," Raphael countered and reached for the phone.

"That leaves Spell," Jim said.

We stared at it. Spell. Obviously a magic user. "Any of your crew?"

Jim shook his head.

"You should ask him where his crew is." Doolittle's face wrinkled in disgust. "Go on. Tell her."

Jim didn't look like he wanted to tell me anything.

"Where is Brenna?"

"On the roof, keeping a lookout," Jim said,

"And the rest?" Come to think of it, I hadn't seen any of them since we came out of Unicorn.

"Apparently there is a band of loups near Augusta." Doolittle leveled an outraged glare at Jim.

"I've been listening to it on the radio. The city's on the verge of panic. Odd loups these.

Mellow. Although they apparently performed shocking acts of animal mutilation within plain view of the farmhouse, the farmer's family slept through the whole thing. Curiously, no humans were harmed."

I almost laughed. No loup would attack livestock if human prey was available. They craved human flesh.

"They're creating a diversion," Jim said.

Raphael halted his conversation with Andrea to emit a short, distinctly hyena guff. "That's the best plan you could come up with?"

"Apparently he thinks that Curran's a moron." Doolittle shook his head.

"I'll take Spell," Dali said.

The kitchen was suddenly silent.

"I can do it. I was taught."

"No," Jim said.

"You have nobody else." Dali's jaw took on a stubborn tilt. "I'm not a fragile flower. I can do this."

"What do you do?" I asked.

She drew herself to her full height. "I curse."

"This isn't a game. You can die in that Arena," Jim snarled.

"I'm not playing," Dali snarled back.

Brenna burst through the door. "Curran!"

Oh shit.

Everybody jumped to their feet. "How close?" Jim growled.

"Two blocks, coming fast. He's heading straight for us."

"Back door! Now!" Jim ordered. "Kate - "

I shook my head. "Take Derek and go. He can't get you out of the Arena. I'll delay him. Go!"

Jim swiped Derek into his arms like a child and took off. The rest followed, including Doolittle. They galloped down the stairs, right past Julie, who stumbled to the hallway, her face looking like she had slept on it. I grabbed her by the shoulder. "Get out the back door and hide someplace close until you see me come out."

She took off without a word. That was my kid.

I FINISHED ARRANGING THE BLANKET AND A PILLOW on the floor to make it look like someone had slept there. I stepped away to admire my handiwork. Good enough. I took out Slayer and backed away. About a foot from the blanket should do it . . .

The door burst off its hinges and flew into the room, revealing Curran. His teeth were bared in a snarl and his eyes were feral. He was wearing the Pack's trademark sweatpants and a Tshirt. Bad. Very bad. Sweatpants meant he expected to change shape. Curran in a warrior form was my ultimate nightmare.

Curran bared his fangs. "Kate."

"Took you long enough."

"Where are they?"

I arched my eyebrow. "Why would I tell you?"

"Kate, don't make me force you to answer." The muscles in his thigh tensed, straining the fabric of his sweatpants.

"What happened to your seduction plan? Or are you man enough to come close only when you've kicked my sword under my bed, where I can't reach it?"

He cleared the room in a single leap. I jumped up and kicked him in midair as hard as I could.

My foot collided with his chest. Like kicking a brick wall. He dropped on the makeshift bed.

The blanket gave and he crashed down into the loup cage sunken deep into the floor.

I slammed the top frame shut. The complex lock clicked closed and I slid the thick bars in place, locking it down.

Curran ripped apart the blanket. His face was pure rage. He grasped the bars and recoiled.

I sat on the edge of the floor and rubbed my leg. It had gone numb from kicking him. I'd have to thank Julie for this idea. She'd almost fallen into the cage twice.

He snarled and clasped the bars. I had to give it to Curran - he lasted a full five seconds. The bars bent under the pressure but held. Made to withstand the fury of an insane shapeshifter, the cage had enough silver to burn the skin off a shapeshifter's hands. When Curran let go, gray stripes of flesh marked his palms.

Curran cursed. "It won't hold me."

No doubt. Good that it wasn't meant to hold him, only to delay him. The feeling still hadn't returned into my leg.

Gold flared in Curran's eyes. His voice became a bestial growl. "Unlock it."

The force in his eyes was so intense, I thought my heart would stop. "No."

"Kate! Release me."

"Not a chance."

"When I get out, I'll make you regret this."

I frowned. "When you get out, I'll be in the Arena of the Midnight Games, probably on my way to becoming a fresh corpse. I'll be regretting a whole lot of things, but you in this cage won't be one of them."

Curran stepped back. The rage vanished from his face. He simply quashed it, pulling calm composure on like a helmet. It had never failed to terrify me before, and it did so now.

"Very well." He sat cross-legged on the floor of the cage. "You haven't run off so you want to talk. I will hear your explanation now."

"Really, Your Majesty? So good of you to condescend. I'll try to use small words and go slow."

"You're wasting my time. I know Jim betrayed me and you're covering for him. This is your chance to dazzle me with your brilliance or baffle me with your bullshit. You won't get another. When I get out, I won't be in the mood to listen."

"Jim didn't betray you. He worships the ground you walk on. They all do and I don't understand why. It's the great mystery of the universe. But nobody betrayed you. They did it to spare you."

I unloaded. I told him the whole story. He said nothing. He just sat and listened to me, emotionless and arctic.

"Are you finished?" he asked at the end.


"So let me make sure I understood you. My chief of security deliberately and knowingly disobeyed my first law, because he thought he knew better than me, dragged one of my best people into it, and got him permanently disfigured, beaten, and nearly killed. And he didn't tell me?"

The lion roar vibrated in his voice.

"Then he convinced you to cover up for his insubordination, and together you attacked a group of mythological killers, aggravating the conflict between them and my Pack instead of repairing the damage. And now he and three others are going to willfully and knowingly break my law again, flaunting it before thousands of people, so there is absolutely no possible way I can sweep it under the rug, even if I had the slightest inclination to do so, which I don't.

Have I gotten it right?"

"Well, yes, it sounds bad when you say it like that."

He leaned back and took a deep breath, exhaling slowly. If the cage fell apart at this point, overwhelmed by his fury, I wouldn't be surprised.

"Curran, the gem is dangerous. I think that Roland is the Sultan of Death, and if I'm right, that means you've grown too powerful to be ignored. He will keep trying to eliminate you. The Wolf Diamond is trouble in the hands of the rakshasas, but it would be even more trouble in the hands of the People or the Order. Rakshasas aren't too bright. Roland is a genius. And it's not just him. If the Order got their hands on it, they would try to duplicate its magic and then inoculate your people with it. It's a key to genocide against your kind."

"And you care why?"

"Because I don't want to see you hurt. Any of you. My best friend is beastkin. They will plug a shard into her in a minute. Andrea might not like her animal side, she might reject it, but the choice to do so should be hers."

Pushing the words out was like trying to carry a rock the size of a house up a mountain. "I should've come to you. I would have if we hadn't found a cure. Anyway, I'm sorry. I tried to help my friends. I don't have many and . . . you should've seen Derek. I thought he was dying. I could actually picture myself burying his corpse. You'd have to kill him if he'd turned loup and . . . I didn't want to see you hurt." I turned away. "Julie will let you out of the cage in one hour."

He didn't say anything as I left the room. He just sat in the cage, his eyes blazing with towering wrath.

Outside Julie emerged from her hiding spot between the buildings and ran up to me.

"The Beast Lord is locked in a loup cage upstairs. Here is the key." I handed her the big steel key. "Put it into the keyhole, do a quarter turn, then release the top bar, so you can swing the top open. Curran knows how to open one; he'll guide you through it. Wait one hour before you let him out. This is very important, Julie. Don't go near him before then, because he'll talk you into opening the cage. Okay?"

She nodded.

"Once you're done, if he lets you get away, call this number." I handed her a piece of paper.

"That's Aunt B's phone. Explain that you are alone. Someone will come and pick you up."

"I want to come with you."

"I know. I'm sorry, but you can't. It's not a good place and I might not get out of there in one piece." I hugged her. "One hour."

"One hour," she agreed.

I went to get a horse stabled in the lot. Too late I realized that Curran had found us before the

three days were up. Oh well. I seriously doubted he would call in the bet. Not after our last encounter. And if he did and I somehow managed to survive this mess, serving a dinner to him naked would be the least of my problems.

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