Magic Strikes Chapter 25

I HAD TO WAIT IN THE LOBBY WHILE RENE PRETENDED to find my name on the roster of fighters. "Fools," she said, flipping through the pages. "Is that a description of your team's intelligence or your need to amuse?"

"It's our motto."

"Hmmm. . . ." She pretended to leaf through paperwork.

"You like screwing with me, don't you?"

She offered me a mordant smile. "Just doing my job properly. Like you told me."

She'd keep me waiting for a while.

I should've kissed Curran before I left. What did I have to lose anyway?

It wasn't even real. The thing between me and Curran. It wasn't real. I deluded myself. I had this aching need to be loved and it was screwing with my head. Sometimes, when you crave certain feelings, you'll trick yourself into thinking the other person is something other than what he appears. I'd played that game with Crest and gotten burned for my trouble. No, thank you. To Curran, I offered nothing more than a willing body and a sense of satisfaction in having won. That was reality, cold and ugly and inescapable.

Rene's hand went to her sword. I turned.

The dark-haired swordsman I had met on the observation deck during my first visit to the Games with Saiman strode through the door. Same gray leather. Same dark cloak that put me in mind of a warrior-monk. Same supple grace. Two men accompanied him, wearing identical cloaks. The first was young and blond. A long scar sliced his neck. His dark eyes had the alertness of a trained killer. The second man was older and harder. I looked into his eyes. His stare made me want to take a step back.


The knight-crusader. The Order prized accountability and public exposure, but some things were too ugly, too dark, even for the knights. When one of those shadowy problems reared its head, the Order threw a crusader at it. The crusader did the job and left town.

The Red Stalker who killed my guardian had been such a problem. It had required Nick's involvement. Now he looked at me like he'd never seen me before. I did my best to do the same.

Whatever Nick was up to, he was obviously undercover.

The swordsman saw me. "Have we met before, my lady?"

His voice was low and gentle. He talked like a well-fed wolf in a good mood. I smiled at him.

"If we'd met, you'd know I'm not a lady."

His eyes narrowed. "And yet you seem familiar somehow. I can't shed the feeling I have seen you before. Perhaps we could speak someplace privately - "

"You don't have to speak to him," Rene cut in. Her color had gone pale. She swallowed.

Scared, I realized. She was scared and she wasn't used to dealing with it.

"Remember our arrangement. You're welcome to observe and that's it. We aren't a training ground for you. If you want to contact fighters outside the Arena, it's your business. Don't recruit them here. Especially in front of me."

"Are you a fighter, my lady?"

And we're back to the "lady" again. "Occasionally."

"She's on a team and you're holding up her processing." Rene stared at him.

The man glanced at her. The command in his glare was unmistakable. Rene went white as a sheet but stood her ground. He smiled amicably, bowed to us, and went on, the blond and Nick behind him.

Rene stared after him with undisguised hatred.

"What's his name?" I asked Rene.

"Bastard," Rene murmured, scanning the papers. "He also goes by Hugh d'Ambray."

The world fell apart.

Hugh d'Ambray. Preceptor of the Order of Iron Dogs. My adoptive father, Voron's, best pupil and successor. Hugh d'Ambray, Roland's Warlord.

It couldn't be a coincidence. Everyone knew Roland would eventually seek to expand his territory. Right now he held an area that cut diagonally through Iowa to North Dakota . Voron had explained it to me: it was land that nobody wanted, where Roland could sit and build up his forces without presenting enough of a threat to warrant an invasion. Eventually, when his forces grew numerous, he would spread east or west.

I tried to think like Roland. I was raised by Voron, damn it. I should be able to slide into Roland's head. What did he want in Atlanta?

The Pack. Of course. Over the past year, the Pack had grown in size. It was now the second largest in North America. If I were Roland, I would seek to eliminate it now, before it grew any stronger. He didn't wish to involve the People, his cohorts, because their actions would be tracked back to him. No, he hired rakshasas instead. Rakshasas were dumb and vicious. He could use them like a club to clobber the Pack. They wouldn't win, but the Pack would be weakened. And his Warlord was here to make sure things went smoothly.

Hugh d'Ambray would watch me in the Pit. He might recognize my technique. He would report to Roland, who would put two and two together and come looking for me.

The doors were right behind me. Fifteen steps and I would be out of the building. A minute and I would be on my horse, riding into the night. I could vanish and they would never find me.

And abandon the six people who counted on me to watch their back.

Walking away was so easy. I looked up.

"You look like your house burned down," Rene observed.

"Just reflecting on the fact that when the Universe punches you in the teeth, it never just lets you fall down. It kicks you in the ribs a couple of times and dumps mud on your head."

"If you're lucky, it's mud. Sign here." Rene stuck a form in a clipboard in front of me.

"Waives all responsibility for your death in the Pit."

I signed. Within two minutes I was weaving my way through the bottom level, accompanied by a somber Red Guard. The worry sat like a ball of ice in the pit of my stomach. I had no trouble finding the right room - I heard Andrea's voice. "Sling?"

"It's just a figure of speech," Raphael said.

I ducked into the room and saw her before a table. Firearms covered the table's surface: her two prized SIG-SAUERS, a couple of Colts, Beretta, Smith & Wesson . . . She had enough weapons to hold off a small army. Raphael watched her from the bench, his face an odd meld of awe and worry.

Andrea saw me and grinned. "You know what they can do with their sling? They can stick it up their asses!"

I tried to sound smart. "Well, technically it's more of a ranged weapon, Andrea . . ."

"Screw you! I'm not going out there with a little rag and a pebble."

Raphael looked a little scared.

I crossed the room to stow my gear on the shelves. The double doors to the bedroom were wide open and I saw Derek in one of the bunks reading a book. Doolittle hovered next to him, with a concerned look that would've done a mother hen proud.

"He's hovering," Derek said.

"I'm not hovering," Doolittle grumbled.

Derek looked at me.

"You're definitely hovering," I said. "So you decided to join us after all? I thought you said we were all fools."

"No fool like an old fool . . ." Derek murmured.

Doolittle made a long, pissed-off sound, like the growl of a bear - if the bear was about a foot tall.

"Badger!" I smiled. It fit him.

Derek rolled his eyes. "What, you just now figured it out? It's not like you can miss the musk . . ."

"Now that was uncalled for." Doolittle shook his head. "Ungrateful wretch."

I pulled a blanket and a pillow from an unclaimed bunk and took myself to an empty corner.

"What's wrong with the bed?" Derek asked.

"I don't sleep well with others." I fixed my bed on the floor. "No, I take it back; I sleep well. I just might wake up with my sword in your gut. Of course, if it is you, I'd probably roll over and go back to dreamland."

Jim came into the room, approached the beds, tensed, and hopped onto the top bunk from the floor. From there he had an excellent view of the room.

"Where is Dali?" I asked him.

"In the hot tub." Jim shrugged, his face tainted with feline disgust. "There is one adjacent to the locker room. If there is an inch of running water, she'll crawl into it. Tigers."

"I didn't know jaguars minded water." I had seen him swim before. He seemed to enjoy it.

"I don't mind swimming if there are fish or frogs involved."

Jaguar logic for you. "Everyone made it?"

"Except for the freak."

Knowing Saiman, he probably had to hire extra help to carry all his clothes.

Dali entered the room, modestly wrapped in a towel, which she immediately dropped to wave at me, and began to dress.

Derek raised his head, suddenly alert. "Incoming. Several people."

Rene appeared in the doorway. "Your owner sends his apologies. It seems your original Stone won't be joining you, but Durand sent in a substitute." She stepped aside. "In you go."

A familiar figure blocked the doorway. My feet froze to the floor.

"Play nice," Rene said and departed.

Funereal silence descended upon the room. Nobody moved.

"All right," Curran said. "Let's talk."

He took Raphael by his arm, dragging him off the bench like he was a day-old kitten. He swiped naked Dali with his other hand, brought them both to the bedroom, and shut the doors behind him.

ANDREA SAT DOWN ON THE BENCH, FACING THE door. She put one SIG-Sauer on each side. Her face wore a grim expression.

"If he injures Raphael, I'm going to shoot him. Just letting you know."

"You changed your mind about Raphael?"

"I'm still deciding," she said. "And I'm not going to let the Beast Lord take it from me by crippling him."

"Aim for the nuts," I advised and left.

I wandered through the hallway to the Gold Gate. The huge chamber of the Arena lay empty.

Nothing but me and the sand.

I crossed the floor to the wire door and stepped into the Pit. The sand lay placid. In my dreams it was always splattered with blood, but now it was clean and yellow. I crouched, picked up a handful, and let it slide through my fingers. Strange how it was cold.

The grains of sand fell in a feathery curtain. Memories came. Heat. The taste of blood in my mouth. Flesh sliced, bright red. Dead eyes staring into the sky. Blinding sun. The roar of the crowd. Pain - left shoulder, a werejaguar's bite, side - a spear thrust, right calf - the razor-sharp tail of a quick reptilian monster for which I had no name . . .

"Like greeting an old friend, no?"

I turned to see an older man looking at me through the wire of the fence. Hard lines creased his face, worn and tanned to leather by years spent in the sun. His face was wide. His black hair, pulled back and gathered at the nape of his neck, was liberally salted with gray. He looked familiar.

"Hardly a friend," I told him.

Mart emerged from the Midnight Gate. He crossed the floor, silent like a shadow, in his black suit, and sailed into the air, landing effortlessly on the fence. The man hadn't heard him.

"Have you fought here before?" His voice was tinted with a light sprinkling of French.

I shook my head.

"Where, then?"

Where hadn't I? I chose the first one. " Hoyo de Sangre. A long time ago."

Mart watched me. He had an odd look on his face. It was definitely predatory, but there was a hint of something else to his expression, something disturbing and almost wistful.

"Ahh." The man nodded. "Ghastly place. Do not worry. The sand is the same everywhere."

I smiled. "Here it's cold."

He nodded again. "That is true. But it will make little difference. Once you hear them clamor" - he gazed at the empty seats - "you will remember. How long has it been?"

"Twelve years."

His eyebrows crept up. "Twelve? Surely not. You are far too young and too beautiful . . ." His voice faltered. "Mon Dieu, je me souviens de toi. Petite Tueuse . . ."

He took a step back, as if the fence between us had grown red-hot, and walked away.

I looked at Mart. "Hey, Goldilocks. Where's your tattooed friend? He and I have a date."

He just looked at me.

"You don't say much, do you?" I pulled Slayer out and ran it between my fingers. He watched the sword.

The fence was too high. Even if I made a running jump, I still couldn't leap high enough for a good strike.

"Scaring the competition?"

I went six inches into the air and about two feet to my left, away from the voice, and saw Curran standing by the fence.

Throwing a handful of sand at him would only hammer home the point. I hadn't heard him move at all. No man of his size should be that quiet, but he snuck around like a ghost. How long he had been standing there was anybody's guess.

"Do I scare you or are you just jumpy?"

I scowled at him. "Perhaps the sound of your voice repulses me. It's an instinctual response."

"And he doesn't trigger your instincts?"

Mart smiled.

"He and I have a rendezvous in the sand. I don't have to do anything about him till then."

Curran scrutinized Mart's face. "I can't figure out if he wants to kill you or screw you."

"I'll be glad to make the choice for him."

Curran looked back at me. "Why is it you always attract creeps?"

"You tell me." Ha! Walked right into that one, yes, he did.

Mart leapt off the fence and vanished into the Midnight Gate.

I headed in the opposite direction, to the Gold. Curran stepped up and opened the fence door for me. I halted. That was a bit unexpected. Men didn't open the door for me.

"What is it?"

"I'm trying to decide if it's a trap."

"Get out of there," he growled.

"Are you going to pounce on me?"

"Do you want me to pounce on you?"

I wisely decided not to ponder that question. The answer could've been scary.

I went through the door. He pushed the door shut and caught up with me.

"Are we busted? Did you make them pack up and go home?"

"You're definitely busted. And no. I'm fighting with you."

I stopped and looked at him.

"With us? In the Pit?"

"Yes. Not good enough for you? Would you prefer Saiman?"

Mmm, Beast Lord the God Killer versus the hysterical Frost Giant. Was that even a choice?

"But what about Andorf and the first law?"

"What about Andorf?" he asked.

"Did you really take him down at fifteen years old?" I just blurted it out.


No smart follow-up came to mind. We turned the corner, and I saw Cesare at the end of the hallway.

I stopped. I wanted Cesare so bad I could taste his blood on my lips. Curran looked at me.

"He supervised Derek's beating," I said softly.

Curran's eyes went gold.

If we went after him now, we'd be disqualified. Oh, but we both wanted to kill him. Very, very much.

Cesare turned, saw us, and stumbled. For a moment he froze, caught like a deer in the headlights, and then he ducked into a room.

I turned and went into our quarters. Curran didn't follow.

Andrea greeted me with a wave. She sat on a bench, a variety of strange mechanical parts, which no doubt combined into a deadly firearm, spread before her on a white towel. I sat next to her.

"Where is everybody?"

"Hiding," she said. "Except for Doolittle. He was excused from the chewing-out due to having been kidnapped. He's napping now like he doesn't have a care in the world. I got to hear all sorts of interesting stuff through the door."


She shot me a sly smile. "First, I got to listen to Jim's 'it's all my fault; I did it all by myself'

speech. Then I got to listen to Derek's 'it's all my fault and I did it all by myself' speech.

Then Curran promised that the next person who wanted to be a martyr would get to be one.

Then Raphael made a very growling speech about how he was here for a blood debt. It was his right to have restitution for the injury caused to the friend of the boudas; it was in the damn clan charter on such and such page. And if Curran wanted to have an issue with it, they could take it outside. It was terribly dramatic and ridiculous. I loved it."

I could actually picture Curran sitting there, his hand on his forehead above his closed eyes, growling quietly in his throat.

"Then Dali told him that she was sick and tired of being treated like she was made out of glass and she wanted blood and to kick ass."

That would do him in. "So what did he say?"

"He didn't say anything for about a minute and then he chewed them out. He told Derek that he'd been irresponsible with Livie's life, and that if he was going to rescue somebody, the least he could do is to have a workable plan, instead of a poorly thought-out mess that backfired and broke just about every Pack law and got his face smashed in. He told Dali that if she wanted to be taken seriously, she had to accept responsibility for her own actions instead of pretending to be weak and helpless every time she got in trouble and that this was definitely not the venue to prove one's toughness. Apparently he didn't think her behavior was cute when she was fifteen and he's not inclined to tolerate it now that she's twenty-eight."

I was cracking up.

"He told Raphael that the blood debt overrode Pack law only in cases of murder or life-threatening injury and quoted the page of the clan charter and the section number where that could be found. He said that frivolous challenges to the alpha also violated Pack law and were punishable by isolation. It was an awesome smackdown. They had no asses left when he was done."

Andrea began snapping the gun parts together. "Then he sentenced the three of them and himself to eight weeks of hard labor, building the north wing addition to the Keep, and dismissed them. They ran out of there like their hair was on fire."

"He sentenced himself?"

"He's broken Pack law by participating in our silliness, apparently."

That's Beast Lord for you. "And Jim?"

"Oh, he got a special chewing-out after everybody else was dismissed. It was a very quiet and angry conversation, and I didn't hear most of it. I heard the end, though - he got three months of Keep building. Also, when he opened the door to leave, Curran told him very casually that if Jim wanted to pick fights with his future mate, he was welcome to do so, but he should keep in mind that Curran wouldn't come and rescue him when you beat his ass. You should've seen Jim's face."

"His what?"

"His mate. M-A-T-E."

I cursed.

Andrea grinned. "I thought that would make your day. And now you're stuck with him in here for three days and you get to fight together in the Arena. It's so romantic. Like a honeymoon."

Once again my mental conditioning came in handy. I didn't strangle her on the spot.

Raphael chose this moment to walk into the room. "The Reaper bout is about to start. Curran said to tell you that your creep's going to fight."

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