Magic Strikes Chapter 26

THE ROWS OF SEATS, EMPTY AN HOUR BEFORE, were filled to capacity. Individuals in their own lives, here the spectators melded into a single entity, a loud, furious, excitable beast with a thousand throats. The night was young and the beast was fickle and bloodthirsty.

Someone, probably Jim or Derek, had found a narrow access staircase that connected the second and third floors. Recessed deeply into the wall to the left of the Gold Gate, it lay steeped in shadows and was practically invisible to the crowd concentrating on the brightly lit Gold Gate and the Pit itself.

I squeezed through the door behind Raphael and Andrea, who sat nicely next to each other.

Everyone was there, except Doolittle. I perched on the top step, the cement cold under my butt.

The Reapers fielded only two fighters against the rival team's four. The first was Mart. The second was a woman: small, curvy, sensuous, with a waterfall of dark hair falling down her back. She looked so much like Olivia she could have been her sister. Derek saw her and tensed.

Facing them were the four members of the opposing team. The first was a huge Asian man, solid and thick like a brick. He had to be their Stone. Behind him stood Sling, a lean, dark-skinned archer armed with a bow and a belt filled with knives and darts. At least thirty arrows protruded from the sand in front of him, ready to be grabbed. To the left their Swordmaster waited, a young white man with blond hair who apparently thought he was Japanese: he wore the traditional dark blue kimono and lighter blue hakama garment with a pleated skirt over it.

He carried a katana - no surprise there. The last was a woman, a mage, judging by her position in the very back. A wise choice, given the magic was up.

The gong sounded.

The archer fired. The arrow sliced the air and fell harmlessly into the sand as Mart dodged in a blur. The archer drew and fired again, with preternatural quickness. Mart dodged left, right, left, his sword held passively by his side. They thought they had him pinned. Not bloody likely.

The Stone advanced, surprisingly light on his feet. Behind him the female mage began to work something complicated, waving her arms through the air.

The Swordmaster charged the Reaper woman.

She leaned back, her arms flung out like the wings of a bird about to take flight. Mart made no move to assist her.

Ten feet from her the Swordmaster drew his blade in a flash. Should've waited . . .

The woman's bottom jaw unhinged and dropped down. Magic lashed my senses, hard and searing hot. The woman strained and vomited a dark cloud into the swordsman's face. The cloud swarmed and clamped on to the swordsman. He staggered, his charge aborted in midstep. A faint buzz echoed through the Pit.

"Bees?" I guessed.

"Wasps," Derek said.

The swordsman screamed and spun in place.

Mart charged across the sand, a trail of arrows pinning his shadow to the sand, and thrust straight into the Stone's gut. The man folded.

The swarm plaguing the swordsman split in half. The new swarm snapped to the archer like a black lasso. He ran.

As the Stone crumbled, the female mage jerked her arms. A cone of fire struck from her fingers, twisting like a horizontal tornado. Mart leapt into the air. She swung the cone up, but not fast enough. He landed on her, hammering a hard kick into the side of her neck. The impact knocked her off her feet, but not before I saw her head snap to the side.

"Broken neck," Andrea said.

The swarm caught the archer. He veered left and ran straight into Mart's sword. Mart cut him down with two short, precise strokes and walked over to the swordsman, who was still bellowing like a stuck pig. The Reaper watched him flail for a long moment, as if puzzled, then ended it in a single cut. The swarm vanished. The swordsman's head rolled on the sand.

The crowd roared in delight.

The shapeshifters next to me didn't make a sound.

"HERE IS HOW IT WORKS," JIM SAID SOFTLY, WHILE the cleaners loaded the bodies onto stretchers and raked the sand for stray body parts. "There are four fights in all. First, the qualifying bout, then second tier, third tier, and the championship fight. Only the championship fight has the entire team. The rest give us a choice. We can field one to four people for each fight. If we field four and lose all, we are automatically disqualified as

'unable to continue.' "

He paused to let it sink in. Apparently he'd been busy acquiring the information: he actually had a clipboard with notes written on a legal pad, as if he were coaching a baseball team.

"Despite this rule, most teams field four. Fielding three is risky." He looked down the steps at Curran.

Curran shrugged. "It's your game."

So Jim retained Stratego. That was big of His Majesty.

"We break into two teams," Jim said. "Three and four."

So far, so good.

"This will minimize our risk of being eliminated and will permit us to rest between the fights."

Made total sense.

"Raphael, Andrea, Derek, and I will be in group one, and Curran, Kate, and Dali in group two."

Full break. "You want me to fight with him? On the same team?"


Suddenly I had an urgent need to run away screaming. "Why?"

"Derek, Raphael, and I have similar fighting styles. We move across the field. Andrea is a mobile range fighter. She can shoot and move at the same time. Dali can't," Jim said.

"I do shodo magic," Dali said. "I curse through calligraphy. I have to write the curse out on a piece of paper and I can't move while I do it. One smudge, and I might kill the lot of us."

Oh good.

"But don't worry." Dali waved her arms. "It's so precise, it usually doesn't work at all."

Better and better.

"Raphael and I aren't good defensive fighters," Jim said. "And Derek isn't up to speed yet. I have to put Dali behind Curran, because he's the strongest defense we have. He'll need a strong offense and you're the best offensive fighter I have."

Somehow that didn't sound like a compliment.

"Also the three of us have undergone similar training," Jim said. "We know what to expect from each other and we work well as a team."

He didn't think I could function in a team. Fair enough.

"Group two will take the qualifying bout and the third tier. The qualifying bout should give you little trouble and third-tier fighters shouldn't be that fresh. Group one will take the second-tier bout. We will come out together for the championship fight."

Jim flipped a page on his legal pad. "You're going up against the Red Demons this afternoon.

From what I've heard, they will be fielding a werebison, a swordsman, and some type of odd creature as their mage. You will have magic for the fight. They try to schedule the bouts during the magic waves, because magic makes for a better show. Try to appear sloppy and incompetent. The weaker you look, the more our opponents will underestimate the team, and the easier time we will all have. My lord, no claws. Kate, no magic. You'll need to win, but just barely."

He looked at his notes again and said, "About the murder law. Doesn't apply in the Pit."

Curran said nothing. Jim had just given the shapeshifters permission to kill without accountability with Curran's silence to reinforce it. Just as well. Gladiators died. That was the reality. We had to be there. The rest had volunteered. And given a chance, every member of the opposing team would murder any one of us without a second thought.

THE SAND CRUNCHED UNDER MY FOOT. I COULD already taste it on my tongue. The memories conjured heat and sunshine. I shook them off and looked across the Pit.

In the far end, three people waited for us. The swordsman, tall and carrying a hand-and-a-half sword. The werebison, shaggy with dark brown fur, towering, angry. His breadth was enormous, the shoulders packed with hard, heavy muscle, the chest like a barrel. He wore a chain mail hauberk but no pants. His legs terminated in black hooves. A dense mane of coarse hair crowned the back of his neck. His features were a meld of bull and human, but where the minotaur's face had been a cohesive whole, the shapeshifter's skull was a jumble of mismatched parts.

Behind them reared a nightmarish creature. Its lower body was python, dark brown with creamy swirls of scales. Near the abdomen, the scales became so fine, they glittered, stretching tight over a human upper body, complete with a pair of tiny breasts and a female face that looked like it belonged to a fifteen-year-old. She looked at us with emerald-green eyes. Her skull was bald and a hood of flesh spread from her head, resembling that of a king cobra.

A lamia. Great.

The lamia swayed gently, as if listening to music only she could hear. Old magic emanated from her, ancient and ice-cold. It picked up the sand and rolled it in feathery curves to caress her scales before sliding back to the Pit.

Behind me, Dali shivered. She stood in the sand with a clipboard, an ink pen, and a piece of thin rice paper cut into inch-wide strips.

I eyed the swordsman. Weak and sloppy. Okay, I could do that.

The crowd waited above us. The hum of conversation, the clearing of throats, and the sound of a thousand simultaneous breaths blended into a low hum. I scanned the seats and saw Saiman on his balcony. Aunt B, Raphael's mother, sat on his left, and Mahon, the Bear of Atlanta and the Pack's executioner, occupied the chair to his right. Sitting between the alphas of Clan Bouda and Clan Heavy. No wonder Saiman had been persuaded to give up his spot to Curran.

Behind Aunt B, I saw a familiar pale head. Couldn't be. The blond head moved and I saw Julie's face. Oh yes, it could.

"You bribed my kid!"

"We reached a business arrangement," he said. "She wanted to see you fight and I wanted to know when, where, and how you were getting into the Games."

Julie gave me a big, nervous smile and a little wave.

Just wait until I get out of here, I mouthed. We were going to have a little talk about following orders.

"I know what the problem is." Curran pulled his shoulders back and flexed, warming up a little. I stole a glance. He had decided to fight in jeans and an old black T-shirt, from which he'd torn the sleeves. Probably his workout shirt.

His biceps were carved, the muscle defined and built by countless exertions, neither too bulky nor too lean. Perfect. Kissing him might make me guilty of catastrophically bad judgment, but at least nobody could fault my taste. The trick was not to kiss him again. Once could be an accident; twice was trouble.

"You said something?" I arched an eyebrow at him. Nonchalance - best camouflage for drooling. Both the werebison and the swordsman looked ready to charge: the muscles of their legs tense, leaning forward slightly on their toes. They seemed to be terribly sure that we would stay in one place and wait for them.

Curran was looking at their legs, too. They must be expecting a distraction from the lamia.

She sat cocooned in magic, holding on with both hands as it strained on its leash.

"I said, I know why you're afraid to fight with me."

"And why is that?" If he flexed again, I'd have to implement emergency measures. Maybe I could kick some sand at him or something. Hard to look hot brushing sand out of your eyes.

"You want me."

Oh boy.

"You can't resist my subtle charm, so you're afraid you're going to make a spectacle out of yourself."

"You know what? Don't talk to me."

The gong boomed.

Memories smashed into me: heat, sand, fear.

The lamia's magic snapped like a striking cobra. I jumped up and to the left, just in time to avoid the pit in the sand that yawned open beneath my feet.

The Swordmaster was on me like white on rice. He charged in and struck in a textbook thrust of wrath, a powerful diagonal thrust delivered from the right and angled down. I jerked back.

His blade whistled past me, and I grabbed his leather and smashed my forehead into his face.

There you go. Sloppy.

Red drenched my face. The swordsman's eyes rolled back in his head and he fell.

Not good.

I turned in time to see the werebison arrive. It took him a moment to build up his speed, but as he ran now, massive, huge, blowing air from his misshapen nose, he seemed unstoppable.

Curran watched him come with a slightly bored expression. At the last moment, he stepped aside and stuck his foot out. The shapeshifter tripped and Curran helped him down by pushing none too gently on the back of his neck. The werebison flipped onto the sand, hitting the ground like a fallen skyscraper. He shuddered once and lay still, his neck bent in an unnatural angle.

He must've broken his neck in the fall. His chest was still moving. At least he didn't die.

Curran stared at him, perplexed.

Dali barked a sharp command in a language I didn't understand and tossed a piece of rice paper into the air. There was a quiet plop and the paper vanished.

We looked at the lamia expectantly. Nothing. She waved her arms, gathering magic for something nasty.

I guess the spell was a bust.

A spark of bright magenta shone above the lamia's head. It flared into glowing red jaws with demonic needle-teeth. The jaws chomped the lamia - neck, elbows, waist - and vanished.

There was a loud crunch and the lamia twisted: her head turned backward, snapping her neck, her elbows protruded from the front of her arms, and she bent to the side like a flower with a broken stem.

I turned slowly and stared at Dali. She shrugged. "I guess it worked. What?"

The crowd went wild.

Jim waited for us at the Gold Gate. His teeth were bared. "What happened to barely winning?"

"You said sloppy! Look, I didn't even use my sword; I hit him with my head, like a moron."

"A man with a sword attacked you and you disarmed him and knocked him out cold in under two seconds." He turned to Curran.

The Beast Lord shrugged. "It's not my fault that he didn't know how to fall."

Jim's gaze slid from Curran to Dali. "What the hell was that?"

"Crimson Jaws of Death."

"And were you planning on letting me know that you can turn people's elbows backward?"

"I told you I did curses."

"You said they don't work!"

"I said they don't always work. This one worked apparently." Dali wrinkled her forehead.

"It's not like I ever get to use them against live opponents anyway. It was an accident."

Jim looked at us. The clipboard snapped in his hands. He turned around and very deliberately walked away.

"I think we hurt his feelings." Dali looked at his retreating back, sighed, and went after him.

Curran looked at me. "What the hell was I supposed to do, catch the werebison as he was falling?"

BACK IN THE ROOM I GRABBED A CHANGE OF clothes and showered. When I returned, dinner had been brought in by the Red Guard: beef stew with fresh bread. Raphael had vanished right after dinner, and the shapeshifters invited me to play poker.

They killed me. Apparently I was made of tells: they could hear my heartbeat and smelled the changes in my sweat, and counted the number of times I blinked, and knew what cards I had before I looked at them. If it had been strip poker, I would've had to give them the skin off my back. I finally gave up and went back to my bed to read one of Doolittle's paperbacks, since he was otherwise occupied. The good doctor turned out to be a card fiend. Once in a while, I glanced at them. The six shapeshifters sat like statues, faces showing nothing, barely lifting their cards to steal supernaturally fast glances. It felt weird to fall asleep with someone else there, but there was something almost hypnotic about their absolute stillness that lulled me into sleep.

I dreamed that Curran and I killed a dinosaur and then had sex in the dirt.

AT ABOUT NINE, CURRAN, DALI, AND I MADE OUR way to the Gold Gate to see Andrea, Raphael, Jim, and Derek take on the Killers.

The magic was up. Andrea grinned as she passed me by. She carried her SIG-Sauers in hip holsters and a crossbow in her hands. With the magic up, the guns wouldn't fire, but she must've wanted to be prepared for the shift.

Jim and Derek carried nothing and wore identical gray sweatpants. Raphael carried two tactical knives, both with oxide finish that made the blades Teflon-black. The knife in his left was shaped like a tanto. The blade in his right was double-edged and slightly leaf-shaped: narrow at the handle, it widened before coming to a razor-sharp point. Raphael wore black boots, fitted black leather pants that molded to him with heart-shattering results, and nothing else.

As he passed me, he leaned to Curran and handed him a paper fan folded from some sort of flyer.

Curran looked at the fan. "What?"

"An emergency precaution, Your Majesty. In case the lady faints."

Curran just stared at him.

Raphael strode toward the Pit, turned, flexed a bit, and winked at me.

"Give me that," I told Curran. "I need to fan myself."

"No, you don't."

We took off to the stairs for the better view. When the three of us settled on the staircase, Andrea was drawing her crossbow in a businesslike fashion. The three shapeshifters spread out in front of her.

Across the expanse of sand, the Killers waited in a two-by-two formation.

The Killers gave off a distinctly Japanese flair. Their Stone, a huge, towering monstrosity, had to weigh close to four hundred pounds. Dark indigo, he stood eight feet tall, with arms like tree trunks. A big, round gut protruded above his kilt, as though he'd swallowed a cannon ball. Two horns curved from the coarse mane of dark hair dripping from his skull, and two matching sabertooth-like tusks protruded from his lower jaw. His brutish, thick-featured face communicated simple rage, and the huge iron club in his hand signified his willingness to let it loose. An oni, a Japanese ogre.

Next to him crouched a beast bearing a striking resemblance to the stone statues guarding the entrances to Chinese temples. Thick and powerfully muscled, it stared at the crowd with bulging eyes brimming with intelligence. Its flanks were dark red, its mane short and curled in ruby ringlets. It sniffed the air and shook its disproportionately huge head. Its maw gaped open, wide, wider, until its head split nearly in half. Lights glinted from brilliant white fangs.

A Fu Lion.

Behind him a thin-lipped redheaded woman in a white shirt and flaring black pants held a yumi, a two-meter-tall, slender, traditional Japanese bow. By her side stood an Asian man with striking, pale green eyes.

The archer began drawing her yumi bow. She stood with her feet wide apart, the left side of her body facing the target - Raphael. She raised the bow above her head and lowered it slowly, drawing as it came down, wider and wider, until the straight line of the arrow crossed just under her cheekbone.

A silver spark ignited at the tip of the arrow and ran down the shaft, flaring into white lightning.

Across the sand Andrea waited, with her crossbow down at her side. Raphael casually twirled the knife in his right hand, turning it into a metal blur.

I leaned forward, elbows on my knees, hands braided into a single fist.

"They aren't children," Curran said to me. "They know what they're doing."

It made no difference to me. I would rather walk a hundred times into the Pit than see one of them die in there.

The gong struck.

The archer fired.

Andrea snapped the crossbow up and fired without aiming. In the same blink Raphael slid out of the way of the fiery arrow, as fluidly as if his joints were made of water, and struck it down with his knife. Pieces of the arrow fell to the sand, sizzling with magic.

The archer's head snapped. The crossbow bolt sprouted precisely between her eyes. Her mouth gaped open in a black O and she toppled back like a log.

The man next to her closed his eyes and fell back. His body never touched the sand. Thin strands of magic caught and cloaked him, knitting into a gossamer web, cradling his body like a hammock. His face turned placid. He appeared asleep.

The Fu Lion roared, sounding more like a pissed-off wolverine than a feline. Plumes of reddish smoke billowed from its mouth. It charged.

It covered the distance to our line in three great bounds, each strike of its clawed feet shaking the sand like the blow of a huge sledgehammer. Derek lunged into its path, ripping the sweatpants from his body. Skin split on his back, spilling fur. Muscle and bone boiled and a seven-foot-tall werewolf grasped the Fu Lion's head. The nightmare and the lion collided, raising a spray of sand into the air. The impact pushed Derek across the sand. Derek dug his lupine feet into the sand, grinding the lion's charge to a dead halt. Sinewy muscle played along his long back under the patchy fur.

The Fu Lion jerked his head, trying to shake off the half-beast, half-man. Derek thrust his claws into the creature's massive neck. To the left Jim became a jaguar in an explosion of flesh and golden fur.

The Fu Lion reared, trying to claw. The moment it exposed its gut, Raphael and the werejaguar darted to it. Knives and claws flashed and the slippery clumps of the beast's innards tumbled out in a whoosh of blood. Derek tore his claws free and leapt aside. The Fu Lion swayed and fell.

The shapeshifters rose from his corpse, silent. Derek's eyes glowed amber, while Jim's were pools of green.

"Jim improved his warrior form," Curran said. "Interesting."

Behind the shapeshifters Andrea loaded the crossbow and fired. The crossbow spat bolts, one after another. Three shafts punctured the oni's chest, but the ogre just bellowed and brushed them off the massive shield of flesh he called his torso.

Andrea landed a shot to the forehead. The bolt bounced off the ogre's skull.

Magic grew behind the oni, blooming like a flower around the sleeping man. Long, translucent strands snaked past the oni's legs, like pale ribbons.

"Bad," Dali murmured behind me. "Bad, bad, bad . . ."

The strands knotted together. Light flashed and a creature spilled forth. Ten feet tall, it resembled a human crouching on frog legs. It squatted in the sand, leaning on abnormally long forelimbs, the magic ribbons binding its back and legs to the sleeping mage. A second set of forearms sprouted from its elbows, terminating in long, slender fingers tipped with narrow claws. A huge maw gaped where its face would have been, a black funnel turned inward. Its hide shimmered with a metallic sheen, as if the creature were spun from silver wool.

The Arena fell silent.

The shapeshifters backed up. Andrea reloaded and sent a bolt into the creature's maw. It vanished and emerged from the aberration's back. The oni danced behind it, stomping the sand.

The creature reared slightly, its sallow chest expanded, and it belched a glittering, silvery cloud.

Fine metal needles rained into the sand. One grazed Jim and he snarled. Silver.

The shapeshifters retreated. The monster kept a steady stream of metal vomit, and began crawling forward, slowly, ponderously, chasing them back to the fence.

The cloud caught Derek, slicing through his torso. He jerked as if burned, and leapt away.

"Take out the sleeper," I murmured.

Jim barked a short order, barely audible behind the hiss of needles slicing the sand. Derek ducked left, while Raphael darted right, trying to flank the creature. A second mouth bloomed in the side of the creature's chest and the new flood of needles cut Raphael short.

I clenched my sword. Curran watched with no expression, like a rock.

Another command. Raphael and Jim fell back, while Derek backed away slowly, just out of the monster's reach. The two shapeshifters grasped Andrea's legs and heaved. She flew straight up, squeezing off a single shot.

The bolt punched through the sleeper's chest, emerging through his back. He awoke with a startled scream and clawed at the shaft. The threads of translucent magic ribbons ripped and he crashed into the sand. The ribbons shrank, breaking from the monster's skin, leaving deep black gaps as they tore. The gaps grew, and the creature began to melt. It whipped about and backhanded the oni out of the way. The blue brute crashed into the fence. The silver aberration crawled to the sleeper, dragging itself faster and faster across the sand. Its back and hips were gone, melted into nothing, and yet it continued to crawl. In a moment it loomed above the flailing human, bent down, and gulped him in a single swallow. The mage's screeches died and the beast vanished.

The crowd exploded. A hundred mouths screamed at once. To the left some hoarse male voice yelled, "Gooooooal!" at the top of his lungs.

The oni stumbled to his feet and met three shapeshifters. It was short and brutal.

I opened the door and took off down to the gate. Curran and Dali caught up with me.

A few moments later the four trotted to us, covered in blood and caked with sand. Andrea ran through the gates and hugged me. "Did you see that?"

"That was a hell of a shot."

"Into the infirmary," Doolittle ordered briskly. "Quickly, before the silver sets in."

They passed us. Jim glanced at Curran. The Beast Lord nodded very slightly.

Derek and Raphael were the last through the door. The boy wonder limped badly. He looked up at Curran, stiff.

"Good," Curran said.

Derek drew himself straight. A small, proud light played in his eyes. He limped past us, trying not to lean on Raphael.

FIVE FEET FROM THE DOORS, ANDREA FELL. ONE moment she was smiling and the next she dropped like a log. Raphael released Derek and I caught him just as Raphael scooped Andrea off the floor.

"Silver poisoning," Doolittle snapped. "Bring her in."

Andrea gasped. "It burns."

I had dealt with shapeshifters damaged by silver before. It was an ugly, terrible thing. And I had gotten Andrea into it.

Raphael carried Andrea to the side room, where Doolittle had set up shop, and slid her onto a metal table.

Andrea shuddered. Spots appeared on her skin like a developing photograph. Her fingers elongated, growing claws.

"Hold on." Raphael reached for her leather vest.


"Don't be ridiculous," he snarled.

She clamped his hands. "No!" Her eyes went wild.

"Now young lady . . ." Doolittle said soothingly.


Her back arched. She convulsed and yelped, her voice vibrating with pain. She was changing and she didn't want anyone to see.

"We need privacy," I said. "Please."

"Let's go." Suddenly Derek's weight was gone from me. Curran picked him up and strode to the back room. Dali and Jim followed. Raphael remained, pale as a sheet, holding Andrea in his arms.

She snarled in a hoarse voice.

"It's all right," I told her. "Just me, the doctor, and Raphael. They are gone."

"I want him to go," she gasped. "Please."

"You're convulsing. I can't hold you still because you're too strong, and the doctor will be too busy."

"Cut her clothes," Doolittle ordered briskly.

"No. No, no . . ." Andrea began to cry.

Raphael pulled her to him, his arms around her, her back to his chest. "It's all right," he whispered. "It's all right. It will be fine."

In less than a minute I had her nude. Ugly spots of gray peppered her torso. She must've gotten a head-on blast of the needles. Andrea shuddered again, tremors spreading from her chest to her legs. She yelped in pain.

"Don't fight the change," Doolittle said softly, opening a leather case with gleaming instruments. "Let it take you."

"I can't."

"Of course you can," I told her.

"No!" she snarled through clenched teeth.

"You aren't going to die because you're too embarrassed by your hyena freckles. I've already seen you in your natural form and Doolittle doesn't care. He's seen it all before. Right, Doctor?"

"Oh, the stories I could tell." Doolittle chuckled. "This is nothing. A minor thing." His face said otherwise, but Andrea couldn't see it. "We'll have you up and running in no time."

"And Raphael thinks you're sexy in your true form. He's a pervert, remember? Come on, Andrea. You can do it."

Raphael cradled her. "Change, sweetheart. You can do it. Just let the body take over."

The gray spots widened. She clenched my hand in hers, nearly crushing my fingers.

"Change, Andrea. You still owe me lunch, you know."

"No, I don't," she ground out.

"Yes, you do. You and Raphael ran out on me and I had to pick up the tab. If you die on me, it will be hard to collect and I'm too cheap to get stuck with the bill. Let's go."

Andrea's head jerked back, slamming into Raphael's chest. She cried out. Flesh flowed along her frame, reshaping, molding into a new body, a lean, long-legged creature covered in short fur. Her face flowed into a mix of human and hyena. Unlike the bouda shapeshifters, whose form too often was a horrific mishmash of mismatched parts, Andrea was a proportional, beautiful, elegant being. Too bad she didn't see herself that way.

Doolittle probed her abdomen with the fingers of his left hand, a scalpel in his right. "Now when I cut, you push. Nice and easy, just like you trained."

"Trained?" Andrea choked.

"The silver-extraction training," Doolittle told her.

"I haven't trained!"

Of course she hadn't trained. She pretended she wasn't a shapeshifter. "She doesn't know how," I told him.

Andrea convulsed. Raphael clamped her still. His face had gone bloodless.

"The silver burns. Your flesh tries to shrink from it and it burrows deeper and deeper into your body. You must fight it," Doolittle said. "It goes against all your instincts, but when I cut, you must strain and push against it to force it out of your body."

"I can't," Andrea gasped.

"You can," Raphael told her. "Everyone learns how to do it. Children are trained to do it.

You're a knight of the Order. You can push a fucking needle out of your body. Stop crying and feeling sorry for yourself."

"I hate you," she snarled.

Doolittle positioned the scalpel above the largest gray spot. "Ready?"

He sliced without waiting for an answer. Black blood gushed from the wound. Andrea crushed my hand, screamed, straining, and a silver needle slid onto her stomach.

Doolittle swiped the silver-fouled blood from her skin with gauze. "Good girl. Very good.

Now we do it again."

WHEN IT WAS DONE, RAPHAEL CARRIED ANDREA to the shower, murmuring soothing endearments into her ear. My part in it was finished. I went to the bedroom to find Dali slicing Derek's back to get out the needles. Unlike Andrea, Derek had training and his progress was much faster. He joked while Dali cut him, mangling the words with his monstrous jaws, snarled with a pretended rage, and dramatically promised to "kirrrl youraaalll for this!" Curran chuckled. Dali was giggling. Even Jim smiled, for once lingering in the room instead of watching the fights.

I couldn't stay. I wanted to be alone, by myself. I should go and watch the fights instead.

Some other people dying for the sake of the greedy crowd. That would fix me right up. There was nowhere else I could go.

It wasn't until I was out in the hallway that the after-shock of the fight hit me. Little painful sparks danced along my skin and melted first into relief, then into electric anxiety.

At the far end of the hallway a woman in a flowing sari was heading toward me between two Red Guards. She carried an ornate metal box.

I retreated to our quarters and blocked the doorway.

The woman and the guards stopped before me. She smiled at me. "A gift. For the man with the shattered face."

I took the box. "I'll be sure that he gets it."

She smiled wider.

"That's a beautiful skin you're wearing," I told her. "I'm sure its owner screamed very loud before you killed her for it."

The Guards reached for their weapons.

"You will scream too, when I take yours," she said.

I smiled back at her. "I'll cut your heart out and make you eat it. Or you can save me the trouble and swallow your tongue like your scaled friend."

Her smile got sharper. She inclined her head and took off. The Guards escorting her followed, relieved.

I brought the box into the bedroom and explained where it came from.

Derek reached over and opened it without a word. Inside lay a wealth of human hair. He scooped it with his claws and lifted it out. No blood. Just dark hair, gathered into a horse tail and chopped off. His upper lip rose, revealing his fangs. Livie's hair.

"Was this done to disfigure her?" I asked.

Dali shook her head. "Widows cut their hair. They're taunting him. If she's his bride, then he's as good as dead."

Prev Next
Romance | Vampires | Fantasy | Billionaire | Werewolves | Zombies