Magic Strikes Chapter 27

I AWOKE AROUND FIVE. GYM, STRETCH, LIGHT workout, shower, breakfast. Routine.

Except for all us monsters gathered around the table. The shapeshifters loved to eat. It was a wonder the table didn't break under all the food they had requested.

"These grits are terrible." Doolittle grimaced and dropped another dollop of butter into his bowl.

Dali licked her spoon. "The cook must be a blind man with two left hands."

"How can you ruin grits - that's what I want to know?" Raphael shrugged. "They're barely edible when fixed properly."

"I'll tell your mother you said that," Doolittle told him.

"The corn bread is a brick." Jim took the yellow square and knocked on the table with it. "The sausage is like paper."

"Maybe they're hoping to starve us," Andrea quipped.

"More like they're fixing to give us a hell of a stomach-ache." Curran loaded more bacon on his plate.

For people who frequently turned into animals and ate their prey raw, they sure were a choosy lot.

"Kate makes good sausage," Jim said.

Six pairs of eyes stared at me. Thank you, Mr. Wonderful. Just what I needed.

"Oh yeah." Andrea snapped her fingers. "The links? The ones we had the beginning of the month? I didn't know you made those. I thought they were bought. They were so good." Her smile was positively cherubic. Of all the times not to be able to shoot laser beams out of my eyes . . .

"What do you put into your sausage, Kate?" Raphael wanted to know, giving me a perfectly innocent look.

Werejaguars with big mouths with a pinch of werehyena thrown in. "Venison and rabbit."

"That sounds like some fine sausage," Doolittle said. "Will you share the recipe?"


"I had no idea you were a sausage expert," Curran said with a completely straight face.

Die, die, die, die. . . .

Even Derek cracked a smile. Raphael put his head down on the table and jerked a little.

"Is he choking?" Dali asked, wrinkling her forehead.

"No, he just needs a moment," Curran said. "Young bouda males. Easily excitable."

"Who are we fighting today?" I asked, wishing I could brain him with something heavy.

"Rouge Rogues," Jim said.

"That's a joke, right?" Andrea's eyebrows crept up.

Jim shook his head. "No. Led by a Frenchman. He calls himself Cyclone. A bad bunch."

"The Frenchman knows me," I said.

Jim's gaze fixed on me. "How well?"

"Well enough," Curran said. "He's scared of her."

"Did he ever see you fighting?" Andrea asked.

"Yes. A long time ago."

"How long?" Jim asked. "How well does he know how you fight?"

If he tried to take me out of this fight, I'd rip him to shreds. "It was twelve years ago in Peru. I seriously doubt he remembers the finer points of my swordwork."

"What were you doing in Peru?" Raphael asked.

"Fighting in Hoyo de Sangre ." I watched it sink in. Yes, I was thirteen. No, I didn't want to talk about it. "As I said, it's irrelevant. He's a professional gladiator. He tours from arena to arena, drawn by prizes. He's a strong air mage and he favors basic powerful spells. He'll likely try an air lock or a hold. What else does he have on his team?"

Jim looked as if he'd bitten a lemon. "Assuming they will bring their best, he's got a troll as their Stone, a golem Swordmaster, and a vampire Shiv. A very old vampire."

"How old?" I asked.

"Olathe old," Jim said.

Inwardly I cringed. Olathe, Roland's former concubine, had used ancient vampires so old, they had to have become undead before the Shift, the first magic wave, when technically they weren't supposed to have existed. A vampire was an abomination in progress. The older a vampire grew, the more pronounced were the changes the Immortuus pathogen inflicted onto its once-human body and the more dangerous it became.

"The golem is silver," Jim said. "Sprouts blades in weird places. Preternaturally fast. Can't be cut; can't be pierced. The troll's hide is also nearly impossible to penetrate. I saw a spear bounce off. It worries me."

It would worry anybody. The vampire alone, even if the other three were paper cutouts, would give me a pause. As it was, the lineup was nearly impossible to beat. The vamp was deadly and wickedly fast. With two extra fighters and a mage, keeping the vamp from Dali would be nearly impossible.

Olathe had gotten her vampires from Roland's stable when she had fled him. Where did Cyclone get an ancient vampire, especially with the People's Warlord sitting right there in the stands?

I could crush the vamp's mind, but not without giving myself away.

"I can take the bloodsucker," Dali said. "If the magic is up."

Jim grimaced. "This isn't a regular vampire. You've never seen one like that. It's old ."

She shook her head. "The older, the better. But it will take everything I got. I can do it once and that's it. Then I'll need a nap."

I looked at Dali. If she took out the vamp, they would lock on her. Four to three, lousy odds, especially with an air mage in the mix. There was a way I could make her safe. It would be a foolish and reckless move under normal circumstances. But with d'Ambray watching, it qualified as mind-numbingly stupid.

If she failed, she had no protection against the vampire. It would tear into her and I would hear her scream.

"If you can take out the bloodsucker, I'll make you safe for the rest of the fight, provided the magic holds."


"Blood ward. It locks all magic out, including your own. You cast the curse and jump into the ward. Once you step into it, it will keep you locked in. You won't be able to exit without my help. But nobody else will be able to enter."

Dali bit her lip. "What if it doesn't work?"

"You just have to trust me."

She considered it for a long moment. "Okay."

Jim shook his head. "Consider taking a fourth."

"No," Curran and I said at the same time. I didn't want any more friends on my conscience.

Doolittle sighed.

I rose. "This will take a bit of practice."

THE VAMPIRE CROUCHED BY CYCLONE, OOZING necromantic magic. Jim was right.

This one was old . No sign of it ever walking upright remained. It waited on all fours, like a dog that had somehow sprouted humanoid limbs tipped with stiletto claws. The last lingering echoes of its humanity had faded long ago. It had become a thing , so revoltingly alien and frightening it sent shivers down my spine.

Not an ounce of fat remained on its frame. Its thick skin clung so tightly to its steel-cable muscles that it resembled wax poured over an anatomy model made by a demented sculptor.

Sharp bone protuberations broke the skin along its spine, creating a jagged ridge. Its nose was missing, and not even a slit remained. Massive, lipless jaws jutted from its sickening face, revealing a forest of fangs embedded in crimson gums. A thick horn protruded from the back of its deformed skull. Its eyes glowed dark hungry red, like rubies thrust into the skull of a demon.

I found the sharp, painful light of its mind and waited in the shadows. If Dali failed, I would crush it, whether it gave me away or not.

Next to it rose a troll. A hulking creature, he stood almost nine feet tall. His skin was dark brown, uneven, and gnarled, interrupted by patches of rougher brown. A single adjective came to mind: thick. Thick tree-trunk legs, ending in flat, round stumps of elephantine feet.

Thick midsection with a round stomach that looked too hard to be termed "gut." Thick chest.

Massively broad shoulders slabbed with thick muscle. Thick neck, bigger than my thigh.

Thick, round head resembling a stump with a flat face. Eyes sunken deep into dark sockets, a stunted Persian cat nose, and a narrow slash of a mouth. Two tusks protruded from his lower jaw, stretching his mouth into a smirk. He looked as though he'd been carved out of a gargantuan tree trunk and allowed to petrify. Screw the spear; he'd break a chain saw.

On the far left a man waited. He was young and dark-skinned, his skull clean shaven. He had the build of a gymnast, wore nothing, and carried two identical swords. I'd never seen any quite like them. Bastard children of a scimitar and a katana, they had the narrow slickness of the Japanese blade and a slight curve with a flare at the point inherited from the Arabic sword.

Three feet long and an inch and a half at the narrowest, the blades were both lively and devastating.

As we entered the Arena, the man changed. A pale sheen coated his strong features. His shape expanded with gray thickness. Armor formed on his shoulders: a textured pauldron on his left shoulder, a thinner one on his right. Huge wrist guards clamped his forearms. A wide metal belt sheathed his loins, dripping down a narrow metal cloth to protect his testicles. His body glistened with moisture and dried in an instant, snapping into sleek gray smoothness.

Everything but his eyes was metal. The silver golem.

The swords pointed in my direction. Just what I needed: a tin man on steroids. Wandering around looking for a heart and singing merrily just didn't do it for the young and ambitious metal turks nowadays. This dude wanted my heart, still beating and bloody, carved freshly from my chest.

We paused on the edge of the sand. The magic was in full swing. Dali swallowed.

I carried Slayer and a tactical sword I had stolen from the Pack's armory during the flare. I handed the tactical sword to Curran. "Hold it for a second, please?" He took it and I sliced the back of my hand with Slayer. A nice, shallow cut. The blood swelled in red drops. Dali winced and turned away. I let the blood run down the blade's edge. My father and Greg both were screaming in their graves. I drew a two-foot-wide circle in the sand, leaving a narrow opening, pulled out a piece of gauze, and squeezed my hand, saturating the gauze until it dripped.

I handed the gauze to Dali. She put it onto her clipboard and stood in front of the circle's opening. It would take her a second and a single step back to enter the blood ward.

I slapped a piece of med tape onto the cut. "Just like we practiced. Do what you have to do with the vampire. If it works, or if it doesn't, step back into the circle and use the gauze to seal it. Do you understand?"


"Obey her," Curran said quietly.

Dali swallowed. "Yes, my lord."

We headed to the front.

The vamp would be drawn to fresh blood. Especially my blood. The navigator would feel the draw and send it after Dali. That left us facing the troll and the golem. As long as they stood, Cyclone was safe.

"Choices, choices," I murmured.

We stood side by side. "We take the troll," Curran said.


Once the vampire got ahold of Dali's magic and hopefully not of Dali herself, the golem would strike at her, trying to take her out. If she did everything right, he'd fail, which would give us a few seconds for a tete-a-tete with the troll.

The troll grinned.

"Keep smiling, pretty boy." I swung the swords, warming up my wrists.

Curran was eyeing the golem. The damned thing was silver.

"The golem is mine. Don't screw with my shit."

"In this Pit, everything is mine," he said.

The sound of the gong was like my heart exploding.

Magic sliced from Cyclone. The air accreted around me and clamped me down like a wet blanket, growing heavier, compressing, squeezing . . . The air lock. I froze. Across from me, Curran stood still like a statue, a small smile curving his lips. He recognized the spell as well.

The vamp flew across the sand.

The golem ran toward me.

A hard, cold blade of magic ripped through us. Somewhere in the stands a hoarse scream announced a Master of the Dead losing a vampire. Go, Dali.

The air clamped me like shackles and froze, fixing me in a death hold. Good enough.

Curran exploded into warrior form. A seven-and-a-half-foot-tall nightmare rose in his place: layered with muscle, dark gray, stripes like streaks of smoke against a velvet pelt. This time, instead of the awful meld of human and lion, a lion head sat on his shoulders, complete with enormous jaws. Only Curran could do this: keep most of his body in one shape while turning a part into another.

I launched myself into the air. The air lock shattered with a sound like torn paper. It was designed to restrain a panicking victim. The more you struggled, the harder it held you. But let it settle and you could shatter it with sudden movement.

The golem veered left, heading for Dali instead. Cyclone stumbled, momentarily woozy from having his spell broken.

The troll was on us. I darted close, under the troll's gut. Wood or no wood, he walked, which meant his knees bent. I thrust my swords between his legs and sliced the backs of his knees.

He didn't go down but he grabbed for me. That's right - look at me, you overgrown log.

A sick stench of decomposition spread through the Arena. My eyes watered.

The demonic monstrosity that was Curran landed on the troll's back. The awful lion jaws gaped wide and clamped on to the troll's thick neck. White teeth flashed, bit, sliding between the cervical vertebrae, and sliced the spinal cord like scissors. The troll's head drooped to the side, dark blood bubbling gently to stain his shoulders. Curran grabbed the skull and tore the head from the neck. His face snapped into the horrible chimera of half-human, half-lion, and he hurled the troll's head at Cyclone.

The mage made no move to dodge. He just stared, stunned. The head smashed into him, taking him off his feet. He fell limp. I whipped about.

Dali slumped inside the ward, her hands crossed protectively over her head. Her face and shoulder were wet with blood, tracing the long rip in her shirt. But the wound had already sealed.

The golem struck at her, his blades a whirl of metal, and bounced from the ward, each hit sending a pulse of burgundy through the spell. A pile of putrid flesh sagged next to Dali with a small rectangle of rice paper stuck to its top. A lonely kanji character glowed pale blue from the paper.

She'd done it. She'd taken out the vampire.

"You okay?" I shouted to her, too late remembering that she couldn't hear me.

She raised her head, saw me, and held out her thumb.

"Hey, tincan boy!" I barked. "Bring it!"

The golem turned, raising a cloud of sand into the air, and charged me. I waited with my swords raised.

He lunged. The blade slid by my cheek, fanning my skin. He was preternaturally fast. But it wasn't my first time. I matched his speed.

Strike, strike, strike.

I blocked him every time, letting his blades glance off mine. A familiar welcome warmth spread through my body. My muscles became pliant, my movements easy. He was fast and well trained, but I was fast too and trained better.

The blades became a whirl. I laughed and kept blocking. You want to go there? Fine. Let's go.

My only chance lay in tiring him out. It was hard to put a blade into a man's eye.

Unfortunately, that was the only part of himself he'd left human.

Minutes flew by, sliced to shreds by the cascade of gleaming blades. The crowd had gone so quiet, only the ringing pulse of our swords breached the silence. He couldn't keep this up indefinitely and I was just warming up.

Curran loomed behind the golem. The glance cost me - a well-placed thrust sliced my left shoulder.

"No!" I barked.

Curran clamped the golem in a bear hug, trying to crush his throat. Silver flowed and metal spikes punched from the golem's back into Curran's chest, impaling him.

Curran roared in agony.

The sound shook the Pit. Pain and thunder rolled and combined, nearly bringing me to my knees. In the crowd people screamed and covered their ears.

Gray streaks slid through Curran, eating up his fur. The idiot just held on tighter. The golem spun, his movement slowed slightly, his spikes still protruding through Curran's back . . .

The universe shrank to Curran and his pain. I had to break him free. Nothing else mattered.

I attacked, leaving a slight opening on the left side. The golem committed. He thrust, throwing himself into a lunge. I didn't try to block. The slender blade sliced between my ribs. Ice pierced me, followed by a sharp, painful heat.

I plunged Slayer's blade into his left eye.

It slid perfectly into a sheath of flesh. I buried it deep, putting all my strength behind it. A one-in-a-hundred kind of strike.

The golem's mouth gaped. His silver skin shook, draining from his body, and as it drained, a scream was born in the depths of his throat, at first weak, but growing stronger. Finally it burst forth in a howl of pain and surprise.

Curran broke off, snapping the spikes.

The last smudges of silver drained from the golem's skin. He toppled to his knees. I put my foot onto his shoulder and pulled my blade out. He fell facedown. I walked off, across the sand, and thrust my hand through the blood ward.

It solidified around my hand in a flash of red. For a moment a translucent red column enclosed Dali, and then it shattered, melting into nothing. I grabbed her and hauled her out of there. Behind us Curran staggered to his feet.

The crowd erupted. God damn harpies. I turned on my foot, stared at them, and yelled, "Fuck you all!"

They just cheered louder.

I marched out of the Pit.

At the gates, Jim took one look at my face and moved out of my way.

I stomped into our quarters, straight into Doolittle's makeshift hospital. Curran followed me, slapping the door closed. I whirled around. The beast melted and Curran stood before me in his human form. Black spots peppered his chest where the spikes had pierced his flesh.

I stared at him for a second and smashed my fist into his midsection, right over the solar plexus. He grunted.

Doolittle took off.

"What the fuck is wrong with you?" I looked for something heavy to hit him with, but the room was mostly empty. There were surgical instruments but no heavy, blunt objects capable of causing the kind of pain I wanted.

He straightened.

"He was silver!" I snarled in his face. "I had it under control. What was going through your head? Here's a toxic silver golem; I think I'll jump on his back! That's a damn good idea!"

He scooped me up and suddenly I was pressed against his chest. "Were you worried about me?"

"No, I'm ranting for fun, because I'm a disagreeable bitch!"

He smiled.

"You're a moron!" I told him.

He just looked at me. Happy golden lights danced in his eyes. I'd learned exactly what those sparks meant. Fury fled, replaced by alarm.

"Kiss me and I'll kill you," I warned.

"It might be worth it," he said softly.

If he held me a moment longer, I'd lose it and kiss him first. I was so damn happy he was alive.

When drowning, grasp at anything in reach. Even a straw will do. "My side is bleeding, Your Majesty."

He released me and called for Doolittle.

DOOLITTLE CHANTED THE WOUNDS CLOSED, fussed, pricked my legs with hot needles, and declared my responses normal. "A glancing wound. Does it hurt?"

"No," I lied.

He sighed, wearing the patient expression of a martyr. "Why do I bother?"

"I don't know. Would it help if I cried like a baby?"

He shook his head. "On second thought, keep your composure."

The spots on Curran's chest were growing. I pointed to him.

Doolittle handed me the scalpel. "I need to see to Dali. She's in shock."

Funny. She didn't seem to be in shock when I saw her.

Doolittle left in a very determined fashion. I stared at the scalpel. Curran sat on the floor and presented me with his huge muscled back. Oh boy.

"Just do it," he said. "Or are you going to faint?"

"Settle down, Princess. It's not my first time."

I put my fingers on the first spot. The muscle under my fingertips was hot and swollen. I pressed down, defining the target area the way I was taught, and sliced. He strained. Black blood poured from the wound and a chunk of silver surfaced. I grabbed it with forceps and plucked it free. Three quarters of an inch wide and two inches long. Shit. Enough silver to make an average shapeshifter violently sick. How many spikes did he have in him?

I dropped it into a metal tray, wiped the blood from his back, and went to the next one as fast as I could.

Slice, pull, wipe. Over and over.

He growled once, quietly.

"Almost done," I murmured.

"Who taught you to do this?" he asked.

"A wererat."

"Do I know him?"

"Her. She died a long time ago. She liked my father."

Nine spikes.

His wounds were closing, the muscle and skin knitting together. I rose, wet a towel, and cleaned his back. He leaned back a little, prolonging contact with my fingers.

I wanted to run my hand up his back. Instead I forced myself up, rinsed the towel, and tossed it into the bin Doolittle had set out.

"Good to go," I told him and walked away before I did something seriously stupid.

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