Magic Strikes Chapter 29

I AWOKE EARLY. TOO EARLY - THE CLOCK ON THE wall said three thirty. I lay with my eyes open for a few minutes and finally rose, swiped Slayer, and snuck out of the bedroom to the outer door. Derek perched on a chair by the doorway. He looked at me with yellow eyes.

"Where are the Guards?" I murmured.

He shrugged. "Must be a shift change. They sat by the door for the last six hours and then got up and left."

"How long have they been gone?"

"Three minutes."

Could be a shift change. I doubted the Reapers would try anything funny.

The curse of the Wolf Diamond guaranteed they would try to win it. Mart's goal was the gem, since he had to have it to attack the Pack. The rakshasas didn't seem to like even odds. They preferred to have an advantage, and without the Wolf Diamond, the shapeshifters would wipe the floor with them.

I felt reasonably confident about tomorrow's fights. True, Mart's speed was ungodly and their magic was nothing to spit at, but our team was well-balanced and the shapeshifters fought like an oiled machine. Even when the Reapers entered the Pit as a team, they broke the fights into individual duels.

"I'll be back," I said.

"Where are you going?"

I told him the truth. "I want to see the Pit."

He nodded.

I snuck through the hallway and headed to the Pit. I just wanted to run my hand through the sand and settle my memories, then I would be able to sleep. The fastest way to the sand lay through the gym. I just had to cross it and I'd come out next to the Gold Gate.

I ducked inside and jogged barefoot across the floor. Another moment and I was out of the gates into the Pit. The covers hiding enormous skylights in the roof had been removed in preparation for the championship fight. Moonlight sifted on the sand.

By the Pit, bathed in the gauze shroud of moonrays, Hugh d'Ambray, flanked by Nick and the young fighter, handed a wrapped item to Mart and Cesare.

Ice rolled down my spine. I stopped. The item was long and looked like a sword wrapped in canvas. So that was where the Guards went. He bought them off to make the exchange.

Hugh was no fool. He had seen the fights and he realized we had a decent chance of winning tomorrow. He had decided to even the odds. That would be no ordinary sword.

Cesare's upper lip wrinkled in a grimace. Mart flashed his teeth at me and the two Reapers melted into the darkness. Hugh d'Ambray looked at me and I looked back at him.

"It's not surprising that Roland would ally with the rakshasas. They're an ancient race, dependent on magic. They respect his power," I said. "It's not surprising he would use them to weaken the Pack. They're vicious and sly but not too bright. If they win, they'll make a much weaker enemy than the shapeshifters. If they lose, the Pack will be bloodied anyway.

However, having Hugh d'Ambray pay off the Guards and slink about in the night like a thief to provide the rakshasas with a weapon just before the final fight, that I find surprising. That feels almost like cheating. How very unsavory."

He strode to me with a short nod. "Walk with me."

I had to find out what he gave them. Our survival depended on it. I walked next to him. Nick and the other fighter fell behind a few steps. We began making a circle around the fence.

"I like the way you move. Where have we met before?"

"Just out of curiosity, what did you give them?"

"A sword," he said.

Duh. "It would have to be something very valuable. They view weapons as toys. They melted all of your precious electrum so they could pour it onto the face of one shapeshifter."

The corners of Hugh's mouth twitched. He caught the expression and froze it before it could bloom into a grimace, but I saw it. Score one for me.

"So this sword must be very special. Something they probably shouldn't be trusted with, something that would tip the odds in their favor tomorrow. Is it one of Roland's personal weapons?"

"I liked what you did with the golem," he said. "Fast, precise, economical. Good technique."

"Was it Scourge you gave them?"

The sword he'd given them had a wide blade. It could've been Scourge, although I really hoped it wasn't. Scourge unleashed the kind of magic that decimated armies. No, it had to be something else. A sword that could be used short range with some precision.

"If you hadn't allied with the wrong side, I could've used you," he said.

"Thank you for not insulting me with an offer."

"You're welcome. I do regret that you'll die tomorrow."

"And that fact matters to you why?"

He shrugged. "It's a waste of talent."

Here he stood, my father's replacement. Voron had trained him, as he had trained me, although he didn't get Hugh from birth. Hugh was ten when he started. He was a master swordsman. My father told me he had never seen a more talented fighter. I supposed the acknowledgment of my skill by him was a compliment.

"Why do you serve him?" I asked.

A faint veneer of puzzlement overlaid his features.

I really wanted to know. Voron took him in. Voron made him who he was. Roland's magic only kept him young - he had the body and face of a man barely older than me, but he had to be close to fifty. He wouldn't age. None of Roland's top cadre felt time. It was his gift to those who served him. But surely, that alone wasn't enough.

"He's stronger than me. I haven't found anyone else who could best me." Hugh studied me.

"How often do you take orders from those who are weaker, dumber, and more inept than you?"

My pride stung. "I do so because I choose to."

"Why not choose to serve a stronger master?"

"Because his vision is warped and I don't believe in it."

"His vision is that of a better world."

"A better world bought with atrocities will be rotten at the core."

"Perhaps," Hugh said.

I looked into his eyes. "There won't be a tower above Atlanta as long as I live."

"How fortunate for our cause that your life will end tomorrow." Hugh smiled. He thought me ridiculous and so he should.

"Would you spar with me?" he asked. "We have time. I was generous with the Guards."

The offer tempted me. Hugh was an innate swordsman, a one-in-a-million fighter. Sparring with him would be as close as I could ever come to sparring with Voron once again. But I had a bout to fight. Injuring me would play into his hands rather nicely. "I don't have time to give you a lesson." Chew on that.

I walked away.

"I wonder how fast you are," he said to my back.

The blond swordsman struck at me from behind. I dropped under the blur that was his lunge and thrust low, driving Slayer into the gut, from the side up. The saber punctured the stomach with a loud pop and slid deep, all the way into the pressurized aorta. It took all of my skill to execute the thrust. Hugh had gotten my goat after all.

I pushed the blond off my sword. Slayer's blade emerged, coated in scarlet. He sagged to the floor. Inside him, the blood geysered out of the aorta. A normal human would be dead already. But the blond too had the benefit of Roland's magic. It would take him a minute or two to die.

I looked at Hugh. His face betrayed nothing, but his eyes widened. I knew exactly what was going through his head. It was the same thing that went through my mind when I saw a feat of expert bladework: could I have done that?

Our eyes met. The same thought zinged between us, like an electric charge: one day we would have to meet sword to sword. But it wouldn't be today, because tomorrow I had to fight the Reapers. I had to break it off.

"You threw him away. Sloppy, Hugh."

He took a step back. Too late I realized I'd used Voron's favorite rebuke. It had just rolled off my tongue. Shit.

I left. They didn't follow me.


Jim had given us a short briefing. "The Reapers fight like samurai: one on one. There are no tactics involved. It just breaks down into individual fights. They like flash, but they are efficient."

We all had a job to do. Mine was simple: Mart. I didn't want Mart. I wanted Cesare. But Jim's strategy made sense and I was going to follow it. I'd get a chance against Cesare. I wanted to kill him entirely too much to be denied.

But none of the tactics, none of the strategy, mattered until I knew what sort of blade Hugh had given to the Reapers. He had had ample opportunity to transfer the blade to the rakshasas before last night. He knew they wouldn't be able to resist using the sword, and he didn't want its power known until today.

Roland had made several weapons. All were devastating. Just thinking on it made me grit my teeth. He must've given Hugh the order to assure the rakshasas win at any cost. I wondered if it grated on Hugh.

At two minutes till noon we lined up and marched into the Pit. Sunshine poured on us through the skylights. The shapeshifters came out in warrior form, Raphael included, with Curran in the lead. Andrea carried a crossbow and enough firearms to take on a small country. Not satisfied with her own carrying capacity, she had loaded Dali with spare ammo.

We crossed the floor of the Arena and stepped onto the sand.

Across from us seven Reapers stood in two rows. My gaze skipped over them and fastened on Mart in the center. His sword was sheathed. Damn it. What is it? What did he give you?

I surveyed the rest. Cesare on Mart's left. The huge rakshasa, still wearing his human skin, carried two khandas: heavy, three-foot-long double-edged swords. I'd handled khandas before; not my cup of tea: too heavy and oddly sharpened.

On Mart's right stood the rakshasa's Stone. Ten feet tall and thick, he had the head of a small elephant, complete with wide fans of ears, but instead of a dark hide, his body had the sickly yellow tint of a man stricken with jaundice. A chain mail hauberk of yellow metal suspiciously resembling gold hung from his shoulders. I guessed even elephants liked to go into battle color-coordinated.

On the elephant's shoulder perched a slender creature: hairless, dark red like raw liver, its bony limbs tipped with black claws. It resembled a lemur the size of a short human. Two vast wings spread from its shoulders. His arms held two brutal talwars: short, wide swords.

The second line of Reapers consisted of three fighters. The first was the woman who'd delivered the hair to me. The second was a humanoid thing with four arms, clothed in a reptilian skin of mottled green and brown. The third was Livie.

The reptilian thing was abnormally slender, green, and armed with two bows. Livie had a straight sword and looked scared to death. Her head had been shaved bald. It brought my rage back with crystal clarity. Sure, what she did was stupid and weak. But she was no fighter.

They had no right to bring her into this. She didn't deserve it.

Livie met my gaze. Her eyes brimmed with tears.

They had hunted us like meat. They'd hurt Derek. They'd broken his bones, poured molten electrum on his face, tortured him, and laughed. They killed shapeshifters and forced young girls into the Pit. Their existence was an injustice. They deserved to die. And I would enjoy this. Dear God, I will enjoy this.

The magic was in full swing. The crowd waited, electric with anticipation. A smile blazed across Mart's face. His blade was still sheathed.

Curran shifted his clawed feet in the sand next to me.

Above us on the balcony, Sophia, the producer, held up an enormous yellow stone.

Luminescent, lemon yellow, shaped like a tear, it shone and played in her hands like a living current of gold, capturing the light and tossing it back in a dazzling display of fire.

Sophia raised it above her head - her arms quaked with strain - and shouted. "Let the Games begin!"

The rakshasas' mage weaved her arms through the air.

I swung my two swords, Slayer in my right hand and the tactical blade in my left.

Mart reached for his sheath, clamped it, and slid the blade free, tossing the sheath onto the sand.

A wide blade stared at me, red like the finest ruby.

Everything slowed to a crawl, and in the ensuing stillness, my heartbeat boomed through me, impossibly loud. The Scarlet Star. One of Roland's hellish personal weapons, a sword he had forged over five years out of his own blood. It had the power to fire thirteen bursts of magic.

Like enchanted saw blades, they would lock onto their targets, slice through anything in their path, and cleave their objective in half. They couldn't be dodged. They couldn't be blocked.

The blade itself couldn't be broken by an ordinary weapon. Even Curran couldn't snap it.

We would die instantly. Curran might survive long enough to be torn apart by the rakshasas.

I couldn't let him die.

I whipped about, slow as if underwater, and saw him looking back at me with gray eyes from a monster's face.

What do I do? How can I keep him alive?

It will be okay, Curran mouthed, but I couldn't hear him, all sound blocked by my panic.

I turned back. Mart gripped the sword with both hands. The red blade glistened, as if wet with blood. I had to destroy it, because if he completed a strike, all of us would die.

Blood. It was forged out of Roland's blood, the same blood that now coursed through my veins. There might be a way to destroy the blade after all. If I could take possession of the sword.

The gong boomed. The world leapt back to its normal speed.

I charged.

Mart began to raise the sword for an overhead strike.

I had never run so fast in my life. The sand blurred. The blade point loomed before me, rising.

I grasped the crimson blade and shoved it into my stomach.

It hurt. My blood drenched the red substance of the sword. Mart stared at me, stunned. I grasped Mart's hand and pushed the sword deeper into me. The point broke through my back.

Deeper. All the way to the hilt.

The blade sat inside me, a wedge of hot agony. My blood coated the metal, forging a link with Roland's. Around me the shapeshifters crashed into the rakshasas. I whispered a power word.

"Hessaad." Mine.

Magic surged inward from the surface of my skin, from the tips of my fingers and toes, and locked onto the sword. The blade sparked, sending jolts of pain through me. It felt as though a clump of barbed wire were being drawn through my gut. I clawed on to reality, trying not to pass out. The Arena reeled, spinning in a calico whirlpool, and through the smudge of faces, I saw Hugh d'Ambray on his feet, staring at me as if he had seen a demon.

My biological father's blood reacted with mine and recognized it. The sword was mine. It would obey. Now.

"Ud," I whispered. Die. The power word that never worked. To will something to die, one must first have complete possession of it.

Magic tore from me. The sword buckled in my body, like a living creature, vibrating, striving to break free. Agony flooded me in a brilliant burst. I screamed.

The sword shattered. Pieces of the blade floated to the ground in a fine red powder. Inside my body the part of the sword that had been in me disintegrated into dust and mixed with my blood, spreading through my body. Roland's blood, scalding me as if my insides had been dropped into boiling oil. So much power . . .

The fire melted my legs. I fell down onto the sand. The inferno inside me was cooking me alive, wringing tears from my eyes. I tried to move, but my muscles refused to obey. Every cell of my body was on fire.

The whole thing had taken five, six seconds from start to finish, enough time to impale myself on the blade and utter two words. Hugh had been right - I would die today. But the unbreakable sword was shattered and Curran would live. And so would the rest of them. Not bad for five seconds of work.

A horrible roar shook the Arena. I jerked my head. Curran had seen me fall and charged over to me. The elephant thundered to intercept him, and Curran disemboweled him with one strike, leaping past him. No need to hurry, Your Majesty. It's too late for me anyway.

Mart dropped the useless hilt and grabbed me, his eyes brimming with fury. Curran lunged for me.

But Mart shot straight up like an arrow. Curran's clawed hand caught empty sand. He'd missed me by half a second.

Wind fanned my face as Mart flew up. It felt like the afterlife, but I wasn't dead yet. One doesn't feel pain in the afterlife, and I hurt. Dear God, I hurt.

We soared above the Arena's sand, floating in the shaft of golden sunlight stabbing through the nearest skylight. I saw that only three rakshasas had made it alive from the Pit's sand: Mart, Cesare, and Livie, locked in the crook of Cesare's arm.

Tiny flecks of skin broke free from Mart's cheek, hovering in the light. He breathed, and his entire being fractured into a thousand pieces, streaming upward like myriad butterflies taking flight to vanish in the glow, revealing a new creature. He was tall, his shoulders broad, his waist and hips narrow. Skin the color of amber stretched taut over refined muscle. Black hair streamed from his head down to his waist. His eyes were piercing cobalt blue, two sharp sapphires on a beautiful face tainted with arrogance and predatory glee.

Mart no longer needed his human skin.

He clamped me to him and I saw Sophia on the balcony, clutching at the Wolf Diamond. We streaked to her and stopped at her eye level.

"Gift me the jewel," Cesare ordered and held out his hand. The curse of the stone had been weighed against the Fools, and the Fools had won. Mart would rather risk the anger of the Wolf Diamond than the shapeshifters' down below.

Sophia swallowed.

"Don't," I said.

Below us the Arena roared with indignant screams.

"Gift me the jewel, woman." The tattooed snakes rose from Cesare's skin and hissed.

Sophia's long, pale fingers let go. The golden tear of the Wolf Diamond fell and landed in Cesare's huge palm. "It's yours," she said.

You moron.

The rakshasas flew up. The skylight blocked us. Mart's hand flashed and the heavy glass shattered into a glittering cascade of shards. We pushed through it and then we were flying above the city.

I LAY IN A GOLDEN CAGE IN A PUDDLE OF MY blood. It soaked my hair, my cheek, my clothes. I breathed it in, its scent and magic cloaking me. I could feel the blood around me the way I felt my limbs or my fingers. It had left my body but we remained connected. I had always sensed magic in my blood, but I'd never felt it, not like this.

Inside my stomach, tiny flecks of power smoldered, the remnants of Roland's sword. My body was absorbing them slowly, one by one. His blood mixed with my own, releasing its power, and anchored me to life and pain. I didn't move, conserving what little strength and magic I had left. I chanted, barely moving my lips, trying to push my body into regeneration.

It didn't obey very well, but I kept trying. I wouldn't give up and just die.

At least the pain had dimmed enough for my eyes to stop watering.

High above me a golden ceiling stretched, shrouded in shadow. Tall walls defined a cavernous chamber, their carved glitter flowing seamlessly into the tiled floor layered with vivid velvet and silk pillows. Nataraja, the People's head honcho in Atlanta, had tried to furnish his room just like this. But his chamber atop the People's Casino paled in comparison to this room. All of Nataraja's wealth wouldn't have bought a single panel of these golden walls.

I wondered if he had gotten his interior-decorating ideas from visiting a vimana. The People's association with rakshasas must have gone pretty far back.

Just beyond me, the Wolf Diamond shone on a narrow metal pedestal. The two trophies of the rakshasas' might: me and the gem. Where is your curse now, you dumb rock?

A steady hum underscored my thoughts. The propellers of the vimana. I had lost consciousness during the flight. When I came to, we had landed on the balcony of the flying palace sitting aground in the lush jungle, and Mart had tossed me into the cage. Now I lay there, neither alive nor dead, suspended three feet above the floor in a cage like some sort of canary.

Mart sat among the pillows below. He'd traded his cat burglar suit for a turquoise flowing garment that left his shoulders and arms bare. Three women fluttered over him, like brightly colored hummingbirds. One washed his feet. One brushed his hair. One held his drink. Other rakshasas sat along the wall, a respectable distance from him, a motley crew of monstrous and human bodies in jewel-toned cloth. Some came and others went through the arched entrances puncturing the walls.

Mart stared at me, his blue eyes two merciless gem-stones, pushed the women aside, and strode to the cage. I stopped chanting and just lay there, like a rag doll. I had enough strength left for one lunge. The second he opened that door, I'd break his neck. His finger twitched and Livie came into my view. Her face was a pale smudge next to the amber of Mart's skin.

Mart spoke, lilting words interspersed with harsh sounds.

"He says that if you live, you'll serve him. If you die, they will eat the meat off your bones."

If they ate me, they would become more powerful. I had no idea how I could prevent it.

Here's wishing for a power word of spontaneous combustion . . .

Mart spoke again, his gaze boring into me.

"He wants to know if you understand what he said."

I had to survive now. He left me no choice.

"Do you understand?"

Arrogant asshole. A tiny ripple pulsed through the puddle of my blood. Neither of them noticed it.

My voice was a raspy whisper. That was all I could manage. "First I'll kill Cesare. Then I'll kill him."

Livie hesitated.

"Tell him."

A single sharp word snapped from Mart's lips. Livie jerked, as if whipped, and translated.

Mart smiled, baring perfect teeth, and strode back to his place.

I lay still, inhaling the vapors rising from my blood. My vision blurred, clearing for a few moments, then dissolved back into a foggy mess. The only reality that remained was the steady pain in my stomach, the blood spread out before me, and my silent chants.

A hulking shape appeared on the edge of the room and grew as it approached. Cesare. Still in his human shape. The snakes rose from his body, hissing, tangling with one another. He carried a golden goblet.

He paused by my bars and said something to Mart.

He was going to drink my blood. It would make him stronger. My blood would nourish the creature who had tried to murder Derek. I don't think so.

Cesare thrust his hand through the bars, and scooped my blood into the goblet. Bastard. Anger built inside me, straining. My fingers trembled.

A thin line of magic stretched between me and the blood in the cup. I still felt it. The blood was still a part of me.

He tipped the goblet to his lips.

No. Mine.

Rage snapped inside me, and I sank it into the blood, commanding it to move as if it were a limb. It obeyed.

Cesare's eyes bulged. He clawed at the gush of red that had suddenly become solid in his mouth, moaning like his tongue had been cut out. That's right, you fucking sonovabitch. I shot more power into the blood. It hurt, but I didn't care.

Sharp red needles burst out of Cesare's face, puncturing his left eye, his lips, his nose, and his throat. He screamed, his ruined eye draining in a gush.

Payback for Derek. Enjoy, zaraza .

I liquefied the blood. One more time. The needles withdrew and then burst out from his face again. Cesare writhed, howling, ripping chunks from his face. Rakshasas ran; someone screamed. I hated to cut this short. I wanted to make it last like what he had done to Derek, but they wouldn't let me keep it up. I liquefied the blood again, spiked it, twisted it in sharp bursts, melted it again, and finally hammered magic into it. A blade of blood shot out of Cesare's throat. It turned, neatly painting a crimson collar around his neck. I let the blood go and it turned to black dust, its magic exhausted.

Roland had the power to solidify and control his blood. Now I had learned it, too. I didn't know if it was the boost of having his blood sword dissolve inside me or if it was my anger, but I had the talent now and had spent every iota of it making Cesare suffer.

Cesare's head rolled off his shoulders. A small gush of blood gurgled at the base of his spinal column. His body toppled back. He fell with a thunderous crash and behind him I saw Mart.

He said something to Livie and laughed. She licked her lips and translated. "He says you've proven useful already."

TIME DRIPPED BY, SLOWLY, SO VERY SLOWLY. RAKSHASAS drifted through the room. I silently chanted, encouraging my body to heal, my chapped, bloody lips whispering the words over and over, but the strong current of magic inside me had shrunk to a mere trickle. It sat there weak and useless like a soggy tissue and refused to respond. Still, I tried.

Cold fingers touched my hand. I focused and saw Livie, her eyes huge as she bent to me.

Tears wet her cheeks. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "I'm so sorry I got all of you into this."

"Don't be. It's not your fault."

A grimace skewed her face. She slid a small piece of metal into my palm.

Someone snarled. Livie dashed from the cage. I looked at the metal she'd given me. A knife.

She was trying to help me. When I did go, I wouldn't be completely alone.

DARKNESS ENCROACHED ON THE EDGE OF MY VISION. It grew slowly but steadily from the corners. The pain had receded behind a wall of numbness. Still there, still present, but no longer murderously sharp. I was dying.

I waited for my life to flash before my eyes, but it didn't. I just stared at the cavernous chamber, gleaming with metallic luster, and watched the fire flare and fracture within the depths of the Wolf Diamond. My lips moved softly, still shaping regeneration chants. By all rights, I should have been dead already. My stubbornness and Roland's blood had kept me alive this long. But eventually my will would fade and I would fade with it.

I always thought my life would end in a battle or maybe with a chance strike on some dark street. But not like this. Not in a gold cage to be served as a meal to a bunch of monsters.

But Curran would live and so would Derek, and Andrea, and Jim . . . Given a choice, I would change nothing. I just wished . . . I wished I had more time.

The darkness grew again. Maybe it was time to surrender. I was so very tired of hurting.

A commotion broke out among the rakshasas. They darted back and forth. Mart rose from his pillows and began barking orders. A group of rakshasas dashed through the arched door, brandishing bizarre weapons. My weak heart hammered faster.

It couldn't be.

More rakshasas ran and then I heard it, the low, rolling roar like distant thunder laced with rage.


I was hallucinating. He couldn't be there. I heard the pulse of propellers. We were still flying through the air.

The terrifying lion roar shook the vimana again, closer this time.

A wave of rakshasas flooded back into the chamber, bristling with weapons. A mangled body flew through one of the arched entrances. Livie sprinted to me and hid behind my cage.

The tide of monsters rallied and charged the entrance. They crashed against the doorway, struggled, and pulled back, bloodied. Curran burst into the chamber.

He wore the warrior form. Huge, gray fur stained with blood, he roared again, and the rakshasas shrank from the sound of his anger. He tore through them as if they were toy soldiers. Howls rang through the chamber as limbs were ripped, bones broken, and blood fountained in a pressurized spray.

He came for me. I couldn't believe it.

He came for me. Into a flying palace full of thousands of armed rakshasas in the middle of a magic jungle. Oh, you stupid, stupid idiot man. What was the God damn point of saving him only to watch him throw his life away?

Behind Curran an enormous beast charged into the room. Shaggy with dark fur, a huge muzzle gaping black, the beast roared and rammed the crowd. Giant paws swiped, crushing skulls. Mahon, the Bear of Atlanta.

A hellish creature thrust into the gap made by Mahon. She was corded with muscle, sandy brown and covered with spots. Her hands were armed with black claws. Fangs jutted out of her round jaws. She was grotesque and mind-numbingly terrifying. The beast howled and broke into an eerie hyena cackle. Every hair on the back of my neck stood on end.

Curran ripped his way to me. Cuts and wounds dotted his frame. He bled, but kept going, unstoppable in his fury and still roaring. His roar slapped your senses like a clap of thunder, shaking you to your very core. The rakshasas were too many. His only chance lay in panicking them into flight, but even panic wouldn't last long - sooner or later they would do the math and figure out that a couple hundred to three were pretty good odds, but as long as he kept blasting them with his roar and throwing them around, they couldn't think properly.

Mart thrust himself between my cage and Curran, his sword in his hands. The rest of the rakshasas pulled back, but Curran barely noticed. He lunged at Mart.

Blades flashed, impossibly fast. Mart spun out of the way and sliced deep into Curran's back.

The Beast Lord whipped about, oblivious to pain, and raked his claws across Mart, ripping his robes. Red blood swelled on Mart's golden skin. They collided. Swords struck, claws rent, teeth snapped. Mart sank his short blade into Curran's side. Curran growled in pain, wrenched free, dropped down, and swiped his leg under Mart, knocking him off his feet. Mart leapt straight up off the floor, both swords in his hands, and met Curran halfway. Dumb-ass move.

The Beast Lord hammered a punch into Mart's face. The rakshasa flew across the chamber, slid across the floor, and rolled to his feet. Curran chased him.

Mart spun like a dervish. His blades became a lethal whirlwind. Curran lunged into them, cuts blooming across his pelt, and grabbed at Mart. The rakshasa leapt straight up, soaring above the crowd.

Curran tensed. The monstrous muscles on his tree-trunk legs contracted like steel springs. He launched himself into the air. His claws caught Mart in midleap, hooking his leg. Mart struggled up, but Curran hung on, ripping chunks out of the rakshasa's flesh as he climbed up his body. The warped leonine mouth gaped and Curran bit Mart's side. They dropped like a stone and crashed to the floor a few feet from me. Mart slid free, slick with his own blood.

His gaze fastened on the Wolf Diamond, still sitting on its pedestal. He lunged for it. His bloodied fingers grasped the topaz. He backed away and bumped into my cage.

I thrust through the bars and stabbed Livie's knife into the base of his throat, between his left shoulder and the column of his neck. The puddle of my blood shivered, obedient to my will, and bit into his back with a hundred spikes.

The gem slipped out of his fingers.

I locked my arms on his neck, trying to choke him out, but I didn't have the strength.

Curran swept the Wolf Diamond off the floor, clamped his huge left hand onto Mart's shoulder, and smashed the topaz into Mart's face.

The rakshasa screamed.

Curran pounded him, hammering the gemstone into Mart again and again. Blood flew. The blows crushed Mart's perfection into bloody pulp. The sword fell from his fingers. Curran struck for the last time and ripped him from the cage, snapping my blood spikes, which dissipated into black dust. He twisted Mart's neck, snapping the spinal column, and shook the lifeless body at the crowd of rakshasas with a deafening roar.

They fled. They streamed out of the chamber through the arched doors, trampling one another in their hurry to get away.

Curran wrenched the cage bars apart.

"You suicidal moron," I rasped. "What are you doing here?"

"Repaying the favor," he snarled.

He pulled me out of the cage and saw the wound in my stomach. His half-form face jerked.

He pressed me against his chest. "Stay with me."

"Where would I . . . go, Your Majesty?" My head was spinning.

Behind us the taller of the nightmarish beasts swept the petrified Livie from behind the cage.

"It's all right," the monster told her, clamping her with one hand and holding the Wolf Diamond with the other. "Aunt B's got you."

At the opposite end of the chamber someone was fighting the current of fleeing rakshasas. A sword flashed and I recognized Hugh d'Ambray, with Nick at his heels. He saw us and shouted something.

"What is he doing here?" Curran growled.

"He's Roland's Warlord. He's here for me." He was here for the woman who had broken his master's blade.

"Tough luck. You're mine." Curran turned and ran, carrying me off. Hugh screamed, but the current of fleeing rakshasas pushed him out of the chamber.

I lay cradled in Curran's arms as he ran through the vimana. Others joined us, tall, furry shapes. I could no longer distinguish the different faces. I just rested in his arms, nearly blind, every jolt sending more pain stinging up my spine. Soft darkness tried to engulf me.

"Stay with me, baby."

"I will."

It was a dream or a nightmare, I could no longer decide. But somehow I stayed with him all the way, even as the vimana careened, even as we leapt out of it and saw it crash behind us into the green hills. I stayed with him all during the mad run through the jungle. The last things I remembered were stone ruins and Doolittle's face.

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