"Hold him," I said.
The wolf growled low, black lips quivering.
The room was suddenly quiet as a tomb. I hoped it wouldn't be mine.
"Derek," Mik said in a hoarse voice, the weight of the wolf on his chest making it difficult for him to speak. "Derek, it's me."
The wolf snarled.
"Don't move," I advised, reaching back and pulling Slayer from its sheath. It made a soft metallic whisper as it left the scabbard and the gazes of the shapechangers fastened on the enchanted blade.
A woman rose from her seat to my left. Her lips quivered in a telltale precursor to a snarl. "What the hell did you do to him?"
I glanced around the room. The mood had changed. The game had ended, and their eyes burned like fire. The hair on their heads bristled, and the smell of murder was in the air.
"This is Slayer," I said, holding the saber so they could see it clearly. The saber seethed, and luminescent tendrils of smoke clung to its blade. "It has had many names. One of them was Wolfripper. Push me and I will show you how it got that one."
"You can't take all of us," a male snarled to the right.
"I don't have to." I lowered the blade onto the neck of the wolf. "Move and I'll kill him."
They became utterly still. Pack loyalty overrode their anger, but I didn't dare to push them any further.
"That's enough," Curran's voice said.
The shapechangers melted from my path and I saw Curran standing down by the fire. I looked at the wolf. "Come."
Hesitantly the beast took his paws off Mik's chest. I stepped over the stocky man and walked toward Curran, the wolf trotting at my side like an oversized guard dog.
I stepped onto the stage. Curran's irises were streaked with gold - he was pissed off. Ignoring him, I stepped toward the brazier, pulled up the right sleeve of my sweatshirt, and passed my forearm through the flame. Pain licked my arm. The stench of scorched skin and burned hair permeated the air. The room murmured. I proved my humanity and my control to the Pack as any shapechanger would. No shapechanger who abandoned the strict discipline and allowed his Beast to take charge could touch the fire. It was a vital and very private ritual, one they did not expect me to know.
Curran's face was stone. "Come," he said and the wolf and I followed him off the stage, through a door, into another, much smaller room, where eight people sat in padded chairs. They rose at Curran's approach and remained standing, three women and five men. Jim was one of them. So my old buddy was a member of the Pack Council. Fancy that.
The eight looked at the wolf, at me, at my arm, and then at Curran. Jim opened his mouth to say something and clamped it shut.
"Derek," Curran called.
The wolf glanced at him. The blaze of Curran's eyes seared him and he sat still, mesmerized. Curran made a strange sound, half growl, half word, but an unmistakable command. The wolf shuddered. Curran repeated the order. The wolf shook harder, his lean body convulsing, and whined weakly.
The lord of the shapechangers glared at me. "Release him."
"Is that a request or an order?"
A twitch ran through Curran's face as if the lion in him wanted to claw its way out. "It's a request," he said.
I kneeled by the wolf and touched his thick fur, making contact with the skin underneath. The beast trembled.
"Is the room warded with containment?"
Curran nodded. I looked at the wolf and whispered, "Dair." Release.
The strength of the power word rocked me. Red circles swam before me and I shook my head trying to clear my vision. The wolf sagged to the floor as if all strength suddenly left his sinewy legs. Curran growled, and the animal vanished in the dense mist, leaving the kid naked and wet on the floor.
"I couldn't," he groaned.
"I know," Curran said. "It's okay."
The kid sighed and passed out. One of the women, a long-legged lean brunette in her thirties, covered him with a blanket.
Curran turned to me. "Take one of mine again and I'll kill you." He said it in a conversational manner, matter-of-fact and flat, but in his eyes I could see a simple certainty. If he had to, he would kill me. He would not lose any sleep over it. He would not give it a second thought. He would do it and move on, untroubled by ending my existence.
It scared the shit out of me, so I laughed in his face. "You think you can do it by yourself next time, big guy? On second thought, you better bring some of your flunkies to box me in again - you are getting soft."
Behind him someone made a strangled sound. That's it, I'm dead, flashed through my head. Curran's face jerked. Bloodlust flooded him and then, with a single massive exertion of will, he regained control. The effort was almost physical. I could see the muscles of his face relax one by one as his anger imploded. The rage in his eyes died to smoldering amber and he stood before me, relaxed, loose, and calm. It was the most frightening thing I'd ever seen.
"I need you for now," he said. Glancing at his Council, he asked, "Is Corwin ready?"
"Yes, my liege," boomed an older man. Barrel-chested and thick, with enormous shoulders and arms that would make any blacksmith proud, he looked to be in his fifties, his curly black beard and thick mane of black hair sparkling with isolated strands of gray.
"Good. Take her to the room. I'll join you shortly."
The black-bearded man approached the door on the left side of the room and held it open for me. "Please."
I made my exit.
We walked side by side through a winding corridor, the man with the black beard and I. "My name is Mahon," the man said. His deep voice held the slight burr of a Scottish accent.
"Nice to meet you," I murmured mechanically.
"It would have been much nicer under different circumstances," he chuckled.
"Knowing the extent of the Pack's welcome, I would've preferred Unicorn Lane."
"You must understand that Curran can't permit anyone to take something that's his. If he allows it to happen, his authority would come into question and some'd ask if you couldn't do the same thing to him as you did to Derek."
"I'm aware of the Pack's mechanics," I said.
"And you are an outsider. The Pack is distrustful of outsiders."
"I'm a human outsider. The Pack treated me as if I were a loner. With Curran's permission." Very rarely, a shapechanger chose to follow the Code in his own way, refusing the Pack. Such inpiduals were called loners. They were the ultimate outsiders, treated by the Pack with suspicion and dislike.
Mahon inclined his head, supporting my assessment of the situation. "Curran never does anything without a reason," he said. "I was told you'd met him. Perhaps you indirectly challenged him at that meeting."