He was clearly drawing a blank. "Nataraja's pet snake," I explained. "It bolted a few weeks ago. I found it for him at the request of the Guild." Mentioning that I spent four solid days camped out in a swamp, covered in peat and muck, without a change of clothes, would have completely cramped my style.


An icy feeling came over me. The tiny hairs on the back of my neck rose. We rounded the bend and saw a vampire. It scuttled along the ceiling, heading in the opposite direction, ropy muscles working under the tightly stretched skin, probably dark during life, but now bluish purple. Rowena glanced at it and waved the way people in more technological times must've waved at the security cameras. I felt a particular magic flow from her in a sluggish wave. My stomach lurched and I swallowed, trying not to retch.

The undead sat unnaturally still. The urge to kill it almost overwhelmed me. My hand itched to touch Slayer, resting in its leather sheath on my back. I looked into the empty dead eyes and wondered what it would be like to slide my blade into one, scrambling the brain behind it. I would have liked to kill the man that piloted it even more.

The vampire shifted, springing into motion all at once, and moved on. "This way please," Rowena said, favoring us with another dazzling smile. And we had no choice but to follow while the vampire disappeared behind the turn of the corridor.

The hallway terminated in a huge arched door. It opened at our approach, splitting down the middle. Beyond, Nataraja's pentagonal throne room stretched like a hashish dream stolen from the mind of an ancient teller of The Arabian Nights. Graceful statues stood bathed in the glow of magic lamps that mixed with the gentle reflected radiance of Nataraja's gold throne. Velvet pillows dotted the Italian tile floor and priceless pieces of art struggled to add a touch of refinement to the shocking opulence. Nataraja himself reclined on his throne, like a sultan of legend.

The asshole wore white as he always did and his outfit looked to be worth my six months' salary. It's good to be the sultan.

His throne looked gold. It probably was gold, but my mind couldn't accept that such a concentration of wealth could be wasted on supporting someone's backside. Shaped like an egg set on its wide end and cut in half lengthwise, the throne reached the height of six feet. Stylized exotic animals, at one time considered mythical and now only extremely dangerous, covered the entire surface of the egg, both inside and out, and the precious gems that served as their eyes sparkled in the light of numerous lamps.

Nataraja rested on the throne, half-sitting, half-reclining on his elbow on a plush white cushion. His age was hard to determine. Judging by his features alone, he could not have been much older than forty but visual impressions didn't mean anything anymore. He felt old, much older than me. Two hundred years, maybe three, maybe more. A few years ago I would have said such longevity wasn't possible, since even a hundred years ago technology flowed full force, but my years as a merc had taught me to be very careful with words like "never" and "impossible."

Nataraja looked at me, slightly amused by my presence on his home turf. Olive-skinned and slight in build, he radiated power the way some men radiate strength. His hair, coal black and straight, framed an angular face, with a wide, high forehead, prominent cheekbones, and a weak chin, hidden by a carefully cut, ultra-short beard. His eyes, very dark and piercing, had a magnetic effect. When he stared, he appeared to look deep inside you, discovering the hidden thoughts and secreted ideas and taking them for his own. His gaze made it nearly impossible to lie to him. I still managed.

Wiggles hissed as I crossed the floor toward the throne. She fixed me with her empty hateful eyes and smelled the air, her long tongue shivering through the slit of the lipless mouth. Nice to see you too, sweetheart. Remember my cattle prod?

Rowena strode to the snake, her hand settling on the huge triangular head. Weighing nearly two hundred pounds, Wiggles could not be picked up and carried away, and snakes cannot be trained, since most of the time they assume that humans are warm walking trees. Wiggles, however, was a freak born of magic and genetic manipulation. She was still dumb by mammalian standards, but she knew that a hand on her head meant pain if she moved, so she settled into long languid coils at Rowena's feet.

Nataraja's voice came like a whisper of scales on rough stone. "Kate."

"Nate."

He grimaced. "I'm not in the mood to be disrespected."

"No wonder. It's quite late for a man of your age. Ever thought about retirement?" You know you will do it and I know you will do it. Let's get it over with. Test me, you sonovabitch, so I can fight you off once again and then we'll talk.

His power slammed into me, pressing, pushing me to the floor. His eyes grew into bottomless pits, commanding, all-powerful, sucking me into their awful depth, promising slavery and pain.

I clenched my teeth and held him, trying to shield Derek.

Nataraja pushed harder, his power welling like an avalanche, distorting the world, overwhelming it until nothing was left but his will and mine, locked against each other. A painful shudder pulsed through me. His face twisted and he bit his lip.

"Temper, temper," I said through my teeth.

"Aren't mood swings a sign of early senility?" Derek's strained voice said from beyond.

The awesome pressure ebbed for an instant and I gathered my magic, summoning every reserve I had. Strike against the kid, Nate. Strike so I can kill you.

The pressure fell abruptly and I was hurled back from a long black tunnel into the real world. Nataraja backed off, sensing the danger. Damn it.

I glanced at Derek. His face looked bloodless. His hands clenched into fists.

Nataraja was once again playing an amused host. "I see you brought a pet," he said. "He talks like you." One day, his face promised. One day we'll settle this.

"My bad habits rubbing off." Any time.

A whisper announced a new arrival. Ghastek came through the arched doors, carrying a briefcase and wearing khaki pants and a black T-neck sweater. He looked so absurd against the backdrop of Nataraja's vulgar throne room that I almost laughed.

Ghastek nodded to me and came to stand by his master's throne. Both men were of slight build, but where Nate was slender, Ghastek was thin. A diet of steaks and lots of hours in the weight room could make him lean and sinewy, but I doubted he ever looked at a dumbbell, let alone handled one. He was beginning to bald and the receding hairline added height to his forehead. His face was plain, saved from unremarkable only by dark eyes betraying his intellect and that slight touch of distance particular to people who spend their time immersed in thought.

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