"No." Curran shook his head. "They just condemned it when the walls wouldn't stop bleeding. They don't kill it unless they know they can't use it."

I reached out, feeling for the power, and recoiled. Thick dire magic clothed the prison. It permeated the walls, drowning the building, flowing from it like an invisible octopus spreading its tentacles out in search of its prey. I quested again and found a tangle of necro-tainted threads within the thickness of the magic. Something fed on the power of the prison, digesting it to fuel itself. Something undead and enormously powerful.

"A zombie?" I whispered.

"Smells like one." Curran grimaced, upper lip quivering lightly to reveal his teeth.

The metal gates stood partially ajar, inviting us in. I didn't want to go. A crazy thought popped into my head - I could just ride away. I could turn my horse around and ride away, far away and never look back.

I don't have to enter.

I dismounted and tied Wind to a tree. It wasn't fair to take him into that place. Reaching for Slayer, I freed it from the back sheath.

"Ever twist your elbow doing that?" Curran asked.

"No. I've had a lot of practice."

Nick dismounted and tied his gelding to a tree next to Wind.

Not waiting for him, I started toward the gate.

"You're going to take him on by yourself?" Curran's voice asked at my side. He sounded amused.

"If I wait any longer, I won't go in," I said. My knees trembled. My teeth chattered in my mouth.

He grabbed me and kissed me. The kiss sent a wave of heat from my lips all the way to my toes. Curran's eyes laughed. "For luck," he whispered, his breath a hot cloud on my ear.

I broke free and wiped my mouth on the back of my hand. "When we're done with the upir," I growled, "I'll give you that fight you've been wanting."

"Much better," Curran said.

"If you lovebirds are done," Nick said. "Get out of my way."

Curran changed in an explosion of ripping clothes. I wasn't sure what was more frightening, whatever awaited us beyond the gate or the awful meld of human and prehistoric lion next to me, but at the moment I didn't care. The weight of the cyanide sphere tugged on my pocket.

Together we stalked toward the gates. Curran hit them once and they flew open, revealing the yard beyond, illuminated by three bonfires. I took a step inside and stopped, stunned.

The upir stood in the middle of the yard, bathed in the light of the flames. He wore a kilt. A belt of wide silver disks enclosed his waist and charms of fur and bone hung from the links on leather cords. Ornate spaulders of silvery metal guarded his shoulders, joined by a chain of metal disks across his bare chest. Matching vambraces shielded his arms from the wrist to the elbow, leaving his hands exposed. His shins were bound in cloth but no boots protected his feet and he stood lightly poised, ready to leap. He held a spear, tipped by a foot-long blade, curved like a scimitar. The blade shimmered with borrowed firelight, matching the gleam in his eyes. He looked so odd, standing there in the middle of the yard, against the backdrop of a crude modern building, a being ancient but alive, a contradiction in terms, as if time itself had torn and spit him from its depths complete with the kilt and wild gray hair.

"Damn," Curran growled. "I didn't know this was a costume party."

His voice jarred the illusion. I snapped my fingers. "Oh, hell. I should've brought my French maid outfit."

The upir laughed, sharp teeth gleaming. "Look at the windows, Kate. Look at your sisters."

I glanced up and saw them, positioned in the windows like pale statues. Women. At least two dozen, standing rigid and still in torn, bloody clothes on the windowsills. Some of them looked dead, others were - several corpses hung from a large chain stretched from the roof. They all looked the same, robbed of their souls by identical expressions of fear twisting their faces. They hadn't been there when I had surveyed the place from beyond the wall.

Slayer smoked, feeding off my fury, and thick opaque liquid slid shimmered from the tip of its blade, evaporating before it hit the ground.

Something moved within a giant pile of rubble at the far wall. The hill of garbage and refuse shuddered, breathed, and surged upward, impossibly high. A nauseating stench hit me. I gagged. Garbage fell, revealing yellow bones and shreds of rotting flesh oozing putrid juices. Flies swarmed, thick like a black cloud. An enormous skull fixed me with deep-sunken, dead eyes. Gargantuan jaws gaped open and clanged together, forcing teeth as long as my arm to scrape against each other. The horrid corpse shifted. A taloned paw rose and touched the ground, sending tremors through the yard. The bonedragon advanced.

"A dragon for a knight," the upir called. "Aren't you happy, Crusader? I gave you an excuse not to fight me."

Nick charged past me, the silver chain whipping from his sleeve. He swung at the upir and Bono danced away. An enormous putrid foot slammed before Nick, separating him from the upir. The bonedragon snapped at the Crusader.

A horde of the upir's offspring burst from the doors and swarmed upon me. I sliced, nearly splitting a furry carcass in two just before I saw Curran leap onto the dragon's shoulder. He lingered for a mere moment and pounced down, behind the creature, where Bono stood grinning.

The beasts surged about me. Slayer cut and hissed. Sharp claws dug into my foot and withdrew.

Something was wrong.

I cut at a piggish snout and saw the light die in the creature's human eyes. The shaggy body crumpled to the ground. Its siblings closed the ranks above it. I raised my hand for a new blow.

The beasts didn't attack. They snarled and pawed the ground, but no fangs ripped into me. I lowered the blade.

They were there to contain me. Fodder for my saber to keep me busy and away from the fight. I advanced. The creatures stood their ground and snarled. A wide-jawed spotted thing snapped, missing my arm by a hair. So they wouldn't let me move.

I could just kill all of them. I should just kill all of them.

Something in me rebelled at the idea of slaughtering these pitiful half-animals while they looked at me with human eyes. I swung about, looking for a leader and found Arag, half-crouched, swaying softly. His horrid face had a slack, muted expression.

"Arag," I said.

The monster gave no indication he heard me. His jaws hung open, exposing yellow fangs and a thick tongue.

"Arag!"

The creature stared at me stupidly. I moved to skirt him to the left and he snarled, coming to life. I kept going. He charged me. His huge head hammered my side with awesome force. I fell and saw his fangs above me. Drool dripped on my face, stretching from his teeth. He hovered above me, black lips quivering, legs rigid. The slack expression reasserted itself and he moved back, returning to his place in the ring of furry beasts.


Tags: Ilona Andrews Kate Daniels Vampires
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