To the right, the Shepherd stretched his arms. His robes tore, revealing his thin, awkward body. Tentacles swirled around his shoulders and snapped forward to catch metal spikes. The tentacles contracted and the Shepherd flew past the wolves and clutched at Curran's back. As one, the reeves clumped onto Curran's limbs, exposing the necklace wrapped around his forearm. The Shepherd's icy eyes flared with hungry fire. His mouth unhinged and serrated teeth bit into Curran's arm and the monisto wrapped around Curran's wrist. Coins went flying as the cord snapped under the Shepherd's teeth.
Curran screamed and I screamed with him.
"Idiot!" Bran hit his head with the heel of his hand.
Tentacles whipped. A bloody hole gaped in Curran's arm. The Shepherd withdrew, back toward the hangar. Three of the reeves followed in a gaggle, swiping Julie out of Ugad's arms, while the rest of the reeves clamped onto Curran's feet. The giant stared at Curran stupidly, turned and ran to the hangar, blood spraying from his body.
The wolves fell upon the reeves. Curran shook like a dog flinging water from his fur.
Ugad's body punched through the thin metal wall and through the gaping hole I caught a glimpse of the pile of crates.
"No!" Bran's mouth gaped open.
Ugad hit the crates head-on. Shards flew, revealing a metal cauldron as tall as me. Bran swore, biting off words like a pissed off dog.
Magic hit in a huge choking tide. The witches went down to their knees. The vision wavered and the dome quaked.
"The flare..." the youngest Oracle whispered. "It's here..."
The magic crashed into me, and my body drank it in, more and more and more. No head rush this time. No pause. Just power, pure power streaming through me.
The Shepherd hovered over the cauldron. His body doubled over and a gush of liquid spilled from his mouth, carrying a glittering spark with it. The spark hit the cauldron and expanded into an enormous lid. He must have bit it off the monisto and swallowed it.
Curran was almost to them, a trail of broken reeve bodies in his wake.
Ugad gripped the lid and leaned back. His thick arms bulged. With a guttural snarl, he tore the lid free of the cauldron, opening the gate to the Otherworld.
Like a storm cloud with a mind of its own, a blotch of darkness mushroomed above the cauldron. Within that shadow, a deeper darkness appeared, hinting at a humanoid form, huge and misshapen. Two hands thrust from the gloom as if welcoming an ovation. Feet in black boots solidified on the cauldron's rim. Thick forearms emerged into the light, their bulging muscle crisscrossed by shiny strips of scar tissue and dotted with warts. The darkness slunk back, an eager-to-please pet, revealing first a chest in a scalemail enameled black, and then a pale face.
His nose protruded forward, too long, too flat, like the carapace of a horse skull, like an enormous beak, sheathed in a meager layer of flesh and tapering to a sharp, horn-tipped point. Below the nose a massive jaw supported two rows of oversized teeth. One of the incisors jutted like a boar tusk falling just short of touching the left cheek. His eyes, small and white, sat deep under Neanderthal eyebrows. Between the eyes cartilage broke through the skin to form a thin, sharp ridge that vanished into his fleshy forehead.
It was as if the skulls of a horse and a human had somehow been blended into a horrid whole. A human face stretched over the meld, with barely enough meat and skin to cover the bone. This thing could not be man.
Behind him the darkness slithered and gained shape, solidifying into long black hair and a thousand crow feathers, streaming like a mantle behind him.
He raised his hand and spoke a word.
A gray bubble popped into existence by his fingers and began to expand. It swallowed his hand, then his head, then his feet. Instinctively I knew I didn't want the bubble touching Curran.
The Beast Lord hesitated.
"Run, Curran!" The words left me even though I knew he couldn't hear.
The bubble gulped the cauldron.
My heart clenched. "Run!"
Curran turned on his heel and ran, swiping Jim's body off the ground.
"Andrea!" I screamed, but he couldn't hear me.
The bubble hid the Shepherd and the vision faded.
THREE HOURS LATER BRAN AND I RODE UP TO THE pack keep. The witches had lent us the horses and we had ridden them until they were soaked in sweat. Bran seethed. He cursed me for not giving him the lid in time. He cursed Curran for losing the lid. He cursed Morrigan for denying him the mist as a punishment for his failure. He cursed the Fomorians by name, reaching for stronger and stronger words until his curses no longer made sense. I said nothing.
After a half hour of cursing, Bran wore out his voice and lapsed into silence. "The gray bubble we saw is a ward," he said finally. "The Fomorians can only crawl out of the cauldron one at a time. Morfran is buying time to build his army."
"Can we break the ward?" I asked.
He shook his head. "Cu Chulainn himself couldn't break through it. In fifteen hours it will fall and your city will drown in blood. We are riding through the Otherworld because all of them" - he swept his hand past the houses crowding the street - "all of them are dead. We travel through the city of the dead men. All because that son of a whore was trying to save a beggar child."
She was my beggar child. I would've risked a horde of demons to save her, too.
The gates of the Pack Keep opened at our approach. A clump of shapeshifters waited for us in the inner yard. I searched for the familiar figure.
Please. Please make it.
And then I saw him. His hair fell on his back in a mane. I had missed it, because it was no longer blond, but gray, the gray of his fur in beast-form.
Bran jumped off his horse and strode into the yard, his face twisted. "You! You fucking whoreson!"
Oh shit. "Curran, don't kill him! He's Morrigan's Hound. We need him to work the cauldron!"
I jumped off the horse and chased Bran.
The shapeshifters parted, giving Curran room. A white bandage covered his arm. That was a first.
Bran shoved Curran, but the Beast Lord didn't move.
"You gave it to them! For what? A scrawny street kid! Nobody cares if she lives or dies! You've killed hundreds for her. Why?"
Curran's eyes had gone gold. "I don't have to explain myself to you." He raised his hand and shoved Bran back. Bran stumbled a couple of steps.
I caught him. "Don't do this. You'll get hurt."
Bran pushed free of me and lunged at Curran. Curran snarled, grabbed Bran by his arm, and threw him across the yard.
Morrigan's Hound leaped upright. An inhuman, terrifying bellow erupted from his throat and slammed my ears with an air fist.