"He'll stab us in the back."
"I'll have people watching him. We found him once, we'll find him again. He stabs someone, I'll skin him alive. Piece by piece." Jim smiled at Red. Most people saw Jim smile only once, just before he killed them. The smile had the desired effect: Red cringed and paled so light, I could see it even through the layer of dirt smudging his skin.
"Objections?" Jim asked me.
"Do what you will."
IN THE YARD, TWO HUGE BUSES ROARED, THEIR ENGINES fueled by magic-infused water. That's the trouble with magic-fueled vehicles: they were slow, thirty-five, forty miles an hour max and they made enough noise to wake the dead and make them call the cops. I'd get to ride to the battle on a bus. The Universe had a mordant sense of humor.
I noticed a familiar slender figure. Myong. And next to her, Crest. He looked well: same dark eyes, same clothes, immaculate to the last crease. He was still a very handsome man, with auburn hair and warm eyes. I looked at him and didn't care. The pang of embarrassment was gone. I was free.
"Curran let them go. Released her from all duties to the Pack. She's excused from the fight." Derek wrinkled his lip. "If it was me, I'd make her fight. And then, if she did well, I might let her go."
Crest held the door of a narrow gray vehicle for Myong.
"There, they are off, the happy couple excused from revenge and saving the world. Doesn't it bother you?"
I smiled. "Derek, in life you have to learn to let some things go."
We circled the bus and a wave of vampiric magic hit me. Eight vampires sat perched like statues in front of a Jeep. Curran stood by the Jeep, having a rather animated discussion with the ninth vampire. The vampire saw me.
"Kate," it said in Ghastek's voice. "Your ability to remain alive never ceases to amaze me."
"What are you doing here? As in what are you doing here, instead of being under lockdown in the Casino?"
"Quite elementary, my dear; I've come to get even. That, and the People would like to monitor the full potential of the vampires during a flare in an environment where they are free to inflict unrestricted damage. But mostly, I'm here to get even with the Shepherd. I find retribution to be a worthy cause."
I looked at Curran's face and suddenly I knew exactly who would escort Bran through the tunnel.
THE BUBBLE FILLED THE GAP. SOLID, TRANSLUCENT, streaked with hairline cracks, it betrayed the faces of monsters within. Snouts crushed, heavy lips squished, the Fomorians stood shoulder to shoulder, packed tight like Altoid mints.
We had ridden the buses to the Honeycomb and walked a trail to the bottom of the Gap. Curran had brought a hundred shapeshifters, all volunteers. A hundred could block the Gap long enough to give Bran a chance to close the cauldron. And if they failed, no number of shapeshifters would make things right. Curran didn't want to put more of his people in harm's way. Still, I would've taken more, but nobody asked for my opinion.
The trail took us along the Honeycomb Gap's edge. I saw the bloated trailers pulled up tight to encircle the lip of the Gap, where it touched the Honeycomb. Beyond the trailers waited the Honeycomb residents, armed with clubs, axes, and blades. I counted four dog handlers, holding their metallic charges on the arm-thick chains and two cheiroballistas beyond them before the path took me eastward. Should any demons make it up the trash-and spike-studded slope, they would regret it in a hurry.
The shapeshifters had cleared the floor of the Gap enough to make it serviceable. All the sharp trash had been thrown against the bubble. It would slow the Fomorians down.
We descended into the Gap. The Pack formed ranks about a hundred yards from the bubble. The shapeshifters stood apart, giving each other room to work. A group of women strode past me, led by a familiar witch: one of the Morrigan coven leaders. They wore leather and chain mail, carried bows and swords, and their faces were painted blue. With a look of grim determination, they elbowed their way to Curran. They spoke for a few minutes and the witches climbed up the walls, taking position among the refuse above the battle.
It was my turn. I walked up to Curran. "Fifteen seconds."
His eyes shone. "I remember. Try not to die."
"I'll survive just so I can kill you."
"See you in the morning, then."
I moved aside. Behind me Derek had a wide smile plastered on his face.
"Are you babysitting me for the fight?"
He nodded, his smile even wider.
A chunk of pale gray, like dirty ice, broke from the top of the bubble. With an eerie whistle, it plunged and bit deep into the bottom of the Gap, punching through the rusty garbage. The gray hissed and fizzled, evaporating into thin air. A hush fell upon the field. The shapeshifters trembled in anticipation.
Curran's voice carried over our heads. "We have a job to do. Today we avenge our own! They came here, onto our land. They tortured a child. They killed our Pack mates. Nobody hurts the Pack!"
"Nobody!" answered a ragged chorus.
He pointed at the bubble. "They are not men. There is no human flesh on their bones."
Where was he going with this?
"What happens here, stays here. Today there is no Code. Today you can let go."
They lived the Code. They followed it with fanatical discipline. Obey, perform, account for yourself. Ever diligent. Always in control. Never let go. Curran had promised them the one thing they could never have. One by one their eyes lit amber, then flared blood-red.
"Remember: it's not your job to die for your Pack! It's your job to make the other bastards die for theirs. Together we kill!"
"Kill!" breathed the field.
"Kill! Win! Go home!"
"Kill, win, go home! Kill, win, go home!" They chanted it over and over, their voices merging them into a unified avalanche of sound.
Another fraction of the dome tumbled to the grass. As one, the shapeshifters stripped off their clothes. Around me people gripped their weapons. I smelled sweat and sun-warmed metal.
With the ear-splitting roar of a crumbling ice flat, the gray dome fell apart revealing the sea of Fomorians. They shifted forward a few steps and stood silent, a chaotic mass dappled with green, turquoise, and orange, monstrous like an old painting of hell.
"Turn!" Curran roared.
Fur burst along the shapeshifter ranks like a fire running down the detonation cord. Beasts and monsters shrugged their shoulders and bit the air. Curran snarled and rose above his troops, an eight-foot-tall bestial nightmare.