"Do you accept the bargain?"
"Red, what about me?" Julie broke free of my grip. I didn't hold her too hard. This was her last chance to be cured.
"I love you! Don't leave me."
He held his hand out, blocking her. "She has everything I want. You have nothing."
He stepped over Bran's legs and trotted to Morrigan's side like the dog he was. It had come full circle: from the ancestor who had broken free of Morrigan, through countless generations, to the descendant, who willingly put on her collar.
Bran's body had barely cooled. She showed no signs of grief.
I looked at her. "You recognize me."
Chains jingled in agreement.
"We meet again, and I'll kill him."
"Fuck off. She's too powerful for you. She'll protect me," Red said.
"The blood that flows through me was old when she was but a vague idea. Look into her eyes, if you don't believe me."
"We won't meet again," Morrigan promised.
Behind her, mist swirled in a solid wall. It slunk along the ground, licked at Morrigan's feet, wound about Red, and swallowed them whole.
The tech hit, crushing the magic under its foot. Julie stood alone in the field of dead bodies and iron, her face numb with shock.
IN THE MORNING, WHEN THE WITCHES CAME FOR Bran's body, they found it sprawled among white flowers. Blazing like small white stars, with centers as black as his eyes, the flowers grew overnight, sending a spicy scent into the air. By the time the day was over, the flowers had been christened Morgan's Bells and a rumor floated person to person that Morrigan was so distraught over her champion's death, she had wept and the flowers sprang forth from her tears.
Bullshit. I was there and the bitch didn't shed a tear.
The witches buried Bran in Centennial Park and built a cairn over his grave. I was told I was welcome to visit him anytime.
The next two days were spent next to Andrea bent over the reports to the Order. We'd plugged every hole, smoothed every bump, and routed out every inconsistency, until she was pure human and I was just a blade-happy merc.
It didn't help that without magic in the world for the next few weeks, we had to resort to conventional medicine. I had a half dozen cuts, a couple deep enough to be bothersome, and two cracked ribs. Andrea sported a gash across her back that under ordinary circumstances would've healed with embarrassing quickness. Postflare, it took its time. She wasn't accustomed to pain and she popped painkillers by the handful.
After Red left, Julie had retreated deep into herself. She gave noncommittal answers and stopped eating. On Thursday I dropped off the last report together with a leave of absence request, loaded her into my ancient gas-guzzling Subaru, and drove down South, toward Savannah, where I kept my father's house. Andrea promised to smooth things over with the Order when the knights returned.
The drive took forever. I was out of practice and had to stop to take a breather. We passed the turnoff to my house and kept driving down along the coast to a small town called Eulonia, until we reached an old restaurant called Pelican Point. The owner owed me a favor or I wouldn't have been able to afford it.
The restaurant sat on the edge of the river, just before the freshwater found its way through the reeds and mud islands to the Atlantic Ocean. We sat in the gazebo by the dock and watched the shrimp and fish boats meander through the maze of salt marshes and then unload their catch. Then we went inside, to a small table by the window, and I took Julie to the seafood buffet.
Faced with more food than she had ever seen at once, Julie went stiff. I loaded her plate, got us some crab legs, and led her back to the table. She tried the fried shrimp and the blackened tilapia.
When I cracked the second cluster of crab legs, Julie began to cry. She cried and ate crabmeat, dunking it in melted butter, licked her fingers, and cried some more.
On the drive back, she sat sullenly in her seat.
"So what happens to me now?" she asked finally.
"Summer's almost over. Eventually, you'll have to go to school."
"Because you have a gift. I want you to learn and to get to know other people. Other kids and adults, so you can learn how they think. So nobody can take advantage of you again."
"They won't like me."
"You might be surprised."
"Is it going to be one of those schools where you live there, too?"
I nodded. "I make a very bad mom. I'm not home enough and even when I am, I'm not the best person to take care of a kid. But I can pull off a crazy aunt. You can always come and visit me on holidays. I cook a mean goose."
"Why not turkey?"
"I don't like turkey. Too dry."
"What if I hate it there?" Julie asked.
"Then we'll keep looking until we find a school you don't hate."
"And I can come to live with you when I need to?"
"Always," I promised.
THREE WEEKS LATER I DROPPED JULIE OFF AT MACON Kao Arts Academy. Her magic talents, combined with my dismal income, easily qualified her for a scholarship. It was a good school, located in a peaceful spot, with a decent campus that reminded me of a park bordered by nine-foot-tall walls and towers armed with both machine guns and arrow sprayers. I met every member of the faculty, and all of them seemed disinclined to take any crap. They had an empath as a counselor. She would help Julie heal. Can't get better than an empath.
It was dark when I finally made it home. As always after the flare, the magic left the world alone for a while, and I had to make the trip in Betsi, which had stalled on me midway for no apparent mechanical reason. When I finally made it to the front door, I was dog tired. I climbed the stairs in the dusk and saw a bouquet of red roses in a crystal vase on my porch. The little card said, "I'm sorry. Saiman."
I took the flowers and the vase to the dumpster, grumbling under my breath, returned to the door, reached for my key, and realized the door stood slightly ajar.
I pulled Slayer from its sheath and pushed the door open with my fingertips. It swung soundlessly on well-greased hinges. Through the hallway, I saw the living room lamp glowing with soothing yellow light. I smelled coffee.
Who breaks into a house, turns on the lights, and makes coffee?
I padded into the living room on soft feet, Slayer ready.
"Loud and clumsy, like a baby rhino," said a familiar voice.
I stepped into the living room. Curran sat on my couch, reading my favorite paperback. His hair was back to its normal short length. His face was clean shaven. He looked nothing like the dark, demonic figure who shook a would-be god's head on a field a month ago.