EVEN THE BEST PLANS HAVE A FLAW. MINE HAD two: first, I had no clue where the Red Roof Inn was, and second, I had no transportation. The first problem I resolved with relative ease: I grabbed the first Red Guard I came across and interrogated him. The only Red Roof Inn in the area lay to the west, on the way to the South-West ley line, twenty minutes by horse or a good hour on foot. Forty-five minutes if I jogged. It was close to 2:00 a.m., and with the magic up, the odds of finding a horse to commandeer were nil. Anybody sensible enough to ride a horse wouldn't be out at this hour, and if they were, they could defend themselves and would take a rather dim view of losing their mount. I should've brought my running shoes.
I emerged into the night. The magic had robbed the entrance to the Arena of its electric illumination. Instead runes and arcane symbols glowed red and yellow along its walls, their intricate patterns weaving the solid wall of a ward. One hell of a ward, too - the whole building shimmered in a translucent cocoon of defensive magic, sealed tighter than a bank vault.
I inhaled deeply and let the air out, exhaling anxiety with it. The Arena behind me loomed, emanating malice. Greed and bloodlust mixed there into a miasma that tainted all who entered.
A stone building filled with men and women in evening wear or a sand arena enclosed by crumbling wooden stands filled with people in rags, it made no difference. I had never forgotten fighting on the sand, but I hadn't realized that my memories lay so close to the surface.
The sand marked a number of firsts for me. The first time I fought without any guarantee of my father rescuing me. The first time I killed a woman. The first time I killed in public, and the first time I was deified for it by a bloodthirsty crowd.
My father judged it to be an experience I had to endure and so I had done it. It must've left a scar, because I had only to look at the sand and my arms itched, as if dusted with its grit. I brushed off the phantom powder, shedding the memories with it. I wanted to take a shower.
Right now Derek was probably lying in wait for Livie at the rendezvous point. He was a careful wolf. He'd get there hours in advance. I needed to get my ass to the Red Roof Inn.
First order of business: retrieve Slayer. I headed to Saiman's car.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Saiman exit the building. Crap.
I stopped and looked at him. "The fights are over. We're done."
He caught up to me. "Apologies for my hurried exit . . ."
"I don't want an apology, Saiman. I want my sword out of your car. I fulfilled my obligation; now I have to go."
He opened his mouth to speak but he must have seen something in my face that gave him pause, because he clamped his mouth shut, nodded, and said, "Very well."
We strode to the car.
"How would you have gotten your sword out without my help?" he asked.
"I'd break the window." We stepped over the white line.
"You would vandalize my vehicle?"
"You do realize that the car is heavily warded?"
I felt someone's gaze hit me in the back like a brick. I glanced over my shoulder. The tattooed Reaper, Cesare, stood just behind the white line, over which we had stepped a moment ago.
Backlit by the floodlight, he stood very straight, his face wrapped in darkness. His eyes glowed red.
Saiman saw Cesare. "Hilarious. I had no idea I'd given them the impression of being susceptible to childish intimidation tactics."
"I think they have more than intimidation in mind." I accelerated. The sleek black bullet of Saiman's vehicle with my saber in the front seat waited a good twenty-five yards away.
A man leapt over the row of cars and landed in front of us in a crouch, blocking the way. Dark hair dripped from his head. He glanced up. His eyes glowed like two red-hot coals. His mouth opened. An unnaturally long tongue spilled out, lashing at the air. His lips drew back, showing rows of curved fangs.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Cesare, still waiting behind the white line, his arms crossed on his chest.
The man with the snake tongue shifted along the ground in a crouch. Long strands of drool stretched from between his fangs and dripped on the pavement, sending a heady scent of jasmine to swirl through the air. Perfumed monster spit. What was the world coming to?
Saiman went pale. His hand gripped his cane.
The man's glowing eyes stared at Saiman. He raised his hands and showed him two daggers, narrow and sharp like a snake's fangs.
I wasn't even in the picture. Perfect.
Saiman grasped the shaft of his cane with his left hand, edging the handle up with his right. I caught a glimpse of metal between the handle and the dark wood. The cane hid a dagger and he was planning to use it in a heroic fashion.
The man made an odd hooting sound that raised the tiny hairs on the back of my neck, tensed, and sprung.
It was a great, preternaturally high leap, designed to clear the twenty feet between us in a single bound. Saiman took a step, drawing the dagger in a quick jerk, and leaned forward, preparing to meet his attacker.
The first rule of bodyguard detail: keep your "body" out of harm's way.
I swept Saiman's right foot from under him, hitting him in the chest with my left hand. He was so committed to his impending strike that his position placed him ridiculously off balance. He went down on his back like a log. I snatched the cane-sheath from his hand as he fell and thrust it up.
The cane caught the snake-tongued man just under the breastbone. The air burst out of his mouth in a startled gasp. I turned, whipping the sheath around, and smashed it on his temple.
The hollow wood broke, leaving me with a shard. The blow would've taken down a normal human. He should've been done then and there.
The man staggered a bit, shook his head, and lunged at me, stabbing with his daggers. I dodged and backed away, drawing him farther from Saiman to the car.
A searchlight swept over us, lingered for a second, and moved on. The guards had to have seen us.
The snake boy kept cutting the air, his swipes enthusiastic but a bit off the mark. Still catching his breath. If he ever got his wind, we'd be in deep shit. Almost to the car. Step. Another step.
Saiman staggered to his feet.
"Stay away!" I barked.
The snake man glanced back, slashing at me with his right to cover up. I grabbed his wrist with my left hand, pulled him forward and down, and stabbed the splintered cane under his ribs, into his kidney. He screeched. I hurled him past me straight into Saiman's car.
His body collided with the passenger door. The defensive spell rippled with a flash of bright yellow and clutched at the body. Orange sparks flew. The snake man flailed in the ward, stuck to the car as if glued, his body jerking in a spasmodic, obscene dance. The stench of burning flesh rose from his chest. His arms flexed. His hands - still clutching the daggers - braced against the car. He was trying to push free. The ward wouldn't be enough. God damn it, he just refused to die.