I pulled the sticks out of my hair and clenched them in my fist.

With a sound of torn paper, the ward split, exhausted. The snake man broke free and lunged at me. I kicked his knee. It was a good, solid blow. He went down and I grasped his head by the hair and plunged the hair sticks into his left eye, once, again, and again, four times. He screamed. I flipped my hold and buried the sticks in his socket as far as they would go.

The daggers fell from his hands. I swiped one and sliced his throat. The razor-sharp blade nearly took his head off. Blood fountained, drenching me. I whirled to check on Cesare, but found only empty space. The Reaper had vanished.

The snake-tongued corpse lay limp and pale in a puddle of its own blood. I looked at Saiman and raised one red-stained finger. "Definitely not human."

Saiman's face shook with fury. "This is an outrage. I own a seventh of the House."

The ward on Saiman's car had been broken. "You mind popping the locks?"

He found the remote with a trembling hand and pushed the button. Nothing happened.

"The magic's up," I told him.

He swore, produced the keys, and unlocked the door. I grasped Slayer's hilt and instantly felt better.

Saiman dragged his hand through his hair. "I need you to come back to the Arena with me."

"No. I have a prior engagement."

"You're my witness!"

I tried to speak slowly and clearly. "I have somewhere to be."

"We're in the middle of nowhere. You have no vehicle."

"I have two legs."

"If you come with me and tell the House what happened, I'll drive you anywhere you want."

I shook my head. It would take too long before he was done.

"I'll get you a horse!"

I stopped in midstep. A horse would cut my traveling time by a third. I turned. "A quick statement, Saiman. Very quick. Then you give me a horse, and I leave."

"Done!"

As we marched back to the Arena, he said, "I thought you said those weren't blades in your hair."

"They aren't. They're spikes. Breathe deep, Saiman. Your hands are still shaking."

RENE'S EYES WERE CLEAR AND COLD LIKE THE crystalline depths of a mountain lake. Saiman's indignant outbursts shattered against her glacial composure.

"How long does it take to retrieve one corpse?"

"The body will be here in a moment."

I perched against a desk. We stood in one of security's rooms. Precious seconds ticked by.

There was nothing I could do about it. Rene was doing her job and I had to let her do it.

Rene glanced at me. "Did you cut out the heart?"

I shook my head. "Didn't see the need. I scrambled the brain and cut his head off. I never had one regenerate a head on me."

"True." Rene nodded in agreement.

Saiman picked up a coffee mug, stared at it, and hurled it against the wall. It shattered into a dozen pieces. We looked at him.

"Your date appears to be hysterical," Rene told me.

"You think I should slap some man into him?"

Saiman stared at me, speechless. I had to give it to Rene - she didn't laugh. But she really wanted to.

A squad of Red Guards came through, carrying the snake man on a stretcher. Two guards and an older man followed. The man handed Rene a large book bound in leather and spoke softly.

She gave him a crisp nod.

"We take the safety of our guests and especially of our House members very seriously.

However." She raised her hand and counted off on her fingers. "First, this incident took place outside of our jurisdiction. Our responsibility for you ends at the white line. Second, this creature isn't registered as a part of the Reaper team or their crew. Nobody recognizes him.

The fact that a member of the Reaper team watched the incident doesn't indicate the team's complicity in the assault. He's under no obligation to assist you and he may have simply enjoyed the spectacle. Third, the entire Reaper crew and team, with the exception of Mart and two crew members, left the premises as soon as the first bout began, nearly three hours ago . . ."

A shot of cold pulsed through me. "Is that normal?"

Rene started at the interruption.

"Is that normal?" I insisted.

"No," she said slowly. "Typically they stay to watch."

Derek never did anything without preparation. He would arrive at the rendezvous point hours in advance. The Reapers would have had a three-hour window to interact with him, while I was busy playing scorekeeper for Saiman's amusement. I spun to him. "I need that horse now ."

Saiman hesitated.

"A horse, Saiman! Or I swear I'll finish what he started."

THE RED ROOF INN LOOMED ON THE EDGE OF A ruined plaza, flanked on both sides by heaps of rubble that had been buildings in their previous life. Two stories tall, its top floor sagging to the side under a crooked roof painted a garish crimson, the inn resembled a stooped old man in a red ball cap huddling under a blanket of kudzu.

I stopped on the edge of the plaza. Under me a pale gelding snorted, breathing hard after the fifteen-minute canter through the dark streets.

Blood smears stained the crumbling asphalt. In the silver gauze of moonlight, they looked thick, black, and glossy, like molten tar.

I dismounted and walked into the plaza. The magic had fallen while I rode. Technology once again gained an upper hand and I sensed nothing. No residual magic, no trace of a spell, no enchanted observer. Just dusty asphalt and blood. So much blood. It was everywhere, spread in long, feathered smudges and cast about in a fine spray of splatter.

I crouched by one of the puddles and dipped my fingers into it. Cooled. Whatever happened here had finished a while ago.

A fist clamped my heart and squeezed it tight into a painful ball. Dread choked me. Suddenly there wasn't enough air. I should have read the note sooner.

I took the ball of guilt and fear that threatened to engulf me and stuffed it away, deep into the recesses of my mind. The task at hand required only my brain. I would deal with the pain later, but now I had to concentrate on the scene and think.

Violence had occurred here, but the plaza didn't look as though combat with a werewolf had taken place. All shapeshifters had two forms: human and animal. Gifted shapeshifters could maintain a warrior form, an in-between beast man, huge, humanoid, and armed with a monster's claws and nightmarish fangs. Most had trouble maintaining it, and few could speak in it, but despite these drawbacks, the warrior form was the most effective weapon in a werewolf's arsenal. Derek's was one of the best. He would have assumed it the moment the fight began.


Tags: Ilona Andrews Kate Daniels Vampires
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