It took me less than a minute to clear the three vast, gloomy rooms. Empty.
I went back outside and crouched by the scaled man. The wound in his back was deep. I had removed a section of his spine with my strike, and even with accelerated regeneration, he wouldn't be walking anytime soon.
"A week ago a young werewolf tried to take a girl from you," I said. "You beat him, tortured him, and dumped him by the shapeshifters' house, but you let him live. Why?" Here's hoping he understood English.
The scaled lips stretched in a grimace that could've been a smile, revealing snake fangs. "To send . . . a message."
"What's the message?"
"We are stronger. We shall triumph over half-breeds."
Alrighty, then. "Who are the half-breeds? Are they shapeshifters?"
"Half-man, half-animal . . . Two base races become one. Scum of the world . . . We shall overtake. Overcome. We shall . . ." He coughed.
"Any hope for peace?"
The creature strained to raise its head off the ground. Diamond pupils gazed at me. "We . . .
don't do peace," he said in a hoarse voice. "We don't make . . . treaties. We kill. Kill and burn. Eat the meat. Celebrate. Rule in half-breeds' stand . . ."
"So you want the Pack's territory?"
He strained to say something else. I leaned toward him. He focused on me. "Rape," he promised. "Many, many times. Until you bleed . . ."
"I'm so flattered."
He raised his hand and traced a short line over my chest. "Carve out your heart . . . won't cook it in the fire . . . eat it raw when all half-breeds are dead."
We weren't getting anywhere. "What are you?"
"Warriors . . . supreme."
Hard to be supreme with your spine cut. "What are you called? Do you have a name?"
He rolled his eyes to the sky. "Glorious . . . army . . . blood like a red flower blooming . . .
Soon. Very soon. We shall have the jewel. We shall honor the promise to the Sultan of Death and destroy the half-breeds . . . We shall take their place, grow stronger, and when our time comes . . . we shall . . . teach the Sultan of Death humility."
"Who is the Sultan of Death?"
The Reaper's eyes glinted with stubborn denial.
I reached into my belt and pulled out a canteen of lighter fluid and matches. "This liquid likes fire. It burns very hot for a long time. Tell me how to reverse the magic you put on the shapeshifter, and I won't pour it on your chest and set you on fire."
"Human . . . I'm beyond . . . you."
"You're not beyond pain." I twisted the cap off the canteen.
He smiled at me and gulped. No words came out. His eyes rolled into his skull. Short, abrupt moans erupted from him as if he suddenly went dumb. He shuddered, clawed at his throat . . .
He was choking.
I thrust Slayer between his teeth.
TWENTY MINUTES LATER, GUTTURAL COUGHS ANNOUNCED Jim's return. I waited for him by the scaled man's corpse. He leapt off the tree and dropped a limp body onto the grass. Bulging dead eyes glared at me from a face that wasn't even remotely human. A cross between a tiger and a Chinese temple dog might have looked like that.
"Shapeshifter?" I asked.
"No. Doesn't smell right."
The werejaguar glanced at the two prone forms and prodded the red-skinned creature. He didn't respond and Jim gave a small snort.
"Swallowed his own tongue," I explained.
Jim sighed, a purely feline fatalism twisting his monstrous face. "You get anything before he croaked?"
"They dumped Derek as a declaration of war. According to the recently departed, you are scum, a mix of base races of human and animal, and no peace is possible. They hate the Pack and plan on killing you all in a glorious slaughter with much bloodshed and much feasting on your flesh, as soon as they get the jewel. They've allied themselves with the Sultan of Death, who will help them nuke you, after which they're hoping to double-cross him. Oh, and I'm to be raped many, many times."
It was hard to roll your eyes in a half-shape. Jim gave it a good college try. "Who is the Sultan of Death?"
Roland would certainly fit the bill. I didn't say it out loud. Roland was the center of my existence. As long as I'd been aware of myself, I knew that I had to kill him and that if he ever found out about me, he would sacrifice every resource at his disposal to kill me. His power was incredible. Legends of him floated through the ages, and almost every ancient civilization had a record of his reign. Hunting him would be akin to assassinating a god. I needed more experience and more power, before I could even contemplate that confrontation.
Until my abilities grew, I had to hide, living every moment with the awareness of being discovered. My paranoia ran so deep it was a wonder I didn't check for Roland's agents under my bed.
Any mysterious threat, any unknown danger, any mention of a magically powerful being automatically brought Roland to the front of my mind. Yes, the Sultan of Death fit him perfectly - he had brought undeath into the world. But the title could refer to someone completely different. Just because I had fixated on him didn't mean the rest of the world had.
"This keeps coming back to the Wolf Diamond. I have a feeling they plan to use it as a weapon. It was how he said it, Jim. He said, 'We shall have the jewel' the way MSDU might say, 'We shall have air support.' "
I led him inside, into the first room. A long stone table ran the length of the room. On the table Saiman's victim, still in his human body, lay spread-eagled on his stomach. Strips of flesh had been carved from his back and buttocks down to the bone and stacked aside like meat cuts in a butchery shop. I walked over to a huge stainless steel chest freezer sitting by the table. It was unplugged - there wasn't a single outlet in the ruins - and filled with ice and raw meat. Steaks, ground patties, slabs of ribs, pork chops, venison roasts layered atop one another, some in plastic, some in paper, some simply sitting, wedged, dripping frozen blood. I pointed to the left, where several long hunks of meat sat crammed into a corner. The skin on the meat was the color of coffee with cream.
Jim sniffed and recoiled.
"Yes." He snarled and spat to the side. I'd had much the same reaction when I first realized what it was. These bastards caught some person, chopped him up, and stuffed him into a freezer to be eaten. We'd never know his name. Or his sex for that matter. Somewhere a person simply didn't come home and nobody would ever find out why. It made me sick.
Jim glanced at the table, where slabs of flesh, carved from the body of Saiman's victim, lay in a stack. "Cannibals ."