When Roland was away, my mother ran and Voron ran with her. He was there when she gave birth to me. For a few blissful months on the run they were happy. But Roland chased them, and my mother, knowing that Voron was the stronger of the two, stayed behind to delay Roland so he and I could escape. She sank her dagger into Roland's eye and then he killed her.
And that was where the fairy tale ended and we would check for a knife under my bed and then I would go to sleep, hoping to kill my natural father one day.
Wherever we went, whatever we did, Roland's presence followed me. He was my target and the reason for my existence. He gave me life and I would take his.
I knew him intimately. Voron had been his Warlord for half a century, and would've served him through the ages, kept young and virile by Roland's magic, if my mother hadn't come along. He taught me everything he learned about his former master. I knew what Roland looked like. Voron had shown me his photo and I had committed it to memory before we burned it. I recognized his face on the statues in old history books and found it once in a Renaissance painting of a battle. I read the Bible passages about him, what little there was. I knew his lieutenants, his weapons, his powers. And Roland's age had given him vast power.
He could control hundreds of undead at once. He wielded his blood like a weapon, solidifying it at will to create devastating weapons and impenetrable blood armor. It was his fucked-up blood that accounted for my power.
Voron had been a supreme warrior. He took every crumb of his knowledge and he poured it into me, tempering me like a blade. Grow stronger. Survive. Kill Roland. End it forever. Until then, hide.
Four months ago I made a conscious decision to stop hiding. I had questioned it ever since. I lacked the strength and experience to face Roland, but now I was playing out in the open, and our eventual confrontation was inevitable.
An instinct told me he was the Sultan of Death. Which meant that if I kept tugging at this tangled mess of a problem, I might end up running across someone from his inner circle. The idea filled me with dread.
I was afraid of Roland. But I was scared for Derek even more. And I was scared for Curran.
When I finally drew up to the shapeshifter safe house, the morning was in full swing. I pulled back the tarp. Jim slept atop the corpses. He'd reverted back to his human form and was naked as a jaybird. I shook him a few times, but he seemed to have gone into a Sleeping Beauty-like stupor and I wasn't going to kiss him to wake him up.
I knocked on the door. No answer. I tried the handle - and the door swung open. I stuck my head in and called a few times but nobody materialized to assist me.
Brenna was supposed to have watched the door. The only thing that could've drawn her from it was . . . Please don't let Derek be dead.
At the thought of going down to the basement, my legs nearly gave out. I wasn't sure I could take seeing him dead.
I needed to go down there but I couldn't make myself move. I swallowed and stared at the doorway.
The bodies. I better go get the bodies. That's a good idea.
It proved surprisingly difficult to maneuver a four-armed corpse through the door. I tried it for a full three minutes before my patience ran dry. But by the time Brenna appeared at the top of the gloomy staircase, I had matters well in hand.
"Is Derek dead?"
Relief rolled though me. I needed a nice place to sit down. "I thought you were guarding the entrance," I said, sliding Slayer under my arm.
"I was. I had to let someone in." She stared at the corpse at my feet.
"It's not Curran, is it?" I asked.
"Great." I gathered up the four severed arms and nodded at the stub of the body. "Would you mind getting the bigger piece?"
DOOLITTLE HAD TAKEN ONE LOOK AT ME AND prescribed an immediate shower.
Half an hour later, showered, patched up, and given a mug of coffee by Brenna, I felt almost human. Doolittle had disappeared into the depths of the house to continue his constant vigil on Derek. It was just me and two corpses. At about half a mug, Jim wandered into the room, looking mean and hungover. He favored me with an ugly scowl and flopped into a chair.
"My expert. She's with Derek now."
We sat for a while. I was still out of it. Doolittle was the best medmage in the business, hands down. My back almost didn't hurt and the pain in my side was a distant echo. But I was so tired I could barely see straight.
I had to check with Andrea on the results of the silver analysis. I tried the phone. No dial tone.
A young woman strode into the room. She was barely five feet tall and very slender. Her skin was almond dark, her face wide and round. She looked at the world through thick glasses and her eyes behind the Coke-bottle lenses were very brown, almost black, with a touch of Asian ancestry to their cut. She stepped into the apartment and peered at me as I closed the door.
"Indonesian," she announced, shifting a tote bag on her shoulder.
"You were trying to figure out what kind of 'nese I am. Indonesian."
She looked to where Jim sat. As she swept past me, I caught a glimpse of a book in her tote bag: a long, lean blond man brandishing an improbably enormous sword posing with three girls strategically arranged at his feet. One of the girls had cat ears.
Dali fixed Jim with her disconcerting stare. "You owe me. If he finds out I'm here, I'll be dead meat."
He who? He better not be Curran.
"I take responsibility," Jim said.
"Where are the corpses?" Dali asked.
Dali turned and stumbled over the four-armed freak's legs, and would've executed a beautiful nosedive if she were an ordinary human. As it was, she managed to jump away and land with perfect balance if not perfect grace. Shapeshifter reflexes to the rescue.
Dali adjusted her glasses and shot me an irate look. "I'm not that blind," she said. "I'm absentminded."
Perhaps she was also telepathic.
"No," she said. "I'm just not stupid."
Dali surveyed the four-armed corpse. "Oh boy. Polymelic symmetry. Any other supernumerary body parts? And did you have to hack his arms off?"
"Yes, I did. He wouldn't go through the door."
"You say it like you're proud of it."
I was proud of it. It was an example of quick thinking in a difficult situation.
Dali shrugged her tote to the floor, knelt by the corpse, and stared into the gaping hole where the creature's heart used to reside. Jim had really done a number on it. "Tell me everything."