His biceps were carved, the muscle defined and built by countless exertions, neither too bulky nor too lean. Perfect. Kissing him might make me guilty of catastrophically bad judgment, but at least nobody could fault my taste. The trick was not to kiss him again. Once could be an accident; twice was trouble.
"You said something?" I arched an eyebrow at him. Nonchalance - best camouflage for drooling. Both the werebison and the swordsman looked ready to charge: the muscles of their legs tense, leaning forward slightly on their toes. They seemed to be terribly sure that we would stay in one place and wait for them.
Curran was looking at their legs, too. They must be expecting a distraction from the lamia.
She sat cocooned in magic, holding on with both hands as it strained on its leash.
"I said, I know why you're afraid to fight with me."
"And why is that?" If he flexed again, I'd have to implement emergency measures. Maybe I could kick some sand at him or something. Hard to look hot brushing sand out of your eyes.
"You want me."
"You can't resist my subtle charm, so you're afraid you're going to make a spectacle out of yourself."
"You know what? Don't talk to me."
The gong boomed.
Memories smashed into me: heat, sand, fear.
The lamia's magic snapped like a striking cobra. I jumped up and to the left, just in time to avoid the pit in the sand that yawned open beneath my feet.
The Swordmaster was on me like white on rice. He charged in and struck in a textbook thrust of wrath, a powerful diagonal thrust delivered from the right and angled down. I jerked back.
His blade whistled past me, and I grabbed his leather and smashed my forehead into his face.
There you go. Sloppy.
Red drenched my face. The swordsman's eyes rolled back in his head and he fell.
I turned in time to see the werebison arrive. It took him a moment to build up his speed, but as he ran now, massive, huge, blowing air from his misshapen nose, he seemed unstoppable.
Curran watched him come with a slightly bored expression. At the last moment, he stepped aside and stuck his foot out. The shapeshifter tripped and Curran helped him down by pushing none too gently on the back of his neck. The werebison flipped onto the sand, hitting the ground like a fallen skyscraper. He shuddered once and lay still, his neck bent in an unnatural angle.
He must've broken his neck in the fall. His chest was still moving. At least he didn't die.
Curran stared at him, perplexed.
Dali barked a sharp command in a language I didn't understand and tossed a piece of rice paper into the air. There was a quiet plop and the paper vanished.
We looked at the lamia expectantly. Nothing. She waved her arms, gathering magic for something nasty.
I guess the spell was a bust.
A spark of bright magenta shone above the lamia's head. It flared into glowing red jaws with demonic needle-teeth. The jaws chomped the lamia - neck, elbows, waist - and vanished.
There was a loud crunch and the lamia twisted: her head turned backward, snapping her neck, her elbows protruded from the front of her arms, and she bent to the side like a flower with a broken stem.
I turned slowly and stared at Dali. She shrugged. "I guess it worked. What?"
The crowd went wild.
Jim waited for us at the Gold Gate. His teeth were bared. "What happened to barely winning?"
"You said sloppy! Look, I didn't even use my sword; I hit him with my head, like a moron."
"A man with a sword attacked you and you disarmed him and knocked him out cold in under two seconds." He turned to Curran.
The Beast Lord shrugged. "It's not my fault that he didn't know how to fall."
Jim's gaze slid from Curran to Dali. "What the hell was that?"
"Crimson Jaws of Death."
"And were you planning on letting me know that you can turn people's elbows backward?"
"I told you I did curses."
"You said they don't work!"
"I said they don't always work. This one worked apparently." Dali wrinkled her forehead.
"It's not like I ever get to use them against live opponents anyway. It was an accident."
Jim looked at us. The clipboard snapped in his hands. He turned around and very deliberately walked away.
"I think we hurt his feelings." Dali looked at his retreating back, sighed, and went after him.
Curran looked at me. "What the hell was I supposed to do, catch the werebison as he was falling?"
BACK IN THE ROOM I GRABBED A CHANGE OF clothes and showered. When I returned, dinner had been brought in by the Red Guard: beef stew with fresh bread. Raphael had vanished right after dinner, and the shapeshifters invited me to play poker.
They killed me. Apparently I was made of tells: they could hear my heartbeat and smelled the changes in my sweat, and counted the number of times I blinked, and knew what cards I had before I looked at them. If it had been strip poker, I would've had to give them the skin off my back. I finally gave up and went back to my bed to read one of Doolittle's paperbacks, since he was otherwise occupied. The good doctor turned out to be a card fiend. Once in a while, I glanced at them. The six shapeshifters sat like statues, faces showing nothing, barely lifting their cards to steal supernaturally fast glances. It felt weird to fall asleep with someone else there, but there was something almost hypnotic about their absolute stillness that lulled me into sleep.
I dreamed that Curran and I killed a dinosaur and then had sex in the dirt.
AT ABOUT NINE, CURRAN, DALI, AND I MADE OUR way to the Gold Gate to see Andrea, Raphael, Jim, and Derek take on the Killers.
The magic was up. Andrea grinned as she passed me by. She carried her SIG-Sauers in hip holsters and a crossbow in her hands. With the magic up, the guns wouldn't fire, but she must've wanted to be prepared for the shift.
Jim and Derek carried nothing and wore identical gray sweatpants. Raphael carried two tactical knives, both with oxide finish that made the blades Teflon-black. The knife in his left was shaped like a tanto. The blade in his right was double-edged and slightly leaf-shaped: narrow at the handle, it widened before coming to a razor-sharp point. Raphael wore black boots, fitted black leather pants that molded to him with heart-shattering results, and nothing else.
As he passed me, he leaned to Curran and handed him a paper fan folded from some sort of flyer.
Curran looked at the fan. "What?"
"An emergency precaution, Your Majesty. In case the lady faints."
Curran just stared at him.
Raphael strode toward the Pit, turned, flexed a bit, and winked at me.