It would worry anybody. The vampire alone, even if the other three were paper cutouts, would give me a pause. As it was, the lineup was nearly impossible to beat. The vamp was deadly and wickedly fast. With two extra fighters and a mage, keeping the vamp from Dali would be nearly impossible.

Olathe had gotten her vampires from Roland's stable when she had fled him. Where did Cyclone get an ancient vampire, especially with the People's Warlord sitting right there in the stands?

I could crush the vamp's mind, but not without giving myself away.

"I can take the bloodsucker," Dali said. "If the magic is up."

Jim grimaced. "This isn't a regular vampire. You've never seen one like that. It's old ."

She shook her head. "The older, the better. But it will take everything I got. I can do it once and that's it. Then I'll need a nap."

I looked at Dali. If she took out the vamp, they would lock on her. Four to three, lousy odds, especially with an air mage in the mix. There was a way I could make her safe. It would be a foolish and reckless move under normal circumstances. But with d'Ambray watching, it qualified as mind-numbingly stupid.

If she failed, she had no protection against the vampire. It would tear into her and I would hear her scream.

"If you can take out the bloodsucker, I'll make you safe for the rest of the fight, provided the magic holds."

"How?"

"Blood ward. It locks all magic out, including your own. You cast the curse and jump into the ward. Once you step into it, it will keep you locked in. You won't be able to exit without my help. But nobody else will be able to enter."

Dali bit her lip. "What if it doesn't work?"

"You just have to trust me."

She considered it for a long moment. "Okay."

Jim shook his head. "Consider taking a fourth."

"No," Curran and I said at the same time. I didn't want any more friends on my conscience.

Doolittle sighed.

I rose. "This will take a bit of practice."

THE VAMPIRE CROUCHED BY CYCLONE, OOZING necromantic magic. Jim was right.

This one was old . No sign of it ever walking upright remained. It waited on all fours, like a dog that had somehow sprouted humanoid limbs tipped with stiletto claws. The last lingering echoes of its humanity had faded long ago. It had become a thing , so revoltingly alien and frightening it sent shivers down my spine.

Not an ounce of fat remained on its frame. Its thick skin clung so tightly to its steel-cable muscles that it resembled wax poured over an anatomy model made by a demented sculptor.

Sharp bone protuberations broke the skin along its spine, creating a jagged ridge. Its nose was missing, and not even a slit remained. Massive, lipless jaws jutted from its sickening face, revealing a forest of fangs embedded in crimson gums. A thick horn protruded from the back of its deformed skull. Its eyes glowed dark hungry red, like rubies thrust into the skull of a demon.

I found the sharp, painful light of its mind and waited in the shadows. If Dali failed, I would crush it, whether it gave me away or not.

Next to it rose a troll. A hulking creature, he stood almost nine feet tall. His skin was dark brown, uneven, and gnarled, interrupted by patches of rougher brown. A single adjective came to mind: thick. Thick tree-trunk legs, ending in flat, round stumps of elephantine feet.

Thick midsection with a round stomach that looked too hard to be termed "gut." Thick chest.

Massively broad shoulders slabbed with thick muscle. Thick neck, bigger than my thigh.

Thick, round head resembling a stump with a flat face. Eyes sunken deep into dark sockets, a stunted Persian cat nose, and a narrow slash of a mouth. Two tusks protruded from his lower jaw, stretching his mouth into a smirk. He looked as though he'd been carved out of a gargantuan tree trunk and allowed to petrify. Screw the spear; he'd break a chain saw.

On the far left a man waited. He was young and dark-skinned, his skull clean shaven. He had the build of a gymnast, wore nothing, and carried two identical swords. I'd never seen any quite like them. Bastard children of a scimitar and a katana, they had the narrow slickness of the Japanese blade and a slight curve with a flare at the point inherited from the Arabic sword.

Three feet long and an inch and a half at the narrowest, the blades were both lively and devastating.

As we entered the Arena, the man changed. A pale sheen coated his strong features. His shape expanded with gray thickness. Armor formed on his shoulders: a textured pauldron on his left shoulder, a thinner one on his right. Huge wrist guards clamped his forearms. A wide metal belt sheathed his loins, dripping down a narrow metal cloth to protect his testicles. His body glistened with moisture and dried in an instant, snapping into sleek gray smoothness.

Everything but his eyes was metal. The silver golem.

The swords pointed in my direction. Just what I needed: a tin man on steroids. Wandering around looking for a heart and singing merrily just didn't do it for the young and ambitious metal turks nowadays. This dude wanted my heart, still beating and bloody, carved freshly from my chest.

We paused on the edge of the sand. The magic was in full swing. Dali swallowed.

I carried Slayer and a tactical sword I had stolen from the Pack's armory during the flare. I handed the tactical sword to Curran. "Hold it for a second, please?" He took it and I sliced the back of my hand with Slayer. A nice, shallow cut. The blood swelled in red drops. Dali winced and turned away. I let the blood run down the blade's edge. My father and Greg both were screaming in their graves. I drew a two-foot-wide circle in the sand, leaving a narrow opening, pulled out a piece of gauze, and squeezed my hand, saturating the gauze until it dripped.

I handed the gauze to Dali. She put it onto her clipboard and stood in front of the circle's opening. It would take her a second and a single step back to enter the blood ward.

I slapped a piece of med tape onto the cut. "Just like we practiced. Do what you have to do with the vampire. If it works, or if it doesn't, step back into the circle and use the gauze to seal it. Do you understand?"

"Yes."

"Obey her," Curran said quietly.

Dali swallowed. "Yes, my lord."

We headed to the front.

The vamp would be drawn to fresh blood. Especially my blood. The navigator would feel the draw and send it after Dali. That left us facing the troll and the golem. As long as they stood, Cyclone was safe.

"Choices, choices," I murmured.

We stood side by side. "We take the troll," Curran said.

"Yes."

Once the vampire got ahold of Dali's magic and hopefully not of Dali herself, the golem would strike at her, trying to take her out. If she did everything right, he'd fail, which would give us a few seconds for a tete-a-tete with the troll.


Tags: Ilona Andrews Kate Daniels Vampires
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