Like enchanted saw blades, they would lock onto their targets, slice through anything in their path, and cleave their objective in half. They couldn't be dodged. They couldn't be blocked.
The blade itself couldn't be broken by an ordinary weapon. Even Curran couldn't snap it.
We would die instantly. Curran might survive long enough to be torn apart by the rakshasas.
I couldn't let him die.
I whipped about, slow as if underwater, and saw him looking back at me with gray eyes from a monster's face.
What do I do? How can I keep him alive?
It will be okay, Curran mouthed, but I couldn't hear him, all sound blocked by my panic.
I turned back. Mart gripped the sword with both hands. The red blade glistened, as if wet with blood. I had to destroy it, because if he completed a strike, all of us would die.
Blood. It was forged out of Roland's blood, the same blood that now coursed through my veins. There might be a way to destroy the blade after all. If I could take possession of the sword.
The gong boomed. The world leapt back to its normal speed.
Mart began to raise the sword for an overhead strike.
I had never run so fast in my life. The sand blurred. The blade point loomed before me, rising.
I grasped the crimson blade and shoved it into my stomach.
It hurt. My blood drenched the red substance of the sword. Mart stared at me, stunned. I grasped Mart's hand and pushed the sword deeper into me. The point broke through my back.
Deeper. All the way to the hilt.
The blade sat inside me, a wedge of hot agony. My blood coated the metal, forging a link with Roland's. Around me the shapeshifters crashed into the rakshasas. I whispered a power word.
Magic surged inward from the surface of my skin, from the tips of my fingers and toes, and locked onto the sword. The blade sparked, sending jolts of pain through me. It felt as though a clump of barbed wire were being drawn through my gut. I clawed on to reality, trying not to pass out. The Arena reeled, spinning in a calico whirlpool, and through the smudge of faces, I saw Hugh d'Ambray on his feet, staring at me as if he had seen a demon.
My biological father's blood reacted with mine and recognized it. The sword was mine. It would obey. Now.
"Ud," I whispered. Die. The power word that never worked. To will something to die, one must first have complete possession of it.
Magic tore from me. The sword buckled in my body, like a living creature, vibrating, striving to break free. Agony flooded me in a brilliant burst. I screamed.
The sword shattered. Pieces of the blade floated to the ground in a fine red powder. Inside my body the part of the sword that had been in me disintegrated into dust and mixed with my blood, spreading through my body. Roland's blood, scalding me as if my insides had been dropped into boiling oil. So much power . . .
The fire melted my legs. I fell down onto the sand. The inferno inside me was cooking me alive, wringing tears from my eyes. I tried to move, but my muscles refused to obey. Every cell of my body was on fire.
The whole thing had taken five, six seconds from start to finish, enough time to impale myself on the blade and utter two words. Hugh had been right - I would die today. But the unbreakable sword was shattered and Curran would live. And so would the rest of them. Not bad for five seconds of work.
A horrible roar shook the Arena. I jerked my head. Curran had seen me fall and charged over to me. The elephant thundered to intercept him, and Curran disemboweled him with one strike, leaping past him. No need to hurry, Your Majesty. It's too late for me anyway.
Mart dropped the useless hilt and grabbed me, his eyes brimming with fury. Curran lunged for me.
But Mart shot straight up like an arrow. Curran's clawed hand caught empty sand. He'd missed me by half a second.
Wind fanned my face as Mart flew up. It felt like the afterlife, but I wasn't dead yet. One doesn't feel pain in the afterlife, and I hurt. Dear God, I hurt.
We soared above the Arena's sand, floating in the shaft of golden sunlight stabbing through the nearest skylight. I saw that only three rakshasas had made it alive from the Pit's sand: Mart, Cesare, and Livie, locked in the crook of Cesare's arm.
Tiny flecks of skin broke free from Mart's cheek, hovering in the light. He breathed, and his entire being fractured into a thousand pieces, streaming upward like myriad butterflies taking flight to vanish in the glow, revealing a new creature. He was tall, his shoulders broad, his waist and hips narrow. Skin the color of amber stretched taut over refined muscle. Black hair streamed from his head down to his waist. His eyes were piercing cobalt blue, two sharp sapphires on a beautiful face tainted with arrogance and predatory glee.
Mart no longer needed his human skin.
He clamped me to him and I saw Sophia on the balcony, clutching at the Wolf Diamond. We streaked to her and stopped at her eye level.
"Gift me the jewel," Cesare ordered and held out his hand. The curse of the stone had been weighed against the Fools, and the Fools had won. Mart would rather risk the anger of the Wolf Diamond than the shapeshifters' down below.
"Don't," I said.
Below us the Arena roared with indignant screams.
"Gift me the jewel, woman." The tattooed snakes rose from Cesare's skin and hissed.
Sophia's long, pale fingers let go. The golden tear of the Wolf Diamond fell and landed in Cesare's huge palm. "It's yours," she said.
The rakshasas flew up. The skylight blocked us. Mart's hand flashed and the heavy glass shattered into a glittering cascade of shards. We pushed through it and then we were flying above the city.
I LAY IN A GOLDEN CAGE IN A PUDDLE OF MY blood. It soaked my hair, my cheek, my clothes. I breathed it in, its scent and magic cloaking me. I could feel the blood around me the way I felt my limbs or my fingers. It had left my body but we remained connected. I had always sensed magic in my blood, but I'd never felt it, not like this.
Inside my stomach, tiny flecks of power smoldered, the remnants of Roland's sword. My body was absorbing them slowly, one by one. His blood mixed with my own, releasing its power, and anchored me to life and pain. I didn't move, conserving what little strength and magic I had left. I chanted, barely moving my lips, trying to push my body into regeneration.
It didn't obey very well, but I kept trying. I wouldn't give up and just die.
At least the pain had dimmed enough for my eyes to stop watering.
High above me a golden ceiling stretched, shrouded in shadow. Tall walls defined a cavernous chamber, their carved glitter flowing seamlessly into the tiled floor layered with vivid velvet and silk pillows. Nataraja, the People's head honcho in Atlanta, had tried to furnish his room just like this. But his chamber atop the People's Casino paled in comparison to this room. All of Nataraja's wealth wouldn't have bought a single panel of these golden walls.