The ball smashed into the second semicircle, scattering the imaginary pins. It would’ve been a perfect strike.
Two men dropped from above into the oval. One was Solomon, his eyes bulging, his face bright red. He landed badly, on his back, but jumped to his feet.
His opponent landed in a crouch. A spear fell next to him. The Steel Mary straightened to six and a half feet. A cloak hung about his shoulders. His hood was up. From where I stood, I could only see the dark fabric.
I ran along the illusion’s edge toward the elevator shaft.
Solomon hammered a vicious kick at the Steel Mary’s side. The Steel Mary leaned out of the way, his cloak flaring about him. Solomon’s foot passed within a hair of his face. Solomon spun for a back kick, and the Steel Mary backhanded him. Solomon flew through the air, crashing against the elevator shaft just as I braked next to him, at the edge of the illusion.
The Steel Mary picked up the spear and walked to us, each step a deliberate point, like the toll of a funeral bell. The hood shifted back and I caught a glimpse of large eyes, dark, almost black, framed in the thick velvet of long eyelashes and brimming with power.
I froze. There was something so hauntingly familiar about those eyes. If I just stood still, I could figure it out.
The Steel Mary opened her mouth. Words poured forth, resonating through me. “I offer you godhood, imbecile. Accept it with grace.”
Perfect English. No accent. No clue to nationality. Damn.
The Steel Mary grasped Solomon’s shirt with her left hand, jerked him up against the elevator shaft, and thrust. The spear head sliced through Solomon’s windpipe. Blood gushed. Solomon screamed, writhing on the spear. Crimson spurted from his mouth.
The Steel Mary raised her right hand, fingers rigid like talons, and thrust it into Solomon’s chest. “Hessad.”
The power word clutched at Solomon. His body strained, his back arching. He screamed again, a terrible hoarse bellow of pure pain. Blood burst from his chest and collapsed back, sucked inward into the wound. A long exhausted sigh broke from Solomon’s lips. He sagged. His eyes rolled back into his head. His body shook once and became still.
The Steel Mary pulled her hand out of Solomon’s chest, a wad of red glow resting on her palm. I couldn’t feel it but instinctively I knew exactly what it was. It was blood. Condensed blood. All of Solomon’s power, all of his magic, his essence contained in a small glowing globe trembling, caged, in the Steel Mary’s fist.
The Steel Mary smiled. “Finally.”
Her lips stretched in a smile. She turned, carrying the blood, and I saw the twisted lines of a tattoo on the inside of her forearm. The letters burst in my mind, searing it. A power word.
The world burned around me. Heat surged through my blood, spreading through every vein and capillary. My body locked, struggling to overcome the shock.
The Steel Mary turned, slowly as if underwater, and walked away, melting into nothing.
Pain wracked me. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t breathe. Through the tempo of my heartbeat thudding like a sledgehammer in my ears, I heard Juke’s voice. “He bitch-slapped Solomon Red! I’d missed that the first time around.”
My vision faded, replaced by a fog of blood. The power word was killing me. I clamped it, trying to break through its defenses. It hurt. God, it hurt.
“It certainly is interesting,” Saiman said. “Don’t you think, Kate? Kate?”
“What’s the matter with her?” Ivera asked.
The power word cracked under pressure. Searing light pulsed before me and suddenly I saw, crystal clear, Saiman staring at me from across the room.
The power word hammered at me from the inside, threatening to tear me apart. I had to say it to make it mine.
Something clicked in Saiman’s eyes. “Run!”
Too late. I opened my mouth and the power word burst forth on a torrent of magic. “Ahissa!”
The magic swept through the room. People screamed and fled, trampling each other. Bob clawed onto the table with both hands, his face a skewed mask of fear, and bellowed like a bull in pain. Ivera collapsed on the floor.
I felt light as a feather. The last echoes of magic whipped about me, bringing the true meaning of the word into my mind. Ahissa. Flee.
All of my strength leaked out through my feet. I sagged down and slid against the wall.
The hall was empty, except for Bob breathing like there was an anvil on his chest, Ivera weeping quietly on the floor, and Saiman pressed against the opposite wall. Ice covered his arms. His eyebrows had turned blue-green and the eyes that stared at me from under them were the eyes of a frost giant: cold, piercing blue, like a diamond caught in a sheath of brine. The eyes that belonged to Saiman’s original form.
We stared at each other’s secret face. It dawned on me that I had just scared the crème of the Guild’s crop half to death. They wouldn’t forget it. To top it off, I had displayed control of a power word in front of Saiman. His eyes told me he understood exactly what had transpired and he was shocked by it. On a scale of one to ten, this disaster was at a twenty. If I could move, I’d be banging my head against the nice hard floor.
Saiman pushed himself free of the wall. The ice on his arms broke into a thousand tiny snowflakes. His bluegreen eyebrows fell out, individual hairs fluttering to the ground. New dark brows formed, matching his hair. The savage intensity of the frost giant’s eyes dissolved into calm green irises.
“We seem to have experienced a minor technical difficulty,” he said with forced cheer. “My apologies for the inconvenience. This type of magic is yet unproven.”
Bob bent down and scooped Ivera off the floor. His face said that he wasn’t buying any of it. He grunted, shifting Ivera’s tall frame in his arms, and carried her from the hall.
Saiman approached me and knelt. If he tried to kill me now, there wouldn’t be much I could do about it. Breathing was an effort. The first time I assimilated power words, I came very close to dying. The second time, I lost about three hours. The third time happened during the flare and it was a rush of pain. Now, with normal magic, I felt completely drained. I didn’t pass out and I didn’t lose time, so I had to be getting better at it, but I had no reserves left.
Saiman brushed my left arm with his fingertips. “There were words,” he whispered. “Hundreds of words written in dark ink on your skin.”
Words? What words? “What?”
He caught himself and rose. “Nothing. It’s best we go. I’ll gather the items.”