Suppose I did take off and Erra lost my trail. The Pack would be her next target. She would demolish the shapeshifters. Once she was done with them, she’d have the city to play with. If she really did what she was famous for, Atlanta would become the land of diseased corpses.
Erra was made out of my childhood nightmares. For the first time since I reached adulthood, I wanted my dad to be alive, in the way a child wants his parent to come into a dark bedroom and turn on the light. Except Voron was dead. Besides, I knew what his response would be: Run. Run as fast and as far as you can. I had a window of opportunity now, before she found me again. Once I let it slip, my avenue of escape was gone forever. Show over.
I picked Slayer off the floor and dragged my fingers across the blade, feeling magic nip at my skin. The need to run gripped me. The walls closed in, as if my apartment had shrunk.
This wasn’t me. I didn’t panic. I needed to be sharp for this.
I closed my eyes and let it all go. I pictured the worst possible scenario. Julie dead, her little face bloody. Curran dead, his body broken, gray eyes staring into nothing, all of the gold gone. Jim, Andrea, Raphael, Derek, dead, their bodies torn apart.
My hands turned ice-cold. My pulse raced. My heartbeat thudded in my ears, too loud.
Atlanta dead. Corpses on the streets. Vultures that circled but wouldn’t land because the corpses were poison.
I soaked it all in. It hurt. Sweat broke out on my face.
A long moment passed.
Gradually my heart rate slowed. I breathed in deep and let it out. Again. Again. Fatigue rolled over me in a sluggish wave. The poodle licked my hand.
I’d tricked my mind into thinking the worst had happened and I had lived through it. Everyone was still alive. I still had a chance to shield them.
My breathing evened out. Dread and fear fell away from me. Fear drained resources. One could be afraid only so much before the body shut it off in self-defense. I’d overloaded the circuits. Calm came. My mind started slowly, like a rusty clock. “I had my fun. I made friends, adopted a kid, fell in love. It’s time to pay the piper.”
Grendel tilted his head.
“Besides, the bitch killed Marigold. We’ve got to nuke her. Are you game?”
The poodle turned around, trotted into the kitchen, and brought me his food dish.
“What happened to your altruism? Fine. I’ll pay you in meat if you help me kill her.”
The dog barked.
“You’ve got yourself a deal. Here, let’s see what we can scrounge up.” I grinned and pushed off the floor. Everything hurt. I was spent. The power word and the fight had cost me and the wound didn’t help. It felt like I was dragging steel chains.
My invisible chains and I made it into the kitchen. I opened the fridge, tossed the undead head into the garbage, and tried to find something to eat.
A knock sounded through my apartment.
I PUT GRENDEL IN THE BATHROOM AND OPENED the door.
Erra stood on the landing, wrapped in a fur cloak, her face hidden by a hood. I was about five seven. She topped me by at least ten inches.
Would it have killed her to wait a couple hours and let me catch my breath?
I held the door open. “I get a visit in person. I’m so honored.”
“You should be. There is a ward on the door. Yours or did you pay someone?”
She held out her hand, giving me a glimpse of calluses at the base of her fingers—from sword use. Man-hands, Bob had said. I could see why he’d think that.
The ward clutched at her skin in a flash of blue. It had to hurt like hell.
She clenched her fist.
The blue glow solidified around her hand. Hairline cracks dashed through it. For a long second it held, like a pane of translucent blue glass, and then it broke. Magic boomed inside my skull, exploding into a crippling headache.
Message received. Whatever I could make, she could break. Subtle “R” Us.
Pieces of the ward fluttered down, melting in midair. Erra shook her hand with a grimace. “Not too bad.”
My skull wanted very much to split open. “Shall we fight now or fight later?”
“Later.” She strode into my apartment. Apparently she wanted to talk. That was fine. I could always make her bleed later. I closed the door.
Erra pulled back the hood, revealing a mass of dark brown, nearly black hair, slipped her cloak off, and tossed it on my bed. She wore loose black pants and a tailored leather jerkin studded with metal. A simple longsword hung at her waist. No frills, functional hilt, double-edged blade about twenty-eight inches long. Good for thrusting or slashing. The kind of sword I’d carry. Her calluses said she knew how to use it. My vision of facing a spear fighter just went up in flames. She cracked wards like walnuts, she was a giant, and she was good with the blade.
“You don’t spit fire, do you?”
Erra faced me. She looked older than me by about ten years. Her sharp nose protruded farther, almost Roman in shape, and her lips were fuller than mine. Looking into her dark eyes was like being shocked with a live wire. Magic churned in her irises, fueling towering arrogance, intelligence, and white-hot temper. The tiny hairs on the back of my neck rose.
Her eyes narrowed. She scrutinized me.
I raised my chin and stared back.
Erra laughed softly. “What do you know? Blood ran true. A little remainder of my own mortality. Thousands of years and godlike power, and here I am, getting challenged by a babe who looks like me.”
She had me there. Nobody with an iota of sense would have any doubt that we were related. Same skin tone, same eyes, same shape of the face, same smirk, same build, except she was huge. We even wore similar clothes.
The Dubal ritual suddenly made sense. I hadn’t seen myself in the smeared cloudy liquid. I’d seen her. The second anyone viewed us side by side, the jig would be up.
Erra surveyed the apartment. “This is where you dwell?”
“It’s a hovel.”
What was it lately with everyone commenting on my accommodations? My office was shabby, my apartment was a hovel . . .
“How old are you?”
She blinked. “You are just a baby. When I was your age, I had a palace. Servants and guards and teachers. You never forget your first one.”
“Your first palace.”
I rolled my eyes. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome.” Erra strolled into the back and glanced into the library. “I like your books.” She picked up Julie’s picture off the shelf. “Who is the child? She isn’t of the family.”