She laughed. “I’ll kill your pretty lion and wear his skull as a hat when I return to your father.”
“Don’t bring the lion into this. It’s about you and me.”
She attacked. I parried, and she drove me back across the snow.
My arm was going numb.
She backhanded me. The apartment building jerked, dancing around me. The force of the blow spun me about. I staggered back, tasting blood in my mouth, and spat red into the snow.
Erra growled. Her left arm hung limp. Finally bled out enough to cause some damage.
“Pain is a bitch, huh?” I laughed. “That’s the trouble with being on top too long—you lose your tolerance.” The world teetered around me. My head rang. I couldn’t take much more. She was wearing me down and I bled like there was no tomorrow.
Might as well use it. I swayed and let Slayer slip a bit in my fingers. Given that a pint of my blood decorated the snow in a pretty red pattern, swaying didn’t prove hard.
Erra raised her sword. “Shake it off and take your last look around.”
Anyone can kill anyone, as long as you don’t care if you live or die. Erra cared very much if she lived. I did, too, but pain didn’t scare me the way it scared her. I was better. If I timed it right, I might even live through it. I just needed to get a good strike and conserve my strength enough to deliver it. Let her do most of the work.
“Talk, talk, talk. You prattle on and on, like a senile old woman. Are you slipping into your dotage?”
She charged me. I saw her crystal clear, running through the snow, eyes wild, sword raised for the kill. Drop down, thrust up under the ribs. The way to a woman’s heart is through her stomach. If I sliced through her heart, she wouldn’t shake it off. She might be my aunt, but she was mortal, damn it.
The world shrank to my aunt and the point of my sword.
Curran, I wish we had more time.
Julie, I love you.
She came at me. The sword arm was too high. If I lunged under that first strike, she was mine.
Something hit me from the left. Breath left my lungs in a single painful burst. I gasped, trying to inhale, and saw the ground vanish down below. Something clamped me in a steel grip and dragged me up the building.
A bellow of pure rage chased us. “Come back here!”
I managed to suck some air in my lungs.
The arm that clenched me had scales on it.
I twisted my neck. Red eyes stared at me with slit pupils. Below the eyes enormous jaws protruded, long and studded with triangular teeth. Olive scales fractured the skin. A shapeshifter? Shapeshifters didn’t change into reptiles. My arms were clamped. I couldn’t even cough.
“What the hell are you doing? I had her!”
The jaws gaped open. A deep female voice growled at me. “No. You can’t fight her.”
“Who are you?”
The roof rushed at us. The edge loomed, and then we were airborne. We hit the next roof and she dashed across it.
“Put me down.”
The creature leaped again. The ruined city streamed by.
“Why are you doing this?”
“It’s my job. He tasked me to protect you.”
“Who? Who told you to protect me?”
A familiar building swung into my view—Jim’s safe house.
Jim had put a babysitter on me. I would kill him.
We landed on a roof with a thud. A man lunged at us. She rammed him, knocking him off the roof, and drove her clawed hand into the shingles. Wood screeched. She tossed a piece of the roof aside and dropped into the hole. We fell and landed on the dining table, knocking the dishes aside. Faces stared at me: Jim, Dali, other people I didn’t know . . .
The creature let go of me. A deep roar rolled from her mouth. “Take care of her.”
She whipped about. A heavy tail swung over me, and she leaped, vanishing through the hole in the roof.
JIM STARED AT ME. “WHAT THE FUCK WAS THAT?”
“You tell me.” I rolled off the table, shook the stars out of my head, and staggered toward the doorway, where a hallway promised access to the door. I had to get out of there.
“She’s bleeding,” someone barked.
Green rolled over Jim’s eyes. “Dali, get Doolittle.”
Dali dashed out.
Jim clamped his hand on my shoulder. “Who was she?”
The building swayed around me. “I don’t know.”
Jim pointed past me. “You, you, and you—quarter-mile perimeter. You don’t know them, they don’t get in. You—roof, find Carlos. Brenna, Kate doesn’t leave. Sit on her if you have to. If I’m not back in half an hour, evacuate to the Southeast office.”
He tensed and leaped up and to the right, bounced off the wall through the hole onto the roof. A blink and he was gone.
A woman gripped me in a bear hug. I peered at her face, trying to bring it into focus. Short hair cut in a bob, reddish brown hair, green eyes, freckles . . . Brenna. One of the wolves working for Jim as a tracker. Last time we met, I’d put a silver needle into her throat and she bit my leg. She held my right arm and some blond woman I didn’t know held my left.
I fixed my stare on Brenna. Her face was smudged. “Let go.”
“I can’t do that.” She shook her head.
“Brenna, take your hands off me or I’ll hurt you.” If only the room stopped spinning, I’d be all set.
“That’s fine, Kate. I think I can take it.”
Everybody was a smart-ass.
Dali ran into the room. A black man in his fifties followed, wiping his hands with a towel. Doolittle.
“And what have you done to yourself now?”
His face crawled sideways. My stomach clenched into a tight ball and I vomited on the floor.
“Let her go,” Doolittle snarled.
The wolves released me. That’s right. Never piss off a werebadger.
Doolittle leaned over me. “Dizzy?”
I nodded. Pain rolled inside my head like a lead ball.
He touched my face and I jerked back.
“Easy, easy now.” Doolittle’s fingers pressed on my skin, holding my left eye open. “Uneven dilation. Blurred vision?”
I knew the signs. I had a concussion, but it didn’t seem important. Slowly it sank in: Erra was gone. I’d lost my shot at her. “I almost had her. I could’ve taken her.”
“Lay her down on her back, gently. Gently now.”
Hands clamped me and lowered me to the floor.