"Dear God," Andrea whispered. They must've been Seventh Day Baptists, going to church for the Saturday-morning service. Whole families. Adam Kamen was right. If you had enough magic, the shock of losing it killed you.
Why? Why the hell were the Keepers doing this? What the hell were they hoping to achieve?
A naked man ran out from behind the church and made a beeline for us. Short brown hair, lean build ... Carlos, one of the rat scouts. He came to a stop next to us and bent over, out of breath. "Can't go into it in a half-form. Turns you human or animal. You're weaker, too."
Carlos strained. Fur sprouted along his back as bones snapped. A moment and a wererat stood in front of us. Carlos opened his long jaws. "Thank Goshhh. I wash worreed."
A distant wolf howl echoed through the air.
"South." Curran pulled off his clothes. His skin split. Muscle boiled, fur sprouted, and he dropped to all fours, dark stripes like whip marks over his pelt. Jim shrugged off his shirt and a jaguar in warrior form landed next to Curran.
The monstrous lion head opened its jaws and Curran's voice rolled forth, the words perfect. "We'll cut across the fields, along the edge of the blast zone."
"I'll take the car."
Jim threw the keys at me and I snapped them out of the air.
"Don't break the device," I said. "You break it, it explodes, we all find our wings in a hurry."
Curran growled. "Later, babycakes."
Babycakes. Asshole. "Good hunting, sugar woogums."
I jumped into the driver's seat. Andrea pulled a rifle from under the passenger seat and hopped in to ride shotgun.
Curran dashed into the field, powerful muscles carrying him off. The shapeshifters followed him in a silent flood. I turned the key and the gasoline-burning motor purred in response. No magic. Right.
I made a wide circle around the bodies and stepped on the gas. The vehicle shot forward, picking up speed.
"Whoa." Andrea rubbed her face. "It's like somebody put a bag over my head. I can't hear that well. I can't smell anything either."
"What happened to your face?"
"She made me leave," Andrea said through clenched teeth.
I glanced at her. "Aunt B. We needed to have the talk. Oh no, she couldn't wait to have that talk. She had to have it right away, so she could explain to me in detail how I needed to become one of her girls. I shouldn't have gone, but I wanted to avoid a fight in front of the children. We sat at Mona's and ate pie, while the render tore the kids apart, so her ego would be satisfied. I told her this. You know what she said? She said it was my fault because if I had run over like a good little bouda when she first called me, we wouldn't be in this mess. So I slapped her."
"When we got to the Keep and I found out about Julie, I walked up and slapped Aunt B in the face. In front of everyone."
Holy crap. "Have you lost your mind?"
"You should've seen the look on her. It was worth it." Andrea threw me a defiant glance. "Then her face went all psycho. The old bitch backhanded me. I don't actually remember being hit. I just remember rolling down the stairs. I guess she knocked me off the landing. She is fucking strong." A crazy light sparked in Andrea's eyes. "I'd do it again. I'll make it my mission in life to take her down."
And people said I was nuts.
Andrea raised her hand. "This is the hand that slapped Aunt B."
"Maybe you should have it gold-plated."
"Here, you can touch it, since you're my best friend."
"Is your hand connected to your brain at all? Are you going to keep attacking her until she kills you?"
Andrea shrugged. "I might kill her instead."
"And run the bouda clan?"
She blinked. "No."
"And how do you think Raphael would take it? I know you still love him. You think he'll be happy his mother is dead?"
Andrea let her breath out in a long sigh. "Listen, me and Raphael ..."
"Your master plan has holes big enough to drive a truck through."
"Now look, you ..."
The trees ended abruptly as the road shot us into the center of the town. Words died on Andrea's lips. Bodies lay in the streets. Laborers. Mothers with their children. A group of men armed with crossbows, probably just passing through. A cop, a short blond woman, her uniform pristine, lying face down on the pavement two steps away from her police horse.
Oh my God ... We drove through it all, surrounded by death on both sides, as if gliding through Armageddon.
On the far right, a man stumbled, walking through the street, with a lost look on his face, trying to come to terms with his world ending. A child cried in the distance, a thin uncertain sound.
This wasn't just bad. It wasn't just criminal, or cruel; it was so deeply inhuman, my mind had trouble comprehending it. I've seen death and mass murder, I've seen people slaughtered out of bloodlust, but this had no emotion behind it. Just a cold clinical calculation.
Another howl broke the silence. Closer this time and to the east. Andrea swiped the map off her lap. "They're probably hitting Fayetteville Road. Turn left at the next intersection. Church Street."
I made a hard left at the next intersection. In front of us a crumbling overpass barred the way. I steered the Jeep on the side, over the overgrown hill, praying the tires didn't blow up, and rolled over the hill. The vehicle plunged down, its seat springs squeaked, and we landed back on the road. I stepped on the gas. The Jeep hurtled forward.
A subpision popped up on our right side. I stared straight ahead. I'd seen as much of the dead as I could take. Now I just wanted to make some of my own.
The road veered left, cutting through a dense patch of forest. I took the turn. Something black and large lay in the road.
"Look out!" Andrea yelled.
I swerved, catching a glimpse of a massive equine body. A mad amber eye glared at nothing, now dull, from a head crowned with a single sharp horn.
The woods ended, jerked away suddenly like a green silk scarf pulled out of place. A ribbon of straight road unrolled in front of us, before ping into the woods again in the distance. On the left side, two giant open A-frames covered by tin roofs housed rows of flea market stalls. The stalls lay deserted. Half of their owners had fled. The few who remained sprawled in the dirt, their eyes dull and lifeless.
A group of riders emerged from the woods in the distance, pushing their horses hard. Behind them a pair of bays pulled a wagon. At least ten people. The forest on both sides of the road was too dense for the wagon to pass through. They were heading away from the magic and toward us, back into the blast zone.