The man raised his face. "Say what you want. I know my cause is just. You didn't stop us. You just delayed the inevitable."
He didn't do it because his religion told him to murder people. He didn't do it because he couldn't control himself. He did it out of pure selfish greed, and he didn't feel the least bit upset by it. I'd rather take on a demonic horde any day.
The woman reached us. She was past thirty, maybe thirtyfive. I looked into her eyes and saw nothing. A painful empty void. She wasn't a threat. She was a victim.
The woman stopped and looked at us. "Is it them?" she asked. Her voice was hoarse. "Is it them who did it?"
"Yes," Curran told her.
She sniffed. Her gaze fixed on the three people kneeling in the dirt. "I want a turn." Andrea stepped close to her.
"They killed Lance," she said. "They killed my babies. My whole family is dead. I want a turn."
Andrea put a hand on her arm. "Ma'am ..."
"You give me my turn!" The woman's voice broke into a sob. She clamped her hand on Andrea's fingers, trying to wrench them open. "I've got nothing left, you hear! Nothing. My whole life's gone. You let me at these sonsabitches, you--"
Curran walked over to her. She went quiet.
"If you wait," he said, "I promise you'll get your turn."
She sniffed again.
"Come on," Andrea told her, leading her to the side gently. "Come with me."
"Where were you taking the device?" Jim asked.
The smaller of the men raised his head. "We'll tell you nothing. We are not afraid of death."
Curran glanced at the boudas. A large spotted hyena moved forward, her strides slow and deliberate. Jezebel. She dipped her head and stared at the three captives with unblinking predatory focus. She would kill them. We wouldn't get much out of whoever she attacked. She needed to avenge Joey. After she was done, nothing would be left of them.
I wanted to join her. I wanted to hurt them. I wanted to mince them to pieces, slice by slice, and watch them suffer. But if we didn't squeeze every drop of information out of them now, I'd have to look at more dead bodies.
No. No, this ended now. They might not be afraid of death, but they were terrified of magic, of being enslaved by those who wielded it. They'd given me all the ingredients for their own personal nightmare.
I looked to Curran. He raised his hand. Jezebel halted. She didn't want to, but she stopped.
I turned to Jim. "Which one of them is the least valuable?"
He glanced at the smaller man. "He probably knows the most."
I stopped before the larger man. "We'll start with him, then." Anticipation of the terror was always worse. I wanted the smaller man to stew in his fear a bit.
The captive stared at me. "What are you going to do to me?"
"You think we're abominations." I pricked my palm with the point of my throwing knife. A drop of red swelled. I squeezed my hand, letting the drop grow. "Let me show you just how abominable magic can be." I thrust my hand at the larger man's forehead. My blood connected with his skin, and I whispered a single power word. "Amehe." Obey.
It hurt. Dear gods, it hurt, it hurt like a sonovabitch, but I didn't care. Julie in a hospital bed, Ascanio torn and broken, Joey dead, corpses in the streets, children in their best clothes lying in the dirt, looking at the sky with dead eyes ... They would never rise again. They would never walk, never laugh, never be. The rage inside me was boiling over.
The man froze, the line of magic between him and me taut with power. I'd promised myself I'd never do this again, but some promises had to be broken.
"Rise," I told him.
He stood up.
"What did you do to him?" the female Keeper cried out, her voice squeaking.
Curran was watching me, his face unreadable like a slab of stone.
"Rope." I gave the man a mental push. Sweat broke out on my hairline. The magic drain crushed me. It felt like I was dragging a chain with an anchor on the end of it.
Slowly he walked to the cart, untied the knots, and pulled the rope from the device. I pointed to the ringleader. "Tie him."
Jim grabbed the ringleader's wrists and pulled him up. The larger man looped the rope around the man's waist.
"There is nothing you can do to me," the ringleader said. The Keeper woman watched us with open horror.
I picked up the other end and showed it to the larger man. "Hold."
He clamped it.
I glanced at the shapeshifters. "He'll need help."
Jezebel shed her fur and took the end of the rope. Good. The change would tire her out. She was strung out too high. She needed to burn off some of that edge.
"Give me room."
The shapeshifters parted. The ringleader stood by himself.
I took a deep breath. "Ahissa." Flee.
The shock of the power word nearly took me to my knees. The ringleader screamed, a sharp high-pitched shriek full of animalistic, mind-numbing fear, and ran. On the left, one of the boudas dashed away in panic, caught by the edge of the magic.
The rope snapped taut. The man fell and clawed the dirt, kicking, trying to swim away through solid ground. His larger friend held him, a blank expression on his face. The ringleader raked the soil, again and again, trying to get away, howling in hysterical frenzy. The shapeshifters watched him with stone faces.
"How long does it last?" Curran asked.
"Another fifteen seconds or so."
Moments stretched by. Finally the man stopped digging, his screams fading to weak hysterical sobs, echoed by the woman crying behind me. His fingers were bloody stumps, his nails torn off. I closed the distance between us and leaned over him. He looked up, slowly, his eyes brimming with echoes of panic.
"I bet the people of Palmetto would've screamed too, if you had given them a chance," I said softly. "What do you say we do it again? I bet I can turn your hair gray before lunch."
The man scrambled away from me and sprang to his feet. He managed a good sprint for about three yards and then the rope jerked him down. Jezebel gripped it and pulled him back, dragging him across the ground.
"No!" the man wailed. "I'll tell you anything, anything!"
Didn't take much after all. I braced myself and let out another power word. "Dair." Release.
The larger man sagged on the ground, his mind suddenly free. For a second he just sat there, a sad, abandoned expression on his face, and then he collapsed, curling into a ball, and bawled like a lost child.
"They're all yours," I said to Jim, and forced myself to walk to the Jeep. Every step took an effort. Someone had filled my shoes with lead while I wasn't looking.