Sweat broke on my hairline.
The blood rose from the dish about an inch, curling into a globe of red. I held it there and stretched it into a disk. It flowed, obedient and pliant.
"How did you know?" Curran asked.
"Erra has traces of vampirism in her blood sample," Doolittle said. "Not in a virulent form. It's a very odd thing, almost like a dormant precursor to the virus itself. Our lady does too, in smaller concentration."
I let the blood drain into the dish.
"I would venture a guess that most navigators of the dead also possess the same, probably in much, much smaller quantities. When I have some spare time, I want to look at your blood in greater detail." Doolittle frowned.
"What, we have it, too?" Curran pushed up from the floor. "It reacts to magic," Doolittle said. "Perhaps it's an evolutionary adaption to the world where magic was a constant presence. I would have to run more tests, but for now we must deal with the problem at hand. We need the vampiric vector."
"Are you telling me I have to infect Julie with vampirism?" This was crazy. Vampirism was irreversible. But then so was Lycos-V.
"I wouldn't presume to tell you anything," Doolittle said. "This whole scheme is an exercise in insanity. However, if you persist in this harebrained, ill-advised endeavor, this is the only way for you to mold her blood."
"How about we just don't do it," Curran said.
I took a deep breath. "Can you tell me with absolute certainty that Julie will go loup the moment she wakes up?"
They both answered in unison. "Yes."
"Then I have to do it," I told them. "I have no choice."
THREE DAYS LATER I TRAVELED TO PERFORM THE Arez ritual deep in Sibley Forest. The witches were there, and somehow Grigorii and his brother were there, too. I had never quite gotten to the bottom of how they'd solved their differences, but I decided not to look a gift volhv in the mouth.
We chose a spot on top of a lone quartz boulder, thrusting from the forest floor like a miniature version of Stone Mountain. Kamen operated the device we'd taken at Palmetto. The witches stood around me in a circle, while Julie lay in front of me on a stretcher. Her sedation was wearing off, and muscles and bone bulged and moved under her skin as if they had a mind of their own. Derek and Jezebel stood on both sides of the stretcher, waiting.
Kamen opened the device. Magic spilled from it in a dense cascade of pale glow. The witches strained and then a flood of power hit me, so cold it felt like my muscles froze. It spread through me, flowing from cell to cell, saturating my blood, setting my nerves on fire.
The witches kept feeding me power, more and more and more. The ice turned into agony, shaving at me from the inside, scraping layer after layer from my core.
In the haze of magic Doolittle took a step toward Julie. The syringe in his hand rose. The needle touched her skin and the Immortuus pathogen entered her body.
In a normal victim, it took seven hours for full colonization of the body. Seven hours from the infection to full-blown vampirism. The process was irreversible. We didn't need seven hours. We just needed one minute for the vampiric blood to fully circulate through Julie's body. More magic came. My hands and feet dissolved into pain. Every instinct screamed for me to stop. End it. Just end it and the pain will stop.
Julie's body began to glow. It beckoned me, like a swamp light, drawing me closer and closer. She kicked and convulsed on her stretcher, muscles and fur bulging.
I was almost there. A little more magic. A little more pain.
A searing blast of magic smashed into me, pushing me over the edge.
Julie snarled. Her restraints snapped and she shot up, her flesh boiling. Grotesque jaws thrust from her face, She stood hunched over, half human, half lynx, but whereas a shapeshifter's warrior form was streamlined, Julie's body was a mess of mismatched parts. Her left arm was huge, her right leg had a knee that bent backward. Fur sheathed her stomach, while human skin stained her back in pale patches.
She stared, mesmerized.
I felt the blood sliding through her veins, flowing in a current of tiny particles of magic.
Julie opened her mouth, her monstrous face uncertain.
Derek clamped her in a bear hug and Jezebel sliced her neck, severing the jugular. Blood shot in a pressurized spray and I grabbed it with my power, gathering each precious tiny drop, condensing, turning, spinning it into a globe of brilliant magic.
All sound faded, except the beating of my heart.
I kept pulling it, drawing it out of the container of flesh, until I had taken all of it.
The creature who had owned the blood before me toppled to the ground.
I beckoned the sphere and it floated toward me, settling in the palms of my open hands, so alive, so bursting with magic.
Something was wrong with it. It was corrupted, tainted somehow. But it was so breathtakingly beautiful.
A distant presence tugged on me, coming from impossibly far, stretching toward me across distance or time, I couldn't tell. It peered inside me, permeating my magic, examining the blood in my hands.
I was supposed to do something with this blood, wasn't I? Or maybe not. It sat in my palms, so warm and throbbing with power.
The presence watched me. I watched it back.
A thought formed in my head and it wasn't my own, yet somehow it also was. "Well done." At the creature's body another creature was screaming at me, her face contorted. A third creature stared at me, an expression of pure horror stamped on his face.
Odd, this blood. All wrong. I had to do something with it, but I wasn't sure what.
I held the blood out to the presence. "It's dirty."
"Then you should clean it," the presence suggested gently.
I had to clean it. Yes, that was it.
"Let your blood flow," the presence murmured.
I sweated blood. It poured from my pores, bleeding magic.
"Now bind them together," the presence suggested.
I molded my blood, stretching it in thin filaments to the glowing core of the creature's blood in my hand, wrapping my magic around it, piercing it, cleansing.
"That's it. That's it," the presence told me. "Excellent. Now return it."
"You must give it back or the child won't survive."
"But it's mine!"
"No. You only borrowed it. If you keep it, you'll kill its vessel."
The creatures were screaming.
I didn't want to kill anyone.
I held the sphere for another long moment, savoring it, and thrust it back into the creature's body. It flowed into her, rushing through, filling her collapsed veins and arteries.