I walked up to the door. An invisible wall of magic enveloped the door.

“Can we get in from the outside?” Derek asked behind me. Next to him Ascanio and Desandra moved to watch the stairs.

I shook my head. Hugh would’ve warded the windows as well.

I pulled Slayer out of the sheath and tested the ward. Magic nipped at the saber’s point and the sword stopped, unable to go any farther. Usually wards had an elastic resistance, like trying to puncture a basketball that had gone a little soft. This ward was completely solid. I’d come across only one type of ward that was both invisible and solid like this.

I crouched and leaned forward, searching the grimy floor. There it was, a barely noticeable dark smudge. Hugh had sealed the place with his own blood.

“It’s a blood ward.” I straightened.

“Can you break it?” Robert asked.

When Julie had caught Lyc-V months ago, I had performed a ritual to cleanse her blood with mine. She retained some of my magic as a result. My father had used the same ritual or one very much like it to bind Hugh to him. My father’s blood was in that ward, which would make breaking it easier for me. But the power of Hugh’s own magic was in it too, and Hugh had a crapload of magic.

“If I break this, the backlash will be a bitch. I’ll be out of commission for a while.” And while I was trying not to pass out, whatever was inside the apartment would grab me. Nicely played, Hugh. One trap after another.

“For how long?” Derek asked.

“I don’t know. Could be seconds, could be minutes. Can you smell anything from here? Anyone inside?”

The four of them stood very still.

“No,” Robert said. “It’s like a wall.”

“That’s some messed-up crap,” Desandra said.

I knelt on the floor and examined the door. Several scratches marked the lock, all old. It had probably been picked, and more than once. Expected, considering the location of the door. The door itself didn’t look forced. Not much to go on. For all I knew, the apartment behind the door lay empty or it contained a giant fire-breathing terrestrial octopus in a bad mood. No way to tell. I had to break the ward.

“Hugh likes magic and traps. Once we’re in, don’t touch anything. Get ready to defend my deadweight.”

“Go for it,” Derek said.

I pulled my left sleeve up and sliced Slayer across my skin, just enough to draw blood. Curls of vapor slithered from the opaque saber. I turned the blade upside down, letting the blood wash over it, raised it, bracing myself, and pushed it into the ward.

The magic buckled, kicking at the blade like a wild horse.

I leaned into it. Slow and steady. My blood hissed on the blade, boiling. I fed my magic into the blade.

The ward didn’t budge.

Come on. I pushed harder.

Slayer stopped as if I were trying to thrust it into solid rock. If I pushed any more, the blade might snap. If I’d had time, I would have just sat there for the next fifteen minutes, keeping constant pressure on the sword, until the ward gave. But we had no time.

“Not working?” Robert asked.

“It’s a game to him.” I pulled Slayer free and slipped it into my left hand. The best way to break a ward was to slowly, methodically push through it. Slowly and methodically had failed, which left me with brute force. If it broke too quick, the repercussion from the magic would be very sharp and severe. This wasn’t my brightest move, but we had to get into the apartment and time was short. “Okay, fine. I’ll play. Stand back a bit. This could go really wrong.”

I squeezed the cut on my left arm, smearing the blood over my fingers, and thrust my hand into the ward. The magic snapped taut, trapping my hand. A hundred tiny needles of magic pierced my skin, tasted my blood, and recoiled. Bright red cracks split the empty air, radiating from my hand.

I pushed.

Thunder cracked in my head, slapping my brain. The ward broke and fluttered to the ground, melting as it fell. The world swam around me, the edges turning fuzzy. I shook my head, fighting to keep upright.

Robert pushed the door open and slipped in. Desandra followed. Derek and Ascanio hovered next to me.

I should probably go in. If I could only stop my ears from ringing . . .

“Clear,” Robert called.

I shook my head. Ow. That only made the pain worse. The doorway wavered in front of me. I had to get into the apartment. Okay, the door had to be at least three feet wide. If I just aimed myself in the right direction, I’d get through. I clenched my teeth. Step. Step. Another step. I was in. Kick-ass. Now I just had to remain conscious and not fall down on my face.

I squinted: an old couch, a threadbare rug, and a stripper pole. A long trail of blood led from the living room through the narrow hallway. Someone had dragged a bleeding body out.

“Oh, this is rich.” Robert laughed, his voice dry.

Derek grimaced.

“Yeah.” Ascanio rolled his eyes.

“Clue the human in,” I said.

“Dorie Davis,” Derek said. “Otherwise known as Double D.”

“Her scent is all over this apartment.” Robert went down the hallway.

“Oh!” Desandra snapped her fingers. “So that’s who it is.”

I followed them down the hallway to the bedroom. The stench of blood clogged my nose, so strong I almost choked on it. A giant bed occupied most of the bedroom, equipped with a padded bench at the foot of the bed and a steel rack above it with several metal rings attached to the wall. The red sheet lay crumpled in a knot, drenched in darker red, the same red that stained the exposed mattress. Mulradin was killed here, no doubt about it. A human body had only so much blood, and most of it had remained in this room.

Derek turned right. Robert turned left. Desandra inhaled deeply, making a slow circle around the bed. They stalked through the room, pausing by objects at random, sampling the scents. Ascanio paused at the entrance to the room, so he could see the front door. “Ripe.”

My legs decided to take a vacation and the room crawled sideways. I really needed a wall to prop myself up on, but touching anything here wasn’t a good idea. “Double D, is that supposed to tell me something?”

“She’s a sofie,” Derek said, the same way one would say She’s a child molester.

“I can tell by your voice it’s bad, but I have no idea what it is.”

“Most shapeshifters don’t have sex in animal form,” he said.

“That’s not strictly true,” Robert said. “Most shapeshifters have sex in animal form, but only once. It’s not that great. It doesn’t last long, it’s awkward, and there’s no communication. Let’s just say, you don’t appreciate having hands until they’re gone.”

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