Chapter Thirty-one

CISCO AND PETER both had their guns out. I'd have loved to go for a gun or a knife, but wrestling the weretiger took both my hands. She wasn't trying that hard to close on my throat, and the hand at my belly was almost immobile except for the fact that the hooked claws she'd conjured from her skin had pierced my side.

She called to the boys, "Don't yell for help or she's dead. I don't want her dead. Just let me leave with her and I won't hurt her."

"You've already hurt her, I can smell the blood," Cisco said. His gun was very steady on us, but she'd taken all his kill shots. If they only wounded her, she would have time to kill me before they could kill her.

"A little prick, that's all. She likes pricks, don't you, Anita?"

My voice was a little strained from keeping her hand from my throat. The claws weren't as big as they seemed, they only looked huge because the human flesh didn't cover the bone of the tiger claw. But they were plenty big enough to tear out my throat. I might survive the gut wound, but the throat would be fatal. I managed to say through gritted teeth, "If you're going to kill me, do it, but don't make fun of me, too."

She laughed, a throaty sound. Her power flared, hot, so hot, almost burning. Hot liquid burst over my back and hair. My first thought was blood, but I knew better. It was that clear liquid that shifters lost when they changed. When the change was smooth it was like heated water; when it wasn't smooth it was gelatinous and chunky. This flowed like water. She never hesitated, or stumbled, as her body re-formed around me. Fur and muscle flowed under my hands. Her power ran over my body like biting insects, so much power, it hurt. Had she thought I'd panic and let go? She had the wrong girl for panic. I kept my grip on her as fur replaced bare skin. I didn't let go even as my skin danced and jerked as if she'd laid a live wire against me. Jesus, the control she had, to be able to shift this smoothly. She was better than Micah, and that was saying something. It would have been impressive if I hadn't been wondering how close her new fangs were to my spine. Part of me noticed that her fur was the wrong color. She was striped pale lemon gold and white. Weren't tigers orange and black? If I lived, I'd ask someone.

"You're one of the Harlequin's animals to call," Cisco said.

She growled, "Yes."

"You'll never make it out of here if you hurt Anita," Cisco said.

"She knows where my mistress rests in the day; I can't let her share that knowledge, can I, Cisco?"

He flinched at her using his name. Always harder to kill someone you know.

"Because if your master dies, you die." Peter said it. He was pointing his gun at the floor, as if he knew he didn't have a shot he could take. Remus had told me that Cisco had some of the highest scores on the gun range of any guard. I was about to bet my life on his skill.

Her hand strained toward my neck again, and I put a lot of effort into holding it off. Her arm was a steady push; mine was shaking. "You belong to Mercia," I said.

"No," she growled, and eased a few sliding steps backward. Cisco and Peter moved the same space forward. It was like an awkward dance.

"Nivia," I said.

"How do you know the names?"

"Does it matter?" I asked.

"Yes," she whispered. "Tell me who's talked to you."

"Jesus, Soledad, don't make me do this," Cisco said.

Soledad stopped whispering to me and called to Cisco, "You're a good shot, Cisco, but are you that good? Are you sure you're that good?"

It was plain on his face that in that moment he wasn't sure. I guess I wouldn't have been either. I'd have given a great deal for Edward in that moment. Or Remus, or Claudia.

Peter said, "What's the rule?"

Cisco almost glanced at him, but remembered and kept his eyes on us, his gun steady, but he didn't have a killing shot and he knew it. Soledad began to back down the hallway with me in her arms. Just a few steps, but slow and steady.

Cisco and Peter moved with us. Cisco had his gun pointed, but frankly he was as likely to hit me as the weretiger. No, more likely. Peter's gun was still pointed at the floor. He didn't seem to know what to do.

Peter said, "The rule is that if they have a weapon and want to take you someplace else, it's so they can kill you slower." His voice was almost a monotone, as if he were reciting.

I thought I understood what he meant. I hoped I did, because I was about to encourage him. "You're right, Peter," I said.

He looked up. His eyes met mine. Cisco said, "God." I threw my head back, used all that long hair to cover her eyes for a second. Peter dropped to one knee and shot at her legs. The shots reverberated in the hallway. Soledad dropped abruptly to her knees, but claws curled deeper inside me, her other hand trying for my throat for real this time. I made a choice. I let go of the wrist at my stomach and used both hands to keep her from tearing out my throat. Two-handed to her one and I was losing. She clawed at my side and stomach. It felt like she'd hit me with a baseball bat, so much damage, like a blow. It stole my breath, or I'd have screamed.

Cisco and Peter were there, standing over us. There still wasn't a clear shot. She tried to crawl backward on her wounded legs, while I held on to her hand, and held it a fraction away from my throat. Cisco was still trying to find a shot. Peter threw himself onto us, he just jumped us, and we were all on the ground with her underneath us. She stopped trying for my throat and reached for Peter. I was suddenly trying to wrestle her hand away from him instead of me. Her hand wasn't on my stomach anymore. Peter's body reacted as if something hurt. But I kept her off his throat. It was all I could do. I had a moment of being pressed between them, and then the gunshots exploded just behind my head. It was insanely loud that close to me. I kept my grip on her as the inside of my head rocked with the sound of gunfire beside it. Her body jerked, and still she tried for my throat again. The change of angle startled me, and she might have nicked me, but I didn't feel it.

Peter kept firing; his gun must have been pressed into her head. We ended up on the ground in a breathless, deaf heap. He was up on one arm, his gun still shoved into her face. Peter's T-shirt was in rags over his stomach. Cisco was above us; his lips were moving, but I couldn't hear him. I rolled free of the pile. I had my gun out and pointed before my back hit the wall, before I could truly see what was happening.

Soledad's head was a red mass. There was no face left. Brains were leaking all over the floor, her brains. Even for a weretiger, this was dead. Peter was still over the body, his gun pumping into that mass of tissue. I think he was dry-firing by now, but I couldn't hear well enough to say. Cisco knelt beside him, his lips moving, but I couldn't make out the words. He got Peter to stop firing into the body, then tried to ease Peter off her. Peter let him ease him back onto his knees, then Peter popped his empty magazine out, put it in his left jacket pocket, got a spare clip out of his right-hand pocket, and reloaded. His stock was pretty high with me right then; the reload made it go higher. Maybe we wouldn't get him killed.

Cisco tried to get him to stand up and move away from the body. I think Cisco was worried about how Peter would react when the shock wore off. It made me think better of Cisco. Then a lot of things happened at once. I couldn't hear it, but I must have seen movement out of the corner of my eye, because I turned to see Edward and company come barreling down the hallway, guns drawn. The door to Richard's room was open, and he was leaning in it. His beautiful chest was a mass of scars on one side. He was pale as death, and looked as if the only thing keeping him upright was the doorway. The scars showed where the bullets had taken a chunk out of all that nice muscled flesh. Sometimes silver scars. He mouthed something, but I still couldn't hear anything but the ringing silence in my own head. Gunshot too close to the ear. I'd be lucky if my hearing wasn't permanently damaged.

I felt movement nearer to me, and turned, but I was slow. I think Peter wasn't the only one in shock. Cisco was pulling Peter to his feet by the collar of his jacket. Cisco was shouting something. I couldn't see what the problem was - there was nothing but Soledad's body. Then I looked at the body and realized that she was still in tiger form. Her body hadn't reverted to human form. Dead shapeshifters always revert to human form. I raised my gun and had it aimed, when the "body" sprang up and threw itself at Peter and Cisco.