“Like her skull?” Mac said with a faint grin.
“Precisely. I’d hoped to see what tactic would be taken next, so that we could counter it. That, naturally, would be too simple.”
“This hurts her,” Nell commented.
“I know it does.” Mia patted Nell’s arm absently. “And I’m sorry for it. The thing to do now is to sit down and figure out how to use those emotions, their negativity, in what comes next. A protective spell, at this point, is only a stopgap. As much as I hate to agree with the deputy, we have to take action.”
She stopped to gather her thoughts. “You haven’t had much experience, Nell, and it wouldn’t be an easy matter in any case.”
“What wouldn’t?” Mac asked. “You’re thinking of a casting out?”
“So handy to have a scholar around. Yes,” Mia continued. “There are five of us. We’d do better with twelve, but there isn’t time to round up recruits. Just as there isn’t time to do much in preparation. We’ll use what we’ve got. Once we’ve . . .”
She trailed off, and her cheeks went deathly pale. “She’s gone. She’s outside the protective boundary.” Fear leaped out of her before she could cage it. “She’s broken the circle.”
Even as Mac rushed for the door, Mia grabbed his arm. “No, no.Think. Feeling’s not enough, which is her problem. We go together.” Her gaze swept the room. “And we go ready. Do you know how it’s done?”
Mac struggled against panic. “In theory.”
Mia watched Zack snap on his holster. She wanted to tell him that wasn’t the way, but the expression on his face warned her not to bother.
“Tell us what to do,” Nell said urgently. “And let’s do it quickly.”
Ripley planted herfeet, legs spread, body braced. It was a dare, and she knew it. Draw him out, she thought. Draw him to her, and save the rest.
And destroy him.
Beside her, Lucy growled low in her throat.
“Harding.” She frosted her voice with amused derision. “Middle-aged, paunchy city boy. Not such a keen choice, if you ask me.”
“A useful shell.” The voice was deeper, and somehow wetter, than it should have been. “We’ve met before,” he told her.
“Have we? I only remember interesting people.”
“What’s in you remembers what’s in me.” He circled her, light on his feet. Ripley turned with him, careful to keep face-to-face. She slid her fingers into Lucy’s collar to hold her in place as the dog leaped and snapped. “You reached for what I have once, took it into you like a lover. Remember the ecstasy.”
It was not, she discovered, a question. But a command. A fast, pulsing thrill pumped through her. Heady andfull. Glorious. A kind of full-body orgasm that nearly brought her to her knees with its sheer and ferocious pleasure.
She shuddered from it, didn’t quite bite back a moan.
Yes, God, yes. She could havethis ? Such a thing would be worth any price. Betrayal, damnation. Death.
As she struggled to clear her head, she caught the flash of movement. She stumbled to counter, and ended up sprawled on her face in the frigid sand.
It felt as though she’d been rammed by a truck.
He was chuckling, a kind of tickled delight as she shoved to her hands and knees. She watched Lucy charge, leap, teeth bared, and slam into a shield of air that went flaming at the edges at impact.
“No! Lucy, no! Hold.”
“I can give you what you want, and more. But it won’t be free. Not free, yet easy. Why don’t you take my hand?”
She had her breath back, barely. Held a hand out for the dog that trembled with each growl. “Why don’t you kiss my ass?”
He knocked her flat again. One wicked sweep of wind. “I could crush you. Such a waste. Join your power with mine, and we’d rule.”
Liar, she thought. He lies. And he’s toying with you. Be smarter, she told herself. Be meaner. “I’m confused,” she said weakly. “I can’t think. I need to know the people I love are safe.”
“Of course.” He crooned it. “Whatever you want can be yours. Give me what you are.”
She kept her head down as she got slowly to her feet, as if with great effort. It was her mind she shot at him when she tossed her head back. All the fury of it. It was shock she saw on his face, for one gratifying instant. Then his body flew back, hurled by her temper.
The sand where he landed turned black beneath the fog, as if scorched.
“I’m going to send you to Hell,” she promised him.
The light was blinding, and heat and cold burst in the air like shrapnel. She went on pure instinct, leaping away, countering, attacking.
She felt pain—bright and stunning—and used it as she would a weapon.
“You and yours will suffer,” he told her. “There will be agony, then there will be nothing, which is worse than agony. What you love will cease to be.”
“You can’t touch what I love. Until you get through me.”
She could hear his breathing, ragged, strained. He was tiring, she thought darkly. She would win. And even as she gathered herself to end it, he clasped his hands, raised them. Black lightning spewed out of the churning sky, pierced his joined hands and formed a glinting sword.
He sliced it once through the air, then twice. His face was triumphant as he came toward her.
She called to the Earth, felt it tremble lightly. As it began to quake, Lucy leaped to defend her. Even as Ripley screamed, the sword bit.
“Everything you love,” he said as the dog lay still on the ground. “Everything dies tonight.”
“For that alone—” She threw her hand skyward, and her power with it. “I’ll kill you.”
She felt the hasp of the sword in her hand. The fit true as a glove, the weight familiar. She swept it down, and the clash of blade to blade rang like doom.
Now it was she who called the storm, a hundred bolts that lanced the sand and water until they circled like fiery bars and caged them. Its rage and violence fueled her, became her.
Her hate grew with an appetite so greedy it swallowed all else. “You killed the innocents.”
He was grinning, lips peeled back. “Every one.”
“You destroyed my sisters.”
“They died weeping.”
“You murdered the man I loved.”
“Then, and now.”
The thirst for his blood burned in her throat, seemed to feed her with impossible strength. She beat him back, back toward those flaming bars.
Dimly she heard someone calling her—in her mind, in her ears. She blocked it out as she continued to hack and thrust, as she felt his sword tremble and give a bit more each time.
She wanted nothing—nothing—so much as the glory of running her blade through his heart. And feeling the power sing through her at that murderous stroke.
It coursed through her, a little deeper, a little truer every moment. Closer, she thought, so much closer. She could taste the promise of it—dark, bitter, seductive.
When his sword spun out of his hand, and he fell at her feet, she felt the thrill of it, like sex.
With the hilt of her sword gripped in both hands, she raised it high over her head.