The stench of death was overwhelming.
We stood in a wide foyer, its once polished tiled floor now a dusty mess of dirt and rubble. Massive cracks creased the filthy walls, growing into dark uneven holes. To the left a wide fissure slashed through the floor. Ahead rock dust and garbage choked the once splendid staircase. The new Coca-Cola building was on its last breath.
The faint sound of claws scuttling on stone came from the left. A pair of red-coal eyes blazed from the darkness of a crack in the concrete wall, and the sleek furry shape of the ratman filled the gap and dropped to the floor. While the werewolves were nightmarish, the ratman leaned toward repulsive. Thin and shaggy, he was covered with dark fur, except for the face, forearms, and wood-hard calves, where the exposed skin was light pink and looked soft, almost human. He had huge feet and hands, the size resulting from the long, large-knuckled digits tipped with sharp claws. The beginnings of a misshapen rodent muzzle guarded the mouth, filled with uneven yellowish teeth. Jerky, quick twitches troubled the ratman as he moved, and his human eyes darted to glare in random directions.
The ratman closed the distance to Curran in short rapid leaps, his paws raising small clouds of dust from the foyer floor.
"Dourrnstahrs," he said, his horrid jaws crippling the word. "Big roum."
He offered something white to Curran. The Beast Lord took the object into his massive hand, glanced at it, and tossed the thing to me. I caught it. A human femur. Someone with sharp teeth and a lot of persistence had stripped away the cartilage that once sheathed its ends, leaving narrow scratches on the shaft. I turned it, trying to make the most of the dim moonlight filtering through the fissures in the walls and the crooked arch of the entrance. Stripes of smoother, glossy connective tissue crossed the bone in two places - the mark of the Lyc-V knitting the shaft together after it had been broken. I held the femur of a shapechanger.
The ratman scuttled across the foyer to the gap in the floor, and we followed. The fissure ran some ten feet in length and about three feet wide at the widest place. I leaned over the edge and peered into it. There was a clear drop to the floor, sixteen feet below.
Behind me the Bear made a rumbling noise. Curran nodded and the enormous Kodiak turned away. He would never fit.
One by one the shapechangers dove into the gap, until I alone stood by the edge. I sat on the filthy floor, swinging my legs into the hole, lowered myself, shortening the distance as much as I could, and dropped down. The hard shock of landing on the stone floor resonated into my feet and died.
Nobody waited for me. The shapechangers had departed. How nice.
Ahead, a long tunnel, narrow and dark, offered a faint glow. Behind me the remains of an underground garage stretched into the distance. I turned to the tunnel and trotted down, careful to leap over the concrete boulders littering the floor.
The tunnel ended, opening into a large room, of which I could see very little since a gathering of furry, muscled backs blocked my view. The warm glow came from the torches, thrust into rungs in the walls. They burned with smokeless white fire that had to be magic. The ceiling rose impossibly high, decorated with plaster molded into ornamental design. The floor may have been parquet at one point:
Some sort of banquet hall.
A woman spoke, her voice harsh and laced with metal. "Welcome to the end of your journey, half-breed. Here you will die like the rest of your kind."
A half-breed? What an odd thing to call a shapechanger. I moved to Jennifer's side and saw the Master of the Dead. Or rather, the Mistress. She stood in the center of the room, straight and rigid as a mast, wearing a flowing dress that started off-white around her shoulders, transmuting into blue around her waist, darkening to a deeper purple and finally blazing blood red at the hem. Her hair, long and glossy black, was knotted into a complex plait and tied with long stringy twine. A cascade of small plastic beads hung from the twine. I looked closely. On second look, they probably weren't plastic. Few people made plastic beads in the shape of human finger bones.
I felt no power emanating from her. No shadow, no hint, nothing, except her age. She felt older than Nataraja.
"I am Olathe," she said with the same gravity Greek gods must have used to introduce themselves to their mortal children. "The Mistress of the Dead. The favored concubine of Roland, the Father of the People."
"Care to repeat that?" Curran said. His voice was a deep snarl, but his diction was perfect. "I missed the part where I was supposed to be impressed."
Olathe looked down on him. Not easy to do considering he was nearly two feet taller than her. She may have been Roland's concubine but it had cost her: once probably beautiful, she looked worn-out, like an old manikin whose grimy paint had begun to peel. He had drained all of her vivacity, her spark, her humor. Only the eyes remained alive on the soulless face: huge, prideful, and driven.
Something shifted behind her in the shadows of the far wall. A twisted silhouette, then another, and another. I reached toward it with my magic, felt the cold wall of her defenses, and withdrew. No need to provoke her before Curran was ready.
"I'm curious, how long did he fuck you?" Curran strode forward, one enormous foot padding after another. The shapechangers followed him. "How long did you last? A year? Six months?"
"Thirteen years," she said.
Curran kept moving forward. The longer he kept talking, the closer to her we would get. He was going out of his way to be offensive, although for him it didn't take much effort. "Thirteen years. Finally grew bored with you, didn't he? Found somebody younger, prettier, fresher. And now you're here, hiding in some shit hole, forgotten and discarded, like a used rubber. Nothing to show for all those years."
She reeled back. "I've held his body in mine. I've tasted his flesh and he passed a blessing of power onto me."
Technically that would be true. If they had shared body liquids, she would have gained some of his power.
"A blessing of power," Curran laughed, the echoes of his snarls scattering to the walls. "How about a child?"
She did not answer.
"Oh, wait." Curran paused. "I forgot. The Father of the People is too afraid to make a child of his blood. Or maybe he found you lacking in power?"
She laughed. The loud hollow sound ricocheted from the walls, seemingly coming from everywhere. "Oh, no, half-breed. Power is something I do not lack."
Her defenses dropped. I felt the shadows behind her, the enraged, ravenous vampires, younger than the one I had beheaded, but formidable all the same. Evil magic clung to them, like a rotting mantle, fueling their frenzy.