The gaping pit that was the reeve's mind opened before me. I took it into my fist and squeezed. The hair noose loosened. The hair still held me, but the crushing pressure had vanished.
I looked through the reeve's eyes and through my own. Through this strange double vision, I saw Julie curled on the floor in a tiny fetal ball. Hood stared at me. I sensed him waiting in the deep recesses of the reeve's mind. He brimmed with hate, not just for who I was but for what I was. He seethed, his rage barely contained, a malignant terrible creature who wished the end of humankind. Disgust swelled in me, an instinctual xenophobic response, so strong, it threatened to overwhelm all reason.
I forced the hair to unwind. It let me go slowly, hesitantly. Even with a power word, I wouldn't be able to hold the reeve for long. The moment I fumbled, Hood would seize control.
I stepped aside and pulled the reeve through the bars, through the window, into the kitchen.
Watch this, you sonovabitch.
Obeying my unspoken command, the reeve rammed the wall head-on.
Hit. The drywall crumbled, exposing the hard brick.
Hit. A red stain spread.
Hit. Her skull cracked like a dropped egg.
You won't get my kid, you hear me?
The reeve drew back for a final blow, red and gray slime spilling from her head. Hood's presence fled. A second later I sent her into motion and bailed too, before the dying mind could drag me under.
A flood of filthy liquid washed the wall.
My back burned as though molten glass was poured into the wound. The room wavered slightly. I clenched my teeth and raised my sword.
Hood waited in the doorway. The way was clear. No magic walls separated us.
I smiled slowly, showing him my teeth. "Three down. One to go. Come."
The tentacles contracted, drawing the net tighter. I leaned forward a little, light on my toes, ready to charge.
The tentacles detached, rolled into the sleeves and under the hem of the robe, and Hood fled, as if swept from the doorway by a gust of wind.
I looked down in time to see Julie's legs disappear under the table.
I DUCKED UNDER THE TABLE AND ALMOST TOOK A dive. My head swam. Purple circles flared in my eyes, blocking the view of the house, as sharp pain seared my back. Not good.
"Julie, we have to go."
She hit the wall with her back. "You're like them. Like the People."
"No. Completely different." Exactly like the People. I'm so like the People, that if you knew, you'd run away screaming. "We have to go, Julie. We can't stay here. There might be more of these things out there and we have a busted door and a busted ward on the window. We've got to go."
She shook her head.
The pain sliced my spine in half, wringing tears from my eyes. I couldn't remember the last time something had hurt so much. I forced my voice to go soft. "Julie, I'm still me. I swear to you I'll do everything I can to keep you safe. But now we have to run, before he comes back with more of those reeve things. Come on, sweetheart. Come on out. Please."
She swallowed and took my hand. I helped her from under the table.
"That's my girl. Come."
"What kind of magic was that?"
"The forbidden kind. You can never tell anyone I used it or I'll be in trouble." The power words commanded the magic itself. They were primal words. It wasn't enough to know them, one had to own them and there were no do-overs: one conquered them or died. The most accomplished mages had two or three. I had six and I didn't want to explain why. They were my weapon of last resort.
There was only one place within reach that offered stronger protection than my apartment: the Order. Under the Order lay the vault. Its wards were impenetrable, and its armored door would take a focused fire from a howitzer to break.
I tried the phone. Still out. There would be no pickup for us from the Order.
A fifteen-minute run separated us from the Order's building. Twenty with the kid in tow. Piece of cake. I could do this. I just needed something to dull the pain. Just for a little bit. And then I'd be fine.
There was a regeneration kit in the bathroom. I took a step toward the door. A streak of heat ran up my spine and exploded into a jagged hot pain in the base of my neck. It ripped at my bones, twisted my tendons, and dragged me down to my knees. I hit the floor hard, dug my saber into the wood, and clung to it, struggling to stay upright. I had a kid to protect.
The room melted out of focus. The walls sprouted fuzz and bent, like waves threatening to drown me. I smelled my own blood. Julie grabbed my arm and sobbed. "You gotta get up. Come on! Don't you die! Don't die!"
"It will be okay," I whispered. "It will be okay."
The magic drained from the world. The tech flared, bringing with it a new burst of pain.
I had to guard the door. It was all I could do.
I WAS DRIFTING IN AND OUT, CLAWING MY WAY through the fog into consciousness, when I felt someone approach. I slashed on instinct and missed.
"You're a fucking mess," Curran's voice said.
Rescued by the Beast Lord. Oh the irony.
"Will she be okay?" Julie's voice asked.
"Yeah," he said. I felt myself being lifted as Curran scooped me off the floor. "She'll be fine. Come with me. You're safe now."
THE BED WAS UNBELIEVABLY COMFORTABLE. FOR A blissfully long moment I rested, half-drowned in the luxury of soft sheets. The pain had receded, still there, lurking in the small of my back, but dulled and accompanied by the soothing warmth of well-done medmagic. I was alive. That simple fact made me unbelievably happy. As I snuggled deeper into the pillow, I saw a sliver of white on the blanket next to me. I reached over and touched Slayer's blade.
"Awake, my lady fair?" said a familiar voice. Doolittle. The self-proclaimed physician to all things Pack and wild. He sat in a chair by a reading lamp, an ancient, dog-eared paperback on his lap. He hadn't changed a bit - still the same blue-black skin, the same gray hair, and the same small smile. He had patched me up twice during the Red Point Stalker investigation, and there was no better medmage in Atlanta.
I hugged my pillow. "We meet again, Doctor."
"Indeed we do."
"There was a girl with me?"
"She's downstairs. Being entertained by Derek. I daresay she much enjoys his company."
Derek of the huge brown eyes and the knockdown smile. Poor Red didn't stand a chance.
"What was wrong with me?" I didn't insult him by asking about my bloody clothes. I knew he'd burned them.
"You were poisoned. You do test my skills every time we meet."