The mother nodded to me with a smile. "Yes."

"I've seen him."

She smiled wider. "I gathered."

When you want to impress the other party with your intellect, state the obvious. Brilliant. I was simply brilliant.

The maiden's voice whispered, intimate, almost as if she were breathing in my ear instead of reclining on the couch sixteen feet away. "For the knowledge you want, we would ask a boon of you..."

The crone leaned back. Her hands rose, spread wide. Magic flared about her like dark wings.

The floor quaked. A long gash split the tiles between me and Derek, and a wave of musky scent wafted forth. A sleek pink liquid spilled from the floor and streamed away from me to Derek and the vampire.

Derek ripped off his clothes. His back arched and the skin along his chest split. For the briefest of moments I saw bare bones shifting and flowing like molten wax, and then muscle slivered over it, fur burst, flaring into lupine hackles, and a werewolf stood within the circle. Six and a half feet tall, with clawed hands large enough to enclose my head and jaws that could crack my skull like an egg. Half-man, half-beast, all nightmare. The shapeshifter warrior form.

I didn't recall drawing Slayer but it was in my hand.

"No harm will come to them," the maiden's wilting voice assured me.

The red wave washed against Derek's ward. Derek raised his deformed jaws. His fangs bit the air. A long eerie howl broke from his lips, a forlorn lament, a song of hunt, and chase, and hot blood on the tongue. It sent my heart fluttering. I gripped my saber.

"You injure him, you die." That fucking crone wouldn't stop me.

"No harm," the maiden promised.

The red fluid circled the ward and surged up to the ceiling, enclosing the ward and Derek within it in a column of streaming fluid. Holy crap.

In a moment the second column encased the vampire.

"They can neither hear us, nor see us," the maiden said.

"What is the boon?"

"The hound..." The maiden shifted a little within her folds of fabric.

"Bring us his blood," the crone said.

"...and all your questions..." the mother added.

"...will be answered." The maiden nodded.

A witch chorus. Lovely.

"Why do you need the blood?"

The crone sneered. "Doesn't matter."

"It matters to me."

"Then you get nothing!"

Crap. I bowed. "Thank you for seeing me. Release my associates and I'll go."

"Why care?" the mother asked.

"Because I won't fetch the blood of someone with that much magic unless I know how it will be used." For all I knew, they could use it to hex him or brew a city-wide plague. I knew they wouldn't lie to me. In the modern world of magic and tech, your rep meant everything.

"Is that your final word?" the mother asked.

It was wrong. Not even for Julie and her mother's sake. Some things should not be done no matter how much you want the goal. "Yes."

"Then leave!" the crone barked.

I turned.

"Wait." The maiden's voice tugged on me with its magic. I faced her.

The hag glared at her. "No!"

"Yes," the maiden whispered. "There is no other way."

She pushed off her couch and pulled off her hair. Her head was bald. The folds of fabric slipped from her body. She stood nude, save for the panties.

The effort rocked her and for a second I thought she would fall.

You could play the xylophone on her ribs. She had no breasts. Her knees protruded, disproportional, too large compared to her matchstick-thin legs. A conglomeration of misshapen ugly bumps thrust over her left hip, creating a grotesque, dimpled bulge of flesh.

She raised her chin. Magic streamed from her. Her voice filled the dome, invaded my ears, penetrated my mind.

"We are the Oracle. We serve the covens. They rely on us for power, wisdom, and prophecy. We keep the peace. We keep them safe. Look to the walls. You will see our bodies there, buried, secure in the womb of the tortoise. Just as we turn to dust, we rise anew in young flesh, for when one of us Three dies, a child is born to take her place."

Her gaze pierced me, her eyes radiant. Above her the three-armed Hekate towered, black on the gray wall. "We are the knife, the craft, and the torch that banishes the darkness."

The crone was the knife, the knowledge had to be the mother-witch, and the torch stood in front of me. The torch that banishes the darkness...She was the one with the prophetic gift.

"I foresaw that someone would come. I didn't know who it would be, but I foresaw the coming."

She took a deep breath. "I'm dying. My body is full of tumors and neither magic nor medicine helps. I'm not afraid to die. When I do, within three years another witch oracle will be born to take my place. But she will take several years to blossom into her power. I'm too ill and Maria is too old."

Within the next few years, the Oracle could be down to one witch. And could stay that way for about a decade, until the next witches revealed themselves. I looked to the mother for confirmation. She had put her hand over her mouth and was watching the maiden. Grief distorted her face.

"We aren't trying to turn back nature. We cannot reverse Maria's age. But there's a way to cure me." The maiden swayed. "There is a potion. My very last chance. The blood of Morrigan's Hound heals all. You want to save a young girl? Here is your chance to save one. Save me. Bring me the blood and I'll tell all you wish to know."

The maiden fell back onto her couch. The mother rose and swaddled the maiden's fragile body into the robes. The black silk, luxurious before, now gained the dreadful air of a funeral shroud.

"How much blood?" I asked.

The mother straightened, reached into her sleeve, and extracted a plastic blood collection tube. "This much. Press here and slide up. The needle will pop out. Once you draw blood, the needle will retract. Put the cap on right here and bring the whole thing back to us." She sighed. "You must meet him in the mist. In Morrigan's place. That's where his blood is most potent. And another thing: the blood can't be taken or bought with money or traded for favors. It must be freely given or it will lose its magic."

How in the name of all that's holy was I going to do that?

I walked to the platform and took the tube from her.

"How do I get into the mist?"

The mother reached to her knitting. "Nettle and Hound's hair, knitted together. You know how to do a calling, don't you?"

"Yes." Where did she get his hair?

Tags: Ilona Andrews Kate Daniels Vampires
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