"You better," she said. "Go now. Sienna needs to rest."
I turned to see the red columns draining, revealing the vampire and the monster that once served as my sidekick. The ward circles shivered and vanished, and Derek padded to me, eyes alight with yellow fire.
"OUTRAGEOUS," THE VAMPIRE HISSED.
"What would you have me do?" I stepped out onto Centennial Drive, shook twigs out of my hair, and headed across the street to the chicken joint. Normally I kept away from fried food, but today was different. I'd danced in the snow, crawled in tortoise spit, got locked up in glyphs, and I deserved some fried wings, damn it.
The vampire followed. The patrons eyed it with open suspicion but stayed where they were. Atlanteans for you. A walking undead, no big.
And then they saw Derek. Chairs scraped as a few moved out of the way.
"Derek, you want chicken?"
The bastard offspring of Dr. Moreau's Dog-Man and the Hound of Baskervilles nodded.
"Hey!" A stocky laborer at the nearest table pointed a chicken drumstick at me. "Hey, what the fuck, huh? I can't eat with them here!"
I gave him my hard stare. "I guess you won't be needing your food then."
That shut him up.
I pushed the twenty-dollar bill across the counter and scooped up my change and a basket of fried wings. I was so tired of being broke and hungry. At least for a moment I could be happy and full of chicken. I zeroed in on our horses, tethered back by the tunnel. We could eat on the go.
I dropped a handful of wings into Derek's paw. He stuck one in his mouth and spat out clean bones.
The vampire scowled at me. "Not a single word of protest, Kate! Not one. You simply stood there. I had a certain expectation of cooperation."
The urge to mouth off was almost too much. I squashed it. This was a professional disagreement. "Ghastek, correct me if I'm wrong, but the contract you and I both signed specified that I'm to disclose all of the information relevant to reeves, which I have done."
"May I finish, please?"
The vamp's face stretched in confusion. Boy, I should be polite more often. "Yes."
The magic fell. It crashed, gone so completely my heart skipped a beat. I caught my breath and drove on.
"You decided that the information was not substantial enough and requested to come with me for the sole purpose of learning more about reeves. You chose to interpret the contract that way, but that's not the way it's written. We both know that technically you don't have any ground to stand on."
"I beg to differ..."
"I agreed to your presence because I felt it was a fair request, not because I was bound by our agreement. I'm under no obligation to help you. Furthermore, please note that at no point did the contract specify that you or any other representative of the People became part of the Order's investigation into the disappearance of Jessica Olsen. So far, you have done your best to impede this investigation by nearly sabotaging my rendezvous with the witches. As an Order representative, it's my duty to advise you that further attempts to hinder the Order's activities will not be tolerated. That said, since I'm also a representative of the Mercenary Guild, if you require protection from the witches, I'm sure we can come to a reasonable agreement on my retainer. I dislike bodyguard detail but since you're an old acquaintance, I'll make an exception."
The vampire stared at me with an expression of utter shock on its face.
"Who are you?" Ghastek said finally. "And what have you done with Kate?"
"I'm the person whose job it is to settle disputes between the Order and the Guild. I have a lot of free time on my hands, and I spend this time reading the Order's Charter and the Guild's Manual. Would you prefer if I went back to my normal mode of conversation?"
"I think so."
"You underestimated the witches, mouthed off, and got punked. Don't come crying to me."
I picked up a chicken wing. Food. Finally.
Derek snarled. It was a low snarl, a deep, threatening warning of barely contained violence.
I turned. Feet wide, back humped, he stood stiff, facing the wall of green that surrounded Centennial Park. His hackles rose, his black lips drew up revealing huge white fangs, and out came another growl. The hair on the back of my neck rose.
I set the wings on the curb and reached for Slayer. My fingers touched the leather of the saber's hilt. Like a handshake with an old friend.
The vampire slunk low to the ground.
I surveyed the trees. From the massive roots to the tops, etched against the garish orange and gold of the sunset, the dense mass of green looked impenetrable.
The first reeve sailed over the green, her translucent skin bathed in red, her hair flaring like enormous black wings, ready to smother.
No smothering today. The tech was up.
Her twin followed. Another, and another. Five. Six, more...How many could the Shepherd drive at once?
They were still in the air when I charged. The first reeve came at me, legs pumping, arms flung wide, gliding as if she didn't have to touch the ground.
The vampire smashed into her, knocking her out of the way, and leaped on her back. The sickle claws hooked the reeve's pale neck. The vamp pulled and tore off her head with a single muscle-ripping jerk.
"They're poisonous!" I yelled for Derek's benefit and aimed for the second reeve. She whipped her hair at me, but I had room to maneuver. I dodged the black mass, and struck diagonally down, guessing there was flesh under the hair. Slayer connected and sliced into meat. It was a textbook slash - I had pulled the entire length of the blade through the wound. Her head drooped, connected to the stump of the neck by a thin strip of skin and meat. She crashed to the ground.
To the left Derek dug into the back of the third reeve with an enormous clawed hand and ripped the shard of her spine free with a brutal heave.
The vampire dashed across the field and beheaded another reeve.
I kept running. The next reeve met me head-on. I slashed again, an almost identical diagonal stroke but coming from the left. She dodged, but I reversed the blade and struck sideways instead. Slayer cleaved the flesh and broke free. Grayish blood sprayed in a fine mist. She toppled over and then another reeve fell on me. Claws scraped the heavy leather protecting my chest, ripping through it. A wall of hair clogged my view. I thrust myself closer to the reeve, right into her teeth. The stench of fish guts washed over my face.
She had expected me to pull away, and her surprise cost her a precious half second. Cocooned in her hair, I hugged her like a lover, and thrust my saber straight up into the soft flesh under her chin. She rocked back. To the left Derek raised his bloody muzzle from the ruined back of the fifth reeve.