"Meant every word." A little light danced in his eyes and he very deliberately said, "Baby."
He laughed. "You should see your face right now."
"Don't call me that."
"Would you prefer 'darling'? Or maybe 'cupcake'?" He winked.
I gritted my teeth.
We went down the spiraling stairs into the inner yard of the Keep. The Pack Keep had trouble deciding if it wanted to be a medieval castle or a twenty-first-century prison. Its main tower rose, looming, forbidding, a huge square building, utilitarian to the point of being crude. Jim once told me that it was built by hand with minimal technology and took almost ten years. It probably took a lot longer. The Keep went on for many stories underground.
A solid stone wall enclosed the main tower, carving a chunk from the clearing. I had never been inside the yard before. It was spacious and mostly empty. Some exercise equipment at the far wall. A large storage shed. A water tower. To the right a group of shapeshifers stood by a tall tank full of liquid. The last time I'd seen a tank like that, it contained dark green healing solution Doolittle had magicked, and Curran floated in it naked.
This tank contained clear water. Within the water sat a loup cage: bars as thick as my wrist, laced with silver. Something dark moved in the cage. The shapeshifters moved back and forth. Among them were three near seven-foot monstrosities in beast-form whose shaggy heads blocked the view.
"What is that?" I headed for the cage.
"You'll see." Curran looked smug, like a cat who stole the cream and thought he got away with it.
As we crossed the yard, a dark shape blotted out the stars. A dark outline of a long colossal body armed with huge membranous wings passed in silence high above us and vanished behind the tree line.
It couldn't be. Even during a flare, the possibility of such a creature was too miniscule to contemplate.
The shapeshifters parted before Curran. A familiar glowing body shifted within the cage. A reeve. "How did you...?"
Curran shrugged. "She came sniffing your trail after you left. We had a mild disagreement and I tore her arms off. She didn't die right away, so we stuck her into a loup cage and drove her over here."
The reeve floated in the water, her eyes wide-open. Tiny slits of gills fluttered on her neck. Both arms were present and perfectly functional. She had regenerated.
The reeve's hair clasped at the bars and drew back.
"Doesn't like silver." Jim congealed from the crowd as if by magic.
Curran nodded. "The loup cage was a good idea. Never would've thought of it myself. Good looking out."
The next chance I got an extra gig from the Guild, I'd put the money into getting the bars for my apartment made from the same alloy. My current bars were supposed to have a decent silver percentage but apparently not enough to have prevented the reeve from grabbing them.
I pulled the monisto from my leather. The reeve snapped to the bars, her lavender eyes fastened on the necklace.
"You want this, yes?" I moved the monisto to the left. The reeve followed it.
I pried one of the numerous knots open, slid the first coin off the cord and tossed it into the grass a few feet away. The reeve remained focused on the necklace. I slid the second coin and flicked it next to the first. No reaction.
"Is one of those special?" Curran asked.
"Yep. Don't know which one."
Third coin. Fourth.
I'd know that voice anywhere. I wheeled around. Bran stood atop the wall a good twenty-five yards away. He waved the crossbow at us. "What a lovely party, and me without an invitation."
"Get him down," Curran said softly.
Two shapeshifters in beast-form detached themselves from the group and padded to the wall.
Bran grinned. "So you're the big man, yea? I thought you would be taller."
"Tall enough to break your back," Curran said. His face snapped into the "pissed off Curran" mode: flat and about as expressive as a slab of granite. "Come down off the wall and we can visit."
"No thanks." Bran's gaze snagged on the monisto in my hand and jumped to the shapeshifters surrounding me. He wanted the monisto very much, but the odds were against him.
He shrugged and saw the reeve. "What's this then? Here, let me help you with that."
The crossbow snapped up and two shafts punctured the back of the reeve's head, the bolt heads emerging precisely through her eyes. The reeve went liquid.
The door leading to the tower burst open and a group of shapeshifters charged across the yard. Someone screamed, "He's got the surveys!"
"Got to run!" Bran waved a packet of surveys at us. "Thanks for the maps."
Mist swirled and he was gone.
WHEN A LION ROARS NEXT TO YOU, AT FIRST YOU think it's thunder. That first sound is so deep, so frightening, it couldn't possibly come from a living creature. It blasts your nerves, freezing you in place. All thoughts and reason flee from your mind, and you're left as you are, a helpless pathetic creature with no claws, no teeth, and no voice.
The rumble dies and you think it's over, but the roar lashes you again, like some horrible cough, once, twice, picking up speed, and finally rolling, unstoppable, deafening. You fight the urge to squeeze your eyes shut. You turn your head with an effort that takes every last shred of your control.
You see a seven-foot-tall monster. It has a lion's head and a lion's throat. It's gray and furry. Dark stripes dash across its tree-trunk limbs like whip marks. Its claws could disembowel you with a mere twitch. Its eyes scald you with gold fire.
It shakes the ground with its roar. You smell the sharp stench of urine as smaller monsters cringe and you clamp your hands over your ears, so you don't go deaf.
Finally Curran's roar rolled to a close. Thank God. I thought of pointing out that Bran couldn't hear him and even if he could, he probably wouldn't faint in mortal terror, but somehow this didn't seem to be the right moment for clever observations. The lion's face quivered and snapped into the familiar chimera of lion and human I knew as Curran's half-form. His voice boomed across the yard. "Search the Keep. Find out how he got in and what else he took."
The shapeshifters cleared with record speed, all except Jim.
I needed to get to Bran. Time was short, the flare was almost on us, and I wanted to find Julie and her mother before it hit full force. But there was no way I could enter the mist with the monisto in my hand. Morrigan's Hound wanted it. There was no way I could leave without it because the Fomorians wanted it, also. They would come for it.