Bran's flesh boiled. Muscles swelled to obscene proportions, veins bulged like ropes, tendons knotted in apple-sized clumps. He grew, stretching upward, his elbows and knees sinking into engorged muscle. With boneless flexibility, his body twisted back, distended, flowed, melted, and finally snapped into an asymmetric aberration. Bumps slid across his torso like small cars colliding under his skin. His left eye bulged; his right sank; his face stretched back, baring his teeth and a huge, cavernous mouth. Drool sagged from his uneven lips. The one visible eye swiveled in its socket.

Warp spasm. Of course. The fourth gift he was born with. He was a warp-warrior, just like Cu Chulainn. I should've seen it.

"Let's play, little man!" Bran charged Curran.

The Beast Lord twisted out of the way and hammered a punch into Bran's misshapen gut. Bran grabbed his wrist and tossed him at the wall like a kitten.

Curran flipped in midair and bounced off the wall. A man had started the leap, but what hit Bran was a hashish-induced nightmare of lion and human.

The beast smashed Bran off his feet. Curran snarled, his gold eyes luminescent with rage. His huge, prehistoric maw gaped open and three-inch fangs nearly sheared Bran's nose from his face. The Beast Lord was pissed.

Bran kicked Curran off with two enormous legs, and leaped upright. "Come on, princess! Show me what you've got."

Curran lunged. Bran swung a meaty hand, missed, and took razored claws to his ribs, slicing him like a pear. The wounds bled and closed.

People scattered. Bran swiped the loup cage that once held the reeve and smashed at Curran with it. The Pack King caught the cage. The wound on his arm bled, the bandage long gone. Mammoth muscles bulged across Curran's back and he ripped the cage from Bran's hands and tossed it aside. "Still second best," he growled, his eyes drowning in gold.

They hammered each other, swiping, kicking, caught in a savage contest. Bran managed to land a kick, batting Curran across the yard. The Beast Lord's rebound took Bran off his feet and slammed him into a wooden shed sitting against the wall. The wall gave, and Bran fell through in an explosion of splinters. Curran dived after him. A moment later another section of the wall exploded, pelting the ground with fragments and Bran's warped body stumbled back into the open. He bled from a half dozen places but didn't seem to notice.

"Is that all you got?" When no answer came, he stuck his head into the hole. "Where are you..."

The blow sent him hurtling across the yard. As he slid past, I had to jump aside to keep from being crushed. He hit the loup cage with his head and bounced off.

Curran appeared in the gap. Half-lion, half-man, gray mane flaring around his head, his eyes on fire, huge teeth dripping spit, he looked demonic. His roar shook the air.

Bran surged to his feet and charged. Curran caught his lunge, slid back, and ground to a halt. They strained, clenching each other's arms, muscles bulging, teeth bared.

I turned away. I could kill one of them with relative ease, given that they were otherwise occupied, but there wasn't a force on this Earth that would make them stop. I could scream myself hoarse, but until they tired enough to see reason, neither of them would notice my existence. They'd beat on each other until they got tired. They both seemed to be dealing with damage just fine.

If Jim and Andrea were alive, they would be in a medward.

WHEN NOT SURE WHERE TO GO, BARREL FORWARD on pure determination. It was a good motto and it led me to the door of the medward after ten minutes of squeezing my memory dry and wandering through the Keep's maze of hallways and stairs. It took me only a minute to find the right room.

The room lay steeped in gloom, all lamps out except for a small feylantern glowing blue, more of a night-light than anything else. Its soft glow traced the contours of a familiar odd body, stuck on the crossroads between human and hyena.

I stood in the doorway, unable to enter.

"I can smell you, you know," Andrea said. "I have your sword."

Andrea raised Slayer, hilt first, still in its sheath. I came to sit next to her on the edge of the bed and took the sword.

"Not even a thank-you?"

"Thank you," I said. "How are you?"

"I lost Julie. I had her in my hands and lost her."

"I saw. You did all you could."

"You saw? How?"

"The witches showed me and Bran a vision of the fight."

Andrea sighed. "If I had my guns...they wouldn't have worked. Jesus, what a clusterfuck we made of it."

"Are you going to make it?"

She sighed. "You're worried about me. Why? I'm beastkin. I heal fast. The flare is going full force, and the doctor has worked his magic. I'll be up by tomorrow."

"And Jim?"

"Which one is Jim?"

"The jaguar."

"Heavy muscle damage," Andrea said. "Ligaments all torn to shreds. He's in the next room."

I felt like scum. If I stayed any longer, I would scream.

Andrea looked at me from the sheets. "It was a good plan. Curran creates a distraction, occupies them while they key on him, and we grab the girl. Except those bitches wouldn't die and we failed."

"You tried." That was more than I did.

"Kate, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking that if you had watched Julie, she wouldn't have left with Red and we wouldn't be in this mess."

What? "No. Not at all."

"I just want you to know: when I took her off that cross, she was calling his name. Neither you nor I can do anything to break what's between them."

"Andrea, I don't blame you. I don't blame anyone." Except myself. "You went out there and tried against impossible odds and almost won, while I played footsie with Bran in the mist."

I rose. "I'm going to see Jim and then I'll see about sending a runner to the Order, since the phones are dead."

She raised her head from the pillow, her eyes wide. "Why?"

After Bran had run out of curses, he'd condescended to explain a few things to me. "From what Bran says, the gray bubble Morfran made is some sort of ancient druidic ward. Morfran is buying time and working the cauldron, packing the sea-demons into that bubble. When it bursts, they will spill out onto the Honeycomb and then onto Warren. We'll need the knights and MSDU."

Her face fell. "There will be no help, Kate. Everyone's gone. Even Maxine."

"Where the hell did they go?"

"There's an emergency," she said softly. "All the knights and the Military Supernatural Defense Units are being pulled to counter it."

"Andrea, in less than twelve hours, Atlanta will be full of demons. They will kill, feed, and release more demons. What emergency is more important than this one?"

Tags: Ilona Andrews Kate Daniels Vampires
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