Rakshasas are exceedingly arrogant and cunning but not too bright. Their mythical king, Ravana, is a prime example: ten heads but very little brain. The flying palace you saw, assuming both of you haven't gone insane, is most likely Pushpaka Vimana, an ancient flying machine. Ravana appropriated it from its original owner and was flying around on it to and fro when he came upon Shiva the Destroyer during his rest." Dali paused for dramatic effect.

Hindu mythology wasn't my strongest suit, but even I knew about Shiva. Any god titled Destroyer of Worlds wasn't to be taken lightly. When not enjoying his home life with his loving wife and two sons, he ran around the woods wrapped in cobras and wearing a torn tiger skin still dripping blood. He stripped pelts from fearsome beasts with a touch of his pinkie.

His wrath was likened to Rudra, a roaring storm. In his malignant aspect, he was absolutely terrifying. In his benign aspect, he was easily amused. His forehead hid a third eye, which, when directed outward, burned everything in his path and periodically destroyed the universe.

Anything associated with Shiva had to be treated with kid gloves while wearing a Level IV

biohazard suit and preferably a tank.

Dali smiled. "Ravana managed to annoy Shiva, and the Destroyer of Worlds put him into a cage of stone bars. Ravana had to sit there and sing until Shiva got tired of listening to him and let him go. Ravana was the ultimate rakshasa: arrogant, flashy, and ruled completely by his impulses. He was what they would aspire to be. You're dealing with terrible show-offs, convinced of their own superiority. To them you're amusing food slash adoring audience.

They'll milk everything they got for dramatic effect and they get off on playing to the crowd."

Jim and I exchanged glances. If you got your jollies by getting the herd high, the Midnight Games was the place to do it.

I turned my cup upside down, looking for more coffee. None came out. Still, the crowd-pleasing factor had to be just a bonus. They were after the gem. Why? I was swimming in a sea of random information and it refused to make itself into anything logical. I opened my mouth to ask Dali about the topaz, but Jim jumped ahead of me.

"Can you explain the jungle?"

She made a face. "I have no idea. It could be some sort of pocket of deep magic. Or a portal into a magic jungle land. I'd need more information to answer this question. By the way, I'm so thirsty, my tongue feels like paper."

Dali licked her lips and Jim went into the kitchen and came back with a glass of water, which he handed to her. She drained half of it. "So, the rakshasas hate us."

" 'Us' as in shapeshifters or 'us' as in normal humans?" I asked.

"Both. This takes us back to Ravana. Ravana was an upward-climbing type of individual. He had ten heads, and every century he sacrificed one of his heads by hacking it off. Finally he had only one head and the gods could stand it no longer, came down in all their heavenly glory, and asked him what the hell did he want to stop doing that. He asked for immunity from every race except that of men and animals. He thought us to be too puny and lowly to harm him. Once he got his immunity, he set about conquering Heaven, burned the city of the gods, killed all the dancing girls . . . And then Vishnu decided he had just about enough of that, went to Earth to be reborn as a human, Rama, marshaled together an army of animals, and nuked him."

If rakshasas were as arrogant as she said, they would hate humans and animals with the passion of a thousand suns. And shapeshifters were both. Bonus genocide. Now the Reapers'

half-breed revulsion made sense.

"Is there anything in the legends about a topaz called the Wolf Diamond? A large yellow gem maybe?" I asked.

Dali wrinkled her forehead. "Topaz is associated with Brihaspati - Jupiter."

"The Roman god?" Jim frowned.

"No, the planet. Honestly, Jim, the world doesn't revolve around the Greco-Roman pantheon.

Rudra Mani, Shiva's gem, is also gold in color. He carries it on his neck. By the way, Shiva was the one who gave the rakshasas the gift of flying."

"This one would be large," I said. "A powerful stone."

"Rudra Mani is pretty large. The size of a baby's head."

Saiman had described the Wolf Diamond as being the size of a man's fist . . . Either a big fist or a very small baby . . . Unless he meant an ice giant's fist. "What do you know about it?"

Dali rolled her eyes. "It's supposed to be a stone of virtue. It also belongs to Shiva, if you catch my drift. With Shiva, you never know what you're going to get. He might find a rakshasa baby, think it was cute, and give it the power of flight and the ability to grow to adulthood in one day. Or he might start stomping demons for fun."

Jim crossed his massive arms on his chest. "So we have a rock that belongs to a bipolar god with a warped sense of humor."

"Pretty much. Not a lot is known about Rudra Mani. I'll look it up. We don't even know if your topaz is Rudra Mani or some other chunk of yellow stone." Dali waved her hands. "It's too vague. It could be anything or nothing."

I wouldn't be at all surprised if the Wolf Diamond was Rudra Mani in disguise. Mythological elements tended to occur in bunches. We had rakshasas who were firmly associated with Shiva in the Hindu myths. Shiva had a large yellow rock. The rakshasas planned to enter a tournament to win a large yellow rock. It would be foolhardy to assume that the two rocks weren't one and the same.

At least we'd get no Shiva. The flare had come and gone, so he couldn't manifest. No Shiva was good, whichever way you looked at it.

I looked at the bloodied stump that once had been the axe fighter facing Saiman. Next to the four-armed monstrosity, he looked almost fragile. "Why is he still in the human skin?"

"What?" Dali wrinkled her nose at me.

"This fellow ripped off his skin and started roaring and waving his four arms around the first chance he got. The axe fighter remained in his human form. Why?"

Dali put her cup down. "Well, you're assuming the axe fighter isn't human. But even if he is a rakshasa, he might not have wanted to change shape. You said they are posing as humans. He would blow his cover."

"He was beaten to a pulp," Jim said. "Trust me, he would've changed. It's the matter of the survival instinct taking over."

All these facts tried to coalesce in my head. I could almost grasp it. "Perhaps he couldn't change shape. Maybe something kept him from changing. Kind of like something is keeping Derek from shifting. An object. A spell. Something that suppresses the magic."

Jim caught on. "Something that would also fool the m-scanner into reading them as human."

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