"Mine always runs down the side of the pot."
Manual dexterity - just about the only thing I was good at. "So what about the jewel?"
"A couple of old texts say that Rudra Mani has the power to calm beasts and take away the suffering of man."
A deeper meaning hidden in the description: the power to suppress a shapeshifter's animal nature and keep him locked in his humanity. "Does it? Take the suffering away, I mean?"
Dali looked into her coffee. "Having a shard in you is like having part of you cut off. It's a terrible feeling. I would prefer to be killed."
So would I in the same situation. It was akin to surrendering my magic. I hated the man who'd given it to me. Aspects of it repulsed me and I refused them. But it was a part of me.
With it, I felt whole for better or for worse. Using magic made me the person I was born to be.
Keeping people from being themselves drove them insane.
"Rudra is a one of Shiva's names," Dali said. "It means 'strict' or 'uncompromising.' "
How fitting. That was what the shapeshifters were, a compromise between beast and man.
The gem forced them to become one or the other. I had been thinking about this on the way to the house, while riding the ley line. By then I had grown too numb to worry about Derek - I had described his condition for Julie and it had been like opening an old wound. At first there'd been the sharp slash of pain of a scab being ripped off, and then I'd bled, and the wound had gone numb.
I thought about the Order instead. About Ted and his true believer's inability to compromise.
Ted wanted humans to remain human no matter the cost.
A dark storm gathered on the horizon of my mind, with Rudra Mani firmly in its center.
"Does the name 'Sultan of Death' sound familiar to you?" I asked.
Dali paused, considering, and shook her head. "I have no clue who that is."
That reminded me - I still hadn't checked on the analyses of the molten silver the rakshasas had poured onto Derek's face. The magic had fallen while I was asleep. I pulled the phone to me. Dial tone. Finally. The phone was one of those erratic devices that sometimes worked during magic. Most people had no idea how it worked. To them, it was almost magic, and sometimes magic waves shared that view.
I punched in Andrea's home number. She answered on the second ring. "Hey."
"I've got your results right here," she said. Not a hint of humor in her voice. "It's not silver.
Electrum, a naturally occurring alloy of silver and gold with a pinch of copper thrown in, was incredibly potent magically. It was also extremely toxic to shapeshifters.
"You don't rank high enough to know the rest, so they won't tell you," Andrea said, "but I do.
This particular alloy is very old and very poisonous to shapeshifters. You know how high my silver tolerance is. I can't even hold it, Kate. Do you remember the agreement we made during the flare?"
"Yes." We had agreed that I would never reveal to the Order that she was a beastkin and she would never reveal that I knew enough specific information about Roland to induce a collective seizure in the entire Order.
"There is only one person who has access to this alloy in a large quantity. The composition is very specific. It's - "
"About fifty-five percent gold, forty-five percent silver, three percent copper, and the rest is random crap."
Samos electrum, from the coins struck on a small Greek island in the North Aegean Sea in 600 BC. My heart dropped. Logic had lost and my unreasonable paranoia had triumphed.
"I guess you know what that means, then," she said.
"Yes. Thank you," I said.
I hung up.
Roland. Only he had a large supply of the ancient Samos electrum. No doubt he meant for it to be used sparingly, perhaps as bullets or stakes, but instead the rakshasas had melted the lot of it just so they could pour it on Derek's face. Dumb.
Roland was the Sultan of Death. If I continued to oppose the rakshasas, I would come into a confrontation with his agents. I would be discovered.
"Are you alright?" Dali asked.
"Never better," I said.
A hot anger swept through me. If I was discovered, I would fight him to the end with everything I had, just like my mother had. I was fucking tired of paranoia and panic. It was an irrational, totally idiotic thought, and I reveled in it.
Jim came up the stairs. "He's up and talking."
I rushed down, abandoning my coffee.
HE SAT ON THE BED, HIS LEGS COVERED BY A BLUE sheet. He was human and his color had returned to its normal skin tone. His hair was still dark brown. And that was about all that remained of the former Derek.
His face had lost its perfect symmetry. Its lines, so sharply defined before, had thickened and grown harsher. His features gained a rough hardness, and from the top of his mouth to his hairline, his face seemed slightly uneven, as if the shattered bones of his skull didn't quite mesh. Before if he walked into a rough bar, someone would whistle and tell him he was too pretty. Now people would stare into their drinks and whisper to one another, "Here's a guy who's been through some bad shit."
He looked up. Dark velvet eyes regarded me. Usually a hint of sly humor hid there behind the solemn composure of a Pack wolf. It was gone now.
His lips moved but it took me a second to connect the low, raspy voice with Derek's mouth.
"Damaged vocal cords?" I asked.
"It's permanent," Doolittle said softly. He stepped out of the room and closed the door. It was me and Derek now.
I perched on the side of the bed. "You sound like you kill people for a living," I told him.
"I look like it, too." He smiled. The effect was chilling.
"Is there a spot on you that's safe to punch?"
"Depends on who'll be doing the punching."
Derek winced. "Then no."
"Are you sure? I have a lot of baggage to release from the past couple of days." My voice was breaking. I struggled for control.
All of my guilt, all of my worry, all the anxiety and pain and regret, everything I had carefully packaged and stuffed away into the deepest recesses of myself so I could function, all of it swelled into an unbearable pressure. I fought to contain it, but it was like trying to hold back the tide. A hint of relief was all it took. The flood burst through my defenses and drowned me.
My spine turned to wet cotton. I clamped my arms to my sides, trying to hold myself rigid and keep myself from slumping over. A hard, hot clump blocked my throat. My heart thudded. It hurt, it really hurt, and I didn't even understand where the pain emanated from. I just knew I hurt all over. Cold and burning up at the same time, I had to clench my teeth to keep them from chattering.