The bolt punched through the sleeper's chest, emerging through his back. He awoke with a startled scream and clawed at the shaft. The threads of translucent magic ribbons ripped and he crashed into the sand. The ribbons shrank, breaking from the monster's skin, leaving deep black gaps as they tore. The gaps grew, and the creature began to melt. It whipped about and backhanded the oni out of the way. The blue brute crashed into the fence. The silver aberration crawled to the sleeper, dragging itself faster and faster across the sand. Its back and hips were gone, melted into nothing, and yet it continued to crawl. In a moment it loomed above the flailing human, bent down, and gulped him in a single swallow. The mage's screeches died and the beast vanished.
The crowd exploded. A hundred mouths screamed at once. To the left some hoarse male voice yelled, "Gooooooal!" at the top of his lungs.
The oni stumbled to his feet and met three shapeshifters. It was short and brutal.
I opened the door and took off down to the gate. Curran and Dali caught up with me.
A few moments later the four trotted to us, covered in blood and caked with sand. Andrea ran through the gates and hugged me. "Did you see that?"
"That was a hell of a shot."
"Into the infirmary," Doolittle ordered briskly. "Quickly, before the silver sets in."
They passed us. Jim glanced at Curran. The Beast Lord nodded very slightly.
Derek and Raphael were the last through the door. The boy wonder limped badly. He looked up at Curran, stiff.
"Good," Curran said.
Derek drew himself straight. A small, proud light played in his eyes. He limped past us, trying not to lean on Raphael.
FIVE FEET FROM THE DOORS, ANDREA FELL. ONE moment she was smiling and the next she dropped like a log. Raphael released Derek and I caught him just as Raphael scooped Andrea off the floor.
"Silver poisoning," Doolittle snapped. "Bring her in."
Andrea gasped. "It burns."
I had dealt with shapeshifters damaged by silver before. It was an ugly, terrible thing. And I had gotten Andrea into it.
Raphael carried Andrea to the side room, where Doolittle had set up shop, and slid her onto a metal table.
Andrea shuddered. Spots appeared on her skin like a developing photograph. Her fingers elongated, growing claws.
"Hold on." Raphael reached for her leather vest.
"Don't be ridiculous," he snarled.
She clamped his hands. "No!" Her eyes went wild.
"Now young lady . . ." Doolittle said soothingly.
Her back arched. She convulsed and yelped, her voice vibrating with pain. She was changing and she didn't want anyone to see.
"We need privacy," I said. "Please."
"Let's go." Suddenly Derek's weight was gone from me. Curran picked him up and strode to the back room. Dali and Jim followed. Raphael remained, pale as a sheet, holding Andrea in his arms.
She snarled in a hoarse voice.
"It's all right," I told her. "Just me, the doctor, and Raphael. They are gone."
"I want him to go," she gasped. "Please."
"You're convulsing. I can't hold you still because you're too strong, and the doctor will be too busy."
"Cut her clothes," Doolittle ordered briskly.
"No. No, no . . ." Andrea began to cry.
Raphael pulled her to him, his arms around her, her back to his chest. "It's all right," he whispered. "It's all right. It will be fine."
In less than a minute I had her nude. Ugly spots of gray peppered her torso. She must've gotten a head-on blast of the needles. Andrea shuddered again, tremors spreading from her chest to her legs. She yelped in pain.
"Don't fight the change," Doolittle said softly, opening a leather case with gleaming instruments. "Let it take you."
"Of course you can," I told her.
"No!" she snarled through clenched teeth.
"You aren't going to die because you're too embarrassed by your hyena freckles. I've already seen you in your natural form and Doolittle doesn't care. He's seen it all before. Right, Doctor?"
"Oh, the stories I could tell." Doolittle chuckled. "This is nothing. A minor thing." His face said otherwise, but Andrea couldn't see it. "We'll have you up and running in no time."
"And Raphael thinks you're sexy in your true form. He's a pervert, remember? Come on, Andrea. You can do it."
Raphael cradled her. "Change, sweetheart. You can do it. Just let the body take over."
The gray spots widened. She clenched my hand in hers, nearly crushing my fingers.
"Change, Andrea. You still owe me lunch, you know."
"No, I don't," she ground out.
"Yes, you do. You and Raphael ran out on me and I had to pick up the tab. If you die on me, it will be hard to collect and I'm too cheap to get stuck with the bill. Let's go."
Andrea's head jerked back, slamming into Raphael's chest. She cried out. Flesh flowed along her frame, reshaping, molding into a new body, a lean, long-legged creature covered in short fur. Her face flowed into a mix of human and hyena. Unlike the bouda shapeshifters, whose form too often was a horrific mishmash of mismatched parts, Andrea was a proportional, beautiful, elegant being. Too bad she didn't see herself that way.
Doolittle probed her abdomen with the fingers of his left hand, a scalpel in his right. "Now when I cut, you push. Nice and easy, just like you trained."
"Trained?" Andrea choked.
"The silver-extraction training," Doolittle told her.
"I haven't trained!"
Of course she hadn't trained. She pretended she wasn't a shapeshifter. "She doesn't know how," I told him.
Andrea convulsed. Raphael clamped her still. His face had gone bloodless.
"The silver burns. Your flesh tries to shrink from it and it burrows deeper and deeper into your body. You must fight it," Doolittle said. "It goes against all your instincts, but when I cut, you must strain and push against it to force it out of your body."
"I can't," Andrea gasped.
"You can," Raphael told her. "Everyone learns how to do it. Children are trained to do it.
You're a knight of the Order. You can push a fucking needle out of your body. Stop crying and feeling sorry for yourself."
"I hate you," she snarled.
Doolittle positioned the scalpel above the largest gray spot. "Ready?"
He sliced without waiting for an answer. Black blood gushed from the wound. Andrea crushed my hand, screamed, straining, and a silver needle slid onto her stomach.