We passed a stately mansion that could've been built for a Moorish prince. It rose, flanked by palms, three stories of narrow arched windows, textured parapets, and stone wall carvings that looked as light and delicate as lace. At one point it must've been glowing white, but now it had shed its paint, and green walls showed through. A Greek building of Doric columns the color of sand followed, and immediately after, the ruins of a modern apartment building lay scattered over the mountain slope. The rest of the world seemed a thousand miles away. If we ever got tired of the Pack or living in anticipation of being found by Roland, we could find something like this, an isolated quiet corner of the world. Nobody would ever find us here.
Well, nobody but Lorelei.
"When you saw my father, did he mention me?"
"No," Curran told her. "It wasn't a social meeting. I'm sure he thinks of you often."
Another once-beautiful and now-gutted building. I counted the stories. Seven. Too tall. Magic hated tall modern buildings and attacked them with extreme prejudice. This building was definitely abandoned-the black holes of its empty windows showed a charred interior. When magic waves took down a structure, they gnawed it to dust first. This one showed no signs of post-Shift damage.
"What happened here?" I asked.
"War," Hibla said.
"Who did you fight with?" George asked.
"Ourselves. Abkhazia is on the border between Russia and Georgia. Fifty years ago they fought. Neighbors turned on their neighbors. Families split. Russia won. The city was cleansed." She spat the word as if it were studded with broken glass. "Everyone who was Georgian was killed or exiled." She nodded at another building with boarded-up windows. "The city was scarred forever. The magic has destroyed the other buildings, but the war ruins remain."
"Such a shame," Aunt B said. "Your city was beautiful."
"She will be beautiful again," Hibla said.
We kept climbing, higher and higher. The city road narrowed. Dense trees on both sides blocked the view, their branches braided together with vines. Tiny fireflies floated on the breeze. Abruptly the trees ended and we stepped out on a plaza. To the left, far below, endless sea lapped at the narrow ribbon of the shore. Straight ahead, mountains curved gently to the waves.
"The castle." Hibla pointed to the far right, behind us. I turned. An enormous stone castle crowned the top of the mountain, its stone walls rising like the natural extension of the living rock. Wide rectangular towers soared under pale blue roofs. The long narrow flags flying on the thin spires from the huge building of the main keep caught the last rays of the setting sun and glowed as if they were on fire.
"How old is the castle?" Mahon asked.
"We celebrated its twenty-year anniversary last fall."
Wow. Post-Shift. The amount of labor this structure took had to be staggering. How the hell did they even get that much stone up the mountain?
"Please." Hibla invited us with a sweep of her hand. "Up this road."
We went up the mountain at a brisk pace. Any faster and I'd have had to start running. The path was steep and the light was dying fast. Ten minutes later I broke a sweat. The shapeshifters around me seemed fresh as daisies.
"It must be very tiring for the Consort," Lorelei said next to me.
That was a bit unexpected. Was she actually concerned?
"The road is steep and she doesn't have the benefit of night vision."
She was looking at Curran. No, she wasn't checking if I was okay. She was talking about me as if I weren't even there. The way one would say, Is your little dog thirsty? Does she need a bowl of water?
"Perhaps a mount could be brought . . . ?" Lorelei suggested.
Out of a corner of my eye I saw both Barabas and George freeze. Yes, I know I've been insulted. Settle down. "Thank you for your concern. I can manage."
"Please, it's no trouble at all. You could hurt yourself. I know that even something minor like a twisted ankle would present a big problem for a human . . ."
Do not punch the pack princess; do not punch the pack princess . . .
"We wouldn't want you to struggle to keep up."
Okay, she went too far. I gave her a nice big smile.
Curran's face snapped into a neutral expression. "We just got here, baby. It's too early for you to start killing people."
Lorelei's eyes widened. "I didn't mean any offense."
Yeah, you did.
"I'm so sorry. I was only concerned. Please forgive me."
And now anything I said with any hint of hostility would make me look like an ass. She'd outmaneuvered me. Fine. There was always the next time. "Don't worry about it."
We rounded the bend. The castle loomed in front of us, shockingly huge. You could pack at least two Keeps within its walls. Thick walls, too. Had to be more than a couple of feet deep.
Hibla raised her head and howled, a high-pitched ghostly jackal howl. The sound rolled past us, streaming to the sky. Other howls answered. Metal clanged and the massive gates swung open.
Hibla bowed. "My lord and lady. Welcome to Castle Megobari."
I took a deep breath and walked next to Curran into the castle.
* * *
I was right. The walls were six feet thick. I counted six ballistas and four high-caliber antipersonnel guns on the walls, and that was just what I could see. This castle was built to withstand an assault from supernatural assailants. The Megobari family had some serious cash to throw around, and they'd used it to arm themselves to the teeth.
I elbowed Curran. "Their castle is bigger."
He winked at me. "Mine is taller. It's not the size of the castle. It's what you do with it."
No obvious guards manned the gate, but as we passed under the portcullis, I felt watched. I was a hundred percent sure that if I made a sudden movement, someone would send an arrow my way. The question was, would they bother with a warning shot? I didn't especially want to test that theory.
We crossed the inner courtyard and followed Hibla into the main building. After the city, I had half expected carvings and moldings, but the inside of the castle was as devoid of ornamentation as the outside. Brown stone, straight-as-an-arrow hallways, arched windows. No doors but some niches, positioned in such a way that if the castle was breached, a couple of fighters with ranged firepower could hold off a flood of attackers. Everything was functional, solid, and meticulously clean.
We passed a pair of shapeshifter men in the hallway, both blond. They stared at us with obvious hostility. I stared back. Looking is free. Touching will cost you an arm or a leg. Your choice.