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Someone screamed. Margrit was certain it wasnt herself, because she was trying, and could only produce a bubbling gurgle. The two djinn whipped into dervishes and, released from their hold, she lifted both hands to her throat, clutching the wound, then staring without comprehension at the blood coloring her fingers.

The pain was becoming extraordinary. Salt in the wound, she thought; salt from her hands, both at her throat again. She began to blink, counting each one and wondering if anyone watched to see how long she survived. Someone ought to be paying attention. Dying without even being noticed seemed worse than just dying. Somehow outraged by the thought, she looked up, searching for anyone who might care that she had fallen.

The screaming came from Cara. Too little, too late, Margrit thought, and wished she could voice the accusation. She supposed she should be pleased someone was paying attention, but the selkie girl wasnt the one shed hoped for. Twenty seconds, she thought, and couldnt remember how many times shed blinked. It didnt seem to matter as much as she thought it would. She was falling now, toppling over sideways with her hands still wrapped around the gaping wound in her throat.

Flame gouted over her. Dizzy with exhaustionthat was the blood loss, she thought clinicallyshe kept her eyes wide even when the world blurred. She would at least watch what happened around her as she died. No one would know, but she would.

The docking area was on fire. That was appropriate: Malik had died amidst flame, and so would she. Everything seemed terribly slow, even her thoughts, each of them drawn out with crystalline clarity. Shed thought dying would be more frightening, but instead it was simplyinteresting. The last moments should be. She was glad she felt no fear, and then gladder that shed visited her parents the previous weekend and gone to church with them. She wished she could reach out to them, to promise they would see each other again; to tell them she knew it would be such a long and hard time for them, but that for her only a moment or two would pass, and then they would be together.

They would never understand how she came to die in a back-lot loading zone near the docks, assuming that was where her body was found. Assuming her body was found. No, it would be: Tony would never allow her to disappear. Even after all their troubles, he would never let that happen. Perhaps Alban would break the Old Races covenant of secrecy and tell him what had really happened.

Alban. Regret too large to hold in overwhelmed her, pulling her toward darkness. Words and thoughts were too small to encompass the loss of a chance of a life with the gentle gargoyle. She wondered, briefly, if his people believed in an afterlife, or if the memories the gargoyles held so close ensured they would always be remembered, and negated a need for a world beyond their own in which they might meet again.

Fire scored the air above her again, sending djinn tornadoes spinning across the room. Determined not to miss the last seconds of her life, Margrit turned her attention outward, and watched the world come apart.

The Old Races had two forms: the elemental, alien shape and the humanoid form they used to interact with the mortal world.

Kate Hopkins held her ground in the middle of both of those, jaw unhinged to spout flame across the room in huge bursts. Traces of humanity remained in her face: a womans hazel eyes over too-flared nostrils, more like Janxs dragonly ones than a humans. Her chest was broken open, too large for a person, too small for a dragon, and she dragged in enormous gusts to power her flame with. Her arms and hands were nearly normal, perhaps more strongly muscled than usual, and she had somehow captured a djinn, throttling him with enthusiasm as she hung in the air. Wings had erupted from her back to whip her fire into frenzies, and a tail lashed, taking out selkies who came too close. Legs, half human in nature, kicked and clawed, deadly weapons even if they werent fully dragon.

The djinn she held was smeared in blood and hung on to her wrists with all his strength, trying to break her grip. She dropped her jaw farther, serpentine tongue flickering out, and then white flame spurted again. The djinns screams, and then his life, were lost beneath its roar, and Kate dropped a melted, stinking pile of flesh onto the floor.

Tariq blurred with rage, scimitar glinting red with fire. He couldnt fly, but he materialized in the air behind Kate, dropping down with the blade preceding him.

It looked like a puppet being yanked offstage: one instant he was falling, and the next he slammed against the wall, Ursula Hopkinss hand crushing his throat, both of them yards in the air. They slid toward the floor, Kates body blocking them from Margrits view, though she heard Ursulas hiss of fury through the chaos.

Then, appallingly, Cara moved. Not swiftly, not as the vampires could do; not as Janx or Kate could do. Not swiftly, but with grim intent. One of her followers knocked her away, shouting a protest over the roar of sound in the loading dock. Fresh blood seeped from the gunshot wound above Caras kidney as her protector spun around to lay hands on Kate. Half-formed scales glittered across her body and he dug his fingers deep into one, as Alban had once done to Janx. It began to peel back, tearing skin and scale alike, flaying her. Margrit reached for a scream and found it blocked by blood, still nothing more than a hideous gurgle.

Ursula appeared again, grabbing the selkie who attacked her sister. She dragged him close and he made no protest. Then she lashed forward too fast for Margrit to comprehend, her jaw dropped open in attack.

He was not fast, perhaps, but he was certain. Ursulas blur of speed met a downward smash of the selkies head, and when she staggered back, her nose was crushed out of shape. Djinn swooped down on her, spinning a vortex that lifted her from the ground and forbade her the purchase that might allow her to escape.

Distant and clinical as the rest of her thoughts, Margrit realized she was far from the only one to die tonight, and wondered if selkie and djinn bodies were sufficiently unusual to betray them to humanity. She didnt believe Ursula or Kate would be captured or killed, though as Ursula spun in the djinn maelstrom, it began to seem less likely that she would survive.

It was happening so fast. Margrit knew it was fast, though she could see too clearly, as if the brief seconds were clarified and elongated for her so she might not miss anything. That was the reward, perhaps, for the blood draining out of her body; the last moments of her life would seem to last forever.

Kate exploded, air concussing with such force it drove the djinn out of their whirlwind. Ursula fell to the ground and landed astonishingly catlike, her weight spread on all four limbs and her body low and tight. Her skin rippled, a black flow of oil, and she leapt out of her crouch with the grace and accuracy of a panther, bearing down on one of the djinn.

He dissipated and she fell through where he had been to flatten a selkie whose reflexes werent as fast. Kate dropped to the floor, massive dragon bulk blocking Ursula and her victim from Margrits sight.

The selkie whod tried flaying Kate had been flung away by the force of her transformation. Now she prowled toward him, gorgeously sinuous. Like Janx, her scales were burnished red, but unlike his silver lining, she was graced with black. She was perhaps a quarter of his size, though still significantly larger than a selkie or even a gargoyle. She lifted a heavily clawed foot to pin her tormentor against the wall, and the dancing whiskers along her face pulled back in a grin as she opened her mouth to breathe flame.

Tariq reappeared, dropping from above a second time, this time landing on Kates neck, just above the roll of muscle that joined limb to body. Selkie forgotten, she snapped at the djinn, twisting herself into a cats cradle as she tried to bite or claw him off. He wrapped his legs around her neck, stabbing ineffectually with his sword, and held on as though she were a bronco at the rodeo.

Margrit, sleepy, thought the dragons eyesstill hazel in this form, though burnished with deep red flamewere the best target, and unwisely tried to whisper that across the room. No one could hear her; that was just as well. She had forgotten Kate was on her side, that the half-human children of the Old Races had come to rescue her. The heat and destruction, though, were so great that it seemed as if all the fighting should stop, no matter how it had to be achieved, or what the cost.

Selfish, she scolded herself. Just because she had lost didnt mean they all should. The admonishment amused her, and she found herself pleased that she would die happy. She had long since forgotten to keep blinking, but the time had to be running out. Too bad. There had been so much she wanted to do.

It wasnt that humans couldnt hear the sounds of battle from within the office-building loading dock. Anyone on the street might hear the shouts and screams, might recognize the roar of flame beneath the rumble of traffic. Nor was it that human curiosity sat up and took note of wisdom and left such dangers unexplored. No; it was only good fortune that brought the gargoyles to the battle before humanity discovered it; good fortune and perhaps a modicum of weariness from mortals already besieged by immortal warfare.

They had begun at the burnt-out shell that was the House of Cards, half a dozen of them radiating away from that center point. They were looking for a gathering, not a brawl, and the lanky gargoyle had found one in a loose arc of selkies and djinn in a loading-dock parking lot. Knowledge transferred instantaneously through the gestalt, and within minutes, the gargoyles converged on the parking lot, all of them finding shadows to transform in before coming into the light. There was no resistance from the selkie and djinn guard; formidable fighters or not, they were no match for gargoyles. Had Alban been a human passerby, he would have ignored the sounds from behind the closed garage door, too, and allowed whatever went on there to continue without his interference.

Or he would have before he met Margrit Knight. Now he was uncertain of what he might do; it had not been long at all since hed considered the ways of the world, whether human or not, to be beyond his caring. He would not have shoved his way through a locked door to discover what sort of disaster raged on its other side.

Only the host of gargoyles at his back kept him moving forward as the door slammed open and revealed anarchy. The smell of burning flesh billowed out, oily smoke and dark flame carried in excited eddies on the fresh air the gargoyles brought with them.

For an uncomprehending moment Alban thought Janx dominated the room, serpentine form whisking through the fire with claw and tooth at the ready. Something was wrong with the dragonlord, though: his color was wrong and his size far too small. As Alban watched, the dragon bit the head off a selkie who attacked his scales with a crowbar. Janx had never done anything so brutal, not to one of the Old Races. Alban staggered to a halt, disbelief numbing him.

Gargoyles flooded past Alban, knocking him aside. One of the females flung herself on the dragon, arms wrapped around its slender neck, wings beating to help her balance as she strangled the reptilian monster.

A blanket of night fell from above, its shape shimmering with black oil, changing so subtly and quickly that Albans eyes slid off it, unable to grasp what he saw. It landed on the gargoyle whod attacked the dragon, a maw of darkness opening up with screaming, outraged hunger. Gashes appeared on the Valkyries shoulders, stone cut deep enough to bleed, and she released the dragon to struggle with the writhing piece of midnight.

Djinn, furious with battle, fell upon the newly arrived gargoyles, whipping up storms as they waded into the fight determined to subdue first and understand later. Their whirlwinds cleared a path through the garage, all the way to its back wall.

Margrit lay sprawled in a still-spreading pool of blood, hands curved at her throat.

The shout that ripped from Albans throat shamed the dragons bellows, though it wasnt enough to pause the fight. He leapt over the combatants, transforming into his gargoyle shape without thinking so that when he crashed to his knees beside Margrits unmoving form, his bulk shielded her from the battle.

Protected her, as though she still required guarding.

Albans heartbeat smashed through him, carrying a tide of denial and disbelief matched only once in his existence. It had been raining then, but tonight was clear, a handful of stars scattered across the sky. Dawn was a whole nighttime away, and wouldnt bring healing stone, not this time, not for this woman. Margrit? Margrit, you must Wake up. The words whispered beneath his skin but went unspoken, grief emptying him to even the false hope of pleading.

She was too pale, the warmth of her skin drained away with the blood spilled on the floor. Alban took one of her hands from her throat with cautious delicacy, comprehending the inches-long gash there without fully allowing himself to see it. That memory would be there, seared into his memory, at any time he might want to revisit it, and, like Ausras death, like Maliks, far too often when he did not.

She had stopped bleeding, the pool spreading with its own slow viscosity. Red clots thickened the edges of the wound, as though she had almost succeeded in holding it together. Almost succeeded in surviving.

With utmost care, Alban replaced her hand at her throat, folding her fingers as theyd been, creating a barrier over the cut. Then he rose, blood-covered, and turned back to the battle with a cold determination hed never before known. Death, it seemed, was the fate of every woman whose path crossed his. There could be an end to it; there would be an end to it.

All he had to do was die.

It had to be the dragon, or possibly its vampiric partner. No one else had the strength or speed to destroy a gargoyle; the djinn and selkie were far too feeble, and Albans rage much too great. Only the dragon could stand up to it, though the vampire had shown enormous fortitude in attacking the female gargoyle. She had escaped and huddled against a wall now, transformed to healing, protective stone.

Her life would not also be forfeit tonight. It no longer mattered how any of this had come to pass. All that mattered was that it would end, and that he would end it. He flung himself into battle with an abandon hed never known before, free of all constraint, determined only to reach the dragon, and nothing more.

The loading-dock doors melted in a wash of flame, and the dragon met him.

It had gotten larger, somehow. Much larger, in the space between deciding his fate lay in the dragons claws and the moment of impact. Thered been no concussive explosion of air to suggest it had transformed, and once what little intellect he had left worked its way through that thought, it was all wrong anyway. Dragons had one size, one shape to transform into and out of. That size changed over the millennia, growing ever larger, but it did not change in the space of a breath.

Then thought was gone again as they bowled over, flattening everything in their path. Albans feet hit the floor and he drove talons into concrete, forcing all his strength into the sinuous coils to stop their roll. There was too much dragon to stop so easily, and he howled frustration, words far beyond him.

Another impact shuddered Janxs long body, a sudden flash of white stone shoving and slamming with the same vigor Alban put into the effort. Flame sprayed everywhere in a hiss of outrage, and Biali came through it unscathed, a broad smile splitting his scarred face. Alban understood in an instant: it wasnt for Margrits sake Biali fought, or for Albans, but simply for the joy of pitting himself against the one breed in the world who could fight a gargoyle to the ground. Without him, Alban wouldnt have stopped the tumble before Margrits fragile body was crushed.

For all that his own purpose was to die in battle, Alban acknowledged the other gargoyle with a nod of thanks in the eternal moment before Janx slithered around and roared fury as he pounced again.

Alban went down under the dragons crush, knocked breathless as Janx scrambled over him. Insulted, he grabbed the dragonlords hind leg and hauled.

Janx dug his nails into the floor as he was yanked backward, the shriek of torn concrete echoed by his full-voiced rage. He strained with the effort of moving forward, utterly ignoring Alban and Biali, all his attention focused elsewhere. His enormous wings buffeted the air, sending cyclones of heat burning through it, and djinn, sent panicking from their native element, began to flee the garage. Alban had never seen them endangered by anything other than salt water and, more recently, vampire blood: the idea that they could be burned out, guttered by flame, was in equal parts fascinating and horrifying. But a handful of them lay broken beneath Janxs talons, spattered with blood and crackling with flame.

Profound wrongness twinged under Albans skin, as bone deep and discomfiting as iron bound to flesh had been. Janx was a thousand things, a killer among them, but to so ruthlessly end the lives of his fellow Old Races was unlike him. Faint humor twisted the sense of transgression: only a handful of seconds ago that was exactly what Alban had sought from the dragonlord.

Another serpentine form slithered in front of Janx and he redoubled his efforts, flame gouting as he surged forward. Alban didnt know when all the gargoyles came to his side, but now half a dozen of them held the infuriated dragon back as he lashed at his smaller counterpart. It danced out of his way, taunting his captivity.

A black cloak settled around its shoulders, then became a woman, black-haired, dark-eyed, blood drooling down her jaw and coating the insides of her arms, as though shed slashed her wrists. She dangled a bundle from one hand, and it took long dreadful moments for Alban to recognize it as a head, as smeared with blood as the woman was.

Much too late, much too late, understanding came.

Janx drew himself in, dragging gargoyles to his center, then burst upward in an explosion of power, wings flung out to clap the air. He dislodged Alban and the lanky gargoyle youth, the latter from surprise and Alban through inattention; his gaze was on the murderous twins before him.

If murderers they were. Janx launched himself forward again, this time smashing into the pair with the same strength hed tackled Alban with. They rolled roughshod through the melted door, landing in the parking lot with an eruption of flame and fury that lit furious panic in Albans breast. He charged after them, voice lost beneath the sounds of battle even as he screamed warnings. Nothing stopped them, not even flinging himself into their midst, grabbing desperately for muzzles and claws, anything to pull one off the other and alert them to their danger. To all their danger, for at the most they had a handful of seconds before humans discovered their battle, and should that happen, it was a blow from which they would never recover.

A gunshot ripped the air, a desperately human sound, and their time was up.

CHAPTER 25 | Hands of Flame | CHAPTER 27