RUH leaned forward, casting his web into the stream. Spider watched the carmine cilia that sheathed the blood vessels of Ruh's net tremble in the dark water. A long moment passed, and then the net closed on itself, folding, retreating, and sliding back into the tracker's shoulder."They passed this way." Ruh's grating yet sibilant voice reminded Spider of gravel being swept across stone. "Lavern's blood is in the water. But they're gone. I can taste two traces of the hunter's body fluids, one more decomposed than the other. So they came this way and went back out."Spider looked up to where a small house sat perched on stilts, stretching a weathered dock into a cypress-cradled pond. "They came here, lingered for some reason, and left, taking Lavern's body with them.""I also found that odd trace, the same as in the river. It's blood, but it tastes of something other than man."Spider propped his elbow on his knee and leaned, resting his chin against his fingers. The blood was interesting. "A wounded. They had a wounded with them, and they dropped him off here.""Yes, m'lord.""Why here? Why not take him to the Mar house, behind the wards?" Spider tapped his cheek with his finger. "How much time does Lavern's body have left?""Twenty-two minutes. Although I may be mistaken and it's twenty-three."Spider smiled. "You're never mistaken, Ruh. Let's wait then and find out if we're right."He touched the reins, and the rolpie obediently pulled the small boat under the cover of a gnarled tree bent over the water.CERISE descended the small staircase hidden in the back of the kitchen. The wooden steps, worn out by four generations of feet, creaked and sagged under her weight. They would have to be repaired before too long. Of course, that would keep Aunt Petunia from the lab, and she wasn't suicidal enough to become the object of her aunt's wrath. And it would be wrath. No doubt about it - Aunt Pete did nothing halfway.Fatigue filled Cerise, making her legs terribly heavy. She had to do this and then she could go upstairs, shower, and collapse into her bed for a couple of hours. She couldn't remember the last time she ate.The staircase ended in a solid door, fitted so snugly that no light escaped along its edges. Cerise rapped her knuckles on the metal.The door swung open, revealing the Bunker. Uncle Jean had built it for Aunt Pete following the instructions for a fallout shelter, and it looked like one, too - concrete walls and harsh lighting spilling from the cones of electric lamps in the ceiling. She never could figure out how he'd managed to keep the water out, but the Bunker never leaked. In the event something contaminated it, one pull of the chain hanging from the far wall and the water tower would empty into the bunker, flooding it with magic-treated water, neutralizing the problem. The neutralizing solution then drained into a cistern outside the house.Mikita closed the door behind her. She walked along the wooden platform bordering the walls, jumped off to the bottom, and headed past the decontamination shower to the examination table and Aunt Pete bent over it with a scalpel.Short and plump, Aunt Pete frowned at her, a look of intense concentration on her face. That look was a killer. Aunt Petunia made the best pies, and that's exactly how she looked when she mixed the crust. Every time Cerise saw that expression, it catapulted her back in time, and she was five years old again, hiding under the table with a stolen piece of piping hot berry pie and trying not to giggle, while Aunt Pete made a big show of looking for the thief and bumping into the table for added drama.Unfortunately, this time Aunt Petunia wasn't working on a pie. The body of the hunter lay on the table, split open like a butterflied shrimp. The organs had been carefully removed, weighed, and placed into ceramic trays. Soft red mush filled the bottom of the trays. It shouldn't have been there."I like you, child. You bring such interesting things home," Aunt Petunia said through a cloth mask."Put your mask on," Mikita boomed.Cerise took the mask from his hand and slipped it on."He's decomposing too fast," Aunt Petunia said. "In a few hours there will be nothing left. There." She nodded at the microscope on the side.Cerise looked into the ocular. Long twisted ribbons glistening with faint blue flailed among the familiar globules of blood cells. "What is that?""Worms.""I gathered that.""Hold the sass, missy. I don't know what they are, but they must've hatched when the body began to cool and they're devouring our cadaver. That's high-grade magic right there. Someone probably was set for life after making these little monstrosities. There is more. Come look at this."She clamped the hunter's upper lip with metal forceps and curled it up, revealing fangs. "Look at those choppers. And these two have poison glands."Aunt Petunia moved on to the arm. "And here we have claws between the knuckles. The claw goes back like so, the small sack behind it contracts, and we get a nice stream of sticky goo."The small black claw slid back under the pressure of her forceps, and a drop of opaque goo swelled around it."It doesn't shoot out now, because our boy is dead and the sack is empty, but I'm guessing a jet of about four to five feet.""More like nine," Cerise said.Aunt Petunia's eyebrows rose. "Nine. Really?"Cerise nodded."He's one sick puppy." Aunt Petunia leaned back. "Your grandfather would've loved this. He would be appalled, of course, but he would be able to appreciate the workmanship. When you change someone with magic this much, well, they aren't human anymore."No, they weren't human. Cerise hugged herself. This thing, this was something monstrous and uncontrollable. People she could deal with. People had weaknesses - they didn't like being hurt, they cared for their family, they could be intimidated, outwitted, bribed . . . The way the hunter had looked at her had made her hair stand on end. As if she were an object, a thing, something you could break or eat, but not a person. How did you fight something like that? She couldn't think of anything that would stop it, short of completely destroying it.They would need her flash or a really big gun. Or William. William seemed to work very well."So when do I get to examine the other one?" Aunt Petunia peered at her from above her glasses."What other one?""The gorgeous one you supposedly found in the swamp."Cerise raised her arms in the air. "Does nothing stay put in this house?""Of course not." Aunt Petunia snorted. "I was told he's so handsome that Murid actually spoke to him.""He isn't that handsome." Cerise hesitated. "Okay, yes, he is.""Hrmph," Mikita said."You like him!" The older woman grinned."Maybe a little." Understatement of the year. "He's an ass.""Hrmph!" Mikita said."I believe my son is trying to tell us that we're offending his delicate sensibilities with our girl talk." Aunt Petunia grimaced. "You look tired, dear. And you smell like humus."Thank you, Auntie. "It's been a long week.""Go. Bathe, eat, sleep, flirt with your blueblood. It's good for the soul."Mikita lumbered off to unlock the door."He isn't so much on flirting," Cerise murmured. "Either he doesn't like me or he doesn't know how.""Of course he likes you. You're lovely. He probably just doesn't get it. Some men have to be hit over the head with it." Her aunt rolled her eyes. "I thought I'd have to draw your uncle Jean a giant sign. That or kidnap him and have my evil way with him, until he got the message.""Hrrrmph!!""Go," Aunt Petunia waved her on. "Go, go, go.""All right, all right, I'm going." Cerise climbed up and stepped out.Mikita carefully closed the door behind her and locked it.Flirt with your blueblood, yes, yes. Cerise started up the stairs. How do you flirt with a man who doesn't know the meaning of the word?"THREE," Ruh whispered. "Two ...""One," Spider said.006AN explosion shook the staircase.Oh, Gods.Cerise whirled, covering the ten steps in two jumps.Heavy thuds hammered against the door. A hoarse scream ripped through the cacophony of shattering glass."Mikita!" She pounded the door. "Mikita, open the door!"Something thumped inside. Boards splintered with a dry snap. Metal screeched against the stone."Aunt Petunia?"A dull thud answered her and dissolved into the drum of drops on metal. The decontamination shower. Someone was alive in there."Mikita!"Above her a door banged and people rushed down the staircase. Erian landed next to her, light on his feet. Above him William popped into her view and jumped, clearing the stairs in the single leap."The door won't open!" she told him.He glanced at the door and ran back up the stairs, almost knocking Ignata, her cousin, out of the way. A moment later Ignata ran down, her worried face a pale oval in the tangle of curly reddish hair. "Mom? What's going on?""Something exploded in the lab. Your brother and your mother are both in there, and I can't get through. The decontamination shower is on.""Mikita! Mom! Mother!" Ignata waited for a breath. "We must open the door.""We can't," Erian said quietly. "They've triggered the shower.""They're hurt," Ignata said.William had taken off. She had no time to wonder where he was going."Erian is right." It hurt her to say it, but it had to be said. "If we open it, we risk spreading whatever it is they're trying to contain all over the house.""You two are out of your minds.""There are children upstairs," Cerise said.Ignata stared at her. "They could die in there!""If they do, you can blame me for it later." Cerise clenched her teeth.Richard appeared in the doorway above. "What's going on?"Erian held up his hand. "Noise. Water running."Ignata leaned against the wall and hugged herself, her hands white-knuckled on her forearms.A faint scratch cut through the sounds of water. Cerise put her ear to the door. "Mikita?""Here." His voice came in a hoarse whisper.She closed her eyes for a second, overwhelmed by relief. Alive. He was alive."Aunt Pete?""Hurt."Oh no."Can you open the door?""Stuck . . . tight.""Hang on, Mikita," she breathed. "Hang on. We'll get you out."Think, think, think. The magic-treated neutralizing solution would kill any contamination. She had no doubt about it - her grandfather had taught Aunt Petunia to make it, and his magic never failed. "Erian, do we have any neutralizing solution left?""How much do you need?""As much as you can carry."He ran up the stairs, taking them two at the time.Cerise glanced at Ignata. "I need you to move, so I can have room."Ignata climbed up the steps.She had to cut the lock out. "Richard, I need a knife."He passed her his knife. She concentrated on the blade. The door was three inches thick. It would take more than one strike.Cerise flashed, slashing at the door handle with the blade. A three-inch-long gouge scoured the metal.Slash. She broke through the metal.Slash.Slash.Sweat broke out on her forehead. Not fast enough.Slash.Slash.Finished. A ragged crescent cut cleaved the lock from the rest of the door. Cerise rammed the door and bounced off. Stuck tight.William landed on the stairs next to her, a roll of pale bubble gum lined with paper in his fingers. He tore a chunk of bubble gum, pressed it against the upper hinge, tore another strip, stuck it on the lower one, peeled the paper away in one single-layered movement, grabbed her hand, and ran up the stairs, pulling her into the crowded kitchen, away from the door."Explosives!" Richard barked.The family pressed against the wall.A second passed.Another.The explosion popped, small, almost like a firecracker going off.William dropped her on her feet and dashed back down the stairs. Richard followed. Cerise chased them."Mikita, get away from the door," Richard called out.Erian reappeared, carrying a bucket of the neutralizing solution. Cerise grabbed one side of the bucket, he grabbed the other.Richard and William rammed the door with their shoulders in unison.The door creaked, careened, like a tooth about to fall out, and crashed down. Cerise and Erian heaved and dumped a glittering liquid cascade into the opening. The water fell, leaving Mikita, drenched and pale, holding his mother in his arms as if she were a child. He took a step and crumpled. They lunged forward and caught his big body before he hit the floor.