THE magic jerked, nearly sending Kaldar to his feet. Something was wrong. Kaldar opened his eyes. He was almost to the end of the path. Through the gap in the hill he saw the battleground and clumps of fighters tearing at each other in a chaotic frenzy. To the left and above Aunt Murid stood on the slope, her hands a blur as she spanned her crossbow and fired, sending bolt after bolt into the fray. Above her something shivered on the edge of the greenery. A long pink tentacle snaked out from the brush, rippling with reddish eno fire."Murid! Look out! Murid!" Kaldar ran. Something popped under his foot with a dry click. He kept running, too late realizing that he had stepped on a mine, and it had failed to detonate.The tentacle slivered forward, dragging a thick tangle of appendages free of the bushes. They squirmed like a nest of grotesque snakes. A human torso rode in the midst of it all, topped by a bald head glaring at the world with solid black eyes."Murid!"She kept firing.Kaldar jerked his shotgun and fired. The shot bit into the creature.The abomination hovered on the edge of the cliff and plunged down. Murid vanished beneath the squirming mass.Kaldar screamed.His legs carried him to the creature, and he hacked into the writhing mass with his knife and kept screaming and screaming as blood and tissue flew in a salty spray from his blade. Tentacles raked his back but he kept slicing, oblivious to the pain. He carved his way to the torso and plunged his blade into the human stomach. Tentacles flailed, and the monster's human mouth hissed. Kaldar jerked his knife free and stabbed again and again and again . . .CERISE kicked a body off her blade. All around her the fight raged: reanimated corpses jerky on their feet, huge dogs, the Hand's freaks, furry, scaled, armored, clawed, fanged, feathered, and the family, all clawing at each other in an insane race to kill. Blood spilled into the sludge, and lives were torn from the still-warm bodies.She'd killed and killed and killed, slashing again and again. Now she was tired, and the fight wasn't anywhere near over.In front of her a scaled clay paused in his killing spree and raised his arm with a shout. She followed his gesture and saw William on the hill.Her heart skipped a beat.He clashed with a lean blond man - Spider, she realized. They moved so fast, it took her breath away.She had to get to that hill.Cerise dashed forward, slicing at the scaled clay in passing. Her flash-blade severed his thigh, cleaving through the bone. He crashed down. She didn't pause. Someone else would finish him.A red-skinned woman broke from a mound of torn thoas corpses and ran toward the cliff and the two men fighting on it. Veisan, Cerise's memory supplied. Spider's assassin.Cerise sprinted across the muddy ground. Veisan squeezed out a burst of speed, but Cerise was closer to the cliff. She reached the pond and spun about it.Veisan saw her. Her hands balanced two wide curved blades, thin and sharpened to razor precision. They would slice a limb in a single strike. A grimace raked Veisan's face. Her mouth gaped, her eyes turned wide.She was afraid for Spider.Cerise rubbed the ground with her foot to gauge the slickness.Veisan looked at her."No," Cerise told her.Veisan flipped her blades and charged.SOMETHING steel-hard clamped onto Kaldar's leg and pulled. He fell forward into the bloody mass. The force dragged him away from the body. He clawed at the slick ground, but the thing that held his leg was too strong. It pulled him free. Kaldar squirmed onto his back and found dog jaws on his leg. Erian loomed in the rain."They're dead," Erian said. His voice was dull. Pain contorted his face. "They're both dead."He turned and hurled himself at the nearest freak. Kaldar sat up. A tangled mass of flesh lay on the hillside. The rain diluted the blood spilling from the severed tentacles, and it spread in a pale red across the sludge. Kaldar rushed to his feet and dove at the gory mess, hurling the severed pieces of flesh out of the way. He dug in through the corpse until a human arm emerged. He grabbed it and pulled, slid on the mud, fell clumsily, scrambled to his feet, and pulled again. The twisted mound of flesh shifted and Murid's shoulder and then her head came free. He grabbed her by the shoulders and dragged her out.Murid stared at the sky. The raindrops fell into her eyes and bounced off her bloodless cheeks.Kaldar shook her. He clasped her shoulders and shook, sending her black braid flapping, willing her to live. "Don't. Don't!"She lay limp in his arms.He shook her one more time and then set her gently down on the ground. His knife lay in the mud a few inches away. It was still sharp and there were still freaks to kill.VEISAN cried out, spinning wildly, her blades a glittering whirlwind of metal. Strike, strike, strike, strike.Cerise swayed from the first, dodged the second. The third caught her on the shoulder, slicing through the sleeve and skin. She parried the fourth with her sword. Veisan kept striking, leaving no openings, backing her to the pond.Cerise sank into the rhythm. Time slowed to a ponderous crawl. She saw Veisan with crystal clarity: the white knuckles of her fingers straining as she gripped her knives, the panicked expression on her face, the cords of veins bulging in her neck, as she advanced, her dreadlocks flying.Slash.Slash.Slash.Cerise moved with the blow, sweeping past Veisan. The line of magic slid along her blade, pulling the last of her reserves from her body. Cerise struck.Blood spatter flew. The red-skinned woman kept moving, her body not realizing that she was already dead. Veisan whirled to deliver another blow and halted. Blood gushed from a hairline cut on her neck.Her mouth opened.Veisan dropped her swords. Her hands went to her neck, trying to stem the gush of life from her neck. She grabbed at her neck. Her head slid off her shoulders and fell into the mud.For a long second the body stood frozen and then it, too, toppled over like a log.Cerise turned to the cliff.011WILLIAM parried a barrage of blows and ducked. Spider's knife swept above his head and severed a sapling to his right. The wood slowed Spider's speed by a fraction. William lunged through Spider's defenses and slashed at Spider's midsection. The blade grazed Spider's chest, and he smashed his elbow into William's back. Pain burst in his spine.William lunged to the side and rolled clear. Spider's breath was coming in ragged gasps. He sucked air into his lungs and charged again. William parried, counter-attacked in a flash. His blade sliced Spider's thigh, as hot metal whisked along his left arm. He withdrew again.He was getting tired.William gritted his teeth. He had to stay calm now. Spider was too good, and if he let his fury take over, Spider would kill him.Spider bled from a dozen minor wounds. So did he. Neither of them could keep this up for long.If he lost, Cerise would be the next one to die. Spider would never pass on the chance to kill her.He had to end it now. Whatever it took.WILLIAM faltered. Cerise gasped, her heart caught in her throat. Spider lunged, but William recovered within the same breath, hammered a vicious kick into Spider's midsection, and leapt away. They ripped and clawed at each other, kicked, elbowed, sliced. She'd never seen anything like it.William lunged. He was slowing down. He had to be tired. Spider parried with quick short strokes and hammered his knee into William's leg. William jumped and the kick missed.They were both bleeding. William's eyes shone. Spider bared his teeth. He seemed barely human.William thrust, trying to sink his blade into Spider's stomach. The Hand's agent parried, knocking William's blade to the right, in the direction of William's swing. Without a pause, William slashed back in a vicious riposte, the tip of his sword drawing a bloody line across Spider's chest.Too wide! Cerise almost screamed. Too wide, William.Spider swayed and lunged into the gap in William's defense. His blade dived for William's left armpit and William stepped into it.The curved knife sliced like a metal claw.Cerise choked on her scream.William's arm clamped down Spider's blade. Spider jerked at it in disbelief, but the curve of the blade held it in place. The knife was wedged in William's armpit.William clasped Spider's elbow with his left hand and stepped close. His right arm embraced Spider, as if they were two long-lost friends, whispering a secret into each other's ear. William clasped Spider to him. His knife flashed and William sliced deep across Spider's spine.Cerise knew they were too far for the sound to carry over, but she could've sworn she heard the sickening crunch of metal severing the bone.Spider's mouth gaped in shock. Blood poured from his back in a red stream.He won. William won."Damn, that was a fine move!" Richard screamed by her side.The Hand's agent jerked back, pushing at William with both hands. William's bloody fingers slid off Spider's shoulder. He raised his knife to cut the man's throat, but Spider toppled backward, blond hair spilling, his face a pale mask, and plunged into the black water of the pond. His body vanished in the peat.William watched it sink. His eyes found Cerise. He smiled, staggered back, and fell.No!She scrambled up the slope. The slick mud gave under her fingers in handfuls, and then Richard grabbed her and hoisted her up. She caught a root and pulled herself on the slick grass.William slumped against a tree. Spider's knife lay on his lap. Blood slicked the edge. William looked at her, his hazel eyes soft. His whole side had turned bright red.Cerise dashed to him. He opened his mouth, trying to say something. Blood gurgled from his lips and spilled on his chin. She sobbed and clutched him to her. More blood poured, wetting her fingers. His pulse fluttered weaker and weaker beneath the fingers she pressed to his neck."No," she begged. "No, no, no ...""It's okay," he told her. "Love you.""Don't die!""Sorry. Live. You . . . live."She kissed his face, his bloody lips, his dirt-smeared cheek. William brushed at her hair with fatigued fingers. His body shuddered. His eyes rolled back in his head."You can't leave me like this!"His heartbeat shivered one last time and vanished like a snuffed-out candle.The world screeched to a halt, and Cerise skidded through it, lost and alone. A terrible pain tore through her and squeezed her heart in a steel fist. There wasn't enough air to fill her lungs.I love you. Don't leave me. Please, please don't leave me.Richard's soft voice came from behind her. "He's gone, Cerise."No. Not yet. She struggled to pick him up. Hands took her by her shoulders. "He's dead, Cerise," Ignata whispered. "Let him be.""No!"Cerise pushed to her feet, dragging the body up. Richard grasped her shoulders. "Cerise, let go ...""No! Let me!""Where are you taking him?"Frantic, she wrenched herself free. She wasn't thinking at all, her head full of fragmented thoughts and pain, and it took a lot of effort to spit out two words. "The Box.""That's insane." Ignata blocked her way."The Box will heal him. Get out of my way!""Even if it does revive him, he will come out mad. He has no protection like you do. He didn't have the remedy!""I'll go in there with him.""Why?""The burial shroud in the Box, it will take my fluids and mix them with his. Whatever the remedy did, it's still in me."Ignata jerked her hands up. "What if you both die? Or he comes out crazy? Richard, help me."For a long moment Richard froze, caught between them. Then he bent down and picked up William's legs. "She deserves it. Because she deserves to have this one thing go right."Cerise gripped William's shoulder and together they wrestled the body down the hill. "Help me! Please help me."Ignata bit her lip and spun to the family gathered below. "Pull the Box ashore!"WHEN William awoke, the world was red and it hurt. It hurt so much; he panicked and thrashed, trying to break free of the red mist. And then a woman's arms closed around him. He couldn't hear and he couldn't see, but when he brushed her face, he knew it was Cerise and she was crying. He pulled her closer, trying to tell her that it would be okay and they would get out of here, but pain drowned him and he went under.THE scent of blood permeated the battleground. As Ruh walked along the hill to the black pond, he read the savagery of the fight in the churned mud. Crimson pooling in footsteps, dog tracks, the corpses of murdered clays blended into a vivid, cohesive picture, a map he read and navigated. Here Karmash fell, dragged down by corpses. They lay lifeless now, little more than heaps of bone and rotten tissue. The white-haired brute survived. Somehow he always persevered. Ruh wrinkled his nose at the stench emanating from the decomposing flesh. The peat had preserved the corpses of the thoas, and now, exposed to open air, they rotted at an accelerated rate.He stepped over Veisan's corpse. Her footprints told her story: violent struggle, lightning-fast attacks, and then a single devastating blow. All that violence rolled into a small package, constantly straining at its fragile wrapper, ready to burst free. She was at peace now.The enemy had come and gone. The ropes hung abandoned on the cypress. They had taken Spider's treasure with them. No matter. He would find them. None escaped Ruh.Ruh reached the shore and crouched in the mud, careful not to step on the small spike spheres of magic bombs scattered in the sludge. They weren't his, nor did they belong to anyone from Spider's crew. Tentacles whispered from his shoulder in a rush of ichor. The magic licked the bombs. They tasted foreign. They tasted like the Mirror.He stared at the mud marks. Interesting. Someone had stripped a body here. The clothes lay in a soggy pile. The bombs must've fallen from the pockets as the clothes were pulled off the corpse. The enemy wasn't above looting the dead. Even the Mirror's dead.He scooted closer to the black pond and dipped his tentacles into the water. The cilia within them trembled, eager to taste the scents and flavors, but he kept them hidden. They were too fragile for this task.He sank the tentacles and felt them snake their way through slick water, combing the pond.Something brushed against them. He held still. A hand gripped them, and through the sensitive tissue, Ruh perceived a familiar taste. Familiar yet odd, as if something wasn't quite right with the magic the person generated. The hand released him.Ruh withdrew and retrieved a length of rope, still attached to the tree limb. He dropped the end of the rope into the pond and fed it to the black water.The weight clamped onto the line and Ruh strained to pull it up. His hands slid a little, finding little purchase on the peat-slicked line, but despite his weak grip, the rope slowly coiled at his feet. Finally a head broke the surface, grotesque with its skin and hair blackened. A mouth gaped wide and gulped the air.Ruh grasped Spider's hand, wrenched him ashore, and crouched as the cell leader rested. The peat-sheathed water had little air in it. A few minutes longer and Spider would've suffocated. Or perhaps drowned was the more appropriate word. Ruh puzzled over it."I've made arrangements for the pickup as you've instructed me," he said. "Four operatives will meet us at a creek a mile and a half to the southwest. Through that path." He pointed to the narrow trail that sliced through the hill."I can't feel my legs." Spider's voice sounded even.So that explained the odd taste.Ruh nodded. "Then I will carry you, m'lord.""The Box?""They've taken it. But I will track it down.""I know you will ..." Spider nodded and paused. His eyes focused on something beyond Ruh. "In the bushes," he said softly.A tentacle slivered from Ruh's shoulder and tasted the air. The scent lanced the cilia on his arm. Animal fur. The stench of urine, unlike any he had encountered. The moist odor of breath, laced with scents of rotting meat. And magic. Strange, contorted, abnormal magic, pulsing with fury."It's not an animal," he whispered. His hand found the heavy knife and loosed it from his belt.He spun around just as the huge shape launched from the top of the hill. It sailed into the open in an impossibly long leap, its tail lashing like a whip. The spiked curve of the spine flexed. Sickle talons rent the air, aiming for Ruh's chest. Too stunned to dodge, he slashed at the horrid jaws, gaping open on the abominable face. The knife sliced deep into the flesh and met bone.The beast snapped. Triangular teeth bit Ruh's arm. He felt nothing, no tug, no jerk, but suddenly his arm vanished. Blood spurted in a hot fountain from the stump of his elbow. The beast gulped.An explosion of pain in his shoulder nearly shocked him into unconsciousness. The monster gulped again and turned toward him, paw over paw, blood stretching in long strands from between the yellowed fangs.Ruh ran. On his third step, a heavy weight smashed into him, crushing him, pinning him down. The world went dark, and Ruh saw the inside of the beast's mouth before the jaws severed his head from his shoulders. Foul stench filled his nostrils. The sticky tongue smothered his face, snuffing out awareness.SPIDER plunged his hands into the ground and pulled. The hot wedge of pain that sat in the small of his back flared into a blinding daze. He stretched, chancing a glance at the beast. It tore into Ruh's back and flung a piece of bloody meat into the air.Desperately, Spider stretched. His fingers closed about a spiked sphere. The Mirror's bombs. Probably from William. The irony . . .The beast growled. The hair on Spider's arms rose. He stifled the instinctual reaction and pushed himself forward, through the pain, to another tiny sphere.The beast stepped over Ruh's savaged corpse and started toward him.Pull, flash of pain, bitter taste in the mouth. Three. Now he had three. If three didn't do it . . .A huge paw sank into the muck next to him. Talons bit into his side and flipped him on his back. He kept the bombs clutched in his fist. The tiny bumps on the surface of the spheres sank in under the pressure of his fingers. The bombs would explode a second after he let them go.The beast lowered his head. Drool dripped on Spider's chest. He looked at the grotesque face. Red eyes stared back at him, deliberate, smart. They caught him. Mesmerized him. He sank deep into their depths, stunned by their ferocity and intellect and pain. One chance. He had one chance, or it would end right here.The massive jaws opened wide, wider, cavernous."Hello, Vernard," he whispered.A low groan broke free of the beast's mouth. It stretched into an ululating cry and suddenly shifted into a long coherent word."Genevieve ...""I fused her," Spider said. "Took her from your family."The thing that used to be Vernard Dubois snarled in rage."I'll take Cerise, too," Spider promised. "I will kill you, and then I'll find her and take her, too."The jaws unhinged and plunged down to bite. Spider tossed the bombs into the black throat and shoved himself to the side.Vernard's head exploded. A wet mist of blood and brains showered Spider's stomach. Thick slabs of meat pelted him. The stump of the body toppled and crashed forward. Spider threw his hands out to shield himself, but the weight was too great, and it plunged on top of him. A wide gap glared where the beast's neck used to be, and as it fell, blood gushed from it in a hot sticky flood, drenching Spider's face.With sick dread, Spider waited for the body of the beast to glue itself together.A moment passed.Another.Spider strained, gripping the ground. The corpse pinned him down, and in the wide gash he saw the black, moist sack of the heart still pumping. He reached into the ruined body, ripped out the bulging organ, and bit into its flesh. The blood burned his mouth. He tore the still living flesh with his teeth and forced it down.If there was any truth in Vernard's journal, the beast's heart would restore him. He choked down another bite and let it go before nausea made him lose it.Spider clenched his muscles, thrusting himself into agony. His torso slid from under the beast. He dragged his hand across his mouth, wiping away the blood, unable to believe he lived. He breathed in deeply and savored the damp Mire air he so used to hate. It tasted sweet.Spider rolled to his stomach. A mud field stretched before him, seemingly endless. An eternity away the southwestern path gaped. A mile and a half.Spider clutched at the ground with dirty fingers and pulled himself six inches forward. Pain lashed him. He caught his breath and pulled again.