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|Thirteen(Women of the Otherworld #13) by Kelley Armstrong|
When a girl tried to run in front of us, Mom hit her with an energy bolt that dropped her, howling and clasping her stomach. Another raced forward. Mom brandished her sword.
“You don’t think I’ll use this to protect my daughter?” she said. “Try me.”
They stopped. The one behind her crept forward. My hand shot out. A knockback spell hit the kid so hard he sailed into a tree.
“Go, Savannah,” Mom said, her gaze on the kids. “Use your sensing spell to find Jaime, then get out of here.”
“Savannah …” She didn’t look over at me, but I felt like I was ten again, when we’d been walking back from dinner, and a group of supernatural thugs stepped into our path. She’d been right to send me away then. But I wasn’t ten now and even with my sporadic spells, I could fight. Hadn’t I just proven that?
“We can take them,” I whispered. “Two are already injured.”
The children shuffled forward.
“Stay where you are!” Mom said, her sword cutting through the air.
The children hissed and snarled, but their gazes followed the sword, and they stopped moving.
“You saw that operative,” Mom whispered back. “That was a supernatural. A trained guard. We’re not—”
One of the boys charged. I launched a knockback. It failed and I was about to jump forward when Mom swung her sword. The boy was still at least five feet away. A warning strike, I thought, but then the tip sliced through his shirt and an orange glow oozed through. Mom deftly skewered the demon and yanked the sword back. The boy collapsed. The Tengu was impaled on Mom’s sword, a glowing miasma of red and orange, rolling on itself, a glimpse of eyes and teeth and claws appearing, then vanishing so fast they seemed a trick of the mind.
The sword sliced the orange and red cloud in two, a shriek rending the air, then fading as the two halves evaporated.
I looked down at the boy, still on the ground. His chest rose and fell. Unconscious. There was a line of blood on his shirt, but a thin one, a flesh wound.
“Anyone else doubt I’ll use the sword?” Mom said.
The children had gone still.
“I need you to get Jaime,” Mom said to me. “There might be more of them out there. She needs help. I’ll be fine.”
She was right. The first Tengu’s scream had brought others running, but that didn’t mean there weren’t more still searching for Jaime.
“Okay,” I murmured.
“Thank you, baby.”
I backed away until I was sure Mom had the mob of demon children under control. Then I loped down the path.
One advantage to being in the forest? I knew my sensing spell was working. In the police station, a negative result could mean either the place was empty or my spell failed. The forest is never empty. I got back plenty of small blips.
It didn’t work every time. In fact, it fizzled more often than it sparked. But as I searched, I stopped casting it every few feet and used the spell judiciously.
I picked up one ping that was larger than a rabbit, but not big enough for Jaime. It could be a deer, but I hadn’t seen any signs of them, so I guessed it was another child. I steered clear. No sense fighting if I didn’t have to.
The Tengu inside Sara said it could detect Jaime’s scent in the woods. That could mean she’d buried herself under leaves, as we’d tried with the sword. But diving into rotting vegetation would definitely be Jaime’s last choice. I had a good idea what she’d done. It was a simple ruse that wouldn’t fool most humans, but the Tengu weren’t accustomed to tracking anyone in our world.
So I walked with my gaze on the treetops. Sure enough, I caught a glimpse of something burnt orange. Jaime’s blouse. I squinted harder. Her face peered out between leafy branches twenty feet up. She didn’t say anything, just eyed me and reached for the branch above, as if ready to climb higher.
“I’m not possessed,” I said. “Paige had me take an extra dose of anti-possession tea when I was in Miami.”
She came down about halfway, then settled into a Y. “They’re still around. One passed by just a minute ago.”
“Mom’s holding most of them at bay. I can handle the stragglers. She’s the one they really want anyway. As usual.”
“Tell me about it,” Jaime muttered as she lowered herself another branch. “We don’t need anti-possession brews. We need anti-Eve brews.” She paused, sighed, then said, “She’s okay, right?”
“She was last time I saw her, but I’d like to get you someplace safe and go back to help her.”
“You’re lucky that ruse worked,” I said. “From what I recall of Tengu folklore, they’re supposed to be avian spirits. Like birds of prey.”
“Which would mean they’d be accustomed to looking for victims on the ground.”
I wasn’t sure how true that was, but it had worked, so I wasn’t arguing.
As she slid down, a nearby shriek sent her tumbling to the ground. I backed her to safety between me and the tree. A ragged girl about thirteen stood on the path. Her mouth opened so wide her jaw cracked as she shrieked again.
“She’s calling the others,” I said. “We need to get out—”
Another girl joined the shriek-fest from the opposite end of the path. I grabbed Jaime, pushed her into the forest, and we ran.
Not my best idea ever, as I realized about ten seconds later. It was boggy ground and we slipped and slid. The Tengu ran as fast and surefooted as antelope. I herded Jaime left and circled back to the path.
We’d just hit it when the thunder of footsteps had me pushing Jaime into the forest again.
“Wait!” she said.
She gestured and I followed her finger to see the blue glow of my mother’s sword. A second later, Mom appeared … mere steps ahead of three Tengu-possessed children.
One of our pursuers burst from the forest. My hand flew out, hitting her with a knockback before the first incantation word left my mouth.
“Head back to the motel,” Mom shouted. “I’ll be right behind you.”
“Is it this way?”
“I sure as hell hope so.”
It wasn’t. Not exactly anyway. After about five minutes, we could see a road ahead. We ran to it and found ourselves about a quarter mile up from the motel. One car passed us as we ran and it didn’t even slow down.
A guy in the motel parking lot did notice us. He was halfway out of his car when we roared around the corner, raced to our rental, and hopped inside—Jaime and me in the front, Mom in the back. He stared at the kids pursuing us, took in their blood-flecked clothing and scratched, bloody faces, hopped back into his pickup, and went in search of more amenable lodgings.
I put the car in reverse just as two kids launched themselves onto the trunk. Another flew onto the hood. The others went for the side windows.
“You know, I think I’ve had this nightmare,” Jaime said, as they banged and howled and plastered their bloodied faces against the glass. “Except with zombies.”
“Close enough,” I muttered. “Hold on.”
I gunned it in reverse. I guess I should have paid more attention in physics class. The one climbing onto the roof shot over the car, but Sara, still on the trunk, flew backward.
I hit the brakes before I ran her over. I knocked the gearshift into drive, hoping I had enough room to turn. The kid who’d flown from the roof leaped up right in my path. I checked the rearview mirror. Sara had wobbled to her feet, holding onto the trunk for balance. Another boy climbed onto the roof.
“Son of a bitch!” I said. “Why do they have to be children?”
“For the same reason you aren’t hitting reverse and saying to hell with it,” Mom said.
“The kid in front is bigger,” Jaime said. “He can handle the impact better.”
“Great,” I said. “We’ve gone from ‘don’t hurt the kids’ to ‘which one will get hurt the least.’?”
“Ease forward,” Jaime said. “Knock him down carefully.”
“Run him over. But gently,” I muttered and gently pressed the gas.
The kid on the roof started jumping up and down. A girl took a running leap onto the roof and did the same, setting the car rocking.
“Just keep—” Mom began.
Jaime screamed as her window shattered. A boy reached in and grabbed a handful of her hair. Mom caught the kid’s arm and twisted until he howled and let go, but another was already reaching through.
A crash. Something struck the side of my head so hard I saw stars. A brick dropped beside me. Hands reached through the broken driver’s window.
I hit the gas. The hands grabbed the wheel and yanked, and the car shot up over the sidewalk and crashed into the motel. I turned to launch a knockback—or anything else—but the kid suddenly sailed backward. He landed on the asphalt and lay there, not moving.
I looked over at my mother, but she was helping Jaime fight off the kids. One of them went flying. This time, I saw him hover in the air, thrashing, as if something was holding him up. Then his head shot back and he screamed. The scream died midnote and the boy collapsed to the pavement, unconscious.
“Ah, a little deus ex machina,” Mom said as the boy who’d grabbed Jaime’s hair also went flying. “Or angel ex machina.”
“It’s Trsiel,” Jaime said. “Or I think so. Can never tell with the full-bloods. All I see is a glowing silhouette.”
“It’s him,” Mom said. “No other full-blood would bother.” She leaned out the window and yelled. “Better late than never.”
“I think he just gave you the finger,” Jaime said.
Mom laughed. “Put it in gear, baby. He can handle this and we don’t want to be around when the desk clerk realizes he’s got unconscious street kids in his parking lot.”
I put the car in reverse—Sara was gone now, running across the lot to escape her fate. We passed her and peeled out of the parking lot.
“So those were Tengu,” I said as I drove. “I’ve heard of them, but not much. Like you said, they don’t cross over.”
“No,” Mom murmured. “Not usually. They can, though, under special circumstances.”
She shook her head. “War. The Tengu are harbingers of war.”
When we were far enough from the motel to be sure we’d lost the Tengu, Jaime called Lucas and put us on speakerphone. I explained what had happened.
For the second time that day, I rendered Lucas speechless.
“So the Tengu do not appear to be directly connected to the sorcerer who invoked the hell-beast,” he finally said.
“Right. They apparently saw Mom cross over and they came for her, but it’s a completely separate shit storm. I don’t know if you wanted us to do anything with the poor guy in the motel room …”
“No. If we have unconscious children in the parking lot, you need to stay away. I’ve already sent a message to divert part of the security team from the police station, but under the circumstances, I’m not sure they’ll make it before someone discovers the operative’s body.”
Another voice came on. “We can still handle this. Two more teams are on their way to New Orleans, one security detail and one media cleanup team.”
“Hey, Benicio,” Mom said. “It’s been awhile.”
“It has,” he said. “I’d say it’s good to hear you, Eve, but …”
“I’m back and causing trouble already. I know.”
“So what do you guys want us to do?” I asked. “Hole up? Come to Miami?”
“I’m not going to Miami,” Mom said before they could answer. “We’ve identified the sorcerer and we have a list of potential contacts. I’ve got a contact of my own here who can go through that list and pick out the supernaturals. That’s my next stop.”
Lucas and Benicio wanted her in Miami. Preferably in an impregnable cell, I think. Mom argued that her contact wouldn’t speak to anyone else. Take Jaime to Miami. Take me to Miami. Leave Mom to face any potential kidnappers alone. If she wasn’t putting anyone else at risk, that was her choice.
They agreed on the last part. I didn’t. Mom needed someone to watch her back.
That didn’t sit well with either Mom or Lucas, but they eventually agreed to a compromise. Jaime would leave. I’d stay, but only until they sent in someone with no personal connection to my mother—maybe Clay and Elena—to take over.
I agreed to that, and we headed to the regional airport where the Cortez jet was about to land.
Before Jaime left, I gave her a few minutes alone with Mom. They both said they didn’t need it—joked that they “saw” each other too often as it was. But I insisted. In all those years that they’d worked together—that they’d been friends, as I now realized—they’d never actually inhabited the physical plane together. They hadn’t met until Mom was long dead.
To say my mother was not the hugging type is an under-statement. Growing up, I don’t think I ever saw her make affectionate physical contact with anyone except me. But now, when I stepped away to give them that moment alone and they embraced, I saw how much it meant, and not just to Jaime.
Mom stayed until the jet lifted off. Then we took my new cell phone and left the damaged rental car at the airfield for Benicio to deal with. He’d rented us another—a small Mercedes, which was probably his idea of an economy vehicle—expendable, should we destroy it, too.