As though she would have done anything else.
For now, though, she let her mother talk, let the answering machine deal with her. Ignoring her mother, Sara went to the couch and lay back on it, listening to Christmas carols and wondering.
The Perytons swept down from the sky, eleven strong. Jezi-Baba floated down the steps of the pyramid as though gliding on the wind, but the Manticore was faster. It raced down those high stone stairs practically sliding on its belly, hissing death through rows of needle teeth.
The open plain around the pyramid had become a killing field.
Cheval Bayard stood, paralyzed with uncertainty. The giant treelike men that had herded them into this clearing stood at the edge of the woods but did not come any further. The bloodred birds that had soared in circles around the top of the pyramid had settled down on its peak.
Flinching, she glanced over to see Chorti lumbering up beside her. The wild man gnashed his metal teeth and bared iron claws. It steeled her resolve, having him there. They had fought side by side against marauders and mercenaries—killers all—first to protect their lives and avenge her husband, and then to safeguard Chorti’s family home. Always they had prevailed. Scarred and bloody, they had stood at each other’s side.
“Fight!” he growled.
She shifted, her bones cracking and stretching as she cast off her human mask and transformed into the kelpy, long horse’s legs unfolding beneath her.
At the pyramid, the Manticore leaped the last half-dozen steps and tore across the clearing toward them. Jezi-Baba cackled and began to sway even as the blue-skinned hag floated in the air…then she shimmered like a ghost and vanished.
The Borderkind tightened into a battle circle, all of them with their backs to the center. She heard Frost and Blue Jay shout, and a blast of fire shot into the air. Li, the Guardian of Fire, had begun the war.
A green blur dashed from the sky. The Grindylow tried to bat it away, but the Peryton sank its claws into him. Grin shouted in pain as the thing carried him up into the sky, blood spattering the ground below. The Grindylow swore loudly, roared in pain, and beat at the Hunter, but then Cheval lost sight of them amidst the angry swarming of the Perytons.
Leicester Grindylow was gone.
Another Peryton dipped from the sky. Cheval launched a kick at it. Her hoof glanced off of its body with a crack of bone, but the Peryton kept flying, baring its long black talons. Its antlers hung heavily upon its head and the sharp prongs lowered.
Chorti thundered across the ground and leaped, barreling into the Hunter as it flew toward her. The Peryton and the wild man rolled in the grass and dirt. The Atlantean beat him with its wings, trying to gouge him with its antlers. Chorti’s metal claws flashed in the sunlight as he struck out, razors scoring antlers and flesh. One of the Hunter’s antlers snapped off and the taut skin of its head tore, gashed to the bone.
Then it shook Chorti off and leaped upward, wings carrying it skyward again.
The defensive circle had shattered. All around Cheval the Borderkind were at war, the Perytons screaming unintelligibly, green-feathered wings blotting out the sun.
As one, Cheval and Chorti moved together, eyes turned to the sky.
“Well done, my friend,” Cheval said.
She spared a glance at him and saw the smile that split his savage features, revealing those shining metal fangs. Proud of himself, pleased by her praise.
The Manticore struck from behind, careening into Chorti and driving him down. The impact drew a cry of pain from the wild man. One of his arms lay trapped beneath him and with the other he flailed behind him, trying to dislodge the weight of the Manticore. But the thing’s ferocious speed was too much.
Half on top of Chorti, weight pressing him down, the Manticore opened its maw so that its nearly human face unhinged. Its jaws snapped open, impossibly wide, and it thrust downward. Rows of razor teeth closed upon the back of Chorti’s head like a sprung trap, and the Manticore bit off the rear of his skull, wrenching away skin, bone, and brain. The beast threw its head back and gulped it all down.
Cheval could only stare as it took a second taste, nesting its muzzle in the open back of her friend’s skull, sucking and gnawing at the viscera there.
All the will and strength went out of her. This simply could not be.
Then it turned on her.
Her flesh seemed to shift of its own accord. Cheval transformed again, taking on the human form that so captivated men and women alike. The river was so close. She could smell it, could practically feel the water enveloping her. If only she might reach it she knew that she would be safe, and some instinct told her that she might distract the Manticore with this change.
It did hesitate and sniff the air.
Cheval quivered in terror, about to bolt.
The Manticore smiled. Its teeth were stained with Chorti’s gore. At the sight, grief closed in around her, oppressive and terrible. In some way, having Chorti at her side had kept her from feeling the loss of her husband as keenly as she would have otherwise. Trusting him, having faith in him, she had never been alone.
Now he was gone.
Cowards run, she thought. Chorti would not have run.
With a harpy’s shriek she ran at the Manticore, about to change once again. In her mind’s eye she could see herself shifting forms, kicking out with her hooves, knocking the beast back and trampling it until its bones were powder.
A shadow blotted out the sun above them. Both Cheval and the Manticore glanced up to see green feathers plummeting toward them.
But the Peryton did not spread its wings, did not swoop in for the kill. It struck the ground with a sickening, wet thump, and only then did Cheval see the figure with which it had been struggling, the hugely muscled creature that had pinned the Peryton’s wings and ridden it down from the sky.
Leicester Grindylow rose from the Peryton’s corpse.
The Manticore turned toward Grin, baring its fangs, about to lunge. In the same breath, Cheval shifted, transforming, and lashed out with her hooves. She struck the Manticore in its side, knocking it sprawling on the ground. Quick to recover, it rose painfully, injured just enough to take away some of its ferocious speed.
The monster was not fast enough. It crouched to lunge at Cheval.
Grin jumped upon it from behind, wrapped his obscenely long, sleek arms around its neck, and twisted, tearing the Manticore’s head from its body.
Li knelt in the grass beside his tiger. The creature shuddered, her damp eyes locked upon his own, as her heat and blood ran out and soaked into the earth. The tiger’s eyes held no fear, only sadness.
The charred remains of two Perytons lay upon scorched earth not far from where Li knelt with his loyal beast. Perhaps a dozen feet further, the Black Devil lay upon the ground, eyes glassy and still. The tiger had killed it, but received terrible wounds in return. The Black Devil’s throat had been torn open and already flies buzzed around the wound. A single insect began to circle above Li’s tiger and the Guardian of Fire glared at it, flames spilling from his eyes and incinerating the fly instantly.
A horrid chuffing noise began to come from the tiger’s throat.
“No,” Li whispered, in the ancient language of his kin. “Do not go, my friend.”
The little man ran his hands over the tiger’s fur, felt the soft velvet and the heat of the animal’s body, felt her tremble in pain and confusion. Tears began to slide down Li’s cheeks, liquid fire that dripped upon the ground. The grass began to burn. The fire from his blazing tears spread, but he willed it away from his friend.
The tiger grimaced, black lips pulled back from her bloodstained teeth, and then went still, chest compressing as she exhaled her final breath. In a single moment, the light in her eyes vanished and they became glazed and dull.
Li felt her heart cease its beating. He bent over the tiger and embraced her, but made no more effort to keep the fire away from her remains. Fiery tears spilled upon her and her fur began to burn. Liquid fire spread quickly, engulfing both of them.
With a scream to ancient gods, Li stood and turned to seek out more of the Hunters, to destroy those responsible. His ears were full of the roar and crackle of the flames that raged around his fists and engulfed his upper arms. Fire spilled from his eyes and jetted from his nose, and when he screamed it erupted from his open mouth.
But he was diminished now, both in power and in spirit. The passing of the tiger had leeched so much from him that he felt old and weak. The fire that blazed within him still burned, but had lost some of its heat.
Still, he was a warrior. And the fire in his heart cried out for vengeance.
Off to his left he saw Cheval and Grin attacking a fallen Peryton. Above him, a blur of deeper blue spun across the sky, and green feathers floated down with a rain of Peryton blood. Li ignored them both. Ahead of him, Frost struggled with one of the Atlantean Hunters. He had managed to tear one of its wings off, but the winter man was out of his element here. The heat of Yucatazca weakened him. He ought to have been able to kill one Peryton with ease, but Frost had managed barely to root himself to the ground and now he grappled with the Hunter.
The Peryton slashed at Frost with its talons, gouging ice. Frost hissed in anger and pain and reached up, fingers wrapping around the Hunter’s antlers. The ice of his hands spread, quickly weighing down the Peryton. It bent under the weight of the ice and its own antlers. The creature shouted and thrashed its body, cracking the ice that had formed upon it, shattering Frost’s fingers.
The winter man did not so much as moan. Instead, he formed what remained of his left hand into a single dagger of ice and, with all his strength, impaled the Peryton upon it. The Hunter shrieked and bled, then died.
The last of the creatures shouted in fury as it dove from the sky toward Frost, intent upon his death.
Li screamed in return, a battle cry filled with all of his love for the tiger and all of his grief at her loss. The Guardian of Fire felt flame burst from him as though some volcanic explosion had come from his hands and his heart. Never again would he burn so brightly or with such heat as he had—he had lost a part of himself—and perhaps his command of the flames had lessened, but still he was the Guardian of Fire.
The last of the Perytons crashed to the ground in flames, twitching and dying.
The winter man felt weighted down with sorrow and frustration. He’d had enough of fighting, enough of death. Jack Frost had never been a warrior, but he had not been given a choice. That he had discovered himself quite capable of such horror provided little comfort.
The pyramid stood still and silent and Frost glanced toward it to see if any more enemies would emerge. But nothing stirred there save the bloodred birds that now took flight. He paused to see if they would attack, but they only circled, carrion birds above a field of battle, awaiting their meal.
Though the Minata-Karaia, those bizarre treelike creatures, still watched from the edge of the forest, they made no attempt to attack. The Perytons had been slain.
Grin and Cheval dragged Chorti’s broken corpse between them toward the blazing pyre Li had made of his tiger. Cheval, bent with grief, cast a pleading, hollow-eyed glance at Li, who nodded once, simply. As Grin helped her heft the wild man’s shaggy, blood-matted remains into the fire, Frost saw that half of his skull had been sheared away.
Had he been able to spare even a bit of water, the winter man might have wept.
He staggered toward Li, but did not dare go too near to the Guardian of Fire while the other Borderkind’s hands and eyes still burned. Li looked pale as ash, and his flesh was spotted with places where the skin glowed like fireplace embers. Something had happened when his tiger had died, changing Li and the fire inside him, weakening both flame and flesh.
Even so, the heat from within him rippled from his flesh in waves, shimmering in the air, and the winter man kept his distance. He’d had enough of heat.
When night fell, Frost would be better. The sun plagued him. The river water would be cool and could replenish him for a time, but not yet.
A small blue bird flew down from the sky and alighted by his feet. For a moment it hesitated as though wishing it might rest, but then the bird spun into a blue-streaked cyclone and, a moment later, Blue Jay stood beside Frost. The trickster gave him a mournful look and then slipped his hands into the pockets of his jeans.
“You’ll be all right?” Blue Jay asked, glancing down at Frost’s shattered hands.
The winter man nodded.
One by one, the surviving Borderkind began to walk toward the pyramid, while the silent Minata-Karaia watched, the air filled with the quiet whistle of the wind through their hollow heads. The pyramid was not their destination, however.
At the base of the pyramid’s steps—steps high enough that they must have been built to be scaled by a god—a ball of black flame burned. The ebon fire flickered in the air, tendrils rising a dozen feet from the ground. Within the black flames, two figures stood rigid as flies trapped in amber.
Frost and Blue Jay reached the sphere of darkness only a moment before Grin and Cheval stepped up to it on the other side. Li joined them an instant later, the flames around his hands having subsided, though fire still danced in his furious eyes, and those ember patches still flared upon his pale skin.
Black as it was, enough light passed through the circle of flames that they could identify the figures within. The Mazikeen had his long, slender fingers wrapped around the throat of the witch, Jezi-Baba. Her neck was broken and her head lolled to one side, yet even in death she killed him, her blue-skinned hands buried to the wrist in his chest. A rictus grin split her features, showing pitted stone teeth and a lunatic’s amusement.
“He lives,” Blue Jay said, voice low.
They all moved nearer the flames. Though the black fire hissed and crackled like the blaze in a hearth, no heat came from it. Rather, it felt cold as the first snow of winter.
The Mazikeen’s eyes moved. The sorcerer glanced at each of them in turn, even as the black flame began to consume his flesh. His robes burned with it.
“Go,” the Mazikeen said. “My brothers will find you.”