Sixty-one
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If I get wired any more tightly I'm going to start howling... Please, let something happen soon!

Jess fidgeted restlessly, his silver name-dagger cool in his hands; he could imagine it begging for demon blood. Just like the sunset over the lake had turned the water to blood...

My imagination is in overdrive. I swear, though, we'll wash the blood away. By sunrise the water will be clean, and everyone can rest peacefully. Us included, I just hope it's in this world.

Sitting with him close to the wall, Jaisan and Aindry were just as anxious. He was sure they must look more than a bit fey, a dark trio in magesilks black and silver and each their own proper colour, his rich purple, Jaisan's vivid blue, Aindry's deep red. Kevin had grumbled, while making silks for Jaisan and Aindry, that at least they were willing to wear more colour than Jess was, otherwise they'd look like they stepped out of a bad ninja movie.

In sharp contrast, Kevin and Lori looked about as unmagical as possible. The former was leaning calmly against one of a stand of birches with his arms crossed; who ever imagined a mage in jeans and a ragged, ex-red T-shirt? Lori, in equally prosaic green cargo pants and a creamy-coloured tank-top, a strand of quartz beads in countless shades circling her throat, had seated herself with her back against the same tree, arms draped casually across her raised knees. They certainly didn't look like they had just in some inexplicable magical way called challenge on an opponent they could lose against despite all precautions.

Inside the walls, where he wouldn't be sensed or seen, Shaine waited, ready to step in as soon as he was needed. Which would, if things went as planned, be immediately after the Kore-Tremaynes kicked three demons' tails up into their throats.

We should never have asked them to do this, Kev and Lori and Shaine are going to get killed over us. Enough people have died over the demon-wolf line, haven't they? We should've run away, Jais and Aindry and I, and at least then it would be only us dying.

Shut up, Jess, you aren't helping. And running away is hardly any more intelligent, haven't you learned that by now?

“Heads up,” Kevin murmured. “Someone just swept the area to see who's here. I didn't get a clear look, but...”

But who else could it be?

A long pause, then Lori said, “There he is. Watch your eyes.”

This wasn't a gate like Kevin and Lori made them, shaping them quietly out of the available light on each side; this gate exploded violently into existence, the glare from the noon-white light throwing shapes into sharp relief. Jess shielded his eyes with his arm, waited for it to fade back to comfortable darkness. Even then, sunspots danced in front of him.

Sure, blind us and hope it helps.

He could smell the demon-mage, and see him vaguely while his eyes struggled to clear themselves.

“Afraid to challenge me alone?” the demon-mage asked Kevin mockingly.

Kevin shrugged. “Against you alone, no problem, but you never face anyone alone, do you?”

Lori stood up, brushed grass off her pants, and gave the demon-mage a disdainful half-bow. “Lori Aurelian.”

The demon-mage frowned—confused, Jess thought, because as he understood it, the Aurelian bloodline rarely turned up mages, more often pure telepaths or telekinetics. “I have no argument with any Aurelian.”

He must not have looked close enough to see how strong Lori is, and she's too smart to waste power or give away unnecessary info by doing a proper signature thing.

“This Aurelian has a serious problem with you, for a long list of reasons, beginning with the fact that my father is a Lioren, Kevin is my favourite cousin, and I'm getting a tad sick of you threatening him and our friends.”

As soon as she said 'Lioren,' the demon-mage's expression turned to anger. “Another fucking Lioren,” he spat. “Fine. And you two have the nerve to formally challenge me?”

“A very particular kind of challenge,” Kevin said. “We have three wolves. You call three demons, and we can see which of them is still standing at the end.”

“That could be amusing. But it won't help. I let you off, before, Lioren. I won't this time, you or your cousin.”

Let him off? He and Shaine kicked your ass, last time! Look which side ran away!

Kevin shrugged. “That's fine, because I'm getting extremely tired of you messing with my friends. Why don't we take care of that afterwards? I'm sure among your demon, um, allies, there must be three who would like fresh wolf blood.”

Dinner for three, come and get it...

The demon-mage looked at Kevin thoughtfully, mood changing again. “You think a lot like I do. You know what you want and you do what you have to in order to get it.”

“I am nothing like you,” Kevin said, his voice so level Jess thought he was trying to control his temper. “I fight to protect the people who matter to me. You fight because you're too insecure not to keep trying to prove how strong you are.”

The other mage spat a curse. “You know nothing about me. You're just like the rest, so sure you're above everyone else and can do what you want. Arrogant self-centred uppity damned mages...”

“Arrogant I've been called before, but the rest is new.”

“You can't even be bothered to take this seriously! That's outright insulting!”

“Really? Awesome, I was afraid I was out of practice, it's been a while. Are you waiting for something in particular? Summer solstice, total lunar eclipse, the magnetic poles to shift...?”

“If you're in such a hurry to watch your pet wolves die...” The demon-mage backed away a few steps, held out both hands in front of him, palm-up and slightly cupped. The moon was just rising over the house, spilling silver light over them.

Hunt by silver light, born and die to fight...

If you want any of this wolf's wild blood, you can damned well try and take it!

The demon-mage began to speak, unfamiliar words that seemed to be mostly consonants, and the moonlight pooled in his hands, coalescing into a ball that grew steadily brighter, until Jess had to look away. Kevin and Lori didn't, but then, to them it was probably preferable to semi-blindness with only the moonlight.

The demon-mage clapped his hands together sharply, and the light vanished.

Replaced by a trio of shadows too dark for the clean moonlight to disperse.

Aindry rose smoothly, drew her now-shining dagger and left the sheath there. The twins echoed it, and all three paced out to face the demons that had killed Unity.

Well, okay, so the merenai were a rather large part of it. But who cares? The merenai haven't hunted us all this time either.

The demon-mage gestured towards the Kore-Tremaynes. “Those three. Kill them.”

They shaped themselves from utter blackness into vaguely dragonish things all huge bat-wings and three long scaly necks and too many dagger-like claws, the colour of all the filth Jesse had ever seen. And big, their shoulders were easily above Jesse's head.

How the fuck do we fight those? he thought numbly, then, The way we were taught. Go for the central nervous system or the heart, keep moving and don't let it hit you, and pray to Cassandra.

The scent of the demons stirred something that lay somewhere deep within, waking a cold rage—and something more, a peculiar doubled awareness, of himself and of Jaisan at the same time. Even as he circled left, he was conscious of Jaisan circling to the right, an echo within his own body of the sensations his twin experienced. He had to look sideways to know that Aindry was still between them, gaze locked on the centre demon.

Funny, I don't remember anything like this from lessons. I wonder if Jais gets it too.

The nearest demon struck at him with all three heads; he evaded them, with little room to spare, and lunged at it. The razor-sharp knife left a long bloody stripe down one side of its chest, unfortunately only shallow. Enough to sting. He dodged a swipe from a massive paw, wincing at the thought of what those claws could do to his body.

He felt the shock as Jaisan drove his dagger home, felt it hit bone and glance off. That demon shrieked and the ground quivered.

Anyone in Haven still asleep isn't now! I bet that made the house shake!

Jesse took advantage of the distraction, plunged his own hilt-deep into the left-side neck and twisted it, wishing the demon would stop screaming like that right in his ear. The dagger touched bone, and he thrust it in that direction, sidestepping so the teeth of another head missed him. Between two of the vertebrae, demons had to follow some rules of biology, and he twisted again, forcing them apart; that head effectively died. Limp and useless, anyway, and better yet, it interfered with attacks from the foreclaws on that side.

One flailing wing caught him squarely, flung him a dozen feet away. He scrambled to his feet, struggling for breath, lack of oxygen and the adrenaline—and that godawful screaming!—combined were making the world spin alarmingly. Through moonlight-coloured fog, he saw the demon coming at him, hissing in rage, saw the two heads dipping towards him...

Frantically, he twisted away, and willed himself wolf.

It didn't take the few seconds it normally did; a detached part of his mind took note of that as another adaptation to fighting demons. He scrambled to his feet, less his dagger now, but at least the doubled strike missed him.

He slashed savagely at a wing, shredded part of the membrane, restraining an urge to vomit from the taste. It shrieked, and its voice joined in with another—must be Aindry's target, he hadn't felt anything from that strange echo-effect. Warily, Jesse circled, feinted in, retreated before the teeth, ducked to the right and came back to the left, and dug his own teeth into the underside of its centre throat.

Still shrieking, it flung its head up, leaving behind a mouthful of flesh in the process. Jesse spat it out in revulsion.

Ha! Take that, beast! Bet that hurts a bit!

He felt a flash of pain from Jaisan, felt his brother's dagger fall and the instant response of shifting to wolf, and hoped he wasn't hurt too badly.

He seized the centre throat again, this time got a better grip and held on for all he was worth. The teeth of the right head scored down the length of his side; he whined in pain, but dug all four feet into the ground to anchor and tightened his grasp grimly. The centre head fought to throw him off, the right head and right claws struck repeatedly at him, but he could evade the claws.

The centre head went limp, everything inside crushed.

Two down, one to go.

The demon's form melted into darkness again, and reshaped itself.

This form wasn't physically impressive; in fact, it was simply a human man in his mid-forties, hair cut short and neat, dressed for the office though the dark-grey jacket had been shed, white sleeves rolled up to forearms. From one hand swung a doubled length of computer network cable, the outer sheath partly stripped to expose the eight wires within...

Jess whined again, flattened himself on his stomach, wriggling backwards away from him, tail tucked between his legs. Don't hit me, don't hit me, oh please god don't whip me with the cable again! I didn't tell... oh, god, yes I did, I told Kev, he said never to tell anybody ever or he'd...

“Jesse,” the man-demon said reprovingly. “Where have you been? Your mother and I have been worried sick about you. You've been misbehaving. Which means you have to be punished, you know that, and yet you keep right on doing things you know you aren't supposed to do. Come here, right now, and we'll get that out of the way, and then we'll go home and find you a better counsellor this time.”

No! No more punishments, no more counsellors, please no...

He hit something, couldn't retreat any farther; he cowered as the man approached him, smiling tolerantly, the cable swinging in his hand.

“Jess!” Jaisan screamed at him. “Kill it! Before it can kill you! Now!”

Wasn't Jais furform...?

Kill before it killed him.

He'll kill me if he catches me...

Killed everyone, killed Mom...

Will kill Jais and Aindry and the mages and everyone waiting in the house...

All the different threads of terror blurred together, melted back into rage.

You fucked up my life and you never paid for it, I'm the one who's gone through hell and you stayed nice and cosy in your fancy house/on the demon plane/in the lake...

He gathered himself, launched himself directly at the demon in human form.

The demon, anticipating victory, was caught completely off-guard as a hundred and forty pounds of black wolf collided with its chest. The cable flicked across his back, once, twice, but his fur muffled the stinging, and he had the demon down, could claw at its chest until he reached the ribs, crunch a couple of ribs out of his way and dig deep for the heart... His teeth closed on it, and he tossed his head sideways, ripping it out.

With a last ear-tormenting shriek, the demon disappeared, leaving only a bloody stain on the grass.

Panting, Jess shifted back to human and found his dagger, a bright gleam against dark grass, then turned to see which of his siblings needed him more.

Easy choice: both were working on the same demon, so one or the other must have been a little faster than him. He ran over to join them.

The demon seemed uncertain, alone against all three of them, its compatriots dead. Jaisan furform and Aindry with her dagger had already wounded it badly, though two heads remained active.

Jesse's dagger sliced along the side of one neck, and in the instant after Jaisan grabbed that throat, holding on relentlessly, though it shook him entirely off his feet, briefly right off the ground. The other head snaked towards him, but Aindry slashed at it and kept its attention on her, while Jesse thrust his dagger deep into its chest, stopping only when hilt met hide, and then twisting. Both heads shrieked, attempted to twine back towards him, but couldn't; Jesse's dagger was torn out of his hand, though, before he could free it.

He saw silver shining faintly nearby—Jaisan's dagger. Was the twin-bond strong enough to make it more than mere metal in his hand, though it wasn't his own name? Worth a try. He darted back, circled around to get it, then watched for a chance.

The dragon-demon clawed vainly at its tormentors, and Jess felt Jaisan's pain again, shallowly down his stomach; it left an opening, though, and he bolted in, praying devoutly to whatever had kept him alive this long. His own dagger he used as a step, and vaulted himself up on the dragon's back. With Jaisan's dagger he dug into its backbone, prying vertebrae apart.

They separated, and the body collapsed; Jess jumped clear, landed the wrong way, and stumbled to his feet unsure how long his right leg would bear his weight.

Jaisan let go of a limp head, backed off a step, gulping air heavily.

Aindry retreated a few feet as well, just out of the reach of the last head, watching it intently; abruptly, she moved forward and straddled the neck from behind, seized the head in both hands, and put her full weight behind twisting it sharply sideways. Bone crunched, the demon screamed, and its body melted away.

We did it! We killed all three and we're still alive, all of us!

Jaisan raised his head, let out a howl of pure triumph; Aindry and Jess both shifted to wolf, added their voices to his, and they sang the victory to the silver moon above.

The demon-rage began to fade, taking with it that strange echo of Jaisan, and the adrenaline keeping them on their feet. One at a time, they staggered and collapsed.

“Impressive,” someone said, from not too far away. “I wasn't sure how much I believed them about the danger. It would seem they had a reason to fear after all.”

“Never doubted it.” That was Kevin. “Now, you were saying something about not letting me off this time?”

Please be careful, guys... don't make me have to cry for you, when everything should be wonderful now... Bone-deep exhaustion made it hard just to stay awake, but he was going to watch, he had to watch...

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