The worm hovered behind the glowing outline of the circle. Its head was blunt and as it rose up, testing the boundaries of its invisible cage, Grace saw a slit of a mouth lined with sharp serrated teeth on its underside.
Liza approached the worm. The creature shied away, sliding as close to the glowing lines as it could.
“Think of them as germs. Most people have a natural resistance to them, an immunity. I don’t. To me, they’re fatal. We did our best to keep this fact to ourselves, but I have no doubt the Roars know it. They would be fools not to. Unfortunately, marrow worms are easy to summon.”
He’d stepped behind her and she was painfully sensitive to the presence of his large body only an inch from her back. His magic touched her. Her every nerve shivered, hyper-aware of his movements. She sensed him lean to her and almost jumped when his quiet voice spoke into her ear. “Do you remember when you sent that dog running? I want you to do that again.”
Grace swallowed. “I don’t remember what I did. It just happened.”
His big hand pushed against her back gently, making her take a step towards the circle. “Try.”
Grace took a deep breath and stepped over the glowing lines inside the circle. The worm jerked away from her like a wet ribbon. Grace glanced at Nassar.
“That’s just normal resistance to humans. Keep trying.”
Grace stared at the worm twisting. Go away, she thought. Gone. I want you gone.
The worm remained where it was.
Grace glanced at Liza. “Any idea what I’m supposed to be doing?”
Nassar’s sister shook her blonde head. “None. Dreochs are aggressors. We have few defensive abilities and they’re radically different from yours. Mostly our defences consist of Nassar hacking at things with something large and sharp.”
“The magic you’re trying to do is called the Barrier,” Nassar said. “It’s one of the natural Mailliards’ magics. Very talented members of your family used it both as a defence and as a weapon. Your mother stated that it can’t be taught. You simply do it or you don’t.”
Grace focused on the worm and tried to pretend it was a large, mean-looking German shepherd.
An hour later she sat exhausted on the floor. The worm floated at the edge of the design.
“It’s useless.” Liza unscrewed a cap from a fresh bottle of water. She had gotten a cooler with drinks, migrated to the wall, and now sat on the floor. “Why Janet didn’t practise with Grace is beyond me, but she didn’t. We’ll have to change the plan. Instead of you and Grace, I’ll go with Alasdair.”
“No.” Steel laced Nassar’s voice. He leaned against the wall.
“You’re being unreasonable.”
Nassar’s face was dark like a storm. “Both of you will die. I have resistances and power to counter Clan Roar’s attacks. You don’t.”
“You can’t counter this one.”
He didn’t answer.
“Why don’t you just turn into a bird and fly through the zone?” Grace asked.
“Flight is forbidden in the game,” Nassar answered.
Liza sighed. “Grace, would you like some water?”
Liza tossed her a new bottle.
“Thank you.” Grace caught it. “Why are you fighting the Roars anyway? What’s this dispute about?”
“It’s about children,” Nassar said. “And killing me.”
“Our aunt married a member of Clan Roar,” Liza said. “Arthur Roar. He turned out to be a wart on the ass of the human kind: abusive, violent, cruel. She left after eight years and took their three kids with her.”
“Should’ve left sooner,” Nassar said. His green eyes promised violence, the light irises so cold that Grace took a small step back.
“She had her reasons for staying,” Liza said. “There was a large dowry involved and she didn’t want us to have to pay restitution and interest. But in the end it was just too much. After Arthur broke his son’s legs, she grabbed the kids and came home. Now, nine years later, Arthur suddenly wants his children back.”
Liza took a drink from her bottle. “He’s never shown any interest in them. No calls, no letters, not even a card. He’s done nothing to support them. But Aunt Bella signed the wedding agreement that specified equal amount of time with the children for each parent in the event of separation. Arthur claims that since the kids were with her exclusively for nine years, now he has exclusive rights to them.”
“He doesn’t give a damn about the kids. It’s an excuse for the Roars to test the waters,” Nassar said. “They have a couple of strong people and they’re thinking of moving in on our interests. Before they do it, they want to weaken us. They knew that if they challenged the clan, I would enter the game, and they believe they have a reasonable chance of killing me. They’ll knock out the biggest power user of our clan and earn respect from other clans for killing a revenant, and they will do it all before the war ever starts.”
He pushed from the wall. “It’s almost time for lunch. Let’s take a break.”
Lunch was laid out on a long table in a vast dining hall. Nassar held out a chair for Grace and she sat down. He took a place to her right, while Liza sat down at her left, next to Alasdair. Other people came into the room — two men and three women. They took their seats, nodded and smiled, started conversations in calm voices. Alasdair said something and a woman laughed. They were so at ease and the warmth of their interaction began to thaw Grace’s resolve.
The four chairs directly opposite her remained empty. She wondered who would sit there and a couple of minutes later she had her answer. Three children entered the room, followed by a pale woman. Of course. Nassar had arranged it so she would spend the meal looking at the faces of the children whose fate would be decided in the game.
They took their seats: the woman with careworn eyes, a young boy with a wild mass of dark hair, and two girls, one slender and blonde, and the other only about ten or so, with short dark hair and big blue eyes. The youngest girl saw Nassar and came grinning around the table. “Hug?” she asked him seriously.
“Hug,” he agreed and put his massive arms around her.
“And no dying,” she reminded him.
He let go and nodded.
The girl noticed her. “Hi. I’m Polina.”
It was impossible not to smile back. “Hi. I’m Grace.”
“You’re supposed to protect Nassar,” Polina said.
“That’s what he tells me.”
The child looked at her with her blue eyes. “Please don’t let him die,” she said softly. “I like him a lot.”
“I’ll try my best.”
Polina went around the table to her seat. Grace leaned to Nassar and whispered, “Laying it on a little thick, don’t you think?”
“I didn’t put her up to it,” he told her.
She glanced into his green eyes and believed him.
Lunch went on. Dishes were brought and passed around the table: roast beef and mashed potatoes, green beans, corn, iced tea and lemonade. The food was delicious, but Grace ate little. Mostly she watched the children. The boy leaned to his mother, making sure her cup was filled. The older girl seemed on the verge of tears. She became more and more agitated, until finally, just as peach cobbler made its way past Grace, the girl dropped her fork. Her voice rang out. “What if they win?”
The table fell quiet.
“They won’t,” Nassar said calmly.
“If Arthur touches us, I’ll kill him.” Steel vibrated in the boy’s voice.
Their mother leaned her elbows on the table and rested her forehead on her hands. “No. You’re not strong enough,” she told him in a dull voice. “Not yet. You must do whatever it takes to survive.”
“That’s enough.” Nassar’s magic surged out, spreading behind him like invisible wings. It brushed against Grace. Breath caught in her throat. So much power . . .
Nassar fixed the children with his stare. “You’re our kin. You belong to Clan Dreoch. Nobody will take you from us. Anyone who tries will have to go through me.”
With his power rising above the table, the prospect of going through him seemed impossible. His magic was staggering. It would take an army.
The anxiety slowly melted from the children’s faces.
“Let’s try again,” Nassar said, as the two of them strode back into the room.
The worm still floated in the circle. Grace stepped inside. It shied from her. “Why did you tell the children about the curse?”
“I won’t lie to them. The possibility of defeat exists and they have to be prepared.”
That defeat seemed very likely at the moment.
“But I will fight to the death to keep them safe. And even if I lose, the clan won’t surrender them. We will go to war. We won’t turn over children to a man who will break their bones.”
Neither would she. It didn’t matter who they were. A child was a child. She couldn’t let them suffer, not after watching them near panic with the fear of having to leave their mother. Their family and their home, all would be ripped away if Nassar and she lost.
“Now do you understand why I fight?” he asked her softly.
“I need your help desperately. Please help me, Grace.”
“I wish I could,” she said, her voice filled with regret.
Nassar watched her for a long moment. “What do you remember about your encounter with the dog? What did you feel?”
Grace frowned. “It was twelve years ago. I remember being scared for myself. And for the dog. He was my friend’s dog. I knew that if he bit me, he would be put down.”
Nassar strode to her, a determined look on his face.
“What are you doing?”
Nassar kept coming.
She realized he was going to cross the line. “Liza isn’t here to save you!”
“No.” He gave her the familiar half-smile. “Only you can save me now.”