Gameboard of the Gods

Page 48

Mae dodged his lunge, but he still caught part of her leg and knocked her down. Her back brushed briefly against the barbed-wire ring as she fell, and Justin winced when he saw the bloody tears in her shirt. Falling to the floor, she and Eugene rolled around a moment, away from the wire, each one vying to pin the other. Justin flinched again as one of Eugene’s knives sliced at her shoulder. The crowd roared with delight, even though he couldn’t actually manage to keep Mae down.

If the injuries fazed her at all, she didn’t show it, and in an eye-blink, she jumped back on her feet again. Eugene tried to follow suit, but she was faster, and she came at him not with a knife but with a kick of staggering proportions. She executed it gracefully, packing a force that no one her size should have been able to deliver, not even a prætorian. Eugene staggered to his knees, and then she was on him once more. He dodged her attack clumsily, avoiding her knife somewhat, though not enough to miss being swiped across the cheek. Justin could see that she’d originally been targeting the man’s neck.

Raoul Menari, standing near Justin, drew in his breath as Eugene quickly wiped at the large, bloody gash on his face, inadvertently smearing more dark blood across his skin. He sweated and breathed heavily now, clearly in the throes of physical exertion. Mae showed less distress, but it was obvious from her expression and posture that every ounce of her being was wrapped up in this fight. That glittering dark aura continued to intensify, and as it did, he saw the change in her. Her expression grew harder, her moves faster, her strikes stronger.

They paced around the ring again, with Mae now feinting, drawing him out so that he would lock up into defensive maneuvers that never followed through. His effort to keep up grew while hers stayed the same. Justin tried to gauge Eugene’s glamour but couldn’t see it anymore.

Because his goddess left, said Magnus. She recognizes a losing match, and she isn’t that well established yet.

Who? demanded Justin. The ravens didn’t answer, keeping to their policy of caution with gods’ names.

Finally, growing frustrated, Eugene rushed forward, again attempting a full-body assault. Mae met him. She avoided his attack and inflicted far more devastating damage on him. Her two knives slashed across his chest, cutting deeply through both skin and fabric. Justin heard the other man cry out, and with another swift kick, she knocked the knife from Eugene’s right hand. It flew off to the far side of the ring behind him, too far out of reach for him to easily retrieve it without exposing himself further to her.

Tired and bleeding, he switched his remaining knife to his right hand, just as Mae came at him in full force. Maybe no one else could see that dark fire, but judging by some of the faces around Justin, it was obvious that the power with which she moved wasn’t natural. Kicking and hitting, she knocked Eugene to the ground and this time, he couldn’t overcome her. Fear was written all over Eugene’s face as he looked up into Mae’s. Her expression was terrifying, filled with bloodlust and exultation. It was Mae’s face and yet not Mae’s face.

In a movie, perhaps, Mae would have spared Eugene in this moment of triumph. She would have looked up at Raoul, blade poised above his son, and made some dramatic speech about how she wasn’t going to stoop to their level, how killing wasn’t the way. Justin knew that ending wasn’t going to happen today. She was going to kill Eugene. She wanted to. Justin could see the desire in her eyes. She wrested Eugene’s other knife away from him and brought her own knife down to his throat, apparently in preparation to slit it. She froze at the last possible moment as a shrill, piercing sound suddenly tore through the crowded warehouse.

The crowd’s screaming and chanting faltered, and all turned to the sound of the noise. Mae remained paused in her killing stroke, but when Eugene attempted to use the opportunity to move, she slammed his head back against the ring’s floor and pinned her blade to the exposed vein on his throat. He didn’t move again, and she peered around, a snarl on her face, as she sought out the interruption.

Following everyone else’s gaze, Justin looked toward an aisle between the bleachers that led from the front door right to where Justin stood with Raoul Menari. The noise had apparently come from an ego gripped by a bland-faced plebeian man Justin had never seen before. Raoul, trembling with fury, took two steps forward down the aisle.

“What is the meaning—”

A woman suddenly stepped out beside the man. Raoul paled as he saw her, and several others in the crowd gasped. Justin, meanwhile, wasn’t sure if he should welcome or fear this new development. She was older than Justin—early forties, if he remembered correctly—but still possessed a hard-edged beauty that struck him deeply. The high, square cheekbones of her Korean grandmother distinguished her plebeian features, and she wore her dark hair in a chin-length, asymmetrical cut. She strode forward, as others parted, and finally came to a stop in front of Justin, resting her hands on her narrow hips.

“It really is you,” she said in a low, throaty voice. “I thought it was a joke.”

“Hello, Callista.” He did his best to put on his game face and act like he wasn’t in a bloody makeshift arena. “I wish this was a joke, believe me.”

Her lips quirked into a smile, and she gave him a long, languid once-over. “Untie him before Internal Security finds out you idiots abducted one of their employees,” she snapped. Raoul pushed forward.

“No! We demand vengeance for Nadia!”

Callista fixed him with a hard look. “Raoul, I’m very sorry for your loss, but what happened to Nadia was Amarantha’s will. Rest assured, there’s a purpose for her absence. Surely you aren’t questioning the goddess?”

Amarantha. Justin hadn’t heard that name in a while. She was a post-Decline one, a merging of other goddesses, though her followers had been scanty last he knew.

Raoul acquiesced to Callista after a few more grumblings and then ordered two of his lackeys to go help Eugene out of the ring. Everyone seemed to have forgotten about him and Mae in the wake of Callista’s entrance, and Justin was surprised to see the two were in exactly the same position: Eugene pinned down, a knife against his throat. Mae stayed where she was until one of the guys tried to pull her away. In one fluid motion, she leapt up and spun toward him, shoving his body into the barbed-wire perimeter. The guy wailed, but no one really noticed because in the space of a heartbeat, Mae had punched the other guy and followed through with a rib-cracking kick. Justin heard the click of guns and Raoul shouting for reinforcements.

“Stop!” yelled Callista, her sharp eyes quickly assessing the tinderbox they were in. “Stay where you all are. You.” She leveled a glare at Justin. “You’ve got a lot of nerve bringing someone like her here.”

“I didn’t bring her here,” he exclaimed.

Callista pointed. “Go get her out of there.”

Mae had returned to a crouching position near Eugene, knife still in hand as she scanned around for anyone else who might dare to intrude. The glamour was still on her, as was that expression of dark power and need for destruction. Justin hesitated only a moment before making his way forward and slipping through the opening in the barbed wire that the others had used. Mae’s eyes tracked him as he approached, but she didn’t move.

Don’t touch her, Horatio warned him. The fight’s done. She’ll get herself back soon.

Justin knelt beside her, grateful to see that Eugene was still alive. “Mae. Time to go,” Justin told her. “You won, and we’ve got a ticket out.”

Mae didn’t even blink, and he wondered if she’d heard him. Her chest rose and fell rapidly, and there was savagery in her gaze.

“Mae,” he said more loudly. “Come on. We have to get out of here.” He rested his hand on her shoulder, and like that, she was in front of him, the knife at his throat. Whatever words he might have said next died on his lips.

Told you, said Horatio.

She won’t hurt me. Justin wasn’t so sure he believed that, though.

Her goddess would. She’s starting not to like you.

Swallowing, Justin looked Mae squarely in the eyes. “Put the knife down, and let’s go. I need you to protect me.”

It took several more seconds, but those were the words that penetrated the divine haze. A part of him hoped it was feelings for him that drove her, perhaps some leftover sentiment from Panama, but most likely, it was her sense of duty that triumphed. Whatever it was, she focused on him and nodded. As he squinted, the glittering around her faded, and her face once again became that of the woman he knew. When the ravens okayed it, he held out a hand and led her away. Her legs trembled, though Justin had no idea if it was from simple exertion, unmetabolized chemicals, or recovery from divine possession. Maybe a combination of all of them.

He kept his arm around her as they headed out of the ring and found the fabric of her shirt’s back wet and sticky with blood. He knew she’d recover from it and that it couldn’t be too severe, but he still felt a sickening sense of guilt knowing she’d been wounded on his behalf.

If you had cast a blessing, she wouldn’t have been injured as much, Magnus told him. Your continuing denial and refusal to learn is already having consequences. Just because you can’t fight like she does, it doesn’t mean you can’t take part in battle.

I don’t want any part of that, said Justin. I tolerate you guys. That’s the extent of my divine involvement.

Then why are you here? asked Magnus.

By the time they reached Callista, Justin could tell Mae had fully returned to herself—which meant she was still lethal and watchful, especially as she looked Callista over. Nonetheless, Mae handed over the knives and struck a protective stance near Justin.

“Now then,” began Callista. “If you’ve got a moment, we should—”


A cry behind Justin interrupted her. He turned to see what it was, but Mae was faster, of course. She spun around, reaching for her boot, and Justin was just in time to see her throw her own knife at a charging, gun-wielding Raoul. The man gasped as the knife plunged into his chest, near his collarbone, sparing him from a killing blow. He yelped and staggered back, dropping the gun. At a nod from Callista, one of her cronies dragged him away. She narrowed her eyes at Justin.

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